At this point in history, two things are clear. First, Marx was right that capitalism is torn by too many “contradictions” to be sustainable indefinitely as a global economic system. In its terminal period, which we’re entering now (and which we can predict will last generations, because a global economic order doesn’t vanish in a decade or two), it will be afflicted by so many popular uprisings—on the left and the right—so many economic, political, and ecological crises causing so much turmoil and dislocation, that only a permanent and worldwide fascism would be able to save it. But fascism, by its murderous and ultra-nationalistic nature, can be neither permanent nor continuously enforced worldwide. Even just in the United States, the governmental structure is too vast and federated, there are too many thousands of relatively independent political jurisdictions, for a truly fascist regime to be consolidated nationwide, in every nook and cranny of the country. Fascism, or neo-fascism, is only a temporary and partial solution for the ruling class.
Second, the original Marxist predictions of how a transition to a new society would play out are wrong and outdated. Some Marxists still continue to think in terms of the old formulations, but they’re a hundred years behind the times. It is no longer helpful (it never was, really) to proclaim that a “dictatorship of the proletariat” will “smash the state” and reconstruct society through initiatives that magically transform an authoritarian, bureaucratic, exploitative economy into an emancipatory, democratic one of dispersed power. The conceptual and empirical problems with this orthodox view are overwhelming, as I’ve explained in this book (chapters 4 and 6). As if the leaders of a popular movement that, miraculously, managed to overcome the monopoly over military force of a ruling class in an advanced capitalist country and took over the government (whether electorally or through an insurrection) would, by means of conscious aforethought, be able to transcend the “dialectical contradictions” and massive complexity of society to straightforwardly rebuild the economy from the ground up, all while successfully fending off the attacks and sabotage of the capitalist class! The story is so idealistic it’s incredible any Marxists can believe it (or some variant of it).
Some leftist writers have argued, rightly, against an insurrectionary approach to revolution in a core capitalist nation, using the words of Kautsky and other old Marxists to make their point. But it isn’t necessary to follow this general practice of endlessly poring over the works of Kautsky, Bernstein, Luxemburg, Lenin, and others who wrote in a dramatically different political economy than the present. It can be useful to familiarize oneself with hundred-year-old debates, but ultimately the real desideratum is just some critical common sense. We don’t need pretentious academic exercises that conclude in some such statement of truisms as the following (from an article by Stephen Maher and Rafael Khachaturian):
“What is certain is that waging a struggle within and against the state demands that we build new forms of democratic participation and working class organization with the goal of breaking definitively with capitalist production relations and forms of political authority. This process will occur in fits and starts… Navigating between a reflexive anti-statism and the fallacy of attempting to “occupy” state institutions without transforming them is undoubtedly challenging. But only in this way can we advance beyond the past shortcomings of both dual power and social democratic approaches to the capitalist state.”
Pure truism, which it wasn’t necessary to write a long essay to support. So let’s shun elitist jargon and academic insularity, instead using the democratic capacity of reason that’s available to everyone.
The social democratic (or “democratic socialist”) approach to revolution is favored by the Jacobin school of thought: elect socialists to office and build a social democratic state such as envisioned by Bernie Sanders—but don’t rest content with such a state. Keep agitating for more radical reforms—don’t let the capitalist class erode popular gains, but instead keep building on them—until at last genuine socialism is realized.
I’ve criticized the Jacobin vision elsewhere. It’s a lovely dream, but it’s over-optimistic. The social democratic stage of history, premised on industrial unionism and limited capital mobility, is over. It’s a key lesson of Marxism itself that we can’t return to the past, to conditions that no longer exist; we can’t resurrect previous social formations after they have succumbed to the ruthless, globalizing, atomizing logic of capital.
Suppose Bernie Sanders is elected this year (which itself would be remarkable, given the hostility of the entire ruling class). Will he be able to enact Medicare for All, free higher education, a Green New Deal, safe and secure housing for all, “workplace democracy,” or any other of his most ambitious goals? It’s highly unlikely. He’ll have to deal with a Congress full of Republicans and conservative Democrats, a conservative judiciary, a passionately obstructionist capitalist class, hostile state governments, a white supremacist electoral insurgency, etc. Only after purging Congress of the large majority of its centrists and conservatives would Sanders’ social democratic dreams be achievable—and such a purge is well-nigh unimaginable in the next ten or twenty years. Conservatives’ long march to their current ascendancy took fifty years, and they had enormous resources and existed in a sympathetic political economy. It’s hard to imagine that socialists will have much better luck.
Meanwhile, civilization will be succumbing to the catastrophic effects of climate change and ecological destruction. It is unlikely that an expansive social democracy on an international scale will be forthcoming in these conditions.
So, if both insurrection and social democracy are apparently hopeless, what is left? Realistically, only the path I lay out in my above-linked book. Marx was right that a new society can be erected only on the basis of new production relations. Democratic, cooperative, egalitarian relations of production cannot be implanted by fiat from the commanding heights of national governments. They have to emerge over time, over decades and generations, as the old society declines and collapses. The analogy with the transition from feudalism to capitalism is far from perfect (not least given the incredible length of time that earlier transition took), but it’s at least more suggestive than metaphorical, utopian slogans about “smashing the state” are. Through democratic initiative, allied with gradual changes in state policy as leftists are elected to office and the state is threatened by social disruption, new modes of production and distribution will emerge locally, interstitially, and eventually in the mainstream.
The historical logic of this long process, including why the state and ruling class will be forced to tolerate and aid the gradual growth of a “solidarity economy” (as a necessary concession to the masses), is discussed in the book. The left will grow in strength as repeated economic crises thin the ranks of the hyper-elite and destroy large amounts of wealth; the emerging “cooperative” and socialized institutions of economic and social life will, as they spread, contribute further to the resources and the victories of popular movements. Incrementally, as society is consumed by ecological crisis and neo-fascism proves unable to suppress social movements everywhere in the world, one can expect that the left will take over national states and remake social relations in alliance with these democratic movements.
Such predictions assume, of course, that civilization will not utterly collapse and descend into a post-apocalyptic nightmare. This is a possibility. But the only realistic alternative is the one I’m sketching.
Ironically, this “gradualist” model of revolution (which, incidentally, has little in common with Eduard Bernstein’s gradualism) is more consistent with the premises of historical materialism than are idealistic notions of socialists sweepingly taking over the state whether through elections or armed uprisings. At the end of the long process of transformation, socialists will indeed have taken complete control of national governments; and from this perch they’ll be able to carry the social revolution to its fruition, finalizing and politically consolidating all the changes that have taken place. But this end-goal is probably a hundred or more years in the future, because worldwide transitions between modes of production don’t happen quickly.
Again, one might recall the European transition from feudalism to capitalism: in country after country, the bourgeoisie couldn’t assume full control of the state until the liberal capitalist economy had already made significant inroads against feudalism and absolutism. Something similar will surely apply to a transition out of capitalism. It is a very Marxist point (however rarely it’s been made) to argue that the final conquest of political power must be grounded in the prior semi-conquest of economic power. You need colossal material resources to overthrow, even if “gradually,” an old ruling class.
What are the implications for activism of these ideas? In brief, activists must take the long view and not be cast into despair by, for instance, the inevitable failures of a potential Sanders presidency. There’s a role for every variety of activism, from electoral to union-building; and we shouldn’t have disdain for the activism that seeks to construct new institutions like public banks, municipal enterprises, cooperatives (worker, consumer, housing, financial, etc.), and other non-capitalist institutions we can hardly foresee at the moment. It’s all part of creating a “counter-hegemony” to erode the legitimacy of capitalism, present viable alternatives to it, and hasten its demise.
Meanwhile, the activism that seeks whatever limited “social democratic” gains are possible will remain essential, to improve the lives of people in the present. While full-fledged social democracy in a capitalist context is no longer in the cards, legislation to protect and expand limited social rights is.
Anyway, in the twenty-first century, it’s time Marxists stopped living in the shadow of the Russian Revolution. Let’s think creatively and without illusions about how to build post-capitalist institutions, never forgetting that the ultimate goal, as ever, is to take over the state.
1. Being an outgrowth of my Master’s thesis, the book over-emphasizes worker cooperatives. It does, however, answer the usual Marxist objections to cooperatives as a component of social revolution. ↑