Latest Productivity Commission report – relies on and exploits our ignorance – to undermine our well-being
I had a sense of déjà vu this week when I read the latest release…
One of the recurring criticisms I face when presenting at events comes from those who say they are ‘socialists’ or ‘Marxists’. They accuse me in various ways of being an apologist for capitalism, for offering palliative solutions to workers, which will delay the break down of the system and the revolution to socialism and communism. These critics proudly announce they follow Marx’s solutions and that they reject Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) because it is just a stooge for capitalism. The problem is that Marx had no real vision of how we would transit to Communism. A recent book referred to Marx’s philosophical position on this as a ‘dream’ (more later). And MMT is not specific to any mode of production, by which I mean, who owns the material means of production. It is applicable to any monetary system, and I cannot imagine any modern, technologically-based society functioning outside of that reality – socialist, capitalist or otherwise. But, moreover, the critics seem to be displaying a lack of basic humanity where they exercise reasoning that Noam Chomsky regularly refers to as belonging in a philosophy seminar. Even progressives (and socialists) have to be aware of humanity – as they plot and scheme for the revolution.
It happened again this weekend.
I was participating in the – Resistance Festival – which was held in the UK last weekend. It was a big success.
But in the Q&A, one person stood up and said that I (and MMT) was just a stooge for maintaining Capitalism and that he wanted to overthrow Capitalism and introduce Socialism.
Ok. Good ambition.
I read a book a few months ago, while I was forced into 14 days quarantine in Melbourne as one of the requirements that allowed me to cross the border from NSW back home into Victoria.
The book – Marx’s Dream: From Capitalism to Communism (published by University of Chicago Press, 2018) – which was written by US philosopher – Tom Rockmore.
If you are familiar with Tom Rockmore’s work, you will know that among other things he has devoted his academic life to is tracing the tradition of – German Idealism – which originated in the work of Immanuel Kant in the late C18 and can be seen to influence the work of Johann Gottleib Fichte, Friedrich Hegel and, in, Rockmore’s thesis, Karl Marx himself.
This is an important conjecture because it is part of a broader thesis that bears on whether there were two Marx – the young and the old or whether the difference between the early writings of Marx and his later published work, really indicates the difference was Marx and his patron Engels.
Tom Rockmore thinks the latter and believed that as Friedrich Engels was piecing together the unfinished material that Marx left when he died, he failed to understand that Marx was actually operating in the tradition of the German idealists.
And if that thesis holds, then Engels developed a version of Marxism, that many modern Marxists hold on to, which was not consistent with the way Marx was actually thinking himself.
What Tom Rockmore believes Marx was on about was “to provide a distinctive new response to the ancient problem of human flourishing” in the context of industrial Capitalism.
In other words, it was a philosophical venture that he thinks Marx embarked on, and, he thinks Marx remained true to that aspiration throughout his career.
Marx’s praxis was tied within the Western philosophical tradition that dates back to Socrates and Plato.
Marx conjectured about the type of society where “human beings … [would] … flourish” and rejected Capitalism as a solution to this end (as distinct from Hegel who considered the system of industrial capital to be “acceptable”).
According to Tom Rockmore, Marx:
… focuses on liberating individuals from the consequences of modern industrial capitalism, hence from the modern world, as a condition of flourishing in communism or a future social phase lying beyond capitalism.
In applying that focus:
Marx believes that private ownership of the means of production does not enable but rather prevents human self recognition, hence human flourishing in modern society.
But did Marx articulate what a communist freedom would look like?
Careful reading of his work will tell you he did not.
There was some mention of a “shorter working day” but not much else.
In the final part of Tom Rockmore’s book – On the Practice of Marx’s Theory, or the Transition from Capitalism to Communism – we learn that Marx also provides little guide to how we might transition from capitalism to communism.
There is mention of a reliance on the proletariat, driven by the leadership of the political class or through economic crisis to accomplish the transition.
Marxian crisis theory really has never come to terms with the modern state with an array of fiscal and monetary instruments available to it to attenuate crisis.
The Leninist vanguard approach led directly to the “dictatorship of the party over the proletariat” and Stalin and beyond. Not very consistent at all with Marx’s focus on human flourishing.
There was also mention of the role that “critical social theory” can play in the transition from capitalism to communism.
The modern practitioners in this field show little interest in exploring economics and a roadmap for the transition.
Taken together, Tom Rockmore uses these examples to argue that “Marx’s dream … [must] … be realized not only in theory but also in practice”.
But how that is to eventuate remains somewhat of a mystery.
Tom Rockmore goes one step further – which I would not be prepared to go (yet) – that Marx’s dream while unambiguously attractive is not capable of realisation.
Which then leads to the next observation that modern Marxists, following the lead given by Engels in the short 1886 book – Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy – construct Marxism has a transition from “idealism”, which cannot be used as a basis to solve real world problems, to Marxist materialism.
Engels believed this is the position that Marx himself held and he points to the “law of historical development” as the authority for this conjecture.
Feuerbach had abandoned the idealism of Hegel and Engels believed Marx had also left the German Idealist tradition behind.
Tom Rockmore considers that Marx didn’t invent Marxist – the doctrine of materialism – rather, that Engels did.
The Marx was not a Marxist is a similar argument that John Maynard Keynes was not a Keynesian (the tradition that followed in his name).
There is a clearer argument that can be made about the latter (dis)-association than the former, however.
So was Marx concerned with thought (philosophy) or being (materialism)?
That is the question that Tom Rockmore’s book considers.
When Marx was buried at Highgate Cemetery on March 17, 1883, Engels gave a famous speech – Frederick Engels’ Speech at the Grave of Karl Marx – where he was very specific:
Just as Darwin discovered the law of development or organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc. …
But that is not all. Marx also discovered the special law of motion governing the present-day capitalist mode of production, and the bourgeois society that this mode of production has created …
Such was the man of science …
So Engels constructed Marx as a scientist rather than a philosopher.
According to Engels, Marx’s mission was as a “revolutionist … [to] … overthrow … capitalist society and of the state institutions which it had brought into being”.
That is a materialist objective.
Of course, people have long debated whether the analogy with Charles Darwin holds, given that Darwin’s ‘law of development’ was hardly deterministic in the way Marxists constructed Marx’s law of development.
And, further, there is no real consensus on what ‘materialism’ actually means in substance.
What are its practical dimensions?
The other interesting strand in all of this literature is the influence of Lenin on the modern conception of Marxism.
Tom Rockmore wrote:
Official Marxism is strongly dependent on Engels and only distantly related to Marx. Orthodox Marxism in both its Russian and Chinese variations can be traced back to Lenen. When Lenin was active, a series of central Marxian texts were not yet available … Lenin, who was unaware of Marx’s more philosophical writings, is strongly dependent on Engels.
What Lenin did, and Stalin followed later, was to merge the principles of “Dialectical materialism … often regarded as the (canonical) Marxist philosophy” and “historical materialism … often taken as the (canonical) Marxist science. Yes”
There is a lot more we can write about all this.
But the practical outcome of this discussion is that Tom Rockmore’s thesis (as given away by the title of his book) is that Marx dreamt of a better future for workers but was unclear of what that would look like save an easier working day.
So when ‘socialists’ stand up in Q&A time and wax lyrical about the evils of palliative solutions to the ills of capitalism and profess a belief in the materialist conception of history I wonder whether they really have considered very deeply what Marx was on about.
Let’s establish some realities.
My work in helping to develop MMT in no way indicates that I support the capitalist production system as the best way to advance human flourishing.
I do not.
In some conceived socialist nirvana, it is likely we will need currency and a currency-issuing authority.
MMT principles will apply just as much then as now.
So by advocating an understanding of MMT principles, we are actually preparing citizens for more desirable future transitions in production modes as well as educating them in the best way to understand the current (capitalist) system that they live in.
That understanding will enhance the voice of citizens in the political process because it will force the political class to answer different questions and standard answers that are given now (“the government hasn’t got enough money” etc) will no longer be acceptable.
That will change society dramatically, already.
But there are two remaining questions:
1. When is the revolution?
2. What should be done before the revolution?
This is the nub of my rejection of the critics that accuse me of being an apologist because I advocate a Job Guarantee, for example, or better health care and public transport and education.
First, that revolution.
Have you seen any signs of it lately?
Exactly what institutional forces are present to facilitate it?
Will there be symbolic or objective violence involved?
Can we justify equipping the cadres with AK-47s to slaughter those capitalist pigs and their running dog sympathisers?
Who will we kill first? Then …
Guns are vehicles of destruction when we actually want to construct a new freedom.
All these issues need to be spelt out.
As I noted above, Chomsky said if praxis was important and change was the goal then spending hours in philosophy seminars debating whether we would be ethically justified in slaughtering capitalists was unlikely to accomplish much.
Who should we be following?
The Jacobites? Lenin and his Vanguard that quickly became repressive – the antithesis of freedom?
And when thinking about these issues, I always remember the 1971 poem/song – The Revolution Will Not Be Televised – by Gil Scott-Heron.
The lyrics contain the following refrain:
The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised,
will not be televised, will not be televised.
The revolution will be no re-run brothers;
The revolution will be live.
Okay, to be live there has to be a plan and action.
But then I think of the counterpoint that is captured in the song – The Revolution Was Postponed Because Of Rain – from one of my favourite bands the – Brooklyn Funk Essentials – which was on their first album (released in 1995).
The band tells us about the status of the black revolution in the US that is constantly being diverted by mass consumerism and all sorts of individual, selfish desires.
We listen to the message:
The revolution was postponed because of rain.
The underlying immediate political socio-economic and trigger mechanism causes
were all in place when
some negro or the other got hungry
had to stop at the McDonald’s
had to get on the line with the new trainee cashier
“uhh, where’s the button for the fries?”
so we missed the bus …
From it we capture the problem of the Left.
The instant consumer delights that capitalism provides continually undermine our sense of purpose and leave us deliberating on what product or another to buy.
“The revolution was postponed because of rain” – because we couldn’t be stuffed going out and preferred to sit at home watching our very big, flat screen TV:
Then the leader couldn’t find his keys
Didn’t want some poor ass moving
His brand new 20″ and VCR
Out his living room on the shoulders
It was too late when the locksmith came
Now we wait for the rain to stop
All forces on the alert
Some in Brooklyn basements
Packed in between booming speakers
Listening to Shabba Ranks and Arrested Development
Bogling and doing the east coast stomp
Gargling with Bacardi and Brown Cow
Breaking that monotony with slow movements –
Slow, hip-grinding movements
With the men breathing in the women’s ears to
Earth Wind & Fire’s Reasons
And wondering what the weather will be like
The point is that theorising radical change doesn’t produce it.
Many of those in the political economy movement in the past when I was younger would berate me for suggesting full employment was a desirable objective, today, tomorrow, and even the next day.
They would deliver sermons to me at conferences after deliberating over a latte or two, and some jam and croissants, about how the revolution might go.
Most had secure work and were becoming well-paid and had the wherewithal to put deposits down on trendy pads in the inner city.
They spent their time in a philosophy seminar!
I read as much Marxist literature as anyone in my early years. I haunted the International Bookshop in Melbourne as a teenager – reading everything I could get my hands on.
I also spent some time in philosophy seminars!
But as I developed ideas about the monetary system and the interface with the labour market – and experienced the relentless theorising by the Left, the (comfortable) Left in many cases – I came to the view that that a solution within capitalism had to be found because I hadn’t identified any revolutionary armies forming in the suburbs that might overthrow that particular (and pernicious) system of ownership and production.
That understanding didn’t suggest I supported capitalism.
It just reflected the reality that while these revolutionary armies might have been a figment of ideation in the minds of the self-appointed urban guerrilla army leaders, who plotted the revolution in university cafes over coffee, the cold hard facts were that working class people were enduring massive hardships because they were being forced into unemployment as front line soldiers in the government’s fight against inflation.
As time past, we became aware that the natural world was in jeopardy.
Could it wait for the revolution?
So in ordering my priorities I decided the daily human suffering that was before my eyes was more pressing than the revolution which would have to come a bit later.
That is why I came up with the Job Guarantee idea in 1978.
As I became an academic and developed the idea further in the 1990s, I was often confronted with critics – self-styled Marxists etc – who accused me of being an apologist for capitalism because I was proposing what they referred to as ‘palliative care’ for the workers which would lead them to have better lives and reduce their propensity to engage in revolutionary action.
It seemed that these critics wanted the precariat to endure the perils of unemployment and become revolutionaries.
The thesis seemed to be that suffering and desperation was required before we could have a revolution except very few of these ‘political economists’ were on the front line of the precarity.
And I will always advocate policies that relieve the damage that capitalism creates in the workers’ lives and propose solutions that make their material lives better, even if that delays the onset of the revolution.
But then I have never seen any robust research that tells me that such human caring will maintain capitalism indefinitely.
The change in the mode of production through evolutionary means will not happen overnight, and concepts of community wealth and civic responsibility that have been eroded over time, by the divide and conquer individualism of the neo-liberal era, have to be restored.
Let’s be clear.
When the time is right to abandon the capitalist system in favour of a more functional and equitable system that safeguards human potential and our natural environment then I will be one of the first to the barricades.
But until that time I prefer to use my academic position (relatively well-paid and somewhat secure) to advocate policies that will make a real difference now.
I prefer not to use my secure position to drink latte in cafes in an assembly of self-styled progressives and discuss how the revolution will pan out while ignoring the every day reality that people want work and do not have it and are poor and socially excluded as a consequence.
I prefer not to condemn the unemployed to years of this sort of macroeconomic tyranny while I wax lyrical about post-modern interpretations of what Marx said and how it relates to the struggle towards revolution.
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The Job Guarantee is a revolution because it rehabilitates the idea that a political construct can and will produce output from labour power that has been discarded by capitalism.
Already pieces are being written about investment strikes and firms reducing production because they can’t get the staff, and that will drive up prices. All of which is backed by the assumption that there is no alternative production mechanism available.
Yet there is. And there must be – since the threat of it keeps capitalists in check.
We need to see capitalist firms as Cattle, not Pets. They are there to produce an output, and if they are not doing it, then it’s off to the dog food factory with them.
So which “socialism” is it that we want?
The one that was indifferent to millions of Russians that died of starvation in the 1930s?
The one that drove the tanks into Hungary and Czechoslovakia bringing with them repression, torture and murder?
The one that accompanied the Chinese into Tibet and Xinjiang and violently subjugated millions of people against their will?
The one that has curtailed the freedom of millions of Hong Kongese?
The one that threatens daily, with invasion, the free people of Taiwan?
The one that motivated the slaughter of millions in Cambodia?
The one that periodically requires the mass purges of undesirable (and competing) elements in society?
So many to choose from.
Professor Wolff often give great explanations on Marx and capitalism!
Did you read the blog? Does it not provide enough information for you to rule out a couple of the alternatives listed? Are you certain that your list is exhaustive?
But, moreover, the critics seem to be displaying a lack of basic humanity where they exercise reasoning that Noam Chomsky regularly refers to as belonging in a philosophy seminar.
today’s blog popped up just as I had come across these for the first time:
And great to see that MMT, MMTers and the JG featured so prominently in the first ‘DemocratizingWork’ Global Forum (https://democratizingwork.org/global-forum)
They are the same as the far right. Promise everything but can’t deliver anything and have to keep getting bailed out by the state they hate so much.
Neither seem to recognise that the state is not really the problem. It is who hijacked the state that is the issue and the hijackers use both the far left and far right philosophies to do that. Use the state how they want. History is littered with examples of this.
What is really interesting is what is playing out today across Europe and beyond. Neoliberal globalism and the Washington Consensus via their geopolitical agenda churn out right wing voters. That is incredible in itself.
It is like a sausage factory – far right geopolitical policies get put in place in every country via the bank lobby, the IMF, the World bank. Voters rebel against the geopolitics but at the end of the process vote for the far right.
The only reason for this I can see, apart from the 24/7 geopolitical agenda from both the state and billionaire press is these voters don’t seem to recognise who has hijacked the state they are rebelling against. These voters just see it as the state. It is the state that is the problem and not those who hijacked it for their own agenda.
The fact that right wing voters get churned out at the end of this process is a massive failure of the left. The lib, lab, con have become infested with liberals who fully support the Washington consensus. You do not get to lead any party within the lib,lab,con unless you do so.
If you show signs of not agreeing with the geopolitical agenda you end up in a scandal. It could be a sex scandal, a funding scandal or you are called a racist etc. The state and billionaire press will destroy you and they have a hundred ways to do it. Or they will get their plant into the party to undermine anyone who fails to follow the script. They appear from nowhere and end up running The party.
The voters who rebel have nowhere else to go. The far right are sitting waiting and those that implemented the geopolitical agenda had no issues with that at all. It was a perfect system for them. Far right geopolitics produced more far right voters.
Until Trump came along and threatened the Washington consensus and the geopolitical agenda. Until voters started saying they wanted to leave the EU. Stormed the steps of Washington and put on yellow jackets in France.
The sausage factory has created divisions within countries that are unlikely to ever heal. Yet, the geopolitical agenda continues destroying everything it touches and calls it peace.
So you vote for change voting for the lib,lab,con and you end up with Christian Lindner as the German finance minister. You vote for change in Scotland and you end up with the growth commission. Or in England you get Starmer a raving neoliberal globalist. The leaders of the Greens are the same with their heart of Europe nonsense or they wouldn’t be leaders.
Until geopolitics change nothing will change it really is as simple as that.
Polling a bunch of dogs within your own borders is easy just brainwash them with dog food to support your geopolitical agenda. Support the Eurozone because you support freedom here’s your bowl of dogfood. Might as well poll voters in the UK what they think taxes are for.
However, changing the geopolitical agenda after polling a bunch of dogs. Well you might as well try herding a 100 thousand cats. Good luck with that.
As the Marxists have shown in this creation of a new political movement. Is it Lord of the flies or Animal farm ? It will end up more divided than Labour. Concentrating on the little things instead of the geopolitical sausage factory that churns out far right wing voters for fun
Of course you can introduce a job guarentee across Europe.
It’s just that Christian Lindner says you can’t afford to do it. The way the EU is set up. Yes introduce the job guarentee you just can’t fund it.
Well a couple of countries just might be able to fund it under the current system and introduce a job guarentee, but with free movement of people in place it becomes the biggest brain drain in human history. Makes a mockery of moving from rural areas to the cities to find a job.
Whole countries will be left hollowed out with very low youth unemployment rates as the youth have all moved to the country offering a job guarentee. Living in tents underneath motorways and there is not enough housing for them.
No need to ask Washington for permission. Let’s just look the dogs have we got the dog food ready
Hope and fear in EU as hardliner tipped to be German finance minister
What’s Richard Murphy and his merry band of Scottish liberals (pretending to be from the left) saying about it ? The faux Indy brigade, the Dads army of Scottish politics.
Knowing Richard as I do, as a delusional , narcissistic , fantasist, he probably still thinks he will change the heart of Europe all by himself.
From my fairly conservative right wing perspective words like ‘Marxism’, ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ represent the antithesis of human flourishing. I hate it when MMT is associated with these ideologies. Such political associations damage right wing trust of MMT.
That is an excellent point and thank you for raising it. You are very welcome here.
I spend most of my time on right wing blogs and I am always made to feel welcome.
The far right attack MMT and call it marxist.
As you can see the far left attack MMT and call it capitalist.
What MMT’rs say it is neither left or right it is simply an accurate description of how different monetary systems work in the world we live in. You don’t move to MMT or implement MMT it is what is already in place in different countries.
It just those countries lie about it.
So you can see what we are up against. We get attacked from all sides.
MMT is the true middle ground between left and right because it describes how the monetary system actually works. After that the right can do what they like with it and the left can do what they like with it. At least they will now be starting from the correct starting point. Government spending and tax cuts will no longer been seen as the devil. Or we can only do one of those and there is only one choice. From a MMT perspective you can do both and so much more.
I think Bill is writing a book at the moment to highlight this. So keep an eye out for that.
So please don’t let the words Marxism’, ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ put you off. We get attacked from all ends of the Political spectrum for telling the truth. Because they have lied about it for years.
It is bringing everyone together that counts. So that no matter what you believe politically everyone starts from the right foundation. The correct starting point and correct understanding before they start adding right wing or left wing economic policies to the monetary system.
From there we start debating around the truth. Instead of debating around a fantasy. A fantasy created by vested interests.
Which we strongly believe in the end will help everybody. Because if the general populace was better educated in these matters – that is, understood the actual operational capabilities of the national government it would be very difficult for the politicians to conflate their own ideological desires. This would then require a higher level of sophistication in the public debate.
Businesses would also have to justify their opposition to true full employment in more sophisticated ways because we would all know that the usual reasons they give – again relating to government budget constraints – are all deeply flawed.
Tina, we need your help to do that. To highlight the truth whenever you can.
Excellent blog! This is why it is a shame that Marxist-Humanism (or Socialist-Humanism as Erich Fromm called it) disappeared for a few decades. This is the branch of socialism based on the 1844 manuscripts, which focuses on alienation and human flourishing. See Erich Fromm, Raya Dunayevskaya, CLR James. Luckily, it seems to be making a slow comeback!
Left or right matters not; MMT is the system by which money works, whether or not we “trust” it.
A job guarantee were the nature of the jobs created by it are defined primarily by the participants rather than by elites, state or otherwise would be a direct path forward for participatory democracy and participatory economics. That I think would give a boost to very healthy, and beneficial yet slow growing socio-economic movements already emerging within the current paradigm?
I wonder if Marx would be proud of his legacy?
For Marx, it was about the relations of production – who owns what, who does what to whom.
He had absolutely no idea.
The grand socialist revolutions of the 20th century changed the social and production relations yet resulted in disaster. Not one of those states exists as socialist – they have all adopted capitalist “reforms”. Even in Cuba, the people have been out in the streets recently calling for fundamental changes.
What it is about is human nature.
Nothing will change until human nature fundamentally changes – this has nothing to do with social or production relations.
I often think it would have been rather better for Marx to have left us with all of his words of critique of capitalism, but left off writing the few words though much more widely read Communist Manifesto. He might then possibly have gained more traction in academia and through to a wider audience. And just maybe Stalin and Mao might not have been able to brandish Marx to justify their crimes against humanity.
@Henry Rech re: ‘Even in Cuba, the people have been out in the streets recently calling for fundamental changes.’ Cuba may have failings due to leadership or society model, but I’d say one cannot view Cuba’s position without acknowledging the effect of the massive negative pressure put on it over many years by its dominant bullying neighbour.
@ Tina Ryan I’d say my previous comment is particularly relevant to your thinking. Many people in our ‘western’ society are brought up to associate Marxism, Socialism, Communism with evil regimes (while not delving into the history of genocide, racism and poverty of our economic-political history) without troubling to look any further into the roots or variations of these isms. And while I agree with Professor Mitchell that MMT is applicable whether one is of more right or left pursuasion, I don’t think nurturing right-wing trust of MMT is a foremost priority.
“…I’d say one cannot view Cuba’s position without acknowledging the effect of the massive negative pressure put on it over many years by its dominant bullying neighbour.”
Yes of course.
But it doesn’t say much for the resilience of socialist society.
And Cubans see how their expatriot relatives in Florida have prospered and they have stagnated – their society and economy has never moved on from the 1950s.
Amen to all of that. In fact MMT has helped me stay faithful to my ideals as it offers concrete ways forward for the day after progressives take power. Which after all scares hardcore marxists…the last thing they actually want is to have to actually govern.
I have been watching a show called Maid about a young poor woman who flees an abusive relationship with her daughter in the US. She struggles to survive with precarious work and inadequate welfare. As i watch it I keep saying to myself “if only there were a JG, she could avoid all these traps”. Revolutionary types need to solve the problems of the maids first.
I just tried to post this on the Marxist Crisis Theory Facebook group but it was declined: “This is an interesting and important article, but it’s not for this page. We stick completely to crisis theory, else we’d quickly become a page of left wing posts.”
So I reposted with this quote: “Marxian crisis theory really has never come to terms with the modern state with an array of fiscal and monetary instruments available to it to attenuate crisis.” Tee hee.
@Henry Rech ‘I wonder if Marx would be proud of his legacy?’ Dreadful tyrants of right and left have taken over countries, justifying action on their reading of past ‘philosophers’ from long before Marx. You also seem to be making a judgement of every socialist society (existed or possible) based on a limited number of tyrants ‘of the left’ in a short period of history – Stalin’s USSR and his protege Mao and Mao’s Khmer Rouge impersonators. Tyrants of the right, bar Hitler, have presided over lesser populations, though that might be changing with an Indian example. As for his actual words, from what I’ve read (not enough) I’d say plenty of Marx’s critique of capitalism still stands up.
re: ‘But it doesn’t say much for the resilience of socialist society’ I’d say rather that Cuba has been remarkably resilient. One could make that case for the USSR too given that during it’s 70ish years, it got through civil war, momentous loss in WW2, Stalin’s purges and moved a good way from the largely peasant society at the start.
‘their (Cuban) society and economy has never moved on from the 1950s’. Some Florida Cubans may have done very well (they are far from the only examples of immigrants made good, especially ones that came with trade/professional skill) but considering the technological advances made since the 1950s and longer time period to recover from the world war, our western economies have advanced very little in terms of generating the prosperity for very many, let alone aiding a major advance for post-colonial countries.
I can agree with pretty much everything you wrote.
I am not an economist. I think that the question of what socio-economic system we want depends on two things: the soundness of the economics and the transition plan to get there. We can waste time talking about neo-liberalism, socialism, etc and the overthrow of capitalism. globalization, etc or we can identify the institutional changes required to implement a new vision, and how the impact of those changes is distributed in a just way. So the questions are about the economic soundness of MMT, the feasibility of a job guarantee, and the institutional changes required to implement it all. The questions are not about appeals to socialism, etc but about the specifics of change. Basically, there is no credibility where there is no transition plan and this applies not only to the economics of work but also to the economics of climate change.
Henry Rech asks: “So which “socialism” is it that we want?”
How about this type (the following is my article in ‘Crikey’ today):
“Madonna writes:”The politics of climate change is, understandably, wrapped in emotion”.
Not only the emotion of an AGW extinction scenario which is driving the climate debate…. and gaining the upper hand in the debate. Today One Nation’s senator Malcolm Roberts – on the opposite side of the debate – angrily denounced AGW as non-science and fraudulent!
My answer to him is – who cares, let’s have free global energy powered by sun and wind, backed by pumped-hydro storage (an ANU study claims to have identified sufficient suitable sites around the globe).
“Free” you ask? Yes, given the resources and know-how exist, to build the necessary green infrastructure; hence a World Bank set up to manage the transition from fossil to green economy can use its currency-issuing capacity to fund the transition. See Stephanie Kelton’s ‘The Deficit Myth’.
OTOH, if you are going to force families relying on the coal industry into unemployment, I might join Senator Roberts……
So no more glib talk that coal workers will find well-paid work keeping solar panels clean. Shows us the actual work and the actual wages, please”. (end of article).
Now..dear Henry, what do you think of my ‘socialist’ World Bank idea?
I can relate to your post Bill. I remember in the early 1970s an associate in a progressive municipal political party in Montreal asserting that the pressure cooker of people’s lives had to be maintained so that the explosion would bring about a revolution and a better society. In practice that meant tremendous suffering in the run-up to the revolution, something I did not agree with at the time nor do I now all these years later.
If the purpose is to make people’s lives better, actually making them worse, or barely livable, should not be the goal. People should not be pawns in a game. That belief however does not make one a supporter of an oppressive, unjust and unsustainable society.
The way forward to profoundly changing our values and lives is not an easy one unfortunately. The beneficiaries of our system will do whatever it takes to maintain themselves at the top by dividing, undermining, and distracting those that want serious change.
@Henry Rech re Cuba: try to imagine what life would be like where you live if a hugely powerful neighbour with unlimited resources blockaded your country, poisoned your crops and livestock, did everything it could think of short of invasion to destroy your country, mounted a massive propaganda campaign against you and repeatedly tried to assassinate your leaders.
Naively the leaders of the Cuban revolution asked the US leadership for its help in rebuilding their country after they ousted the brutal Batista dictatorship. Sadly from the US perspective the Cuban example had to be snuffed out. And that remains where we are today, more than 60 years later.
Thanks, Bill, for this great essay! I just happened to read Andri W. Stahel’s article “Is economics a science?” from the Real-World Economics Review before I read this discussion on Marxism. Which ever way one looks at Karl Marx’s work, he modeled the social reality he knew from his empirical and archive research. This kind of activity, by definition, is science. Basically, Marx was not so smart because he read Marx but because he looked at the real world and learned from it. Then it changed. I will come back to when “then” was later.
As a scientist and philosopher, Marx described and discussed only things he knew about, this is why it is only natural that he did not describe communism.
1. There was no need for Marx to give the precise description and coordinates of communism to the proletariat because the proletariat did not need these. The have-nots of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century and their sympathisers had a lot of trouble on their hands, and they knew what had to be done to fix the issues. To get a peace, a war had to be stopped; in order not to die of hunger, bread had to be given to people; in order to be able to expose and fix their gender based grievances, women needed the right to vote, etc. The progressive movement for the improvement of life and politics was much wider than Marxism and people were educated and practically minded enough to know what to do.
2. Marx did not invent “communism”. In my previous paragraph I referred to the practical mind of the 19-20th century revolutionaries and reformists, but they had also imaginative minds. One of the most read books among the working class in Russia before 1917 was “News from Nowhere” by William Morris. Soon after “Garden Cities of To-morrow” was published by Ebenezer Howard it was translated into Russian. I live in the Kopli and Pelguranna neighbourhood in Tallinn, it is a historical industrial suburb built around the WW I shipyards. The planning of the Kopli suburb by the architect Alexandr Dmitriyev followed precisely the zoning principles of Ebenezer Howard that makes Kopli the first urban complex in history were all the features of Howard’s ‘garden town’ were implemented by 1914 when WW I began. Right, why does nobody know about it? Because the construction of this military complex was a secret of the Russian Empire, one of the biggest oppressors of its own people. Even when the imperialists knew how to reform society for better, you can bet that the educated left knew it too. All in all, the ideal of communism is a derivative from the general Christian ideal, people did not need to be taught about it. People knew in what direction improvement was.
With this I hope to put aside the discussion about communism and what it is what it is not. Discussing some kind of historical, theoretical or political implications of communism is a red herring.
What was the real thing for Marx? The revolution in human history he knew about. He witnessed the European Age of Revolutions, many of these with bloody outcomes like Paris Commune in 1871. It is likely that it motivated him to switch from discussing the dialectics of the German classical philosophy to the study of real conflicts, real political struggle in human society. This is not exactly an object of the science of economics, it is the Marxist ‘extra’ to it. Many people in the Marxist camp think that it is a compulsory part of economics. This comes from this sentence of Marx: “The task is not just to understand the world but to change it”. While focusing on the need to change one might miss the first part of the sentence: about understanding. Sometimes people forget that one cannot change something one cannot describe. This is the revolutionary idea (in academic sense) of Marx in history of science. He was the first social scientist to apply empirical scientific methods in comprehensive and continuous research in social sciences. And, he wished social sciences had practical value.
On the other hand, economics in its own does not help revolutionaries and reformers. They also need to know political, and sometimes military, tactics and strategy. This is where the dictatorship of the proletariat comes from, the one party rule in the violent stage of a revolution if it occurs. This is not Marx’s teaching about the new society, it is a practical recommendation against getting slaughtered in the name of the humanist ideals.
Bill is right, revolutionary troops do not grow in suburbs like mushrooms. But these appear there as a result of organisational work of the revolutionaries when the living conditions under oppression are so desperate that people do not see any other available option than to fight for their lives. We do not need excursions into history to learn about it, why not look at our contemporary Kurds, for example, how their revolutionary troops appeared and grew.
Bill mentioned Lenin in one breath with Stalin. I know the narrative. But do people realise that this narrative originates from Stalin? I recommend reading “Ten Days that Shook the World” by John Reed with the introduction from Alan John Percivale Taylor. It shows clearly that Lenin and Stalin were not “theoretically” linked much in 1917 nor in the following civil war. In earlier days Lenin sometimes used Stalin as a bully who squashed debates that had grown long, like the debate over national sovereignty, but neither of these two men were philosophers. “Leninist theory” is a trope that Stalin invented to link himself to it.
Lenin was a brilliant statesman, his accomplishment was remarkable. He, like Marx, did not look for recipes of social reform from the books of Marx, he studied the social reality around him. And already then there were Marxist dogmatists who criticised him for “unorthodoxy”. Even Chomsky in one of this lectures that circulates in YouTube blames Lenin in failing to Marx’s teaching. And it is very good, there has to be debate, there must be both verification and falsification going on to safeguard against dogmatism. Lenin was all the time in heated debates with his contemporaries, including his closest allies (this is why Stalin with his mountain peoples’ arrogance like with bucket of ice water came handy sometimes).
Following the method of Marx, Lenin studied both the economic and political life of his contemporary Russia and came to the conclusion that Russia, with its human and geographic resources, would be able to sustain a socialist revolution on its own, opposite to the general view of his contemporary Marxists who denied this possibility in principle. Among them his partner in power, Leon Trotsky. As the further events proved, Lenin was right in this practical decision. How did the Russian revolution get its aggressive image, why did Soviet Russia invade Poland in 1919? Because Trotsky was the head of government, it was his call, in spite of Lenin’s opposition. Again, Lenin was right, the Polish campaign became a failure. If he had stuck to the dogmatic notion of his contemporary Marxists about the impossibility of socialist revolution in one country then he would have continued to push for fighting through Poland to support the German revolutionaries. One can imagine the mess that would have come out of it.
Lenin surrounded himself with his contemporary intellectuals who were fighting against the czarist censorship and oppression. When the civil war ended, the huge leap of the Russian society started that lasted 1921-1927/28 and created the momentum for the following achievements of Russia and the Soviet Union. Sciences and arts blossomed in spite of very poor conditions, it was creativity based primarily on cooperation and collaboration, not competition. Lenin himself was not a jewel in this crown of creativity, already he had embarrassed himself in 1909 issuing the infamous “Materialism and Empiriocriticism” where a lawyer teaches physicists how to do physics. After he got power he could not bear the nagging from the brilliant economist Alexandr Bogdanov and drove him out of his party. But Lenin created this crown and provided the intellectual workers, including Bogdanov, with all the means he could. In this intellectual climate social scientists did not hold their noses in Marx’s volumes, they studied empirical reality.
What went wrong?
Lenin’s biggest political mistake, as it seems to me, was that he did not safeguard himself against the same party bureaucratic machine that he had created. The last episode of his life is called “fight with bureaucracy” in his biographies. If Lenin were at good health he might have made it, but the assassination of 1918 and disease did their job, the bureaucracy took over.
I suggest that what was later called “fight with bureaucracy” was actually a fight for the Soviet power. As soon as Lenin had declared the Soviet power in 1917 he immediately usurped it for his party in anticipation of violent counterrevolutionary response (like Marx suggests). Again, Lenin was right to go establishing the military like central command system, the Civil War turned out to be terrible. My Russian grandfather and my Estonian grandfather’s relatives fought in the Russian Civil War. At some point, when the big crisis was over, the power was meant to have been returned to the Soviets. With Stalin appointed as a General Secretary of the Communist Party, the transfer of power back to the Soviets stalled. He liked the power he had.
Why am I so sure that Lenin wanted to restore the power to the Soviets? He happened to be the first revolutionary who recognised the Soviets that sprang up spontaneously all over the Russian Empire during the 1905-07 revolution as a grassroots form of governance. For a long time he was the only one who claimed that it is the future system of governance of the country ruled by people themselves. Since 1905 Lenin dedicated his life to giving power to the Soviets. Why should he have reconsidered when he had power to achieve his main political goal? Basically, the Soviet Russia and the Soviet Union were never ‘soviet’ (except in 1989-1991 when Gorbachev had given the highest power to the Congress of People’s Deputies of the Soviet Union). I call this system an one party system as it was.
Now I am coming to this “then” I referred to before, when “Marxism” went wrong. It was in 1928. With Lenin out of his way and Trotsky defeated and exiled, nobody was able to challenge Stalin’s political will. He dogmatised the texts written by Marx, Engels, Lenin and himself and thus Marxism that had originally appeared as the opposition to the pre-Marxian dogmatic non-empricial social disciplines was turned into its own opposite. Instead of giving power back to the Soviets, to the people, as I described above, Stalin established the new upper class, nomenklatura, copying the czarist meritocratic aristocracy. It was the list of the jobs and party positions, passed as a law, that defined nomenklatura with its privileges. The revolutionaries of 1917 who had dedicated their lives to the abolition of the status society in Russia could not live with it, so they were killed, almost all of them, during Stalin’s purge. It was not about suppressing a mounting ‘White’ counter revolution like contemporary Russian media presents it, it was a simple act of treason against Stalin’s own comrades.
Masses of Russian population had not aquired the new progressive ideas yet but they were familiar both with the Russian aristocratic system and the Christian teaching. The appearance of nomenklature instead of aristocracy did not seem unnatural and instead of the Kingdom of Heaven they hoped to arrive in communism, post mortem. Improving their everyday lives became unimportant again under the new authorities as it had been before 1917. Something one was familiar with already from the old society.
How is it connected to what Bill wrote about? Stalinism is still strong in England. I do not imply that Bill’s critic himself was necessarily a Stalinist, I have been bashed with Stalin’s biographies and his “philosophy” even by people who do not represent political left. This was a genius of Stalin, to spread lies that were willingly picked up not only by his own but also by his opposite camp. It is easy to step into this trap for anybody because the past of Marxism and Russian revolution are not researched and exposed sufficiently yet, there is little to stop many propagandistic memes that continue to circulate.
“Now..dear Henry, what do you think of my ‘socialist’ World Bank idea?”
I think you should make Madonna the Chairwoman of the bank. 🙂
“… re Cuba: try to imagine what life would be like where you live if a hugely powerful neighbour…”
Poor little Cuba wasn’t on it’s own.
It lived off Soviet largesse for a good deal of time.
And now the Cuban people have had a gut full of 60 years of repression and the rest of the socialist dream.
I guess rum and rumba can ease only so much of the pain.
Andri Ksenofontov, Thank you. A very good post.
On Bill’s original post, MMT is very useful and its reformism is more likely in the long run to tend to revolutionary change rather than to mere accommodationism, IMHO.
The “opportunity space” of modern money and its operations can be deduced; developed out by deduction. This is because the system is a defined axiomatic system with deducible theorems (and more importantly axioms which themselves could be modified or changed. This is not to say this process of studying modern money is easy. It is a painstaking process requiring much research and much deductive work. I don’t have the erudition in the right fields or the patience.
MMT takes an extant (and evolving) human formal system and theorizes how it could be used in a different and better ways. Ultimately, what could be revolutionary or not in it is a pre-judgement which exists in the eyes of beholders. Is MMT revolutionary? Perhaps we cannot say until we see its outcomes if it fully takes hold. But MMT does attempt a kind of revolution from the inside out, using existing systems and potentially subverting them (in a good way from the socialist perspective) to produce new human and social outcomes.
Henry writes: . “I think you should make Madonna the Chairwoman of the bank. :-)”
I’m not surprised you ducked the substance of the question; Madonna – a Crikey editor – has no awareness of MMT, and she’s not a ‘Marxist’ either (… though that’s irrelevant because Bill’s article informs us why Marx’s thoughts cannot be transferred – as holy writ – into the modern economy), so she isn’t a suitable candidate.
Dare to address my question?
“”Free” you ask? ”
Not so much free but cheaper.
“…a World Bank set up to manage the transition from fossil to green economy can use its currency-issuing capacity to fund the transition.”
So who would want the green dollars (let’s call them)? If your WB gave me green dollars in exchange for some green electricity asset what could I do with them? Who would want to take them off me?
Given the basic raw economics (renewable power is cheapest) the market is doing the job even in the face of indifferent government policy. Private companies are stepping up and private finance funding them. Funding of pumped hydro schemes will probably require public-private partnerships.
I find it absolutely extraordinary that in all the above blog & comments, the notion of ‘democracy’ isn’t mentioned once…. ?
We’ve had a century of universal suffrage, and it has only ever prioritised the interests of the labour class, aka ~90% *majority* of citizens, in a couple of fleeting moments, if that. (Most what I see is a technologically advancing society where capital owners required a more educated & longer lived – ie return on education investment – workforce.)
Maybe the real elephant in the room is the mass media propaganda machine that ensures universal suffrage advanced interests of the labour class barely a jot beyond that before its introduction, past the minimum needed to make profits for capital owners?
Do ‘Marxists’ have any plan to fix this? Nope. No more than they have ever had a plan to enable the transition to their ‘dream’ (itself bereft of any pesky organisational/operational/practical detail).
Does no one here realise that if we cannot get ‘democracy’ to function as it should, without half the labour class voting against their own interests at every election, there will be no future for humanity, or for much other life on Earth as it exists today?
The propaganda machine of the capital owner class can be easily & massively countered by implementing a ‘commons’ media sector – a system citizen’s media vouchers, Gov funded.
(If someone has a better idea, I’m all ears – but please don’t insult my intelligence by proposing some enhanced system of ‘regulation’ or another centrally administered ‘public’ publishing body.)
The other thing I find extraordinary is how any labour class person could possibly object to a (strictly voluntary, with back up basic welfare provision) MMT specification Job Guarantee?
Seriously, if we haven’t got the capacity to make that a roaring success for participants & local community (that get the work benefit), both, then talk of nebulous ‘revolution’ is surely beyond absurd.
Well, it’s crunch time now, for humanity. IMHO, we either sort out the cognitive incapacity preventing us from logically pragmatic & relatively simple solutions to now existential problems, in the next few years (this decade, latest), or we will cease to exist at all as a species.
Dear Prof. Mitchell,
Let me say first that I am unashamedly a Marxist. And, second, that I, for what it might be worth, have a high opinion of yourself and your work (that extends to what I call MMT Founders). That shouldn’t be news to my few regular readers. I haven’t made a secret of that.
Now, let me say something new. I frankly regret you quoting Tom Rockmore as authority in your debate with anti-MMT Marxists. With due respect, that wasn’t a good move.
There are several reasons for that.
Let me start with some common sense considerations. Marx and Engels died over a hundred years ago. They are not here to adjudicate who is right in the debate of whether Engels “invented” Marxism – which is what Rockmore says. That debate cannot be settled.
His argument boils down to this: Marx (and Rockmore) was a doctor, Engels wasn’t. Therefore, Engels could not have understood Marx the way Rockmore does (what he does not consider is that other doctors disagree with him).
I’m not being unfair. Rockmore put it himself:
“Marx, who earned a doctorate in philosophy according to the standards of the day, was a product of classical German philosophy. Engels, who did not finish high school, was a philosophical autodidact.”
The fact Engels – and not Rockmore – actually exchanged ideas with Marx over a lifetime, we are supposed to believe, makes no difference whatsoever: nothing rubbed off. Marx’s favourable opinions of Engels count for nothing. It’s his other opinions, that Rockmore teases out pretty much like a psychonanalist that matter. And Rockmore concludes that Marx’s ideas did not change over a lifetime: the guy was born an Idealist, grew old as an Idealist and died an Idealist (even after denouncing Idealism!). The fact Marx’s Idealist phase was as a young man while his mature work shows little if any idealism meaand nothing. In other words, uniquely among humans, a lifetime of study and praxis had no effect whatsoever in Marx’s intellectual outlook: ideas create reality, he believed from the moment he was born to the day he died. One can fly out of the window, if one just entertain that idea seriously enough.
That “debate” has ethical ramifications. Debaters act very much like dogs fighting over bones. What people in these debates want is not so much the truth, but to own a figurehead, a patron saint, they can exhibit (exactly what Keynes is for both bastard and legitimate Keynesians). That doesn’t affect the dead, but it diminishes the living. Don’t fall in that trap, Prof. Mitchell.
It also suggests the following question. You have a PhD and a Masters in economics, plus decades in academe; Warren Mosler – if I am not mistaken – only has a Bachelor degree in economics and that’s it. Does that disqualify Mosler as Rockmore wants to disqualify Engels?
That debate also has theoretical ramifications. “Critical social theory” and Leninism are both product of Idealism: the former suggests that by changing ideas one changes reality (thus, Twitter battles, cancel everything); the latter means that only a vanguard – an elite – can understand those ideas and must lead the rabble. If Rockmore suggests otherwise, he is mistaken.
Ultimately, that debate is irrelevant, for whatever Marx and Engels really, really, really, meant it’s up to their readers to decide. The dream that really matters is not theirs, it’s ours.
” the market is doing the job”.
Henry, tonight PM Boris Johnson was addressing a room full of private sector financiers; he said (imploringly…….); ” I (meaning the government) can deploy billions, but you (pointing to his audience) can deploy trillions…..
The question is: why hasn’t the ‘market’ successfully served as the vehicle for these private financiers to fund the transition to green quickly enough, a lack of urgency resulting in the sad situation that now coal and gas is currently being sought to make up for the short-fall in green investment, and coal plants are being cranked up again?
Very embarrassing for Boris, who has to chair the Glasgow meeting (which will undoubtedly degenerate into a talk-fest which fails to produce a concrete plan of action) in front of the whole world, in a fortnight…..with Britain scrambling for start up coal plants to keep the lights and heaters on this winter (as in China, with a much larger population).
Meanwhile Biden too looks like going empty-handed to Glasgow, because of a renegade, coal-loving senator in his own ranks….. pity the ‘market’ won’t and can’t sort Manchin out in time for Biden, or the climate.
Sorry to point out that the (by definition) self-interested private sector ‘market’ is a large part of the problem; those financiers (in Johnson’s audience) want carbon pricing and return on investment guarantees, which the public don’t want since it means higher electricity prices; meanwhile workers in the fossil industry resist the closure of their industry without fair compensation (amounting to a cool several trillions, no doubt).
Which also points to the contradictions of adversarial, multi-party democracy itself…. addressed obliquely by Mike Hall above.
Can you now see “who would want the “green dollars”? Answer…the world – the collective – *needs* them, in order to mobilize the resources and know how quickly enough, without conflict/gridlock over ‘who will pay’ for the transition.
As to what individuals *want*…. this debate is certainly an interesting demonstration of how ideology (eg, ‘sovereignty of the individual) determines the parameters of the individual’s thoughts.
Magpie writes: “Debaters act very much like dogs fighting over bones. What people in these debates want is not so much the truth….”
In a debate over “sovereignty of the individual’ versus ‘sovereignty of the collective’; broadly speaking, the Right versus the Left, the truth probably lies in a pragmatic combination of the two…
@NeilH, if you have to use just first name call him Doris.
Adam Tooze fires the warning shot in the Guardian!
You will be lucky if 10% of Scottish voters understand any of this. Brainwashed by progressives and Richard Murphy that the EU will save them from the Tories.
Thank you. MMT also helped me to understand what went wrong in the Soviet Union where I lived in. Hopefully the contemporary empirical economic analysis will reach our part of the world too.
While the Soviet Union was one of the richest countries in the world with its natural resources its currency, rouble, stuck to gold standard to the end. A deliberate straight jacket, as I see it now.
The government of the USSR funded its budget largely from the pockets of its population that was relatively poor even without it. Money was extracted from the population with lotteries and lottery bonds. At some point, after WW II, the lottery bonds were even compulsory.
As I see it, this allowed to redistribute fiscal resources outside the budgets of the ministries. Although it was declared that the lottery bond income will be used by the government to restore the industry that suffered badly in WW II, it was never reported anywhere how the lottery bond profit was exactly spent. I see it as a possible scheme to fund the party nomenklatura in secret from the public, sustaining at the same time the balance between the money issued and the gold standard. I would be grateful if some economist would look at these numbers, I am only an amateur from 2018.
Here is the available Wikipedia resource on this issue. Please pay attention how much money the government raked in with lottery bonds. Money was paid back not before 20 years when it had seriously inflated already.
Not to object to you comment, but to complement, I actually mentioned democracy and how Marxists were looking for the improved forms of it. What I say now is not to be take as a general formula, I am talking in the context of the Russian revolution.
I mentioned the soviets that appeared spontaneously all over the Russian Empire, that was then monarchy, during the 1905-07 revolution. In Estonia people called them “republics”. I described it in my comment above why the soviet power did not manage to take control over society after 1917.
I found an interesting scholar, Teodor Shanin, who have studied this issue. I have not read it myself but from the summaries it appears that his “Revolution as a Moment of Truth: 1905-1907→1917-1922” is a serious work.
The later tyrannies of Stalin and Mao have cast a shadow over the Marxists predecessor that conceals their liberal ideology and strive for democracy. To understand it, it is enough to recall from what kind of society to what they transferred their societies in their revolutionary struggle. The Russian revolution did not start in 1917, it only culminated then.
The Russian political thinkers who were the first to introduce the ideas of the contemporary Western democracy in Russia were Vissarion Belinsky and Alexander Herzen. The contemporary concept of national sovereignty was born in the debates between the Austria Hungarian and Russian social democrats – Marxists. This issue is interconnected with economic issues because the contemporary urban geography was developed simultaneously. This way the natural, empirically existing economic units were identified administratively and geographically. Without these developments of social science then it would be difficult to justify the necessity of national sovereign currency today.
I generally agree with your argument but in the end, talking about critical social theory and Leninism, you mention: “the latter means that only a vanguard – an elite – can understand those ideas and must lead the rabble”.
Please elaborate on it.
I happen to know a few things about the views and activities of Lenin and his political supporters and I have noticed that many things are said on this subject that are imprecise. I blame here the various interpretations of Lenin’s texts outside the historical context, starting from the interpretations by Stalin.
First of all, what are ‘-isms’ in Russian history. These were something different from the Western tradition. When in the West an -ism is some kind of philosophical, ideological or political doctrine, then in Russia it usually designates a group of people engaged in some kind of practical activity. The suffix -ism was usually attached to the name of their head figure. This is what Leninists and Trotskyists were, or for example мартовцы (pl.) from мартовец (s.), Martovcy – Martovec, where the Russian suffix -вец expresses the same idea of group identity. Julius Martov was one of the leading figures in Russian social democracy but he was not a philosopher.
Lenin was not a philosopher either and Leninism as a form of Marxist philosophy is a Stalinist construct that still spreads like a weed. One philosophical book that Lenin wrote, “Materialism and Empiriocriticism”, is a silly book, to be honest. Even Soviet scientists did not take it seriously how a lawyer teaches physicist how to do physics. But they had to pretend to take it seriously because Stalin had canonised all Lenin’s texts as the official Marxist dogma (although the spirit of Marx’s teaching is adamantly anti-dogmatic). Stalinism is not a philosophy either because Stalin did not produce a single original philosophical idea. Except the idea of the intensification of class struggle under socialism that is called a philosophical idea only because Stalin insisted that it is a philosophical and scientific truth. In fact, it was only his justification to mass murder almost all the revolutionaries from 1917, including his comrades and friends. But Stalin did create a lasting dogmatic and ruthless ideology that has lasted after his death that can be called ‘Stalinism’.
One can still generalise the ideas and ideologies of each of these political groups. In something they agreed with each other, in something not. It was possible to be a Leninist only in Lenin’s lifetime because “Leninists” do not have Lenin today whose political activities to support. But “only a vanguard – an elite – can understand those ideas and must lead the rabble” clearly contradicts the political goals and practice of the Leninists who were Lenin’s contemporaries.
I can debate at length on this subject but here I will tell only one historical anecdote about Lenin.
Ivan Turgenev was compassionate about the poor and uneducated people in Russia and got an idea to write to them in a language that can be called ‘simple Russian’. It was actually ‘simpler’ than simple English that we know from Wikipedia. Turgenev wrote a short story “Mumu” that became a general cringe in Russian culture. Leo Tolstoy hated this story. Lenin’s comment on this issue was that it is the wrong way to lower culture and politics to the level of uneducated masses, the right way is to educate people so that they will be risen to the level of ‘high’ culture.
I think you mash up a whole bunch of stuff in a very confused way because you want to argue a certain line.
I think your world bank is a red herring. It would need the backing of the major economic powers for starters. If they are willing to support the development of renewables, the financial resources are already there, both public and private.
What is required is the necessary market signal, cheaper renewable power, which is in place, and government willingness to make policy settings which are conducive to the development of renewables. Public policy in the West seems to be overwhelmingly heading in this direction.
And lazy capitalists, ever seeking advantage, will push for government largesse to sweeten the pot.
The current clamour for re-energizing fossil fuel power is short term in nature and unrelated to climate change economics.
The idea that there is only a choice between guaranteed involuntary unemployment and necessarily voluntary employment under the job guarantee (you really can’t have it be involuntary if you also had a choice to be voluntarily jobless, but a limit to your options can appear nearly involuntary, I suppose) lest there be one-off price increases that restore involuntary unemployment or the JG buffer or spiraling inflation that the electorate will surely want to stop as a majority is one of the toughest pills to swallow for me.
I believe it though.
I’m always considering alternatives. Maybe we should address wages and prices in a more conflict resolution way? The whole idea that contracting the economy doesn’t increase production of goods and services yet it increases the supply of available workers willing to take the jobs of those vying for higher wages that will put a damper on wages regardless of whether or not things there’s efficiency of production or not is difficult for me and its difficult for everyone I’ve spoken to about this. That NAIRU isn’t real, but rather that it isn’t a definite number per se, that it’s immoral, yet NAIBER is better in that the proportion of people in it, although not calculated ex ante, will always be smaller than NAIRU because of the workers being more of a threat to the employed is difficult to talk about as a leftist. There are so many absurd ways that capitalism has developed (like gig work, MLMs, unpaid internships, no out of college employment prospects, race to the bottom in the labor market etc) that this, NAIBER, *is* an improvement.
And even if there is mediation, sectoral bargaining, or wage and price controls; preventing demand from growing after a price increase will just as easily create unemployment and reduce production. So unemployment or JG employment, yes, feel inevitable in this system.
The prospect of people understanding this dynamic through understanding JG and how it is a less than ideal situation far from the anarcho-communist ideal of hunter-gatherers working 10% of their time, splitting the labor, and directly satisfying their needs… perhaps that can be a catalyst. It is much more difficult to understand when it is isolating unemployment results rather than JG employment. Technology too, hard to do that hunter-gatherer thing when most of the economy has to do with a really high division of labor that may require different geographies.
But yes. It is absurd that some leftists would prefer people to suffer so that they realize the system is bullshit and then decide to kill people than it is to improve everyone’s lives as much as they can in good faith until we can realize that there is a better system. It needs to evolve from my perspective or else the electorate will either have to be put in the worst of situations or a small number of people will force it onto the people and potentially victimize them creating a situation of resentment or worse for the revolutionaries from the majority.
Sorry, I made a mistake. The Soviet lottery bonds were not paid back ‘not before 20 years’. It was announced that these will be paid back during the 20 following years. What I wanted to say, if I remember correctly from my school years, the government did not always keep to this deadline and sometimes it took longer than 20 years to pay the money back to people.
“I think you mash up a whole bunch of stuff in a very confused way because you want to argue a certain line.”
Henry, you claim the market is working its magic. I have shown it is not, with real life examples; in fact, in the specific case of global climate change, the market cannot save the planet (if the science is correct) because the market is all about *pricing* and efficiency, in the context of individual incentive and reward driving creativity, for personal profit. Whereas we need to implement the *maximum rate of mobilization of available resources” to go green, ie we need planning, not (for profit) pricing.
Competitive individuals (all of us, with very different abilities) see the the best outcomes for themselves in free markets; they are not interested in global free energy, because the fossil industry – or indeed a green economy owned by private interests – is a wonderful source of private wealth.
Will Glasgow result in the necessary (to save the planet) massive increase in green investment by the private sector, while many still dispute the science and while fossils are still cheaper than renewables plus storage?
All very simple, really.
” the financial resources are already there, both public and private.
What is required is the necessary market signal, cheaper renewable power, which is in place, and government willingness to make policy settings which are conducive to the development of renewables. Public policy in the West seems to be overwhelmingly heading in this direction”.
1. I read that global public debt, post pandemic, is approaching $300 trillion, suggesting public financial resources are not in good shape.
2. Re market signals: renewables plus storage is still more expensive than fossils, so the signal is not working, in the absence of a sufficiently high carbon price…. a price which would bring down governments. (Meanwhile Russia is offering to supply the EU with gas during this period of insufficient investment in renewables, but US-led opposition to Russia means the new Nord-Stream 2 pipeline remains closed….).
You mentioned “the West” ; China is also madly introducing carbon pricing……and still running out of coal to keep the lights on for 1.4 billion people, in the absence of sufficient green investment, even though China is investing more in renewables than any nation on the planet. Unfortunately it seems the PBofC too is mired in market ideology.
3. “”seems” to be moving….”…. but not quickly enough, that is what Glasgow is all about.
Meanwhile it seems we don’t want a global economy based on free energy (do-able, with “green dollars” created ex nihilo in a world bank (“a red-herring”?) to fund the infrastructure, because that would mean violating the free market principle….
From another Guardian article:
“We don’t have time for political games. Any hardline ideological commitments to a small state and fiscal conservatism need to bow to the now-scary science, and allow the government to intervene to prevent “the biggest market failure the world has ever seen”.
Not just “the” government, but all of the planet’s c.200 governments….of widely differing capacities.
Now can you see how a green World Bank – with fiscal capacity limited only by resources, not money – might not be a “red herring”.
Thank you for your instructive comments. Yes, I used the word Leninism in the Western sense, as if it were a philosophy, not as a group of people.
I understand your point and that the Western use of the word may do Lenin a disservice. My belief on the matter is that “the need for a vanguard” was a sociological phenomenon masquerading as a philosophy. I don’t know how things turned out in Russia, but in Western Europe and frankly, the rest of the Western world, it became very popular among some socialists.
People of diverse ethnic, religious and social origin were attracted, for different reasons, to early socialist parties.
An example. In large parts of Europe Jews, religious or not, were victims of discrimination. It’s understandable that non-religious Jews – who in those societies arguably occupied the lowest rung in the social ladder – would be attracted to socialist parties: those parties promoted equality and laicity. Equality, even with otherwise lowly workers, was an advancement for them. Examples of that are legion, so I won’t give any.
Those parties also attracted relatively affluent, highly educated, upwardly mobile individuals (Engels being paradigmatic of the best this stratum could offer). Let me call them “upper-middle class”, to abbreviate. I don’t know how this manifested in Russia, but in Britain and Germany from the very start those “upper-middle class” socialists proved to be much more problematic.
“Sure, we are all for equality”, was the feeling. “But equality … with workers?”
They aspired to occupy leadership positions by virtue of their being “upper-middle class”. And by the same virtue, their opinions were to be priviledged over those of mere workers.
Prof. Mitchell does not approve of posting links. So I won’t post a link to the circular letter Marx and Engels sent in 1879 to August Bebel, Wilhelm Liebknecht, Wilhelm Bracke and others. It shouldn’t be difficult to find it (I know the Internet Archive has it). In it both men denounced not only Eduard Bernestein’s reformism, but also the these new “upper middle class” socialists (many of whom in the German SPD were reformists):
“In short, the working class is incapable of emancipating itself by its own efforts. In order to do so it must place itself under the direction of “educated and propertied” bourgeois who alone have “the time and the opportunity” to become conversant with what is good for the workers. And, secondly, the bourgeois are not to be combatted – not on your life – but won over by vigorous propaganda.”
George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier famously denounced and ridiculed this phenomenon. As did much more recently Barbara Ehrenreich (what I called “upper-middle class” for short, she calls PMC, professional managerial class and she deals with it in many interviews, easily searched).
On the other side of the road, so to speak, Herbert Marcuse’s 33 Theses – available over the Internet – espoused this “upper middle class” socialism (apparently, he later recanted). During the 1960s-1970s Noel Ignatin and Ted Allen (two founding lights of the American New Left) also embraced that “upper middle class” understanding of socialism. The New Left added a new twist: incapable of self-emancipation, rich countries’ working class has been manipulated into becoming another exploiter of poor countries’ working class. The standard reference is White Blindspot and it can be easily found over the Internet. Understandably, Maoists and “Third-Worldists” also made of this a central plank of their beliefs.
Thank you for your elaboration! I expected an answer like this but I rather ask people what they think instead of guessing.
I think that in this case “Leninism” is in a similar trouble like MMT: descriptions are confused for prescriptions. Sometimes by accidents, sometimes being purposefully framed so to be ‘debunked’ by opponents. When Lenin wrote about the avant-garde role of his party in Russia then he described his contemporary situation and set tactical tasks. Stalin declared it a theory and set a bunch of arrogant party functionaries, the nomenklatura, to lead the population, having purged a lot of educated people, scientists, philosophers, writers, artists. It has nothing to do with the politics of the Bolsheviks of 1917 or the theories they pursued.
With his propaganda, Stalin managed to confuse and derail theoretically a big part of the world left.
I am far from trying to diminish the importance of Leninism as the historical phenomenon. If historians and the left would take it for what it actually was, when Leninism as political movement and strategy would be correctly described, there would be many useful lessons to be learnt today too. Especially, how to apply creatively general theory in particular situations.
Emma Goldman said something similar in her autobiography, when an old worker questioned her ‘revolution or nothing’ view:
“He said that he understood my impatience with such small demands as a few hours less a day, or a few dollars more a week…. But what were men of his age to do? They were not likely to live to see the ultimate overthrow of the capitalist system. Were they also to forgo the release of perhaps two hours a day from the hated work? That was all they could hope to see realized in their lifetime. ”
in the meantime workers need full bellies and conditions above that of a dog.
I do recommend giving “The Revolution Was Postponed Because Of Rain” – Brooklyn Funk Essentials, a listen. It is hard for soul music to be so politically depressing and yet hilarious. Amongst all the rot it is healthy for lefties to be able to laugh at themselves, it helps pique awareness for when you become that guy or gal who waited at the McD’s queue and missed the bus.
It is one thing to share a vision. It is another to show & demonstrate the process of getting there.
As your friend Wray once wrote for economonitor
” I think that a lot of the critics on the Left mean well. They’ve got a progressive future in mind-one where we’ve eliminated the link between work and pay, where capitalism and all of its nasty money-making motives “wither away”, where we’re all living an eco-friendly life (without “meals” or “televisions”), and where everyone just putters about being creative and artsy and doing innovative stuff so that we don’t need to consume exhaustible resources in an environmentally destructive manner. I share that vision. ”
He goes on to mention the human right to a job as well