Developing a Philosophically Grounded Alternative to Capitalism


The dream of the imminent end of the world inspired the struggle of the early Christians against the Roman Empire and gave them confidence in victory. Scientific insight into the inevitable disintegration, now taking place before our eyes, of the prevailing social sufficient guarantee that the moment a truly proletarian revolution breaks out, the conditions for its immediate initial (if certainly not idyllic) modus operandi will also be there. -- Karl Marx1

Any effort to address the strategic and conceptual priorities facing the radical movement needs to focus on the widespread claim that “there is no alternative” to capitalism. The assumption that capitalism represents the ne plus ultra of human existence dominates intellectual discourse East and West and represents the foremost barrier to generating mass opposition to social injustice, imperialist war, and religious fundamentalism. It may once have been possible to get by with the notion that mass struggles against the immediate manifestations of oppression would undermine the foundation of existing society to the point that radical theoreticians could then suggest the ultimate solution. However, this standpoint no longer seems viable. Many today want to have some idea of what kind of society can replace this one even before entering the battle. The slogan “another world is possible" is one reflection of this. Today we need to address “what happens after” the revolution before it occurs.

This may seem to present the matter upside down. How can we address what happens after a revolution when revolution seems so far off? What point is there to developing a vision of a non-capitalist society when even the idea of revolution has receded from public discourse? As I see it, it is those who argue along these lines that have it upside down. For they take for granted why the idea of revolution is in such crisis in the first place. The reason is the failure of many revolutions to surmount the problems associated with capitalism, racism, and sexual and national oppression. The bankruptcy of the Stalinist model of “socialism” is clear; in virtually every case it turned out to be a “transitional” stage to nothing more than traditional capitalism. The joke often heard in Poland—“What is Communism? The longest route from capitalism to capitalism”—has some truth. But it isn’t only Stalinism that has failed. So have many revolutions in the Third World. In places like Iran mass dissatisfaction with the 1979 revolution helps explain why a large pro-democracy movement has arisen there in the past decade that eschews discussion of social revolution.

Given today’s realities it is doubtful that large numbers of people will embrace the idea of socialism unless theoreticians project a convincing concept of a new society that speaks to how to transcend the legacy of the aborted and unfinished revolutions. Take China for example. Many Chinese workers oppose the privatization of state-owned enterprises since it often results in wage cuts and plant closings. At the same time, nationalization is hardly seen as a solution—not only because conditions in state-owned enterprises are hardly pristine but also because conditions for many workers deteriorated when industry was nationalized in the 1950s, since they were deprived of independent unions and the right to strike. Partly for this reason, Han Dong Fang, founder of the Beijing Autonomous Workers Union that joined with student protesters at Tienamen in 1989 (he now lives in Hong Kong after being freed from prison by an international campaign) has criticized the anti-globalization movement for acting as if privatization is the sole problem afflicting workers. But if neither privatized nor nationalized industry is the solution, what is the alternative? The answer isn’t so clear. Han has stated: “Look at China’s history. We have a history of revolution. And every time...the only thing we got was repeated dictators. So that gave us a lesson, we don’t want revolution any more. But where is the way out if you don’t resolve the problem?” (Han Dong Fang 2004)

Many dedicated activists like Han Dong-Fang are looking “for a way out” but are unsure how to proceed given the outcome of so many failed revolutions. The claim that “there is no alternative” is not likely to be seriously challenged unless the question “is there a way out?” is comprehensively addressed. 

The problem lies in how we address this question. As I see it, the Leninist concept of a vanguard party, which assumes that "socialist" consciousness must be brought to the masses from outside their spontaneous struggles, is not viable. The theory of consciousness that underlies the concept of a vanguard party fails to account for the fact that intellectuals are as much prey to the illusion of capital’s immutability as are workers. All thought is subject to the illusion that the capital relation is immutable so long as the laborers have not moved to create freely associated relations of production. Marx never asserted that workers could only attain trade union consciousness. Nor does such a view flow from his understanding of the relation between being and consciousness. If being determines consciousness, and if the proletariat is still firmly bound to capital, what accounts for the “true” consciousness claimed by “the party”? In What is to be Done Lenin relied on Kautsky to supply the answer. He quoted Kautsky’s view that “socialist consciousness” is a form of scientific insight that transcends the standpoint of those trapped in the capital-relation. But where did Kautsky get his notion that “the vehicle of science is not the proletariat but the bourgeois intelligentsia”? From Ferdinand Lassalle, founder of the first mass workers’ organization in Germany. Lassalle argued that the divide between “the thinkers and the masses” can be bridged by bringing “science” to the unenlightened—a task for which he felt he was uniquely qualified. Marx’s criticism of the political ramifications of Lassalle’s position (especially in his Critique of the Gotha Program) is well known, but it is often overlooked that Marx’s Critique took issue with the very basis of Lassalle’s concept of organization.2

The problem with approaches that assume that mass consciousness is trapped in existing social relations and that “socialist” consciousness is the property of an enlightened vanguard party is that the radical critique of society is abstracted from its cognitive source in spontaneous mass struggles. It is true that such struggles cannot by themselves develop a fully-fledged vision of a socialist society. But at specific turning points spontaneous struggles have generated a social consciousness that points beyond capitalism. An example of this was the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. The workers' councils and revolutionary committees that arose directly opposed the Soviet occupation but did not call for a return to capitalism. On the contrary, they inspired a return to Marx's "humanist" vision, as found in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, where he attacked both capitalism and "vulgar communism" in the name of "positive humanism." The spontaneous revolt helped deepen and redefine the very meaning of socialism, in a way that that far outlived the immediate events.

Too many theoreticians want to tie consciousness to social reality while assuming away the connection between social realities and their consciousness. Intellectuals do have a vital role to play in developing a vision of a non-capitalist world; but their ability to do so hinges on absorbing impulses as well as ideas generated by spontaneous struggles (like the feminist movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which helped redefine what is needed to create a truly new, human society).

The biggest problem with the approach taken by "Leninist" vanguard parties is that they tend to reinforce the division of labor that characterizes class society, with the result that the concept of  "socialism" gets reduced to the mere nationalization of property and state control of industry. As John Holloway puts it, “The idea of a ‘theory of society’ suggests a distance between the theorist and the object of theory. The notion of a theory of society is based on the suppression of the subject, or…on the idea that the knowing subject can stand outside the object of study, can look at human society from the vantage point of the moon, as it were.” (Holloway 2002, p. 135) This separation between the “knowing subject” (the intellectual vanguard) and “the object of study” (“the masses”) impacts the understanding of socialism itself, since a hierarchical relation between leader and led defines the approach to working out an “alternative.” Yet history has shown that nationalized property and state control of industry under the hierarchical control of "radical" intellectuals is no alternative at all. To adequatelyrespond to the question can humanity be free in an age of so many aborted and unfinished revolutions? the premises that have defined traditional approaches to conceiving of a radical alternative need to be seriously rethought or abandoned.

Do anti-vanguardist approaches resolve the problem of developing a liberating alternative? We can approach this by way of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire and its sequel, Multitude. Both books have generated much discussion over their analysis of sovereignty, the de-centered character of global capital, and the emergence of a new force opposing it—the multitude. They avoid the de-subjectified and pessimistic standpoint of much of contemporary theory by showing that capital’s universality is encountering new forces of opposition. Since they see the struggles of the multitude as immanent to the very movement of capital, they avoid posing the need for an external unifier of opposites (like a Leninist vanguard party) to awaken the masses as to their plight.

So how is an alternative to be projected? In Empire they suggest that the goal is already so immanent in spontaneous struggles that there isn't a need to theoretically articulate it. They write: “Empire creates a greater potential for revolution than did the modern regimes of power because it presents us...with an alternative: a multitude that is directly opposed to Empire, with no mediation between them” (Hardt & Negri 2000, p. 393). The logic of their position is that the role of the theoretician is limited to elucidating the immanent presence of the multitude. Yet if the multitude already possesses the goal in unmediated form, why is a group of theoreticians needed to help spell it out? In Hardt and Negri’s anti-dialectical approach there is no such necessity. The transcendence of capital occurs quasi-automatically, from the exuberance of the multitude overflowing the boundaries of capital.

Their most recent work, Multitude, seems to move in a different direction, as they write: "We have to search for a post-capitalist political alternative today, breaking from the worn-out socialist tradition" (Hardt & Negri, 2004, p. 255). They argue that to show that "another world is possible" the radical movement must develop an alternative model of sovereignity, in which socialism is not seen as situating all power in the state. Moreover, they acknowledge that developing such a model "is anything but spontaneous and improvised" (p. 354). However, it is clear from Multitude that they view the task of envisioning an alternative in purely political terms. They say little or nothing about how to transform the mode of production and economic relations in society as a whole, calling instead for "a new science of democracy" based on "combining Madison and Lenin" (p. 355). While this is a welcome alternative to those who equate "socialism" with statist dictatorship, it hardly amounts to a fundamental rethinking of the economic and social content of the socialist project.

While Hardt and Negri’s approach seems to be the opposite of those who advocate a vanguard party, it falls short of posing the necessity of developing a comprehensive, liberating alternative to capitalism.

Is there an approach that avoids the defects of both vanguardism and a one-sided emphasis on spontaneity? This question is not a new one. It has long been a point of contention within the U.S. Marxist movement, as seen in the discussions between C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya in the 1950s. By the late 1940s James broke from the Leninist concept of a vanguard party on the grounds that the centralization of capital and the socialization of labor, which he held to be characteristic of the age of “state-capitalism,” provided mass struggles with the ability to create a socialist society without the mediation of a vanguard party (see James 1980). By the mid-1950s he went so far as to argue “the new society already exists” in the forms of organization created by spontaneous struggles. All that was needed, he argued, was to “record the fact” that the elements of a new, post-capitalist society were in existence (James 1957). While in the same period Dunayevskaya also broke from the concept of a vanguard party, she did not conclude, as did James, that the role of revolutionaries had become limited to “recording the existence” of spontaneous forms of mass organization. In a series of letters on Hegel that she sent to James in 1953, she argued that he content of a new society is not supplied only by spontaneous struggle. The vision of the future also has to be theoretically worked out through an ongoing exploration of dialectical concepts (Dunayevskaya 2002). Dunayevskaya therefore refrained from coming to a conclusion regarding the role of organization until after exploring the full range of Hegel’s work, as especially found in his Science of Logic and Philosophy of Mind. Her studies led her to conclude that while spontaneous forms of organization are of crucial importance, there is still a need for organizations of Marxist theoreticians that exist independently of spontaneous struggles. In the Leninist concept of a vanguard party, "socialist consciousness" is brought to the workers from outside their spontaneous struggles, thereby imposing a hierarchical relation of leader to led. In Dunayevskaya's non-Leninist concept of organization, "socialist consciousness" is developed through an active interchange between Marxian philosophic concepts and ideas that emerge from spontaneous struggles. A hierarchical relation to spontaneous struggles is replaced by a dialogical relation.

Many anti-vanguardists have tended to either skip over the question of organization or to reduce it to “teaching spontaneity” (as James put it in his Notes on Dialectics).3 While such approaches are far more open-ended and fluid than vanguardist ones, they fail to specify the role of an organization in developing a concept of a new society. It is therefore no accident that many anti-vanguardists have shied away from articulating a comprehensive, emancipatory alternative. While such reticence may have been understandable decades ago, when spontaneous freedom struggles were everywhere in evidence, it is less so today, when even some of the most creative forms of spontaneous mass self-organization have succumbed to the view that “there is no alternative” to capitalism. Poland’s Solidarnosc movement is but one example of this.

The problems encountered by Leninist and anti-Leninist tendencies in articulating a viable alternative demonstrate the need to work out a new relation between philosophy and organization. It is no longer sufficient (even though it remains necessary) to break politically from the concept of a vanguard party. We need to go further, by recognizing that while decentralized and spontaneous forms of organization are the opposite of the elitist party, they do not free us from the need to take organizational responsibility for developing a comprehensive vision of a non-capitalist future.

The problem has only become more acute since the 1980s. It isn’t just that a concept of a non-capitalist society can assist today’s social movements. It has become vital for their very existence and forward motion. While spontaneous mass struggles often suggest the elements of a new society, the task of working out a comprehensive vision of non-capitalist social relations takes hard theoretical labor. Such labor requires more than spontaneous activity. It also requires more than the work of "enlightened" intellectuals who are isolated from mass struggles. What is needed today is not simply a general conception of socialism. We need more—Marx's concept of a "revolution in permanence" that uproots the very basis of value production. Developing and projecting that concept requires a philosophic nucleus of activists and theoreticians who establish a dialogue with ongoing freedom struggles.

To achieve this, we need to recognize that the form of organization, crucial as it is, does not exhaust the concept of organization. As Dunayevskaya stated in 1987:

“The burning question of the day remains: What happens the day after? How can we continue Marx’s unchaining of the dialectic organizationally, with the principles he outlines in his Critique of the Gotha Program? The question of ‘what happens after?’ gains crucial importance because of what it signals in self-development and self-flowering—’revolution in permanence.’ No one knows what it is, or can touch it, or can decide upon it before it appears. It is not the task that can be fulfilled in just one generation...It has the future written all over it. The fact that we cannot give a blueprint does not absolve us from the task. It only makes it more difficult”(Dunayevskaya 1988, microfilm no. 10960).

It was to focus the discussion of priorities for the Left in this direction that I began with a statement from Marx’s letter of 1881 to Domela Nieuwenhuis. That statement came directly after the following sentence: “A doctrinaire and of necessity fantastic anticipation of a future revolution’s program of action only serves to distract from the present struggle” (Marx 1986).  Marxists have never stopped quoting this sentence, because it meant to them that they didn’t need to “speculate” about the future. But they usually didn’t quote what follows the sentence, where Marx speaks of the importance of “the dream of an imminent end,” because that wasn’t concrete to them. It has, however, become concrete to our age—far more so than Marx himself could ever have envisioned. This is no call to draw up “blueprints” for a new society, let alone regressing to “doctrinaire” anticipations of the future. Devising blueprints for the future is a form of Enlightenment reasoning that (to borrow a line from Hegel)4 “upsets the household arrangements by bringing in the goods and furnishings belonging to the world of the here and now.” But while we don’t need blueprints we do need a vision of the future. The future of the planet may well depend on it.


1. See Marx's letter of February 22, 1881 to Domela Nieuwenhuis, in Marx 1986.

2. For a discussion of the Lassallean roots of Lenin’s and Kautsky's organizational concepts, and of Marx's Critique of the Gotha Program as providing ground for an alternative concept, see Dunayevskaya 1991 and 2000.

3. See James 1980, p. 117.

4. See Hegel 1931, p. 512. The phrase appears in the section of the Phenomenology of Spirit that critiques the Enlightenment.


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