The War in Ukraine, the Theory of State-Capitalism, and Humanism Today

Peter Hudis

Summary: Views Ukraine as a turning point that illuminates anew the theory of state-capitalism; also assesses the present moment of the global movement for human liberation against racial, gender, and class oppression and the kind of organization we need — Editors

Part I: Facing a New Historical Turning Point

A critical problem facing us today is developing an alternative to capitalism in light of a new historic turning point. So, we begin by asking: what is the problem? And what is the turning point?

The turning point is Russia’s war against Ukraine and the U.S.’s response to it. Such sudden transformations, which shake the foundations of world politics, whether in 1914, 1939, 1989 or today, tend to disorientate many revolutionaries at the same time as prompting others to reorganize their thought.

We are here to reorganize our thought, in light of how ongoing events makes it more difficult than ever to envision an alternative to capitalism. That is the problem.

What produced this turning point? Many on both the Right and Left argue that Putin’s invasion is an understandable reaction to NATO’s expansion. We have opposed NATO’s existence and expansion for decades, but do recall that for years Germany and France strongly objected to allowing Ukraine into NATO. The real reason for Putin’s invasion is to destroy any form of democracy on his borders, no matter how limited. This is why he sent troops into Kazakhstan and Belarus last year to put down working-class-led pro-democracy movements. Ukraine is no model of democracy, but you don’t need one for rightists to try to destroy it, as we know from the situation in the U.S., Hungary, and Hong Kong.

Some say the U.S. was itching for a fight with Russia and used the invasion as a pretense. But much of its ruling class has supported Putin, since he exemplifies the white-racist attack on democracy that they adore. As Putin stated, “The U.S. continues to receive more and more immigrants, and, as far as I understand, the white, Christian population is already outnumbered …we [in Russia] have to preserve [white Christians] to remain a significant center in the world.”[1]

What many overlook is that it is not Russia, but China that all wings of the U.S. ruling class, Democrats and Republicans alike, want to go after. This is because China is the U.S.’s main competitor for control of global value chains, whereas Russia is a bit player. Imperialism is not driven by subjective motives but by efforts to control global capital accumulation. Biden’s administration makes no secret of this: “Secretary of State Blinken said [on May 24] that despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China remains the greatest challenge to the U.S. and its allies, and the administration aims to ‘shape the strategic environment’ around the Asian superpower to limit its increasingly aggressive actions.” He added, “China is the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it.”[2]

While the U.S. has been far more interested in taking on China than Russia ever since Obama shifted the focus of U.S. foreign policy to East Asia,[3] Biden is taking advantage of the way Putin’s invasion has generated new-found unity between the U.S. and its allies. Dizzy with this apparent success, the Biden administration has declared that it now aims not just to aid Ukraine but to permanently weaken Russia (China’s closest ally).

This is extremely dangerous and must be opposed. I therefore wish to emphasize:

We oppose Putin’s invasion, but we do not support any U.S./NATO effort to bring down his regime or prolong the war for the sake of gaining the upper hand in its intra-imperialist rivalry with Russia and/or China.

We support Ukraine’s struggle for self-determination against colonial domination. One cannot oppose U.S. imperialism but not Russian imperialism, nor oppose Russian imperialism but not U.S. imperialism; one cannot support self-determination for Cuba but not for Ukraine, nor support it for Ukraine but not for Cuba. To do so is pure hypocrisy; it is anti-humanist. As Frantz Fanon wrote, “In the absolute, the black is no more to be loved than the Czech, and truly what is to be done is to set humanity free.”[4]

While we defend the Ukrainian people’s right to self-determination, we do not support the Ukrainian government, which follows regressive neoliberalism.[5] This is completely consistent with the stance Marxist-Humanists have taken for 65 years. We supported Vietnam’s fight for national independence but not its Stalinist leadership; we support Palestinian self-determination but not the pro-capitalist Hamas.

We want this war to end as soon as possible—hopefully by Putin getting such a bloody nose that the Russian people will make their voice heard in opposing it. There are two worlds in every country.

We re-affirm these basic Marxian principles, because they are easy to neglect when one is hit with a dramatic change in world politics. We see this with the revival of campism—the notion that leftists should support any state power or force opposed to the U.S. or NATO. Such views are not restricted to the old left, but increasingly characterize many young activists. It shows that Stalinism never died; it continues on in slightly altered form.

This is being challenged within the global justice movements. A recent statement by Bill Fletcher Jr., Bill Gallegos, and Jamala Rogers declares,

There has been a tendency to excuse the Russian invasion and place the responsibility for the aggression solely on the U.S. government (and NATO). Not only is such an analysis factually inaccurate, but it arises from an analytical error rooted in a downplaying of the entire issue of the right of nations to self-determination. As two African Americans and one Chicano, we have concluded that it is time to speak out against a misconstruing of what has been unfolding in Ukraine and an inclination to either excuse Russian aggression or to advance a position of neutrality…the failure to address the national question has led to errors in analysis, strategy, and response by many on the broad Left and progressive movements in the U.S.

They also reject the claim that Russia’s invasion is motivated by protecting Russian-speakers in the Donbass region of Ukraine:

There is no evidence that these so-called “People’s Republics,” established in 2014 with the assistance of Russia, have anything to do with a legitimate, popular demand for separation; in fact, their level of popular support is highly questionable. It should be noted that it was only Russia that recognized these so-called People’s Republics, and that recognition came on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine. This reminds one of the Bantustan/independent “republics” established by apartheid South Africa as a means of legitimating population relocation and total control over South Africa.

And they take issue with the insularity of many Western leftists:

Much of the debate within the U.S Left begins—and ends—by looking at the U.S. The essence of this analysis is that because the U.S is the main enemy of the world’s people this must mean that it is the only significant enemy. This is not an analysis. It is sophistry. And a particular sort of sophistry that views the struggles on planet Earth as being between the U.S. and its allies, on the one hand, and those who oppose U.S. imperialism on the other. All other issues are subordinate to this contradiction. Implicit in this analysis is the notion that anyone opposing—verbally or practically—U.S. imperialism must be a friend of the oppressed and, therefore, should be supported.[6]

A recent statement signed by numerous revolutionary activists and thinkers in the global south—the first signatory was Hugo Blanco, the famous leader of the Andean peasant revolution in the early 1960s and now an environmentalist—declares,

We are aware that, crossing the various oceans and continents, the struggle for national and social liberation of peoples is unique and global. We have never accepted, and we will never accept, that any power, or any military bloc, can prevent a people from deciding its own future, in opposition to the right of peoples to their national self-determination. For these reasons, we stand with the Resistance of the Ukrainian people against the aggression of Russian imperialism and its attempt to rebuild the Tsarist and then Soviet Empire.

The effective Ukrainian Resistance in the face of the invasion of the Russian superpower undoubtedly demonstrates the strength of the moral factor, and the direction that the will of the people is going, refuting the almost racist theories that make Ukrainians a mere toy in the hands of NATO. In this sense we can on the contrary say that the Ukrainian people have already won morally and politically.

When the semi-dictatorial Russian nationalist regime, which supports many organizations of the European right, suggests that it wants to “de-nazify” Ukraine, it is an insult to the victims of the Holocaust, to anti-fascism, and also to the sacrifices of the Soviet peoples in the war against the Third Reich.[7]

Turning points in history bring out new divides within the Left, but also new opportunities to reorganize around a vision of universal human emancipation.

To build upon these opportunities, it becomes crucial to turn to the Marxist-Humanist theory of state-capitalism.

A major reason many are being disorientated by today’s events is lack of familiarity with, or outright rejection of, the theory of state-capitalism.

State-capitalism is not about the distant past. It defines the present. The role of the state in the economy has not receded; on the contrary, it is now greater than ever. As the Call for Convention shows, “almost all of the monetary capital invested by businesses and corporations over the last two years in the entire world was generated by the governments of the U.S., EU, China, and Japan.”[8]

If this comes as a surprise, it is because what predominates today are superficial critiques of capitalism that target its property forms and market relations—while neglecting that these are phenomenal expressions of a far more essential issue, social relations of production.

Raya Dunayevskaya developed a theory of state-capitalism in the 1940s to explain the transformation of the Russian Revolution of 1917 into a totalitarian regime under Stalin. Up to then, most Marxists held that capitalism is defined by private property and free markets, while socialism is defined by nationalized property and planning. The USSR abolished private ownership and market anarchy—yet it led not to socialism but outright tyranny. Yet most “Marxists” continued to defend the USSR to one or another degree, which indicated that they had failed to grasp the depth of Marx’s critique of capital. She wrote in her analysis of the Soviet economy in 1941, “The determining factor in analyzing the class nature of a society is not whether the means of production are the private property of the capitalist class or are state-owned, but whether the means of production are capital, that is, whether they are monopolized and alienated from the direct producers.”[9]

This remains the decisive issue. Focusing primarily on property forms and market relations obscures the real problem of capitalism—and leads to an impoverished notion of socialism. The real problem is the “peculiar social character of labor”[10] that defines the capitalist mode of production. This refers to labor that is forced to produce commodities according to the average amount of time necessary to do so on the world market. Marx calls this “socially necessary labor time.” If your labor produces a commodity within this average time frame, it counts as a source of value; if it fails to do so, it is not considered valuable at all. This is why domestic or reproductive labor is so undervalued in modern society.

We remain trapped within capitalism so long as its form of labor is not replaced by new human relations, beginning but not ending at the point of production, in which “time becomes the space for human development.” It does not matter whether labor is owned by private individuals and corporations (as with neoliberalism) or by statist and public entities (as with Keynesian welfare states and Stalinist regimes). As Marx wrote, “Although private property [and the free market] appears to be the reason, the cause of alienated labor, it is rather its consequence.”[11]

Most socialists and communists continue to focus on the consequence, property forms and the market, rather than the real problem—human activity that is subjected to an impersonal time determination outside of our control. And that is why we are still lacking a viable vision of an alternative to capitalism.

This is also why a critique of neoliberalism should not be confused with a critique of capitalism. The two are not the same. Neoliberalism is a strategy employed in some parts of the world to deal with declining profit rates through privatization and deregulation. But the negation of neoliberalism’s love affair with the “free” market does not annul the logic of capital, which also prevails where there is no free market. Socialism is not about organizing exchange in order to “fairly” redistribute surplus value; it is about abolishing value production by uprooting capitalism’s specific social form of labor. The negation must itself be negated.

Dunayevskaya’s theory of state-capitalism amounted to a lot more than a sociological analysis of “Soviet-type” societies or their correlates in Hitler’s fascism and FDR’s New Deal. In arguing that an exit from capitalism depends on uprooting its peculiar form of abstract or alienated labor, her Marxism “kept its finger on the pulse of human relations.”[12] In this way, her critique of state-capitalism as a new global stage that, in altered form, still defines today’s reality, enabled her (beginning in the 1950s) to reconstruct Marxism on a humanist basis.[13]

What is most disturbing about the response of much of the Left to the war against Ukraine is that it is anything but humanist. This is not an accident. It is difficult to reach, let alone retain, a connection to Marx’s Humanism without the theory of state-capitalism.

 

Part II: The Logic of Capital Versus the Logic of Resistance

At a moment when the Russian military is pulverizing Ukraine and the threat of a military confrontation between the major powers grows daily, it is hard to think positively about the future, let alone about a future new society. But there are some positive developments.

These include: the remarkable mass movement in Chile, the first leftist becoming president of Colombia, the massive farmers movement in India, and the new unions being formed in the U.S. at Amazon, Starbucks, and IEA by a new generation of BIPOC, feminist, and queer organizers.

The most outstanding event of the past several years was the massive protests in 2020 not only in the U.S. but around the world against police abuse and for Black lives, which brought demands for defunding police and prison abolition to the forefront. The past year has seen a concerted drive to bury these demands by Republicans as well as corporate Democrats—not only Biden but also Black elected officials (like Eric Adams in New York) who are working overtime to increase police budgets.

This whitelash against the gains of 2020—which is by no means limited to whites—does not signify the weakness of the defund/abolition movement, but rather the strength of an idea whose time has come. Demands to abolish the criminal injustice system threaten capitalism’s jugular vein; a fierce push-back from those who have a stake in this system is only to be expected.

Recall the Civil Rights, Black Power, and urban insurrections of the 1950s and 1960s: they clearly transformed U.S. society. But it also appalled much of it, which led to a 50-year reaction.

One expression is the growth of the “prison-industrial complex.” Some describe it as a modern-day version of “the primitive accumulation of capital.”[14] But there’s a problem with that: less than 5% of U.S. prisons are privately-run for profit, and only 25% of prisoners work at all; the vast majority are locked up doing nothing. So what capital is being accumulated? A different explanation is offered by Ruth Wilson Gilmore and others—that the surge in the prison population after 1968 is about warehousing potentially rebellious Blacks and Latinos who were the first to experience the de-industrialization of America. The specter of the 1960s revolts, at a time when capital could no longer provide full employment to labor, led to a brutal containment strategy that continues to this day.

Another expression is the attack on abortion rights. Abortion was not a major issue for the Right before the 1970s; Reagan signed one of the most liberal abortion laws in the country when he was Republican governor of California in the late-1960s and even evangelical Christians at the time weren’t preoccupied with it. Amanda Taub reports, “But just a few years later, that had changed. The shift was not spurred by abortion itself, but by desegregation.” Many whites opposed to the federal government’s role in desegregating schools took to “criticizing Roe [as] a way to talk about ‘government overreach,’ ‘states’ rights’ and the need to ‘protect the family’”[15] at a time when openly supporting segregation was no longer socially acceptable. The misogynist attack on women’s right to control their bodies thus has a racial component.

Yet another expression is so-called “gun rights.” It too emerged as a response to the Civil Rights movement. Taub notes, “Desegregation sparked a reactionary backlash among white voters, particularly in the south, who saw it as overreach by the Supreme Court and federal government …influential conservative lawyers framed the Second Amendment as a source of an individual counter-right that conservatives could seek protection for in the courts.”[16] This helps explain why so many in the U.S. are against any limits on gun ownership: it has a racial component in pushing back against challenges to white privilege by being armed to the teeth.

Since racism is so deeply ingrained in this society, the struggle of Black masses against it has been the vanguard force of its freedom struggles. The concept of “Black masses as vanguard” does not put aside or downplay the class struggle; on the contrary, since class relations in the U.S. have always been mediated by racial determinations, the independent struggle of African Americans has repeatedly galvanized the class struggle.[17] This is seen in how the anti-slavery movement led to the first national labor federation, the role of the Great Migration in the formation of the CIO, the Civil Rights Movement’s impact on the rise of rank-and-file labor, feminist and LGBTQ movements, and how the 2020 protests brought forth a multi-racial movement that has inspired a new generation of labor activists at Amazon, Starbucks and elsewhere—including efforts by members of the Texas National Guard to form a union to “break ranks and join the anti-racist movement sparked by murders of Black people by the police.”[18] None of these are organized by traditional labor unions; they are independent unions akin to social justice movements. Christian Smalls, who heads the new union at Amazon’s Staten Island facility, says he was motivated to take action by the “lack of black employees in even low-level management positions [which is] evidence that racism is built into the company.”[19]

These unionization drives face enormous obstacles and not all of them will be successful. But that does not negate their importance. A major of reason for the growing power of the Right over the past four decades has been the declining power of the labor movement, brought on by deindustrialization, globalization, etc. If these new unionization drives bear fruit, it could have a major impact.

Nevertheless, we face huge challenges—foremost among them climate change. It is here, I believe, that Marx’s concept of “the so-called primitive accumulation of capital” as a continuous process most clearly shows itself.

Marx wrote in Capital, “primitive accumulation is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production”[20] in the transition from precapitalist to capitalist modes of production. It centers on the destruction of the commons through enclosures and other measures that tear peasants from the land and compel them to sell themselves for a wage. This process of separation is a precondition for capital accumulation.

Although many apply the concept of “primitive accumulation” to any number of present-day realities, neither Russia nor Ukraine is experiencing it today. They experienced it in the 1930’s with the forced industrialization of the USSR, termed by its architects, “socialist primitive accumulation.” It involved the forced eviction of tens of millions of peasants from the land and their transformation into industrial wage laborers, in which at least ten million perished (mainly Ukrainians). Although Russia embarked on industrialization at the end of the 1800’s, “Even at the beginning of the twentieth century, more than half of the industrial enterprises of the main industrial core (the steel industry) were not capitalist in the strict sense of the term,” says Mikhail Voeikov. The pre-capitalist methods of extracting the surplus product of the labor of the direct producers that still prevailed “did not allow national capital to carry out the necessary accumulation.”[21] Stalin changed that by achieving in two decades what took British capitalism two centuries—the primitive accumulation of capital through the destruction of the communal forms of indigenous peasants. But while it is a clear example of primitive accumulation, it is almost never mentioned by those seeking to apply the concept to present-day realities. The reason is the widespread tendency (ubiquitous among those who do not accept the theory of state-capitalism) to confuse primitive accumulation with privatization, which defines the approach of such thinkers as David Harvey.[22] To be sure, capitalism arose in Western Europe through the privatization of land and resources. But the annulment of communal in favor of private property is not the only way laborers become divested of their organic connection to the means of production; it can just as readily occur by a centralized state divesting peasants of their land through the nationalization of property, as occurred in the USSR[23] and is occurring today with the destruction of indigenous communities in the Andes by China’s boundless quest for minerals (the vast bulk of Chile and Peru’s mining output is shipped to China, where rural property remains nationalized and its mining conglomerates are largely state owned).[24]

Nonetheless, the transformation of disenfranchised peasants into “free” wage laborers is far from assured: this surplus labor force is often unable to find employment on the labor market. They form an intermediate group—no longer peasants attached to the land nor wage earners augmenting capital. They are vagabonds and migrants who sink into pauperism. They form a group controlled neither by the landlord nor the capitalist; and as such, they are potentially rebellious.

England responded to this during its transition to capitalism with anti-vagabond laws, debtor prisons, and exporting its surplus labor force to the Americas and Australia. But while the process of primitive accumulation in Western Europe was surely “lumpy,” over time the vast majority of its disenfranchised peasants were incorporated into wage labor.

This is not happening today: The “clearing” of peasants from the land in the global south does not lead the bulk of the disenfranchised to become employed in “productive labor” (i.e., wage labor that augments surplus value). This is because of today’s high organic composition of capital which reduces the need for living labor, declining rates of profit that weaken the tax base that funds government payrolls, the introduction of artificial “intelligence” in service industries, etc. But capital will continue to tear rural laborers from the land (46% of humanity are still peasants): without it, the cost of labor would rise to a level that would seriously threaten expanded reproduction.

Human-induced global warming will greatly exacerbate this. While Western and East Asian countries contribute the bulk of CO2 emissions, South Asia, Africa and Latin America are suffering most from its impact. This is bound to get worse: in coming decades climate change will force billions of people off the land in the global south at a time when capital cannot provide most of them with productive employment. The result will be a migration of hundreds of millions of surplus laborers who are controlled neither by landlords nor capitalists nor by the national or state entity from which they are fleeing. This is indeed a potentially rebellious force, and capital must respond by finding ways to contain it.

The effort begins by dismantling what is left of political democracy—an effort that is glaringly evident today in the rise of authoritarian regimes and ideologies worldwide. Today’s attack on democracy is driven not only by political or ideological factors but most of all by economic pressures that will become greatly enhanced as the planet heats up.

So what is to be done? Clearly, a radical reduction in the rate of CO2 and methane emissions is imperative. But that’s not going to be easy. There is growing consensus that no degree of alteration in individual behavior—eating less meat and processed foods, consuming fewer commodities, cutting down on energy consumption, etc.—can do much to reverse global warming.[25] A systemic transformation will be needed that involves restructuring technology, modes of production and circulation, the relation of urban to rural life, and more.

This cannot be achieved without a significant role being played by the state; as the Covid-19 pandemic has shown, the state can play a key role in responding to systemic crises, especially if it pressured to listen to the needs of its citizens (which happens rarely enough in bourgeois democracies, but almost never happens in the absence of political democracy).

When the Green New Deal was drawn up a few years ago, Nancy Pelosi prevented it from even being discussed by Congress because of its supposedly “ridiculous” price tag—$12 trillion over 10 years. Yet more than that was dished out by Western and East Asian states to businesses and corporations in one year during the pandemic. There is enough monetary capital in the world to fund projects far more ambitious than the Green New Deal. But without popular pressure being brought on the state, that isn’t going to happen.

This raises a two-fold problem: 1) Over-emphasizing the role of the state in mitigating climate change (as do independent leftists like Jeremy Brecher and Andreas Malm) makes is easier for repressive states to coopt and control social movements; 2) De-emphasizing or rejecting the need to pressure the state removes a vital tool for making real progress on climate change.

The publication of the new book containing our translation of The Critique of the Gotha Program has a lot to say to this. Marx holds that the state will be abolished in socialism, since the state is an expression of class society—and there are no classes in socialism. This means that prior to the elimination of class society the state will persist in some form; it cannot be ignored or willed away. That is why Marx strongly favored getting existing states to adopt reforms like legalizing unions, providing welfare benefits, allowing women to vote, abolishing slavery, etc.

Nevertheless, many still refrain from accepting the basic Marxist principle that the state is inseparable from class society. Liberals and reformist socialists tend to presume that “taking over” the state does not implicate them in structures of class domination, while anarchists tend to presume that the state can be “abolished” without first uprooting the basis of class society—the division between mental and manual labor. A striking example of the latter position is David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything. This otherwise engaging work denies any intrinsic connection between social hierarchy and the state on the grounds that some indigenous precapitalist societies had centralized states without classes while others had class hierarchy without a state. They even go so far as entitle one chapter, “Why the State Has No Origin.” It therefore remains unclear from their discussion why centralized states appeared at certain points in history and what kind of social transformation is needed today to abolish them.[26]

In the Critique, Marx writes that the state has two overlapping but distinct determinations: one is the state as such (Der Staat), which employs violence to maintain class rule, the other are functions (Staaatswesen) that are now part of the state (schools, medical care, representative bodies, etc.) which are not identical with the state as such and can persist in a socialist society without one. When the distinction between the state and state functions is overlooked, it is easy to: 1) limit the fight for a new society to demanding reforms from existing states, or 2) overlook the need to defend and expand some state functions—like the right to vote and stricter limits on CO2 emissions—in the course of fighting to the ultimately abolish the state.

These distinctions are often overlooked, but they matter. Our translation of the Critique of the Gotha Program for the first time accurately conveys Marx’s distinction between the state and state functions. All earlier English translations have Marx say, “What transformation will the form of the state undergo in communist society?” This is a mistranslation. The original does not speak of the “form of the state” in communism; it speaks of state functions (Staatswesen) that can readily be employed without a state. Nothing stops us from simultaneously pushing for the expansion of specific state functions that can improve our lives while reaching for a new society that abolishes the state. Those who confuse the two tend to fetishize the state, leading them to presume that the state persists in socialism. This impedes the development of a viable alternative to capitalism, since a society in which the state exists is no alternative to capitalism at all.

This is but one illustration of how the new book on The Critique of the Gotha Program can enable us to engage ongoing debates in the radical movement to a much greater degree than before, which can help us move from a circle of discussion groups to a real organization that intervenes in the battle of ideas in today’s movements.

 

Part III: Organizational Perspectives

What can further develop this task is revisiting the distinctive concept of organization that Dunayevskaya spent many years developing. A key moment in this is her “Presentation on the Dialectics of Organization and Philosophy” of June 1, 1987—written a week before her death.

She there makes a provocative statement: “Although the committee-form [of organization] and ‘party to lead’ are opposites, they are not absolute opposites.”[27] This is a puzzling statement. “Vanguard” parties have a hierarchical structure, while committee-forms are anti-hierarchical. Clearly, these are opposites. So why are they not absolute opposites?

I may be wrong about this, but it seems to me that the reason is that neither form of organization necessarily challenges one of the most persistent divisions in society—the separation of mental from manual labor. Vanguard parties don’t overcome this separation; intellectuals do the theory, and the rank-and-file is expected to carry out the mandates. Committee-forms of organization tend to reject such elitism, but they often don’t encourage its members to become theoreticians by having them explore ideas that give meaning to their experiences.[28] Both fall short of “masses as reason”—the recognition that when masses of people move in a revolutionary direction, they generate ideas that are the source of theory.

Alyssa Adamson addressed this in a recent presentation on “Rethinking Organization in Light of the Dialectic of Race, Class, and Gender”:

Reading Marx and Hegel together, Raya shows that…the dialectic of the bourgeois state itself, meaning a party that emerges from this dialectic, is also necessarily tied up within the bourgeois state that upholds a bourgeois humanism in its social contract and ensuing laws. What is yet to be adequately articulated in theory—even if we could point to moments it has existed in practice—is the organizing principles and philosophy behind a new form of humanism to be the ground of a new humanized society… The consequences of “masses as reason” has not penetrated into most approaches to organization, but rather one group of thinkers or workers tends to be structurally prioritized as the “leading edge” at the expense of the rest—merely recasting the abstract democracy of the bourgeois state.[29]

We don’t expect vanguard parties that mirror the hierarchies of the bourgeois state to come up with a viable alternative to capitalism; their view of a new society is bound to be defective. So why hasn’t the anti-vanguardist left come up with a viable alternative?

Dunayevskaya spoke to this shortly before writing her June 1, 1987 Presentation:

The point is that of the years 1924-29, 1929 to today, World War II, and all those national revolutions, the rise of a Third World and the endless continuing struggle, and nowhere in sight, not even in telescopic sight, is there an answer to the questions, what happens after the conquest of power? Why so many aborted revolutions? What type of party or organization? What have the various forms of spontaneity—councils, soviets, committees, associations, communes—achieved?[30]

Thirty-five years later, an answer is still not in sight. The problem is rarely even discussed, including by ourselves. What is the reason for this? I think there may be two related factors.

One is that we don’t get an alternative to capitalism by indulging in utopian speculation. Instead, it is generated by thinking out the logical determination of Marx’s critique of capital—the most wide-ranging and profound critique of capitalism that has ever been attempted. Since Marx’s critique of capital goes deeper than the phenomenal level of property forms and market relations in targeting such essential determinants as abstract labor, socially necessary labor time, and value production, what concept of a new society follows from it? Working that out is not easy: it requires having a solid grasp of Marx’s critique of capital and doing the work of thinking out its implications. Marx himself left this unfinished: aside from the Critique of the Gotha Program and some passages in a few other works, he did not go into detail about the relations that might govern a post-capitalist society. Perhaps this is why Dunayevskaya says in the June 1, 1987 Presentation that while the Critique of the Gotha Program provides the ground for organization, “Ground will not suffice alone—we have to finish the building, the roof and its contents.”[31]

A big problem is that we are living at a time when many in today’s movements have turned away from Marx’s ideas. That is at least in part understandable, given the class reductionism and dogmatism that has defined much of what goes by the name of “Marxism.” But it isn’t possible to get to a viable alternative to capitalism without a continuous engagement with the creative mind of Marx.

The second problem is that the anti-vanguardist left, which includes ourselves, tends to saddle the masses with the task of developing an alternative to capitalism—as if the consciousness that comes from mass struggles exhausts Marx’s philosophy of revolution. This is why we had to break from News and Letters Committees in 2008 and form the International Marxist-Humanist Organization: many of its members held that even raising the perspective of envisioning a positive alternative to capitalism is “elitist.” They slid back (perhaps without realizing it) to the position of C.L.R. James, who broke from Dunayevskaya in the mid-1950s on the grounds that “the socialist society already exists [in the spontaneous actions] of the masses; we have to record the fact of its existence.”[32]

Dunayevskaya countered such claims as follows: “The question of class-consciousness [as well as other forms of mass consciousness] does not exhaust the question of cognition, of Marx’s philosophy of revolution.”[33] But if it is held that the social consciousness that arises from spontaneous form of struggle and organization does exhaust cognition, it follows that a philosophy of revolution that can give revolts a direction becomes completely superfluous. This is indeed the approach that has been followed by much of the anti-Leninist Left, which has resulted in an abdication of responsibility for providing today’s movements with a vision of the future that can point the way to a viable alternative to capitalism.

However, we don’t have to re-invent the wheel: Marxist-Humanism is a body of ideas that has done much to illuminate Marx’s critique of capital and its implications for creating a new society. But it won’t do us much good if we take this body of thought for granted and don’t engage the world with it.

Central to achieving this is the politicalization of philosophy. We take our ideas out to the world in trying to grasp the meaning of ongoing events in the world and winning new members on its basis. This is a task for the whole organization, in the sense, as Dunayevskaya wrote, that “the context of each person’s activity and special point of concentration—be it labor, Women’s liberation, youth, Black [liberation], etc.—will be inseparable from the meaning of that activity, and that meaning, whether of an objective event or the subjective activity, will be projected to those not-yet-Marxist-Humanists, because in meaning, i.e. philosophy, is both ground and roof of all we do, survey, strive for, as we prepare for that ‘revolution in permanence.’”[34]

The politicalization of philosophy often means taking unpopular positions. This was true in the 1940s, when in the midst of its battle with Nazism, Dunayevskaya denounced Stalin’s USSR as state-capitalist; it was true in the 1960s and 70s, when we denounced Maoism at a time when much of the Left (both the white and Black Left) fervently embraced it; it was true in the 1990s when we stood virtually alone in the Marxist Left in supporting Bosnia’s struggle against Serbia’s genocide; and it is true today with our response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Politicalizing philosophy brings out the distinctiveness of a humanist Marxism—which inevitably sparks controversy.

At the same time, as the Call for Convention states, “It is essential that our organization conduct itself in accordance with the democratic and humanist principles that we espouse in our theoretical endeavors. Although in its infancy, we have begun this by exploring how transformative justice can enable our organization to align our theory and practice more closely to Marxist-Humanist principles. This is especially important at critical turning points in history that bring uncertainty, anxiety, and disagreements. Questions we need to explore include: how can our organization work out internal conflicts in more humanistic and non-punitive ways? Given the level of participation of women and other marginalized groups, what are some ways we can prioritize these voices that often get ‘left behind’ because they may have a greater burden of caring labor? How can the IMHO engage more consistently in reflection, healing, and community building so that all our members can feel safe, heard and empowered in our spaces?”

In posing this, the Call states, “Our organization cannot become ‘the seed of the new society’; that is neither possible nor desirable, since a small group cannot substitute for a social transformation by masses of people that releases new passions, forces, and ideas.”[35] A small group like ours cannot be the new society in embryo: to presume otherwise would be elitist, since it would amount to substituting ourselves for the creativity of the masses. And surely it is no less absurd to presume that the successful creation of post-capitalist society hinges on the forms of organization adopted by small (and often ephemeral) groups of radicals.[36] But we can come together in new ways to collectively think out, and project, alternatives to capitalism based a philosophy of revolution.

As Raya wrote in a letter to Adrienne Rich, “In Part III of [Women’s Liberation and the Dialectics of Revolution], I posed the question without answering it: ‘Is there an Organizational Answer?’ I deliberately didn’t answer it there because I feel very strongly that without that missing link—philosophy—there is no answer to the question of organization, which of course means relationship to revolution … That will remain the ground needed until there has been total uprooting of all forms of capitalism, state as well as private, including capitalist-imperialism. That is first when the Self-Bringing Forth of Liberty brings the Self-Determination of the Idea to maturity and the dialectic is unchained. The Universal and the Individual become one, or, as Hegel put it: ‘Individualism which lets nothing interfere with its Universalism, i.e. Freedom’. We cannot tell in advance what a fully new human being is because we are not.”[37]

 

Footnotes

[1] Quoted in “Vladimir Putin: Can the God of Global Fascists and Nazis ‘de-Nazify’ a country?”, by Michael Karadjis, New Politics, April 9, 2022.

[2] Quoted in “To Constrain China, U.S. Aims to ‘Shift the Strategic Environment,’ Blinken Says,” by Edward Wong and Ana Swanson, The New York Times, May 27, 2022.

[3] See “Barack Obama: Russia is a Regional Power Showing Weakness Over Ukraine,” by Julian Borger, The Guardian, May 25, 2014: “President Barack Obama has described Russia as no more than a ‘regional power’ whose actions in Ukraine are an expression of weakness rather than strength… Speaking at the end of a summit on nuclear security in The Hague, Obama rejected the suggestion made by Mitt Romney—his Republican challenger in the last president election—that Russia was the United States’ principal geopolitical foe.” Prior to this Obama had shifted the focus of U.S. foreign policy from Europe and the Middle East to East Asia.

[4] Black Skin, White Masks, by Frantz Fanon, translated by Richard Markman (New York: Grove Press, 1965), p. 2.

[5] For more on this, see “On the Frontier of Whiteness? Expropriation, War, and Social Reproduction in Ukraine,” by Olena Lyubchenko, https://imhojournal.org/articles/on-the-frontier-of-whiteness-expropriation-war-and-social-reproduction-in-ukraine.

[6] “When Should We Stop Excusing the Russian Invasion?” by Bill Fletcher Jr., Bill Gallegos, and Jamala Rogers, New Politics, May 11, 2022.

[7] “With the Resistance of the Ukrainian People for its Victory Against the Aggression,” Red Utopia, June 4, 2022, http://utopiarossa.blogspot.com/2022/05/con-la-resistencia-del-pueblo-ucraniano.html?m=1.

[8]Official Call for Convention to Work Out the Philosophical, Political, and Organizational Perspectives of the International Marxist-Humanist Organization,” by Peter Hudis, with Kevin B. Anderson, Heather Brown, Dave Black, Lilia D. Monzo, Rehmah Sufi, Jens Johansson, Rocío Lopez, Sushanta Roy, and Bill Young, https://imhojournal.org/articles/official-call-for-convention-the-war-against-ukraine-the-resurgent-right-and-the-quest-for-a-humanist-alternative-developing-our-response-to-a-new-global-turning-point.

[9] “The Soviet Union as Capitalist Society,” by Raya Dunayevskaya, in Against Capital in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Asimakopoulos and Richard Gilman-Opalsky (Philadelphia: Temple University Press), p. 49.

[10] Capital, Vol. 1, by Karl Marx, translated by Ben Fowkes (New York: Penguin, 1976), p. 165.

[11] Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 3 (New York: International Publishers, 1975), p. 279

[12] “Is Russia Part of the Collectivist Epoch of Society”, by Raya Dunayevskaya, in The Marxist-Humanist Theory of State-Capitalism, edited by Peter Hudis (Chicago: News and Letters, 1992), p. 25.

[13] There were of course other theorists of state-capitalism (such as Anton Pannekoek, Tony Cliff, Paul Mattick, and Kan’ichi Kuroda) who rejected a humanist Marxism. Ironic as it may sound, a key reason is that they denied that the law of value—which Marx held drives capital accumulation—operated in “Soviet-type” societies. Although it is not possible to substantiate the claim here, I would argue that by neglecting the way in which this central economic category applies to the USSR they were unable to free Marxism from economism—precisely because the law of value compels human relations to take on the form of relations between things. It is only possible to reach a humanist Marxism if one grasps the depth of capitalist dehumanization.

[14] To give one example, Robin Kelley describes racial profiling by police “as a kind of social tax, a direct extraction of surplus by the state that produces nothing but discipline and terror and the reproduction of the state—in other words, revenue by primitive accumulation” (“Thug Nation: On State Violence and Disposability,” in Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter, edited by Jordan T. Camp and Christina Heatherton [London and New York, Verso]). Kelley is right that these summons and warrants are an onerous tax deliberately imposed by racist police, but why invoke Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation to explain it? Since “so-called primitive accumulation, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production” (Capital Vol. 1, pp. 874-5), how can it apply to Kelley’s example, since African Americans were violently torn from their organic connection to the conditions of production through the trans-Atlantic slave trade many centuries ago and were then further alienated from it in experiencing industrialization and deindustrialization? And since by Kelley’s own admission the state “produces nothing” but rather steals revenue from the disenfranchised, how does that augment the accumulation of capital?

[15] “Roe Inspired Activists Worldwide, Who May Be Rethinking Strategy,” by Amanda Taub, The New York Times, May 4, 2022.

[16] “In the U.S., Backlash to Civil Rights Era Made Guns a Political Third Rail,” by Amanda Taub, The New York Times, May 27, 2022.

[17] An all-too-common misconception among many leftists in the academy is that affirming that race and racism arise from and are reproduced by capitalist social relations is “class reductionism.” But nothing is further from the truth. Class reductionism is the claim that struggles over race, gender, or sexuality either divert from or are subordinate to the class struggle. That is political misconception that has nothing to do with the historical fact that anti-Black racism arises from and is necessitated by the dictates of capital accumulation. This is clearly shown in the work of Black Marxists (from Hubert Harrison to C.L.R. James to Frantz Fanon) who rejected class reductionism while insisting that racism is inseparable from capitalist relations of production. They could do so because they did not view the class struggle as the only vehicle by which to challenge the dominance of capital.

[18] “Texas Soldiers Are Unionizing After Facing Attacks by a Right-Wing Governor,” by Steve Early and Suzanne Gordan, Jacobin Online, June 9, 2022, https://jacobin.com/2022/05/texas-soldiers-unionizing-right-wing-governor-greg-abbott-tseu-national-guard-organizing.

[19] “Amazon workers vote to join a union in New York in historic move,” by Rachel Lerman, Greg Jaffe, Jeff Stein, and Anna Betts, Rachel Lerman, The Washington Post, April 2, 2022.

[20] Capital, Vol. I, p. 874-75.

[21] “The Conquest of Ukraine and the History of Russian Imperialism,” by Zbigniew Marcin Kowalewski, New Politics, June 12, 2022, https://newpol.org/authors/zbigniew-marcin-kowalewski/

[22] Harvey’s effort to “update” the notion of primitive accumulation with the term “accumulation by dispossession” has been the cause of enormous intellectual confusion, most of all because while all forms of capital accumulation involve dispossession (rendering his term rather redundant) not all forms of dispossession involve capital accumulation. His term has become a hospice for those unwilling to engage the theory of state-capitalism.

[23] It is often overlooked that the collapse of the USSR in 1991 was accompanied by an upsurge of militancy by Russian workers, especially miners—many of whom did not defend the nationalized property that defined the USSR but argued instead for its dismantling. This came as a shock to many “Marxists” in the West, who took it for granted that the working class will always favor nationalized over private property. They failed to notice what the Russian workers knew all too well—that stratified property served as the instrument of their class subordination. For more on this, see Truth Behind Bars: Reflections on the State of the Russian Revolution, by Paul Kellogg (Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2021).

[24] For more on China’s role in South America, see Planetary Mine: Territories of Extraction under Late Capitalism. by Martín Arboleda (London and New York: Verso Books).

[25] See especially, Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times, by Alexis Shotwell, St. Paul: University of Minnesota Press, 2016).

[26] The strength of Graber and Wengrow’s work is its discussion of how Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic cultures exhibited an incredible variety of social formations—some marked by sharp class divisions and others completely lacking them, some possessing quasi or full-blown states and others not having any kind of state at all. In doing so they provide a powerful corrective to those who fail to appreciate the positive contributions of indigenous societies as well as those who idealize them by claiming that none had social hierarchies or states. The weakness of their book lies in the theoretical conclusions they draw from this.

[27] “Presentation on the Dialectics of Organization and Philosophy of June 1, 1987,” in The Power of Negativity: Selected Writings on the Dialectic in Hegel and Marx, edited by Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2006), p. 9.

[28] To give one positive example, consider Dunayevskaya’s request to Charles Denby, a Black autoworker, that he comment on the philosophical essays by the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Such an approach is as unthinkable in most “vanguard” parties as it would be in anti-vanguardist “horizonalist” ones. See “Letter to Charles Denby (March 10, 1960) in The Power of Negativity.

[29] “Rethinking Organization in Light of the Dialectic of Race, Class, and Gender,” by Alyssa Adamson, is available on IMHO listserve.

[30] “Another ‘Talking to Myself,’ This Timed on What Has Happened Since ‘Not by Practice Alone,’ 1984-87,” by Raya Dunayevskaya, May 19, 1987, in Supplement to the Raya Dunayevskaya Collection, Vol.13, p. 10955.

[31] “Presentation on the Dialectics of Organization and Philosophy of June 1, 1987,” p. 9,

[32] Facing Reality, by C.L.R. James (East Lansing: Garvey Institute, 1958), p. 106.

[33] Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution, by Raya Dunayevskaya (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Books, 1981), p. 60

[34] This was left out of the “Presentation on the Dialectics of Organization and Philosophy of June 1, 1987,” when it was published in The Power of Negativity. For the full version, see The Philosophic Moment of Marxist-Humanism (Chicago: News and Letters, 1989), p. 18.

[35]Official Call for Convention to Work Out the Philosophical, Political, and Organizational Perspectives of the International Marxist-Humanist Organization.”

[36] Marx himself denied that even the Paris Commune of 1871, which had far greater mass support than any leftwing organization on the scene today, could be considered the “new society in embryo.” He ridiculed those who held that “the Paris Communards would not have failed if they had understood that the Commune was ‘the embryo of the future human society’ and had cast away all discipline and all arms, that is, the things which must disappear when there are no more wars!” (See Marx and Engels, “Fictitious Splits in the International,” in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 23 [New York: International Publishers, 1983], p. 115). Organization, while crucial, was never an end-in-itself for Marx, and neither should it be for us; the ultimate end is the new society, which towers above any organization regardless of its form.

[37] “Letter to Adrienne Rich” [Sept, 18, 1986], in Supplement to the Raya Dunayevskaya Collection, Vol. 13 (Detroit: Wayne State University Archives of Labor History and Urban Affairs), p. 11304.

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