Even those of you who do not keep tabs on French affairs may have seen reports that President Franҫois Hollande's government has undergone a bouleversement. Briefly, three of the most left-wing of his ministers, who have been persistently critical of his austerity economic policies, are out and safe loyalists are replacing them. You can see Paul Krugman's account of the matter, with some very interesting and rather surprising statistics, on his blog. Needless to say, I am very distressed. In my artless Japanese way [to quote a phrase from The Mikado], I took it as a very good thing when the Socialists swept to power in France. Although my French friends warned me that Hollande was hardly a fire-breather, I was intoxicated by the experience of owning property in a country with a government that wrapped itself in the Red Flag. I even found myself living in an arrondissement that went for the Socialists, though not by as much as the working class districts farther from the center of Old Paris. So it has been hard for me to watch the slow disintegration of my hopes and dreams as Hollande has thrown in his lot with Angela Merkel and the dastardly German austeriocrats.
Then I thought, "What would my reliably radical readers [the three R's] say about my distress at Hollande's failure even to follow the policy proposals of the more adept defenders of capitalism, such as Krugman, who of course have been beating up on the proponents of austerity in Europe and America for years?" Would they tell me that I should have known better? And that in turn brought me back to the old question that has haunted socialists like a spectre for a hundred and fifty years: Will the long awaited transition to Socialism, deo volente, come quietly through evolution or violently by way of revolution?
Marx tells two stories, and though they are not at all incompatible with one another, they prepare us in quite different ways for possible futures. The first story is found in the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, a work Marx published in 1859 during the time when he was writing Capital. The crucial passage from the Preface, which has been many times quoted, is as follows: "No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself."
This passage was obviously shaped by Marx's study of the centuries-long process by which nascent mercantile was born within late feudal Europe and grew slowly until its explosion into full scale industrial capitalism, first in England in the late eighteenth century, then in France, and finally in Germany and other parts of Europe as well as in the Americas. Marx had nothing but scorn for the so-called Utopian Socialists who sat at their writing desks planning ideal socialist communities without considering by what steps such fantasies might be realized. My essay, "The Future of Socialism," to which I periodically refer [see box.net] is an attempt to think through precisely the processes within the womb of capitalism that can be construed as preparing the way for the possibility of socialism.
Marx's second story is to be found both in the very early Communist Manifesto and in the pages of Capital, where he describes in some detail the internal "contradictions" of capitalism that are leading rapidly and inexorably to a revolutionary transition from capitalism to socialism. To summarize a complex and nuanced story in a sentence, Marx thinks that the same internal processes of unchecked capitalist competition that produce ever more violent economic booms and busts also, albeit quite unintentionally on the part of the capitalists, generate increasingly successful efforts within the working class to organize and mobilize to combat the devastation wrought by capitalist competition. As a consequence of these two internal tendencies within capitalism, at about the time when the capitalists manage to wreck their own system in a world-wide economic crash, a mobilized and energized international working class movement, that has achieved a high level of self-consciousness [and hence is, as the old saying has it, a class for itself as well as in itself], will stand ready to rise up, overthrow the political order that protects capitalism, and establish a new socialist order. [God, how I love to write those words! It is like repeating the stories I read as a boy of ogres and princes and the overthrowing of evil step-fathers.]
Neither the first story nor the second offers much in the way of hope for socialist wannebes, I am afraid. I have identified in my essay developments within capitalism at the microeconomic level that one can plausibly construe as a new order growing in the womb of the old. And recent events certainly suggest on the macroeconomic level that capitalism is trapped in a sequence of crises that ought to provide openings for radical restructurings, whether violent or not. But there is very little evidence I can see of the development of an organized national or international working class movement poised to seize the day. I have tried in my essay to identify the principal reasons for the failure of this movement to emerge.
What to do? I really do not know. I hardly think writing about these matters on a blog will make much of a contribution, but then, what will? For a variety of reasons, the era of the labor union seems to be behind us, at least for those not in the public sector.
Does anyone have a suggestion?