A conversation with Phil Greaves: Neoliberalism, Communism and the State

by Jehu

I spent the greater part of a day having an exchange with Phil Greaves over the situation in Syria. The exchanges have been sharp and uncompromising, but very helpful to me, in the sense it has allowed me to understand a problem that can only be discussed in wider context than I have so far.

That problem is this: So far as I can figure out, neoliberalism is the crisis of the existing state, a period of its collapse. If this is true, we are looking at almost 200 states that will more or less effectively disappear over the next few decades. I have spent most of the last year watching this process unfold in Greece, but Greece is not by any means the only example of the process. Just to name a few, we have seen political crises in Egypt, Spain and Japan. We have watched the rise of a nationalist movement in Scotland and euro-skeptic movements in the UK, France, Germany, etc. Finally, we have seen ongoing US and NATO aggression in Ukraine, Venezuela, Libya and Syria. The crisis of the state is now morphed into a prolonged global political and economic crisis.

In Greece, the country with which I am most familiar, the radical Left gained power after a prolonged depression, the likes of which has not been seen in Europe since the 1930s. Upon gaining power, however, SYRIZA soon found the state power it thought it now controlled lacked any material (economic) substance; the alleged sovereignty of the Greece state turned out to be an illusion. During this time, we have also watched as Ukraine was dismantled by the US and Russia while the Egypt revolution was eviscerated by the US and NATO.

Smaller countries have become helpless pawns in the competition between powerful ones. Each one of these situations is completely different from the others and it would appear there are no unifying characteristics. Some of them are extremely complex, such as Syria, where multiple forces contend for power against a sitting government. Communists appear to be on both sides of the conflict, much like in Greece where communists are in the government and against it. Moreover, there are some communists who are openly working with so-called “imperialist powers” and others who argue against this. SYRIZA, for instance, is being criticized by the KKE for its refusal to leave both NATO and the euro; while the YPG is lobbying for NATO airstrikes on ISIS.

Making sense of this sort of conflict among communists is, to say the least, difficult. How do you decide who is right here? The communists fighting the Assad government or the communists who are supporting that government? The communists who are fighting to stay in the euro or the communists who are fighting to exit the euro?

Summarizing Greaves’ argument

If the state form is actually dying, how should communists operate in this period? To begin to answer this, I want to see if I can accurately sum up Phil Greaves’ argument. What follows is my summary and any inaccuracies that result reflect only my errors or gaps in my understanding of his position.

According to Greaves, we should not simply demand the overthrow of the present state; such a demand does nothing to build socialist fraternity. Moreover, it is convenient for communists in the more powerful states to claim all states must be overthrown even as they benefit from plunder wrung from the oppressed nations. How does it aid the working class struggle to stand by as the US and NATO destroy these countries?

As Greaves argues that for communists to simply limits themselves demanding overthrow of all existing states and their replacement by a commune, while ignoring US and NATO aggression, they are only proposing some future ideal state as a solution to present political conflicts:

“We’ve come full circle haven’t we Jehu, ‘a perfect society, a perfect ‘state’, are things which can only exist in imagination.”

According to Greaves, communists cannot practically oppose US imperialism without practically supporting the bourgeois democratic movements in the oppressed countries from the US and NATO attacks. Without this, communists oppose nothing and effectively lend the US and NATO their support.

Greaves makes a distinction between the US bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie of countries like Syria. The former is imperialist, while the latter is active in the bourgeois democratic movement of Syria. The argument that the state form is dying and that this process of dying begins in the dependent countries is convenient because it requires us to do nothing. According to Greaves, my view equates the Syrian state and productive forces of Syria with that of United States imperialism.

Although, Greaves argues support for the Syrian state is not an absolute principle of communists, but historically conditioned or relative to events, he asserts that to argue we should oppose US intervention in Syria but not to the extent of lending support to the Syrian state effectively means not supporting Syrians’ right to defend themselves.

“I’m saying a claimed ‘opposition’ to the US without supporting the Syrian State (in this context) is no opposition at all.”

As I understand Greaves’ argument, if the US state and the Syrian state cannot be equated — because the first is imperialist and the second bourgeois-democratic — the Second International principle that all communists should work for the defeat of their own capitalist state does not apply to the Syrian conflict. This assertion is critical to his argument, because Greaves has to show another principle — the right to self-determination — applies in the conflict between NATO and Syria.

The principle put forward by the Second International — that each party must work for the defeat of its own capitalist — was based on the determination that the war was an inter-imperialist war. However, even given this principle, the parties of the Second International made a distinction between the inter-imperialist war and the anti-colonial struggles. The distinction here is crucial, says Greaves, because the US is a predatory imperialist power and Syria is not.

Based on this distinction, Greaves asserts “Syria is objectively an oppressed nation. As were the colonies [of the imperialist powers].” Thus, in opposition to my argument that what we are witnessing competition between national capitals of unequal size, Greaves offers this:

“I’ve explained that very clearly, Syria is an oppressed nation: it is not ‘an unequal fight between national capitals’, but a fight between national capital, (Syrian bourgeois-democrats) & imperial capital (US imperialists). They aren’t the same.”

Greaves extends this argument: The distinction between the US state and the Syrian state is not just political — imperialist versus bourgeois democratic — but also economic: the US productive force are ‘parasitic”. The US is an oppressor (exploiter?) of other nations.

Syria, on the other hand, is in the historical position where it is still trying to culminate its bourgeois (national) revolution. The US role as an imperialist power is effectively preventing Syria from completing its own bourgeois democratic revolution. The competition we are witnessing is not a competition between unequal bourgeois states, but competition between an independent national bourgeoisie (Syrian capitalists) and an international parasitic imperialism (NATO capitalists).

“This is the major point of contention, they aren’t equal ‘sovereigns’, one is an imperialist nation, a parasitic aggressor, that [represents] ‘nothing but political reaction’ for States (peoples) it exploits, the other is still at the bourgeois-democratic stage.”

Greaves does not deny there is competition between capitalist states, but he asserts we must draw a distinction between capitalist competition and military violence. Failing to support the Syrian state even as it is the target of US and NATO aggression should not be condoned by communists.

Finally, Greaves distinguishes between the bourgeois democratic stage of development and the imperialist stage of development. Communism, he argues, will be born from capitalism, from nation States; imperialism is not the womb of socialism but its miscarriage.

Are national struggles obsolete in the era of neoliberalism?

Greaves’ argument raises two very big questions for me:

  1. Is there a period where the national struggle becomes obsolete and,
  2. Are we in that period now?

Before we can answer these questions, let me broaden the term, “national struggle”. As I use it, the term, “national struggle” applies both to the imperialist powers and the dependent countries of the world market. By, ‘national struggle’, I mean not only the conflict between peoples, but also the general contention for power between classes in every country.

For instance, it is quite popular today to discuss Greece through the lens of its position as a dependent country to Germany and the EU. This dependence is real, but can it be undone through some sort of ‘national liberation cum socialism’? KKE says it can and criticizes SYRIZA for its refusal to leave the euro.

Greaves argument shows the complexity of the situation we face as well as the confusion reigning over almost every question related to the state. Even if we accept Greaves’ argument that Syria is still in its bourgeois democratic stage of development, as far back as 1846, Marx and Engels raised an interesting point when they wrote of the sometimes interrupted progression of historical contradictions within a country. Their point was that, owing to competition with more advanced countries within the world market, the contradictions within that country may not work themselves out to their extreme limits before producing a crisis:

“Incidentally, to lead to collisions in a country, this contradiction need not necessarily have reached its extreme limit in this particular country. The competition with industrially more advanced countries, brought about by the expansion of international intercourse, is sufficient to produce a similar contradiction in countries with a backward industry (e.g. the latent proletariat in Germany brought into view by view by the competition of English industry).” (German Ideology)

Of course, Marx and Engels make a general statement here, that cannot be directly and dogmatically applied to the Syrian case. However, their point still holds: When developing our strategy in a particular country, it is necessary not just to understand the stage of development of that country in particular, but also the general level of development of contradictions within the capitalist mode of production world-wide.

Does Marx and Engels’ argument apply today in the case of those countries or people’s for whom the bourgeois democratic revolution has not been consummated? It may be true that the contradictions within Syria have not worked themselves out to their extreme limits, but is the situation influenced by the development of the contradiction of the capitalist mode of production overall? To put this bluntly: Has the bourgeois democratic phase of Syria’s development been effectively foreclosed by the rise of neoliberalism and the crisis of the state? Frankly, if neoliberalism is a crisis of the existing state, it is really complicated and will produce more question than we imagine.

Has capital now bypassed the nation state?

Let me demonstrate why I think this is an urgent question to be settled. The argument against membership in the European Union and in the euro currency raised by KKE against SYRIZA goes to the very heart of Marx’s analysis of the capitalist mode of production. In volume 3 of Capital, Marx discusses one of the most important tendencies produced by the falling rate of profit: the ever increasing minimum volume of capital now required for productive employment of labor:

“A drop in the rate of profit is attended by a rise in the minimum capital required by an individual capitalist for the productive employment of labour; required both for its exploitation generally, and for making the consumed labour-time suffice as the labour-time necessary for the production of the commodities, so that it does not exceed the average social labour-time required for the production of the commodities.” (Capital, Volume 3)

Is this statement true only for private capitals or does it apply to entire national capitals as well? Is it true in other words that the progress of capital forces the concentration and centralization of capital even among national capitals? What implication does an increase in the minimum capital required by an individual capitalist for the productive employment of labour have for the nation state, which, Engels predicted would eventually become the national capitalist? Over time, does it become impossible for a single national capital to remain competitive with national capitals straddling many countries? And if so, what happens to national capitals that cannot mobilize a larger volume of capital than they have within their national borders? How do these purely local national capitals survive?

I believe the laws of capitalist development apply as much to national capitals as they do to private capitals; which means, at a certain point, the minimum capital required for productive employment of labor must exceed that of a single national state. Concentration, argues Marx, “increases simultaneously, because beyond certain limits a large capital with a small rate of profit accumulates faster than a small capital with a large rate of profit.” If I am right on this, what are we to make of Marx’s prediction that the falling rate of profit acts to force concentration and centralization of capital — in this case meaning not the concentration and centralization of private capitals, but of national capitals, each ideally represented by their respective states?

The logic of Marx’s theory is that the state itself must become a fetter on the national capital. This has to be true or Marx’s theory has to be wrong. We thus run into a contradiction that the state, the ideal representative of the national capital, requires a minimum capital for the productive employment of labor that now exceeds the total national capital of that state. There is, I think, no question that under these circumstances, conflict among nation states become inevitable. The attention of some Marxists at this point is drawn to Lenin’s pamphlet, Imperialism, and the scramble for colonies and spheres of influence, but there is another aspect of the problem that is overlooked: While the development of the productive forces might indeed lead to conflicts between states over division of the world market, this conflict arises in first place because the state itself is now a fetter on the further development of the national capital. The very process that forces the state to assume control of the forces of production and go to war against its rival national capitals — to act as the national capitalist — also signals its inevitable collapse.

The national bourgeoisie as Trojan Horse

Communism today is very much infected with statism. The clearest expression of this infection is with regards to the idea that nations have the unconditional right to self-determination. The same thinking that makes a fetish of the right to self-determination in Syria, also makes a fetish of national sovereignty in Greece. On what basis is the right to self-determination to be exercised? Does this depend on political declarations by communists or material economic relations? The view of communists on these sorts of questions has to be based on material economic relations. What good does it do to champion national sovereignty or the right to self-determination when actual development of the mode of production has rendered these principles obsolete?

The response that can be made to my argument is that the development of the capitalist mode of production never renders self-determination or sovereignty obsolete. Somehow, sovereignty and self-determination are not historically determined political-economic categories, but eternal principles. However, if the nation, its sovereignty and its self-determination are historically determined categories, they must have a beginning and an end. National self-determination and sovereignty are only phases in the life-span of the nation-state itself.

Moreover, I think communists miss the bigger question at this historical juncture. Since it is obvious most national bourgeoisies cannot compete with the US and NATO, it can be expected they will likely go over to the other side. As I wrote two years ago,

“A small country like Bolivia, or Egypt or Greece can hardly expect to stand toe to toe with the US and its allies and trade blows. They typically do not have the economic, political or military power to confront the United States. This has led to the United States routinely ignoring their sovereignty, overthrowing their governments and sabotaging their economies.”

The bourgeois class of many nations are thus trapped between their own working classes and Washington. My argument now as it was then is that the lesser national bourgeoisies are ready and willing to sacrifice their own working class. In this position, it is likely the bourgeoisies of the dependent countries will sacrifice their working classes to save their skins. This is the normal case, as demonstrated far more often than the Syrian case. The bourgeoisie of the dependent country acts as a Trojan horse for Washington.

Unanswered questions

  • There are a lots of questions raised by my argument here for which I don’t have answers. But I will lay them out in any case:
  • Do communists believe imperialism is in some sense worse than capitalism? Reactionary or regressive? Or is it actually a more advanced form of capitalism?
  • If the state itself is collapsing, what sense does it make to speak of the right of nations to self-determination?
  • And if the US and NATO are taking advantage of this collapse to extend their control, what should communists be doing?
  • Does every nation have the unconditional right to self-determination? Do communists unconditionally support every nation’s right to self determination?
  • Does history follow some sort of progression where every nation has to first exercise this right to self-determination before we can move on?
  • Do communists believe in national sovereignty?
  • Do communists believe every nation should get to culminate its bourgeois democratic development?
  • What about nations like the Kurds or African Americans, who have never had the opportunity to exercise this right?
  • Is a nation’s right to self-determination limited to only those choices we judge correct? (So, for instance, you cannot ask NATO for air support?)
  • Do Marxists treat military conflicts between countries differently than they treat economic competition between nations?
  • When communist propose a commune in opposition to the present state, are they standing for something that only exists in the imagination?
  • Must communists support a particular state in order to oppose imperialist aggression against a country?

To be honest, I don’t have an answer to these questions. I don’t even know if they are the right questions. But I think we must be willing to question everything at this point, since that is the only way the science of historical materialism advances.