Rejoinder To Albert 1

Dear Michael,

Thanks for your comments. In response I’ll try to deal with the main issues that you raise, but also to move the argument on a bit:

1. Justice and other values: Of course you’re right that everyone claims to have justice on their side, but the conception of egalitarian justice that I advanced is more precise than you suggest. According to this conception, everyone is entitled to equal access to the resources that they require in order to live the life they have reason to value. Three points about this:

(i) Those who inherit wealth or natural talents may sincerely believe that they had equal access to society’s resources, but this doesn’t alter the fact that this belief is false – and indeed if used to justify rewarding property or genetic endowment a pretty obvious rationalization. ‘Equal access’ means equal access.

(ii) The form of equality advocated here precisely does not seek to equalize outcomes. It is a radical version of equality of opportunity. Everyone should have equal access to resources but it is up to each individual how much he or she makes of this opportunity. So this conception of justice is consistent with (though it doesn’t mandate) remunerating work according to effort, as you propose.

(iii) The idea that people should have the same chance to live the life they have reason to value introduces what philosophers call a ‘perfectionist’ element. Not all life-plans are of equal worth: the arms-dealer or the racist or the paedophile can’t claim resources from society in order to pursue their particular projects.  

As to the other values, I’ve already said that your value of self-management is an important specification of the content of democracy. I particularly like your argument that the norm that people should participate in decisions to the extent that the outcome of these decisions affects them does not uniquely favour any one decision procedure: according to circumstances, consensus, the majority principle, or dictatorship (in the sense that my preferences should trump everyone’s else’s preferences on matters like what I wear or believe) is the right procedure. I draw effectively the same conclusion, but without the principled justification you provide, on pp. 122-3 of my Anti-Capitalist Manifesto. As to my other values, efficiency and sustainability, what you effectively say is that the content of each value is partially determined by the other values that are jointly affirmed with it: ‘efficiency’ means something different depending on whether it is shackled to profitability. That’s true, and is a point that I make in my Manifesto.

2. Capitalism and Socialism:  You agree that capitalism involves ‘wage labour and a blind process of competitive accumulation’ but argue that it also includes ‘private ownership of productive assets, competitive markets, corporate division of labour, and remuneration for property and power’. Without being too pedantic, I think that what’s correct in your additions is entailed by the two fundamental separations – of labour-power from the means of production and of competing capitals from one another – that I hold to be constitutive of the capitalist mode of production. Let’s run quickly through your list.

‘Private ownership of productive assets’ is neither a necessary or sufficient condition of the existence of capitalist relations of production. Leaving aside the question of Stalinism (which I have already claimed was a case of bureaucratic state capitalism), there have been plenty of capitalist enterprises that are (or perhaps better, in these days of privatization, were) state owned. What is a necessary condition is that a minority gains effective control of the means of production and is able to exclude the direct producers from direct access to these means, irrespective of whether this control is legitimated through property titles. What is also necessary is that this minority is subject to competition, which may take the form of market competition but may also consist in geopolitical rivalries that compel rival states to invest in the industries required to support advanced military technologies. Imperialism in its modern capitalist sense happens when these two forms of competition fuse. ‘Remuneration for property and power’ is a feature of all class societies, not just capitalism.

‘Corporate divisions of labour’ raise more complex issues connected to the question of social transformation. I would say that the division of labour under capitalism is the combined effect of the demands of exploitation and of technical requirements that are themselves a reflection of the competitive processes that impel technological change. You imply that Marxists are inattentive to the plight of workers in production, but this doesn’t really stand up. Marx himself in Capital shows how to gain effective possession of the means of production capitalists have to transform the production process itself, reducing workers to appendages of the machines they tend. This theme of what he calls ‘the real subsumption of labour under capital’ has been pursued by many 20th century Marxists – Harry Braverman, the Italian workerists, and so on.

The foregoing should answer the question you pose about whether I see ‘workplace organization being another locus of needed change’. Of course I do! The particular tradition I come from – the International Socialist Tendency – has always laid great stress on the significance of rank-and-file movements through which workers are able to resist the bosses independently of trade-union officials. Comrades of mine played a leading role in a very important wildcat strike by postal workers here in Britain six weeks ago. Any serious challenge to capitalist domination would involve the development of forms of workers’ control of production – forms that would be a key constituent of the new society.

You ask for more detail on how I conceive the new society, but, as I have already made clear, I agree with much of what you say in expounding ‘parecon’. You resist calling your alternative ‘socialism’ on the basis of what seems to me just a stipulation that socialism can’t consist in the kind of council democracy you advocate. All I can say is that council democracy is what I have understood by ‘socialism’ every since I first became politically active over 30 years ago.

3. Leninism: You note that I ‘make no mention … of a political party, much less of a Leninist one,’ and ‘wonder why not’. I wasn’t trying to hide anything, as my inclusion of Lenin in the revolutionary Marxist tradition in my opening statement indicates. I knew we’d come to the question of the party soon enough. I wouldn’t call myself a ‘Marxist-Leninist’ because this implies adhesion to some version of the Stalinist orthodoxy that became institutionalized from the mid-1920s onwards. But I have no qualms about calling myself a Leninist when it comes to revolutionary organization.  So what does it mean to be a Leninist in the 21st century?

The starting point has to be Cassen’s ’20 million person problem’: the gap between the committed activists and the mass of working-class people who are the main victims of capitalism (at least in the advanced economies). You’re right to say that there are social reasons why this gap exists, though I don’t think the key problem here is the prevalence of ‘the coordinator class’s structures, tone, preferences, and languages’. If by coordinators you mean managers, then I don’t see many of them in the movement. People tend to come from more qualified white-collar backgrounds, I would say, which can certainly encourage self-indulgence and elitism, but the strongest conservative pull comes from the bigger NGOs and the trade unions, with their bureaucratic structures and vested interests.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m in favour of involving the unions and the NGOs because through them bigger social forces get involved in the movement. But the radical wing of the movement needs to act in a concerted weigh to counteract the pressures towards moderation that trade-union officials and the like can exert. Over the past couple of years a more distinctive left has emerged within the movement: it is thanks to this development that 15 February happened. But this left is itself politically heterogeneous. It embraces, among others, people like you, the leadership of the Italian Social Forums movement, Walden Bello and Focus on the Global South, the British Socialist Workers Party and its allies in the Stop the War Coalition and Globalise Resistance. It’s really important that this left works together and pursues dialogue (these exchanges between us are an example). But I don’t think this is enough.

The basic idea behind Leninism is that those on the left who share a revolutionary socialist perspective should form a common organization with the aim of winning over the majority to the idea of overthrowing capitalism. The aim is an important constraint: as I have already argued, socialist revolution is a process of self-emancipation. The role of a revolutionary party is, then, not to substitute itself the different forms of democratic self-organization that emerge in the course of mass struggle but to help them to develop the strategic focus required actually to replace the existing structure of society with a better one.

But won’t such a strategic focus emerge naturally as the movement develops? History suggests not. Not simply will any living movement generate a variety of different strategies and programmes but, the stronger we get, the more the capitalist class will try to divide us, to encourage the dominance of moderate leaders who seek compromise solutions, to isolate the radicals, etc. We need to organize against them, without reproducing the hierarchical and authoritarian structures characteristic of capitalism.

Revolutionary organization needs to be ideologically coherent. Leninists believe that the Marxist tradition is the best basis on which to achieve this coherence. This is partly because Marx’s critique of political economy inaugurated far and way the most powerful analysis of the economic dynamics of capitalism. Moreover, Marxist political writing constitutes an enormously rich archive of reflection and argument on the great revolutionary experiences of the 19th and 20th centuries. Anyone interested in revolution in the 21st century would be well advised to start here – even though these writings should not be treated as sacred texts or to the exclusion of thinking from other backgrounds, but read critically as contributions to an evolving tradition that has constantly to renewing itself by engaging with the present.

Finally, there’s the question of democratic centralism. As it is practised in the organizations in the IS tradition (as opposed to the bureaucratic centralism characteristic of Stalinist parties), democratic centralism comes down to a rigorous application of the majority principle. Thoroughgoing discussion is necessary to assess how well a revolutionary party is actually engaging in the present and to work out its strategy for the future, but this discussion must conclude in a decision that is taken by majority vote and that is binding on all members of the party whatever the position they took in these debates.

These are two rationales for this procedure. First, the point of a revolutionary party is intervention in larger struggles in order to help shape the movement. Discussion therefore isn’t an end in itself, but must terminate in decisions. Secondly, a Leninist organization has a high degree of ideological cohesion because of its roots in the revolutionary Marxist tradition. Given this consensus on political principles, it is rational for party members to agree to make decisions on how to apply these principles in practice on the basis of the majority principle.

This method of organizing is perfectly defensible on democratic grounds. I accept that the practical effectiveness that Leninist organizations can have thanks to this combination of ideological cohesion and the disciplined application of majority decisions can create suspicion. So let me use my last few words to emphasize that revolutionary socialists in my tradition don’t see democratic centralism as the organizational model either for the present movement or for the future society as it emerges from anti-capitalist struggles. The Leninist party is an instrument in the process of self-emancipation that will make it obsolete.


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