Capitalism’s Endgame: a reply to our review
Dear Socialist Standard,
I’m writing in reply to your recently published review of Capitalism’s Endgame. We all appreciate the time you have taken to read the book, and on the whole – given our political disagreements – it is a fair and balanced review.
There are nonetheless a few points which we would like to take issue with.
Your first two paragraphs read to us more like a settling of accounts with specific groups in the UK rather than a response to the book itself, or indeed to the historical Left Communist tradition which is a far broader current than you seem to suggest. Individually we may have been members of the ICC at different times but we hold no brief for this or any other group.
As for their ‘minuscule size’… in the grand scheme of things (a world population of 8 billion) the SPGB is equally insignificant. I would even hazard a guess that there are more model railway enthusiasts in Britain than there are members of the SPGB, but I would hardly draw any conclusions from that as to the SPGB’s political importance, or indeed the quality of its writing.
Where we do stand four-square with the whole Left Communist tradition, is in the intransigent defence of internationalism and the refusal to sanction imperialist war under any circumstances, including in Ukraine. You say that ‘capitalism’s massive and continued expansion in recent decades… has not plunged humanity, as predicted, into another barbarous world war’. Whether or not war actually breaks out will be determined by a multitude of factors, including whether or not the workers are prepared to fight in it. However, anyone who cannot today see the dangers arising from the growing military tension between the USA and China – which incorporates the Ukraine war – is either naive or asleep at the wheel.
You say that the book is ‘not an easy read’, and this may be true – but is it relevant? Anyone who wants an easy read can buy a potboiler in the best-seller section. We’ve tried to avoid unnecessary jargon but nobody should expect it to be easy to understand capitalism today. Nor do we subscribe to the often popular idea that difficult questions need to be ‘pre-digested’ for the benefit of workers – we prefer to rely on workers’ intelligence and appetite for understanding.
Your reference to ‘dead Russians and Germans’ is merely a cheap jibe, unworthy of a serious review. Have physicists stopped using Hooke’s Law or Maxwell’s Equations just because their authors are no longer in the land of the living?
We make no apologies for trying to ground ourselves in Marx. As we state explicitly in the Introduction, ‘If we cite Marx extensively it is simply because on almost any subject of social evolution, Marx has thought about it already, and in impressive depth, if only still in outline’. Nonetheless, ‘while the immense fertility of this most powerful of social thinkers gives us our starting point, we have no qualms in trying to push his premises further or even in contradicting them should this seem necessary’; we go on to identify three aspects of Marx’s premises which seem to us to be inadequate. This, for us, is an integral part of any theoretical, or indeed historical, approach: to build critically on what has been handed down by previous generations. As Newton said, if we can see further it is only because we stand on the shoulders of giants.
You claim to be ‘in the Marxist tradition’. Perhaps a little more ‘poring over Capital and The German Ideology’ would do you good.
You consider the last chapter, ‘Imagining the Future’ to be the weakest, and you may well be right. As the author, I take full responsibility for this; perhaps it was a mistake to try to combine a summary of the previous chapters and what is intended to be essentially an introduction to a more future-oriented effort to come.
That said, I disagree profoundly with what seems to be your approach to how we can envisage a future communist (or socialist, as you prefer) society. While you are absolutely right to insist on the importance of the ‘interconnected world-wide division of labour’, you seem to think that in the end it all comes down to technology (3D printing, AI or what have you), and that ‘mass sufficiency’ and ‘free access’ can be taken for granted.
This seems to me to be grounded in the assumptions common to socialists at the beginning of the 20th century when the world’s population was 1.6 billion. Today, with a world population approaching 8 billion and projected to rise to 10 billion and in a situation where – as Phil Sutton’s chapter on the environment makes abundantly clear – human society is pushing beyond the boundaries of the planet’s physical capacity to sustain it, the whole notion of ‘abundance’ needs to be called into question and rethought.
In two famous and oft-quoted phrases, Marx described communism as a world where ‘society would at last inscribe upon its banners “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”’, and where ‘the free development of each will be the condition for the free development of all’. This may seem like ‘philosophical meandering’ to you. To me, it is a good starting point.
In capitalist society, the sole aim behind the development of technology is to increase profit (or to make war). In communism, it will be to satisfy human need, but this immediately poses the question of what exactly human need is. This in turn is a social not a natural question.
Any discussion about the nature of communism which hopes to go beyond science-fiction, or Utopian dreaming à la William Morris, must therefore begin by laying a theoretical, materialist foundation which alone can make such discussion possible. And such a discussion would have to engage not just with ‘luxury communism’, but with the arguably far more popular and influential ‘degrowth socialism’.
The chapter as a whole apparently fails to make this point sufficiently comprehensible. We hope to do better in a forthcoming, more developed volume.
We will let the debating points stand and comment on the more substantial points.
The way we express ourselves is important as the point of it is to communicate clearly and effectively to aid understanding. The idea that Marxists can only do this with quotations from selected texts on almost every other page is a failure of communication. Marxism is a method for understanding the world and acting on it, not a catechism with sacred texts that are regurgitated, interpreted and reinterpreted endlessly. And we are far from alone in making this criticism of Left Communism generally and the ICC in particular.
We do not accept the view, inherited from the ICC, that capital accumulation has only been possible since 1914 to replace physical means of production destroyed in world wars nor the implication that sooner or later another one will be needed if capitalism is to continue. This flies in the face of the facts. Capital accumulation has expanded immensely since 1914 and has continued now for nearly 80 years without a world war. As long as capitalism lasts there will be wars but a third world war is not inevitable for capitalism to survive economically.
We look forward to seeing how you develop the view that ‘mass sufficiency’ and ‘free access’ cannot be taken for granted and what you are going to propose in the event of them not being possible. — Editors