A passionate and patient contribution to revolutionary theory and politics
David Laibman’s Passion and Patience offers a nicely and systematically classified collection of his editorials for Science & Society. Contrary to usual academic practice, that suffices to simply present a journal’s contents, these editorials are opinion pieces on significant issues and debates. This is one of the best traditions of scientific journals of the Left: not merely to publish articles but also to engage actively in current intellectual and political issues. Needless to say this tradition is becoming today an endangered species even in radical and heterodox journals because of the withdrawal from active politics and the retreat to a badly conceived specialization. David’s editorials go against this current and this book is an excellent and topical (despite the passing of time) collection of his inquiries into a broad range of issues of political economy, social theory, history, culture and politics concerning modern capitalism and human emancipation from capitalist exploitation.
Passion and Patience is true to its title, borrowed from an old communist dictum. It has both these virtues that are necessary for a Marxist; especially in the current difficult era of collapse of many of the first socialist experiments, capitalism’s increasing aggressiveness and barbarism and at the same time acute crisis. It has passion in the sense of unwavering commitment to revolutionary struggle and the toiling masses. As David appositely explains, this is not some form of sentimentalism (‘hot blood from the heart’ as an old anarchist wrote to Marx) but the guiding line (the organizing principle) for analyzing and intervening in political and intellectual struggles. But it also has patience. Not as a low-brow accommodation with objective difficulties but as a deep understanding that revolutionary politics is a long distance track. It requires copious work, meticulous involvement with even seemingly unimportant issues and especially continuous self-criticism in order to confront problems, errors and contradictions.
In this endeavor Laibman shows the analytical vitality of Marxism and its merits compared to both bourgeois theory and other radical traditions. Moreover, he demonstrates that Marxism is a dynamic and evolving corpus of theory and practice – contrary to several attempts to fossilize it in some form of ‘theological’ and bureaucratic thinking – and is the sole solid foundation for the struggle for a new human society free from exploitation.
Such a principled and at the same time creative and productive development of Marxism is of paramount significance nowadays. After a period of simplistic and crude denigration several quarters of the capitalist system have differentiated their stance towards Marxism. Faced with their own contradictions and failures – expressed in recurrent crises, growing immiseration of increasing segments of the society and aggravating imperialist conflicts – they attempt a qualified domestication of Marxism. Laibman offers an excellent polemic against them in his editorial on mainstream appraisal of the Communist Manifesto (‘THE MANIFESTO: CELEBRATION VS. REDEDICATION’) that glorify Marx’s political magnum opus and, at the same time, sanitize it from any revolutionary content. It is interesting that this attitude has recently expanded to various intellectuals that refer to Marxism with exclamations but also with an open or covert rejection of its revolutionary aspirations. There is a sudden abundance nowadays of erratic or à la carte Marxists that eclectically appraise some or other part of Marxist theory but at the same time discard its commitment to overthrowing capitalism and constructing socialism. These ‘bourgeois Marxists’ (to use a contradiction in terms) may accept even class analysis but in order to reform capitalism and make it more sustainable.
Against such attempts to domesticate Marxism in the capitalist system the answer cannot be a ‘referential’ defense by having recourse to classical texts; nor a defensive closure of Marxism in a small circle of ‘faithfuls’. Instead, a passionate commitment to its core structure – and its revolutionary aspirations are the more fundamental part of it – and at the same time a patient creative development of it is necessary.
Among the various issues that David’s book tackles there are several that, in my opinion, merit particular positive appraisal.
First among them, are his unwavering commitment to Labor Value Theory and his numerous contributions to its creative development. Against mainstream but also radical ‘academic respectability barriers’ (as Laibman aptly brands it) the Labor Theory of Value remains the main pillar of Marxist economic analysis and moreover it more relevant than ever for comprehending capitalism’s modus operandi. The Marxian Value Theory of Abstract Labor (as differentiated from the Ricardian Value Theory of Embodied Labor) offers the best platform for understanding simultaneously capitalist exploitation and capitalism’s functioning. Moreover, its dialectical analysis of the primacy of the sphere of production within the total circuit of capital offers critical guidance not only to revolutionary analysis but to revolutionary politics as well.
A second issue is Laibman’s insistence on the significance of planning for socialism. In our times, this goes against the negative trend within heterodoxy and radical theory to realign with mainstream market solutions and to adhere, implicitly or explicitly, to versions of market socialism. Socialism without planning is a vacuous concept. The very essence of the vision of a new free from exploitation society is that this society can organize its economy on the basis of collective, democratically and participatory organized will. Despite failures and deformations of the past this remains the core of the socialist project.
Equally important is David’s insistence in stadial thinking and stages theory. He very accurately defines stadiality as the notion that society advances through stages, and that given stages are preconditions for ones that follow. This type of analysis comprehends that society evolves through distinct phases rather than through an undifferentiated continuum. These phases exhibit objective characteristics – and pose related limitations to collective action – but also permit specific ‘windows of opportunity’ for breaking out from these phases and surpassing them. In other words, each phase or stage posits both constraints and degrees of freedom and alternatives for surpassing these constraints. This Marxist dialectical understanding grasps better, in David’s own words, the intense interaction between the objective and subjective dimensions than non-Marxist social science that decouples and counterposes mechanistically these two dimensions. Stages theory offers not only better explanatory power but is also a crucial basis for revolutionary politics. Revolutionary politics, as exemplified by the best traditions of the Communist current, cannot be a simple sum of specific actions and campaigns. On the contrary, they should be based on structured political programs. The basis for constructing a coherent political program is a mid-term analysis of society’s evolution. That is an understanding of the distinct phases and stages through which it proceeds and of the specific forms that the system’s fundamental contradictions take in each of these stages. This mid-term analysis offered by stadial thinking pinpoints the critical systemic weak links on which revolutionary strategy should focus. Tactics follow suit from this program-informed mid-term strategy. These valuable insights offered by stadial thinking tend to be lost nowadays within radical theory and movements. They are being replaced by either voluntarist notions that ‘anything goes’ and blind spontaneism or by an accommodation with existing capitalist reality and mere reforms for a ‘capitalism with a human face’. The reinstatement of stadial analysis and a structured and programmatically-organised revolutionary strategy is of paramount importance nowadays.
There are a number of issues on which I must register my disagreement with David.
The first such issue touches upon his early writings on perestroika and his positive appraisal of M.Gorbachev. David portrayed it as a positive experiment in socialist rejuvenation. Today it is clear that it was a movement towards the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union. Perestroika’s political and economic program was not one of socialist democratization and participatory planning but one of recourse to bourgeois polities and market solutions. Its end results are tantamount to that.
The second issue is David’s argument that Marxists should ‘give principled support to all reform movements and currents’. He argues that we should not make the distinction between radical and non-radical reforms, we should not try to fool people by advancing reforms that the system cannot deliver and that we should be part of all the spontaneous movements that arise in workplaces and working-class communities. In my opinion this argument goes against the stadial thinking and the necessity of a revolutionary strategy based on a political program and not on mere spontaneism. Marxists of course have to swim into the toiling masses and be part of even their most elementary mobilisations. However, this does not imply a carte blanche. First, they are mass mobilisations and popular demands that advance human emancipation but there are also those that may hinder it. The bleak outcome of the ‘Arab springs’ is a case in point. Second, there may be reforms that ameliorate for a period the position of the working people but ultimately they lead to disaster and an even greater deterioration of their living conditions. In the Greek case PASOK is a typical example: an initial policy of income redistribution that, once popular radicalism was neutralized, led to an aggressive realignment with neoliberalism. Kirchnerism in Argentina offers another contemporary example. For all these reasons Marxists should intervene in mass movement on the basis of their political programs and strategies. This can involve both reforms that can be accommodated by the system and those that cannot be accommodated by the system in a particular historical conjuncture. For example, the demands for peace and land redistribution – and even all power to the soviets – were not infeasible in capitalism in general. They were infeasible for capitalism at the particular historical moment of the Russian revolution. And at the same time it was obvious to almost everybody that under a different political and economic system these demands were feasible and to the benefit of the great social majority. In the same vain the demand for disengaging from the European Union for the euro-periphery countries is not something infeasible in general for capitalism. But at this historical point the ruling classes of these countries cannot even think such a move for both objective and subjective reasons. At the same time, this is the only road for a pro-popular solution of the crisis. And this is becoming increasingly obvious to the working people irrespective of their adherence or not to socialism.
Marxists should organize their political intervention on the basis of political programs that pinpoint exactly such weak links and ‘windows of opportunity’. This logic follows Marx’s brilliant thesis that communism is not an ideal to which reality have to adjust itself but ‘the real movement which abolishes the present state of things’ and that the conditions of this movement exist in current societies. The construction of this thin red line that leads from everyday struggles for the improvement of the conditions of sale of the labour power to the abolition of the system of exploitation of labour power is the difficult task that Marxists have to accomplish. David’s book contributes both passionately and patiently to this task.
The links for my comment on D.Laibman’s ‘Passion and Patience’ are the following: