Negative critique and positive alternatives

Mike Macnair reviews the following books: - Phil Hearse (ed) Take the power to change the world (Socialist Resistance, 2007, pp144, £6); - Michael Lebowitz: Build it now: socialism for the 21st century (Monthly Review Press, 2006, pp127, £10.95) - Cliff Slaughter: Not without a storm: towards a communist manifesto for the age of globalisation (Index Books, 2006, pp314, �12.99)

Delay is inherent in thinking about the world and our actions. In everyday individual perception and action, a few milliseconds pass while the brain interprets the data of the senses in the light of memories and logical interpretive structures. The process is usually not noticeable, but from time to time expectations from the past give false shape to perceptions, as in certain types of optical illusions and similar phenomena.

Politics is about collective actions in changing times. To the time lag in perception we now need to add those involved in communication, discussion and collective decision-making. We produce the Weekly Worker from week to week, but our ability to do so depends on a more or less settled basic common understanding of global and British political dynamics and our tasks developed in the 1990s and partially codified in our Draft programme and in theses formally discussed and adopted on various topics. On the whole we collectively think that our approach has been more confirmed than not by the course of events; but there are undoubtedly time lags in our responses to changed circumstances and probably occasions when our expectations based on past experience produce 'optical illusions'.

Writing and publishing books which attempt more fundamental rethinking takes more time and delay. So, for that matter, does reading and reviewing them. I meant to review the Lebowitz and Slaughter books about nine months ago, closer to their appearance in print. Other writing tasks intervened, and then the Hearse book had to be added to the pile. My delay comes on top of the authors' delays. Lebowitz's book is mainly a collection of essays from 2004-05. The Hearse collection is addressed mainly to the critique of John Holloway's Change the world without taking power (2002). Slaughter openly accepts that Not without a storm has been delayed: in truth the book mainly addresses the political conditions of the late 1990s and early 2000s before the opening of the 'war on terror'.

In spite of these practical delays, all three books attempt to some extent to address a more fundamental perceptual lag. This is the fact that most of the left still sees the world in perceptual frames formed before (a) the fall of the Soviet bloc and the 'market turns' in China and Vietnam, and (b) the full development of financial globalisation.

The international 'official communist' movement, and outliers of this movement like the Socialist Workers Party, see the world in terms of the later 1960s-70s: they look at the Taliban or the 'Iraqi resistance' and see the Vietnamese NLF, and imagine an 'anti-imperialist front of peoples and governments' including the neoliberal clerical kleptocrats of the Tehran regime. The left wings of Labour and similar parties imagine a 1950s-60s world in which national industrial growth and 'managed' trade can produce economic concessions to the working class and domestic social reforms. The Alliance for Workers' Liberty and some similar groups and individual writers also interpret the world in terms of the 1950s, and 'see' the US globocop remaking the world in the interests of global cartelised capital, at the expense first of the 'old imperialisms' of Britain and France and more recently of the 'paleo-imperialisms' of Argentina, Serbia and Iraq. Those among the scattered groups of 'orthodox Trotskyists' who have not travelled the road to becoming hangers-on of 'official communism' have avoided this fate by clinging to Trotsky's writings as a dogma. As a result, whatever they look at, they see scenes from 1917-39.

All three books attempt to get beyond this retro-vision or lag of consciousness behind changed circumstances. The collection edited by Phil Hearse is mainly a response of authors connected to the Mandelite Fourth International to the arguments of John Holloway, who did propose a radical change in the way the left worked. Lebowitz and Slaughter are both influenced in different ways by Istvan Meszaros's long and difficult book Beyond capital (1995), which is one of the most systematic attempts to theorise the underlying dynamics of the global situation after the fall of the USSR. Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, claims to have read Meszaros's book. Lebowitz is also - as is Chavez - influenced by views of the experience of the Cuban revolution and the survival of the Cuban regime where the USSR and its satellites have collapsed and the Chinese and Vietnamese regimes have turned themselves into sweatshops for global capital.

Back to Bakunin?

The simplest conclusion that can be reached about the lessons of the USSR and its fall without wholly abandoning socialist ideas is to conclude that Bakunin and his co-thinkers were right, and Marx and his co-thinkers wrong, in 1870-72. That is, the whole idea of political action of the working class is mistaken: 'statist' and 'scientific' socialisms are not a step forward but remain within the domination of capital. Holloway does not cite Bakunin, but this is, in substance, his conclusion. In 'Twelve theses on changing the world without taking power' (2004) his second and third theses are: "A world worthy of humanity cannot be created through the state"; and "the only way in which radical change can be conceived today is not as the taking of power but as the dissolution of power".[1]

The bulk of Take the power to change the world (TPCW) consists of exchanges about Holloway's arguments. To three pieces by Holloway are added critiques of Holloway by Hearse, Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire leaders Daniel Bensaid and Michael Loewy, and American author M Junaid Alam. To this material is added three separate pieces by Bensaid - on strategy (2006), 'the party' (2005) and 'Leninism' (2001). The book has neither a chronological nor a logical structure. An early (1996) piece by Holloway on the Mexican Zapatista movement, which provided the germ of some of the arguments developed in Change the world without taking power, is printed near the end of the book, while Holloway's response to Bensaid's initial critique appears after Bensaid's reply to this response. When we get to the three separate Bensaid pieces we might think that we have now finished with Holloway, and moved on to other issues, but we are about to return to his writings on the Zapatistas. The result is more than somewhat 'bitty' and conveys the impression of a debate which is not moving forward.

Holloway's argument contains an important grain of truth about the present, although it is wrapped in a radically false (Bakuninist) strategic line which, in turn, is buried in philosophical garbage. The grain of truth is that the present task of communists/socialists/opponents of capitalism is not to take over any particular nation-state, whether by means of electoral coalitions, insurrections or guerrilla warfare. It is to build an international movement of consistent and principled opposition to our existing rulers and of grassroots solidarity. In the absence of such a mass movement developed without the benefit of government support, electing a momentarily popular figure as president or joining a government coalition leads at best to a leadership without the means to really transform the society (Venezuela); at worst to simply managing society for the benefit of capital (Brazil, Italy).

The false strategic line consists in the idea that the negative, the refusal of what is, and direct relations of solidarity, are sufficient.

We could, of course, try to cause a mass die-off and thereby reduce world populations to levels (perhaps 5%-10% of today's) which would be sustainable by pure-peasant village agriculture and tribal pastoralism. But in doing so we would also destroy our knowledge of society, and hence would merely set back in motion the infernal treadmill, which began in the neolithic, of the formation of classes, warfare-competition between societies, the exploitation of captives as slaves, the partial breaks towards more human societies represented by the late antique empires in the Mediterranean, Iran, northern India and China, and forwards from these in turn by islam and by christian and Japanese feudalism ... and so in a few thousand years back to where we are now.

If we are not to pursue this retro-utopia, we need to collectively take control of the whole globally organised order of production: from the farms, forests, mines and oilfields of many different countries, through the factories unevenly distributed across the world and the global and national transportation systems, to the financial nerve centres of New York, etc and the research and development centres mainly concentrated in the 'advanced countries'. All these elements enter into the availability of - for example - food in Venezuelan or Zimbabwean shops.

To propose an alternative to the capitalist order then means to propose alternative ways of taking collective decisions about the allocation of human and material resources on global, continental, national, regional and local scales. We have collectively tried one alternative - 'socialism in one country' and Soviet-style bureaucratic centralism - and it does not work. What alternative? Holloway's answer is simply to refuse the question. To refuse the capitalists' orders, to denounce their system as inhuman, is enough. But the question is not a false one imposed on us by the capitalists. It is about how we get to eat, if we refuse the existing capitalist arrangements.

Holloway's Mandelite critics in TPCW in the main no more address this question than he does. They offer negative critique of Holloway's negative critique. Within this context, many of their points are good. But they are also characterised by clinging to their own pre-developed perceptions. Thus Bensaid in his separate piece on strategy, taken from the LCR's 2006 debate, says: "I confine myself here to the question of what I have called 'the limited strategy' - the struggle for the conquest of political power at the national level" (p99); and: "In reality, all sides in the controversy [in the LCR] agree on the fundamental points inspired by The coming catastrophe (Lenin's pamphlet of the summer of 1917) and the Transitional programme of the Fourth International (inspired by Trotsky in 1937): the need for transitional demands, the politics of alliances (the united front) ..." (p105).[2] In other words, Bensaid's perceptual framework - his blinkers - preclude calling into question the idea that capitalism can be overthrown in a single country, and take for granted that the road to power at this level is that laid out by the early Comintern. Only Loewy really gets to the fundamental point: the alternative to decision-making through capital has to be based on radical democracy.


Not without a storm has more the appearance of a coherent book than TPCW. The chapter headings give a structured argument: 'Universal intercourse', 'Globalisation', 'The destruction of nature', 'Where to begin?', 'The proletariat under globalised capital', 'Towards refoundation - 1. realistic optimism', 'Towards refoundation - 2. new forms of struggle' and 'The 20th century - a hypothesis'. But the apparent coherence is less than at first sight appears, because a great deal of the book consists of long quotations and extracts from previously published texts.

The first three chapters are essentially descriptive: they point us to many of the things which not only all Weekly Worker readers, but pretty much everyone, knows are wrong with global capitalism. Chapter 4, 'Where to begin', makes at an early stage a fundamental claim:

"Confronting today's globalised capital and its present and future consequences, the working class, and those socialists who join with it, can no longer restrict their practice and their theory to the winning of political power from the bourgeoisie. The assumption used to be that the overthrow of the capitalist state and the transfer of capitalist property to social ownership would guarantee the transition to a socialist order. Today, however, we have to recognise that it has become an indispensable necessity for the working class, and the socialist movement, to defend, preserve, protect and nurture now, in existing conditions, the natural and cultural conditions of the future positive 'social metabolism' that is the true objective of the proletarian revolution" (p121).

Chapter 5, 'The proletariat under globalised capital', argues - correctly - that in spite of increased stratification and the decline of productive work in the imperialist metropoles, "there is internationally a proletarianisation of massive proportions" (p169). Moreover, "until now, the immediate conditions and interests of ...workers in the older capitalist countries ... have not coincided with those of workers in the dependent countries. But the structural crisis makes it inevitable that this divergence of immediate interests will give way to the objective, at the moment only latent, common interest vis-a-vis capital" (p168). It is these points which give the grounds for the "realistic optimism" for which chapter 6 argues.

Chapter 7 begins with insistence that "we cannot know clearly in advance what organisational forms will be taken by the plurality of struggles tending towards a refoundation of the international working class movement". But Slaughter does argue for four "considerations":

(1) resistance and solidarity has to become transnational, internationalist;

(2) it must take responsibility for the elementary conditions of the future society;

(3) what are required are coordination and combination, not control from above;

(4) ways have to be found of combining working class organisation with the interests and initiatives of others who oppose the threats from globalised capital.

The chapter then moves into a list of examples, which we are presumably expected to see as examples of the future of the movement. Holloway would no doubt offer a list with overlapping elements (the Zapatistas are here too) and the Mandelites a different list again. The truth is that it is far from clear that these examples - mainly of 'social movements' and cooperative endeavours - are of new responses to new features of global capitalism. Rather, they are examples of aspects of the spontaneous mass movement, and the efforts of leftists to build solidarity, which emerge in different forms at different times and places. They appear new to Slaughter because his former party, the Workers Revolutionary Party, fetishised 'the revolutionary party' (meaning itself) and the trade unions (understandably, given their role in British politics in the 20th century). So the other aspects of the mass movement largely escaped its attention.

Slaughter's autocritique of the WRP and the historical Trotskyist movement in the last pages of chapter 7 and in chapter 8 is rather different from this brief comment. At the end of chapter 7 (pp275-79) we get a modified version of arguments presented in 1998. The Trotskyists understood "crisis of leadership" in "a dangerously wrong and narrow" way. "There was a tendency in our movement to assume that the crisis of leadership would be resolved by replacing one leadership by another (and that other was us)" (p276). The working class "was more or less in a state of latent readiness for revolution" (p277). Now "we must learn how to develop the insight of Istvan Meszaros ... that the future mass socialist movement will be 'inherently pluralist' ...": hence, the task of a party is about coordination and "learning from" the mass movement, not about "control from above".

Chapter 8 carries this argument further, in substance following Meszaros's argument in Beyond capital. The rise of the workers' movement in the later 19th century did not mean that capital had exhausted its historical potential. Rather the intervention of the working class to 'carry out the tasks of the bourgeois revolution' created the global dictatorship of capital, because this was what was on the historical agenda in the 20th century. Hence the old ways of the 20th century will not do. We have to begin again, and this is the purpose of the book.

Slaughter, like Holloway, has understood the fundamental point that what is on the immediate agenda is reconstructing a movement of opposition, not the immediate struggle for power. But equally, like Holloway, he does not see that the question of alternative decision-making mechanisms cannot be evaded by this choice. "Coordination and combination" unavoidably pose choices about priorities and resources; and so does taking "responsibility for the elementary conditions of the future society". His radical recoil from the bureaucratic centralism of the WRP, of which he was the main intellectual apologist, leaves him without practical proposals for how to make these choices. Though Slaughter has not gone all the way down Holloway's path of clear, systematic Bakuninism, he still evades the problem of the political.

Build what now?

Lebowitz's book is another collection of essays and talks. In a sense it grows out of his own Beyond 'Capital' (1992), which attempted to overcome the lack of the 'book on wage labour' in Marx's unfinished Capital project, and which developed the focus on the working class's claims as grounded on and pursuing needs. In another sense it grows out of his close engagement with the Venezuelan revolution. The last chapter, 'The revolution of radical needs: behind the Bolivarian choice of a socialist path', brings the two aspects together.

There is a fundamentally positive aspect to Lebowitz's book, which grows out of his earlier Beyond 'Capital' and is shared with the arguments of Holloway and those of Slaughter and, behind him, Meszaros. This is the understanding that the idea of communism/socialism means something profoundly and radically different from capitalism, not something 'more efficient'. Rather socialism is about setting as a goal the full development of human capabilities - putting the factories at the service of humans, not the other way round. This logic implies many things, among them self-management and radical democracy. Lebowitz's identification with the Venezuelan revolution flows from the ideological commitment to these goals adopted in the 1999 Bolivarian constitution of Venezuela.

However, in one sense Lebowitz is a much less radical critic of the 20th century left than Holloway or Slaughter. In the first place, a critique of Soviet-style 'communism' is almost completely absent from the book. It appears simply as a vast silence. At p10 he suggests that we should move beyond debating this, to "simply recognise that what emerged in the last century was not the concept of socialism that Marx envisioned". At pp71-72 he remarks that "socialism is not the worship of technology - a disease that has plagued Marxism and which in the Soviet Union took the form of immense factories, mines and collective farms to capture presumed economies of scale". And chapter 6 is a critique of Yugoslav 'self-management' arrangements, or, more exactly, a set of questions posed by these.

Secondly, and connected, whatever Lebowitz may formally think about the theory of 'socialism in one country' (not on show in this book) the idea is practically assumed by his willingness to endorse the Chavistas' concepts of "endogenous development" (pp40-42, 98-101): "Endogenous development is possible," he writes on p42, "but only if a government is prepared to break ideologically and politically with capital, only if it is prepared to make social movements actors in the realisation of an economic theory based on the concept of human capacities."

The problem with this argument is that it underestimates the interconnectedness of the global material economy. Venezuela is today suffering from food shortages caused by capitalists' unwillingness to sell at prices the poor can afford (of course, the capitalists also have political motivations, to help to defeat the revolution). Since Venezuela is a food importer, there is no quick way to bypass the capitalists by direct relations with the food producers. It is also suffering from a shortage of parts at the nationalised PVDSA oil refineries which have been forced to reduce output. Again, this is a matter of capitalists placing class solidarity before both national and immediate commercial interests.

Nor are these new problems. The same issues faced the Soviet regime in the 1920s. "Endogenous development" then seemed to require the development of heavy industry which could free the USSR from the ability of foreign producers of tools and parts to interfere with the economy. But this in turn led precisely to the "immense factories, mines and collective farms" Lebowitz criticises at pp71-72. It also required coercion to maintain food supplies to the cities. Venezuela is simply not self-sufficient in food and any change in this situation is at best some years off.[3]

Chavez, quite plainly, knows better. He and his government have been attempting to break out of economic isolation by forming bilateral trade relations, not only with Cuba, but also with several other countries in Latin America. He also clearly made an attempt in the recent past to find a way for the Colombian guerrillas to re-enter the political process, thereby potentially undermining the threat of blockade or war from Colombia - an attempt which failed. But the underlying problem is that the world economy is a hub-and-spokes arrangement coordinated through US financial institutions and a monopoly of high-tech production in the global 'north'. Bilateral trade relations with other countries in the global 'south' will not solve the shortage of parts at PVDSA. What is necessary is to break the hub-and-spokes arrangement. That requires the common practical action of workers in both the 'north' and the 'south'.

Lebowitz's book ends with the statement, "There is an alternative. And it can be struggled for in every country. We can try to build that socialism now. Those struggles will of course face not only local ruling powers but also imperialism. Every place these struggles proceed, though, will make it easier for those who have gone before and those yet to come. So, today, let us say: 'Two, three, many Bolivarian revolutions!'"

Unfortunately, it is not actually true that "Every place these struggles proceed.. will make it easier for those who have gone before and those yet to come." On the contrary: the struggle for socialism in a single country has repeatedly ended in disaster and demoralisation - in the USSR on the largest possible scale. The impact of that failure has reverberated across the world and forms the true basis of the capitalists' doctrine that 'There is no alternative'. We may hope, along with the Chavistas, that the Venezuelan revolution can break out of its isolation. If it does not, the likely result will be yet more demoralisation.

There is a second problem, which Nick Rogers addressed last week ('Chavez suffers major constitutional setback', December 13). Before 1998 Venezuela was - like many other countries both of the 'north' (Britain included) and of the 'south' - characterised by a duopoly of corrupt political parties and a fragmented and ineffective left. Chavez's unsuccessful military coup in 1992 made him a hero who could take the presidency in 1998. But behind him there was and still is no coherent, organised movement beyond the military leftists with whom he was working before and after 1992. In spite of his call for a new, united socialist party, the left remains fragmented. The whole project is therefore dependent on the individual, Chavez, and his direct relation to the popular masses. Hence the need to try, in the recent referendum, to extend the term limits the Chavistas themselves had introduced in 1999. Hence also its failure.

We need to overcome the fragmentation of the workers' movement and the left. This is as true in the 'south' as it is in the 'north'. The idea that the role of a single charismatic leader can sideline this problem is at the end of the day as false for Chavez as it is for Tommy Sheridan or George Galloway. We can only overcome this fragmentation by overcoming bureaucratic centralism in the workers' movement and the associated defence by full-timers and elected representatives of career interests in their jobs. It is these issues which drive unprincipled splits - in the left of the 'south' just as much as in the 'north'. We have to address these issues now, not as a problem for the future, and we have to address them as issues of general politics, not just within the movement.

Back to the beginning. The present task of the workers' movement and the left is not to take power in any nation-state, but to fight to build an international movement of opposition and solidarity. Without such a movement, taking power anywhere will result merely in an isolated and exposed 'salient'. We should do our best to help those trapped in such 'salients' by solidarity against capital. Equally, we should not, like Holloway, use the nature of our present tasks as an excuse from abstaining from the political. We are not just concerned with alternative values (Lebowitz), but also with alternative modes of decision-making.


1. Reprinted in Take the power to change the world  pp15-16.

2. Lenin’s pamphlet is better known as ‘The impending catastrophe and how to combat it’, written September 10-14 1917 and published in late October: CW Vol 25, pp323-69. To characterise the Transitional programme as “inspired by Trotsky in 1937” is to overstate the extent of the amendments to Trotsky’s draft  of this programme made in 1938.

3. The USDA estimated in 2005 that 95% of Venezuela’s potentially cultivable land was allocated to pasture. See www.fas.usda.gov/pecad/highlights/2005/07/July2005/Venezuela_Jul05.htm.