Robert Latham theorizes a renewed approach to strategy and counter-strategy that could cohere the fragmented left in an era of geopolitical upheaval.
Richard Mudariki, Africa’s Chess (2018)
Ever so often, assessments appear from Marxists regarding where things stand in the struggle against capitalism and the advancement of socialism. Marx himself made several interventions of this sort, perhaps most famously in his book Class Struggles in France. Closer to our own time is Eric Hobsbawm’s pointed 1978 piece, “The Forward March of Labour Halted?” Today, a list of assessors would also include the late Daniel Bensaid and Enzo Traverso. It is therefore with hesitation that I touch on this important realm even indirectly – but my purpose in this essay is not assessment, per se. Rather, it is an attempt to identify whether there are specific ways to think about contemporary capitalism and its recent history that might contribute to strategies going forward in the struggle against it. However, some assessment will be unavoidable as a byproduct of claims about gaps in the left today.
I start from the assumption that capitalism has been attempting to counter the left for at least 150 years, and along the way has gained capacities and “knows” in ways today not there in the past. Some of this is manifested in the world order it has created and is attempting to maintain. This is hardly an infallible capitalism, but even in its blunders it can have undermining effects for the left. In addition, what I call, capitalism’s counter-struggle against its enemies (broader than counterrevolution per se) is unfolding in the context of a capitalism more overdetermined than ever, which in part reflects its deepening and extension across planetary life. This context complicates both the struggle and counter-struggle.
With that in mind, I suggest that the left can take a more dialectical approach to strategy. This entails adopting a dialectical-strategic praxis, articulated as multiple steps. In this approach, the prospective actions, tactics, and strategies of capitalism in reaction to prospective left strategies and actions are made central; also central would be thinking through, from the start, potential subsequent actions and counteractions. In this strategic sequence, where left actions and capitalist counter-actions are emphasized, the left could also attempt to strategically coordinate the various, uneven forms of struggle against capitalism.
In order to help realize this coordination, I argue that the left might consider the creation of an organization of organizations, or league, focused on challenging and undoing corporate power – one that could operate at multiple scales, from local to global, and that is not an International nor a forum. Ideally, it would help address the great gap in socialist political presence faced since 1991 and conceptualize possible paths to reach right-oriented segments of the working class.
This essay is an exercise in strategic conjecture, based on contentions about developments in capitalism in its imperial center (anchored by the U.S.) and following on projections regarding the possibilities available to the left, especially in that center. It is not a typical scholarly endeavor, analyzing relevant bodies of research and thought.1
The term “left” has over the decades become increasingly difficult to use with precision and seems often to mean “not the political right or center.” While written from a Marxist perspective, this essay addresses the left in wider terms, but not so wide. The left here refers to that which, at a minimum, acts not merely to reform capitalism but to reduce the power and presence of it or at a maximum to advance socialism. I will use the rubric “struggle-against-capitalism” for this array rather than anti-capitalism. Struggle-against can convey a wider range of meanings beyond the negative of only “against” or “anti” (e.g., opposition to). This includes the positive, intentional actions and forces that confront capitalism. Importantly, the phrase signals the class struggle at the center of things.
There is, as known, a relatively long history of attempts by especially capitalist states to weaken, reverse, or destroy the forces struggling against capitalism. I use the phrase counter-struggle instead of counterrevolution. I think we can view the attempt to stop or “disrupt” (an intelligence-security sector moniker) revolution and revolutionary processes as a subset of the wider array of actions and programs meant to counter all struggles-against-capitalism (revolutionary and non-revolutionary).2 For example, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party leadership and attempt to become prime minister was certainly not revolutionary but could be seen as the beginnings of a political coalescence that held promise as a struggle-against-capitalism (one that he recently asserted was countered in various ways by the political-intelligence realm).3 The same might be said of radical labour unions such as Union Syndicale Solidaires in France, the Landless Workers” Movement (MST) in Brazil or even the Zapatistas. Debatably, this might apply to a socialist organization that ideally desires (or projects itself) to be part of a revolutionary process but is practicably focused on elections or local activism.
An argument against this broadening from counterrevolution to counter-struggle is that, ultimately, the stakes of all struggles are revolution, even if situated in the far future. While this may be so, it cannot be known in any given historical moment if it is. It also assumes the only pathway away from capitalism as the twenty-first century unfolds is revolution. It might also fail to treat revolution as a unique phenomenon as Lenin put it involving the “passing of state power from one class to another.”4 Assuming revolutionary processes are a dimension of the struggle-against-capitalism – albeit a very crucial one – allows conceptual room for the various complexities of struggles in specific times and places. Additionally, if useful, a given action and process could be viewed in both registers, the revolutionary and non-revolutionary.
As we know, the most iconic counter-struggle was the cold war. The range of actions and programs were extensive and included coups, proxy wars, assassinations, sanctions, extensive propaganda efforts, the FBI COINTELPRO program, cultural funding programs, media manipulation, the fostering of strikes and supply-chain disruptions (e.g., against Allende’s Chile). The capacity and will to use such “instruments” remain and have been applied since 1991, to the left and beyond the left, especially in the Middle East (albeit not with the same concentration).
The prehistory to the intensive counter-struggle begins with the emergence of the organized left in Europe, occurring while semi-feudal rule was in decline; the bourgeoisie was coming into full political ascendence and capitalism was developing rapidly. As is well-known, Marx faced various police actions limiting his activities, some of which led, for example, to the Rheinische Zeitung’s shutdown. Mid-century saw the counterrevolutions of 1848 and the persecution in Germany of the Communist League, with a public trial in 1852 and jail sentences (Marx was an active member but avoided arrest in London). After 1850, the counter-struggle continued, with various forms of subterfuge, propaganda, and persecution. It was marked by events such as the military repression of the Paris Commune and the 1905 Russian Revolution. The post-WWI period experienced the counterrevolution in Germany, the Red Scare in the U.S., and a range of intrigue and battles against the left from the late 1920s up until WWII.
I see two types of points in this thumbnail history so far. The obvious one is that counter-struggle has a 180-year trajectory – it has evolved with an arsenal of instruments and practices ready-at-hand. Stronger struggles-against-capitalism risks stronger counter-struggles. Of course, counter-struggles can be ineffective based on inadequate strategies, weaknesses in the capitalist system, or especially overwhelming struggles-against-capitalism.
A second and more substantial point is the need to better understand the patterns associated with counter-struggle. These patterns are visible in the ways counter-struggle instruments and modalities arise and develop through time. They are also visible in the choices made to utilize and deploy them across the context of contemporary capitalism – a context that has become increasingly complex and overdetermined, especially at the global scale.5 Additionally, it means considering if patterns, forms, and forces that are not expressly designed for and maintained as counter-struggle in fact have those effects.
Counter-Struggle: Back to the Future
There are several issues to address around these two main points. To start, it is worth recalling what is axiomatic: any developed security-sector method can be applied to any supposed threat, including potential political threats thought to carry possibilities for organized violence. Counteraction is the broader rubric of practices against any organization, people, movement or development that counter-struggle (and therefore counterrevolution) is part of. Using modes established during the Cold War, counteraction can be directed at any body of actors – left or right. The Phoenix Program developed by the CIA during the Vietnam War created practices that have been applied more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, if not also in establishing the Department of Homeland Security.6 The continued application of counteraction to capitalism-oppressed peoples is ongoing, as Mike Davis observed, especially regarding repression in urban settings worldwide.7 Relatedly, Peter Hallward analyzed the bold U.S. and French intervention in Haiti in the early 2000’s to stop Lavalas.8
Counteraction continues developing. Kees van der Pijl puts emphasis on counteraction in the biological sphere. He explores the implications around Covid-19 of the power of capital and the capitalist state to control, through bio-tactics, perceived threats from the unruly or deemed-marginal populations.9 While some might view this as far-fetched, one can follow the development of a growing field, called neuro-weaponry – helped along by the organization set up to foster security innovation, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Notably, neuro-weaponry is about using neuro-technology to control the thought, emotions, and bodies of targeted groups and individuals. As academic spokesperson, James Giordano, put it: “neuroweapons include drugs to degrade physiologic and cognitive functions, and/or to alter emotional states to affect the desire or capacity for aggression and combat; organic toxins that can induce neuromuscular paralysis and death; microbial agents…that can incur various levels of morbidity – or mortality, and a number of technologies that can be used to alter sensory, perceptual, cognitive and motoric functions.”10 The inclination toward such tools is longstanding – leading, for example, to the 1950s CIA MK-Ultra experiments with LSD – but only now is the technology coming to hand.
In contrast, counteraction in the media may seem prosaic. Since the 1960s, it has been widely known that mainstream media (MSM) has been a realm of counter-struggle intervention and has shown no shortage of self-directed action and complicity (apparent among large corporate, bourgeois-oriented, or fear-based compliers).
Far less known is the full nature and extent of intervention and complicity in the realm of social media.11 Liberal observers, or what Valentine reports the CIA agent Cord Meyer labeled the “compatible left” (including political actors, journalists, and academics), frame intervention and opinion-shaping through the concept of disinformation. The “dis-informers” are typically identified as state security threats – especially Russia, China, and Iran. Or, they can be identified as far-right content producers critical of “global elites” and mega-corporations, or politicians associated with these (e.g., Biden). Somehow, this “compatible left” overlooks key digital or cyber-warfare documents the US military has issued for decades, discussing its own emerging practices and programs.12
A broader issue here is the cultivation of left divisions. This started after WWII, when order-makers argued that European “socialist” parties could help blunt “communism” in the region.13 The history of the 1960s/1970s counter-struggle is full of examples of attempts to advance divisions across and within far-left movements and organizations.
Also situated along the lines of the seemingly “soft” forms of counter-struggle (aspects of which have been thought of as “psychological warfare”) is the longstanding impetus to reform capitalism to mitigate or even remove the grounds for struggle; passive revolution, welfare, enlightened capitalism, and corporate liberalism all convey aspects of this. The impetus for this always seems to return – not just in revived rhetoric from liberal capitalist parties like the Democratic Party, but also from capitalists like Whole Foods CEO John Mackey (advocating “Conscious Capitalism”) and today even right-wing politicians like Marco Rubio (advocating “Common Good Capitalism”). One might also include under the soft power rubric so-called “woke-imperialism” (trying to mobilize support for intervention, with whatever hope of success, by linking it to challenges to sexism, racism, and anti-LGBTQ+). According to one observer, – who reminds us of the precedents through history going back to the nineteenth century – the “new “woke” face of American hegemony and projects of empire is designed to project the U.S. as an international moral police force rather than a conventional great power. The result is “neo-imperialism with a moral face.”14
International Capitalist Order
I have hardly mentioned all the elements that have historically been observed as counteraction – and more specifically counter-struggle – across the centuries such as national, ethnic, racial divisions or the many ways thinking class has been manipulated. An encyclopedia is really needed. I instead want to address my second point above regarding the complexities tied to capitalism today, especially regarding a particular form that has had important counter-struggle effects: international capitalist order.
The international liberal capitalist order formed coming out of World War II is really the first such order where conditions for capitalism, its maintenance and development, was placed expressly at the center of the international institutional dimensions of order. Certainly previous orders, as Giovanni Arrighi and Immanuel Wallerstein underscored, were vital to the existence of a developing capitalist world system; and as history moved into the nineteenth century explicit capitalist ordering increased especially linked to imperialism and monopoly (Lenin). But such utility and precedents are distinct from what was executed expressly in an express way with its array of international institutions in the post-World War II order.
What is also distinct about this current order is how it put a political orientation organically compatible with capitalism (and the modernity capitalism was generating) at its center: liberalism. Previous orders could emphasize concepts like free trade, but they were mostly oriented to devising a system between great powers, anchored in the hegemony of one of those powers, such as Great Britain.
It is no coincidence in dialectical terms that this type of order emerged after the rise of the Soviet Union – a power the liberal capitalists thought, mistakenly, they could rein in by bringing it into the universalizing dominion of their burgeoning order.15 That order created, as intended, continuity with the capitalist world’s past and a new range of expansive possibilities for the future. That it did, in effect fashioning the overarching context within which all struggle-against-capitalism would be situated and unfold. Marx underscored how socialism could only arise from within capitalism. But not all capitalist contexts are the same; some might be better able to impede its arrival than others, constituting a counter-struggle force at the systemic level.
This context, we know, is most powerful in the global North, where the development of a North American/European organized left occurred in tandem with that of liberal capitalist political forces. The gains in those forces manifested particularly in the growing capacity of centrist parties to mitigate or absorb left political energies. Additionally, any attempt to obtain state power had to confront a state form with all its numerous decades of entrenched interests, international penetrations, and bureaucratic logics that troubled Nicos Poulantzas. Lenin understood well that what the Bolsheviks faced was relatively thin.
How profound the loss of the Soviet bloc is (limits and faults notwithstanding). World-historical dialectical processes now seem always ultimately to be situated in or run up against the international liberal capitalist context. When struggles-against-capitalism – which might emerge in relative distanced from the international liberal capitalist order – obtain some traction they are drawn into the political and economic forces internal to the order. The left, of course, has no choice about this. But what does it do about it? For nearly 40 years after World War II, the Soviets invested considerable resources into battling capitalism’s counter-struggle in both its direct and indirect forms. Where and how to begin the battle today when we are a long way from the capitalism of 1870?
Some may hold out hope that US hegemony appears to be weakening and perhaps has entered a spiral of decline, implying that the “liberal world order” itself is increasingly vulnerable. For neo-cons like Robert Kagan the answer is a revamped, more aggressive US hegemony.16 For liberals – such as the editors of Harper’s Magazine who in a July 2022 issue declared “The American Century Is Over” – it is a more multilateral order, with the US primus inter pares, of course. Both perspectives assume a conversion of the current capitalist order.
Relatedly, the language of a “great reset” of the order has lately emerged in World Economic Forum settings that claims to be an initiative to reform the order to address “inconsistencies, inadequacies, and contradictions of multiple systems.” The familiar “enlightened” capitalism trope is hard to miss, especially in its notion of ‘stakeholder Capitalism.” But even if this order should dissolve, history suggests another capitalist order might replace it. A BRICS-centered world order would likely still be a capitalist order and thus in capitalism’s favor, absorbing forces that might otherwise destabilize it on a world scale. Even if the current international order is not succeeded by a new one, there is no reason why a range of coterminous, regional (capitalist) orders could not arise.
Capitalism’s Cross-Development and Overdetermination
The other facet of my second point above bears on the question of a contemporary capitalism that is especially complex and overdetermined on matters regarding the struggle/counter-struggle dynamic. Contemporary world capitalist order matters not only because of its counter-struggle effects discussed above, but also because keeping it in mind may help us gain some perspective on the complications entailed in the potential demise of capitalism in the twenty-first century. Factors and logics of contemporary capitalism (and its world order) bearing on its “resilience” are central to discerning the prospects for struggles-against-capitalism.
It has been long recognized that we face a totalizing capitalism, one that is not only extensive in geo-social terms (a world order, not just a world system) but increasingly intensive, with a deepening reach of capitalist forms across and through social life (reflected in the much wider array of commodity and industrial forms).17 Of immediate concern is the possibility that in this extensive-intensive context are growing patterns of what I will label “cross-development.” This is development where some social or material form that might seem initially to present a potential basis for one thing (e.g., greater popular power) turns out to also create the basis for something else relating to it (e.g., greater capitalist power). A now classic cross-development can be seen in Marx’s observation that the spread of the factory system was creating the grounds for the rise of a class-struggling proletariat. However, in time, it was seen that the same factory system would also be the basis for further capitalist industrial organization and the penetration of reactionary labor organizations.
Seventy years ago, Harold Innis pointed to how the integration of Canada (especially its transport, media, and laws) held the promise of forms of nation-wide democratic power, but also facilitated U.S. empire, as U.S. corporations could exploit this integration, with easier access to uniform laws, distribution networks, and a national media.18 A more contemporary example is the global internet. It was becoming obvious in the late 1990s that this distributed system, seen then and now as holding so much promise for democratic communication, was also an ideal realm for both concentrated accumulation and counteraction by states and corporations.19
Perhaps we can look at these cross-developments as not just facets of overdetermination, but as what Mao called “non-antagonistic contradictions.”20 Mao claimed that some contradictions can transition from antagonistic to non-antagonistic, or vice-versa. What if they pile up and keep persisting in a non-antagonistic form, where they can reinforce one another in a system, however inconsistent and diffuse (and thereby more deeply overdetermined than ever), that helps sustain capitalism?21 As a result, old and new vulnerabilities are more numerous and distributed than ever.
Related to contradictions and cross-developments are the complications tied to the peculiar combination of what looks like effectiveness and ineffectiveness in the policies and actions associated with global capitalist power. In recent years, blunders and failures have been highlighted – especially by those who emphasize the waning of the current global order anchored in the U.S. imperium. The Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya interventions, the June 2022 Summit of the Americas, and the U.S. involvement in Ukraine are but a few recent examples. Policies such as sanctions repeatedly fail to achieve stated aims. The discourse of blunder and failure, though, has a long history going back (at least!) to Vietnam. In the financial realm, we see a series of crises tied to what looks like blundering policy (e.g., those leading up to the 2000 and 2008 financial crises). Yet, from the standpoint of capitalist system continuity, these phenomena are but pieces of a complex array of actions and policies (including “successes” such as the Kissinger / Nixon cementing of Sino-Soviet division by 1971) that allow not only for endurance and reproduction but also significant expansion in capital accumulation.
From the standpoint of struggles-against-capitalism, the pattern is relevant because clear lines of potential crisis that might lead to existential vulnerability of benefit to struggles may not be feasibly available. From the standpoint of capitalism’s durability, the blunders and failures can actually be “doing work” for the system (just as war does), especially facilitating spheres of activity for the organizational complex of capitalism. Taking short-term “best options”, which may not achieve stated aims, can contribute to security-sector enhancement and capital accumulation (especially for the military, financial, extraction, and technology complex). Organizations of power are in place and advancing actively with ever-new short-term “best option” projects. The massive system is thereby propelled forward; what I elsewhere called the “constitutive presence” of order-making is kept in motion across geographical, institutional, and ideational sites.22
Given the uneven and differentiated realms of capital accumulation, it is not unlikely that there can be situations where what is detrimental in one sphere is seen as beneficial in another. Perhaps we can think of these as antagonistic or negative cross-developments. Some observers of imperialism (Hobson, Lenin) and the military-industrial-complex have long pointed to uneven distribution of advantages, disadvantages to empire, and conflict across economic sectors and the bourgeoisie. Recently, a Bank of America memo was leaked that argues conditions of U.S. labor market weakness is desirable to keep inflation and thus interest rates in check.23 This implies that disadvantages in the consumption realm are acceptable given the potential advantages to the financial realm (with disadvantages flowing to both retail corporations and workers). Any economic system can face what are often termed “trade-offs”. But in the current capitalist system, they are manifold, taken as ultimately non-threatening and even normal (as it is for Bank of America). There is no single ongoing and dynamic financial statement for capitalism, making this visible at any given scale, local to global, but only symptoms of imbalance in existing indicators such as debt levels, the balance of payments, or GDP.
A telescopic view of these logics and patterns can be thought of as situated along a 180-degree line with two endpoints. On one end is a capitalism just coping with a wide and seemingly unending assortment of challenges, inventing new approaches to do so and moving down the line from hyper-financialization to neoliberal authoritarianism and beyond. On the other end is a capitalism willing to go to the edge, in brinkmanship risking ecological disaster and nuclear war. Alas, humanity is subject to both ends and all that is in-between.
What Does Capitalism Know?
Inherent in the above discussion of the complications faced by struggles-against-capitalism is a question: what does capitalism know and in what way does it know?
Knowing inheres in the body of institutions, organizations, and arrangements we often designate as an order or “society.” What is known thereby is what can be seen as a common sense of power, situated within the institutional expectations and organizational norms and practices. From Marx on, critical thinkers have theorized such social order, frequently contrasting it to other ways of constituting social life. We have, for example: Sartre’s seriality versus groups, Althusser’s superstructure, Badiou’s notion of the “repeatable..[which] guarantees the perennial conservation of the world” versus events,24 and Ranciere’s police-order versus politics.
Mainstream social scientists have also been aware of this function of social order – the system theory of Talcott Parsons stands out in this regard. Critical scholars often held it to account for its unswerving reinforcement of system preservation. Power’s common sense manifests in the social and political logics that foster system continuity. Such logics can be advanced by state officials sometimes without them being aware of the ultimate implications.
Marx famously emphasized how capitalism as a dialectical system involves both deliberate agency (for example, the purposeful actions associated with struggle and counter-struggle) and the systemic, constitutive unfolding of relations and forces that in turn shape the conditions and possibilities of agency (surpassing the duality inherent in Hegel’s “cunning of reason”).25 Relatedly, the common sense of power manifests in and shapes dialectical processes. Responses to dialectical developments like global South movements in struggles-against-capitalism are recognized, assessed, and countered based on this common sense. As mentioned, this knowing is typically incomplete and misapprehends the real conditions and dynamics, as occurred in the Afghanistan intervention. But more important than perceived success or failure of any given project – or the “learning from mistakes” that may occur – is continuity of the common sense and all the mobilization around it, which thereby contributes to capitalism’s extension. It is sufficient if corporations and capitalist states (their organizations, personnel, and networks) can “carry on” or even better develop through such projects (e.g, expand the security sector, draw in local and international collaboration, or expand capital accumulation).
Misapprehension is prevalent in not just bourgeois theory and economics but also in counter-struggle. This is not necessarily in the left’s favor. Many counter-struggle programs do not require accurate comprehension to be effective. Most obviously, there are the blunt-force attacks via the police system that do not require knowing the complexities of real conditions. But organizational, non-physical destruction of any social form can occur using various tactics of subversion, where it might even be to the capitalist state’s advantage to avoid recognizing real conditions and needs. Even in positive counteraction endeavors, often labeled “nation-building” or “democratization”, misapprehension can serve to legitimate desired arrangements of power and logics of accumulation.
The common sense of power and capitalism’s knowing may have reached its heights across the 20th-21st centuries, with its uniquely extensive order-building and bourgeois-knowledge production anchored in the social sciences. However, that does not translate necessarily into efficiency and effectiveness, even with the development of AI. There are overarching aims of accumulation and power (for individuals in capitalist organizations and for the organizations themselves) that manifest across a widening range of contradictions and cross-developments that marks a deepening and extending capitalist totality. Given this, the fashioning of masterful policies and programs is unlikely (assuming they could ever even be desired except by exceptional idealist functionaries). But that does not stop the creation of new policies and programs that yield new common senses of power, however much they all rest on misapprehension. This additional common sense in turn, automatically, facilitates further interventions and impositions; all of this occurs as a compounding of deliberate and systemic-level determinations.26
A recent example – and, really, symptom – of this is the concept of the “gray zone” in U.S. security policy. A key 2015 white paper defined it as “[c]ompetitive interactions among and within state and non-state actors that fall between the traditional war and peace duality… characterized by ambiguity about the nature of conflict, opacity of the parties involved or uncertainty about the relevant policy and legal frameworks.”27 Rather than grounds for inaction, the gray zone as a new common sense of power articulates an open door to counteraction, employing a spectrum of instruments applied to all sorts of actors and in varied spheres.
The left should be attentive to the possibility that the cultivation of gray zones might be sought after by capitalist power. It is in the interest of counter-struggle efforts to create contexts of “ambiguity”, “opacity”, and “uncertainty” not of the left’s choosing. Evidence abounds for the creation of organizations and ideational weapons that complicate spheres of conflict, whether in Middle East conflicts or left struggle in Europe. The history of such effort is well-documented, for example, in the cultural sphere in Europe and the U.S.28
I do not believe the depiction above of counter-struggle means that a significant challenge to capitalism is unrealizable. At the most basic level, struggles-against-capitalism should always be present somewhere across capitalism. In dialectical terms, struggle is inherent to it and is a part of it. Movements will emerge and sometimes sustain, like MST in Brazil; left parties will come into government; workers will organize and at times resist; masses will assemble and overturn regimes, youth will be drawn to socialism, and international solidarity will arise. Viewed from the 2020’s the question is, what can that presence amount to. Can it undo capitalism rather than just alter it? How can it scale up, cohere, and endure?
Starting points assume knowledge, and that raises the question: “what does knowing capitalism entail today for strategy?” Is our understanding of twenty-first century capitalism – and the possibilities of the struggle against it, or what socialism can be – truly anchored in a strategic thinking that has capitalism’s counter-struggle and relevant forms and complexities of capitalism itself at its foundation? I venture – it is not. There is a great deal of relevant knowledge – such as the study of crisis, neoliberalism, or the history of organizing for struggle – which could be assembled in encyclopedic fashion, based on what its import is for strategy today. However, given that most relevant knowledge today comes out of the academy, the strategic import will mostly need to be extrapolated. There are numerous exceptions, for example: Samir Amin on internationalism, or the recent work of the late Michael Lebowitz regarding the conditions and possibilities for twenty-first century socialism. There are works that explicitly draw implications for strategy today in conclusions.29 But these contributions are different from the placement of the relationship between struggle and counter-struggle at the center of analysis – that relationship typically appears as discrete issues, such as the dynamic between social movements and the right.
It is worth describing here what I think is a necessary dimension to any successful left strategic theory today. Taking that dimension seriously leads, as I will argue, to a key question with strategic-organizational implications. Before addressing it, I want to recognize that there are other questions to begin with: what can oppose capitalism today, where the forces to oppose it are likely to come from, and how can they develop and sustain a pathway leading to capitalism’s end. The “what” refers to, on the one hand, the modes of struggle such as mass movements, disruption, re-appropriation, or capture of political power. On the other, it is the subjects of struggle. Categories like “workers and the oppressed” now signal a wider set than in that past, which was focused on industrial workers, peasants, and the colonized. While my point of departure expressly does not start with these questions, I think ultimately it leads to them.
The key question I have in mind is as follows: does assuming, for struggle, the centrality of counter-struggle forces, and especially the complexities of contemporary capitalism that is the context for those forces, engender certain approaches to strategy?
Some may think counter forces are too negative in nature to build a strategy upon. I agree that no strategy can be built only on an anticipation of negation (e.g., fear of being undermined). The obvious response is to re-emphasize the importance I give to the positive conditions: forms of contemporary capitalism that are a context and force in generating struggle. However, that misses a more basic point: counter-struggle, which can be a force of negation, partly forms what capitalism is and is thereby a positive attribute of capitalism (like totalization). Thus, the struggle-against-capitalism is a struggle not just against labor exploitation, imperialism, and capitalist state power. It is also a struggle against the counter-actions and the relevant conditions and complexities of capitalism. Even though emphasizing counter-struggle as a dimension of capitalism creates a somewhat circular process in left strategy, I view this as necessary for advancing the left.
An essential condition, I argued, is international order. This may be the most important place to start the strategic thinking I am advocating. This is because the prevailing order, potentially, is in its terminal phase. Relatedly, we may have entered a period where not just global economic crisis but war, involving the most powerful states, is more prevalent. Yet I do not think today’s Marxist left has really begun to think through what this means for the struggle-against-capitalism. There is a tradition for this in Marxist thought from Lenin onward into the 1930s (regarding both the Soviet Union and the Comintern). While socialists then were thrust into a long period of order transformation, thinking about it started beforehand, especially around debates in the Second International.
In general, having a well-supported International is a great advantage when it comes to thinking strategically about war and international order (even if such issues can lead to tragic division). In its absence after World War II, certain individual wars (from Vietnam to Iraq/Iran) have figured into party and movement positions (especially anti-war) and strategies, as have, less so, macro-strategic views tied to global (imperial) order. We need to return to these, international or not, to think through the challenges for struggles and advancing socialism under conditions of international instability and multiple wars. The notion that we must wait until the specific conditions emerge fails to acknowledge that we already face specific conditions bearing on world capitalist system change (e.g., China-U.S. conflict, the BRICS+). The range of issues that will need to be addressed is extensive and might include the left’s approach to the war-politics relationship, the possibilities for socialist internationalism, differences in dynamics in geo-regions (North America/Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia), spontaneous popular uprisings, and whether or how to challenge attempts to create a new capitalist order.
What compounds the strategic challenge is the necessity of both national and global strategies and their coordination. A great deal of political conflict might occur at the national level as global developments become especially crucial. Moreover, there is no established timeline for order termination – even if some feel it is near – implying the temporal site of struggle is the current moment. This is a moment complicated by the need to think strategically – not just with multiple scales, but multiple potential trajectories in mind: capitalism’s continuity, transformation, and dissolution (the goal). Such thinking requires assessments of the current capitalist order regarding its adaptability versus its brittleness (making it more vulnerable) where entrenched interests have the power to resist challenges.
Key here is the relationship between dialectical thinking and strategy. One version of this is thinking dialectically about multiple negations, reverberations, and counters into the future (not only one step), guided by discernment of current developments and their negation, even at multiple scales if needed (in alterations or eliminations). This would be combined with the devising of methods, strategies, and theory (such as new approaches to party organization, which thereby implies thinking of one’s own agency dialectically). These would be appropriate to the possibilities in play in the dialectical paths into the future (including even existing or emerging bourgeois divisions or new possibilities for inter-left collaboration). Pursuing this means also addressing the counter-struggle possibilities that favor capitalism, including reform, the cultivation of the right, left subversion, or state authoritarian repression.
Some might think this exceeds the strategic capacity of the left; they might expect at best a muddle of disparate options thrown about, leading to confusion and inaction. Or, alternatively, it might lead to esoteric ideas advanced by tiny cohorts. However, the aim is not some ultimate, integrated statement or plan, but an adaptive assemblage of strategic elements and relations; an assemblage that forms more of a dynamic constellation than a synchronic map – a constellation that can even be segmented. Those proposing a given action such as trying to start a new left party at the national level, for instance, might thereby be induced to think through the various strategic dimensions in a more dialectical way. Note that we already have an increasing body of relevant knowledge in place (e.g., about contemporary class composition or the history of internationalism) that can be organized (and extended) for this dialectical-strategic praxis.
If there is any credence to the claim that this is not the capitalism faced by Luxemburg, Lenin, or even Gramsci (despite the many core continuities like surplus-value), then this dialectical-strategic praxis might be seen as helping contend with the complexities associated with today’s cross-developed overdetermination. If system vulnerabilities are more numerous and distributed, then strategies that work across registers might be needed such as creating cross-pressures bearing, for example, on vital junctions among the financial, production, and political realms (thus a strike shutting down transport infrastructure would be insufficient).
If there is merit in addressing more than one ensemble of linked sectors within a state or internationally, it implies the need for an extensive body of methods and sites of struggle. Elsewhere I have discussed thinking about this in uneven and combined terms: uneven in modes, sites, and orientations, combined in the shared praxis of struggle-against-capitalism.30 In this very wide “correlations of forces”31 – the uneven and combined struggle-against-capitalism (UCSAC) – we would have Leninist parties as well as, for example, radical unions and indigenous resistance movements. Some historical precedent for this lies in the 1930s United Front, in the U.S. and elsewhere.
UCSAC is itself insufficient. It requires an organizational context; one that is encompassing of UCSAC, which has presence at multiple scales and sites and creates a discernible realm for it to operate in. I propose that this is best advanced by creating an organization of organizations. There is precedent for this in the history of the Internationals. The First International drew unions and associations together and the Third communist parties, with both including local and national chapters. One immediate advantage is the avoidance of horizontalism, which obviously is a deeply problematic form in the context of struggle and counter-struggle. It is avoided since members are organizations, not individuals, and thus are differentiated by definition and, to a great degree, contain their own internal hierarchies (e.g., that between a member organization’s executive council versus general membership). What might be thought of as a league is not about coalitions and alliances but commitment to an overarching organization that has binding power, which thereby adds an additional organizational layer to the otherwise independent organizational life of any given organization-member.
The purpose of this league would be to always advance and coordinate all struggles-against-capitalism at all scales – whether that entails a socialist revolution, the appropriation of a factory in a Latin American town, a general strike, the expelling of an extractive corporation from a forest, or the mobilization of an anti-corporate bloc within an economistic union. It is distinct from bodies like a World Social Forum or from notions of a world party. It even is distinct from, although quite close to, an International (as it has appeared, historically) in that it would have fully constituted national and local leagues, not just chapters, and a nexus of organization across all scales focused on the praxis of struggle.
How to name such an entity is important. My sense is that a generic label is best, given the current ideological environment, and which finds expression in, for example, the embrace of the right by segments of the working class – especially in capitalism’s center, North America and Europe. The current ideological environment in the West departs from the historical precedents of relatively clearer lines between left, right, and center. How much of this is furthered by state intervention awaits detailed research, but such activities would be very consistent with the past. It is hard to imagine that even for the right of the past there could be a figure like Peter Theil, an active right-wing libertarian who founded the technology firm Palantir, which advances the security sector’s surveillance agenda. Nor would it be easy to find in left history the Linke-associated Sahra Wagenknecht, who advocates a form of left conservatism. These patterns, I believe, also reflect cross-developed overdetermination.32
Perhaps a name like the League for Human Freedom (LHF) should be sought (though I do not advocate this one per se), where the common theme is freedom from corporate power in all its forms. The advantage of this includes creating a focal point that applies across the global South and North, from the fight against Cargill and Blackrock in Brazil’s rainforests to John Deere and Amazon in the U.S. It also potentially cuts through the still-fluid ideological patchwork, especially as a theme that might resonate with some within the working-class segments tied to the right who are critical of corporate power. The aim would be to generalize that critical attitude beyond the limited view trumpeted by corporations, led by the far-right claiming – in the spirit of ideological confusion – the enemy is only “leftist corporations” like Google. A beginning here has already emerged in the book Tyranny, Inc. by rightist Sohrab Ahmari. Similarly, ideological work needs to be done around the limited conceptions of the state (“deep” or “corporate”) and of capitalists who can be identified as global. The point, as Lenin emphasized in Left-Wing Communism, is to go where the masses are (and I do not just mean “salting”), even in reactionary spaces, which today could entail engaging thinking (even about mundane issues regarding working-class life) without fear of being sullied by a “loutish-proletariat.”
Although there are elements that connect to left-wing populism (e.g., having a focal point like corporate power), this is not an argument for it per se. Populism is only one form of organization that might be included in the LHF, along with, for example, Leninist parties, socialist-oriented environmental groups, and labor unions. Coming back to dialectical-strategic praxis and counter-struggles, the left should gain some sway over what capitalism may see as the gray zones of contemporary struggles-against-capitalism and of ideology. As such, the left should preside over its own diversity and divisions and not leave them for capitalism to exploit – though the left will have to bear in mind the extremely likely attempt by capitalist power to draw the LHF into counter-struggle (e.g., helping generate “blueprints” for strategy or sites for infiltration and subterfuge). Once formed, the league must be many things and constantly in motion:; with layers of action, program, strategy, and leadership,; where what seems the tact one-year shifts or is recontextualized by a new wave of action and program. After all, seeking to dismantle corporate power raises many questions: how far to push on it and if, when, and how to raise what comes after (questions essential to class struggle and the road to socialism). But through all this, the discrete elements, actions, and programs need to make sense to everyone. Corporate power can be seen “as the particular link in the chain which you must grasp with all your might in order to hold the whole chain and to prepare firmly for the transition to the next link.”33 In so doing, the prospects for counter-struggle must be anticipated and built in from the start such that next steps include that knowledge along with the development of a new layer of action and anticipated counteraction.
However flawed some deem the extensive socialist world presence pre-1991 to have been, the left has never fully confronted in sustained and strategic terms what the gap entails for its struggle-against-capitalism – even though it has reflected on it across recent decades. Looking back to the pre-1917 world is constructive but insufficient, given how far capitalism and the relation between struggle and counter-struggle has progressed. Perhaps indicative of that difference is the absence of overarching, dialectical, historical frameworks along the lines of Kautsky, Trotsky or Mao. Instead, we have a diffusion and even splintering of framings (some inherited from a century past, others recently added), where attempts at new, overarching theories seem to join the overlapping ebb and flow of their predecessors.
Looking at strategy through the lens of the uneven-and-combined struggle-against-capitalism is not about establishing a new framework; nor does it pretend to be anything more than a potential starting point for thinking about filling post-1991 gaps. Above all, it should be seen, dialectically, as a proposed strategic response to a contemporary capitalism not only more overdetermined than ever, but now facing the pressures of potential geo-political upheaval – some pressures stemming from typically unavoidable longstanding historical patterns in the rise and fall of orders, and others from capitalism’s own doing.
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- Sources mentioned are relied on to directly advance the argument. Many relevant authors and works, historical or contemporary, cannot be discussed and cited given space limits. These sources include:
Badiou, Alain 2009, Theory of the Subject. London: Continuum.
Davis, Mike 2006, Planet of Slums, London: Verso.
Egan, Daniel 2016, The dialectic of Position and Maneuver: Understanding Gramsci’s Military Metaphor, London: Brill.
Foley, Simon 2021, Understanding Media Propaganda in the 21st Century: Manufacturing Consent Revisited and Revised, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Giordano, James 2017, “Battlescape Brain: Engaging Neuroscience in Defense Operations”, available at: https://hdiac.org/articles/battlescape-brain-engaging-neuroscience-in-defense-operations/
Hallward, Peter 2007, Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the politics of Containment, London: Verso.
Innis, Harold 1950, Empire and Communication, Toronto: Oxford University Press.
Kagan, Robert 2017, “The Twilight of the Liberal world Order”, available at: www.brookings.edu/research/the-twilight-of-the-liberal-world-order/
Kapusta, Philip 2015 “The Gray Zone”, White Paper prepared for United States Special Operations Command, available at: https://info.publicintelligence.net/USSOCOM-GrayZones.pdf
Kennard, Matt 2022, “Jeremy Corbyn on the Establishment Campaign to Stop Him Becoming PM”, available at: https://declassifieduk.org/exclusive-jeremy-corbyn-on-the-establishment-campaign-to-stop-him-becoming-pm/.
Klippenstein, Ken 2022 “Bank of America Memo, Revealed: “We Hope” Conditions for American Workers Will Get Worse”, The Intercept, available at: https://theintercept.com/2022/07/29/bank-of-america-worker-conditions-worse/
Latham, Robert 1997, The Liberal Moment: Modernity, Security, and the
Making of Postwar International Order, New York Columbia University Press.
Latham, Robert 2005, “Networks, Information, and the Rise of the Global Internet”, in Digital Formations: IT and New Architectures in the Global Realm, edited by Robert Latham and Saskia Sassen, pp.146-177, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Latham, Robert 2018, Contemporary Capitalism, Uneven Development, and the Arc of Anti-Capitalism, Global Discourse, 8, 2: 169–186
Latham, Robert 2022, “Organizing Anti-Capitalist Internationalism in Contemporary and Historical Perspective”, Rethinking Marxism, 34, 4.
Lenin, V.I. 1917, “Letters on Tactics, available at: www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/apr/x01.htm
Lenin, V.I. 1918, “The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government”, available at: www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/mar/x03.htm
Mao Zedong 1937, “On Contradiction”, available at: www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-1/mswv1_17.htm
Mott, Christopher 2022, “Woke Imperium”, available at: https://peacediplomacy.org/2022/06/27/woke-imperium-the-coming-confluence-between-social-justice-and-neoconservatism/
Petras, James 1999, “The CIA and the cultural Cold War revisited”, Monthly Review, 51: 47-56.
Postone, Moishe 1993, Time, Labor, and Social Domination, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Saunders, Frances 2013, The Cultural Cold war: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, New York: New Press.
Trotsky, Leon 2008, History of the Russian Revolution, Chicago:Haymarket Books.
U.S. Army War College 2011, “Information Operations Primer”, available at: https://cyberwar.nl/d/201111_info_ops_primer.pdf
Valentine, Douglas 2017, The CIA as Organized Crime: How Illegal Operations Corrupt America and the World, Atlanta: Clarity Press.
van der Pijl, Kees 2022, States of Emergency: Keeping the Global Population in Check, Atlanta: Clarity Press.
- I will also use the term counteraction to represent the broader effort to undermine and destroy threats (outside of conventional war) such as those associated with international and domestic terrorism.
- Kennard, 2022.
- I am leaving aside the use of the term “revolution” as a synonym for processes of transformation, which appears in historical analysis even on the left, including perhaps in Gramsci’s notion of passive revolution.
- What is needed are methods to assess such developments; however, addressing that is well beyond this essay’s scope.
- This is well-documented by the independent journalist, Valentine (2017, chapters 15-17). Valentine generally does an excellent job of conveying the range of counter-struggle anchored in the CIA, based on detailed interviews and document research.
- Davis, 2006, Epilogue.
- Hallward, 2007.
- van der Pijl 2022. Some readers will find some of his assertions controversial.
- Giordano, 2017, p. 3.
- A recent attempt to bring some of these factors together in propaganda and manufacturing consent terms is Foley, 2021.
- See, for example, U.S. Army War College, 2011.
- Latham, 1997, 128-29
- Mott, 2022, p. 2.
- Latham, 1997, Chapter 3.
- Kagen, 2017.
- Latham, 2018.
- Innis, 1950, 171-78.
- Latham, 2005.
- Mao, 1937.
- This is not inconsistent in my view with Mao’s notion, building on Lenin, of the identity and coexistence of contradictions, which by implication are not fatal to systems. Later, Deleuze and Guattari would point to something similar in their concept “territorialization.”
- Latham, 1997, 62-66.
- Klippenstein, 2022.
- Badiou 2009, page 140.
- Moishe Postone (1993, 76-77.) attempted to clarify Marx’s conception of capitalism as subject.
- In this sense, referring to older debates, the ruling class both rules and does not rule.
- Kapusta, 2015.
- Saunders, 2013. See the excellent review – Petras, 1999. – of the first edition, which supports the work but also criticizes it for not going far enough to situate the US effort regarding anti-socialism.
- A recent example is Egan, 2016. There are many others of note – such as David McNally, Paul Le Blanc and Charlie Post – whom I cannot take up here.
- Latham 2018, pp. 10-15.
- Trotsky, 2008, used this term frequently.
- There are connections here that could be made, in another context, to post-structural or post-truth perspectives – both, in my view, might be seen as expressions of the conditions associated with cross-developed overdetermination.
- Lenin 1918.