In Defence of Radical Political Economy

In a powerful defence of Marxist political economy John Saul argues that ‘facing down the hulk of capital that presently bestrides the world was never going to be easy.’ Though as ‘powerful and ill-intentioned as capitalists’ might be ‘as they destroy the world, environmentally and morally’, everything, in Africa and elsewhere, continues to depend on the struggle of the oppressed. In this contribution he blends his on-going work on Africa with a more general analytical and theoretical consideration on progressive political economy. The fruitfulness of this approach is exemplified in his forthcoming book, Revolutionary Hope vs Free-Market Fantasies: Towards the Revival of Liberation Struggle in Southern Africa (to appear in 2019). There readers can see a more elaborated model of the method of both learning and communicating – in exploring the juxtaposition between theory on the one hand and ‘practice’, in the chapters ‘southern Africa and beyond’ – than is possible here.

Left, Right and Centre: On Regrounding a Progressive Political Economy of Africa for the 21st Century

By John Saul

A version of this contribution to was initially written earlier in 2018 as a paper solicited by the editors Toyin Falola and Samuel O. Oloruntoba for inclusion in their volume entitled The Palgrave Handbook of Africa Political Economy and to be published in 2019 by Palgrave-Macmillan. It is they who have permitted to use a version it here in advance of the publication of their own book. I am grateful to them for this comradely gesture.

How are we best to think of a relevant political economy for the understanding of developments in present-day Africa? To begin with it must be a political economy that takes seriously both terms – ‘political’ and ‘economy’ – in the approach chosen: each emphasis is real, each is necessary. Thus, it is equally relevant to assess the weight and substance of the class-defined and globally-defined nature of production, distribution and economic inequality as it is to assess the power-defined nature of political rule and, linked to it, the precise lived parameters of order and entitlement. There can, quite simply, be no ‘class reductionism’ – cast simply in terms of the ownership of the means and the relations of production – in any social analysis that claims to be meaningful and relevant. To my mind, however, the defining of the class-defined nature of the system of economic production can be/should be an absolutely essential first approximation to any meaningful understanding of the workings of all social systems. And this is, of course, no small matter. At the same time (and however essential) it can only be a first approximation to understanding the workings of any system so ‘over-determined’ as ‘a society.’ Thus, it is not only the polity that is ‘real’ within such a system. There are other determinants – those defined in terms of gender, racial differentiations, religious proclivities and national/ethnic belonging for example – that are every bit as real in the pertinent effects they have as are class – and polity-defined variables!

Of course, the Marxism-inclined scholar like myself will assert the quite essential role of explanations structured with an emphasis being laid upon the production process and class relations in any analysis of diverse societies so explained.’ And I have myself found such explanations to be essential to the grounding of the wide range of writing on Africa and particularly southern Africa that I have produced over a fifty-year period. Nonetheless, any such analysis can represent at best (as suggested above) only a first approximation – however essential and weighty such an ‘analysis’ may be and however accurate and scientifically coherent are the findings that it leads to. Not that any such approximation should be thought of as being based on some arbitrary whim; rather, at their best and most rigorous, such ‘approximations’ are based on a careful choice of just what it is that an author seeks most pressingly to know. This is a key point that needs further elaboration here, an elaboration that my first section (below) provides. For, with regard to social theory and the necessary concentration on a self-conscious and announced choice of questions that one chooses to then ask, I find a firm anchor for such an approach in what Hugh Stretton – who was, up until the time of his death in 2015, much the deepest thinker on such questions in the social sciences – has termed the idea of social science as a ‘moralizing science.’[1]

This is, therefore, the ‘idea,’ the ‘starting point,’ that I will now elaborate upon.

Political Economy as a ‘Moralizing Science’

Let me first seek to illuminate the central issue involved by citing here the work of several writers who emphasize, like Stretton, a related perspective on the pursuit of knowledge. For Marxists and socialists seek not only to change the world but also to interpret it as scientifically and accurately as is possible; indeed, their central concerns have given them tools with which to do so. Still, it is appropriate to ask just what, more broadly, is the kind of knowledge these concerns can produce. One answer to this was articulated by Lucio Colletti in his notable essay ‘Marxism: Science or Revolution?’[2] Colletti focused on the wage relationship within capitalism and conceded that ‘bourgeois social science’ (as viewed from ‘the point of view of the capitalist’, as Colletti put it) offers an understanding of that relationship as a ‘free exchange’ that is quite plausible (and, we might add, fits neatly into the ‘scientific’ undertakings of neo-classical economics). But, Colletti insisted, equally plausible (and even more pertinent to the cause of socialist revolution) is an understanding of this relationship – ‘from the viewpoint of the working class’ – as one of exploitation, and this angle of vision can also offer a revealing (but very different) analysis of the workings of capitalism. [3]

‘The worker’s point of view’? It is tempting to put it like this (not least for purposes of political mobilization), but we can actually advance the case for the prioritizing of a class analysis grounded in Marxist/socialist premises somewhat more modestly…but to even more assertive effect. Resnick and Wolff, for example, have done this convincingly in their volume, Knowledge and Class, rejecting both ‘empiricist’ and ‘rationalist’ epistemologies while announcing, unapologetically, that, as Marxists, they choose class analysis as their preferred ‘entry point’ into social enquiry.[4]

Interestingly, they make no claim that this is the only useful approach to society for purposes of theory or practice but assert merely that it is the one they find most illuminating to build from, both analytically and politically: ‘Class then is [the] one process among the many different processes of life chosen by Marxists as their theoretical entry point so as to make a particular sense of and a particular change in this life.’

But ‘why choose class as an entry-point rather than, say, racial or sexual oppression?’:

Our answer may serve to clarify our relations both to Marx and to those people today (including friends) whose entry points and hence theories differ more or less from ours. What Marx sought, and we continue to seek to contribute to struggles for social change, are not only our practical energies but also certain distinctive theoretical insights. The most important of these for us concerns class. Marx discovered, we think, a specific social process that his allies in social struggle had missed. The process in question is the production and distribution of surplus labour in society. Marx’s contribution lay in defining, locating and connecting the class process to all other processes comprising the social totality they all sought to change. Marx’s presumption was that programs for social change had less chance of success to the degree that their grasp of social structure was deficient.[5]

Note, in addition, that Resnick and Wolff see this way of expressing things as avoiding any kind of reductionism and instead as defining a Marxism that is open, precisely, to ‘the mutual overdetermination of both class and non-class’ dimensions, and thus to ‘the complex interdependencies of class and non-class aspects of social life…that neither Marx nor we reduce to cause-effect or determining-determined essentialisms.’[6]

In fact, and even if too seldom acknowledged, this kind of argument seems not only essential but also straightforward enough. Moreover, even if some social scientists are uncomfortable with the notion of an inevitably ‘moralizing social science,’ the Marxist/socialist social scientist has every reason to embrace it. After all, is this not what the unity of theory and practice is all about? This is the argument of Gavin Kitching, for example, who writes (approvingly) that Marxism is much less a science than a ‘point of view,’ and, more specifically, a point of view ‘on or about the form of society that it calls capitalism.’[7]

For Kitching, ‘the Marxist point of view’ (which term Kitching himself adopts) turns out to be a ‘rationally motivated willingness to act to transform capitalism.’ It has been, Kitching argues, ‘the “objectively best” point of view to take on capitalism … in order to change it into a better form of society’[8] – and hence also the basis for the kind of politics of persuasion and mobilization of interests that could alone make the struggle for socialism viable. I find this convincing – even though Kitching himself seems to take his own argument much too far when he suggests that, whatever may be its positive moral-cum-political value, the Marxist point of view does not provide any ‘privileged means’ of understanding the workings of capitalist society and its contradictions. The truth is, as noted above, that Marxists and socialists seek not only to change the world but also to interpret it – and their central concerns have indeed given them tools with which to do so.

Moreover, this also takes us full-circle and back to the basic epistemological argument which we referred to at the outset, back, in fact, to Stretton’s argument that there is no more meaningful foundation upon which to build a social science than the acknowledgement that social science is – must be – a ‘moralizing science.’ To elucidate this case further we will first make brief initial reference to another hard-headed methodological pioneer, E. H. Carr and to his seminal text: What Is History? For Carr tells us to ‘Study the historian before you begin to study the facts,’ since

…the necessity to establish these basic facts rests not on any quality of the facts themselves, but on an a priori decision of the historian…It used to be said that the facts speak for themselves. This is, of course, untrue. The facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context…By and large the historian will get the kind of facts he wants. History means interpretation. [9]

And where do such choices come from? Not primarily, I would suggest, from some evolving and shifting consensus as to what is pertinent to the best ‘scientific’ explanations emerging within social science disciplines (even if that can have a certain weight). No, they come, as Hugh Stretton argues (in his aforementioned and powerful manual of clear-sighted common sense with regard to methodology, The Political Sciences) that they come, inevitably, from moral choices as to what is taken to be important. In short, historical and social sciences are, in Stretton’s phrase, ‘moralizing sciences,’ a point exemplified in his conclusion – after his canvassing of a number of diverse approaches to answering, as an example, the question of what caused late nineteenth century imperialism – that even if his wide range of authors had

…all agreed to explain the same events and had made no mistakes of fact…it should still be clear that they would have continued to differ from each other. It should also be clear that their diverse purposes – to reform or conserve societies, to condemn or justify past policies, to reinforce theoretical structures – might well have been served by a stricter regard for truth, but could scarcely be replaced by it…. However desirable as qualities of observation, “objectivity” and its last-ditch rearguard “intersubjectivity” still seem unable to organize an explanation or to bring men of different faith to agree about the parts or the shape, the length or breadth or depth or pattern, that an explanation should have. [10]

In sum, Stretton concludes, ‘neutral scientific rules’ cannot ‘replace valuation as selectors.’ And thus the ‘scientistic’ dream of developing an internally coherent, self-sustaining and [potentially] exhaustive model of society [can be seen to be] not only misguided but dangerous – dangerous in the sense of encouraging a blunting of debate about the ‘political and moral valuations’ that necessarily help shape both the questions posed of society and the explanations that contest for our attention regarding social phenomena. Indeed, he then calls for the self-conscious embrace of what he terms a (necessarily) ‘moralizing [social] science.’ We might wish to add that, once the questions themselves have been posed, the social scientist can and must still be judged by his or her peers in terms of the evidence discovered and adduced in the attempt to answer them, and in terms of the logic and coherence of the arguments presented. There are scientific canons of evidence and argument in terms of which explanations can, up to a point, be judged ‘intersubjectively.’ But the questions themselves quite simply do not emerge unprompted from such concerns alone.

From the Left: The Political Economy of the Enragés

Begin an analysis of advanced capitalist societies and of their global impact from a starting point, a moral premise, that sees capitalism as a system premised, most notably, on the extraction of productive labour at a price well below the market value of the good or service that the labour so purchased creates for the capitalist enterprise/employer who pays the wage. A Marxist, understandably enragé/angry, would call a system that premises its ‘relations of production‘ in such a way as being, fundamentally, one committed to the reproduction of tangible social inequality, and characterized, at its core, by its indifference to the fact of ‘exploitation.’ But it is also one, many Marxist have argued/assumed, that, almost inevitably, gives rise to ‘class struggle’ between the owners of the means of production (the ‘capitalist class’) and the ‘working class.’

In theory, the logic of this reading of capitalist-centric social reality is perfectly clear, even compelling, in Africa as well as in the more advanced-capitalist world but, politically, things have not worked out quite so straightforwardly at either end of this spectrum. The ’other side’ is trying too, of course, and the fact is that the right has the money, the economic power, and all too often both the overbearing political clout of the state and the salience within the society’s structures of cultural creation that helps drive, enforce and disseminate the practical and normative social preoccupations that give ‘capitalist common-sense’ its resonance in the minds and the politics of the less advantaged.

Indeed, in an overbearingly capitalist world built on the presumed superior logic of ‘possessive individualism,’ a privatizing and disempowering mind-set is pervasive, one which sees each of us as being alone in the market-place, mainly anxious to get ‘our share’ – however unequally such shares may have proven to be in comparison to the ‘entitlements’ of other richer and more powerful social claimants. This privatizing logic of capitalist ideology was perhaps most clearly spelled out by the infamous right-wing politician Margaret Thatcher who offered the bald opinion that ‘There is no such thing as “society”; there are individual men and women and there are families.’[11] In so far as present societal developments encourage such a perspective to take hold quite widely, the Marxian world of the primacy of presumed collective and more egalitarian entitlements begins to move further and further away from so-called ‘reality’…as most people come to know and to experience it!

This is, in fact as true for, say, contemporary African societies as it is for those in the North Atlantic zone…although the precise mix of relevant social actors may vary from society to society. These variations will be linked, in turn, to trends in the structure of stratification that the world-wide hegemony of capitalism has produced, trends that help deflect the logic of class confrontation and that undermine left solidarity. Most graphic, especially in the Global South, is the fissure amongst people at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid between those with fixed employment and a degree of organizational power (e.g. union membership) on the one hand and those with neither stable employment nor any work-place-based access to socio-political power on the other. I have elsewhere termed this second stratum as ‘the precariat’ and discussed some of implications of such a real dividing-line. [12] I have also discussed there the political methods that that might begin to facilitate a genuine suturing of such a social lesion before it becomes disabling, this in the interests both of long term healing and of joint and coordinated political action.

And there are other diversities of situation and intention that imply liberating social purposes but that, in the absence of broad political, principled and effectively democratic self-mobilization (again vanguardism need not apply, thank you very much…although there is a role for judicious and open-minded leadership!), never seem to add up into a focused left movement with truly effective transformative potential. To be sure, these ‘diversities’ reflect social identifiers whose salience is rooted in differences of gender, of sexual preference, of race, of religion, and of diverse ethnies that, in all settings, can and must ‘speak to each other’ if a progressive social project is ever to become really hegemonic and not merely languish forever in the realm of utopian aspiration. In addition, there is a range of struggles – those based on environmental concerns and on varied campaigns for social justice (with respect to food, housing, education, health provision and the like) – that each signal the pursuit from ‘below’ of progressive goals of their own right.

In short, the continued invocation on the left of proletarian purpose, important though it undoubtedly can be, is only one card the ‘left’ will want to play in the building of a movement that could eventually mount a bid to give effective hegemonic voice to diverse progressive pursuits of a more viable, just and humane future. For the difficulty of building anywhere the kind of broader left movement – one not deformed by ‘vanguardism’ of the Stalinist/Trotskyist/arrogant and undemocratic ultra-leftist type – that seems to be appropriate should not be understated. It is true that the fact of multiple contradictions and diverse resistances within capitalist societies north and south does offer the left an invitation to reconcile diversities and work together to more effectively build, on many fronts, a decent society. And yet it remains true that the emergence of any such left movement must be an on-going work-in-progress (implying hard and imaginative political work!), with such a movement always threatening to self-destruct in the toils of rhetoric, self-righteousness, and a narrow definition of interests. Its very diversity also suggests that it can be all too readily subverted by both the destructive right-wing common sense linked to capital logic and by right-populist, even fascist, mystifications (that also, more tacitly, takes capitalist hegemony for granted).[13]

After all, these were the alternatives offered in the most recent U.S. presidential election by Clinton and Trump respectively… united as they were by a shared silence regarding the actual workings of capitalism (only Bernie Sanders raised any real questions about those). But to such matters we will have to return in our next section.

Meanwhile, there is one additional matter that political economy, be it of the left, right or centre, must deal with. For all societies are affected by the present global reality of capital’s hegemony. Nowhere is this clearer than in Africa where, from the 1960s, decolonization has proved to be a false one (as Europe’s imperial hegemony was replaced by that of the United States, its capital and its state). Now, as I have argued elsewhere [14] and as numerous capitals (from China, India, North Korea, Brazil, etc.) have emerged to divide the world economy (alongside more familiar enterprises from Europe and North America), we begin to see the crystallization of what I have elsewhere called an Empire of Capital (an empire competitive within itself but with a shared commitment to capital’s broad hegemony). And the new empire’s ‘junior partners’: the elites, of social locations in the spheres of both state and entrepreneurial-enterprise within each of the ‘national economies’ themselves. As much as the Right may celebrate this logical outcome of the ever more far-reaching globalization of a world-wide empire of capital this is the stark and powerful enemy that now confronts each and every struggle to evoke collective and humane purpose throughout the world.[15]

From the Right and from the Centre

(i) The Political Economy of the ‘Entitled’

‘Political economy’ has not been historically a codename for left-leaning economics, of course. Recall, for example, that much of Marx’s own work was carried out in the name of a ‘critique of Political Economy’ (that was, for example, the subtitle of Marx’s most famous writing: the three volume Capital: Critique of Political Economy). Indeed, when I myself first studied economics, political science and sociology at the University of Toronto in the 1950s all three disciplines were seen as sub-sets (and housed under the umbrella) of the Department of Political Economy. There Marx was only rarely mentioned [16] and the core historical theories offered for intensive study were by Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill and the like. Their texts then provided the bases – the students’ rite of passage into the political economy of the entitled, as it were – for a more conventionally orthodox and pretty-much uncritically capitalist take on the world that then defined the student’s academic work in succeeding undergraduate years.

To be sure the right perspective was soon, and increasingly, to become more firmly fixed on the more abstract and mathematically-driven off-spring of these preoccupations.[17] Thus, for modern economics (and much political science and sociology), the ‘exploitation’ that Marxists argue premises capitalism’s production system simply does not exist as a salient, even relevant, category. For rightist concerns turn, almost immediately, to the workings of the market in which virtually everything finds its value weighed in market terms and, in theory, rendered socially intelligible and appropriate by the cut and thrust of ‘competition’ and by the workings of supply and demand. Quite apart from the opening that the pervasive global ideology of possessive individualism (in both advanced capitalist settings and more marginalized ones) gives to reconciling many of capitalism’s otherwise bizarre workings, here is a complementary ideological twist that is also of importance. For such guidelines are designed to persuade the unwary that socio-economic inequalities and the widely differentiated rewards which result from no-holds-barred capitalism merely represent a deserved payment for the societal guiding-hand that wealthy elites offer. Moreover, the assumed ‘likelihood’ is that the latter will simply reinvest their apparently lavish economic rewards in productive ways, an outcome from which we will all benefit! In short, the ideological key to such a system is some kind of trickle-down theory that suggests that inequality is the price the rest of us pay for progress.

The key ‘moralizing’ premise here, of course, is the enunciation of capital’s benign logic – capital as the force driving global production. And not only that: this ‘capital’ drives global production to the long-term benefit of us all, east and west, north and south. Add in some complexities: the extreme polarization between rich and poor in virtually all settings, the recolonization of Africa (to go no further afield) by the Empire of Capital; and the growing hegemony, within the equation of capital, of financial capital (with the movement of money becoming even more important than the movement of goods and services and with this development introducing new volatility and instability to the global system).[18]

As Patrick Bond further writes of this phenomenon of financialization,

Reflecting financiers’ political power, even as banks crashed in 2008-11, their lobbies were sufficiently strong that they gained public subsidies for vast bailouts (including Quantitative Easing) worth many trillions of dollars. Their power extends far beyond financial flows, into public policy, often through credit ratings agencies and the Bretton Woods Institutions, especially in Africa. The latest version of Africa’s debt crisis is occurring in the wake of the commodity price crash – partly a function of financial speculators in 2011-15 – and the manipulation of African currencies in international markets adds to the misery.[19]

Nonetheless, it is at moments like this that the right-wing variant of political economy (and the myth of the magic market) springs into action and waves its magic wand to signal that all is well.

Well, not quite well. Even in the United States, as seen, there is a growing suspicion of capitalism’s workings, which surfaced in the most recent presidential election, in the end, only in a particularly dark form: a fear–ridden, hatred-driven right-wing populist expression of American nationalism. And this has eerie echoes on the right in Germany, France, the UK and elsewhere. And, in settings in Africa as well as other parts of the global south, actions and attitudes from below can also cover a diverse range; some are of the left to be sure, but the left imaginary has not been extremely effective in off-setting other popular responses that stretch from religion-based extremism to right-populist outbursts, often on ethnic and ultra-nationalist lines, and to more privatized responses to economic disaster (indices of both cynicism and desperation) such as pure criminality and the like. Even some of those on the right are nervous about such impolite and ‘unbusinesslike’ behaviour: pure ‘market-freedom’ and capitalist-induced moral chaos, can produce for them some frightening monsters and not just from the left. As for the left itself this all signals, as suggested above, how much more hard political work we have to do in order to tame any such monsters, harness the productive system to humane purpose, and achieve anything like what we think to be important in most settings in the world.

(ii) The Political Economy of the Afterthought

Of course, for many people of the centre – left-liberals or social-democrats – the market cannot be granted such total authority in the determining of social outcomes that many on the right seen to advocate for it. For those of the centre the outcomes driven by the logic of sheer economic determinacy will sometimes seem too narrowly-defined, merely factoring out too many possibly preferred social outcomes to be allowed to stand unchallenged. More centrist politicians – unwilling to challenge capital logic in any more fundamental way and quite prepared, it would appear, to see continued state funding of any too marked ‘welfarist’ activities in various sectors of social life as an unwarranted ‘collectivist’ intrusion – will now argue, as the state funding of social provisions are inevitably slashed, the importance of increased charity as an antidote to the structural unfairness of some outcomes.[20]

Or, more daringly, they will argue for the continuing provision by the state of some range of societal ‘entitlements.’ But the terms are almost invariably quite stringent and limited by one guiding premise: capital will do the heavy lifting in the profitable productive sphere while centre-left worthies will do what they can with the returns from the beseeching of charitable provision, both local and international, and with such conscience money as can be pried away from the government to subsidize ameliorative efforts in such spheres as those of housing, food, health, public transportation, environmental protection and the like. This is the political economy of the centre, the political economy of the afterthought, then: a skimming of something off the top of capitalist profit in order to humanize, minimally, societal outcomes. And yet the inequalities stoked by such choices remain of staggering proportions…even as they also grow precipitously. A not particularly ‘brave’ new world then.

*           *           *

In sum, the embrace by the centre-left and of its ‘common-sense’ acceptance of (or resignation to) capitalist hegemony is extremely deeply embedded and capitalism itself does seem so strong, so ascendant, in so many pertinent ways – economically, politically, culturally that the dream of its demise appears to be just that: a leftist dream. So maybe the centre-left is correct: capitalism is just too big a problem and too strong a system – both globally and locally – for us really to expect to wrestle to the ground; and some state elites are just too blood-thirsty and power-driven to take any strong opposition to them lightly. Better then to chip away, seeking to realize some apparently small gains for collective decency. But perhaps even such a ‘realistic’ approach can be mounted in such a way as to have revolutionary point and purpose. Here I’ve found the approach – characterized as the active pursuit of ‘structural reform’ and so identified by the likes of André Gorz and Boris Kagarlitzky [21]– to be a promising formulation and a way to make real revolution slowly but surely: making it incrementally, less dangerously and less provocatively, but, depending on just how intransigent the resistance to the real transformation of those in power is, more likely to be successful than some more dramatic calls for ‘revolution,’ as a left strategy are likely to be. Here the crucial distinction is between ‘structural reform’ and ‘mere social-democratic reformism’ – the first of these alternatives being characterized by two chief attributes:

The first is the insistence that any reform, to be structural, must not be comfortably self-contained (a mere ‘improvement’) but must, instead, be allowed self-consciously to implicate other ‘necessary’ reforms that follow from it as part of an emerging and on-going project of structural transformation in a coherently left-ward direction. The second is that a structural reform cannot come from on high: instead it must root itself in popular initiatives in such a way as to leave a residue of further empowerment – in terms of growing enlightenment/ self-consciousness and in terms of organizational capacity – for the vast mass of the population who thus strengthen themselves for further struggles, further victories: [As Gorz writes,] ‘the emancipation of the working class [and its allies] can become a total objective only if in the course of the struggle they have learned something about self-management, initiative and collective decision – in a word, if they have had a foretaste of what emancipation means.’[22]

Can we imagine building a movement that is both long-term wise and short-term smart as this strategy implies.[23] It isn’t going to be easy, certainly, but whoever said facing down the hulk of capital that presently bestrides the world was ever going to be easy. Perhaps capitalists, as powerful and ill-intentioned as they generally are (and as their very system, premised on the pursuit of profit, forces them to be) are more likely to win than the rest of us – even as they destroy the world, environmentally and morally, in the process. But this is the struggle between two strands, left and right, of political economy and the world of struggle about the future of capitalism and of humanity that they have helped to define and to mould. And it ain’t over; indeed it continues.

John S. Saul has taught at York University, the University of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), the University of Eduardo Mondlane (Mozambique) and the University of Witwatersrand (South Africa). He is the author/editor of more than twenty books on southern Africa and development issues and a founding member of the Review of African Political Economy.

Feature Photograph: Portrait of John Saul taken by Ben Joseph at the Ruth First Symposium on the 7 June 2012, hosted by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and the Review of African Political Economy. 


[1]. See Hugh Stretton, The Political Sciences: General Principles of Selection in Social Science and History (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961); this book has been, since I first read it in the 1960s, of immense importance to the development of the epistemology that became crucial to my own scientific work. In addition I must also reference the work of several African-based writers and activists: Frantz Fanon (Fanon was actually from Martinique, but became most noted as both a militant and a thinker in and about Africa), Amilcar Cabral, Julius Nyerere and Steve Biko, among others.

[2]. Lucio Colletti, “Marxism: Science or Revolution” in Robin Blackburn (ed.), Ideology in Social Science: Readings in Critical Social Theory (Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1972).

[3]. “I would say,” Colletti (ibid., 375) argues in this respect “that there are two realities in capitalism: the reality expressed by Marx and the reality expressed by the authors he criticizes.”

[4]. Stephen A Resnick and Richard D. Wolff, Knowledge and Class: A Marxian Critique of Political Economy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, !987); “By entry points we mean that particular concept a theory uses to enter into its formulation, its particular construction of the entities and relations that comprise the social totality” (p. 25).

[5]. Resnick and Wolff, ibid., 99.

[6]. Resnick and Wolff, ibid., 281. That this approach can also lead to very soft definitions  of capitalism and anti-capitalist struggle – see J. K. Gibson, The End of Capitlalism (As We Knew It) (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1996) – is worth noting but, for me at least, does not undermine its merits. Quite the contrary.

[7]. Gavin Kitching, Marxism and Science: Analysis of an Obsession (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994), 168.

[8]. Kitching, ibid., 169-70.

[9]. E. H. Carr, What is History? (New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1962) 5, 26.

[10]. Stretton, op. cit., 141.

[11]. In an interview that appeared in the British magazine Women’s Own (London, September 23, 1987).

[12]. See my chapter “The New Terms of Resistance: Proletariat, Precariat and the Present African Prospect” in Baris Karagaac, and also, as chapter 5, in my A Flawed Freedom: Rethinking Southern African Liberation (London, Toronto and Cape Town: Pluto Books, Between the Lines, and Juta/University of Cape Town Press, 2014).

[13]. Jan-Werner Muller, What is Populism? (New York: Penguin Random House, 2017)

[14]. See my On Writing and Acting on the Premise that the Struggle Continues (in press), ch 2, “In Theory: A Moralizing Science,” and especially that chapter’s sub-section (c): “Entry-Point 2:  The Empire of Capital and Recolonization.” But see also ch. 3. In Theory: The Dialectic of Hope, and, specifically, “Entry-Point 8: The Science of Hope.”

[15]. Thus, Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin’s valuable tome, The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire, emphasizes (mistakenly I feel) that, right up to the present moment, the world dances to the tune of the ever increasing ascendancy of American capital. Me, I cannot, for the life of me, see “Global Capitalism” and the “American Empire” as being the same thing (although both their book and its title clearly imply that they are). No, it’s an “Empire of Capital” we’re dealing, one within which U.S., both its state and its capital, is indeed a major player but very far from being the absolute global hegemon (and certainly not under the leadership of Donald Trump!). Note, however, that Panitch and Gindin also emphasize that “the continuing inequalities as well as the insecurities that the state’s promotion of capitalist markets within each country, and the protest and revolts that this provokes, provide fertile ground for the replanting of an alternative to global capitalism” (p. 339). Of course they can also lead (as witness Donald Trump’s ascendancy) to “right-Wing populism” and the seeds of fascism. The answer: organize, organize, organize.

[16]. There were singular exceptions of course, not least the noted Professor of Politics in the then Department of Political Economy, Brough Macpherson, author of, inter alia, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010 [reprint edition]); indeed, this book, still in manuscript form at the time, was the text book for Macpherson’s mind-bending graduate class in political theory of which I was privileged to be a member. And there were others, especially those whose “economics” was linked to tangible historical concerns: H. A. Innis (a Professor of Political Economy at the University of Toronto although before my time there), Karl Helleiner and Mel Watkins.

[17]. Indeed, as such arithmetic reductionism began also to resonate quite noticeably in both political science and sociology, one of my old Princeton professors of Politics (A. E. W. Mason) ironically counselled us in his class in the early 1960s that “In political science if you want to get it wrong, add it up”!

[18]. As Patrick Bond (in a personal communication, May 26, 2018) defines this latter process, “Financialization is witnessed in the relative decline of productive sector investment and profitability and, instead, the increased role of debt, financial speculation, deregulated forms of money, and illicit banking activities as a share of economic activity.” See, for a more detailed analysis of the overall “financialization” phenomenon, Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, op. cit.

[19]. Patrick Bond, personal communication (op. cit).

[20]. There is nothing wrong, per se, with charity perhaps, especially as it affects provisioning of the arts and the like. However, in advanced capitalist settings charity is self-consciously evoked by our rulers as a substitute for collective (state) provisioning (thus also, in effect, decertifying a range of numerous essential, and equality-facilitating services in what are/should be clearly public spheres); this is further to yield to the corporate logic of weakening the rights attendant upon citizenship as well as move towards minimizing the legitimate social claims that citizenship could (and should!) imply.

[21] See Andre Gorz, Socialism and Revolution (New Haven: Anchor, 1973), the chapter entitled, specifically, “Socialism and Revolution,” and Boris Kagarlitsky, The Dialectic of Change (London: Verso, 1998); see also ch. 3, subsection (h), “Entry-point 7: Socialism, Democracy and the Struggle That Continues,”

[22]. See, as quoted several times in these paragraphs, Andre Gorz, Socialism and Revolution (New Haven: Anchor, 1973); this particular quote also appears in my essay “Is Socialism Still an Alternative?,” ch. 5 in John S. Saul, Liberation Lite: The Roots of Recolonization in Southern Africa (Delhi and Trenton, N. J.: Three Essays Collective and Africa World Press, 2011), at p. 95.





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