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Book Review: How to Be an Anti-Capitalist in the 21st Century

When it comes to fighting for socialism, strategy is everything. Here we present a review of Erik Olin Wright’s immensely popular “How to Be an Anti-Capitalist in the 21st Century,” and discuss the pitfalls of trying to “erode” capitalism.

Doug Enaa Greene

November 14, 2020
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I needed a break from my normal routine, so read Erik Olin Wright’s How to Be an Anti-Capitalist in the 21st Century. This was published last year and was one of the last books Wright wrote before dying of cancer. Wright himself was a sociologist, Analytical Marxist, and a democratic socialist. Also by all accounts, he seemed to be a decent human being, so all my criticisms here are not about him, but rather his book.

The one thing I will give praise to Wright for is that he is a remarkably clear writer unlike many Analytical Marxists whom I find to be obscurantist and boring. So the book itself is actually very easy to follow and Wright does a decent job of explaining his key ideas (many are popularized from his work Envisioning Real Utopias). I finished it in a single sitting.

That being said, Wright’s book is about what’s wrong with capitalism, that a democratic socialist alternative would be better and how to get there. I think that Wright is wrong on all these questions. For one, his argument against capitalism and in favor of socialism is a moral critique, based upon the ideals of democracy, equality, and solidarity. Certainly moral cases can be made that capitalism is unjust and exploitative, but that only takes you so far. We can also make moral appeals to change it (or mitigate its excesses), but the Marxist case against capitalism is based on the fact that the system itself contains internal contradictions that lead it to crisis and breakdown. In other words, there is a material necessity to the struggle for communism. If the working class doesn’t overthrow it, then the end result will be barbarism. All of that is ignored by Wright in favor of a nebulous moral critique.

In terms of Wright’s alternative, there is a lot of discussion of the role of UBI, cooperatives, new technologies, and different forms of direct democracy in forming a democratic socialist society. However, like many Analytical Marxists, Wright seems to be envision quite a large role for the market and the law of value in socialism. In societies lacking a central plan, the law of value of dominates the economy. While socialism cannot end the dominance of the law of value at a stroke, its dominance can be ended with the institution of a planned economy that will produce results to fulfill human needs. As we can see from the examples of Yugoslavia and China, a market socialist economy does not do that. In fact, there is an utter lack of discussion of how to overcome the domination of the law of value or the role of a planned economy in socialism. This hostility to a revolutionary planned economy is only be expected from Analytical Marxists like Wright who accept many of the premises of classical economics with their preference for markets.

Nor is Wright’s proposed transition to democratic socialism any better. He envisions “eroding capitalism” through developing “democratic, egalitarian, participatory economic relations” in the cracks in the system to eventually overcome the prerogatives of capitalism. However, Wright also believes that it is necessary to supplement this strategy “from below” with one “from above” by utilizing the state to open up space and develop anti-capitalist forms of organization.

Yet on both counts of his strategy, Wright falls short. For one, his strategy of eroding capitalism seems to be analogous to how the bourgeoisie developed in the cracks of feudalism by building up their economic and social power before achieving power. However, this option is not available to the working class. For one, whereas the bourgeoisie could create new forms of economic organization in the womb of feudalism and eventually burst the old order asunder, workers cannot create a new social system before taking power. Ultimately, cooperatives cannot overcome the dominant power of the market. The creation of a socialist economic order is something that happens after the seizure of power.

Another point is that Wright’s outside/inside strategy on the state seems to rely upon Nicos Poulantzas’ ideas on a transition to socialism. Poulantzas believed that it was possible for the dominated classes to establish beach-heads or influence within the state apparatus. After creating beach-heads, the dominated classes would use them intensify the existing contradictions inside the state, while at the same time, mobilizing the masses outside of the state to develop new forms of self-government in order to challenge the existing state in order to begin the transition to socialism. However, Poulantzas was honest enough to recognize that this strategy would likely fail due to the preponderance of power by the ruling class over the state apparatus.

Wright’s strategy seems to be based upon developing beach-heads of a sort and then gradually expanding them. In no case does he discuss the possibility of resistance by the bourgeoisie to his proposed transition. Somehow capitalism is eroded without the capitalists being aware or even doing anything about it! He invokes the example of Chile with its democratic road to socialism that was drowned in blood, but leaves the reader with no real idea of how to defeat the armed power of the bourgeois state. For that matter, Wright does not discuss of the role of imperialism. Perhaps we should not be so quick to dismiss – as Wright does – the Leninist thesis that the bourgeois state is not something to be eroded, but utterly broken.

Wright’s view of the fragmentation and tangled location of class position appears refreshing and avoiding reductionism, but ultimately he denies the role of the working class as an agent for change. His analysis of class departs from Marx with its focus on exploitation in the workplace and borrows from mainstream sociology by qualifying class based upon qualities such as “skills” along with relation to the means of production. By erasing the role of the working class, Wright opens the door to reformist and class collaborationist avenues for change.

Wright’s proposed strategy to erode capitalism avoids none of the reformist pitfalls that have plagued the left for the last century. For all his clarity of writing, the ideas and strategies he proposes will do more to confuse than provide meaningful answers in regards to “what is to be done.” Wright’s theoretical departure from central Marxist positions on class, the state, and the transition to socialism results in the practical dead end of opportunism.

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Doug Enaa Greene

Doug is an independent communist historian from the Boston area. He has written biographies of the communist insurgent Louis Auguste Blanqui and DSA founder Michael Harrington. His forthcoming book, The Dialectics of Saturn, examines Marxist debates about Stalinism.

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