wordpress hosting review at Inmotion

From the archives

Venezuela: defeated coup

chavez april13 2002In a counterblow that stunned US imperialism in 2002, the coup it had sponsored against the popularly elected government of President Chavez, was quickly broken by the strength and determination of the Venezuelan working masses. Read More»

The limits to opportunism / FRFI 216 Aug/Sep 2010

Pin It

FRFI 216 August/September 2010

The limits to opportunism

Kautskyism past and present, Alec Abbott


Kautskyism past and present is a three-volume study of the nature, origins, growth and spread of Kautskyism. Volume 2 will be posted on the internet towards the end of summer 2010, and Volume 3 in 2011. The following review focuses on Volume 1, ‘Modern-day Kautskyism’.[1]

Abbott begins with a brief account of Kautsky’s 1914 standpoint, his prediction that the world’s finance capitalists will resolve their differences by uniting in a gigantic, all-embracing trust. Abbott then turns his attention to current debates by examining the standpoints of Antonio Negri, a prominent anarchist in the anti-capitalist movement, and Alex Callinicos, the SWP’s leading theoretician. Whereas Negri and his followers maintain that capitalism has evolved along the lines indicated by Kautsky, the SWP insists that a single world trust is a fallacy. Capital, as Callinicos never tires of telling us, can only exist as many capitals.

And so Abbott goes on, for some ten pages, leaving readers wondering what the connection is between Kautsky’s theory of ‘ultra-imperialism’ and the SWP’s ‘many capitals’ argument. Does Abbott reject the SWP’s criticism of Kautskyism, or does he simply look upon it as inadequate? It is at this point that Abbott makes an important contribution to our understanding of Kautskyism. Kautsky, he informs us, held to a number of theories of ‘ultra-imperialism’, including the ‘single world trust’ and ‘many capitals’ variants. This may well come as a surprise to many readers.

By now readers are back on track, eager to learn more of Kautsky’s different theories of ‘ultra-imperialism’. Abbott takes us through them briefly, providing us with enough information to arrive at an important conclusion, which is this: by associating Kautsky exclusively with the ‘single world trust’ idea, the SWP is able to smuggle in its own brand of Kautskyism on a seemingly anti-Kautskyite platform. Though supposedly critical of Kautskyism, the SWP leaders are actually the purveyors of Kautsky’s pre-war theory of ‘ultra-imperialism’.

From this point on, the Negriites and SWP opportunists are as putty in Abbott’s hands. He demonstrates how each set of opportunists adopts the other’s standpoint whenever the need arises. Thus Callinicos, the man who prattles on about competition among ‘many capitals’, asserts that Cuban socialism is not viable because it faces a unified and indivisible global bourgeoisie. Similarly, Negri, in a desperate attempt to obliterate the distinction between oppressed and oppressor nations, maintains that international capitalism is an essentially competitive system, one that has eliminated nationally differentiated profit rates.

In the second chapter, Abbott gives an account of yet another variant of the theory of ‘ultra-imperialism’, that of ‘hegemonic ultra-imperialism’. I would urge readers to pay close attention to this chapter, as it reveals the fundamentally social-chauvinist content of the writings of such erudite luminaries as Perry Anderson, Leo Panitch and Robert Brenner. These opportunists view the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq as an expression of capitalism’s historically progressive character. Abbott scathingly dubs them ‘hegemonists’.

All too often, socialists hurl epithets at one another, using labels as a substitute for analysis. But there is nothing crude or simplistic about Chapter 2. With analytical precision, Abbott reveals the connection between the hegemonists’ theory of imperialism and their social-chauvinist practice. When the hegemonists declare that the US acts, not in its own, predatory interests, but in the interests of capital in general, they give strength and succour to the American neo-conservatives. Yet these are the ‘Marxists’, the ever so nuanced and refined ‘Marxists’, who condescendingly dismiss the RCG as Stalinists. The RCG, of course, is not a Stalinist organisation.

In Chapter 3, Abbott drops another of his ideological bombshells. The proponents of the theory of ‘hegemonic ultra-imperialism’ pride themselves on their critical prowess, going so far as to chide Kautsky for not recognising that a ‘hegemonic’ power like the US can fulfil the same function globally as states fulfil domestically. Unmasking their pseudo-critical posturing, Abbott explains that the theory of ‘hegemonic ultra-imperialism’ was devised by JA Hobson as long ago as 1911. No less importantly, he shows that Hobson’s 1911 theory was adopted by Kautsky, who continually shifted his allegiance from one ‘hegemon’ to another, as the circumstances required. Abbott predicts that our modern-day opportunists will undergo similar shifts.

In Chapters 4 and 5, Abbott swings his analytical scythe in the direction of the SWP once more. He does so in order to bring into the open the affinity between the SWP opportunists and the hegemonists. This is no mean feat, since the SWP opportunists dabble in the language of Leninism, so detested by the hegemonists. First Abbott shows that the SWP’s core theories – notably those of ‘state capitalism’ and ‘the permanent arms economy’ – are founded on shifting sands, utterly devoid of consistency and coherence. Then he demonstrates, step by step, how the SWP has adapted its standpoint to accommodate the hegemonists’ anti-Leninist sensibilities.

By the end of Chapter 5, readers will have little difficulty grasping what the above opportunists have in common. Without exception, they believe a) that capitalism has yet to exhaust its progressive potential, b) that parasitism is no longer a feature of imperialism, and c) that the US has, in the words of Callinicos, ‘creatively knitted together’ the world’s many capitals. The following editorial comment by the SWP sums up the opportunists’ outlook: ‘though a “supremely good theory in its day”, [Lenin’s] analysis is no longer tenable... [T]he politically enforced transfer of wealth from a dependency to an “imperialist” power... is no longer central to the survival of capitalism, nor is the export of capital from advanced to backward countries.’[2]

It is certainly true that colonialism is now the exception rather than the rule; but so too is it true that ‘usury imperialism’ has supplanted ‘colonial imperialism’ as the dominant form of super-exploitation. Since both the hegemonists and SWP opportunists deny the prevalence of parasitism, they have nothing worthwhile to say about imperialism in general or British imperialism in particular.

In Chapter 6, Abbott explains how Britain underwent the transformation from ‘colonial imperialism’ to ‘usury imperialism’, a transformation that has profoundly affected all aspects of British life. He further argues that, this side of socialism, British ‘usury imperialism’ is as irreversible as it is unsustainable. In the near future, as Europe and the US square up for a war over the redistribution of the global loot, Britain’s financial oligarchy will be faced by a thorny choice, that of integrating itself into Europe or becoming a financial-military outpost of the US.

Chapter 6, with its stark predications about the future of British imperialism, is likely to be highly controversial. Yet whatever socialists conclude about Britain’s standing in the world, the reality of British ‘usury imperialism’ must never be denied. By incorporating the Leninist concept of different imperialist types into his analysis, Abbott has made an important contribution to our understanding of the evolution of British imperialism. Ever since its inception in the 1970s, the RCG has been virtually alone in this country in bringing to light the parasitism in which British imperialism is necessarily steeped.

Finally, in Chapter 7, Abbott tackles David Harvey, one of the few opportunists to acknowledge the existence of parasitism. According to Harvey, Marx’s ‘falling rate of profit argument’ is a convincing one, since it explains the tendency towards the ‘overaccumulation of capital’. His ‘Marxist’ credentials thus established, Harvey goes on to argue that profit rates may fall for a variety of reasons, including a rise in the organic composition of capital, working class combativity (which ‘squeezes’ profits) and declining living standards.

Having reduced Marx’s crisis theory to a medley of disjointed assertions, Harvey turns his attention to imperialism. He uses fiery expressions such as ‘predation’, ‘fraud’ and ‘thievery’ to describe the financiers’ conduct, but then hastens to cleanse his work of any radical content. He does this in the classical Kautskyite manner, by drawing a false dichotomy between ‘vulture capital’ and ‘productive capital’. The former, he insists, though ‘dialectically’ related to the latter, is not a necessary feature of imperialism. On the basis of an ongoing alliance with capitalism’s progressive supporters (including the likes of George Soros, Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz), the workers will be able to clear the way for ‘a far less violent and far more benevolent imperial trajectory than the raw militaristic imperialism currently offered up by the new-conservative movement in the United States’ (quoted in Abbott, p233).

As always when unmasking the modern-day opportunists, Abbott delves deeply into the past, this time drawing our attention to the writings of William Clarke, an early Fabian. Like Harvey, Clarke railed against the nasty financiers who, he claimed, were recklessly imperilling the real economy through their self-seeking, profiteering activities. The only difference between Clarke and Harvey is that the latter sweetens his reformism with Marxist phrases.

Since Abbott wrote his work, Harvey has continued to proffer a heady brew of eclectic formulations. In his latest offering, The Enigma of Capital, he reiterates that the limits to capital are many and varied. Heading his list are capital scarcities, labour problems, mismanagement, disproportionalities, natural limits, indiscipline in the labour process and lack of effective demand.[3] There is method in Harvey’s eclecticism. In the 1970s, when the workers’ were fighting to preserve their living standards, he advanced the reactionary ‘profit squeeze’ argument. Later, following the neo-liberals’ triumph, he opted for a milder version of opportunism, attributing declining profits to the workers’ underconsumption. The instant the workers begin to recover lost ground, we can expect Harvey to switch theories again (in a ‘dialectical’ manner, of course).

In marked contrast to many opportunists, Harvey holds to the view that economic recessions are not only inevitable in the capitalist system but also ‘necessary to the evolution of capitalism’.[4] Actually, there is nothing particularly radical about such a perspective. Even avowed Thatcherites acknowledge the crisis prone nature of capitalism. Thus Ian Grigg-Spall, writing of the current global crisis, stated: ‘A crisis in capitalism serves an essential purpose. It wipes out the least healthy companies allowing the most healthy to thrive.’ (The Guardian, 24 November 2008)

Marx’s Capital is more than just an explanation of the necessity of booms and slumps. As Abbott reminds us, Marx’s great work is an analysis of ‘the origin, existence, development, and death of a given social organism and its replacement by another and higher organism’ (Abbott, p256). The immanent laws of accumulation and the recessions they repeatedly engender necessarily gave rise to imperialism, the epoch of dying capitalism. This is something that neither the crude Thatcherites nor the refined ‘Marxists’ will ever acknowledge. Like all opportunists, Harvey denies that imperialism is the highest and final stage of capitalism.

Few books have dissected Anglo-American opportunism as systematically and thoroughly as Abbott’s has. He not only demonstrates the many different ways in which an adherence to Kautskyism leads to the undermining of proletarian and anti-imperialist struggles, but also penetrates to the core of opportunist ‘theories’, revealing what the parallels and non-parallels between them are. In the coming years, as crises deepen and revolutionary struggles intensify, opportunists are likely to shift their allegiance from one brand of opportunism to another, in an attempt to maintain a semblance of ideological coherence. With the aid of Abbott’s work, reviewers will be able to swat the opportunist flies as they flit from one rotten ‘theory’ to another.

Peter Howell

1 Volume 1 was completed in July 2007 and posted on the internet in May 2010.

2 Introduction to the second edition of Michael Kidron’s ‘Imperialism: Highest Stage but One’, International Socialism, No 61, 1973, p1.

3 The Enigma of Capital, David Harvey, Profile Books, 2010, p117.

4 ibid.