A reply to ‘Looking for alternatives to reformism’

Issue: 35

Ellen Meiksins Wood

This article by Ellen Meiksins Wood first appeared in International Socialism in 1987. It is a reply to a book review by Alex Callinicos of her book The Retreat from Class: A New ‘True’ Socialism. Callinicos’s rejoinder to Wood is available here.

I have accepted the invitation to reply to Alex Callinicos’s review of my book, The Retreat from Class: A New ‘True’ Socialism (IS 2:34), on the assumption that the intention is to encourage serious debate about serious political and theoretical questions; but I have to admit to some reservations, because Callinicos’s approach does not inspire confidence. He has made it impossible to discuss substantive issues without going through the tiresome exercise of setting the record straight concerning what the book is actually about and what my position really is, and is not, on the issues in question. What is at stake here is not simply a matter of personal privilege. Callinicos’s distortion of my argument is significant because it reflects the kind of sectarian impulse which is disastrous for the left.

Before I get on with it, though, I have to say that the theoretical and political trajectory of the New Left Review, and of various individuals on its editorial committee – something with which Callinicos seems generally obsessed- is largely irrelevant here. I did not write at their behest or on their behalf; and whether or not his is an accurate account of any changes that have occurred in recent years, I was not connected with the Review when they took place. It is therefore a red herring to suggest, for example, that there is something odd about my interest in attacking, say, Hindess and Hirst when the Review failed to do so at the time of their greatest prominence- though I must say that all this has a peculiar ring coming from Callinicos, who has in the past showered such fulsome praise on (for instance) Paul Hirst.1

Let me, then, summarize what the book is actually about. Above all, it is about the political implications of a particular theoretical tendency. It is not a comprehensive survey of the ‘new revisionism’, nor does it claim to be an analysis of the historical conditions which produced the current retreat of the left. Instead, it is, in the main, a critical discussion of one major, perhaps the major, trend in the theorization of a ‘new’, ‘post-Marxist’ politics, which I call the New ‘True’ Socialism (NTS). The NTS has constructed a theory of ideology and politics as autonomous from class and uses It to justify the expulsion of the working class from the center of the socialist project, to replace it with other agencies, notably the ‘new social movements’, and in the process to redefine or even abandon socialism. Although I refer to writers with different theoretical formations who share important assumptions with this tendency, my argument focusses particularly on a trajectory running from Althusserian structuralism, through the pivotal transition of Poulantzas, to the post-Althusserian, post-structuralist emphasis on ‘discourse’, as exemplified in its most extreme form by the recent work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, among others. I deal with such matters as their detachment of ideology and politics from any material base; their insistence on the ‘non-correspondence’ of politics and class; their ‘randomization’ of history and politics; their attempt to construct a conception of ‘democracy’ as a socially indeterminate principle of which socialist democracy is just one variant or aspect, not essentially antagonistic to other variants, notably capitalist democracy; their idea that the proper focus of socialist politics is not the ‘crude’ material interests of class but certain ‘universal human goods’; and so on. I note the parallel development of this theoretical trajectory with the political evolution of Althusserianism from its roots in European Communism, (with Maoist admixtures) through Eurocommunism, to its current collapse with the failure of Eurocommunism and the abandonment of class politics by many of its adherents in favour of ‘plural democratic struggles’, especially as conducted by the ‘new social movements’.

Callinicos apparently has three substantive objections to my argument: one concerns a suggestion I make about the attitude of these New ‘True’ Socialists to working-class militancy, which, he contends demonstrates my failure to understand working-class movements; the second concerns the targets of my attack, which he regards as ill-chosen and peripheral; the third has to do with my argument on democracy, which, he maintains, conflates proletarian democracy with capitalist democracy in typically ‘centrist’ fashion.

The most striking point about Callinicos’s review is that it says hardly a word about the book’s central theme: the political logic of a particular theoretical tendency. This is what some people might call a ‘symptomatic silence’. It is, on consideration, not at all surprising that Callinicos would want to change the subject. In his own earlier writings on Althusserianism and its successors, Callinicos evinced a strong, though critical, sympathy for these theoretical developments, based on formally philosophical readings which left the political implications of these theories somewhat vague. He seems, therefore, to be on much safer ground when he evades the issue of the connection between theory and politics in the NTS, and instead castigates me for not writing a history of the working class, and/or of capitalist development in general, in the past two decades. Still, if that is the ground on which he wants to engage my argument, let us see where that takes us.

The question of the relation between the emergence of the NTS and the evolution of working-class militancy is raised briefly in the introduction to my book. I do suggest that one possible explanation for the development of this theoretical-political constellation has to do with the failures of working-class militancy, and the failure of even militant outbreaks like that of May ’68 to issue in any revolutionary situation. But I go on to say that in the case of the theorists in question, this does not seem to be an adequate explanation of their recoil from class politics. They seem as much repelled by working class militancy as disappointed by its failures; and, indeed, it is doubtful that their theory at any time unambiguously embraced class politics. Callinicos maintains that my whole argument is vitiated by a failure to acknowledge the ‘down-turn’ which has occurred m the quality of working-class militancy in the past decade, after a period of ‘up-turn’ in the previous one. The implication is that there was a break in the evolution of the NTS – a radical change from a whole-hearted commitment to class politics, to an open rejection which can be identified as a response to the decline in working-class politics. The trouble with this argument is two-fold: it cannot account for the continuities in this theoretical-political tendency, which cut across the two phases of working-class politics identified by Callinicos, nor can it explain the breaks that did take place within these continuities, because the timing simply does not fit.

Let us consider the discontinuities first. Although the theoretical origins of the NTS can be traced back to the late sixties, it is possible to identify a turning point roughly in the years 1974-6, when the rupture from class politics became more explicit and theoretical adjustments were made to support it. If this is when the break (if that is the right word) occurs, then any decline in working-class militancy that may have taken place in the following decade cannot account for it. Thus, as I point out in the book, the (apparent?) U-turn executed by Hindess and Hirst, for example, took place some time between the production of Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production (published in 1975) and the writing of Marx’s Capital and Capitalism Today (published in 1977 and therefore probably produced in 1976, if not before) -that is, their theoretical conversion must have been going on no later than 1975-6. The NTS watershed, in other words, occurred at the’ peak of Callinicos’s ‘up-turn’. It is not my object here (or in the book) to question the ‘down-turn’ thesis’; in fact, I begin by pointing out that the flourishing of the NTS is part of a more general decline in labour and socialist movements. The point is rather that the ‘up-turn down-tum’ thesis is not adequate to deal with this particular theoretical-political tendency. If anything, the fact that key NTS works were written during the ‘up-turn’ simply confirms my interpretation. The ‘down-tum’ may help to explain the wider reception of these theoretical revisions, as they began to coincide with a more general retreat from socialism; but it cannot explain either the political logic of this theoretical trend nor the historical conditions of its emergence.

Perhaps even more to the point, if we focus on the continuities in this trend – which are in many respects more important than the breaks – its historical evolution can be seen in a different light. The constant theme throughout the whole NTS trajectory was the autonomy of political and ideological struggle (at first often with Maoist overtones). This provided from the beginning a theoretical warrant for a view of social transformations as ‘cultural revolutions’ in which intellectuals and students are the principal agents, at best acting in alliance with, or even on behalf of, the working class. The detachment from class politics, therefore, was already implicit from the outset; and it followed its own inexorable logic until it came to a complete break from the politics of class. (Althusser’s own relationship to this trend is ambiguous. Having begun the theoretical process of ‘autonomization’, at least in part inspired by his own flirtation with Maoism as an alternative to Stalinism, he nonetheless never accepted an alternative to the working class as revolutionary agent. Whatever his own political views may have been, however, it was the theoretical ‘autonomies’ of ‘instances’ which remained as his principal legacy to the new cultural revolutionaries in their increasing detachment from class politics.) Seen from the perspective of this political tendency, the divorce from class politics is an integral part of the up-turn phase, having as its own historic milestone the very moment which for Calliuicos symbolizes the rising tide of militancy: May ’68- but in its aspect as a ‘cultural revolution’ more than as a moment of working-class militancy. It is possible to argue that the dramatic events of the sixties and early seventies were characterized by a momentary convergence between working-class militancy and a radical impulse of a different kind, while the ‘downturn’ was marked by the -inevitable- exhaustion of the latter, as well as by some weakening of the former. But if this is so, it is not enough – indeed it is positively misleading – to say that this particular retreat from socialism was largely a response to a downturn in working-class politics. What Callinicos’s account obscures is that the relevant trajectory here may not be that of formerly committed but weak-willed socialists evolving into post-Marxist renegades as working-class militancy declined, but rather the evolution through different stages of a political tendency whose belief in class politics and the revolutionary agency of the working class was always subordinate to a self-glorifying faith in the efficacy of intellectuals, radical students, and ‘cultural revolution’.

At any rate, in seeking an explanation (a very tentative one, it must be said) for this particular retreat from socialism, in these particular times and places, I was struck by the fact that the open rejection of class politics came at the very moment when the New Right, especially in the virulent form of ‘Thatcherism’, was emerging with a new determination to prosecute an open class war against organized labour, in reaction to the outbreaks – and partial successes- of labour unrest in the ’70s. This seemed to me an odd moment for people on the left to abandon class politics; but it also suggested the possibility that the New Right and the NTS were reacting in analogous ways to the same series of events. Since I was writing the book during the miners’ strike of 1984-5, I was also struck by certain affinities between the hostile responses of some NTS writers to the strike and those of the Right. (The ‘downturn’ in NUM militancy is hardly likely to have been the characteristic which most impressed itself on the minds of Thatcher and co.) Callinicos accuses me of offering a ‘psychological’ explanation of the NTS move to the right (I would prefer to call it an historical one); but his own psychological explanation: that these people were too weak-willed and/or too youthfully impulsive to make the difficult commitment required in a period of ‘down-turn’- hardly does justice to the kind of recoil we have seen from workers’ militancy in general. This kind of reaction makes more consistent sense as part of a continuous evolution, from the early autonomization of politics and ideology to the later outright rejection of class politics.

Perhaps, therefore, we should simply add another wrinkle to the ‘up-turn down-turn’ thesis and identify another watershed (though the boundaries here are as much geographic as temporal), between, on the one hand, movements in which students and intellectuals played a prominent role, and on the other, outbreaks of militancy belonging entirely to organized labour and in no way congenial to the aspirations of intellectnals as the putative vanguard of a revolution, ‘cultural’ or otherwise. Callinicos’s failure to make distinctions between an event like May ’68 and the British miners’ strike of 1972 suggests a rather abstract conception of class politics.

On the question of my targets, I’m afraid I just don’t see his point. Does he object to my focus on the post-Althusserian phenomenon, and does he want to claim that it’s not a significant one? What he says is that I ‘spend too much time on inconsiderable figures like Hindess and Hirst (about four pages out of 200? Surely that is not too much for socialism’s William of Ockham, as Callinicos once enthusiastically described Paul Hirst); that I don’t deal with ‘analytic Marxism’; that I exclude Eric Hobsbawm; and that I don’t talk about post-structuralism or discourse theory as a major influence on this trend.

Let’s start with the last point, because it says rather more than appears at first sight. What it says is that Callinicos seems not to have read the book, one of the major themes of which is the affinities between the NTS theorists and post-structuralist discourse analysis. No, I don’t analyze the writings of Foucault and Derrida, since that is not the object of the book; but then neither do I deal with the work of Althusser as such. Neither Althusser nor Foucault and Derrida belong to the NTS. But it can hardly be said that I fail to acknowledge the influence of these philosophical tendencies on the theorists under discussion. Perhaps the problem is simply that Callinicos, given his now recanted enthusiasm for Althusser, doesn’t want to hear about the continuities between Althusserianism and this post-structuralist phenomenon (or, since he seems to have been attracted to the latter too, perhaps he simply prefers not to think out its implications). I should add that my discussion of Hindess and Hirst (who, after all, exemplify an important moment in the history I am discussing) is devoted largely to illustrating the relative ease with which the Althusserian coin could be flipped to produce the kind of ‘randomization’ of history and politics characteristic of post-structuralist discourse analysis.

As for Eric Hobsbawm, Callinicos’s tactics here are typical of his whole argument. He refers to, and dismisses, my secondary reason for excluding Hobsbawm from the NTS, namely that he has never explicitly departed from Marxist theoretical orthodoxy as he has always understood it. Now as it happens, this alone would be reason enough to exclude Hobsbawm, since I specifically define the NTS as a theoretical tendency, a body of so-called ‘post-Marxist’ theory elaborated to justify a particular brand of ‘new revisionist’ politics. But more importantly, Callinicos simply neglects to mention the principal reason I give for distinguishing Hobsbawm from the NTS: ‘he shows little interest in or sympathy for the “new social movements”, and his political approach is much more in the tradition of old Communist Popular Front strategies’ (p 3 n 3). This judgment has nothing to do with whether Hobsbawm’s politics are more or less sympathetic than those of the NTS; but it has a lot to do with a question which I – and, I’m sure, Callinicos – regard as central to the socialist project, the question of revolutionary agencies. Hobsbawm, unlike the NTS, has no interest or faith in revolutionary agencies apart from the working class: nor is he even addressing himself to the question of the transition to socialism – on the prospects of which he may, in fact, have altogether given up, though he has never said so. What he is interested in is an old-fashioned pragmatic political coalition (indeed, even a conventional party alliance) to defeat Thatcher. Whatever we may think of this strategy – and I don’t like it at all – it is a very different thing from the NTS vision of a social transformation brought about by the ‘popular democratic’ struggles of the new social movements. (I doubt whether Hobsbawm has much time for these movements even as agencies for projects less ambitious than a socialist revolution.) If Callinicos cannot tell the difference, he has no business Iecturing to me or anyone else on the principles of socialism. Confusion about the issues at stake here is particularly serious at a time when ‘coalitionist’ politics of various kinds seem to be the order of the day on the left.

On the subject of ‘analytic Marxism’, Callinicos may (or may not be glad to hear that I am just completing a long article attacking this trend; but I fail to see what it has to do with my book, since this tendency represents a theoretical formation very different from the one I am discussing there. I cannot help adding, though, that if he regards that theoretical tendency as a more ‘formidable’ opponent than the post-Althusserian trend, he must be even more cosily sheltered in the academy than I am. Whatever attractions ‘analytic Marxism’ may hold for academic philosophers, its highly formalized abstractions are unlikely to have the political appeal possessed by even the most academic theorizations of the politics associated with the new social movements, which undeniably represent a formidable attraction for people on the left. More than that I cannot say about these points, because I simply don’t know what the ‘windmills’ are which Callinicos thinks I am tilting at.

About Callinicos’s attack on my discussion of democracy, I must say, first, that it is dishonest in the extreme. Just one small example: his quotations from my book which, with certain well-placed elisions, purport to summarize my views on the relation between bourgeois democracy and socialism in fact represent my gloss on an argument which I am criticizing (p 113). The important point, however, is that Callinicos apparently prefers to manufacture differences of principle between us either by attributing to me positions which I explicitly and strongly oppose or by completely missing the point, rather than to address the two major questions I actually do raise concerning the relation between socialism and democracy. These questions have much larger political implications than the sectarian preoccupations which motivate Callinicos in his sterile pursuit of ‘centrist’ heresies; and they are especially important at a time when ‘democracy’ has become the predominant – and increasingly meaningless – catchword of the left.

My first concern was to locate the qualitative break between ‘capitalist democracy’ and socialism by rejecting the diffuse and indeterminate conception of ‘democracy’ now so prevalent on the left. In opposition to it – and indeed in direct opposition to the view attributed to me by Callinicos – the essence of my argument is precisely that there is no such thing as a socially indeterminate ‘democracy’; that the struggle for socialism cannot be treated as simply an aspect of some universal ‘democratic’ principle; that it is illegitimate and mystifying to treat socialist democracy as simply an extension of capitalist democracy; that, although bourgeois rights and freedoms are not to be dismissed, a socialist strategy must be based not on any continuities between capitalist and socialist democracy but on an acknowledgement of the ‘river of fire’ between them; that it is not a matter of ‘tacking on’ a new ‘economic’ democracy to an already existing ‘political’ one, but that, on the contrary, socialism will entail radically new and unprecedented forms of democracy at every ‘level’; and so on.

My second major question about democracy concerned the problem of the state under socialism. Here, Callinicos completely misses the point. While he is off chasing a red herring of his own, accusing me (and Ralph Miliband) of believing that somehow the capitalist parliamentary state can coexist more or less indefinitely with forms of workers’ democracy in a prolonged transitional phase (referring here to Miliband’s reformulation of the concept of ‘dual power’), my argument is about something else entirely: it is not about the state in the process of transition from capitalism to socialism but about the character of the socialist state after the demise of capitalism. Nowhere do I suggest that a capitalist-type parliament will continue to coexist with new forms of proletarian democracy (not even for a short time). On the contrary, the questions that I raise have to do with whether even the new political forms will constitute problems in some way analogous to those of the old state. I suggest that wherever representative and administrative instruments of any kind exist (as distinct from simple, direct, and spontaneous democracy, which surely cannot meet all organizational requirements in a complex society), there may be a need for institutions and practices whose object is to maintain a check on them – in other words, institutions and practices whose purposes are roughly equivalent to those bourgeois-democratic instruments which Marx and Engels identified as controlling the ‘freedom of the state’. If, then, liberal democracy has anything to teach socialism, it is not about democracy but, on the contrary, about alienated power. My whole argument is, again, explicitly and emphatically an assertion of the discontinuities between liberal democracy and socialism and an attack on the indeterminate conception of ‘democracy’ which creates the illusion of continuity. Now Callinicos may want to debate these questions with me; he may want to deny that the state will represent a problem under socialism – or he may want to avoid the issue altogether, as socialists have too often done. But that would be a very different thing, and quite beside the point he is here trying to make about my alleged concessions to the ‘characteristic illusion of centrism’ (p 113).

As for my surrender to ‘electoralism’, I am quite prepared to enter into debate about, or even to take instruction on, the conditions which have determined the electoral fate of the Labour Party; but my explicitly tangential remarks on this subject, for which Callinicos takes me to task, really have nothing to do with my stand on the role of electoral politics in the revolutionary project. On that subject, Callinicos’s own words could have been taken right out of my mouth. Callinicos: ‘The only way out is to break with electoralism altogether, to cease to make votes a criterion of success, and instead to focus on the consciousness and combativity of workers themselves’ (p 116). Wood: ‘electoral victory, or even the seizure of power by other means, is not itself the goal of the socialist struggle and therefore cannot be the standard by which we judge the success of working-class politics’ (p 191). If there is a disagreement between us here, it is one which Callinicos does not discuss (and one which I touch upon only indirectly since my theme is a different one – though I would freely admit that I have more questions than answers): and that concerns what forms of organization are best suited to sustain and develop the ‘consciousness and combativity’ of workers in conditions where capitalist democracy establishes the rules of the political game. The relevant question here is not what Callinicos or I may think about the standards of political success but what ‘the workers themselves’ think about it. (Just for the record, incidentally: I was not among those comrades who suffered from ‘ballotitis’ during the miners’ strike. In fact, although unlike Callinicos I would distinguish the tactical considerations cited by Robin Blackburn from the very different reasoning of those who regard the ballot as a moral imperative or a fore-taste of proletarian democracy, I questioned it even from the tactical point of view. Now it would be unfair to tax Callinicos with ignorance of my position on this score, even if he does seem to claim a privileged insight into my political views; but it is worth noting that his misunderstanding – or misrepresentation – of my political stance is so complete as to lead him to believe-or to claim-the very opposite of what is true.)

Callinicos has thus constructed an argument for me composed of misreadings, fragments taken out of context, and outright inventions; and I have been compelled to answer accordingly. It is a rather tedious business to engage in debate of this ‘what I really said’ kind, and such fruitless discussions are usually better avoided. But there is a larger issue involved in Callinicos’s method of manufacturing deviations and heresies. This kind of thing is symptomatic of the most mechanical and destructive sectarianism, which has nothing to offer the left but yet another means of self-immolation. Surely it is important to begin with the basic principles which Callinicos and I, against the prevailing current on the left, have in common: the self-emancipation of the working class, an insistence on the specificity of socialist democracy, the impossibility of achieving socialism by the ‘extension’ of capitalist democracy, the centrality of class struggle, as against either parliamentary politics or indeterminate ‘popular-democratic’ struggles, and so on. We undoubtedly have differences of emphasis and disagreements about tactics; and we probably have different assessments of the degree of which the conditions of capitalist democracy, and its capacity to impose its own rules and standards of political success on the ‘consciousness and combativity of workers themselves’, represent a factor which must be confronted in the organization of class struggle. These are certainly issues that need to be debated. But it seems to me completely unproductive for the left to engage in the sort of narrow sectarianism which is unable to distinguish between differences of this kind and fundamental disagreements on matters of socialist principle, especially at a time when those principles are held against a prevailing trend in a very different direction.