Lawrence & Wishart: The Stone That The Builders Refused

A considerable portion of the Left has been diverted lately by a dispute between Lawrence & Wishart (the Marxist publishing house that owns the copyright to the multi-volume Collected Works of Marx and Engels in English) and the Marxist Internet Archive over the latter’s online digital version of the Collected Works. In surveying this dust-up, one thing that stands out to me is just how vulgar Lawrence & Wishart’s Marxism is.

Lawrence & Wishart’s views of revolutionary praxis, as evidenced in the website’s official statement and in public remarks by managing editor Sally Davison, are a virtual parody of the most authoritarian and bureaucratic aspects of Old Left culture. As far as their worldview is concerned, the most innovative and interesting theoretical currents in Marxism, and the Left in general, the past few decades might never have happened.

The Old Left of the mid-20th century conceptualized revolution within a mass-production age framework, as the political seizure of all the commanding heights of the political and economic system, like the state and large corporations.

The best strands of recent Marxist thought, on the other hand — like for example autonomism — all involve the idea of prefigurative politics and “exodus.” That is, they see the transition to a post-capitalist society not as some sudden and large-scale event in which all the powerful institutions are captured and put under new management. They see it as a prolonged transition from one historical epoch to another like that from feudalism to capitalism, in which the successor society grows out of a whole host of seeds within the old system. Marxists like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, or the German Oekonux group, see network forms of organization like commons-oriented peer production as the seeds of the future society within the present one. The latter group sees free and open-source software, and the p2p groups that develop it, as prefiguring a future post-scarcity society of abundance.

This is an approach that coincides in many ways with that of the free market Left. Like libertarian communists, we envision a society in which new technologies of abundance and liberation render state’s artificial property rights and artificial scarcities — and the capitalist rents on them — unenforceable. And we envision a society in which the radical downscaling, distribution and cheapening of the means of production (cheap, open-source micro-manufacturing hardware, permaculture, desktop information production, etc.) bring production outside the control of large bureaucratic institutions like corporations, and integrate it instead into the economies of households, neighborhoods and local communities. This means a large and increasing share of our production to meet our daily needs will be shifted outside the wage system, and even outside the cash nexus altogether and into the sharing economy. Like libertarian communists, we of the free market left see many areas of life as ideally managed as social commons rather than by states or corporations. In virtually every area of life, horizontal networks of equals replace the old bureaucratic hierarchies.

At the same time, the interesting and truly progressive forms of Marxism are centered on the idea of exodus. Exodus was at the center of Hardt and Negri’s analysis in Commonwealth. Rather than storming the Bastille or the Winter Palace, the working classes treat the existing system of power, as much as possible, as irrelevant. We evade it. We bypass it. We secede from the state-corporate economy and build our own counter-economy within it. We shift as much of our production and consumption into the social realm as possible, cooperatively producing and sharing or exchanging with each other, taking advantage of new communication and production technologies that render the old institutions irrelevant and free us from dependency on them. This, too, is an idea that the free market left shares with libertarian communists.

Put the two principles together, and you get a model of “revolution” based on starting from the myriad seeds of the future society within the present system, growing and nourishing them, and building the new system within the shell of the old. Meanwhile, we starve the old system by shifting increasing amounts of our labor, money and resources out of it and into the new one of our own making. Eventually the growing seeds will coalesce into a full-blown system that supplants the old one, and the old system will survive only as shrinking islands of authority and exploitation within a fundamentally different society based on freedom and abundance.

The combination of prefigurative politics and exodus is in many ways similar to Gramsci’s “war of position,” in which the workers’ movement achieves victory not by storming the ramparts of the old system (a “war of maneuver” in his terminology), but within the larger culture and economy itself. Only after we have shifted the overall correlation of forces in society at large can we launch the final assault on the institutional commanding heights of the old system. But our approach differs from Gramsci’s in one important respect: we don’t ever need to launch that final assault.

The conventional Marxists of the mid-20th century saw large-scale, capital-intensive production as inherently more efficient. Indeed, progress itself was practically defined by the accumulation of capital. So it followed that the most efficient and productive society would continue to be one in which functions were carried out by large, hierarchical institutions. They would just be placed under working class management.

We, on the other hand, see small-scale, distributed, low-overhead production technology as the wave of the future. We believe horizontal networks and small cooperative shops can do everything that the old bureaucratic dinosaurs used to do, only better. So we don’t want to storm those old institutions. They have nothing we need.

So for us, the revolution is in the here and now, starting with the many ways that people are already creating the kind of society, work, lives and institutions we want to live in. The ends we are struggling for are embodied in the very means we use.

Lawrence and Wishart has no use for this model of revolutionary transition. In their official statement (“Lawrence & Wishart statement on the Collected Works of Marx and Engels,” April 25), they dismiss the whole free and open-source movement, and the idea of information freedom, as

a consumer culture which expects cultural content to be delivered free to consumers, leaving cultural workers such as publishers, editors and writers unpaid, while the large publishing and other media conglomerates and aggregators continue to enrich themselves through advertising and data-mining revenues and through their far greater institutional weight compared to small independent publishers.

The open-source and free culture movements are at war with the single monopoly — “intellectual property” — which is structurally most central to corporate capitalism as we know it. And yet Lawrence and Wishart equate it — in language that might have come from managerialist liberals like Andrew Keen or Thomas Frank — to the dotcom capitalism of the nineties.

Their managing editor, Sally Davison, dismissed the very idea of prefigurative politics (Noam Cohen, “Claiming a Copyright on Marx? How Uncomradely,New York Times, April 30), coming just short of quoting Lenin’s dismissal of left-wing communism as an “infantile disorder”:

We don’t live in a world of everybody sharing everything. As Marx said, and I may be paraphrasing, “We make our own history, but not in the conditions of our own choosing.”

In other words, never mind all that stuff about building the kind of stuff we want here and now. That’s something we can worry about after the revolution is over. Post-capitalist society as something that will be officially put together by competent authorities after the revolution has been safely fought and won (under the leadership of those same competent authorities, of course).

Far from building a post-capitalist society within the interstices of the old, dying system, Davison and her comrades favor accepting the domination of our lives by the exploitative nature of the present system until it officially comes to an end. Far from building alternatives to the institutional monopolies and rents of capitalism, Davison wants to accept them as inevitable — to embrace them — so long as the present system survives.

Lawrence & Wishart, in pursuing a business model based on the most central monopoly of capitalism, and treating it as just and right, remind me of Hardt and Negri’s statement in Commonwealth that the Social Democratic agenda is basically “to reintegrate the working class within capital.”

It would mean, on the one hand, re-creating the mechanisms by which capital can engage, manage, and organize productive forces and, on the other, resurrecting the welfare structures and social mechanisms necessary for capital to guarantee the social reproduction of the working class.

Lawrence & Wishart, despite their proclaimed stance of revolutionary socialism and enmity toward capitalism, find themselves perversely not only rejecting the seeds of post-capitalist society within the present system, but actively embracing and trying to strengthen the monopolies the present system depends on.

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