Maurice Brinton

Capitalism and Socialism: A Rejoinder


Published: In Solidarity, V, 8 (March 1969)
Transcribed: by Jonas Holmgren

"I never read a book before reviewing it. It prejudices one so" (Sydney Smith).

"They were standing under a tree, each with an arm round the other's neck, and Alice knew which was which in a moment, because one of them had 'DUM' embroidered on his collar, and the other 'DEE'. 'I suppose they've each got 'TWEEDLE' round at the back of the collar', she said to herself ..." (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass).

"Capitalism and Socialism" tried to break new ground. It sought to differentiate the kind of critique libertarian socialists should be making of capitalism from the purely economic (and therefore restrictive) critique made by the "traditional left". The article also sought to link this more total critique with a complementary (more total) vision of a free society, a society in which man would not only be free at the level of production but also free in all other areas where he is at present oppressed or alienated.

Under the title "Bread or Freedom" the following issue of Solidarity carried an attack on this article by J.S., roundly denouncing it as "rancid puritanism", "monasticism", "soggy humanitarianism" and "an argument against socialism".

Arguments are about ideas, and ideas cannot be wished away by appending labels to them, however derogatory. They have to be discussed on their own merit. This, J.S.'s article fails to do. Instead, like a man stung in a sensitive spot, he flings himself upon his horse and rides off madly in all directions. Two main ingredients of my original article seem to stick in J.S.'s throat. One is what he calls my "method", the basic weapon of which is "the amalgam". The other is my attack on the notion that "the conflicts and evils of society flow from a particular pattern of ownership of the means of production". According to J.S. "those who hold this view are correct in doing so". In my view this assessment of the roots of the conflict in modern society is both inadequate and incomplete.


The word "amalgam" implies the "lumping together" for the purposes of denunciation (or administrative action, such as liquidation) of people holding fundamentally dissimilar political viewpoints, but whose conjunctural objectives may superficially appear to coincide. J.S. points out that "Stalin could show that fascists, Trotskyists and anarchists were opposed to his regime. Fascists planned to invade the Soviet Union. Therefore Trotskyists were part of a fascist-Trotskyist conspiracy to carry out this invasion".[1]

This kind of smearing by "amalgam" is widely practiced in all parts of the political spectrum. It assumes a low level of political sophistication among those at whom it is addressed. Fascist politicians - or the more reactionary employers - denounce all their opponents as "reds" (without worrying unduly as to their doctrinal differences). Establishment Liberals call the Young Liberals "anarcho-syndicalists". Labour leaders appeal to the loyalty of their supporters, denouncing dissidence as "Tory-inspired". Trade union leaders, threatened with a rank-and-file challenge to their authority, can only think in terms of "anarchist conspiracy". "Left" critiques of the Communist Party are all, of course, initiated by the Economic League, and opposition to the General Secretary in Clapham High Street must of necessity originate in Scotland Yard.

But is the conceptual category of a "trad left" an "amalgam"? In politics one should not accept people at their own self-assessment, but seek objectively to evaluate their ideas and actions. Has the "trad left" - despite its squabbles - more in common than it realizes? Has it a common denominator of values, ideas, priorities, methods of action and methods of argument? Do its component parts share (whether explicitly or not) certain basic assumptions? Is the very heat engendered by its internal disputations the living proof that its publicists share common premises? "Capitalism and Socialism" asserted that there were such common premises and that this explained both the nature and limitations of the trad left's critique of capitalism and the narrowness of its vision of socialism might be like. There is nothing accidental in this phenomenon. The poisoned ideological fount is none other than the persistence of class society, of its values and of its ideology. The longer bourgeois or bureaucratic societies survive, the more deeply will bourgeois (or bureaucratic) ideology permeate the thinking of those who originally set out to destroy these societies. That "the dominant ideas of each epoch are the ideas of its ruling class" has now become true in a much deeper sense than Marx could have ever foreseen.

At this stage it is worth disposing of one objection voiced in "Bread or Freedom", namely that one cannot jointly label as trad socialists "those who wish to establish a society modelled on Soviet Russia and those who believe Russia is State Capitalist;[2] bureaucrats like Kosygin and Gomulka and revolutionary socialists like Kuron and Modzelewsi;[3] our present government and those who are trying to fight back against its anti-working class policies".[4]

Leaving aside the fanciful examples chosen, the implication of this kind of argument is that political controversy - in particular heated controversy - necessarily implies a difference over fundamentals. This just isn't true. When the Stalinists in Russia eliminated their Trotskyist opponents by methods of physical terror it was no proof that they stood for anything basically different. Both accepted the inability of the working class to transcend a trade union consciousness. Both endorsed the primacy of the party. Both participated in the slander and suppression of their "left" opponents, both outside the Party (Kronstadt) and within it (the Workers' Opposition and other groups).[5] The argument that because people fight against one another they cannot share wide common premises is too simple by half. Torquemada had various Catholic theologians burned at the stake. Is one resorting to an "amalgam" if one proclaims the common mystification of both executioner and victim, manifested in their common belief in Cod, the Catholic Church, and the necessity for a "correct" interpretation of Papal writ? Has J.S. never heard of "false consciousness"? Is the Left by some miracle, immune from it? At a cruder level, is a violent settlement of scores between gangsters necessarily an affirmation of deep ideological differentiation?


One of the charges in J.S.'s article is that I "refuse to specify the characteristics of the traditional left". If by "refuse" he means "omit", his claim is true. The article, however, was about something specific: the attitude of the trad left to what was wrong with capitalism. If J.S. seeks to widen the terms of the debate, I am quite willing. Here goes (briefly for shortage of space prevents full treatment of each proposition):

a) Among the identifying features of the trad left (whether Fabian or Bolshevik) are an ingrained belief in man's incapacity to manage his own affairs without an elite or leadership of some kind (themselves!). In this, both reflect the typically bourgeois concept of "masters and men".

b) The trad left places the question of formal ownership (as distinct from control)[6] at the centre of its preoccupations. It believes that solving society's economic problems by planning and the increase in the productivity of labour will necessarily result in society's other problems being solved.

c) Wilson, Collan, Healy (and both Stalin and Trotsky in their lifetime) would all assert that Russia (economically speaking) was a "fundamentally different" kind of society from that existing in the West. Libertarian Socialists would not. It all depends on what one considers "fundamental". The yardstick of the former ("amalgam" again?) would be the presence or degree of "competition", "planning", "nationalization", etc. The yardstick of the latter: human freedom as expressed in workers' self-management.

d) Many in the "Marxist" section of the trad left believe in a revolutionary theory based on allegedly objective laws. But they also hold that they alone can "correctly" interpret this theory (hence the multiplicity of the mutually hostile "Marxist" organizations). Under appropriate conditions these beliefs lead them to assume what Trotsky called the Party's "historical birthright". In defence of this birthright the Party is prepared to manipulate (and if necessary shoot) workers in the interest of a higher, "historically determined" purpose, which it has grasped, even if the masses haven't.

At the more mundane level the trad left can be recognized by its deeply ingrained conservatism and its ideological sterility. It is the living embodiment of Bagehot's aphorism that "one of the greatest pains to human nature is the pain of a new idea". At a time when everything is being revolutionized more deeply and rapidly than in any other period of history, only their "revolutionary" ideology seems to remain static. A "frantic search for novelty" (to use J.S.'s phrase) should be the prime preoccupation of those slowly sinking in an antediluvian morass of half-truths and outmoded concepts. But for them, as for all conservatives, "novelty" is a term of opprobrium.

Those who seem frightened of new ideas might at least rearrange their prejudices once in a while. But even this seems to be asking too much. In argument, they defend their errors as if they were defending their inheritance. All buttoned up by impeccable little coats of complacency, they are like a man who will not look at the new moon out of deference for the old one. They react to the ideological stimuli like Pavlovian dogs in an early stage of conditioning with a non-discriminatory and purely salivatory response. When for instance I claim that those who only see man as a consumer see him in "much less than his full stature", I am accused of drawing "a sharp distinction between man as a consumer and man's urge to fulfil himself. When I claim the "essential identity of relations of domination, whether they manifest themselves in the capitalist factory, in the patriarchal family or in the authoritarian upbringing of children" and suggest that the "socialist revolution will have to take all these fields within its compass, and immediately", I am arraigned for describing fields "neatly fenced of from each other" and "not organically connected". The mind boggles at such feats of logic! J.S. even ends up by stating that "Capitalism and Socialism" "insinuates that society's ills are not due to the existence of the capitalist system". How much further can polemical creativity go? In more senses than one J.S.'s article epitomizes the response of a traditional Marxist when confronted with a new idea: noise, fog, distortion, invention, childish imputation of reactionary motives, etc, etc.


J.S. defines the nature of the capitalist system as "a particular pattern of ownership of the means of production" (my emphasis). To avoid being misunderstood, he defends the trad socialists in their vision of the evil of society as "flowing from a particular pattern of ownership of the means of production".

This is putting the clock back nearly a decade. It is tragedy that after eight years of the existence of Solidarity and after the publication of such sophisticated texts as The Meaning of Socialism, Socialism or Barbarism and Modern Capitalism and Revolution there should persist such confusion between "property relations" and the much more fundamental "relations of production". This confusion can even lead J.S. to assert that "Capitalism and Socialism" is in "complete contradiction with Solidarity practice". The contrary is in fact the case.

Since the first issues of Solidarity we have stressed that the crisis of contemporary society is a manifold one which cannot be fully understood solely in terms of the "private ownership of the means of production". This wider awareness has helped comrades who accept Solidarity ideas to intervene meaningfully in disputes such as King Hill, the anti-bomb movement, the student upsurge and in industrial disputes in which questions of job control were paramount. It enabled us to be the first to respond to events like the revolt at Berkeley (in 1964) and to recent developments in France (which had very little to do with "property relations" but a great deal to do with relations of another kind). It is a deep awareness of the totality of the crisis of all capitalist values and all capitalist institutions that explains our own survival in an initially hostile political environment and the recent wide response evoked by ideas similar to our own. If we had spoken exclusively of "property relations" or of "contradictions within the economy", we would have been condemned to the role of a sect because we would only have been dealing with one aspect of social reality, blowing it up to the exclusion of all others.

But "double think" can go still further. J.S. proves that it is possible both to believe that the crisis stems from the pattern of ownership and to claim that for trad socialists "the relations of production determine the other social relationships". Confusion not only reigns ... it pours! The trad socialists (Labour Party lefts, Communists, orthodox Trotskyists, Maoists, etc.) believe that "property relations" are paramount. The more sophisticated among them will claim that the juridical superstructure ("property relations") necessarily corresponds with the "relations of production". In fact as Marx (and later many others) have shown[7] the "property relations" may serve to mask the reality of the relations of production. If trad socialists ever came to acknowledge that the "relations of production" were fundamental, they would have to accept the relevance of our deepest critique of Leninism and Trotskyism, with their imposition of authoritarian relations in production from the earliest weeks in 1918. Sooner or later they would have to envisage the logical link between Leninism and Stalinism. This they are clearly not yet prepared to do. Neither, apparently, is J.S.



[1] The example chosen is (significantly?) rather a late variant of the technique. For Solidarists, more interesting historical antecedents would be Pravda's denunciation (March 3, 1921) of the Kronstadt insurrection as "a white Guard plot ... expected and undoubtedly prepared by the French counter-revolution", or Lenin's assertion (Selected Works, vol. IX, p. 98) that "White Guard generals ... played a great role in this (the Kronstadt uprising). This is fully proved". Khrushchev later "proved" that the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was an American plot.

[2] I carefully refrained from mentioning this political species. I am nevertheless accused of attacking them. Mark Twain once said: "Get your facts first, then you can distort them as much as you like".

[3] I didn't mention these comrades either, most of whose criticism of the Polish bureaucracy I would accept. Their critique, incidentally, closely parallels the arguments developed in issues 19, 20 and 21 of Socialisme ou Barbarie, all of which were widely distributed in Poland in 1956 and early 1957. We were in fact the first to publish sections of the Polish text in English (Solidarity, IV, 2, 3 and 4). J.S. isn't just apathetic to facts, but actively hostile to them!

[4] Here the imputation is partly correct. Only I would word it rather differently: "our present government and those (Communist Party, Trotskyist 'entrists' of every kind) who helped put it there".

[5] When, in 1927, Stalin arrested those responsible for the Trotskyist underground printing press (headed by Mrachkovsky) he was able to refute their objections without much difficulty, remarking: 'They say such things are unknown in the history of the Party. This is not true. What about the Myasnikov group? And the Workers' Truth group? Does not everyone know that Comrades Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev themselves supported the arrest of the members of these groups?" (Robert Conquest, The Great Terror (London: Macmillan, 1968), p. 130).

[6] As will be shown, J.S. shares this confusion between "property relations" (ownership) and "relations of production" (which are essentially authority relations).

[7] See, for instance, Tony Cliff, Russia: A Marxist Analysis, or earlier texts in Socialisme ou Barbarie.


Last updated on: 7.11.2009