David Harvey against revolution: the bankruptcy of academic “Marxism”

David Harvey is a university professor and a geographer who describes himself as a Marxist. His series of video lectures on Capital have been viewed by hundreds of thousands as a new generation of young people became interested in Marxism in the wake of the 2008 crisis. For these reasons, his recent statement that he is against the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism has logically caused a stir.

There are many critical remarks that could be made of Harvey’s ideas. For instance, there are many flaws to his theory of “accumulation by dispossession” both from a theoretical point of view but also in its practical conclusions. His lectures on Capital are generally a decent, basic introduction, but they also contain some serious mistakes. In this article however, I will concentrate only on his most recent comments against revolution because I don’t think he’s put this view forward in such a clear-cut way, and also because his comments illustrate a problem common to academics and also reformists.

Harvey the reformist

Marxism is not just an academic endeavour, or a tool of analysis. Marx set out to analyse and understand the world in order to transform it, as he succinctly put it in his Theses on Feuerbach. For Marx, revolutionary practice was not an optional add on, but a core part of his political activity, the consequence of his analysis and the reason for it. In his letter to Weydemeyer, he said:

“[A]s to myself, no credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this class struggle and bourgeois economists, the economic economy of the classes. What I did that was new was to prove: (1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production (historische Entwicklungsphasen der Production), (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, (3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society” (Marx to J. Weydemeyer in New York, March 5, 1852).

So, what did Harvey say about revolution and in what context did he say it? The comments were made in December 2019 in an episode of his “Anti-capitalist chronicles”, called “Global Unrest” dealing with the revolutionary uprisings which were taking place at that time in Ecuador, Chile, Lebanon, etc. The full video (below) and transcript of Harvey’s talk is available online, which is always better than using the short snippets that have been circulating on social media. I will quote at length so that there is no possibility of distorting or misinterpreting his views.

There are two basic premises of his talk, which are correct and we can agree with. First of all, we were witnessing at that time a worldwide explosion of protest movements. “So you look at the situation and you say well, there's something going on here which suggests that globally what we're seeing are some mass protests of various kinds.” I would argue that an important feature of those movements was they had insurrectionary features, but let’s agree that this was not just an isolated phenomenon in one or another country. Harvey starts with the uprising in Chile, then talks about the uprising in Ecuador in October 2019, about Lebanon, Iraq, and the gilets jaunes movement in France.

Bizarrely, he adds the coup in Bolivia to the list:

“At the same time, in a rather different direction, you had a turmoil in Bolivia. And there had been an election. There was widespread suspicion that Morales, the president, had not really got as many votes as he said he had got. And what we saw was kind of, in a sense, a right-wing mass demonstration. And the president and his government actually had to flee the country and ask for asylum in Mexico, which they were granted. And so again mass movements on the streets, conflicting groups clashing with each other.”

So, while recognising that the movement was “in a different direction” and that this was a “right-wing mass demonstration”, he misses the crucial point: Evo Morales’ government was overthrown by a coup, in which the military came out on TV and gave him an ultimatum. That is not a small detail and certainly no Marxist would put in the same category revolutionary movements and counter-revolutionary movements, and try to analyse them together, as if they had the same cause.

But let’s proceed. The second point we can agree with Harvey on is when he says that the problem is not neoliberalism, but rather capitalism itself:

“There are two ways in which you can think about this economic basis. The first is to say, this is a problem of the particular form of capital accumulation, the particular form of capitalism, which we generally refer to as neoliberalism – that the problem is not capitalism but the neoliberal form of capitalism... there is that way of looking at things. I don't share that view.”

Instead, he says, his view is:

“[T]hat the economic system, the economic model, is not working, and that economic model is that of capitalism. So I would beg the argument that there is, in fact, the real, very serious kind of question. And we're now becoming aware of that. We've become conscious of it.”

So far so good.

Once he has established that the problem is with capitalism itself and that this is what is driving these protest movements around the world, he then, in contradiction with his premise, moves on to caution against any idea that capitalism should be abolished. The arguments he uses make no sense whatsoever and are not based on facts.

Let’s see:

“[T]he other part of the problem is this: that in Marx's time if there was a sudden collapse of capitalism, most people in the world would be able to feed themselves and reproduce. Because most people were self-sufficient in their local area with the kinds of, you know, things they needed to live on – in other words, people could put breakfast on their table irrespective of what was going on in the global economy. Right now that's no longer the case. Most people in the United States, but increasingly, of course, in Europe, and in Japan, and now increasingly in China, and India, and Indonesia, and everywhere are dependent entirely upon the delivery of food to them, so that they get the food from the circulation of capital. Now, in Marx's time, like I say, that would have not been true but now this is a situation where probably around 70 or maybe 80 percent of the world's people are dependent upon the circulation of capital in order to assure their food supply, in order to deliver them the kinds of fuels which are going to allow them mobility, going to actually deliver them all the necessities to be able to reproduce their daily life.”

Chile protest ES 12 Image fair useHarvey sees the revolutionary ruptions of 2019 as a nuisance: he advocates a slow change of capitalism towards a different "configuration" / Image: fair use

This is an incredible argument against revolution with no basis in reality! It is wrong on so many counts. First of all, in Marx’s time, workers also got their means of subsistence from the capitalist market. They worked for a wage and then went to the shops to get food. Same as now. There might have been some workers in the 1850s who had a bit of a vegetable plot at the end of their back garden (certainly not in the slum working-class neighbourhoods in the big industrial cities of the time), but that was not a factor that made a revolution uniquely possible at the time.

The fact that today, “70 to 80% of the world’s population are dependent upon the circulation of capital” for food and basic necessities, is surely a positive factor in relation to the possibility of a revolution! It means that the world’s peasantry has largely been whittled down and subsistence agriculture has been to a large extent replaced by large-scale capitalist farming. This means that the specific weight of the working class in society has never been greater. Marx explains that, under capitalism, the working class is the only revolutionary class. Its growth in numbers and potential strength are surely positive from the point of view of the possibility of a socialist revolution, something Harvey is completely oblivious to.

Furthermore, the idea of a “sudden collapse of capitalism” in which apparently, in Harvey’s view, all production would cease, has nothing to do with a revolution. A socialist revolution is when workers take political power and with it control and ownership of the means of production. This is then reorganised through a democratic plan of production, by the workers themselves, to fulfill the needs of society.

Capitalism: too big to fail?

Harvey insists in equating a revolution with a sudden stoppage of all productive activity, something that would be a disaster:

“So this is, I think, a situation which I can really summarise in the following kind of way: that capital right now is too big to fail. We cannot imagine a situation where we would shut down the flow of capital, because if we shut down the flow of capital, 80 percent of the world's population would immediately starve, would be rendered immobile, would not be able to reproduce themselves in very effective ways.” [Our emphasis]

This is a glaring example of the inability of academics to understand the creative power of the working class. A cursory analysis of revolutions in the last 100 years shows the opposite of what Harvey predicts. Any major revolutionary development shows how the working class moves towards taking over the running of factories, food production, etc. on its own, as it challenges the power of the capitalist class.

During the Chilean revolution in 1971-73, faced with a reactionary truck-owners stoppage, working-class neighbourhoods established Juntas de Abastecimiento Popular (Peoples’ Provisioning Committees) in order to ensure the distribution of food. During the Spanish Revolution, the working-class organisations took over the running of factories, divided the landed estates and organised the distribution of food, when the capitalists had fled to the fascist camp. In the French general strike of May 1968, when 10 million workers went on strike and occupied the factories, the peasant producers organised the provisioning of the cities under the control of the workers’ committees. In Venezuela, the 2002-03 bosses lockout was overcome by the action of the workers themselves, who took over the installations of the oil company and ran it under their own control, as well as unleashing a widespread movement of factory takeovers and workers’ control. These are all examples of the creative powers of organisation of the working class when it moves to transform society.

So that there is no doubt about what he means, Harvey spells it out. For him, destroying capitalism and building a new society is an old fashioned fantasy:

“So we cannot afford any kind of sustained attack upon capital accumulation. So the kind of fantasy that you might have had – socialists, or communists, and so on, might have had back in 1850, which is that well, okay, we can destroy this capitalist system and we can build something entirely different – that is an impossibility right now. We have to keep the circulation of capital in motion, we have to keep things moving, because if we don't do that, we are actually stuck with a situation in which, as I've said, almost all of us would starve.” [Our emphasis]

There you have it. Capitalism is not working, he admits, but at the same time, it cannot be destroyed. That’s the sum total of the impotent wisdom of his academic Marxism. At least Harvey is honest enough to draw all the conclusions from his own approach. If capitalism cannot be destroyed, then all that is left is to try and reform it:

“And this means that capital in general is too big to fail. It is too dominant, and it is too necessary to us that we cannot allow it to fail. We have to actually spend some time propping it up, trying to reorganise it, and maybe shift it around very slowly and over time to a different configuration. But a revolutionary overthrow of this capitalist economic system is not anything that's conceivable at the present time. It will not happen, and it cannot happen, and we have to make sure that it does not happen.” [Our emphasis]

Harvey is not a bad critic of capitalism, he has written reams of text criticising it and given plenty of lectures explaining why it is exploitative and doesn’t work for the majority of society. But at the end of the day he is firmly against its revolutionary overthrow and his argument is that the capitalist system needs to be propped up (!) by us (I assume he is referring to the left or the workers’ movement), and gently prodded along towards a “different configuration”.

His thoroughly reformist approach becomes clear in his concluding remarks:

“[T]herefore a socialist program, or an anti-capitalist programme, of the sort that I would want is one about trying to manage this capitalist system in such a way that we stop it being too monstrous to survive at the same time as we organise the capitalist system so that it becomes less and less dependent upon profitability and becomes more and more organised so that it delivers the use values to the whole of the world's population – so that the world's population can reproduce in peace and tranquility, rather than the way it's going right now, which is not peace and tranquility at all, but eruptions.” [Our emphasis]

So this is what David Harvey defends, the completely utopian idea that capitalism can be reformed, furthermore, reformed so that instead of pursuing profit it delivers use values to the population (!) Clearly, Harvey has not learnt anything at all from his reading of Capital and his is certainly not a Marxist approach to capitalism, and even less to the class struggle. Capitalism is based precisely in the incessant pursuit of profit. Capitalists are not interested in producing use values, but rather exchange values so that they can realise profits and reproduce capital at an ever growing scale. The capitalist system cannot be “managed” so that it becomes the opposite of what it is, in the same way that one cannot “manage” a carnivorous predator to become a vegetarian, and anyone who tries will soon become lunch. Harvey has, correctly, criticised those who from within the ruling class argue the need for some form of “stakeholder capitalism”, but, in the end, his proposal is exactly the same.

David Harvey and Paul Mason Image JwslubbockHarvey's views are not very surprising, they are the logical conclusion of reformist, academic 'Marxism' / Image: Jwslubbock

Even worse, he says that managing capitalism would create a world of “peace and tranquility”, unlike the one we have now which is one of “eruptions”. He not only denies the need and possibility of a revolution, but he seems to consider revolutionary movements, like those of Chile and Ecuador a few months ago, as annoying “eruptions” that breach “peace and tranquility”.

I do not think David Harvey has expressed himself in such a clear way against revolution in the past, though the ideas in this talk do not fall from the sky and are the result of his whole approach. In an interview with Leo Panitch he talked about “Impossible Reform and Improbable Revolution”. Now he has come out against revolution and advocates slow, managed reform.

He bases himself on ideas like “the classical working class doesn’t exist anymore”, or “neoliberalism has conquered our minds”, and therefore he is completely unable to see what is going on right in front of his own eyes. The uprisings in Chile and Ecuador in October – November 2019 showed, on the one hand the crisis of capitalism, unable to guarantee even basic demands; and on the other, the enormous power of working people when they start to move.

In both cases, the huge, insurrectionary movements challenged the power of the ruling class and, at least in embryonic form, threw up elements of a situation of dual power. The Peoples’ Assembly and Indigenous Guard in Ecuador, the Cabildos Abiertos (mass neighbourhood assemblies), Peoples’ Assemblies and the Primera Linea defence committees in Chile, were incipient forms of working-class power, the basis of a new institutionality, of a new society.

True, those movements did not end in victories. The working class did not take power. Capitalism was not successfully overthrown. That was not for any of the reasons David Harvey points out. It wasn’t because “capitalism is too big to fail”, it wasn’t because a “revolution is impossible”. What was missing was a Marxist leadership able to gain a majority in the movement and take it to victory. That remains to be built, in Ecuador, in Chile and elsewhere. It will be built on the basis of a serious study of the ideas of Marx and other Marxists. David Harvey and his reformist, defeatist, demoralised academic impotence, will not be of any help in this task, unfortunately.

You cannot be an 'Academic Marxist' and still be a Marxist

When asked directly if he is a Marxist, in an interview in Jacobin, Harvey answers in this way:

“I just happened to say to some graduate students that maybe we should read Marx. So, I started to read Marx, and I found it more and more relevant. In a sense, this was an intellectual more than a political choice. But after I cited Marx a few times favorably, people pretty soon said I was a Marxist. I didn’t know what it meant, but after a little while I gave up denying it and said, ‘Alright, if I’m a Marxist, I’m a Marxist, though I don’t know what it means’ — and I still don’t know what it means. It clearly does have a political message, though, as a critique of capital.” [Our emphasis]

This is very muddled, but it is not Marxism. Marxism is not just a critique of capital, Marxism is a revolutionary doctrine for overthrowing capitalism.

As Lenin said in State and Revolution:

“What is now happening to Marx’s theory has, in the course of history, happened repeatedly to the theories of revolutionary thinkers and leaders of oppressed classes fighting for emancipation. During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonise them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the ‘consolation’ of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarising it. Today, the bourgeoisie and the opportunists within the labor movement concur in this doctoring of Marxism. They omit, obscure, or distort the revolutionary side of this theory, its revolutionary soul.”

Let’s reclaim the genuine revolutionary doctrine of Marx!

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