On ask.fm someone asked me the following question:

Are you really a Marxist – or more of social democrat with higher standards of social and democracy?

My answer got so long that it exceeded the space provided in an ask.fm answer box – so I’m posting it here. Apologies for the disproportionate length – I find it helpful though, to articulate some of this stuff…


I’m happy with both characterisations – I don’t think they’re incompatible (with some provisos that I’ll mention below).

W/r/t social democracy: I don’t like the way social democracy is dismissed on the (radical) left, or written out of the history of Marxism. A large proportion of early (and many not-so-early) social democrats *were* Marxists – a large proportion of early (and many not-so-early) Marxists were social democrats. Social Democratic Marxism is one of the major strands of the Marxist political tradition. For some reason, though, social democracy gets treated in a lot of contemporary Marxist discourse as if it’s sort of the opposite of Marxism (within a very broadly understood ‘left’ space) – as if one of the defining features of Marxism is opposition to social democracy. I don’t think that makes much sense analytically, and it certainly isn’t adequate to the history.

I say “for some reason” – but in fact I think this is the result of several different factors:

– The successful right propagandisation against Marxism across the 20th century, such that social democrats themselves increasingly tended to disavow their tradition’s links to Marxism.

– The gradual corruption and takeover from the right of actually-existing social democracy, and thus the collapse of any practical relationship between real social-democratic parties and Marxist political goals, fully accomplished by the last decades of the 20th century. (This roughly parallels a similar transformation in the PRC and USSR, of course.)

– The USSR’s very great influence over Marx scholarship across much of the 20th century. The Soviet Union had the manuscripts; its scholars were regarded as authoritative by most Marxists; and Soviet scholars whose read of Marx put him at too great a distance from Leninism and Stalinism were killed. This most ‘crass’ way of influencing the scholarly reception of Marx has had lasting effects: the ongoing widespread confusion between Marx’s politics and Lenin’s politics owes a lot to those decades of coercive state influence over scholarly endeavour. Official Soviet Marxological positions continue to replicate in the academic literature, because they have the weight of academic ‘consensus’ behind them, even though that ‘consensus’ was to a large extent created under threat of imprisonment and death.

– A tendency towards in-group out-group social testing, and distaste for ideological contamination, in a lot of contemporary self-defining Marxist political spaces.

So, the ways in which I take myself to be a Marxist include:

In terms of analysis:

– I think Marx’s analysis of capitalism is about the best there is. I’ve got various quibbles with ‘Capital’ – mostly related to presentation and emphasis – but I struggle to think of anything of much significance that I think Marx actually got wrong, w/r/t the dynamics of the capitalist system.

[I do have some ‘heterodox’ – though I believe textually well supported – views about what the analysis in Capital is – but this is not the time for Marxology.]

In terms of politics:

– I want the abolition of capitalism and its replacement by a more equitable and humane system of global political-economic organisation

– I think that a mass movement of the exploited and disenfranchised is the most likely way to achieve this – which in practice, under capitalism, almost certainly means a movement that is largely proletarian (understood in broad terms).

[It’s not of course impossible that you could get a small ‘vanguardist’ movement gaining power in a coup of some sort and implementing left policies that lack mass support – but I don’t think that a movement that lacks mass support is going to be able to sustain itself in even medium term without turning authoritarian – and an authoritarian state is inimical to the emancipatory politics I take the be the goal here. (Even though, yes, many states that identified as Marxist have, historically, been authoritarian. The authoritarian nature of those states was a betrayal of Marxist political goals – that’s my view.)]

– I think that workers’ movements that valorise labour are often politically essential (in shifting the workplace balance of power towards workers), but are also often conservative in some of their broader political commitments. (“Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!’ they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wages system!’”)

There are obviously lots of more detailed ways in which I take both my analysis of capitalism and my politics to be Marxist and Marxian – but this’ll do as a first pass.

In terms of social democracy – this is a bit trickier. Marxist critics of social democracy often, I think, couch their opposition in terms of a preference for revolution over reform – so one way to approach this is through that opposition.

Reform vs. revolution means, in much left debate, two distinct things.

First: this opposition is often understood in terms of how to gain power. Reform is taken to be aligned with electoral politics – gaining control over the levers of power through means compatible with the current electoral system; revolution is taken to be aligned with violent and/or mass uprising that either seizes or abolishes the current oppressive levers of power through non-electoral means (this is probably the main thing that ‘revolution’ means, in this sort of political discourse).

A lot of the radical (and Marxist) left is contemptuous of electoral politics, and thinks that revolution (in the mass or violent uprising sense) is the only way to achieve real political change. I don’t agree with this. I think that the choice between electoral and non-electoral politics should be determined in large part by the type of existing political structures in the relevant political unit (usually, in practice, a nation state) – and what this makes possible. In a scenario in which there are no real democratic structures in place, revolutionary politics is likely to be the best – potentially the only – way in which left political goals can be accomplished. This still applies in much of the world. And it applied most everywhere when Marx was writing.

On the other hand, in many countries now – thanks in large part to the past victories of left politics – we have democratic institutions. That is, we have an institutional set-up in which an important segment of the ruling class is elected by popular vote – voters can determine, to some extent, who governs them. In this scenario, I think it is more reasonable and desirable to attempt to gain power by broadly electoral means, than it is to aim for revolution. Reasonable, because it is, for most, easier to vote than it is to participate in mass uprising, so it should be easier to organise the former than the latter. More desirable, because democratic institutions, and the societal norms and habits that support them, are a good thing in themselves, and are weakened every time they are disregarded. It’ll be easier to create a democratic post-capitalist society if those making and implementing policy achieved their positions through democratic mechanisms, than otherwise.

(What about the view that our democracy is a sham, and that therefore democratic change is a pipe dream and existing democratic institutions worthless? I don’t agree. Our democracy is ‘flawed’ (by design, of course) in very many ways – corruption, capture by the interests of a ruling elite, propagandistic media influence, etc. But I do not believe that these obstacles are sufficient to render a left electoral movement an impossibility in the core democracies I’m familiar with. These factors (and others) all have their impact – but if an effective left political movement cannot be built, this is in large part a problem for the left, not just for actually-existing democratic institutions.)

(Finally, what about the view that the policies that need to be implemented will never gain popular assent, and that therefore democracy is not a desirable political outcome at all? I disagree, in two ways. First, pessimistic though I am about ‘human nature’ in many respects, I also believe that emancipatory politics can gain broad, lasting support: I think history shows us that this is possible, even if it’s not the norm. Second, I see no reason to believe that those with power will, on average, be less reactionary than those without; more often the reverse. Trusting a sufficiently enlightened and radical elite to implement plans that the benighted masses would never themselves endorse, is (in my judgement) a reliable recipe for despotism – it fails to understand (or does not care about) the impact of power and interests upon political action. The actions of elites must be dramatically restricted if elites are not to run riot, serving their own interests above those of the great mass of humanity. Relying on a specific sub-elite to overcome this dynamic, without (at the very least) stringent checks and balances on that elite’s own behaviour is, in my view, misguided and naive.)

So – that’s the electoral politics vs. popular uprising side of the reform/revolution dichotomy.

In addition, the reform vs. revolution debate can often refer to another question: how radically do we wish society to be transformed by left politics? Do we need a wholesale abolition of existing institutional structures and a blank-slate start with a new politics and a new economics; or can reform of existing institutional structures achieve the political goals we’re after?

Here, again, I am more on the ‘reform’ than the ‘revolution’ side of the debate (though again see below for elaboration). The changes I would like to see to our political and economic institutions are very substantial, but they do not require an absolute rupture with existing society.

To expand on that:

Some folk on the radical left are of the view that if many institutions from our present society are carried over into our future (purportedly post-capitalist) society, this will be a betrayal of our revolutionary goals – and, indeed, may well render that future society capitalist after all, despite our best intentions. For example, it is not uncommon for radicals to argue that a post-capitalist society should not or cannot involve markets; or money; or the division of labour; or any kind of hierarchical organisation – some or all of these things must be abolished if we are to achieve an emancipated post-capitalist society.

I think this attitude misunderstands the historical specificity of capitalism – all of these phenomena existed prior to capitalism, and therefore there is no intrinsic reason why they could not persist into a post-capitalist society.

At the same time, capitalism can persist through quite dramatic transformations of institutional structures. (“Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.”) So it is also easy to make the opposite mistake – to think that the abolition of a specific institutional structure will result in the abolition of capitalism, when in fact it will only be a moment in capitalism’s own ‘revolutionary’ dynamic.

This question therefore probably needs to be addressed more specifically. What is capitalism? What’s wrong with capitalism? What would be required to abolish capitalism? And what kind of post-capitalist society do we want instead?

Following N Pepperell’s work on Marx, I define capitalism in the following way: capitalism is a mode of economic production or organisation characterised by a specific dynamic around labouring activity. In capitalism, the great majority of people can only gain access to the means of life via labour performed to serve another’s economic interests. Further, there is, under capitalism, a systemic tendency for labourers to be eliminated from fields of productive activity, heavily restricting or eliminating their access to general social resources, and then be re-employed in new fields of productive activity that are regularly being created. This dynamic – the recurrent expulsion and reincorporation of labouring activity, out of and back into changing economic structures – is the dynamic that differentiates capitalism from all other modes of political-economic organisation.

That’s what capitalism is. What’s wrong with it?

In terms of the ‘economic problem’, these are the most central things wrong with capitalism:

– The creation of incredible poverty in the midst of plenty.

– The coercive enforcement of labour on the bulk of humanity.

And there are also plenty of important oppressive structures in capitalism that don’t fall under either of those categories – e.g. the various kinds of repressive apparatus that maintain class rule.

What is required to abolish capitalism? Well – I define capitalism in terms of this specific dynamic around labour. So to abolish capitalism, one needs to end this dynamic. Assuming one doesn’t want to replace capitalism with a similarly coercive system that simply lacks capitalism’s ‘revolutionary’ character, this means the abolition of labour. And the abolition of labour means the creation of an economic system in which the bulk of humanity’s access to the necessities – and luxuries – of life is not principally mediated by coercively imposed work carried out for others.

Is the abolition of labour an end in itself? Yes – labour is a coercive institution, and so its abolition is a good. But the abolition of labour also serves a broader set of political goals. Those need to be put front and centre when considering the post-capitalist society we envision.

What kind of post-capitalist society is that?

In terms of abstract generalities: I want a free society. That means negative freedom: a society in which people can live their lives without arbitrary coercive constraint – and positive freedom: freedom from want; a decent standard of living for all. These are exemplarily liberal political goals, and often denigrated as such on the radical left. But they are good political goals. A decent standard of living for all; free time to pursue personal interests; respect for human rights; collective self-government; checks and balances on institutions of power – these are the pretty straightforward goals of communist politics as I would wish them realized.

Does all this make me a liberal? Yes, I think so. Does that mean I am not a Marxist? No, I don’t think so (though I’m sure some would disagree). Whether I differ from mainstream left-liberalism is in my evaluation of what transformations of society are necessary to realize these goals.

So – the leisure required to allow the great mass of people to pursue their own interests and lives as they please is simply incompatible with capitalism.

What about poverty? Is capitalism compatible with the provision of a decent standard of living for all?

Here, I must admit, I am less certain. My impulse is that capitalism is incompatible with the eradication of poverty, because I think the defining orientation of capitalism to the reproduction of labour requires that those who do not labour suffer for their non-participation in the workforce. This enforcement of the punishment of poverty on the reserve army of unemployed seems to me key to the reproduction of capitalism as labour-dynamic. I must admit that I haven’t worked this line of reasoning through to my satisfaction, however – or fully considered possible counter-scenarios (is this characteristic dynamic of capitalism compatible with guaranteed basic income?). So my opinions in this area are still somewhat tentative.

This doesn’t matter w/r/t the thrust of the question here, though. That question is how much can be carried over from capitalist to post-capitalist society. My view is – and I think this is very Marxist – a great deal will be carried over. Although the achievement of an emancipated post-capitalist society would involve, in some respects, a sea-change in our institutions, in other respects it would be like the coming of Benjamin’s messiah, “of whom a great rabbi once said that he did not wish to change the world by force, but would only make a slight adjustment in it”. The technologies, institutions and sensibilities out of which post-capitalist society will be built are already present in capitalism – but they need to be rearranged, to serve emancipatory rather than oppressive ends. So the division of labour – for example – should certainly persist into a post-capitalist society; as should mass production (both industrial and agricultural) (how else are we going to feed everyone?) I’m open to the possibility of alternatives to markets and money – but I see no reason to demonise these things, which are millennia old and have no intrinsic connection to capital. At base, if everyone has both a decent standard of living and freedom from unjust coercion, I don’t see why we should flip out if people are still using money or eating burgers, etc.

So – my vision of a post-capitalist society is a vision of a society much like our own, but where everyone has enough resources to live comfortably, enough free time to pursue their own personal interests, and where institutions of governance are not notably coercive. That’s it: a banal vision, if you like. But that banality is good. People can provide their own excitement – we’ve never been short of the ability to do that.

One more thing I should say about this vision of a post-capitalist future: the collective self-governance should involve greater democratic control over the large-scale uses to which our collective resources are put. Capitalism is characterized by an orientation towards growth – but at the level of the global system, that orientation to growth serves simply the valorization of capital. It is ‘blind’ as regards the social consequences of this growth.

I don’t think a post-capitalist society should be anti-growth – some level of economic growth is desirable for its potential consequences for living standards. But an emancipated post-capitalist society should be anti-‘blind’ growth. We should have a higher level of collective self-determination of the uses to which the incredible surpluses of our economic system are put. And this has some obvious connections to environmentalist politics.

Much more that could be said – but that’s probably more than enough already. Hopefully that gives some sense of what I mean when I say that I don’t see a real opposition between social democracy and Marxism…