Robert Brenner and the left

Image: Umang Patel


Social and economic historian, social and political theorist, Brenner is one of the most decisive writers (theoretician and analyst) that the left has today.

If we were to write the history of the great intellectuals forgotten – especially in certain countries – by the public-political debate, we would most likely fill considerable pages. One of these, certainly, would be Robert Brenner in the Brazilian and Latin American context. Social and economic historian, social and political theorist, Brenner is one of the most decisive writers (theoretician and analyst) that the left has today.

Unfortunately, his work, to date, is little visited in Brazil. Only a very restricted niche of researchers in economics, who have not surrendered to the violent and counter-revolutionary austerity imposed by the liberal-conservative forces of the current order, and militant circles, have the work of this New Yorker as mandatory reading.

Precisely, it is not that Robert Brenner is not read, or absolutely unknown among us. This is, rather, a comparative point of view. Without entering into a foolish and unmeasured quantitative dispute at the current moment of our critical reflections, an author from the left field, the geographer and anthropologist David Harvey and the social theorist Judith Butler not only have their works (books, essays, articles , occasional texts, interviews) available in Brazil, as they are comprehensively and intensely studied, discussed and mobilized in progressive disputes. A Postmodern Condition, To Understand Capital, Gender Issues and Psychic Life of Power They are imperative readings in our intellectual, academic and political environment.

The hypotheses for this, beyond the mere circumstances or coincidences that are part of (modern) life, are at least two; on the one hand, the predilection of the left and critical thinking in not focusing on the theme that distinguished it from other political ideas throughout the 20th century, namely, political economy (Western Marxism, with all the limitations that the term has , and this is a fact, predominates in debates among those who oppose the forms of life imposed by capitalist society); and on the other, the proliferation of adjectives about what type of capitalism we are living in, extractive capitalism, looting capitalism, racial capitalism, prison capitalism, dispossession capitalism, end-of-the-world capitalism.

These designations throw a veil over the decisive fact, the understanding from the historical-political situation of the class struggle on the current regime of capitalist accumulation - in other words, what is the immanent structure of capital and its varied representations that the working class (in a broad sense) is having to face in recent years and decades. Robert Brenner is still a classical Marxist in the strong sense of the expression.[1]

Its object of investigation and intervention for many years is the understanding, based on the parameters of socialist theory, of the dynamics of the world capitalist economy; In particular, the implicit question that Robert Brenner asks is: what are the conditions for the bourgeois economy to recover the profitability levels of the years 1945-1970? This can result in a simple definition, unfolded from Brenner's inquiry, of what it is and/or how we can characterize neoliberalism: this is, in terms of Robert Brenner's historical-materialist analysis, the tireless, tenacious and uncompromising search to recompose patterns acceptable, for the international bourgeois class, the rate of profit.

The neoliberal counter-revolution initiated by Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Regan in the early 1980s, whose main political theorist was Friedrich von Hayek and being today “led” (with nuances of what Nancy Fraser calls progressive neoliberalism, led by social-liberals and identity politics) by the global right (Milei, Boris Johnson, Trump, Bolsonaro, Le Pen family, Viktor Orban, Modi, Giorgia Meloni), meant, and still means, the most diverse procedures and regimes of capital accumulation with a view to restore the profitability of the glorious period of capitalism in the XNUMXth century. And the more this becomes unachievable – the more neoliberalism and its political expressions adapt to the current correlations of forces.

For the moment: for example, democracy (and its political and social agents), for this medium-term context, is something absolutely “irrelevant”. Liberal political philosophers, politicians with a social-liberal temperament, left-wing identity movements and social democrats – all unshakable in the positive certainty of consensus policies – who call for that day in and day out: they are preaching, ineptly, in the desert. This is not a boring analysis (an astonishment… actually) of the crisis of democracy; rather, it is about the broadest adequacy of current political regimes (the katechons time) to the negative structural conditions for restoring the profit rate.

Thus, argues Robert Brenner: “to withstand the decline in profitability, companies cut production and capital expenditures, while reducing employment and wage growth to reduce costs. Throughout the economy, these actions radically restricted aggregate demand, dragging down the economy and exacerbating, at the same time, the decline in profitability by depressing the use of installed capacity and productivity growth.”[2] And they will continue to do to aeternum.

Another angle of Robert Brenner's analysis, which is sometimes hijacked from public debates (from progressives, especially), is the political-social class element of neoliberalism. It is, absurdly, conventional on the left in general to understand that neoliberalism means: reduction of the State, cutting of public spending, reform of rights conquered during the welfare state and failure to invest in social areas. The analytical parameters here are placid Keynesian formulations. What does Robert Brenner's work demonstrate?

Neoliberalism, a counteroffensive by capital and sectors of the international high bourgeoisies (and the political figurations that represent them), is substantively: the obstinate assault against the working class, with the sole and ultimate objective of recomposing the profit rate, profitability, to acceptable levels for capital. Hence, for several moments in your article New Boom or New Bubble? he states that the structural compensation for the “fall in profits, [being] […] the [reduction] in the level of employment and wage growth”,[3] that in the industrial sector from 1995 to 1997 what maintained the “profit rate” was the weak “wage pressure […] with real wages falling by 1,5%”,[4] and “the prosperity of retail, like construction, was based on well over a decade of wage cuts. Between 1978 and 1991, [at one of the peaks of capital's offensive against the working class], real remuneration in this sector fell by an average of 1,6% per year, a total drop of 19%”.[5]

The implication of Robert Brenner's historical-materialist analysis, among countless others, but here restricting it to the concentrated social totality, politics, is that the state apparatus and its institutional forms (Executive, Legislative and Judiciary), as well as the constellation of regimes possible, they would be decisive devices in the containment and “repression” of the working class and the forms of organization forged by it in the fight for better living conditions. In fact, such considerations should be more welcomed by the left as a whole in the search to understand what is happening in politics since the project of Société Mont Pelerin triumphed in the 1980s and that in current societies (post-2008) the rise of the intransigent right is in force – particularly, sometimes it would not be too much to note that it is not always about questions of identity/culture, the moral game of certain social groups ( resentful) mobilized by those above, of grammars of everyday ways of life and adjectival formulations (extractive, dispossession, carceral, racial, end of the world, plunder, etc.) that reflect well on current capitalism.

However, Robert Brenner began his career as an economic historian and social theorist by writing what could be said to be a classic work in historiography. Against those who claimed that the Marxist interpretation of the English Revolution and Civil War was no longer important, he with his Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London's Overseas Traders, 1550-1653, to talk to his colleague from the history department in California and from New Left Review, Perry Anderson, “overturns this judgment”.

In it, Perry Anderson continues, “Marx is never mentioned”, however, his ideas and spirit “[are] omnipresent”. The construction of this work gave rise to profound, unprecedented insights into England in the 1550th and 1650th centuries: “[it] […] reconstructs the narrative of the crisis of [those] centuries […] [the transformations from 1993 to XNUMX] on a grandiose scale ”. Published in XNUMX, Merchants and Revolution…, would begin what became known in the circles of historiography in general and economic historiography, the “Brenner debate”.[6] In this way, no historian or left-wing political theorist would face the revisionist offensive and its capacity induced by other interests… of academic and intellectual (political…) conviction, if he did not value loyalties regarding the transcendence of the current oppressive social order. (Merchants and Revolution…, which is still awaiting translation into Portuguese, was not just another text to be discussed in American History Association: it was and still is, to speak with Enzo Traverso, a document on the battlefield for history, ideas and class struggle.[7])

In the same year, 1993, Robert Brenner made an intellectual intervention dealing with a topic that had long been forgotten, sadly and problematically, by the left: so that the condition of professor and researcher in history at UCLA and at the center he directs there ( Center for Social Research and Comparative History) never obstructed intellectual positions (and practices) on the idea of ​​another form of organization of human life, he was, and most likely still is, a writer engaged with the causes of those below. The intervention launched controversy over the theoretical and political possibilities of reformism. In The Problem of Reformism, a conference held at the Solidarity Summer School-1992 and published in Against Current – ​​March/April 1993, Robert Brenner addresses this intricate topic on the historical left.

It goes without saying that the conference-article takes up one of the topos constitutive of the theoretical debates of socialism in the first decades of the 20th century. Rosa Luxemburg and the SPD in Germany, the Evolutionary Socialism of Eduard Bernstein and the orthodox criticism of Karl Kautsky and, fundamentally and mainly, the most important theoretical, political and strategic controversy in socialist history, The Dictatorship of the Proletarian (Kautsky)-The Renegade Kautsky (Lenin) – these are part of the quarrel between reform and revolution. That is to say, the conceptions of reformists and revolutionaries divided the attention of the left throughout the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.

If we associate with this dispute, the critical theory of society of that period and the innovative elaborations of Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, as well as the Prison Notebooks of Gramsci and History and Class Consciousness of Lukács (just completed 100 years): indisputably, we will have what was, one could say, the golden age of the intellectual and political history of the socialist (and emancipatory) left since its effective emergence with the League of the Just (later the Communist League ) in the XNUMXth century.[8]

The Problem of Reformism (translated in an unprecedented way now for this site, The Problem of Reformism) resumes, at the end of the last century, the complex reflection on the conditions of reformism to carry out reforms: and does so from an implicitly socialist and, why not, revolutionary perspective. I highlight three points from Brenner's article: (i) the neutrality and/or autonomy of the State; (ii) the (denial) of the crisis theory by reformism, and (iii) the reorganization, via the third party, of the working class as a whole [regrouping of the rank-and-file].

It should first be said that The Problem of Reformism [The Problem of Reformism] for obvious reasons of the time that has passed since the debates mentioned above came to life has a fundamentally extensive and in-depth theoretical elaboration on the very meaning of reformism. The criticisms of Rosa Luxemburg and Vladimir Lenin, written in dialectical-political opposition to their opponents, are consistent theorizations, however, with styles that combined sophisticated rhetoric of persuasion and an impulse for practical and strategic action. Furthermore, the phenomenon of reformism was new to Marxists at the time.

Rosa and Lenin did not witness, for a considerable length of time and, therefore, effectively, social democracy, the reformists, in government. Brenner's historical setting was distinct by the end of the 1930th century. Social democratic government in Austria and Weimar Germany; performance of the Labor Party in England; Democrats in the United States; and Eurocommunism in Italy: they provided political constellations that allowed for a more far-reaching development. Furthermore, the Keynesian conception of capital accumulation had been presented in the arenas of theoretical debate since the crisis years of the XNUMXs, attracting the sympathy of social democrats, progressives and even moderate capitalists, and transforming itself into government programs with the Welfare-State after 1945. Robert Brenner had robust material to launch his caustic criticism in the 1990s.

Returning to the main points of the article; I understand that there are three, among others and from the interpretative perspective of each one, that should draw the attention of readers of the The Problem of Reformism – in the face of the challenges of the contemporary Brazilian left. The first point concerns reformism's understanding of the State as a neutral apparatus. Robert Brenner comments that reformists are obsessed when it comes to positioning themselves in relation to the State and government, which, for them, can be used by all social classes (especially workers and capitalists, oppressed and oppressors) they say. The sufficient strategy and/or tactic for this is to win elections, form reformist coalition (class) governments and from there configure and ensure stability and economic growth: in the interests of labor and capital.

However, for this to happen, an economic and political theory was and is necessary to support agreements between social classes. This is the second point I highlight in Robert Brenner's essay. (This topic “reappears”, in a certain and stylized way, in his intervention with Dylan Riley, Seven Thesis on American Politics, in the debate on New Left Review, nº 138-139-140/141-142, about political capitalism.)

The centrality of crisis theory constitutes the substantive core that guides social democratic policies (and similar ones), in fact, it is the denial of it that forged the theoretical understanding of reformists throughout the last century (and in this one, too…); workers and capitalists, labor and capital, must jointly defend, in class alliances, the growth of capitalism, in such a way that it will allow rapid increases in wages and significant expansions of social services to serve the underprivileged.

However, the immanent contradictions of capital, suggests Robert Brenner, do not allow for growth in the long term. Capitalism is inherently and structurally constructed to generate economic crises (crisis theory and broad wave theory); For Robert Brenner, it is not the case that periods of expansion and growth do not occur, on the contrary, periods of growth occur precisely because there are periods of crisis and falling profitability – and in these, in particular, the class alliance, government coalitions, They are an obstacle to the interests of capital, which will not hesitate in the incessant search to restore profit rates to acceptable standards.

What about the reformists? Robert Brenner states that they will act in two ways: not only will they not defend workers “anymore”, they will also be agents of austerity with a view to restoring the profit rate. (Now, currently, there is no need for “any effort” of understanding to verify that we are, in world capitalism, very far from any trace of growth and, consequently, a substantial increase in profitability, which would allow for an increase in wages and expansion of public social services , in order to nurture the perspectives of reformists, progressives and/or social-liberals with political processes of pact between classes – Brenner and Riley assert that from the point of view of the American working masses, and we can extend to other parts of the world, especially Brazil, political capitalism, among other things, “has meant the collapse of the previous hegemonic order, since in an environment of persistently low or no growth, a secular stagnation, parties can no longer function due to growth programs, that is, they cannot manage a class compromise in the classic sense of the term. Under these conditions, political parties become fiscal coalitions rather than productivist ones.”[9]

In effect, this point of the The Problem of Reformism  it must be studied carefully and seriously by the national left as a whole. The third point I highlight is about the possibilities of reorganization of left-wing forces, with reformism, and its constitutive organizations, a social agent still present and, vividly, active. This is not an academic issue, warns Robert Brenner; therefore, it will touch on several aspects, practically all of them, of the political life of workers.

The analytical and materialist-historical virtues of The Problem of Reformism In this peculiar axis there are two: the first, I believe, is that reformism has to be investigated at the system level, that is, the parties and unions that are the subjects of it, even, sometimes, being obstacles in the defense of the interests of the workers, still, remain concretely active in the given political scenario, especially if it is read, and it should be…, from the practical organizational angle – one cannot, therefore, act with strategic naivety suggests Robert Brenner; the second is that the interests of the organizations, their leaders and representatives, that may emerge, the third parties, the third organizations, the third political subjects, cannot be ahead of the interests of material survival of the working classes – this era a conviction that was present, “the core of pre-World War I left politics”, at the golden moment in the intellectual, social and political history of the left in the last century.

When the philosopher Vladimir Safatle, accompanied by the historian Jones Manoel, affirm, almost alone, that the left is dead, then, in theological-political terms, it would be appropriate, why not... and things understood correctly, to strive to reincarnate the spirit of the golden history of socialism in the 1993th century. Robert Brenner, with the singular intellectual competence he possesses – has been insisting, with seminal imagination, on this from 2023 to XNUMX.

*Ronaldo Tadeu de Souza is a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Political Science at USP and professor of political science at UFSCar.


[1] Of Robert Brenner's books we have translated into Portuguese only The Boom and the Bubble by the publisher Record (2003); some of Brenner's articles are published by the publisher Boitempo.

[2] Robert Brenner – New Boom or New Bubble: the trajectory of the American economy. Contragolpes-Selection of Texts from the New Left Review, Boitempo, 2006, p. 122.

[3] Ibidem.

[4] Ibidem, P. 125.

[5] Ibidem, P. 133.

[6] Conf. Perry Anderson – Civil War, Global Unrest: Robert Brenner. Spectrums: from right to left in the world of ideas, Boitempo, 2012.

[7] Conf. Enzo Traverso – History as Battlefield: interpreting the violence of the 20th century, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2012. Traverso says: “the writing of history – this applies more to political history – participates, although it also suffers, from what Habermas calls its public use”, p. 26.

[8] About this period cf. Ricardo Musse – Trajectories of European Marxism, Unicamp, 2023.

[9] See Robert Brenner & Dylan Riley – Siete Thesis on American Politics. New Left Review, nº 138, 2023, p. 10.

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