Mike Davis punctures many myths about Marx and shows how important the history of working-class struggle remains for today, finds Dominic Alexander


Mike Davis, Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx’s Lost Theory (Verso 2018), xxiv, 320pp

There is a persistent tendency among commentators on Marx to find inconsistencies and contradictory positions in his writing, either proving the existence of distinct stages in his thinking, irreconcilable ‘young’ and ‘old’ Marxs, or showing that Marxism as a theory fails to hold together. Less effort is usually given to explaining the threads that connect Marx’s thinking across the decades, and in different spheres of analysis, and to credit Marxism as being a complex system that can encompass a diverse and contradictory reality.

Mike Davis references a number of these sorts of issues, and usefully punctures some myths about Marx’s thinking in the major opening essay in his new collection, Old Gods, New Enigmas. This essay is conceived as an exercise in clearing the ground theoretically, apparently working towards a sequel to one of his earlier books, Planet of the Slums (Verso 2006). The subject there concerned the changes in the shape of the proletariat in the wake of neoliberal globalisation, and whether a classically conceived industrial-working class could still be considered as a leading social force, given the vast growth of the ‘informal proletariat’ (p.xvii). The question followed whether this new class could either exert a force capable of overthrowing capitalism, or could even acquire the class consciousness needed to exercise such power as it might have.

A new proletariat?

There were, and remain, different responses to the analysis and implications of Planet of the Slums. Briefly, it is possible to challenge the extent to which the ‘informal proletariat’ is separate from a broadly conceived working class, which can still be seen to be rooted in society’s essential activities. Secondly, it can be argued that, while the scale of the global proletariat is now gigantic in comparison, the degree to which the proletariat has changed shape since the height of the last wave of globalisation in the years around 1900, should not be exaggerated. This is to say, in the industrially advanced countries back then, there was a very large, unorganised ‘informal proletariat’ as well, and yet this was also a high point of working-class assertiveness, consciousness, and organisation, in both economic and political spheres. It is not clear that the relative size of the informal sector is so different that it has had a qualitative impact on the nature of the global working class.

The ‘unskilled’ working class was held by many to be unorganisable, until, in Britain for example, the explosion of the ‘New Unionism’ in the 1880s upended that notion. The famous ‘match-girls’ strike of 1888 blew away the craft-unions’ prejudice that female workers at the bottom of the hierarchy were a lost cause. Davis notes that this strike ‘electrified the entire unorganised working class of East London, setting in motion the events that led to the successful 1889 strike of 100,000 dockworkers’ (p.50). Organisation in one small area can have an uncalculatable impact on wider struggles.

The question is very similar to the more recent theory of the existence of a precariat, which is held to be even in some way a different class from the proletariat. These discussions about the changing shape of the working class tend to have as their corollary the assertion that Marx’s argument about the potential of the proletariat has been shown to be wrong by historical developments, and that if there is to be any hope for socialism, a new ‘agency’ must be found which can self-organise against capitalism.

Despite what may have seemed to be the implications of Planet of the Slums, Davis here seems to be sceptical of many of the arguments about possible new ‘agents’ of revolution. Indeed, he states that notions like Hardt and Negri’s ‘multitude’ as a replacement for the proletariat ‘simply dramatize a poverty of empirical research’ (p.7). Davis nevertheless outlines the problem in three parts; the possibilities for class consciousness among the ‘informal or peripheral sectors of economies’; the potential of ‘slum-dwellers’ to find sources of power equivalent to that of strikes; and the possibility of alliances between the ‘grey area’ and ‘traditional working-class organisation’ (p.xvii).

Mike Davis is a great writer, so his synopsis of working-class struggles from the nineteenth century through to the 1930s is exhilarating and thought provoking. Even so, given the theme setting in the introduction, the essay‘Old Gods, New Enigmas’ itself seems to be a kind of non-sequitur, since the questions posed in the preface are not directly answered, unless by implication. If the discussion of the ‘classical’ history of the working-class is meant to provide answers to today’s problems of consciousness and organisation, then the prognosis appears positive. His own words on the match-girls strike immediately suggests that the way forward lies not in a fundamental re-thinking of the class basis of socialism, but a rediscovery in the present of the potential of organising supposedly unorganisable workers.

Agency and hegemony

The context of the late nineteenth century also suggests that it is the dialectics between different areas of struggle that would be key to resurgence in the present:

‘… It was precisely at the confluence of struggles (wages and suffrage; neighbourhood and factory; industrial and agricultural, and so on) … that the creative work of organizing became most important and radically transformative. Historical agency, in other words, derived from the capacity to unite and strategically synthesise the entire universe of proletarian grievances and aspirations as presented in specific conjunctures and crises’ (p.xviii).

This argument leads Davis, surely correctly, to argue that the concept of hegemony, and the need of the proletariat to build that through political struggles, began with Marx himself: ‘In any future revolution, Marx argued, the workers’ movement must be adept at addressing all forms of exploitation’ in order to unite all the subordinate sectors of society (p.xix). The lesson here, which Davis doesn’t quite bring out, is the necessity of building not just in the strictly economic sphere, but on the political plane as well. If we are aware that we need to create a ‘confluence of struggles’, then clearly what is also needed is conscious revolutionary organisation, that is to say, the Party.

The short history of the workers’ movement that Davis presents is an illustration of these imperatives, with a particular emphasis on the importance of class consciousness. Certain controversies are resolved in the course of the discussion. What some insist on seeing as incompatible approaches to the workers’ movement, turn out to be expressions of the contradictory tendencies to be found in reality. Whether proletarian consciousness is a spontaneous creation of working-class conditions, or whether it needs to be developed ‘from outside’ is often presented as a difficulty in Marxism. And yet, both sides of the question are true at the same time.

A significant number of people develop radical ideas in opposition to capitalism simply by confrontation with their circumstances and the society in which they find themselves. On its own, however, such spontaneous consciousness will not develop into a successful collective strategy on the part of the working class. What is needed are layers of organisation, economic and political, which can help to mould and direct the naturally occurring opposition to capitalism. Class consciousness is therefore both spontaneous and dependent upon already existing organisation, if it is to develop into effective class politics.

Davis seems to recognise this dialectic when he punctures the critique of Marx that holds his championing of proletarian historical agency as being ‘eschatological’, that is holding a millenarian belief in an extra-historical force that will bring about a transformation of society. In fact, Marx’s theory of history was ‘the straightforward result of his growing engagement with a workers’ movement already infused with the conviction that it could build a new world’ (p.17). The very theory of proletarian revolution and the critique of capitalism were not ideas created outside of the historical agency of the working class, but emerged as the impact of the early movement upon a particularly brilliant intellectual. Marx’s theory is itself a demonstration of the unity of theory and practice, of the dialectic between spontaneity and organisation.

Marx needs to be understood in complex terms, not reductive and simple ones, and at its best, Davis’ discussion is revealing in this respect. It is not the case that conditions under capitalism are inevitably so harsh for workers that they will automatically rise up in revolution. That was never Marx’s analysis. Rather, capitalist society produces contradictory effects upon people’s consciousness. On the one hand, the atomistic and alienating structure of capitalist relations produces an acceptance of bourgeois ideology and resignation to the status quo. Yet, on the other, the mass character of production (and other areas of social organisation) ‘can also teach the necessarily social and collective character of production and thereby undermine the capitalist notion of private property’ (p.22, quoting David Shaw). As a result of the various contradictory tendencies, ‘class consciousness is always a project’ (p.48).

History and Class Consciousness

The elaboration of the dynamics of class consciousness reaches its peak with a discussion of Georg Lukács conceptualisation of the problem, quoting from him that ‘the superiority of the proletariat [over bourgeois consciousness] must lie exclusively in its ability to see society from the centre, as a coherent whole’ (p.141). A generalisation of fully developed class consciousness is only achieved in periods of crisis and revolution itself, and the efforts to spread proletarian self-consciousness are always fighting against the countervailing forces of bourgeois society.

The working class is fragmented into different sectors, which can be set against each other. It is subject to a reified understanding of individual experience: ‘these have the effect of causing the internalization of commodity relations’ (p.141). Very usefully, Davis contrasts the sophisticated understanding of the forces working against class consciousness in Lukács from the ‘ponderous operation of Althusser’s “state ideological apparatuses”’ (p.141). That is to say, however much the official media is an enemy of the movement, its propaganda in itself is not the primary or necessarily most effective obstacle to the spread of socialist ideas.

The historical climax of Davis’ discussion, to accompany the theoretical peak, is, naturally, a discussion of the Bolsheviks. The emphasis here is on the importance of Bolshevik democracy, referencing Rabinowitch’s classic account of the 1917 revolution in Petrograd. The self-reflexive nature of proletarian consciousness is caught well by the dove-tailing of theory and history here:

‘There is a legend about a certain species of caterpillar that can only cross the threshold of metamorphosis by seeing its future butterfly. Proletarian subjectivity does not evolve by incremental steps but requires non-linear steps, especially moral self-recognition through solidarity with the struggle of a distant people, even when this contradicts short-term self-interest, as in the famous cases of Lancashire cotton workers’ enthusiasm for Lincoln and later for Gandhi’ (p.146).

The Russian revolution was a crucial moment in the global development of class consciousness, because it was a striking glimpse of that butterfly.Its impact upon class struggles worldwide was at least as important as its meaning for Russia itself. A final observation follows from the passage above that socialism ‘requires non-utilitarian actors, whose ultimate motivations and values arise from structures of feeling that others would deem spiritual’, but in Marx are a practical (not abstract) humanism.

There is therefore a great deal of stimulating material to reflect upon in the essay ‘Old Gods, New Enigmas’, but there are a fair few moments where Davis seems to concede points unnecessarily to Marx’s opponents. Engels in particular is the subject of several off-hand dismissals which are undeserved, but easy to make from passages taken out of their wider context. While there are several instances where Davis points out misconceptions behind criticisms of Marx, at others he finds inconsistencies which his own arguments could answer.

For example, he counterposes the ‘homogenization of proletarian life’ in the Poverty of Philosophy (1847) with the ‘heterogeneous working class whose modern core of factory workers and miners is surrounded by a penumbra of construction and transport laborers’ and many other categories, to be found in the mature Capital (p.38). This is clearly not however a distinction between a young and old Marx, but the operation of contradictory tendencies in capitalism. Capitalism produces tendencies towards homogenisation, but also creates countervailing tendencies towards fragmentation in the working class. The ability to analyse the operation of the two tendencies together is the strength of Marx’s thought, not a sign of inconsistency.

In the end, there seems to be an ambivalence at the heart of ‘Old Gods’.The essay has some hopeful things to say about the possibility of a return of revolutionary class consciousness, but in the end the discussion does not come back to bear upon his thesis in A Planet of Slums. It is possible that Davis means the reader to draw the implication that the modern, global proletariat will be more subject to the countervailing tendencies of atomisation and acceptance of capitalist relations than the historical proletariat he is analysing in this essay. On the other hand, the lessons of that history are that the structural problems and possibilities for the working class remain broadly similar. Inspiration from the past continues to be a resource for the present.

Climate science

The remainder of the book consists of three shorter essays, which largely also connect with Davis’ past projects. An essay on nationalism, ‘Marx’s Lost Theory’ usefully shows that, against his critics, Marx did not underestimate or ignore nationalism as a factor, but had a sophisticated understanding of its operation in relation to the politics of his time. The following two essays concern the science and politics of the climate, which was of central importance in Davis’ possibly most important book, the magnificent Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World (London 2001).

That book demonstrated in robust detail how it was the political economy of imperialism that turned poor harvests into events of mass mortality, in refutation of Malthusian arguments, and in demonstration of the vicious racism of imperialism, particularly of the British kind. Here, he revisits the implications of that analysis, which demonstrated that a deterministic view of the impact of climate upon capitalist economies is no guide to how different relations of production might be able to respond to different climatic conditions. Thus there ‘is no planetary shortage of “carrying capacity” if we are willing to make democratic public space, rather than modular, private consumption, the engine of sustainable equality’ (p.xxiv).

The necessarily democratic nature of socialist organisation and revolution is paralleled by the only really feasible solution to global warming, which is new democratic and egalitarian relations of production. The politics of climate-change activism do not always support these conclusions, however. This has been historically the case, with deeply reactionary political perspectives emerging from some scientific research into the impact of historical climate change upon human societies. This is one of the key points to emerge from the entertaining essay ‘The Coming Desert: Kropotkin, Mars, and the Pulse of Asia’.

Davis’ understanding of the political issues here makes it all the more surprising that in the final essay on the present climate crisis, he should throw out the line that it is unlikely that ‘greenhouse gas mitigation can be achieved without major sacrifices in northern-hemispheric standards of living’ (p.211). Without more contextual discussion, this would seem to indicate that severe austerity for the mass of people in the global north is a necessity. This is a reductive, zero-sum assumption, which ignores how different relations of production could change all the equations drastically.

Investment in renewable energy could increase standards and quality of living, while making life in developed countries sustainable; different organisation of production and transport, cutting the waste created by profit-centred activities, and greater leisure time, could all contribute to raising the quality of life of most people in developed countries. This would require far more egalitarian societies in the West as elsewhere, naturally. Such calculations would seem to fit rather more with Davis’ comment in his preface (above, p.xxiv), and the general argument in this last essay, that it is clearly capitalism which is at the root of the climate crisis.

The other problem with the last essay, is that, being originally written in 2009, many of its statistics and examples are now out of date, in what is an uncomfortably fast moving context. The shortcomings of this otherwise excellent essay also underline the curates-egg nature of this collection. There seems to be a certain ambivalence in these discussions. Davis can be brilliant and irritating in turns, but it is as if he is unsure whether he wants to align himself with the doubters and critics on the edges of the socialist project, or throw himself into it unreservedly.

Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).