Non-market socialism: Life Without Money – An Interview with Anitra Nelson

Life Without Money: Building Fair and Sustainable Economies (Pluto Press, London, 2011) that Anitra Nelson and Frans Timmerman have edited is a remarkable collection on the praxis of non-market socialism. For the contributors of the volume, socialism/communism is not just a state or goal which we have to achieve in some distant future; rather, it is built through immediate practices that reject capitalism and its key institutions – market and money. They regard the manipulation of these institutions for their gradual transcendence to be deceptive, as “the market system, and its quasi-god money, is a strong barrier to the political and cultural reforms needed to establish socialism.” The volume critiques the reduction of socialist revolution to combinatorics of state power and economic reformism.

The following discussion with Anitra Nelson, one of the editors of the volume, tries to bring out the chief tenets of non-market socialism, providing an insight into the politics of diverse experiences in this regard. Prof Nelson teaches at RMIT University in Melbourne (Australia) and has been active in the women’s liberation, peace, disability, environmental and solidarity movements. One of her previous works, Marx’s Concept of Money: The God of Commodities (Routledge, London, 1999), is considered to be an important contribution in the Marxist critique of political economy. 


Pratyush Chandra (PC): Life Without Money? Isn’t the title itself sufficiently utopian? In fact, the whole collection seems to present an explicit defence of the utopian element in the socialist project. How do you relate this utopianism to the scientificity that the critique of political economy claims? Aren’t we being prescriptive, which Marx tried to avoid all his life?

Anitra Nelson (AN): These are familiar, provocative questions worth a detailed response. Your first three questions imply that being utopian is negative and against the scientific method employed by Marx, while the last one indicates that Marx avoided being prescriptive and so we should as well. Let’s acknowledge that the terms ‘utopian’, ‘scientific’ and ‘prescriptive’ all point to Marxian controversies associated with conflicting interpretations of Marx. I will discuss them in turn as a way of elaborating on our interpretation of Marx and the way we need to address current environmental and political challenges that we face as a global community. But, first, let me briefly describe our book and the position it advocates.

Life Without Money

Life Without Money: Building Fair and Sustainable Economies has ten contributors advocating a non-market socialist position to address our current crises, i.e. in order to realise socialism we need to dispense with money and markets as a fundamental strategy and not simply expect money and markets to evaporate eventually as a result. The collection argues why we need to pursue this strategy as well as how we might do it, by offering some practical examples and theoretical visions. I initiated the project. Co-editor Frans Timmerman and I co-wrote two chapters and I was the sole author of a third. Some of the responses in this interview draw on an unpublished paper, ‘Money or socialism’ that we presented at the Historical Materialism Australasia Conference, held 20 July 2012 in Sydney. You can read more about the book and its contributors in the book’s website.

Non-market socialism

We decided that a non-market socialist position needed to be promoted urgently because humans have laid the basis for our extinction using capitalist practices and thinking. The recent rise in intensity, frequency and scope of natural disasters is linked substantially to climate change. Human beings cannot live with even a small rise in their body temperature, and any variation around the average tends to involve debilitating symptoms. Similarly, the earth is changing itself to cope with global warming in ways that will make our environments hostile to our continued existence as a species. We believe that the results of these changes will produce dramatic effects in years, not just decades or by the end of the century.

We see non-market socialism as the only way to address the combined crises we face, which are results of a capitalist system based in production for trade, relying on monetary accounting and exchange. This system contorts and confuses the values, relationships and structures that ideally exist between people and between people and nature. At the heart of the capitalist system is the practice and concept of money as a measure, even a god. The structure and relations of capital are impossible without the practice and concept of money as a general all-purpose means of exchange and unit of account. Capital is money that begets more money.  Thus monetary values come to dominate social and environmental values in more and more intensive and expansionary ways. The modern state arises as a handmaiden to capital. We buy and we vote; we are servants to both.


I always love the questions that pose that we are utopian, using ‘utopian’ pejoratively and referring to Marx to support their position. The irony of this attack is that Marx argued against what he called utopian socialists, such as Proudhon, specifically because they did not appreciate that capital evolves from money as a chicken does from an egg. Invariably those suspicious of a non-market socialist line — because they think money is okay and believe that Marx thought money was okay — call us utopians while Marx would have called them utopians! However, I do not look at Marx as a god. So, I am not appealing to Marx’s words here as evidence of the truth, or as a matter of faith. It just so happens I agree with Marx’s analysis in this instance. Furthermore, I believe his concept of money embodies some of the strongest insights responsible for making his wider analysis relevant to us today.

Marx (1976 [1867]: 126) starts Capital I by examining the ‘cell’ of capitalism, the commodity, which is both a use value and an exchange value. He immediately unpacks the contrast between the qualities or purposes of a good or service, its use value, and its exchange value, which is a ‘quantitative relation’. Use values can be expressed as implicit quantities, such as human beings, who can be weighed in kilograms and measured in centimetres and compared with one another. But commodities are brought into a relationship with one another on the market through their exchange value, their price, with money as the ‘common denominator’ (Marx 1970 [1859]: 28). It is clear then that money as a unit of account is not at all a measure but rather some kind of variable standard.

Marx (1976 [1867]: 89–90) considered this introduction would challenge the reader and ‘present the greatest difficulty’ because ‘the commodity-form of the product of labour’ and ‘value-form of the commodity’ took the ‘money-form’. As for money, Marx (1976 [1867]: 90) wrote that ‘the human mind has sought in vain for more than 2,000 years to get to the bottom of it’. Thus, amongst others, Althusser (1971) counselled workers/readers to skip the first couple of chapters. I think that this was probably the worst possible advice. Instead the advice should be to dwell on these chapters, which — as autonomist Marxist Harry Cleaver ably shows in his 1979 work Reading Capital Politically — provide the building blocks for a revolutionary analysis of contemporary capitalism.

Careful reading of Part I of Capital I (1976 [1867]) and A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1970 [1859]) avoid the ridiculous conclusion that money is not a problem, only capital is. Marx opposed those who seemed to think that they could simply redefine money, issue it on different terms, regulate it in new ways, or give goods and services ‘prices’ at a distribution centre or before they reached the market (a contradiction in terms). He started his analysis of capital with money and commodities because he thought many socialists and political economists had underestimated the role of money. Yet, in actual fact, money was both the ‘ultimate product of commodity circulation’ and simultaneously ‘the first form of appearance of capital’ (Marx 1976 [1867]: 247). Proudhon, for instance, thought the social system could be altered by monetary and price reform. Marx said democratization of credit was impossible because capitalists exploit and control workers by using money, credit and debt.

In other words, if Marx were here today, he would be questioning, like we do, those socialists who only see money as a neutral tool or ineffectual form rather than appreciate that money is at the basis of practices that developed and maintain class and private property.


Marx’s dialectical approach not only allows but also demands a holistic appreciation of context, relational dynamics and transparent values. In this approach form and content can be analysed distinctly only within an overarching acknowledgement of their integration. For instance, the ‘money form’ is of, with and by the content of capital. His scientism was a call for boldness and bravery in social and political analysis. He sought the spare, essential patterns that explained economic dynamics and he engaged with the model that evolved, whatever it might imply. As a non-market socialist I would ask other Marxists to be scientific in this sense and consider whether it is simply too much of a challenge, too inconvenient, to contemplate the task of disassembling a world rotating on money.


Both the theory and practice of filmmaking and screenwriting refer constantly to ‘point of view’ (POV). The easiest example of POV is the location, slant and scope of a camera on subjects and scene. As political activists we are often poised like the cinematographer and camera within a POV. Marx positioned himself very firmly within the values of an alternative world to capitalism — whether we call it communism, socialism or anarchism hardly matters — and wrote his analyses from that POV.

Whether Marx was prepared to admit it or not this POV was, in itself, prescriptive and determined his specific dialectical method of being ‘scientific’. Not only that but a major part of his empirical and conceptual analyses, and the constant praxis operating between the two, was determined by the challenges of, and implications for, revolutionary strategies. He made no apologies for prescription here. Indeed this focus was the centre of his political and intellectual life. He and his wider family’s involvement in the rise and fall of the Paris Commune is a prime example. The rudders in his practical and theoretical approaches were essentialism and minimalism, to get to a socialist society as quickly and easily as possible.

It is true that there are points in Marx’s analysis where he gets out of explaining how a principle or criterion of socialism might operate in practice by saying, ‘Don’t you worry about that, they’ll work it out.’ Furthermore, he cautions theorists against creating blueprints which might deprive socialists of making decisions about what they do and how they do it because this act contradicts or undermines the democratic authority socialism embodies as self-governance. He has faith in socialist problem-solving once the structures, relations and values are firmly in place. By implication planned socialism, its centrist organisation and bounded markets would seem at odds with Marx’s perspective.

Marx had no quibbles at all in continuously engaging with contemporary prescriptions. His main points here were to do with breaking with money per se, rather than thinking that all you had to do was to ‘tinker’ with it and achieve large-scale change, let alone revolution. Marx’s analyses of existing experiments, such as workers’ cooperatives and labour money, assessed their (in)capacity to fulfil the principles of decision-making being transparent and just, and production efficiently and effectively satisfying social needs. Today, non-market socialists make the same points about the plethora of half-baked schemes — fair trade, carbon trading, community currencies and so on — that cannot lead to socialism unless they go hand-in-hand with political movements to erode capitalism, private property, and create a global commons focusing on production for everyone’s basic needs. Of course, many of those schemes do not profess to be socialist, mostly claiming to be on the way to either a higher stage of capitalism — developing ‘social capital’ or ‘natural capital’, terms that would drive Marx insane — or the more nebulous ‘postcapitalism’.

In short, we argue that we must unpack the terms of what postcapitalism might be to become conscious and deliberate collaborative managers of our co-existence. If this discussion is unfairly labelled discourses on utopia or prescriptive, so be it.

PC: The pragmatic socialists have always viewed money, exchange and the market important as transitional tools to achieve socialism. But, in your vision, this reduction of money to a mere tool also seems to obstruct any meaningful imagination of sustainable post-capitalism. Do you think the problems of market socialism and the social-democratic vision of socialism lie in their shared basic understanding of the meaning and power of money and market (and thus, capitalism)? What do you mean when you say, ‘the soundest critiques of capitalist developments need to be conducted in terms of use values’?

AN: Money and markets represent capitalist power, not only a vernacular of power, but also, and more importantly, existing material practice of power. We must recover that power over the means of our existence, over the conditions and practice of our existence. You cannot have capital without money. You cannot have abstract labour or labour for wages without money. Especially people who have no money understand that money is not a neutral tool, it’s a form of control. Capitalists are defined by money, their power is monetary power, their logic is a market-based logic. If our strategies for confronting, undermining and overwhelming capital are based in these simple facts, it is not hard to challenge the system. Non-market socialism is pragmatic.

In as much as market socialists and social-democratic socialists support market processes and mechanisms, I think that they share a basic misunderstanding of monetary and market practices and how they constitute capitalism. Twentieth century examples of centrally planned and market-oriented socialism, best described as state capitalism, clearly failed to democratise power and, in many ways their systems of production and distribution mimicked capitalist work and consumption. Socialist managers seemed to use market models as instruments of power to control the masses much as we are contained in capitalism. For me, socialism must mean sharing power, the power to decide what is produced, how it is produced and for whom. Socialism must be state-free and class-free because states and classes represent exclusive power.

Many critiques of capitalism highlight the contradictions between, on the one hand, economic values and dynamics and, on the other hand, the embodied social and environmental use values of resources, workers, goods and services. Many environmental and social activist campaigners appeal to a logic of use values rather than exchange values to advocate their position. For instance, they will argue that an old-growth forest has more use values and reproductive and sustainable potential to the communities that rely on it for all their basic needs, such as food, potable water, shelter, clothing and medicines, than its use for making profits for a multinational conglomerate that plans to clearfell the trees, sell them for timber, let or help the remaining forest ecosystem die, and replace it all with a tree farm. Similarly, anti-nuclear campaigners will argue that the industry is unnecessary to fulfil people’s basic needs and a risk to their wellbeing and livelihoods, while the nuclear industry will argue that it will create ‘clean’ energy to sustain growth, jobs and profits. These examples contrast arguments based in use values and those based on exchange values.

In as much as the Left continues to consciously and conscientiously argue and propose options that are based on a logic of use values we can offer a clear and unequivocal alternative to capitalism. Once we start to try to convince capitalists and the state to be more environmentally and socially sound using arguments based on economic values — ‘You can make more money this way’; ‘Why not trade in environmental values?’ — we are lost.

Again, the first couple of chapters of Capital I (1976 [1867]) — and earlier drafts of similar material in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1970 [1859]) and the Grundrisse (1973 [1857–8]) — show how important the concept of use value was to Marx’s concept of work for capital and the importance he gave to the obfuscation of use values through commodity fetishism. On the one hand, labour becomes standardised and interchangeable in the process of the production and exchange of commodities: ‘uniform, homogenous, simple labour’, ‘labour in which the individual characteristics of the workers are obliterated’, in short ‘abstract general labour’ (Marx 1970 [1859]: 29 — italics in the original). On the other hand, the quantitative relation ultimately realised in the form of a price not only represents ‘materialised labour’ but also, in the same process, ‘the qualitative difference between their use values is eliminated’. The analytical groundwork for his subsequent analysis is to show us what use values are, despite their obliteration through work and production for money. They are all we need to exist. It is capitalist ideology that mystifies the significance of money and makes us believe in its necessity and efficiency instead of ourselves.

The alienation implicit in commodity production, in capitalism, in a good or service sold for money occurs via market processes, which:

  • obliterate the human agency, which has produced the commodity
  • objectify the socially necessary labour-time as value per se
  • through a price, define the commodity in terms of its social wealth, thereby eliminating any sense of the commodity’s use value.

In one stroke, within the first few pages of all these early works of Marx, we readily understand that workers, the subjects and objects of capital(ists), will experience the world in a market-filtered and dominated way. Capitalists cannot in practice appreciate environmental and social values. The system they employ reduces everything to a market assessment, a monetary value, a price.

Furthermore, Marx’s analysis shows the absurdity and risks of efforts to try to set prices, which today focuses on making prices reflect environmental values, as in carbon and water-trading schemes or pricing forests and other environmental ‘assets’. Similarly, it is pointless to calculate and try to institute wages for housework. In my opinion his painstaking ethnography around commodity production and exchange found at the start of Capital I and his earlier works is Marx at his finest. He reveals the absurdity of market values, alludes to the workings of the market as absolutely distinct from meeting basic human needs and the needs of ecological systems. The political conclusion is:

“The religious reflections of the real world can, in any case, vanish only when the practical relations of everyday life between man and man, and man and nature, generally present themselves to him in a transparent and natural form.” (Marx 1976 [1867]: 173)

To institute socialism we only need to understand the potential, limitations and needs of a natural and built world held in commons along with the basic needs of humans — and share decision-making based on a discourse of use values and distinct measures appropriate to differing use values (Buick 1987). There is no need for a universal unit of account or means of exchange.

In his chapter on money, markets and ecology in Life Without Money, John O’Neill discusses the non-monetary thrust of Otto Neurath, who, a century ago, argued against Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek for an in natura socialist economy. In short, Neurath envisaged an economy based on use values, ecological and social values, that did not rely on any kind of standard for comparison, any universal measure, such as money. In tandem O’Neill, an ecological economist and political philosopher as well as a political economist, discusses deliberative democracy as a current that he thinks can offer ways for people to decide together what and how they produce and for whom.

Meanwhile, many socialists today fail to acknowledge the revolutionary significance of consciously acting, as well as thinking, on the basis of use values rather than exchange values. Acknowledging money as a tool of power, rather than efficiency, and as the organising principle of capitalism points to revolutionary strategies which undermine capitalism non-violently and involve instituting direct democracy in the process. So, I do not reduce money to a ‘mere tool’ at all. Rather, I see it as omnipotent, so powerful in fact that even committed and passionate socialists can complain that they cannot envisage a socialist future without some kind of monetary framework or role for money and markets.  What a dictatorship of the imagination money and its market has wrought, that even its most ardent detractors cannot think outside their prison walls.

PC: The second half of the book discusses various experiences of building a moneyless future. However, don’t you think that the marginal and isolated nature of some of these experiences and their permissibility within capitalism dilutes their capacity to become models for a socialist future? Do you think Marx’s appreciative, yet cautionary, note on cooperatives in his various writings (e.g. The Inaugural Address to the First International) are valid for understanding the scope and limits of these experiences?

AN: Again, as it so happens, my stance is quite close to Marx’s. I too have been a longstanding critic of a range of movements that regard cooperatives and, say, the Parecon (participatory economics) models of Michael Albert and Robert Hahnel as embryonic or, worse still, fully fledged institutions of a socialist future. Specifically either integration within the market, which is the hallmark of many productive cooperatives, or use of quasi-monies — a labour voucher system in the case of Parecon — have problems that Marx pointed to. We do not condone either in Life Without Money and include a brief critique of an alternative exchange/currency LETS (labour exchange or local energy trading system) by Adam Buick.

I find the space-to-exist-within-capitalism argument somewhat self-defeating. Anyway, aren’t we referring more to a forcefully created space within which to resist capitalism? Does the fact that you and I are able to conduct this conversation freely within a capitalist society mean that nothing we say can be valid for a post-capitalist future? Of course not. We conduct this discussion in resistance and defiance of capitalism. We are isolated and marginalised because that is part of the game. It might seem weird for someone like me, who spent years on a painfully detailed and constructive critique of Marx’s concept of money, to say this but I prefer to make a stand in practice than to wax lyrical about pure theory. I prefer activity to text. I prefer creation to criticism. I tolerate — even enjoy — theory, text and criticism but only because they help me live and enable me to change the way I live. I want to do. To do is to be.

The practical examples that we discuss in our book are not offered as ready-made solutions but rather constructive ways to move if we are to realise socialism in the short amount of time we now have left to do so — in decades not centuries. We are already in a process of species suicide. We are already in a process of renewal of what it is to be human. We cannot afford to think in terms of a long-term plan or reformism, if only because of the haste with which we must move. It is fitting that we take the most accurate route. There will be a revolution or, literally, nothing left of our species. We try to identify, then, embryonic and/or hybrid forms, which allow us to begin right now and know that the way we are going is contributing to establishing and maintaining socialist values, socialist production and socialist exchange.

Two well-known examples discussed in our book are Twin Oaks community in Virginia (USA) and the squatting community Can Masdeu in Catalonia (Spain). Neither promote themselves as non-market socialist. In reality both communities are open to diverse philosophical beliefs. However, their practices and approaches are near enough to non-market socialism for us to use them in our analysis. They both eschew money and markets but could not exist without a negotiated existence within capitalism, the prison we all live in. They struggle to impose alternative values and practices within, alongside and usurping capitalism. They are not ghettos. They welcome visitors and attract enough to open spaces for ‘the public’ weekly, have visitors stay and hold workshops and other activities in partnership with local and global environmental and social activist campaigners.

In 2012, I spent three weeks at Twin Oaks, living like a member and six weeks in Barcelona exploring, not only Can Masdeu but also other communal experiments, such as the eco-industrial post-capitalist colony of Ca La Fou. To me they seem less marginal and isolated than many Marxists and anarchists, both those within and those outside their fragmented parties, scholarly academies and other institutions of resistance, which seem to have little impact on mainstream society. All that said, many members of these communities are, of course, socialists and/or anarchists! Twin Oaks community and Can Masdeu exist in the fluid, ad hoc and self-governing networks that made the Occupy movement possible on a global scale. The people who move in and out of them have not waited for agreement on a correct line. They have not waited for a revolution. I see their potential in two integrated spheres — creating productive and democratic structures separate from, and in competition to, capitalism.

PC: You have been involved in the intentional community movement in Australia. Can you give a brief account of your experience in terms of its significance and limitations?

AN: During the 1990s I lived in two communities. Commonground, located in central Victoria refers to itself as an intentional community along the style of a commune. In his From Utopian Dreaming to Community Reality: Cooperative Lifestyles in Australia (1995: 140), Bill Metcalf referred to it as ‘the smallest, but also the most radical and dramatic, in this book’. Indeed, when I was there, it was self-organising on the basis of anarchist, feminist and socialist values. Twin Oaks had been an inspiration to one of the founders and certain ways that Twin Oaks operated were experimented with and instituted at Commonground. This included a ‘labour credit’ system — distinct from a labour voucher or quasi-money system — in which people elected to work on tasks that the community collectively deemed as work for a set number of hours per week.

Since Commonground had fewer than twenty people living there as members at that time, it was easy to timetable all the tasks that needed doing, then members and working visitors would select and negotiate their personal work schedule for the forthcoming week at a meeting held each Monday morning. Commonground owned almost 40 hectares of rural bush land, which gave it the opportunity to practise a modicum of sufficiency alongside its core mission to serve the social change movement. I relished my time there because it brought me into contact with so many people seeking social and environmental change, and the experience of communal life was overwhelmingly positive.

During my period at Commonground, and while I was completing my PhD on Karl Marx’s theory of money, the concept and practice of a common purse was being hotly contested within the community’s inner core. I witnessed the tensions that compromises with capitalism and a market mentality entailed as some core members argued for the cooperative mission to be fulfilled in a more business-like way, albeit a non-profit business. This was a struggle against principles of what I would later refer to as collective sufficiency — as distinct from individualised self-sufficiency — and environmental justice. The balance had always been in favour of social rather than environmental considerations. I found that hard to understand because, for me, environmental and social justice are — or can be — bound together. As I understand it, this fracture has been institutionalised within the community — as it is within the wider Left in Australia, of which it remains an active part.

After a couple of years’ living at Commonground — where everyone lived and worked under one roof — we sold the land that I owned jointly with them adjacent to their 40 hectare property, and I bought into Round the Bend Conservation Co-operative, located in a peri-urban or semi-rural enclave on the edge of Victoria’s capital city, Melbourne. This cooperative was explicitly not an intentional community but rather was developed to preserve 132 hectares of box-ironbark woodlands while providing a site for housing for each of its shareholder-members. The members own the land as a cooperative, which determines the rules under which people build and live there, jointly managing the land for conservation purposes.

Given that you could not borrow money to build on the cooperative, potential membership seemed to be limited to the well-off, though to purchase a share with its house site attached cost less than 20 per cent of comparable land purchases in the area and many had built mud-brick homes using their own labour, making it accessible to DIY activists. Though some of the members had been communists and/or radical activists, this cooperative was more mainstream than Commonground. However, I was attracted by its environmental bent and its singular achievement of spreading many of its environmental practices to a wider landscape of more than 100 private properties in the form of regulations, which became an Environmental Living Zone under the state’s planning code in 1986. Despite its limitations I concluded that it had the potential to act as a transitional form between private property and holding the Earth as a commons. Although not the hothouse that Commonground was, the co-management of land demanded sophisticated skills in communications and decision-making, which was based as much as possible on consensus. However, after a serious car accident, I left mainly because it was not convenient to public transport and I needed to be closer to places I worked and socialised in.

PC: Do you find the question of building a ‘life without money’ emerging from class struggle itself? In contrast to the voluntarist stress on the escape from the logic of capital, is it not true that the central concern in Marxist theory of praxis has been to build upon the solidarity and coordination embedded in the daily ‘guerrilla struggle’ against capital and the increasing political and economic self-capacity of the working class?

AN: In short, yes to both questions. The best reference points here are those writing in the autonomous Marxist tradition. The third chapter in Life Without Money is by autonomous Marxist Harry Cleaver and focuses on working for money.

Cleaver emphasises that Marx had a labour theory not because he saw capitalism as the means to dominate people as workers and consumers. Capitalism redefines life as work: market-oriented production and consumption. Marx’s theory of alienation was a critique of capitalist work; socialism and communism meant freeing work from that perversion. Post-capitalism meant increasing our free time to enable a growth of individuality and humanity replacing labour as the source of value in society. Revolution meant workers’ gaining control of the means of production and making work meaningful through self-organised cooperation and collective self-realisation.

Cleaver attacks the standard socialist position that leads to work under socialism being much the same as under capitalism except that the state, not capitalist, extracts the workers’ surplus value:

“The primary difference is that in ‘socialist development’ government plans and organises most of the investment. From the Soviet Union’s extraction of an agrarian surplus to finance industrialisation to the current Venezuelan Government’s appropriation and reinvestment of oil profits, the process remains approximately the same no matter the rhetoric in which these processes are cloaked.” (Cleaver in Nelson & Timmerman 2011: 48)

Moreover, the accumulation characteristic of twentieth century socialism meant that the sense of human diversity ‘implicit in Marx’s notion of the transcendence of labour value by an indeterminate free time has been both ignored and contradicted’ until, over the last few decades, some movements have revealed ‘the possibilities of real multilateralism in post-capitalist society’ (Cleaver in Nelson & Timmerman 2011: 52). Cleaver celebrates our alternative socialist tradition of collective grassroots cooperation; as capitalism intervenes in and shapes people’s lives, they resist. If they resist on the basis of work refusal then ‘the struggles of those of us who are waged and the struggles of those of us who are unwaged are inherently related’ (Cleaver in Nelson & Timmerman 2011: 60). Cleaver’s book Reading Capital Politically (1979) skilfully deconstructs class and re-elaborates class with capitalist money at the centre, thus embracing non-worker consumers and other structurally marginal people.

A non-market socialist position distances itself from any intense or central emphasis on worker cooperatives and schemes that compromise with the market or mimic capitalism. We prefer hybrid models, such as the temporary autonomous zone discussed by Bey (1985) and elaborated in Terry Leahy’s chapter in our book. Instituting a hybrid is a defiant and forthright challenge. It might focus on: expanding community gardens where there is decision-making on what is grown, how and where, as well as sharing work and produce; or squatting spaces and using ‘trash’ for art activism; or spreading crop and swap meets, holding them more and more frequently based on growing kinds of goods and services. These hybrids are not pure embryonic forms of a new society but rather act as half-way points stepping away from capitalism towards an holistic socialism. Monitoring and revising the operation of hybrids not only develops a clearer critique of capitalism but, more significantly, also enables us to be actively experimenting with being socialist. Such hybrids act as cells conscientiously working to overcome systemic barriers to greater networking between hybrids, with the potential to produce an holistic alternative future of expanding and interrelating hybrids. Developing more confidence in these alternative cells and networks we can withdraw more of our labour from the capitalist economy and polity — work refusal — and instead actively produce a new society.

PC: One of the most remarkable features of this collection is its readiness to traverse through various revolutionary traditions against capitalism. One tradition that finds space throughout the collection is that of anarchism and its various shades. How do you see the divergences and convergences between these two revolutionary traditions — of Marxism and anarchism? Further, you yourself admit that this collection can be seen as a sequel to Rubel and Crump’s volume on non-market socialism. Do you agree with Rubel’s characterisation of Marx as the theoretician of anarchism?

AN: My interpretation of Marx fits very comfortably with Maximilien Rubel’s. Though not in the first instance being conscious of the traditions that my interpretations of everyday life fell into, I too read Marx as if I were an anarcho-communist, non-market socialist or autonomous Marxist. In my twenties, I referred to myself as an anarcho-communist. While I was immediately attracted to anarchism’s open creativity and anti-state position, it always seemed too broad a church to me to support without qualification. Its representatives embraced the whole spectrum, the best and worst of political philosophies. Anyway, I had socialist values, so they came first and anarchism became the qualifier. This, of course, seemed to make me objectionable to most of my friends who neatly and commitedly kept to one camp or the other. That I was first and foremost a women’s liberationist only muddied the waters further. It is only when I chanced on the collection on non-market socialism by Rubel and Crump (1987) that I found my political home.

While they define non-market socialism as a market-free, money-free, class-free and state-free society, we add that non-market socialism needs to be want-free, sustainable and just as well. Yes, our book very much updates and expands on the Rubel and Crump collection. It is current and broad in its scope, whereas Rubel and Crump took a more historical approach, which makes their collection more fragmented and partial. The anarchist Terry Leahy wrote the chapter in Life Without Money on the gift economy, though his discussion is broad-ranging, his analysis drawing on permaculture, patriarchy and feminism.

The somewhat bad name of anarchists amongst socialists has to do with the diffuse nature of anarchist writings, their seemingly undisciplinary and joyfully undoctrinaire philosophies and anarchism’s attraction to charismatic, egotistic loose cannons. The conflict between Bakunin and Marx was to prove typical. However, in my lifetime, several connected pressures have forced a critical rapprochement. For those of us committed to environmental activism, amongst our politically sophisticated and experienced brethren, socialists proved very slow on the uptake and anarchists were more open supporters. Working from the grassroots demands a different style of politicking and creativity that anarchism can inform. Most importantly, the statism of the Marxist Left shackled its development while anarchism had done away with the state as a first principle.

PC: You have devoted considerable space in one of the initial chapters to developing a concise critique of the so-called actually existing socialisms and the debates around market and money during their revolutionary phases. You have endorsed Che Guevara’s attitude in Cuba against statisation, market and money. Can you summarise his vision of the socialist future as you understand it? How do you relate this with the questions of state and political power with which Che was always concerned as an armed revolutionary?

AN: In the early years of Soviet power the party elite seriously discussed instituting a moneyless economy. A debate occurred in Cuba also, in the mid-sixties, around whether and how to diminish the role of money. In neither Russia nor Cuba did the founding revolutionaries come to power with a clear theory or plan for how socialist exchanges might differ from market-based evaluation.

Many of the Russian leaders, such as Trotsky and Stalin, expected money would simply disappear almost of its own accord as communism developed (Bettelheim 1968: 60; Rosdolsky 1977: 130). In Russia they decided to abolish money but not monetary accounting. The debate on replacing a monetary unit of account with one based on labour, measured in time or energy, produced an enormous volume of literature in 1920–1921. It was influenced by the work of Austrian economist Otto Neurath, whose thoughts John O’Neill discusses in depth in his chapter of Life Without Money. Anyway, any advance to a moneyless communism was halted when all state industries were directed to follow principles of precise economic accounting, including demanding money for taxes as well as state-produced goods and services. While Lenin acknowledged that his New Economic Policy would ‘inevitably lead to… a revival of capitalist wage-slavery’, he defended it as a tactical retreat ‘to make better preparations for a new offensive against capitalism’ (Lenin 1976: 184­–5). I regard it a salutary lesson that this retreat solidified into a barrier to the advance of socialism.

I became particularly fascinated with the split that occurred between Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, especially around economic matters and the question of ‘money’, in which I sided with Che, though I do not think he went far enough. Is that because he did not believe we had to do away with money completely, as non-market socialists believe, or because he was pushing his point about as far as he could at the time? At least Che appreciated that this was, at base, a political rather than an economic matter, pointing to the development of a substantively political democracy as the organising principle of society. Alas, at least publicly, he believed in a limited usefulness for a unit of account — which is the fundamental function of capitalist money — but his arguments here were practical, associated with international trade, rather than ideal. As it was, he failed in his limited attempt to reorient the revolutionary strategy. It is significant that he broke with the Cuban revolution at this time because it leaves hanging the question of his essential vision of socialism. I do not think that what is left in historical records can clear up some of these key points.

Che embraced Marx’s position that monetary values reflected abstract labour, not wants or available resources. Che said that prices set by state agencies were not market prices, that planning should not mimic market forces and the law of value, but instead consciously account for non-economic factors. Belgian economist and Marxist Ernest Mandel supported Che’s position that socialism negated monetary values and trading relations. However, Che lost the debate with Castro, who agreed with abolishing money ultimately but not immediately. Che’s vision of socialism was rooted in voluntary, passionate work and a new consciousness, free of the discipline of the market.

PC: Recent developments in Latin America have rejuvenated debates on revolutionary strategies everywhere, even among the Left in Australasia. The fabricas recuperadas movement and the Unemployed Workers’ Movement in Argentina, the barrios movement to establish popular control over urban resources in Venezuela, the rise in Indigenous assertion and power in Mexico and Bolivia and the landless workers’ movement in Brazil — all have redefined much of the older debates on social control, political organisations, state etc. Many Marxists in the autonomist tradition have affirmed and critically articulated the significance of these developments. Do you find any enrichment of the discourse on market and money, as central to socialist imagination, in these experiences?

AN: Yes, experimentation in DIY revolutions, being active in spaces of resistance, is basic to the thrust of non-market socialism. We all live under intensifying capitalism, and resistance can come in unexpected forms. While we are suspicious of state socialism, we must use whatever support we are offered to show that grassroots activity is the backbone of socialism. Joan Martinez-Alier reminded a class — who I spoke with about our book at the Summer School and Workshop on Political Ecology, Environmental Justice and Conflicts in Barcelona in July 2012 — that in the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) people experimented with non-monetary exchange as well as collective production. As Allende’s Chile (1970–1973) fell to opposition forces, it was the same. As we take control of the forces of production and produce for a socialist future, then we must use our own values and distribution networks based on the logic of need and use values, not monetary values and the market.

Three contributors to Life Without Money participated in panels at the 2012 Left Forum in New York City: ecofeminist Ariel Salleh, Frans Timmerman and I. Key speakers at the Left Forum included Autonomous Marxist John Holloway, who lives in Mexico, and Marina Sitrin whose work on horizontalism (horizontalidad) in Latin America and the global Occupy movement is particularly relevant. An indication of the significance of the rejuvenation of non-monetary relations in everyday acts by Europeans in defiance of the global financial crisis is the Homage to Catalonia study led by Manuel Castells (Conill et al. 2010), some findings of which appear in his Aftermath: The Culture of the Economic Crisis (Castells et al. 2012).

The Occupy movement has been impressive if only because it has been so widespread, demonstrating a broad disenchantment with representative democracy and market economies right across the world. The general-assembly models, endorsement of horizontalism, direct engagement between crowds and speakers, the naming of the ‘1%’ against the ‘99%’ and the word ‘occupy’ identifying their chief demand has put capital in disarray and on alert. More than that, this movement is supported by many of those who are experimenting with production for direct use, alternative and gift exchange, and liberation from trade, consumption and exchange values.

PC: What is a compact society? You talk about collective sufficiency and networks, which connect the local with the global — thus establishing a global compact society. Can you explain the basics of this post-capitalist future, and how it will transform our needs and activities, and counter the negative impact on the environment?

AN: In Life Without Money, we elaborate a local–global compact society, not to lay down a hard and fast plan for a non-market socialist future but to stimulate people’s imaginations and counter those who regard it as impossible. Most significantly, for our activist practice, we need to have a clear idea of where we are going and how our different activities might ultimately constitute a socialist future. We want as many people as possible elaborating ideas of a post-capitalist future so we can argue, experiment and establish this society.

To distinguish ours, we needed to name it somehow. I liked the way that the word ‘compact’ worked in two directions, socio-political and the other environmental and material. The noun ‘compact’ refers to a social agreement and, used as an adjective, ‘compact’ is associated with efficiency and economy, referring to a condensed, small and efficient use of space. The concept of a compact world is one of multiple horizontal cells, which aim for relative collective sufficiency within neighbourhoods and bioregions, connected by networks of various sizes appropriate to their functions, with voluntarily created and agreed to compacts structuring the production and flow of goods and services. ‘Collective sufficiency’ is a term we coined to refer to material, basic-needs sufficiency evolving on the basis of a commons and people working together to ensure their communal sufficiency (in contrast to individuals or singular households developing ‘self-sufficiency’).

My concept of these cells owes much to the principles and design features of permaculture. ‘Permaculture’ — a movement starting in Australia but quickly taking root in various places globally — stands for permanent and sustainable culture, integrating human practices with natural processes to yield security in food and other basic needs (Holmgren 2003, 2012).

I was a member of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA, 1920–1991) from the early 1980s to its dissolution ten years later. I was particularly attracted by the success of green bans led by CPA officials, especially Jack Mundey, and the builders unions’ who refused to work on developments that they deemed environmentally or socially unsound (Burgmann & Burgmann 2011). I had always been — and remain —particularly frustrated with the conservative role of unions in Australia and green union strikes and activism singularly broke that mould. These actions initiated the green bans movement worldwide. My mother was practising permaculture as a gardener in the 1980s. I became more attracted to it as an efficient and sustainable approach through my political activities, drawing on anti-state and anti-capital political discourses, and growing evidence of the accuracy of the analyses of 1970s social and environmental activists who initiated more environmentally sound approaches to life.

As a set of design principles and sustainability practice, and care-and-share values, permaculture readily indicates how productive cells might function. The permaculture movement is weaker in pre-visioning the how, i.e. the relationship base, of a global commons, non-monetary production and exchange. In other words many permaculturists imagine that it is simply a matter of the economic and political structures’ absorbing their values in a higher stage of capitalism. Even if they speak in terms of post-capitalism, there are still money and markets, non-profitable firms and representative government. In contrast, non-market socialism and the concept of a compact world introduce governance and economy as challenges still to be addressed.

We often get asked if a compact society is, in effect, a return to living in the cave. People are particularly mystified that any form of advanced technology could be possible without capitalism, the magic womb. Or, of course, they offer the one other path to the same ends: state socialism, whereby the state, robot-like, dictates the establishment and maintenance of large-scale machinery in its own image. In contrast, my approach to technology is one of minimalism. I support small and appropriate technology that is established and maintained on the basis that it does not cost the Earth too much and is efficient, meaning effective, socially. Examples include some forms of renewable energy and biomimicry. Use of computers and Internet needs to be transformed to end or involve only a miniscule amount of harmful substances, such as rare earth minerals and waste, and the ways they are made need to take account of the conditions and working styles of the people making them. Diversity and resilience are both enhanced by relatively autonomous collectively sufficient neighbourhoods and bioregions.

My political activities have been very personal, grounded in everyday life, mainly in environmental grassroots movements, which are open and exploratory, and my philosophy has evolved experientially. These experiences have given me confidence that: a grassroots revolution is possible; we can ‘take over’ the state by replacing its functions in an almost unrecognisable way because, as such, it functions mainly to support capital and a non-market socialist politics is embedded in people’s direct and immediate control, of the means of production and distribution; socialism must be modest and efficient and effective at a personal and neighbourhood level.

By seeing our basic human needs and the needs of the environment in direct, scientific and practical forms and then advancing to discussing options for just and sustainable futures in terms of such use values would be a real advance. Marx’s clear analysis, based as it was on use values — in contradiction to the political economists’ submersion in economistic terms and approaches — offers a clear way forward for the Left to reassert historical-materialist methods.



Althusser, Louis (1971) Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. London: New Left Books.

Bettelheim, Charles (1968) Planification et rapports de production. In his La Transition Vers l’Economie Socialiste. Paris: Maspero.

Bey, Hakim (1985) T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism. Brooklyn: Autonomedia.

Buick, Adam (1987) The alternative to capitalism. In Buick, Adam and John Crump (eds) State Capitalism: The Wages System Under New Management. Houndmills (Hampshire): Macmillan. Accessed 22 December 2012 at

Burgmann, Meridith & Verity Burgmann (2011) Green Bans movement. Dictionary of Sydney. Accessed 22 December 2012 at

Castells, Manuel, João Caraça, & Gustavo Cardoso (eds) (2012) Aftermath: The Culture of the Economic Crisis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cleaver, Harry (1979) Reading Capital Politically. Brighton (Sussex): Harvester Press (The 2012 Indian Edition published by Phoneme Books, New Delhi).

Conill, J, M Castells & A Ruiz (dirs.) (2010) Homenatge á Catalunya II. Accessed 19 November 2012 at IN3 (Open University of Catalonia) —

Holmgren, David (2002) Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Hepburn: Holmgren Design Services.

Holmgren, David (2012) Holmgren Design Services [website]. Accessed 22 December 2012 at

Lenin, Vladimir (1976). Collected Works 33: August 1921–March 1923. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl [1867 (1976)] Capital: A Critique of Political Economy Vol. I. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Marx, Karl [1859 (1970)] A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl [1857–8 (1973)] Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Politcal Economy (Rough Draft). Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Metcalf, Bill (1995) From Utopian Dreaming to Community Reality: Cooperative Lifestyles in Australia. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press.

Nelson, Anitra (1999) Marx’s Concept of Money: The God of Commodities. London: Routledge.

Rosdolsky, Roman (1977) The Making of Marx’s ‘Capital’. London: Pluto Press.

Rubel, Maximillien & John Crump (1987) Non-Market Socialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. London: Macmillan Press.

A Review of “The Socialist Alternative”

Ankit Sharma

Michael A Lebowitz, The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development, Monthly Review Press & Aakar Books, 2010

This book is part of Michael Lebowitz’s larger project of demonstrating the ever-existing necessity of a socialist transformation as the revolutionary resolution of class struggle in capitalism. It builds a theoretical foundation for such revolutionary praxis in the specific objectivity of the 21st century. Lebowitz’s previous book, Build it Now, captured and described the specificities of socialist praxis and possibilities in the Bolivarian experience of Venezuela. The Socialist Alternative can be seen as building a coherent model of an alternative by gathering and arranging the elements that are found scattered in that experience.

Like the previous one, this book too is a result of Lebowitz’s rigorous and critical engagement with the ‘socialist’ experiences/experiments of the 20th century. The author clearly critiques the stagist and statist conception of socialism that was based on an ‘uncritical’ takeover of the State and the subservience of the self-activities of the labouring classes to the purpose of strengthening the State. It was this statism that defined the socialist praxes of the 20th century.

Lebowitz also critiques the dwarfish (yet important) experiments of cooperatives and the Yugoslavian practice of workers’ self-management – where, apparently, we find an inversion of the top-bottom approach, and also a kind of workers’ control. Yet this managerial structure failed to develop a “solidarian society” that countered the segmentation and competition among workers, as the logics of commodity production and profiteering continued at the base of those experiments.

The socialist alternative that Lebowitz posits is a process – it is “the path to Human Development” constituted through self-organisational and self-emancipatory practices of the working class. The democratic, participatory and protagonistic activities would reconstitute our everyday lives in this process. “Through revolutionary practice in our communities, our workplaces, and in all our social institutions, we produce ourselves as other than the impoverished and crippled human beings that capitalism produces.” (22) After all, “revolutionary practice” is nothing but “the coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of the human activity or self-change”, as Marx defined it in one of his theses on Feuerbach. Thus, even though ownership over the means of production still remains critical for building socialism, social solidarity and active participation of every human being based upon “the elementary triangle” of social property, social production and satisfaction of social needs are central to Lebowitz’s socialist imagination. It is this centrality of solidarian revolutionary practice that emancipates socialism from its relegation to statism and productivistic technocracy. This is the vision of the “good society”, which put simply is an association where “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”.


In Part I, The Socialist Triangle, Lebowitz begins with an analysis of the “wealth of people”, through which he arrives at the first side in the socialist triangle – the concept of social property. He locates the critical centrality of accumulated past labour (the accumulation of tools/instruments of labour and knowledge/skill) and the combination of labour in determining the level of productivity. The “free service of past labour” and the “free gift” of cooperation determine the social productive power. Further, it is the combination of labour that generates the social character of human labour, and thus constitutes even accumulated past labour as “social inheritance” or “social heritage”.

Class struggle in a sense is a contest over this social heritage – “to whom does it belong”? In fact, capitalism rests upon the alienation of social heritage, its mystification as capital and its institution as “an alien power opposed to [man], which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him” (Marx). This normalisation of expropriated social heritage and its mystification as capital is possible because of the wage-form of labour that defines capitalist production. Under this form a capitalist and worker seem to confront each other as equals and workers are projected as sellers of labour who are fully remunerated. Only when the sale of labour(-power) is differentiated from the expenditure of labour-power (labour) that we are able to understand the genesis of surplus value and thus, the nature of capitalist exploitation. Otherwise, in the mystified system, profits and productivity gains are contributed by capitalists and are results of capitalist investments, rather than the products of “the combination of living social labour and of past social labour.”

Social heritage can assert its full sociality only when this mystification is destroyed. Only when it comes under social ownership that it can serve humanity rather than individuals. Thus, is derived the first cornerstone of the elementary socialist triangle. However, the notion of social ownership, for Lebowitz, is not so given, rather it is grounded in the dynamic praxis of socialism – it implies a profound democracy from below that involves everybody in decision-making, who are affected by those decisions. Hence, it cannot be relegated to state ownership, as happened with the 20th century socialist ‘victories’ (or defeats). Also, limitation of ownership to decision-makers allows differential and privileged access to means of production on the basis of one’s location in the productive economy and thus perverts social ownership. Displacing capital by things does not destroy mystification – as its essential element, reification is still prevalent. What is important for socialism is to bring human beings to the centre of production and distribution, and to understand “the development of human capacity” as real wealth, the goal to which the “objective wealth” must become subservient. “This is the real wealth of people – rich human beings.”

Lebowitz differentiates the Marxist conception of human capacities from that of Human Development Reports, which are based on Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach. The understanding of human development in HDRs is circumscribed within a liberal framework that seeks to integrate people on the margins into the so-called mainstream – to make the capitalist system more inclusive. It seeks to remove barriers in the broadening of opportunities (capabilities in this framework are equivalent to opportunities). It certainly questions neoliberal market fetishism, but it empowers the state to complement the market.

In the Marxist framework, on the other hand, the relationship between human development and self-activity or practice, and thus simultaneous changing of circumstances and human activity or self-change is central. “The Production of People” is the process of self-creation of man. From outside to inside the formal or direct production process, every labour process is a production of human capacity. This continuum is clearly visible when popular self-development is the goal. However, even when this goal is not preconceived, as in a bourgeois economy, where labour processes are abstracted from one another (as work from leisure, whereas in fact it is the latter that readies a worker for work), the struggle of workers against capital “transforms ‘circumstances and men,’ expanding their capabilities and making them fit to create a new world.”(51)

Of course, capitalism destroyed the barriers to human development that pre-capitalist societies posed and created the conditions for the development of the rich individuality. But capitalism in order to reproduce itself generates mystifications that cognitively impoverishes workers – “they distort the worker into a fragment of a man”, who is overwhelmed by the creative power of his own labour projected as an alien power, as the power of capital.

Lebowitz here shows how to read Capital to obtain Marx’s conception of socialism – “Read Capital with the purpose of identifying the inversions and distortions that produce truncated human beings in capitalism and we can get a sense of Marx’s idea of what is ‘peculiar to and characteristic of’ production in that ‘inverse situation,’ socialism.” Most importantly, we must not be trapped by capital’s definition of production, since it is here that alienation, distortions, mystifications and fetishism are generated. It is important to reestablish human beings as both the subject and object of production, where “specific use-values … are mere moment in a process of producing human beings, the real result of social production.”(59) It is social production in this sense that is identified as the second element of the socialist triangle. In this production process, the “systematic and hierarchic divisions of labour” that create caste-like segmentations do not have any place. And, “every aspect of production must be a site for the collective decision making and variety of activity that develops human capacities and builds solidarity among the particular associated producers.”(60) It is in this light, Lebowitz critiques the experiments in “real socialism” and foregrounds the Solidarian Society – a new social form based on “protagonism and conscious cooperation by producers”.

Capitalism is based on separation and not association – where “the community of human beings is at its core a relationship of separate property owners”(66) and human development is a result of the competition of self-interests in the market. While Marx considered the experience of cooperatives in the nineteenth century important, but he viewed them as new form still reproducing “all the defects of the existing system” – not going beyond profit-seeking and competition, beyond market and self-interest. The cooperatives must themselves cooperate and become the basis for a “harmonious system of associated labour” where “many different forms of labour-power” are expended “in full self-awareness as one single social labour force.” Lebowitz, rereading Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme, finds the continuation of exchange relations (and thus of bourgeois right) as the chief defect of socialism. It is a defect related to the relation of distribution, which conserves inequality (on the basis of relative contributions or work). Each producer, like in capitalism, continues to be the “owners of the personal condition of production, of labour-power” and he has self-interest in maximising his income. The Yugoslav model that the chapter discusses illustrates the problems of the self-managed enterprises that “functioned in the market and were driven by one thing – self-interest. In every enterprise, the goal was to maximise income per member of the individual enterprise.”(74)

Lebowitz considers self-interest as “an infection in socialism”. It “undermines the development of socialism as an organic system”. If this infection is not fought against, it will infect “all sides of the socialist triangle”. Enterprises in order to be profit-maximisers will rely increasingly upon experts and expertise (as happened in the case of Yugoslavia), thus diluting workers management. Labour-power as property would perpetuate inequality leading to a break in solidarity. Resultant differential possession or differential development of capacities combined with self-interest would destroy the common ownership of the means of production. It is only by a conscious and continuous building of the solidarian society, thus fighting self-interest, that socialism as an organic system can emerge. In this new society, “man’s need has become a human need”, there is “communal activity and communal enjoyment”, and “the other person as a person has become for him a need – the extent to which he in his individual existence is at the same time a social being”. Further, “there is an exchange not of exchange values but of ‘activities, determined by communal needs and communal purposes’.”(79)


The second part of the book deals with “the becoming of socialism as an organic system.”(85) Lebowitz considers it important to differentiate between the Being and Becoming of an Organic System – historically viewed a social system grows out of the old system, whose traces persist as defects in the new system, while any system as an organic whole “produces its own premises and thus rests upon its own foundations.”(88) Hence, the three sides in the socialist triangle in their mutual interdependence found socialism as an organic, completed system. However, this organicity of a system is a product of the historical process of “[subordination of] all elements of society to itself and [creation of] the organs it still lack in order to rest upon its own foundations”.(92) Lebowitz brings out a lucid Marxist understanding of this historico-logical process with regard to the emergence of the capitalist system by a rereading of Capital from this angle. He concludes that a capitalist mode of regulation is needed for capitalism to stand on its own foundations. There is no universal mode of such regulation; its constitution is relative to geo-historical specificities. Similarly, in the process of the becoming of socialism a socialist mode of regulation is needed, which will reproduce socialist relations and subordinate all the elements (inherited from the past) to the needs of this reproduction.

In his elucidation of The Concept of a Socialist Transition, Lebowitz begins with a critique of the stagist conception of socialism/communism which distorts Marx’s understanding of socialism/communism as a single organic system in the process of becoming. Under this scheme, a defect inherited from the past that was to be subordinated in the process of becoming was transformed into the foundational principle of the stage of socialism. Human beings were continued to be seen as private owners of labour power, and a right of inequality based upon unequal work capacity was sanctified. Still entitlements were not based upon an individual’s “capacity as a member of society”. Thus, individual material self-interest remained the lever, instead of being considered as a defect that must be fought against and subordinated.

Lebowitz recognises that in the process of their confrontation with capital workers change their circumstances and themselves – they come to understand the limits of economic action and extend their solidarian praxis to subvert capitalist class power. Through their political or class movement they win the battle of democracy and begin to rupture the logic of capital – and thus the process of the becoming of socialism based on the logic of human development emerges. It begins with a “critical rupture in property rights”, with the expropriation of the capitalists by the state in the name of the associated producers. However, such expropriation cannot have socialistic orientation unless there is a transformation of the state itself – i.e., its transformation “from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it”. But such transformation is imaginable only when the associated producers become possessors of production and reproduction – these would be socialist relations of production. In a sense, there must be simultaneous sustained attack on class despotism, on the “systematic and hierarchic division of labour” at both levels – the workplace and the state. And thus in this struggle, will emerge a new socialist mode of production, subordinating “all elements of society to itself”, creating organs specific to it and developing productive forces that reflect new relations of production. But to realise this the midwifery of a socialist mode of regulation is needed. Lebowitz is unequivocal in asserting that this will not be a despotic hierarchical state, but “the political form for the social emancipation of workers”, which will assert workers’ protagonism, not substitute it. It will be “the power of decentralised, democratic, ‘self-working and self-governing communes’ – a state of the Paris Commune type.”(119) Lebowitz cautions that there is no linear irreversibility in this process of socialist transition”: – every step is contested – “the logic of the old system weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living”:

“Two paths – one going back toward capitalism and one advancing toward socialism. We come, then, to Lenin’s famous question, ‘Who will win?’ There is nothing inevitable about the answer.”(123)

There is no universal path to socialism. Different paths confronting diverse contingencies are directed toward the common goal of the full development of human potential. Lebowitz once again attacks stagism that dismantles the socialist triangle into some sort of universal historical sequence, asserting that such perception does not understand the organic character of socialism – the interdependence of the three sides. Only the recognition of the simultaneity of these elements can help us confront capitalism, which too is an organic system – “To change a structure in which all relations coexist simultaneously and support one another, you have to do more than try to change a few element in that structure; you must stress at all times the hub of these relations – human beings as subjects and products of their own activity.” Lebowitz stresses the conception of revolution as a process – “a process of contested reproduction.”(129)

There is a continuous need to subordinate capitalist relations and create new socialist elements. For this, social force is required in the form of state power. Some concrete proposals, like taxing the surplus value, ensuring transparency, transforming the workday to incorporate time for education for worker management, reorganisation of production at the base involving workers and community assemblies etc are discussed in the book. These are required for facilitating socialist transition in the societies where “the battle of democracy has been fought but not yet won” and where despite workers governments “the balance of forces favors capital”. These seemingly reformist socialist conditionalities put capital on defensive, they constitute despotic inroads on capitalist rights. However, they must encourage class protagonism of the workers or revolutionary practice, or else they would be reduced to statism and eventually help in the re-consolidation of capitalist class power. Workers and neighbourhood councils that foster cooperation and solidarity can act as “the elemental cells of the new socialist state”, as forms of popular protagonism. But for them to stand as viable foundations for a socialist alternative, linkages between them – interconnections among workplaces, within and between communities must be drawn. And ultimately producers must connect directly with their counterparts, the final consumers – i.e., needs and their knowledge must be liberated from “the tyranny of exchange value.” This liberation will eventually lead to continuous expansion of the commons.

The last chapter, Developing a Socialist Mode of Regulation, deals with the conception of the mode of regulation that would facilitate the inroads the new socialist society would make into capitalist sociality by ensuring the reproduction of socialist relations by strictly subordinating the vestiges of the older system. For Lebowitz, this mode is, first, an ideological fight that exposes capitalist perversions, while stressing the cooperative and solidarian practices. Secondly, it involves the creation of institutions that facilitate these practices, like workers’ and community councils. And, thirdly, it means an emergence of a kind of dual state power – the old state despotically dealing with capital and facilitating its own demise, and the new state emerging from below on the basis of the new institutions of popular power and practice. These two states complement one another, yet remain contradictory; so there is a continuous danger of the old consolidating itself, unless the new state expands and develops its elements by normalising and institutionalising socialist accountancy and rationality that focus on human development and needs.

Lebowitz finally asserts that a socialist mode of regulation requires a political leadership and even “a party of a different type” in order “to mediate among the parts of the collective worker, provide the welcoming space for where popular movements can learn from each other and develop the unity necessary to defeat capital.” This party must facilitate (not supersede) the popular initiatives from below. It must be the propagator of revolutionary practice as “the coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of the human activity or self-change” – as the self-emancipation of the working class.

Significance of a counter-hegemonic culture: : An Urgent Need for Marxist Reading Groups

Raju J Das

Capitalism creates poverty. It indeed requires poverty and thrives on it. It causes and requires massive social and geographical inequality. And capitalism is inherently crisis-prone. We have just witnessed a major global economic crisis. In part because of its crisis-proneness, modern world capitalism is necessarily imperialist: advanced capitalist countries try to shift the effects of the crises they experience to politically and economically weaker countries (often with the connivance of the state in these countries). Normal mechanisms of capitalism and the combination of economic crisis and imperialism have major adverse impacts on the living conditions of the working masses in general and workers and poor peasants in the less developed countries such as India in particular.

No system of injustice goes unchallenged, however. Away from the pre-occupations of the corporate-controlled mainstream media, people’s movements against the profit-driven system have been taking place. Consider, for example, the Arab Spring, various social justice movements in India and elsewhere, as well as the ‘occupy movements’ in the US and Europe, which are bound to leave an impression on the radical imagination of the masses, even if they are being repressed. Humans have an irrepressible quest for justice and have a desire for a humane world. These various movements have emerged in response to the heightened levels of exploitation of workers, massive amount of dispossession of peasants from their property, undemocratic control over socio-economic activity and the government by large companies, and the irreparable ecological devastation and cultural impoverishment.

Many activists and movements have been inspired in their thinking by the critique by Marx and other progressive scholars of capitalist commodification and development. Ideologically, these protests and the recent economic crises call into question the legitimacy not only of capitalism, including its neoliberal form, but also of capitalist nation-states and global ‘state’ apparatuses (e.g. World Bank; IMF). This happens in richer countries and in poorer countries such as India as well.

There has indeed been an extraordinary resurgence of interest in a Marxist worldview recently, which as Terry Eagleton put it, is the ‘most theoretically rich, politically uncompromising critique of [the capitalist] system’ (Why Marx was right?). The process of resurgence of this intellectually insurgent worldview (Marxism) has been helped by the fact that the social relations of authoritarian ‘communism’, and other related views, which had acted as a fetter on the development of productive powers of Marxist research, have been burst asunder. In this context, question of alternatives to capitalism (beyond Keynesianism, state-bureaucratism, and neo-populism) – and the role of (Marxist) intellectuals whether in academy, in the media or ‘civil society’ in radical social change – are being actively discussed the world over. This has led to a series of important interventions rethinking political parties, democracy and visions of viable socialisms. More and more people are reading Marx and Marxists, and reading them critically, for Marxism is a science which must be updated where necessary. There is an outpouring of Marxist discussions including in journals such as New York-based Science and Society, world’s longest continuously published Marxist journal, which celebrated its 75th anniversary in October 2011, Review of Radical Political Economics (from Cornell University), Historical Materialism (from SOAS, London), Capital and Class, and so on. Much of this resurgence is exhibited on- online, Radical Notes itself being a testimony to this as is, for example, Sanhati.

The remaking of socialist visions – which emphasize socialism as the flourishing of optimal level of democracy in all spheres of human life – has also meant extensive considerations of race, caste, tribality, gender, sexuality and disability. These issues of social oppression/discrimination are important in their own right. But they are important dominantly because of the ways in which capitalism subordinates them to its own logic. Capitalism furthers its accumulation projects by using these sources of oppression to define certain working subjects as less than average workers who can be paid lower compensations. Capital also politically dominates the suffering subjects (workers and peasants) by dividing them on the basis of these non-class identities. An aspect of the resurgence of Marxist research is the immense popularity of Marxist dialectics as a holistic way of looking at the capitalist world, in terms of its unity as well as difference, from the standpoint of radically changing it. Such a dialectical method allows us to reflect on various methods of exploitation and social oppression as interconnected and as forming a concrete whole.

Reading Marx and those who engage in what the American Marxist, Hal Draper called ‘Marx’s Marxism’ would be more than apt at a political moment when neoliberalism, in theory and practice, is in crisis, when the turbulence of capitalist economies is part of daily life. As David Harvey and others have argued, Marx is more relevant now than he was during his own time.

The problems caused by capitalism are everywhere. These problems are, however, particularly acute in less developed countries and in the most under-developed parts of these poor countries. In many under-developed regions of India (e.g. Odisha), capitalist market relations in land and labour coexist with remnants of coercive production relations in some localities and with highly undemocratic relations of casteism, patriarchy and tribalism more generally. The institutions of the state are more or less ‘instruments’ of property-owners, including those whose main object is to subject natural resources and working people to cruel forms of commodification and ruthless forms of exploitation, all in the name of development and dollars (export earnings). There is an inverse relation between democratic rhetoric and its actual content. There is an absence of democratic values both in the economy or polity: ordinary people have little real democratic control over the way our resources and abilities to work are used. The cult of violence is everywhere. There is systemic violence as that caused when people’s livelihood is snatched away from them or when people do not have the money to buy basic necessities because of which they starve to death or suffer from poverty-caused diseases. Related to this violence is ‘agentic violence’: in some places ordinary people, often out of sheer desperation, tend to resort to violence (which is unproductive in the long run), in response to which and often to preempt which the state resorts to massive and disproportionate violence.

The situation in more under-developed regions of India and in similar other countries raises several questions. Why are these regions so poor when they are so rich in terms of natural resources and labouring quality of their workers and peasants? How does capitalism make use of undemocratic social and economic relations? What explains the inability of the political and intellectual elite to help the suffering masses in any significant way? Just why it is that the majority of our people have no access to nutritious food, decent housing and clothing, quality education and health-care as well as other amenities including safe drinking water and electricity? These and many other questions can be fruitfully explored only if we have an adequate understanding of capitalism as such and the ways in which it works in concrete circumstances. Understanding Marx is essential therefore. A proper understanding of Marx and his legacy would also make clear to people that the Marxist vision is a vision of a society which is authentically democratic and that Marxism has little to do with any political activity which is aimed at hurting individuals. Individuals are bearers of social relations. What needs to be changed is the system of social relations, not occupiers of positions in the system.

To understand the world, it is not enough to have sense-data. We need theory, this is because important aspects of the world are not immediately accessible to mere empirical observation. To understand the world from the standpoint of the majority, the working masses, we need a theory from their standpoint. Radical transformation in the direction of social, economic and ecological democracy and justice is not possible without a radical theory. Marx and his legacy provide such a theory. It would be useful to set up Radical/progressive reading groups in different places to promote a counter-hegemonic culture, a tradition of radical imagination in theory. Consisting of interested academics, activists, workers-peasants, and indeed anyone who is interested in critically understanding the current situation with a view to radically transcend it and deepen the democratic content/spirit of our society to the highest extent possible, this group could meet regularly to read the Marxist and progressive literature on topics of classical and contemporary significance and discuss it in a comradely and non-sectarian manner. It will also connect the readings and the discussions to the world around us and draw theoretical implications for political practice. There are thousands of progressive people engaged in theoretical-political struggle for justice. Often in terms of theory, politics and method of struggles, there are ‘deep’ divisions among them (including, and interestingly, over the fact of whether poor countries such as India are dominantly capitalist or not). Perhaps an understanding of Marx and his legacy would show that the divisions are not as real as they appear to be, and that there is cause more for unity and less for division: at least the divisions should be discussed in the light of theoretical discussions the foundation for which was laid by Marx. These reading groups cannot only read radical academic literature but also encourage performance of radical art in its various forms and reflect on these theoretically.

A culture that accurately reflects the interest and ideas of the majority of the people is a most democratic process to promote. Setting up Marxist Readings Groups is an important need of the hour therefore.

Raju J Das is an Associate Professor at York University, Toronto, Canada. Email:

On the question of alternatives

Werner Bonefeld
A Talk to the London Anarchist Bookfair, October 2010


I want to start with a quotation from a Socialist Workers Party poster that I saw on the way to the Anarchist Bookfair. It said: ‘Fight Back the Wrecking Tory Cuts’. There is no doubt that the cuts have to be rejected and will be opposed; society will try to protect itself from misery. ‘Fight Back the Wrecking Tory Cuts’ says something disarmingly obvious, and yet there is more to it than it seems. What does ‘fight back the cuts’ entail as a positive demand? It says no to cuts, and thus demands a capitalism not of cuts but of redistribution from capital to labour; it demands a capitalism that creates jobs not for capitalist profit but for gainful and purposeful employment, its premise is a capitalism that supports conditions not of exploitation but of well-being, and it projects a capitalism that offers fair wages ostensibly for a fair days work, grants equality of conditions, etc. What a wonderful capitalism that would be! One is reminded of Marx judgment when dealing with the socialist demand for a state that renders capital profitable without ostensibly exploiting the workers: poor dogs they want to treat you as humans!

This idea of a capitalism without cuts, a benevolent capitalism in short, is of course as old as capitalism itself. In our time, this idea is connected with the so-called global financial capitalism that came to the fore in the 1970s. At that time, Bill Warren, for example, argued that all that needed to be done was to change the balance of power, of class power, to achieve, as it were, a socialist hegemony within capitalism – a strangely comforting idea, which presupposes that the hegemony of capital within capitalism is contingent upon the balance of class forces and thus changeable – ostensibly in favour of a socialist capitalism achieved by socialist majorities in parliament making capitalism socialist through law and parliamentary decisions. What an easy thing socialism is! All one has to do is vote for the right party, shift the balance of forces in favour of socialism, and enact the right laws. With the left enjoying hegemony, the state becomes a means to govern over capital, or as Warren saw it, to make money work, not for profit but for jobs, for wages, for welfare. This argument makes it seem as if money only dissociated itself from productive engagement because of a certain change in the balance of class forces. And the crisis of accumulation that began in the late 1960s – what do we make of this?

In the 1980s Austin Mitchell demanded the same thing in his book Market Socialism. He says ‘we need a state who will make money its servant, so that it is put to work for growth and jobs, rather than the selfish purposes of the merchants of greed.’ Later this became a demand of the anti-globalisation movement, from economists such as Joseph Stiglitz to proponents of the Tobin Tax, from journalists such as Naomi Klein, who wanted no logo, to political economists such as Leo Panitch who wanted the state to de-commodify social relations by putting money to work on behalf of workers within protected national economies – protected from the world market.

In the last 20 years ‘fighting back finance capitalism’ was a rallying cry for those who declared to make money create jobs, conditions, employment, that is, to create – in other words – the capitalism of jobs, of employment, of conditions.

Within the critical Marxist tradition, this sort of position is associated with the social-democratic conception of the state. This conception focuses on the way in which social wealth is distributed. It has little to say about the production of that wealth, other than that the labourer should receive fair wages for a fair days work. The perspective does not take into account the way in which we as a society organize our social reproduction; the question of the economic form of our exchange with nature is seen as a matter of benevolent state intervention.

This separation between production and distribution presupposes something that is not taken into account: distribution presupposes production. Distribution presupposes a well-functioning, growing economy, that is, capitalist accumulation. So the social-democratic position, which I outlined earlier with Panitch, Bill Warren and others, including the SWP, in fact translates working-class demands – for conditions, for wages, for security, in some cases for life – into the demand for rapid capitalist accumulation, as the economic basis for job creation.

Let’s talk about the working-class, this class of ”hands’ that does the work. Does the critique of class society entail an affirmative conception of class, which says that the working class deserves a better deal – employment, wages, condition. Is class really an affirmative category? Or is it a critical category of a false society – a class society in which wealth is produced by a ‘class of hands’ that have nothing but their labour-power to sell? To be a productive labourer is not a piece of luck, it is a great misfortune. The critique of class does not find its resolution in a better paid and better employed working class. It finds its resolution only in a classless society.

Class analysis is not some sort of flag-waving on behalf of the working-class. Such analysis is premised on the perpetuation of the worker as seller of labour power, which is the very condition of the existence of capitalist social relations. Affirmative conceptions of class, however well-meaning and benevolent in their intentions, presuppose the working-class as a productive factor of production that deserves a better, a new deal.

As I stated right at the start, it is obviously the case that the more the working class gets the better. For it is the working class that produces the wealth of nations. It is the class that works. Yet; what is a fair wage?

In volume three of Capital Marx says something like this: ‘price of labour is just like a yellow logarithm’. Political economy in other words is indeed a very scholarly dispute about how the booty of labour may be divided, or distributed. Who gets what? Who bears the cuts? Who produces capitalist wealth, and what are the social presuppositions and consequences of the capitalist organization of the social relations of production, an organization that without fail accumulates great wealth for the class that hires workers to do the work.


I want to step back a bit to 1993, just after the deep recession of the early 1990s and the second of the two European currency crises. It was on 24 December 1993 that the Financial Times announced that globalisation – a term which hardly had any currency up until then – is the best wealth-creating system ever invented by mankind. And it said, unfortunately two thirds of the world’s population gained little or no substantial advantage from rapid economic growth.

In the developed world the lowest quarter of income earners had witnessed a trickle up rather than a trickle down. So since the mid 1970s, and Warren picks up on this, we have a system where money, the incarnation of wealth, is invested – incestuously as it were – into itself, opening a huge gap, a dissociation between an ever receding though in absolute terms growing productive base. This created something akin to an upside down pyramid where a great and ever increasing mortgage, an ever greater and ever increasing claim on future surplus value accumulated – mortgaging the future exploitation of labour. This mortgage tends to become fictitious at some point when investor confidence disappears – when, in other words, the exploitation of labour in the present does not keep up with the promise of future extraction of value.

It is against this background that Martin Wolf argued in 2001 ‘what is needed is honest and organised coercive force’. He said that in relationship to the developing world. And Martin Wolf is right – from his perspective. In order to guarantee debt, in order to guarantee money, coercion is the means to render austerity effective. Or as Soros said in 2003: ‘Terrorism provided not only the ideal legitimisation but also the ideal enemy for the unfettered coercive protection of a debt ridden free market society’, because, he says, ‘it is invisible and never disappears’.

So the premise of a politics of austerity is in fact the ongoing accumulation of humans on the pyramid of capitalist accumulation. Its blind eagerness for plunder requires organised coercive force in order to sustain this huge mortgage, this huge promise of future exploitation, here in the present.

Martin Wolf’s demand for the strong state does not belie neo-liberalism, which is wrongly caricatured as endorsing the weak and ineffectual state. Neo-liberalism does not demand weakness from the state. ‘Laissez faire’, said the late Sir Alan Peacock, formerly a Professor of Economics, ‘is no answer to riots’.

‘Law’, says Carl Schmitt, the legal philosopher of Nazism, ‘does not apply to chaos.’ For law to apply order must exist. Law presupposes order. Order is not the consequence of law. Law is effective only on the basis of order. And that is as Hayek put it in the Road to Serfdom: ‘Laissez faire is a highly ambiguous and misleading description of the principles on which a liberal policy is based.’ ‘The neo-liberal state’, he says, ‘is a planner too, it is a planner for competition’. Market freedom in other words requires the market police, that is the state, for its protection and maintenance.

Capitalist social relations, Schmitt claims, are protected by an enlightened state, and in times of crisis a more or less authoritarian direction becomes unavoidable. Chaos and disorder create the state of emergency which call for the establishment of a strong, market facilitating, order making state. The state is the political form of the force of law – of law making violence.

For the neo-liberals, disorder has nothing to do with markets. It is to do with what they perceive as irrational social action. That is, they see the democratisation or politicisation of social labour relations as a means of disorder, it undermines markets and renders state ungovernable. The state however, argue the neo-liberal authors, has to govern to maintain order, and with it, the rule of law, the relations of exchange, the law of contract. Free markets function on the basis of order; and order, they argue, entails an ordered society; and an ordered society is not a society that is politicised, but one which is in fact governed – by the democracy of demand and supply, which only the strong state is able to facilitate, maintain, and protect.


What is the alternative?

I think the difficulty of conceiving of human self-emancipation has to do with the very idea of human emancipation. This idea is distinct from the pursuit of profit, the seizure of the state, the pursuit and preservation of political power, economic value and economic resource. It follows a completely different idea of human development – and it is this, which makes it so very difficult to conceive, especially in a time of ‘cuts’. One cannot think, it seems, about anything else but ‘cuts, cuts, cuts’. Our language, which a few years ago spoke of the Paris Commune, the Zapatistas, Council Communism, and the project of self-emancipation that these terms summoned, has been replaced by the language of cuts, and fight back, and bonuses, and unfairness, etc.. And then suddenly, imperceptibly it seems, this idea of human emancipation -in opposition to a life compelled to be lived for the benefit of somebody’s profit, a life akin to an economic resource, – gives way to the very reality that it seeks to change and from which it cannot get away – a reality of government cuts and of opposition against cuts. Government governs those who oppose it. Human emancipation is however not a derivative of capitalist society – it is its alternative, yet, as such an alternative it is premised on what it seeks to transcend. The SWP poster, with which I started, focuses this premise as an all-embracing reality – cuts or no cuts, that is the question.

What is the alternative? Let us ask the question of capitalism differently, not as a question of cuts but as a question of labour-time. How much labour time was needed in 2010 to produce the same amount of commodities as was produced 1990? 50 percent? 30 percent? 20 per cent? Whatever the percentage might be, what is certain is that labour time has not decreased. It has increased. What is certain, too, is that despite this increase in wealth, the dependent masses are subjected to a politics of austerity as if famine, a universal war of devastation had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence. What a calamity: In the midst of ‘austerity’, this rational means to perpetuate an irrational mode of production, in which the reduction of the hours of labour needed for the production of the means of subsistence appears in reality as a crisis of finance, money and cash, the struggle over the appropriation of additional atoms of labour time pursues as if the reduction of the life-time of the worker to labour time is the resolution to the crisis of debt, finance, and cash flow. Indeed it is. Time is money. And if time really is money, than man is nothing – except a time’s carcass.

And here, in this calamity, there is hope. The hope is that the struggle against cuts, is also a struggle for something.

What does the fight against cuts entail? It is a struggle against the reduction of life time to labour time. The fight against cuts is in fact a fight for a life. For the dependent masses, wages and welfare benefits are the means with which to obtain the means of subsistence. The fight against the cuts is a fight for the provision of the means of subsistence. And that is, it is a conflict between antagonistic interests, one determining that time is money, the other demanding the means of subsistence. This demand, as I argued at the start, might well express itself uncritically as a demand for a politics of jobs and wages, affirming the need for rapid accumulation as the means of job-creation. It might not. It might in fact politicize the social labour relations, leading to the question why the development of the productive forces at the disposal of society have become too powerful for this society, bringing financial disorder and requiring austerity to maintain it. Such politicisation, if indeed it is to come about, might well express, in its own words, Jacques Roux’s dictum that

“freedom is a hollow delusion for as long as one class of humans can starve another with impunity. Equality is a hollow delusion for as long as the rich exercise the right to decide over the life and death of others.”

Editorial Note: The talk develops some insights from the Communist Manifesto, and is loosely based on the following publications by Bonefeld:

  • ‘Anti-Globalization and the Question of Socialism’, Critique: Journal of Socialist Thought, no. 38, 2006, pp. 39-59.
  • ‘Free Economy and the Strong State’, Capital and Class, vol. 34 no. 1, 2010, pp. 15-24.
  • ‘Global Capital, National State, and the International’, Critique: Journal of Socialist Thought, no. 44, 2008, pp. 63-72.
  • ‘History and Human Emancipation’, Critique: Journal of Socialist Thought, vol. 38, no. 1, 2010, pp. 61-73. A version of the article was initially published in Radical Notes.

The Ironies of Indian Maoism

Jairus Banaji, International Socialism

Cochabamba, Bolivia: Water (commons) Fair

Massimo De Angelis

Commons, understood generally as the autonomous institutions and practices of people self-organisations and self-help, are the backbone of people livelihoods all around the world. Especially in the global South, without commons people would die, because they would lack access to the basic resources like food and water necessary for life. When we hear the often-quoted statistics referring to the 40% of world population living on less than a dollar a day, we in the North tend to see only victims. We do not see self-reliant and dignified subjects from whom we have a lot to learn. Indeed, how could they live on such a low level of monetary income, if not through the fact that they pool their resources and labour together and build commons, thus overcoming the scarcity that they face as individuals? But to the external and untrained eye, commons are either invisible or opaque, because they are relational fields among a group of people that constitute itself as community, hence build some sort of wall or border around them which obscure its workings or indicate its presence to the outside only as an amorphous cluster.

Obviously, one cannot demand transparency to a commons, unless its activity create negative externalities on other commons, because a commons is not a public institution, and the borders around it — in spite of the different degree of porosity and possibility for an individual to go through — have generally a rational kernel: they represent the contextual limit of the sphere of its activity. On the other hand, we can legitimately demand transparency to a public institution because such institutions ought to benefit all of us, and not only a part of us, ought to be our commons. Hence our demand for transparency in this case implies a demand that we should all be part of its relational field and be able to exercise control over it, whether by sending people reps to its board of directors, or as social movements contesting the effects of its managerial and top-down administration. This is the same as regarding public institutions as distorted commons, i.e. to regard them in an aspirational way, as what, from the commons perspective that understand commons through the lens of commoning and grassroots democracy, they ought to be.

Now, if commons transparency and visibility is not a given property of commons, when commons become visible and invite you to see how they work and what they do, when in other words they come out, celebrate and share among themselves and communicate with others, we know there is something going on, we know that we are in the presence of a social movement that is not made of individual “citizens” or “civil society”, but of . . .commoners.

A social movements of commoners is one that seek to extend the scale of commons, extend the social power mobilised by commoning. In this sense, the struggle undertaken by this social movement is not only one that manifests itself in cathartic street demonstrations, but is also hidden in the daily reproduction of livelihoods. Actually, it is this latter activity that gives this movement both strength and its rhythmical presence into the streets. I do not think we can measure a commoners movement with the yardstick of traditional social movements where we correlate the presence on the streets with the strength of the movement. When we talk about commoners movement, strength seems to be, if not the cause, definitively the material basis of the presence in the streets. While the presence in the streets is produced through events, the strength is reproduced in daily processes, and there is an obvious lag between the time of productive contestation and the time of reproductive commoning. So for example, 500 years of indigenous resistance is not 500 years of daily street battles, but 500 years of value reproducing commoning activity that sustained and reproduced itself in spite of the massive wave of murderous enclosures deployed against it. Commoners movement is a type of social movement and social struggle we should hope to see growing and develop in the next century if any change to our conditions of life and living must occur.

One such a social movement is the one I saw at the III Feira del Agua in Cochabama. And indeed, if anybody had any doubt about the existence and relevance of commons to people lives and livelihoods, well a Fair like this should help dispel any such doubt. Spread along the four sides of a large football pitch and beyond, dozens of community water associations and cooperatives like the one of Flores Rancho that I visited the other day (see previous post) are making their own showcase, with the help of hand-made posters and polystyrene models, to mark their presence and to exchange information, knowledge and technology.

From feira de l’agua
From feira de l’agua
From feira de l’agua
From feira de l’agua
From feira de l’agua
From feira de l’agua

Associations like these form the largest bulk of the third Feira del Agua, held in Cochabamba during the days of 15 and 18 April, coinciding with the 10th anniversary of the water war that forced the then Bolivian government to repeal its water privatisation law. Among other participants in this feira del agua, noticeable presences besides some international development NGOs, some associations proposing waterless bio-toilets and some documentation centers, are also Semapa, the municipal water company that is highly controversial for the allegation of corruption and ineffectiveness in providing water, and Misicuni, a consortium of national and international companies that is building a large dam in the mountains North of Cochabamba and that promises to fill the water deficit of the region.

From feira de l’agua

Cochabamba is indeed a region with a water deficit. In spite of all the amazing self-organisation efforts that community groups are doing, they cannot offer water to all the communities. The area of Cochabamba mostly affected is the South, the vast suburban area where about 200000 people live and water provision is poor. In the 1980s and 1990s, a large migration from rural and mines region into cities like Cochabamba occured, this putting pressure on water provisions. Three distinct realities in this region then developed with respect to water. First, the market reality, that is the reality of those who lack access to water, don’t organise and thus depend on private providers. This generally occurs in unsafe and unregulated forms. Water is delivered at home by private suppliers who drive cistern-trucks and is poured in “turril” , i.e. large 200 litres open canisters that households generally keep outside. Here the problems is not only the astronomical cost of this water (up to 30 bolivianos, £3, for a turril, and think that this is not just drinking water, but water for all household usage), but also the water contamination as a result of storage in old and rusty containers and exposure to the elements.

The second reality is of those who self-organise themselves and are lucky to live in areas in which there is water and community wells can be dig. Now, the work they are doing here is quite impressive, since community build from scratch entire water systems, dig deep wells (up to 100m), construct water deposits and connect pumps, lay the pipes for home distribution, monitor the water quality which in this region is always threatened by waste contamination, and manage the entire system. Not bad as a form of commoning! Interestingly, it is generally recognised here that the initiative to dig for water emerges in a population that has recently migrated from the countryside, and therefore has a memory of self-reliance and a relation to nature that is empowering. Rural people always go close to water sources and get their act together to use water. This is not a trivial fact, and I am starting to consider that indeed a crucial aspect of the countryside subjectivity’s everywhere in the world is such a self-reliance and autonomous spirit, one that is lost through successive waves of urbanisation which add mediations between people and nature in the form of money and bureaucratic and legal codes. A point here to be considered in the future: if we do not have the need for one revolutionary subject any longer, we may need a composite one, and one of its crucial components can be found in the self-reliant spirit of indigneous and campesinos wordwide.

From feira de l’agua

The third reality is of those who self-organise themselves but are not lucky to live in areas with water. The commons self-organisation in this case occurs through a system of water collection by cistern trucks. The water is generally purchased from the municipal water company Semapa at far lower prices than those of the market, and distributed in the community. Generally, the community associations also establishes systems of distribution through deposits from which water is piped into the houses. In one case (the Asociation de Produccion y Administracion de Agua y Saneamiento APAAS, a community based organisation set up in 1990) water is fetched 7 km away, and to get the water the community has set up pipes, pomps and deposits along the crest of a mountain down to their suburban neighbourhood.

From feira de l’agua
From feira de l'agua

The different community organisations seem to function in different ways according to different conditions, but all heavily rely on community work besides self-funding and some access to external funding. The need for some socialisation of production in some functions — and therefore of greater scale — is met with associations of the second level, i.e. associations of associations.

This is for the example the case of Asica-Sur (, one of the main organiser of this feira de l’agua.

From feira de l’agua

Asica-Sur pulls together about 90 community organisations of the second and third category discussed above roughly split in half among those which have access to a well and those that do not. Asica-Sur offers 4 types of services to their members: it offers community associations a platform of organisation and negotiating power vis-a’ vis the state and municipal water authorities; it strengthen the capacity of these water systems by facilitating information and sharing knowledge; provides technical assistance and services, for example through its cistern trucks that it provides to the communities without wells, but also enabling smaller community groups to access government and NGOs funds; and it offers help in the management of water resources, infrastructure and equipment. Its function seems also increasingly to mediate and find political solutions to problems encountered by larger water community systems.

For example, the case mentioned above of APAAS, is now encountering some problems due to recent human settlements along the 7 km pipeline, problems unknown 20 years earlier when it was established. The recent dwellers are allegedly stealing water and pretending that APAAS give them water for free as payment for the fact that the pipes are passing through their territory. Obviously, this water war among the poor need to find some solution, and political processes, rather than abstract recipees, are here fundamental. What situations like these also reveal is that the building of commons in a context ridded with socio-economic trends typical of capitalist systems (such as the continuous migration of the poor) is far from those studied as typical models in the West under the influence of neo-institutionalism. Unlike those cases, here the problem of access to a resource like water is never circumscribed to a given community, and although there is is an appeal to traditional forms of administrations or forms of convivir [living together] “based on ancient cultural rules and customs where the prevailing collective work and active participation in the deliberation and decision making on the assets and affairs concerning the community is under the principles of reciprocity, solidarity, justice , fairness and transparency” (from an Asica-Sur pamphlet), these forms have to deal with a reality in progress and a web of bottom-up and bottom-bottom conflictuous situations that continuously challenge the forms in which these basic principles apply. Here we have a major challenge of commons and commoning as a political paradigm, a challenge that is not envisaged by the many who while subscribing to this paradigm, offers static models as panaceas. The reality is one in which the commons and commoning perspective must embrace the new and the challenges of the times, while at the same time valorising and reclaiming the old and the ancient. The solution is not inscribed in written handbooks of given knowledge, but in the art of negotiation and political and organisational inventiveness of communities. In a seminar I attended I heard a Columbian activist referring not only to Mingas (community collective work) to build and maintain water systems, but also of Mingas of social resistance. And to this what we may add the need for Mingas of inter-communities relations and solidarity. In other words commoning of all types is really the ultimate material force of transformation of our realities.

One thing that it is clear while talking to the many associations and their collective organisations like Asica-Sur is that they all want to do more than what they are doing — whether it is a question of access to water to more members of the community, or of sanitation and water quality. We could say that in these days and age, their social movement is a social movement for growth (not so much “economic growth”, but growth in access to water and the betterment of its quality). This however implies that they all need more resources, i.e. to mobilise more social power. When we look into this more in details, we find that the question of resources and scale necessarily leads as to problematise the question of the construction of commons in relation to markets and states.

A “resource pool” is the first constituent element of a commons, the others being a community and commoning. Pooling resources address a specific need, the need of power to, that is to extend the scale of social production that a given community is able to mobilise for its own reproduction. Now, from the perspective of a community, and given its conditions of material and financial wealth, what are the sources of a resource pool or, which is the same thing, in what ways a community can increase its power to, or extend the social power it is able to mobilise? I think there are two general cases here to be considered. One, that applies to a community, say of fishers, who decide to manage their common fishing waters but in which production is organised by the individual fishers themselves. This is the case dealt with by a large bulk of neo-institutional commons literature, where much emphasis is put to confute Hardin’s tragedy of the commons. The commoning you need to refer to in order to make this confutation is only with respect to decisions and rules and not with respect of working together: the herders still go on the field with their own cattle and in their own time. There is in other words some equity principle at work (“now it is my turn and then is your turn” or, “not more than 5 cows each farmers”) and not some community sharing (“let us share the cows and the work on the field”)). The second case, which interests us here, is one that applies for all those resources that are required to engage in some form of common production.

If I am not missing something, I believe pooling of resources at this level can only occur in one or in a combination of the following ways — leaving out robbery of peers from other communities: a) the members of the community all tip in from their own material or financial savings; b) donors (like NGOs) are found; c) the community subscribe a debt; d) the state pour resources into the community; e) the community expropriate property, occupy, squats (like in the case of brazilian landless movement, MST).

Each of these sources represent challenges and limits from the perspective of scale and social justice, because themselves need to have “sources” and in particular sources of power. The first one, is of course limited by the degree of material wealth of the community, as well as complicated by the division of wealth within the community and the degree of cohesion in spite of wealth difference. The second one, a part from being limited by the money available and the work and know-how necessary to bid for the money, also may require to align local project to international NGOs priorities. The third one tie local community to repayment plans and therefore to markets. The fourth one bring with it the alignment of local communities to the state priorities and may favour their cooptation. The fifth one bring in the threat of repression. Talking to people from different water associations present in this Fair, I had the impression that all of these options have been used in one way or in another, a part from debt. For example, APAAS participated in a competition and won money from the World Bank to fund the purchase of pipes running 7 km. Some community organisations pull savings and buy the land upon which they dig the well partially funded by an NGOs. In another case, the state pour in money for a community water deposit as part of the “Bolivia Cambia Evo Cumple” campaign, and in others some foreign development funds are channelled into community organisations.

From feira de l’agua

In other words, it feels like that in order to grow commons cannot escape development, whether we are talking about transfers from states, supranational institutions such as the World Bank or NGOs, or the need to access money from the market in order to pull savings. In principle, we could of course imagine an alternative process that does not use any state nor markets, i.e. one based entirely on point e) above. In this case, all extension of commons occurs by means of all communities expropriating resources from the wealthy and simultaneously forming direct relations of association among themselves, giving rise to associations of second, third and upper level controlling all forms of social production and distribution made possible by the recently expropriated resources that extend the “pool”.

Obviously, this solution is in principle conceivable not only in moments of intense social revolution, but moments of intense social revolution that do not require an extension of the role of the state, neither in terms of its apparatus in defence of new property configurations against threat of restauration, nor in terms of extension of socialised functions that at the moment of revolution cannot be organised by communities nor by existing markets. Allowing for the state indeed simplifies enormously the problem of transition to a socially just society, as through indirect expropriation (case d) it is possible to fund organised communities of commoners and give rise to an increase in scale of commoning without the use of capitalist markets. This seems the avenue taken by Morales government, although timidly. As I was told by some community associations activists, the government has started to give money directly to grassroots associations and not to local authorities, and this is seen as a great improvement. However, this has happened significantly in areas where there is more opposition to the govenrment — such as Santa Cruz — while in area like Cochabamba — the stronghold of MAS, the party in government — there has been only timid disboursements. However, it may well be the case that the existing power relations and configurations of needs of the people necessitate the state to operate also for the development of market themselves — including capitalist markets — in which case the problems of transition becomes even more complex and risky. This is also the case here in Bolivia.

In any case, ultimately, the “socialist” principle to be a transformational principle must be articulated to the anarchist principles of individual freedom, and the communist principles of community constitution of values through commoning. The extent to which the measuring and valuing mechanisms of capitalist markets overpower the measuring and valuing mechanisms of commoning is a crucial factor to decide whether the “socialist” state is functional to a process of capitalist development or a transformational process towards the development of social justice. In Bolivia I think it is still too early to tell, and the process seems a very interesting process to study. The general question posed by the problems of access to resources becomes how can development be instrumental to the extension of commons, without the latter becoming in turn instrumental to the extension of capitalist development?

The 5 cases listed above apply from the perspective of an association of producers which aim at mobilising more social power than what they have at their disposal, and hope to internalise the means for such a mobilisation. But if we scale up and reach higher levels of association, we discover that there are other ways to extend the social power of commoners. One for example is posed by Asica-Sur with the question of cogestión — co-management. The question of co-management with Semeca is not yet defined clearly, and it raises several eyebrows among some community activists who are afraid that the messing up with the organisational forms of the municipal company would irreversibly contaminate the community organizational values. This would be a case in which the quest for extension of social power would backfire. But the rationale is obvious: to have access to more resources now available to the ineffective and corrupt structure of Semapa. The question is really to find a form that articulates community forms of organisation with this greater urban scale organisation.

Another issue posed, and it is perhaps linked to the question of comanagement, is that the state must allow organisations and firms that have at their disposal means of production and equipment to make it available to smaller organisation who do not have. This is perhaps a type of mild form of temporary “expropriation” that does not damage anybody really, but would give community associations access to fundamental resources and increase the scale of their operations. It is also evidence of a conception that sees the need for private and public property to be communalised, not so much in its formal ownership status, but in terms of the forms of its access and control, allowing us to move beyond old dichotomies.

But mega-projects are also on the horizons and bring new challenges. Misicuni, is a consortium of public and private companies that is building a dam higher up in the mountains around Cochabamba and that promises to fill the water deficit of the area. It is a project that has been in the pipelines for some decades now, but that only in the last few years started to move on. There is some controversy surrounding the project, whether a mega project of this scale was really necessary and whether alternatives could not be found. However in general, all the association representatives I have talked to where happy with the promised water availability promised by Misicuni. I was told by one of the Misicuni representatives present at the Fair, that it will be finished by 2012, a date however that raised some eyebrows of incredulity given the past history. I asked Carlos Oropeza, a dirigente of Asica-Sur, if this development would reduce the need for grassroots associations, but he did not seem to be concerned. “Local coop will buy water and distribute it themselves”, he told me. Asica-Sur is apparently already building the deposits and strengthening the infrastructure for local distribution.

Courtesy: author’s blog

On the Kafila Debate on Arundhati Roy’s ‘Outlook’ Article on Maoists

Pothik Ghosh: There is no doubt the Indian Maoist movement – which has erupted in the sense of pure socio-occupational and physical geography in the agrarian-tribal location – has rendered the externalised imposition of a given Marxological/communistological historiography to define (in discourse) and articulate (in the materiality of lived practice) its struggle uniquely determinate to the specificity of its historico-geographic location redundant. But to assert that it has done so by claiming something that is purely autonomous tribal aspiration and struggle would be equally fallacious. For, tribal identities as they exist and pose themselves in and through struggles – both in areas of Maoist influence as also in sangh parivar-infested tribal areas of especially Orissa and Madhya Pradesh – are formed by being inscribed within the determinate, if not discursive, mode of capital. Those identities and their movements are thus either articulated by the specific configuration of dualised and hierarchised capitalist power, or are responses to the respective historico-geographic specifications of such a general configuration of power.

In such a situation, one must speak of rupture, not in terms of romantically reified forms, but in terms of what is yielded through the posing of a continuous critique. The empirically discernible form of the Indian Maoist movement in emergence is clearly a rupture with both the capitalist continuum of history (and thus its historiographic sense) and the established Marxological narrative (an analytic really) of the history of capitalism. But then the subsequent affirmative emphasis on this Indian Maoist form as form, both for its original physical geographic location and outside it, marks a return of the logic of duality via the return of the tendency of representation and the discursive structure of capitalism. This form, therefore, can continue to be the horizon of rupture, which it has been in its emergence, only when it posits its own negation as a form qua form for other specific temporal, spatial, spatio-temporal and socio-occupational moments.

The repeated failure of the Indian Maoist/Naxal movement to not only expand beyond the specific historico-geographic boundaries within which it has emerged, but, therefore, as a result face imminent defeat, if not cooption (the experience of the constituents of Communist Party of India (Maoist) in Jharkhand and Liberation in Bihar would be telling on that score), in its purported historico-geographic and socio-occupational bastions is, if one were to talk in terms of effects, precisely due to this problem of reifying one moment of the process, which is meant to unfold by constituting itself through critique of its reified/abstracted moments, and thus obstruct its critically constitutive unfolding.

The point is, the Indian Maoist movement can be defended or saved as the specific embodiment of the general revolutionary logic of event or rupture that it is, only if that logic unfolds through its critical re-enactment, or reconstitution if you will, for other historical locations through the emergence of forms idiomatically specific to the diverse historicalness of those locations. To that extent, socialism ceases to be a systemic horizon in a teleological sense and becomes a horizon of continuous motion that is not serial but dialectical having to be constantly constituted through critical opposition and rupture. It was not for nothing that Marx in his ‘The Class Struggles in France’ came up with the idea of “revolution in permanence”.

Thus, socialism, as a mobile and open ‘epistemological discourse’, can be aphoristically called a multiplicity of singularities. That is also the epistemological context of Benjamin’s ‘Theses on Philosophy of History’, and his injunction therein to “blast open the continuum of history” must be seen as a critical struggle against the distortionary conflation of labour’s life-world and its history with the textual abstraction of a centred historiography and/or analytic. It’s a struggle to reclaim life and its history from such abstraction and domination and in the same movement pose the idea of life-world in critical opposition to the discourse of textuality, even as we show that the life we live empirically, before its reclamation through critique, is an analytic abstraction or text. This idea of the life-world, which was formulated by Marx as a conceptualisation of the horizon of constantly self-constituting and thus dialectical motion, is something that is constitutively posed in our continuous Benjaminian struggle to disrupt the analytic continuum of history that constantly forms following every successful move to blast it open. The counter-discursive horizon that this continuous critical struggle to overcome the horizon of discursivness or reason in history, which is history as a continuum, poses is what Benjamin called montage and Trotsky narrative in the context of formulating a revolutionary discourse of history. It’s really a narrative (Trotsky) or montage (Benjamin) of singularities, where the constitutive narrative/montage link among them is the fact of them being singularities or events. It’s this horizon of revolutionary history, which is a horizon of constant ruptures, that Foucault posed as “genealogy” against the horizon of conservative and reactionary history, which is canonically called History and is a serial continuum. Foucault’s term for singularities and their repeated self-constituting evental emergence is respectively fragments and archaeology, something that was his active critical-political-methodological engagement, as opposed to a detached discursive-methodological engagement, with history both as it is lived and is formulated as discourse. The generalised horizon that is posited by him for his event-constituting archaeological manoeuvre is termed by him, in a quasi-structuralist kind of way, as the “history of problematics”. My subjective preference is, however, for the Benjamanian concept of gestus over Foucauldian fragment, which as a word still has the whiff of the old whole-fragment (universal-particular) dualised and discursive discourse.

However, to the extent that genealogy, montage or narrative are all discourses of history, they appear as a serialised continuum in much the same way as the analytic-centric form of conservative History. But we must remember that the former is a discourse of life-world, which makes it a discourse of counter-discourse, even as the latter is a discourse of lived life, which in not being critical and in being established, is really an abstraction and thus a textual discourse. Thus in the material operation of empirical living, the former posits continuous critical opposition and rupture with abstract schemas that seek to prevent life from constantly constituting itself critically and thus autonomously; even as the latter seeks to transform lived life into a non-critical piece of the abstract schema of history as it is given in the positive materiality of empirical human lives. Thus motion in the latter is really the continuance of the abstract schema through time. The former is a discourse, as you also seem to be pointing out, of living history while constituting it, while the latter is a discourse of living history as the a priori abstraction in which it is given.

To return, through this theoretical excursus, to the immediate question at hand, is to once again focus on the need to generalise the logic of event or rupture enacted by the Maoist movement and the failure on that count. It is in this context that Arundhati Roy’s Outlook article poses a problematic. The article is a problem, not per se, but in that it enacts a modality of radical politics at the urban location that obstructs the recognition of this need to constantly generalise the evental logic that has found its specific expression for the agrarian-tribal location in the form of the Maoist movement. It is, in fact, more of a problem because this modality of radical politics is fast becoming a dominant modality among urban radicals. The failure to recognise this need for generalisation of the logic encapsulated by the Maoist movement for all other locations beyond the agrarian-tribal geography conveniently enables urban radicals like us to displace the identity crisis and anxiety we experience as denizens of our specific urban ground on to some other ground – in this case the ground of insurgent tribals and peasants – and live our own class rage, without recognising it as such, cathartically and vicariously. That enables such urban radicals to exempt themselves from taking up the more difficult struggle of engaging with and critically opposing the configurations of capitalist class power – which in its myriad ideological forms of culture, economy, society is the real cause of anxiety and crisis that urban creatures face – on their own specific ground to overcome the crisis they experience as city inhabitants.

That, of course, is not the failure of Roy or the Maoists, much less their tribal-peasant base, alone. It’s the failure of all working-class forces, which includes me and my comrades as well, in all other locations. The point is to begin, as Zizek says citing Lenin, from the beginning by recognising this failure.

Pratyush Chandra: One point that interests me in Jairus Banaji’s post in Kafila and the subsequent debate on the post is his focus on labour as the centre of the movement. I think this focus is fundamental in order to ground various local/localised struggles in political economy (or rather in its critique) and to understand the underlying interconnections between them (whether the leadership of these struggles understand them in this manner is immaterial – did not Marx appreciate Paris Commune even when Blanquists were in hegemony?).

Marx’s conceptualisation of labour and of capital-labour relations is rich enough to provide tools for comprehending various struggles against capitalist accumulation (both primitive and normal). He understood subsumption of labour by capital as a process (not some particular fixed states), which starts from being formal to real – from a stage where labour is subsumed through non-capitalist “forms” of exploitation to the actual subsumption in “pure” wage-labour form. Between these two poles, subsumption can take a plethora of forms. Who knows better than Jairus that unwaged labour (reproductive or otherwise) is also part of the capitalist subsumption of labour.

So how do we understand tribals and “peasants” struggles against land and resource alienation within this framework? They are essentially fighting against capitalist efforts to alienate them from their resources, which create (or, better, reproduce) conditions for the subsumption of their labour by capital. Whether they will become wage labourers is not at all essential; if they are not employed, or even employable, they still remain labourers as part of the reserve army of proletarians or surplus population (stagnant, latent and floating) reproducing themselves on their small pieces of land, or by food gathering (in forests or trash cans). Their struggle, in a Marxist sense, can be understood as part of the anti-systemic working class struggle to control the conditions of production and, I stress, reproduction too.

Now coming to the forms of struggle (armed, unarmed, etc), I think we as Marxists (of all hues and colours) cannot act as idealists, by considering only those movements as working class movements or anti-capitalist movements, which are projected in our idioms, and are developing according to our framework of strategic-building. The working class can throw diverse forms of struggles according to its internal constituents or class composition. However, one must critique forms in order to show the limitations and problems of those forms, in order to avoid the problem of overgeneralisation of particular forms, and also in order to undertake the revolutionary task of generalisation seriously, which essentially means to see a revolutionary building up against capitalism within and through all forms of working-class struggles.

An interview with Benedict Anderson

Benedict Anderson was in Delhi recently to deliver a lecture on his latest work. He “is one of the first and original theorists of nations and nationalisms. His pathbreaking work ‘Imagined Communities’ is an exploration of how various peoples have at a certain juncture in history imagined themselves into nations. An anthropological explorer of various national-liberation movements in East and Southeast Asia, Prof Anderson sees the rise of nationalism as being closely connected with the growth of printed books and with the technical development of print as a whole”. Paramita Ghosh interviewed Anderson for Hindustan Times. FOR THE FULL TEXT

Q: As a man of the Left, what is the future of Marxism in south Asia and in India?

A: Communism has taken a beating in the last 20 years. But it won’t go away if underlying problems in society don’t go away. There has to be new ways to revive it. However, one framework which Marx never anticipated was how the atomic tests would destroy civilisation. The limits of resources are not there in Marxist vocabulary, it comes from Thomas Robert Malthus and it has to be grappled with.

India has three kinds of Communisms. The established left, the CPI M-L and the new Naxalites who are no longer led by college students. They go to the bottom of society.

Q: One of our living realities is the competition between Indian and China amid the babble of economic cooperation. How can Third World solidarity be revived?

A: What solidarity can there be to speak of? There was never a leftist government in India. The Cold War put China on one side and India played a role in between…. Both are rapidly expansionist, they are bound to get in each other’s hair. But it is in everyone’s interest to reduce the power of America.

China wants a ring of friendly countries around it, but it won’t occupy them. It’s not clear what China wants in Africa. I don’t know whether they intend to stay. If the Chinese start moving there, then it might get interesting.

There is, I think, however, a growing acceptance that war will not get you more territory. What threatens nation-states are not external states, but internal collapse. It has happened in Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia. It may happen in India. States can’t get any bigger, but they can get smaller.

Between Caracas and Delhi

Reuven Kaminer,

It seems more than a coincidence that two important conferences of the international left took place last month, in November 2009. One, the 11th International Meeting of the Communist and Workers’ Parties was held in Delhi, India and issued the “Delhi Declaration” (DD) and the other, a World Meeting of Left Parties, met in Caracas, Venezuela and issued a document entitled the “Caracas Commitment.” (CC) There were approximately 50 organizations at each conference. I will try to relate here to some of the main issues raised by these two meetings and the calls that they issued.

There is some difficulty in comparing the two documents in that the Delhi Declaration (DD) is much shorter, about a third in length of the Caracas Commitment (CC) and much more general and less specific. In addition to listing the progressive position on the many fronts of concrete struggle, the CC suggests important international initiatives.

There are important differences between the two calls. However, it should be stressed that they are not and were not written as opposing or alternative theses. There is indeed some danger of ‘over analyzing’ the differences many of which may have more to do with form than substance.

The general tone of both meetings reflects a desire to concretize the call for socialism. Both documents center on the analysis of the current crisis of capitalism and emphasize the need for a socialist solution to the crisis. The motivation is quite clear. The current crisis of capitalism poses the question of socialism as an urgent theoretical and political problem. The crisis is also a crisis for social-democracy, for class collaboration in the economy and a blow to the faith that things will work themselves out in the economy. One can hope that the common position of the DD and the CC on this vital question will afford a broad basis for unity and cooperation. Both conferences wish to reframe the demand for socialism and to transform it into an urgent social-political issue. It is no longer sufficient to think of socialism as an abstract perspective. If socialism means anything it must present itself as the best and most reliable solution for the present crisis.

What is Socialism?

There are important differences between the two documents in the treatment of socialism. CC talks clearly about 21st Century Socialism and Chavez has some clearly uncomplimentary things to say about the Stalinist deformation in the Soviet Union. Though Chavez and Venezuela’s Latin-American allies are in the forefront of the struggle against US imperialism, the CC clearly states that opposition to imperialism and the struggle for national sovereignty are not enough. In short, the time has come to move past the main slogan of the anti globalization movement to the effect that a “better world is possible”. The movement against capitalist globalization must transform itself into a revolutionary movement for socialism.

The DD is exceptionally cautious and restrained in its description of the current scene in Latin America. It categorizes the fight in Latin America as an essentially defensive front: “Latin America, the current theater of popular mobilizations and working class actions, has shown how rights can be protected and won through struggle.” ( The dramatic difference between this DD description, which can be characterized as positive but cool, and the CC on this and other important strategic questions is a highly significant.

Though one can easily identify with the chief demands in the DD, it does seem a bit long on platitudes and short on specifics. There is a glaring discrepancy between the detailed and clear arguments against capitalism in the DD and the rather unclear role of the category of socialism in the very same document. Precisely, in the light of a new priority granted to the advance of socialism to a higher place on today’s agenda, the absence of a deeper analysis, historical and contemporary, on the outlines of the socialist alternative is sorely felt. No one could demand a single, one-size- fits all formula for socialism today from the DD. But this is a not a reason to ignore differences on the subject and the need for detailed analyses on the multiple paths to socialism. It is, of course, a fact that there are different ideological trends and political approaches on this key question in the Communist movement. If socialism is indeed to be on the agenda, the discussion of these trends and their significance cannot be suppressed.

The DD states correctly that “Imperialism,[has been] buoyed by the demise of the Soviet Union” and that “the achievements and contributions of socialism in defining the contours of modern civilization remain inerasable.” ( However, nothing in the least critical is said of the Soviet project. There is something very problematic in the total evasion of any discussion regarding the weaknesses of Soviet socialism and its sad collapse. This is a serious weakness and silence on this matter would seem to open the door to attack by many enemies of the very idea of socialism. Moreover, for many serious progressives, the thinking of Communists on this question is of genuine interest.

The Bolivarian Revolution on the Move

The immediate historical background of the CC is the 2005 declaration by Chavez to build “21st Century Socialism” and the creation of a new, mass revolutionary party in Venezuela. It is important to add here the growing consolidation of the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Paraguay and its historical link with revolutionary and independent Cuba.

The constant machinations by US imperialism to undermine and isolate the Bolivarian revolution by military, political, and economic means are convincing proof that this arena is presently the flash point of the battle against imperialism.

The CC does not, unlike the DD, stop at recommending general positions and ideas. It offers detailed plans for the creation of new platforms of joint action by the left, including (1) Establishment of a “Temporary Executive Secretariat (TES) that allows for the coordination of a common working agenda” on agreed policies; (2) Organization of a World Movement for Peace; (3) Special instruments to advance public communication and win the battle of the media.

All of the above, if properly implemented, could impart new vigor and enthusiasm to the fight for peace and socialism. But Chavez and the Venezuelan leadership have also moved far past the above initiatives, and presented a new, bold proposal for the establishment of a Fifth International.

”The international encounter of Left-wing Political parties held in Caracas on November 19, 20 and 21, 2009, received the proposal made by Commander Hugo Chavez Frias to convoke the V Socialist International as a space for socialist-oriented parties, movements and currents in which we can harmonize a common strategy for the struggle against imperialism, the overthrow of capitalism by socialism and solidarity based economic integration of a new type.” (

Diversity and Controversy on the Way to a New International

Leftists and students of the modern era are cognizant of the complex issues involved in the conception, goals and practice of Marxist internationalism and its main tool, the international, which it established to create a material and organizational foundation for its ideals.

Chavez considered it important to outline from the outset of the discussion on a new international his own understanding of the historic outcome of previous attempts. These views were summarized in a report by Kiraz Janicke of his speech at the Caracas conference and published in an official Venezuelan website: “During his speech, Chavez briefly outlined the experiences of previous ‘internationals,’ including the First International founded in 1864 by Karl Marx; the Second International founded in 1889, which collapsed in 1916 as various left parties and trade unions sided with their respective capitalist classes in the inter-imperialist conflict of the First World War; the Third International founded by Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, which Chavez said “degenerated” under Stalinism and “betrayed” struggles for socialism around the world; and the Fourth International founded by Leon Trotsky in 1938, which suffered numerous splits and no longer exists, although some small groups claim to represent its political continuity. Chavez said that a new international would have to function “without impositions” and would have to respect diversity.” (

It is of course far too early to jump to any kind of conclusions regarding the Chavez proposal on the basis of the above outline or the results of the first responses from various organizations. While it would be unwise to disregard the historical ‘hints’ in Chavez’s outline, my reading of the proposal is that we are not going to be asked to return to an international based on ‘democratic centralism.’ The idea of the international was associated historically with some sort of centrally disciplined world- wide party. It is important to stress that Chavez seems to understand his proposal as suggesting a new form of international built around the concept of unity in diversity.

At any rate, the Chavez project is a political thunderbolt and should initiate new and broad discussion of the role of internationalism in the struggle against imperialism and for socialism. Such a discussion can only contribute to our ideological and political consciousness. We are at the very beginning of a process and it would be wise to reserve any tendency to hasty judgment.