Capital ideas

Issue: 135

Sarah Young

Sasha Lilley (ed), Capital and its Discontents (PM Press, 2011), £14.99

This book is a collection of interviews with left wing intellectuals conducted by its editor Sasha Lilley. One of its strengths is that Lilley is constantly concerned with what the left should be doing and how the ideas of those interviewed can be married with radical action. There are interesting discussions of the roots of the crisis and the role of the state from the likes of Ellen Wood, Leo Panitch and David McNally, among others. However, there are, I would argue, two major problems: the lack of a clear discussion of organisational form and the failure to adequately grapple with the nature and legacy of Stalinism.

The focus on theory and practice throughout the collection would have benefited greatly from dealing with the question of organisation more robustly. Generally throughout the book there is the attitude that “vanguardist” or Leninist parties are a problem for the left today. Lilley in the introduction, while not ignoring the question of organisation, argues that we need to move beyond the notions of the “old left”.

This idea manifests itself in a number of ways throughout the book. So, for example, Andrej Grubacic argues that Marxism is the theory and anarchism, particularly “prefigurative politics”, the practice, reducing Marxism to a merely contemplative tool.

David Harvey says that he would ask of those in parties “in what ways does your organisational form actually have the capacity to address what is the global problem of finding an alternative to capitalism, that can feed, and shelter 6.8 billion people adequately in a way that is sensitive to all sorts of cultural variety?” (p75).

In fact, revolutionary Marxism theorises the role of organisation not to “prefigure” a new world in the shell of the old or to develop a blueprint for a future socialist society, but rather to most effectively unite those who want to settle accounts with the whole rotten system in common action.

John Sanbonmatsu argues that the left needs to develop a long-term strategy and says one of the weaknesses of the left today is that it just comes together to react to issues as they arise in a way that would have been anathema to Gramsci and Rosa Luxemburg. What is missed (by, for example, not recognising that both Gramsci and Luxemburg were both members of communist parties) is that revolutionary organisation is vital to developing the kind of strategy that would allow the left to do more than simply react.

Sanbonmatsu’s contribution deals with the legacy of postmodernism on the left and argues that one of its greatest failings is that it obscures the social totality and so does not offer us a way to really fight the whole system of capital. His contribution is reflective of the overall nature of the book: it offers some partial insights and it has a commendable focus on the need for strategy, but it falls short of offering an alternative strategy or discussing how one ought to be developed.

A further thread running throughout the book is the legacy of Stalinism, which Lilley sets out as a key obstacle for the left today. If postmodernism obscured the social totality and directed people away from struggle, the foundations for this were laid by the Stalinist regimes. However, the only chapter that deals explicitly with the class nature of the Stalinist states is Mike Davis’s chapter on Deutscher. Davis hails Deutscher as the “key to understanding 1989” due to his “dialectical” understanding of the nature of the Soviet Union as encapsulating both top-down reforms and working class struggle from below, which together could revert these states back to socialism.

The idea of the former Communist states as being somewhat socialist—rather than as a form of bureaucratic state capitalism—is repeated throughout the book. A lack of a serious engagement with the class nature of these regimes is a significant weakness in these discussions: they rightly raise the legacy of Stalinism as an obstacle to the recomposition of the left but offer no coherent way to deal with this.

Overall, the book is an accessible overview of many influential thinkers of the radical left today. However, while it attempts to deal with key questions facing the left, it does so in a manner that raises more questions that it attempts to answer and leaves you unsure where to go next.