The Trouble with Leninism

by Mark Evans, Alex Doherty

Mark Evans is a founding member of Project for a Participatory Society UK, the UK chapter of the International Organisation for a Participatory Society, a growing movement of people committed to developing vision and strategy devoted to winning a new society based on participation, solidarity, equity, diversity and self-management.

Here he discusses his critique of Leninism with NLP’s Alex Doherty and outlines elements of an alternative approach for the radical left. We will publish a reply from a British Leninist in the coming days.

Leninism continues to be an influential strand of political thought on the radical left in the UK. You have been highly critical of this ideology, but before we get into your views on Leninism could you first outline for us what Leninism is exactly. What are its key concepts and features?

Before getting into the specifics of Leninism it might be worth me highlighting some more general criticism of Marxism that will hopefully help readers better understand my position which is rooted in, and informed by, participatory vision and strategy.

A key aspect of Marxism is the philosophical position of historical materialism which places particular emphasis on economic activity as a driving force for social dynamics and explanation for historical continuity and change.  To my mind this is not only an inaccurate picture of reality but also one that actively undermines solidarity between the various constituents that make up the left.  By prioritising class exploitation and oppression within the economic sphere over other forms of oppression in other social spheres - such as sexism and racism - historical materialism establishes an organisational framework that generates unnecessary and destructive tensions within the movement. 

But in addition to unfairly and unwisely elevating classism above other non-economic forms of oppression I would also argue that Marxists get economics seriously wrong and in ways that actively alienate the working class from the anti-capitalist movement.  I will talk more about this later (see my answer to question 3). 

As for Leninism, central to this doctrine is the conviction that, for a revolution to be successful, we need a revolutionary party.  This strategic conviction emerges out of a number of interrelated insights regarding the reality of capitalism and the nature of the class system.  These include -

>    The rejection of reformism
>    The uneven development of class consciousness within the working class

Leninists argue that capitalists will never allow their power to be eroded by a reformist party in power.  It therefore follows, according to Leninists, that it is necessary to organise for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. 
Leninists also argue that mass spontaneous revolt against capitalism is inadequate to win a revolution.  Hence, for Leninists, what is needed is for the most advanced and best organised revolutionaries (the vanguard) to lead the mass revolt to successful revolution. 

Finally, to defend the revolution against counter-revolutionary forces, the vanguard party must be organised along democratic centralists lines. 

This seems to capture the essence of Leninism - as I understand it. 

Lenin is a rather divisive figure on the left - for those in the Leninist/Trostkyist tradition he is a hero, a leader of the first workers revolution, and a man whose legacy was effectively destroyed by Stalin. On the other hand anarchists and some Marxists have argued that Lenin created the institutional architecture that made it all too easy for a Stalin to arise. How do you see the historical Lenin?

Well, first I don’t think that there is any doubt that Lenin was a serious and committed revolutionary.  That, I think, is beyond question.  What I do think is questionable is the nature of the revolution that Lenin had in mind.  Here, it seems to me, there are two quite different Lenins.
 
For example, we find the Lenin who said “all power to the soviets” and the Lenin who said “”Large scale machine industry which is the central productive source and foundation of socialism calls for absolute and strict unity of will ... How can strict unity of will be ensured?  By thousands subordinating their will to the will of one.” 

Supporters of Lenin - like Tony Cliff and his followers - tend to argue that these quotes need to be considered in their historical context and that it was events like the civil war that forced the Bolshevik leadership to resort to authoritarian measures.  However, this argument is undermined by Lenin’s right-hand man, Trotsky, when he stated -
“I consider that if the Civil War had not plundered our economic organs of all that was strongest, most independent, most endowed with initiative, we should undoubtedly have entered the path of one-man-management much sooner and much less painfully.” 

That said, I’m sure that (like Lenin) Trotsky also said some very nice things about workers control etc. 
So we have a situation where Lenin (and Trotsky) was saying very different, and often contradictory, things at different times - some libertarian and others authoritarian in tone.  How do we work out which to take seriously?  Did Leninism lead to Stalinism? 
Whilst this is an interesting question, for me as an organiser, it is kind of irrelevant.  Rather than focusing on individuals, like Lenin, what is much more important is to undertake an institutional analysis of the revolutionary organisation advocated by Lenin and implemented by the Bolshevik Party. 

One of the key features of Leninist parties is the organising principle of democratic centralism. What is democratic centralism? Why do you oppose it?
 
As I said as part of my answer to question one I think Marxism gets economics seriously wrong and in a way that alienates the working class from the anti-capitalist movement.  To understand why I think this requires an understanding of the possible sources of class division.
 
Typically Marxists see capitalism as a two class system.  There is the capitalist class and there is the working class.  The distinction between the two class emerges as a result of their different relationships to property ownership.  Basically the capitalists own the economy whilst the workers rent themselves out - a situation that inevitably generates different and opposing class interests.  

Whilst I agree with this I also think that there is at least one other source of class division within capitalist economics that Marxists tend to be blind to.  This additional sources of class conflict emerges out of the division of labour which under capitalism is elitist in nature.  The hierarchical division of labour results from the uneven allocation of tasks that go to make-up jobs.  This unevenness generates the hierarchy and allows for a minority to monopolise the empowering tasks within the economy and with it create a class of professional managers - sometimes referred to as the coordinator class. 

So for advocates of participatory economics (parecon) like myself capitalism is a three class economic system resulting from both property / ownership relations and the elitist division of labour / monopoly of empowering tasks.  Therefore as an organiser for a classless economic system it is necessary for me to not only be anti-capitalist but also anti-coordinator class. 

But what does this have to do with democratic centralism? 

Democratic centralism is a specific way to structure and run an organisation.  The democratic aspect has to do with the feature that all members are free to debate and have a say in decisions.  The centralism aspect refers to the outcome of elections after which all members are expected to uphold the majority position to ensure unity of action. 
(Before moving on to my main point I think it is probably worth stopping here and considering what kind of society is likely to result from a revolutionary organisation run along such lines.  If revolutionary organisations are to be considered seeds of the future society - as I think they should - then to my mind it seems almost inevitable that Leninism will lead to some form of mono-cultural totalitarianism with little, if any, consideration for minority opinion and rights.) 

However, another often overlooked feature of Leninist organisations is the hierarchical division of labour which is maintain within democratic centralism.  By maintaining an elitist division of labour Leninist organisations elevate the coordinator class to positions of dominance and, in so doing, generate a strong internal dynamic towards elitist centralisation and away from participatory democracy.  It is, I would argue, as a result of this internal dynamic and class dominance that much of the working class become alienated from the anti-capitalist movement. 
You see for me one aspect of the revolution for a classless economy will need to be a transition from an elitist division of labour to an egalitarian division of labour (what parecon advocates call balanced job complexes) and yet, to my knowledge, Leninists say nothing about this. 

From this analysis I think we can conclude that the debate, over what would have happened if Trotsky had succeeded Lenin instead of Stalin, is irrelevant and something of a distraction.  What is much more important, it seems to me, is that we develop coordinator class consciousness within the anti-capitalist movement. 

Leninist parties (the Socialist Workers Party being the most obvious example) have clearly made very important contributions to left struggles in the UK over the course of several decades - how do you view the role of SWP and other parties such as The Socialist Party (formerly the Militant tendency)?

I have mixed feelings. 

On the one hand Leninist parties clearly make a valuable contribution to left organising in the UK.  For example they have played an important role in helping organise and mobilise the general public in opposition to government policy relating to both domestic and foreign affairs.  Obvious examples include the massive anti-war march of 2003 and the anti-cuts demonstration earlier this year. 

On the other hand I do think that their contribution is significantly limited by the inherent problems of Marxism / Leninism highlighted above.  But more to the point I also feel that these problems actually hold our efforts back from developing into a popular and participatory movement and so in that sense are very damaging. 

From this point of view Marxists / Leninists are in an impossible position.  To help build the much needed mass movement would require that we transcend historical materialism with a superior theory and replace democratic centralism with a form of organisation that facilitates meaningful and fair participation by its membership.  But to do this would mean abandoning key aspects of Marxism / Leninism which in the end, it seems to me, would make any continued association with or identification to the ideology meaningless. 

The only real solution, I think, is to establish a new international revolutionary organisation that addresses these problems and with it escapes the limitations of Marxism / Leninism. 

Why do you think that it is so important for the left to outline visions of the kind of society it would like to see?

If we want to build a popular revolutionary movement we need to recruit.  To recruit we need to overcome a major obstacle - the uneven development of consciousness within the general public.  How might we do this?

As we have already seen one way is for revolutionaries to organise themselves into a vanguard party and then to agitate the general public towards revolution.  During a revolutionary situation (think general strike) the vanguard party captures state power and takes on a leading role to ensure that the revolution is successful in destroying capitalism.  This, of course, is the Leninist approach to overcoming uneven consciousness within the working class.

Now this problem of uneven consciousness can not be ignored - so hats-off to Leninists for at least attempting an answer, as most revolutionaries simply fail to do so as far as I can tell.  But as I have tried to show above the Leninist approach to revolution does not lead us to classlessness.  On the contrary, if the working class bring down capitalism but have no idea of how to run the economy along classless lines then the vanguard will establish what has traditionally been call socialism but what advocates of parecon think is more accurately described as coordinatorism - an economic system controlled by a class of professional managers.  The important point here is that, without vision for a classless economy, the working class can find themselves doing the dirty work for the coordinator class who may well be anti-capitalist whilst at the same time having no intentions of loosing their position of privilege within the economy. 

An alternative approach to the problem of uneven consciousness, that avoids the authoritarian vanguardist tendencies of Leninism, is the development and popularisation of alternative social systems that institutionalise left values.  This allows us to adopt what we might think of as a libertarian vanguardist approach to organising which, I would ague, has a number of advantages.

One advantage of developing vision is that it arms the left with a serious reply to the right-wing claim “there is no alternative”.  Presenting well thought-out alternative models of how society could function is a great way to challenge such dogma and, in-so-doing, free people from the ideological control that can result from it. 

Another important advantage is that it allows the revolutionary movement to draw on its long-term objectives to inform its short term goals and organisational form.  The revolutionary movement should, in my opinion, be the future society in embryonic form.  But, for common sense reasons, this can only be realised if the movement knows what their desired future society looks like - its basic institutions and primary functions. 

Utilising vision to inform short-term goals also has a number of important attributes.  For example, by drawing on our vision to inform our initial demands we ensure that any reforms that we win move us in the right direction.  This helps to create and maintain an important continuity between our long term objectives and our day-to-day organising.  Vision orientated organising will also tend to generate a much more constructive attitude to activism.  Rather than focusing on the negative / anti of revolution a focus on vision generates a positive / pro character to organising. 

My feeling and hope is that all of these benefits to vision orientated organising will help address the unevenness in consciousness whilst generating support for a growing pro-participatory movement. 
 
The anti-cuts movement has naturally spawned a variety of organisational forms since its inception and there is plenty of debate about how best to organise the resistance. What is your assessment of these debates and how to move forward from here?

What is important to understand here, in my opinion, is the significance of the public services.  To my mind there are two aspects to this.

On the one hand the public services represent an alternative to corporate led globalisation.  This means that they have to be destroyed because they undermine the validity of Thatcher’s TINA doctrine - There Is No Alternative.  For the corporate led globalisation project to succeed all existing alternatives must be crushed and the idea of running the economy for the people (and not for profit) be wiped from our minds. If people can see an alternative - and one that they can influence to some extent via the democratic process - then this might generate some opposition to corporate globalisation. 

That is one important aspect of the public services.  Another important aspect is the potential for the public services to be run by the general public for the common good.  This potential is, in my opinion, the real threat that the public services represent to elites.  The egalitarian idea that the public services could be democratically run by the people for the people could quite easily take-hold within this context.  In fact, to my mind, the public services are the natural place for a participatory economy to emerge.  Destroy the public services and this threat is removed. 

So when we are assessing how well the anti-cuts movement is doing we might want to keep these two aspect in mind. 

With regards to the first aspect I feel that we have made a promising start.  The March 26th National demonstration, called by the TUC, was well attended and helped to expose the Lib-Con myth that the cuts are an economic necessary as opposed to a political decision.  The impression I am getting is that there is a lot of organising now taking place within the union movement, as well as within newly formed anti-cuts community groups, to build on this success and to organise a powerful movement to stop the attacks on public services and bring down the Lib-Con government. 

But it could be argued that the best way to defend public services would be to push for greater democratic control over them by workers and consumers.  This approach links the two aspects - not only would we be defending public services against the attacks but also be pushing to make them stronger and less vulnerable to future attacks.  This is my favoured approach.  But to my knowledge there is not much, or at least not enough of this taking place within the anti-cuts movement.  So with regards to the second aspect highlighted above I’m not sure that we are doing so well.

But it is still early days and I suspect that things will get very interesting in the coming months. 

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First published: 03 August, 2011

Category: Activism, Vision/Strategy

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31 Comments on "The Trouble with Leninism"

By Peter Garbutt, on 03 August 2011 - 13:29 |

I welcome the suggestion that we move away from the “gods” of the left, in order to try and work out what our positive vision of society would look like. You seem to glide fairly effortlessly, however, over the difficulty of educating people, who are in thrall to the right-wing newspapers and other media. And you appear to have entirely ignored the Green strand to leftist thinking, which is a constant annoyance for me.

By Athelstan, on 03 August 2011 - 14:51 |

‘By prioritising class exploitation and oppression within the economic sphere over other forms of oppression in other social spheres - such as sexism and racism - historical materialism establishes an organisational framework that generates unnecessary and destructive tensions within the movement.’

This strikes me as a straw man. The question is not ‘Which -ism (classism, sexism, racism) is to be prioritised?’, but ‘How does capitalism reproduce itself?’ That is, where does the power of the ruling elite come from, and how does it ensure the continued subjection of oppressed groups? And that’s where we get to economic exploitation. Historical materialism is at its basis the insistence that human beings’ material life - eating, sleeping, housing, clothing - is inextricably interwoven with their social and intellectual life - the latter cannot be separated from animal nature as Hegel thought.

By Alex Doherty, on 03 August 2011 - 15:22 |

“This strikes me as a straw man. The question is not ‘Which -ism (classism, sexism, racism) is to be prioritised?’, but ‘How does capitalism reproduce itself?’”

You’re rather making Mark’s point for him here by elevating economic relations above other forms of domination - patriarchy, racism etc. The claim Mark and other participatory society advocates make is that none of these forms of domination (as some Marxists, some feminists and some anti-racists claim) is most important. From an NLP interview with Michael Albert:

You and Robin Hahnel describe Marxism as a form of “monism”. What do you mean by that?
Well, monism is a somewhat obscure term that was in wider use back when we used it too, which is now a long time ago. The idea was that a conceptual approach could be narrow in choosing just one single priority angle of assessment and analysis - such as just kinship and gender, or just culture and race, or just politics and authority, or just economics and class - among other possibilities. A monist perspective, then, would elevate one angle of analysis to highest priority, above all others, and would pursue any others, if at all, only insofar as they had effects on the priority one.
Calling marxism monist meant that in most of its practitioners hands, and certainly in most organizations that saw themselves as marxist, economics and class were elevated to highest priority, and beyond that, if there was attention given to matters of kinship and gender, polity, and culture and community - which there often was - it would take the form of trying to see the impact of class on these other domains, and the impact of these other domains, in turn, on class. The problem wasn’t that trying to understand that much was itself a bad thing to do, but that it was done alone. There was a tendency arising from “monist” concepts and methods of looking at and thinking about the world around us, to overlook centrally important aspects of life and society in realms other than the one we would monistically elevate - in their own dynamics and implications.

http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/thinking_forward/

By Alex Doherty, on 03 August 2011 - 15:37 |

Chomsky on Lenin/Trotsky:

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yQsceZ9skQI

By Tony Shenton, on 04 August 2011 - 11:02 |

According to Professor Steven Pinker “Marxists (have) no use for the concept of race, (are) averse to the notion of genetic inheritance, and (are) hostile to the very idea of human nature rooted in biology” (2002, ‘The Blank Slate’, p.155).

It is indeed true that Marxists ‘have no use for the concept of race’ when they address the root cause of social and economic problems such as lack of jobs and housing etc. However this does not mean that they consider racism and other forms of oppression to be concomitant. On the contrary, they argue that economic exploitation is the root cause of these other forms of oppression. Indeed, racism has always been the ruling class’s most potent divide and rule tactic. Robert Tressell explained why in his classic novel, ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’:

“The papers they read were filled with vague and alarming accounts (about) the enormous number of aliens constantly arriving, and their destitute conditions, how they lived, the crimes they committed, and the injury they did to British trade. These were the seeds which, cunningly sewn in their minds (the working class), caused to grow up within them a bitter undiscriminating hatred of foreigners”(1993 [1914], p. 23).

Marxists ask: will we continue to let the seeds of bitterness and hatred grow in our minds or will we see our common bond as workers facing those who are really responsible for the problems we care about? Why does Alex Doherty believe that this question “generates unnecessary and destructive tensions within the movement”? Is it because he agrees with the idealist theorists when they argue that racism is a ‘natural’ human propensity, some inherent dislike of strangers? If so, how do we end racism?

By Richard Seymour, on 04 August 2011 - 12:03 |

“You’re rather making Mark’s point for him here by elevating economic relations above other forms of domination - patriarchy, racism etc.”

This presumes that capitalism is a set of economic relations, which is something that you would need to justify.  That’s not a position that most marxists would share, for example.

“The claim Mark and other participatory society advocates make is that none of these forms of domination (as some Marxists, some feminists and some anti-racists claim) is most important.”

From the perspective of strategy and analysis, the marxist claim is certainly that class antagonisms are more central to the reproduction of capitalism - and partly as a result of this form a strategically privileged site for potential challenges to capitalism.  It does not follow that other relations are ignored or only treated of in relation to their impact on class.  Contrary to Albert’s claim, which certainly is an aunt sally, few actually existing marxists argue in this way.  Rather, marxists have tended to see different axes of exploitation and oppression intersecting and structuring one another in a variety of ways.  If Albert was familiar with the breadth of marxist-feminist literature, eg, he wouldn’t be able to sustain the idea that these are all class-reductionist in the way that he suggests.

“Chomsky on Lenin/Trotsky”

Unfortunately, Chomsky is not the best anarchist source on the Lenin/Trotsky debate.  I’ve reviewed Chomsky’s writings on this subject and 1) he tends to rely on the same unreliable sources such as Maurice Brinton over and over, 2) draws from no up-to-date scholarship, 3) engages with none of the critical scholarship that has emerged from *within* the Leninist tradition, and 4) as a result provides an unrealistic, stilted, Cold War reading of Leninism.  His position on this is unreasonable and destructive - as well as being, at several points, grossly in error - not merely at odds with views I would be more sympathetic to.  There are those in the anarchist tradition who have had a more complex relationship to Bolshevism - Victor Serge, for example.

By Richard Seymour, on 04 August 2011 - 12:38 |

Unfortunately, this post - despite obviously attempting to take its subject seriously - resorts to caricature at several key points.  For example:

“Marxists see capitalism as a two class system”

This might have been true of some marxists in the 19th Century, but anyone familiar with the breadth of marxist writing on class - one of its best expositors, EO Wright, has been interviewed for NLP - would know this is a cartoonish depiction.  While marxists would not accept the idea that class power derives from the division of labour (rather, they would tend to argue that the reverse is the case), there has been a lot of marxist writing about the lower middle class, the professional middle class and the ‘new middle class’ (the middle managers, supervisors and technocrats built up in the latter half of the 20th Century as part of capital’s global disciplinary apparatus) - the idea that it upholds a two-class schema is silly and therefore not a sensible basis for debate.  The real debate, which pivots on the sources of class power, is a much more complex one.

And again:

“If revolutionary organisations are to be considered seeds of the future society - as I think they should - then to my mind it seems almost inevitable that Leninism will lead to some form of mono-cultural totalitarianism with little, if any, consideration for minority opinion and rights.”

This relies on a false syllogism and falls at two points. 

1) Leninists do not argue that the revolutionary party is the model, and seed of the future society.  They tend to argue that the institutions of self-government, soviets, workers’ councils, etc., would be that seed.  This is actually fairly obvious when you consider the point that the purpose of such a party is to unite the most advanced and militant sectors of the working class - not the whole working class, and not even its left-wing.  It is a tool for action, and is not prefigurative.

2) At any rate, the maintenance of discipline within a revolutionary party bears absolutely no relation to the chilling image of mono-cultural conformity depicted here.  There are various ways in which minorities within such parties can operate, using the democratic structures available to them.  Generally speaking they can organise through internal communications, at conferences and at councils, at branch and regional meetings, sometimes through official factions, etc.

These are points that one would expect anyone familiar with the tradition being engaged with to be aware of.  It’s disappointing to be subjected to uninformed Cold War cliches instead.

Again:

“By maintaining an elitist division of labour Leninist organisations elevate the coordinator class to positions of dominance and, in so doing, generate a strong internal dynamic towards elitist centralisation and away from participatory democracy.”

This actually does a grave disservice to the notion of a ‘coordinator class’.  If it is to have any conceptual purchase, it must say something about how such a class relates to other classes (workers and capitalists - anarchists don’t reject these categories), what its purpose is in the reproduction of the society as a whole, and where its power derives from.  Now, in most expositions of this concept that I have encountered, the idea is that this class performs vital mental/conceptual labour for capital, organising its processes and directing labour in appropriate ways.  This labour is empowering, and in addition coordinators tend to receive higher than average remuneration.  Thus, though the concept centres on the *technical* division of labour and its effects, at its most powerful it attempts to explain something about the *social* division of labour.  The ‘coordinators’ exercise power *over* workers; that power is *derivative of and subordinate to* the power of capital.

Yet, by stretching the concept so that it can somehow explain the technical division of labour within Leninist organisations, it completely loses this explanatory power.  In Leninist organisations, uncontroversially, there are no capitalists.  There isn’t even any waged labour.  Work is performed by a combination of full-time officials and activists, and all officials are sustained by a stipend funded by voluntary contributions.  Final power rests with the votes of members and delegates, rather than with investors.  The technical division of labour has no relation to the wider social division of labour.  So, to describe those full-time officials, usually elected to their positions, as a ‘class’ or as endowed with class power, is to so dilute the concept of class, and specifically the idea of the ‘coordinator class’ as to call into question its usefulness.

All in all, this interview is a poor way to start a debate that urgently needs to be had.

By Richard Seymour, on 04 August 2011 - 13:00 |

“On the contrary, they argue that economic exploitation is the root cause of these other forms of oppression. Indeed, racism has always been the ruling class’s most potent divide and rule tactic.”

Personally, I’ve never been completely convinced by the argument that it’s a ‘divide and rule tactic’.  I suppose it depends on what level of abstraction your explanation is operating on.  You can always say “in the last instance” racism is caused by ‘economic exploitation’ - which is to say that, if you push the argument back far enough, you would find that racism has its origins in a particular social division of labour pioneered as a form of ruling class praxis after the Bacon rebellion, and continues to operate as a way of forming that division of labour.  The more concrete you try to make the argument, though, the more determinations you have to add.  When you come to describe racism today, you have to account for the way in which it can actually be, at times, counterproductive to efficient exploitation - and that means looking at the way in which the political-ideological relations that are *also* central to capitalism (ie, not peripheral, not reducible to some economic essence) are mediated through political parties, states, education systems, culture, communications industries, etc. 

You also have to account for its curious resonance for large numbers of people.  Somehow it seems to explain crucial social experiences to millions of people.  How does this happen?  Of course, a lot of preparatory ideological work has to be done before that can happen.  People have to be trained to respond automatically and recognise a ‘racial’ situation.  Yet, some are more apt than others to respond to such socialization, which suggests that a whole series of class, regional, national, religious, gendered and other forms of experience make ‘race’ more plausible…  Probably the best guide here is Gramsci.

By Dave, on 04 August 2011 - 13:07 |

Did you just quote Pinker in a serious discussion? Wow.

By Ed, on 04 August 2011 - 13:19 |

Richard - I’m interested to know why you don’t regard capitalism as a set of economic relations and what you kind of relations you think it is composed of instead. The traditional view that capitalism obtains when private ownership of productive resources and market exchange are dominant features within a society seems to me to suggest that it is a system of economic relations. What’s your objection to this picture?

By Richard Seymour, on 04 August 2011 - 14:39 |

My objection to that picture largley hinges on the idea that private ownership of productive resources and market exchange are purely economic relations.  They are not.  They are also at one and the same time political, ideological and legal relations.  This is why the old base-superstructure metaphor can be so misleading, if it is taken to mean that the political, ideological and legal relations that comprise the ‘superstructure’ are somehow separate from and purely derivative of the economic ‘base’.  Because of this, I would maintain that capitalism is precisely a complex set of economic, political, legal and ideological relations, the precise combination of which is only settled at the level of a specific social formation.

Since we’re talking about classes here, it’s worth reflecting on how classes are constituted.  Surely it cannot solely be analysed in terms of an isolated contract between wage labour and employer, or even by the prevalence of market cost/price mechanisms and private ownership of the means of production.  Rather, classes are also constituted politically and legally by the state, and ideologically by the institutions such as the media and the education system.  These are as crucial for the reproduction of classes as the cash nexus, the wage relation, prices, markets, etc.

What’s more, thought you contrast my view to the ‘traditional’ one, I would say that what I’m describing is orthodox.

By Alex Doherty, on 04 August 2011 - 15:08 |

“Because of this, I would maintain that capitalism is precisely a complex set of economic, political, legal and ideological relations, the precise combination of which is only settled at the level of a specific social formation.”

Is that not also true of other forms of oppression? For centuries patriarchy was also codified in legal and ideological relations. The same has also pertained in the case of white supremacy (South Africa, Hitler’s Germany,  the pre-civil rights United States etc). 

By Richard Seymour, on 04 August 2011 - 15:23 |

Of course, but I don’t know why you say “other forms of oppression”.  I wouldn’t characterise capitalism a “form of oppression” to begin with.  It is a mode of production in which *multiple* axes of oppression and exploitation intersect in particular ways.  So, white supremacy and patriarchy in practise operate as formative principles *within* a given mode of production, not as alternative forms of oppression.

By Tony Shenton, on 04 August 2011 - 15:27 |

I’m basically repeating the argument that Zinn made in chapter three of A People’s History Of the US. Why did racism begin?  Basically because white settlers needed to justify to themselves those they oppressed were inferior. The ruling class do use the concept of race to ensure workers remain divided. I’m surprised you disagree, Richard.  People like Gillian Duffy are xenophobic because they believe immigrants are to blame for the lack of jobs and housing etc., not because racism is part of human nature.

By Richard Seymour, on 04 August 2011 - 15:56 |

Tony - there’s a tension between your arguments that you appear to be unaware of.  The Zinn analysis (I agree it’s a magnificent book) holds that racism emerges to rationalise a form of oppression.  Your analysis holds that it emerges to keep workers divided.  These aren’t identical explanations for racism.  To me, the only way out of the impasse is to look at how racism emerges historically and how it then survives and mutates.  (A better historical account for your purposes, btw, would be Ted Allen’s “The Invention of the White Race”).  I think you see ‘race’ emerging as a meaningful political-legal category after the Bacon rebellion.  What happens is that the workers from Britain bring ideas of ‘free labour’ with them - ideas current since the emergence of capitalism as the dominant mode of production - and this feeds political rebellions.  The colonial ruling class, realising it is vulnerable, responds by restructuring the labour system to gradually phase out ‘white slavery’ and indenturing and replace it with chattel slavery.  It introduces a set of laws and ideas designed to construct the ‘negro’ as an inferior subject not fit for free labour.  Free labour goes from being a political status to being a cultural/racial status.  Free whites are encouraged to own slaves, and invest in the system by having small freeholding farms (of course, various forms of indenture continue, but politically white labour is increasingly free relative to African labour).  As I put it elsewhere, it was a question of ‘unite-and-rule’ as much as ‘divide-and-rule’.  Note that even here, this doesn’t involve displaced economic grievances - ie African workers being ‘blamed’ for some shortage or problem that white workers face.  Rather, ‘divide-and-rule’ means that white workers are encouraged to invest in a sense of their superior, free status through an ideology that David Roediger dubs ‘white labor republicanism’.  They aren’t merely repressed by racism, but integrated through it.  Subsequently, race-making processes are important in the formation of labour markets, political parties, local state forms, etc etc., and fighting for ‘whiteness’ becomes as important a social aspiration as fighting for equality.  Irish, Italian, Hungarian and Polish workers all have to assert claims to whiteness that would be denied them by employers, newspapers, politicians and so on. 

When you come up to the present day and talk about people like Gillian Duffy, it’s not just about immigrants being ‘blamed’ for real problems; quite frequently, they are blamed for non-problems (ie for being non-white, or not speaking English, or having the ‘wrong’ culture), or for problems that are invented (mugging epidemic, etc).  And it’s not only immigrants who are subject to racism.  So are citizens.  And even to construe immigrants as illegitimate competitors for scarce resources is to have already internalised a certain racist-nationalist perspective on such matters.  Neither Duffy nor anyone else who is a racist is questioning the fact that there are 1m British workers employed abroad, within the Eurozone; they care only about workers from A8 countries being ‘over here’.  This again involves an investment in ‘white Britishness’ as a status with various entitlements - and this idea quite clearly derives from Britain’s prolonged colonial period.  It’s a pity you reduce the issue to this false dichotomy - either it’s displaced economic grievances or it’s human nature.  The options for analysis are much more varied than that.

Lastly, you say you’re surprised I disagree with you.  Actually, I’ve made clear my disagreement with that argument on a number of occasions.

By Tony Shenton, on 04 August 2011 - 16:46 |

Phew! If class exploitation is not the cause of other forms of oppression, what is and how can we challenge them?

By Tony Shenton, on 04 August 2011 - 16:58 |

There’s no tension. I didn’t say race +emerged+ to erode class solidarity.

By Richard Seymour, on 04 August 2011 - 17:09 |

“Phew! If class exploitation is not the cause of other forms of oppression, what is and how can we challenge them?”

Did you read the above, Tony?  It’s just that it seems a peculiar query when I’ve just offered an explanation that precisely locates the origins of racism in a specific form of *class struggle* and specifically, the ruling class response to insurgency.  It is, as I said elsewhere, a kind of political class praxis.  If you do decide to read Ted Allen’s book*, which is a detailed marxist analysis, you’ll find that he contextualises it in the drive of ruling classes under capitalism to develop a “lower middle” substratum as a mechanism for social control.  This drive was expressed by the maintenance of a section of the yeomanry in early modern England; but in plantation Ireland it worked through a caste system subjecting Catholics to politico-legal discrimination; later in colonial America, an explicitly racial caste system emerged for the first time.  In short, races were *created* as a *political act*, as part of a struggle by a colonial ruling class to maintain social control.  You would have a lot less difficulty taking this on board if you were not committed to the dichotomous view that racism is either the product of a simple scapegoating strategy or the product of ‘human nature’.

*You can start here if you’re interested: http://books.google.com/books?id=OxwCQkCq4f0C&printsec=frontcover&dq=theodore+w+allen&hl=en&ei=ANA6TtaNFYbJhAeP_622Ag&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CC0Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f;=false

By Richard Seymour, on 04 August 2011 - 18:29 |

“There’s no tension. I didn’t say race +emerged+ to erode class solidarity.”

Perhaps you should have.  Judging from this, the account you wish to give involves: 1) racism emerging in the context of colonial settlement to rationalise the oppression (extermination/enslavement) of indigenous or African subjects; 2) racism persisting because the ruling class finds it useful to divide the working class.  Thus, we have a psychologistic explanation segueing to an instrumentalist explanation.

The difficulties with this are various.  To begin with, populations had been enslaved and exterminated for centuries prior to the emergence of ‘race’.  Look up what happened to the Dacians if you want an example.  Yet, it wasn’t until the 17th Century that the ideology of racism began to take shape.  That being the case, the mere fact of one group being involved in the oppression of others cannot be a sufficient explanation for the rise of racism.  Further, when settlers did begin to oppress and exterminate Native Americans, it was several centuries before they developed the idea of race.  Why this shift?  Why did it occur when it did?  I don’t think you can explain it without looking at capitalism and the emergence of ‘free labour’; the appearance of the nation-state and nationalism (the ideology of the ‘freeborn Englishman’ for example); and the subsequent development of a specifically capitalist kind of imperialism, in which class relations intersected with colonial relations, thus enabling labour systems to be stratified along caste lines….  At any rate, both steps in your account seem to leave a lot of features of ‘race’ and racism unexplained.

By Tony Shenton, on 04 August 2011 - 18:39 |

Thanks for the recommendation,  I appreciate it.  I’ll read the book, but I don’t there are many Marxists who will argue that ruling elites do not deliberately use race as a divide and rule tactic to erode class solidarity. Vis-a-vis, I don’t think many will claim that this tactic is not the cause of most racism and xenophobia.

By Sam Jam, on 05 August 2011 - 00:51 |

I wonder whether the essential difference between anarchism and Leninism is being framed by the correct problem.

I’m not convinced that the dividing line is between one analysis that takes a plural, capillary analysis of power and another that seeks intelligibility through abstracting from a single economic plane. I think both Marxists and anarchists are by now acutely aware of the complexity and irreducible nature of power relations (that class, race, gender aren’t separate but intersect in various ways etc).

Rather I think the issue is how we respond to the fact of these complexities. Anarchists are particularly conscious of the dangers inherent to the claim to truth. They are quite happy to recognise the partial nature of our understanding of the world and do not regard a full understanding of the workings of capitalism as a prerequisite to action (this is why they are sceptical of leaders).

Marxists on the other hand do believe that a full understanding of capitalism is important and much of their work surrounds mastering this knowledge for the purposes of praxis. Marxists no longer really refer to their work as scientific, but nevertheless their analysis is one that infers or defers to the best explanation (and an emphasis on leadership and unity behind the analysis and goals logically follows). 

For what its worth I find it very difficult to navigate my way through this problem. On the one hand I don’t see how anything can be achieved without unified, committed and (yes) disciplined action through organisations. On the other I have very much sympathy for the argument that one does not need to be an expert in order to be an effective, moral and thoughtful political actor.

If we are bandying about Chomsky videos I would prefer people watched this than the Trotsky/Lenin one (which I agree was a bit simplistic). Ultimately it is the forgotten people, whose names we will never know, that are the true agents of change
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sQi2K0Ym3Lk

By Richard Seymour, on 05 August 2011 - 17:57 |

Sam - I think you outline a real dilemma.  Certainly, since Althusser few marxists have tried to claim absolute scientificity for the project of historical materialism.  The merciless laboratory of history, as someone once called it, made such a claim untenable.  There’s a certain historicist argument that one can make, which is that marxism is scientific *insofaras* it advances the (imputed) interests of the working class.  But the idea of imputed class interests is riddled with problems, and leads to dubious arguments about ‘false consciousness’.  So, this leaves the epistemological status of marxism in question, in a way that obviously is problematic for marxists and might be less so for anarchists.

On the other hand, I don’t accept that this dilemma is particularly important to differences over such notions as political leadership.  The ‘vanguard party’, for example, doesn’t need to be the repository of an absolutely scientific, catholic comprehension of capitalism to serve its strategic purpose.  It’s sufficient to consider marxism *relatively* advantageous, superior in its core explanations to competing models and consequently a better basis for organisation.  If one accepted this, then the argument for a vanguard party - while not following as an automatic corollary - is eminently comprehensible.  Anarchists don’t share the major theoretical commitments of marxists, so from their perspective the vanguard party doesn’t make sense.  Moreover, since the axis on which their analysis rests is *power* and *authority*, any appearance of hierarchy in left-wing organisation is immediately suspect.

I really think the difference that anarchists have with marxists over this issue is not to do with the certainty of knowledge that can be claimed by a party, but rather over the much more prosaic details of analysis.  Yes, both anarchists and marxists accept that class, gender and race (etc) intersect and are mutually formative (I’m told the anarchist term for this is kyriarchy).  But as we’ve seen here, there’s an important difference in that marxists maintain that class is a more central antagonism than others; that it is a far more powerful and fundamental determinant of those other axes than they are of it; and that therefore there is, yes, a certain hierarchy in spheres of action.  (That doesn’t mean that these issues are competing - they tend to be contiguous - or that class always ‘trumps’ other antagonisms.  It does tend to mean that marxists will see action on race and gender, for example, as requiring a class element.)  Anarchists don’t see it that way at all.  This does result in major strategic differences, sometimes to the point where certain trends influenced by anarchism reject the idea of strategy altogether.

By Dan Poulton, on 05 August 2011 - 19:31 |

“The revolutionary movement should, in my opinion, be the future society in embryonic form.  But, for common sense reasons, this can only be realised if the movement knows what their desired future society looks like - its basic institutions and primary functions.”

Who could take on such an educational role without becoming the ‘co-ordinator class’?

Personally I find such hand-wringing rather pointless and emblematic of a fairly morbid outlook.

The key point is that power doesn’t abdicate and states don’t disappear (or socialism appear) over night. This is what Marx recognised and is a fact that leaves idealists like Evens screeching from the sidelines.

To quote the West Wing (didn’t see that coming, did you?) politics is done by those who turn up. Let’s organise a working class vanguard to tip the odds in our favour.

By Mark Evans, on 06 August 2011 - 17:06 |

Whenever I debate these issues with Marxists I always end-up feeling confused.

It seems to me that they want to occupy two positions at once.

On the one hand - being Marxists viewing the world through a historical materialist lens - they naturally highlight and prioritise economic / class issues as of particular importance and concern.

On the other hand - as social justice activists - they understand that economic / class issues are no more important or of greater concern than racism, sexism or political authoritarianism. 
Clearly you can not occupy both positions at the same time so what could be going on here? 
One possibility is that Marxists know that the second position is the only acceptable one but to adopt that position would mean abandoning a central component of Marxism - namely historical materialism - which they can’t do without loosing their Marxists identity.  As a result they try to occupy both positions which results in confusion. 

But confusion is the least of our worries.  By highlighting economics / classism above other forms of oppression, Marxism actively generates splits and undermines solidarity within the social justice movement.  This is a serious problem that we must overcome if we are to build a popular and powerful international revolutionary organisation capable of winning a new world system.  Similar observations (of a non-economic nature) could be made towards other schools of thought within the social justice movement - anarchism being one. 

By Mark Evans, on 06 August 2011 - 17:52 |

Dan - in reply to my statement -

“The revolutionary movement should, in my opinion, be the future society in embryonic form.  But, for common sense reasons, this can only be realised if the movement knows what their desired future society looks like - its basic institutions and primary functions.”

you ask -

“Who could take on such an educational role without becoming the ‘co-ordinator class’?”

I think that this is a valid concern.  The key point here, I think,  is not to loose sight of the fact that some people (usually a small minority - at least initially) do have more advanced ideas than others.  We can not just wish this away or pretend that it is not the case. 

The question is, what is the dynamic between this vanguard and the general public?  Is it towards authoritarian elitism - as I have argued is the case with democratic centralism?  Or is it towards egalitarian participation - as we are trying to develop with IOPS? 

My argument is that democratic centralism tends towards coordinator class rule as a result of the hierarchical division of labour that is maintained within Leninist organisations. 

In contrast if you take a look at the parecon model you will see that one of its institutional features is what we call “balanced job complexes”.  This is our alternative to the hierarchical division of labour.  By replacing the hierarchical division of labour with balanced job complexes and using this to inform our revolutionary organisation we remove the danger of coordinator class dominance within the movement. 

If we want to help organise a popular movement then I think we need to take these insights into account - that is if we are serious about classlessness etc. But if you just want to bring down capitalism then that is a different matter.  If that is your idea of a revolution then Leninism may well be your best bet.

By Oliver Kearns, on 06 August 2011 - 21:39 |

I think it’s worth taking a closer look at Michael Albert & Robin Hahnel’s original point about monist theories, as made in Liberating Theory (available in full at: http://files.visionsofspring.org/liberating-theory.pdf).

The point isn’t simply that activists of different political persuasions focus on & emphasise a particular aspect of society to the detriment of others (Marxists on economics, feminists on kinship and so on) – the monist approach. As plenty of people have pointed out here, most of us on the Left nowadays acknowledge that these different realms are both important in their own right and mutually-reinforcing in particular ways.

The real insight of Albert, Hahnel and others writing in Liberating Theory is that we often uncritically fuse a societal realm to a particular social relation. Albert et al’s issue wasn’t just with monists but with pluralists, those who acknowledge the importance of different social relations and of theories to overcome those relations’ oppressive & dehumanising aspects, but then confine each relation to its own social realm. Albert et al cite Bakunin as a good example of this, claiming as he did to be a Marxist when it came to economics; equally many Marxists today would claim to be feminists when it came to kinship. Albert et al want to reject the notion that Marxism alone explains economics and indeed that anarchism alone explains the state. In rejecting such notions they’re arguing that the respective social categories emphasised by these theories are insufficient for explaining a social realm:

“For example, black and white and male and female workers don’t all have the same interests and mindsets simply because they all belong to the same economic class. Over-simplifying causal factors to include only class relations ignores racial and sexual dynamics that cause women and blacks, among others, to endure different oppressions, not only when pay checks and pink slips are dispersed, but day-in and day-out because of the racist and sexist definitions of their economic tasks. Class concepts cannot alone adequately explain factory life and so, even to understand the economy, much less the rest of society, we must go beyond marxism… [When it comes to pluralism,] a marxist-feminist will see traditional economic exploitation and also patriarchal violence against women, but miss many of the more subtle ways that gender relations redefine class relations or that economic dynamics redefine family norms. Because they fail to account for multi-faceted defining influences, marxist categories insufficiently explain even the economy, feminist categories insufficiently explain even gender, nationalist categories insufficiently explain even culture, and anarchist categories insufficiently explain even the state” (Liberating Theory, p. 10)

Against both monism & pluralism, Albert et al propose what they call complementary holism, a theory which starts from the assumption both that different societal realms & social relations influence eachother and that they help to define one another. One immediate impact of this theory is to place doubt on the ability of us to singularly characterise our society: “contrary to most radical formulations, we argue that it is wrong to call a society “capitalist,” or “patriarchal,” or “racist” or “dictatorial,” and think that with a single descriptor one has revealed the essence of the society in question” (ibid, p. 14). As I’ve implied above, the other major impact of this theory is to highlight that societal realms will always be shaped by many different social relations. So for instance, the nature of our economic system is shaped not just or even primarily by class, but by gender, race, sexuality, political hierarchies and so on, often in ways that we don’t fully recognise. The same goes for the political, kinship and community spheres.

The long-term consequence for our activism of accepting this more comprehensive view of society is I think to make us think twice about how we carry out political organising. People in the same class may have such different experiences and multi-faceted interests that to try to ‘address their needs’ by mobilising them primarily through class will be insufficient and unhelpful. This isn’t rejecting strategy. This is accepting complexity and messiness when it comes to ‘visions for a new society’.

By Tony Shenton, on 06 August 2011 - 22:09 |

Does my claim that class exploitation is the root cause of other forms oppression such as racism, mean that I am not a Marxist?

By Sugoi, on 07 August 2011 - 07:52 |

To Richard Seymour:

In your entire criticism of Chomsky,  not once do you address any of his points or arguments. If you want to refute Chomsky’s arguments, well, refute Chomsky’s arguments! Instead, what you do is bring up all these complaints about the way he presents his arguments. For instance, you say that he does not engage in any of the critical scholarship that has emerged from within the Leninist tradition. Well, what arguments do critical scholars within the Leninist scholarship to refute Chomsky’s arguments? Similarly, what is wrong with Maurice Brinton’s schoalrship? How is up-to-date scholarship a refutation of Chomsky’s points? How is Chomsky’s reading a “Cold War” reading? Furthermore, what is a “Cold War” reading? And again, related to the last two questions: how does a “Cold War” reading refute Chomsky’s arguments? Finally, what does bringing up Victor Serge have to do with Chomsky’s arguments? What relation does Serge have with his arguments at all?

All of Chomsky’s arguments against Lenin, Leninism and state socialism in general are contained within that video that Alex Doherty posted. He also elaborates his arguments in an article entitled “The Soviet Union Versus Socialism” (Link: http://libcom.org/library/soviet-union-versus-socialism-noam-chomsky).

By Florian Zollmann, on 07 August 2011 - 08:40 |

>>>Response to Richard Seymour’s (RS) reponse that Mark Evan’s (ME) discussion ‘resorts to caricature at several key points’ (RS) (apologies for the length, I included citations by Richard in order to be able to respond appropriately):


RS wrote:
‘“Marxists see capitalism as a two class system”

This might have been true of some marxists in the 19th Century, but anyone familiar with the breadth of marxist writing on class - one of its best expositors, EO Wright, has been interviewed for NLP - would know this is a cartoonish depiction.  While marxists would not accept the idea that class power derives from the division of labour (rather, they would tend to argue that the reverse is the case), there has been a lot of marxist writing about the lower middle class, the professional middle class and the ‘new middle class’ (the middle managers, supervisors and technocrats built up in the latter half of the 20th Century as part of capital’s global disciplinary apparatus) - the idea that it upholds a two-class schema is silly and therefore not a sensible basis for debate.  The real debate, which pivots on the sources of class power, is a much more complex one.’

>>>Answer by Florian Zollmann (FZ):

I think you create a straw man argument here. ME summarises a classic Marxist position, then adding: “Whilst I agree with this I also think that there is at least one other source of class division within capitalist economics that Marxists tend to be blind to”. This is the coordinator class whose existence goes beyond the middle class and “middle managers, supervisors and technocrats built up in the latter half of the 20th Century as part of capital’s global disciplinary apparatus”. While you might be right with your additions on Marxist writings such issues seem not important within this context. ME claims that a specific albeit crucial concept of the coordinator class has been rejected by Marxists (and I think also by you, as discussed below). If so, isn’t that sufficiently important for this discussion? 


RS wrote:

‘And again:

“If revolutionary organisations are to be considered seeds of the future society - as I think they should - then to my mind it seems almost inevitable that Leninism will lead to some form of mono-cultural totalitarianism with little, if any, consideration for minority opinion and rights.”

This relies on a false syllogism and falls at two points.

1) Leninists do not argue that the revolutionary party is the model, and seed of the future society.  They tend to argue that the institutions of self-government, soviets, workers’ councils, etc., would be that seed.  This is actually fairly obvious when you consider the point that the purpose of such a party is to unite the most advanced and militant sectors of the working class - not the whole working class, and not even its left-wing.  It is a tool for action, and is not prefigurative.

2) At any rate, the maintenance of discipline within a revolutionary party bears absolutely no relation to the chilling image of mono-cultural conformity depicted here.  There are various ways in which minorities within such parties can operate, using the democratic structures available to them.  Generally speaking they can organise through internal communications, at conferences and at councils, at branch and regional meetings, sometimes through official factions, etc.

These are points that one would expect anyone familiar with the tradition being engaged with to be aware of.  It’s disappointing to be subjected to uninformed Cold War cliches instead.’

>>>FZ:
You seemingly have misunderstood the concept of a coordinator class used in this context or you reject it?

As ME wrote: “The hierarchical division of labour results from the uneven allocation of tasks that go to make-up jobs.  This unevenness generates the hierarchy and allows for a minority to monopolise the empowering tasks within the economy and with it create a class of professional managers - sometimes referred to as the coordinator class. (...) ...another often overlooked feature of Leninist organisations is the hierarchical division of labour which is maintain within democratic centralism. By maintaining an elitist division of labour Leninist organisations elevate the coordinator class to positions of dominance and, in so doing, generate a strong internal dynamic towards elitist centralisation and away from participatory democracy”. 

To further add, what ME is arguing: The internal structure of Leninist and similar organisations is going to empower people over others leading, over time, to separations and class diversions within the organisation (shaping the coordinator class).

The coordinator class gains strength because, over time, people monopolise important tasks and information, and thus increase their decision making powers. For instance, democratic centralism exludes minority interests and actions and, more significantly, enables dominant groups within the organisation to shape agendas of meetings and outcomes of discussions and votes. The hierarchical division of labour encourages certain members to monopolise important tasks and information thus also enabling them to lead discussions and votes.

Generally, division of labour fosters tendencies of alienation and empowernment. While the file and rank is incressingy pushed to the side and may only be able to participate in formal votes, those who monopolise information and empowering tasks dominate meetings, agendas and votes. Whether intentionally or not, such dynamics foster elitism. People who monopolise confidence, tasks, information, and decision making powers are privileged over the file and rank. They are going to try to implement statutes that justify them upholding those privileges (democratic centralism and hierarchical division of labour are already such statutes). 

There is much more to write on this. Nevertheless and in the final conclusion, participatory society advocates tend to argue that Leninist institutions enable the development of a coordinator class at the expense of the working and capitalist classes. Capitalism might be displaced by Coordinatorism. That is what broadly happened in the so called “Real Existing Socialist Countries”. And that is one reason why participatory society advocates reject institutions which encourage coordinatorism. 

To further clarify and answer your points 1+2:
It seems plausible that a movement is going to establish those institutions for a new society which it has previously adopted. Secondly, if a movement is dominated by fractions with specific interests and privileges, it seems plausible that those fractions aim to implement institutions which enable them to remain their privileges. This happened, as discussed above, in previous examples of “Socialism”. For example in Russia, the coordinator class disempowered the Soviets and similar institutions and imposed institutions which put the coordinator class up front. Of course it is nice if Leninists argue otherwise but that does not necessarily prevent coordinatorism from arising if people operate in democratic centralist institutions and divise labour in the fashion described above.

Finally, I think you overestimate the deliberative potential of Leninist organisations in your second point. Such deliberations are not supported by the historical record. Thus, I think your analysis is rather stuck in the Cold War era because you are seemingly not able to see the flaws in outdated institutions that were used during that era.


RS wrote:
‘Again:

“By maintaining an elitist division of labour Leninist organisations elevate the coordinator class to positions of dominance and, in so doing, generate a strong internal dynamic towards elitist centralisation and away from participatory democracy.”

This actually does a grave disservice to the notion of a ‘coordinator class’.  If it is to have any conceptual purchase, it must say something about how such a class relates to other classes (workers and capitalists - anarchists don’t reject these categories), what its purpose is in the reproduction of the society as a whole, and where its power derives from.  Now, in most expositions of this concept that I have encountered, the idea is that this class performs vital mental/conceptual labour for capital, organising its processes and directing labour in appropriate ways.  This labour is empowering, and in addition coordinators tend to receive higher than average remuneration.  Thus, though the concept centres on the *technical* division of labour and its effects, at its most powerful it attempts to explain something about the *social* division of labour.  The ‘coordinators’ exercise power *over* workers; that power is *derivative of and subordinate to* the power of capital.’

>>>FZ: You seem to argue exactly in accord with the Marxist paradigm that ME is criticising. You seemingly do not recognize that the coordinator class is an antagonist to capital and able to dismantle it and impose its own rule over the working class. You suggest that the coordinator class is subjugated to capital: You write ‘The ‘coordinators’ exercise power *over* workers; that power is *derivative of and subordinate to* the power of capital.’’ In contrast, participatory society advocates argue differently: The ‘coordinators’ exercise power *over* workers ++particularly++ after the capitalist class is ++expropriated++! How this works can clearly be seen when looking at the examples of “Real Existing Socialism” whose flaws Participatory Society advocates do not want to be repeated. 


RS wrote:
‘Yet, by stretching the concept so that it can somehow explain the technical division of labour within Leninist organisations, it completely loses this explanatory power.  In Leninist organisations, uncontroversially, there are no capitalists.  There isn’t even any waged labour.  Work is performed by a combination of full-time officials and activists, and all officials are sustained by a stipend funded by voluntary contributions.  Final power rests with the votes of members and delegates, rather than with investors.’

FZ wrote:
Not at all does the concept loses its power. The explanatory power particularly derives from the fact that the coordinator class is independent of the capitalist class and flourishes when capitalist investors are expropriated.

Furthermore, the ‘combination of full-time officials and activists’ operating in the Leninist institutional setting described above is going to elevate some people over others thus encouraging the forming of a coordinator class. While voters have power, that force is severely limited by the problematic nature of democratic centralism. That is why participatory society advocates favour different institutions that enable the sharing of tasks in a manner that prevents elitism and different voting mechanisms that are flexible, relate to specific circumstances and account for minorities.


RS Wrote:
‘The technical division of labour has no relation to the wider social division of labour.  So, to describe those full-time officials, usually elected to their positions, as a ‘class’ or as endowed with class power, is to so dilute the concept of class, and specifically the idea of the ‘coordinator class’ as to call into question its usefulness.

All in all, this interview is a poor way to start a debate that urgently needs to be had.’

FZ:
The concept is useful if it sheds light on a “new” class that attains power at the expense of the working class.

In “Real Existing Socialism” such a class had a strong relation to ‘the wider social division of labour’. While the working class was subjugated and had to do the monotonous and dull work, the coordinator class (the officials, central planners and so on) run the show, did the empowering work and thus attained a larger chunk from the societal output.

Thus, participatory society advocates tend to belief that if we build our organisations along the same principles which produced such systems in the past, it is inevitable that we will produce similar systems in the future. I would even argue that because of the institutional features of Leninist organisations the production of a system in favour of a coordinator class is to be expected.

Of course, until the concept of a coordinator class is useful the fundamental class diversion between workers and coordinators has to be recognized.

By Mark Evans, on 08 August 2011 - 13:06 |

Florian - I think you hit the nail on the head with your last sentence. 

As Hahnel has stated -

“Unfortunately, for all its emphasis on class analysis, Marxism blinded many fighting against the economics of competition and greed to important antagonisms between the working class and the new, professional managerial, or coordinator class.” 

The development of coordinator class consciousness impacts on strategic considerations in ways that those without it simple cannot appreciate.  Lacking in coordinator class consciousness Leninists understandably find our analysis of their ideology baffling and an unnecessary distraction from important organising. 

The key question for this debate therefore seems to be - does the coordinator class exist? 

By Joe H, on 09 August 2011 - 15:57 |

Richard Seymour, For my benefit at least, could you give a explanation of the claim that Brinton is an unreliable source (or point to one)?  In general I’d be interested to hear the Leninist response to his critique of the early days of the revolution.  The only complaints about him that I know of were other answered by Brinton or don’t detract from the central point of his main essay on the destruction of worker’s control, at least in my view.  A lot of libertarian types put store in this guy so it would be of interest to a lot of people.

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