May 2016        

The Marxist alternative to capitalism

Nicola Lawlor

Peter Hudis, Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013)

Marx, quite correctly, didn’t leave a blueprint for socialism. His primary aim was to study and reveal the true workings of capitalism, the dominant socio-economic, political and cultural system, and how it reproduced itself. However, in doing this Marx did see how capitalism would evolve and ultimately give rise to a future society, socialism or communism, born out of and replacing capitalism through the logic of capitalism itself, just as capitalism arose from feudalism and feudalism from slave society before it.
     In this book Peter Hudis seeks to explore this process. In doing so he concentrates on Marx, not Engels or Lenin or later Marxist writers, in order to provide an accurate version of Marx’s views on the alternative to capitalism.
     Peter Hudis is a lecturer in humanities and philosophy at Oakton Community College in Illinois. He is also the general editor of The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg and an extensive writer on Frantz Fanon.
     It is in Marx’s philosophical approach that Hudis sees his thinking on socialist society come through and that grounds it in the realities of capitalism, as opposed to the dark recesses of some mind, something Marx and Engels were keen to criticise other socialist thinkers for doing.
     The book is a good read—not always easy, as it delves into Marx’s critique of Hegel and the grounding of Hegelian dialectics in a more materialist tradition, giving birth to dialectical materialism. One also has to tolerate a number of jibes at the Soviet Union, not grounded in fact or indeed even necessary to his argument. But it does cover Marx’s work extensively, picking out the relevant sections and ideas on future society, so providing the reader with a good overview of Marx’s concept of the alternative to capitalism.
     Note that the title says the alternative to capitalism, not an alternative. This is important, as Marx sees socialism as growing out of the concentration, internationalisation, class structures and contradictions of capitalism and as marked also by all those struggles and imperfections from which it is born. Socialism is born out of capitalism.
     While Marx gives us no blueprint, his critique of capitalism, and his identification of the central contradictions within the system, allow him to follow these through to the point at which private ownership is replaced by social ownership, and the creation of value through the exploitation of labour power is replaced by labour for which individuals at first receive the worth of their actual labour time (as opposed to the socially necessary labour time under capitalism) and then later will receive what they need, when free time for humans becomes the real measure of wealth.
     Hudis begins the book by examining the development of Marx’s philosophical approach, a critique of Hegel, and ultimately the discovery of what became known as dialectical materialism. In Hudis’s exposition of this he identifies Marx’s understanding and his use of embedded rationality, also used by Hegel, in which he seeks to identify general laws and conditions, often breaking things down to the dominant influences and through which one can then expose and see the progress and consequent transition of one thing to another, avoiding chance or fortuitousness as motive forces in history.
     However, Marx did not interpret this rationality in a vulgar-materialist way: he also saw the humanity and human interplay within those processes and so avoided a deterministic materialist approach, understanding the importance of ideas in change. Marx did not privilege matter over consciousness but saw their relationship.
     Chapters 2 and 3 look at Marx’s references to a post-capitalist society in what Hudis describes as the drafts of Capital, The Poverty of Philosophy, and the Grundrisse (the Outline of the Critique of Political Economy) and then looks at Capital itself. It is in these texts that Marx makes it clear that a transformation flowing from the growth and development of the working class—in contradiction to their capitalists through the exploitation of their labour in production—cannot come about from mere changes to exchange or distribution without changing or challenging the production process itself, and so the contradiction or conflict won’t be resolved until that fundamental process of capital’s unique and specific exploitation of labour required to reproduce itself is ended. This differentiated Marx from Proudhon and others at the time.
     Hudis also comments on Marx’s view of co-operative production and workers’ associative production. Marx supported these forms and saw the role they would play in the transition but was critical of people such as Owen who saw the mere fact of workers owning the outcome of their production as an end to capitalist exploitation and failed to recognise that workers in co-operatives often act in the same way as their competitors, and that the internal wage process still exploits labour in a way similar to capitalism, with the profit merely shared. Nevertheless he was more favourable to Owen than to Ricardo or Proudhon.
     Chapter 4 then looks at what Hudis calls Marx’s later writing, most importantly the famous Critique of the Gotha Programme and before that The Civil War in France. More than any other writings, these are known for suggesting the future look of socialism.
     Marx was inspired by the Paris Commune, and its short but important experience gave him an insight into workers’ organisation as a ruling class. The Commune eliminated the army, depoliticised the police, separated the church from the workers’ state, planned the small war economy, and made officials elected and recallable. The Commune inspired Marx to understand that the working class cannot just get itself elected to the bourgeois state but must dismantle the state and replace it with a different and distinct working-class state. This, more than anything, must surely be a sobering lesson for the left today.
     The German Social Democrats met at Gotha in 1875, in a unity conference, and put forward a programme heavily influenced by Ferdinand Lassalle. Marx did not agree or endorse this programme, to put it mildly, and responded with his Critique of the Gotha Programme. That is not a long book, and if someone wants to read a book by Marx on the topic of a future society and socialism, this is by far the one most geared towards this topic of socialism “just as it emerges from capitalist society.”
     Hudis’s exposition of this topic is well worth reading, especially in the context of the success and failures of socialism in the twentieth century and the unfortunately weaker attempts at socialism in this century.

Home page  >  Socialist Voice  >  May 2016  >  The Marxist alternative to capitalism
Baile  >  Socialist Voice  >  Bealtaine 2016  >  The Marxist alternative to capitalism