Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 24, 2010

Are recessions better for the right or the left?

Filed under: aging,economics,financial crisis — louisproyect @ 8:35 pm

Phil Gasper

Doug Henwood

This is a contribution to the debate between Phil Gasper, a philosophy professor and long-time member of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), and Doug Henwood who really needs no introduction.

In the latest issue of International Socialist Review, the ISO magazine, Gasper has an article titled Economic crisis and class struggle that poses the question whether recessions are better for the right or the left, which is directed at Doug’s article on MRZine that begins:

For a long time, I’ve been critical of the left-wing penchant for economic crisis.  Many radicals have fantasized that a serious recession — or depression — would lead to mass radicalization, as scales simultaneously fell from millions of pairs of eyes and the imperative of transcending capitalism became self-evidently obvious.  I’ve long thought that was nonsense, and now there’s empirical support for my position.

Doug bases his conclusion on a paper by Markus Brückner and Hans Peter Grüner that shows “recessions boost the vote for extreme right-wing and nationalist parties.” The authors promised to send Doug statistics for left-wing parties but he has not posted anything about it yet on his website. I doubt if those numbers will do anything to change Doug’s mind but my sense of European politics is that both the extreme right and the radical left are growing. In France, the NPA has probably quadrupled in size in the past 5 years or so, while Die Linke in Germany and other such parties are making headway. Meanwhile, Greece is going up in flames even if there is no meaningful way of correlating that to the growth of the electoral left, a questionable criterion perhaps in light of the tendency of the mass movement to vote with its feet.

Doug concludes his article with a warning about a repeat of the 1930s, which many socialists have an attachment to as the last hurrah of the industrial working class:  “And that Great Depression didn’t do much for the left in Europe.  So please, let’s put this one away and stop hoping for the worst.”

In a sense, it is difficult to answer something like this since it turns the economic meltdown of the 1930s into some kind of catalyst that is expected to produce predictable results, like throwing a match into a jar of gasoline. It doesn’t work that way. Economic crisis simply polarizes society into warring camps, as the street battles of the Weimar Republic bear out. The victory of the left rests on its ability to fight intelligently. As Phil Gasper pointed out, the left could have triumphed over Hitler in Germany if it had simply run a common electoral slate.

In some ways, attempts to establish a direct link between economic collapse and the triumph of socialism err on the side of economic determinism and its second cousin vulgar Marxism. That being said, it is understandable why Marxists would be riveted on economic crisis since it does have an impact on the way people view society. In Marx’s own writings, there are frequent references to the connections between crisis and revolution, including an article co-written with Engels that appeared in the 1850 Neue Rheinische Zeitung Revue. They write a bit breathlessly, sounding like our friend Patrick Bond:

The results of the commercial crisis now impending will be more serious than ever before. It coincides with the agricultural crisis, which began with the abolition of corn tariffs in England and has increased as a result of the recent good harvests. For the first time England is experiencing at the same time an industrial and an agricultural crisis. This dual crisis in England will be accelerated, widened in scope and made even more explosive by the convulsions, which are now simultaneously imminent on the Continent; and the continental revolution will take on an unprecedentedly socialist character as a result of the repercussions of the English crisis on the world market. It is a known fact that no European country will be hit so directly, to such an extent and with such intensity as Germany. The reason is simple: Germany represents England’s biggest continental market, and the main German exports, wool and grain, have by far their most important outlet in England. History is most happily summed up in this epigram addressed to the apostles of order: while inadequate consumption drives the working classes to revolt, overproduction drives the upper classes to bankruptcy.

Now as it turned out this was a bit simplistic. The first genuinely socialist revolt took place 21 years after this article was written and the immediate cause was working-class unrest in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war that was not specifically related to an economic crisis. The revolt grew out of long-standing grievances over exploitation in general.

If economic suffering, such as the unemployment and home foreclosures taking place today–what Marx and Engels refer to as the “inadequate consumption” that “drives the working classes to revolt”–can lead in some cases to radical action, then perhaps recessions are “good for the left” in a perverse sense.

There is a long-standing tradition that leans in that direction, a tendency that might be described as “the worse, the better”. If Doug is taking aim at that mistaken view, then I am with him one hundred percent.

The man likely to have coined this phrase is one Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky, a founder of Russian populism who lived from 1828 to 1889 and who was a major influence on Lenin and Emma Goldman, among others. He is reputed to have used the phrase “the worse the better” to indicate that the worse that social conditions became for the poor, the more inclined they would be to launch a revolution. Chernyshevsky wrote a novel “What is to be Done” whose title Lenin borrowed for his 1903 pamphlet. The highly informative wiki on Chernyshevsky states:

The novel was an inspiration to many later Russian revolutionaries, who sought to emulate the novel’s hero, who was wholly dedicated to the revolution, ascetic in his habits and ruthlessly disciplined, to the point of sleeping on a bed of nails and eating only meat in order to build strength for the Revolution. Among those who took inspiration from the character was Lenin, who wrote a work of political theory of the same name, and who was ascetic in his personal life (lifting weights, having little time for love, and so on).

I never knew about Lenin lifting weights or having little time for love. Is that an urban legend possibly, like him saying that the “Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them”? Hmm, I wonder.

If there is one thing that militates against “the worse, the better”, it is the experience of Africa over the past 25 years or so. In country after country, the standard of living has dropped precipitously but without leading to revolution anywhere. Mostly you see internecine warfare, xenophobia in South Africa, and a general social atomization. In this respect, I think that Doug is quite correct. Immiseration is generally a guarantee of one thing and one thing only, that people will become miserable. How they react to that misery has a lot to do with pre-existing political conditions, which in Africa have been fairly weak.

Finally, I want to address the question of what Doug calls “hoping for the worst”. In my view, it is insane to welcome an economic crisis in the “worse, the better” sense. When the stock market tanked in 2008 and homes began being foreclosed at a record rate, I reacted the same way I reacted to the start of the war in Iraq in 2003 or to the news of the BP spill—with horror.

On a personal level, it has touched one of my oldest and closest friends in the most devastating fashion. This is a guy one week younger than me that I grew up with in the Catskills. Just over six months ago he lost his job as a salesman and went on unemployment. A year before he lost his job, he lost 50 percent of the value of his retirement plan. And two months ago when he was up in my apartment using my high-speed connection to look at some job-related websites, I noticed a tremor in his left hand. Perhaps being in denial, he had been ignoring it. When I asked him about the tremor, he said that he would make an appointment right away. He has since learned that he is in the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease.

So here we have a sixty-five year old guy with a major medical condition who needs to work since the Social Security payments and unemployment are insufficient to make ends meet. He has lost over $100,000 in the Wall Street casino through no fault of his own. And lately he has been worried about whether Washington would extend unemployment benefits.

This is happening in one form or another all across the country. It is suffering on a mass scale. I have no idea whether this will lead to the growth of the left. All I know is that the left has an obligation to put forward a strategy for the unemployed and the working class that is in their interests rather than big capital.

We do not “hope” for such disasters. All we know is that they occur with alarming frequency in the period of capitalist decline. Rather than speculating on whether such events are to our benefit or not, we should think about how to get off the treadmill once and for all, so that everybody—including my old friend—can lead decent lives without worrying where their next meal is coming from.


  1. I absolutely agree with your conclusion, Lou. What disturbs me is the way a financial crisis gets the blood moving among so many leftists. You mention Patrick, who is a prime exemplar of this tendency. But the traffic on PEN-L, for example, also gets more heated in a crisis. I think we should tune our critiques so that they fit capitalism even when it’s doing “well,” as in the late 1990s, instead of focusing on recession or volatility. Because even in good times in this very rich country people are eating out of dumpsters and worrying about where the next paycheck, if they have one, is going to come from. Or how they will get by in their old age. Or get their teeth fixed. Etc.

    Comment by Doug Henwood — July 24, 2010 @ 8:48 pm

  2. It wasn’t until 8 years into the immiseration of the Great Depression that spontaneous sit down strikes began and the AFL-CIO began rapidly organizing, and that was in a climate where there were lots of communist organizers and a viable alternate model of a full employment industrial society — the USSR.

    Now the USSR is gone and what’s left of the communist organizers are either senile, or voters for Obama, or both.

    One thing that should never be underestimated on the left is the capacity for human beings to endure unimaginable misery. Living conditions in the third world, particularly in Africa as Lou pointed out, are edifying cases in point.

    While it may be true in a very general, generic, urban legend sense that things have to get worse before they get better — it’s also true that you better beware what you wish for insofaras “worse” means the increased suffering of hundreds of millions.

    Bottom line is it’s in no way part of the Marxist political tradition or programme to wish for the increased immisertation of the working class in the hopes it will invigorate their class consciousness and fighting spirit. On the contrary, Marxists are always and everywhere fighting for the immediate improvement of the conditions of the working class.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — July 24, 2010 @ 9:31 pm

  3. Another great piece, Lou, combining the specific with the more general and the personal with the political.

    I wonder, though, if using the term “recession” isn’t spin and double-speak. Aren’t there technicals that can be used to differentiate recessions from depressions, such as time duration or depth of deterioration? If so, is it really correct to continue to use the r-word instead of the d-word? Maybe you or Doug or a reader can chime in on this.

    Also, it is surely the case that the impact of the current downturn, whatever it is, is at depression levels among the bottom 1/3 or 1/2 of the population. And if the bottom 1/3 or 1/2 of the people are in depression, why can’t it thus honestly be said that the nation is, too?

    Comment by Gulfman — July 24, 2010 @ 9:39 pm

  4. It’s a bit of semantic quibbling to be sure but Gulfman’s got a point. “Recession” is an inaccurrate word favored by the commercial press but “Depression” is far closer to the truth since even the commercial press concedes there is no end to this crisis in sight.

    The graph linked below from a business article in Atlantic Magazine shows the historical intractability of today’s unemployment:


    One should also remember that the Great Depression, despite all its attempts at stimulus spending and public works projects, lasted almost a dozen years and would have lasted even longer if it weren’t for the production boom necessary to slaughter at least 50 million people in WWII.

    Today “public works projects” isn’t even on the ruling classes lips despite an enormously crumbling urban infrastructure and a thousand miles of oil fouled coast line in an area that produces up to 40% of domestic seafood.

    The greed of the American bourgeoisie is matched only by the spinelessness of American politicians.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — July 24, 2010 @ 9:58 pm

  5. The spine of American politicians is like hardened steel, kept firm and straight by the mighty brace of corporate money.

    Comment by Richard Greener — July 24, 2010 @ 11:52 pm

  6. You got that right Richard.

    They’re gutless turds all right but I should correct — far from splineless, their spines are in fact tempered & hardened through the cogealed sweat of billions of toilers around the globe like 4340 Chrome Moly or 300M bearing race steel used on the hubs of competition Rock Crawlers and Formula 1 race cars. So hard that even the uber criminal DeBeers Corporation is compelled to immiserate hundreds of thousands across the planet for the industrial diamonds necessary to machine such sophisticated metalurgy.

    Never in the history of the Universe has so much Freedom incorporated so much Slavery.

    Like Chomsky said: Goebells would have been proud.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — July 25, 2010 @ 12:58 am

  7. Greetings,

    Hope all are well.

    Yesterday my neighbor and I were talking about the reported 46 million people living below the ‘poverty level’ in the United Stats. Then we compared the majority of this poverty to the real poverty that exists in the third world.

    Today at a church picnic in Liberty State park we had a good view of lower Manhattan. A brother is involved in Meals for Wheels. They plan to forlough him once a month and the elderly he serves get no meals on that day. The City of Newark is even thinking of eliminating the program permanently. Across the river in Manhatan on this hot Saturday are elegant monuments to capitalism. I’d imagine the vast majority of the space lies vacant on Saturday as the workers are off. Yet there are people in the city with no electrical power, or no homes and cannot simply sit in these vast empty buildings to avoid the heat. The financial people can find the money to build their skyscrapers. The military can find it’s money to build it’s weapons. Even weapons, like the stealth bomber, that if we use it would bring about the extermination of all human life. Yet they are considering cutting food to the elderly? What will they eat? The world suffers not because of a lack of resources but because of the evil allocations of those resources.

    Comrades we are in a war, never forget that. It is a spiritual war first and then a mental. Do not let them lull you into think that the state is secure. I tell you the United States is a tinder box and fury could ignite at any moment.

    Who benefits more from a crisis the left or the right? I believe the answer would be the side that works the hardest. Look at the situation it is a now or never thing. I don’t think there will be a world in thirty years if fundamental and permanent change does not come soon.

    We are stronger than we think. We are fighting for the very survival of humanity. We fight for our children, our parents and fellow man. And we are fighting the worst of the worst. People who put possessions over human life. Cowards like Dick Cheney who refused to serve when his time came to fight, but who sent men to die. All the while sitting in his little bunker watching CNN. Cowards will melt in fear in a crisis the righteous will be strong. Dick and his ilk will run and hide when push comes to shove, just like Dick personally did and just like pigs act in general.

    There is an invincibility to our righteousness. We are not asking for too much when we say that are elderly should not starve to death. We are not asking for too much when we say people should not live on garbage. We are not asking for too much when we say we should not spend billions on destruction and death. Keep the message simple, to the point, but above all get it out.


    John Kaniecki

    Comment by John Kaniecki — July 25, 2010 @ 1:27 am

  8. Re: the Phil Gaspar article, he raises some good points. There are certain noteworthy similarities between the Great Depression & Today’s Depression, enough that Trotsky’s insights are indeed quite valuable, especially in the tendency for the masses to split into right & left camps during acute capitalist crises and the critical role left leadership plays in the historical outcome of such struggles.

    Lest older comrades become pessimists & cynics — the downtrodden and their organizers aren’t just lying down in this era of unbridled corporate turpitude.

    See the pictures at:


    There is definitely a mass movement brewing. How can there not be? The question is will the masters of capitalism & corporate propaganda, Goebells heirs, divert the tea baggers toward their aims or will the toiling & historically oppressed masses, lead by the socialists, find a message they can drive home decisively to the confused workers and stampeding petty bourgeoisie?

    Readers of Jack London’s “The Iron Heel” will recall that it was hundreds of years before Earnest Everhard was vindicated.

    Some of us will live to see the outcome of the current crisis and others of us won’t last that long but that the class struggle is as inexorable as gravity, that is, it’s as certain as the sun will someday run out of hydrogen. That’s Marx’s irrefraggable legacy to the humanities. That’s why, unlike religion or faith, we remain steadfast in our convictions.

    Even if profound defeat of the interests of the world’s toilers is in the immediate future Marxism is in the last analysis is ultimately only the unquenchable living memory of the history of those struggles, those defeats, like the Paris Commune, which would otherwise be glossed over or obliterated by the official history written by the victorious classes.

    So long as there remains antithetically antagonistic classes then there remains an acute unresolved contradiction fundamental to the core of all social relations which seem highly unlikely to remain unresolved ifinitely.

    Worst case scenario, however, unforseen by Marx & London, is that the victorious socialists inherit a doomed planet choked to death by the flooda of its own industrial toxicity.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — July 25, 2010 @ 2:09 am

  9. I guess Marx was looking at previous historic revolutions, particularly the French revolution. It was underconsumption that played a vital part in this revolution. We cannot wish crises away in a capitalist system, so talk of everyone leading decent lives is pretty tedious. I think these great upheavals do play a part in the historic process, it is how the left tune into these that is important.

    Comment by James — July 25, 2010 @ 9:41 am

  10. “The first genuinely socialist revolt took place 21 years after this article was written The first genuinely socialist revolt took place 21 years after this article was written”

    Not quite.

    The first genuine socialist revolt was the Chartist lead general strike in 1842.

    There are of course notable differences between the 1930s depression and this depression. Notably that this depression is not a depression. It is a very deep recession in the old imperialist nations combined with a rapid shift in the world economy towards Asia and particularly China, an emerging imperialist power that has come through this Great Depression pretty well.

    Comment by bill j — July 25, 2010 @ 11:32 am

  11. Both of what passes for Right and Left in the USA today are in an advanced state of decay, and this recession (or depression if you like) will only make that fact more transparent. There’s no reason to think that this is going to bring about a real resurgence for either. Most of the Right has come to depend fundamentally upon the conditions of economic prosperity which were made possible by the position of the USA after WWII. This applies not just to well-paid mass-media hacks like Glenn Beck, but also to those like Alex Jones who scream about the New World Order or some such thing. All of them depend upon the continued reality of a globalized economy where the USA occupies a certain spot, even when they may rant against “globalization.”

    This is very different from how the early groups around Mussolini, Hitler and others grew. These “fascist” (only Mussolini used the term) groups arose mostly in states which had failed to achieve imperial preeminence. The fact that Germany and Italy had not established an empire on which the sun never set gave a sense of youthful virility to nationalistic movements in these regions that was not duplicatable in England or France. These are simple points that are often missed when people go off on generalities about “fascism” being the byproduct of a crisis in capitalism. In fact, an overextended imperial power like the USA (one which depends very much on the global economy which it is integrated into) will never be able to produce a nationalistic movement with the fervent vitality that characterized the early fascists. This crisis will just make it more clear how singularly unable the Right-wing in the USA today is of duplicating such patterns.

    But that doesn’t mean that any gains are going to go to what passes as a “Left” today where “Leftists” vote for an Obama/Biden ticket that was clearly always to the Right of Eisenhower/Nixon. If that’s what “Left” is to be defined as then you can also assume that this recession will expose that as more of a joke than it already was.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — July 25, 2010 @ 12:53 pm

  12. I guess Patrick has never heard of German hyperinflation.

    Comment by Steve — July 25, 2010 @ 2:04 pm

  13. German hyperinflation occurred in the early 1920s and was not the cause of Hitler coming into power. All economic analyses done in the last few decades have agreed that the German economy was bottoming out and beginning to recover in 1932 before Hitler came to power. The economic recovery which was later attributed to Hitler’s wisdom had begun under von Papen and Hitler didn’t do anything new and noteworthy to add to it. It’s not clear what your point is.

    The depression was much more sustained in the USA than in Germany precisely because industry in the USA was so much more fully developed. In comparison with the USA, Germany at that time was still very much an agrarian country. The less developed state allowed an easier recovery, since the Achilles Heel of capitalism is always overdevelopment.

    As for the causes of the hyperinflation in the early 1920s, that mainly resulted from the attempts by the German ruling class to defy the Versailles Treaty. It’s been established by economic historians that the payments required by this treaty were well within Germany’s capacity. But the German rulers sought to mock the whole thing by recklessly printing up money so as to make a wasteful farce of the payment process. The Allies had effectively abandoned the Versailles Treaty debt several years before Hitler came to power.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — July 25, 2010 @ 8:01 pm

  14. I’m with Doug on this one. Interestingly, the CPGB’s Mike Macnair is in agreement:


    However, I also emphasise both the level of uncertainty in all predictions, and that it is not the business of Marxists to hope for crashes and slumps to make our politics attractive; and that much of the left which does predict a severe crisis does so precisely in the hope that a slump will make their rather unattractive alternative to capitalism attractive. In reality, such a slump is more likely to benefit the far right.


    For these groups crisis is fundamental because it leads to the only conditions – if their theory of capitalism is correct – in which masses of workers might conceivably be desperate enough to think it would be good idea to give all power to the central committee of the SWP (or the equivalent ‘Leninist combat party’ group of your choice).

    There is one case of depression or crisis that would benefit the Left, though: something more along the lines of the Long Depression. After all, mass worker movements emerged during this time.

    So basically, the best situation is a quick and precipitous crash (but NOT collapse) followed by stagnant and protracted recovery. The latter is crucial in order for scales to fall off the eyes of many regarding concentration of economic power.

    Comment by Jacob Richter — July 26, 2010 @ 3:56 am

  15. Forgot to add: “Because the strategic conceptions of the far left stake everything on slump, there actually develops a desire for it. Crisis is transparently irrational – because of overproduction and overinvestment, people are laid off, reduced to poverty and starved. Too much wealth produces poverty. But actually wanting to experience slump conditions is an irrationality of its own sort, certainly if our aim is the self-emancipation of the working class majority, rather than a coup d’etat by the central committee of your choice.”

    Comment by Jacob Richter — July 26, 2010 @ 3:57 am

  16. To elaborate re. “There is one case of depression or crisis that would benefit the Left, though: something more along the lines of the Long Depression. After all, mass worker movements emerged during this time. So basically, the best situation is a quick and precipitous crash (but NOT collapse) followed by stagnant and protracted recovery. The latter is crucial in order for scales to fall off the eyes of many regarding concentration of economic power.”

    Revolutionary periods as defined by Kautsky do not emerge during even Long Depressions, but during purely political crises. More and more people feel distant from policy-making and “the state” which is becoming slowly more authoritarian, but there has yet to be a mass party-movement gaining majority political (not necessarily electoral) support plus breakdown of confidence within the state apparatus.

    Comment by Jacob Richter — July 26, 2010 @ 4:03 am

  17. There is no Left in the United States. A few scattered and divided Leftists do not make a Left anymore than the SWP’s 150 members make a vanguard. Yes, this may change, and hopefully it will, but there are few signs realistically to point to it.

    Comment by purple — July 26, 2010 @ 6:01 am

  18. So why don’t you join the SP-USA instead of continuing voting Green or calling others to vote Green?

    Comment by Jacob Richter — July 26, 2010 @ 1:07 pm

  19. So why don’t you join the SP-USA instead of continuing voting Green or calling others to vote Green?


    It’s pointless and stupid voting for small far-left parties. They never get more than 1% in any election on any level anywhere in America. On a perhaps lesser point, most are cult-like, disorganized (bad combo), not established in any sense, and not serious or practical.

    The electoral strategy needs to be: organize with and vote for the largest 3rd party on the left (the GREEN PARTY in our case) in all elections, except in instances where you have a Bernie Sanders or Alan Grayson candidate running Dem or independent. Someone reasonably left-wing, that is.

    Comment by D — July 26, 2010 @ 4:24 pm

  20. Patrick said,

    “It’s not clear what your point is.”

    That the economic situation in Germany contributed to the rise of the far right. Though your other points are well made.

    Comment by Steve — July 26, 2010 @ 4:30 pm

  21. It’s starts off better for the right cause they have two parties and we have none. Where it will end is yet to be determined.

    Comment by dave — July 27, 2010 @ 7:20 pm

  22. It’s starts off better for the right cause they have two parties and we have none. Where it will end is yet to be determined.

    Defeatist, whiny bullshit.

    Comment by D — July 28, 2010 @ 12:57 pm

  23. Facts are facts, D.

    Comment by dave — July 28, 2010 @ 2:15 pm

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