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The Specter of Marxism: interview with John Bellamy Foster

Originally published: Il Grido Del Popolo on May 22, 2018 by Gordan Stošević and Ivan Popović (more by Il Grido Del Popolo) (Posted May 24, 2018)
Is Marxist ideology relevant today? Or is it that we just have “leftovers” of it implemented in parliamentary group who stick to the mainstream social democratic house and basically have the same programs as right-wing parties?

There is no doubt that the Marxian theoretical critique of capitalism is more relevant today than ever and is exerting enormous and growing influence in many parts of the world, a mark of the deepening crisis of the system, and the rise of dissent. How to translate that into practice, however, is inevitably more difficult and varies from terrain to terrain. Electoral politics in North America and Europe at present is primarily the domain of capitalist parties. Social democrats have turned into social liberals with only a razor’s edge distinction between them and the center-right. This is not a reflection of social forces on the ground, so much as the constraints imposed by capital on the entire society in the neoliberal era in a context of economic crisis—and due to the Thatcherist claim that that there was no longer an alternative to the present system. All of this was part of the “end of history” narrative: the notion that liberalism/capitalism was the only remaining path into the future following the demise of Soviet-type societies. In this atmosphere, capital, which was facing its own accumulation crisis, has sought to carry out what Gramsci called a “passive revolution,” using its hegemonic position to change the rules permanently in its favor.

This only led, however, to a worsening of the overall conditions, reflected in economic stagnation and financialization, increasing inequality, the planetary ecological crisis, spreading war, and the general perils to humanity—all of which have combined to make a travesty of the notion of capitalist progress. Everywhere people are struggling with exit strategies designed to cope with a growing set of social and ecological crises, and more and more these issues are seen as requiring an exit from the present system of accumulation. The neoliberal state is itself now in crisis, requiring the dominant power blocs in almost all countries to turn to neofascist power blocs as a way of securing control over the society, i.e., the use of raw power, and alliances between the rich and a newly reactionary lower middle class or petty bourgeoisie.

In these circumstances the movements and strategies may differ quite widely between countries. In Western Europe, the United States, and Japan, i.e., the triad, the most important, radical struggles are generally extra-parliamentary ones at present, though the Labour Party under Corbyn in the UK represents a crucial parliamentary struggle, since for the first time the Labour Party leadership is taking a decidedly anti-imperialist stance. In the global South movements that can be seen as revolutionary, and as authentic movements for socialism are to be found, operating in a wide array of spheres. As has been true for more than a century now, the major revolutions are to be found in the periphery and semi-periphery of the capitalist system. The speed with which the economic and ecological crises of capitalism are developing, the weakening of the liberal democratic state nearly everywhere, and the spread of war and reaction, mean that the future of humanity depends more than ever on a revival of the movement for socialism and the creation of a New International, unlike the Internationals of old (though most closely resembling the First International).

One of your books is called The Theory of Monopoly Capitalism. Can you give us an idea of the main argument? What is it about?

The Theory of Monopoly Capitalism focuses on the analysis of Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital which was the most influential development of the Marxian political-economic critique and crisis theory to emerge in the United States. Baran was born in the Ukraine in Tsarist Russia and educated in the Soviet Union and Germany, where he was affiliated with the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, while writing for Hilferding’s Die Gesellschaft, and receiving his doctorate in economics. After Hitler came to power he fled to Poland where he worked for his family’s lumber business. He soon became the representative of the Polish lumber business in London, and then went to the United States to study economics at Harvard. In the war he worked for the Strategic Bombing Survey under the economist John Kenneth Galbraith. After the war he took a job with the Federal Reserve Board and then was hired as a professor of economics at Stanford. His most famous book, prior to Monopoly Capital, was The Political Economy of Growth (1957), which was a foundational work in Marxian dependency theory.

Sweezy was the son of the vice-president of one of J.P. Morgan’s banks, and was a product of an elite education at Exeter at Harvard. He was attracted to Marxism during a year at the London School of Economics and returned to Harvard where he a younger colleague of the conservative economist Joseph Schumpeter, with whom he developed a close friendship despite their polar opposite political views. Sweezy authored The Theory of Capitalist Development: Principles of Political Economy (1942), which often still seen as the single most important work on Marxian economic principles. During the war he worked for the Office of Strategic Services. After the war he resigned his position at Harvard and became a founding editor along with the Marxist labor journalist and historian Leo Huberman of Monthly Review, subtitled An Independent Socialist Magazine, for which Albert Einstein wrote his “Why Socialism?” in the first issue. Sweezy was targeted in the McCarthy anti-Communist witch hunt and refused to name to names or to turn over lecture notes from a lecture he had delivered at the University of New Hampshire. He was charged with contempt of court and his case went to the U.S. Supreme Court which decided in his favor, in one of the cases that brought McCarthyism to a close. The Cuban Revolution was central to both Baran and Sweezy, and Monthly Review took on a primary identity as a defender of revolutions in what was then called the Third World.

Monopoly Capital was an attempt to bring Marxian political economy up to date by developing a theory of accumulation in the monopoly stage of capitalism, dominated by giant firms. The analysis built on Marx’s Capital but focused on the modifications in the nature of the system associated with the monopoly stage. Economically, the analysis was extensively rooted in the work of the Polish economist Michał Kalecki in such works as Theory of Economic Dynamics (1962) and in the Austrian Marxist Josef Steindl’s Maturity and Stagnation in American Capitalism (1952). But Baran and Sweezy drew much wider conclusions, extending the analysis to the state and the society as a whole, focusing on the problem of the absorption of economic surplus, which allowed them to critique phenomena such as the growing sales effort, automobilization, militarism, imperialism, and the increasing irrationality of a system increasingly reliant on economic waste. Monopoly Capital argued directly that the normal state of monopoly capitalism was secular stagnation. Their analysis was the most influential radical critique of capitalism to emerge in the 1960s and was the principal basis for the development of radical political economics in the United States up through the mid-1970s.

In the late 1970s, however, there was a general back to Marx movement in Western Marxism, which was enormously creative in many respects but which led to a rejection by much of the left of the idea of the monopoly stage and to a return to more fundamentalist interpretations of Marx and Marxism. In the fundamentalist view, Marx’s critique of capitalism was seen as sufficient for the analysis of the present, i.e., such notions such as the prevalence of freely competitive capitalism (even with respect to price competition) and of the immediate, direct significance of Marx’ tendential law of the falling rate of profit were resurrected. Even the concentration and centralization of capitalism, the growth of oligopoly, and rise of multinational corporations were played down. Marxian political economy thus back-tracked in many respects and a host of criticisms were directed at Baran and Sweezy’s analysis, such as the claim that they had denied Marxian value theory, and the even more irrational charge that their analysis was reformist in character. My book, The Theory of Monopoly Capitalism, which appeared on the twentieth anniversary of Monopoly Capital was designed to answer these criticisms, to show how the theory had developed out of Marx’s own critique, and to explore the contradictions of accumulation under monopoly capitalism. A more recent edition of my book was published in 2014 accounting for the debate that had emerged in the intervening years.

Although most Marxian political economy retreated from the late 1970s to the opening decade of this century into an empty scholasticism, Sweezy, working with his later coeditor the economist Harry Magdoff, followed by others associated with Monthly Review, developed a powerful analysis in this period of the relation of stagnation to financial explosion, seeing financialization as the main response to economic stagnation. They also continued to examine the growth of monopoly capital on the world stage in the form of multinational corporations. This analysis of monopolization, stagnation, and financialization turned out to be the most powerful set of insights into the contemporary development of accumulation and crisis. The most important representative of this line of thinking today, bringing together all of its aspects, including the struggle against imperialism, is Samir Amin, who recently published Modern Imperialism, Monopoly Finance Capital, and Marx’s Law of Value. Monopoly capital theory (now updated as the analysis of monopoly-finance capital) has also gained additional impetus in recent years through the release of some of Baran and Sweezy’s previously unpublished manuscripts associated with Monopoly Capital (these developments are discussed in the new edition of my book). The lasting importance of this whole tradition lies in what Sweezy called (in the title of one of his books) “the present as history,” that is, Marxian theory has to be extended to address the changes within capitalism itself.

Does Marxism have a future in real politics?

Yes, if we are truly talking about real politics, and not the kind of staged politics—a mere shifting of chairs amongst the power elite—that substitutes for the former at present. Historical materialism remains the real basis of all critical, revolutionary politics challenging capitalism in all sectors of the globe. In this sense, the specter of Marxism still haunts capitalism, a fact clearly evident in the incessant attacks on the left emanating from the received ideology, which today has little more than an ideology of fear to offer in response. The current impact of the philosophy of praxis is obviously quite different in different parts of the world. Yet, the global crisis of capitalist rule is such as to dissolve many of these differences. The tempo of historical change is increasing today as in every epoch of transition. Today’s movement toward socialism show signs both of the fragmentation of the working class and of the greater strengths being achieved today by the co-revolutionary struggle aimed at reuniting those diverse interests. What we are seeing in many ways is a more critical, more revolutionary movement in its the extent and inclusiveness of its objectives—aimed at the creation substantive equality. What is most extraordinary in Marxist movements today, particularly in Latin America, is their breadth and creativity, the incorporation of new vernaculars, and wider struggles. A crucial aspect of this is a process of self-criticism, learning from the past. Real politics today is revolutionary politics; as Samir Amin says, it is “audacious” in its aims.

What is the future of Capitalism?

Capitalism, as the late István Mèszaros argued, has long since passed its ascendant phase and now is in its descendant phase. At the same time its power for destruction is unparalleled. I was recently looking at a book, called The Future of Capitalism, written a few decades back by Lester Thurow a famous progressive, left-liberal economist in the United States. Thurow was no radical but he was enough of a critic to bring out some of the contradictions of capitalism, and for an establishment figure he could be quite devastatingly honest at times. In his penultimate chapter he wrote with respect to capitalism’s structural relation to the environment that it systematically undermines the future. “Each generation makes good capitalistic decisions, yet the net effect is collective social suicide.” Under capitalism, he suggested, anarchy prevails, “Who is in command of the social system? Since capitalism believes there is no social system, its answer is no one.” The one area where capitalism was best able to plan, Thurow argued, was in relation to the military and forms of repression. He concluded the book by saying that under capitalism the danger was “stagnation,” including stagnation of investment. “The intrinsic problems of capitalism visible at its birth (instability, rising inequality, a lumpen proletariat) are still there waiting to be solved.”

Of course, Thurow, who was a big technology booster, saw the organization of technology as the answer to social problems, rather than making fundamental changes in social relations. He was far from a revolutionary thinker or actor. But it is remarkable how aware even such mildly critical boosters of the system have been of its main contradictions. This was in the great era of capitalist triumphalism following the top-down dissolution of the Soviet system. Today everyone is aware of the deepening crises of the economy, the growth of inequality at every level of the system, the renewed push towards imperialism and war, and the threats of exterminism from nuclear weapons and a runaway train speeding towards the end of the environmental cliff. The global urban structure has been turned into what Mike Davis called a Planet of Slums. The future prospects for new generations under capitalism—taking all of the above into account—has never been worse. The question is: Can humanity transcend this system to create a collective, sustainable world? It is not an academic question, but one of survival.

How much more can people take the gap between poor and rich classes, what needs to happen so that we see a change?

What “people can take” is always a question. It has to do with a lot of issues beyond material conditions as such, related to forms of social control and hegemony, organization at the bottom, the coalescence of forces, fragmentation or unity in movements, the audaciousness of the response, global as well as national and local forces, the spirit of the times, cultural revolutions. There is no overall answer. As Marx said “the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” For the bourgeoisie the nightmare is the revolutionary hopes, traditions, and creativity embodied most of all in Marxism and socialism generally. For the oppressed the nightmare consists of the great defeats following upon the victories of the past. Revolutionary change occurs when the nightmare of the present repression exceeds the nightmare of the revolutionary past and becomes insupportable, and indeed when the revolutionary past becomes a renewed source of hope in age of resurgent struggle.

“Proletarian revolutions, like those of the nineteenth century,” Marx wrote in a period of defeat,

criticize themselves constantly, interrupt themselves continually in their own course, come back to the apparently accomplished in order to begin it afresh, deride with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies, weaknesses and paltriness of their first attempts, seem to throw down their adversary only in order that he may draw new strength from the earth to rise again, more gigantic, before them, recoil ever anon from the indefinite prodigiousness of their own alms, until a situation has been created which makes all turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves cry out: Hic Rhodus, hic Salta! / Here is the rose, here dance!

I think that this same logic is playing out today but on a longer time span and an immeasurably greater global scale.

Is Marxism “studied” more on Wall Street rather than in the left-center? Please explain.

It is amusing question. Yes, I think Marx is studied a lot on Wall Street today, at least among the more far-reaching intellects. There is a pragmatic cast to much of business, where it is understood that a realistic and critical view of the capitalist economy such as Marx offered is quite useful, while neoclassical economics is mainly ideology. I wrote an article recently for Jacobin on Marx as a twenty-first century economist (“A New Marxian Century,” March 5, 2018). I went back to a famous article by James Cassidy written for The New Yorker in 1997. Cassidy was talking to a friend of his, an Oxford-educated economist and leading investment banker, who told him that that Marx was the most important economist for understanding contemporary trends. Cassidy then did a crash program in studying Marx and declared that Marx was the “Next Economist” for the twenty-first century. Now, following 2007-09 Great Financial Crisis and the subsequent economic stagnation, coupled with the sharpest increases in inequality in world history, many would agree, even on Wall Street. Today there are financial websites like Naked Capitalism which often treat Marx seriously.

While this has been going on there has been a contraction in the studies of Marx and Marxism in universities, mainly because universities are fairly stodgy, establishment structures, and usually a decade or more behind the main trends in societies; today academia is still trapped in the neoliberal age of Thatcher and Reagan. Moreover, the academic left went on a big detour via postmodernism, which removed it for a time from the major struggles of the day, a philosophy of pessimism and defeat, though not without some critical advancements. At present, though, the younger leftists are more critical and restive, and more materialist and realist in their view. In many of the rich capitalist countries, there is a growing interest in socialism and Marx. The left which intellectually disarmed itself during the postmodernist period seems to be ready to arm itself intellectually again, and that means turning to the deepest critical tradition, that offers analysis and tools for change, that is, the philosophy of praxis. This is not yet a revolutionary movement, but it does represent a growing critique of capitalism, and the attempt on growing numbers of people to build a movement toward socialism.

Thus, one sees not only a Wall Street that often takes Marx much more seriously, but also a kind of ideological panic at the top as to how to combat an increasingly rebellious youth, which is attracted not simply to a kind of amorphous radical populism, but to something much more dangerous to the powers that be: Marxism, returning in new ways but recognizably the creation of the nineteenth century Old Mole. Marxism is thus being studied today in many quarters with an intensity not seen since the 1970s and with greater sophistication and critical acumen.

Should we observe “capital” today through the framework of Thomas Piketty or should we stick to more traditional left views?

I wrote an article in Monthly Review with Michael D. Yates in November 2014 entitled “Thomas Piketty and the Crisis of Neoclassical Economics.” Our argument was that Piketty, broke partially with neoclassical economics in response to the crisis of our time, much like Keynes did in the 1930s, and like Keynes (as we now know) Piketty borrowed critical concepts from Marx in the process. Piketty’s analysis in Capital in the Twenty-First Century revolves around his famous formula r > g, where r stands for the annual rate of return to wealth—referred to by Piketty as capital—and g for the growth rate of the economy (the rate of increase in national income). Piketty thus replicated long-standing assumptions of monopoly-capital theory, and much of Marxian/Kaleckian and post-Keynesian economics, related to the growth of wealth as opposed to income in the age of financializaton. But Piketty advanced these postulates in a very elegant way and was not easily dismissed by the hegemonic guardians of economic ideology since he was at the peak of the neoclassical economics establishment. Moreover, he was able to back this up with the most comprehensive global database on income (“The World Top Incomes Database,” which was renamed “World Inequality Database“) which he had played a key role in developing. His analysis in Capital in the Twenty-First Century blew a hole, theoretically as well as empirically, in the neoclassical notion that developed capitalism leads to a decrease in inequality. Instead, he pointed to wealth inequality rooted in dynastic wealth. There are a lot of things to be said for this analysis. Yet, Piketty avoided crucial questions of class, monopoly, and economic stagnation. He managed to stay largely within the realm of neoclassical economics while bringing a degree of critical realism to its analysis. His ultimate solution was simply a wealth tax.

What Piketty did, then, is provide some credibility to the more developed Marxian critique, as in Kalecki and the monopoly capital tradition, as well as Marx’s entire framework. But once Piketty’s very partial critique of mainstream neoclassical economics is understood it is necessary to turn to Marxian theory for the more thoroughgoing critique, from which his analysis borrows but in a superficial and contradictory way. It is important to underscore that Piketty, with all his discussion of growing inequality associated with the logic of wealth concentration under capitalism, nonetheless avoids addressing the whole issue of class power (not to mention monopoly power).

In your opinion, why can’t today’s modern left answer the challenges of society?

What is sometimes called the left today is a largely reformist, even reactionary political grouping that seeks to make capitalism work better, or a somewhat more benign form of neoliberalism. Even the traditional social democratic parties are today at best social liberal parties. What are often characterized as “left parties” are actually capitalist parties, primarily serving those interests. Social democratic parties often present themselves as able to promote the interests of capitalism, while securing the cooperation of labor. When in power, it is the interests of capital that take precedence. There are complex reasons for this, including class formations, ideological hegemony, structures of economic and political power. There is also the rejection of any attempt at counter-hegemony and revolutionary or radical strategies on the left, which to a large extent fell for the liberalism is “the end of history” ideology, thus placing itself on the permanent defensive, even undermining its own reason for being.

An effective left strategy, in contrast, must have its basis in the building of class power and the forging of an organic socialist model of social metabolic reproduction (to employ Mèszaros’s terminology), in opposition to the alienated form of metabolic reproduction developed by capitalism.  It must go against the rules of power of the and challenge the entire structure and logic of the state and economy, creating an alternative, constituent power based in the collective struggles of the working class in all its diversity. The clearest example of the implementation of such a strategy, referred to as protagonism, is Venezuela, which is why the U.S. empire is doing everything it can to eradicate it, not simply in the sense of overturning the Bolivarian Revolution but in order to destroy it in people’s minds as a viable model of revolutionary change. What is clear is that the so-called established “left” parties in the leading capitalist states have no strategies of grassroots organization, no alternative ideology, no counter-hegemonic strategy. They are part of the system of power not oppositional forces. Nowadays they quietly stand by while neoliberalism metamorphoses into neofascism (or into a neoliberal-neofascist organization). The only way to counter this is through an organized movement toward socialism emanating from below.

That is not to say that it is only to Latin America or the global South that we should look to for inspiration. There are signs of life on the left—what we could call a real movement toward socialism—in Corbyn’s Labour Party in the UK, and the Workers’ Party in Belgium. These are brilliant strategic developments by movement-based parties whose challenge to the current establishment is a serious one. There is also a massive growth of ecosocialism almost everywhere globally, though chiefly as an extraparliamentary form of struggle. I think we will see the worldwide growth of what could be called an environmental proletariat, as the material struggles in relation to both the economy and the environment located in communities, households, and workplaces increasingly become inseparable for most people: one material reality.

Why does the left today allow the right to seize all of its topics and vocabulary?

This is not a new thing. Movements in the broad fascist genus (of which we can include classical fascism as well as today’s neofascism or nationalist populism) have always superficially exploited socialist terminology and forms of criticism in an attempt to organize their lower middle class, and relatively privileged working class, constituencies. It is this sense that one can speak ideologically of the “radical right.” Thus, it is from this sector, which C. Wright Mills called the “rearguard” of capitalism, that one gets attacks on crony capitalists (but not on the capitalist class), as well as on financiers, state bureaucrats, and the upper-middle class—all of whom are generally situated above the lower-middle class in class and status. This occurs simultaneously with attacks on those below the lower middle class (and privileged working class), that is, the greater part of the working class, and the great “unwashed,” always tending to be the racially underprivileged and recent immigrants since coming from the colonized/neocolonized nations of the global South.

The building of a mass movement in these neofascist terms, misleadingly called “populist,” is crucial in shifting the whole body politic to the right. The dominant element in the neofascist movement, as it matures, though, is the very top of the capitalist class itself (the billionaires and cento-millionaires and their hangers-on), which finds it useful in periods of crisis to enlist the most reactionary sectors of society as a way of reinforcing its political power. I discuss all of this at great length in my book Trump in the White House. What is important to understand is that the appropriation of left ideas by such political formations/movements is only superficial and used in a contradictory way. Once such political formations are in power the radical-seeming elements of the neo-fascist program (like support for the workers) are always jettisoned, in favor of a strategy that directly enhances the political and economic power of the core sectors of the capitalist class (today the upper echelons of monopoly-finance capital). What is targeted at this stage is more and more a set of scapegoats. One thus can look at the original Nazi program, which explicitly borrowed workerist language in places, only later to cast all of that aside on its road to power. Such movements represent the utmost in opportunistic revanchism.

How do you view attempts of people like Sanders and Corbyn who tried to change the political picture in the ultracapitalist world where capital dictate everything?

The Sanders and Corbyn phenomena are often compared but they are actually quite different, occurring under very different circumstances. The Sanders campaign was in many ways wonderful to behold, appealing directly to working class voters, something that has not been seen for a very long time in the United States. He openly called himself a socialist and it is one of the reasons that a plurality of those under thirty in the United States have indicated their preference in polls for a kind of socialism rather than capitalism. But the Sanders phenomenon was quite limited by the structure of the U.S. plutocracy. He ran on the Democratic Party ticket but with virtually zero support by the professional politicians in the party. Here it is important to understand that the Democratic Party is not a membership party or a movement party in any sense whatsoever. It is what Max Weber called Honoratorenpartei, a party controlled by elites or dignitaries and lacking a clearly defined program or basis of mass participation outside of the vote. It is made up of various regional blocs and situates itself as closely as it can to the left of the arch-conservative Republican Party. If Sanders had been elected he would have had no real relation to the Democrats and would have been far more alienated from his party and the establishment as a whole than is the case for Trump with the Republicans, with no organized political base. The Democratic Party remains a strongly capitalist political structure. As it turned out the Democratic leadership did everything it could to stop Sanders and, in the end, tore up or manipulated the rules in various corrupt ways, in order to deny him the nomination even at the cost of losing the election. And yet Sanders is not at all radical outside the extremely conservative context of imperial America. In terms of political positions, he advanced a moderately Social Democratic program, in many ways less radical than the New Deal of the 1930s. On issues of war and imperialism he generally sided with the Washington military machine, though he was a mild critic in that area.

Corbyn represents a different phenomenon in quite different circumstances. The Labour Party in Britain is a membership party and his great asset was to draw in huge numbers of new members because of a critical-socialist program. His popularity lies in the fact that he has broken with the traditions of British social democracy and can be seen as a figure genuinely engaged at this stage in the movement toward socialism. What makes Corbyn really distinct is his absolute opposition to imperialism, something that sets him apart from all previous Labour Party leaders.

Can you give us your view of Syriza and Podemos.

Syriza and Podemos reflect the strengths and weaknesses of the left, the real potential for revolt and inherent contradictions of purely populist movements. These movements demonstrate the potential for insurgency from below, but in their rejection of a class-struggle perspective; the enormous gap between leaders, who are largely unaccountable, and their base; their insistence on operating entirely within the system; their reformist perspective—all end up ultimately betraying the hopes they raise. This is most obvious in the case of Syriza in power, but also with respect to Podemos, both have become moderate social-democratic projects, at best. The strategic poverty of such movements is evident particularly in their rejection of socialism as a theory, a practice, and a goal. The betrayal of the base once such movements come to power is part of their DNA. Yet, the grassroots left forces that are the constituency of these parties constitute a real, active material force. We must remember Marx and Engels’s injunction that “in the movement of the present, they [the Communists] also take care of the future of the movement.” Radical movement building cannot be reduced merely to the forging of some popular voting coalition, without betraying the future of the movement, that is, the movement of the people itself. It must be aimed at the expropriation of the expropriators.

As the great Epicurus said, “the future is neither wholly ours nor wholly not ours.” It is a product of our material struggles and our relation to the world. In an age where capitalism means exterminism we must necessarily draw our hope from the historical struggle itself, and the recognition that we can, by opposing the logic of the system, stop the headlong rush to disaster, going on to create a world of substantive equality and ecological sustainability. This is in fact capitalism’s greatest fear: the specter of Marxism today.