Review: Can Capitalism Last? A Marxist Update

It was hoped that Danny Rubin's Can Capitalism Last? would fill an important gap in Marxism for the post-Soviet world, enriching theory with new data especially from today's United States.

Unfortunately, those hopes have not been realized. The author's answer to the title question, Can  Capitalism Last? amounts to “maybe yes, maybe no.”

To be fair, Rubin presents clear explanations of some basic Marxist concepts.

Nevertheless, on the whole his account is muddied by much confusion and agnosticism. This is alarming, coming from a long-time Communist leader.

Instead of answering how we can get out of the latest stage of capitalist hell, Can Capitalism Last? ends up stepping back from a thoroughly scientific Marxist-Leninist approach to the understanding of capitalism, necessary for its revolutionary overthrow.

His biggest retreats from Marxism -- presented as "updates" -- can be found in, for example, revolutionary strategy and Marxist political economy.

Rubin offers a strategy for getting to socialism by a majoritarian coalition (required to avoid any violence) that will gradually curb the power of monopolies, the source of our problems today. Rubin claims a revolution can be sudden or gradual.  This coalition will then broaden out to include more forces that will replace capitalism with a variety of forms of socialism (i.e. without eliminating private ownership and with ownership by different social groups, not necessarily the working class as a whole) to ensure it is democratic.  

He believes this evolutionary process of creating the culture of a majoritarian coalition will take a long time. More likely, in this reviewer’s opinion, it will be a never-ending story.  Rubin says Obama’s electoral coalition, for example, is the kind of loose coalition that is the seedling for this process, winning demands based on the current levels of political consciousness The working class’s role is leading (or in the process of becoming a leading role) not because of its advanced ideology but just by its sheer organizational power.

Let’s scrutinize some of his "updates" to the Marxist legacy.

As Rubin points out CPUSA leader William Z. Foster in Twilight of World Capitalism conceived the strategy of an anti-monopoly coalition, made up of all forces suffering from the power of the capitalist monopolies, a more specific goal than overthrowing the capitalist class as a whole. The direct  economic aim of this anti-monopoly coalition was to actually nationalize the monopolies.  How else can monopolies be curbed?  The key idea for why monopolies have the power they do is that power comes from the ownership of the means of production, that is, private capitalist property.  

Instead of breaking the back of corporate power by taking monopoly property into public ownership, a key task of the anti-monopoly stage of democratic struggle as conceived by Foster, Rubin says we can “curb” monopoly power with regulations and kindred reforms and is loathe to nationalize monopolies completely.  The truth is ,in the long run, regulations are limited by the simple fact of who owns the dominant means of production and who holds state power – the monopoly capitalists or the working class?  Rubin quietly has denied the main economic task of such a coalition, decisively weakening then ending private monopoly power by nationalizing it.  Instead of an update we get an reformist evisceration of a Marxist concept.

One of Rubin’s most dangerous “updates” is that our role as Communists is not to raise consciousness but to work within the current levels of consciousness. This amounts to a repudiation of the leading role of the revolutionary party. He cites a passage from Lenin’s What Is To Be Done allegedly proving that Communists should work with the working class and broader population at their current levels of consciousness .

He ignores the whole point of Lenin's call, to raise their consciousness to higher levels rather than accommodate existing consciousness in the name of "unity."

Rubin uses the ultra-left as a straw man to counter-pose "unity" and "consciousness-raising." In fact, consciousness-raising can actually forge greater unity, as anyone who has actually organized will know.  Of course, activists need to become more aware of what’s happening politically in order to unite with other people to change the situation. That's our role since The Communist Manifesto, to understand "the line of march" of the whole struggle.

Rubin belittles dialectics. One of Marx’s key concepts of how change happens in society is that gradual, imperceptible changes build up to a point where there is a seemingly sudden change in the whole nature of what’s changing, like a capitalist society becoming socialist.  In Hegel’s classic example from nature -- water heating up doesn’t look any different than unheated water. But when it reaches the boiling point it changes from a liquid to a gas in a sudden qualitative transformation.  

Rubin’s update tries to mish-mash this dialectical connection into a claim that revolution can be either sudden or gradual. He ignores that a revolution is the sudden part of the process of social change. It is preceded by reforms that gradually raise the level of consciousness and political activity of the people, a rise that Rubin fears will disrupt unity.

Rubin conflates reform and revolution. To be sure, the struggle for reform is a necessary part of bringing about revolution, but  it is not the same thing as revolution. To deny sudden changes by calling gradual changes "a revolution" is simple reformism.

The whole approach of a seemingly endless series of gradual reforms and developments is the same kind of revisionism that denied that the Russian Revolution was possible. When that  mighty revolution occurred revisionists and reformists said Russia was trying to go too fast. Denying revolution as a qualitative transformation of capitalism necessarily means an endless program of gradual reforms. In a manner of speaking, Rubin is afraid of the pot boiling over, so he wants us to believe we can make do with merely watching it get hotter.

In the transition from capitalism, some forms of ownership short of the working class as a class owning most of the means of production is unavoidable. As Stalin pointed out in Soviet economic debates in the late 1940s on a new textbook on political economy, a society can only arrive at Communism when there is enough production for superabundance, i.e., to meet all needs.

However Rubin’s idea of “multiple forms” and “multiple paths” in effect takes the “transition” out of “transition time.” He changes the necessity of transitional patterns of mixed ownership into a positive virtue, and indeed into a guarantee of democracy! The whole point of transition is for the working class --  wielding state power  -- to take ownership of the means of production as a class and use public property for its class interests, as it transforms the social relations of production.  Leaving property in the hands of individuals and cooperatives for a long time not only  leaves the struggle between the different forms of ownership unresolved, it is also amounts to throwing one's hands up in surrender. It is a formula for enabling class adversaries to restore capitalism.  

Lenin’s idea of the NEP  -- which was conceived before War Communism and not as an after-thought as Rubin alleges,  -- was centered on a struggle to find the correct forms of transition to full large-scale public ownership.   Rubin has -- in the name of Lenin -- taken out the revolutionary heartbeat of the NEP concept.

One of the distinctions between Marxist-Leninists and other types of socialists is that we have an understanding of human history that holds that the proletariat is the class within capitalism that only survives by selling its labor-power. It is the emerging class that has an interest in establishing communism and so must lead the other social forces in overthrowing capitalism.

This class leadership role is first made meaningless in Rubin’s call to not raise consciousness beyond existing levels in the name of unity. He also weakens the very idea of "leading" by saying leading doesn’t mean actually leading others to somewhere but just by being there with bodies and money, by mobilizing for elections rather than driving the agenda and demands.  Rubin’s concept of the leading role of the working class is to follow what the Democratic Party’s candidate says, to “lead” by providing resources.

Marx pointed out that bourgeois economists will always have an explanation for capitalism’s behavior because they can always find superficial explanations from the complexity of capitalist life. Such explanations don’t stand up to scrutiny, however. To really understand something you have to get beneath the surface and look at the interconnections and historical development of its key contradictions.  In attempting to update Marx’s political economy Rubin has undone Marx’s scientific work with glib and confused amendments.

Rubin’s understanding of the political economy of capitalism is one of the clearest places where his updates are a retreat  to the very surface observations Marx criticized his contemporaries for, and from which Marxism has liberated us. For example, Rubin reduces anti-monopoly struggle to regulation, as if capitalism’s contradictions can be solved by better regulating capitalism. As for the economic cycle, Rubin says capitalists overestimate the demand for their products and then over-correct, which leads to booms and slumps.

This opens the door for the illusion that capitalist crises are merely an information problem, that streamlining production to provide just-in-time information and just-in-time delivery could make the problem go away. This is a retreat from Marx’s analysis, which says that the rate of profit ultimately falls from increases in productivity, which reduces the values of commodities. Rubin recycles fad theories like “financialization” instead of enriching and extending theory with new historical experience.

In  Capital Volume III  Marx wrote about the internationalization of capitalist crisis. He showed that some countries might delude themselves that they have escaped from others' economic crisis. But the crisis would catch up to them. As monopoly became dominant, Lenin updated this idea to explain that, because of the increased interconnectedness of the world economy, economic crisis in the age of imperialism has a general character.

Rubin, in the name of making a further update, rejects this analysis of Marx and Lenin by claiming it is an innovation of Stalin. He says, “there is no reason to think we will go through a generalized capitalist crisis.” Given the crisis of 2008-2010 it would seem Rubin’s update itself needs an update.

Marx’s clear explanation is that capitalist crisis stems from the contradictions of production itself and not a lack of regulation, a social-democratic explanation. This is obscured by Rubin under agnostic arguments about how the world has become more "complex" than in Marx’s day. So, he avers, we cannot predict in advance when a tendency Marx observed will prevail and when it will be countervailed by forces Marx himself foresaw.  

This is like saying we can’t predict the weather anymore and throwing our hands up in surrender. The whole point of a Marxist update is to update the science to new phenomena, not to jettisoning received time-tested theory that has been largely correct.  Rubin admits that he’s abandoned the very project his book title promises when he says “it is now much more difficult to make reliable predictions of the concrete path of capitalist development.”

Rubin accuses the Soviets of dogmatism, by ignoring or understating the role of the law of value under socialism. But it’s Rubin who is here treating laws of science as if they were divine laws. The law of gravity says objects are drawn towards larger objects within their gravitational field, but should we then accuse pilots of violating the law of gravity? On the contrary, aeronautical engineering uses a scientific understanding of the law of gravity to overcome the forces of gravity.  

I have left out of this review many other important distortions of Marxism depicted as “updates.” We still badly need a Marxist update of general theory for our country and our times. Rubin has tried but failed to meet a genuine need.

Life often presents new phenomena. To update Marxism, let us explain new phenomena by building on and extending Marxist theory, instead of -- in the name of changing with the times – dumbing down the incisive contributions of Marxist-Leninist classics to meaningless mish-mash.

As Lenin said in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism:

In a word, every ideology is historically conditional, but it is unconditionally true that to every scientific ideology (as distinct, for instance, from religious ideology), there corresponds an objective truth, absolute nature. You will say that this distinction between relative and absolute truth is indefinite. And I shall reply: yes, it is sufficiently ‘indefinite’ to prevent science from becoming a dogma in the bad sense of the term, from becoming something dead, frozen, ossified; but it is at the same time sufficiently ‘definite’ to enable us to dissociate ourselves in the most emphatic and irrevocable manner from fideism and agnosticism, from philosophical idealism and the sophistry of the followers of Hume and Kant. Here is a boundary, which you have not noticed, and not having noticed it, you have fallen into the swamp of reactionary philosophy. It is the boundary between dialectical materialism and relativism.


Can Capitalism Last? A Marxist Update
by Daniel Rubin 
N. Y.,  International Publishers, 2009, $10.

January 9, 2010

Joomla SEF URLs by Artio

Google Translator

WFTU Poster Contest Winner

WFTU Poster 1st Prize