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I finished John Gray’s latest book, The Immortalization Commission, in a cover to cover reading lasting about four hours. Take this as a compliment if you like. Indeed, by way of getting necessary flattery out of the way, there is no denying that Gray’s impressively free-wheeling prose can with ease keep you turning the pages. His is a digestible literary form, intricately spinning together biographical vignettes in order to build up thematic momentum seemingly on the sly. As one might expect, and as with all of Gray’s post-Hayek-disillusionment works, the guiding motif is of the dangerous deceptions cast by ideas of progress or utopian schemes to bring about change for the better. And to his credit, if only the book ended at the close of part one on page 104, he would have succeeded in presenting his case with the kind of light touch pessimism and sense of wistful tragedy befitting of a card carrying cynic. Yet inevitably, as if unable to resist the force of his even more deeply rooted conservative convictions, in part two the Procrustean labour of forcing the history of the Soviet Union into his cynical worldview throws into question whether Gray is really a man without a faith of his own.

* * *

Gray’s book concerns the ill-fated quest to conquer death.  Its broader theme, however, is that of the responses to nihilistic materialism enjoined by the discomforting revelations of Darwinian evolutionary science – humankind as a purposeless accident – and astrophysics – knowledge of the inevitable extinction of the species. Gray approaches the matter by focusing on a milieu of esoteric thinkers spanning from the late 19th to early 20th century. The first section looks at the donnish British figures connected with the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), an organization established for the purpose of scientifically investigating the paranormal. The second section, more loosely, with the Soviet project to remake humanity and conquer death.

For obvious reasons, Gray is at his best in the first section when discussing the gentle lives of Oxbridge alumni and co-founders of the SPR like Henry Sidgwick and Frederic Myers, blending an evident sympathy for his protagonists’ personal lives with a taste of the spiritual angst and esoterica of the Victorian era. Here, the book skillfully intertwines his characters to build up a sense of the motivations for the Society’s investigations into the afterlife, so that what could have been an easy set of targets for abject mockery, or simply ciphers for the delusions of an era, are instead taken as characters whose responses to the revelations of 19th century science whilst wrongheaded at least demonstrate a sensitivity to the shocks of scientific-materialistic disenchantment unacknowledged by the anachronistic persistence of Christian moral certainties amongst their peers.

In part two of book, on the other hand, Gray loses his way. Without the closely knit intellectual scene which provides a fulcrum for part one, the very terms in which Gray announces his thesis – the success of part one is in some measure because there is no thesis – poses a challenge that his book could not possibly live up to. In Gray’s narrative, Bolshevik ideology was driven by the desire to remake humanity and conquer death, a predictably doomed enterprise “that required killing tens of millions of people.” (p.5) Now, whilst there is certainly an interesting history of cosmism and futurism within Russia, influencing the ideology of the Soviet Union, and contributing the weight it attached to space exploration (see the BBC Storyville documentary ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’), to claim that these ideas assumed an integral part of communist thought, and moreover were responsible for the failings of the Soviet Union in some overarching manner, announces a major project of ideologiekritik which common sense suspects could not be advanced within the sixty or so pages Gray devotes to the subject. These suspicions would be correct. For in fact, there is no real argument advanced in these pages. Rather, the section rapidly degenerates into an anti-communist screed only distinguishable from run of the mill revisionist historiography by its more feckless attitude towards standards of argument and evidence, and its reliance upon tenuous allusions uphold his conclusions.

On Stalin’s White Sea Canal, for example, Gray says: “Like much else in the Soviet Union, this was authentically Marxian. For Marx the natural world had no intrinsic worth. Only by being imprinted with human meaning could the earth acquire value. The White Sea Canal embodied this philosophy. A useless monument was erected (the Canal would in fact be hardly used) while the scarred and poisoned land was filled with the bodies of prisoners. A human meaning was imprinted on the earth!” (p. 148)

One hardly knows where to start with this. A vague allusion to Marx’s Labour Theory of Value (an analytic for understanding the source of capitalist profit) is offered as the driving concept behind Stalin’s ideocratic canal project, with needless deaths labelled as authentically Marxist. This is a type of argument that is difficult to refute precisely because there is no argument; and this is only one example of a persistent tactic Gray employs. On Lenin, particularly, neither quote nor reference is deemed necessary, when conclusions can simply be stated on force of conviction. In terms of his connection with the ‘God-builders’ – Anatoly Lunacharsky, et al. – “He too [Lenin] aimed to realize a myth – the earthly paradise in early Christianity – using the power of science.” (p. 168) A quote? A reference? Not necessary. Assertion is apparently enough to line up the dots of Gray central argument of Bolshevik ideology being in thrall to esoteric philosophy. The claim is repeated on page 181: “from its beginnings Bolshevism was a variant of Gnosticism, a modern rebirth of one of the mystery religions of the ancient world.” A reference this time, surely? Again, no. The entire case for Bolshevik ideology being under the preeminent sway of the immortalist ‘God builders’ comes down to a few letters by Gorky – hardly a pivotal Bolshevik figure – and beyond that solely unsubstantiated assertion on Gray’s part that Lenin was guided by their principles.

What of the more damning charge that it was the Bolsheviks’ Promethean futurism which accounts for the bloodletting in the Soviet Union? After spending many pages relishing in the details of the horrors of the Russian Civil War, in order that these not be considered exigencies of the conflict, Gray remarks, “Actually the Bolsheviks welcomed the Civil War, since it gave them the chance to finish with the old order.” (p. 185) As fragile as the connection with Russian futurism might be, given this represents the lynchpin of his entire argument, here at last we will find the quotes and references to indict the unholy alliance between Russian cosmism and Bolshevism with a criminal hunger for terror. . .right? Unfortunately not. Once more, at what is a critical moment for Gray’s argument, he declines to make the case. We must apparently take his world for it that the Bolshevik’s were itching for a devastating civil war to wipe the slate clean in Pol Pot year zero fashion.

This takes us to the central problem of Gray’s book, and of his mature oeuvre of writing as a whole. For a sceptic and cynic who claims to believe in nothing, as The Immortalization Commission demonstrates Gray clearly does believe in something: that a unique evil was unleashed on our godless earth by the Soviet Union. Gray may not believe in heaven, but like a medieval fire and brimstone preacher, he dangles the threat of communist hell to frighten his readers away from ever diverging from his conservative amalgam of nihilism and reformism.

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Excerpt from the final section of a chapter on Lenin in my forthcoming PhD thesis

Any critical examination of Bolshevik policies after October 1917 has the problematic effect of opening up a Pandora’s Box of recriminations which, needless to say, this final sub-section could not possibly adjudicate upon to an adequate depth. Let me therefore immediately refute some possible misunderstandings. I want to stress that my intention here is not to take sides with either the anarchists, or left or right communists on debates regarding Bolshevik economic policy in the years immediately following the revolution, concerning disputes over workers’ self management vs. nationalisation, incentives vs. coercion, and ‘war communism’ vs. the New Economic Policy. There is certainly a danger here, I recognize, in using a broad philosophical critique on the level of quite abstract ideas to affirm common prejudices regarding, say,  how the programme of nationalisation, grain requisition and coerced labour during the ‘war communism’ years of the Civil War led to Stalinism. This would then inscribe Stalinism in its protean form into dominant Bolshevik ideas before and after the revolution, effacing the disputes regarding policies in the early years and also the unique historical situation these policies were forged in response to.[1] Leninist readers will also undoubtedly point to the decimation wrought by the Russian Civil War, the failure of communist revolution in Western Europe, imperialist encirclement of the embryonic workers’ state, and the unfortunate, but ultimately contingent, rise of Stalin to power, as all more important considerations than the ontology underlying Lenin’s political thought. And they would not be wrong to argue that no comprehensive appraisal of the fortunes of revolutionary Russia could adequately appraise its subject matter without taking all these events into account. But my aim is rather more modest. I wish to simply demonstrate the conceptual insufficiency of quantity-quality transformations to plan the institution of a disjunctive break into political and socioeconomic forms. My hypothesis operates on two levels, connecting the lack of a properly disjunctive break in the quantity-quality transformation with the problem of the use of Hegelian dialectics to think future oriented novelty. These two hypotheses will not be tied together until the next chapter, so for the time being the task is to simply present examples indicating the intersection between the conceptual shortcomings of the quantity-quality transformation and actual Bolshevik policies. To this end, we first examine the case where Lenin adopted a truly disjunctive policy, that is, when he called for all sovereign power to be transferred to the Soviets. I will indicate how his use of the Hegelian quantity-quality transformation to describe the change makes only limited sense. Second, we turn to his thoughts on economics, which remained beholden to the historical materialist ‘evolutionism’ of the pre-war era. Whilst Lenin’s idea of taking over large scale capitalist businesses and further expanding and socialising them is congruent with a simple base-superstructure conceptual matrix of the transformation, it nonetheless, especially with hindsight, appears a deficient conceptualisation of how to seed a lasting novelty into the system capable of enabling transition to communism. These textual ‘case studies’ precede the final reflections of this chapter on the problematic ontology of Hegelian ‘leaps’.

To reiterate the basics provided in this chapter’s introduction, in State and Revolution Lenin’s aim was to establish the necessity of violent revolution to supplant the bourgeois state with a proletarian state. There was to be continuity of some of the state’s functions, but crucially these would be governed in an entirely novel way. Power over the state would not simply change hands from the bourgeoisie to the proletarians; what remained of the state form would be scarcely recognizable. Lenin emphasized against Kautsky and Plekhanov that “the state must inevitably be a state that is democratic in a new way (for the proletariat and the propertyless in general) and dictatorial in a new way (against the bourgeoisie).”[2] Influenced by Marx and Engels’ revision of The Communist Manifesto in light of the experience of the Paris Commune, this point concerned the correct interpretation (and exposing of distortions thereof) of the new line introduced into the 1872 edition that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.”[3] Lenin aimed to fully undermine “the current vulgar “interpretation” of Marx’s famous utterance” which placed “gradual development in contradistinction to the seizure of power and so on.”[4] The new state, the new democracy and the new dictatorship called for as the starting point for transition to communism is nevertheless posed as an unknown. Faithful to the late Marx of the Critique of the Gotha Programme Lenin observes “There is no trace of an attempt on Marx’s part to conjure up a utopia, to make idle guesses about what cannot be known.” This extends to details about the transitionary phase after revolution: “we leave the question of the length of time, or the concrete forms of the withering away, quite open, because no material is available to us to answer these questions.”[5] Yet this is not entirely accurate. Lenin did make some attempt on the broadest conceptual level to schematize how the Bolsheviks intended to smash the state and institute a dictatorship of the proletariat: all power was to be transferred to the Soviets – and the difference between the Soviet state form and the bourgeois state form[6] was explained by reference to “quantity becoming transformed into quality”.[7]

The problem here is that Lenin’s endorsement of Soviet democracy does not exactly fit the model of the Paris Commune, which despite its many innovations such as the possibility of recalling representatives at any time was still just an expansion of the demos’ prerogatives through the representative form. Soviet democracy on the other hand, if it is to be a genuinely new form of democracy, is precisely new insofar as it is not just an expansion of democracy along normal representative lines. It cannot be considered to undergo a qualitative ‘leap’ as a result of quantitative expansion in the sense of the example provided by Hegel of water freezing into ice. The same problem applies with Lenin’s use of quantity-quality transformations to think future oriented change in a number of other examples.  Because in the same way that water freezes into ice in a moment of rapid transformation – yet regardless of the ‘leap’ between liquid and solid is ultimately the same substance – in Lenin’s differentiation between the bourgeois state and the proletarian state, between bureaucratic-reactionary and revolutionary-democratic measures, and between state capitalism under bourgeois rule and state capitalism for socialist ends,[8] the change is one of form and not of substance.[9] What is posited as new is merely an exemplification of what already exists; a change in the form opening up the continuity of the content. The following either/or thus appears unavoidable. Either we accept Lenin’s stress on more democracy provoking a transformation from quantity to quality, meaning that the transformation can be viewed through the dialectic, but only at the expense of a degree of novelty – i.e., there would be a continuity of content or substance passing through the transformation, rather than the unveiling of a spark of political ex nihilo. Or from another perspective, if we take Lenin to be proposing not simply an expansion to universal suffrage but instead a completely new form of Soviet democracy, it would seem to be stretching the dialectic beyond its purview.

Equivocation over the role for the Constituent Assembly, representing the first institution of universal suffrage in Russia along conventional lines (the Bolsheviks first campaigned in its elections and then dissolved it in January 1918), provides some evidence for this theoretical confusion in the moment of practice. Despite the platform of State And Revolution, Marcel Liebman writes than Lenin,

did not cease to be, in many respects, a man of Russian and international Social-Democracy for whom the conquests of the revolution formed part of the classic programme of demands of the labour movement – which included the securing of the constitutional regime … and of universal suffrage … Had Lenin, wholly absorbed in day-to-day revolutionary activity not noticed what, today, with the hindsight of history, seems so obvious—that the very notion of entrusting power, all power, to the soviets, popular institutions which did not provide for the representing of all classes, ruled out all notion of making a Constituent Assembly elected by the population as a whole the sovereign organ of state power in Russia?[10]

The incompatibility which Lenin overlooked in the heat of moment could be seen to reflect the problem of applying the quantity-quality transition when thinking novelty. The Constituent Assembly can aptly be considered such an expansion, and possibly as effecting a quantity-quality leap, whereas according all power to the Soviets cannot – their quantitative ‘representative’ faculty (if they can even be considered in such terms) was in fact less than the Constituent Assembly. The two conflicting institutions also conceptually conflict if thought through the quantitative-qualitative prism.

In economic terms the problem with applying the quantity-quality transformation is even more pronounced. Given Lenin’s overwhelmingly political focus throughout his life, looking at his economic ideas might be considered somewhat unfair when acknowledging that abstract economic thought was not his specialism. Although his most famous texts are all heavily referenced with statistics to prove his point (hence economic in a sense), there are no examples of him engaging with economics on the abstract level beyond the remit of using economic data to make an immediate political point. Indeed, there is even evidence to suggest that Lenin avoided economic questions at times. Lih comments that despite the plan to write a series of economics articles for Iskra only the first of these ever materialised.[11]  Furthermore, the most striking thing about the fifth chapter of State and Revolution, titled ‘The Economic Basis of the Withering Away of the State’, is the paucity of economic reflections on what is to be done, and, conversely, the continued predominance of discussion of politics and the state.  More tangible finds in terms of economic policy can be located in his 1917 articles on the immediate tasks of revolutionary government. In these Lenin laid out the position that empowering the proletariat to gradually take organizational command of the economy and phasing out small scale proprietorship and commodity production was adequate for introducing the first stage of lower communism.[12] Building upon some of his positive reflections upon the virtues of monopoly capitalism in Imperialism, the massification of production – its concentration and quantitative expansion– was held to be the key to transforming production under socialism. Liebman, a not unsympathetic reader of Lenin, makes a pointed assessment of Lenin’s economic thought worth citing.

Lenin’s ideas about the organization of labour revealed a rigour that was more in line with managerial orthodoxy than with revolutionary enthusiasm… Here, in the last analysis, besides a specific response to functional exigencies, was the expression of  a philosophy which, while not ruling out appeals to the idealistic elements in human nature, was rooted in a materialist view of the world, derived from a positivist interpretation of Marxism.[13]

Andrew Kliman draws the same conclusion: “there is no evidence he [Lenin] understood that something was wrong with workplace relations under capitalism.”[14] And this position was by no means uncommon within Second International and later Bolshevik thought. Socialism imagined as the complete centralisation of production in a well-oiled, rationalised bureaucracy along Taylorist lines was common to Bolshevik thought in this era, finding its most eloquent expression in Bukharin and Preobrazhensky’s The ABC of Communism.[15] As such, the economic break proposed by Lenin, focusing on implementing disciplined control of the economy in distinction to capitalist chaos, arguably does not depart from the ‘evolutionary’ schemas of the Second International to anything like the extent that his political thought proposed.[16] His plans involved the expansion of large industrial entities (under communist rule) in order to transform them into a socialist mode of production. From the contemporary standpoint we might be astounded to read statements such as the following from 1917 where the quantity-quality transition is used to affirm that the large capitalist banks are readymade institutions for achieving socialism, only in need of quantitative expansion under proletarian management to alter their qualitative nature.

The big banks are the ‘state apparatus’ which we need to bring about socialism, and which we take ready-made from capitalism; our task here is merely to lop off what capitalistically mutilates this excellent apparatus, to make it even bigger, even more democratic, even more comprehensive. Quantity will be transformed into quality. A single state bank, the biggest of the big, with branches in every rural district, in every factory, will constitute as much as nine-tenths of the socialist apparatus.[17]

Such ideas still predominate with Leninism today. But as Kliman observes “A state run bank is still a bank. It still has to obtain funds before it can lend them out, and has to do so, it must provide a decent return to those who supply it with funds. (This is true of a worker-run bank too.)”[18] Notwithstanding the extraordinary circumstances of attempting to implement socialist change in a country ravaged first by imperialist war and second by a devastating civil war,[19] Kliman’s claim is that Lenin’s programme neglects the need for transformation in the underlying mode of production away from capitalist value creation. As he writes on the limits of politics thought on the level of who is in control to effect a change in the economic laws of a dominant mode of production: “Putting different people in “control” does not undo the inner laws of capital …  This simply was not understood by the Marxist of the Second International, including Lenin.”[21] In another article Kliman seeks to lay the blame on an Lenin’s failure to conceptualise a sudden enough change in the underlying mode of production – and contends that really existing socialism’s failure to enact this qualitative shift lies behind its other failures, including the growth of the autarchic state. This he attributes to a misreading of Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme:

This [mis]reading of the CGP goes back to Lenin, who conflated the transformation and transition in The State and Revolution, writing that “the transition from capitalist society … to communist society is impossible without a ‘political transition period’ ….” I have come to suspect that the very idea of “transitional society” is incoherent, and seems to stand in the way of thinking things through clearly.  Hegel’s critique of the idea of gradualness in his book [the] Science of Logic seems relevant here.[22]

Pace Kliman, however, who locates the problem in Lenin’s persistent conflation of ‘transition’ and ‘transformation’ and recommends a critique by insisting on the lack of gradualness in Hegel’s quantity-quality transformation, I argue that the problem, at least in some small measure, lies with the deployment of this limited metaphysics taken in either sense. If I am correct in taking Kliman’s critique as fundamentally oriented around the charge that Lenin took too ‘evolutionary’ a view of the necessary changes, then I’m not sure this temporal critique tells us all that much. I claim the limitation rather lies in trying to apply the quantity-quality transformation to the future. As we have seen, by utilizing a conceptual matrix that fills in the categories of ‘quantity’ and ‘quality’ with a complex set of determinations, the quantity-quality transformation can make some sense as an abstract representation of change. But given Marxist aversion towards thinking through complex categorical matrices for planning post-revolutionary processes what seems to have happened is a category confusion. When analysing the processes leading to revolution, Lenin fed a complex set of determinations into the quantity-quality relation; whereas when thinking future oriented change, the quantity-quality transformation was mistaken as directly sufficient for conceptualising change. Whereas leading up to the revolution, quantity and quality were just impressionistic placeholders for a dialectical transformation taking place at the level at the level of the concrete determinations contained within the conceptual matrix, when thinking post-revolutionary change the abstract concept was taken to directly describe real processes. Now, the obvious response might be that we cannot know the future and the real processes that will sculpt it, so any conceptual matrix of concrete determinations would be equally speculative, if not fanciful. Yet that did not stop the Lenin from directly relating the abstract concept of quantity-quality transformations for directly positing the massfication of industry as transformation to socialist relations of production. If we were to agree for a moment (and it is not at all this author’s opinion that this is necessarily true) that it is impossible to utilize a complex conceptual matrix for thinking future oriented change, then it must be admitted that there is a problem with concept itself here. If one is to apply the quantity-quality transformation to the future on the condition of prohibiting a complex conceptual matrix, then of necessity one would have to apply the concept as crudely as Lenin did. There is simply no other option. Hence the paradox of how Lenin stresses that Marxists do not idly speculate on future processes, but then almost immediately goes on to describe the expected changes as a quantity to quality transformation, and then further to contradict the first statement by laying out concrete policies for the quantitative expansion of industrial production units as a route to the qualitative transformation to socialism. There are thus only two possibilities here. The first would be to question whether you really cannot devise a flexible enough conceptual matrix to plan post-capitalist transition, which would allow you to retain the abstract and impressionistic slogan of quantity-quality transformations. Or the second would be the properly ontological route of questioning the applicability of these transformations to think future oriented change on the conceptual level. I will follow the second line of enquiry.

Yet if there is a conceptual problem with the Hegelian ontology then we will need to commit more time and theoretical effort than can be provided in this chapter on isolating where exactly that problem lies. We need to know whether the Hegelian ontology of qualitative-quantitative leaps, and the larger system these are embedded in, are adequate as a concept for thinking disjunctive, future oriented change – and if not, why not? This chapter has primarily focused on Lenin’s political thought, with little critical reflection on Hegel’s ontology beyond the political and ideological purposes to which it was instrumentally deployed. The task of the next chapter is to pursue the critical, philosophical line of argumentation in more depth by examining Hegel’s Logic. The focus will rest upon Hegel’s ‘philosophy of mathematics’ in the section on Quantum – crucial to understanding the ‘leaps’ contained in following section on Essence. We will seek to ascertain if Hegel’s ‘leap’ through the qualitative and quantitative double-relation is sustainable, and whether it can genuinely yield a conceptual thought adequate to a notion of a transformative event.Too frequently Marxist fidelity to the Hegel-Marx-Lenin heritage has hindered a more critical appraisal (the Althusserian and Della Volpe lineages excepted) as to whether Hegelian ontology is sufficient for concepts needed to plan post-revolutionary change.


[1] For a good discussion of the illegitimacy of this approach see Lars. T. Lih, “War Communism and Bolshevik Ideals”, The National Council for Soviet and East European Research: Title VIII Program (25 January 1994).

[2] Lenin, “State and Revolution”, 295.

[3] Marx and Engels cited in Ibid., 297.

[4] Ibid., 297.

[5] Ibid., 344.

[6] Lenin’s 1917 writings pursue a consistent theme of grounding abstract principles in concrete evaluations and proposals for action. Part of this process involved advocating some policies that at first glance might appear closer to the status quo than the radical sloganeering of rival groups – e.g. his criticism of the slogan ‘all power to the Soviets’ after July, advocating the use of existing economic control measures from under Tsardom, ensuring that the rich could not circumvent rationing, etc.  – but if actually put into practice, he argues, would mark a break between bureaucratic-reactionary and revolutionary-democratic government. See V.I. Lenin, Revolution at the Gates: A Selection of Writings from February to October 1917, ed. Slavoj Žižek (London and New York: Verso, 2002), particularly “On Slogans” and “The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat it”, 62-105.

[7] Lenin, “State and Revolution”, 301, 347.

[8] In the following text Lenin aims to show how state capitalism under workers control is quite different to under bourgeois control V.I. Lenin, “Report on the Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government to the Session of the All-Russia C.E.C. April 29, 1918” In: On State Capitalism during the Transition to Socialism (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1983), 23-35.

[9] Although written with unsympathetic anti-Marxist intentions, H.B. Acton isolates just this problem in his critique of how dialectical materialism thinks novelty through the transformation. In the case of water freezing to ice and other such natural transformations, these are frequent and repetitive processes in nature that only exemplify chemical properties. The case of a rearrangement of molecules to produce a new compound appears more promising. He stretches too far when he argues that even this would not qualify as genuine novelty since it could be predicated in advance, but nonetheless the critique of the kind of quantity-quality transformation analogous with water turning into ice seems valid. The form changes but the essential content stays stable. See  H.B. Acton, The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed [1955]. Available online at The Online Library of Liberty:  http://oll.libertyfund.org/?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=877&chapter=76759&layout=html&Itemid=27 [Accessed 8 February 2012]

[10] See Leninism under Lenin, trans. Brian Pearce (London: Merlin Press, 1975), 237.

[11] Lih, Lenin Rediscovered, 197.

[12] See Lenin, “The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat it”.

[13] Leninism under Lenin, 338.

[14] Andrew Kliman, The Failure of Capitalist Production: Underlying Causes of the Great Recession (London: Pluto Press, 2012), 205.

[15] Nikolai Bukharin and Evgenii Preobrazhensky, The ABC of Communism, trans. Mathias Bismo (London: Penguin Books, 1969), see particularly chapters XII to XVI.

[16] Lars. T. Lih cites Kautsky in 1917 making the same distinction as Lenin by reference to quantity-quality transition between whether nationalisation, progressive taxation and so forth, can be considered bourgeois reform or a workers programme: “One might call this a bourgeois programme of reform and not a workers’ programme of revolution. Whether it is one or the other depends on quantity. Here too, when quantity is increased accordingly, it must transform into a new quality. It is in the nature of things that the proletariat will strive to use its revolutionary power in the direction I have outlined here as soon as it feels solid ground under its feet, and that in so doing it will meet the resistance of the capitalists and the large landowners. How much it will achieve depends on its relative power.” See “Supplement: Kautsky, Lenin and the ‘April theses’”.

[17] Citation from Lih, “Supplement: Kautsky, Lenin and the ‘April theses’”. Original document available from the following source: V.I. Lenin, “Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?” In: Lenin’s Collected Works Vol. 26 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1972), 87-136.

[18] Kliman, The Failure of Capitalist Production, 195.

[19] Some sobering statistics give a picture of the extent of the collapse following the First World War, the Civil War and the loss of productive regions of the Russian Empire after the signing of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. Soviet Russia controlled only 8% of pre-war coal reserves. Extraction of iron-ore had dropped to 1.6% of pre-war levels. The accumulated effect of famine and war meant that industrial workers in Russia dropped from approximately 2.5 million in 1918 to 1.2 million by 1922. See Liebman, Leninism under Lenin, 347.

[21] Kliman, The Failure of Capitalist Production, 196-205.

[22] Andrew Kliman, The Transformation of Capitalism into Communism in the TCritique of the Gotha Program”, Marxist-Humanist Initiative, Available at: http://www.marxisthumanistinitiative.org/alternatives-to-capital/what-must-be-changed-in-order-to-transcend-capitalism.html (Accessed 15 December 2010)

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We all know the police are bastards, but why has the left seemingly settled on fighting police brutality as the final horizon of activism in a time of economic depression? What about fighting for new economic ideas?

A recent post by LSE based International Relations scholar, Nick Srnicek, asked ‘Has the Left given up on economics?‘, arguing that in spite of living through one the greatest economic depressions in history the left has notably failed to incorporate economic analysis or alternatives into its program for change. What we have, instead, is the usual focus on racism, police brutality, defending the welfare state, and such like issues – a repetition of the kind of lowest common denominator politics of resistance little different to what the left focused on during the boom time. Of course, the reasons for this state of affairs are just as much political as to do with the collective psychological state of the left. A counter post here makes a few important points on the institutional reasons for the weakness; the most important of which I consider to be the lack of support by union structures for developing and disseminating alternative economic analysis. As a supplement to this, I would also add that the current predominance of (neo) anarchist ideas in activist communities – with the valorisation of sponteneism, horizontal (non) organization, and a focus on means rather than ends (so called prefigurative politics) – serves to reinforce the irrelevance of expert, technical analysis of economics. Ultimately, the end game of this kind of extreme democratic politics cannot tolerate analysis that would privilege the scientific knowledge of a minority. But in any case, the above political argument is not the focus of my present commentary, so I will leave that aside for another day.

Here, I want to present what I believe to be one possible reason for the seemingly minimal influence of economics on left wing politics: the fact that the Marxian economic project has stalled on a number of levels. As a Marxist myself, I feel at liberty to place at least some of the blame for this at Marx’s feet, even if, of course, contemporary Marxists should shoulder most of the weight of responsibility for the state of affairs. In brief, there are two levels at which I think Marxian economics has stalled:

  1. Failing to work through the categories elaborated in Capital to more adequately conceptualise transitionary structures to post-capitalism.
  2. Not bringing Capital up to date in terms of economic model theory, hence leaving it as a limited ‘fundamental structural model’ of the economy, unable to incorporate enough variables and economic objects into its analysis.

1. Capital and post-capitalism

There is a persistent tendency within Marxism to reduce the economic to the political, as if none of the economic laws under one system carry across even during a period of transition to another system. This is reflected in the somewhat endless debates regarding to what extent Capital represents simply a critique of capitalism or a work of positive economics? One could certainly make arguments both ways. My personal view on this matter is that by the time on reaches Vol. III it becomes indisputable that Marx had, whether intentionally or not, created a work of positive economics with tendential predictions unique to the Marxian economic paradigm. That is, the exploitation labour theory of value leads to a theory of tendencies within the profit rates not found elsewhere in other economic theories, dependent upon historically variant relative composition of capitals, and also leading to a theory of tendencies in employment levels.

Now, none of this fits very neatly with Marx’s political philosophy, which is all about the real, historical political movement. One of the mysteries during my research into Marx as part of my PhD thesis is why, if Marx felt his own analysis mostly useless for thinking a post-capitalist society, did he seemingly invest so much time in it? And why, at the end of 20 years study, did he abandon his economic studies to learn Russian and focus almost exclusively on events there, even to the point of ditching the thesis that communism would preserve the best of capitalism to endorsing the populist idea that peasant communes could act as a direct launch pad for communism?

My feeling is that Marx never really resolved these issues intellectually. You see the same thing in his mathematical writings, where he never really reconciled himself with abstract mathematical entities, trying to shoehorn the whole of calculus into the study of variable magnitudes. So the legacy of this Marxian reduction of abstract logics to the real is the presumption – common across most of the left in fact – that a revolutionary political upheavel would be sufficient to create a new historical dynamic to reconfigure the economic. What follows from this presumption is the idea that left wing economics may be able to analyze capitalism and critique it, but – and this ‘but’ is what I want to contest – the categories it uses to do so are no use to us in thinking what an alternative, transitionary structure might look like. Lenin repeated much the same line in State and Revolution where, despite a chapter nominally devoted to economic transition, the focus is unrelentingly political. For two reasons I believe that today such a position is untenable.

Firstly, because after the experience of 20th century communism, post or anti capitalism has been fully associated with the command economy. It may be the case that workers’ self-management is held out as a potential model that never received a proper test, but the fact that this never materialized seems to suggest that it would not, alone, hold out promise for transcending capitalism. Secondly, and surely as a result of the first point, today the left seems to lack any positive economic vision; and this lack of ideas is now part and parcel of the problem the left has drawing people in under a program for radical change. Most of the unpoliticised general population are not willing to put their faith in political upheavel necessarily leading to a better economic state of affairs, and they associate, in the absence of any countervailing evidence, the leftwing economy with simply a return to the state run, command economy. So ideas for post-capitalist changes are needed. Even simple, single policies that would begin a transitionary process would be welcome.

2. Capital out of date?

Marx’s Capital has recieved a rough ride ever since its publication. Even in the late 19th century it must have been percieved as antiquated, relying upon an unfashionable Hegelian mode of exposition and a radicalised Ricardian labour theory of value that would soon be superseded by the marginalist neoclassical thinkers. Things got no better once the critiques of inconsistency rolled in; critiques that only recently seem to have been laid to rest with the TSSI interpretation pioneered by Andrew Kliman, Alan Freeman, and others. So only today, almost over 150 years after Capital Vol. I was published, do we have a workable Marxian paradigm shared by a community of scholars, and used to conduct econometric work – generally focusing on the long term tendency for a declining rate of profit in explaining crisis.

Why do I believe TSSI Marxism is not enough? The most glaring problem seems to be because there is no clear epistemological reasoning as to why this consistent economic set of laws represents reality most accurately. This allows critics to accuse it of being out of date, and solely reflecting a mode of accumulation associated with Victorian era industrial production, of no relevance to IT, finance, the service sector, and immaterial labour in general.  In this context reliance on Hegelian reflection theory as a grounding epistemology is obviously completely inadequate.

Moreover, its dialectical construction seems to leave just too many holes, or residual, undelineated categories. The entire financial edifice, for one thing, is simply lumped into an undifferentiated sphere of exchange. Marxian economics does not seem to extend much further than looking at underlying profit tendencies and capital compositions within a limited, fixed number of categories. The problem thus appears to be how to expand it from simply a posited set of fundamental structural laws to become a complete model able to incorporate more variables and levels of analysis. The impedimenta to this progress appears to be Capital‘s generally dialectical structure (and I write this with a few caveats – for example, I do not believe it is an irrevisably dialectical theory) which makes it very hard to add more variables and levels of analysis. For Capital to become a more serviceable model of the economy it needs to rest on a foundation that would allow it to add more levels of analysis that would ultimately be able to be fed into an econometric model – not, that is, circumscribed to only intuiting very long run tendencies simmering beneath the surface of economic phenomena.

In order to achieve this, I believe a model of Capital needs to focus on its strongest aspects. This would ditch some of the philosophical baggage around commodity fetishism and any unworkable categories, and focus on where it does best – namely on the hypothesis of long term profit tendencies being responsible for more short run economic phenomena such as crisis and financial movements. The model would need to be explicitly a temporal model of how various structures in the economy interact. We also want this model to be revisable to the introduction of new variables and structures. It has to be an open model able to incorporate all relevant structures and phenomena. The axioms of geometry provide a good example here. Euclid’s axioms are consistent, but when placed in an ‘inner model’ on the surface of a sphere they break down, leading to proofs of the independence of some of the axioms and the need for revision. We need to be able to do the same thing for economic theory – we need to be able to test our fundamental structural model to make sure it does not rely on dogmatic assertions.

What I have sketched above is no small task. Indeed, from my initial research into economic models there appears to be very little out there to begin with – there is no off the peg model structure into which Capital‘s categories could simply be dropped. At present it thus feels like something of a tabula rasa effort, and to be successful it will no doubt need to be a collective project conducted amongst colleagues, some of which will have to be more technically and mathematically proficient than I.

The ultimate point of this endeavour is based on the wager that there is a structural truth to the economic crisis to be discovered (in the realist sense), and that a correct diagnosis will help the project to conceive a determinate economic project on the left, and give us tangible ideas to fight for.

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