Friday, December 15, 2006


Extra note: The "civilising influence of capital"

Does recognising the "great civilising influence" of capital make Marxists liable to drift to the right?

Marx's repeated returns, in the Grundrisse, to the idea, variously expressed, of the "great civilising influence of capital", prompted a discussion among us of whether this may be a "dangerous idea", liable to make Marxists drift to the right.
Of course many former revolutionaries shift to the right as they get older. No need to look at the Grundrisse to explain that.
Occasionally you get a cluster of ex-leftists who move to the right as a group, using the links and skills they developed as leftists for new purposes. The latest example is the group round Frank Furedi in England, once the Revolutionary Communist Party but now a prominent knot of right-ish media pundits (See Institute of Ideas; Furedi; comment by George Monbiot).
The Furedi group was a very strange little group when leftist, and very unstable in its politics then. It never paid any special attention to the ideas in the Grundrisse on the "civilising influence of capital", nor to the similar ideas in the Communist Manifesto: rather the contrary. There is no reason to connect their evolution, or, say, that of Lyndon LaRouche's group, to the ideas in the Grundrisse or the Communist Manifesto.
There are two historical examples of groups of ex-leftists moving right in a way that had some connection with their appreciation of the "civilising influence of capital".
Many of the "legal Marxists" of the 1890s in Russia - so called because they published works of Marxist theory abstruse enough to be legal under the Tsarist censorship - became bourgeois liberals. Trotsky described the process like this:
"Until the nineties, the greater part of the Russian intelligentsia was stagnating in Populist theories with their rejection of capitalist development and idealization of peasant communal ownership of the land.
And capitalism in the meantime was holding out to the intelligentsia the promise of all sorts of material blessings and political influence. The sharp knife of Marxism was the instrument by which the bourgeois intelligentsia cut the Populist umbilical cord, and severed itself from a hated past. It was this that accounted for the swift and victorious spread of Marxism during the latter years of the last century.
As soon as Marxism had accomplished this, however, it began to irk this same intelligentsia. Its dialectics were convenient for demonstrating the progress of capitalist methods of development, but finding that it led to a revolutionary rejection of the whole capitalist system, they adjudged it an impediment and declared it out of date.
At the turn of the [19th/20th] century, at the time when I was in prison and exile, the Russian intelligentsia was going through a phase of wide-spread criticism of Marxism. They accepted its historical justification of capitalism, but discarded its rejection of capitalism by revolutionary means. In this roundabout way the old Populist intelligentsia, with its archaic sympathies, was slowly being transformed into a liberal bourgeois intelligentsia". [My Life, chapter 10].
Yes, the former radical populists on the way to becoming bourgeois liberals used, as a stepping stone, an element that really was there in Marxist theory. But the element was in the theory because it was in the reality! Denying the reality, and the real effects, of capitalist development, as the populists did, was no answer.
Then in the 1960s, the elderly Max Shachtman, and a small circle of followers, notably Tom Kahn and Don Slaiman, moved from being revolutionary socialists to becoming deeply immersed in Fabian-type politicking within US trade-union officialdom and the Democratic Party. They supported the US-sponsored attempt to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, and semi-supported the Vietnam war. Kahn and Slaiman (though never Shachtman) came to describe themselves as social-democrats, and rose to high places in the AFL-CIO.
Many of Shachtman's former comrades, such as Hal Draper and Julius Jacobson, protested, and remained true to revolutionary socialism. Even of those who moved with Shachtman away from revolutionary socialism, many - Michael Harrington, for example - refused to go with him on Vietnam. Shachtman's little group was given more resonance, however, by the existence in the USA of a veritable milieu of one-time leftists who - one by one, and over three decades - shifted into, and shaped, a particular strand of US bourgeois politics: secular, would-be rationalist, liberal-imperialist. (See Alan Wald's book The New York Intellectuals).
In so far as an element of Marxist theory is involved here, it is the element that says that bourgeois democracy is better, for the working class, than the suppression of independent life for the labour movement, even a suppression justified in leftish, populist, or Stalinist terms. The people involved took that element, and let it swallow the rest of their politics, so that they became just advocates of bourgeois democracy, and sometimes of attempts to "impose" bourgeois democracy through US power across the world.
As with the "legal Marxists", the answer is not and cannot be to try to deny the element of Marxist theory. That element of theory corresponds to an element of reality. The answer is, as Trotsky put it, to hold on to the other side of the "dialectics", which "lead to a revolutionary rejection of the whole capitalist system".
There is another twist to the story with Shachtman and his friends. Another element of theory was implicated in their political drift: and that, paradoxically, was that they largely denied, or rejected, or considered out-of-date, the broad Marxist idea which Marx summarises as "the civilising influence of capital". That influence, they believed, had once existed; but now, since around the First World War, capitalism was in an "epoch of decay". Bourgeois democracy, though valuable, was only a remnant, a residue.
"Paradoxically, the idea of the Epoch Of Decay led Max Shachtman, once the foremost champion of Third Camp politics, to the converse position of supporting US capitalism. As late as 1961 he insisted on the idea of capitalist decline in a flat, straightforward sense by then unusual among Marxists: "The famous 'dynamism' of the Stalinist world... appears... only in contrast to the unarrested decline and helplessness of the capitalist world... [Therefore] so long as the choice before the world is only between these two [capitalism and Stalinism], it is Stalinism - totalitarian collectivism - that will gain, at one or another rate of speed".
Capitalism was "nearing the end of its historical rope", whereas Stalinism was not. (The Bureaucratic Revolution, p.3, 2, 293). Stalinism, with its totalitarian control over the working class and its ability to "solve basic social problems" in its own way (p.338), cut off the possibility of socialism, whereas, so long as this half-dead capitalism survived, the chance remained that its ever-worse decay would be resolved by working-class socialism rather than Stalinism.
The socialist movement was weak. From this gloomy perspective followed not just politically-independent joint action with bourgeois forces to defend democratic rights against Stalinism - which might have the immediate result of preserving bourgeois capitalism, but made working-class sense - but de facto critical rallying to the bourgeois camp.
Oddly, Shachtman's former comrade Hal Draper, who defended a continuing revolutionary socialist perspective against him, never so far as I know explicitly rejected or tackled the idea of capitalist decline" [Workers' Liberty 63. See also the subsequent debate].

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