Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Michael Albert and Alan Maas debate the relevance Marxism

Okay, went through the Maas-Albert debate on Marxism. Tried to pick out some highlights below. To summarize, Albert argues against democratic centralism claiming that it is one sign of what he calls "coordinatorism" and was one of the factors that enabled Stalin to come to power.

I'm not sure if this necessarily connects to the Maas-Albert debate, but while I was going through that, I also did some thinking about the role of radical-left groups within Occupy. I see Occupy as a broad coalition, not just of radical groups, but of everyone who recognizes the current two-party political system is worthless. Occupy is invaluable in that it provides a rational structure, with which people can identify and attach their politics to, but as I see it, being a coalition limits what kind of artistic statements Occupy can make.

A coalition is based on a common subset of rational principles, with which all members can agree. Artistic statements are often subjective, and so could easily fall outside that subset. For instance, I would feel out-of-place proposing in the GA, "Occupy needs to make a short narrative film that illustrates the inherent savagery within capitalism." The advantage that ideological groups have is that ideological groups are based on a complete framework of rational principles, out of which subjective, artistic appeals can be created.

So that's how I see the role of radical groups within the Occupy movement: ideological groups should create appeals to people on the artistic, intuitive-ideological level.

Anyway, back to the debate, Albert's accusation "Marxism leads to coordinatorism" is perhaps one-sided in that coordinatorism is just one possible outcome of a successful Marxist-Leninist revolution, and hopefully not the odds-on outcome. I have to agree with Albert that the possibility is there.

Albert explains "coordinatorism"

I say that class exists due to ownership, yes, but also due to social relations of the division of labor. Some [labor] have positions that empower, others have positions that deaden. This differential can lead to class division. To pay attention to those who exist between labor and capital by saying they have some capitalistic attributes and some workeristic attributes, whatever combination and variation may be discussed, is precisely still seeing everything in terms of these two categories and not introducing a third.

The situation of those who monopolize empowering work and the levers of daily economic decision making power isn't just confused. This group between labor and capital isn't just the bottom of capitalists above merging into the top of workers below. It has its own position, its own definition, and as a result its own views and interests. Calling it the petty bourgeoisie is again just working in terms of the old ownership viewpoint...and paying attention to the wrong sector of people...they own a little but not a lot of capital. The point is to see that something other than ownership differences can be the source of class division and even class rule.

When you say that Marx insightfully noted that capitalists had to elevate a sector to a considerable degree of power, I say, yes, Marx himself understood a whole lot of things, and if this is one, that's good. But the richer understanding isn't embedded in the system that is called Marxism. If people who read a useful take on such matters from Marx or whoever else come to realize that it is possible for the situation in workplaces to demarcate a new class due to the distribution of empowering and disempowering tasks such that some people monopolize the former and the rest endure the latter, that'll be excellent.

Instead, Albert argues for councils:

There are some Marxists, they have been called council communists [a position associated with libertarian socialism], who tried to describe a truly socialist -- in the positive sense -- vision. I feel they just didn't get very far, though others might feel that is too dismissive. But they are the exception that proves the rule, in my view. They ought to be extolled as the best Marxism has had to offer. Instead, they are literally ignored, to my knowledge, by large Marxist parties the world round.

Maas explains how the early soviets functioned:

The soviets first appeared as workplace committees organized for a wave of battles over economic issues. But the need to respond to wider political questions--most obviously, the use of massive repression by the Tsar--led the councils to make links locally and then regionally. As Lenin described it, "Soviets of Workers Deputies are organs of direct mass struggle. They originated as organs of the strike struggle. By force of circumstance, they very quickly became the organs of general revolutionary struggle against the government. The course of events and the transition from a strike to an uprising irresistibly transformed them into organs of an uprising."

Here was the form, Lenin and the other revolutionary socialists of Russia recognized, through which workers could exercise power democratically. There was a direct connection between the economic power of workers and a new political system based on representation from the factory floor. The level of grassroots participation was obvious from the ratio of delegates to those they represented: one delegate for every 500 workers. And like the Paris Commune, delegates were immediately recallable and paid no more than an average workers’ wage.

Much of the argument centers around the term "state capitalism." Maas believes the term applies to the Soviet economy under Stalin, and also certain aspects of Western capitalist economies. Albert says that it is not useful to call the Soviet, Cuban, and Chinese economies "state capitalist" economies when there are no private owners of capital. Maas replies:

"Once you strip away the rhetoric, you’re left with the picture of a society dominated by a minority ruling class that controls the means of production--not through private ownership, but through the apparatus of the state. This ruling class, like its counterparts in Western-style capitalism, organizes production to meet the demands of competition--not the economic competition of individual capitals fighting to dominate the market, but the military competition of state capitals fighting for political survival. As under capitalism in the West, the primary goal is not the accumulation of private wealth (though this is certainly a goal!), but the accumulation of greater and greater means of production--in Stalinist Russia’s case, machinery and factories that could be devoted to military production.

Albert says it's more important to focus on how these countries arrived at this end picture:

You say "If Albert thinks a debate with me and the ISO about the relevance of Marxism is useful, then he should address himself to our Marxism--not the fake Marxism of bureaucrats and dictators that we have always rejected and opposed." I think I am speaking to the core views of Marxism, period. I think our disagreements indicate that. You wouldn't let an advocate of capitalism say don't talk to me about depressions, about starvation, about wars and colonization -- that's just bad capitalism, I am for good capitalism... Does the ISO utilize democratic centralism? If not, okay, I will take a closer look. But if so, that would be a big indicator for me...consistent, in my view, with coordinator dominance. But it could be that in addition the ISO has beliefs in many domains I would like and support, I don't know.

Maas and Albert also go back and forth about coordinatorism, and whether it does in fact represent a separate possibility from the rule of capital.

Albert's association of "coordinatorism" with Marxism comes out of left field. Does Albert really believe that the economic aims of accountants, lawyers and mid-level corporate executives were best expressed by Karl Marx?

...His argument, as I understand it, is that the societies which have called themselves socialist and been ruled over by people who claim to be Marxist--countries like the former USSR, China, Cuba, North Korea, etc.--should be understood as "coordinatorist."

Here is his description of "this new economy": "It has public or state ownership of productive assets and corporate divisions of labor. It remunerates power and/or output. It utilizes central planning and/or markets for allocation. It is typically called by its advocates market socialism or centrally planned socialism...It has been adopted by every Marxist party that has ever redefined a society's economic relations."

This is by and large an accurate description of the countries listed above, past and present. But the question is whether they were socialist--and whether the "Marxist parties" that redefined their economic relations had anything to do with Marxism.

My organization, the International Socialist Organization, is part of a tradition that has always rejected the idea that these top-down regimes represent Marxism. Our case is simple--that the starting principle of Marxism was summed up in a sentence written by Marx for the rules of the First International: "The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves." It doesn't matter what the rulers of the ex-USSR and the other so-called "socialist" countries called themselves--any more than it matters for our understanding of democracy that Bill Clinton calls himself a Democrat. The question is whether workers control society. In the USSR and the other bastions of "Marxism," the experience of workers wasn't one of control and freedom, but of exploitation, oppression and alienation from all levers of social and political control.

Albert claims that Marxist-Leninist theory has tendency towards concentrating power in the hands of "coordinators" even though that is not at all the intention. Specifically, they disagree about what happened in the early Soviet Union. Albert contends that democratic centralism was one factor that allowed "coordinators" such as Stalin come to power:

The problem isn't bad people. Yes, Stalin was no nice guy. But the problem was the institutions which select and elevate a thug like Stalin. The problem with Marxism Leninism isn't that everybody in those parties wants to trample workers on the road to ruling them. The problem is that those parties, and their core concepts, however well meaning many or even for most adherents may be, lead to that outcome. That's what I said before, and I say it here again. None of us, no one, is immune to the pressures of our circumstances, and on average concepts and organizational choices and strategies that have a built-in logic elevating coordinators are overwhelmingly likely to do just that: elevate coordinators.

Become a cop, even with the best motives the odds are you aren't going to serve the people, all the people, and some who take this route will become grotesque. Become a lawyer, even with the best motives the odds are that you aren't going to be a paragon of justice but an elitist coordinatorist person. Become a Leninist, with the very best of motives -- the very very best -- and the odds are you aren't going to make a revolution in our modern world, I think (for want of diverse focus and especially, ironically, true working class appeal), but if you do, the odds are your achievement will, even against your hopes, elevate coordinators to economic rule, not workers.

Maas's response to Albert's attacks:

Ultimately, Michael believes that the coordinator class can "wage a class war against capital," enlisting the support of workers to overthrow the system, but then "imposing their rule in the process and...dominating in the new society." We’ll leave aside for the moment whether this has ever happened. The question that I’d ask is: Why? Why go to the trouble of a revolution, when the instinct of members of the middle class--bred by their experience as managers who "command in the name of capital" and as a product of their whole world view--is to try to work their way up the ladder?

It’s one thing to discuss the role of the middle class or coordinator class under capitalism. But when you start imagining this class taking action to establish itself as the rulers over a new society, Michael’s case stops making sense, in my opinion. In fact, the only way it does make sense is to stop thinking of coordinators as doctors and lawyers and managers--that is, everyone that we’ve been talking about in the analysis of the coordinator class under capitalism--and understand them as a stalking horse for an argument against Marxism.


This is why--or at least the first few reasons why--the ISO has made the case for identifying the ex-USSR and its imitators in China, Cuba, etc., as "state capitalist" societies. Michael objects that that this argument is "far less useful than realizing that it must be, instead, if not capitalism, and if not an economy in which workers self manage--then something else." He quotes me comparing different aspects of the system in the ex-USSR and the West, but dismisses my case, because I apparently didn’t explain "the absence of that which for Marxists is usually the first thing mentioned about capitalism, that capitalists own the means of production."


if Michael is right, and Marxism’s "rhetorical entreaties" have, for the past 150 years, been a smokescreen for core principles that are fundamentally elitist, then an awful lot of people have been duped...

I’m open to a debate about what these leading Marxists have said and happy to point out--as I have at various points in this exchange--where I believe they were wrong. But in Michael’s "original sin" version of Marxism, they can’t possibly be right about their vision of a future socialist society ruled by the working-class majority. Whatever insights Marxists have had about capitalist society, as far as the future is concerned, there’s only rhetoric or principles that embody the interests of a middle class elite.

I don’t buy it. To me, there is neither an "elitist core" nor "fine-sounding rhetoric" in genuine Marxism--only a 150-year-old tradition that, though much developed over the years, can still be reduced to its commitment to a future society in which "the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all."

The full debate is available both through Albert's site:

and through

Going through the book Ben lent on Marxism and religion "The Meek and the Militant" by Paul Siegel, I found one a description of underlying principles of Marxism out of which I think the tendency towards coordinatorism might develop. Siegel quotes George Novack, "The Marxist theory of knowledge accepted...the empirical contention that all the contents of knowledge are derived from sense experience." Jung claims that sense experience is only half of the equation, and that intuition is an equally valid process. Intuition gives us access to the unconscious contents of the mind, which are either innate contents or compensatory contents that form when the psyche becomes too one-sided. Intuition "presents itself whole and complete, without our being able to explain or discover how this content came into existence." A good example of intuition involving innate content would be people's fear of spiders and snakes. For compensatory content, intuition re-centers the psyche. An example of compensatory content is illustrated through Jung's claim "too much civilization makes the animal in us sick," so the compensatory content would be that moment of epiphany or realization of the need for balance in life.

I came across a good description of Jung's theory of the innate content of the mind recently:

"The collective unconscious, which forms the deepest stratum of each human life, also forms a foundation common to all mankind. It is said that the entire spiritual heritage of man, gathered over two million years, flows within this deepest stratum. One of Jung's followers, C. S. Hall, analyzed man's fear of snakes and darkness, and concluded that such fears could not be fully explained by the experiences of a single lifetime. Personal experiences only seem to strengthen and reaffirm the inborn fear. We have inherited a fear of snakes and darkness from ancestors back in the unknown past. This is, then, a hereditary fear, according to Hall, which proves that ancestral experience is an engrained memory living in the deepest stratum of human life."

Following this line of thinking, Marxist theory has a tendency to alienate people who favor the intuitive, compensatory way of thinking, in favor of those who insist the content of knowledge comes through sense experience. The intuitive, compensatory thinkers, being a minority, end up being out-voted under democratic-centralism. As their way of thinking disagrees with a basic assumption of Marxism, they feel ill-equipped to make their voices heard.


  1. I think Albert would agree that Marx "was right" in a broad sense. His issue is more whether or not Marxist-Leninist theory successfully communicates the socialist vision in a way that connects with everyone. My hope is that discussion of the debate would be to improve our abilities to raise awareness about the inherent oppressiveness of class rule.

  2. One important thing that I didn't see Albert or Maas address (although truthfully I didn't read the whole debate, just your analysis and part of the debate) is that nearly all of the educated people in Russia were already a part of the Tsar's bureaucracy, and thus could not be replaced in any serious quantity by the Bolsheviks. These coordinators had their stranglehold on the bureaucracy long before the Bolsheviks came to power and were unfortunately the only people capable of managing the beast, and so could not be removed. This is important because these very people were the first generation of the coordinator class under soviet rule, and their creation was not accomplished by the Bolsheviks.

    Stalin's iron grasp on state power can't be described as a fault of democratic centralism because under Stalin, the decision making system ceased to be actually democratic and was central to Stalin himself rather than any collective party leadership. During Stalin's rule, the managerial strata were able to accumulate benefits for themselves above those of a typical worker (vacations, dacha access, food, clothing) which naturally created resentment among the proper working class. Stalin was well aware of this and used it to solidify his support among the working class. The victims of the NKVD included huge quantities of people from many backgrounds including any competent Bolshevik who would not become a bootlicker, random bootlickers, nationalists, anarchists, Mensheviks, Orthodox priests, and common criminals. The ones who bore the brunt of the onslaught, however, were the managers. Any underperformance of the factory (or even any fabricated reason) would be used to label the unfortunate bureaucrat or commissar a reactionary and send him off to the camps. The workers resented such people tremendously, and were often pleased to see them gone.

    Much of what I've said here comes from The Soviet Century by Moshe Lewin, which is to me critical reading for getting a basic grasp on the USSR, especially the Stalin phenomenon and how it differs from what came before Stalin and how it impacted what came after.

  3. Hey Royall, just saw your comment. I need to link this blog with my current e-mail address.

    The way I see Albert's argument about the danger of democratic centralism is that he is saying it can deteriorate into totalitarian control as it provides no system of checks and balances on a person's ego. Democratic centralism leaves open the possibility for someone who is a persuasive speaker or skillful at political manipulations, like Stalin, to grab power. This also has to do with the issue of whether the means of production can reach a point where "a atate of abundance" is available. What is abundance in America, for instance? The answer would differ from person to person. I greatly appreciate ISO's emphasis on the importance of worker control, but what about people who are not workers? What sort of control is given to them?

  4. So for instance, under democratic centralism, a skillful political maneuverer could claim that the economy is not sufficiently developed to provide abundance, and use that as an excuse for centralizing his or her power, rather than handing it to workers. They would likely have a lot of support in such a claim, as it is very difficult for a central body to create satisfactory living conditions for large numbers of people, as it's hard to predict what makes people feel satisfied, especially if you don't know them!