The Opium of the Intellectual

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

Modern Marxism, Lee Harris explains, is a fantasy ideology dressed up to look like Marxism:

Marx and Engels’s wholesale condemnation of all previous socialism as utopian fantasy is the fundamental innovation of their own work. It is the basis of their claim to be taken seriously, not merely by Hoffmanesque daydreamers, but by men of practical judgment and shrewd common sense. To fail to make this distinction, or to fail to stay on the right side of this distinction once it has been made, is to cease to be a Marxist and to fall back into mere Träumerei.

This demarcation line arose because Marx believed that he had grasped something that no previous utopian socialist had even suspected. He believed that he had shown that socialism was inevitable and that it would come about through certain ironclad laws of history — laws that Marx believed were revealed through the study of the very nature of capitalism. Socialism, in short, would not come about because a handful of daydreamers had wished for it, or because pious moralists had urged it, but because the unavoidable breakdown of the capitalist system would force the turn to socialism upon those societies that, prior to this breakdown, had been organized along capitalist lines.

Schematically the scenario went something like this:

  • The capitalists would begin to suffer from a falling rate of profit.
  • The workers would therefore be “immiserized”; they would become poorer as the capitalists struggled to keep their own heads above water.
  • The poverty of the workers would drive them to overthrow the capitalist system — their poverty, not their ideals.

What is interesting here is that, once you accept the initial premise about the falling rate of profit, the rest does indeed follow realistically. Now, this does not mean that it follows necessarily or according to an ironclad scientific law; but it certainly conveys what any reasonable person would take as the most probable outcome of a hypothetical failure of capitalism.

For Marx it is absolutely essential that revolutionary activities be justifiable on realistic premises. If they cannot be, then they are actions that cannot possibly have a real political objective — and therefore, their only value can be the private emotional or spiritual satisfaction of the people carrying out this pseudo-political action.

So in order for revolutionary activity to have a chance of succeeding, there is an unavoidable precondition: The workers must have become much poorer over time. Furthermore, there had to be not merely an increase of poverty, but a conviction on the part of the workers that their material circumstances would only get worse, and not better — and this would require genuine misery.

This is the immiserization thesis of Marx. And it is central to revolutionary Marxism, since if capitalism produces no widespread misery, then it also produces no fatal internal contradiction: If everyone is getting better off through capitalism, who will dream of struggling to overthrow it? Only genuine misery on the part of the workers would be sufficient to overturn the whole apparatus of the capitalist state, simply because, as Marx insisted, the capitalist class could not be realistically expected to relinquish control of the state apparatus and, with it, the monopoly of force. In this, Marx was absolutely correct. No capitalist society has ever willingly liquidated itself, and it is utopian to think that any ever will. Therefore, in order to achieve the goal of socialism, nothing short of a complete revolution would do; and this means, in point of fact, a full-fledged civil war not just within one society, but across the globe. Without this catastrophic upheaval, capitalism would remain completely in control of the social order and all socialist schemes would be reduced to pipe dreams.

When Communism took hold in agrarian Russia and then China, while the workers in America and Britain grew prosperous, it should have been clear that Marx’s “scientific” predictions were in no sense coming true — but socialists did not admit their non-scientific shift into utopianism:

There might be several reasons advanced for this, but certainly one of them is Paul Baran. A Polish born American economist and a Marxist, Baran is the author of (Monthly Review Press, 1957). In it, for the first time in Marxist literature, Baran propounded a causal connection between the prosperity of the advanced capitalist countries and the impoverishment of the Third World. It was no longer the case, as it was for Marx, that poverty — as well as idiocy — was the natural condition of man living in an agricultural mode of production. Rather, poverty had been introduced into the Third World by the capitalist system. The colonies no longer served the purpose of consuming overstocked inventories, but were now the positive victims of capitalism.

What needs to be stressed here is that, prior to Baran, no Marxist had ever suspected that capitalism was the cause of the poverty of the rest of the world. Not only had Marx and Engels failed to notice this momentous fact, but neither had any of their followers. Yet this omission was certainly not due to Marx’s lack of knowledge about, or interest in, the question of European colonies. In his writing on India, Marx shows himself under no illusions concerning the brutal and mercenary nature of British rule. He is also aware of the “misery and degradation” effected by the impact of British industry’s “devastating effects” on India. Yet all of this is considered by Marx to be a dialectical necessity; that is to say, these effects were the unavoidable precondition of India’s progress and advance — an example of the “creative destruction” that Schumpeter spoke of as the essence of capitalist dynamics. Or, as Marx put it in On Colonialism: “[T]he English bourgeoisie… will neither emancipate nor materially mend the social condition of the mass of the [Indian] people… but… what they will not fail to do is to lay down the material premises for both” the emancipation and the mending of this social condition.

The radical nature of Baran’s reformulation of Marxist doctrine is obscured by an understandable tendency to confuse Baran’s theory with Lenin’s earlier theory of imperialism. In fact, the two have nothing in common. Lenin’s theory had evolved in order to explain the continuing survival of capitalism into the early twentieth century, and hence the delay of the coming of socialism. In Lenin’s view, imperialism is not the cause of Third World immiserization, but rather a stopgap means of postponing immiserization in the capitalist countries themselves. It is the capitalist countries’ way of keeping their own work force relatively prosperous — and hence politically placid — by selling surplus goods into captive colonial markets. It is not a way of exploiting, much less impoverishing, these colonies. It was rather a way “to bribe the upper strata of the proletariat, and… to… strengthen opportunism,” as Lenin put it in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (International Publishers, 1933).

This gives us the proper perspective from which to judge the revolutionary quality of Baran’s reformulation. For, in essence, what Baran has done is to globalize the traditional doctrine of immiserization so that, instead of applying to the workers of the advanced capitalist countries, it now came to apply to the entire population of those countries that have not achieved advanced capitalism: It was the rest of the world that was being impoverished by capitalism, not the workers of the advanced countries.

Baran’s global immiserization thesis, after its initial launch, was taken up by other Marxists, but it was nowhere given a more elaborate intellectual foundation than in Immanuel Wallerstein’s monumental study The Modern World-System (Academic Press, 1974), which was essentially a fleshing out in greater historical and statistical detail of Baran’s thesis. Hence, for the sake of convenience, I will call the global immiserization thesis the Baran-Wallerstein revision.

This Baran-Wallerstein revision helped explain a lot:

For example, there was no longer any difficulty in accepting the astonishingly high level of prosperity achieved by the work force of the advanced capitalist countries — indeed, it was now even possible to arraign the workers of these countries alongside of the capitalists for whom they labored — or, rather, more precisely, with whom they collaborated in order to exploit both the material resources and the cheap labor of the Third World. In the new configuration, both the workers and the capitalists of the advanced countries became the oppressor class, while it was the general population of the less advanced countries that became the oppressed — including, curiously enough, even the rulers of these countries, who often, to the untutored eye, seemed remarkably like oppressors themselves.

With this demystification of the capitalist working class came an end to even a feigned enthusiasm among Marxists for solidarity with the hopelessly middle-class aspirations of the American blue-collar work force. The Baran-Wallerstein revision offered an exotic new object of sympathy — namely, the comfortably distant and abstract Third World victims of the capitalist world system.

Perhaps most important, the Baran-Wallerstein revision also neatly solved the most pressing dilemma that worker prosperity in advanced capitalist countries bequeathed to classical Marxism: the absolute lack of revolutionary spirit among these workers — the very workers, it must be remembered, who were originally cast in the critical role of world revolutionaries. In the new theoretical configuration, this problem no longer mattered simply because the workers of the capitalist countries no longer mattered.

Hence the appeal of the global immiserization thesis: The Baran-Wallerstein revision neatly obviates all the most outstanding objections to the classical Marxist theory.

On the other hand the Baran-Wallerstein revision doesn’t explain how the revolution could succeed:

This is because the original immiserization thesis was set within the context of a class war within a society — an actual civil war between different classes of one and the same society, and not between different nations on different continents. This makes an enormous difference, for it is not at all unreasonable to think that a revolutionary movement could succeed, by means of a violent and bloody civil war, in gaining the monopoly of force within a capitalist society, and thus be able to dictate terms to the routed capitalists, if any survived.

But this is an utterly different scenario from one in which the most advanced capitalist societies have a monopoly of force — and brutally effective force — at their disposal. For in this case it is absurd to think that the exploited Third World countries could possibly be able to alter the world order by even a hair, provided the advanced capitalist societies were intent on not being altered.

What could they do to us?

The answer to this question, according to many of those who accept the global immiserization thesis, came on 9-11. Noam Chomsky, perhaps America’s most celebrated proponent of the Baran-Wallerstein thesis, expressed this idea in the immediate aftermath. Here, for the first time, the world had witnessed the oppressed finally striking a blow against the oppressor — a politically immature blow, perhaps, comparable to the taking of the Bastille by the Parisian mob in its furious disregard of all laws of humanity, but still an act equally world-historical in its significance: the dawn of a new revolutionary era.

It’s still not enough though:

For those who are persuaded by the Baran-Wallerstein thesis, 9-11 represents a classic temptation. It is the temptation that every fantasy ideology offers to those who become caught up in it — the temptation to replace serious thought and analysis, fidelity to the facts and scrupulous objectivity, with the worst kind of wishful thinking. The attempt to cast 9-11 as a second taking of the Bastille simply overlooks what is most critical about both of these events, namely, that the Bastille was a symbol of oppression to the masses of French men and women who first overthrew it and then tore it down, brick by brick. And while it is true that the Bastille had become the stuff of fantasy, thanks to the pre-1789 “horrors of the Bastille” literature, it was still a fantasy that worked potently on the minds of the Parisian mob and hence provided the objective political conditions necessary to undermine the Bourbon state. But the fantasy embodied in 9-11, far from weakening the American political order, strengthened it immeasurably, while the only mobs that were motivated by the enactment of this fantasy were those inhabiting the Arab streets — a population pathetically unable to control even the most elementary aspects of its own political destiny, and hence scarcely the material out of which a realistically minded revolutionary could hope to fashion an instrument of world-historical transformation. These people are badly miscast in the role of the vanguard of the world revolution. And what can we say about those in the West, allegedly acting within the tradition of Marxist thought, who encourage such spectacularly utopian flights of fantasy?

There is nothing Marxist about the Baran-Wallerstein thesis:

On the contrary, according to Marx, it was the duty of the non-utopian socialist, prior to the advent of genuine socialism, to support whatever state happened to represent the most fully developed and consistently carried out form of capitalism; and, indeed, it was his duty to defend it against the irrational onslaughts of those reactionary and backward forces that tried to thwart its development. In fact, this was a duty that Marx took upon himself, and nowhere more clearly than in his defense of the United States against the Confederacy in the Civil War. Only in this case he was defending capitalism against a fantasy ideology that, unlike that of radical Islam, wished to roll back the clock a mere handful of centuries, not several millennia.

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