by Erik van Ree
Measured against the number of those who called themselves his followers, and given the speed with which these “Marxists” after 1917 laid hands on a substantial part of the globe, Karl Marx, in death if not in life, was one of the most successful people that ever lived. He falls in the category of conquerors, Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, or of religious prophets with the stature of Jesus of Nazareth and Mohammed. The spectacular collapse of much of the communist world, of course, substantially detracts from Marx’s posthumous success, but it doesn’t annul “Marxism’s” earlier triumphs.
Marx’s twentieth-century followers reconfigured his ideas (as far as these were available to them at all) to the point of unrecognisability. The fact that both Pol Pot and Mikhail Gorbachev could wrap themselves in the master’s flag speaks volumes. But the fact remains that on whatever grounds and with whatever degree of justification, dozens of millions worldwide, on an historically rather abrupt time scale, began to call themselves “Marxists”. We follow Karl Marx.
Why did these millions make this person their emblem? The question has no easy answer, if only because Marx’s worldwide success is part of the larger question of why communism, Marxist or not, for a time became the world’s wave of the future. The fact that the radically estranged twins, social democracy and communism, made spectacular strides in the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, as such, surely, has little to do with anything Karl Marx ever did or wrote. But why did so many socialists precisely select him and not, for example, Ferdinand Lassalle, Mikhail Bakunin or any other well-known radical onto whom to project their hopes and aspirations?
I know why I did. If I remember correctly, I regarded myself as a Marxist from the age of eighteen. Undergoing a rapid process of radicalisation, I served as a member of various Maoist groups in the Netherlands between 1973 and 1981. In the wake of this experience I lost my sympathies not only for the Chairman but also for the alleged founder of the movement, Karl Marx. But I do remember what attracted me to him. My first political love as a youth was anarchism. What, in my imagination, made Marx so much more attractive was the way he managed to combine radical combativeness, also found in anarchism, with a sober, scientific perspective.
Obviously, personal experiences of half a century ago represent nothing more than that—one person’s history. But not only do memories and experiences inevitably colour any researcher’s work, they may even be quite helpful in formulating hypotheses. I believe with Karl Popper that, as long as hypotheses are testable, their original inspiration can never be held against them.
What, then, did Marx have to offer potential “followers”? He was, I believe, one of the modern era’s great visionaries. Marx was a man of unusually broad interests and activities, engaging as he did in philosophy, economics, law, political analysis, journalism, and radical activism. What made him stand out among other potential world-level socialist gurus was the breadth and enormous diversity and scope of his vision, the extraordinarily multifaceted quality of his work, potentially appealing to people living in very different kinds of societies and of very different social position, views and temperament.
The literature about Marx’s life and thought is so extensive that it is impossible to oversee even for researchers who have dedicated their whole life to the subject, a category the present author does not belong to. But it seems to me that the main existing academic interpretations of Karl Marx insufficiently bring out what made this man special and fascinating to so many people. I find four interpretations of Marx of special interest and interpretive power, even though I do not feel completely comfortable with any of them.
The first, Social Democratic Marx is to be met, for example, in Geoff Eley’s Forging Democracy. This Marx recognised the futility of Blanquist secret societies and insurrectionary committees, while instead embracing the model of the political party of the working class. Marxist Social Democratic parties wisely made good use of their parliamentary positions. This Marx furthermore made socialism dependent on the material conditions created by industrial capitalism, thus altogether ruling out proletarian revolution outside the industrialised world. Wolfgang Leonhard was one authoritatively (and quite rigidly) to characterise Marx thus, back in 1962. That Marx predicated proletarian revolution upon the conditions of developed industrialism has become something of an established truth. Recently the thesis was repeated, for example, by Terry Eagleton and Steve Paxton.
Social Democratic Marx was, furthermore, a radical democrat. If he sporadically referred to the “dictatorship of the proletariat” he was merely referring to the rule of the working class, i.e. to majority rule.
The second, Revolutionary Marx was a Bolshevik avant la lettre. This frame is less well represented in the academic literature but is certainly not to be ignored. Central in Michael Löwy’s reading of the insurrectionist Marx is the “permanent revolution”. Löwy’s Marx accepted that, in principle, proletarian-socialist revolution was doomed to remain a fantasy without a preceding, protracted stage of capitalist development and/or a bourgeois revolution. However, Marx nurtured some “brilliant but unsystematised intuitions” to the effect that the proletariat might yet induce a “telescoped sequence” compressing the two stages into one and seizing power before the bourgeoisie had completed its historical task.
Reidar Larsson perceptively observes that, when between 1846 and 1852 Marx was creating strategies for proletarian revolution in Germany and France these countries were still industrially backward themselves. According to Larsson, Marx believed that by the 1840s, capitalism, even if still underdeveloped, yet had reached the limit of its capacity for development, which is what made the proletarian revolution timely even then.
Even if I personally find the Revolutionary reading of Marx more convincing than the Social Democratic one, both readings are convincing enough, referring us as they do to different aspects of Marx’s thinking and practice.
Alvin Gouldner’s attractive thesis of “The Two Marxisms” is built on the idea of two spirits coexisting in Marx’s breast, both real, the one objectivist, relying on historical-economic laws, and the other voluntarist and emphasising human agency. Gouldner leaves open the question of whether Marx’s ambivalent ideas were irreducibly fragmented or, perhaps, expressive of some deeper coherence. The great merit of his work from my point of view lies in clearly establishing the multifaceted, diverse quality of Marx’s thinking.
The third Marx, Man of the Nineteenth Century, was born in 2013. Biographer Jonathan Sperber reads Marx’s life and thought as the product of an era impressed with the French Revolution, philosophically coloured by G.W.F. Hegel, and shaken out of balance by early industrialisation. This biographer sidesteps the whole question of the possible influence of Marx’s ideas on the modern world, as essentially irrelevant.
Sperber’s focus on what caused “Marxism” rather than on what it brought about seems to echo Quentin Skinner’s suggestion that historians do better to explore what authors meant to convey and achieve in their own times, than to lose themselves in imaginary, universal, and timeless elements of these authors’ ideas beyond their context of origination. But, then again, irrespective of what historians may believe, millions of others did think that Marx’s ideas were worth following, and they patterned their actions on what they believed were his guiding thoughts. Even if they may have been misrepresenting these thoughts, we must discover the secret of their extraordinary attractiveness.
Finally, the fourth, Demystified Marx, created by Terrell Carver, was an activist journalist locked in everyday life. His “thinking” was valuable enough, even for radicals today, but it was action-oriented and lacked the academic rigour even to be called a “thought”. Most of Marx’s more theoretical writings were never published in his lifetime and were mere messy fragments without much coherence or consistency. After Marx’s death in 1883 an everyday activist was souped-up into the great, world-class philosopher that he never was.
It seems to me that Carver does the thinker Marx less than complete justice. Even if, for example, The German Ideology (1845–6) was never more than a collection of fragments, to my mind that doesn’t change much. Even as fragments the texts remain fascinating and contain insights of great theoretical and sociological interest.
Marx’s posthumous fame rested on his ideas, compressed into theories, rather than on any activist achievements. His less than spectacular activities for the Communist League and the First International had little to offer the creators of his cult. Friedrich Engels, Karl Kautsky, Georgy Plekhanov and the others, framed Marx as the creator of their doctrine, not as their original super-activist or exemplary underground fighter. That returns us to the question of what it was in these ideas that attracted so many.
Marx For All
Marx’s intuitive genius, which after his death made his name victorious for a time, consisted in an uncanny ability to combine what seemed uncombinable and to spread his wings to the maximum. While he vigorously denied that he was a utopian, he assuredly was one. In the new communist world envisioned by him all means of production would be socialised under self-managing democratic communes; the state and the great societal divisions of labour would be overcome; scarcity itself would be overcome, and with it money, ending in a condition where all would receive according to their needs. Marx countered accusations of utopianism by offering proofs that the new communist order was inscribed in history by the sociological laws he had discovered. He thought of himself as a man of science.
It doesn’t really matter whether Marx’s philosophical exploits were of sufficient stature to call him a philosopher; or whether Das Kapital is to be regarded as a scientific or as a metaphysical work, whether on our present standards or on those of 1867. What matters here is only that Marx projected an image of himself as a scientist.
Whether we call it “Marxism” or not, what Marx worked out represented an unusually attractive proposition, appealing to those caught in the romantic allure of communist utopianism as much as to the less euphoric radical attracted to science and rationality. This pattern of balance repeats itself over and over again.
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx called out the proletariat for the battle of democracy. In his comments on the Paris Commune he embraced radical participatory democracy. But Marx also accepted the need of repressive measures to ward off “slave-owners’ rebellions” against the victorious proletariat, while over the years, together with Engels, referring to a future “dictatorship of the proletariat”. The power of Marx’s formula rested precisely in this ambivalence. Both radical democrats and those temperamentally inclined to harsh measures and dictatorship could feel represented by him. Not surprisingly, Social Democrats and Bolsheviks alike were happy to recognise this man as their founder.
Again, if Marx insisted that communism can strike root only in highly-developed industrial societies, he did not in fact rule out proletarian revolution in backward countries, thus accommodating socialists both from advanced, industrial and from economically backward nations.
Marx represented modern capitalism as a system of exploitation of wage-labour resulting in the gradual pauperisation of the industrial workers. The notion of “surplus value”, produced by the workers but appropriated by the capitalist class, possesses great mobilising power in conditions where exploitation and poverty reign. But Marx’s conceptual apparatus was encompassing enough to allow his followers to cast their nets far beyond these conditions. The concepts of “alienation” and “commodity fetishism” allowed later Marxists to remain in business to critique conditions in prosperous, post-industrial consumer societies, a form of society not even in existence in Marx’s own lifetime.
The question remains of how to define the structure of Marx’s thought. How did Marx himself deal with his own thinking’s remarkably wide range and its concomitant ambivalence and contradictoriness? Where all these many ambivalent elements somehow welded together into an overarching intellectual structure, or were the contradictions indeed irreducible? Was there a system in Marx at all?
There was surely not, insofar as his views on philosophy, history, politics, and economics do not hang together logically, but are best seen as separate endeavours. But it does not follow that he would not have been bothered by obvious inconsistencies and incoherence.
Marx’s preoccupations shifted. Whereas the “Young Marx” was preoccupied with the problem of alienation, that theme later receded into the background, with the question of exploitation taking centre stage. But shifting interests are a far cry from contradiction. Marx regarded exploitation and alienation as the two downsides of the same coin of any social order based on private ownership, division of labour and the state. “Marxism” can, then, easily be framed as a single theoretical perspective speaking to the two conditions of exploitation and consumerism.
It does not seem to have bothered Marx overly much that many of his extraordinary insights remained mere attempts, false starts, and fragments. Nobody stopped him from working out a formal definition of “class”, a crucial concept in his work. Marx could easily have accomplished that task, but he never did. Neither did he work out theories of the state or the nation, entities he wrote about all the time. Even his expositions of what came to be called “historical materialism” remained few and far between, and they were formulated loosely, sometimes downright sloppily, and in very general terms. Not a system builder, then.
But this is not the whole story. Das Kapital follows a carefully crafted, deductive plan, based on clear and unequivocal definitions of “value”. Marx was immensely proud about his “discovery” that workers sell not their “labour” but their “labour power”, a conclusion that made his system logically flawless and allowed him to deduce “surplus value”. His argument that the expropriation of surplus value, i.e. capitalist exploitation, is based on equal exchange between workers and capitalists betrays great logical elegance. Marx was certainly not uninterested in coherence across the board. Achieving it could even be an obsession.
All my three recent articles on Marx touch on the problem of coherence. They discuss, respectively, “permanent revolution”; Marx’s racism, which I argue was substantial and to a point theoretically grounded; and his views on the human passions as drivers of the developing productive forces and of revolution.
My particular interest goes out to such elements in Marx’s work as might be regarded as marginal but which on a closer look were significant. I find it especially interesting to explore how and if Marx made such eccentricities consistent with his other views more familiar to us, i.e. the problem of coherence.
In exploring a historical personality’s thought, my primary interest goes out to its structure, how and to what degree it all hangs together—if at all. I realise that “finding coherence” not only carries the risk of finding what one seeks but also goes against the grain: the spirit of the times is rather about finding incoherence. Those affected with the postmodern sensitivity take pleasure in demonstrating that the apparent order we discover in theoretical structures really exists only the eye of the beholder. With the postmodern primacy of language and the discarding of the author as centred subject, the coherence-seeking thinker becomes a deeply counter-intuitive proposition. Postmodernity echoes the Buddhist view of the mind as a loose collection of fragments only weakly monitored by an illusionary sense of self.
On the contrary, I work under the assumption that the individual mind to a point is centred and will attempt to hold the fragments together to avoid disintegration. This is never more than a hypothesis. Sometimes I have to admit defeat; as when, after much fruitless puzzling, I had to conclude that, whether the elderly Joseph Stalin’s political philosophy was more of the Marxist or of the Russian-patriot cast was a question he did not know the answer to any more than we do.
Permanent Revolution, Race, the Passions
Back to Marx. In Löwy’s reading, “permanent revolution” is a highly significant element of Marx’s thought, but at basis remains an alien body. Capitalism must run its course. It must create a developed industrial infrastructure and must have exhausted its capacity for development for conditions of proletarian revolution to become mature. In economically backward conditions proletarian revolution is, then, at best, an odd occurrence—something that really couldn’t happen.
Löwy solves the problem by assuming that Marx believed the capitalist and socialist stages exceptionally could be “telescoped” into one. But even then, the revolution must be saved from certain doom by revolutions in other, more developed nations. On this reading, Marx’s permanent revolution remains a very conditional, messy, and ad hoc proposition, inspired by revolutionary impatience.
I believe there was considerably more logic and consistency to Marx’s revolutionism. As Larsson argues, in the 1840s Marx was under the impression that, even if industrialisation in most European nations, at best, was only beginning, crisis-prone capitalism had already lost its capacity for developing the productive forces much further. Fifty years later, in 1895, Engels admitted that he and Marx had made that mistaken appraisal.
So, Marx’s expectations of proletarian revolution in backward Germany and France did in fact not run counter to his stated view that capitalism must first run its course. Capitalism had run its course! And now that the bourgeoisie had lost its capacity to create the industrial infrastructure necessary for a communist economy, it was only logical for the proletariat to assume that responsibility and take over. “Permanent revolution” did not run counter to Marx’s insights about capitalism and the productive forces; rather, it seems logically to follow from them.
As for Marx’s racist views, he and with some different accents Engels too, worked under the assumption that human “races” differ in their inherited talents. Some races possess more excellence than others. Inherited differences in mental make-up between human races supposedly were caused by several factors, such as the soil on which people live; nutrition patterns; hybridisation; and—the Lamarckian hypothesis—adaptation to the environment and the heredity of acquired characteristics. Marx and Engels not infrequently stooped to derogatory and degrading characterisations of nations and races for whom had a low appreciation.
Marx’s racism is acknowledged and deplored in the existing literature, but authors tend to read it as a strange anomaly incompatible with Marx’s overall system and, therefore, as an embarrassment rather than a fundamental shortcoming of his thought.
This is hard to maintain. As Marx and Engels saw it, systems of production are rooted in certain “natural conditions”—geological, climatic, and so on. Race represents one of these conditions, referring as it does to the quality of the human material. The inherited mental faculties of races, whether excellent or shoddy, help determine whether these races manage to develop their economies successfully.
But, crucially, this does not undo or even affect the dependence of “superstructural” phenomena on economic infrastructures. Race is simply not about the relationship between these two great societal spheres. In Marx’s own imagination the race factor added a dimension of understanding to how or if economies come to flourish, but without in any way affecting the deterministic order of his economic materialism, running from the economy to state and political institutions. No incoherence here.
Something similar was the case with Marx’s remarkable views about the passions, which I have explored for the early years 1841 to 1846. In my interpretation of the philosophical fragments written in these years, Marx cast humanity as a productive force driven by creative passions: an impassioned productive force. If this reading is correct, this helps us understand why Marx assumed that economic and technological productive forces manifest an inherent tendency to accumulate and improve: it is because we passionately want them to. Conversely, it also helps explain why Marx believed productive stagnation makes revolution inevitable: humanity is too passionate a being to accept being slowed down. Marx’s “materialist” scheme of productive forces and relations of production, then, was predicated upon an essentially psychological hypothesis, a formula of materialised desire and subjectivity.
And once again, no incoherence here: the hypothesis of a creative, passionate urge fuelling the productive forces in no way conflicts with the “materialist” assumption of a chain of causation running from stagnating productive forces to the emergence of new relations of production to a new political and ideological order.
Marx had remarkable integrative gifts; he was the master of combining the uncombinable. He managed to keep many of his wide-ranging intuitions, running in so many different directions, together in a single frame. Even if that frame often was incomplete and formulated in ramshackle ways, yet he managed to avoid all too glaring inconsistencies and keep a degree of underlying logic intact.
Does Marx have a future? There is much to suggest that he doesn’t and that the days of his posthumous success are finally over. Whether or not “actually-existing” communism reflected his ideas and ideals, its collapse and discreditation might be impossible for Marx’s ghost to recover from.
Some deep processes have further contributed to Marxism’s demise. Marx’s core business was the industrial proletariat and the class struggle. But contrary to his predictions, the manual workers’ share in the industrialised world’s labour force sharply decreased in the second half of the twentieth century. What is more, far from becoming impoverished, the relatively small class of manual workers became spectacularly better off. Newly industrialising countries likely will manifest the same pattern. The new “precariat” of marginal and not well-off workers, often consisting of ethnically-mixed migrant populations, are more difficult to organise than the old proletariat concentrated in large factories. Marxism’s consolidated proletarian basis has, then, largely fallen away.
Marxism thrived, too, on national-liberation struggles. National emancipation was an ambition Marx could sympathise with, even if never in a principled way. But he did support German, Italian, Hungarian, Polish, and other struggles for democracy and state independence. Not only class warriors, twentieth-century national-liberation warriors, too, could relate to him. However, with the end of colonialism the heydays of national-liberation wars are now long over.
There is an end even to Marx’s scope. Present-day activists have a hard time reconnecting with him. In the new post-modern condition, emancipatory struggles have shifted towards issues of gender, sexual preference, race, ethnicity and religion, and, importantly, the environment—themes Marx’s voluminous works have little if any positive connection with. The new times have at last begun to make the man irrelevant.
This is how things look now. But I am not absolutely convinced that Marx is irretrievably on the way out.
The structural downsides of capitalism are such that, even if we regard that system as a lesser evil compared to communism, critiques of its downsides will continue to be formulated. Those interested in the more radical critiques of capitalism will unavoidably pick up Marx, still the most radical critic of that system available on the market of ideas. The theory of “surplus value” allows Marx to argue that capitalism exploits wage labour not because of any particularly atrocious excesses but quite irrespective of wage and working conditions. Wage labour is exploitation (and alienation). Marx was all for reforms, but in his book, reforms change nothing in capitalism’s exploitative and alienation-producing nature. That the theoretical basis of this uniquely radical critique of capitalism, the “labour theory of value”, is an empirically untestable, metaphysical construction hardly matters: stranger things have been believed.
Whether Marxism will ever make a comeback depends on now unpredictable changing circumstances that would refocus global radical activism to once again target capitalist, rather than, for example, racist or patriarchal structures. Should that happen, Marx’s rediscovery as radical guide is likely. Marx’s ghost is waiting for us in the wings, happy and ready once more to offer us his services.
 Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (London, New York: Routledge, 2005), 7–9.
 Geoff Eley, Forging Democracy. The History of the Left in Europe, 1850–2000 (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), chapter 2. For a similar interpretation, see for example: Gary P. Steenson, After Marx, Before Lenin. Marxism and Socialist Working-Class Parties in Europe, 1884–1914 (London: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991), 20–1.
 Wolfgang Leonhard, Sowjetideologie heute, vol. 2, Die politischen Lehren (/Frankfurt M., Hamburg: Fischer Bücherei, 1962), 106.
 Terry Eagleton, Why Marx was Right (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 2011), 16; Steve Paxton, Unlearning Marx. Why the Soviet Failure was a Triumph for Marx (Winchester, Washington: Zero Books, 2021), chapter 1.
 See: Eley, 2002, 40, 509. Though emphasising the significance of the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” in Marx’s work, Hal Draper agrees that that it signified nothing more than “rule of the proletariat”: The “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” from Marx to Lenin (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1987), 22–7.
 Michael Löwy, The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development. The Theory of Permanent Revolution (London: Verso, 1981), 189.
 Ibid., 7–8.
 Ibid., chapter 1.
 Reidar Larsson, Theories of Revolution. From Marx to the First Russian Revolution (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1970), 9–11, 24–31.
 Alvin W. Gouldner, The Two Marxisms. Contradictions and Anomalies in the Development of Theory (London, Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1980).
 Jonathan Sperber, Karl Marx. A Nineteenth-Century Life (New York, London: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2013), introduction.
 Quentin Skinner (1969), “Meaning and understanding in the history of ideas”, History and Theory, 8(1): 3–53.
 Terrell Carver, Marx (Cambridge, Medford: Polity Press, 2018).
 On The German Ideology see: Terrell Carver (2010), “The German Ideology never took place”, History of Political Thought, 31(1): 107–27.
 For the creation of the Marx cult and “Marxism”: Christina Morina, Die Erfindung des Marxismus. Wie eine Idee die Welt eroberte (München: Siedler, 2017).
 Erik van Ree (2013), “Marxism as permanent revolution”, History of Political Thought, 34(3), 540–63; “Marx and Engels’s theory of history: making sense of the race factor”, (2019) Journal of Political Ideologies, 24(1), 54–73; (2020) “Productive forces, the passions and natural philosophy: Karl Marx, 1841–1846”, Journal of Political Ideologies, 25(3), 274–93.
 Erik van Ree, The Political Thought of Joseph Stalin. A Study in Twentieth-Century Revolutionary Patriotism (London, New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002), 282.
 1895 introduction to “Class struggles in France”, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, vol. 27, Engels: 1890–95 (New York: International Publishers, 1990), 512.
 van Ree, 2013. More on the permanent revolution in Marx: Erik van Ree, Boundaries of Utopia – Imagining Communism from Plato to Stalin (London, New York: Routledge, 2015), chapter 5.
 See for example: Roman Rosdolsky, Engels and the “Nonhistoric” Peoples. The National Question in the Revolution of 1848 (Glasgow: Critique Books, 1986), especially chapter 8; Michael Löwy, Fatherland or Mother Earth? Essays on the National Question (London, Sterling: Pluto Press, 1998), 23–7; Kevin B. Anderson, Marx at the Margins. On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies (Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press, 2010), 52 and passim.
 See for this argumentat in more detail: van Ree, 2019.
 See for these conclusions: van Ree, 2020.
by Fernando Lizárraga
When pursuing the clarification of socialism’s core concepts, according to the methodology advocated by Michael Freeden for the study of political ideologies, equality stands out as one of the undisputed ideas on that complex, variegated, and often quarrelling tradition. The other key concepts or conceptual themes that form the kernel of socialism are, according to Freeden, “the constitutive nature of the human relationship, human welfare as a desirable objective, human nature as active, … and history as the arena of (ultimately) beneficial change”. The method leading to this list involves a particular understanding of political ideologies which differs from the usual approach taken by political theory or political philosophy. It requires a thorough study into the main currents of socialism—not only of the Marxist version—and the specification of the relevant concepts through a process of decontestation. The research aimed at specifying those core concepts is also necessary when it comes to depicting the ideas that comprise the adjacencies and periphery of the socialist ideology. There is a particular difficulty that arises when looking into socialism’s morphology, namely, the fact that socialism is both a critique of capitalist society and also a project of a society yet to be brought about: “unlike conservatism, or even mainstream forms of liberalism, socialism is peculiarly prone to a dual temporal existence. It is centrally founded on a critique of the present, yet significantly projected onto a future of which there is as yet little empirical evidence”. This second aspect demands a “leap of faith and imagination”—to use Freeden’s expression. By and large, the self-awareness of socialism—as an ideology containing at the same time a dominant scientific side and a subordinate utopian (normative) dimension—faded away in the face of different dogmatisms promoted by socialist states. But with the collapse of the socialist bloc, there emerged a need for a revision and updating of key elements of the tradition.
Recent scholarship about socialism has largely benefited from the impact of John Rawls’s liberal egalitarianism on several fields of the social sciences and the humanities. After a reckoning of the ethical deficit caused by an extended belief in the scientific prowess of Marxism, a good number of socialist thinkers and activists admitted the need for a normative turn. This is not to deny, of course, the existence of a deep-seated ethical current in Socialism, as it is evident in the works of Eduard Bernstein, R. H. Tawney, G. D. H. Cole, amongst others, but only to highlight the fact that, because of the mainly Marxist anti-moralism, normative work was demeaned and considered powerless in the face of the anticipatory prodigies of historical materialism. This year will mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of A Theory of Justice, and the shockwaves of Rawlsianism are still highly influential. Discussion of the core concepts of socialism, from a normative perspective, have gained a promising place within academia and also within grassroots organisations. Shortly after the turn of the millennium, Alex Callinicos, in his Anti-capitalist Manifesto, advocated a specific form or socialist democracy that embodies four key values of an anti-systemic program: justice, efficiency, democracy, and sustainability, where justice embraces ideals such as liberty, equality, and solidarity. A recent entry on “Socialism” by Pablo Gilabert and Martin O’Neill for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy singles out equality, democracy, individual freedom, self-realisation, and community or solidarity as paramount values of this tradition. As we can see in these two examples, together with Freeden’s construal, the proposed lists of core concepts do not fully match with each other but have one striking coincidence: equality.
This quick exercise seems to support Norberto Bobbio’s famous statement about equality being the Pole Star of the left, as opposed to the anti-egalitarian right. More important, though, is the acknowledgement that values matter to socialism and Marxism in particular, and that it was a shortcoming to eschew any talk of ethical principles, fearfully avoiding a collapse into what Marx and Engels described as petty utopianism. One must only be thankful that this anti-utopianism was not understood as an outright rejection of utopia altogether. So, in defiance of Marx and Engels’s strictures against moral theory, important varieties of moral thinking emerged within the socialist purview, and a strain of ethical socialism came around in the second half of the nineteenth century, paving the way for the post-Rawlsian normative turn. Although the name of Ethical Socialism normally refers to a group of thinkers and activists of the late 1800s in the United Kingdom, it had outstanding representatives in other parts of the world. William Jupp, John Trevor, Thomas Davidson, and Edward Carpenter were key representatives of British ethical socialism. The last two are of particular importance since they were deeply influenced by American Romanticism and immanentism, especially by the works of Henry Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
In the United States, a provincial writer destined to become an almost involuntary political protagonist of the Gilded Age, Edward Bellamy, can be counted as one of the few who, despite the widespread dismissal of utopias, decidedly resorted to this genre—inherent to socialist critique and history—to carry out a double task: to cast a harsh indictment on capitalism as a predatory and unjust system, and to advance a vernacular conception of egalitarianism, which was the most cunning way to bring socialism and Marxist themes to the American public. He was also under the influence of American immanentism, transcendentalism, and the experiences of intentional utopian communities such as the famous Fourierist Brook Farm in Massachusetts. Bellamy’s ideas had a profound impact on the organised labor movement, especially among the Knights of Labor. Eugene Debs, founder of the Socialist Party in the United States, revealed that he became a socialist thanks to Bellamy and even met with the writer in his last days. Daniel De Leon, too, is said to have started his revolutionary career under “Bellamy’s inspiration”; and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the leading feminist activist and writer, was also a prominent member of the Bellamyist movement. John Dewey famously wrote that Bellamy was “A Great American Prophet”, and remarked that “what Uncle Tom’s Cabin was to the anti-slavery movement, Bellamy’s book may well be to the shaping of popular opinion for a new social order”. In short, and in keeping with the morphological approach, I find it plausible to hold that Edward Bellamy’s condemnation of capitalism and the account of the alternative egalitarian society he advocated are founded one a thick idea of equality which, at the same time, involves an outright rejection of the principle of self-ownership. This last rejection, I also sustain, must be either counted as a component of equality as a core idea of socialism or as an adjacent but necessary concept that contributes to making sense of the kind of egalitarianism espoused by Bellamy and, to a large degree, by contemporary egalitarian socialists.
It must be noted that the principle of self-ownership, first conceived by John Locke, constitutes the founding tenet of contemporary libertarianism. In its most usual rendition, the principle says that individuals have over themselves the same kind of rights that a master has over a chattel slave and, by implication, those who enjoy self-ownership cannot, as a matter of right, be forced to help others through personal service or any other mandatory scheme of redistribution. Bellamy’s opposition to self-ownership must be understood in the context of his life-long advocacy for egalitarianism, as it is conveyed in his most famous utopian novels: Looking Backward 2000-1887 (1888), and Equality (1897). Such opposition—as I will explain—was founded on the idea of the common ancestry of humankind, on the belief that each person has ha debt to society and past generations; and most importantly, on the notion that it is “fraudulent” to believe that individuals deserve and fully own their natural and social endowments and owe nothing to each other. Looking Backward was one of the most significant literary works in the late 1800s in the United States. It sold millions of copies in a few years and was translated into several languages. The plot, as it normally happens in utopias, is a setting for the development of theoretical propositions. Bellamy uses a time-travelling scheme in which the main character falls into mesmerised sleep in 1887 only to wake up 113 later in his home city, Boston, which in the Year 2000 is part of a perfectly egalitarian society. Julian West, the protagonist, learns about the institutions and ethos of the new world in dialogue with his host, Dr Leete, a retired physician, and his daughter Edith. The sequel of Looking Backward, Equality, is a lengthier description of this new society. Bellamy gained almost immediate international recognition and country-wide acclaim, to the point that he became a keynote speaker for many associations, wrote extensively in his own newspaper, The New Nation, and, eventually, the Nationalist Party was created to advance Bellamy’s ideas. Nationalism, it must be said, was the name Bellamy adopted for his proposal, in an attempt to avoid the word socialism which was associated with violence and social unrest in the wake of the Haymarket Massacre and the mass strikes of the 1870s.
An in-depth exploration into Bellamy’s rejection of self-ownership reveals that such a stance is an integral part of his particular form of radical egalitarianism. The writer from Chicopee Falls (Massachusetts) thought that some of the dominant currents of socialism of his time were not radical enough as to how far they were prepared to push in the direction of equality. He thought that Fabians were too attached to the mechanism of retribution according to contribution, whereas Marxists allowed personal assets to have undue influence on distributive matters. These critiques of other varieties of socialism were the basis of his own understanding of equality. Bellamy considered equality to be the only relevant moral relationship between persons. From this uncompromising stance, he mounted a full criticism of the notion of self-ownership and propounded a strong egalitarian principle: “From each, equally; to each equally”. The institutional arrangements of the utopian society that Dr Leete presents to Julian West are carefully designed and crafted to meet this extremely high standard, without giving in to the annulment of singularity or individual tastes.
It is well known that William Morris’s News From Nowhere (1890) is a direct response to Bellamy’s vision, from an anarchistic and pastoral perspective, as opposed to the industrialist and somewhat highly regulated Bellamian society. Morris wrote a critical review in which he remarked that Looking Forward should be “considered seriously” but not taken as a “socialist Bible”. He thought that Bellamy only wanted to get rid of the ills of modern life, without changing that life altogether. He described the utopian system as State Communism, criticised its severe discipline, its industrialism, the major role of great cities, and the limited conception of work as productive activity dissociated from pleasure and creativity. But the core of Morris’s critique was aimed at Bellamy’s peaceful “economical semi-fatalism” that lead to the egalitarian society instead of a conscious struggle for a “free and equal life”.
Even though Bellamy does not reply to Morris’s review, many of these objections seem to have shaped the more nuanced portrayal of the utopian society in Equality and other writings. At the same time, he comes up with a more straightforward rebuttal of self-ownership. So, when writing in The New Nation, he contends that it would be a “fraudulent” principle that which “would assume that an individual owns himself and has a valid title to the full usufruct of his powers without incumbrance or obligation on account of his debt to the past and his duties toward the social organism of which he is a part”. At the same time, alongside a handful of acute arguments against increasing social inequalities and an outright indictment of monopoly capitalism, Bellamy pulls off a brilliant case against the entailment of the principle of self-ownership which forbids someone from lending assistance to others unless it is done by a consented interpersonal contract. In Equality, he contends that under capitalism it is accepted that “everyone is entitled to … the result of his abilities” and that this is plainly wrong because “they would naturally acquire advantages over others in wealth seeking as in other ways”. Since he thought that abilities and the capacity for effort were due to the mere chance of birth, Bellamy ruled out the claim that the better endowed had a rightful claim over the advantages they could muster by using those undeserved talents. Therefore, it was the mission of social institutions to keep these inequalities from arising. It is easy to see that Bellamy was advancing similar arguments to those that, in the early 1970s, John Rawls used to build his monumental theory of justice as fairness.
If Rawls springs up in this account of Bellamy’s thought, it is because, in my view, they represent a deep-seated egalitarian trend both in American political thought and, more importantly, in the socialist tradition. The egalitarianism of Bellamy and Rawls, as noted before, is part of a rich ethical tradition that overcame the staunch anti-moralism of the more orthodox Marxist versions of socialism. Rawls spent two years in Oxford, at a time when G. D. H. Cole, who thought of Bellamy as a mere “populariser of other men’s ideas”, was teaching about utopian socialism; when the Labour Party was divided between friends and adversaries of public ownership; and when Tawney’s new edition of Equality rekindled the debate over and against equality of opportunity, as he advocated a kind of relational egalitarianism that despised the crude distributive view marked by “details of the countinghouse”. Without openly calling themselves socialists, both Rawls and Bellamy were no foes of socialism. On the contrary, Bellamy was convinced that his egalitarian model was even more radical than any socialist program of his time, and Rawls repeatedly emphasised that his theory of justice as fairness can be realised under a system of liberal or democratic socialism. Rawls believed “that the choice between a private-property economy and socialism is left open; from the standpoint of the theory of justice alone, various basic structures would appear to satisfy its principles”. Moreover, after dismissing laissez-faire capitalism, welfare-state capitalism, and state socialism as incompatible with his principles of justice as fairness, he asserted that “property-owning democracy and liberal socialism [in] their ideal descriptions include arrangements designed to satisfy the two principles of justice”.
In Bellamy and Rawls we can see proof of that "dual temporal existence" of Socialism identified by Freeden. As already mentioned, socialism encompasses both a critique of the present and a projection into the future. Bellamy chose the utopian genre to accomplish both tasks; Rawls, in the same spirit, called his otherwise unadorned and formal theory a “realistic utopia”. Above all, both political thinkers were adamant in rejecting self-ownership as part and parcel of their egalitarian views. It should come as no surprise that the first systematic challenge to Rawls was launched from within the liberal tradition, in the guise of the libertarian theory of Robert Nozick, whose endorsement of self-ownership leads to a form of rugged anti-egalitarianism. To sum up: I understand that self-ownership has no place in a radical egalitarian version of socialism and that a good deal of theoretical work needs to be done in order to refine our understanding of the precise place of this rejection in a morphology of the socialist political ideology.
 M. Freeden, Ideologies and Political Theory. A Conceptual Approach (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), pp. 425-426.
 Ibid., pp. 417-418.
 Ibid., p. 418.
 J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice. Revised Edition (Cambridge, MA.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999. First published, 1971.)
 A. Callinicos, An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press), pp. 107-108.
 P. Gilabert and M. O’Neill, “Socialism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2019/entries/socialism/>.
 M. Bevir, The Making of British Socialism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), pp. 220-227.
 F. Rosemont, ‘Bellamy’s Radicalism Reclaimed’, in Daphne Patai (Ed.) Looking Backward 1988-1888. Essays on Edward Bellamy (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), p. 162.
 Ibid., p. 168.
 Ibid., p. 176.
 J. Dewey, ‘A Great American Prophet’, in Boydston, Jo Ann et. al (eds.) John Dewey. The Later Works 1925-1934. Volume 9: 1033-1934 (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986), p. 106. [First published in Common Sense 3 (April 1934), pp. 6-7).
 E. Bellamy, Looking Backward. 2000-1887 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).
 E. Bellamy, Equality (New York: Appleton, 1897).
 E. Bellamy, Talks on Nationalism (Chicago, IL: The Peerage Press, 1938), p. 25.
 Morris, W., News From Nowhere and Other Writings (London: Penguin, 2004), pp. 353-357.
 E. Bellamy, Talks on Nationalism, op. cit., p. 27.
 E. Bellamy, Equality, op. cit., p. 107.
 K. Forrester, In the Shadow of Justice. Postwar Liberalism and the Remaking of Political Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019), pp. 18-24.
 J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 228.
 J. Rawls, Justice as Fairness. A Restatement (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 138.
by Piotr Kuligowski and Quentin Schwanck
In numerous studies, the 19th century is identified as the dawn of modern politics, for it was then that contemporary political ideologies emerged and/or gained popularity outside the narrow circles of intellectuals. Indeed, the rise of capitalism and the entanglement of deep social and economic phenomena then paved the way for new comprehensive ways of thinking and perceiving the world. This intellectual process gained a particular momentum in the period that Eric J. Hobsbawm correctly called ‘the age of revolution’ (roughly 1789–1848). It was in this period that numerous authors clustered together novel single concepts such as ‘liberalism’ and ‘socialism’ to create all-encompassing intellectual systems. These conceptual constellations subsequently allowed political actors to grasp the entirety of socio-political phenomena and recognise them within the framework of a well-ordered system of thinking.
Yet how and why could French political concepts penetrate Polish discourse and contribute to the emergence of a distinct national ideology? And how do ideologies disappear?—these are two crucial questions we have addressed in our recent research. To tackle these questions, we combined research toolkits provided by ideology studies in the way proposed by Michael Freeden and his followers, as well as the methods elaborated by the representatives of German conceptual history (Begriffsgeschichte). Therefore, we perceive ideologies as relative stable galaxies of concepts (following Freeden’s definition of concepts as the ‘building blocks of ideology’)—even though, as happens in the cosmos, certain changes may occur from time to time: supernovae explode, meteorites fall, and stars and planets collide. In other words, our perspective allowed us—by tracing the transfers and transformations of individual concepts—to grasp the moment of the emergence and disappearance of the ideology we are interested in.
In our case study we underline the role played by the asymmetrical pair of counter-concepts ‘individualism-socialism’, coined initially by the French philosopher Pierre Leroux (1797–1871), within the discourse of Polish democrats in exile. Indeed, despite the highly divergent sociopolitical conditions that obtained in Poland and France at the time, in the wider picture it is possible to observe certain common points and problems they intended to face. In particular, both Polish and French political actors from that time perceived the world as being in turmoil, and sought effective remedies to cure fears related to the modernising world. An important watershed in this story is the year 1830—a year of revolution in France, which also marked the outbreak of the anti-Russian November Uprising in the Russian-controlled part of Poland. Both events triggered profound changes in these countries’ political landscapes.
Indeed, the case of post-1789 France is particularly interesting. During the first decades of the 19th century, many French thinkers, and particularly the first socialists, acknowledged the radical changes faced by society, that is to say the collapse of political legitimacy, the contestation of religious values, and the emergence of the question sociale in the wake of liberalisation and industrialisation. Trying to describe and analyse the new human condition, early socialist thinkers such as Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and their successors decisively contributed to shaping modern political categories.
Their critique of the existing order led them to define the two great ideological alternatives that we still know today as socialism and liberalism, elucidating this opposition with the articulation of decisive counter-concepts. In this article, we investigate one of the most interesting cases of this ideological process, focusing on Pierre Leroux—the first French thinker to use the concept of socialisme. Leroux began to formulate his original philosophy in the 1830s and, although he was largely forgotten after the rise of scientific socialism, he greatly contributed to the political and social debate in the 19th century. As he insisted in 1857, it was he ‘who first used the word socialisme. It was then a neologism, a necessary neologism [coined] in contrast to individualisme, which was beginning to prevail.’
Indeed, in his periodical publications such as the Revue encyclopédique (1831–1833) and the Encyclopédie Nouvelle (1833–1840), but also in many of his books, Leroux formulated an innovative social philosophy based on the pair of counter-concepts individualisme and socialisme. He originally defined both terms in a pejorative fashion to describe the most extreme expressions of liberté and égalité, that is to say, atomisation and authoritarianism (referring to hierarchical forms of socialism such as Saint-Simonism): his objective being to find the golden mean between them.
Finally, Leroux adopted a positive defition of socialism on the grounds that he considered this notion to be the best one to describe his philosophy, asserting that ‘we are socialists if one calls socialism the doctrine which will not sacrifice any of the words of the formula liberté, fraternité, égalité, unité, but which will conciliate all of them.’ By doing so, he conferred a deep political dimension on this concept, and argued that the only way for a nation to become socialist was to be democratic. Indeed, democracy was for Leroux the true regime of the golden mean: as all voices would be heard and all social energies would be expressed in the democratic debate, tensions would gradually fade and the oppositions would converge in a higher state of harmony.
Pierre Leroux never became an ideological leader as he did not create a party or school of thought, but his original philosophy exerted a great influence on the 19th-century intellectual stage. His theory of democracy enabled him to become the first thinker to establish a fruitful dialogue between socialism and republicanism, thus becoming the great pioneer of republican socialism, an ideological stance and sensibility which played a great role in 19th- and 20th-century France. Furthermore, his doctrine gained a considerable audience at the European level, particularly in the small circles of the reformist elite. Indeed, as Leroux was a very close friend and interlocutor of George Sand, many of his most central ideas were presented or debated in her novels. As Sand was then the most famous female writer on the European continent, as well as an inspiration for many socialist movements, she enabled Leroux’s ideas to reach European intellectuals such as Alexander Herzen (1812–1870), Heinrich Heine (1797–1856), Giuseppe Mazzini (1805–1872), and Adam Mickiewicz (1798–1855), making him a central figure to evaluate the impact of ‘wandering ideas’ in 19th-century Europe.
In turn, the November uprising (that was finally defeated in 1831) marks a new period for Polish history, in which the massive emigration of cultural and political elites to Western Europe began. This phenomenon is called the Great Emigration, which had a profound impact on Polish culture (notably literature and poetry); but at the same time, its impact on the modernisation of the Polish political imagination should also not be underestimated.
One of the political milieus of crucial importance that emerged amidst the waves of Polish emigration was the Polish Democratic Society. The Society was created in 1832 in Paris in the wake of a split within the Polish National Committee, which was the result of debates about the failed uprising and the directions of the activities in exile. As possibly the first organisation in Europe to have the adjective ‘democratic’ in its name, the Society exerted a strong influence on Polish political life in the 19th century. In fact, it was the longest-existing organisation in exile, as its dissolution took place only in 1862. Moreover, the Society proved its organisational effectiveness: it had a clearly exposited political program and agenda, it established a network of would-be conspirators within the Polish lands, and was able to run several journals, amongst which Demokrata Polski (Polish Democrat) occupied a central place. The Society was also influential in the number of its rank-and-file members: at the peak of its activity, this organisation had approximately 2,500 members. For these reasons, certain historians (e.g., Sławomir Kalembka) have contended that the Society was in fact the very first modern Polish political party.
Thanks to these democrats’ close engagement with the ideas of the day, the asymmetrical pair of counter-concepts ‘individualism-socialism’ became transferred into Polish political discourse. As usual, however, transfer is not solely a process of passive transmission of a certain idea from its domestic context into the new absorbing one. Rather, it is always a process of creative adaptation that does not take place without frictions. From this angle, conceptual transfer arrives rather as multi-layered mediation involving numerous creative actors (authors, translators, publishing houses, funders, readers, and the like). This was exactly the case with the Polish democrats-in-exile, as they adapted the pair of ‘individualism-socialism’ to their own particular goals. Primarily, it came in handy when they tried to present themselves not as dangerous radicals, but rather as representatives of a golden mean between two extremes. In this way, the democrats made an effort to position themselves between the two political wings that existed within the Polish political milieu in exile: socialism represented by certain groups situated on the left of the Polish Democratic Society (such as the Commons of the Polish People, Gromady Ludu Polskiego), and individualism, associated with liberal-aristocratic conceptions, was to create negative alignments with the political milieu led by prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski (1770–1861).
Over the course of time, the Polish idea of democracy broadened its meaning. In the early 1830s, when the Polish Democratic Society was formed, democracy as a concept was associated solely with certain forms of organising political power. As the debates unfolded, however, it received new layers of meaning, saturated by new transferred concepts (derived mostly from the French republicanism and early socialism). First of all, in the 1840s democracy became a definite political movement, opposed to aristocracy, and, consequently, one type of possible political identification. What is more, democracy during that decade was also associated with a specific vision of society: its realisation was to be dependent on the transformation of the Polish socio-political realities that existed at that time. Last but not least, ‘democracy’ likewise meant supporting a certain historical viewpoint, as it encompassed a precise vision of the past as well.
These conceptual changes finally set the scene for the emergence of the concept of ‘democratism’, which became a label for a fully-fledged ideology that in the Polish context encompassed several ‘spaces of experience’—to use the term Reinhart Koselleck deploys to depict our experiences not as structures depending on chronological time, but rather as interrelated, malleable, and contingent paths. Indeed, ‘democratism’ was a future-oriented concept, defined as a golden mean between socialism and individualism (or egoism). ‘Democratism’ was presented as a specific adaptation of the pure teachings of Jesus, and thus became the watchword of the Polish people’s liberation. Interestingly, however, despite its clear universalistic orientation, ‘democratism’ was further described by the Polish democrats as a native Slavic concept.
In spite of their claims, we instead suggest that the notion of ‘democratism’ itself was likely first coined in German political debates (in the early 1840s), and potentially permeated into Polish political discourse from there. This is also indicated by the fact that one of the first Polish democrats who began to use the concept of democratism was Jan Kanty Podolecki (1800–1855), who before 1848 lived in Galicia, so in the part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth controlled by Austria. Podolecki found himself in exile after 1848, and became a member of the central section of the Polish Democratic Society that was formed in London at the turn of the 1840s and 1850s. Seen from this angle, the concept of ‘democratism’ encapsulates experiences related to several different political and social contexts.
The concept of ‘democratism’, however, turned out to be relatively short-lived. In the 1850s and 1860s, when the Polish Democratic Society found itself in organisational crisis, it began to lose popularity and importance. In fact, later on, the meaning of the concept of democracy (rather than ‘democratism’) in Polish political discourse became twisted once again, no longer signifying an ideology, but rather returning to its original meaning, i.e., referring mostly to the form of organisation of political power. The history of the concept thus acts as a microcosm, offering an insight into the process by which a political ideology is constructed and then later declines.
Our method and revealed case exhibit an additional dimension of topicality, which lies not only in addressing these questions by tracing the international connections that pervade intellectual history, but likewise in shining a light onto the process of unfolding a new ideology and, subsequently, onto its disintegration. It may be particularly interesting for scholars working on contemporary history in a time of great ideological changes such as today, where numerous conceptions coined beyond the Western world are coming to the fore and constituting new ideological constellations.
Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of revolution: Europe 1789-1848 (London: Abacus, 1977).
Michael Freeden, Ideologies and political theory: a conceptual approach (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).
Reinhart Koselleck, 'Einleitung', in: Reinhart Koselleck, Werner Conze, and Otto Brunner (eds.), Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland. vol. 1 (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1972), XIII-XXVII.
Sławomie Kalembka, Towarzystwo Demokratyczne Polskie w latach 1832-1846 (Toruń: TNT; Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1966), 261.
Jörn Leonhard, ‘Another “Sonderweg”? The Historical Semantics of “Democracy” in Germany’, in: Jussi Kurunmäki, Jeppe Nevers, and Henk te Velde (Eds.), Democracy in Modern Europe: A Conceptual History (New York; Oxford: Berghahn Books: 2018), 74–75.
by Eunice Goes
Political parties have a complex relationship with ideologies. If on the one hand they are their most visible embodiment and are active contributors to their production and contestation, on the other, they are not necessarily their most faithful followers. Indeed, political parties often seek to make ideologies fit their electoral strategies. To complicate matters further, the ability of political parties to reinvent themselves is constrained by ideologies as any attempt to change and revise their programmes must reflect their ideological trajectories across time and space.
In short, parties’ relationship with ideologies is both instrumental and constrained. These two understandings of parties’ relationships with ideologies dominate the academic literature on the subject. But there is a third dimension in this relationship that has been overlooked by the literature which shows that ideology is central to the activities of political parties.
Because ideology is central to their life, political parties are heavily involved in the production and contestation of ideologies not only because they want to win elections or are historically constrained by them, but also because ideology is what political parties ‘do’. As political institutions that are, as Sheri Berman reminds us, ‘shaped by the ideological projects they championed’, all activities, including power-seeking strategies, pursued by political parties are driven by ideological and ideational consideration.
To show how political parties engage in processes of ideological production, this article will use a new methodological approach, which combines V. A. Schmidt’s discursive institutionalism and Peter A. Hall’s historical institutionalism, to analyse how the Labour Party under Ed Miliband used the idea of ‘predistribution’ to drive ideological change. In particular, the article will show how Miliband used the idea of predistribution to develop and articulate an agenda that sought simultaneously to renew the socialist roots of the party, to address the political and policy challenges created by the 2007 global financial crisis and three decades of neoliberal politics, and to win a general election.
The Mechanics of Ideological Analysis
The methodological approach proposed here, which combines discursive institutionalism and historical institutionalism, places ideas at the centre of political action. As such, it does not disregard the role of interests in political decision however, it assumes that ‘ideas cause actors to make certain choices’. Each of the ‘new institutionalisms’ offer insights into how that process happens.
As an approach that focuses on ‘who talks to whom, where, and when’ discursive institutionalism maps how ‘ideas are generated among policy actors and diffused to the public by political actors through discourse’, and shows how ideologies are produced, renewed, and changed. Thus, the key contribution of discursive institutionalism is to propose a method to map the different stages of how ideas influence the behaviour of political actors from ‘thought to word to deed’.
To properly understand how ideas can influence or drive processes of ideological change, discourse needs to be contextualised and categorised by degree of generality (policies, programmes, and philosophies), and type of content (cognitive or normative). Moreover, Schmidt identified two types of discourse that need to be analysed: coordinative, among political actors; and communicative, between political actors and the public. This distinction is important because coordinative discourse signals the intentions of political actors as well as their thought-processes, but communicative discourse reveals the constraints they face.
Because discursive institutionalism focuses on explaining how ideas can lead to change it pays special attention to the ideational activities of the epistemic community which is responsible for the production of ideas within a party. This epistemic community, composed of professional intellectuals, think-tank experts, party intellectuals and activists from different factions, political advisers, and strategists, performs different but related roles: it prioritises issues; it offers causal explanations to problems; it links ideas and solutions to the morphologies of ideologies; and it devises strategies to make those ideas accessible and attractive to wider audiences.
But if discursive institutionalism allows us to map how political actors think, interpret, adopt, and adapt ideas in processes of ideological change, it does not explain why certain ideas gained currency whilst others were abandoned or diluted. The key element missing from discursive institutionalism is a consideration about the power of political actors to choose and impose their ideas on others. To address this weakness, this post proposes to complement discursive institutionalism with insights from historical institutionalism.
The key assumption of historical institutionalism is that to be transformative, ideas need to possess certain qualities. Peter A. Hall proposed three criteria to test the power of ideas in processes of third order change, though they can also be applied to processes of incremental change. The first criterion is about the persuasive capacity of ideas, a condition which is also required by discursive institutionalism. The idea in question needs to offer a plausible and persuasive response to a current policy puzzle.
But persuasiveness is not merely dependent on the intellectual coherence of an idea or its technical viability. Hence, in Hall’s model, to be successful ideas also need to be comprehensible. They need to resonate with the way the recipients of the idea understand the world. Third, to influence policy ‘an idea must come to the attention of those who make policy, generally with a favourable endorsement from the relevant authorities’.  In other words, to be influential ideas need to be sponsored by powerful actors.
The next section of the post will show how the methodological approach proposed here shows how the idea of predistribution drove Ed Miliband’s attempts to renew the socialist roots of the Labour Party in the period 2010-15 from thought, to word, to deed.
Predistribution and the Renewal of Social Democracy
The Labour leader Ed Miliband saw the global financial crisis as one of those critical juncture moments which opened the way for a ‘new centre-left moment’. Thus, when he was elected leader in 2010, he proposed to turn the page on New Labour and to renew the party’s socialist roots as a strategy to address the challenges and problems created (and revealed) by the global financial crisis. His blueprint prioritised the goals of reducing inequality and a reform of capitalism which was consistent with post-war social democracy.
Miliband’s search for solutions to tackle inequality, involved setting up a wide epistemic community which was given the task to lead and contribute to the party’s policy review. Several of his advisers were political scientists, philosophers, and public policy experts. Miliband also cultivated a diverse ideational network composed of academics, think-tanks researchers, senior media commentators, party strategists, influential Labour and centre-left groupings (for example, Compass), which benefited from the occasional contribution from famous public intellectual from Britain, the United States (Michael Sandel, for example) and Brazil (Roberto Unger).
The discussions between a cross-section of intellectuals, political strategists, and activists, resulted in a remarkable outpouring of new ideas and let to multiple dialogues and encounters between Miliband’s team and intellectuals, researchers, and activists from within and outside the Labour Party.
It was in one of these encounters that Miliband first heard about predistribution, a new and barely fleshed-out idea developed by the Yale political scientist Jacob S. Hacker. In 2011, Miliband attended a Policy Network event in Oslo, where Hacker spoke about predistribution for the first time. From that moment on a dialogue was established between the Yale academic, Miliband and his team, think-tanks associated with Labour, and party intellectuals from a variety of factions.
Roughly a year after this encounter, Miliband introduced the idea of predistribution in a speech delivered at a Policy Network event. Henceforth, the concept of predistribution made regular appearances in the political debates of the time and quickly gained the status of big idea in party and media discussions.
If the term became ubiquitous there was no settled interpretation for its meaning. To gain a better understanding of how Miliband used this idea it is useful to look first at how its author defined it. Hacker, proposed predistribution as an approach to ‘stop inequality before it starts.’ As a transformative idea, predistribution required a change in the relationship between the state and the market which recognised the role of the state in creating and shaping markets. As such, predistribution advocated the regulation of markets to serve the public good as well as a new role for the state as an investor in innovation and public infrastructures
Hacker was not overly prescriptive about what a predistribution agenda would entail. He argued, however, that it would touch upon three main planks of public policy. The first focused on market reforms that encouraged a more equal distribution of economic power and included proposals as varied as a stronger regulation of financial markets and executive pay, and the strengthening of trade unions. The second plank concentrated on what Hacker called expanding equality of opportunity, and included proposals like the expansion of pre-school education, investment in vocational training and in affordable housing, and improving working conditions by raising wages, introducing a living wage, and improving job security. The third plank was about organising what Hacker called a ‘countervailing power’ to the market which aimed to empower ‘new forms of work organisations’.
Miliband and his team were keen on the transformational potential of a predistribution agenda. This was, after all, an idea that sought to tackle the root-causes of inequality and to reform capitalism, two goals associated to the party’s ideology, but which sounded reassuringly technocratic. the political backlash that traditional redistributive strategies normally attracted.
The interest in a predistribution agenda extended beyond Miliband’s office. Different factions of the party showed interest in the idea. Several MPs and Labour-leaning think-tanks like Policy Network, the Resolution Foundation, the IPPR, and the Fabian Society were quite supportive. The think-tank Policy Network hosted Hacker several times and devoted a number of seminars and publications to its discussion and dissemination.
Unsurprisingly, the different Labour factions interpreted the concept in a variety of ways. Whilst figures associated with the Right presented it as an alternative to redistribution, others emphasised its potential either to promote ‘responsible capitalism,’ or to promote equality, or to strengthen an emancipatory agenda centred around ideas of economic democracy and mutualism.
Interestingly, Miliband’s engagement with the idea of predistribution evolved over time. In his first explicit reference to the idea, Miliband presented predistribution as a transformative idea:
Predistribution is about saying:
We cannot allow ourselves to be stuck with permanently being a low-wage economy.
It is neither just, nor does it enable us to pay our way in the world.
Our aim must be to transform our economy, so it is a much higher skill, higher wage economy.
Tellingly, predistribution would not replace redistribution, because redistributive measures would always be necessary. Thus, Miliband’s predistribution agenda was about tackling the causes of inequality by promoting what he called ‘a more responsible capitalism’. This would be achieved by changing the rules that ‘shape the ways markets work’, namely by ‘changing the relationship between finance and the real economy. To deliver this agenda, Miliband proposed the creation of a British Investment Bank, an active industrial policy which would focus on investments in infrastructure and skills. He also defended state intervention in markets to ensure they served the public good.
The political reaction to this speech was mixed. Whilst commentators on the left thought the idea was interesting and had potential, others resisted it because it was a nebulous concept that was difficult to sell on the doorstep. This reaction largely explains the fact that following this speech, Miliband rarely mentioned the word predistribution again and his press team banned him from using it in public. In a recent podcast devoted to the idea, Miliband said that predistribution was a ‘throwaway remark’ that was then presented in the media as his big idea. He also said that ‘the word was ugly’, though he recognised its importance.
In its place, Miliband developed other narratives—namely, the squeezed middle, the ‘producers versus predators’ narrative (which was also dropped very quickly), the power agenda, One Nation, the ‘cost of living’ crisis, the zero-zero economy—to promote a predistribution agenda that followed the three planks suggested by Hacker. For example, his senior policy adviser Stewart Wood explained that the ‘One Nation’ approach aimed ‘to change the rules of markets, so that we get to a more equal distribution of economic power and rewards even before government starts to collect taxes or paying benefits’.
Miliband was equally interested in the second plank of the predistribution agenda about expanding opportunity and he used a variety of narratives to promote it. For instance, his ‘power agenda’; his ‘producers vs predators’ agenda was used to defend a capitalism that protected the public good; and his ‘cost of living crisis’ narrative were used to address issues like low wages, job insecurity, and work-life balance. To this end, he proposed to widen the adoption of the Living Wage, the extension of free nursery provision, and the introduction of new apprenticeships.
The Labour leader was equally supportive of Hacker’s ideas about developing ‘countervailing power to the market’. To that effect he talked about extending power to individuals and grassroots organisations in several speeches. His ‘power agenda’ was the focus of lively discussions within Miliband’s circle and led to proposals like the devolution of power to local communities through mutualisation, participatory budgeting, and bringing workers into company boards.
Though rarely uttered in speeches, the idea predistribution informed several sections of Labour’s 2015 electoral manifesto which promised to reform the relationship between the market and the state. Labour’s manifesto promised, as well, a rise to the minimum wage, the promotion of the living wage and the expansion of free childcare, the banning of some zero-hours contracts, freezing energy prices, and investing in infrastructure and in the green economy. Finally, there were proposals to create a bank bonus tax, and to introduce workers’ representatives in the boards of companies.
The author of the idea was encouraged by Labour’s 2015 manifesto. For him, it was ‘the idea, not the label, that mattered’. However, Hacker was less encouraged by Labour’s approach to developing countervailing power. In his appraisal of Miliband’s take on predistribution he noticed the ‘notable lack of serious discussion of the alternative to unions that could provide some degree of representation for workers’. This omission was so glaring that Hacker even questioned whether ‘predistribution of the sort I have discussed is even possible given the decline of labor [sic] unions’. Hacker was not the only one to be disappointed by this omission. Jon Cruddas, one of the co-authors of the manifesto, admitted that Labour’s failure to strengthen trade unions undermined the idea of predistribution.
There were other problems with Miliband’s predistribution agenda. Some of the proposals to ‘widen opportunities’ were almost tokenistic. The promise of a Living Wage, an idea that had been at the centre of Miliband’s campaign to become Labour leader, was presented as an aspiration.
Assessing Miliband’s Take on Predistribution
The mapping of the idea of predistribution ‘from thought to word to deed’ showed us that Labour Party under Ed Miliband ‘thought’ and ‘discussed’ it as a transformational idea by Miliband however it was watered down when it reached the ‘deed’ stage. To understand why, the next section of the article will apply Peter A. Hall’s three criteria to explain why Miliband diluted his approach to predistribution.
The first difficulty Miliband encountered was presentational. Predistribution was a complex idea to present to voters on the doorstep. It was a term with an unclear meaning and was therefore not a persuasive concept. To overcome this constraint Miliband and his team developed different narratives to promote the predistributive agenda. But this approach was ineffective because the narratives kept changing from speech to speech, preventing voters from gaining a familiarity with it. As it challenged voters’ understanding of how a predistribution agenda could be compatible with the goal of reducing the public deficit, it was not a persuasive and comprehensible idea.
But the greatest obstacle to the success of Miliband’s predistribution agenda was his inability to attract the support of relevant actors both inside and outside the Labour Party. Private interviews with Miliband’s senior advisers, Labour MPs, activists, observers close to the Labour leader, as well as media and academic accounts suggest that Miliband was isolated in the party and shadow cabinet. In reality, the Shadow Cabinet was divided about the extent of Labour’s radicalism. Whilst one powerful group believed that a few retail offers would suffice for Labour to win the election, there were others who argued that Labour had to be more radical and transformative.
Miliband’s team also had reservations about giving more powers to trade unions in economic policy. Some of Miliband’s advisers thought that British trade unions were not ‘sufficiently responsible’ to be awarded co-determination powers. The party was equally divided about the scope of reforms to the regulation of the banking industry. Labour signalled a desire to introduce tighter regulation of the banking industry with the purpose of reducing risk and increasing competition, but the reforms to the banking industry it ended up proposing were modest in scope.
Miliband himself was ambivalent about the extent of his own radicalism in general and about these proposals to strengthen trade unions and devolve power to cities and local authorities in particular. His ambivalence was also manifested in the party’s policy development. The reality was that there were, as Stewart Wood explained, two Ed Milibands: ‘There’s Ed Miliband the son of Ralph Miliband, and there’s Ed Miliband the special advisor in Treasury for ten years’. Interestingly, in a recent interview Miliband admitted this problem and regretted not having been more radical in his approach. Miliband’s admission is telling. Though it is clear that he was constrained in his decisions by the lack of institutional support, ultimately he had the agency to decide on the direction of the party. His own interpretation of Labour’s challenges and possibilities led him to choose a more cautious policy and ideological path.
The party’s divisions and Miliband’s ambivalence impacted Labour’s predistribution agenda. That much was admitted by one of the authors of Labour’s manifesto. ‘Definition, energy, vitality, clarity’ were the price to pay for party unity, admitted Cruddas. These tensions led to the dilution of the most innovative and potentially transformative proposals, namely those that concerned the creation of greater countervailing power, the regulation of financial markets, the devolution of power to local authorities, the strengthening of workers’ rights and citizens’ voice. Instead of presenting ambitious ideas and a clear vision that renewed the socialist roots of the party, the 2015 manifesto and the party’s electoral campaign focused on modest retail offers that did not seem to cohere around a powerful message. This dilution resulted in a predistribution agenda that looked disjointed and far from transformative.
But if context, institutional and political pressures, and electoral considerations led to the dilution of Miliband’s predistributive agenda, there is no doubt that this idea drove his attempt to change the party’s ideological direction and develop an egalitarian programme that renewed Labour’s socialist roots, and sought to address voters’ concerns and aspirations.
If Miliband lost the 2015 general election, his attempt to renew Labour’s socialist roots with a predistributive agenda outlasted his efforts. His successor, Jeremy Corbyn, picked up on Miliband’s predistribution agenda and drove it into a more radical direction. The 2017 Labour Party manifesto, entitled For the Many not the Few, revisited all the themes associated with predistribution, and was seen by Guinan and O’Neill as a follow-up of that agenda. Tellingly, Corbyn’s successor, Keir Starmer has promised an agenda that builds on Labour’s 2017 manifesto. For an idea that was seen as ‘ugly’ and too complex, predistribution has surely demonstrated an impressive resilience.
 These accounts can be seen in J. Adams, M. Clark, L. Ezrow, G. Glasgow, ‘Understanding Change and Stability in Party Ideologies: Do Parties Respond to Public Opinion Or To Past Election Results, British Journal of Political Science, 34 (4) (2004), pp. 598-61, at p. 590. See also I. Budge, ‘A New Spatial Theory of Party Competition: Uncertainty, Ideology and Policy Equilibria Viewed Comparatively and Temporally’, British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 24 (4) (1994), pp. 443-467, at p. 446.
S. Berman, The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), at p. 11.
 C. Parsons, A Certain Idea of Europe (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006), at p. 6.
 V. A. Schmidt, ‘Taking Ideas Seriously: Explaining Change Through Discursive Institutionalism As The Fourth New Institutionalism’, European Political Science Review, 2010, 2:1, 1-25, at p. 16.
 V. A. Schmidt, ‘Reconciling Ideas and Institutions through Discursive Institutionalism’, D. Béland and R. Henry Cox (editors) Ideas and Politics in Social Science Research, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), at p. 55.
 V. Schmidt, ‘Discursive Institutionalism: The Explanatory Power of Ideas and Discourse’, in Annual Review of Political Science Review, 2008, 11: 303-26, at p. 309.
 C. M. Radaelli, V.A. Schmidt, ‘Policy Change and Discourse in Europe: Conceptual and Methodological Issues’ in C. M. Radaelli and V. A. Schmidt, Policy Change and Discourse in Europe, (London: Routledge, 2015), at p. 15.
 V. A. Schmidt, ‘Bringing Ideas and Discourse Back Into The Explanation of Change in Varieties of Capitalism and Welfare States’ CGPE Working Paper Series, Working Paper No. 2, University of Sussex, May 2008, pp-305-307.
 P. A. Hall, ‘Conclusion: The Politics of Keynesian Ideas’, in P. A. Hall (editor) The Political Power of Economic Ideas: Keynesianism Across Nations, (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), at p. 370.
 Ed Miliband interviewed in Jason Cowley, ‘Ed Miliband: He’s Not For Turning’, New Statesman, 05 September 2012.
 E. Miliband, ‘Speech to Policy Network – Labour’s New Agenda’, 06 September 2012, http://www.labour.org.uk/labours-new-agenda, accessed on 22 August 2013.
 Hacker quoted in G. Easton, ‘Interview to Jacob Hacker: Ed Miliband’s Wonkish Pin-Up’, in New Statesman, 11 February 2013.
 J. S. Hacker, ‘The Institutional Foundations of Middle-Class Democracy’, Progressive Governance, Oslo, Policy Network, 06 May, http://www.policy-network.net/pno_detail.aspx?ID=3998&title=The+institutional+foundations+of+middle-class+democracy, accessed on 07 September 2012.
 See J. Hacker, “The Free Market Fantasy”, Policy Network, 23 April 2014, http://www.policy-network.net/pno_detail.aspx?ID=4628&title-The-Free-Market-Fantasy, on 28 August 2014.
 J. S. Hacker, ‘The Institutional Foundations of Middle-Class Democracy’,
 J. Hacker, B. Jackson, M. O’Neill ‘The Politics of Predistribution’, Renewal 21, 2-3, (2013), pp. 54-64, p. 56.
 E. Miliband, ‘Speech to Policy Network – Labour’s New Agenda’, op. cit.
 R. Behr, ‘The Making of Ed Miliband’, The Guardian, 15 April 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/apr/15/the-making-of-ed-miliband, accessed on 24 July 2016.
 E. Miliband and G. Lloyd, ‘Predistribution: What the Hell Does It Mean?’, Reasons To Be Cheerful Podcast, 22 April 2019, https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/83-predistribution-what-the-hell-does-it-mean/id1287081706?i=1000436007357, accessed on 17 May 2019.
 E. Miliband, ‘The Inequality Problem’, London Review of Books, 38, 3, 4 February 2016, pp. 19-20.
 J. Atkins, ‘Ideology, Rhetoric and One Nation Labour’, Politics, 2015, 35, 1, 19-31, at p. 21
 S. Wood, ‘Explaining One Nation Labour’, The Political Quarterly, Vol. 84, No. 3, July-September 213, 317-320, at p. 318.
 E. Miliband, ‘The Hugo Young Lecture’, 10 February 2014, http://labourlist.org/2014/02/ed-milibands/hugo-young-lecture-full-text/, accessed on the 15 April 2014.
 M. Stears, Private Interview, 18.06.2013; J. Cruddas, Private Interview, 02 September 2013.
 J. Hacker ‘Miliband’s Not Talking About Predistribution But He Has Embraced My Big Idea’, op. cit., Ref. 80.
 J. Cruddas, Private Interview, 04 March 2015.
 Ed Miliband, ‘Speech to the CBI’, 25 October 2010, http://www.labour.org.uk/leader-of-the-labour-party-ed-milibands-speech-to-the-cbi,2010-10-25), accessed 10 January 2012.
 S. Wood interviewed by David Kogan, D. Kogan, Protest and Power: The Battle for the Labour Party, (London: Bloomsbury Reader, 2019), at p. 173.
 D. Kogan, Protest and Power: The Battle for the Labour Party, op. cit., Ref 123, at p. 173.
 J. Cruddas, Private Interview, 04 March 2015.
 Labour Party, For the Many Not the Few: The Labour Party Manifesto 2017, (London: Labour Party, 2017), p. 47.
 M. O’Neill and J. Guinan, ‘The Institutional Turn: Labour’s New Political Economy’, Renewal, Vol. 26, No. 2, 2018, pp. 5-16, p. 7.
by Bruno Leipold
Bruno Leipold: This book is the culmination of a long engagement of yours with the German council movement that emerged during the Revolution of 1918-19. You wrote your PhD on Hannah Arendt’s account of council democracy and have also edited two volumes on the subject: Council Democracy: Towards a Democratic Socialist Politics (2018) and, with Gaard Kets, The German Revolution and Political Theory (2019). What is it about the councils that keeps drawing you back to them?
James Muldoon: The councils offer an alternative vision of democracy that expands our political imagination and questions the compatibility of democracy with capitalism. This perspective helps us to see our political inheritance of liberal democratic capitalism from a new perspective. The council movements believed it was necessary to extend a program of democratisation into a range of social and economic institutions such as schools, universities, workplaces, industry bodies, economic regulatory institutions and the civil service.
Many political theorists and actors come back to some form of council model when they are searching for alternative forms of political organisation outside of the state. The classic image of a council democracy is of a federal structure of councils with local and regional councils electing delegates leading to a national council that would exercise political and economic powers.
For those interested in examining more democratic ways to organise the economy, the experience of the council movements still provides a guiding light for what could be possible. There are specific institutional features such as recallable delegates, imperative mandate and average wages for political representatives that I think should get more of a hearing in contemporary debates, but which aren’t necessary for some form of council system.
Studying these bottom-up democratic institutions might seem anachronistic today, but what I find most interesting isn’t necessarily the precise institutional features, but the unfulfilled aspirations for political transformation which remain alive in the present. They show that a participatory society with more institutions organised along democratic lines is not only desirable but could be within reach.
BL: The title of your book seems to be a sceptical nod towards John Holloway’s Change the World Without Taking Power, a book that encapsulated the anti-hierarchical ideology of the Occupy movements. Do you see your book as challenging that model of political organisation and strategy?
JM: The title of my book, Building Power to Change the World implies a different strategy and approach to the ‘horizontalist’ tendency that was prominent in social movements in the 2010s. When I started this project on the workers’ councils of the 1917-1923 era, there had been a return to public assemblies and anarchist-inspired direct democratic methods as part of the global “squares movements”. Movements such as the Spanish 15M movement, Occupy Wall Street and other square and assembly-based protests sought to negate principles of hierarchy and representation and advocated for strategies of withdrawal and autonomous self-activity.
I participated in these movements as part of Occupy Melbourne and what many of us started to see was the limitations of such an ephemeral form of organisation. There was a sense in the neo-anarchist currents of these square movements that we could just re-create the world anew without having to engage with what was perceived to be an outdated and archaic form of democratic government. By refusing to engage with the domain of the state and parliamentary struggle these movements did not build up long-term organisational power or challenge the power of neoliberal capitalism head on.
In contrast to this strategy of refusal, the central point that most participants in the council movements of the inter-war period agreed upon was that in order to secure lasting social change the movement should develop the independent power of the working class. There were many disagreements over methods, but there was a shared horizon of acknowledging the importance of strategising ways in which workers’ power could be enhanced while diminishing the organisational and ideological power of the capitalist class.
BL: That would seem to involve a quite distinct understanding of organisation and power than we find in the horizontalism of Occupy and Holloway?
JM: There are many similarities between the approach of the Councils and that adopted by Holloway so the differences should not be overstated. However, his idea of “not taking power” relies on an ontological distinction between a “power to” (potentia) and a “power over” (potestas) and the presumption that there is some qualitative difference between the organisational form of parliaments versus other more grassroots forms of organisation. We can supposedly build our capacity for collective action (potentia) without creating new structures for controlling others (potestas).
I have always found this distinction dubious to hold in practice. It ends up valorising forms of political activity seen as “from below” or “of the people” while demonising strategies that involve forms of parliamentary struggle or action in and against the state.
Any movement seeking to form a more emancipatory society will eventually have to confront the question of which institutions will manage political conflict and enforce collective decisions in a post-capitalist polity. When you start to ask the question of how these institutions would be structured, what participatory rights and legal protections citizens would have, and how law would be created, the distinction between two separate kinds of power seems less helpful.
BL: One of my favourite lines that you quote in the book is by the Revolutionary Shop Steward Ernst Däumig who said he wanted ‘a Germany whose affairs are really determined by active people doing more than running to the ballot box every two or three years’, which sounds like the model of a good Rousseaian republican citizen! What role do you think republicanism plays in the ideology of the Council movement?
JM: The tradition of republicanism has some deeply conservative and even anti-democratic tendencies, but there are also prominent forms of radical republicanism. We are beginning to understand in more detail how the socialist tradition emerged from radical strands of republicanism in the 19th century.
Theorists of the council movements inherited a democratic republican legacy through the writings of Marx and Engels. Rosa Luxemburg is somebody who at different points has been seen as exemplary of a radical republicanism due to her calls for greater participation in public life and her defence of democratic freedoms. The council movements represent some of the more radical elements of the German socialist movement who favoured “bottom up” forms of socialist organising in comparison to the more statist versions of socialism in the German Social Democratic Party.
The real gambit of theorists like Anton Pannekoek and Rosa Luxemburg is on the question of citizen participation. Their entire political theory relies on a conception of democratic citizenship which demands a lot of citizens in terms of their commitment to public life. There is a kind of Rousseauian idea here of active citizens tending to public institutions, but it’s a form of republicanism beyond the state - a republic of councils perhaps.
BL: An important contribution of your book is that it reconstructs some of the core concepts of the ideology of the Council movements, including Rosa Luxemburg’s account of ‘socialist civic virtues’. How do these socialist civic virtues differ from what we traditionally understand by civic virtue?
JM: When I first read Luxemburg’s account of socialist civic virtues I was surprised by the use of such republican language. But the more closely I followed her thought in the 1917-1919 period, I began to see how much she had turned her attention to the cultural transformations that would be needed for a democratic socialist revolution to be successful. She thought that worker-controlled institutions such as workers’ councils would need to be accompanied by new social norms and widespread modes of relating to others that would protect and maintain these new institutions.
The content of these socialist civic virtues mirrors certain aspects of republicanism: the need for an orientation towards the common good, the negation of egoism, the development of political judgement and the importance of self-discipline and personal sacrifice. But the way these virtues figure in Luxemburg’s thought is very different to traditional republican theory. It’s not the state that cultivates these virtues in citizens through education, but the workers themselves that develop them in political struggle. They are also not oriented towards preserving the state as in republican theory, but towards an emancipatory political movement of overcoming relations of domination.
It’s for these reasons that I wouldn’t go as far as interpreters such as Hannah Arendt who sees Luxemburg as some kind of ‘republican’, however broadly understood. Although there are interesting elements of republican language and themes in her writings, they are thoroughly transformed and reconfigured within a revolutionary socialist outlook.
BL: Another important conceptual innovation of the councils that you highlight is idea of ‘freedom as collective self-determination’, which you particularly associate with Anton Pannekoek. Where does this conception of freedom lie in relation to some of the classic debates, including the distinction between positive and negative liberty?
JM: The council movements envisioned a new participatory society of democratic collectives involved in public life and democratically managing all of societies major institutions. Their ideal of political freedom involved democratic collective participating in their community and helping to shape its underlying character, laws and future direction.
The revival of republican accounts of freedom as non-domination have all been tied to negative ideals of liberty. Even radical republicans such as Alex Gourevitch – who has reconstructed the political thought of the Knights of Labour – situate their own interpretations primarily within the negative liberty tradition. For many of the radical council theorists, freedom was best understood as an activity – and indeed a movement – rather than a status or condition of non-domination. Democratic participation was seen as a necessary aspect of freedom rather than something auxiliary that was need to secure its conditions.
This view of freedom goes back to an older Athenian tradition (“the liberty of the ancients”) of active participation in exercising collective power. But this wasn’t just a nostalgic view of direct democracy. It was also attentive to how the state and modern labour market were two of the principal sources of domination in modern life.
It is a demanding view of freedom, but one that is too often discounted in debates between liberals and republicans as either conceptually incoherent or not worth considering. I think such a dismissal is too hasty. The ideal of freedom as collective self-determination has important resonances with a range of emancipatory social movements who see freedom as a collective practice and a constant struggle. It captures something attractive about our intuitive ideas of freedom that are left out of a purely negative lens.
BL: One subsidiary aim of the book is to rehabilitate the reputation of Karl Kautsky. You argue that during the German Revolution he advocated for a kind ‘socialist republicanism’ that combined elements of both parliamentary and council democracy. How does that position differ to some of the other positions taken by socialists and social democrats at the time?
JM: Karl Kautsky is little read today, even by Marxists. Mostly he is associated with the rigid orthodoxy of the Second International. He is said to have vulgarised Marxism into a crude economic determinism in which revolution was seen as a historical inevitability and all the party needed to do was passively wait for capitalism’s downfall. The book attempts to show that Kautsky was a far more sensitive and dynamic thinker than this characterisation implies.
I focus on his writings leading up to and during the German Revolution. During this period, Kautsky found himself occupying a middle position between two different groups. The moderate social democrats wanted the workers’ councils demobilised and for a speedy transition to a parliamentary republic. The radicals in the party called for a council republic with the workers’ councils forming the basis of the new structures of political authority.
In many ways, Karl Kautsky was the goldilocks of the German Revolution. He supported the workers’ councils and thought they played a valuable role in the initial phases of the revolution. But he didn’t see the councils as sufficiently universal or indeed that well suited to administering a future socialist society. In practice, rule by the councils had excluded many groups of people from any form of political suffrage: from many women, to the unemployed, peasants and even some male workers outside densely populated industrial areas.
But he didn’t think the councils should disappear after the revolution. He advocated for retaining the workers’ councils alongside parliamentary institutions to maintain an institutionalised power base for safeguarding workers’ interests and for the organisation of the economy.
BL: What did this ‘goldilocks’ position on the councils mean for Kautsky’s relations to those political factions, such as the leaders of the SPD, that rejected this hybrid approach?
JM: The leadership of the SPD at the time represented a social democratic compromise with capital and the state. They wanted to take over the reins of power but for private property to remain largely unchanged and for German industry to continue on as before. Kautsky is widely seen as going along with this basic idea and as having effectively sold out his radical roots by the time of the Revolution. His writings during this period show this not to be the case. Kautsky still advocated for a thoroughgoing socialisation of the economy and a transformation of the state.
One of the more innovative aspects of his program was his call for the radical decentralisation of the administrative apparatus and for power to be devolved to municipal apparatuses including the power of taxation, policing and the delivery of basic services. The radical housing projects and cultural life of “Red Vienna” in the 1920s stands as a living experiment of the kinds of policies Kautsky was advocating at the time.
Kautsky could be criticised for his naivety in relation to the true intentions of the SPD leadership, but he was pushing for far more radical policies than what he is usually given credit for.
BL: And what about Kautsky’s positioning beyond Germany? How did his socialist republicanism influence his view of the concurrent revolutionary events in Russia?
JM: What makes Kautsky’s position a socialist republican one is its starting point of political democracy, universal suffrage, parliamentary elections, a multi-party electoral system, and its insistence on maintaining civil and political rights. Kautsky was therefore critical of the Bolsheviks for what he argued were the use of ‘methods of violence’ which he contrasted with the ‘methods of democracy’.
One of the key points of difference between Lenin and Kautsky is on the role of the state. Lenin models the Russian soviet system on the Paris Commune with workers’ councils as the main institutions of political power. Kautsky doesn’t think the state should be abolished, but rather transformed into a democratic and then socialist republic. Kautsky finds in Marx a distinction between a “military autocratic” aspect of the state which should be abolished, and the democratic republican institutions which would need to be transformed for a future socialist society.
He argues that institutions such as a parliament with free elections, a multi-party system, a civil service and some kind of basic administrative apparatus would be necessary in a future socialist society. The purportedly “anti-bureaucratic” institutions of the Commune were simply no longer suitable for a large, complex and industrialised nation state. The socialist party needed to take what was best from the tradition of democratic republicanism and push it to its radical edges.
I think the identification of socialist republicanism as an ideology is a useful way of revealing significant differences within socialist ideology and an under-examined strand of democratic socialism in contrast to the more insurrectionary communism of the Bolsheviks.
BL: The Bolsheviks and the Russian Revolution have, of course, played a much greater role in the political imagination of the Left. What do you think explains the relative neglect of the Councils of the German Revolution?
JM: The various strands of socialist democracy that existed within pre-revolutionary Germany were eventually overtaken by the communism of the Bolshevik Party.
The experience of the councils was also not well incorporated into the history of political thought. Every historical event will be subject to partisan interpretations, but as John Medearis has shown, three of the most well-known interpreters of the councils, V. I. Lenin, Hannah Arendt and Joseph Schumpeter, each offer distorted readings of the councils that have led to confusions over their reception.
Lenin’s admonishing of the ‘infantile leftism’ of council theorists such as Anton Pannekoek had perhaps done the most to sink the reputation of theorists associated with this strand of socialism. Contrary to Lenin’s interpretation, many of the council theorists made significant theoretical innovations within Marxism, particularly by advancing democratic republican aspects of Marx’s political thought.
BL: Do you think that anything has been lost in our political vocabulary as a result of that neglect?
JM: I think the biggest neglect has been of these more ‘bottom up’ and democratic approaches to socialist organising which have been marginalised both with social democratic and communist discourse.
This relates to both strategy and institutions. On the strategic front, we have seen insurrectionary forms of socialism and vanguardist theories of political parties dominate for most of the twentieth century. For the most part, parliamentary politics has been seen as corrupted and not worth pursuing leading to a marginalisation of small socialist groups.
In terms of institutions, there has been very little theorising about what these would look like in a future socialist society or how you would practically organise the economy and manage political conflict. The idea that with the end of capitalism the majority of conflict would disappear has never really been plausible. In this respect, socialist republicanism adds an important political and institutional dimension to the socialist tradition.
BL: Finally, if you could pick out one text from the German council movement for people to read today, what would it be?
JM: I’ll cheat slightly and recommend one in German and one in English. For those who read German, I would get a copy of the stenographic report of the National Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers Councils which met from 16-20 December 1918. This was dubbed the “Parliament of the Revolution” and was the meeting at which the councils decided on a number of important questions such as whether Germany would be a council republic or a liberal democracy and how far it would go in socialising the economy. The debates at the Congress are insightful for how the workers and soldiers understood their choices.
It was republished on the centenary of the revolution in 2018 by Dieter Braeg and Ralf Hoffrogge as Allgemeiner Kongress der Arbeiter- und Soldatenräte Deutschlands. Unfortunately, it’s yet to be published in English, although certain speeches have been translated in Gabriel Kuhn’s All Power to the Councils! A Documentary History of the German Revolution of 1918-1919.
My personal favourite from this period that has been translated in English is a short pamphlet by Karl Kautsky written in January 1919 entitled “Guidelines for a Socialist Action Programme”. It provides an overview of how a democratic republic could be expanded into a socialist republic through a dual strategy of democratisation and socialisation and offers a different perspective on Kautsky’s political views during this period.
by Emily Katzenstein
In a recent piece in ROAR Magazin, William Callison and Quinn Slobodian make a provocative claim: they argue that a short-lived German leftists’ populist experiment, Aufstehen (literally: ‘Stand Up’ or ‘Get Up’), and the far right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) both lay claim to ordoliberalism, a German variant of neoliberalism. Callison and Slobodian argue that “while the partial symmetry between new would-be populist movements on the left and right is often observed—and the similarities often exaggerated—the curious fact that both the AfD and Aufstehen [draw] on the heritage of the German form of neoliberalism, better known as “ordoliberalism,” is often overlooked.
As Callison and Slobodian point out, the AfD’s neoliberal leanings are well known. Aufstehen’s ordoliberal overtures, on the other hand, seem not just surprising but quite perplexing. What, one might ask, is going on with the German Left? Why would a nascent left populist movement turn to a variant of neoliberalism as a source of inspiration?
The political figure that best represents this ordoliberal turn on the German Left is Sahra Wagenknecht, the former parliamentary chairperson of the Die Linke, and a co-founder of Aufstehen. In fact, Callison and Slobodian are not the first to point out Wagenknecht’s turn to ordoliberalism. While the scholarly literature, especially in English, has only remarked in passing on Wagenknecht’s ordoliberal turn, Wagenknecht’s appeals to ordoliberalism have been widely noted and discussed in the German press, especially in reviews of Wagenknecht’s recent books, Freiheit statt Kapitalismus (2011) and Reichtum ohne Gier (2016). The titles alone foreshadow a shift in Wagenknecht’s rhetoric--Freedom instead of Capitalism is a play on the 1976 CDU campaign slogan Freedom instead of Socialism (it sounds catchier in German, I promise), and Prosperity Without Greed evokes the Christian-democratic former German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard’s Prosperity for All, published in 1957.
But one hardly needs to decipher clues like these in order to notice Wagenknecht’s—some might claim fatal—attraction to ordoliberalism. In both Freedom instead of Socialism and Prosperity without Greed, Wagenknecht draws heavily on the writings of ordoliberals such as Walter Eucken, Alexander Rüstow, and Alfred Müller-Armack, and evinces a certain nostalgia for the so-called ‘golden years,’ the ‘economic miracle’ of postwar West Germany, when ordoliberalism, as a political ideology, was arguably at its most influential. Wagenknecht portrays ordoliberalism as an alternative to neoliberalism understood as a doctrine of market radicalism, the destruction of the welfare state and rampant privatization, and sees Eucken, Rüstow, and Müller-Armack as proponents of a third way between capitalism and a planned economy. In other words, Wagenknecht contests the understanding of ordoliberalism as a German variant of neoliberalism by interpreting it as a German alternative to neoliberalism. She strongly implies that her own political vision of a “creative socialism” has more in common with the ordoliberal tradition than the current neo-liberal policies of the FDP, CDU, and SPD.
She has also repeated these claims in interviews and political speeches. In a 2017 interview with WirtschaftsWoche, for example, Wagenknecht argues that “if you take Ludwig Erhard seriously, you have to vote for Die Linke”. Similarly, in a 2010 speech before the Bundestag, Wagenknecht cited Eucken and Erhard in support of her own proposals, and suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that none of her conservative or liberal colleagues had ever even bothered to read Eucken’s work. Wagenknecht, in other words, presents herself as the better heir of ordoliberalism.
Wagenknecht’s turn to ordoliberalism has gained her some new—and quite unlikely—fans. After the publication of Prosperity Without Greed, the well-known conservative newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), published an article entitled: Über diesen Kommunismus könnte man reden (This is the kind of communism we could talk about). Similarly, Peter Gauweiler, a prominent member of the arch-conservative CSU not exactly known for his leftist views, found much to like in Wagenknecht’s Freedom Instead of Capitalism (), welcomed her turn to ordoliberalism, and seems to have had to try hard to find anything to criticise in Prosperity without Greed. To the collective astonishment of the German press, even the economist Hans-Werner Sinn, who is commonly seen as a die-hard neoliberal, found common ground with Wagenknecht’s new political vision and welcomed Prosperity without Greed as a “hymn to ordoliberalism”.
But not everyone is equally delighted with Wagenknecht’s appropriations of Eucken and Rüstow. Some of her critics—mostly, but not exclusively from the right—have criticised Wagenknecht’s ordoliberal manoeuvres. Some have argued that Wagenknecht is an anti-capitalist wolf in ordoliberal clothing (“im Schafspelz des Ordoliberalismus”), and that her engagement with ordoliberalism is a marketing ploy at best and a transparent attempt at political deception at worst. A commentator in ORDO, the flagship ordoliberal publication, for example, warns Wagenknecht’s readers not to be “seduced” by the “intellectual charms” of the “Jeanne d’Arc of anticapitalism” and imagines the ordoliberals’ horror-stricken exclamation in the face of any ‘ordo-socialist’ appropriations: “What would Walter Eucken and Alfred Müller-Armack have said to [Wagenknecht’s] […] proposals? Probably: Divine Comedy, Inferno III: All abandon hope, ye who enter here.”.
Some of these critiques are, no doubt, hyperbolic, but they do raise a set of tricky questions: Firstly, has Wagenknecht actually taken an ordoliberal turn? Or is she merely deploying ordoliberalism strategically, cherry-picking her way through a tradition so routinely invoked in German politics that some have compared it to liturgy? Secondly, how expansive or flexible is the ordoliberal tradition? Can it be appropriated for Wagenknecht’s “creative socialism?” Or is any attempt to appropriate the ordoliberal tradition for a left project “perverse”? What does it mean—and what does it do—to claim ordoliberalism for a left political project? In other words, Wagenknecht’s self-representation as the “better” ordoliberal raises some pressing questions about what ordoliberalism is, and, maybe more importantly, what it is good for.
One way of assessing the plausibility of Wagenknecht’s self-representation as the better, if unorthodox, heir of ordoliberalism—as an “ordo-socialist,” as Callison and Slobodian quip—is to define ordoliberalism in terms of its core policy positions, preoccupations, questions or “problematic”, and then to show that Wagenknecht, in her recent political writings, has not merely claimed ordoliberal ideas strategically and superficially in support of positions that she already held, but has engaged seriously and substantively with ordoliberalism in a way that has influenced her political thinking.
So what is ordoliberalism? Many of the most recent attempts to define ordoliberalism have taken place in the context of trying to explain Germany’s “inflexibility on austerity measures” and its punitive stance during the Eurozone crisis. In this context, ordoliberalism is commonly described as a German variant of neoliberalism that prescribes a strong regulatory state, strict anti-trust policies aimed at bolstering competition in the market, and a commitment to price stability that is guaranteed by an independent monetary authority. In Austerity: The History of A Dangerous Idea, for example, Mark Blyth has claimed that ordoliberalism was the “instruction sheet” for “Germany’s response to the [Eurozone] crisis”.
If one understands ordoliberalism primarily as an “instruction sheet” for austerity, Wagenknecht’s ordoliberal overtures appear deeply misguided. Wagenknecht, after all, was highly critical of the German government’s push for austerity politics during the Eurozone crisis and sharply criticised Schäuble’s punitive stance with regards to Greece. So why should she, of all people, turn to the authors of the “instruction sheet” for austerity for inspiration?
But we don’t have to understand ordoliberalism as a blueprint for austerity politics. As many scholars of ordoliberalism have argued, ordoliberalism is more than a set of principles for economic policy making, austerity politics or not, and can be best understood as a social and political theory. Walter Bonefeld, for example, has argued that ordoliberalism cannot be reduced to a set of policy prescriptions. While ordoliberalism does focus on the economic sphere, he claims, it does not “conceive of the free economy in narrow economic terms” but sees it as a “universal form of life,” a “definite moral order” that requires a political and social framework which has to be created and sustained by the state.
So, if we understand ordoliberalism as a social and political theory does it become easier to spot the ideas that might have attracted a “Jeanne d’Arc of anti-capitalism”? At first glance, it doesn’t seem so. Ordoliberalism is most commonly seen as centrally concerned with limiting or constraining the power of mass democracy; as having an elitist and technocratic view of political decision-making; and a conception of the social order that is both “patriarchal” and has undertones of a “natural hierarchy” to boot. Ordoliberalism—or rather the strand of neoliberal thought that would later be called ordoliberalism—emerged out of a deep sense of crisis in the 1920s. Ordoliberals recognised that the Great Depression had made the weaknesses of a laissez-faire economy painfully obvious, and sought to articulate a new liberalism that would no longer adhere to the fallacy that markets were quasi-natural phenomena that emerged as long as the state got out of the way. They developed the idea of the market as a “political event” to be carefully staged by a strong state. The state’s decision-making processes, the ordoliberals argued, had to be protected from the constant clamouring of special interests; a threat that had emerged full force with the development of pluralist mass democracy, according to the ordoliberals. Economic freedom thus had to be protected by a strong state and an economic constitution that would insulate the market economy from excess demands of pluralist mass democracies.
This account of ordoliberalism as a political theory with strong anti-democratic and technocratic tendencies doesn’t seem very promising for a left reimagination of the present economic order. So far, it’s difficult to see how and why Wagenknecht would look to such a political program for inspiration, especially since Wagenknecht, on her own account, understands her own political project in opposition to the present subordination of democratic self-determination to the whims of the markets. She opposes further European integration precisely for this reason—because she sees the EU as a political instrument that will dethrone democratic self-determination in favor of market rule. Whatever one’s quarrels with Wagenknecht’s political program might be, it is difficult to see her agenda as animated by the ordo-/neo-liberal “problematic” of safeguarding the market from the greedy tentacles of a mass-democratic kraken.
In order to understand why Wagenknecht chooses to venture into this seemingly hostile ideological territory, a closer look at her own reading of ordoliberalism is needed. In Freedom instead of Capitalism and Prosperity without Greed, Wagenknecht reads ordoliberalism as a political theory of a market economy with a human face. She draws on three aspects of ordoliberal thought for her own vision of creative socialism, namely on the ordoliberal theory of an active regulatory state, on ordoliberal critiques of the monopolistic and neo-feudal aspects of actually existing capitalist markets and the ordoliberals’ commitment to meritocracy, competition, and innovation; and, finally, on the ordoliberal concept of the social market economy, which Wagenknecht reads as entailing a commitment to a robust social welfare state and a mixed economy.
Wagenknecht portrays the current economic order as a system, in which inherited wealth, concentrated private economic power, and limited liability have distorted a competitive order and have abolished any relationship between merit, effort and reward: a neo-feudal rather than neo-liberal order that no longer serves the common good. She claims to derive this critique of actually existing capitalism from the ordoliberal critique of the monopolistic and neo-feudal elements of capitalist markets. For example, in support of her own critique of concentrated private economic power she draws on Eucken’s commitment to strong anti-trust policies and his insistence that the state has a primary responsibility to avert the very emergence of concentrated economic power in the form of monopolies, rather than merely seeking to control the abuse of monopolistic power.
Wagenknecht takes this concern with private economic power to what she claims is its logical conclusion—she argues that in order to foreclose the kind of concentrated private economic power that Eucken was worried about, one has to strictly limit the size of firms and transform them into worker-owned coops. Similarly, Wagenknecht explicitly draws on Rüstow’s critique of the “feudal-plutocratic” inequality of opportunity that is brought about by inherited wealth. She approvingly cites his claim that “inherited [my emphasis] inequalities of opportunity are the most important institutional features through which feudalism continues to live on in the market economy. It transforms the market economy into a plutocracy, a system governed by private wealth.”
Wagenknecht argues that Rüstow sought to limit inherited inequality of opportunity by radically curtailing cross-generational wealth transfers. In fact, Wagenknecht derives her own proposals for changes to the German inheritance law—namely, her proposal to tax all inheritance above €1 million at 100%—from this claim. And she takes up Eucken’s call for unlimited personal liability as the final pillar in her effort to abolish “unearned income”—i.e., income that is not generated by work performed or risk taken. Wagenknecht further argues that the ordoliberals were committed to robust social legislation, social welfare provisions, and a mixed economy that recognises the limits of markets instead of aiming at the marketization of everything.
In Freedom instead of Capitalism, Wagenknecht approvingly notes that “the ordoliberals assumed that a social market economy that is governed by strict rules and robust social legislation is no longer opposed to the common good but can serve it. But they also understood that the state had a primary obligation to ensure a social equilibrium [sozialer Ausgleich], and that this couldn’t be left to the market.” She goes on to quote Müller-Armack’s definition of the social market economy as a “consciously steered, social economy” as opposed to a “laissez-faire, liberal economy”. “The proponents of ordoliberalism,” she maintains, lobbied for robust social legislation, including “a functioning pension system and health insurance system [and] robust unemployment provisions.”
This reading of ordoliberalism does indeed seem much more promising for left appropriations than interpretations of ordoliberalism as an “instruction sheet” for austerity or an anti-democratic political theory. But Wagenknecht’s reading simply ignores many aspects of ordoliberal thought that are incompatible with her own political agenda. For example, Wagenknecht, unsurprisingly, makes an argument in favour of strengthening organised labour but doesn’t discuss the fact that ordoliberals saw organised labour as a prime example of the special interests from which the state had to be insulated. Similarly, she overestimates the extent to which the ordoliberals supported interventionist policies—or maybe misreads the nature of the interventions that ordoliberals supported. And she ignores the anti-democratic tendencies of one of some of the core ordoliberal commitments, namely that the ordoliberal insistence on an “economic constitution” was meant to serve as a bulwark against “excess” democratic demands.
Finally, while Wagenknecht is right that ordoliberals paid more attention to the “social question” than other variants of neoliberal thought, she nonetheless overestimates the concessions that ordoliberalism made. It is misleading to present ordoliberals as proponents of robust social welfare provisions and a mixed economy given that ordoliberals were strictly opposed to a strong welfare state. Wagenknecht’s reading of the ordoliberals as the “fathers of the social market economy” accepts a common but misleading narrative about the emergence of the social market economy that describes the social market economy as it actually existed as an ordoliberal achievement.
While it is true that the concept of social market economy was first popularised by Müller-Armack, the social market economy that actually came to be had relatively little to do with the original ordoliberal vision. In fact, the concept of the social market economy had been conceived as a conceptual and political alternative to the social welfare state; a way to make a market economy more palatable to the German public at a time when its fate seemed highly uncertain. As Ludwig Erhard once put it to Friedrich Hayek: “‘I hope you don’t misunderstand me when I speak of a social market economy [soziale Marktwirtschaft]. I mean by that that the market economy as such is social not that it needs to be made social”. Politically speaking, the concept of the social market economy proved a success, but it did so precisely because it did not stay ‘ideologically pure.’ Instead, it was subject to appropriations by the left, as social democrats, organised labour, and their political allies learned to appeal to the concept of the social market economy in order to do what the ordoliberals had sought to stave off—namely, to bring about a stronger welfare state.
In reading the ordoliberals as the “fathers of the social market economy,” Wagenknecht thus reproduces a historical narrative that underplays the contribution of the political left to the emergence of the social market economy as an actual historical phenomenon (rather than an ordoliberal counter-idea to the social welfare state). Admittedly, reading ordoliberalism in this way—a reading that enables Wagenknecht to draw a direct line from Walter Eucken and Ludwig Erhard to her own political project—has some key political advantages: Wagenknecht mobilises a language and an image of the past—a nostalgic vision of postwar West Germany—that has resonated broadly with the German electorate. She presents her own ambitious vision of the transformation of the German economic order as the logical conclusion of an interrupted ordoliberal project and portrays Die Linke not as the party of GDR-apologism but as the only party committed to realising the FRG’s original promise.
Her success in the German feuilleton and on the political talk show circuit shows that this strategy has been partially successful—at the very least, it makes it harder for her political opponents to dismiss her, and her ideas, as permanently stuck in a romanticised socialist past. Similarly, Wagenknecht’s appropriation of the ordoliberal language and her newfound focus on competition, individual effort, and just reward, for example, has some major strengths. Her takedown of liberal appeals to meritocracy that somehow never get around to tackling the issue of inherited wealth or what Wagenknecht calls “leistungsloses Einkommen” (unearned income that cannot be justified in terms of work performed or risk taken), for example, is a critique worth making in today’s German political discourse.
But there are costs to this strategy, too: First, by moving to an (ordo-)liberal language of effort, merit, and individuality, solidarity as a political principle no longer seems to have much of a presence in Wagenknecht’s political imaginary. This is unfortunate, especially at a moment where new left imaginaries of practices of solidarity that can integrate and connect struggles against different kinds of dominations are urgently needed. Second, by replicating the conservative narrative of ordoliberalism as all that was good and just in post-war West Germany, and by representing the social market economy as it actually existed as an ordoliberal achievement instead of seeing it as the outcome of processes of contestation that required a strong political left, Wagenknecht obscures the contribution that the political left made to the very system she invokes as the better alternative to the current economic order. And finally, by adopting the ordoliberal vision of a strong regulatory state—a state that is strong because it is sufficiently insulated from the noxious influence of special interests—Wagenknecht is less likely to stress the necessity for the mobilisation of countervailing forces that could contest the power of capital; the very forces that could back Wagenknecht’s proposal for a fundamental reorganisation of the economy.
In conclusion: It’s clear that Wagenknecht’s engagement with ordoliberalism, whatever its weaknesses, cannot be dismissed as a mere “marketing ploy”, as some of her critics have alleged. Wagenknecht’s engagement with the ordoliberal tradition seems both genuine and serious, and appears to have transformed her political language to significant degree, introducing a stronger focus on competition and innovation, merit and individual effort, as well as a mode of anti-capitalist critique that focuses primarily on the critique of concentrated economic power and unearned income (“leistungsloses Einkommen”) and sees these as contingent rather than necessary features of a market economy. On the other hand, Wagenknecht’s readings of Eucken, Rüstow, and Müller-Armack ignores core aspects of ordoliberalism that are in conflict with Wagenknecht’s vision, rather than engaging them critically. This move risks acquiescing to a conservative narrative about the economic successes of post-war (West-)Germany and underplaying the importance of a broad-based left movement that can win significant concessions from the right. Whether the political advantages of appealing to ordoliberalism from the left are worth the risks is yet to be seen.
 William Callison and Quinn Slobodian, “A Tale of Two Ordos: German Nationalism in Brown and Red”, ROAR Magazine 10 (2020), 3.
 Gareth Dale, “Justificatory Fables of Ordoliberalism: Laissez-faire and the ‘Third Way’”, Critical Sociology 45(7–8) (2019), 1049; Werner Bonefeld, The Strong State and the Free Economy (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), 5; William Callison (ed.), Mutant Neoliberalism: Market Rule and Political Rupture (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2019), 69.
 Sahra Wagenknecht, Reichtum ohne Gier: Wie wir uns vor dem Kapitalismus retten (Frankfurt: Campus, 2018), 15–17.
 Sahra Wagenknecht, Freiheit Statt Kapitalismus (Frankfurt: Campus, 2012), 62–8.
 Ibid., 70.
 Christian Schlesiger, “Wer Erhards Anspruch Ernst nimmt, müsste Die Linke wählen”, WirtschaftsWoche (22 June 2017).
 Deutscher Bundestag, “Stenografischer Bericht der 59. Sitzung, 16. September 2010”, Plenarprotokoll 17/59. Internetpräsenz des Deutschen Bundestages, 2010 (accessed online: http://dipbt.bundestag.de/dip21/btp/17/17059.pdf), 6161, as cited in Moritz-Peter Haarmann, Wirtschaft – Macht – Bürgerbewusstsein: Walter Euckens Beitrag Zur Sozioökonomischen Bildung (Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien, 2015), 85.
 Markus Günther, “Über diesen Kommunismus könnte man reden”, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (28 May 2016). All translations of the original German texts are mine, except where otherwise noted.
 Peter Gauweiler, “Die mit dem Wolf tanzt: Sahra Wagenknechts Plädoyer für Freiheit statt Kapitalismus stützt sich auf die marktwirtschaftlichen Theories der alten Bundesrepublik”, Süddeutsche Zeitung (11 June 2012); Peter Gauweiler, “Die Entfremdeten: Sahra Wagenknecht beschreibt die Welten der Real-und Finanzökonomie und entwickelt ihre Idee vom Kapitalismus. Die Analyse ist links—aber nicht nur. Der Politikerin geht es auch um die Marktwirtschaft und die Rettung der Demokratie”, Süddeutsche Zeitung (29 March 2016).
; Jörg Schindler, “Die Gewendete: Von der Kommunistischen Plattform in den Wohlstand für alle – Sahra Wagenknecht hat einen langen Weg hinter sich. Er könnte sie an die Spitze der Linkspartei führen”, Frankfurter Rundschau (30 May 2012).
 Pascal Beucker, “Vergiftetes Lob”, taz–die tageszeitung (14 April 2016).
 Norbert Häring, “Linkes Hohelied auf den Nationalstaat”, Handelsblatt (11 March 2016); Hauke Janssen, “Muenchhausen-Check: Was Sahra Wagenknecht bei Ludwig Erhard entdeckt”, Spiegel (30 January 2013) (accessed online: https://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/fakten-check-sahra-wagenknecht-ludwig-erhard-und-die-linkspartei-a-880253.html); Philip Plickert, “Kreativer Sozialismus: Sahra Wagenknecht und die Erhard Masche”, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (19 December 2011); Ulrich van Suntum, “Für eine Absicherung der Sozialen Marktwirtschaft im Grundgesetz”, ORDO 70(1) (2019), 293.
 Wilhelm Meyer, “Marx Reloaded. Anmerkungen zu dem Buch von Sahra Wagenknecht: Freiheit statt Kapitalismus”, ORDO 63(1) (2012), 505, 508, 510. Meyer’s quote is in German and the translation is mine except for the Dante quote, which I borrowed from H.F. Cary’s English translation of the Divine Comedy. See Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy; Or Vision of Hell, Purgatory, Paradise, Henry F. Cary (tr.) (New York: Cassell, 1891), 10:9.
 Dale, “Justificatory Fables of Ordoliberalism”.
 Callison, Mutant Neoliberalism, 69.
 Thomas Biebricher, The Political Theory of Neoliberalism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018).
 Sebastian Dullien and Ulrike Guérot, “The Long Shadow of Ordoliberalism: Germany’s Approach to the Euro Crisis”, Policy Brief: European Council on Foreign Affairs (February 2012), 1.
 cf. Mark Blyth, Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Dullien and Guérot, “The Long Shadow of Ordoliberalism”.
 Blyth, Austerity, 141.
 Werner Bonefeld, “Ordoliberalism and Political Theology: On the Government of Stateless Money”, in Josef Hien and Christian Joerges (eds.), Ordoliberalism, Law and the Rule of Economics (Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2017), 280–1. For ordoliberalism as a political theory, see also Thomas Biebricher, “Ordoliberalism as a Variety of Neoliberalism”, in Hien and Joerges, Ordoliberalism, Law, and the Rule of Economics, 103–14; Biebricher, Political Theory of Neoliberalism.
 Bonefeld, “Ordoliberalism and Political Theology”; Biebricher, “Ordoliberalism as a Variety of Neoliberalism”; Biebricher, Political Theory of Neoliberalism; Ralf Ptak, “Neoliberalism in Germany: Revisiting the Ordoliberal Foundations of the Social Market Economy”, in Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe (eds.), The Road from Mont Pelerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 98–138; Ralf Ptak, “Der Staat im neoliberalen Denken”, in Thomas Biebricher (ed.), Der Staat des Neoliberalismus (Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2016), 31–73.
 Biebricher, “Ordoliberalism as a Variety of Neoliberalism”; Ptak, “Neoliberalism in Germany”.
 Ptak, “Neoliberalism in Germany”, 100–6.
 Ibid., 108–9.
 Ordoliberalism, as a term, only emerged in the 1950s, but I’m here using it to refer to individuals and ideas that were later closely identified with ordoliberalism even when I’m referring to a period prior to the 1950s. It’s anachronistic but hopefully makes for easier reading. See Ptak, “Neoliberalism in Germany”, 108.
 Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978–1979, Graham Burchell (tr.) (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 75ff.
 Bonefeld, “Ordoliberalism and Political Theology”, 274.
 Ptak, “Neoliberalism in Germany”; Ptak, “Der Staat im neoliberalen Denken”; Biebricher, “Ordoliberalism as a Variety of Neoliberalism”; Bonefeld, “Ordoliberalism and Political Theology”.
 Wagenknecht, Reichtum ohne Gier, 31.
 ibid., 22–31.
 Biebricher, Political Theory of Neoliberalism.
 Wagenknecht, Freiheit Statt Kapitalismus, 56–7, 61.
 Wagenknecht, Reichtum ohne Gier, 71ff.
 Walter Eucken, Grundsätze der Wirtschaftspolitik (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), 360; Wagenknecht, Freiheit Statt Kapitalismus, 58.
 Alexander Rüstow, Die Religion der Marktwirtschaft (Münster: LIT, 2009), 96, as cited in Wagenknecht, Reichtum ohne Gier, 95.
 Wagenknecht, Freiheit Statt Kapitalismus, 95.
 Wagenknecht, Reichtum ohne Gier, 71ff, 281, 310.
 Wagenknecht, Freiheit Statt Kapitalismus, 52–70.
 Ibid.,, 56.
 Blyth, Austerity; Quinn Slobodian, The Globalists: The end of empire and the birth of neoliberalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018).
 Walter Eucken, “Staatliche Strukturwandlung und die Krisis des Kapitalismus”, Weltwirtschaftliches Archiv 36 (1932), 297–321; cf. Janssen, “Muenchhausen-Check”.
 Ptak, “Neoliberalism in Germany”.
 cf. Angela Wigger, “Debunking the Myth of the Ordoliberal Influence on Post-war European Integration”, in Hien and Joerges, Ordoliberalism, Law and the Rule of Economics, 161–178.
 Wagenknecht, Freiheit Statt Kapitalismus, 54.
 cited in Ptak, “Neoliberalism in Germany”, 107.