Communism is, for us, not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.-Karl Marx, The German Ideology
Last week, Regeneration published a piece by Chris Wright entitled Marxism and The Solidarity Economy. In this piece, Wright attempts to offer a gradualist approach to dual power politics by highlighting a “transhistorical” view of revolution within Marx’s writing. Wright suggests that the capitalist revolution is an example of this transhistorical revolution. In his reading, the capitalist revolution is understood as a spatio-temporal process of new revolutionary productive forces emerging within the feudal economic system and eventually leading to a new system. In this view, revolution is not a process organized or seized upon by a revolutionary party or vanguard but rather an organic development of productive forces. Wright offers this view as a gradualist alternative to the “statist” or “authoritarian” view of revolution developed by Lenin. As such, Wright’s theory of revolution is developed both through a revisionist reading of Marxist theory as well as a political motivation to avoid previous revolution strategies developed from Leninist theory and praxis.
While Wright certainly offers a novel interpretation of Marx, I think there are important historico-theoretical and praxis-based reasons to reject the theory offered in his article. On a theoretical level, I think that Wright underplays the violent aspects of capitalist revolution. After all, the success of capitalism over feudalism was guaranteed not through organic and anti-authoritarian developments but through bloody anti-monarchical revolutions, the horrors of French terror, and liberalizing effects of the Napoleonic wars. As such, it seems untenable to look to the “gradualist” capitalist revolution as an example of revolution which did not require a dictatorship of some form. On a more practical level, we simply do not have time for gradualism. Climate catastrophe is around the corner and the urgency of socialist victory is of the utmost importance. Capitalist crisis has reached a point where collapse becomes increasingly likely– absent a revolutionary socialist alternative, the end of human society is a real possibility.
Given the urgency of socialist organizing and the positive move towards revolutionary strategy emerging within the dual power and base-building milieu, I believe it is worthwhile to not only respond to Wright’s article but to use it as a site of ideological struggle. In this article, I hope to contest Wright on the level of history and theory as well as on the the more practical level of organizational strategy. My hope is to demonstrate that not only is Wright’s gradualist theory of revolution based upon a revision of Marxism, but also that its practical implications are flawed and would lead our movement in the wrong direction.
On a theoretical level, Wright essentially concedes that he is making a fundamental revision to Marx’s theory of revolution though he refers to it as a “correction.” Wright explains that, in his view, “It is necessary to conceive of revolution in a gradualist way, not as a sudden historical ‘rupture’ in which the working class or its representatives take over the national state and organize social reconstruction on the basis of a unitary political will.” Therefore, Wright’s project is essentially focused on “correcting” Marx in order to develop a theory of socialist revolution which does not require the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat. As such, Wright’s formulation represents not a reconfiguration Marxism but a fundamental break with the Marxist tradition.
Lenin famously argues in State and Revolution that the distinguishing feature of Marxism is precisely the recognition of the dictatorship of the proletariat. He writes, “Only he is a Marxist who extends the recognition of the class struggle to the recognition of the dictatorship of the proletariat. That is what constitutes the most profound distinction between the Marxist and the ordinary petty (as well as big) bourgeois.” Lenin astutely observes that the recognition of class struggle not only precedes Marxism but also does not necessarily aid in the process of proletarian liberation. After all, the capitalist class themselves can be wholly and completely cognizant of the reality of class struggle, while still engaging in it. What is distinctive about Marxism, according to Lenin, is that it extends its theory of class struggle to a theory of proletarian revolution, realized through the dictatorship of the proletariat. As such, I want to suggest that Wright’s project is much more than a humble correction to Marxism but represents a fundamental challenge to Marxist theory, potentially gutting Marxism of the content that makes it distinct from all the many bourgeois schools of political economy.
Having clarified what is at stake in this discussion, I will now turn to the details of Wright’s “correction.” He begins his theoretical assessment of Marx by arguing that Marx has two simultaneous views of revolution. The first is the theory of revolution which moves from capitalism to socialism, and the second is the “transhistorical” theory which applies to previous transitions “for instance, also to the earlier transition between feudalism and capitalism.” Wright argues that this latter transhistorical theory of revolution can be derived from Marx’s A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. The relevant passage that Wright performs a close reading of is as follows:
“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or—this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms—with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”
Wright bemoans the bare bones nature of this excerpt, arguing that it clearly begs for further elaboration. He is less interested in the view of base and superstructure developed in this passage, instead focusing on the moment that productive forces “come into conflict with the existing relations of production.” While Marx argues that this moment leads into a social revolution, Wright is concerned that the argument is “functionalist” in nature and does not provide a “causal” analysis of how a society reaches a point where the productive forces come into conflict with relationships of production. This is a fair enough point: in this section, Marx is more focused on providing an explanation of the relationship between the superstructure and an economic base than in providing a historical analysis of the revolutionary development of capitalism. If this paragraph represented the totality of Marx’s analysis of this “transhistorical” conception of revolution, we might indeed conclude that Marx’s theory lacks a causal explanation of crisis and internal conflict within capitalism.
Wright claims that the theory presented in this excerpt “verges on meaninglessness” and argues that there is no clear heuristic for determining “when production relations have started to impede the use and development of productive forces.” He further (correctly) suggests that this contradiction seems to be an ongoing and constant affair within any given class society. He notes seven instances in which capitalism seems to further this conflict and asks why we have not seen revolution occur in response to any of these instances. Additionally, Wright argues that capitalism continues to develop the productive forces of a society, not simply hinder them. He points to information technology as an example of this as an example of the way that capitalism simultaneously “fetters” and “develops productive forces. While we will dig into this later, it is worth pausing for a moment to consider the conflation of technology with productive forces. Information technology certainly plays a role within capitalist economics, but Wright fails to demonstrate that information technology is a part of the productive forces of a society, nor does he explain how integration of information technology might bolster productive forces. This should be concerning, as his claim for the necessity of revising Marxism rests upon the supposed paradox of capitalism simultaneously fettering and developing productive forces.
It is in light of this supposed paradox that Wright suggests the need for a “subtle revision” to Marx’s theory. He suggests that we must “replace [Marx’s] idea of a conflict between productive forces and production relations with that of a conflict between two sets of production relations, one of which uses productive forces in a more socially rational and ‘unfettering’ way than the other.” This “subtle” change has profound implications for all of Marxist theory as Wright himself admits. He forthrightly states that such a revision means that revolutions no longer require a dictatorship of any sort and argues that this modified Marxism leads to “advocating a more grassroots-centered long-term evolution of social movements that remake the economy and society from the ground up.” This is not the classic social democratic reformism which seeks to make minor policy adjustments to capitalist society but rather a gradualist reformism which seeks to develop new economic infrastructure within capitalism in order to facilitate a non-authoritarian transition to socialism at a later time. As such, there is some level of novelty to Wright’s theory, though it does echo certain ideas within the cooperative movement, and parallels much of Richard Wolff’s emphasis on workers cooperatives.
This revised version of Marxism has significant political import according to Wright. He summarizes this revision more concretely as the recognition that:
“…at certain moments in history, new forces and relations of production evolve in an older economic, social, political, and cultural framework, undermining it from within. The gradual process of social revolution begins to happen when the old set of production relations fetters, or irrationally uses, productive forces in relation to the new set of widely emerging production relations.”
Wright argues that this revision “saves the Marxian theory from meaninglessness” because it provides a heuristic for understanding the causal factors which push the contradictions of capitalism into an actual revolution. I will refrain from commenting at length on the hubris required to claim that one has saved marxism from “meaninglessness,” but we must note that such a bold claim requires significant justification. In order to justify this claim, Wright states that according to his revision, the “definite point at which the ‘old’ society really begins to yield to the ‘new’ one” occurs when “an emergent economy has evolved to the point that it commands substantial resources and is clearly more ‘effective’ or ‘powerful’ in some sense than the old economy.” It is this insight that Wright claims has saved Marxism. But has it?
I would suggest that Marxism is not actually in need of saving in the first place. In Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Engels explores the internal contradiction within capitalism which produces the conflict between productive forces and productive relations. Engels explains that capitalist development had socialized production. The process of proletarianization meant that commodity production was no longer done in an artisanal context, wherein one product might be produced primarily by one craftsman. Industrialization and proletarianization led to a further division of labor and resulted in “the concentration of the means of production and of the producers in large workshops and manufactories, their transformation into actual socialized means of production and socialized producers.” Thus, the nature of productive forces under capitalism is a socialized nature. At the same time capitalism revolutionized the productive forces, it failed to revolutionize appropriation. If production prior to capitalism was individual, so to was appropriation. Engels explains that prior to capitalism, “the owner of the instruments of labor had himself appropriated the product, because, as a rule, it was his own product and the assistance of others was the exception.” This individual appropriation made sense in the context of individual production. Capitalism, however, socialized production but failed to socialize appropriation of the product. Engels summarizes, “Now, the owner of the instruments of labor always appropriated to himself the product, although it was no longer his product but exclusively the product of the labor of others.”
This paradoxical relationship is a fundamental contradiction at the core of capitalist society. It is this contradiction which represents the conflict between the productive forces and the relations of production under capitalism. Marx does not give this contradiction much depth in the preface to the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 because it is not his primary object of study. It is unclear to me why Wright treats four sentences from the preface of a text as the end all be all of Marxist theory, but it should be clear that Engels’s writing provides much more depth on the subject. How is it then that this view Engels’s offers diverges from Wright’s view. On some level, Wright is correct that the seeds of the new society emerge from and already exist within the old society. Engels concedes as much when he recognizes that the productive forces are in constant conflict with capitalism itself. However, Wright diverges from Engels by arguing that these seeds are a result of a sort of “counter-economy” born within capitalist society which somehow competes with the the predominant capitalist economy which fetters production.
According to Engels, the thing that fetters the revolutionary (i.e. socialized) aspect of production is not some abstract “relation of production” but rather the capitalist class itself, and more specifically the capitalist model of individual appropriation. The productive forces are revolutionary precisely because they are socialized. The socialization of production is a testament to the unnecessary status of individual capitalist ownership. Capitalism is in a state of constant internal conflict because the productive forces can only reach their full potential and be truly unleashed through the dissolution of the capitalist class. However, in Wright’s view revolutionary production relations can exist alongside reactionary capitalist production relations. As such, while capitalist production relations might be predominant– meaning that capitalist appropriation might fetter the productive forces in the majority of cases– it is still possible to build a sort of counter-economy wherein capitalist appropriation no longer exists and the full force of the socialized production is unleashed. Wright refers to this hypothetical counter-economy as the “solidarity economy.”
This solidarity economy is made up of workers cooperatives without capitalist ownership, public banking, and “participatory budgeting.” In Wright’s view, we can resolve the contradiction between socialized production and capitalist appropriation by building a solidarity economy in which the latter no longer exists. Therefore, instead of waging violent revolution against the capitalist class in order to eliminate the reactionary model of capitalist appropriation, we simply develop a better alternative that exists alongside capitalism. Wright argues that because this new system is more “socially rational” than capitalist production relations, it will eventually win over “vast numbers of adherents who participate in it and propagandize for it.” Therefore, insurrection is not needed because “after a long evolution, the emergent economic relations and their institutional partisans will have access to so many resources that they will be able to triumph economically and politically over the reactionary partisans of the old, deteriorating economy.” In short, the revolution occurs not through a party or dictatorship but through outcompeting capitalism and winning over a critical amount of individuals because of the rational superiority of these new productive relations. We are supposed to believe that this brilliant change in strategy has saved Marxism, but as I will demonstrate shortly, it has simply abandoned it.
What Is Wrong With Wright’s Revision:
There are several problems with this “subtle” revision and the strategic implications that Wright derives from it. As I have demonstrated above, Engels and Wright diverge sharply, and this divergence has serious consequences. If Engels is correct that the revolutionary seed within capitalism is the socialization of production, and that this socialization is held back by the capitalist class, then the political task at hand is obvious: overthrow the capitalist class. Engels summarizes the proletarian revolution as follows:
“The proletariat seizes the public power, and by means of this transforms the socialized means of production, slipping from the hands of the bourgeoisie, into public property. By this act, the proletariat frees the means of production from the character of capital they have thus far borne, and gives their socialized character complete freedom to work itself out.” Socialized production upon a predetermined plan becomes henceforth possible. The development of production makes the existence of different classes of society thenceforth an anachronism.”
This is the traditional Marxist view of revolution. If Wright asks why it is that the conflict between productive forces and the relations of production has never transformed into a revolution in the past, Engels answers that it is because the proletariat has not successfully been organized to seize the public power. Wright looks at the contradictions within capitalism and is dumbfounded as to why they do not necessarily spill over into social revolution. This is based on an overly deterministic understanding of economics and history. The contradiction might formally be understood in economic terms, but in practical terms, socialized production is expressed in the activity of real people, of the proletarian class. These real people must be organized in order to overthrow the capitalist class that fetters productive forces through capitalist appropriation.
Now of course, Wright might suggest that this explanation for precisely when and how revolution occurs is not present within Marx’s own work, but this is hardly a problem. Marxism is not simply the totality of Marx’s writing– it is a method developed by Marx which extends beyond his own writing. In Foundations of Leninism, Stalin explains that Marx and Engels wrote in a pre-revolutionary period in which capitalist development had not matured sufficiently to make revolution possible or likely. Furthermore, he argues that Lenin’s real contribution to Marxism is the development of Marxism in the age of imperialism, where the global development of capitalism had matured into its highest form, making revolution possible. He writes:
“Leninism is Marxism of the era of imperialism and the proletarian revolution. To be more exact, Leninism is the theory and tactics of the proletarian revolution in general, the theory and tactics of the dictatorship of the proletariat in particular. Marx and Engels pursued their activities in the pre-revolutionary period, (we have the proletarian revolution in mind), when developed imperialism did not yet exist, in the period of the proletarians’ preparation for revolution, in the period when the proletarian revolution was not yet an immediate practical inevitability.”
Lenin therefore develops Marxism beyond the level that Marx and Engels were capable of, simply on the basis of developing it within a different historical moment. As such, the fact that Marx does not provide us with a clear heuristic for determining the precise moment at which revolution becomes possible within class society does not mean Marxism needs to be revised. Wright’s revision might be insightful and necessary if no other thinkers had ever developed Marxism to have a more coherent theory of revolution, but Lenin has already done precisely that.
Thankfully, Lenin has already demonstrated that Marxism is capable of explaining when revolution is possible, and at what precise moments the internal contradictions within capitalism erupt into social revolution. In his groundbreaking text, What Is To Be Done, Lenin argued that the spontaneous activity of the working class cannot ever lead organically to revolution because the working class exists within capitalist society their beliefs and ideas are shaped by capitalist ideology. As such, the spontaneous actions of the working class can rise to the level of trade-union struggle, but never to the level of revolution– the history of the labor struggle in the United States attests to this. Union struggle exists here, but has been gutted of its revolutionary content and serves largely to funnel proletarian energy into small workplace reforms instead of into revolutionary organizing. As such, Lenin demonstrates that it is no surprise that the constant conflict and crisis within capitalism has not spontaneously erupted into revolution because the spontaneous action of the working class cannot achieve revolutionary consciousness. Lenin then argues that in order to reach that elusive “definite point” at which internal conflict and contradiction break out into social revolution, it is necessary to construct a party which can synthesize the experiences of all the classes under capitalism in order to agitate, propagandize, and lead the working class in a revolution against the capitalist class. Therefore, if we do not insist on excluding Lenin from the canon of Marxism, it becomes clear that Marxism can explain why conflict does not boil over into social revolution on its own, and we can point to that definite moment at which it might boil over with the guidance of a party. As such, the revision offered by Wright is not theoretically necessary.
Wright attempts to preclude this Leninist analysis by arguing that the October Revolution was not an actual revolution but was actually a coup carried out by a vanguard of socialist leaders. While the October Revolution was set into motion based primarily on the decisions and votes of a handful of Bolsheviks, it would not have been possible without the support of the masses. Though the October Revolution saw relatively little fighting, this is because the Bolsheviks had already won the support of a critical mass of conscripted soldiers, sailors, and workers. That the Bolsheviks could mobilize their loyal soldiers in the streets of Petrograd without opposition from supporters of the Mensheviks and Left Socialist Revolutionaries is itself a testament to the fact that the majority of the workers supported the Bolshevik party already. While Wright claims that the Leninist strategy is “based on the belief that revolution can emanate from the will of a few men,” this interpretation is entirely cynical and ideological. In fact, the Leninist strategy is based on an unshakable belief in the masses ability to be organized, to support and participate in the party structures which enable revolution to occur in the first place. It is based upon not the arrogance of a few individuals but on the belief that any worker can be raised to the level of a professional revolutionary through education and training. It ultimately relies upon an intense belief in the revolutionary power of the working class.
Thus, it is clear that the Leninist development of Marxism in the age of revolution resolves the theoretical problems that Wright sees within Marxism. As such there is no need for Wright to “save” Marxism from “meaninglessness” because, frankly, Lenin already did so and did it much better. Lenin did not revise Marxism but rather updated it in an age where revolution had become possible. Wright abandons the actual core of Marxism: the proletarian revolution and the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat. There is no pressing theoretical crisis within Marxism that forces us to follow Wright in this abandonment of revolution. Thus, having demonstrated that Wright’s revision is not theoretically necessary, we must now ask if the strategy it gives birth to is practically superior to a revolutionary strategy.
The first major problem with Wright’s strategy is that it has no means of accounting for state oppression. A vanguard party oriented towards revolution is perfectly capable of defending itself, because building armed revolutionary forces is central to its development. How, on the other hand, is a decentralized counter-economy of cooperatives and banks meant to prevent the capitalists from simply crushing it? Wright concedes that even his theory of gradual revolution through a counter-economy will not be free of violence. He explains that, “It will certainly not be a peaceful process, as innumerable political clashes with oligarchical authorities will have to occur.” He is correct on this front, but his choice of the word “clash” undersells the severity of this violence. The moment the capitalist state sees this “solidarity economy” posing a serious threat to capitalism, they will crush it, and this will not be through petty street clashes. The horror of the MOVE bombings in Philadelphia shows the scale of internal warfare that the capitalist state is willing to go in order to crush even fledgling resistance movements. How exactly will the “solidarity economy” survive this? Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, Wright has no answer for this.
Wright suggests that his model of gradualist change is based on the history of capitalist revolutions, which supposedly avoided the dictatorship model promoted by Marxists. However, this view is ignores previous events and historical processes. Capitalist actors imposed the capitalist system on Europe through profound violence. The terror of the French Revolution, the various anti-monarchical revolutions which established liberal parliamentarian control, and the enclosure laws which those parliaments proceed to pass along with the whole process of primitive accumulation bear testament to the fact that capitalism could only wrestle control from feudalism through intense levels of state violence and dictatorship. The establishment of liberal systems of law throughout Europe required the Napoleonic wars to universalize the Napoleonic code. Wright simply ignores all of this in favor of a utopian approach to socialism. He completely ignores the Marxist theory of primitive accumulation, likely because he has already made a fundamental theoretical break from Marxism.
There is also a second more important problem with Wright’s strategy. Put simply: Wright’s gradualist strategy is just too slow to be viable. Wright admits that this is a slow strategy that it “will not be consummated in the short term, likely requiring well over a century to carve out even the basic infrastructure of a post-capitalist society.” While in the broad scope of human history, this might not seem like too long of a time period, in the context of acute capitalist crisis, it is far too long. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports we only have twelve years to limit global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius. If we do not limit in time that would create massive worldwide destruction through droughts, starvation, floods, and extreme weather. According to the IPCC’s most recent report, we would need to see reversal of deforestation, carbon capture development, and decreased emissions in order to avoid catastrophe. Thus the most urgent question that we must ask Wright is how exactly his solidarity economy would create these changes in a twelve-year timeframe. Quite simply, a strategy that takes a century to get rid of capitalism is a strategy that cannot address climate crisis. On the other hand, a revolutionary strategy which establishes a dictatorship of the proletariat would have the centralized political control necessary to lead a planned economy which could address these issues. As such, there is a clear reason to prefer a revolutionary approach to socialism in order to avoid climate catastrophe.
In the face of looming climate catastrophe and of state repression, there is only one option available to us: revolutionary organizing. Only revolutionary organizing can create a centralized structure for resisting state violence. Revolutionary approaches to dual power allow us to build a militant infrastructure and to build counter-institutions to meet the needs of the workers. Where revolutionary dual power strategy diverges with Wright’s solidarity economy is in the recognition that these counter-institutions will not overcome capitalism simply through out competing it in the marketplace of ideas. Wright believes that the rationality of the workers will draw them to his counter-economy, but Marxists understand that capitalist ideology can cause people to act irrationally and against their interests. Plenty of workers prefer capitalism because of the intense power of ideology. A revolutionary approach to dual power does not presume that we will persuade workers of the rational superiority of our system, but rather that we can meet workers needs in order to raise consciousness and begin to assist the working class in seeing itself as a revolutionary class. We do not presume that a rupture with capitalism is impossible– rather, we believe that it is inevitable and that a dual power infrastructure which is built with revolution in mind will allow us not only to survive such a rupture: it will allow us to emerge victorious.
While Wright suggests that the idea of a successful revolution against a modern capitalist state is utopian, this is merely his own defeatism clouding his view. While I will not make a lengthy case for that possibility here, I would highly recommend episode 4 of the podcast “It Could Happen Here.” This episode breaks down precisely why it is possible to overcome massive states in a revolutionary context and provides some evidence for the hypothetical possibility of a revolutionary strategy today. I am not endorsing or suggesting any of the tactics brought up in the episode but rather suggesting that it demonstrates that we have a tendency to underestimate the power of a revolutionary movement. Furthermore, I would recommend Tim Horras’s article Goodbye Revolution? for a compelling defense of the possibility and necessity of revolution.
Regardless of the hypothetical possibility of revolutionary victory, Wright’s own strategy is itself mired in utopianism. The belief that a gradualist transition to socialism is possible is based on an idealistic understanding of capitalism’s own emergence, a total disregard for the severity of state repression, and a complete failure to account for how pressing the looming climate crisis is. Even if revolutionary strategy is imperfect and has a risk of failure, we can say for certainty that the global climate will collapse by the time Wright suggests his strategy would have succeeded. Wright ultimately offers no useful strategic alternative to revolutionary organizing, and does not resolve some pressing internal theoretical crisis within Marxism. Ultimately, he simply abandons Marxism by jettisoning its revolutionary content and leaves us with one more utopian scheme which is incapable of providing a real alternative to capitalism. What we need now is not more utopian dreams but a concrete strategy for building socialism– the revolutionary strategy remains our only option.