Friday, February 4, 2011

Paving the Route to Rupture [Revolution] by Erik Olin Wright

Many nineteenth-century anarchists shared with Marxist-inspired revolutionary socialists the belief that ultimately a revolutionary rupture with capitalism would be necessary. Where they differed sharply was in the belief of what sorts of transformations were needed within capitalism in order for a revolutionary rupture to plausibly usher in a genuinely emancipatory alternative.

For Marx, and later for Lenin, the central task of struggles within capitalism was to forge the collective capacity of a politically unified working class needed to successfully seize state power as the necessary condition for overthrowing capitalism. The task of deep social reconstruction to create the environment for a new way of life with new principles, new forms of social interaction and reciprocity, would largely have to wait until “after the revolution”.

For revolutionary anarchists, on the other hand, significant progress in such reconstruction is not only possible within capitalism, but is a necessary condition for a sustainable emancipatory rupture with capitalism. In discussing Proudhon's views on revolution, Martin Buber writes:

“[Proudhon] divined the tragedy of revolutions and came to feel it more and more deeply in the course of disappointing experiences. Their tragedy is that as regards their positive goal they will always result in the exact opposite of what the most honest and passionate revolutionaries strive for, unless and until this [deep social reform] has so far taken shape before the revolution that the revolutionary act has only to wrest the space for it in which it can develop unimpeded.”

If we want a revolution to result in a deeply egalitarian, democratic, and participatory way of life, Buber writes,

'the all-important fact is that, in the social as opposed to the political sphere, revolution is not so much a creative as a delivering force whose function is to set free and authenticate – i.e. that it can only perfect, set free, and lend the stamp of authority to something that has already been foreshadowed in the womb of the pre-revolutionary society; that, as regards social revolution, the hour of revolution is not an hour of begetting but an hour of birth – provided there was a begetting beforehand.” (Paths in Utopia, Beacon Press, 1958, p.44)

Buber's metaphor of birth combines the idea of incremental metamorphosis with rupture: the moment of birth is a rupture with the past. There is a 'before” and “after”, a discontinuity in the life course. But birth can only happen after a successful, incremental gestation in which future potentials are brought to the brink of full actualization, and after birth this incremental process continues through maturation.

A rupture with capitalism is thus necessary in this strategic vision, but it requires a deep process of interstitial transformation beforehand if it is to succeed.

Supporters of the necessity of interstitial transformations within capitalism claim that such transformations can bring into capitalism some of the virtues of a society beyond capitalism. Thus the quality of life of ordinary people in capitalism is improved by such transformations. The revolutionary anarchist strategy also recognizes, however, that at some point such interstitial social transformations within capitalism hit limits which impose binding restraints. Capitalism ultimately blocks the full realization of the potential of socially empowering interstitial transformations. A rupture with capitalism thus becomes necessary to break through those limits if that potential is to advance further.

If capitalism has already been significantly internally transformed through socially empowering interstitial transformations, the transition troughs that follow a break with the old order will be tolerably shallow and of relatively short duration.

Successful interstitial transformations within capitalism mean that economic life becomes less dependent upon capitalist firms and capitalist markets even as capitalism continues. Workers' and consumer cooperatives have developed widely and play a significant role in the economy; the social economy provides significant basic needs; collective associations engage in a wide variety of socially empowering regulation; and perhaps power relations within capitalist firms have been significantly transformed as well. Taken together, these changes mean that the economic disruption of the break with capitalism will be less damaging than in the absence of such interstitial transformations. Furthermore, the pre-ruptural transformations are palpable demonstrations to workers and other potential beneficiaries of socialism that alternatives to capitalism in which the quality of life is better are viable. This contributes to forming the political will for a rupture once the untransgressable limits with capitalism are encountered.

Egalitarian, democratic social empowerment will be sustainable after a rupture only if socially significant empowering interstitial transformations had occurred before the rupture. In the absence of such prior social empowerment, the rupture with capitalism will unleash strong centralizing and authoritarian tendencies that are likely to lead to a consolidation of an oppressive form of statism. Even well-intentioned socialists would then be forced by the contradictions they confront to build a different kind of society than the one they wanted. The result would be a decline in the quality of life for most people below the trajectory it would have been even under capitalism itself.


  1. It is the comprehensive conceptual framework for thinking about democracy and socialism presented in this book which is of special value and to which a abbreviated distillation of the core arguments into seven key lessons in this blog cannot hope to do justice. Thus, my endeavor here is to present a couple of examples of his thinking as an enticement to potential readers.

    “We now live in a world in which the radical, emancipatory visions presented in this book are often mocked rather than taken seriously. Along with the postmodernist rejection of 'grand narratives', there is an ideological rejection of grand designs, even by many people still on the left of the political spectrum. This need not mean an abandonment of deeply egalitarian emancipatory values, but it does reflect a cynicism about the human capacity to realize those values on a substantial scale. This cynicism, in turn, weakens progressive political forces in general".

  2. “This book is an effort to counter such cynicism by elaborating a general [ conceptual] framework for systematically exploring alternatives that embody the idea of “real utopia.”

    Part I of the book presents the basic diagnosis and critique of capitalism that animates the search for real utopian alternatives. Part II reviews the traditional Marxist approach to thinking about the alternatives and shows why this approach is unsatisfactory. It elaborates an alternative strategy of analysis, anchored in the idea that socialism, as an alternative to capitalism, should be understood as a process of increasing social empowerment over state and economy. Part III lays out the central elements of a theory of social transformation, examining three different broad strategies of emancipatory transformation – ruptural, interstitial, and symbiotic. The book concludes with chapter 12, which distills the core arguments into seven key lessons.”

  3. An Alternative to Capitalism (which we need here in the USA)

    Several decades ago, Margaret Thatcher claimed: "There is no alternative". She was referring to capitalism. Today, this negative attitude still persists.

    I would like to offer an alternative to capitalism for the American people to consider. Please click on the following link. It will take you to an essay titled: "Home of the Brave?" which was published by the Athenaeum Library of Philosophy:

    John Steinsvold

    Perhaps in time the so-called dark ages will be thought of as including our own.
    --Georg C. Lichtenberg