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Vivek Chibber’s ABCs of Reformism: Reality Has Overtaken Social Democratic Illusions

A year and a half ago, Jacobin magazine put out a series of pamphlets on the ABCs of Capitalism. Reformist theorist Vivek Chibber argues that the bourgeois democratic state has so much legitimacy as to make revolutionary politics impossible. Today, when 54% of the U.S. population thinks it is justified to burn down a police station, such reformist ideas appear like satire.

Ahmed Kanna

June 10, 2020
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In hundreds of cities across the United States, for almost two weeks, a Black-led multiracial uprising of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, has been marching, sitting-in, and engaging in militant direct action. The masses are venting their righteous fury at the racist goon squads in blue who roam America’s streets. Everyday people are risking arrest, tear gas, and rubber bullets in acts of courageous and even joyous civil disobedience. Most are young, and many are being radicalized for the first time.

Reformism Loses Credibility

The extent to which the events of the past two weeks, let alone the past three months of Covid lockdowns, explosive unemployment, mass death, and hunger, have delegitimized the U.S. capitalist state is breathtaking. Up until a few months ago, reformist socialists were assuring us that this “democratic” state had too much legitimacy to be challenged. Change would only be possible by working inside the Democratic Party of the bourgeoisie. For years, the reformist or “Kautskyist” trend in the socialist movement, exemplified by Jacobin magazine and the majority leadership of the DSA, have told us that revolution is off the table. One of the leading theorists of this trend, Vivek Chibber, has been most explicit on this. Chibber, a professor at New York University, has said that revolution has not been possible since the 1950s; how strange it must be for him to look out his window and see large protests with mass support challenging the police. Three of Chibber’s recent programmatic statements — an article, a pamphlet, and an interview — are symptomatic of this trend and form the main subject of this article.

I’ve written a long two-part article about Chibber’s “road to power.” That was a year and a half before George Floyd’s murder. If anything, current events are vindicating my view. I say this with no sense of “I told you so,” but only with eyes pointed forward. Kautskyism was first buried a century ago. Recently, modern-day reformists around Jacobin have attempted to disinter it. Let us bury it once more.

Because of the supposed stability and legitimacy of the capitalist state, Chibber says, a revolutionary strategy of “rupture” is “hallucinatory.” (“Rupture” is his euphemism for the smashing of the capitalist state.) Instead socialists should work to elect pro-worker politicians to represent working class interests and to pass progressive legislation in the bourgeois state. This view was first popularized in his overt nod to Kautsky, “Our Road to Power,” published in Jacobin’s issue on the centenary of the Russian Revolution. He has reiterated this strategy in the Jacobin pamphlet The ABCs of Capitalism, published in early 2019, and in an interview with Verso published on May 18 of this year (the original appeared in German in late 2019). That interview appeared on the Verso site one week before the murder of George Floyd, and a full two and a half months into the new depression triggered by Covid-19, with tens of millions of new unemployed, long lines at food pantries, American politicians openly talking about sacrificing large sectors of the population to revive capitalism, etc.

Economism versus Marxism

The ABCs of Capitalism can be credited with clarity and accessibility. Unfortunately, that’s where its merits end. In the interview, Chibber says that he espouses “a fairly orthodox Marxist viewpoint.” Let us examine the theoretical basis for this claim. In pamphlet A: Understanding Capitalism, he writes that “capitalists aren’t motivated by greed but by market pressures” and “the simplest way to identify capitalism is on the basis of something called market dependence” (pp. 7-9, emphasis in the original). In fact, for Marx, market dependence is an effect of, not a basis of, capitalism, which is first and foremost a mode of production based on generalized wage labor. That’s why Marxists organize for the association of the free primary producers, “working with the means of production held in common,” (Marx, Capital vol. 1), for the abolition of the capitalist state and for communism. By contrast a strategy that’s limited to ending market dependence quickly becomes a liberal strategy of redistribution.

Since Chibber revises the meaning of capitalism to market dependence, it becomes inevitable that he revises Marxist strategy as well. No longer is the role of socialists helping the working class self-organize, develop its own organic leaders, and politically defeating the capitalist class on the path to communism. Rather, socialists pursue a reformist strategy of electing sympathetic representatives who can counteract the bourgeois “bias” of the existing capitalist state (B, pp. 6-8) and who can pass policies that “decommodify” more and more areas of the economy. All of this is based on a class struggle (or “class only”) strategy in the labor movement, where increased organization of workers creates favorable conditions for the aforementioned political changes.

In pamphlet A, we are told that there are only two effective anti-capitalist strategies: 1) “class struggle,” by which Chibber mainly means trade union struggle (this, supposedly, directly challenges the power of capital); and 2) state policy, which indirectly — again supposedly — challenges capital by according social rights to workers (pp. 38-39). The question of whether the main examples of historical “decommodification,” the U.S. New Deal and European social democracy, were anti-capitalist or helped to revive and reproduce capitalism is left unaddressed.

It bears noting that what Chibber terms “class struggle” could be described, at least in part, as “economism.” Though the “economists” to whom Lenin referred in What is To Be Done?, unlike Chibber, rejected the idea of a centralized party, like Chibber they were narrowly focused on economic gains in the form of wages and increased material benefits from workers’ labor. Like Chibber, they also eschewed revolutionary theory and were hostile to workers’ democracy.

A similar narrow economism has been a limitation of Bernie Sanders’s politics. Recently, for example, Sanders proposed a number of progressive if tepid reforms to policing, but among them was higher pay to enhance recruitment of officers. The implication is that cops are workers who deserve better working conditions and higher pay, just like any other worker. Compare this to more radical voices within the labor movement, who go beyond economism to call for the abolition of cop unions and reject the notion that cops are workers. Chibber’s understanding of class struggle leaves socialists bereft of a theoretical basis by which to reject the idea that cops are workers and that cop unions are a malignant presence in the labor movement. Workers’ real interests are not served by fighting for slightly better pay within a system based on racism and exploitation. Liberation from this system requires fighting against every form of oppression. Workers who are only interested in their own conditions, while their class siblings are being murdered on the street, are only strengthening their own oppression.

A Museum Antiquity

The next two pamphlets analyze the state and class struggle, respectively. In B: Capitalism and the State, Chibber rejects the idea that under capitalism the state can be neutral, a position he calls “pluralism.” Instead, the capitalist state is “biased” in favor of the wealthy (pp. 6-7). There are three sources of bias: 1) the wealthy dominate political office; 2) they exercise greater influence on the people in office; and most importantly, 3) the state is structurally dependent on capital in the form of investments and therefore taxation (pp. 8-9). Thus the key task for the working class is to “reverse” or “neutralize” “state capture” by the wealthy (19). Later he writes that “left to its own, the state cannot be relied upon as a counterbalance to the power of the capitalist class” (27). Phrases like these and similar ones, such as “in the normal state of affairs,” recur throughout these pamphlets, naturalizing and abstracting “the state.” Recent events, however, have intruded into this idyll, showing the true, repressive and capitalist class nature of the state.

Pages 28-29 of pamphlet B are most explicit about the role of a social democratic party: it “relieves the working class from having to hit the streets every time a policy debate comes up. The party fights for them instead,” though he concedes that having a party is never a substitute for building an organized and militant working class movement. He then draws a perspective for our organizing today. While in Europe revitalizing both the moribund social democratic parties and the labor movements is possible, in the United States, which lacks mass working class parties, the most likely scenario in the short term is the revitalization of the labor movement (35). The question of how socialists should relate to the Democratic Party, and the hardly less capitalist and demobilizing European social democracy, is left unanswered (why, for example, are those European parties such empty shells?).

Finally, pamphlet C, Capitalism and Class Struggle, emphasizes the role of the labor movement in anticapitalist strategy. What’s the strategy? Here, he repeats that it should be creating “room for more progressive policy” (13). The policy? A “significant” redistribution of income and changing the state’s spending priorities. Women and oppressed groups make a cameo on the last few pages of this 108-page text, and are quickly dispatched with the familiar line, “the welfare state especially benefits women and the oppressed” (my paraphrase). Hannah Archambault is correct that Chibber’s downplaying (or worse) of identity-based struggles plays into “the most pernicious, politically alienating” stereotypes of these struggles and also that these pamphlets make it seem as if women and other oppressed groups have no place either in reproducing capitalism or dismantling it. But the whole history of attempts to overcome capitalism has shown that women, Black workers, and other oppressed groups are on the front lines of struggle for social transformation.

None of the three ABCs pamphlets, nor the more recent comments in the Verso interview published on the eve of the Black-led uprising, goes beyond the horizon of economism and “progressive legislation” within the limits of the state as it currently exists. Nor does Chibber anywhere question the equation of the capitalist welfare state with socialism. In the end, Chibber is not so different from the “pluralists” he critiques. For both, the state is neutral in the abstract. The only difference is, for him, it can be populated with better, more “enlightened” politicians who can “represent” the interests of the working class. While in Chibber’s vision the working class can only make gains if it is organized and “militant,” it’s unclear to what this “militancy” refers. At one point he even implies that the relation between workers, on the one side, and party and union, on the other, is ideally a paternalistic one: a “condition of dependence on somebody else isn’t harmful if the dominant party has the same interests as the weaker one and assumes responsibility for the weaker one’s welfare” (C, p. 5). Is this vision of a slightly improved version of bourgeois representative democracy, acting on behalf of a working class managed by top-down bureaucratic organizations, really in touch with an economy in freefall, in times of pandemic, and with the mass fury at the antihuman criminality of the U.S. capitalist state?

It has been nearly 140 years since Engels said that the state is a machine, consisting of “special bodies” of armed men whose function is the brutal repression of workers’ struggles for economic gains and political power, and over a century since Lenin cited him as an authority in pointing the way toward the triumph of communism. Engels, further, noted that a key indicator of the depth and breadth of the revolutionary workers movement would be its ability to relegate “the whole state machine … to the museum of antiquities.” Witnessing the spontaneous uprisings in Minneapolis, New York, and in hundreds of other cities in the US and beyond, it is shocking how fresh Engels’s and Lenin’s texts remain, and how stale — and to use a phrase from Chibber himself, “hallucinatory” — these three 2019 pamphlets are. Engels and Lenin still speak to us. The ABCs of Capitalism, by contrast, is already a museum antiquity.

Goodbye to All That

Joshua Clover writes that “it took just 66 days to get from the first shelter-in-place order to the first riot.” What’s even more noteworthy, however, is that it took barely a week for a number of radicalizing effects of those “riots” to appear. Trump delivered a proto-fascist speech while cops and the national guard were tear-gassing and beating protesters to clear the way for his bible-thumping photo op. Social media revealed the patterns in the police riots: the ramming of protesters with police SUVs, reminiscent of the Nazi who murdered Heather Heyer in Charlottesville; wanton police brutality, mayhem, and provocation — even against the elderly.

But the past two weeks have also revealed how quickly the situation can change. Respectable politicians and TV pundits are now saying what would have been unthinkable two weeks ago, such as calls to dismantle the police. The rebellion has accomplished more in two weeks than have decades of slow, incremental electoralism.

The role that communists can play, beyond giving unconditional support to the uprising, is to win over to revolutionary Marxism the best and most combative fighters from among the radicalized masses taking to the streets and putting their lives on the line for Black Lives, and together to go on to build a party that can lead to the abolition of the capitalist state and its terror police. To do that, we will first have to disabuse ourselves of reformist and electoral illusions in this decrepit capitalist state. To the warmed over Kautskyism of incremental electoral socialism, we say “goodbye to all that.”

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