Reading Capital: Changing Historical Contexts and Different Political Projects

One hundred and fifty years after the first volume of Marx’s Capital was published in 1867, Marx remains a common point of reference but his magnum opus is by no means widely read. Once he was thrown off pedestals across the former Soviet Union, Western business media adopted Marx as a principal witness for the capitalist cause. In 1998, 150 years after the publication of the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels were hailed as prophets of globalization. In the aftermath of the 2007/08 world economic crisis, a string of articles portrayed Marx as the one who saw it coming. Similar articles commemorate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Capital and will, in all likelihood, also appear next year in commemoration of Marx’s 200th birthday.

Reading Capital TodayA common theme running through these articles is that Marx was a master analyst of capitalism but a lousy political theorist. The first claim echoes discussions amongst unrepentant Marxists who all know, as Terry Eagleton’s contention Why Marx Was Right (2012) but argue endlessly what that actualy means. Different currents in these discussions (and there are many) can be traced back to efforts to refine existing forms of Marxian socialism or, if such refinement was considered impossible, invent new such forms. Even the most abstract readings of Capital or other works by Marx, such as those advanced by Louis Althusser or members of the Frankfurt School, were motivated by the recognition that the socialist projects of their days had reached an impasse. Such recognition was denounced by some as retreat from political engagement but seen by others as a necessary step toward moving forward. Today’s situation is different: The socialist projects that dissident movements sought to renew have either collapsed, like the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe; or adapted to neoliberal capitalism, like Western Europe’s social democrats and Chinese Communists. Efforts to forge a unified left out of diverse new social movements have either been integrated into international neoliberalism or marginalized.

Debates and Popular Mobilizations

Theoretical debates that once inspired and guided various forms of Marxian socialism have become isolated vestiges of these socialisms after their disappearance from political life. Isolated not only from much of today’s left organizing but also in competing circles whose members rather talk about each other than with each other. In fact, a fair number of leftists participating in self-encapsulated theoretical discussions do engage in social movements of all sorts, too. But this activism has little to do with their theoretical considerations. Experiences made in various movements leave little impact on theoretical debates let alone trigger major theoretical developments. At the same time, theories that may have been connected to political practice in the past offer neither strategic guidance for today’s movements nor do these theories deliver a vocabulary through which actual and potential activists could express themselves and develop shared identities. Yet, theoretical interventions that could serve as rallying points for a new form of Marxian socialism may be the missing link between widespread discontent and effective social movements capable of overcoming the economic and political conditions causing such discontent. After all, there was no shortage of ‘somehow left leaning’ mass movements since the Soviet Union collapsed, the Chinese communists reconciled themselves with neoliberal capitalism, and Western social democrats took the Third Way to neoliberalism.

Altermondialistas rallied at various places around the globe. A Pink Tide swept across much of Latin America. There was the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street in the U.S., Idle No More, and the Maple Spring in Canada. What these mobilizations have in common is their unexpected burst onto the political scene followed by a rather quick disappearance that left few traces besides unsettling neoliberal hegemony and thereby an opening, against all intentions, for various forms of right-wing populism or authoritarian regimes. Whether the recent election campaigns of Bernie Sanders, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Jeremy Corbyn will transform into effective movements capable of fighting against an increasingly embattled neoliberal centre and surging right-wing formations remains to be seen.

1867: Capital and the Making of a European Workers’ Movement

It surely won’t hurt to reconnect theory and practice in such a way that activists’ experiences are translated into theoretical questions, which, in turn, could produce the kind of new ideas needed to devise strategies, organizing principles and mobilizing vocabularies in order to move from protest bubbles to a growing and sustainable force on the left. This is what happened, admittedly over a rather long period of time, with the ideas Marx put forward in Capital. After the defeat of the 1848 revolution in Europe, Marx retreated from political engagement to work on the critique of political economy. When the first volume of Capital appeared in 1867, Marx would describe the purpose of this inquiry to “lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society” and also made clear that he considered his work to be the product of “scientific inquiry.” This focus on the “logic of Capital,” a term Lenin coined in his Conspectus of Hegel’s Book ‘The Science of Logic’ (1914), seems to be quite removed from the class struggle to which he and Engels had committed themselves in the Communist Manifesto. Workers don’t get much show time as a class struggling against capitalist exploitation in Capital, mostly the reader sees them from the capitalists’ perspective – as owners of an exploitable commodity, labour power.

Marx insisted that, in order to overcome capitalist rule, understanding the sources of capitalist power, wealth and accumulation was more important than moral condemnation. This conviction was the whole point of his critique of political economy. Yet, he must have been aware that the morally charged language he used, notably his labelling of surplus value produced by workers as exploitation, did help fan the flames of discontent amongst socialist readers of Capital or any of the works that helped popularize ideas developed in Capital in the nascent workers’ movement. This was made all the easier by the fact that many workers, at least those labouring in industrial environments similar to those Marx had used to illustrate his otherwise highly abstract analyses, could recognize themselves in Marx’s expositions. They were treated in real life in just the same way that Marx revealed as the necessary treatment of workers by capitalist if the latter wanted to stay in business.

Marx, while insisting on the scientific nature of his inquiries into the logic of capital, also helped popularize his ideas. He and Engels revised, for example, the second edition of Johann Most’s widely circulated summary of Capital (1876). Marx also contributed a chapter to Engels’ Anti-Dühring (1877), a book that included an exposition of Marx’s and Engels’ political economy but also chapters on philosophy and socialism. Along with Kautsky’s Economic Doctrines of Karl Marx (1887), Anti-Dühring was arguably the key text to spread the Marxist message in Europe’s emerging workers’ movement and thereby gave it some ideological coherence that drew ever more workers into the movement. More important than this propagandistic work, though, was Marx’s involvement in the First International from 1864 to 1876.

The declarations he drafted for the International Workingmen’s Association, later known as the First International, portray a proletariat much more diverse than the one that appears in Capital. These declarations also demonstrate a clear sense that the capitalist mode of production operated in a much larger world of contradictions that couldn’t be reduced to a standoff between an increasingly unified proletariat and a capitalist class weakened by crises. During the last years of his life, after the First International had fallen apart, Marx’s scientific interest actually shifted to the study of pre-capitalist societies outside of Europe. He concluded from these studies that, as his posthumously published notebooks show, the economic law of motion he had deduced from his earlier studies of capitalist development in Western Europe might not apply in other places. Yet, rather than publishing any of these new insights or continue his work on Capital, he immersed himself more and more in his studies. Therefore, growing numbers of followers in the Second International (1889–1916), who knew popular versions of Capital but neither the endless pages of drafts on political economy nor his notebooks on pre-capitalist societies, had good reason to see Capital, including volumes two and three edited and published by Engels in 1885 and 1894, respectively, as Marx’s final word on capitalism. This included the belief that his dictum that “the country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future” was referring to the entire world and not just Western Europe. Not surprisingly, then, the Second International focused on organizing growing numbers of workers into parties and unions, expecting that experiences made by workers under the capitalist regime would sharpen their class consciousness and thereby prepare them to fight once capitalist crises would bring the antagonistic interests between workers and capitalists to a boiling point.

However, the fact that Marx buried his notebooks on pre-capitalist societies along with piles of other manuscripts never published during his lifetime, in some cases not until very recently, didn’t mean that the effect of the continued existence of such societies have on capitalist development and working class struggles would go away. A period of slow growth from 1873 to 1896, at the time dubbed the Great Depression, confirmed a reading of Capital expecting an imminent capitalist breakdown. Yet, instead of a breakdown, by the late 1890s a new wave of accumulation set in. This may have been spurred by the emergence of entirely new industries, notably chemical and electrical; but contemporary Marxists mostly understood revived accumulation as the result of a new wave of colonization that had begun during the 1880s. This led some currents in the Second International to drop the ideas of economic breakdown and subsequent revolution and pursue social reform at home on the basis of colonial exploitation abroad. The Marxist left rejected this revision of an allegedly successful orientation toward revolution. Yet, the insistence on economic breakdown as trigger for revolution seemed rather helpless during a time of continued accumulation. The argument that present day accumulation marked just a short delay of an otherwise lingering breakdown, advanced to defend this orthodoxy, made this position probably less rather than more convincing. Moreover, the wait-and-see-approach implied in this argument flew in the face of the rhetoric of revolutionary activism.

The Marxist orthodoxy, though well founded in Marx’s work and advanced by him, was at an impasse. The strategic way out led through new readings of Capital. Hilferding’s Finance Capital (1911) and Luxemburg’s Accumulation of Capital (1913) developed their analyses of capitalism and imperialism, which brought the relations between capitalist and non-capitalist parts of the worlds into the picture, out of their respective readings of Capital shortly before the outbreak of WWI. Lenin, feeling the urgency for strategic renewal much stronger after the outbreak of war, fused Hilferding’s analysis of monopoly capitalism and John Hobson’s proto-Keynesian analysis of imperialism as a vent for surplus in his Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916). Theoretically, this blend was less systematically developed out of Capital as Hilferding’s or, with a different angle, Luxemburg’s analysis but allowed far-reaching political conclusions. These were not just contrary to the reformist implications in Hilferding’s and Hobson’s work but turned out to be guidelines for much of the 20th century communist left in its different incarnations. Though Lenin and his followers still considered working classes as the key agencies in the drama of socialist revolution, the peasant populations of Russia and all over the colonial world were assigned a political role that took more and more centre stage from the 1917 Russian revolution through to the 1979 Nicaraguan revolution.

1917: From the Revolution against Capital to Postwar Prosperity

Antonio Gramsci, a militant of the Italian socialist party at the time of the Russian revolution, called it a “Revolution Against ‘Capital’” (1917). Seen through Second International eyes with their focus on the development of industrial capitalism as a precondition for workers’ revolutionary or just reformist movements, this was a fair judgment. From the angle of Lenin’s analysis of imperialism it simply missed the point. This analysis suggested that colonial exploitation strengthened the imperialist centres by providing a constant stream of surplus-profits that strengthened bourgeoisies in the centre and even allowed them to nurture a labour aristocracy.
Consequently, chances for a revolutionary breakthrough were poor in the centres but good in the peripheries. There, industrial capitalists were competing with landowning classes for hegemony, industrial working classes were small but untainted by the spoils of colonial exploitation and peasants suffered super-exploitation from domestic and foreign masters. Under these circumstances, Lenin argued over and over again, a worker-peasant alliance could wage a successful war of manoeuvre, to employ the language Gramsci developed as communist prisoner of Mussolini’s fascists, against an internally divided ruling class.

Lenin expected that breaking the weakest chain of the imperialist chain would trigger revolution in the West and thereby unravel the whole chain. This didn’t happen. But his analytical framework was flexible enough to provide Soviet communists and the Third International strategic guidance after hopes for a revolutionary breakthrough in the West had been shattered in the early 1920s. New readings of Capital delivered the theoretical tools to refine Lenin’s analysis accordingly. His notion of capitalist decay was developed into a theory of general crisis of capitalism in which capitalism was not only bedevilled by underconsumption, in Eugen Varga’s version of this theory, or a falling rate of profit, in Henryk Grossmann’s version, but also found its sources of colonial profits drying up due to the consolidation of the Soviet Union and the rising tide of anti-colonial movements. In this picture, the Soviet Union was the cornerstone where revolutionary forces could await the next wave of class struggles in the West but that also represented the protecting power of anti-colonial movements in the South.

To play this role, it needed a solid industrial basis. Discussions about the mobilization of the resources needed to build such a basis in a country cut off from the world market unfolded in the framework of the economic two-sector model Marx had used to analyse the process of capitalist circulation. This model had also been the analytical backbone for Luxemburg’s and, at least in parts, Hilferding’s theories of finance capital and imperialism and Varga’s and Grossmann’s different versions of theories of crises. Soviet planners turned it into a blueprint for state-controlled accumulation. The terror that came with the realization of these blueprints undermined Soviet self-projections as the beacon of world revolution. Yet, dissident communists who sought to build a political alternative to the Stalinist dictatorship shared Moscow’s official line according to which capitalism was in its death throes. Even bourgeois economists, most prominently Alvin Hansen and Joseph Schumpeter, were resigned to the idea that capitalism was mired in stagnation and decay. They thought another lease of life was the best they could hope for. Between the two world wars, and notably the Great Depression of the 1930s, this dire outlook on the future of capitalism seemed to be confirmed by the facts. During the long boom that followed WWII any Marxian analyses clinging to the proposition that capitalist breakdown was nigh appeared utterly out-dated, along with socialist strategies based on such analyses.

During the age of catastrophe from 1914 to 1945, theoretical and political debates were marked by a stand-off between liberals who stubbornly insisted that unfettered markets, if left to themselves, would, if only in the long-run, revive capitalism and Marxists proclaiming an inevitable trajectory from economic crises to war and revolution. As neither side was able to rally enough troops to tip the balance in its favour, fascism could present itself as an alternative that would replace the old liberal politics, or what was left of it after the late 19th century turn to protectionism and state-controlled war economies from 1914 to 1918, with massive state intervention. At the same time, fascists declared that the fight for national and racial superiority would supersede class struggle. This equally murderous as megalomaniac project forged an unlikely alliance between the U.S. and the Soviets that allowed both sides to drop ideas and policies that had led to the 1920s and 1930s stand-off between the political project each side claimed to represent.

The Soviets dropped the idea of imminent economic collapse in the West and adopted the claim to be more efficient managers of economic growth than Western capitalists. The latter, grudgingly and in cooperation with their respective governments, took up the challenge by further advancing Keynesian means to promote high levels of employment, economic growth and a compromise between capital and organized labour. Most of its advocates presented Keynesianism as a radically new theory leaving the 19th century traditions of, and divisions between, liberalism and Marxism, behind. But it might as well be argued that Keynesian theory was a perfect reflection of the compromise between capital and organized labour. Keynesianism retained the liberal idea that markets were best suited to allocate capital in the most profitable manner but used macroeconomic aggregates as the theoretical framework for economic policy making. Macroeconomic thinking had been one of the hallmarks of classical political economy but, in the face of the Marxist challenge, been dropped by advocates of the neoclassical economics in the late 19th century. Ironically, this kind of thinking survived in the Marxist tradition from where it could be reintroduced to fashion the social liberalism, or: Keynesianism, that came to signify the postwar boom in the West. In this sense, Paul Mattick had a point when he quipped Marxism: Last Refuge of the Bourgeoisie (1983, posthumously). Not surprisingly, Mattick used his Marx and Keynes (1969) to point at the Limits of the Mixed Economy, which is the subtitle of that book, and theoretically reject the Marxian-Keynesian blend distilled by Baran/Sweezy and a few others.

Meanwhile, the Soviets claimed that Capital was a guide to fast and efficient growth that would allow them to out-compete the West. They also presented the fast-paced industrialization they had gone through during the 1930s as a model for anti-colonial movements burgeoning all across the South during the post-WWII era. The message resonated not only among movements who, like the Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese, were explicitly communist but also by movements trying to steer a course independent from Moscow or Washington. Whereas welfare states in the West marked a domestic class compromise, many developmental states in the South marked a compromise between Soviet communism and U.S.-led capitalism. Both used Keynesian means. Welfare states used them with a focus on sustaining high levels of employment and sharing productivity gains more or less evenly, at least on a macroeconomic level, between labour and capital. Developmental states used them to balance present generations’ interest in rising levels of consumption with the investments needed to enable future mass-consumption associated with fully industrialized countries in the East or West. Keynesianism in the West and in the South sustained and transformed macroeconomic ideas adopted from Capital. Soviet communism openly referred to Capital as its intellectual inspiration. Yet, their reading of Capital replaced the critique of political economy as an intellectual contribution to the larger political project of workers’ emancipation by technocratic policy prescriptions imposed onto workers by ruling party bureaucrats. This reading of Capital was as positivistic as the Keynesianism that guided policy makers in the West and parts of the South during the postwar boom.

1967: New Left Challenges, Neoliberal Responses

Seen through Great Depression eyes, the postwar boom must have looked like the panacea for the social tensions and political turmoil that built up over the 1930s and exploded in WWII. Yet, under the surface of seemingly pacified societies new forms of discontent were brewing. There were widespread fears that Western economies would slide back to depression due to the shortfall of arms spending after the war waned in the mid-1950s, partially because the Cold War created, in Michael Kidron’s terms, a “Permanent Arms Economy” (1967) but also because mass consumption invaded private households on a massive scale. The arms race also created fears of a third – this time thermo-nuclear world war. Accordingly, a movement for nuclear disarmament accompanied the early years of the postwar boom. Further discontent was brewing when women found out that they weren’t part of the deal between unions and capitalists. They were either expected to be stay-at-home wives completely dependent on a male-breadwinner or reduce that dependency somewhat by working double shifts – one unpaid at home, the other for low wages with little to no benefits. Ethnic minorities and immigrants also found themselves as outsiders of the capital-labour accord. The lucky few who worked under collective agreements were relegated to the lowest-paying, dirtiest, and most dangerous jobs. Public services in minority and immigrant neighbourhoods were significantly lower quality than anywhere else.

In many countries of the South, people found out that political independence didn’t necessarily lead to industrialization and thus fulfill future prospects of rising standards of living for the majority. Where industrialization did happen, it came with sweatshop labour and much of the profits skimmed by foreign capitalists. In many countries, though, the colonial plunder of cheap resources and agricultural products simply continued under formally independent political regimes. A series of military coups and interventions from Guatemala to the Congo to Vietnam suppressed efforts to break such neo-colonial ties. In the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellite countries, workers were relieved when the Stalinist reign of terror ended. They even enjoyed levels of social security and equality unthinkable in the West. However, bureaucratic rule remained in control and took on an increasingly paternalistic character that stood in sharp contrast to official ideology that told workers that they were in power. Another part of this ideology stirred discontent, too. Claims to eventually surpass Western economies in terms of growth and standards of living reminded workers in the East constantly of the fact that their standards of living were considerably behind those of Western countries. When discontent turned into mass uprisings, as it did in East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia, bureaucracies responded heavy-handedly and thereby crushed all hopes that socialism with a human face could eventually develop out of the former Stalinist dictatorships. Ironically, it was Eastern Europe that saw the kind of mass workers rebellions that activists and theoreticians from the First to the Third International had expected in the West. Until the late 1960s there were no signs that the social movements triggered by the various discontents in the West would converge into mass revolts comparable to those in Eastern Europe. Capitalist rule in the West could rely on consensus and restrict coercive rule to minorities and, of course, unruly regimes in the South.

Under these conditions a New Left was neither concerned with welfare state expansion, as the heirs of the Second International, nor with drumming support for the Soviets. The questions it dealt with were: How could Western capitalism move from depression and escalating discontent to prosperity and consensus? How could the West sustain its rule in the South against anti-colonial challenges? What could a socialist alternative to bureaucratic communism look like. Marx’s Capital didn’t seem to have much to offer in these regards. It was often, and with some reason, considered as one of the intellectual backbones of the technocratic and productivist regimes in the East and West. Moreover, with a majority of the population enjoying rising standards of living, the concept of exploitation, key to the analysis in Capital, lost much of its political currency. Alienation, a concept developed in Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844), seemed to capture conditions of work and life during the postwar boom much better. Overcoming alienation became the goal of a socialist humanism that served as an alternative to Soviet communism whose bureaucratic rule resembled state and corporate bureaucracies in the West in more than one way. Analyses of alienation in advanced industrial society, a term used by Herbert Marcuse in One-Dimensional Man (1964), were supplemented with the Freudo-Marxist blend originally used by Critical Theorists in the 1930s to understand how fascism could attract a mass basis although these masses could have known that fascism in power would tyrannize them. Under conditions of postwar prosperity, social psychology was used to explain why widespread feelings of alienation didn’t translate into mass rebellion.

On the margins of the capitalist world-system, Capital was of more interest. Not only, where political conditions allowed such efforts, as a guide to catch-up industrialization but also as starting point for a deeper analysis of (neo-)colonial exploitation. Hilferding and Luxemburg had focused on the reasons of colonial expansion in their respective analysis. Luxemburg also depicted the destruction of pre-capitalist societies at the hands of imperialist invaders. Lenin argued that colonial exploitation created the basis for the creation of reformist labour aristocracy but never took the time to demonstrate how this exploitation actually worked and how its spoils were distributed in the imperial centres. Yet, beginning with Arghiri Emmanuel’s Unequal Exchange (1962) a number of Marxists drew on Marx’s labour theory of value, developed in volume one of Capital, to show how some of the wealth created in the peripheries ended up in the imperialist centres. These analyses followed in the tracks of the anti-imperialist readings advanced by Hilferding, Luxemburg, and Lenin. But they expanded the scope of analysis by systematically considering the relations between unevenly developed parts of the capitalist world-system. This new wave of theories of imperialism also drew on a controversy between Paul Sweezy, who saw colonial exploitation as the key factor triggering the industrial revolution, while Maurice Dobb stressed the changes of class forces inside Western Europe. This controversy on the Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism began in the 1950s and was published in a book in 1976. The super-exploitation of Southern peripheries could explain the radicalization of anti-colonial movements but also prosperity in the centres. This interpretation of the postwar capitalism also retained elements of Varga’s theory of a general crisis of capitalism. Even if Keynesian demand-management could suspend tendencies toward crisis inherent in unregulated capitalist economies, an argument made in Baran/Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital (1967), the rising tide of revolution in the South would eventually dry out the sources of prosperity in the centres. Consequently, crises and revolution would also return to the centres.

In the mid-1960s, such prospects looked still out of touch with reality. Frustrated with the dead-end road in which socialist strategies clinging to Third International traditions found themselves, Althusser, himself a member of the French Communist Party, and his collaborators took a radically different approach to Reading Capital (1965). They suggested abandoning all conflations between Capital and the linked histories of capitalism and socialist movements. Historical readings of Capital, they argued, lent themselves to passively awaiting crisis and revolution, a teleological worldview that leaves socialist movements helpless if the expected crisis doesn’t come. As an alternative, they suggested to strictly focus on the text, discard meanings commonly associated with the concepts used by Marx to uncover the elements of the scientific revolution Marx had started but not finished. Interestingly enough, Alhusser’s structuralist reading of Capital led to similar conclusion as readings inspired by the Frankfurt School, which he despised as much as anything smacking of historicism or socialist humanism. Neither Althusser nor the Frankfurt School had room for agency in general or class struggle in particular. New readings of Capital, and Marx’s entire oeuvre, that were inspired by Althusser and the Frankfurt School were further stimulated by Isaak Rubin’s Essays in Marx’s Theory of Value (1928, first English edition 1972) and Roman Rosdolsky’s Making of Marx’s Capital (1967, first English edition 1977).

Though developed on a highly abstract level, such arguments reflected a reality in which protest movements came and went without, at least not on the face of it, leaving many traces. However, times were changing fast in those years. By the end of the 1960s, it seemed that scattered protests from the mid-1950s onwards had been the prelude to popular uprisings in the West, uprisings that coincided with, and were also inspired by, anti-colonial movements in the South and a new wave of rebellions in the East. The time to immerse oneself into Capital or the manuscripts Marx wrote on the way to Capital was over. The Prague Spring and the general strike in France in 1968 and the Hot Autumn in Italy a year later signalled the need for strategic guidance in re-awakened class struggles, and quickly.

Das Kapital @150One way to produce such advice was to keep Althusser’s ‘back to the original text’-slogan but abandon his structuralist interpretations. Now was the time to start Reading Capital Politically, as Harry Cleaver (1979), looking back on autonomous workers’ movements in their final stages, suggested. This reading abandoned political mediations by parties and unions, and thus retained New Left scepticism toward Second and Third International traditions on the left. The political leadership or even vanguardism with which these traditions were associated was replaced by rank-and-file activism and an unmediated confrontation with capital. Indeed, an upsurge of labour militancy during the final years of the postwar boom, in which many strikes had no union backing and were more concerned with the factory regime than wages and hours, suggested an interpretation of Capital that focused very much the ongoing warfare on the shop-floor that Marx depicted notably in his analysis of the working day. But where Marx presented workers fighting back against capitalists’ insatiable thirst for profits, the political reading of Capital in the 1970s, more precisely during the decade’s pre-crisis years, portrayed workers as the ones being on the offensive. Alienated from factory work, they rebelled against the factory regime. Direct action from work-to-rule to outright sabotage and strikes squeezed capitalists’ profits, pushed capitalism into crisis and thereby opened the road to the emancipation of workers from work or any other kind of subjugation. That was the idea.

In the mid-1970s the postwar boom came to an end. Workers who lost their jobs by no means felt emancipated from work. Fears of job loss grew quickly and put an end to the assertive militancy many workers had displayed during the preceding boom years. Labour struggles that still happened took on a much more defensive character, many of them trying to avert layoffs. With workers’ bargaining power on the shop floor weakened, the need for political action became more urgent. This fostered organizing efforts of different Maoist and Trotskyist groups that had already begun at the height of the 1968 protest and strike movements but, with their references to guerrilla wars in faraway countries or the Great Depression of the 1930s, seemed out of touch with economic conditions and political sentiments of the late 1960s. References to the depression became more persuasive during the second half of the 1970s. Crises during those years were nowhere as deep as during the 1930s and welfare states provided a measure of social security that would have seemed unimaginable in the 1930s. Things looked different to a generation of leftists that grew up during the postwar boom, though. To them, the turn from boom to bust was just the beginning of a long period of economic troubles, social polarization and political unrest. Ernest Mandel’s Late Capitalism (1972) had come out just in time before the 1974/5 world economic recession. His argument that the long wave of postwar accumulation would soon come to an end couldn’t have been timed any better. His book was soon followed by a whole string of works, succinctly reviewed in James O’Connor’s The Meaning of Crisis (1987), that drew on Marxist theories of crises developed during the 1920s and 1930s and tried to use them to come to terms with the prospects of capitalist development in the 1970s.

A common frame for these analyses was the expectation that late 1970s developments would unfold as a replay of the 1930s, just this time the left would win. This framework was most common amongst new, and sometimes not so new, communist organizations. But it was also underlying many analyses and strategic proposals advanced by reformist currents within social democratic parties and Eurocommunists trying to dissociate themselves from the Soviets. However, the 1930s replay didn’t happen. On the left, the largest of the new communist organizations were happy if they reached the membership that dissident groups, who nowhere attracted more than a fraction of the communist parties, had in the interwar period. Efforts to move social democratic parties from the junior partner role they had acquired during the postwar boom to some blend of Kautsky and Keynes succumbed to the social democratic right that was increasingly willing to substitute Keynes for Friedman and Hayek if only they could continue to play capitalism’s junior partner.

Neofascist groups, whose emergence was part of the 1930s-replay-frame, were much too weak to serve convincingly as the bugbear as which they were portrayed across the left political spectrum. Capitalists in the 1970s had no taste for fascism. Confronted with the dual challenge of rising discontent and economic crisis, they developed a strategy that would coopt much of the New Left and the then-new social movements and roll back the social reforms that had been won and institutionalized in Western welfare states and Southern developmental states. In the South, the door to this strategy was opened by a combination of military interventions and financial strangulation. To this strategy, later branded neoliberalism, the left had no effective response. The various communist groups understood the need for mass mobilizations but the idea of class they advocated to rally the troops was so reductionist, often amalgamating a poorly digested reading of Capital and selected images from labour history books, that their appeal remained very limited. In their efforts to move social democratic parties to the left, socialist currents never got passed the image as top-down technocrats that had penetrated these parties so deeply during the postwar era. The same was true for Eurocommunists who were often seen as another incarnation of Soviet-controlled front organizations. Many in the new social movements whose thinking was shaped by the postwar ideology of the end of ideology and class conflict had little interest in questions of strategy and power in the first place. The elections of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan marked the breakthrough of neoliberalism in the West. After that, inhibitions to apply the treatment that Chile’s socialist government had gotten in 1973 all across the South were dropped. Neoliberalism was on the march.

2017: Reclaiming Left History, Reading Capital, Building a Movement

Capitalism, led by its neoliberal vanguard, reached its final destination when Soviet communists vacated the Kremlin to IMF advisors and the Chinese communists, eager to ward off the fate of their erstwhile comrades in Moscow, reinvented themselves as managers of export-oriented capital accumulation. This at least was the sense among ruling elites in the early 1990s that Francis Fukuyama succinctly expressed by proclaiming the End of History and the Last Man (1992). This sense of capitalist triumphalism is no longer present. Fukuyama has since revoked his claims about the end of history. However, the small bunch of unapologetic leftists who already denounced Fukuyama as utterly wrong back in the day might have missed the more subtle points in his analysis. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Chinese turn from cautious market reforms to fully-fledged support for capital accumulation signalled the end of the left as a material force. There was no end of history, but there was an end to histories of the left. These histories had begun with a multitude of socialist and communist ‘hypotheses’ and circles, took on more organized and coherent forms through the First and Second Internationals and became a force capitalists had to reckon with after the Russian Revolution. Seen as a premature revolution against Capital by some leftists right from the start, it became a beacon of hope for many others. Oddly enough this was even true during the height of the Stalinist reign of terror, which coincided with the Soviets setting an example of fast-paced industrialization outside the capitalist world market and the Red Army doing most of the fighting against the Nazi Wehrmacht. After WWII, the very existence of the Soviet Union propped up the countervailing powers of unions and social democrats in the West and opened up some wiggle room for anti-colonial movements in the South. Already under pressure from the neoliberal offensive, the collapse of the Soviet Union sealed the fate of developmentalism in the South and welfare capitalism in the West. The South African ANC turned onto the capitalist road just like the Workers’ Party in Brazil, the post-communist parties of Eastern Europe and the social democratic parties in the West. Smaller left currents who thought of Soviet communism as betrayal of revolutionary fervour and true socialism found out quickly that, rather than benefiting from the disappearance of this embarrassment, they took a beating, too.

After 1991, it turned out that pretty much all strategic debates on the left had Soviet communism, if only in a negative way, as their point of reference. This was obvious in the case of efforts trying to unlock the revolutionary process that was first stopped by the failure of the revolution in the West and later subordinated to the Cold War standoff between Moscow and Washington. But this was also true for social democrats who didn’t want to succumb to the role of capitalist junior partner, including the non-aligned movement and even new social movements who defined themselves by dissociating themselves from the just-mentioned old lefts altogether. Whether in a positive or negative way, Soviet communism had been the universal point of reference for the entire left. Its collapse did signal, as Eric Hobsbawm suggested, the end of the short 20th century, indeed. What remains of the various 20th century lefts is a spectre that haunts today’s left possibly more than its capitalist adversaries.

From 1917 to 1991, capitalist crises were not only caused by the unfolding of the inherent contradictions of the logic of capital but also by the various forces of the left threatening profitability, via the quest for higher wages and welfare state provisions, or markets, via the expansion of state-ownership and public sectors. Before and after, crises of capitalism were, and now are, entirely of its own making. A series of crisis beginning in Mexico 1994, moving to Asia in 1997, on to Brazil and Russia in 1998, to Argentina and the U.S. in 2001, and the turning into a world economic crisis in 2007/08 used up pretty much all of the ideological credit that capitalism had earned for winning the Cold War. Yet, the forces of the left are too scattered to mount a serious challenge to capitalist rule.

Looking back, it appears that Capital, even if only a minority of activists at any given point in time ever read it, did play its part in pulling together individuals and groups that sought to change the world. It allowed a positioning for the forces of the left and an evaluation of the forces of capital. On that basis, organizing and mobilizing strategies could be developed and a vocabulary offered that allow individuals to find common ground. Marx began working on Capital after the defeat of the 1848 revolution and continued to work on it while he was also engaged in the First International. In the Second International it seemed that Marx’s idea of building a socialist workers’ movement around an analysis of the capitalist adversary was successfully put to practice. When this turned out illusory, socialists reread Capital to expand the scope of analysis and differentiate between time- and space-bound aspects of the original text and those aspects that could also be used to analyse capitalist development at other times and places. In this vein, Capital was read as a guide to catch-up industrialization and anti-imperialist struggles. It even helped, sometimes amended by social psychology, to understand failures and shortcomings of socialist strategy. The engagement between Marxism and feminism, racism and ecology, pioneered by a 1960s New Left never managed to forge the convergence between the best traditions of the old left and the issues that were raised by then new social movements but possibly prepared the ground in which a new socialism can sprout in the future.

“The point of reviewing past readings of Capital is not to find out whether one was better than another but to identify the traces of political struggles connected to respective readings left in today’s world.”

One could think that past readings of Capital lost their significance once the political projects they have been attached to were moved into the dustbin of history. Yet, they left traces that shape and impact present-day capitalism. For one, state apparatuses that developed as part of the welfare and developmental projects of the postwar period haven’t disappeared. They have been retooled to serve the neoliberal purposes of opening new markets, providing cheap labour and natural resources, and therefore have become major sites of struggle against the capitalist offensive. Moreover, the spectre of past socialisms appears as nostalgia, which has become a widespread sentiment at a time where discontent with neoliberal capitalism is growing by the day but alternative futures still seem unthinkable. If this is the case, past readings of Capital might actually serve as a key to understand the interplay of the logic of capital and class struggles that shape the capitalist world of today. The point of reviewing past readings of Capital is not to find out whether one was better than another but to identify the traces of political struggles connected to respective readings left in today’s world.

Seeing the past through the lenses of respective readings of Capital can also frame a new reading of Capital in such a way that it can reveal not only cracks within the capitalist system but also identify starting points for the convergence of scattered left currents. Such a self-critique of Marxist political economy is actually similar to Marx’s critique of political economy. He used that critique to unlock the history of capitalism, at least parts of it, in order to understand its dynamics in a way that would point toward possible socialist futures. It is true that Capital doesn’t say anything about socialist strategy, let alone a socialist future. Those considerations appeared in political writings for the First International that should be understood as complementary to the scientific analysis in Capital. In a similar fashion, a review of past readings of Capital and a new reading of it should go hand in hand with concrete analysis and practical questions that activists in various movements are engaged with. The critique of Marxist political economy would provide a framework to which various movements could relate and, through collective work and refinement of this framework, cohere. •

Ingo Schmidt teaches Labour Studies at Athabasca University. Recent books include Reading 'Capital' Today: Marx After 150 Years (with Carlo Fanelli) and The Three Worlds of Social Democracy: A Global View.