I was asked by a few comrades to explain Marx’s concept of the fetishism of commodities, and with that, the main ways it has been misunderstood by both mainstream bourgeois academia and by well-meaning Marxists. The following short reflection attempts to do just that.
Marx begins section four of the first chapter of Capital by saying that “a commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing;” however, “its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” (Marx, 71). I can imagine ‘bourgeois’ political economists reading this in 1867 wondering what the hell is ‘queer’ about a commodity? I can envision them asking “what in the world does a commodity, a category of political economy, have to do with metaphysics and theology?” Before I analyze what Marx means, let us look at some of the things he doesn’t mean, but which, as usual, people think he does.
There are a few ways the commodity fetish is misunderstood, but the most prominent misunderstanding describes the fetishism of commodities as a sort of ‘false consciousness’ which takes us over when we engage in the market; a sort of ‘illusion’ that occurs when we idealize the products we consume, or the products we are faced with the opportunity to consume. The commodity fetish is understood here as a sort of libidinal connection to products. It is as if one could watch Confessions of a Shopaholic and retrieve the same message Marx is proposing in this section.
This is not, in my view, what Marx means by the fetishism of commodities. It is not an illusion which functions as a filter to distort our view of the world. If that were the case, as Michael Heinrich notes, “false consciousness must disappear once the real conditions have been explained” (Heinrich, 71). This is not, however, the case. We don’t become immune to the ‘false consciousness’ of the commodity fetish after reading Marx’s Capital. Instead of thinking of the commodity fetish as a subjective experience of ‘false consciousness,’ Marx holds the fetish is in the world itself. It has an objective presence in the social relations of capitalist commodity production.
Marx uses the example of the construction of a table. When wood is formed into a table, there is no mystery present. We have a “common, every-day thing” (Marx, 71). However, “so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent” (Ibid – my italic). Notice here how he is very explicit that it is the object itself that is changed into something transcendent when it becomes a commodity. It isn’t, again, simply a matter of a mental illusion or false consciousness.
“The mystical character of a commodity,” Marx will go on to say, “does not originate, therefore, in their use-value” (Ibid). If it was simply a result of the use value of the good, all things – regardless of whether they were commodities or not – would have ‘metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.’ Instead, what makes a commodity such a queer thing is the relation which makes a good into a commodity in the first place – its exchangeability. It is here where a good becomes a sinnlich übersinnliches ding (sensuous extrasensory thing). As Marx says: “whence, then, arises the enigmatic character of the product of labour, so soon as it assumes the form of commodities? Clearly from this form itself” (Ibid, 71-2).
For a good to carry an ‘exchange value’ means that the specific type of concrete labor and materials which were necessary to create that good have fallen to the background. What matters in exchange value is not the type of work, but the socially necessary time it takes for that work to produce its product. In essence, qualitatively different forms of work, producing objects with qualitatively different utilities, are all homogenized and differentiated only quantitatively, that is, by the amount of socially necessary labor time materialized in the work. The homogenization of the human element of the commodity creates the conditions where “the social relations of the producers… and the social character of their labour” takes “the form of a social relation between products” (Ibid, 72). The human source of the commodity disappears, it becomes absorbed and metamorphized into the thing itself, appearing “as an objective character stamped upon the product” (Ibid). In the commodity a “definite social relation between men” assumes “the fantastic form of a relation between things” (Ibid).
A good analogy to such a queer relation can be found in the religious fetish, wherein human creations (the Gods) are disconnected (in their being and in their qualities) from their human creators. The relationships are seen not as relations between human constructions, but relations between “independent beings endowed with life” (Ibid). A prominent example of this phenomenon can be seen in the religious alienation Ludwig Feuerbach depicts in The Essence of Christianity. Nonetheless, the point is that because this fetishism “attaches itself” to the “products of labor, so soon as they are produced as commodities,” in a system of commodity production, this fetish has an objective character (Ibid).
For instance, in the movie ‘They Live,’ the protagonist John Nada finds a box of glasses which when worn show the real message behind social symbols (e.g., advertisement for vacation reads ‘reproduce and consume,’ the dollar reads ‘this is your God,’ etc.). In his reaction to the film, Slavoj Žižek’s The Perverts Guide to Ideology provides a helpful analysis of these “ideology critique glasses,” which aids our understanding of how the commodity fetish has been misunderstood. Ideology, Žižek states, is usually thought of as a set of glasses distorting our view of the real world. Therefore, ideology critique is usually framed as the removal of these glasses, an act which allows a spontaneous and direct engagement with the real world. Similarly, the central misunderstanding of the commodity fetish is that it is merely an illusion we hold, once we remove the illusion from our understanding the fetish disappears. This way of thinking about ideology critique is, as Žižek notes, ideological as well.
Instead, as the movie rightly depicts, ideology is objectively in the world. The task of critique is beyond the commonsensical and spontaneous. Critique is an often-painful addition which mediates between us and the world in such a manner that provides us with insights into the objective limitations of the objective world. The commodity fetish is not a distorted view of the world. It is not ‘fixed’ through easy liberal consumptive practices; through knowing where your cow died and where your eggs came from. The commodity fetish is an objective reality in a world dominated by commodity production. It takes critique to see this, but a revolution to change it.
Karl Marx (1867), Capital Vol. I, International Publishers (1974).
Michael Heinrich (2004), An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital, Monthly Review (2012).
Note* I'd also highly recommend reading Thomas RIggins' article on the same topic, included as an afterward to his recent book, Reading the Classical Texts of Marxism, published by the Midwestern Marx Publishing Press.
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, and early 19th century American socialism. His academic work has appeared in Critical Sociology, The Journal of American Socialist Studies, and Peace, Land, and Bread. Along with various editors from The Journal of American Socialist Studies, Carlos is currently working on a serial anthology of American socialism. His popular theoretical and political work has appeared in Monthly Review Online, CovertAction Magazine, The International Magazine, The Marx-Engels Institute of Peru, Countercurrents, Janata Weekly, Hampton Institute, Orinoco Tribune, Workers Today, Delinking, Electronicanarchy, Friends of Socialist China, Associazione Svizerra-Cuba, Arkansas Worker, Intervención y Coyuntura, and in Midwestern Marx, which he co-founded and where he serves as an editorial board member. As a political analyst with a focus on Latin America (esp. Cuba) he has been interviewed by Russia Today and has appeared in dozens of radio interviews in the US and around the world.
“Capitalist production…disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e. prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; it, therefore, violates the conditions necessary to lasting fertility of the soil. The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry, like the United States, for example, the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology…only by sapping the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.”
Capitalism as a world system is wholly incompatible with preserving the environment sustainably and equitably for all. The system’s motive for existence, its engine of growth, is the ever-increasing need for surplus accumulation. By its very definition, a system seeking infinite profit on a finite planet is bound to collapse under its own weight. Riddled with this so-called external bound as well as its own internal contradictions and pushed forward by a falling tendency of the rate of profit, the system becomes more and more unsustainable with the present status of global climate emergency. In this essay, we will begin the analysis by talking about green growth and its more radical version Green New Deal, followed by a discussion on the essential tenets of Degrowth as a theory and a possibility. We would conclude by discussing the viability and potential of each of the strategies.
In a broad sense of the word, Green Growth means economic growth that encompasses decoupling with emissions. The decoupling can be relative or absolute. The inherent vagueness of the term ‘green growth’ has led it to be susceptible to varied interpretations. One kind of green growth can be the mere emphasis on more energy-efficient production, firmly entrenched within the status-quo of the socio-economic system of global capitalism. On the other extreme of the spectrum of meaning lies the domain of ecosocialist green growth. Slightly tilting towards this extreme is the idea of modern Green New Deal (or Green Keynesianism in its milder version). The Green New Deal premise begins with acknowledging that polluting emissions (primarily carbon emissions) need to be cut down drastically to even envision a possible stabilisation of the global environment in the foreseeable future. One of the most common tenets of the prominent Green Growth thinkers has been massive investment (sometimes solely public) around the scale of 2% of the global GDP in energy-efficient infrastructure along with a simultaneous reduction in fossil-fuel consumption to bring CO2 emissions close to zero in the next thirty to forty years.
Even if the ‘Green Growth-ers’ agree on principle with the ‘Degrowth-ers’, the main issue of contention remains the viability of the former strategy compared to the latter. Most of the Green Growth-ers believe that Degrowth does not offer a viable method of stabilising the climate, given that the world seems to be running out of time. Another criticism that the green growth advocates make about the degrowth theorists is that the latter have been much too involved in broad strokes and abstract arguments to be actually helpful in providing concrete and viable strategies for environmental preservation.
In its modern form, the Green New Deal (GND) gathered popular momentum within the moderate social-democratic wing of the Democratic party in the USA. The GND proposes not only a massive public investment for greener transitioning but a reformed restructuring of the global taxation system, taking into account intra-country as well as inter-country inequalities. The central argument hinges on the possibility of the Global South still continuing to grow- as an appeal to the attractiveness of the proposition along national lines, as long as said growth proceeds along the lines of systematic decoupling. The essential twin opportunities that Green Growth promises to offer to global citizens are a higher standard of living and expanded job opportunities across the globe. In a fundamental sense, as green energy becomes cheaper, it frees up resources’ availability to achieve higher living standards. In this possibility, one must also be aware of what Jevons termed as the rebound effect, which might lead to rising energy consumption due to the said cheapening. The other opportunity for expanded employment seems to follow from the sound premise that the physical shift from non-green, carbon-emitting, fossil-fuel dominant energy sources to green energy sources would entail intensive labour expenditure. If such a transition was to truly take place globally, this might indeed lead to increasing employment opportunities throughout the globe.
Moreover, suppose the significant part of this investment could be public investment. It might also provide a window to marginally subvert the neoliberal dynamics of profit-maximisation-based employment generation that has become a defining characteristic in the present times of environmental and economic crises. The Green New Deal places its faith solidly into the technological effectiveness of green energy transitions once the political opposition to such a restructuring of the political economy is surpassed. Robert Pollin claims that for 2016, the worldwide green-energy investments ranged between 0.4% of the global GDP. This means that the range of clean energy investments needs to increase by the range of 1-1.5%. The basic plan, so to say, is that the given pattern continues beyond the initial 20 years investment plan along with a reduction in the consumption of fossil-fuel-based energy use to reduce carbon emissions to an effective zero level in the next 50 years.
Moreover, according to Adnan Z Amin, the director-general of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA)- there has been an ongoing cheapening of renewable energy resources, so much so that the current renewable energy cost in the global north is at par (and in some cases even below) with the non-renewable energy throughput. A significant shortcoming of the green growth strategy by social democratic movements in the global north is how much of an actual challenge these strategies even pose to the global capitalist system, which is responsible for the primary unsustainability of the present situation. Even though it does seem reasonable that the nature of employment, for example, in publicly funded green transition jobs, would be more just and equitable than elsewhere under private enterprise, is this reorganisation enough to effectively subvert the growth paradigm of capitalism responsible for the imminent breakdown of the system?
At this point, Degrowth broadly differs from the green growth strategies. Classical economists from Smith, Ricardo and Mill to Marx have talked of stationary states. Mill has also argued that even in a stationary state of no growth, the ultimate welfare of the society as whole hinges on the distributional policies of the state. Degrowth openly and radically runs against the growth paradigm of both capitalism and the kind of productivist socialism practised in the USSR. The Degrowth theorists have advocated that pursuing a green growth strategy within a somewhat ‘benevolent’ capitalist system is insufficient to prevent the planet from breaking down. For them, the only viable option is a reduction in growth, leading to a reduction in carbon emissions, as they believe that absolute decoupling is a myth.
Degrowth advocates base their argument on the primary rationale that growth in itself is not necessary (and is indeed far from sufficient) for the improved well-being of the masses. Modern Degrowth theories draw extensively from anthropological studies of various tribes and societies that value abundance rather than scarcity and have been shown to derive their well-being from a shared sense of shared resource utilisation and non-growth. At the outset, it does seem clear that most of the degrowth activists and theorists have been people based in the global north. Furthermore, added to this, the green growth advocates have frequently labelled the degrowth theorists as utopians. Robert Pollin, for example, tries to disprove the degrowth objective through simple arithmetic. He argues that based on Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) estimates, we know that global CO2 emissions need to fall from the current level of 32 billion tons to 20 billion tons within the next 20 years. Moreover, if we assume that following the degrowth paradigm, global GDP plummets 10% within the next two decades, this would be a reduction four times larger than what was caused by the global financial recession. Moreover, the impact of this fall would be to push carbon emissions closer to 29 billion tons by 2040, which is still far from the desired outcome of 20 billion tonnes. Pollin also argues that Degrowth by itself is meaningless and harmful if the pie gets smaller than the current size and the rich and the powerful still maintain their position of expropriating most of the surplus from the global economy.
At this juncture that ecosocialist degrowth appears to be a possible response to Pollin’s criticism. Ecosocialist degrowth-ers argue that reducing the GDP is not an end in itself. A reasonable class-conscious advocacy might be that be it green growth or Degrowth, both of these strategies might prove to be ineffective, if not downright harmful to the vast masses of citizens of the globe, if the capitalist system is not primarily subverted. The engine of infinite accumulation is not brought to a halt. Moreover, when it comes in terms to thinking about which alternative might have the upper hand in halting this engine of exploitation, Degrowth does have a certain sense of appeal.
Green growth runs the risk of continuing economic growth as a political necessity to pacify social conflict and ascertain the socio-economic reproduction of the capitalist system as a whole, Kallis argues. A radical post-capitalist ecosocialist society has the scope of envisioning reduced working hours with greater well-being for the masses, indeed. Kallis uses the example of Cuba during the 1990s to argue that the change envisioned by the state of Cuba during the crisis was akin to degrowth theories, encompassing a shift towards more organic and less intensive input farming. According to Ellul, in modern societies, technology in itself possesses its own logic of reproduction and accumulation divorced from socio-economic reality.
Therefore, relying exclusively on a technocratic fix like the Green Growth poses risks of ineffective control of the direction in which such a technological shift would extract surplus. Advocating through broad-based workers’ and peasants’ movements for a world with no economic growth or even Degrowth opens up intellectual and practical avenues for envisioning a system beyond capitalism. However, of course, one cannot shy away from the radical, seeming impossibility of the project as a whole. In some senses, it might not be a stretch to conceptualise the debate between green growth and Degrowth in terms of the older debate of reform and revolution that raged during the Second International days.
Eduard Bernstein had argued that the increase in the social position and power of organised labour would gradually be enough to buy time to transform the socio-economic dynamics of capitalism and make possible the ushering in of socialism. However, on the other hand, the faction led by Lenin placed its faith in the growing misery of the proletariat in the global south to transform itself into the most revolutionary class in the economy, making possible a revolutionary overthrow of the system (Arrighi).
Akin to Bernstein’s position, the green growth-ers believe that the increased social position and power of environmentalism-oriented policy would gradually usher in a state of altered ecological dynamics. However, there is no such evidence of increasing social power or positioning in the global economy as a whole for green growth to become a dominant energy paradigm.
The Democratic Party in the United States of America recently approved increased Ethanol blended fuels in cars which are highly polluting in general. The social positioning of this strategy within the party of its genesis is on the wane itself, as evidenced by other recent developments. This ought to make one sceptical of the possibility of green growth being achievable soon. On the other hand, the growing misery of countries in the periphery which face the most severe brunt of the environmental collapse of the capitalist world-economy opens us to opportunities to advocate the most radical and revolutionary (akin to Lenin) of all solutions of ecosocialist degrowth attacking the twin pillars of the perverse system of capitalism and surplus-value-driven growth.
 https://www.reuters.com/world/us/biden-allow-higher-ethanol-fuel-sales-summer-check-gas-prices-2022-04-12/(Accessed on 1-05-2022)
As the news erupted on Monday evening of a leak in the Supreme Court’s draft opinion piece that ultimately may reverse the monumental 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized the right to abortion, left-wing organizations and parties immediately went to take the streets with working women against this travesty on our bodily autonomy. Since the 1973 controversial decision, the right wing and ultra religious Christian groups have long lobbied politicians to overturn or create legislation to ban this right for women, and it may appear that they have finally found grand success. The criticisms against the right wing’s “Pro-Life” movement are numerous and I will not address them here as that would be redundant. Instead, I will focus on the left’s attitudes of abortion and women’s healthcare and how in fact, the current trend among the left is detrimental to our relationship with proletarian women.
The Left and Womanhood
It is no secret that among the left, working women have been leaving our movement in droves whether through being pushed about by chauvinism, exploitation, or worse – violence. That has been the basis of the creation of anti-imperialist and left wing groups that are women-only such as CODEPINK and Af3irm. Patriarchy and its baggage have found its noose tightened among revolutionary women even in organizations claiming to fight for their liberation, and through the years we have seen revolutionary women become disillusioned with the capability of our movement for it. I do not blame them, we must not shame them but instead rip our movement free from patriarchy and become a movement women are protected in.
But whether through the remnants of liberal feminism, idealism, and the lack of Marxist feminist analysis in left organizations, the left is losing its legitimacy with working women. It’s almost as if the plights of women and our reproductive care are just a concept to the left and not a lived reality for millions of working women. There is an idealist view of abortion and even worse, lack of uproar about women’s access to healthcare and work – making it seem like the only time we speak about women are during defending abortion and #MeToo moments. This has given a revival to the radical feminist movement that many young working women are flocking to as they’ve yet to have their issues revealed among the left. In fact some argue the fight for abortion is simply a culture issue and to be fair, the way the left fights for it is cultural and less economic.
Prior to this SCOTUS leak regarding Roe v. Wade, when was the last time we spoke about the lack of comprehensive study on women’s health? When was the last time we argued for accessibility and affordability of emergency contraceptives? Have we en masse pushed for scientists to research an extension beyond the 72 hour period for Plan B, or even how ineffective it is for overweight women? In states like Texas and South Dakota, emergency contraceptive pills are extremely limited in access and quite expensive. Birth control too is expensive and as millions of women and girls are prohibited from accessing it whether by lack of healthcare or laws restricting the pill by age.
Comrades, this is our fault because this was our task. The capitalist class, the liberals and of course the right will never make it their priority to champion for comprehensive study and access to healthcare for women and girls nor would they be interested in critiquing what little options there are today. We waited so long and sat on our hands that now we have neither the healthcare nor the last-result options for women in this country. Of course we did not ask the right to lobby against us nor did we push the Supreme Court to make such a heinous decision, but likewise we let the issue go completely disregarded and we contributed to failing the women of our country. And worse, the few organizations like Af3irm and Women for Racial and Economic Equality (WREE) have been and continue to struggle for women’s rights, were instead attacked by the left and smeared as state agents.
While we have been struggling for unions and better workplace conditions, we must connect the woman’s relationship with abortion and motherhood as economic conditions. Women in this country have been placed with the double burden of unpaid domestic work and employment, being doubly exploited at home and at the office. This is unappealing to working women of our time and the brunt of capitalism has resulted in now seeing a decline in reproduction rates. According to the Statista Research Department’s report in May 2021, the fertility rate needed to maintain the population sits at 2.1 children per woman but we have fallen below that rate to 1.77 children per woman since 2017. The number of births in the US has also steadily declined. Some will attribute this to life expectancy increasing, thus prolonging the decision to have a child. But the truth is that in these economic conditions, having a child seems so inconceivable. Housing is expensive and in places like New York City, most adults live with roommates who certainly would be partial to a crying infant at 3am. The cost of living increases while wages remain stagnant. Healthcare and education continue to send thousands every year into bankruptcy. Less and less adults are able to afford their own homes and then we wonder why birth rates are declining. The root of the issue is capitalism.
We need to remember these realities when we fight for abortion, that when we fight for women’s rights we are not beginning and ending with the right to an abortion. In our fight to defend Roe v. Wade, it cannot be lost on us the multifaceted class warfare against women. Nor should we glamorize the procedure, as sadly, that is what we’re beginning to see.
The Romanticization of Abortion and the Left
Quickly, organizations mobilized thousands of people at a moment’s notice all over the country to show their outrage against possible overturning Roe v. Wade and demand that women’s right to an abortion be protected. It is exhilarating to see the growth of our movement following the devastation that we’ve seen after the counter revolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. While more people are joining our ranks, we still struggle to keep women for reasons aforementioned.
Writer and revolutionary feminist Lavy Shwan has long been vocal in her support for women’s liberation and critique of the sex trade which she personally lived through. She has shown her dedication and her prioritization to uplifting working women from the strife imposed on them by this capitalist regime. Yet in February of 2022, while on recovery from removing breast implants which are fed to women as a necessary component to achieving beauty, she wrote online about the political theater surrounding the fight for abortion is, citing that it lacks any depth to transforming and materially uplifting working women. She was immediately hailed as a chauvinist, accusations thrown against her as being right wing and moralistic, all because she critiqued the movement surrounding abortions. At no point did Shwan say that women should be banned from having the procedure nor should they be prosecuted for having one. She simply critiqued the political theater of the pro-choice movement that makes a departure from real Marxist feminism.
This is a point that one may have to sit with themselves before immediately reacting to — the political theater of the pro-choice movement. At the recent mobilizations in favor of Roe v. Wade, activists took to the streets with signs demonstrating their frustration against this decision with signs like “Defend Roe v. Wade” and “Abolish the Supreme Court”. These are objectively good and winning slogans. But aspects that were particularly troubling about these protests were the signs that read “We love abortions” “pro-woman, pro-choice, pro-abortion”. If these signs were held by liberal, this would not come as a shock. But these were signs made and written by Marxists and paraded as a testament to our movement. This is the most egregious error of the left’s relationship to women.
While lived experience must be limited in our political analysis, I’m starting to believe only those who have had an abortion understand the complexities of it all. The left treats abortions as though it is a simple procedure – easy peasey lemon squeezy. A last form of birth control is all. They cite the brevity of the procedure as evidence and parade women who have had abortions and support the right to abortion around as a political token. I have had an abortion. I support a woman’s right to have an abortion under any circumstance she feels necessary. But I do not support romanticizing the single hardest decision a woman may have to make in her life, a choice that could alter her life, her emotional and physical health.
While it is now rare that a woman will die or become infertile after having an abortion, thanks to medical development and the legality of abortion procedures, by no means is the procedure light on your reproductive system. The procedure lasts roughly ten minutes, but most women are left awake, feeling every excruciatingly painful tug and dig. In the decision to not follow through with the pregnancy, a woman also undergoes the surgery awake and sentient which can be psychologically damaging to those particularly emotional about the pregnancy. After the procedure ends and the painkillers wane off, she is sent home with a caretaker bleeding heavily through pad after pad, cramping everywhere a zygote or fetus once was. In the subsequent weeks, her menstrual cycle becomes completely thrown out of whack leading to possibly changing the nature a woman experiences her next period. An abortion is not the same as a root canal and while not all women experience the emotional trauma and depression that follows, they will undergo the same physical experience.
There’s this idea that women that decide to have abortions all go with the decision unscathed. This is to counter the right wing moralistic narrative that women who have abortions will have lifelong regret and suffering. Make no mistake, the decision to have an abortion is largely not done recklessly or impulsively. But two things can be true at once. Under capitalism, women are under much economic exploitation and strain as it is, and motherhood is not any easier. Many women choose to have an abortion because they cannot afford or take on motherhood at the moment. Many women who chose an abortion have children later on in life. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 6 in 10 women who have had abortions are now mothers. In the US, a mother is responsible for her child and her alone. She must pay and find childcare when she's at work, she must have the burden of housework and employment. The child is a representation of her upbringing. It is not an easy task under such an individualist society. So it should not be in the least bit controversial to raise that capitalism fuels the demand for abortions and the decline in rates of child birth. It should not be controversial to state as Marxists, we must strive for a society where abortion demands decline through expanding study of women’s health, through access to healthcare and emergency contraceptives, using abortion as a last case option. That does not mean to limit abortion under any circumstances, but when women’s health is a priority and when women have their basic needs met, when we finally break free from wage slavery, then we will see less and less demand for abortions.
Women Among Our Ranks
Lastly, another troubling aspect of our pro-choice movement among the left is our reluctance to cast this as a woman’s issue. Abortion rates have increased in 2019 from their previous steady decline, just as recessions and the COVID pandemic saw women losing work and facing housing insecurity. The Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research group, reported that 94% of those who have had abortions identify as women. Yet, among the left we are seeing a resistance to saying “women’s right to an abortion” instead calling them “vagina-havers” or “people with uteruses”. It is a double blow when through the struggle of losing our right to bodily autonomy, we then become dehumanized and unnamed by those who are fighting for our liberation.
How can we expect working women to join us, how can we expect to be the crusaders in defense of women’s rights when we refuse to even say the word ‘woman’? Among the left, there is always the desire to be inclusive and bring a collective together under a banner. As noble as this is, it obfuscates that 94% of those getting abortions identify as women, it is clear this is a woman’s issue. This does not mean it is solely a woman’s issue, but we must respect those affected.
In the struggle for Black liberation, it is often noted by the right wing that there are more white people murdered by the police than Black people. Of course this statistic does not account for the fact that proportionately, white people make a larger percentage of the population and if we took the rates of the population into account, Black people are the vast majority of victims of police and state sanctioned violence. Exceedingly. Police violence is an issue that harms and kills the Black people of this country, of course that is not denying other races and ethnic groups are victims too. But into the question of police harm, it is clear as day that the issue is one especially pertinent to Black people and we recognize that fact on the left. But why can’t we acknowledge this for women? Women’s issues are routinely ignored day to day, but when the moment comes to stand up and roar for women’s liberation, we won’t even say ‘woman’. How on Earth do we expect working women to join us when we won’t even name them.
The Left has become alienated from women, and women have become alienated from themselves in light of the lack of Marxists taking on the task to champion them. I cannot understate how much disservice we do to ourselves and women when we don’t take on the economic positions of women’s struggles and reduce them to political trends that dissipate. Whatever the result of this draft may be, until capitalism is abolished, until women are raised from the depths of their plunder, working women will still be doubly exploited by domestic work and employment, women will suffer from lack of healthcare. Until we begin to address this, women will not feel at home in any of our movements.
Kayla Popuchet is a Peruvian-American CUNY student studying Latin American and Eastern European History, analyzing these region's histories under a scientific socialist lens. She works as a NYC Housing Rights and Tenants Advocate, helping New York's most marginalized evade eviction. Kayla is also a member of the Party of Communists USA and the Progressive Center for a Pan-American Project.
Mark Rowlands has an interesting review of Jonathan Safran Foer's book, Eating Animals, in the TLS of March 5, 2010 ("Choice Cuts"). It raises important moral, and for Marxists, I think, political problems, that arise from the way animals are killed and consumed under the capitalist dominated meat production industry (under which almost ALL our meat is produced in the US-- ie., by CAFOs or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.
Unfortunately, Foer's argument is based on LOGICAL conclusions deduced from readily available empirical facts and, as Rowlands points out human beings in general "don't respond well to logical argument"-- especially when they are engaged in politics. Marxists, however, if they have escaped from the mental disorder of sectarianism and have matured beyond the infantile disorder of ultra-leftism, may prove an exception since their whole philosophy ultimately derives from a logical conclusion deduced from Marx, after he read Hegel's Logic, regarding the way to end human exploitation by means of abolishing the extraction of surplus labor by capitalists.
Well, let us look at Foer's arguments and see if Marxists should also fight to end the exploitation of our fellow animals-- not only on moral grounds but also on the grounds of the SELF INTEREST of the working people of the world. The following is based on Rowlands' review, Double quotes (") are from Foer's book, single quotes (') from Rowlands.
Why did Foer write this book? Because he has recently become a parent and he wanted to set forth examples of the best moral behavior and health behavior for his children. It may turn out that this example applies to all of us.
The book is based on three empirical facts (scientific facts) which are used as premises to draw a conclusion that any person who is rational (and not an overly irrational MAGA enthusiast) will accept. The premisses are:
1. Human beings do not need to eat animals to live healthy lives.
2. The way animals are now treated and killed for us to eat 'causes suffering on an unimaginable scale' [this presupposes we think this is morally wrong -tr].
3. The way animals are now raised for food is 'environmentally catastrophic.'
THEREFORE: We should not use animals for food as they are now treated and raised.
Notice this is not an absolute vegetarian conclusion, and indeed the author calls for what he terms "contingent vegetarianism"-- but more on this later. Let's look at the evidence for the truth of the three premises.
Premiss One: The American Dietetic Association says that vegetarian diets are appropriate for humans at all stages of life and that meat eating is unnecessary [like smoking-- it’s just a bad habit--tr] and is healthy for us--less cancer and heart disease. [Working people would certainly benefit from better and more healthy diets and Marxists should be advocating for vegetarianism as tribunes of the people--tr].
Premiss Two: the 'horrors of factory farms are well known.' Cattle are supposed to be killed by a bolt to the brain, to cite just one example, but investigations have shown a 'non-negligible minority' are still alive and conscious when the skin is peeled off their faces and their legs are chopped off. Similar horrors happen to pigs, chickens, horses, etc. [Since many humans are singularly unaffected by the torture and killing of animals (hunters, fishers, fans of cock, dog, and bull fights, fur wearers, etc.,) this may be the weakest premiss-- tr].
Premiss Three: The UN Climate Commission (Pew Commission) reports that the animal food industry 'is responsible for more climate change emissions than all forms of transport combined-- in fact, nearly 40 per cent more.' Talk about reducing gas emissions! And don't forget all the government unregulated animal poop flooding the nation, getting into the food supply-(E. coli comes from animal intestines--what's it doing in peanut butter?), as well as the water supply. I hope you don't live near a factory pig farm.
What is "contingent vegetarianism?" Foer himself has become "a committed vegetarian." He is not vegan. Cheese and milk seem to be ok, but in so far as the dairy business is also part of the CAFO system (dairy cows end up there as do their calves i.e., veal) premise two seems applicable.
Foer leaves open the possibility of humane (?) farming which allows for limited meat eating but Rowlands thinks that Foer's arguments are stronger than Foer himself thinks they are. 'The qualified nature of his conclusion -- contingent vegetarianism -- suggests that he hasn't quite understood just how convincing his book is.'
My take is that vegetarianism is the only politically correct position to take vis a vis the interests of the working class, and not only the working class but all of humanity as well. First, how can Marxists not advocate the most healthy diet possible for people? Capitalist agribusiness pushes meat for profit not out of concern for human well being. Second, if we destroy the earth, sea and atmosphere with unending pollution the working people and all other segments of humanity cannot possibly survive. CAFOs are major contributors to this pollution. The capitalists have no intention of doing anything serious about ending pollution as long as their super profits keep rolling in. To defend our class and humanity we should advocate AT LEAST contingent vegetarianism.
I think that under capitalism we will not be able to significantly change the eating habits of people. It will take the complete reeducation of humanity that will be required under socialism to bring up future generations of humans dedicated to people before profits, the abolition of war, protection of the environment, the end of economic exploitation, and the end of the killing and eating of animals with all of its attendant cruelty.
Nevertheless, this is a topic worthy of consideration and discussion by the international communist and worker's movement. The time has come for both individual Marxists, and, indeed, whole parties to debate this issue and come to a consensus based on the scientific evidence and the logical conclusions derived from it.
MEAT, MONEY AND MARKETS
We’ve known for some time that having too much red meat in our diets has negative health consequences. We also know that the meat industry goes out of the way to play down these risks as it is motivated by profits and not public health. We also know that the only really effective way to protect the public from the negative consequences is to demand that the government regulate and educate. We must work towards expanding democratic control of the economy in order to achieve these ends.
New scientific evidence released by the Harvard School of Public Health, definitely shows that eating red meat increases mortality from both cancer and cardiovascular problems.
The results of the Harvard study have been reported in ScienceDaily, but it has some good news, which is that we can all lower our risks for these health problems by replacing red meat with nuts, legumes, fish, and poultry (and of course a vegetarian diet would dramatically reduce these risks).
An Pan, the main author of the report, is quoted as saying: “Our study adds more evidence to the health risks of eating high amounts of red meat, which has been associated with type two diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers in other studies.”
The study followed thousands of people over two decades correlating their diets with disease incidents. The researchers found that eating processed red meat daily (e.g., two strips of bacon or a hot dog) increased your risk 20 percent (a daily serving of unprocessed red meat upped you risk 13 percent.) Cured red meat was thus seven percent more deadly than uncured.
The report also found that those who replaced the red meat serving with fish, poultry, nuts, low fat dairy, or legumes had a significant reduction in their risks of death. This led Frank Hu, a nutrition specialist and co-author of the report, to say, “This study provides clear evidence that regular consumption of red meat, especially processed meat, contributes substantially to premature death. On the other hand, choosing more healthful sources of protein in place of red meat can confer significant health benefits by reducing chronic disease morbidity and mortality.”
So red meat consumption ought to be limited in the interests of public health, and especially the health of children. Processed red meats as well as red meat in general should be regulated and reduced in school lunch programs (remember the Republicans in Congress want to classify pizza as a vegetable– which shows the influence of the junk food industry; money always comes first) and in all other government food programs.
The new USDA “food plate” simply has “protein” as one of its recommendations but no further recommendations such as less beef and more fish or other red meat substitutes. Beef should not be given equal time with chicken! In any event progressive politics goes hand in hand with progressive health advocacy and we can hope people will heed the warnings of science.
APPENDIX— here is more evidence for at least contingent vegetarianism; it’s from the People’s World of 3-26-2012
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.
Happy Birthday to Karl Marx. Born on May 5, 1818, and the significance of his life. By: Carlito RoviraRead Now
On May 5, 1818 in the city of Trier, Prussia, a great historic figure was born who would eventually send shock waves towards every school of thinking. Karl Marx would impact all of society, including those who served to protect the insecure class of oppressors, tyrants and exploiters, during his time.
This gallant revolutionary eventually formulated ideas that would serve to provide oppressed and exploited people with a comprehensive revolutionary theory, based on the social and economic status of the working class. It was in collaboration with his most trusted comrade and friend, Friedrich Engels, that Marx was able to develop a scientific approach for examining capitalism — in order to expedite it’s overthrow.
One of the greatest achievements made by Marx was his analytical conclusions of how capitalist profits are created. The capitalist class were not the lords of society because they worked harder or were smarter than anyone else. Their position was thanks to their theft of surplus value — the value of commodities above and beyond what is socially necessary to produce them. This surplus value is the fruit of unpaid labor, which becomes the nucleus of the vast wealth stolen by the capitalists.
The rapidity of production that resulted meant that abundance tended to cause scarcity, when overproduction caused job layoffs thus making commodity goods unaffordable for workers, while capitalists were only interested in satisfying themselves with a lust to maximize the rate of surplus value.
Once these commodity goods circulated in the market and sold the already created surplus value would then be realized as profits.
And because capitalism collectivized commodity production with concentrations of workers organized for a distribution of labor, a socialization of production was introduced. The magnitude of production gradually reached levels never before seen in human history. The capability of the productive forces meeting the needs of everyone in this society several times over revealed why poverty and want are an absurdity that is inherited in this system. This is a phenomenon that shall inevitably compel working people to rebel.
In the words of Karl Marx: “The essential conditions for the existence and for the sway of the bourgeois class is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage-labour. Wage-labour rests exclusively on competition between the labourers. The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own gravediggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.“
It was this analysis that led Marx and Engels to become adamant and unforgiving in their critiques of Political Economy, that is, the deceitful methods and hypocritical overtures used by the rulers to justify their parasitic behavior in the brutal exploitation of working people.
This analysis was also central in Marx’s world outlook that defined his conceptions in philosophy, ideology, politics, history, culture, but most important of all his attitude towards the antagonistic relationship between opposing social classes.
KARL MARX’S TREMENDOUS IMPACT ON THE WORLD
Marx’s ideas impacted progressive and revolutionary movements on every continent throughout the 20th Century, long after his death. Thanks to the political leadership of the Russian V.I. Lenin, Marx’s ideas guided the developments of the Soviet Union, the world’s first experiment in socialist planned economy.
Russian revolutionary leader, V.I. Lenin, at the Marx & Engels monument
in the Soviet Union, 1918.
For the most part Marx’s theories proved consistent with his expectations as workers in industrialized capitalist countries rose up in fierce rebellion while in the plundered and colonized regions of Africa, Asia and Latin America capitalist imperialism was challenged by the fury of national liberation struggles.
It is no wonder why revolutionary figures like Amilcar Cabral, Celia Sanchez, Ho Chi Minh, Claudia Jones, Madame Nguyễn Thị Định, Fidel Castro Ruz, Patrice Lumumba, Nguyễn Thị Bình, Ernesto Che Guevara, Mao Zedong, Steve Biko, Kim Il-Sung and many others, resorted to embrace Marxism and sought ways to apply it’s many lessons to their respective realities.
Contained in Marx and Engel’s earliest writings like the Philosophical & Economic Manuscript, The Communist Manifesto, The Origins of the Family, Private Property & the State, The Civil War in the United States, Utopia and Scientific Socialism, On Religion, Wage, Price and Profit, along with the rest of their vast collection of writings, are many valuable lessons which are indisputably applicable in our experiences today. That is why, to this day, 135 years after his death, Karl Marx continues to be despised and dreaded by the capitalist rulers.
The classic writing that continues to haunt the ruling class.
In the United States, African American figures like Cyril Briggs, Harry Haywood, W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, and many more, were able to see how the Black liberation struggle had natural affinities with the fundamental analysis of Marxism. By the 1960’s-70’s Marxism’s most notable writing “The Communist Manifesto” became one of several political education study requirements for members of the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords.
KARL MARX & THE CIVIL WAR IN THE UNITED STATES
One of the most notable of Marx’s political involvements was his intervention in the events of the Civil War in the United States. African chattel slavery in the U.S. was the most lucrative and most brutal in all of history. It was a system that served as the economic impetus for capitalism and allowed it to grow into the colossal wealth it comprises today.
Through his correspondence with President Abraham Lincoln and through his column in the New York Tribune Karl Marx sought to build pressure by being firmly insistent about the need for a decree that made slavery technically illegal.
On January 1, 1863 Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This monumental document became the legal precedent for recruiting and arming former slaves. Although Lincoln’s motives were of military consideration the Emancipation Proclamation hastened the outcome of the war and would eventually guarantee the defeat of the Southern Slavocracy.
Sectors of the British ruling class who had vested economic interest in the South’s slave economy had desired to militarily intervene in support of the Confederacy. Thanks to Karl Marx’s leadership in the powerful International Workingmen’s Association of England the British rulers were prevented from coming to the aid of the Southern slave owning class.
Karl Marx’s leading role mobilizing the English working class to prevent the prolongation of African chattel slavery in the United States was in every objective sense a profound act of solidarity to the African American people. Marx’s convictions were firm, it is why he stated, “Labor in the white skin can never free itself as long as labor in the black skin is branded.”
MARXISM MORE RELEVANT TODAY THAN EVER BEFORE
The revolutionary contributions of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels continue to be the target of bourgeois philosophers, economists and historians. Ruling class scholars demonstrate their contempt for working class people by falsely accusing Marxism of being “totalitarian” or by asserting that it is filled with nothing but “unrealizable fantasy,” etc.
Similarly, there are those even within the predominantly white socialist left of this country who claim, dripping with social arrogance, that Marxism and the nationalism of oppressed people are contradictory, and can never be reconciled to complement one another, in the fight against the capitalist rulers. Others in the more conservative sectors of the national movements, strictly concerned with the narrowest, cultural sentiments of nationalism, mistakenly assert that Marxism is a European or “white thing” and is therefore irrelevant to national liberation struggles.
Both of these views only serve to promote the reactionary notions of white supremacy and anti-communism. Objective material facts prove the opposite. Under the intense circumstances of imperialism today all oppressed entities have a definite class relationship to capitalism. It is a phenomenon which no one can escape.
People of color in the United States are the most exploited, persecuted communities. They are victims of police violence and imprisonment. If anyone is to have a greater stake and say in the downfall of this vile system and the establishment of a new society, it is those who have been historically on the bottom of social and economic disparity.
It is an absurdity and a reflection of how deeply embedded white privilege is in the culture to believe that mastering Marxism requires that people of color dismiss their self-identity as historically constituted national groupings within the broader population. This distortion of the meaning of Marxism dismisses the necessity of socialism coming about on equal terms and has resulted in preserving bourgeois traditions disguised under the mantle of upholding working class “unity.”
The teachings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels are today more relevant to the liberation struggles of Black, Latino, Asian, Arab and Indigenous people than ever before, especially because of the super-exploitation and increasing numbers of these national groups coming into the U.S. working class.
The capitalist ideological institutions like the church, the mass media, public education, etc., will implicitly and explicitly encourage us to accept what exist, that is, to be submissive to the racist injustices of the police state and the rule of wealthy exploiters. It was precisely the social class oppression, bringing so much suffering in our world that Karl Marx selflessly devoted his entire life to condemn and worked towards undoing.
If Karl Marx were alive today, he would have surely been part of the movements condemning the persecution of immigrant and undocumented families in the United States, the racist police killings of African Americans, the U.S.-backed Israeli occupation of Palestine as well as the U.S. colonization of Puerto Rico.
It is Marx’s uncompromising devotion to revolution on behalf of the workers and oppressed people of the world that explains the ruling class’s utter hatred for the conceptions he developed, including the relevance of Marxism to every question facing the world today. The rulers cannot bear the thought of a well-articulated analysis that calls for an end to capitalism and points towards the only direction for bringing about the complete emancipation of the human race.
Karl Marx tomb at Highgate Cemetery, London, England.
Carlos “Carlito” Rovira is a Young Lord for life who continues to fight for socialism.
Republished from Carlito's blog.
The following is a transcribed essay of a presentation offered for the Midwestern Marx Panel on Marxism and Human Evolution
Here are some observations on the heroic revolutionary and humanitarian Frederick Engels’s book, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State.
First, let’s discuss and make some inferences from the terms in the title of Engels’s book. The “Family” referred to is the male supremacist family. In the chapter titled The Family, Engels discusses the mother right family and its overthrow. The mother right family is an institution in which descent is traced through the female line. Engels says:
The overthrow of mother right was the world historical defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home; also, the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude; she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children. This degraded position of woman, especially conspicuous among the Greeks of the heroic and still more of the classical age, has gradually been palliated and glossed over, and sometimes clothed in a milder form: in no sense has it been abolished.
Clearly, Marxists following Engels’s implication here aim to abolish male supremacism in families as well as in income, social, political and economic power: just as we aim to abolish private property.
In the Preface to the First Edition to The Origin, Engels says:
According to the materialistic conception, the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life. This, again, is of a twofold character. On the one side, the production of the means of existence, of articles of food and clothing, dwellings, and of the tools necessary for that production; on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. The social organization under which the people of a particular historical epoch and a particular country live is determined by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labor on the one hand and of the family on the other.
This would seem to be an advance over the formulation of the materialistic conception of The Manifesto of the Communist Party- “ The history of all hitherto existing society(2) is the history of class struggles” in that The Manifesto’s formulation emphasizes the struggles of antagonistic productive classes as the determining factor in history; there is no reference to the reproduction of human beings/perpetuation of the species.
Next with reference to “Private Property” it is the aim of Marxists to abolish it as per The Manifesto: “…the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.”
That is wise of us Marxists because private property is synonymous with greed (the love of money), slavery, antagonistic economic classes, conquest of land and slaves; and necessarily linked to the state, war, conquest.
The State implies in modus ponens sense of implication private Property: no Private Property, no State. Thus, we Marxists hold that upon abolition of Private Property, the State withers away. The State is not abolished directly, as anarchists hold.
As for the process of abolition of the male supremacist family, I’ll follow Engels’s speculative lead:
Full freedom of marriage can therefore only be generally established when the abolition of capitalist production and of the property relations created by it has removed all the accompanying economic considerations which still exert such a powerful influence on the choice of a marriage partner. For then there is no other motive left except mutual inclination.
Sexual love is by its nature exclusive – although at present this exclusiveness is fully realized only in the woman – the marriage based on sexual love is by its nature individual marriage. We have seen how right Bachofen was in regarding the advance from group marriage to individual marriage as primarily due to the women. Only the step from pairing marriage to monogamy can be put down to the credit of the men, and historically the essence of this was to make the position of the women worse and the infidelities of the men easier. If now the economic considerations also disappear which made women put up with the habitual infidelity of their husbands – concern for their own means of existence and still more for their children’s future – then, according to all previous experience, the equality of woman thereby achieved will tend infinitely more to make men really monogamous than to make women polyandrous.
But what will quite certainly disappear from monogamy are all the features stamped upon it through its origin in property relations; these are, in the first place, supremacy of the man, and, secondly, indissolubility. The supremacy of the man in marriage is the simple consequence of his economic supremacy, and with the abolition of the latter will disappear of itself. The indissolubility of marriage is partly a consequence of the economic situation in which monogamy arose, partly tradition from the period when the connection between this economic situation and monogamy was not yet fully understood and was carried to extremes under a religious form. Today it has already broken through at a thousand points. If only the marriage based on love is moral, then also only the marriage in which love continues. But the intense emotion of individual sex-love varies very much in duration from one individual to another, especially among men, and if affection definitely comes to an end or is supplanted by a new passionate love, separation is a benefit for both partners as well as for society – only people will then be spared having to wade through the useless mire of a divorce case.
What we can now conjecture about the way in which sexual relations will be ordered after the impending overthrow of capitalist production is mainly of a negative character, limited for the most part to what will disappear. But what will be new? That will be answered when a new generation has grown up: a generation of men who never in their lives have known what it is to buy a woman’s surrender with money or any other social instrument of power; a generation of women who have never known what it is to give themselves to a man from any other considerations than real love, or to refuse to give themselves to their lover from fear of the economic consequences. When these people are in the world, they will care little what anybody today thinks they ought to do; they will make their own practice and their corresponding public opinion about the practice of each individual – and that will be the end of it.
Let us, however, return to Morgan, from whom we have moved a considerable distance. The historical investigation of the social institutions developed during the period of civilization goes beyond the limits of his book. How monogamy fares during this epoch, therefore, only occupies him very briefly. He, too, sees in the further development of the monogamous family a step forward, an approach to complete equality of the sexes, though he does not regard this goal as attained. But, he says:
When the fact is accepted that the family has passed through four successive forms, and is now in a fifth, the question at once arises whether this form can be permanent in the future. The only answer that can be given is that it must advance as society advances, and change as society changes, even as it has done in the past. It is the creature of the social system, and will reflect its culture. As the family has improved greatly since the commencement of civilization, and very sensibly in modern times, it is at least supposable that it is capable of still further improvement until the equality of the sexes is attained. Should the monogamian family in the distant future fail to answer the requirements of society ... it is impossible to predict the nature of its successor.
After writing The Origin, Engels saw fit to put an anthropological footnote in the famous first sentence of The Manifesto of the Communist Party: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” that is, all written history in 1847, the pre-history of society, the social organisation existing previous to recorded history, all but unknown. Since then, August von Haxthausen (1792-1866) discovered common ownership of land in Russia, Georg Ludwig von Maurer proved it to be the social foundation from which all Teutonic races started in history, and, by and by, village communities were found to be, or to have been, the primitive form of society everywhere from India to Ireland. The inner organisation of this primitive communistic society was laid bare, in its typical form, by Lewis Henry Morgan's (1818-1881) crowning discovery of the true nature of the gens and its relation to the tribe. With the dissolution of the primeval communities, society begins to be differentiated into separate and finally antagonistic classes. I have attempted to retrace this dissolution in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State.
There were no antagonistic classes in Stone Age societies. It was pre-private property, so its history is not a history of class struggles over about 2.5 million years of the beginning of human history, pre-written history. There is relatively very slow change in society comparatively because there was no class struggle, the engine of change.
The Stone Age begins circa 2.5 million years ago, with the fossil Homo habilis, when stone tools were made according to design, imagination, language ability, and thinking in symbolic signs or words. However, there was no alphabetic writing. The first clear evidence of Alphabetic writing was approximately 6,000 years ago in Mesopotamia. It originated in Greece in the complex of the male supremacist family, private property and the state essayed in Engels’s book.
The Stone Age did have full language or symbolic sign communication, even if not articulate speech, but in other media such as bodily sign language, dance, inarticulate voice, music-rhythm, et al. The evidence of this is the stone tools made by design and other abilities, such as controlling fire, then eventually picture writing.
The word “origin” in the title of Engels’s book implies that Engels is hypothesizing that the male supremacist family, private property and the state did not exist before that origin; thus, the Stone Age was so-called primitive communism.
The evidence from European ethno-histories and ethnographies of Stone Age societies corroborates this most profound implication of the thesis of The Origin.
Charles Brown is a political activist in Detroit, Michigan. He has degrees in anthropology and is a member of the bar. He teaches anthropology at Community College. His favorite slogan is "What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”
Special thanks to N.C. Cai for editing and alignment.
North-South Convergence? A Review of Dominant Literature from a Marxian Perspective. By: Tathagat SinghRead Now
“Economic Development and Underdevelopment are the opposite face of the same coin. Both are the necessary result and contemporary manifestations of internal contradictions in the world capitalist system.”
Lant Pritchett’s 1997 paper titled “Divergence, Big Time” put forward the central message, quite simply captured by its title, that the global economy has seen a divergence in countries’ income levels within a considerably long period from 1870-to 1990. This central position seemed to fly in the face of the conventional academic history of what has often been termed broadly as “convergence”. One of the earliest positions on this kind of convergence was David Hume’s in the year 1742. His argument was expressed along the lines that the accumulation of capital in the industrial countries would give the non-industrial countries an advantage in “catching up” with the leaders. Similar ideas were put forth by Veblen in 1915 and by Gerschenkron in 1962 in what may be called a more analytical fashion. In the post-war economic hegemonic discourse, the obsession with development as an active process to be undertaken in the former colonies, along with the continued sustenance of neoclassical methods of economic thinking, the idea of convergence almost became a staple, conventional shadow of the growth-linked development paradigm. The significant contributors included Harrod (1939), Domar (1946), Kuznets (1955) and Solow (1956).
Arguably, the analysis presented by Solow in terms of growth rates of individual countries being inversely dependent on the amount of existing capital stock of the country at a point in time became the most influential tenet on which the neoclassical advocates of unconditional convergence built their models and policy recommendations. The recent empirical literature (Maddison 1995) that followed tried to validate this convergence by indicating how countries that were poorer in the 1870s grew at a rate which was faster than that of countries which started richer. However, such expositions were severely criticised for their selection bias and the relatively small sample of countries they had chosen to analyse. Questions were raised on the tautological nature of implications that such studies made, like choosing rich ex-post countries to demonstrate the inherent convergent trend in their incomes (DeLong 1988).
Pritchett’s 1997 paper performed several statistical interpolations, like calculating a lower-bound of GDP that must have existed in the 1870s in various ‘developing’ countries to ensure their citizens survived in terms of 1985 prices. Such a lower bound was found to be around $250 PPP by Pritchett. He then, based on these estimates, and taking into consideration the historical growth rates in the ex-post rich countries and the current income levels of different countries, arrives at the conclusion that the two halves of the world- the rich and poor nations- have seen a divergent trend in their incomes for the given period in the study. He supports this argument by claiming if there had been no such divergence and the poorer countries grew at a historical growth rate of at least as much speed as the United States, then in 1870, a country like Chad would have had income levels below $100 PPP, which simply does not seem believable! Moreover, the paper shows that the magnitude of absolute income gaps between the rich and poor nations has grown by a staggering 12 times from 1870 to 1990. According to Pritchett, the only convergence that has been in existence in this time period is within the group of wealthy nations. In contrast, the world-economy has seen an absolute divergence in terms of income levels.
The publication of this paper generated obvious debates about the empirics and theory behind such a result. The paper by Patel et al. (2021) titled “The New Era of Unconditional Convergence” poses a counter to the central position expressed by Pritchett. In this paper, the authors have argued that the phenomenon of unconditional divergence has not been an accurate description of reality for the last few decades. Moreover, they have argued that this breaking down of divergence is not rooted in the dampening of growth in the advanced capitalist nations but because of a more stable and more robust high-income growth pattern in the Global South, particularly in Asia (prominent examples being India and China) while remaining more or less muted in Africa. The authors of this paper have tested for absolute convergence using data between 1960 and 2019.
An important point to note here is that this analysis remains entirely in the pre-Covid phase and thus is not immune to the changes that the world-economy has undergone after the pandemic. However, keeping that aside, for now, the paper uses multiple data sources like World Development Indicators, Heston-Summers’ Penn World Tables and Angus Maddison’s database to drive their point home. Numerous time intervals are used along with multiple regression methodologies to make the findings more robust. The parameter β>0 is taken as the measure of convergence. This paper points us toward a world where divergence no longer exists. There is a remarkable turnaround in catching up with countries from the Global South, catching up with the Global North around 1995. If this poses a real challenge to the relevance of the “Divergence, Big Time” thesis is a different matter altogether.
One of the most fundamental points to be aware of before diving into the neoliberal optimism of the paper is to check the actual magnitude of the speed of this so-called catching up. The said catching-up is occurring at a too slow rate to make real, full convergence in the foreseeable future an improbable event. Moreover, the very nature of this convergence being limited to a short period of two decades does not do justice to the historical view of absolute divergence when the same parameters are observed over a more extended period of thought, say about 500 years, as envisioned by Alfred Saad-Filho. The particular spurt of apparent convergence that is evident from Patel (2021) has actually been contingent upon the particular historical situation of American current account deficits and the global financial crisis, which are not likely to be repeated universally again and thus are unsustainable structural breaks on the whole. Policy wonks in the global north interpreting the findings of Patel (2021), moreover pose a risk of misrepresenting results from an era of broadly social-democratic north and socialist east as outcomes of the neoliberalism and Washington-Consensus led structural readjustment of the global political economy of the nineties.
This conflating of temporal horizons is particularly misleading and dangerous for future possibilities of shaping up alternative forms of political economy as a chance of actually de-linking from the dependency relations of core-periphery. Saad-Filho, puts forth an interesting position about the origins of such convergence focused empirical results. If one were to trace back the history of this “Rise of South” literature, then one would find writers based in private financial institutions in the global north prodding the state and corporations to be convinced of the vast possibilities of untapped markets in the global south ripe for surplus accumulation. He argues (in 2014) that the evidence for the short-term convergence in itself is mixed, but there is indeed a significant presence of long-term divergence. It is indeed possible to think of evidence like Patel (2021) as being “moments of convergence” in the long-run trend of divergence, given the speed of the said convergence. Moreover, from a broader historical perspective, five hundred years ago, Asia, Africa and Latin America had 75% of the world’s population and a similar share of the world income. By the 1950s, the population share of the tri-continent had dwindled to two-thirds and the income share to 27%. This was accompanied by a contemporaneous rise in the incomes of core countries of the capitalist world-economy. Looking at the question from this perspective, the latest data seems like a contingent blip on the vast canvas of an ever-increasing, polarised capitalist world-economy.
Another interesting facet about the latest results is that convergence is being led by the two most populous countries on earth- India and China. Samir Amin had argued that the kind of convergence that India was showing since the beginning of the 80s resulted from the semi-delinking that had already been in place since its independence before the reversed trend of greater linking within the capitalist world-economy. Dani Rodrik and Bradford DeLong had also made arguments along similar lines that the so-called “rise” was a result of the non-mainstream heterodox approaches to structuring political economy before 1990. One could thus argue that even if convergence (however paltry) is on the table, the causes lie outside what Washington-Consensus enthusiasts would have us believe. The nature of growth that was being experienced by the countries in the periphery and semi-periphery in the last two decades also poses interesting limits to the idea of optimism around the supposed reversal of divergence.
According to Saad-Filho, the growth that these countries witnessed in their income levels was driven by high prices along with structural factors of financialised commodity markets, recovering Latin America after the lost decades, and the speculative bubble formation in the United States during 2007-8. The fiscal stimulus provided by the states of advanced capitalist economies in the wake of the global financial crisis “slipped to” (Saad-Filho) countries with higher interest rates in the global south giving us an apparent unsustainable spurt of convergence. Even the said growth has been highly uneven, as demonstrated by Rory Horner and David Hulme in their work on New Geographies of Development in the 21st century. Also, the fact that countries like India and China may be catching up has no insights, a-priori, to offer on what has been happening to income distributions within the country. The OECD report in 2010 argued that the convergence seen in 2000 was not statistically significant.
The situation might quickly be reversed if the economies of the star performers like India and China were to falter. With Covid-19 ravaging the two economies, this prophecy might be true. However, China remained one of the only countries posting positive growth rates even during the pandemic. Could this be because China has successfully decoupled or delinked from the world-economy. Samir Amin had argued that even if there was effective delinking of the Chinese economy before 1978, the market reforms reversed this delinking to a great extent. Similarly, in a recent paper, Minq Li has also pointed out that China has not delinked or decoupled but has remained firmly as a semi-periphery of the capitalist world-economy. Therefore, advocates of successful decoupling-led convergence also need to re-evaluate their claims and acknowledge the transient nature of the said convergence. The only plausible hope of decoupling from the global north business cycle depends upon delinking from the world-economy through more south-south integration based on non-world-economy patterns. Convergence might then be an attainable aim.
https://news.cgtn.com/news/2021-02-28/China-s-GDP-grew-2-3-percent-in-2020-Yf4Ie5dS12/index.html (Accessed on 1-05-2022)
 https://monthlyreview.org/2021/07/01/china-imperialism-or-semi-periphery/ (Accessed on 1-05-2022)
Reply to Ben Burgis: G.A. Cohen’s work is useful, but not mandatory to understanding Marxism. By: Paul SoRead Now
Ben Burgis, an analytic philosopher and Marxist, wrote a short essay defending the contribution of G.A. Cohen to Marxism. G.A. Cohen, like Burgis, is both an analytic philosopher and a Marxist. While Cohen is known for his contributions to egalitarianism and distributive justice in response to Rawls’ Theory of Justice, he’s most well known for his arguments for Marxism. However, what differentiates Cohen as a Marxist from many academic and non-academic Marxists is manifold.
First, Cohen attempts to divorce historical materialism from the dialectical method because of the perceived lack of rigor and precision in the latter. Second, as a result of the first, Cohen presents his own analytic interpretation of historical materialism that identifies the development of forces of production (e.g., complex instruments used to produce commodities) as the primary and fundamental driver for socioeconomic development (whereas changes of social relations is secondary insofar as they facilitate development of productive forces). Third, Cohen sees himself as having interpreted historical materialism in such a way that could easily explain the fall of the Soviet Union and avoid being falsified by the rise of socialist countries in relatively less industrialized countries. In short, historical materialism predicts that a successful socialist economy will emerge as a result of a revolution in a developed and industrialized capitalist society. Since the Soviet Union emerged as a result of a revolution in an undeveloped semi-feudal society with pockets of capitalism in the cities, it was bound to fail.
Burgis takes all three above points to be positive. In particular, he argues that Cohen’s contribution to Marxism is invaluable because it fixes a perceived theoretical deficiency in Marxist theory which could not sort out the causal relationship between the productive forces and social relations. The apparent theoretical deficiency according to Burgis and Cohen is the lack of clarity to the question: “which one comes first with respect to the changes in the mode of production - changes in social relation or changes in productive forces?” Which one is more fundamental and basic? A standard answer from a classical Marxist is that both contribute to the change; neither is more fundamental than the other. Social relations function as “fetters” on the development of productive forces and the development of productive forces eventually facilitates the replacement of outdated social relations with new ones. Burgis thinks that Cohen’s answer- that productive forces are primary and fundamental illuminates historical materialism. While Burgis never explicitly says that Cohen divorces historical materialism from the dialectical method, it is well understood by many readers of Cohen’s work that his project, Analytic Marxism, aims to sever the tie between the two precisely because Cohen believes that the dialectical method contributed to the theoretical deficiency (e.g., lack of clarity and confusion) in historical materialism.
While there is more to Burgis’ essay, these three points he made are the focus of my paper. I wish to address all three points. I’ll begin with the third point and then proceed backwards to the second and then the first. Before I begin, I wish to make it clear that I do believe G.A. Cohen’s contribution should not be ignored. His rigor and precision are definitely valuable to Marxists. For instance, I wholeheartedly agree with G.A. Cohen’s definition of the proletariat as someone who lacks ownership of the means of production which he could use to make a sufficient living without working with a capitalist. There are some proletarians who technically own some means of production, but they clearly do not make a sufficient living working such means of production without selling their labor power to the capitalists. I also think G.A. Cohen’s normative approach to Marxism (see Self-ownership, freedom, and equality) which supplements Marxism with some normative ethical arguments is valuable. Even though Marxism is not a normative ethical theory and often emphasizes its scientific nature, there is still room to make a normative ethical argument for socialism and this is the space Cohen helped fill up. Now, let’s address Burgis’s points.
With regard to the third point, Cohen and Burgis seem to be committed to some variation of stageism- an interpretation of historical materialism that societies must pass through all the perquisite stages of development in the right order before reaching socialism or the lower stage of communism. For instance, before society A reaches socialism, A must experience the capitalist stage of development first. Why? Because the capitalist stage of development involves the development of productive forces which in turn creates the necessary capacity as a precondition for a flourishing socialist economy that will emerge in the next stage of development. But there is one problem with this view that is not well known among many people. Karl Marx himself did not really hold this view in his later life. While Marx does believe that in Western Europe a proletarian revolution will create socialism from the ashes of a developed capitalist society, he doesn’t necessarily universalize this to all societies around the world.
For instance, a Russian revolutionary Vera Zasulich wrote a letter to Marx asking for his position on whether or not a socialist revolution could take place in Russia. For context, Russia during the time of Zasulich’s correspondence with Marx was largely a feudal economy with some pockets of capitalist development. There was a debate among revolutionaries on whether or not Russia should first complete its capitalist development before reaching socialism or boldly jump forward to a socialist revolution. Many self-declared Marxists argued that Marx himself would argue in favor of the former while others resisted the argument. Zasulich sympathized with the latter camp, so she contacted Marx with a letter to confirm whether or not the self-declared Marxists interpreted his argument accurately. Marx tried to respond to Zasulich’s letter by writing many drafts worth many pages, but eventually he settled with a final draft that was concise and brief.
Marx argued that the so-called Marxists misinterpreted his argument because they generalized Marx’s prediction about western Europe to the entire globe, while Marx had made it clear that a bulk of his works and predictions about economic development were about western Europe alone. What this means is that Marx is sensitive to the fact that each region has different present material conditions due to the differences in their past socioeconomic development. Furthermore, based on Marx’s research on Russia’s political economy and material conditions he believed that Russia was suitable for socialism because it had peasant communes. These peasant communes had social or communal ownership of agrarian productive forces. They had the suitable social relations (e.g., communal social relations) that would engender a communist-like social consciousness, but they lacked the appropriate productive forces to reach socialism.
Given the content of Marx’s correspondence with Zasulich, it seems that Marx’s understanding of historical materialism was much more nuanced than the stageist interpretation. Marx thought that it is not only possible, but, in fact, a reality that each region has a different path to socialism. Western Europe had to undergo complete capitalist development before it could reach socialism, but Russia did not necessarily need to do the same because it already had suitable social relations in peasant communes. In effect, Burgis’ claim that Joseph Stalin’s prediction that socialism will arise and flourish from some pre-capitalist societies would not undermine historical materialism, instead, it would confirm historical materialism as understood by Marx towards the end of his life.
With regards to the second point that development of productive forces are much more fundamental than changes in social relations to overall societal development, Burgis makes the following complaint about Marx’s understanding of the causal roles of social relations and productive forces:
“Marx’s answer is that when an old system “fetters” the further development of the productive forces the old system is defeated and the new one is born. But this is confusing. If the idea is that later technological progress explains earlier shifts in social systems, that sounds suspiciously like effects are being used to explain causes instead of the other way around” (my underline).
In other words, Burgis argues that Marx’s answer that old social relations fettering further development of productive forces implies backward causation: the later development of productive forces explains the earlier shifts in social relations. It’s not entirely clear how Burgis comes to this interpretation of Marx’s answer. Burgis proceeds to introduce Cohen’s theory of how fettering works in such a way that doesn’t indicate backward causation. Cohen writes:
Imagine a productively weak society whose members live in equality at subsistence level, and who wish they were better off. One of them suspects that the introduction of treadmills on the bank of the river on which they rely for irrigation would increase the flow of water onto the land, raise its yield, and thus enhance their welfare. He puts his idea to the community, who are impressed, and a group is forthwith commissioned to design and construct the devices. These are then installed at suitable points on the river bank, and tested, all members of the community participating in the test. They correctly perceive the benefits regular use of the treadmills would bring, and there is a request for volunteers to man them. But none come forward: it is a task relished by no one in the society. Nor is it feasible, for reasons we allow the reader to conjecture, for everyone to contribute just some of his time to treadmilling. Many full-time treaders are needed. It is agreed to select them by lot, and this is done. So rebarbative is the job, however, that it becomes apparent it will not be efficiently performed without severe supervision. For that role there is no dearth of applicants, and a number are, by some means, selected for it. Gradually a class structure (supervisors, farmers, treaders) rises in what was an egalitarian community. One may now say that the relations have changed because otherwise the forces would not have progressed, and that the forces do progress because the relations have changed. But it is clear, despite the second part of the last sentence, that the change in the forces is more basic than the change in relations: the relations change because the new relations facilitate productive progress.
Cohen’s explanation is that it’s not social relations that cause development of productive forces, but rather it’s the development of productive forces that ultimately cause old social relations to die out and determines which new social relations are suitable for the new productive forces to facilitate their further development. Ultimately, productive forces determine the social relations and social relations themselves at most facilitate the development of productive forces. When productive forces reach a certain stage of development, the same social relations that previously facilitated the development of productive forces become fetters on productive forces. Once the productive forces “mature,” they determine new social relations that further facilitate their development.
While there is an undeniable theoretical elegance to Cohen’s argument, Sean Sayer brings up the fundamental problem with Cohen’s understanding of historical materialism: by treating development of productive forces as more fundamental or basic than social relations, insofar as productive forces determine what social relations are suitable for facilitating the development of productive forces, Cohen overlooks the important role social relations play in a dialectical outlook on the relationship between productive forces and social relations. In particular, productive forces are productive forces rather than a meaningless amalgamation of parts because they exist in the context of certain social relations. If productive forces are abstracted away from social relations, they’re merely physical objects without social significance. Nikolai Bukharian made a similar argument:
“Present-day society, for instance, with its vast stone cities, its giant structures, its railroads, harbors, machines, houses, etc.; all of these things are material technical ‘organs’ of society. Any specific machine will at once lose its significance as a machine outside of human society; it becomes merely a portion of external nature, a combination of pieces of steel, wood, etc. When a great liner sinks to the bottom, this living monster with its powerful engines that cause the whole marvelous structure of steel to vibrate, with its thousands of appliances of every possible kind, from dish-rags to wireless station, now lies at the bottom of the sea and the whole mechanism loses social significance. Barnacles will attach themselves to its body, its wood constructions will rot in the water, crabs and other animals will live in the cabins, but the streamer ceases to be a streamer; having lost its social existence, it is excluded from society, has ceased to be a portion of society, to perform its social service, and is now merely an object- no longer a social object- like any other part of external nature which does not come in direct contact with human society. Technical devices are not merely pieces of external nature: they are extensions of society’s organs.”
Bukharin uses an example of a great liner that exists as a great liner because it bears relationship to society, but when it’s permanently detached from society by sinking into the bottom of the ocean it becomes merely a physical object rather than a social object. A similar point can be said about productive forces. A productive force is not merely a physical object, but rather it is a social artifact, or more specifically a productive asset, by virtue of being owned by a social group for the purpose of production and, possibly, expropriation of surplus value from laborers. In this respect, productive forces aren’t more fundamental than social relations precisely because they literally cannot exist as productive forces without social relations. Another way to put it is that if nobody owned and used a particular productive force, it would cease to be a productive force at all. An abandoned and disused steel factory is no longer a steel factory. What’s implicit in the concept of steel factory, from a Marxist point of view, is that some social artifact owned by some social group (usually shareholding capitalists) is used for the purpose of production of steel by steel workers, and, under capitalism, for the creation of surplus value for the bourgeoisie. If a physical object no longer bears such purposes circumscribed by social relations, it’s no longer a productive force. Contrary to what Burgis and Cohen think, the dialectical method is useful for historical materialism because it explains the nature of productive forces as social objects.
This brings me to the first point: Cohen attempts to divorce the dialectical method from historical materialism because he believes it introduces theoretical vices into historical materialism. But the dialectical method helps us understand productive forces as social objects rather than merely physical objects. How? The central feature of the dialectical method is the recognition of the interpenetration of opposites or unity of opposites. Productive forces and social relations are opposites that interpenetrate one another or constitute one another. The existence of a productive force implies a social relation and, conversely, the existence of a social relation implies a productive force. Furthermore, they are opposites insofar as at a certain stage of development they are in tension with one another.
At an initial stage of development, a set of social relations will contribute to the development of productive forces, but at a much later stage the causal role of the same set of social relations changes from contributing to development of productive focus to fettering the development of productive forces. This movement from contributing to development of productive forces to fettering development of productive forces is a dialectical movement of a phenomenon turning into its opposite. In particular, a social relation’s causal role of contributing to the development of productive forces changes into its opposite: fettering development of productive forces. The fettering of productive forces causes the productive force to malfunction because its original purpose at its earlier stage of development has changed into something new in its later stage of development that is no longer congruent with the old social relations. In the context of capitalism, the members of the capitalist class constantly need to improve the efficiency of their productive forces in order to compete with one another. But the same capitalist class that improves the productive forces to survive competition becomes a fetter on productive forces.
One of the features of improving productive forces is consolidating or “socializing” productive forces under the control of monopolistic corporations. This increases efficiency in terms of mass production of commodities, but it also increases the amount of fixed capital (e.g., factories, raw resources, instruments for repair, and so on) and possibly variable capital. This increase in fixed capital, variable capital, and efficiency eventually contributes to the falling rate of profit. Monopolistic corporations can produce so many commodities at such a relatively cheap price, but they do not pay workers enough wages to buy back all commodities. Moreover, the increase of cost in fixed capital and variable capital cuts into the profit margin of monopolistic corporations. This leads to a capitalist crisis in which workers are eventually laid off in order to alleviate the crisis; but laying off workers is not contributing to the development of productive forces, rather, it is preventing concentrated productive forces from developing into the kind whose primary purpose is for human flourishing rather than for profit. This is the fettering of productive forces in the context of capitalism. At some point, workers will expropriate productive forces from the capitalists in order to reorganize production primarily for use rather than for profit.
The above process shows how the same set of social relations that facilitate development of productive forces eventually fetters the development of productive forces. The capitalists contribute to the development of productive forces through intra-class competition, but when productive forces are consolidated and intra-class competition becomes narrower, the capitalists no longer contribute but function as fetters on their development. Precisely because the capitalist class’s fettering of the development of productive forces harms the working class in the form of layoffs, reduction of wages, and so on to keep the profit margins high, the working class will eventually become a class-for-itself (class conscious) and expropriate the productive forces from the capitalist class whose role is no longer progressive with respect to the development of production, but reactionary.
 Sean Sayer, “Marxism and the Dialectical Method: A Critique of G.A. Cohen,” Radical Philosophy (1984): 5.
 Nikolai Bukharian, Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology (New York: International Publishers, 1925). 132-133.
Paul So is a graduate student who studies philosophy in a PhD program at University of California Santa Barbara. While Paul’s research interests mostly lie within the tradition of Analytic Philosophy (e.g. Philosophy of Mind and Meta-Ethics), he recently developed a strong passion in Marxism as his newfound research interest. He is particularly interested in dialectical materialism, historical materialism, and imperialism.
Liberation School's new book Revolutionary Education is edited by Nino Brown.
Capital was a formidable book from the moment it was published in 1867. In an attempt to make the content more accessible, Capital's first French publisher published the book in multiple pieces.
Karl Marx wrote to the publisher and commended him for the new teaching method used to present Capital. "I applaud your idea of publishing the translation of Das Kapital as a serial," he wrote. "In this form the book will be more accessible to the working class, a consideration which to me outweighs everything else."
The first three chapters, however, had a unique structure that were harder to understand split apart. Despite this tradeoff, Marx approved of the approach since the most important metric for him was whether people would understand his analysis of capitalism.
So as in 1872, so today: Socialism must be understood to be accepted. Socialism is a system where the working class wields control over the productive forces of society, and the economy is planned in a scientific manner according to the needs of the people and planet. Socialism unleashes the potential of the highest creativity and flowering of the working class.
Although the demonization in recent years has faded, socialism remains a badly-misunderstood topic. Teaching, therefore, is a critical skill that socialist organizers can and must hone and master. Different situations calls for different teaching methods, or pedagogies. How do we know which method to use? How do we improve our own efficacy in presenting information?
Liberation School's fresh book, Revolutionary Education: Teaching and practice for socialist organizers, explores these questions from the viewpoints of history, theory, and practice. Edited by Nino Brown, the book compiles essays from educators, organizers, and journalists on revolutionary education and socialist educational methods.
Brown explains in his essay on building organizations and developing cadre that organizers have much to learn from the suffering, sacrifices and victories of our comrades in struggle all over the world. "We are all linked by our common oppression under imperialism," he writes. The job of a revolutionary is to help make the revolution. To do that, socialists need to make more revolutionaries.
How do socialists win people over? Socialists are actually in the most favorable moment for socialists in the U.S. in decades. Organizer Walter Smolarek explains that organizers have the opportunity to make connections with working people and build a base of support through different tactics, including provisioning direct services.
Provisioning direct services, commonly referred to as "mutual aid", can be a way to make inroads with communities. Even an inherently nonrevolutionary activity can be used as an opening to bring people into the political struggle for socialism, but the tactic itself cannot be confused with the strategy. When a current approach does not work, organizers must recalculate and find new tactics to reach people.
The goal of Revolutionary Education, after all, is the emancipation of humankind.
Guinea-Bissau's struggle for independence led by the liberator, theorist, and educator Amilcar Cabral is one such example.
Curry Mallot traces the history of how the small west African country became a world leader in decolonial education, in large part due to the leadership of revolutionary Amílcar Cabral. For more than 400 years Guinea-Bissau was a colony of the vicious Portuguese empire, Mallot writes, whose colonial mode of education was "designed to foster a sense of inferiority in the youth." Colonial educators set predetermined outcomes sought to dominate learners by treating them as if they were passive objects.
Militant historian Sónia Vaz Borges, the child of Cape Verdean immigrants, grew up in Portugal. Vaz Borges experienced firsthand the colonial education taught to the African diaspora in the colonial center. In an interview with Breaking the Chains, she recounts how the African community "does not see themselves reflected in official versions of Portuguese history." Political education is not abstract.
Socialists must be able to explain the class character of all events. Organizers know socialist revolution is the only path to survival, yet how do we convince others of its necessity? Revolutionary teaching has to give the person all of the keys needed to be able to interpret events. "Every event has an origin and a process of development," explains Frank González, director of Cuba's Prensa Latina news agency in a 2006 interview with Gloria La Riva.
Television overwhelms us with images, González notes, but the same media denies space to interpret events. The development of social media has only exacerbated these effects. In the end, bourgeois media leaves people with nothing but confusion.
In a separate essay, Mallott explores Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky's ground-breaking work that shows how people's development corresponds to their past and present experiences. Thought emerges from engagement with the concrete world. "While all of us have been shaped by this racist, sexist, capitalist society," Mallott writes, "we never lose the ability to grow, change and think differently."
Intelligence is an attribute but also a social construct. How do you tell children facing hunger, homelessness, and police brutality to be more "gritty", when in fact they already put in tremendous effort to survive? Organizer Jane Cutter in her essay on comradeship emphasizes that all progressive people must be willing to learn from experience and work in collaboration.
Revolutionary Education closes with two practical appendices for day-to-day organizing. "Formulating study and discussion questions" explains how to break out of a linear mode of education. The sample questions are in and of themselves instructive for the tactics they represent in addition to the thought that they provoke. Learning facts and timelines goes hand-in-hand with discussion with others, reflection on ideas and combining those with our own experiences.
Comprehension questions, for example, help distill dense texts down to their key points. Questions that focus on the identification of significance help people understand why the author themselves highlighted portions as key. For revolutionaries, perhaps the most important types of questions are those that apply and extend our knowledge of the world. How can revolutionary pedagogy sharpen our ability to educate and reach people?
The second appendix covers teaching tactics that can be applied in study groups or classrooms. Some material is best presented in a lecture form, while other situations call for more interactive engagement through having participants draw out concept maps.
How do we best reach people? How do we make sure that our message is getting across? Each situation calls for its own tactics. Revolutionaries must be flexible and adaptable according to the needs of the moment. Learning is an endeavor that requires effort on the part of both participant and teacher.
Marx closes his 1872 letter with an encouragement to work through such difficulties. "There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits."
Those in the struggle for socialism will find in Revolutionary Education a worthy climbing tool indeed.
Patricia Gorky co-hosted the podcast Reading Capital with Comrades.
This article was republished from Hampton Think.
Why the U.S. Culture of Colonial Extraction Is Making People Sick and Destroying the Planet. By: April M. ShortRead Now
Rupa Marya, a physician and musician, studies how social structures impact health. She says colonial capitalism fractures the critical relationships that keep us healthy.
A widespread culture of isolation and disconnection from our bodies, each other and the planet is negatively impacting the mental and physical health of people in America and beyond—and this was true long before the pandemic. Our relatively new human social structure that is work-obsessed and separated from nature and each other leaves us scant time to connect and relate to each other, and is not aligned with our natural rhythms. This way of living has grave impacts on people’s overall health, as well as the health of the planet.
Research professor and author Brené Brown wrote about a “crisis of disconnection” in the U.S., in a 2017 article in Fast Company. That same year, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who also held this position under the Obama administration, referred to the problem of loneliness as an “epidemic.” In a 2021 article, psychotherapist Colette Shade detailed the isolating effects of the life structures of capitalism, and researchers have been tracking the health impacts of isolation for decades. Recent studies have found that the health effects of loneliness rival obesity and smoking.
Loneliness is a symptom of our greater culture of disconnect, and toxic American individualism. And, as with many problems (like food and housing insecurity), the pandemic has exacerbated the preexisting issues of disconnect in our society.
The edges of culture, science and medicine are circling back to the roots to prove the overarching understandings Indigenous societies have long held about human health: the mind and the body do not function separately, and humans do not function separately from the planet. All are interconnected, and our overall well-being depends on this connection.
The impacts of the global climate crisis on our mental and physical health, and on planetary health, are a reflection of how intricately connected our personal wellness is with the wellness of the planet. Psychotherapists are overwhelmed with patients experiencing eco-anxiety relating to ecological collapse, fears due to extreme weather and planetary grief. Even the COVID-19 pandemic likely stems from human destruction of wild spaces and a loss of biodiversity, driven by unchecked capitalism. As detailed in a Nature article in 2020, deforestation, rapidly dwindling biodiversity and decline in wildlife increase the risk of disease pandemics such as COVID-19.
Rupa Marya, MD, an associate professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), whose research investigates the intersections of social structures and illness, says these issues of disconnect stem from the culture of colonialism. Indigenous knowledge and understandings of ourselves as part of the web of life have been co-opted by social structures built on domination, extraction and destruction of nature for profit, she says.
With New York Times bestselling author Raj Patel, Marya coauthored a new book, Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice, published in 2021 through Macmillan. The book explores connections between health and structural injustices prevalent in society. Inflamed also delves into the idea of “deep medicine,” which Marya says is a way of “…understanding how social structures are making us sick and working to redesign those structures—as opposed to shallow medicine, which is to always point at the cause and the locus of suffering inside one person or one individual.”
Marya says that the book was an opportunity for her and coauthor Raj Patel “to bring our minds together around food systems and land use, medicine and biology, and histories and cosmologies. Both of us work very closely with many different communities,” she says, and “those communities really informed the story that we told, which is that our bodies, our societies and our planet are being damaged through the same cosmology that has severed our relationships with each other and to the web of life that keeps us healthy.”
Marya is also the faculty director of the Do No Harm Coalition, “a group of more than 450 UCSF health workers and students dedicated to ending racism and state violence,” and her work has explored how social factors like racism and misogyny can predispose various groups to medical conditions. She serves on the board of directors at the Mni Wiconi Clinic and Farm at Standing Rock, situated at the South Dakota-North Dakota border, and works with health leaders from the Lakota and Dakota Indigenous tribes to create a space to practice decolonized medicine. Marya also serves on the board of Seeding Sovereignty, an international entity promoting Indigenous autonomy in the context of climate change.
In addition to her work in health care, Marya is a world-touring musician—the composer and frontwoman of the Oakland, California-based group Rupa and the April Fishes. She says that traveling the world for decades and getting to know various cultures through the lens of music have broadened her understanding of health and society. She has come to realize that healing is not about fixing one problem or another, but requires a more holistic approach of re-engaging with our bodies and each other, within the context of nature.
Her primary focus now is on the work she does with the Deep Medicine Circle, a women of color-led, worker-directed 501(c)(3) nonprofit focused on decolonizing farming and restoring relationships with nature through food. The Deep Medicine Circle is “a collective of farmers, physicians, healers, herbalists, lawyers, ecological designers, scholars, political ecologists, educators, storytellers and artists” in the San Francisco Bay Area. The collective is “dedicated to repairing critical relationships that have been fractured through colonialism,” as stated on the website, and formed around an understanding “of climate change as the end-stage of colonial capitalist destruction.”
April M. Short of the Independent Media Institute spoke with Marya about Deep Medicine Circle, the book Inflamed, her research and how healing our relationships with food, community and the planet can heal our bodies and minds.
April M. Short: How has touring the world as a professional musician influenced your outlooks on health care and overall wellness in society?
Rupa Marya: It’s everything. I’ve always worked in medicine, and right now I work as an associate professor of medicine at UCSF, but I’ve always made sure to work in the medical environment no more than 60 percent of my time. I used to call myself the best-paid musician and the worst-paid doctor in San Francisco. The rest of my time, especially before I had children, I would tour with the band, and we would play these big concerts and festivals around the world.… For me, music has always been a form of social investigation, a way to look at, learn from and interact with different cultures around the world. It’s a way to learn about how people are engaging in what Raj Patel and I call “deep medicine.”
Deep medicine really shows how we’re interrelated and how our health cannot be viewed through the lens of individuality, but must be understood as a system level-phenomenon that emerges when systems are interacting well together. This does not just refer to body systems, but social systems and ecological systems. The ways in which history and lines of power and dynamics interact with those [social and ecological] systems will shape a positive outcome or a terrible one. And what we’re living with after 600 years of colonial capitalism around the world is the suffering health of our bodies, our societies and our planet.
The band allowed me to see these things clearly, in ways that I couldn’t see by just being a doctor in a hospital. Being a doctor in a hospital, you’re on the bleeding edge of society. You see who’s getting sick, how people are getting sick and where the sickness is registering in the bodies. You see children of farmworkers from the Central Valley coming [into the hospital] with really bizarre cancers—young people getting sick, increasingly every year. You see that people are coming in with more advanced colon cancers, are younger every year, and are dying from them. You start to see these patterns over the years. But when you travel with music, people mix you into their homes. It’s a very different dynamic from if I were to show up with a stethoscope and a clipboard.
Doctors, historically, have also been part of that same legacy of colonial violence. Lands around the world were colonized by missionaries, medics and militaries, and the work of colonial medicine wasn’t really to keep those communities that were being conquered healthy. It was to keep the conquerors healthy enough to do the job of conquest, and to extract the wealth and the resources, subjugate the labor and steal the land. When we understand that, we understand the way in which we’re trained as doctors to see, understand and learn about patterns of diseases. What you see from that perspective on health is going to be very different from what you see if you go with an artist, or an engaged community member, and meet with people eye to eye as fellow humans, engaged in this desire to see a better world, not only for ourselves, but for our children and our great-grandchildren.
Touring 29 different countries over many years, going to different communities, I started to notice the emergence of patterns around who’s getting sick and how people are getting sick. That experience really led to the work that Raj [Patel] and I did in our book Inflamed, which looks at how history and power and all these exposures to worlds designed through colonial capitalism are making us sick.
AMS: Would you share a little on your book—how it came about and how you came to the conclusions inside it?
RM: The book came about because of these insights I had while traveling with my band. I would start to notice all these different groups who were marginalized or socially oppressed—or from communities that had been colonized through Western colonization—and were suffering. People in different places were suffering in very similar ways. I started to call it a “colonized syndrome.” That was 17 or 18 years ago, and now we know that all of those diseases that I was seeing, from autoimmune disease to inflammatory bowel disease to cardiovascular disease to cancer to Alzheimer’s to substance use disorders to depression and suicide—these are all diseases that include chronic inflammation as part of their origination.
I was giving a talk at UT Austin on Standing Rock and my work there, when I was invited out there to do a medic response in the face of increasing law enforcement violence toward the pipeline resistors [at Standing Rock], the Water Protectors. I also was doing work in the naming of racist police violence as a public health threat. Raj Patel, my great friend for many years, found me and invited me to write a book with him. It was such a great honor to bring our minds together around food systems and land use, medicine and biology, and histories and cosmologies.
Both of us work very closely with many different communities. Those communities really informed the story that we told, which is that our bodies, our societies and our planet are being damaged through the same cosmology that has severed our relationships with each other and to the web of life that keeps us healthy.
How can we resist those cosmologies and insist upon ones that are from our own traditions and from the traditions of the people whose land we occupy here in Turtle Island? Many of the Indigenous communities are working to reawaken their own remembering about those systems of knowledge and ways of living that were purposefully subverted and silenced through colonialism.
What we saw and cover in our book is that colonialism, and colonial capitalism specifically, is truly a system that has caused fractures and damages to critical relationships that keep us healthy, in the express interest of concentrating wealth in increasingly fewer hands, and extracting and exploiting the land and the people. To heal from that, we must repair those relationships and repair those ways of knowing that have been purposely silenced, which means bringing back languages, bringing back songs, bringing back ceremonies and bringing back cosmologies that actually allowed humans to live well together on land.
AMS: Would you share about Deep Medicine Circle (DMC) and the work you’re doing there?
RM: As Raj [Patel] and I were finishing up the book, and I was watching people get really sick from COVID, I felt like I couldn’t continue working in the same way, understanding now what I did about health—after reading thousands of papers, stories and accounts, and piecing them together in the way that we have [in the book]. I ended up creating Deep Medicine Circle with several close friends, and then bringing in a team of people who could help bring this work forward.
Our work through the Deep Medicine Circle is to heal the wounds of colonialism, specifically through food medicine, restoration, stories and learning. And the learning is an unlearning. We got ourselves started [in 2021] and we are in full-running mode, because it’s time.
Our farming as medicine work was the cornerstone of DMC’s first year, which is really reframing what farming is. Farming has been a very damaging practice, as practiced through a Western lens, and through extractive lenses. We are advancing systems of Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge and agroecology together, to heal not only the people but also the Earth.
That work has four components. The first one is giving land back to Indigenous people and asserting their sovereignty in their own homeland, and partnering with them to generate food for the people.
The second part is to assert that farmers are the stewards of our health, both in terms of how they steward the soil (which is the ecological engine of life) and water, and how they grow nutrient-dense food. We need to pay our farmers like we pay our doctors and lawyers.
The third part is decommodifying food. All the food we grow is liberated from the market system and given to the people who need that kind of food the most. For example, right now, organic, healthy food that won’t shatter your gut microbiome but will instead nurture it is only available to people who are wealthy. And those people tend to be predominantly white and South Asian in this [American] society.
The last thing we do is insist upon reawakening the way in which food and medicine have been co-extensive throughout our history. All people have food as medicine. It’s storied, it’s relational, it’s deep. It’s not just simply, “Oh, I have diabetes, let me eat this red carrot.” It’s not a prescription. It’s not a pharmaceutical intervention. It’s a real awakening of our relationships to these beautiful beings [plants] that have accompanied humanity for hundreds of thousands of years now.
We are on a 38-acre farm in Ramaytush Ohlone territory [in the San Francisco Bay Area]. We are working to move that land back to a Ramaytush Ohlone Indigenous land trust that’s also women-run, and that work is part of the medicine circle now. It’s called the Land Back Solidarity Program, and it’s run by our operations director, Hasmik Geghamyan, who also happens to be a lawyer who just wants to give land back. She’s been helping several California groups get their land back, and she wanted to internalize that into DMC and make it a core part of our work. She is helping to set up the land trust.
Land back efforts aren’t just reparations for what has happened here in California with the genocide of the Indigenous people, but it is also about how we get back into better ecological balance. We know that Indigenous groups who steward land around the world do better than private or public entities in nurturing biodiversity. That is because of their cosmologies, their relation and their moralities around the personhood of all entities that support life. So, the understanding that the water is a person, the soil is a person, the rocks are people, the animals are people.
The work of dismantling our care for one another came through the colonial capitalist cosmology of separation. When you think of the intellectual tools that were needed to justify murdering everybody and taking their land… that mentality required that those people didn’t have personhood, that they weren’t actually real people, or they weren’t sentient beings. Some of them were “three-fifths” of a human being legally, here in the United States. The violence that has been done to people of color around the world came with a set of intellectual tools employed by colonizers that have permeated every aspect of every social structure that has been made ever since.
So when we say “land back,” we’re saying: let’s bring that other system of cosmologies and understandings and relationships back into our consciousness as settlers, because we know that that will give us different outcomes. When we are honoring each other, honoring the water, honoring the soil, honoring the web of life and understanding how we are a part of all of it, then we get different outcomes, even as guests on somebody else’s land.
That work also then resituates the power dynamic of the farmers and the workers who are settlers, so that we are working under the Indigenous people of the land and working together with them. We are working with the understanding that their sovereignty is critical in the work that we’re doing. It has to start there, because the soil is alive. If we understand that the soil is made of the bodies and the beings that have been here for tens of thousands of years, which includes the Indigenous people, we understand that the soil knows what happened here. The soil is missing the language and the songs and the way in which it was honored. That is part of the musical work that we are doing. This is where being an artist is actually really critical, because what we’re doing isn’t simply looking at data points; it’s reawakening our relationships. Those relationships, to me, are very musical.
AMS: Could you expand a little on how the Indigenous way of relationship between humans and the Earth can extend to address the wider issues of societal health and the climate crisis?
RM: If we moved all the land back to Indigenous people and they could assert their sovereignty over all the land, just in the United States, we would probably have much more rapid action on climate change than we have right now. We definitely would. Indigenous grandmothers running pipeline resistance have cut greenhouse gases by 25 percent—which is way more than anything that any policy that has come out of the United States or Canada.
This is not to say that there are not problematic dynamics among different Indigenous groups or with specific people, but it’s to understand the systems of knowledge, which are primarily carried by women. This is why the work of rematriation is so important, which is reasserting the women’s places of authority in tending land, tending food, tending soil, tending water and caring for these things. Because these entities are critical for everybody’s health. When we tend to do something that’s good for everybody, good health emerges as a phenomenon. It is an emergent phenomenon. It’s not a characteristic of one person or one thing. It’s an emergent property of systems working well together. We know that especially in this land, it’s the Indigenous women who are really carrying that work forward.
AMS: You mentioned that DMC started last year in 2021. How did the pandemic affect or intersect with the beginnings of the work you’re doing there?
RM: For probably eight or nine years, these ideas have been sitting in me as something I knew we should do… and then with the pandemic it was like, “We need to do this right now. We absolutely need to do this.”
Sixty-seven percent of people who were coming into the ICU with severe COVID were malnourished when they hit the door. When we look at the injustices of who’s getting sick and how people are getting sick, we know that it’s Black and brown people. We know that it’s people who are suffering under the brunt of social oppression from colonial structures.
How can we create spaces where those structures are dissolved, dismantled and rearranged? That’s the work that we are doing with the Deep Medicine Circle.
AMS: I am curious to hear a little bit about your work as a co-investigator on the Justice Study, looking at the links between police violence and health outcomes, especially in Black and brown and Indigenous communities, as well as your other medical research looking into how social structures influence health.
RM: Well, first, racist police violence is an urgent public health crisis. When there is no justice for that violence, the community’s health suffers exponentially. That wasn’t a surprise. The surprise for me was that everyone is being traumatized by racist police violence. Whether you’re white, Black, brown or Asian, everyone was experiencing trauma through seeing these videos of state execution happening in the streets. It amounts to extrajudicial execution.
The police are causing widespread trauma. When you look at that, you think—what is a society that has chosen to prioritize private property? Say someone was stealing a car, or we thought they were going to steal something or do something illegal. There is an insistence on policing instead of providing mental health support and the resources people need to succeed and to thrive.
And it’s not just policing that’s the problem. If you look at Oakland right now, the school district board is trying to shut down eight schools and merge several more, and they’re predominantly Black and brown schools. These are the people who have been most impacted by COVID. These are the children who are missing their family members from COVID. These are the children of essential workers, who’ve been sickened and lost income from COVID. Those are the schools we’re going to close? Really? That’s the kind of ongoing racist violence that’s the problem. The lack of justice through all of these government and social institutions, created through colonial capitalism, is part of the same injury structure affecting people of color.
And it is not just people of color, but also poor white people—I say that, because the Black Panthers were wise enough to work together with poor white people, and to really identify the problem. The problem isn’t one person; the problem isn’t even a group of people. The problem is the racist and classist structures that were and are created to keep property in the hands of some people, and to withhold the rights of other people. That has been made no more obvious than during the COVID pandemic when the rhetoric is like, “Get yourselves back to work, get your kids back in school—and there are no masks and no air filtration.” We’ve seen who has gotten sick [and the racial disparities relating to access to social benefits and health care during COVID].
Unfortunately, it’s going to take us years to understand COVID. It is not an upper respiratory virus. It is a cardiovascular virus. It has affected the pancreas. It has affected the brain. It will take us years to understand what the exact impact of these infections is, especially on people who are already crippled through chronic social oppression in the United States.
This work is intersectional. It’s along all of these axes and requires understanding the roots of policing: the slave patrols, returning runaway slaves and keeping the natives under wraps. These are the roots of policing in the United States. Should we be shocked that we’re seeing disproportionate killing of Black and Indigenous people by the police? No, this is what they were designed to do.
Why do we tolerate it? That’s the question. Why do we accept that, rather than insist upon the Black New Deal, the Red Deal or the Green New Deal—which are frameworks of justice and reparations? They are frameworks of advancing an economy of care for one another and for the Earth. That’s really where we’re at right now. We won’t actually have peace until we all collectively demand it, until that’s where we want to go.
AMS: You’ve spoken about decolonizing food and wellness and our relationships with each other and the Earth. Could you expand a bit on your work around decolonizing medicine, and specifically your work with the Dakota and Lakota tribes at Standing Rock?
RM: When we understand that medicine was a part of the trifecta of colonization (as I mentioned: militaries, medics and missionaries), we have to understand that medicine itself is infected with the same racial and sexist craziness as the rest of our world.
There was a recent study that showed that women who were operated on by male surgeons were 32 percent more likely to die than women who had female surgeons. But when female surgeons operated on men or women, there was no difference in outcome based on the patient’s gender. Another way of framing this is: neglect on the part of male doctors is leading to the death of women, and not men. But no one is really talking about this or changing it.
It’s the same with Black women dying of perinatal complications. Black mothers giving birth in New York are 12 times more likely to die than their white counterparts. That’s not an error, that’s not a mistake. That is built and baked into the system.
If we want a medicine that is just, if we want a medicine that upholds our values and perspectives and traditions and is understanding of who we are and why we are sick, then we must decolonize the very structures of medicine. That work is happening in front-line communities, in the pipeline resistance camp with our Indigenous community members. It is also happening in farmworker communities. It’s happening in freedom clinics. It’s happening in many different spaces where the relationships that modern medicine has created are being put on trial and obliterated. This is because they’re not serving the people who are suffering the most under the violence that modern medicine has brought, which is colonialism.
AMS: Circling back to the Deep Medicine Circle: how can people support this work, and how might other communities use this example to launch similar work in their own regions?
RM: What we’re doing over the next three years is creating a toolkit. We’re identifying groups around the country and around the planet who could partner in the ways that we have with landowners, Indigenous people, farmers and municipalities to redefine the food system locally. We would like to convene those groups in 2025 down at our farm and do a sharing of this toolkit. It will include everything from policy, to training, to sharing how we overcame certain obstacles and hurdles and how this work has been growing.
Our hope is that this toolkit can spread like seeds. We don’t have any interest in being the organization that coordinates with people and organizations all across the country. We don’t want to colonize through this model. We want to share it as an example and have people locally adopt it and run with it.
In every urban and peri-urban environment around the country, this work can secure our climate and food systems. It can make seeds resilient to climate change. It can increase the sovereignty of food systems in those peri-urban and urban environments. It can bridge the urban-rural divide. It can get land access secured for Black, Indigenous and brown people who have historically been pushed off land and are limited in their access to it.
It can also reframe farming as an act of care, which would automatically make the fossil fuel-based input that conventional agriculture relies upon obsolete. We don’t need them. We don’t use them. It would give average, everyday people the experience of zero-barrier access to the most beautiful, healthy, organic food you could imagine. That medicine is something that’s available to all.
We’re definitely fundraising right now. We’re also looking and tapping into the policy work around how to get this funded, the way that our streetlights are funded, the way that our Muni drivers are funded, so that this becomes an expectation of civil society.
I think it starts with support from philanthropists, and we’ve been very grateful for the generous support we’ve received. We are continuing to raise funds for the work we do in DMC. When we get the toolkits out, then we start to really help people tap into those spaces of funding from a policy perspective. That will keep this work growing in scale. Not scale in terms of getting larger in scale, but in terms of staying small and replicating, which is what ecological farmers do around the world.
April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California’s weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.
This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
Human Consciousness and the socialist transformation of the Political Economy: An essay. By: Tathagat SinghRead Now
Debates around the scope of human consciousness in the project of the socialist revolution continue to exert their influence in the discourse of modern political economy and philosophy. This essay is an attempt to shed light on the debate arguing against reductionist labelling of Marxist proletarian revolution as ‘technologically-deterministic’. The essay makes the analysis taking into account the writings of Marx and Engels. In section III we consider some modern revisions that have taken place in the materialist conception of Marxism from intellectuals like Sartre, Badiou, and Zizek.
"Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past." 
-The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx
The statement that "It is not the consciousness of people that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness' as written by Marx in the Preface of 'A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, advocates prima facie a materialist conception of history. It could be interpreted in the following manner "History is not the development of ideas but the development of Productive Forces" (Gurley).
The views that Marx and Engels characterized as materialistic and dialectical evolved in reaction against and simultaneously under the influence of Hegel's Idealism. In their youth, both Marx and Engels were greatly influenced by Hegel and Hegel remained a philosophical enemy and ally of whom they never lost sight (Wedberg).
Before understanding Marx's Materialism (which itself was developed as a support and a critique of Ludwig Feuerbach's  Materialist philosophy), it becomes imperative to discuss Idealism. Hegel believed that it is 'The Idea' and 'The Universal Spirit' change the course of history, hiding behind the backs of actors of change. That it is 'The Idea' that is predominantly present in all social relations and emerging from the Idea is how society is organized and disciplined. The basic premise of Idealism can be talked of in terms like 'first there comes the Idea, and then comes the matter.' According to Hegel, it is the consciousness of humans that determines their mode of existence (Pfeifer).
In response and as a reaction to this, German Materialist philosophers like Ludwig Feuerbach developed the philosophy of Materialism. Marx writes the following in 'The German Ideology in 1845:
"By producing their means of subsistence, men are indirectly producing their actual material life. The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men is their actual life-process" 
Marx calls the material activities of men the language of real life, talking about it as the ultimate determining factor of consciousness. The real, objective matter independent of the existence of the subjects' minds determines the ideas of the human individual and the human collective. In other words, 'first comes matter and then come ideas'. Marx and Engels go a step further than Feuerbach to extend this materialist analysis into determining social relations and class structure. The existing forces of production, on which we would come to later, play the most integral, material part (at least in the last analysis) in developing the human consciousness of a particular epoch characterized by the presence of a certain specific force of production.
Furthermore, as Eduard Bernstein puts it, the aim is "to trace back all phenomena to the necessary movements of matter" (Pfeifer). The fact that Bernstein identifies these movements of matter as necessary highlights another key aspect of historical Materialism: the inevitability of social transformations resulting from transformations in the material forces of production. There is a pattern of regularity in the history of social development. Primary stimulus is the primary dialectical process between man and his material environment. Human activity is also part of the real objective world. It changes the objective world and adapts it to man's needs. The material world is thus an objective reality transformed in the social process of production. (Lange).
While developing his theory, in some sense, tilted towards the economic aspect of determination, Marx's theory remains firmly rooted in the philosophical premise of the epistemological realism of Materialism in contrast with the epistemological subjectivism of Idealism. The epistemological realism of materialist philosophy gives substantial leverage for Marx to assert that matter exists independently of the mind (Wedberg). Moreover, Materialism maintains that empirical reality is an all-encompassing reality. In a certain sense, the mind is relegated to a secondary agent in a causal relationship of social transformation, but even then, it does not become a passive object. This fact is also one of the primary differences between pre-Marx Materialism and Marxian Materialism.
Pre-Marx materialists like John Locke regarded the human sensation as passive, while under Marxian Materialism, both the subject and the object are in a constant state of mutual adaptation. Marxist Materialism's matter is not the wholly de-humanized matter of the atomists. The driving force for Marx is not just Matter but man's relationship to that matter (Russell). According to Marx, the human essence is no abstraction inherent in every individual. In its reality, it is the ensemble of the social relations. 
The materialist doctrine was not just limited to Philosophical analysis but also extended to natural sciences under Stalin's regime. For example, Trofim Lysenko rejected the Mendelian genetic theory of heredity and postulated that heredity was determined by the natural material environment, thus rejecting biological determinism and replacing it with materialistic determinism (Pfeifer). Some critics have pointed out that Lysenko's leap was instead revised Idealism.
Even Ideology, as Louis Althusser argues as a system of representations, is born out of the particular arrangement of material, social practices that exist at a given period in history . Thus we can claim that each ideology is sustained through a material set of practices. Feuerbach had written that as ideologies become more complex like religion, for example, then the causal determination becomes weaker, but the connection still exists. A particular set of material practices lead to the origination of an economic or religious ideology. If these material activities were to be changed beyond a certain threshold level, they might cause the collapse of the said ideological system. The transformation of these material practices becomes a necessary and sufficient condition (if we are to believe the direct causal relationship between the material base determining the Superstructure) to bring about an ideological and social change. Engels could be seen describing a similar argument in the following passage:
"From this point of view, the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men's brains, not in men's better insights into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange. They are to be sought, not in the philosophy, but in the economics of each particular epoch….." 
Thus, in economics, we will seek the implications of this analysis now.
Marx can be seen making a relationship in the following passage.
"My inquiry led me to the conclusion that neither legal relations nor political forms could be comprehended whether by themselves or on the basis of a so-called general development of the human mind, but that on the contrary, they originate in the material conditions of life".
The legal relations and the political forms that Marx is talking about in this passage have been grouped in a specific fashion and called 'the superstructure', including social consciousness. This Superstructure is generally causally determined by the economic/material base of the forces of production and the relations of production in Orthodox Marxian Analyses. We will expand on these terms individually now.
The Economic base in a Marxian theory consists of broadly two components, the material forces of production and the relations of production.
The transformation of production's material forces is generally the ultimate first assertion in any social transformation. These forces of production include- The existing technology of production, the human talent, knowledge and the skill set required for production and the pre-existing material environment.
The other component of the economic base is called the 'Relations of Production. The Relations of Production consists of the social relations that get established within a particular society due to a particular set of material forces of production. The relations of production also constitute the class structure in the society, answering questions like who produces the surplus or the production, who owns it and who controls it. In a strict, orthodox reading of the Marxian theory, the causal/determinative relationship is considered a linear cause-effect relationship emerging out of the material forces of production, affecting the relations of production immediately and the social consciousness and the legal-political Superstructure that constitutes the Superstructure subsequently. Thus orthodox readings of Marxism can, in this fashion, explain the shaping of Ideology (in a universal sense) and ideologies through development in the material forces of production.
As far as the statement in question as posited by Marx goes, this social existence which is a direct derivative of the material environment and the material forces of production and exchange as the objective reality of 'man' has no value without the productive activities, shapes the consciousness which can be thought of as a personal entity at the apparently micro level and at the same time as a part of the social consciousness component of the Superstructure. For example, someone's concept of freedom in general and the person being free in particular is shaped by the existing material forces of production (Pfeifer).
"At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto, thus begins the era of Social Revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure".
After reading this text, it becomes essential to understand that even the possibility of a social revolution, according to Marx, emerges primarily not arbitrarily from the minds of actors willing to cause this social revolution but initially from the changes in the material forces of production. However, again, one must not forget that, unlike Locke's Materialism, Marx's Materialism strongly proposes that the human mind is not a passive receptor of the stimulus but also an active reactor to the stimulus in a continuously engaging dialectical process. As Engels wrote in his letter to the German economist Borgias:
"Political, juridical, philosophical, religious, literary, artistic, etc., development is based on economic development. But all these react upon one another and also upon the economic base. It is not that the economic position is the cause and alone active, while everything else only has a passive effect. There is, rather, interaction on the basis of the economic necessity, which ultimately always asserts itself" .
Moreover, in the same letter, he writes how the concept of 'ultimate assertion' manifested through necessity is different from what critics pointed out as the "only assertion" of material forces of production:
"Men make their history themselves, but not as yet with a collective will or according to a collective plan or even in a definitely defined, given society. Their efforts clash, and for that very reason, all such societies are governed by necessity, which is supplemented by and appears under the forms of accident. The necessity which here asserts itself amidst all accident is again ultimately economic necessity."
As these material changes in the structure of production and exchange shape and transform the society from one system to another, they simultaneously give birth to contradictions which inevitably lead to the fall of the entire system itself. As explained by Marx and Engels, this existence of contradictions is an essential aspect of Dialectical thought (influenced by Hegel), which they use in the materialist framework to argue for the self-contained seeds of destruction under Capitalism.
As Engel writes in 1880:
"The greater the mastery obtained by the new mode of production over all important fields of production and in all manufacturing countries, the more it reduced individual production to an insignificant residuum, the more clearly was brought out the incompatibility of socialized production with capitalistic appropriation."
It is interesting to note that even the origins of the contradiction, according to this passage, arise from the mastery of the material modes of production. Thus, even the contradiction present in the Capitalist System in its entirety is produced by the control and ownership of the material modes of production and not because of the presence of some ideological notion in the collective mind of the society. In this way, Engels does his bit to make Marxism a materialist science.
Marx and Engels were devoted to using this materialist framework to develop an approach to understand and theorize the development of history. Furthermore, more simply, it can be said that they theorized the development of history as a movement of matter and not as a movement of ideas or the Universal Spirit (as advocated by Hegel).
Interesting nuances arose when contemporaries of Marx and Engels challenged them with questions which were apparently not seen to be economic, such as the question of races and the development of history, which supposedly moved in tandem with the exploitation of one race at the hands of another race by seemingly purely ideological and human consciousness-determined frameworks which were seen to be free of the economic domain. However, even this critique is handled by Engels in his letter to Borgius where he writes- "We regard economic conditions as the factor which ultimately determines historical development. But race is itself an economic factor". Using the materialist tool of analysis it becomes relatively clearer to see how Engels wanted to explain race itself as an economic factor.
It can be understood that a certain specific way of material practices originated and was sustained by the dominant class to continue the rampant racial exploitation. Under Capitalism, the aims for racial slavery became purely profit-driven, which is again an example of the material existence of monetary profit shaping the consciousness of the oppressor to impose this same fictitious consciousness on the exploited races further forcefully. If those particular sets of material practices were dismantled or replaced with another set of practices, then it becomes plausible to challenge the existence and legitimization of racism and slavery.
A similar analysis can be extended to the case of social castes within Hinduism in the Indian context, where the Savarna Class has deployed a particular set of material practices to create, sustain, and perpetuate a certain kind of false consciousness a fictitious hierarchy among the population. This is so because it seems plausible that seeing the same kind of oppression without those very objectively actual material actions of exploitation in the sphere of production and exchange would have been difficult.
It can be said that the dialectic nature of Marxist Materialism allows a certain kind of an encompassing characteristic of the Class structure born out of the pre-existing material modes of production and materially determined social existence, which encompasses caste, race, gender and religion, while not eclipsing them by allowing room for intersectionality but also at the same time being the primary assertive determinant, at least in the last analysis.
Even Marxism uses the same analysis to explain its rise. According to Marxist theory, two opposing ideologies can exist at the same time precisely because of the presence of dialectics in a society, one is the thesis, and the other is the antithesis and their union resulting in a synthesis. Thus the presence of the Bourgeois material class simultaneously allowed for the presence of a Proletarian social class which led to the development of a Marxist consciousness as a form of an expression of the philosophy of the proletarian struggle. The ultimate derivation comes from the Relations of Production, which is a class relation between the bourgeoisie and the proletariats based on the ownership of the material forces of production.
"The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of changed circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated."
- Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach
One of the biggest fallacies that the readers and critics of Marxist Materialism have committed is to label it in a very reductionist fashion as a strongly 'suffocating' deterministic theory. According to these critics, Marxian Materialism leaves minimal scope for the human consciousness to be an active participant in the process of social revolution. These 'accusations' seem to wither away in the dialectical nature of the argument, as well as the discussion of the 'human essence' and 'alienation' in the early writings of Marx.
As people change the world, they develop their own capabilities and their desires to change the world still further. Such development is not imposed on us from the outside, nor do we simply adapt in passive ways to these changes. We initiate those changes and make ourselves worthy of the new conditions (Gurley). Therefore, it is incorrect and highly reductionist to label the Marxian theory as 'technologically deterministic' because human beings are integral to development.
A similar argument is made in Engel's response to J.Bloch
"According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this, neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the Superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. We make our history ourselves, but, in the first place, under very definite assumptions and conditions. Among these, the economic ones are ultimately decisive. However, the political ones, etc., and indeed even the traditions which haunt human minds also play a part, although not the decisive one."
Ethical/Political connotations can be spotted in Marx's writings when he tries to bring Marxism closer to humanism. One of the critical methods of doing this is to do away with the abstraction of the 'idea' and the 'super-world' and bring 'man' to the centre of the material universe to be responsible for ethics and politics directly.
However, many later Marxist philosophers tried to do away with the rigid determinism of Marxist Materialism and tackled it with a different kind of Materialism while also rejecting humanism. Some of these philosophers included Louis Althusser, Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek. Their new brand of Materialism sees itself in direct conflict with the standard dichotomous Idealism/Materialism debate. This new Materialism focuses less on the deterministic nature of matter and more on the foundationally indeterminate nature of matter (Pfeifer). In this new Materialism, what becomes primary is not material determination, which is an outcome, but rather material contingency and chance. The new Materialism thus involves in a certain way a more significant role of the human consciousness in the process of social transformation by positing that the existing material structure is not something monolithic but is made upon how the human consciousness responds to the primary cause of material contingency. Thus is, this material structure becomes unstable, reversible and constantly subjected to change since the human consciousness changes its reaction to changing material contingencies.
Althusser makes this point clearer even in his analyses on Materialist Theatre. He writes:
"The disappearance of the hero (whether positive or negative), the object of identification, has been seen as the very precondition of the alienation-effect -no more hero, no more identification – the suppression of the hero being also linked to Brecht's 'materialist' conception – it is the masses who make history, not 'heroes' .
In order to allow room for a more significant role of the human consciousness in social changes and transformation, some Marxist philosophers turned towards existentialism to give birth to a new strand of thought called Existential Marxism, most notable among them being Jean-Paul Sartre.
Jean-Paul Sartre wanted his existentialism to be a counterargument to Stalinist Materialism. Sartre deftly used Marx's writings on alienation and combined it with his writings in 'Being and Nothingness' to come about to a viewpoint of Existential Marxism. He wanted to substitute the determinism that was prevalent in the Stalinist Soviet-Marxism with the human impulse of freedom, constant change and radical social transformation through the agency of human choice. His primary purpose was to put the concept of freedom as pivotal to any social revolution. Sartre's reading of Marx led him to conclude that even Marx believed that Human Actions were fundamentally self-determining even when they took place in circumstances beyond the control of 'man'. Thus Sartre accused that the creeping in of determinism into Marxist Materialism was a Stalinist distortion. However, many critics of Sartre have pointed out that his tendency towards revisionism coloured the decrying of pre-Khrushchev Soviet Political Economy as deterministic.
Also, Sartre promptly refuted the one-way causal deterministic relationship of the economic base and the Superstructure. He argued that while there was undoubtedly a connecting relation and a dialectical conflict between the material forces of production, relations of production and the Superstructure, the one-way linearity seemed to him a far stretch of orthodox determinism. He believed that history is made by human beings even if the future is constrained because freedom for Sartre had no meaning outside of concrete oppressive situations. He made clear through his writings that even in limiting and oppressive structures, humans totalize and transcend. Another hallmark of existential thought posits that people should take responsibility for their actions and consequences. This particular stream of thought is thus adapted into Marxism by allowing the possibility of a continual struggle against the oppressive structures that limit humans and alienate them. Existentialist Marxism also emphasizes the importance of collectively self-determined will in increasing the alienation and insignificance of the individual. This shows how labelling Marxism as deterministic is reductionist and defeats the whole purpose of Marxism as a hope for social revolution.
Thus, it becomes safer to say that human consciousness does indeed play a part in social transformations even in Marxian readings as Sartre argued- "We are situated but never wholly determined".
Source:https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ (Accessed on 2 September 2021)
Source:https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/preface.htm (Accessed on 2 September 2021)
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Source:https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ (Accessed on 2 September 2021)
Source: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch01a.htm (Accessed on 2 September 2021)
Source: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/theses.htm (Accessed on 2 September 2021)
Source:https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1965/index.htm (Accessed on 3 September 2021)
Source:https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1886/ludwig-feuerbach/ch04.htm (Accessed on 2 September 2021)
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Source: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1894/letters/94_01_25.htm (Accessed on 1 September 2021)
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This is a continuation of a previous debate with RV, here and here.
RV claims that I say that “the average prices of commodities are directly proportionate to the labour time socially necessary to reproduce them.”. I don’t because that is a mathematically ill defined statement. There is no such thing as an average price of different commodities since the commodities are incomensurable. You can not average the price of size 9 socks, Volkswagen Up cars, and 20cm lampshades. To form an average you need numbers of a uniform sort, which can not be done with distinct commodities. What can be measured is the correlation between the labour content of the output of industries and the money value of the output of these industries.
What I do claim is :
“One can allow an element of noise, a percentage error induced by temporary fluctuations of supply or demand whilst still accepting that the attractor for relative money values (prices) is relative labour values. In modern language, not available to Marx, we would say that labour content is strongly correlated with sale value in terms of money.“
It is this assumption that is absolutely crucial to the arguments that Marx uses for the analysis of relative surplus value in volume I of Capital. The analysis of capitalist exploitation is the most politically controversial part of Capital.
RV has no difficulty in finding places in Vol 1 of Capital or in Theories of Surplus Value where Marx says, without elaborating much, that average prices do not correspond to values. This, as I say above, is a mathematically ill formulated claim, but let us read it charitably as indicating that Marx believed, as a follower of Ricardo, that profit rates equalised and that in consequence capital intensive commodities would sell at a premium relative to their labour content. He promises to explain all in a volume to be published later. But none the less his entire set of theoretical demonstrations rest on what he may perhaps have believed was a mere provisional assumption that relative prices are proportional to relative values.
RV claims that this assumption is made because Marx is deliberately setting himself a hard task. He implies that the assumption of price/value proportionality makes Marx’s task exceptionally hard:
He has to demonstrate that there is surplus-value even under the very restrictive assumption that average prices are proportionate to values. Marx singles out the most restricted, most difficult case, because he thinks it is only in this case that he can decisively make his point without there being any possible other explanation.
It is true that Marx is setting up this assumption to exclude certain superficially easy but false explanations of surplus value. The simplest explains profit by monopoly power. The capitalist as a monopolist, in this version, makes a profit by selling commodities above their true value.
Well there is little reason to doubt that individual monopolists do gain profit this way, but it fails as a general explanation for profits. If some capitalists are selling above relative values, others must be selling below them, so the gains of one would be cancelled by the losses of another. Although the monopoly theory is superficially attractive, it would therefore fail as an explanation for capitalist profit in general. In modern language, such deviations are a zero sum game.
The next theory that Marx wanted to exclude was that workers were being cheated by the price of labour being below the value of labour. One of his rival socialist theorists like Rodbertus advocated this sort of account. So the insistance that commodities sell at their value was also intended to stress that labour power too, sold at its value. This was to obviate reformist projects according to which exploitation would end if all commodities, including labour power, could be made to sell at value. He argues instead, that even if labour power does sell at its value, surplus value will still exist. He does not doubt that at times the price of labour power falls below its value – falls to a level at which workers familes can not reproduce themselves. But he is guarding his argument against the simple trades unionist demand for a a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s pay. Instead he constructs his analysis of capitalist exploitation to show that even if workers are paid the value of their labour power they are still exploited. The solution must be the ‘abolition of the wages system’. This point is made explicitly in the last lines of Wages Prices and Profit. The equivalent terminating phrase in Capital is ‘expropriation of the expropriators’.
The claims that profit arises from monopoly or under pricing of labour, whilst superficially plausible, are incapable of being integrated into a consisten overall system of social accounting – of the sort presented in Vol 2.
In fact, I will argue, that the system of accounting in Vol 2 necessarily implies that the law of value – in the sense of a close correlation between prices and labour values must hold if capitalism is to reproduce itself. Dave Zachariah and I give a formal mathematical demonstration of this in a recent paper. I will give a demonstration by numerical example later.
But for now, lets just ignore the reproduction models in Vol 2 and concentrate on the way that the coherence of Vol 1 depends absolutely on the law of value ( understood as necessary close correlation between prices and labour values ).
I will now simple quote what I said on this in my original article and we can see if RV has been able to make an adequate response.
Recall that Marx calls absolute surplus value, that surplus value produced by lengthening the working day. In his analysis of this he assumes that a proportional increase in the working day – say by 1/4 from 8 hours to 10 hours will result in a proportional proportional increase in the value added by labour during the day. He repeatedly switches between presentation in terms of money and equivalent proportional representations in terms of time.
How does RV respond to this challenge?
Is he able to derive an analysis of relative or absolute surplus value without assuming a strong positive correlation between labour content and price ?
No he completely flunks the challenge because it can not be done. Instead he avoids the issue :
It is indeed absolutely necessary for the analysis (“the process of breaking a concept down into more simple parts, so that its logical structure is displayed”) of how surplus-value arises in production to assume (= suppose) that commodities are exchanged at their values. Even if they actually don’t. In other words, when you abstract from value-price deviations, that doesn’t mean that you think they aren’t there. It just means that you think they’re not relevant to what you’re trying to demonstrate (of course maybe they are relevant, and in that case your demonstration will not stand the test of practice). It means that it renders the analysis unnecessarily complex and doesn’t allow you to conclusively demonstrate anything. At least, that’s how Marx sees it.
He makes two points
But this is not good enough. It is not a matter of abstracting from price value deviations. A strong positive correlation between prices involves the assumption that there are deviations. But that the deviations, the noise, is small compared to to the signal, this is literally what correlation measures. For him to rebut the point that Marx’s analysis depends on this positive correlation it is not enough to say Marx was ignoring deviations. He would have to show that Marx’s argument would still hold if prices and values were uncorrelated. If prices were not correlated to labour content, then the use of labour saving weaving machinery would not have depressed the price of woven cotten and impoverished the hand loom weavers in the way Marx describes in his anlysis of machinery. The whole argument would fall down.
On his first point. If the theory of surplus value mathematically rests on the assumption of labour value to price proportionality, and if in reality it turns out that prices are uncorrelated with values (as Kliman claims ) then Marx’s theory would be dead wrong and we should reject it outright – as the bourgeois economists have long claimed. But if Marx believed his theory of surplus value to be true, then he must have believed that the premises on which it rested were true premises.
Again, I repeat the challenge, RV and Kliman for that matter, have to show that Marx’s theory of surplus value can be reconstructed on the assumption that price and value are uncorrelated. Of course if RV can not reconstruct the theory of surplus value without assuming that the law of value holds, then the theory of the declining rate of profit – which depends on the theory of surplus value would also be unsound.
“Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said. ‘One can’t believe impossible things.’
It is easy for RV to find passages where Marx supports the Ricardian theory that profit rates equalise, and that this will induce systematic deviations between price an value. Marx was, on this point a completely uncritical Ricardian. This is why, for a long period from the 1960s the neo-Ricardian school were able to make hay with their criticisms( for example Steedman, Ian. Marx after sraffa. London: NLB, 1977).
Marx may well have thought that “differences in the average rate of profit in the various branches of industry … could not exist without abolishing the entire system of capitalist production.” But as Dodgson points out, in the youth of a theory one can believe many impossible or contradictory things. Marx both believed that Ricardo was right about the equalisation of profit rates, and that Marx’s own theory of reproduction was right. But this, was a belief in the impossible.
They can not both be right.
This is why there is a ‘transformation problem’.
Marx seems not to have been aware of the problem, but it was pointed out after his death by Samuelson, the neo-Ricardians, etc. It is unfortunate that Kliman and some other older Marxist economists have gone to inordinate lengths to try to hold onto pre-prandial fantasy, doubly unfortunate if younger comrades like RV never get to eat.
Marxist economists have a choice, they can hold fast to the law of value, the theory of surplus value and the analysis of reproduction in Vol 2, or they can decide to go along with the Ricardian assumptions of the early part of Vol 3. If you hew to the Ricardian assuption as RV, Kliman, Harvey and Steedman do, then in one way or another you end up repudiating the law of value.
Vol 2 deals with reproduction and turnover time, but it does all this on the basis of exchange at labour values. What was not apparent to Marx when writing Vol 3 was that it is actually the assumption of profit equalisation that leads to the economic collapse. One can grasp this if one starts out from the reproduction shcemes of Vol 2. Dave Zachariah show this in our lectures on the Kliman price theory here, starting from slide 99. We also have a video. In what follows I will give a simple example of why this is.
What I will show is that if you allow for varying turnover times then and equal rate of profit disrupts the reproduction of the economy.
Let us start by assuming we have a country with 100 million workers. If they are all full time workers then the annual net product in terms of labour value must be 100 million person years.
We can divide the economy into three big sectors:
We will assume that the economy is in simple reproduction, neither growing nor shrinking, with no net capital accumulation. In that case the entire net product comes from sectors 2 and 3.
The whole of sector 2s output is consumed by workers, so the labour required to make its output is the necessary labour time of the economy. The ratio between the sizes of sectors 3 and 2 expressed in person year terms gives the rate of surplus value. We will assume the rate of surplus value is 100% – well within the bounds of plausibility.
That implies that the value of output of each of sectors 2 and 3 must be 50 million person years.
That does not mean that 50 million work directly in each of sectors 2 and 3. Each must use up means of production supplied by sector 1. Let us suppose that wage goods use 20 million person years of means of production, and capitalist consumption 10 million. So at the next level of detail our situation is ( all figures millions of person years).
You can view this as saying that 30 million workers are employed in sector 2 and 40 million in sector 3. That leaves 30 million workers out of the population who are employed in the means of production sector, 2/3 of whose net output goes to sector 2 and the rest to sector 3.
This description covers the deployment of labour between industries, the social division of labour. At the same time it represents flows of value, both between industries and to final consumption. It is one of the advantages of labour value andalysis that there is this one to one correspondence between value flows and deployment of people.
Production requires buildings, machines and vehicles, fixed capital that lasts several years. The flow from sector 1 to sector 2 is made up both of new machines and also of raw materials. We can go from a flow of value toa stock of capital if we know the turnover time. So if the turnover time of constant capital in sector 3 is 10 years, and the flow of new constant capital is 10 million person years, then the capital stock in sector 3 would be 100 million person years. This simply means that it will take 100 million person years at current technology to completely replace the capital stock as it wears out. This is the real meaning for the value of a capital stock – how long it would take people to rebuild it.
It is often easier to work with the inverse of turnover time, the depreciation rate. In what follows I am assuming the following depreciation rates for sectors.
This is based on the assumption that production of means of production will use longer lived capital equipment than the capitalist consumption sector. Steel rolling mills are longer lived than the computers and office supplies used by accountants etc. set an intermediate depreciation rate for the workers consumer goods industry.
We can then set up a snapshot of the distribution of labour and constant capital in this economy. That it is capable of reproduction can be seen by checking that the total surplus labour 50 matches the output of sector 3 and that the total flow of means of production 50 in red matches the output of sector 1.
These figures are all in million person years. But if we assume that there are 2160 working hours a year, each of which creates a value of £30 we can get the equivalent monetary table. Because the table is wide, you should use the scroll bar to see it all.
Again we can verify that the system can reproduce. Colour codes show matching counsumption demands on the bottom row matching sector outputs in the gross output column.
So if we assume prices are proportional to labour values, at £30 per hour then we would have a self reproducing capitalist economy. But if you look in the profit rate column you see that the rate of profit varies widely between industries. In fact this is just what we see if we look at a real capitalist economy – a wide dispersion of profit rates between sectors.
But Ricardo, Marx, Samuelson, Steedman, Kliman etc thought ( or still think ) that such a dispersion of profit rates is somehow wrong. Surely capitalism should be fairer to capitalists than this?
The law of value is unfair to capitalists! What a scandal!
Surely they should all be able to earn the same rate of profit?
Hence the ‘transformation problem’. How can we alter the law of value so that it is fair to all capitalists?
Let us apply the iterative procedure for solving the transformation problem advocated by Kliman. At each time step we adjust the price of the output of each sector to get an equal rate of profit, holding total wages constant. That is to say we award to each sector a uniform profit rate. We calculate the profit rate such that it is the original total surplus value divided by the latest money valuation of the capital employed. This is to be consistent with Marx’s belief that the total surplus value will be unchanged under the transformation.
Well lets see what happens after 5 iterative steps using the Google Slides iterative solver.
I have added a column to show the price adjustor arising from prices of production. It means that means of production that have a labour value expressed in money of £1 must sell at £1.20 to equalise profit rates, necessities with a labour value of £1 must sell for £1.07 etc.
As you can readily see, all sectors now have the same profit rate 5.17%. This is what the transformation procedure is intended to achieve – equal shares in surplus value for equal quantities of capital. Fairness and justice to all capitalists.
Unfortunately the result is an economy that is now incapable of reproducing since for each sector, supply and demand are now out of alignment.
Look at sector 1. Its output is priced at £4,140,739M, but the demand is only £3,883,593M. Clearly they do not match. The same applies to all the coloured figure pairs. Kliman has claimed that this kind of difference between purchased means of production and selling price does not matter; since means of production were purchased in the previous time period. There is, he claims, nothing to stop the capitalists in sector 1 selling their products at a higher price in the current period.
But this does not apply to wages. The total wages paid were £3,240,000M but the capitalists in sector 2 have to sell their output at £3,693,225M to earn the uniform profit rate. There is a shortfall of £453 billion pounds between what workers are able to spend and the price that the capitalists want to charge. Clearly they can not sell them for this elevated price.
If they sell them for £3,240,000M, which is all the workers have to spend, then their profit will be £714,562M not the £1,167,787 required by profit equalisation.
Now look at the capitalist consumption sector. It is attempting to sell its output at £710 billion less than the money that the capitalists have as profits to spend. This gives the firms in this sector the opportunity to hike their prices – which will mean that their sectoral profit will rise by £710 billion.
At that point the profit rate in sector 3 will run above the requisite average rate.
If the law of value holds, and commodities sell at prices proportional to their labour content, then any social division of labour required by current technology and the current rate of exploitation can be reproduced. You get a set of prices at which inter sector supply and demand match. Each sector can sell its full output, pay wages and make a profit.
The rate of profit will not be equal between sectors, but this inequality does not threaten the reproduction of the capitalist economy.
If, on the other hand, some external planning body were to calculate what equal profit rates should be, and instruct all capitalists to sell at prices which would equalise profit rates, then you would get severe inequalities in inter sector supply and demand. Of course, in a capitalist economy there is no such planning body able to impose the hypothetical prices of production. But in socialist economies this has been a live issue. There was a planning body. It could impose prices. Should it impose prices of production?
Samuelson famously proposed “A New Labor Theory of Value for Rational Planning Through Use of the Bourgeois Profit Rate“. Similar proposals came from some Soviet economists in the Khrushchev period.
Stalin had argued strongly against the idea that a socialist economy must adopt the criterion of equal profit rates:
If this were true, it would be incomprehensible why our light industries, which are the most profitable, are not being developed to the utmost, and why preference is given to our heavy industries, which are often less profitable, and sometimes altogether unprofitable.
He here shows a practical awareness that smooth reproduction requires accepting that the rate of return in sector I will be lower than in other sectors. He explicitly relies on Marx’s analysis of reproduction in Vol 2 to justify this:
As to Marx, he, as we know, did not like to digress from his investigation of the laws of capitalist production, and did not, in his Capital, discuss the applicability of his schemes of reproduction to socialism. However, in Chapter XX, Vol. II of Capital, in the section, “The Constant Capital of Department I,” where he examines the exchange of Department I products within this department, Marx, as though in passing, observes that under socialism the exchange of products within this department would proceed with the same regularity as under the capitalist mode of production. He says:
“If production were socialized, instead of capitalistic, it is evident that these products of Department I would just as regularly be redistributed as means of production to the various lines of production of this department, for purposes of reproduction, one portion remaining directly in that sphere of production which created it, another passing over to other lines of production of the same department, thereby entertaining a constant mutual exchange between the various lines of production of this department.”(Stalin is quoting Marx :Karl Marx, Capital, Eng. ed., Vol. 2, Chapter 20, Section 6.)
Volume 2 and the analysis of reproduction is not only a sound basis for an intial theory of socialist planning. It is the fundamental explanation of why the law of value must operate in a capitalist economy it that is to reproduce itself.
Volume 3 on the other hand, whilst it contains a lot of good stuff, has an incorrect Ricardian theory of price. Marx at times believed that he had made a breakthrough here. He was mistaken. The theory is empirically wrong, leads to inconsistent and non-reproducible social accounting. Marx wrongly believed that “differences in the average rate of profit in the various branches of industry … could not exist without abolishing the entire system of capitalist production.” whereas in reality, any attempt to impose an equal profit rate would render the capitalist economy unable to reproduce itself.
Paul Cockshott is an economist and computer scientist. His best known books on economics are Towards a New Socialism, and How The World Works. In computing he has worked on cellular automata machines, database machines, video encoding and 3D TV. In economics he works on Marxist value theory and the theory of socialist economy.
This article was produced by Paul Cockshott.
The philosopher Jerry Fodor is rightfully upset with some of the nonsense coming out of Academia disguised as science and dressed up in arguments purportedly derived from Darwin’s theory of evolution. Lots of nonsense put forth under the guise of “evolutionary psychology” is a good example. Here complex behavioral patterns of humans today are explained as inherited traits from our animal past or traits that we evolved when we were hunter gathers on the African savannah.
As an example, capitalism, for instance, is often justified, or explained, as a part of “human nature” [as is war, male supremacy, and “innate” racial differences in intelligence] inherited from our remote past. These claims, among others, have led Dr. Fodor to question Darwin’s theory that the mechanism driving evolution is “natural selection”.
This article will look at arguments he presented several years ago,“Why Pigs Don’t Have Wings” (The London Review of Books 10-18-07). I will try to establish that his arguments against natural selection are not convincing and are based on a mechanical interpretation of Darwin that is a characteristic of contemporary Western thought. That when Darwin is read dialectically, as he was by Marx and Engels (Cf. Engels’ Dialectics of Nature) the objections to natural selection as the main motor of evolutionary change evaporate.
Fodor tells us that natural selection “purports to characterize the mechanism not just of the formation of species, but of all evolutionary changes in the innate properties of organisms.” An organism’s phenotype [“the inventory of its heritable traits, including, notably, its heritable mental traits “ is an adaptation to its environment.
The rub here is “mental traits.” Physical traits can be mapped on the genome and have some basis in material reality. This is much harder to do with so called mental traits. Most all of the current nonsense about evolutionary explanations of human behavior based on inherited mental traits is the result of idle speculation concerning hypothetical genes that could, maybe, be responsible for the behaviors in question. At most, however, we can only discuss the capacities that humans have inherited. The vast majority of specific behaviors are better explained by external causes, mostly of cultural and historical origin, which have nothing to do with an organism's phenotype. Nor did Darwin, I think, suggest otherwise.
Adaptation works this way. Organisms are living in an environment and competing for food and reproductive success. Some type of genetic mutation comes along [a cosmic ray zaps one of its genes say] that gives the organism a slight edge in finding a mate and reproducing. More babies carrying the new gene show up in the next generation, etc (providing the gene is inheritable). Eventually all the organisms have the new characteristic: a new species. This is very simple, but you get the idea. It doesn’t have to be a new species. It could be a gene for eye color and so you just have variation within a species, for example.
Now Fodor says that Darwin’s theory has two components. The sequence of changing phenotypes, we can see the connection phenotypically, genetically, that puts baboons in our family tree. No doubt about that. But how did that happen? It is the answer “by natural selection” that he wants to question. No, he is not a creationist. He is looking for a purely scientific answer, not mysticism, to replace natural selection because he sees flaws in that explanation. Flaws that I will attempt to show do not exist.
Fodor reports that there is something that “ails” us a species living in the contemporary world. Marxists agree and attribute it to our economic arrangements-- i.e., capitalism and its logical consequence of human exploitation for profit which leads to imperialism and war. Fodor says the Darwinists explain the problem by saying we inherited a mind adapted for life 30,000 years ago and is unequipped to live in the complex world of today. He will attack natural selection because he thinks this Darwinist answer is wrong.
But this is not Darwin’s answer at all. It is modern misinterpretation of Darwin that has arisen as a reflection on the modern world in societies which, due to the class nature of science and education, do not fundamentally challenge the prevailing order [TINA]* and thus reject ab initio a Marxist reading of evolution. *[There Is No Alternative— British PM Margaret Thatcher’s view on capitalism]
What ails humanity is for Darwinists, according to Fodor, "that the kind of mind we have is an anachronism; it was selected for by an ecology that no longer exists." This being the case, Fodor says, "if the theory of natural selection turned out not to be true, that would cut the ground from under the Darwinist diagnosis of our malaise."
Fodor is right about that. But it is wrong to think that natural selection has provided us with an anachronistic "mind". The so-called “Darwinists” who argue that way are very far from Darwin or any scientific understanding of the human brain.
What natural selection has provided us with is a brain with the capacity to adapt the organism to many different social and cultural climates. It is no more the product of events 30,000 years ago on savannas then it is of modern industrial societies. As far as anyone can say it also has the capacities to adapt to future social and cultural conditions as yet unimaginable. There is no need to reject natural selection "to cut the ground from under the Darwinist diagnosis" because the characterization given by Fodor, while maintained by many social "scientists" and some shallow schools of "evolutionary psychology", is a totally unscientific version of Darwinism.
But suppose as a matter of fact natural selection is still incorrect. Fodor says it has two problems that might undermine it: one is conceptual, the other is empirical ("more or less.") Let's look at these two.
I must admit, I don't really see the conceptual problem. Here is what Fodor says it is. Natural selection can be seen as holding that "environments select creatures for their fitness; or you can say that environments select traits for their fitness." But I wouldn't say that environments "select" anything. Organisms ("creatures") are born into environments and their ability to survive and reproduce depends on the traits they have. If a frog has a mutation giving it three legs it may not live to reproduce. If it has a mutation making it resistant to a virus that infects and kills frogs, that trait may allow it to reproduce better than other frogs.
Is it not confusing to talk of "forces of selection," as does Fodor? "These forces must select individual creatures on the one hand, but on the other they must select traits" since it is phenotypes ("bundles of heritable traits") "whose evolution selection theory purports to explain."
This whole discussion of a "conceptual problem", of a mechanical contradiction invalidating natural selection, is itself a conceptual problem [a category mistake], or better a terminological one. Let's get rid of needless metaphysical entities such as "environments making selections". and "forces." Next, consider that "phenotypes" are not real existing separate entities. They are intellectual abstractions that we as scientists or philosophers use to describe the workings of our theoretical explanations for what we find in nature. Only the organisms exist.
I think, therefore, that the conceptual problem is bogus. I will therefore skip over the rest of the conceptual discussion, which concerns itself with Venetian architecture, Darwin's analogy between selective breeding techniques and natural selection (and Adam Gopnik's New Yorker article about the same), and associated problems with metaphors such as God and Mother Nature.
Let us now turn to the empirical problem. It is not so much a problem as an "issue" for Fodor. He starts by saying that as a matter of fact some new empirical explanations for evolution are being proposed that do not base the mechanism of change on natural selection. He says he can't discuss all of these new ideas but will give us a "feel" for two of them.
First, Fodor points out that "phenotypes don't occur at random"-- i.e., for me that means we don't group organisms together arbitrarily. We group them together because of the similarity we see, or think we see, between organisms. Because, for example, all the animals we see in what we call the cat family are more similar to each other in ways than they are to organisms we classify as members of the dog family. We conclude they have an evolutionary connection and their membership in the same family is non-random.
Fodor says the non-randomness of the phenotypes is due to the non-randomness of the environment. He tells us the "theory of natural selection in a nutshell" is if the non-randomness we see between phenotypes [i.e., organisms] and their environments isn't due to God, "Perhaps [my emphasis] it is a reflection of the orderliness of the environment in which the phenotypes [i.e., the organisms-- tr] evolved." In other words a fossil fish may indicate that there was a watery environment, and a fossil bird would suggest an environment conducive to flight.
But, Fodor says, "this is not the only possibility." "External environments are structured in all sorts of ways, but so too, are the insides of the creatures that inhabit them" [natural selection may have something to do with this-- tr]." There is another possibility, an alternative to the view that phenotypes [our mental constructions based on knowledge of real organisms-- tr] reflect the environments they evolve in, "namely that they carry implicit information about the endogenous structure of the creatures whose phenotypes they are."
"Whose" is a possessive and we should remember that it is organisms that "possess" phenotypes not the other way around. But let us grant "phenotypes" the same ontological status as organisms. Fodor has not really put forward an alternative view. This view, by the way he refers to as "Evo-Devo" (evolutionary-developmental theory).
Darwin's theory of natural selection regarding an organism's response to the environment, and Evo-Devo, the organism's internal structure are two sides of the same coin. They are not alternative explanations, but, as Marxist dialectics would have it, they are a unity in difference.
Gene theory developed after Darwin. So now we know that the mechanism by which natural selection's response to the environment takes place is by changes in the genetic makeup of the organism. How, or what, causes the genes to change is another question. Fodor has a reduction to biochemistry down to quantum mechanics ("for all I know.)”
This is pointless as far as the theory of natural selection is concerned. The organism either adapts to its environment and successfully reproduces itself or it becomes extinct. So when Fodor says, it is "an entirely empirical question to what extent exogenous variables are what shape phenotypes; and it's entirely possible that adaptationism [natural selection] is the wrong answer" he is way off base. The inner and the outer (genome and environment) are two aspects of the same thing-- the living organism.
Now Fodor asks a very strange question. Granted that when we ask Darwin why two phenotypes (organisms) are similar this can be explained by common ancestry. But what if you ask "why is it that some phenotypes don't occur, an adaptationist explanation often sounds somewhere between implausible and preposterous." If you ask, that is, why some sort of organism did NOT evolve, natural selection can't give a satisfying answer. How would natural selection explain why there are no pigs with wings?
Fodor says they lack wings "because there is no place on pigs to put them." You would have to "redesign pigs radically" to have them have wings. Natural selection won't let you go back "and retrofit feathers" [of course mammals don't need feathers to fly]. For Fodor, this means there are constraints "on what phenotypes can evolve that aren't explained by natural selection." This is just so wrong.
Natural selection explains perfectly well why pigs don't have wings. Again it is pigs, not "phenotypes" that lack genes for wings. Let’s look at the real question. Why do bats have wings. Bats and pigs are both mammals and they at one time shared (with many other kinds of animals) a common ancestor. The common ancestor to bats and pigs, et al, was a much more generalized animal to any of its many descendants.
Natural selection says that mutations with positive adaptive (reproductive) values that happened to the common ancestor and its offspring gave rise to all of its descendants different mutations leading to different adaptations to the many possible environments which these animals could live in. Bats have wings and pig's don't because the organisms that eventually turned into bats and pigs had genetic changes that allowed them to exploit different parts of our common earthly environment.
Fodor's question doesn't really make sense. Why don't pigs have wings is the same as asking why didn't pigs become bats. Or why are there pigs? Natural selection also answers the related question as to why horses don't have a single horn on their foreheads.
Fodor calls this kind of speculation "channeling." But all the restraints that have been placed on pigs to prevent them from flying have been channeled by the operations of natural selection. How would natural selection take place in order to result in a flying mammal? It is to the bat genome, not the pig genome that we should look. So much, I think, for the "feel" of the first alternative to natural selection. It really ends up supporting natural selection.
Let us look at Fodor's second alternative and get a "feel" for it as well. Fodor thinks that evolutionary traits that come about by natural selection are supposed to enhance fitness. So if a suite of traits shows up in the evolutionary record that doesn't enhance fitness, something must be wrong with the theory of natural selection.
He discusses a forty year experiment to breed tameness into silver foxes. The experiment was successful and after thirty generations of inbreeding a strain of very tame foxes was the result. But besides tameness the foxes had many other new traits as well-- floppy ears, short curly tails, short legs. etc.
He thinks this is evidence against adaptationism (natural selection). He says, "the ancillary phenotypic effects of selection for tameness seem to be perfectly arbitrary. In particular, they apparently aren't adaptations; there isn't any teleological explanation-- any explanation in terms of fitness-- as to why domesticated animals tend to have floppy ears." Domestication is artificial, not natural, selection.
In the first place these foxes did not come about by natural selection, but by deliberate breeding. All tame foxes were bred by human design so any "ancillary" traits were bred also (who knows if they would have survived by unaided natural selective processes).
In the second place, natural selection's main point is that positive traits that further reproductive success will tend to be propagated, negative traits that hinder reproductive traits will tend to be eliminated, and neutral traits may or may not be eliminated. A neutral trait like floppy ears, associated with a positive trait like tameness (in the experiment) will get a free ride as a neutral trait even without a positive adaptive function.
There is nothing strange or mysterious about this. It is standard operating procedure in Darwin's theory of natural selection. Although Fodor definitely would not agree, the floppy ears and other reproductively neutral traits are flukes.
I think nothing in his article poses either conceptual or empirical problems for the theory of evolution by means of natural selection as proposed by Darwin. As far as evolutionary psychologists and sociobiologists are concerned, let them come up with specific genes located in the human genome for the characteristics they claim humans exhibit as a result of living in a primitive savanna-like environment in the prehistoric origins of the species. The springs of human behavior are not frozen in the past.
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.
Book Review: The Last Years of Karl Marx: An Intellectual Biography. By: Marcello Musto. Reviewed By: Carlos L. GarridoRead Now
Marcello Musto’s The Last Years of Karl Marx: An Intellectual Biography provides an illuminating glance at the work and life of Karl Marx during the most unexamined period of his life. Musto’s oscillation between Marx’s work and life provides readers with both an intellectual allurement towards research in Marx’s later years, a task facilitated by the 1998 resumed publication of the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA2) (which has sense published 27 new volumes and expects to conclude with 114), and with a warm image of Marx’s intimate life sure to guarantee both laughs and tears.
The last few years of Marx’s life were emotionally, physically, and intellectually painful. In this time he had to endure his daughter Eleanor’s extreme depression (she would commit suicide in 1898); the death of his wife Jenny, whose face he said “reawakens the greatest and sweetest memories of [his] life”; the death of his beloved first born daughter, Jenny Caroline (Jennychen); and a lung disease which would keep him sporadically, but for substantial periods, away from his work (96, 98, 122). These conditions, among other interruptions natural to a man of his stature in the international workers movement, made it impossible for him to finish any of his projects, including primarily volumes II and III of Capital, and his third German edition of Capital volume I.
The time he spent with his grandchildren and the small victories the socialist struggle was able to achieve (e.g., the more than 300k votes the German Social Democrats received in 1881 for the new parliament) would give him and Jenny occasional moments of joy (98). A facet of his latter life that might seem surprising was the immense enjoyment he took in mathematics. As Paul Lafargue commented regarding the time when Marx had to endure his wife’s deteriorating health, “the only way in which he could shake off the oppression caused by her sufferings was to plunge into mathematics” (97). What started as a “detour [to] algebra” for the purpose of fixing errors he noticed in the seven notebooks we now know as the Grundrisse, his study of mathematics ended up being a major source of “moral consolation” and what “he took refuge in [during] the most distressing moments of his eventful life” (33, 97).
Regardless of his unconcealed frailty, he left a plethora of rigorous research and notes on subjects as broad as political struggles across Europe, the US, India, and Russia; economics; mathematical fields like differential calculus and algebra; anthropology; history; scientific studies like geology, minerology, and agrarian chemistry; and more. Against the defamation of certain ‘radicals’ in bourgeois academia who lift themselves up by sinking a self-conjured caricature of a ‘Eurocentric’, ‘colonialism sympathizing’, ‘reductive’, and ‘economically deterministic’ Marx, Musto’s study of the late Marx shows that “he was anything but Eurocentric, economistic, or fixated only on class conflict” (4).
Musto’s text also covers the 1972 Lawrence Krader publication of The Ethnological Notebooks of Karl Marx, containing his notebooks on Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society, John Budd Phear’s The Aryan Village, Henry Sumner Maine’s Lectures on the Early History of Institutions, and John Lubbock’s The Origin of Civilisation. Out of these by far the most important was Morgan’s text, which would transform Marx’s views on the family from being the “social unit of the old tribal system” to being the “germ not only of slavery but also serfdom” (27). Morgan’s text would also strengthen the view on the state Marx had since his 1843 Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, namely, that the state is a historical (not natural) “power subjugating society, a force preventing the full emancipation of the individual” (31). The state’s nature, as Marx and Engels thought and Morgan confirmed, is “parasitic and transitory” (Ibid.). The studies of Morgan’s Ancient Society and other leading anthropologist would also be taken up by Engels who, pulling from some of Marx’s notes, would publish in 1884 The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, a seminal text in the classical Marxist corpus.
More unknown in Marxist scholarship are his notebooks on the Russian anthropologist Maksim Kovalevsky’s (one of his close “scientific friends”) book Communal Landownership: The Causes, Course and Consequences of its Decline. Its unstudied character is due to the fact that it had, until almost a decade ago, been only available to those who could access the B140 file of Marx’s work in the International Institute of Social History in the Netherlands. This changed with the Spanish publication in Bolivia of Karl Marx: Escritos sobre la Comunidad Ancestral (Writings on the Ancestral Community) which contained Marx’s “Cuadernos Kovalevsky” (Kovalevsky Notebooks). Although appreciative of his studies of Pre-Columbian America (Aztec and Inca empires) and India, Marx was critical of Kovalevsky’s projections of European categories to these regions, and “reproach[ed] him for homogenizing two distinct phenomena” (20). As Musto notes, “Marx was highly skeptical about the transfer of interpretive categories between completely different historical and geographical contexts” (Ibid.).
The study of Marx’s political writings has usually been limited to the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), the “Critique of the Gotha Program” (1875), and The Civil War in France (1871). Musto’s book, in its limited space, goes beyond these customary texts and highlights the importance of Marx’s role in the socialist movements in Germany, France, and Russia. This includes, for instance, his involvement in the French 1880 Electoral Programme of the Socialist Workers and the Workers’ Questionnaire. The program included the involvement of workers themselves, which led Marx to exclaim that this was “the first real workers’ movement in France” (46). The 101-point questionnaire contained questions about the conditions of employment and payment of workers and was aimed at providing a mass survey of the conditions of the French working class.
Concerning Marx’s political writings, Musto’s text also includes Marx’s critiques of the prominent American economist Henry George; his condemnations of the Sinophobic Dennis Kearney, the leader of the Workingmen’s Party of California; his condemnations of British colonialism in India and Ireland and his praise of Irish nationalist Charles Parnell. In each case, Musto stresses the importance Marx laid on the concrete study of the unique conditions pertaining to each struggle. There was no universal formula to be applied in all places and at all times. However, out of all of his political engagements, the most important of his involvements would be in Russia, where his considerations on the revolutionary potential of the rural communes (obshchina) would have a tremendous influence on their socialist movement.
Russian socialist philosopher Nikolay Chernyshevsky (1828 - 1889)
In 1869 Marx began to learn Russian “in order to study the changes taking place in the tsarist empire” (12). All throughout the 1870s he dedicated himself to studying the agrarian conditions in Russia. As Engels jokingly tells him in an 1876 letter after Marx recommended him to take down Eugene Dühring,
You can lie in a warm bed studying Russian agrarian conditions in general and ground rent in particular, without being interrupted, but I am expected to put everything else on one side immediately, to find a hard chair, to swill some cold wine, and to devote myself to going after the scalp of that dreary fellow Dühring
Out of his studies, he held the Russian socialist philosopher Nikolai Chernyshevsky[i] in highest esteem. He said he was “familiar with a major part of his writing” and considered his work as “excellent” (50). Marx even considered “’publishing something’ about Chernyshevsky’s ‘life and personality, so as to create some interest in him in the West’” (Ibid.). Concerning Chernyshevsky’s work, what influenced Marx the most was his assessment that “in some parts of the world, economic development could bypass the capitalist mode of production and the terrible social consequences it had had for the working class in Western Europe” (Ibid.).
Chernyshevsky held that
When a social phenomenon has reached a high level of development in one nation, its progression to that stage in another, more backward nation may occur rather more quickly than it did in the advanced nation (Ibid.).
For Chernyshevsky, the development of a ‘backwards’ nation did not need to pass through all the “intermediate stages” required for the advanced nation; instead, he argued “acceleration takes place thanks to the contact that the backward nation has with the advanced nation” (51). History for him was “like a grandmother, terribly fond of its smallest grandchildren. To latecomers it [gave] not the bones but the marrow” (53).
Chernyshevsky’s assessment began to open Marx to the possibility that under certain conditions, capitalism’s universalization was not necessary for a socialist society. This was an amendment, not a radical break (as certain third world Marxists and transmodernity theorists like Enrique Dussel have argued) with the traditional Marxist interpretation of the necessary role capitalism plays in creating, through its immanent contradictions, the conditions for the possibility of socialism.
In 1877 Marx wrote an unsent letter to the Russian paper Patriotic Notes replying to an article entitled “Karl Marx Before the Tribunal of Mr. Zhukovsky” written by Nikolai Mikhailovsky, a literary critic of the liberal wing of the Russian populists. In his article Mikhailovsky argued that
A Russian disciple of Marx… must reduce himself to the role of an onlooker… If he really shares Marx’s historical-philosophical views, he should be pleased to see the producers being divorced from the means of production, he should treat this divorce as the first phase of the inevitable and, in the final result, beneficial process (60)
This was not, however, a comment from left field, most Russian Marxists at the time also thought the Marxist position was that a period of capitalism was necessary for socialism to be possible in Russia. Further, Marx had also polemicized in the appendix to the first German edition of Capital against Alexander Herzen, a proponent of the view that “Russian people [were] naturally predisposed to communism” (61). His unsent letter, nonetheless, criticizes Mikhailovsky for “transforming [his] historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into a historico-philosophical theory of the general course fatally imposed on all peoples, whatever the historical circumstances in which they find themselves” (64).
It is in this context that the famous 1881 letter from the Russian revolutionary Vera Zasulich must be read. In this letter she asks him the “life or death question” upon which his answer the “personal fate of [Russian] revolutionary socialists depended” (53). The question centered around whether the Russian obshchina is “capable of developing in a socialist direction” (Ibid.). On the one hand, a faction of the populists argued that the obshchina was capable of “gradually organizing its production and distribution on a collectivist basis,” and that hence, socialists “must devote all [their] strength to the liberation and development of the commune” (54). On the other hand, Zasulich mentions that those who considered themselves Marx’s “disciples par excellence” held the view that “the commune is destined to perish,” that capitalism must take root in Russia for socialism to become a possibility (54).
Marx drew up four draft replies to Zasulich, three long ones and the final short one he would send out. In his reply he repeated the sentiment he had expressed in his unpublished reply of Mikhailovsky’s article, namely, that he had “expressly restricted… the historical inevitability’ of the passage from feudalism to capitalism to ‘the countries of Western Europe’” (65). If capitalism took root in Russia, “it would not be because of some historical predestination” (66). It was then, he argued, completely possible for Russia – through the obshchina – to avoid the fate history afforded Western Europe. If the obshchina, through Russia’s link to the world market – “appropriate[d] the positive results of [the capitalist] mode of production, it is thus in a position to develop and transform the still archaic form of its rural commune, instead of destroying it” (67).
In essence, if the internal and external contradictions of the obshchina could be sublated through its incorporation of the advanced productive forces that had already developed in Western European capitalism, then the obshchina could develop a socialism grounded on its appropriation of productive forces in a manner not antagonistic to its communistic social relations. Marx would then, in the spirit of Chernyshevsky, side with Zasulich on the revolutionary potential of the obshchina and argue for the possibility of Russia not only skipping stages but incorporating the productive fruits of Western European capitalism while rejecting its evils. This sentiment is repeated in his and Engels’ preface to the second Russian edition of the Manifesto of the Communist Party, which would be published on its own in the Russian populist magazine People’s Will.
Musto’s text also provides an exceptional picture of the largely unexamined 72 days Marx spent in Algiers, “the only time in his life that he spent outside of Europe” (104). This trip came at the recommendation of his doctor, who was constantly moving him around in search of climates more favorable to his health condition. Eleanor recalled that Marx warmed up to the idea of the trip because he thought the favorable climate could create the conditions to restore his health and finish Capital. She said that “if he had been more egoistic, he would have simply allowed things to take their course. But for him one thing stood above all else: devotion to the cause” (103).
The Algerian weather was not as expected, and his condition would not improve to a shape where he could return to his work. Nonetheless, the letters from his time in Algiers provide interesting comments about the social relations he experienced. For instance, in a letter to Engels he mentions the haughtiness with which the “European colonist dwells among the ‘lesser breeds,’ either as a settler or simply on business, he generally regards himself as even more inviolable than handsome William I” (109). After having experienced “a group of Arabs playing cards, ‘some of them dressed pretentiously, even richly” and others poorly, he commented in a letter to his daughter Laura that “for a ‘true Muslim’… such accidents, good or bad luck, do not distinguish Mahomet’s children,” the general atmosphere between the Muslims was of “absolute equality in their social intercourse” (108-9).
Marx also commented on the brutalities of the French authorities and on certain Arab customs, including in a letter to Laura an amusing story about a philosopher and a fisherman which “greatly appealed to his practical side” (110). His letters from Algiers add to the plethora of other evidence against the thesis, stemming from pseudo-radical western bourgeois academia, that Marx was a sympathizer of European colonialism.
Shortly after his return from his trip Marx’s health continued to deteriorate. The combination of his bed-ridden state and Jennychen’s death made his last weeks agonizing. The melancholic character of this time is captured in the last writing Marx ever did, a letter to Dr. Williamson saying “I find some relief in a grim headache. Physical pain is the only ‘stunner’ of mental pain” (123). A couple months after writing this, on March 14th, 1883, Marx would pass away. Recounting the distress of the experience of finding his life-long friend and comrade dead, Engels wrote in a letter to Friedrich Sorge an Epicurean dictum Marx often repeated – “death is not a misfortune for the one that dies but for the one that survives” (124).
In sum, it would be impossible to do justice, in such limited space, to such a magnificent work of Marxist scholarship. However, I hope I have been able to clarify some of the reasons why Musto is right to lay such seminal importance on this last, often overlooked, period of Marx’s life and work.
[i] Chernyshevsky was the author of What is to be Done (1863), a title V. I. Lenin would take up again in 1902.
Marcello Musto, The Last Years of Karl Marx: An Intellectual Biography. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 2020. 194 pp., $22. ISBN 9781503612525
Carlos L. Garrido is a Cuban American graduate student and instructor in philosophy at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. His research focuses include Marxism, Hegel, and early 19th century American socialism. His academic work has appeared in Critical Sociology, The Journal of American Socialist Studies, and Peace, Land, and Bread. Along with various editors from The Journal of American Socialist Studies, Carlos is currently working on a serial anthology of American socialism. His popular theoretical and political work has appeared in Monthly Review Online, CovertAction Magazine, The International Magazine, The Marx-Engels Institute of Peru, Countercurrents, Janata Weekly, Hampton Institute, Orinoco Tribune, Workers Today, Delinking, Electronicanarchy, Friends of Socialist China, Associazione Svizerra-Cuba, Arkansas Worker, Intervención y Coyuntura, and in Midwestern Marx, which he co-founded and where he serves as an editorial board member. As a political analyst with a focus on Latin America (esp. Cuba) he has been interviewed by Russia Today and has appeared in dozens of radio interviews in the US and around the world.
For socialists, the fundamental understanding of imperialism goes back to World War I and is found in the pamphlet written by V.I. Lenin, “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.”
Imperialism is not a policy chosen by one government and dropped by another. Imperialism is a system.
The first world war was the outcome of imperialism, Lenin wrote, an imperialist war waged for the political and economic exploitation of the world, export markets, sources of raw material, spheres of capital investment, etc. The imperialist powers raised huge armies and navies, not only to forcibly subjugate oppressed people in the colonies, but to make war against other imperialist countries competing for control.
According to Lenin, the world was already divided among the great capitalist powers when he wrote “Imperialism” in 1916. The war resulted from inter-imperialist rivalries to redivide the world.
The wars since WWI have changed circumstances. And World War II signaled a turning point in world imperialist relations. The United States emerged from WWII as the world’s most powerful imperialist country, gaining control of former European empires in Asia and Africa.
The overturn of the socialist Soviet Union and the breakup of the Soviet republics into individual nation states was a dismantling of a planned economy, resulting in capitalist economies that are under-developed. There has not been a sudden, almost magical appearance of an imperialist Russia.
Lenin thought that there were a few characteristics of imperialism, including the rise of finance capital and the export of capital, not just commodities. The U.S., for example, exports not just commodities but capital — mostly in the form of loans or investments. U.S. banks are at the center of world commerce.
Russia’s economy almost neocolonial
Today, capitalist Russia’s GDP is smaller than that of South Korea or India. Russia’s economy is almost neocolonial, dependent on the exchange of raw materials such as oil and ores. This is the classic economic relationship of a colony to imperialist finance capital. In the list of the top 50 banks in the world, not one is Russian. The ruble is not a currency of trade. Russia does not export capital.
During the Soviet period, Russia and the other republics that formed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics made remarkable industrial progress. Indeed, between 1921 and 1988 there were no years of negative economic growth — no recessions — except for the World War II years.
The Soviet economy fell into recession only in 1989 as the Gorbachev government began to dismantle the planned economy.
Under Gorbachev and then even more drastically under the openly anti-communist, anti-socialist government of Boris Yeltsin in the Russian Federal Republic, and in the new non-Russian former Soviet republics including Ukraine, socialist industry was dismantled.
Yeltsin finished the job of dismantling the Soviet economy that Gorbachev began. The years of Yeltsin are now remembered as perhaps the worst period in Russia’s 1,000-year history. This was the greatest economic disaster any country has seen in modern times, in war or peace.
Ukraine had the second-largest economy in the USSR. “Independent” Ukraine is now the poorest country in Europe. By the end of 2020, some 45% of the population were in the poor category, according to a study by the Ptukha Institute. The deep poverty has created the conditions for fascist gangs to emerge.
Putin, who was Yeltsin’s prime minister and chosen successor, took a more protectionist direction, unlike Yeltsin and Gorbachev, who had fawned on the West.
Does that mean Putin moved away from the policies of Yeltsin and Gorbachev that had oriented the economy to exporting raw materials? Did Putin adopt a policy of industrialization?
Under Putin, there has been little growth of Russia’s manufacturing production that had been demolished by the “perestroika” reforms. Manufacturing is the foundation of any successful modern economy. Yet, under Putin, Russia continues mainly as an exporter of raw materials.
Russia now accounts for about 6% of the global aluminum supply, 3.5% of the copper supply, and 4% of the cobalt supply. And Russia is the world’s largest producer of crude oil and second-largest producer of dry natural gas, after the U.S.
Russia is in the top 10 exporters of grain crops, including barley, corn, rye, oats and especially wheat. From 2017-2019, it was the biggest exporter of wheat, accounting for about 20% of the world market.
Russia is a capitalist state, but that does not make it imperialist. Not all capitalist countries are imperialist nations. For example, Mexico is a capitalist country with an economy that’s similar in size to Russia’s, but is Mexico an imperialist country or an exploited country? Saying that it is capitalist is not enough to know the answer.
Lenin named at least four characteristics of imperialism: concentration of production into monopoly; merging of bank capital with industrial capital, creating finance capital; the export of capital; the fusion of finance capital and the state.
The role of finance capital may be most important. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have taken over the economies of the world. The dollar (not gold) is the currency of world trade. Today almost every country is capitalist, and most of those are exploited by imperialism, by finance capital.
Mexico is capitalist but it is not imperialist. Russia, too, is an exploited country in relation to imperialism, like Mexico.
NATO targets Russia
Russia is the primary provider of gas and oil to much of Europe. The European Union imports 40% of its gas from Russia. That’s put Russia in competition with the U.S., the biggest producer of gas in the world.
The U.S. has been on a drive to control the world market in oil and gas. This can be seen in its attacks, actually acts of war (sanctions), against Iran and Venezuela as well as its war on Iraq. These are countries that had sought national sovereignty over oil and gas.
Russia, too, has been a target, especially its Nord Stream 2 pipeline, but not just for that.
Look at a map of NATO’s expansion since the breakup of the USSR. The countries put under NATO include Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Albania, Romania, Bulgaria.
In 2008, NATO put the inclusion of Ukraine and Georgia, both bordering Russia, on the table.
NATO war on Yugoslavia
Despite the war propaganda that’s presented as news these days, the first war in Europe since World War II didn’t just start. That war was launched by the U.S. and NATO against Yugoslavia in 1999.
For 78 days, from March 24 to June 10, 1999, NATO bombers hit Belgrade, Pristina in Kosovo, Podgorica in Montenegro and several other cities. On the first day more than 20 buildings in Belgrade were leveled.
Much of the U.S./NATO bombing hit civilian targets. A passenger train was bombed. Cruise missiles could be seen flying down the streets. The U.S. directly bombed the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Belgrade, killing three Chinese reporters.
Russia understood the lesson of Yugoslavia and told the U.S. and NATO “no” to expansion to Ukraine and Georgia, on Russia’s borders – 5 minutes by missile to Moscow.
The former U.S. ambassador to Russia, William J. Burns, who is now director of the CIA, said in a February 2008 embassy cable that Ukraine joining NATO constituted a security threat for Russia. Burns noted that to push for this “could potentially split the country [Ukraine] in two, leading to violence or even, some claim, civil war, which would force Russia to decide whether to intervene.”
The U.S. never withdrew the proposal to include Ukraine.
In Ukraine, the so-called Maidan coup in 2014 that was openly supported and financed by NATO put in a government that made NATO membership a policy mandate. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly requested Ukraine’s entrance into NATO. On Feb. 19, Zelensky demanded, once again, entry to NATO, saying, “Eight years ago, Ukrainians made their choice [the Maidan coup].”
Actually, many Ukrainians resisted the Maidan coup, particularly in the working class. In the Maidan civil war, fascist gangs emerged as a force for the coup. Resistance to the coup was strongest in the eastern section of the country. In Odessa, a neo-nazi pro-Maidan gang targeted the Odessa House of Trade Unions, near the center of the resistance. The building was firebombed and at least 46 anti-fascists and labor activists were burned alive.
The resistance to the Maidan coup has continued from 2014 to today. The independent Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic were created when the people there voted overwhelmingly (89% and 96%) to secede from the Maidan regime. They have been subjected to continuous attack since then, particularly by the Ukrainian National Guard’s Azov regiment, a neo-nazi stormtrooper-like operation. More than 14,000 have been killed in Ukraine’s war on Donetsk and Lugansk.
As U.S. Ambassador Burns predicted, Russia was pushed into a corner by the unrelenting drive for NATO entry to Ukraine as well as the growing buildup of neo-nazi militias and the war on Donetsk and Lugansk. Ukraine had promised in the Minsk agreements it signed in 2014 and 2015 there would be a ceasefire, an end to all fighting, withdrawal of heavy weapons, release of prisoners of war, and the recognition of self-government in Donetsk and Lugansk. Ukraine fulfilled none of these promises.
Putin may not be an anti-imperialist leader, but the Russian military operation to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine and recognize the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic is a move against imperialism, U.S. and NATO imperialism.
Originally published in Struggle La Lucha.