Kazimir Malevich: ‘Suprematism with eight rectangles’ (1915)

Thinking the alternative

In his third article on the maximum programme, Mike Macnair argues that we can already see aspects of the social goals of communism in the present

In the first of this series (April 9) I offered an outline of the case for communists to have and to promote a maximum programme of ‘final goal’: that is, a strategic, long-term alternative to capitalism as such; a critique of the idea argued by Chris Cutrone (and repeated in his April 16 letter), that our concept of the alternative should build on the unfulfilled promise of liberalism; and an outline of the CPGB’s maximum programme, as stated in our Draft programme. I asked whether this ‘final goal’ is really posed for us by capitalist development, or is just another utopia - and, if it really is posed for us, what questions this in turn poses for present-day politics.

In the second article (April 16) I approached the same question of the nature of the strategic alternative to capitalism through two very different treatments of the same issue. Peter Hudis’s Marx’s concept of the alternative to capitalism (New York 2013) asks the ‘Marxological’ question, what Marx proposed as the alternative to capitalism, and comes to the conclusion that this is a truly human society, one which escapes from alienated labour. However, Hudis’s account flattens or simplifies Marx’s views of the question in the direction of ‘Hegelianising’ Marx at the expense of the real influence of Feuerbach; of failing to recognise the continued relevance of the ideas of the Communist manifesto (and of ideas about pre-capitalist societies) in the late Marx; and of uncritical use of the Critique of the Gotha programme. Nonetheless, I argued that Hudis is clearly right that Marx’s project is precisely one of general human emancipation - and hence of a society whose social goal is the development of human capabilities, both individual and collective.

Michal Polak’s Class, surplus and the division of labour (London 2013) approaches Marx not through Marxology, but through engaging with ‘analytical Marxist’ and similar critiques of Marx. However, Polak argues for the acceptance of one fundamental aspect of these: Sraffian economics. On this basis, he arrives at the idea that managerialism would remain a regime of exploitation, even if the managers obtained only marginal consumption privileges (as was, in fact, true of Stalinism). I find Polak’s economic arguments seriously questionable - in particular, because the Sraffian abstraction from money and equilibrium orientation, though it allows a useful focus on the necessities of social reproduction, deprives Marx’s economics of a good deal of its predictive power, especially in relation to crises and the inequality of nations.

Nonetheless, I think that there are two particularly valuable points in Polak’s arguments. The first is that Marx’s vision of the new society involves overcoming of the ‘division of labour’, meaning occupational specialisation. The second, and related, is the persistence of the middle classes, even if the immediate political power of big capital is overthrown.

At this point it is, I think, necessary temporarily to step back radically, and for the moment to put on one side Marx and Marxism altogether (we will come back to them extremely rapidly), in order to ask the question again: why should we be looking for a strategic alternative to capitalism? (I said that there would be three articles in this series. I have been driven to the conclusion that there will have to be four, since it is not possible to make the argument clearly within three.)

Because I am putting Marx and Marxism temporarily on one side, I also altogether ignore for the moment the fact that today’s society is characterised by long-standing economic inequality; that the majority are held in subordination to a small minority who have powers of decision-making; that labour is alienated; that the society is riddled with a series of forms of discrimination and disadvantage (round gender, ‘race’/ethnicity, sexuality, age, disability, etc). I do so in the first place because these features are also true of all prior societies since the end of hunter-gatherer ‘primitive communism’.1

Secondly, it is reasonably clear that life under capitalism can be better than in pre-capitalist societies - which is visible at the most obvious level in the form of the radical increase in population capitalism is able to support, compared to previous societies.

Thirdly, precisely because humans have lived for a few millennia with inequality, alienation and so on, we remain able to tolerate these phenomena even if we (routinely) grumble about them. Radical change, and the search for an alternative social order, becomes posed as practical politics not merely because the existing social order has unattractive features, but because it is currently making matters worse.


I begin where I began in my February 26 article, with ‘radicalisation’ into support for Islamic State and, more generally, war and destruction in the Middle East. It is unnecessary to make any Marxist assumptions at all to reach the conclusion, first, that ‘radicalisation’ into support for Islamic State and similar groups reflects an entirely morally legitimate aspiration to end US dominance of the Middle East and its inhuman, destructive consequences (Fallujah; Abu Ghraib; Israeli operations against Gaza, etc; drone attacks on civilians; the ‘sanctions’ siege of Iran; International Monetary Fund restructurings and their mass unemployment consequences; and so on). The US state holds other peoples in subordination, just as the 19th century British empire did, if in a different (and in some ways, since 1975, a more destructive) form.

Second, in practice IS and similar groups do not - unlike the old semi-Stalinist secularist national movements - represent an actual alternative to US domination, destruction and war. On the contrary, besides the fact that they are funded by US allies in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, the religious-sectarian nature of their political project means that they serve the US,by inflicting death and destruction either on their own country (Syrians, Iraqis, Libyans), or on the country to which they become war tourists (British and other overseas jihadis). They serve the US because the practical orientation of US policy in the ‘third world’, ever since the mid-1970s and the US defeat in Indochina and Portuguese revolution, has been to inflict destruction on those who offer any sort of nationalist project, not to attempt to impose any real local order.

Neither of these points are Marxist claims; they are merely - obvious - empirical claims. Marxism can offer explanations of the phenomena, which connect them to capitalism. But the phenomena themselves pose immediately a moral question of alternatives to the presently existing (dis)order.

As I said in my February 26 article, the Middle East is by no means the only region targeted for subordination and destruction. Ukraine has also been a recent target - and a dangerous one, which is capable of triggering a full-scale great-power war and a nuclear exchange. This reality speaks against both ‘racial’ or ‘anti-orientalist’ and more general ‘third worldist’ explanations of US policy. On the other hand, it points towards a tendency both to increased warfare and to ever more destructive war. It is not necessary to suppose that great-power war would necessarily lead to a large-scale nuclear exchange - after all, chemical and biological weapons were available, but not used, in World War II. It is rather that the tendency to produce state failure, Fallujahs and so on is clearly increasing in its present effects and coming closer to the threat of full-scale great-power war; and conventional weapons are already a good deal more destructive than those used in World War II, which in turn inflicted many more deaths and much more destruction than World War I.


Closely linked to the direct problem of geopolitics is that of human-induced climate change. The problem is, first, that inaction on this front will probably result in us bequeathing to our descendants an uninhabitable world - and may already be producing a substantial increase in storm damage.2

Second,however, effective controls on carbon emissions require global action; and the possibility of global action, in turn, immediately poses very sharp distributional issues: should the costs involved be borne chiefly by the ‘first world’ states, which have, hitherto, been the main beneficiaries from fossil fuel-based industrialisation? Or should ‘developing’ countries be blocked from ‘developing’ further using carbon-intense means?

These questions have led to an effective failure to reach international agreement. There has, indeed, been some slowing in the growth of carbon emissions since 2008 - but this is due merely to the effects of the recession and decelerated growth after the 2008 crash.3 The problem is that even if - as some economists argue - there could be a ‘green capitalism’, in the transition period any state which imposed controls would disadvantage ‘its’ businesses, and GDP growth in its territory, benefiting other countries which did not impose such controls. In other words, overcoming the climate change problem necessarily requires creating a world authority massively more powerful than the USA (let alone its United Nations front).

‘Structural reform’ and crises

‘Closer to Marxist home’, since the abandonment of the ‘Keynesian consensus’ in the late 1970s, the underlying situation facing wage-workers globally has worsened and continues to worsen - and economic ‘authorities’ from the IMF down to the ‘business correspondents’ continue to argue that this situation must be worsened further through ‘labour market flexibility’ in order to achieve ‘competitiveness’. Where industrialisation had developed in the 1950s-70s ‘third world’, ‘debt crises’, ‘restructuring’ and other capital mobility have today produced endemic unemployment and pauperisation on an enormous scale; elsewhere, as in China and Iran, various devices are used to enable capitalists not to pay their workers; in the ‘advanced capitalist’ centres there is ‘managed’ unemployment and an endless downward ratchet on pay and conditions.

Nobody any longer seriously argues that economic inequality is being ameliorated through economic development and ‘trickle-down’ or, in the style of the 1950-60s social-democrats, that capitalism is gradually being replaced by something else. Instead, what is on offer is economic “There Is No Alternative” and otherwise divide-and-rule, whether through nationalism or ‘intersectionalism’. These latter serve as gatekeepers for the protection of the class interests of the capitalist “1%” and its middle-class agents and allies, against the idea of developing working class solidarities and organisations.

My point here is not merely that there is striking inequality: as I said above, we humans have lived with this now for millennia. The point is that the recent evolution of the capitalist world economy involves making things worse for very broad masses; contrary to a common academic criticism of ‘traditional Marxism’, there is in the current period some ‘absolute immiseration’, increasing impoverishment, of a large part of the global working class. Moreover, the institutions (IMF and so on) and ideologues insist that this trend must continue.

These observations again in themselves require no Marxism. They are shared with people who were on the right of Labour before Blairism, with some who are old-time ‘liberal’ Democrats in the US and even with some ‘Christian Democrats’ in Europe. For that matter, the idea that workers needed to organise predated Marx: proto-trade unions went back to the 1400s, various more general attempts date to the 1820s and 1830s, and arguments for working class organisation more generally can be found (for example) in the work of Flora Tristan.4

Also a return to an older world - and this brings us yet closer to Marx and Marxism - is the return of serious financial crises, again related to the break with the 1950s-70s ‘consensus’, this time most immediately in the form of financial deregulation. The Latin American debt crisis of the early 1980s; the 1987 stock market crash (and, in Britain, the burst housing bubble c1990); the savings and loans crisis of the same period; the ‘Asian financial crisis’ of 1997; the dot-com bubble and 2000-01 crash; most recently and most spectacularly, the 2008 crash. The trend line is to increased ‘real economy’ impact of financial crashes, in spite of the immense scale of money-printing to attempt to mitigate their effects.

The belief that the business cycle could be effectively managed by state intervention (again common in the 1950s to early 1970s) is not quite as dead as social democratic, gradualist claims to have got ‘beyond capitalism’. But what is offered to manage crises is merely bailing out banks, etc, and printing money in ‘sterilised’ ways which prevent this leading to inflation (except of capital asset prices) and hence cling to the squeeze on the working class. If one can imagine the capitalists and their agents demonstrating, their slogan would be: ‘No return to the 70s! Unions out now!’


If the observation that financial crises have become more frequent and serious since the 1980s does not require Marxism, recognition of the fact does require taking Marxism seriously. The reason is, first, that the various forms of marginalism, which are the foundation of all pro-capitalist economics (including Keynesianism), necessarily make crises and business cycles ‘exogenous’ to the market, since such events are necessarily inconsistent with the theoretical assumptions made by these approaches to explain the apparent phenomenon of market equilibrium. That financial deregulation should promote increased frequency and severity of crises is therefore inconsistent with the foundational presuppositions of all these schools.

Second, the primary offer for ‘saving capitalism from itself’ (Yanis Varoufakis, but also numerous other, less prominent figures) is some sort of return to the ‘Keynesian consensus’ of the 1950s-70s. But after seven years of below-par growth since 2008, it should be brutally clear that capitalists and elite actors are not prepared to offer such a return. For Keynesians the elites are acting irrationally; but there is a strong case for supposing that it is, rather, irrational itself to imagine that the elites are acting directly against their own economic interests.

Marxist theories, in contrast (I say theories in the plural because there are several defensible varieties) imply that the elites are acting consistently with their own interests. The problem is, at the end of the day, the same geopolitical one as that in relation to climate change. Action by any individual state - or, indeed, any individual bloc like the European Union - to move into 1950s-70s-style demand management without coercive measures against states which do not play by these rules would result only in a flight of capital and deepened ‘stagflation’, as happened to the first Mitterrand government in France in 1981-84.

Why, in turn? I will not go into depth on the issues here, but essentially the point is that the regime of the 1950s-70s was peculiar to its circumstances.5 It was made possible by the massive destruction of capital values in 1939-48, and especially the liquidation of British overseas claims, which raised the rate of return on capital invested in productive industry by reducing total capital values and especially the claims of (British) financial capitals. It was made necessary by the combination of Soviet tanks on the Elbe, the Chinese and other revolutions, and the existence of mass communist parties in France, Italy and elsewhere - as well as the more general loathing for unfettered capitalism expressed in events like Labour’s 1945 election victory.

By the 1970s, however, elites - especially US capital and the US state - were beginning to regret the 1950s-70s regime. It may have ‘contained communism’, and laid the foundations for marginalising Marxism and class politics, by offering the appearance of ‘open society’ prosperity and consumerism. But it also made both the working class and nation-states outside the central great powers too strong. It is possible that the tools of 1950s-70s economic management were genuinely ‘running out of steam’, with profit declines in the US and other ‘core’ countries in the later 1960s; it is possible that the US state simply broke them in its own interest by breaking the gold-dollar link in 1971, because this link was inconsistent with the costs to the US of its role as global policeman.

Either way, a return to 1950s-70s style global economic management would require a third world war (to make it possible), followed by a new cold war (to make it necessary). It is this circumstance, together with the explanatory uselessness of marginalism, which poses the question of Marxist explanations of crisis, etc.

Once we see this, we can also see that Marxist understandings of our other problems have more explanatory value than treating them separately; and that the question of a strategic alternative to capitalism is posed. Working backwards, the question of class and polarisation is obvious. If labour inputs are at least a constraint on prices (whether or not Marx’s exact algebra and the ‘transformation’ procedure are appropriate), this implies that the employer-employee relation is antagonistic. Hence the tendency of the employing class (including, perhaps especially, small employers) and its political and other representatives to push for worsening wages, hours and conditions of work.

Further, a labour values approach, unlike marginal utility approaches, inherently implies a tendency to business cycles of boom, crash, slump, recovery (whether the particular approach taken is underconsumptionist, falling rate of profit, or whatever). But the cycle implies that capitalism moves from a positive-sum game in boom periods to a negative-sum game in slump periods. In the negative-sum game phase, it is inherent that distributional politics are sharply posed both within states, as in the destabilisation of the Middle Eastern regimes, and between states: ie, that states will use any advantages to offload losses onto others. Several examples have been visible in the responses to the 2008 crisis. This logic in turn implies the inability of states to agree on steps to combat human-induced climate change; and it implies imperialist geopolitics and a rising tendency towards war and destruction.

Capitalism can be ‘saved from itself’ - this time round at least. But what is needed to do so is a new 1861-67 to raise up really independent rivals to the USA, and a new 1914-45 to destroy the USA’s global military dominance, liquidate its overseas assets and create a new world top-dog state, which could provide a new global reserve currency, together with a new 1917 - not leading to global socialism, but to a new cold war. This option is unattractive in itself and carries a high risk of human extinction through full-scale strategic nuclear exchanges along the way. Thinking an alternative to capitalism should, therefore, be a preferable option.


What lies behind both the business cycle and the central role of states in the ‘geopolitical economy’ of capitalism6 is the fact that equilibrium theories, and behind them the ‘hidden hand’, are false. An economy of individual ‘rational utility maximisers’ would fly apart; the appearance of equilibrium is created partly because very many people do not ‘rationally maximise utility’, but merely put up with acceptable levels, and partly because the free market requires the strong state. Hence, the more policy imposes ‘rational maximiser’ behaviour on economic actors, the more there will be both a tendency to crises and a tendency to state mercantilism, with its own logic of tending towards imperial state-to-state, patron-client relations and towards war.

The problem of the alternative is the problem of practical coordination of our global common activities. Beyond isolated hunter-gatherer life and subsistence agriculture, the world is dominated by an extended and complex material division of labour.7 Except the very poorest peasants, and the most isolated indigenous populations, no-one is outside the global division of labour. For example, even the simplest iron and steel tools made by local smiths involve supply from the outside iron industry, which is - in the modern world - structured by states and markets.

The division of labour implies the need for mechanisms to coordinate people’s different activities. These activities only when combined produce a liveable result. For a very simple example, if too much human labour time was spent building monuments (whether pyramids or office blocks) and not enough growing food, the builders would starve.

At the very deep roots of capitalist society is the fact that this coordination is accomplished - imperfectly - through the money mechanism. I do not grow my own food, weave my own clothes, etc: I work for a money wage (salary) and buy the goods I need.

The underlying principle of money is that participants in the market exchange equal quantities of (average, socially necessary) labour time. Without this principle, the aggregate price of food - for example - could fall below its aggregate cost of production, so that the farmers stop producing more than they need for themselves and the rest of us starve. This principle could provide immediate feedback on prices in a low-surplus economy. But in a complex economy it is highly mediated: money prices diverge extensively from labour values, and this divergence only reappears as a problem in the form of the boom-bust cycle.

In order for money to work as a means of coordinating all our different activities under the division of labour, it has to be a means of exchange; and this means that it has to be not merely a measure of value, but also a store of value. If wages ceased to be worth anything between the date at which the worker was paid and the date at which she needed to use the money to buy things, the economy would again be dislocated: this is what happens in hyperinflation, as in Zimbabwe recently. In order to function as a store of value, money has to be limited in quantity.

It should already be apparent that crises in the monetary system will inherently have effects in the ‘real economy’. Money is the means by which the diverse productive activities in the ‘real economy’ are coordinated: if the money mechanism for some reason breaks down, so will the coordination, leading to problems in the ‘real economy’.

Credit may and does substitute for cash money. A promise to pay from a credit-worthy person can be used as if it was cash to make payments (provided the benefit of the promise is assignable or negotiable: ie, transferable). In reality, most cash is credit money. In the recent past, we do not use gold and silver coins, but promises to pay by central banks or government (banknotes) and token coins intended to have a higher face value than their metal content. In using these instruments we are giving credit to the state which stands behind the issuer.

Credit and credit money, therefore, are omnipresent within capitalist societies. They are in modern times practically much more important than commodity money (gold and silver), though crises tend to cause spikes in gold prices.

The boom-bust cycle is not produced by the malignity of individual capitalists, but by the fact that the relations between our different productive and consumption activities are mediated by private property and private decisions through the money and savings-credit mechanism. The attempt to use the nation-state to overcome this problem runs up against the fact that both the material division of labour and the money and savings-credit mechanism are global. It thus leads either to defeat - as happened to the USSR, etc - or to a drive to inter-imperialist war.


The alternative is to break with capitalism altogether and carry out social decision-making about production and consumption activities collectively and transparently. To do so is to abandon both private property and the money system. It is to begin to appropriate the means of production collectively: communism.

Precisely because the material division of labour is international, even this is only possible through coordinated international action. The most basic decisions have to be the common decisions of the world’s billions, even if many decisions can, in practice, be local in character.

To say that our strategic goal is to get beyond private property and decision-making and the money system in favour of collective decision-making means that we have to accept that the largest individual interest anyone can have in any productive activity is … to receive a living wage, and to have the right of political participation in collective decision-making. It is thus, in the immediate term, to proletarianise the whole of global society.

It is for this reason that it is only the working class as a class which can possibly lead the way to communism. Communism is precisely the denial of the property claims, not only of capitalists, but also of family farmers/peasants, petty traders and so on, and of intellectuals, managers, bureaucrat-officials and professional politicians in their personal careers and their control of information. Here Polak’s analysis is helpful - and Hudis’s analysis of the USSR as ‘state capitalism’ (and similar analyses) unhelpful.

An instant transformation from capitalism to communism is therefore impossible, unless we were to attempt ‘forced collectivisation’ (the experience of the USSR indicates that we should not). What is in question is in the first place the collective appropriation of those means of production which capital has already socialised in its own way, by making them corporate property: factories, ships, mines, commercial farms, patents and copyrights, and so on.

Collective appropriation is something rather different from nationalisation. Nationalisation is the appropriation of property by the nation-state. This can only be a collective appropriation if the state is subordinated to the working class by the immediate expropriation of the rights of privacy/control of information, career continuity, powers of patronage (top-down appointments, etc) of the elected officials and representatives.

This shift implies that the beginning of the supersession of occupational specialisation begins with the overthrow of capitalism, and does so through rationing access to leadership roles and managerial jobs by ‘term limits’.

To project cooperation in this sense is to take part, but only part, of productive activity out of the money-based coordination system and its incentive schemes. This implies, as Hillel Ticktin has argued (and as Evgeny Preobrazhensky argued back in the 1920s), that for a period there are conflicting social goals and incentive schemes, a society of real contradictions, which communists say should collectively choose to drive towards the complete supersession of the money mechanism.

What are the social goals of communism? As I argued above, this time following Hudis, they are thefree development of human collective and individual capabilities.

Put another way, the conception involved is sharply different from that of Marx’s Critique of the Gotha programme. In the Critique of the Gotha programme the orientation, ‘From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs’, only appears after a period in which money and markets have been totally superseded and replaced with non-tradable labour tokens.

However, production regulated by human needs is (again, as Ticktin has argued) already present in late capitalism, in the forms of education, health and welfare services. David Cameron’s Tories and similar parties and tendencies aim to drive the frontier back towards increased rationing by money of access to education, health, and so on. But they have not (as yet) succeeded in restoring even the level of ‘market dominance’ in these fields which existed before 1914. After 140 years of capitalist development since 1875, we can already see, therefore, aspects of the social goals of communism in the present.

In the fourth article I will return to these issues in a little more depth.



1. It is common (though not invariable) among ‘Hegelian Marxists’ to deny that labour is alienated in pre-capitalist society. But in reality labour appears as an alien power over us just as much if it appears as an alien human power (labour demands of the slave-owner or the feudal superior) or an alien divine power (the original context of Feuerbach’s conception appropriated by Marx), as if it appears in the form of capital. What is specific to capitalism is not alienated labour as such, but the sub-form of the fetishism of commodities.
‘Racism’ in its modern form is, of course, modern; but for antecedents in the classical period see D Isaac The invention of racism in classical antiquity Princeton 2004; for medieval ones, for example, the words ‘slave’ (Slav) and Anglo-Saxon wealh (modern ‘Welsh’, meaning foreigner or slave), replacing the Latin servus.

2. Uninhabitable future: an example is ‘Global warming: scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris’ The Independent April 22 2015. Storm damage: see, for example, www.skepticalscience.com/hurricanes-global-warming.htm.

3. Compare, say, ‘Global emissions stall in 2014 following slowdown in China’s economy’ The Guardian March 13 2015.

4. Proto-trade unions: traceable from attempts to repress, for example, Confederacies of Masons Act 1425; see JV Orth Combination and conspiracy Oxford 1991; J Rule (ed) British trade unionism 1750-1850: the formative years London 1988. Early attempts to generalise: see Wikipedia, ‘Grand National Consolidated Trades Union’.

5. See M Macnair, ‘Keynesianism: nationalist ideology’ Critique No41 (2013), pp199-213 and literature cited there.

6. Radhika Desai’s phrase - see Geopolitical economy London 2013. I do not mean to endorse the specific claims of the book, which involve commitments to methodological nationalism and ‘national roads’ politics.

7. The division of labour is, of course, already present in hunter-gatherer and peasant societies in the form of the separate tasks of men and women. But this does not pose the same coordination problems as the developed division of labour.