How do we move beyond Capitalism?

23 04 2013

Barry Biddulph reviews, Beyond Capitalism by Luke Cooper and Simon Hardy (Zero Books 2012) ,£11.99.

Luke and Simon’s starting point is the observation that the “dramatic growth of the radical left after 1968 and the much more modest gains made after the mass movements of 2011, underlie the fact Marxism has lost its position as the natural ‘go to’ in politics” (1).  Speaking from experience of 1968 and 2011 this is certainly a correct assessment. It’s also, a revealing conclusion. What does it say about the record of the Leninist left since 1968 ? They dodge this question. Instead, they side step any criticism of the Bolshevik heritage by simply declaring that the common perception of Leninism as top down organisational control and sectarian splitting “does not accord with the totality of the Russian experience” (2). Explicit Leninism is placed on one side for flexibility and popular appeal.smSimonHardy

As Luke and Simon argue, young anti-capitalists value social struggle from below rather than relying on bureaucratic hierarchies.  Trade union officialdom is a good example of bureaucracy and hierarchy, yet for Simon and Luke, “this should be the time when the unions come forward to do their job as defensive organisations” (3).  But are the trade unions fit for purpose: can they defend their members pensions, jobs and conditions? Even before the onset of Thatcherism and the anti-union laws, trade unions accepted capitalist realism. Trade union leaders are not just mediators between the bosses and the workers in the factories, and offices, they often enforce the requirements of the state and capitalism. It was the rank and file workers who went outside the official trade union structures in the 1960’s, and 1970’s to force up living standards by unofficial action.  The recent successful wild cat strikes by the Sparks was a throw back to this tradition.

Before Neo-Liberalism, the trade union leaders still helped to manage capitalism and police their own members. But as Will Hutton notes  “they could not deliver their members to agreed policies,” (4) or a pay freeze, and wage restraint.  So trade union officialdom had to be strengthened by the rule of law. Now, as Simon and Luke describe it, most of the anti-trade union laws today are implemented by the trade Unions themselves: the appointed regional official will tell workers they cannot strike. But does the trade union bureaucracy have an organic connection with the working class? And did this bureaucratic link, in turn, give old Labour an organic connection with the working class ? These are not questions Simon, and Luke raise.  They still cling to  old Trotskyist tactics, which are not consistent with the values of struggle from below.

The authors believe there is a qualitative difference between Old and New Labour. They declare that New Labour opened up a “radically different era in the history of the Labour Party” (5 ). New Labour was modern:  it was cool Britannia, technocratic, and vaguely ethical. But there is nothing new about this; Harold Wilson was a modern leader with a vision of the white heat of the technological revolution. For Ramsay MacDonald, socialism was all about an ethical community. They go on to assert that, “New Labour broke with the politics of class” (6). New Labour’s crime was in “dismantling a mass pole of opposition to Neo-Liberalism that was based on the working class movement” (7).  They even claim Old Labour was “never overtly pro-capitalist in its message” (8).  All this tired ‘thinking’ is wrong and a distortion of history. The Labour party originated, not as a party of a class, hence the label Labour not Socialist, but as a one nation party. Keir Hardie won the vote against those who argued that the Labour party should be based on the class struggle and socialism.

The parliamentary Labour Party has had a pro capitalist message throughout its history. It was against the General Strike, opposed miners strikes, sent in troops against dockers on strike, blamed workers for any economic crisis, appealed for the suspension of the class struggle to work for the election of a Labour Government, called for workers to make a sacrifice for the national interest, and pioneered Neo-Liberalism in 1976. Public ownership was never about democratic control. Mass council house building was based on the capitalist market and the private sector. The Attlee government revived failing capitalist enterprise with nationalisation, but still championed private capitalism for most of the so-called mixed economy.

They write that to resolve the austerity crisis is to solve the central antagonism between a government and  Neo-Liberal accumulation at the base.  To put this another way, “its contradictions can arguably only find their resolution at the level of politics” (9).  In plain English, the crisis will be resolved at a parliamentary level. This is why they are  critical supporters of Syriza, despite the reformist programme of its leadership. Electoralism is central to their outlook. They write, “it is quite wrong as some international supporters of Antarsya have argued that strikes and the streets are where the struggle will be decided” . (10), This opinion is wrong. In a profound crisis solutions tend to by-pass parliaments which cannot take the strain. In Germany, in the 1930’s, Social Democracy taught the workers high parliamentary politics, but the fascists imposed their will on the streets.

Their strategic stress on electoralism is clear in their comments that for the great majority of working class people, politics will still be limited to the electoral terrain (11).  Underlying this electoralism is the stale old formulas of the Communist International in the 1920’s, which were a variation of the strategy of left-wing social democracy: a parliamentary government resting on the capitalist state, but simultaneously representing the workers outside parliament. In other words, the strategy of a so-called Workers Government. The extra parliamentary dimension is a rhetorical fig leaf since the transition is understood to be through winning a parliamentary majority and looking at the state as a route to a post capitalist society.

In an attempt to theoretically back up their strategy, they refer to Rosa Luxembourg’s, Reform or Revolution, to buttress their discussion about betwixt and between a sect and a mass reformist movement. But their understanding is skewed. Luxemburg was talking about steering between two reefs of the mass character of the movement and the final aim. There was already a mass social democratic workers movement which was losing its sight of the final goal after a period of social stability. Luxemburg was alerting the movement to the growing contradictions of capitalism which pointed to its overthrow. Rosa was calling on a mass party with a formal adherence to Marxism to attenuate the contradictions, not seek reform in parliament or look to the state to ameliorate the crisis.

Luke and Simon’s focus is not so much on going beyond capitalism as going beyond Neo-Liberalism. They describe the current economic situation as the transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich, which they regard as the central feature of policy making and the economic motor of the financial crisis. This hints at a underconsumptionist view of the economic crisis. But there is no discussion of crisis theory; they do not examine the depth or nature of the current great recession. Nor do they rule out a Keynesian solution as a transition to socialism, even for the short-term. Given their emphasis on elections, this is a big omission, among many other gaps in their analysis.  At the end of the book we are still left with the question: how do we move beyond Capitalism?


1 Luke Cooper, Simon Hardy,Beyond Capitalism, p6 ( Zero Books 2012)

2 ibid, p.5

3 ibid, p.72

4 Will Hutton, Observer, 14 April 2013

5 Luke Cooper and Simon Hardy,Beyond Capitalism,p40

6 ibid  p.42

7 ibid, p.41

8 ibid, p.40

9 ibid, p.11

10 ibid p.151

11 ibid p.141

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16 responses

23 04 2013


23 04 2013

How to get from capitalism to communism is not known as it has not happened yet.

The Paris Commune tried & failed in a bloody massacre.
The Bolsheviks succeeded in taking power only to impose a one-party dictatorship.
The Spanish Revolution got killed off with the help of Stalin.

We don’t know for sure that communism cannot come about through parliamentary legislation, but it must surely be highly improbable given that the political institutions are part of the capitalist system.

At some point local councils, call them communes, soviets or whatever, will have to be established to form the very foundations of common ownership of the means of production. Why wait until an electoral victory?

Hopefully the ACI, & Left Unity for that matter, will support the creation of an alternative system as well as an alternative party. Remember Russia had Soviets long before the revolution.

So long as we pursue this route along with electoral politics, & those standing for election realise the future is with the people making the decisions, not an elite class of professional politicians, then we can be hopeful that we are not embarking on a strategy that will replace one lot of coordinators with another.

Simon & Luke are not reformists, they are revolutionaries who know that to get a revolution means working with reformists & reaching out to working class people who have never read anything by Lenin, let alone Marx. The real world demands some compromises. We just have to be careful that in our eagerness to achieve something we don’t make our final goal of communism harder to obtain.

23 04 2013

To echo the above, it seems that the characterization of the authors of Beyond Capitalism misses the point that now is the time for pragmatic considerations by utilizing-weaponzing whatever comes to hand; there is no way to jump outside of the situation we’re in by wishing it; we have to be partisans of immanence- which is precisely what Proudhon defined as being an anarchist (‘A partisan of immanence is a true anarchist’, in De la justice).

To be partisans of immanence means not looking for transcendental solutions, it means to experiment, to pick up what is to hand and see if it can be made to work differently. So the idea of a party can’t be scoffed at and nor can the use of the unions. This position is one that I think is best spoken of as ‘tactical openness’ and I think that among its truest adherents are the thought of thinkers as far from one another as Foucault and Lenin.

The creation of an alternative system is incredibly appealing. What would it look like? I think this is a question people like SolFed are working on, right?

In reality its quite likely that electoral politics (“political politics”) is on its way out as a historical phenomena anyway, or it is at least in a period of historical decline/decadence… but there is still a mass of people who believe in elections and who are scared of mass mobilisations. If we accidentially engage in a psychological terrorism with the people that we need on board to make a revolution possible, and if we ignore questions of work, housing, and eating, in order to maintain some position of theoretical purity or ideological certainty then we’re just reproducing our own little ghetto where the same conversations are had by the same people ad infinitum.

24 04 2013

Duvinrouge states that “how we get from capitalism to communism is not known as it has not happened yet”

This is a bald statement free of historical knowledge and context. Capitalism might not have been transcended,but there have been numerous attempts and class struggles to overcome capitalism. Communists have generalised from this experience, so that we are not doomed to repeat the costly mistakes and indeed defeats of the past. This is the meaning of a programme,strategy and perspectives.

Lets look at a few examples of the parliamentary road to Socialism.

The Britsh Labour party and the history of pro capitalist Labour Governments, both Old Labour and New Labour, have strengthened capitalism and undermined the struggle, not just for an alternative, but strikes to advance working class interest. The experience of Labour Governments and the history of the Labour party show socialism cannot come down from parliament or be voted into existence.

Same lesson from Chile in 1972. A left government voted into office with a parliamentary majority overthrown by the military. Looking to the state and parliament resulted in a blood bath.

German Social democracy is another example of state socialism. Kautsky’s lesson from the defeat of the Paris commune was not the self emancipation of the working class, but the need for the working class to be involved in high parliamentary politics,legislating for socialism from above. The result, the support for German imperialism and the first world war, and eventually, in the victory of fascism.

The combination of Soviets or workers councils and a bourgeois parliament was advocated by Hilferding in 1918/19. But workers councils and Parliament could not run in tandem. The focus on parliament led to the crushing of the revolution by the parliamentary socialists.

Lenin rooted his regime in the party and state. This state socialism resulted in Stalinism and prior to that a dictatorship over workers.

Most of the above is reflected in the political platform of the commune. We have a platform and anti state political perspectives not because we are ultra left or purists, but because to echo the Communist manifesto,communists are the most far sighted,both into the past and looking to the future.

Duvinrouge writes that “we cannot know for sure that Communism cannot come from parliamentary legislation.” The experience of the class struggle does tell us it cannot come from legislation. Well self emancipation of the working class by definition cannot come from the state and legislation, but self activity and mass participatory democracy. I don’t know what equality of decision making means, but it does not mean legislation from on high.

Another opinion of Duvinrouge is that we can support electoralism as long as those standing for election (and elected?) realise the future is with the people making the decisions not an elected class of politicians. This is the social democratic idea of communism from below working in partnership with parliament and the state rather than one undermining the other. To echo Rosa Luxembourg : parliamentary reformism is not a different route to the same destination, but the road to a different destination.

24 04 2013

I tried reading this book. Its extremely vague and by the end you do not know the answer to the question posed in the title, is there a future “Beyond Capitalism”? It seems to apply a well worn schema, I only say seems, as it often contradicts itself, pages start and never finish the point they started with, and it has a penchant for citing obscure academics for no particular reason, who often contradict one another.
Bizarrely it opens by seeming to claim that capitalism needs a revolutionary alternative so that capitalists can be persuaded to reform the system in their own interests. Perversely it implies, by fighting the system we are helping to save it. In which case, we’re better off giving up and the whole premise of the book falls, as without a united the left or indeed any left, the system will be in deeper crisis than with it.
This however, seems to be an anomaly and hasn’t got anything to do with the central schema, which can be broadly summarised as seeming to say;
The economic crisis is profound – this is a given – never proved or really discussed just assumed and repeatedly asserted – this economic crisis is pushing the masses into revolt – again there are a few scattered examples provided but no serious analysis of what that means – but that revolt is not resulting in people joining left groups. *Big deal* one might say.
But in order to solve this problem – the key concern of the book – it is not necessary to fight for anything in particular – the book never says what it is *for* but to “unite”, just so there is a left that can…persuade the capitalists to reform the system in their interests.

24 04 2013

you have brought the discussion back to the book which is a good thing. Yes I noticed the peculiar logic in the book that Capitalists need an opposition to reform themselves.

24 04 2013

I’d like to defend duvinrougue a little.

‘Capitalism might not have been transcended,but there have been numerous attempts and class struggles to overcome capitalism’.

This is true, I don’t think anyone would dispute it. The examples commie64 discusses are all worth repeating, worth remembering, and worth reciting to those who would see the parliamentary route and the party-form as the only legitimate routes to power.Yet to invoke those historical examples without situating them in a new politico-historical moment is to neglect that the past is not the present and that historical determinations are not historical determinisms. Given that the vast majority of the left has been in disarray and despair, that it has in fact been reduced to discussing communism as a hypothesis and that so many anarchist tendencies have identified as “post-left”, tells us something about the historical moment. Even the valorisation of the Paris Commune as an “inspirational failure”, as it is called in the latest Commune paper, is to miss the point that the 1917 revolution was a victory that was perverted. Why do we persist in celebrating failures whilst denigrating our victories, no matter how short lived and fleeting it was?

The point in all this is twofold. It is first to point out that forms and figures are not transcendentally good or bad- a philosophically bunk idea that invokes Ur-Parties and Ur-Unions- but that they must be engaged with from within the immanent logic of each and every given situation. Obviously, this doesn’t and shouldn’t mean giving up an anti-statist perspective necessarily…it simply entails being willing to at least attempt to work with, among, other sections of the working class, in the attempt to present a united front. If parliamentary politics is a weapon against communism then does it make sense for communist’s to allow the enemy to monopolise that weapon? Do we seriously think that if we tread a similar path that others have we necessarily end up by walking in their shadows? To make an analogy, this is a bit like claiming that Lenin ended in, and so always ends in, Stalin is the same as claiming that being abused as a child has ended, in and so always ends in, becoming an abuser.

The second point is that at the moment the left is beginning to think of itself as a force again, and while this ebullience is still young and fragile I don’t think that tearing away at it does anyone any good. A great many mistakes have been made in the past, and many more will be made in the future. The reactivation of lost possibilities shouldn’t immediately lead us to the closing down of possibilities.

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that everyone become a Leninist. This would not work and wouldn’t be desirable. Indeed, we could ask the question of whether in today’s world, in the UK, given this set of circumstances, would Lenin be a Leninist? I am also not attempting to argue anyone away from an anti-state perspective, I am simply asking whether such a perspective can’t be more nuanced than a simple rejection of the state. (Indeed, an anti-state perspective might also be one that jettisons “the state” from its analysis in favor of an analysis of multiple institutions… after all, we’re involved in defenses of the welfare state. In what way is that anti-state? It isn’t, and shouldn’t have to be…it is pro-worker).

The work of building a mass organisation is surely not to be “limited to electoral politics” but making use of it shouldn’t be sniffed at. I think there is a question of how revolution is to be defined. I think this is a word people should begin tabooing: instead of invoking revolution, say what it is that that word stands in for. Pretty soon the reform/revolution dichotomy might start to look a little shaky. Can you politically reform capitalism out of existence? No, of course you can’t. Should we reject the gains made by reform? Equally not.

I suppose I feel, and I don’t claim to represent anyone’s opinion beyond my own, or to have any theoretical (and still less practical!) knowledge, that at the moment the Left is re-examining itself. Here, I am not setting out a position or trying to direct struggle one way or another (as if I even could!). I am thinking as I write, that is, in exchange, about the problem of organisation.

“self emancipation of the working class by definition cannot come from the state and legislation”.

I agree! I absolutely agree! And at the same time, I would ask if ceding the state and legislation to our enemies does us any good? Maybe I am being naive but I think that all possible tools should be considered and tested. Isn’t it possible to legislate political power away from centralisation? Isn’t that the lesson of devolution? Maybe I misunderstand the issue, but it seems to me that the dream of the soviets, of the councils, would be that political power be devolved all the way…

Maybe I am foolishly stuck circling old questions that for everyone else have been finally settled by history. I would end by saying that if I were presented with a choice between The Commune and the Communist Party of Great Britain (or some other such body), I would intuitively side with The Commune. Yet to hold open the problem, I would also want to reject having to make that choice.

24 04 2013

Formatting twat :-)

24 04 2013

Sorry, I am not intending to flood…just wanted to add that

‘We have no gods, not even revolutionary ones. We reject the practice of using the works of this or that socialist of decades past as sacred texts from which “revealed truths” can be read off as gospel. While we acknowledge the value of the movements and ideas of the past, the “traditions” to which the traditional left groups appeal are universally ahistorical and anachronistic, used for the sake of feigning historical legitimacy rather than to critically examine and draw lessons from the past. We believe that the defeats of the workers’ movement in the last three decades; the decay of the left and the absolute poverty of its ideas and slogans; its abandonment of class politics; and the sectarianism of the groups vying for supremacy with their own front campaigns and so-called unity projects; are all evidence of the need for ground-up rethinking of the left’s project and the re-composition of the workers’ movement’…

is, I think, precisely the spirit of what I am discussing and what the authors are hoping can be discussed with there calls for unity and fronts. If we are to talk about lessons from the past, no less than the failures of those past unity projects are those of the left to work together (Spain, yes, but also Italy in the days preceding Mussolini). I suppose the critical question might be “what do we mean by unity”?

25 04 2013

What the Commune brings to this perspective on how to get beyond capitalism is a strong & consistent belief in communism from below.

That means the people running society themselves through councils of some description rather than the one-party apparatus that was the Soviet Union.
This means we are against hierarchy. We are against a central committee substituting itself for the party & the party substituting itself for the working class –

Does this make us anti-Leninist? Yes, in the sense that parties like the SWP hide behind ‘democratic-centralism’ whilst a clique effectively make all the decisions. It doesn’t practice communism so how can it be trusted to deliver communism? But Lenin in ‘The State & Revolution’ was clearly for all power to the Soviets, not the party, at least eventually. It can be argued that the circumstances of Russia prevented this from happening. If the revolution had spread to Germany & elsewhere things might have been very different.

So we shouldn’t dismiss all Leninists & not work with them. As we shouldn’t dismiss all those who want to do electoral work or trade union work. We should seek to influence. That doesn’t mean we don’t offer criticism. The best criticism can come from your friends. But equally we don’t alienate those who are essentially for the same outcome as us.

There’s a lot of work to be done & a lot of areas where we can work together.

25 04 2013

Thanks Arran.Some interesting points.

Firstly you have taken the debate far beyond a book review. A review is obviously not a programme. Two comrades have written a book recommending a strategy to go beyond Capitalism, the review criticises the strategy put forward. The clash of opinion and open debate helps clarify how we move forward.

The review is friendly and comradely and does not personally attack the authors. The focus is on the ideas presented in the book. So there is no savage tearing away at the authors who are not new left activists, but seasoned Trotskyists, who were until recently members of Workers Power. Simon was a Workers Power full timer (professional revolutionary) for ten years. Barry has written a critique of Simon’s Bolshevism in the Forgotten criticisms of Bolshevism on this site.

There are different weapons and tools for different uses. You would not use an axe if you needed a screwdriver. Parliament is based on the separation of politics and economics. The alienation of the masses from self government. Look to self government, rather than political representatives substituting for the mass participation of the working class. The state and parliament serve to separate the producers from control over what they produce. The state and parliament are not neutral institutions,they are ruling class weapons.

There is no welfare state. There is only a capitalist state. There is welfare capitalism. But to defend welfare is to defend the needs of the working class. As a class we defend what we require for a fully human life:a logic which tends to point beyond capitalism.

You ask why should there be a choice of revolutionary organisations? We are all on the same side, so there should be unity. But there is no single organisational unity. In Spain, 1936 1937, unity with the bourgeois republicans and their state destroyed the revolution. How can communists unite with the CPGB at the moment when they organise on the basis of so called democratic centralism. Top down Centralism with enormous powers given to the central committee over the grass roots members will not facilitate self emancipation. Nor will a hundred year old strategy to transform the Labour party.

This is not to say there cannot be more limited unity over say defence of jobs or a fight against a hospital closure and so on. But before there can be a mass communist movement, there has to be sufficient people with communist politics, who will be an organic part of working class resistance and class war. Which in turn means up against the State and Parliament.

25 04 2013

Thanks for replying. I suppose I would agree with the majority of what both of you have to say on those fronts. I think that I would only want to emphasise still that working with others and weaponsing certain forms doesn’t mean uncritical acceptance or dissolving into one mass organisation. That is why I’m talking about “tactical openness” as opposed to just openness; it is why I ask the question of “which unity”. I am asking whether strategic ends ought to always determine tactical options. The Lenin of prior to 1917, the Lenin of WISTBD and S&R, was willing to dirty his hands. I just wonder if communists shouldn’t be willing to do so as well.

I accept that this is a book review but when it comes to theoretical matters of practice a review isn’t just a review, it is a reflection of disagreements and implicit statements of divergence.

All that said, I do look forward to reading more of the work published here and share much of your criticism. I suppose I am looking for the complications in these positions and my own positions.

25 04 2013

Arran, I like your blog
Let us know if you think you have anything suitable for republishing on the Commune website.

25 04 2013

Thank you. I’ll have a look and if I can see anything, or write anything particularly relevant, I’ll let you know.

26 04 2013
ACA The Underground

Will the state wither away or is a violent revolution needed to pry away power from the rich and powerful elite?
Time will tell but either way, capitalism’s days are numbered.

5 05 2013

Capitalism’s days are numbered, but we mustn’t think that this necessarily means the ushering in of communism, or if it does then we mustn’t assume it will usher in a libertarian or council communism. We’re looking at an increasingly plutocratic ruling class backed up by oligarichic regimes- a mixture that lends itself to increased class protectionism on behalf of the super-rich and their guardians. We’re also looking at the possibility of ecological crisis and the possible return of scarcity (water, for instance). In times of crisis people often capitulate responsibility to a Master (understood as a position, rather than as a person). While hope always remains, must always remain, there is still no reason to think the death of capitalism will be to everyone’s good.

On the question of the state and the nature of the revolution, I rather think these questions belong to another era: an era in which those words meant something straight forward.


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