Let me say something, first, about Isaac Deutscher, not just in some ritual tribute for the occasion but because it seems appropriate to what I am going to say in my lecture and the spirit in which I intend to say it. footnote I did not know Isaac Deutscher, but I have formed a pretty strong impression of the kind of man he was, and the kind of political voice he represented; and it seems to me precisely the kind of voice we need a lot of now. Like many others, I have been impressed in particular by the stability and balance of his commitment to socialism—and I say stability quite deliberately, to convey not a stubborn dogmatism but, on the contrary, the kind of balanced, independent and critical judgment which allowed him, for example, to praise without apology the achievements and promise of the October Revolution while never disguising the horrors of its deformations, at a time when so many others were swinging wildly between blind worship and abject recantation of socialism altogether. Or the stability which kept him working as a Marxist intellectual through periods of muted class struggle, while so many others gave up and went off in pursuit of various intellectual and political fashions.

I think this stability had something to do with Deutscher’s measured vision of socialism, which recognized its promise for human emancipation without harbouring romantic illusions that it would cure all human ills, miraculously making people ‘free’, in Shelley’s words, ‘from guilt or pain’. He said once that socialism was not ‘evolution’s last and perfect product or the end of history, but in a sense only the beginning of history’. footnote1 It is just this kind of balanced judgment that we badly need today, and this means understanding not only the ways in which socialism is not the end of history, not the end of human emancipation, but also the ways in which it is the beginning. We also have to bring the same judgment to the means and agencies of socialist transformation as to its ends. Speaking to American students at the height of student activism in the 1960s, Deutscher delivered a not altogether welcome message: ‘You are effervescently active on the margin of social life, and the workers are passive right at the core of it. That is the tragedy of our society. If you do not deal with this contrast, you will be defeated.’ footnote2

It seems to me that a similar contrast is our tragedy right now; and we have to face with the same balance the fact that there are strong and promising emancipatory impulses at work, but that they may not be active at the core of capitalist society and may not free us from its oppressions. We too have to deal with this contrast or be defeated.

These issues are very much alive, especially because it is no longer taken for granted on the Left that the decisive battle for human emancipation will take place on the ‘economic’ terrain, the home ground of class struggle. For a great many people, the emphasis has shifted to struggles for what I shall call extra-economic goods—gender-emancipation, racial equality, peace, ecological health, democratic citizenship. Every socialist ought to be committed to these goals in themselves—in fact, the socialist project of class emancipation always has been, or should have been, a means to the larger end of human emancipation. But these commitments do not settle crucial questions about agencies and modalities of struggle, and they certainly do not settle the question of class politics. A great deal still needs to be said about the conditions for the achievement of these extra-economic goods. In particular, if our starting point is capitalism, then we need to know exactly what kind of starting point this is. What limits are imposed, and what possibilities created, by the capitalist regime, by its material order and its configuration of social power? What kinds of oppression does capitalism require, and what kinds of emancipation can it tolerate? In particular, what use does capitalism have for extra-economic goods, what encouragement does it give and what resistance does it put up to their attainment? and so on. I want to make a start on answering these questions, and as the argument develops I shall try to throw them into relief by making some comparisons with pre-capitalist societies.

Let me begin by saying that certain extra-economic goods are simply not compatible with capitalism, and I do not intend to talk about them. I am certain, for example, that capitalism cannot deliver world peace. It seems to me axiomatic that the expansionary, competitive and exploitative logic of capitalist accumulation in the context of the nation-state system must, in the longer or shorter term, be destabilizing, and that capitalism—and at the moment its most aggressive and adventurist organizing force, the government of the United States—is and will for the foreseeable future remain the greatest threat to world peace. Nor do I think that capitalism can avoid ecological devastation. It may be able to accommodate some degree of ecological care, especially when the technology of environmental protection is itself profitably marketable. But the essential irrationality of the drive for capital accumulation, which subordinates everything to the requirements of the self-expansion of capital and so-called growth, is unavoidably hostile to ecological balance. It has to be added, though, that the issues of peace and ecology are not very well suited to generating strong anti-capitalist forces. In a sense, the problem is their very universality. They do not constitute social forces because they simply have no specific social identity—or at least they have none except at the point where they intersect with class relations, as in the case of ecological issues raised by the poisoning of workers in the workplace, or the tendency to concentrate pollution and waste in working-class neighbourhoods rather than in privileged suburbs. But in the final analysis, it is no more in the interests of the capitalist than of the worker to be wiped out by a nuclear bomb or dissolved in acid rain. You might as well say that given the dangers of capitalism, no rational person should support it, but things simply do not work that way.

The situation with race and gender is almost the reverse. Anti-racism and anti-sexism do have specific social identities, and they can generate strong social forces. But it is not so clear that racial or gender equality are antagonistic to capitalism, or that capitalism cannot tolerate them as it cannot deliver world peace or respect the environment. Each of these extra-economic goods, then, has its own specific relation to capitalism, and each requires careful examination. Since time is limited, however, I shall make some very general preliminary points about race and gender to illustrate the ambiguity of capitalism in these respects, and then concentrate on the question of democracy, though I shall have more to say about some aspecs of gender oppression under that heading.

The first point about capitalism is that it is uniquely indifferent to the social identities of the people it exploits. This is a classic case of good news and bad news. First, the good news—more or less. Unlike previous modes of production, capitalist exploitation is not inextricably linked with extra-economic, juridical or political identities, inequalities or differences. The extraction of surplus value from wage-labourers takes place in a relationship between formally free and equal individuals and does not presuppose differences in juridical or political status. In fact, there is a positive tendency in capitalism to undermine such differences, and even to dilute identities like gender or race, as capital strives to absorb people into the labour market and to reduce them to interchangeable units of labour abstracted from any specific identity. On the other hand, capitalism is very flexible in its ability to make use of, as well as to discard, particular social oppressions. Part of the bad news is that capitalism is likely to co-opt whatever extra-economic oppressions are historically and culturally available in any given setting. Such cultural legacies can, for example, promote the ideological hegemony of capitalism by disguising its inherent tendency to create under-classes. When the least privileged sectors of the working class coincide with extraeconomic identities like gender or race, as they so often do, it may appear that the blame for the existence of these sectors lies with causes other than the necessary logic of the capitalist system. It is not, of course, a matter of some capitalist conspiracy to pull the wool over people’s eyes. For one thing, racism and sexism function so well in capitalist society partly because they can actually work to the advantage of certain sectors of the working class in the competitive conditions of the labour market. The point, though, is that if capital derives advantages from racism or sexism, it is not because of any structural tendency in capitalism toward racial inequality or gender oppression, but on the contrary because they disguise the structural realities of the capitalist system and because they divide the working class. At any rate, capitalist exploitation can in principle be conducted without any consideration for colour, race, creed, gender, any dependence upon extra-economic inequality or difference; and more than that, the development of capitalism has created ideological pressures against such inequalities and differences to a degree with no precedent in pre-capitalist societies.