There is an entire genre of theory explaining why the Western capitalist democracies did not undergo socialist revolution in the 20th Century, as Classical Marxism had predicted. Not surprisingly, most of this material comes from the Left itself.1 We can include Antonio Gramsci’s work on hegemony in this genre, as well as the entire output of the Frankfurt School and other psychoanalytically-inclined Marxist theorists (Althusser comes to mind). Taken together, this work contributes greatly to our understanding of the complex dynamics of political and social change, reminding us to avoid over-simplifications and belief in quick fixes of all varieties. I do not want to diminish these contributions in any way and am not challenging them here.
But at the same time I am suspicious of placing too much emphasis on the Left’s failures in order to account for the ongoing state of affairs. To supplement the theories I’ve already mentioned, I would like to propose a subversive reading of the conventional narrative. Couldn’t we also say that the successes of the organized Left (modest though they were) actually helped to preserve capitalism, saving it from runaway contradictions, and therefore temporarily reducing the need for revolution?
At first this may seem counterintuitive, but not when we take into account a key feature of capitalism that distinguishes it from previous modes of production — namely its need for instability. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels assert that:
The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.
I think that old saying, “Sometimes your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness,” applies here. Capitalism sustains itself through its contradictions (e.g. the preponderance of the small owning class over the vast working class, the social nature of wealth generation contrasted with the private nature of accumulation), but these same contradictions always threaten the integrity of the system itself. We know that the capitalist class benefits, for instance, from maintaining high profits and low wages, as well as from divisions in society, such as those of gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. But if workers become too impoverished, or sexism, racism, and homophobia become too pronounced, the system becomes destabilized to a dangerous degree; explosion, or rather implosion, is a real possibility. If wages drop so low that workers give up shopping, this starts to cut into profits. And although it is in the interests of the capitalist class to keep workers divided on the basis of race, they don’t want crazy racist militias roving the streets murdering minorities. We have a delicate balancing act here. Capitalism can’t afford for the pendulum to swing too far in either direction (towards stability or instability).
Marx and Engels were writing when capitalist relations of production were at their most inhuman. Workers in most industrialized and industrializing countries weren’t even afforded the bare minimum of workers’ rights which at least some of us enjoy today, such as the right to organize, limits on the length of the work day, and bans on child labor. Observing these conditions, along with growing concentrations of wealth, it’s no wonder that Marxism’s early proponents believed that revolution was inevitable.
Something strange happened, however. The rise of labor unions and radical political organizing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, though they faced intense, and often violent, opposition from the ruling classes, resulted in increasing positive gains for workers. The grossest contradictions of capitalist relations were reduced, precisely because the working class was winning important battles. In many countries workers won better wages, a shortened work day, and safety regulations at the workplace. And with the birth of the welfare state in Western Europe and the New Deal in the United States, a new “capitalism with a human face” seemed to be on the horizon.
Let’s be clear. The level of prosperity and freedom which existed in the West, from roughly the early 1950s to the beginning of deep reaction in the 1980s, was unprecedented in world history. There were a number of reasons for this, and one of them was that the past and continuing successes of the Left were ensuring that workers were getting a fairer share of the pie, thus providing economic stability and less intense contradictions. More of the wealth was going to more of the people than ever before. (Not to mention the fact that the Left and progressive movements were working hard to reduce other contradictions, such as sexism and racism.)
It’s probably hard for young people nowadays to imagine, but my grandfather — after fighting in Japan in WWII — worked for one company from the early 1950’s to the early 1990’s: United Gas. Until the 1970s, he and his family lived in houses provided by the company, which paid the utility bills and offered many opportunities for job advancement and higher pay. With the money they saved over the years they were able to move up to the middle class, buy land and their own home, without going into debt to do it. They had a great health plan at low cost. And when my grandfather retired, his pension was more than enough to cover living expenses. He often remarked that although he never belonged to a union, he knew that he only enjoyed these kinds of wages and benefits because other workers did belong to unions. Now, his company was perhaps more kindly and paternalistic than most, but it does illustrate the more humane capitalism which existed in that period.2
Capitalism is an incredibly dynamic and adaptable system, since, as we have seen, it was able to adopt “socialistic” reforms in order to ameliorate the conditions of workers and avoid crisis and revolutionary upsurges in the core nations. But the question for us today is whether this (broadly-defined) Keynesian logic of amelioration has run its course, reaching its limits with the advent of the global economy, which is qualitatively distinct from the international trade of yesteryear. In other words, was the great wave of reaction, the end of capitalism with a human face, simply brought about by the initiative of certain interests represented by Thatcher in Britain and Reagan in the United States, or has a more fundamental, structural change taken place in the world system? The possibility I hint at is that the more humane version of capitalism is irreconcilable with globalization, as the former was associated with more autonomous national economies which could offer greater protections to workers, shielding them from blows from foreign markets.
We all know what the picture looks like today. A global division of labor has emerged, with manufacturing jobs moving to the peripheral and semi-peripheral nations, and the core nations transitioning to “postindustrial” economies, dominated by information and service industries. Whatever is left of the welfare state is being dismantled. Workers are watching the hard-won gains of the past disappear. Multinational corporations set the policy agenda and workers in one part of the world are pitted against workers in other parts of the world (e.g. the euphemistically called “outsourcing”). In the year 2000, the richest 1% of the world’s adults owned 40% of global assets.
While some say that Marx is irrelevant today, I maintain that the time of Marxism has just arrived. Isn’t it in today’s global economy that Marx has been vindicated? The concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, and the concomitant immiseration of the vast majority of the world’s population, have occurred on a scale that makes Marx’s predictions seem utterly conservative. A more intense contradiction of profit-driven environmental degradation than he could have foreseen further supports the core of his theories.
And isn’t it really in today’s era of globalization that the old Leftist dream of internationalism becomes conceivable, practically, and necessary, strategically? I’ve long thought that the Industrial Workers of the World’s objective of organizing skilled and unskilled labor together, across national boundaries, was ahead of its time. Far from being relics of a bygone era, the work they are doing now is cutting edge. They have a better understanding of the present conjuncture than many mainstream unions, which have been slow to adapt to the realities of the postindustrial economy. The IWW has worked to organize such service industry employees as Starbucks coffee shop workers; there are more of these kinds of jobs in the U.S. than traditional manufacturing jobs today. My perverse Leftist imagination can’t help but envision workers at both ends of the chain (the people who pick the beans and the people who serve the coffee) organized into the same transnational union. But that may be a ways down the road.
Whatever the case with the IWW, Marx is definitely having his revenge, and it is not at all clear whether capitalism can continue to be reformed, in any significant way, as it was in the past. What comes next we cannot be sure, but it seems that the time to revive the socialist project has arrived, and it must be one adapted to the needs of the 21st century.
1 This has led Slavoj Žižek to suspect — perhaps with some justification — that the Left has long settled into a comfortable, moralistic posture, relishing defeat with the masochistic rapture that we project onto Christian martyrs of old.
2 Of course, this increased sharing of the wealth with workers in the Western democracies was predicated upon the fact that those countries had largely built their fortunes through colonialism in the past and from the ongoing super-exploitation of workers in the world’s periphery and semi-periphery. We can’t forget this aspect of the picture. The kinder, gentler capitalism wasn’t being experienced by all the world’s peoples.
Gregory W. Esteven is a sociologist working as a research assistant at the Southeastern Social Science Research Center at Southeastern Louisiana University. He also serves on the advisory board of the Land Trust for Southeast Louisiana and is a frequent contributor to Political Affairs Magazine, a publication of the CPUSA.