“Open Marxism” and the Myth of the Class Struggle

by Jehu

capitalistThere is a truism of sorts stated in Sol Picciotto’s paper: “the crisis of international capital is also a crisis of the international state system.” Given this, the aim of labor theory has to be to uncover this crisis and its material reality beneath fetishized forms of appearance.

For “open Marxism” to say the crisis of international capital is also a crisis of the international state system is, however, ambiguous at best and in practice completely misleading. No one will take exception to the idea the crisis of capitalism is also a crisis of the state, however I think Picciotto defines it this way in order to assert we are facing two different crises, not one and the same crisis.

As I have stated previously, Simon Clarke defines the approach of open Marxism to the state this way:

“The new approaches which emerged … [retains] the social democratic insistence on the autonomy of the state in order to insist on the specificity of the political and the irreducibility of political to economic conflicts.”

Since in open Marxism the “political” and “economic” are irreducibly separate, this has consequences for their approach to the world market. At the level of the world market, there must also be two irreducibly separate crises: a capitalist economic crisis and a crisis of the “state system”: While the crisis of capitalism is determined by the law of value, the crisis of the state system is determined by the class struggle.

The “defect” of the classical Marxists of the pre-war period, in the words of Picciotto and Holloway was this:

“The contradictions of accumulation have too often been thought of as ‘economic laws’ operating from the outside upon political class relations.”

The question this immediately raises is “Economic laws operating from the outside of what?” In a paper the forms Chapter 3 of Simon Clarke’s book, Holloway and Picciotto are somewhat ambiguous about the answer to this question. At one point they appear to imply classical Marxism saw the crisis of capitalism as developing outside the capital relation itself. They never say this directly, so far as I can tell, but instead insist ‘economic crisis’ is a crisis of “an historically specific form of class domination”.

It is hard to follow their argument until you realize they are trying to establish “the political” as a separate sphere from “the economic” within the capitalist relation — and this requires they redefine the capitalist relation itself as “an historically specific form of class domination”. This may seem all well and good — very commendable, even revolutionary — but it is, in fact, completely wrong. Capital is not “an historically specific form of class domination”, but the production of surplus value.

Of course, the production of surplus value is indeed historically specific to capital, but the distinction to be made here is extremely relevant, because capital (the production of surplus value) does not actually require a capitalist class. There is nothing in the critique of political economy by Marx that suggests he believed the capitalist was vital to the mode of production in any sense of that term. And if the capitalist class is not necessary to the capitalist relation, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to classify it as form of class domination.

In fact, we find the contrary definition in Capital. For instance chapter ten of volume one, Marx warns us to not mistake the personifications of capita for capital itself:

“As capitalist, he is only capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital. But capital has one single life impulse, the tendency to create value and surplus-value, to make its constant factor, the means of production, absorb the greatest possible amount of surplus-labour. “

He does this again in volume 3, chapter 48, where he states:

“[The] capitalist is merely capital personified and functions in the process of production solely as the agent of capital…”

The sole function the archetype of the capitalist plays in Capital is to personify one pole of the relation of capital.

This function can and was successively played by a host of increasingly social personifications of capital. According to Engels, in the final analysis, the capitalist class of Das Kapital would be rendered entirely superfluous to the mode of production; which is to say, the patriarchal figure of the 18th century would over time be replaced by the state itself. As Marxists are so fond of reminding us these day, capital is not a form of direct domination, but of abstract domination.

Das Kapital, therefore, does not actually require the lucky Mr. Moneybags to sustain its critique. In fact, only Democrats need icons like the Koch Brothers; and the need among Democrats, progressives and a host of Leftist “radical critics” of every sort for caricatures of capitalist relations of production like the Koch Brothers become more necessary in politics the more capital actually loses its private character and the state assumes all the functions of the capitalist.

According to Holloway and Picciotto: “The starting point for a socialist theory of the state must be class struggle”. Against the social democrat theory of the state, which, according to “open Marxists” views the state as a neutral social terrain, this attitude might be considered worthy.

But is it?

Of course not.

What separates the bourgeois epoch from all previous epoch is not that it also expresses the class struggle, but that in this epoch a class emerges that has no interest to assert against the ruling class of the epoch. This assumption is fundamental to Marx and Engels’ argument because, lacking a class interest to assert against the ruling class, Marx and Engels believed the proletariat was in the position to put an end to all classes. This critical assumption of Marx and Engels is nowhere stated by Holloway and Picciotto in chapter 3 of Simon Clarke’s book. Instead, Holloway and Picciotto state:

“Marx’s great contribution to the struggle for socialism, however, was not merely to show that social development is a process of class struggle, but to show that class struggle assumes different historical forms in different historical societies and that an understanding of these forms is essential for an understanding of class struggle and its development.”

If this is true, how might the proletariat’s absence of a class interest to assert against the bourgeois class be essential for our “understanding of the class struggle and its development”? It means, essentially, insofar as the proletariat is concerned, there is no class struggle!

And, indeed, Marx makes this argument against Bakunin in his “Conspectus of Bakunin’s “Statism and Anarchy”, where he writes:

“…[It] only means that, as the proletariat still acts, during the period of struggle for the overthrow of the old society, on the basis of that old society, and hence also still moves within political forms which more or less belong to it, it has not yet, during this period of struggle, attained its final constitution, and employs means for its liberation which after this liberation fall aside.”

Briefly, the proletarian struggle appears political because it is moving within the political forms of bourgeois society. The proletarian struggle is not a political struggle.

“Open Marxism”, like every other form of Marxism has not yet faced the fact that, for the proletariat, bourgeois society is classless. It is not accidental that the working class exhibits no class consciousness, since it has no consciousness of classes in the first place. This alleged “defect” in the proletariat’s empirical apprehension of present social relations means the class struggle is not the social terrain on which the class fights.

Despite this, according to Holloway and Picciotto,

“[A] materialist theory of the state begins not by asking in what way the ‘economic base’ determines the ‘political superstructure’, but by asking what it is about the relations of production under capitalism that makes them assume separate economic and political forms.”

They attribute this separation to commodity exchange:

“The worker is not directly subject physically to the capitalist, his subjection is mediated through the sale of his labour power as a commodity on the market.”

I think the argument by Holloway and Picciotto is correct insofar as it goes, however there is more: Commodity exchange implies competition among sellers and competition among buyers and competition between sellers and buyers; which is to say, competition among proletarians, competition among capitalists, and competition between proletarians and capitalists. Bourgeois society is the epoch of universal all-sided competition among members of society. The material conditions of this society, since it is expressed nowhere directly in the interests of the individuals composing society, must take a form independent of this universal competition.

It takes the form of the democratic state. The democratic state is simply the form that makes possible the freest possible conditions for competition between members of society. The material economic conditions of bourgeois society presupposes not only the separation of the state from society, but also its democratic form.

Holloway and Piciotto think they can explain why state is separate from society, but they clearly cannot explain why this state necessarily takes the form of democracy. They do this by means of a subterfuge in which the state must be separate owing to the relation between the two great classes: The buying of labor power presupposes the worker is “free” to sell it — that she is the “owner” of herself:

“[The] fact that exploitation takes place through the free sale and purchase of labour-power, makes this abstraction of direct relations of force from the immediate process of production necessary.”

According to the authors, then, the abstraction of force from the immediate process of production and its separation from capital constitutes “the economic” and “the political” as distinct. Nowhere in this argument do Holloway and Piciotto recognize that “capital” is actually split up among competing capitals nor that the proletarians are really split up as sellers of labor power. The fact that the bourgeois class is really and materially split up among competing capitals means nowhere can this class directly lay hold to the power of the state.

Rather, the state power expresses the common material interests of this class — its common conditions of existence and the interests of each individual capitalist only to the extent their individual conditions express the average condition of the class.

Mind you, this is NOT a new theory insight: It was detailed completely by Marx and Engels in the German Ideology.

Holloway and Piciotto cannot grasp that the interests of the bourgeois class in society can be expressed in no other form than the state precisely because the interests of the class as a whole are in no way the interests of the individuals composing the class. Even if the capitalist class sought to directly express its own interests, as has been proposed in theory by anarcho-capitalists, this aim only amounts to a fantasy. The interests of the separate capitalists are no less antagonistic than the interests between capitalist and worker. Each capitalist is compelled by the law of value to increase his own capital on pain of ruin and to ruin his competitors.

There is nothing in labor theory to suggest the capitalists solve their conflicts by seeking out their mutual interests as a class; which would be a necessary assumption if we assumed any sort of direct rule of the class. The separation of the state from society and its democratic form is already given in the competition between capitals and requires no further cause than this. If despite this separation there is the progressive fusing of the total capital with the state, this does not in the least imply the direct rule of the capitalist class on its own behalf; rather it implies that the capitalist class has been rendered wholly superfluous to the national capital.

This latter conclusion of historical materialism is a big problem for Marxists, since their very notion of communism requires the presence of the other class and the class struggle. But, if Marx and Engels were correct, the other class has now been rendered superfluous by the progress of the mode of production itself.