Response from Martin Legassick to Peter Waterman

by Jul 26, 2009All Articles

revolution WITHIN capitalism

Dear Peter (Waterman)
I have read your recent response to Trevor Ngwane, and have also read your 1998 book on “Globalisation…”, of which your recent email is a summary. I must say that I found both your book and your recent response very weak. Though I don’t think we have met you once kindly republished a piece of mine on pluralism in your “African social studies” (which you edited jointly with Peter Gutkind).
What you ignore (just as does John Holloway in his “Change the world without taking power” is the existence of the capitalist state, its core a hierarchically-organised body of armed men (and some women) who defend the capitalist system in the last instance and need to be displaced/replaced in order to construct a different kind of society — to secure “social emancipation” in your words. That remains the case whatever the “revolution WITHIN capitalism” that may or may not have taken place from so-called “National, Industrial, Colonial Capitalism” to  “Globalised, Imperial, Computerised, Information and Services Capital.” (I am always suspicious of too many capitalised words and also the attempt to change reality with words).

The Stalinists and the sects wrongly tend to identify Lenin with the approach of “What is to be done?” (as does Dominic Tweedie in a recent comment on Ashwin Desai), despite the fact that Lenin within a year said the text was one-sided, and moreover in 1905 denounced the ‘committee men’ who followed that text rather than relating to the movement of the working class in the soviets. But also anti-Leninist writers such as yourself and Holloway wrongly identify Lenin with the ‘What is to be done?” approach: the omniscient “vanguard” and all that.

What about the Lenin who wrote (in Left-Wing Communism) “History generally, and the history of revolutions in particular, is always richer in content, more varied, more many-sided, more lively and ‘subtle’ than even the best parties and the most class-conscious vanguards of the most advanced classes imagine. This is understandable, because even the best vanguards express the class consciousness, will, passion and imagination of tens of thousands, whereas the revolution is made, at the moment of its climax and the exertion of all human capacities, by the class consciousness, will, passion and imagination of tens of millions, spurred on by a most acute struggle of classes.”

What about the Lenin of State and Revolution who, following Marx, explained the need to displace/replace the capitalist state with a “semi-state” that could wither away characterised by  *all power vested in councils of working people with delegates subject to recall at any time * the working people to be armed (with no standing army) * all simple administrative duties to be rotated *no official to be paid more than the average workers wage. That surely is a concretisation of what you call “Radical Democracy or Participatory Democracy”? (Why so many capital letters are necessary in your text I am not sure).

Hence I reject your notion that “Working-Class Power can no longer be accepted as equivalent to or a  step toward the abolition of the state or of ‘power from above’ more generally.”

You write “Revolution (an apocalyptical social insurrection, whether armed or political) can no longer be considered the privileged form for social
emancipation.” Why “apocalyptical”? This is a characteristic approach of ex-revolutionaries. In fact, the conditions for social revolution are made not subjectively but objectively. Moreover to carry through the displacement/replacement of the capitalist state (and create real conditions for “social emancipation… meaning  any strategy that increases the autonomy, power and self-confidence of therelevant category or society and that is compatible with those of others) is a change of quality nor quantity that cannot be achieved by pure reforms and requires an appropriate ideology.

You write about the working class: “The Working Class has to be re-defined to include the growing  percentage of unemployed, rural, sub-contracted, petty-commodity labourers.” Marx and Engels defined the working class as all who did not own means of production — they did not confine it by any means to employed workers, let alone to “industrial, male, waged” workers.

You add “This re-defined class has to be understood to have many significant non-class interests and identities (as citizens, urban residents, petty-producers/traders, consumers, families)”. Do you mean that as “citizens” “urban residents”, “consumers” “families” etc that the working class has common interests with the bourgeoisie? I would contest that strongly.

You add: The working class is “only one contributor to the creation of an emancipatory movement (involving the indigenous peoples, immigrants and emigrants, artists and intellectuals, women’s, ecological and human-rights movements)” and hence “The Organisation (party or union) can no longer be considered the privileged forms of collective self-articulation for emancipation  (even if we cannot avoid addressing and engaging with them)”. What about a united front as the vehicle of an emancipatory movement, involving parties, trade unions, community-based organisations, issue-based organisations retaining their individual politics but agreeing a common programme (“march separately, strike together”)

You write that “The traditional Organisation (party, union, cooperative) has to be understood as only one form of worker or other collective self-articulation, increasingly challenged by the network.” The network contains a strong implication of virtual reality, of talking/writing rather than action, of an aggregate of individuals rather than a collective. To my mind it cannot substitute for a united front of action, though networks can assist in the organisation of united fronts.

You wrote that “Communism has been fatally discredited due its historical association (particularly in that one-third of the world in which it was a state
form) with authoritarianism, patriarchalism, industrialism,  chauvinism, militarism, pollution, racism.” Yes that is the unfortunate legacy of Stalinism. But it will not be overcome merely by playing with words: “The word Communism needs to be either replaced by some other word for the utopia desired (one proposal is ‘Commonism’) or put into cold storage until it can be cleansed of its historical accretions, fundamentally reconceptualised, and again become internationally attractive.” You accuse Ngwane of not “addressing history”. The only way to restore the idea of “Communism” is through a relentless explanation and critique of the bureaucratic usurpation of power in the Soviet Union, the deviation of so-called “Marxism-Leninism” from the genuine legacy of Marx and Lenin, and a scientific characterisation of Stalinism. Saying “Commonism” rather than “Communism” will not fool the right wing!

You write that “Marxism can no longer be thought of as the sole or primary source of emancipatory theory (even if it is MY primary source)”; but “Marxism has to be placed in dialogue with theory coming out of the women’s, rural, indigenous, human-rights, religious/spiritual (open, tolerant), ecological, urban and other such movements;” Marxism is indeed already in dialogue with such ideas and has been for some time. Most of those that you describe are what Marxism would regard as in the sphere of democracy/equality — supposedly guaranteed by capitalism but in reality only guaranteed with the victory of the working class (provided that authority is not usurped from it by a bureaucracy). The ecological issues are the most serious, now threatening the end of humankind if capitalism is not ended in the next generation or so.

You conclude: “Your piece does not address Internationalism, which I know you to have been also heavily engaged with. But, on the assumption that you would here also draw from the Historical Left, I would argue also for the inadequacy of this (with its dependence on the word Nationalism and consequent implication of relations between nation-states, nationals  and nationalists) in favour of Global Solidarity/ies, understood as implyingrelations between radically-democratic locales, collectives, interests and identities that are not necessarily defined by nation or state belonging.” Acceptable. Combined with the fundamental critique of Stalinism for abandoning internationalism for the futile task of building “socialism in one country” — and also not thinking that one can wish away nation-states (see my first point) by shifting from “Internationalism” to “Global Solidarity/ies.”

Martin Legassick

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