Ideological work in the new era of socialism in China By: Gabriel MartinezRead Now
We are pleased to publish this important and well-researched article by Gabriel Martinez on ideological work and struggle in China since the beginning of ‘reform and opening up’ at the end of the 1970s. Gabriel is a postgraduate student from Brazil, currently finishing his studies in Marxist Philosophy at Beijing Normal University. He has lived in China for the last five years.
The Reform and Opening policy, initiated by the Communist Party of China in 1978, has produced important transformations in the economic sphere of the country. The transformation in the structure of property, little by little, caused the basic structure of property relations in the country to change to a system where the state public economy was considered its backbone, but coexisting with multiple forms of property, which exist and develop together (including domestic and foreign private property). These transformations were accompanied by a series of ideological changes, changes that have an influence on the most varied sectors of social life. This influence can be seen in the way of life of the population, in the economy, in culture, in the arts, and also in politics. Chinese society, from an ideological point of view, has become more “diversified”, and such diversification, obviously, not only has positive aspects, but also produces negative consequences and brings new challenges for the development of socialism in China. In this article I will try to outline some aspects of the formulations of the Communist Party of China on ideological work and how this work is acquiring a new role in China led by Xi Jinping.
The struggle against bourgeois liberalization in the new era of socialism
After the beginning of the reforms, an ideological trend emerged in China called “bourgeois liberalization. The phenomenon of bourgeois liberalization, to this day, exerts a pernicious influence on China’s development process and the building of a socialist culture. How does the Communist Party define this liberalization? According to Deng Xiaoping:
Since the fall of the Gang of Four an ideological trend that we call bourgeois liberalization has emerged. Its exponents idolize the “democracy” and “freedom” of Western capitalist countries and reject socialism. This cannot be tolerated. China must modernize, but she must not promote liberalization or take the capitalist path, as Western countries have done. 
Deng Xiaoping’s quotation clearly shows us that, from the very beginning, the problem of bourgeois liberalization has always been the object of attention by the leaders of the Communist Party of China. Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, etc., dealt with this problem several times. However, it is not wrong to say that over the years, far from being solved, it still exists and exerts considerable influence. Faced with the new political line approved after the 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of the CCP held in 1978, which established a break with the previous line of “taking class struggle as the main link,” placing economic construction and socialist modernization at the center of the Party’s activity, a very active political tendency arose, which defended the idea that besides reforms in the economic sphere, it was also necessary to carry out reforms of a political nature, calling for more “democracy” and “freedom. This ideological current became quite politically active, especially from the 1980s onwards, seeking to divert the Reform and Opening from its original path and direction of perfecting the socialist system, to the path of restoring capitalism and the bourgeois-type political system, as happened in the Soviet Union.
At first, especially among intellectual circles, an anti-Mao Zedong wave swept the country, leading to an open contestation of the resolutions presented by the CCP in its historic document On Some Problems in the History of Our Party from the Founding of the PRC to the Present Day in 1981. The document, while stating that Mao Zedong made some mistakes at the end of his life, is quite clear in its recognition and exaltation of the Chinese leader’s historical role in the history of Party and Republic building. The document clearly states that Mao Zedong’s successes far outweigh his mistakes. Says the resolution:
Comrade Mao Zedong was a great Marxist and a great proletarian revolutionary, strategist and theoretician. It is true that he made serious mistakes during the “cultural revolution,” but if we judge his activities as a whole, his contributions to the Chinese revolution arguably outweigh his mistakes. His merits are of the first order and his mistakes of the second order. He rendered invaluable service in founding and building our Party and the People’s Liberation Army of China, winning victory for the cause of liberating the Chinese people, founding the People’s Republic of China, and advancing our socialist cause. He made great contributions to the liberation of the oppressed nations of the world and the progress of humanity. 
The advocates of bourgeois liberalization, taking advantage of the debates started all over the country on how to evaluate the first thirty years of China’s socialist construction process, used it as an excuse to put forward their anti-communist ideas. The problem of bourgeois liberalization reached alarming levels and ended up resulting in the counter-revolutionary riots of 1989, showing that even though the Party had carried out campaigns to fight the so-called “spiritual pollution”, at that time, several mistakes and failures were committed by the Party in terms of the way it conducted the work of political and ideological education of the Party cadres, and of the population in general. Such a mistake was recognized by Deng Xiaoping himself, who stated at that time, “Our most serious mistake was in education – we did not provide enough education for the youth, including the students.” 
The founding leaders of the People’s Republic of China have always paid great attention to the problem of ideological education. Mao Zedong, in the classic work How to Correctly Solve the Contradiction Among the People draws attention to the protracted character of the ideological struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. According to Mao Zedong:
A long period is still needed to decide the outcome of the ideological struggle waged in our country between socialism and capitalism, since the influence of the bourgeoisie and the intellectuals who come from the old society will persist in China for a long time as a class ideology. If we do not understand this situation well, or if we do not understand it fully, we run the risk of making the gravest of mistakes, that of ignoring the need to conduct the struggle on the ideological plane. 
The CCP has over the years developed a very consistent ideological political line to deal with the problem of bourgeois liberalization. Jiang Zemin, for example, stated, “The practice of ideological work confirms that if proletarian thought does not occupy its position, it will be occupied by non-proletarian thoughts. We must pay attention and learn from these lessons.” 
However, while recognizing that the Party has always called attention to the need to strengthen ideological work, one cannot fail to recognize that Xi Jinping’s coming to power represents a turning point in the Communist Party of China’s political line. Particularly important for us to understand the political and ideological content of Xi Jinping’s thinking is the analysis of his speech delivered at a conference on propaganda and ideological work on August 19, 2013. In this speech, while remaining faithful to the principles established by previous leaders (Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao), Xi Jinping advances important reflections and formulations on how to develop political and ideological work in China. Although at that time the Communist Party of China had not yet coined the term “new era of socialism,” it is clear that the ideas contained in this important document are the compass that will guide the Party in what they call the “new era of socialism,” an era that officially begins as of the holding of the 19th Congress, held in 2017. In this speech, Xi Jinping says:
Economic construction is the central work of the Party, ideological work is extremely important work of the Party. Everyone clearly understands the positions of both areas of work, but in some localities and departments, it is clear that there is the phenomenon that in words the importance of both aspects of work is recognized, but there is no clarity when it comes to applying this principle. Doing the ideological and propaganda work requires that, first of all, this problem be solved. 
Economic construction of the country is still the central work of the entire Party. This important definition, first put forward during the 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th Communist Party of China in 1978, starts from the understanding that China, being a still backward country (especially when compared to the developed emphasising central capitalist countries), needs to put economic construction and the promotion of the development of the productive forces at the center of its attention. As Marxist economist Zhou Xincheng recognizes, establishing economic construction as the central work is “the result of the main contradiction of society,” so it cannot be understood as a subjective decision.  In emphasizing that ideological work is an “extremely important work”, Xi Jinping calls attention to the need for the entire Party to have a correct understanding of this work, recognizing that in many respects it has not been correctly performed, and has even been neglected.
Wang Qishan, current Vice President of the People’s Republic of China and a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China, in an article published in the People’s Daily, emphasized that Xi Jinping has “clarified confused ideas, recovering lost positions, reversing the wrong path, establishing the authority of the Central Committee, basically reversing the situation of weakening Party leadership.” 
The statements made by Wang Qishan are a recognition, by a senior Party and government leader, that many things need to be corrected if the cause of socialism in China is to continue advancing along a correct path. The weakening of the Party leadership is something that is closely related to ideological and educational work. Ideological work is precisely one of the main fronts on which the Party must exercise its leadership role, making sure that the mistakes made in this area are rectified, and the cause of socialism in China continues to advance in a healthy way. Ideological work, being a “work of utmost importance,” cannot be neglected under the excuse that “developing the economy” is the central aspect of Party work. As former leader Chen Yun stated:
If we promote socialist material progress and not socialist cultural and ideological progress at the same time, we will deviate from the correct path. If institutions or leading cadres forget or slow down their efforts to build socialist civilization, culturally and ideologically, they will not be able to do a good job in building socialist civilization materially and will even turn away from socialist and communist ideals. This is very dangerous. 
In this sense, the events in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe are the most concrete example of what are the results produced by the underestimation of political and ideological work, as well as of a mistaken political line, in which the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, especially after the death of Josef Stalin, began to gradually distance itself from Marxism-Leninism. To illustrate with an example: American professor David Kotz, in an article where he recounts his experience in the Soviet Union, talks about an episode where he allegedly asked an official if he was a member of the Communist Party. According to Kotz, the officer replied, “Yes, I am a member of the Communist Party, but I am not a Communist. 
Experiences such as those reported by Professor David Kotz help us to understand what was the internal ideological environment prevailing in the PCUS and in Soviet society itself, already on the eve of its dissolution. The Soviet example should also serve as a lesson for the Chinese Communists, since this phenomenon is not uncommon in country either. Here we are facing a problem closely related to the question of political and ideological convictions that should guide the activity and action of Party members. As for this problem, the Chinese have been aware of its existence from the moment it began to manifest itself in an acute way.
Thus, the reasons that made the dissolution of the Soviet Union possible are the subject of constant reflection by the leaders of the CCP. Xi Jinping also went so far as to explicitly refer to the Soviet example to issue a warning to the CCP. According to Xi Jinping, by starting with the denial of Lenin and Stalin, the Soviet Union embarked on the path of historical nihilism, something that prepared the ideological ground for the justification of the “peaceful evolution” from socialism to capitalism. According to Xi Jinping:
Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party fall from power? One important reason was that the struggle in the field of ideology was extremely intense, completely denying the history of the Soviet Union, denying the history of the Soviet Communist Party, denying Lenin, denying Stalin, creating historical nihilism and muddled thinking. Party organs at all levels had lost their functions, the military was no longer under Party leadership. In the end, the Soviet Communist Party, a great party, dispersed, the Soviet Union, a great socialist country, disintegrated. 
It was on the ideological terrain and the lack of vigilance in the face of forces hostile to socialism that the Soviet Union was defeated. Mao Zedong, many years earlier, analyzing the importance of ideology in the process of seizing political power, whether from revolutionary or reactionary classes, stated: “Anyone who wants to overthrow a political regime must first create public opinion and do some ideological preparatory work. This goes for the counter-revolutionary classes as well as the revolutionary classes.” 
As soon as this problem appeared before the socialist camp and the Communist Parties, the Communist Party of China was in the front line of its denunciation, going on to develop a constant ideological struggle against the revisionist ideas which were propagated by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, ideas which in practice contributed to the strategy being put forward by US imperialism. However, especially after the beginning of the Reform and Opening, at various levels the Party let down its guard in the face of the danger of peaceful evolution, which gave free course to the strengthening of imperialist cultural influence and the propagation of bourgeois liberalization. The anti-communist protests, which peaked in 1989 in the events in Tiananmen Square, prove such a thesis. Deng Xiaoping himself, commenting on the end of the Cold War and the general crisis of the socialist camp, recognized that:
It seems that one Cold War has come to an end, but that two others have already begun: one is being waged against all the countries of the South and the Third World, and the other against socialism. The Western countries are staging a third world war without firearms. By this I mean that they want to promote the peaceful evolution of socialist countries to capitalism. 
The beginning of the trade war against China, the fierce campaign promoted by imperialism on the issue of Xinjiang and the attempt to politicize and blame China for the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, are nothing more than aspects of this ideological struggle promoted by US imperialism against Chinese socialism. To face this new challenge, it is essential that the Party and society strengthen ideological work and strengthen their understanding of Marxist theory. The question of ideological work and education, far from being something trivial, is a vital issue for the continuity and permanence of the Communist Party of China as the leading force of the Chinese nation and the cause of building socialism in China. The fact that such a problem has been recognized by the highest leaders as something pressing reveals how serious the ideological situation was in the country before Xi Jinping came to power.
The struggle against the marginalization of Marxism and the reaffirmation of its actuality
One of the main evidences of this problem in the ideological realm is the marginalization suffered by Marxism in recent years. Xi Jinping has been paying close attention to this problem, aiming to restore and consolidate the authority and leading role occupied by Marxism as the theoretical basis guiding socialist construction and modernization in China. To warn about the problem of marginalization of Marxism, far from being an exaggeration, is something quite clear to anyone minimally familiar with the internal situation of the country and with the prevailing ideological environment within Chinese society. The Marxist economist Liu Guoguang, in analyzing the ideological situation in theoretical circles – especially in the field of political economy – in China stated:
For some time, in the field of economic science research and teaching, the influence of western economics has increased and the guiding position of economic science of Marxism has been weakened and marginalized. In the field of economic theory research and teaching, it seems that nowadays Western economics has become the dominant trend; many students consciously or unconsciously take Western economics as the dominant economic trend in our country. Some people consider Western political economy to be the guiding thought for development and reform in China, some economists openly advocate that Western political economy should be seen as the dominant trend, replacing the guiding position of Marxist economics. Western bourgeois ideology permeates both economic research work and the work of formulating economic decisions. I am very concerned about this phenomenon. 
It is not only in the realm of the study and teaching of economics that Marxism undergoes a process of marginalization. Also in the fields of history, philosophy, arts, etc., Marxism has been marginalized to various degrees. The Party uses the term “historical nihilism” to describe all sorts of ideas that seek to explain Chinese history, especially the history of the CCP and the construction of socialism, in a distorted way. In the ideological realm, the main target of “historical nihilism” is precisely Marxism, the official state ideology that should theoretically guide and direct all activities and sectors of the country. Historian Gong Yun, a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Scientists, explaining the influence of historical nihilism in today’s China, said:
In the last two decades, although historical nihilism has been criticized in academic circles, the effect of these criticisms has not yet been obvious. The views advocated by historical nihilism have a wide social influence, especially in the new media, some newspapers, and among ordinary people. Historical nihilism has formed a certain social soil and created serious consequences of division and antagonism. 
Since the 18th CCP Congress, several internal ideological campaigns to combat historical nihilism have been carried out, and Xi Jinping himself even analyzed such a phenomenon in one of his speeches. At the February 20, 2021, in a Party history study conference, Xi Jinping said, “We must take a clear stand against historical nihilism, strengthen ideological orientation and theoretical analysis, clarifying the vague and one-sided understandings regarding some historical events in our Party’s history.” 
It is precisely because the situation has reached such a critical level that Xi Jinping pays close attention to the problem of the need to consolidate the leading position of Marxism in the ideological field. It is also for this reason that in recent years there have been repeated calls for Party cadres to raise their ideological-political level and deepen their study and knowledge of the classics of Marxism. Speaking specifically about the marginalization of Marxism, Xi Jinping said that:
Some people consider Marxism outdated, that China currently does not follow Marxism; some people consider Marxism to be just ideological “preaching” without rationality and scientific systematization. In practical work, in some fields Marxism has been marginalized, turned into something empty, symbolic. 
The strengthening of the guiding role of Marxism is fundamental to ensuring that the Party cadres have a correct view of the trends of social development, understand the fundamental differences between capitalism and socialism, and increase their political, ideological and cultural confidence in the political system of socialism with Chinese characteristics. Only by mastering Marxism can one correctly understand the real goals of the Reform and Opening up policy, and ensure that it continues to move in the right direction. This is the reason why Xi Jinping insists on the need to consolidate the position of Marxism as the guiding ideology of the Reform and Opening up process, as well as of all the political work undertaken by the Communist Party of China. As Xi Jinping stated:
At the present time, the environment, target, scope and methods of ideological propaganda are undergoing great changes, but the main task of ideological and propaganda work has not and cannot change. Ideological and propaganda work must consolidate the guiding position of Marxism in the ideological sphere and consolidate a common ideological basis for the united struggle of the entire Party and people. 
Consolidating the guiding role of Marxism, making it increasingly a real material force guiding the process of building socialism in China, is a mandatory condition for the Party to strengthen its leadership and governance capacity, as well as to continue achieving new successes in the process of building socialism with Chinese characteristics.
The existence of capitalist relations of production in the primary stage of socialism and their effects on the ideological sphere
As we stated at the beginning of the article, the restructuring of the property system in China has given rise to capitalist-type relations of production, so they produce a certain type of ideology that corresponds to the character of these relations. Economist Wu Xuangong defends the idea that currently “there are a large number of economic phenomena and problems in China that did not exist in the past and are contrary to the nature and principles of socialism. Such problems stem from the fact that in present-day China, in addition to the “main contradiction of socialist society, there is also the main contradiction of capitalism.” 
It is therefore correct for us to analyze what role the ideology produced by these new capitalist relations of production play in the general set of socialism with Chinese characteristics, and how the Party will deal with this contradiction in the medium and long term. The recognition of the contradictions and problems that have appeared in the country in the last 40 years – and their effects in the realm of ideology – reveals a great concern on the part of Chinese Marxist theorists to seek and find the appropriate explanations to correctly solve the problem. To do so, one must keep in mind the basic principle of Marxism that existence determines consciousness, or the economic base determines the superstructure; therefore, it would not be correct to consider that the increased dangers presented by bourgeois liberalization are works of chance, or that they arise magically. They manifest themselves ultimately as ideological representations of new petty-bourgeois and bourgeois social classes that are bound by multiple ties to capitalist private property, and are also the product of the increased ideological infiltration promoted by Western countries, especially the United States and all its ideological apparatus of political and cultural domination, to the extent that there has been a certain loosening of ideological and class education, as well as an advance in the penetration of foreign capital in the country. As Wu Xuangong stated, “The belief in socialism gradually weakened, so that Marxism was marginalized; the emphasis on self-interest, as well as the pursuit of material interests, became a trend.” 
In the 1990s, Deng Xiaoping and many Party cadres considered the idea of explaining the problem of bourgeois liberalization through the analysis of economic relations to be mistaken, because they saw it as an attempt to put a brake on the advance of reforms. Under those conditions it was not wrong to put the problem in those terms. However, today this problem presents itself in a completely different way than it did in the 1980s and 1990s. At that time a new bourgeoisie had not completely formed, and the problem of class struggle manifested itself basically only as a struggle against the remnants of backward ideologies and elements directly linked to imperialism working to sabotage socialist construction. Today capitalist private property has acquired an infinitely more important position and role than it did in the past, which has resulted in a significant change in the economic and ownership structure in China. This has fundamentally changed the way in which the Chinese working masses relate to the means of production, a fact that poses serious risks to the Party and the very cause of socialism in the country. Without taking into account the influence that the relations of production originating in capitalist private property and the pressure they exert for the reforms as a whole to take the direction of bourgeois liberalization, it is impossible to understand the essence of the problem. This is a question that needs to be observed by all those who wish to make a realistic analysis of the current stage of development of socialism in China. As the economist Liu Guoguang warned:
Bourgeois liberalization occurs not only in the political field, but also in the economic field. Privatization, liberalization, and marketization; opposition to public ownership, government intervention, and opposition to socialism, these are all things that are all related to the economic field. It is not enough to oppose bourgeois liberalization, politically. To prevent bourgeois liberalization in the economic field is to prevent the economic field from deteriorating. If the economic field deteriorates (is privatized, turned into capitalism), the political field will also deteriorate. This is a basic common principle of Marxism. 
Capitalist private property, even though in the primary stage of socialism it may play a positive role as an accessory element in the development of the socialist economy, ultimately represents the relations of production of a capitalist type, possessing objectives and laws of operation distinct from socialist property in its most varied forms. It is necessary, therefore, to differentiate between what are the positive effects that capitalist private property can create for the development of the productive forces, from what is the ideology it inevitably produces, and the negative effects generated by capitalist relations of production in the most varied domains of social life. It is natural that, as private property increases in importance and influence in the overall economy, its laws start to influence the various levels of Chinese social-economic formation (including influencing and exerting pressure on socialist public property), broadening and expanding its capacity for political, economic and ideological intervention. Therefore, it is not an exaggeration to say that the most serious economic and social problems that exist in China today are the direct result of the intervention of the contradictions produced by the capitalist relations of production.
In view of this inevitability, it is of utmost importance that the Party be very clear that the goal of the Reform and Opening-Up is to perfect the development of the socialist system, to promote the development of the productive forces and gradually consolidate and broaden the influence and extension of the public sector of the economy, the sector that represents the socialist relations of production. The existence of private property in China is justified by the relative backwardness of the level of development of the productive forces. With the advance and development of the productive forces, with the advance of modernization, the duty of the reforms is to adjust the role of the socialist relations of production, in a first moment expanding the influence and the scope of action of the public ownership of the means of production, gradually putting an end to the tendency that has persisted since the beginning of the Reform and Opening policy, namely, the tendency of much faster increase and development of private property and the gradual decrease of the participation of the state and public sector, creating the economic and material conditions to overcome the primary stage of socialism. Obviously, such changes and adjustments will be accompanied by a sharp ideological struggle, which is also one of the forms in which class struggle manifests itself. Thus, the theories and ideas that seek to present capitalist relations of production as “socialist,” or ideas that say that, in the Chinese case, “private property is not synonymous with capitalism,” are not correct.
The advance towards a more advanced stage of socialist construction is not yet completely on the agenda (the new era of socialism is situated in the scope of the primary stage of socialism), but it is clear that the problems and contradictions that China is facing today are already quite different from the problems that confronted the country in the preceding decades, something recognized by the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China, which defined that there is a “new principal contradiction” in the new era of socialism. The old definition, which said that the main contradiction in China was the contradiction between the low level of development of the productive forces and the growing demands of the masses, has given way to a new main contradiction, this being the contradiction between unbalanced and inadequate development and the growing needs of the people for a better life.
Many Marxist intellectuals in China consider that, at the present stage, in order to overcome the negative effects of unbalanced development, the most important mission facing the Communist Party is to struggle to effectively build a harmonious society, to combat the negative effects produced by the expansion of private property, and to regain certain positions lost by the public economy in recent years. For such a major operation, it is more than necessary to strengthen ideological work and prepare public opinion. Objectively, this is a problem that places in opposition two projects of society that correspond to distinct worldviews and class interests. The attacks on Marxism and the tendencies that seek to diminish its role – or even deny it – are evidently expressions of the class interests of those social groups and actors who do not want to advance along the path of socialism. Many of these groups use the banner of reform and openness to justify their reactionary ideas and their opposition to the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics, although they often do this in a veiled way.
Ideological work and class struggle
The struggle between bourgeois ideas, with all their effects, and the ideas of the proletariat, represented by Marxism, is a long-lasting struggle, which will exist intensely throughout the period of the primary stage of socialism in China (and even afterwards), a context where China still needs to promote its development in a hegemonically capitalist world. In the primary stage of socialism, even if within a determined scale, class struggle still exists and it obviously exerts its influence in the ideological field. On the need to keep guard and initiative on the ideological front, pointing out that in socialism there is still class struggle, Jiang Zemin, in his speech commemorating the 78th anniversary of the Party’s founding, stated:
Class struggle is no longer the main contradiction in our country, but for a certain period it will continue to exist within a certain limit, moreover under certain conditions it may intensify. This kind of struggle expresses in a concentrated way the opposition of bourgeois liberalization to the four fundamental principles. The core of this struggle is still a problem of political power. This type of struggle is closely connected with the struggle between infiltration and anti-infiltration, subversion and counter-subversion, peaceful evolution and fighting the peaceful evolution that exists between us and hostile forces. 
The Communist Party of China’s position on class struggle under socialism has always been very consistent and has not changed much since the beginning of the Reform and Opening-up policy. After criticizing the conception of class struggle that was in force during the period of the “cultural revolution”, the Party started to defend that the class struggle in socialism does not occupy the position of main contradiction, but that it still continues to exist within certain limits. However, some figures, already completely influenced by revisionism and imperialist ideas, allege that the Marxist concept of class struggle is “outdated” and when any mention is made of this basic concept of Marxism, they immediately claim that there is a danger of the resurgence of a new “cultural revolution”. It is important to point out that there is a significant difference between saying that the “class struggle continues to exist within certain limits” and saying that “the class struggle does not exist” or that such a theory would be something “outdated”. As Xi Jinping stated:
We must adhere to the political position of Marxism. The political position of Marxism is primarily a class position, which implements class analysis. Some people say that this idea no longer corresponds to the present era, which is a mistaken point of view. When we say that the class struggle in our country is not the main contradiction, we are not saying that in our country the class struggle within certain limits no longer exists, or that in the international sphere it doesn’t exist either. After the Reform and Opening, our Party’s ideas on this problem have always been quite clear. 
The definition, which recognizes that class struggle exists within certain limits, takes into account the concrete reality of China today, a reality where the various contradictions that exist can be resolved within the framework of the socialist system. The Communist Party of China, being the leading force of the state, has in its hands the political, economic and institutional instruments that enable it to adjust, modify and apply policies that help solve the problems and contradictions that exist between the various social classes, including the contradictions between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. This does not mean that, also in this sphere of work, there are no errors and shortcomings, almost always produced by errors in the sphere of political and ideological work. Without a firm Marxist vision the Party cannot correctly exercise its role as the vanguard of the working masses in China, nor can it firmly defend the interests of these classes.
The fundamental error of the Communist Party of China view’s of class struggle in the period of the “cultural revolution” was precisely that it broadened the scope of class struggle, which in practice contributed to the Party’s treating certain contradictions that existed within the people as if they were antagonistic contradictions. It was a view that did not correspond to the concrete situation of the Chinese society at the time; today the main mistake regarding the theory of class struggle is committed by those who deny its objective existence. The historical experience of the history of the construction of socialism at a world level teaches that class struggle continues to exist in socialism – even though it is not the main contradiction in socialist societies -, therefore, it is not correct to deny or underestimate its action.
To deny the existence of class struggle in socialism is as serious an error as trying to artificially broaden its scope. The errors of the “cultural revolution” do not alter the fact that class struggle is an objective reality, and that it continues to exist in the primary stage of socialism. In the Chinese case, given the expansion of capitalist relations of production, it is obvious that class contradictions, including the contradiction between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, can intensify again. Without recognizing the existence of class struggle, it is impossible to adopt measures to resolve the various social contradictions that exist in Chinese society, which in the medium and long term would result in the amplification of social contradictions, causing contradictions that are currently non-antagonistic in character to quickly become antagonistic contradictions.
Without Marxism and the October Revolution there would be no “Chinese miracle”: a short critique of certain conceptions of the “China’s rise”
The success achieved by the CCP in leading the Chinese nation along the path of socialism has shown the world the vitality and scientificity of Marxist theory. In view of the undeniable successes achieved by the Party, given the intense political and ideological struggle going on, it is to some extent inevitable that abroad certain figures who follow the Chinese development process try to explain it by turning a blind eye to the most important and essential elements that define such process. Quite popular are the ideas that China’s development would be the result produced by a “developmentalist” state in the style of Taiwan, Singapore, or South Korea, or a “civilizational state,” emphasizing here the “civilizational superiority” of the Chinese nation. To give an example of the confusions, Martin Jacques, an author who plays a very important role in investigating the Chinese development process, and openly opposes attempts to launch a new cold war against the Asian country, in an article published by the Global Times, stressed that “it is impossible to understand China in terms of traditional Marxism,” adding that the CCP is “deeply influenced by Confucianism” and that the best way to understand it would be to describe it as a “hybrid between Confucianism and Marxism. Also in the article the author makes a point of highlighting the fact that the CCP is quite different from the former Communist Party of the Soviet Union and that they would have “very little in common.” 
We recognize that in all these statements – with the exception that the Communist Party of China and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union have very little in common” – there is a portion of truth, however, we believe it is not unreasonable to say that the author does not address the crux of the problem, which is precisely to analyze how the sinicization of Marxism is the main element that explains the success and rise of China, and that the ideological system of socialism with Chinese characteristics is not an eclectic mix between two philosophies with completely different bases and goals (Marxism and Confucianism). Confucianism, of course, is an important pillar of the millennial traditional Chinese culture, and obviously the Communist Party of China recognizes and incorporates its progressive elements. However, it cannot be denied that throughout its century-old history, the Chinese progressive and revolutionary movement, of which the Communist Party of China is a direct product, has always been very critical of Confucianism, and all this long before the “great proletarian cultural revolution” emerged on the scene of history in the late 1960s. Martin Jacques’ statement that the Communist Party of China is “rooted and deeply influenced by Confucianism” is a “half-truth” turned into an “absolute truth,” for it denies another basic fact that needs to be taken into consideration, namely, that the Communist Party of China was born amidst an intense ideological and political struggle against Confucian ideology and all that it represented and still represents in the developmental history of the Chinese nation. That there are Chinese authors and personalities – including within the Party – who advocate a “new Confucianism,” or who try to explain Chinese success within the framework of “Confucianism,” is another problem, very much related to the ideological confusion generated by years of a relatively uncontrolled development of bourgeois ideas, something we have already discussed in this article.
In fact, the problem of the relationship between traditional Chinese culture and Marxism in China is a topic that deserves a separate article, such is the complexity of the subject. However, this is not to say that for the Communist Party of China, Confucianism and Marxism are two philosophies on the same footing, or, in Martin Jacques’ own words, a “hybrid between Confucianism and Marxism. As Hou Weimin, a member of the Institute of Marxism of the Chinese Academy of Social Scientists, put it:
Since the Reformation and the Opening-up, there have been two types of anti-Marxist thinking. One is the ideological tendency to promote the restoration of feudalism; cultural conservatism and neo-Confucianism belong to this category. This trend of thought is characterized by advocating the “Confucianization of China “and “Confucianization of the Communist Party” under the banner of carrying forward traditional culture by establishing “Confucian colleges” in which Confucian scholars familiar with Confucian classics rule China. Supported by some people abroad, this thinking prevailed for some time. However, its absurdity is obvious if a more proper investigation is made. Its main points have the smell of feudal zombies, so it is hard for it to get a response from the masses. The other thought is the tendency to promote the restoration of capitalism, called bourgeois liberalization by Deng Xiaoping. 
About the “few similarities” between the Communist Party of China and the former Communist Party of Soviet Union, it is evident how the way Martin Jacques throws such information into his article misleads the reader into confusion. Which Communist Party of the Soviet Union is he referring to? The Party of Lenin and Stalin or the Party of Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Gorbachev? Superficial statements such as those made by the author open much room for confusion and misinterpretation regarding the history of the Communist Party of China and its evolution over the years. It is necessary to point out that between the Communist Party of China and the former Communist Party of the Soviet Union there is the difference that the former was able to integrate Marxism to the Chinese reality, avoiding committing the same mistakes that the Soviet Party committed in the past, due to its complete abandonment of Marxist theory; the latter, on the other hand, gradually distanced itself from Marxism and capitulated before the ideological offensive promoted by the capitalist countries. However, it is undeniable that the Communist Party of China learned many things from the Soviet experience, so that it is correct to state that there were “great similarities” between both parties, and that the Soviet experience was, from the beginning, a source of inspiration and study for the Chinese communists. As Zhou Xincheng noted:
Initially, we had no experience in how to build socialism. We could only learn from the Soviet Union, which had decades of experience in socialist construction. The basic experience of socialist construction in the Soviet Union was to be studied, including its political adherence to the Communist Party leadership and the dictatorship of the proletariat; economic adherence to the system of public ownership of the means of material production, distribution according to labor, elimination of exploitation and elimination of polarization; ideological adherence to Marxism as a guide, etc. This reflects the basic principles of scientific socialism, its common law, possessing universal value. Therefore, we have always regarded our socialist cause as a continuation of the October Revolution. 
Even today many elements in the Chinese political system bear great similarities to the model that was gradually established in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The political model that establishes the Communist Party’s direction over the activities of the state and society – a system that today even some bourgeois theorists sympathetic to China tend to defend – is a direct influence of the Soviet-type political system, even if between them there are some differences (e.g. in the Chinese case there is at the same time a system of political consultation that allows the existence of other parties). Although perhaps this is not his intention, in practice Martin Jacques ends up establishing an opposition between two historical phenomena umbilically connected -the Russian and Chinese revolution- diminishing the position of Marxism-Leninism and concealing the direct link that the process of building socialism with Chinese characteristics has with the struggle of the international proletariat and also with the Russian revolution itself, in the name of the idea that the Communist Party of China “is different from all the other parties in the world.
Still on the relationship between socialism with Chinese characteristics and Soviet socialism, it is interesting to note that Xi Jinping, when analyzing the various stages of the development of the history of socialist thought and movement, divides it into six stages, citing precisely Lenin’s experience and his leadership in the October Revolution as an integral part of these stages, as well as the gradual formation of the Soviet system already in the Stalin period (respectively, the third and fourth stage of the development of the history of socialism). In other words, Xi Jinping highlights as an integral part of the development of socialist thought – in which, obviously, socialism with Chinese characteristics is included – the experience of the construction of socialism in Russia, from the victory of the October Revolution to the formation of the Soviet system with the foundation and construction of socialism in the Soviet Union, an experience led by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
 Deng Xiaoping 邓小平. “Gao zichan jieji ziyou hua jiushi zou ziben zhuyi daolu 搞资产阶级自由化就是走资本主义道路 [To engage in bourgeois liberalization is to take the path of capitalism],” Dengxiaoping wenxuan, v.3, Renmin chuban she 人民出版社，2008, pg.123.
 Communist Party of China. Resolution on Certain Historical Issues in the History of Our Party since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China – Adopted by the Sixth Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, 1981. Accessed at: https://www.marxists.org/portugues/tematica/1981/06/27.html
 Deng Xiaoping 邓小平. “Women youxinxin ba zhongguo de shijian hao chengji 我们有信心把中国的事情做得更好 [We are confident that we can handle China’s affairs well],” Dengxiaoping wenxuan, Renmin chubanshe 人民出版社，2008，pg.327
 Mao Tsetung. On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People: Selected Readings from the Works of Mao Tsetung, Foreign Language Press, 1971, pg.
 Jiang Zemin 江泽民. “Zai jinian zhongguo gongchandang chengli qishiba zhounian zuotan hui shang de jianghua 在纪念中国共产党成立七十八周年座谈会上的讲话 [Speech commemorating the 78th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China],” 1997. Accessed at: http://www.peopledaily.com.cn/item/ldhd/Jiangzm/1999/jianghua/jh0007.html
 Xi Jinping 习近平. “Ba xuanchuan sixiang gongzuo zuo de geng hao 把宣传思想工作做得更好 [Do ideological and propaganda work better].” Lun jianchi dang yiqie gongzuo de lingdao 论坚持党一切工作的领导, Zhongyang wenxian chuban she 中央文献出版社, 2019, pg. 23.
 Zhou Xincheng 周新城. “Guandu zhongguo thesis shehui zhuyi de ruogan lilun wenti 关于中国特色社会主义的若干理论问题 [On some theoretical problems of socialism with Chinese characteristics],” Jingji ribao chubanshe 经济日报出版社，2015, pg. 357.
 Wang Qishan 王崎上. “Kaiqi xin shidai, ta shang xin zhengcheng 开启新时代，踏上新征程 [Starting a new era and embarking on a new journey],” Renmin Ribao 人民日报， 2017, November 7, 2017. Acessado em: http://www.xinhuanet.com//2017-11/07/c_1121915946.htm
 Chen Yun 陈云. “Bixu jiuzheng hushi jingshen wenming jianshe de xianxiang 必须纠正忽视精神文明建设的现象 [We should correct the tendency to neglect the establishment of spiritual civilization],” Chenyun Wenxuan 陈云文选, v.3, Renmin chubanshe, 2015, pg. 354.
 David M. Kotz 大卫-科茨. “Sulian jieti yuanyin shi jingying jituan zhuzhang ziben zhuyi 苏联解体原因是精英集团主张资本主义 [The reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union was that elitist groups advocated capitalism].” Zhongguo jingji wang 中国经济网, 2013. Accessed at: http://www.wyzxwk.com/Article/lishi/2013/09/306710.html
 Xi Jinping 习近平. “Guanyu jianchi he fazhan zhongguo thesis shehui zhuyi de ji ge wenti 关于坚持和发展中国特色社会主义的几个问题 [Some questions on maintaining and developing socialism with Chinese characteristics],” Qiushi 求实, n.7, 2009. Accessed at: http://www.qstheory.cn/dukan/qs/2019-03/31/c_1124302776.htm
 Mao Zedong. Speech At The Tenth Plenum Of The Eighth Central Committee, 1962. Accessed at: https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-8/mswv8_63.htm
 Liang Zhu 梁柱. “Mozedong fanfa sixiang yong bu tuishai 毛泽东反腐思想永不褪色 [Mao Zedong’s thoughts on corruption will never dissipate],” Zhongguo shehui kexue bao 中国社会科学报, 2014. Acessado em: http://dangshi.people.com.cn/n/2014/0116/c85037-24142270.html
 Deng Xiaoping 邓小平. “Jianchi shehui zhuyi, fangzhi heping yanbian 坚持社会主义，防止和平演变 [Adhering to socialism and preventing peaceful evolution],” Dengxiaoping wenxuan 邓小平文选, v.3, Renmin chubanshe 人民出版社, 2008, pg. 344.
 Liu Guoguang 刘国光. “Zhongguo shehuizhuyi zhengzhi jingjixue de ruogan wenti 中国社会主义政治经济学的若干问题 [Some problems of the political economy of socialism with Chinese characteristics],” Jinan chubanshe 济南出版社, 2017, pg. 33.
 Gong Yun 龚云. “Zai lishi xuwu zhuyi zhong jianchi lishi weiwu zhuyi 在历史虚无主义中坚持历史唯物主义 [Criticizing historical nihilism by persisting in historical materialism].” Accessed at: http://www.wyzxwk.com/Article/yulun/2016/07/367869.html
 Xi Jinping 习近平. “Zai dang shu xuexi jiaoyu dongyuan dahui shang de jianghua 在党史学习教育动员大会上的讲话 [Speech at the mobilization and study conference on Party history],” 2021. Acessado em: https://www.ccps.gov.cn/xtt/202103/t20210331_148208.shtml
 Xi Jinping 习近平. “Zai zhexue shehui kexue gongzuo zuotan zhong de sikao 在哲学社会科学工作座谈会上的讲话 [Speech at the philosophy and social science workers seminar],” 2016. Acessado em: http://www.xinhuanet.com/politics/2016-05/18/c_1118891128_2.htm
 Xi Jinping 习近平. “Ba xuanchuan sixiang gongzuo zuo de geng hao 把宣传思想工作做得更好 [Do ideological and propaganda work better].” Lun jianchi dang yiqie gongzuo de lingdao 论坚持党一切工作的领导, Zhongyang wenxian chuban she 中央文献出版社, 2019, pg. 23.
 Wu Xuangong 吴宣恭. “Yunyong lishi weiwuzhuyi jianshe zhongguo thesis shehui zhuyi zhengzhi jingji xue 运用历史唯物主义建设中国特色社会主义政治经济学 [Use historical materialism to build the political economy of socialism with Chinese characteristics].” Fujian shifan daxue xuebao (zhexue shehui kexue ban) 福建师范大学学报 ( 哲学社会科学版), 2017.
 Liu Guoguang 刘国光. “Zhongguo shehuizhuyi zhengzhi jingjixue de ruogan wenti 中国社会主义政治经济学的若干问题 [Some problems of the political economy of socialism with Chinese characteristics],” Jinan chubanshe 济南出版社, 2017, pg. 33.
 Jiang Zemin 江泽民. “Jiāngzémín zài qìngzhù jiàndǎng qishi zhōunián dàhuì shàng de jiǎnghuà 江泽民在庆祝建党70周年大会上的讲话 [Speech at the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the party],” 1991. Accessed at: http://www.qunzh.com/pub/jsqzw/xxzt/jd95zn/zyls/201606/t20160601_20990.html
 Speech by Xi Jinping at the School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. February 17, 2014. Quoted in Zhou Xincheng 周新城，”Jianchi jiqiao jiben yuanli fenxi shehui wenti坚持运用马克思主义基本原理分析社会经济问题 [Adhere in using the principles of Marxism in investigating economic and social problems].” Jingji ribao chuban she 经济日报出版社, 2016, pg. 228 .
 Martin Jacques. Why there has been an overwhelming failure to understand CPC in West, Global Times, April 6, 2021. Accessed at: https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202104/1220314.shtml
 Hou Weimin 侯为民. “Pipan yu chuangxin- Zhou xincheng jiaoshou jingji sixiang sumiao 批判与创新–周新城教授经济思想素描 [Critique and Innovation: an outline of Professor Zhou Xincheng’s economic thought]”，Guanli xue kan 管理学刊, 2014.
 Zhou Xincheng 周新城. “Jianguo qishi nian shi qingzhu shehui zhuyi lishi fazhan, jinian zhonghua renmin gongheguo chengli qishi zhounián 建国70年是庆祝社会主义历史发展, 纪念中华人民共和国成立70周年. Accessed at: http://www.kunlunce.com/llyj/fl1/2019-05-17/133451.html
This article was republished from Friends of Socialist China.
Exploring Friedrich Engels’ Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy: Part 2 – Materialism. By: Thomas RigginsRead Now
(Read Part 1 HERE)
Engels opens the second part of his essay by saying: “The great basic question of all, especially of latter-day philosophy, is that concerning the relation of thinking and being.” This is one of the oldest questions humans have been interested in, dating back to the earliest appearance of self-consciousness in our species. As we tried to understand the world around us and the forces of nature and the other animals we lived with and are surrounded by, we thought of them as somewhat like ourselves, with some awareness or spirit, and primitive religious views began to develop in our consciousness – such as the idea that there are nature spirits to be appeased, and finally powerful gods and goddesses that could help or hurt humans. We ended up thinking that the world was created by the gods, and finally a supreme God who was also responsible for the existence of humans. Until the creation of modern science the question was: which came first nature or the creators of nature, the spirits or God? —the question was answered: thinking, the gods, mind came first and then nature.
Philosophy, religion, and science began to consolidate around two great schools of thought with regard to this question: 1) Idealism; God and thinking first, man and nature second, and 2) Materialism; nature and man first, and only then can self-consciousness develop in humans, and ultimately, can thinking create the notions of gods and God in its own image — the image of humans. Engels is interested in the state of this argument in his day, when the great champion of Idealism was Hegel and his system, and Materialism was attacking this system in the form of Feuerbach’s philosophy, but more importantly, in the new and improved form that grew out of a synthesis of Hegel’s logical (metaphysical) methods and Feuerbach’s materialism which became Marxism, and which is known today as Marxism-Leninism (AKA Dialectical Materialism). Marxism-Leninism is the result of the development of Marxist theory by Lenin and the experiences of the Russian Revolution. It is based on the belief that the Lenin/Russian Revolution experience still has relevance today for the transition from capitalism to socialism.
Next, Engels points out, we have to ask what is the relation of our thinking to the world, to nature? Can we get a correct reflection of the external world in our ideas of it? The majority of philosophers say “yes.” For Hegel thinking recognizes itself in the world, our ideas are part of the development in time of the Absolute Idea which has existed before the world from eternity. This is similar to Plato’s view of the things in the external world being imperfect reflections of the world of ideas which exist in “heaven” (or the Mind of God in the Christian view based on Plato). Hegel makes the mistake, as all systematic philosophers do, that since he thinks he has figured out the correct relation between thinking and being (being in the real world) his philosophy is the only correct one.
Besides Materialism there have always been, and still are, practitioners of Idealism. In his day David Hume in the United Kingdom and Immanuel Kant in Germany were the most well-known. Hume was a skeptic, thinking the mind could never get to the basic reality of things (objective or subjective) and Kant also had a similar idea but was not a skeptic. The mind could understand the way the world interacted with it but the things in the world were “for us,” that is, filtered by our perceptions. Therefore, we could never know what they were “in themselves” unperceived. For Engels, Kant took care of Hume and Hegel took care of Kant. Feuerbach took care of Hegel and Marx perfected the Materialism of Feuerbach. The problem was how to get proof for the idea that nature was real, outside of us, and understandable. This was not a philosophical solution, but a scientific one. The answer, according to Engels, was a practical one. We can postulate how nature works and then test our ideas. If we can predict what will happen and it comes about, that is evidence of its independent existence, since our theory doesn’t compel nature to act a certain way, we must adapt our theory to how nature acts independently of us. This is for Engels the proof of Materialism.
Engels now turns to a quote from Feuerbach from Stark (he doesn’t deal with much of the book itself, nor do we have to, as he says, it is “loaded with a ballast of philosophical phraseology.” Feuerbach has taken Hegel’s logic, which is based on the view that the categories of logic are eternal and preexist the actual physical world (this entails a complicated metaphysical argument) and demonstrates that the logic is a product of our minds (which are animal minds) and a part of the physical world from which we developed (Darwin’s theory which came later confirms this). This is Materialism, says Engels, but Feuerbach himself hesitates to completely affirm it. Here is the Feuerbach quote: “To me materialism is the foundation of the edifice of human essence and knowledge; but to me it is not what it is to the scientists and necessarily is from their standpoint and profession, namely, the edifice itself. Backwards I fully agree with the materialists; but not forwards.”
What’s going on here? Engels says Feuerbach has mixed up the general concept of Materialism (matter first, mind second) with the particular form this concept assumed in the 18th century – a crude mechanical materialism that existed before the development of the Hegelian dialectic and which was still being preached in the time of Feuerbach by the natural scientists and medical doctors who had not, for the most, part studied the logic of the Hegelian system. In the same way that 18th century Idealism evolved and developed into Hegelianism, so Materialism evolved and developed into a more sophisticated form as the result of the development of science in the 19th century. Feuerbach, I think, as a student of Hegel should have known this, but Engels holds that he never properly understood Hegel’s dialectic.
There were two limitations that were responsible for the mechanical nature of 18th century materialism. The first was the state of science at that time, which was dominated by the mechanistic universe of the Newtonian system. This mechanistic worldview was applied not only to physics, but to biology and chemistry as well, when both of the latter two sciences were just in their infancy compared to physics, and higher laws of process and change played second fiddle to mechanics. This was also true in geology at that time as the age of the earth was still considered to be rather young due to Biblical influences.
The second limitation was related to the first— this was “the inability to comprehend the world as a process.” This also applied to the concepts of history. Everywhere there were essential unchanging factors at work that were cyclical in nature. Civilizations started out small, grew, and collapsed, and the cycle then repeated itself. Even Hegel, Engels maintains, fell victim to this mechanical essentialism with his philosophical system, although it contradicted his philosophical method which was dialectical and not mechanical. It took the work of Feuerbach and later Marx (and Engels as well) to overcome this contradiction. Nature operates according to the laws of Hegel’s logic, which are external to Nature, and Nature is an alienation of matter from its essential logical being. But the concepts of the logic start from primitive notions (Being versus Nothingness leading to Becoming, etc.,) until the whole of the system culminates due to permutations, contradictions, development of new concepts, etc., until the Absolute Idea is arrived at.
The logical world is one of process, evolution, change, and progressive development; but the world of man (history) and nature are just mechanical reflections of this system of logic. Matter is inert and non-dialectical. This is the conservative element in Hegel. His system was supposed to justify the world as it is, and the ruling classes of his day appreciated this. Engels says, “the method, for the sake of the system, had to become untrue to itself.” But lurking within the Hegelian system was this revolutionary method, which was disinterred by Marx and Engels, a method which could lead to the overthrow of ‘’what is’’ and its replacement with a revolutionary new world order. The history of the last two centuries has been the painful labor of the world process to deliver and bring to birth the resolution of this contradiction.
It was during this period, the mid-19th century, that history too began to be studied in a scientific manner. The bourgeois materialists descending from the 18th century didn’t see history as a developing progressive process. The Middle Ages, for example, were dismissed as a backward era that had to be overcome to get civilization back on the track laid out in the classical era of Greece and Rome. Engels says this is all wrong— the Middle Ages were a time of great progress marked by the “extension” of European civilization, the consolidation of the nation state, and technical advances that the 14th and 15th centuries introduced. It wasn’t until after the 1848 Revolutions that scientific history really got off the ground, stimulated by the rapid development of the natural sciences.
Engels now seeks to explain why Feuerbach’s materialism, while it stood head and shoulders above the old mechanical materialism inherited from the Enlightenment, still missed the boat and did not really become modern enough to serve as the basis of the materialist worldview of Marx and Engels. It was not really the fault of Feuerbach. Because his philosophy was progressive ahead of his time he was banished from Academia for political reasons and ended up living out in the boondocks cut off from the intellectual ferment going on in post 1848 Europe. Therefore, he was not able to fully update his materialism to the dialectical level that Marx and Engels achieved.
We will soon see, in Part III, to what extent Feuerbach still had some views based on Idealism, but first we must go over a critique of Starck’s views about Feuerbach’s “Idealism.” Engels says Starck found Feuerbach’s “ idealism in “the wrong place”. Here is what Starck says: “Feuerbach is an idealist; he believes in the progress of mankind.” As far as Feuerbach’s philosophy is concerned, Starck continues, “The foundation, the substructure of the whole, remains nevertheless idealism. Realism [materialism-tr] is for us nothing more than a protection against aberrations , while we follow our ideal trends. Are not compassion, love, enthusiasm for truth and justice ideal forces?”
Starck here confuses ethical commitments to “ideals” that people have with the philosophy of Idealism, which maintains that the basis of existence, of Being, is ontologically some mental or spiritual essence or substance that predates matter and from which the material universe derives its being. These are two entirely different uses of the word “idealism”, and we should not confuse them. If Starck doesn’t understand this difference, then “he has lost all meaning of these terms” in this context.
Coming up next Part III “Feuerbach”
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association. He is the author of Reading the Classical Texts of Marxism.
Michael Lebowitz, Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy Of The Working Class By: Madelaine MooreRead Now
Returning to the text in 2022, its unique take on some old Marxist questions as well as some weaknesses were more apparent. While some of the arguments working in the background to the book are of their time, in particular, the desire to offer a necessary Marxist antidote to the New Social Movement debates of the 1980s/1990s, many of Lebowitz’s arguments continue to press upon critical points in Marxist theory and have since been taken further by social reproduction theorists and others. Beyond Capital, first published in 1992 and then significantly revised in 2004, still offers a refreshing and critical intervention into why capitalism persists despite ongoing crises, and what is revealed when the working class is approached as subject instead of merely the object of capital reproduction and crisis. Underpinning these arguments is the age-old question of how to reconcile subjectivity and revolutionary consciousness with the abstract forces of capitalist reproduction.
Lebowitz bases his argument on the premise that Marx’s Capital was an unfinished project. What is missing, he suggests, is the book on wage labour where Marx would have competed the totality of capitalist reproduction by offering the standpoint of wage labour, through which class subjectivity could be analysed. Yet without this book we are stuck with a one-sided Marxism where only capital is subject. Within this missing book we might find the theoretical foundations to explore how the economic and political are integral to one another, as well as how the intertwined processes of domination, expropriation, and exploitation operate through the living complex human being behind the abstract notion of labour power. Ultimately, Lebowitz is trying to guard against the argument that what drives capital is capital where struggle is an after effect. Although the way he develops his argument, in particular the need to find a perfect mirror or other to existing one-sided categories, can feel forced at times, and certain discussions for example on value and competition remain undeveloped, these are barriers that can (and have) been overcome by others, rather than limitations of the argument itself. Drawing out from the specifics, the overall purpose of Beyond Capital as a treatise against capitalo-centricism, and the steps he takes to get there continue to open up debates in necessary ways.
Exploring the missing book on wage labour, Lebowitz begins with the question of needs, and demonstrates that working class needs, or socially necessary labour time, is socially and historically contingent. This flexibility is what distinguishes us from other animals, in that needs shift according to what is available. As a commodity, labour power is unique in that the price of labour power (our wage) can determine our value. Yet, within capitalism, the only way that workers can satisfy their needs is through wage labour and consumption through the market. Although this is a relatively straightforward argument, it is also the foundation for one of the red threads throughout the book: that there is an integral but contradictory relation between these categories within the totality of capitalism. In simple terms, the worker is both labour power and consumer, and although necessary needs are the result of class struggle, ‘each new need becomes a new link in the golden chain that secures workers to capital’, citing Lebowitz. As such, within capitalism, the capacity for workers to realise their needs relies upon capital as mediator, which is where capital’s power comes from.
Touching on, without fully entering, labour theory of value debates, what is suggested at here is an argument similar to Harry Cleaver on the value of labour for capital. When Lebowitz asks ‘Why, for example, does capital require a definite quantity of labour if the technical composition of capital is rising?’ his answer can be found in the way that new needs are produced and the reproduction of wage labour. For as long as capital remains mediator, what is reproduced – the value of labour for capital – is a relation of dependence. Rather than labour having a value as a definite input to production, the value of labour for capital is the power relation that is reproduced, and conversely according to Lebowitz:
For the worker, the value of labour-power is both the means of satisfying needs normally realised and the barrier to satisfying more – that is, is simultaneously affirmation and denial.
Thinking in more concrete terms, when wages decrease the quality of labour power may decrease, or when productivity rises the amount of labour needed to produce each product may decrease, but critically the wage relation is still reproduced. Again, gingerly opening a door to fierce feminist debates on unproductive/productive labour, without delving deep into their claims, Lebowitz concludes that ‘What we are presented with is productive labour for capital, labour which serves the need and goal of capital – valorisation,’ where this is made possible because of the reproduction of this relation of dependence.
To re-centre class struggle as a key dynamic rather than after-effect of capitalist reproduction, Lebowitz approaches needs from multiple standpoints, and by doing so demonstrates how needs for labour and needs for capital from these different standpoints are incommensurate. This is reflected in his concept of a political economy of wage labour as the “other” to the political economy of capital. While framed as the counter to capital and reflecting the above tensions, the political economy of wage labour remains within the totality of capitalism. It is not equal in power—even if his graphics seem to suggest some equality – a constant annoyance in the reading group!—and serves a necessary function in the reproduction of the system as whole. What this concept allows us to do is approach the multiple circuits of production and reproduction from different standpoints (here touching on although not referencing feminist standpoint theory as much as Lukács’ approach to proletarian praxis), which centres rather than sidelines working class experience, logics, and needs. As such, unlike some autonomists or feminist interventions, Lebowitz makes a convincing argument that these other circuits are not autonomous from capital but rather operate within the totality and remain mediated by the demands of valorisation.
However, this mediation does not mean that the political economy of wage labour is the same as the political economy of capital. The political economy of wage labour although essential to the reproduction of capitalism as a whole also exceeds it. Put differently, human experience is more than that which is visible on the terms of capital: concrete labour is not commensurate with abstract labour and it is this “extra” or messiness that Lebowitz, alongside many social reproduction theorists, are interested in. The worker is both wage labourer and non-wage labourer and this occurs through the same labouring body. There is—to borrow David McNally’s terms—a unity in difference within the totality, a totality understood here as a methodological premise that points to the way that the economic mediates and colours these other integral parts of the totality in complex and contradictory ways.
what are the implications of labour power being produced outside the circuit of commodity production, yet being essential to it?
In looking at the complex and dual role that schools, hospitals, or water services play as sites of social reproduction, workplaces, but also necessary conditions for the reproduction of capitalism as a whole, we can begin to untangle the strategic complexities of class struggle and demands, but also return to Lebowitz’s driving questions – why does capitalism persist? And why is the working class not revolting?
As such, the crisis theory that is put forward is layered, dynamic, and can only be understood fully by approaching crisis from these different standpoints. Making a distinction between limits and barriers where limits tend to be turned into barriers that can be overcome, it becomes clearer how crises are central to the dynamism of capitalism and are more often crises in, rather than of, the system. Again, re-framing common categories through a new lens, Lebowitz argues that M-C-M’ – understood as the need for continuous growth – could be re-framed as growth – barrier – growth where ‘the story of capital within the sphere of production is that of its tendency to drive beyond all barriers.’ Although more implicit rather than explicit, this dovetails with much current debate on primitive accumulation as a necessarily continuous process, and could offer an interesting take on current discussions on de-growth, although neither are pursued in the book. While capital’s dynamism comes from its capacity to transform limits into barriers—creating new sites for accumulation, new needs, and new dependencies—the one limit for Lebowitz that cannot be overcome is that of the working class.
However, like all Lebowitz’s claims and going back to his original question of why the working class—the real limit—is not revolting, the answer is not straightforward. Even if we can analytically approach the working class as a unified subject, this does not mean it sees itself that way. As Lebowitz argues, ‘Once we consider the worker as subject, then the conditions within which workers themselves are produced (and produce themselves) emerge as an obvious part of the explanation for the continued existence of capitalism.’ If we are to take seriously the conditions within which the working class are (re)-produced, it is a subject mediated by structures of exploitation, oppression and domination. Offering a critical counter to more orthodox Marxist analysis of his time and another link to social reproduction theory, Lebowitz demonstrates how race and in particular gender divisions are not secondary struggles, because ‘as long as our subject is capital, it may be appropriate to consider these human beings only in their characteristic as wage-labourer. Yet, as soon as the subject becomes wage labour, it is necessary to consider the other relations in which people exist.’ There are multiple standpoints and strategic barriers within the working class. For example, wage labour for women may weaken patriarchal power relations within the household and could represent a way out of domestic slavery, while the family wage—a core tenet of welfare state policy—might strengthen the power of the male breadwinner model. While such binary terminology is of its time, the implication of this argument is that there is no singular experience of exploitation and that the male blue collar worker and his trade union is not necessarily the singular agent of change. As counter, Lebowitz calls on us to recognise all struggles against capital as the mediator of needs and tackle the separation of workers, or as Bhattacharya suggests against capital in general, as potential class struggles. It is the underlying power of capital as a whole that must be confronted, not only the power of individual bosses or capitalists. Ultimately, we need to go beyond merely economic struggles, and recognise the integral relation between the economic and political. However, how we do this, beyond developing a broad and inclusive understanding of the working class and class struggle that can include the home and neighbourhood, remains largely undefined.
To conclude, Beyond Capital remains an important intervention into Marxist theory and methodology. Lebowitz offers a refreshing take on longstanding questions around capitalism’s durability and the subjectivity of the working class. He opens analytical problems that others, especially social reproduction theorists, have taken further in fruitful ways. While we are left without a clear political strategy, we are given analytical tools to understand the working class as a diverse actor who equally struggles in their workplace, in their home, and in their neighbourhood. Moreover, the process of struggle, although not simple is productive, as through struggle the separation of the working class (the power of capital for Lebowitz) may be overcome and new subjects produced. As he suggests, the process of struggle itself is useful:
It is not that the end to patriarchy or racism as such is incompatible with the continuation of capitalism but, rather, that the people who have struggled to end patriarchy and racism may be.
Beyond Capital helps us to understand why capitalism continues to persist despite endless crises, by drawing our attention to the messiness of human beings and the multiple circuits that reproduce capitalism as a complex and contradictory totality.
Madelaine Moore Dr. Madelaine Moore is a post-doctoral researcher at Bielefeld University, Germany. Her research develops a political economy from below by exploring water governance and the emergence of eco-social policies through Marxist and Feminist theory. Her PhD, which explored struggles over the expropriation of water in Australia and Ireland, won the Jörg Huffschmid Award and she was a Rosa Luxemburg Foundation scholar. Her monograph A Time of Reproductive Unrest will be coming out in early 2023 with Manchester University Press in the Progress in Political Economy book series.
This article was republished from Progress in Political Economy.
Ten Theses on Marxism and Decolonisation By: The Tricontinental, Casa de las AméricasRead Now
Violeta Parra (Chile), Untitled (unfinished), 1966. Embroidery on sackcloth, 136 x 200 cm.
The works of art in this dossier belong to Casa de las Américas’ Haydee Santamaría Art of Our America (Nuestra América) collection. Since its founding, Casa de las Américas has established close ties with a significant number of internationally renowned contemporary artists who have set visual arts trends in the region. Casa’s galleries have hosted temporary exhibitions including different artistic genres, expressions, and techniques by several generations of mainly Latin American and Caribbean artists. Many of these works, initially exhibited in Casa’s galleries, awarded prizes in its contests, and donated by the artists, have become part of the Haydee Santamaría Art of Our America collection, representing an exceptional artistic heritage.
Roberto Matta (Chile), Cuba es la capital (‘Cuba Is the Capital’), 1963. Soil and plaster on Masonite (mural), 188 x 340 cm. Located at the entrance to Casa de las Américas.
Cultural Policy and Decolonisation in the Cuban Socialist ProjectAbel Prieto, director of Casa de las Américas
The Cuban Revolution came about in a country subordinated to the US from all points of view. Although we had the façade of a republic, we were a perfect colony, exemplary in economic, commercial, diplomatic, and political terms, and almost in cultural terms.
Our bourgeoisie was constantly looking towards the North: from there, they imported dreams, hopes, fetishes, models of life. They sent their children to study in the North, hoping that they would assimilate the admirable competitive spirit of the Yankee ‘winners’, their style, their unique and superior way of settling in this world and subjugating the ‘losers’.
This ‘vice-bourgeoisie’, as Roberto Fernández Retamar baptised them, were not limited to avidly consuming whatever product of the US cultural industry fell into their hands. Not only that – at the same time, they collaborated in disseminating the ‘American way of life’ in the Ibero-American sphere and kept part of the profits for themselves. Cuba was an effective cultural laboratory at the service of the Empire, conceived to multiply the exaltation of the Chosen Nation and its world domination. Cuban actresses and actors dubbed the most popular American television series into Spanish, which would later flood the continent. In fact, we were among the first countries in the region to have television in 1950. It seemed like a leap forward, towards so-called ‘progress’, but it turned out to be poisoned. Very commercial Cuban television programming functioned as a replica of the ‘made in the USA’ pseudo-culture, with soap operas, Major League and National League baseball games, competition and participation programmes copied from American reality shows, and constant advertising. In 1940, the magazine Selections of the Reader’s Digest, published by a company of the same name, began to appear in Spanish in Havana with all of its poison. This symbol of the idealisation of the Yankee model and the demonisation of the USSR and of any idea close to emancipation was translated and printed on the island and distributed from here to all of Latin America and Spain.
The very image of Cuba that was spread internationally was reduced to a tropical ‘paradise’ manufactured by the Yankee mafia and its Cuban accomplices. Drugs, gambling, and prostitution were all put at the service of VIP tourism from the North. Remember that the Las Vegas project had been designed for our country and failed because of the revolution.
Fanon spoke of the sad role of the ‘national bourgeoisie’ – already formally independent from colonialism – before the elites of the old metropolis, ‘who happen to be tourists enamoured of exoticism, hunting, and casinos’. He added:
We only have to look at what has happened in Latin America if we want proof of the way the ex-colonised bourgeoisie can be transformed into ‘party’ organiser. The casinos in Havana and Mexico City, the beaches of Rio, Copacabana, and Acapulco, the young Brazilian and Mexican girls, the thirteen-year-old mestizas, are the scars of this depravation of the national bourgeoisie.1
Our bourgeoisie, submissive ‘party organisers’ of the Yankees, did everything possible for Cuba to be culturally absorbed by their masters during the neocolonial republic. However, there were three factors that slowed down this process: the work of intellectual minorities that defended, against all odds, the memory and values of the nation; the sowing of Martí’s principles and patriotism among teachers in Cuban public schools; and the resistance of our powerful, mestizo, haughty, and ungovernable popular culture, nurtured by the rich spiritual heritage of African origin.
In his speech ‘History Will Absolve Me’, Fidel listed the six main problems facing Cuba. Among them, he highlighted ‘the problem of education’ and referred to ‘comprehensive education reform’ as one of the most urgent missions that the future liberated republic would have to undertake.2 Hence, the educational and cultural revolution began practically from the triumph of 1 January 1959. On the 29th of that same month, summoned by Fidel, a first detachment of three hundred teachers alongside one hundred doctors and other professionals left for the Sierra Maestra to bring education and health to the most remote areas. Around those same days, Camilo and Che launched a campaign to eradicate illiteracy among the Rebel Army troops since more than 80% of the combatants were illiterate.
On 14 September, the former Columbia Military Camp was handed over to the Ministry of Education so that it could build a large school complex there. The promise of turning barracks into schools was beginning to be fulfilled, and sixty-nine military fortresses became educational centres. On 18 September, Law No. 561 was enacted, creating ten thousand classrooms and accrediting four thousand new teachers. The same year, cultural institutions of great importance were created: the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC), the National Publishing House, the Casa de las Américas, and the National Theatre of Cuba, which has a department of folklore and an unprejudiced and anti-racist vision unprecedented in the country. All of these new revolutionary institutions were oriented towards a decolonised understanding of Cuban and universal culture.
But 1961 was the key year in which a profound educational and cultural revolution began in Cuba. This was the year when Eisenhower ruptured diplomatic relations with our country. This was the year when our foreign minister, Raúl Roa, condemned ‘the policy of harassment, retaliation, aggression, subversion, isolation, and imminent attack by the US against the Cuban government and people’ at the UN.3 This was the year of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the relentless fight against the armed gangs financed by the CIA. This was the year when the US government, with Kennedy already at the helm, intensified its offensive to suffocate Cuba economically and isolate it from Nuestra América – Our America – and from the entire Western world.4 1961 was also the year when Fidel proclaimed the socialist character of the revolution on 16 April, the eve of the Bay of Pigs invasion, as Roa exposed the plan that was set to play out the following day. This is something that – considering the influence of the Cold War climate and the McCarthyite, anti-Soviet, and anti-communist crusade on the island – showed that the young revolutionary process had been shaping, at incredible speed, cultural hegemony around anti-imperialism, sovereignty, social justice, and the struggle to build a radically different country. But it was also the year of the epic of the literacy campaign; of the creation of the National School of Art Instructors; of Fidel’s meetings with intellectuals and his founding speech on our cultural policy, ‘Words to the Intellectuals’; of the birth of the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC) and the National Institute of Ethnology and Folklore.5
In 1999 in Venezuela – almost four decades later – Fidel summed up his thinking regarding the cultural and educational component in any true revolutionary process: ‘A revolution can only be the child of culture and ideas’.6 Even if it makes radical changes, even if it hands over land to the peasants and eliminates large estates, even if it builds houses for those who survive in unhealthy neighbourhoods, even if it puts public health at the service of all, even if it nationalises the country’s resources and defends its sovereignty, a revolution will never be complete or lasting if it does not give a decisive role to education and culture. It is necessary to change human beings’ conditions of material life, and it is necessary to simultaneously change the human being, their conscience, paradigms, and values.
For Fidel, culture was never something ornamental or a propaganda tool – a mistake commonly made throughout history by leaders of the left. Rather, he saw culture as a transformative energy of exceptional scope, which is intimately linked to conduct, to ethics, and is capable of decisively contributing to the ‘human improvement’ in which Martí had so much faith. But Fidel saw culture, above all, as the only imaginable way to achieve the full emancipation of the people: it is what offers them the possibility of defending their freedom, their memory, their origins, and of undoing the vast web of manipulations that limit the steps they take every day. The educated and free citizen who is at the centre of Martí’s and Fidel’s utopia must be prepared to fully understand the national and international environment and to decipher and circumvent the traps of the machinery of cultural domination.
In 1998, at the 6th Congress of the UNEAC, Fidel focused on the topic ‘related to globalisation and culture’. So-called ‘neoliberal globalisation’, he said, is ‘the greatest threat to culture – not only ours, but the world’s’. He explained how we must defend our traditions, our heritage, our creation, against ‘imperialism’s most powerful instrument of domination’. And, he concluded, ‘everything is at stake here: national identity, homeland, social justice, revolution, everything is at stake. These are the battles we have to fight now’.7 This is, of course, about ‘battles’ against cultural colonisation, against what Frei Betto calls ‘globo-colonisation’, against a wave that can liquidate our identity and the revolution itself.
Enrique Tábara (Ecuador), Coloquio de frívolos (‘Colloquium of the Frivolous’), 1982. Acrylic on canvas,140.5 x 140.5 cm.
Fidel was already convinced that, in education, in culture, in ideology, there are advances and setbacks. No conquest can be considered definitive. That is why he returns to the subject of culture in his shocking speech on 17 November 2005 at the University of Havana.8 The media machinery, together with incessant commercial propaganda, Fidel warns us, come to generate ‘conditioned responses’. ‘The lie’, he says, ‘affects one’s knowledge’, but ‘the conditioned response affects the ability to think’.9 In this way, Fidel continued, if the Empire says ‘Cuba is bad’, then ‘all the exploited people around the world, all the illiterate people, and all those who don’t receive medical care or education or have any guarantee of a job or of anything’ repeat that ‘the Cuban Revolution is bad’.10 Hence, the diabolical sum of ignorance and manipulation engenders a pathetic creature: the poor right-winger, that unhappy person who gives his opinion and votes and supports his exploiters.
‘Without culture’, Fidel repeated, ‘no freedom is possible’.11 We revolutionaries, according to him, are obliged to study, to inform ourselves, to nurture our critical thinking day by day. This cultural education, together with essential ethical values, will allow us to liberate ourselves definitively in a world where the enslavement of minds and consciences predominates. His call to ‘emancipat[e] ourselves by ourselves and with our own efforts’ is equivalent to saying that we must decolonise ourselves with our own efforts.12 And culture is, of course, the main instrument of that decolonising process of self-learning and self-emancipation.
In Cuba, we are currently more contaminated by the symbols and fetishes of ‘globo-colonisation’ than we have been at other times in our revolutionary history. We must combat the tendency to underestimate these processes, and we must work in two fundamental directions: intentionally promoting genuine cultural options and fostering a critical view of the products of the hegemonic entertainment industry. It is essential to strengthen the effective coordination of institutions and organisations, communicators, teachers, instructors, intellectuals, artists, and other actors who contribute directly or indirectly to the cultural education of our people. All revolutionary forces of culture must work together more coherently. We must turn the meaning of anti-colonial into an instinct.
In 1959, the Cuban revolutionary leader Haydee Santamaría (1923–1980) arrived at a cultural centre in the heart of Havana. This building, the revolutionaries decided, would be committed to promoting Latin American art and culture, eventually becoming a beacon for the progressive transformation of the hemisphere’s cultural world. Renamed Casa de las Américas (‘Home of the Americas’), it would become the heartbeat of cultural developments from Chile to Mexico. Art saturates the walls of the house, and in an adjacent building sits the massive archive of correspondence and drafts from the most significant writers of the past century. The art from Casa adorns this dossier. The current director of Casa, Abel Prieto – whose words open this dossier – is a novelist, a cultural critic, and a former minister of culture. His mandate is to stimulate discussion and debate in the country.
Over the course of the past decade, Cuba’s intellectuals have been gripped by the debate over decolonisation and culture. Since 1959, the Cuban revolutionary process has – at great cost – established the island’s political sovereignty and has struggled against centuries of poverty to cement its economic sovereignty. From 1959 onwards, under the leadership of the revolutionary forces, Cuba has sought to generate a cultural process that allows the island’s eleven million people to break with the cultural suffocation which is the legacy of both Spanish and US imperialism. Is Cuba, six decades since 1959, able to say that it is sovereign in cultural terms? The balance sheet suggests that the answer is complex since the onslaught of US cultural and intellectual production continues to hit the island like its annual hurricanes.
To that end, Casa de las Américas has been holding a series of encounters on the issue of decolonisation. In July 2022, Vijay Prashad, the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, delivered a lecture there that built upon the work being produced by the institute. Dossier no. 56, Ten Theses on Marxism and Decolonisation, draws from and expands upon the themes of that talk.
Antonio Seguí (Argentina), Untitled, 1965. Oil on canvas, 200 x 249 cm.
Ten Theses on Marxism and Decolonisation
Thesis One: The End of History. The collapse of the USSR and the communist state system in Eastern Europe in 1991 came alongside a terrible debt crisis in the Global South that began with Mexico’s default in 1982. These two events – the demise of the USSR and the weakness of the Third World Project – were met with the onslaught of US imperialism and a US-driven globalisation project in the 1990s. For the left, this was a decade of weakness as our left-wing traditions and organisations experienced self-doubt and could not easily advance our clarities around the world. History had ended, said the ideologues of US imperialism, with the only possibility forward being the advance of the US project. The penalty inflicted upon the left by the surrender of Soviet leadership was heavy and led not only to the shutting down of many left parties, but also to the weakened confidence of millions of people with the clarities of Marxist thought.
Thesis Two: The Battle of Ideas. During the 1990s, Cuban President Fidel Castro called upon his fellow Cubans to engage in a ‘battle of ideas’, a phrase borrowed from The German Ideology (1846) by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.1 What Castro meant by this phrase is that people of the left must not cower before the rising tide of neoliberal ideology but must confidently engage with the fact that neoliberalism is incapable of solving the basic dilemmas of humanity. For instance, neoliberalism has no answer to the obstinate fact of hunger: 7.9 billion people live on a planet with food enough for 15 billion, and yet roughly 3 billion people struggle to eat. This fact can only be addressed by socialism and not by the charity industry.2 The Battle of Ideas refers to the struggle to prevent the conundrums of our time – and the solutions put forth to address them – from being defined by the bourgeoisie. Instead, the political forces for socialism must seek to offer an assessment and solutions far more realistic and credible. For instance, Castro spoke at the United Nations in 1979 with great feeling about the ideas of ‘human rights’ and ‘humanity’:
There is often talk of human rights, but it is also necessary to speak of the rights of humanity. Why should some people walk around barefoot so that others can travel in luxurious automobiles? Why should some live for 35 years so that others can live for 70? Why should some be miserably poor so that others can be overly rich? I speak in the name of the children in the world who do not have a piece of bread. I speak in the name of the sick who do not have medicine. I speak on behalf of those whose right to life and human dignity has been denied.3
When Castro returned to the Battle of Ideas in the 1990s, the left was confronted by two related tendencies that continue to create ideological problems in our time:
The only real decolonisation is anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism. You cannot decolonise your mind unless you also decolonise the conditions of social production that reinforce the colonial mentality. Post-Marxism ignores the fact of social production as well as the need to build social wealth that must be socialised. Afro-pessimism suggests that such a task cannot be accomplished because of permanent racism. Decolonial thought goes beyond Afro-pessimism but cannot go beyond post-Marxism, failing to see the necessity of decolonising the conditions of social production.
Antonio Martorell (Puerto Rico), Silla (‘Chair’), n.d., edition unknown. Woodcut. 100 x 62 cm.
Thesis Three: A Failure of Imagination. In the period from 1991 to the early 2000s, the broad tradition of national liberation Marxism felt flattened, unable to answer the doubts sown by post-Marxism and post-colonial theory. This tradition of Marxism no longer had the kind of institutional support provided in an earlier period, when revolutionary movements and Third World governments assisted each other and when even the United Nations’ institutions worked to advance some of these ideas. Platforms that developed to germinate left forms of internationalism – such as the World Social Forum – seemed to be unwilling to be clear about the intentions of peoples’ movements. The slogan of the World Social Forum, for instance, was ‘another world is possible’, which is a weak statement, since that other world could just as well be defined by fascism. There was little appetite to advance a slogan of precision, such as ‘socialism is necessary’.
One of the great maladies of post-Marxist thought – which derived much of its ammunition from forms of anarchism – has been the purist anxiety about state power. Instead of using the limitations of state power to argue for better management of the state, post-Marxist thought has argued against any attempt to secure power over the state. This is an argument made from privilege by those who do not have to suffer the obstinate facts of hunger and illiteracy, who claim that small-scale forms of mutual aid or charity are not ‘authoritarian’, like state projects to eradicate hunger. This is an argument of purity that ends up renouncing any possibility of abolishing the obstinate facts of hunger and other assaults on human dignity and well-being. In the poorer countries, where small-scale forms of charity and mutual aid have a negligible impact on the enormous challenges before society, nothing less than the seizure of state power and the use of that power to fundamentally eradicate the obstinate facts of inequality and wretchedness is warranted.
To approach the question of socialism requires close consideration of the political forces that must be amassed in order to contest the bourgeoisie for ideological hegemony and for control over the state. These forces experienced a pivotal setback when neoliberal globalisation reorganised production along a global assembly line beginning in the 1970s, fragmenting industrial production across the globe. This weakened trade unions in the most important, high-density sectors and invalidated nationalisation as a possible strategy to build proletarian power. Disorganised, without unions, and with long commute times and workdays, the entire international working class found itself in a situation of precariousness.4 The International Labour Organisation refers to this sector as the precariat – the precarious proletariat. Disorganised forces of the working class and the peasantry, of the unemployed and the barely employed, find it virtually impossible to build the kind of theory and confidence out of their struggles needed to directly confront the forces of capital.
One of the key lessons for working-class and peasant movements comes from the struggles being incubated in India. For the past decade, there have been general strikes that have included up to 300 million workers annually. In 2020–2021, millions of farmers went on a year-long strike that forced the government to retreat from its new laws to uberise agricultural work. How were the farmers’ movement and the trade union movement able to do this in a context in which there is very low union density and over 90% of the workers are in the informal sector?5 Because of the fights led by informal workers – primarily women workers in the care sector – trade unions began to take up the issues of informal workers – again, mainly women workers – as issues of the entire trade union movement over the course of the past two decades. Fights for permanency of tenure, proper wage contracts, dignity for women workers, and so on produced a strong unity between all the different fractions of workers. The main struggles that we have seen in India are led by these informal workers, whose militancy is now channelled through the organised power of the trade union structures. More than half of the global workforce is made up of women – women who do not see issues that pertain to them as women’s issues, but as issues that all workers must fight for and win. This is much the same for issues pertaining to workers’ dignity along the lines of race, caste, and other social distinctions. Furthermore, unions have been taking up issues that impact social life and community welfare outside of the workplace, arguing for the right to water, sewage connections, education for children, and to be free from intolerance of all kinds. These ‘community’ struggles are an integral part of workers’ and peasants’ lives; by entering them, unions are rooting themselves in the project of rescuing collective life, building the social fabric necessary for the advance towards socialism.
Alirio Palacios (Venezuela), Muro público (‘Public Wall’), 1978. Oil on canvas, 180 x 200 cm.
Thesis Four: Return to the Source. It is time to recover and return to the best of the national liberation Marxist tradition. This tradition has its origins in Marxism-Leninism, one that was always widened and deepened by the struggles of hundreds of millions of workers and peasants in the poorer nations. The theories of these struggles were elaborated by people such as José Carlos Mariátegui, Ho Chi Minh, EMS Namboodiripad, Claudia Jones, and Fidel Castro. There are two core aspects to this tradition:
Thesis Five: ‘Slightly Stretched’ Marxism. Marxism entered the anti-colonial struggles not through Marx directly, but more accurately through the important developments that Vladimir Lenin and the Communist International made to the Marxist tradition. When Fanon said that Marxism was ‘slightly stretched’ when it went out of its European context, it was this stretching that he had in mind.6 Five key elements define the character of this ‘slightly stretched’ Marxism across a broad range of political forces:
Thesis Six: Dilemmas of Humanity. Reports come regularly about the terrible situation facing the world, from hunger and illiteracy to the ever more frequent outcomes of the climate catastrophe. Social wealth that could be spent to address these deep dilemmas of humanity is squandered on weapons and tax havens. The United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end hunger and promote peace would require an infusion of $4.2 trillion per year, but, as it stands, an infinitesimal fraction of this amount is spent to address these goals.7 With the pandemic and galloping inflation, even less money will go towards SDGs, and benchmarks measuring human well-being, sovereignty, and dignity will slip further and further away. Hunger, the greatest dilemma of humanity, is no longer within sight of being eradicated (except in China, where absolute poverty was ended in 2021).8 It is estimated that around 3 billion people now struggle with various forms of daily hunger.9
Take the case of Zambia and the fourth SDG to eradicate illiteracy, for example. Approximately 60% of the children in classes 1 to 4 in the Copperbelt cannot read.10 This is a region that produces much of the world’s copper, which is essential to our electronics. The parents of these children bring the copper to the world market, but their children cannot read. Neither post-Marxism nor post-colonialism addresses the fact of illiteracy or these parents’ determination for their children to be able to read. The theory of national liberation Marxism, rooted in sovereignty and dignity, however, does address these questions: it demands that Zambia control copper production and receive higher royalty payments (sovereignty), and it demands that the Zambian working class take a greater share of the surplus value (dignity). Greater sovereignty and dignity are pathways to address the dilemmas facing humanity. But rather than spend social wealth on these elementary advances, those who own property and exercise privilege and power spend over $2 trillion per year on weapons and many trillions on security forces (from the military to the police).11
Hervé Télémaque (Haiti), Fait divers, 1962. Oil on canvas, 130 x 195 cm.
Thesis Seven: The Rationality of Racism and Patriarchy. It is important to note that, under the conditions of capitalism, the structures of racism and patriarchy remain rational. Why is this the case? In Capital (1867), Marx detailed two forms for the extraction of surplus value and hinted at a third form. The first two forms (absolute surplus value and relative surplus value) were described and analysed in detail, pointing out how the theft of time over the course of the working day extracts absolute surplus value from the waged worker and how productivity gains both shorten the time needed for workers to produce their wages and increase the amount of surplus produced by them (relative surplus value). Marx also suggested a third form of extraction, writing that, in some situations, workers are paid less than would be justified by any civilised understanding of wages at that historical juncture. He noted that capitalists try to push ‘the wage of the worker down below the value of his labour power’, but he did not discuss this form further because of the importance for his analysis that labour power must be bought and sold at full value.12
This third consideration, which we call super-exploitation, is not immaterial for our analysis since it is central to the discussion of imperialism. How are the suppression of wages and the refusal to increase royalty payments for raw material extraction justified? By a colonial argument that, in certain parts of the world, people have lower expectations for life and therefore their social development can be neglected. This colonial argument applies equally to the theft of wages from women who perform care work, which is either unpaid or grossly underpaid on the grounds that it is ‘women’s work’.13 A socialist project is not trapped by the structures of racism and patriarchy since it does not require these structures to increase the capitalist’s share of surplus value. However, the existence of these structures over centuries, deepened by the capitalist system, has created habits that are difficult to overturn merely by legislation. For that reason, a political, cultural, and ideological struggle must be waged against the structures of racism and patriarchy and must be treated with as much importance as the class struggle.
Thesis Eight: Rescue Collective Life. Neoliberal globalisation vanquished the sense of collective life and deepened the despair of atomisation through two connected processes:
The breakdown of social collectivity and the rise of consumerism harden despair, which morphs into various kinds of retreat. Two examples of this are: a) a retreat into family networks that cannot sustain the pressures placed upon them by the withdrawal of social services, the increasing burden of care work on the family, and ever longer commute times and workdays; b) a move towards forms of social toxicity through avenues such as religion or xenophobia. Though these avenues provide opportunities to organise collective life, they are organised not for human advancement, but for the narrowing of social possibility.
How does one rescue collective life? Forms of public action rooted in social relief and cultural joy are an essential antidote to this bleakness. Imagine days of public action rooted in left traditions taking place each week and each month, drawing more and more people to carry out activities together that rescue collective life. One such activity is Red Books Day, which was inaugurated on 21 February 2020 by the International Union of Left Publishers, the same day that Marx and Engels published The Communist Manifesto in 1848. In 2020, the first Red Books Day, a few hundred thousand people around the world went into public places and read the manifesto in their different languages, from Korean to Spanish. In 2021, due to the pandemic, most of the events went online and we cannot really say how many people participated in Red Books Day, but, in 2022, nearly three-quarters of a million people joined in the various activities.
Part of rescuing collective life was vividly displayed during the pandemic when trade unions, youth organisations, women’s organisations, and student unions took to the public domain in Kerala (India) to build sinks, sew masks, establish community kitchens, deliver food, and conduct house-to-house surveys so that each person’s needs could be taken into account.14
Antonio Berni (Argentina), Juanito Laguna, n.d. Painted wood and metal collage (triptych), 220 x 300 cm.
Thesis Nine: The Battle of Emotions. Fidel Castro provoked a debate in the 1990s around the concept of the Battle of Ideas, the class struggle in thought against the banalities of neoliberal conceptions of human life. A key part of Fidel’s speeches from this period was not just what he said but how he said it, each word suffused with the great compassion of a man committed to the liberation of humanity from the tentacles of property, privilege, and power. In fact, the Battle of Ideas was not merely about the ideas themselves, but also about a ‘battle of emotions’, an attempt to shift the palate of emotions from a fixation on greed to considerations of empathy and hope.
One of the true challenges of our time is the bourgeoisie’s use of the culture industries and the institutions of education and faith to divert attention away from any substantial discussion about real problems – and about finding common solutions to social dilemmas – and towards an obsession with fantasy problems. In 1935, the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch called this the ‘swindle of fulfilment’, the seeding of a range of fantasies to mask their impossible realisation. The benefit of social production, Bloch wrote, ‘is reaped by the big capitalist upper stratum, which employs gothic dreams against proletarian realities’.15 The entertainment industry erodes proletarian culture with the acid of aspirations that cannot be fulfilled under the capitalist system. But these aspirations are enough to weaken any working-class project.
A degraded society under capitalism produces a social life that is suffused with atomisation and alienation, desolation and fear, anger and hate, resentment and failure. These are ugly emotions that are shaped and promoted by the culture industries (‘you can have it too!’), educational establishments (‘greed is the prime mover’), and neo-fascists (‘hate immigrants, sexual minorities, and anyone else who denies you your dreams’). The grip of these emotions on society is almost absolute, and the rise of neo-fascists is premised upon this fact. Meaning feels emptied, perhaps the result of a society of spectacles that has now run its course.
From a Marxist perspective, culture is not seen as an isolated and timeless aspect of human reality, nor are emotions seen as a world of their own or as being outside of the developments of history. Since human experiences are defined by the conditions of material life, ideas of fate will linger on as long as poverty is a feature of human life. If poverty is transcended, then fatalism will have a less secure ideological foundation, but it does not automatically get displaced. Cultures are contradictory, bringing together a range of elements in uneven ways out of the social fabric of an unequal society that oscillates between reproducing class hierarchy and resisting elements of social hierarchy. Dominant ideologies suffuse culture through the tentacles of ideological apparatuses like a tidal wave, overwhelming the actual experiences of the working class and the peasantry. It is, after all, through class struggle and through the new social formations created by socialist projects that new cultures will be created – not merely by wishful thinking.
Tilsa Tsuchiya (Peru), Pintura N° 1 (‘Painting N° 1’), 1972. Oil on canvas, 90 x 122 cm.
It is important to recall that, in the early years of each of the revolutionary processes – from Russia in 1917 to Cuba in 1959 – cultural efflorescence was saturated with the emotions of joy and possibility, of intense creativity and experimentation. It is this sensibility that offers a window into something other than the ghoulish emotions of greed and hatred.
Thesis Ten: Dare to Imagine the Future. One of the enduring myths of the post-Soviet era is that there is no possibility of a post-capitalist future. This myth came to us from within the triumphalist US intellectual class, whose ‘end of history’ sensibility helped to strengthen orthodoxy in such fields as economics and political theory, preventing open discussions about post-capitalism. Even when orthodox economics could not explain the prevalence of crises, including the total economic collapse in 2007–08, the field itself retained its legitimacy. These myths were made popular by Hollywood films and television shows, where disaster and dystopian films suggested planetary destruction rather than socialist transformation. It is easier to imagine the end of the earth than a socialist world.
During the economic collapse, the phrase ‘too big to fail’ settled on the public consciousness, reinforcing the eternal nature of capitalism and the dangers of even trying to shake its foundations. The system stood at a standstill. Austerity growled at the precarious. Small businesses crumpled for lack of credit. And yet, there was no mass consideration of going beyond capitalism. World revolution was not seen on the immediate horizon. This partial reality suffocated so much hope in the possibility of going beyond this system, a system – too big to fail – that now seems eternal. Our traditions argue against pessimism, making the point that hope must structure our interventions from start to finish. But what is the material basis for this hope? This basis can be found on three levels:
Capitalism has already failed. It cannot address the basic questions of our times, these obstinate facts – such as hunger and illiteracy – that stare us in the face. It is not enough to be alive. One must be able to live and to flourish. That is the mood that demands a revolutionary transformation.
We need to recover our tradition of national liberation Marxism but also elaborate the theory of our tradition from the work of our movements. We need to draw more attention to the theories of Ho Chi Minh and Fidel, EMS Namboodiripad and Claudia Jones. They did not only do, but they also produced innovative theories. These theories need to be developed and tested in our own contemporary reality, building our Marxism not out of the classics alone – which are useful – but out of the facts of our present. Lenin’s ‘concrete analysis of the concrete conditions’ requires close attention to the concrete, the real, the historical facts. We need more factual assessments of our times, a closer rendition of contemporary imperialism that is imposing its military and political might to prevent the necessity of a socialist world. This is precisely the agenda of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, of the almost thirty research institutes with which we work closely through the Network of Research Institute, and of the more than 200 political movements whose mass lines inform the development of Tricontinental’s research agenda through the International Peoples’ Assembly.
Certainly, socialism is not going to appear magically. It must be fought for and built, our struggles deepened, our social connections tightened, our cultures enriched. Now is the time for a united front, to bring together the working class and the peasantry as well as allied classes, to increase the confidence of workers, and to clarify our theory. To unite the working class and the peasantry as well as allied classes requires the unity of all left and progressive forces. Our divides in this time of great danger must not be central; our unity is essential. Humanity demands it.
Osmond Watson (Jamaica), Spirit of Festival, 1972. Watercolor and varnished oil on paper, 104 x 78 cm.
1 Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 2004), 101.2 Fidel Castro, La historia me absolverá [History Will Absolve Me] (Havana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 2007).3 Raúl Roa, ‘Fundamentos, cargos y pruebas de la denuncia de Cuba’, In Raúl Roa: Canciller de la dignidad (La Habana: Ediciones Políticas, 1986 ).
4 Translator’s note: Nuestra América is a concept stemming from Cuban national hero Jose Martí’s 1891 essay on Latin American nationalism calling for unity among nations to foment a Pan-Latin American identity opposed to the cultural values of Europe and the United States.
5 Fidel Castro, ‘Word to the Intellectuals’, Speech at the conclusion of meetings with Cuban intellectuals held at the National Library on 16, 23, and 30 June 1961, http://www.fidelcastro.cu/es/audio/palabras-los-intelectuales.
6 Fidel Castro, A Revolution Can Only Be the Child of Culture and Ideas (Havana: Editora Política, 1999), http://www.fidelcastro.cu/en/libros/revolution-can-only-be-child-culture-and-ideas.
7 Abel Prieto, ‘Sin cultura no hay libertad posible’. Notas sobre las ideas de Fidel en torno a la cultura’ [‘Without Culture There Is No Possible Freedom’: Notes on Fidel’s Ideas About Culture], La Ventana, 12 August 2021, http://laventana.casa.cult.cu/index.php/2022/08/12/sin-cultura-no-hay-libertad-posible-notas-sobre-las-ideas-de-fidel-en-torno-a-la-cultura/.
8 Fidel Castro, Speech delivered at the Commemoration of the 60th Anniversary of his admission to University of Havana, Aula Magna, University of Havana, 17 November 2005, http://www.fidelcastro.cu/en/discursos/speech-delivered-commemoration-60th-anniversary-his-admission-university-havana-aula-magna.
9 Today, with the use of social networks in electoral campaigns and in subversive projects, this very acute observation by Fidel about ‘conditioned responses’ carries significant weight.
10 Castro, Speech at the Commemoration of the 60th Anniversary of his admission to University of Havana.
11 Fidel Castro, ‘Without Culture There Is No Freedom Possible’, Key address at the opening ceremony of the 18th Havana International Ballet Festival, 19 October 2002, http://www.fidelcastro.cu/en/fragmento-portada/october-19-2002-0.
12 Fidel Castro, ‘Concept of Revolution’, Speech at the mass rally on International Workers’ Day at Revolution Square, 1 May 2000, http://www.cuba.cu/gobierno/discursos/2000/ing/f010500i.html.
Ten Theses on Marxism and Decolonisation
1 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1968), 38.2 Food and Agriculture Organisation, Building a Common Vision for Sustainable Food and Agriculture. Principles and Approaches (Rome: FAO, 2014); FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2022: Repurposing Food and Agricultural Policies To Make Healthy Diets More Affordable (Rome: FAO, 2022), vi.3 Fidel Castro, Statement at the UN General Assembly, in capacity of NAM President, 12 October 1979, https://misiones.cubaminrex.cu/en/articulo/fidel-castro-human-rights-statement-un-general-assembly-capacity-nam-president-12-october.
4 Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, In the Ruins of the Present, working document no. 1, 1 March 2018, https://thetricontinental.org/working-document-1/.
5 Govindan Raveendran and Joann Vanek, ‘Informal Workers in India: A Statistical Profile’, Statistical Brief 24 (Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organising, August 2020), 1; Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, The Farmers’ Revolt in India, dossier 41, 14 June 2021, https://thetricontinental.org/dossier-41-india-agriculture/.
6 Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press), 5.
7 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, ‘Global Outlook on Financing for Sustainable Development 2021’, 9 November 2020, https://www.oecd.org/newsroom/covid-19-crisis-threatens-sustainable-development-goals-financing.htm.
8 Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, Serve the People: The Eradication of Extreme Poverty in China, 23 July 2021, https://thetricontinental.org/studies-1-socialist-construction/.
9 FAO et al., The State of Food Security, vi.
10 Lusaka Times, ‘Over 60% Copperbelt Province Lower Primary Pupils Can’t Read and Write – PEO’, Lusaka Times, 18 January 2018, https://www.lusakatimes.com/2018/01/27/60-copperbelt-province-lower-primary-pupils-cant-read-write-peo/.
11 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, ‘World Military Expenditure Passes $2 Trillion for First Time’, SIPRI, 25 April 2022, https://www.sipri.org/media/press-release/2022/world-military-expenditure-passes-2-trillion-first-time.
12 Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy – Volume I, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin Books, 2004), 670.
13 Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, Uncovering the Crisis: Care Work in the Time of Coronavirus, dossier no. 38, 7 March 2021, https://thetricontinental.org/dossier-38-carework/.
14 Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, CoronaShock and Socialism, CoronaShock no. 3, https://thetricontinental.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/20200701_Coronashock-3_EN_Web.pdf.
15 Ernst Bloch, Heritage of Our Times, trans. Neville and Stephen Plaice (Berkeley; Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991), 103.
The Tricontinental, Casa de las Américas
This article was republished from the Tricontinental Institute.
A key concept in Karl Marx’s Capital is widely misunderstood
In Part Eight of Capital, titled “So-called Primitive Accumulation,” Marx describes the brutal processes that separated working people from the means of subsistence, and concentrated wealth in the hands of landlords and capitalists. It’s one of the most dramatic and readable parts of the book.
It is also a continuing source of confusion and debate. Literally dozens of articles have tried to explain what “primitive accumulation” really meant. Did it occur only in the distant past, or does it continue today? Was “primitive” a mistranslation? Should the name be changed? What exactly was “Marx’s theory of primitive accumulation”?
In this article, written for my coming book on The War Against the Commons, I argue that Marx thought “primitive accumulation” was a misleading and erroneous concept. Understanding what he actually wrote shines light on two essential Marxist concepts: exploitation and expropriation.
This is a draft, not my final word. I look forward to your comments, corrections and suggestions.
On June 20 and 27, 1865, Karl Marx gave a two-part lecture to members of the International Workingmen’s Association (the First International) in London. In clear and direct English, he drew on insights that would appear in the nearly-finished first volume of Capital, to explain the labor theory of value, surplus value, class struggle, and the importance of trade unions as “centres of resistance against the encroachments of capital.” Since an English translation of Capital wasn’t published until after his death, those talks were the only opportunity that English-speaking workers had to learn those ideas directly from their author.
While explaining how workers sell their ability to work, Marx asked rhetorically how it came about that there are two types of people in the market — capitalists who own the means of production, and workers who must sell their labor-power in order to survive.
“How does this strange phenomenon arise, that we find on the market a set of buyers, possessed of land, machinery, raw material, and the means of subsistence, all of them, save land in its crude state, the products of labour, and on the other hand, a set of sellers who have nothing to sell except their labouring power, their working arms and brains? That the one set buys continually in order to make a profit and enrich themselves, while the other set continually sells in order to earn their livelihood?”
A full answer was outside the scope of his lecture, he said, but “the inquiry into this question would be an inquiry into what the economists call ‘Previous, or Original Accumulation,’ but which ought to be called Original Expropriation.”
“We should find that this so-called Original Accumulation means nothing but a series of historical processes, resulting in a Decomposition of the Original Union existing between the Labouring Man and his Instruments of Labour. … The Separation between the Man of Labour and the Instruments of Labour once established, such a state of things will maintain itself and reproduce itself upon a constantly increasing scale, until a new and fundamental revolution in the mode of production should again overturn it, and restore the original union in a new historical form.”
Marx was always very careful in his use of words. He didn’t replace accumulation with expropriation lightly. The switch is particularly important because this was the only time he discussed the issue in English — it wasn’t filtered through a translation.
In Capital, the subject occupies eight chapters in the part titled Die sogenannte ursprüngliche Akkumulation — later rendered in English translations as “So-called Primitive Accumulation.” Once again, Marx’s careful use of words is important — he added “so-called” to make a point, that the historical processes were not primitive and not accumulation. Much of the confusion about Marx’s meaning reflects failure to understand his ironic intent, here and elsewhere.
In the first paragraph he tells us that ‘ursprüngliche’ Akkumulation is his translation of Adam Smith’s words previous accumulation. He put the word ursprüngliche (previous) in scare quotes, signaling that the word is inappropriate. For some reason the quote marks are omitted in the English translations, so his irony is lost.
In the 1800s, primitive was a synonym for original — for example, the Primitive Methodist Church claimed to follow the original teachings of Methodism. As a result, the French edition of Capital, which Marx edited in the 1870s, translated ursprüngliche as primitive; that carried over to the 1887 English translation, and we have been stuck with primitive accumulation ever since, even though the word’s meaning has changed.
Marx explains why he used so-called and scare quotes by comparing the idea of previous accumulation to the Christian doctrine that we all suffer because Adam and Eve sinned in a distant mythical past. Proponents of previous accumulation tell an equivalent nursery tale:
“Long, long ago there were two sorts of people; one, the diligent, intelligent and above all frugal elite; the other, lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living. … Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and the latter sort finally had nothing to sell except their own skins. And from this original sin dates the poverty of the great majority who, despite all their labour, have up to now nothing to sell but themselves, and the wealth of the few that increases constantly, although they have long ceased to work.”
“Such insipid childishness is every day preached to us in defense of property,” but when we consider actual history, “it is a notorious fact that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, in short, force, play the greatest part.” The chapters of So-called Primitive Accumulation describe the brutal processes by which “great masses of men [were] suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled onto the labor-market as free, unprotected and rightless proletarians.”
“These newly freed men became sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production, and all the guarantees of existence afforded by the old feudal arrangements. And this history, the history of their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.”
Marx’s account focuses on expropriation in England, because the dispossession of working people was most complete there, but he also refers to the mass murder of indigenous people in the Americas, the plundering of India, and the trade in African slaves — “these idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation.” That sentence, and others like it, illustrate Marx’s consistently sarcastic take on primitive accumulation. He is not describing primitive accumulation, he is condemning those who use the concept to conceal the brutal reality of expropriation.
Failure to understand that Marx was polemicizing against the concept of “primitive accumulation” has led to another misconception — that Marx thought it occurred only in the distant past, when capitalism was being born. That was what Adam Smith and other pro-capitalist writers meant by previous accumulation, and as we’ve seen, Marx compared that view to the Garden of Eden myth. Marx’s chapters on so-called primitive accumulation emphasized the violent expropriations that laid the basis for early capitalism because he was responding to the claim that capitalism evolved peacefully. But his account also includes the Opium Wars of the 1840s and 1850s, the Highland Clearances in capitalist Scotland, the colonial-created famine that killed a million people in Orissa in India in 1866, and plans for enclosing and privatizing land in Australia. All of these took place during Marx’s lifetime and while he was writing Capital. None of them were part of capitalism’s prehistory.
The expropriations that occurred in capitalism’s first centuries were devastating, but far from complete. In Marx’s view, capital could not rest there — its ultimate goal was “to expropriate all individuals from the means of production.” Elsewhere he wrote of big capitalists “dispossessing the smaller capitalists and expropriating the final residue of direct producers who still have something left to expropriate.” In other words, expropriation continues well after capitalism matures.
We often use the word accumulation loosely, for gathering up or hoarding, but for Marx it had a specific meaning, the increase of capital by the addition of surplus value, a continuous process that results from the exploitation of wage-labor. The examples he describes in “So-called Primitive Accumulation” all refer to robbery, dispossession, and expropriation — discrete appropriations without equivalent exchange. Expropriation, not accumulation.
In the history of capitalism, we see a constant, dialectical interplay between the two forms of class robbery that Peter Linebaugh has dubbed X2 — expropriation and exploitation. “Expropriation is prior to exploitation, yet the two are interdependent. Expropriation not only prepares the ground, so to speak, it intensifies exploitation.”
Expropriation is open robbery. It includes forced enclosure, dispossession, slavery and other forms of theft, without equivalent exchange. Exploitation is concealed robbery. Workers appear to receive full payment for their labor in the form of wages, but in fact the employer receives more value than he pays for.
What Adam Smith and others described as a gradual build up of wealth by men who were more industrious and frugal than others was actually violent, forcible expropriation that created the original context for exploitation and has continued to expand it ever since. As John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark write in The Robbery of Nature:
“Like any complex, dynamic system, capitalism has both an inner force that propels it and objective conditions outside itself that set its boundaries, the relations to which are forever changing. The inner dynamic of the system is governed by the process of exploitation of labor power, under the guise of equal exchange, while its primary relation to its external environment is one of expropriation.”
In short, Marx did not have a “theory of primitive accumulation.” He devoted eight chapters of Capital to demonstrating that the political economists who promoted such a theory were wrong, that it was a “nursery tale” invented to whitewash capital’s real history.
Marx’s preference for “original expropriation” wasn’t just playing with words. That expression captured his view that “the expropriation from the land of the direct producers — private ownership for some, involving non-ownership of the land for others — is the basis of the capitalist mode of production.”
The continuing separation of humanity from our direct relationship with the earth was not and is not a peaceful process: it is written in letters of blood and fire.
That’s why he preceded the words “primitive accumulation” by “so-called.”
 Quotations from Marx’s 1865 lectures, “Value, Price and Profit,” are from Marx Engels Collected Works, vol. 20, 103-149. Quotations from “So-Called Primitive Accumulation” are from Marx, Capital vol. 1 (Penguin, 1976) 873-940.
 Marx, Capital vol. 3, (Penguin, 1981) 571.
 Ibid, 349.
 See chapters 24 and 25 of Capital vol. 1.
 Linebaugh, Stop Thief! (PM Press, 2014), 73.
 Foster and Clark, The Robbery of Nature (Monthly Review Press, 2020), 36.
 Marx, Capital vol. 3 (Penguin, 1981) 948. Emphasis added.
This article was republished from Climate & Capitalism.
July 30, 2022- Studying society for the working class: Marx’s first preface to “Capital”. By: Derek Ford & "Liberation School"Read Now
"Karl Marx, painted portrait," by thierry ehrmann. Source: Wikimedia.
" This article was originally published on Liberation School on July 25, 2022"
In the preface to the first edition of volume one of Capital, dated July 25, 1867, Marx introduces the book’s “ultimate aim”: “to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society” . Looking back 155 years later, it’s clear the book not only accomplished that aim but continues to do so today.
In a few short pages, Marx introduces the method he used to study and present his research into the dynamics of capitalism, explains the reasons why he focused on England, distinguishes between modes of production and social formations (and by doing so refutes any accusations of his theory of history as progressing linearly through successive stages), identifies the capacities he’s assuming of the reader, affirms he’s interested in critiquing the structures of capital and not the individuals within it, and explains that the main function of the book is to help our class intervene in the constantly changing capitalist system.
Capital’s method and audience
After a brief explanation about the first three chapters and how they differ from his previous work, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx briefly discusses his method and the difficulty it entails: “Every beginning is difficult, holds in all sciences” . The value of science, after all, is to explain why things happen. Scientific analysis begins with something apparent in the world and abstracts from it particularly decisive elements that demonstrate why the phenomenon appears as it does, how and by what principles it functions, what impact it has on the world, etc.
Because Marx is studying society, however, “neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of use.” He has to develop another technique for studying the basic forms of capitalism, which he calls “the force of abstraction” . While Marx’s method of abstraction is filled with nuances, it essentially entails breaking down the object of study into discrete elements or categories so we can have a more accurate–and politically powerful–understanding of it.
But beginning with the basic “cell form” of capital–value–is indisputably hard. Marx encourages us to press on, reminding us that, save these opening chapters, the book “cannot stand accused on the score of difficulty.” “I pre-suppose,” he continues, “a reader who is willing to learn something new and therefore to think for himself” . Difficulty is a relative term, so if we’re willing to challenge our preconceived conceptions of the world and use our critical faculties, he’s saying, we won’t find it too difficult. Marx didn’t write Capital to impress the political economists of his day but to arm our class with the theoretical tools necessary to overthrow capitalism, which means that the reader he is pre-supposing is a member of our class, the working class.
England as the “chief ground” for Capital
Not only does Marx not have recourse to scientific technologies, he doesn’t have the ability to isolate capital and place it in a laboratory setting. His task is different from scientist who “makes experiments under conditions that assure the occurrence of its phenomenon in its normality.” Unable to separate capital from the world or his own position, Marx’s task is exceedingly difficult: he’s analyzing something that’s in constant motion and that determines the society in which he lives. This partly explains why, “to examine the capitalist mode of production, and the conditions of production and exchange corresponding to that mode,” he turns to where capitalism’s “classic ground” was at the time: England. “That is the reason why England is used as the chief illustration in the development of my theoretical ideas,” he explains .
Yet there are other reasons for his focus on England. Not only was he living there at the time but, as he wrote in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, “the enormous material on the history of political economy which is accumulated in the British museum” and “the favorable view which London offers for the observation of bourgeois society” made it an ideal case study .
Finally, the recent class struggles in England forced the state to establish “commissions of inquiry into economic conditions” carried out by people “as competent, as free from partisanship and respect of persons as are the English factory-inspectors, her medical reporters on public health, her commissioners of inquiry into the exploitation of women and children, into housing and food” . The text and concepts of Capital are filled with the damning testimony of such inspectors, and Leonard Horner was one of his favorites.
In the ninth chapter, Marx writes that Horner “rendered undying service to the English working-class. He carried on a life-long contest, not only with the embittered manufacturers, but also with the Cabinet” . Horner used to be a capitalist businessperson himself, and wasn’t opposed to capitalism the way Marx was. He was distraught by the horrors produced by capitalism’s unchecked tendencies, but “was morally committed to the belief that profitability could arise from good working conditions and from educating the masses” .
Marx’s admiration of Horner and the factory inspectors, who were mostly civil servants or small capitalists, shows how struggles within the capitalist state can advance the socialist movement, and serves as a good reminder that we should draw on as many different sources in our own research as possible.
The complexity of capitalist societies
In England, as Marx says, the laws of capitalist production were most evident because it was there that, in the mid-19th Century, the system was most developed. And as he’ll show in the last part of volume one, English capital was developed because of, among other things, “conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder” as well as “slavery pure and simple” in the U.S. . Despite being the most advanced manifestation of capitalism, however, Marx is clear that British society wasn’t completely defined by the capitalist mode of production. Although conditions in English factories were better than other European countries because of the Factory Acts, British workers
“suffer not only from the development of capitalist production… Alongside of modern evils, a whole series of inherited evils oppress us, arising from the passive survival of antiquated modes of production, with their inevitable train of social and political anachronisms. We suffer not only from the living, but from the dead” .
This is one of several places where Marx makes clear his understanding of history and social transformation, an understanding that in no way assumes neat and clean breaks between different stages of history, with the latest stage annihilating the previous one. In fact, the first half of the very first sentence of Capital makes the same point but in understated terms: “The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails…” .
It’s helpful to distinguish between modes of production and social formations not only because the distinction is decisive analytically, but more importantly because it accounts for the coexistence of different modes of production in capitalist societies. It further corrects the erroneous view that Marx didn’t account for the relationship between capitalism and slavery by “assigning slave labor to some ‘pre-capitalist’ stage of history” . In his preparatory notebooks for Capital, written before the outbreak of the Civil War, Marx asserted that the U.S. represented “the most modern form of existence of bourgeois society” . This comes shortly after his explicit acknowledgment that “a mode of production corresponding to the slave” had to be created in “the southern part of America” .
That Marx expressly highlights how different modes of production exist together and foregrounds that, as large as capital was in England, it wasn’t the only game in town, demonstrates the seriousness with which he studies history. At the same time, he insists that workers in other countries “can and should learn from others” so they might “shorten and lessen the birth-pangs” of transformation .
“Follow your road, and let the people say!”
For the last few paragraphs of this opening preface, Marx transitions into a more agitational style of writing. The first point, which crops up throughout the book, is that he refers to individual people “only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class-relations and class-interests.” He tells us he doesn’t romanticize the capitalist or landlord, but that the study of society can’t hold “the individual responsible for relations whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them” . In other words, the class struggle is a fight not to change individuals but to change the social systems that condition or determine our individual standing in society. As we saw with Horner, however, this doesn’t mean that Marx totally ignores individuals, but that classes–and not persons–have the political agency to transform social relations.
Writing in London 155 years ago today, Marx saw evidence of transformation–even radical transformation–underway. He writes about “a radical change in the existing relations between capital and labour” on the European Continent before citing then-U.S. Vice President Benjamin Wade’s statement “that, after the abolition of slavery, a radical change of the relations of capital and of property in land is next.” Evidence, however, isn’t a guarantee of such change. They are only indications of radical possibilities:
“They do not signify that tomorrow a miracle will happen. They show that, within the ruling-classes themselves, a foreboding is dawning, that the present society is no solid crystal, but an organism capable of change, and is constantly changing” .
Marx wrote Capital to help working and oppressed peoples determine the direction of change, and he closes the preface with a famous quote from Dante’s Divine Comedy: “Follow your road, and let the people say!” He ends, that is, by reminding us—the readers willing to challenge ourselves with this text—that how we use the weapon that is Capital is up to us.
 Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Vol. 1): The Process of Capitalist Production, trans. S. Moore and E. Aveling (New York: International Publishers, 1867/1967), 20. Available here.
 Ibid., 18.
 Ibid., 19.
 Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, trans. N.I. Stone (New York: Lector House, 1859/2020), x. Available here.
 Marx, Capital (Vol. 1), 20.
 Ibid., 216, footnote 17. Available here, footnote 10.
 Andy Merrifield, Marx Dead and Alive: Reading Capital in Precarious Times (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2020), 46.
 Marx, Capital (Vol. 1), 668, 711. See also Pappachen, Summer. (2021). “What is Imperialism? An Introduction.” Liberation School, September 21. Available here.
 Marx, Capital (Vol. 1), 20.
 Ibid., 43, emphasis added.
 Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1983/2000), 4.
 Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft), trans. M. Nicolaus (New York: Penguin Books, 1939/1973), 104. Available here.
 Ibid., 98.
 Marx, Capital (Vol. 1), 20.
 Ibid., 21.
The Life of a Great Marxist: Aijaz Ahmad (1941-2022). By: Vijay PrashadRead Now
Born in Muzaffarnagar, in British India, Aijaz read extensively from an early age and allowed his mind to drift out of the qasba of his childhood. His father shared some radical books with him, which helped him to understand the world outside the doab region of the Indo-Gangetic Plain and the world beyond the confines of the capitalist system. From an early age, Aijaz Ahmad began to dream of internationalism and socialism. He studied in Lahore, Pakistan, where his family had migrated after the Partition in 1947-48, but these studies took place as much in the college classrooms as they did in the cafés and in the cells of political organisations. In the cafés, Aijaz met the finest minds of Urdu literature, who schooled him in both lyric and politics; in the cells of the political parties, he encountered the depth of Marxism, a boundless view of the world that gripped him for the rest of his life. Fully immersed in the left political unrest in Pakistan, Aijaz came to the attention of the authorities, which is why he skipped the country for New York City (United States).
The two passions of Aijaz Ahmad – poetry and politics – flowered in New York. He took his immense love for Urdu poetry to the most renowned poets of his time (such as Adrienne Rich, William Stafford and W.S. Merwin), reciting Ghalib to them, feeding them wine, watching them recover from Ghalib’s language and Aijaz’s explanation, the meaning of the poems. This innovative work resulted in Aijaz’s first book, Ghazals of Ghalib (1971). At the same time, Aijaz got involved with Feroz Ahmed to produce Pakistan Forum, a hard-hitting journal that documented the atrocities in South Asia, with a special focus on the military dictatorship of Yahya Khan (1969-1971) as well as on the civilian possibilities of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (1971-1977); on Pakistan, Aijaz mainly wrote about the insurgencies in East Pakistan (which became Bangladesh in 1972) and in Balochistan. It was in this period that Aijaz began to write about South Asian politics for such socialist journals as Monthly Review, with whom he had a close collaboration for the next several decades.
In the 1980s, Aijaz Ahmad returned to India, taking up residence in Delhi and teaching at various colleges in the city (including at Jawaharlal Nehru University). In this period, Aijaz settled into a rhythm of critique that produced substantial work on three different areas of inquiry: on postmodern and postcolonialism, on Hindutva and liberalisation, and on the new world order centred around the United States and US-driven globalisation.
Based on his great appreciation for culture and literature, Aijaz developed a powerful analysis of the casual way in which the cultures of the Third World were being assessed by metropolitan universities. This work widened outwards to a strong negative assessment of postmodernism and postcolonialism, including with close readings of the work of the leading Marxist literary critic Fred Jameson and the main critic of Orientalism, Edward Said. At the heart of Aijaz’s reading of postmodernism and postcolonialism was their disavowal of Marxism. ‘Post-Marxism’, he told me, ‘is nothing other than pre-Marxism, a return to the idealism that Marx went beyond’. For this comment, Aijaz had in mind the highly influential book by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, 1985, that read the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci as a postmodern thinker. It is in this context that Aijaz began his close reading of Gramsci’s work. These writings were published in Aijaz’s classic book, In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (Verso and Tulika, 1992). It is difficult to say in a few sentences the impact this book had on scholars across the world. When Marxism was under attack, Aijaz was one of the few thinkers who produced a sophisticated account not of its relevance, but of its necessity. ‘Postcoloniality is also, like most things, a matter of class’, he wrote with the kind of sharpness that defined his prose. In Theory, was a book that taught an entire generation about how to think about and write theory. It was from this book, and in essays published by Monthly Review, that Aijaz mounted an important defence of the Marxist tradition. ‘Marx is boundless’, Samir Amin wrote, a line that Aijaz discussed with me when we produced a book of Samir’s later writings with a foreword from Aijaz. That boundless is the case because the critique of capitalism is also incomplete until capitalism is overcome. To reject Marx, therefore, is to reject the most powerful set of tools that have been produced to explore the capitalist system and its grip on humanity.
‘Every country gets the fascism it deserves’, is a sentence that can be found in Aijaz’s writings from this period, when his reading of Gramsci helped him to illuminate the rise of Hindutva in the period just before and after the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992. An entire generation in India, bewildered by the rapid acceleration of the twin phenomena of liberalisation and by the growth of Hindutva, took refuge in Aijaz’s clear prose that identified the character of the rise of the Indian hard right. These writings, many of them collected in Lineages of the Present: Political Essays (Tulika, 1996), described in precise theoretical and historical language the growth of the hard right. These considerations would never leave Aijaz. In the last decade of his life, he read with great carefulness the oeuvre of the hard right. These readings became the Wellek Lectures, which he delivered at the University of California (Irvine) in 2017, and which will be collected and published by LeftWord Books. One of Aijaz’s contributions in these writings has been the way he insisted upon the hardness inside our culture – rooted in the wretchedness of the caste system and in the hierarchy of patriarchy. That’s what he meant by that aphorism about every country getting the fascism it deserves. To understand the roots of Hindutva, one had to grasp the taproot of hard culture, understand the way in which the privatisation agenda brutalised labour even more, and created the conditions for the rise of the political Hindu right. These writings, many of them delivered as lectures across India during a time of great political bewilderment, remain classics, necessary to read and re-read as we continue to face an assault on human dignity from these fascistic forces. Aijaz gave us confidence when the eclipse of hope seemed almost complete.
Those were rough years. India liberalised in 1991. The United States opened up a cruel assault on Iraq in that same year. The next year, 1992, the forces of the hard right destroyed a sixteenth-century mosque in Ayodhya. Two years later, in 1994, the World Trade Organisation was established. The resources of socialism were much depleted. During this decade, Aijaz’s writings and speeches – often published in small magazines and in party publications – were widely circulated. Those of us in Delhi had the good fortune to listen to him regularly, not only in these public venues, but at such places as Kutty’s tea house at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library – where he was a Senior Fellow – and in the many Students’ Federation of India events that he attended as a speaker.
In 1997, when Arundhati Roy published her novel The God of Small Things, Aijaz read it with great care and enthusiasm. I was at a meeting with N. Ram and Aijaz around that time, when they spoke of the book, and Ram asked Aijaz to write about it for Frontline. That essay – Reading Arundhati Roy Politically – is a gem of literary criticism and one that was, oddly, not anthologised in either Aijaz’s collections or in books on Arundhati’s work. That essay began a long relationship with Frontline that went till the very end. Aijaz would write long articles to orient the readers to the conjunctural events in the world, in particular the devastating turn of events after 9/11, the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, the wars in Syria and Libya, but then also the growth of the left in Latin America led by a man that we all admired, Hugo Chávez. These essays, once more circulated widely, became the basis for Aijaz’s book, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Imperialism of Our Time (LeftWord, 2004).
In the mid-1990s, after the fall of the USSR, it became evident that Marxism was suffering in the battle of ideas, as neo-liberalism entered not only the vocabulary of popular culture (with individualism and greed at the centre) but as neo-liberalism through postmodernism entered the intellectual world. The lack of a serious left publishing project dismayed us all. It was in this period – in 1999 – that LeftWord Books was set up in Delhi. Aijaz was one of the first authors for the publishing house – writing a sizzling essay on the Communist Manifesto in the book edited by Prakash Karat, A World to Win. Aijaz was on the editorial board of LeftWord Books and encouraged us right through the past decades with the direction of our work. Towards the end of his life, Sudhanva Deshpande, Mala Hashmi, and I spent some days with Aijaz to hold a long interview about his life and his work. This interview was eventually published as Nothing Human is Alien to Me (LeftWord, 2020). During his last two years, Aijaz planned to do a series of introductions to Marx’s political writings. ‘Marx is thought of too narrowly for his economic work, which is important’, he would say, ‘but his political writings are key to understanding his revolutionary vision’. We did a series of interviews about some of these texts (Communist Manifesto, the first section of the German Ideology, The Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx’s writings on the Paris Commune); we will convert these texts into the introductions he imagined as well as collect a book of his writings on Marx.
In 2009, Prabir Purkayastha and others started Newsclick, a web-based news portal to discuss the important issues of our times. Aijaz was one of the early guests and continued to be a regular voice on the Newsclick channel. He would explain with precise detail the wars in West Asia and North Africa as well as the political developments in the United States and China, South America and Europe. These conversations are an archive of those times. They also bring out Aijaz’s wit, his smile to alert one to a sharp comment. Between those Frontline columns and the Newsclick interviews, a generation of people learned not only about this or that event but also how to think of the world as a structured whole, how to understand events in relation to the great processes of our time. Each of these interventions was like a seminar, a gathering to learn how to think as much as to learn about what was happening.
Aijaz taught at universities in India, Canada, and the United States, as well as lectured from the Philippines to Mexico. Towards the end of his life, he became a Senior Fellow at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, where he advised a new generation of intellectuals on the boundlessness of Marxism. He was eager to spend some time on popular education, on building up the confidence of new intellectuals in our long-term battle of ideas.
When a person such as Aijaz leaves us, his voice remains in our ears. It will be with us for a long time yet.
Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor, and journalist. He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including "The Darker Nations" and "The Poorer Nations." His latest book is "Washington Bullets," with an introduction by Evo Morales Ayma.
This article is produced by News click.
Towards the end of the first chapter of Das Kapital, after having established the validity of the labor theory of value, Marx has a section on the “Fetishism of Commodities”. To understand this section is to understand the whole first chapter and also to see why socialism is necessary. This article is an attempt to explain the meaning of this section and to apply its lessons to our times.
A commodity looks simple enough, says the bourgeois economist. Most bourgeois economists say it is any object with a use value that somebody wants and is willing to pay for and its value is determined by supply and demand. Nothing drives such a common sense economist more to distraction than reading Karl Marx who says a commodity is "a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties." What can Marx mean? Economics is a science, even a mathematical science, what has it got to do with metaphysics and theology?
Take a wooden table, says Marx. It is just wood that human labor has turned into a table and taken to market. Wood + Labor = Table. Where is the mystery? When it gets to the market the table finds itself in the company of the stool and the chair. All three have use values, are made of the same wood, and may be in equal supply and equal demand-- yet each has its own different price.
Why these different prices? Same wood, same demand, same supply. They are all the products of human labor. What is the difference between them that justifies different prices? The prices are reflections of the underlying values of the products. Could the values be different? What does Marx say determines value? It is the different quantities of socially necessary labor time embodied in the commodities.
The table, the stool, and the chair are three "things" that are related to each other as the embodiment of the social relations and necessary labor of human beings that created them. Human social relations have been objectified as the relations between non human things. The chair is more valuable than the table but the reason is now hidden away from the perception of people.
"A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing," Marx writes, "simply because in it the social character of men's labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relations of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour."
To find an analogy Marx tells us we have to turn to the "mist-enveloped regions of the religious world." In that world the inventions of the human mind take on an independent existence and humans begin to interact with their own fantastical creations as if they were really independently existing objective things. This is similar to the Fetishism of Commodities. All the commodities we see about us are part of the sum total of all the socially produced objects and services created by human labor in our society. People all over the world are making things which are traded, shipped, sold, resold, etc. But their use values cannot be realized until they are sold--i.e., exchanged, especially exchanged for money. But why are some more expensive than others? Why do some have more value than others? Supply and demand has a role to play in setting price but it merely causes price to fluctuate around value.
The fact that we know that value results from the socially necessary labor time spent in making commodities "by no means," Marx says, "dissipates the mist through which the social character of labour appears to us to be an objective character of the products themselves."
This is because we are so use to how the market operates under capitalism, how prices fluctuate, commodities rise and fall in prices, the working people naturally just think the values (which they don't differentiate from prices) are products of the natural world, that is, are functions of the things for sale or barter themselves. This is why "supply and demand" seems to be the basis of the value of things. They don't see it's all really the result of the socially necessary labor time expended in the labor process that is the determining factor in value
This leads Marx to say , "The determination of the magnitude of value by labor time therefore is a secret, hidden under the apparent fluctuations in the relative values of commodities."
We are reminded that to understand the real nature of a social formation we have to reverse our knowledge of its historical development. We begin with the full fledged capitalist system and we try to figure why the prices of things are the way they are. Looking at the mature system we don't really see its primitive origins. In the same way a religious person looking at a human being fails to see an ape in the background.
This leads Marx to say of his own theory, "When I state that coats and boots stand in a relation to linen, because it is the universal incarnation of abstract human labor, the absurdity of the statement is self-evident." This has been remarked upon both by the most astute of thinkers (Bertrand Russell) and the most pedestrian (Ayn Rand).
The problem is that the bourgeoisie looks upon a historically transient economic formation, its own, as an eternally existing social order. Of course prices are set by supply and demand. What is that crazy Marx talking about? As the economist Brad Delong said, he had never known anyone who thought that way.
Well, let's look at something other than the full blown capitalist system at work. Marx says, "The whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labor as long as they take the form of commodities, vanishes therefore, so soon as we come to other forms of production."
Marx gives the example of Robinson Crusoe. He chose Robinson because he was a popular example used in the texts of the day. Robinson has to make everything for himself, obtain his own food, and provide his own shelter. It is pretty obvious that the things that are most important for his survival are those he expends most of his labor time upon and are consequently the most valuable to him.
Marx then says we should consider a community of free people working together cooperatively to make all things necessary for their society. Whereas Robinson was just making use values for himself, in this community a social product is being created. The people have to set aside part of the product for future production, but the rest they can consume. How would they divide it in a fair manner? They would divide the product in proportion to the labor time each individual had contributed to the joint production of the social product.
This is how barter went on in the Middle Ages. Peasants knew very well how much labor time was involved in making cheese, for example, and in making a pair of shoes . If it took twice as long to make a pound cheese that to make a pair of shoes, you can be sure that no one was going to trade more than a half pound of cheese for his shoes. It is only in the complicated processes of commodity production, especially in capitalism, that the Fetichism of Commodities begins to manifest itself and the true nature of the source of value is lost.
People have confused consciousness in our world. Our alienation from our own social product, the effects of commodity fetichism, and the continuing influence of religion all work together to keep us confused and off guard. But seeing what our condition is with respect to such mental blights also tells how far along the road to liberation we are (not far) and how far we have to go (quite a distance I fear).
The world, though in a distorted way, is reflected in these distorted forms of consciousness. "The religious world," Marx tells us, "is but the reflex of the real world." And, for our capitalist society where all human relations, and relations of humans with the things they create, are reducible to commodification based on the value of "homogeneous human labor" the best form of religion is Christianity and especially Protestantism (or alternatively, Deism) and maybe for our day we can toss in Secular Humanism.
Why is this? Marx says it is because the idea of "abstract man" is the basis of the religious outlook of these systems. A religion based on an abstract view of "human nature" is just the ticket for an economic system that the bourgeoisie says is also based on "human nature." The religion reinforces the basic presuppositions of the capitalist view of abstract man and since Catholicism represents a pre-bourgeois human abstraction more suitable to feudalism it is the Protestant form that is more congruent with bourgeois conceptions.
As long as humans are confused and alienated, and ignorant of how capitalism works and are mystified by their relation to the objects of their labor they will never be free, or free from the spell of religion, according to Marx. "The religious reflex of the real world," he writes, can only vanish "when the practical relations of every-day life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible relations with regard to his fellowmen and to Nature."
The next two sentences from Marx are extremely important as they explain, in very general terms, the failure of the Russian Revolution and the downfall of the socialist world system. The first sentence describes what the Bolsheviks set out to do in 1917. "The life processes of society, which is based on the process of material production, does not strip off its mystical veil until it is treated as production by freely associated men, and is consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan."
This is certainly what was attempted-- first by war communism, then the NEP, and then by the five year plans, forced collectivization and industrialization. But why the failure? Where were the "freely associated men?"
To pull off this great transformation, the goal of communism, Marx wrote "demands for society a certain material ground-work or set of conditions of existence which in their turn are the spontaneous product of a long and painful process of development."
In other words, the seizure of power was premature. The material ground-work had not been sufficiently developed. If Lenin represented the negation of the ancien regime, Gorbachev and Yeltsin represented the negation of the negation-- brought about by the failure of that long and painful process of development to properly develop production by freely associated human beings. For all its efforts the socialist world still belonged to that world in which the processes of production had the mastery over human beings and not the other way around. So we must still put up with the Fetichism of Commodities for a while longer.
The recent crisis (2008) gives us an opportunity to educate working people about this Fetichism and how to free themselves from it. GM became 70% owned by the government and the UAW will have a stake of about 17.5%. This leaves 12.5% in the hands of the capitalists. The commodities the workers make (cars) don't have a life of their own. Their value is determined by the socially necessary labor time it takes workers to make them. They are extensions of the being of the working people not the capitalists who have proved themselves totally incompetent.
The working people of this country far out number the number of monopoly capitalists-- both industrial and financial. The UAW and the AFL-CIO as well other Unions should have seen to it that the government represented the interests of the working class majority. The 87.5% joint Government-worker control of GM should not have been used to put the private interests back in control, but to rationalize the auto industry by means of worker control, eliminate the capitalists and the Fetichism that keeps people thinking private interests have a role to play in production, and lay the groundwork for further nationalizations in the future.
What do you think?
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.
Jason Barker's film, Marx Reloaded, was released in 2011. It is 52 minutes long and is now available for viewing on the internet. It was interesting to watch but it did not have a lot to do with Marx except superficially. If Marx was reloaded it was with blanks.
The film presents a series of talking heads, many of whom have no grasp of what Marx and Marxism are all about and who engage in flights of "postmodern'' speculation as to the meaning of Marxism today. There are a few exceptions that I will note. There are also a few non-Marxist supporters of capitalism who don't see any future for Marx. There are no representatives from contemporary labor movements or political parties which are part of the ongoing Marxist tradition.
The question addressed is if Marx's critique of capitalism is valid for our time. If the critique is valid then what comes next? Is Communism going to make a return? Is it coming back to replace the capitalist system?
The film opens with an animation of Marx meeting Trotsky and Trotsky undertaking to enlighten Marx as to the significance of Marxism today. Trotsky will attempt to guide Marx to an understanding of how ideology works in society. Quite the tail wagging the dog.
The film then begins by asking how economists today explain the greatest capitalist crisis since the great depression of the 1930s. This is the Global Financial Crisis that began in 2008. The answers we get are not very telling. Now the talking heads take over.
First up is the late former chief economist of the Deutsche Bank, Norbert Walter (1944-1912) who says that we [bankers] made mistakes. E.g., in the USA people could get mortgages at 110% of the value of their houses. The banks made money cheaply available, people borrowed too much and they couldn't pay back what they owed. Later in the film he tells us that Marx's ideas about getting rid of capitalism by abolishing a society based on commodity production for profit would create a world that people would not want to live in as that would lead to the abolishment of "the universal medium of money" which "turns everything around us into commodities" and "money is an essential medium for civilization, for peaceful coexistence and the organization of complex societies." This begs the question as communism is a complex society based on production for human needs not commodities for profit. Mr. Walter must have forgotten about the two world wars that almost destroyed European civilization in the last century when he opined that "peaceful coexistence" is one of the benefits of a money economy.
Next up is Eamonn Butler of the Adam Smith Institute, and author of Taming The Trade Unions, who tells us the crisis was caused by inflation due to governments printing too much money. That is all we hear from him.
On a more general level of the problems of capitalism and the meaning of Marx's writing the film interviews several people identified as philosophers, political philosophers, theorists, critics, etc. Some are well known to the academic community although their grasp of Marxism may be questionable. We now hear from Antonio Negri, co-author of Empire, an expert on Spinoza, and a founder of Italian Autonomism, and "Worker's Power" (Potere Operaio) an ultra-left formation in Italy with a secret armed wing. Negri tells us that the capitalists [neo-liberals] cannot pay the workers the price of their labor [which doesn't even make sense in Marxist terms-- a wage is the price paid for labor-- he should at least be talking about the value of their labor-power not the price] and that they remain in power and are able to wage wars around the world only as long as the working class remains quiescent due to high wages. But as we see the capitalists can't do that so Marx is still relevant.
This line of thought is taken up by the film which now asks does Marx's theory of exploitation hold today or is the way capitalists make their profits changing? The answers are sought from more talking heads without any clear explanation having been given as to what Marx's theory of exploitation is. What is clear is that with a few exceptions, which I will note, none of the answers given in this part of the film are dealing with Marx's theory.
The philosopher Slavoj Zizek is now up to bat (what film on "Marxism" would be complete without this latter day Eugen Dühring). He is described as the "leader" of a new movement to revive Marxist and Communist thinking. He revives Marx by proclaiming that the classical notion of exploitation [left unexplained] no longer works due to the knowledge explosion-- he does not tell us why this is so. However, it has something to do with computers because we need them to communicate with each other and so we have to pay "rent" to Bill Gates because he owns part of our mental substance. I am tempted to think that in professor Zizek's case Mr. Gates is a slumlord. Finally we are told that we need a redefinition of the "proletariat" because the "proletariat" is larger than the working class. Zizek also notes that the unemployed today demonstrate because they want jobs-- "please exploit us in the normal way" they are saying to the capitalists. I think he strikes out as the "leader" of a new "Marxist" movement. He will appear again later.
Antonio Negri now reappears. Capitalism, he says, has evolved in ways Marx could not have predicted. Exploitation is not only of factory workers but of workers throughout society. You can't start a revolution with the factory workers-- you need them but also all the other workers too [I think Marx could have predicted this, in fact he already knew it.] You need the other workers, Negri says, because they are the "most" exploited. What can that mean? The examples he gives are of research and cinema workers and the like because they produce more value. None of this makes sense because the Marxist concept of "value," "surplus value," "labor power" and "exploitation" are never brought up in the film. If they were, none of the things these talking heads and intellectual will-o-the-wisps are saying would make sense anyway only the viewers would at least understand why.
Herfried Munkler now makes his appearance. Dr. Munkler, co-editor of the Complete Works of Marx and Engels and a professor at Humboldt University, in contrast to those who have appeared before, actually knows a thing or two about Marxism although in its Social Democratic deformation. His concern is not limited to discussing the plight of working people in the West but focuses on the exploitation of working people in the so-called Third World where working conditions are subhuman and wages are ridiculously low in comparison to the advanced capitalist countries. Here it is obvious that Marxist ideas are relevant and that capitalism is being abusive.
Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri's collaborator on the book Empire (not worth the read) now appears to bring us back from the Third World to the the First to tell us the economy is now centered on "immaterial" and "immeasurable" products-- that is, on "ideas" not on "objects" like old fashioned commodities such as cars, refrigerators, toasters-- the products of industrial manufacturing. Economics is about relationships and intangible assets [not, coal, oil or natural gas]. He is listed as a literary critic and political philosopher, at least he talks about political philosophy like a literary critic.
Now is the time for Jacques Rancière , the co-author with Louis Althusser(1918-1990) of Reading Capital (although his part was left out of the English version). He is noted for an educational theory which says a person can be a teacher without knowing anything about the subject he is going to teach; a view welcomed by not a few teachers. Rancière makes three appearances in the film and manages to say nothing of importance in any of them. Here he tells us many societies have had exploitation without "explosions" so we can't draw from exploitation the logic of an end to exploitation. Economic exploitation is not the dominant factor in all social struggles. Rancière seems oblivious to the Marxist view that, as Engels says, in the last analysis all major social struggles in class based societies have economic exploitation at their root. Each society and its economic formation needs to be individually studied. There have certainly been "explosions" over exploitation in all societies that have distinct social classes despite Rancière's contrary assertions.
The film now takes up a new subject. We are told that to understand capitalism we must delve into the "mystic realm" of the commodity. It is certainly true that without an understanding of the origin and role of commodities we will not understand our economic system which is based on the production and exchange of commodities. Marx devotes the first chapter of Das Kapital to the commodity. It is a difficult chapter but once grasped the rest of the volumes of Das Kapital will be easily understood.
The film however does not deal with Marx's scientific analysis of commodities but skips to the last section of the chapter which is entitled "The Fetishism of Commodities." Without an understanding of the preceding sections it is easy to misunderstand this last section and, true to form, both the film's narrator and all of the talking heads in this part of the film completely miss the point and fail to grasp Marx's ideas concerning commodity fetishism.
To make a long story short, Marx's point is that the laws of the capitalist system are not products of nature as, say, are the laws of gravity or of aerodynamics but they are the result of human activity. Commodities and their relations are created by human beings and human beings can abolish them. Yet, because we are ignorant of the laws of economics we think of commodities as natural, as things which , although created by us, assume an existence independent of us and go to a market whose laws we are subject to and must conform to. This is similar to the creation of religions or "primitive" belief systems where a person creates a fetish and then bows down to it and thinks it has power over him and he must subject himself to its demands and will. The capitalist market appears as the natural form of economic exchange and there is no alternative to it. It is not true that there is no alternative and humans can abolish capitalism and rid themselves of subjection to the laws of commodity production and create an economic world which serves human needs and one where human needs do not take second place to the need to exchange commodities at a profit. None of this is addressed in this part of the film. Instead we get baloney. This is because the talking heads are in the grips of the very fetishism Marx warns us about.
Norman Bolz (media theorist): "The theory of commodity fetishism is Marx's most important discovery." It isn't. Marx's most important discovery is the distinction between the value of labor and that of labor-power which is the basis of the labor theory of value and of his analysis of capitalism. It is, however, one of the most important consequences of that discovery.
Bolz continues by saying Marx's theory reveals a secret as to why capitalism today "functions so well" (as the Global Financial Crisis indicates). The secret is "that goods in the capitalist market place satisfy more than simple needs; they also convey a spiritual surplus value and this value is the real reason for the purchase." This is complete and utter nonsense.
Peter Sloterdijk, a philosopher, is not so definite. He says the theory is probably "the important part of Marxist doctrine." This is because "Marx is among those who discovered the fact that things live." He goes on to say, Walter Benjamin "discovered the structural similarity between human commodities [?] and commodities as objects." He thus "universalized the category of prostitution." While there may be a relationship between fetishism and prostitution on some level (handcuffs, whips, bondage, etc.,) I don't think this is what Marx was getting at. "Prostitution is always present when a beautiful thing feigns life and tries to seduce a passersby with an offer." I think professor Sloterdijk should reread Marx's chapter on commodities.
Finally, here is Famonn Butler’s (policy analyst) take: he says it's human psychology to want things-- the economy is neutral-- it just produces what people want. Well then, that's it. Capitalism just produces what people want. Then why are there so many adverts all over the place? Do we need to be constantly reminded about what we want?
The film now turns to Marxism and Ecology-- only by now Marxism has been unloaded rather than reloaded. Zizek is now talking about "Communism" in the sense of what we have in "common"-- the Earth as our "common substance" and we have to manage it together. He makes no proposal about how to do that. Michael Hart is also back talking about the "common" in "Communism" and how different that is from both the "Communism" found in the former Soviet Union (derived in part at least from Marx incidentally) and also the "Communism" of American Anti-Communism [evidently he doesn't approve of either kind of "Communism"].
Herfried Munkler points out that Marx "applies exploitation not only to human labor but to the limited resources of nature. He says that if the exploitation of nature continues nature will be destroyed." Munkler thinks that we can reduce the exploitation of nature under capitalism and have common ownership of the Earth without a Marxist society. But this is just social democratic optimism as befits anyone affiliated with the SPD in Germany. He gives no program. But at least he brings up an all important issue; the destruction of the environment under capitalism today.
John Gray weighs in with the observation that international capitalism develops in ways impossible to predict and impossible to control (revealing that he is completely under the sway of the fetishism of commodities). He says the "New Leninists" [we have not met any "Leninists" in this film-- nor will we] and "Greens" are correct about the fact that "human action" has destabilized the environment but they are "deluded" in thinking human action can restabilize it. It doesn't occur to him that it is not humans qua humans that are destructive but only humans under the sway of particular sorts of economic and social relations. Even if humans could get together as a global collective, which he says will never happen, they could not restabilize the environment. Doom and gloom is all we can expect.
The film now asks if the current economic crisis was caused by an under regulated banking system. Is the only solution now and in the future to have state regulated economic systems? The film suggests we look back into history for solutions. I should note here that people who look to the past for solutions to present day problems are usually seen to be reactionaries.
Be that as it may, we return to Norbert Bolz who likes the fact that in the 19th century banks issued their own scripts which functioned as money. You could take it to another bank and redeem it in coin of the realm-- if the other bank trusted it! This system would make all the banks very aware of the true value of the scripts and bad banks would be exposed. He thinks this is a really good idea and I suppose there were no banking crises in the 19th century, except there were.
John Gray rightly thinks this idea is nuts because state monopoly capital [not his term] has become so evolved and complicated since the 19th century and this has happened as a result of the close interconnection between capitalism and state power-- there is no going back. But is there going forward?
Why is it that the state rushes in to save capitalism all the time? Is it possible, the film now asks, that these crises, like the one we are in right now, which broke out in 2007-2008, are not side effects of capitalism but essential to its very existence?
Herfried Munkler tells us that Marx thought that crises would lead to the downfall of capitalism but since his day capitalism has gone through many crises and has "rejuvenated itself." He mentions Joseph Schumpeter's (1883-1950) theory of crises as periods of "creative destruction." "Capitalism," Munkler concludes, "doesn't age. Instead, crisis is its Fountain of Youth." This from the co-editor of the Collected Works is rather strange. Marx thought the internal contradictions would eventually bring about capitalism's collapse (or the mutual destruction of the contending classes within the system) but there was no time table and he argued that capitalism had at its disposal many tools to stave off immediate collapse but it would eventually prove dysfunctional as had the economic forms (slavery, feudalism,) that preceded it. Schumpeter’s "creative destruction" (destruction of the lives of workers and the majority of the population and creation of new wealth for the so-called 1%-- the capitalists) is no refutation of Marx's theories.
The "theorist" Alberto Toscano, one of the very few interviewed who seems to have his head in the right place, points out that capitalism, whatever its ultimate fate, is responsible for creating a gigantic surplus population that it does not know what to do with. He mentions the book The Planet of Slums by Mike Davis and talks about the "surplus humanity" that capitalism has on its hands because its technological advances have made the number of workers it needs redundant. This is the "reserve army of labor" that Marx wrote about-- but now it is no longer just a "reserve" it is a surplus of human beings that are socially unneeded piling up in the slums of the world with nowhere to go. The "creative destruction" they may eventually bring about capitalism may have a hard time dealing with. Only the Chinese, with a non-capitalist economic system, seem to have been able to cope with the massive poverty in the rural areas of their country (and of course Cuba and Vietnam and a few others with non-capitalist economies are beginning to follow suit).
Finally, the film asks what sense is there in believing another world, other than capitalism, is possible. TINA-- "There is No Alternative" was Ms.Thatcher's motto-- was she correct? Can a Communist alternative emerge after the experiences of the past century?
Antonio Negri says there is only capitalism so we must fight the bosses as the bosses fight us. This seems to be an eternal struggle-- there is only the movement Bernstein thought and so it seems does Negri-- at least in this film-- it is difficult to get just what he means so I may be incorrect here. He tells us what we all know-- Russia didn't have "Communism" it had "socialism" [even this is doubtful in retrospect -tr]. What is socialism? It is a way to manage capitalism, just like liberalism is. How would Communism come about? It "comes into being through a relation between transformations of reality and the will or decision to do it or to build it." After this bit of balderdash he leaves us with the admonition to junk the old Communist Manifesto and to write a new one-- he is not, however, the person to do it.
Nina Power, feminist philosopher, has more regard for the Communist Manifesto, and says it has continuing power to influence people. She is surely correct.
Zizek writes off the 20th century "communist" states, Social Democracy, the idea of local councils, collectives, Soviets (which first popped up in the 1905 Russian Revolution) and their latter day reincarnations. What's left? He tells us he likes the idea that "A communist society is one in which each person could dwell in his own stupidity." Zizek is already doing that so he should be happy. He says he got that idea from reading Frederick Jameson. He thinks it would be great if Communism turned out to be like a Bruegel painting. Whenever I hear Zizek expostulating it brings to mind what Karl Marx said about Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) i.e., "in no time and in no country has the most homespun common-place ever strutted about in so self-satisfied a way." At least Bentham did not resort to pseudo-Hegelian verbiage.
Micha Brumlik (professor of education at the Goethe University of Frankfurt am Main) maintains that after the 20th century we have the right to know what Communism is going to be like-- it has to be democratic to be supported. There will be a big fight over that, I fear, as different concepts of "democracy" will be put forth. But he is right to demand a politically active civil society not divorced from a democratic political system. He thinks that Hardt and Negri's unclear views on the "the multitude" [people retain their individualism but act collectively—a mutation of “democratic centralism”?-tr] will never get that concept up and running or have any practical outcome.
Jacques Rancière leaves us with the view that while Marx wanted a "classless society" what we really need is what he calls an "emancipatory society." This is one "in which each has an equal share." This has a vague utopian sound to it-- a throwback to pre-Marxist French socialist thinking. Marxist logic, he tells us, is to prepare for the future, but he believes "instead that the idea of emancipation is really tied to a sort of appearance in the here and now of those we call the 'have-nots' and of those who make their presence felt through their capacity to think, to intervene politically and to prove themselves capable of organizing economic production." Ayn Rand (1905-1982) would like this-- the have-nots and their masters-- only for Rancière they would be good masters. This is a latter day reincarnation of Plato's Republic.
Rancière goes on to criticize Negri. "Negri thinks capitalism produces communism [in the film Negri appears to think capitalism is here for the long run and must always be struggled against-- or if communism comes about it will be through the triumph of the will-- few of the people in this film are logically coherent]. In reality, Rancière says, capitalism only produces its own form of communism. But this is not the communism of everyone's capacity. There are those who say 'Look at what capitalism does. The idea of communism can't be so bad.' But I don't think those people are involved in constructing the idea of real equality today." What is this rambling discourse supposed to mean?
The last pronouncement I will consider comes from Peter Sloterdijk, who tells us that "People must join together to forge alliances against the lethal. They must provide mutual security and offer each other communities of solidarity on a planetary scale [sounds like an advert for NATO]. Because for the first time collective self destruction is possible. [Is he referring to the bomb? climate change?] Before we say 'communism' we must understand the principle of 'immunism' [a new -ism to worry about] or the principle of our mutual insurance which is the most profound motive of solidarity."
This is the sum and substance of the movie. Some of these thinkers are better than they have appeared in this movie-- but not by much. I don't think this film has reloaded Marx-- quite the contrary. I think it completely fails to present what Marxism is all about and its past accomplishments and future possibilities. No film can hope to present Marxism to the public without at the same time dealing with the real life problems of the union and working class movements and issues in the Third World. As I pointed out at the beginning of this review this film completely ignores working class leaders and the leaders of political movements inspired by Marxism and confines itself to interviewing intellectual talking heads who, quite frankly, often don't know what they are talking about. You can find this movie on YouTube complete with subtitles. It is 52 minutes long, and once you have watched it I think you will agree with my assessment.
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.
The Science of Society: Major Principles of Marxism By: Noah KhrachvikRead Now
There is so much confusion these days. We are coming out of an era of confusion, of purposeful distortion, of the establishment and arms of the state using its sophisticated propaganda machine to mislead us in so many ways as to what our interests are, that even once we begin understanding that it is the system itself that is the problem, we are immediately confronted with more distortions designed to redirect any potential revolutionary energy away from ever being a threat to the ruling class. This includes confusing us over what basic terminology is. Recently, I’ve been clarifying old Marxist terms that have been distorted over the years on social media (search for the hashtag #MarxistTerminology if you’re interested!). And this phenomenon is why I wrote this essay. I mean, even the word Marxism is a mystery these days.
So let’s begin very simply: Marxism is a science.
That’s right. You read that correctly. The words haven’t melted into each other, and you aren’t having an aneurysm. Marxism is a science. Or, more precisely, Marxism is a social science. Or, even more precisely, Marxism is THE social science, the science that shows how unscientific liberal social sciences are, by genuinely explaining how things happen in society and why.
But how can this be, I hear you ask from across time and space. It seems so weird. Marxism can’t be a science. Science is when nerdy looking people in lab coats and goggles do experiments with test tubes, and then smoke comes out of the test tubes. And sometimes, when it’s really funny science, the science will blow up in their face and it’ll be all singed for a minute before it goes back to normal. Or, if it’s a duck doing the science, maybe his bill will get turned around. That’s science, right? And that’s certainly not what Marxism is.
Well, no. Just… just no. All science developed through analyzing what is, thinking about the world around us, and creating and adding to bodies of knowledge that can explain the operation of general laws. And, boy howdy. Marxism fits this description like a glove, despite all of the metrics various ideologically motivated intellectuals have come up with in order to try to dispel the notion. In fact, Marx himself viewed things this way. And it has only been added to and improved upon over time. Entire countries have been founded on the discoveries Marx made. And today, these discoveries are leading the world into a new era.
So, what makes it a science, then? It’s all well and good to make declarations about what is and isn’t science, but if we don’t explain why, how this science developed, well—then, it just isn’t very helpful. We need to know what the component parts of Marxism are and how they came to be in order to judge for ourselves what, exactly, it is. We wouldn’t call something a cheeseburger if we didn’t first open up the bun and make sure the components of a cheeseburger (1 burger, check; 1 cheese, check) were there first, would we? So, let’s give the same courtesy to Marxism that we give our various lunch and barbecue foods.
William Z Foster, founding member of the Communist Party USA and heroic labor leader of the early to mid-1900’s, wrote one of the best histories of Marxism and Marxists to date towards the end of his life, the “History of the Three Internationals”. In this seminal work, he opens by describing the history of the pre-Marxist labor movement, culminating in an essay that describes the real birth of socialism as we know it today, and what made Marxism so effective in the real world, so different from everything that came before it. Marxism is a large word, and it encompasses so much, but Foster identifies the eight core features of Marxism in his essay “Major Principles of Marxist Socialism”, taken from this section in one of the most concise essays on the topic to this very day. These core features of Marxism create a progressive increase in our body of knowledge on the study of society and its progress. You’ve probably guessed by now that we’re going to be detailing those eight features here, right? If so, give yourself a high-five. You nailed it. So, let’s get started, shall we?
1. Philosophical Materialism
All science rests on the fundamental idea that the material world is primary, and that our ideas are a reflection of that objective reality. Materialism says that we do not pluck ideas out of the ether and shape the world as we see fit, operating on a proverbial blank slate, but instead, that the world shapes us, that our actions are based on the way we interpret this reality, and on what is possible within that reality.
Karl Marx was the supreme philosopher of materialism in his day, the original taker of the red pill. He based himself fully in this understanding, and counter-posed it against what he considered the “idealist imaginings” of others, such as Hegel, Hume, Kant, and Berkeley, whose philosophical systems all led, though one route or another, to the acceptance of some type of world creation. For philosophical idealists, it is not the material world that is primary, but the idea. A great thinker or powerful leader would poof an idea out of the ether and then put this idea into practice. For Hegel, the entirety of world history was the formation of ultimate truth through the continual process of making more precise, the idea. Marx, instead, proposed a world ruled by definite laws, and showed us how understanding these laws would lead to a greater understanding of the world itself. Not only that, Marx also showed us, in his various works, how the idealist outlook on the world constitutes a shield for the capitalist class, and how materialism could be, as Foster called it, the “sharpest intellectual weapon of the proletariat in its fight against capitalism and for socialism”.
Dialectics is a scary-sounding word. Almost as scary as “Bigfoot”. But once we understand what it means, it turns out it isn’t that scary at all. Really, dialectics is the study of motion—the motion of all things and how that motion happens. Lenin once described it as, “the theory of evolution which is most comprehensive, rich in content, and profound”.
But that’s a little jargony and dated. Let’s put it into ordinary human language (another great phrase from Lenin), so we can wrap our brains around it. What did Lenin mean when he said this? What is dialectics? What are the nuts and bolts?
“Motion is the mode of existence of matter.”
When we study the motion of something, the first thing we usually want to understand is what causes that motion, right? If we want to know how a car moves, we need to understand that it has an engine and a gas pedal and all the other parts that work in interconnection that make it move. Dialectics is like learning how a car moves, but for the entire universe and everything in it. Every phenomenon has internal forces that produce its motion. When we “look under the hood”, so to speak, we discover that there are mutually interdependent forces that ‘struggle’ against each other inside any given phenomenon. The study of the molecules inside water that push against each other in order to create its evaporating or freezing point could be said to be a dialectical study of water. In this same manner, the study of the struggle between capitalists and workers is a dialectical study of society. Without dialectics, our materialist foundation is incomplete, since it is impossible to truly understand a phenomenon without understanding the core foundation of that phenomenon, its motion, the way it develops and deteriorates. The two form, one could say, an interdependent concept. Without understanding what’s under the surface, we have—well, only the surface. We can say that society is full of people who do work, but dialectics and materialism give us the tools that help us understand why those people do this work and why they do it the way they do.
3. The Materialist Conception of History
It was Marx and Engels who first put the study of history on a scientific footing, tearing to shreds the old metaphysical and subjective ways of writing “history” in much the same manner as an electric shredder tears documents apart at the Citi-group offices. Through extensive, exhaustive, (and often exhausting) explanation, using their dialectical materialist methodology, Marx and Engels peel back coincidence, and trace all of the myriad phenomena in society to their source, to the one central root cause of why things in society happen the way they do. In Marxism, we often refer to this as the ‘economic factor’, or the way production is carried out within a given society. Or, simply, the way people make their living.
Marx said on this, “In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society—the real foundation on which rise legal and political superstructures to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political, and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.”
This neatly sums up one of the major discoveries of Marxism, the economic factor as the basis of the motion of society, which we commonly refer to as the base. This puts all the rest of it into motion, and builds what we call the superstructure upon it, our political systems, laws, spirituality, and everything else. Let’s break that open and make sure we’re all on the same page before we move on, though, shall we? Since it is precisely the opposite way to look at it from the one we are taught by default.
What does it mean to say that people (Marx uses men, but this is 2022 here, okay?) enter into ‘definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will’? Well, people are forced to work with and create relationships with each other in order to engage in production, right? It really doesn’t matter what we want—what matters is that we are forced to do this in order to function in society. If you are a working class person, you must go out and sell your ability to perform work to someone who owns the property which makes production possible. If you’re a capitalist, you must buy that ability to perform work from workers. Without this relationship between worker and owner, capitalist production doesn’t happen. There are many levels of this, and sometimes these days, the capitalists themselves are mostly removed from the process, instead buying the labor power of some people in order to do that for them, but it still all boils down to this essential relationship.
Okay. That was easy. How about the next part? These relationships correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production. Don’t worry; this one’s easy too. In order to analyze society’s motion, Marxism breaks the progress of history up into stages (I like to picture it like a timeline in my head, and each part can be divided up into stages as we see fit, in order to more easily analyze the motion). Each of these stages was created by a great leap in the technology related to production and served to advance society. The advent of the slave societies (sometimes called Antiquity in bourgeois universities), which came after what we often refer to as “primitive communism” or pre-class society, for example, was based on the invention of agriculture. Planting crops and domesticating animals rather than hunting and gathering was a completely new way human beings were engaged in production, a new form of society. We, as a species needed to eat, and as we grew, needed to eat more and more. So, we hunted and gathered more and more, and in better and better, more efficient ways, making the production of that era more efficient. This created a surplus, and then a need to own our new surplus. Likewise, the invention of factory assembly, coal and steam power represented the beginning of capitalism. Each of these class relationships (master and slave in the early era of class society, owner and worker in capitalism) correspond to the level of technological development of the human race.
All of that innovation based on what’s most economically efficient, that’s what comes first. It lays the basis from which everything else in society rises. The way we go about organizing our society, our legal and political structures, that all stems from how we look at the material conditions we find ourselves in. We don’t have class without some people owning and some people working, after all. Marx was pointing out the dialectical progression of phenomena in society, a heady concept for sure, but one we can break apart and learn, as we see here.
He ends the statement with a very good, quotable line that really just sums it all up: The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political, and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.
Marx is saying that the form our society takes has a material basis in the economic factor. Back into ordinary human language, he’s explaining that the way we go about producing, the ‘mode of production’ and the objective relationships this causes is what determines what our social, political, and spiritual lives look like. It isn’t good ideas producing good things or bad ideas producing bad things. It is the material reality that produces good ideas and bad ideas (and even how we look at those ideas); the social relationships we create in order to, well—create, those come first. That affects how we think about things, and as we get more advanced, new ideas manifest.
This quote has led a lot of people who don’t really take the time to understand what it means (a lot of them due to their class interests, as class is a large determining factor in the kind of social consciousness people have) to launch an accusation of “economic determinism” at Marx and Marxism, saying that Marxism states that only the economic factor is important, and dictates everything that happens, as if people don’t have free will or work against their own class interests. But this is a misunderstanding, and seems like it forgot to read the last part of Marx’s quote here.
Engels addressed these detractors directly, saying, “According to the materialist conception of history, the determining element in history is ultimately the production and reproduction in real life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. If therefore somebody twists this into the statement that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms it into a meaningless, abstract and absurd phrase. The economic situation is the basis but the various factors of the superstructure – the political forms of the class struggles and its results – constitutions, etc., established by victorious classes after hard-won battles – legal forms, and even the reflexes of all these real struggles in the brain of the participants, political, jural, philosophical theories, religious conceptions and their further development into systematic dogmas – all these exercise an influence upon the course of historical struggles, and in many cases determine for the most part their form."
What he means is that the source of what happens is the economic factor, but the things it creates, these matter too, and affect the course of historical events. For example: because race and racism were created to serve capital does not mean that racism itself has not played a large role in the development of American society, or that it is not a large part of the general class struggle in this society.
When we engage with the study of history using Marxism, we see that the old, bourgeois way is simply not enough to genuinely understand the real cause of things. In fact, it tends to outright ignore the true cause of events throughout history, laying emphasis instead on all sorts of secondary or superficial elements, on great ideas of great men or evil ideas of evil men. Overall, a bourgeois history lesson is often a random jumbling together of dates and deeds, battles and warriors, with very little (if ever) talk on the root cause of these battles and warriors, on the economic factor pushing these forces into motion. It can often pretend at this but fail in every respect. Case in point: the reason often given for the beginning of the first great imperialist world war is the assassination of Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand. This is all well and good. It was a very early battle in this war, possibly the first skirmish. But why did it happen? What were the underlying factors that caused this event? These are the questions Marxism answers.
If bourgeois history has no real, clear understanding of the past, then how can they possibly understand what is happening in the present? Historical materialism, however (the term we give to the dialectical materialist methodology applied to history), and its emphasis on the economic factor, gives Marxism what Foster called a “decisive advantage in drawing the elementary lessons from past history, and for understanding the fundamental meaning of the complex economic and political processes of today.”
It’s this study that leads Marxists to the conclusion that economic revolution (those leaps in technology we talked about) leads to social revolution (changing conditions create an inability to live in the old way, as well as new ideas), which leads to political organization and political revolution (people are thrust into motion to do what they must to continue society, and that is a complete transformation of the basic characteristics of society into a new form), which leads us to the conclusion that socialism, the stage of development after capitalism, is inevitable. This may sound very strange at first glance, but as we learn the scientific basis and understanding of this, it naturally becomes clearer and clearer, especially when we learn how this happens over and over again throughout history, in different forms corresponding to the material levels of production of society.
4. The Class Struggle
Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto:
“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes. In the earlier epochs of history, we find almost everywhere a complicated arrangement of society into various orders, a manifold gradation of social rank. In ancient Rome we have patricians, knights, plebians, slaves; in the middle ages, feudal lords, vassals, guild-masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs; in almost all these classes, again, subordinate gradations. The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes… new forms of struggle in place of the old ones."
Marx’s description of this process, of class struggle, is a description of the processes happening throughout history, compelling the motion of society. He is applying the dialectical materialist methodology to society, putting the study of its motion, of the conflicting forces making history happen, onto a scientific footing. This helps us understand all of the internal laws of motion of society, but it is up to us to put them into practice. Without Marxism, this is a confusing jumble of events, but armed with our scientific method, we can understand the forces at work that produce different events throughout history. The economic factor, again, is the central root of everything. The direct relationships people must enter into in order for society to function separates us into mutually interdependent and contradictory classes. In order for one class to fulfill what is in its material interests, it needs to directly harm the material interests of the opposing class. If a corporation (a group of capitalists recognized by the state) decides to shut down its factories in one location and move them to another one where it is able to pay workers less, this directly harms the material interests of the workers there. Likewise, when a factory organizes into a union in order to win higher wages, this harms the material interests of the capitalists. Marxism gives us the tools we need to understand this on a systemic level, to understand what our material interests as a class are. We see the opposing class (what Marx called the ‘bourgeoisie’) everywhere trying to obscure this fact, to obscure class and blur even what the term means, which can easily result in us accidentally siding with its interests against our own. Marxism doesn’t just give us the tools we need to understand history properly, but also to fight against that obscuring, and to work towards what’s best for us, instead.
Marx was incredibly modest about this significant scientific discovery. In a letter to American Marxist Joseph Weydemeyer in 1852, he said that he deserved no real credit for discovering the existence of classes in modern society, or even the struggle between the opposing classes. Bourgeois academics had already begun pecking around the edges of class and production before Marx began his work. He explained the important parts of his work as having three essential parts: First, that the existence of classes corresponds to particular, historic phases in the development of production; Second, that the class struggle necessarily leads to what he referred to as the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, or the working class organized as the ruling class of society, and its interests dictating what happens in society (according to the laws of societal development); And third, that this new form of state only constitutes the transition to the abolition of class itself, and to a classless society, as the material interests of the working class necessitate working towards the end of classes altogether. There are many labels given to this, and many misrepresentations of it, based on not quite understanding the way Marx and Engels thought, what it was they were doing. In our modern society, we refer to this period after capitalism as “socialism”. Through all of this, if we look at this the way Marx did, we see that he was studying society’s motion, its progress, and discovering the forces that made that progress happen: class struggle, the dialectical “struggle” between the two opposing and interdependent forces within the phenomenon of society.
As Foster took care to note, Marx was being incredibly modest in this letter. Marx and Engels created a methodology that would let us clearly see not just what is here now, but how we got to here, and in so doing, gave us the guide we need to continue progressing society and fight for a better world for the working class, for the masses. For us.
5. The Revolutionary Role of the Working Class
The word class has become rather murky in modern American society. What is a ‘class’? Our pundits and bourgeois academics talk of the “middle class” quite frequently, or of the ‘political class’ or ‘professional managerial class’. These can have some sort of merit in our Marxist analysis, but over-all, the establishment tells us to measure what we call ‘class’ in terms of income level. The more money one has, the higher their ‘class’.
This is not the terminology Marx and Engels used, and not how Marxists view ‘class’, how we separate groups of people when analyzing society and its motion. We do this, like all things, by our dialectical materialist methodology. We get to the root of things, to the economic factor, and discover that the best way to group people is according to their material interests, which lies in the social relationships created by how they relate to production. It is that relationship to production that defines what ‘class’ a given group is in Marxism. (Once we learn the fundamentals, it’s important to recognize how the distortions of the capitalist class serve their class interests, by distorting how people view themselves and production itself, individualizing it. But that’s a subject for another time.)
It’s common knowledge that Marxism focuses on the ‘working class’, a group of people whose relationship to the means of production, the way they go about living and being part of society, is their lack of ownership and ability to accumulate, forcing them to sell their capacity to perform labor (a special commodity Marx calls ‘labor power’) to those who own the means of production. But Marx and Engels did not study the working class arbitrarily, or because they suffered at the hands of the ruling class, or because they wanted everything to be fair for everyone and the working class were large and represented the masses. In fact, the peasantry was larger in many regions of the world in their day, and had a completely different relationship to the means of production, one left over from the feudal era, as capitalism was becoming the dominant force in society.
It was their special position as the developing class of society and material interests as the working class that made Marx and Engels focus on this class. It was (and is, to this day) in the material interests of the working class to overcome class altogether, to create the productive forces and relationships of production necessary for class itself to no longer have a reason for existing. Every dollar the workers get, the bosses see that as a dollar they lose, after all. This constant back and forth struggle would best serve the working class by overcoming it altogether and eliminating the capitalist from the equation, while the bosses, on the other hand, rely on the working class to actually produce value for them. Other classes faded with the passage of history and the development of capitalism. In Marx’s day, the small shopkeepers, artisans, and small manufacturers all stood opposed to the bourgeoisie, but for a different reason than the working class. Their class interests were in preserving their positions, making them “conservative” in the true sense of the word, and as capitalism progressed, became reactionary, meaning their class interests were better served in the previous stages of society. The working class, however, is produced and grows according to capitalism’s advance, and is therefore the class in the position to be the “nascent” or developing end of the contradiction at the heart of society’s progress, the only truly revolutionary class of the period of history in which capitalism is the dominant stage of development.
Due to its position and material interests (remember, the Marxist focus on the economic factor), the leading role of the working class, the constructive class to build our future, has been present in successful revolutions to get past capitalism all over the world, in Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, etc., and working classes all over the world take it upon themselves to organize and bring this about.
Lenin elaborated on this phenomenon very thoroughly, but it was Karl Marx who first began laying the groundwork for this addition. In the Communist Manifesto, he wrote of the type of, as Foster called it, “thinking-fighting-disciplined party necessary for the working class to win finally over the capitalist class.”
“The Communists… are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working class parties in every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.”
So what did he mean by this? At first glance, it sounds a little egotistical, but that is not the way Marx viewed the world. He saw this as a scientist, and in order to understand what he meant, so must we. Marxism shows us that the dominant ideology and way of viewing things in any society is the ideology its ruling class. That ruling class was able to spread this way of thinking throughout that society, but it is important to look at this fact dialectically, to analyze it in its motion. Because it is dominant now does not mean it is invincible but precisely the opposite. It means it has developed already and is now undeveloping. The time this takes to happen and the way it happens are governed by the phenomena mentioned above, by class struggle and its own development.
6. Surplus Value
We often hear Karl Marx’s three volume work Capital referred to as his magnum opus. Before Marx, the great bourgeois economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo wrote on this period of history, and contributed greatly to our understanding of capitalism, value, and commodity production. They were operating in the time before Marxism, however, before the world outlook and methodology of Marxism was able to give greater clarity to the study of society and how it functions. These days, the bourgeois economists, in their increasing desperation to provide excuses, have degenerated into little more than con men, making apologies for capitalism, rather than genuinely examining its functions.
Capital was Marx’s great work on this subject. Taking his new world outlook and methodology, he was able to describe the process of society and its motion, and specifically capitalist society, in a way never before possible. He explained the process of what led to capitalism, which he deemed primitive accumulation, the causes of the crises, panics, recessions, crashes, capitalism experiences every four to ten years like clockwork, and the continual concentration of capital in the hands of fewer and fewer capitalists. One of the greatest discoveries elaborated in this book was what Marx spent decades studying. What is value? Where does it originate? Marx’s elaboration of what he deemed ‘surplus value’ – the value that capitalists derive from commodity sales that is not paid to the workers for their creation or used to maintain their means of production. This discovery exposed the capitalists for what they were: parasites, and this surplus value being the property of the capitalist class is the central element of the opposing interests between worker and owner, why the working class is the truly revolutionary class, according to Marxism.
Since then, countless bourgeois academics have tried to refute Marx’s great work on this subject. None have succeeded.
7. The Role of the state:
This is beginning to feel a little like a “Marx’s Greatest Hits” list, isn’t it? Coming in at number seven, it’s (drumroll) the role of the state! Give it a hand, everybody!
Okay, bad jokes behind us. Let’s continue on. Marx and Engels dedicated quite a bit of study to the question of this thing called the state; what it is, how it developed, what its concrete manifestations are, things of that nature. While the bourgeois academics would hold that the phenomenon of the state developed spontaneously, due to the good ideas of good men (only men), and stood above society, concerning itself with the welfare of all of the people, Marx and Engels showed that The State, like all things, goes through a process of development and undevelopment due to the internal contradictions within it, based on the economic factor, that the state takes different forms according to which class is the dominant class in society, and is the tool of the dominant class of society for the repression of the other classes. They showed that, with the progress of the working class state, the continual advance of the productive forces, and motion of society, the state itself will eventually begin to wither away and un-develop, once the conditions for its existence (class struggle) are no longer a factor, replaced simply by the routine administration of things.
8. Class Struggle and Tactics of the Working Class:
Marx and Engels did more than that, though. They also began understanding the forms of struggle and tactics the working class takes in its continual struggle against the bourgeoisie. William Z Foster details quite a lot of their correspondence and actions within the International Workingmen’s Association, or “First International” in his book History of the Three Internationals, which represented the first real organization of the working class in its own interests. (The letters between the two detail their original ideas on this issue, and are a fantastic read for Communist nerds, even to this day.) Before their work in showing the world the exploitative nature of capitalism or organizing workers themselves, they proved how the nascent class of society always organizes itself and overthrows the moribund class, showing how only the proletariat were in a position, once organized and educated, to lead the entire toiling masses towards socialism.
They did not, however, sit around dreaming up ideas for ideal worlds, as the utopian socialists that came before them did. Instead, they relied on cold, hard science to guide the way, instead developing what is often referred to as a “guide to action”. Of the many distortions and misconceptions about Marxism going around today, the idea that this was what Marx and Engels did is one of the most prevalent. If life were a football game, this distortion would have us believe that Marx and Engels wrote out a playbook, and their criticism is that we cannot expect some playbook written for a football team 200 years ago to work on our team now, with totally different players, rules, and conditions (or sometimes, they argue that we should follow this imaginary playbook they believe was written). But Marx and Engels and company did not write a playbook for us. Of course, they were interested in a playbook for their specific team, and created this, but their main discovery was the creation of the language playbooks are written in. They developed all the X’s and O’s and little arrows you see in football movies, when the coach is explaining the trick play to the team that’s had a rough first half, so they can win the game at the very end. This language is the essence of Marxism. And each socialism that arises develops its own playbook from this language, and each socialist project wins the game with their own, unique plays, written specifically for their own conditions, their own unique time and place.
Learning dialectical materialism and historical materialism, learning how to “think like a Marxist” and then apply that to our actions in the real world, is the first step in building socialism.
 Conservative is another term that our capitalist class has mystified. Conservatism when reading Marxist texts essentially means exactly what it says on the box: to conserve what is.
 This work will not delve into descriptions of economy in this way, and is mostly a primer. But for the sake of thoroughness, surplus value is described by Mehring as, “The mass of the workers consists of proletarians who are compelled to sell their labor-power as a commodity in order to exist, and secondly that this commodity, labor power, possesses such a high degree of productivity in our day that it is able to produce in a certain time a much greater product than is necessary for its maintenance in that time. These two purely economic facts, representing the result of objective historical development, cause the fruit of the labor-power of the proletarian to fall automatically into the lap of the capitalist and to accumulate with the continuance of the wage system, into ever-growing masses of capital. (Note: knowing the dialectial nature of society, we can look at the development of just HOW productive this commodity is, and how much more productive it is today than in Marx’s day)
Noah Khrachvik is a proud working class member of the Communist Party USA. He is 40 years old, married to the most understanding and patient woman on planet Earth (who puts up with all his deep-theory rants when he wakes up at two in the morning and can't get back to sleep) and has a twelve-year-old son who is far too smart for his own good. When he isn't busy writing, organizing the working class, or fixing rich people's houses all day, he enjoys doing absolutely nothing on the couch, surrounded by his family and books by Gus Hall.
Relevance of the Manifesto of the Communist Party in the 21st Century. By: Carlos Alarcón Aliaga, Translated By: Toby GreenRead Now
The death of communism has been pronounced time and time again, but every day it is still fought against without respite or pity. There is no popular act or uprising which the bourgeoise does not see as a sign of communism, no nationalist or progressive opinion which is not branded as communist.
There is no doubt that since the publication of the Manifesto of the Communist Party in February of 1848 the bourgeoisie can no longer rest easy. The world has changed much since then, many references made that are since outdated, but its “general principles” remain valid, having been verified scientifically and confirmed by historical events.
The Communist Manifesto highlights the historical role of capitalism and how it has replaced relations based on patriarchy, the family, religion etc. with cold monetary interest, with “the icy water of egotistical calculation”. For the first time the trends of capitalism are laid out, from its birth in the European feudal system and its expansion all over the world, creating the global marketplace that we today call “globalisation”.
Marx and Engels foretold such a situation by stating, “The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world-market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country” (The Communist Manifesto, p.25). In the same way, they recognised that capitalism, “has made the country dependent on the towns…barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilised ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West” (p.26), forming its imperialist stage. What’s more, they correctly pointed out that, “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production” insofar as they aid the creation of profits (p.24).
But the Communist Manifesto has highlighted not only economic trends, but also political, by pointing out that, “The executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” (p.23).
Without a doubt, there are many more contributions from the Communist Manifesto that we cannot stop to go over in this brief article, and so we will only touch on those that have been most attacked with the aim of removing its revolutionary edge.
The history of all hitherto existing history is the history of class struggles.
Out of all the various social relations, relations of production are the main ones. Since the appearance of the social division of labour between manual and intellectual and the ownership of the social means of production, the division of men and women into two fundamental classes has emerged: the possessors of the means of production and the dispossessed. The group of people who took over the means of production dominate the dispossessed, making them work for their own enrichment.
For this reason, the Manifesto starts by saying that history “is the history of class struggles”. Masters and slaves, patricians and plebeians, lords and serfs, masters and tradesmen, that is to say exploiters and exploited, oppressors and oppressed have always clashed, sometimes subtly and other times frankly and openly.
Capitalism has not eliminated class contradictions; it has substituted the old classes for new ones; now everything revolves around the contradiction between capitalists and workers. Thousands of times it has been denied, and thousands of times it has been confirmed by reality. The bourgeoisie, unable to hide these contradictions, accepts them, but denies their origins as being in the possession or dispossession of the means of production, or in the position of people within the social relations of production.
For the capitalists, social classes are defined by their capacity for consumption, and these are the classes A, B, C, D and even E, within which class interests dissipate. This same criterion serves to sort the classes into upper, middle and lower, and since no one wants to damage their social prestige, a large number of proletarians feel flattered when they are placed in the middle class.
This situation of domination compels the exploited and oppressed classes to defend their rights, organising, mobilising, taking part in strikes etc. It cost the workers and the people of the 19th and 20th centuries great days of struggle for the legal recognition of their rights. For this reason, imperialist capital has counterattacked to shatter the workers’ organisations and defeat the Soviet Union and, having done this, has rolled out neoliberalism to take away democratic and workplace rights, neutralise the trade unions and the right to strike under the threat of being fired, etc. Thus, class struggle is exactly this bourgeois domination, and it exists even if the oppressed classes do not have the capacity to defend themselves and are not mobilising or going on strike.
Class struggle is not a style nor a method of doing politics, as the Ecuadorian ex-president Rafael Correa so candidly declared in his time. Class struggle exists in social reality and is a consequence of the division of society into owners and non-owners of the means of production.
Capitalism has simplified class contradictions: bourgeoisie and proletarians
In the Communist Manifesto we read,
“Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinctive feature: it has simplified the class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.” (The Communist Manifesto, pp.21-22)
We arrive, therefore, at the most heavily criticised element of the Communist Manifesto and of the economic and social theory of Marxism. The working class, we are told, grows ever smaller.
It results that the bourgeoisie, in order to judge the Communist Manifesto, use the categories of bourgeois “science”, which is why they speak a different language to that of Marx. In ‘Capital’, wage-earning workers are always the working class, because within capitalism the principal relationship of production is between capital and waged work, and never the relationship between capital and worker, or between capital and employee. For this reason, the working class encompasses all employees and not the simplistic workplace category that the bourgeoisie use in their factories.
Furthermore, Marx uses the word ‘worker’ in its full meaning, the worker is the person who has worked and produced ever since they appeared on the face of the earth. In this way, showing that human work is superior to that of animals, such as the spider or the bee, because before carrying out the work the worker first maps it out in his mind. Marx says:
“At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own…” (Capital Volume I, p.127)
To be a worker is to be a producer; it is innate in human beings and present throughout history. With a society divided into social classes, the workers are the ones who commit themselves to working so that others; the owners of the social means of production; may live and grow rich off their labour. Under capitalism, workers are proletarians as defined by Friedrich Engels:
“By proletariat [is meant] the class of modern wage-labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour-power in order to live” (The Communist Manifesto, p.21)
However, labour-power has been understood as if one were only speaking of physical force, ignoring the display of knowledge, experience, and intelligence on the part of the worker. Marx defines it with some clarity,
“By labour-power or capacity for labour is to be understood the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in a human being, which he exercises whenever he produces a use-value of any description.” (Capital Volume I, p.119).
We see, then, that labour-power and capacity for labour mean the same thing and include all the spiritual faculties present in the personality of the worker, such as free will, love or hate of work, emotions of anger and anguish, concentration, knowledge, intelligence, abilities, etc.
The capitalist buys these capacities for labour for them to carry out a collective work and produce the goods that he must sell on the market. This social work is a process in which different people, with different qualifications and skills, intervene.
In this regard, Marx tells us,
“In a factory, the labourers do not directly take part in the processing of raw materials. The workers tasked with watching over those who work on these processing tasks are of a slightly higher category; engineers who work principally with their heads. Yet the result is the production of this ensemble of workers, who possess a labour power of distinct value […]. The type of capitalist production is characterised, in effect, by the act of separating and entrusting different people with various jobs, both intellectual and manual. This doesn’t prevent the product material from being the common product of all these people, nor that this common product is translated into material wealth, nor that each one of these people is, with respect to capital, a salaried worker, a productive worker in the highest sense of the word. All of these people, in addition to working directly in the production of material wealth, directly exchange their work for money considered as capital and therefore, in addition to their salary, directly reproduce a surplus value for the capitalist.” (Teorías 1, p.224 translator’s version)
All the capacities of the workers merge in this collective labour, capacities which are sold in exchange for a salary, and which provide a surplus value for the capitalist. The proletarian class is not just those who directly manufacture a product, but rather all those workers who take part in its production. The capitalists cannot do away with the working class, and so their foremost resolution is to divide it and with this same objective carry out labour outsourcing, through which workers who are indispensable to the production process are recategorized as tertiary and without any labour rights. (“El Capital” hoy, Chapter II)
This throws the bourgeois categorisation into disarray and shows that the working class maintains its power and its role within the capitalist system. However, there is still more to discuss: we have only spoken of the proletariat that has succeeded in selling its capacity for work, let us now see what happens to those who do not have such luck.
The tendency towards the proletarianization of capitalist society is unstoppable
In its advance over the world capitalism continually disintegrates or subordinates the past modes of production, uproots thousands upon thousands of peasants and artisans from their land and their means of production, creating a new social class: the proletariat. The proletarianization of the population of the population has always been greater than the capacity for employment of capital, generating a relative overpopulation which Marx called a “reserve army of labour” because it constituted a source of labour for the necessities of the expansion of capital and for maintaining low wages. Marx and Engels used the categories of working class and proletarian class interchangeably, because although a reserve army of labour was created, for proletarians who did not manage to sell their labour power, sooner or later they would do so, according to the empirical observations and the limits of the statistics from the time in which they lived.
In the 19th century and well into the 20th century this reserve army of labour became more stable in the developed capitalist countries of Europe, which one can attribute to a phenomenon exclusive to underdeveloped countries. This tendency towards the overgrowth of the reserve army of labour was undetectable in those times because there was a release valve of excess European proletarians as they emigrated to Australia and the New World, where they found better sources of work and better opportunities in land, displacing the indigenous populations, often through blood and fire, which was known as the North American “conquest of the west”. What’s more, the first and second world wars, aside from dividing up the world, also served capitalism by destroying part of the excess workforce.
Today, in the 21st century, the tendency towards the growth of proletarianization and the incapability of capitalism to provide employment has increased on the one hand and, on the other hand, there are no more indigenous populations with appealing lands to be displaced, or another world war to relieve the excess of the proletarian population. Under these circumstances we have millions of proletarianized people who cannot find a capitalist to whom they can sell their capacity for work, and this has produced a growth in freelance or gig workers and, to a lesser extent, in micro businesses, which represent some 93% of economic activities within the European Union (Círculo de Empresarios, p.81), mirroring underdeveloped countries.
These proletarians, when they are unable to find work, find themselves forced to take refuge in a business of subsistence, because under capitalism everything is bought and sold, and no one can live without an income. They find themselves forced, through various means, to make some small amount of capital for themselves and start a business that is the easiest and most accessible to their poverty, especially petty commerce and services.
This situation is taken by the epigones of capital to organise their statistics and argue for the reduction of the proletariat because a large portion of the economically active population are dedicated to tertiary jobs. They deliberately hide that nearly the entirety of this sector are independent contractors who have no capacity for contracting labourers, are fundamentally self-employed, and their economy is a subsistence one with no capacity for accumulating capital. This reality makes them semi-proletarians, and all the political aid programmes do nothing for them because these are for the petty bourgeoisie; they don’t realise that they have their own interests which are very different from any other bourgeois splinter. (“El Capital” hoy, chapter 9)
"Salaried workers and the semi-proletariat make up more than 80% of the economically active population in capitalist countries, which confirms the tendency highlighted in the Communist Manifesto that. “Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.” (p.22)
Capitalism can no longer control the powers of the nether world that it has created
Capitalism, seeking the greatest profits, has taken over the world and developed never before seen technological powers, with a sufficient productive capacity to solve world hunger. However, it does not do this because it is not prepared to give up the products it has available if it is not paid the price it demands.
Its eagerness for profit leads it to produce to earn more and more, in a race of producing capital for the sake of producing, until there is an excess of goods in relation to the buying capacity of the population. In this bottleneck financial capital gives out quick and easy loans, not just for production, but also for consumption, creating a fictitious demand and postponing crises.
In this race economic bubbles grow until they pop, such as in the 2007-2008 crisis, from which capitalism has never recovered; a great relapse was announced in 2020 when the pandemic arrived. The only thing that COVID-19 has done is deepen the crisis to unforeseen levels.
"There is a great certainty when the Communist Manifesto says, “Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.” (p.28)
The crisis that the world is living through has completely unmasked capitalism. By prioritising businesses and capitalist speculation not one developed capitalist country has been able to tackle the health crisis; compared to China, Cuba, Vietnam, even Venezuela, they are an absolute embarrassment.
Knowing their sanitary shortcomings for handing over health to the voracity of private profit, capitalist countries have had the necessary resources to counteract the epidemic, which has resulted in 2.5 million deaths from COVID-19 in just one year (Google news), which must be doubled if one considers all the deaths due to distraction from other illnesses.
It would seem that the bourgeoisie is taking advantage of the situation to do away with the excess of proletarians to whom it could never give employment; it is horrifying to learn that in Madrid and New York they have intentionally stopped checking in on retirement homes.
What has happened to the gravediggers of capitalism?
The economic and political situation of the world today seems to clash with what Marx and Engels said of the proletariat in 1847, “But not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons – the modern working class – the proletarians.” (Communist Manifesto, p.29)
The suffering of the proletariat from the 2008 crisis and the global crisis that we are currently living through is tremendous. Even before the pandemic, the cutback and annulling of labour rights were unstoppable; millions of workers lost their jobs, their savings, and their houses in developed countries.
Such was the suffering that between 2007 and 2017 in Spain some 17,000 people took their own lives for economic reasons (HISPANTV). Add onto that the millions of deaths due to COVID-19 in the last year, the millions of workers who have lost their jobs and salaries, the millions of independent contractors who have lost their precarious businesses etc.
The responses of the workers are lacking in focus. Some have had global impact, such as the mobilisations in the United States, France, India, Belgium, and Spain among the more well known. Only the mobilisations of the Chilean people have had a political focus against neoliberalism. But not one of these examples questions the capitalist system.
This situation of the global proletariat is not down to the Communist Manifesto being wrong. After its publication the global proletariat carried out historic struggles which have changed the course of history in previous centuries.
The 1872 Paris Commune was followed by the great 1917 proletarian revolution in Russia, which started the first attempt to build an alternative society to capitalism in the world, taking this immense country from underdevelopment to becoming the second greatest world power, capable of defeating Hitler’s powerful Nazi army. From then would come the revolutions in China, Korea, Cuba, Vietnam etc and an ample national liberation movement in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
It would come to pass that the imperialist bourgeoisie also learned and carried out a counterattack on various fronts:
1. Overthrow the Soviet Union by hounding it with the “Cold War” and a global ideological smear campaign as an alternative to capitalism.
With the union and political organisations domesticated and the Soviet Union overthrown, all the banners of neoliberalism were unfurled, coming to cut yet more labour and union rights, but above all to impose work flexibility, giving legal capacities to the bourgeoisie to fire any who tried to organise unions. For these reasons, for example, in Peru only 5% of workers are in a union.
This situation explains why the proletariat cannot organise a meaningful response to the aggressions they receive from the bourgeoisie and why, lacking an ideology and revolutionary parties, they do not carry out their struggles to end this economic, social, and political system which threatens not just workers, but all of human civilisation.
It is time then to learn the lessons of history, overcome this disorganisation, end the relaxation of work laws, etc. Above all, to organise ourselves into a revolutionary party as the Communist Manifesto demands and carry out a wide-ranging political and ideological struggle for the historical interests of the proletariat of Peru and the world, in an independent manner, banishing the copycat attitudes of bourgeois governments and politicians.
 At the time of translation (December 2021) this figure has increased to 5.3 million deaths
Alarcón, C. “El Capital” hoy: Capitalismo y crisis en el S. XXI
Círculo de Empresarios (2018). ‘La empresa mediana española’. Available at: https://circulodeempresarios.org/app/uploads/2019/01/Empresa-mediana-española-informe-anual-2018-Circulo-de-Empresarios.pdf (Accessed: 22/12/2021).
Google News. ‘Coronavirus (COVID-19)’. Available at: https://news.google.com/covid19/map?hl=es-419&gl=PE&ceid=PE%3Aes-419
HISPANTV (2018). ’17 mil españoles se suicidan desde 2007 por causas económicas’. Available at: https://www.hispantv.com/noticias/sociedad/380119/espana-problemas-economicos-crisis-suicidios (Accessed: 22/12/2021).
Marx, K. and Engels, F. (2015). Capital: A Critique of Political Economy: Volume I. Available at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Capital-Volume-I.pdf (Accessed: 08/12/2021). (First published in 1867).
Marx, K. and Engels, F. (2004). The Communist Manifesto in The Communist Manifesto & Selected Writings. Pan Macmillan: London. (First published in 1848).
Carlos Alarcón Aliaga
This article was originally published in spanish by Instituto Marx Engel of Peru.
Western Marxism suffers largely from the same symptom as Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby – each’s fixation on perfection and purity leaves perpetually unfulfilled all that it claims to desire. On one hand, Jay seeks a return to the purity of his first encounter with Daisy, and in the impossibility of this return to purity, the actual potential for a relationship is lost. On the other hand, western Marxists seek a pure form of socialism, but in the impossibility of such a purity arising, they lose the potential to actuate or defend any socialist revolution. The purity of each is met with the reality that reality itself is never pure – it always contains mistakes, negations, breaks and splits.
Jay Gatsby cannot officially reestablish himself with Daisy insofar as she admits to having loved Tom Buchanan – her husband – during the intermediate time before she re-connects with Jay. This imperfection, this negation of purity, is unacceptable – Daisy must tell Tom she never loved him to reestablish the purity of their first encounter. With no purity, there can be no relationship.
Similarly, for Western Marxists the triumphant socialist experiments of the 20th and 21st century, in their mistakes and ‘totalitarianisms’, desecrate the purity in the holiness of their conception of socialism. The USSR must be rejected, the Spanish civil war upheld; Cuban socialism must be condemned, but the 1959 revolution praised; Allende and Sankara are idols, Fidel and Kim Il-Sung tyrants, etc. What has died in purity can be supported, what has had to grapple with the mistakes and pressures that arise out of the complexities and contradictions of building socialism in the imperialist phase of capitalism, that must be denied.
As was diagnosed by Brazilian communist Jones Manoel’s essay, ‘Western Marxism Loves Purity and Martyrdom, But Not Real Revolution’, western Marxists’ fetishization of purity, failures, and resistance as an end in itself creates “a kind of narcissistic orgasm of defeat and purity”. Comrade Manoel rightly points out the fact that western “Marxism preserves the purity of theory to the detriment of the fact that it has never produced a revolution anywhere on the face of the Earth”. Western Marxists celebrate the emergence of a revolutionary movement; but, when this revolutionary movement is triumphant in taking power, and hence faced with making the difficult decisions the concrete reality of imperialism, a national bourgeoisie, economic backwardness, etc. force it into, the western Marxists flee with shouts of betrayal! For the western Marxists, all practical deviation from their purity is seen as a betrayal of the revolution, and thus, the cries of ‘state capitalism’ and ‘authoritarianism’ emerge.
Manoel, reflecting on the work of the late Domenico Losurdo’s Western Marxism, does a superb job in providing the meat for this thesis. Nonetheless, he (as well as Losurdo) conceives of this theoretical lapse as being “smuggled in as contraband from Christianity”. I will argue that although Christian mysticism may be present here, the root of the rot is not Christian contraband, but western metaphysics (which precedes Christian mysticism itself). The root, in essence, is found in the fixated categories that have permeated western philosophy; in the general conception that Truth is in the unchanging, in the permanent, in substance; and only indirectly in the mystical forms these have taken under the Christian tradition. The diagnosis Engels gave reductive Marxists in 1890 applies to today’s western Marxists – “what all these gentlemen lack is dialectics”.
Parmenides Contra Heraclitus
Whereas Manoel and Losurdo see the root of this purity fixation in Christianity, it is in the classical Greek debates on the question of change – taking place 500 years or so before Christ – where this fixation emerges. It will be necessary to paint with a broad stroke the history of philosophy to explain this thesis.
The Heraclitan philosophy of universal flux, which posits that “everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing stays fixed”, would lose its battle against the Parmenidean philosophy of permanence.[i] Parmenides, who held that foolish is the mind who thinks “that everything is in a state of movement and countermovement”, would dominate the conceptions of truth in the ancient, medieval, modern, and contemporary world.[ii] Although various aspects of Heraclitus’ thought would become influential in scattered minds, the dialectical aspect of his thought would never be centered by any philosophical era.
Plato, as the next best dialectician of the ancient world, attempted a reconciliation of Parmenides and Heraclitus. In the realm of Forms, the Parmenidean philosophy of permanence would reign; in the physical realm, the Heraclitan philosophy of flux would. In his Phaedo, Plato would note that the realm of the physical world is changing and composed of concrete opposites in an interpenetrative, i.e., dialectical, relationship to one another. In the realm of the “unchanging forms”, however, “essential opposites will never… admit of generation into or out of one another”.[iii] Truth, ultimately, is in the realm of the Forms, where “purity, eternity, immortality, and unchangeableness” reign.[iv] Hence, although attempting to provide a synthesis of Parmenides’ and Heraclitus’ philosophy of permanence and change, the philosophy of purity and fixation found in Parmenides dominates Plato’s conception of the realm of the really real, that is, the realm of Forms or Idea.
Aristotle, a student of Plato, would move a step further away from the Heraclitan philosophy of flux. In Aristotle we have a metaphysical system which considers the law of non-contradiction the most primary principle – “the same attribute cannot at the same time belong and not belong to the same subject and in the same respect”.[v] In addition, in Aristotle we have the development of the west's first logical system, an impressive feat, but nonetheless composed of abstract fixated categories completely indifferent to content. The fixation found in the logic would mirror the fixation and purity with which the eidos (essence) of things would be treated. Forms, although not existing in a separate realm as in Plato, nonetheless exist with the same rigidity. The thinking of essences, that is, the thinking of what makes a species, a type of thing, the type of thing it is, would remain in the realm of science within this fixated Aristotelian framework. Although the 16th century’s scientific revolution begins to tear away the Aristotelianism which dominated the prevalent scholastic philosophy, only with the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species would Aristotelian essentialism be dealt its decisive blow. This essentialism, undeniably, is an inheritance of the Parmenidean philosophy of permanence.
The philosophy of Plato, in the form of Neo-Platonists like Plotinus, would be incredibly influential in the formation of Christian thought – especially in Augustine of Hippo. Christianity would remain with a Platonic philosophical foundation up until the 12th-13th century’s rediscovery of Aristotle and the synthetization of his philosophy with Christian doctrine via Thomas Aquinas. Centuries later the protestant reformation’s rejection of Aristotelianism would mark the return of Plato to the Christian scene. All in all, the Christianity which Manoel and Losurdo see as the root of the fetishization of purity in every moment of its unfolding presupposes Greek philosophy. It is fair, then, to go beyond Christianity and ask the critical question – “what is presupposed here”? : what we find is that in every instance, whether mediated through Plato or Aristotle, there is a Parmenidean epistemic and ontological fixation which posits the eternal and unchanging as synonymous with truth, and the perishable and corporeal as synonymous with false.
Hegel Contra Parmenides
The spirit of the Heraclitan dialectic will be rekindled by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who argued philosophy came to finally see “land” with Heraclitus. In his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Hegel says that “there is no proposition of Heraclitus which I have not adopted in my Logic”[vi]. It is in Heraclitus, Hegel argues, where we “see the perfection of knowledge so far as it has gone”; for, Heraclitus “understands the absolute as just this process of the dialectic”.[vii] Heraclitus’ dialectics understood, as Hegel notes, that “truth only is as the unity of distinct opposites and, indeed, of the pure opposition of being and non-being”.[viii] This unity of pure being and non-being is the starting point for Hegel’s Science of Logic. Here, he argues:
[Pure] being, the indeterminate immediate, is in fact nothing, and neither more nor less than nothing… Pure being and nothing are, therefore, the same. What is truth is neither being nor nothing, but that being – does not pass over but has passed over – into nothing, and nothing into being.[ix]
Insofar as being exists in a condition of purity, it is indistinguishable from nothingness. Being must take the risk of facing and tarrying with its opposite in order to be. Being only takes place within the impurity present in the oscillation and mediation from being and nothing, that is, being only takes place when sublated into becoming qua determinate being, as “coming-to-be and ceasing-to-be”.[x] This is why, in his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel understands that “Substance is being which is in truth Subject”.[xi] Substance, whose purity holds the crowning jewel of Truth for western philosophy, can be only insofar as it is “self-othering” itself.[xii] Like Spirit, Substance, must look the “negative in the face, and tarry with it”.[xiii] Only insofar as something can self-otherize itself, which is to say, only insofar as a thing can immanently provide a negation for itself and desecrate its purity by wrestling with the impure, can conditions for the possibility of it actually being arise. Hence, the “truth of being” is “characterized as Becoming”; truth is won “only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself”.[xiv] Purity, the “[shrinking] from death [to] keep itself untouched by devastation”, is lifeless.[xv] Jay cannot be with Daisy insofar as he wishes to retain the relationship in purity. Western Marxists will never build socialism, or find a socialism to support, insofar as they expect socialism to arise in the pure forms in which it exists in their heads.
The Paradox of Western Marxists
Having shifted our focus from Christianity to the purity fixated epistemology-ontology of western philosophy, we can now see the fundamental paradox in Western Marxism: on the one hand, in hopes of differentiating themselves from the ‘positivistic’ and ‘mechanistic’ Marxism that arose in the Soviet Union it seeks to return to Hegel in their fight against ‘orthodox dogma’; on the other hand, although producing remarkable works on Hegel and dialectics, Western Marxist’s interpretive lens for looking at the world remains with a Parmenidean rigidity and Aristotelian form of binary thinking. Western Marxists, although claiming to be the ones who rekindle the spirit of Hegel into Marxism, are the least bit dialectical when it comes to analysis of the concrete world.
They are unable to understand, as Hegel did, the necessary role apparent ‘failures’ play as a moment in the unfolding of truth. For Hegel, that which is seen as ‘false’ is part of “the process of distinguishing in general” and constitutes an “essential moment” of Truth.[xvi] The bud (one of Hegel’s favorite examples which consistently reappears in his work) is not proven ‘false’ when the blossom arises. Instead, Hegel notes, each sustains a “mutual necessity” as “moments of an organic unity”.[xvii] Socialism is not ‘betrayed’ when it, encountering the external and internal pressures of imperialism and a national bourgeois class, is forced to take more so-called ‘authoritarian’ positions to protect the revolution. Socialism is not ‘betrayed’ or transformed into ‘state capitalism’ (in the derogatory, non-Leninist sense) when faced with a backwards economy it takes the risk of tarrying with its opposite and engages a process of opening up to foreign capital to develop its productive forces.
The ‘authoritarian’ moment, or the moment of ‘opening up to foreign capital’, are not the absolute negation[xviii]of socialism – as western Marxists would have you believe – but the partial negation, that is, the sublation of the idealistic conceptions of a socialist purity. These two moments present themselves where they appear as the historically necessary negations needed to develop socialism. A less ‘authoritarian’ treatment of the Batista goons after the Cuban revolution would have opened the window for imperialism and national counter-revolutionary forces to overthrow the popular revolution. A China which would not have taken the frightening risk of opening up would not have been able to lift 800 million out of poverty (eradicating extreme poverty) and be the beacon of socialist construction and anti-imperialist resistance in the world today.
Hegel understood that every leap towards a qualitatively new stage required a long process, consisting of various moments of ‘failures’ and ‘successes’, for this new stage to mature into its new shape. Using for Spirit the metaphor of a child he says,
But just as the first breath drawn by a child after its long, quiet nourishment breaks the gradualness of merely quantitative growth-there is a qualitative leap, and the child is born-so likewise the Spirit in its formation matures slowly and quietly into its new shape, dissolving bit by bit the structure of its previous world, whose tottering state is only hinted at by isolated symptoms.[xix]
Western Marxists ignore the necessity of the process. They expect socialism, as a qualitatively new stage of human history, to exist immediately in the pure form they conceived of in their minds. They expect a child to act like a grown up and find themselves angered when the child is unable to recite Shakespeare and solve algebraic equations. They forget to contextualize whatever deficiencies they might observe within the embryonic stage the global movement towards socialism is in. They forget the world is still dominated by capitalist imperialism and expect the pockets of socialist resistance to be purely cleansed from the corrupting influence of the old world. They forget, as Marx noted in his Critique of the Gotha Program, that socialist society exists “as it emerges from capitalist society which is thus in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges”.[xx]
Where is Hegel, in concrete analysis, for these Western Marxists? The answer is simple, he is dead. But Hegel does not die without a revenge, they too are dead in the eyes of Hegel. Their anti-dialectical lens of interpreting the material world in general, and the struggle for socialism in specific, leaves them in the lifeless position Hegel called Dogmatism. For Hegel,
Dogmatism as a way of thinking, whether in ordinary knowing or in the study of philosophy, is nothing else but the opinion that the True consists in a proposition which is a fixed result, or which is immediately known.[xxi]
Western Marxist dogmatist fetishize binaries, the immediate (either intuitive or empirical), and the pure. To them, something is either socialism (if it is pure) or not-socialism (if it is impure). They cannot grapple, in practice at least, with the concept of becoming, that is, with the reality of the construction of socialism. Socialism must be constructed, it is an active enterprise emersed necessarily in a world riddled by imperialist pressures, contradictions, and violence – both active and passive. Western Marxist will write splendid critiques of positivism’s fetish of the ‘fact’, but in their own practical analysis of socialist construction in the world they too castrate facts from the factors that allowed them to exist.
Hence Žižek, the most prominent Hegelian Marxist today, couches his anti-dialectical bourgeois critiques of socialism in Cuba (as well as China and pretty much every other socialist experiment) within a reified analysis that strips the Cuban reality from its context. It ignores the historical pressures of being a small island 90 miles away from the world’s largest empire; an empire which has spent the last 60+ years using a plethora of techniques – from internationally condemned blockades, to chemical attacks, terrorist fundings, and 600+ CIA led attempts on Fidel’s life – to overthrow the Cuban revolution. Only in ignoring this context and how it emerges can Žižek come to the purist and anti-dialectical conclusion that the revolution failed and that the daily life of Cubans is reducible to “inertia, misery, escapism in drugs, in sex, [and] pleasures”.
The Panacea to the Fetishes of Western Marxism
In sum, expanding upon the analysis of comrade Manoel, it can be seen that the purity fetish, and the subsequent infatuation with failed experiments and struggles which, although never achieving the conquest of power, stayed ‘pure’, can be traced back to a Parmenidean conception of Truth as Unchanging Permanence which has permeated, in different forms, all throughout the various moments of western philosophy’s history.
This interpretive phenomenon may be referred to as an intellectual rot because; 1) at some point, it might have been a fresh fruit, a genuine truth in a particular moment; 2) like all fruits which are not consumed, they outlive their moment of ripeness and rot. Hence, the various forms the Parmenidean conception of Truth took throughout the various moments it permeated might have been justified for those moments, but today, after achieving a proper scientific understanding of the dialectical movement in nature, species, human social formation and thought, Parmenidean purity has been overthrown – it has spoiled, and this death fertilizes the soil for dialectical self-consciousness.
Although all theorists are still class subjects, bound to the material and ideological conditioning of their class and geographical standpoint (in relation to imperialism specifically) – the panacea for Western Marxists’ purity fetish is dialectics. Dialectics must not be limited simply to the theoretical realm in which they engage with it. If it stays in this pure realm, it will suffer the same fate socialism has for them – nothingness, absolute negation. Dialectical logic must be brought beyond the textbook and used as the interpretive framework with which we analyze the world in general, and the construction of socialism in specific. Only then will Western Marxism gain the possibility of being something more than a ‘radical’ niche of Western academia, focused only on aesthetics and other trivialities where purity can be sustained without risk of desecration.
[i] Wheelwright, Phillip. The Presocratics. (The Odyssey Press, 1975). pp. 70.
[ii] Ibid., pp. 97.
[iii] Plato. “Phaedo” in The Harvard Classics. (P.F. Collier & Son Corporation, 1937). pp. 70, 90.
[iv] Ibid., pp. 71.
[v] Aristotle. “Metaphysics” In The Basic Works of Aristotle. (The Modern Library, 2001)., pp. 736.
[vi] Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Lectures on the History of Philosophy Vol I. (K. Paul, Trench, Trübner, & Company, 1892)., pp. 278.
[vii] Ibid., pp. 282, 278.
[viii] Ibid., pp. 282.
[ix] Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Science of Logic. § 132-134.
[x] Ibid., § 187
[xi] Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Phenomenology of Spirit. (Oxford University Press, 1977)., pp. 10.
[xiii] pp. 19.
[xiv] Hegel’s Lectures pp. 283 and Phenomenology pp. 19.
[xv] Phenomenology., pp. 19.
[xvi] Ibid., pp. 23.
[xvii] Ibid., pp. 2.
[xviii] In Hegel's jargon, 'absolute negation/negativity' refers to the second negation, i.e., the negation of the negation. This is not how I am using it here. Instead, what I intend to mean by 'absolute negation' here is simply the complete annihilation of the original conception, as opposed to the process of aufhebung, where the cancelation is partial and a part of the old conception is sustained or elevated into the new one in a higher 'level'.
[xix] Phenomenology., pp.6.
[xx] Marx, Karl. “Critique of the Gotha Program” In Robert C. Tucker’s The Marx-Engels Reader. (W.W. Norton and Company, 1978)., pp. 529.
[xxi] Phenomenology., pp. 23.
Carlos L. Garrido is a Cuban American graduate student and assistant in philosophy at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. His research focuses include Marxism, Hegel, and early 19th century American socialism. His academic work has appeared in Critical Sociology, The Journal of American Socialist Studies, and Peace, Land, and Bread. Along with various editors from The Journal of American Socialist Studies, Carlos is currently working on a serial anthology of American socialism. His popular theoretical and political work has appeared in Monthly Review Online, CovertAction Magazine, The International Magazine, The Marx-Engels Institute of Peru, Countercurrents, Janata Weekly, Hampton Institute, and in Midwestern Marx, which he co-founded and where he serves as an editorial board member. As a political analyst with a focus on Latin America (esp. Cuba) he has been interviewed by Russia Today and has appeared in dozens of radio interviews in the US and around the world.
In the Manifesto of the Communist Party the authors raised a list of 10 immediate objectives, the very first of which read’s:
‘1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.’
So the communists aimed to get rid of landed property, but what did they propose to replace it with?
They wanted land nationalisation. The state would own all land and insofar as land was cultivated by entities that were not state farms, these would pay rent to the state for its use.
Marx was quite adamant that it was not in the interest of the working class to allow land to pass into the ownership of rural associations. In his article The Nationalisation of Land [The International Herald No. 11, June 15, 1872;] he wrote:
To nationalise the land, in order to let it out in small plots to individuals or working men's societies, would, under a middle-class government, only engender a reckless competition among themselves and thus result in a progressive increase of "Rent" which, in its turn, would afford new facilities to the appropriators of feeding upon the producers.
"Small private property in land is doomed by the verdict of science, large land property by that of justice. There remains then but one alternative. The soil must become the property of rural associations or the property of the whole nation. The future will decide that question."
I say on the contrary; the social movement will lead to this decision that the land can but be owned by the nation itself. To give up the soil to the hands of associated rural labourers, would be to surrender society to one exclusive class of producers
Marx in this article argued against a system of small peasant proprietorship, arguing that the experience of France indicated that it led to the gradual subdivision of land into smaller and smaller family plots and that these small farms could not sustain the large scale mechanised agriculture needed to adequately feed a large working class.
Why did Marx demand the allocation of rent to public purposes as part of the Nationalisation of land. Lenin explains this :
Nationalisation of the land under capitalist relations is neither more nor less than the transfer of rent to the state. What is rent in capitalist society? It is not income from the land in general. It is that part of surplus value which re— mains after average profit on capital is deducted. Hence, rent presupposes wage-labour in agriculture, the transformation of the cultivator into a capitalist farmer, into an entrepreneur. Nationalisation (in its pure form) assumes that the state receives rent from the agricultural entrepreneur who pays wages to wage-workers and receives average profit on his capital—average for all enterprises, agricultural and non-agricultural, in the given country or group of countries.
The aim therefore is to ensure that the portion of surplus, that must under relations of commodity production take the form of rent, is centrally appropriated and used for the development of the nation as a whole.
The effectiveness of this policy is clearly born out by the comparative histories of China and India after independence. In China land was nationalised. The private appropriation of rent by a parasitic landlord class came to an end. In India that class survived, and continued to appropriate a large part of the surplus product. Without the drain imposed by landlords, China was able to develop rapidly, raise life expectancy and become the largest economy in the world.
China/India GDP per capita current US$ , (World Bank)
In addition to agricultural rent, capitalist society generates rent for minerals and urban land. The owners of land under which oil lies are able to extort a huge rent revenue. This revenue arises from the difference between the labour time necessary to produce oil on the most marginal reserves - those that for example require extensive fracking or those offshore in deep water - and the labour time necessary to produce oil on easily exploited reserves like those in Saudi Arabia.
Similarly for urban land the rental that can be obtained relates to the differential labour costs of getting to work. A house 20 miles from the main employment center will command less rent than the same sized house 10 miles away. Workers must give up time and money to travel to work. Any saving they can make by living closer to work tends to end up in the hands of landlords who can charge more for a house close in to a great metropolis.
It is evident, if the two houses are the same size and quality, that the premium in the second case is due to the land on which the house rests.
Owner occupiers do not escape this. The price of property in a capitalist market is set by the price landlords are willing to bid to buy houses and flats as rental investment. A landlord will be willing to buy a house if the expected rent revenue is less than the interest he would pay on a bank loan used to purchase it.
As cities expand, areas which were once marginal suburbs become embedded within the metropolis. Houses in them which originally commanded low rents are now let for high rents. This reacts back on property prices as illustrated from the following figure from my book How The World Works
So landowners not only gain from increased rent, but make additional profits from the appreciation of property prices. Such speculative unearned income becomes a major driving force for the upper classes.
I understand that slogans about ‘land back’ have started to be advanced in the USA, with the reference ‘back’ referring to the descendants of the indigenous or aboriginal peoples of the United States.
Consider some possible interpretations of this.
These are the typical scenarios that would play out in the USA. In all of which the effect is to transform the indigenous group into collective exploiters of one or more sections of the rest of the population.
That is because the mass of the direct producers in the USA are not from the indigenous population. Under these circumstances where they to acquire ownership of all land they would inevitably become and exploiting minority.
The situation is quite different in some Southern American countries where a class of landowners of European descent has historically exploited a peasantry of indigenous descent. In that case the indigenous comprise the majority of the direct producers and the transfer of private land to regional governments elected mainly by the indigenous farmers would correspond to the programme of land Nationalisation advocated by Marx.
Paul Cockshott is an economist and computer scientist. His best known books on economics are Towards a New Socialism, and How The World Works. In computing he has worked on cellular automata machines, database machines, video encoding and 3D TV. In economics he works on Marxist value theory and the theory of socialist economy.
The Illusion and Reality of Siddhattha Gotama, the Buddha, A Marxist View of the Buddha. By: Thomas RigginsRead Now
Karen Armstrong’s Buddha, published as a Penguin paperback is not only a bestseller but has been praised as "invaluable." Armstrong is well known as a popular writer on religious history and this book is one of many she has written for a lay audience. All of her books are well written and enjoyable to read but not always historically reliable. This is, unfortunately, the case with her book on the Buddha. I am afraid that people going away after a reading of this admittedly enjoyable book will have no real understanding of either the Buddha or his religion.
The problem is that she has somewhat indiscriminately mixed up primary and secondary sources as well as credited and discredited theories about religion in general and Buddhism in particular. As an example she gives equal weight to both forms of Buddhism – i.e., the original, or at least the older, Theravada tradition (Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia) based on the Pali texts, [her book is, however, based mostly on the Pali texts] and the much later Mahayana tradition that developed in North India (written in Sanskrit rather than Pali) and spread to China, Korea, Tibet, Vietnam and Japan. This second tradition, influenced by contact with Persia and incorporating Zoroastrian elements, and seeing the Buddha as "an object of worship" is very different from the original teachings of Gotama who was himself inclined towards atheism and was more this worldly than other worldly.
Armstrong is well aware of the difficulties of writing a "biography" of the Buddha. The man Gotama died in the 5th century B.C. and all we know about him has been mixed up with legends and later traditions to such a degree that what we say concerning him "cannot satisfy the standards of modern scientific history." We have a similar problem with the life of Yeshua ben Yosef, the first century Jewish preacher who became “the Christ.” The Buddha that emerges in her book is, as she says, an "archetypal figure" that she has more or less constructed out of the Pali canon which is the earliest and most reliable source available on the life and teachings of the Buddha.
There are two annoying features of her interpretation that will not go down too well with Marxists. First she uses, as a framework for comparisons, the discredited notion of the "Axial Age" put forth by the German existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers. This is the notion that from around 800 to 200 B.C. the ancient world from Europe, thru Iran and India to China created the "ethos" that "has continued to nourish men and women to the present day." This fantastical "Axial Age" only works by selectively including and excluding, as well as misinterpreting the functions of the individuals who are supposedly the most important thinkers of this period.
She includes Socrates and Plato (but not Aristotle) as well as "the sixth-century Iranian sage Zoroaster." Zoroaster’s dates are notoriously difficult to determine, but the modern consensus places him four or five hundred years earlier than the sixth-century – this messes up the "Axial Age" because Iran drops out of the picture. It should also be noted that Confucius was a thoroughly secular teacher and was not involved in reforming "the religious traditions of China." "People," she writes, "who participated in this great transformation were convinced that they were on the brink of a new era and that nothing would ever be the same again." A period that lasted 600 hundred years can hardly be called a "brink", nor, not having read Jaspers, would people from Europe to China even be aware of a "great transformation" taking place, especially since it was artificially constructed only recently.
Second, she refers to the economic system in Buddha’s day as a "market economy." This is very confusing terminology with relation to the mode of production in ancient India. The ancient economy was based on the exploitation of village agriculturalists in a semi-feudal system that had recently developed in Buddha’s day (in northeast India where he lived) when state structures had evolved out of tribal systems into kingdoms and then empires. There was a large merchant class, as in Rome, but it is a stretch to say the cities and empires were "dominated by a market economy." Ancient India was not a capitalist state.
Buddha, as we know, saw life as a big drag – suffering, etc., and his new religion was based on the Four Noble Truths (all is suffering, suffering has a cause, suffering can be overcome, the sacred eightfold path is the way to do it.) To escape suffering you needed to follow Buddha’s new rules of life. He founded an order of monks who could follow his path and attain enlightenment and escape from rebirth, and thus another round of suffering, to "nirvana" – a state of being or nonbeing never really spelled out.
Armstrong gives an interesting account of all the trials and tribulations of the Buddha and the founding of his Order – but her explanations are almost exclusively in terms of inner struggles and spiritual development. This is all very well and good but will not satisfy Marxists who want to understand the rise of Buddhism in terms of class struggle and other Marxist categories. None of this is in Armstrong’s book. So Marxists will not get much out of her book. She lacks the necessary jaundiced eye when looking at religion which Marxists regard as an "illusion" and, as Marx said, brings the people only an "illusory happiness."
The question for Marxists is – what were the social and economic conditions prevailing in Buddha’s time that allowed his religion to survive and prosper? The answer to this question is to be found in the works of the great Bengali Marxist philosopher Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya. The short answer is that in Buddha’s time the old democratic tribal associations were being replaced by newly emergent military states. The tribes had been governed by councils who appointed the leaders by democratic methods. Buddha came from such a tribe, the Sakyas. He witnessed the destruction of these tribal organizations by the new states and the consequent enslavement and murder of the tribal peoples: the source of the suffering world.
In his Order he recreated the primitive democracy and interpersonal solidarity of the tribal ethos and thus presented, on a spiritual level, the illusion of freedom and meaning to life that had actually been lost in the real world.
This is the real story behind the rise and development of Buddhism but you won’t find it in Armstrong’s book.
Karen Armstrong, Buddha, Penguin, New York, 2004
Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, Indian Philosophy: A Popular Introduction People’s Publishing House, Delhi, 1964
Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, Lokayata: A Study in Ancient Indian Materialism, People’s Publishing House, New Delhi, 1959 (7th ed. 1992)
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.
In this time he travelled to Mexico (his second choice after Cuba), learned Spanish, lived and learned among the urban and rural poor, radicalising him further and altering his perspective on the nature of capitalist imperialism in the global south and the struggles of human liberation. Writing on his experience he said “I have seen in four days more poverty, deprivation and practical deformatity of the human condition than thought possible. The villagers of the Western coast are not indolent or inferior, but have been simply defiled to the point of becoming pitiful robots, mechanised to their expecting duties and roles.”
Robinson would eventually complete his degree and go on to complete an MA in Political Science and a PhD in Political Theory, challenging the basic concepts of the entire discipline so much so that some members of his PhD panel resigned. Later on in his career, Robinson became the director of the Center for Black Studies Research and joined the Political Science Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). He went on to create a life-long association with anti-racist organisations such as the London based Institute of Race Relations, writing for its journal Race and Class, and working with A. Sivanandan, Colin Prescod, Hazel Waters, Paul Gilroy, and C. L. R. James among others (Robin Kelley, 2016).
Always, however, Robinson’s focus was on the possibilities of human action and its ability to affect change so as to create alternatives to the ongoing oppressive social forces of racism, capitalism, imperialism and colonialism. Despite Robinson being closely associated with the concept and framework of Racial Capitalism, he only spent one chapter on this in his most famous book, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (although he investigated its structure and historiography in other works).
More profoundly, Robinson was interested in the practices of existence and liberation that existed outside the theorisations and imaginaries of European intellectual and political traditions (including in this attack Liberalism, Marxism, and Anarchism). Traditions and frameworks that he described as maintaining an “insistence [which] stemmed largely from their uncritical application and the unquestioned presumption that regardless of their historical origins they were universal” (Black Marxism, 1983, p. 167).
His first book, The Terms of Order: Political Science and the Myth of Leadership (1980), was an extension of his PhD thesis, Leadership: A Mythic Paradigm. It is described by Robin Kelley as having “demolished the Western presumption that mass movements reflect social order and are maintained and rationalised by the authority of leadership. Critiquing both liberal and Marxist theories of political change, Robinson argued that leadership and political order are essentially fictions … [Concluding] that it is not enough to reshape or reformulate Marxism to fit the needs of Third World revolution, but that we must reject all universalist theories of political and social order” (Amarigilio et al, 2019, pp. 158-159). In other words, Robinson recognised that the total configuration of human experience required other forms of existence, resistance and therefore other forms of analysis and knowledge so as to comprehend their meaning and continuing importance for social and political liberation.
This was the ultimate intention of Black Marxism (1983) which is too often read as simply a critique of Marxism from a Black Radical perspective. Black Marxism’s deeper meaning worked to illuminate not only the existence of a Black Radical Tradition, both socially among mass movements and intellectually in its academic ideologues (such as W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, Richard Wright, Angela Davis, Walter Rodney, Aime Cesaire), but the existence of a system of ideas, of knowledge, of culture, of resistance which emerged independently and organically of European society.
Stating “The social cauldron of Black radicalism is Western society. Western society, however, has been its location and its objective condition but not-except in a most perverse fashion-its specific inspiration. Black radicalism is a negation of Western civilisation, but not in the direct sense of a simple dialectical negation … Black radicalism, consequently, cannot be understood within the particular context of its genesis. It is not a variant of Western radicalism whose proponents happen to be Black. Rather, it is a specifically African response to an oppression emergent from the immediate determinants of European development in the modern era and framed by orders of human exploitation woven into the interstices of European social life from the inception of Western civilisation” (Black Marxism, 1983, pp. 72-73).
Despite criticisms of being Black-centric or essentialist, Robinson’s view of the ability of the masses of people to not only envision worlds beyond the material conditions of oppression but to actively make those worlds a reality extended to other traditions such as European Socialism. A tradition he saw as related to, but not dependent upon, the development of Marxism as an intellectual, ideological or political movement in 19th century Europe. In his 2001 book, An Anthropology of Marxism, Robinson criticises Marx and Engels for not including radical previous iterations of the Socialist tradition within Europe, which drew upon theological and ideological systems more so than material conditions, to overturn the oppressive structures of property and poverty.
Associating the impulse of the masses of people to create societies not dependent upon the exclusive structures of property and wealth not with a single European political tradition, but rather concluding “Western socialism had older and different roots. It radiated from the desperation, anguish and rage of the rural poor of the medieval era, assuming expressions as diverse as the politically secular, the mystical and the heretical. … Both in the West and the world beyond, the socialist impulse will survive Marxism’s conceits … The warrant for such an assertion, I have argued, is located in history and the persistence of the human spirit. As the past and our present demonstrate, domination and oppression inspire that spirit in ways we may never-fully understand. That a socialist discourse is an irrepressible response to social injustice has been repeatedly confirmed. On that score it has been immaterial whether it was generated by peasants or slaves, workers or intellectuals, or whether it took root in the metropole or the periphery” (An Anthropology of Marxism, 2001, p. 156-157).
Cedric Robinson’s work emerged out of his role as a life-long political organiser and he sought to expose to us the traditions of thought, of resistance and the alternatives of liberation which have been so long omitted, denied or obscured by the dominating frameworks of Eurocentric epistemologies and political theories. With a mind toward the destruction of a world-system dependent upon the brutal subjugations of human beings by racism, capitalism and imperialism, Robinson repeatedly reminds us that intellectual and theoretical work must be grounded in the ongoing resistance of the masses of people to oppression and the other configurations that human beings exist and resist through.
The last words of Black Marxism are some of his most relevant and prescient “It is not the province of one people to be the solution or the problem. But a civilisation maddened by its own perverse assumptions and contradictions is loose in the world. A Black radical tradition formed in opposition to that civilisation and conscious of itself is one part of the solution. Whether the other oppositions generated from within Western society and without will mature remains problematical. But for now we must be as one.” (Black Marxism, 1983, p. 318).
Robinson, C. (1980 ) The Terms of Order: Political Science and the Myth of Leadership, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press.
Robinson, C. (1983 ) Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, London: Penguin.
Robinson, C. (2001 ) An Anthropology of Marxism, London: Pluto Press.
Kelley, R. (2021) Why Black Marxism Why Now? Boston Review
Kelley, R. (2019) Solidarity is not a market exchange: An RM Interview with Robin D. G. Kelley, Part 2
Kelley, R. (2016) Cedric J. Robinson: the Making of a Black Radical Intellectual
Makalani, M. (2021). Cedric Robinson and the Origins of Race Boston Review
Myers, J. (2021) Cedric Robinson: Black Radicalism Beyond the Order of Time, Oxford: Polity Press [Forthcoming]
Robinson, C. (2007) Forgeries of Memory and Meaning: Blacks and the Regimes of Race in American Theater and Film before World War II, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press.
Robinson, C. Quan, H.L.T. (2019) Cedric J. Robinson: On Racial Capitalism, Black Internationalism, and Cultures of Resistance, London: Pluto Press.
What is the “Black Radical Tradition” and what is its nature?
What other traditions could exist as oppositions “from within … and without” to Western civilisation?
How does Robinson understand eurocentrism at its “epistemological substratum”?
How does Robinson understand the relationship between politics, knowledge and “the masses”?
What are the implications for Marxism, if a “Socialist impulse” exists independently of it?
What does it mean to say that “the total configuration of human experience required other forms” in relation to both the Black Radical Tradition, and other radical traditions?
This article was produced by Global Social Theory.