Reviewed by Onur Acaroglu
Saeed Rahnema brings together prominent voices on the global left at an opportune moment where the neoliberal ‘common sense’ is shattered, propelling a search beyond its premises. On the left, this predicament has spurred a debate around positive alternatives and reappraisals of past experiences. As can be gleaned from this series of interviews, there are sharp differences of opinion regarding ways to go forward, yet the notion of an open future where there are alternatives is on track to be restored, and rightly so. The assertion of ‘transition’ as a topical theme marks a departure from the inquisitive melancholia that pervades the left, towards substantive discussions of what a postcapitalist society might look like. In this review, following a summary of the book, I shall discuss the ways in which these dialogues reassert the spatio-temporal extensiveness of the struggle beyond capitalism, ‘No doubt the largest and complicated project of human history’, as expressed in the opening remarks (19).
Rahnema organizes the interviews into chapters resembling a series of round table discussions, each composed of interventions from a geographically and occupationally diverse range of respondents. These include figures in academic settings as well as activists at the political and union levels, encompassing Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, along with theorist and advisor to the Bolivarian government of Venezuela, Michael Lebowitz, literary theorist Aijaz Ahmad, Secretary of the Left Party of Sweden Aron Etzler, and many other significant voices. Rahnema himself was involved in the prominent Workers’ Council movement during the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which can be gleaned as an invaluable practical experience from the content of his responses and follow up questions.
Opening with appraisals of existing socialisms past and present, the editor poses questions to the contributors that are perennial to the left and Marxism since the nineteenth century. Thus, the familiar dichotomy of reform and revolution, and the pitfalls of building socialism in a national setting are commented on at some length. At the same time, there are informative discussions regarding the notion of a peaceful transition, covering the perceptions of classical Marxist writers as well as contemporary approaches to the question. Rahnema intersperses questions of method with those of goals, invoking past experiences to illuminate a conversation around what it is that leftists want to achieve. As a result, the reader is compelled to consider the journey and the destination together, considering revolutionary politics within the regulative horizon of communism. Discussions touch upon a diverse range of topics, from the contemporary arrangement of social classes to ways to disrupt patterns of capitalist reproduction, and from worker-run enterprises in Yugoslavia to the trajectory of Nordic social democracies. These wide-ranging conversations are rounded off with a question of practical steps, where the contributors put forth their visions of organisation. While this is a logical way to conclude a book on the transition from capitalism, an opportunity to debate certain concrete steps was missed here. Considering the richness of detail in the preceding parts, it would have been fitting to ask the participants’ views on recent controversial topics such as Universal Basic Income (UBI) and full automation. This arguably constitutes the Achilles heel of the book, which is otherwise a highly insightful conversation.
Rather than a sustained, theoretically rigorous meditation on the question of postcapitalist transition, its arrangement gives this collaborative work a pamphlet feel, as though it emerged from heated political meetings and arguments in union offices. The urgent need for a global left project shines through each of the contributor’s remarks, as it is framed as a comradely leftist discussion towards a like-minded audience. By the same token though, there are passing remarks quoting other thinkers outside the purview of the volume which are vulnerable to scrutiny by the more academically attuned readers. Rahnema argues, for instance, that democracy as part of transition to socialism has been neglected, quoting Ellen Meiksins Wood’s point on the importance of the extension of democracy vital to a socialist project (6-7). However, he neglects to mention here that Wood (1998: 53) also argues that there is a qualitative transformation, even a ‘river of fire’, between what she terms ‘bourgeois and socialist democracy’. This would consequently show that Wood’s point was that the character of democracy would undergo a ruptural transition. Nevertheless, Rahnema is right that transition has been undertheorised, relegated to a legislated stage in the future, leading him to denounce the dogmatism of ‘ideologists’ (18). The editor and the contributors reinforce that there are multiple vectors through which capitalism reproduces itself, driving home the necessity of democratic transition, in the wide sense of meaningful popular participation and a plurality of methods.
A key strength of this collection of interviews lies in the reformulation of a spatio-temporal scale for post-, anti-, or extra-capitalist struggles. In an enlightening discussion of past revolutions, Ahmad (29) explains that he does not consider any revolution to have failed in the absolute sense. In this understanding, social formations undergo staggered transformations where there is not a singular break but a succession of protracted gains and defeats. Every cycle of struggle is fought on a sublated plane, until they culminate at a stage where the preceding mode of production is by and large marginalised to an irreversible degree. This can be seen in the centuries of false starts and defeats suffered by proto-capitalist classes before the system rose to domination. That being the case, it is not only conceivable but predictable that a coherent supersession of capitalism is likely to face a string of fall-backs, even disasters, before gaining viability. In sum, while there is no unified march of history, there are subterranean impulses that point beyond the predominant system at every turn, whether or not these crystallise into sustainable postcapitalist patterns. In this sense, ‘failures’ aggregate a wealth of experience that is valuable in itself, and allows for future attempts to build on more solid foundations. Looking back on past experiences therefore passes a judgment on current prospects, the present being and interlocutor between the actual and the possible.
On a further consideration of the travails of the previous century, Peter Hudis (42) explains that Lenin did not have a stagist understanding of historical change, which was the key difference between his faction and the Mensheviks, who believed a capitalist stage was needed in Russia. Following the October revolution, he corresponded with controversial figures like Galiev, a Tatar Bolshevik advocating an Islamist-inflected socialism. Here one sees a remarkably open-minded Lenin, suggesting that a transition to socialism is a possibility not just in the Russian heartlands, but also the underdeveloped Central Asian ‘backwater’. This episode also suggests an overlooked historical lacuna, where some correspondence and cooperation between the communist left and Islamic anti-imperialist currents took place. Lenin’s attenuation of his historical materialism to contingency and lack of temporal conformity is reminiscent of the observation of the late Marx on Russia, where he argued that the communal social formation of the peasantry, the ancient institution of the mir, could not only survive into a socialist transition in Russia, but play a regenerative role in it as a rejuvenated socialist institution (see ‘Marx-Zasulich Correspondence: Letters and Drafts’ in Shanin 1983: 97-123). In their later texts, Marx and Lenin turn sharply away from teleology, if they had ever endorsed some version of it. Instead, they stress the way in which temporal discrepancies between various geographies of capitalist development form cracks through which socialism can spring forth. This contradiction inscribed into transition invokes a reconsideration of contemporary prospects for postcapitalism, and whether one ought to reconfigure their outlook to spot transitional initiatives that had not been apparent before.
This brings me to the second aspect of the spatio-temporal reformulation of the struggle beyond capitalism, in its historically specific manifestations. The book includes some discussions on the Iranian and Yugoslav experiences of workers’ control. Although vastly different in terms of political timelines, these provide a fascinating gateway to a discussion on planning and local decision-making over production, two pillars of any conceivably socialist economy. Alongside the better known Soviet model that relied heavily on central planning, the role of workplace democracy and cooperatives in the effort to decommodify vital necessities is amplified by these interventions. The discussion provides another theoretical worksite, for a socialist plan to rebuild the economy along humane lines.
The legacy of Chavez is also invoked by Lebowitz, who opines on the possibility of socialism in one country. As all contributors are quick to point out, fully realised socialism in the Marxist sense is not possible, yet this is an obvious point. It is more interesting to consider how to go about making inroads to socialism, a point where the Venezuelan experience has been invaluable. Lebowitz (129-130) explains that Chavez considered a realisation of socialism on three parameters, or the ‘elementary triangle of socialism’, constituting ‘social ownership of means of production, social production organized by workers, and satisfaction of communal needs’. These would not be achievable in the context of a global economic system that is rigged against the Majority World, yet the Bolivarian revolution provides an example for a twenty-first century socialism, constructed with the overarching state support of an array of social movements and local communes. Venezuela is a fascinating case of intersections between the leadership of a uniquely well-read military figure, rising to power through a combination of leverage from resources with seething anger against decades of neoliberal structuring, mobilising the indigenous and poor population that were systematically denied a voice. This also attests for the contradictory and historically specific ways in which all transitions come about; precisely what makes them transitional is this disruptive ‘untimeliness’. Secondly, the same case demonstrates how political and economic developments do not move in lockstep formation. While the Bolivarian republic created one of the most progressive constitutions to date, its economy remains compromised by oligarchic interests and dependence on oil exports, both hangovers from the previous era that continue to chart the tumultuous progression of socialism in that country. The messiness of this specific example belies what is essential to the revolutionary project, in that its very universality is manifested through the diversity of tactics and corollaries of resistance and rebuilding.
Rahnema’s edited volume is a brilliant gateway to some of the salient discussions on the left, orienting the reader with a map of left theory and politics as they stand today. Notwithstanding certain academic lapses and a relative vagueness in terms of steps forward, this book is an open debate, refreshing in the originality of the answers it provides to perennial questions. These discussions are bound to provoke researchers and activists alike, along with all those involved in this ‘largest and most complicated project of human history.’ This is a justified description, as no other historical struggle has animated the hopes of so many people and accumulated such a vibrant repository of experience. If this book has a crucial impact, it lies in the fact that it situates the reader within an ongoing discussion infused with a sense of urgency for emancipation.
5 April 2019
- 1983 Late Marx and the Russian road: Marx and the ‘peripheries of capitalism. New York: Monthly Review Press
- 1998 The Retreat from Class: A New True Socialism London: Verso