Image credit: Left Voice.
The history of Marxism has a parallel history of counter-Marxism — intellectual currents that posture as the true Marxism.
Even before Marxism came into being as a coherent ideology, Marx and Engels devoted an often-neglected section of their 1848 Communist Manifesto to debunking the existing contenders for true socialism.
As the workers’ movement painfully sought a system of beliefs to animate its response to capitalism, the ideas of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels gradually won over workers, peasants, and the oppressed. It was not an easy victory. Liberalism — the dominant ideology of the capitalist class — served workers and peasants in their fight against absolutist tyranny.
With capitalism and liberal institutions firmly established, anarchism — the ideology of the disgruntled petty-bourgeois — rivalled Marxism for the leadership of the workers’ movement. Contradictorily, embracing extreme individualism and Utopian democracy distilled from capitalism, yet voicing a bitter hatred of capitalist institutions and economic arrangements, the anarchists failed to offer a viable escape from the crushing weight of capitalism.
Once Bolshevism seized power in 1917, the workers’ movement found an example of real-existing-socialism led by real-avowed-Marxists, a powerful beacon for the way forward in the struggle against capitalism. The victory of the Russian Revolution established Marxism as the most promising road for an exploited majority, with Leninism the only successful ideology for revolutionary change and socialism. To this day, Leninism has remained the only proven guide to socialism.
Immediately after the revolution, rival “Marxisms” sprang up.
The failure of subsequent European revolutions outside of Russia, especially Germany, sheared away numerous intellectuals, like Karl Korsch and György Lukács,who imagined a different, supposedly better, path to proletarian revolution. Buoyed by material support from benefactors, university appointments, and the many eager sponsors of class betrayal, critics and detractors of Leninism abounded.
Especially in the West — North America and Europe– where the working class was significant and growing dramatically, dissidence, class betrayal, and opportunism proved disruptive forces in the world Communist movement, forces that capitalist rulers were eager to support. Young people, inexperienced workers, aspiring intellectuals, and the déclassé, were especially vulnerable to the appeal of independence, purity, idealism, and liberal values. Money, career opportunities, and celebrity were readily available to those who were willing to sell these ideas.
Indeed, not every critic of Marxism-Leninism — revolutionary Communism — was or is insincere or without merit, but honesty demands recognition that no real advocate for overthrowing capitalism could achieve prominence, celebrity, or a mainstream soap box in the capitalist West. He or she could be a curiosity or a token for the sake of appearances — a stooge.
Conversely, any intellectual or political figure who does achieve wide-spread prominence or influence cannot represent a serious, existential challenge to capitalism when the road to prominence and influence is patrolled by the guardians of capitalism.
Nonetheless, the workers’ movement has been plagued by divisive ideological trends or fads spawned by independent voices who, wittingly or not, are exploited by and render service to the capitalist class.
In the West, it is almost impossible to be a young radical and not be tempted by a veritable ideological marketplace of putative anti-capitalist or socialist theories, vying with one another for allegiance. Since the demise of unvarnished, real-existing socialism in the Soviet Union and the disorientation of many Communist and Workers’ parties, the competition of ideas has created even more confusion.
Clearly, the working-class movement, the revolutionary socialist movement, needs guidance to avoid distractions, bogus theories, and corrupted ideas. The march of political neophytes through the arcade of specious, fantastic ideas is a great tragedy, especially regarding those ideas posing as Marxist.
Happily, a new generation of Marxist thinkers are challenging the allure of Marxist pretenders, more specifically, those associated with what has come to be called “Western Marxism.” A sympathetic Wikipedia article offers about as accurate a definition of the words as one might want: “The term denotes a loose collection of theorists who advanced an interpretation of Marxism distinct from both classical and Orthodox Marxism and the Marxism-Leninism of the Soviet Union.” It couldn’t be made clearer: Western Marxism is anything but the Marxism-Leninism that has buttressed worker-engaged revolutionary parties since the time of the Bolshevik revolution!
Marxist historian and journalist, Vijay Prashad, gave a seminar at the Marx Memorial Library on November 21, 2022, in which he excoriated the Western Marxism of the 1980s:
"There was a sustained attack on Marxism in this period, led by New Left Books, now Verso Books, in London, which published Hegemony and Socialist Strategy by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe in 1985. The book mischievously utilised the work of Antonio Gramsci to make an attack at Marxism, to in fact champion something they called “post-Marxism.” Post-structuralism, post-Marxism, post-colonialism: this became the flavour of academic literature coming out of Western countries from the 1980s… Particularly after the collapse of the Soviet Union there was a great weakness in our ability to fight back against this denigration of Marxism in the name of post-Marxism… When they [Laclau and Mouffe] talk about “agency” and “the subject” and so on, they have basically walked away from the structuring impact of political economy and returned to a pre-Marxist time; they have in fact not gone beyond Marxism but back to a time before Marxism." (“Viewing Decolonization through a Marxist Lens,” published in Communist Review, Winter 2022/2023)
Prashad places the influential works of Hardt and Negri and Deleuze and Guattari in the same post-Marxist mix.
He regrets the multiculturalism turn because it ”basically took the guts out of the anticolonial, anti-racist critique, at the global level you had the arrival of ‘postcolonial’ thought, and also ‘decoloniality’ — in other words, let’s look at power, let’s look at culture, but let’s not look at the political economy that structures everyday life and behavior and reproduces the colonial mentality; that has to be off the table… So, we entered into a kind of academic morass, where Marxism was not, in a sense, permitted to enter.”
Prashad might well have added the intrusion of rational-choice theory into Marxism in the 1980s, an uninvited analysis of Marxist theory through the lens of methodological individualism and liberal egalitarianism. One leading exponent of what came to be called “analytical Marxism” eviscerated the robust Marxist concept of exploitation by proving that if we have inequality as an initial condition, we will quite logically reproduce inequality– a trivial derivation with little relevance to understanding the historically evolved concept of labor exploitation..
Prashad might have noted the continuing influence of postmodern relativism upon Marxist theory in the 1980s and beyond, a denigration of any claim that Marxism is the science of society. For the postmodernist, Marxism can only be, at best, one of several competing interpretations of society, coherent within Marxist circles, but forbidden from making any greater claim for universality. Moreover, the postmodernist denies that there can ever be any valid overarching theory of capitalism, any “metanarrative” that plots a socio-economic system’s trajectory. While its flaws can not be addressed here, the late Marxist historian Ellen Meiksins Wood exposed the academic trend with great clarity.
Another excellent, contemporary critique of Western Marxism can be found in the writings of Marxist author Gabriel Rockhill. Rockhill skillfully and thoroughly discredits the Frankfurt School of neo-Marxism, especially its most celebrated thinkers, Hockheimer, Habermas, Adorno, and Marcuse, exposing their fealty to various sponsors. Those who paid the bills enjoyed sympathetic ideas, an outcome often found with the practitioners of Western Marxism.
Rockhill also does a scathing exposé of today’s most prominent Marxist poseur, Slavoj Žižek. I was happy to heap praise on Rockhill’s deflation of Žižek’s unmatched ego in an earlier post. Both Rockhill’s unmasking of the Frankfurt School and his destruction of the Žižek cult are essential reading in contesting Western Marxism.
Western Marxists can conveniently overlook capitalism’s history of genocidal, undemocratic, and exploitative sins while excoriating the Fidelistas for settling accounts with a few hundred Batista torturers. They deplore the sweeping changes that Soviet and Chinese Communists implemented in agriculture to overcome the frequent famines that devastated their countries when the changes unfortunately coincided with severe famines, as though great change for the better could evade natural events and tragedy anywhere but in their imagination.
They turn a blind eye to the human costs imposed on humanity by ruling elites’ resistance to great change, while denouncing revolutionaries for seeking that change and risking a better future. Western Marxism diminishes the great accomplishments of real existing socialism, while relentlessly denouncing the errors incurred in socialist construction. Garrido effectively underscores the necessary pains and errors in realizing a new world, in escaping the clutches of ruthless capitalism.
As Garrido notes:
This is the sort of ‘Marxism’ that imperialism appreciates, the type which CIA agent Thomas Braden called “the compatible left.” This is the ‘Marxism’ which functions as the vanguard of controlled counter-hegemony.
He eloquently summarizes:
Socialism for the Western Marxists is, in the words of Marx, a purely scholastic question. They are not interested in real struggle, in changing the world, but in continuously purifying an idea, one that is debated amongst other ivory-tower Marxists and which is used to measure against the real world. The label of ‘socialist’ or ‘Marxist’ is sustained merely as a counter-cultural and edgy identity which exists in the fringes of quotidian society. That is what Marxism is reduced to in the West — a personal identity.
I might add that it is also a commonplace for Western Marxists to invest heavily in other-people’s-socialism. Rather than engaging their own working classes, Western Marxists fight surrogate struggles for socialism through the solidarity movement, picking and choosing the “purest” struggles and debating the merits of various socialisms vicariously.
Garrido elaborates on socialism-as-an-investment-in-identity:
In the context of the hyper-individualist West’s treatment of socialism as a personal identity, the worst thing that may happen for these ‘socialists’ is for socialism to be achieved. That would mean the total destruction of their counter-cultural fringe identity. Their utter estrangement from the working masses of the country may in part be read as an attempt to make socialist ideas fringe enough to never convince working people, and hence, never conquer political power.
The success of socialism would entail a loss of selfhood, a destruction of the socialist-within-capitalism identity. The socialism of the West is grounded on an identity which hates the existing order but hates even more the loss of identity which transcending it would entail.
Garrido’s objectives are not completed with his masterful dissection of Western Marxism. In addition, he devotes great attention to Western Marxism’s critique of the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) in a section entitled China and the Purity Fetish of Western Marxism. Of course, he is correct to deplore Western Marxism’s unprincipled collaboration with bourgeois ideologues in attacking every policy or act of Peoples’ China since its revolution in 1949. As with the USSR, any honest, deeply considered estimation of the trajectory of the PRC must — warts and all — see it as a positive in humanity’s necessary transcendence of capitalism.
As anti-imperialists, we must defend the PRC’s right (and other countries’ rights) to choose its own course.
As Marxists, we must defend the Chinese Communist Party’s right to find its own road to socialism.
But Garrido goes further, by mounting an impassioned, but one-sided defense of Chinese socialism. As a militant advocate of the dialectical method, this is an odd departure. As esteemed Marxist R. Palme Dutt argued in the 1960s, the pregnant question for a dialectical materialist is Whither China? not: Does the PRC measure up to some pure Platonic form of socialism?
A more balanced view of the PRC road would reference the significance of the Communist Party’s overwhelmingly peasant class base in its foundation, its engagement with Chinese nationalism, and the strong voluntarist tendency in Mao Zedong Thought. It would consider the 1960s’ break with the World Communist movement and the rapprochement with the most reactionary elements in US ruling circles in the 1970s, capped by the shameful material support for US and South African surrogates in the liberation wars of Southern Africa. PRC was funding Jonas Savimbi and UNITA while Cuban internationalists were dying fighting them and their apartheid allies. Which suggests the question: Could Peoples’ China do more to help Cuba overcome the US blockade, as did the Soviet Union?
A fair account would address the PRC invasion of Vietnam in 1979 and Peoples’ China’s unwavering defense of the Khmer Rouge. Surely, all these factors play a role in assessing the PRC’s road to socialism.
These uncomfortable facts make it hard to agree with Garrido that the PRC has been “a beacon in the anti-imperialist struggle.”
Of course, today is another matter. My own view is that the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party is “riding the tiger” of a substantial capitalist sector, to use imagery reminiscent of high Maoism. How well they are riding it is in question, but they are indeed riding it. There are many promising developments, but also some that are worrisome.
In any case, the comrades who are critical or skeptical of the Chinese road should not be summarily swept into the dustbin with Western Marxism.
Garrido brings his purity fetish home when he discusses US socialist organizing. He casts a critical eye on the class character of most of the US left, rooting it in the petty-bourgeoisie and the influence of petty-bourgeois ideas. He locates the conveyor for these ideas in academia, the media, and NGOs. Additional material support for petty-bourgeois ideology comes from non-profit corporations and, of course, the Democratic Party.
The petty-bourgeois bias of the US left reinforces its hyper-critical attitude toward movements attempting to actually secure a socialist future. Wherever socialists or socialist-oriented militants tackle the enormous obstacles before them, many on the left will insist that they adhere to courteous liberal standards, an unrealistic demand guaranteeing failure. Garrido mocks the insistence on revolutionary purity: “…the problem is that those things in the real world called socialism were never actually socialism; socialism is really this beautiful idea that exists in a pure form in my head….”
The purity fetish of the middle strata extends to radicals who scorn workers as “backward” or “deplorable.” Garrido counters this purity obsession with a wonderful quote from Lenin: one “can (and must) begin to build socialism, not with abstract human material, or with human material especially prepared by us, but with the human material bequeathed to us by capitalism.”
Regarding the Trump vote and the working class, Garrido scolds the US left:
…they don’t see that what is implicit in that vote is a desire for something new, something which only the socialist movement, not Trump or any bourgeois party, could provide. Instead, they see in this chunk of the working class a bunch of racists bringing forth a ‘fascist’ threat which can only be defeated by giving up on the class struggle and tailing the Democrats. Silly as it may sound, this policy dominates the contemporary communist movement in the U.S.
While not all of the left is guilty of this failure, the charge is not far off the mark.
Finally, Garrido faults much of the US left for its blanket dismissal of progressive trends and achievements in US history. Many leftists debase heroic struggles in US history by painting a portrait of a relentless trajectory of reaction, racism, and imperialism. Garrido correctly sees this as an instantiation of a negative purity fetish– denouncing every page of US history as fatally wanting and inauthentic: “…purity fetish Marxists add on to their futility in developing subjective conditions for revolution by completely disconnecting themselves from the traditions the American masses have come to accept.”
While this is true, it must be remembered that there is always the danger that US history would be celebrated so vigorously that the country’s legacy of cruelty and bloody massacre might be muted by patriotic zeal. During the Popular Front era, for example, Communist leader Earl Browder’s slogan that “Communism is twentieth century Americanism” invested too much social justice in Americanism and too little in Communism.
US history and tradition is contradictory and Marxists should always expose that contradiction– a legacy of both great, historic social change and ugly inhumanity. The country’s origin shares a tragic settler-colonial past with countries like Australia and South Africa in its genocidal treatment of indigenous people. Those same settlers established or tolerated the brutal exploitation of Africans forced into chattel slavery. While we could lay the blame at the doorstep of the US ruling class, it is US history as well.
At the same time, the US revolution was the most radical for its time and every generation produced a consequential movement to correct the failings of the legacy or advance the horizon of social progress. An emancipating civil war, the expansion of suffrage, workers’ gains against corporations, social welfare and insurance, and a host of other milestones mark the peoples’ history.
While writing and reflecting on the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution (Echoes of the Marsellaise), Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm couldn’t help but be struck by the lesser global influence of the earlier US revolution upon nineteenth-century social change. He thought that reformers and revolutionaries of the time could recognize their point of departure “more readily in the Ancien Régime of France than in the free colonists and slave-holders of North America.” Undoubtedly, the stain of the genocide of indigenous peoples and brutal slavery influenced that disposition.
Indeed, Hobsbawn’s observation underscores the contradictory character of the US past. It is not a “purity fetish” that explains this judgment, but the cold, harsh facts of US history.
Nonetheless, it is appropriate for Garrido to remind us of the many revolutionaries — Marx, Lenin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, William Z Foster, Herbert Aptheker, Fidel, and more — who have both drawn inspiration and offered inspiration from the victories of the people as well as the fierce resistance to ruling-class oppression contained in US history. He effectively cites Communist leader Georgi Dimitrov who rejects the practice of national nihilism — the denigration of all expressions of national pride and accomplishment. Within every national identity is an identity to be celebrated in its resistance to oppression and its dedication to a better way of life. Workers must draw national humility from the failures of the past, while drawing national pride from the victories over injustice. A left that attends to only one and not both will fail the working class.
Western Marxism — Marxist scholasticism, disconnected from revolutionary practice — distracts far-too-many well-meaning, hungry-for-change potential allies on the arduous road to socialism. It is heartening to find voices rising to challenge the sterile, obscurantism of this distraction, while defending and promoting the tradition of Marxism-Leninism and Communism. We should encourage and support Marxists like Prashad, Rockhill, and Garrido in conducting this struggle.
Greg Godels writes on current events, political economy, and the Communist movement from a Marxist-Leninist perspective. Read other articles by Greg, or visit Greg's website.
This article was republished from Dissident Voice.
April 29, 2023 - Cornel West: The Limits of Neo-Pragmatism and the Quest for a Democratic Philosophy By: Anthony Monteiro & Saturday Free SchoolRead Now
We are publishing a transcript of Dr. Anthony Monteiro’s opening remarks from the Saturday Free School’s April 29, 2023 session Continuing Hegel’s Science of Logic. The Free School meets every Saturday at 10:30 AM, and is streamed live on Facebook and YouTube.
Good morning to everybody. We are going to go back to Hegel, but it’s always useful to contextualize the reading of a text like this, and to keep the text itself and our reading of it grounded in the reality that we live, including the ideological reality of this time. And so without going for too long, I just wanted to talk about the Cornel West event that we attended at the University of Pennsylvania, and there were a lot of questions that we had afterwards and perhaps we could even you know go through some of those questions again because they are very fascinating and they are philosophical and they do relate to Hegel, the Science of Logic, the whole concept of a philosophical system which I would wish to explain in a moment.
And then a little talk about unified theories, and the reason I just wanted to touch on that is because in a certain sense we in the Free School are attempting to forge a unified theory of Lenin and Du Bois, or you know the revolutionary and Marxist tradition of Europe and of the Russian Revolution, and the Black Radical Tradition which is grounded in Du Bois, but I’ll come back to that.
Just some things before we read – [I want to] talk a little bit about how we should look at this great work. Frankly, as a not yet complete work, and I think Hegel saw it that way himself – a work in progress. But let’s talk about Cornel West. Last Thursday we attended a really, I think important, lecture by Cornel West. You know, the two most important public intellectuals in the United States today are Noam Chomsky and Cornel West. And there are many, many things philosophically that they hold in common, I think. And there are differences, I also think. As you know, Noam Chomsky is more a social scientist, a cognitive scientist, a theorist of language and grammar and semiotics, et cetera. Cornel West is a philosopher, a pure philosopher. It was a very fascinating lecture. I had not seen Cornel West in a couple of years in person and I’ve only kind of kept up with him in relationship to his political commentary, in effect, as you know, his anti-Trump politics and his claim that Trump is a neo-fascist thug and so on. Which then pushes him of course towards Bernie, and I think that’s a real trap given Bernie’s recent political practice relative to Robert Kennedy’s announcement of his presidency challenging Biden from a very progressive point of view, an anti-war, anti-militarist, anti-corporatist state position.
And Biden could not hardly announce his candidacy before Bernie is endorsing him. I mean in good faith you could have waited at least. I mean, how do you just so quickly and easily jump on the Joe Biden bandwagon, and this is the most dangerous presidency in the history of the country threatening war on two continents just because Trump is an alleged fascist, so I got to go with the guy that’s pushing the world toward maybe a nuclear confrontation. Well it doesn’t make any sense, but it does make a lot of sense if you know that Bernie Sanders is a fake socialist, a fake progressive and a political opportunist of the worst type. And I don’t see any other way to put it. We cannot excuse and we cannot apologize for it.
Cornel, and this was the sad thing – although Cornel’s lecture stayed at the level of philosophy – and theology by the way – he did say in passing that Biden would be better than Trump without making the argument. I think it was some of that which left most of us, and not quite me – I’m a bit biased for reasons that I’ll try to explain – but most of the people in the Free School who were there found the lecture unfulfilling, I’ll use that language. People can use their own. That Cornel’s brilliance, you know, you get a cat with a huge brain and all of this philosophy and literature and theory packed. A guy who also has, apparently, what is a photographic memory.
So he’s a formidable thinker, really a formidable thinker with a big heart. He’s not satisfied with confining himself to his academic office or to a university. He goes into the world, engages with the world, and I should tell you, sometimes putting his own life in jeopardy. There was an instance in about 1998 at the Black Radical Convention in Chicago, and he and I happened to be there and together, and a guy stepped to Cornel in a threatening way. And I happened to step to the guy before he could, you know, accost Cornel. And I never forgot, Cornel was a bit shaken I guess you might say. And he said, you know, “I’m a Christian, but I’m not a pacifist,” you know, blasé blasé blasé. But I’m just saying that to say, I’m certain that for all kinds of reasons, a lot of people feel, because he is accessible, he is in the world, he usually travels alone. Although I kind of sense this time he had a security person with him to help him out, just in the event that somebody stepped to him. But I just say all of that to say that the man has a heart and he has a lot of heart. He’s not a punk. He’s not afraid in that regard. And even in my own case at Temple University, he was so gracious to support me and to even come to a rally that we held, and then to appear at the [Free School’s] Black Radical Tradition conference and speak.
And so I’m a little biased because of all of that. Although of course philosophically, we’re not on the same page. And just in his lecture, his determining category is the category “catastrophe.” And his narrative is, how do you live a principled life in the face of social catastrophe? And then along with that, a principled moral life in the face of so many people bending to the politics of the dominant class.
And so he is, when he speaks – and he deploys everybody from Chekhov to William James to Kierkegaard – I mean, I’m sitting there and I’m saying, “Oh, I’m hating, man. I’m never gonna be able to know all of that.” And then I’m saying, “I got to put some respect on your name.” I mean just to have achieved that, you know, is quite a bit. And to have achieved all of that knowledge and not used it for his own academic promotional reasons, as y’all know, he left Harvard in the early 2000’s I think because the then-president called Cornel, and this when Cornel was a tenured professor, a full tenured professor in fact, at Harvard. And Lawrence Summers, who was the president – he called Cornel in to his office and tried to, to say intimidate is not really the word – literally to put him in his place, literally saying, “You should be grateful that you have this position at Harvard, and you should thank us, meaning we the white establishment, every day of your life. And therefore we want you to cease this engagement with the hip-hop generation, with the younger generation and withdraw into doing polite and acceptable academic things.”
I don’t know what Cornel says but I do know that Cornel can curse. He’s from the hood, you know, Sacramento, so he knows how to curse like I curse. And he may have cursed him out and told him to kiss his behind, and then left Harvard and took a position at Princeton. I don’t know whether Richard Rorty was still around, the philosopher, or who was around but they told him, “Look man, you don’t have to put up with that, come to Princeton.” And then he went to Princeton, and then a few years, maybe ten years later, the black people in particular at Harvard said, “Larry Summers is gone and we want you back here and we will guarantee you tenure, that you will get your tenure back.”
So when he went back to Harvard, everybody said, “Oh, yeah, Cornel’s back at Harvard.” You just assumed he had tenure. But he didn’t have tenure. And I put that on the shoulders of the black professors who told him to come back, and did not do what they needed to do to guarantee tenure. Tenure would give him the protection that a person like him needs because he’s going so much against the grain on so many things.
Then it turns out, about two years ago, it comes out Cornel doesn’t have tenure. And they’re telling him, “Well, we’ll give you a year-by-year contract and don’t worry about it.” And at that point he left Harvard and took a position at Union Theological Seminary. I think that’s where he began his teaching career and that’s where he is today. But you know, with all of that he maintained his dignity and this is important. When you’re betrayed, and he had to be betrayed in that “come back to Harvard” thing. And humiliation in a certain sense, you know ‘cause a lot of people who for jealousy, envy, just don’t like you ‘cause they just don’t like you kind of thing. “You’re too large, talk too much,” all that, were on the sidelines snickering and laughing. You know how that goes, I won’t go into that.
But he handled himself with dignity, he goes back to Union Theological Seminary and hasn’t missed a beat. He continues to be Cornel West and to do what Cornel West does as an intellectual and a public intellectual and a figure that lives with integrity and creates these wide discursive spaces where people like us can both agree and disagree. You see what I’m saying, by keeping the door to discourse, and serious discourse – you know, not just some Afro-centrism kind of, you know, “We are Africans,” and all of that – but drinking from the deep wells of human knowledge wherever he can find it. And of course no one person in his brain can grasp the totality of human civilizations and knowledge, I mean, when I think about string theories and their claim of ten dimensions of space and time, you know I’m often reminded of the Bhagavad Gita, which talk about seven time dimensions. But anyway, I mean, just to wrap your head around the Bhagavad Gita and Plato’s dialogues and Martin Luther, I mean, come on. You need an army of intellectuals who live monastic lives to grasp all of that.
But Cornel, unafraid, unashamed, drinks from the wells of knowledge. And of course he could be canceled, just like, you know, “Why are you quoting Plato? He supported a slave-owning society and plus he’s a white man, and a man.” You know, that kind of cancel culture dismissal. Or his thing with Chekhov. But he doesn’t seem to be fazed by it. He continues pushing this high level of discourse, trying to make what is in the end a principled, moral, ethical argument about how to live a life that resists injustice at this time.
Now, having said all of that, Cornel West is a combination of what we call neo-pragmatism which is a unique American philosophy; pragmatism arose in the United States as a philosophical movement in the middle of the 1800s. It morphed in the 1960s and 1970s into what we call neo-pragmatism. The fundamental argument of neo-pragmatism – first of all it is American but it’s also English, it’s an English American, we call it Anglo-American philosophical move. As you know, the English philosophers going back in many ways to the beginning, we talk about George Berkeley or David Hume, John Locke – the beginning of English serious philosophy – has always staked out its differences with European rationalism. In particular what they call philosophy that attempts to build systems. In our case Kant and Hegel.
Pragmatism, and usually the founder of pragmatism is usually associated with a man named [Charles Sanders] Peirce, whose work I really don’t know, I have to be honest with you. And then further developed by Du Bois’s mentor at Harvard, William James. But what pragmatism argues is that it philosophizes from the standpoint of the ordinary human being, not from the standpoint of a supposed rational system of philosophy and of knowing.
Thus it claims to be a democratic philosophy, a philosophy that upholds, I think Cornel has used this word, plebeian democracy, the democracy of the ordinary person. Hence, they often say it is philosophy without foundations, without prior assumptions, without categories. We’ve gone a bit through this, that Kant and Hegel think through categories. For instance the categories of time and space, the category of being, the category of non-being. Each appeals, Kant and Hegel, to logic. Different logics, of course. Hegel, we know, dialectical logic. Kant, more traditional.
Each, Kant and Hegel, were trying to align philosophy with science, in particular Newton and Copernicus but Newton in particular. And to align science with philosophy, and this is why Hegel said that philosophy is a science. I think Kant would have agreed with that. Hegel said it is the science of sciences; another way of saying that – it is the scaffolding upon which the meaning of scientific experiments and the meaning of scientific discoveries can be elucidated.
This is a huge undertaking by the way, huge undertaking, and remains a part of the way we in the Free School think. We’ll come back to that. But Cornel starts from a pragmatist point of view – that it is the individual seeking meaning in a world that does not in and of itself provide meaning. That is why if you listen to Cornel, there is always on the edge, if you will, or suggesting, that we live on the edge of suicide, of you know, what Jean-Paul Sartre talked, being and nothingness. And how do we realize our being? It is through more moral engagement with a world that will not give us meaning. It is living in good faith, moral good faith in a world where things are commodified, where money trumps principle and hence bad faith. You operate without a moral imperative, without a moral intentionality, you see where I’m coming from.
So, neo-pragmatists. Richard Rorty is big in Cornel West’s graduate studies at Princeton. Richard Rorty is the famous academic philosopher, a neo-pragmatist at Princeton. He wrote his last book, a small book but I think a very important and should-be famous book entitled Achieving Our Country. The title of the book he takes from James Baldwin. And Rorty attacks the intelligentsia and the academics who have abandoned the working class. It is a great book, a great manifesto which takes, you know, the whole question of the plebeian or democratic thrust in philosophy, I think, to an important place of engagement. But this is Cornel, you know a plebeian – a people’s philosophy, a people’s framing. Framing philosophical and moral issues from the standpoint of the ordinary person.
And that is why I think he has this great fidelity, this great commitment to the blues – with critique, and I didn’t quite agree with his critique. But the blues, which is the narrative of the ordinary people. The blues, talking about navigating the narration of disappointment, but the narration of overcoming, of resilience, of “I’m still here in spite of everything.” He considers the blues to be a very high expression of living morally in a world that tries to undermine your efforts to do that. You know, the pressure is to sell out all the time. But here’s the blues man, the blues woman saying that we can still be principled in spite of the pressure to sell out.
So Cornel calls himself a blues man of the mind. He has such interesting formulations. But he sees himself as a blues man and as a traveling musician. He also sees himself in relationship to the blues and John Coltrane. And this scaffolding, this architecture of morality coming out of black resistance is so much a part of him and the way he lives. And you know, even as he talked about music you all might remember, and he really digs Philadelphia, loves Philadelphia because of Philly’s music. And he says Philadelphia’s a soulful city. And he mentioned the O’Jays – and his soundtrack by the way, is the same soundtrack as the Free School. The same music that we listen to, he was gesturing to. The Isley Brothers – did he mention “Harvest For the World”? One of those great calls to morality to resistance. And of course he talked about Stevie Wonder’s love song “Love’s in Need of Love.” You know, which is like us.
And the moderator, who I was not too thrilled by. (‘Cause I know some people weren’t there, so I’m filling in, creating a picture.) But the moderator, when Cornel was talking about the O’Jays and the Isley Brothers, [the moderator] tried to say Meek Mills. Now how do you get from that, to that? I don’t see it. But Cornel resisted it, you know in his generous way of course without saying, “I disagree,” but just saying the music that he stands upon. And he’s absolutely right about this, he’s absolutely right. That blues, jazz and R&B is still the strong hand in our music and poetry.
But along with neo-pragmatism [for Cornel] is existentialism, a contemporary form of existentialism, and this is again where I would find myself in a bit of a difference with Cornel. For him, the important existentialists would be people like Karl Jaspers and Albert Camus, not Jean-Paul Sartre, the radical, the communist, the socialist, the anti-colonialist. Not Jean-Paul Sartre, but Albert Camus who in fact opposed the Algerian independence movement. Oh by the way this is something that James Baldwin spoke about as well in one of the essays in No Name in the Street, I think the first one entitled “Take Me to the Water.” Jimmy Baldwin did not like Albert Camus either and felt, like Sartre, that Albert Camus was pro-colonialist and operated in bad faith.
So it is this sense of the absurd, and in philosophical and existentialist terms, the absurd means non-being or no meaning or lack of meaning. You see what I’m saying. And so it is this tightrope that Cornel navigates upon. To me, it is interesting, it is dramatic, it is exciting. Like I said, “I got to put some respect on your name, hometown. You know, you remain so energized, so hopeful, so alive, you know what I’m saying?” Where it would be easy to say, to throw in the towel, “I’ve been doing this for too long you know. Three of my marriages broke up because of this, I’m going to throw in the towel.” But he stays real, he stays alive and he remains who he is. And welcomes difference and critique. That’s the positive thing.
Philosophically, and in terms of social theory, I feel that his approach does not account for a big part of human history including the Russian and Chinese revolutions, the revolutionary leaderships of these movements and their philosophies and theories. It does not account for philosophies paralleling science, or philosophies in the Hegelian or Kantian sense attempting to correct science, and to clarify for scientists and non-scientists what the discoveries of science suggest, in scientific terms and in human terms. That tradition is usually associated with what is called rationalism although it’s much, much more than that. Can you see what I’m saying?
Cornel’s position is more in the English American tradition of empiricism, pragmatism and existentialism. There is not … I guess we could put it this way using what we’ve already read in Hegel. There is not, in pragmatism and neo-pragmatism – in fact they reject the whole concept of mediation – it is all resolved at the level of the immediate, and of the individual. And not to mention, that English philosophers – I would say everybody from John Stuart Mill through Bertrand Russell and up to till present, have always smeared Hegel as somehow being the source of authoritarianism and even Nazism. That the rationalist tradition, especially as it crystallizes in Hegel’s philosophy, can only lead to anti-democratic practices and that to return democracy to philosophy, you have to separate philosophy from what is called the rational tradition, or thinking through categories. We can come back to that.
So it is a claim and I think this is a problem for Cornel because it generalizes, in fact reduces the question of democracy to an Anglo-Saxon practice. That everything that is not Anglo-Saxon in its theory and practice of democracy is by definition authoritarianism. Well does that sound familiar? Yes it does, because that’s the paradox that the Biden administration and the US ruling class tries to present us with. Either Anglo-Saxon democracy or authoritarianism. Either John Locke and John Stuart Mill – or Hitler. I won’t say my friend, but a guy that I follow, Lex Fridman is always doing, sadly, this conjunction of Mao, Stalin and Hitler – they’re all the same, you know. But that’s the Anglo-Saxon smearing of human revolutionary aspirations.
So when you listen to Cornel, he is operating and thinking within the folds of Anglo-American philosophy, and hence the unusual in the political arena that does not fit the narrative of Anglo-American democratic theorizing and narrative is thereby authoritarian and even neo-fascist. And I want to underline the unusual, because the thing of Anglo-American philosophy has become a dogma rather than a project of scientific critique, of democracy and the possibilities of changing it, of advancing it.
I just want to say a couple of few other things. In this sense, and people who were there, we saw a crescendo in his narrative, and to me it was exciting because I’m trying to, you know – all of these people, you know, I read, I know a little bit about. But he seemed to weave this narrative out of all of these thinkers from Chekhov to Kierkegaard to William James, and just, I mean just unbelievable, man. That’s why I said, “I got to put some respect on your name.” But in the end, he reaches the apogee and he couldn’t go any further. And then it had to be a repeat. It had to be a re-do, re-saying of similar things that he had previously said because he refused to go to the world of contradiction, of possibility, of danger. He stayed within this beautiful narrative, this exciting narrative that he started with.
The other thing is his constant referencing and gesturing to Christianity, in the sense of liberation Christianity or Black Christianity. No problem. As we all know through our own experiences and observations, that Black religion is a religion of resistance, that being is realized in-becoming as Martin Luther King said in one of his graduate school papers. Being is in-becoming. That for Black Christianity, the end is not an end, it is the beginning of something new. And he’s right about that. But then, to me there’s a paradox between Anglo-American political theory and philosophy, and Black Christianity, which is not grounded in the individual or not grounded as Cornel West suggested, in fake hope in the future. It is futuristic but not this Disneyland futurism of the standard ruling class narrative in this country.
And just my last point, I think he gets King wrong. King was not a naive pacifist. If you want any evidence of that just listen to the speech “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam.” King understood St. Thomas Aquinas’s differentiation between just and unjust wars. I don’t think that Cornel understands the actual and practical real-life meaning of that as it relates in particular to the Ukraine War. Is Russia an imperialist nation, as he says? Or is Russia defending itself against the imperialism, militarism and aggression of the United States. Were the Vietnamese waging a just war? Were Koreans waging a just war? Were they waging a war for peace?
King understood that. He understood the difference between just and unjust wars. And I think that rather than pigeonholing King into this nebulous, ill-defined category of pacifism – you know, King was far too philosophically developed to be reduced to that. What Cornel has not considered is that King in fact was a theorist and practitioner of the struggle for democracy. A peaceful means, a political rather than a civil war path to the democratic and political transformation of the American nation; to disarm the ruling elite in its efforts to pit black against white in the struggle to change the country, for black and white people.
That is what King was saying. He was a theorist and a practitioner of the struggle for democracy. The concept of love. You cannot, in King’s sense, appeal to pragmatist or neo-pragmatist philosophers, or to English theorists of liberal theory or society, to understand King’s concept of love and the Beloved Community. It seems that Cornel missed a tremendous opportunity to further develop, to further deepen, to further extend his own theory of moral behavior and moral action.
How beautiful might it have been if he could have turned or extended that discourse to King’s notion of the Beloved Community, which goes hand-in-hand with his idea of the means to radical transformation as important – this is King – as important as the ends themselves. So King was talking about a democratic path to achieve a new democracy, that unites and transforms the people in the process. I don’t think the philosophies that ground Cornel necessarily predisposed him to that kind of Kingian or even Baldwinian thinking. I’ll stop there and just say that we had a rich discussion for the time that it lasted on Thursday evening.
Dr. Anthony Montiero is a long-time activist in the struggle for socialism and black liberation, scholar, and expert in the work of WEB Dubois. In fact, he is one of the most cited Dubois scholars in the entire world. He’s worked and taught longer than most of us have been alive. Currently, he organizes with the Saturday Free School for Philosophy and Black Liberation in Philadelphia.
This article was republished from Positive Peace Blog.
The Debt Ceiling Debate Is a Massive Deception Against the Public. By: Richard D. WolffRead Now
Future historians will likely look back at the debt ceiling rituals being reenacted these days with a frustrated shaking of their heads. That otherwise reasonable people would be so readily deceived raises the question that will provoke those historians: How could this happen?
The U.S. Congress has imposed successive ceilings on the national debt, each one higher than the last. Ceilings were intended to limit the amount of federal borrowing. But the same U.S. Congress so managed its taxing and spending that it created ever more excesses of spending over tax revenues (deficits). Those excesses required borrowing to cover them. The borrowings accumulated to hit successive ceilings. A highly political ritual of threats and counterthreats accompanied each rise of the ceiling required by the need to borrow to finance deficits.
It is elementary economics to note that if Congress raised more taxes or cut federal spending—or both—there would be no need to borrow and thus no ceiling on borrowing to worry about. The ceiling would become irrelevant or merely symbolic. Further, if taxes were raised enough and spending cut enough, the existing U.S. national debt could be reduced. That situation has happened occasionally in U.S. history.
The real issue then is that when borrowing approaches any ceiling, the policy choices are these three: raise the ceiling (to borrow more), raise taxes, or cut spending. Of course, combinations of them would also be possible.
In contrast to this reality, U.S. politics deceives by constricting its debate. Politicians, the mainstream media, and academics simply omit—basically by refusing to admit or consider—tax increases. The GOP demands spending cuts or else it will block raising the ceiling. The Democrats insist that raising the ceiling is the better choice than cutting spending. Democrats threaten to blame the GOP for the consequences of not raising the debt ceiling. They paint those consequences in lurid colors depicting U.S. bondholders denied interest or repayment, Social Security recipients denied their pensions, and government employees denied their wages. The unspoken agreement between the two major parties is to omit any serious discussion of raising taxes to avoid hitting the debt ceiling. That omission entails deception.
Here are some tax increases that could help solve the problem by avoiding any need to raise the debt ceiling. The social security tax could be applied to all wage and salary incomes, not only those of $160,000 or less as is now the case. The social security tax could be applied to nonwage income such as interest dividends, capital gains, and rents. The corporate profits tax could be raised back to what it was a few decades ago: near or above 50 percent versus the current 37 percent rate. A property tax could be levied on property that takes the form of stocks and bonds. The current property tax in the United States (levied mostly at the local level) includes land, houses, automobiles, and business inventories, while it excludes stocks and bonds. Perhaps that is because the richest 10 percent of Americans own roughly 80 percent of stocks and bonds. The current property tax system in the United States is very nice for that 10 percent. Another logical candidate is the federal estate tax which a few years ago exempted under $1 million of an estate from the tax, but now exempts over $12 million per person (over $25 million per couple). That exemption makes a mockery of the idea that all Americans start or live their lives on a level playing field where merit counts more than inheritance. The U.S. could and should go back from that tax giveaway to the richest. There are many more possible tax increases.
Of course, there are strengths and weaknesses entailed in raising every tax, positive and negative consequences. But the exact same is true of raising the debt ceiling and thereby increasing the U.S. national debt. Likewise cutting spending has its pluses and minuses in terms of pain and gain. There is no logical or reasonable basis for excluding tax increases from the national debate and discussion about raising the debt ceiling and thereby the national debt.
It is rather the shared political commitments of both major parties that require and motivate the exclusion. There is no reason for U.S. citizens to accept, tolerate, endorse, or otherwise validate the debt ceiling deception perpetrated against us.
Nor is the debt ceiling deception alone. The previous national debate over responding to inflation by having the Federal Reserve raise interest rates provides another quite parallel example. That debate proceeded by debating the pros and cons of interest rate increases as if no other anti-inflationary policy existed or was even worth mentioning. Once again elementary economics teaches that wage-price freezes and rationing have been used against inflations in the past—including in the United States—as alternatives to raising interest rates or alongside them. U.S. President Nixon in 1971 used wage-price freezes. U.S. President Roosevelt used rationing during World War II. But the government, Federal Reserve, major media, and major academic leaders carried on their recent policy debates as if those other anti-inflationary tools did not exist or were not worth including in the debate.
Wage-price freezes and rationing have their strengths and weaknesses—just as tax increases do—but once again the same applies to raising interest rates. No justification exists for proceeding as if alternative options are not there. The U.S. national debate over fighting inflation was deceptive in the same way that the debate over the debt ceiling is.
Nor is the deception any less if it is covered by a claim of “realism.” Those who grasp elementary economics enough to know that tax increases could “solve” the debt ceiling issue become complicit in the deception by invoking “realism.” Since the two major parties are jointly subservient to corporations and the rich, they rule out tax increases on them. It thus becomes “realistic” to exclude that option from the debt ceiling debate. What is best for corporations and the rich thus gets equated to what is “realistic.” It is worth remembering that throughout history ruling classes have discovered, to their shock and surprise, that the ruled can and often do quickly alter what is “realistic.”
The debt ceiling deceptions favor corporations over individuals and the richest individuals over the rest of us. In our thinking and speaking too, the nation’s class structure and class struggles exhibit their influential power. The mainstream debt ceiling debate deceives by lying by omission rather than commission.
Richard D. Wolff is professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a visiting professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University, in New York. Wolff’s weekly show, “Economic Update,” is syndicated by more than 100 radio stations and goes to 55 million TV receivers via Free Speech TV. His three recent books with Democracy at Work are The Sickness Is the System: When Capitalism Fails to Save Us From Pandemics or Itself, Understanding Socialism, and Understanding Marxism, the latter of which is now available in a newly released 2021 hardcover edition with a new introduction by the author.
This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
Philosophy and the Struggle for a New Human Future By: Anthony Monteiro & Saturday Free SchoolRead Now
We are publishing a transcript of Dr. Anthony Monteiro’s opening remarks from the Saturday Free School’s April 15, 2023 session on Hegel’s Science of Logic and Artificial Intelligence. The Free School meets every Saturday at 10:30 AM, and is streamed live on Facebook and YouTube.
Artwork by Serafina Harris
I just wanted to say a few things about why Hegel, why we’re reading Hegel and how we want to read Hegel and the context for our reading of Hegel, and for a reading of Du Bois or anything – what is the ideological and political context?
We’re in a moment of what is perhaps the most consequential ideological struggle in the modern epoch and maybe in the ideological history of humanity. In part, this is so because of the sheer magnitude and numbers of people involved, literally billions of people. Now the fact that the masses of humanity are no longer passive, ignorant and unconscious of this great ideological struggle – and they are [conscious], and of course we must begin, unlike let us say, revolutionaries of the past who had to assume that the majority of people were not themselves conscious of the revolutionary struggle. And so the idea that a few people would storm the barricades, or storm the Winter Palace – that approach is radically, even fundamentally different from what must be assumed in these times.
We must assume, as I think it is a fact, that the majority of humanity – the majority of the eight billion human beings that constitute humanity in one or another way – are conscious of the world that they live in, are conscious of ideas, and are in one or another way conscious of the consequences of ideas and of themselves as agents of history.
This has never been the case. Most people lived in isolation from the main currents of ideas up until the present time, and by the present time I’m talking of the last 125 years.
Why and what brought about this change? There are, I think, two fundamental reasons. A lot of people, you’ll hear talk – “Well it’s social media – oh, it’s the Internet that has awakened the consciousness of the broad masses of people.” And that’s a form of what we would call technological determinism. It is not that. It is the socialist revolutions and the anti-colonial struggles that freed the vast majority of humanity to be makers of history. And by makers of history we mean in the sense of not just acting upon other people’s plans but themselves having a consciousness and understanding and a plan. So it is fatal to assume that the majority of mankind is ignorant and unconscious of where history is and where history might go.
To put it another way, the majority of humanity has an imaginary, a futuristic outlook that things as they are today can change. If we went back over a hundred years ago, most people believe that the way their ancestors, their great-great-grandparents, their grandparents had lived – they too would live that way. Today people don’t think that way. And while I mentioned the Socialist Revolutions, of course the Russian Revolution, Chinese Revolution and going forward, and the anti-colonial struggles – we must also indicate, and this is the greatest part of the great scientific value of [Du Bois’s] Black Reconstruction – the awakening of the enslaved proletariat who were being told over and over again – and I would say the majority of human beings on the planet to the extent they knew about it, believed that slavery was natural, and that Africans were naturally inferior.
What Du Bois establishes is that the enslaved proletariat itself, in its consciousness of itself, was in the vanguard of the human struggle for liberation. It is also the black freedom movement that as well awakens humanity not only to the fact that things could change, but that things inevitably will change. As King often quotes from the abolitionist preacher Theodore Parker, “The arc of the moral universe is long and it bends to justice.” The concept of freedom as an inevitable part of the human condition.
Most human beings on the planet now would believe that in one or another way. I don’t care where you go. So the ideological struggle is inevitable and central to the radical and revolutionary remaking of the planet. To put it another way, no ruling class, including the ruling class of the United States, can assume that they can just dictate to people what should be and what they should do and what they shouldn’t do. They have to at least make an effort to ideologically win people to their side.
Well, to say that for today, we also have to say that even the bourgeois democratic revolutions – when the bourgeoisie was weak and a small part of the population of let us say France or Germany or England or of even of the United States, the bourgeoisie had to convince the people that they the bourgeoisie as opposed to the aristocrats and the kings and the landowners and the the popes and the bishops, that they, the bourgeoisie could bring into existence another system that would establish liberty, what we today would call freedom, and emancipate the masses from the the drudgery, the misery, of the old feudal system.
We see the same thing in the Indian independence movement where Gandhi took on the garments of the peasantry and lived like a peasant, went among the peasants and day-by-day won them to the struggle for independence from British rule. The same thing with the Chinese revolutionaries, when Mao said we have to go to the countryside ‘cause that’s where the people are. It was a strategy of winning the majority of people to the cause of revolution, not the dogmatic idea that the working class will lead the peasantry, enter into an alliance but lead the peasantry. What Mao ‘n those were saying is that the peasantry on its own is a revolutionary force and the fact is the majority can and should be won to the cause of democratic change in China.
So today we’re talking about processes, which Hegel could never have imagined – the Hegelian idea that the history of humanity is the history of ideas, that human beings were the manifestation, human societies were the manifestations of great ideas, et cetera. He could have never imagined the majority of humanity being involved, first of all and its own liberation, but also in the struggle of ideas. So again, to understand how we got to a point in a matter of a brief period, I mean we could say 125 years, we could say maybe a little bit longer if you include the civil war and black reconstruction and that kind of thing.
What we call the ideological struggle, which is maybe not the best way to talk about this thing, the word ideology or ideological comes from the German. And ideology in German philosophy and political theory is what we would call ideas, big ideas. So the ideological struggle is really the struggle over ideas and more importantly, the human future.
Therefore the struggle of ideas or the ideological struggle must be broadly conceived and not narrowly, as in a conflict between “left” or “revolutionary groups” about who is more pure in their ideology. That is a superficial way, but it’s really a trivialization of the magnitude of what we’re talking about, and of course it is a throwback to a situation that existed over 150 years, 200 years ago, where the majority of human beings were not involved. So the question of “ideological purity” or “ideological correctness” of a “revolutionary vanguard” is so out of step with where humanity is at this point as to literally be something that would fit more and into a Saturday Night Live, or what we used to call a black exploitation film, it’s a joke. It is not serious.
What we’re talking about in terms of ideas and the struggle of ideas is ultimately the struggle of the people. Hence, for us we talk about the centrality of the ideological struggle. Now a lot of people would say, and they say it all the time, the so-called left – and whenever you say left you always have to put quotations around it or the word so-called – a lot of this is a joke, frankly. They will say for example, “well, the people are not interested in your ideas – the people are not interested in you reading Hegel. What black people are interested in that?” Well first of all, you don’t know what black people are interested in, and just because you’re not [interested], you might be an outlier. You might not represent black folk or the working class. “They’re more interested in putting food on their tables, and therefore they’re interested in activism, it is the activist that has the greatest appeal to the masses of people.” Well I can tell you from my own experience of course here in Philadelphia, but I think it’s other places, that a lot of people don’t trust activists, especially those who proceed from a “woke” or “identity politics” position. People are interested in a future, hence they are interested in ideas. And they’re interested in ideas in the organic sense. They’re interested in ideas in the same ways that we are interested in ideas.
The sites of the struggle that we’re talking about, the ideological struggle, are everywheres but some of them – philosophy, art literature and science, often or most times in academic circles, philosophers or professors of literature and art will say that we’re not doing ideology, we’re doing deep readings and deconstructive readings, et cetera. That we’re not bringing any externalities or biases to the question. Most philosophers would say that what we’re doing is a reconsideration based upon our own time and all of that of the great philosophers, and so on. And to claim that, for example, as we claim that philosophy is politics by other means, they would find that not only transgressive but demeaning of the high calling of what they do. And of course all professors think they’ve been summoned by a higher calling, something greater than any of us can understand, and they’re not driven by money and other things, crude things like that.
And certainly when you get to science, especially the Natural Sciences, most theoretical or experimental physicists, biologists, chemists, act like and will dispute anyone who would make the argument that science, and especially at the theoretical level, is a branch of philosophy and hence of ideological engagement. In other words the experiments that they do, the instruments that they build, are not the result of just the internal dialectics of their particular discipline and groups of theorists and scientists that they interact with. What we are saying is that as parts of societies, they are as ideologically shaped as anybody else. And so the work of theoretical physics, including quantum mechanics or relativity theory, or string theory, the way these things are thought about, talked about are really philosophical questions, which again are ideological questions.
Our return to Hegel and philosophy through Hegel – not exclusively Hegel, and I want to underline that – not exclusively Hegel – is our doing in another way what we did with Black Reconstruction, and what we’ve done with so many other things, and what we plan to do going forward with the year of James Baldwin and all of that type of thing. We are doing ideology and in substance doing, or participating, I should say, in the great work of the people to free themselves from a system that has no way out for them.
Frankly any ethnography, that is to say, the sociological work of going among the people, observing them, talking to them – always shows a profound interest, especially that mature part of the working class – a profound interest in ideas. And always seeking out honest thinkers that are not using ideas to make them themselves the “thinker” – look smarter than everybody else. That’s why people are so interested in a person like Baldwin and wanting to know him better, are so interested in King, and to the extent that we make it available, Du Bois and so on, Gandhi, et cetera.
Being concerned with philosophy brings us into certain areas of knowledge that are central to what philosophy does. Let me just name a few of them: logic, and I want to return to this because that’s a big question as we get into AI and even quantum mechanics. Logic, methodologies, methods. Logic and methodology I don’t think are that separate, at least in Hegel’s sense. They are ways of knowing, of discovering truth.
Phenomenology, and again I find Hegel’s definition of phenomenology to be the best, although it is not the only one – where he defines phenomenology as a science of human consciousness. The existentialist would define phenomenology as the science or study of being, or what they would call existence. We’ll come back to that. And there’s an important separation between existentialist phenomenology and Hegelian phenomenology.
I would just throw one other philosopher’s name in here when we get to this kind of existential phenomenology and that is Frederick Nietzsche. He could be the start of that kind of phenomenology. But nonetheless, phenomenology. And the other which is bound up with phenomenology and logic and that is epistemology, or theories of philosophies of knowledge, how we know. Epistemology is very connected to so much going on in the fields again of quantum physics and string theory.
String theory is one of those areas that has been mathematized. In other words, physicists that work in string theory talk to each other through mathematical equations, which means the rest of us don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. And I think they like it like that. But string theory is sometimes called a “theory of everything.”
Can there be a huge theory which unites classical physics? That is, the physics of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, rooted in an understanding of gravity. And for Einstein, a theory of time really – can that school of physics, the physics of large bodies, be united with a physics of subatomic particles? Thus far, as far as science is concerned to my knowledge, theoretical physics is concerned, the behavior of subatomic particles goes against the theories of gravity that apply to large bodies.
And so the challenge is, can there be a steering to unite these two apparently disparate, two conflicting things, and thus it is called string theory, or better, a theory of everything, or a unifying theory of Einstein and quantum mechanics? Relativity theory and quantum mechanical theory. This is huge and has gone unsolved since – well, the real great meeting to see if there could be some reconciliation occurred in 1925 in Copenhagen. We talked about that before. Up to this point they have not been reconciled; there has not been a unified theory of everything. In fact, there seems to be among theoretical physicists who deal with particle physics or quantum mechanics, a movement away from a recognition of the existence of a world outside of the human consciousness.
In other words, there are people in recent times who get Nobel prizes in theoretical physics who have made the claim that subatomic particles do not exist in and of themselves. They exist because our consciousness brings them into existence. This is a huge assertion because it would deny the existence of a world outside of consciousness. The consequences of that, ultimately for the transformation of the world in a sense from the epoch of Western hegemony to the epoch of humanity is not possible and can only be seen as a dead end. I’ll explain that a little bit more. I would say that that type of philosophy – the philosophy of this is not new – the philosophy that they’re asserting – the claims that they are making have a philosophical history going back to what we call British empiricism and the first philosopher Berkeley and then of course the major one in the British empiricist tradition David Hume, who said we can only claim the existence of the world as a result of our consciousness. We’ll come back to that.
If there is no world outside of our consciousness, then what is truth? This philosophical problem, or as I would say the geography, the structure of this problem of the existence of the world outside of consciousness, has its reflection in the discussion of artificial intelligence.
Again, not a small matter. A very important matter because of the conclusions that they are drawing, because AI through the devices of the internet and iPhones and other things is a greater reality in the lives of everyday people than quantum mechanics – the type of philosophical assertions that they make either openly or as subtext, has greater influence upon the ways that billions of people will view themselves and their futures.
Our approaches in philosophy and of course Hegel, and again I want to emphasize, not as the last word – we are not making a god of Hegel the way some people in AI want to make a god of AGI, that is artificial intelligence that becomes God-like, or artificial intelligence which through the evolution of machine intelligence can arrive at absolute truths, a kind of an end game where God-like means all-knowing. But even they in the AI discourse say that in arriving at that civilization itself will be destroyed. We’ll come back to that. A lot of these guys I don’t take too seriously, the chatter as it were. We’ll come back to that.
We are concerned with logic and phenomenology. We are concerned first of all with Hegel’s assertion and maybe one of the most important claims in the history of modern philosophy,that Aristotle did not have it right, that the substance of the logic of real things in the real world is dialectical and not formal.
Formal logic is that logic associated most with Aristotle. Aristotle established that the laws of logic were laws designed to bring clarity to philosophical and other claims, and to establish what in fact were the logical conditions of truth. No small matter, not to be trivialized. Nor because of Hegel’s dialectic can we dispense with Aristotelian logic. We cannot, for all kinds of reasons, including that science is so bound up with Aristotelian logic. The ways that scientists think, the ways that experiments are constructed, the ways that they evaluate truth, et cetera, are all bound up strongly with Aristotelian logic and not with Hegelian dialectics.
There are philosophers of science and of mathematics, for instance Bertrand Russell, who will say – and I think he was all out of school on this one – “I never read Hegel’s Science of Logic and I don’t think it’s worth reading. It’s conflicted and confused.” And then he goes on to attempt to establish a system whereby logic could clarify the statements of philosophy. This is a kind of symbolic or mathematical logic – a lot of people try to replace ordinary language with mathematical formula and therefore you would have a committee of philosophers let us say and linguists who would take all of the statements – I guess this is part of what they think AI will do – take all the statements ever made by philosophy, all the statements ever made by anybody and use a criteria of mathematics to clarify what those statements really meant, to indicate what the contradictions in this statement versus the other statement a person made. In other words, a return to what Aristotle wanted to achieve. Logic as a way of achieving clarity about truth claims.
Now there are three laws of Aristotelian logic. And it’s very simple, but in its evolution very complex because it relates so much to all fields of mathematics as far as I can see, or can apply to all fields of mathematics, including calculus and geometry and algebra. You know, these simple laws. First of all, the law of identity: a thing is always itself. The second is the law of negation: a thing cannot be itself and its opposite at the same time. And the third is the most fascinating of them, and that is the law of the excluded middle, which is kind of a combination of the two previous ones. Nothing can exist as itself and its opposite at the same time – the law of excluded middle. Which, for Aristotle to base logic on anything but the law of identity would mean to clutter knowledge with other types of claims and contradictions. Remember, logic in this sense is to bring clarity and to eliminate all contradictions. The law of the excluded middle is a denial of the existence of contradiction and statements of truth or methods seeking to know the truth.
However, Hegel in his logic says that in fact, all things exist in a state of contradiction and that the principal law of logic is the law of negation. Or to put it another way, the negation of the negation. That seems so odd or so out of bounds because we don’t talk about things in that way, but that is where Hegel begins and that in the end is the subversive and revolutionary character of his thinking
Hegel is a student of Immanuel Kant – by the way, Immanuel Kant is my favorite modern philosopher. I use my favorite for several reasons, not because I agree with him more than I agree with Hegel. But Hegel comes forward with what in fact is a revolutionary proposition, that the logic of real things, the logic of real ideas, the logic of things that we live with, the logic of what we are is grounded in the unity of opposites. Hegel therefore proposed a logic of things in motion and change, as opposed to a logic of things in a static and lifeless existence
I’ve already mentioned about phenomenology, I won’t go back to that except to say that there is a kind of empty and an infantile, childish, more popular existentialism today associated with the word wokeness, identity, associated with pop psychology, intersectionality. And we should be very clear, intersectional analysis is not a dialectical analysis. This existential phenomenology centers upon the individual, is ahistorical, is unable to deal with the great philosophical questions. In a lot of ways identity politics and the philosophies of it and intersectionality are distractions from the great struggles of this time. It is completely subjective and self-oriented, egotistical in the sense of the self – the individual is the main center of philosophy. Isn’t that a real backward move from Hegel?
But it is not an unusual evolution in Anglo-American philosophy. I’m of the opinion that people like John Stuart Mill would be very comfortable with this outcome. And there are philosophers who from an “existentialist” point of view analyze everything from hip-hop to gender sexuality, through the lens of identity and frankly of Aristotelian logic. There are so many ironies with this – these people who are so much against white men who said anything in the past are really basing their philosophy, their theories in Aristotle and John Stuart Mill and maybe John Locke if you will.
The other application of phenomenology which is not Hegel necessarily is Immanuel Kant and I would say even David Hume, who use phenomenon to mean our sensual experiences. Sensual, that feeling, tasting, seeing, etcetera experience. And Kant made a distinction between what he called phenomena: those things that are available to our reasoning process, our logical process. And noumena: those things beyond our feeling or experience.
Phenomena, where all of those things that are available to us through our experience and are available to knowledge, to reason. Noumena is that universe, that world which is beyond anything we can experience, hence beyond anything we can know. So the world of knowledge is the world of phenomena.
Hegel, on the other side, said that because we and all things exist in time. Because of that, and because all things exist in motion, while we might never get to be absolute, i.e. we become God, we can increasingly know not only our experiences but that which is beyond our experience, perhaps in the realm of the abstract. I don’t want to get into that right now, but Hegel excoriated and criticized Kant for limiting the possibilities of knowledge to our immediate experience. We can come back to that.
As I said already, we’re going back into this philosophical thing as a way to engage the ideological struggle and the ideological struggles today. I don’t know how you do it without philosophy. A lot of this is empty, uninformed discourse by poorly educated professors and others. A lot of it wouldn’t be acceptable to Kant or Hegel or Du Bois or Baldwin, or anybody. It’s so empty, so superficial.
To think that you can have a discourse on gender and race over here, and a discourse on quantum mechanics and AI over here, and they have nothing in common. My argument is they have a whole lot in common and each of them in their logics, in their methods, in the phenomenologies weigh in heavily upon humanity’s future, or the majority of humanity’s imaginary of their future. Woke identity politics is a way of in fact taking billions of people out of the struggle for their own future. AI discussions do the same thing – well, what links them? I think there are common philosophical assumptions, whether stated or not. Common philosophical assumptions, and that at one cannot effectively wage the struggle for ideas without getting at the deep structure of ideas. Kant called it a transcendental logic. Aristotle is right – there’s something more to this than just what you say or how you construct your argument. What are the assumptions grounding what you say and grounding your argument?
Again, whenever you deal with Hegel, you’re gonna get all the blowback in the world. From every anti-revolutionary force no matter where they are in academic disciplines or in public discourse, they will blow back against Hegel as unrealistic, unworkable and confused. And again it is because of the two things. Time, which is indispensable in Hegel, not just as a structure, but time as inseparable from the existence of things themselves – things exist in time and motion. But also the fundamental law of Hegelian dialectics: the negation of the negation. That just doesn’t sit well with a lot of people. You know, you say “Well it’s a logic based in the negation of the negation.” “Oh there you go again, you’re negative.” “No, I’m not negative at all.” You see what I’m saying?
So, the liberal mind, they have this happy-happy positive thing. No, we’re not talking about your personal feeling, we’re talking about the way things exist in motion. What Hegel said is the logic of actual existing things is a logic based upon negation. The new emergence from the old. And the two become a synthesis. You know, in social philosophy, social theory, revolutionary thinking. If one does not engage that or acknowledge that, one is condemning oneself to dogmatism and repeating over and over and over again formulations that may have applied adequately and scientifically to one set of circumstances but might not apply in this. In the realm of theory and ideas, to deny dialectics in my estimate is to deny the creative potential of all great ideas to birth new ideas. Out of the old comes the new. The old is not completely destroyed, it is synthesized with the new to produce something new. It is a creative process, the unity of opposites leads to a higher synthesis.
We’re reading the Science of Logic in the same way we read Black Reconstruction. We read the Science of Logic the way not that Bertrand Russell read it – or didn’t read it – but the ways that Marx and Lenin, among others, have read Science of Logic. We read Science of Logic and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind the way Du Bois did, and the ways that Hegel is implemented and deployed in Black Reconstruction. If you know Hegel, you can see Du Bois working through a dialectical logic to explain reconstruction and the anti-slavery struggle. And in fact, reading Black Reconstruction the way we read him, creates creative possibilities to think about the world. We read Hegel the way the now-defunct Soviet Academy of Philosophy did. In other words, we read him in a revolutionary way, and why shouldn’t we? We’re not anti-revolutionary.
And frankly I don’t think there’s a moral way to exist in the world – and I get this from Baldwin – if you’re not revolutionary in revolutionary times, that is in times of revolutionary change in technology, philosophy, systems of governance and et cetera. We do not read Hegel in the limited bourgeois way – we do not read Hegel or Black Reconstruction in a way to uphold the rule of the current so-called liberal bourgeois elite. We do not read Hegel the way Bertrand Russell or John Stuart Mill did, or more recently the way George di Giovanni, the translator and writer of the introduction in the current Cambridge edition of Science of Logic. Di Giovanni says in his introduction, “Let’s be real, the Science of Logic is antiquated; it has no relevance to now.”
Well, if your standpoint is the permanence, end-of-history permanence of liberal bourgeois rule then of course it’s antiquated. Any philosophy that talks about the inevitability of change would not be to your personal liking because you see this system as the best representation of human aspiration. A person like di Giovanni would provide a great deal of argumentation and support to a person like Joe Biden. That seems strange, doesn’t it. Or at least his speech writers, who would say that the struggle on the world scale is between democracies and autocracies, and once you get up off the floor having fell on the floor laughing at such nonsense, and especially coming out of the mouth of a warmonger like Joe Biden, you know, you have to say, well let’s be more sober about this question. Is that, as you stated, Joe Biden, the fundamental dialectic of this time? Since you want to say that there is a dialectic in world history, at least at this time, and if you want to say that – well Joe Biden, are you prepared to embrace the law of the excluded middle? That all things exist as a negation of negation, and is the negation of the current system something completely different from it, leading to a new synthesis?
Hence, even in your broke-down ignorant way, or your speechwriters, you have to acknowledge that history and time compel all matter, all things, including human consciousness, to exist in a state of movement. Why do we have time, anyway? In this sense, I guess it’s fair for us to say that we take a stance against the privileging, without contextualizing, of mathematical and symbolic logics, or linguistic logics. In other words, the great achievements of mathematics and mathematical logic and linguistic theories are undeniable, but is that the end of the story, is that the final say?
There are those who operate on behalf of, and are themselves a part of the ruling elite who are waging an existential battle for their existence in a time where they have fallen into a crisis of legitimacy – the people don’t believe them and don’t want to hear much that they have to say. That they come forward suddenly with a new technology. That if you think you people are like us, or average people, that you were so smart – we now have technology that will replace you with a quickness. And it’s known as artificial intelligence. And if you think you’re so smart, I’m using their words, if you think you are so smart – this technology can go through its own evolutionary process, on its own, producing a form of superhuman intelligence that is “God-like.” And if you eff with us, the liberal bourgeois elite, we will unleash God-like intelligence on all of y’all and destroy civilization as such. Listen to some of the Lex Fridman discussions with these MIT engineers and tech entrepreneurs and AI experts and all-around near-God intellects. If you can listen to that for any length of time, you will literally hear them literally saying something close to what I’m saying. We got the technology to take most of your fucking asses out of history, and it’s called AI. If you mess with us for too long, we’re going to unleash God-like intelligence on your buns. You think Francis Fukuyama had something to say about the end of history – we can do it now, and it’s known as AGI – artificial general intelligence or otherwise referred to as God-like intelligence.
This is an ideological question. It’s a money question too because Silicon Valley, they have to market themselves and get people to invest in them. But anyway, I’ll just say my last thing. Look, even if you put aside woke and identity politics which is, you know – it’s a weak hand for the bourgeoisie, very weak hand, and the thinkers in that field are so weak that they didn’t stay around too long and almost self-destructed and you don’t really hear too much from them. But it’s a weak hand. The strong hand from the standpoint of the bourgeoisie, of the ruling class which must be concerned with not just ruling the United States, or ruling France, but managing humanity – their strongest hands are in quantum mechanics, string theory, and in artificial intelligence, and this is the context, the framework that shapes and in a sense organizes our approach to the reading of Hegel’s Science of Logic.
Dr. Anthony Montiero is a long-time activist in the struggle for socialism and black liberation, scholar, and expert in the work of WEB Dubois. In fact, he is one of the most cited Dubois scholars in the entire world. He’s worked and taught longer than most of us have been alive. Currently, he organizes with the Saturday Free School for Philosophy and Black Liberation in Philadelphia.
This article was republished from Positive Peace Blog.
Degrowth: An environmental ideology with good intentions, bad politics. By: Collin Chambers and Liberation SchoolRead Now
The planet is experiencing multiple environmental crises: biodiversity loss, deforestation, increased rates of pandemics, chemical pollution, soil depletion, water contamination and shortages, runaway non-renewable energy consumption, and climate change. “Degrowth” is an environmental ideology that arose as a political response to these compounding crises. Degrowth was originally termed by André Gorz in 1972. Gorz argued that global environmental balance, which is predicated upon non-growth (or “degrowth”), is not compatible with the capitalist system, which requires “accumulation for the sake of accumulation” . Degrowth, according to Gorz, is thus a challenge to capitalism itself.
Degrowth has become increasingly popular among many environmentalists and leftists. There are some who even call themselves “degrowth communists” . Thus, it’s important to have a clear understanding of exactly what degrowth is and whether it has the potential to advance or hold back the class struggle.
Jason Hickel, a prominent proponent of degrowth, defines it like this: “The objective of degrowth is to scale down the material and energy throughput of the global economy, focusing on high-income nations with high levels of per-capita consumption” . The degrowth perspective asks why society is so obsessed with “growth” (measured by Gross Domestic Product) and seeks to deconstruct the entire “ideology of growth.” The “ideology of growth” is used by the capitalist class to argue that more and more growth is needed to overcome poverty and to create jobs. This is bourgeois ideology in the sense that capitalism relies upon and produces the artificial scarcity to which we’re subjected.
The reality is that, in developed capitalist countries like U.S., there is an overabundance of material wealth and that scarcity is socially produced by the capitalist market and private ownership. Degrowth is correct on the point that if wealth were redistributed then there would indeed be abundance. However, even though proponents of degrowth are well intentioned and truly want to solve environmental crises, the political-economic methods and solutions that degrowth calls for actually work against creating the critical mass necessary to make a socialist revolution here in the U.S. I address each of these below by showing how 1) degrowth reproduces Malthusian ideas about so-called “natural limits;” 2) it’s anti-modern and anti-technological orientation lacks a class perspective; and 3) there are key practical issues with deploying degrowth ideas in the class struggle itself.
The Connections between Thomas Malthus and Degrowth
Thomas Malthus was an aristocratic political-economist who did much of his work before the development of industrial-scale agriculture. In his 1798 book, An Essay on the Principles of Population, Malthus argued that in every geographic region there are particular resource limits or “carrying capacities” . Malthus’ so-called “law of population” says that unchecked population growth will outstrip this carrying capacity that eventually leads to a “natural check” in the form of massive deaths from starvation and disease to bring the population back under the carrying capacity. Malthus blamed poor people for “unchecked” population growth and argued against policies to alleviate people from abject poverty because it delayed the inevitable: the “natural check” of overpopulation. Rising wages, Malthus said, led to workers having more children and thereby creating overpopulation. He blamed workers themselves for economic crises, with a convenient argument against rising wages. Marx rebuffed Malthus’ erroneous theories, clarifying that “every special historic mode of production has its own special laws of population,” and that crises were caused by capital, not by workers . (This is also a point on which he diverged from Darwin, who adopted Malthus’ ideas of population).
Much of this same Malthusian discourse continues to exist today as an explanation for problems such as environmental degradation and poverty. However, the development of industrial agriculture and the production of increasingly higher crop/food yields proved much of Malthus’ theories incorrect.
Malthusianism focuses on “overpopulation” as a main cause of environmental degradation. Degrowth actually reproduces this faulty notion through the proposition that once resources and wealth are equally redistributed (which degrowth rightly wants to do), there must be some “check” on population because, as population grows without any added economic growth, people will eventually have access to fewer and fewer resources. For instance, Giorgos Kallis, another major proponent of the movement, says that “degrowth envisions radically reducing the surplus” and advocates so-called “self-limitations” where there are “collective decisions to refrain from pursuing all that could be pursued” . Rather than the typical Malthusian “natural” external limits, degrowth goes a step further: it calls for a collective enforcement of the internalization of Malthusian ideas of limits and constraints.
The target of degrowth, Kallis declares, is “not just capitalism, but also productivism” . Proponents of degrowth argue that any type of “economic growth is ecologically unsustainable—whether it is capitalist growth or socialist does not make a difference” . In doing so they artificially equate the two antagonistic systems and abstract away from the qualitative differences between socialist and capitalist growth. Kallis justifies this claim by arguing that if we did not change consumption levels in a post-carbon energy regime, then nothing would really change in terms of environmental destruction because “the manufacturing of renewable energies requires lots of earth materials. And the fact that they cost more than fossil fuels might have something to do with their lower energy returns and higher land requirements” . Thus, degrowth does not really have an ecological theory of capitalism, but an ecological theory of accumulation. For degrowth, any type of accumulation is bad and requires increased “material throughput.”
False equivalences between different social systems
But do proponents of degrowth know what accumulation entails? Accumulation simply means reinvesting the surplus back into production (either to expand or repair existing means of production). The accumulation of a surplus is necessary in any society. In his discussions of the reproduction schemas in the second volume of Capital, for instance, Marx writes that there has to be some sort of accumulation in order to reproduce existing society, to replace and repair fixed capital like machinery and roads, societal infrastructures, to care for those who can’t work, and so on. There also has to be surpluses for, say, pandemics and droughts.
The difference is that accumulation under socialism is guided by the workers themselves who collectively determine what and how much surplus to produce and how to use it. Under capitalism, accumulation happens for accumulation’s sake, without a plan, and purely in the interests of private profit. Under socialism, accumulation benefits society as a whole, including even the ecosystems we inhabit. When workers are in control of the surplus, will we not develop and grow the productive forces to make life better and easier for ourselves and more sustainable for the earth and its inhabitants? Wouldn’t we especially grow green productive forces to build more (and better) schools, public transportation, etc.? Shouldn’t socialists in the U.S. strive to repair the underdevelopment of imperialism by assisting in the development of productive forces in the formerly colonized world? While there are sufficient surpluses of, say, housing in the U.S., there are certainly not surpluses of housing in the entire world.
Since the rise of neoliberal capitalism, the size of the working-class stratum composing the “labor aristocracy” has substantially reduced. Whom exactly are we telling to “self-limit” what we consume and live at a time when most workers in the U.S. are living paycheck to paycheck, and accumulating more and more debt? Wages have remained stagnant since the 1970s while prices have increased over 500 percent. Who exactly is supposed to limit themselves, and to what? Isn’t the problem that the masses are limited by capitalism?
Degrowth is, in essence, a form of ecological austerity for working-class people . Stated simply, by focusing so much on the consumption habits of workers within capitalism and so little on the conditions and relations of production, proponents of degrowth end up reproducing Malthusian ideas of “natural limits.”
We must analytically evaluate production and show how production “produces consumption” itself . The wasteful and environmentally unsustainable consumption patterns of the working class are not produced by “personal” choice but are system-induced. Every day, millions of workers in the U.S. commute to work in single occupant vehicles not because we “choose” to drive. It’s because public transportation is so unreliable (if it exists at all), jobs in the labor market are so unstable and temporary that few workers are actually able to live close to work, and the rents around major industries tend to be unaffordable for our class.
Then there is planned obsolescence, such as when commodities like cell phones are produced to break every two years. When capitalism is overthrown and replaced with socialism, we can produce things that are “built to last” because our aim is to satisfy society’s needs and not private profit. Indeed, Marx argues that capitalist production in itself is wasteful, even in its “competitive-stage:”
“Yet for all its stinginess, capitalist production is thoroughly wasteful with human material, just as its way of distributing its products through trade, and its manner of competition, make it very wasteful of material resources, so that it loses for society what it gains for the individual capitalist” .
Degrowth is antithetical to Marxism
Proponents of degrowth argue that there are absolute “planetary limits” and a fixed “carrying capacity” that cannot be surpassed by humans if we want to avoid ecological collapse. This is not only pessimistic in that it dismisses the idea that, under socialism, we could figure out new sustainable ways to grow, but it’s also completely devoid of class analysis. There’s no distinction between socially-produced limits and natural limits.
Degrowth is anti-modern, anti-technological, and anti-large scale production and infrastructure. Kallis argues that “only social systems of limited size and complexity can be governed directly rather than by technocratic elites acting on behalf of the populace… Many degrowth advocates, therefore, oppose even ‘green’ megastructures like high-speed trains or industrial-scale wind farms[!]” .
The same can be said about degrowth solutions to the problems the capitalist agricultural system creates. Proponents of degrowth propose small scale (both urban and rural) methods of agriculture production to replace industrial-scale agriculture. They, in fact, glorify and romanticize “peasant economies.”
Despite the problems of capitalist industrial agriculture, there are two main benefits of industrial-scale agriculture. First, it has drastically increased yields. At the present moment, there is enough food produced to feed 11 billion people. Second, industrial farming has thoroughly decreased the backbreaking labor needed for agricultural and food production. In 1790, 90 percent of the U.S. workforce labored on farms. In 1900, it was 35 percent At the present moment, only one percent of the U.S. workforce works on farms .
Certainly, in any just society we would want to spread out food production more evenly amongst the population. But getting rid of industrial-scale agriculture and reverting to small-scale peasant and small landowner agriculture would require massive numbers of workers to go back to the land and perform backbreaking agricultural work. Such a transformation would inevitably reduce agricultural yield substantially, increasing the possibility of food insecurity and hunger among vast swathes of the population. And what would we do with the commodities and infrastructure we’d have to destroy to create such plots of land? Moreover, such a vision necessitates the redistribution of land from private ownership of large landholders. Is this achieved through revolution or through governmental reforms? In either case, if we’re struggling to reclaim land then why not broaden our horizons and redistribute land in the interests of the environment and the people, including Indigenous and other oppressed nations in the U.S.?
Degrowth is, furthermore, idealist and divorced from the material reality within which U.S. workers currently live. Matt Huber, a Marxist environmental geographer, argues that a “truly humane society must commit to relieving the masses from agricultural labor,” and that we cannot act as if “small-scale agricultural systems are much of a ‘material basis’ for a society beyond industrial capitalism” . This is not to say that small-scale and urban farming are undesirable, but that they’re insufficient in a country like the U.S. The Cuban model of urban farming and agriculture–which is a heroic achievement of the Cuban Revolution–can’t simply be mapped onto this country or the rest of the world.
Additionally, we shouldn’t forgo modern technologies that already exist just because they are “large scale” or because they currently contribute to environmental degradation within capitalist society. Doing so would in effect produce more ecological waste!
In an important piece on capitalism and ecology, Ernest Mandel writes: “it is simply not true that modern industrial technology is inevitably geared towards destroying the environmental balance. The progress of the exact sciences opens up a very wide range of technical possibilities” . Increased rates of pollution and environmental degradation occur because capitalists pursue profits at the expense of the environment, not because of the technologies themselves. Socialists have to distinguish between instruments of production and their use under capitalism.
Degrowth and building the class struggle
In the U.S., degrowth remains an ideology that is relatively socially isolated but gaining influence among environmentalists and some on the left. It’s an ideology of guilt rather than revolutionary action. The ideas from degrowth will not appeal to masses of exploited and oppressed people who actually need more, not less. Imagine, for example, canvassing and talking to people in working-class neighborhoods, trying to get them on board with a degrowth political platform. How do degrowth proponents think workers in oppressed neighborhoods respond if they were told they needed to consume less to fight climate change? Many of us already wait as long as possible in the winter to turn on our heat! As organizers, we would not get the time of day, and we wouldn’t even believe ourselves. Can you imagine organizing homeless and unemployed workers around a program of less consumption? Degrowth is an ideology fit for the privileged, and if they want to consume less, they should.
From the perspective of the practical class struggle, degrowth is particularly problematic. Degrowth has a rhetorical strategy problem. In an unequal country such as the U.S., is the discourse of less and “self-limitation” realistic and inspiring? Is this tactic energizing, does it speak to the needs of the exploited and oppressed, can it mobilize people into action?
Rather than limit everything, we actually need to grow certain sectors such as green infrastructures and technologies. Our class doesn’t need a political platform that calls on us to give up the little pleasures we might have–if any at all–for the sake of the environment. Our class needs a political platform that states clearly what the real problem is and how we can solve it to make life will better.
Degrowth takes a non-class approach towards consumption and production. It is true that some of the more privileged sectors of the working class, particularly in imperialist countries, consume excessively and wastefully. Degrowth, however, fails to account for the class that takes wasteful consumption to almost unimaginable levels and the system that produces these production and consumption patterns. An increasing portion of the labor of the working class is wasted on supporting the consumption habits of the numerically small capitalist class. No amount of preaching self-limiting morality is going to convince the capitalist class to consume less, expropriate less, or oppress less. Once we can get rid of the parasitic imperialists, then human needs and desires can be met through a planned economy led by the working class.
Thus, the solution to these multifaceted and compounding environmental crises is not “degrowth”, but rather, as Mandel formulates it, “controlled and planned growth:”
“Such growth would need to be in the service of clearly defined priorities that have nothing to do with the demands of private profit…rationally controlled by human beings… The choice for ‘zero growth’ is clearly an inhuman choice. Two-thirds of humanity still lives below the subsistence minimum. If growth is halted, it means that the underdeveloped countries are condemned to remain stuck in the swamp of poverty, constantly on the brink of famine…
“Planned growth means controlled growth, rationally controlled by human beings. This presupposes socialism: such growth cannot be achieved unless the ‘associated producers’ take control of production and use it for their own interests, instead of being slaves to ‘blind economic laws’ or ‘technological compulsion’” .
“Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets! ‘Industry furnishes the material which saving accumulates.’ Therefore save, save, i.e., reconvert the greatest possible portion of surplus-value or surplus product into capital! Accumulation for the sake of accumulation, production for the sake of production: this was the formula in which classical economics expressed the historical mission of the bourgeoisie in the period of its domination.” Marx, Karl. (1867/1976). Capital Vol 1 (New York: Penguin Books), 742.
 Hansen, Bue Rübner. (2021). “The kaleidoscope of Ccatastrophe: On the clarities and blind spots of Andreas Malm.” Viewpoint Magazine, April 14. Available here.
 Hickel, Jason. (2019). “Degrowth: A theory of radical abundance,” Real-World Economics Review 87, no. 19: 54-68. “Throughput” is the flow of energy and materials through a system.
 Malthus, Thomas R. (1789/2007). An essay on the principle of population (New York: Dover).
Marx, Capital, 784.
 Kallis, Giorgos. (2018). In defense of degrowth: Opinions and manifestos (UK: Uneven Earth Press), 22, 21.
 Ibid., 24.
 Kallis, Giorgos. (2019). “Capitalism, socialism, degrowth: A rejoinder.” Capitalism Nature Socialism 30, no. 2: 189.
 Ibid., 194.
 See Phillips, Leigh. (2015). Austerity ecology & the collapse-porn addicts: A defense of growth, progress, industry and stuff (Washington: Zero Books).
 See Karl, Marx. 1993. Grundrisse: Foundations of the critique of political economy (rought draft), trans. M. Nicolaus (New York: Penguin), 90-98.
 Marx, Karl. (1991.) Capital Vol 3 (New York: Penguin), 180.
 Kallis, In defense of degrowth, 21.
 The World Bank. (2021), “Employment in agriculture (% total employment) (model ILO estimate),” January 29. Available here.
 Huber, Matt. (2018). “Fossilized liberation: Energy, freedom, and the ‘development of the productive forces.’” In Materialism and the critique of energy, ed. B.R. Bellamy and J. Diamanti (Chicago: MCM’ Press), 517.
 Mandel, Ernest. (2020). “Ernest Mandel on Marxism and ecology: ‘The dialectic of growth.’” Monthly Review, June 17. Available here.
First published in Liberation News
Frozen By: Ross Ion CoyleRead Now
I've just come away from watching an interview with the acclaimed author and philosopher, John Bellamy Foster, conducted on the Midwestern Marx YT channel. It was like a bucket of ice water in the face (for me!). In what way?
Well, as anyone unfortunate enough to read my stuff will know, I’m enthralled by what Foster would call philosophical “irrationalism”. Years ago, I resurrected my mental stability in part through the works of philosophers such as Schopenhauer, Von Hartmann, Nishida Kitaro, Bergson etc etc. All very much philosophers of mysticism and intuition. The closest I get to similar levels of enthusiasm with purely rational philosophers is with Marx and Spinoza. My bad.
I’m not just saying that, nor am I being ironic. I think Foster is absolutely right. We have a looming twin apocalypse ahead from either nuclear war, climate collapse or both. It’s time for politically thinking people to dwell in the rational and practical. In fact, Foster’s talk held up an inconvenient mirror for me. I constantly bang on about how bloody awful and destructive the arisen cults of irrational contrarianism, conspiracy theorism, and general anti-realism are, while concurrently in my private moments, I wrap myself in deeply mystical thought.
In my own defence, I try to keep a clear enough distinction between my ‘spiritual' life, which is the proper realm for mysticism, and my social attitudes and praxis (limited though that has unfortunately been in recent years). I keep the necessary wall in tact, a feature of mature political republicanism, between my religious beliefs and what has to be done for securing the life and well-being of all people. But even here, I suppose, having listened to Foster, I am guilty of placing far too much importance on my private musings.
The main thrust of Foster’s argument (actually, go and watch the interview if you can : it’s just released on Midwestern Marx YT, conducted by Carlos Garrido) is the neutering obscenity of what passes in the western academy for “left”, ie the successors of the post-modernists, the Frankfurt school, the daft imperialism-friendly woo of Zizek etc and how these siphon off vital energy and attention from the real struggles. It centers on a discussion of the mid 20th century Hungarian philosopher Lukacs and his criticisms of the Frankfurt school as a sort of academic brothel for western capitalism, anti-communism and imperialism, and of Heidegger as well as the ongoing apologetics for Heidegger (in shame, I admit to having re-read Being and Time and not found it without merit, though I retain an extremely dim view of the man).
It’s an excellent and timely discussion.
Now I’m going to go for a cold shower.
Realism might be growing on me.
ROSS ION COYLE
This article was republished from Ross Ion Coyle.
Exploring Friedrich Engels’ Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy: Part Four - Marx. By: Thomas RigginsRead Now
(Read Part 1 HERE, Part 2 HERE, and Part 3 HERE)
Engels begins this part by discussing the disintegration of Hegelian philosophy that set in shortly after Hegel’s death. Two basic schools grew out of Hegel’s thought— the Left Hegelians and the Right Hegelians. The Right Hegelians went down the road of conservative acceptance of the establishment and became reactionary upholders of the status quo, we have no need to discuss these philosophical losers.
The Left Hegelians became liberals and radical bourgeois thinkers. They did some progressive work in theology writing about religion as a subject to be studied outside of the supernatural framework of traditional belief. Only one of the Left Hegelians left any imprint behind in the field of philosophy and that was Feuerbach. We have seen above what Engels thought of the limitations of his materialism and its contamination with religious and moral arguments. Important as Feuerbach was, he was a pipsqueak compared to Hegel, the depth of whose philosophy he failed to grasp. Engels sums up Feuerbach thusly: “He could not cope with Hegel through criticism; he simply cast him aside as useless, while he himself, compared to the encyclopedic wealth of the Hegelian system, achieved nothing positive beyond a bombastic religion of love and a meagre, impotent morality.”
However, besides the Right and Left Hegelians there was a third philosophical development that came into existence and pointed out a viable philosophical future for a core set of beliefs that can benefit humanity and solve the social problems facing it. Engels writes “this tendency is essentially connected with the name of Marx.” At this point Engels inserts an important footnote that not only explains his relations to Marx by way of the new idea of scientific socialism and why it richly deserves to be named after him as “Marxism”.
This should calm down those so-called “Marxists” who wish to avoid using the term “Marxism” to opportunistically have a more public appeal. Here is an example from a would be ‘Scientific Socialist’ concerning the use of the term 'Marxism:’ “‘Marxism, Marxism-Leninism.’ Very bad idea to name a scientific world-view after individuals. Way too subjective and besides too many bad stories and nightmares associated with it. And, not very working-class sounding: too many syllables and hyphens. Replace it with ‘scientific socialism’ or the ‘socialist and communist idea.’” (Joe Sims, “Ten Best and Worst Ideas of Marxism”). We certainly don’t want to overwhelm working people with syllables and hyphens!
But Engels notes that this great new theory about the nature of socialism which he and Marx elaborated, the theory that explains the working of capitalism and the way the exploitation of humans by humans can finally be ended, is totally world changing— up there with the ideas of Darwin and Newton (Einstein now). And yes, he, Engels, helped develop this new world outlook, but it was Marx who really worked out the details and developed the major ideas of the theory. Engels helped but Marx could have done it alone and Engels could not have. “Without him,” Engels says, “the theory would not be by far what it is today. It thereby rightly bears his name.”
How anyone that came to be a follower of this theory yet maintains that Marx’s name, or his name conjoined with Lenin’s, is associated with “too many bad stories and nightmares’’ is a puzzlement — as only the capitalists, imperialists and other enemies of humanity should be having nightmares when they hear about Marxism. The comrades should be celebrating it.
But, just what did Marx do? He really established materialism as the philosophy of the left after Hegel’s philosophy became outmoded— a real materialism unlike the soft core materialism of Feuerbach. Marx’s materialism was dedicated to viewing the real world just as it presented itself to us free of idealistic prejudices. Engels and Marx “decided mercilessly to sacrifice every idealist quirk which could not be brought into harmony with the facts conceived in their own, and not in a fantastic, interconnection. And materialism means nothing more than this.”
But Hegel was not really outmoded, at least not completely. His idealistic explanations for the changes observed in history and science were discarded but NOT his method of analysis—i.e., his dialectical method of seeing the world as a process of change, development, and contradiction, rather than one of unchanging essences which only seem to be involved in such changes which are really reduced to never changing first essences.
For Hegel it all begins with the idea of the CONCEPT— there is just a given absolute first concept which contains in itself from eternity all the laws and principles, which Hegel lays out in his Science of Logic. Engels says this Concept is the “soul of the universe”. Hegel says it is “God as he is in his eternal essence before the creation of nature and a finite mind.” The word “God” doesn’t mean what it means in any of the world’s great religions — it’s a Hegel thing. This Concept is all worked out like the rules of chess, only before there is any real material chess board or pieces that must move by these rules. In nature they become revealed as they develop as a result of the resolution of contradictions they engender.
The Concept, God, somehow “alienates itself” by coming into existence as Nature— it is not at this point self-conscious. It is like that singularity that became the Big Bang which contained the seeds of all the laws of nature and math, etc that exist in our universe. The Rules of Chess contain every possible move in every possible game now and for all future time— but the Rules of Chess are not self-conscious and neither is the Concept/God/Nature (yet). It becomes self-conscious when humans become self-conscious. Engels continues, “This self-consciousness then elaborates itself again in history from the crude form until finally the absolute concept (God) comes to itself completely in Hegelian philosophy.” History is the record of this trip and self-consciousness advances progressively through time to the modern world. This is an unfolding that human self-consciousness becomes aware of but it is independent of human self-consciousness which is just the mirror which reflects it.
Well, Engels says, “This ideological perversion had to be done away with.” Marxist materialism means we comprehend our mental concepts as “images of real things instead of regarding the real things as images of some or other stage of the absolute concept.” The great basic thought of Hegel was that that reality is not a stable fixed collection of things to be studied but a PROCESS “in which the apparently stable things, no less than their mental images in our heads, the concepts, go through uninterrupted change of coming into being and passing away, in which, for all apparent accidentality and despite all temporary retrogression, a progressive development asserts itself in the end.”
If this materialist dialectic, the correction of Hegel by Marx, is correct, we should see the dissolution of the Soviet Union as a “temporary retrogression” and the resulting Russian Federation as a “progressive development.” OR we can see the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the birth of the Russian Federation and other post soviet states as an on going retrogression that will eventually rebound in a progressive resolution. The predictive value of Marxist philosophy, however, does not have a sterling track record. This view, of a coming necessary progressive rebound, has religious overtones that Engels would not appreciate.
Why two terms "Dialectical Materialism” and “Historical Materialism?” It is because the dialectic is different when applied to nature than to history. Dialectical Materialism is the overall name of the philosophy and Historical Materialism is a subdivision. The dialectic at work in nature reveals that “nothing happens as a consciously desired aim.” Sorry God, no divine plan just natura naturata. “In the history of society, on the contrary, the actors are all endowed with consciousness … nothing happens without a desired aim.”
Nevertheless, there are general laws of history at work, which is one of the reasons so many of our aims and plans either fail or backfire and the best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft a-gley. History looks like just chance events or as ’just one damn thing after another’ but, according to Engels, “wherever on the surface chance holds sway, it is always governed by inner hidden laws and these laws only have to be discovered.” This is the Marxist version of Adam Smith’s “the invisible hand” and Hegel’s “the cunning of reason” (die List der Vernunft).
By the time Engels was writing this work, the mid-late 19th century, the class struggle, the major motivating force behind historical development, had reached the point that in the most developed countries where, what had been a three way class struggle in Europe since the end of the Middle Ages for production and control of the economy between the class possessing agricultural production (the nobility) the capitalists (the bourgeoisie) who controlled the instruments of production involved in capital formation by means of industry and commerce, and the working people who owned no significant property beyond their bodies and ability to employ them in the service of others (the proletariat, both industrial and agricultural) had now boiled down to essentially a struggle between two of those classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat; other classes and strata were insignificant and play only a supporting role to the two major contenders.
This struggle plays out in the political arena, but politics is only the reflection of economic interests— the economic struggle is the primary struggle. Control of the state is a political struggle. But, Engels says, “the state— the political order— is the subordinate factor and civil society— the realm of economic relations — the decisive element.” Hegel had it the other way around, another difference between Marxism and Hegelianism. If we really study modern conditions “we discover that in modern history the will of the state is, on the whole, determined by the changing needs of civil society, by the supremacy of this or that class, in the last resort, by the development of the productive forces and relations of exchange.”
The class struggle, in so far as it aims at realizing state power, takes the form of a political struggle. Politics involves ideological conflicts and it often happens that the participants lose contact consciously with the true economic foundations that underlie this struggle. In the West the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the nobility took the form of political struggle in the guise of religion, Catholicism versus Protestantism— this took the consciousness of the economic issues even further away from people’s awareness. Protestant Christianity was the vehicle by which the bourgeoisie ousted the feudal order from the control of the economic base of civil society.
Protestantism in its Calvinist form was especially triumphant. In the Enlightenment Catholicism was discredited and Protestantism opened the way to Freethinking, Deism and the rejection of Christianity by the intellectuals of the new bourgeois ruling class that came to power in the great French Revolution. Once in power, religion was domesticated and used by the new ruling class to control the masses. The pope today is just a sweet little old man who protects pedophiles and doesn’t want women to control their own reproductive organs. Protestant preachers are basically shills collecting money from their congregants (with few exceptions).
Religion is useful in some civil rights contexts to motivate progressive actions from populations cut off from effective political paths to control their own lives, but Engels concludes that we are in the final stage of Christianity [this applies to religion in general]. It has “become incapable of continuing to serve any progressive class as the ideological garb of its aspirations.” At this point in history the proper garb for the proletariat and working people in general (which make up the only progressive class under capitalism) is some form of Marxism (or Marxism-Leninism particularly) and, unfortunately, the reactionary bourgeoisie is in control of all the major political forces in the world, in one way or another, outside of a few bastions of Marxism that survived the implosion of the Soviet Union and its allied states.
With no really progressive role left for religion, and the end of classical German philosophy, as well as philosophy qua philosophy being replaced by science, we have arrived at a situation, as Jean Paul Sartre admitted, where Marxism is the only philosophy that can be utilized to explain today’s world and its possible progressive future. Engels concludes his book with the following: “The German working-class movement is the heir to German classical philosophy.” Well, the German working class hasn’t taken care of its inheritance but it can still live up to Engel’s expectations. Nowadays it’s the world working class that is heir to classical German philosophy, as well as to classical Chinese philosophy (esp. Confucianism), and to the materialist based philosophies of other cultural traditions (e.g. Lokayata/Cuarvaka in India and forms of Buddhism not inconsistent with modern science).
‘Nature Nurtured’ in Latin, frequently used in scholastic philosophy, and later, in Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics.
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.
Whoever picks up the first volume of Capital and begins to read, realizes, almost immediately, that its author is establishing, on a scientific basis, a colossal body of economic knowledge
It is well known that in the monument that heads Marx's tomb, in the pedestal under his giant head, there is that thesis that stated that philosophers had only interpreted the world in different ways; when all it was about was to transform it.
Whoever picks up the first volume of Capital and begins to read, realizes, almost immediately, that its author is establishing, on a scientific basis, a colossal body of economic knowledge.
And like any monumental effort, he begins by defining the epistemology that will guide his endeavor. By this, he establishes what are called categories, and that natural scientists speak of variables that will be approppriate to what is being studied.
After the definitions, come the theorems. And Marx did all this on the assumption that objective reality determined the rest of things, and did so, reality, in the ever-changing dynamics of its existence.
We call this dialectical materialism, and if we are consistent with it, we will have to understand that, in science, truth is sought from reality and verified in it, not in more or less enlightened gatherings.
Science is not done like the ancient Greeks, when materialism or idealism, equally, did not go beyond the realm of speculation, and the fate of the debate was determined by the charisma of those who debated there, or by the preparation of the opponents. The truth is that, apart from that, philosophy had not gone much beyond that state of affairs.
Those close to him say that Marx immersed himself day after day, week after week, month after month, in the British library, rummaging through the accounting books of the companies. He sought, as the scientist he was, that objective reality that had been measured and reflected in the books in order to arrive at certainties from its analysis.
And Marx was not a person who withdrew from controversy, but they, in their just social function, served to contrast the hypotheses that emerged and that ultimately had to be confronted again with the data that reflected the reality external to the subjectivity of individuals.
On March 14, Marx was declared dead. Since then, the act of killing him has occurred repeatedly, too many times, too few for his executors.
However, the reality is that, when we stop believing in it, it remains in front of us. The consecutive act of eliminating it only speaks of the systemic failure to achieve it.
I dare to assert, against the evidence of the image, that Marx's head on the Highgate pedestal, smiles.
Ernesto Estévez Rams
Originally Published in Granma
The Significance of the Paris Commune 152 Years After. By: Carlos L. GarridoRead Now
*This is an elongated version of a speech for the International Manifesto Group and Midwestern Marx Institute co-hosted event on the Paris Commune’s Significance. To attend Sunday March 19th at 10 am EST click HERE. You may also find the recording after the event in the IMG’s YouTube Channel HERE and in the Midwestern Marx Institute’s YouTube Channel HERE.
I would like to thank the International Manifesto Group for hosting this event, and for inviting me to say a few words about the relevance of that heroic experiment in socialist democracy which took place 152 years ago.
My discussion of the Paris Commune’s relevance, and of the relevance of Marx and Engels’s reflections on it, will revolve around three key points.
First, the worldview through which Marx and Engels approach the Paris Commune.
Second, the conclusions they derived from their study of the Commune, how the Commune helped them refine and concretize their understanding of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and what relevance these have today.
Third, if we are faithful to the worldview through which Marx and Engels approach the Commune – and not limit ourselves to simply accepting the conclusions, we come to see that after 152 years since the birth of the Commune, we have had many socialist experiments from which we can learn in ways similar to Marx and Engels with the Paris Commune. The experience of these offers us many lessons – I would like to mention just two of them: 1 – the necessity of developing the productive forces, the sciences and technologies, and the military capacities of the state to protect its sovereignty from imperialism; and 2 – the necessity of adapting socialism to the conditions of the context it is taking root in.
1- Marx and Engels’s Approach to the Commune
As I am sure most know, in September 1870, six months before the establishment of the Paris Commune, Marx would say that “any attempt at upsetting the new government in the present crisis, when the enemy is almost knocking at the doors of Paris, would be a desperate folly.” In the coming months, as the antagonism between the bourgeois government and the armed workers developed, an attempt was made in March 18th 1871 to disarm the workers. The workers refused to give up arms, and war between Paris and the French government ensued. The Commune was elected on March 26, and proclaimed on the 28th. As the situation unfolded, Marx was turned from a skeptic to an ardent supporter of the Communard’s actions. Less than a month after the Commune was proclaimed, he would go on to say, “what resilience, what historical initiative, what a capacity for sacrifice in these Parisians!” They were “storming the heavens,” and “History has no like example of [such] greatness.”
I think the significance of this transition in Marx is often undermined. Over the last century, large sections of the Western left have expected the socialist and anti-colonial people’s movements which have arisen in the global South and East to measure up to their standards of what socialism ought to be. If these movements fail to meet the purity with which socialism is treated in their minds, they are condemned by the Western left as ‘authoritarian,’ ‘Stalinist,’ ‘state capitalist,’ or ‘not real socialism’ (which is my personal favorite because of its paradoxical character). The outlook of the Western Marxists is a complete inversion of the one which mediates Marx’s study of the Commune. The Commune was not ‘pure,’ it had its downfalls and contained serious ideological deviations from Marx and Engels’s thought, not least of which is the influence of Blanquism and Proudhonism. This did not prohibit them, however, from supporting the Commune and learning from it.
Lenin, as always, saw this with extreme clarity. He said that “when the mass revolutionary movement of the proletariat burst forth, Marx, in spite of the failure of that movement, in spite of its short life and its patent weakness, began to study what forms it had discovered.” Marx and Engels, Lenin would go on to say, “examined the actual experience of a mass proletarian movement and tried to draw practical lessons from it,” “re-examining [their] theory in light of it.” They did not treat socialism as an abstract ideal they could use to denounce emancipatory movements. Since the middle of the 1840s, Marx and Engels refused to treat communism as a static “state of affairs… an ideal to which reality [would] have to adjust itself.” Instead, their commitment was to “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.”
Today, many self-proclaimed Marxists in the West prefer to hold on to socialism as a pure unchanging ideal than to have that ideal be desecrated by the lessons which have arisen from the difficulties of constructing socialism in the imperialist stage of capitalism. Instead of learning from the successes and failures of revolutionary movements in Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Venezuela, and so on, many are content with condemning these real movements of history because they don’t measure up to the pure ideal in their heads. Samir Amin put it nicely in respect to China when he said that “China bashing panders to the infantile opinion found in some currents of the powerless Western left: if it is not the communism of the twenty-third century, it is a betrayal!” I think it is clear that the truth of this statement spans well beyond just China. It is grounded in the purity fetish outlook – a form of engagement with the world which couldn’t be any further from Marx and Engels’s dialectical materialist worldview.
Where Marx and Engels, as dialectical materialists, emphasize the material movement of history, the purity fetish of the Western left emphasizes a static pure ideal. If we are to celebrate, as we are, the Paris Commune by reflecting on the relevance of Marx and Engels’s insights on it, without a doubt the question of the worldview through which they approached the world is of utmost primacy. Without this, their genuine insights are nothing more than dead conclusions, severed from the form of thinking which would allow us to do today what Marx and Engels did 152 years ago; that is, to learn from the dialectical movement of the working masses towards freedom.
2- What the Commune Taught Marx and Engels
In emphasizing the worldview behind Marx and Engels’s assessment of the Commune I am not saying that the conclusions drawn are unimportant or outdated. Both the worldview and the conclusions must be seen in light of each other, and each in light of their context. Nonetheless, the fundamental lessons of the Commune remain today as relevant and true as ever. In the preface to the 1872 German edition of the Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx and Engels would make only one correction to that historical document explicit – they said, “One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.’”
Previously, Marx and Engels’s comments in the Manifesto on the working class’s conquest of political power said the following:
The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.
I will return to the question of the development of the productive forces in the following section, but for now, it is important to note how the Commune helped Marx and Engels refine their understanding of the state itself, and more specifically, of the dictatorship of the proletariat. In a speech given the month the Commune was overthrown, Marx would say that as the antagonism between capital and labor intensified, “state power assumed more and more the character of the national power of capital over labor, of a public force organized for social enslavement, of an engine of class despotism.” It was not simply the case that the modern state was “a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie,” but also that the state institutions and structures through which this aim was achieved – that is, the “standing army, police, bureaucracy, clergy, judicature,” and so on, were designed precisely for the sake of this function.
The proletariat could not successfully wield state power through state institutions crafted to keep labor subordinated to capital. For the proletariat, as the Manifesto urges, to be organized as the ruling class, it needed to smash the existing bourgeois state and replace it with working class institutions of “a fundamentally different order.” The Commune showed that the state had to be transformed from being “a ‘special force’ for the suppression of a particular class to the suppression of the oppressors by the ‘general force’ of the majority of the people – the workers and peasants.” Hence, Marx says that “Paris could resist only because … the first decree of the Commune … was the suppression of the standing army, and the substitution for it of the armed people.”
Qualitative changes of this character were found in the Commune’s transformations of public functionaries, which were now paid “workmen’s wages” and “revocable”; in the application of universal suffrage; in the new judicature; in the making of “education … accessible to all,” freeing science “from the fetters which class prejudice and governmental force had imposed upon it;” in short, in destroying the state as a “parasitic excrescence” which represses labor for the sake of capital, and putting in its place a genuinely democratic working class state which would use the general force of society to repress the old exploiting classes and administer state functions in the interests of the mass of people. This is what the dictatorship of the proletariat, as a higher form of socialist democracy, entails.
This lesson is more vital today in our neoimperialist stage of capitalism – as Cheng Enfu and Lu Baolin label it – than it was in 1871, and perhaps even more vital than it was in 1916 at the time of Lenin’s major writing on Imperialism. Today, any revolutionary process which sustains even the smallest space for bourgeois political parties and participation will be leaving a door open for imperialism’s entry through its collaboration with the national bourgeoisie. Since the tragic overthrow of Salvador Allende’s Chile in September 11th 1973; to the lawfare coups against Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff from 2016 to 2018; to the astroturfed 2018 protests against Daniel Ortega and the Sandinista revolution; to the propping up of the clownish Juan Guaido as ‘interim president’ of Venezuela in an effort to destroy the Bolivarian revolution; to the fascist 2019 coup in Bolivia which killed dozens of workers and indigenous protesters; it is clear that in so far as bourgeois state structures remain – even if under the control of a worker’s or socialist party – a window will always be open for the national bourgeoisie to collaborate with imperialism in bringing forth what W. E. B. Du Bois called a “counterrevolution of property.”
It is much more difficult to imagine a figure like Guaido or Jeanine Áñez getting as far as they did under worker states like Cuba, China, Vietnam, and the DPRK. Why is this the case? Let us recall the categorial distinction Mao makes in 1957 between political and economic capital. While sustaining that economic capital does not necessarily have to be stripped all at once, that is, as Marx had already noted, that it can be ‘wrested by degree’ from the bourgeoisie, in accordance with the role it plays in developing the productive forces for socialism, “political capital,” Mao says, must be “deprived … until not one jot is left to [the capitalists].” As Domenico Losurdo has eloquently noted,
It is, therefore, a matter of distinguishing between the economic expropriation and the political expropriation of the bourgeoisie. Only the latter should be carried out to the end, while the former, if not contained within clear limits, risks undermining the development of the productive forces. Unlike ‘political capital,’ the bourgeoisie’s economic capital should not be subject to total expropriation, at least as long as it serves the development of the national economy and thus, indirectly, the cause of socialism.
This is where revolutions like the Bolivarian, the Bolivian, the Nicaraguan, and others (for all their successes) have fallen somewhat short – they have not been able to fully expropriate the political capital of their bourgeoisie, and neither have they been able, subsequently, to complete the process of the proletarianization of the state, that is, of the construction of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
This is not a condemnation. I am, like Marx and Engels were with the Commune, an ardent supporter of these emancipatory movements; I consider there to be a lot to learn from them. But as Marx and Engels had already noted with the Commune, in not going far enough in their use of the repressive apparatuses of the worker’s state, the door was left open for counterrevolution. As Engels wrote in 1872, “would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeois? Should we not, on the contrary, reproach it for not having used it freely enough?” Lenin says something similar in 1908, arguing that the Commune, “instead of destroying its enemies it sought to exert moral influence on them; it underestimated the significance of direct military operations in civil war, and instead of launching a resolute offensive against Versailles that would have crowned its victory in Paris, it tarried and gave the Versailles government time to gather the dark forces and prepare for the blood-soaked week of May.”
I think a similar question should, and from what I have seen is, asked by our comrades in Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and so on – that is, to what extent can the proletarianization of the state prevent the conditions which gave rise to the disturbances of 2018 to 2020? In other words, how can the interests of the bourgeois and landholding sections of the population, those which have consistently collaborated with imperialism’s hybrid warfare to overthrow popular revolutions, be excluded from power in any of the state’s institutions? These are all complex questions which must be addressed organically as these revolutions develop. It is also clear that, in some of these left-wing governments in South and Central America (especially the more moderate ones), certain biases inherited from the sham bourgeois notion of democracy – which reduces democracy to a parliamentarian game of choosing which flavor of bourgeois rule a people will have for the next few years – must be outgrown and replaced by the concrete question of “democracy for which class?”
Without a doubt, these recent Latin American experiments in 21st century socialism have succeeded in making this transition in many areas. Who can forget, for example, the eight Silvercorp mercenaries caught in 2020 by Venezuelan fishermen and Bolivarian militias in the coastal town of Chuao? What a better example of the general force of the people taking up the role of repressing the enemies of the revolution? However, the threat presented by imperialist hybrid warfare – it seems to me at least – can be better averted as bourgeois state institutions are overcome, and proletarian and popular ones are put in their place.
3- Learning From the Many Communes of the 20th and 21st Century
Since the fall of the Commune 152 years ago we have seen many Socialist experiments arise, some which are still with us, others which suffered the same fate as the Commune. The ‘Marxists’ of the West, in their majority, have been unable to carry forth the legacy of Marx and Engels’s approach to the Commune. The plethora of Socialist experiments which have arisen have been, in one form or another, condemned for their impurities. This has prevented not only a genuine show of anti-imperialist solidarity, but also the ability to draw lessons from the successes and failures of these experiments. The failures have often been magnified, de-contextualized, and synecdochally painted as the whole experience.
Against this theoretical current dominant in the powerless Western left, we must bring forth the living spirit of Marxism to our study of 20th and 21st century Socialist experiments – the vast majority of which have been incredibly successful despite being under the boot of constant imperialist hybrid warfare. Out of this study I think two key lessons must be drawn, both of which are found already in Marx and Engels’s analysis of the Commune in a more or less implicit fashion.
First, in the age of imperialism, or Neoimperialism, socialist experiments must focus on developing not only an efficient worker’s state, but also the forces of production, the sciences and technologies, and the securities and defense structures of the state. In China, for instance, these goals were conceptualized by Zhou Enlai as the four modernizations. Without these developments, which are made exceedingly difficult by the reality of imperialism and its global dominance over intellectual property, a socialist project will be unable to flourish. Without these developments, the global inequality between the looting imperialist powers and everyone else – or, to use the despicable metaphor from EU foreign-policy chief Joseph Borrell, the inequalities between the garden and the jungle, will not be bridged, and the imperialist powers will maintain their global position unthreatened.
The success of China, which stands today as the beacon of a new, post-Columbian world, testifies to the immense importance of these developments in the battle against capitalist-imperialism.
The emphasis on developing the productive forces, of course, is seen throughout the whole corpus of Marx and Engels’s work – their writings on the Commune included. For instance, an important critique Engels levied on the Commune was that “in the economic sphere, much was left undone;” they did not take the Bank of France, which could have put “pressure on the whole of the French bourgeoisie [to have] peace with the Commune.” Lenin made a similar critique, saying that the Communards “stopped half-way: instead of setting about ‘expropriating the expropriators,’ [they] allowed [themselves] to be led astray by dreams of establishing a higher justice in the country united by a common national task.”
In our age, after the experience of the Soviet New Economic Policy, Yugoslavia’s socialist market economy, and most importantly, of China’s Reform and Opening up – where socialist markets have been developed and private ownership sustains a large but auxiliary role in the development of the productive forces – we have learned that this development can take many forms. In some cases, such as Cuba, the full expropriation of the expropriators was immediately necessary. In other cases, such as China, the development of socialism has always maintained – since the pre-49 liberated areas – a ‘mixed’ economic form, where private property and markets exist within the centrally planned state economy. Far from using cherry picked comments from Marx and Engels to condemn these developments, we should do with them what they did with the Commune. We should learn from them and attempt to understand how these forms have become necessary for the real movement of history which abolishes the present state of things.
The second important lesson which subsequent socialist experiments have taught us concerns the relationship of socialism to a people’s national history. I think here, again, the failure of the Western and US left is grounded in a problem of worldview. The dialectical worldview (both in Hegel and in Marxism) rejects the idea of an unchanging, pure, ahistorical universal, and instead urges that universals are necessarily tied to historically changing concrete particulars. Universals are always concrete – that is, they exist and take their form through the particular. “The universal,” as Hegel and Lenin emphasized, “embraces within itself the wealth of the particular.”
What does this tell us about socialism? Well, simply that there is no such thing as abstract socialism. Socialism is the universal which cannot exist unless concretized through the particular. In every country it has taken root in, socialism has had to adapt itself to the unique characteristics of the peoples that have waged and won the struggle for political power. In China this has taken the form of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics; in Cuba this has meant incorporating José Martí and the anti-colonial traditions into socialist construction; in Venezuela this has taken the form of Bolivarian socialism; in the Plurinational state of Bolivia this has taken the form of combining Marxism with the indigenous communist traditions which have been around for centuries; in the continent of Africa this has taken the form of Pan-African socialism, and so on. In each case the struggle has been, as Georgi Dimitrov had already noted in 1935, “national in form and socialist in content.”
In various parts of the U.S. left, the purity fetish outlook has obscured this historical lesson, and made rampant the phenomenon which Dimitrov called national nihilism. Their people’s history is reduced to slavery, settler colonialism, imperialism, and all the evils of capital and the state. In doing so, they reject drawing from their national past to give form to socialist content. Far from the ‘progressivism’ they see in this, what this actually depicts is a liberal tinted American exceptionalism, which thinks that the struggle for socialism in the US will itself not have to follow this concrete universal tendency seen around the world, where socialism functions as the content which takes form (i.e., concretizes) according to the unique circumstances in which it is being developed.
This has prevented the U.S. left from genuinely learning from its progressive history and connecting with its people. A perfect example of this is the fact that, from 1865 to the counterrevolution of 1876, in many previous slave states of the U.S. South, reconstruction developed a dictatorship of labor. This dictatorship of labor was headed by the black proletariat – who had recently freed itself through a general strike that converted the war to preserve the union into a revolutionary war to emancipate slave labor. It was organized by the Freedman’s Bureau and defended militarily by the federal government. It was our Paris Commune; it started before and lasted way longer than the original. Like the Paris Commune, it also fell thanks to a counterrevolution of property. Besides the few on the U.S. left who take the work of the great Dr. Du Bois serious – this legendary experience of a new worker’s democracy, not unlike the Paris Commune, is a largely erased and forgotten period of U.S. revolutionary history, and it has so, so much to teach us, both tactically and theoretically.
I am honored to have had the privilege of discussing this Titanic event in world-history with all of you today.
Whether we consider the Paris Commune the first modern dictatorship of the proletariat, or give that title to the black proletariat in the U.S. South, is somewhat irrelevant. What matters, in my view, is that the Paris Commune, as Lenin argued, by fighting “for the freedom of toiling humanity, of all the downtrodden and oppressed,” is still being honored 152 years after its fall “by the proletariat of the whole world.” This is why, in the words of Lenin, “the cause of the Commune did not die … it lives to the present day in every one of us.”
 Karl Marx, The Civil War in France (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 2021), 35.
 Karl Marx, “Marx to Kugelmann,” April 12, 1871. In Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol 44, International Publishers., pp. 131-132.
 V. I. Lenin, The State and Revolution (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1970), 47.
 Lenin, The State and Revolution, 40, 30.
 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, MECW Vol. 5 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), 49.
 Engels, MECW Vol. 5, 49.
 Samir Amin, Only People Make Their Own History: Writings on Capitalism, Imperialism, and Revolution (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2019), 110.
 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (New York: Barnes and Nobles Classics, 2005), 45.
 Marx and Engels, MECW Vol. 6, 504.
 Marx, The Civil War in France, 62, 61.
 Marx, MECW Vol. 6, 486; Marx, The Civil War in France, 61.
 Lenin, The State and Revolution, 35.
 Lenin, The State and Revolution, 36.
 Marx, The Civil War in France, 64.
 Marx, The Civil War in France, 65.
 Cheng Enfu and Lu Baolin, “Five Characteristics of Neoimperialism,” Monthly Review 73(1) (May 2021).
 W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction (New York: The Library of America, 2021), 697- 762.
 Mao Tse-Tung, “Talks at a Conference of Secretaries of Provincial, Municipal and Autonomous Regions Party Committees,” In Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung Vol 5 (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1977), 357.
 Domenico Losurdo, “Has China Turned to Capitalism?—Reflections on the Transition from Capitalism to Socialism,” International Critical Thought 7(1) (2017), 18-19.
 Engels, MECW Vol. 23, 425.
 V. I. Lenin, Collected Works Vol. 13 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1978), 476.
 Lenin, Collected Works Vol. 28, 249.
 Engels, “Introduction,” in The Civil War in France, 10-11.
 Lenin, Collected Works Vol. 13, 476.
 G. W. F. Hegel, Science of Logic, Trans. A.V. Miller (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press International, 1993), 58.
 Georgi Dimitrov, The United Front: The Struggle Against Fascism and War (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1938), 61-64.
 For more on national nihilism and the Western left see my article “The Importance of Combatting National and Historical Nihilism,” Midwestern Marx Institute (February 2023): https://www.midwesternmarx.com/articles/the-importance-of-combatting-national-and-historical-nihilism-by-carlos-l-garrido or my book The Purity Fetish and the Crisis of Western Marxism (Dubuque: Midwestern Marx Publishing Press, 2023).
 Lenin, Collected Works Vol. 17, 143.
 Lenin, Collected Works Vol. 17, 143.
Carlos L. Garrido is a Cuban American PhD student and instructor in philosophy at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale (with an MA in philosophy from the same institution). He is an editor at the Midwestern Marx Institute and the Journal of American Socialist Studies. Carlos is the author of the forthcoming book, The Purity Fetish and the Crisis of Western Marxism (2023) and edited and introduced Marxism and the Dialectical Materialist Worldview: An Anthology of Classical Marxist Texts on Dialectical Materialism (2022). His popular and scholarly writings are usually on topics relating to Marxist theory, U.S. socialist history, and global struggles against imperialism.
Exploring Friedrich Engels’ Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy: Part 3 – Feuerbach. By: Thomas RigginsRead Now
(Read Part 1 HERE and Part 2 HERE)
So what kind of Idealism is Feuerbach, according to Engels, peddling? Feuerbach is a materialist who wants to advocate a true religion for humanity. Here is a quote from him: “The periods of humanity are distinguished only by religious changes. A historical movement is fundamental only when it is rooted in the hearts of men. The heart is not a form of religion, that the latter should exist also in the heart; the heart is the essence of religion.” Religion is based on the love that humans are capable of sharing with one another. Heretofore that love has been objectified and projected upon mythical beings and has been the alienated essence of the historic religions as well as the natural religions of primitive times.
Now, in the modern world of scientific understanding, we can dispense with the mythical superstitious religious beliefs that dominate the masses (they will have to be educated of course) and have a loving religion of the heart directly practiced by humans, Engels says, “this becomes the love between ‘I’ and ’Thou.’” Sex is the highest way we can express our love; so, sexual relations become one of the highest forms of Feuerbach’s new religion.
Sexual attraction and love making are purely natural functions of the human being and they should not be circumscribed by the rules and regulations of the state or of the positive religions (positive = historically existing). All the rules and regulations about sex and the relations between loving humans that are associated with, for example, Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism should be dumped as they are based on illusions and mythological premises. But the Idealism that Feuerbach manifests comes from his view that these relations do need a religious foundation, not from the positive or primitive religions, but based on the “human heart.” Speaking strictly as a materialist, the “heart” is a muscle, just as the ischiocavernosus muscle, so Feuerbach is being metaphorical. Anyway, Engels says, the major point is “not that these purely human relations exist, but that they shall be conceived of as the new, true religion.”
Here Feuerbach is a victim of his era: religion is important, and Feuerbach wants to keep the word around – he thinks it is important to have a society based on “religion.” Engels thinks it’s really ridiculous to try and have a materialist religion, one without a “God” or any supernatural ideas attached to it. The idea that religious changes are what delimit the periods of humanity is, Engels says: “Decidedly false.”
For Marxists, As Engels notes, the great epochal changes in history are economically based on changes in class relations and power politics; religious changes only accompanied these events. Meanwhile, there can be no “I-Thou” lovey-dovey relationships between humans as humans based on the natural proclivity for people to love one another, this is because our world and the globalized society we are all living in is still “based upon class antagonism and class rule.” Feuerbach’s writings on the religion of love, Engels points out, are “totally unreadable today.”
Religion remains in the 21st century what it has always been— the opium of the masses. We can work with religious people on specific progressive projects, but we should not encourage religious belief because such beliefs are rooted in Idealistic unscientific notions which prevent people from a proper understanding of reality – and this holds back the movement towards human liberation and in the long run only helps the exploiters.
Despite his writings on religions, Feuerbach has only really studied one, according to Engels, i.e., Christianity. Not only that, but it is an abstract idealized form of Christian morality which Feuerbach thinks his new religion of the heart, based on sexual intercourse, will instill in humanity. What is this “humanity” that he writes about? It is an abstract and idealized humanity that Feuerbach finds existing in all ages and climes. It is an ahistorical concept – some kind of “human nature” that Feuerbach had deduced by his concept of Christian morality.
Engels contrasts the materialist Feuerbach with the objective idealist Hegel, who also writes about Christianity and morals. Despite outward appearances, the materialist is really an idealist and the idealist a materialist. Feuerbach is a materialist because he doesn’t believe in God or a supernatural world on which to base his new religion; he bases it on the materially existing species of man on our planet and on nothing else. Sexual intercourse is at the heart of the heart of the new religion. It is really rooted in material existence. Yet his moral system is an abstract one deduced from an ideal Christianity.
Christianity, Jesus, God, etc., is nothing more than a human reflection projected into the sky for Feuerbach – the human family Is the source of all the ideals about the Holy Family, morality is just this reflection coming back to us of our own dreams and ideals. But for Engels, this reflection is devoid of the actual behavior of Christians throughout history who, besides engaging in sexual intercourse, have done a lot of unsavory activities inspired by their religion. Feuerbach who “preaches sensuousness, immersion in the concrete, in actuality, becomes thoroughly abstract as soon as he begins to talk of any other than mere sexual intercourse between human beings.” So, the materialist has produced a philosophy based on abstract mental constructions he has deduced from the Christian religion which is the basis for his morality. This is why the materialist is an idealist! A living breathing unity of opposites. (At least until 1872).
And what of Hegel? Was Feuerbach actually an improvement on Hegel? Well, here is Feuerbach’s morality in a nutshell. All human beings have an innate desire for “bliss;” but we can’t attain bliss without knowing how not to overindulge our desires, and we must also respect the social rights of others to also attain bliss – and this we do through love. Engels writes, “Rational self-restraint with regard to ourselves and love in contact with others— these are the basic rules of Feuerbach’s morality; from them all others are derived.”
Despite all Feuerbach’s comments about materialism, these rules about morality are, Engels says, banal. You can’t find “bliss” by just thinking about yourself and it is impossible to practice “love” towards others in the real world due to the actual social and economic systems humans live in. Feudal lords and surfs, slaves and masters, and in our age capitalists and proletarians are proof of the banality of Feuerbach’s pretensions to morality. Ruling (and exploiting) and ruled (and exploited) classes existing under the same social totality means that the masses will always be deprived of the material needs they require – both to find a blissful life for themselves, or to properly be able to practice unselfish “love” for others, especially for those who oppress them.
In this respect Hegel was more advanced than Feuerbach. Hegel saw morality as advancing through historical stages driven by humanity's “greed and lust for power.” Hegel explained how in each stage this struggle produced contradictions that could be resolved only by moving on to a higher stage of moral consciousness, until we reached Hegel’s day, when the idea of human equality had reached its highest bourgeois level (with the French Revolution) – all men are equal before the law (the level including women was yet to come). There was an innate drive here also, the struggle for human freedom – which was an idea struggling to come to human consciousness and history – was the result of this struggle. This was Hegel’s idealism.
For Marxists, it will be the class struggle objectively working in the material life of human beings at any point in history that is responsible for “moral” progress. “The cult of abstract man, which formed the kernel of Feuerbach’s new religion, had to be replaced by the science of real men and their historical development. This further development of Feuerbach’s standpoint beyond Feuerbach was inaugurated by Marx in 1845 in The Holy Family.” [Although this work was a joint creation of Marx and Engels, Engels here credits Marx with the breakthrough beyond Feuerbach’s materialism to what was to become Dialectical Materialism.]
Next: Part Four “Marx”
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.
Neoclassical Economics & Postmodernist Philosophy:Two Academic Expressions of the Ruling Class By: Edward Liger SmithRead Now
The relations of production at the core of all human civilizations have an immense impact on the way that young people are educated, and history has shown that the ruling economic class of any society will attempt to control the education system in that society. The capitalist economic system, or mode of production, is no different in this respect when it comes to elementary and higher-level education. The American elementary education system, for example, was originally based upon the idea of “factory schools,” which emerged during the industrial revolution in order to give parents a place to send their children while they worked all day, and to train up a “punctual, docile, and sober” working class of the future. And honestly, it is fairly obvious that the elementary education system is still preparing the youth of our country for future 8+ hour workdays under the supervision of administrators. However, it’s not always as easy to see how capitalist relations of production and the ruling class influence our institutions of higher education.
Colleges were once thought to be places of free expression where new ideas are formulated and debated by the brightest minds in the nation. However, in the same way that elementary education was created to train the working class of the future, our institutions of higher education are largely designed inversely, to train the capitalist ideologues, managers, politicians, and ruling elites of the future. Far from indoctrinating the young adults of America with radical Marxism as Fox News would have you believe, colleges today are indoctrinating their students with neoclassical economics and postmodernist philosophy. Two ideologies which form the purest academic expressions of the capitalist ruling class and the basis of much of what is taught to college students today.
Prior to the emergence of the Neoclassical school, the Classical school of economics was the preferred intellectual tool of capitalist ideologues and propagandists. The Neoclassical school started to form in the mid-late 19th and early 20th centuries, and largely did so in response to the growing Marxist school that was coming to prominence around the same time. In 1867 Karl Marx had published his groundbreaking work of political economy Das Kapital Volume I, which in many ways brought classical economics to its conclusion. Using the work of the most prominent classical economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo as the basis for his investigation, Marx took the classical school’s “labor theory of value” to its logical conclusions, answering many of the questions that classical economists had been grappling with for years, and systematically criticizing the systems devised by these economists to pinpoint where their analysis went astray. Using David Ricardo’s labor theory of value Marx mapped out exactly how capitalism produces and circulates value, and in doing so, discovered that capitalist relations of production themselves necessitate the exploitation of labor, accumulation of capital, constant expansion of markets, and much more. It became clear to capitalist ideologues at this point, and even more so after the posthumous publishing of Capital volumes II and III, that the labor theory of value would no longer be of much use in defending capitalism. Classical economics was mostly abandoned by the ruling class and many people today believe that Karl Marx actually invented the labor theory of value. The ruling class now needed a new theory of economics to argue that capitalism is necessary, eternal, and maximizes human flourishing.
Marx had shown in no uncertain terms that if labor is the source of all value in society, then capitalist accumulation necessitates the exploitation of that labor or else it would be impossible. And thus, the capitalists needed to toss out the labor theory of value in order to continue denying the exploitation of the working class, despite the fact that the theory had been accepted by economists for years prior. The neoclassical economists devised the “utility theory of value” as a way to displace the labor theory, which might as well be called the “subjective theory of value” because it suggests that all value is subjective, and rejects the possibility of any objective measurement of material economic value.
Whereas the labor theory measures a commodity's value by the amount of socially necessary labor time needed to produce it, utility theory considers the value of a commodity to be subjectively determined by the price that consumers are willing to pay for it, in relation to the amount of the commodity that is currently being supplied on the market. Marxist economics conceptualizes price as an imperfect way of quantifying and expressing the amount of labor value contained in a commodity, the neoclassical school sees price as an absolute expression of a commodities’ value that’s dependent on its utility, which is subjectively determined by the desires of consumers.
Unlike the labor theory of value, the utility or subjective theory is completely empirically untestable, a point which Marxist economist Paul Cockshott makes in his defense of the labor theory and critique of Alfred Marshall, who’s often considered the father of neoclassical economics. The neoclassicals consider consumer demand to be a primary determinant of commodity prices, but a commodity’s perceived utility is an entirely subjective factor which cannot be quantified, and thus cannot be measured or compared to other commodity values numerically. This is the opposite of labor theory which measures commodity values by the average quantity of labor time needed to produce it. The utility theory of value is entirely based on the subjective perceptions of consumers which can’t be quantified and thus can’t be compared to commodity prices. This means that neoclassical economists can never actually test their theory that consumer demand determines the price of a commodity, unlike labor time on the other hand, which correlates very closely to commodity prices (as we will discuss later). The subjective nature of the utility theory, or the subjective theory of value, has been very useful for the neoclassical ideologues who defend it and allege that it has disproved the labor theory.
Classical economics was originally an attempt to do with the economy what Isaac Newton had done with the natural world – use the scientific method to observe the system as closely as possible in order to decipher as best as possible its properties, motions, and laws. The economists identified human activity, i.e., human labor, to be the core source of value in all societies, as labor is the one ingredient needed to create and sell every commodity in existence. Once the source of value was determined, the economist's job became analyzing the nature of the system in which commodity values are produced, managed, distributed, accumulated, hoarded, etc. And by doing this Marx proved that the production and distribution of commodities is dominated by capitalists who don’t contribute any value themselves, and have the exclusive aim of producing surplus value by exploiting the labor of workers, which they can then take.
After Marx had shown this, the pro-capitalist economists needed to abandon this scientific Newtonian approach to studying the economy. While the labor theory explains a great deal about capitalism and the nature of exploitation, the utility theory is subjective, abstract, untestable, and says next to nothing about the regular operations of capitalism. It is a theory that’s so subjective and contains so little substance that it actually becomes difficult to argue against. Why try to explain the correlation between labor time and price to somebody who can always respond with “Nope, the subjective Supply and Demand curves that I drew to intersect a given price point on this graph determine the price.” Regardless of how you argue that price is determined, the neoclassical can always draw two curves through it and claim they are the true determinants of price. It is difficult to concisely refute the substance of a theory that contains no real substance.
In his critique of Alfred Marshall, Dr. Paul Cockshott rigorously examines the Supply and Demand curves that Alfred Marshall himself gave in his work, which is considered a foundational document for the neoclassical school. Cockshott turns the Demand curve given by Marshall into an algebraic equation and finds that the points on the curve have no material origin and are entirely senseless, as they were almost surely just made up and drawn arbitrarily by Marshall on a graph. Similar results are deduced in the analysis of the supply curve, showing that without a doubt this entire theory, foundational to the neoclassical school and modern economic thought, was pulled straight out of Alfred Marshall’s ass without a shred of real evidence attached to it.
Thinkers like Alfred Marshall and his much-revered disciple Milton Friedman generally believe that the point where the supply and demand curve intersect is called the equilibrium point, and the prices and quantities of all goods gravitate around this point, which results in a system of pricing and producing that maximizes societal well-being. When speaking about equilibrium Milton Friedman once said “I think the general equilibrium system is a beautiful work of art, it’s very valuable for students to learn it, and get a FEELING about the interrelationships of things, but there is no way it can be used in practice to analyze specific problems.” This can be interpreted as an admission that the equilibrium theory is nothing besides a propaganda tool to influence the minds of young students to think that the market can magically manage the incredibly complex capitalist economy, and distract from the reality that capitalism is riddled with contradictions and crises.
It’s clear to see how the theory of equilibrium directly conceals capitalism’s contradictions when we consider the labor market, because capitalism commodifies human labor power, that labor exists in a market which is available to capitalists to draw from. Thus, according to the utility theory, the intersection of the supply and demand curves on the graph not only determine the price of labor from the perspective of the capitalist, but this is also the wage of the worker, from the perspective of the person selling their labor power. And according to the neoclassicals the level of wages are always in “equilibrium” so long as the market remains “free.” No need to organize your workplace into a union to push for higher wages, or try to press the Government into raising the minimum wage, this would simply disrupt equilibrium! Says the neoclassical economist as he collects his paycheck from a corporate funded libertarian NGO. The theory of equilibrium takes away the contradiction at the very core of capitalism, the contradiction between capital and labor, and thus they remove the possibility for collective struggle by the laboring class against the capitalist class. Teaching this dogmatic and baseless idea to young people is the purpose of the equilibrium theory, as Milton Friedman said, it clearly has no real value in practice. Another neoclassical model that does nothing to explain the world.
Marxist economics identifies two different kinds of value that are contained within every commodity, the first being the quantitative measure of exchange value, and the second being the qualitative use-value. Exchange-value is a commodity's value when compared to all other commodities on the market and it is determined by the amount of human labor power expended in its production, which is expressed quantitatively in a numerical value called the price. The fact that every commodity has an exchange-value attached to it means that all commodities are commensurable, directly comparable, and exchangeable with each other. But price is only an imperfect expression of this exchange value, and thus an imperfect expression of the amount of human labor time used to produce every commodity. Differences in price and labor time stem from the reality that it is difficult to quantify concrete human labor and express it abstractly, which is what Marx dubs as the contradiction between concrete and abstract labor – a contradiction which is unresolvable under a capitalist mode of production.
The qualitative use-value contained in every commodity, on the other hand, is what distinguishes commodities from one another materially, in terms of their objective and tangible content. Unlike exchange-value, use-value is entirely subjective and is determined by the needs and desires of the individual buyer. There is no way to quantitatively measure and express numerically how useful a buyer will find a commodity to be, and thus it is impossible to quantify so-called consumer demand, it is a purely subjective value. However, that’s not to say that the use-value of a commodity is unimportant, and Marx recognized that every commodity must have a use-value or it won’t be sold on the market, because buyers will never purchase a product that they have no use for. Exchange-value and use-value exist simultaneously within every commodity that is produced and circulated in the capitalist mode of production.
It may be clear to some readers already that neoclassical economics simply takes the subjectively determined use-value of a commodity and claims that it somehow determines the price when related to the supply of that commodity on the Market. And as we said earlier, there is no way to test this theory with any kind of objective experiments or data analysis. On the other hand, Marxist economists like Paul Cockshott have tested the labor theory of value by calculating the amount of labor time in every industry and comparing it to the prices of commodities in that industry, then putting the data into a table to calculate the exact correlation between labor time and prices. The correlation comes out to about 94% - only offset by industries where monopolistic corporations that own large amounts of land are able to sell commodities at artificially inflated prices. The labor theory of value is objective, scientific, and testable, the utility theory of value might as well be considered commodity price astrology.
The neoclassical school also distinguishes itself from the classical and Marxist schools by tossing out any conception of history and historical development. If capitalism is shown to have a historical origin and a historically specific existence, then it can be implied that capitalism will also have an end and be replaced by a new historically specific mode of production. Thus, neoclassical economists find it most convenient to ignore the various modes of production that existed before capitalism and hyper focus on market transactions which they treat as universal, or existing within every society historically. In so doing, they can claim that humanity is naturally predisposed to market activity because the mystical forces of supply and demand always know best, and capitalism is thus portrayed as the pinnacle of human society and development, because it is the most highly developed form of commodity production and market activity.
Nothing can be done to improve upon the current system except to minimize the size of the Government, at least when it comes to doing things for poor and working people, and let the capitalists accumulate to no end as rapidly as possible. Any ill effects of the market are ignored, or explained away by economists who claim they stem from Government interference and inefficiencies which only hinders the efficiency of the market. It’s not the profit gouging healthcare corporations making billions of dollars selling healthcare as a commodity each year, says the “Mises Institute” (a well-funded neoclassical think tank that offers a graduate program in economics), it’s actually Medicare and Medicaid! Damn the mountains of empirical evidence that say Medicaid and Medicare expansions have greatly increased access to healthcare and show that a single payer public system would work even better! Empirical evidence means nothing to the immortal curves that Alfred Marshall pulled from his ass!
One of the most ludicrous products of this economic philosophy is what’s known as the “Economic Calculation Problem,” first laid out by the titan of neoclassical capitalist ideologues Ludwig Von Mises in 1920. His book Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth declares that it is actually impossible for humans to calculate a centrally planned economy which works as efficiently as the market. Perhaps Mr. Mises invented a time machine in order to travel to the future and observe the evolutions in technology, where he ignored Paul Cockshott’s Towards a New Socialism book on economic planning, ignored the central economic planning that’s conducted every day by monopolistic corporations such as Wal-Mart using computer software, ignored any and all revolutionary planning projects like Chile’s project cybersyn, and determined that no computer now or ever would be able to calculate an efficient economy under any circumstances.
And what does Mises use as his standard for “efficiency” you ask? Well, the capitalist free market of course! Don’t forget that the neoclassicals always assume the market to be the most efficient method for producing and distributing goods. So to distill Mises argument down to its essence, he says no economy could ever be planned as efficiently as the free market, because none of the computer programs or planning models in 1920 could create an economy that replicated the existing market economy, which he assumes to be the most efficient method of economic distribution possible because of the made up theory of equilibrium, despite the fact that it constantly allows people to starve and creates senseless wars of conquest… Okay Ludwig, whatever you got to tell yourself to justify the system that made you an intellectual superstar. Even if it was impossible for computers to calculate a complex capitalist market economy, why would the working masses of society want that anyways? This economy drives down our wages, sends our children to die in wars of conquest, and works us to the bone for the purpose of accumulation. How hard can it be to plan an economy better than that?
So, are you beginning to see the absurdity of an economic framework of analysis that always assumes markets to be optimal? When this unproven assumption is taken as fact, the neoclassical economist can argue almost anything. And Mises demonstrates this perfectly by claiming to know the future, stating with certainty that no technology will ever be invented that can plan an economy better than the sacred market. Sometimes it seems like neoclassical economics should stop pretending to be a school of economic study and embrace its dogmatic roots by becoming a religion. If you’re going to worship the market as a God, you might as well be honest about it.
The neoclassical religion is even complete with its own origin story! It says that since the dawn of mankind the human species has always traded goods and services on markets. Over time humans increased the amount of goods and services they produced and traded with each other, and the more that market transactions and commerce increased, the more that society improved! For everyone except the newly enslaved people whose labor created the commercial goods of course. But eventually the benevolent ruling class realized that the one commodity human beings shouldn’t buy and sell, is other human beings. So, wage-labor, or the commodification of human labor power, came to replace slave labor, and capitalism was invented, meaning humanity had reached the pinnacle of their development. All that can be done now by those who want society to flourish is to protect our markets and keep them free!
The problem with this origin story is that it is a self-serving fantasy created by neoclassical ideologues with no grasp of history and no intentions of injecting rigorous historical analysis into their scholarship. Instead of a detailed history we get a dogmatic creation story about the sacred market, culminating in the message that society should worship and protect the market if we want to flourish. While it is true that the development of markets and commerce spurred the growth of capitalism which replaced feudalism in Europe, commodity production didn’t start making substantial gains until around 1200 AD, and it didn’t explode until the industrial revolution years later. The neoclassicals simply ignore thousands of years of human history that came prior to the development of markets and commodity production, as well as mountains of historical and anthropological evidence suggesting that humans originally lived in primitive communist societies, where the means of production were held in common, and production and distribution were carried out based on the needs of the group. Only with the development of humans' productive powers and the ability to hoard wealth did society become divided into classes, and only then did accumulation and market exchange become a major incentive to human activities.
Not to mention that the division of society into classes and the emergent drive for accumulation then became the basis for most every historical atrocity that followed. For example, the exploitation of labor and slavery, wars of conquest, the systematic oppression of women, vast inequality in ownership of the necessities of life, just to name a handful. Prior to society’s division into classes of owners and workers, so called ‘human nature’ was largely cooperative, which is evidence that humans are not the inherently selfish individuals that the neoclassicals make us out to be. The Marxist view is that human nature is malleable, and changes based on material conditions. An economy divided into classes that allows the most selfish and cutthroat to rise to the top, will promote a kind of human nature that is selfish and greedy, but if humans were to exist in an economy where cooperation was incentivized, it would allow the more selfless aspects of humanity to flourish. Free markets are not equivalent to a free society, and in fact freedom of markets often means freedom of exploitation, which incentivizes selfishness and the domination of others.
The ahistorical framework of the neoclassicals has had a terrible effect on academia as a whole. When Professor Edward Baptiste published his book, The Half Has Never Been Told, giving an economic analysis of the development of American Southern Slavery, Western economists embarrassed themselves by responding with anti-intellectual criticisms of the book that amounted to being mad that it disproved part of their mystical origin story about the development of capitalism. I criticize these economists more thoroughly in my article about Southern Slavery’s role in the development of European and Northern capitalism, and Dr. Baptiste himself published an article destroying his neoclassical critics and their dogmatic view of history that actually resulted in the economist retracting their article and issuing an apology.
The basic critique of the book that the neoclassicals gave in their article Blood Cotton was that “Mr. Baptiste has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book were victims, almost all the whites villains.” The authors argue that the enslavers, who implemented systematized torture in order to maximize the production of cotton commodities, were simply acting in accordance with the global markets, and therefore shouldn’t be demonized for using torture as a method of production. As Baptiste explains in his response, the economists expose the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of their own ideology with this review. Because of their adherence to market fundamentalism, and the deeply held belief that societal efficiency and wellbeing increase in proportion to the profits of the ruling class, the economists have found themselves in the absurd position of arguing that slavery wasn’t actually that bad! After all, the enslavers only captured, traded, and tortured other human beings because the market incentivized them to do it. And the market always knows best!
Oddly enough the economists also argue that slaves weren’t treated as poorly as Baptiste portrays, because slaves were legally considered the property, or the capital, of their enslavers, and thus the slave owners had incentive to not maim or kill their own slaves. One has to wonder whether these economists would hold the same positions if they were allowed to hop in Ludwig Von Mises’ time machine and travel to the past to be a slave for a week. But regardless, they’ve unwittingly made an argument AGAINST capitalism and wage labor here, by arguing that capitalists would actually take better care of their workers if they owned them as private property. The implication in their argument is that wage-laborers are treated worse than slaves, because capitalists only own the wage worker’s bodies during the temporary period in which they are working, and after work hours they can dispense with the worker and draw fresh labor power from the labor market. But this is a point that is completely lost on the neoclassical economists who tend not to worry themselves with the logical implications of their theories.
Unfortunately, too few academics dare to do what Baptiste did – give an account of historical economic development that runs counter to the fundamentalist beliefs of the neoclassical school. Years of ruling class influence on the academy have had incredibly harmful effects, and neoclassical economics have become the form of economic thought that underpins most all of the social sciences. There has been a great deal of scholarship detailing how the Koch Brothers and their oligarchic contemporaries have spent billions of dollars to influence the academies of higher learning, largely through making their multi-million-dollar donations to various colleges dependent upon those colleges teaching neoclassical economics and hiring professors who adhere to the neoclassical school. Jane Meyer’s 2016 text Dark Money is a great piece of journalism that details how the Koch Brothers propaganda machine was built and how it operates.
Anyone studying social sciences in academia today has surely encountered neoclassical economics at some point whether they're aware of it or not. When I was pursuing an undergraduate degree in politics, I took a microeconomics course to better understand the effect of economics on politics, where even my young mind was immediately stunned at the lack of scholarly rigor shown by my professor when I asked her some of the burning questions I had about economics. I first questioned the Professor about the economic situation in Venezuela, which she boiled down to “Venezuela used to be rich, then socialism came along, now they are poor.” At the time I didn’t realize how ludicrous this statement truly was, and I would later be motivated by this conversation to publish my undergraduate thesis on the actual political-economic situation in Venezuela, but at the time I just started asking the professor questions, naively believing she may have the answers I was looking for. I asked about the effects of US sanctions on Venezuela, the US coup efforts, why John Bolton and other members of the US State Department were so obsessed with controlling Venezuelan politics.
All of these questions were batted down by the professor who gave me no honest answers and found a way to blame Venezuelan Socialism for everything negative that has happened in the country in the past 25 years. She also praised John Bolton as a man who always does what he thinks is best, and denied my claim that Bolton was influenced by American oil corporations who crave access to Venezuelan oil. Later on, I would discover that the Professor is the Chairman of the local GOP who had run for office many times with the Republican Party (losing every time), and she adhered to the neoclassical school of economics with her most influential thinker being Ayn Rand. She also used to dress up as Barbie in class (talk about commodity fetishism). This interaction was what first planted the idea in my head that Western economics may be a total scam, and the people who told me that I needed to study economics in order to learn why socialism could never work, were either scam artists or victims themselves.
As I now pursue a graduate degree in Healthcare Administration, I'm finding that neoclassical economics not only dominates the economics departments in Western colleges, but the rest of the social sciences as well. A recent unit on the economics of healthcare taught us that supply and demand curves determine price, that healthcare firms must always strive to remain profitable, and that valuable healthcare resources should be spent on market analysis to maximize sales. A small paragraph at the end of the chapter mentioned that markets may not necessarily be equivalent with the needs of human populations, but the text takes the analysis no further than that. No mention is made of the fact that the chapter was based on neoclassical thought or that there are other schools of economic thought which exist.
And of course, this isn’t surprising, the entire curriculum is based on healthcare administration within a capitalist machine. Every decision and analysis we’re taught to make is done to maximize profitability for healthcare organizations. Our textbook chapter on healthcare economics made no mention of the fact that public healthcare systems have shown to be more efficient than private ones time and time again. No mention is made of the fact that the contradiction between exchange-value and use-value existing within every commodity perfectly explains the crisis of American healthcare, in that healthcare producers are incentivized to prioritize exchange-value and profit over use-value and the health of the populations they serve. Instead markets and profit are portrayed as universally existent and efficient and the 40,000 people who die yearly due to lack of healthcare, or the 100,000 killed by the opioid crisis created by the greed of healthcare corporations, are just unfortunate side effects of the system that can’t be helped without cutting into corporate profits. And of course, those profits are deemed eternally untouchable.
Even the Marxist school of economics has not continued unaffected by the dogma of the neoclassicals. Many self-described Marxist economists have abandoned the labor theory in favor of utility theory, and even the famed Marxist professor David Harvey suggests in his reading guide for Capital Volume I, that the labor theory of value is no longer of much use as a price determinant and is only still valuable because it helps us understand that there is a socially necessary quantity of labor needed to produce the material goods humanity needs to survive, and this socially necessary labor value is concealed by the circulation of commodities and fluctuation of prices. I believe it would serve Professor Harvey well to engage with the defense of the labor theory laid out by thinkers like Paul Cockshott, and to remember that Marx himself goes into detail about the way that price and demand shocks in the market cause price to fluctuate around its labor value, or its equilibrium according to the neoclassicals – a fact which Harvey is surely aware of as he addresses it many times in his Capital Companion series. It’s possible that Harvey has been influenced by the dominance of neoclassical economics in the Western academy, and by his intellectual contemporaries who tend to scoff at the labor theory despite being unable to disprove its scientific value.
While I have immense respect for David Harvey as a theorist and a student of Marxism, I believe he does a disservice to budding Marxists by failing to provide a defense of the labor theory in his reading guide for Marx’s most pivotal work. In arguing that the price system has a “vital function- the regulation of demand and supply…so that they converge on equilibrium price” he injects the concepts of neoclassical economics into Marxism where they do not belong. The function of the price system is to express the value of labor and facilitate the exchange of the products of labor, which it does imperfectly due to the contradiction between abstract and concrete labor. The imperfection is that prices often fail to represent the labor content of commodities with 100% accuracy, not because price fails to reach equilibrium, which unlike labor time, is a scientifically meaningless value that is not based upon anything concrete.
The Marxist method of economic analysis is based upon historical materialism and the scientific method, and it emerged as a much-needed critique of liberalism after the massive societal changes that were brought on by the industrial revolution. The neoclassical method of analysis only emerged historically as a ruling class counter to Marxism, and it is based on ahistoricism and unprovable assumptions that the capitalist class finds convenient. There is no reason that Marxists should alter our analysis in order to be more in line with the mainstream thought of the neoclassicals even if there is peer pressure to do so. We can start taking the neoclassicals seriously when they start presenting theories that are based in evidence and scientific rigor.
Young Marxists would be better served to engage with the analysis of a rigorous intellectual like Cockshott, rather than the work of an intellectual superstar like Milton Friedman, who’s lofty position in academia was granted to him by the ruling class. This is simply because his economic theories were tailored to capitalist interests and constitute the purest intellectual expression of the capitalist ruling class, that could not have been produced by any kind of objective analysis, but only by puppets of the capitalist oligarchs. And thus, the neoclassical theories hold as much scientific value as those produced by Feudal Lords arguing in favor of the divine right of kings.
In many ways the core principles of neoclassical doctrine can be equated with those of postmodern philosophy. The French postmodernist Jean-Francois Lyotard once defined postmodernism as “incredulity toward meta-narratives,” i.e., the rejection of any grand narratives about society, historical progress, or humanity’s steady advancement towards something better with time. Postmodernism deconstructs these narratives in favor of the idea that society is made up of isolated individuals whose reality is based upon their own subjective experiences, and not any kind of shared sense of meaning held collectively by say, an economic class for instance. For the postmodernist there is no historical subject that fits into a grander narrative about the progress of humanity, unlike Marxism which upholds the toiling masses struggling collectively for their own liberation as the subject of history. Instead, the working class is made up of isolated individuals who are too caught up in their own subjective individual experiences and identity groups to work collectively for any kind of shared goal. Human Reason and epistemological knowledge are themselves considered to be unreliable as they are bound to be influenced by the subjective experiences of the person attempting to utilize reason. Although, the postmodernists themselves seemingly use reason in the construction of their own philosophical systems, so perhaps they only consider themselves to be rational, and its only other people who have no capacity for reason.
Postmodernism rose to prominence in the 70s and didn’t explode until the 80s, but the roots of postmodernism can be found in Friedrich Nietzsche's writings in the last quarter of the 19th century. It is the culmination of that line of thought which Lukács called bourgeois irrationalism in The Destruction of Reason. For the purpose of simplicity, I will simply refer to all of these strains of thought as ‘postmodernism’ unless addressing one of them specifically. My critique is not all encompassing and is aimed more at postmodernism’s overall impact on society and the Western academy than specific postmodern thinkers. For those who want more specific critique or detailed history I recommend diving into some of the sources I’ve cited in this paper.
Many of the critics of postmodernism dismiss it as unintelligible academic jargon with no decipherable meaning, while many who uphold the philosophical school tend to portray its thinkers as untouchable titans whose theory is so complex that it cannot even be critiqued. However, the best critics of postmodernism are those who reject both of these views in favor of the idea that it is in fact intelligible, it can be critiqued, and it actually should be critiqued because it has tangible effects on the real world. In recent years Marxist Philosopher Gabriel Rockhill has provided invaluable critiques of postmodernist theory, which he himself studied for years in France, as well as a historical analysis of how postmodernist theory rose to a place of prominence and status in the Western academy. Rockhill goes to great lengths to uncover the connection between postmodern thinkers and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), pointing out that if the philosophy is so important to a ruling class body of anti-revolutionary suppression, then it surely bears importance for revolutionaries as well. 
Rockhill brings forward a mass of evidence detailing how the CIA and their arms of cultural and academic influence like the ‘Congress for Cultural Freedom’ boosted postmodernist and post-structuralist thinkers as a way to combat the influence of Marxism and sow division in leftist movements, even doing so against the wishes of the U.S. State Department at times, which had originally been duped by postmodernism's left-wing ascetic. The CIA, however, could tell from the outset that postmodernism’s radical aesthetic was just that, an aesthetic, and in fact the philosophy is deeply anti-Marxist and reactionary, as it removes the possibility of a historical subject progressing towards an ideal held in common, such as the progress of the toiling masses towards communism.
The postmodernist thinker claims to reject all historical meta-narratives, but such a rejection constitutes a meta-narrative in itself! It is, in fact, a narrative which says that collective struggle will never truly progress history forward or make life better, and any sense of shared reality or meaning between workers is either illusory or imaginary. Thus, what is there for a working person to do besides feed their individualistic consumerist desires as much as possible before death? Any sense of discipline or dedication to a common struggle would be futile and based on the illusion of historical progress, a false narrative of history that only exists as a figment of the worker’s imagination.
It should come as no surprise that such a message, concealed beneath the intellectual sounding rhetoric of thinkers like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, was very useful for the CIA, who blasted it over a loudspeaker from the ivory towers of academia into the minds of the unsuspecting masses below. Any member of the working class who engages in collective struggle is simply a prisoner to their own mind unable to grasp the true nature of history. Unlike the enlightened postmodernists and Frankfurt School intellectuals, of course, who as Rockhill points out, very rarely engaged in revolutionary organizing outside the walls of the academy themselves.
While postmodernist theory is not unintelligible as some claim, there is no doubt that it prioritizes style over substance and often uses complex intellectual jargon to distract from the glaring contradictions in their philosophical systems. It also allows advocates of the postmodern school to look down upon and mock class-conscious working people who may only have a rudimentary understanding of Marxism and philosophy. I saw this constantly in my own experience creating Marxist education on the popular social media app Tik Tok, which allows users to share short videos that are often accompanied by music and built in special effects. Tik Tok accounts identifying as “neo-Marxist” or “Post-left” would mock young people from working families that were interested in Marxism for believing Marx’s meta-narrative about progress through class struggle, claiming it had been largely destroyed by the postmodernists.
As most people who are familiar with the app would probably imagine, the majority of these Tik Tok postmodernists were around the age of 18 and had not actually engaged with the extremely wordy scholarship of Foucault, Derrida, and Baudrillard, nor the dense and intellectually rigorous works of Karl Marx. These teens and young adults were more so drawn to the radical aesthetic of the postmodern school and the fact that it allowed them to feign intellectual superiority over their peers. And thus, these confused teens acted as online agents for discouraging radical activism and education while sowing relational division among other young people interested in radical politics. Exactly the function that the CIA had hoped postmodernism would serve.
Ironically, Rockhill is able to expose the CIA and ruling class influence in the postmodernist school by using the Marxist dialectical method to structure his analysis and examine how postmodern theory has been produced and circulated. A “dialectical analysis of theoretical production,” or a structuralist analysis of theoretical production used to critique the anti-structuralists. In Rockhill’s dialectical investigation he finds that the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the ford foundation, and other arms of the ruling capitalist class did fund academics directly on various occasions, but even more so than that, created the conditions for postmodernist thinkers to emerge. Millions of dollars were spent to create an academic climate where anti-communist leftists who rejected all forms of actually existing socialism could become intellectual superstars and receive consistent financial backing for their work.
The CIA funded newspapers, journals, and institutes for social research would have surely rejected the work of a Marxist philosopher like Carlos L. Garrido, who upholds Marxism as a worldview and the Marxist conception of historical progress, and defends the gains made for working people by revolutionary movements. Instead, these journals boosted the work of thinkers like Max Horkheimer, who became a millionaire owner of multiple textile factories, and Theodor Adorno, the son of a wealthy wine merchant, who quickly became towering figures in the Western left. Two philosophers that claimed to be Marxists, but never belonged to a working-class political party in their lives, nor lent their support to a single revolutionary movement. Horkheimer even went as far as to support the murderous US invasion of Vietnam, arguing that it was necessary to bludgeon China. Perhaps the European thinker held a bias against Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese communists for throwing off their French colonizers a few years prior. But regardless, the CIA loves a fake Marxist who will support the carpet bombing of real Marxists.
The Link Between Neoclassical Economics and Postmodernist Philosophy.
So now we arrive at the connections between postmodernism and neoclassical economics, which is nowhere as clearly apparent as with the utility theory of value, or the subjective theory of value. The keen-eyed reader may have already realized a connection between the economic philosophy based on a subjective theory of value production, and a philosophical theory which believes reality is largely subjective. There is no real value created by labor, only an individual's subjective demand for the products of labor. This departure from the labor theory of value in economics represents a move towards subjectivism away from the scientific conception of history, as well as a turn from Marxism toward postmodernism.
The shift reoriented the Western left just as the CIA had hoped it would, as European and North American socialists began to prioritize individual liberation above collective, and grounded itself upon issues of identity politics rather than labor. If labor is not the sole creator of value, why would the left form a movement based around the collective struggle of the laboring masses? Why not just focus on the freedom of individual identity groups? By removing labor from the core of the economic analysis, the neoclassicals remove the possibility for uniting the laborers in struggle based on their common class interests. This is similar to how postmodernism removes the possibility for struggle by atomizing the working class into separate individuals, rather than uniting them based on their common participation in the labor process, and thus their common exploitation under capitalism.
Postmodern thinkers would reject the Marxist idea that the scientific method should be used to study the economy, after all, how do we even know the scientific method is the proper way to discern objective reality? Objective truths and commonly held conceptions about the economy are nothing but illusions of the mind, as is humanities’ belief that we have the capacity to study the historical development of a specific subject. In a remarkably similar way to the neoclassical economists, the postmodernist philosophers dispense with the historical view of capitalism and the understanding that it has a historical origin which implies a historical end. The “left wing” postmodernists and “right wing” neoclassicals both reject the idea that capitalism exists in a historically specific form, although the neoclassicals somehow still make the contradictory argument that capitalism is the most highly developed form of society possible. The more that society is commodified the better, they argue, the only historical development that matters for the neoclassicals is that of the market.
The similarities between postmodernist philosophy and neoclassical economics are quite apparent when distilled down to their essence. Both are opposed to a historical materialist understanding of society, and both deny the possibility of having an objective measure of value, or even an objective truth. Instead, value and truth are entirely determined by the subjective experiences of individuals regardless of the objective reality. The utility theory of value is nothing but an application of the postmodernist theory of subjectivism applied to economics in an absurd manner. The postmodernist denial of historical development gives justification for the neoclassical school’s general historical ignorance. Despite these similarities most postmodern thinkers are associated with the “left wing” while the neoclassicals are considered “right wing.” In reality both ideologies are anti-Marxist, and both serve the ruling capitalist class.
It’s unclear to what degree the neoclassical school influenced postmodernism or vice versa. Neoclassical economics began emerging around the 1870s, around the heyday of Friedrich Nietzsche’s writings, but well before postmodernism came to prominence in the 1970s and 80s. Thus, it’s likely that the infiltration of the academy by neoclassical thought, particularly in the social sciences, had at least an indirect effect on the major postmodernist thinkers. But regardless of the causal relationship between the two, the fact that they come to such similar ahistorical and subjectivist conclusions is what makes the comparison interesting, and what characterizes them as being the two purest expressions of neoliberal ruling class ideology in the academy. Both ideologies isolate and fragment the individual away from the collective, both deny the possibility of objective reality that can be commonly understood, both only acknowledge truth in terms of subjective individual experiences, both reject the historical place of capitalism as a specific but temporary mode of production, and most importantly, both remove the possibility for collective working class struggle against the ruling elite in order to create a better world.
It is not because of their scientific value that neoclassical and postmodern thought have come to dominate the western academy, but because these ideologies express the values of neoliberal capitalism itself. This is a system which alienates, isolates, and fragments working people, places identity above labor, and preaches that the meaning of life is to consume commodities and enjoy material pleasures. This is the state of human affairs that stems from the material base of our society, from capitalist relations of production after years of development into the stage of neoliberalism. Postmodernist philosophy and neoclassical economics simply reflect the material base relations of capitalism in an academic form, and their sole purpose is to sustain this economic base by discouraging individuals from trying to change it.
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Edward Liger Smith is an American Political Scientist and specialist in anti-imperialist and socialist projects, especially Venezuela and China. He also has research interests in the role southern slavery played in the development of American and European capitalism. He is a co-founder and editor of Midwestern Marx and the Journal of American Socialist Studies. He is currently a health care administration graduate student and wrestling coach at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.
The Importance of Combatting National and Historical Nihilism. By: Carlos L. GarridoRead Now
This article is taken from a section of the author’s forthcoming book, The Purity Fetish and the Crisis of Western Marxism.
It is an imperative that we remember the words of Georgi Dimitrov, a giant of the world communist movement, in his speech to the Seventh World Congress of the Communist International in 1935. Here he would say the following comments on national nihilism, a phenomenon so rampant in American Marxists today:
Mussolini does his utmost to make capital for himself out of the heroic figure of Garibaldi. The French fascists bring to the fore as their heroine Joan of Arc. The American fascists appeal to the traditions of the American War of Independence, the traditions of Washington and Lincoln…
I have quoted this document at length because it magnificently captures one of the central forms the purity fetish expresses itself through in the US: national nihilism. We cannot allow the most reactionary segments of our monopoly capitalist class to win the ideological war over the national history of our people. We must be able to work creatively, to take the progressive elements of our national past – which, although obscured by our ruling class, exist in abundance – and to rearticulate these elements towards socialism. This is what Dimitrov means when he says that we must “enlighten the masses on the past of their people in a historically correct fashion, in a genuinely Marxist-Leninist spirit.” National and historical nihilism must be destroyed. As J.V. Stalin correctly said, “national nihilism only injures the cause of socialism, because it plays into the hands of the bourgeois nationalists.” It is a quintessential manifestation of the purity fetish – because the national past is impure, the purity fetish Marxists reject working with its progressive elements and incorporating these into the struggle for socialism.
Our country’s history, indeed, is a history marked by conquest, enslavement, genocide, exploitation, imperialism, and all the other evils brought by the development of the capitalist era in world history. It is also marked, however, by the struggles against feudal absolutism; by a promise for universal life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness – all demands which are unfulfillable within the capitalist mode of life; by the struggles against chattel slavery, wage slavery, genocidal attacks on indigenous communities; by the struggles, in the 20th century, against fascism, imperialism, for civil rights, for peace, etc. This is a complex, heterogeneous, and impure history. It is, in short, a contradictory history, containing within itself a unity of opposing forces – one which fights for human emancipation, the other which fights for preserving the tyranny of capital. We must learn how to use these objective contradictions to our advantage. The task ahead of us requires aligning our struggles today with the positive elements of the past and connecting the moribund capitalist-imperialist forces of our day with our past’s negative elements.
This is not an easy task. As Mao argued while condemning national nihilism,
Every nation in the world has its own history and its own strengths and weaknesses. Since earliest times excellent things and rotten things have mingled together and accumulated over long periods. To sort them out and distinguish the essence from the dregs is a very difficult task, but we must not reject history because of this difficulty. It is no good cutting ourselves off from history and abandoning our heritage. The common people would not approve.
This difficulty is embedded in the need to develop socialism according to the concrete conditions of a country. As Lenin said,
All nations will move towards socialism; it is inevitable. But the process will not be exactly the same for all nations … each nation will have its own characteristics.
This is why, the same Lenin which in one breath condemns Russia’s role as “a prison of nations,” in another says:
Are we class-conscious Great-Russian proletarians impervious to the feeling of national pride? Certainly not. We love our language and our motherland; we, more than any other group, are working to raise its laboring masses (i.e., nine-tenths of its population) to the level of intelligent democrats and socialists. We, more than anybody are grieved to see and feel to what violence, oppression and mockery our beautiful motherland is being subjected by the tsarist hangmen, the nobles and the capitalists.
With details adjusted to context, we may say something similar about the US today. We, too, could say that we are proud of our revolutionary class and its rich revolutionary history. We, too, could say that precisely because we are proud of this history – and because we are driven by the “great feelings of love” for the people that Che mentions – we wholeheartedly condemn our genocidal, slavish, exploitative, and imperialist past and present.
For Lenin, Mao, Fidel, Ho Chi Minh, Chávez, and other successful socialist leaders, the question they asked themselves concerning their national past was never “is it pure enough?” but “how can we use the national traditions ingrained in our people’s common sense and feelings to fight for socialism?” In China this has taken the form of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics; in Cuba this has meant incorporating José Martí and the anti-colonial traditions into socialist construction; in Venezuela this has taken the form of Bolivarian socialism; in Bolivia this has taken the form of combining Marxism (scientific socialism) with the indigenous communist traditions which have been around for centuries. The same can be seen in the socialist struggles in Africa (Pan-African Socialism), the Middle East (Islamic Socialism), and other parts of Asia and Latin America. One would have to be blinded by a liberal tinted American exceptionalism to think that the struggle for socialism in the US will itself not have to follow this concrete universal tendency seen around the world, where scientific socialism functions as the content which takes form (i.e., concretizes) according to the unique circumstances in which it is being developed.
Dialectics (both in Hegel and in Marxism) rejects the idea of an unchanging, pure, ahistorical universal, and instead urges that universals are necessarily tied to historically changing concrete particulars. Universals are always concrete – that is, they exist and take their form through the particular. “The universal,” as Hegel and Lenin emphasized, “embraces within itself the wealth of the particular.” There is no such thing as abstract socialism. Socialism is the universal which cannot exist unless concretized through the particular. Socialism in the US will have to take form in accordance with the unique history and conditions of the country. By embracing a petty historical and national nihilism, the contemporary American Marxist finds themselves unfit to 1- understand their national past concretely (i.e., dialectically and correctly) and 2- build a successful struggle for socialism. This infantilism is a manifestation of the purity fetish and will be removed when such an outlook is overcome by the dialectical materialist worldview.
Few people have studied the counterrevolution in the Soviet Union closer than the Chinese, who are keen on not repeating the same mistakes as the Soviets. One of the most important lessons the Chinese take from the fall of the USSR is precisely the existential importance of rejecting historical nihilism (lishi xuwuzhuyi), which they describe as the view that “Marxism was outdated and socialism had ‘failed’ (after 1989 in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union); the CPC was an aberration in Chinese history; fawning on foreign powers; and the denial of or ‘farewell’ to the revolution.” As Roland Boer has noted, “the disaster that befell the Soviet Union is seen as a clear example of the effects of historical nihilism.” As Xi Jinping has argued,
[One] important reason for the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the CPSU is the complete denial of the history of the Soviet Union, and the history of the CPSU, the denial of Lenin and other leading personalities, and historical nihilism confused the people’s thoughts.
Unlike in the USSR, as Carlos Martinez notes,
Although the Chinese leadership made serious criticisms of certain policies associated with Mao (in particular the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution), it has never come anywhere close to repudiating Mao and undermining the basic ideological and historical foundations of Chinese socialism. No Chinese Wall has been constructed between the Mao-era and the post-Mao era; the two phases are inextricably linked.
As Deng Xiaoping said in 1980:
We will forever keep Chairman Mao’s portrait on Tiananmen Gate as a symbol of our country, and we will always remember him as a founder of our Party and state. . . . We will not do to Chairman Mao what Khrushchev did to Stalin.
Although these comments are specifically made within the context of socialist states, the universal we can observe concretized in the particular is the general condemnation of historical nihilism. Historical and national nihilism share a common logic – a rejection of the past because of its impurity. If the past contains errors, excesses, imperfections, it is nothing. Only that which is pure is salvageable. This manifestation of the purity fetish not only prevents a correct dialectical assessment of the past, but also works as a deadly fetter for the movement towards socialism. In the US, historical and national nihilism are not simply attitudes about the past – they are attitudes about the present and future. Their relevance is far from being merely scholarly. If we are unable to connect our people’s progressive history to our contemporary struggle for socialism, then socialism will be unachievable. The battle against historical and national nihilism is one we must win if we want any chance at winning the class war.
 Georgi Dimitrov, The United Front: The Struggle Against Fascism and War (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1938), 61-64.
 Dimitrov, The United Front, 62.
 J. V. Stalin, Collected Works Vol. 4 (Moscow: Foreign Language Publishing House, 1953), 94.
 Mao Tse-Tung, “Chairman Mao’s Talk to Music Workers,” in Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung Vol. 7, Marxist Internet Archive: https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-7/mswv7_469.htm
 V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 28. [In Chinese.] (Beijing: People’s Publishing House, 1990). Cited in Hui Jiang, “The Great Contribution of the CPC to the World Socialist Movement over the Past Hundred Years,” International Critical Thought 11(4) (2021): https://doi.org/10.1080/21598282.2022.1996836
 Lenin, CW Vol. 20, 219.
 Lenin, CW Vol. 21, 103-104.
 Ernesto Guevara, Che Guevara Reader (New York: Ocean Press, 2003), 225.
 G. W. F. Hegel, Science of Logic, Trans. A.V. Miller (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press International, 1993), 58.
 Roland Boer, Socialism with Chinese Characteristics: A Guide for Foreigners (Singapore: Springer, 2021), 93.
 Boer, Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, 10.
 The China Questions: Critical Insights into a Rising Power, edited by Jennifer Rudolph and Michael Szonyi (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018), 23.
 Carlos Martinez, No Great Wall: On the Continuities of the Chinese Revolution (Carbondale: Midwestern Marx Publishing Press, 2022), 54.
 Deng Xiaoping, “Answers to the Italian Journalist Oriana Fallaci,” The Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping (August 1980):
Author Bio: Carlos L. Garrido teaches philosophy in Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, where he received his M.A. and is currently finishing his PhD. He is an editor at the Midwestern Marx Institute for Marxist Theory and Political Analysis and the author of Marxism and the Dialectical Materialist Worldview: An Anthology of Classical Marxist Texts on Dialectical Materialism and the forthcoming book, The Purity Fetish and the Crisis of Western Marxism.
A Fraternal Hand: The American Tradition of Socialist Democracy and Chinese Socialism. By: Carlos L. GarridoRead Now
There is a glaring paradox at the core of the American project. On the one hand, it proclaims its national self-determination with the values of life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, right to revolution, and to a government of, by, and for the people. On the other hand, the rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness have never been guaranteed for anyone but the white, male, capitalist class (which is slowly being racially and sexually diversified). The leading thinkers of the American project, from Jefferson to Martin Luther King Jr., have warned about the corrupting influence the interests of capital can play in preventing the concretization of these rights.
Thomas Jefferson, for instance, understood that the ‘enormous inequality’ in property relations was the cause of the ‘misery [of] the bulk of mankind,’ and that, as Herbert Aptheker notes, this concentration of capital was ‘the central threat to democratic rights.’ In noticing how the interest of capital can turn a government of, by, and for the people into a government of, by, and for big business, Jefferson would go on to draw a distinction between the democratic man and the aristocratic man. The former, he argued, trusts the people’s will, the latter distrusts it and turns towards big business elitism. Jefferson believed the aristocratic man, if he came to dominate the American government, would undermine the ideals of the 1776 anti-colonial revolution. The first generation of home-grown socialists, flowering in the 1820s and 1830s, saw Jefferson’s prediction actualize itself in the embryonic industrialization period of the US. In the face of growing inequalities and disparities, thinkers like Langdon Byllesby, Cornelius Blatchley, William Maclure, Thomas Skidmore and others, developed the ideals of the declaration of independence into socialism, what they considered to be its practical and logical conclusion.
Throughout the ages, generations of American socialists have appealed to the declaration of independence to argue for socialism in a way that connects with the American people’s common sense. Leading historians and theoreticians of the American socialist tradition, thinkers like Staughton Lynd, Herbert Aptheker, W.E.B. Dubois, Eugene Debs, William Z. Foster and others, have elaborated on the subject, noting that regardless of the limitations encountered in the founding of the American experiment, it was a historically progressive event, whose spirit should be carried forth today by socialists and communists.
As the US is increasing tensions against China, leading to what many consider a ‘new cold war,’ it is important to look back at the values the American people accept, to the thinkers the American people consider their own, and to consider how different China’s practices – which our ruling class and its media constantly estrange to the American public – are from the ideals which founded our country. What we will find, I believe, is the values prioritized by the leading thinkers of the American experiment, from Jefferson to Dewey to Martin Luther King Jr., are best embodied today in Chinese socialism. This truth, in my view, should be brought forth to the American people. No longer should their consent continue to be manufactured to fight against peoples whose practices align with our ideals more than those we encounter in our own country.
John Dewey (1859-1952), known as ‘America’s philosopher of democracy,’ wrote that we must stop thinking about democracy as something ‘institutional and external;’ instead, we should treat democracy as a ‘way of life,’ one governed by the ‘belief in the common man.’ For Dewey, genuine democracy is a consistent practice; it has less to do with showing up to a poll every two to four years and more to do with the ability of common people – what in Spanish we call el pueblo – to steadily exert their collective power over the affairs of everyday life. Dewey understood that this genuine form of democracy was largely inexistent in the US, where the democratic spirit is reduced to voting every four years in political elections which, as he argued, function more as a ‘shadow cast on society by big business.’
In line with the long tradition of home-grown American socialists, Dewey would conclude that the ideals of the founders – especially the radical flank commonly known as the ‘dissenters’ – would be realized ‘only as control of the means of production and distribution is taken out of the hands of individuals who exercise powers created socially for narrow individual interests.’ In the context of the US, Dewey held that this required ‘a radical change in economic institutions and the political arrangements based on them.’ ‘These changes,’ said Dewey, ‘are necessary in order that social control of forces and agencies socially created may accrue to the liberation of all individuals associated together in the great undertaking of building a life that expresses and promotes human liberty.’ For Dewey, in short, only socialism could make actual the radical, and for its time, deeply democratic, spirit of the declaration of independence.
A similar sentiment can be found in Martin Luther King Jr., the only American to have his own holiday (every third Monday of January). In one of his last sermons, whilst reflecting on the rights upheld in the declaration of independence, King would note that ‘if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life, nor liberty, nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.’ America, for King, had desperately failed to fulfill its promise, not just for the black souls it kept enchained for more than two centuries, but for all poor and working people who continued to ‘perish on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.’ This division was representative of what King called the ‘two Americas,’ the America of the poor working majority and the America of the few owners of big capital.
Like Dives in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, King held that ‘if America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she, too, will go to hell.’ The stranglehold monopoly capital has over the American state turned the American dream – that is, the individual’s quest for life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness in harmony with the human community – into the American nightmare. No number of victories in the sphere of civil rights could change, in King’s view, the fundamentally polarizing character of the system. As King would argue years after the victories of the civil rights movement: ‘I have found out that all that I have been doing in trying to correct this system in America has been in vain… I am trying to get at the roots of it to see just what ought to be done… The whole thing will have to be done away with.’ For all its claims of being a beacon of democracy, for King, as Cornel West argues, ‘America’s two main political parties, each beholden to big money, offer merely alternative visions of oligarchic rule.’ Like Dewey and many others within the tradition of American socialism, King considered the values of the declaration of independence to only be universally applicable if America is able to move beyond the capitalist mode of life.
The American ruling class ignores and/or sanitizes this tradition of home-grown socialism which permeates even through the most universally admired of American figures. It wishes to hide the working class’s and oppressed people’s history of struggle in our country, for only in doing so can it perpetuate the McCarthyite lie that socialism and the values the American people accept are wholly incompatible. The truth is that, on the contrary, it is on the basis of the values the American people already accept that American socialism has developed. By showing the American people the positive role socialism has played in their national past – and how these struggles have seen themselves as continuations of the revolutionary tradition of 1776 – the similarities in Chinese socialist construction and this unique tradition of American socialism become apparent.
Martin Luther King Jr., for instance, found it condemnable to sustain poverty amidst material abundance; the rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness require the abolition of poverty for their genuine fulfillment. In just 40 years, Chinese socialism has been able to lift more than 800 million people out of poverty, abolishing that horrendous condition the capitalist mode of life makes necessary for the vast majority of people. While building a poverty-free world with common prosperity, China has been able to realize a condition for its people which looks a lot more like what the leading American minds (like Dr. King) stood for than what can be found in America itself.
As we approach the 55th anniversary of King’s assassination (which the FBI helped orchestrate), we should ask: has America – which celebrates King once a year – heeded to King’s concern for poverty and the condition of the working class? The answer is a resolute No! In no state of the US, for instance, is the federal minimum wage ($7.25) enough to survive; even if it is raised to $15 – as the democratic socialists and other progressives have called for – the minimum wage would still not be enough for a working class family to survive anywhere in the country. With stagnant wages and inflation at a 40 year high, almost 60% of Americans are currently living paycheck to paycheck. Many of these people are on the brinks of joining the 600,000 homeless people wandering around in a country with more than 17 million empty homes. It is not surprising, in a country where there are 33 times more empty homes than homeless people, that 34 million people, including one in eight children, experience hunger while 30-40% of the U.S.’s food supply (40 million tons of food) is wasted every year. For all the tokenization of King we find in America’s political circus, we can say that after 55 years since his state-sanctioned death, America has still not listened, and much less realized, the demands of Dr. King. However, China has!
Likewise, Dewey, perhaps the most prominent philosopher America has produced, felt that to carry forth today the democratic creed of the declaration of independence, we must deepen our understanding and practice of democracy. A mode of life where the same small group of monopolists owns most of the property, controls most of the media, and decides who gets elected and what they do when elected, can hardly be called democratic. For Dewey, we are not living up to the democratic creed if ‘democracy’ only matters every two to four years when elections come about and working people are bombarded with reasons why they should vote for one puppet of the ruling class over another. Dewey would wholeheartedly agree with Xi Jinping in asserting that ‘democracy is not an ornament to be used for decoration; it is to be used to solve the problems that the people want to solve.’ As Xi has noted,
If the people are awakened only at the time of voting and go into dormancy afterward; if the people only listen to smashing slogans during election campaigns but have no say afterward; if the people are only favored during canvassing but are left out after the election, such a democracy is not a true democracy.
One could see words like these coming out of the mouths of a John Dewey or a Martin Luther King Jr. These ideas governing China’s socialist whole-process people’s democracy should seem anything but foreign to Americans – it is what our leading democratic theorists hoped the US system would develop into. If Americans are faithful to the democratic creed of the declaration of independence, and to the leading theorists of our country who’ve developed these into notions of socialist democracy with American characteristics, then we should be praising China for how incredibly comprehensive their socialist democracy (which is still humbly considered a work-in-progress) is. Far from thinking about democracy in the reductive, election-only sense, China’s system of socialist democracy is embedded in ‘seven integrated structures or institutional forms (体制tizhi): electoral democracy; consultative democracy; grassroots democracy; minority nationalities policy; rule of law; human rights; and leadership of the Communist Party.’ A comprehensive study of this whole-process people’s democracy would lead any unbiased researcher to the conclusion Roland Boer has (along with a plethora of Chinese scholars) arrived at: namely, that ‘China’s socialist democratic system is already quite mature and superior to any other democratic system.’
Not only does the US lack this seven-tiered democratic system, but even in the one realm it does have, namely, electoral democracy, the results it produces could hardly be called ‘democratic.’ For more than a decade studies from bourgeois institutions have themselves confirmed what Marxists have known since the middle of the 19th century, namely, that the essence of capitalist ‘democracy’ is ‘democracy for an insignificant minority – democracy for the rich.’ The U.S., which spreads its blood soaked hands around the world plundering in the name of democracy, has been outed as a place where the dēmos (common people) do anything but rule (kratos). As a Princeton study headed by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page shows,
In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule—at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagree with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.
In societies divided by class antagonisms we can never talk about ‘pure democracy,’ or abstract democracy in general; we must always ask - as Lenin did - ‘democracy for which class’? The ‘democracy’ and ‘democratic freedoms’ of capitalist to exploit and oppress will always be detrimental to working and oppressed peoples. Only an all-people’s democracy (a working and popular classes democratic-dictatorship) can be genuinely democratic, for it is the only time ‘power’ (kratos) is actually in the hands of ‘common people’ (demos).
To claim – as American capitalists, their puppet politicians, and their lapdog media does – that the US is a ‘beacon of democracy,’ and China an ‘authoritarian one-party system,’ is to hold on to a delusional topsy turvy view of reality. Only by holding explicitly the idea of democracy as democracy for the rich – an oxymoronic truth which they must continue to conceal from the American public – would any part of their assessment contain truth. If democracy is considered from the standpoint of the capitalist’s ability to arbitrarily exert their will on society at the expense of working people and the planet, then, of course, the US is a beacon of this form of so-called ‘democracy,’ and China an ‘authoritarian’ regime. If instead, democracy is considered from the standpoint of common people’s ability to exert their power successfully over everyday affairs, that is, if democracy is understood in the people-centered form it etymologically stands for, and in the way leading American thinkers like Jefferson, Dewey, and Dr. King understood it, then it would be indubitable that China is far more democratic than the US (and any other liberal-bourgeois ‘democracy’).
As the US increases its anti-China rhetoric and actions – a symptom of its empire’s moribund stage – it becomes an imperative for all sane people to counter the propaganda setting the stage for, at best, a new cold war, and at worst, a third world-war. As Julian Assange – whose treatment reminds us everyday of how much the West cherishes its so called ‘individual rights’ to speech and press – once eloquently stated: ‘if wars can be started by lies, peace can be started by truth.’
It is the duty of American communists, socialists, and progressives, to show the American people the truth; to show them that China is not the enemy of the American people, that the real enemy of the American people are those who would like us to see China as an enemy. It is not China who has our country surrounded by military bases. It is not China who is funding and inciting separatist movements in our autonomous regions. It is not China who is slandering us with baseless accusations of the most heinous crimes of genocide humanity can imagine. It is not China who is creating international military alliances a la global NATO to militarily threaten us. It is the US empire who is doing this to China. The only interests which China threatens are those of our finance capitalists, who have spent the last century impoverishing both our people at home and our brothers and sisters in the global south. China is a friend of the American working men and women; just like it is a friend of the African peoples, and the peoples in the Middle East and in Latin America, whose win-win, mutually beneficial relations in international trade with China have afforded them the ability to turn away from predatory neoliberal debt-trapping loans which have been systematically forced on them for half a century by the capitalist West.
In sum – to be faithful to the democratic creed of the declaration of independence and of the greatest minds our country has produced, we must realize today that China is not our enemy; instead, it is the place wherein the ideals which guide this democratic creed are best embodied. Instead of buying into the easily confuted lies of Western pundits, who hope we are foolish enough to accept them and dance to the drums of a war to sustain Western capitalist-imperialist hegemony, we must learn from China and work together to build a peaceful, cooperative, and ecological shared future for mankind.
 Herbert Aptheker, The American Revolution: 1763-1783 (New York: International Publishers, 1960), 105.
 John Dewey, The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1882-1953, ed. by Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967-1990), LW 14:228.
 Dewey, LW 6:163.
 Dewey, LW 11:28.
 Dewey, LW 11:28.
 Martin Luther King Jr, The Radical King, ed. and introduced by Cornel West (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015), 246- 247. 248.
 King Jr, The Radical King, 236.
 King Jr, The Radical King, 248.
 King Jr, The Radical King, xi.
 King Jr, The Radical King, xiii.
 V. I. Lenin, Collected Works Vol. 26 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977) 465.
 Gilens, M., & Page, B. (2014). Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens. Perspectives on Politics, 12(3), 564-581. doi:10.1017/S1537592714001595
 V. I. Lenin, Collected Works Vol. 28 (Moscow: Progress Publishers,1974), 249.
Carlos L. Garrido is a Cuban American PhD student and instructor in philosophy at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale (with an M.A. in philosophy from the same institution). His research focuses include Marxism, Hegel, early 19th century American socialism, and socialism with Chinese characteristics. He is an editor in Midwestern Marx Institute for Marxist Theory and Political Analysis and in the Journal of American Socialist Studies. Carlos edited and introduced Marxism and the Dialectical Materialist Worldview: An Anthology of Classical Marxist Texts on Dialectical Materialism (Midwestern Marx Publishing Press, 2022).
The Necessity of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat:: a Litmus Test for Marxism By: Teo VelissarisRead Now
‘Kuomintang Burns Books’ [Yang Na-Wei – Harian Rakjat, September 1, 1963]
What was Marx’s main contribution in the history of ideas and the struggle for socialism? In a letter from 1852, Marx himself provided a remarkable answer:
And now as to myself, no credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. […] What I did that was new was to prove: (1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with the particular, historical phases in the development of production (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, (3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.
Since then there has been a struggle among socialists to understand the meaning of a notion such as “the dictatorship of the proletariat” and the reasons that led Marx to adopt it. Certainly, it was understood and anticipated that a socialist revolution would most probably face resistance from a minority that would struggle to defend its vested interests against the majority’s will for change; and hence the latter would have to suppress the former. But why not call it a democracy of the proletariat then, instead of a dictatorship?
When Marx and Engels, themselves, had to clarify what they meant by dictatorship of the proletariat, they pointed to the Paris Commune of 1871,1 which was generally conceived, and rightly so, as democratic par excellence by the socialist camp. Their invocation of the Paris Commune has not sufficed to clear up the confusion. One must delve into the details of Marx and Engels’ arguments in order to understand the meaning of the dictatorship of the proletariat. For them, the Commune was “the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labor.” But they understood the Commune not as the end of the road but rather the beginning, not just an end in itself but also an instrument to help achieve a higher purpose: “The Commune was therefore to serve as a lever for uprooting the economical foundation upon which rests the existence of classes, and therefore of class rule.”
This is crucial because for non-Marxian socialists, a successful revolution already signifies the uprooting of the aforementioned economic foundation. But, for Marx, the revolutionary Commune would facilitate labor’s emancipation, without yet being labor’s emancipation in the flesh. And the same goes for the dictatorship of the proletariat in general:
Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.
Therefore, the Commune, however democratic and desirable, couldn’t avoid remaining a state, not yet communist; it wasn’t something out of this world, unaffected by capitalist reality, as if it had landed in Paris from an alien non-authoritarian communist planet. Revolutions are instigated by human beings, who are the products, “down to their innermost core,” of the same problematic society they want to change.2 So, the Commune was rather “the direct antithesis to the empire.” The “empire” (i.e. Bonapartism) was the authoritarian form that politics assumed under conditions of capitalism post-1848 (all politics, even democratic politics, or, rather, especially democratic politics). It was “the only form of government possible at a time when the bourgeoisie had already lost, and the working class had not yet acquired, the faculty of ruling the nation.” If Bonapartism was the dystopian expression of the 1848 workers’ demand for a “social republic,” the Commune “was the positive form of that republic.” The Commune emerged within this void of authoritarian disintegration and the crisis of capitalist politics but was at least “positive” in pointing beyond it by allowing the working class and the democratic majority of society to assume responsibility for it. For Marxism, the dictatorship of the proletariat signifies the condition when the working class has finally acquired the faculty of ruling the nation3 – even though only in order to ultimately make such a “ruling” redundant.4 The proletariat wouldn’t follow the example of the bourgeoisie in its attempt to acquire political power.5
Contrary to various anti-Marxist clichés, Marxism did not liken the revolutionary development of the working class within the womb of capitalism to the development of the bourgeoisie within the womb of feudalism. According to Rosa Luxemburg, bourgeois society is decisively distinguished from other class societies because in it “class domination does not rest on ‘acquired rights’ but on real economic relations.” Wage slavery is not expressed in laws, hence wage slavery cannot be suppressed by means of “legislation.” She cites key parts of the Communist Manifesto to make her case:
All previous societies were based on an antagonism between an oppressing class and an oppressed class’. But in the preceding phases of modern society this antagonism was expressed in distinctly determined juridical relations and could, especially because of that, accord, to a certain extent, a place to new relations within the framework of the old. ‘In the midst of serfdom, the serf raised himself to the rank of a member of the town community.
I really cannot overemphasize the significance of this point, which many on the Left—Marxist or otherwise—still fail to comprehend: only prior phases of modern society could accord “a place to new relations within the framework of the old.” For these leftists, similarly to the bourgeoisie within feudalism, it is somehow possible for the proletariat to first develop itself and become socially empowered within capitalism, and when this development is complete and the situation is ripe, only then seize political power. But in capitalism the situation can never be ripe enough for the proletariat, which remains permanently vulnerable to the economic conditions and their crisis. As Luxemburg explains, it’s not the law but rather “poverty, the lack of means of production, [that] obliges the proletariat to submit itself to the yoke of capitalism.” Consequently, if we remain within the framework of bourgeois society one cannot expect the law to be able to give to the proletariat the means of production. Under capitalism, wage slavery cannot be accommodated by existing legal relations, because it isn’t a juridical but an economic relation. As a result, even with the most stringent labor laws, this will not impinge on the extraction of surplus value and the necessity of surplus labor.
Luxemburg goes on to extract the quintessence of Marxism on this issue, highlighting one of the peculiarities of the capitalist order:
Within it all the elements of the future society first assume, in their development, a form not approaching socialism but, on the contrary, a form moving more and more away from socialism. Production takes on a progressively increasing social character. But […] It is expressed in the form of the large enterprise, in the form of the shareholding concern, the cartel, within which the capitalist antagonisms, capitalist exploitation, the oppression of labour-power, are augmented to the extreme. […] In the field of political relations, the development of democracy brings – in the measure that it finds a favourable soil – the participation of all popular strata in political life and, consequently, some sort of ‘people’s State.’ But this participation takes the form of bourgeois parliamentarism, in which class antagonisms and class domination are not done away with, but are, on the contrary, displayed in the open. Exactly because capitalist development moves through these contradictions, it is necessary to extract the kernel of socialist society from its capitalist shell. Exactly for this reason must the proletariat seize political power and suppress completely the capitalist system.
Seizing political power and completely suppressing the capitalist system: the dictatorship of the proletariat in a nutshell! Again, an invaluable Marxist lesson: development within capitalism, even when it appears to bring one closer to realizing one’s ideals, is actually moving one further away from them at the same time. The proletariat must take responsibility for the aforementioned contradiction and prioritize its self-organization through parties and institutions in order to first seize political power. Only then can it start seriously placing new economic relations in the framework of the new political order (not the old). Marx didn’t fail to underline this aspect himself, stating that the “social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future.”
The bourgeois revolutions appeared as the legitimate political capstone of social evolution, whereas the socialist revolutions will always appear as socially immature, untimely, and illegitimate. The proletariat finds that it must attain political power to address the problem of capital. This means that the proletariat’s political revolution—unlike that of the bourgeoisie—is the beginning, rather than the culmination, of the revolutionary process. It is at this point that most anti-Marxist socialists begin to object. They expect Day One of the revolution to be close to idyllic, and certainly not dictatorial at all, revealing their basically bourgeois conception of revolution. According to the anti-Marxist socialist, the proletariat can achieve the same crucial preliminary gains under capitalism that the bourgeoisie achieved under feudalism (which is an astonishing apology of capitalism as a system that enables the flourishing of the economy and culture, and, in the final analysis, permits the freedom of the class that it oppresses). This leads to the impasse of pre-figurative initiatives to create within capitalism proto-forms of socialism that will gradually grow and challenge competitively the capitalist system without the unfortunate need to engage in mass politics from a working class perspective; these initiatives usually end up feeding into and being subordinated to so-called progressive capitalist policies.
The proletariat is thought to thereby instantly remove the privileges of its enemies in order to achieve immediately a non-dictatorial reality.6 But the proletariat’s enemies will always feel entitled to appeal to their abstract right in order to legitimize their power. Such appeals are commonplace under “normal” capitalist conditions and will proliferate in moments of political crisis. Dictatorial force thus seems unavoidable to decide the outcome of the struggle, as Marx remarked when he was addressing the antinomy of “right against right” in Das Kapital.7
Given these contradictions and antinomies, every effort by the working class to seize political power will be denounced by the establishment as barbaric and dictatorial (even if it is supported by the majority), and its effort to create a new legality will always be vehemently opposed by the current legality. This crisis of legality is already manifest in capitalist democracy. For example, during the first years of its financial crisis, circa 2010, Greece had to impose unprecedented austerity measures, and the legality, or the constitutionality, of the relevant memoranda of austerity was challenged immediately even from within the bourgeois democratic camp. But this was never and has never been addressed as an abstract question of law, legality, and justice, but rather as a series of exceptional political, economic, and legal measures in a state of emergency, in view of the country’s objective of remaining in the European Union and the Eurozone. The austerity measures had to be implemented coercively as a matter of life and death, and the question of their legality was to be adjudicated on an ad hoc basis; legality was subordinated to politics. The issue had to be resolved dictatorially, with the special bodies of armed men in the street enforcing the decisions of the elected establishment. The chief example of how capitalist democracy and legality contradict each other was of course exhibited by the fate of the referendum against the austerity measures, first the one that was canceled, and then the one whose result was ignored. Even the explicit preference of the majority on a single issue didn’t appear as a legitimate challenge to the political status quo.
These problems cannot be resolved by simply appealing to democracy, because under conditions of capitalism and especially post-1848, democracy itself appeared unable not only to address the social crisis but also to express the potential to move beyond it. Famously, as we already mentioned, the cry of the Parisian workers in 1848 was not just for democracy but for “république sociale,” for democracy adequate to societal needs. Capitalism divided the political and economic aspects of life in an unprecedented manner, turning the one against the other (and the freedom and rights of the individual against the freedom of the collective), rendering acute what was now expressed as the competition between democracy and liberalism: the latter two instead of enhancing each other, appeared now as undermining and violating each other, eager to “correct” each other’s deficiencies.8 Marx wasn’t nostalgic at all and didn’t pursue a (pseudo-)solution of this problem in pre-capitalist terms. “In the Middle Ages”, he wrote, “popular life and state [i.e., political] life were identical. Man was the actual principle of the state, but he was unfree man. It was therefore the democracy of unfreedom, accomplished alienation.” The desperate need for democracy circa 1848 (persisting till our present) was an index of regression, a cry for help within social disintegration and crisis, not an achievement of progress. Marx tried to avoid naturalizing this cry for help from a democratic state in the role of deus ex machina, and to grasp it critically: the need for democracy was attesting not to the presence but to the lack of an “association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all,” as the Manifesto had succinctly described the possible overcoming of both democracy and liberalism, beyond classes and class antagonisms.
Ignoring these sorts of contradictions that are already at play within any capitalist democratic legality and succumbing to “the lofty heaven of [an] ideal republic,” can lead to disastrous political paralysis. To cite an example, it is well known that the Spanish anarchists defended Barcelona and Catalonia from the fascist coup in July 1936. What is less well known is that when the fascists were ousted, the petty bourgeois democrat governor of Catalonia, Luis Companys, in a state of awe and fear, said to the representatives of the CNT: You are now in control of the city and Catalonia because you alone routed the fascist militarists. Understanding that the CNT/FAI had de facto control indeed, some anarchists proposed that the unions should take power and overthrow the Generalitat and impose their anarchist vision of libertarian communism. But many others argued that this would be a refutation of their vision, a dictatorship imposed by a minority (CNT/FAI had a simple but not a super-majority of 50+1% among the workers); that it would mean the imposition of an anarchist dictatorship, a Bolshevik style coup. So, after a heated debate, the Barcelona labor council voted against the option of taking power. By choosing not to transfer power to the workers’ new-born institutions and by disavowing political power as authoritarian, the anarchists facilitated the dictatorial concentration of power in other dubious institutions and agents. By attempting to avoid the problem of power and the problem of the state, the anarchists became adjuncts in other, far worse dictatorships—of the bourgeoisie, the reaction, the minority. (It is not as if there was a choice beyond dictatorship – the only choice was who was going to assume responsibility for the prevailing authoritarianism and how it was going to be enacted in practice). The CNT/FAI leadership declined the dictatorship of the proletariat but accepted the subordination of the newly formed revolutionary militias to the bourgeois state. In exchange they were granted four government ministries in a popular front and a bourgeois democratic government that ended up dictatorially suppressing workers itself (see the events of the Barcelona insurrection in May 1937).9
The purpose of this short digression is not to single out anarchism as problematic and the anarchists as the sole “apostles of political indifferentism”; Marxists were also affected by paralysis and they denounced revolution by denouncing the dictatorship of the proletariat (see for example the events in Germany, 1918).10 Rather, anarchism is an object lesson in the inevitability of authoritarianism in an authoritarian world, no matter how many times one may denounce it ideologically. It is no surprise, then, that the same anarchists who fiercely attack Marxism for authoritarianism so often end up accusing one another of “crypto-Leninism.”
It is interesting to read how Luxemburg assessed, in Marxist terms, Lenin’s stance towards this problem of possible paralysis in revolutionary conditions:
It is not a matter of this or that secondary question of tactics, but of the capacity for action of the proletariat, the strength to act, the will to power of socialism as such. In this, Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world; they are still the only ones up to now who can cry with Hutten: ‘I have dared’!
…these German Social-Democrats have sought to apply to revolutions the home-made wisdom of the parliamentary nursery: in order to carry anything, you must first have a majority. The same, they say, applies to a revolution: first let’s become a ‘majority.’ The true dialectic of revolutions, however, stands this wisdom of parliamentary moles on its head: not through a majority, but through revolutionary tactics to a majority – that’s the way the road runs.
Their Marxism, their subscription to the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat, enabled Lenin and the Bolsheviks to strengthen the proletariat’s capacity for action in its struggle for socialism.11 The reader shouldn’t conclude in a voluntaristic fashion that the conditions are always ripe for revolution; the point is rather that even when conditions may be ripe, strong ideological obstacles, like the allergy to the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat, may ultimately lead to disastrous paralysis. The disavowal of the dictatorship of the proletariat prepares the way for such an abandonment of revolutionary responsibility. Because, like it or not, all big political shifts in mass capitalist politics raise the specter of dictatorship, and thinking otherwise is the hallmark of bankrupt liberalism. Capital is pathological and revolution is a symptom of capital.12
So, the key is not to just denounce social authoritarianism but to assume responsibility for it and to try to channel the authoritarian energy toward revolutionary goals through democratic means and ends (thus Lenin for example didn’t denounce war but aimed to turn the world war into a civil war). Marx sarcastically noted that non-Marxist social democrats and democratic socialists only cared to feel that they were on the side of eternal justice and all the other eternal truths, no matter if the things that matter most, power and success, were never on their side.
Returning to Marx and Engels, while they defended and praised the Paris Commune, they didn’t fail to criticize the hesitancy of its leadership on key moments of their struggle:
In their reluctance to continue the civil war opened by Thiers’ burglarious attempt on Montmartre, the Central Committee made themselves, this time, guilty of a decisive mistake in not at once marching upon Versailles, then completely helpless, and thus putting an end to the conspiracies of Thiers and his Rurals.
The hardest thing to understand is certainly the holy awe with which they remained standing respectfully outside the gates of the Bank of France. This was also a serious political mistake.
Both of these actions, had they been attempted, would have been denounced by many as dictatorial, in the sense that it would have appeared that the Commune was crossing the line by weighing in arbitrarily on the national level without a pre-given relevant political legitimacy. The Commune succumbed to these reservations; its leaders lacked the strength to act. Engels also wrote in regard to this issue that a victorious party in a revolution:
must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionists. Would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeois? Should we not, on the contrary, reproach it for not having used it freely enough?
These criticisms should be kept in mind because Marx and Engels admired exactly all of the characteristics of the Commune that were more democratic compared to the bourgeois parliaments, not less. Engels summarized Marx’s description of how the Commune was shattering the former state power, that was functioning as the master of society, and was replacing it by a new and really democratic state that was becoming now, for the first time, the servant of society: “It filled all posts – administrative, judicial, and educational – by election on the basis of universal suffrage of all concerned, with the right of the same electors to recall their delegate at any time. And in the second place, all officials, high or low, were paid only the wages received by other workers.”13 Hal Draper,14 in his monumental work on the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat describes an incident during the last days of the Commune: the majority proposed to create a five man uber-authority (a dictatorial committee of public safety) and all those from the minority who were Marxists or influenced by Marx stood against it – not accidentally. The Commune should have exercised its authority more readily and freely, but only if it was legitimized through the extremely democratic institutions of direct control and recallability of representatives that it created. But, crucially, Commune’s legitimization was also stemming from the way it was fulfilling the desiderata of liberalism, not just democracy:
The Commune made that catchword of bourgeois revolutions – cheap government – a reality by destroying the two greatest sources of expenditure: the standing army and state functionarism. Its very existence presupposed the non-existence of monarchy, which, in Europe at least, is the normal incumbrance and indispensable cloak of class rule. […] The Commune intended to abolish that class property which makes the labor of the many the wealth of the few. It aimed at the expropriation of the expropriators. It wanted to make individual property a truth by transforming the means of production, land, and capital, now chiefly the means of enslaving and exploiting labor, into mere instruments of free and associated labor.
Draper compellingly shows that by the dictatorship of the proletariat Marx meant the political rule of the proletariat and, more so, a class dictatorship rather than an individual or clique dictatorship (via class representatives that would rule without accountability). Draper exposed how other socialists in Marx’s time, including Blanquists, anarchists and others, were pursuing a dictatorship over the proletariat, or some sort of educational dictatorship: the people, the masses, were assumed to be corrupted by the social order, and they had to be saved despite themselves with the help of the good and wise guys of the revolutionary elite – rings a bell comparing to how large segments of the Left today treat the masses? The term, according to Draper, was more about the class content of a new revolutionary regime, not about the particular type of the new political institutions. It was another way to describe what we would otherwise just call a worker’s state.
But Draper, in drawing these important conclusions, neutralized Marx’s and Engel’s critical approach to the worker’s state itself. The point is that states are always more or less dictatorial, in a negative sense; and this stands even for the most democratic ones, when they exist within class society, and in conditions of capitalism or conditions still under the influence of capitalism. The state equals use of forcible coercion, coercive rule; it’s an organized machinery of suppression, even if its special bodies of armed men work genuinely in the name of the majority.15 Draper, thus, leaves us rather unprepared to understand why for Marxism the workers’ state is transitory and needs also to be overcome, and why for Marx there is a crucial distinction between a still pathological and problematic “first phase of communist society” and a “higher phase of communist society” emancipated from capital.16
The use of the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” by Marx and Engels wasn’t just a rhetorical device to tactically win over the Blanquists, as Draper suggests (which is unlikely because they kept using the term even after the decline of Blanquism). In my opinion, it was a conscious choice on their part in order to signify the authoritarianism still at play during the revolution and the first phase of communist society, which Marxists needed to be self-conscious of in order to facilitate its possible overcoming in a higher phase of communism.
Draper also criticizes Lenin for what he considers his confusing and contradictory usage of the notion of dictatorship of the proletariat. So, let’s return to Lenin. Lenin fully endorsed what Marx wrote to Weydemeyer (cited above) and wrote similarly that the distinctive characteristic of Marxism was the extension of the recognition of the class struggle to the recognition of the dictatorship of the proletariat.17
The aspect that Lenin was adding to the argument was about the “opportunist distortion of Marxism and its falsification in a spirit acceptable to the bourgeoisie.” So Lenin points out the new context of a new period in history, when Marxists were accusing each other of betraying Marxism and of becoming instruments of the reaction (and when workers were killing each other in the name of their nation-states during WWI): a period of acute and aggressive social malaise, when Marxism found itself to be strong enough in order to not just remain a passive observer of the pathology but an active agent within it and also, of it.
It wasn’t an accident that the dictatorship of the proletariat didn’t exist in any public socialist program before this period (including the ones that Marx prepared himself). And even when they used the term for internal reasons or on theoretical works, the emphasis of the socialists of the pre-war period was on “of the proletariat” part, rather than on the “dictatorship.” The term appeared massively during WWI but initially in the program of Russian social democracy circa 1905. The First Russian revolution challenged what was considered Marxist orthodoxy and its stance towards revolutionary change.18 The newly born problem of opportunism, reformism, and revisionism in the intra-Marxist disputes was starting to become acute, together with the active appearance of the masses in the political scene. The stakes were becoming high, and also the tensions: the Menshevik Martynov, amidst the revolutionary situation of 1905, was insisting that only a bourgeois regime was in the cards. In Lenin’s hands, however, the term began to have some obscure uses as he was trying to avoid a similar path, e.g. in his formulation about a possible dictatorship of the peasantry and proletariat. It wasn’t so much the usage of the term by Lenin that was confusing and contradictory but rather the reality itself was becoming acutely contradictory and Marxism was affected accordingly, reflecting these new conditions and challenges.
Several years later, in 1914-18, this tension reached a peak. Marxism was split and, while declaring fidelity to the same references to Marx, one camp of Marxists preached revolution and the other became the bastion of counter-revolution. This was the first time after 1848 that a revolution broke out in many countries in parallel and even so under the guidance of Marxists. It was during this time that Lenin offered a definition of dictatorship that is considered by Draper and others (for example by Morris Hillquit) as very problematic:
Dictatorship is rule based directly upon force and unrestricted by any laws. The revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is rule won and maintained by the use of violence by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, rule that is unrestricted by any laws.
Make no mistake, Lenin wasn’t a fanatic: during the eighth party congress, in March 1919, he stated explicitly that “it is theoretically quite conceivable that the dictatorship of the proletariat may suppress the bourgeoisie at every step without disfranchising them.” But what is disturbing to many in this passage is Lenin’s reference to non-restriction by any laws.
Similarly to what Luxemburg wrote of revolution, cited before, this formulation by Lenin emphasizes the need to follow revolutionary tactics first in order to achieve democracy second. Revolutions are not static but dynamic phenomena: people realize what they want in the process of the revolution and not in advance, and revolutions help them to clarify their standpoint. Hence, the dictatorship of the proletariat will most probably appear as lawless, because there is no given legal foundation for it in advance. Revolutionary conditions do not include moments where the old legality opposes a new, fully formed one, but rather voids of legality and moments of spontaneous (even violent) acts that need to be disciplined as soon as possible through the new legality, that’s however still under formation.
Bourgeois jurisprudence would surely object to what appears to it as lawless barbarism. It would be helpful, however, in this context to remember what Lukacs noted about the revolutionary, heroic, period of the bourgeois class, when it “refused to admit that a legal relationship had a valid foundation merely because it existed in fact. ‘Burn your laws and make new ones!’ Voltaire counselled; ‘Whence can new laws be obtained? From Reason!’” Moving away from its revolutionary moment the bourgeoisie gradually adopted a standpoint according to which “the content of law is something purely factual and hence not to be comprehended by the formal categories of jurisprudence.” The cohesion of laws became purely formal and the content of the legal institutions was not considered having a legal, but rather a political and economic character. In this manner, “the attempt to ground law in reason and to give it a rational content” was abandoned. The result was that the “process by which law comes into being and passes away” became “as incomprehensible to the jurist as crises had been to the political economist.” Lukacs is quoting Kelsen confessing sincerely his aporia regarding “the great mystery of law,” recognizing as symptomatic of the nature of law “that a norm may be legitimate even if its origins are iniquitous” and that “the legitimate origin of a law cannot be written into the concept of law as one of its conditions.”
This blindness concerning the origin of law challenges the right of the established jurisprudence to assess the legitimacy of the proletarian revolution and its new legality. A caveat is necessary here: the recognition of the real basis for the development of law in the change in the power relations between the classes, can be misinterpreted as a repetition of the ancient concept that Thrasymachus summarized, that justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger. Ι cannot delve more into this problem here but Ι can certainly point out the self-conception of Marxists as certainly willing to overcome bourgeois society but only through carrying on its revolutionary tradition and completing it. In a past article, Jensen Suther and I tried to point out how “philosophy cannot be conceived as just a ‘means’ to a contingent political end Marxists happen to have — as if a set of ideologies or principles pragmatically useful for achieving ‘our’ political goals — since the ‘ends’ of Marxism themselves must be justifiable, must in principle be recognizable by all, and must meet the standards of Reason.”19 The fact that Lukacs, in his assessment of reification, included philosophy as its peak expression, shouldn’t make us forget his devotion and effort to rescue, “as a vital intellectual force for the present,” “all the seminal elements” of the thought of Hegel and the true laws of his dialectics.
Unfortunately, the Russian “state of emergency” was prolonged for so long after 1917 in an isolated national regime which ended up being de facto Stalinist, and that retrospectively makes Lenin’s reference to non-restriction by any laws sound apologetic to the worst possible Machiavellianism. But we have to think: who was to blame for the failure of the revolution circa 191720 to achieve socialism on an international level, and especially to involve in the effort those countries where capital was highly concentrated? Was it because of how much Lenin’s ideas about the dictatorship of the proletariat were implemented, or because of how little they were implemented? Was the problem that we had too many Lenins or rather that we had too many Eberts? Lenin’s Marxism ultimately failed but since it went the furthest compared to all other socialisms, it is legitimate to try to correct it from within, and hence do better what Lenin tried to do instead of fully denouncing him. The bet of Marxism is to out-Lenin Lenin. The German Marxists of the SPD were repulsed by these ideas, expressed also by Luxemburg, because in premature conditions they would allegedly destroy any real prospects for socialism: but their own pseudo-prudent road for socialism, as opposed to the supposed hysteria of Luxemburg, facilitated exactly the rise of fascism and the liquidation of socialism that it wanted to avoid in the first place. Politics is indeed a dangerous business, full of risks because of the unknown outcomes. Socialist politics is not an exception. Being excited for the mass politics of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and not also remaining critical and cautious, is a problem; but being allergic to it is the biggest problem.
Stemming from capitalism, any socialist wielding of power by the proletariat as a class cannot but be dictatorial. But, if successful, even with all of its shortcomings, it’s much more desirable compared to the blind irrational dictatorial reality right now.21 But how does capitalism persist in the dictatorship of the proletariat? The revolution carries with it from its direct past what Marx called “bourgeois right.” This is the right of the workers to claim for them a part of the outcome of the production process, in accordance with the labor they supplied. Bourgeois right is actually productive, in the sense that it motivates workers to engage in socialist politics in the first place: capitalism fails to fulfill the promise of bourgeois right, and not only workers do not get rewarded according to the labor they supplied, they also witness others getting rewarded more, irrespectively of their labor, with the capitalists and their families being a primary example of this unfairness. But bourgeois right is also problematic, and this is becoming apparent during the revolution. Marx explains that the equality of the bourgeois right
…consists in the fact that measurement is made with an equal standard, labor. But one man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time; and labor, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor. It recognizes no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment, and thus productive capacity, as a natural privilege. It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. Right, by its very nature, can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only – for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored. Further, one worker is married, another is not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labor, and hence an equal in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal. But these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society. Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.
So, bourgeois right is inherited in the revolution from capitalism even in the optimal scenario with revolution successfully prevailing completely over the capitalists. Society on Day Two will still look forward to a kind of government that retains the monopoly of violence in order to resolve the disputes of its members, who have internalized “bourgeois right” and who are not yet accustomed to another way of life that would completely eliminate the need for a state policing the discontents produced by the unfairness of this equal standard.22 Only through creating a society in its image the proletariat can abolish itself – this is the peculiar Marxist treatment of overcoming something through fulfilling it and exhausting its potential.
Some of the key manifestations of bourgeois right are already at play in capitalism: the need for the state doesn’t only reflect the competition between workers and capitalists but also the competition between workers for a limited number of jobs. When for example the cops are violently evacuating a squat, their legitimization doesn’t spring exclusively from the property rights of the owners but also, more broadly, socially and culturally, from the propertylessness of workers who are obliged to pay rent and (in an a process of identification with the aggressor) do not tolerate the “unfairness” of others not having to pay for rent also. Even more crucially, in that it remains a problem even after the revolution, when unemployment will be hopefully eliminated, bourgeois right is expressed in the injustice of equal pay for equal work between people with unequal needs: this injustice that continues through capitalism to the lower phase of socialism leads to the persistence of the need to “dictatorially” implement bourgeois right as it cannot be abolished by decrees but, according to Marx and Lenin, can only “wither away” gradually, through the political and social empowerment of the subjects that are assuming responsibility for their own pathology. Democracy is the political expression of the same problem: unequal individuals are brought under an equal point of view, and in this case they are regarded only as voters.
This reasoning above is crucial in order to understand the meaning of the dictatorship of the proletariat for Marxism and the terminological preference over other options, such as democracy. Lea Ypi has also tried to explain the need for the dictatorship of the proletariat in an important article. She rightly observes that the reason Marx and Engels were insisting on calling revolutionary socialist government a dictatorship “is to remind us of the provisional and transitional nature of coercive authority or, to put it differently, to remind us of the limited legitimacy of the new political order compared with the full legitimacy that a more desirable alternative might enjoy”. She also interestingly explains how real democracy can be realized only without the state as an organized form of coercion, and that everything before achieving that is nothing but a distorted form of democracy, distorted by capital (even if capitalists are defeated).23
But she ultimately fails to grasp the subjective nature of the problem of transition to a truly free society, in her overinterpretation of Marx. She writes:
Why is the legitimacy that the dictatorship of the proletariat enjoys a limited form of legitimacy? And why is it legitimacy at all? The answer, I believe, lies in an argument that Marx does not make about the epistemic impact of structural advantage and disadvantage on people’s views of justice and injustice. If the claim about the ideological effects of capitalist social relations is correct, then it is implausible to expect literally everyone in a society rigged by capitalist injustice to endorse the revolutionary project. Although, the oppressed themselves will, in the course of political struggle, acquire an epistemic insight into the scale of injustice confronted by that society, we can anticipate that their insight will not be shared by everyone. People might object to radical change for all sorts of reasons: their motives might be selfish, ignorant, immoral, or a combination of all of these. But whatever the reasons are, epistemic bias might prevent members of certain groups in society (such as those who have vested interests in the preservation of the previous order, or administrative, and political elites who are not directly oppressed and are therefore ideologically blind to the scale of injustice) from identifying with new institutions. Every institution emerging from deep political conflict faces serious obstacles in terms of the epistemic burdens associated to people’s recognition of new political roles and positions and to a new system of economic production and distribution. Thus, every institutional configuration, no matter how just in its inception, will be purely coercive for some.
My counter-argument is that the institutional configuration will be coercive and dictatorial, not because of some who will deny radical change, but because of the majority that will sustain it. The dictatorship of the proletariat has less to do with a dissenting minority, and more to do with a vast majority still enchanted and dominated by the compulsion to labor as the sole (and equal) measure for value. The coercion survives in order to enforce bourgeois right, and only because of that to suppress others and oneself (to keep going to work). Immediately after the revolution, we continue to know ourselves only as workers, as commodities. That’s the pathology that still produces irrationalism that is then translated in the need for special bodies of armed workers to police and balance its problematic outcomes. It’s not as if after the revolution there is a majority fully satisfied and a minority dissatisfied; the majority remains ambivalent about the regime it sustains. The key source of coercion will not be for example the fact that some won’t want to be disciplined and go to work, but the fact that the majority knows no other way to live apart from going to work to produce value. The epiphenomenon is that they will coerce the minority but the problem lies within the majority. According to Ypi we would move to communism as soon as the minority stops the irrational resistance and adopt to the requirements of the new regime, whereas for Marx we would move to communism only if everybody changed and conquered a new way of life, beyond the regime of capital and its expression as bourgeois right that still survives subjectively after the revolution.24 The revolution that results in the political supremacy of the proletariat is a dictatorship because it doesn’t abolish capital as social domination but produces a pure form of its rule over society,25 with less distraction from the problem of its “character masks,” of capitalists who are “mere personifications of the economic relations.”26 The revolutionary potential of such conditions was thematized philosophically from Lassalle in a letter to Marx (12 December, 1851): “Hegel used to say in his old age that directly before the emergence of something qualitatively new, the old state of affairs gathers itself up into its original, purely general, essence, into its simple totality, transcending and absorbing back into itself all those marked differences and peculiarities which it evinced when it was still viable.”27
How can one radically transform the society of which one is also a part? How can one become an agent of change and at the same time be part of that which is changing? How can society be simultaneously the subject and object of revolution? It was these kinds of problems that led Marx and the Marxists to express themselves through seemingly contradictory formulations, such as that of the dictatorship of the proletariat as a precondition of democracy (and vice versa). And that’s also what led Marxists to get involved in the thankless job of party-building: multiple parties and organizations of the working class, before the revolution but even more so after it, are necessary in order to thematize politically the problem of capital, i.e. the problem of worker versus worker (and not just of worker versus capitalist), engage with it in a tangible manner and hopefully overcome it completely (proper democratic party procedures and commitment to principles become also extremely important given the problem of legality described above).
Concerning democracy, we need to be careful not to turn into apologists for anti-democratic authoritarianism, but we also need to be careful not to end up in the democratic reactionary camp. Engels warned that “our sole adversary on the day of the crisis and on the day after the crisis will be the whole collective reaction which will group itself around pure democracy, and this, I think, should not be lost sight of.” This warning was issued by the same Engels who wrote that “if one thing is certain it is that our party and the working class can only come to power under the form of a democratic republic. This is even the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the Great French Revolution has already shown.”
The dictatorship of the proletariat is not undemocratic, but it is rather the outcome of how democracy undermines itself under capitalism. It’s a mistake of course to confuse and identify the democratic republic in general with the bourgeois democratic republic. But it’s also wrong to assume that even in the best-case scenario socialist democracy after the revolution will not face authoritarian challenges stemming from the economic realities still at work. The Communist Manifesto was already explicit about this: on the one hand, the revolution would allow the proletariat “to win the battle of democracy”. On the other hand, the proletariat organized as the ruling class would aim to increase total productivity of society, but “in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property.” Remarkably, Marx and Engels admit that these measures will “appear economically insufficient and untenable” but they clarify that these same measures “in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionizing the mode of production.”
Instead of dismissing Marxism as confusing one should navigate through such formulations that appear to contradict each other, as Engels’ above, to try to make sense of a contradictory reality through them. The specter of dictatorship haunts us side by side with the specter of democracy because revolution is not the final victory of a communist majority of people versus a capitalist minority. The problem of capital is reproduced from below, when we, the majority, actively reproduce bourgeois right and succumb to its contradictions. An instant elimination of capitalism is impossible, it would imply eliminating all the masses of people that spontaneously sustain it (capitalism is reproduced radically differently compared to pre-capitalist societies). Hence, revolution facilitates a long challenging process of subjective also, and not only objective transformation. In this context this obscure and dense remark by Adorno starts making total sense:
Marx was too harmless; he probably imagined quite naïvely that human beings are basically the same in all essentials and will remain so. It would be a good idea, therefore, to deprive them of their second nature. He was not concerned with their subjectivity; he probably didn’t look into that too closely. The idea that human beings are the products of society down to their innermost core is an idea that he would have rejected as a milieu theory. Lenin was the first person to assert this.28
This subjective aspect of social pathology, to its ultimate repercussions, is ignored by all other socialisms apart from Marxism. And this leads other socialisms into ignoring the importance of facilitating working class independent engagement with democratic mass politics, despite the pathological character of this process that Marxists of course need to remain aware of. Anti-Marxists denounce the dictatorship of the proletariat only to excuse their compromise and accommodation with the current dictatorial reality into which democracy already functions.
This article was republished from Cosmonaut.
Marxism is Real Naturalism: Galen Strawson and Panpsychism By: Thomas RigginsRead Now
Sartre once remarked that the attempt to construct a philosophy that goes beyond Marxism simply recreates a pre-Marxist view that is no longer relevant to current understanding. In a recent issue of the London Review of Books I believe the philosopher Galen Strawson guilty of just such an attempt in his article "Real Naturalism."
Engels long ago pointed out that there are basically two trends in modern philosophy--one that leads to idealism and myth making, and one that leads to materialism and the correct scientific approach to understanding the nature of reality. I hope to show in this article that Strawso n (hereafter "GS") has taken the idealistic path.
GS states unequivocally the following: "I'm a naturalist, an out-and-out naturalist, a philosophical or metaphysical naturalist about concrete reality. I don't think anything supernatural or otherwise non-natural exists." We shall see. Reality has already been qualified by the adjective "concrete", which leaves open the possibility of some sort of "non-concrete" reality to play the role usually reserved for "spirit" or "mind" in idealistic philosophies. I want to be able to replace the term "naturalism" with the term "materialism" (which I defend) so I am a "materialist about reality" period.
We need to be clear about terms. I think naturalism is the same as materialism but some naturalists disagree. Some think that there are emergent qualities in the material world that lead to the transcendence of mere nature. I think they are mistaken and are dualists or idealists as regards reality and are naturalists in name only. All such emergent qualities are ultimately to be explained by basic constituents of a material nature.
Physicalism is also another name for materialism. This outlook originated with the Logical Positivists with respect to their materialist philosophy of mind. For the sake of clarity I will use the term "materialism" instead of either "naturalism" or "physicalism" (or sometimes "n-materialism" and "p-materialism" to be really clear) in order to avoid the obfuscation introduced into philosophy by the multiplication of useless terms. I hope I have not obfuscated here.
Now GS says that the non-natural can only be known in relation to the natural and everything natural is "anything that exists in space-time." Well, materialism also holds to this view and, since everything that exists does so in space-time, GS should simply say he is a materialist, adopt Marxism-Leninism as the most consistent materialism, and that would be that. Except that he thinks many people who call themselves n-materialists are not--they are really false n-materialists, they are "noturalists." Which is just what I think GS himself is.
What upsets GS is his view that in the last fifty years or so, so-called n-materialists have questioned the existence of conscious experience and nothing could be more self-evident than that we have experiences. GS blames this lamentable state of affairs on the influence of Behaviorism, which led most n-materialists to think that, since Behaviorism explained all human activity without recourse to concepts of consciousness and experience, it was unscientific to use such concepts. Even when they broke with Behaviorism as such they still denied the existence of "experience" because they did not think the concept compatible with the n-materialist view that everything was "physical."
These "false" n-materialists, in the view of GS, simply deny that matter can be conscious and since they don't believe anything else basically exists except matter it follows that there is no such thing as experience. Now GS admits that many of them deny that they don't believe that matter can be conscious and so experience can be "physical," but he says they only make these claims by changing the meaning of "consciousness" so that "whatever they mean by it, it excludes what the term actually means."
GS now switches from speaking about n-materialism to p-materialism. There is no problem here because they are the same thing. We cannot reduce everything we hold to be explainable in terms of p-materialism to terms of physics. Physics right now is in flux and no one can state that they know exactly what the ultimate theory of reality will be, or if there will even ever be such a theory. According to GS, outside of certain quantitative structures revealed by mathematics and experimentally tested, physics appears unable to "tell us anything about the intrinsic nature of reality."
GS wants us to doubt physics because he wants to create a p-n-materialist theory of the mind that will not be reducible to statements of physics. He exhorts us to think in terms of the views of Locke, Hume, and Kant, as well as Eddington and Bertrand Russell, to accept the "point that physics can't convey the nature of everything that exists--even though everything is wholly physical." This appeal to the great thinkers of the past is unnecessary.
I can't think of any materialist, unless he or she has completely lost his or her way, who would deny that the nature of certain things that exist--appreciation of a work of art by a person for example--is to be explained by physics even though the art work, the person's brain, and the neural activity within it are wholly physical. It is enough for materialism to point out that the nature of the appreciation that exists within the person would not exist without the physical (materialistic) prerequisites of the brain.
So I don't see a problem with the existence of "experiences", which GS wants to call his "starting point: outright realism about experience, conscious experience." A new term has now been introduced: "realism." This too is, I think, just another term for "materialism"--"r-materialism." I don't want to belabor the point, but while Marxists are content to use just one term, "materialism" tout court, our non-Marxist philosophical colleagues insist on using three different terms and usually eschew using such a crude old-fashioned and discredited term as "materialism"--not all of them but enough so that I need to use these distinctions I have made for purposes of clarification.
I agree with GS about the "terminological wreckage" that one finds in the philosophy of mind and so sympathize with him in wanting to get a clear understanding of what "experience" means. It is just the pre-philosophical notion that every one has, from childhood up, when they feel, hear, taste, or see something that they are aware of. He takes the example of the taste of pineapple from Locke--to taste pineapple is all you have to do to know what tasting a pineapple is like. That is a real experience, the experience of the taste of pineapple. Materialists would be wrong to think "they have any good reason to give an account of experience that is in any way deflationary or reductionist relative to the ordinary pre-philosophical understanding of experience."
GS is surely right for any ordinary everyday conversations about experience, but a materialist, talking to another philosopher, would not be remiss in pointing out that the taste of a pineapple is a function of some type of brain activity without which there would be no experience of said taste. I think it rather obvious that "physical reality has experiential character only when organised in certain specific ways--e.g., in the way in which it is organised in brains" [or proto-brains or some functionally equivalent organ or structure]. At this point in his essay this materialist position presented by GS need not, he tells us, be ruled out. But he is going to try to and rule it out later because he wants to defend the possibility of panpsychism! Let us see if he succeeds.
Now I agree with GS that experience really exists the way he says it does--I have a real experience of the taste of pineapple and I do not question the existence of this conscious experience. But GS says that if that is the case then I must be "fully open to panpsychism." This is the view, according to the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, "that the physical world is pervasively psychical, sentient or conscious (understood as equivalent)." Well, I am fully open to his argument (if he has one) but I don't think his argument will prove his case.
He begins to make his case by arguing that materialists who argue for the non-existence of experience are wrong, and since we all are aware of experience we have better reason to doubt the existence of non-experiential reality than of experiential reality. He says we know "some physical stuff" is experiential because of brain states and concludes that we have no reason not to conclude that "all physical stuff is in its fundamental nature wholly experiential in all conditions and in all respects all the way down." But not all materialists argue that experience doesn't exist. The fact that we experience external reality does not necessitate the fundamental nature of external reality is "experiential" in the same sense that we experience it and call our awareness "experiential." This is the fallacy of equivocation.
GS, however, concludes that he has shown that panpsychism is the logical result of p-n-materialism. He calls it "pure" panpsychism " since "it goes beyond the version of panpsychism according to which all physical stuff has experiential being in addition to non-experiential being." He also claims that this version of panpsychism "leaves everything that is true in physics untouched." Quite a claim since we don't know if everything that we think is true in physics is true.
GS admits he has not really made the case in his article for panpsychism. What he thinks he has done is to show that "there's no reason" to think that the world given to us by physics is fundamentally non-experiential rather than experiential. Since the world as we know it is our experience of it. "There is," he says, "zero observational evidence of any non-experiential concrete reality."
What does this mean? Because all our knowledge of the world is our awareness and experience of it, therefore there is no evidence that it has an existence independent of experience. GS denies that this is what his position amounts to. But that is exactly what his position amounts to. He simply enunciates his position and says anyone who doesn't accept his view is "not a real naturalist."
You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see the problem with panpsychism. Physics is not the only science we have to deal with--there is biology, geology, and paleontology, just to name a few others. Science has pretty much shown that our cognitive abilities including consciousness and awareness and the abilities to experience the world we live in are functions of our nervous system and the evolution of our brains. A rock is not going to be "aware" of anything. There was a time when there was no life on earth and no experiences either. Everyone knows this story. Our observational understanding of the history of the universe makes the materialist (non-panpsychic) view the most compelling logical explanation of all the concrete facts we presently have at our disposal.
I think GS knows his position in both counter-intuitive and unscientific because he ends his essay by saying that he predicts "that no philosopher who disagrees will take any notice" of his "argument." But a bunch of assertions is not an argument and he has already said that he was "not particularly disposed to make the case for panpsychism" in this article. He quotes Hobbes to back up his prediction: "Arguments do seldom work on men of wit and learning, when they have once engaged themselves in a contrary opinion." If you don't accept GS's position, well then, "You're not a serious, realistic naturalist." Perhaps GS should rather be thinking about Horace's observation "mutato nomine de te fabula narratur."
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.