Book Review - The Alternative to Capitalism

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The alternative to capitalism is published by Theory and Practice whose website contains a broad range of texts from political currents such as the SPGB, left communism and situationism. The book contains essays by Adam Buick and John Crump which were first published in 1986 and 1987. It’s not presented as an official publication of the SPGB, although the book was sent to us for review by comrades who are members of the organisation. In any case, while Adam Buick is a longstanding member, John Crump left the SPGB in the 1970s, criticising the party’s parliamentary conception of revolution and arguing – as we shall see – that the SPGB was by no means the only authentically socialist organisation in the world, in opposition to the ‘hostility clause’ contained in its 1904 statement of principles[1]. Despite these criticisms, relations between Crump and the SPGB seem to have remained fraternal until his death in 2005, and it would also seem that one of the reasons why the Socialist Studies group split from the party (or as it sees it ‘reconstituted the SPGB’) in 1991[2] was the influence of Crump’s efforts to push the SPGB in certain untraditional directions.

The first part of the book is a straightforward account of what capitalism actually is, a task that it is as necessary as ever given the immense sea of confusion which surrounds the term. The idea that capitalism can be defined as individual enterprise or ownership, a conception shared both by the openly capitalist right and the allegedly anti-capitalist left, still has to be confronted and rejected: it was central to the ideology pervading the ‘Occupy’ movements of 2011, where notions of making the rich pay their taxes, abolishing bankers’ bonuses, defending public ownership etc were extremely tenacious despite the waning influence of the established organisations of the left within these movements. The essay was originally published as ‘State capitalism: the wages system under new management’ and the central aim of this return to basics is to show that state capitalism, whether in its Stalinist, social democratic or other political forms, remains capitalism because capitalism is not at root a form of property but a social relation, where the mass of producers are compelled to sell their labour power, and a capitalist minority (private or state) accumulate the value extracted from this inherently exploitative relationship. It then goes on to do what the SPGB has been doing for over a hundred years now: defend the fundamental principle that socialism (or communism, it rightly sees the terms as interchangeable) can only be based on the abolition of the wage relationship, and is a stateless, moneyless world community.

We have few criticisms of this section of the book, except to say that it has a somewhat timeless approach which doesn’t really explain why state capitalism has become the most important form of capitalist ‘management’ for the entire period of the SPGB’s history. For us, this can only be understood with reference to the passage of the capitalist mode of production from its ascendant to its decadent phase: in a system faced with near permanent war and economic crisis, and dangerous outbreaks of revolutionary class struggle, state capitalism - the state’s totalitarian grip on social and economic life - becomes a condition for ensuring the survival of the system. Although the SPGB has always rejected our conception of decadence, it holds some conceptions which are not far from it in practice, such as the idea that from the beginning of the 20th century capitalism had created the material conditions for abundance and thus for the socialist transformation, rendering capitalism ‘obsolete’. But the full implications of the system becoming a barrier to human progress have never been drawn by the SPGB, even if in conversations with individual members there is obviously a serious interest in this question.[3]

It also seems evident to us that there are many comrades in the SPGB who feel somewhat embarrassed by the idea that ‘electing a socialist majority’ to parliament could be at least part of the revolutionary process. We will come back to this, but for now we want to turn to two of the ideas contained in the essay by John Crump, who was, as we have already noted, a critic of the parliamentary road: the idea of the ’thin red line’, and the idea that socialism could be achieved without an intervening period of transition.  

The essay ‘The thin red line and non-market socialism in the 20th century’[4] complements the essay by Adam Buick in the sense that it shows that most of the officially accepted varieties of ‘socialism’ are actually proponents of state capitalism and can thus be seen as a left wing of capitalism. Crump terms them ‘social democratic’ and ‘Leninist’, the latter referring mainly to the Stalinist regimes of the eastern bloc which were still in existence at the time of writing. We reject the term Leninist to describe these regimes, since this equates the Stalinist parties which managed them with the revolutionary Bolshevik party of 1917, but we don’t intend to enter into that debate right now.

Overall, we find this essay to be based on a positive and constructive premise: that throughout the 20th century, a genuine vision of socialism has been maintained by a number of political currents which have shared five key points in opposition to the false conception of socialism propagated by the left wing of capital:  production for use; distribution according to need; voluntary labour; a human community; opposition to  capitalism as it manifests itself in all existing countries. He categorises these currents as follows: anarcho-communism; impossibilism (groups like the SPGB) ; council communism; Bordigism; situationism. These groups make up the real socialist tradition of the 20th century.

We could object to the categories or see the need to update them: there are plenty of anarcho-syndicalists today who fulfil the criteria; there’s no space for left communist groups like the ICC and ICT which are neither council communist nor Bordigist; situationism is hardly a political movement these days while on the other hand there are a number of groups which belong to the ‘communisation’ current which certainly fit the overall category. And we could add various other political animals to the ark.

We could also say that the criteria for marking off a genuine socialist/communist movement from the left wing of capital should lay much more emphasis on the last point, which seems to be added as an afterthought. This is essentially the question of internationalism, and it’s the only one which actually refers to present day political issues rather than the programme for the future. And we have seen in the past how this criterion, above all when concretised by the question of imperialist war, has been a true dividing line between loyalty to and betrayal of the socialist cause. 

However, as we said, the basic approach is a fruitful one. In opposition to the sectarianism of the ‘hostility’ clause, Crump is arguing that there something like a ‘proletarian political camp’ which shares certain common principles despite their many differences (such as the parliamentary question, the role of the vanguard party, etc). Crump even defends the Bordigists against the charge that their position on the party makes them indistinguishable from leftist groups like the Trotskyists. We don’t know where the SPGB officially stands on this idea of the ‘thin red line’. We do know that the Socialist Studies group specifically cited Crump’s views on this issue as a revision of the SPGB’s principles. The SPGB has always been prepared to debate with anyone, irrespective of their class nature. But this recognition of a wider milieu than the party itself demands something a bit more: it demands a recognition that we are comrades who should have an attitude of mutual solidarity towards each other, an attitude that is sadly missing in today’s proletarian political movement.

At the end of the essay Crump speculates that it might in future be necessary to add a sixth criterion: opposition to any notion of a transitional society. In his view socialism must be introduced straight away or not at all:

“One feature which capitalism and socialism have in common is their all-or-nothing quality, their inability to coexist in today's highly integrated world, which can provide an environment for only one or other of these rival global systems. In the circumstances of the twentieth century, the means of production must either function as capital throughout the world (in which case wage labour and capitalism persist internationally) or they must be commonly owned and democratically controlled at a global level (in which case they would be used to produce wealth for free, worldwide distribution). No halfway house between these two starkly opposed alternatives exists, and it is the impossibility of discovering any viable 'transitional' structures which ensures that the changeover from world capitalism to world socialism will have to take the form of a short, sharp rupture (a revolution), rather than an extended process of cumulative transformation....”

 Here Crump is very much on the same lines as the SPGB (and others such as the communisation tendency).

We agree with Crump and the SPGB that state capitalism is not a transitional stage towards socialism, and that the economic programme of a victorious working class does not consist of ‘accumulating’ value to the point where here is a sufficient level of productive capacity to make abundance possible. Capitalism has already developed a huge overcapacity and what is required is the transformation of the productive apparatus rather than its ‘development’ in any capitalist sense.

But what strikes one is how superficially optimistic Crump’s vision is. He admits that capitalism has bequeathed us a bit of a mess which will have to be cleared up, and that some temporary measures may be needed to deal with shortages, but at the same time we will almost overnight (a few months, or at most a few years) have eliminated markets, nations, and all the rest of it, and be living in a world of free access communism.

It seems like a vast underestimation:

-          Of the dire material consequences of capitalism surviving a hundred years into its epoch of senility, at the level of ecological damage, the waste and irrationality of a productive apparatus geared to competition and war;

-          Of the inevitable brutal reaction of the ruling class which will not recognise any legal niceties in attempting to suppress a revolutionary movement;

-          Of the near impossibility of the revolution being simultaneous in all countries at once, and thus the necessity to subordinate any economic measures taken in the area controlled by the working class to the number one priority of spreading the revolution internationally;

-          Of the ideological poison distilled not only by a hundred years of barbarism but also of thousands of years of class society, of alienated social relations which will constantly hold back humanity’s efforts to become self-aware and self-organised[5];

-          Of the inability of capitalism to create a world limited to bourgeoisie and proletarians, which means that the proletarian revolution will be faced with the task of integrating millions of individuals who belong to other non-exploiting strata and who will not have the same material interest in communism. Exchange will still exist with small property owners for example, hence the law of value will not vanish until all these social layers have been incorporated into the working class.

It’s of course true that to make the revolution in the first place the working class will have to confront and overcome many of the ideological obstacles which hold it down, as well as the physical barriers erected by the bourgeois state. But class consciousness is not something that is downloaded for good - it evolves through advances and retreats and there is no guarantee that even after the first victories of the revolution, initial difficulties in taking the communist programme forward will not result in regressions and even counter-revolutionary moods. The struggle for communist ideas will be every bit as intense after the revolution as before it. For all these reasons, a phase of transition between capitalism and communism will be inevitable.

This is a major discussion and we can’t hope to take it very far here[6]. But one thing does need to be said. Crump considers that the rejection of a transition period could be a sixth key point demarcating real socialists from apologists for capital, but we would suggest that some of the other differences among the ‘non-market socialists’ could become much more crucial well before the working class had assumed political power: in particular, we would expect that communists would be involved in a real political struggle against organisations and tendencies who argued that the councils should submit to this or that party ‘by right’ – or against those who argued that instead of being diametrically opposed to each other , councils and parliament can co-exist, a fatal error that helped bury the German revolution (and thus the Russian revolution as well) in 1918-19.



[3] See also this recent contribution by Binay Sarkar of the Indian affiliate of the World Socialist Movement.

[5] There is a debate on the question of transition on the SPGB internet forum here. One of the SPGB’s posters – ALB – expressed surprise at the emphasis the ICC comrade (Alf) placed on the subjective elements of the revolutionary process and the necessary but difficult struggle against alienation:

[6] For a more global view about why periods of transition between one mode of production and another are necessary, see: