Monday, December 01, 2014

Lenin: State and Revolution, Chapter 6: Vulgarisation of Marx by the Opportunists (Review, Part 1)

Thomas Riggins

 This chapter is a polemic against the "best known theoreticians of Marxism" namely Georgi Plekhanov (1856-1918) and  Karl Kautsky (1857-1938) who were the leading thinkers of the Second International (1888-1914). Basically it is against Kautsky  (13 pages)-- Plekhanov gets 1 page. Lenin thinks the collapse of the Second International was brought about by opportunism (abandoning the long term goals of the party for short term advantages) which was fostered by the evasion of discussion on the relation of the state to the social revolution and vice versa. This "evasion" has persisted to the present day. The well known A Dictionary of Marxist Thought (Second Edition) edited by Tom Bottomore, for example, has no entry on "opportunism" and does not even list it in the index. The entry on The State and Revolution does not even mention it.

The chapter is divided into three sections: a short one contra Plekhanov and two long ones dealing with Kautsky. This article will deal with the first two sections.

1. Plekhanov's Polemic Against the Anarchists

This section deals with Lenin’s critique of Plekhanov’s 1894 work Anarchism and Socialism.  Lenin says in this work Plekhanov doesn’t even mention the most important issue between these two ‘isms’ — namely the nature of the state and the revolution’s relations to it. The work has two parts: the first, or historical part, Lenin approves of because it has useful information for the history of ideas, especially regarding Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) and Max Stirner (1806-1856). The second, or “literary” part Lenin calls “philistine.” This part is a “clumsy” attempt to equate anarchists with “bandits.”

After the Paris Commune the anarchists had tried to claim that the commune and its history was a vindication of their views. Lenin of course rejects this claim and maintains that the true understanding of the meaning of the Commune is to be found in the writings of Marx and Engels, especially Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme.

Neither the Anarchists, nor Plekhanov in his polemic, have grasped the main issue presented by the history of the Paris Commune i.e., “must the old state machinery be shattered, and what shall be put in its place.”

By completely ignoring this issue Plekhanov, whether he knows it or not, has fallen into opportunism because opportunists want us to forget all about this question and not even discuss it all. It would seem that opportunism flourishes best where the working people are ignorant of Marxist theory and concentrate exclusively on short term goals and struggles.

2. Kautsky’s Polemic Against the Opportunists

Lenin says the most important German opportunist was Bernstein whom Kautsky criticized in his first foray against opportunism: Bernstein und das sozialdemokratische Programm. Bernstein had charged Marxism with “Blanquism” [ Louis Auguste Blanqui, 1805-1881- advocated a coup by a small group who would then turn the government over to the people after they had instated socialism] in his great revisionist opus Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus. Bernstein particularly likes Marx’s conclusion (based on his study of the Paris Commune) that “the working class cannot lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it to its own purposes.” But he has his own interpretation of the meaning of Marx’s dictum which is exactly the opposite of what Marx intended.

Marx meant, according to Lenin (following Engels), that the working class had to destroy the bourgeois state and replace it with a working class state. Bernstein says it means that the working class should cool it after the revolution and try and reform the state rather than getting carried away and trying to smash it. “A crasser and uglier perversion of Marx’s ideas cannot be imagined,” Lenin says.

So, how did Kautsky deal with this crass opportunistic formulation in his critique of Bernstein?   He glosses over it. Kautsky writes: “The solution of the problem of the proletarian dictatorship we can safely leave to the future.” Lenin says the since opportunists want to defer to the future all talk about a working class revolution this is not a real critique of Bernstein but “ a concession to him.” 

Kautsky himself is thus an opportunist and, Lenin points out, as regards Marx’s understanding of how the workers should be educated with respect to a working class revolution and Kautsky’s understanding “there is an abyss.”

In 1902 Kautsky wrote a more mature work, The Social Revolution. Lenin says there is a lot of valuable information in this work but the author still evaded the vital question of the state. Again, Kautsky ends up giving de facto support to the opportunists because he writes about the possibility of the working class taking state power without abolishing the currently existing state. This view, which derives from The Communist Manifesto of 1848 Marx had declared “obsolete” in 1872.

Kautsky writes about democracy and that the working class will come to power and “realise the democratic programme” but he never mentions the lessons of the Paris Commune and the conclusions  Marx and Engels drew from them that bourgeois democracy had to be replaced by working class democracy.

Here is a quote from Kautsky: “It is obvious that we shall not attain power under the present order of things. Revolution itself presupposes a prolonged and far-reaching struggle which, as it proceeds, will change our present political and social 
structure.” While this is even too much for some present day “socialists” to stomach, Lenin thought it was as banal and obvious as “horses eat oats.” Lenin wanted this “far reaching struggle” spelled out so that working people would understand the difference between a working class revolution and the non working class revolutions of the past.

Kautsky wars against opportunism in words, Lenin says, but actually promotes it in the way he expresses himself. Here
is an example from The Social Revolution: “In a Socialist society there can exist side by side, the most varied forms of economic enterprises — bureaucratic trade union, trade union, co-operative, private…. There are, for instance, such enterprises that cannot do without a bureaucratic organization: such are the railways. Here democratic organisation might take the following form: the workers elect delegates, who form something in the nature of a parliament, and this parliament determines the conditions of work, and superintends the management of the bureaucratic apparatus. Other enterprises may be transferred to the labour unions, and still others may be organized on a co-operative basis.” Lenin says this quote is not only wrong headed but is a backward step from the ideas Marx and Engels elaborated in the 1870s as a result of their study of the Paris Commune. 

Of course modern industrial production in general, not just railroads, needs to be conducted under rigid work rules and regulation but after the workers come to power they won’t be organized on bureaucratic lines overseen by “something like” the old bourgeois parliaments. There will no bureaucrats as such. The workers will directly control their industries and delegates will be subject to instant recall, no one will earn more than ordinary workers, and the old state will be replaced by a new worker’s state where everyone will gain experience in administration and planning so that “bureaucrats” in the sense used by Kautsky will no longer exist. Kautsky has not paid attention to the words of Marx: “The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time.”

Lenin next takes up Kautskys short work The Road to Power [ Der Weg zu Macht ]. Lenin thinks this is the best of Kautsky's writings against opportunism, yet it too is found wanting and for the same reason "it completely dodges the question of the state." It is this constant dodging that Lenin thinks weakened the German Social Democrats theoretically, led to the growth of opportunism, and ultimately to the great betrayal of socialist principles: the support of the German imperialists in the Great War.  These three short works of Kautsky came out in 1899, 1902, and 1909 respectively but it was not until 1912 that Kautsky's opportunism became explicitly expressed. We will deal with this in the next and (por fin) last installment of this review, Kautsky's polemic against Pannekoek.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Piketty for Progressives -- Part 5

Thomas Riggins

This posting will cover sections 11 and 12 in Piketty's introduction to Capital in the 21st Century.

11. The Fundamental Force for Divergence: r > g

This formula, r is greater than g, where r is the  average annual rate of return on capital and g is the rate of annual economic growth “sums up the over all logic” of Piketty’s arguments regarding growing inequality under capitalism.

Piketty thinks the outlook for the 21st century is that r will be much greater than g and this means that inherited wealth will be greater than output or income. Under the rule of r > g it follows that people with wealth need save only a small fraction of their income and it will accumulate faster than the economy does thus increasing inequality. A real possibility exists that the increase in inequality will undermine the principles upon which bourgeois democracy is based. Billionaires, for example, could be able to sink so much money into elections and lobbying that they will basically control the electoral process and the government and people’s democratic rights will honored in name only if at all.

Piketty thinks that this scenario is a real possibility but it is not inevitable. Besides this powerful D-force there are also C-forces at work that could delay or even completely counteract it. He thinks, however, that the decrease of g in the coming decades is very likely.

His view is, he says, less “apocalyptic” than Marx’s view. But I think he mischaracterizes Marx’s outlook. He says Marx has a principle of “infinite accumulation and perpetual divergence” because he thinks g will be 0  due to 0 growth in productivity. Because of this there will be a revolution to overthrow capitalism (the Apocalypse). But this isn’t Marx’s view at all. His view, somewhat simplified, is that  capitalism will eventually run out of markets due to a crisis of over production and will breakdown because it won’t have the profits needed to sustain itself.

Piketty says his theory of r > g has nothing to do with any “Imperfections” in the market. It is not inevitable but is a likely occurrence and we should be aware of it. He stresses that the “more perfect” the capital market the more likely is r > g. Does this imply that the “better” the capitalist system is the more inequality it will create? This would make it incompatible with any kind of democracy and logically implies that some sort of fascist anti-democratic state is its natural outcome.

Piketty thinks the capitalist state will have to intervene and manipulate the outcome of the “more perfect” capitalist market to counteract the negative effects of r > g. He suggests “a progressive global tax on capital.” He doesn’t think this will be a real world solution to the problem and whatever the different nation states end up doing will be “less effective.” Does this mean that, after all, in the real world r > g is actually unstoppable? Is the Apocalypse destined to be our fate?

12. The Geographical and Historical Boundaries of Piketty’s Study

The upshot of this section is, that while Piketty will use information from many areas of the world to bolster and develop his views, he will rely “primarily on the historical experience of the leading historical countries: the United States, Japan, Germany, France, and Great Britain.”

He thinks the UK and France are particularly  important because they have the best economic records kept from the 19th century and they were the leading countries of the “first globalization” (1870-1914) of international trade and finance. This, by the way was the period analyzed by Lenin in his Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. This first globalization was, Piketty says, “prodigiously inegalitarian.”

Piketty notes that the “first globalization,”  is “in many ways similar” to the second one which has been going on “since the 1970s.”  It is so similar that Lenin’s book on Imperialism is still largely relevant for understanding it. One of the weaknesses of Piketty’s book is that neither “Lenin” nor “Imperialism” appear in its index — a strange omission in a work trying to explain the origins of, and remedies for, inequality.

One of the similarities Piketty notes is the fact it was not until beginning of the 21st century that the leading imperialist countries attained the level of stock market capitalization  vis a vis GDP as the UK and France had at the beginning of the 20th century.

He next explains why he spends so much time on France. The first reason is that it has records going all the way back to the late 1700’s. The second reason is he thinks France is more typical than the US and its future will more likely be what most states will experience rather than that of the US. This is because the US population went from 3 million in 1776 to 300 million today. That quantitative leap has had its qualitative accompaniment  and the US “is no longer the same country it was.” France meanwhile has only doubled its population from 30 to 60 million over two hundred years not increased it a hundred fold. It is still basically the same country. Piketty doesn’t see the world population increasing 100 fold in the next two hundred years so French development is more likely representative to the future.

He means the trends in inequality seen in French history are more useful to predict future developments than are those seen in US history. This is another example of “American Exceptionalism" as the US experience “is in some sense not generalizable” and social class and inequality in the US are “so peculiar” when contrasted with other countries.

The third reason is that France is “interesting” because its revolution was more “bourgeois” than the English (1688) or the American (1776). The English kept their nobility and the Americans their slaves while the French actually established “ the ideal of legal equality [of men]  in relation to the market.”  This has important implications in discussing the growth and future development of inequality. Piketty also says that the concentration of wealth was  the same in Britain as in France so even though the French had legal equality for all and the British did not this was not enough to “ensure equality of rights tout court.”

We will finish the introduction to Piketty's book in the next posting.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Lenin: State and Revolution: Chapter 5 - Withering Away the State (Part Three) -- Review

Thomas Riggins

Chapter 5 of State and Revolution  has a brief introduction and four sections. Part Three of this review covers section four. 

4. Higher Phase of Communist Society

This is a very important section and should dispel many incorrect notions about the nature of socialism, the level of development towards communism in the former and current socialist states, and the possibility of creating any kind of society that brings freedom and justice to humanity as long as capitalism exists and a state is necessary to regulate social life.

This section is an extended commentary by Lenin on the following quote from Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme: “In the higher phase of Communist society, when the enslaving subordination of individuals in the division of labour has disappeared, and with it also the antagonism between mental and physical labour; when labour has become not only a means of living, but itself the first necessity of life; when, along with the all-round development of individuals, the productive forces too have grown, and all the springs of social wealth are flowing more freely— it is only at that stage that it will be possible to pass completely beyond the narrow horizon of bourgeois rights, and for society to inscribe on its banners: from each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.”

Lenin says that in light of this quote we can understand why Engels mocked those who conjoined the notions of “freedom” and “state.” Lenin frankly remarks that: “While the state exists there is no freedom.” There can only be relative degrees of repression. 

Today we are faced with the issue of increasing inequality between the citizens in the various states that presently exist on the world stage.  A recent book by Thomas Piketty (Capital in the 21st Century) has brought this issue to the forefront of political discussion. But nowhere in his discussion  does he deal with one of the major causes of social inequality. This is, Lenin points out “the antagonism between mental and physical labour” which is “one of the principal sources of modern SOCIAL inequality.” 

Under capitalism, as a matter of fact, inequality can never be eliminated. Some will always be “more equal than others.” This is because under capitalism the division of labor cannot be abolished. Nor can it be removed simply by eliminating the capitalists. It is “impossible to remove immediately by the mere conversion of the means of production into public property, by the mere expropriation of the capitalists.”  No one should be surprised  that social inequality existed in the former socialist states and still exists in countries today calling themselves socialist.

These states only provided or still provide the foundations for the possible future social conditions whereby this division could be eliminated. The development of industrial technique must attain a level where a super abundance of social wealth will be available for social distribution and universal education will eliminate the separation between physical and mental labor and the inequality that it breeds. Capitalism retards this growth in technique but the elimination of capitalism presents the possibility for its growth. 

How this future possibility will eventually present itself and exactly when such industrial growth will ever become so developed that all human beings can equally share in its benefits, Lenin informs us “we do not and cannot know.” But we do know there will be no “withering away of the state” before this time comes. One of the points of this  for us is that all criticism of socialist states, past and present, for not bringing about some sort of equalitarian worker’s paradise is based on ignorance of the actual social realities the founders of Marxism discussed  concerning the prospects of a future communist society.

Lenin points out that those bourgeois critics of socialism who sneer at its claims of liberation and label as Utopian dreams the ideals of a society of complete social equality in which people create social wealth according to their abilities and share it according to needs only display “their ignorance and their-self seeking defense of capitalism.”

Lenin calls them ignorant because while this highest stage of Communism has been discussed  by the founders of Marxism as a theoretical possibility “it has never entered the head of any Socialist to ‘promise’ that the highest phase of Communism will arrive.” This phase would require people quite unlike the common run of humanity today— people raised and educated to share and live lives of unselfish devotion to their common humanity as well as developing their individual
talents and abilities with no desires to do so at the expense of other human beings. They would be living in a society capable of producing and sharing social wealth unlike any society of the past or present. Foreseeing this possibility is not the same as “promising” it will ever come about but it is a possible future to keep in mind and for which we can strive.

Until that day comes, when the state as we know it has “withered away,” Lenin says that “Socialists demand the strictest control, by society and by the state, of the quantity of labour and the quantity of consumption.” But this control has to begin not in the present society but with the overthrow of capitalism and the capitalist state— “a state of bureaucrats”— and its replacement by “a state of armed workers” (the Second Amendment will have some use after all).

Lenin has in mind soviets of  workers and soldiers as they appeared in Russia in 1905 and 1917. He thought of these soviets as models of real democracy (and by a dialectical inversion as a “democratic dictatorship”— a term which confounds many socialists today who have forgotten what is “dialectical” in dialectical materialism).

This new post capitalist state will turn all the citizens into workers of one gigantic syndicate or monopoly — “the whole state” — controlled and governed by the workers themselves by means of the soviets. The reality, however, turned out differently from Lenin’s ideas expressed here in chapter five. No actually existing socialist state was ever capable of existing as a state based on the “armed workers” and they all ended up with professional standing armies and administered  by bureaucrats. 

These states were handicapped by developing in industrial backwards, or devastated, areas and were never able to create enough social wealth to advance beyond the most rudimentary socialist beginnings  even though they brought about giant leaps forward in education, economic and social well being, literacy, and health to the populations living in them. The surviving socialist states are still grappling with many of these problems while simultaneously furthering the well being of their citizens.

Lenin wants to be clear on the scientific difference between Socialism and Communism. Socialism is the first and lower phase of Communism-- but it is not full Communism. Socialism has succeeded in turning the means of production, formerly owned and controlled by capitalists, into socially owned public property. This is technically "Communism" but it is not completely evolved mature Communism, hence this lower phase is best dubbed Socialism and the term "Communism" reserved for the more advanced and higher phase into which Socialism will hopefully evolve. 

Marx, basing himself on materialist dialectics, sees Communism evolving out of capitalism via Socialism. The Socialist stage still has many capitalists "taints" associated with it and retains, in Marx's words, "the narrow horizon of bourgeois rights." Bourgeois rights still predominate in the creation and distribution of wealth-- goods and services are dished out, in the main, to each according to his/her work. 

There must still be a state apparatus to ensure that rights are preserved and recognized. In the beginning of the establishment of Socialism then the new state will be charged with defending bourgeois rights-- it will be, in fact, a bourgeois state administered by workers. Lenin puts it this way, "for a certain time not only bourgeois rights but even the bourgeois state remains under Communism [i.e., the first phase--tr], without the bourgeoisie!" Capitalism without the capitalists!-- or least without them in control. There are "socialist" countries today still evolving along these lines.   

Lenin says this view of a bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie may look like a paradox but Marx held that it was inevitable “in a society issuing from the womb of capitalism.” Nevertheless, democracy is absolutely necessary for the working class but it is only a stage along the road from feudalism to capitalism and on to Communism.

Democracy is seen by the workers as leading to equality and ''equality'' is “a useful slogan” as long as we remember that we mean by it “the abolition of classes.” But we get only formal not real equality under democracy. We get real equality only under Communism when distribution is ruled by needs not work. 

Lenin admits that“we do not and cannot know” how Socialism will transform itself into this future higher state but it will come after the workers have smashed to bits the current form of the bourgeois state and substituted a higher form of state (still a state) based on a people’s militia of “universal participation.”  [Bill of Rights Socialism based on the Second Amendment ?]

 At this stage quantitative changes will lead to qualitative changes. By this Lenin means that the vast numbers of the formerly oppressed are now directly involved in ruling and administering the economy and the state and this changes the way democracy functions— no longer a tool of the bourgeoisie to control the people but a tool used by the people to take charge of their own lives. The recent midterm elections in the United States, giving control of the Senate to the right wing reactionary Republican party, serves as a reminder of how democracy serves as a tool of the bourgeoisie (not that a Democractic victory would have changed this relationship but it would have appeared less sharply). 

All this depends on the advanced stage that capitalism has reached where universal literacy has been attained (“already realised in most of the advanced capitalist countries”) and the workers and been “trained” in how to operate the vast
complexities of the capitalist industries and factories already “socialised” put presently still owned by the capitalist class. The specialized workers—i.e., trained economists, agronomists, scientists and engineers will, Lenin says, work “even better” for the workers than for the capitalists. 

 I am not so sure how the “specialists” would have reacted to getting “equal” pay with the workers under the new system as Lenin says everyone will be a state employee all of whom will “do their share of work” and “should receive equal pay.”  It is moot anyway as this program never got off the ground as it required revolutions in the advanced capitalist countries to succeed as well as what was going on in Russia. I don’t think Lenin, at this time, thought the Russian Revolution was going to be left high and dry on its own.

Nevertheless, it is interesting to see what he thought the first stage, the socialist stage, would be like after the revolution. The new socialist state would convert the capitalists into employees and the workers themselves would run all the economic institutions in the state— everyone would be a state employee. The result of this would be that: “The whole of society will have become one office and one factory, with equal work and equal pay.” If this is the practical realistic outlook for the lower stage, the socialist stage, of Communism it is just as well the founders did not engage in “Utopian speculations” concerning what the “higher stage” would be like.

Lenin says that this lower stage of “‘factory’ discipline” is not the ideal goal of the revolution but a necessary foothold to overcome “all the hideousness and foulness of capitalist exploitation in order to advance further.”  Once this first stage has been achieved and the human collective of the new order has learned to work and share without the selfishness, greed, and alienation from its humanity that capitalism fosters and practicing human decency has become a habit, then and only then will it be possible to begin to transition to the higher stage of Communism and the withering away of the state and our motto can truly be Novus ordo seclorum.


Coming up: the sixth and last chapter of State and Revolution—“Vulgarisation of Marx by the Opportunists” ( plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.)

Saturday, November 01, 2014

The Death of Klinghoffer: Reflections

Thomas Riggins 

All the recent fuss at the Metropolitan Opera over John Adams' 1991 opera The Death of Klinghoffer led me get the DVD from Netflix to watch. The DVD gave me the opportunity to start and stop and replay parts of the opera and the subtitles (even though the opera is in English) allowed me to follow the exact wording that was being used to express the ideas and emotions of the singers. The DVD is of the Penny Woolcock film version made for British TV in 2003 and is generally considered faithful to the staged version of the opera.

I think I can safely say there is nothing anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish or pro-terrorist about this opera. I can also say that those who claim that it is so have not seen it, or not understood it, or have a personal agenda to espouse having nothing to do with the merits of the opera.

In our political context in the US the main objection to the opera is that it is not anti-Palestinian either. The objectors seem to be of the opinion that you cannot be against anti-Semitism  unless you are also for anti-Palestinianism. The opera takes a stand against terrorism qua terrorism  and shows the futility and horror of trying to solve social and political problems waging terrorist actions against unarmed civilians.

The opera highlights three species of terrorism-- it sympathizes  with none of them. It highlights the terrorism waged against the Jews of Europe by European Christians who formed the core of the fascist movements in World War II and led to the concentration camps and the Holocaust.

 It also shows the terrorism unleashed against the civilian Arab population in Palestine by the Zionists after the independence of Israel when tens of thousands were driven from their homes and land and had their houses and fields turned over to Jewish settlers without recompense and many Arab men, women, and children were murdered by terrorist groups such as the Irgun led by future Prime Minister Menachem Begin: this was the Nakba.

And it shows the terrorism elicited by the Nakba in which the Palestinians engage. The high jacking of the Italian cruise ship the  Achille Lauro and the cold blooded murder of wheelchair bound senior citizen Leon Klinghoffer is the subject of the opera and it makes no excuse or attempt to glorify the action of the terrorists involved: members of the Palestine Liberation Front.

The Germans and the Israelis have made peace and the Germans have paid reparations to try and make up for the unforgivable and impossible to make up for actions of their terrorist forebears. Perhaps Israel can do the same for those who were the victims of the  Nakba and more recent acts of terrorism such as the killing of over two thousand civilians (including 500 children) in Gaza. Perhaps the Palestinian terrorists would reciprocate by stopping the killing of Israeli civilians including peaceful women and children.

If this opera has any message it is that terrorism breeds terrorism and is never justified as it diminishes the humanity of all who engage in it. The root cause of terrorism (one group's cruel and inhumane treatment of others) must be addressed without evasion and excuses.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Piketty for Progressives-- Part 4

Thomas Riggins

9. The Major Results of Piketty's Study

Piketty says his study has arrived at two major results. First, that economic determinism is not  the answer to why we have inequality in wealth and income between people. But no economist worth his or her salt has ever been an economic determinist, so this is not a very startling conclusion. 

Any Marxist would ready agree with this observation by Piketty (it is commonplace in the writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin): inequality results from the interplay and conflict of forces between people in the economic, political, and social institutions in which they find themselves and the relative power they have at their disposal to enforce their values and choices; inequality "is the joint product of all the relative actors combined." Marxists might be a little more concrete about who these actors are (classes and social strata) and what the power relations rest upon (ownership of the means of production, ability to create surplus value and such) but the first major result of Capital in the 21st Century echoes one of the major results of Capital in the 19th Century. 

But, "the heart of the book" Piketty says, is his second major result. This is that there are major forces at work that push both towards increasing inequality (divergence) and decreasing inequality (convergence). I will call these D-forces and C-forces.

What is important, and will be rejected by all apologists of the Ann Rand version of laissez faire capitalist hokum (surely there are no intelligent Randists left after Greenspan's The Age of Turbulence) as well as mainstream bourgeois economists, is Piketty's findings that there is no internal mechanism within capitalism itself that can regulate and control the D-forces and prevent them from increasing "permanently."

Marxists would say the internal contradiction within capitalism between the C- and D-forces is certainly not permanent. Ultimately the build up of the pressure from the D-forces will explode the system (there cannot be infinite inequality). Piketty's language is not the language of Marxism, but in his own way he has restated, in the language of neoclassical economics, the objective reality of Marx's Apocalypse.

The D-forces are heading in that direction and Piketty wants to find a program that can bolster the strength of the C-forces and drag  back the D-forces, if not to a stop, at least to a non-critical mass. This won't be done within the capitalist system qua capitalist so the energy required by the C-forces must come from outside. There's the rub.

The above states the main points of this section. However, Piketty mentions two theories which have been put forth to counter the D-forces from within the system without extraneous help for the C-forces. Both of these theories are logically possible but their practical implementation as a solution to growing inequality is "largely illusory" if the history of capitalism has anything to tell us about them. I will only mention them in passing as Piketty doesn't put much stock in them.

The first is the  "human capital hypothesis." As technology advances workers need more and more skills and hence have to be paid more so capital will be transferred from the money bags to the working class increasing the C-forces and leading to greater democratic control of society. A pipe dream. 

The second is that "class warfare" will be replaced by "generational warfare" because science is making people live longer. This type of "warfare" is more benign since all young people will end up old people (all workers won't end up capitalists on the class war model).  Young people will begin saving up for old age so they will have enough to mitigate the effects of the D-forces. The young will be ants and not grasshoppers. Another pipe dream. 

It says something about "economics," as taught in bourgeois educational establishments, that capitalism's existential threat (unsustainable D-force pressure) can produce solutions that amount to pipe dreams.

The real counter to the D-forces, Piketty says, as revealed by history has been "the diffusion of knowledge and skills."  This "diffusion" must be an external factor independent of the capitalist system because Pitketty has said capitalism  has no
internal mechanism to prevent run away D-forces, or if it is an internal factor then it cannot prevent the Marxist Apocalypse. 

10. Forces of Convergence, Forces of Divergence

Piketty says that while the diffusion of knowledge and skills is the main source for the C-forces, it is nevertheless a fact that the D-forces can overcome it and increase in power. This is because the C-forces need to be reinforced by social policies that are not sufficiently built into the mechanism of capitalism to counter the the D-forces (which are built in) on their own. 

Presently there are two major D-forces  independently at work in the world economy. The threat, Piketty says, is that these two forces may merge and become unified thus creating a new and super powerful motor driving inequality.  From what would this Super D-force be composed? From the current D1-force which is the ability of top-earners to “quickly separate themselves from the rest by a wide margin” and the current D2-force which is itself an amalgamation of forces that bring about “an accumulation and concentration of wealth when growth is weak and the return on capital is high.” The D2-force is the “principal threat’’ to income equality.

Piketty uses the example of the United States from 1910 to 2010 to show how the D1-force has been developing. What has happened is an explosion in the income of the top managers of the large capitalist enterprises that dominate the economy. Gigantic inequality gaps separate this capitalist elite from ordinary workers and citizens. Piketty says the most likely explanation of this inequality gap is the power these capitalists have of setting “their own remuneration”  and to do so independently “of their individual productivity.”

This, by the way, this could never have come about in a properly functioning democratic society. It suggests that capitalism is incapable of creating such a society and that the problems of inequality cannot be solved within the parameters of such a society.

Bad as this D1-force is, it is the D2-force that Piketty considers the main threat to equality and the growth of the C-forces under capitalism. It is this second force that we will deal with in the next installment of “Piketty for Progressives.” 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Lenin: State and Revolution: Chapter 5 - Withering Away the State (Part Two) Review

Lenin: State and Revolution: Chapter 5 - Withering Away the State (Part Two)
Thomas Riggins

Chapter 5 of State and Revolution  has a brief introduction and four sections. Part Two of this review covers section three. 

3. First Phase of Communist Society

To avoid confusion it must be pointed out that Marx speaks of two phases of "Communism"-- a lower and a higher. By convention the first or lower phase has become known as "Socialism" and the higher or advanced stage as "Communism"
proper. Except for direct quotations, I shall use the term "Socialism" to denote what Marx calls the first phase of Communism and "Communism" to refer to what Marx calls the second phase of Communism.

In this section Lenin presents  Marx's remarks on the misguided views of Ferdinand Lassalle, one of the early leaders of the German working class, some of whose opinions he thought pernicious. Specifically, he wanted to disprove Lassalle's view that workers living under Socialism would get "the full product of their labour."

The idea here was workers would not be exploited because under Socialism: “to each according to his work’’ meant if  I created $100 of social wealth that’s what society would give back as part of my disposable income. Not so, according to Marx. The Socialist state has to deduct from wages money to put aside as a “reserve fund” to make improvements in production and maintain infrastructure. It also needs to deduct money for a social consumption fund to pay for schools, hospitals, pensions, aid to people who are sick or can’t work, salaries for public employees,  etc. If each fund got $10 then for every $100 of social wealth I created I would get back $80 for my disposable income.

The state, just as the former capitalist, would be taking $20 of the surplus value I created. This accounts for the “social” in Socialism. The difference is the capitalists would not be taking the wealth I created and using it for themselves and living high on the hog while I just made do; the State would be using it to do things for me that I really need but could not provide for myself— medical services, rent subsidies, price controls so that food was cheap and available, the secret police to keep the capitalists from making a comeback, etc. 

In Marx’s words: “What we are dealing with here is not a Communist society which has developed on its own foundations, but on the contrary, one which is just emerging from capitalist society, and which therefore in all respects — economic, moral and intellectual — still bears the birthmarks from the old society from whose womb it sprung.” This is the lower phase, right after the revolution, of “Communism”, AKA “Socialism.” Socialism covers this whole first phase out of which the second phase true Communism will hopefully emerge. Unfortunately none of the revolutions of the 20th century succeeded in even establishing the first phase, let alone the second phase of this project— although some countries are still trying to figure out how to get the first phase going.

Now, Lassalle thought that there must be a “just distribution” of the social wealth under Socialism— “the equal right of each to an equal product of labour.” There would be no inequality under Socialism (and nothing for Piketty and others to complain about). Marx is interested in this idea of “equal right.”  He agrees that we have in Socialism “equal rights” but we must understand that “rights” presuppose inequality.  I can demand the right to vote only if I don’t have it. What is the point of demanding what I have?

To demand a “right” is to demand equal standards be applied to all people and people are not really all equal to one another.  In the real world some are smarter, some are richer, some are better educated, some are stronger, etc. In the words of Blake:

Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.

Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night. (Auguries of Innocence)

Socialism wants to change these morns and nights, but only Communism will bring sweet delight. Marx says we are still haunted by the bourgeois order when we demand rights because rights are under the regime of “bourgeois right.”  As a good dialectician Marx says that equal rights violates the concept of equality and is actually a form of injustice. Lassalle is wrong and under Socialism justice demands “unequal rights.” Huh?

Suppose under Socialism we get equal pay for equal work. Laura and Judy both get paid the same. Laura is single and saves up some of her pay so she has money to go on trips or to buy extra goodies. Judy is a single mother of two and can’t save up money for trips and extra goodies as three people have to live on her pay. Equal pay results in an unequal outcome. This is the regime of from each according to his/her ability to each according to his/her work. 

While there is no capitalist exploitation of human beings (private property in the means of production having been abolished) Lenin nevertheless points out that Socialism “still cannot produce justice and equality.”  This is because under Socialism distribution is governed by  “work performed.”  Real “justice” and “equality” must await the second or higher form of the transition— Communism where distribution will be governed by need.

 “No justice, no peace” is therefore really a temporary slogan limited to the capitalist era since, while under Socialism there is still “no justice” ( in an absolute sense) there is nevertheless peace because “bourgeois right” is completely enforced and people understand that they are working together to achieve a future Communist society in which the bourgeois notions of justice and equality will have no meaning.

In the words of Marx: “These defects are unavoidable in the first phase of Communist society [Socialism], when after long travail, it first emerges from capitalist society. Justice can never rise superior to the economic conditions of society and the cultural development conditioned by them.” Critics of the 20th century failures and successes of the Socialist revolutions and their successor states still pursuing their goals in the 21st should be mindful of this insight given by Marx.

Lenin points out that Marx was aware (not being a Utopian) that with the initial overthrow of capitalism and the beginning of Socialism the only standard of fairness and the sense of what is “right” is what was learned under the old system— “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work”, “equal pay for equal work,” “a living wage,” etc. “Bourgeois right” is the only standard they will initially have and “a form of state will be necessary, which while maintaining public ownership of the means of production, would preserve the equality of labour and equality in the distribution of products.” 

The Socialist state, even as it sets in motion its own withering away, functions at this level to protect bourgeois right and enforces actual inequality. Even under Socialism we understand a better world is possible and that world is explained in the last section of Chapter 5: “Higher Phase of Communist Society.”


This will be discussed in part 3 of our review of Chapter 5 of State and Revolution.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Piketty for Progressives -- Part 3

Thomas Riggins

5. From Marx to Kuznets, or Apocalypse to Fairy Tale

As we have seen, Piketty rejects Marx's views about the future of capitalistic inequality, which  he called "Apocalyptic", and in this section he will also reject the views of Simon Kuznets (1901-1985) which he finds too optimistic.  Kuznets engaged in empirical studies and arrived at the view that as capitalism became more advanced income inequality would decrease-- on the principle (mis-attributed to President Kennedy) that "a rising tide lifts all boats."

Although Piketty does not accept Kuznets’ conclusions, he credits him with being the first to empirically utilize two sources of information which must be used in conjunction to be able to meaningfully study income inequality and its evolution__ i.e., growth of national income for a country and the distribution of that income to individuals. It was using such information that Kuznets arrived at his views regarding the decrease of inequality. The question is--  did the data reflect universal trends within advanced capitalism or just an historical fluke? If the latter then Kuznets’ theory was a "fairy tale"-- as Piketty suggests by this section title.

6. The Kuznets Curve: Good News in the Midst of the Cold War

In this section Piketty says that Kuznets admitted his statistical discovery of a decrease in inequality in the US (the period covered was 1913 to 1948) was “largely accidental.” In his 1953 book Shares of Upper Income Groups in Income and Savings he even admonished his readers not to jump to conclusions based on his data. But that is just what he did himself two years later in a famous lecture where he proposed a bell curve to explain the relation between capitalism and
inequality. As capitalism begins to develop inequality increases between the capitalists and the general population and peaks just as capitalism becomes mature and widespread, thereafter it begins to decline as the benefits of the capitalist system begin to be shared by all.

Even in this lecture Kuznets says his statistics reflect unique historical circumstances, but also suggests that, despite the historical specificity that shaped his curve, the inherent nature of the capitalist system itself would also work to produce the curve. This was simply cold war propaganda posing as science.
Piketty points out that in the lecture Kuznets told his audience (it was a speech to the American Economics Association) that he was giving an optimistic twist to his theory to, in his own words,” keep the Third World “within the orbit of the free world.”

Nevertheless, despite this lecture and other papers, Piketty says that Kuznets showed the true “scientific spirit” in his big 1953 book (the supposed first use of meaningful statistical analysis) even if the Kuznets curve is a fairy tale. It was the two world wars and the Great Depression that brought about a decrease in inequality not the inherent tendency of capitalism.

7. Putting the Distributional Question Back at the Heart of Economic Analysis

Piketty thinks the question about how wealth is distributed is important. He says there has been a big increase in economic inequality since the 1970s— in all the developed countries, but especially in the U.S. In the Third World it is possible that economic development may decrease inequality— especially the development of China. All of this, he says, is a cause “of deep anxiety.” He does not make clear why this should be so— whether it is the growth of inequality, the development of China, or both.

Also, markets that are supposed to exhibit “balanced growth” according to Kuznets and others ( real estate, oil and financial) are showing remarkable “disequilibrium.” Piketty asks who will be running the show in 2050 or 2100 (i.e., controlling the world as it were). He lists several possibilities, one of which is the Bank of China. I can see the origin of “anxiety.” The Bank of China is ultimately under the control of the Chinese Communist Party (it is state owned).

In any case, the distribution of wealth becomes, for Piketty, the most important area of study if we are to understand the growth of inequality. To determine this we must collect data on the economic history of many countries and forecast future developments by a scientific understanding of past and present trends.

8. The Sources Used in Piketty’s Book

Piketty says his work is basically an extension of the work begun by Kuznets in his study of the period 1913-1948 in the U.S.  Kuznets’ statistical methods were extended to France, the contemporary U.S., and to other countries. But “the primary source of data” for the book comes from the World’s Top Incomes Database (WTID). [Google: The World’s Top Incomes Database]

Piketty says there are TWO components of income— from labor and from capital.
He says labor income consists of wages, salaries, bonuses, non-wage labor, and income “statutorily classified” as such [tips?]. Capital income consists of rent, interest, dividends, profits, royalties, capital gains, and “other income” from land, real estate, financial instruments, industrial equipment, etc. [!]. It is obvious that this is an un-Marxist way of treating income but Piketty can define his categories anyway he chooses since he is not a Marxist economist. We shall see later how useful, or not, his definitions are.

Piketty says his book “stands out” from those before it because he has “made an effort to collect as complete and consistent a set of historical sources as possible”
for the study of the distribution of income and wealth “over the long run.”

We will resume the fourth installment  of this commentary on Piketty’s introduction with the 9th section :“The Major Result’s of Piketty’s Study.”