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Thread: Paul Mason: Those who lived through the Russian Revolution understood history

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    Default Paul Mason: Those who lived through the Russian Revolution understood history

    https://www.theguardian.com/commenti...tory-unlike-us



    By Paul Mason

    As the events of 1917 unfolded, many working-class people would have been able to understand the parallels with the French Revolution. A century later, our ignorance may be our downfall

    Things were going badly for Lenin this time 100 years ago. We are eight days away from the centenary of the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power, but, as he prepared to strike, Lenin fell victim to one of the great scoops of the 20th century.

    After a scratchy committee meeting had set the date of the revolution for 2 November (western calendar), two leading Bolsheviks, Zinoviev and Kamenev, who thought the whole idea crazy, leaked the plan to a pro-government newspaper.

    Lenin, outraged, expelled them from the party and ordered the insurrection to be postponed for five days. The provisional government, already largely powerless, spent that time ordering extra troops into Petrograd, while the Bolshevik commissars set about countermanding these orders.

    The whole thing, in other words, was done in the open. The New York Times reported, on 1 November 1917, that a “demonstration” planned by “the radical agitator Nikolai Lenine” had been postponed and that the government was safe. The rest, as they say, is history.

    As we approach the anniversary of the Russian Revolution, responses will come in three flavours: conservative condemnation; the liberal mixture of admiration and regret; and enthusiastic commemoration. Though I reject Bolshevism, and date the degeneration of the revolution to the early 20s, I will be among those celebrating. The Russian Revolution was an intervention by the masses into history, like the French before it, and it is possible to celebrate that if you also acknowledge and celebrate the fight workers put up against the fairly rapid shutdown of their freedoms that happened in the years afterwards.

    For me, the revolution of 7 November represents exactly what the densely typed leaflets the Bolsheviks distributed in the run-up to the event promised: “class power”. The liberal-socialist provisional government that had run Russia since the tsar’s abdication was foundering. Numerous generals were mobilising for a military coup. The army at the front was falling apart. Anti-Jewish pogroms were breaking out.

    The working class, said Lenin’s agitators, was the only force that could step into the power vacuum, pull Russia out of a war it was losing badly, end the pogroms and suppress the rightwing officers preparing for military rule. There would be a civil war in any case: the workers had been in control of the factories since July, and many reasoned it was better to start it on the front foot.

    We know today how wrong it went. Lenin and the Soviet military commander Leon Trotsky knew that, unless the workers of France and Germany joined in, their own revolution was doomed – and they knew from studying the French Revolution of 1789 exactly what kind of doom it faced: either to be crushed by foreign-backed armies or face a takeover by an authoritarian tendency from within. Though they acted all too ruthlessly against the external threat, they were ineffective against the internal one, and, on balance, stand guilty of promoting it.

    What strikes me now, reading the oral accounts and memoirs that researchers have recently dug up, is how historically literate many ordinary people were. As they resisted the idea of a workers’ revolution, working-class supporters of the Mensheviks – a moderate socialist party – repeatedly used the word “Thermidor” to warn of what might happen. Thermidor was the month in 1794 during which the Jacobin phase of the French Revolution was ended, with the beheading of Robespierre.

    As early as 1909, Menshevik writers introduced the idea of a Russian Thermidor into their popular press and pamphlets. If the workers were to take power in a backward country, went the argument, then, just as in France, you would need a “terror”; the economy would collapse and, one day, an authoritarian group would rise from within the revolution to reimpose control. As the events of 1917 unfolded, most literate working-class people would have been able to understand the parallels with 1789.

    Our time is different. Since 2011, we have lived through a sudden rush of history: the collapse of dictatorships, the emergence of new protest ideologies, the collective punishment of populations, unilateral annexations, declarations of independence and the fragmentation of once-important institutions.

    But how much of what we are living through do we understand? Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History, and the claims of a permanently unipolar world order that accompanied it, belong to a bygone era. But the assumption that we have entered a state of technocratic permanence lives on.

    If you talk to former spooks, diplomats and geostrategic analysts, they are intensely worried about the world, and tend to deploy historical parallels to express their concerns. Businesspeople and politicians tend to be worried about next year’s revenues and poll ratings, and have very few reference points with which to understand the dynamics of catastrophe.

    As for the word “thermidor”, in British public life, you are more likely to hear it attached to the word “lobster” than in reference to the dynamics of revolution and counter-revolution.

    Public service broadcasting, which has become extremely adept at explaining nature, rarely explains history well. We live in a golden age of historical dramas, in which the events disrupting the love affairs of pretty people in costumes always come like a thunderbolt from the blue. Debbie Horsfield’s Poldark bucks this trend, but if the BBC wanted to add some public service value it would run Dan Snow or Tristram Hunt for an hour after Poldark, explaining the interplay of the French Revolution and the formation of the British working class.

    In the next few days, arguments about the rights and wrongs of Russia in 1917 will rise to a climax. Many other arguments will be heaped on top of them – as when Estonia earlier this year demanded the leftwing Greek government admit that “communism was as bad as fascism” (it refused).

    What we should promote, as we refight the battles of the 20th century, is historical literacy. Knowing what Thermidor meant didn’t stop hundreds of thousands of Russian workers taking the gamble of supporting the seizure of power by a tight-knit underground party. But it probably prepared them better for what happened next.

    • Paul Mason is a Guardian columnist
    "You have to be a KAUTSKYAN on the question of organizing in "Educate, Agitate, Organize!" as opposed to "Agitate, Agitate, Agitate!" to get to the point of having a mass workers' party which can possibly pose the question of power." (Mike Macnair)

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    Default Re: Paul Mason: Those who lived through the Russian Revolution understood history

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2017...ew%20Believers

    Bolshevism’s New Believers
    Benjamin Nathans
    November 23, 2017 Issue
    The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution
    by Yuri Slezkine
    Princeton University Press, 1,104 pp., $39.95
    Russian State Library, Moscow/©Estate of Georgii and Vladimir Stenberg/RAO Moscow/VAGA, New York


    Over the past one hundred years, some 20,000 books on the Russian Revolution have been published, roughly six thousand of them in English. It’s as if, starting on October 25, 1917—or November 7, according to the Western calendar the Bolsheviks adopted soon after seizing power—a new book on that topic appeared without fail every weekday (with summers off). It could be worse: there are now over 70,000 books on the French Revolution. Which one are you going to read?

    The Russian Revolution reshaped global time and space. The replacement of the House of Romanov by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics inaugurated what came to be known as the “short twentieth century”; the USSR’s disintegration in 1991 signaled its finale, in all likelihood the last time events in Europe will serve as a century’s bookends. The Soviet project precipitated the partition of the planet into first (capitalist), second (socialist), and third (developing) worlds. For much of its existence, the USSR haunted the West and beckoned developing societies to replicate Russia’s leap into industrial and fully sovereign socialism.

    The Russian Revolution, to borrow a phrase from Gershom Scholem, the historian of Jewish messianism, was one of history’s “plastic hours,” when inherited institutions melt away, clearing a path for possibility. Having embarked on that path, the Bolsheviks set about turning capitalism into the world’s ancien régime. Instead, at the centenary of its birth, the Soviet Union is an increasingly distant memory, a bizarre country that once had the audacity to try to abolish private property, markets, and, for a brief time, money itself.

    Where did the USSR come from? Was it the offspring of Russia’s peculiar development under the tsars, or did it arise from the inner contradictions of capitalism? Were its ambitions scripted by Marx and Engels, or did they emerge from broader currents of the Enlightenment—the same currents that, under different conditions, propelled the United States, France, and other countries to take their leave of monarchy? Throughout the many studies devoted to these questions runs an abiding tension between those that cast the USSR as an outlier in modern history and those that place it within a family of European or even universal phenomena. One of the first attempts at the latter approach focused on the fact that, notwithstanding their radically different political habits, in the end the Soviets and their capitalist rivals produced roughly the same kind of society: urban, industrial, educated, secular, consumerist, and science-friendly. A more recent version of the modernization-as-convergence argument, shaped by thinkers as diverse as Michel Foucault and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, puts the family resemblance in a decidedly darker light, stressing shared attributes of technocracy, state surveillance, mass mobilization, and urban anomie.

    Yuri Slezkine’s monumental new study, The House of Government, also situates the Russian Revolution within a much larger drama, but one that resists the modernization narrative and instead places the Bolsheviks among ancient Zoroastrians and Israelites, early Christians and Muslims, Calvinists, Anabaptists, Puritans, Old Believers, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Rastafarians, and other millenarian sects. As sworn enemies of religion, the Bolsheviks would have hated this casting decision and demanded to be put in a different play, preferably with Jacobins, Saint-Simonians, Marxists, and Communards in supporting roles. Slezkine, however, has claimed these groups for his story as well, insisting that underneath their secular costumes they too dreamed of hastening the apocalypse and building the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. The Bolsheviks, it seems, were condemned to repeat history—a history driven not by class struggle, as they thought, but by theology.

    Slezkine was born in 1956 and raised in Moscow. The son of a historian and grandson of a fiction writer also named Yuri Slezkine, he graduated from Moscow State University before making his way to the United States, where he attended graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin and is now a professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley. He first achieved international notice in 1994 with an article entitled “The USSR as a Communal Apartment, or How a Socialist State Promoted Ethnic Particularism.”* The Soviet Union had just broken up into fifteen ethnically defined states, confirming for many its status as a “prison house of nations” (one of Lenin’s many epithets for tsarist Russia) from which the inmates had finally staged their jailbreak.

    Slezkine came to a very different conclusion: despite their insistence that class, not nationality, was the deepest source of human solidarity, the Bolsheviks had turned out to be nation-builders of the first order. Their “chronic ethnophilia” inspired “the most extravagant celebration of ethnic diversity that any state had ever financed,” and was largely responsible for the formation of the very national-territorial units that burst forth as newly independent states in the 1990s. To capture the process of socialist nation-building, Slezkine deployed a perfectly Soviet metaphor: the communal apartment, the sprawling pre-revolutionary living space partitioned after 1917 into separate rooms, each housing an entire family, with a single shared kitchen and bathroom per apartment. “Remarkably enough,” he wrote, “the communist landlords went on to reinforce many of the partitions and never stopped celebrating separateness along with communalism.”

    Slezkine’s book The Jewish Century (2004) performed a similar volte-face, turning the story of Jewish assimilation on its head and moving Soviet Jewry from the margins to the center of the short twentieth century. Wide-ranging, witty, and provocative, it became the subject of academic symposia in the United States, France, Germany, Russia, and Israel. Modernization, Slezkine argued, is about “everyone becoming urban, mobile, literate, articulate, intellectually intricate, physically fastidious, and occupationally flexible,” and thus “about everyone becoming Jewish.” Different groups accomplished this metamorphosis at different rates, “but no one,” he noted, “is better at being Jewish than the Jews.”

    For centuries, diaspora Jews (or at least some of them—Slezkine was not overly interested in such distinctions) belonged to a human type he dubbed “Mercurians,” familiar strangers wherever they lived, “service nomads” whose professional profile, food rituals, cosmologies, and, not least, endogamy kept them distinct from the rooted, agrarian, martial, and much more numerous “Apollonians” around them. Diaspora Armenians and Chinese were Mercurians too. Ukrainians, Russians, and other peasant-dominated populations, by contrast, were Apollonians. Slezkine’s most important point, however, was that Mercurianism and Apollonianism, rather than being innate qualities of this or that group, were strictly functional categories. Individuals and ethnic groups could move in and out of them over time, and since the modern world increasingly rewarded Mercurian qualities, modernization was the story of what happened when more and more Apollonians began to switch sides—as did a few quixotic Mercurians, aka Zionists.

    The Jewish Century, it turns out, was a kind of prequel to an even grander project, The House of Government. A striking proportion of the latter’s characters (and residents) were of Jewish background, reflecting the extraordinary presence of Jews in the early Soviet political, cultural, and administrative elite. By attending to the rise and fall of that presence in The Jewish Century, Slezkine in effect cleared space for exploring the Soviet experiment in its largest, world-historical dimensions. Readers will note cameo appearances by this or that figure in both books, but above all they will recognize the hallmarks of Slezkine’s highly distinctive way of thinking and writing about history. Serious novels, the literary critic Robert Alter once wrote, are a way of knowing, and much the same can be said of Slezkine’s work.

    Constructed on what feels like a lifetime of research and reflection, The House of Government offers a virtuosic weaving of novelistic storytelling, social anthropology, intellectual history, and literary criticism. It moves effortlessly (though the copious sources cited in the endnotes suggest otherwise) across different historical scales, joining a millennia-spanning, pattern-seeking master narrative to acute readings of diaries, letters, novels, and other such documents, often quoted at luxurious length. More than most historians, Slezkine conveys a sense of knowing his Bolshevik subjects (and occasionally their spouses and children) from the inside out, inhabiting not just their thoughts but their emotions and their most intimate relationships as well. He himself is capable of many moods: ironic, elegiac, deadpan, tragic, analytical. His goal is to make readers feel at home in the House of Government, and he accomplishes this not least via a preternatural prose style in a language not his native tongue, calling to mind Nabokov and Conrad.

    The House of Government was a fortress-like edifice constructed in the late 1920s on a swamp across the Moscow River from the Kremlin. The largest residential building in Europe, its 507 fully furnished apartments were designed to house leading Soviet officials and their families, the pinnacle of what would come to be known as the nomenklatura. It may have been a bad idea to build such a structure on a swamp, but Russia had a history of pulling off such ventures. Peter the Great had founded a spectacular new capital, St. Petersburg, on the swamps off the Gulf of Finland. The Bolsheviks had launched the world’s first Marxist revolution in a figurative swamp, an overwhelmingly agrarian, thinly industrialized country whose tiny proletariat had only begun to emerge from the sea of peasants spread across Russia’s vast hinterland. Building socialism in backward Russia meant transforming the entire country into “a gigantic construction site.” Unlike some other political figures, when the Bolsheviks promised to drain the swamp, they meant it.

    If the communal apartment served as a metaphor for the USSR’s multiethnic society, the House of Government, in Slezkine’s telling, was the “place where revolutionaries came home and the revolution came to die.” By the mid-1930s it was the dwelling place of some seven hundred top officials and more than twice that number of spouses, children, assorted relatives, and nannies—the last group mostly refugees from the famine caused by the disastrous collectivization of Soviet agriculture. The up-and-coming Nikita Khrushchev lived in Apt. 199 with his wife and three children. Maxim Litvinov, Stalin’s foreign minister, lived in Apt. 14, just a few doors away from his son, daughter-in-law, and grandson, the future dissident Pavel Litvinov. Matvei Berman, chief architect of the Gulag system, was in Apt. 141, while Boris Iofan, chief architect of the House of Government itself, settled into Apt. 426. The civil war hero Valentin Trifonov shared Apt. 137 with his second wife, Evgenia Lurye (sixteen years his junior), as well as his ex-wife, Tatiana Slovatinskaia (nine years his senior). Evgenia was Tatiana’s daughter by a previous marriage. Evgenia and Valentin’s children Yuri (the future Soviet writer) and Tatiana lived there too. Trifonov, Slezkine archly notes, was a man “free of prejudices.” He wasn’t the only one. Nikolai Bukharin secured Apt. 470 for his aging father; his second wife, Anna Larina (twenty-six years his junior); their infant son; and his first wife, Nadezhda Lukina (who was also his cousin). Bukharin himself retained an apartment inside the Kremlin.

    This being the Soviet Union, the apartments belonged to the state, as did the furniture and, in some sense, the inhabitants. Most of the fathers and some of the mothers were “Old Bolsheviks,” professional revolutionaries under the tsarist regime who had joined the party as young men and women, serving time in prison, Siberian exile, or abroad, where they had “courted each other, married each other (unofficially), and lectured each other.” All of them had pledged their lives to the party.

    As Slezkine makes clear, however, the Bolsheviks were not a political party in the conventional sense of a group seeking, by vote gathering or other means, to elevate themselves into existing institutions of power. Nor, despite their fervent denunciation of religion and metaphysics in the name of science and materialism, were they immune to eschatological impulses. Writing of the Bolsheviks and other revolutionary parties of the early twentieth century, Slezkine observes:

    Their purpose was to…bring about [Russian] society’s replacement by a “kingdom of freedom” understood as life without politics. They were faith-based groups radically opposed to a corrupt world, dedicated to “the abandoned and the persecuted,” and composed of voluntary members who had undergone a personal conversion and shared a strong sense of chosenness, exclusiveness, ethical austerity, and social egalitarianism.

    In a word, the Bolsheviks were a sect.

    Slezkine is by no means the first to argue that Bolshevism is best understood as a form of religious faith. In July 1917, two months before they overthrew the Provisional Government, the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev wrote that “Bolsheviks, as often happens, do not know the ultimate truth about themselves, do not grasp what spirit governs them.” By laying claim to “the entire person” and seeking to provide answers to “all of a person’s needs, all of humanity’s sufferings,” Bolshevism drew on “religious energies—if by religious energy we understand not just what is directed to God.” The German political theorist Carl Schmitt’s landmark study Political Theology, published in 1922, revealed modern European notions of law, sovereignty, and the state as thinly disguised transpositions of theological concepts, smuggling the sacred into what purported to be secular institutions.

    Following Berdyaev and Schmitt, countless observers have linked Bolshevik practices to alleged Christian precedents. Samokritika (self-criticism) sessions have been likened to Christian confession, the project of building socialism to a crusade, communism’s “radiant future” to the Kingdom of Heaven, and the Lenin cult to the veneration of saints. Herbert Marcuse claimed that in the USSR, Marxism stood in for Weber’s Protestant ethic, cultivating forms of self-discipline essential for a modern industrial economy. Most of these analogies are merely associative, suggesting ways of thinking about Bolshevism without claiming (let alone demonstrating) lineal descent from Christianity. All of them face significant challenges. Wouldn’t one have to posit an epidemic of false consciousness to account for so much religiosity on the part of the militantly antireligious Bolsheviks? Why do some analogies refer to quintessentially Catholic practices and others to quintessentially Protestant or Russian Orthodox ones? How can any of them account for the motives of the many Jewish party members?

    Bolsheviks are by no means the only moderns to be subjected to the secularization thesis. While the first Soviet officials were settling into their apartments in the House of Government, the American historian Carl Becker was completing his boldly contrarian Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, in which he argued that the Enlightenment had dethroned Christianity only to reinstate it “with more up-to-date materials.” A generation later, M.H. Abrams’s Natural Supernaturalism claimed much the same for Romanticism.

    Slezkine’s version of the secularization thesis is simultaneously more specific and much broader. In their thinking and their interactions with one another, on the one hand, Bolsheviks displayed the particular form of religious fervor associated with millenarian sects, namely the desire to eradicate “private property and the family as the most powerful and mutually reinforcing sources of inequality,” thereby fashioning, once and for all, a “simple, fraternal society organized around common beliefs, possessions, and sexual partners (or sexual abstinence).” Millenarian sects with apocalyptic dreams, on the other hand, have appeared in many different religions and historical eras. Indeed, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism (to name a few) are, according to Slezkine, “institutionalized embodiments of unfulfilled millenarian prophecies,” churches that sought to routinize the teachings, if not all the practices, of the rebellious sects that gave birth to them.

    Not only is apocalyptic millenarianism a type of belief and a way of life found in all major religions, Slezkine claims, it is also the template for all modern revolutions. Before the Bolsheviks there was the Russian intelligentsia, to be a member of which meant “being religious about being secular; asking ‘the accursed questions’ over lunch and dinner; falling deeper and deeper into doubt and confusion as a matter of principle; and feeling both chosen and damned.” Before them were the Jacobins (“an Age of Reason revival”) and before them the Puritans (“a Christian revival”):

    Both were defeated by the non-arrival of a New Jerusalem (“liberty”) and the return of old regimes (“tyranny”), but both won in the long run by producing liberalism, the routinized version of godliness and virtue. The inquisitorial zeal and millenarian excitement were gone, but mutual surveillance, ostentatious self-control, universal participation, and ceaseless activism remained as virtues in their own right and essential prerequisites for democratic rule (the reduction of individual wills to a manageable uniformity of opinion)…. The expectation of imminent happiness was replaced by its endless pursuit.

    In the nineteenth century, a new breed of prophets—foremost among them Marx—“left Jesus out altogether without feeling compelled to change the plot. Providence had become history, progress, evolution, revolution, transcendence, laws of nature, or positive change, but the outcome remained the same.” Weber was wrong: the modern world is not disenchanted (even if secularists pretend otherwise) but a continuation of Christianity by other means. Whether liberal, communist, fascist, or authoritarian, every polity relies to one degree or another on the persistence of charismatic authority and the (usually disguised) theological legitimation of political power.

    In the ongoing debate about secularization, as should be clear by now, Slezkine has staked out a maximalist position: politics is incapable of divorcing itself from the sacred, and history consists of endlessly recurring salvation projects. The Bolsheviks, following Marx’s example, made sense of their unfolding revolutionary drama via French archetypes: they were the new Jacobins, the Mensheviks were the hated Girondins, and everyone anxiously awaited a Russian Vendée and a Russian Thermidor.

    Slezkine does them one better. Having concluded that millenarianism is the true interpretive key, he applies his own rebranding: capitalism is “Babylon,” the Bolsheviks are “the preachers,” Marxism-Leninism is “the faith,” agitation and propaganda are called “missionary work,” and the end of tsarist Russia becomes “the end of the world.” The revolution is “the flood,” enlightenment is renamed “conversion.” The New Economic Policy, Lenin’s tactical retreat following the civil war, is “The Great Disappointment,” while Stalin’s revolution from above is christened “the Second Coming” and his Great Terror, “the Last Judgment.”

    By rhetorically collapsing the distinction between Bolsheviks and their biblical predecessors, The House of Government signals its ultimate aim: to grasp the meaning of the Russian Revolution sub specie aeternitatis, to suggest an abiding element in human history, something very old of which we have not freed and may never free ourselves, precisely because we are human.

    There is something undeniably intoxicating about such world-historical narratives, with their deep structure and eternal recurrences. But they have their frustrations too. “What man appears to be sub specie aeternitatis,” Carl Jung wrote, “can only be expressed by way of myth.” Slezkine’s saga of apocalyptic millenarianism provides a powerful way of knowing the Bolsheviks, placing them in an almost mythic framework of significance. When it comes to actually explaining the October revolution, however, or Stalin’s revolution from above, or the Great Terror (aka the Flood, the Second Coming, and the Last Judgment), the saga seems to offer little beyond the claim that the Bolsheviks were millenarians, and this is what millenarians do.

    Nor does it account for the radically different outcomes of various millenarian movements—why some died as sects, others managed to routinize themselves into churches, but the Bolsheviks alone “found themselves firmly in charge of Babylon while still expecting the millennium in their lifetimes.” Not all instances of political fervor, even utopian fervor, qualify as millenarian, and there’s an important difference between believing in the possibility of progress and believing in its inevitability or necessity. Liberalism, communism, and fascism may indeed have certain millenarian instincts in common, but like a haircut and a beheading, the outcome is hardly “the same.”

    One aspect of the Russian Revolution for which The House of Government does offer an explicit explanation is its demise. Most histories of the Soviet Union emphasize the failure of the command economy to keep up with its capitalist rivals. Slezkine, however, is not terribly interested in economics. In his account, the Soviet experiment failed, half a century before the country’s actual collapse, because it neglected to drain the oldest, most persistent swamp of all—the family.

    In between their epic labors at the great construction site of socialism, residents of the House of Government “were settling into their new apartments and setting up house in familiar ways,” unable to transcend the “hen-and-rooster problems” of marriage and domestic life. Many of them expressed unease at the prospect of sinking into the traditional bonds of kinship and procreation. “I am afraid I might turn into a bourgeois,” worried the writer Aleksandr Serafimovich (Apt. 82) to a friend. “In order to resist such a transformation, I have been spitting into all the corners and onto the floor, blowing my nose, and lying in bed with my shoes on and hair uncombed. It seems to be helping.”

    But it wasn’t. No one really knew what a communist family should be, or how to transform relations between parents and children, or how to harness erotic attachments to the requirements of revolution. Bolsheviks were known to give their children names such as “Vladlen” (Vladimir Lenin), “Mezhenda” (International Women’s Day), and “Vsemir” (worldwide revolution). But naming was easy compared to living. The Soviet state went to great lengths to inculcate revolutionary values in schools and workplaces, but not at home. It never devised resonant communist rituals to mark birth, marriage, and death. The party ideologist Aron Solts (Apt. 393) claimed that “the family of a Communist must be a prototype of a small Communist cell…, a collectivity of comrades in which one lives in the family the same way as outside the family.”

    In that case, why bother with families at all? Neither Solts nor anyone else had a convincing answer. Sects, Slezkine notes, “are about brotherhood (and, as an afterthought, sisterhood), not about parents and children. This is why most end-of-the-world scenarios promise ‘all these things’ within one generation…, and all millenarian sects, in their militant phase, attempt to reform marriage or abolish it altogether (by decreeing celibacy or promiscuity).”

    Unable or unwilling to abolish the family, Bolsheviks proved incapable of reproducing themselves. For Slezkine, this is cause for celebrating the resilience of family ties under the onslaught of Stalin’s social engineering. It’s worth asking, though, why the same Bolsheviks who willingly deported or exterminated millions of class enemies as remnants of capitalism balked at similarly radical measures against the bourgeois institution of the family. Could it be that they, especially the men among them, realized that by doing so they stood to lose much more than their chains?

    Whatever the case, the children they raised in the House of Government became loyal Soviet citizens but not millenarians. Their deepest ties were to their parents (many of whom, as Slezkine shows with novelistic detail, were seized from their apartments and shot during the Great Terror) and to Pushkin and Tolstoy—not to Marx and Lenin. Instead of devouring its children, he concludes, the Russian Revolution was devoured by the children of the revolutionaries. As Tolstoy’s friend Nikolai Strakhov wrote about the character Bazarov, the proto-Bolshevik at the heart of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (another work about family), “The love affair takes place against his iron will; life, which he had thought he would rule, catches him in its huge wave.”

    Yuri Slezkine, Mercurian par excellence, has caught an extraordinary set of lives in this book. Few historians, dead or alive, have managed to combine so spectacularly the gifts of storyteller and scholar.

    *
    Einstein on marxology:
    "In the realm of the seekers after truth there is no human authority.
    Whoever attempts to play the magistrate there founders on the laughter of the Gods."

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    Paperback Writer RevForum Administrator Amoeba's Avatar
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    Default Re: Paul Mason: Those who lived through the Russian Revolution understood history

    Paul Mason is pro-NATO, so it seems contemporary Bolshevism has dropped the "peace" bit from the slogan.
    To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer,
    Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them.

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    Default Re: Paul Mason: Those who lived through the Russian Revolution understood history

    Those who read through those 20,000 books on the Russian Revolution understood the publishing business.
    Einstein on marxology:
    "In the realm of the seekers after truth there is no human authority.
    Whoever attempts to play the magistrate there founders on the laughter of the Gods."

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    Default Re: Paul Mason: Those who lived through the Russian Revolution understood history

    CJ:

    Those who read through those 20,000 books on the Russian Revolution understood the publishing business.
    1) I'm sorry, but how does reading through 20,000 books show that the individual daft enough to do that understands "the publishing business".

    2) And why shouldn't one of the most important events in modern history have that many books published about it?

    Yuri Slezkine’s monumental new study, The House of Government, also situates the Russian Revolution within a much larger drama, but one that resists the modernization narrative and instead places the Bolsheviks among ancient Zoroastrians and Israelites, early Christians and Muslims, Calvinists, Anabaptists, Puritans, Old Believers, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Rastafarians, and other millenarian sects. As sworn enemies of religion, the Bolsheviks would have hated this casting decision and demanded to be put in a different play, preferably with Jacobins, Saint-Simonians, Marxists, and Communards in supporting roles. Slezkine, however, has claimed these groups for his story as well, insisting that underneath their secular costumes they too dreamed of hastening the apocalypse and building the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. The Bolsheviks, it seems, were condemned to repeat history—a history driven not by class struggle, as they thought, but by theology.
    This is old hat; many before have claimed this of Marxism and Bolshevism; it replaces history with fantasy. It comes to grips with none of the political and class issues that faced the Bolsheviks and the Russian proletariat -- who drove the revolution, not the Bolsheviks. At least Mason tries to understand this process.

    This seems accurate to me:

    Yuri Slezkine [displays the] gifts of [a] storyteller
    He should turn his hand to writing WMD dossiers.

    Do yourself a favour, check this out:

    https://www.marxists.org/history/eto...x/october.html
    The emancipation of the working class will be an act of the workers themselves.

    http://anti-dialectics.co.uk/index.htm

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    Default Re: Paul Mason: Those who lived through the Russian Revolution understood history

    Quote Originally Posted by Rosa Lichtenstein View Post
    1) I'm sorry, but how does reading through 20,000 books show that the individual daft enough to do that understands "the publishing business".

    2) And why shouldn't one of the most important events in modern history have that many books published about it?
    Indeed, the publishing business provides history to all sides.

    Quote Originally Posted by Rosa Lichtenstein View Post
    This is old hat
    Bolshevism is old hat.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unity_Day_(Russia)#2012
    Einstein on marxology:
    "In the realm of the seekers after truth there is no human authority.
    Whoever attempts to play the magistrate there founders on the laughter of the Gods."

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    Senior Voting Member Rosa Lichtenstein's Avatar
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    Default Re: Paul Mason: Those who lived through the Russian Revolution understood history

    CJ:

    Indeed, the publishing business provides history to all sides.
    Ok, but you have yet to explain how reading through 20,000 books shows that the individual concerned understands "the publishing business".

    Bolshevism is old hat.
    "Bolshevism is old hat" is even older hat.
    The emancipation of the working class will be an act of the workers themselves.

    http://anti-dialectics.co.uk/index.htm

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    Administrator RevForum Administrator CornetJoyce's Avatar
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    Default Re: Paul Mason: Those who lived through the Russian Revolution understood history

    Quote Originally Posted by Rosa Lichtenstein View Post
    Ok, but you have yet to explain how reading through 20,000 books shows that the individual concerned understands "the publishing business".
    You won't understand until you read them all.


    Quote Originally Posted by Rosa Lichtenstein View Post
    "Bolshevism is old hat" is even older hat.
    Yes, it's been obvious for a long time.
    Einstein on marxology:
    "In the realm of the seekers after truth there is no human authority.
    Whoever attempts to play the magistrate there founders on the laughter of the Gods."

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    Senior Voting Member Rosa Lichtenstein's Avatar
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    Default Re: Paul Mason: Those who lived through the Russian Revolution understood history

    CJ:

    You won't understand until you read them all.
    How do you know? have you read them all?

    Yes, it's been obvious for a long time.
    Only to right-wingers who hate workers' power.

    If that old hat fits, you should wear it.
    The emancipation of the working class will be an act of the workers themselves.

    http://anti-dialectics.co.uk/index.htm

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    Administrator RevForum Administrator CornetJoyce's Avatar
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    Default Re: Paul Mason: Those who lived through the Russian Revolution understood history

    Quote Originally Posted by Rosa Lichtenstein View Post
    CJ:
    How do you know? have you read them all?
    No, for us infidels a brisk reading of a raving post is sufficient.

    Quote Originally Posted by Rosa Lichtenstein View Post
    Only to right-wingers who hate workers' power.
    and to workers who have no plan to give power to oldhat rightwingers.
    Einstein on marxology:
    "In the realm of the seekers after truth there is no human authority.
    Whoever attempts to play the magistrate there founders on the laughter of the Gods."

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    Senior Voting Member Rosa Lichtenstein's Avatar
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    Default Re: Paul Mason: Those who lived through the Russian Revolution understood history

    CJ:

    No, for us infidels a brisk reading of a raving post is sufficient.
    You read your own posts? Narcissistic or what?

    and to workers who have no plan to give power to oldhat rightwingers.
    All you know about 'workers' is how to spell that word.
    The emancipation of the working class will be an act of the workers themselves.

    http://anti-dialectics.co.uk/index.htm

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    Default Re: Paul Mason: Those who lived through the Russian Revolution understood history

    Quote Originally Posted by Rosa Lichtenstein View Post
    CJ:

    All you know about 'workers' is how to spell that word.
    With a little work, even a marxist could learn to spell it.
    Einstein on marxology:
    "In the realm of the seekers after truth there is no human authority.
    Whoever attempts to play the magistrate there founders on the laughter of the Gods."

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    Senior Voting Member Rosa Lichtenstein's Avatar
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    Default Re: Paul Mason: Those who lived through the Russian Revolution understood history

    CJ:

    With a little work, even a marxist could learn to spell it.
    The only thing you know about work is how to spell it.
    The emancipation of the working class will be an act of the workers themselves.

    http://anti-dialectics.co.uk/index.htm

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    Paperback Writer RevForum Administrator Amoeba's Avatar
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    Default Re: Paul Mason: Those who lived through the Russian Revolution understood history

    Will there be postcapitalism? Review of Paul Mason’s “Postcapitalism: A Guide to our Future”

    It is an immensely ambitious book. In less than 300 pages, Paul Mason not only explains the past 300 years of capitalism and the efforts to replace it with another system (socialism), but shows how it would be eventually transformed and proposes a set of policies to help that transformation along. Moreover, it is not a superficial book as it might seem at first by contrasting the enormity of the material covered and the relatively slender size of the volume. One should not be misled either by the folksy style used by Mason. The style may be journalistic, but the questions asked, the quality of the discussion, and the objectives of the book are first-rate.

    The book can be read in many ways. One could focus on the last three chapters which are of a programmatic nature and intended to supply some positive objectives to the new left. Or one could discuss the book’s belief in cyclical development of capitalism driven by the long-run Kondratieff’s cycles (we are currently, according to Mason’s reading, in the upswing of the fifth cycle). Or one could focus on Mason’s very brief but powerful history of the workers’ movements (Chapter 7) and one of his rare agreements with Lenin that workers could at best reach “trade-union consciousness” and were not interested in overthrowing capitalism. Or one could debate the usefulness of Mason’s resuscitation of Marx’s labor theory of value.

    I will not do any of this since this review is relatively short. I will discuss Mason’s view of the current state of capitalism and of the objective forces that, he argues, lead it to postcapitalism. The gist of Mason’s argument is that the ICT revolution is characterized by enormous economies of scale which make the marginal cost of production of knowledge goods close to zero, with both the quantities of capital and labor embodied in such products tending to zero. Imagine an electronic blueprint of whatever needed for 3D printing or a software directing the work of machines: once such investments have been made there is hardly any need for additional live labor, and since the capital (software) has a quasi infinite life, the share of capital “embodied” in each unit of output is minimal (“what you ideally want is a machine that never wears out, or the one that costs nothing to replace”, p. 166).

    When the marginal cost of production goes to zero, the price system no longer functions, nor can standard capitalism exist: if profits are zero, we do not have a capitalist class, nor surplus value, nor positive marginal product of capital, nor wage labor. We are approaching the world of mass abundance where the usual rules of capitalism no longer apply. It is a bit like the world of absolute zero temperature, or the world where time and energy become one. It is in other words a world very far from the one that we inhabit now but it is where, according to Mason, we are going.

    What are the ways capitalists can offset driving themselves out of existence? There are three ways, and to those who have read Marxist literature of the early 1910s, they would be familiar because similar issues were discussed then. The first is to create monopolies. This is exactly what Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft are doing now. The economy can become monopolized and cartelized as it did in the last decades of the 19th and the first decades of the 20th century.

    The second response is to reinforce protection of intellectual property. This is again what the just mentioned companies, or song producers and Disney are trying to do ever more aggressively using the power of the state. (The reader would realize that protection of property rights increases capital unit costs and thus prevents the marginal cost of production dropping to zero.)

    The third response is to continually expand capitalism’s “field of action”: if profits in one area threaten to drop to zero move to another area, “skating [forever] to the edge of chaos” between expanding supply and falling prices, or …find new things that can be commercialized and commodified.

    Readers of Rosa Luxemburg would recognize here a very similar idea, namely that the existence of capitalism depends on its continued interaction with non-capitalist modes of production and once these are exhausted capitalism will be driven to the world of zero profits. These concerns have an even older pedigree, going back to Ricardo’s view that, without the repeal of the Corn Laws, all capitalists’ profits will be eaten up by landlords’ rents and development stifled, and to Marx’s “law of tendencial fall of the rate of profit” caused by ever greater capital intensity of production.

    So Mason’s points in this respect are not new, but situating them at the current stage of capitalism and ITC revolution is new. The three ways that capitalists try to redress the ineluctable decrease of the rate of profit are all found wanting. If monopolies were a way to maintain capitalism that would imply the end of technological progress. Capitalism would become a “regressive” system. Not many people would disagree with Mason’s call to suppress the monopolies such as Amazon and Microsoft. The same is true for protection of property rights whose enforcement moreover is getting more and more difficult.

    So with a tendency of profits to go to zero and inability to protect property rights, the only solution that remains is commercialization of daily life (the new “field of action”). This is how Mason explains the tendency of capitalists to move unto previously non-market transactions: to create new goods out of our homes which we now rent by the day, out of our cars, out of our free time. Practically every human interaction will have to be commodified: mothers will charge each other a penny when they push each other’s kids on a swing in the playground. But this, Mason argues, can’t continue. There is a natural limit to what the humans will accept in terms of commodification of daily activities: “you would have to treat people kissing each other for free the way they treated poachers in the 19th century” (p. 175).

    Mason’s arguments are, I think, very persuasive so far, but this is the place where I am tempted to part ways. His explanation of why we are living through a period of unprecedented commodification of our personal lives is very well taken, but his optimistic outlook that such commodification faces limits as well as his emphasis on the increasing importance of non-market transactions (open source software, writing blogs like this one for free etc.) is wrong.

    Let me start with the latter. Mason exaggerates the importance of new technologies or new goods that are developed through cooperation and supplied for free. Yes, many things can be accessed for nothing but even if they seem to be provided voluntarily there is, in the background, a mercenary element: you may write a code or text for free but this is done to influence others, become noticed and ultimately paid for it. Mason probably wrote his book for free; but the success of the book will ensure that he would be paid for whatever next he says or writes. So focusing on the former without including the latter is misleading.

    Why is his view on commodification wrong? Commodification is not just imposed on us externally through companies that want to find new sources of profits. We are willingly participating in commodification because through long socialization in capitalism, its global reach and thus mimicry among those who have not been socialized as long, people have become capitalistic calculating machines. We have each become a small center of capitalist thinking, assigning implicit (”shadow”) prices to our time, our emotions or family relations.

    The ultimate success of capitalism is to have transformed, or developed, human nature into making each of us into excellent calculators of “pain and pleasure”, “gain or loss” so much so that even if capitalist factory production were to disappear today we would be selling each other services for money: we shall become companies. Imagine an economy (similar externally to a very primitive one) where all production is conducted at home. This would seem a perfect model of a non-market economy. But if we had such an economy today, it would be fully capitalistic because we would be selling all these goods and services to each other: a neighbor will not keep an eye on your children for free; nobody will share food with you but will charge you; you will make your husband pay for sex and so forth. This is the world we are moving towards, and the field of capitalistic operations is thus likely to become unlimited because it would include each of us. “The factory in the cognitive capitalism is the whole of society” (p. 139).

    Capitalism will run for a very long time because it was successful in transforming humans into calculating machines endowed with limitless needs. What David Landes saw as one of the main contributions of capitalism, better use of time and ability to express everything in terms of abstract purchasing power, has moved now into our private lives. We do not need capitalist mode of production in factories if we have all become capitalistic centers ourselves.

    http://glineq.blogspot.co.uk/2017/12...review-of.html
    To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer,
    Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them.

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    Senior Voting Member Rosa Lichtenstein's Avatar
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    Default Re: Paul Mason: Those who lived through the Russian Revolution understood history

    And here is a far less sympathetic review of Mason's book by an ex-comrade of yours, Peter Taaffe:

    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

    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 Saunders’ 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.
    http://socialistpartyscotland.org.uk...by-paul-mason/
    The emancipation of the working class will be an act of the workers themselves.

    http://anti-dialectics.co.uk/index.htm

  16. #16
    Senior Voting Member Rosa Lichtenstein's Avatar
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    Default Re: Paul Mason: Those who lived through the Russian Revolution understood history

    And here's a much longer review by my old comrades:

    Brand new, you’re retro

    ISJ Issue: 148

    Posted on 5th October 2015

    Joseph Choonara: A review of Paul Mason, PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (Allen Lane, 2015), £16.99

    Some 45 years ago futurologist Alvin Toffler published a breathless evocation of a world transformed. Visions of talking dolphins and a rather disturbing fixation with erotic cyborgs fill the pages of his work, Future Shock.

    “What is occurring now is,” he insisted, “in all likelihood, bigger, deeper and more important than the industrial revolution.” The historical rupture, according to “a growing body of reputable opinion”, was comparable only with “the shift from barbarism to civilisation”. The “great, growling engine of change” powering this transformation was technology and, for this engine to run, “knowledge must be regarded as its fuel”. Bureaucratic organisations, incapable of coming to terms with this new world, would decline, and so “man will find himself liberated, a stranger in a new free-form world of kinetic organisations”.1

    One of the most striking things about Paul Mason’s latest work, PostCapitalism, is just how passé his vision of the future is. There is little here that has not appeared in the writing of André Gorz or Daniel Bell from the 1960s, in the works of autonomist Marxists such as Antonio Negri from the 1970s, or in Manuel Castells’s Information Age trilogy in the late 1990s.

    Mason, whose work as economics editor for Channel 4 News provides some of the few bright spots within the dark firmament of British television broadcasting, is a clearer and more accessible writer than most of his forebears. He has a journalist’s eye for a narrative hook. And an early immersion in Trotskyist politics means he takes Marxism seriously; there are references here to Evgeny Preobrazhensky, Nikolai Bukharin, Rudolf Hilferding, Rosa Luxemburg and many others. Yet his eagerness to meld aspects of this understanding with ideas that he imagines heretical, but which actually form the common sense for much of the radical left today, creates two serious problems.

    First, there is a problem with how Mason writes his history. Take, for example, his discussion of Alexander Bogdanov. Although once one of Lenin’s closest associates, Bogdanov was expelled from the Bolshevik organisation by Lenin in 1909. Mason writes:

    The 1905 revolution, said Bogdanov, showed that workers were not ready to run society. Because he thought post-capitalist society would have to be a knowledge society, any attempt to create it through blind revolutionary action could only bring to power a technocratic elite, he warned… All this was anathema to Lenin. Marxism had become a doctrine of imminent breakdown and revolution.2
    In Mason’s account, Lenin is the ultra-left extremist, determined to drive through an immediate revolutionary transformation of Russia, Bogdanov the more patient and considered figure. The nature of Lenin’s break with Bogdanov is complex, not least because it involved a sharp polemic on the subject of philosophy, which Lenin had, during the upsurge in revolutionary activity that culminated in the 1905 revolution, considered a “neutral field”. It was only as the revolutionary tide ebbed that he began to condemn, with increasing urgency, Bogdanov’s attempt to blend Marxism with Kantianism.3 Nonetheless, underlying this philosophical spat was the simple fact, ignored by Mason, that Bogdanov headed up a left opposition movement within Bolshevism. This opposition condemned Lenin for his insistence that the Bolsheviks participate in elections to the Russian Duma (parliament). At this point, it was in fact Bogdanov who was driven by revolutionary impatience, writing:

    Some people…have come to the conclusion that we must change the previous Bolshevik evaluation of the present historical moment and hold a course not toward a new revolutionary wave, but toward a long period of peaceful, constitutional development… We will proceed on our way according to the old slogan.4
    Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case. Many of the narratives presented by Mason—on the history of workers’ resistance from 1771 onwards, on the degeneration of the Russian Revolution or on an assortment of historical debates among the revolutionary left—end up reading like “just so” stories, designed to buttress arguments about the contemporary world.

    The second issue with Mason’s work is his overall theoretical framework, which also sets out from a Marxist perspective before it moves off on some eccentric trajectories. There are two important components of his framework to consider: his appropriation of Nikolai Kondratieff’s theory of long economic waves and his version of Karl Marx’s labour theory of value.

    Long waves

    Kondratieff was a Soviet economist and a victim of Joseph Stalin’s purges. He is today best known for his claim that economies exhibit long-term cycles or waves, lasting about 50 years. “Kondratieff waves” have exerted an influence over economics both right and left.5

    We should certainly not rule out long periods of economic expansion or stagnation. Indeed, it seems uncontroversial that there are such periods, for instance the decades of powerful growth that followed the Second World War or the long depression that began in the 1870s. The proposition becomes even less contentious if we accept, as Mason says at one point, that for Kondratieff, “there is no claim as to the exact timing of events, and no claim that the waves are regular”.6 However, once you lose the periodicity and wave-like form, it is rather hard to see what advantage is gained by referring to Kondratieff waves or cycles at all.7

    At times, though, Mason does seem to think there is a necessary “fifty-year cycle”, which is a far more problematic assertion.8 Just because capitalism exhibits behaviour that averages out at such a period—and we have very few 50-year periods to look at in the relatively short history of capitalism, and even fewer for which credible data exists—does not mean that we should anticipate waves of this kind to pattern capitalism going forward. To assume this is to reduce the complexity of capitalism as a historical system to the simplicity of a mathematical formula.

    Not only is there a danger of oversimplifying the trajectory of capitalism, there is also the question of what drives the various phases in its history. Mason is sceptical about Kondratieff’s explanation, which was based on the exhaustion of very long-term capital investments.9 Mason, rightly, wants to place profit rates at the centre of his analysis of economic patterns. However, he also believes that the turn to neoliberalism “restored profit rates from the late 1980s onward”, a view he attributes to Michel Husson and to “New School professor Ahmed Shaikh”.10 Shaikh’s argument is in fact that the rate of profit “stabilised” or that its fall was “suspended”, rather than being restored. Husson by contrast does claim it was restored but there is a large body of writing questioning his position, and in my view the weight of evidence is firmly on the side of Husson’s critics.11

    Part of the problem here is that, like many contemporary Marxists, Mason holds that, alongside the tendency of the rate of profit to fall identified by Marx in the third volume of Capital, the various countertendencies he also identified carry equal weight. However, unlike most of those Marxists, Mason does not want to leave profit rates as indeterminate. Instead he argues that the counteracting tendencies simply “break down” at some point, leading to cyclical crises. Sometimes there are really big failures in which the counteracting factors are “exhausted” leading to a bigger “breakdown”. This allows Mason to present his own highly schematic version of the Kondratieff cycle without relying on Kondratieff’s explanation.12

    While it is true that the tendency of the rate of profit to fall operates in tension with the counteracting tendencies, there are good reasons to believe that, in normal times, there will be long-term downward pressure on profit rates. Briefly, the cheapening of fixed capital, the most important counteracting tendency, has a contradictory impact on profitability, negatively impacting on capitalists who invest in fixed capital prior to the fall in the value of their investment; furthermore, the existence of “capital-saving” investments does not preclude the most successful capitalists attempting to access further “capital-intensive” investments, which empirically does seem to be the pattern through most of the history of capitalism. Given these factors, the periods in which the counteracting tendencies really become effective are precisely moments of crisis, during which capital can systematically be devalued across the system, and debts, accumulated in the preceding period, tend to be destroyed through default or other means. This is accompanied by the boost provided by attacking workers’ wages. In other words, the crisis is the realisation of the counteracting tendencies in their sharpest form, not an expression of their exhaustion.

    The persistence of the decline in profitability over many cycles, noted by Mason, reflects the difficulty the system faces in clearing itself out through large-scale bankruptcy and debt default. This becomes a greater problem as the units of capital swell to a large size, as states become heavily implicated in the economy and as the financial system weaves the whole thing together in an ever-tighter mesh.13 This can eventually lead to the eruption of deeper and more prolonged crises like that of the 1930s or the one that we entered in 2007-8. Such an analysis can account for the long-term shifts in capitalism without recourse to long waves.

    Mason introduces an additional problem into his analysis because he feels the need to buttress his position by presenting the classical Marxist position in highly caricatured form. Stalin, he says, had Kondratieff executed because the theory “would bring Marxism face to face with a dangerous proposition: that there is no ‘final’ crisis of capitalism”. This deterministic reading of political economy was, Mason writes, accepted by “the whole of the far left” in the early 20th century. Everyone from Rosa Luxemburg onwards held that “crisis theory should describe the finality of capitalism”. “Only in the 1970s, when the idea of ‘relative autonomy’ arrived in Marxist economics, did the discipline begin to understand that not all layers of reality are a simple expression of the layers beneath them”.14 This is particularly odd as it ignores his own comment a few pages earlier regarding Leon Trotsky’s criticisms of Kondratieff: “Trotsky was here insisting that political conflict between nations and classes was more important than economic forces”.15 There was always a non-deterministic Marxism available, even if it was for a time rendered marginal by the weight of Stalinism and social democracy.16

    The reason why Mason feels the need to cling to the schematic model offered by Kondratieff emerges once he integrates struggle into the picture, for it provides him with a way of periodising capitalism and postcapitalism. He argues that traditionally workers’ resistance kicks in as the economic downswing starts and wages come under pressure. The problem is that in the most recent wave workers did not, when the moment arrived in the 1980s, resist sufficiently. As a result, capitalists felt no pressure to reorganise production.17 Instead the neoliberal boom took off, eventually running up against its limits and leading to the current crisis. Mason argues that we are now seeing the combination of the end of the neoliberal solution to the downswing, and the embryonic beginnings of a new economic paradigm, the “fifth wave”, whose “core technology” is “information”.18

    Rise of the machines

    To understand the new paradigm Mason has in mind we must turn our attention to his take on Marx’s value theory. The essential argument of value theory is that abstract, socially necessary labour is the source of value, which can in turn be quantified in terms of its duration. Capitalism draws together the living labour of workers, which creates new value, along with dead labour, embodied in machinery and raw materials, which creates no new value but which passes its value on to the end product as it is used up. Profit arises because capitalists only have to pay workers enough to reproduce their labour power, and there is no reason why this has to be as much new value as the workers create. The gap between the new value created by living labour and the value that must be advanced to hire this living labour is referred to by Marx as surplus value. In this understanding, all of the profits across the capitalist system ultimately rest on the exploitation of living labour. Mason presents this argument with admirable clarity.19

    The problems come when he discusses information. The central notion in Mason’s book is that we are moving to an epoch in which information is rendering value irrelevant. In an “information economy”, writes Mason, market mechanisms will “drive the marginal cost of certain goods, over time, towards zero—eroding profits in the process”. “Knowledge-driven production tends towards the unlimited creation of wealth, independent of the labour expended.” There are two central claims here: that “automation can reduce necessary labour to amounts so small that work would become optional” and that “stuff that can be made with tiny amounts of human labour is probably going to end up being free, shared and commonly owned”.20

    Mason seeks a Marxist pedigree for his argument by appealing to Marx’s “Fragment on Machines”, a text beloved of autonomist Marxists.21 This fragment is contained in the Grundrisse, a draft for Capital unpublished in Marx’s lifetime.22 Here Marx discusses the way that machinery comes to dominate the worker in the production process and how scientific knowledge “which capital appropriates free of charge” is embodied in technology. Direct labour tends to be replaced by “general scientific labour, technological application of natural science” and by the use of the new technology. “Capital thus works towards its own dissolution as the form dominating production.” “As soon as labour in the direct form has ceased to be the great well-spring of wealth, labour time ceases and must cease to be its measure…production based on exchange value breaks down”.23

    Now, the first thing that should be said is that we have to treat anything in the Grundrisse with care. As Hal Draper puts it, “One must bear in mind that these notebooks were scribbled by Marx for his own use or as possible rough drafts for future publication; their form often reflects carbuncles and insomnia as well as a train of thought”.24 However, once these passages are read in context it quickly becomes clear that Marx is not talking about a smooth process of transition from capitalism to socialism brought about by science. He is thinking through the manner in which capitalism, through its mobilisation of science to boost the productive forces, is intensifying its own contradictions: “Capital itself is the moving contradiction…it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time…as sole measure and source of wealth”.25

    Yet under capitalism, he adds, it is “absurd” to see fixed capital becoming “an independent source of value”. “It [machinery] can be effective only with masses of workers, whose concentration relative to capital is one of its historic presuppositions… Machinery enters only where labour capacity is on hand in masses. (Return to this)”.26 Realising the liberatory potential for machinery would require a communist society. “While machinery is the most appropriate form of the use value of fixed capital, it does not at all follow that therefore subsumption under the social relation of capital is the most appropriate and ultimate social relation of production for the application of machinery.” Capital’s desire to reduce “human labour to a minimum…will redound to the benefit of emancipated labour, and is the condition of its emancipation”.27

    If Mason’s use of the “fragment on machines” is suspect for theoretical reasons, the notion that living labour is vanishing under the weight of automation is also dubious on empirical grounds. There is simply no evidence that capital is any less dependent on wage labour. On a global scale wage labour had by 2013 become the fate of 1.6 billion people, surpassing non-wage labour for the first time in world history; Britain alone has a waged labour force of about 30 million.28 The bulk of these people, whether they produce material goods or services, are productive labourers, in the sense that they generate surplus value for capitalism.

    Even if there are particular fields of employment where very few workers are employed relative to the amount of fixed capital mobilised, this does not mean that those areas are exempt from profit making. As Marx points out in the third volume of Capital, the formation of prices of production tends to redistribute value in accordance with the amount of capital invested by specific capitalists. In effect, the exploitation of wage labour creates a global pool of surplus value that is then appropriated by capitalists to the extent that they mobilise capital.29

    It is certainly true that if the marginal price of fixed capital was tending towards zero, this would present problems for capitalism. However, this argument seems to be based on some pretty strange views of how capitalism actually works. Consider this statement: “Software is a machine that, once built, will last for ever. Sure, it can be made obsolete by newer software, but the world is full of old software that—if the right hardware could be found to run it—could run forever”.30 Software, then, is eternal and free, provided nobody ever comes up with better software and provided there happens to be hardware to run it on.

    In the real capitalist world, where production, whether of goods or services, typically involves using machinery and computers, one cannot neglect hardware. It might be the case that some of this hardware, notably computers, can now be produced more cheaply. However, if we look at the overall mobilisation of fixed capital across the system, in value terms, the trend is still for this to increase as it has for the past century.31 The idea that the immensely expensive spheres of biotech, space travel or nanotechnology are developing a “price-zero dynamic” is laughable.32

    Value and information

    Mason goes even further than this. For instance, he echoes many of the positions held by autonomist theorists of “cognitive capitalism”. He describes their view thus: “Because profit increasingly comes from capturing the free value generated by consumer behaviour, and because a society focused on mass consumption has to be constantly fed coffee, smiled at, serviced by call centres, the ‘factory’ in cognitive capitalism is the whole of society”.33 His criticism of this concept is merely that it is not yet a fully consummated system, indeed cannot be within capitalism. Nonetheless, he writes, “The rapid change in technology is altering the nature of work, blurring the distinction between work and leisure and requiring us to participate in the creation of value across our whole lives, not just in the workplace”.34 This is another notion familiar from the work of Hardt and Negri, for whom, “Even the prostituted body, the destitute person, the hunger of the multitude—all forms of the poor have become productive… The poor is the condition of every production”; “labour cannot be limited to waged labour but must refer to human creative capacities in general”; and even being hungry or dreaming is productive of surplus value.35

    This dovetails with notions of the “prosumer”, a consumer who creates value for capital through use of technology such as the internet. “Amazon works, for example, by offering to sell you things based on your previous choices—information you provided for free and could not choose to withhold. The whole business model is based on the one-side capture of externalities by Amazon”.36 This ignores the extent to which Amazon has simply developed a new model for selling and distributing commodities based on extremely effective forms of exploitation of large numbers of workers along with huge concentrations of capital. Their enormous and Orwellian sounding “fulfilment centres” typically employ around 1,000 people. New technology is used very effectively here—to monitor workers and ensure a sufficiently high work rate in what amounts to a modern version of Taylorism. As one undercover reporter in such a depot puts it: “We are machines, we are robots, we plug our scanner in, we’re holding it, but we might as well be plugging it into ourselves.” He describes walking 11 miles a night for the special night rate of £8.25 an hour. In the same article Amazon boasts of investing £1 billion in the UK. This combination of capital intensity and exploitation, rather than some autonomous process of value generation from consumers, is the real secret to Amazon’s profitability.37

    Google, by contrast, derives the overwhelming bulk of its revenue from advertising. This leads some to see Google as extracting value from users who perform searches via Google. In fact Google is obtaining its value from capitalist firms who pay it in order to advertise. To achieve this requires that Google invest capital and exploit workers, who ultimately create the service that it is selling, and it does so in a competitive environment alongside other capitalist firms (Microsoft, Baidu, Yahoo, Ask, etc) who are trying to perform a similar service more productively.38

    Despite the extraordinary handwringing among certain contemporary Marxists, autonomist and otherwise, theorising even the most purely “knowledge based” industries using the tools Marx provided is not beyond our capacity. The Marxist political economist Guglielmo Carchedi points out that those he calls “mental labourers” participate in production in a two-fold sense, just like other workers. On the one hand, they engage in a labour process through concrete labour to generate or transform use values; on the other hand, they are engaged in surplus value production and are exploited.39

    Carchedi offers a disarmingly simple answer to the problem of all those mental labourers dreaming up code or answering emails in their spare time:

    This is not exploitation. If capital is a relation of production, this relation is suspended in the labourer’s free time and resumed when the labourers return to their work. During this time, labourers are not exploited. The emails that a mental labourer answers from home in her free time, say in one hour, count as if they had been answered during her working time. But the time during which she works for capital, say eight hours a day, remains the same. However, the moment she returns to her work, her labour becomes more productive. It is as if in the first instant of her work she had answered those emails. Her productivity has risen but the surplus value she produces is still that produced in eight hours of work.40
    He also argues explicitly that there is no reason why the unit values of the output of mental labour processes should tend towards zero. The total value is the total capital, both fixed and circulating, required to produce the output, along with the costs of administration, advertising and so on. The unit value is this cost divided by the number of units sold, whether supplied in physical form or downloaded. As Carchedi points out, “The size of the output is variable. It depends on the technology used. Its limit is obsolescence, a point reached when, due to intense competition, the demand for it falls to the point at which it is not profitable any longer to produce it”.41

    Mason, by contrast, seems to argue that obsolescence is no longer an issue because we now have “machines whose utility derives from the information used to run them” so we can now “think of software as a machine”.42 But it was equally true that the utility of the ZX Spectrum lay in the software that ran on it, and so too for the mainframe computers that transfixed Alvin Toffler in the 1970s.43

    Of course, there are lots of people who do things via the internet for which they are not paid. But people who edit Wikipedia pages or design open source software are not active as productive labourers. Why should this be so baffling? Going to the shops to purchase commodities is also a non-productive activity, however essential it is to Tesco or Sainsbury. With Mason, as with so much of the recent literature, it is as if “non-market interactions” only emerged with the World Wide Web.44 Similarly, Marx’s framework has no problem with “free appropriation of knowledge”. Carchedi points out that parents have been freely imparting knowledge to their children, for better or for worse, for quite a long time now.45

    New workers?

    From these questionable theoretical premises Mason draws some stark strategic conclusions. First of all, out goes any emphasis on the working class. “Those who cling to the idea that the proletariat is the only force that can push society beyond capitalism are ignoring two key features of the modern world: that the route to postcapitalism is different; and that the agent of change has become, potentially, everyone on Earth,” he writes. “Work—the defining activity of capitalism—is losing its centrality both to exploitation and resistance”.46 Here Mason is, like Hardt and Negri before him, simply drawing the logical conclusion from his analysis.

    However, whereas Hardt and Negri might rate Marx’s account of class as a historical proposition, Mason is even more dismissive. Referring to Frederick Engels’s Condition of the Working Class in England, he writes, “Marx was wrong about the working class… Engels’s anthropology of the English working class in 1842 is detailed, complex and specific. The Marxist theory of the proletariat is not: it reduces an entire class to a philosophical category”.47

    Mason combines this generalised rejection of Marx’s class analysis with rather sweeping claims about the transformation of work:

    The core workforce has been able to cling on to stable, permanent employment, with non-wage benefits attached to the job. The periphery must relate either as temporary agency workers, or via a network of contracting firms. But the core is shrunken: seven years into the post-2008 crisis, a permanent contract on a decent wage is an unattainable privilege for many people. Being part of the “precariat” is all too real for up to a quarter of the population.48
    As with Guy Standing’s recent writing on the precariat, the empirical claims are never really substantiated. One would certainly not guess from this passage that only 6.2 percent of employees in the UK are in temporary employment, and only 2 percent are in temporary employment because they cannot find a permanent job.49 Across the OECD as a whole, temporary employment rose from 9.2 percent in 1980 to 12.2 percent in 2007, before falling slightly as the crisis developed.50 This is not to discount the suffering of those trapped in temporary work but we should not derive a picture of deepening precariousness across the labour force from the experience of a minority of workers, and we should certainly not extrapolate from these changes to a transformation of the social relations of capitalism.

    Yet this is exactly what Mason seeks to do, arguing that the key conflict today is not a class conflict between capital and labour but a clash between hierarchies and networks. Mason advocates “cooperative, self-managed, non-hierarchical teams”.51 However, contemporary capitalism has no problem with networks and team-working, provided these are embedded within structures of value creation and extraction. Indeed, a whole literature has developed extolling the virtues of networks.52 “Team-working”, viewed as an element of the management style known as Toyotism or lean production, is entirely mainstream.53 In this regard it is interesting to compare the experience of an Amazon worker, cited earlier, to the corporation’s description of what goes on in their fulfilment centres:

    We continuously work to streamline our processes and eliminate defects and we empower all our associates to innovate to help achieve this… We use many systematic methods to make work processes easier and more efficient, including the “Kaizen” programme, derived from the Japanese term meaning “change for the better”. Through the Kaizen programme, associates, working in small teams, can identify areas for improvement giving them the opportunity to influence their working environment and streamline processes.54
    Mason is insistent that “networked movements are evidence that a new historical subject exists. It is not just the working class in a different guise; it is networked humanity”, yet when it comes to actually existing networked movements, we find something odd.55 Class, it turns out, gives social substance to networks. Take one of his examples:

    In 2014, 30,000 shoe workers at Yue Yuen factory in Shenzhen staged the first big strike to use group messaging and micro-blogging as organisational tools… Terrifyingly for the Chinese authorities, the factory workers in Shenzhen were using the very same technology as the liberal, networked students who in 2014 staged the democracy protest known as Occupy Central in Hong Kong. If you accept that the main faultline in the modern world is between networks and hierarchies, then China is sitting right on top of it.56
    It is very difficult to comprehend the strengths and weaknesses of these two movements without introducing a concept of class. After all, regardless of whether the Yue Yuen factory workers were organising using mobile phones, they were organising a class movement to block the production of surplus value. The Hong Kong movement was, by contrast, largely composed of students and individual workers, and, though hugely important and heroic, according to one participant, it left “no organisational legacy” as the “tens of thousands of people dispersed back into regular life”. Another argues that the “mere spontaneity of the movement” was “not enough to advance it” and so “it is indispensable to seek support from the working class”.57

    Mason, by contrast, wants to move on from such petty concerns. For him “technology has created a new route out, which the remnants of the old left…have either to embrace or die”. This avoids all the aggro of having to rise up in revolution or expropriate the capitalists; there is a piecemeal process of reform available. It involves “a gradual, iterative and modular project. Its aim should be to expand those technologies, business models and behaviours that dissolve market forces, eradicate the need for work and progress the world economy towards abundance”.58

    However, for those problems that cannot be solved by gradualism, such as environmental catastrophe, we need the state: “Only the state, and states acting together” can organise the required “centralised, strategic and fast” response. For anyone foolish enough to ask how Mason’s emphasis on these centralised states fits with his network model, he offers this answer: “In postcapitalism, the state has to act more like the staff of Wikipedia.” So the century old polemic between reform and revolution, which hinges on whether it is possible to take possession of the capitalist state and turn it to the advantage of workers, or whether it is necessary to smash it, is overcome with a few keystrokes: “I’ve tried to make this a project usable both by people who see states as useful and those who don’t; you could model an anarchist version and a statist version and try them out. There’s probably even a conservative version of postcapitalism, and good luck to it”.59

    Conclusion

    There are good reasons to be sceptical about Mason’s pick ’n’ mix strategy of resistance. The problem, though, is that on many issues he is cutting with the grain of much of what passes for radical left thinking. Faced with this, it is incumbent upon those of us operating in the classical Marxist tradition patiently to spell out what we mean when we talk about a strategy centred on the working class. It absolutely does not mean that our concerns are reducible to the bread and butter issues encountered in the workplace, though these are certainly important. The left has to take up each and every major political question, to challenge each instance of oppression, regardless of where they arise.

    The classical Marxist argument is first and foremost one about where power lies. If the system is still one that rests on the extraction of surplus value from labour, and there is nothing in Mason’s book to convince me otherwise, then the point of production remains the point at which our side is strongest and most concentrated. That proposition holds regardless of whether workers engage in manufacturing or provide services, whether they work for Google or for Ford.

    That does not mean we can simply reiterate old formulae, ignore the contemporary forms of struggle or turn a blind eye to the new world of work. Indeed we are crying out for perceptive analysis of these. Sadly, though, such analysis will not be found here.

    Notes

    1: Toffler, 1970, pp14, 25, 30, 113.

    2: Mason, 2015, p219.

    3: Lenin, 1978, p449; Lenin, 1977.

    4: Bogdanov, 1993, pp34-35. See Cliff, 1994, pp281-293, and Harding, 2009, pp273-281, for more realistic assessments of Lenin’s fight with Bogdanov.

    5: As Mason point outs, the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter included them in his theory of the business cycle. On the left, Ernest Mandel, a leading theoretician of the Trotskyist Fourth International, adopted a version of long waves quite similar to the one advanced by Mason. Another astute Marxist writer, Michael Roberts, has also deployed the concept, although he believes the cycles have lengthened to “64-72 years”—see Mason, 2015, p34; Mandel, 1995; Roberts, 2013.

    6: Mason, 2015, p36.

    7: This was, in fact, one of the major criticisms of Kondratieff made by Leon Trotsky and others. For an excellent critique of long waves see Harman, 1999, pp132-136.

    8: Mason, 2015, p77.

    9: Mason, 2015, pp37-38.

    10: Mason, 2015, p71. I think “Ahmed Shaikh” must actually be New School professor Anwar Shaikh, who does indeed write on the rate of profit.

    11: Shaikh, 2011. For examples of the wider literature, see: Harman, 2010; Kliman, 2011; Roberts, 2015; Choonara, 2012.

    12: Mason, 2015, pp70, 76, 72-73. Those not familiar with Marx’s famous law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall and its countertendencies can consult Choonara, 2009, pp74-83; Choonara, 2013.

    13: For more on these points, see Harman, 2007; Callinicos and Choonara, 2015.

    14: Mason, 2015, pp33-34, 65, 50.

    15: Mason, 2015, p39.

    16: This non-deterministic Marxism originates with the founders and is explained with great clarity in Frederick Engels’s well known letter to J Bloch, in which he rails against economic determinism—Engels, 2010, pp33-37.

    17: Mason, 2015, p93. Mason’s approach to history echoes that of Antonio Negri in which capital has periodically to reconfigure itself in the face of waves of resistance, with a new revolutionary subject then constituting itself on the new terrain of capital—see Negri, 2003, p76. However, Negri and his cothinker Michael Hardt tend to see the emergence of what they call “Empire” and the new subject, the “multitude”, in the latest phase as a consequence of the struggles of the late 1960s and early 1970s—Hardt and Negri, 2001, pp43, 51, 409. For Mason, presumably such struggles erupted too early in his cycle.

    18: Mason, 2015, p109.

    19: Mason, 2015, pp147-159. See also Choonara, 2009, pp19-44; Choonara, 2013.

    20: Mason, 2015, pp120, 136, 164.

    21: Mason, 2015, pp134-138. Again these arguments are not new. The American Marxist Hal Draper criticised precisely these kinds of positions three and a half decades ago—Draper, 1978, pp575-579. See also Carchedi, 2012, pp225-244.

    22: Those picking up a copy of the Grundrisse may be baffled by the absence of the phrase “fragment on machines” from the analytical content list. The relevant sections are entitled “Fixed capital. Means of labour. Machine” through to “True conception of the process of social production”—see Marx, 1993, pp690-712.

    23: Marx, 1993, pp695, 700, 705.

    24: Draper, 1978, p576.

    25: Marx, 1993, p706.

    26: Marx, 1993, pp701-702. The final “return to this” reinforces Drapers point about treating these notes with care.

    27: Marx, 1993, pp699-701.

    28: ILO, Key Indicators of the Labour Market, 8th edition.

    29: Marx, 1991, pp254-301; Choonara, 2009, p113-118.

    30: Mason, 2015, p164.

    31: See, for instance, the graphs in Basu, 2012, p11.

    32: Mason, 2015, p173. This is reminiscent of Toffler’s claim that dramatic shifts in patterns of industrialisation, consumption and even human psychology were imminent as deep-ocean mining “becomes feasible and economically advantageous”. The main evidence for this seems to be that a scientist at General Electric had “kept a hamster alive under water by enclosing it in a box that is, in effect, an artificial gill”—Toffler, 1970, pp188-191.

    33: Mason, 2015, p139.

    34: Mason, 2015, pp143-144.

    35: Hardt and Negri, 2001, p158; Hardt and Negri, 2004, pp66, 111-112. See also Mason, 2015, p210. Mason is quite right that if this happened we would be moving beyond capitalism; Hardt and Negri seem unwilling to take this step and continue to refer throughout their books to capital and capitalism.

    36: Mason, 2015, p132.

    37: BBC News, 2013. The ethos of intense exploitation extends to white collar employees in the US in what one former human resources executive refers to as “purposeful Darwinism” directed towards staff—Kantor and Streitfeld, 2015.

    38: At most we can say that Google has, for now, established something approaching a monopoly in certain spheres and perhaps there is an element of monopoly pricing here, at least while Google retains its position. However, there is no reason in principle why other search engines could not in time erode this advantage. After all, in 1998 54 percent of searches were done using the now defunct AltaVista search engine, compared with Google’s 65 percent share today—Vise, 2008, p40; comScore search engine rankings, 15 April 2015.

    39: As Carchedi points out, there is only an analytical distinction between “objective” and “mental” transformation, as objective transformation (such as creating a new physical commodity) involves mental transformations and mental transformation (such as writing a computer program) involves objective transformations—Carchedi, 2012, p196.

    40: Carchedi, 2014, p4.

    41: Carchedi, 2014, p5.

    42: Mason, 2015, pp167, 169.

    43: Although at least Toffler recognised that computers rapidly become obsolete—Toffler, 1970, p69.

    44: Mason, 2015, p171.

    45: Carchedi, 2012, p224. So too with the music industry, which has undergone rapid transformation with the rise of streaming and downloading services. So far this has not killed off the industry, even with the existence of some illegal free streaming and downloading sites. People seem to forget two basic facts. First, music piracy did not start with the internet, as the large collection of copied audio cassettes that most people of my generation possess will testify. Second, even if the music industry did collapse under the weight of file-sharing, this would not provide a template for capitalism as a whole. Even to partake of this illegal activity, one requires a computer, electricity supply, internet access, not to mention basic material prerequisites such as food, clothing and shelter.

    46: Mason, 2015, pp178, 179.

    47: Mason, 2015, pp184-185. Again this echoes an old argument. Many years ago André Gorz suggested that Marx’s writings on class are “not based upon either empirical observation of class conflict or practical involvement in proletarian struggle”. Instead, he argued, class struggle is the transposition of the philosopher Georg Hegel’s notion of absolute spirit, in which the contradictions of material reality are ultimately resolved, to the social field—Gorz, 1982, pp16, 18.

    48: Mason, 2015, p207; compare this with Gorz, 1999, pp48, 50: “According to forecasts made in 1994, stable, full-time employment in Germany will fall to only 30-40 percent by the year 2003. Great Britain is already below this level… The company is no longer a workplace or a work collective: it simply calls on providers of services as one might call on a dentist or a plumber when you need one.” And Standing, 2011, pp15, 24: “In most countries, the statistics show that the number and share of national labour forces in temporary statuses have been rising sharply over the past three decades…we may guess that at present, in many countries, at least a quarter of the adult population is in the precariat.”

    49: ONS data, April-June 2015, non-seasonally adjusted, available from www.ons.gov.uk.

    50: OECD, LFS employment by permanency, available from https://stats.oecd.org.

    51: Mason, 2015, p287.

    52: Castells, a left wing theorist of what he calls “the network society” is a key point of reference, although he only warrants a single, brief mention in Mason’s book. See Castells, 2000.

    53: Whether firms really practise what they preach and whether it actually works is more open to question, see Bradley, Erickson, Stephenson and Williams, 2000, pp31-50.

    54: Go to http://amazon-operations.co.uk/the-c...ilment-centres

    55: Mason, 2015, p212.

    56: Mason, 2015, pp211-212.

    57: See Yu, 2015; Sung, 2014.

    58: Mason, 2015, ppxiv, 243. Indeed, Mason seems to have developed an almost paternalistic concern for the youth of today: “The more Marx’s bearded face pops up in the panicked pages of mainstream newspapers, and the deeper the social catastrophe inflicted on the youth of tomorrow, the greater the chance becomes that they will try to repeat the failed experiments of Marx’s followers: Bolshevism and the forced-march abolition of the market”—Mason, 2015, p49.

    59: Mason, 2015, pp261, 273, 290.

    References

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    BBC News, 2013, “Amazon Workers Face ‘Increased Risk of Mental Illness’” (25 November), www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-25034598

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    Callinicos, Alex, and Joseph Choonara, 2015, “How Not to Write About the Rate of Profit: A Reply to David Harvey”, Workshop on Crises and Transformation of Capitalism, 27-28 May 2015, King’s College, http://thenextrecession.files.wordpr...-of-profit.doc

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    http://isj.org.uk/brand-new-youre-retro/
    The emancipation of the working class will be an act of the workers themselves.

    http://anti-dialectics.co.uk/index.htm

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    Default Re: Paul Mason: Those who lived through the Russian Revolution understood history

    Quote Originally Posted by Rosa Lichtenstein View Post
    And here is a far less sympathetic review of Mason's book by an ex-comrade of yours, Peter Taaffe:
    Thanks for that, but just to be clear: I view Mason to be basically an idiot on most of the subjects he talks and writes about, and his closeness to leading figures in the Labour Party is worrying given his xenophobic and pro-imperialist positions (he's written some terrible things on migrants/refugees and he's rabidly pro-NATO and anti-Russia).
    To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer,
    Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them.

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