Part One: Introduction
Marxism Leninism arose as an organic creation of capitalist society as it entered a new, higher stage of development. The process of capitalist accumulation and expansion that had begun during the industrial revolution led to monopolization, centralization of capital, and the creation of what Lenin called “finance capital”, or the merging of bank and industrial capital. The old era of competition in industry gave way to new developments, owing to the way the system itself functioned. If there’s a competition, somebody has to win.
And the winners became financiers.
Basically. It’s a lot more complicated than that, obviously, but that’s the general gist of it. Capital centralizes in fewer and fewer hands, and this ends up creating monopoly cartels. Those cartels sit at the top of the capitalist pyramid like hood ornaments, subjugating lesser capital to them, and owning part of everything along the process of production and distribution. Only, these hood ornaments don’t denote the brand of a car, but the many brands under their ownership and control. Also, car’s hood ornaments don’t generally put millions of people into destitution. So, you know. Not exactly the same.
The era of imperialism, of the change from progressive capitalism into moribund capitalism, the advent of finance capital, monopoly cartels, syndicates, and trusts began a long time ago. In Marxism, we tend to use the thought device of “stages” to describe the process of society actualizing, or becoming itself, and this stage was dubbed Imperialism by the Bolsheviks. A perfect term. The ruling cartels become an empire unto themselves, and use their power and concentrated capital to spread out over the world.
During the era of imperialism, Marxism Leninism clarifies three main contradictions. The first contradiction is the main contradiction of society, between labor and capital. The one that other contradictions arise out of. In the earlier or primary stage of imperialism (yes, we can even split stages up into stages, if we’d like, and I would very much like, as the fact that imperialism itself has reached a new stage will be central to this series), you have the development of monopolies/cartels achieving power, wherein their dominance over the economies of various nations began to subordinate entrepreneurial capital to them, which took labor right along with it, of course, as labor is the source of value creation within entrepreneurial capital. This unproductive capital added a new layer of super-exploitation to the extraction of value from the economy. For workers, it meant that we could while away our days having the value our labor creates extracted by multiple enemies, or we could organize and fight back. Millions upon millions chose to fight back.
Lenin lived during the beginning of this process, and the October Revolution the first major victory of the working class. Since his time, imperialism has, of course, continued and developed, as all things do. In 1972, Gus Hall released the massively underrated and sadly hard-to-get-your-hands-on “Imperialism Today”, marking how imperialism itself had developed since its advent in the early 20th century. His analysis of the situation, of the conditions of both global and American society, and how imperialism had changed over time are essential for understanding where we are now, heading into 2022.
And where are we now, in 2022? As imperialism developed, it brought us to the era of the computer revolution, debt economy, and monopoly brand marketing economy, along with the modernization of a new anti-imperialist bloc led by Communist China, and the deterioration of the petro-dollar and Bretton Woods system of global political economy. This is the groundwork for today’s imperialism, having developed over the decades and now in the process of un-developing, having reached its upper limits of sustainability. Just as imperialism is the un-development of capitalism, or what Lenin called “moribund capitalism”, we seem to now be entering a moribund imperialism.
But moribund is a little oldy timey and jargony. What does it mean? Why did Lenin use such a term? Well, similar to a lot of terms like this, it comes from Latin. Officially, it means “being in the process of dying”. Lenin used it because imperialism is the stage of capitalism at which its contradictions reach an extreme point and must be resolved, beyond which (according to our dialectical materialist methodology), revolution happens. Or, the process in which capitalism dies.
Pretty cool, huh?
Anyway, the contradictions of capitalism reach their extreme point, and this is imperialism. Imperialism itself has its own contradictions internal to its development, which go through the same process on another level, also reaching an extreme point, and taking different forms according to the material basis Marxism teaches us lays the foundation for them. Or, basically: modern American imperialism is not the same as French or German imperialism from the early 20th century. It did not arise in the way French or German imperialism did, and has not changed over time in the same way they did. The characteristics each of these forms of imperialism take on are created by the unique contradictions and history of the society that gave rise to it. In the late 20th century, the more ruthless American version of imperialism has taken a hegemonic position in the contradiction between competing imperialist powers, creating what is often referred to as a unipolar world. We understand this from the dialectical perspective, that it is precisely that apparent domination that means the stage of imperialism itself has fully developed, and is now in its moribund stage.
It is often postulated these days that because the USA is the unipolar power, the center of world imperialism, revolution here is impossible. This seems to me a problem of one of two types. A: a simple confusion in terminology, using the surface-level understanding of the word imperialism largely taught by our ruling class. In this less thorough analysis, imperialism can simply be one big power somehow forcing a smaller power to do what it wants, and by this definition, imperialism is immortal and eternal, reducing us to an ideological mistake, forgetting the primary mode of matter: motion. In this instance, imperialism is understood as having set-in-stone characteristics (or a mistaking of form for content) that Lenin (or someone else, in other instances) laid down, almost as if he were Moses coming down from the mountaintops. “Lo and behold, my children. I present to you the things that will be imperialism! Go forth and agitate against!” But this isn’t really what Lenin was doing. Lenin was describing phenomena in society as they arose, and understanding it from the Marxist perspective, in its motion, forms, and change–in the inter-penetration of the opposing forces that propels that change. Or B: A mistake borne of a lack of class analysis. In this instance, imperialism is somehow overcoming the very contradictions of capitalism itself, and posits a different surface-level understanding of this intricate system, wherein one country’s bourgeoisie come to represent the entire country, and “take resources” from another, therefore “buying off” the entire mass of people of that country. It takes more misunderstandings of terminology, such as “super profits” (which it takes to mean, simply, “a lot of profits”), and uses this to assume that, rather than the extractions of finance capital being used to create a new, higher strata of the organized proletariat (and professional classes) whose interests are then tied to the bourgeoisie, it suggests a left-wing version of Reaganite trickle-down economics, where workers are paid far more than the minimum required to reproduce the societal “way of life” and access to things like refrigerators becomes symbolic of a lack of revolutionary potential rather than part of this societal reproduction, and a reason to disregard the entirety of the laws of development discovered by Marxism.
In Marxism, we obviously have Lenin’s masterpiece Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism and Gus Hall’s addition to guide us, but more importantly, we couple these things with our basic Marxist understanding of how society works, according to general laws, in order to genuinely understand where we are at, and therefore where to go from here. Option B denies those general laws Marxism discovered, which set it apart from the old utopian socialism in the first place.
This author finds it perfectly reasonable that such notions have come from the institutions of the capitalist class; most notably, the academy and think tank/NGO industrial complex, which has become the capitalists’ primary weapon in class warfare against us in recent decades. It stands to reason that as agitation in the working class increases in eras of acute crises such as this, the ways the capitalist class tries to prevent that also increase. The tactics of distortion, division, confusion, and redirection of revolutionary energy into safe, controlled opposition have been a favorite of the capitalist class for decades now. There will always be some reason our class enemy will tell us revolution is not possible or unnecessary. This same content takes different forms, depending on the specific forces telling us, but the essence and results are the same. It is precisely this phenomenon that creates the need for Marxism Leninism to heighten its agitation against these distortions at periods such as this, and not fall into tailism or reformism.
But we’re going off on a tangent here. Let’s reign it in a little, shall we?
The addition of “Leninism” is the only way to keep with Marxist science in the 20th and 21st centuries. According to the dialectical materialist world outlook, all phenomena in the universe go through development and undevelopment, periods of nascence and progress, and then periods of decline, stagnation, and being moribund, leading to “negation of the negation”, and a new thing arising, sublating the old and built on the material reality of the old as its premise. This includes knowledge itself. As the enlightenment ran up against its own limits of thought culminating in Hegel’s system, Marxism created a revolution in thought that allowed us a deeper insight, a new, higher level of development. As the Marxists of the 2nd International ran up against stagnation, dogmatism, and opportunism, Leninism was added to update our thinking for the new developments of society (such as imperialism and finance capital) and continue us moving forward.
So where do we go from Marxism Leninism? In this new era of nascent multi-polarity, we see brilliant Marxist Leninist science coming from strongholds of the working class like China and Cuba, who have developed their own unique ways of doing things. But what about us here in the USA? What are we to do, in order to overcome the dogmas and stagnation that began in the “new left” era and boldly move forward into the era of technology, de-industrialization, and the social revolution this causes?
This series is an argument for our own, unique approach to Marxism Leninism, a modern approach that can overcome the liberalism instilled in “the left” by our enemies in the capitalist class, to avoid eclecticism, deviations, and dogmatism, and genuinely rally the entire working class for the struggles coming our way, to create a sort of “Marxism Leninism Fill-in-the-blankism” of the USA that people can embrace as our own in order to progress, even after a lifetime of bourgeois ideology being thrown at us from every direction we can think of, and then more that we didn’t even know existed.
I’m no crack dialectician. I struggled through Hegel, and had four failed attempts at picking up Capital before I slogged through it all (as well as multiple readings where I went back and understood it better, after learning that Marx wrote the entire thing from the dialectical materialist perspective and I had been reading it with my own liberal baggage), but I hope I can at least do some justice to the heroic figures who have paved the way for our movement today, and not be a complete embarrassment.
Thank you for your time and energy in going over this series. This is only the first, introductory part, and will continue on until the ideas within are, hopefully, fleshed out and developed.
In love and solidarity,
Noah Khrachvik is a proud working class member of the Communist Party USA. He is 40 years old, married to the most understanding and patient woman on planet Earth (who puts up with all his deep-theory rants when he wakes up at two in the morning and can't get back to sleep) and has a twelve-year-old son who is far too smart for his own good. When he isn't busy writing, organizing the working class, or fixing rich people's houses all day, he enjoys doing absolutely nothing on the couch, surrounded by his family and books by Gus Hall.
Labor Poster (Maximo Pacheco, 1928)
The French Marxist Louis Althusser once wrote: “The fusion of Marxist theory and the Workers’ Movement is the most important event in the whole history of the class struggle, i.e. in practically the whole of human history (first effects: the socialist revolutions).” The importance of this fusion can be understood when we take into account the unique nature of the Workers’ Movement, which is the first historical movement that is in the interest of the majority. This is so because the proletariat cannot liberate itself as a class without simultaneously abolishing class society as such. Before the emergence of the proletariat, all major historical movements were led by minority interests for the immediate realization of their socially given class, for the full-fledged expansion of a developing mode of exploitation. Any subaltern revolts that took place in favor of a classless society were faced with failure due to the concrete conditions in which they took place, namely the insufficient development of the productive forces. The immaturity of the material conditions limited the alternative paths that could be followed, opening only two options: either a Communism of poverty or the replacement of one exploiting class by another. Hence, only the sustained development of the productive forces brought about by capitalism could provide for the first time in history the material possibility for the establishment of a Communism of abundance. The Workers’ Movement is the social agent that is tasked with the transition to Communism. Marxist Theory aids this transition by making the proletariat conscious of how its revolutionary victory is linked to its self-annihilation as a class, which ipso facto demands the overthrow of the entire class society. Herein lies the historical significance of the fusion of Marxist theory and the Workers’ Movement: it is the only act in human history that can abolish class divisions.
How did the fusion happen? It emerged from the scientific nature of Marxism, from “the fact that Marx produced objective knowledge of capitalist society, he understood and demonstrated the necessity of class struggle, the necessity and the revolutionary role of the workers’ movement and he supplied knowledge of the objective laws of its existence, its goal and its action. And if the workers’ movement adopted this doctrine it was because it recognized in it, in the Marxist doctrine, the objective theory of its own existence and its action, because it recognized in Marxist theory the theory which would enable it to see clearly the reality of the capitalist mode of production and its own struggles.” The doctrines advanced by Marxist theory identified with the objective interests of the working class, allowing it to overcome the distortions introduced by the workings of bourgeois society. In particular, Marxist theory helped the Workers’ Movement resolve the dialectical division between immediate objectives and ultimate goal by deeply implanting the revolutionary struggle for the overthrow of the bourgeois state in the trade union struggle for the masses’ material demands. In this way, Marxist theory organically integrated the ultimate goal of Communism into the planning of concrete action, clarifying how the working class could achieve its ultimate salvation.
The scientificity of Marxism, its ability to reveal the real and potential forces objectively at work in a situation, is linked to its abolition of the traditional dichotomy existing in bourgeois thought between theory and practice. Such abolition is effectuated through the conversion of theory into a practice alongside other practices. Marxism makes “its production the result of a determinant practice – a scientific practice – a practice of the transformation of raw materials (raw information) into a finished product (knowledge) through the application of determinant tools (scientific methodology and concepts).” What is distinctive about this form of theory, what gives it the status of a scientific practice, is its self-consciousness of its structural conditionedness. To borrow the words of Jason Read, Marxism formulates scientific practice “as an operation that works within the determinate conditions and constraints of its historical and political conjuncture rather than as an action that starts out from its own free possibility and dictates to the world what principles it should follow.” Unlike speculative bourgeois thought, “which founds in its purity and distance from the world the principles that the world should follow,” Marxist thought “is an operation, acting within determinate conditions in order to become autonomous, to produce effects of freedom. Liberty is not the absence of necessity, but a transformation of it.”
Insofar that Marxist scientific practice “is not a faculty of reflection, which is free to lose itself or find itself according to this or that method, but is an activity, a process that begins from determinate conditions and produces knowledge,” it feeds on the social practice of society as a whole. More specifically, the scientific practice of Marxism is dependent on the political practice of Communism. While both are decisive for the goal of proletarian revolution, they don’t interlink in a linear and horizontal way; they indicate from the point of view of their nature a relation of dominance and dependence: it is political practice which directs scientific practice, which is its conjunctural context and material frame. Through constant involvement in political practice, proletarian militants come to explore the development of the objective processes of capitalism and the degree to which this process has become manifest in its multifarious aspects and essences. This is illustrated by the trajectory of the workers’ movement. In the beginning, the working class’s knowledge of capitalist society was limited to the immediate level of the productive base, taking the form of a unity on an economic-corporate level. As Althusser notes: “the economic struggle of the proletariat developed around various themes, the most important of which were the struggle for the decrease in the length of the work day, the struggle for the defense and increase in wages, etc. Other economic themes intervened in the continuation of the history of the workers’ movement: the struggle for job security, the struggle for social funds (social security), the struggle for accident insurance, etc. In every case it was a question of a struggle carried out on the plane of economic exploitation, therefore at the level of the relations of production themselves.”
However, with the passage of time, the working class began to transcend its narrow boundaries as a professional group and started struggling on political and ideological levels, too. Althusser comments: “the economic struggle always comes up against, like it or not, political realities, which intervene directly and violently into the course of the economic struggle: in the form of the repression of protests, strikes and revolts, by the forces of the bourgeois state and the law (the police, the army, the courts, etc.); out of which arises the experience, won in the economic struggle itself, of the need for a political struggle, distinct from the economic struggle.” Since the economic struggle of the working class was ultimately limited by the legal monopoly of violence embodied in the institutions of the bourgeois state, the Workers’ Movement had to confront the capitalist state and build its own organs of political and social power. In this process of constructing alternative hegemonic apparatuses, the proletariat had to engage in an ideological struggle too, fighting against the general form of the representative state, which abstracts the population from its class divisions, and represents individuals as equal citizens.
Thus, in the workers’ movement, we can observe historical attempts to practically explore the relationship between structure and superstructures, or the passage of Communist movement through the entirety of the social formation, from economic base to the sphere of political relations. In this way, the proletariat’s political practice translates the mechanical law expressed at the level of the production process into organically interconnected relations of forces. Marxist scientific practice, in turn, utilizes these concretely evolving contradictions of the capitalist conjuncture to construct different theoretical tools. The following two extracts from Mao Zedong’s essay “On Practice” succinctly articulate the primacy of practice that I have explained above:
If you want knowledge, you must take part in the practice of changing reality. If you want to know the taste of a pear, you must change the pear by eating it yourself. If you want to know the structure and properties of the atom, you must make physical and chemical experiments to change the state of the atom. If you want to know the theory and methods of revolution, you must take part in revolution.
The vertical relation between scientific practice and political practice implies the existence of a certain torsion in the structure of the Communist Party. Since political interventions in social relations are the source of scientific knowledge, the latter will invariably come after the occurrence of the former. This means that for proletarian politics to be guided by Marxist truths, a specific part of political practice has to act as a theoretically unpolished exploration of the capitalist reality. This component of Communist political practice has the sole function of generating new social relations and bringing them to the attention of the Communist Party’s scientific apparatus, which can then scrutinize it more thoroughly. To take an example, Communist militants can’t understand the political utility of parliamentary institutions unless they are willing to participate in them. The experience of the Indian Left can help clarify the matter. In 1957, the undivided Communist Party of India (CPI) won the State Assembly election in Kerala, but was only able to govern the state for 28 months. The Communist government’s attempt to conduct land reforms and regulate the private education sector was contested by the dominant social classes and religious institutions. In 1959, the central government acted on behalf of Kerala’s vested interests and dismissed the Communist government. This entire event helped the Indian Left assess the tactical status of parliamentary institutions. In 1964, the CPI split into the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] and CPI. In its 1964 programme, the CPI(M), with the 1959 Kerala experience behind it, declared that the use of democratic institutions is not a sufficient precondition for the building of socialism. It should “give a great fillip to the revolutionary movement of the working people and thus help the process of building the democratic front,” that is, a combination of forces that would attack the bourgeois-landlord system. The government, therefore, was considered an “instrument of struggle,” and the purpose of electoral power was to “govern and mobilize” – to implement welfare schemes, deploy all constitutional measures to improve the administration and use extra-parliamentary means to build power among the working people. What this example from Kerala demonstrates is the presence of a specific kind of Communist political practice that gathers concrete information for intellectual analysis by Marxist scientific practice.
In other words, this portion of Communist political practice allows the emergence of new relations of forces. “Capitalist relations are always articulated with other production relations,” notes Bob Jessop, “and are, at most, relatively dominant; moreover, their operation is always vulnerable to disruption through internal contradictions, the intrusion of relations anchored in other institutional orders and the lifeworld (civil society), and resistance rooted in conflicting interests, competing identities, and rival modes of calculation.” Thus, the political practice that operates in theoretically unknown terrains facilitates the movement of the heterogeneous concrete contradictions that are inter-imbricated with the economic relations of capitalism. In short, while scientific practice is needed to know the transformations of social relations, political practice is needed to produce new social relations.
Thus, Marxist scientific practice presupposes as its preceding moment and source of raw information the existence of pre-scientific Communist political practice, which is spontaneously driven by the ethico-political interests of the subalterns. Consequently, errors will inevitably accompany the proletariat’s struggle for hegemony. This reality is why Vladimir Lenin said: “only he who never does anything never makes mistakes.” From the perspective of the revolution, the negative experiences, the mistakes, the defeats of the working class become a part of the process of the dialectical unfolding of contradictory social relations. They become moments of the process of the proletariat’s historical recognition of the capitalist society as a concrete totality i.e. a social totality whose knowledge can only be gained in and through the manifold mediations of its partial, constituent totalities. Therefore, particular political practices – one-sided in nature – invariably mediate universal scientific knowledge. In the words of Alan Shandro, “only individual, sporadic, untimely and therefore unsuccessful actions will enable the masses to ready themselves, gain political experience and size up ‘their real leaders, the socialist proletarians.’” As is evident, there is an asynchronous temporal relation between scientific practice and political practice, which gives rise to pre-scientific political practice. Althusser recognized this when he said that we have to think “about what is specific in the contradiction and in the dialectic, about the specific difference of the contradiction which quite simply allows us, not to demonstrate or explain the ‘inevitable’ revolutions post festum, but to ‘make’ them in our unique present, or, as Marx profoundly formulated it, to make the dialectic into a revolutionary method, rather than the theory of the fait accompli. [emphasis mine].” Here, he is talking about how scientific practice needs to stop producing knowledge after the occurrence of pre-scientific political practice and instead, help the latter gain an element of scientificity. Insofar that pre-scientific political practice will cease to function as a mere source of raw material for scientific practice – a source bereft of revolutionary theory – the Communist Party will make fewer mistakes.
But how exactly can we reconfigure the relation between scientific practice and political practice so that the need for pre-scientific political practice is eliminated? It is at this strategic interstice that the need for Marxist philosophy arises. Marxist philosophy is defined as the theory of the laws of scientific practice, dealing not with the speculative thoughts of individuals, but the thought that conforms to dialectical logic, to thought that adequately reflects its object i.e. scientific practice. Scientific practice, as we know, is not considered “an autonomous substance alienated (reified) in nature and society, but as the subjectivisation of objective laws of development.” It is a materialist “reflection of the external world’s objective regularities uncovered through its practical transformation into expressions of human consciousness and will.” That is why the structure of scientific practice is composed of the unity of rational-cognitive theoretical practice and pre-scientific (ideological) political practice. Consequently, philosophy directed by Marxist principles becomes “neither a dialectics of being (ontology) nor of thought (epistemology) but the dialectics of the concrete content… – the universal laws of objective development – of thought [scientific practice].” As such, philosophical categories are both objective (expressing the real regularities revealed by scientific practice) and subjective (expressing how scientific practice is based on political interventions in reality). “Therefore, the world does not appear before philosophical consciousness only as that which exists objectively, but the possible world, the world that must be, perceived and expressed through the necessities and desires of the subject of social [political] practice.”
In short, Marxist philosophy viewed as the theoretical appropriation of scientific practice concerns itself with Marxist theoretical practice that reflects the structuring principles and internal characteristics of pre-scientific political practice. Thus, the forms of thought that philosophy studies are the appropriation, through pre-scientific political practice and scientific practice, of the objective regularities that exist in reality. By systematically analyzing the logical forms that characterize Marxist scientific practice’s utilization of pre-scientific political practice, Marxist philosophy produces methodological tools that are epistemological-cognitive and evaluative-normative in nature. These dual qualities enable Marxist philosophical categories to form a link between scientific practice and pre-scientific political practice, to act as a logical-methodological sublimation of the rational knowledge that will best suit the ethico-political interests of the subalterns. This is why Marxist philosophical categories can be used as dialectical weapons by the practitioners of pre-scientific political practice to confront reality. In this way, the pre-scientific character of a certain section of working class political practice will erode as all the militants of the Communist Party will come to possess a general orientation regarding the objective laws of reality. Their encounter with the wealth of empirical data that comprises the social totality will get refracted through the methodological framework provided by the grasp of Marxist philosophy, which sees the world in terms of a complex pattern of intersecting processes, where others see it only as disconnected and static facts.
It is important to note that philosophy’s development of a world outlook does not mean that it possesses an ahistorical constancy and stands above the concrete dynamics of changing conjunctures. On the contrary, philosophical practice, like scientific practice, is deeply burdened with the impurity of the conjuncture, and can’t serve the programmatic objectives of Communism unless it learns to adapt to the shifting coordinates of class struggle. “In philosophy,” writes Althusser, “every space is always already occupied. Within it, we can only hold a position against the adversary who already holds that position.” This kind of materialist perspective – cognizant of the extreme heteronomy of philosophical practice – emphasizes the transformative and measurable effects of Marxist philosophy, modifying the content and contours of philosophical theses to weaken the hold of dominant philosophies and create space for new theoretical developments. The practitioners of Marxist philosophy strengthen the material effects of their philosophical categories by participating in conjunctural struggles that are forced upon them by the dynamic of the class struggle.
The concreteness of Marxist philosophical practice, its conscious recognition of its own historical determination by other practices, and its direct relevance for Communist political practice, allows the militants of the Communist Party to formulate provisional maps of the given world. In the proletariat, these provisional maps are more than pre-scientific political practice but less than scientific practice; they are stages in the dialectical progress toward the objectively correct knowledge of reality. The operational arena of these stages, or provisional maps, is the moment – a category which is closely linked to the philosophical practice of Marxism, namely dialectical materialism. According to George Lukacs, a moment is a “situation whose duration may be longer or shorter, but which is distinguished from the process that leads up to it in that it forces together the essential tendencies of that process, and demands that a decision be taken over the future direction of the process. That is to say the tendencies reach a sort of zenith, and depending on how the situation concerned is handled, the process takes on a different direction after the ‘moment’.” The fact that the moment “demands that a decision be taken and the day after tomorrow might be too late to make that decision,” does not mean that it is purely subjective, unmoored from the process. Rather, the subjective intervention in the objective process “is an actual, operative moment of the process itself, and not only something imagined.” Such a subjective intervention/moment “does not only form an unavoidable link between any two objective moments, a link that might be, however, disregarded in an ‘objective’ consideration of things, since it is not important for ‘objective’ analysis. It also shows that people actually – and not only in their imagination –make their own history.” In other words, the subjective moment is called forth by the crisis-prone tendencies of capitalism, its unending instabilities, which open up certain ruptures in the operational processes of the bourgeois state. It is the presence of these ruptures that creates a space for a proletarian response, a subjective decision whose correctness with regard to the objective assessment of the balance of forces can provide a revolutionary direction to the entire process.
Thus, the subjective moment is a result of the objective process itself, one that will reappear in the future as an objective determinant of our action after the subjective decision has been taken. That is why Lukacs insists that the “subject does not face the object inflexibly and unconnectedly. The dialectical method does not intend either an undifferentiated unity or a definite separation of moments. On the contrary rather: it invokes an uninterrupted process of moments becoming independent and the uninterrupted abolition of this independence…this (dialectical and therefore dialectically overcome) independence of the subjective moment in the contemporary stage of the historical process, in the period of proletarian revolution, is a decisive characteristic of the general situation.” The correctness or incorrectness of the subjective decisions made by the Workers’ Movement mold the subsequent objective realities within which the proletariat later finds itself, which means that subjective decisions congeal into objective causes, indicating how the class consciousness of the proletariat is of utmost importance in the making of the Communist revolution. The dialectical interweaving of subjective and objective factors means that moments that involve conscious agency and purely subjective qualities are themselves dependent on previous interventions in subjective moments. So, if the Communist Party has been making correct interventions in subjective moments, it would be able to concentrate and advance the proletariat’s subjective agency to such an extent that – at the insurrectionary moment – it would provide hegemonic leadership for a socialist revolution.
Marxist philosophy’s provisional maps play an important role in the subjective moment because they weaken the ideologically corroded spontaneity of the working class and equip them with the methodological worldview of dialectical materialism. The philosophy of dialectical materialism advances two formulations. First, the point of departure for Communist militants should be the existing social relations, the actual life-process of historically discrete humans. By beginning from the material-productive intercourse in which concrete subjects are engaged, we come to understand the real constraints and contexts of our actions. This is the materialist approach. Second, we need to understand that reality is not just an inorganic totality; it is a contradictory whole unified in all its diverse manifestations, an organic system of mutually conditioning phenomena. This whole develops through its internal law of development, through the systematic unfolding of the immanent life of the subject-matter. Variations keep taking place through the movement of contradictions. This is the dialectical approach. When unified in a coherent manner, dialectics and materialism displace the extremist and reformist deviations that characterize pre-scientific political practice and instead install the hegemony of a political practice that is sensitive to the cadence of the conjuncture. “Dialectics alerts us to the need for change, materialism to the importance of bringing this change into line with the objective circumstances which actually prevail.” Once the Communist Party has made the subjective decision regarding the influenceability of the capitalist process, that decision becomes manifest as the translation of the will of its militants into an objective factor of social development.
A great example of this entire politico-philosophical dynamic is supplied by the 2020-21 Indian farmers’ protests, which shook the country’s neoliberal and neo-fascist ruling dispensation. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government exploited the chaos to introduce three agricultural bills in parliament in June 2020, which were passed by September 2020 without any discussion in the parliament. These three laws aimed at opening up the agricultural sector to the entry of large agribusinesses. While the government said that these laws would allow farmers to access the optimal price-setting mechanisms of the market, the actual result would have pitted farmers against agribusinesses, whose economic dominance would have enabled them to monopolize the agricultural market. At this moment, the objective process of capitalism entailed a subjective response from the popular classes. The Left organizations of India – which played a significant part in decision-making at the level of leadership of the resistance – responded to this crisis by supporting the popular slogan put forward by the farmers: “No Farmers No Food.” This slogan posited the existence of an abstract figure of farmer, despite the fact that the Indian peasantry is deeply fractured along class and caste lines. “Apart from the contradictions that separate the marginal and small farmers from the middle and large farmers,” writes Aditya Bahl, “there also exists a more powerful political antagonism between the farmers and the agrarian workers. Given that 56 percent of India’s rural population is landless, it is surprising how popular slogans such as ‘No Farmers No Food’ conveniently ignore the vast proletarian majority of the country. Moreover, the landless, too, occupy a variety of political-economic subject positions, thus resulting in a labyrinthine of class-based social relations”. Given these facts, why did the Left support the slogan? It did so because of the threat posed by large agribusiness corporations to the wellbeing of both farmers and workers. If the corporatization of agriculture would result in the legalized theft of the landholdings of farmers by agribusinesses and the subjection of the former to market laws, then the situation of agricultural workers would deteriorate in the following way: 1) the policies of export-oriented agro-industrialization would result in the mechanization of crop production and hence reduce the demand for labor; 2) the policies of market deregulation would remove the government guarantee of a Minimum Support Price for certain major crops grown by farmers, forcing them to operate according to the cost-saving constraints of the market, and thus, reducing the wages they can pay to agricultural workers; and 3) the entry of agribusiness would result in a shift from food grains to cash crops because the latter can earn greater profits on the world market; this would compromise the food security of India – impacting the poorest sections most negatively – and make it beholden to imperialist interests for the import of food grains.
Equipped with the philosophical tools of dialectical materialism, the Indian Left was quick to recognize these future effects of the three agricultural bills and thus upheld Kisan Mazdoor Ekta – unity between farmers and workers. Here, it was this very notion of unity that functioned as a provisional map for the Indian Left. The production of this provisional map, in turn, was made possible by the philosophical tools offered by dialectical materialism, which aid the recognition of the relevant historical contradictions and point out the conjunctural limitations within which those contradictions have to be resolved. If there had been no philosophical framework, then the only guide to action available to the Indian Left would have been the class instincts that form the core component of pre-scientific political practice. This is so because the subjective moment is characterized by the emergence of a novelty, a conjunctural crisis, one that can only be approximated but never fully theorized by existing scientific practices. The remainder of the conjuncture, the part that is left out by the analytical lens of scientific theory, is covered by the provisional maps created by Marxist philosophical practice. That is why dialectical materialism is necessary for the scientific development of Communist political practice.
Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His articles have been published in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and several countries of Latin America.
This article was republished from Cosmonaut Magazine.
A recent study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry sent shockwaves across the scientific community and popular outlets as it disproved the predominant “serotonin hypothesis” of depression. In just two weeks since its publication it has been accessed by nearly half a million people and the subject of dozens of subsequent articles. The researchers analyzed a total of seventeen systematic reviews, meta-analyses, and other large studies focused on the following six tenets pertinent to the “serotonin hypothesis” of depression:
“(1) Serotonin and the serotonin metabolite 5-HIAA—whether there are lower levels of serotonin and 5-HIAA in body fluids in depression; (2) Receptors—whether serotonin receptor levels are altered in people with depression; (3) The serotonin transporter (SERT)—whether there are higher levels of the serotonin transporter in people with depression (which would lower synaptic levels of serotonin); (4) Depletion studies—whether tryptophan depletion (which lowers available serotonin) can induce depression; (5) SERT gene—whether there are higher levels of the serotonin transporter gene in people with depression; (6) Whether there is an interaction between the SERT gene and stress in depression.”1
None of the studies were able to prove any significant link between serotonin levels and depression based on the above tenets, leading the researchers to conclude that “there is no convincing evidence that depression is associated with, or caused by, lower serotonin concentrations or activity.”2
The researchers further argue, “The idea that depression is the result of abnormalities in brain chemicals, particularly serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine or 5-HT), has been influential for decades,” such that today “80% or more of the general public now believe it is established that depression is caused by a ‘chemical imbalance.”3 In light of this finding, one must ask—how did a hypothesis which failed to substantially prove the connection it is based on achieve such general acceptance?
The serotonin hypothesis wasn’t always the dominant explanation for depression. Shortly after the Second World War, “the first antipsychotic, chlorpromazine, was synthesized when chlorine was added to the promethazine structure.”4 This synthesis formed “the basis of the development of the first antidepressants” which emerged following Roland Kuhn’s 1957 presentation in the World Psychiatric Association Meeting, where shortly after the first tricyclic antidepressant was released for clinical use in Switzerland.5
A decade later, in the mid-1960s, a series of studies introduced serotonin as the “molecule behind depression.” These studies culminated in the work of Lapin and Oxenkrug, who postulated in 1969 the ”serotonergic theory of depression, which was based on a deficit of serotonin at an inter-synaptic level in certain brain regions.”6 In the following years, the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly created a serotonin-depression study team, which found that fluoxetine hydrochloride was “the most powerful… selective inhibitor of serotonin uptake among all the compounds developed.”7 The results led to the 1987 Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval of the clinical usage of Prozac (the brand name given to fluoxetine), the first major selective serotonin receptor inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressant drug.8
The release of Prozac revolutionized the commodification of medicine, incorporating a new field of mass advertisement which has since become the norm. However, as the documentary, Prozac: A Revolution in a Capsule demonstrates, the drug obtained its prominence not only through advertisement—which, interestingly enough, first occurred through business and finance magazines—but through its incorporation into culture as an iconic symbol of the zeitgeist.9 From Woody Allen movies to The Sopranos to late night talks shows, Prozac became the drug of the age, a commodity which, like Brave New World’s soma, could provide direct, unmediated happiness. This quickly resulted in the “Prozac boom,” making it by 1990 the most prescribed drug in the United States, and within ten years of its 1988 release, visits to the doctor for depression doubled and the prescribing of antidepressants tripled.10
The association of depression with low levels of serotonin was an intentional result of institutionally supported (e.g., American Psychiatric Organization) marketing campaigns from the pharmaceutical industry. This has provided “an important justification for the use of antidepressants” and perpetuated an antidepressant drug market that was valued at almost $16 billion in 2020 (a number expected to rise to $21 billion by the end of the decade);11 in today’s antidepressant epidemic, one in six Americans are on antidepressants.12 This phenomenon cannot be understood separately from the general commodification and marketization of medicine. As Joanne Moncrieff has argued, “there are some obvious drivers of this trend, such as the pharmaceutical industry, whose marketing activities have been facilitated both by the arrival of the Internet, and political deregulation, including the repeal of the prohibition on advertising to consumers in the US and some other countries in the 1990s.”13
This is how and why the serotonin theory gained and sustained its hegemony since the 1990s. However, within the scientific community this hypothesis has been on the chopping block for almost two decades as individual studies have disconfirmed various parts of the hypothesis. The scientific community, in general, is much more skeptical of the “serotonin hypothesis” than the general public. This disconnection between the much more nuanced science on depression and the public perception of the issue has been the subject of various articles and speaks to both the separation of science from everyday life and to the effectiveness of medical marketization.14 Nonetheless, the explosion the recent study caused is a result of its comprehensive character as an “umbrella review” which examined all parts of the serotonin hypothesis at once—and in doing so, went well beyond the many studies which have focused on separate parts in the last couple of decades.
From Biochemical Determinism to Dialectical Materialism
There is a prevalent myth which holds that those who function in society as professional “intellectuals” are somehow “autonomous and independent” from the dominant social order and the interests of the ruling class.15 This myth predominates in the community of the “hard” sciences perhaps more than in any level of traditional intellectuals. Here it is taken as sensum communem that science is objective and disconnected from ideology and social factors. For these folks, as Marxist scientists Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin said, “nothing evokes as much hostility… as the suggestion that social forces influence or even dictate either the scientific method or the facts and theories of science.”16 But it is in this illusion of non-ideological objectivity where ideology can be seen to be the most entrenched, functioning as unknown knowns, that is, as unrecognized assumptions or inherent biases which mediate how scientists approach the world.
This does not mean, as the postmodernist disease17 which influences some of the philosophy of science holds, that we should maintain a “deep epistemological skepticism” which often, as Ellen Meiksins Wood notes, conflates “the forms of knowledge with its objects… as if they are saying not only that, for instance, the science of physics is a historical construct, which has varied over time and in different social contexts, but that the laws of nature are themselves ‘socially constructed’ and historically variable.”18
On the contrary, in Marxism, as Helena Sheehan argues, there is “no conflict between [stressing] the historical and contextual nature of science and [affirming] the rationality of science and the overall progressive character of its development.”19 In essence, the Marxist tradition’s understanding of the socially determined character of scientific production does not mean that scientific objectivity is rejected and that the object of scientific study itself is conceived of as relative. The form of abstract and unmediated objectivism which prevails in the sciences is rejected and what is affirmed is a necessarily socially mediated understanding of scientific objectivity. This overcomes, as Sheehan notes, the stale “objectivist/constructivist” binary which today structures the discourse about science and affirms instead a dialectical both/and attitude.20 This is important to clarify so that the forthcoming analysis of capitalism’s influence on science is not confused as an embracement of relativism and a rejection of science’s ability to produce objective knowledge of the world.
The serotonin hypothesis emerges from what Levins and Lewontin called “Cartesian reductionism” (the objectivist extreme), which they held to be the “dominant mode of analysis” in all spheres of today’s sciences. In psychiatry this shows up as genetic and biochemical determinism, an attempt to reduce the complexity of mental health issues to genetics or to biochemical mechanisms which, with respect to the latter, somehow the major pharmaceutical companies always have a pill for. But, as Moncrieff has argued, “mental health problems are not equivalent to physical, medical conditions and are more fruitfully viewed as problems of communities or societies.”21
For instance, studies have shown that “within a given location, those with the lowest incomes are typically 1.5 to 3 times more likely than the rich to experience depression or anxiety.”22 The plethora of factors that stem from and contribute to poverty has allowed researchers to establish “a bidirectional causal relationship between poverty and mental illness,” such that poverty both increases the likelihood of mental illness and is proliferated further by it.23 The fact that the poorest in any context are up to three times more likely to experience depression than the rich shows that any analysis of depression must necessarily take into account the socioeconomic context of the individual. This inequality induced dissatisfaction allows one to understand both poverty and depression relationally. As Marx had already noted in 1847,
Our desires and pleasures spring from society; we measure them, therefore, by society and not by the objects which serve for their satisfaction. Because they are of a social nature, they are of a relative nature… A house may be large or small; as long as the surrounding houses are equally small it satisfies all social demands for a dwelling. But let a palace arise beside the little house, and it shrinks from a little house to a hut… if the neighboring palace grows to an equal or even greater extent, the occupant of the relatively small house will feel more and more uncomfortable, dissatisfied and cramped within its four walls.24
The Cartesian reductive framework contains various methodological flaws which prevent the concrete understanding of the world. It treats, for instance, the interactions of parts and whole one-sidedly—as if parts are homogenous entities ontologically prior to the whole, and hence, as if the whole was simply the sum of its parts. In so doing, this outlook draws artificial hard and fast lines between causes and effects and fails to see how parts and wholes are reciprocally conditioning, i.e., how “their very interaction structures the way they are interrelated and interpenetrated, resulting in what is called a whole.”25 In short, how wholes are not simply the sum of their parts, but the totalities through which the parts themselves attain the functions which form the whole. It is, in essence, a methodological reflection in the sciences of bourgeois individualism and Robinsonade26 forms of thinking, which artificially divorce individuals from society and hold the latter to be simply the sum of the former.
However, biochemical determinism/reductionism does not necessarily have to reduce explanations to only one factor. For instance, the inconsistent success of SSRIs27 in treating depression has led some scientists to sustain ex juvantibus28 (from reasoning backwards) that serotonin’s role in depression is interactive and dependent on its relations with adrenaline, dopamine, and other chemical processes. Although this represents a more complex view of the serotonin hypothesis in particular, and of the often wrongly conflated “chemical imbalance” view of depression, it is nonetheless a form of biochemical determinism.29 This is because it fails to see how the “chemical imbalances” don’t arise out of a void but are produced by the concrete environment the individual is in. The point, again, is not to diminish the biochemical in order to elevate the role of the environment, but to see both the biochemical and the environment as dialectically interconnected, acting “upon each other through the medium of the [individual].”30 As Levins and Lewontin argue, the individual “cannot be regarded as simply the passive object of autonomous internal (biochemical composition/genes) and external (environment) forces;” instead, the individual functions as a subject-object which is both conditioned by these factors (as object) and reciprocally conditions them (as subject).31
The limitations of the prevalent serotonin hypothesis also helps to demonstrate what Friedrich Engels noted in his unfinished Dialectics of Nature: although “natural scientists believe that they free themselves from philosophy by ignoring it or abusing it… they are no less in bondage to philosophy but unfortunately in most cases to the worst philosophy.”32 This reductive, bio-determinist outlook straitjackets science within abstract thought, preventing it from seeing things in their movements and interconnections. It forces the reduction of larger problems to simple components—since these are seen as the ontological basis of wholes—and limits the possibility of observing issues like depression dynamically and comprehensively.
It is much easier to reduce depression to a biochemical phenomenon in the brain than to analyze how the social relations prevalent in the capitalist mode of life create the conditions for the emergence of depression. Similarly, once this reduction is established, it is much easier to treat the “solution” through individualized drug consumption than through socially organized revolutionary activity. As Moncrieff has argued, “by obscuring [the] political nature” of mental illness, certain “contentious social activities” are enabled, and attention is diverted “from the failings of the underlying economic system.”33
Tracing depression to the exploitative and alienating relations sustained between people and their work, their peers, and nature, is not only a much more laborious task, but one which would necessarily end in the realization of the systemic root of the problem. Given capitalism’s universal commodification, and the form this takes in what Levins and Lewontin call the “commoditization of science,” such a result is directly against the interests of the institutions that control scientific knowledge production.34 As one of many other fields in which the universalizing logic of commodity production has penetrated, the aim is, of course, profitability; the quest for truth and scientific discovery is subsumed under the quest for profit. This is especially true after four decades of neoliberalism, where, as Moncrieff notes, “more and more aspects of human feelings and behaviour” have been commodified and turned “into a source of profit for the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries.”35 “Investing in research,” as Levins and Lewontin argue, is but “one of several ways of investing in capital.”36
In the West, this reality was clear to the rich tradition of British Marxists scientists like J.B.S. Haldane, J.D. Bernal, Hyman Levy, and others which emerged following the 1931 Second International Congress of the History of Science and Technology. As J.D. Bernal stated in 1937, “production for profit can never develop the full potentialities of science except for destructive purposes,” only “the Marxist understanding of science puts it in practice at the service of the community and at the same time makes science itself part of the cultural heritage of the whole people and not of an artificially selected minority.”37
Towards Socialist Science and Medicine
The serotonin theory gained prominence because: 1) it fits within the one-factor, causally linear framework of the Cartesian reductionist outlook prevalent in mainstream science; 2) it was a diagnosis which facilitated the greatly profitable solution embodied in the tens of billions of dollars’ worth antidepressant drug industry; 3) it plays a hegemonic role in steering the diagnosis of the depression epidemic away from its real source—capitalist social relations which sustain the mass of people alienated from what they produce, from other people, and from nature—and, specifically with respect to the United States, in drowning debt for getting sick, pursuing an education, or attempting to own a home.
Socialism removes these material difficulties upon which many mental health issues are grounded and places the working class in control of the economy, state, and civil institutions, making them function in the service of human and planetary needs, not profit. By abolishing poverty and war; guaranteeing healthcare, housing, and education as a right for all; providing everyone with meaningful well-paying jobs; amongst other things, a socialist society creates the economic and social security which radically transforms the environment in which most cases of depression are rooted. If one seriously seeks to overcome the depression epidemic capitalism is hurling the mass of people into, socialism is the only real solution.
Likewise, only socialism can de-commodify science and provide the general social atmosphere for a move away from a hegemonic outlook dominated by static, reductive, abstract, individualist, irrationalist, deterministic, and binary thought, and towards a dialectical materialist one which emphasizes change, interconnection, reciprocity, sociality, emergence, and concrete investigation of the concrete.38 The extraordinary successes of Cuban science and medicine testify to what can be done when the profit motive is removed and comprehensive, preventative, and community-based care becomes the norm.
While enduring an internationally denounced blockade from the most formidable of empires, the Cuban revolution’s commitment to a science for the people has allowed it to construct what is internationally recognized as one of the best health care systems in the world.39 Cuba’s comprehensive social care emphasizes the impact of biological, social, cultural, economic and environmental factors on patients. Far from the United States’ drug-first approach of dealing with mental health issues, Cuba’s comprehensive social care allows all medical issues to be better understood at their source, treated, and prevented from occurring.40 In Cuba, mental health treatment emphasizes “individual and group psychotherapies” of various kinds,41 and when not hampered by the blockade, incorporates psychopharmacology in an integrated fashion with the former.42
Cuban scientists see mental health issues and treatment “within the context of the community,” not isolated individuals.43 As Alexis Lorenzo Ruiz, president of the Cuban Society of Psychology, said: “At all times, the community—like the family—are participants and necessary contributors in each action taken to move toward an improvement in the wellbeing of people with mental illness.”44 Additionally, unlike the disease-centered model of care which predominates in most capitalist countries, this human-centered approach promotes multidisciplinary and integrative relations between mental and medical care within the different fields of medicine—various forms of medical doctors, psychologists, nurses, and other health care professionals train side by side each other within the communities they serve in.45 This socialist model has afforded the Cuban people the conditions where, despite the enormous material difficulties created by the US blockade, depression in Cuba affects only 3.8 percent of the population, whereas in the United States 4.8 percent.46
In their 1985 book, The Dialectical Biologist, Levins and Lewontin reformulate Marx’s Eleventh Thesis and state that “dialectical philosophers have thus far only explained science. The problem, however, is to change it.”47 In the West, the seeds of such a change are emerging once again. As Nafis Hasan wrote in Science for the People, “recent developments in the fields of immunology, cancer, theoretical and evolutionary biology lend credence” to the view that “any non-reductionist approach (e.g., systems biology) to studying biology will advertently end up using a dialectical approach.”48 The fall of the reductive serotonin hypothesis in depression research is but one instance in many pointing to the fact that the dominant outlook presents a fetter for the development of the sciences. Just like a socialist revolution is needed to free humanity and the forces of production from the fetters of the capitalist system of waste, a revolution in outlook is needed to free the sciences from its archaic Cartesian reductionism and furnish it with “the most scientifically apt method for understanding the world”—dialectical materialism.49
Originally published in Science for the People.
Carlos L. Garrido is a Cuban American PhD student and instructor in philosophy at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale (with an MA in philosophy from the same institution). His research focuses include Marxism, Hegel, early nineteenth century American socialism, and socialism with Chinese characteristics. He is an editor in the Marxist educational project Midwestern Marx and in the Journal of American Socialist Studies. His popular writings have appeared in dozens of socialist magazines in various languages.
A key concept in Karl Marx’s Capital is widely misunderstood
In Part Eight of Capital, titled “So-called Primitive Accumulation,” Marx describes the brutal processes that separated working people from the means of subsistence, and concentrated wealth in the hands of landlords and capitalists. It’s one of the most dramatic and readable parts of the book.
It is also a continuing source of confusion and debate. Literally dozens of articles have tried to explain what “primitive accumulation” really meant. Did it occur only in the distant past, or does it continue today? Was “primitive” a mistranslation? Should the name be changed? What exactly was “Marx’s theory of primitive accumulation”?
In this article, written for my coming book on The War Against the Commons, I argue that Marx thought “primitive accumulation” was a misleading and erroneous concept. Understanding what he actually wrote shines light on two essential Marxist concepts: exploitation and expropriation.
This is a draft, not my final word. I look forward to your comments, corrections and suggestions.
On June 20 and 27, 1865, Karl Marx gave a two-part lecture to members of the International Workingmen’s Association (the First International) in London. In clear and direct English, he drew on insights that would appear in the nearly-finished first volume of Capital, to explain the labor theory of value, surplus value, class struggle, and the importance of trade unions as “centres of resistance against the encroachments of capital.” Since an English translation of Capital wasn’t published until after his death, those talks were the only opportunity that English-speaking workers had to learn those ideas directly from their author.
While explaining how workers sell their ability to work, Marx asked rhetorically how it came about that there are two types of people in the market — capitalists who own the means of production, and workers who must sell their labor-power in order to survive.
“How does this strange phenomenon arise, that we find on the market a set of buyers, possessed of land, machinery, raw material, and the means of subsistence, all of them, save land in its crude state, the products of labour, and on the other hand, a set of sellers who have nothing to sell except their labouring power, their working arms and brains? That the one set buys continually in order to make a profit and enrich themselves, while the other set continually sells in order to earn their livelihood?”
A full answer was outside the scope of his lecture, he said, but “the inquiry into this question would be an inquiry into what the economists call ‘Previous, or Original Accumulation,’ but which ought to be called Original Expropriation.”
“We should find that this so-called Original Accumulation means nothing but a series of historical processes, resulting in a Decomposition of the Original Union existing between the Labouring Man and his Instruments of Labour. … The Separation between the Man of Labour and the Instruments of Labour once established, such a state of things will maintain itself and reproduce itself upon a constantly increasing scale, until a new and fundamental revolution in the mode of production should again overturn it, and restore the original union in a new historical form.”
Marx was always very careful in his use of words. He didn’t replace accumulation with expropriation lightly. The switch is particularly important because this was the only time he discussed the issue in English — it wasn’t filtered through a translation.
In Capital, the subject occupies eight chapters in the part titled Die sogenannte ursprüngliche Akkumulation — later rendered in English translations as “So-called Primitive Accumulation.” Once again, Marx’s careful use of words is important — he added “so-called” to make a point, that the historical processes were not primitive and not accumulation. Much of the confusion about Marx’s meaning reflects failure to understand his ironic intent, here and elsewhere.
In the first paragraph he tells us that ‘ursprüngliche’ Akkumulation is his translation of Adam Smith’s words previous accumulation. He put the word ursprüngliche (previous) in scare quotes, signaling that the word is inappropriate. For some reason the quote marks are omitted in the English translations, so his irony is lost.
In the 1800s, primitive was a synonym for original — for example, the Primitive Methodist Church claimed to follow the original teachings of Methodism. As a result, the French edition of Capital, which Marx edited in the 1870s, translated ursprüngliche as primitive; that carried over to the 1887 English translation, and we have been stuck with primitive accumulation ever since, even though the word’s meaning has changed.
Marx explains why he used so-called and scare quotes by comparing the idea of previous accumulation to the Christian doctrine that we all suffer because Adam and Eve sinned in a distant mythical past. Proponents of previous accumulation tell an equivalent nursery tale:
“Long, long ago there were two sorts of people; one, the diligent, intelligent and above all frugal elite; the other, lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living. … Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and the latter sort finally had nothing to sell except their own skins. And from this original sin dates the poverty of the great majority who, despite all their labour, have up to now nothing to sell but themselves, and the wealth of the few that increases constantly, although they have long ceased to work.”
“Such insipid childishness is every day preached to us in defense of property,” but when we consider actual history, “it is a notorious fact that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, in short, force, play the greatest part.” The chapters of So-called Primitive Accumulation describe the brutal processes by which “great masses of men [were] suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled onto the labor-market as free, unprotected and rightless proletarians.”
“These newly freed men became sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production, and all the guarantees of existence afforded by the old feudal arrangements. And this history, the history of their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.”
Marx’s account focuses on expropriation in England, because the dispossession of working people was most complete there, but he also refers to the mass murder of indigenous people in the Americas, the plundering of India, and the trade in African slaves — “these idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation.” That sentence, and others like it, illustrate Marx’s consistently sarcastic take on primitive accumulation. He is not describing primitive accumulation, he is condemning those who use the concept to conceal the brutal reality of expropriation.
Failure to understand that Marx was polemicizing against the concept of “primitive accumulation” has led to another misconception — that Marx thought it occurred only in the distant past, when capitalism was being born. That was what Adam Smith and other pro-capitalist writers meant by previous accumulation, and as we’ve seen, Marx compared that view to the Garden of Eden myth. Marx’s chapters on so-called primitive accumulation emphasized the violent expropriations that laid the basis for early capitalism because he was responding to the claim that capitalism evolved peacefully. But his account also includes the Opium Wars of the 1840s and 1850s, the Highland Clearances in capitalist Scotland, the colonial-created famine that killed a million people in Orissa in India in 1866, and plans for enclosing and privatizing land in Australia. All of these took place during Marx’s lifetime and while he was writing Capital. None of them were part of capitalism’s prehistory.
The expropriations that occurred in capitalism’s first centuries were devastating, but far from complete. In Marx’s view, capital could not rest there — its ultimate goal was “to expropriate all individuals from the means of production.” Elsewhere he wrote of big capitalists “dispossessing the smaller capitalists and expropriating the final residue of direct producers who still have something left to expropriate.” In other words, expropriation continues well after capitalism matures.
We often use the word accumulation loosely, for gathering up or hoarding, but for Marx it had a specific meaning, the increase of capital by the addition of surplus value, a continuous process that results from the exploitation of wage-labor. The examples he describes in “So-called Primitive Accumulation” all refer to robbery, dispossession, and expropriation — discrete appropriations without equivalent exchange. Expropriation, not accumulation.
In the history of capitalism, we see a constant, dialectical interplay between the two forms of class robbery that Peter Linebaugh has dubbed X2 — expropriation and exploitation. “Expropriation is prior to exploitation, yet the two are interdependent. Expropriation not only prepares the ground, so to speak, it intensifies exploitation.”
Expropriation is open robbery. It includes forced enclosure, dispossession, slavery and other forms of theft, without equivalent exchange. Exploitation is concealed robbery. Workers appear to receive full payment for their labor in the form of wages, but in fact the employer receives more value than he pays for.
What Adam Smith and others described as a gradual build up of wealth by men who were more industrious and frugal than others was actually violent, forcible expropriation that created the original context for exploitation and has continued to expand it ever since. As John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark write in The Robbery of Nature:
“Like any complex, dynamic system, capitalism has both an inner force that propels it and objective conditions outside itself that set its boundaries, the relations to which are forever changing. The inner dynamic of the system is governed by the process of exploitation of labor power, under the guise of equal exchange, while its primary relation to its external environment is one of expropriation.”
In short, Marx did not have a “theory of primitive accumulation.” He devoted eight chapters of Capital to demonstrating that the political economists who promoted such a theory were wrong, that it was a “nursery tale” invented to whitewash capital’s real history.
Marx’s preference for “original expropriation” wasn’t just playing with words. That expression captured his view that “the expropriation from the land of the direct producers — private ownership for some, involving non-ownership of the land for others — is the basis of the capitalist mode of production.”
The continuing separation of humanity from our direct relationship with the earth was not and is not a peaceful process: it is written in letters of blood and fire.
That’s why he preceded the words “primitive accumulation” by “so-called.”
 Quotations from Marx’s 1865 lectures, “Value, Price and Profit,” are from Marx Engels Collected Works, vol. 20, 103-149. Quotations from “So-Called Primitive Accumulation” are from Marx, Capital vol. 1 (Penguin, 1976) 873-940.
 Marx, Capital vol. 3, (Penguin, 1981) 571.
 Ibid, 349.
 See chapters 24 and 25 of Capital vol. 1.
 Linebaugh, Stop Thief! (PM Press, 2014), 73.
 Foster and Clark, The Robbery of Nature (Monthly Review Press, 2020), 36.
 Marx, Capital vol. 3 (Penguin, 1981) 948. Emphasis added.
This article was republished from Climate & Capitalism.
This article deals with the views of Santiago Carrillo (1915-2012), former general secretary of the Spanish Communist Party (1960-1982) and one of the founders of “Eurocommunism” as expressed in his book Eurocomunismo y Estado, translated into English as Eurocommunism and the State (1978).
Carrillo maintained that the conditions in Western Europe were so changed after WW2 that many of the views of Lenin and of the CPSU no longer applied to this area. Rather than simply following the line of the Soviet Union, national parties should develop Marxism according to their own history and special circumstances.
As Carrillo wrote in his introduction: “It must be recognised, however, that the approach to the problem of the State in the following pages involves a difference from Lenin’s thesis of 1917 and 1918. These were applicable to Russia and theoretically to the rest of the world at that time. They are not applicable today because they have been overtaken in the circumstances of the developed capitalist countries of Western Europe. What has made them inapplicable is the change in economic structures and the objective expansion of the progressive social forces, the development of the productive forces (including nuclear energy), the advance of socialism and decolonisation, and the defeat of fascism in the Second World War.”
At least that is how the world looked to Carrillo in 1976. Much of this is questionable today when the economic structures have still to recover from the economic crisis initiated in 2008; the so-called expansion of the progressive social forces has called forth a revitalized ultra-right and new fascist movements; the productive forces have become responsible for the climate crisis which threatens our civilization; nuclear energy has become a threat and must be replaced wherever possible; the collapse of the Soviet Union and the east European “socialist” countries has halted any advance of socialism that Carrillo had in mind; decolonization has been replaced by neocolonialism in the guise of “globalization,” and fascism seems to be having a comeback after its defeat in the Second World War. Perhaps Lenin is not as out of date as Carrillo thought.
In any event, many of Carrillo's ideas are still around today and to a greater or lesser degree have influence in Communist and socialist parties here and abroad. We shall now look at each of the six chapters of his book. I do not propose a commentary, but rather some observations based on hindsight concerning major points put forth by Carrillo in the 1970s and how well they have, or have not, withstood the test of time.
Chapter One “The State Versus Society.”
Point 1.) “The capitalist state is a reality. What are its present characteristics? This is the problem of every revolution, including the one we propose to carry out by the democratic, multi-party, parliamentary road.” [p.13]
In the half century since this was written there has not been one successful revolution to establish a socialist state by the means suggested by Carrillo. This is a position that has its origins in the revisionism of Eduard Bernstein and his book Evolutionary Socialism and all attempts to establish a socialist state by these means have been aborted. In the U.S. the ultra-right has grown and captured the Republican Party and made inroads in the Democratic Party as well. Fascist movements have grown in and outside of Europe, and within and without bourgeois democratic governments. Ministerialism, Opportunism and Pragmatism are rampant in many Communist and socialist parties and there is no real empirical evidence in support of Carrillo’s ideas for a peaceful road to socialism. This doesn’t mean such a road is impossible, but few parties have advanced very far along it and most have programs that actually help to perpetuate the capitalist state despite high sounding slogans and party programs giving lip service to Marxism.
Point 2.) “Socialist relations of production which rest on an insufficiently-developed basis of the productive forces can only have formal socialist aspects in the same sense as we refer to the formal freedom of bourgeois society.” [p.14]
Two points are to be made here 1. Carrillo is pointing out that the Soviet Union has backward productive forces relative to the advanced capitalism of the West. 2. It has formal but not actual socialism in the same way bourgeois “democracy” is not really actually democracy but a capitalist control system to keep the working class in its place. Real democracy will only exist under socialism — real democracy doesn’t exist in the Soviet Union either. This is why Communists in the West should not just follow the Soviet model. Carrillo seems to overlook the fact that his model of evolutionary socialism relies on not formal but real democracy and this undermines his peaceful road theory. The Soviet Union would eventually collapse due to – among other things – its inability to move from formal to actual socialist relations of production.
Point 3.) “From the formal Marxist point of view Kautsky was right in affirming that in Russia the conditions did not exist for achieving socialism in 1917. But the formal Marxism of Kautsky could not be applied to the revolutionary crisis in Russia in 1917.” [p. 18]
The role of Lenin was to adapt Marxism to Russian conditions. This was a revision of original Marxism and produced Marxism-Leninism. Carrillo thus replies to his critics that his “revisionism” is no different than that of Lenin. He is adapting Marxism to the special conditions in Europe which are totally different in the 1970s than they were in Russia in 1917.
Point 4.) “Marxism is based on the concrete analysis of concrete reality. Either it is this or it is pure ideology (in the pejorative sense of the term) which sets reality aside and is not Marxism; and the reality of the present day in Spain, Europe and the developed capitalist world has very concrete peculiarities which we cannot avoid.” [p.19]
Well, times have changed in the last fifty years. The road to socialism based on the ideals of capitalist democracy and elections has led to the possibility of a fascist takeover. Even if prevented this time around we should not deceive ourselves that this is the only, or even the best way, to think about establishing socialism.
Point 5.) “In essence, the attitude of Marx, Engels, and Lenin towards the state defines it as an instrument of the domination of one class over others, stressing particularly its coercive character….The present day state state….is still the instrument of class domination defined by Marx, Engels, and Lenin; but its structures are far more complex. More contradictory, than those known to the three Marxist teachers, and its relations with society have quite different characteristics.” [pp. 20,22]
Carrillo starts with the orthodox Marxist view of the state but begins to morph into class collaboration which orthodox Marxists still believe is the road to defeat, not to socialism. The next point begins to make this clear.
Point 6.) “In the old days, the liberal bourgeois State presented the outward appearance of an arbiter state, which mediated between the opposing classes. When it intervened against the workers’s protests utilizing brute force or class legislation, it did so in defense not only of one group of privileged capitalists but of all the other groups and classes of society, of principles which were challenged only by the conscious proletarian minority.” [p.24]
This is not correct. It was not just the workers being oppressed by the State and everybody else being helped by it. The farmers, peasants, minorities, and small businesses were also having their interests sacrificed to the interests of the big capitalists. Marx, Engels, and Lenin were fully aware of this. Carrillo gets down to business with the next point.
Point 7.) “Conversely, the state appears today, ever more clearly, as the director State in all spheres, particularly that of the economy. And since it is the director State which no longer serves the whole of the bourgeoisie, but only that part which controls the big monopolistic groups….it is now confronted, in its capacity as such a State, not only by the advanced proletariat but also directly by the broadest social classes and strata including part of the bourgeoisie: it is entering into direct conflict with the greater part of society.” [p.24]
But this is not a new phenomenon. The so-called old State also functioned this way. The main difference, Lenin pointed out, is that financial capital has replaced the older capital dominated by the big monopolies and has become international so that Spain, etc., and the other developed nations are part of a globalized capitalist system dominated by the US and its junior partners the EU (AKA Germany), Japan and UK and its allies Australia, Canada, New Zealand. The class struggle has become internationalized as well. As far as the US is concerned there is no advanced proletariat (due to no CP around that wants to carry out this function) and no confrontation. Many socialists are telling the workers to support one capitalist party against the other, without explaining to them the deeper background and why they are both ultimately enemies – even when as a tactic they must sometimes support one rather than the other. This is to the right of Euro-Communism!
Point 8.) Carrillo thought that this new (really the same as the old) contradiction between the State and the various classes and strata outside of the big monopoly bourgeoise “can and must culminate in a crisis within that apparatus” I.e., the State workers come from the working and middle class and have to serve the interests of the monopoly ruling class, not their own. ”It follows from this that the ideological and political currents which are developing in society have new possibilities of penetrating the State apparatus and winning important sectors of it.” [p.26]
Well, in the US there is no sign that this is happening. Those on the left who try to build alliances or coalitions with the Center (an unreliable hodgepodge of conservative and liberal forces, none really progressive) find themselves increasingly irrelevant as they have played down Marxism and conceded the ideological battle ground to the Center in order not to alienate it. This blunts the developing consciousness of the workers from adopting advanced Marxist ideas and leaves them open to the neoliberal ideology of the two-party system. Nor do other advanced capitalist countries appear to have had their state apparatuses penetrated by forces hostile to their ruling class. The class struggle appears confined to the electoral arena (it occasionally breaks out in strikes, but these end with the ruling class still in control).
Point 9.) With reference to the crisis associated with capitalism, Carrillo thought these, along with “the thought-provoking actions of the vanguard forces, will undoubtedly lead to a more widespread and general understanding and to a clearer definition of the conflict between the great majority of society and the present powers of the State”. [p.26]
What we have seen, however, is the growth of the ultra-right and fascist forces in Europe, and especially in the US, and a fightback led by the traditional Establishments not vanguard forces. In some areas the role of a party as a “vanguard” is played down in order to attract centrist allies (a bit of a deceit it would seem).
So much for Carrillo’s first chapter. It appears as if the world did not live up to his expectations. We shall look at his next chapter in Part Two on “The Ideological Apparatuses of the State”.
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association. He is the author of Reading the Classical Texts of Marxism.
A common criticism against Marxism from many liberal intersectionalists (e.g. liberals who embrace the theory of intersectionality) is that it is either class-reductionist or prone to class-reductionism. There are different versions of the class-reductionism criticism, but the general criticism is that Marxism tends to “reduce” different forms of oppression into class and economic oppression. This reduction, the argument continues, functions as a poor translation that leaves out unique characteristics of each form of non-class oppression. In essence, Marxism is blind to the sui generis status of each form of oppression apart from class oppression. Its analysis or approach is a reductive one size fits all approach. One primary example of the alleged failure of Marxism is to explain racial oppression in such a way that is sensitive to it being sui generis oppression relative to class oppression.
Many critics of Marxism (such as liberal intersectionalists from the idealist school of Critical Race Theory) argue that Marxism’s standard explanation of racism or white supremacy fails because it can’t fully or satisfactorily account for how white workers are active participants of racial oppression. The assumption behind this criticism is the perception that Marxism seems to insist that class antagonism between the proletariat and capitalists is not only a fundamental conflict, but it is the only genuinely real conflict (this is a false assumption, but I’ll explain later why). But if this is the case why are workers of one race oppressing workers and petty-bourgeoisie of another race? How can Marxism account for the racial antagonism in which workers of one race actively oppress workers (and other social classes) of another race? One of the standard Marxist accounts is that racial oppression from white workers stems from their false consciousness that conceals or obscures real class antagonism between them and the white bourgeoisie. False consciousness of exploited workers is essentially when workers consciously or unconsciously accept an ideology whose origin is ultimately from the ruling class and whose function is to redirect the frustration of one’s plight, much of which stems from conditions of class exploitation, towards a false culprit as a scapegoat. But many find this account unconvincing because it either downplays the moral responsibility of white workers by falsely portraying them as unwitting accomplices of racial oppression or excuses them for their racial oppression.
There is an element of truth to the objection that Marxism is “class reductionist,” but at the same time it distorts what Marxism is. In particular, the element of truth is that Marxists believe that class struggle is the fundamental and primary contradiction. When people hear this, they think Marxists believe that the struggle between the proletariat and bourgeoisie is the most important contradiction and everything else needs to be understood through the lens of this contradiction. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. In Domenico Losurdo’s book Class Struggle, the author points out texts where Marx and Engels discuss different struggles such as national oppression (e.g. the British Empire oppressing Irish people), women’s oppression, racial oppression, class exploitation by the bourgeoisie against the proletariat in the western metropole, and so on. Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle,” yet Marx and Engels discussed national oppression, women’s oppression, racial oppression (e.g. racialized slaves), and so on. Are Marx and Engels being inconsistent? Losurdo proposes that Marx and Engels have an expansive conception of class struggle which subsumes various social struggles such as national oppression, women’s oppression, racial oppression, and so on as species of class struggle. What they all have in common is that there is a dialectical dynamic between exploited versus exploiter. Women were compulsory domestic laborers who used their domestic labor to produce surplus value for their patriarch. Colonized and oppressed nations produce and export commodities with surplus value for the oppressor nation. Racialized slaves produced surplus value for the white plantation owners (even when slavery was abolished, racial oppression continues in the form of super-exploitation). The proletariat produced surplus value to be turned into profit by the capitalists. What all struggles have in common is the class dynamic between exploiter vs. exploited. This class analysis doesn’t artificially transform all struggles into one undifferentiated, uniformed, and homogenous struggle, but at the same time it recognizes that each is its own species that belongs to class struggle.
But why try to attempt to subsume all oppression under class struggle? What is the motivation behind this ambitious approach? And what does this Marxist approach to class struggle have to say about white supremacy? It seems unusual and artificial to try to classify all of these forms of oppression under class struggle. In order to answer these questions, it’s important to understand the historical materialist understanding of society and how it motivates an expansive class analysis. According to historical materialism, all societies require a way of organizing instruments of production and distribution of goods and services with use-value (something has use-value when it satisfies perceived desires, needs, or appetite relatively common in society) in order for society to continue to exist and develop. Without any way of organizing instruments of production and distribution of goods and services with use-value, society will cease to exist. There could be no culture, no religion, no holidays, no festivals, no art, and so on. Why? Because at the end of the day everyone needs to eat, clothe themselves, and sleep under a roof and people can only do these things when they have a functioning economy. Everything that we value as a society is not possible without an organization of the instruments of production and distribution of goods and services with use-value.
So far, I’m discussing “organization of production and distribution of goods and services with use value,” but what does this have to do with class and class analysis? In particular, what does class have anything to do with it? Where “class” enters into the picture is how society’s productive forces, which are instruments for production and distribution of goods and services with use value, are organized in terms of a social structure of ownership and division of labor, both of which determine whether or not it is a class-structured society. If productive forces are owned by an entire society of people such that the economic and material value of what everyone produces is accumulated and enjoyed by everyone in some way, then such a society more or less lacks a class structure. A proto-communist society (what Marx and Engels called “primitive communism”) such as some (if not all) of the hunting and gathering tribes is an example in which essential tools of labor are shared by a tribe and the proceeds of their labor is reallocated to everyone so an entire tribe can survive. However, if a huge concentration of productive forces are privately owned by a minority group of people (private owners), forcing the rest of the population to exchange their labor with private owners for something of subsistence-value, as long as the majority laborers utilize their labor to produce things with surplus value for private owners to accumulate in the form of private wealth, such a society has a class structure. In other words, if there is a group of people who must work to survive for a group of private owners and a portion of the fruits of their labor is accumulated in the form of private wealth by private owners, it is a class-structured society. All class-structured societies have exploiters and exploited groups. Such groups are social classes. Their class is relational. There can’t be exploited groups without exploiter groups and vice versa. The specific form class structures takes are significantly determined by how well developed or advanced productive forces are in society. A capitalist society is one that has a specific form of class structure different from the class structure of a feudal society. But both have exploited and exploiter groups in which the former utilize its labor to produce some kind of surplus value for the latter.
Whether or not a mode of production has a class structure, there needs to be a mode of production in the first place in order for society to exist. In this sense, a mode of production constitutes a material base of society. A material base is a concrete foundation upon which everything else of society rests upon. Again, the reason why Marxists believe a mode of production constitutes the material base is that without it society can’t exist. Without any way of organizing productive forces for production and distribution of goods and services with use-value, people can’t feed themselves, clothe themselves, shelter themselves, and so on. Every society needs a group of people (usually a majority group) to engage in some form of labor to produce and distribute goods and services so that everyone can survive. Without agriculture, construction, textile industries, a complex supply chain, stores that distribute products through sale, and so on (all of which organizes productive forces to produce and/or distribute things with use-value), there is no food, shelter, clothes, and other necessities people need to survive. Furthermore, when society develops, there is an increasing need for a division of labor in which one group of laborers directly extract resources from nature, another group use their labor to transform raw materials into tangible social goods and services for society to consume, a further group that distributes such goods and services, and so on in order for society to not only survive but develop. This is why a mode of production is understood by Marxists as a material base or a material foundation upon which society rests upon to exist.
If a mode of production is the foundation of society and it happens to be a class-structured mode of production, then the class structure of society that organizes productive forces through ownership relations (property relations), division of labor, and so on constitute the foundation of society as well. If this is the case, then any attempt to understand society, any attempt to understand oppression in society, while leaving class-structure out of the analysis is not only foolish, but it creates a huge hole in one’s analysis. This is why Marxists insist that any attempt to understand race, gender, nationality, religion, and any ascriptive identity requires at least some level of class analysis. But what is the role of language, culture, religion, ethnicity, gender, family, the state, and so on in society? Aren’t those important too?
Many have accused Marxists of economic determinism or the view that the mode of production determines everything else in society such that they are more or less epiphenomenal. However, this is far from true. Friedrich Engels wrote in one of his letters that Historical Materialism allows that everything else in society that depends on the mode of production has some causal efficacy and agency in shaping or influencing the development of a class-structured mode of production. Engels writes:
“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. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as non-existent, as negligible), the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary. Otherwise the application of the theory to any period of history would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree.
Almost everything that rests upon the mode of production constitutes what Engels calls the superstructure. A superstructure consists of institutions, arts, ideologies, traditions, laws, the state, and so on. Engels emphasizes that a superstructure isn’t epiphenomenal or passive with respect to the material base, but rather it retains its own causal potency and power to influence or shape an economic mode of production. While the mode of production gives rise to the superstructure, the superstructure in turn influences, shapes, reinforces, maintains, and sometimes harms the mode of production that gave rise to it in the first place. For instance, laws passed by the legislative branch of the state can influence what commodities are prohibited from trade, regulate businesses to be healthy and safe for consumers, and guide courts on resolving disputes between capitalists on issues such as copyright rights. Another example is Christmas. Christmas is a holiday tradition in which most western and some non-western capitalist countries celebrate and this holiday is part of the superstructure. Western capitalist societies inherit Christmas from their economic predecessor (i.e., feudalism) where the church and clerical class were part of a feudal landowning class and taught not only Christianity, but carried out the practice of celebrating Christmas. When feudalism more or less experienced decline, capitalism inherited Christmas and now Christmas functions as a holiday when people buy commodities as gifts for their family, friends, romantic partners, and so on. Christmas is part of the superstructure, but it plays a role in increasing profits for capitalists, since it’s a holiday when they’re selling more commodities than other days to consumers.
Overall, the superstructure isn’t an epiphenomenal after-effect of an economic mode of production. On the contrary, the superstructure retains its own causal power or efficacy as if it is its own agent, but it can’t exist without an underlying mode of production. Again, if everyone stops working for an extended period of time until commodities, including ones for subsistence, run out, civic institutions, arts, ideologies, states, and so on lose power because they can only exist when people survive. They acquire their power from an economic mode of production functioning at all. At the same time, in any society with an underlying mode of production that is class-structured, superstructures can’t be understood without any class analysis. Class struggle not only takes place at the level of a mode of production, but it also continues to happen in the level of a superstructure. This conforms to the dialectical view that all things carry within themselves an internal contradiction. Society contains within itself an internal contradiction, the primary contradiction being class. The superstructure too carries an internal contradiction which is a class contradiction between an exploiting class on one hand and an exploited class on the other hand. Under a class structured society such as capitalism, the ruling class, in particular the capitalist exploiters, maintain cultural, ideological, and institutional hegemony over the superstructure. One of the reasons why the capitalist class is called the ruling class by Marxists is that they have cultural, institutional, ideological, and de facto political hegemony at the level of the superstructure. The ruling class under capitalism has an overall hegemony in society precisely because they have a monopoly over the private ownership of productive forces that give them sufficient power to dominate and structure society at the level of the superstructure.
Since the ruling class has sufficient power to dominate and dictate how the superstructure operates, they can introduce many possible building blocks of the superstructure that enable them to maintain their class hegemony. One of the possible building blocks of the superstructure is White Supremacy. But White Supremacy isn’t just a single building block, but a tapestry of building blocks of the superstructure. It contains many buildings blocks such as institutional, ideological, aesthetic, cultural, legal, sociopsychological, and political ones. White Supremacy is constitutive of the bourgeois cultural hegemony under capitalism. But where does it come from? What are its functions? What is White Supremacy exactly? White Supremacy is essentially any ideological, political, aesthetic, legal, civic, sociopsychological, and institutional instrument of the ruling class for class collaboration among social classes of European descendants who would be classified as “white.” White supremacy presupposes an essentialist racial classification, an ideological and social bourgeois construct, so that social classes of one race, in particular the white race, collaborate together where the ruling class is positioned at the epicenter of class collaboration.
However, one of the insights of Marxism is that while social classes can and do collaborate together, such collaboration can’t constitute a natural and permanent alliance because there is no equilibrium or balance between exploited and exploiting classes. There is always an underlying class antagonism at the subterranean level of class collaboration. It is like an underground volcano that is about to erupt at any moment. So how can the ruling class ensure that class antagonism that exists between exploited and exploiting classes is controlled and suppressed? White supremacy qua class collaboration is not only collaboration on various social classes based on their perceived shared race, but it is also class collaboration against a perceived common threat. One seemingly unrelated theory (and it’ll be clear why it’s actually relevant) discussed by Tommy J. Curry is the social dominance theory in which in-group males and females perceive out-group males as a cultural and biological threat. The out-group males are targeted by ingroup males and females. The effect is that the social cohesion of the in-group retains its integrity because of a perceived common threat. Curry applies Social Dominance Theory to explain how black men, out-group males, are targeted by white people, in-group males and females, because black men as an out-group is perceived as a common threat to white people.
Curry’s discussion on the application of social dominance to explain racial oppression contains insights that Marxist theorists can use to understand the mechanism of white supremacy as a form of class collaboration. In particular, among the various social classes (exploited and exploiter classes) of European-descended peoples, the ruling class of the group uses the racial classification system to classify various social classes of European-descended people under the same race “white” as an in-group as a groundwork for class collaboration. By creating an in-group as a groundwork for class collaboration, the European-descended ruling class also creates an out-group of different groups, classified under races other than white. This bourgeois creation of a racialized dynamic in-group and out-group gives the ruling class of European descended people, classified as “white,” superstructural class power to trigger class collaboration of social classes of “white” people against a racialized out-group (especially racialized out-group males). White supremacy is dialectical insofar as it necessarily involves a contradiction between an in-group and out-group, based on a bourgeois racial classification system. The racial contradiction between an in-group and out-group is a bourgeois artifact that creates an artificial social cohesion within a “white” in-group, which in turn suppresses a dormant class antagonism between exploited and exploiting classes of the “white” in-group, while at the same time dehumanizes a racialized out-group as a “subhuman” threat. It is precisely by dehumanizing a racialized out-group, especially racialized out-group males as Curry points out, that triggers class collaboration among exploited and exploiting classes of the “white” in-group in order to create an artificial social cohesion that suppresses an underlying and dormant class antagonism between them. Ultimately, white supremacy renders class antagonism dormant in order to prevent class solidarity among all working class communities.
How does the perpetuation of racial antagonism occur? Again, recall that I said that white supremacy is superstructural. White supremacy involves civic institutions, ideologies, aesthetics, the state, laws, and so on to maintain class collaboration among social classes of the white in-group against dehumanized and racialized out-groups. The superstructure of white supremacy gives the white ruling class power to maintain its ruling class hegemony. Concretely, this means criminal “justice” system, implicit racialist ideologies propagated by bourgeois propaganda, discriminatory practices in housing industry, and so on are all superstructural phenomena that function to dehumanize a racialized outgroup to trigger class collaboration among various social classes of the white in-group in order to render class antagonism and class solidarity among all working class communities dormant. In the final analysis, it is the capitalist white ruling class who benefits most from white supremacy.
White supremacy as a superstructure helps maintain the capitalist mode of production. It originally functions to maintain the slavery mode of production that mingles or mesh with the developing capitalist mode of production in United States as well as facilitate settler-colonial expansion (this is something Gerald Horne discusses) against indigenous peoples. It originally contributed to the development of capitalism in a heterogeneous early settler slave-owning capitalist society, but now it primarily maintains class hegemony of the ruling class over a capitalist system. In essence, white supremacy has a singular class character: it is bourgeois through and through.
What Marxists believe is that it is only the revolutionary proletariat who overthrows the bourgeoisie and establishes political supremacy of the proletariat (e.g. also known as “dictatorship of the proletariat”) that can deliver the final death blow against white supremacy. A revolutionary proletariat that establishes its own state power for the toiling and laboring masses smashes the bourgeois state machinery as well as other bourgeois institutions to undermine the underlying superstructural basis for white supremacy. Overall, white supremacy loses institutional and systemic power because the revolutionary proletariat smashes the state and institutional machinery. It is only through a socialist revolution, participated by working class communities of all races, on par with the Rainbow Coalition led by Fred Hampton, that can take down white supremacy.
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.
You can't understand the CPC without comprehending Mao's understanding of Marxism-Leninism. The Chinese have said that Mao, Like Stalin, was 70% good and 30% bad (not as a moral judgement but in terms of PC correct and incorrect actions). Both, while living, were the subject of personality cults and were treated as if they were 100% "good." Both were fierce enemies of capitalism and sought to lay the foundations for the future communist society free of all human exploitation but found themselves in historical circumstances that overwhelmed them at times, and in the case of Stalin eventually led to the destruction of the socialist state he created, preserved from Nazism (along with the rest of Europe) and tried to defend in the cold war to which his successors succumbed.
Mao too faced Incomprehensible historical contradictions that Marxist theory was unprepared to answer at the time ( a split with the USSR and an internal CPC civil war expressed as a cultural "revolution"). So for us to understand just what and why the 30% was and came about is vitally important. But also we must study the 70% as well as it was the basis of all the past successes of the world communist movement and is the foundation of its future possibilities of victory. That 70% was based on a correct understanding and application as a guide to action of the theoretically sound foundations laid by Marx and Engels and creatively developed by V.I. Lenin and which our task today is to further develop and adapt to historical conditions in which we find ourselves.
We must, of course, study other progressive thinkers within and without the Marxist tradition, but the works of the founders and their flawed great continuers in the past century will be important weapons for the communist and workers party to wield to attain victories over the capitalists and imperialists who dominate the world today and for us in the USA to bury the forces represented by both Donald Trump and Joe Biden and their enablers (conscious and unconscious) in the Republican and Democratic parties.
The correct understanding of Mao will allow us to better comprehend the current policies of China and the revolutionary significance of Xi Jinping thought.
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association. He is the author of Reading the Classical Texts of Marxism.
Karl Marx’s view of the productive forces and its development today By: Kien Thi-Pham & Dung Bui-XuanRead Now
Republished under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 creative commons license. Photo: Robert Scarth via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).
When studying human society, Karl Marx affirmed that all changes in social life, in the end, originate from the transformation of the productive forces. The development of productive forces is expressed through the conquest of the nature of men.
Productive forces reflect the actual capability of men in the process of creating wealth for society and ensuring human development. In any society, in order to create wealth, both workers and means of production are needed. Without instruments for the labor process, men cannot create wealth. That development provides us with more convincing practical evidence to continue affirming Karl Marx’s precise view of the productive forces, and at the same time requires us to supplement and develop his view on this issue inconsistent with reality. In the current context of globalization and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it is essential to clarify all the practical capabilities used in the production process of the society over the world’s development periods to promote social development. Therefore, this article clarifies the basic arguments to analyze Karl Marx’s view on the productive forces and see the need to refresh and supplement Karl Marx’s theory in the current situation.
In order to survive and develop, men must work to create material wealth. It is this process that makes the difference in each era. As an expression of the relationship between men and nature, productive forces are constantly moving and developing in the production of material wealth. Today, the modern science and technology revolution with dramatic strides is having comprehensive impacts on the economy of each country as well as the world. The world economy has been profoundly and strongly changing in terms of structure, function and direction of operation. Therefore, in their development process, productive forces have also changed(Kien; 2020a). G A Cohen in Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defense pointed out the values of Karl Marx’s philosophy of historical materialism with his contributions to the productive forces. According to him, the new productive force manifests its existence through the new relations of production in which salaried workers use the capital created (Cohen, 2020). The article clarifies mistakes in perceiving and refuting the Marxist theory. The values left behind by Marxist theory about the change of social modes in each era are due to the decisive role of productive forces(Shimp, 2009).
In this article, the authors clarify Karl Marx’s view of productive forces as a central concept of historical materialism. A study on the connotation of this concept is the basis for understanding the entire movement and development in the production of the material wealth of human society. The article has systematically studied Karl Marx’s works on productive forces. Karl Marx, by explaining arguments of historical materialism, pointed out the connotations of productive forces in his works, including “The German Ideology”, “The poverty of philosophy”, “Wage Labor and Capital”, “Value, Price and Profit”. Especially, in “Capital”, the connotation of productive forces is further elucidated by Karl Marx and F. Engels with more insights. It is also the scientific basis for understanding the nature and dynamics of socio-historical development through the labor of men(Marx Karl and Friedrich Engels, 1998). The quantity of production is expressed through the bourgeois economic system in the following order: capital, rent, wage – labor; State, foreign trade, world market(Marx, 2010).
The starting point in Karl Marx’s study on history and society is the production of material life by men’s practical activities. According to him, men began to be distinguished from animals when they produced the means of subsistence to serve their essential needs. He wrote: “Men must be in a position to live in order to be able to ‘make history.’ But life involves before everything else eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing and many other things. The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself”(Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 2002b; Vygodskii, 2002). So, the first premise for human existence is the production of the means to satisfy needs. It is the very production of material life. Simultaneously with that process, men also create aspects of social life. Karl Marx wrote: “The production of the direct means of subsistence and each certain stage of economic development of a nation or an epoch create a base for the development of institutions, rule-of-law viewpoints, art, and even religious notions of men”(Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 2002a). Friedrich Engels wrote that Marx “discovered the law of development of human history” in much the same way that Darwin discovered the law of development of organic natures, with the argument of productive forces in the production of material life, Karl Marx affirmed his complete materialist conception(Marx Karl, 1983).
However, the movement and development of productive forces will not be as pointed out by Karl Marx, because the development of science and technology will change the subjects and means of labor. It also requires workers to change in all aspects. However, within the limited scale of research, this article cannot fully cover the development of science and technology from the time of Karl Marx to date, nor does it discuss the relationship between productive forces and relations of production or clarify influencing conditions such as environment, geography, population or production methods. The above factors still interact and directly affect the development of productive forces(Shaw, 2020).
The highlight of this article is that through the development of the production of material wealth, the productive forces in the time of Karl Marx and today are clearly understood and systematically presented. At the same time, after the death of Karl Marx, up to now, productive forces have changed and transformed in the development process of human history.
In this article, the authors clarify the arguments about productive forces from Karl Marx’s point of view to prove the values pointed out by him in the movement and development of society. On that basis, the article clarifies the structure of productive forces with their constituents, i.e. workers and means of production. To clarify the development of productive forces, the article explains the arguments about productive forces mentioned by Karl Marx’s theory from his time to the present, i.e. from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 21st century.
To shed light on the development of the productive forces, the article deploys methodology of dialectic materialism, which are a system of viewpoints and principles that determine the scope and applicability of requirements and methods in a reasonable and effective manner to explain the relationships between productive forces in the development of their constituents and in the movement and development of society. These methods are the basis for understanding the development of human history, first of all the history of production development, as well as the process of human development in different historical periods. Specifically, with the principle of comprehensiveness, the study must identify productive forces in the production of material wealth, demonstrate the objectivity and inseparable attachments of the constituents of productive forces in their organic relations with each other. Moreover, those relations are extremely rich, diverse and complex, including both essential and non-essential, natural and accidental, primary and secondary relations between productive forces. Also, the article uses the principle of development to point out that in this process, the movement of each subject always goes from low to high, from simple to complicated, and from imperfect to perfect.
The historical principle is specifically understood as productive forces in the process of existence, movement and development under specific space and time conditions from the time of Karl Marx to the present, with direct influences on the properties and characteristics of the subject. If the same object exists under specifically different conditions of time and space, its properties and characteristics will be different, and its nature can even be changed completely.
From the methodology, the article uses a mixed research method combining qualitative ones with the understanding of historical methods to find out the origin, process of development and transformation of productive forces in order to discover their nature and laws. This method of research is used to analyze existing theoretical documents in order to detect trends and schools of research, thereby clarifying the history of researching productive forces. Analyzing means dividing the whole into simple parts, aspects and constituents in order to study and discover each attribute and nature of each factor, i.e. workers and means of production, thereby understand the subject of the study more coherently, systematically, richly and diversely.
Results & Discussion
The view on productive forcesThe concept of productive forces has been proposed by many scholars before Karl Marx but interpreted in an idealistic way. This concept was only scientifically explained for the first time in March 1845, when Karl Marx wrote the “Draft of an article on Friedrich List’s book: System of Political Economy”. Here, Karl Marx pointed out the idealistic thought in List’s theory and exposed its bourgeois characteristics. Karl Marx pointed out that productive forces are not some “spiritual essence” as thought by List, but material forces. He wrote: “In order to destroy the mystical radiance which transfigures ‘productive force”, one has only to consult any book of statistics. There one reads about water-power, steam-power, manpower, horse-power. All these are “productive forces”(Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 2002 -a). Thus, from the point of view of Marx, it can be understood that productive forces are a concept used to refer to the combination of workers and means of production to create a certain productive force.
The constituents of productive forces in Karl Marx’s point of view
When discussing productive forces, Karl Marx also pointed out the basic elements that constitute them, namely workers and means of production. And when analyzing the elements of productive forces, he used many different ways of classification, such as classifying into means of production and labor power according to the uses of productive forces. Means of production also includes: means of labor, instruments of labor and subjects of labor. Productive forces can also be classified into natural forces and human forces based on their creators. Karl Marx emphasized: “Men, as a productive force, not only create material wealth, but together with natural productive forces become a revolutionary force that promotes the development of society.”(Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 2002 -b)
With the two ways of classification stated above, Karl Marx wanted to clarify the relationship and development of productive forces as well as their constituents. Within the scope of this article, the authors follow the first way of classification to clarify the factors constituting productive forces. On that basis, the article explains the following points:
Regarding workers: Workers participate in the productive forces as a commodity of labor power. Karl Marx said: “Labor power or labor capacity is the totality of physical and mental capabilities existing in the body, in a living person, and used by that person when producing a use value”(Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 2002 -c).
Regarding means of production, this was clarified by Karl Marx with their constituents being subjects, means and instruments of labor. In which, subjects of labor are material forms capable of being created into items according to purposes and requirements to meet certain needs of men, and only when being impacted, exploited and improved by men do they become subjects of labor. Karl Marx said: “While all raw materials are subjects of labor, it cannot be said that all subjects of labor are raw materials. Subjects of labor are only to be understood as raw materials if they have already passed through the labor process”(Karl Marx, 2002a, 2002b)
Instruments of labor are objects used by men to directly impact subjects of labor to produce material wealth. This proves the practical capabilities of men in the process of transforming the natural world. Men use labor instruments to influence the natural world and create material wealth to serve their essential needs. Also in that process, men grasp the laws of nature and turn nature from a wild and simple place into a “second world” with the participation of their hands and brains. Material production is always changing, so productive forces are a dynamic factor and a process that is constantly being innovated and developed. It is also the basic criterion to assess social progress in a given historical period. Therefore, in “The German Ideology”, Karl Marx asserted: “History is nothing but the succession of the separate generations, each of which exploits the materials, the capital funds, the productive forces handed down to it by all preceding generations, and thus, on the one hand, continues the traditional activity in completely changed circumstances and, on the other, modifies the old circumstances with a completely changed activity”(Karl Marx, 2002c)
Regarding the relationship between the subject of labor, the instrument of labor and workers, according to Marx, in order to transform the natural world to create material wealth, workers need to have a synergy. First of all, it is the strength of the body and the mind – the factors that make up men’s ability to work. He wrote: “In order to possess natural things in a form useful to his own life, man makes use of the forces of nature in him: the arms and legs, the head and hands”(Karl Marx, 2002d). However, if it just stops there, the process of material production cannot take place. In addition to himself, man also uses other factors, such as “using the mechanical, physical and chemical properties of objects to act on other objects according to his purposes”(Karl Marx, 2002d). These objects are called “instruments” by Karl Marx, which helps workers to extend their hands and make the process of affecting nature more effective. If the means of production are a necessary condition for material production, then the workers are the subjects who play a decisive role in the development of production. Thus, according to Karl Marx, without men to build and use instruments of labor to affect the natural world, there will be no production of material wealth.
Regarding means of labor, these do not directly create products but have a great influence on production. Means of production affect social production efficiency, because these factors contribute to increasing or reducing transaction costs and costs for transporting materials and preserving products, which are also taken from the value of products.
In the production process, productive forces in the relationship with workers and means of production will change the production of the society; the workers have a crucial role in making contributions to the production process through their productiveness. According to K. Marx, productiveness is the production capacity of specific productive labor. It reflects the results of men’s purposeful production in a certain unit of time.
Therefore, according to Karl Marx: “Apart from the social form of production, the productiveness of labor depends on the natural conditions under which the labor is performed … The external natural conditions, from the economic point of view, split up into two great classes: natural wealth in means of subsistence—i.e., a fertile soil, waters well stocked with fish, etc.; and natural wealth in the instruments of labor, such as waterfalls, navigable rivers, wood, metal, coal, etc. In the beginnings of civilization, it is the first class which is decisive; later on, in a more advanced society, it is the second”(Karl Marx, 2002e).
However, Karl Marx emphasized that natural productiveness does not play a decisive role in progressive development (i.e. development by increasing social productivity); on the contrary, “Too generous nature will hold the hands of man and walk him like a toddler. It does not make human development naturally inevitable”(Karl Marx, 2002e). Thus, Karl Marx appreciated men’s productiveness. He wrote: “It is the need for social control over a certain force of nature to use it economically, the very need to take it or to master it with large-scale works built by human hands, – it is that necessity that has plays a very decisive role in industrial history”(Karl Marx, 2002e). Productive forces in the relationship with workers and means of production, with the highlight on the role of means of production, are manifested through the development of science and technology in the production process, which Karl Marx thought as immediate productive forces.
Karl Marx highly appreciated the role of science and technology in the process of material production in general and the development of productive forces in particular. Through scientific research, he made the judgment that: “The development of constant capital is an indication of the extent to which general social knowledge is transformed into an immediate productive force, thus it is also an indication of the extent to which conditions of the life process have been submissive to the control of popular wisdom and improved to suit that process; to which productive forces are created not only in the form of knowledge, but also as direct social practice agencies of the real life process”(Karl Marx, 2002f). According to the above argument of Karl Marx, scientific knowledge transformed constant capital such as factories and machinery used in production, and to a certain extent they become an immediate productive force.
In other words, scientific knowledge is applied and materialized into machinery and instruments of production, which are used by workers in the production process, thus becoming an immediate productive force. The conditions for scientific knowledge to become an immediate productive force have been determined by Karl Marx as follows: “The development of machinery system on that path only begins when the great industry has achieved a higher level of development and all sciences serve as capital, while the existing machinery system itself has tremendous resources. Thus, invention becomes a special profession, and for that profession, the application of science to immediate production itself becomes one of the decisive and simulating factors”(Karl Marx, 2002g).
Thus, standing on the historical materialist point of view, Karl Marx affirmed that productive forces represent the practical capability of men in impacting the natural world to create material wealth. Therefore, productive forces also measure the development of the material production of men in each certain socioeconomic form.
By clarifying the factors that make up productive forces, Karl Marx believed that, when considering the process of labor abstractly without depending on its historical form and as a process between men and nature: “In terms of results, i.e. using products to assess the whole process, both means of labor and subjects of labor are means of production, while labor itself is productive labor… This definition of productive labor is from the point of view of a simple labor process”(Karl Marx, 2002h).
The development of productive forces in the Fourth Industrial Revolution
Today, our living conditions have many new and different things compared to the era of Karl Marx. Science and technology have made great advances, contributing to the creation of a productive force that humanity has never seen before. General social knowledge is becoming an immediate productive force, just as Karl Marx predicted; and productivity, as a result, increases rapidly. Productivity is measured by the number of products made in a unit of time, or by the amount of time spent to produce a unit of product. Through that, productivity reflects the effectiveness of the use of labor. In essence, it measures the output value generated by a worker over a certain period of time, or the amount of time it takes to produce a unit of output. Thus, productivity reflects the relationship between the output (product) and the input (labor) measured by working time.
Currently, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is characterized by the combined use of hardware, robots and information technology software. It is the combination of advanced technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), social networks, cloud computing, mobility, big data analysis (SMAC), etc. to transform the entire real world into a digital world at a very fast pace and very large scale, integrating many fields with multi-dimensional interaction(Kien; 2020b).
Productive forces today have far exceeded those in the time of Karl Marx. Karl Marx developed his doctrine during the second industrial revolution (the first revolution was marked by the advent of the steam engine, the second one by electricity). Meanwhile, humanity is near the end of the third industrial revolution with digital instruments (computers) and is entering the fourth revolution to open up the era of artificial intelligence.
The achievements of modern science and technology have directly impacted the development of all constituents of productive forces: means of production and workers. Especially, in the fourth industrial revolution, men mainly use means of production being natural resources and machinery to create products. The fourth industrial revolution is changing the way of production and manufacturing, and is strongly influential on all factors of productive forces. Therefore, Marxist socioeconomic theory in general and view on productive forces in particular, despite having many sustainable values, are not without room for development. V.I.Lenin, who relentlessly defended and developed Marxism, also emphasized: “We do never consider Karl Marx’s theory as something that is complete and untouchable; on the contrary, we believe that the theory only lays the foundation for the science that socialists need to further develop in all aspects if they do not want to become obsolete”(Vladimir Lenin, 1978).
Regarding workers today, when it comes to the development of productive forces in the capitalist period, he argued that the main workforce of a capitalist society is the workers, the proletariats. They are “a social class that only earn their living by selling their labor”, “a class of people who do not own any means” and “forced to sell their labor under capitalism in exchange for necessary means of subsistence(Karl Marx, 2002i).
Today, the Fourth Industrial Revolution affects the number of jobs created through the replacement of labor power with machines, robots, artificial intelligence and the application of information technology to a number of industries and professions that are rapidly penetrating the workplace in the labor market. The trend of employment will shift from labor-intensive production to one that requires more knowledge and technology. The fourth industrial revolution also changes the function of humans in production: human gradually ceases to directly operate technical systems, and turn to mainly create and adjust that process.
Therefore, the working class includes not only purely manual workers but also intellectual ones. Moreover, in the current period, workers themselves have also changed significantly. In the time of Karl Marx, the workforce was mainly mechanical workers, mostly manual ones; but today, the achievements of the fourth industrial revolution have increasingly improved labor instruments; human labor is liberated, and the level of knowledge, skills and techniques of workers is constantly improved. Therefore, in many factories, the number of scientific and technological human resources directly involved in the production process accounts for an increasing proportion, which is much higher than the number of regular manual workers. The number of intellectual workers tends to increase in both quantity and quality, which has gradually changed the proportion of unskilled and highly-skilled workers. Workers need to meet the requirements of technical skills (at a medium and high level) including specialized knowledge and skills to perform specific jobs, and also need to have core, soft working skills including: the ability to think creatively and be proactive at work; skills in using a computer and the internet; foreign language skills, teamwork skills, safety skills and compliance with labor discipline, problem-solving skills, time management skills, concentration skills, etc.
Digital technologies that integrate all information regarding technology, processes, production methods, needs of industries, professions and skills, etc. and especially the ability to connect and share information around the world through technological devices will change the supply and demand structure in the labor market, eliminate the hard border between countries in the region, make the regional labor market more vibrant and promote job creation for each member country. The improvement of qualifications of human resources by applying automation to production will offer the chance to transfer workers to different active positions and train them to quickly adapt to the technology. Instead of having to do their job manually, now workers will be able to improve their skills to control machines to do those jobs for them.
Therefore, this helps workers to be more specialized and have the fastest access to modern technology. Workers are now liberated not only in terms of manual labor but also in terms of mental labor. Machines – the instruments of labor in the era of the fourth industrial revolution are not only an extension of the worker’s arm, but that arm is also “smart”. The communication between workers – high-end robots – intelligent machines… affects the introduction of new raw materials and fuels to create products according to human needs, even meeting the increasing needs for personalization of each consumer.
Instruments of labor are increasingly improved. The fourth industrial revolution frees up human labor; and the level of knowledge, skills and techniques of workers is constantly improved. In that context, production needs to be supplemented with the aspect of “man living in harmony with nature”. Instruments of labor are now represented by automation in production. Automation in production means how workers use advanced technologies in the production process to transfer a large part or all of the production activities done by human labor to machines and equipment. Thus, automated processes will not need too much human intervention, but will use different control systems to help machines operate faster and more accurately, with some processes are even fully automated. Automation in production now will become a thriving field that is shaped by the Internet of Things (IoT), big data and analytics services relating to sweeping digital changes in the production process. Thanks to this, machines operate 24/7 without having to rest or take time off between shifts like workers. Moreover, the operating speed of automated production lines is many times faster than human manual operations. Therefore, it will help factories improve productivity significantly. At that time, the development of productive forces is promoted.
The workforce today is more diverse thanks to the application of technology in the fourth industrial revolution. Resources, fuels and raw materials have become more diverse, including many with increasing knowledge content. In an industrial economy using natural resources as inputs, these resources are becoming scarcer and exhausted due to the overexploitation of men. However, the rapid development of science and technology has helped humans discover many new properties of natural resources. Many materials that were previously thought to be useless have become those of great utility, and their useful properties are multiplied with the establishment of many new industries which create new, more diverse and richer subjects of labor. New materials are, in general, lighter, more durable, recyclable and adaptable. They can be smart, self-repairing or self-cleaning materials; metals that have the ability to restore their original shapes; ceramics and crystals that can turn pressure into energy. Especially, many products are made not from traditional materials, but from nanomaterials, molecules or even atoms… In the field of digitization, a prominent feature of digital technology is the birth of the Internet of Things (IOT). This refers to the relationship between things and humans through connection technologies on different platforms (iPhone, 3G, 4G, 5G; and when the quantum Internet comes to life, it can be nG(M Skilton, 2018; Mark Skilton & Hovsepian, 2018).
Means of labor today include self-driving vehicles (airplanes, cars, ships, etc.) which have made an important step forward to reach the civil and commercial scale and level, rapidly develop and gradually popularize in countries around the world…. 3D printing technology creates a product by printing its layers according to a pre-made 3D model. All products for humans use (tools, cars, airplanes, houses and even parts of the humans body like prosthetic ears, arms, legs, etc.) can be produced by 3D printing, fundamentally changing the way of production. High-end robots, i.e. robots with artificial intelligence are being used more and more widely, making the interaction between human and smart machines a reality.
Productive forces today have many new features that far exceed those in the time of Karl Marx. Especially, industrial revolutions have pushed science and technology to the role of a new productive force, with the high level of workers and modern means of production. Thus, we cannot deny the great role of productive forces in mankind’s conquest of the natural world. Also, the development of productive forces has led to the process of globalization and is the driving force for the development of the fourth industrial revolution. That development is the basis for continuing to affirm the precise and sustainable values of Marxism about productive forces; at the same time, it sets forth new requirements to increase the vitality of that doctrine to be suitable for the conditions and circumstances of the current period. That is why even today people still want to learn about the theory of Karl Marx.
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This article was republished from Arkansas Worker.
Karl Marx knew a thing or two about politics.
Writing over a century-and-a-half ago, he studied the aftermath of the 1848 revolutions that sought to drive a stake in the vitals of the European monarchies and consolidate the rule of the emerging bourgeois classes.
Contrary to his critics– especially the dismissive scholars– he applied his critical historical theories with great nuance and subtlety, surveying the class forces, their actions, and their influence on the outcomes. While Marx conceded that the revolutions were suppressed in the short run, he was able to show how they importantly shaped the future.
Many would argue that Marx’s account of the aftermath of the rising in France, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, is the finest example of the application of the Marxist method– historical materialism – to actual events.
It is said that Hugh Trevor-Roper, the British author, who was a colleague in British intelligence of Soviet spy Kim Philby and a notorious windbag, was once asked if he ever suspected Philby, if Philby left any clues to his loyalties. After a pause, Trevor-Roper said that Philby had on an occasion insisted that The Eighteenth Brumaire was the greatest work of history ever written.
More than a clue, and Philby may have been right.
The Eighteenth Brumaire sought to explain a great mystery: How a country undergoing a profound historic transition from one socio-politico-economic order (feudalism) to another (capitalism), could go from the popular overthrow of a monarch to a constituent republic and back again to the establishment of an emperor, Louis Bonaparte, in a few short years.
Marx couldn’t help but find a bitter irony in the fact that the coup installing Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew as emperor mirrored the uncle’s ascension to emperor after the French Revolution. With equally bitter sarcasm, Marx amended the old saw about history repeating itself with the phrase “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Where Napoleon I tragically hijacked the revolutionary process, Napoleon III brought the farcical maneuvers of a dysfunctional bourgeois parliament to a farcical end by creating a farcical empire.
At a time when our own political processes– executive, legislative, and judicial– resemble a crude farce, at a time when opinion polls confirm the popular disdain for these institutions, we may well find Marx’s analysis to be of some use.
Consider ex-President Trump, for example. He, like Napoleon III, represents a mediocrity, only known for his pretensions and his rank opportunism. Trump likes to portray himself as a great president who arose as a savior, an agent for the restoration of US greatness.
Based on nostalgia for his uncle, Napoleon I, the nephew ruled France with the promise of an expanding empire to be feared and admired for its spreading of enlightened ideas; Louis Bonaparte promised to restore the unity of France, lead it towards greatness, and stability.
But are Trump and Bonaparte unique individuals who pushed themselves onto the stage of history? Are they historical accidents? Larger-than-life personalities?
Marx would argue that, in fact, Bonaparte succeeded because he enjoyed the support of a class, specifically the conservative peasantry, “the peasant who wants to consolidate his holdings… those who, in stupefied seclusion within this old order, want to see themselves and their small holdings saved and favored by the ghost of the empire.” Bonaparte’s supporters seek to save what they have and relive an earlier moment. In short, they want to make France [the Empire] great again. He answered the moment.
In so far as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests begets no community, no national bond and no political organization among them, they do not form a class. They are consequently incapable of enforcing their class interests in their own name, whether through a parliament or through a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, as an unlimited governmental power that protects them from other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above… Historical tradition gave rise to the belief of the French peasants in the miracle that a man named Napoleon would bring all the glory back to them.
It must be noted that Marx is neither mocking nor condemning the conservative French peasantry for its support of the election of Louis Bonaparte (1849) or his coup (1851). Instead, he is explaining how and why Bonaparte could manage to rule, both legitimately and illegitimately, even after France had declared its second republic. The peasantry was, by far, the largest class. The peasantry had not yet recognized its existence as a class; it could not yet express its grievances, its interests, or its latent power in class terms; it could not produce its own class leaders. And it turned instead to a caricature, a small man with big aspirations, a toy Napoleon.
Like Napoleon III, Trump enjoyed class-based support: segments of both the petty bourgeoisie and the working class. The professionals and small-business people who saw “elites” — typically urban elites– as threatening their way of life, culturally and economically, were drawn to Trump over the conventional corporate Republican leaders. Similarly, working-class voters victimized by deindustrialization, twenty-first-century economic crises, insecurity, rising costs of healthcare, etc., looked for someone “as an authority over them,” to send “them rain and shine from above,” that is, a modern-day Napoleon. They could not find that with the Democrats. They thought that they found it in Donald Trump.
Workers in the US have lost what the French peasant had yet to achieve in 1851: “…no community, no national bond and no political organization among them…They are consequently incapable of enforcing their class interests in their own name.” Nearly eighty years of red-baiting, business unionism, and Democratic Party supplication after a rich history of class struggle have left the US working class with little class consciousness, with little ability “to form a class.” It is no wonder that Make America Great Again resonated with so many.
Both Louis Napoleon and Trump have their camp followers and thugs. Marx designated Louis Napoleon’s lumpen proletariat group of mischief-makers the Society of December 10 for the role they played in stirring the pot after his election. Trump has his ultra-nationalist, racist trouble-makers as well.
Marx saves his derision for the “so-called social-democratic party,” founded as a coalition of the petty-bourgeoisie and the workers. With the militant revolutionary workers killed, imprisoned, or exiled after the June 1848 rising waged to establish a social and democratic republic, the workers accepted compromise and the parliamentary road. In Marx’s words:
A joint programme was drafted, joint election committees were set up and joint candidates put forward. From the social demands of the proletariat the revolutionary point was broken off and a democratic turn given to them; from the democratic claims of the petty bourgeoisie the purely political form was stripped off and their socialist point thrust forward. Thus arose the Social-Democracy… The peculiar character of the Social-Democracy is epitomised in the fact that democratic-republican institutions are demanded as a means, not with doing away with two extremes, capital and wage labour, but of weakening their antagonism and transforming it into harmony… This content is the transformation of society in a democratic way, but a transformation within the bounds of the petty bourgeoisie.
“…within the bounds of the petty bourgeoisie.” This description of the limits of an incipient social democratic party in 1849 could be applied fairly to the aspirations of the small left wing of the US Democratic Party today. A little more than one hundred fifty years later, workers are still being herded into a party that seeks, at best, the weakening of the antagonism between capital and labor and transforming it into harmony [paraphrasing Marx]. The Democrats assume the votes of the working class and the most oppressed, while intensely courting the support of the urban and suburban upper strata super-voters and super-donors. This has been their strategy since the loss of the reactionary South to the Republicans. In nineteenth-century France, the proletariat/petty bourgeoisie alliance was short-lived. Faced with a blatant violation of the constitutional limits of presidential action, the alliance allowed its threats of militant action to melt away when Bonaparte called its bluff, revealing a paper tiger.
Marx identified the folly of workers uniting with the petty bourgeoisie:
…instead of gaining an accession of strength from it, the democratic party had infected the proletariat with its own weakness and, as is usual with the great deeds of democrats, the leaders had the satisfaction of being able to charge their “people” with desertion, and the people with the satisfaction of being able to charge its leaders with humbugging it… No party exaggerates its means more than the democratic, none deludes itself more light-mindedly over the situation.
Not to be taken lightly for its defeat at the hands of Bonaparte and the bourgeois party, the petty-bourgeois took consolation with “the profound utterance: But if they dare to attack universal suffrage, well then– then, we’ll show them what we are made of!” If this sounds eerily like the empty threats of the Democratic Party before the brazen actions of Trump, his friends, and the Supreme Court, then lesson learned!
If we see parallels with the politics of nineteenth-century France and the twenty-first-century US, then we surely are reminded of Marx’s quip that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Surely, only an allergy to history, a blindness to past tragedies, can account for the continuing allegiance of workers and their leaders to a spineless Democratic Party that continually betrays the interests of working people.
Surely, we can do better. Marx thought so…
 These reflections were inspired by a recent encounter with Jonathan White’s excellent 2021 book, Making Our Own History, A User’s Guide to Marx’s Historical Materialism, especially chapter 6.
This article was republished from Marxism-Leninism Today.
Simon Blackburn, the well known British philosopher, reviewed Knowing Right from Wrong, by Kieran Setiya, in the Times Literary Supplement. The essay ("Taliban and Plato") deals with Setiya's attempt to defend ethical realism (objective moral knowledge is possible) which Blackburn rejects in favor of ethical pragmatism (useful moral knowledge is possible). I think neither of these positions are tenable and the best way to approach ethics is from a Marxist perspective.
Blackburn begins with Plato's position in the Republic: the Good can only be understood by those intellectually elite philosophers who rule Plato's ideal state in the interests of the people. After their basic studies and military training the elite undergo ten years of mathematical training followed by five years of philosophy and begin to take part in ruling at the age of 55. This puts ethical knowledge out of the way of most people who must take on faith that their rulers have actually attained such knowledge.
We need something a little more accessible, Blackburn thinks, and the virtue ethics of Aristotle based on common sense, empiricism and "scientific" method provided a practical alternative to Plato's views in the Republic (the Republic does not exhaust Plato's views on this subject.)
Setiya"s book deals with, and Blackburn quotes him, "a tension between two things: the need to explain our reliability so that the truth of our beliefs can be no accident, and the need to leave room for communities that are not at all reliable."
Blackburn tells us that for Plato knowledge was different from true belief-- you might have a true belief that you picked up by accident, or a guess, but this does not qualify as knowledge. Plato demands a "logos" for knowledge claims, "meaning," Blackburn says, "something like reason, justification or some kind of method -- and reliability seems a good yardstick for soundness." But how do we test for "reliability?"
Here is the problem. Blackburn, for example, believes (1) in equal educational opportunities for men and women and (2) this is a reliable belief (i.e., true) based on "cultural and historical forces" operant on Blackburn. Using the Afghan Taliban as a foil, Blackburn says they deny (1) and therefore (2) as well. "We need," he says, "a view from outside: an independent stamp of the reliability of our progress."
Where to find it? An appeal to Reason won't work. Just to claim we are "reasonable" and the Taliban are not is not an independent outside view. What move does Setiya make that could uphold Blackburn's belief as reliable? He makes an appeal to "human nature." Setiya says "how human beings by nature live is not the measure of how they should." He uses the term "life form" for "human nature" and thinks, according to Blackburn, "in a proper environment, free from neglect or hunger or abuse" their true life form will emerge "and then they naturally gravitate towards the moral truth." This implies an objective moral truth out there (or in us) waiting for the proper environment.
Blackburn seems to contradict himself by saying this view is not meant to be "universally true" but more like natural history statements such as "dogs bark" or "finches lay eggs in the spring" which certainly seem to be, in the proper environment, "universally true." Blackburn says: "So, the idea is that as a species, in the kind of circumstance in which we naturally live, we tend to believe what is morally and ethically true." But this is just asserting the conclusion, there is no argument here. The Taliban could say "Fine, where we naturally live women should not have equal educational opportunities as they have different roles to play in society and this is morally and ethically true." Blackburn's belief is not upheld. But, I think the Taliban would reject the relativism implied here and think their attitude toward education is universally true.
Blackburn sees problems with Setiya's position. When we look at history and other societies we see all sorts of, to us, strange and wicked goings on. Bertrand Russell put it this way: "When we study in the works of anthropologists the moral precepts which men have considered binding in different times and places we find the most bewildering variety" [Styles in Ethics, 1924].
Blackburn says this leads to "a contemporary form of moral skepticism, which argues that a capacity for ethical truth would have given no selective advantage to anybody, so that it would be a miracle if it came to predominate as a trait of our species." But this is nonsense as it assumes that the skeptic knows what ethical truth is and that nobody ever got a selective advantage from this knowledge-- neither of which the skeptic is in a reliable position to claim to know.
Setiya seeks to avoid moral skepticism, according to Blackburn, by adopting a position he calls NATURAL CONSTRUCTIVISM and defines as follows: "for a trait to be a virtue is for creatures of one's life form to believe that it is a virtue." This will not do at all. The Taliban, creatures of our life form, believe it to be a virtue to deny equal educational opportunities to females (they may even feel it a virtue to throw acid in young girl's faces or shoot them for going to school) but really, should we think it is a virtue just because they have these beliefs. Mind you, Setiya wants to avoid both skepticism and RELATIVISM.
Well, we don't think it a virtue because our values differ from those of the Taliban and we share the same life form ( we are the same species with the same nature). But this begs the question. Blackburn has accepted female education due to the operant conditions of his culture and the Taliban reject it due to theirs. How do we escape relativism?
Setiya seems to be aware that you can't just define virtue the way he has done but he does so because he has "a certain faith in human nature." This implies the Taliban are wrong because they don't live the way our species (life form) is naturally programmed to live so, unlike us, they have not arrived at the proper ethical and moral conclusions. If you didn't already agree with the conclusion, you would never accept this argument-- if argument it be rather than just assertion.
Setiya warns us, says Blackwell, that his argument is the only way to defend moral knowledge or to have justified moral beliefs. It is "natural constructivism" based on reason and a universal human nature or, as Blackwell puts it, we may end up with "a soggy relativism" with one "truth" for the Taliban and another for those of us sharing Blackburn's operant conditioning.
Blackburn doesn't like this outcome, it "seems intolerable." He wants some justification for female educational equality, and it seems, for also thinking ill of the Taliban. If Setiya's moral realism won't work (i.e., no objective rules) he recommends a form of moral pragmatism. Blackburn's morals are more suited to our culture and useful and we (readers of the TLS and members of the culture that produced it) would shudder to live under the Taliban system-- so we definitely are going to favor female educational equality and, in fact, maintain it is the morally right thing.
Blackburn is modest, though, and admits there is a slight possibility he is wrong about this-- but this is only a theoretical possibility. He even admits he doesn't have "the dialectical weaponry with which to topple the Taliban" and that he remains under the morality that the operant conditioning of his culture has created. He hopes that the Taliban will change because their culture is "not hermetically sealed from ours" (the expected change appears to be one way), there will be "dissident voices" and "stirrings of modernity" and half the population "has the burning desire to change." Cultural conditioning doesn't seem to take place among Taliban females. Can it be possible that Pashtun women are completely alienated from their men folk and none of them accept the traditional culture of their people?
Blackburn tells us the difference between realism and pragmatism is that realism is interested in metaphysical problems regarding the nature of the "truths" of morality and seeks reliable claims as to this nature, while pragmatism does not believe this to be possible and there is no "foundation outside our ethics for our ethics to stand on."
What would a Marxist position be on these issues? I would propose a synthesis of ethical realism (there are objective ethical principles that should be followed if you want to create a particular type of society just as there are mathematical and physical laws you must follow if you want to fly to the Moon) and these laws also have a pragmatic dimension. Marxists do not believe in abstract metaphysical entities not rooted in the material world. They do not look for universal ethical principles applicable to all times and places.
The main motivating force of Marxism is to empower the working class, abolish capitalist exploitation of working people by the appropriation of the surplus value they create, and establish socialism and a world without one class or group of humans living off the exploitation of another. So there is a foundation to our ethics outside of our ethics which it can stand on. Whatever actions objectively further the interests of working people, which are determined by an objective scientific analysis of the social, political and economic forces in a given society, are morally and ethically correct. This is a materialist ethics based on forces objectively at work in a given historical period and has nothing to do with an idea such as "to be a virtue it is only necessary for members of your life form to believe it is a virtue" or a virtue is what readers of the TLS would think useful.
The class struggle is an objective fact of life and the sociological and economic laws that produce it are independent of the subjective desires or will of the people involved. Understanding these laws, such as the law of value, is possible and actions can be initiated in the real world to overcome this struggle and end it and the ethics and morals involved in this struggle rest on an objective materialist foundation independent of the human subject. This viewpoint I think is much more realistic than that of either Setiya or Blackburn.
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association. He is the author of Reading the Classical Texts of Marxism.
REVISIONARY METAPHYSICS: A PEEK AT GALEN STRAWSON'S "SELVES”— A MARXIST REPLY-What is the Self? By: Thomas RigginsRead Now
The philosopher Galen Strawson published a few years ago a 448 page book entitled SELVES: AN ESSAY IN REVISIONARY METAPHYSICS. This article is based on Thomas Nagel's review in the London Review of Books 5 November 2009 ["The I in Me"].
Nagel tells us this is a book of "shameless metaphysics" [in the good sense] in which GS argues that there are such things as "selves" [you probably think you have one] but they "are not human beings" [we'll see about that]. GS is not some kind of wild idealist. He refers to himself as a materialist and so thinks if you have a self it could NOT "exist apart from your central nervous system." Well. Marxists would agree with that. There is a catch, however. All your experiences are brain events and for "orthodox" materialists brain events, and hence experiences, are events that take place in the physical world. But GS doesn't think that our experiences can be properly explained by an appeal to the properties of the material world.
This does NOT mean there is some other non physical world involved. It means that the material world is of greater extension than the world described by physics. "This means,' Nagel writes, "that the conscious brain has a mental character that is not revealed by the physical sciences, including neurophysiology." Pretty strong stuff. Maybe Marxists should say "not YET revealed", etc. But let's see where GS is going.
Here is the direction of the argument according to Nagel. GS begins with phenomenology ( the subjective feeling of experience of the self) and moves to metaphysics (the objective nature of the self itself). We are told the "results are radical and unexpected." Consciousness is the experience of a subject. A subject is for GS a SINGLE mental thing. If there is a "self" it is a "subject as a single mental thing" which GS calls a SESMET. Your sesmet in the form of "I" thinks of itself as persisting through time as a single entity.
GS thinks this may be an incorrect thing to think and asks how the "I" as a sesmet can persist through discontinuities of consciousness. The human being that you are is the host of fleeting sesmets but there is really no underlying "I" which belongs to all of them. So there are a series of "selves" in the human being-- when you go to sleep and are unconscious one sesmet ceases and a new one comes into being when you regain consciousness-- a new "I"-- which due to the memory storing capacity of the brain links the new sesmet with some memory content stored from the the previous sesmet or "I"-- the feeling you have of a persistent "I" existing in the past and having a future is an illusion-- maya!
GS goes so far as to say that when he remembers today what "he" did yesterday he has no sense that it is the same "I" today as was the "I" of yesterday. Nagel thinks this very strange and suggests that GS has a very atypical conception of himself. Nagel quotes GS as follows:
"The episode of consciousness is certainly apprehended from the inside, and so I take it for granted that it is mine, if I care to reflect: I take it for granted that it is an episode of consciousness of the human being that I am. But there is no sense, affective or otherwise, that it was consciousness on my* part.' [Nagel explains: The asterisk indicates the use of 'my' to refer to the subject of present consciousness.] "My past in mine* in the sense," GS continues, "that it belongs to me,* but I don't [ should the "I" have an asterisk?--tr ] feel that I* was there in the past."
GS again: "When I consider myself in the whole-human-being way I fully endorse the conventional view that there is in my case-- that I am-- a single subject of experience-- a person-- with long-term diachronic continuity. But when I consider myself as an inner mental subject and consider the detailed character of conscious experience, my feeling is that I am-- that the thing that I most essentially am is-- continually completely new."
Nagel is not the only one to not be able to feel this way about his own "I". To think, as GS says in the following, "that there simply isn't any 'I' or self that goes on through (let alone beyond) the waking day, even though there's obviously and vividly an 'I' or self at any given time"-- is to think about the "I" quite differently, most Marxists think, than most of humanity. But that is his phenomenology and will lead, as Nagel says, to an "equally strange metaphysics."
Since we experience the "self'" both DIACHRONICALLY [a technical term philosophers like to use meaning through time or historically] and SYNCHRONICALLY [at a particular instant in time] all we know about the self arises from experience. Without experiences, no self. A thing is experienced only insofar as its properties are experienced. In fact, a thing and its properties are indistinguishable.
Warning-- thin ice ahead. Nagel: "Further, this thing cannot be distinguished from its properties, and those properties are exhausted by the experience, which is in turn identical with the experience's contents." Is this really materialism? Subjects have experiences and if the thing's properties are exhausted by the subject's experiences this does not leave the possibility of a thing having an existence or property independent of the subject and that smells, most Marxists would think, of idealism.
In any case, Nagel says that the foregoing discussion of the self and its experiences means that at any given time the "self" is just an episode or unity of a given set of existing experiences-- a sesmet. This is why there is a synchronically, but no diachronically, existing "I". But since GS also supports MATERIALISM the self must be a brain process, or as he says in his book, "a synergy of neural activity which is either a part of or (somehow) identical with the synergy that constitutes the experience as a whole."
As a sequence of sesmets the self of one moment is not the self of the next. The human being has a new self with every consciously aware brain process episode's set of experiences for any given moment in time, but has no diachronic existence. GS says, that Materialists "take the mind-- the mind-brain-- to have non-experiential being in addition to experiential being that provides all the ontic depth anyone could possibly want." By "ontic depth" [from ontology, the science of being] he means the feeling we have of a persistent being of a diachronic "I", that is myself and has memories and past experiences belonging to it even when not consciously present at every given moment.
Does all this sound like a lot of complicated play on words? Why not just say the feeling we have of a "self" is the I's awareness of its present consciousness PLUS what it remembers of past experiences. Brain processes give rise to consciousness and also store memories which can be recalled at different times. Why postulate and try and prove that we have zillions of fleeting selves (sesmets) rather than basically just one? Why multiply entities needlessly? Marxists are not the only ones who would apply Ockham’s razor here.
GS replies: "Philosophy, like science, aims to say how things are in reality, and conflict with ordinary thought and language is no more an objection to a philosophical theory than a scientific one." But science is based on experimentation with regards to the physical world and not speculation with regard to metaphysical theories. By analogy a religious person could say: "Religion aims to say how things are in reality also, so religious ideas that conflict with ordinary thought and language should not be objected to anymore than scientific theories that do the same."
When I said above GS's materialism gave off a whiff of idealism for Marxists I had this in mind; this opening his conception of philosophy gives to idealist theories. A well founded materialism closes the door on religious speculation, it does not leave a crack open for the irrationalists to squeeze through. Bertrand Russell, the philosophical forbearer of GS as well as Nagel, defined philosophy as the no man's land between science (what we do know) and religion (what we don't know) and this is the territory that GS's theory of the self inhabits.
Nagel does not think GS has made his case in any event, but highly recommends the book both for the high level of philosophical argumentation it contains as well as the wealth of information on the opinions of other philosophers and the answers that they have come up with regarding the mind and the nature of the self. "SELVES is a work of profound philosophical reflection," Nagel writes, and he credits GS with being a philosopher of "imagination and audacity" as well as of "intellectual power and exemplary integrity." Nevertheless, I don’t see how Marxists could appreciate his views.
The promotion of the concept of privilege is spreading like wildfire. A class is being taught at Harvard, and everybody is talking about the privilege of being of a preferred group. Preferred by whom, is the issue.
The main thrust concerns privilege afforded within our society based on being white. If one is white and male one is considered even more privileged. Privilege manifests as being the preferred employee, the preferred representative, and the preferred voice. Greater wealth, not being discriminated against, not being profiled, and not having the law applied as stringently are just some of the benefits or advantages of being privileged.
Today, some degree of privilege is ascribed to almost every category. Given the concept of intersectionality, the overlapping of different social dimensions, one can be Black and poor, but still privileged because one is not gay or dark skinned. Today’s concept of privilege is a powerful construct, but powerful toward what end is the gnawing question.
The problem with the concept of privilege, as it is bandied about today, is not just that it is devoid of all class content. The problem is that today’s concept of privilege, instead of inspiring struggle against social ills, instigates a subtle affinity for the status quo and an insidious resentment toward those who are classified in one way or another as non-privileged. But, the Marxist concept of privilege is different.
Marx discussed bourgeois privilege as the power over the cultural, political, social, and economic realms afforded the ruling classes because of their ownership of society’s productive means. Lenin discussed the privilege of the ruling class of the oppressor nation and the elevation and domination of their language, culture, and nationality over all others. Critical to the point is Marx and Lenin’s call for the working class to recognize that the privilege of the ruling class is not shared by the working class, even if they are of the same race and nationality. Hence, the objective of Marx and Lenin was to explain that working class forces have an interest in struggling against bourgeois racist gendered privilege. Marx’s discussion of bourgeois privilege isolates them off from the rest of us. Lenin’s discussion of the privilege of the oppressor nation’s ruling class segregates them off from the rest of us.
Marx and Lenin were attempting to clear the path of struggle, identifying which side with which we should associate if we were not really owners of wealth producing property. In other words, if you are not part of the .01 percent, don’t be fooled into thinking and behaving as if you are.
To make a long story short, I would argue the concept of privilege as used today contributes to a lack of clarity and muddies the water. Anything that muddies the water is perfectly fine with the .01 percent.
To simply dismiss the discussion of privilege based on old arguments is not enough today. I use to make the argument that what passes as privilege for white workers is actually the absence of discrimination. Today, we are compelled to modify that formulation somewhat. It is not that discrimination is absent for white workers, but that discrimination is greater for non-white workers. Today especially, it needs to be exposed how white workers are in fact discriminated against culturally, socially, politically, and economically. Working class culture is debased, the working class style of life is shamed, few if any working class representatives hold political office, and economically, not only are white workers exploited, but in today’s economy the quality of life of white workers, as is true for all of us, has significantly declined.
The fact there still is a wealth and wage gap between white and black is less so true if one segregates out white workers, from the whole of white people, in comparison to Black people. The point is, there is more in common between white workers and the oppressed than there is between white workers and the ruling class, and it is in our collective interest to unmask the commonality while still recognizing disparities and elevating the importance of the fight for equity within the overall struggle against inequality, including class inequality. Oppression based on being non-white is real, and the struggle is to expose this form of inequality and win white workers in the first place to the fight for equality because they too are unequal.
Marxist consciousness seeks to disassociate not from the oppressed and exaggerate commonality with the oppressor. Marxist consciousness, because of the contribution of Lenin, seeks to unite workers of the oppressor race and nationality with all of the oppressed based on common interest against the oppressor. Even more, the point is to cultivate common struggle and not the lethargy of what ultimately is fictitious social status. Nothing about white workers is appreciated in this culture unless white workers completely prostrate themselves in service to the ruling circles. In service to the ruling circles, they are allowed, even encouraged, to believe and behave as if they are one of them instead of one of us.
The whole point of the ruling class, the .01%, is to win allies to itself and sow confusion and disunity among the masses. The concept of privilege as used today puts us in touch with a preferred status if one is so anointed.
The truth is the greatest privilege we have, as working class people, is to allow through a lack of consciousness the illusion, the appearance, of privilege to instigate our participation in our own oppression.
Privilege, as put forward today, is a powerful illusory camouflage, with material aspects, that turns those so labeled toward an association with the status quo. The concept is powerful because it has elements of truth. In an effort to nurture equality in meetings one can hear during the call to order the uttering of the expression, “leave your privilege at the door”.
Collectivity is a different response to the same concern. Collectivity is a fundamental organizational principle geared toward the complete involvement of the racially oppressed, women, youth, and workers in meetings, actions, and on all levels of leadership on the basis of full equality. Collectivity does not just happen; collectivity is consciously cultivated and intentionally struggled for and implemented.
A frontal attack on today’s concept of privilege is not my objective here. Many use and elaborate the concept in the attempt to contribute to an analysis of our society. But, our goal as Marxists is not just to produce an analysis of our society. Our goal is to construct an analysis that can contribute to the organization and mobilization of working class forces in the first place, along with all of the oppressed (women and youth included), who can change our society. Rather than a caustic attack on those who use the concept of privilege, we should want to wage a struggle to win them to a deeper analysis, a more Marxist analysis.
Dee Myles is chair of the Education Commission of the Communist Party USA and a member of its African American Equality Commission.
Republished from CPUSA with the following statement about the 2014 Convention Discussion:
The views and opinions expressed in the Convention Discussion are those of the author alone. The Communist Party is publishing these views as a service to encourage discussion and debate. Those views do not necessarily reflect the views of the Communist Party, its leading bodies or staff members. The CPUSA Constitution, Program, and all its existing policies remain in effect during the Convention discussion period and during the Convention.
This article aims to reprise Marx's 1844 article on Hegel's philosophy of law which ends with the memorable prediction that the Germans will only become conscious of their revolutionary destiny when they respond to the "the ringing call of the Gallic cock." Well, the last time the Gallic cock was heard from was in 1968 and it was rather subdued compared to its noisy past (1789, 1830, 1848, 1871).
Fortunately for those who read this pre-Communist Manifesto work of the young Marx (he was 25 when he wrote it) it has many useful ideas packed into its 13 pages that are still of interest today even though no one is expecting the Gallic cock to make any ringing calls in the foreseeable future. Its greatest call remains that of 1789 which inspired the Russian, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese Revolutions as well as the Cuban and which is echoed today in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Now for Marx's ideas and how they relate to today's struggles. There are revolutionary movements at work in the contemporary world and some of the ideas expressed by Marx in relation to the French and German movements of the early nineteenth century can be applied to them. There are three areas where revolutionary ferment is currently occurring-- the Middle East and Africa where we see revolutions and counter revolutions breaking out in several different countries, Latin America where several countries are now led by pro socialist and/or progressive governments inspired by the Cuban revolution and threatened by US imperialism, and in south east Asia where both India and Nepal have active revolutionary movements based on exploited peasants and indigenous peoples.
Unfortunately in some of these areas, especially in the Middle East and Africa, there are armed groups and political organizations whose ideological roots are allegedly based in religion and a fanatical commitment to creeds which do not reflect objective reality (this is also true in Europe and especially the U.S. where dogmatically fundamentalist ideas fuel many in the Republican Party and the core of the anti-choice movement which rejects Roe vs. Wade and treats women as objects to be manipulated for political gain.)
This essay by Marx ("Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law: Introduction") maintains that the fight to improve the world involves a fight to criticize religion since we will not be able to focus on the real world and its problems if we spend our time engaged with a false world such as the one conjured up by religion. This essay by Marx is admittedly dated but still of some interest today.
This work is justly famous as the source of the quote that "religion is the opium of the people." While opium may be able to supply some relief from an intolerable reality we can't expect people doped up on opium, spiritual or otherwise, to be involved in schemes for rationally based world improvement. We will get to the full quote in a minute. First, I want to note that in 1844 Marx thinks the basis of all criticism of the basic world order is the criticism of religion and that in his day this criticism has basically been completed-- at least in western Europe (Germany in particular). "Man makes religion, religion does not make man."
Marx is right of course for the Western world in general and large parts of Asia (China, Vietnam) religion is no longer a major factor in people's lives (except in a pro forma sense or within fringe groups or in backward areas). Unfortunately this battle has not yet been won, or even joined, in large areas of the Third World. Religion thrives on oppression and only by simultaneously fighting oppression, and furthering progressive education, will religion wither and the people flourish. The following is Marx's full quote on this issue:
Religion "is the fantastic realization of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly a fight against the world of which religion is the spiritual aroma."
He continues: "Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people."
Finally, he says: "To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness. The demand to give up illusions about the existing state of affairs is the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of tears, the halo of which is religion."
These three quotes form the basis of the materialist outlook on religion. But what is the difference between illusory happiness and real happiness? If a person is experiencing "happiness" what more is there to say? If we take an example from current history and say that the members of the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt, being at heart members of a religious organization, are living in an illusory world and the Egyptian people demanding their removal from power was an example of the demand to abandon illusions about the nature of the problems facing Egypt and the existing state of affairs then, it would seem, the only justification for this action would be to revolutionize the state of affairs (i.e., the social, economic, and political status quo) to such an extent that religious illusions would no longer have any traction in that society.
But who is to decide who is delusional? In the first place, rather than speaking of illusory versus real happiness, it would be better to speak of a feeling of happiness based on a false belief about the nature of reality and one based of a true belief about the nature of reality. You may feel (temporarily) happy taking your laetrile for that lump but you would be better off having it removed.
As for who decides, Marx was very specific (in 1844) as to whom this responsibility devolves. It is the role of philosophy in service to history. We will have to allow Marx to use this Hegelian way of expressing himself: while critical of Hegel he had not yet completely liberated himself from Hegelian ways of expressing his ideas. He says: "The task of history, therefore, once the world beyond the truth has disappeared, is to establish the truth of this world. The immediate task of philosophy, which is at the service of history, once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked, is to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms. Thus the criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of the earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics."
Marx may have thought this battle was over in the Germany of his day, but it is still raging here in the USA: one only has to read the the statements made by right-wing US politicians on the issues of a woman's right to choice, or on the food stamp program, or on sex education or on social welfare and "entitlement" programs to see how retrograde religious references are put forth to justify reactionary and even quasi-fascist social policies. And it is not just in the United States. Every day you can read in the papers how all over the planet religion is used to crush the human spirit, attack enlightenment, retard scientific understanding and further the goals of fascism, militarism, and imperialism. Although they are an important influence, all the religious progressives and pacifists in the world will not stem this backward tide of religious fanaticism without robust secular movements and political parties that are able to rally millions of oppressed people to fight against it.
Behind the religious facade stands a more this worldly enemy. Marx writes that once the other worldly illusion has been mastered we must focus on the reality of this world and the real roots of oppression and human self-estrangement. "The relation of industry, of the world of wealth generally, to the political world is one of the major problems of modern times." A 170 years isn't so long after all as our world today faces exactly this problem-- from the Koch brothers to the MAGA movement, to big oil and pollution, to the European economic crisis and the war against working people, to the world wide faltering of capitalism based on domination by banks and financial institutions, and third world exploitation-- it is all based on struggle over which countries and which classes are going to control industry and the world of wealth.
As this struggle intensifies we can expect the world to become a more and more violent place. The past century may have been only a prelude of things to come. We read in the papers that Japan plans to rebuild its military, the US is building up its forces in the Pacific (aimed at China) and moving into Africa, NATO is carrying on wars of aggression far from its home bases and preparing for interventions anywhere that may threaten Western dominance. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Honduras, Haiti, Libya, Egypt, Syria (to name just a few of the most recent examples) no country is safe from Western intrigue, drones, outside interventions, or externally manipulated civil wars whenever the economic interests of the US and its allies and puppets are seen to be at risk. Today we see the US and Russia engaged in a proxy war in Ukraine stemming from the US backed overthrow of the elected Ukrainian government in 2014 and the advance of NATO to the Russian borders.
Marx realized that journalism alone, philosophy and criticism alone, would never be able to change this situation or be able to overthrow the world system of human exploitation. "The weapon of criticism cannot, of course," he wrote, "replace criticism by weapons, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses." This is why Wiki-Leaks and people like Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden along with other whistleblowers and investigative reporters must be silenced, for governments and their toadies know that once the people are informed, once they realize that the theories of their own governments are that information and democracy must be restricted (fascist policies introduced) in order for them to carry out their repressive domestic and international policies, they will fight back (or so they think) to ensure their rights and livelihoods.
A revolution in thought must precede a revolution in deed. Marx thinks there must be a material basis for any revolution. "Theory can be realized in a people only insofar as it is the realization of the needs of that people." People around the world are becoming more and more aware of their real needs which are the exact opposite of those they are told about by capitalist governments and their hand kissing mainstream media. They need jobs, peace, education, housing and clean air and political parties and movements that truly represent working people and their allies, not bombs, drones, military interventions, no fly zones, fossil fuels, austerity and bank bailouts, and capitalist and fake socialist and labor parties that betray them.
A political revolution, such as we saw in Egypt, or the "Arab Spring" in general, was only a partial revolution. Marx's thinking here is conditioned by the experiences of 1789 and 1830 in France. What are these partial revolutions based upon Marx asks [a complete revolution would change the social relations and economic base of a country-- 1789 rather than 1830-- or even 1776.] His answer is that a "part of civil society emancipates itself and attains general domination; on the fact that a definite class , proceeding from its particular situation, undertakes the general emancipation of society."
In Egypt in 2011, for example, it was the middle class in alliance with the workers and peasants and some elements of the big national capitalists against the military dictatorship headed by Mubarak and representing compradore capitalists in alliance with US imperialism and its puppets (e.g., the EU).
"No class of civil society can play this role," Marx says, "without arousing a moment of enthusiasm in itself and in the masses, a moment in which it fraternizes and merges with society in general, becomes confused with it and is perceived and acknowledged as its general representative; a moment in which its demands and rights are truly the rights and demands of society itself; a moment in which it is truly the social head and social heart."
It was Mohammed Morsi and the political party affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood that emerged in 2012 as the general representative of the forces that brought down Mubarak-- it claimed to represent the incarnation of the most general (and contentless as it turned out) demand of the revolution: "Democracy" as incarnated in free and fair elections. Unfortunately for the Brotherhood its anti-democratic and dogmatic nature soon came to the fore as it tried to impose its sectarian doctrines on the rest of the revolutionary movement, of which it was only one component, while relying on the military to maintain it in power.
This is why a merely political revolution is only partial. In Egypt one "tyrant" was removed from power, and a would-be tyrant was also expelled from office-- both by the Egyptian military reacting to millions of people in the streets demanding rights and freedoms which are the norm in stable bourgeois democracies. The real rulers in Egypt remain the military-- the same military that installed Nasser-- and the economic and social relations remain the same. To what extent they will allow bourgeois democracy to take hold in Egypt remains to be seen. One thing we can count on is that all the forces of US imperialism will be marshaled against the Egyptian masses and their democratic aspirations, the current US supported military dictatorship is proof of this.
Marx, in this essay, thought a complete revolution would have to be led by a class whose emancipation would free both itself and all other classes-- by abolishing class differences. Of course, he is talking about 1844 Germany and the working class was very small and just beginning to develop so any coming revolutions would be bourgeois democratic in nature and not socialist. Yet Marx thought that only a full fledged socialist revolution, one demanding the abolition of private property, would actually be able to free human beings from exploitation and oppression. That day has not yet dawned but, if Marx was right about the role of criticism in the development of human self consciousness and the struggle for freedom, we can conclude that the role of religion and the religious consciousness will play an insignificant part-- indeed will be a negative rather than a positive ingredient in the self liberation of humanity from its self imposed fetishes and idols.
What then does Marx think will replace religion as the moving force in advancing historical progress. He said it would be philosophy. In his day what we call science was more or less considered a part of philosophy-- natural philosophy. So if we think of Marx as thinking that the road to liberation will be guided by a materialist philosophy based on scientific understanding we will not be misguided. The section of humanity that will traverse this road is that of the working people, including agricultural workers, and especially industrial workers who will finally be able to put the economic resources of the planet, the common property of all not the few, to work for the common good.
This day will come, following Marx, when scientific philosophy finds its material weapons in the working people and they find their spiritual weapons in scientific philosophy. But whether it will be the Gallic cock or some other whose ringing call proclaims this day remains to be seen.
In 1808 G. W. F. Hegel writes an article for popular dissemination asking the question “Who Thinks Abstractly?” His reply – “the uneducated, not the educated… good society does not think abstractly because it is too easy, because it is too lowly.” For those unfamiliar with the usage of concrete and abstract in Hegel (or in Marxism), the response might serve as a shocking inversion of how popular consciousness conceives of the relation between abstract and concrete thought, and subsequently, between the types of people who think concretely and abstractly. The philosopher is often thought to be the one that thinks abstractly, contemplating things far away from what is thought to be concrete or sensually immediate. Plato’s analogy of the philosopher as a ship captain condemned for “stargazing” is the archetypical imagery for this stereotype.
What then is meant by abstract thinking? And why is it so ‘lowly’?
One thinks abstractly when they allow themselves to pass judgement on facts in a manner which severs facts from the factors out of which they emerged. It is factors which allow facts to be facts (the reverse is, of course, also true). When we take things directly as we experience them and ask no further questions about the plethora of factors which created the conditions for the thing directly experienced, then we are thinking abstractly. Common sense has a saying for this mistake: ‘never judge a book by its cover’. The message here is clear – doomed to error is the judgement passed on superficial appearance. A boxing judge cannot appropriately judge if they arrive to the fight in the 12th round. Likewise, a fact cannot be properly understood without knowledge of the determinations that allowed it to arise.
For instance, Hegel looks at a murder and says that,
One who knows men traces the development of the criminal's mind: he finds in his history, in his education, a bad family relationship between his father and mother, some tremendous harshness after this human being had done some minor wrong, so he became embittered against the social order — a first reaction to this that in effect expelled him and henceforth did not make it possible for him to preserve himself except through crime. — There may be people who will say when they hear such things: he wants to excuse this murderer!
Setting aside the impressive, century-early psychoanalysis of the person who committed the murder, Hegel’s point is that context and history are ever-present in everyday affairs. The amputation of a thing or an event from the history and interconnections out of which it arose makes the genuine comprehension of that thing or event unfeasible.
On the other hand, concrete thought is present when the thing or event under examination is treated comprehensively, in its development and interconnections. It is here wherein truth lies. As Hegel says in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, “the true is concrete… [and] the concrete is the unity of diverse determinations.” An almost identical statement is repeated in the famous section on “The Method of Political Economy” from Marx’s Grundrisse, where he says that “the concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations… [a] unity of the diverse.”
Herein lies the difference between abstract and concrete thought. Abstract thought is comfortable with examining things divorced from their determinations, that is, from the dynamic (both immanent and external) factors which produce things. This form of reified thinking kills, it sucks the living spirit out of things and treats them as dead entities.
Concrete thought, on the other hand, seeks to know things in connection to the relations and developments which produced it. Nonetheless, it can never start with that which is most concrete. When it attempts to do so it merely fondles an “imagined concrete,” a deceiving abstraction dressed in concrete clothing. Concrete thought, instead, must be thought of as a process of ascension from the less concrete (the most abstract), to the most concrete. As Marx says, the “reproduction of the concrete by way of thought” is “not a point of departure” but the result of “a process of concentration.” Concrete thought, then, contains abstract thought as a necessary moment in its ascension towards the concrete reproduction of the concrete. However, it overcomes this abstract immediacy by gathering the plethora of determinations which a thing presupposes in a manner which reproduces in the mind the active relations these determinations have with each other within a given totality.
The dialectical method is precisely this – the method of the ascension from the abstract to the concrete. It is, as Hegel wrote, the “soul of all knowledge which is truly scientific,” and as Marx said, “the scientifically correct method.”
This does not negate the fact that the ascension towards the concrete reproduction of the concrete in thought is itself a process of mental abstraction. In the same way great joy produces tears and great sorrows smiles, this process of abstraction bears as a fruit its opposite – the concrete. As Evald Ilyenkov eloquently states – “the ascent from the concrete to the abstract and the ascent from the abstract to the concrete are two mutually assuming forms of the theoretical assimilation of the world… each of them is realized only through its opposite and in unity with it.” Nonetheless, the antipode which ascends from the abstract to the concrete is the dominant, and hence, ‘scientifically correct’ one. Its opposite – the ascension from the concrete to the abstract – is a necessary mediation for the ultimate theoretical goal of reproducing the concrete concretely.
In sum: concrete thought, the ultimate result of the dialectical ascension from the abstract to the concrete, reproduces in a comprehensive manner for the mind the complex movements and interconnections in which all phenomena in nature and society are embedded. In so doing, it provides the most scientifically apt method for understanding the world.
Marxism, however, also serves as a guide to action, as an outlook which seeks to change (as opposed to merely interpret) the world; hence, the dialectical process of attaining a concrete reproduction of the concrete is always grounded on and aimed towards revolutionary praxis.
 G. W. F. Hegel. “Who Thinks Abstractly.” In Hegel: Texts and Commentary. Edited by W. Kauffman. New York: Anchor Books, 1966., pp. 462.
 Plato. Complete Works. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997., pp. 1111.
 This excludes, of course, a dialectical way of thinking about appearance, which sees appearance not as a distortion of essence, but each in an “essential relation” to each other – “what appears shows the essential, and the essential is in its appearing.” G. W. F. Hegel. The Science of Logic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015., pp. 419.
 Hegel. “Who Thinks Abstractly.,” pp. 463.
 G. W. F. Hegel. Lectures on the History of Philosophy Vol. 2. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974., pp. 13.
 Karl Marx. Grundrisse. London: Penguin Books, 1973., pp. 101.
 Ibid., pp. 100.
 G. W. F. Hegel. Logic: Being Part One of the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences. Oxford: Clarendon Press. § 81.; Marx. Grundrisse., pp. 101.
 Evald Ilyenkov. The Dialectics of the Abstract and Concrete in Marx’s Capital. Delhi: Aakar Books, 2022., pp. 139.
Carlos L. Garrido is a Cuban American PhD student and instructor in philosophy at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale (with an M.A. in philosophy from the same institution). His research focuses include Marxism, Hegel, early 19th century American socialism, and socialism with Chinese characteristics. He is an editor in the Marxist educational project Midwestern Marx and in the Journal of American Socialist Studies. His popular writings have appeared in dozens of socialist magazines in various languages. As a political analyst with a focus on Latin America (esp. Cuba), he has appeared in dozens of radio and video interviews around the world.
“...If a Communist took it into his head to boast about his Communism because of the ready-made conclusions he had acquired, without putting in a great deal of serious and hard work, without understanding the facts which he must examine critically, he would be a very deplorable Communist. Such superficiality would be decidedly fatal.”
VI Lenin said that in a speech to Soviet students learning Marxism in 1920. It applies to today, in the USA, as much as it did to those days of the first worker state.
It is much easier to talk the talk than it is to walk the walk. It is easy to one day wake up and say, “I think I will call myself a Communist today.” From there, we could buy a t-shirt with Karl Marx’s face on it, and we could put a little hammer and sickle emoji in our Twitter profile, and we could tell everyone we believe in Communism. But would this make us a Communist?
A Communist means more than that. A Communist must hold his or herself to the highest standard possible, even if the Party they belong to has not yet rebuilt itself into an institution capable of demanding they do so. The Bolsheviks did not gain the support and respect of the working masses of the Soviet Union by bragging and talking down to them. They led by example.
An American Communist must do the same.
For every fifty people I see calling themselves Communists, usually only one actually carries themselves as such. So let’s go over a few qualities a Communist must have, because it is very easy, as noted above, to simply say we are a thing. It is quite another to embody that thing and become a person worthy of leading the working classes, worthy of the word Communist.
Above all, a Communist needs to prove to the rest of the working masses of their society that they are not just worthy of their respect, but of leading them into revolution and a new state that is genuinely of, by, and for the people. A Communist does NOT demand respect without earning it like a petulant child, all the while telling the masses how horrible they are for not being as enlightened as we think we are.
The contradictions of capitalism are growing more acute every day. We have run out of time to waste. The time for childishness and larping is over. The time for action is now. Onward to socialism.
Noah Khrachvik is a proud working class member of the Communist Party USA. He is 40 years old, married to the most understanding and patient woman on planet Earth (who puts up with all his deep-theory rants when he wakes up at two in the morning and can't get back to sleep) and has a twelve-year-old son who is far too smart for his own good. When he isn't busy writing, organizing the working class, or fixing rich people's houses all day, he enjoys doing absolutely nothing on the couch, surrounded by his family and books by Gus Hall. He is an editor at Midwestern Marx.