Chavez is not a Marxist - but neither was Marx
“I respect deeply the thesis of Carlos Marx and his great contribution to humanity with the discovery of socialism”, affirmed Chávez from the place where the first socialist city of the country is being constructed. He added: ‘I am socialist, bolivariano, revolutionary. I respect the Marxist route, but I am not Marxist. I cannot share that thesis because that is a determinist vision of socialism”.
He remembered that Marx, “deceived and manipulated, got to approve the invasion from the United States to Mexico and from England to India because he thought that was the route towards capitalism and that soon, as a product of the development of the productive forces, would enter the socialism...Under that argument, we, the backward countries, never would arrive at the socialism because we would have to wait first that they invade us, that they develop us, and then soon to go to socialism”
More than a few Marxist groups have been delighted by Chavez's confession. For the five and a half years since Venezuela burst into the international spotlight during the failed coup of April 2002, they have been struggling to disassociate their brands of Marxism from the apparently haphazard and eclectic ideology of the Bolivarian revolution Chavez has led. For disciplined cadre schooled in the 'scientific socialism' of Trotsky or Mao, the confusions and equivocations of the Venezuelan revolution have been an intolerable imposition.
The Bolivarian revolution has been led by a military man, it has invoked hopelessly bourgeois figures like Bolivar and Robinson, it has made use of reformist tactics like election campaigns, and it was based, for a long time, in casually employed or unemployed workers, rather than the heroic industrial workers of Marxist myth: for these things, it has suffered at the hands of polemicists in the First and Third World. In recent years, Chavez's invocation of Marx and Trotsky had been enough to drive some of their more orthodox disciples to apoplexy. It's little wonder, then, that an air of relief has been evident in the responses of some far left groups to Chavez's repudiation of Marxism.
But not all Marxists are happy about Chavez's statement. The groups who had decided to throw in their lot with Hugo and the Bolivarian revolution, and who had taken his references to permanent revolution or Capital as endorsements of their own politics, are maintaining a sulky silence, and presumably hoping that their idol avoids making any further ideological errors.
It's notable that neither Chavez's detractors nor his defenders have actually bothered to analyse the statement he made on Alo Presidente last month. Chavez's criticisms point to some of the articles Marx wrote when he was employed as international correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune in the 1850s. Some, though not all, of these articles were marked by a belief in the superiority of 'advanced' Western nations over the 'backward' nations on the periphery of capitalism. Marx's prejudices sometimes extended to a sympathy for outright imperialism. In an 1853 article on India, for instance, he claimed that:
English interference...[has]...produced the greatest, and to speak the truth, the only social revolution ever heard of in Asia...
England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.
But big Hugo needn't focus on relatively obscure pieces of journalism to ram his point home. All he needs to do is open that most famous Marxist text of all, the Communist Manifesto. Even today, many Marxist groups offer new or prospective members the Communist Manifesto as an introduction to their creed. This is regrettable, because the first few pages of the Manifesto read more like the columns of Thomas Friedman or the editorials of the Wall Street Journal than the work of a revolutionary socialist.
One of Marx's favourite works of literature was Goethe's Faust. Marx would talk about the play endlessly, and when he was drunk he liked to disturb the other patrons of London bars by loudly chanting its lines in his guttural German. It is easy to see how Marx might have been fascinated by the character of Faust, who makes a deal with the Devil in an effort to attain knowledge and power and change the world to his liking.
The structure of the Communist Manifesto was modelled on Faust, and the two works perhaps share a theme. Marx and Engels see capitalism as an engine for progressive change - for drawing 'even the most barbarous of nations' into 'civilisation' and abolishing 'the idiocy of rural life' - yet they also believe that, once established, it becomes an obstacle to historical progress, and must be overthrown by the working class it created. For the Marx of 1848, capitalism had strong positive as well as negative qualities. It was a necessary evil.
The peoples who were on the receiving end of the 'civilising' power of capitalism in the mid-nineteenth century might not have shared the sanguine mood of the first section of the Communist Manifesto. For them, the expansion of capitalism often meant disease, the theft of land and other resources, the destruction of language and culture, and either forced labour or outright slavery.
Yet it is possible to accept Chavez's criticisms of Marx's early writing on capitalism and imperialism, and of the determinist, stagist theory of history that is partly based on this work, without repudiating Marx in toto. It is true, of course, that Marx's name and prestige have become intertwined with the view that history comprises a series of ascending ‘stages’, and that the advent of each stage is triggered deterministically, by changes in the economic ‘basis’ of one society after another. This vision of history has its most confident expression in the famous 1859 Preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:
At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or — what is but a legal expression for the same thing — with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed…
No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. Therefore mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the task itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation. In broad outlines Asiatic, ancient, feudal, and modern bourgeois modes of production can be designated as progressive epochs in the economic formation of society.
Even before these solemn and dogmatic words were penned, there were countercurrents flowing through Marx’s writing about historical change and the nature of capitalist development. A mere nine years after the Manifesto and four years after his apologies for British imperialism, Marx’s response to the Indian Mutiny showed how far he had already come from rhetoric about the role of capital in ‘civilising’ the ‘barbarian nations’ outside Western Europe:
However infamous the conduct of the Sepoys, it is only the reflex, in a concentrated form, of England’s own conduct in India, not only during the epoch of the foundation of her Eastern Empire, but even during the last ten years of a long-settled rule. To characterise that rule, it suffices to say that torture formed an organic institution of its financial policy. There is something in human history like retribution: and it is a rule of historical retribution that its instrument be forged not by the offended, but by the offender himself.
In the winter of 1857-58 Marx became excited by the first major global crisis of capitalism, and drove himself to the edge of exhaustion by staying up late into the night writing an enormous account of the origins and nature of the system he believed might be about to collapse. The introduction to the manuscript that has become known as the Grundrisse included a subtle discussion of pre-capitalist societies, during which Marx speculated that there were at least three or four different ‘routes’ out of primitive communist society into class society. By sketching these alternate paths, Marx was clearly rejecting a unilinear, ‘stagist’ account of pre-capitalist, if not capitalist, history.
When it was first published in 1867, Capital seemed decided about the universality of the model of capitalism it presented. In the original preface to his book, Marx argued that ‘the country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its future’. In one of Capital’s more notorious footnotes, Marx mocked the communes of the recently emancipated Russian peasants, suggesting that they would be broken up as capitalism inevitably spread to Russia. In a tone that recalled the references to the ‘idiocy of rural life’ in the Communist Manifesto, Marx argued that the destruction of the communes could not come too soon. Yet Marx would quietly remove his comments from the 1875 French edition of Capital, the last edition of the book he would revise and see through the press.
Marx’s decisive move away from a unilinear model of history came after the momentous year of 1871. The Paris Commune established and then destroyed in that year was both a triumph and a disaster. The Commune showed that the working class could make a revolution, but it also indicated that the final victory of the ‘gravediggers of capitalism’ was far from inevitable. The violence that the bourgeois French state inflicted upon the Communards naturally horrified Marx, and made him think hard about significance of the state to the maintenance of capitalism. The failure of the international working class, and the British working class in particular, to rise up in support of the Communards also greatly perturbed Marx, who had sometimes imagined the radicalisation of that class to be the near-automatic result of capitalist development.
Marx paid great attention to the failure of the Communards and the French peasantry to build a workable alliance against the French and Prussian bourgeoisies. The workers of Paris could begin a revolution, but they could not hold onto power without the assistance of the class which still made up the vast majority of France’s population.
When he meditated upon what the Commune had achieved during its brief existence, Marx was struck by the gap between its negligible economic programme and the grassroots democracy and alternative power structure it established across Paris. Marx maintained that it was these innovations which entitled the Commune to be considered revolutionary:
The great social measure of the Commune was its own working existence. Its special measures could but betoken the tendency of a government of the people by the people. ..The financial measures of the Commune, remarkable for their sagacity and moderation, could only be such as were compatible with the state of a besieged town.
In this passage, Marx announces a much more ‘subjective’ turn in his thinking about socialist revolution. Political forms and mass consciousness were as important, if not more important, than economic reorganisation to the establishment of socialism.
Marx’s intensified hatred of the bourgeois state, his more ‘subjective’ vision of socialism, his partial disillusionment with the notion that capitalism automatically lays the foundation for socialism, and his new awareness of the importance of the peasantry to revolution are all reflected in the massive, unfinished researches into pre-capitalist societies that he began in earnest in the early 1870s.
Marx became particularly fascinated by Russia during the last decade of his life. After teaching himself Russian and making contacts amongst both the Populist and Marxist wings of the movement against Tsarism, he wrote two letters which gave his views not only on Russian development but on the scope and limits of Capital. In an 1877 letter intended for the Russian journal Otechestvennye Zapiski, Marx denied that his book had proposed an 'historico-philosophic theory of the marche generale [general path] imposed by fate upon every people'. Marx's researches had convinced him that Russia need not follow the path of Western Europe:
I will come straight to the point. In order that I might be qualified to estimate the economic development in Russia to-day, I learnt Russian and then for many years studied the official publications and others bearing on this subject. I have arrived at this conclusion: If Russia, continues to pursue the path she has followed since 1861, she will lose the finest chance ever offered by history to a nation, in order to undergo all the fatal vicissitudes of the capitalist regime.
The Russian Marxists who were turning Capital into a template for universal history were the target of a carefully crafted letter Marx sent to the exiled Russian activist Vera Zasulich in 1881. In his message, which took four drafts and several weeks to write, Marx excoriated Georgi Plekhanov and the other ‘admirers of capitalism’ who claimed that the destruction of pre-capitalist economic forms like the peasant communes was necessarily progressive. Marx insisted that:
[T]he Russian “rural commune” can preserve itself by developing its basis, the common ownership of land, and by eliminating the principle of private property which it also implies; it can become a direct point of departure for the economic system towards which modern society tends; it can turn over a new leaf without beginning by committing suicide; it can gain possession of the fruits with which capitalist production has enriched mankind, without passing through the capitalist regime, a regime which, considered solely from the point of view of its possible duration hardly counts in the life of society.
In this passage and others like it from the 1880s, the innovations of the introduction to the Grundrisse have been extended, so that Marx now perceives a number of possible routes from class society to socialism. History has become multilinear, and the negative comparison of pre-capitalist to capitalist societies which is such a feature of texts like the Communist Manifesto has been abandoned.
Marx’s work on Russia is developed in the Ethnological Notebooks, which document his readings, in the early 1880s, in the work of Lawrence Henry Morgan and other exponents of the young discipline of anthropology. A torrent of quotation and impassioned interpolation, the Notebooks move from language to language and continent to continent with disconcerting speed, so that they sometimes read more like Finnegans Wake than Capital. Stanley Rosemont has explained the significance of this unfinished work:
…the Ethnological Notebooks are an especially revealing example of [Marx’s] readiness to revise previously held views in the light of new discoveries. At the very moment that his Russian "disciples" - those "admirers of capitalism," as he ironically tagged them - were loudly proclaiming that the laws of historical development set forth in the first volume of Capital were universally mandatory, Marx himself was diving headlong into the study of (for him) new experiences of resistance and revolt against oppression - by North American Indians, Australian aborigines, Egyptians and Russian peasants.
It took a long time for Marx's late work to find an audience. In 1974, Lawrence Krader edited the first edition of the Ethnological Notebooks . Raya Dunyaveskaya would not publish her pioneering study of the Notebooks until 1982. At the end of the 1980s her work would be supplemented by Franklin Rosemont’s long, impassioned essay ‘Marx and the Iroquois’, which urged the relevance of the Notebooks to fin-de-siecle struggles against globalisation and primitive accumulation in the Third World.
Teodor Shanin and Haruka Wada’s acclaimed presentation of Marx’s late researches into Russia would not be published until 1983. In 1996, James D White took late Marx studies another step forward, by publishing a careful reading of Marx’s mostly unpublished notes and draft articles on Russian agriculture.
Scholars of Marx’s late work have been divided on the question of its relation to the rest of his oeuvre. David Ryazanov, the great Soviet archivist, believed that the Ethnological Notebooks and the letter to Zasulich were signs of the decay of Marx’s mental powers, after the triumph of Capital. Franklin Rosemont takes the opposite view, contrasting the late work favourably with Capital. Raya Dunayevskaya rejects both these views, and insists on seeing the late work as a development, albeit a radical development, of Marx’s canonical text. She argues that the Notebooks and the late writings on Russia fill out rather than contradict the writing on political economy, and that, if he had only had the time, Marx would have incorporated them in some way into volumes two and three of Capital, or into some supplement to Capital.
It was not until 1996, when James D White published Karl Marx and the Intellectual Origins of Dialectical Materialism, that English-language readers, at least, got a good hint of how Marx’s late work might have entered volumes two and three of Capital, had illness, death, and Engels not intervened.* In the course of a long, meticulous chapter on ‘Marx and the Russians’, White guides his readers’ attention towards an obscure, unfinished text Marx wrote in 1881, around the same time he was wrestling with his letter to Vera Zasulich.
In ‘Notes on the 1861 Reform and Russia’s Post-Reform Development’, Marx struggled to relate his studies of Russian economic development since the emancipation of the peasantry to the schemas laid out in the drafts of volumes two and three of Capital. Marx was particularly preoccupied with the relation of events in Russia to the ‘circuits of capital’ he had sketched in volume two. By 1881, he had long since abandoned his old view of the inevitability of the break-up of the peasant commune and its supersession by capitalism; the data he had accumulated showed that, far from occurring automatically, as a part of some sort of faux-Hegelian ‘destiny’ of capital, the destruction of pre-capitalist economic forms in Russia was taking place due to heavy and sustained government intervention in the economy. The levying of massive taxes on landowners was a far greater contributor to the break-up of the commune than the ‘natural’ processes of capital accumulation which had been announced in volume one of Capital and elaborated in volume two. The state had been only a ghostly presence in those texts, but it could not be excluded, even at a preliminary stage of abstraction, from accounts of the growth of capitalism in Russia.
In ‘Notes on the 1861 Reform and Russia’s Post-Reform Development’, Marx sketched a new schema for the circulation of capital that included pre-capitalist as well as capitalist economic forms, and pictured the activity of the state as an indispensable part of the process. White notes that:
The account of the circulation of capital in ‘Notes on the 1861 Reform and Russia’s Post-Reform Development’ represented a significant departure... For here the circulation was not simply that of one capital among many, but of the whole national economy. By taking the nation as his unit, Marx seemed to indicate that the circuit of capital by which the peasantry was increasingly expropriated and which expanded the capitalist class was one which was completed only on a national scale, and which involved the agency of the government. In other words, capital did not circulate in Russia locally, and one need not look in the peasant communities themselves for the force which created proletarians on the one hand and capitalists on the other. This position was of course consistent with Marx’s failure to discover any instance of original accumulation that did not involve state intervention.
By making state intervention a necessary condition for the accumulation of capital, Marx’s new circuit of capital brought ‘superstructural’ elements like ideology and politics into the heart of his economics. Capitalism did not develop automatically, according to strictly economic laws: it had to be constantly supported by state action. In a country like nineteenth century Russia, which was overwhelmingly pre-capitalist, the use of the state to build up capitalism was dictated by pro-capitalist ideology, not the inherent logic of capital. Capitalism was a political creation, not the inevitable working out of economic laws. 'Notes on the 1861 Reform' is a vital text, because it shows us the theoretical underpinnings for the vision of an agrarian socialism that Marx advanced in his letters to Vera Zasulich and Otechestvennye Zapiski.
Of course, the Second International Marxism of Georgi Plekhnanov and Karl Kautsky, with its Eurocentric vision of a gradual progression to socialism based on the growth of the productive forces, had no sympathy for Marx's late work. It is no surprise, then, that Plekhanov and later Kautsky refused to publish Marx's letter to Zasulich, despite the requests of the elderly Engels.
In some respects, the late Marx's argument can obviously be connected to Parvus' and Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution, and to Lenin's position in the April Theses he wrote to rally the Bolsheviks to take power in 1917. Like Lenin and Trotsky, the late Marx thought socialist revolution was possible in a 'backward' country.
In his theory of permanent revolution, which Lenin and the Bolsheviks adopted in practice in 1917, Trotsky counterposed the new conditions in Russia to the unilinear model of development beloved of Plekhanov and the majority of the Second International's theorists. He insisted that the development of capitalism on a global scale - a development that Lenin explained to Trotsky's satisfaction with his theory of imperialism - had played havoc with the unilinear model of historical development, and ensured that societies like Russia could develop in a manner very different from the model outlined in Capital. A socialist revolution could occur in a backward country, because backward countries were part of the same global system as the advanced countries. By arguing that features of the recent development of capitalism had invalidated unilinearism, Trotsky avoided a confrontation with the authority of Marx’s best-known work. He was able to argue that he was complementing rather than revising Capital.
Marx, by contrast, had spent the last decade of his life revising the ideas in Capital. The late Marx's view of Russia is far more radical than that of the Bolsheviks, who always assumed that a revolution in the 'advanced' countries would be necessary to sustain a socialist revolution in the east, and who wasted no time in trying to convert the peasantry into an industrial working class.
There is a famous anecdote which has the elderly Marx expressing his despair at the dogmatism and schematism of some of his self-appointed followers by exclaiming 'I am not a Marxist'. It is doubtful whether Marx would have been troubled by Hugo Chavez's use of the same phrase on Venezuelan TV last month. He would certainly have been dismayed, though, if the whole of his life's work was rejected on the basis of a few texts he wrote as a young man. The 'post-Marxist' Marx, with his emphasis on the ability of peripheral nations to achieve socialism, his acknowledgement of the crucial role of culture and ideas in making revolution, and his scorn for the 'progressive' pretensions of imperialism, has much to offer the Bolivarian revolution. More about that in another post.
*Engels, of course, claimed that Marx had wanted to incorporate his reading on Russia into Capital’s chapter on ground rent. James D White has correctly argued that this claim trivializes the importance of the Russian studies to Marx. The publication in the mid-90s of Marx’s drafts of Capital’s second and third volumes confirmed many scholars’ suspicions that Engels had played down the very important role he had in shaping the published texts, and exaggerated the coherence of what Marx had left. Engels’ reluctance to admit the importance of the Russian studies to Marx seems to be related to his desire to present Capital’s second and third volumes as essentially complete works.