Internationalist Perspective and the Tradition of the Communist Left

This text is the first part of a draft text for discussion both within IP and in the pro-revolutionary milieu. We anticipate that the discussion upon which we here embark will result in the adoption of a text at IP’s 2013 conference that will clarify the relationship of IP to the tradition of the historical communist left. An editing error in the article resulting in a sentence in the penultimate paragraph of this article being printed twice. This error is corrected in the on-line version.

1. When Internationalist Perspective was first published in 1985, our group was characterized by its agreement with the basic positions of the Communist Left, but also by its critical attitude towards this current. ‘Communist Left’ is a common name for the diverse collection of Marxists groups who broke with, or were expelled from, the Bolshevik-dominated Third International on the basis of their principled pro-revolutionary, anti-nationalist, stance, and for the groups that later were formed on the basis of their positions. We identified and continue to identify with the fight they waged. We recognize that they represented real class resistance against the counter-revolution that was ultimately victorious in Russia and throughout the world. We recognize that they defended class positions, while most of the so-called Marxists abandoned them. But since our beginning we also realized that the Communist Left had major shortcomings and theoretical ‘black holes’ and did not provide us with a theory adequate for our times. So we called for a ‘renaissance’ of Marxism. By that we meant: to refuse the stale dogmatism that came to characterize traditional Marxism, to critically re-examine our sources, to develop Marxist analysis where it left off, to break out of the self-referential framework of traditional Marxism and open up to non-Marxist thought, in order to forge a living theory, a flashlight that helps find the way out of this dark tunnel.

We never thought that we could do this alone and therefore reached out to others. So that is what defined IP: its Marxist, communist left origin, its objective of a renaissance of Marxism, and its call to others to join this project, to join us in a non-sectarian, non-dogmatic debate that goes to the heart of the matter : how capitalism works, how it can be ended. That call was mostly directed to others in the Communist Left milieu and received, in most cases, a chilly response. This did not stop us from pursuing what we set out to do. That was a process of unravelling and reconnecting. Empirical critique of communist left-positions – the contradiction between its theory and reality -- led to a critique of the conceptual tools by which this theory explains reality, which led to a critique of the very framework on which these concepts are based, which led to a reconnection with Marx’s analysis on a deeper level. We were not alone in this journey, although it seemed sometimes that way. Others, often unbeknownst to us, were embarked on similar projects. The current of the ‘Communizators’, in its various expressions, and the German value-form theorists, among others, made important contributions which impacted our own debates. Meanwhile, our distance from the communist left tradition grew. While still sharing its basic political positions, we realized a gap had grown between its theoretical framework and ours. It became time to spell out that difference, to situate ourselves clearly. This turned out to be a moving target. We went through several drafts, as our own understanding of how value works deepened and made us go back to the drawing board. It became clear that the communist left’s shortcomings had a coherence which had its source in Marxism itself, or at least in the traditional, ‘orthodox,’ Marxism we too once shared.

So do we still consider ourselves part of the Communist Left? Yes. We stand on their shoulders, no question about it. We continue their fight. And no. We have moved beyond the Communist Left. We have no alternative moniker but ‘Left Communist’ no longer fits well, at least not without an explanation. The explanation is what follows.

Understanding History

2. What we need is a Marxist critique of Marxism, a materialist critique of historical materialism as developed by the theorists of the Second International, and of ‘histomat,’ the dogma created by the Third International and enshrined by Stalin. (1) We need to understand Marxism as a child of its time. Indeed there is no reason why it alone would escape the influence of the modes of thinking and social practices of the period in which it arose; at least not from a Marxist point of view. Influence from ideologies of Enlightenment, of Progress, Christian Messianism, as well as the quasi-religious belief in science’s capacity to know, explain and solve everything. Influence also from the changing mode of production, which was transitioning to machine-based production. With the development of mechanical technology came a mechanistic perspective on the world, a view of reality as a complex machinery obeying mechanical laws, an equation of progress and technology. Also, in this period, the economy truly became the driving force. The growth of production became the dominant social goal, shaping ideology and social practices. This invited the belief that it always had been that way. But the relentless focus on productivity was really a focus on the accumulation of value, and thereby specific to the mode of production based on the value-form.

Marxism underwent these influences. But it also reflected the struggle of the proletariat within and against capitalism and its need to understand, to see where it is going. Marxism never pretended to be a neutral science, it took the position of the working class. By doing so, blindfolds fell off, fog evaporated, reality became clearer. Not the objective reality but the subjective reality of the value-creating class on whose exploitation capitalism depends and which has the potential power to end it.

3. From the above can be concluded: Marxism is a work in progress and the development of consciousness is a complex process that can’t be reduced to a simple schema. But traditional Marxism drew the opposite conclusions.

Instead of recognizing the complexity of consciousness and the role of contingency in history, the complex interaction of diverse social factors, economic, political, and ideological, in the historical unfolding of social relations, traditional Marxism divides the world into a ‘base’ -- the productive forces, crudely understood as material productive forces and the social relations they automatically create -- and a ‘superstructure’ – all the rest, all manifestations of human thought and interaction, unilaterally determined by the base. So while traditional Marxism proclaims that class struggle is the motor of history, (2) it believes that class struggle is itself a result of the inherent development of the productive forces. So it’s this development that they see as the real motor of history. That makes the question, how can consciousness develop to the point that communism is realized, very simple. The development of the productive forces will take care of that. The most consistent adherents of the historical materialist dogma are the councilists, who believe that political organization, being a ‘superstructural’ activity, can’t have any impact on history, since society is driven solely by ‘the base’ which imposes new social relations when its evolution requires them. So all we have to do is let history take its course.

Instead of recognizing that Marxism was and is a work in progress, traditional Marxism, under the guidance of Engels, Kautsky, Lenin and others, became a closed, self-contained system of thought that explained the universe and everything. They reduced Marxism to an ideology, a pseudo-science based on the premise that the future is already contained in the past and is therefore inevitable. That all of history happened because it had to happen that way, that it all was preparation for the moment that the productive forces can no longer expand within capitalism and thus impose socialism. Such a vision of history, unfolding on the basis of a single principle or ground, has more in common with idealist and metaphysical philosophies, than it does with a materialism rooted in the actual social relation of human beings, and the historical complexes that their labor and praxis creates.

The problem begins with traditional Marxism’s epistemology, i.e. its answer to the question, how human beings know the world, social and natural. Engels, who grappled with that complex of issues in a series of classic texts, was convinced that the reflection theory of consciousness that he elaborated, guaranteed a correct cognition of the “real world,” a position reiterated in Lenin’s own classic text, (3) 4. Our critique of ‘historical materialism’ and ‘histomat’is not a rejection of materialism or of the historical dimension of social formations. The premise remains that material conditions determine human society and it is to those material conditions that we look in order to see the potential for societal change. But consciousness is not a mere superstructural reflection of the economic base, it is itself a material force, made tangible in human praxis. Humans are social beings who, through their interaction with nature and each other, create their own world, make their own history. The choices they make, the beliefs they cling to, the understanding they develop and the unpredictable contingencies that are integral to such a complex reality, all shape this world, just as much as the characteristics of the productive forces. Our critique of stageist teleology does not imply a denial of continuity between different historical periods, between different forms of society. The reasons why a new society arises are obviously linked to the obstacles the old society came up to, as well as to the possibilities it created. But that doesn’t mean that everything happened because it had to happen. That ‘primitive communism’ had to lead to slave society which had to lead to feudalism which had to lead to capitalism which has to lead to communism. Different paths were taken, in other places than Western Europe. Indeed, the appearance of capitalism in Western Europe was itself an historical singularity, due to a complex of contingent historical factors, political, ideological, as well as economic.

We are not suggesting that everything happens by accident. Some things do, of course, but there are phenomena that are predictable, if we understand what drives them. But to reduce all of human history to a single causal chain, as traditional Marxism’s stage-theory does, does not withstand a materialist critique. Different causal chains produce predictable results but intermingle in ways that makes the whole unpredictable. Contingency shapes history as well as necessity. By ‘contingent’ we do not mean accidental or without cause, but rather that the cause lays external to the phenomenon, or that a contingent phenomenon is the result of a convergence of two or more necessary, but unrelated events. A technological creation that is the result of a causal chain may come into contact with a political event that is the result of a different causal chain and merge to create a contingent event. The contingent event is not the result of (or is not embedded in) either of the two previous events as singular chains but only in their convergence.

The stage-theory of traditional Marxism is essentially a reductionist interpretation of Western European history, twisted into a universal law. If there was such a universal law, there would be a causal unity of all the transitions between modes of production, and social formations. In reality, the causes are different, specific to each transition. In regard to the future too, different paths are possible. It is true that humankind faces the choice of ‘socialism or ‘barbarism’, but what these broad terms in reality would mean is impossible to predict and none of the possibilities is inevitable.

Our critique of productivism should not be interpreted as a denial of the importance of the productive forces and the productiveness they make possible, in shaping society and creating the conditions to change it. But it is a rejection of traditional Marxism’s teleological narrative of their history, and a rejection of the view that their development by definition means progress for mankind. It is a rejection of the view that science and technology are class-neutral and readily applicable in a post-capitalist world. If only it were that simple. In reality, rather than being progressive, the development of the productive forces has sometimes, and especially in the last century when destruction became an integral part of their growth-cycle, been regressive, creating horror and suffering on an unprecedented scale. It is true that in this same period they have developed conditions propitious to move to post-capitalism, to communism. At the same time they worsened other conditions, in the first place by what they did to our natural environment. If mankind were to continue to let them develop in a capitalist framework, it may very well kill itself. But it’s also true that they have created a giant productiveness that holds the promise of meeting the needs of all humans. They have created an incredibly socialized, interdependent, internationalized process of production. A process of global collaboration that has engendered the ‘collective worker’ whose specific conditions embody both the possibility and necessity of revolution. They have created production that requires very little labor time, and while this is deadly for a society that measures wealth by labor time, it makes it possible to conceive wealth differently, and thereby also to conceive work differently. To end alienated, boring, degrading labor and replace it by meaningful, creative, social activity. They have improved these and other conditions in the last 100 years, but calling this era ‘progress’ is like slapping the faces of the many millions who died in wars and holocausts and of the billions who suffered and suffer miserable lives of avoidable pain. ‘Barbarism’ is not something that might occur some time in the future. There is a global holocaust going on, right now. It’s still in an early stage. It can get much worse. But it also can be stopped. The future is undetermined.

The problem mankind faces is not that capitalism impedes the development of the productive forces. The problem is that it shapes this development in a way that leads to our self-destruction. Science and technology are not neutral, they are profoundly shaped by the value-form. It is the logic of value which makes them so incredibly destructive and alienating. It not only determines the purpose for which they are used but also their content and structure. The science and technology that has historically developed, and the instrumental reason to which it has been yoked, cannot be separated from the compulsion to accumulate, the subjugation of living labor to dead labor, that are the hallmarks of capitalism. Not just the uses to which that science and technology is put, the expansion of commodity production, but the real abstraction of the commodity form itself, is directly linked to the separation of intellectual and manual labor upon which capitalism is based, and to the abstraction of pure scientific activity. Science, far from being socially neutral, then, is itself linked to the abstraction that shapes the process of the production and exchange of commodities. Science and technology have become the means through which the value-form reproduces itself, in commodities, as well as in human minds. But here too we reject determinism and thus the idea that the human mind is simply formatted by the technology it uses. The relation is more complex. And science and technology are more complex too. Even though they are shaped by the value-form, they have, like all areas of human praxis, a dynamic of their own and thus a relative autonomy, even today. Which means that their development contains aspects by which capitalism reinforces its domination as well as aspects that favor the resistance to it and its supersession. IP analysed this in some detail in regard to information-technology. We don’t subscribe to the ‘tabula rasa’ theory according to which post-capitalist society would discard all existing science and technology and start over from scratch. But we think that science and technology would go through a revolution as well, not just in their purpose or uses but in their very nature.

Understanding Value

5. The value-form stands at the core of Marx’s understanding of capitalism and of the possibility to supersede it. He was not the first to see that wealth in capitalist society, while taking the form of goods and money, is really something else: (abstract) labor time. By comparing the average, socially necessary labor time of products, the market organizes their exchange, and thereby also orients production. The founders of ‘classical’ bourgeois political economy, Adam Smith and David Ricardo, already came to that conclusion. Marx agreed with them but then drew out the implications: the difference between the value of the commodity labor power and that of the commodities it produced; surplus value, the basis of capitalist accumulation; A system of legal robbery.

This part of Marx’s analysis was embraced by traditional Marxism. But it reduced his value-theory to a critique of theft. Value is seen as the real, inner substance of the commodity, part of which is stolen by the capitalists. Socialism then, returns that stolen part to its rightful owner, the working class. That ‘socialism’ does not require the abolition of wage-labor, money or capital. It merely requires that the ‘representatives’ of the working class (the party, the state, the workers councils) decide how and in what forms to accumulate value (always ‘for the benefit of the working class’ of course). In contrast to this critique of a particular form of ownership, Marx’s value-theory, obscured by traditional Marxism, is a critique of ownership itself. In contrast to traditional Marxism’s focus on the distribution of wealth, Marx’s theory of the value-form focused on the production of wealth and the social relations on the basis of which abstract labor could be extorted from the collective worker.

The view of value as the real, trans-historical substance, of all products of labor, came from Smith. Marx may have assimilated it at first, but then developed a deeper analysis which made clear that value became the inner substance of things only when it became the purpose of their production. While money, private property, accumulation of possessions and markets all existed prior to capitalism, it took the commodification of labor power for the value-form to emerge as the organizing principle of society and for value to become something that (seemingly) could be, and indeed had to be, under penalty of economic death, endlessly accumulated.

Whereas Smith saw value as a natural phenomenon, reflecting human nature itself, for Marx, it is the historically specific product of capitalist social relations, based on the historically specific social form of abstract labor as the measure and essence of wealth. It’s a specific way of looking at things and a mode of human relations that arose at a particular time in a particular place and spread like a virus, because of the conquering power of the productivity it engendered.

Is it ‘real’?

Things are real, people are real. The value-form reduces them to a quantity of money, that is, a quantity of abstract labor time, but they do have their own, objective qualities that define them, independently from their value-form. Value is not real in that sense: no microscopic or chemical analysis can reveal the value contained in a commodity. It is not real in the sense of existing outside’s people’s minds, like the sweetness of ripe fruit, or the sound of a tree falling, or the weather. And yet it feels like the weather: it follows its own dynamic, it has its own laws, which humans can try to manipulate but to which ultimately, they are subjected, with no choice but to suffer its consequences. It confronts us like an outside condition, an objective fact, and yet it is a human creation. So we call it a ‘real’ or ‘objective abstraction.’

The reality of value lies in it being a social thing, the product of real social relations. The commodity-form masks this. It makes it appear as if the relation between commodities is just a relation between things, based on their autonomous qualities. But in reality, every commodity, being the product of labor, measured in time, labor that in part is appropriated by capital as surplus-value, is essentially a social relation: a relation between capital and labor, between the capitalist and the working class. Comparing commodities is comparing the different quantities in which this relation is embodied in products.

It’s all in our minds. Only the human mind could come up with a box like this one: Value commodifies human relations, turns them into relations between things, commodities. But the relations between commodities itself is really a human relation; one that has wrought marvels and horrors. Increasingly more of the latter. But the reason why it is so difficult to change the human relation that is the cause of these horrors is the belief that the value-cycle really is a relation between things, a natural given that can’t be changed.

Marx called this ‘commodity-fetishism’. He wrote:

According to Isaac Rubin commodity-fetishism is the core of Marx’s value-theory. (5) We agree. All the rest, all the laws and tendencies of capital and the contradictions it gets caught in, follow quite logically from it. For traditional Marxism, it’s just abstract theory. But the implications are clear. On the one hand, the world of value is not the only possible world; it is a trap we can get out, because we made it ourselves. On the other hand, we can’t get out of the trap as long as ‘products of labor are produced as commodities’. That means, as long as the categories abstract labor, wage labor and money survive, the value-form will survive as well -- and reproduce itself. Even if income is redistributed, we will still be in the trap and the law of value will assert itself and with it, the compulsion to accumulate, to exploit, and so on.

Marx distinguished value-wealth from ‘real wealth.’ The former is abstract and all about measuring things, the latter is sensuous and not simply quantifiable. The first would evaporate if all of a sudden we would stop believing in and reproducing it (and huge chunks of it must evaporate regularly in economic crises for it to continue). The second does not depend on our belief in its inner substance, it is what it is. But in capitalism, the growth of real wealth and the forms that it takes, are conditioned by the growth of value-wealth. The expansion of real wealth is only a means for the expansion of value-wealth and when it doesn’t serve that purpose, it generally does not occur. The inherent dynamics of science and technology, even though they are shaped for the purpose of value-expansion, also create awesome possibilities for the expansion of real wealth. But they are thwarted, stunted, twisted, deformed, by their subjugation to the value-form. The absurd and growing contrast between what real wealth could be and the miserable life we live in this world of value-wealth, is a material factor conditioning conflicts and choices in society, pointing towards the need for a world beyond value.

The ‘substantialist’ view of value as the real inner substance of products of labor, was a much better fit for the traditional Marxist ideology. It agrees with its view of human consciousness being unilaterally determined by outside conditions. But value is not an outside condition, it just feels that way. Marx’s vision of value is not acknowledged by traditional Marxism. If it were, it would have to conclude that its idol was on its terms an ‘idealist.’ For in Marx’s theory, value, the very basis of capitalism, is a fetishized mode of social being, one created by our action and perpetuated by our own belief in its substantiality. It’s fetishism that makes us think that it’s inside the products of our labor. Value is a rational, logical way to measure and compare them, but this rationality hides the exploitative social relation in which it is created. It is this social relation which is endlessly reproduced through the expansion of the value-form.

Understanding Marx

6. Still, traditional Marxism was not a break with the ideas of Marx. Like everyone else, Marx was a child of his times. He had absorbed the teleological conception of history, and the belief in mechanical laws governing its progress. Sometimes, that led him to serious mistakes, like his tendency to always find a side to support in wars (one side always being more prone than the other to develop the productive forces, thereby bringing socialism closer), regardless of their consequences for the proletarians.

Marx took the side of the working class, not because he was a worker himself, not because he believed that the working class is morally superior to other classes, but because he realized that social revolution requires a social force which finds in the material conditions of its survival the inspiration and compulsion to do it. A social force which at once has the potential power and the pressing need to seek change. For him, that social force was the working class. Because of the misery in which it is plunged, as well as because of its socialized existence. Because of capitalism’s dependency on it for value-creation, as well as because of its social productiveness, its capacity to create real wealth, as a collective entity, the ‘Gesamtarbeiter’ or ‘collective worker’. Its struggle was the key to unleashing that latent power.

Marx was heavily involved in it. He wanted to provide the proletariat with a scientific theory that would guide it on the path to socialism and assure it that victory was certain. That theory is what traditional Marxism became and Marx contributed the main building blocks to it, with works such as The Holy Family, the preface to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy, and even the famous ‘Communist Manifesto.’

As the years passed, his political involvement diminished because he was increasingly absorbed by his theoretical work. Realizing the centrality of the value-form to capitalism, he began to unravel it more and more. That led to the writing of the Grundrisse, Capital, and other works in which he dissected capitalism to the marrow, showing in great detail how it functions as a system of value-accumulation, how it reproduces and expands, how it builds up contradictions as it changes. Marx insisted that capital is a moving contradiction or ‘a contradiction-in-process,’ based on its historically specific tendency to ‘reduce labour time to a minimum,’ to replace living with dead labor, technology and machinery, while at the same time ‘positing labour as the sole measure and source of wealth,’ (6) both acknowledging capital’s unstinting drive to accumulate abstract value, and its insuperable dependence upon living labor, the collective worker, for its very existence.

He revealed capital’s laws of motion and its immanent tendencies, the causes of its successes and inevitable crises, and our need to end it. This work has passed the test of time astonishingly well.

As his analysis of value deepened, he also became critical of other aspects of what was becoming traditional Marxism. Of its determinism, its claims of universal laws, its view of men simply obeying fixed laws of history. Marx’s position had always been less schematist than what traditional Marxism became, and over the years his understanding of the complexity of history grew. But these critical insights did not coalesce.

Meanwhile, the parties of the First International, while still singing the praises of Marxism, were well on their way, especially after the anarchists were excluded, to become what they later would be: mass parties who, in de name of socialism or communism, manage or co-manage the state, the accumulation of value. In 1875, when the German Social-Democrats, with whom Marx and Engels were closely linked, were about to adopt a program of nationalism, ‘fair wages’, ‘democratic rights’, a ‘free state,’ etc, Marx wrote a scathing critique, denouncing its nationalism, its illusions in the state and claimed that the goal should not be ‘fair wages’ but the end of wage labor. In this ‘Critique of the Gotha Program ,’ he wrote his famous, one-sentence summary of the communist program: ‘ From each, according to his abilities, to each, according his needs.’ But he thought that was not realizable in the short run and advocated an intermediate form, a ‘lower phase of communism ‘ in which the value-form would continue to exist. But his own analysis implies that, as long as this is the case, capitalism’s basic categories are intact. It has to be destroyed at a deeper level.

So while Marx refrained from drawing out all the implications if his theory, his view was still too radical for his party. Marx realized his waning influence by concluding his text with the bitter remark: ‘I have spoken and have saved my soul.’ But not much else, it seemed implied. Except to a few, the text wasn’t even distributed at the congress where said program was approved. It wasn’t published during his lifetime and the same is unfortunately true for many other texts in which Marx implicitly disagrees with Marxist ideology and shows that the value-form itself creates and shapes capitalism, so that the latter cannot be ended without abolishing the former.

Some of his unpublished writings were later edited by Engels and Kautsky. In the case of the first volume of Capital, Marx censured himself under pressure of others, supposedly to make the book more accessible. It was only in the twentieth century (and to a large extent in its final decades) that the whole of Marx’s “economic” manuscripts,(the ‘Grundrisse,’ the ‘Immediate Results of the Process of Production’ (originally a part of Capital, vol. 1) and others such as the manuscripts for volumes II and III of Capital, were published. This too helps explain the reductionist conceptualization of value by traditional Marxism. For it was in those manuscripts that many of the concepts crucial to an understanding of Marx’s method, and his analysis of the trajectory or logic of capital, confirmed in the meantime by the historical experience, became accessible.

The Political Use of Traditional Marxist Ideology

7. The adoption of the Gotha-program was but one step in the process which led to the integration of Social-Democracy into the management of capitalism. The background to this process was a revolution within the mode of production itself, a transition to what Marx called ‘the real subsumption of labor.’ We will come back to this in the next part of this text. Here we want to point out that this revolution meant a vast expansion of the value-form, both within the labor process and in society in general. Tendentially, the value-form invades all social realms, absorbs all civil institutions, integrates them into the reproduction process of capitalist society. Tendentially, all social institutions either become directly or indirectly functional to value creation (and internalize the value-form, the capital-labor relation, in the process) or disappear. Not because Machiavellian rulers decide this but because of the value-form’s conquest of the whole of society, integrating everything into its web of market relations, destroying non-commodified relations and the relative autonomy which their social expressions still had, when the domination of capital over labor and society was ‘formal’ and not yet ‘real’. Which means, when the virus of the value-form had not yet spread everywhere. This gradual process, more than theoretical shortcomings, explains why mass parties and trade-unions which emerged from the working class were gradually absorbed into capitalist society and then into the capitalist state.

Traditional Marxism was made instrumental to that process, which fostered its dogmatization, ossification, ideologization. But the core elements that made it possible to use traditional Marxism for this transition were already there: the teleological, schematic, view of history, and the inevitability of socialism, the equation of development of the productive forces with progress, the view that value is the real substance of social products and that socialism begins with the redistribution of surplus value for the common good... Out of such positions, Social-Democrats constructed a Marxist justification of their reformist praxis. After all, if the development of the productive forces inevitably leads to socialism, it’s not unreasonable to claim that their gradual change can go hand in hand with a gradual transformation of society. They pointed to the gains of workers struggles and the electoral gains of Social-Democratic parties as proof that socialism can be built within capitalism, one reform at the time. They claimed they were conquering the state, using it for socialism; but in fact it was the state that was conquering them, using them for capitalism.

The depth of their degeneration was revealed when capitalism engaged in global war. The great majority of the so-called Marxists of the Second International sided each with their own state, facilitating a bloodbath that would cost about 50 million proletarian lives. As they became part of the political structure of capitalism, the defense of the national interest became their central concern. The nation was the theater of their plans for a ‘socialist’ redistribution of wealth, and the capitalisation of what was their primary asset: their influence over the working class. The ‘Communist Manifesto’ proclaimed that workers have no fatherland, but this internationalism was no longer reconcilable with the praxis of Social Democracy. When the most vital interests of the workers and those of the national capital clashed, the Social-Democratic parties proved that they had become enemies of the working class, obstacles to the perspective they supposedly embraced. (7)

8. A minority of Marxists resisted this degeneration. The most influential among them was Lenin. Like Marx, he believed that the experience of the proletarian struggle (in particular the Paris Commune of 1871) had shown that the bourgeois state cannot be taken over, that it must be overthrown. Like Marx, his was steadfast in his internationalism, however unpopular this was on the eve of the war. His leadership role in the initially successful revolution in Russia gave him such authority that his brand of Marxism became synonymous with ‘communism’ throughout the world. What later became known as ‘Marxism-Leninism’ was a further degeneration of Lenin’s positions and was even further removed from the thrust of Marx’s thought. Lenin was very much a traditional Marxist, in the sense described above.

Schematist, dogmatic, deterministic, productivist. For him, the goal was not the abolition of value but the use of surplus-value for the benefit of the new society. In a speech in 1920 he stated that ‘communism is soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.’ Notice that the nation had already become his horizon. ‘Electrification’ symbolized for him the development of the productive forces, on the basis of wage-labor. The motive of production remained the accumulation of value through the extraction of surplus-value from the working class. Of course, electrification, and the growth of production were necessary. According to Lenin, that meant the value-form was necessary as well. Whether that was true at that time and place is a matter of debate, but it certainly excluded the possibility of communism. Whether the state-capitalism he helped to construct was more or less efficient than ‘private’ capitalism in developing production is beside the point here. It is true that there are real differences between the two systems. The Leninist path meant a radical manipulation of the law of value, which could accelerate things but also stifle them and created more room for corruption, inefficiency and bureaucratic stupidity. We could discuss, from the point of view of the development of the productive forces, the advantages and disadvantages of each, which depend on different circumstances of place and time. But the point is, that these are both ways to manage the value-world. The Leninist version of traditional Marxism kept us locked within the value-trap, with all of its disastrous consequences.

As for the ‘soviet power’ part in the Lenin-quote above: we saw what became of that. ‘Soviet power’ became Party power which became Central Committee power which became Lenin power. For this too, Lenin based himself on traditional Marxist ideology and its schematic conception of consciousness. According to his theory, the working class, given its brutal material conditions, its submission to the ruling class and therefore also to its ideas, could not develop a revolutionary praxis without the lever of Leninist leadership.

Apparently, characteristics associated with capitalism – stultifying hard work, submission to authority, repression, militarization of labor, etc., not only survived in ‘communism’, they became stronger. If the workers struggle would have been more successful elsewhere, so that Russia would not have been isolated, Lenin’s ideas might have evolved differently, or they might have been counter-acted by those of others within the Marxist movement. But as it was, Lenin became the leader of a nation, a value-based economy, in which his party had taken over the functions of the bourgeoisie in managing the extraction and accumulation of surplus value. The goal of ‘socialism in one country’ was already present before Stalin made it official. While Lenin cannot be blamed for all the sins committed in his name, there is a continuity between his version of traditional Marxism and the horrors that ‘Marxism-Leninism’ later produced.

9. The left communists rejected both the reformist and Leninist interpretation of Marxism. They stood side by side with Lenin in opposition to the war and supported wholeheartedly the revolution in Russia, believing it could succeed, if it triumphed elsewhere as well. When it didn’t, they had the courage to recognize that the revolution had failed, that capitalism had survived in Russia, that ‘Marxism’ had become an ideology in the defense of capital.

But their denunciations of the positions of the Leninists as well as of the Social-Democrats did not imply a rejection of traditional Marxism; to the contrary, it was based upon it. They did not transcend it. For them too, ‘Marxist doctrine’ was the ‘proletarian science’ that revealed the sense of history, its inevitable course towards communism, driven by the development of the productive forces. This is true for both the Italian left and the German-Dutch left, which were the main theoretical poles in the communist left. In the landmark early texts of the former, mostly written by Amadeo Bordiga, such as ‘Rome Theses’, the schematism and economic determinism are quite clear. The view of the German-Dutch left was more nuanced and quite critical of vulgar materialism. But even while chastising the cruder interpretations of the base-superstructure determinism, Anton Pannekoek, perhaps the most influential representative of this current, in texts such as The Workers Councils, Historical Materialism, and Lenin as a Philosopher, affirmed his loyalty to it. For him too, Marxism was the ‘…natural science of society. Hence society, just as nature, is determined by natural laws ….’, (8) and communism was the inevitable result of the development of the productive forces.

But the left communists argued that, if indeed the productive forces are pushing society beyond capitalism, it is of the utmost importance that the revolutionary class, the workers, struggle autonomously from capital in all its expressions. This emphasis on the need for autonomous proletarian struggle is what united them beyond their differences and what separated them from the Social-Democrats and Leninists. We share that conviction and identify with the fight the left communists waged against the degeneration of the Second and Third Internationals. In contrast to the latter, the theory of the left communists did not degenerate. But it stagnated. We can understand why that happened: the defensive position within which they found themselves in the context of triumphant counter-revolution; their lack of access to the unpublished texts of Marx that provide a key to going beyond traditional Marxism. Less understandable is that even today, the left communists remain stuck in it. There has not been any theoretical breakthrough made by the various organizations that claim the heritage of the communist left. Their theoretical work consists of cherry-picking empirical data to confirm and update their dogmas but basically, they are theoretically stuck in the early 20th century. That made them incapable of understanding the actual trajectory of capital as we will see in the next part of this text.

IP, in contrast, has broken with traditional Marxism. For us, Marxism is not a science of society, the development of production is not necessarily the measure of historical progress, not all of capitalism’s development of the productive forces is progressive, the technology it has developed is not neutral between different social formations, communism is not historically inevitable, the base-superstructure model does not accurately reflect the way that the entirety of events and processes in capitalist society are causally linked, not all such events are determined by specific economic causes, and communism does not mean the redistribution of surplus value, but the end of the value-form.


1. To which must be added ‘diamat,’ the basis of which is to be found in Engels, in texts such as The Dialectics of Nature, and then enshrined by Soviet (sic.) theorists under Lenin and Stalin. Histomat with its transhistorical and teleological vision of history, its crude economic determinism, and Diamat, with its parody of materialism transposed to nature, and its purported ‘laws,’ constitute theoretical rejections of the subject/object dialectic, the historical specificity of capitalism, and impose a set of dead abstractions on nature.

2. While, Engels, for example, sought to nuance the crude economic determinism of that position, by acknowledging the role of other factors that were overlooked in many texts for lack of time, place, and occasion, to recognize them, that nuance was more often than not absent from the texts of the traditional Marxism of the Second and Third Internationals, an absence that reveals an inability to escape the determinism within which ‘orthodox’ Marxism was trapped.

3. While teleology in history, and its own roots in Hegel’s philosophy of history, must be rejected, Hegel himself, in his Logic, also acknowledges a ‘finite teleological-standpoint,’ in contrast to a transcendental one: goals posited by temporally specific human beings in their social relations and productive mediations with the natural world ; human praxis, then, entails such a finite teleological-standpoint, even as it excludes teleology in the historical process itself.

4. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I (Penguin), p. 165.

5. See I. I. Rubin, Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value 6. Marx, ‘Economic Manuscripts of 1857-58 [The Grundrisse] Karl Marx/Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Volume 29 (New York, International Publishers, 1975), p. 91.

7. The Serbian Social Democrats, who voted against war credits and the defense of the ‘fatherland,’ and the Bolsheviks in Russia, who rejected the defense of ‘Mother’ Russia as war broke out, were signal exceptions to this betrayal of internationalism.

8. Anton Pannekoek, Lenin as Philosopher (London: Merlin Press, 1975), p. 43.

Internationalist Perspective and the Tradition of the Communist Left - Introduction

Internationalist Perspective and the Tradition of the Communist Left - Part 1

Internationalist Perspective and the Tradition of the Communist Left - Part 2

Internationalist Perspective and the Tradition of the Communist Left - Part 3

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