Monthly Archives: January 2009

State monopoly capitalism and twentieth century socialism

As people  may notice, I spend quite a bit of time debating with other socialists in the comments sections over on the Socialist Unity blog. These ahem, er ‘insights’ (or rants) often become quite lengthy, but are soon lost in the general hubbub.

So I might start the habit of repeating them here, make a little collection!

This one was sparked of by a discussion of of Tony Cliff’s theory of ‘State Capitalism’. Here I argue that ‘state capitalism’ does not just describe features of  Stalin’s Soviet Union, but also describes a general logic imposed on all economies by the whole imperialist stage of capitalism, a world system of state monoploly capitalism, or ‘organised capitalism’. This shaped the twentieth century ‘socialist imaginary’ .

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Those opposing the theory of state capitalism here ask how come the collapse of the USSR and its satellites had such a dramatically negative effect on the world workers and socialist movements, if the USSR was only state capitalist?

Obviously one factor was ideological: Even if its an illusion that these states were socialist – if the world workers movements subscribed to that illusion, then it will have material effects.

But I think there is another powerful factor at work here, that needs a long view of the twentieth century to apprehend:

Early in the 20th century Bolshevik theorists such as Bukharin and Lenin had identified a general trend towards ’state monopoly capitalism’. The tendency towards the concentration of capital had lead to monopoly on a national scale and therefore to the the transfer of competition to the international scale – i.e.the imperialist stage of capitalism.

Across all capitalist societies therefore, the state began to adopt the task of coordinating national capital for this international competition – and not just economic but increasingly military competition like WW1.

Marx had also pointed to the contradiction between the increasingly collective forces of production versus their private control and appropriation. As capitalism moved into its monopoly stage, its productive forces became ever more collective or interconnected, thus intensifying this contradiction. Thus the capitalist state began to step in to attempt to manage this contradiction – by adopting the role of collective, or state capitalist.

Imperialist, or state monopoly capitalism began to nationalise failing industries, – or even take command of all essential industries for the total wars of the twentieth century. The imperialist capitalist state also began to step up its ‘biopolitical’ task of organising the supply of a healthy and educated workforce, through beginning to establish a welfare state. Recent academic sociologists have called this the phase of ‘organised capitalism’.

Thus capitalism, being a world system, began to impose this logic on all parts of the world economy. Therefore by the mid twentieth century we saw nationally organised state capitalisms in different political forms from Roosevelt’s USA to Hitler’s Germany, to Churchill and Atlee’s Britain, to Nasser’s Egypt, to Apartheid South Africa – and Stalin’s USSR. Such national autarchism also became the model for national liberation movements attempting to build centres of accumulation independent from imperialism. Of course all these have their national specificities and differences, with different ways of organising and disciplining the working class. But they were also all being shaped by the overarching structure of the world system of imperialism, or state monopoly capitalism.

As we know, mainstream twentieth century social democracy saw the state as class neutral and able to take over industry and provide welfare in the interests of the ‘nation’. They saw this as ’socialism’. Therefore, during this heyday of state monopoly capitalism, as it reached its Zenith in the mid twentieth century, social democrats and reformist socialists could imagine that ‘history’ was moving in their direction, towards a state socialism. Victory would come gradually but inevitably. This was the dominant idea which animated twentieth century socialism.

But this state monoploy capitalist model went into crisis in the late 1960’s, as a result of its successful global spread. The period of turmoil between 1968 and 1973 opened up many different possible futures. But capitalism prevailed, and began to chart a new course. This was the emergence of globalising neoliberalism. The state-capitalist model was being abandoned by ruling classes everywhere, as Pinochet’s Chile, Thatcher’s Britain and Reagan’s USA lead the way. The USSR under Gorbachev would soon follow this global trend.

In the 1950’s the USSR had been one of the most advanced parts of the world system – a fact symbolised by its world leading space science and exploration programme. In the mid twentieth century period of nationally organised and state lead economies – it formed the most fully developed example of a successful global model. But as capitalism shifted towards globalising neoliberalism, this model began to falter and fail.

Furthermore, in the mid-twentieth century period of state monopoly capitalism the forces of nationally organised workers movements had found it easier to extract concessions from capitalism organised on a national scale. Thus it was also disorientated and weakened by the shift  the new neoliberal global models. This weakening was not just organisational but ideological. Suddenly the direction of history no longer seemed to be flowing in the direction of socialism, and the battle became harder. History and time no longer seemed our ally. Thatcher instead could imagine she was now riding the overall tide of history.

What Cliff unhelpfully dubbed the ‘downturn’ was in fact this global restructuring of the class struggle. But we can reconstitute ourselves as a global class with a global politics, and move forward once again.

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Welcome to 2009 – Protests, Gaza massacre and recession. What prospects for the left?

So 2009 has begun with the ugly war machine of the Israeli state hammering away at the impoverished and downtrodden people of Gaza. It is now around a fortnight into this murderous assault, and nearly one thousand Palestinian people have been killed.

This outrage has sparked an unprecedented wave of protests around the world. Here in Britain, most cities, towns and even villages have seen demonstrations of solidarity with the Palestinians, often where there has been no such protest movement before.  These protests range from vigils of dozens of predominantly white middle class residents in small provincial market towns, to  massive mobilisations sweeping the former mill towns of Northern England, where working class Asian Muslims who have suffered generations of racism and poverty in the UK are now protesting in their thousands on the streets.

The condemnation Israel’s actions is coming from all sections of society -  including significant numbers of voices from Britain’s Jewish population, many formerly staunch supporters of Israel – now criticising the assault on Gaza. All this has been brought together onto the streets of London by a series of mass marches of tens of thousands, often ending with sections of the crowds engaged in militant street battles with the police outside the Israeli embassy. All these factors, the scale of killing caused by Israel’s actions and the widespread public outcry against this, has began to shift what has been an almost unanimous pro-Israel consensus amongst Britain’s media and mainstream political circles.

What may all this mean for the wider project of rebuilding the left? Can these events generate new solidarities and new desires for equal and just social relations around the world? Or can they take us further away from  socialism, and further into ethno-religious and nationalistic divisions?

2008 had ended with the welcome and exciting news of the massive strikes, protests and riots sweeping Greece. This phenomenon hinted at the possibility of the rebirth of independent working class politics, as people move to defend themselves against the effects of the growing capitalist depression.

This depression, and the mounting assault on the working class that accompanies it – including job losses, home repossessions and pay cuts, is going to reshape politics one way or another. Our main task has to be to develop a programme of working class self-defence against the capitalist depression, including occupations, strikes and demonstrations. Whilst the Labour Party has totally abandoned working class interests we may be able to build a new movements and consciousness of solidarity and equality.

But there are other forces moving to cash in on the crisis. The fascists of the BNP are preparing for their big opportunity of gaining a seat in this years European Parliamentary elections. The economic and financial crisis, if it is not met by multiracial united working class resistance, will lead to the demoralisation, division and despair that fascism and racism feast from.

Whilst as internationalists we must act in solidarity with the Palestinians, that is not all we  must do. We cannot be content only to build the Gaza protests.  Socialists and anticapitalists must shape the politics within these movements, explicitly building bridges between Muslims and Jews, atheists and belivers,  white, Asian and black. This is potentially there in the solidarity on the streets over Gaza. Such solidarities must be nurtured, so they can spread into popular working class defence against capitalism. This means challenging every manifestation of anti-Semitism that the crisis can also generate, as well as the manifestations of Islamophobia.

It is obvious that the protests and the Gaza crisis will not automatically benefit socialism and internationalism. The BNP can benfit from the divisions caused, and paint a picture of left wingers and Muslims causing trouble on the streets over a ‘far away’  conflict. The growth of both Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism can be the result of the Gaza crisis. However, on the positive side,  the Gaza protests represtent the still  growing popular conscioussness and awareness of the issues in the Middle East that has resulted from the rejection of the war in Iraq. This can also feed into a new internationalism, which can resist racism and help build working class unity in the face of the capitalist crisis.

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