Ultra-leftism, market socialism and inequality

Well, it has been a while since I blogged. In fact, I’ve added two articles since then. Once is a review of “The Coming Insurrection”, a book I was not particularly impressed by (as the review testifies). Ultra-leftist nonsense, to be honest. It was strange reading it on the way to work and contrasting its vision of contemporary reality with what I actually experience.

At one point I came to the conclusion that if I had to read Science Fiction, I should read something a bit more realistic. So I read three Ursula Le Guin books. It was really rewarding reading the 40th anniversary edition of “Left Hand of Darkness” – not only for the extras but because it has been over a decade since I read it. Re-reading it again made me appreciate what a classic it is. A wonderful book. Then I re-read (for, I think, the fourth time!) “The Dispossessed” and, as with every re-reading of it, I gained more insight and appreciation of both it as a work of art and its treatment of communist-anarchism. Very inspiring, particularly as it addresses the issue of public opinion and “Tyranny of the Majority” in a free society. And talking of which, there is a new book which discusses this classic of libertarian SF out called “The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed” (which is available as a pdf on-line). If you have not read “The Dispossessed” then I would heartily recommend doing so now (I do hope there will be a 40th anniversary edition for that, too!). Finally, I re-read “The Fisherman of the Inland Sea”, which was good as well although the story which gives the book its name was not as sad as I remembered. For some reason the way it was written made it stick in my memory as sad, although it is not.

Then Dave Berry, of “Anarchist Studies”, asked if I could write the review of “The Coming Insurrection” I had promised to do (and why he sent me the book), so I finished it and wrote the review. Then I had to edit it right down to 500 words for “Anarchist Studies”! A 1,500 word version will also appear in Freedom. And talking of “Anarchist Studies”, they will run by critique of Darlington (Syndicalism, Anarchism and Marxism ) and Darlington will be replying. Fun! Oh, and that article has a pdf of it attached to it now so you can print it out and get the footnotes on the appropriate pages.

The second article is a belated reply to Joseph Kay’s response to my reply to his “communist” boiler-plate article against co-operatives from Christmas 2008. Suffice to say, he does not really address my point and confuses pointing out the incorrectness of certain assumptions and terminology with support for market socialism (mutualism). When he does come close to recognising my actual position, he agrees with it. He seems keen to distance himself from the “anarchist tradition”, embracing a (ultra-leftist?) definition of capital (which equates it with commodity production in general). As such, he confuses highlighting problems with markets with the critique of capitalism (they overlap, obviously, but there can be non-capitalist markets). I’m annoyed that I left this nonsense unanswered for so long, but I was not aware of it. Suffice to say, there is a reason why ultra-leftist groups are small, irrelevant sects and I do wish that British anarchists would stop taking them seriously.

While denying Marx’s (correct) argument that capitalism is marked by wage-labour, not commodity production, he does invoke Marx’s “demolition” (!) of Proudhon, “The Poverty of Philosophy.” After “The Coming Insurrection”, I took the opportunity to re-read Proudhon’s “System of Economic Contradictions” from cover to cover rather than seeking extracts. I also had a copy of “The Poverty of Philosophy” as well, just to check and compare. Unsurprisingly, Marx’s distortions are quite staggering. At one point Marx quotes Proudhon and then adds, without indicating the different source, the following sentences from Chapter V: “But what need of insisting? From the moment that the communist changes the name of things, vera rerum vocabala, he tacitly admits his powerlessness, and puts himself out of the question.” Ironically, Marx also changes (again without indicating) “communist” to “economist” and mockingly inserts “(read M. Proudhon)” in the modified text! That is not the only quote tampering that does on in his reply. It is hardly an example of intellectually honest critique…

Based on my rereading, I’m going to add a few more extracts as well as re-writing slightly the section on “The Poverty of Philosophy” in the introduction’s appendix on Marx. One extract I will add will be newly translated material from section IV of Chapter XI (on Property) as this includes the material on capitalists appropriating the surplus-labour of workers referred to in “Proudhon and Marx on Exploitation” (and a 1,500 word version of this blog will also appear in Freedom). This is an important contribution [for some reason I had originally written "contradiction" here! Although it does contradict the received wisdom on Proudhon] to our understanding of Proudhon’s ideas as well as Marx’s influences in his development of surplus-labour and surplus-value, which Marx did not publicly use surplus-labour until just before Capital was published. According to the introduction to the Grundrisse, Marx did not use “labour-power” and so surplus-labour until the late 1850s, over a decade after Proudhon had used the concept in “System of Economic Contradictions”. Marx, it should be said, totally ignores THIS aspect of Proudhon's arguments on surplus labour. But, then again, he ignores much of Proudhon's ideas and distorts others.

There are some differences between the analysis of Marx and Proudhon, but the key concept of the boss appropriating the surplus-labour of their workers is clearly stated by Proudhon in 1846, building upon what he had already argued in 1840. So those, like Tucker and Rocker, who argued that Marx found the theory of surplus value in Proudhon were right. Also, it should be noted that Marx also seems to have lifted aspects of it from the Ricardian socialists as well (and did not acknowledge them), according to J. E. King’s 1983 article “Utopian or Scientific? A Reconsideration of the Ricardian Socialists” (History of Political Economy 15(3))

As I said, I've had to re-write some of my discussion on “The Poverty of Philosophy” in light of this new information (thanks to Shawn Wilbur for translating it!). I should also note that I came across a couple of very important comments on workplace associations which were buried, in all places, in his discussion of God (in Chapter VIII)! That book is not well organised at all... These comments feed into, I would argue, his ideas on workers self-management and what today we would call socialisation. The revised discussion will include these two paragraphs:

This analysis of exploitation occurring in production feeds into Proudhon’s few tantalising glimpses of his vision of a free society.  Thus we discover that as “all labour must leave a surplus, all wages [must] be equal to product.” To achieve this, the workplace must be democratic for “[b]y virtue of the principle of collective force, labourers are the equals and associates of their leaders” and to ensure “that association may be real, he who participates in it must do so” as “an active factor” with “a deliberative voice in the council” with everything “regulated in accordance with equality.” These “conditions are precisely those of the organisation of labour.” This requires free access and so all workers “straightway enjoy the rights and prerogatives of associates and even managers” when they join a workplace. This would ensure “equality of fortunes, voluntary and free association, universal solidarity, material comfort and luxury, and public order without prisons, courts, police, or hangmen.”

Needless to say, Marx ignores all this. Once acknowledged, it is incredulous to assert that, for Proudhon, to end its troubles society has “only to eliminate all the ill-sounding terms. Let it change the language” and that such “activities form an essential part of the argument of M. Proudhon.” (61) At the very least, as Marx-the-older noted, “if one eliminates the capitalists, the means of production cease to be capital.”

I’m working on discussing Proudhon’s views on socialisation, to be blogged upon with the extracts from “General Idea of the Revolution” which will be put on-line shortly. As will become clear, Proudhon was in favour of socialising the means of production – as his comments in “System of Economic Contradictions” indicate. As he put it in “What is Property?”: “all accumulated capital being social property, no one can be its exclusive proprietor.” He re-iterated this in his 1848 election manifesto and elsewhere. I should also note I will be discussing the various comments by Marx and Engels on this book, contrasting their comments with what Proudhon actually wrote…

Oh, and talking of Marx. In 1880 he wrote that “drastic tone of this polemic” (The Poverty of Philosophy) was Proudhon’s fault “as he heaped coarse insults on the utopian socialists and communists whom Marx honoured as the forebears of modern socialism.” (Marx-Engels Collected Works, vol. 24. p. 326) As opposed to 1846, when he stated in no uncertain terms that “[t]he only point upon which I am in complete agreement with M. Proudhon is the disgust he feels for socialist sentimentalising. I anticipated him in provoking considerable hostility by the ridicule I directed at ovine, sentimental, utopian socialism.” (vol. 38, p. 104) So there you go…

Obviously, I've had to read quite a bit about market socialism when I was researching the Proudhon anthology, basically Marxists proclaiming that Proudhon was a market socialist and how Marx destroyed the whole foundations of it. That and, of course, how racist and sexist Proudhon was (no mention of how Marx did not comment on these traits, though). And, of course, a few extra inaccuracies as well, just to make sure you won't be interested in reading him...

I was struck by two things, though.

Firstly, how adamant they were from a Marxist position that market socialism is not socialist, not fitting for human liberation, how it was just a new form of capitalism, that it was self-contradictory, impossible, how it did not understand what money was (and how Marx's labour notes are NOT money), that the market needs to be ended, that attempts to have a socialism based on the market is impossible and just down-right confused, how it was based on wage-labour (workers buy things from other workers!) and exploitation (workers exploit themselves by, well, keeping their surplus labour and products – not sure how that one works, but never mind), and so on.

Secondly, how Marxism teaches us that we cannot immediately abolish the market, that there will be a lengthy transition period in which markets would still exist (even capitalists!), that (according to Trotsky) the market would be used to check the plan, that markets would still be around for certain goods (e.g., hard-back books!) but that labour-notes are not money because they are personalised and do not circulate (how does THAT work?), people have to buy things using their labour-notes (but that is not wage-labour because, well, it’s not) and so on.

So we have two positions. One, market socialism is a contradiction in terms. Two, that markets will exist in socialism for a (lengthy) transition period. I assume that invoking the magic word “dialectics” solves this obvious contradiction? In the same way that Marxism is “anti-statist” while, at the same time, aiming to create (or modify) a state during a (lengthy) transition period? Oh, but of course, I forgot, this state is not really a state in the usual sense of the word. It is totally different, but we will call it a state anyway (don't want to be confused with those dreadful anarchists!).

No wonder anarchism has suffered in terms of influence compared to Marxism... What magic words do we have?

Suffice to say, I will be blogging on Proudhon and Market Socialism, along with discussing the likes of David McNally’s attack of Proudhon, at some later stage on the “Property is theft!” blog. I will note here that showing the contradictions in Leninist critiques of market socialism (mutualism) does not imply that I am a mutualist. I’m not. I feel I have to say this after my polemics with Joseph Kay, as it appears critiquing incorrect criticisms of mutualism seems to equate, for some, with supporting it. Suffice to say, mutualism (like communist-anarchism) should be critiqued, but accurately. I hope I have done so, but I’ll leave that to others to judge.

Obviously the economic crisis is grinding on. I came across this interesting quote from Paul Krugman:

“The 1981-2 recession was a very different kind of event from the 2007-9 recession: basically, it was a recession deliberately created by the Fed to bring down inflation. The Fed raised interest rates sky-high, causing a plunge in home construction, which was the main driver of the slump. When Paul Volcker believed that we had suffered enough, he cut rates, housing sprang back — and it was housing that mainly drove the recovery. Reaganomics was basically irrelevant.”

And how did it bring down inflation? By mass unemployment, so breaking unions and working class power. In short, the state acting
in the interests of the capitalist class as a whole. As would be expected, as it is a capitalist state... Krugman is right. There are different reasons why crisis happens – as discussed in AFAQ. In the late 1960s/early 1970s, it was a product of working class resistance. In 1929, as now, it is a product of working class weakness and (relative) over-investment. What is interesting is seeing the American ruling elite fighting over the best way to solve the crisis. Part of the problem for the ruling class this time is that, first, sections of its political class believe their own rhetoric and, second, they really think that they don’t need to let any crumbs flow downwards as the working class is too weak to pose a threat to the system and there is no real alternative in the popular perception (unlike in the 1930s). Perhaps the painful memories of the revolts of the 1960s and 1970s still pays it part, but I’m surprised that ideology is hindering attempts to keep the system going. Of course, Keynesianism may not be enough to get capitalism going again but it is interesting that the American right is actively stopping attempts to try…

Perhaps this is understandable, Monetarism and neo-liberalism have been good for the ruling class. This pdf article by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson (“Winner-Take-All Politics: Public Policy, Political Organization, and the Precipitous Rise of Top Incomes in the United States”) is well worth reading. Also, this webpage is good: “In June, an analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities confirmed that gap between rich and poor in the United States reached levels not seen since 1929.”

Remember, though, it is a “striking fact, contrary to popular conception, is that capitalism leads to less inequality than alternative systems of organisation and that the development of capitalism has greatly lessened the extent of inequality. Comparisons over space and time alike confirm this.” (Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, p. 169) And what happened in the 1970s onwards? Friedman's ideas were applied! Opps! Still, being proven utterly wrong time and time again has not impacted on his reputation (in certain circles) of being a great economist... but as long as the rich get richer, such trivialities as being correct do not matter…Who says the system is not working?

And I should point to this good post of why inequality happens in capitalism. It discusses how exploitation happens under capitalism, Marx, the Cambridge Capital Controversies, marginal productivity theory and such like. I had to add a comment that Marx's theory of surplus value was first expounded by Proudhon, of course...

And talking of inequality, “The Spirit Level” has been under attack by the right (surprise!). The book shows that inequality is bad for your society (surprise!), showing that on almost every index of quality of life or wellness there is a strong correlation between a country's level of economic inequality and its social outcomes (I mention this in my introduction to Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid as well as the introduction to volume 2 of AFAQ). The authors have been replying to the attacks.

Finally, I'm reading “Iron Council” by China Miéville. It’s not bad, but you can tell its written by a member of the SWP. Saying that, it is more imaginative that you would assume.... His previous book, “Perdido Street Station” had obvious Marxist influences (“crisis” as an energy source, the garuda’s society and such like) and strikes. This one is more so, but obviously inspired by the debates in the anti-globalisation movement. Thus we have the Runagate Rampant (i.e., the SWP, or the Bolsheviks) plus someone who joins an illegalist/criminal group because he wants to do something other than attend meetings. Mieville even says “the Bonnot Gang” is another of these groups! I guess he thinks these approximate the Black Bloc (the illegalists have “anarchist rage”, seriously!). When I was just over half way through now I thought that we would get a sermon on elitist tactics. Thus things were coming to a head in the city of New Crobuzon. Strikes are more frequent, riots happen all the time, guilds are forming. I guessed that the illegalists will do something (an attentat, probably) which will cause a clamp down and, perhaps, popular revulsion, and so stop the mass action of the masses. So proving the SWP, sorry, the Runagate Rampant to be correct.

I hoped to be wrong, as is a reasonably interesting book written by someone with real imagination. And it turned out I was. Not to give too much away, it is obvious that Miéville knows something about the Paris Commune… And, of course, he has taken Marx’s “Revolutions are the locomotives of history” a little too much to heart… Still, he does mention that the Runagate Rampant come across as arrogant. I’m looking forward to seeing how it ends.

Until I blog again, be seeing you!


Looking forward to reading

Looking forward to reading your stuff on mutualism and market socialism. I understand its strategic implications, not so much its vision for economic organization. Plus, Abbey's come to hhhhaaaaatttteeee mutualism for some reason and I'd like to understand why! =)

I'm glad to see someone

I'm glad to see someone shares an interest in mutualism and market socialism! At the very least, discussing mutualism and translating Proudhon really fills a hole in understanding the evolution of anarchism.

I have been genuinally surprised by how much of Bakunin's key ideas and important contributions to anarchism (at least in my eyes) were first expounded by Proudhon. I also found it eye-opening to see how much of what Marx and Engels praised about the Paris Commune was first argued by Proudhon, particularly during the 1848 revolution. This, of course, applies to the economic theories as well -- once you do not take their assertions about Proudhon at face value and compare them to what he actually wrote.

In terms of its economic vision, its views on socialisation, socio-economic federalism, self-management and so forth, it obviously influences the collectivist and communist anarchist visions. The key difference is whether the products of labour are to be socalised as well. Proudhon says no, hence the need for money, markets and prices (in a modified form). Kropotkin says yes. But in terms of workers self-management, free access to the means of life, federalism, the vision is extremely close. As I suggested in the article on "The Economics of Anarchy"

As for hating mutualism, well, is there must be better things to hate? It is hardly a mass movement, and even within the anarchist movement it is small. But there is an extra complication that the American individualist anarchists called (and call) themselves mutualists while, in fact, rejecting or ignoring many of Proudhon's key ideas. The likes of Bakunin and Kroptkin are closer to Proudhon's ideas than, say, Tucker.

In terms of my work, I see it as contributing an understanding of our history and the evolution of our ideas. I also see it as exposing some of the absolute nonsense written about Proudhon as well as pointing out that, well, libertarian thinkers came to key conclusions on many subjects years, even decades, before they became "Marxist" positions.

I also think it helps with thinking about the problems facing any revolution -- it seems to be the case that all revolutions go through a "mutualist" phase so it is best to understand it in order to evolve beyond it. To dismiss this stage (incorrectly) as self-managed "capitalism" or "exploitation" gets us nowhere -- as well as showing a shocking misunderstanding of capitalism.

Need I point out that the apologists of capitalism equate ALL commodity production to capitalism (so downplaying wage-labour) so I'm at a loss to see why anti-capitalists should do so as well. Similarly, with the poo-poo-ing of liberty (economic or otherwise). What good does that do, other than make people interesting in anarchism wonder what the hell we are going on about?

Suffice to say, next up is "Proudhon on socialisation" and then "Proudhon and market socialism." Both should help clear misconceptions on Proudhon's ideas as well as showing the contradictory critiques of Leninists against market socialism.


Like what you are reading?  Get a notification whenever we post a new article to

Anarchist Writers via Facebook or Twitter

where you can also like and comment on our articles