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What happened to the gravediggers?

By John Rainford

December 3, 2011 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- In his survey of developments in Western Marxism from the time of the Russian Revolution, Perry Anderson sets out a number of questions for enquiry into the future of historical materialism. These questions, which range from the structure of bourgeois democracy and revolutionary strategy to the contemporary laws of motion of capitalism, are not directly taken up here. This paper focuses on how his precondition for their solution, “the rise of a mass revolutionary movement, free of organisational constraint, in the homelands of industrial capitalism”1 might be realised.

Anderson notes that almost all of the theorists of historical materialism, beginning with Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, have been intellectuals from the “possessing classes” – and indeed of higher rather than lower bourgeois origin. Antonio Gramsci, with an exceptional background of poverty, was nevertheless born at some distance from the working class.2 What follows is an attempt, in the Gramscian tradition, to test Anderson’s assertion that in the long run, the future of Marxist theory lies with theorists produced by the industrial working class.3

Defining the working class

For Marx and Engels, a mass revolutionary movement in countries of industrial capitalism was inevitable. They had emphatically said so in 1848. Using the logic of Hegelian dialectics, they declared that the rise of industrial capitalism would have its antithesis in the formation of a revolutionary working class. The synthesis would be socialism. However, as Albert Camus pointed out in The Rebel, “the events and the facts, of course, have forgotten to arrange themselves according to the synthesis”.4 Sixty years on, have things changed?

The dialectical progression of the proletariat is first set out by Marx in The Holy Family (1844):

The proletariat executes the sentence that private property pronounces on itself by producing the proletariat, just as it executes the sentence that wage-labour pronounces on itself by producing wealth for others and poverty for itself … Its aim and historical action is visibly and irrevocably foreshadowed in its own life situation. As well as in the whole organisation of bourgeois society today.5

In the Communist Manifesto, the “modern working class” of 1848 is “a class of labourers who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital”. After according the bourgeoisie its historic revolutionary role, Marx points out that it has forged the weapons of its own death, “what the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable”.6

This theme is repeated in volume 1 of Capital (1867), and in a note to the 1888 English edition of the Manifesto Engels has the proletariat as “the class of modern wage-labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour-power in order to live”.7 Marx might well have settled the question of class with his promised treatment of it in Capital, but unfortunately death intervened. All we are left with is five tantalising paragraphs in volume 3 followed by the disappointment of Engels’s parenthetic note, “At this point the manuscript breaks off.”

In the latter part of the 20th century, leading Marxist scholars advanced different definitions of class. In his introduction to volume 2 of Capital, (1978) Ernest Mandel stresses the importance of a precise definition of productive labour under capitalism when he questions “Are unproductive labourers part of the proletariat?” Mandel quickly dismisses any narrow definition which reduces the working class to manual industrial workers. But he also points out the absurdity of extending the working class to all wage and salary earners without limitation (army generals and managers then earning $100,000 p.a. were not working class). In his considered view, the defining structural characteristic of the working class advanced by Marx and Engels, together with the luminaries of Marxist “orthodoxy” (Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Karl Kautsky, Georgi Plekhanov and Rosa Luxemburg included among many) is simply, the socioeconomic compulsion to sell one’s labour power.8 So the working class consists of manual industrial workers and the mass of unproductive wage earners (commercial clerks, lower ranked government employees, domestic servants) and is not limited to workers directly producing surplus value. A large enough group on the face of it. But so too, are those excluded “all those strata whose salary levels permit accumulation of capital in addition to a normal standard of living”.9

Mandel’s definition would presumably disqualify those sociologists identified by E.P. Thompson “who have stopped the time-machine and, with a good deal of conceptual huffing and puffing, have gone down to the engine-room to look, [then] tell us that nowhere at all have they been able to locate and classify a class”. For Thompson, “class itself is not a thing, it is a happening”.10 For Eric Hobsbawn, “classes are never made in the sense of being finished or having acquired their definite shape. They keep on changing.”11

The immiseration of the working class in mid-19th century England was impossible not to notice. In The Conditions of the Working Class in England (1844), which Engels witnessed first hand in Manchester, working conditions were likened to the torture of Sisyphus. It so wore men out that most of them were no longer fit for work by the time they were 40.12 For women and children it was worse. In London, squalid, overcrowded living conditions coupled with inhumane work and inadequate nutrition meant that in some areas of the city the average age of death of labourers was just 16.13

Marx and Engels were not alone in noting the revolutionary potential of an emerging working class in Europe. Six years prior to the publication of the Communist Manifesto, the effects of the “dual revolution”-- the industrial revolution and the French Revolution -- were already being recorded with some alarm by the German liberals Rotteck and Welcker, “the general antagonism between the rich and the poor has recently been polarised into the tension between capitalists and the hirers of labour on the one hand and the industrial workers of all kinds on the other; out of this tension there emerges an opposition whose dimensions become more and more menacing with the proportional growth of the industrial population”.14 But if a repeat of the revolutions of 1848 were seen as a portent of things to come, it was a reckoning that failed to take account of the success of capitalism following the flowering of the industrial revolution. Between 1800 and 1840 world trade had almost doubled in size. In the 20 years from 1850 it increased by 260 per cent. It was accompanied by high levels of employment and increased wages, both of which (together with increased prospects of profitable migration) had a dampening effect on discontent among the politically disenfranchised.15 Radical Manchester, the city that served as a template for future class conflict, was transformed by the mid-Victorian boom. The Manchester Guardian of October 1851 described the city as a “community based upon the orderly, sober and peaceful industry of the middle classes”. A Free Trade Hall was erected on the site of the 1819 Peterloo massacre.16

There were, of course, periodic economic crises, but there were also incremental political advances. While the short-lived success of the Paris Commune demonstrated that socialist revolution and a workers’ government were in fact possible, Engels was one of the more astute observers to recognise that the ruling class had learned the military lessons of 1871. He concluded that “rebellion in the old style, street fighting with barricades, which decided the issue everywhere in 1848”, had become largely outdated.17

Lenin would later rebut Engels’s military assessment in a political epoch that began with the consolidation of a Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Germany in 1875. With the gradual extension of the franchise (Russia notably excepted) the possibility was opened up of the working class taking control of the state through the ballot box and reconstructing it on a socialist basis. Beginning in the late-1870s, avowedly working-class parties were founded throughout Europe and beyond. The working class identified with them and supported them. Buttressed by allied organisations of trade unions and cooperative societies they became a significant force, and in some cases the most significant single force in national politics.18The working class also had an influential international organisation and an international anthem that declared the unity of the human race.

Belligerent nationalism triumphed over international solidarity when socialist leaders all over Europe sent workers to wage war on their fellow workers in 1914. In Russia, the war led to a revolution that had no explanation in Marxism. With the straitjacket of Stalinism and the Communist International, what it ensured was the failure of Marxist theory to analyse the laws of motion of capitalist development.19

Eduard Bernstein had earlier made such an attempt in the German SPD in the 1890s. Not long after Marx’s death, the “naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation” of capitalism was said to be showing melliorative tendencies that resulted in increasing employment and prosperity. Class struggle was declared redundant. But Bernstein’s “revisionism” owed more to Fabian socialist hope than factual representation. Paul Sweezy aptly described much of revisionist theorising as having “the remarkable quality of being the precise opposite of the truth”.20

Sweezy went on to analyse modern capitalism and asked the obvious question – what accounts for the non-fulfillment of Marx’s expectations of socialist revolutions in developed capitalist countries? His answer, in short, was that “technological and structural changes in the advanced capitalist countries have turned what was a revolutionary proletariat at the height of the industrial revolution into a much more variegated and predominantly non-revolutionary proletariat in the period of developed monopoly capitalism”.21

Sweezy argued that it was the employment of machinery by capitalism, and not capitalism in general, that generated Marx’s proletariat. Moreover, Marx’s analysis of the effects of machinery that led to the abasement of living standards reached their intensity in the first half of the 19th century and had already been checked or reversed before the publication of Capital. It was not capitalism in its more mature stage that presented the revolutionary moment, but capitalism in its early years of development.22

Sweezy’s analysis came at the tail end of an unprecedented economic boom as the Keynesian mixed economy, with the state intervening to “civilise” the free market, became the post-1945 social settlement. From the early-1950s to the early-1970s world manufacturing output quadrupled and world trade in manufactured products increased tenfold. Unemployment levels in Western Europe averaged 2.9 per cent during the 1950s. In the 1960s they fell to just 1.5 per cent.23

What followed was a crisis of Keynesian economics that brought an end to full employment capitalism. In the 1970s, unemployment in Western Europe averaged 4.2 per cent. In the late-1980s it averaged 9.2 per cent in the European Community and in 1993, 11 per cent.24 It was a time of intermittent recessions and economic crises – the US stock market crash of 1987, the savings and loan crisis of the late-1980s and early -- 1990s, the Asian financial crisis of the late-1990s, Japanese stagnation throughout the decade and the dot com crash of 2000. “Really existing socialism” ceased to exist, although, unlike its birth, an explanation for its death could be found in Marx:

At a certain stage of their development the material productive forces of society come into contradiction with the existing productive relationships, or, what is but a legal expression for these, with the property relationships within which they had moved before. From forms of development of the productive forces these relationships are transformed into their fetters. We then enter an era of social revolution.25

Throughout the advanced economies, unemployment and its by now equally enduring variant, underemployment, fractured working class solidarity and weakened working-class organisations. As trade union membership went into decline, militant action fell away. Social-democratic parties abandoned social democracy while many socialist and communist parties simply disbanded. Those that did not re-positioned themselves at a distance from Leninism in the direction of a Keynesianism that they failed to rescue from its earlier bastardisation (Keynes had pointed out that capitalism does not find its equilibrium at full employment and that this could only be remedied by a comprehensive socialisation of investment).26

In an era of neoliberal hegemony, welfare expenditure that contained social unrest came to be resented by sections of the working class whose taxes helped to fund it. In the last decade of the 20th century, even the expression “working class” was sliding out of the lexicon. It was replaced by “underclass”, a sinister echo of the 19th century reference to the undeserving poor, known then as the “residuum”, the lowest stratum or dregs of the population.27

The global march of capitalism shuddered to a halt in late-2008 in a way that few predicted. Finance capital had, it seemed, finally outstretched itself resulting in the most profound economic crisis since the Great Depression. In mid-2008, with world GDP at US$50 trillion, the outstanding notional amount of financial derivatives was reckoned at $684 trillion by the Bank for International Settlements. Betting on interest rates and foreign exchange rates accounted for some $513 trillion; credit default swaps more than $60 trillion and collateral debt obligations and other exotic instruments over $93 trillion. (Australia’s big four banks were at the time exposed to $13 trillion in off-balance-sheet derivatives.)28

The predatory lending in the US that precipitated the crisis was an extension of the solution earlier arrived at to sustain consumption under conditions of wage stagnation. Consumer debt in the US escalated from 62 per cent of disposable income in 1975 to 127.2 per cent in 2005 while real wages stood still.29 The crisis can also be located in the “stagnation thesis” that Keynesian and Marxist economists in the US developed from the late-1930s by examining the consequences of excess production capacity in the US economy. This caused manufacturing capital, looking for more profitable outlets, to transfer surplus capital into financial speculation,30 validating Marx’s proposition that, “the true barrier of capitalist production is capital itself”.31

The world economy was rescued by government intervention in classical Keynesian fashion. In Britain, in January 2009, The Bank of England cut interest rates to 1.5 per cent, the lowest rate since 1694. Two months later, they were lowered to 0.5 per cent, accompanied by a policy of quantitive easing – effectively printing money. Direct intervention in the financial sector left the UK government owning more than 50 per cent of all mortgages and bank retail accounts, together with more than half of all loans to small and medium sized businesses. US banks, capitalised at $1.4 trillion, were effectively insolvent with financial losses estimated at $3.6 trillion.

As the crisis deepened, political leaders on the right, including the Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy supported a “Tobin tax” on financial transactions, together with a global banking levy. Sarkozy declared “Le laissez-faire, c’est fini” and Newsweek proclaimed, “We are all socialists now.” Michael Hardt was in good company in expecting the rule of capital to be subject to some form of socialist or Keynesian state regulation.32

Yet barely two years after it began, the crisis was held by governments and institutions alike to be over. It was back to a business as usual approach with the public sector paying the price for rescuing the private sector. The US banks that were previously too big to fail were now even bigger, with the top five of them holding outstanding derivatives contracts with a notional value of $277.6 trillion.

But if it was indeed an economic recovery it was a jobless one for an already underemployed proletariat. In early 2011, the International Labour Organisation reported a global unemployment rate of 6.2 per cent with half of the global working population, 1.5 billion people, in vulnerable or insecure jobs. Although workers in developed economies of the West represent only 15 per cent of the global workforce, they accounted for 55 per cent of the increase in unemployment between 2007 and 2010.33

The response by those most affected by the crisis included organised and spontaneous protests, marches, demonstrations and riots. While these could be seen as the action of a contemporary global proletariat that Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri call “the multitude”, they don’t as yet amount to evidence of a mass revolutionary movement, heroic opposition in Greece notwithstanding. If, as E.P. Thompson said, “class is defined by men as they live their own history, and, in the end, this is its only definition”,34 few of those living their own history appeared to be doing so in the class terms of Marx’s expectation.    

Dalliances with the dialectic?

Bertrand Russell, who was something of an admirer, though not an adherent, of Hegel, thought his philosophy particularly difficult, “he is, I should say, the hardest to understand of all the great philosophers”.35 Something similar might be said of Marx and Engels’ Hegelian formula -- affirmation, negation, negation of negation – that arrives at the conclusion that capitalism would lead to socialism via a revolutionary working class. Russell, who on his own account was influenced by Marx, considered the elements in Marx’s philosophy derived from Hegel to be unscientific. He wrote of the ease with which the most important of what Marx had to say could be restated without any reference to the dialectic, “The Hegelian trappings might therefore be dropped with advantage.”36

Engels took the dialectic in a different direction, elevating it from a claimed scientific explanation of history to a law of nature that explained the march of science. His Dialectics of Nature asserted that the periodic law was discovered by the unconscious application of Hegel’s law of the transformation of quantity into quality. In the USSR, this led to the belief, still current in the early 1980s, that Einstein formulated his theory of relativity by also unconsciously applying the laws of dialectics.37 This idea that dialectics could explain nature and science managed to live a long life in the West as well. The authority of George Lukacs should have settled the matter in 1922. Sartre then exposed their scientific pretensions in Les Temps Modernes in 1946 and Camus  followed with the observation that while historical materialism can establish a method of criticism of contemporary society its suppositions about the future deny its claims to be scientific.38 Yet in the early 1960s, one of the leading theoretical physicists in France publicly defended the Marxist position that the laws of the dialectic are universal in scope and apply to all phenomena in nature, society and thought.39 Although the idea still persists with some Marxists, the Hegelian dialectical link to the inevitability of socialism seems to have largely been put to rest. In 2009, at the “Idea of Communism” conference in London, US philosopher Susan Buck-Morss was able to confidently assert that, “The Hegelian dialectic of progress, the optimistic scenario of world history as inevitable transcendence through negation, was long ago stripped of its legitimacy”.40

At best, the dialectical method can find an antithetical proletariat opposed to a bourgeoisie, but the relationship between the two is subject to observation. It cannot be elevated to scientific certainty by speculation. This was confirmed by Engels’s own experience in England. In 1863 he concluded that, “The English proletariat’s revolutionary energy has completely evaporated.” Things had not much improved 20 years later when he wrote to August Bebel, “On no account whatever allow yourself to be bamboozled into believing that a real proletarian movement is afoot here. Participation in the domination of the world market was and is the economic basis of the English workers’ political nullity.”41

In the homeland of industrial capitalism, the antagonism between labour and capital had apparently arrived early at a different understanding to the synthesis postulated in the Communist Manifesto. As Gramsci was to later point out “…the canons of historical materialism are valid only after the fact, for studying and understanding the events of the past, and ought not to become a mortgage on the present and future”.42

Marx and Engels did not specify a timetable for the inevitable fall of capitalism. Given its unprecedented hegemony, it is eminently possible that inherent contradictions in the system will result in a breakdown of catastrophic proportions. But it is not necessary to found this proposition in Marxist theory. As Hyman P. Minsky argued, implicit in Keynes is a view that “a capitalist economy is fundamentally flawed. This flaw exists because the financial system necessary for capitalist vitality and vigour – which translates entrepreneurial animal vigour into effective demand for investment – contains the potential for runaway expansion powered by an investment boom. This runaway expansion is brought to a halt because accumulated financial changes render the system fragile, so that not unusual changes can trigger serious financial difficulties.”43

What’s left?

Infinite growth based on finite resources has long been an implausible prospect. The spectacular success of the post-WWII economy, when manufacturing output increased four-fold from 1950, came with a tripling of carbon dioxide emissions. In 1972, Limits to Growth, a study undertaken by ecologists and economists that extrapolated into the future the economic growth realised in previous decades, predicted ecological and economic collapse by mid-21st century if the overuse of resources continued unchecked. Although Limits to Growth has been criticised for its methodology, a further study by Australia’s CSIRO in 2008, which compared what had actually occurred since 1978 against the predictions made in 1972, found that the two in fact lined up and would continue to do so without both a reduction in consumption and technological intervention.44 All that is solid has been melting into polluted air since the industrial revolution. The true barrier to capitalist production is the by-product of past profitability.

Marx has been much criticised for ignoring ecological concerns, largely based on what appears in the Communist Manifesto. Others take a different view, establishing his ecological credentials from Capital.45 John Bellamy Foster has attempted a systematic reconstruction of Marx’s ecological thought in Marx’s Ecology. In a work that is impressive in scope, he traces Marx and Engels’ materialist conception of nature from 1844, founded in a critique of Malthusian population theory. Foster shows how Marx was influenced by the German agricultural chemist, Justus von Liebig and can find in Capital various passages that demonstrate Marx’s ecological awareness. None more so than that appearing in volume 3:

Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations, as boni patres familias [good heads of the household].46

However, common sense observations coupled with an attention to emerging agricultural science does not an ecologist make, and Foster concedes that in the imminent revolutionary movement against capitalism set out in the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels did not treat environmental destruction as a major factor.47

Really existing praxis

When Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto that the written history of all hitherto existing society was the history of class struggle, they asserted that this history leads us to two possible results from the uninterrupted fight between these rival forces. The first is a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large; the second, “the common ruin of the contending classes”. Irreversible climate change now presents this possibility, just as it tests Marx’s optimistic proposition, “mankind inevitably sets itself only such problems as it can solve”.48

While there are vestiges of past social-democratic welfare policies still evident in some countries, political power in the developed world is contested by mainstream political parties in terms of accepted neoliberal hegemony. Orwellian caricature -- markets good, state intervention bad -- passes for debate on issues of crucial importance. After the worst of the GFC was judged to have past, thanks to a public sector bailout, market fundamentalists were able to lay the blame for it on past policies of government intervention. These were alleged to have so “distorted” the market that they prevented it from returning to its supposed natural state of perfect equilibrium.

For Marx, philosophers only explained the world whereas the point is to change it. Implicit in his and Engels’ revolutionary theory of change is the organisation of their gravediggers. In the second decade of the 21st century the proletariat in the homelands of industrial capitalism is anything but organised. In only a few developed countries are they found in significantly proportional numbers in trade unions, political parties or political organisations.

Proceeding from a critique of political economy, Hardt and Negri detect movements in capital that has immaterial or biopolitical production (the production of ideas, images information, knowledges, code, languages etc.) as the successor to the hegemony of industrial capital. Biopolitical production is said to accord labour increasing autonomy and thus supply the necessary tools for the liberation project. In short, capital is in the process of creating its own gravediggers in a period when the conditions and weapons of a communist project are held to be more available than ever. Yet as Negri concedes, “there is no revolution without organisation”. 49

Slavoj Zizek maintains that remaining faithful to “the Idea of Communism” involves locating it in real historical antagonisms which give it a practical urgency. He can find four antagonisms powerful enough to prevent global capitalism’s indefinite reproduction: ecological catastrophe; the inappropriateness of the notion of private property for so-called “intellectual property”; the socio-ethical implications of new techno-scientific developments (in bio-genetics especially) and new forms of apartheid that separate the excluded from the included.50

He also identifies a fractured working class – intellectual labourers, the old manual working class, and the outcasts (unemployed, chronically underemployed, homeless) – each of which is played off against the other. While finding much common ground with Hardt and Negri he is critical of Negri’s formulation of social revolutionary transition, “One has to bring capital to recognise the weight of the common good, and if capital is not ready to do it, one has to compel it to do so.”51

According to the available science, the first of Zizek’s antagonisms, ecological catastrophe, is already unfolding. Both the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Action Tracker show that even if countries adopt the most ambitious emission reduction targets they have proposed, the global average temperature would still rise by between 3ºC and 4ºC by the end of the century. A cap on global warming of 2ºC is the minimum requirement to prevent irreversible climate change. In mid-2009, the first comprehensive study of the human impact of climate change was released by the Global Humanitarian Forum. It found that climate change was already affecting 300 million people and responsible for 300,000 deaths each year. The economic losses, estimated at $125 billion a year, were predicted to rise to $600 billion over the next twenty years. Almost all of the deaths and 90 per cent of the economic costs were borne by developing countries.52 The excluded are already the most affected, but the included cannot escape the effects of climate change. Air pollution in Europe now reduces the average life expectancy of Bucharest residents by two years, those of Paris by six months.53

The common good

Climate change, “the greatest market failure in human history”, is capitalism’s greatest challenge. In 2008, a study of the activities of 3000 of the world’s largest public companies by the UN Environmental Program estimated the cost of pollution and other damage to the natural environment by these organisations at $2.2 trillion, an average of one-third of their profits.54 The already accumulated damage to the environment comes at an additional cost. Failure to act increases the costs. But the challenge of climate change is not limited to the profitability of capitalist institutions. It is an increasing threat to the quality of life and ultimately human existence.

Just a few months after the onset of the GFC, Hardt, Negri and Zizek were emphasising the need to organise in the name of a radical philosophy and politics found in “the Idea of Communism” that is at a distance from statism and economism and informed by 21st century political experience. Isolating an “essence” of communism from the practice of those communist parties that ruled, and continue to rule, under its name seems an impossible project. Indeed, this practice may be inseparable from the failure of earlier advocates and theorists to explain in some structural detail how communism or any other emancipatory project might operate. The early musings of young Marx and Engels in The German Ideology (which bear a striking resemblance to the ideas earlier expressed by the utopian socialist Charles Fourier) are less than helpful:

In communist society, however, where nobody has an exclusive area of activity and each can train himself in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production, making it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, breed cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I like, without ever becoming a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman or a critic.55

The promise in the Communist Manifesto of bourgeois society replaced by “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” is still a destination without a roadmap.

The most cogent explanation for this failure to detail the arrangements of a post-revolutionary society comes from Emma Goldman. In Anarchism and other Essays (1911) she relates how, on thousands of occasions, she had been asked why she did not spell out how things would operate under anarchism. She replied:

Because I believe that Anarchism cannot consistently impose an iron-clad program or method on the future. The things every new generation has to fight, and which it can least overcome, are the burdens of the past, which hold us all in a net. Anarchism, at least as I understand it, leaves posterity free to develop its own particular systems, in harmony with its needs. Our most vivid imagination cannot foresee the potentialities of a race set free from external constraints. How, then, can one assume to map out a line of conduct for those to come? We, who pay dearly for every breath of pure fresh air, must guard against the tendency to fetter the future.56

One hundred years on, the burden of past capitalist production methods that have conquered the world from the time of the industrial revolution now hold us in a net that threatens the supply of pure fresh air. It is the inescapable fetter on the future.

In 1842, Marx wrote:

The fate which a question of the time has in common with every question justified by its content, and therefore rational, is that the question and not the answer constitutes the main difficulty.57

The relevant question of our time has been posed by Terry Eagleton:

One question that therefore arises is how long it would take us to unlearn the ingrained habits of pathological productivity, which after a while acquires a well-nigh unstoppable momentum of its own. Do we have enough time – will an already crippled and wounded Nature yield us enough time – for this massive re-education of the senses, the body, the psyche, the dispositions, of desire itself?58

For Gramsci, an enduring lesson of the French Revolution was the way in which the revolutionaries captured the imagination of the masses by establishing a mythical ideal state that all could work for prior to 1789, one based on the Rights of Man.59 When Thomas Paine published an account of these rights in 1791, they included proposals for a taxation regime necessary to provide for the basic needs of citizens. A measure of the challenge inherent in the widespread political acceptance of an “idea” is the 150 years that it took for Paine’s welfare state proposal to become the post-WWII settlement in developed countries. Just how vulnerable to attack this idea was is demonstrated by the activity of the Mont Perlin Society set up by Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and a small band of dogged supporters in Switzerland in 1947. By 1976, both Hayek and Friedman were recipients of the Nobel Prize for economics and the welfare state was under attack.

Avoiding ecological catastrophe is the immediate task of our times. To their great credit, the social movements in Bolivia, the largest of which is the United Union of Farm Workers of Bolivia with 3.5 million members, are leading the way. They are the moving force behind the proposed Law of Mother Earth which establishes 11 new rights for nature including the right to pure water and clean air and the right not to be polluted. Not so much digging the graves of the bourgeoisie as ensuring that they are not prematurely digging the graves of present and future generations.

The bleak alternative to action now is the questionable hope expressed by Terry Eagleton that, “on the other side of some inconceivable disaster … men and women are forced by material circumstances into sharing and solidarity with one another”.60

[The author would like to thank Dr Peter Ewer, Dr Nick Southall, Chris Williams and George McIlroy for comments on earlier drafts. John Rainford is a socialist activist in Australia. He was a leading member of the Communist Party of Australia until its dissolution.]


1. Perry Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism (NLB, London, 1977), p. 104.

2. Ibid. Engels, Luxemburg, Bauer, Lukacs, Grossman, Adorno, Benjamin, Marcuse and Sweezy were from families of wealthy manufacturers, merchants and bankers; Plekhanov, Mehring and Labriola from large landowners; Marx and Lenin from senior lawyers or bureaucrats. Gramsci’s grandfather was a colonel and his father a law student before taking a position as a registrar. Poverty followed from his father’s imprisonment on a charge of embezzlement which left his mother, the daughter of a local tax inspector, to bring up seven children alone.

3. Ibid, p. 105.

4. Albert Camus, “The Failing Of The Prophesy”, in George Novak, (ed.) Existentialism versus Marxism: Conflicting Views on Humanism (Dell Publishing Co., Inc. New York, 1966).

5. Marx and Engels, The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1980), pp. 46-7.

6. Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (Foreign language Press, Peking, 1970), pp. 39, 46.

7. Ibid, p. 30. Karl Marx, Capital, volume 1 (Penguin Books, London, 1990), pp. 927-930.

8. Karl Marx, Capital, volume 2 (Penguin Books, London, 1992), Introduction, pp. 46-52.

9. Ibid.

10. E.P. Thompson, “The Peculiarities of the English”, in The Poverty of Theory and other Essays (Merlin Press, London, 1979), p. 85.

11. Eric Hobsbawn, “The Making of the Working class, 1870-1914”, in Uncommon People: Resistance, Rebellion and Jazz (Abacus, London, 1999).

12. Frederick Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1984; Elecbook, London, 1998) [1844], p. 247.

13. Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity (WW Norton & Company, New York and London, 1997), p. 410.

14. Volume XIII of Rotteck’s and Welcker’s Lexicon der Staatwissenschaften (1842). In Shlomo Avineri, The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1969), p. 55. This work was presumably known to Marx and Engels. It is referred to in The Holy Family, op. cit. pp. 152-3.

15. Eric Hobsbawn, The Age of Capital (Abacus, London, 2001), pp. 45-49.

16. Tristan Hunt, The Frock-Coated Communist (Penguin Books, London, 2010), pp. 188-9.

17. Frederick Engels, Introduction to The Class Struggles in France, March 1895. In Marx and Engels Collected Works (Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1990), volume 27, pp. 506-524.

18. Eric Hobsbawn, The Age of Empire (Abacus, London, 2001), pp. 116-18.

19. See Anderson, op. cit. p. 36.

20. Paul M. Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development (Modern Reader Paperbacks, New York and London, 1970), pp. 317-8.

21. Paul M. Sweezy, Modern Capitalism and other Essays (Modern Reader, New York and London, 1972), p. vi.

22. Ibid, pp. 156, 141-2, 164-5.

23. Eric Hobsbawn, Age of Extremes (Abacus, London, 2000), p. 261. Herman Van Der Wee, Prosperity and Upheaval: The World Economy 1945-1980 (Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1987), pp. 43-4, 258.

24.  Age of Extremes, p. 404.

25. Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), in Karl Marx: Early Writings, (Penguin Classics, London, 1992), pp. 424-8.

26. John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment Interest and Money (Macmillan, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1983), pp. 249-50, 378.

27. See Hobsbawn, Age of Extremes, op. cit., pp. 284, 302-10, 340.

28. The assessment of the Bank of International Settlements was reported in The Weekend Australian, 18-19 October 2008 and The Australian, 19 November 2008.Other reported figures are much higher.

29. John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff, The Great Financial Crisis (Monthly Review Press, New York, 2009), p. 29.

30. Ibid, p. 151 n.20. Paul M.Sweezy, 1970, op. cit. pp. 217, 348. The US Keynesian Alvin H. Hanson seems to have first advanced the thesis in 1938, Full Recovery or Stagnation. As it developed it asserted that enhanced manufacturing productivity arising mainly from technological change leads to underutilisation of capacity which makes re-investment in manufacturing capacity uneconomical. The surplus from the manufacturing sector then finds its way into financial speculation. In the mid-1960s, manufacturing profits accounted for 50 per cent of US domestic profits, financial profits around 15 per cent. By 2005, financial profits were close to 40 per cent, manufacturing profits less than 15 per cent. See Foster and Magdoff op. cit.,  pp. 54-5.

31. Karl Marx, Capital, volume 3 (Penguin Books, London, 1991), p. 358.

32. Paper delivered at the Idea of Communism conference in London in March 2009. See Michael Hardt, “The Common in Communism”, in Costas Douzinas & Slavoj Zizek (eds), The Idea of Communism (Verso, London, 2010).

33. Reported in World roundup, The Guardian Weekly, 28 January 2011.

34. E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Penguin Books, Middlesex, England, 1980), p. 10.

35. Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (Unwin Paperbacks, London, 1989), p. 701.

36. Ibid, p. 754.

37. M.E. Omelyanovsky, “Einstein, the foundations of modern physics and material dialectics”, in Einstein and the philosophical problems of 20th century physics (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1983).

38. George Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness (Merlin Press, London, 1971) [1922], p. 24. J.P. Sartre, Materialism and Revolution, reprinted in George Novack (ed) op. cit., pp. 85-109. Camus, op. cit., p. 217.

39. Jean-Pierre Vigier, ‘Dialectics and Natural Science.’ In George Novack (ed), op. cit pp. 244-256.

40. Susan Buck-Morss, “The Second Time as Farce … Historical Pragmatics and the Untimely Present”, in Douzinas & Zizek (eds), op. cit.

41. Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Collected Works (Progress Publishers in conjunction with International Publishers, New York and Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1975-2004), volume 41, p. 465, volume 47, p. 55. Cited in Tristan Hunt, op. cit., pp. 190, 324.

42. In Alastair Davidson, Antonio Gramsci: The Man, His Ideas. (Australian Left Review Publications, 1968), p. II. Introduction by John Playford.

43. Hyman P. Minsky, John Maynard Keynes (McGraw-Hill, New York, 2008 [1975]), p. 11.

44. See, Hobsbawn, Age of Extremes, op. cit., pp. 261-3; Van Der Wee, op. cit, pp. 335-6. The CSIRO study was reported in The Guardian Weekly, 19 December 2008.

45. See John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology (Monthly Review Press, New York, 2000), pp. 9, 134-6.

46. Ibid, pp. 105-6. Capital, volume 3 (Penguin Books, London, 1991), p. 911.

47. John Bellamy Foster, p. 140.

48. “Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”, in Karl Marx, Early Writings (Penguin Books, London, 1992), p. 426.

49. Michael Hardt, op. cit. Antonio Negri, “Communism: Some Thoughts on the Concept and Practice”, in Douzinas & Zizek (eds) op. cit.

50. Ibid Slavoj Zizek, “How to Begin From the Beginning”.

51. Zizek, citing Toni Negri, Goodbye Mr. Socialism (Rome, Feltrinelli, 2006), p. 235.

52. Reported in The Guardian Weekly, 5-11 June 2009.

53. Study by Europe’s Aphekom program which also reported that living close to roads which carry more than 10,000 vehicles a day seems responsible for 15% of asthma cases in under-17s, 23 per cent of chronic bronchitis cases and 25 per cent of cardiovascular disease in over-65s. Ibid, 11 March 2011.

54. The study, led by economist Pavan Sukhev and also involving the UN-backed Principles for Responsible Investment, was reported in The Guardian Weekly, 26 February 2010.

55. The German Ideology, in Lloyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddart (eds), Writings of the young Marx on Philosophy and Society (Anchor Books, New York, 1967), pp. 424-5.

56. In Alix Kates Shulman (ed.), Red Emma Speaks (Bookwise Australia, Sydney, 2000), p. 31.

57. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, volume 1 (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975), pp.182-3.

58. Terry Eagleton, “Communism: Lear or Gonzalo?”, in Douzinas & Zizek (eds), op. cit.  

59. Alastair Davidson, op. cit., p. 11.

60. Terry Eagleton, op. cit.

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