Socialism: Past or future?

Review of ‘PostCapitalism: a guide to our future’ by Paul Mason

Peter Taaffe, Socialist Party (CWI in England & Wales) General Secretary

Paul Mason’s latest book, PostCapitalism, presents a vision of a new society, without the horrors of the current capitalist system. However, he no longer sees the possibility of mass working-class struggle to change society and dismisses socialism as an old idea whose time has passed. Peter Taaffe reviews.

PostCapitalism: a guide to our future

By Paul Mason

Published by Allen Lane, 2015, £16.99

Paul Mason’s PostCapitalism covers much of the same ground dealt with by Jeremy Rifkin in his earlier book, The Zero Marginal Cost Society, which we reviewed in Socialism Today (No.183, November 2014). Rifkin wrote: “The capitalist era is passing… it has peaked and begun its slow decline”. Mason writes: “The long-term prospects of capitalism are bleak” and the era of neoliberalism is ultimately doomed. His book is well worth reading for his coruscating description of failing capitalism.

Both Mason and Rifkin agree that the ‘end of capitalism’ will be brought about by the colossal development of technology, particularly of information technology which cannot be contained within the narrow limits of the nation state and capitalist private ownership of the means of production. The huge boost to productivity resulting from this means that the cost of producing each additional unit will become close to zero. This would, in turn, make products free or nearly free. If this was to happen, “profit, the lifeblood of capitalism, would dry up” (Rifkin).

Rifkin pays due diligence to the ideas of Karl Marx without himself being a Marxist, coming as he admits from a petty bourgeois background. He represents the empirical conclusions of a thinking section of bourgeois intellectuals who can be influenced by Marxism, particularly when it takes on a mass form. Moreover, as we have pointed out, Rifkin’s ideas indicated the possibility of winning over some of these individuals, particularly younger intellectuals, to the side of the workers’ movement.

Paul Mason, on the other hand, claims to be a Marxist, although his book represents a clear ideological retreat from genuine Marxism. It is deeply pessimistic, particularly about the prospects for the workers’ movement and socialism, which he relegates to the past. Instead, his preferred alternative is the political no-man’s land of ‘post-capitalism’. Both Rifkin and Mason, while scathing about present-day capitalism and its prospects, put forward completely utopian projects: organisation through the ‘commons’ as an alternative. Mason writes: “We’re seeing the spontaneous rise of collaborative production… Parallel currencies, time banks, cooperatives and self-managed spaces… New forms of ownership, new forms of lending… I believe it offers an escape route – but only if these micro level projects are nurtured, promoted and protected”.

And how is this happy state to be realised? Not by the working class and its organisations, who allegedly represent the past, but by “the general intellect… which was the mind of everybody on earth connected by social knowledge, in which every upgrade benefits everybody”. Mason, as a journalist for Channel 4 and formerly Newsnight, indicates here how he has been heavily influenced by the Occupy movement.

Occupy undoubtedly represented an important stage in the political reawakening of the new generation in the US and worldwide, as the movements in Spain, Greece, etc, showed. This was welcomed by us. But Mason takes from this not the strengths and potential of the movement but its weak points: its alleged ‘spontaneity’, and therefore naivety, in confronting capitalism. The idea that a general movement of the youth through conscious ‘non-organisation’ could develop into a movement which could overthrow brutal ‘modern’ capitalism and neutralise the state machine proved to be a cul de sac. One section of the Occupy movement, for instance in Seattle through the election of Kshama Sawant, learnt quickly the necessity for political action to achieve its goals.

A similar process developed in Spain through the indignados, who effectively boycotted ‘politics’ in the last general election, but that led to the victory of the right-wing Partido Popular (PP). As a result we have seen the emergence of a new awareness which recognises the need for radical political action and is reflected in the emergence of Podemos. Whether or not this new movement can harness effectively the undoubted radical and bitter mood of the Spanish working class is another question entirely. Its leadership, with its attempt to construct what is in effect an ‘anti-party party’ with vague criticisms of what it calls the ‘caste’ – instead of clear criticisms of the ruling class and its parties and organisations – has not been able to win the majority of the workers of Spain at this stage. Indeed, its support in the polls has actually gone back in the recent period.

Misunderstanding Marxism

Mason attacks Marxism, specifically Friedrich Engels, the co-founder with Marx of scientific socialism, for his analysis of the British working class. He lacerates Lenin and the Bolshevik party, together with the Russian revolution which they led. He is also highly critical of Marxist economic analysis prior to the first world war which was allegedly beset by “doom premonitions” which were “proved false”. For good measure, he extols Rudolf Hilferding, the pre-first world war Austrian ‘Marxist economist’ who ended up as a reformist apologist and prop for capitalism.

Mason is wrong when he asserts: “Marxism underestimated capitalism’s capacity to adapt”. Marx famously declared that no system disappears from the scene of history without exhausting all the latent possibilities within it. However, this was not to be interpreted in a crude economic ‘determinist’ fashion as, unfortunately, Mason does. Economic developments can be decisive ultimately but the state and politics play a crucial role in the process.

For this reason, Marxism is concerned not just with economic perspectives but with ‘political economy’: the dialectical interrelationship between economic and political developments – cause can become consequence, and consequence become cause. For instance, the betrayal of the revolutionary wave by social democracy and Stalinism that followed the second world war laid the political preconditions for a stabilisation of capitalism and the long boom of world capitalism from 1950-75.

For the same reason we reject the artificial construct borrowed from the Russian economist Nikolai Kondratiev about so-called long waves, or super cycles, which Leon Trotsky answered in 1923. Trotsky discounted the 50-year cycle envisaged by Kondratiev, and now by Mason and others, which was arrived at by abstractly analysing linear economic processes, without fully taking account of the impact of big political developments both within a country and internationally.

Mason also cannot resist taking a pop at ‘Trotskyism’ (which he once adhered to in his membership of a small group, Workers Power, which grew out of the SWP) for a mistaken economic analysis in 1946 made by one political trend, the United Secretariat of the Fourth International. The forerunners of Militant (now the Socialist Party) did take account of political developments at that time, most notably the sell-out by social democracy and Stalinism of the post-war revolutionary wave. They adjusted their economic and political perspectives accordingly and were able, therefore, to envisage that the 1945 Labour government would be able to carry through serious reforms.

The First World War

Mason is similarly mistaken on the origins of the first world war. The analysis of Lenin, Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg, etc, prior to the war, in answer to the reformist theoretician Edward Bernstein – ‘the movement is everything, the final goal nothing’ – was vindicated by the war itself. They recognised that capitalism before the war was a relatively progressive system, capable of further development of the productive forces – science, technique and the organisation of labour. This was not to say that a revolution in the 19th century – such as the Paris commune in 1871 – if it had succeeded, would not have been able to develop industry and society at a much greater pace.

However, given the absence of this, capitalism was still able to go forward, leading to the growth of the working class, its future gravedigger. But capitalism reached its limits, was transformed from a relative barrier on production into an absolute fetter, with the nation state and private ownership acting to strangle the productive forces. This could only lead to the catastrophe of war.

Nonetheless, in the boom that proceeded the first world war – roughly from 1896 to 1914 – class and social relations had softened somewhat and the leaders of the workers’ organisations accommodated to this situation. The working class were therefore not prepared for the impending catastrophe of world war. The betrayal by the social democratic leaders in supporting their own ruling classes in the war completely disorientated the working class and the labour movement.

Three years of carnage prepared the way for revolution, in particular for the Russian revolution of 1917. Yet Mason writes: “The decisive event of the 200-year history of organised labour [was] the destruction of the German workers’ movement by fascism”. Not revolution but counter-revolution was more decisive! On the contrary, in those 200 years – indeed, in all preceding human history – it was the Russian revolution which was the decisive event, and not the fascist counter-revolutions in Germany, Italy and Spain. They acted as a giant brake on society and the working-class movement.

Fighting to survive capitalism?

These are not abstract issues merely of historical interest. Mason is one-sided in his analysis: “It becomes necessary to say something that many on the left will find painful: Marxism got it wrong about the working class. The proletariat was the closest thing to an enlightened, collective historical subject that human society has ever produced. But 200 years of experience show it was preoccupied with ‘living despite capitalism’ not overthrowing it… The literature of the left is littered with excuses for this 200-year story of defeat: the state was too strong, the leadership too weak, the labour aristocracy too influential… Far from being the unconscious bearers of socialism, the working class were conscious about what they wanted, and expressed it through their actions. They wanted a more survivable form of capitalism… This was not the product of mental backwardness. It was an overt strategy based on something the Marxist tradition never gets it head around: the persistence of skill, autonomy and status in working-class life”.

So the 20th century, which was punctuated by wars, economic and social catastrophes, revolutions and uprisings, was not a mighty effort to establish a new socialist world but just an attempt by the proletariat to establish a “survivable capitalism”. Mason manages to conjure away the Russian revolution, the German revolution from 1918-23, the sit-down strikes and revolutionary potential in Italy in 1920 and in the USA in the 1930s, and the Spanish revolution of 1931-37 when the immortal Spanish working class could have made ten revolutions.

That is not to mention the greatest general strike in history and mass occupation of the factories in France in 1968, as well as revolutionary upheavals in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, etc, in the 1970s. Let us recall that the Times newspaper declared in 1975, after the defeat of the attempted coup of Spinola, that “capitalism in Portugal is dead” as the banks were nationalised and 70% of industry was taken over due to the pressure of an insurgent working class. This, it seems, was all due to a misunderstanding! Rather than revolution, the perspective of a new society, the masses spilled their blood, made huge sacrifices, colossal exertions of energy just to establish a different form of capitalism.

The same is true about Mason’s assertion that what we now face is “not just the working class in a different guise; it is networked humanity”. There you have it: at one stroke the working class is dissolved. There is nothing new in these arguments. He merely regurgitates the ideas of those in the past, particularly after the collapse of Stalinism, who moved away from Stalinism to embrace Euro-communism, which played an important role in theoretically underpinning the move towards the right in the Labour Party in Britain under Neil Kinnock. Prominent in this was Eric Hobsbawm who Mason praises in his book. He pointed to deindustrialisation as an expression of the alleged demise of the working class.

While the working class in its classic form – industrial workers – had declined numerically in the advanced industrial countries, on a world scale it had probably grown in numbers and particularly in their specific weight through the mass industrialisation of countries like China, India, Brazil, etc. We recognise that the process has gone even further now but there is still a substantial section of the working class employed in transport, industry, etc, who can and will play a decisive role as the recent strikes of London Underground workers have shown.

But even if this was not the case, there is also the proletarianisation of formerly ‘privileged’ layers, such as teachers, civil servants, post office workers and university lecturers who are often paid miserable wages and consider themselves working class, join unions, etc. We have recently seen big movements in the US for $15 now, alongside low-paid workers in Britain calling for £10 an hour. There have been revolts of call centre workers and those employed by Amazon against increasingly oppressive conditions. They are and will be affected by the general mood of the working class as a whole, not just on the industrial plane, but also politically and socially.

Socialist consciousness

There is not as yet a development of a broad socialist consciousness, even in Greece despite the depths of the economic crisis which has brought in its wake unparalleled class anger and action. Witness the more than 30 general strikes where the heroic working class has literally battered at the foundations of Greek capitalism, the colossal upheavals in Spain and Portugal, as well as in Britain with the Corbyn phenomenon. This amounts to a political uprising of the working class and youth, in particular, which has shocked the Blairites and the bourgeois alike.

Mason sees Marxist political analysis and explanation of why this has not as yet resulted in a victory for the working class as merely ‘excuses’. He has a totally one-sided, determinist view of consciousness which is formed through a combination of events, the collective experience of the working class, particularly of its leading layers, together with the crucial leadership role of parties and leaders. The social democratic parties in their heyday of the late 19th century, when, in Germany for instance, they were under the direct influence of Marx and Engels, and in the first decades of the 20th century, pursued systematic socialist education of thousands of workers. These, in turn, imbued millions with the ideas of socialism, linking this to their daily experience. The inadequacies of capitalism were driven home through speeches, newspaper articles, pamphlets, etc.

Roman mythology tells us that Minerva comes fully formed from the head of Jupiter. Mason clearly believes that working-class consciousness is similarly formed, uninfluenced by objective changes. How else could he write in the Guardian précis of his book: “Over the past 25 years it has been the left’s project that has collapsed. The market destroyed the plan; individualism replaced collectivism and solidarity; the hugely expanded workforce of the world looks like a ‘proletariat’ but no longer thinks or behaves as it once did”. This reveals that he has not understood how the collapse of Stalinism, particularly against the background of capitalist boom, had an enormous effect, and still exercises a big influence, on the political outlook of the working class.

The dismantling of the planned economy – which had been a reference point for the world working class, despite the incubus of a monstrous bureaucracy – allowed the ruling class to conduct a massive campaign extolling the advantages of capitalism over ‘discredited socialism’. This represented a major political defeat, the throwing back of consciousness, for the labour movement and the working class internationally – although not on the scale of the severe defeats which followed the victory of fascism in the 1930s.

Even after the 2007/08 crisis, from thousands of platforms, the capitalists hammered home the message that there was no alternative to the ‘market’. The leaders of the trade unions and social democracy echoed this message as they moved further and further towards the right. This is the reason why the working class in its broad mass as well as the more developed layers, despite hurling themselves into struggle against the onslaught of capital, have not as yet embraced the real alternative of democratic socialism to the current system of capitalism.

However, the ground has been ploughed, as the election of Kshama Sawant in Seattle and Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the US presidency has demonstrated, in which the new seeds of a socialist consciousness will flower. This will develop even in the USA, the citadel of world capitalism. Crisis torn Europe and the rest of the world will not be far behind.

Utopian socialism

Paul Mason’s alternatives to this are not at all modern, an advance on the “outdated ideas of socialism”. It is in essence, as he freely admits, a return to the idea of collaboration through co-operatives. Yet, in reality, this is the old idea of Robert Owen and others, which predated Marxism and the emergence of a politically aware working-class movement. Owen was a genius, with a ‘sublime’ personality who, through his model colonies, gave us a glimpse of what was possible through socialism. Nevertheless, it was utopian and his projects ultimately failed. It was a heroic attempt to create islands of socialism in a sea of capitalism. The aim was to “change society behind the backs of society”.

Mason claims that the utopian socialists failed because of scarcity at the time but that now, in the abundance which would result from the application of information technology, sharing, etc, the project would succeed. He is wrong on a number of counts. As Marx and Engels pointed out, the utopian socialists took the form that they did because the working class had not yet fully matured as an independent force with a class consciousness. However, they did attain this through Chartism, the first manifestation of an independent working-class movement in history.

In the course of roughly ten years, the Chartist movement manifested all the phases of the class struggle, from the peaceful petition to the revolutionary general strike. It was this experience which Engels drew on in his marvellous book, written when he was 24, The Conditions of the Working Class in 1844, and which Mason attacks. He does the same in relation to Marx and Engels’ explanation as to why, following the 1848-51 revolution, capitalism experienced a boom which led to a period of “moderation” in the British labour movement.

Mason writes: “Engels said workers become moderate because they ‘shared in the benefits’ of Britain’s imperial power. Not just the skilled workers – who he described as an ‘aristocracy of labour’ – but also the broad mass of the people, who Engels believed also benefited from the falling real prices as a result of Britain’s empire. However, he thought Britain’s competitive advantages were temporary and that skilled privilege would also be temporary”.

Engels was right. Capitalism began to lose its competitive advantage in the late 19th century. That, in turn, affected the working class and led to the revolt of the low-paid match-girls, dockers, etc. Of course, the skilled sections of the working class still existed although they were also affected by the decline of British capitalism. Those with skills will need to be paid extra even in a society which is in transition from capitalism to socialism. Mason’s attempt to present Marx and Engels as wrong and one-sided in relation to their analysis of the working class as the main agency of change does not stand up to serious examination. His method is eclectic, an economic and political mishmash, compiled to fit into his utopian perspective.

In his conclusions, Mason admits as much: “We need to be unashamed utopians”. He has already achieved this goal in his schematic model which bears no relationship to how events will unfold in Britain and worldwide in the next period. He shows the ideological roots of his analysis when he writes: “The most effective entrepreneurs of early postcapitalism are exactly that [utopians], and so were all the pioneers of human liberation”. No mention of socialism or of the working class in the battles to come.

It is clear that Mason has been negatively affected by the failure of radical movements – particularly the capitulation of Alexis Tsipras in Greece which he observed at close quarters for TV – to confront rotten capitalism. But this is just one phase of the class struggle. The working class of Greece, Europe and the world will learn big lessons from this bitter experience. We need not only powerful organisations of the working class but a leadership capable of going to the end with the masses to eradicate capitalism and open up a new socialist vista. Unfortunately, Paul Mason’s book will hinder rather than help this task.