29
Jan

By Alain Badiou
24 January 2023
via Verso Blog

This article was originally published by L’Obs on 2 September 2022.

The current conjuncture demands rigorous analysis if we are to understand the political moment and develop a strategy to respond to it. Alain Badiou undertakes this task, offering thirteen theses on global politics today and suggesting an organizing strategy for the Left given those conditions.

Thesis 1. The global conjuncture is one of the territorial and ideological hegemony of liberal capitalism.Commentary. The obviousness and banality of this thesis dispense me from commenting.

Thesis 2. This hegemony is by no means in crisis, still less in a coma, but in a particularly intense and innovative sequence of its deployment.

Commentary. On the subject of the capitalist globalisation that is totally hegemonic today, there are two opposing positions that are equally false. The first is the conservative position: capitalism, especially combined with parliamentary ‘democracy’, is humanity’s definitive form of economic and social organisation. It is in fact the end of history, as the essayist Fukuyama once popularised. The second is the leftist position according to which capitalism has entered its final crisis, or is even already dead.

The first position is simply a repetition of the ideological process begun in the late 1970s by the renegade intellectuals from the ‘red years’ (1965-1975), which consisted in simply eliminating the communist hypothesis from the field of possibilities. This made it possible to simplify the dominant propaganda: there was no longer any need to praise the (dubious) merits of capitalism, but only to maintain that facts (the USSR, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, China, the Khmer Rouge, the Western communist parties, etc.) had shown that nothing else was possible except criminal ‘totalitarianism’.

Faced with this verdict of impossibility, the only response is to re-establish the communist hypothesis, assessed beyond the fragmentary experiments of the last century, in its possibility, its strength and its liberating capacity. This is what is happening and inevitably will happen, and what I am trying to do in this very text.

The scenarios of bloodless capitalism or dead capitalism base themselves on the financial crisis of 2008, on the inflationary monetary disorders brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, and on the countless episodes of corruption revealed daily. They conclude either that the moment is revolutionary, that all it takes is a strong push for the ‘system’ to collapse (classic leftism), or that all it takes is to step aside, to withdraw for example to the countryside and lead a sober life respectful of nature, to realise that we can then organise completely new ‘forms of life’, the destructive capitalist machine turning in a vacuum into its final nothingness (ecological Buddhism).

All of this has no connection whatsoever with reality.

Firstly, the crisis of 2008 was a classic crisis of overproduction (too many houses were built in the US and sold on credit to insolvent people), and, in due course, its propagation created the conditions for a new capitalist impetus, boosted by a strong sequence of concentration of capital, with the weak being washed away, the strong strengthened, and in passing – a very important gain – the ‘social legislation’ stemming from the end of the Second World War largely liquidated. Once this painful tidying up is done, ‘recovery’ is now in sight. Secondly, the extension of the capitalist grip to vast new territories, the intensive and extensive diversification of the world market, is far from complete. Almost all of Africa, a good part of Latin America, Eastern Europe, India are all ‘in transition’, either zones of plunder or countries ‘taking off’, where large-scale market implantation can and must follow the example of Japan or China.

The fact is that capitalism is corrupt in its essence. How can a collective logic whose only norms are ‘profit above all else’ and universal competition of all against all avoid widespread corruption? The recognised ‘cases’ of corruption are only side operations, either local purges for propagandist purposes or settling of scores between rival cliques.

Modern capitalism, that of the world market, which with its few centuries of existence is historically a recent social formation, has only just begun to conquer the planet, after a colonial sequence (from the sixteenth to the twentieth century) in which conquered territories were enslaved to the limited and protectionist market of a single country. Today, plundering is globalised, as is the proletariat, which now comes from every country in the world.

Thesis 3. However, three active contradictions are at work in this hegemony.

i) The extremely developed oligarchic dimension of the possession of capital leaves ever less room for the integration of new owners into this oligarchy. Hence the possibility of authoritarian sclerosis.

ii) The integration of financial and commercial circuits into a single world market is opposed by the maintenance, at the level of mass policing, of national forms that inevitably enter into rivalry. Hence the possibility of a planetary war resulting in one state that is clearly hegemonic, including over the world market.

iii) It is doubtful today whether capital, in its present line of development, can valorise the labour-power of the entire world population. Hence the risk that a mass of totally deprived and therefore politically dangerous people will form on a global scale.

Commentary.

i) We are now at a point where 264 people own the equivalent of what three billion others own – and the concentration continues. Here, in France, 10 per cent of the population own well over 50 per cent of the total wealth. These are concentrations of ownership with no stable precedent on a global scale. And they are far from complete. They have a monstrous side, which obviously does not guarantee them eternal duration, but is inherent to capitalist deployment, and even its main motor.

ii) The hegemony of the United States is increasingly being undermined. China and India between them have 40 per cent of the world’s workforce. This indicates a devastating deindustrialisation in the West. In fact, American workers now account for only 7 per cent of the global labour force, and Europe even less. The result of these contrasts is that the world order, still dominated for military and financial reasons by the USA, is seeing the emergence of rivals who want their share of sovereignty over the world market. Confrontations have already begun in the Middle East, Africa and the China seas. They will continue. War is the horizon of this situation, as the last century has shown, with two world wars and incessant colonial killings, and as the war in Ukraine confirms today.

iii) Already today there are probably between two and three billion people who are neither owners, landless peasants, petty-bourgeois employees or workers. They wander the world in search of a place to live, constituting a nomadic proletariat which, if politicised, would b

Thesis 4. In the last ten years, there have been numerous, and sometimes vigorous, movements of revolt against this or that aspect of the hegemony of liberal capitalism. But they have also been resolved without posing any major problem to the dominant capitalism.Commentary. These movements have been of four kinds.

i) Brief and localised riots. There have been large, spontaneous riots in the suburbs of major cities, for example London and Paris, usually following police killings of young people. These riots either lacked widespread support in a frightened public and were mercilessly suppressed, or were followed by vast ‘humanitarian’ mobilisations, focused on police violence, largely depoliticised in the sense that no mention was made of the precise nature of these exactions and the profit that bourgeois domination ultimately draws from them.

ii) Sustained uprisings, but without an organisational creation. Other movements, notably in the Arab world, have been socially much broader and lasted for many weeks. They took the canonical form of square occupations. They were generally quelled by the temptation of elections. The most typical case was that of Egypt: a very large-scale movement, with the negative unifying slogan ‘Mubarak out’ enjoying apparent success (Mubarak left power, was even arrested), the inability of the police for a long time to take over the square, the explicit unity of Coptic Christians and Muslims, and the apparent neutrality of the army. But, in the elections, naturally, it was the party with a presence in the popular masses – though not very present in the movement – that won, namely the Muslim Brotherhood. The most active part of the movement opposed this new government, thus opening the way to an intervention of the army, which put a general, El-Sisi, in power. He mercilessly repressed all opposition, first the Muslim Brotherhood, then the young revolutionaries, and in fact re-established the old regime in a rather worse form than before. The circular nature of this episode is particularly striking.

iii) Movements leading to the creation of a new political force. In some cases, the movement was able to create the conditions for the emergence of a new political force, different from the regular ones of parliamentarianism. This was the case with Syriza in Greece, where revolts were particularly numerous and harsh, and with Podemos in Spain. These forces have dissolved into the parliamentary consensus. In Greece, the Tsipras government surrendered without significant resistance to the injunctions of the European Commission and returned the country to the path of endless austerity. In Spain, Podemos has also become bogged down in the game of parliamentary combinations, whether governmental or oppositional. No trace of real politics has emerged from these organisational creations.

iv) Movements of fairly long duration, but with no notable positive effects. In some cases, apart from a few classic tactical episodes (such as the ‘takeover’ of classic demonstrations by groups equipped to confront the police for a few minutes), the absence of political innovation meant that on a global scale it was the figure of conservative reaction that was renewed. This was the case, for example, in the USA, where the dominant counter-effect of ‘Occupy Wall Street’ was the coming to power of Trump, and also in France, where the outcome of ‘Nuit debout’ was Macron. A little later, indeed, Macron was the sole target of the typically petty-bourgeois Gilets Jaunes movement. Like all such movements, whose leaders are all frankly hostile to the eradication of bourgeois property, and in fact want stronger state support for it, the result only affected state formalities, and its sole target was President Macron. And the magnificent result, worthy of the farces and traps that the parliamentary system reserves for its clients, was in the end the re-election of Macron.

Thesis 5. The cause of this impotence in the movements of this last decade is the absence of politics – even hostility to politics – in various forms, recognisable by a number of symptoms. Beneath these negative sentiments there is in fact a constant submission to electoral ritual, under the spurious name of ‘democracy’.

Commentary. Let us note, in particular, as signs of an extremely weak political subjectivity:

i) Exclusively negative unifying slogans: ‘against’ this or that, ‘Mubarak out’, ‘down with the 1% oligarchy’, ‘reject the labour law’, ‘no one likes the police’ etc.

ii) The absence of a prolonged temporality: both in terms of knowledge of the past, which is practically absent from the movements (apart from a few caricatures), and of which no inventive assessment is proposed other than a projection into the future, limited to abstract considerations on liberation or emancipation.

iii) A vocabulary largely borrowed from the adversary. This is above all the case with a particularly equivocal category such as ‘democracy’, or the use of the category of ‘life’, ‘our lives’, which is only an ineffective investment of existential categories in collective action.

iv) A blind cult of ‘novelty’ and a disregard for established truths. This point is a direct result of the commercial cult of the ‘novelty’ of products and a constant conviction that something is being ‘started’ which, in reality, has already happened many times. At the same time, it prevents us from learning the lessons of the past, from understanding the mechanism of structural repetition, and leads us to fall into the trap of false ‘modernities’.

v) An absurd time scale. This time scale, modelled on Marx’s money—commodities—money’ circuit, assumes that problems such as private property and the pathological concentration of wealth, which have been pending for millennia, can be dealt with or even resolved by a few weeks of ‘movement’. The refusal to consider that a good part of capitalist modernity is simply woven from a modern version of the triplet ‘family, private property, state’ established a few thousand years ago, as early as the Neolithic ‘revolution’. And that therefore communist logic, as far as the central problems that constitute it are concerned, is situated on a scale of centuries.

vi) A weak relationship to the state. What is at issue here is a constant underestimation of the resources of the state compared to those available to this or that ‘movement’, in terms of both armed force and the capacity for corruption. In particular, the effectiveness of ‘democratic’ corruption, whose symbol is electoral parliamentarianism, is underestimated, as is the extent of the ideological dominance of this corruption over the overwhelming majority of the population.

vii) A combination of disparate means without any assessment of their distant or near past. No conclusions are drawn that can be widely popularised from the methods that have been used since at least the ‘red years’ (1965-1975), or even for two centuries, such as factory occupations, trade-union strikes, legal demonstrations, the formation of groups to enable local confrontation with the police, the storming of buildings, the sequestration of bosses in factories, and so on. Nor from their static symmetries: for example, in squares occupied by crowds, long and repetitive hyper-democratic assemblies, where everyone is called on to speak for three minutes, whatever their ideas and linguistic resources, and where the ultimate stake envisaged is simply the repetition of this exercise.

Thesis 6. We must remember the most important experiences of the near past, and reflect on their failures.

Commentary. From the red years to today.

The commentary on Thesis 5 may well seem quite polemical, even pessimistic and depressing, especially for young people who can legitimately enthuse, for a time, about all those forms of action which I ask to be critically re-examined. These criticisms are understandable if we remember that, personally, in May ’68 and its aftermath, I experienced and participated enthusiastically in things of exactly the same order, and was able to follow them long enough to measure their weaknesses. I have the feeling that recent movements are exhausting themselves by repeating, under the mark of the new, well-known episodes of what can be called the ‘right’ of the May ’68 movement, whether this right comes from the classical left or from the anarchist ultra-left, which in its own way was already talking about ‘forms of life’, and whose militants we called ‘anarcho-desirers’.

There were in fact four distinct movements in 1968.

i) a revolt of student youth;

ii) a revolt of young workers in the large factories;

iii) a general strike by the trade unions attempting to control the two previous revolts;

iv) the emergence, often under the name of ‘Maoism’ – with several rival organisations – of an attempt at a new politics, the principle of which was to draw a unifying axis between the first two revolts by endowing them with an ideological and fighting force that seemed able to guarantee them a real political future. In fact, this lasted for at least a decade. The fact that it did not stabilise on a historical scale (which I readily acknowledge) should not mean that we repeat what happened then without even knowing that we are repeating it.

Let’s just remember that the June 1968 elections produced a majority so reactionary that it could be compared with the ‘blue horizon’ chamber at the end of the First World War. The end result of the May/June 2017 elections, with the crushing victory of Macron, an attested servant of globalised big capital, should make us reflect on what is repetitive in all this. All the more so as the same Macron was re-elected in 2022.

Thesis 7. The internal politics of a movement must have five characteristics, relating to slogans, strategy, vocabulary, the existence of a principle, and a clarified tactical vision.

Commentary.

i) The main slogans must be affirmative, offering a positive determination, and not be satisfied with complaint and denunciation. This is even so at the cost of internal division as soon as one goes beyond negative unity.

ii) The slogans must be strategically justified. This means: informed by knowledge of the previous stages of the problem the movement is addressing.

iii) The vocabulary used must be controlled and consistent. For example: ‘communism’ is today incompatible with ‘democracy’; ‘equality’ is incompatible with ‘liberty’; any positive use of an identitarian term, such as ‘French’, or ‘international community’, or ‘Islamist’ or ‘Europe’, must be proscribed, as well as terms of a psychological nature, such as ‘desire’, ‘life’, ‘person’, and any term linked to established state provisions, such as ‘citizen’, ‘elector’, and so on.

iv) A principle, what I call an ‘Idea’, must be constantly confronted with the situation, insofar as it locally carries a non-capitalist systemic possibility. Here we must quote Marx, as he defined the tasks of militants and their mode of presence in movements: ‘Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things. In all these movements they bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time.’

v) Tactically, it is always necessary to bring the movement as close as possible to a body capable of coming together to effectively discuss its own perspective and that from which it illuminates and judges the situation.

Political activists, as Marx says, are part of the general movement, they do not separate themselves from it. They distinguish themselves solely by their ability to inscribe the movement in an overall point of view, to foresee from this what the next stage must be, making no any concession on these two points, even under the guise of unity, to the conservative conceptions which can perfectly well subjectively dominate even a major movement. The experience of revolutions shows that crucial political moments are in the form closest to a public meeting, where the decision to be taken is clarified by speakers who may also contradict one another.

Thesis 8. Politics gives the spirit of movements a specific duration, which should match the temporality of states, and not just be a negative episode in their domination. Its general definition is that it organises, among the various components of the people and on the largest possible scale, a discussion around slogans which must be those of permanent propaganda as well as of future movements. Politics provides the general framework for these discussions: it is the assertion that there are today two ways for the general organisation of humanity, the capitalist way and the communist way. The first is only the contemporary form of what has existed since the Neolithic revolution, a few thousand years ago. The second proposes a second global, systemic revolution in the future of humanity. It proposes to emerge from the Neolithic age.

Commentary. In this sense, politics consists in situating locally, through broad discussion, the slogan that crystallises the existence of these two roads in the current situation. Being local, this slogan can only come from the experience of the masses concerned. It is there that politics learns what can make the effective struggle for the communist road exist locally, whatever the means. From this point of view, the wellspring of politics is not right away antagonistic confrontation, but the continuous investigation, in situ, of the ideas, slogans and initiatives capable of bringing to life locally the existence of two roads, one of which is the conservation of what exists, the other its complete transformation according to egalitarian principles which the new slogan has to crystallise. The name of this activity is ‘mass work’. The essence of politics, outside of movement, is mass work.

Thesis 9. Politics is done with people from everywhere. It cannot submit to the various forms of social segregation organised by capitalism.

Commentary. This means, especially for intellectual youth, who have always played a crucial role in the birth of new politics, the need for a continuous journey towards other social strata, especially the most deprived, where the impact of capitalism is most devastating. In present conditions priority must be given, in our countries as well as on a world scale, to the vast nomadic proletariat, who, like the peasants of Auvergne or Brittany in the past, arrive in great waves, facing the worst risks, to try to survive as workers here, since they can no longer do so as landless peasants there. The method, in this case as in all others, is patient investigation on the spot: in markets, housing estates, hostels and factories, the organisation of meetings, even very small ones at the beginning, the fixing and dissemination of slogans, broadening the base of work, confrontation with the various local conservative forces, etc. This is exciting work, once you realise that the key is active stubbornness. An important step is to organise schools to spread knowledge of the global history of struggle between the two roads, its successes and its current impasses.

What was done by the organisations that arose for this purpose after May ’68 can and must be done again. We must reconstitute the political axis I mentioned, which is still today an axis between the youth movement, some intellectuals, and the nomadic proletariat. This is already being done here and there. It is the only properly political task of the moment.

What has changed in France is the deindustrialisation of the suburbs of the big cities. This provides the far right with its working-class support. It must be fought on the spot, by explaining why and how two generations of workers have been sacrificed in a few years, and by simultaneously investigating, as far as possible, the opposite process, namely the extremely violent industrialisation of Asia. Work with manual workers is always immediately international, even here. In this respect, it would be extremely interesting to produce and distribute a newspaper of the workers of the world.

Thesis 10. There is no real political organisation today. The task is therefore to see to the means of reconstituting it.

Commentary. An organisation is responsible for conducting surveys, synthesising mass work and the local slogans that have emerged from it, so as to place them in a global perspective, enriching the movements and monitoring their consequences over the long term. An organisation is judged not on its form and procedures, as one judges a state, but on its capacity to do what it is charged with. We can use a formula from Mao: such an organisation is one which can be said to ‘give back to the masses in a precise form what it has received from them in a still confused form’.

Thesis 11. The classical party form is defunct today because it defined itself, not by its capacity to do what Thesis 9 says, namely mass work, but by its claim to ‘represent’ the working class, or the proletariat.

Comment. We must break with the logic of representation in all its forms. The political organisation must have an instrumental definition, not a representative one. Besides, ‘representation’ means ‘identity of what is represented’. But identities must be excluded from the political field.

Thesis 12. As we have just seen, what defines politics is not the relationship to the state. In this sense, politics takes place ‘at a distance’ from the state. Strategically, however, it is necessary to break the state, because it is the universal guardian of the capitalist road, notably because it polices the right to private property of the means of production and exchange. As the Chinese revolutionaries said during the Cultural Revolution, we must ‘break with bourgeois right’. Therefore, political action towards the state is a mixture of distance and negativity. The aim is actually for the state to be increasingly surrounded by hostile opinion and political sites that have become alien to it.

Commentary. The historical record of this case is very complex. For example, the Russian Revolution of 1917 certainly combined several things, i.e. a broad hostility to the tsarist regime, including in the countryside because of the war, an intense and long-standing ideological preparation, especially in the intellectual strata, workers’ revolts leading to real mass organisations, called soviets, and soldiers’ uprisings, with the existence, thanks to the Bolsheviks, of a solid, diversified organisation, capable of holding meetings with orators who were first-rate in their conviction and their didactic talent. All of this took place with victorious insurrections and a terrible civil war that was finally won by the revolutionary camp, despite massive foreign intervention. The Chinese revolution followed a completely different course: a long march through the countryside, the formation of people’s assemblies, a real Red Army, the lasting occupation of a remote area in the north of the country, where agrarian and productive reform could be experimented with, at the same time as the army was being consolidated, the whole process lasting some thirty years. Moreover, instead of the Stalinist terror of the 1930s, there was a mass student and worker uprising in China against the aristocracy of the Communist Party. This unprecedented movement, called the Proletarian Cultural Revolution, is for us the latest example of a policy of direct confrontation with the figures of state power. None of this can be transposed to our situation. But one lesson runs through the whole adventure: the state, whatever its form, can in no way represent or define the politics of emancipation.

The complete dialectic of any true revolutionary politics has four terms:

i) The strategic idea of the struggle between two roads, communist and capitalist. This is what Mao called the ‘ideological preparation of opinion’, without which, he said, revolutionary politics is impossible.

ii) The local investment of this idea or principle by the political organisation, in the form of mass work. The decentralised circulation of everything that emerges from this work in terms of slogans and victorious practical experiences.

iii) Popular movements in the form of historical events, within which the political organisation works for both their negative unity and the refinement of their affirmative determination.

iv) The state whose power must be broken, either by confrontation or encirclement, if it is the power of the agents of capitalism. And, if it comes from the communist road, it must be destroyed, if necessary, by the revolutionary means that the Chinese Cultural Revolution attempted in a fatal disorder.

To invent in situ the contemporary disposition of these four terms is the problem of our conjuncture, simultaneously practical and theoretical.

 

Thesis 13. The situation of contemporary capitalism involves a kind of stalemate between the globalisation of the market and the still largely national character of the police and military control of populations. In other words, there is a gap between the economic disposition of things, which is global, and its necessary state protection, which remains national. The second aspect is the resurrection of imperialist rivalries in other forms. Despite this change of form, the risk of war is increasing. In fact, war is already present in large parts of the world. Future politics will also have the task, if it can, of preventing the outbreak of an all-out war, which this time could put the existence of humanity at stake. It can also be said that the historical choice is: either humanity breaks with the contemporary Neolithic age that is capitalism and initiates its communist phase on a global scale; or it remains in its Neolithic phase, and will be greatly exposed to perishing in a nuclear war.

Commentary. Today the great powers seek, on the one hand, to collaborate in the stability of world affairs, notably by combating protectionism, but on the other hand fight one another for hegemony. The result is the end of directly colonial practices, such as those of France or England in the nineteenth century, i.e. the military and administrative occupation of entire countries. The new practice is what I propose to call zoning: in entire zones (Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Mali, Central Africa, Congo, and so on) states are undermined, annihilated, and the zone becomes a zone of plunder, open to armed gangs as well as all the capitalist predators of the planet. Alternatively, the state is made up of businessmen linked by a thousand ties to the big companies of the world market. Rivalries intertwine in vast territories, with constantly shifting power relations. Under these conditions, an uncontrolled military incident would be enough to bring us to the brink of war. The blocs are already drawn: the United States and its ‘Western-Japanese’ clique on one side, China and Russia on the other, nuclear weapons everywhere. We can only recall Lenin’s dictum: ‘Either revolution will prevent war, or war will provoke revolution.’

We could thus define the maximum ambition of future political work: to realise for the first time in history the first hypothesis, so that revolution will prevent war, rather than the second, i.e. that war will provoke revolution. It was this second hypothesis that materialised in Russia in the context of the First World War, and in China in the context of the Second. But at what a price! And with what long-term consequences!

We must hope, and we must act. Anyone, anywhere, can start to make real politics, in the sense presented in this text. And talk, in turn, to those around them about what they have done. This is how it all begins.

Translated by David Fernbach

Category : Capitalism | China | Marxism | Philosophy | Socialism | Theory
6
Jan

 

 

By Christian Noakes (Posted Dec 20, 2022)

 

Within the heterogenous tradition of Marxism there are two diametrically opposed conceptions of popular culture: the elitist and vanguardist. The former is far from unique to Marxism, and it could be argued that such positions are antithetical to the popular sentiments of Karl Marx’s revolutionary thought. Such an orientation represents a dominant intellectual trend more generally, wherein the popular culture of the masses is considered devoid of positive value and categorically distinct from so-called high culture.1 Within Marxism, this elitism tends to assume that the ruling class has an absolute monopoly on popular cultural production. This position is perhaps best represented by Theodor Adorno, who categorically dismisses popular culture as insidious and debased. In his analysis of popular music, he goes as far as to distinguish between popular and “serious” music.2 Such positions overlook popular agency and the need to combat capitalist ideology on a social, rather than individual, level.

In contrast, vanguardists consider popular culture as a fundamental vehicle for mass education and the propagation of a particular worldview, in concert with a corresponding and underlying socioeconomic order. Proponents do not dismiss popular culture outright or conceive of it as inherently “bad” or “low,” but instead ask: popular culture for which class and toward what ends? Vanguardist praxis treats popular culture as “a terrain of contestation.”3

Another distinguishing characteristic of vanguardism is the belief in the intellectual capacity of the populace. Vanguardism is not simply a matter of being the most advanced. It also implies the ability to lead or give direction to the masses. On the intellectual field of culture, this entails a raising of consciousness. In response to the critique that ideas put forward in socialist publications were too complex for the working class to grasp, Antonio Gramsci observed the following:

The socialist weeklies adapt themselves to the average level of the regional strata they address. Yet the tone of the articles and the propaganda must always be just above this average level, so that there is a stimulus to intellectual progress, so that at least a number of workers can emerge from the generic blur of the mulling-over of pamphlets and consolidate their spirit in a higher critical perception of history and the world in which they live and struggle.4

Gramsci, therefore, rejects the extremes of both infantilizing anti-intellectualism (i.e., tailism) or isolated elitism. This is illustrative of how vanguardists can meet the people “where they are,” so to speak, and then work to move them to higher levels of class consciousness.

Gramsci and the lesser-known Peruvian Communist José Carlos Mariátegui—who is himself often compared to Gramsci—were not merely theorists of vanguardism. They actively practiced it and indeed, led this aspect of the class struggle in Italy and Peru, respectively. Both treated cultural and political issues as being deeply intertwined and sought to promote politically and intellectually developed popular culture for the working class and oppressed peoples in order to counter the dominant popular bourgeois culture. Their revolutionary praxis materialized in publications such as Gramsci’s L’Ordine Nuovo and Mariategui’s Amauta.

Gramsci looked with admiration at the strides made by the Soviet Union in making the arts accessible to the working class and the proliferation of revolutionary cultural institutions such as the Proletkult. The revolutionary fervor in the Soviet Union and the increasing militancy of Italian workers inspired Gramsci to create an institution for the development and propagation of proletarian culture in Italy. Out of this desire came the newspaper, L’Ordine Nuovo: Weekly Review of Socialist Culture, which Gramsci founded in 1919 with a group of intellectuals and revolutionaries that would later become a core group in the Communist Party of Italy. In its pages, readers found works of political prose alongside theater and literary criticism. The paper also introduced many to Communist artists and intellectuals from abroad, such as Anatoly Lunacharsky, Maxim Gorky, Henri Barbusse, and Romain Rolland. Reflecting on the initial impetus for the publication, Gramsci said,

The sole sentiment which united us… was associated with our vague yearning for a vaguely proletarian culture.5

The June 21, 1919, edition marked a significant shift in the publication from this somewhat eclectic initial phase into an organ for a concrete political program. Ordine Nuovo became not only a publication, but a core group representing something of a tendency or faction within Italian socialist politics—with a particularly heavy influence on labor struggles in Turin. Central to this solidification of political purpose was the factory council movement, which Ordine Nuovo fueled with its program to turn internal commissions of Turin factories into Italian soviets or councils. By directly empowering the workers to manage production themselves, Gramsci asserted that the councils would prepare the working class of Italy to take power and provide them with the competence to build and maintain a socialist society. The Ordine Nuovo group put its energies toward fostering a culture, by means of the councils, in which the workers would see themselves as producers within a larger cooperative system of production, rather than as atomized wage-earners.6 This culture was organically fostered through direct dialog with the workers themselves. With an air of satisfaction, Gramsci remarked that “To us and to our followers, Ordine Nuovo became ‘the newspaper of the factory councils.’ Workers loved Ordine Nuovo… [b]ecause in its articles they found part of themselves.… Because these articles were not cold, intellectual architecture, but were the outcome of our discussions with the best workers. They articulated the real feelings, will, and passion of the working class.”7

At the request of the workers, Gramsci and other members of Ordine Nuovo spoke regularly at council meetings. In September 1920, the revolutionary potential of the councils reached a high point when workers occupied factories and took direct control over production. At this time, the publication ceased, and Gramsci and the other members joined the workers in the factories “to solve practical questions [of running a factory] on a basis of common agreement and collaboration.”8

While the editorial line of the newspaper became more defined and motivated by concrete political goals, it still focused on fostering an organic popular culture of the working class, which it treated as an integral part of building socialism. This included the creation of the School of Culture and Socialist Propaganda, which was attended by both factory workers and university students. Among the lecturers were Gramsci and the other members of Ordine Nuovo, as well as several university professors.9 Such efforts were vital in the intellectual and ideological preparation for the establishment of an Italian socialist state, at which time “[b]ourgeois careerism will be shattered and there will be a poetry, a novel, a theatre, a moral code, a language, a painting and a music peculiar to proletarian civilization.”10 While Italy would soon see the horrors of fascism—rather than the establishment of this proletarian civilization, and thus the full development of a national proletarian culture—the militant working class culture fostered by Gramsci and Ordine Nuovo could never be fully snuffed out by the Mussolini regime. The cultural politics of Gramsci would also have a lasting influence beyond Italy.

Such influences are apparent in the works of José Carlos Mariátegui, who had been in Italy at the time of the founding of its Communist Party and identified most closely with the Ordine Nuovo group. After returning to Peru, Mariátegui put his newfound Marxist convictions to use in a variety of endeavors, including the production of the journal, Amauta, which was heavily influenced by Gramsci.11

Published from 1926 to 1930, this groundbreaking and visually stimulating journal was Mariátegui’s primary vehicle for uniting the cultural and political vanguards of the time.12 In his introduction to the inaugural issue, Mariátegui states: “The goal of this journal is to articulate, illuminate, and comprehend Peru’s problems from theoretical and scientific viewpoints. But we will always consider Peru from an international perspective. We will study all the great movements of political, philosophical, artistic, literary, and scientific renewal. Everything that is human is ours.”13 Along these simultaneous lines of inquiry into Peruvian society and internationalism, Amauta brought together leading artists, intellectuals, and revolutionaries of Peru, Latin America, and Europe. In addition to featuring much of Mariátegui’s most enduring works, it featured other key Peruvian figures, such as the feminist activist and poet Magda Portal and leading indigenist artists José Sabogal and Camilo Blas. Reaching beyond Peru’s borders, the journal also featured contributions by Diego Rivera, Pablo Neruda, Henri Barbusse, Romain Rolland, and Georg Grosz. Likewise, its readership was also international. In addition to being available throughout much of Latin America, it was also distributed in New York, Madrid, Paris, and Melbourne, Australia.14

Mariátegui was at the center of the vanguardista movement in Peru. This youthful and creative movement concerned itself with the creation of a “new Peru,” which would break from the prevailing oligarchic traditions inherited from Spain.15 While diverse in focus and orientation, vanguardistas sought to create new social, political, and cultural forms. According to Mariátegui,

A current of renewal, ever more vigorous and well defined, has been felt for some time now in Peru. The supporters of this renewal are called vanguardists, socialists, revolutionaries, etc.… Some formal discrepancies, some psychological differences, exist between them. But beyond what differentiates them, all these spirits contribute to what groups and unites them: their will to create a new Peru in a new world.… The intellectual and spiritual movement is becoming organic. With the appearance of Amauta, it enters the stage of definition.16

For its part, Amauta promoted anti-imperialism, gender equality, and internationalism as core principles of its national vision.

A new Peru would have to resolve the “Indigenous question”—the most pressing issue for Mariátegui. To aid in this endeavor, the journal laid bare the semi-feudal/semi-colonial nature of Peru’s economy, which relied on the socioeconomic subjugation of the country’s Indigenous population, and acted as national forum and network for otherwise regionally isolated Indigenous peasant organizing.17 Every issue also promoted a plurinationalism that included Quechua and Amari people in the Peruvian identity and body politic. In stark contrast to the national bourgeoisie, which saw Spain as the source of Peruvianness, the journal promoted a national identity and culture centered around the country’s Indigenous population, as was reflected by the majority of its content. This included articles analyzing racialized relations of production, Indigenous-centered art, and even the very name of the journal, Amauta being Quechua for “wise one” and a title given to teachers in the Inca Empire. As Mariátegui states in his introduction of issue 17 (September 1928), “We took an Inca word to create it anew. So that Indian Peru, Indigenous America might feel that this magazine was theirs.”18 Previously excluded and infantilized, Indigenous people were central to the pages of Amauta, and to the national culture it fostered.

Amauta aimed to polarize Peru’s intellectuals and bring readers under the banner of Marxism-Leninism.19 Its content was particularly important in organizing and providing direction to the country’s rural and Indigenous populations.20 It also helped to establish Indigenismo as Peru’s dominant school of art, thereby fostering a national culture in opposition to the colonial culture inherited from Spain.21 As the most popular Latin American journal of its time, it was central in the propagation of an Indigenous and peasant-centered Marxism that would come to characterize socialist movements throughout Latin America.

The works of Mariátegui and Gramsci were instrumental in the development and dissemination of popular subaltern culture. Through dialog and collaboration, Amauta and L’Ordine Nuovo would come to be leading outlets in the education of the masses along explicitly revolutionary lines. In contrast to both anti-intellectualism and elitism, the cultural projects of Mariátegui and Gramsci represent the vanguardist conviction that the masses are capable both of understanding complex or advanced ideas and of developing their own organic culture divorced from the ruling.


Notes:

  1.  Peter McLaren, “Popular Culture and Pedagogy,” in Rage and Hope: Interviews with Peter McLaren on War, Imperialism, and Critical Pedagogy (New York: Peter Lang, 2006) 213.
  2.  Theodor Adorno, “On Popular Music,” in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, ed. John Storey (Athens, GA: University of Georgia, 2006).
  3.  McLaren, Rage and Hope, 214.
  4.  Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Cultural Writings, ed. David Forgas and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012), 33.
  5.  Quoted in Giuseppe Fiori, Antonio Gramsci: Life of a Revolutionary (New York: Schocken 1973), 118.
  6.  John M. Cammett, Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 1967), 95.
  7.  Quoted in Antonio A. Santucci, Antonio Gramsci (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010), 68.
  8.  Fiori, Antonio Gramsci: Life of a Revolutionary, 139.
  9.  Cammett, Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism, 81.
  10.  Gramsci. Selections from Cultural Writings, 50—51.
  11.  Marc Becker, Mariátegui and Latin American Marxist Theory (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1993).
  12.  David O. Wise, “Mariátegui’s ‘Amauta’ (1926—1930), A Source of Peruvian Cultural History,” Revista Interamericana de Bibliografia 29, no. 3—4 (1979): 299.
  13.  José Carlos Mariátegu, “Introducing Amauta,” in “The Heroic and Creative Meaning of Socialism”: Selected Essays of José Carlos Mariátegui, 75—76.
  14.  Wise, “Mariátegui’s ‘Amauta’ (1926—1930),” 293.
  15.  Kildo Adevair dos Santos, Dalila Andrade Oliveira, and Danilo Romeu Streck, “The Journal Amauta (1926—1930): Study of a Latin American Educational Tribune,” Brazilian Journal of History of Education 21, no. 1 (2021).
  16.  Mariátegu, “Introducing Amauta,” 74—75.
  17.  Mike Gonzalez, In the Red Corner: The Marxism of José Carlos Mariátegui (Chicago: Haymarket, 2019).
  18.  José Carlos Mariátegui, “Anniversary and Balance Sheet,” in José Carlos Mariátegui: An Anthology, ed. Harry E. Vanden and Marc Becker (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011), 128.
  19.  Wise, “Mariátegui’s ‘Amauta’ (1926—1930)”; Jesús Chavarría, José Carlos Mariátegui and the Rise of Modern Peru, 1890—1930(Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1979).
  20.  Harry E. Vanden, National Marxism in Latin America: José Carlos Mariátegui’s Thought and Politics (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1986).
  21.  Wise, “Mariátegui’s ‘Amauta’ (1926—1930),” 295.

 

 

Category : Fascism | Latin America | Marxism
9
Dec

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review of Civil War by Other Means: America’s Long and Unfinished Fight for Democracy by Jeremi Suri (PublicAffairs, 2022)

By Matthew E. Stanley
Jacobin

A new book argues that the American right emerged out of a backlash to multiracial democracy following the Civil War. This is only partly true: reactionaries did not just fear democracy, they feared the economic redistribution former slaves associated with it.

In August, a poll conducted by YouGov revealed that 40 percent of Americans believe it likely that a civil war will take place within the next decade. That same poll showed that an even larger number, 62 percent, think that levels of political violence will increase within the next few years. Undeniably, there seems to be a sense among Americans that our democratic system is not robust enough to deal with the conflicts it generates. Moments of episodic crises, such as the January 6 insurrection, would then seem to be symptomatic of the broader structural problems with American democracy. But what is their cause?

In Civil War by Other Means: America’s Long and Unfinished Fight for Democracy, historian Jeremi Suri argues that the failure of Reconstruction, the ambitious post–Civil War project to create a new social order in the US South, explains not only the existence of a conspiratorial right but the January 6 insurrection too. Suri maintains that the world’s first experiment in genuine multiracial democracy inspired a long, violent resistance, not only against the progressive state governments of the 1860s and 1870s but against the very idea of a multiracial body politic. The effects of that backlash have reverberated for a century and a half, Suri argues, culminating with the ransacking of the US Capitol.

Suri’s study is thoughtful and deftly written. Its premise — that the January 6 attack, like Donald Trump himself, was far less a sudden, singular rupture than the predictable culmination of long-standing political currents — is indisputable. But by limiting its understanding of democracy to struggles for the franchise, Civil War by Other Means obscures what was at stake for former slaves and working-class whites during the Reconstruction era. Both groups were not simply concerned with the right to vote but in securing economic freedom for themselves after the dispossession of the planter class.

Ignoring these facts leads Suri to wrongly identify culture and constitutional encumbrances, rather than concentrated wealth under capitalism, as the primary obstacles to political self-determination.

A Splendid Failure
Suri begins by excavating the roots of white Southern anti-government resistance after slavery. In one chapter, he explores the power of martyrdom, including how the memory of John Wilkes Booth bolstered defenses of local white power, as anti-black collective violence surged throughout the former Confederacy. In another, he recounts how roughly fifty thousand white Southerners, mostly Confederate officers and Southern gentry, went into self-exile after Appomattox in the hopes of recreating their slave empire in Latin America.

These exiles, whom Ulysses S. Grant considered “a part of the Rebellion itself,” developed identities of resistance to multiracial democracy on both sides of the Rio Grande: against liberal reformers in Mexico and Radical Republicans in the United States. Suri views all of them — Lincoln’s assassins, Klansmen, and Confederate expatriates — as ideological ancestors of the January 6 insurrectionists.

Meanwhile, ex-slaves worked to realize their own understandings of democracy in the postwar South. The governments they created along with their allies, white Southern Unionists and black and white Northern “carpetbaggers,” were some of the most progressive in US history. In addition to universal male suffrage, the most reform-minded of those governments championed public education and infrastructure, women’s property rights, child labor laws, and new systems of credit that allowed poor people to buy land.

The result was, according to Suri, a “Second American Revolution” that made good on the promises of the Declaration of Independence. In some cases, Southern Republicanism was even more radical than Suri acknowledges. In New Orleans, for instance, the Republic Club sent a message of solidarity to the Paris Commune and applied for membership in the First International.

The book’s primary focus, however, is not grassroots radicalism but high politics. And it is here, in examining the nuances and limitations of the Republican Party, that Suri’s analysis is strongest. Considering how the party legislated and implemented policy to protect (or not) multiracial democracy in the South, he views Northern Republicans as necessary but cautious allies who were pushed from below.

Suri’s narrative is insightful but familiar: Andrew Johnson’s intransigence expanded and emboldened the Radicals in Congress; the Civil Rights Act of 1867, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Reconstruction Acts opened democratic possibility in the South. Believing the Fifteenth Amendment to be “the most important event” in the nation’s history, President Grant proved an ardent defender of civil rights laws, and his use of military occupation largely worked against rising white violence. However, time, expense, political fatigue, and economic panic fed growing indifference in the North. With no popular base to support them, the gains of Reconstruction teetered on collapse.

The Rutherford Hayes and James Garfield presidencies had their opportunities to protect multiracial democracy, Suri argues, but were plagued by tepid leadership, constitutional crisis, corruption, and assassination. By the summer of 1877, Northern Republicans had acquiesced to “local self-government” (white rule) in the South while deploying federal forces against striking industrial workers in the North, facilitating their turn from “a party of money rather than a party of morals,” as Frederick Douglass put it. Associating “big government” with black rights, white reactionaries fomented a violent overthrow of what W. E. B. Du Bois termed the “abolition democracy,” ushering in home rule and eight decades of Jim Crow. The death of Reconstruction was the dawn of a new tradition of racialized anti-government activism.

Suri’s version of Reconstruction celebrates the inclusive, democratic possibilities of US politics while offering a broader critique of the US election system. Its riveting narrative offers a powerful warning against Whiggish conceptions of the past. Suri convincingly argues, for instance, that the presidential election of 1872 was the fairest and freest election in the nation’s history until the 1960s. This is a story of revolutionary conditions and remarkable multiracial advances leading to backlash, violence, and the deterioration of political and social rights. Rather than a march of progress, this analysis of American democracy is that of an ongoing project — one that is long, arduous, uneven, and woefully incomplete.

A Flawed Democracy
Suri maintains that the problems of Reconstruction and of Republican efforts to protect multiracial democracy are the problems of our time, too. Since its inception in the early nineteenth century, mass democracy in the United States has always been contested, its expansion predicated on hard-fought struggles for rights. There was never a golden age of American democracy. Indeed, the scope of disenfranchisement is even wider than Suri lets on. Enormous blocs of should-be voters have been — and in many cases continue to be — restricted by gender, race, servitude, the absence of property, age, ethnicity, literacy, criminal record, ability, or national origin. In many ways, the American ballot box has merely registered political outcomes that were largely determined before voting even began.

We still carry the US election system that Suri characterizes as arbitrary and contentious, and it has contributed to the nation’s current status as a “flawed democracy,” according to the Democracy Index. As Suri notes, the Constitution’s minoritarian elements — including the document’s strong protection of property rights, emphasis on capital mobility, and relative difficulty to amend — were designed by slaveholders and an ownership class that was deeply suspicious of, if not actively hostile to, popular democracy. Even for white male property owners, the system was mediated through a convoluted network of electors and representatives. Other features of US politics that structurally assist the forces of white democracy, according to Suri, include rampant gerrymandering, various forms of voter suppression, the nondemocratic nature of the US Senate and the Supreme Court, and the disenfranchisement of US citizens in the non-state territories of Washington, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Mariana Islands (whose residents are principally, and not coincidentally, non-white people).

It was not simply multiracial democracy per se that white reactionaries of the Reconstruction era found so offensive; it was the threat that mass democracy posed to material as well as racial status.
Suri reserves his greatest ire, however, for the Electoral College, which he identifies as an archaic, elitist, antidemocratic, and deeply unpopular relic of the eighteenth century. To be sure, Reconstruction-era Republicans benefited from that outmoded system, as Hayes won the Electoral College but not the popular vote in 1876. At the same time, white Southern fears of government unleashed during Reconstruction have helped sustain this undemocratic system ever since. Further, the Electoral College would for decades afford disproportionate power to the segregationist South, since black people counted as full persons for purposes of electoral representation after the Fifteenth Amendment but were disenfranchised by Jim Crow laws.

These weaknesses in our constitutional system and the absence of a direct popular vote continue to enable right-wing authoritarianism, Suri contends. Today’s Republicans are generally hostile to voting rights because they view them, understandably, as more likely to check than augment their power. Some party leaders, including senator Mike Lee of Utah, have gone so far as to openly celebrate the Constitution’s lack of democracy. In his book’s final chapter, Suri makes several recommendations about how to stave off this antidemocratic momentum and ostensibly “save our democracy.” He proposes a constitutional amendment guaranteeing all citizens the right to vote, the abolition of the Electoral College, the legal prohibition of partisan gerrymandering, and a new and more democratic presidential line of succession.

This focus on formal politics, intriguing though it is, nevertheless offers an incomplete portrait of the Reconstruction era. And Suri’s emphasis on technocratic fixes also skirts vital questions about securing, maintaining, and leveraging power. (How will these laws come to pass without a mass movement?) In other words, Civil War by Other Means falls short not in its diagnosis of problems but in its identification of causes and solutions. In Suri’s telling, Radical Reconstruction was hindered by anti-black violence, shifting public opinion, and the constraints of the political system. It was not hindered by class conditions. Similar to the mono-causal “whitelash” theory that gained traction after the 2016 election, Suri views racial resentment, rather than white supremacy bound to political economy, as the principal explanatory factor for Reconstruction’s failure — and for the precarious state of US democracy.

In truth, it was not simply multiracial democracy per se that white reactionaries of the Reconstruction era found so offensive; it was the threat that mass democracy posed to material as well as racial status. Anti-black collective violence was not identical to class violence, but the two were inseparable. Suri too often overlooks this fact. Indeed, the Ku Klux Klan was not just a violent hate group; it was also effectively, as Chad Pearson argues in the book Capital’s Terrorists, a business owners’ organization. The white counterrevolution was not merely a racial project; it was also, as Du Bois argued, a conflict among classes, with former slaveholders using race hatred to “achieve economic security and restore fatal losses of capital and investment.”

Insurrectionist Workers?
Suri’s misapplication of class begins in the book’s introduction, which profiles insurrectionist Kevin Seefried as emblematic of those who stormed the US Capitol. A white worker and Sons of Confederate Veterans member from Sussex County, Delaware, Seefried supports Suri’s long Civil War thesis. After all, Seefried is an avowed anti-government white nationalist who forced a Confederate flag into the congressional chambers. But while Suri explains that the grievances of insurrectionists like Seefried may have stemmed in part from being “left behind” by the nation’s move toward a “multiracial meritocracy,” he marshals no evidence that Seefried was representative of the pro-Trump mob.

In reality, Seefried was a typical rioter only in that he is a white male who holds far-right political views (the January 6 insurrectionists were roughly 86 percent men and 93 percent non-Hispanic white). Few (about 14 percent) were members of militias or other hate or extremist groups. Far more (around 20 percent) were former military, offering further evidence that “the bombs explode at home.” Nor did the insurrectionists simply hail from rural America. They also came from the nation’s largest metro areas: New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas, and Houston. Rather than urbanity or rurality, the common-origin denominator among the rioters involved demographic trends. Most came from counties that are trending rapidly toward racial pluralism and majority-minority status, and where the share of the white population is declining at rates well above the national average. This, no doubt, speaks to the valence within their ranks of a “Great Replacement” theory, one promulgated by conservative media personalities.

Most critically, the January 6 insurrectionists were not downtrodden workers, unemployed and uneducated, as Suri’s portrait of Seefried suggests. The vast majority were, like Trump’s base, professional-class, with disproportionate numbers of deeply conservative provincial elites from midsize cities, small towns, and retirement enclaves. Some were the bourgeoise that Patrick Wyman terms the “American gentry” — business and property owners who sit atop local hierarchies, and who “see themselves as local leaders in business and politics, the unappreciated backbone of a once-great nation.” Fearful of wavering influence in their own (typically racially and socioeconomically segregated) communities, they equated Trump’s “Make America Great Again” with protection of both their financial assets and racial identities.

In fact, the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Threats obtained employment data for 501 of the 716 people arrested or charged for their role in January 6. The vast majority were either business owners, self-employed, or white-collar professionals, including doctors, lawyers, bankers, architects, and accountants. Only 22 percent of the sample held what the compilers described as “blue collar” jobs, as either wage-earning or salaried workers. Only 7 percent were unemployed. Even relative to other right-wing extremist groups as compiled by the FBI, the January 6 insurrectionists were strikingly well-off. After all, partaking in a prearranged government takeover in one of the nation’s most expensive cities requires time off work, as well as travel, airfare, and hotel expense. Many of the rioters dined in gourmet restaurants the night of January 5. Others stayed at the posh Willard Hotel, where rooms will cost you over $300 per night. Some even flew to the “Stop the Steal” rally on private jets.

Among both white and black Radicals, phrases including ‘better classes,’ ‘most respectable,’ and ‘best men’ were code for the class difference between free men of color and recently freed slaves.
The depiction of Kevin Seefried as a typical insurrectionist reinforces Suri’s idea of the roots of racial repression as primarily cultural, based on “habit and tradition,” rather than material, in the service of profit and class hegemony. However, belief in the Big lie, and the willingness to act violently on its behalf, is dangerous not because it holds sway among relatively powerless citizens like Seefried. It is dangerous because it is mainstream among relatively affluent members of a particular social class, the vast majority of whom, yes, are white, and who wield white nationalism in the service of class politics, as well as class power in the service of white nationalism. This is not to downplay the obvious role that white identity played in both Trump’s election and January 6, only to highlight that it is not fringe bands of neo-Confederates but acute inequality, engendered by the basic machinations of capitalism, that poses the greatest threat to American democracy.

Democracy on the Land
For a book about the long struggle for democracy, Suri’s study contains surprisingly little about contests over the meaning of democracy. His emphasis is on electoral democracy, or the processes by which enfranchised people vote for political representatives in periodically held elections. Yet more than any period of US history, Reconstruction demonstrates how this definition of democracy is necessary but insufficient. Although Suri characterizes Reconstruction as “a struggle over conflicting conceptions of democracy,” his core question is “democracy for whom?” and not “democracy of what kind?” Put another way, Suri’s notion of democracy pivots entirely on race — white man’s democracy vs. multiracial democracy — while obscuring intraracial distinctions and calls for economic democracy.

Former slaves did indeed see voting rights and ballot inclusion as fundamental rights. However, Suri’s claim that blacks recognized “representation in politics” as “the basic foundation of democracy” requires further context, and the book’s fixation on voting rights gives the impression that land ownership was of secondary importance to former slaves. It was not.

Although Suri’s flattening of critical class differences prevents him from exploring such issues, countless ex-slaves prioritized rights in land as equal to or above voting. This was especially true of newly emancipated people in rural areas, most of them landless and illiterate, whose demands tended to be more material than their free counterparts in the urban South. One freedman prefigured Martin Luther King Jr’s pithy critique of civil rights devoid of economic justice: “What’s the use of being free if you don’t own enough land to be buried in?”

The story of “Forty acres and a mule” as a dream deferred, though largely absent from Suri’s account, is essential to any materialist interpretation of Reconstruction — or of US history for that matter. Eager to kickstart the South’s cash crop economy, Southern planters and Northern capitalists each had a vested interest in opposing both communitarianism (democratically owned property) and independent proprietorship (small-scale privately owned property) for former slaves. Some of the latter feared that land redistribution in the South would lead industrial workers in the North to challenge other forms of property. Countless Northern industrialists, philanthropists, and politicians supported black political rights out of either sincere egalitarian impulses or an opportunity to grow their political party in the South. But many also feared alliances between former slaves and poor and middling white agrarians in the North and West. Even free blacks, white reformers, and Freedmen’s Bureau agents, most of them well-meaning, sincerely believed that the dependency of wage labor was the surest way to self-sufficiency for former slaves.

While Reconstruction represented an exceptional — and in many ways revolutionary — reallocation of power toward working people, property confiscation constituted what historian Michael Fitzgerald calls a “wartime vogue,” far less a result of ideology than of military necessity. By 1866, the idea of land redistribution for ex-slaves was a nonstarter. Allies of the former slaves, including the Freedmen’s Aid Association, the American Missionary Association, and the Freedmen’s Bureau, called for education, thrift, and land purchase through savings as substitutes for land reform. As time wore on, Southern state governments and most congressional Republicans exhibited what historian Claude Oubre terms only a “meager effort” to provide economic security for blacks. The democratic visions of these institutions were limited somewhat by the economic concepts of the time and the political constraints of the moment. But they were also limited by their class positions.

Of course, there were also black intraracial class tensions, particularly in urban centers. While the postwar South held a broad range of black voters, leaders, and convention delegates, contested definitions of democracy, including which of its elements should be emphasized, tended to break along class lines. Among both white and black Radicals, phrases including “better classes,” “most respectable,” and “best men” were code for the class difference between free men of color and recently freed slaves — and also served as indicators of democratic prerogatives. In his study of Reconstruction-era Mobile, Alabama, historian Michael Fitzgerald argues that “class divisions within the black community were so urgent that factional conflict could not be contained.”

As early as the state black conventions of 1865, Eric Foner observes a striking divide between more prominent leaders who pushed “political equality and self-help formulas,” and rural freedmen who possessed above all a “thirst for land.” Demanding “land or blood,” ex-slaves in the countryside decisively favored assembly delegates who called for plantations to be broken up. Yet convention leaders rarely highlighted such views. “By and large,” Foner contends, “economic concerns figured only marginally in the proceedings, and the addresses and resolutions offered no economic program, apart from stressing the ‘mutual interest’ of capital and labor, and urging self-improvement as the route to personal advancement.” Describing this gulf between ex-slaves and free blacks (the self-described men of “intelligence and wealth”), historian Ted Tunnell argues that the type of civic rights prioritized by free blacks, notably equal access to public spaces such as theaters, saloons, and steamboats, were “remote from the needs and aspirations of the overwhelming majority of ex-slaves who lived hard lives on toil and ceaseless anxiety.”

In his 1935 Marxist masterwork, Black Reconstruction in America, Du Bois characterizes Radical Reconstruction as a “dictatorship of labor” and acknowledges that the failure of land reform had far more to do with white than black opposition. Yet he also maintains that black leadership during Reconstruction skewed petite bourgeois, its members steeped in an individualistic, capitalist ideology (which was by no means unique to the black middle class).

In other words, former slaves who desperately needed land were too often represented by conservative white Unionists and free blacks whose class statuses and interests disinclined them from supporting large-scale material redistribution, which raises the question: Were Reconstruction governments truly a “dictatorship of labor,” or were they liberal and multiracial bourgeois alliances sustained by the votes of black and a minority of poor whites?

The book’s key shortcoming lies in its failure to address the full spectrum of Reconstruction-era democracy and to foreground the materialist nature of its social and political conflict.
In either case, former slaves constituted a distinct and especially radical social class. They envisioned self-ownership as a right, viewing it not as apart from, but essential to and often ahead of, voting. Most understood that political democracy would be limited — and even be turned back altogether — without control over the land that their labor had made productive. And they perceived this issue as both a matter of justice and, in many cases, precedent. As Du Bois points out, “The German and English and French serf, the Italian and Russian serf, were, on emancipation, given definite rights in the land. Only the American negro slave was emancipated without such rights and in the end this spelled for him the continuation of slavery.” Writing on Louisiana’s 1867 Radical convention, Tunnell explained that although civil rights were a monumental achievement, they did not directly address “fundamental economic problems.” “More than anything else,” he insists, “ex-slaves needed land.”

Democracy, in other words, was a contested concept in the Reconstruction South, not only between black and white but within the Radical movement. While Radicals shared common commitments to civil rights and state building, they were not a class coalition. And when the interests of Northern capital, the Northern voting public, and former slaves no longer intersected, as was the case by 1874, the coalition broke down. Despite populist economic programs and the workerist orientation of some party leaders, the absence of a working-class movement rendered social democracy unachievable, and the lack of social democracy in the South — the failure of land reform specifically — made the counterrevolution of property almost inevitable.

Beyond Political Democracy
As a history of Reconstruction, Civil War by Other Means is a brisk, engaging, and often penetrating read. Suri imposes a degree of continuity sure to give some historians pause — drawing a rather straight line between the Union Leagues and Black Lives Matter, between the Klan and QAnon, Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman and Donald Trump, white hoods and red hats. Yet the book’s premise, that “the Civil War never fully ended” and that its pronounced divisions related to race and anti-statism have been festering in US politics since Reconstruction, is unquestionable. Although his frequent use of Trump-era media language — “disinformation,” “white privilege,” “treason,” and “insurrection” — seems like an appeal to the incrementalist MSNBC crowd, Suri makes bold constitutional proposals and shows an uncommon commitment to representative government, multiracial political democracy, and majority rule, which he views as the solutions to the stubborn problem of white nationalism. In that regard, Civil War by Other Means is superior to other post-2016 studies of race in America that paint whiteness more as a timeless feature to be condemned morally and “worked through” by self-help-oriented individuals than a manifestation of social conditions to be overcome through mass politics.

But the book’s key shortcoming lies in its failure to address the full spectrum of Reconstruction-era democracy and to foreground the materialist nature of its social and political conflict. Suri hopes Americans will safeguard their democracy by digging up the roots to “remove the rot,” but his vision, which would no doubt remake US politics for the better, never transcends technocratic proceduralism. Skipping over the vital question of movement building, Suri is most concerned with what to do with power once achieved rather than how to achieve it. Accordingly, he views white nationalism as a cultural and political problem to be curbed through constitutional change rather than a question rooted in material relations to be solved through social transformation. In other words, Suri’s “democracy” is neither social democracy nor economic democracy. It is certainly not democratic socialism, with its emphasis on democratic participation beyond the political arena and a more equal distribution of resources through worker control.

Ultimately, Suri fails to answer a basic question: Is it even possible to possess and express equal political rights — to, in effect, “do” political democracy — in a profoundly materially unequal society devoid of economic rights? That question, too, is a legacy of Reconstruction, and part of our long and unfinished fight.

Matthew E. Stanley teaches in the department of history and political science at Albany State University.

 

Category : Capitalism | Marxism | Racism | Slavery | US History
2
Dec


 

By JERRY HARRIS

Race and Class

Abstract: The Russian invasion of the Ukraine is a powerful assertion of geopolitical power and conflict. But Russia’s nationalist and expansionary drive takes place within the context of transnational economic ties. Such ties help define the nature of the war, and both the Russian and western response. The contradictory pressures of nationalist desires conflicting with transnational integration is an underappreciated complexity of the war that this article will explore.

 Keywords: energy resources, finance capital, nationalism, oligarchy, Russian invasion, sanctions, transnational capitalist class, Ukraine.

 Introduction

The invasion of Ukraine is seen by most as a geopolitical conflict between the West and Russia. Nationalist ideologies and power competition do play a significant role, but such competition takes place within the context of transnational relations that also define the nature of the struggle. Unlike the invasion of Czechoslovakia, which took place during limited economic and cultural ties between the West and Soviet Union, the current war is deeply affected by mutual economic relationships between transnational capitalists and links between transnational corporations. Exploring how the contradictions between national and transnational elements structure the character of the war is the purpose of this article.

Global capitalism has gone through tremendous change over the past forty years, building a system of transnational integration characterised by global financial flows and production. This has profoundly changed a world built around nation-centric power. The emergence of the transnational capitalist class (TCC) reshaped domestic economies and social relations by restructuring state institutions and rules to serve the new forms of global accumulation. Major trade arrangements were ratified, banks bailed out, corporate taxes cut, transnational corporations promoted and social contracts undermined. And yet the old forms of power, habits, identities and privileges still fight to maintain their existence. This mixture of national structures overturned by transnational forces creates a powerful vortex of tensions.

In Russia, this process took place first under Yeltsin and then Putin, turning the country into a neoliberal state. As the new ruling class sought a capitalist identity outside the Soviet experience, it linked to its imperial past. As a result, Russian national concepts of power rooted in Tsarist imperialist expansion reasserted their influence, even as the oligarchy made use of transnational accumulation. Neither did Great Power concepts fully fade in the West, as NATO’s eastward expansion shows. As globalisation entered a sustained period of economic, environmental and social turmoil, transnational hegemony was opened to greater challenge, particularly from authoritarian state capitalism, which finds inspiration in fascism and empire. As the globalist project of a fully integrated economic world floundered under the weight of its own excess, nationalist ideology and power projections re-emerged.

Mike Davis hits home when he describes the Putin government as one that hates Lenin and the Bolshevik position on self-determination, a government drenched in Great Russian chauvinism and supported by the reactionary religious hierarchy of the Eastern Orthodox Church. A government that invites the backing of pan-Slavic neo-fascists, that idealises the Tsarist empire, with Putin himself an iconic hero of far-right nationalists throughout Europe and the US.[1]

And yet it is a government that has structured its economy to serve and benefit from transnational capitalism. That contradiction, between nationalist ideology and its transnational model of accumulation, is the Russian trap. And it works both ways, for Russia and for its global partners.

Global capitalism and Russia

In Russia, the creation of a TCC took place primarily through the privatisation of state assets, in combination with private/state ownership arrangements in energy and finance. The state did not represent a national capitalist class, nor was its primary concern building a modern industrial base. Rather, the state played a central role in integrating the key sectors of the Russian economy into global capitalism. Russian oligarchs also rushed to integrate into elite cultural and financial networks. They sent billions into offshore havens, spent hundreds of millions on London and New York real estate, lived on their yachts, and sent their children to elite western schools.

But the full political integration of the Russian state was stymied by the western architecture of power. NATO’s expansion eastward clashed with Russia’s intent to re-establish its own sphere of influence. This was an uneven process, unfolding over a period of three decades. The G7 became the G8 as Russia was given a seat at the elite table. But tensions never fully resolved. Political, social and environmental problems continued to sharpen, giving rise to security concerns and a renewal of nationalist rhetoric to regain state legitimacy. In turn, rivalries became more aggressive, and the balance between globalism and nationalism began to shift.

To explore the above process, we begin with Russia’s internal transformation and the creation of its transnational capitalist class.

Scholar Oleg Komolov describes the Russian economy primarily as a supplier of resources, with the TCC deeply integrated into global capitalism. He points out how the ruling class that emerged from the privatisation of state assets occupies primarily the role of an intermediate seller of Russian commodities on world markets and is not interested in improving the efficiency of the economy, developing competitive manufacturing industries and technological progress. [Moreover] the export economy was developed with large-scale participation of foreign capital in all sectors of the economy, the artificial devaluation of the ruble and net capital outflow to countries of the center.[2]

Between 1997 and 2017, the outflow of capital exceeded inflows, with offshore havens the destination for 70 per cent of capital exports. The two most prominent outflow years were during the global crash of 2008 and the Russian seizure of Crimea in 2014, with a combined total of $285 billion.[3] Outside the flight to offshore havens, Russian energy TNCs had made foreign direct investments of $335.7 billion by 2017.[4]

The Russian state and private oligarchy worked together in the outflow of capital, which reduces the amount of held dollars and keeps the value of the rouble low. In turn, this helps the export of fossil fuels and minerals. According to the World Bank, the rouble is one of the world’s most undervalued currencies.[5] Oil and gas make up 65 per cent of Russian exports, but minerals and wheat also play an important role. The state has supported this process by increasing its overseas holdings in US Treasury bonds from $8 billion to $164 billion between 2007 and 2013.[6]

Keeping the value of the rouble low meant undercutting investments in the modernisation of manufacturing. The results being high import prices for machinery and agricultural inputs, as well as high consumer prices for foreign goods. In 2017, machinery and equipment made up 47 per cent of imports, and chemical products 18 per cent.[7] Thus, a low-valued rouble drove up the cost of tractors, combines, transport and machine tools, fertilisers and chemicals – a typical pattern among transnational petro-states. Privileging globalist accumulation over the national market marked the Russian ruling class with a transnational character and strategy.

Another aspect of Russia’s integration was creating an attractive market for foreign speculative capital. During the 2005–08 financial frenzy, capital flowed into Russia, benefiting from liberalisation of currency regulations. During these years, transnational capitalists sank $325 billion into Russian corporations, with large amounts going to state-owned entities like Sberbank and the energy giant Gazprom. Among the biggest investors were financial giants JPMorgan, BlackRock and Pimco.[8] Loans were also made, reaching $400 billion from some of the biggest global banks including Citigroup, HSBC, BNP Paribas and Deutsche Bank. The benefits for finance capital were double: debt from loans and earnings from investments meant profits for transnational investors the world over. The outflow of profits over a twenty-year period reached $1.2 trillion, and taking on foreign liabilities certainly didn’t support the rouble.

Energy, transnational capital and sanctions

Key to the Russian economy, and indeed the world economy, are energy resources. Russia’s fossil fuel industry has been largely exempt from the sanctions in 2022, as it was in 2014. In both cases, transfer payments for energy continued to flow through the SWIFT computers, and in 2022 these were worth about $350 million per day. Between 24 February and 24 March 2022, Russia sold $19 billion in fossil fuels. The links between western oil majors and Russian TNCs deeply influences the limits and impacts of sanctions, and so deserves attention.

First, we can review the degree of joint ventures between Russian and transnational energy majors. Rosneft emerged as Russia’s largest oil producer when Putin dismantled Yukos, and sold its $90 billion in assets for just $2 billion. Western banks rushed to loan Rosneft $22 billion as it became Russia’s dominant energy company. Financial backing came from ABN Amro, Barclays, BNP Paribas, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan and Morgan Stanley. Rosneft then raised $10.7 billion in an IPO on the London Stock Exchange with BP taking a 20 per cent stake. Other strategic investors included Petronas (Malaysia) and CNPC (China). Russian oligarchs joined in, with Roman Abramovich, Vladimir Lisin and Oleg Deripaska each investing $1 billion. As Hans-Joerg Rudloff, chairman of Barclays and Rosneft board member, noted, Russia was ‘on the track of international economic integration’.[9] In 2006 Rosneft turned east, joining with China’s Sinopec in a $13.7 billion buyout of TNK-BP’s Udmurtneft Oil. In a key deal after the 2014 imposition of sanctions, Rosneft signed a thirty-year contract with the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation worth about $400 billion. Furthermore, Exxon had a $3.2 billion Arctic offshore drilling deal with Rosneft in which the Russian TNC obtained minority stakes in the Gulf of Mexico and oil fields in Texas. Rex Tillerson, chief executive of Exxon Mobile and future Secretary of State, received the Order of Friendship award from Putin in gratitude for Exxon’s commitment.[10]

Gazprom also has a significant level of transnational integration. In developing Shtokman, one of the world’s largest gas fields, Gazprom partnered with Total from France and StatoilHydro of Norway. Total has a close relationship with the Russians. The French oil major has investments in two other Russian oil fields, and a 16 per cent stake in Novatek, the country’s largest gas producer after Gazprom. The largest foreign investment project in Russia, the Sakhalin-2 oil field, involved the British and Japanese. Although Gazprom retains majority ownership, Shell held 27.5 per cent, Mitsui 15 per cent, and Mitsubishi 10 per cent.[11]

Overall, more than 400 foreign financial institutions have provided $130 billion to Russian energy companies, $52 billion in investments and $84 billion in credit. A total of 154 US financial companies hold almost half of these investments at $23.6 billion. JPMorgan is the largest with investments and loans of $10 billion. Other major investors include Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund with $15.3 billion invested in Rosneft. The UK was the third largest investor, where 32 financial institutions contributed $2.5 billion. Other important investors come from Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, Japan and China.[12]

To understand how sanctions disrupted these transnational relations, we need to investigate sanctions from 2014 and 2022. In 2014, companies weren’t banned from conducting business with Russian state-owned energy giants, although banks were sanctioned from making loans. The policy allowed protection for transnational institutional investors. But the US did move to sanction Rosneft’s president, Igor Sechin. This prompted Jack Ma, founder of China’s Alibaba, and John J. Mack of Morgan Stanley, to resign from the Rosneft board; while Donald Humphreys, former chief financial officer of Exxon Mobil, and BP chief executive Bob Dudley continued to serve. As western sanctions tightened, they did cause some difficult problems, forcing Eni, Exxon and Statoil to withdraw from a $20 billion Rosneft Arctic exploration project. But to replace the loss of advance drilling technology, Rosneft took a 30 per cent stake in North Atlantic Drilling, a subsidiary of Seadrill, the world’s largest offshore driller controlled by Norway’s richest man, John Fredriksen. Rosneft also faced problems when sanctions cut access to foreign capital markets. To counteract the sanctions, it arranged a series of prepayment deals with some of the largest western oil traders including Glencore, Trafigura and BP. Furthermore, Rosneft bought Morgan Stanley’s global oil trading business, obtaining an international network of oil tank storage contracts, supply agreements and freight shipping contracts, as well as a 49 per cent stake in Heidmar, a manager of oil tankers. So, while the 2014 sanctions caused a number of real problems, Rosneft’s transnational relationships provided important avenues to avoid major disruptions.[13]

Overall, the 2014 sanctions did hurt Russia. FDI inflows fell from $69 billion in 2013 to $21 billion in 2014. But the Obama administration also faced stiff resistance not only across Europe, but in the US as well. Hostility to the sanctions came from the two most influential US business groups, the National Association of Manufacturers and the US Chamber of Commerce. Both lobbied and took out critical ads in national newspapers, insisting that sanctions should not hurt financial institutions that held significant Russian debt. Among the corporations who lobbied against the sanctions were Exxon Mobil, BP, American Petroleum Institute, Amway, Caterpillar, Chevron and GM.[14]

In implementing sanctions, the US believed Russia would view its global business ties as too valuable to lose, and so economic pressure would force a retreat from eastern Ukraine. But from the other side of the mirror, Putin believed global business’s ties to Russia were too valuable and would undercut western sanctions. In important ways both were right, and the same dynamic is at play in 2022. In the recent crisis the US Chamber of Commerce has again lobbied Congress arguing sanctions should be ‘as targeted as possible in order to limit potential harm to the competitiveness of U.S. companies’.[15]

The magnitude of the 2022 invasion has caused the current sanctions to be deeper and broader. What Russian Marxist Boris Kagarlitsky pointed out in 2014 is even more true today:

The situation confronting our elites … is more or less straightforward, they cannot enter actively into confrontation with the West without dealing crushing blows to their own interests, to their own capital holdings and to their own networks, methods of rule and way of life.[16]

But this is a two-way street – the West can’t sanction Russia without hurting itself, so the question becomes who hurts the most. For example, the world’s largest asset manager BlackRock took a loss of $17 billion on their Russian exposure.[17]

Because Russia is the main supplier of oil and gas to Europe, its energy industry is a major focus of new sanctions. ExxonMobil is beginning steps to exit the Sakhalin-1 project and cease operations it carries out on behalf of a consortium of Japanese, Indian and Russian companies. Shell also announced plans to leave Sakhalin and ‘withdraw all involvement in Russian hydrocarbons’.[18] BP has moved to offload its 20 per cent stake in Rosneft and may take a hit estimated at $25 billion. BP’s move comes after thirty years of joint venture. Additionally, the Singapore-based trading company Trafigura is threatening to opt out of its 10 per cent shareholding of Vostok Oil, a vast gas project led by Rosneft. And Norway’s Equinor will also begin to exit its joint ventures. But TotalEnergies, the large French transnational, while committing to no new investments, is holding on to its nearly 20 per cent of Novatek.

Yet none of these companies may end up leaving. Exxon, BP and Shell need to find someone to buy out their interests. That will not be easy in the present circumstances, and they may have to appeal to their Russian counterparts to take their shares. Furthermore, oil tankers continue to transport millions of barrels of oil from Russian ports, estimated to be worth $700 million per day. These include tankers from Greece, and those chartered by US oil giant Chevron.[19] And SWIFT payment transfers for energy continue at the above-mentioned $350 million per day. Consequently, for all the difficulties of the sanctions, global energy integration affords Russia significant amounts of capital, which helps to finance the war.

India’s case is yet another example of the complexity of transnational production. Obtaining about a 33 per cent discount from Russia, India’s oil imports have surged by 700 per cent.[20] Some of these imports go to Reliance Industries, which has the world’s largest refinery complex, and also to an affiliate of Rosneft, Nayara Energy. Using Russian crude, Indian refineries produce diesel and jet fuel, which is sold to Europe, whose imports from India have jumped. As Shell’s chief executive explained, oil substantially treated or changed loses it national origin. ‘We do not have systems in the world to trace back whether that particular molecule originated from a geological formation in Russia, [therefore] diesel going out of an Indian refinery that was fed with Russian crude is considered to be Indian diesel.’[21]

One particularly ironic aspect of transnational relations is that Russian gas flows through pipelines running through Ukraine to Italy, Austria and eastern Europe. Russia pays transport fees to the government, thus supplying funds to Ukraine even as the war raged. And, of course, gas reaching the EU means more money for Russia. It wasn’t until May 2022 that Ukraine stopped the Sokhranovka pipeline that operates from the Russian-controlled Luhansk region. The value of the gas is about $1 billion each month. But Sudzha, Russia’s main pipeline, is, at the time of writing, still in Ukrainian-held territory, allowed to operate, and expected to take on some of the lost capacity.

Another example of the complexity of transnational production is how the invasion impacted Rusal, the world’s second-largest aluminium producer, owned by Oleg Deripaska and listed on the Hong Kong market. Rusal has a joint venture with Australian mining giant Rio Tinto. But because of sanctions, their joint refinery, Queensland Alumina, will not ship products to Russia. The result is that Rusal had to halt production at its Nikolaev refinery located in Ukraine, which accounts for 23 per cent of its annual production. Nikolaev is one of the most modern refineries in the world and employs about 1,500 people. To make up the shortfall Rusal may divert production from its Aughinish refinery in Ireland to feed its Russian smelters.[22] In turn, that will reduce supplies in Europe where materials are already short. The end result is higher unemployment in Ukraine, higher prices in Europe, and a lower stock price for Rusal.

Data compiled by the Yale School of Management reported 253 TNCs are making a clean break with Russia, essentially leaving no operations behind. Some of these include Uber, Shell, Salesforce, Reebok, McKinsey, Nasdaq, eBay, Delta, Deloitte, BP, BlackRock, American Airlines and Alcoa. Another 248 companies have suspended their operations without permanently exiting or divesting. Among these are Adidas, American Express, Burger King, Chanel, Coca-Cola, Dell, Disney, GM, Hewlett Packard, Honeywell, Hyundai, IBM, McDonalds, Mastercard, Nike, Oracle, Starbucks, UPS, Visa and Xerox. Some seventy-five companies have suspended a significant portion of their business. These include Caterpillar, John Deere, Dow, GE, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, Kellogg’s, Pepsico and Whirlpool. Pausing new investments are ninety-six companies. This is different from JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs who, while suspending some operations, continue to snatch up depressed Russian securities at very low prices. Among those pausing new investments are Cargill, Colgate-Palmolive, Credit Suisse, Danone, Johnson & Johnson, Siemens and Unilever. The total so far is 672 companies taking various forms of action. Yale reported 162 companies staying the course, including Acer, Alibaba, International Paper, Koch, and Lenovo.[23]

Some funds not appearing in the Yale report include the important financial centres in Singapore, which has halted any new economic activity with four major Russian banks. And Singapore’s large sovereign wealth funds, which have about $6 billion invested in Russia, have also suspended activity.[24] Two of China’s largest state-owned banks are limiting loans for purchases of Russian commodities.[25] The New Development Bank, established by Russia, China, Brazil and South Africa, put new transactions on hold. And the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, whose major shareholder is China, stopped its projects in Russia and Belarus. As of the middle of March 2022, there were more than 3,600 sanctions on Russian individuals and companies.

Table 1: Estimated and potential losses of companies leaving Russia[26]

Companies Leaving Russia

Estimated and Potential Loss (US$ million)

BlackRock $17,000
Bank of America $700
BNY Mellon $200
Citigroup $1,900
Ericsson $95
Goldman Sachs $300
JPMorgan $1,000
Nokia $109
Shell $5,000
Société Générale $3,300
Volvo $423

 

The rush to boycott Russia reminds one of the corporate rush to endorse Black Lives Matter; essentially a marketing strategy to stay in front of popular politics. And while the costs are disruptive, transnational corporations are large enough to swallow such losses. For example, as the price for oil rose, Shell increased its early quarterly profits by 300 per cent to $9.1 billion – already enough to cover its projected $5 billion loss. Most of these sanctions will only harm the Russian people without having any real effect on the ruling class or the invasion. Russian citizens are already experiencing a dramatic decline in purchasing power and may soon face growing unemployment and a lack of consumer goods. The larger developing crisis is in world food supplies as Russia and Ukraine export a significant amount of the world’s wheat, corn, barley and sunflower oil. Shortages and price increases will hit the poor in the Global South the hardest.

Financial institutions and the TCC

Because of the integration of the global financial system, Russian capital was exposed to severe sanctions in 2022 that constituted a geo-economic break. There has been a general belief in the sanctity of foreign reserves. The US often talks about a ‘rules-based world order’. This includes open capital markets and accounts, deeply integrated financial markets, and benchmark assets in US dollars. Putin counted on all of this to keep the Russian economy functioning during the invasion. But seven of the largest Russian banks have been removed from the SWIFT interbank system. This severely limits the ability to pay for imports or receive payment for exports, as SWIFT is used to link funds for transnational deals. Russia’s central bank also kept about half its $630 billion dollars and euro reserves in foreign institutions residing in London, New York, Paris and Tokyo, and from $86 to $140 billion in Chinese bonds. Except for the Chinese holdings, these funds are now frozen, causing the rouble to lose about 40 per cent of its value, although with capital controls the rouble regained most of its value. Moreover, the collapse of Russian corporate stocks triggered the multi-week closure of the Russian stock market. And both Moody and Fitch downgraded Russian sovereign debt to ‘junk’. Russia is moving towards its first foreign currency debt default in one hundred years, but, as of May 2022, was still making payments using money from energy exports.

The severity of the economic sanctions is a radical step. Even during the second world war, relations between the Bank of England and the Reichsbank continued into the 1940s. And the Bank of International Settlements continued to allow the German central bank access to its clearing and settlement facilities throughout the war.

As Dominik Leusder points out:

More than any armed conflict, the current international monetary system has laid bare the folly of this romantic liberal portrait of globalisation. The sanctions against Russia are the clearest manifestation yet of a distinct undercurrent of financial globalisation … the West’s ability to coerce states has only increased as a function of their integration [so] as Russia became a central node [of] the global economy, it became more vulnerable.[27]

 

And yet western investors and companies are also in danger, as sanctions over the transfer of funds may mean Russia defaults on billions in loans. Facing such problems, US authorities gave the okay to JPMorgan to process interest payments due on dollar bonds from the Russian government. Citigroup is another payment agent for about fifty corporate bonds tied to Russian TNCs like Gazprom and MMC Norilsk Nickel. [28] Furthermore, the important financial institution Gazprombank is spared from sanctions and continues to be a conduit for commodity transactions. For example, working with Citibank it helped Brazil purchase Russian fertiliser, which is not sanctioned. Thus, the flow of capital continues, at least in part, despite sanctions.

Again, Leusder provides insightful analysis:

As globalization underwrote Putin’s militarism and his increasingly hostile posture toward Russia’s neighbors, it simultaneously rendered the country’s economy fatally reliant: on the net demand from other countries such as Germany and China; on imports of crucial goods such as machinery, transportation equipment, pharmaceutical and electronics, mostly from Europe; on access to the global dollar system to finance and conduct trade … This is one way to construe the deceptively simple insight of Henry Farrell and Abraham L. Newman’s theory of weaponized interdependence: the logic of financial globalization that generated Russia’s trade surplus and gave Putin room to maneuver also provided the economic and financial weaponry that was turned against him.[29]

Thus, a nationalist strategy to reconstitute the Russian empire, using the profits and ties that come with globalisation, is undercut by the contradiction of those same ties and relationships.

Weaponised interdependence is a good description of the financial markets in metals. Alongside Russian fossil fuels are its exports of metals, including copper, alumina and nickel, which is used in making stainless steel and batteries for electric cars. Here are the complications of transnational capitalism. Tsingshan Holding Group in China is the world’s largest nickel producer, China’s second largest steel producer, and is involved in electric vehicle batteries. Tsingshan made an enormous $3 billion bet shorting the price of nickel, counting on its own increased production in creating an abundance of supplies. This bet was made on the London Metal Exchange (LME), which is a unit of Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing Limited. With the Russian invasion, although nickel was not sanctioned, fear took hold of the market and prices jumped 250 per cent. The short bet based on lowering cost was a disaster. Trade chaos took hold, leaving Tsingshan with two choices. Either deliver tons of nickel or pay for margin calls, which means coming up with the cash or securities to cover potential losses. But Tsingshan only held 30,000 tons of its 150,000-ton bet. The remainder was held by JPMorgan, BNP Paribas, Standard Chartered and United Overseas Bank. On the cusp of a global financial disaster, LME suspended trading and retroactively cancelled $3.9 billion of trades, blaming banks for preventing efforts to create greater transparency that could have revealed the interconnected problem.[30] Consequently, the Russian invasion set off a financial crisis that punished transnational capitalists that have no part in the war.

Facing sanctions, oligarchs can’t be happy with the war, and a number have stated their opposition. Nevertheless, the global financial system has been built to safely hide their money, as well as the wealth of others in the TCC. It’s estimated that oligarchs have hidden about half their wealth offshore, amounting to some $200 billion. Somewhere between 10,000 to 20,000 Russians hold more than $10 million each in offshore assets and havens.[31] Still, that is significantly less than their American counterparts who have an estimated $1.2 trillion in offshore tax havens. Much of the Russian money is in US, UK and EU assets. Transparency International has estimated about $2 billion just in UK property.[32]

But much of this wealth is difficult to discover because the TCC has structured international laws to hide wealth in complex trusts and shell corporations.[33] Global accounting firms PwC, KPMG, Deloitte and EY helped oligarchs move money to offshore shell companies for years before currently withdrawing services. Rosneft, VTB, Alfa Bank, Gazprom and Sberbank have been represented by leading US law firms, including White & Case, DLA Piper, Dechert, Latham & Watkins and Baker Botts. And Baker McKenzie, one of the world’s largest law firms, continues to represent some of Russia’s largest companies, including Gazprom and VTB.[34] Concord Management specialised in serving ultra-wealthy Russians, helping them invest in hedge funds, private equity and real estate. Since 1999, Concord has channelled billions to BlackRock, Carlyle Group and others. Wall Street banks such as Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley often acted as intermediators, linking Concord to hedge funds.[35] Such well-worn networks tie the Russian TCC to global capitalists and financial institutions in a mutually beneficial relationship, and creates a shared culture that exalts the privileges of wealth and common ideas about how the world economic system works.

Capitalists the world over make use of sophisticated accountants, bankers and lawyers to hide their assets. An agent will set up an offshore shell company in a country with little transparency. This company then creates more shells in other low-transparency jurisdictions – about forty-two exist across the world, including the US states of Delaware and South Dakota. This allows the ‘ultimate beneficial owner’, often unknown, to have multiple bank accounts and the ability to move money and invest without any scrutiny. Government investigators in both the US and the UK regularly ignore suspicious banking activity. In 2018, the EU passed regulations demanding access to information on the ownership of European companies nested in shell companies. Yet in 2022 no such registry exists. Congress passed a transparency law in 2021 with a $63 million budget, but never provided the money to the Treasury Department. Consequently, the effort to sanction oligarchs is undercut by the global financial system built to the demands of the TCC, of which Russian capitalists are members. While some pressure is being directed on the oligarchs, the system of hidden cross-border capital flows is too valuable to end, allowing the Russian TCC to escape greater harm.

A good example of how shell corporations function is the effort to sanction Arcady Rotenberg. Rotenberg is worth about $3 billion with an estimated $91 million invested in the US and a $35 million mansion outside London, bought through an entity in the British Virgin Islands. He has at least 200 companies located across dozens of countries. Even after coming under sanctions in 2014, Rotenberg became the owner of two additional companies located in Luxembourg, well known as a haven for billionaires. Although senate investigators found countless bank filings on suspicious Rotenberg activities, none of them have been investigated by the Treasury Department.

As Cihan Tuğal reminds us, Putin and his cronies

are a solid part of world capitalism, and their apparently insane actions are intended to produce a better place at the table. They want to be recognized as legitimate imperialists in the new, post-Wilson and post-Lenin world of the 21st century … [Putin] is not only serving his ego, but a capitalist class fostered by post-1991 reforms, which were selective appropriations of free market ideas. The gang of cronies is not Putin’s creation alone. It is an outcome of transnational dynamics. This class is hungry for markets, and it cannot help but look for ways to burst out of Russia.[36]

German/Russian economic relations

Moving from a picture of transnational markets, industries and finance, we can explore the specific relationship between Germany and Russia. Germany as the largest European economy is also the most integrated with Russia. For Russia, it’s their most important economic partner alongside China. In 2021, German exports to Russia were worth more than $28.4 billion, and it invested a further €25 billion in operations.[37] Germany still depends on Russia for about 55 per cent of its natural gas, 35 per cent of its oil, and half its coal.

Before 2014, there were 7,000 German companies inside Russia representing some of the largest TNCs in the world, such as Adidas, BASF, Siemens, Volkswagen, Opel and Daimler. On the financial side, all major German commercial banks were active in Russia. In terms of oil and gas, Germany’s biggest energy group Eon was the largest foreign shareholder in Gazprom, which, alongside BASF, was building the $6.6 billion Baltic Sea pipeline. The Germans held 20 per cent of the Nord Stream joint venture, with former chancellor Gerhard Schröder as chairman and Matthias Warnig of Dresdner Bank its chief executive. Even after the seizure of Crimea, Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser confirmed its commitment to Russia to sell trains, energy infrastructure, medical technology and manufacturing automation technology. Cross-border deals also continued, with RWE selling its oil and gas subsidiary to Russia’s LetterOne for over $7.5 billion. But, with the 2014 sanctions, German trade with Russia dropped by 35 per cent, and German firms investing in Russia dropped to just under 4,000 by 2020.[38]

Now the invasion of Ukraine has shaken the German/Russian relationship in a very significant manner, particularly in the auto and energy industries. Wintershall Dea, an oil and gas TNC, will stop payments to Russia and write off its €1 billion investment in Nord Stream 2. Additionally, it will not receive revenues from its Russian operations, which accounted for about 20 per cent of its 2021 profits. The company issued a statement on the turmoil caused by the invasion lamenting,

What is happening now is shaking the very foundations of our cooperation. We have been working in Russia for over 30 years … We have built many personal relationships – including in our joint ventures with Gazprom. But the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine marks a turning point.[39]

Nord Stream 2 has been a contentious issue between the US and Germany for years. The pipeline running through the Baltic goes directly to Germany. The US has pressured Germany to end the project, but Angela Merkel refused to do so. The project, worth $11 billion, is registered as a Swiss firm whose parent company is Gazprom. Gazprom owns the pipeline and paid half the costs, the rest shared by Shell, Austria’s OMV, France’s Engie, and Germany’s Uniper and Wintershall DEA.[40] The invasion has prompted Germany to halt the project. The suspension of Nord Stream 2 may not be permanent, but even a temporary suspension is a huge shift.

Russia exports fifty-six billion cubic metres of liquefied natural gas to Germany yearly. Inside Germany, Gazprom owns and operates thousands of miles of pipeline, key storage facilities, and the largest underground storage tank for natural gas in western Europe. Russia also supplies German refineries with a third of their oil, a number with long-term contracts that Russia is not willing to cancel. Particularly ironic are the weapons sent by the German government to Ukraine that use steel produced in German factories powered by coal coming from Russia. As Putin has stated:

Let German citizens open their purses, have a look inside and ask themselves whether they are ready to pay three to five times more for electricity, for gas and for heating … You can’t isolate a country like Russia in the long run, neither politically nor economically. German industry needs the raw materials that Russia has. It’s not just oil and gas, it’s also rare earths. And these are raw materials that cannot simply be substituted.[41]

Turmoil has also hit the auto industry. Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz and BMW halted production in Russia, and also suspended all vehicle exports. But the invasion has had an even bigger impact because of the coordination of production between Ukraine and European auto companies. With its low labour costs and educated workforce, Ukraine became a manufacturing centre of systems which connect electronic components, like tail lights and car entertainment systems. The work, done by hand, requires a large number of skilled workers. The fighting brought production to a sudden halt, and within days the lack of parts shut down European factories. BMW shut several plants in Germany, Austria and Britain, while VW was brought to a standstill at multiple locations, including its main site in Wolfsburg. Electric vehicle production at Zwickau stopped, including its SUV exports to the US, and Porsche idled manufacturing the Cayenne sport utility vehicle in Leipzig. As Jack Ewing noted:

No car can operate without wiring systems, which are often tailor-made to specific vehicles. So-called wiring harnesses are among the first components to be installed in a new vehicle, and their absence brings assembly lines to a standstill.[42]

Furthermore, Ukraine is also a major source of neon, a gas used for high-performance lasers required for production of scarce semiconductors, adding more woes to the industry.

None of these economic disruptions are welcomed by the TCC. But the German government has taken a major step away from its previous positions. At first opposed to banning Russia from SWIFT, and refusing to send arms to Ukraine, it has now reversed on both those issues. And the sizeable increase in its military budget surprised everyone. Although transnational links are deep, for now geopolitical tensions are riding roughshod over economic concerns. But such concerns have not gone away. The New York Times observes that ‘multiple cracks’ have already occurred over ‘lost trade, higher energy prices, slimmer profits and lower economic growth’, as well as lower employment.[43] As Martin Brudermüller, the chief executive of the chemical giant BASF stated, ‘Cheap Russian energy has been the basis of our industry’s competitiveness’.[44] And again, ‘Do we want to blindly destroy our entire national economy? What we have built up over decades?’[45] What is true for BASF is true for the German economy, whose success is built upon cheap gas from Russia and exports to China.

Conclusion

There are a number of questions not explored in this article. NATO’s eastward expansion, Great Russian chauvinism, fascist forces in both Russia and Ukraine, the meaning of independence and self-determination, US hypocrisy on foreign interventions, China’s role, and growing debates within the Left over the war. All these topics already have a growing and substantial body of literature. Also, events continue to rapidly develop and so the article has some time limitations. But the deeper issues on the intersections between national geopolitics and transnational economics, and how the resulting contradictions affect the war, will continue. What is clearly evident is that global capitalism has plunged the world into yet another crisis. A crisis that ignores a pandemic that threatens the health of every human on the planet, and an environmental crisis that threatens every species. The failure is staggering in its ignorance.

What the new global configuration will look like is difficult to tell. Much depends on how the conflict ends. A long-term occupation will freeze Russia’s transnational links, a rapid conclusion may mean the easing of sanctions. The invasion is a further deconstruction of the global capitalist system built over the past forty years of neoliberal hegemony. But there are still many trillions of dollars in cross-border accumulation, and global assembly lines continue to churn out commodities in a coordinated system of production and trade. The current problems in logistics and supplies are not because of too little demand, but because of too much, with the infrastructure of ports, shipping and transportation actually too limited. Such problems might call for an expansion of globalisation, which is at the heart of China’s Belt and Road strategy. But economic, political and social disruptions cause states to look to their own national security. As a result, the contradictions between national and transnational forces continue to be the nexus for world events, changing the balance of forces into new configurations of struggle.

This complex relationship between nationalism and globalism needs to be understood through historical materialism, which defines the world as a continual process of movement. Marx saw everything in motion – production, distribution, environmental metabolic relationships, the class struggle, and all human interactions. Change was driven by the balance between opposing forces, and the results were defined by the power between the aspects. How much of the old that remained, and how much of the new that was asserted, continually set the conditions for the movement to continue. This process of motion and change results in contradictions unfolding in many different forms. There is no historic queue in which socialism waits its turn to appear at the front of the line.

In the current capitalist world, neither nation-centric nor transnational relationships exist in isolation from the other. They exist in the same institutions and continually define and determine each other within a changing balance of forces. This unity of opposites in tension and conflict is what produces the historic transformation towards a new synthesis. No outcome is predetermined, but produced by the dynamic itself. Consequently, what aspects of nation-centric relationships survive or re-emerge depend on the agency of political struggle. Under pressure of globalist economic and environmental crisis, nationalist antagonisms have rematerialised, but within the context of transnational relationships. Globalisation didn’t create the ‘end of history’ because the past continues to exist in the present.[46]

We can see this contradiction in the balance between national and transnational forces in the Russian invasion. A balance in which nationalism and inter-state conflict has grown stronger as the forty-year hegemony of neoliberal globalisation has faced a series of economic, environmental and social crises. As the balance of power shifts, aspects of the old system reassert themselves, but deeply affected and redefined by the changes globalisation engendered. Old ideas and conflicts may re-emerge, yet they are never the same, but contextualised through the new forces that have asserted themselves. So, in analysing the Russia/Ukraine/NATO conflict, we must be careful not to place it in the world of the 1960s, but a world deeply restructured by transnational capitalism.

References

 Jerry Harris is national secretary of the Global Studies Association of North America. He is the author of over 100 journal and newspaper articles, and his latest book is Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Democracy (Atlanta, GA: Clarity Press, 2016).



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[9] S. Wagstyl, ‘Russian boom will end in pain, says banker’, Financial Times, 24 April 2007, p. 5.

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[13] J. Harris, Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Democracy (Atlanta, Clarity Press, 2016).

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[15] H. Tabuchi, ‘How Europe got hooked on Russian gas despite Reagan’s warning’, The New York Times, 23 March 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/23/climate/europe-russia-gas-reagan.html.

[16] B. Kagarlitsky, ‘Crimea annexes Russia’, LINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal, 9 April 2015, http://links.org.au/node/3790.

[17] Daily Business Briefing, ‘Here’s how much it is costing companies to leave Russia’, The New York Times, 11 April 2022.

[18] S. Reed, ‘The future turns dark for Russia’s oil industry’, The New York Times, 8 March 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/08/business/russian-oil-industry.html.

[19] H. Tabuchi, ‘Citing a Chevron tanker, Ukraine seeks tougher restrictions at Russian ports,’ The New York Times, 16 March 2022; I. Ouyang, ‘LME nickel mayhem: London to resume trading after Chinese ‘Big Shot’ Tsingshan lines up bank credit to forestall market chaos over its short positions’, South China Morning Post, 15 March 2022, https://www.scmp.com/business/banking-finance/article/3170570/lme-resume-nickel-trading-after-chinese-short-seller; J. Farchy and M. Burton, ‘LME boss says banks are partly to blame for nickel short squeeze’, Bloomberg, 18 March 2022, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-03-18/lme-boss-says-banks-are-partly-to-blame-for-nickel-short-squeeze.

[20] H. Tabuchi and B. Migliozzi. ‘A tanker’s giant U-turn reveals strains in the market for Russian oil’, 2 April 2022, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/02/climate/oil-tankers-russia.html.

[21] S. Reed, ‘Shell reports a record $9.1 billion profit’, The New York Times, 5 May 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/05/business/shell-earnings-record-profit.html

[22] E. Ng, ‘Ukraine conflict: Hong Kong-listed aluminium giant Rusal’s shares plunge after Australia bans export of key materials to Russia’, South China Morning Post, 21 March 2022, https://www.scmp.com/business/article/3171224/ukraine-conflict-hong-kong-listed-aluminium-giant-rusals-shares-plunge.

[23] J. Sonnenfeld and S. Tian, ‘Some of the biggest brands are leaving Russia. Others just can’t quit Putin. Here’s a list’, The New York Times, 7 April 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/04/07/opinion/companies-ukraine-boycott.html.

[24] Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute (SWFI), ‘GIC sovereign wealth fund and Temasek turn their backs to Russia over Ukraine invasion’, 7 March 2022, https://www.swfinstitute.org/news/91630/gic-sovereign-wealth-fund-and-temasek-turns-their-backs-to-russia-over-ukraine-invasion.

[25] Bloomberg, ‘Ukraine crisis: crude oil price soars as sanctions on Russia spur fear of a global energy crisis’, South China Morning Post, 28 February 2022, https://www.scmp.com/business/commodities/article/3168654/ukraine-crisis-crude-oil-price-soars-sanctions-russia-spur.

[26] Daily Business Briefing, ‘Here’s how much it is costing companies to leave Russia’, The New York Times, 11 April 2022.

[27] D. Leusder, ‘The art of monetary war’, 12 March 2022, https://www.nplusonemag.com/online-only/online-only/the-art-of-monetary-war/.

[28] Bloomberg, ‘Russia default averted for now as JPMorgan processes bond payments’, 17 March 2022, https://www.businesslive.co.za/bloomberg/news/2022-03-17-russia-default-averted-for-now-as-jpmorgan-processes-bond-payments/.

[29] D. Leusder, ‘The art of monetary war’.

[30] I. Ouyang, ‘LME nickel mayhem’.

[31] R. Reich, ‘We aren’t going after Russian oligarchs in the right way. Here’s how to do it’, RSN.org, 9 March 2022, https://www.rsn.org/001/we-arent-going-after-russian-oligarchs-in-the-right-way-heres-how-to-do-it.html.

[32] Transparency International UK, ‘Stats Reveal Extent of Suspect Wealth in UK Property and Britain’s Role as Global Money Laundering Hub, 18 February 2022, https://www.transparency.org.uk/uk-money-laundering-stats-russia-suspicious-wealth.

[33] M. Apuzzo and J. Bradley, ‘Oligarchs got richer despite sanctions. Will this time be different?’, The New York Times, 16 March 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/16/world/europe/russia-oligarchs-sanctions-putin.html.

[34] M. Goldstein, K. P. Vogel, J. Drucker, M. Farrell and M. McIntire, ‘How western firms quietly enabled Russian oligarchs’, The New York Times, 9 March 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/09/business/russian-oligarchs-money-concord.html.

[35] M. Goldstein and D. Enrich, ‘How one oligarch used shell companies and Wall Street ties to invest in the U.S.’ The New York Times, 21 March 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/21/business/russia-roman-abramovich-concord.html.

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[37] M. Eddy, ‘For German firms, ties to Russia are personal, not just financial’, The New York Times, 6 March 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/06/business/germany-russia-companies.html.

[38] M. Eddy, ‘For German firms’.

[39] M. Eddy, ‘For German firms’.

[40] J. Mason, ‘U.S. slaps sanctions on company building Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline’, Reuters, 23 February 2002, https://www.reuters.com/business/energy/us-plans-sanctions-company-building-russias-nord-stream-2-pipeline-cnn-2022-02-23/.

[41] K. Bennhold, ‘The former Chancellor who became Putin’s man in Germany’, The New York Times, 23 April 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/23/world/europe/schroder-germany-russia-gas-ukraine-war-energy.html.

[42] J. Ewing, ‘Car industry woes show how global conflicts will reshape trade’, The New York Times, 7 March 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/07/business/cars-russia-china-trade.html.

[43] K. Bennhold and S. Erlanger, ‘Ukraine war pushes Germans to change. They are wavering’, The New York Times, 12 April 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/12/world/europe/germany-russia-ukraine-war.html.

[44] K. Bennhold and S. Erlanger, ‘Ukraine war pushes’.

[45] M. Eddy, ‘Why Germany can’t just pull the plug on Russian energy’, The New York Times, 5 April 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/05/business/germany-russia-oil-gas-coal.html.

[46] J. Harris, Global Capitalism.

Category : Capitalism | Globalization | Hegemony | Russia | Theory
19
Nov

By Wang Wei

Qiushi Journal 
Updated: 2022-10-28

The Chinese civilization is one of the world’s four great ancient civilizations and the only one that has developed in an unbroken chain up to the present day. It thus holds a unique and important place in the history of human civilization. As President Xi Jinping has said, the origins of Chinese civilization are an important subject for Chinese scholars and an enduring focus for international researchers.

In the spring of 2002, a national-level project to trace the origins of the Chinese civilization was launched. Guided by Marxism, research focused on four ancient city ruins from between 3500 and 1500 BC—the Liangzhu site in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province; the Taosi site in Linfen, Shanxi Province; the Shimao site in Shenmu, Shaanxi Province; and the Erlitou site in Luoyang, Henan Province—as well as the ruins of regional centers along the Yellow, Yangtze, and Liaohe rivers. These sites best reflect the social development and building of central power in that period. Through large-scale archaeological excavations and surveys of settlement distribution in the surrounding areas, we collected information on every aspect of these sites. This information facilitated comprehensive cross-disciplinary research on the emergence, taking shape, and early development of the Chinese civilization from multiple perspectives and levels.

The research project aimed to answer several critical questions: First, when was the Chinese civilization formed, and how long is its history? Second, how did the Chinese civilization first emerge, take shape, and develop? And how did the trend toward a unified whole led by the dynasties on the Central Plains arise, given the Chinese civilization’s diverse sources of origin? Third, why did the Chinese civilization follow a path featuring diversity amidst unity, continuous history, and unbroken development? Fourth, what characteristics define the Chinese civilization’s emergence, taking shape, and development? And where does the Chinese civilization stand in world civilizational history?

After 20 years of work, the project to trace the origins of the Chinese civilization has scored impressive achievements.

Putting forward a Chinese approach to defining civilization and setting criteria for a society’s entry into civilization

A Chinese approach to defining civilization

There is considerable debate among scholars in China and abroad about defining civilization and other related concepts. From a historical materialist point of view, we proposed that civilization is an advanced stage of human cultural and social development. As a result of the development of productive forces, this stage gives rise to the social division of labor and social stratification, which produce classes, kingship, and states.

Project researchers regard the emergence of a civilization and the shaping of a civilization as distinct albeit interconnected. They constitute separate stages in the genesis and formation of a civilization, in which a quantity of civilizational factors first accumulates before a qualitative social change occurs. Specifically, the emergence of a civilization refers to a prehistoric period in which civilizational factors were first nurtured, as productive forces underwent considerable development, material and spiritual life was steadily enriched, and a division between mental and manual labor emerged, along with a social hierarchy.

By a civilization taking shape it refers to a stage in which material, spiritual, and cultural institutions advance considerably. Social stratification intensifies, giving rise to classes. The social hierarchy becomes institutionalized, and people’s social conduct becomes standardized to create a system of rites. A supreme ruler or king emerges, monopolizing power over military command and religious and sacrificial ceremonies. A body that enforces public power known as the state emerges, exercising the main function of social management. The emergence of a state symbolizes that a civilization has taken shape.

Criteria for determining a society’s entry into civilization

Based on the characteristics of the Mesopotamian and ancient Egyptian civilizations, international scholars generally considered writing, metallurgy, and cities as the three basic elements of a civilization. This standard would mean that the Chinese civilization has a history of just 3,300 years.

However, studies around the world have shown that several of the world’s early civilizations did not conform to this “three-basic element” criterion. For example, the Mayan civilization in Central America did not have metallurgy, while the Inca civilization in South America lacked a writing system. The patterns on the seals of the Harappan civilization in the Indus Valley were also not recognized as writing. As more archaeological discoveries were made and research advanced, however, the international academic community generally came to accept that various parts of the world should set their own standards for defining a civilization based on the characteristics that distinguished the development of their ancient societies.

Guided by Marxist theory, Chinese scholars have used historical documents and ancient legends as references. More importantly, we have a rich trove of archaeological materials obtained over the course of a century to shed light on the profound historical and cultural accumulation of the Chinese civilization and the unique path of development it has traveled. Chinese scholars, therefore, are in a better position to offer their definitions for civilization. According to Engels’ view that “the central link in civilized society is the state,” the project to trace the origins of the Chinese civilization put forward the following criteria to define the entry of a civilization: first, development of production, population increase, and the appearance of cities; second, a social division of labor, social stratification, and the emergence of classes; third, the emergence of kingship and states.

Over 5,000 years ago, agriculture developed in various regions in China, the population increased, and regional centers gradually grew into large cities. Advanced handicrafts, such as jade, turquoise vessels, fine pottery, and lacquerware production were specialized and under the control of the ruling class. All regions saw the emergence of a class that had extricated itself from physical labor and became specialized in managing social affairs. There was a serious divide between rich and poor, creating different classes. Kings emerged to assume military and religious power, and early states appeared in which governments were formed under the control of kings to exercise state power through establishing social norms and resorting to violence. Cities had high-grade buildings such as palaces for kings, high-grade tombs for deceased kings and members of the ruling class, and ceremonial vessels and systems to emphasize the status of the ruling class. Slavery was practiced, and people were killed and buried as sacrifices for the deceased nobles or when laying the foundations of palaces.

These discoveries by Chinese archaeologists provide ample material evidence to prove that China’s entry into civilization had its own distinctive characteristics. The level of productive development revealed by these materials demonstrates that the surplus labor of the time was enough to support institutions of public power, thus enabling a portion of the population to devote themselves to management and spiritual affairs away from production.

The above-mentioned criteria can also be applied to other civilizations. Although all civilizations are materially and spiritually distinctive, they share similarities in how institutions of royal power and states emerge, differing only in how royal power is subsequently manifested and the forms states take. In China, power was displayed through exquisite jade ceremonial vessels, bronze ceremonial vessels, large palaces made of wood and earth, and tombs imitating architecture on the ground. In Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, gold, precious stones, magnificent stone temples, pyramids, and large burial chambers were used for this purpose.

图片6_副本.png

Representative artifacts excavated from large secondary burial tombs in the northern section of the Gangshang ruins in Tengzhou, Shandong Province. The site was selected as one of China’s top 10 archaeological discoveries in 2021.

XINHUA / PHOTO PROVIDED BY THE NATIONAL CULTURAL HERITAGE ADMINISTRATION

Establishing how the Chinese civilization emerged, took shape, and developed in the early stages and providing material evidence for its over 5,000 years of history

Research on the emergence, taking shape, and early development of the Chinese civilization, and on relevant background and reasons, has yielded the following conclusions: the foundations of the Chinese civilization were laid 10,000 years ago (8000 BC); civilization first emerged 8,000 years ago (6000 BC); its development accelerated 6,000 years ago (4000 BC); it entered into the stage of civilizational society more than 5,000 years ago (3000 BC); the Central Plains emerged as a powerful region 4,300 years ago (2200 BC); the first dynasty was founded 4,000 years ago (2000 BC); power held by royal families was consolidated 3,000 years ago (1000 BC); and a unified multi-ethnic state was created 2,200 years ago (221 BC).

Ten thousand years ago: laying the foundations

Around 11,000 years ago, global climate warming catalyzed the beginning of agriculture in East and West Asia. Then 10,000 years ago, people domesticated millet—the Setaria italica and Panicum miliaceum species—in northern China, and rice began to be cultivated in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River. Cultivated rice, pottery, and stone tools have been excavated from the Shangshan site in Pujiang County, Zhejiang Province. Our ancestors in northern China and the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River also began making stone tools and pottery. The emergence of agriculture led to the creation of small village settlements in various places, thus laying the foundations for the creation of a civilization.

Eight thousand years ago: the emergence of a civilization

A period of great climate warming occurred between 8,000 and 6,000 years ago. Paleoenvironmental studies have revealed that the climate of the Yellow River Basin at the time was similar to the climate of today’s Yangtze River Basin, and that of the Yangtze River Basin was similar to today’s southern China. The warm and humid climate enabled rice farming to spread northward to the lower reaches of the Huaihe River, while millet farming became popular along the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River and in the north and south of the Yanshan Mountains. Stone and bone shovels unearthed at ancient sites indicate that slash-and-burn agriculture had already given way to settled farming. Agriculture during this period led to population growth, an increase in the number of villages, the development of handicrafts, and social progress. Inhabitants of the Jiahu site in Wuyang County, Henan Province, located on the upper reaches of the Huaihe River, cultivated rice, raised pigs, made wine and turquoise utensils, and invented a bone flute with seven finger holes. At Jiahu and Xinglongwa, located in Aohan Banner, Inner Mongolia, as well as other sites, a small number of large-scale tombs containing jade or turquoise vessels have been discovered, which suggests that society had begun to stratify, paving the way for the rise of a civilization.

Six thousand years ago: accelerated development

Around 6,000 years ago, the rise of the Chinese civilization began to pick up speed. Millet cultivation techniques spread from the Yellow River Basin to the Yangtze River Basin, and rice cultivation spread north to the Hanshui River Basin and the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River. Handicraft industries in various places also made striking progress, as fine pottery with a solid texture and a smooth surface appeared. The unearthing of four stone silkworm chrysalises dating back 6,000 years to an early settlement of the Yangshao Culture in Shicun Village, Xiaxian County, Shanxi Province, has led excavators to conclude that sericulture and silk reeling had already been invented by that time. People’s spiritual life was also steadily enriched. In an early burial tomb at a Yangshao Culture site in Xishuipo, Puyang City, Henan Province, the remains of the occupant were flanked on either side by mosaics of a dragon and a tiger made from a large number of clamshells. Painted pottery was also popular in China’s central and eastern regions, and rapid progress was made in jade craft, lacquer painting, and architecture.

Some important changes occurred in society in this period. First, the population increased significantly. The number of settlements multiplied, with clusters composed of dozens of villages found in the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River, and the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River. Second, central settlements began to appear. In the Zhudingyuan area in Lingbao City, Henan Province, several large settlements with a scale of up to one million square meters were discovered. Third, wars began to occur. Some large and medium-sized settlements were surrounded by trenches more than 10 meters wide and several meters deep, which were evidently used for defense. Stone axes were also found in the tombs of some adult males. Fourth, social stratification intensified, and a ruling class began to emerge. However, this stage still constituted an accelerated process in the emergence of a civilization; states had not yet been formed, and society had not entered into a civilization.

Five thousand years ago: entry into civilization

The period from 5,500 to 5,000 years ago was critical in the history of the Chinese civilization, as areas along the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River successively entered into a civilizational stage.

In the lower Yangtze River region, plowing and large-scale rice fields appeared around 5,300 years ago. Fields and irrigation ditches were organized in regular patterns, and rice farming techniques matured. Archaeologists have discovered large-scale water management systems around the site of the ancient Liangzhu city, along with mounds of 200,000 kilograms of carbonized rice on the south side of the Mojiaoshan site in the heart of Liangzhu city. These discoveries demonstrate that the development of farming and the mastery of grain storage were matters of great importance for Liangzhu. Recent discoveries at the Shi’ao and Maoshan sites in Zhejiang Province dating to the Liangzhu period reveal a checkerboard pattern of expansive fields lined with ridges made from tree branches, bamboo, and disused canoes. Waterways, irrigation holes, and drainage channels were all well-planned. Prehistoric paddies and farming systems discovered quite far from Liangzhu attest to the astounding scale of rice agriculture in the early stage of Liangzhu and the strength of its economy. Such discoveries show that at Liangzhu, an early state was built upon a foundation of religious, political, economic, and military development.

During this period, technologically advanced handicrafts such as fine jade, pottery, lacquerware, and turquoise ornaments appeared in numerous places. Jade cong—cylindrical tube ornaments—representing the Liangzhu Culture were engraved with intricate animal face patterns. People in the lower reaches of the Yellow River could make what is referred to as “eggshell-thin” ceramics with a thickness of less than one millimeter. The technical complexity of these products indicates that artisanal families with specialized skills had emerged by that time. Specialization in advanced handicrafts is an important sign of the social division of labor.

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The excavation site on the palace complex platform at the Shimao ruins in the city of Shenmu, Shaanxi Province. (File photo) XINHUA

Another sign of social development during this period was the emergence of ceremonial instruments and the initial formation of ritual systems. Jade, lacquerware, and exquisite pottery vessels were excavated from high-grade burial tombs in various places. This shows that local ruling classes controlled the production and distribution of valuable objects. They created a hierarchy through a ritual system that was based on technically advanced and highly prized ritual objects and used tomb size to indicate the status of the deceased.

Around 5,300 years ago, central cities and primitive religious shrines of more than a million square meters were built in the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River, the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River, and the Xiliao River Basin. The ancient city of Liangzhu, a sprawling metropolis in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, had inner and outer sections of nearly 3 million square meters and 6.3 million square meters, respectively. It was the largest city anywhere in the world at that time. To protect it from mountain floods, more than 10 kilometers of low and high dams were built north of the city. This was the largest water control system in the world during this period and reflected the ability of the Liangzhu rulers to organize large-scale public construction projects.

Class stratification accelerated in step with the emergence of early high-level cities. Large high-grade buildings covering hundreds and even thousands of square meters, and large tombs containing more than a hundred or even several hundred pieces of exquisite objects pose a striking contrast to the modest houses and small-scale tombs of ordinary members of society, and illustrate the vast social wealth enjoyed by the ruling class.

In almost all regions, large tombs with elaborate weapons in the form of jade axes began to appear in this period. Burial tombs at the Liangzhu sites of Fanshan and Yaoshan contained jade axes with wooden handles, possibly serving as symbols of military power. In recently discovered tombs at the Gangshang site in Tengzhou City, Shandong Province, the highest-ranking male nobles were generally buried with one large and one small jade axe. These males are likely to have been kings with command over the military. As the ruling class accumulated authority based on military power, clan leaders became kings who exercised total power. This period also saw an increase in war and violence. Human skeletons scattered in garbage dumps, forming the foundations of large buildings, and buried in large tombs as sacrifices indicate that some people began to enslave others.

Four thousand and three hundred years ago: the rise of the Central Plains

Around 4,300 years ago, a shift occurred in the civilization process in various parts of China. An important upshot of this was the rise of the Central Plains. The period from 4,300 to 4,100 years ago witnessed significant climate change, marked by abnormal temperatures, erratic rainfall, and frequent flooding, greatly influencing the progress of civilization in all regions. The civilization along the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River declined, while that in the middle reaches of the Yellow River surged ahead. Powerful groups in the middle reaches of the Yellow River gradually became stronger than other groups around them, and two super-large settlements appeared in succession—Taosi in Shanxi and Shimao in Shaanxi.

The Taosi site covering an area of 2.8 million square meters is about 4,300 to 4,000 years old. The area with high-grade buildings features an 8,000-square-meter rammed-earth platform, buildings of terracotta tiles, painted walls, and decorative engravings. Taosi was thus home to the first palace in the middle reaches of the Yellow River. Nearly 100 items have been unearthed from burial tombs, including drums covered with alligator skins, stone chimes, jade axes, and a large ceramic tray with painted dragon patterns. The remnants of a semi-circular platform were also uncovered at the Taosi site, which astronomers believe to be an observatory for tracking celestial phenomena and determining important agricultural dates and seasons such as the spring equinox, autumn equinox, summer solstice, and winter solstice. This is consistent with the “Canon of Yao” in The Book of History. It describes how King Yao assigned astronomic officers to observe celestial phenomena and tell the divide of the seasons. The time, location, scale, and level of the Taosi site are relatively consistent with the literature describing King Yao’s capital of Pingyang.

A mountainous city built of stone blocks, Shimao was discovered 10 years ago. It is between 4,100 and 3,900 years old and has an area of four million square meters. The site is composed of an outer and inner city, as well as an imperial complex, and has various defensive facilities. The city’s heart consists of a platform dozens of meters in height, believed to be the foundation of a palace complex. The large palace on the platform covers thousands of square meters. There are also stone blocks and pillars carved with images of animals and their faces on the platform. Numerous ceramic eagles of over 50 centimeters to 1 meter in height were also excavated from the platform and are thought to be related to beliefs and worship. Shimao strongly resembles a military fortress. In the city, several sacrificial pits containing young female skulls were discovered. These findings show that just before the founding of the Xia Dynasty (2070–1600 BC), class divisions were particularly pronounced in northern Shaanxi, and a state ruled by a king with great military power had emerged.

Four thousand years ago: dynastic establishment

Around 4,000 years ago, the Xia Dynasty was founded. In the area centered on the southeastern foothills of Songshan Mountain in Henan Province, more than 10 large cities had appeared. Of these, the Wangchenggang site in Dengfeng City is particularly impressive, with a set of corresponding large and small inner and outer cities. The area had been known as Yangcheng ever since the start of the Warring States Period (475–221 BC). At the ruins of Wadian in Yuzhou City, Henan, which belong to the same period, various traces of sacrifices, including human and animal remains, have been identified on the large rammed-earth platform. The discoveries signal the start of a new stage for the Chinese civilization centered on the Central Plains. The “nine administrative districts” referred to in the “Tribute of Yu,” a chapter in The Book of History covered northern, central, and eastern China, indicating that at the founding of the Xia Dynasty, the power group along the middle reaches of the Yellow River extended its vision to the lower reaches of Yellow River and as far as the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River. After roughly 200 years of development, during its later stage, the Xia Dynasty continued to accumulate strength, thus gradually giving rise to the leading position of the Central Plains, which exercised an influence that was unprecedented in scope. This is reflected in the Erlitou ruins of Luoyang City in Henan Province.

The Erlitou site covers an area of more than three million square meters and is between 3,800 and 3,500 years old. It is the largest city site in China from that period. Records refer to the Yi-Luo River Basin, where the Erlitou site is located, as the central region of the Xia Dynasty. The golden age of the Erlitou Culture occurred during the late Xia Dynasty just before the founding of the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC). The influence of the Erlitou Culture was unprecedented, with its ritual vessels and ceremonial systems, represented by jade yazhang, a type of ceremonial blade, spreading to the vast surrounding areas. The set of bronze and jade ceremonial vessels used by the Erlitou Culture was inherited in full by the Shang Dynasty.

In the lead-up to the founding of the Shang Dynasty, the Xia Dynasty was the only powerful political entity in the Songshan Mountain region where the Erlitou Culture was based. This gives us ample reason to conclude that Erlitou was most likely the capital of the late Xia Dynasty. The existence of the Xia Dynasty has thus not only been richly documented in literature since pre-Qin period but also proven by archaeological findings.

The Shang Dynasty inherited the ritual system pioneered by the Xia Dynasty. Political, economic, cultural, and social development continued, and a mature writing system, represented by the oracle-bone script, took shape. Metallurgy and the ritual system spread to a much wider area. Oracle-bone inscriptions show that the Shang king was the country’s supreme ruler, under whom a complete administrative structure existed, exercising direct control over the immediate hinterlands and indirect control over loyal vassal states. The political power and cultural influence of the Shang Dynasty stretched from the coast in the east to Longshan Mountain in the west, beyond the Yangtze and Hanshui rivers in the south, and as far as the Yanshan Mountain range in the north. Bronze ceremonial vessels belonging to the Shang system have been excavated across a vast area, demonstrating that the Shang Dynasty played a leading role in the evolution of the Chinese civilization and the development of culture and society in many places.

Three thousand years ago: the consolidation of royal power

In the first years of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046–771 BC), the king of Zhou founded a feudal state by granting noble titles to relatives and officials and allowing them to establish vassal states, thus creating a stable rule over a vast area outside the immediate hinterlands of the capital. Based on the ritual systems of the Xia and Shang, the Zhou Dynasty developed a more advanced ritual system. It instituted a ceremonial system composed of different types and quantities of bronzeware, establishing a clear hierarchy. This hierarchy was continuously strengthened during the Western Zhou and gradually extended to all aspects of clothing, food, housing, and transportation. Institutional differences even governed garment colors, clothing styles, jade ornaments, horse-drawn carriages, and types and quantities of chimes and other musical instruments. The Western Zhou Dynasty was a critical period in the course of the Chinese civilization, characterized by a feudal system, patriarchal clan system, and system of music and rites. Consisting of many vassals with the Zhou king at the core, the state structure further strengthened the centralized power system developed during the Xia and Shang dynasties and laid a firm foundation for the founding of a unified multi-ethnic country during the dynasties of Qin (221–207 BC) and Han (206 BC–220 AD).

Two thousand and two hundred years ago: the formation of a unified multi-ethnic country 

This refers to the unification of China by the First Emperor of Qin in 221 BC based on an administrative system of prefectures and counties and a unified system of laws. Thus, China entered the civilization stage as a unified state, marking a new phase of developing a unified multi-ethnic country.

Historical insights from the development of the Chinese civilization 

The integration of diverse elements is an inexhaustible source of vitality for the Chinese civilization. 

Looking at the early evolution of the Chinese civilization, we can see the rich and varied nature of the cultures in the various regions of China. The cultures of the middle reaches of the Yellow River openly absorbed a diverse range of civilizational factors, and eventually integrated with the cultures of other regions. The cultures of all regions in China positively contributed to the formation of the Chinese civilization. The convergence and integration of various civilizations filled the Chinese civilization with vitality and enabled it to develop sustainably.

Openness, inclusiveness, exchange, and mutual learning are the driving forces for the development of civilization. 

The Chinese civilization has actively sought to learn from and absorb the achievements of other civilizations and has made innovations accordingly. Even in prehistoric times, exchanges were widespread and unfolded across regional and ethnic lines. Such exchanges documented a process of mutual learning between cultures and promoted the development of civilization. Exchanges and mutual learning have been crucial to the enduring prosperity of the Chinese civilization and are vital ingredients in its distinctive charm. Only by being open and inclusive and drawing inspiration from diverse sources can we ensure that the Chinese civilization maintains its liveliness and enjoys lasting vitality.

Cultural soft power is a proven way for the creativity and influence of the Chinese civilization. 

The process of refining advanced cultural concepts continued throughout the Xia, Shang, and Zhou civilizations, eventually giving rise to a set of mainstream values with rites as the key tenet. This profound concept exerted extensive influence, leading to the development of a civilization in the vast surrounding regions. Following the Qin and Han dynasties, the concept of rites was carried forward and further promoted and enriched to become a core value of the Chinese civilization. In addition, through exchanges and mutual learning, it spread to surrounding countries and regions and became an important concept for Eastern civilization.

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Key artifacts from the collection of the Erlitou Site Museum of the Xia Capital:

1) bronze wine container; 2) bronze tripod vessel with lattice pattern; 3) turquoise-inlaid bronze plate with an animal mask design; 4) dragon-shaped turquoise object; 5) jade knife with seven holes; 6) yazhang or ceremonial blade.

PROVIDED BY THE ERLITOU SITE MUSEUM OF THE XIA CAPITAL

The Chinese civilization emerged, took shape, and achieved early development largely in step with the other three major ancient civilizations of the world, and its achievements are on par with theirs. 

Agriculture emerged in China around 10,000 years ago, and the Chinese civilization began to take shape over 5,000 years ago, which largely coincides with the appearance of agriculture and the rise of civilizations in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt. More than 3,000 years ago, the Zhou Dynasty built the largest government of that time through a feudal system. During the golden age of the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BC) when numerous schools of thought flourished in China around 2,600 years ago, the Axial Age of humanistic enlightenment played out in ancient Greece and India. Millet and rice farming, jade manufacturing, and silk-making embody our Chinese ancestors’ wisdom and creativity and represent important contributions to human civilization. The formation of the Chinese civilization was marked by myriad trials such as climate disruptions and social turmoil. Yet our forebears courageously overcame all difficulties and obstacles in a spirit of self-reliance and self-improvement and finally completed the creation of our great civilization, which took its place among the four great ancient civilizations. This development process and the achievements it has produced constitute the source of our cultural self-confidence today. The Chinese civilization has stood and will always stand tall among the world’s civilizations.

National unity is an aspiration of the people and the foundation of China’s strength and prosperity. 

The development of the Chinese civilization witnessed wars, numerous competing powers, and breakaway vassals. Yet under the guidance of a unified core and through the development of productive forces and social progress, a unified nation was ultimately established under the Qin and Han dynasties. Since then, valuing unity and seeking great harmony, both as ideas and practices, have strongly appealed to the Chinese nation and permeated its thinking. This concept has sustained the Chinese nation’s unity, guided its identity, and forged its unique character. History shows that national unity is not only an essential attribute of the Chinese civilization but a fundamental guarantee for its continuity. With national unity, ethnic solidarity, and social stability, the Chinese civilization is sure to attain even greater achievements.

The Chinese civilization has, like all civilizations of the world, traveled a distinct path of development and created a unique heritage.

The cradle of the Chinese civilization comprised a vast region with diverse environments. As a result, the Chinese civilization underwent a unique development process, which originated at multiple points and featured cultural collision, exchange, and integration. This grand process ultimately produced a system that unified the entire country under one ruler and fostered the political ideal of great harmony. A civilization led by a central core and characterized by unity amidst diversity thus began to develop. As such, the development of the Chinese civilization also constituted a process of creating a unified multi-ethnic country. This process endowed the Chinese civilization with inexhaustible vitality and turned the Chinese nation into an indivisible community. After the formation of a unified multi-ethnic state, national unity became the highest value and ideal of the Chinese people. The Chinese civilization developed a unique economic, political, and cultural system with agriculture as the foundation, a patriarchal clan system to regulate social relations, a social hierarchy based on a ritual system, virtue as the basis for human relations, and the concept of unity between humans and nature in regard to man’s relations with nature. This process proves that civilizations have different paths of development. It shows that every civilization is unique, should be appreciated in its own right, and can flourish side by side. This is the source of China’s confidence in its own path.

 

Wang Wei is Academician of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), Director of the CASS Academic Division of History, a visiting researcher at the Research Center for Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, and chief expert on the first to fourth phases of the Chinese Civilization Origins Project. 

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 14, 2022)

Category : China | Marxism
18
Oct

What is there to celebrate?


By Eric Foner

C. Vann Woodward: America’s Historian 
by James Cobb.
North Carolina Press,
504 pp., £39.50,



During the​ 1950s and 1960s, a generation of academics rose to prominence in the United States with books and essays that breached the wall separating the university and the broader public. Many of them were historians, including Daniel Boorstin, Richard Hofstadter and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Invocations of history punctuated debates over the Cold War, civil rights and Vietnam. But none of these ‘public intellectuals’ reached a larger audience or had a greater social and political impact than C. Vann Woodward, whose books and essays concerned the nation’s most enduring problem, racial inequality. Historians are often warned about the dangers of ‘presentism’. But Woodward demonstrated that history can illuminate the world in which the scholar lives. Readers who sought to understand the civil rights revolution that dismantled the Southern racial system of Jim Crow turned to Woodward’s writings. By the time he died in 1999, many of his historical findings had been challenged by younger historians and Woodward himself had become disaffected with trends in both the writing of history and the struggle for racial justice. Yet he was widely considered, to borrow the subtitle of James Cobb’s new biography, America’s historian.

Most historians are not very introspective and lead uneventful lives, making things difficult for their biographers. So it’s understandable that Cobb, a historian at the University of Georgia, focuses almost entirely on Woodward’s intellectual and political career. Drawing on his subject’s writings and his voluminous papers at Yale, where Woodward taught from 1961 to 1977, Cobb portrays a scholar impatient with the mythologies, distortions and misguided hero worship that for most of the 20th century inhibited discussion of the South’s many problems.

Born in 1908 in Vanndale, a small town in Arkansas that serviced the area’s cotton economy, Comer Vann Woodward was a member of a prominent local family (Vanndale had been named after his mother’s family). Woodward understood early that the Jim Crow system, built on the disenfranchisement of Black voters, lynching, racial segregation and a biased criminal justice system, made a travesty of the country’s supposed commitment to equality and opportunity. Where did his rebellious outlook originate? Cobb credits the influence of his uncle and namesake, Comer, who wasn’t afraid to denounce the local Ku Klux Klan. There were other influences, too. While working on a master’s degree at Columbia in 1931-32, Woodward met Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois and other African American writers and activists. In the summer of 1932, he travelled to Europe; his itinerary included a visit to the Soviet Union. On his return, he became involved in the defence of Angelo Herndon, a Black communist convicted of violating Georgia’s 19th-century ‘insurrection’ law, originally intended to discourage slave rebellions, by organising Black and white factory workers. The Herndon case became an international cause célèbre and led to a Supreme Court ruling invalidating the statute as a violation of freedom of speech. (Woodward’s experience working with communists did not escape the notice of the FBI. In 1951, he was denied security clearance for an appointment as historical adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.) In the summer of 1935, Woodward came face to face with the dire poverty of tenant farmers while working for a New Deal agency surveying social conditions in rural Georgia.

Like any complex social system, Jim Crow required ideological legitimation. As Woodward later wrote, historians who were united in their ‘dedication to the present order’ helped to provide it. By the 1930s, a distinctive account of history had become an orthodoxy among white Southerners, endlessly reiterated in classrooms and on public monuments. It rested on a number of axioms: slavery had been a benign institution; the Confederacy was a glorious Lost Cause; Reconstruction – the experiment in biracial democracy that followed the Civil War – was a time of misgovernment and corruption; the self-styled Redeemers, who rescued the South from the supposed horrors of ‘Negro rule’ by overthrowing Reconstruction, were the inheritors of the values of the Old South; a New South was emerging and with it the promise of widespread prosperity. This dogma held sway even at the University of North Carolina, a centre of Southern liberalism, where Woodward earned his doctorate. In 1935, he wrote to a friend that he had ‘not gleaned a single scholarly idea from any professor’. Things changed later that year, however, with the arrival of Howard K. Beale.

Beale was a disciple of the historian Charles Beard, who taught that political ideology was a mask for economic self-interest. Beale had recently published The Critical Year, in which he followed Beard in viewing the Civil War not as a struggle over slavery but as a second American Revolution, which transferred political power from Southern planters to Northern industrialists. The Radical Republicans of the era were less interested in the rights of the former slaves than in using Black votes to help fasten Northern economic control on the defeated South. For the rest of his career, Woodward remained something of a Beardian. In the acknowledgments to one of his books, he paid tribute to Beard as the ‘dean of historians’.

Woodward received his doctorate in 1937. Over the next two decades he produced four books that established him as one of the most influential historical voices of his generation: Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel (1938), a slightly revised version of his dissertation; Reunion and Reaction (1951), in which he argued in good Beardian fashion that railroad magnates were the key architects of the ‘bargain’ that resolved the disputed election of 1876 and ended Reconstruction; Origins of the New South (1951), an all-out critique of the political and social order created by the Redeemers; and The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955), an examination of the origins of segregation. These books demolished every important feature of the orthodox historical credo. The revered Redeemers were not the direct descendants of Old South planters but a new class of business-oriented merchants and industrialists, closely linked to the North. The state regimes they headed were as guilty of corruption as they claimed Southern governments had been during Reconstruction. Contrary to received wisdom, the New South was a ‘stunted neocolonial economy’, whose sharecropping and credit systems consigned Black and white tenant farmers alike to peonage. Even though some of Woodward’s arguments inspired spirited rebuttal, these books established the agenda for generations of historians of the 19th-century South.

This was presentism in the service of radical social change. Woodward hoped to discredit the existing Southern ruling class by exposing the ‘ethical bankruptcy’ of the Redeemers, from whom they claimed descent. Moreover, history, he insisted, offered home-grown alternatives to Jim Crow. In his biography of Tom Watson, Woodward traced the transformation of a leader of the People’s Party, or Populists, from an advocate of political and economic co-operation among Black and white small farmers into a vicious racist, the only possible route to electoral success once the region’s elite had eliminated Black voting. In the early 1890s, Watson had brought to mixed-race audiences the message that small farmers of both races shared the same economic interests and should unite in common cause. For decades, Woodward would defend the historical reputation of the People’s Party, especially against the criticism of his friend Richard Hofstadter, who argued that the insurgent farmers exemplified the way Americans suffering from economic decline turned to conspiracy theories and cultural hatreds to understand their plight. Woodward would later yield to critics who insisted that he had exaggerated the extent and sincerity of white populists’ appeal for Black support. ‘It was a book for the 1930s and of the 1930s,’ he explained. Today, when ‘populist’ is commonly used as a term of abuse, promiscuously applied to figures who share nothing in common, such as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, it remains striking how long Woodward insisted that far from representing what Hofstadter called the ‘paranoid style’ of American politics, the People’s Party had advanced ‘one of the most thoroughgoing critiques of corporate America and its culture we have had’.

A different road not taken was central to Woodward’s argument in The Strange Career of Jim Crow. The timing could not have been better for this brief, lucid book, which appeared not long after the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education, outlawing racial segregation in public schools. Brown is now widely viewed as the court’s most important ruling of the 20th century, and it is easy to forget how quickly the South’s white leadership launched a campaign of ‘massive resistance’ in order to preserve Jim Crow, and that many national leaders, including Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate for president in 1952 and 1956, and President Eisenhower himself, bought into Southern arguments that segregation had existed from time immemorial and would prove impossible to uproot. Woodward presented a counter-history, a usable past for the burgeoning civil rights movement.

Segregation, Woodward insisted, was a recent invention, not a timeless feature of Southern life. It had not existed in the Old South (it would make little sense to try to separate the races under slavery) and was not immediately implemented after the Civil War. In fact, it wasn’t enshrined in law until the 1890s. Before then, indeterminacy defined Southern race relations. Black and white people mingled in railroad cars and sat next to one another in restaurants, theatres and other places of public accommodation. Why could they not do so again? The book’s influence, wrote the Black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, stemmed from its contemporary significance: ‘The race problem was made and … men can unmake it.’ This optimistic historical lesson persisted even after other historians called into question important parts of Woodward’s account. In revised editions of the book that appeared in 1965 and 1974, he acknowledged that segregation had a longer history than he had allowed. It was already present in the pre-Civil War North and Woodward kept pushing the date of its emergence in the South back in time, admitting that segregation had existed as a social reality well before being codified in law.

Woodward did not rely solely on scholarship to ‘unmake’ the racism so deeply embedded in the academy and society at large. He also worked to eradicate it within the Southern Historical Association (SHA). Cobb’s account of Woodward’s campaign to desegregate the group’s annual meetings would be funny if it didn’t offer a reminder of the daily humiliations Blacks experienced under Jim Crow. State law and local custom forbade venues from allowing Black participants to eat with white attendees or lodge in the same hotel. The 1949 meeting was held at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. Woodward arranged for John Hope Franklin, a Black historian who had just published From Slavery to Freedom, a pioneering survey of African American history, to deliver a paper. But where would Franklin sleep and eat? Woodward facetiously suggested that Franklin bring along a ‘pup tent and K-rations’. What if he needed the bathroom? Franklin could hardly be expected to use the primitive toilet facilities set aside for the college’s waiters, gardeners and other Black employees. In the end, the distinguished historian Carl Bridenbaugh offered to give Franklin a key to his own house for use when he needed to relieve himself. Franklin’s participation went off without incident. The SHA, however, quickly reverted to meeting in places where Blacks could not attend alongside whites. It comes as a shock to read that not until 1962 did the SHA’s executive committee resolve that the organisation would meet only in venues where Black and white participants were treated the same.

Woodward’s​ book on Jim Crow marked the end of his career as a research historian. His subsequent books consisted largely of previously published essays and book reviews. Some of his best-known pieces tackled the fraught question of Southern identity. He pointed to the irony that even as the Cold War intensified claims about American exceptionalism, the South in fact shared key historical experiences – military defeat, widespread poverty, colonial exploitation – with many other countries. The rest of the nation, he suggested, might learn something from historians of the South, not least humility.

In this later phase of his career, Woodward acted as a kind of gatekeeper, using his connections and reputation to promote the advancement, via jobs, fellowships and book reviews, of his former graduate students. Many of them, including Barbara Fields, James McPherson, Louis Harlan and Steven Hahn, would go on to celebrated careers of their own. Most studied the 19th-century South; as a result, the Festschrift they produced for Woodward in 1982 has a coherence such books usually lack. Like many other ‘star’ professors, Woodward was often on leave, seeking, Cobb writes, to minimise ‘time spent in the classroom’. But he devoted time to reading and evaluating manuscripts not only for friends and students but also for historians with whom he had no personal connection. He sometimes bent the rules, writing reviews of books that originated in dissertations he himself had supervised, and suggesting to editors the names of writers, including his students, to review his own works. Cobb’s account reminds us of the small size and homogeneity of the interconnected worlds of publishing, reviewing and teaching before the expansion of colleges and universities in the 1960s and the advent of significant numbers of women and members of minority groups. A few prestigious journals published the same writers over and over again. Cobb counts more than 250 book reviews written by Woodward himself during the course of his career, including fifty in the New York Review of Books and 21 in the New York Times.

All this extracurricular activity helps explain why Woodward never wrote his long-planned and eagerly awaited general history of Reconstruction. Judging from evidence in his papers, he seemed genuinely uncertain how such a book should be organised, whether he should directly engage with what he called ‘the century-old debate’ on the era, and if he should include comparison with other societies that experienced the end of slavery (an approach he pioneered). As Woodward mulled over such questions, the history of Reconstruction was being rewritten, in part by his students. The old image of the period, trotted out whenever the argument was made that Black people shouldn’t have the right to vote, was superseded. While hardly unaware of the era’s failings, younger scholars were broadly sympathetic to the impulse to remake the South after the Civil War. Abolitionists and Radical Republicans, whose professions of concern for the rights of freed people Woodward had long viewed sceptically, were now being lionised as principled crusaders for justice, forerunners of the civil rights movement. Woodward was put off by Northerners who, wielding ‘legends of emancipation’, lectured the South about its failings. In a letter to the historian William J. Carleton in 1945, he wrote that Charles Sumner, among the most principled of the Radical egalitarians, ‘nauseates me’. Woodward believed the post-Civil War Northern commitment to racial equality had been weak and short-lived and that Reconstruction failed as much because of persistent Northern racism as rampant Southern violence.

Beginning in the 1960s, new scholarship was placing the former slaves – their aspirations, activism and understanding of freedom – at the centre of the Reconstruction story. In previous works, Woodward had primarily portrayed Blacks as victims, not active historical agents, and he did not explore deeply the grassroots Black leadership, which would now be a necessary part of any general history of the era. He understood why Reconstruction appealed to a new generation, but cautioned against viewing it as ‘in some ways a sort of Golden Age’. He felt uncomfortable with the directions in which the field was moving. One suspects that he was not interested in engaging in a debate with the authors of the new historiography, many of whom he had taught.

As he approached retirement, Woodward entered what one former student called his ‘Tory period’. He took positions that surprised, even shocked, many of his admirers. While admitting that he was ‘embarrassed’ to say so, he opposed a plan to admit women as fellows to one of Yale’s colleges. ‘Tory’, however, may be an exaggeration. He did nothing to hide his distaste for the administrations of Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon, and – more in keeping with his earlier sentiments – lent his name to public statements protesting against the Vietnam War, and organised a group of historians who prepared a report for the House impeachment committee on abuses of presidential power in US history. Turning down an invitation to contribute to a book of essays celebrating the bicentennial of American independence in 1976, he replied, ‘I am, in fact, beginning to wonder what there is to celebrate.’

Perhaps the most controversial moment in this phase of his career came in the mid-1970s, when Woodward orchestrated a campaign to prevent Herbert Aptheker from teaching a seminar on the life of W.E.B. Du Bois at a Yale college. The university allowed colleges, with the approval of an academic department, to offer classes taught by persons without an academic position but with other kinds of expertise. Aptheker’s Documentary History of the Negro People was an indispensable work used in courses throughout the country. His American Negro Slave Revolts was the only scholarly book on that subject. He had written important journal articles on Black abolitionism and on Reconstruction and was editing a projected collection of Du Bois’s correspondence. He was also a leading member of the American Communist Party. As such he had been blacklisted for decades by the academy. Woodward was an ardent foe of McCarthyism. In 1966, he had taken part in a panel at the Socialist Scholars Conference along with Aptheker and the Marxist historian of slavery Eugene D. Genovese. At that time, when the shadow of McCarthyism still hung over the academic world, for an intellectual of Woodward’s standing to appear alongside Aptheker had been a powerful statement that the latter was part of the guild of historians. It wasn’t unlike when movie studios a few years earlier had given screen credit to Dalton Trumbo for writing the films Exodus and Spartacus, marking the beginning of the end of the Hollywood blacklist. But at Yale the Aptheker affair did not work out that way.

Woodward mobilised opposition to the proposed seminar. Aptheker’s work, he insisted, was not up to Yale’s standards. At his behest, the history department declined to sponsor the course. But the political science department agreed to do so. Woodward brought his case to the faculty committee that approved such classes (normally a formality), which at first rejected the course then subsequently approved it. The dispute dragged on for years; in the end Aptheker did teach his seminar on Du Bois, twice. The students suffered no known adverse consequences. But Woodward’s reputation for open-mindedness received a serious blow, especially among the rising generation of historians.

Aptheker was white, but Woodward’s crusade against the proposed course dovetailed with his growing distaste for the shift in focus of the civil rights struggle from integration to calls for Black Power and its corollary on campus, demands for the establishment of Black studies programmes. He spoke out against multiculturalism, as well as militant students’ insistence that Black professors teach the new courses on Black history. Often, as the Black historian Sterling Stuckey pointed out, Woodward seemed to conflate students’ rhetoric with the scholarship, often outstanding, being produced for these courses. Elected president of the Organisation of American Historians in 1969, Woodward devoted his presidential address to criticism of Black studies. Coming a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King, the title of his lecture, ‘Clio with Soul’, seemed condescending to Black historians. He warned white scholars against aligning with this ‘fashionable cause’ and advised the ‘brother in black’ not to embrace ‘a mystique of skin colour’ or to elevate ‘deservedly neglected figures’ such as African kings and ghetto hustlers to the status of heroes. His insinuation that universities were employing Black academics solely on the basis of their race cost him his long friendship with John Hope Franklin (who had been hired a few years earlier by the University of Chicago).

Woodward died in 1999, hailed inside and outside the academy for his pioneering scholarship and ‘moral leadership’ in a profession that for most of the 20th century sorely needed it. Historical interests, of course, change over time. Woodward’s books, even The Strange Career of Jim Crow, are no longer widely assigned in college classes. This is unfortunate not only because of the enduring quality of his writing, but because they offer an inspiring example of engaged scholarship. At its best, Woodward’s work demonstrated that history enables us to pass judgment on the world around us. He employed his historical imagination to help bring down the towering edifice of Jim Crow. That is an accomplishment of which any historian would be proud.

Category : Intellectuals | Racism | US History
12
Sep

By Ian Angus

Climate & Capitalism

Sep 07, 2022

In Part Eight of Capital, titled “So-called Primitive Accumulation,” Marx describes the brutal processes that separated working people from the means of subsistence, and concentrated wealth in the hands of landlords and capitalists. It’s one of the most dramatic and readable parts of the book.

It is also a continuing source of confusion and debate. Literally dozens of articles have tried to explain what “primitive accumulation” really meant. Did it occur only in the distant past, or does it continue today? Was “primitive” a mistranslation? Should the name be changed? What exactly was “Marx’s theory of primitive accumulation”?

In this article, written for my coming book on The War Against the Commons, I argue that Marx thought “primitive accumulation” was a misleading and erroneous concept. Understanding what he actually wrote shines light on two essential Marxist concepts: exploitation and expropriation.

This is a draft, not my final word. I look forward to your comments, corrections and suggestions.

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On June 20 and 27, 1865, Karl Marx gave a two-part lecture to members of the International Workingmen’s Association (the First International) in London. In clear and direct English, he drew on insights that would appear in the nearly-finished first volume of Capital, to explain the labor theory of value, surplus value, class struggle, and the importance of trade unions as “centres of resistance against the encroachments of capital.”1 Since an English translation of Capital wasn’t published until after his death, those talks were the only opportunity that English-speaking workers had to learn those ideas directly from their author.

While explaining how workers sell their ability to work, Marx asked rhetorically how it came about that there are two types of people in the market–capitalists who own the means of production, and workers who must sell their labor-power in order to survive.

How does this strange phenomenon arise, that we find on the market a set of buyers, possessed of land, machinery, raw material, and the means of subsistence, all of them, save land in its crude state, the products of labour, and on the other hand, a set of sellers who have nothing to sell except their labouring power, their working arms and brains? That the one set buys continually in order to make a profit and enrich themselves, while the other set continually sells in order to earn their livelihood?

A full answer was outside the scope of his lecture, he said, but “the inquiry into this question would be an inquiry into what the economists call ‘Previous, or Original Accumulation,’ but which ought to be called Original Expropriation.”

“We should find that this so-called Original Accumulation means nothing but a series of historical processes, resulting in a Decomposition of the Original Union existing between the Labouring Man and his Instruments of Labour.… The Separation between the Man of Labour and the Instruments of Labour once established, such a state of things will maintain itself and reproduce itself upon a constantly increasing scale, until a new and fundamental revolution in the mode of production should again overturn it, and restore the original union in a new historical form.”

Marx was always very careful in his use of words. He didn’t replace accumulation with expropriation lightly. The switch is particularly important because this was the only time he discussed the issue in English–it wasn’t filtered through a translation.

In Capital, the subject occupies eight chapters in the part titled Die sogenannte ursprüngliche Akkumulation–later rendered in English translations as “So-called Primitive Accumulation.” Once again, Marx’s careful use of words is important–he added “so-called” to make a point, that the historical processes were not primitive and not accumulation. Much of the confusion about Marx’s meaning reflects failure to understand his ironic intent, here and elsewhere.

In the first paragraph he tells us that ‘ursprüngliche’ Akkumulation is his translation of Adam Smith’s words previous accumulation. He put the word ursprüngliche (previous) in scare quotes, signaling that the word is inappropriate. For some reason the quote marks are omitted in the English translations, so his irony is lost.

In the 1800s, primitive was a synonym for original–for example, the Primitive Methodist Church claimed to follow the original teachings of Methodism. As a result, the French edition of Capital, which Marx edited in the 1870s, translated ursprüngliche as primitive; that carried over to the 1887 English translation, and we have been stuck with primitive accumulation ever since, even though the word’s meaning has changed.

Marx explains why he used so-called and scare quotes by comparing the idea of previous accumulation to the Christian doctrine that we all suffer because Adam and Eve sinned in a distant mythical past. Proponents of previous accumulation tell an equivalent nursery tale:

Long, long ago there were two sorts of people; one, the diligent, intelligent and above all frugal elite; the other, lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living. … Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and the latter sort finally had nothing to sell except their own skins. And from this original sin dates the poverty of the great majority who, despite all their labour, have up to now nothing to sell but themselves, and the wealth of the few that increases constantly, although they have long ceased to work.

“Such insipid childishness is every day preached to us in defense of property,” but when we consider actual history, “it is a notorious fact that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, in short, force, play the greatest part.” The chapters of So-called Primitive Accumulation describe the brutal processes by which “great masses of men [were] suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled onto the labor-market as free, unprotected and rightless proletarians.”

These newly freed men became sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production, and all the guarantees of existence afforded by the old feudal arrangements. And this history, the history of their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.

Marx’s account focuses on expropriation in England, because the dispossession of working people was most complete there, but he also refers to the mass murder of indigenous people in the Americas, the plundering of India, and the trade in African slaves–“these idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation.” That sentence, and others like it, illustrate Marx’s consistently sarcastic take on primitive accumulation. He is not describing primitive accumulation, he is condemning those who use the concept to conceal the brutal reality of expropriation.

Failure to understand that Marx was polemicizing against the concept of “primitive accumulation” has led to another misconception–that Marx thought it occurred only in the distant past, when capitalism was being born. That was what Adam Smith and other pro-capitalist writers meant by previous accumulation, and as we’ve seen, Marx compared that view to the Garden of Eden myth. Marx’s chapters on so-called primitive accumulation emphasized the violent expropriations that laid the basis for early capitalism because he was responding to the claim that capitalism evolved peacefully. But his account also includes the Opium Wars of the 1840s and 1850s, the Highland Clearances in capitalist Scotland, the colonial-created famine that killed a million people in Orissa in India in 1866, and plans for enclosing and privatizing land in Australia. All of these took place during Marx’s lifetime and while he was writing Capital. None of them were part of capitalism’s prehistory.

The expropriations that occurred in capitalism’s first centuries were devastating, but far from complete. In Marx’s view, capital could not rest there–its ultimate goal was “to expropriate all individuals from the means of production.”2 Elsewhere he wrote of big capitalists “dispossessing the smaller capitalists and expropriating the final residue of direct producers who still have something left to expropriate.”3 In other words, expropriation continues well after capitalism matures.

We often use the word accumulation loosely, for gathering up or hoarding, but for Marx it had a specific meaning, the increase of capital by the addition of surplus value,4 a continuous process that results from the exploitation of wage-labor. The examples he describes in “So-called Primitive Accumulation” all refer to robbery, dispossession, and expropriation–discrete appropriations without equivalent exchange. Expropriation, not accumulation.

In the history of capitalism, we see a constant, dialectical interplay between the two forms of class robbery that Peter Linebaugh has dubbed X2–expropriation and exploitation.

Expropriation is prior to exploitation, yet the two are interdependent. Expropriation not only prepares the ground, so to speak, it intensifies exploitation.5

Expropriation is open robbery. It includes forced enclosure, dispossession, slavery and other forms of theft, without equivalent exchange. Exploitation is concealed robbery. Workers appear to receive full payment for their labor in the form of wages, but in fact the employer receives more value than he pays for.

What Adam Smith and others described as a gradual build up of wealth by men who were more industrious and frugal than others was actually violent, forcible expropriation that created the original context for exploitation and has continued to expand it ever since. As John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark write in The Robbery of Nature:

Like any complex, dynamic system, capitalism has both an inner force that propels it and objective conditions outside itself that set its boundaries, the relations to which are forever changing. The inner dynamic of the system is governed by the process of exploitation of labor power, under the guise of equal exchange, while its primary relation to its external environment is one of expropriation.6

In short, Marx did not have a “theory of primitive accumulation.” He devoted eight chapters of Capital to demonstrating that the political economists who promoted such a theory were wrong, that it was a “nursery tale” invented to whitewash capital’s real history.

Marx’s preference for “original expropriation” wasn’t just playing with words. That expression captured his view that “the expropriation from the land of the direct producers–private ownership for some, involving non-ownership of the land for others–is the basis of the capitalist mode of production.”7

The continuing separation of humanity from our direct relationship with the earth was not and is not a peaceful process: it is written in letters of blood and fire.

That’s why he preceded the words “primitive accumulation” by “so-called.”

Notes:
1 Quotations from Marx’s 1865 lectures, “Value, Price and Profit,” are from Marx Engels Collected Works, vol. 20, 103-149. Quotations from “So-Called Primitive Accumulation” are from Marx, Capital vol. 1 (Penguin, 1976) 873-940.
2 Marx, Capital vol. 3, (Penguin, 1981) 571.
3 Ibid, 349.
4 See chapters 24 and 25 of Capital vol. 1.
5 Linebaugh, Stop Thief! (PM Press, 2014), 73.
6 Foster and Clark, The Robbery of Nature (Monthly Review Press, 2020), 36.
7 Marx, Capital vol. 3 (Penguin, 1981) 948. Emphasis added.

About Ian Angus
Ian Angus is a socialist and ecosocialist activist in Canada. He is editor of the ecosocialist journal Climate & Capitalism. He is co-author, with Simon Butler, of Too Many People? Population, Immigration and the Environmental Crisis (Haymarket, 2011), editor of the anthology The Global Fight for Climate Justice (Fernwood, 2010); and author of Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System (Monthly Review Press, 2016). His latest book is A Redder Shade of Green: Intersections of Science and Socialism (Monthly Review Press, 2017).

Category : Capitalism | Globalization | Marxism | Slavery | Terror and Violence | Working Class