Book Reviews

25th Century Capitalism

 Capitalism. By Victor D. Lippit.
Routledge Frontiers of Political Economy.£65.

Lippit’s main theme is that capitalism – as a system in which “a portion of the profits reaped through the sale of goods and services is reinvested, swelling the capital stock, incorporating new techniques in the process, and permitting larger sales and profits in the future” – could well continue for another three and four hundred years but that it will ultimately prove incompatible with human life on Earth. This is because its dynamic of continuous expansion and accumulation will come up against the fact that the Earth’s resources and capacity to reabsorb waste are finite. This, according to him, is the basic contradiction of capitalism, not anything within its own economic mechanism or social relationships.

Lippit argues that up to now capitalism has always been able to overcome periods of slump and stagnation resulting from profits falling or markets shrinking. Such periods have always proved to be temporary and in time have always been overcome by the emergence of new favourable social, political and economic conditions for capital accumulation. Much of the book is devoted to describing what these have been over time in America, Europe and Asia. He expects this pattern to be repeated in the future and sees no internal economic or social contradiction within capitalism that will prevent it continuing for centuries. In fact, he expects it to do so.

Meanwhile the global environment will continually deteriorate until human life as we know it becomes impossible (he speculates that, with the ozone layer destroyed, humans may have to live and work underground). It’s a pessimistic scenario, but how realistic is it? We ourselves have long held the view that capitalism will never collapse of its own accord for purely economic reasons and that it will continue to go through its cycle of booms and slumps until the working class put an end to it. So, in theory, capitalism could indeed continue for centuries. Obviously, we don’t think it need do, or will, since we think that the class struggle between workers and capitalists built in to capitalism will lead to the workers putting an end to it before then.

Lippit says that this is utopian as workers, and even the destitute populations of the Third World, will continue to support capitalism as long as it continues to improve their living standards, however slowly (as he thinks it will). The crunch will only come, he contends, when capital accumulation, and the slow long-run improvement in living standards it brings, will no longer be possible for ecological reasons but that this won’t be for several centuries.

So what are we supposed to do in the meantime? And what sort of system will then replace capitalism? Lippit’s view is that, when the time comes, capitalism will have to be replaced by “a social formation that is consistent with a modified stationary state”, by which he means one with stable population, production and consumption levels. This implies “first and foremost”, he says, that “production must be undertaken for the use values it affords, rather than for profit”:

“The focus of innovation would be on minimizing throughputs rather than on maximizing output. The point would not be to bring an end to scientific creativity and innovation, but to channel it in directions that maintain and hopefully improve the ecological balance on which the maintenance of human life depends”.

We would argue that this “social formation” could only be one based on the common ownership of the Earth’s productive resources, natural and industrial, by the whole of humanity, i.e. world socialism, for how could production be reoriented towards use instead of profit unless the means of production had first ceased to be the exclusive property of individuals, corporations or states? But we don’t see why humanity has to wait till capitalism has nearly destroyed the planet to institute this.

It could be instituted now, so avoiding not only the environmental degradation that will occur if capitalism continues for another three or four centuries but also all the wars and the destruction and misery they bring that will occur during this period too; at the same time, world hunger could be eliminated much more quickly within this framework than Lippit thinks will eventually happen under capitalism.

The Life of Uncle Joe

Stalin: a biography

 Robert Service. 528 pages.Macmillan.£25,  ISBN 033726278 

Service deliberately, and bravely, tries to dig for the true story of Stalin’s life beyond the hagiography or demonography that usually represents him.He presents the case that Stalin, or Joseph Dzughashvili, or Soso, or Koba – as he was variously known – was a central character in the pre-revolutionary Bolshevik party. He was keen acolyte of Lenin, a hardman – he organised the campaign of
bank robbery and extortion in the Caucasian areas of the Tsarist empire at Lenin’s behest, even when the latter promised to cease such activities. He edited Pravda, was on the Bolshevik central committee and was Lenin’s close collaborator on the ‘National
Question’. He was imprisoned several times, and though taciturn with fellow prisoners, he took his beatings at the hands of prison
guards with equanimity. During the civil war, he commanded the Red Army on the south fronts, where he proved to be a ruthless if not effective commander.
So, hardly the grey man Trotsky liked to pretend him to be – but Trotsky could hardly criticise Stalin for brutality, when he was as nearly as ruthless. In fact, Service makes a good case that Stalin rose to power as part of a stop-Trotsky faction.
Stalin was able to present himself as the acme of Leninist orthodoxy, and possibly – and Service does make this case – believed he really was creating some form of socialism in the Soviet Union. Socialists – unlike Leninists – have no need to shy away from this fact. Our argument never was that Stalin was a bad man, a monster (although, obviously, he was) but that he was acting upon a false and dangerous theory – that a band of dedicated leaders could force the world to socialism.
Service makes clear that much of Stalin’s apparent paranoia was based on the simple fact that he and his fellows had risen to power suddenly and almost out of nowhere against the might of Tsarism. He believed, apparently, that a similar cabal could unseat him – what comes round goes around.
His callousness was relentless, ranging from bullying subordinates at informal parties, to personally poring over the list of names and faces of victims of his terror. Service alleges a desire to be at the centre of things, to assert himself that grew from childhood and was fostered by his membership of the Bolshevik party. As he notes, Stalin was among the few genuinely working class members of the inner sanctum of the party – which goes to show that having genuine workers in charge doesn’t make that much difference.
In his desk, when he died, were some keepsakes – a letter from Bukharin begging to know why he Stalin wanted to murder him when he was already politically dead, and a letter from Tito, threatening to try and assassinate him if he didn’t stop trying to bump the Yugoslav dictator off – as Service notes, one gangster to another. Even his intimate moments were blood-soaked and ruthless. This is a tidy account of the life of a utopian who thought that through ruthless will alone he could shape the world. As in some parts of his former empire, his statues are being resurrected and his reputation repaired, it also serves as a timely warning against leaders past, present and future.

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