Neoliberalism, Capitalism, and Prisons

The advent of the neoliberal period has lead many to assert that we are living in an entirely new historical epoch, for which Marx is inadequate. I have argued previously that neoliberalism is primarily in continuity with capitalism, rather than rupture with it. Given the role of mass incarceration in the neoliberal era, I believe it is worth examining private prisons in order to drive this point home.

The institution of private prison is the subject of much debate. Proponents argue that the system is a cost-effective option. It allows the government to conserve tax dollars and allows cash-starved states to reallocate the funds. However, these assertions run counter to the vast majority of data. In this essay, I will argue that private prisons are not in fact cost effective. Instead, they serve only to incentivize criminalization and exploit the labor of inmates. Further, their function is one that capitalism-and especially neoliberal capitalism-cannot do without. As such, the abolition of private prisons is impossible under capitalism.

The most important argument offered up by the pro-privatization camp is that for-profit prisons are cheaper than publicly owned correctional facilities. This argument rests on the assumption that cost-cutting is important enough to overlook the violence and exploitation that occurs in private prisons, which strikes me as spurious. A great many activities that harm humanity, such as the cutting of environmental safety regulations, result in greater profits. Despite this, no one (except perhaps a particularly unscrupulous capitalist) would say that profit stands above the wellbeing of the environment. Why, then, should this logic apply to prison privatization? Regardless, this is a myth that has been employed time and again in defense of private prisons, so it is worth taking the time to deconstruct it.

It is true that there is no database of public and private prisons through which it would be possible to control for things like size, jurisdiction, and so on. This makes a comparative cost analysis admittedly difficult. However, the data that does exist does not support the idea that private prisons are more cost effective than public ones. Data from the Arizona Department of Corrections show that private prisons can cost as much as $1,600 more per year, while many cost about the same as they do in state-run prisons [1].  Further, researchers at the University of Utah concluded in 2007 “cost savings from privatizing prisons are not guaranteed and appear minimal” [2]. Finally, a review of the 24 studies on the cost effectiveness of private prisons revealed inconclusive results regarding cost savings. They also found no considerable difference in cost effectiveness [3]. These studies all show that the myth of the cost-effective private prison is just that: a myth. At best, the data are inconclusive. There is simply no credible way to assert that private prisons are more cost effective than their public counterparts.

There have been several studies that claim to prove this point, however. One was conducted at Temple University by two researchers who claim to be independent. However, the study received funding from Correctional Corporation of America, the United State’s largest private prison company [4]. Clearly, studies that are paid for by the very industry they seek to expose cannot be considered credible. There have been very few truly independent studies that have found that private prisons provide a monetary gain to taxpayers. As such, there is no economic justification for the proliferation of private prisons.

If private prisons do not justify themselves from a monetary standpoint, as I have just argued, what exactly do they do? Their purpose cannot be saving taxpayers money, but neither could they exist without a purpose. It must be the case that private prisons perform some function. The question now is, which function? They are certainly not concerned with rehabilitation, and may even incentivize criminalization. Data from one Minnesota report confirm, “that privatization significantly lowers the level of correctional effectiveness, facility security, and public safety compared to what is now provided by the public system” [5]. Private prisons, therefore, cannot be considered more effective or safer than public facilities. Their purpose must be something other than the rehabilitation of criminals.

As Angela Davis has argued, the true purpose of private prisons is the exploitation of labor. According to Davis, the use of prison as a source of labor began earnestly in the 1980’s. She writes, “Companies such as Correctional Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group reaped the profits attracting investments from household names, including the Bank of America, Fidelity Investments and Wells Fargo and also from many universities around the nation” [6]. They gained these profits by forcing their inmates to engage in labor. The inmates are well aware of this. According to one report, as many as 60,000 detained immigrants have engaged in “forced labor” for profit-driven correctional facilities [7]. Private prisons, to put it bluntly, are sites of a new American slavery.

This slavery is completely legal. The 13th amendment prohibited slavery-with one exception. The so-called “punishment clause” mandates that forced labor shall be prohibited “except as a punishment for crime” [8]. This clause was taken directly from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The clause reflected a common belief that hard work was essential to the rehabilitation of criminals. From its inception, however, the clause was used to police black citizens and restrict their rights. Frederick Douglass described it this way at the time: “[States] claim to be too poor to maintain state convicts within prison walls. Hence the convicts are leased out to work for railway contractors, mining companies and those who farm large plantations. These companies assume charge of the convicts, work them as cheap labor and pay the states handsome revenue for their labor. Nine-tenths of these convicts are negroes” [9]. Douglass also notes that so many blacks were behind bars because law enforcement tended to target them. This insight remains relevant to discussions of private prisons today. Law enforcement targets vulnerable populations-immigrants and people of color-and force them to labor for the profit of the owners. This is not fundamentally different from the institution of slavery of centuries past. Correctional corporations have used the specter of economic efficiency to perpetuate a barbaric and inhuman institution. For this, there is no excuse.

It is true that criminals should be expected to forfeit some portion of their freedom when they commit crimes. However, many of the aforementioned detained immigrants have committed no offenses beyond entering the country illegally. Many immigrants must contend with immense poverty in their home countries, oftentimes imposed by the United States. The North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, was intended to promote economic development for the United States and Mexico. According to a report from the CPER, however, “Mexican poverty has risen since the deal’s implementation in 1994 as economic growth and real wages stagnated while nearly 5 million family farmers were displaced, propelling Mexico’s poor toward migration to the United States” [10]. Immigration is directly attributable to the poverty imposed upon Mexico by NAFTA. Private prisons do not generally house dangerous elements that must be cut off from wider society. They are used to pen in desperate workers who believe they have no other choice.

This is remarkably similar to the processes that beget the development of capitalism in Europe. European capitalism arose out of feudalism, but this was not a natural occurrence. Rather, it came about through the enforced transformation of the peasant masses and feudal retinues into an industrial working class. Peasants were driven off their land and into the cities to work in factories. Drunkenness, pauperism, and vagrancy-the cardinal sin of existing while homeless-these became criminal offences. Prisons began as a means by which to discipline an emergent working class [11].  Even the classical political economists of the time understood the integral role of prison in the exploitation of labor. Bentham, a celebrated economist, detailed plans for a structure he called the Panopticon. In the words of author Michael Perelman, this was, “a prison engineered for the maximum control of inmates in order to profit from their labor” [12]. Although the Panopticon never materialized, the prison system continued to be a weapon for the repression of the workers during this period. This system was widely considered a success at the time, so it is no wonder that the American ruling class has seen fit to replicate it today.

A predictable rebuttal would be that this is an unfair comparison, since there is not a developing working class in the United States as was the case in England. Granted, Mexican farmers and English peasants in the feudal era have very different experiences of day-to-day life. In a broad sense, however, parallels can be drawn between them. Both worked land, often communally, until capitalist states forced them off this land and into poverty. Faced with starvation, both migrated to other areas to work for bosses in exploitative conditions. Many Mexican farmers still perform agricultural labor, while feudal peasants often worked in then-new factories. Further, feudal peasants migrated within England, whereas Mexican immigrants have been forced to leave their home country entirely. Despite these differences, however, both instances have meant mass migration and an increase in the amount of exploitable labor in a particular area. As such, the characterization of Mexicans displaced by NAFTA as a “developing working class” or an “emergent proletariat” is accurate, at least in the American context.

Private prisons are not about rehabilitation. They are not even about crime. Like the prisons of the industrial revolution, they are about disciplining the working class. They serve a purpose that is necessary for the perpetuation of capitalism at this particular moment. The experience of capitalism’s beginnings shows that prisons themselves have always been a tool of the ruling class. The privatization of prisons was inevitable, brought about by changes in the relations of production (the movement from feudalism to capitalism). It therefore follows that private prisons cannot be done away with without the abolition of capitalism.

The prison industrial complex, as Davis has termed it, can only be understood in a dialectical sense [13]. Prison profiteering is both the cause and effect of mass incarceration. Capitalism’s contradictions spawned the prison system. One of the many causes of crime under capitalism is poverty. The results of one study “imply that if there is a culture of violence, its roots are pronounced economic inequalities” [14]. Capitalism, as a system that pits workers in competition with one another, requires poverty in order to function. Poverty allows capitalists to drive down wages and worsen conditions. If one worker will not accept a particular job, poverty ensures that some other worker will. In this sense, capitalism uses poverty as a tool to perpetuate itself.

German political economist Karl Marx elucidated a similar point in his book The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, in which he wrote, “When society is in a state of progress, the ruin and impoverishment of the worker is the product of his labor and of the wealth produced by him” [15]. Because workers under capitalism produce wealth that does not belong to them, the very process of production ensures that workers will be poor. The principle of exploitation states that workers are only ever paid enough money to enable them to continue working, nothing more. This means that the vast majority of workers will be poor. Even if poverty did not serve the function mentioned above, it would still be an unavoidable aspect of capitalism. This being the case, capitalism is structurally incapable of addressing the root of crime. The system must, therefore, find a way to profit from it. The prison system, as a result, is now a lucrative investment opportunity for innumerable corporations.

Microsoft, Wal-Mart, and Dell, among others, have adopted a system that bares a striking resemblance to the convict-leasing system described by Douglass. In prisons across the country, work sunup to sundown for major corporations. They produce or package every kind of commodity, from weapons intended for military use to Starbucks coffee. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, “Sentenced inmates are required to work if they are medically able. Institution work assignments include employment in areas like food service or the warehouse, or work as an inmate orderly, plumber, painter, or groundskeeper. Inmates earn 12¢ to 40¢ per hour for these work assignments. Approximately sixteen percent (16%) of work-eligible inmates work in Federal Prison Industries (FPI) factories. They gain marketable job skills while working in factory operations, such as metals, furniture, electronics, textiles, and graphic arts. FPI work assignments pay from 23¢ to $1.15 per hour” [16].

In addition to private prisons getting away with paying lower wages than private corporations, they also subject their inmates to atrocious conditions. A prisoner forced into agricultural labor describes her experience this way: “They wake us up between 2:30 and three AM and kick us out of our housing unit by 3:30AM. We get fed at four AM. Our work supervisors show up between 5AM and 8AM. Then it’s an hour to a one and a half hour drive to the job site. Then we work eight hours regardless of conditions . . .. We work in the fields hoeing weeds and thinning plants . . . Currently we are forced to work in the blazing sun for eight hours. We run out of water several times a day. We ran out of sunscreen several times a week. They don’t check medical backgrounds or ages before they pull women for these jobs. Many of us cannot do it! If we stop working and sit on the bus or even just take an unauthorized break we get a major ticket which takes away our ‘good time'” [17].

Here, we see the true purpose of private prisons. They are intended to create an easily manipulated workforce who can legally be paid wages that are below the value of their labor power. The exploitation and disciplining of the working class represented the impetus for prisons to exist in the first place, and the same logic is being used to promote their privatization today.

It should be noted that the function of prisons as a method of social control-a tool to discipline the woirking class-is the primary function of prisons, both public and private, in the United States. While private prisons are in many cases a money-making venture for capitalists, their major function is to control the working class of oppressed nations. When we look at prison populations (whether private or public), we can see where mass incarceration gets its impetus. The vast majority of prisoners are New Afrikans, Chicanxs, and peoples of the First Nations (even though euro-Americans are the majority of the U.S. population). The prison is not primarily a revenue racket, but an instrument of social control. Although profit-making (and thus exploitation) is a motivating factor in their proliferation, they should be seen as tools to beat the working class into submission [18].

Scholars Wagner and Rabuy support this idea in their paper “Following the Money of Mass Incarceration”. The paper presents the division of costs within the prison industry as the judicial and legal costs, policing expenditures, civil asset forfeiture, bail fees, commissary expenditures, telephone call charges, “public correction agencies” (like public employees and health care), construction costs, interest payments, and food/utility costs [19].

The authors outline their methodology for arriving at their statistics and admit that “[t]here are many items for which there are no national statistics available and no straightforward way to develop a national figure from the limited state and local data” [20]. Despite these obvious weaknesses in obtaining concrete reliable data, the overwhelming correctness of this analysis stands.

Wagner and Rabuy discuss the private prison industry at the end of the article. Here, they write:

“To illustrate both the scale of the private prison industry and the critical fact that this industry works under contract for government agencies — rather than arresting, prosecuting, convicting and incarcerating people on its own — we displayed these companies as a subset of the public corrections system [21].”

Private prisons have been justified on the basis that they are more cost-effective than the alternative. Data show that this is incorrect. Even if this were the case, however, that would not justify the rank exploitation of the inmates. Chattel slavery is no longer justified by this logic, so there is no reason that slavery behind bars should be subject to this argument either.

Private prisons, contrary to what proponents argue, have nothing to do with rehabilitation. They are about amassing profits for wealthy corporate owners and, chiefly, controlling undesirable populations. There is no argument, economic or otherwise, that can be used to justify their continued use. Private prisons and the capitalist system that necessitates them must be abolished. What this shows is that neoliberalism is simply a new era of capitalist development. In our struggle against it, we should continue to look to Marx and those who came after him.

  1. Oppel, Richard A. “Private Prisons Found to Offer Little in Savings.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 May 2011, 
  2. Lundahl, Brad, et. al. MSW “Prison Privatization: A Meta-Analysis of Cost Effectiveness and Quality of Confinement Indicators” Utah Criminal Justice Center, College of social work, University of Utah. April 26, 2007. 
  3. Oppel, Richard A. “Private Prisons Found to Offer Little in Savings.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 May 2011, 
  4. Petrella, Christopher. “CCA Continues to Cite Misleading Study It Funded.” American Civil Liberties Union. American Civil Liberties Union, 26 Apr. 2015
  5. Austin and G. Coventry, “Emerging Issues on Privatized Prisons,” Bureau of Justice Assistance, February 2001.
  6. “Dr. Angela Davis – The Voice of the Oppressed.” Center for the Study of Democracy, 9 Nov. 2015.
  7. Short, April M. “As many as 60,000 detained immigrants may have engaged in forced labor for private prison companies.” Salon
  8. Kamal, Ghali. “No Slavery Except as a Punishment for Crime: The Punishment Clause and Sexual Slavery.” UCLA Law Review, 22 Oct. 2009, 
  9. “The Convict Lease System by Frederick Douglass.” The Reason why the colored American is not in the World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893.
  10. TeleSUR et al. “NAFTA Plunges 20M Mexicans into Poverty: Report.” News | teleSUR English,
  11. “Poverty and the workhouse.” The British Library – The British Library,
  12. Michael Perelman, The Invention of Capitalism. Duke University Press, 2000, p. 21
  13. “Dr. Angela Davis – The Voice of the Oppressed.” Center for the Study of Democracy, 9 Nov. 2015. Op. Cit.
  14. Judith R. Blau and Peter M. Blau, American Sociological Review Vol. 47, No. 1 (Feb., 1982), p.114-129
  15. Karl Marx, “Marx 1844: Wages of Labor.” Marxists Internet Archive 
  16. “Federal Bureau of Prisons.” BOP: Work Programs,
  17. Victoria Law, Truthout. “Martori Farms: Abusive Conditions at a Key Wal-Mart Supplier.” Truthout, 2011.
  18. Peter Wagner and Bernadette Rabuy, Following the Money of Mass Incarceration (Prison Policy Initiative), 25 January 2017. 
  19. Ibid
  20. Ibid.
  21. Peter Wagner, Are Private Prisons Driving Mass Incarceration? (Prison Policy Initiative), October 7, 2017. 
  22. Ibid.

Marxism and Elections Part Two

In my last blog post, (here) I argued that Marxists cannot hope to win socialism solely through the electoral system. The capitalist state is rigged against the interests of workers. Sacrificing other kinds of organizing in favor of intervention in the electoral sphere can only result in the defeat of the socialist movement. However, this does not mean that socialist parties should abstain from elections entirely. There are a variety of benefits to standing in elections, In this essay, I hope to outline them from a Marxist perspective.

I think the best place to begin is with The Communist Manifesto. This document was drafted at the founding of the Communist League, a revolutionary organization that Marx and Engels helped to organize. The Manifesto was meant to serve as a set of perspectives that could guide the League in its revolutionary struggle. In it, Marx and Engels pointed to three strategic tasks for the Communists. The first was that they needed to build working class organizations at the primary site of worker’s power: the workplace. Secondly, they had to build social movements to fight against all forms of oppression in society more broadly. Finally, struggle necessitated the construction of an independent political party of and for the working class to, as they put it, “win the battle of democracy” [1].  This battle broke out in a very serious way in 1848, before the ink on the Manifesto had even dried. The 1848 revolutions, by way of background, essentially constituted mass uprisings against the reactionary feudal order and replace it with a representative, democratic one. During this period, the workers were the most militant and dedicated fighters. They were prepared to carry the revolution through to its democratic end. The capitalists, although they mouthed support for democracy and revolution, betrayed the struggle by forming alliances with the feudal oligarchy [2].

The Communist League was far too small to determine the course of these events, but by relating to the wave of revolutions that broke out across Europe in this period, Marx and Engels could better articulate what they meant when they called for an independent working class political party. Marx wrote a document entitled “The March 1850 Address to the Communist League.” In it, he put forward a strategy to prevent another 1848-style betrayal of the working class. He wanted to ensure that the next democratic revolution would be completed to its fullest extent. This strategy grants insights into the ideas of Marx and Engels concerning the relationship between revolutionary socialism and electoral politics. This document was of such great importance that Lenin supposedly committed it to memory [3].

The document warned against workers entering into tight alliances with capitalists. Marx again argued for the formation of an independent worker’s party, in which the working class could realize its potential to lead the revolution through to the end. This political party was described as “the coming together or coordination of various communes and worker’s associations” [4]. The communes referred to local branches of the Communist League, while worker’s associations meant unions, clubs, and the like. Each of the local worker’s groups formed by this coordination was to act as a nucleus or center in which “the position and interests of the proletariat can be discussed free from bourgeois influence” [5]. Here, Marx is arguing not merely for the organizational independence of the working class, but also its political independence, which would be formed from the ground up.

Marx points out that this organization-formed again by the merger of the advanced communist organizations and the worker’s movement as a whole-must be capable of functioning both in secret and in the open. Further, this organization must arm itself to create a military force independent of the existing state. Then, as a product of the revolutionary creation of a representative democracy, this organization must “run its own candidates within the new electoral system and take every opportunity to put forward [its] own demands so that the bourgeois democratic government not only immediately loses the support of the workers but finds themselves, from the beginning, supervised and threatened by authorities behind which stand the whole mass of the workers” [6].

Here, we see one of the key reasons why standing in elections can be a useful tool. Seeing a worker’s party on the ballot threatens the bourgeoisie’s stranglehold over the status quo. It shows them that they are being watched, that we are working to overthrow them. This may help reign them in and push them further left. Although running in elections can never bring about socialism on its own, our mere presence on the ballot may be enough to win workers minimal gains in the short term. When we explain to workers how these gains were won, they will be more likely to rally behind us. It is only at this stage that the Party can really become a force to be reckoned with. Electoral engagement, then, does two things: it keeps the bourgeoisie in check and shows workers that there is an organization fighting for their interests.

The second element is the most important. Even when there was no potential at all of getting a candidate elected to government, Marx and Engels argued that the worker’s party must still put forward their own candidates. This helped to preserve the independence of the working class, project working class politics into public life, and assess the audience for such politics and count the forces behind the workers. Standing for elections, even when we know we cannot win them, is an important ideological and organizational tool. It shows workers that someone is standing with them, someone really does represent their interests. Socialist candidates give us a rallying point. They give us a face. Standing in elections turns us into a legitimate, visible political movement capable of making public gains.  It also provides us a point to refer people who have questions about politics. In effect, socialist intervention in the electoral sphere makes working class politics visible, and thus helps to radicalize those sectors of society most willing and able to bring about socialism.

Further, standing in elections can help us gain key information about the strength of our movement. We will know how many votes the worker’s party received, and thus understand the kind of manpower we have at our disposal. We can measure the strength of our movement against the strength of our opponents, and use this data to ascertain what kind of action is possible in the streets. In this sense, standing in elections is not only advantageous for the masses, but for the Party itself.

It is often claimed that standing in elections is counterproductive, because socialist candidates will split the vote between themselves and the mainstream “center left” party. It is argued that instead of running our own candidates, we should accept the lesser of two evils. Marx and Engels took a firm stance against this, writing,

“All such talk means, in the final analysis, is that the proletariat is to be swindled. The progress which the proletarian party will make by operating independently in this way is infinitely more important than the disadvantage resulting from the presence of a few reactionaries in representative bodies. If the forces of democracy [meaning the liberals] take decisive action against the reactionaries from the very beginning, the reactionary influence in the election will already have been destroyed” [7].

Essentially, what Marx and Engels mean is that if the liberals lose elections, it is not because a proletarian party has split the vote. Rather, it is because the liberals themselves have failed to put forward a program that the masses can rally around, and in so doing neutralize the reactionaries.

The purpose of running in elections, in Marx and Engels’ view, was this: win the masses over politically, challenge the political hegemony of the capitalist class, pose a real alternative to its agenda, and to defend that alternative by force. The electoral strategy, then, was to be part of a process of self-activity, leading to the self-emancipation of the working class.

Marx and Engels, therefore, saw the fight for representative democracy as crucial. It opened up important political space, as well as a range of tactics and tools that workers could integrate into the revolutionary struggle. This did not, however, mean that radical change could be won by electing socialists to office and legislating it into being. Elections were seen as a tool, one component part of a wider revolutionary strategy that included an armed and militant working class. Elections were not to be a substitute for this militant organization.

Twenty-five years after the March Address was written, the German Socialist Party (SDP) came into being. Within ten years, they had already won half a million votes for their candidates running for seats in parliament. By 1912, they had built up an impressive membership and exercised a considerable degree of political influence in working class life [8]. This shows that elections can be a kind of “broadcasting station” for the Party and its platform. Elections cannot bring about socialism, but they can help galvanize workers to do so.

The experience of the SDP, although it does prove that standing in elections has some benefit, also shows the dangers of treating the electoral area as the primary site of struggle. Given the aforementioned success in this area, it is perhaps understandable that a significant faction within the Party argued that a socialist society could be voted into being. The left wing of the SDP, led by Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, and Paul Levey, understood that this was a pipe dream. The real power in society, they argued, does not lie with the elected officials. It lies with the board members of corporations and the heads of the major financial institutions in society. These people are not elected, but the government is really set up to serve them [9]. Of course, this fact must remain a secret. This is why politicians make promises they can never hope to keep: they need to win over the majority and convince voters that the state is looking out for their own best interests. When these politicians enter office, however, they do little more than serve the interests of capital. A recent example of this can be found with Barack Obama, who campaigned on a slogan of hope and change. He was the “people’s candidate,” ready and willing to take the government back from the greedy corporate parasites who had taken it over [10]. Once in office, he immediately rescinded this vision of a new egalitarian order, making ninety percent (90%) of the Bush tax cuts permanent [11].

This gets at the core problem of reformism, which I discussed at length in the previous post. Representative government, like the military and police, is a component of the state. The state is an organ that functions to protect the interests of a particular class. The capitalist state, then, has been developed and tuned to defend the interests of capital against labor. Marx developed this point in a letter to his German comrades. He wrote,

“A historical development can remain peaceful only for so long as its progress is not forcibly obstructed by those wielding social power. If, in England, for instance, or in the United States, the working class were to gain a majority in parliament or congress, they could, by lawful means, rid themselves of such laws and institutions as impeded their development. However, the peaceful movement might be transformed into a forcible one by resistance on the part of those interested in restoring the former state of affairs. If they are put down by force, it is as rebels against lawful force” [12].

In other words, if the ruling capitalist class feels that its power is threatened, it will not hesitate to use the state to remove that threat. If attempts at cooptation or coercion fail, the military and police will employ brutal force to crush the socialist movement.

This was not abstract speculation on the part of Marx and Engels. Rather, it was arrived at through a rigorous analysis of the 1871 Paris Commune. For a short time, the workers of Paris took control of the city and formed their own institutions of direct democracy. The Commune taught Marx and Engels that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes” [13]. A radically different form of worker’s self-government would need to be established and defended against counterrevolution. The Paris Communards were content to establish an island of socialism within the city, but did not defeat the existing bourgeois state of France. As a result, the deposed ruling class was quickly able to regroup and, as Marx put it, “drown the Commune in its own blood” [14].

In analyzing elections, we should always be mindful of the corrosive and destructive effects of capital. Our goal, in this respect, should not necessarily be to win office, but to spread our message and rally the workers behind a concrete political program. Capitalism, as the Paris Commune proves, can never be voted out of existence. Those in power will never let us peacefully take that power from them. There must be a revolution in which the workers and oppressed forcibly defeat the bourgeoisie, break up their state, and create a radically new one in its place.

As I argued above, reformist socialism necessarily entails watering down our political program to appeal to the widest possible audience of voters. Receiving as many votes as possible becomes the goal, instead of winning socialism. This negates the tactical benefit of elections described above: elections no longer show workers that someone is fighting for their actual interests, but merely sow confusion as to what those interests are. In order for elections to benefit the Party, therefore, they must remain subordinate to other forms of struggle. Only in doing so can they actually serve to push workers towards socialism.

This dynamic played itself out disastrously in the SDP at the outbreak of World War One. They turned their backs on their working class comrades around the world and supported their own state in the conflict. They did this in order to win over German voters, who had been temporarily whipped into a pro-war frenzy by the bourgeoisie. This abandonment of international solidarity by the Party-the most advanced detachment of the worker’s movement-caused German workers to believe that international solidarity was not in their interests and set the worldwide struggle for socialism back by decades [15].

In fairness, the SDP took their pro-war position at a time when speaking out against the war would mean imprisonment of leaders and the outlawing of the organization entirely. This, of course, would have eliminated their electoral strategy altogether and jeopardized the progress they had made in that arena. While their actions are understandable, they also reveal the strategic problem with focusing on elections. By engaging exclusively in legal modes of struggle, we subject ourselves to the whims of the law. Since the judicial system is part of the state, this means that we put ourselves at a disadvantage. By acting openly in the electoral sphere, and leaving open no other avenues of struggle, repression of the Party would have meant the complete downfall of the movement. Not diversifying our tactics, as the experience of the SDP shows, can only mean death [16].

Given this experience, it is understandable that some revolutionaries could develop a complete aversion to political elections under capitalism. It is understandable that some would argue that we should not partake in elections under any circumstances. I would, of course, argue against this view. Lenin and the Bolsheviks engaged in a similar debate as a result of the 1905 revolution. In response to mass upheaval, the Russian Tsar granted the creation of a parliament called the Duma. He did not do this because his mind had been changed by the masses, but rather because he knew that the revolutionary movement was most dangerous in the streets. If he could redirect it to legal channels, the pressures of the parliament would render it ineffective. The Duma, because it was stacked with pro-tsarist forces, could easily control and neutralize the revolutionary struggle. For the Tsar, the establishment of the Duma was not matter of principle. It was a purely tactical consideration based on an actual assessment of a particular situation. It is important to note at this juncture that even our enemies are aware that there is no electoral road to socialism [17]. When standing for elections, we must be ever vigilant and on guard, ensuring that we do not get caught up in the spectacle of anti-worker politics. If our enemies utilize bourgeois democratic institutions in a tactical manner, we must also understand them in this way.

Initially, the Bolsheviks organized an active boycott of the election. They recognized that it was a trap and chose to focus their energy on harnessing the rising struggle in the streets. In this context, this was the correct line. The point that we need to take away from this is that we ought not use elections as a substitute for struggle, but neither should we swear them off completely. Whether we intervene in the electoral sphere at a given moment should be dependent on a rigorous analysis of the concrete material conditions of struggle. This is how the Bolsheviks understood this question as well. In 1906, when it was clear that the struggle was turning towards a period of reaction, the Bolsheviks changed their position on the Duma [18]. This was the result of a long theoretical and practical debate in the Party. The Bolsheviks understood that at that particular point, the forces of reaction had vastly outnumbered the forces of progress. In order to rally the workers behind the Party, it was necessary to unify them around a program and a “face.” Elections here functioned, as I said above, as a “broadcasting unit” capable of carrying the struggle forward.

Lenin also published a pamphlet called “Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder” in which he put forward another argument for participation in the Duma. He argued that, while revolutionaries understand that the electoral system is set up to serve the people in power, the masses have not necessarily drawn this conclusion. If the electoral arena garners the political attention and focus of the working class, if the masses believe that the government can serve them, then revolutionaries must play an active part in it. This is part of how we relate to the masses, shift their consciousness, and win them to revolution. This theoretical point reflects an understanding of the mass line, which I have argued should be the primary method of work of the Party. The mass line begins when we meet the people where they are at. We cannot run ahead of the masses. If we do so, we risk alienating them and dooming the Party to isolation [19].

The Bolsheviks, based on this understanding, participated in the Duma and eventually won six delegates (which they called Deputies) to it. In the same vein as the Marx-Engels attitude outlined above, the Bolshevik Deputies were used as a tactic in pursuit of a wider strategy of raising the revolutionary consciousness and combativity of the masses. The elections were not an end in and of themselves, but rather a means to an end. For this to be possible, the Deputies had to engage in activity outside the Duma as well as inside it. They needed to have strong, intimate connections with both the workers and the rest of the Bolshevik party. Unlike capitalist politicians, the deputies were not divorced from the real conditions of working people and subject to the totalizing influence of the bourgeoisie and their lackeys. Nor could they be like the German socialist representatives mentioned above. They were not put on a pedestal and divorced from the socialist party from which they came. The Bolshevik deputies were deeply involved with non-electoral Party work as well as the Duma. They made daily contact with the editorial board of Pravda, the Bolshevik newspaper, and were also in close contact with the central leadership of the Party. They also attended the regional and national Party congresses. All the Bolshevik deputies were workers themselves, and Bolshevik trade union work meant that they had already cultivated grassroots connection to the class. The Bolsheviks knew that electoral engagement was merely one tactic among many, not to be used in place of genuine organizing [20].

They also understood, however, that electoral intervention gave them a unique advantage, in that it allowed them to reach sections of the masses they would ordinarily have been cut off from. Having seats in the Duma helped to legitimize the Party and its platform in the eyes of the general public. It gave them an opportunity to meet with labor leaders and other working class organizations within their districts, and thus exercise greater influence on the worker’s movement as a whole. Elections, as this experience makes clear, can help extend the influence of the Party and carry the struggle towards revolution [21].

The Bolshevik deputies made cunning use of the privileges that came with being members of the government. They were able to conduct propaganda among the masses, give radical speeches at strikes and protests without legally being arrested. When the police and the government tried to crack down on the deputies, it only enhanced the ties between the Party and the masses, making it more difficult to follow through with the persecution [22].

The deputies also used the Duma as a platform to concentrate the attention of the masses on crimes committed by the Tsarist government. They found that they could do this effectively in the Duma by using a procedure called an interpolation. This involved the deputies giving a speech on the floor of the Duma and officially asking the government to explain their reasoning behind a particular anti-worker policy or action. Knowing full well that liberal ministers within the Duma wanted to cast themselves as sympathetic to the workers, the Bolshevik deputies would bring them worker concerns, publish a full account of the conversation-including the false promises made by the ministers-and then use the breaking of those promises to appeal to the workers to continue their struggles and not place any hope in the liberal authorities moving forward [23].

The Bolshevik deputies utilized the Duma to expose the workers to the actual nature of the system, to show the workers that they could not rely on liberals who pretended to speak for workers while apologizing for violence against them. They could only rely on themselves and their party to make real, lasting change [24].

This point is key to our understanding of elections. Because the masses are focused on the parliamentary sphere, winning seats in it actually allows the Party to spread its critique of the system to a wider audience. We cannot change the system from within, but we can call it out from within. This, again, reflects an understanding of the mass line. Once we meet the people where they are (in this case in parliament), we must develop their understanding of the issues and move them forward in struggle. Because elections are seen as legitimate by the masses, winning seats in representative bodies is an excellent way to do this.

The Bolshevik deputies were always careful to meet the people where they were, often literally. Upon hearing of any worker incident or protest, the deputies would rush there, provide solidarity, and collect information from the workers on the ground. They would then use this information for the next interpolation. Before long, resolutions began streaming in from the workers to the deputies, requesting that the government be questioned on everything from the persecution of trade unions to the treatment of political prisoners. In this way, the Duma functioned as a rallying point for the workers, showing them that the Party was willing and able to fight for their interests. To quote the Bolshevik deputy A.Y. Badayev, “the worker’s deputies were in the thick of the fight. We were in constant communication with the strikers, helped to formulate their demands, handed over funds collected, negotiated with various government authorities, etc” [25]. The deputies would collect strikes and deliver the money to workers so that they would have an income even when they were on strike. This was a way of providing concrete solidarity with workers and winning them over to the cause of the Party. Badayev continues,

“Workers would call on me to ask all sorts of questions, especially on paydays when money and aid for strikers was brought. I had to arrange supply passports and secret hiding places for those who became illegal, help to find work for those victimized during strikes, petition ministers on behalf of those arrested, [and] organize aid for exiles. Where there were signs that a strike was flagging, it was necessary to instill vigor into the strikers, to lend the aid required, and to print and send leaflets….There was not a single factory or workshop, down to the smallest, with which I was not connected in some way or another. Often, my callers were so numerous that my apartment was not large enough for them, and they had to wait in a queue down the staircase. Every successive stage of the struggle, every new strike, increased these queues, which symbolized the growing unity between the workers and the Bolshevik faction, and at the same time furthered the organization of the masses” [26].

To reiterate, socialism cannot be handed down from above, but must be a product of the self-activity of the workers and their party. Revolutionaries cannot simply win seats in parliament and cloister themselves off from the struggle. They must remain in contact with the masses every step of the way. Elections are merely one path by which to do this.

Putting this electoral strategy into action not only increased the self-activity and consciousness of the masses, it also gave the Bolsheviks a thermometer through which they could measure the mood of the masses and tailor their practice to fit that mood. This helped them win the masses over to their program with much greater expediency than if they had abstained from elections entirely.

Ultimately, in 1917, it was by assessing their elections to the soviets that allowed the Bolsheviks to ascertain whether they had enough support to wage an armed revolutionary struggle [27]. If you think back to the strategic perspectives put forward by Marx and Engels in 1848, all of this should sound familiar. Elections were not the be-all and end-all of socialist practice. They were a tool to be utilized as part of a greater strategy of winning the masses over to revolution and organizing them to take power.

Of course, there are some significant differences between where we are as a movement today and where we were in 1848 or 1917. Just like the Bolsheviks debating whether or not to boycott the Duma, all strategy and tactics need to be based on as accurate an assessment as possible of the concrete situation. They must be based on our weaknesses as well as our strengths, on what we think we can accomplish. Above all, however, we must always return back to the central question every revolutionary should ask: what will it take to increase the consciousness, combativity, and organization of the workers and the oppressed? In short, what will it take to win?

Elections ought to be subordinate to this goal, but they can play an important role in catalyzing and sustaining revolutionary struggle. In the United States particularly, one of the major factors holding back the progress of the worker’s movement is the Democratic Party. Unlike in other countries, where workers have their own political Party, the American working class is tied to an organization that, although it claims to support their interests, is actually bound up with the interests of capital. Election law in this country is rigged against third party challenges. Unlike in Europe, where seats in parliament are dictated by the proportion of the vote a party receives, America has a winner-take-all system. As a result, workers feel that they only have two choices at the ballot box [28]. One is voting for the party which openly supports the rich and powerful, the Republicans, and the other is the Democrats. Although this party may occasionally pay lip service to the issues of workers and oppressed people, at the end of the day they carry forward the same capitalist, imperialist agenda as the Republicans. This creates a dynamic in which the workers, no matter how frustrated they are with the Democrats, feel compelled to vote for the “lesser of two evils.”  Every four years, there is pressure on the worker’s movement to put militant organizing on pause and focus on making sure a Republican is not elected into office. When Democrats feel like the have the working class vote on lock, there is nothing to stop them from shifting further and further to the right once they actually get into office.

This was never clearer than in the Obama presidency. On the 2008 campaign trail, Obama said he was going to “put on his walking shoes” and walk picket lines with workers [29]. He was nowhere to be found when Democrat Rahm Emanuel attempted to smash the teacher’s strike in Obama’s hometown of Chicago [30]. This strike was waged for better working conditions and against racist school closures. You would imagine that, if there was ever a time for a black Chicago native to walk a picket line, this would be it. The Left’s ties to the Democratic Party, as this example illustrates, serves only to demobilize and demoralize the working class and oppressed. Marx’s call for an independent political party of the working class has never been more relevant and vital.

Imagine the impact it would have on the consciousness of the working class and oppressed if they had candidates that jumped in the opportunity to participate in and support strikes the way the Bolshevik delegates to the Duma did. While the conditions in the United States are very different from the conditions of more than a century ago, we are still faced with the historic task of building an independent political party of the working class and oppressed. In this country, that means breaking the stranglehold of the Democratic Party on the working class. This is not going to be easy. It will be a long process, encompassing a wide variety of tactics, strategies, and moments. In this task, we should never cut ourselves off from the tools at our disposal. Standing in elections is just such a tool. Insofar as we assess that standing in elections would carry the struggle forward, that it would make a real impact on the consciousness of the masses, we should make use of this tactic. We must always remember, though, that the goal of the revolutionary party is to raise and direct the consciousness of the masses. Elections are nothing more than a way to help this along. We should stand firmly against reformist roads to socialism and firmly in favor of a working class revolution, one that can create a better society for everyone.

  1. Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The communist manifesto. Penguin, 2002.
  2. Marx, Karl, and Céline Surprenant. The class struggle in France. 2000.
  3. Nimtz, August. Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from Marx and Engels through the Revolution of 1905: The Ballot, the Streets—or Both. Springer, 2016.
  4. Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League. Communist League, 1850.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Retallack, Imperial Germany p. 187
  9. O’Kane, Rosemary HT. Rosa Luxemburg in Action: For Revolution and Democracy. Routledge, 2014.
  10. “Candidate Obama,” Francine Orr. Los Angeles Times, 2017.
  11. “Budget Deal Makes Permanent 82 Percent of President Bush’s Tax Cuts.” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. N.p., 10 June 2015.
  12. Quoted in Nimtz, August H. Marx and Engels: Their contribution to the democratic breakthrough. SUNY Press, 2000.
  13. Lenin, Vladimir Ilʹich, and Todd Chretien. State and revolution. Haymarket Books, 2015.
  14. Ibid.
  15. See Retallack, Op. Cit.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Lenin, Vladimir Ilʹich, et al. Selected Works: The Revolution of (1905-1907). Vol. 3. 1967.
  18. Badaev, Alekseĭ Egorovich. The bolsheviks in the tsarist Duma. International Publishers, 1932.
  19. Lenin, Vladimir Ilʹich. ” Left-wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder. Resistance Books, 1999.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Lenin, Vladimir Ilʹich. Lecture on the 1905 Revolution. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1951.
  28. “Problem with US elections: winner-takes-all electoral system.” Consultant’s Mind. N.p., 08 Aug. 2016.
  29. O’Brien, Michael. “Obama in 2007: ‘I’ll walk on that picket line’ if bargaining rights threatened.” TheHill. N.p., 03 Feb. 2016.
  30. Layton, Lyndsey, Peter Wallsten, and Bill Turque. “Chicago teachers strike places Obama at odds with key part of political base.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 11 Sept. 2012.

Marxism and Elections Part One

There has been much debate about how radical political actors should engage with electoral politics. Some, like anarchists, argue that the correct tactic is to ignore electoral politics entirely, focusing on what they see as the more useful path of direct action or “propaganda by the deed” [1]. Among those who identify as Marxists, thought on this topic is generally more varied. Some parties have chosen to confine themselves entirely to the electoral sphere, attempting to win socialism through the ballot box. Others have boycotted elections and embarked upon a “people’s war” of armed struggle with the state and capital. The point here is that there is no one Marxist theory of elections. This is partly because elections themselves are a vastly different from place to place. The electoral system in Britain, for example, is quite different from the one in Peru. As such, it is impossible to approach elections in a vacuum. Marxists understand that tactics must be based on the material conditions of the struggle, so attempting to craft a platonic plan of action in the electoral sphere is useless. In the essays that follow, I will not attempt to craft such a theory. This is not a manual or a blueprint for Marxist organizations. What I want to do here is sketch out, in broad terms, an analysis of electoral politics from a Marxist perspective. This is simply my opinion of the topic, and I caution readers not to trust in it blindly. It is important to conduct concrete social investigation of every issue rather than simply reading about it. We must, in the words of Mao, “oppose book worship” [2].

In this post, the first of two on the topic of elections, I want to refute the idea of “voting our way to socialism.” This strategy has been a failure nearly everywhere it has been attempted. I am firmly in favor of a revolutionary road to socialism, based on smashing the existing state and building new organs of worker’s power where it once stood.

It is important to note that the social democratic parties-that is, parties whose main goal is to win socialism through elections rather than revolution-have failed to abolish capitalism even once. This is especially egregious in the context of Western Europe, where many of these parties have enjoyed media backing and majorities in parliament. These parties have not only failed in their aims to bring about socialism peacefully, however. In many cases, they have actually become parties of the bourgeois elite or the labor aristocracy. Across the region, social democratic parties have implemented dramatic cuts in social spending, as well as a host of reforms designed to boost the position of capital at the expense of workers. In Greece and Italy, proposed or recently passed budgets will reduce spending over the coming years by about 29 billion dollars [3]. In Germany, this number is as high as $96 billion. This figure constitutes the largest collection of spending cuts in this country since World War Two [4]. Cuts will also total as much as one billion dollars in France [5]. Planned or approved reforms in this region include a host of anti-worker measures. This involves a three-year increase in the age at which French workers can retire [6], the elimination of payments into the pensions of the unemployed in Germany [7], and changes to Spain’s labor laws which will make it cheaper and easier for employers to lay off workers [8]. These attacks have, predictably, been met by a great deal of militancy from workers. Many will have heard of the mass strikes and violent protests opposing catastrophic austerity plans in Greece [9].

I bring all of this up because they tell us quite a bit about the nature of social democracy, or “socialism through the ballot box.” As I said above, Western Europe has traditionally been a hotbed of reformist socialism. Many of these parties still exist across the continent. At one point, they hoped to slowly implement reforms culminating in the transition to socialism. This view stood opposed to that of revolutionaries, who sought a sharp, rapid overthrow of the system [10]. After the Second World War, however, many of these parties gave up even this goal. They instead settled on a program of slow progressive alterations to capitalism, offering piecemeal improvements in the lot of workers within the bounds of a “managed capitalism” [11]. They focused on creating welfare institutions, extensive public sector employment, and government support for unions. All of these measures, meager though they are, have been or are being destroyed. In many cases, this destruction is being spearheaded by the same parties that instituted them in the first place. This gets at the real problem with reformism. Because reformist socialist parties want to work within states designed to uphold the rule of capital, they will forever be bound by the laws of capitalism. This means that any reforms they win will be subject to market forces and cut back at the first opportunity. We can never hope to win socialism by passing one reform after another, because these reforms will always be fragile. The capitalist class will seek to cut public services and benefits so that they can better exploit their workers. A socialist party working within a capitalist state will also find themselves subjected to this pressure. This is why social democratic parties have, in many places, become a vehicle for the set of pro-free-market, anti-worker policies often grouped under the banner of neoliberalism. In Greece, Germany, and elsewhere, it is social democratic governments or coalitions pushing these measures [12]. Even outside of government, reformist socialists have led no sustained or comprehensive attempts to resist the neoliberal order.

How has it happened that in Europe, where the power and influence of social democratic parties has been greater than anywhere else, social democrats have not only failed in their original mission of abolishing capitalism in the electoral sphere, but have largely come to serve the interests of capital against labor? Perry Anderson, editor of the New Left Review, explained the trajectory this way in 1994: “Once, in the founding years of the Second International, social democracy was dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism. Then it pursued partial reforms as gradual steps towards socialism. Finally it settled for welfare and full employment within capitalism….[I]t now accepts the scaling-down of one and the giving-up of the other…” [13].

I want to make some theoretical points about why this shift has occurred. Firstly, socialism is not just state ownership of the economy, as many social democrats believe. In many cases, efforts to bring about socialism in the electoral process failed because the “socialism” these parties were working towards did not actually challenge capitalism. It is entirely possible that an economy could be majority state-owned and still be controlled by capitalists. The state is an instrument of class power, so a transition to state ownership does not automatically correlate to worker’s power. For Marxists, the question is not whether the state owns the economy, but who owns the state. Socialism is the collective rule of a class, the working class. It thus cannot be handed down from above, but must won through the self-activity of the class guided by a Party which is deeply imbedded in it. Reformist socialism ignores the fact that socialism can only be a collective project, instead trusting the will of a group of politicians rather than the advanced workers. This is one reason why efforts to vote in socialism have continually failed.

Further, the electoral system is rigged in favor of capital. However, this is not a new development, as social democrats like Bernie Sanders say [14]. The American state was not “taken away” from the people, but instead was designed from the beginning to subjugate them. James Madison, the fourth President of the United States, admitted as much in a 1787 debate on the constitution. He wrote:

The man who is possessed of wealth, who lolls on his sofa or rolls in his carriage, cannot judge the wants or feelings of the day-laborer. The government we mean to erect is intended to last for ages. The landed interest, at present, is prevailed lent; but in process of time, when we approximate to the states and kingdoms of Europe, — when the number of landholders shall be comparatively small, through the various means of trade and manufactures, will not the landed interest be overbalanced in future elections, and unless wisely provided against, what will become of your government? In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place. If these observations be just, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation. Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority. The senate, therefore, ought to be this body; and to answer these purposes, they ought to have permanency and stability” [15].

In other words, wealth (“landed interests”) will be increasingly concentrated into fewer and fewer hands through markets (“various means of trade and manufactures”).  The wealthy, therefore, would be outvoted in a democratic system and government would be overrun by the majority of working people.  To prevent the working class from attaining political power and expropriating the property and wealth of the rich (“an agrarian law”), we have to “wisely” ensure that government “protect the minority” of the rich against the majority of the poor.

What this means is that the very institutions socialist parties engage with in the electoral arena-the senate, the congress, and even city councils-are designed to hamstring worker’s parties. The American electoral system is explicitly engineered so that socialists-or those opposed to the rule of capital-can never take power within it. Thus, we should not see electoral engagement as the primary means of struggle. We cannot put all our eggs in that basket, as it were. It is vital that, in our engagement with elections, we do not neglect other kinds of mass organizing, such as strikes. Elections, I want to stress, are a tool in our arsenal, one tactic among many.

The capitalist state is, whether “democratic” or otherwise, is constructed to serve the interests of a class that exists for and through the exploitation of workers. As Engels, Marx’s longtime friend and collaborator, once put it, ”the modern representative state is an instrument of exploitation of wage labor by capital” [16]. This function is expressed not simply in the parliament itself, but also in the civil services sector, the courts, and-crucially-the fundamental bodies of the state: the “bodies of armed men,” as Lenin put it [17]. These institutions-the army, the police, and so on-cannot simply be redirected towards defending worker’s power. Workers “cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes” [18]. Rather, workers must smash the existing state and build their own worker’s state.

Where reformist socialists take power, the institutions of the state-army, police, courts, etc-will revolt. This was seen in General Pinochet’s 1973 military coup, backed by the United States, of the reformist socialist government in Chile [19]. The army and police were created in the interests of capital. This purpose is baked into their very DNA. Attempts to build socialism without fundamentally altering these institutions will inevitably be, to quote Marx in a different context, “drowned in blood” [20].

The reality, however, is that there have been very few Chiles. Despite a long-held rhetorical commitment to socialism, reformists have rarely, in practice, done things that threaten the power of capital in a significant way. To explain that failure, revolutionaries often point to the character flaws of reformist politicians. The reformists have historically been bourgeois, and this explains why they did not build socialism. This is an incorrect tactic. Our objection is not to reformists as people, but to reformism as a strategy. No matter their background, social democrats, by virtue of their position, eventually become members of a class distinct from the workers they supposedly represent. Well-paid and freed from the daily insults of normal working-class existence, reformist leaders come to occupy a privileged position. This condition is dependent upon their ability not to fight for the emancipation of workers, but to balance the competing interests of capital and labor. They grow conservative and become the out-and-out representatives of capital. We might also add that the importance of campaign contributions and positive media coverage in modern elections mean that electorally-oriented politicians of all stripes must gain support from those who own the money and the media: the capitalist class [21].

Despite the power of this argument, there are deeper reasons for the failure of reformism. Even if the social democratic parties were run by a collection of true proletarians who spent their free time laboring in factories, and even if such parties have media backing and a majority in parliament (which, to reiterate, they often have), they still would not legislate socialism into being. Reformism is definitionally contradictory, and it is these contradictions that are to blame for its continued failure.

Reformism posits that socialists can win elections and use their control over the state to legislate the destruction of capitalism, but the nature of electoral competition itself prevents socialists from forging the kind of solidarity necessary to create majority support for socialism. Elections are static and passive forms of political action that encourage compromises on important principles and the formation of alliances based on lowest-common-denominator politics. Prioritizing elections leads socialists to adapt to, rather than challenge, popular but conservative ideas. The point of elections, for reformists, is not to advance ideas (that comes later, once they are in power) but to win elections. Because reformists believe that the parliament is the site of liberation, they cannot actually begin liberating the people until they are in parliament. In service to this goal, reformists must learn to avoid radical positions or actions that might threaten short-term vote totals. Persuing a reformist strategy inevitably leads to missing the forest for the trees. Social democrats cannot lead politically, which is what the masses require, but are instead doomed to tail the most backward elements in the movement.

This leads reformists to hold back mass movements at moments of radicalization, to channel mass grievances into elections and parliamentary maneuvering, and to limit demands to those that do not threaten the power of elites to a degree that those elites would be forced to engage in open struggle against the popular movement, and thus reveal their true character to the masses. In this respect, reformism blinds the masses and makes them incapable of understanding society as it actually exists. Unless one understands society, one cannot hope to change it. Reformism, therefore, actively prevents the transition to socialism from taking place. It confuses the masses so that they become distracted, unable to carry the struggle forward.

Reformists might move left when faced with pressure from the masses, but always within very strict limits. They will attempt to restabilize capitalism at those moments of social, economic, and political crisis: precisely the moments at which very large numbers of people could come to understand that there is something deeply wrong with the system. A perfect example of this is Syriza in Greece which, at the moment of crisis, chose to ignore the issues really facing the masses and embrace austerity [22].

Finally, profits are the lifeblood of the capitalist system. As long as capitalism exists, profits are what will keep it afloat. If the state is to have resources to distribute to workers and the poor, as reformists claim to want, they must collect enough taxes to do so. That will only happen if the economy is growing. If workers are to win ever greater wage and benefit increases, the firms in which they are employed must stay in business. Not only that, they must be profitable enough relative to their competitor capitalists to afford concessions. As one Swedish social democratic leader put it, “because social democracy works for a more equal distribution of property and incomes, it must never forget that one must produce before one has something to distribute” [23]. This raises a dilemma. The reality is that large-scale structural reforms, such as wage increases or social welfare, can drive capitalists to reduce investment in a given country. This happens because capitalists want to punish governments that implement policies antithetical to their interests. Pro-worker reforms mean that capitalists can invest their money more profitably elsewhere, and those who choose not to do this will go out of business. When capitalists stop investing or lack the capital to invest, the result is economic crisis, declining tax revenue, and inflation. This leads to a sharp drop in support for the government, resulting in its fall from power. Social democrats must, by necessity, balance their desire to reform the country towards socialism with their need to keep capitalists profitable and investing. When there is a contradiction between these two impulses, there are structural pressures built into the state, described above, that push them to side with capital over labor. This can be seen happening right now in Norway, the supposed liberal utopia [24].

It should be noted, by virtue of Western social democracy’s need to accommodate the interests of capital, it has failed to provide an alternative to imperialism. Scandinavia, for example, largely maintains itself through violent imperialist policies just like other Western nations.

In 2008, Norwegian communications multinational, Telenor was exposed in a documentary as partnering with a Bangladeshi supplier that employed child labor in horrendous conditions. The report also uncovered that the children were made to handle chemical substances without any protection and one of the workers even died after falling into a pool of acid. Not only was the treatment of workers unacceptable, they also ruined the crops of farmers in the surrounding areas with the waste from the plant. Like other Western multinationals that deliberately go to the developing world looking to save money on labor and operations costs, the company washed its hands of the accusations, denying knowledge about their partner’s inhumane practices [25].

Similarly, Norwegian oil and gas company Statoil, has been involved in multiple corruption cases around the world-especially in underdeveloped countries-where they have bribed state companies and government officials in order to obtain licenses for extraction. Their involvement is not only limited to these aggressive economic practices, they are also deeply involved in the West’s military exploits. Norway dropped 588 bombs on Libya but scarcely is mentioned as being part of these imperialist operations. Statoil has since started joint extractions operations worth millions in the ruined country [26].

Both of these companies, it is crucial to note, are partly owned by the state. This furthers the above argument that state ownership does not automatically translate to a more equitable system of production or distribution. By working within the capitalist state, reformist socialists will be forced to make concessions to that state. This will always mean exploiting workers at home and abroad.

The Swedish clothing giant H&M can retail affordable products in rich nations and make huge profits only because they exploit and underpay workers in impoverished nations such as Bangladesh. As John Smith points out in his book Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century , only 0.95 euros of the final sale price of an H&M T-shirt remains in Bangladesh to cover the cost of the factory, the workers, the suppliers, and the government. The remaining 3.54 euros goes for taxes and transportation in the market country, with the bulk going to the retailer. In other words, Western nations capture most of the profit although it is the poor workers and nations that have put most of the input in terms of labor and resources [27].

The ‘Nordic Model’, as it has come to be known, is hardly a system that we should look to for inspiration. No model, system, or structure that depends on the exploitation and domination of others can be ethical. Western nations and their people—if they are to be taken seriously by the rest of the struggling world—must begin to think about developing socialist political and economic structures that are internationalist and crucially, anti-imperialist at their foundations. This can never be done by working within the capitalist state. Imperialism is, as Lenin put it, “the highest stage of capitalism” [28]. It is a phenomenon that is bound up with capitalist production. Once a capitalist economy becomes sufficiently developed, imperialism must arise in order to keep it afloat. Social democratic parties, because they are working within the capitalist state, must bow to the pressures of capitalist markets. As such, they must engage in imperialism and rank exploitation.

This is the crux of the matter: the state under capitalism is an organ of capitalist power. In light of this, attempts to build socialism by winning seats in parliament or similar political bodies will always result in failure. Treating the electoral arena as the primary space in which socialism will be won is a recipe for disaster. In order to achieve victory, we must organize workers in a militant communist party capable of smashing the existing state and running society in the interests of all.

  1. John Most, “Action as Propaganda” Freiheit, July 25, 1885
  2. Mao Zedong, Oppose Book Worship, 1930.
  3. Beirne, John, and Marcel Fratzscher. “The pricing of sovereign risk and contagion during the European sovereign debt crisis.” Journal of International Money and Finance 34 (2013): 60-82.
  4. Tomasson, Richard F. “Government old age pensions under affluence and austerity: West Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, and the United States.” Research in Social Problems and Public Policy 3 (1984): 217-72.
  5. Levy, Jonah D. “Partisan politics and welfare adjustment: the case of France.” Journal of European Public Policy 8.2 (2001): 265-285.
  6. Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth Kreitler. “The retirement test: An international study.” Soc. Sec. Bull. 37 (1974): 3.
  7. Börsch-Supan, Axel. “Incentive effects of social security on labor force participation: evidence in Germany and across Europe.” Journal of public economics 78.1 (2000): 25-49.
  8. Bentolila, Samuel, and Juan J. Dolado. “Labour flexibility and wages: lessons from Spain.” Economic policy 9.18 (1994): 53-99.
  9. Rüdig, Wolfgang, and Georgios Karyotis. “Who protests in Greece? Mass opposition to austerity.” British Journal of Political Science 44.03 (2014): 487-513.
  10. Paul Blackledge (2013). “Left reformism, the state and the problem of socialist politics today and Jesus followers”. International Socialist Journal.
  11. Stan Parker (March 2002). “Reformism – or socialism?”. Socialist Standard.
  12. Puetter, Uwe. “Europe’s deliberative intergovernmentalism: the role of the Council and European Council in EU economic governance.” Journal of European Public Policy 19.2 (2012): 161-178.
  13. Giddens, Anthony. The third way: The renewal of social democracy. John Wiley & Sons, 2013.
  14. “Bernie Sanders: The Democracy Now Interview.” Democracy Now, 2016.
  15. Madison, James. “Federalist no. 39.” The Federalist Papers (2007): 246.
  16. Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The communist manifesto. Penguin, 2002.
  17. Lenin, Vladimir Ilʹich, and Todd Chretien. State and revolution. Haymarket Books, 2015.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Petras, James F., and Morris H. Morley. The United States and Chile: Imperialism and the Overthrow of the Allende Government. Monthly Review Pr, 1975.
  20. Marx, Karl, and Céline Surprenant. The class struggle in France. 2000.
  21. Epstein, David, and Peter Zemsky. “Money talks: Deterring quality challengers in congressional elections.” American Political Science Review 89.02 (1995): 295-308.
  22. Kouvelakis, Stathis. “SYRIZA’S RISE AND FALL.” (2016): 45-70.
  23. Quoted in John Hall, The State: Critical Concepts. 1993. p. 325.
  24. Bayulgen, Oksan. Foreign Investment and political regimes: The oil sector in Azerbaijan, Russia, and Norway. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  25. Falkenberg, Andreas W., and Joyce Falkenberg. “Ethics in international value chain networks: The case of telenor in bangladesh.” Journal of business ethics 90 (2009): 355-369.
  26. Ask, Alf Ole (2003-09-12). “Statoil’s international director resigns”. Aftenposten.
  27. Foster, John Bellamy, Robert W. McChesney, and R. Jamil Jonna. “The global reserve army of labor and the new imperialism.” Monthly Review 63.6 (2011): 1.
  28. Lenin, Vladimir Ilʹich. Imperialism: The highest stage of capitalism. Resistance Books, 1999.

Against Utopia: Marxism, Worker’s Cooperatives, and Prefigurative Politics

 Recently, social movements and projects of resistance have been characterized by the rejection of leaders and structure in favor of spontaneous uprisings against the system. From Wisconsin to Yemen, many places have been the site of mass participatory assemblies and directly democratic processes. These struggles, I want to emphasize, are valuable. They have positively transformed the lives of millions of people. I do not want to disparage them in this regard. However, these movements set a dangerous precedent. In the past, it was common sense that discipline and accountability to an organization were necessary components of victory. However, the rise of these spontaneous movements has led many to proclaim that “prefiguring” the new society is sufficient to build a new world.

When one looks at recent protests and sees hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom have never been involved in politics before, doing a far better job of struggling for their rights than the political establishment, it is easy to claim that leaders are unnecessary. This is only compounded by the fact that many leaders who are supposed to struggle for the rights of the masses, such as union bosses, have been more than willing to acquiesce to the demands of the oppressors. In short, it is completely understandable why leaderless and prefigurative movements would spring up in such great numbers.

However, there is another way to understand this question. Leaderless and prefigurative movements are often touted as being models for a future society. They are taken as evidence that the people can govern themselves. I do not disagree with this statement as such. Direct democracy and mass assemblies are indeed the sorts of institutions I would like to see form the basis of the future. But in creating the model of a future society, proponents of leaderless movements have forgotten that we still live in the present. Leaderless movements might offer an attractive vision of the future, but they do not present a path to it. Creating models is not enough. The ruling class will not simply roll over and allow us to implement the kind of society we want.

The author and activist Andy Cornell defines prefigurative politics as, “the principle that activists and social-change organizations should model in their present-day lives and work the new values, institutions, and social relationships they advocate for on a broader scale, as part of their strategy for bringing about that change” [1].

Under the umbrella of prefigurative politics, therefore, can fall a broad number of different institutions and practices, including cooperative workplaces, communal houses, urban gardens, consensus decision-making and “horizontal” leadership structures.

Prefigurative politics borrows and builds upon various historical and contemporary movements—including the anarchist, pacifist, and environmentalist movements.  The arguments for prefigurative politics, therefore, are very diverse.  Some see it as a way of ensuring against the reproduction of political and social hierarchies; others as a form of propaganda, proving in practice the superiority of revolutionary politics.

Communes, co-ops, free schools, and community gardens can also offer a sort of safe haven from the abuse of capitalism.  They create spaces for people that in one way or another can resemble the possibility of seeing another world in our lifetime.  They reflect a sincere desire to overcome capitalism.

The most thorough explanation to date of “prefigurative politics” has been provided by Wini Breines, a professor of sociology and former New Left activist. For Breines, “prefigurative politics” centers on “participatory democracy,” understood as an ongoing opposition to hierarchical and centralized organization that requires a movement that develops and establishes relationships and political forms that “prefigure” the egalitarian and democratic society that it seeks to create. Breines sees prefigurative politics as integrally connected to the notion of community, by which she means a network of relationships that are more direct, more total, and more personal than the formal, abstract, and instrumental relationships that characterize contemporary state and society. These new relationships meld together the public and private spheres of life and are to be embodied in the non-capitalist and communitarian counter-institutions forged by the movement. Quite significantly, Breines counterposes “prefigurative politics” to “strategic politics,” at the center of which are “strategic thinking” and the commitment to build formal organizations to achieve major structural changes in the political, economic, and social orders [2].

I should state here that I do not believe that “survival programs” such as the free breakfast program initiated by the Black Panther Party [3], constitute prefigurative structures. While these programs did intend to work outside of capitalism, the BPP was under no illusion that they would be enough to abolish capitalism. The BPP coupled their free breakfast program with struggle sessions, self-defense classes, and mass-line work. They understood that in order to create a new society, revolutionaries must first break up the old. Free soup kitchens and the like ought to be supported by revolutionary socialists, so long as they are undertaken in conjunction with the “strategic politics” that will actually bring down capitalism.

An initial problem with prefigurative politics is, of course, that we are not already free. Prefigurative Politics is not a strategy for changing society, but a strategy for escaping it, attempting to create spaces of harmony in a society determined by struggle and conflict—again confirming the neoliberal assumption that there is no alternative to capitalism, that we must transcend it or find alternatives within it instead.

But class struggle doesn’t go away if you ignore it.  Just like gravity will pull you back to the earth, whether or not you acknowledge it—so too will the capitalists poison your rivers and food, foreclose on your home, and throw you in prison. They will do this regardless of whether or not you acknowledge they exist or organize against them.

In creating the model of a future society, proponents of prefigurative movements have forgotten that we still live in the present. Leaderless movements might offer an attractive vision of the future, but they do not present a path to it. Creating models is not enough. The ruling class will not simply roll over and allow us to implement the kind of society we want.

In fact, throughout history there have been numerous instances of the ruling class violently crushing attempts to build a new society in the here and now. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the Paris Commune of 1871. Here, workers seized Paris and ran it themselves through elected assemblies, factory committees, and other such institutions. In just three short months, however, the French army unified with the Prussians to drown the Commune in blood. It is crucial to note that the French and the Prussians had been engaged in bloody battles with one another for years prior to this. Different sections of the ruling class have historically been willing to put aside their differences to destroy examples of the new society that attempted to establish themselves within the old [4].

Using the world “ought to be” as the starting point of our politics becomes a substitute, therefore, to developing a political strategy for the present.  Projects built from this perspective largely depend upon ideal circumstances with ideal people—not the world as it is: contradictory and ever changing.

Prefigurative politics urges activists to draw the means they use today from their vision of the future.  However, means suited for the ideal circumstances and ideal people of the future, are not sufficient for revolutionaries who have to live in the present.

Without the proper terrain, prefigurative projects become stillborn or corrupted as they’re planted in the hostile soil of capitalist exploitation and competition. Worker’s cooperatives, I will examine here, are a perfect example of this.The economist Richard Wolff holds that worker cooperatives are sufficient to bring about a non-capitalist society [5].

These are firms in which workers directly elect managers and have a say in the day-to-day management of production. To quote Wolff, “In each enterprise, the co-op members . . . collectively own and direct the enterprise. Through an annual general assembly the workers choose and employ a managing director and retain the power to make all the basic decisions of the enterprise” [6]. Certainly, many of these elements, such as the election of managers, are important aspects of socialism. Workplaces in the Soviet Union, for example, were generally organized along very similar principles [7]. What differentiates socialist workplaces from worker cooperatives, however, is ownership. Cooperatives are owned directly by the workers in them, whereas socialist workplaces are owned by the state-which is itself controlled by workers. In this essay, I want to argue against Wolff’s conception of cooperatives as an already-existing alternative to capitalism.

I should begin by saying that I think cooperatives are a useful tool in struggle, and they have many benefits. However, I reject the notion that they are a pathway out of capitalism in and of themselves. Marx himself praised the cooperative movement in 1864, writing,

“The value of these great social experiments cannot be overrated. By deed instead of by argument, they have shown that production on a large scale, and in accord with the behests of modern science, may be carried on without the existence of a class of masters employing a class of hands; that to bear fruit, the means of labor need not be monopolized as a means of dominion over, and of extortion against, the laboring man himself; and that, like slave labor, like serf labor, hired labor is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated labor plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart . . .” [8].

Marx was right in asserting that cooperatives play an important role in capitalism. They show that workers are in fact capable of managing production without the “carrot and stick” imposed upon them by the capitalist. Workers can take control of production and, by extension, of society.  Further, the fact that workers control their own immediate work, in a cooperative fashion, is itself a contribution to enhancing their well-being. It decreases their alienation from their work, and permits them to flex their intellectual as well as their physical muscles. There is cause to establish cooperatives within capitalism, but treating them as if they are themselves a road out of capitalism can only harm our movement.

Marx understood that cooperatives showed the possibility and desirability of socialism. This is still true today. Cooperatives show that it is something of a myth that people dislike labor. To prove this, I will quote a very large passage from sociologist Alfie Khon’s book Punished by Rewards. He writes,

“To study what he calls ‘flow’ experience, which consists of feeling active, challenged, and fully engaged, the psychologist Mihaly Csiksgentmihalyi likes to give people beepers…to carry around with them. When they are beeped at various times during the day and evening, subjects describe what they are doing and how they are feeling. It turns out that, despite their stated that they would prefer not to be, people actually reported more flow experiences while at work than at any other time. (This was true of workers on assembly lines, too.)” He goes on to say that, “People do not heed the evidence of their senses. They disregard the quality of immediate experience, and base their motivation instead on the strongly-rooted cultural stereotype about what work is supposed to be like” [9].

What is clear from this is that people do not hate work. Rather, they despise the loss of autonomy that occurs in the workplace under capitalism. When work becomes something that you have to do in order to survive, the intrinsic value is removed from the activity. This is also shown by “a more conventional survey, in which participants were asked to rate the enjoyment they derived from over two dozen common activities” [10]. The survey found that, “The intrinsic rewards from work are, on average, higher than the intrinsic rewards from leisure” [11].

It is obvious from the research that, when one’s ability to survive is not dependent on their work, they are able to enjoy it fully. Given that this is the case under socialism, it is reasonable to say that people would actually do better work than they currently engage in.

It is also worth mentioning the research of Michael Albert, a proponent of participatory economics, who once ran an experiment wherein he determined how much he could lower the salary of a surgeon before they elected to take a much higher-paid job in a coal mine. He found that, so long as the surgeon was getting paid just enough to live on, they would stay at their current occupation. What this shows is that so long as the work itself is engaging, incentives are meaningless [12].

This is corroborated by research by none other than the Federal Reserve. They funded an experiment at MIT in which a group of students was given a set of challenges. These included things such as memorizing strings of digits, solving spacial puzzles, and throwing a ball through a hoop. The students were given a monetary reward proportional to their performance. It was found that there is an inverse relationship between the amount of money. So long as a task requires basic thinking skills, financial incentives lead to poorer performance. Incentives only work if the task is purely mechanical [13].

One other objection to the organization of work under socialism that cooperatives show to be false is as follows. If workplaces are democratized, workers will spend all their time bickering, and nothing will get done. This will result in the vast majority of people being underfed or otherwise disadvantaged. The reason capitalist workplace organization has survived for so long is because, although it might result in a loss of autonomy, it is efficient. Like the previous objection, this makes sense on a surface level. We have all seen the amount of bureaucracy and gridlock that results from supposedly democratic societies such as the United States. But, also like the previous objection, it simply doesn’t stack up to the facts.

For this reason, it shouldn’t be a surprise that there’s a large body of research which shows that worker cooperatives can be at least as productive and successful as capitalist-owned firms [14]. “Cooperative firms do seem to produce moderately more output with a given set of inputs” concludes a study  of the US plywood industry [15]. “Cooperatives are at least as productive as conventional firms” finds research  on French firms [16].

As Brent Kramer, a senior associate at the Fiscal Policy Institute, writes,

“Using a statistical procedure that compared each EO company to its matching KO company (or companies), I found that, on average, EO companies had 8.8% greater sales per employee during the period for which I had data. Fully (100%) owned companies had better “EO advantages” than the rest on this measure, smaller firms had better sales-per-employee advantages than larger ones, and firms with greater ESOP assets per employee (effectively the average employee financial investment) also did better. These additional results tend to validate my hypothesis that it was the culture of ownership in the EO firms that led to higher “productivity” (as measured by sales per employee). I also conducted a survey of EO firm managers to try to determine which (if any) factors of worker control or influence might strengthen this indirect measure of productivity. While many proposed factors failed to show an influence, high worker influence on new products, work design, and marketing all seemed to improve the advantages that EO firms had over KO ones. While there is no way to rule out the possibility that firms that became employee-owned over the years before this study were those that were already more productive because of better employment practices, this analysis does indicate that employee ownership per se does not mean lower efficiency. Firms don’t need worker ownership to become better employers, or more efficient in their use of both material and human resources. But there is no “efficiency” reason for not moving toward more worker-ownership and control, and every reason to do so” [17].

Further, a study from the Harvard Business Review states that, “An emerging suite of literature and research—including our 2013 workplace survey—clearly points to the power of choice and autonomy to drive not only employee happiness, but also motivation and performance. We found that knowledge workers whose companies allow them to help decide when, where, and how they work were more likely to be satisfied with their jobs, performed better, and viewed their company as more innovative than competitors that didn’t offer such choices” [18].

An article published in the first issue of the Labor Relations Review (1995), states that,

“Using meta-analytic techniques, the author synthesizes the results of 43 published studies to investigate the effects on productivity of various forms of worker participation: worker participation in decision making; mandated codetermination; profit sharing; worker ownership (employee stock ownership or individual worker ownership of the firm’s assets); and collective ownership of assets (workers’ collective ownership of reserves over which they have no individual claim). He finds that…profit sharing, worker ownership, and worker participation in decision making are all positively associated with productivity. All the observed correlations are stronger among labor-managed firms (firms owned and controlled by workers) than among participatory capitalist firms (firms adopting one or more participation schemes involving employees, such as ESOPs or quality circles)” [19].

Despite these benefits, Marx did not think that cooperatives were socialism in and of themselves. Marx rejected the idea that we could get out of capitalism simply by establishing one cooperative after another. He held that the only real way out of capitalism was the complete destruction of it, rather than a gradual “changing from within.”

It should be noted that from the very beginning the co–op saw itself as providing an alternative to struggle against the system. The Mondragón cooperative-which Wolff upholds as a prime example and which we will return to later-was originally the idea of a Catholic priest named José Maria Arizmendiarrieta who regarded class struggle as destructive and who hoped to overcome it not by directly challenging the power of the exploiting capitalist class, but by creating a small corner of the economy in which class differences supposedly did not exist [20]. Cooperatives establish a form of worker’s power in a single workplace, but they leave the normal capitalist order in place elsewhere. Cooperatives on their own do not fundamentally alter the system. For this reason, a reliance on cooperatives in the socialist movement may divert energy from real anti-capitalist struggle. Marx noted this in the aforementioned speech. He also noticed that a variety of establishment figures had come to support the cooperative movement. In his words,

“[P]lausible noblemen, philanthropic middle-class spouters, and even kept political economists have all at once turned nauseously complementary to the very co-operative labor system they had vainly tried to nip in the bud by deriding it as the utopia of the dreamer, or stigmatizing it as the sacrilege of the socialist” [21].

Even fascists have sometimes praised co–ops. In the 1960s, the labor minister of Spain’s fascist dictator General Franco awarded the Gold Medal for Merit in Work to Mondragón’s Arizmendiarrieta. [22]. Decades earlier, in fascist Italy, Benito Mussolini established the National Fascist Cooperative Agency (Ente Nazionale Fascista della Cooperazione) and encouraged the expansion of cooperatives in the farming and food processing sectors as a way to downplay class differences [23].

Individual co–ops do not threaten the system and can absorb time and resources that could be used for other kinds of organizing. Yet, as Marx put it in his speech, “To save the industrious masses, cooperative labor ought to be developed to national dimensions, and, consequently, to be fostered by national means” [24]. Cooperatives can be an important starting point for establishing socialism, but they can never do so on their own. The advocacy of cooperatives by forces objectively hostile to socialism should be evidence enough of this.

Worker’s cooperatives, in addition to diverting energy from socialist organizing, are not in and of themselves powerful enough to challenge capitalism from within. Capitalism, as its name suggests, is a system organized for the perpetuation of the supremacy of capital. The economic, political, and legal systems are organized to prevent forces antagonistic to capital-such as the workers-from taking power. James Madison, the fourth President of the United States, admitted as much in a 1787 debate on the constitution. He wrote:

The man who is possessed of wealth, who lolls on his sofa or rolls in his carriage, cannot judge the wants or feelings of the day-laborer. The government we mean to erect is intended to last for ages. The landed interest, at present, is prevalent; but in process of time, when we approximate to the states and kingdoms of Europe, — when the number of landholders shall be comparatively small, through the various means of trade and manufactures, will not the landed interest be overbalanced in future elections, and unless wisely provided against, what will become of your government? In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place. If these observations be just, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation. Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority. The senate, therefore, ought to be this body; and to answer these purposes, they ought to have permanency and stability” [25].

In other words, wealth (“landed interests”) will be increasingly concentrated into fewer and fewer hands through markets (“various means of trade and manufactures”).  The wealthy, therefore, would be outvoted in a democratic system and government would be overrun by the majority of working people.  To prevent the working class from attaining political power and expropriating the property and wealth of the rich (“an agrarian law”), we have to “wisely” ensure that government “protect the minority” of the rich against the majority of the poor.

What does this mean for worker’s cooperatives? In short, it means that the system is set up to discourage and crush these firms. Since worker’s cooperatives represent a kind of worker’s power, they do in some sense threaten the capitalist order. While they do not change the system as a whole, they do make workers aware of the fact that they are capable of running things by themselves, without capitalists. This, obviously, is very bad for the capitalists. Therefore, the very market mechanisms that allow capital to exercise control over labor also discourage attempts by labor to threaten capital.

In order to effectively be an alternative to capitalism, worker-managed organizations must receive support from a state that represents the interests of the working class. If this is not the case, the cooperatives will crumble under market mechanisms. Worker’s cooperatives will always be at a disadvantage under capitalism, and will therefore never be able to do away with it unaided.

German Marxist Rosa Luxemburg, in her pamphlet “Reform of Revolution,” expanded upon this idea. “Co-operatives,” wrote Luxemburg, “especially co-operatives in the field of production, constitute a hybrid form in the midst of capitalism. They can be described as small units of socialized production within capitalist exchange” [26]. The problem is that cooperatives that are established in the context of the capitalist market must compete in order to survive, and if the rate of exploitation is high among your competitors, then you must match it. Cooperatives must always “self-exploit” in order to keep up with capitalist enterprises, and thus compromise their own egalitarian ideas.

As Luxemburg put it,

“In capitalist economy exchanges dominate production. As a result of competition, the complete domination of the process of production by the interests of capital—that is, pitiless exploitation—becomes a condition for the survival of each enterprise” [27].

She continues:

“The domination of capital over the process of production expresses itself in the following ways. Labor is intensified. The workday is lengthened or shortened, according to the situation of the market. And, depending on the requirements of the market, labor is either employed or thrown back into the street. In other words, use is made of all methods that enable an enterprise to stand up against its competitors in the market” [28].

Some cooperatives find small niche markets in which to survive, but the majority will either be driven out of business or be forced to copy the practices used by other employers. In Luxemburg’s words:

“The workers forming a co-operative in the field of production are thus faced with the contradictory necessity of governing themselves with the utmost absolutism. They are obliged to take toward themselves the role of capitalist entrepreneur—a contradiction that accounts for the usual failure of production co-operatives which either become pure capitalist enterprises or, if the workers’ interests continue to predominate, end by dissolving” [29].

The history of the world’s biggest co–op, the Mondragón Cooperative Corporation in Spain, is a perfect illustration of Luxemburg’s argument. Mondragón was set up with the ideals of worker participation, solidarity and equality, but as the business has grown bigger and bigger, and become more and more integrated into global capitalism, its founding principles have applied only to a shrinking percentage of its workforce.

In 1993, Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that Mondragón was restructuring to get ready to compete in the European single market. It noted that “increased salary differentials, advertising campaigns in Fortune and cooperative alliances with companies like Hotpoint have had many co–op workers wondering whether in the new Mondragón Cooperative Corporation [MCC] some members are more equal than others” [30].

By this time daily life for most Mondragón workers was not noticeably different from working for a more traditional capitalist employer, although with greater job security. Decision-making had become highly centralized, with most co–op members having no say in the company’s day-to-day operations. Perhaps not surprisingly, in a survey comparing job satisfaction of Mondragón manual workers with workers in a similarly sized privately-owned company, there was little difference between the two groups, with the Mondragón workers slightly less satisfied [31].

A few years later the Guardian reported, “MCC members have learned to think like the shareholders of any other global business. In order to protect their own jobs from fluctuations in demand, 20% of the workforce are on part-time or short-term contracts and can easily be shed.” The corporation president, Antonio Cancelo explained: “Our clients cannot guarantee us steady workloads, so we have to have a number of people on temporary contracts. We live in a market economy. That we cannot change” [32].

Meanwhile, most workers employed by Mondragón outside of the Basque region are not members of the co–op. By the late 1990s Mondragón was setting up joint ventures with capitalist firms in other parts of Spain, and operating plants employing low-wage labor in countries such as Morocco, Egypt, Thailand, and China [33].

MCC adopted an ethical code for its foreign employees and promised that their treatment would reflect the cooperative’s “core values.” But in early 2011, Mondragón was accused of employing sweatshop labor in an appliance manufacturing company it owns in Poland, where low-paid workers started a work-to-rule. According to one commentator sympathetic to Mondragón:

“The Polish struggle represents the dark underside of worker co-operation. Our movement can’t engage in the exploitation of workers even to protect other members of the co-operative or, worse, a nostalgic legacy. I don’t think that this means that Mondragón should simply accept worker demands; however, when the situation gets to the point of a work slow-down, work-to-rule, or all-out strike, it seems to me that a worker cooperative is no longer acting according to the principles of co-operatives or worker rights” [34].

MCC’s image as an egalitarian paradise suffered a further blow in November of 2013 when one of its largest components, the domestic appliances manufacturer Fagor Electrodomésticos, was forced to declare bankruptcy. Fagor had run up debts of over one billion dollars during Spain’s severe and continuing economic crisis, and the Mondragón Group General Council decided it could not risk lending the company any more money. Attempts by Fagor’s management to persuade US hedge funds to invest in the co–op also fell through.

Almost 2,000 workers lost their jobs in the Basque region and another 3,500 were laid off from Fagor factories in France, China, Poland, and Morocco. MCC’s Corporate Employment Office offered the Basque workers help with finding work, but hundreds of them occupied one of the affected plants in Edesa and workers later formed a human chain outside MCC’s main office in Mondragón [35]. Even the world’s largest cooperative has been forced to bend to the market in order to survive. It has proven incapable of challenging capitalism by itself.

In addition to the totalizing nature of market mechanisms analyzed above, worker’s cooperatives do not alter the material basis of capitalist production to the degree necessary for the establishment of socialism. They are useful for showing workers that they have power, but they do not actually allow them to exercise that power across the whole of society.

In order to explain why that is, I want to turn to the Spanish Civil War of 1936. In Spain, just before the bourgeoisie’s attack led by Franco, anarchists were leading the most important mass trade union (the CNT had more than one million members) and had a political apparatus, despite what they claim, with the Federación Anarquiste Ibérica (FAI). In a dominating position, anarchists had the organizational capacity and the possibility to lead the proletarian and peasant masses in the abolition of capitalism [36]. It was partly their reliance on decentralized worker-owned cooperatives that resulted in their defeat by fascist and capitalist forces.

Spanish anarchists believed, much like those of today, that a system of autonomous self-managed communes, with the weakest links between each other, was the alternative to capitalism. They thought that as soon as they had collectivized villages in the countryside and cooperative factories in the city, they would also have socialism.

But, as Lenin argued, “small production engenders capitalism” [37]. This is true whether the small companies are owned by a single owner or by the entire workforce.  Despite the  heroism of anarchist activists, their Spanish project failed because the material basis which gave birth to capitalism, namely social classes and the resulting inequality is compatible with cooperative production. Anarchism failed because it saw small production units, organized along cooperative principles, the solution to capitalism.

The market forces of capitalism quickly reasserted themselves within communes led by anarchists. These forces were not mainly linked to difficulties of the civil war, but by economical relationships between communes. The communes’ incapacity to overcome inequalities, as with other problems, was noticed by all serious civil war commentators, from various tendencies, and even by some leaders of the CNT [38].

This inability to overcome inequality does not mean that the communes were a failure. Some functioned well, others not. Again, despite their faults, they demonstrated that workers could continue production without bosses. But cooperatives were not enough to stave off the return of capitalism.

This was precisely because of the  worker cooperative method of ownership. In Anarchist Spain, cooperatives were owned by the workers who directly made use of them, not by a state managed by the entire proletariat. This caused workers to consider their factory as the possession of those who worked in it rather than property of the whole proletariat. While unemployment was high, workers in collectivized shops tended more often than not to proceed to improve their own working conditions through better wages and social programs than to distribute their advantages with other workers. As with agricultural communes, great disparities lasted between laboring workers and unemployed ones, between workers from better-paid strategic sectors and those from secondary sectors [39]. This does not reflect the egalitarian, cooperative values of proletarian socialism, but is rather reminiscent of the bourgeois doctrine “every man for himself.” This bares a striking resemblance to the all-too-common phenomenon of settler workers betraying immigrant workers within unions, in that both prioritize the individual over the collective [40]. Small ownership caused this mentality to flourish, which is why it was incapable of staving off the return of capitalism. Socialism, to put it succinctly, is collective ownership of the means of production. Socialism is not “collectively private” ownership of these means.

The Marxist theory of historical materialism holds that ideas are the result of the ways in which humans change the world, that is, the ways in which they engage in labor [39]. Therefore, we can conclude that the commune’s decision to look out for one’s own workplace rather than the working class as a whole is a result of fundamentally bourgeois relations of production. Cooperatives in ‘non-capitalist societies’ such as anarchist Spain, therefore, failed to prevent the inequalities of capitalism from resurfacing, because they did not sufficiently change the material basis of capitalism. Because prefigurative political projects do not change this material basis, there is nothing to ensure that capitalist dynamics will not resurface in them.

In the case of cooperatives, the actual results of the prefigurative experiments left much to be desired. In Anarchist Spain, for example, evidence of difficulties in the union-controlled economy soon came in abundance. The Republican Minister of Industry reported that by January 1937 he had received petition asking for state intervention in no less than 11,000 enterprises [41]. This is nothing less than proof of Marx’s assertion that cooperatives require a state to function on the market. Cooperatives are simply not designed to function on the market (or, more accurately, markets are designed to inhibit the functioning of cooperatives). As such, they cannot possibly represent an exit strategy from capitalism.

This method of small collective ownership, which led to inequalities, also led to a lack of independence for many workers in rural cooperatives. The poorest collectivized workplaces did not have the necessary funds to pay wages. They were forced to acquire these funds by mortgaging their workplace’s equipment, as well as their warehoused material with the bourgeois Catalan government. One by one, workplaces passed from proletarian hands to those of the bourgeoisie. Eventually, capitalism returned entirely. In this sense, the direct ownership of workplaces by those employed there meant a lack of freedom for the working class as a class. Direct ownership would seem to be more conducive to freedom than state ownership, but the case of Anarchist Spain shows this to be far from the truth.

What is missing from the strategy of establishing cooperatives is any way of achieving this bigger goal, because “the lords of the land and the lords of capital will always use their political privileges for the defense and perpetuation of their economic monopolies. So far from promoting, they will continue to lay every possible impediment in the way of the emancipation of labor” [42].

Economic democracy is an important element of of socialist society, but this can only be permanently established by adopting a strategy aimed at dismantling the power of the capitalist state and expropriating the expropriators. The working class must create its own state which can organize production for the benefit of everyone, rather than a small minority (or groups of minorities) who owns the factories, land, and so on. In other words, what is needed is  a political strategy, not one focused primarily on attempting to create alternative economic models within existing capitalist society. We must become, in a word, revolutionary.

There cannot be a one-to-one correlation between the methods, strategy, and tactics of an opposition movement and those of the socioeconomic and political system that emerges from it. The “good society” assumes an egalitarian distribution of resources and power that allows for the resolution of differences in a peaceful and democratic manner. Today’s society, on the other hand, is characterized by a vast disparity of power and resources between the rulers and their opponents, by rulers who cannot be expected to willingly accept defeat in struggles even over reforms, let alone peacefully hand over their power over society, and who will sooner or later mobilize their power to violently oppose radical social change. It is also true that the more the existing relation of forces favors the insurgents, the less likely the rulers are to put up a violent resistance. But far from this being an argument in support of pacifism or nonviolence, it reinforces the likelihood that an opposition movement will have to confront violence, including armed violence, and needs to be prepared to deal with it.

Social movements focused on emulating the future (while they may experience a momentary success, if they tap into popular anger and frustration) face similar challenges in navigating the contradictions of politics and consciousness in the present.  These movements can often become encapsulated to a small group of committed radicals as they find it hard to build a base—since most people don’t already share a commitment to a post-revolutionary vision—or as they become inward looking and aim to perfect their relations among each other first.

For many of the theoreticians of prefigurative politics, the problems presented by revolutionary politics can be avoided by simply redefining them out of existence. Questions involving the relationship between reform and revolution are simply wished away by redefining revolution as no longer involving the actual overthrow of the capitalist system through a set of discrete and relatively short-lived events. As John Holloway, the Irish social scientist teaching in Mexico, and one of the best exponents of prefigurative politics, argues in his Crack Capitalism, “the revolutionary replacement of one system by another is both impossible and undesirable,” and that the only possible way of conceiving revolution is as an interstitial process that involves the creation, expansion, and multiplication of cracks—such as the Zapatistas in the Mexican state of Chiapas [43].

“Strategic leftists” appreciate,  too, the self-organization and emancipatory potential of plant occupations and community self-rule, but at the same time underscore the limitations of these important but nevertheless defensive struggles. Occupied plants, to survive, have to function within the economic and political context of capitalist society, particularly under the pressures of a chaotically competitive system, which sooner or later forces many compromises and encroaches on worker self-management. This is why they cannot “prefigure” the future society, even as they may, at least initially, strengthen the independence and self-confidence of the workers involved in those struggles.

Similar concerns apply to the self-governed communities in Chiapas led by Marcos and the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation). While the Mexican government has decided, perhaps for the sake of political stability, to permit the continued existence of the EZLN self-governed communities in the Lacandona jungle—one of the poorest and most isolated parts of the country—these communities continue to be subject to the same powerful pressures of capitalism. As the veteran Latin American leftist Guillermo Almeyra points out, they are still immersed in the market, forced to sell their labor for most of the year, to buy tools, fertilizers, and agricultural products unavailable in the Zapatista zones, to sell or exchange their products in town markets outside of their own region, and even to turn to the official health and education systems [44].

For Holloway, however, these movements are the “cracks” whose growth will bring the revolution. Thus, revolution for him is a question of movement, of direction, but not a break. As he puts it, “Movement is what matters. The possibility of the cracks is in their moving,”  [45]. echoing the outlook of Edward Bernstein and the evolutionism of classical social democracy except, of course, that Holloway clearly advocates an evolutionism of struggle, while the “revisionist” wing of classical social democracy placed a great deal of emphasis on the inevitable development of an electoral political majority that would take over the state and eventually introduce socialism [46].

Paradoxical as it may sound, Holloway’s notion of revolution as evolution through struggle is also central to the thought of revolutionary anarchists like anthropologist David Graeber. If, on one hand, Graeber takes a self-styled radical stance supporting the notion of “diversity of tactics” that entitles small minorities of activists to break windows and engage in other similar “trashing” activities. even against the express wishes of the sponsors and the great majority of participants in demonstrations, on the other hand, like Holloway, he rejects the notion of a “clean break,” that is, a revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system. That is what he does when he speculates on what might have happened had the Spanish anarchists won in 1937. “Spain,” he writes,

would have ended in a situation similar to Chiapas with a stalemate between Anarchist and anti-Anarchist factions that would have tilted in favor of the Anarchists only after a protracted, long lasting, and arduous effort to win over their [statists’] children, which could be accomplished by creating an obviously freer, more pleasurable, more beautiful, secure, relaxed, fulfilling life in the stateless sections [47].

By redefining revolution as nothing more than a progressive increase of “cracks” in society, Holloway’s prefigurative politics negates the centrality of the state, and state power as key to the process. As he himself put it in an earlier work, we “can change the world without taking power” [48]. By negating state power, Holloway is able to avoid the realities of power. For example, the fact that the state will tolerate “cracks” only up to the point when they threaten its power and the power of capitalism. For Holloway this problem simply does not exist. The very examples that he chooses to illustrate his vision are very revealing: the Zapatista movement and its self-governing community in the Lacandonian jungle; a social center in Edinburgh, Scotland; or going to an all-night rave in Berlin. The very fact that he creates the impression that they all embody the same revolutionary potential gives away his lack of regard for power. This lack of regard is evident even when only taking into account his example of the Zapatista communities in Chiapas. To the extent that they pose—or have posed—a threat to the Mexican state, they could conceivably be seen as part of a dynamic analogous to what in classical Marxism is known as “dual power”: the dichotomy, in revolutionary situations in modern capitalist nation-states, between competing centers of revolutionary struggle on one hand, and on the other ruling-class power [49].

For Holloway, and also for Graeber, who also looks at the Zapatistas as a model to be applied everywhere, including civil-war Spain of the 1930s, this state of “dual power” could go on indefinitely, with the Zapatistas being able to survive in their communities and serve as an example to be cumulatively reproduced elsewhere. He sidesteps, however, the fact that the Zapatista communities survive so long as the Mexican state is willing to live, for conjunctural political reasons, with pockets of power outside its control in what are, from the state’s point of view, areas of marginal political and economic importance. But even if the Zapatistas became a real threat to the Mexican state, the dynamics of dual power that this would generate could not last long, if only because it would severely impact the predictability and security that modern capitalism requires to function. This necessarily leads to considerations of repression, response to repression, and so on, that Holloway wishes away [50].

This is a very similar problem to the one that the Utopian socialists faced several hundred years ago. Like Holloway, these activists tended to lionize the spontaneous struggles of the masses and downplay-or argue against-the need for revolution. They failed the key motor force in historical development-the struggle of social classes to organize and reorganize the economy.

Between 1825 and 1830, groups of urban workers made their first concerted attempt to escape deteriorating conditions in the cities by acquiring land and setting up cooperative communities based primarily on agriculture. Many urban wage-earners had the goal of becoming farmers, but the skyrocketing price of land was making it harder and harder to realize that dream. This development mirrored the skyrocketing cost of means of production and farming equipment, making it even more difficult to opt out of the existing society [51].

Cornelius Blatchley first popularized the ideas of the cooperative movement in his essay On Common Wealth, published in 1822. He advocated the formation of peer communities, in which collective good and cooperation would replace selfishness and competition [52].

Blatchley essay was influenced by the ideas of utopian socialist Robert Owen, whom he had been in contact with. In Owen’s A New View of Society, published in 1813, he originated the idea that the capitalist system could be transcended by the formation of ever greater numbers of cooperative communities. Like advocates of prefigurative politics, the utopians wished to ignore the capitalists rather than challenge them directly. All the unemployed could settle in these communities, as well as former workers who wanted their freedom. They would then produce for each other’s needs and for exchange with the outside world. These cooperative villages would grow and federate “in circles of tens, hundreds, and thousands,” eventually transforming the whole of society. From inside the shell of the old, immoral world, a new moral world would arise, characterized by perfect freedom and equality [53].

Owen did not see this project as one with a class character. He thought that he could simply convince the capitalists to join in their new society and avoid struggle altogether. As with worker’s cooperatives, the ultimate aim of Owen’s free communities was not to end class conflict by abolishing classes, but to ignore class conflict entirely through peaceful means. This was reflected when Owen established the “Association of All Classes of All Nations” to bring the new society about [54].

Blatchley soon convinced Owen that America was the most fertile ground for building socialism. Owen set sail for America soon after to build a colony called New Harmony in Indiana. In explaining his reasoning, Owen wrote that America had “open land and a free society in the making.” But American freedom was not what the utopians made it out to be. Freedom in the United States meant not only freedom of the colonizers to genocide natives, and freedom of the southern aristocrats to enslave Africans, but also freedom for the Northern capitalists to build a society in their own image: one based on extreme class differences [55].

Owen, Blatchley, and their communalist followers would soon find out that it was these capitalists who would emerge victorious.

In the Spring of 1825, New Harmony opened its doors to all who shared their vision of a cooperative society. Soon, over 900 mostly urban working people had crowded in. The community thrived for a year. Members worked in a cooperative system, with each person responsible for settling communal debts with work credits on an annual basis. No money was exchanged. New Harmony, along with Owen’s theories, received wide enough publicity and showed enough success as to inspire the founding of other cooperative communities across the United States, particularly in the United States [56].

Owen soon offered a plan for a “community of equals,” a commune in which each member would receive according to need rather than labor performed. Despite the community’s enthusiasm for this project, it met with disaster [57].

The 900 inhabitants of New Harmony included a wide range of people from varying class backgrounds: workers and their families, middle class intellectuals, and impoverished vagrants. The transition to commune resulted in factions and feuds between people of differing classes, with different class interests. The community split into at least five groups, each forming an independent community on different parts of the land [58]. Without New Harmony as its center, the movement lost direction and eventually dissipated. Class differences and ideologies from the old society still persist in the new. Without a commitment to smashing the material basis of these ideologies, they will return. The process of the Spanish Revolution ironically prefigured itself in New Harmony and other communes.

Most urban workers found that moving to the countryside did not solve their economic problems. Capitalists, bankers, and land speculators squeezed out land all around the country. It was becoming increasingly difficult for people who had known farming all their lives to make a living, let alone former factory workers. The experience of the early utopian socialists should teach us that social transformation has to be based on more than a better model or a good idea. Ultimately, the project of building a new society in the shell of the old was unsuccessful because the utopians failed to fully understand, much less combat, the real power of the capitalist class [59].

Prefigurative politics does not offer a path out of the existing society. It simply wishes it away. Putting our hopes in this idealist conception of history can only spell death for our movement.


  2. Wini Breines, The Great Refusal: Community and Organization in the New Left: 1962-1968 (New York: Praeger, 1982), 6-7
  3. Judson Jefferies, On the Ground: The Black Panther Party in Communities across America (University Press of Mississippi, 2010); David Hilliard, The Black Panther Party: Service to the People Programs (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 2008).
  4. Vladimir Lenin, “Lessons of the Commune.” Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1972, Moscow, Volume 13, pages 475-478.
  5. “Yes, there is an alternative to capitalism: Mondragon shows the way,” The Guardian, Sunday, 24 June 2012 (…).
  6. Capitalism Hits the Fan: The Global Economic Meltdown and What to Do About It, 2nd ed. (Northampton, MA: Interlink Books, 2013).
  7. See my blog post “Socialism and Democracy in the USSR”
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  20. Kasmir, The Myth of Mondragón, p. 86
  21. Op. Cit.
  22. Vera Zamagn, “Italy’s cooperatives from marginality to success,” paper presented at XIV International Economic History Congress, Helsinki, Finland, August 2006 (…).
  23. Ibid.
  24. Op. Cit.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Andy Robinson, “Co–ops face an unequal fight,” January 2, 1993.
  31. Sharryn Kasmir, The Myth of Mondragón: Cooperatives, Politics, and Working Class Life in a Basque Town (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1996), chapters 5 and 6. See especially pp.162–4.
  32. Giles Tremlett, “Basque co-op protects itself with buffer of foreign workers,” October 23, 2001 (…).
  33. John McNamara, “Contradictions in Paradise: When the Workers Become Bosses,” January 31, 2011,….
  34. “Trouble in workers’ paradise,” The Economist, November 9, 2013 (…); Andrew Bibby, “Workers occupy plant as Spanish co-operative goes under,” The Guardian, November 15, 2013 (
  35. Christopher Bjork, “Recession Frays Ties at Spain’s Co-ops,” Wall Street Journal, December 26, 2013 (…).
  36. Pierre Broué and Émile Témime, The Revolution and the Civil War in Spain, London: Faber & Faver Limited, 1972.
  38. Joseph Green, “Anarchism and the marketplace”, in Communist Voice, No. 4, Sept. 15, 1996.
  39. Ibid.
  40. Jacobson, Robin and Geron, Kim (2008)’Unions and the Politics of Immigration’,Socialism and Democracy,22:3,105—122, Page 112
  41. See my blog post, “Marxist Dialectical and Historical Materialism.”
  42. Juan Peiró, De la fábrica de vidrio de Mataro al Ministerio de Industria – Valencia 1937
  43. Op. Cit.
  44. Raúl Zibechi, ‘Sobre la “forma superior de lucha.”’ Rebelíon, November 30, 2013.
  45. John Holloway, Crack Capitalism (London: Pluto Press, 2010), 11.
  46. Guillermo Almeyra, “Los vaivenes de los movimientos sociales en México,” Colección CLACSO. Textos Completos. OSAL – Observatorio Social de América Latina, Año IX, No. 24, octubre de 2008, 92.…
  47. John Holloway, Crack Capitalism, 72. Holloway’s emphasis.
  48. David Graeber, Revolutions in Reverse. Essays in Politics, Violence, Art and Imagination (London: Minor Compositions, 2011),
  49. Pitzer, Donald (2012). New Harmony Then and Now. Quarry Books. p. 50. Donald E. Pitzer, “The Original Boatload of Knowledge Down the Ohio River.” Reprint. Ohio Journal of Science 89, no. 5 (December 1989): 128–42.
  50. Wilson, William (1964). The Angel and the Serpent. Binghamton, N.Y.: Vail-Ballou Press, Inc. pp. 102–103.
  51. William E. Wilson, The Angel and the Serpent: The Story of New Harmony (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1967, 2nd ed.), p. 105, 110, 116.
  52.  Wilson, p. 116.
  53. Joel Hiatt, ed., “Diary of William Owen: From November 10, 1824, to April 20, 1825” Indiana Historical Society Publications 4, no. 1 (1906): 130.
  54. Carmony and Elliott, p. 168. Op. Cit.
  55. Wilson, p. 122. Op. Cit.


People Power: Democracy and Popular Participation in Venezuela

Opponents of socialism love to paint any country that pursues a path other than neoliberal capitalism as “dictatorial” and “undemocratic” [1]. Venezuela, a socialist country, is naturally a victim of this slander. In this essay, I would like to argue that this characterization of Venezuela is in fact slanderous, based in nothing but propagandistic phrase mongering. In fact, Venezuela is one of the most democratic countries in Latin America, perhaps even the world.

Let’s begin with Venezuela’s elections. I have argued in the past that elections are not the only, or even the primary, component of democracy. Elections, in my view, are nothing more than a tool the people can use to exercise political power. This-power in the hands of the people-is what democracy really means. However, given the focus on Venezuela’s electoral system as “fraudulent” or “meaningless” [2], I feel it is necessary to mention them here. The idea that Venezuelan elections do not mean anything, or that they are rigged, is a complete fabrication.

The ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSVU, has been repeatedly affirmed at the polls, winning twelve of fifteen major elections between 1998 and 2015 [3]. The government has won these elections cleanly, and has immediately conceded on the rare occasions when it has suffered defeat, including December 2015’s parliamentary elections [4].

Nicolas Maduro, dubbed Chavez’s “handpicked successor” by bourgeois media sources [5], actually won the election squarely. A presidential election was held in Venezuela in April 2013 following the death of President Hugo Chávez on 5 March 2013. Voters gave Nicolás Maduro—who had assumed the role of acting president since Chávez’s death—a narrow victory of fifty-one percent (51%) over his opponent Henrique Capriles Radonski, the Governor of Miranda [6]. The fact that this victory was so narrow is a strong indication that it was earned. Fraudulent elections have, historically, resulted in the victor winning by a huge margin, upwards of ninety percent (90%). If Maduro really was manipulating the system, why did he not do so to a greater degree? Why did he only award himself 51% of the vote? This is a very low number to choose if one hopes to rig an election successfully. Why not choose something like 80 percent, giving yourself a kind of safety net should things go awry? Put simply, if Maduro wanted to rig the elections, he could have done a much better job of it.

The elections in Venezuela are not necessarily proof that the country is a democracy, but they are strong evidence in favor of it. After all, the people have evidence that the PSVU would step down if voted out. If they disliked the Party, why not vote it out? Indeed, the country’s own opposition has learned this. In 2004, the opposition enacted their constitutional right to a recall election, seeking to have then-President Hugo Chavez removed from office. However, Chavez remained in power after the recall was rejected by a wide margin of fifty-eight percent (58%) [7]. The Venezuelan people had an opportunity to vote out Chavez, and yet declined to do so. If democracy is rule by the people, then democracy in Venezuela means Chavismo. The people chose Chavez, just as they chose Maduro.

A predictable retort here would be that the people have not chosen Maduro. There would have been a recall election had the supposedly dictatorial government not suspended it in order to secure its own power. This, too, is incorrect on a number of levels.

In order to explain why, we must examine who the opposition actually is. In the words of Afro-Venezuelan activist and feminist Maria Emilia Duran, the opposition is “a white, bourgeois, classist, racist and sexist elite that has no patriotism…They want a Venezuela where only they exist, not Black, Indigenous and poor people” [8]. Venezuela’s opposition is not made up of poor or working people oppressed by the government. It is a wealthy elite whose actions are motivated by a desire to empower themselves, not the people. Venezuela’s right-wing opposition, connected to multinational oil companies, called for national strikes protesting the Bolivarian Revolution. Opposition leaders, claiming that Chavez was a “dictator” who wanted to “make Venezuela into another Cuba,” ordered sectors of the country’s armed forces to arrest him and installed wealthy oil businessman Pedro Carmona as president [9]. Carmona, a right-wing politician backed by the U.S. [10] sought to undo all of the actions taken by the revolution. But the Afro-descendant, Indigenous and working class masses-in a word, the oppressed-who supported the revolution immediately responded to his ouster, holding large protests outside the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas calling for his return [11].

The opposition and supporters in Venezuela could not be more different. One wishes to install a wealthy businessman as head of the country, while the other wishes to lift up the most oppressed sectors of society. The opposition wants nothing more than to take power away from the people of Venezuela.

The opposition has routinely made use of illegal actions in order to satisfy these aims. Of the 1,957,779 signatures submitted during the first phase of the recall, for example, over thirty percent—or 605,727—had irregularities, including signatures from over 10,000 deceased persons [12]. The submission of false signatures is a major offense and allowing the recall to proceed under those circumstances would have undermined the credibility of the entire Venezuelan electoral system. The country’s right-wing opposition responded to the suspension of the recall referendum process with indirect calls for a military coup. What else is this but an anti-democratic action? The opposition is attempting to impose its will on the people of Venezuela through the artificial inflation of signatures. If the government were as unpopular as opponents claim, the internal opposition would not have felt the need to do this. The opposition’s own actions are proof of its real, anti-democratic character.

Nonetheless, the opposition is crying foul and has called for street protests, claiming the constitution has been violated [13]. The opposition is striving to portray themselves as helpless victims who have been thwarted by the socialist government. However, the opposition’s narrative is at odds with the facts on the ground. The opposition is not a grassroots movement born out of frustration with the government, but rather a group of privileged elites willing to resort to dishonest, violent tactics to ensure that the masses of society return to a state of exploitation and ignorance rather than empowerment. These groups should not be trusted under any circumstances.

In light of this evidence, we can confidently assert that the government’s repression of the opposition is not, and has never been, dictatorial in the classic sense of the word. In fact, the opposite is true. A democratic state is one in which the power of the people is the highest authority. This cannot be the case if certain elements in the state wish to rob the people of power. The opposition in Venezuela, as I have shown, is one such element. The repression of anti-democratic, right-wing organizations is meant to facilitate the exercise of people’s power. A truly democratic state must repress anti-democratic elements if it wishes to remain worthy of the label. Democracy is not a state of affairs in which the people can theoretically exercise power, it is one in which this is materially the case. This cannot be achieved so long as oligarchic groups are permitted to exist. While allowing opposition protests to occur may seem democratic on the surface, nothing could be further from the truth.

That covers elections, but elections are not the end of the democratic process. There exists in Venezuela a “dual” or “constituent” network of communal councils in which the people make decisions directly. This is a democratic process on its face. If the people manage their communes directly, power cannot reside anywhere but in their hands. Still, these councils are not free of contradictions or conflicts. In order to really understand democracy in Venezuela, we need to go deeper, examining not only the inner workings of these councils, but also how they came to be.

In Venezuela, the concept of constituent power arose at the end of the 1980s as the defining trait of a continuous process of social transformation. The main slogan of the neighborhood assemblies was “We don’t want to be a government, we want to govern.” This idea, understood in increasingly radical terms, came to orient the revolutionary transformation, acquiring  broad support in the political debate of the 1990s [14]. This idea has its roots in the beginnings of the Bolivarian revolutionary process itself, which called for the building of a “participatory and protagonistic democracy” [15]. Originally, this concept was used as shorthand for a “third way” that went beyond both capitalism and socialism. In 2005, though, Chavez and others came to understand that socialism was the only economic system capable of fostering such a participatory order. Thus, the idea of participation was officially defined in terms of popular power, revolutionary democracy, and socialism [16].

Communal councils began forming that same year as an initiative “from below.” In different parts of Venezuela, rank-and-file organizations, on their own, promoted forms of local self-administration named “local governments” or “communitarian governments.” During 2005, one department of the city administration of Caracas focused on promoting this proposal in the poor neighborhoods of the city [17]. In January 2006, Chávez adopted this initiative and began to spread it. On his weekly TV show, “Aló Presidente,” Chávez presented the communal councils in a favorable light, calling them  “good practice” [18]. At this point some 5,000 communal councils already existed. In April 2006, the National Assembly approved the Law of Communal Councils, which was reformed in 2009 following a broad consulting process of councils’ spokespeople. The communal councils in urban areas encompass 150-400 families; in rural zones, a minimum of 20 families; and in indigenous zones, at least 10 families. The councils build a non-representative structure of direct participation that exists parallel to the elected representative bodies of constituted power [19].

According to the text of the law, communal councils will “represent the means through which the organised masses can take over the direct administration of policies and projects that are created in response to the needs and aspirations of the communities, in the construction of a fair and just society” [20]. This reflects an understanding of democracy as “rule by the people.” The communal councils are meant to be a training ground for people’s self-government, a preparation for the Leninist concept of “the withering away of the state” [21]. While the councils themselves are not necessarily a concrete step on the road to communism, they offer us a vision of what communism might look like.

At the moment, the communal councils are financed directly by national state institutions, thus avoiding interference from municipal organs. The law does not give any entity the authority to accept or reject proposals presented by the councils. Legally, the state is not allowed to interfere with the communal process. This, too, represents the germs of a new order: one in which the people govern themselves. Put another way, the communal councils are the building blocks of a genuine democracy.

The relationship between the councils and established institutions, however, is not always harmonious; conflicts arise principally from the slowness of constituted power to respond to demands made by the councils and from attempts at interference. The communal councils tend to transcend the division between between those who govern and those who are governed. Hence, liberal analysts who support that division view the communal councils in a negative light, arguing that they are not independent civil-society organizations, but rather are linked to the state. In fact, they constitute a parallel structure through which power and control is gradually drawn away from the state in order to govern on their own [22]. This is one reason why it is enshrined in the constitution that the Venezuelan National Assembly is obliged to consult with these community organizations. Article 2 of the Communes law states that a community parliament is the “maximum authority of the self-government in the Commune” [23]. Its decisions are made through the passing of rules for the regulation of social and community life, toward public order, cohabitation and the collective interest. It can pass community development plans, sanction community letters, oversee debates, and even dictate its own internal rules [24]. These are all vitally important aspects of life. The council gives its members choice in the running of schools, the building of public works projects, and the production of goods. In short, the councils bear all the markings of democracy.

A large, connected group of these councils became known as a commune. As of 2016, 45,000 communal councils and 1500 communes organize hundreds of thousands of Venezuela’s 31 million people. Included in this network are the cooperatives, Enterprises of Social Production. These are either state-owned or operated directly by the communes themselves [25].

Above the communes stands their Communal Parliament, empowered to decide what communes produce and how it is distributed. According to the Commune Law, the Communal Parliament envisions integrating the communes into a regional and national federation, to construct “a system of production, distribution, exchange, and consumption rooted in social property” [26]. However, this Parliament has only met once, right after the electoral defeat of the Chavistas in December 2015 [27]. This illustrates a tension between the communes and the government. Indeed, the communes regularly run into conflict with the government. However, this does not mean that democracy in Venezuela is nonexistent. Rather, it means that contradictions will always exist in class societies. The struggle between the communes and the government illustrates the importance of building communism. Only when there is no state can the people truly govern themselves. To put it in Lenin’s words, “Only when there is no state does it become possible to speak of freedom” [28]. Socialism is vastly more democratic than capitalism, but genuine democracy can only come about with the abolition of classes (and thus the state) achieved by communism. Venezuela shows us that if we care about democracy, we must be communists.

This is not to say that the government is wholly opposed to the communes. Far from it. In 2002, Chavez gave peasants titles to land, and in the cities, urban land committees, CTUs were one of the first organs of grassroots self-organization. “By 2016, more than 650,000 titles to urban land had been granted through the CTUs, benefiting more than a million families” [29]. The government’s support for this initiative reflects that it is truly a government for the people, operating in their best interests to the fullest extent possible. This remains true today.  The Maduro government works with the collectives  through the variety of  Social Missions such as community health care, housing, food, education [30].

All of this shows that Venezuela is not undemocratic. Indeed, the direct management of social life through councils and communes mean that it is a great deal more democratic than the United States and other capitalist countries. Despite the myriad contradictions inherent in the Venezuelan system, the country is proof that the masses are capable of governing themselves. It is only socialism that can provide them the opportunity to do so. If one is concerned with democracy, one must struggle for socialism and against capitalism.

  1. Trombetta, Reynaldo. “Let’s call Venezuela what it is under Maduro: a dictatorship.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 17 Nov. 2016.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Hetland, Gabriel. “The Truth About Chávez.” Jacobin, 20 September 2015
  4. Hetland, Gabriel. “The End of Chavismo? Why Venezuela’s Ruling Party Lost Big, and What Comes Next.” The Nation. 22 June 2016.
  5. Duell, Mark. “Former bus driver and Chavez’s handpicked successor is elected president of Venezuela.” Daily Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 15 Apr. 2013.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Buxton, Julia. “Venezuela After Chávez.” New Left Review 13 July 2013
  8. Fúnez, Ramiro S., et. al. “Afro-Venezuelan Slams ‘Racist, Sexist’ Opposition Protests. Telesur English 11 April 2017
  9. Forero, Juan. “VENEZUELA’S CHIEF FORCED TO RESIGN; CIVILIAN INSTALLED.” The New York Times., 12 Apr. 2002.
  10. Vulliamy, Ed. “Venezuela coup linked to Bush team.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 21 Apr. 2002.
  11. Golinger, Eva. Correo del Orinoco International, 13 April 2010 “Coup and Countercoup, Revolution!”
  12. Ceja, Lucho Granados. “Why Venezuela Suspended the Recall Referendum Against Maduro.” TeleSUR. Mision Verdad.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Roland Denis, Los fabricantes de la rebelión (Caracas: Primera Linea, 2001), 65.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Hugo Chávez, El Poder Popular (Caracas: Ministerio de Comunicación e Información, 2008), 38.
  17. Duran, Cliff. Moving Beyond Capitalism Routledge Critical Development Studies Series, 2016.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Lenin, Vladimir, Collected Works, Volume 25, p. 381-492 1918.
  21. Duran, Cliff. Moving Beyond Capitalism Routledge Critical Development Studies Series, 2016. Op. Cit.
  22. Elkins, Zachary, Tom Ginsburg, and James Melton. 2009. The Endurance of National Constitutions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. George Ciccariello-Maher, Building the Commune. Verso, 2016. p. 19-20
  26. Ibid, 21.
  27. Ibid, 36
  28. Ibid, 59.
  29. Ibid, 58.
  30. Robertson, Ewan. “Maduro Demands Greater Government Support for Venezuela’s Communes.” 08 August 2013.

Is Venezuelan Socialism A Disaster?

Venezuela is often cited in discussions about the possibility or desirability of socialism. Commonly, the country is referred to as a “failed state” [1]. This is taken as evidence that socialism will necessarily lead to disaster. In this essay, I would like to assert the opposite: for all its faults, Venezuelan socialism has dramatically improved the lives of the poorest and most oppressed in the country. It should serve as a beacon for all those who want to build a better world.

Here, I want to address the state of Venezuela’s economy. It is indeed true that Venezuela is having a food crisis. A study released by researchers from three Venezuelan universities reported that nearly 75 percent of the population lost an average of 19 pounds in 2016 for lack of food. The report, titled, “2016 Living Conditions Survey,” noted that about 32.5 percent of Venezuelans eat only once or twice a day, compared to 11.3 percent the previous year [2]. The situation is dire, to be sure, but it is not as dire as we have been led to believe. Venezuela is, in fact, food secure. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization or FAO gauges food security in terms of the amount of food available, measured in kilocalories per person per day. This is usually calculated over a complete year, based on the total quantity of foodstuffs produced and imported. The FAO says a country enjoys food security when food availability stands at 2,720 kilocalories per person per day, or more [3].

The numbers supplied by the government’s own Institute of Nutrition, and validated by the FAO, show a rising trend, with some ups and downs, from 1999, when availability stood at 2,200, to 2011, when it reached a peak of 3,500 [4]. Since 2011, there has been a decline to 3,000 in the most recent figures, for 2015 [5]. By this measure, Venezuela remains well above the FAO’s minimum food security level. There is not hunger in Venezuela, as defined by international standards. On a world scale, after being one of the best performers during the first decade of this century, Venezuela has slipped a bit, but is still quite high up the scale. Again, there are certainly problems related to food access in Venezuela. The point here is not to deny hardships, but to present a more complete picture of the situation.

It should be stressed that economic deficiencies are not the fault of socialism. There are a variety of factors that account for the situation in Venezuela other than socialism. These include natural conditions, sanctions, and illegal hoarding by the opposition.

It is impossible to understand the economic situation in Venezuela without understanding oil. The price of oil began to decline massively in 2014. This decline lasts today, in the beginning of 2017 [6]. Obviously, countries whose economies are based on oil will suffer from this. Venezuela, of course, is one of these. Oil makes up about ninety-five percent (95%) of the country’s exports [7]. Naturally the decline in oil prices had a profound negative effect on Venezuela. It is no coincidence that the country’s economy began to stagnate in 2014, right as oil prices began to fall [8].

Starting in 2014, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia flooded the market with cheap oil. This is not a mere business decision, but a calculated move coordinated with U.S. and Israeli foreign policy goals. Despite not just losing money, but even falling deep into debt, the Saudi monarchy continues to expand its oil production apparatus. The result has been driving the price of oil down from $110 per barrel, to $28 in the early months of 2016 [9]. The goal is to weaken these opponents of Wall Street, London, and Tel Aviv, whose economies are centered around oil and natural gas exports.

Venezuela, as I have said, is a country that depends on oil. Saudi efforts to drive down oil prices have drastically reduced Venezuela’s state budget and led to enormous consequences for the Venezuelan economy. The United States and its allies are intentionally driving down oil prices in order to wreak havoc on Venezuela. This is a common practice of capitalist countries attempting to bring down socialism. Writing for Town Hall in 2014, Michael Reagan bragged that his father did the same thing to hurt the Soviet Union during the 1980s. He writes, “Since selling oil was the source of the Kremlin’s wealth, my father got the Saudis to flood the market with cheap oil. Lower oil prices devalued the ruble, causing the USSR to go bankrupt, which led to perestroika and Mikhail Gorbachev and the collapse of the Soviet Empire” [10]. Claims of economic war on Venezuela are not conspiracy theories. The capitalist rulers of many countries have openly acknowledged it. Venezuela’s economic situation is principally the fault of imperialism.

Natural weather conditions have exacerbated the problem. Venezuela has been in or near drought since 2010, and that drought became catastrophic with the onset of El Nino. Venezuela receives seventy percent (70%) of their electricity from hydroelectric sources [11]. Fully sixty percent (60%) of it is from the Guri Dam [12]. Because of this, the drought has crippled their electrical infrastructure and ability to export energy to neighboring countries. This, too, was a major source of capital for the country. The inability to do this has also contributed to the economic crisis in a major way [13]. The drought has secondary effects as well. Over ten percent (10%) of Venezuela’s labor force is employed in the agricultural sector, and the drought has heavily impacted their ability to produce food [14]. On top of this, Venezuela relies on reservoirs and rivers for public drinking water and irrigation, and the government has been forced to divert water from drinking reservoirs to keep the turbines turning [15]. The weather plays a significant role in Venezuela as it does everywhere. For all the good socialism does, it does not grant anyone the power to manipulate the skies. Therefore, we can confidently say that factors other than socialism have resulted in Venezuela’s current economic predicament.

One of these factors, it should not be forgotten, is illegal hoarding by those in the country opposed to socialism. Since the early 2000s, supermarket owners affiliated with Venezuela’s opposition have been purposefully hoarding food products so they can resell them at higher prices and make large profits [16]. Food importing companies owned by the country’s wealthy right-wing elite are also manipulating import figures to raise prices. In 2013, former Venezuelan Central Bank chief Edmee Betancourt reported that the country lost between $15 and $20 billion US dollars the previous year through such fraudulent import deals [17]. In 2015, over 750 opposition-controlled offshore companies linked to the Panama Papers scandal were accused of purposely redirecting Venezuelan imports of raw food materials from the government to the private sector. Many of these companies sell their products to private companies in Colombia, which resell them to Venezuelans living close to Colombia [18]. Even the bourgeois media outlet Reuters admitted in 2014 that Venezuelan opposition members living in border states are shipping low-cost foodstuffs provided by the Venezuelan government into Colombia for profit [19]. The food crisis is the direct result of deliberate sabotage by anti-socialist forces, not socialism itself. If the government is at fault here, it is because they have not arrested the  leaders of Venezuela’s right-wing.

The impact of sanctions on Venezuela’s economy should also be mentioned. The most visible recent example of such sanctions was President Obama’s March 9, 2015, executive order declaring that “the situation in Venezuela” poses an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States” [20].  The order placed sanctions on seven high-ranking Venezuelan government officials accused of human rights abuses and corruption.

It is worth pointing out that when this occurred, Venezuela’s anti-government opposition rejected the “extraordinary threat” language and declared, “Venezuela is not a threat to any nation” [21]. There is, of course, a direct economic effect of US sanctions against a country, or high-ranking officials within a country. Arguably more important are the indirect effects, which, as Mark Weisbrot has pointed out, send a message to would-be foreign investors that the country being targeted may not be a safe place to invest in. Weisbrot notes that foreign “financial institutions that wanted to arrange a swap for Venezuela’s gold…a couple years ago, they couldn’t do it” [22]. According to Alex Main, a senior associate for international policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “Contacts in the financial sector have noted that the U.S. Treasury Department has strongly urged investors and bankers to avoid making loans to the Maduro government. Recent U.S. sanctions targeting Venezuelan officials also serve to discourage U.S. and European banks from doing business with Venezuela” [23]. Recent US actions have had a considerable and highly detrimental impact at a time when Venezuela is in desperate need of dollars but is prevented from gaining access to them by Washington, which has made little secret of its support for Venezuela’s anti-government opposition [24].

I have just argued that socialism is not the primary cause of Venezuela’s economic crisis. In fact, Venezuela itself is proof of this. The country’s socialist economic system has resulted in a great many achievements that ought to be highlighted, especially in the face of imperial aggression.

Venezuelan-born sociologist María Páez Victor commented on the state of the Venezuelan economy in 2014, writing, “the Venezuelan economy is doing very well. Its oil exports last year amounted to $94 billions while the imports only reached $59.3 billions -a historically low record. The national reserves are at $22 billions and the economy has a surplus (not a deficit) of 2.9% of GDP. The country has no significantly onerous national or foreign debts” [25]. The fact that the United States press chose not to spotlight these successes at the time should tell you something about what “freedom of information” means to capitalists.

The UN’s Human Development Index ranked Venezuela the 71st out of 188 countries examined in 2016. In the report, each of the 188 countries is given a measurement between zero and one. The closer to one, the higher the level of human development. Venezuela was measured at 0.767 — better than Brazil’s 0.754, Peru’s 0.740 and Colombia’s 0.727 — only slightly lower than its 2013 rating of 0.771, and significantly higher than its ranking of 0.677 in 2000, just as President Hugo Chavez came to power and initiated his Bolivarian Revolution. In South America, only Chile, Argentina and Uruguay had higher rankings than Venezuela. [26].

Venezuela’s economy is focused squarely on meeting the needs of the people. Under Chavez, the country saw a massive reduction in poverty. This was made possible because the government took back control of the national petroleum company PDVSA, and has used the abundant oil revenues, not for benefit of a small class of renters as previous governments had done, but to build needed infrastructure and invest in the social services that Venezuelans so sorely needed.  During the last ten years, the government has increased social spending by 60.6%, a total of $772 billion [27].

Venezuela is now the country in the region with the lowest inequality level (measured by the Gini Coefficient) having reduced inequality by 54%, poverty by 44%. Poverty has been reduced from 70.8% in 1996 to 21% in 2010. Extreme poverty was reduced from 40% in 1996 to a very low level of 7.3% in 2010. About 20 million people have benefited from anti-poverty programs, called Misiones. Up to now, 2.1 million elderly people have received old-age pensions – that is 66% of the population while only 387,000 received pensions before the revolution [28].

The Bolivarian government has placed a particular emphasis on education allotting it more than 6% of GDP. UNESCO has recognized that illiteracy been eliminated [29]. furthermore, Venezuela is the third country in the region whose population reads the most [30]. There is tuition free education from daycare to university [29]. Seventy-two percent (72% )of children attend public daycares, and eighty-five percent (85%) of school age children attend school [31]. There are thousands of new or refurbished schools, including ten (10) new universities. The country places second in Latin America and second  in the world with the greatest proportions of university students [32]. In fact, 1 out of every 3 Venezuelans are enrolled in some educational  program [33].

.Before the Chavez government took power in 1998, twenty-one percent (21%) of the population was malnourished. Venezuela now has established a network of subsidized food distribution including grocery stores and supermarkets. While ninety percent (90%) of the food was imported in 1980, today this is less than thirty percent (30%).  Misión Agro-Venezuela has given out 454,238 credits to rural producers and 39,000 rural producers have received credit in 2012 alone [34].  Five million Venezuelan receive free food, four million of them are children in schools and 6,000 food kitchens feed 900,000 people [35].  The agrarian reform and policies to help agricultural producers have increased domestic food supply [36].  The results of all these food security measures is that  today  malnourishment  is only five percent (5%), and child malnutrition  which was 7.7% in 1990 today is at 2.9%. This is an impressive health achievement by any standard [37].

The media loves to highlight Venezuela’s health crisis, but it ignores the many successes the country has had in this field. These include infant mortality, which dropped from 25 per 1000 in 1990 to only 13/1000 in 2010 [38]. An outstanding 96% of the population has now access to clean water [39]. In 1998, there were 18 doctors per 10,000 inhabitants, currently there are  58, and the public health system has about 95,000 physicians [40]. It took four decades for previous governments to build 5,081 clinics, but in just 13 years the Bolivarian government built 13,721. This marked a 169.6% increase [41]. In 2011 alone, 67,000 Venezuelans received free high cost medicines for 139 pathologies conditions including cancer, hepatitis, osteoporosis, schizophrenia, and others; there are now 34 centres for addictions [42]. In 6 years 19,840 homeless have been attended through a special program; and there are practically no children living on the streets [43]. Venezuela now has the largest intensive care unit in the region [44]. A network of public drugstores sell subsidized medicines in 127 stores with savings of 34-40% [45].

An example of how the government has tried to respond in a timely fashion to the real needs of its people is the situation that occurred in 2011 when heavy tropical rains left 100,000 people homeless. They were right away sheltered temporarily in all manner of public buildings and hotels and, in one and a half years, the government built 250,000 houses [46]. The government has obviously not eradicated all social ills, but its people do recognize that, despite any shortcomings and mistakes, it is a government that is on their side, trying to use its resources to meet their needs.

According to Global Finance and the CIA World Factbook, the Venezuelan economy presented the following indicators: unemployment rate of  8% 45,5% government (public) debt as a percent of GDP (by contrast  the European Union debt/GDP is 82.5%) and a real GDP growth: GDP per capita is $13,070. In 2011, the Venezuelan economy defied most forecasts by growing 4.2 percent, and was up 5.6 percent in the first half of 2012. It had a debt-to-GDP ratio comfortably below the U.S. and the UK, and stronger than European countries; an inflation rate,  an endemic  problem during many decades,  that had fallen to a four-year low, or 13.7%, over the most recent 2012 quarter [47].

The revolutionary changes in Venezuela are not abstract. The government of President Chávez significantly improved the living conditions of Venezuelans. This new model of socialist development has had a phenomenal impact all over Latin America, including Colombia. Progressive governments that are now the majority in the region see in Venezuela the catalyst that that has brought unparalleled economic and social progress to the region [48]. No amount of neoliberal rhetoric can dispute these facts. Venezuelan socialism has the potential to be a massive success. It betters not only the lives of the Venezuelan people themselves, but also serves as a reminder of what is possible for others. The existence of a viable alternative to capitalism and neoliberalism in Latin America has motivated the creation of numerous popular movements in the region. Venezuela, as I argued in the beginning of the piece, is a beacon for the oppressed. However darkened it may be, it should be resolutely defended against the machinations of imperialists and anti-communists.

  1. Finnegan, William. “Venezuela, A Failing State.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 4 Nov. 2016,
  2. Pestano, Andrew V. “Venezuela: 75% of population lost 19 pounds amid crisis.” UPI, UPI, 19 Feb. 2017,
  3. “Chapter 2. Food Security: Concepts and Measurement[21]”
  4. “FAO Country Profiles:Venezuela.”
  5. Ibid.
  6. “Crude Oil Prices – 70 Year Historical Chart.” MacroTrends.
  7. “Crude Oil Supply Vs. OPEC Output Target:Venezuela.” IEA Oil Market Report. 11 August 2015.
  8. Davies, Wyre. “Venezuela’s Decline Fuelled by Plunging Oil Prices.” BBC News. BBC, 20 Feb. 2016.
  9. Puko, Timothy. “Oil Settles Below $28 a Barrel.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 09 Feb. 2016.
  10. Critchlow, Andrew. “Cheap Oil Will Win New Cold War with Putin – Just Ask Reagan.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 10 Nov. 2014.
  11. “World Energy Council.” Venezuela.
  12. Ibid.
  13. “U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA – Independent Statistics and Analysis.”Venezuela – International – Analysis – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).
  14. Background Note: Venezuela Archived 8 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine. U.S. Department of State.
  15. Marquez, Humberto, “Venezuelans Thirsty in a Land of Abundant Water.” Inter Press Service. June 4 2014
  16. Arsenault, Chris. “Is Hoarding Causing Venezuela Food Shortages?” Al Jazeera English. March 2, 2014.
  17. Torres, William Neuman and Patricia. “Venezuela’s Economy Suffers as Import Schemes Siphon Billions.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 05 May 2015
  18. Ibid.
  19. Gupta, Girish. “Smuggling Soars as Venezuela’s Economy Sinks.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 20 Jan. 2016.
  20. “50 U.S. Code § 1701 – Unusual and Extraordinary Threat; Declaration of National Emergency; Exercise of Presidential Authorities.” LII / Legal Information Institute
  21. Miroff, Nick, and Karen DeYoung. “New U.S. Sanctions Lost in Venezuela’s Translation.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 11 Mar. 2015.
  22. Weisbrot, Mark. “Is There an Economic and Political War Against Venezuela?” The Real News Network. 02 June 2016.
  23. LEDERMAN, JOSHUA GOODMAN and JOSH. “Trump Sanctions Venezuela Vice President on Drug Trafficking.” Associated Press. Feb 13, 2017.
  24. Weisbrot, Mark. “US Support for Regime Change in Venezuela Is a Mistake | Mark Weisbrot.”The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 18 Feb. 2014
  25. Victor, Maria Paez. “Venezuela Under Attack Again.” Counterpunch. 04 Nov. 2014.
  26. Julija Sardelic and Aidan McGarry., Szilvia Rezmuves, Isak Skenderi & Violeta Vajda, Miriam Krenzinger, Amílcar Sanatan, and Ajamu Nangwaya. “Venezuela Maintains High Human Development: UN.” News | TeleSUR English
  27. Páez Victor, Maria. “Why Do Venezuelan Women Vote for Chavez?” Counterpunch, 24 April 2012
  28. Ibid.
  29. Venezuela en Noticias, Venezuela en Noticias <> Venezuela en Noticias, Venezuela en Noticias
  30. Gallup Poll 2010
  31. Muntaner C, Chung H, Mahmood Q and Armada F. “History Is Not Over. The Bolivarian Revolution, Barrio Adentro and Health Care in Venezuela.” In T Ponniah and J Eastwood The Revolution in Venezuela. Harvard: HUP, 2011 pp 225-256; see also 4, Muntaner et al 2011, 5, Armada et al 2009; 6, Zakrison et al 2012
  32. Armada, F., Muntaner, C., & Navarro, V. (2001). “Health and social security reforms in latin america: The convergence of the world health organization, the world bank, and transnational corporations.” International Journal of Health Services, 31(4), 729-768.
  33. Zakrison TL, Armada F, Rai N, Muntaner C. ”The politics of avoidable blindnessin Latin America–surgery, solidarity, and solutions: the case of Misión Milagro.”Int J Health Serv. 2012;42(3):425-37.
  34. Ismi, Asad. “The Bolivarian Revolution Gives Real Power to the People.” The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor , December 2009/January.
  35. Carmona, Adrián. “Algunos datos sobre Venezuela”, Rebelión, March 2012
  36. Weisbrot, Mark and Johnston, Jake.  “Venezuela’s Economic Recovery: Is It Sustainable?”  Center for Economic and Policy Research, Washington, D.C., September 2012.
  37. Hunziker , Robert. “Venezuela and the Wonders of Equality”.  October 15th, 2012
  38. Golinger, Eva. “US$20 million for the Venezuelan Opposition in 2012”,
  39. Páez Victor, Maria. “Chavez wins Over Powerful Foreign Conglomerate Against Him”, Periódico América Latina, 11 October, 2012
  40. Milne,Seumas.  “The Chávez Victory Will be Felt Far Beyond Latin America” , Associate Editor, The Guardian, October 9, 2012:
  41. Alvarado, Carlos, César Arismendi, Francisco Armada, Gustavo Bergonzoli, Radamés Borroto, Pedro Luis Castellanos, Arachu Castro, Pablo Feal, José Manuel García, Renato d´A. Gusmão, Silvino Hernández, María Esperanza Martínez, Edgar Medina, Wolfram Metzger, Carles Muntaner, Aldo Muñoz, Standard Núñez, Juan Carlos Pérez, and Sarai Vivas. 2006. “Mission Barrio Adentro: The Right to Health and Social Inclusion in Venezuela”. Caracas: PAHO/Venezuela.
  42. Weisbrot, Mark.”Why Chávez Was Re-elected”. New York Times. Oct 10th 2012
  43. Ibid.
  44. Ibid.
  45. Ibid.
  46. Ibid.
  47. Ibid.
  48. “How Did Venezuela Change under Hugo Chávez?” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 04 Oct. 2012

Nuclear Weapons in the DPRK 

The DPRK’s nuclear weapons program is often cited as evidence that the country is a threat to world peace. The so-called ‘rogue nation’ (by which pundits mean a nation that charts its own course of development rather than allowing itself to be manipulated by the West) is painted as having the capability to kill fully ninety percent (90%) of Americans [1]. Not only this, it is asserted that the country’s leadership is “crazy enough” to do so [2]. In this essay, I will argue that the DPRK’s nukes do not mean that it is a threat. Its nuclear program is justifiably used as a deterrent to Western aggression, chiefly on the part of the United States. In short, the DPRK’s nuclear weapons are defensive tools rather than offensive ones. It is in fact the United States that is the real threat to peace, especially as far as nuclear weapons are concerned.

It is vital that we understand why the DPRK has placed such importance on the development of nuclear weapons. The United States has attempted to destroy the country at every opportunity. For several years, the United States has participated in war games along with south Korea, known as Foal Eagle. According to one report, the drills involve “involve some 25,000 U.S. forces and 50,000 members of South Korea’s military” [3]. although the games are described by South Korean officials as “non-provocative,” the same official admits that the drills are “designed to enhance readiness” [4]. This signals that the US is ready for war at any moment. For the DPRK, war is always a looming spectre. The country has never had any illusions about the stance of the united states toward them, and their military program was always one of shoring up the defenses; reinforcing the country. Although the economic sanctions against the DPRK, used to block the trade of items which could prove useful in militarization (such as medical equipment, medicines, food, and other “dangerous” supplies) have proven unable to destabilize the country as hoped, they have in a certain sense cut off other avenues of militarization. Put another way, the West has given the DPRK no choice but to develop nuclear weapons. All other options for developing a conventional military capable of taking on the imperialists have been stolen from them [5].

This is the key point: the DPRK has no other options. It must develop nuclear weapons in order to deter the United States from a full-scale invasion. It is no coincidence that the DPRK conducted a nuclear test during one of the annual Eagle Foal drills. The nuclear bomb is, for the DPRK, a symbol: it shows that the country is willing to fight for its survival, it will not roll over and allow the West to cannibalize it. Yongho Thae, Minister of the Embassy of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in London, puts it this way:

“The world situation changed again after 11 September 2001. After this, Bush said that if the US wants to protect its safety, then it must remove the ‘axis of evil’ countries from the earth. The three countries he listed as members of this ‘axis of evil’ were Iran, Iraq and North Korea. Bush said that, in order to remove these evils from the earth, the US would not hesitate even to use nuclear weapons. Events since then have proved that this was not a simply rhetorical threat – they have carried out this threat against Afghanistan and Iraq.

Now it comes to North Korea. There was DPRK Framework Agreement between the Clinton administration and the DPRK in 1994, but the Bush administration canceled this, saying that America should not negotiate with evil. The neo-cons said that ‘evil states’ should be removed by force. Having witnessed what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq, we came to realise that we couldn’t put a stop to the threat from the US with conventional weapons alone. So we realised that we needed our own nuclear weapons in order to defend the DPRK and its people” [6].

The DPRK developed its nuclear weapon’s program in response to aggression by the United States. The program exists not to dominate the world, but to ensure that the DPRK is allowed to determine its own course of development. The DPRK’s nukes are not a threat, they are a defense mechanism. This is not simply “state propaganda” as is often claimed. Even Lakov, an admitted right-winger and anti-DPRK author, agrees. He writes,

“For the North Korean leaders, the nuclear weapons program is not an end in itself, but rather one of many strategies they use to achieve their overriding goal of regime survival…Their cautious decision to go nuclear is..deeply related to the peculiarities of their domestic and international situation” [7].

Lakov here describes the DPRK’s choice to develop nuclear weapons as “cautious.” This implies, correctly, that the DPRK would not have chosen to go down this path if it felt it had any other choice. The DPRK understands that nuclear weapons are not toys. Experience has taught them not to treat the matter lightly. Thae comments on this in the above interview:

“[T]he US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Later on the USSR developed nuclear weapons too. As time went on, the Soviet nuclear arsenal played the role of counterbalancing the possibility of US nuclear weapon usage. That is the main reason that the US couldn’t use these weapons in the second half of the 20th century. Later on the nuclear weapons club was expanded to include China, Britain and France. In terms of world peace as a whole, the enlargement of the nuclear club would intuitively be seen as a bad thing, but the reality was that the possession of nuclear weapons by China and the Soviet Union was able to check the use of nuclear weapons by anyone for any purposes. I think this is a fact we should admit.

As far as Korea is concerned, you know that Korea is just next door to Japan. Many Japanese lived in Korea, because Korea was a colony of Japan. Our media system at the time was run by Japanese. So when Hiroshima and Nagasaki occurred, we heard about it and we understood very well the scale of this disaster. The Korean people understood very well how many people were killed in the space of just a minute. So the Korean people have a very direct experience of nuclear warfare from the beginning.”

“Eisenhower asked his advisers: how can we win this war? The American generals suggested using the nuclear threat. The US felt that if they warned the population that they were going to drop a nuclear bomb, the people would flee from the front. Having witnessed the effects of nuclear warfare just five years previously, millions of people fled North Korea and went to the south. The result of this is that there are still 10 million separated families.

So you can see that the Korean people are the direct victims of nuclear bullying – us more so than anybody in the world. The nuclear issue is not an abstract one for us; it is something we have to take very seriously” [8].

The people of the DPRK are well aware of the horrors of nuclear war. The aftermath of the United States’ nuclear bomb is seared into the minds of the populace. In light of this, we can assume that the DPRK did not want to develop nuclear weapons. It was forced into this position by the imperialists, and it did not compromise its principles thoughtlessly. In fact, the DPRK was at one time a member of the NPT, or nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Thae says,

In the 1970s, there were discussions among the big powers as to how they could prevent nuclear war. What the big five counties agreed is that they would stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Only five countries would be allowed to have nuclear weapons; the others would not. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was born in 1970. The NPT clearly states that nuclear power states cannot use nuclear weapons for the purpose of threatening or endangering non-nuclear states. So the DPRK thought that if we joined the NPT, we would be able to get rid of the nuclear threat from the US. Therefore we joined. However, the US never withdrew its right of preemptive nuclear strike. They always said that, once US interests are threatened, they always have the right to use their nuclear weapons for pre-emptive purposes. So it’s quite obvious that the NPT cannot ensure our safety. On this basis, we decided to withdraw and to formulate a different strategy to protect ourselves” [9]

The DPRK was more than willing to discount the possibility of developing a nuclear weapons program. It proved this to the international community when it joined the NPT. When the US made it clear that it would use a preemptive strike against the DPRK, however, the country knew that its policy had to change. In a quite literal sense, the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program was and is a response to US aggression.

This can be seen in the fact that, unlike the United States, the DPRK has recently affirmed a no first strike policy regarding nuclear weapons. During the 7th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea in 2016, supreme leader Kim Jong-un stated that North Korea would “not use nuclear weapons first unless aggressive hostile forces use nuclear weapons to invade on our sovereignty” [10].

All of this should lead one to conclude that the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program was not created for offensive purposes, as is the case with the United States. Instead, it was developed in response to aggression by foreign imperialist powers. The DPRK felt that if it did not have nuclear weapons, then the US and other powers would overrun it. The question now is whether this position is correct?

I argue that it is. The case of Libya is an instructive one. Tad Daley, a writer at the bourgeois Christian Science Monitor, argues that the disarming of Libya was what opened it up to invasion. He writes,

“If Libya had possessed the capability, oh, to obliterate a major American military base in Italy, or to vaporize an entire American “carrier battle group” off the southern coast of France, it almost certainly would have dissuaded Washington (not to mention Rome and Paris) from military action. If the Libyan regime wanted to ensure its own survival, then, just like North Korea, it should have developed a nuclear deterrent – small, survivable, and just lethal enough to inflict unacceptable damage on any aggressor” [11].

The fact that both of these leaders, Qaddafi of the Libyan Jamahiriya and Kim, died in the same year in such radically different ways provides an interest point of contrast. Qaddafi was ousted after a set of imperialist-backed rebels launched a racist campaign to topple a revolutionary government in North Africa, which succeeded precisely because of NATO’s assistance. He died beaten, broken, sodomized, tortured, and executed in a muddy sewage pipe without trial [12].

Kim, on the other hand, died peacefully from a heart attack on a train en route to a factory inspection and a public meeting with Korean workers [13]. While his death rocked the Korean people with grief, from Pyongyang to Beijing and beyond, the Korean revolution continues and shows no signs of wavering. China’s proximity to Korea is a factor in Democratic Korea’s continued security, but nothing keeps the American military from an all-out war to topple the Worker’s Party of Korea more than the threat of a nuclear bomb destroying one of their many military bases across the Republic of Korea. The DPRK did not suffer the same fate as Libya precisely because it did not disarm. Just as Thae said, the nuclear deterrent has meant the difference between invasion and survival.

In short, the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program does not constitute a threat. Rather, it is a necessary component of the country’s survival. The DPRK does not want to destroy the world, it only wants to be left alone. The DPRK’s nuclear weapons serve this purpose, and this purpose alone. Calling on the DPRK to disarm without understanding the reasoning behind the program serves only to reproduce the causes of imperialism, war, and genocide.

  4. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. “Kim Jong Un Says Pyongyang Won’t Use Nukes First; Associated Press”.
  11. Tad Daley, “Nuclear lesson from Libya: Don’t be like Qaddafi. Be like Kim,” The Christian Science Monitor, October 13, 2011,
  12. Alan Maass, Lance Selfa, “Washington celebrates Qaddafi’s death,” Socialist Worker, October 24, 2011,
  13. “North Korean leader Kim Jong-il dies ‘of heart attack'”. BBC News. 19 December 2011.