Marx, dialectics and revolution – a rejoinder to Paul Mason from Paul Le Blanc

Paul Le Blanc

Writing in Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, Paul Le Blanc, co-editor of Leon Trotsky: Writings in ExileRosa Luxemburg: Socialism or Barbarism and Revolution, Democracy, Socialism: Selected Writings of V.I. Lenin offers a considered rejoinder to Paul Mason’s book Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere.

Paul praises Mason’s book as a “must read” account of the current global crisis and the diverse forms of new resistance. However he challenges some aspects of Mason’s reading of Marx’s ideas:

A fundamental methodological problem is that Mason tends to present Marx’s outlook in an un-dialectical manner. By dialectics, I am referring to a way of seeing things that comprehends reality as consisting of dynamic contradictions – things evolve because they contain components going in different directions, the opposite of something is inherent in that very thing, etc. Therefore to say that such-and-such a reality “only” means one thing, to present something as “all or nothing”, to fail to be alert to processes involving the dynamic interplay of various factors, etc. generally suggests that the dialectical method is not being used. And since Marx himself was steeped in the dialectical methodology, to present him in such a manner is highly problematical.

Mason very much approves of Marx’s inclination to take technological development as seriously as he himself does in emphasising (though some might argue over-emphasising) the importance of the internet in the economic realities and political insurgencies of our own time. In seeming to embrace Marx’s critique of utopians resistant to the advances of capitalist technology, however, he offers the following:

Capitalism itself, Marx argued, was headed in the direction of big enterprises, which the capitalists would own collectively via the stock markets. Co-ops and utopian villages were a distraction. You had to find a way to take control of this big stuff – finance, industry and agri-business – and create enough wealth so that, when you redistributed it, it would eliminate human need. Only then, Marx said, could you begin to address the alienation and unfreedom at the heart of human existence.

Capitalism itself, he believed, had created a social group whose material interests would force them to seize the means of production: the proletariat, owning nothing but their own capacity to work. However, there was nothing in the lifestyle of the workers themselves that could foreshadow the freedom they would create.

This flat approach is not simply the notion of a stodgier “mature” Marx (as some analysts have argued) but is read by Mason back into the ideas of the young romantic-revolutionary Marx of the early 1840s who argues (as Mason quotes him) that human emancipation can become a reality only when “an individual man, in his everyday life, in his work, and in his relationships, he has become a species-being”. Mason explicates: “Marx believed this truly social life – ‘species being’ – could not be attained without abolishing capitalism… Because Marx believed capitalism could only atomize, only alienate, he concluded that this ultimate human emancipation, in which people would express their freedom through communal interaction, could only happen after it was gone.”

It is not entirely clear that Mason equates Marx’s outlook with that of what he terms “orthodox Marxism”, but to the latter he explicitly attributes a political conclusion that is in harmony with all we have just summarised: “Since capitalism can only produce the alienated, helpless human being, social conditions have to be changed from above, by benign state intervention.” (This is also consistent with the position which many anarchists – some of whom Mason seems to treat uncritically – have falsely or erroneously attributed to the allegedly “state-socialist” Marx.)

This absolutely was not the theory either of the young Marx or the mature Marx. But Mason is entirely correct to assert that “the actual history of organized labor is a long refutation of this theory”. One of the key realities that Mason emphasises – to which I will return – is the fact that “from the late nineteenth century, workers did develop highly sophisticated subcultures in which they attempted to develop civilized and communal lifestyles”. Shifting from past to present, he adds that “it might be possible to achieve this ‘species-being’ under capitalism”. Mason elaborates:

The technological and interpersonal revolutions of the early twenty-first century pose precisely this question. Namely, is it now possible to conceive of living this ‘emancipated’ life as a fully connected ‘species-being on the terrain of capitalism itself – indeed on the terrain of a highly marketized form of capitalism, albeit in conflict with it? … What if – instead of waiting for the collapse of capitalism – the emancipated human being were beginning to emerge spontaneously from within this breakdown of the old order? What if all the dreams of human solidarity and participatory democracy … were realizable right now?

Visit Links to read the article in full.

Leon Trotsky

Writings in Exile

Leon Trotsky, edited by Kunal Chattopadhyay and Paul Le Blanc

Introduces the writings of Leon Trotsky.

“Leon Trotsky stands as a shining beacon amid the revolutionary events of our epoch. Out of the vast ideological arsenal he produced, Trotsky always considered that his most important works were those from his years in exile, which remain essential reading for those seeking to bring about fundamental change today. Kunal Chattopadhyay and Paul Le Blanc have done a great service in helping to make available, in a single volume, these texts to new generations of revolutionary activists.” – Esteban Volkow, Grandson of Leon Trotsky and President of the Board, Leon Trotsky House Museum, Coyoacan, Mexico

“This bracing book provides theoretical nourishment for our times, just as millions take to the streets worldwide demanding a just economic system. Leon Trotsky hit the world stage as President of the St. Petersburg Soviet in the 1905 Russian Revolution. … Trotsky continues to educate and inspire, his flame refuses to be extinguished.” – Suzi Weissman, Professor of Politics, Saint Mary’s College of California

£14.99 only £13.00 on the Pluto site

Rosa Luxemburg: Socialism or Barbarism

Selected Writings

Rosa Luxemburg, edited by Paul Le Blanc and Helen C. Scott

The best introduction to the range of Rosa Luxemburg’s thought, including a number of writings never before anthologised.

“Rosa Luxemburg has never been more relevant! Here, at last, in a single volume is an accessible introduction to one of the most important radical political thinkers of the 20th century with analysis and insight for a new generation of activist.” – Elaine Bernard, Executive Director of the Labor and Worklife Program, Harvard Law School

£12.99 only £11.50 on the Pluto site

Revolution, Democracy, Socialism

Selected Writings of V.I. Lenin

V. I. Lenin, edited by Paul Le Blanc

The first serious collection of Lenin’s writings for decades. Editor Paul Le Blanc argues that Lenin was committed to democracy.

“We desperately need the resurrection and revival of the kind of strategic thinking and principled commitment that Lenin epitomised in the era of 1917, and all that it promised. For those interested in this rebirth of the politics of alternative to capitalism, Paul Le Blanc’s account of the democratic, socialist, and revolutionary Lenin will prove indispensable. Reading it is a reminder that what is, need not be, and that what has, seemingly, failed, can be reconstituted anew.” – Professor Bryan Palmer, Trent University

£14.99 only £13.00 on the Pluto site

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