Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday, 9 December 2020

ZUSAMMENBRUCHSTHEORIE AND ORGANIZATIONSFRAGE - Social Democracy, Communism and the Prelude to Totalitarianism


To accept with Lenin that "politics is a concentrate of economics" would be tantamount to allowing that economic activity is dictated by a "necessity" that is independent of "coercion", that is physical or even physio-bio-logical in nature – and therefore independent of "the Political". This may make sense in terms of the economic determinism – indeed, an eschatology or even a “theodicy” of communism – that Lenin inherited from Marx’s labour theory of value and is implicit in the conception of human history expounded most explicitly in The Communist Manifesto and in the “Preface to A Contribution”. It was this economic determinism that Eduard Bernstein attacked with his Evolutionary Socialism wherein he sought to reformulate the strategy of the Social Democratic Party for the conquest of political power in post-Wilhelmine Germany. To be sure, Bernstein’s attack on the notion of the “general crisis of capitalism” or Zusammenbruchstheorie had little resemblance to Marx’s notion of the inevitability of its decline and replacement by “the dictatorship of the proletariat” – which was certainly consistent with the gradual transition to communism and even more consistent with a revolutionary overthrow of bourgeois regimes than with a sudden catastrophic end to capitalism. But what was more significant than the applicability of the “general crisis” to capitalism for Bernstein’s attack on Marxist eschatology was the undeniable determinism of Marx’s theory based on the notion of “socially necessary labour time” and, consequently, of the validity of the Law of Value. For if, indeed, the notion of socially necessary labour time were valid, then, given a fixed working population, there can be little doubt that rising productivity would push socially necessary labour time to the zero bound, that is, to a point where workers will receive little or nothing out of the social product whereas capitalists will be entitled to the near totality of it!

This tendency of capitalism combined with the anarchy of production dictated by the reality of market competition necessarily entails the equal necessity of its supersession by political means to a new and higher form of social production that Marxists call communism. It was these two pivots of Marxian revolutionary economic theory – those of (i) the unsustainability of surplus-value extraction (Marx’s law of the tendential fall of the rate of profit) and of (ii) the anarchy of capitalist market competition – and the obvious implication that they would lead to inevitable and irremediable crises for capitalist production and for bourgeois society – that Bernstein attacked, first, by challenging the “necessity” of the compression of workers’ wages as a proportion of total income (“the immiseration thesis”). In further evidence of the erroneity of this Marxian hypothesis, Bernstein proceeded to show that indeed, far from the progressive immiseration of the working class and the growing intractability of capitalist crises, the recent emergence of welfare and interventionist states in Western Europe – the Sozialstaat instead of the liberal laissez-faire Rechtsstaat or Lassallean “night-watchman state” - together with their regulation of capitalist industry occasioned in part by the rapid ascent of social-democratic parties and trade unions – that these new political realities militated in favour of the ability of the capitalist system to avoid catastrophic political and economic crises and also – and this is the crux of Bernstein’s reformist thesis - in favour of the ability of socialist parties to achieve the gradual and peaceful, non-revolutionary evolution of capitalist society into a socialist one of freedom and equality. (On the transformation of the State in the nineteenth century, see the insightful studies by Franz Neumann collected in his The Democratic and the Authoritarian State.)

Note that both these theses which form the essence of Bernstein’s socialist reformism can be derived directly from Marx’s own economic determinism. For, if indeed it is possible to calculate “socially necessary labour time” by reason of its “necessity”, and with it the magnitude of surplus value (the profit or value added by living labour after the cost of the means of production and real wages are subtracted from the total value realized from the sale of the products), it must follow that the Law of Value derived from the Labour Theory of Value is a calculable material quantity. But in that case the crucial question in the Marxian critique of capitalism boils down to the distribution of value in capitalist society and not to its production – because the mode of production is not called into question. The mode of production – what is produced and how, by what means - remains exactly the same under capitalism as under socialism. All that changes is how the product – the Labour Value – is distributed between capitalists and workers. Bernstein’s reformism, in a nutshell, is all here: once it is established that all Value is created by Labour – through socially necessary labour time -, it becomes clear that the redistribution of value from capitalists to workers can be achieved by peaceful reformist social-democratic means through the process of parliamentary representation which was already spreading throughout Western Europe with the introduction of ever more “universal” suffrage. The process of production of Value becomes thus a “technical” question that is now removed from the more “ethical” question of the workers’ claim to the fruit of their own Labour. (As we shall discuss later, this exakte Kalkulation at the heart of capitalist enterprise will become the metre of Weber’s entire theorization of Western capitalist “rationalization”.)

It is this integration of working-class parties in the bourgeois institutions of parliamentary government and representation that was at the centre of the dramatic split in the workers’ movement between the Second and Third International, between social-democratic and communist parties around the Organizationsfrage – the question of the organization of the workers’ party either into a reformist majoritarian “umbrella” mass party or into a minority revolutionary “vanguard” that would lead the proletarian “masses” to the dictatorship of the proletariat. Bernstein’s reformism represents a seismic shift in socialist politics not just in tactics but indeed in strategy – because the fundamental presuppositions (Voraussetzungen) of Marxist theory had changed. The very title of Bernstein’s series of essays that kicked off the controversy around the Bernstein-Debatte and the secession of the Third from the Second International referred to The Premises (Voraussetzungen) of Socialism. And these premises had changed in part because of the crucial ambiguity in Marx’s own theorization of the evolution of capitalist enterprise. By seeking to give a scientific foundation to his critique of political economy, Marx had ended up reducing the political basis of capitalist industry – the violence of the “exchange” between living and dead labour, its coercion, in the production and reproduction of human society – to the economic quantification of the distribution of a scientifically calculated “surplus value” between workers and capitalist “managers”.

The change in strategy that Bernstein proposed and that was adopted enthusiastically by the German bourgeoisie in its backing of the integration of the Sozialdemokratische Partei (SPD) with the establishment of the Weimar Republic in 1919 had already been flagged by Friedrich Engels in his 1895 Introduction to the re-edition of Marx’s The Class Struggles in France. Written shortly before his death, this Introduction can be regarded as a last testament on the part of Marx’s lifelong companion, and for that reason alone it received enormous attention in the workers’ movement leading up to the First World War. It is an important document for our purposes because it addresses several analytical themes that are essential to the schematization and periodization of our own study of the origin, formation and seizure of power of revolutionary movements in the totalitarian era between the World Wars. To be sure, Engels had intended his theses to be a mere change of the tactics to be adopted for the transition to communism; but they were never meant as a change of strategy because unlike his assistant, Eduard Bernstein whom he appointed as trustee of his intellectual estate, Engels unflinchingly held fast to the theoretical premises of the Marxist critique of capitalism.

In this astoundingly visionary short exposition, Engels owns up to “mistakes” that he, together with Marx, had committed in the assessment of the political preconditions and the revolutionary tactics to be adopted for the successful transition to a communist society. Tersely summarized, these mistakes referred principally to the ability of a minority vanguard or leadership of the working population to lead the majority of the proletariat to a successful revolutionary insurrection given (a) the spread of capitalist enterprise and (b) the rise of the bourgeoisie as the hegemonic political force in control of (c) powerful nation-states with their pervasive bureaucratic apparatus including (d) sizeable standing armies capable of putting down any uprising with overwhelming force. In support of his critical revision, Engels could do no more than to point to the fate of the Paris Commune of 1871 – itself the subject of another Marxian piece on The Civil War in France where the “mistakes” of the earlier tract written in 1848 were repeated. As a remedy for these “mistakes”, Engels proposed a change of tactics toward a more “majoritarian” conquest of power by socialist workers’ parties given that the spread of parliamentary representation and of universal suffrage could not but lead to the gradual political supremacy of the proletariat and its eventual transformation of human society to socialism by either peaceful or, if compelled, revolutionary means.

The reason for us recalling this quite remarkable Introduction by Engels is once again that it presciently referred, with unmatchable perspicacity, to the essential ingredients of the origin and formation of proto-totalitarian regimes in accordance with our thesis on “the primacy of economics” in the first phase – comprising the first two stages – of the historical evolution of these regimes. To repeat, these ingredients are: - (a) the spread of capitalist enterprise; (b) the rise of the bourgeoisie as the hegemonic political force within integrated economic regions; (c) the formation of powerful nation-states with their pervasive bureaucratic apparatus to govern and administer these economic regions, including (d) sizeable standing armies capable of putting down any uprising with overwhelming force.

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