On the eve of Economist's Day, it is important to review some aspects of Che's core ideas on the Political Economy of Socialism and especially when for some the solution to current problems is to completely free the market and reduce the role of the State in the economy.
In the Constituent Congress of the National Association of Economists and Accountants of Cuba (ANEC), in 1979, November 26 was established as Economist's Day, in tribute to the appointment of Ernesto Che Guevara on that date in 1959 as First President of the Bank. National of Cuba and with the commitment to follow their example.
Many times when talking about El Guerrillero Heroico the significance of his action and example is limited to his liberation struggles in Cuba, the Congo and Bolivia, without remembering that one of Che's essential contributions to the Cuban Revolution was his economic thinking. his work and conceptions on the construction of socialism, coinciding with the essential concepts of Commander in Chief Fidel Castro in that field.
On the eve of Economist's Day, it is important to review some aspects of Che's core ideas on the Political Economy of Socialism and especially when for some the solution to current problems is to completely free the market and reduce the role of the State in the economy. .
Che Guevara defended that socialist construction cannot rest on the spontaneous functioning of economic mechanisms, but requires control, supervision and a counterpart in the ideological and political order, capable of guiding and directing human action at all levels. including ethical and moral aspects.
The writer of these lines was an eyewitness of an informal meeting, in 1964, between Che and the economics students of the Universidad de Oriente, for which he asked them to wait until one in the morning because he was involved in other activities in Santiago de Cuba.
There he proposed the necessary rescue of the role of accounting, of control, and anticipated the serious risks that he saw for the then Soviet Union and the Socialist Camp for neglecting the ideological work and the mechanisms that must guarantee the efficiency of socialism for the benefit of the large majorities of the population.
Since the triumph of the Revolution in January 1959, Che assumed a set of responsibilities in the sphere of the economy, in the direction of the Industrialization Department of INRA, the Presidency of the National Bank of Cuba and finally as Minister of Industries. starting in 1961.
In all these positions he carried out intense work, and demonstrated by his example the importance of studying even in the midst of the most complex responsibilities, just as Fidel would also do throughout his entire existence.
Thus, he immersed himself in the study of Capital with Anastasio Mansilla, a Spanish-Soviet professor considered an authority on Marx's work; He studied mathematics applied to economics with Salvador Vilaseca, a prominent Cuban university professor, and dedicated himself to researching what were then still almost unknown sciences in Cuba, such as linear programming and the incipient development of computing.
This entire process of gestation of Che's ideas is formed alongside multiple controversies in the socialist field.
Che assumes in his theoretical analyzes the challenges of a country like Cuba that begins the transition to socialism from underdevelopment, something not foreseen by Marx and Engels in their works, together with the continuous aggressions of the United States against the Revolution since 1959 itself. Thus presenting a theoretical-practical contradiction between the aspiration to achieve the necessary leaps in material productive growth and the also necessary changes in social consciousness for the formation of a new society based on new values, substituting those generalized by capitalist society, capable of assuming socialism in its double economic and ethical dimension.
For Commander Che Guevara, socialism is not only a phenomenon of production, but a fact of consciousness, the formation of a new man constituted within his ideas an essential objective that would have to be assumed from the very moment we began socialist construction.
And he specified: «The new society has to compete very hard with the past. This is felt not only in the individual conscience in which the residue of an education systematically oriented towards the isolation of the individual weighs heavily, but also in the very nature of this period of transition with the persistence of commercial relations. The commodity is the fundamental economic cell of capitalist society; As long as its effects exist, they will be felt in the organization of production and therefore in consciousness.
Che warned that "socialism cannot be built using the damaged weapons that capitalism bequeathed us" and that their use could lead society to a dead end. His assertions from the 60s became bitter realities, when those models of socialism collapsed upon reaching the dead end he warned of.
He pointed out that "voluntary work is fundamentally the factor that develops the consciousness of workers more than any other" and described it as "antidote to the selfish and individualistic attitude that the capitalist system enhances in man, through the mechanism of his insatiable consumer society.
Che was the creator of the so-called Budgetary Financing System, to contribute to centralized planning, programming and strict control techniques, the introduction of computing for management, and the use of the budget as a planning instrument.
Fidel pointed out on the 20th anniversary of Che's fall «(...) if we knew Che's economic thinking, we would be a hundred times more alert, even, to lead the horse, and when the horse wants to turn to the right or left (... ) give the horse a good pull on the bit and place it on its path, and when the horse does not want to walk, give it a good spur. "I believe that a rider, that is, an economist, that is, a Party cadre, that is, an administrative cadre armed with Che's ideas, would be more capable of leading the horse along the right path."
And he added: "I have the deepest conviction that if this thought is ignored it will be difficult to get very far, it will be difficult to reach true socialism, truly revolutionary socialism."
A few weeks ago, I was standing under the entrance arch of the Hotel Villa Morgagni along via Giovanni Battista Morgagni, in Rome’s northeastern Nomentano neighborhood. It’s a smart looking mansion-cum-townhouse, built in a turn-of-the-century Liberty style, with some fetching Art Nouveau flourishes. Since the early 2000s, the property has been owned by the Italian businessman Adartico Vudafieri, a former rally car champion, who’d transformed it into a 4-star, 34-room, luxury boutique hotel, equipped with jacuzzis and conference room facilities.
Ninety-seven years back, via Giovanni Battista Morgagni, number 25, was a more modest lodging house, home of a quietly discreet pensionante called Antonio Gramsci. It was here, around 10:30pm on November 8, 1926, that Mussolini’s fascist henchmen, who’d been surveying Gramsci’s every move in the months prior, raided his room, confiscated his documents, and arrested him as an “enemy of the state.” (It wasn’t the first time his room had been ransacked.) He was carted off to Rome’s Regina Coeli penitentiary and immediately placed in solitary confinement. A small plaque on the hotel’s gatepost, with a poignant inscription, commemorates Gramsci’s sojourn at Morgagni, memorializing him as a rare “leader who knew how to listen”:
Gramsci’s landlady, Clara Passarge, a Prussian-born woman, was particularly disgruntled by those evening’s dramatic events, taking it very badly. Gramsci was her and husband Giorgio’s favorite tenant—the “professor” they affectionately called him, on account of his bookish nature, a scholarly-looking little man forever transporting caseloads of texts and papers to and from his rented room. (The professorial assumption wouldn’t have been unreasonable: Sapienza University of Rome was, after all, only a block away down the road from his dwelling.) Gramsci, of course, was no university academic. Journalist, Italian Communist Party’s (PCI) general secretary, he’d already been elected to Italy’s Chamber of Deputies, a position that should have given him immunity from such a politically motivated arrest. But Mussolini had schemed up Special Laws of Defense, rendering illegal any form of anti-fascist activity, depriving Gramsci and hundreds of other progressive deputies of their parliamentary mandate.
For a customarily cautious man, whose careful analysis had seen fascist forces brewing, it was a mystery why Gramsci had left himself so open to arrest. He knew he was being followed, watched everywhere and at all hours; he’d felt “the storm coming,” he told sister-in-law Tatiana (“Tania”), “in an indistinct and instinctive way.” Meanwhile, fearing for the safety of pregnant wife Giulia and infant son Delio, he insisted they return to Moscow, where Gramsci’s second son, Giuliano, who would never see his father, was born on August 30, 1926.
In a way, Gramsci seemed more bothered about the “trouble and inconveniences” he’d caused the Passarges the night of his arrest. The first of his famous Letters from Prison, written in the Regina Coeli penitentiary (undated), addressed to his landlady, is a touching expression of regret: “Dearest Signora, first of all, I want to apologize for the trouble and inconveniences I have caused you, which in truth formed no part of our tenancy agreement.” Gramsci asks her to forward onto him a few of his books, including his beloved Divine Comedy, and “prepare some of my underclothes and hand them over to a good woman called Marietta Bucciarelli, when she comes on my behalf.” “If my stay in this place,” Gramsci adds, “should last long, I think you should consider the room free and do as you wish with it. You can pack the books and throw away the newspapers. I apologize again, dear signora, and offer my regrets which are as deep as your kindness is great. My regards to signor Giorgio and to the young lady [Clara’s daughter]; with heartfelt respect, Antonio Gramsci.” The letter is all the more touching because it never reached its destination.
A few weeks on, Gramsci again wrote his landlady (November 30, 1926), telling her he’d been three days in a Palermo jail. “I left Rome on the morning of the twenty-fifth,” Gramsci said, “for Naples, where I stayed for a few days and was devoured by insects. In a few days, I will leave for the island of Ustica, to which I have been assigned for my confino. During my journey, I was unable to send back the keys to the house: as soon as I arrive at Ustica I will forward them immediately and I’ll send you the precise address and instructions for sending me or having sent to me the things that I’ll be able to keep here and that may be useful to me. My health is fairly good; I’m a bit tired, that’s all. Inform Maria if she comes to see you and ask her to give my regards to all my relatives and friends who still remember me. Kind regards to signor Giorgio and to the signorina, cordially, A. Gramsci.” Again, the letter never found its destination, again confiscated by Mussolini’s political police. (Both letters, incidentally, never saw the public light of day until the early 1970s.)
As it happened, signora Clara didn’t last long after Gramsci’s arrest; likely he’d suspected all wasn’t well. He’d asked Tania (March 19, 1927), “How is my landlady, or did she die?” “I’m afraid the scene of my arrest may have helped accelerate her illness,” he confessed, “because she liked me very much and looked so pale when they took me away.” Gramsci said he’d received a letter from Giorgio Passarge in early January 1927, “who was desperate and thought that his wife’s death was immanent, then I no longer heard anything. Poor woman.” Signora Passarge would pass away on February 19, 1927, aged sixty-five.
Not long after my visit to Gramsci’s old lodgings and site of arrest, I discovered something I’d hitherto not known: Clara Passarge is likewise a denizen of Rome’s Non-Catholic Cemetery. I’d spotted her gravestone, looking rather forlorn and untended, on one of my regular inspections of the tombs and their environs. Seeing Gramsci and his former landlady reunited, sharing the same abode again, struck me as a strange quirk of fate, just as my witnessing it strikes me as a strange quirk of fate, finding myself before both of them now, a volunteer at the cemetery.
Clara’s grave prompted me to look her up in the cemetery’s death register, where I managed to track down the original, handwritten entry. Then I did the same for Gramsci, wondering why I hadn’t done so before; sure enough, he’s there, too, registered in the same hand a little more than a decade after the “signora’s” passing.
To say that Clara’s grave looked forlorn and untended isn’t exactly the whole truth. For there’s another story to her being at the cemetery, another connection involving an impressive, far from forlorn, white marble sculpture located just behind Clara’s tombstone, tucked into an alcove of the Aurelian wall. It’s a striking, haunting, structure known as “The Bride,” a life-size (and life-like) reclining young woman, on her deathbed; a rose is sometimes placed in her hand, a gesture said to bring good luck to the giver. The bride in question is Elsbeth Wegener Passarge, none other than Clara Passarge’s eldest daughter, who died in 1902, tragically of typhus, at the age of age 18. She was born in Prussia to Clara’s first husband (Giorgio was Elsbeth’s stepfather), yet grew up in Rome, later engaged to be married to an Austrian sculptor Ferdinand Seeboeck. The couple were deeply in love. But the husband-and-wife pairing wasn’t meant to be, and as a memorial to his late fiancée, Ferdinand created “The Bride,” with, on its base, written in Italian and German, the following words: “She passes from a sweet dream of love to the life of angels.” It took Ferdinand thirty-years to get his sculpture installed in its current site, during which time he’d relinquished his own plot beside his bride, in favor of her mother, Clara, whose remains now lie beside her daughter’s, and not in the marked grave nearby.
The day I discovered Clara’s tombstone, Gramsci’s marble casket was adorned with a beautiful red rose. At that moment, sitting close by on what I now like to call “Gramsci’s bench,” was an elderly gent, in his mid-seventies, portly with long, flowing gray hair, clad in scruffy shorts and a stained white undervest. Beside him a shopping bag full of old clothes. Maybe he was homeless or semi-destitute? He looked content next to Gramsci, and, as I passed, taking a photo of the red rose on the casket, I engaged him in conversation. He was an old communist, he said, and Gramsci his hero. He comes here often, to pay his respects. Was it he, I wondered, who’d laid that red rose?
For a while, we spoke about Giorgio Napolitano, a former high-ranking PCI leader, modern Italy’s longest standing President, who died in late September, aged 98, and who’s about to be laid to rest in the Non-Catholic Cemetery. The man in the white vest said Gramsci was better known abroad than in Italy; I was inclined to concur, but knew, too, that plenty of Italians, many young Italians included, visit the cemetery to see Gramsci, and talk about him as if he were still alive and kicking. Then the man in the white vest mentioned Benedetto Croce and Giovanni Gentile, two of Gramsci’s interlocutors and antagonists. I said, as a by-the-way comment, that Antonio Labriola, an older generation Italian Marxist, another early influence from Gramsci’s Turin student days, frequently referenced in The Prison Notebooks, is buried not far away, in an impressive, opulent looking grave in the Zona Prima. The man in the white vest seemed to want to talk more about Gentile and Croce and about Gramsci’s views on education.
Croce’s was a liberal, Gentile a fascist. Both started out as vaguely marxisant Hegelian philosophers, before the former drifted toward the center and the latter toward the far-right. Each wrote about education; in the early 1920s, Gentile became Mussolini’s Minister of Education. But Gramsci rejected, on the one side, Croce’s liberal reductionism, which saw civil society as the realm of free individuality, somehow apart from the state, and, on the other, Gentile’s statist reductionism, where civil society got devoured entirely by the state. Gramsci’s line is more subtle. He never makes any “organic” distinction between state and civil society. The separation, he said, is analytical and methodological; state and civil society are conjoined, dialectically intertwined, operative together, yet theoretically distinguishable.
From prison, Gramsci cast a keen critical eye on the so-called Gentile Reform Act of 1923, where, amongst other things, religious education had become compulsory in elementary schools. Letters from Prison frequently ask Tania for copies of Gentile’s texts and speeches, a lot featured in a rather ominous sounding Educazione Fascista. Gentile’s educational reform also introduced an entrance exam for acceptance into middle-school, which, says Gramsci, privileged upper-class kids, relegating their working class and peasant counterparts to technical and training schools.
Gramsci was a bit old school in his educational beliefs. He says Gentile’s education act failed to provide the specific teaching of Italian grammar, thereby excluding “the national-popular masses from learning language, confining them to the ghetto of dialect.” (Gramsci advocates the teaching of Latin, for instance, because it “combines and satisfies a whole series of pedagogic and psychological requirements.”) “Active” schools, he says, aren’t elitist institutions nor sites of rote and factual inculcation. Yet neither should they encourage liberal laissez-faire free-play and voluntarist free-will, where individualities are seen as beyond any conditioning social relations and social institutions. Gramsci calls for a “nexus between instruction and education,” a curriculum that teaches critical, socially aware thinking at the same time as develops students’ creative capacities, accustoming them to reason, to think abstractly and schematically, while “remaining able to plunge back from abstraction into real and immediate life.”
For Gramsci, self-discipline and self-control are vital in learning. Students need to condition themselves to long hours of concentration, he says, to sitting still, developing bodily endurance as well as a lively mind, training their muscles and nerves as well as their brains. Learning can be tough, he says, an ethos likely gleaned from his own history as a lowly youth and studious prison inmate. It isn’t only manual labor, he says, that requires sweat and toil. Indeed, if ever the working classes were to develop their own brand of hardy and smart “organic intellectuals,” with the appropriate attributes and skills to help transform society, they’ll need, Gramsci thinks, an educational system very different from the one Gentile is proposing.
The man in the white vest and I shuck hands and we bid each other arrivederci. Wandering back to my duties at the cemetery’s Visitor’s Center, leaving him with Gramsci and that red rose, I realized I’d forgotten to ask if it was him who’d laid the flower there. I never got the chance to talk with him, either, about the significance of roses for Gramsci and how growing them became almost as much a passion as filling his thirty-three scholastic notebooks.
After Gramsci was transferred in July 1928 to the Turi prison for the infirm and disabled in Bari, Calabria, along a sidewall of its courtyard, in a little plot of soil, he began to grow different plants and flowers. His letters to Tania and Giulia thereafter begin to fill up with news of their progress. On April 22, 1929, he wrote Tania: “On one fourth of a square meter I want to plant four or five seeds of each kind and see how they turn out.” He asks his sister-in-law if she can get hold of sweet pea, spinach, carrot, chicory, and celery seeds.
Gramsci says he’s become more patient, “but only by virtue of a great effort to control myself.” He seems to take inspiration from his flowers and plants, from their slow and persistent growth, from the rose he’s trying to cultivate, patiently and persistently—against all odds. “The rose has fallen victim of a dreadful sunstroke,” he says, “all the leaves in the more tender parts are burnt and carbonized; it has a desolate, sad aspect, but it is putting out new buds.” Seemingly referring to himself, he adds: “It isn’t dead, at least not yet.” In Gramsci’s letters, the plight of his dear rose strikes as an allegory of his own dear plight.
“The seeds have been very slow in pushing up small sprouts,” he tells Tania, again maybe referring to himself and to the life of a Marxist radical; “an entire series obstinately insists on living an underground life.” Each day, Gramsci says, he’s seized by the temptation to pull at them a little, making them grow a little faster. “I remain undecided,” he admits,
between two concepts of the world and of education: whether to follow Rousseau and leave things to nature, which is never wrong and is basically good, or to be a voluntarist and force nature, introducing into the evolution the expert hand of humanity and the principle of authority. Until now the uncertainty persists and the two ideologies joust in my head.
Still, Gramsci’s voluntarist environmentalism—the intervention of human authority and action—doesn’t brutally impose itself on nature. He lovingly cares for his rose, admires its beauty and tenderness, the delicate texturing of its petals, its poetic quality, the radiance of its blossoming, often sounding the way Saint-Exupery’s petit prince would sound a decade on, nurturing his own rose; at the same time, Gramsci marvels at how robust his rose is, how hardy, struggling to survive, persisting on living, sometimes on the point of death, yet pulling through with new buds despite the impending “solar catastrophe.”
Elsewhere, Gramsci says to Tania: “The rose is beginning to bud after it had seemed reduced to desolate twigs. But will it manage to survive the approaching summer heat? It looks puny and run down to be up to the task. It is true of course that, at bottom, the rose is nothing but a wild thorn bush, and therefore very vital.” Again, maybe with himself in mind, we might recall one revealing letter he’d written Tania, earlier on in his incarceration (February 19, 1927), taking the boat with other prisoners to Ustica. One of the banished was an “anarchist type,” Gramsci says, called “Unico,” a sort of superintendent, who upon hearing Gramsci introduce himself to other inmates,
stared at me for a long time, then he asked: ‘Gramsci, Antonio?’ ‘Yes’, Antonio! I answered. ‘That can’t be’, he retorted, ‘because Antonio Gramsci must be a giant and not a little squirt like you’.
On February 10, 1930, Gramsci writes Tania:
So, then, become more energetic; cure your will too, do not let the southern winds fill you with languor. The bulbs have sprouted already, indeed some time back; one of the hyacinths already shows the colors of its future flower. Provided the frost doesn’t destroy everything. The rose has also borne new buds; it is wilder than ever, it seems a thorn bush instead of a rose, but the vegetal vigor of the thorn bush is also interesting. I embrace you affectionately. Antonio.
Today, October 17, 2023, Gramsci’s grave was covered with brilliant flowers, blooming everywhere, a sight to behold. Who could have placed them all here? Today, as well, I began to think about what it was I wanted to stress in this blog. If last time I spoke of stones and a sense of obligation—obligation to Gramsci, to Marxist politics, to the Left, a sentiment somehow reinforced by the little grapefruit-sized rocks a deformed Gramsci had lifted as a child—now, I think it’s the rose I want to emphasize, a rose for Gramsci, and the notion of resilience. Not just of our intervening to nurture nature, to sustain ourselves ecologically, but of an individual capacity for resilience, a stoicism to resist, to learn and educate oneself, to promulgate a politics of emancipation even in incarceration, even in an inferno resembling Dante’s.
“It seems to me that under such conditions prolonged for years,” Gramsci told his younger brother Carlo (December 19, 1929),
and with such psychological experience, a person should have reached the loftiest stage of stoic serenity and should have acquired such a profound conviction that humans bear within themselves the source of their own moral strength, that everything depends on them, on their energy, on their will, on the iron coherence of the aims that they set for themselves and the means they adopt to realize them, that they will never again despair and lapse into those vulgar, banal states of mind that are called pessimism and optimism. My state of mind syntheses these two emotions and overcomes them: I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.
Today, those Gramsci’s flowers remind me of Elsa Morante’s epic novel called History, on the horrors of Nazism/fascism, and the rape of a young woman by a adolescent German soldier (killed a few days later on the front) and her fierce battle to raise her bastard child in the horror of it all, in a world Gramsci often said was “vast and terrible,” and her hope that hope would win out in the end, and her final words, Morante’s final note, borrowing from a Gramsci letter, never mentioning him by name, only his Turi prison number…7047: “All the seeds have failed except one; I don’t know what it is, but probably it is a flower and not a weed.” That’s it, that’s what I want to say: flowers will always outlast weeds.
Andy Merrifield is an independent scholar and the author of numerous books, including Dialectical Urbanism (Monthly Review Press, 2002), Magical Marxism (Pluto Press, 2011), and, most recently, The Amateur (Verso Books, 2018), What We Talk About When We Talk About Cities (and Love) (OR Books, 2018), and Marx, Dead and Alive (Monthly Review Press, 2020). He can be contacted at andymerrifield10 [at] gmail.com.
Republished from Andy Merrifield's Blog.
Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, launched by Hamas on October 7, 2023, was a huge blow to the settler-colonial state of Israel: Al-Qassam Brigades captured 20 settlements and 11 military sites in merely a few hours. The attacks on Israeli civilian and military outposts destroyed the narcissistic sense of security associated with the carefully orchestrated narratives of Zionist dominance, surveillance and intelligence. In the words of Saree Makdisi, the breakout “smashed, hopefully once and for all, the very idea that the Palestinians can just be ignored, talked to, or talked about rather than talking for and representing themselves, their interests and their rights.” Earlier, it was Palestinians who had to explain their presence and prove their humanity. Now, it is they are setting the contours of the narrative. That’s why Zionists are terrified.
Unqualified solidarity with the anti-colonial violence of the Palestinian resistance has been hindered by liberal humanism, a bourgeois ideology that uses abstract slogans of peace to accelerate the genocide of Palestinians. There are two components in this ideology. First, the supreme value of human life is proclaimed as an unproblematic moral statement, which everyone has to support. While liberal humanists may admit that the Israeli occupation has given rise to Palestinian violence, they remain adamant that the death of individuals can never be justified. Judith Butler, for instance, criticizes those who blame Zionist apartheid for contemporary violence, saying that “nothing should exonerate Hamas from responsibility for the hideous killings they have perpetrated”.
In the above conception, violence is conceived as an infringement of the individual human body, whose sanctity is guaranteed by an unquestionable morality. The physiological and juridical body is innately exposed to physical, psychological and moral persecution. This kind of body has no positive project; it is entirely defined by its vulnerability to attacks, which requires protection. Christopher Caudwell traces this ethical ideology to the systemic logic of the capitalist economy. In the struggle against feudal fetters, the bourgeoisie saw freedom as the abolition of social organization, as the ability of every individual to pursue his own affairs and interests. This is articulated “in the absolute character of bourgeois property together with its complete alienability.”
On the ideological terrain, this gives rise to the “bourgeois dream – freedom as the absolute elimination of social relations,” by which is meant the absence of any restraint on the ownership, acquisition and alienation of private property. Here, private property isn’t considered as a social restraint that should be abolished, as the bourgeois project is inevitably bound to its particularistic interests. When assembled into ethics, the bourgeois dream translates into ultra-individualist pacifism, wherein the purity of the soul has to be guarded from the “heinous guilt” of the “sin” that is violence. Caudwell calls this “spiritual laissez-faire,” which uses the commercial mentality of capitalists – its concern with economic status – to proclaim the right of remaining preoccupied with one’s own soul.
When liberal humanists talk about mushy-mushy sentiments of individual human life, it is crucial to ask whether such an abstraction even exists in the horrors of Israeli barbarism. On one side, we have settlers, whose material security is guaranteed by an authoritarian state apparatus. On the other side, we have natives, whose wretchedness is maintained through incessant violence. In this scenario, I ask you: where is the pristine divinity that you label as “human life”? I can only see the all-too onerous divides constructed by Zionist settler-colonialism. Preaching a higher moral reconciliation beyond these divides, trying to organize a peaceful dialogue between two completely antagonistic camps, is a pathetic attempt that is bound to fail. In the open-air concentration camp that is Gaza, it is criminal to think that there is an ever-present and ready-at-hand reserve of morality that can calm the clamor of reality. We have to dive into reality, into its thundering materiality, if we want to shoulder the global responsibility of solidarity that has been forced upon us by the Palestinian resistance.
When an interviewer told Ghassan Kanafani that it would be better for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) “to stop the war to stop the death,” Kanafani said, “Maybe to you, not to us. To us, to liberate our country, to have dignity, to have respect, to have our mere human rights; these are something as essential as life itself.” By absolutizing life, liberal humanists ignore how such a life doesn’t exist in a settler-colonial society. The boundary between life and death is not clear-cut. Huey P. Newton said, “I tell the comrades you can only die once, so do not die a thousand times worrying about it.” Liberal humanists ignore how death already walks among the Palestinians. This allows them to construe life as a personal capacity, as a possibility, that can be realized through a dialogue between the colonizer and the colonized. For the colonized, life is never a possibility. Colonialism is the violent closure of possibilities for the colonized. In the words of Mehdi Amel: “It…became impossible to define the structure of the colonized countries’ specific trajectories of becoming except within the colonial relation. What was possible before this relation became impossible after. This is what is novel in the structure of these countries’ history.”
Kanafani dispels the naive hope of humanistic possibility in the colonial context, starkly portraying the inhuman impossibility of peace talks between Israel and Palestine as “a conversation between the sword and the neck”. There is no mention here of the personal, biographical details of an abstract human life; they are replaced by impersonal metaphors. Why so? Because the liberal focus on human life conveys an ambience of integrity and security in a situation that is marked by disorder and destruction. By preserving the edifice of individual, non-violent agency, liberal humanism says that violence is optional, it is a matter of condonation or denunciation. Kanafani explodes this pious optimism by depicting Zionism as a structurally violent tool that is indifferent to our subjective feelings. Between the sword and the neck, there lies no other possibility than death.
The elision of the historical depth of Zionist violence is a core component of liberal humanism. Slavoj Žižek denounced the “barbarism” of Hamas by writing that the choice is not between Palestinian anti-colonial violence and Zionist settler-colonial violence but “between fundamentalists and all those who still believe in the possibility of peaceful coexistence”. The ruse of humanist possibility allows him to frame violence as a simplistic choice, whereas the toothless policy of dialogue comes off as the superior, more complex option. According to Joseph Stalin: “the Communists regard the substitution of one social system for another, not simply as a spontaneous and peaceful process, but as a complicated, long and violent process.” Here, the order of valuation is reversed. It is violence which is accorded the dignity of historical complexity. It is liberal humanism which is faulted for uncritically regarding the peacefulness of human life as an immediate, incontrovertible fact.
Reading Žižek, one is reminded of people whom Vladimir Lenin called the “spineless hangers-on of the bourgeoisie with intellectualist pretensions”. These “tyrannized, shocked and scared” intellectuals “have been flung into consternation at the sight of this unprecedentedly acute class struggle, have burst into tears, forgotten all their premises and demand that we perform the impossible, that we socialists achieve complete victory without fighting against the exploiters and without suppressing their resistance.” Decolonization is imagined as a peaceful project that can be “introduced” into the settler-colonial society. Liberal humanists forget how decolonization is forged in the intensity of national liberation, in “the struggles, the exploiters’ gnashing of teeth, or their diverse attempts to preserve the old order, or smuggle it back through the window”. What accounts for this ignorance? It can be traced to the liberal humanist delusion that a higher unity might emerge from the Zionist machine, that there is an element that might immediately unify the colonial compartments, that there is a humanist sensibility that lies hidden beneath colonialism. There is no such sensibility. Colonial violence has to be broken.
Instead of framing resistance in terms of the individual metric of human life, we have to take recourse to discourses that stress the concrete realities of colonized society. By inflating human life into a mythical capacity, liberal humanism paradoxically reveals a fundamental disregard for the human realities present in concrete societies. In order to avoid this extra-human concept, we must begin from the anti-colonial struggle. Liberal humanists begin with spiritual wishes for peace, attempting to convince people of an ideal method of resistance that will involve the least amount of death and suffering. Marxism doesn’t have any place for such a higher level of reconciliation. Lenin notes that Marxists appraise resistance “according to the class antagonisms and the class struggle which find expression in millions of facts of daily life.” Freedom is not a ready-made skill that can be invoked “in an atmosphere of cajoling and persuasion, in a school of mealy sermons or didactic declamations”. Rather, it is formed in the “school of life and struggle,” wherein the interests of the colonizers are exposed to the counter-interests of the colonized. Lenin puts it expressively:
“The proletariat must do its learning in the struggle, and stubborn, desperate struggle in earnest is the only real teacher. The greater the extremes of the exploiters’ resistance, the more vigorously, firmly, ruthlessly and successfully will they be suppressed by the exploited. The more varied the exploiters’ attempts to uphold the old, the sooner will the proletariat learn to ferret out its enemies from their last nook and corner, to pull up the roots of their domination, and cut the very ground which could (and had to) breed wage-slavery, mass poverty and the profiteering and effrontery of the money-bags.”
In a colonial situation, resistance is evaluated not according to the ethical ideology of human life but according to the contribution it makes to the opening of historical possibilities. Amilcar Cabral notes, “Resistance is the following: to destroy one thing for the sake of constructing another thing.” This terse statement is instructive because liberal humanists think of colonialism as a malleable arrangement that can be re-jigged to allow for a better outcome. Cabral brooks none of this. He identifies the inertia of colonialism that has to be destroyed, not merely reformed, to emancipate the colonized. It is because liberal humanists think that the possibility for life remains intact under colonialism that they are unable to appreciate the fight for such a life waged by the colonized. That’s why it is so clarifying to read Cabral’s searing words on the objective of national liberation:
“At the end of the day, we want the following: concrete and equal possibilities for any child of our land, man or woman, to advance as a human being, to give all of his or her capacity, to develop his or her body and spirit, in order to be a man or a woman at the height of his or her actual ability. We have to destroy everything that would be against this in our land, comrades. Step by step, one by one if it be necessary – but we have to destroy in order to construct a new life…our work is to destroy, in our resistance, whatever makes dogs of our people – men or women – so as to allow us to advance, to grow, to rise up like the flowers of our land, whatever can make our people valued human beings.”
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 Co-published with the Hampton Institute.
Western leftists often explain socialism as an extension of democratic values. Across professional spheres, this belief is propagated by some of the most popular figures in our movement. For instance, the acclaimed academic Noam Chomsky described socialism as “an extension of democracy into the social sphere.” Jacobin, the largest socialist publication in the United States, has published writers who explain the Soviet Union’s shortcomings as a natural byproduct of its “rotten foundations of authoritarianism.” Even the controversial NATO-aligned streamer Vaush claimed that the Soviet Union was not socialist because “[d]emocracy is necessary under socialism.”
But this view leads to misguided conclusions. One of which is the condemnation of all revolutions that do not occur at the ballot box. Under “socialism as democracy,” any societal transformation not voted upon by the majority is undemocratic and therefore not socialist.
History provides ample reason to doubt this supposition. Indeed, there is a long and illustrious history of progressive coups that all leftists should embrace. And this shows that revolutionaries should be open to a multiplicity of approaches to building socialism in our lifetimes.
For instance, the legendary pan-African Marxist Thomas Sankara never campaigned to become the president of Burkina Faso. Rather, he seized state power from within the military. Though he was assassinated in a (likely French-backed) counter-coup only four years later, he made immense strides in concretely improving the living standards of the masses in Burkina Faso. Under his direction, Burkina Faso achieved self-sufficiency in food production and vaccinated 2.5 million people (60% percent of the total population), raising the national vaccination rate from 17% to 77%. Literacy rates exploded from just 13% to 73% in less than five years. Additionally, he spearheaded the “One Village, One Grove” policy in Burkina Faso, spurring a grassroots mobilization of tree planting that added 10 million trees to Burkina Faso to combat desertification.
But Sankara’s legacy is not limited to agricultural, medical, educational, and environmental victories. He was also a staunch, outspoken feminist. As a Marxist, Sankara saw clearly how patriarchy was reinforced by the capitalist mode of production, and understood that the liberation of women was an inherent component of destroying capitalism. To that end, he prohibited female genital mutilation and forced marriage, amended the Constitution to guarantee female representation in the Cabinet, and ensured the Ministry of Education would protect women’s access to education.
Few, if any leaders have achieved a fraction of what Sakara was able to do for Burkina Faso and Africa more broadly. Why should we temper our support for him because he came to power undemocratically? His “authoritarian” seizure of the state is precisely what enabled him to achieve so much in such a short time. Nobody can contest that his government was undoubtedly progressive and, as materialists, we are bound to support progressive developments regardless of how “purely” these developments come to fruition. Our sole obligation is to liberate the working masses, and therefore we must uplift Sankara’s legacy.
Sankara is far from the only progressive leader who improved the lives of the masses through a revolutionary coup. In 1968, General Juan Velasco Alvarado seized power in a bloodless revolution and won substantial gains for the Peruvian proletariat — most notably, his large-scale campaign of industrial nationalization and redistribution of agricultural land to over 300,000 families.
Velasco also sought to free Peru from the extractive influence of Western multinationals by nationalizing a wide array of vital industries including telecommunications, energy (such as the International Petroleum Company, a subsidiary of Standard Oil), fisheries, and even American copper mines. His reforms were planned by the leading socialist intellectuals of the time.
Velasco’s nationalization policies were among the most radical in Western hemisphere. His expropriation of the landed oligarchy was second only to Cuba’s. Velasco stands as a powerful example of the rapid progress that follows determined socialist leadership.
Across the Atlantic, in 1974, a group of left-leaning Portuguese military officers known as the Armed Forces Movement toppled the fascist Estado Novo regime in a military coup known as the Carnation Revolution, directly leading to the liberation of Portuguese colonies. The Portuguese regime had spent over a decade fighting the unpopular Portuguese Overseas War to maintain their colonial possessions in Africa, sacrificing thousands of their own young men in the process. Only after the Carnation Revolution could the anti-war will of the people be realized. Who can rebuke such a direct improvement in the lives of both the Portuguese and colonized proletarians? Why should we jump to condemn this movement for its “lack” of democratic purity?
One consistent trigger to these progressive coups is a capitalist sociopolitical system that is most capable of subverting revolutionary struggle in the Global South and against hyper-exploited minorities in the imperial core, because it has the full weight of Western capital pitted against the poorest and most oppressed workers. This can leave revolutionaries with almost no practical solutions to advance material conditions outside of a progressive coup.
As Marxists, we should not celebrate the liberal-democratic dogma that our oppressors use to subjugate us. In the American context, the black liberation struggle provides us with a multitude of revolutionaries who clearly articulated this predicament. For instance, both Malcom X and Chairman Fred Hampton realized that capitalist liberal democracies were directly responsible for the invention of racism and held no qualms about using any means necessary to restore dignity for the colored and working masses of the United States.
Malcolm X most clearly indicated his indifference toward liberal morality in his famous speech ‘The Ballot or the Bullet.’ Throughout his delivery, he referred to those who myopically emphasized non-violent tactics as “chumps.” Challenging the legitimacy of the American political system, he exclaimed, “Uncle Sam is guilty of violating the freedom of 22 million Afro-Americans and still has the audacity to call himself the leader of the free world.”
X was widely known for his criticism of establishment civil rights leaders, lambasting them for advocating purely non-violent struggle against an exceedingly violent enemy. He correctly reminds his audience that “liberty or death is what brought about the freedom of whites in this country from the English.” Here, he implicitly asks the question: Why should we rigidly confine our movement to liberal tactics?
Any listener would ascertain that Malcom firmly believed in the legitimacy of armed struggle if it were to liberate the African American masses. In this speech he positively references the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, and the Vietnamese anti-colonial revolution as justified reactions to an oppressive system, contrasting them with the impotent yet palatable strategies that have consistently failed to ensure a semblance of material equality to black Americans.
Chairman Fred Hampton similarly had no issue with waging class struggle outside of democratic norms. In his speech “It’s a Class Struggle, Goddamnit!,” Hampton positively references the non-electoral victories of the Russian Revolution, Chinese Revolution, and the then-ongoing anti-colonial revolutions in Mozambique and Angola. The speech is replete with defenses of armed struggle against capitalist and imperialist forces of reaction. Hampton explicitly reminds his audience that despite one’s “revolutionary” aesthetic preferences, “political power doesn’t flow from the sleeve of a dashiki… [it] flows from the barrel of a gun.” While direct armed struggle was not the only revolutionary strategy that Hampton advocated for, clearly he and the Black Panther Party scoffed at notions of ideological purity that stood in the way of proletarian victory. They would surely reject the Western socialist notion that proletarian struggle should be confined to the ballot box. While many on the Left love to uplift the Black Panther Party’s illustrious history of revolutionary struggle and associate their own movements with it, apparently few have spent time studying Hampton’s own words.
These widely lauded revolutionaries provide insights our movement can and should apply to the present. Since 2020, a wave of progressive coups has swept across Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Niger, and Gabon. Seizing power from compradore governments, revolutionary juntas in the Sahel have deposed “democratic” leaders who have done nothing but facilitate and exacerbate the extractive neo-colonial relations keeping this resource-rich region in a state of destitution. These revolutionary movements realize Africa cannot utilize its vast resources until it neutralizes the influence of western capital, and recognize that liberal democracy often facilitates these interests at the expense of the African proletariat.
In the West, we are told repeatedly that Africa, particularly West Africa, is poor and underdeveloped. While it is true that this region is underdeveloped, it is undeniable that it is also one of the most resource rich regions on the planet. Some of the highest quality uranium in the world is located in Niger, but ironically its largest uranium mine is mostly owned by the French state while 90% of Niger’s population has no access to electricity. In 2010, Niger exported €3.5 billion worth of uranium to France, but only received €459 million in return. Similarly, in Gabon the vast majority of the country’s crude oil is sold abroad. For example, crude oil accounts for 96% of Gabon’s total exports to the United States. This is due to their neocolonial economy having no incentive to build adequate refinery infrastructure, leaving the value of their most profitable export at the whim of Western financial speculators.
Coup leaders like Burkina Faso’s president Ibrahim Traore have recognized that their countries face “the most barbaric form, the most violent manifestation, of neocolonialism and imperialism”. At the Russia-Africa Summit this past summer, Traore articulated how “African heads of state must stop acting like marionettes who dance each time the imperialists pull on our strings”. When the neocolonial alliance ECOWAS threatened military intervention in Niger to restore deposed president Mohamed Bazoum, the revolutionary juntas in Mali and Burkina Faso jointly declared “Any military intervention against Niger would be tantamount to a declaration of war against Burkina Faso and Mali.” A bloc of anti-imperial resistance has clearly blossomed in the Sahel, a movement Thomas Sankara laid the groundwork for. While Western imperialists attempt to destroy Sankara's vision, the popular support for these revolutionary coups demonstrates that the spirit of Sankara is alive and well in West Africa.
The collection of anti-colonial movements across the Sahel are justified and deserve our support. We should not oppose them merely because they defy the dogma that power must change hands electorally. The reality is that, as leftists, we must support any movement seriously dedicated to eradicating extractive neo-colonial systems. And that is the case whether or not it adheres perfectly to Western liberal-democratic ideals, or any other pretentious sense of purity that needlessly prohibits us from supporting anti-imperialist struggles wherever and however they arise.
Yohan Smalls is a socialist thinker analyzing liberal contradictions in the Western Left.
In honor of the anniversary of the founding of the Peoples Republic of China Earlier this week, we are republishing the third chapter from Garrido's The Purity Fetish and the Crisis of Western Marxism, which you may find HERE.
The stakes of the imperialist West’s New Cold War against China are as great as they can get. This means that the Western left’s role as controlled counter-hegemony and left-wing delegitimizers of socialist states – a role ideologically grounded in their purity fetish outlook – is as dangerous as it can get. In our current geopolitical climate, all progressive forces in the West should unite against the US and NATO’s anti-China rhetoric and actions. Unfortunately, what we find from large portions of this Western left is parroting of state-department narratives on China with radical-sounding language. Leading ‘socialist’ outlets in the US often echo baseless ruling class propaganda such as the ‘Uyghur genocide,’ Zero Covid authoritarianism, Belt and Road imperialism, debt trapping, and other similar fabrications. Far from a concrete-dialectical study of China, in many of these spaces the claims of the ruling class are just assumed to be true, and anyone who dares to question them – and henceforth, bring the real truth to light – is labeled a puppet of Xi Jinping and the ‘CCP’ (which, like the Western bourgeoisie, is continuously labeled by these ‘socialists’ as CCP and not CPC in order to play on CCCP fears from the last cold war).
Most of these tactics center on age-old claims of communist ‘authoritarianism,’ ‘totalitarianism,’ and all other such words used to equate fascism with communism and judge ‘democracy’ according to Western liberal-bourgeois standards. These assumptions and purity fetish engagements with Chinese socialist governance blind the Western Marxist from seeing China’s de facto geopolitical role as a beacon in the anti-imperialist struggle, in the Covid struggle, in the struggle for environmental sustainability, and in the struggle to develop with the darker nations which have been kept poor by centuries of colonialist and imperialist looting, debt traps, and superexploitation.
The unquestioned, purity fetish grounded, and Sinophobic assumption of Chinese ‘authoritarianism’ and ‘lack of democracy’ also prevents the Western Marxist from learning how the Chinese socialist civilization has been able to creatively embed its socialist democracy in “seven integrated structures or institutional forms (体制tizhi): electoral democracy; consultative democracy; grassroots democracy; minority nationalities policy; rule of law; human rights; and leadership of the Communist Party.” It has withheld them from seeing how a comprehensive study of this whole-process people’s democracy would lead any unbiased researcher to the conclusion Roland Boer has arrived at: namely, that “China’s socialist democratic system is already quite mature and superior to any other democratic system.” This is a position echoed by John Ross (and many other scholars of China), who argues that the “real situation shows that China’s framework and delivery on human rights and democracy is far superior to the West’s.”
The purity fetish Marxists of the West love to think about democracy in the abstract, and hold up as the pure ideal a notion of democracy which is only quantitatively different from the bourgeois notion. Then, this ideal notion of bourgeois democracy is measured up against the atrocity propaganda riddled caricature of socialist states which their ruling classes paint – and they unquestioningly accept. When the caricature of reality fails to measure up to the ideal, reality – which they have yet to engage with – is condemned. What the Western Marxist forgets – thanks to the purity fetish and their social chauvinism – is that in societies divided by class antagonisms we can never talk about ‘pure democracy,’ or abstract democracy in general; we must always ask - as Lenin did – “democracy for which class?” The ‘democracy’ and ‘democratic freedoms’ of capitalist to exploit and oppress will always be detrimental to working and oppressed peoples. Only an all-people’s democracy (a working and popular classes’ democratic-dictatorship) can be genuinely democratic, for it is the only time ‘power’ (kratos) is actually in the hands of ‘common people’ (dēmos).
To claim – as American capitalists, their puppet politicians and lapdog media, and their controlled counter-hegemonic ‘socialists’ do – that the US is a ‘beacon of democracy,’ and China an ‘authoritarian one-party system,’ is to hold on to a delusional topsy turvy view of reality. If democracy is considered from the standpoint of the capitalist’s ability to arbitrarily exert their will on society at the expense of working people and the planet, then, of course, the US is a beacon of this form of so-called ‘democracy,’ and China an ‘authoritarian’ regime that stands in the way of this ‘freedom.’ If instead, democracy is considered from the standpoint of common people’s ability to exert their power successfully over everyday affairs – that is, if democracy is understood in the people-centered form it etymologically stands for – then it would be indisputable that China is far more democratic than the US (and any other liberal-bourgeois ‘democracy’).
However, the object of this text is not to address and ‘debunk’ all the assertions made about China (or any other socialist country) from the Western left – specifically the Trotskyites and the Democratic Socialists. That would, for one, require a much more expansive project, and two, is a task that has already been done many times before. Projects like Friends of Socialist China and Qiao Collective consistently engage in the practice of debunking the propaganda on China proliferated by the Western ruling class and the ‘left.’ The objective of this text is different; it seeks not only to point out falsities in the Western left’s positions, but to understand the worldview which consistently reproduces these. I have called this worldview the purity fetish. In it we can find the ideological roots for the Western Marxist positions on China.
In the Western Marxist’s purity fetish assessment of China, it is held that because China doesn’t measure up to the pure socialist Ideal in their heads, because China does not have, as Samir Amin notes, “the communism of the twenty-third century,” – it is not actually socialism. The question of democracy and authoritarianism has already been assessed in previous chapters – it is a classic of the Western Marxist condemnation toolbox. My focus in this chapter will be on those who claim China is ‘capitalist’ because it developed private ownership and markets with the period of Reform and Opening Up in 1978. This form of the purity fetish centers on their inability to understand, in a dialectical manner, how markets and private property function within China’s socialism. China, according to these Western Marxists, took the ‘capitalist road’ in 1978. As Roland Boer has shown in his article “Not Some Other -ism”—On Some Western Marxist Misrepresentations of Chinese Socialism,” there are four major ‘sub-forms’ through which this first form of condemnation occurs: 1) capitalist socialism; 2) neoliberalism with Chinese characteristics; 3) bureaucratic capitalism; and 4) state capitalism. Often, variations of these can be found within the same critic, as none are the result of a rigorous, principled analysis.
As US and Western imperialist powers ramp up the New Cold War against China, Western Marxism’s erroneous purity fetish view of Chinese socialism requires closer examination.
The Purity Fetish and The Capitalist Road Thesis
From the moment that the Communist Party of China, spearheaded by Deng Xiaoping, embarked on the process of Reform and Opening Up in 1978, the Western world – both the hegemonic forces and the ‘socialist’ critics – held that China had taken the ‘capitalist road’ and betrayed the revolution. Opening up to foreign capital to develop the productive forces and modernize was considered a betrayal of socialism and the cause of the working class and peasantry. While it is understandable how, from the perspective of an outsider, this might have seemed to be the case, this judgment nonetheless reflects a deep ignorance of the debates shaping Reform and Opening Up, of the role that lessons from past socialist experiments played in crafting it (e.g., Lenin’s New Economic Policy, Chinese New Democracy, and Yugoslavian Socialist Market economics), and of the poverty of dialectical thinking present in their purity fetish outlook.
Reform and Opening Up did not come out of a void; Deng did not just wake up one day and voluntaristicly say, “let’s do this!” Instead, there were objective forces which made Reform and Opening Up the most viable route for the Chinese revolution to embark on. “Thirty-five years ago,” as Yi Wen writes, “China's per capita income was only one-third of that of sub-Saharan Africa.” Justin Yifu Lin, former chief economist and senior vice president of the World Bank, writes that “an estimated 30 percent of rural residents, about 250 million [people], lived below the poverty line, relying on small loans for production and state grants for food.” In a 1979 speech Deng notes that
China is still one of the world’s poor countries. Our scientific and technological forces are far from adequate. Generally speaking, we are 20 to 30 years behind the advanced countries in the development of science and technology.
China was, in short, still a very poor country, and one excluded from the developments of the rest of the world by the forces of imperialism. As Carlos Martinez notes, “China in 1978 remained backwards in many ways … the bulk of the population lived in a very precarious existence, many without access to modern energy and safe water … China’s per capita income was $210, [and] food production, and consequently average food consumption, was insufficient.”
The Importance Marxism Lays on the Development of the Productive Forces
These conditions made the construction of socialism increasingly difficult, and, if allowed to continue, could have created fertile ground for national discontent in the revolutionary process. If the people’s living standards continued to drag in comparison to the rest of the world, the Chinese – as many Russians did in the late 1980s and early 1990s – could lose trust in their party and in socialist construction. It was clear that a change was needed to remove the fetters preventing the development of the forces of production. The Marxist tradition has always understood that only in the development of the forces of production can socialism flourish. In Capital Vol. I, for instance, Marx writes that:
The development of society's productive forces… [create the]… material conditions of production which alone can form the real basis of a higher form of society, a society in which the full and free development of every individual forms the ruling principle.
It is the development of “the material conditions and the social combination of the process of production” which “ripens,” in the capitalist mode of life, “both the elements for forming a new society and the forces tending towards the overthrow of the old one.” As with other modes of life, Marxist have long understood that capitalist relations of production, while at one point being “forms of development [for] the productive forces,” have in time “turn[ed] into their fetters.” Socialist relations of production have always been understood to have the capacity of breaking through these fetters and helping unleash the forces of production. As Marx famously writes in Capital Vol. I.,
The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. Thus integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.
A similar argument is made by Engels in his celebrated Socialism: Utopian and Scientific:
The expansive force of the means of production bursts asunder the bonds imposed upon them by the capitalist mode of production. Their release from these bonds is the sole prerequisite for an unbroken, ever more rapidly advancing development of the productive forces, and thus of a practically unlimited growth of production itself.
In his “Critique of the Gotha Program,” while elaborating on some general characteristics and preconditions for the highest phase of communist society, Marx would say that,
In the highest phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banner: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!
Capitalist relations of production in time become a barrier for human progress – both in the forces of production, i.e., the economic base of society, but also in culture, politics, arts, philosophy i.e., the superstructure of society. While more progressive than the feudal orders which preceded it in Europe, capitalism produces an enormous waste. It wastes labor, human potential, nature, and everything in between. As British socialist William Morris eloquently stated, “The truth is that our system of Society is essentially a system of waste.” Not only would socialist relations of production remove the artificial fetters created by a society wherein production is aimed at profit, but also the extreme wastefulness in labor, life, and things created by such anarchic production for-profit. As Engels argues,
The social appropriation of the means of production puts an end not only to the current artificial restrictions on production [i.e., capitalist fetters], but also to the positive waste and devastation of productive forces and products… It sets free for the community at large a mass of means of production and products by putting an end to the senseless luxury and extravagance of the present ruling classes and their political representatives. [This affords] the possibility of securing for every member of society, through social production, an existence which is not only perfectly adequate materially and which becomes daily richer, but also guarantees him the completely free development and exercise of his physical and mental faculties.
The emphasis on the development of the forces of production has led critics of Marxism to argue that socialism would reproduce the same ‘productivism’ as capitalist society. This depicts a fundamental poverty of dialectical thinking. Yes, socialism seeks to unleash the productive forces and create the sort of abundance wherein the human community can “leap from the kingdom of necessity into the kingdom of freedom.” However, this growth is people-centered, not capital-centered. The aim of the development of the forces of production is not the accumulation of endless profit in a small group of hands. Far from this capitalist telos, which grows without regard for nature and human life, socialist growth is centered on creating conditions for the greatest amount of human flourishing – something which necessarily implies de-alienating humans from nature and overcoming the metabolic rifts capitalist production unquestionably creates.
Instead of carrying out production in environmentally unsustainable ways – as capitalism does – socialist production allows for both developments in the productive forces and – because of its efficiency and momentum towards the elimination of superfluous waste – for this development to be carried out in a metabolic harmony with nature. As Marx argues in Capital Vol. III., communist production would
Govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power; accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature.
This harmonious metabolism, or balance, can be seen most clearly in China’s efforts to build a socialist ecological civilization – a task it embarked on at the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 2007. As it reads in the latest update to the CPC’s constitution, following the 20th National Congress of the CPC in 2022, the Party must “work to balance … relations between humankind and nature.” “Harmony between humankind and nature,” as the constitution argues, is a fundamental component “in building a socialist ecological civilization” capable of creating “a positive path to development that ensures increased production, higher living standards, and healthy ecosystems.” This dialectic of sustainable development, central to Marx and Engels’s understanding of socialism, finds its highest concrete form to date in China’s efforts to construct a socialist ecological civilization. As John Bellamy Foster, who has spearheaded the movement towards emphasizing the ecological dimensions of Marx and Engels’s thought, has argued: China’s “developments reflect the recognition of a dialectic in this area that has long been part of Marxist theory.” In so doing, Foster argues, “China’s role in promoting ecological civilization as a stage in the development of socialism can be seen as its greatest gift to the world at present in terms of environmental governance.”
Deng and Reform and Opening Up
Although the cultural revolution had come to halt in 1976, similar forms of dogmatism and book worshiping remained for some time. Hua Guofeng’s two whatevers (“We will resolutely uphold whatever policy decisions Chairman Mao made, and unswervingly follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave”), for instance, perpetuated the sort of book worshiping which not only sucked the living spirit out of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought, but proved futile in dealing with the problems China faced.
“The emancipation of minds,” as Deng eloquently noted, was indispensable; historical conditions had developed such that many cadres, especially many leading cadres, remained fettered by rigid thinking and book worshiping. Under the justification of following Mao, they would participate in the same form of book worshiping Mao urged to overcome. The needs of the time, therefore, were elaborated by Deng in the following manner:
Only if we emancipate our minds, seek truth from facts, proceed from reality in everything and integrate theory with practice, can we carry out our socialist modernization programme smoothly, and only then can our Party further develop Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought.
The process of Reform and Opening Up required the liberation of thought from the dogmatism that wanted to perpetuate more of the same. To achieve the four modernizations Zhou Enlai enumerated (initially theorized as the second stage of the third five-year plan), namely, “the comprehensive modernization of agriculture, industry, national defense and science and technology before the end of the century, so that our national economy will be advancing in the front ranks of the world,” the emancipation of the mind from book worshiping and dogmatism was necessary. To be able to understand the world dialectically, to seek truth from facts, the Chinese needed to emancipate the mind. With the mind emancipated, the inflexible rigidity which rejected Reform and Opening Up could be destroyed, and a new phase of development in the Chinese revolution emerge.
It must be noted that, regardless of the pre-’78 flaws Reform and Opening Up sought to overcome, it marked a new phase in the development of the Chinese revolution, not a ‘break’ with the pre-’78 era. There are, as Carlos Martinez notes, ‘no great walls,’
In each stage of its existence, the CPC has sought to creatively apply and develop Marxism according to the prevailing concrete circumstances; always seeking to safeguard China’s sovereignty, maintain peace, and build prosperity for the masses of the people. Through many twists and turns, this has been a constant of a hundred years of Chinese Revolution.
Regardless of certain failures and excesses of the pre-’78 era (most notably found in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution), it was successful in many areas, and without both its successes and failures, Reform and Opening Up could not have occurred. As Cheng Enfu has argued, “the historical period after reform and opening-up cannot be used to negate the historical period before reform and opening-up, and vice versa.” The successes of Reform and Opening Up, as Samir Amin notes, “would not have been possible without the economic, political, and social foundations that had been built up in the preceding period.” Hu Angang writes that “China succeeded in feeding one-fifth of the world’s population with only 7 percent of the world’s arable land and 6.5 percent of its water … China’s pre-1978 social and economic development cannot be underestimated.” “In 1949,” for instance, “the country’s population was 80 percent illiterate,” by 1978, this was “reduced to 16.4 percent in urban areas and 34.7 percent in rural areas.” In the first three decades of the People’s Republic of China, “the enrolment of school-age children increased from 20 to 90 percent; and the number of hospitals tripled.”
The successes of the pre-1978 era can be lucidly seen when compared to India. As Carlos Martinez notes, “following independence from the British Empire in 1947, [India] was in a similarly parlous state, with a life expectancy of 32 … At the end of the pre-reform period in China, i.e., 1978, India’s life expectancy had increased to 55, while China’s had increased to 67.” John Ross observes that “this sharply growing difference was not because India had a bad record – as an increase of 22 years in life expectancy over a 31-year period graphically shows … it is simply that China’s performance was sensational – life expectancy increased by 32 years in a 29-year chronological period - an annual average increase of 2.3%.” This was a world-historical success, as Ross writes, “China's rate of increase of life expectancy in the three decades after 1949 was the fastest ever recorded in a major country in human history.” Therefore, the post-1978 successes cannot be isolated from the role the pre-1978 successes played in laying the ground for the following phase of the revolution. “The early decades of socialist construction,” as the Tricontinental Institute’s report on China’s poverty alleviation shows, “laid the foundation that was deepened during the reform and opening-up period.”
For all its successes, 1978 China was still very poor and well-behind the Western powers. It was clearly observable by the late ‘70s “that China’s economy required an infusion of technology and capital, and that it needed to break its isolation from the world market.” China was beginning to suffer in ways similar to the Soviet Union in its last years. As Domenico Losurdo notes,
the China that arose from the Cultural Revolution resembled the Soviet Union to an extraordinary degree in its last years of existence: the socialist principle of compensation based on the amount and quality of work delivered was substantially liquidated, and disaffection, disengagement, absenteeism and anarchy reigned in the workplace.
The overreliance on “voluntarism and ‘moral incentives’ to raise production” began to “suffer from diminishing returns.” Like in the USSR, reforms became necessary to not lose the people.
While there are some superficial similarities between Perestroika and Reform and Opening Up, there are fundamental differences upon which the difference of outcomes is grounded. As Carlos Martinez has written, the reforms in the USSR were top-down, rushed, delegitimizing for the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the socialist experiment’s history (i.e., embedded in denigrating the party and its history – the latter of which the Chinese have labeled ‘historical nihilism’); economically, privatization and marketization were carried out recklessly; key industries the state should have sustained under its control were privatized, and the state grew less capable of commanding the economy towards the pathways which would develop, and not enervate, the revolution. As Martinez notes, “given that the project was presented as a form of ‘democratization,’ it’s ironic that it was carried out in a profoundly undemocratic manner… the leadership didn’t mobilize the existing, proven structures of society (the soviets and the Communist Party) but sought to bypass and weaken them.”
On the other hand, the Chinese reforms were carried out in a pragmatic, grassroots, and incremental fashion – the party was never denigrated, historical nihilism was combated, key industries remained under the control of the CPC and the market activity which developed was commanded by the party to serve the ends of socialism. “Practice,” as Deng said, was “the sole criterion for testing truth.” What succeeded in advancing the cause of socialism at the time was sustained, and what failed was abandoned. “The whole process” of Reform and Opening Up “was carried out under the tight control of the government and took place within the context of a planned economy.”
As Arthur Kroeber has noted, “the government will pursue reforms that increase the role of the market in setting prices, but will avoid reforms that permit the market to transfer control of assets from the state to the private sector.” To use a metaphor often brought up by Xi Jinping, the development of the invisible hand (the market) was not to the detriment of, but to the enhancement of, the visible hand (the state). A similar phenomenon is observable with public and private ownership. As Cheng Enfu argues in China’s Economic Dialectic, “in order to improve the ownership structure of the whole society in which public ownership is dominant and private ownership is auxiliary, it is essential to enhance the symbiosis and complementarity of the two ownerships under market competition and state orientation.” “The result was,” as Martinez writes, “a far more effective programme of economic reform than that which took place in the Soviet Union from 1985-1991 or in post-Soviet Russia from 1991 onwards.”
The importance of not allowing economic liberalization in China to turn into political liberalization cannot be emphasized enough. In the USSR, as Cheng Enfu and Liu Zixu argue, there were three distinct categories of cause behind the fall of Soviet socialism: ideological, organizational, and political.
Ideological Causes: “Amid the rigid theorizing inside and outside of the CPSU, and given the lack of democratic and effective education and ideological work, Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin and the strategy of peaceful evolution followed by the West created long-term ideological chaos, which constituted the theoretical foundation and ideational precursor.”
Organizational Causes: “The large number of non-Marxist cadres that the CPSU promoted and placed in important positions led to a serious malfunctioning of systems and mechanisms that could not be put right in an effective and timely manner. The unfair and undemocratic procedures used to select members of the CPSU’s leading group gradually allowed non-Marxist cadres to take over leading positions within the CPSU… Over a few years, in the name of promoting young cadres and of reform, [they] replaced large number of party, political and military leaders with anti-CPSU and anti-socialist cadres or cadres with ambivalent positions. This practice laid the foundations, in organizational and cadre selection terms, for the political ‘shift of direction.’”
Political Causes: “The CPSU leadership betrayed Marxism and socialism, a betrayal that could not be overcome using the traditional political system and its corresponding mechanisms, which were highly centralized and imposed no restrictions… In short, the group headed by Gorbachev and Yeltsin exploited the highly centralized and insufficiently regulated political system and its mechanisms in order to betray Marxism, socialism and the fundamental interests of the vast majority of the people. Here are to be found the political roots and direct cause of the dramatic changes in the Soviet Union and the countries of Eastern Europe.” 
At the core of the differences in reforms between China and the USSR, and of the Soviet degeneration going back to Khrushchev, is the lack of awareness of the fundamental distinction between economic and political capital drawn out by Mao. In his 1957 speech given to the Conference of Secretaries of Provincial, Municipal and Autonomous Regions Party Committee, Mao would say that by having bought over the capitalist, the revolution has “deprived them of their political capital.” Here is a very important distinction between political and economic capital. Mao would say that “we must deprive them of every bit of their political capital and continue to do so until not one jot is left to them.” The development of capital, controlled under the people’s democratic dictatorship, “serves the purpose” of developing the productive forces and “of clearing a still wider path for the development of socialism.” As Domenico Losurdo has eloquently noted,
It is, therefore, a matter of distinguishing between the economic expropriation and the political expropriation of the bourgeoisie. Only the latter should be carried out to the end, while the former, if not contained within clear limits, risks undermining the development of the productive forces. Unlike ‘political capital,’ the bourgeoisie’s economic capital should not be subject to total expropriation, at least as long as it serves the development of the national economy and thus, indirectly, the cause of socialism.
Whereas the leadership of the CPSU betrayed “socialism, the party and the people” and put capital in the driver’s seat, the CPC used (and uses) capital to enhance and develop socialism, the party, and the people. Reform and Opening Up has not undone the expropriation of political capital from the capitalists. Regardless of how developed capital has become in China, it has been restricted from political capital. In China, political capital is monopolized in the hands of the Party and the people. It is a people’s democratic dictatorship which uses capital to serve its needs, not the other way around. By sustaining the dictatorship of the proletariat (people’s democratic dictatorship), China has not only secured itself from the crumbling fate of the USSR, but has been able to develop into the global beacon of socialism leading the modern world against US/NATO unipolar hegemony.
This distinction was well understood by Deng, who argued that “if China allowed bourgeois liberalization, there would inevitably be turmoil … we would accomplish nothing, and our principles, policies, line and three-stage development strategy would all be doomed to failure.” All throughout Reform and Opening Up, even in the most difficult of times (e.g., the ‘Wild 90s’) the four cardinal principles have been upheld: 1) We must keep to the socialist road; 2) We must uphold the dictatorship of the proletariat; 3) We must uphold the leadership of the Communist Party; 4) We must uphold Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought.
Reform and Opening Up developed as a necessary phase in the Chinese revolutionary process, wherein an overly centralized economy, combined with imperialist-forced isolation from the world, stifled development and necessitated reforms which would allow China to develop its productive forces, absorb the developments taking place in science and technology from the West, and ultimately, protect its revolution. Far from being a ‘betrayal of socialism,’ as the Western Marxist holds, Reform and Opening Up saved socialism. Not just in China, but – as China’s current geopolitical role makes clear – in the world.
What Western Marxists Fail to Understand Thanks to the Purity Fetish
At the height of the carnage of the first imperialist World War, Karl Kautsky, the representative of social democracy and the Second International, would sophistically blabber about how the present war was not “purely imperialist” because, in part, it contained “national” aspirations from the working masses, especially those in Serbia. By emphasizing the lack of a “pure imperialism,” and by seeing the Serbian national bourgeois struggle in a reified manner, isolated from the context of the imperialist war, Kautsky was setting the grounds for his social chauvinist and right opportunist support for the war. Lenin would magnificently reply to this by saying that,
In the present war the national element is represented only by Serbia’s war against Austria. It is only in Serbia and among the Serbs that we can find a national-liberation movement of long standing, embracing millions, ‘the masses of the people,’ a movement of which the present war of Serbia against Austria is a ‘continuation.’ If this war were an isolated one, i.e., if it were not connected with the general European war, with the selfish and predatory aims of Britain, Russia, etc., it would have been the duty of all socialists to desire the success of the Serbian bourgeoisie as this is the only correct and absolutely inevitable conclusion to be drawn from the national element in the present war.
However, Marxist dialectics, as the last word in the scientific-evolutionary method, excludes any isolated examination of an object, i.e., one that is one-sided and monstrously distorted.
The absence of dialectical thinking in Kautsky is apparent in his reified assessment of the Serbian national struggle. Because this national struggle, in his eyes, desecrates the purity of the imperialist war, the ground is set for supporting imperialism under the guise of supporting national liberation. The reality, of course, is that the first imperialist war was a conflict between the great imperialist powers for the division of the world. Far from being a national liberation war, it was a war amongst empires fighting to colonize greater and greater parts of the world. The absence of dialectical thought in Kautsky, embedded within his social chauvinism and right opportunism, leads him to support the imperialist war for reasons completely contrary to what the war actually represented. Enslavement is dressed up by Kautsky’s sophistry in the garbs of emancipation.
By expecting a ‘pure’ imperialism, the ‘impurity’ Kautsky observes opens the door for supporting imperialism. But for a dialectician, to expect purity out of any phenomenon in life is to resign oneself to falsity, to misunderstanding the world. As Lenin would eloquently respond,
There are no ‘pure’ phenomena, nor can there be, either in Nature or in society—that is what Marxist dialectics teaches us, for dialectics shows that the very concept of purity indicates a certain narrowness, a one-sidedness of human cognition, which cannot embrace an object in all its totality and complexity. There is no ‘pure’ capitalism in the world, nor can there be; what we always find is admixtures either of feudalism, philistinism, or of something else.
Like all phenomena in nature and human thought, every historically constituted mode of production is heterogeneous, that is, it is never purely one – the dominant – mode of production, but always contains auxiliary forms of production inherited from the past and transformed in light of the new conditions. This is a position very clear in Marx’s writings, which holds not only true for the mode of production (i.e., the economic base), but also for the juridical, philosophical, and political superstructures. As Marx writes in the Grundrisse, “in all forms of society there is one specific kind of production which predominates over the rest, whose relations thus assign rank and influence to the others.” Marx also observes this at play in the difference interest bearing capital in capitalism has with usurer’s capital in pre-capitalist production:
What distinguishes interest-bearing capital – in so far as it is an essential element of the capitalist mode of production – from usurer's capital is by no means the nature or character of this capital itself. It is merely the altered conditions under which it operates, and consequently also the totally transformed character of the borrower who confronts the money-lender.
A similar activity, once it is embedded in a different, more developed social totality, functions in accordance with the new totality of social relations it is in. This is nothing new, it is simply a law of dialectics, and hence, of the movement and interconnection of all things. This law is called the negation of the negation (or sublation, and in German, aufhebung), and it describes the processes wherein the old is simultaneously canceled and preserved while being elevated into something new. Usurer’s capital, for instance, is the universal which is reconcretized in a sublated form as interest bearing capital in the particular, i.e., in the capitalist mode of production. Without a proper understanding of dialectics, in other words, without a concrete understanding of the world, the important differences created by a change in context is obscured and treated one-sidedly.
Whereas Kautsky would use the ‘impurity’ of imperialism to support it, today’s Western Marxists use the ‘impurity’ of socialism in China to condemn it. China’s economy is not purely dominated by public ownership and distribution is not purely controlled by state central planning; private ownership plays an auxiliary role and state central planning is dialectically enmeshed with the socialist market economy. These ‘impurities’ are used by the Western Marxist to condemn China for not being actually socialist, i.e., not living up to their purity fetish mediated idea of what socialism entails. In both cases, the expectation of purity is fundamental for positions which ultimately side with imperialism. In other words, in both cases the purity fetish is a fundamental ideological component for ‘Marxists’ turning their backs on emancipatory movements in the global south and siding with the imperialist core.
Holding purity as the standard in judgment, as we learn from Lenin and Marx, is fundamentally mistaken – it divorces one from truth and often, thanks to a one-sided and topsy-turvy interpretation of world affairs, leads one to side with the exploiters against the exploited. The Western Marxists, genealogically rooted in the eclecticism, right opportunism, and purity fetish thought of the Second International, make the same (and worse) mistakes in their assessments of China today. In prominent thinkers such as Slavoj Žižek, David Harvey, Maurice Meisner and many others, post-’78 China is described through a dualist paradigm which reduces its economy to being ‘capitalist’ (because of the auxiliary role of private ownership and the market) and its state to being ‘authoritarian’ (because of the failure to live up to the standard of ‘democracy’ in the liberal West). Out of this framework a plethora of terminological conjunctures, such as capitalist socialism, bureaucratic capitalism, neoliberalism “with Chinese characteristics,” and state capitalism, have arisen to re-classify and condemn China. Bureaucratic capitalism and state capitalism, of course, are not new – these have a long history of being used by Trotskyites and others in the compatible left to condemn the USSR.
What is common to all of these descriptions is a failure of dialectical thought – an inability to observe China’s construction of socialism as an ongoing process which will contain – as all things in the world do – internal contradictions which drive its development. In short, what is common in these descriptions (and others) is the purity fetish outlook with which China is examined. If their pure standard of what a socialist economy is supposed to be (absolutely everything under public ownership and central planning – something not even the Soviet Union had) is not met, and if the paradigm of liberal democracy is rejected in favor of a democratic people’s dictatorship, then reality must be condemned for the sake of the pure ideal; that is, China must not actually be socialist because it does not measure up to my Western Marxist standards and biases. Contrary to this purity fetish outlook, “a dialectical approach to modes of production,” would see that “different modes of production … can be included within a dominant mode that is far from being uniform or global.”
The purity fetish ‘Marxists’ must remember what Engels said of definitions.
From a scientific standpoint all definitions are of little value. In order to gain an exhaustive knowledge of what life is, we should have to go through all the forms in which it appears, from the lowest to the highest. But for ordinary usage such definitions are very convenient and in places cannot well be dispensed with; moreover, they can do no harm, provided their inevitable deficiencies are not forgotten.
In the purity fetish Marxists, Marxism, that is, scientific socialism, loses its scientific character. Things are no longer seen in their movement and interconnections, but treated abstractly and in a reified manner. Socialism becomes a rigid definition, with a series of characteristics reality must meet in order to be labeled as ‘socialist.’ Scientific socialism is killed with the purity fetish – for socialism is not, as Marx and Engels wrote, “a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself,” socialism is instead “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.” For Marx and Engels, as dialectical materialists, primacy was in the real movement of society, not in the abstract ideal (which is, nonetheless, not rejected as a goal to strive towards).
In V.I. Lenin’s ‘Conspectus to Hegel’s Science of Logic’ he states that,
It is impossible completely to understand Marx’s Capital, and especially its first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic. Consequently, half a century later none of the Marxists understood Marx!
The central message in Lenin’s (rather audacious) statement is this: without a proper understanding of dialectics, Marxism is bound to be misunderstood. A century later and still, Western Marxists struggle to understand Marx, and hence, to understand the world through the Marxist worldview. This is lucidly seen in their treatment of China’s usage of markets, where they dogmatically accept Ludwig von Mises’ stale binary which states – “the alternative is still either Socialism or a market economy.”
As Roland Boer highlights, already in Capital Vol 3 (specifically chapter 36 on “Pre-Capitalist Relations”) Marx shows how markets existed in the slave economies of the ancient world, e.g., Rome and Greece, and in the feudal economies of the Middle Ages. Were the markets in each of these historical periods the same? Were they commensurable to how markets exist under capitalism? No. As Roland Boer states in his book Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, “market economies may appear to be similar, but it is both the arrangement of the parts in relation to each other and the overall purpose or function of the market economy in question that indicates significant differences between them.” As Boer points out, Chinese scholars, following the analysis of Marx’s Capital Vol 3, understand that “market economies have existed throughout human history and constitute one of the significant creations by human societies.” If markets, then, predate the capitalist mode of production, why would a socialist mode of production not be able to utilize them?
The essential components of a market economy must be understood in the larger socio-economic relations in which they are embedded. While the forms in which market economies show up in Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages appear as the historical preconditions for the capitalist mode of production, these cannot be called ‘capitalist.’ In so far as these market economies existed outside of the capitalist mode of production, they can be ‘de-linked,’ from capitalism – and hence, their potential to be used in a socialist mode of production (especially one in its lowest stages) is completely possible. The problem is that the Western Marxist’s purity fetish considers, as Von Mises did, capitalism to be synonymous with ‘markets,’ and socialism to be synonymous with ‘planning.’ In reality, the institutional form of markets exists usually along with the institutional form of planning within capitalism itself – especially in its monopoly stage. To take this institutional form and reduce it to being a uniquely capitalist phenomenon is to participate in what Roland Boer and Chinese Marxists have called economics imperialism.
As Leigh Phillips and Michael Rozworski argue in The People’s Republic of Wal-Mart, “Walmart is a prime example” of “centrally planned enterprises” whose scale allows them to function as “centrally planned economies.” In fact, “almost all countries are mixed economies that include various combinations of markets and planning.” Does this mean that Walmart is socialist? Only a fool would say yes. What it does show is that both planning and market institutional forms are conditioned by the socio-economic systems they are embedded in. Walmart’s planned economy is planned by capitalists to secure profits for the owners and shareholders of the enterprise. China’s socialist market economy is embedded within a larger socialist socio-economic system which conditions the market towards the common good, not just towards the profits of a few.
Chinese Marxism, following upon the tradition of Eastern European socialism (Lenin’s New Economic Policy, Yugoslavia’s socialist market economy, etc.), and the CPC’s tradition of mixed ownership and combined market and planning institutional forms (which can be traced back from the liberated areas in the 1920s to the late 1940s), was able to ‘de-link’ markets from capitalism and utilize them as a method (fangfa) and means (shouduan) to serve (fuwu) the ends of socialism, that is, to liberate the forces of production and guarantee collective flourishing. If the last four decades – wherein China has drastically raised its population’s living standards and lifted 800 million people out of poverty – has taught us anything, it is that China’s usage of markets as a shouduan to fuwu socialism works.
Considering the plethora of advances China has been able to make for its population and the global movement for socialism, why have Western Marxist continuously insisted that China’s market reforms are a betrayal of socialism and a deviation down the ‘capitalist road’? Unlike some of the other Western misunderstandings of China, this one isn’t merely a case of yixi jiezhong, of “using Western frameworks or categories to understand China,” for, if the dialectical framework and categories the Marxist tradition inherits from Hegel were properly applied, there would be no misunderstanding at all. Instead, it is precisely the absence of this dialectical framework which leads to the categorical mistakes.
In both Hegel and in the dialectical materialist tradition, universals are understood to be empty if not concretized through the particular. To separate the role the particular plays for the realization of the universal is to treat the universal abstractly – to disconnect it from the developments and interconnections which allow it to be actual. Since markets have existed throughout various modes of production, within the dialectic of universal and particular, markets stand as the universal term. There is no such thing as a ‘market in general,’ markets necessarily exist through a determinate – historically conditioned – form. The form the market takes is determined by the mode of production the market exists in. As an institutional form within the ‘moment of exchange,’ markets are determined by – and hence, reciprocally influence – the mode of production.
Markets, Boer argues, as a “specific building block or component of a larger system” are a “universal institutional form” (tizhi), which can only be brought into concrete existence via a particular socio-economic system (zhidu). Since the particular zhidu through which the universal institutional form of a market comes into existence is a “basic socialist system” (shehuizhuyi jiben zhidu), the fundamental nature of how the tizhi functions will be different to how that tizhi functioned under the particular zhidu of slave, feudal, and capitalist modes of production. As Huang Nansen said, “there is no market economy institutional form that is independent of the basic economic system of society.”
As was the case with the planned institutional form in the first few decades of the revolution, the market institutional form has been able to play its part in liberating the productive forces and drastically raising the living standards of the Chinese people. However, because 1) China took this creative leap of grounding the market institutional form in socialism, and because 2) Western Marxists retain an anti-dialectical purity fetish for the planned institutional form, 3) the usage of markets in China is taken as a desecration of their Western Marxist pseudo-Platonic socialist ideal. It is ultimately a categorical mistake to see the usage of markets as ‘taking the capitalist road’ or as a ‘betrayal of the revolution.’ It is, in essence, a bemusing of the universal for the particular, of the institutional form for the socio-economic system. As Boer asserts, “to confuse a market economy with a capitalist system entails a confusion between commonality and particularity.”
The Importance of Supporting China
Today China stands as the main global force countering US/NATO led imperialism. Its rise signifies much more than the end of US unipolarity – it marks the end of the Columbian era of European global dominance that began in 1492. Today, the rise of China goes hand-in-hand with the rise of Africa, Latin-America, and other Asiatic civilizations. Through the Belt and Road Initiative and other programs, China’s development has mutually developed its international trading partners – especially those in the global South. Africa, a continent with a plethora of resources and potential, has been pillaged by the West for five centuries. It has been kept poor while its resources and people’s labor made the West rich. China’s rise and win-win relations with Africa has, on the contrary, helped develop African infrastructure and elevate the living standards of the African peoples. While Western pundits have a frenzy over the potential of Africa taking the Chinese route, more and more African leaders are starting to see China not only as a trading partner and ally, but as a model which can help them develop and break their enslavement to Western imperialism. The same is true with Latin America, the Middle-East, and the other parts of the world which European leaders see as ‘the jungle.’
The World Bank reports that
Over the past 40 years, the number of people in China with incomes below US $1.90 per day—the international poverty line as defined by the World Bank to track global extreme poverty—has fallen by close to 800 million. With this, China has accounted for almost 75 percent of the global reduction in the number of people living in extreme poverty. In 2021, China declared that it has eradicated extreme poverty according to the national poverty threshold, lifting 770 million people out of poverty since 1978, and that it has built a ‘moderately prosperous society in all respects.’
China is emerging in every category imaginable as the forefront civilization advancing humanity into a new historical stage. It has “the longest and most extensively used high-speed rail (HSR) network in the world;” it has developed, with maglev technology, the fastest train in the world; it has been, over the last 40 years, by far the fastest growing economy in the world – doing so at a speed never before seen in world-history (defying Western economist’s decades-long repeated predictions of slowdowns and collapses); in building its ecological civilization, it has indubitably been the vanguard in the fight against climate change; it has pushed back, over the last few years, against US led imperialist attacks on Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Syria, Russia, Iran, and others; in short, it has developed as the beacon of freedom, socialism, and progress for the new world we are entering into.
Is it perfect? No. This is something they publicly recognize. As proficient dialecticians in governance – which they call ‘contradiction analysis’ over there – they understand that such perfection – such purity – is impossible. There are always contradictions to be resolved, and which, when overcome, give way to new contradictions. This is a basic law of the movement in all things in the world. But, it cannot be denied that while the American civilization train has been stopped in its tracks for decades, experiencing degeneration as the only form of change – the Chinese civilization train races towards the future at an unprecedented speed. It represents not only the advance of China and socialism – but of humanity at large. Any rational human being – let alone one who claims to adhere to Marxism – should see clearly why this is a project we must protect from the imperialist claws that seek to destroy it; the same claws that exploit and oppress us at home.
While the US encircles China with military bases and new imperialist alliances like AUKUS; while its Sinophobic politicians and media fabricate atrocity propaganda – from the ‘Chinavirus’ to ‘Uyghur Genocide’ and ‘Chinese Spy Balloons’ – in order to manufacture consent for a war with China which they predict taking place by 2025; it becomes the utmost duty of American socialists and communists to defend China, to expose the atrocity propaganda as just that – propaganda – designed to, as Michael Parenti wrote, “invent another reality.”
The defense of China from imperialist attacks is not a task which is disconnected from the struggles of the working class in the imperial core. On the contrary, there are a few reasons why both of these struggles should be seen as interrelated: 1) it is the tax dollars of American working people which are being used to fight wars abroad, while back at the ranch the American people’s lives keep getting worse; 2) sooner or later, it will be American workers which will be sent out to fight in wars to defend a hegemonic order that keeps them poor, and systematically sends them out to die, lose limbs, and acquire PTSD fighting against people whom they have more in common with than those who sent them to war; 3) China’s success is not just China’s, it is the success of socialism – and this success must be used to debunk the American myth that ‘socialism has always failed,’ and to show our working class what socialism can achieve, even while under the boot of imperialist hybrid warfare.
If American socialists genuinely want to bring the working masses of their nation to power, they must be fierce anti-imperialists and ardent defenders of China. Overcoming the purity fetish outlook, which functions as the ideological soil these erroneous views and positions grow out of, is an absolute precondition for this struggle.
 See, for instance: David Palumbo-Liu, “The Ongoing Persecution of China’s Uyghurs,” Jacobin (June 2019): https://jacobin.com/2019/06/china-uyghur-persecution-concentration-camps ; Ryan Zickgraf, “A Mask Off Moment for the Left,” Sublation Media (May 2022): https://www.sublationmag.com/post/a-mask-off-moment-for-the-left ; Ho Fung-Hong, “The US-China Rivalry Is About Capitalist Competition,” Jacobin (July 2020): https://jacobin.com/2020/07/us-china-competition-capitalism-rivalry ; Vincent Kolo, “Biden and Xi escalate U.S.-China conflict,” Socialist Alternative (May 2022): https://www.socialistalternative.org/2021/05/08/biden-and-xi-escalate-us-china-conflict/
 In “John Ross: from Trotskyism to power-worship” from the Trotskyite website Workers Liberty, economist John Ross and historian Carlos Martinez are smeared as ‘power-worshippers’ and admirers of authoritarianism for their support of China: https://www.workersliberty.org/story/2021-06-15/john-ross-trotskyism-power-worship
 Vijay Prashad, The Darker Nations (New York: The New Press, 2008).
 Roland Boer, “We need to talk more about China’s socialist democracy,” Friends of Socialist China (September 2021): https://socialistchina.org/2021/09/26/roland-boer-we-need-to-talk-more-about-chinas-socialist-democracy/
 John Ross, “Democracy and policies in China far greater than the west,” China Daily (December 2021): https://global.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202112/09/WS61b169e6a310cdd39bc7a4f6.html
 V. I. Lenin, Collected Works Vol. 28 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), 249.
Nectar Gan and Steve George, “China claims its authoritarian one-party system is a democracy – and one that works better than the US,” CNN (December 2021): https://www.cnn.com/2021/12/08/china/china-us-democracy-summit-mic-intl-hnk/index.html
 Amin, Only People Make Their Own History, 110.
 Yi Wen, “China's Rapid Rise: From Backward Agrarian Society to Industrial Powerhouse in Just 35 Years,” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis (April 11, 2016): https://www.stlouisfed.org/publications/regional-economist/april-2016/chinas-rapid-rise-from-backward-agrarian-society-to-industrial-powerhouse-in-just-35-years#authorbox
 Justin Lifu Yin, Demystifying the Chinese Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 6.
 Deng Xiaoping, “Uphold the Four Cardinal Principles (1979),” Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping: https://dengxiaopingworks.wordpress.com/2013/02/25/uphold-the-four-cardinal-principles/
 Carlos Martinez, No Great Wall: On the Continuities of the Chinese Revolution (Carbondale: Midwestern Marx Publishing Press), 25.
 Karl Marx, Capital Vol I., (London: Penguin, 1982), 739.
 Marx, Capital Vol I., 635.
 Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (New York: International Publishers, 1999), 21.
 Marx, Capital Vol. I., 929.
 Friedrich Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (Chicago: Revolutionary Classics, 1993), 109.
 Marx and Engels, MECW Vol. 24, 87.
 William Morris, “As to Bribing Excellence,” William Morris Archive: http://morrisarchive.lib.uiowa.edu/items/show/2322.
 Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, 109.
 Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, 110.
 Capitalism “produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself.” Karl Marx, Capital Vol. III (London: Penguin, 1991), 949. For more see John Bellamy Foster’s work, especially Marx’s Capital and The Return of Nature, and Ian Agnus’s work, especially Facing the Anthropocene and The War against the Commons: Dispossession and Resistance in the Making of Capitalism.
 Karl Marx, Capital Vol III, 958-9.
 “CONSTITUTION OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY OF CHINA (Revised and adopted at the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China on October 22, 2022),” Qiushi (October 2022): http://en.qstheory.cn/2022-10/27/c_824864.htm 8.
 “Constitution of the Communist Party of China,” 10.
 John Bellamy Foster et. al., “Why is the great project of Ecological Civilization specific to China?,” Monthly Review (October 2022): https://mronline.org/2022/10/01/why-is-the-great-project-of-ecological-civilization-specific-to-china/
 Foster et. al., “Why is the great project of Ecological Civilization specific to China?”
 “Resolution on certain questions in the history of our party since the founding of the People’s Republic of China,” Marxist Internet Archive: https://www.marxists.org/subject/china/documents/cpc/history/01.htm
 Deng Xiaoping, “Emancipate the Mind, Seek Truth From Facts and Unite As One In Looking to the Future (1978),” Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping: https://dengxiaopingworks.wordpress.com/2013/02/25/emancipate-the-mind-seek-truth-from-facts-and-unite-as-one-in-looking-to-the-future/
 Mao Tse-Tung, “Oppose Book Worship (1930),” In Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung Vol. 6 (India: Kranti Publications, 1990).
 Xiaoping, “Emancipate the Mind, Seek Truth From Facts and Unite As One In Looking to the Future.”
 Zhou Enlai, “Report on the Work of the Government (1975),” Zhou Enlai Internet Archive https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/zhou-enlai/1975/01/13.htm
 Martinez, No Great Wall, 33.
 Cheng Enfu and Jun Zhang, “Five Hundred Years of World Socialism and Its Prospect: Interview with Professor Enfu Cheng,” International Critical Thought 11(1) (2021): https://doi.org/10.1080/21598282.2021.1895508 , 17.
 Samir Amin, Beyond US Hegemony: Assessing the prospects for a Multipolar World (UK: Zed Books, 2013), 23.
 Hu Angang, China in 2020: A New Type of Superpower (US: Brookings Institution Press, 2012), 27.
 “Serve the People: The Eradication of Extreme Poverty in China,” Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research (July 2021): https://thetricontinental.org/studies-1-socialist-construction/
 “Serve the People: The Eradication of Extreme Poverty in China.”
 Martinez, No Great Wall, 32.
 John Ross, China’s Great Road: Lessons for Marxist Theory and Socialist Practice (New York: Praxis Press, 2021), 17.
 Ross, China’s Great Road, 17.
 “Serve the People: The Eradication of Extreme Poverty in China.”
 “Serve the People: The Eradication of Extreme Poverty in China.”
 Domenico Losurdo, “Has China Turned to Capitalism?—Reflections on the Transition from Capitalism to Socialism,” International Critical Thought 7(1) (2017), 19. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/21598282.2017.1287585
 Martinez, No Great Wall, 46.
 See Carlos Martinez’s chapter “Will China Suffer the Same Fate as the Soviet Union?” in No Great Wall.
 Martinez, No Great Wall, 47.
 Deng Xiaoping, “Excerpts From Talks Given In Wuchang, Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Shanghai (1992),” Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping: https://dengxiaopingworks.wordpress.com/2013/03/18/excerpts-from-talks-given-in-wuchang-shenzhen-zhuhai-and-shanghai/
 Martinez, No Great Wall, 48.
 Arthur R. Kroeber, China's Economy: What Everyone Needs to Know (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016,), 225.
 Xi Jinping, The Governance of China Vol. 1 (Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 2014), 128-130.
 Cheng Enfu, China’s Economic Dialectic: The Original Aspiration of Reform (New York: International Publishers, 2019), 46.
 Martinez, No Great Wall, 49.
 Cheng Enfu and Liu Zixu, “The Historical Contribution of the October Revolution to the Economic and Social Development of the Soviet Union—Analysis of the Soviet Economic Model and the Causes of Its Dramatic End,” International Critical Thought 7(3) (2017): http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/21598282.2017.1355143 , 304- 306. For more on Cheng Enfu’s views on the subject of the Soviet collapse see: Cheng Enfu and Jun Zhang, “Five Hundred Years of World Socialism and Its Prospect: Interview with Professor Enfu Cheng,” International Critical Thought 11(1) (2021): https://doi.org/10.1080/21598282.2021.1895508
 Mao Tse-Tung, “Talks at a Conference of Secretaries of Provincial, Municipal and Autonomous Regions Party Committees,” In Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung Vol 5 (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1977), 357.
 Mao, Selected Works Vol. 5, 357.
 Mao, Selected Works Vol. 5, 357.
 Losurdo, “Has China Turned to Capitalism?, 18-19.
 Enfu and Zixu, “The Historical Contribution of the October Revolution,” 306.
 Deng Xiaoping, “We Must Adhere To Socialism and Prevent Peaceful Evolution Towards Capitalism (1989),” Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping: https://dengxiaopingworks.wordpress.com/2013/03/18/we-must-adhere-to-socialism-and-prevent-peaceful-evolution-towards-capitalism/
 Deng Xiaoping, “Uphold Four Cardinal Principals (1979),” Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping: https://dengxiaopingworks.wordpress.com/2013/02/25/uphold-the-four-cardinal-principles/
 Lenin, Collected Works Vol. 21, 235.
 Lenin, Collected Works Vol 21., 236.
 Marx, Grundrisse, 106-107.
 Marx, Capital Vol. III, 600
 For a more detailed account, see Roland Boer “Not Some Other Ism.”
 Boer, “Not Some Other Ism,” 9.
 Friedrich Engels, Anti-Dühring (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1976), 81.
 Marx and Engels, MECW Vol. 5, 49.
 Lenin, Collected Works Vol. 38, 180.
 Ludwig von Mises, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), 142.
 Boer, Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, 119.
 Boer, Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, 119. It is also important to note that this realization is common knowledge in economic anthropology since the 1944 publication of Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, where, while holding that “there is hardly an anthropological or sociological assumption contained in the philosophy of economic liberalism that has not been refuted,” nonetheless argues markets have predated the capitalist mode of production, albeit usually existing inter, as opposed to intra, communally. Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation, (New York: Beacon Press, 1957). 269-277.
 Boer, Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, 120.
 Leigh Phillips and Michael Rozworski, The People’s Republic of Wal-Mart (London: Verso Books, 2019), 16.
 Phillips and Rozworski, The People’s Republic of Wal-Mart, 14.
 Boer, Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, 118.
 Boer, Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, 13.
 Boer, Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, 122-3.
 Boer, Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, 124. Quoted from: Huang, Nansen. 1994. Shehuizhuyi shichang jingji lilun de zhexue jichu. Makesizhuyi yu xianshi 1994 (11): 1–6.
 Boer, Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, 124.
 Ehizuelen Michael M.O., “China Helps Africa Realize its Potential,” China Daily (July 2022): https://global.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202208/19/WS62fec07da310fd2b29e730f0.html
 Wade Shepard, “Why China’s Development Model Won’t Work In Africa,” Forbes (October 2019): https://www.forbes.com/sites/wadeshepard/2019/10/31/why-chinas-development-model-wont-work-in-africa/?sh=3df527057afd
 Josep Borrell, EU foreign policy chief, said in October 2022 that "Europe is a garden. We have built a garden. Most of the rest of the world is a jungle, and the jungle could invade the garden." https://www.opindia.com/2022/10/eu-foreign-policy-chief-says-europe-is-a-garden-rest-all-is-a-jungle/#:~:text=On%2013th%20October%202022%2C%20European%20Union%E2%80%99s%20foreign%20policy,go%20to%20the%20jungle%20to%20protect%20the%20garden.
 “Four Decades of Poverty Reduction in China,” World Bank (2022) https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/37727/9781464818776.pdf?sequence=4&isAllowed=y xiii
 Vivi, “China High-Speed Rail Network,” China Travel (March 2022): https://www.chinatravel.com/china-trains/china-high-speed-rail-network#:~:text=China%20has%20the%20longest%20and%20most%20extensively%20used,two-thirds%20of%20the%20world%27s%20total%20high-speed%20railway%20networks. ; Theo Wayt, “China unveils 373-mph ‘levitating’ train, fastest ground vehicle in the world,” NY Post (July 2021): https://nypost.com/2021/07/20/china-unveils-373-mph-levitating-train-fastest-in-the-world/ ; “Four Decades of Poverty Reduction in China,” World Bank 17 ; Carlos Martinez, “China is building an ecological civilization,” Friends of Socialist China (November 2022): https://socialistchina.org/2022/11/23/china-is-building-an-ecological-civilisation/
 Courtney Kube and Mosheh Gains, “Air Force general predicts war with China in 2025, tells officers to prep by firing 'a clip' at a target, and 'aim for the head,'” NBC News (January 2023): https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/national-security/us-air-force-general-predicts-war-china-2025-memo-rcna67967 Michael Parenti, Inventing Reality: The Politics Of The Mass Media (New York: St. Martens Press, 1986), 208.
Carlos L. Garrido is a philosophy teacher at Southern Illinois University, Director at the Midwestern Marx Institute, and author of The Purity Fetish and the Crisis of Western Marxism (2023), Marxism and the Dialectical Materialist Worldview (2022), and Hegel, Marxism, and Dialectics (Forthcoming 2024).
Every child knows that any nation that stopped working, not for a year, but let us say, just for a few weeks, would perish. And every child knows, too, that the amounts of products corresponding to the differing amounts of needs demand differing and quantitatively determined amounts of society’s aggregate labour. —Karl Marx  
Every child in Marx’s day might have heard about Robinson Crusoe. That child might have heard that on his island Robinson had to work if he was not to perish, that he had “needs to satisfy.” To this end, Robinson had to “perform useful labours of various kinds”: he made means of production (tools), and he hunted and fished for immediate consumption. These were diverse functions, but all were “only different modes of human labour,” his labor. From experience, he developed Robinson’s Rule: “Necessity itself compels him to divide his time with precision between his different functions.” Thus, he learned that the amount of time spent on each activity depended upon its difficulty—that is, how much labor was necessary to achieve the desired effect. Given his needs, he learned how to allocate his labor in order to survive. 
As it was for Crusoe, so it is for society. Every society must allocate its aggregate labor in such a way as to obtain the amounts of products corresponding to the differing amounts of its needs. As Marx commented, “In so far as society wants to satisfy its needs, and have an article produced for this purpose, it has to pay for it.… It buys them with a certain quantity of the labour-time that it has at its disposal.”  It must allocate “differing and quantitatively determined” amounts of labor to the production of goods and services for direct consumption (Department II) and a similarly determined quantity of labor for the production and reproduction of means of production (Department I).
To ensure the reproduction of a particular society, there must be enough labor available for the reproduction of the producers—both directly and indirectly (for example, in Departments II and I, respectively)—based upon their existing level of needs and the productivity of labor. This includes not only labor in organized workplaces, which produce particular material products and services, but also necessary labor allocated to the home and community and to sites where the education and health of workers are maintained. Every society, too, must allocate labor to what we may call Department III, a sector that produces means of regulation, and may contain institutions such as the police, the legal authority, the ideological and cultural apparatus, and so on.
In addition to the labor required to maintain the producers, in every class society a quantity of society’s labor is necessary if those who rule are to be reproduced. Thus, the process of reproduction requires the allocation of labor not only to the production of articles of consumption, means of production, and the particular means of regulation, but, ultimately, to the production and reproduction of the relations of production themselves.
REPRODUCTION OF A SOCIALIST SOCIETY
Consider a socialist society—“an association of free [individuals], working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labour-power in full self-awareness as one single social labour force.”  Having identified the differing amounts of needs it wishes to satisfy, this society of associated producers allocates its differing and quantitatively determined labor through a conscious process of planning. In this respect, it follows Robinson’s Rule: it apportions its aggregate labor “in accordance with a definite social plan [that] maintains the correct proportion between the different functions of labour and the various needs of the associations.” 
The premise of this process of planning is a particular set of relations in which the associated producers recognize their interdependence and engage in productive activity upon this basis. “A communal production, communality, is presupposed as the basis of production.” Transparency and solidarity among the producers, in short, underlie the “organization of labour” in the socialist society with the result that productive activity is consciously “determined by communal needs and communal purposes.”  The reproduction of society here “becomes production by freely associated [producers] and stands under their conscious and planned control.” 
To identify their needs and their capacity to satisfy those needs, the producers begin with institutions closest to them—in communal councils, which identify changes in the expressed needs of individuals and communities, and in workers’ councils, where workers explore the potential for satisfying local needs themselves. Those needs and capacities are transmitted upward to larger bodies and ultimately consolidated at the level of society as a whole, where society-wide choices need to be made. On the basis of these decisions (which are discussed by the associated producers at all levels of society), the socialist society directly allocates its labor in accordance with its needs both for immediate and future satisfaction.
Driving this process is “the worker’s own need for development,” “the absolute working-out of his creative potentialities,” “the all-around development of the individual”—the development of what Marx called “rich” human beings.  This goal is understood as indivisible: it is not consistent with significant disparities among members of society. In the words of the Communist Manifesto, “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”  Accordingly, given the premise of communality and solidarity, this socialist society allocates its labor to remove deficits inherited from previous social formations. The socialist society, in short, is “based on the universal development of individuals and on the subordination of their communal, social productivity as their social wealth.” 
Conscious planning—a visible hand, a communal hand—is the condition for building a socialist society. This process does more, however, than produce the so-called correct plan. Importantly, it also produces and reproduces the producers themselves and the relations among them. What Marx called “revolutionary practice” (“the simultaneous changing of circumstances and human activity or self-change”) is central. Every human activity produces two products: the change in circumstances and the change in the actors themselves. In the particular case of socialist institutions, the labor-time spent in meetings to develop collective decisions not only produces solutions that draw upon the knowledge of all those affected, but it is also an investment that develops the capacities of all those making those decisions. It builds solidarity locally, nationally, and internationally. Those institutions and practices, in short, are at the core of the regulation of the producers themselves (Department III activity). They are essential for the reproduction of socialist society. 
REPRODUCTION OF A SOCIETY CHARACTERIZED BY COMMODITY PRODUCTION
But what about a society that is not characterized by communality, a society marked instead by separate, autonomous actors? Such a society’s essential premise is the separation of independent producers.  Rather than a community of producers, there is a collection of autonomous property owners who depend for satisfaction of their needs upon the productive activity of other owners. “All-around dependence of the producers upon one another” exists, but theirs is a “connection of mutually indifferent persons.” Indeed, “their mutual interconnection—here appears as something alien to them, autonomous, as a thing.” Yet, if these “individuals who are indifferent to one another” do not understand their connection, how does this society go about allocating its “differing and quantitatively determined amounts of society’s aggregate labour” to satisfy its “differing amounts of needs”? 
Obviously, such a society does not utilize Robinson’s Rule: it cannot directly allocate its aggregate labor in accordance with the distribution of its needs. “Only when production is subjected to the genuine, prior control of society,” Marx pointed out, “will society establish the connection between the amount of social labor-time applied to the production of particular articles, and the scale of the social need to be satisfied by these.”  Although the application of Robinson’s Rule is not possible, its function remains. As Marx commented, those simple and transparent relations set out for Robinson Crusoe “contain all the essential determinants of value.”  In particular, the “necessity of the distribution of social labour in specific proportions” remains.
The necessary law of the proportionate allocation of aggregate labor, Marx insisted, “is certainly not abolished by the specific form of social production.” Only the form of that law changes. As Marx wrote to Ludwig Kugelmann, “the only thing that can change, under historically differing conditions, is the form in which those laws assert themselves.” In the commodity-producing society, the form taken by this necessary law is the law of value. “The form in which this proportional distribution of labour asserts itself in a state of society in which the interconnection of social labour expresses itself as the private exchange of the individual products of labour, is precisely the exchange value of these products.” 
Since the allocation of society’s labor embedded in commodities is “mediated through the purchase and sale of the products of different branches of industry” (rather than through “genuine, prior control” by society), however, the immediate effect of the market is a “motley pattern of distribution of the producers and their means of production.”  Yet, this apparent chaos sets in motion a process by which the necessary allocation of labor will tend to emerge. In simple commodity production, some producers will receive revenue well above the cost of production; others will receive revenue well below it. Assuming it is possible, producers will shift their activity—that is, they will show a tendency for entry and exit. An equilibrium, accordingly, would tend to emerge in which there is no longer a reason for individual commodity producers to move. Through such movements, the various kinds of labor “are continually being reduced to the quantitative proportions in which society requires them.”
In short, although “the play of caprice and chance” means that the allocation of labor does not correspond immediately to the distribution of needs as expressed in commodity purchases, “the different spheres of production constantly tend towards equilibrium.”  Through the law of value, labor is allocated in the necessary proportions in the commodity-producing society. In the same way as “the law of gravity asserts itself,” we see that “in the midst of the accidental and ever-fluctuating exchange relations between the products, the labour-time socially necessary to produce them asserts itself as a regulative law of nature.”  There is a “constant tendency on the part of the various spheres of production towards equilibrium” precisely because “the law of the value of commodities ultimately determines how much of its disposable labour-time society can expend on each kind of commodity.” 
Can that equilibrium, in which labor is allocated to satisfy the needs of society, be reached in reality? If we think of a society characterized by simple commodity production, equilibrium occurs when all commodity producers receive the equivalent of the labor contained in their commodities. In fact, however, there are significant barriers to exit and entry: the particular skills and capabilities that individual producers possess will not be easily shifted to the production of differing commodities. Indeed, this process might take a generation to occur, in which case producers in some spheres will appear privileged for extended periods.
In the case of capitalist commodity production—the subject of Capital—the individual capitalist “obeys the immanent law, and hence the moral imperative, of capital to produce as much surplus-value as possible.”  Accordingly, there is a “continuously changing proportionate distribution of the total social capital between the various spheres of production…continuous immigration and emigration of capitals.”  Equilibrium here occurs when all producers obtain an equal rate of profit on their advanced capital for means of production and labor power. This tendency “has the effect of distributing the total mass of social labour time among the various spheres of production according to the social need.”  However, here again there is an obstacle to the realization of equilibrium—the existence of fixed capital embedded in particular spheres does not permit easy exit and entry.
Nevertheless, for Marx, the law of value (the process by which labor is allocated in the necessary proportions in capitalism) operates more smoothly as capitalism develops. Capital’s “free movement between these various spheres of production as so many available fields of investment” has as its condition the development of the credit and banking system. Only as money-capital does capital really “possess the form in which it is distributed as a common element among these various spheres, among the capitalist class, quite irrespective of its particular application, according to the production requirements of each particular sphere.”  In its money-form, capital is abstracted from particular employments. Only in money-capital, in the money-market, do all distinctions as to the quality of capital disappear: “All particular forms of capital, arising from its investment in particular spheres of production or circulation, are obliterated here. It exists here in the undifferentiated, self-identical form of independent value, of money.” 
Equalization of profit rates “presupposes the development of the credit system, which concentrates together the inorganic mass of available social capital vis-á-vis the individual capitalist.”  That is, it presupposes the domination of finance capital: bankers “become the general managers of money capital,” which now appears as “a concentrated and organized mass, placed under the control of the bankers as representatives of the social capital in a quite different manner to real production.” 
There is no better way to understand Marx’s theory of value than to see how he responded to critics of Capital. With respect to a particular review, Marx commented to Kugelmann in July 1868 that the need to prove the law of value reveals “complete ignorance both of the subject under discussion and of the method of science.” Every child, Marx here continued, knows that “the amounts of products corresponding to the differing amounts of needs demand differing and quantitatively determined amounts of society’s aggregate labour.” How could the critic not see that “It is SELF-EVIDENT that this necessity of the distribution of social labour in specific proportions is certainly not abolished by the specific form of social production!”  Similarly, answering Eugen Dühring’s objection to his discussion of value, Marx wrote to Frederick Engels in January 1868 that “actually, no form of society can prevent the labour time at the disposal of society from regulating production in ONE WAY OR ANOTHER.”  That was the point: in a commodity-producing society, how else could labor be allocated—except by the market!
Although Marx was clearer in these letters on this point than in Capital, he was transparent there in his critique of classical political economy on value and money. In contrast to vulgar economists who did not go beneath the surface, the classical economists (to their credit) had attempted “to grasp the inner connection in contrast to the multiplicity of outward forms.” But they took those inner forms “as given premises” and were “not interested in elaborating how those various forms come into being.”  The classical economists began by explaining relative value by the quantity of labor-time, but they “never once asked the question why this content has assumed that particular form, that is to say, why labour is expressed in value, and why the measurement of labour by its duration is expressed in the value of the product.”  Their analysis, in short, started in the middle.
This classical approach characterized Marx’s own early thought. It is important to recognize that Marx’s critique was an auto-critique, a critique of views he himself had earlier accepted. In 1847, Marx declared that “[David] Ricardo’s theory of values is the scientific interpretation of actual economic life.”  In The Principles of Political Economy, Ricardo had argued that “the value of a commodity…depends on the relative quantity of labour which is necessary for its production.” By this, he meant “not only the labour applied immediately to commodities,” but also the labor “bestowed on the implements, tools, and buildings, with which such labour is assisted.” Accordingly, relative values of differing commodities were determined by “the total quantity of labour necessary to manufacture them and bring them to market.” This was “the rule which determines the respective quantities of goods which shall be given in exchange for each other.” 
Marx followed Ricardo in his early work. “The fluctuations of supply and demand,” Marx wrote in Wage Labour and Capital, “continually bring the price of a commodity back to the cost of production” (that is to say, to its “natural price”). This was Ricardo’s theory of value: the “determination of price by the cost of production is equivalent to the determination of price by the labour time necessary for the manufacture of a commodity.” Further, this rule applied to the determination of wages as well, which were “determined by the cost of production, by the labour time necessary to produce this commodity—labour.”  The same point was made in the Communist Manifesto in 1848: “the price of a commodity, and therefore also of labour, is equal to its cost of production.” 
In the 1850s, however, Marx began to develop a new understanding. In the notebooks written in 1857–58, which constitute the Grundrisse, he began his critique of classical political economy. Marx concluded the Grundrisse by announcing that the starting point for analysis had to be not value (as Ricardo began), but the commodity, which “appears as unity of two aspects”—use value and exchange value.  The commodity and, in particular, its two-sidedness is the starting point for his critique and how he begins both his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) and Capital. 
THE BEST POINTS IN CAPITAL
The law of value as a “regulative law of nature” was not one of the best points in Capital, nor one of the “fundamentally new elements in the book.” After all, if the law of value is the tendency of market prices to approach an equilibrium in the same way as “the law of gravity asserts itself,” then this “regulative law of nature” was already present in Ricardo.
Rather, what Marx argued in Capital is that classical political economy did not understand value. “As regards value in general, classical political economy in fact nowhere distinguishes explicitly and with a clear awareness between labour as it appears in the value of a product, and the same labour as it appears in the product’s use value.”  But that distinction, Marx declared to Engels in August 1867, is “fundamental to all understanding of the FACTS”! That “two-fold character of labour,” he indicated, is one of the “best points in my book” (and indeed, the best point in the first volume of Capital). 
Marx made the same point in the first edition of the first volume of Capital about the two-fold character of labor in commodities: “this aspect, which I am first to have developed in a critical way, is the starting point upon which comprehension of political economy depends.”  Writing again to Engels in January 1868, Marx described his analysis of the double character of the labor represented in commodities as one of the “three fundamentally new elements of the book.” All previous economists having missed this, they were “bound to come up against the inexplicable everywhere. This is, in fact, the whole secret of the critical conception.” 
The secret of the critical conception, the starting point for comprehension of political economy, the basis for all understanding of the facts—what made the revelation of the two-fold character of labor in commodities so important? Very simply, it is the recognition that actual, specific, concrete labor, all those hours of real labor that have gone into producing a particular commodity, in themselves have nothing to do with its value. You cannot add the hours of the carpenter’s labor to the labor contained in consumed means of production and come up with the value of the carpenter’s commodity. That specific labor, rather, has gone into the production of a thing for use, also known as a use value. Further, you cannot explain relative values by counting the quantity of specific labor contained in separate use values. If you do not distinguish clearly between the two-fold aspects of labor in the commodity, you have not understood Marx’s critique of classical political economy.
MARX’S LABOR THEORY OF MONEY
“We have to perform a task,” Marx announced, “never even attempted by bourgeois economics.”  That task was to develop his theory of money—in particular, to reveal that money is the social representative of the aggregate labor in commodities. For this, Marx demonstrated that (1) the concept of money is latent in the concept of the commodity and (2) that money represents the abstract labor in a commodity and that the manifestation of the latter, its only manifestation, is the price of the commodity.
If adding up the hours of concrete labor to produce a commodity does not reveal its value, what does? Nothing, if we are considering a single commodity. “We may twist and turn a single commodity as we wish; it remains impossible to grasp as a thing possessing value.”  We can approach grasping the value of a commodity only by considering it in a relation. The simplest (but undeveloped) form of this relation is as an exchange value—the value of commodity A is equal to x units of commodity B, where B is a use value. We always knew A as a use value but now we know the value of A from its equivalent in B. (If we reverse this, we would say the value of B is equal to 1/x units of A, and here A is the equivalent.) The second commodity, the equivalent, is a mirror for the value in the first commodity. It is through this social relation that we may grasp the commodity as something possessing value.
Having established that the value of a commodity is revealed through its equivalent, Marx logically proceeds step-by-step to establish the existence of a commodity that serves as the equivalent for all commodities—that is, is the general form of value. It is a mini-step from there to reveal the monetary form of value: money as the universal equivalent, money as the representative of value.  In short, once we begin to analyze a commodity-exchanging society, we are led to the concept of money. This is what Marx identifies as his task: “We have to show the origin of this money form, we have to trace the development of this expression of value relation of commodities from the simplest, almost imperceptible outline to the dazzling money form. When this has been done, the mystery of money will immediately disappear.”  But this was a closed book to the classical economists; “Ricardo,” Marx commented years later, “in fact only concerned himself with labour as a measure of value-magnitude and therefore found no connection between his value-theory and the essence of money.” 
But what is money? To understand money, we need to return to the two-fold character of labor in commodities, that point upon which comprehension of political economy depends. We know that concrete, specific labor produces specific use values. Insofar as labor is concrete, we cannot compare commodities containing different qualities of labor. But we can compare them if we abstract from their specificities—that is, consider them as containing labor in general, abstract labor, “equal human labour, the expenditure of identical human labour power.”  The aggregate labor of society is a composite of many “different modes of human labour”: “the completed or total form of appearance of human labour is constituted by the totality of its particular forms of appearance.”  That “one homogeneous mass of human labour power,” that universal, uniform, abstract, social labor in general, “human labour pure and simple,” enters into each commodity. 
Think about the aggregate labor in commodities as so-called jelly labor, as made up of a number of identical, homogeneous units. A certain amount of this jelly labor goes into each commodity. The value of a commodity is determined by how much of this jelly labor—how much homogeneous, universal, abstract labor, that common “social substance”—it contains. Obviously, we cannot add up jelly labor simply, as we might attempt for concrete labor. How, then, can we see the value of a commodity? We have answered that already. The value of a commodity (that is, the homogeneous, general, abstract labor in the commodity) is represented by the quantity of money, which is its equivalent. Indeed, the only form in which the value of commodities can manifest itself is the money-form.
Every society obtains the amounts of products corresponding to the differing amounts of its needs by devoting a portion of the available labor time to its production. As noted above, “in so far as society wants to satisfy its needs, and have an article produced for this purpose, it has to pay for it…[and] it buys them with a certain quantity of the labour-time that it has at its disposal.”  How do we satisfy our needs within capitalism? We buy them with the representative of the total social labor in commodities—money.
IGNORANCE BOTH OF THE SUBJECT UNDER DISCUSSION AND OF THE METHOD OF SCIENCE
As Michael Heinrich writes, “many Marxists have difficulties understanding Marx’s analysis.” Like bourgeois economists, “they attempt to develop a theory of value without reference to money.”  It is a bit difficult to understand why, however, given Marx’s criticisms of classical political economy about this very point. Ricardo, Marx commented, had not understood “or even raised as a problem” the “connection between value, its immanent measure—i.e., labour-time—and the necessity for an external measure of the values of commodities.” Ricardo did not examine abstract labor, the labor that “manifests itself in exchange values—the nature of this labour. Hence he does not grasp the connection of this labour with money or that it must assume the form of money.” 
That is why Marx undertook his task “to show the origin of this money form” and to solve “the mystery of money,” a task “never even attempted by bourgeois economics.” We need to understand the nature of money, and how we move from value directly to money. As he explained in chapter 10 of the third volume of Capital:
in dealing with money we assumed that commodities are sold at their values; there was no reason at all to consider prices that diverged from values, as we were concerned simply with the changes of form which commodities undergo when they are turned into money and then transformed back from money into commodities again. As soon as a commodity is in any way sold, and a new commodity bought with the proceeds, we have the entire metamorphosis before us, and it is completely immaterial here whether the commodity’s price is above or below its value. The commodity’s value remains important as the basis, since any rational understanding of money has to start from this foundation, and price, in its general concept, is simply value in the money form. 
To understand why Marx felt it was essential to solve the mystery of money, it helps to understand his method of dialectical derivation. Like G. W. F. Hegel, upon examining particular concepts, he found that they contained a second term implicitly within them; he proceeded then to consider the unity of the two concepts, thereby transcending the one-sidedness of each and moving forward to richer concepts. In this way, Marx analyzed the commodity and found that it contained latent within it the concept of money, the independent form of value—and that the commodity differentiated into commodities and money. Further, considering that relation of commodities and money from all sides, Marx uncovered the concept of capital. 
The concept of capital, in short, does not drop from the sky. It is marked by the preceding categories. Since money is the representative of abstract labor, of the homogeneous aggregate labor of society, capital must be understood as an accumulation of homogeneous, abstract labor. By understanding money as latent in commodities, we reject the picture of money juxtaposed externally to commodities as in classical political economy and therefore recognize that abstract labor is always present in the concept of capital.
However, all accumulations of abstract labor are not capital. For them to correspond to the concept of capital, they must be driven by the impetus to grow and must have self-expanding value (i.e., M-C-M´). How is that possible, however, on the assumption of exchange of equivalents? Where does the additional value, the surplus value, come from? The two questions express the same thing: in one case, in the form of objectified labour; in the other, in the form of living, fluid labor. 
The answer to both is that, with the availability of labor power as a commodity, capital can now secure additional (abstract) labor. This is not because of some occult quality of labor power, but, because by purchasing labor power, capital now is in a relation of “supremacy and subordination” with respect to workers, a relation that brings with it the “compulsion to perform surplus labour.”  That compulsion, inherent in capitalist relations of production, is the source of capital’s growth.
Let us consider absolute surplus value by focusing upon “living, fluid labor.” The value of labor power, or necessary labor, at any given point represents the share of aggregate social labor that goes to workers. The remaining social labor share is captured by capitalists. When capital uses its power to increase the length or intensity of the workday, total social labor rises; assuming necessary labor remains constant, capital is the sole beneficiary. The ratio of surplus labor to necessary labor—the rate of exploitation—rises.
Alternatively, let the productivity of labor be increased. To produce the same quantity of use values, less total labor is required. Accordingly, increased productivity brings with it the possibility of a reduced workday (a possibility not realized in capitalism). If, conversely, aggregate social labor remains constant, who would be the beneficiary of such an increase in productivity? Assuming the working class is atomized and capital is able to divide workers sufficiently, capital obtains relative surplus value because necessary labor falls. Alternatively, to the extent that workers are sufficiently organized as a class, they will benefit from productivity gains with rising real wages as commodity values fall. In Capital, this second option is essentially precluded because, following the classical economists, Marx assumed that the standard of necessity is given and fixed. 
In short, we need to understand money if we are to understand capital, and for that we need to grasp the two-fold character of labor that goes into a commodity. Unfortunately, many Marxists fail to grasp the distinction “between labour as it appears in the value of a product, and the same labor as it appears in the product’s use value”—the distinction Marx considered “fundamental to all understanding of the FACTS.” As a result, they offer a “theory of value without reference to money,” what Heinrich calls “pre-monetary theories of value,” which I consider to be pre-Marxian theories of value or Ricardian theories of value. 
Ricardian Marxists do not grasp Marx’s logic, or how Marx logically moves from the abstract to the concrete. The problem is particularly apparent when it comes to the so-called transformation problem. What those who attempt to calculate the transformation from values to prices of production fail to understand is that, rather than transforming actually existing values, prices of production are simply a further logical development of value.  The real movement is from market prices to equilibrium prices, that is, prices of production. As we have seen, this is how the law of value allocates aggregate labor in commodities, similar to a law of gravity. The failure of these Marxists to distinguish between the logical and the real demonstrates their “complete ignorance both of the subject under discussion and of the method of science.”
Michael A. Lebowitz was a professor of economics at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver until his death on April 19, 2023. For information on his life and work, see the “Notes from the Editors,” Monthly Review, July–August 2023.
Republished from Monthly Review.
This review is adapted from the book launch presentation the author did for Immanuel Ness’s Migration as Economic Imperialism, which you can purchase HERE.
The traditional Marxist critique of ideology has understood both the functional and epistemological dimensions of bourgeois ideologue’s claims. This tradition has always emphasized how ideas are both conditioned by the historical conjunctures and class positions of the people and institutions that materially embody them, but also – and equally important – how, under class societies, the economically dominant class, in whose control the rest of the political, juridical, and ideological institutions are under, has to necessarily distort the world’s understanding of itself so that the vast majority of people, whose class interests are diametrically opposed to theirs, can consent to this topsy turvy image of the world. As Marx and Engels noted early on in their theoretical development,
If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process.
This structurally necessary ideological inversion will later be labeled by Engels false consciousness, a condition where the people are unaware of the “real driving forces which move [them], [instead] imagin[ing] false or apparent driving forces.” This prevents bourgeois ideologues from properly understanding the world – it subdues their ability to obtain truth in their work. However, this is far from being only a question of errors in thinking, that is, the problem of ideological false consciousness, contrary to popular belief and those of the post-modernized Western “Marxist” specialists, is far from being merely one of consciousness. The inverted character of ideologue’s ideas is a reflection of an objective social order that requires its inhabitants to think of it in deliberately inverted ways. In short: the ‘error in thinking’ is an objective necessity for our social order, a social order that requires the generalization of mistaken views of itself for its own reproduction.
The conventional bourgeois-imperialist narratives on migration and migrant labor, a phenomenon which affects around 3 billion people (approximately 40% of the world), is filled with these ideological inversions. Immanuel Ness’s book, Migration as Economic Imperialism, does an exceptional job at exposing how these ideas emerge of out the capitalist-imperialist system (and not out of some mythical disinterested and bias-free scientific observers). He shows us how these ideas distort reality, providing us with an upside-down image of the real world. And finally, he shows us who benefits, i.e., what class and social system is upheld by the systematization of these ideological contortions. The book is, in short, a quintessential example of what Marxist scholars should be doing in the battle of ideas: exposing the hollow falsity of bourgeois narratives, and replacing these with the truth – which, as we know well, is always on the side of the revolutionaries. While this last point might seem swaggering, it is not our fault, as Che Guevara is often attributed to have said, that reality is Marxist.
The conventional imperialist narrative on migrant workers holds that they benefit the global economy, the global north countries of destination, and the global south countries of origins. Through remittances and the skills migrant workers obtain in the global north, so the imperialist narrative goes, they can help develop their countries of origin. Remittances are painted as “a leading form of economic development for poor countries” by International Development Agencies, the World Bank, and other imperialist institutions.
After the migration boom of the 1990s that followed the overthrow of the USSR, the increased flow of remittances led bourgeois specialists to hold that this was a far more preferrable alternative to the old school ‘foreign aid’ that kept poor countries dependent on rich ones (the system that devised mechanisms of debt trapping and structural adjustment programs that kept global south countries poor and indebted, of course, was never questioned).
In addition to remittances, the conventional imperialist narratives held that a stratum of higher skilled migrant workers were capable of developing new skills in the global north. These skills, so the myth goes, are taken back to the origin country and used to fuel their development and fight poverty.
Are these narratives true? Do they actually correspond to the reality they attempt to explain? As you could’ve guessed it, they are about as true as any of the other capitalist myths. Which means, from the standpoint of a comprehensive analysis of the world as it actually exists, these claims are not true at all. In fact, their conclusions turn reality upside down; as the Athenian oligarchs once wrongly accused Socrates of doing, they are the ones that make “the worst appear the better cause.” They make migration, which benefits almost exclusively the elite of the imperialist countries, appear as a beneficial phenomenon for those poor souls forced into it by the conditions their countries have been subjected to after centuries of imperialist plunder and colonial and neocolonial domination.
In reality, as Manny eloquently demonstrates, “remittances do not improve the standard of living for most inhabitants living in poor countries and do contribute to economic imbalances which engender higher levels of crime and violence.” “Remittances themselves,” as Manny shows, contribute to the erosion of the agrarian sector in southern economies as they constitute a form of rent for many residents in origin countries who are dependent on the continuing flow of remittances… [an] unreliable source of income.”
Additionally, even when certain migrant workers obtain new skills in the global north, many of them do not return home – skilled migrant workers, as Manny notes, “are more likely to be provided with legal status than low-wage workers.” This leads to what some scholars have called ‘brain drain,’ the systematic flight of skilled workers, scientists, and technicians from their countries of origin in the global south (where they often got their education) to the countries of the imperialist global north. However, even when these skilled workers do go back, Manny demonstrates that they often end up working in “niche economies which do not contribute to improving the lives of most residents there but are directed to building networks with international business … that benefit a small fraction of elites as the majority of inhabitants remain mired in poverty.”
So, for the imperialized countries of origin, where exactly are the benefits of migration? Besides the outliers in the elite that are benefited, the reality is that there are none. “If migration were beneficial to development [in countries of origin],” as Manny notes, “then countries with high migration would not be suffering the highest poverty rates, or would at least be seeing improvements outstripping those countries that were not following a migration-development strategy.” The evidence shows that the opposite of the conventional migration-development paradigm is true – migration helps to keep poor countries poor while enriching rich countries with a pool of cheap labor that they can superexploit. “The ten-leading remittance-receiving nations,” for instance, “are amongst the poorest states in the world.”
“The primary dynamic of migration,” as Manny shows, “is rooted in the political economy of imperialism, which subordinates poor regions of the Global South.” Contemporary migration is, therefore, a product and central component of imperialism. It provides for imperialist countries, whose rates of profits with their national working class have been on a steady decline, a cheap pool of labor to superexploit. These are workers, many undocumented, who are forced to break with their families by the hundreds of millions in search for jobs that pay them pennies on the dollar of the already exploited global north workers. They frequently take up the most dangerous jobs and are forced to do these under the most precarious conditions, with very little bargaining power. They are often the recipients of xenophobic attacks and derogatory racist remarks, a phenomenon produced by the elite of the global north to convince their native workers (themselves struggling to get by), that their enemy is the migrant, not their boss.
An interesting paradox arises here: while migrant workers have become an indispensable component of the imperialist economies for which they provide a cheap pool of labor to superexploit, these same workers are treated with the utmost expendability – evidenced in their working conditions and racist treatment. This is a phenomenon some scholars have called the ‘dialectics of superfluity,’ where human life and labor becomes simultaneously indispensable and expendable for capitalism. It is a condition that, while general in the working class, is intensified in migrant workers and oppressed peoples.
Things don’t have to be this way. In fact, it is impossible for them to continue this way forever. The world and everything in it are in a constant state of flux, where all is interconnected to all and contradiction functions as the engine of historical motion. These objective contradictions in the global capitalist-imperialist economy contain the kernels for their own supersession. The interests of migrant workers and workers in the global north are the same. Both are fighting against the same global capitalist elite. It is this same elite that exploits and oppresses them both, even if it does it to one with more intensity than the other. The interests of workers of all countries, migrant or not, are found in uniting with their class against the parasitic rulers of the world – those who destroy humanity in their pursuit of profit. As time passes and these contradictions intensify, we are seeing workers coming together to fight. We are seeing the embryonic development of class consciousness – and sooner or later – we will see in mass the moderate demands James Connolly heralded in 1907: “We only want the earth.”
Watch the book launch event for Migration as Economic Imperialism below:
Carlos L. Garrido is a philosophy teacher at Southern Illinois University, Director at the Midwestern Marx Institute, and author of The Purity Fetish and the Crisis of Western Marxism (2023), Marxism and the Dialectical Materialist Worldview (2022), and Hegel, Marxism, and Dialectics (Forthcoming 2024).
The 19th Century was a very significant period, especially in the field of Philosophy. This era laid the foundations for Modern Philosophy and shaped the course of this discipline for centuries to come. It is also the time when Renaissance Modernism matured into its final stages(at least in Western Europe where Feudalism was being completely dismantled) since religion was dethroned from its position as the central ideological doctrine of society, it no longer formed the backbone of the hegemony of the ruling classes. Religion wasn't the dominant worldview anymore, it had collapsed by now. But radical change is always accompanied by deep crises. Western Europe was walking on the path of tearing apart the religious worldview of the Dark Ages in hopes of reaching the destination of enlightenment but what they were unaware of was the fact that to reach their destination they would have to overcome the hurdle of crisis. A crisis which awaited them eagerly— The Crisis of Nihilism.
It is this crisis that we shall explore in this article. We will begin our journey from the feudal times to understand the historical context in which Nihilism arose and then move on to the significant developments in Philosophy throughout the Renaissance period and the rise of Modernist Philosophy, which will then enable us to understand the crisis of Nihilism in its totality. But we shall not stop our investigation there. I would like to dedicate a section completely to a phenomenon I call "Capitalist Nihilism", where we explore how Capital and Capitalism have added fuel to the fire of Nihilism that burns in the minds of working masses of the world.
FEUDALISM, IDEOLOGY AND GOD
Human civilisation has organised itself in many ways from time to time and Feudalism is one such form of organisation. As Gramsci proved through his work, no society has ever been able to maintain itself without an ideology of its own, an ideology that is dominant within the society. The hegemonic ideology. But one society can adopt multiple 'hegemonic ideologies', there will be some common traits or themes within these ideologies. Eg; Liberalism and Fascism are two 'hegemonic ideologies' of Capitalism. They have their differences but they have quite some common traits too, like Protection of the Right to Private Property, using State power to serve Corporates and of course preserving capitalism at any cost. These themes will be shared by any and all variants of Liberalism, Fascism or any ideology of Capitalism. Every era of human history, as stated earlier, has some hegemonic ideological themes which are unique to that era itself. These themes are seen as principles or norms which should dictate our social organisation and also our moral or ethical positions. It is needless to say that these ideologies strive to maintain a particular structure of society, which is often exploitative in nature, and thus will always serve the interests of the ruling class. Feudalism too had its own ideology— Religion.
Religion, in feudal times, provided the masses with a 'meaning'. The people had a role to play in the grand scheme of things and that role could only be fulfilled if they kept following the word of God (of the ruling classes actually. The privilege of hindsight allows us to understand that God was really only a messenger of the ruling classes and not the other way around.). Their actions, thoughts, happiness and even their suffering had an objective, they weren't working for the sake of working; they were working so that they could help God fulfill his plan for the world. The Abrahamic Tradition posits that there would be a 'Judgement Day' where people will either get into heaven or into hell. Thus under the influence of these traditions, people would work or live to get into heaven. The Indic Traditions of Hinduism(some streams of it) and Buddhism on the other hand, don't subscribe to the concept of a heaven-hell dichotomy. Rather these religions advocated the concept of rebirth. Hinduism suggested that if one remains pure and virtuous in one life then they'll be reborn as a "Brahman" or a Savarna but failing to do so will result in one's rebirth into an Avarna family(an obvious ploy to justify the inhumane Caste System). Buddhists, on the other hand, put forward a theory in which the end point of liberation was Moksha or Enlightenment which would end the cycle of rebirth.
The objective of these worldviews is exposed not only by their unscientific approach to the question of life and death but also by their egocentric nature. Humanity and human society is always placed at the center of the Universe in these theories. The whole Universe revolves around humanity. It is our actions that will bring about both the apocalypse and the salvation of this vast universe. But, as we know, change is inevitable and change was long overdue in these societies. So soon change would be unleashed upon them.
THE BEAST OF MODERNISM
This universal objective of human life or the meaning of life were a result of the God centric morality and the religious worldview but as modernism came into full swing, this worldview began falling apart and the meaning of life along with it. The 19th Century was witness to the publication of texts which shook the very foundations of the Religious Worldview like an explosion. Some of these works include:
Modernism had completely destroyed the religious vestiges of the Feudal times. The God serving meaning of life being dissolved with it. But this wouldn't end here, for now that the Beast of Modernism was unleashed, it would wreak havoc. This beast, hungry for truth and enlightenment, would tear apart the Religious Worldview to satiate its hunger. It would feast on the 'objective meaning of life'. It would create— chaos.
THE CHAOTIC DEATH OF GOD
"Whither is God?" he cried; "I will tell you. We have killed him---you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Isn't night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him."
—The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche
This passage is perhaps the most accurate literary representation of the ideological, philosophical and subsequently moral dilemma that modernism has created. Nietzsche was not particularly referring to the literal death of a divine entity but rather the death of Feudal Values and Worldviews. Till now, God formed the basis of our understanding of reality, especially, our place in it. God gave people a goal and their lives a meaning. Society's whole perspective of reality was now crumbling under the weight of the mountain of rationality unleashed by humanity's very own hunger for the truth. This is the crisis of Nihilism, the crisis of accepting that reality is not Human-centric. The very idea that humans and human society are just a mere coincidental(if not accidental) product of Universal Contradictions and not the masterpiece of some divine entity, the idea that life has no meaning whatsoever, the idea that any and everything we do is useless in the longest run are the ideas that form the basis of the Philosophy of Nihilism. Humanity had to come to terms with the fact that it or anything it did is not just 'not special', but also pointless; it did not serve any higher power or any grand scheme. This pointlessness, this feeling of helplessness, this generated the crisis of Nihilism.
The Death of God unleashed chaos in the realm of human knowledge, chaos that was reflective of the socio-political and economic landscape of Europe. This period in European history is marked with Republican Revolutions which were challenging the Feudal Political systems at the time but had not given shape to Liberal Democracies yet. This political chaos of Europe is reflected in the chaos of the Modernist Worldview. But that chaos too subsided. We found a new god to worship— Capital.
Early 20th Century saw the complete rise of Liberalism, which had taken root as the primary ideology of the world during the 20s. We now had a system of Morality, Ethics and Values; a new god which influenced us everyday; a new entity that we submitted ourselves to— Capital. But even today, after the establishment and reestablishment of Capital (Rise Neo-Liberalism in the 90s) as our God, Nihilism is an ideology which can be relatable to many people. But why? The answer lies within Modernist Thought itself.
ALIENATION AND NIHILISM
Alienation as a concept has been part of the central subtexts of Karl Marx's works, even though Marx's approach to Alienation has changed multiple times. His original approach to Alienation was Idealist in nature but slowly he adopted a more Materialist approach. But it is not his conception of Alienation that concerns us today, but rather how it can harbour Nihilistic sentiments within us.
Alienation or, in Hegelian terms, Estrangement, refers to a phenomenon where humans are detached from their labour and that gives birth to mental health crises. Think of it like this; we as humans spend at least one-third of our day at our workplace working and in the end we are completely detached from the product of the labour, we have no idea who will use the final product, what for or how and often we can't even afford that final product(Alienation from the Product of Labour). But it doesn't end here, it should also be noted that we as workers don't have any say upon the process of production or how we work(Alienation from the process of Labour). Everything from the methodology to the timings of the workplace is directly or indirectly controlled by the capitalists while we are reduced to being cogs in a machine who don't know what they're doing or don't even have any say in the process. This is our central concern.
Let us take some examples, consider an Industrial Worker and a White Collar Worker. Both of them spend their time away working and generating value for the Capitalists with no relationship with their product or the production process. For 8 hours or more(it's usually more than 8 hours) they are just acting as cogs in a machine, they are not human, they are indulging in meaningless mechanical work. Work which leaves them so tired that it is not even possible to do or think about anything else, they can't commit to anything for they have been sucked dry by mechanical labour requirements. There is no space left in your life for hobbies, relationships or general chores other than your job; your job consumes everything like the Blob from The Blob. There's nothing left of them. The White Collar worker escapes this by hiring househelp etc.(their position as a Labour Aristocrat can also make things easier for them) while the Industrial Worker has no options(other than expropriation of domestic labour through marriage if he's a man). Thus the only thing that dominates their life and activities is a Job which they, reasonably, find meaningless.
As we've understood the relationship a worker has with their job, one of meaninglessness and parasitical labour, we can now say that if a person with such a job relates to the Philosophy or Crisis of Nihilism should we be surprised? Now, many find solace in the 'objective' of blindly earning money, accepting Capital as your true God but even that cannot save them from the inevitable and unavoidable devastation of Alienation. These people cannot be 'happy' or 'content' even if they live luxuriously, not because they're greedy, but because they're estranged, they're alienated. They're hollow from the inside and try to fill the void left by the appropriation of Surplus Labour with tacky consumerism, supplementing their physical attitudes, overconsumption or binge-consumption and recreational substances. But at some point of time, all else fails, and reality hits us as we as humans once again face the crisis of our virtues and values falling apart like stale bread, we are once again hit with the Crisis of Nihilism— The Nihilism of Capital.
Marx perfectly sums up the the estranged Nihilism that Capital gives birth to when he wrote in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844
The less you eat, drink, buy books, go to the theatre or to balls, or to the pub, and the less you think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you will be able to save and the greater will become your treasure which neither moth nor rust will corrupt—your capital. The less you are, the less you express your life, the more you have, the greater is your alienated life and the greater is the saving of your alienated being.
Another accurate representation of this condition can be found in the following quote from Capital Vol. I:
Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.
But when, at the end of the day, the worker comes home completely exhausted and distraught, his ability to work or do anything completely sucked out, a part of his conscious self hollowed out by his job; why does the worker question all of existence instead of questioning the form of existence?
NIHILISM AND CAPITALIST REALISM
If or whenever we draw a comparison between feudal and capitalist systems of hegemony, the first and foremost difference that comes to mind is the ability of capitalist hegemony to shape our worldview. This ability is also what Mark Fisher studies in his book "Capitalist Realism". Fisher notes that capitalism or capitalist hegemony has become so powerful, so deep-rooted in our minds that it has transcended the form of a system of hegemony— instead it has turned into a homogeneous cultural mindset that restricts or destroys our very ability to imagine and reason beyond the limitations of the capitalist framework. This is what Fisher has termed Capitalist Realism; the conception that capitalism is the only viable or efficient system of social organisation rendering any other alternative unimaginable or utopian.
This idea became the predominant notion of the Post-Soviet world when the fall of the Soviet Union was used as a justification and the exploitative nature of the capitalist mode of production wasn't just offshored but rather projected as an inherent ill of the human species itself; exploitation was attributed to "human nature" and capitalism was propounded to be the only system with the majestic ability to rationalise or control our greedy exploitative nature. The ideological apparatuses of the State and the bourgeoisie created an "eternal present" where capitalism remained dominant without any challenge. This phenomenon was best embodied in the phrase "it is easier to imagine the end of the world than imagining the end of capitalism" and "capitalism is human nature". At this point in history, the difference between capitalist and feudal hegemonies wasn't just quantitative but also qualitative. Capitalist hegemony has turned into the demon that takes over our complete consciousness by whispering at the back of our heads.
The effects of this phenomenon are felt every moment. One of the best examples of this would be the popular discourse around Climate Change and Environmental Damage. It is capitalism and its profit prioritisation policy that has brought us to the very brink of extinction yet whenever popular discourse regarding the climate catastrophe and methods of prevention are discussed they are always discussed, not just within the boundaries of capitalism, but with people's consumption patterns at the center. According to such discourse, people using plastic straws is more concerning than only a hundred companies being responsible for 70% of the world's carbon emissions or the fossil fuel industry actively discouraging Solar Power research and facilities because it is "not profitable". Capitalism is about to destroy the planet and yet we cannot imagine a planet without it. It is easier for us to imagine the end of the world through a climate catastrophe than to imagine the end of Capitalism, that is Capitalist Realism at its finest.
But how is the philosophy of Nihilism related to Capitalist Realism? Well, I would argue that Nihilism only appears to be a reasonably radical philosophical thought because of Capitalist Realism. If we consider the original nihilists like Max Stirner, they obviously rejected capitalism alongside all other social systems but that was not enough. Philosophies don't exist in a vacuum, they exist within the ideological framework of society and thus, much like society itself, ideologies have their own dominant sections and subservient sections. Any ideological or philosophical thought must interact with the hegemonic ideology of society and this interaction can manifest in one of two ways— either the thought is appropriated and absorbed within the hegemonic ideological fold or the thought stands in staunch opposition to the hegemonic ideology. Nihilism, while rejecting capitalism, never staunchly opposed its exploitative nature and thus it was, eventually, inducted into the capitalist fold.
Nihilism benefits from the mass's inability to imagine a life outside of capitalism. The masses experience the exploitation of Capital on daily basis and truly understand that this system is not just, they also understand that their labour is being, in a way, wasted on acquiring profits for the capitalists, they realise that their whole being is being consumed by capital itself and they are being reduced to zombies but still they cannot imagine a life outside of capitalism. This exploitation, this meaninglessness or lack of purpose seems natural to them. So the masses, unable to imagine a life beyond capitalism, beyond working day in and day out without a set purpose, accept this slow death of the human within them as the one true way of living their life and end up rejecting life itself. The only 'life' they've ever known and the only purpose they've ever had is getting a job and working, the only life they have is providing their labour to capitalists and that is not a life worth living. Hence it's obvious that they've rejected life itself. But if for a second, the lens of Capitalist Realism were to be removed, Nihilism were to be removed, what would we see? Capitalism for the all consuming hellspawn it is.
Thus we can conclude that Nihilism has been inducted into the fold of capitalist ideology, a philosophical thought, that although seems like a rebellious ideology that can liberate us but truly it only gaslights us by projecting the ills of capitalist life on all of human existence as a whole. As the colour of Capitalist Realism fades from our worldview, we will find the radical shade of Nihilism also fading away. The ability of Capitalism to project its worst qualities upon us, with barely anyone noticing, to term our very existence as suffering, is the Nihilism that serves Capital, it is— 'The Nihilism of Capital'.
 Something I'd like to add too is I don't believe that people are truly so stupid to actually believe every word of their religion. Somewhere they hold on to it because it gives them a purpose, even if it's a twisted one, that helps them make sense of their life and suffering. I also believe that their morality is much more dear to them than their religion and people have shown that they're ready to reform their understanding of religion in order better suit their individual and social morality.
Marnina Avirup is a Marxist-Leninist writer from West Bengal, India. They write on both international and Indian issues (or their correlation). Most of their work is on Political Theory, Comparative Politics, Political History and Philosophy from a Marxist-Leninist perspective.
Decoding the Complexities of Culture: Review of 'Culture' by Terry Eagleton. Reviewed by: Jacob JoshyRead Now
Culture is an “exceptionally complex word”, says Terry Eagleton, and as constant agents who interact with it in our daily affairs, we know how complex it is to write a book about culture, that too in less than 200 pages. Terry Eagleton, in his book 'Culture', puts forth a similar attempt, and one can easily say that he has succeeded.
Eagleton starts his book with a brief preface where he lists out his intentions, that this book in its totality "sacrifices any strict unity of argument to approach its subject from several different perspectives." Terry Eagleton's central argument is that Culture is a "social unconscious", and to cement this argument, he takes the help of thinkers like Edmund Burke, Johann Gottfried Herder, T.S. Eliot and Raymond Williams. The author also takes an anticipatory bail in the preface itself about the overwhelming amount of "Irish motif" running throughout the book, in his attempt to build this central argument.
The book is divided into five chapters, with each chapter dealing with a different aspect with which Eagleton wants his readers to engage. The first chapter titled 'Culture and Civilisation' talks about how culture is an integral part of human civilization, and further about the contrasts and similarities between the two. Eagleton makes a pertinent observation about how the usage and the meaning of the two words - Culture and Civilization - have changed starting from the premodern times to our modern age. The author then elaborates on his view about the dual nature of culture and civilization; that is, how both seem to be normative and descriptive at the same time. Eagleton also makes some interesting remarks about the links between the origins of the notion of 'culture' as such and the onset of industrialization.
The second chapter, 'Postmodern Prejudices' is a precise commentary on the intricacies caused by the interaction of postmodernity and culture. Eagleton uncovers how the postmodern slogan of ‘inclusivity’ masks differences, and argues that rather than inclusivity, what we need is ‘unanimity’. "Different viewpoints," Eagleton writes "are not to be valued simply because they are different viewpoints." Postmodernity's "self-appointed censors," who are ignorant of how political opinions are formed, readily remove all discussions of political movements from the forefront and replace them with just political correctness arguments, which tend to diffuse conflicts and frame economic and political issues as cultural ones alone. Eagleton also concludes that contrary to the claims of culturalists, "Culture is not identical with our nature" but it is of our nature.
Eagleton's main cultural theories and findings are largely contained in the third chapter, "The Social Unconscious." He writes "This social unconscious is one thing we mean by culture". With references to Freud and Lacan at the beginning of the chapter, the reader might assume that Eagleton is aiming to develop his arguments from a psychoanalytical standpoint. However, it was only a viewpoint the author was attempting to implant in the readers' brains. The chapter heavily relies on the ideas and teachings of two thinkers - Edmund Burke and Johann Gottfried Herder - who were both vocal critics of colonialism and for whom culture is more essential than politics. Eagleton finds that Burke "prizes order" while Herder "values freedom". The author says that the "unfathomable specificity of human affairs" is what we know as culture and juxtaposes Antonio Gramsci's hegemonic power with Burke's view on culture. In the later parts of the chapter, he elaborates on the evolution of language and culture. If, till now, the chapter mainly depended on conservative thinkers to make the case of 'social unconsciousness, Eagleton goes to Raymond Williams towards the end of the chapter to explain the radical version of it. He notes that, unlike Elliot, for Williams, culture essentially is unplannable and "always a work in progress".
Up until this point, the book dealt with issues related to the theory of culture. In the fourth chapter, suitably titled "An Apostle of Culture," Eagleton shifts his focus to the "summary of the thought" of Oscar Wilde. Eagleton notes that both Wilde and Burke were Irish, which made them vocal critics of Britain's colonial aspirations, and "ended up biting the hand that fed them". Unfortunately, the author didn't touch the realms of dependency theories which almost and mostly deals with similar complexities. Eagleton cites that being Irish necessarily contributed to the formation of Wilde’s career and his openness to the idea of modernism; “To be marginal to a language and culture” he writes “is also to be freer than the natives from its ruling forms and conventions, and thus to be less hamstrung by them”. For Wilde a known proponent of ‘art for art sakes’, notes Eagleton, art wasn’t a “question of fleeing from life into art” but on the contrary a “question of turning one’s life into a work of art”. Eagleton also put forth a striking comparison of Wilde with Marx, even though there was a fundamental difference in their end goals. Wilde sees individualism as the goal of socialism which is diametrically opposite to Marx’s views. But what Eagleton finds is that the “Romantic sense of the richness and diversity of individual lives” seen in Marx is similar to Wilde, and both of them aspired for a world without labour so that people have “time for the more vital business of self-development”.
The last and final chapter 'From Herder to Hollywood' talks about the evolution of culture through modern times. Culture, Eagleton notes, came to prominence as a "critique of industrialism, but also as a rebuke to the notion of revolution." He further writes that "it became a key concept in the language of Romantic nationalism." This form of romantic nationalism can be traced to the works of D. H. Lawrence and Friedrich Schiller. This recent development can be seen in Jane Austen's writings, where 'politeness' emerges as a substitute for 'culture.' Over this period, Eagleton observes that art also found a new audience, the common people, and can be attributed to the 'new array of social institutions' that rose post the industrial revolution. This form of romantic idea, warns Eagleton like any other brand of ethics pave the way for the dogmatic version of cultural nationalism. Also, during this time, poets and artists took centre stage in recently evolved concepts of liberalism and democracy. He finishes with a critique of the latest addition to capitalist modernity in the form of cultural industry. The book ends with a brief concluding chapter 'The Hubris of Culture', which neatly sums up all arguments presented over the last five chapters. To tie things up, Eagleton warns that the central question that confronts the new millennium is not cultural but a political one.
The compounded nexus of culture is not fully explored in Eagleton's book, nor does he make a similar claim in his book. However, what distinguishes Eagleton's study of culture from that of other cultural critics or postmodern thinkers is that the core of Eagleton's criticism revolves around labour, which, according to Karl Marx, is the only "progenitor" of civilization. A great deal of his analysis deals with the origin of the notion of culture and its relationship between colonialism, and its subsequent evolution into an academic discipline that was "contaminated to its core by racist ideology". Like an ethnographer, Eagleton transcends back into time and age, and studies literature, theory and thought to demonstrate this "unholy alliance between colonial power and nineteenth-century anthropology". Although he is conscious of the cultural industry's power, he does not respond in a puritanical manner and sees the widespread popularization of literature and art as a negative development. He acknowledges that modern industry also made it possible for millions of people to consume what was prohibited to them, however, the only objection to this industry phenomenon is the profit motivation that drives this cultural upsurge. And the remedy he offers is the collective consciousness that relies majorly on strong radical political movements. At a time when we are overwhelmed by advertising brands and dopamine inducing Instagram content, Terry Eagleton's short book provides us with a lot of insights and perspectives to tackle this critical juncture of human civilisation, and must be read by any student of social sciences to grasp and overcome this harsh reality.
Jacob Joshy is currently pursuing MA economics at South Asian University, Delhi
The Moving finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
- The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám
Death as the Nexus for the Possibility of Meaning in Human Life
In This Life, the philosopher Martin Hägglund argues that:
To attain a peaceful state of eternity you must be liberated from the risk of losing what you love. Were such liberation possible, however, nothing would matter to you. You literally would not care. There would be no urgency to do anything or maintain love for anyone, since nothing of value could be lost (2019, 44).
Homer’s The Odyssey presents us with a similar message in book five. The situation Odysseus (the central character) is thrust into on Calypso’s Island reflects the meaninglessness of eternal life (Calypso is a beautiful female deity which has detained Odysseus for seven years). In the Island, Odysseus is guaranteed immortality and all the bodily pleasures he can imagine. However, when the character’s stay on the Island is introduced to the reader, Odysseus is weeping, missing his family, and longing to return with them.
In our contemporary logic of shallow hedonism (or non-Epicurean hedonism), where the satisfaction of desires and pleasures has raised itself into an ethical imperative, Odysseus’s actions reflect those of a madman. Within this contemporary logic, Odysseus’s actions are as unfathomable as Abraham’s killing of his son, Isaac, on God’s orders. Abraham’s action, as the Danish existentialist Søren Kierkegaard notes, is beyond the limits of comprehension, it is absurd and cannot be grasped as a “distinction among others embraced by understanding” (Kierkegaard 1985, 75).
Within the logic of contemporary bourgeois society our dominant mode of experience is having – we are what we have and what we consume (Fromm 1976, 26-7). In our capitalist hyper-consumerist societies, the Cartesian cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) is turned into Cōnsūmere ergo sum (I consume; therefore, I am). The world is turned into a big “theater of consumption,” where meaningless enjoyment – whose real and well-hidden telos is the realization of profit obtained in the consumed commodities –becomes life’s prime want (Mbembe 2004, 394). An Island of infinite pleasure would seem, within the confines of this mode of relationality and irrational rationality, the purest form of good – a heavenly Island.
But it isn’t enough for Odysseus. Why?
Well, not only are there things that matter more than pleasure (if you wish, think of a hierarchy of values, some of the higher ones which are inaccessible in Calypso’s Island), such as honor, loyalty, family, etc., but the possibility of anything mattering at all within the confines of immortality is impossible. Odysseus’s life on the Island might have been pleasureful, but – insofar as it was sustained within conditions of immortality – it would have also been meaningless.
Only when the ever-present reality of our finitude is the background of all our actions can life obtain meaning. Death, that which Martin Heidegger called “the possibility of the impossibility of any existence at all,” is the nexus through which meaning can emerge in our life (1962, 307). It is the fragile character of our lives which functions as the conditions for the possibility of meaning.
Odysseus’s struggle to leave the Island is a struggle for life, for family and honor, but most importantly, for a return to the finitude which underlays our being-in-the-world and provides us with the conditions for living meaningful, truly human lives.
As Wolfgang Petersen's 2004 masterpiece Troy has Achilles (played by Brad Pitt) say: “The gods envy us. They envy us because we’re mortal, because any moment may be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again.”
The Crisis of Meaning and Bourgeois Finitude
While it is our finitude which grounds our ability to lead meaningful lives, an awareness of our finitude does not guarantee that we’ll find, or create, meaning in our lives. An awareness of our mortality, therefore, while necessary, is not in itself sufficient.
We know we are not immortal. In fact, in our hyper-consumerist societies, the primacy of shallow hedonism is often rooted in a deep sense of our mortality. For instance, just a few years ago the acronym that grasped the zeitgeist of the U.S. was ‘YOLO,’ which stood for You Only Live Once. Under this motto, pleasure-centered licentiousness was legitimized. After all, why shouldn’t I enjoy myself to the fullest if I only live once?
But this sense of mortality has not, and (under the conditions in which it exists) cannot, provide the fertile ground needed for us to create meaning in our lives. We live in societies riddled with depression, anxiety, stress, etc. As the young Karl Marx had already observed by 1844, capitalism systematically alienates us from our labor, its product, our fellow human beings, nature, and from our species-essence (gattungswesen, by which he meant our ability to creatively objectify ourselves onto nature through our labor). These are profound crisis at the human level (crisis comes from one of the Greek words for separation, krísis), and pervade our lebenswelt (life-world) or forms of being-in-the-world under our current capitalist-imperialist mode of life.
In many ways, a lot of these social-psychological ills have been normalized. As Dr. Gabor Mate shows in The Myth of Normal, even things like chronic illness, which in many cases can be traced back to stress patterns formed out of the habits people are thrusted into by the dominant order, are anything but normal – in fact, they are “profoundly abnormal” in just about every way possible (Mate 2022, 7). Trauma (both its big T and small t iterations) is essentially rooted, as Dr. Mate notes, in a “fracturing of the self and of one’s relationship to the world” (Mate 2022, 23). This is, in essence, another form of the same crisis Marxism has explained, condemned, and combatted since the middle of the 19th century.
In the midst of our alienated, exploited, and oppressed mode of existence, the form of life we live in must, in order to successfully finish the cycle of capital accumulation for which we were exploited in the first place, bombard us with advertisements destined to make us Homo consumericus in those few hours of the days were – although feeling the lingering affects of the work day – we are not directly getting exploited. The consumption of advertisements – which studies have shown to take up, on average, four years of our lives – is a form of consumption which proliferates our desires to consume. It is the equivalent of drinking Coca-Cola, a drink shown to dehydrate us further, in order to quench our thirst.
Additionally, since we often can’t afford this (wages have stayed low, prices and job precarity have risen), we are forced to turn to borrowing to pay for what we consume. The American working class, indubitably, is amongst the most indebted in the history of humanity. This form of debt-slavery which characterizes the lives of the modern American proletariat and reproletariat (i.e., the section of the last century’s middle-classes which have fallen back to precarity and instability), is a form of what Marx calls in the third volume of Capital the “secondary exploitation… which runs parallel to the primary exploitation taking place in the production process itself” (Khrachvik 2024; Marx 1974, 609). This has ushered into world-history a new form of superexploitation within the metropole itself, where its working masses are not only exploited (direct, primary exploitation) but cripplingly indebted (secondary exploitation), and therefore, super, or doubly, exploited.
How can any meaning arise in lives plagued by alienated work and meaningless consumption? It is not enough to show that we are dealing, as a society, with a deep crisis of meaning. Viktor Frankl, for instance, already described in the middle of the last century through many widely read and celebrated books the universal character of meaninglessness in modern bourgeois society (Frankl 1985, 164). But is this recognition enough? Must we not inquire as to its origins? Must we not explain, and not just describe these crises?
A scientific explanation of these pervasive social-psychological ills would have, as Dr. Mate notes, “revolutionary implications” (Mate 2022, 8). The question would be, can the sciences in these fields (especially its mainstream trends), be able to overcome what the Marxist scientists Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin have called their “Cartesian reductionism” (Levins and Lewontin 1985, xii)? Can they move away from bourgeois philosophical assumptions which divide mind and body, individual and society, which observe things as dead and static entities, and which reify them from the larger totalities whose existence in they presuppose? In short, can these sciences adopt – either consciously or not – the materialist dialectic and its focus on universal motion, interconnection, contradiction, totality-analysis, etc.? These are the foundations through which we may reproduce the concrete concretely in thought, and hence, understand the world in all its complexities (Garrido 2022, 34-40).
A central obstacle in this task is not only the bourgeois character of the institutions they’re forced to operate through, but, as an ideological reflection of this, their adoption of the view that they are (and this is especially true in the ‘hard’ sciences) somehow above ideology and philosophy. What an ideologically loaded sentiment! We are back to Plato’s cave, back to prisoners who take the conditions of their particular enchainment to be the whole of reality itself. The truth is, while the sciences often fancy themselves to be ‘above’ philosophy and ideology, “in most cases,” as Friedrich Engels had noted, they are “slaves to precisely the worst vulgarized relics of the worst philosophies” (Engels 2012, 213). “Nothing evokes as much hostility” in scientists, Levins and Lewontin write, “as the suggestion that social forces influence or even dictate either the scientific method or the facts and theories of science” (Levins and Lewontin 1985, 4). A re-grounding of the mainstream sciences in a consistent dialectical materialist worldview, along with the uprooting of the profit motive that dictates its telos in our mode of life, would readily provide a richer, more comprehensive, and – necessarily – a more revolutionary understanding of our crisis of meaning and what overcoming it entails.
Finding Meaning in the Struggle for a New World
The point which I would like to get across here is the following: the crisis of meaning we are experiencing is systematically rooted in the capitalist mode of life. This is something which can, and has, been scientifically proven. It is not simply a question of ‘culture’ or ‘individual accountability’. While it manifests itself in our culture and individual lives, its existence there reflects the forces at play in the economic base of society. The crisis in our culture and in our individual lives is a product of the heightening of the contradictions at the foundation of a moribund capitalist-imperialist order.
This is where a lot of the commentary (especially critical in character) on the crisis of meaninglessness misses the mark. It merely describes the way the crisis looks by the time it gets to the social-psychological level, remaining ‘cultural’ in its critique through and through, never explaining the underpinning motion and contradictions producing that which they critique. The superiority of the Marxist outlook (i.e., dialectical materialism) is found in its ability to do precisely this – to explain and not just describe, to show the underlying foundations producing movement at the surface, and not simply taking that surface for the whole of reality.
It is important to note, however, that our contemporary crisis of meaning doesn’t necessarily entail that meaningful lives are impossible. In the fringes of quotidian society there are still people who, like Odysseus, find meaning in their family life, in tending to familial duties. There are also, like Odysseus, people who may be rooted in a strong sense of honor, in a deep drive for greatness in their respective fields. This is certainly a reality for many athletes, whose striving within their sports provides a source of meaning in their lives.
However, no greater meaning can be derived than that which arises from fighting against a world which systematically produces these crises of meaning. The greatest and most memorable human beings in the history of our species have been those, like Socrates, Jesus, Simón Bolívar, John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Marx and Engels, José Martí, V. I. Lenin, Mao, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and many more, who have found their life’s purpose in the struggle to move humanity forward into a more rational and free world. There is, therefore, tremendous meaning to be found in the struggle against a world governed by exploitation, alienation, and oppression. A capitalist-imperialist order that has murdered tens of millions (four million in the Muslim world in the last two decades alone) and that is threatening humanity with nuclear Armageddon to sustain its hegemony, is worth making the object we commit our lives to destroying.
But a purposeful and meaningful life does not have as its only end destruction. We seek to destroy this order, not so that we can dance on the rumble, but so that the fetters it has set on humanity are destroyed. We seek to destroy not for destruction’s sake, but because what we destroy is itself a system, as the British Marxist William Morris called, of waste and destruction (Morris 1884). We destroy, in other words, so that we may construct a future which obliterates poverty, exploitation, plunder, war, oppression, alienation, meaninglessness, bigotry, etc. We destroy so that we may construct a world in which humanity can flourish, where people of all creeds may, as Che Guevara hoped, achieve their “full realization as a human creature” (Guevara 1969 162).
 For more on the development of the concept of alienation through Marx’s work, see my review article: “Karl Marx’s Writings on Alienation,” Monthly Review Online (June 11, 2022): https://mronline.org/2022/06/11/karl-marxs-writings-on-alienation-by-marcello-musto-reviewed-by-carlos-l-garrido/
 I have shown elsewhere how this poverty of outlook, conjoined with the material incentives of capitalism, has led to the utter failure of the sciences (the mainstream ones, there’s always good folks doing work that goes against the grain) to understand social-psychological ills such as depression (See: “The Failed Serotonin Theory of Depression: A Marxist Analysis”). An elaboration of these critiques is beyond the goals of this brief paper, I recommend interested readers to read the article referenced above from more of my work in that area.
Achille Mbembe, “Aesthetics of Superfluity,” Public Culture 16(3): 373–405.
Carlos L. Garrido, “Book Review: Karl Marx’s Writings on Alienation. By: Marcello Musto,” Monthly Review Online (June 11, 2022): https://mronline.org/2022/06/11/karl-marxs-writings-on-alienation-by-marcello-musto-reviewed-by-carlos-l-garrido/
Carlos L. Garrido, Marxism and the Dialectical Materialist Worldview: An Anthology of Classical Marxist Texts on Dialectical Materialism (Dubuque/Carbondale: Midwestern Marx Publishing Press, 2022).
Carlos L. Garrido, “The Failed Serotonin Theory of Depression: A Marxist Analysis,” Science for the People (September 09, 2022): https://magazine.scienceforthepeople.org/online/the-failed-serotonin-theory-of-depression-a-marxist-analysis/
Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, Selected Works of Ernesto Guevara (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1969).
Erich Fromm, To Have or to Be? (New York: Harpers and Row Publishers, 1976).
Friedrich Engels, Dialectics of Nature (London: Wellred Publication, 2012).
Gabor Mate and Daniel Mate, The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness and Healing In a Toxic Culture (London: Vermilion, 2022).
Karl Marx. Capital Vol. III (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974).
Martin Hägglund, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom (New York: Pantheon Books, 2019).
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John MacQuarrie and Edward Robinson (San Francisco: Harpers Collins Publishers, 1962).
Noah Khrachvik, Reproletarianization: The Rise and Fall of the American Middle Class (Dubuque/Carbondale: Midwestern Marx Publishing Press, 2024 Forthcoming).
Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, The Dialectical Biologist (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985).
Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (New York: Penguin Books, 1985).
Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (New York: Washington Square Press, 1985).
Willaim Morris, “A Factory as It Might Be,” Justice (May 17, 1884), 2, Retrieved from: https://www.marxists.org/archive/morris/works/1884/justice/10fact1.htm
Carlos L. Garrido is a philosophy teacher at Southern Illinois University, Director at the Midwestern Marx Institute, and author of The Purity Fetish and the Crisis of Western Marxism (2023), Marxism and the Dialectical Materialist Worldview (2022), and Hegel, Marxism, and Dialectics (Forthcoming 2024).
“You can’t be Neutral on a moving train”
- Howard Zinn
I am standing in front of an assemblage of found objects, culled from a midwestern city ravaged by capitalism and racism. The pile has been helpfully located here by an artist with support of the local billionaire’s philanthropic foundation, and a private art school in the suburbs. The artist’s statement informs me that the work is about the possible importance of these objects in the past, before they were abandoned, he wants me to consider how the objects were theoretically important to someone once. I’m confused because these are not trinkets from ancient Rome, many of the people who abandoned them are likely still alive, and the reason they were abandoned seems inextricably connected to the billionaire who paid for the show. I move along to a second piece, a display of books about the apocalypse. The artist's statement again offers insight, saying that they find the books interesting because the apocalypse has never come. I turn and look back at the shards of shattered lives that the artists had piled up with the help of the billionaire. It seems that the apocalypse came for those people. Their worlds ended and broke. Perhaps it doesn’t count if the apocalypse didn’t affect the rich people. Perhaps the next apocalypse will. The artist's statement assures me that the meaning is in the uncertainty, the billionaire’s logo bids me farewell as I leave.
Ambiguity is a key tool of the artist. The use of unresolved imagery and open metaphors allows for artwork to incorporate collaboratively constructed meaning, built by both the artist and the viewer. This allows the artists to deepen and expand their craft- developing a broad range of approaches to connect with an audience beyond direct literal representation. However when we look around at the post modern context, something seems to have gone wrong with this tool. What was once uncertain meaning has become in many cases intentionally oblique artworks, at best requiring an advanced degree to appreciate, and at worst offering little more than their own lack of clarity as a thesis. Today, the art world seems to have fetishized ambiguity: celebrating inscrutability for its own sake, regardless of the effect on the piece- and seem almost to value a failure to communicate with a mass audience as the highest form of work. It seems worth at least briefly investigating the effects of this trend, try to understand why it may be playing such a role at this moment in history, and offering a lens to understand and critique not ambiguity as such, but this trend of fetishized inarticulate artistic production.
In the modern art world, so completely dominated by capital: from foundations, to galleries, auction houses, collectors, tax loopholes, and media; excessive ambiguity seems to abdicate the construction of meaning not to the individual viewer, but to these very capitalist institutions. The artist allows capital to construct and guide the meaning of a piece far beyond any mythologized individual interaction between viewer and artwork. Taken from this perspective ambiguity risks creating art that simply allows the meaning of culture to be even more shaped by the rich and stamped with their world view.
I am personally invested in the role of artwork in helping shape and transform the world, how it can support working class emancipatory politics, and inspire communities engaged in this struggle. This is obviously not the only goal of art, however, judging by present discourse in the art world, it appears to be a deeply undervalued one. Empowered by this broad indifference, I hope to offer not a complete conclusion, but to at least reassert a key avenue of critique.
To begin we must generally define what we mean by “Ambiguity.” For the purposes of this critique I identify ambiguity as the quality of uncertain meaning or subject in a piece of artwork, and the endorsement of this uncertainty by the creator. As stated above, at its best ambiguity allows an artwork to elevate beyond pure depiction, or a single viewpoint, and create a space where the perception of the viewer helps create the piece. Sometimes this creates a specific interpretation but just as likely it can make the uncertainty and quest for meaning a living part of the work. All of this is perfectly reasonable and indeed critical as a tool of the artist. A career of artwork that speaks in one voice and offers no space for engagement is less that of an artist and more of an advertiser. The quarrel then is not with ambiguity as such, but the more specific role it plays in the socio-economic context of the modern art world.
It is difficult to define a clear line between the use of ambiguity by any one artist, and the more general trend of fetshized ambiguity. This is in part because the difference occurs not just at the level of the individual creator, but at the structural level- what works are purchased, funded, rewarded, and discussed by the broader art world. The break arises when ambiguity becomes not a tool for engaging an audience member, but to distance them from the artwork, to enforce a division between an elite who “gets” the piece, and the masses who are increasingly deflected from engagement. Rather than creating space for the audience to collaboratively craft meaning, fetishized ambiguity seems intent upon alienating or distancing a significant portion of the audience, in order to make what can often boil down to fairly shallow points about the uncertainty of modern life. Some of this is visionary complex work to be sure, but it seems worth questioning the inherent elitism of this approach, its widespread popularity among the institutions of the art world- and its intention in an art world already so deeply imbued with divisions class and power.
As with all aspects of cultural production, ambiguity functions in a matrix of several variables, and its meaning must be evaluated in this context. Key factors include: the relative visibility of the artist in society, the socio political system of artistic production and validation, and the overall reproductive system of the society at large. Thus, as the visibility of the artist in the society escalates, or the system artistic production is more captured by a specific class interest, or the political moment becomes more tenuous, the issue of ambiguity must be critiqued with more precision. In this context, the tool of ambiguity can overtake the overall mission of artwork- becoming fetishized into an end in it’s own right in order to serve specific class interests. This tendency is similarly conditioned by the very same social/political factors such as methods of display, popularization, materials costs, scale etc. that condition production as a whole. The question is not one why artists are creating ambiguous work, nor why their work is increasingly fetishizing ambiguity, this but why this tendency is being rewarded by the capitalists in control of the artistic sphere.
In our present moment then, we must engage with how the art world functions and the role that fetishized ambiguity might play in this system. The art world in capitalist society is controlled not by the public, artists, critics, or even curators- but by capital. This is a point made by many fabulous scholars, though I am most influenced by Mike Davis essays, and Chin Tao Wu’s book “Privatizing Culture.” Through this scholarship, we can understand the art world less as a site of artistic production than of capital accumulation, appreciation, and tax avoidance. As a site of capitalist production, it has faced the same escalating investment as any industry, with capital propping up key galleries, expensive artistic experiences or traveling shows, and private foundations as key value and taste making institutions. A huge amount of artistic labor is done on speculation, never rewarded by collectors/foundations uninterested in its output, or by communities too under resourced to support it.
Under capitalism the “art market” is concerned with the production of commodities that meet the needs of it’s consumers — who, be it through the foundation, gallery, or direct patronage, are the rich. Art becomes less about expression and more about developing either speculative value on the art itself OR a variety of side benefits be it to increase the value of a real estate holding, improving the patrons’ image, or helping avoid taxes. There remains a portion of this that is artistic production, attempting to explore human experience, emotions, history etc. but this role is increasingly eclipsed by the role of accumulation and commodification that has developed to serve the broad goals and needs of the rich. While the rich may also patronize specific works of a radical, or particular voice, these exceptions prove the broader structural rule of the modern art world- creating imagery in the service of capital. It is in this context that the fetishization of ambiguity must be evaluated for it’s purpose and role in the art world- which is to say in the goals of the rich.
So why does artwork that fetishizes ambiguity serve the goals of the rich? In the context of capitalist production, art is valued as a site of surplus value production, cultural capital, and to obscure value from the state. None of these goals is invested in the content of the work- and in fact many of them may be harmed by work with a specific viewpoint that makes it unappealing to other wealthy buyers, particularly when coming from new artistic voices without pedigree that can be banked upon. A Jackson Pollock painting thus is more easily sold and resold by various investors (the word collector here seems to give them too much credit) than is a piece with a more clear, enunciated, or challenging content. Particularly once key taste making foundations and funders have funded and popularized his work. Thus ambiguity serves to increase the transferability of an artwork- no just allowing the rich to control it’s messaging, but to complete the transformation of artwork into a transferable token of wealth- a goal potentially undermined by political stance and clarity of purpose of the artists.
This fetishization of ambiguity is even more particularly interested, not just in the ambiguity of message- but in an ambiguity of solutions. Political artwork has long proved perfectly capable of being incorporated as yet another commodity to be incorporated into the value circuits outlined above. While it may suffer some limitations as a commodity that more formalistic or abstract work does not (narrower market, negative reception etc.) it can still be metabolized to this system and its goals. Where the line of demarcation is more starkly apparent however, is on the ambiguity of solutions about the political problems we face. The reason for this is not overly complex- living as we do within a capitalist society characterized by the exploitation and oppression of the vast majority in order to benefit the wealthy- many solutions that fundamentally address the problems we face are tied up with doing away with this system, and by extension the rich as a class. Artwork that clearly asserts this fact and communicates with a working class audience not only doesn’t serve the goals of the rich, but actively inverts the distancing of modern art, alienating the primary force creating and shaping the art world: wealth, and reaching out instead to a mass audience. Criticism is acceptable, collectible, and profitable, so long as the artist does not begin to reach for solutions, and/or so long as those solutions remain unconnected from the working class.
When a piece of artwork is created, it is not released into an abstract individualized world, but rather into a web of social relationships constructed by capital and history. To release an ambiguous piece, in a context where the audience, spaces, language, and reward structures are all inextricably linked to and shaped by capital, is to risk handing over the task of interpretation to the rich. What institutions frame the work, what “public” views it, and what interpretations are crafted and elevated all become conditioned by a specific capitalist class, race, and gender analysis. In this context, is a gallery that relies upon the Gilbert foundations likely to show work that points out the exploitative/feudal relationship he has built with the city and its people; and If it does, will the gallery prioritize this critical interpretation if given the space to avoid doing so by the ambiguity of the piece and the artist’s stance?
The point is not that ambiguity is a bad tool- it is that constructing an art world around the fetishization of ambiguity does not put the artists into dialogue with an independent audience, but rather into a dialogue with a disproportionately rich, white audience in an art world shaped by the rich. Ambiguity then becomes a tool for the rich to shape meaning in such a way as to continue their primary goals of profit expansion, and shaping our understanding of reality so as to limit the alternatives to the status quo. What’s more, we should perhaps be more sketical of an ambiguity that repeatedly asks questions with researchable answers, or invite us to once more contemplate the complexity of life.
So if the problem is not with ambiguity as such, but with the broader structures of wealth, where does that leave us? I would hesitate to fully prescribe a solution to such a vast and structural issue- however the very scale of the forces involved does suggest a first step: enter into a community practice. Socially conscious art can not be made in isolation, and an individuals distanced observations will all too frequently retain a voyeuristic shallow quality. Join a party, an organization, a reading group, a union, your block club- the point is to enter into the life of the masses, not attempt to interpret your community in isolation.
Beyond this, it would be foolish to try and prescribe some sort of universal formula for how to approach ambiguity as an artist. It seems better to hold a few questions in tension as we produce work- a lens to critique how and why we are choosing to use ambiguity in our work. Why are you choosing to use ambiguity in your work? Are you uncertain about the question you are asking? Have you done enough research to make a meaningful statement? Does your work stop at asking “what is happening?” Or does it invite the viewer into a process of imagining and building the future? Who will see this work, and in what context? What readings of the work will be most empowered by that audience and venue?
Finally, there is the issue of the artist who stands behind the work. While it is no substitute for creating work that is able to communicate, artists must use as much of their platform as possible to explicitly combat a softening or limiting of their work by the art world. This does not mean self martyrdom by refusing to ever make money, or ever have your work engaged with by the art world, but it does mean being explicit about your values when in these spaces- and not deriving our value as artists from these spaces. Again this approach becomes meaningful and possible only as the artist roots themselves in their community and the actual work of understanding the world. The struggle to produce impactful work does not end when the artist sends their work out into the world- it continues as long as capital dominates the institutions and structures that interpret culture.
Despite all of this ambiguity remains a critical tool. The future is full of uncertainty, and art has a huge role to play in helping us as we struggle toward a future that we do not yet know. Ambiguity, framed as a collaboration with a working class audience to develop new meanings for our work and our world- this is a key place for this type of artistic ambiguity and exploration in our world. What we must abandon, or at least interrogate far more critically, is the ambiguity of analysis, of alternatives, of struggle. Neither artists nor the working class more generally needs yet another discussion of “what does it mean to pay rent and live in a world of ruthless exploitation, imperialism, and ecological collapse,” rather we need artwork that is helping us all engage with what me must do about these facts: a decisive shift from endlessly reflecting “what is happening” and toward the new horizons of “what is to be done?”
Ian Matchett is an organizer and artist working in Detroit. His art can be found on his website.
Republished from Hampton Institute.
Conventional historians often like to talk about the so-called ‘Greek Miracle’ lasting from about 700-300 BCE in which many of the foundational concepts of the Western world first emerged. Pioneering developments in disciplines as diverse as architecture, drama, philosophy, poetry, political science, and sculpture were made by creative geniuses such as Euripides, Phidias, Socrates and Aristotle who remain the starting points for study in their respective fields. The era also witnesses dramatic political upheavals including the rise of Athenian democracy, its clashes with the Persian Empire and the Spartan state and the climactic hegemony of Alexander the Great.
Marx was intrigued by the philosophical problem of why this era, perhaps above all other pre-capitalist ones, retained its appeal in the modern world:
‘The difficulty we are confronted with is not, however, that of understanding how Greek art and epic poetry are associated with certain forms of social development. The difficulty is that they still give us aesthetic pleasure and are in certain respects regarded as a standard and unattainable ideal. Why should not the historical childhood of humanity, where it attained its most beautiful form, exert an eternal charm because it is a stage that will never recur? Many of the ancient peoples belong to this category. The Greeks were normal children. The charm their art has for us does not conflict with the immature stage of the society in which it originated. On the contrary, its charm is a consequence of this and is inseparably linked with the fact that the immature social conditions which gave rise, and which alone could give rise, to this art cannot recur.’
Built on slavery
As materialists, Marx and Engels were clear-eyed that the undoubted epochal achievements of antiquity were rooted in a merciless and rapacious system of human slavery which condemned the bulk of the population to grinding misery so that an exploitative stratum, including the aforementioned personalities, had the time and leisure to develop their revolutionary concepts and techniques. Engels writes:
‘It was slavery that first made possible the division of labour between agriculture and industry on a larger scale, and thereby also Hellenism, the flowering of the ancient world. Without slavery, no Greek state, no Greek art and science, without slavery, no Roman Empire. But without the basis laid by Hellenism and the Roman Empire, also no modern Europe. We should never forget that our whole economic, political and intellectual development presupposes a state of things in which slavery was as necessary as it was universally recognised.’
Also as materialists, Marx and Engels understood that the achievements of the Greek Miracle were the consequence of a conjuncture of social and economic forces converging in the Eastern Mediterranean at a particular historical point, and not due to any supposed superiority of Western values, as bourgeois historians in the 18th and 19th centuries had argued. Greece and its associated islands in the Aegean Sea were ideally situated to benefit from the intersection of trade in both goods and ideas that flowed between the neighbouring civilisations of Egypt, Babylon and India as the Iron Age supplanted the Bronze Age round about 800 BCE.
These societies were more economically advanced but their predominantly flat geographical terrain made them vulnerable to top-down control by oppressive and powerful monarchies. As a largely mountainous territory, Greece in contrast, was harder for rulers to establish expansive hegemony and the linked islands developed efficient navies to protect their independence. Money had emerged in Asia Minor during this era, allowing the maritime economies of the Greeks to expand and prosper.
Significantly, it was in Ionia on what we call the west coast of Turkey that philosophy first developed. The coastal port of Miletus, in particular, was home to a remarkable sequence of thinkers who collectively created an unprecedented materialist view of the universe; that is to say, one which underplayed or even eliminated religion as a factor in the conception of the natural world. The city, and the surrounding region at this time became the site of intensified class struggle between the new class of merchants and traders who challenged the political power of established control of landowning aristocracies. This added to the intellectual and economic ferment that stimulated the rise of the school of Milesian materialism, pioneered by Thales who lived from about 640 to 546 BCE.
Although our knowledge about him is extremely scanty, ancient sources record that Thales remarkably predicted the solar eclipse that took place in 585, a remarkable testament to the astronomical and mathematical advances that accompanied the expansion of commerce and navigation in the Aegean at this time. Unsurprisingly in light of his location, the foundation of Thales’ materialism was a belief that water is the basis of all things in nature. Like all the Milesian materialists, Thales’ brilliant intuition may seem simplistic to our sophisticated scientific outlook in the 21st century but considering the crucial importance of water in the development of life on Earth and in our own bodies it represents a huge step forward in loosening the grip of religious dogma.
One of Thales’ relatives and pupils, Anaximander, brilliantly anticipated the Darwinian view of evolution many centuries before the great Victorian scientist by highlighting the interaction of quantitative and qualitative change in all living and non-living things: ‘It is the principle of all becoming and passing away; at long intervals infinite worlds or gods rise out of it and again they pass away into the same.’ Common to the Milesians, Anaximander based his supposition not merely on abstract reasoning on close observation of nature, particularly how the fossil record indicated the existence of many species which although long extinct had contributed in some way to the surviving life forms on the planet.
The last of the great early Ionian materialists, Anaximenes, postulated that modulations of air were the primary building blocks of the universe. Again, an inspired guess in light of our current understanding about the critical role of hydrogen in the early history of the universe. Engels neatly observed how the unadorned directness of the Milesians was at once the source of both their greatness and their ultimate limitation:
‘Here dialectical thought still appears in its pristine simplicity… Among the Greeks — just because they were not yet advanced enough to dissect, analyse nature — nature is still viewed as a whole, in general. The universal connection of natural phenomena is not proved in regard to particular; to the Greeks it is the result of direct contemplation. Herein lies the inadequacy of Greek philosophy, on account of which it had to yield later to other modes of outlook on the world. But herein also lies its superiority over all its subsequent metaphysical opponents.’
The Ionian materialists laid the foundations for the next wave of Greek philosophers who overlapped with the revolutionary events in Athens which famously brought the world’s first democracy to power. In 508 BCE a coalition of merchants, small property owners and indebted peasants coordinated an uprising in the city that expelled the Pisastratids, a family of tyrants, and initiated a framework of popular participation and voting which represented the peak of political development in antiquity. The democracy of the following 5th and 4th centuries was limited by modern standards-excluding women, foreigners and slaves-but still was a huge advance on the absolute monarchies which dominated previous societies.
Lenin on Heraclitus
The first of the truly dialectical thinkers to emerge in the Aegean region was Heraclitus who lived from c 540-483 BCE and resided in Ephesus in modern Turkey. His seminal idea about change being a fundamental aspect of reality reflects the intensified class struggle of this crucial era. He is probably the best known of these Presocratic thinkers with his famous aphorism that ‘you cannot step into the same river twice’ frequently cited even today. Heraclitus explicitly rejected the existence of the gods and proposed fire as the primordial element of the universe: ‘This one order of things was created by none of the gods, nor yet by any of mankind, but it ever was, and is, and ever shall be eternal fire-ignited by measure and extinguished by measure.’
His emphasis on strife or conflict as an essential and ever-present factor in all aspects of nature was a significant influence, centuries later, on the thinking of Marx and Engels about the centrality of class struggle in human societies. Heraclitus writes: ‘We must know that struggle is common to all and strife is justice, and that all things come into being and pass away through strife.’ Lenin also hailed Heraclitus as one of the trailblazers of dialectics for this underscoring of how the clash of conflicting forces is the dynamo of progress at all levels:
‘For the One is that which consists of two opposites, so that when cut into two the opposites are revealed. Is not this the proposition that the Greeks say their great and famous Heraclitus placed at the head of his philosophy and gloried in it as a new discovery.’
Marx and the Atomists
The most important of the Greek philosophers, as far as the fathers of Marxism are concerned, were Democritus and Epicurus. As a student in Germany in the early 1840s, Marx focused his doctoral dissertation on a comparison of these two great thinkers. At this point in his life, Marx of course was yet to fully develop the theoretical system that would come to be associated with his name, but this work was one of the avenues of thought that would lead him towards revolutionary socialism a few years later. Democritus was the pioneer of atomic theory, writing about 460-370 BCE. Incredibly without any scientific equipment, Democritus speculated that the whole of nature is composed of invisible and indivisible particles of matter which are in constant motion and interaction through the void, which he first described as atoms. Our modern understanding of the sub-atomic world means that the Democritean framework looks simplistic but his fundamental insight about the essential building blocks of nature remains a cornerstone of physics.
From philosophy to politics
Marx recognised the great achievement of Democritus but valued Epicurus, who lived a few decades later, as even more important in his ideas. For the latter, atoms are the unseen components of nature but their activity is not deterministic or mechanistic as Democritus suggested. For Epicurus, autonomy and chance play significant roles in the movements of atoms. As young Marx was inching his way towards a version of historical materialism which emphasised human agency as a force in history, his preference for Epicurus over Democritus becomes comprehensible. As Marx wrote in his doctoral thesis:
‘The deviation of the atom from the straight line is not an accidental feature in the physics of Epicurus… Just as the atom frees itself from its relative existence, the straight line, by setting it aside, by withdrawing from it, so the whole Epicurean philosophy withdraws from the limitative mode of being, wherever the abstract notion of individuality, autonomy and the negation of relativity in all its forms find expression in it.’
This, of course, is not the clearest expression of Marx’s breakthrough emphasis on the self-emancipation of the working class but his promotion here of Epicurus’ more dynamic model of the atom is an embryonic version of what would emerge as the distinctively Marxist belief in the ability of human beings to be the subjects, and not just the objects of history.
Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters.
Republished from Counterfire.
The threat of war today looms larger today than it did even during the era of the Cold War . However, the very forces that have brought the world to the brink of war have also, paradoxically, created the conditions for a greater movement of peace than ever existed before. This movement nevertheless needs organization, unity and ideological clarity.
War in Ukraine
The focus of the past year has been on the war in Ukraine. It has become clear over the past few years that this is NATO and the US’s war against Russia. Over the course of the war, the US has given close to $70 billion in aid to Ukraine, with the collective west (US + EU) giving $140 billion . Much more aid is committed with the U.S. Congress having already approved $113 billion . By way of comparison, Russia’s annual military spending in 2022 was $86.4 billion . The US is openly sharing intelligence and has several military and intelligence agents in Ukraine .
A recent comprehensive assessment by John Marsheimer, one of America’s most influential geopolitical analysts, who has been rejected from the mainstream because of his views on the war, essentially predicts that the war will continue, that Russia will eventually win and that Ukraine will be left as a “rump” state which will not present a serious threat to Russia . As Marsheimer and others have repeatedly pointed out, the blame for the war lies with the West, which led waves of NATO expansion into the east in 1999 and 2004 and subsequently promised entry of Ukraine into NATO in 2008 .
The west engineered a coup in Ukraine in 2014 against the then president Victor Yanukovych . This included setting a trade union building in Odessa to fire resulting in the death of 48 people. This led to conflict in the Donbas region in the eastern part of Ukraine which was then attacked by the government in Kyiv leading to thousands of casualties and an influx of refugees into Russia [9, 10]. The Minsk agreements in 2015 attempted to resolve this crisis and grant a degree of autonomy to the Donbas region. However, these agreements were taken as an opportunity by the West to arm the Ukrainian government and prepare it for military conflict.
It should be noted that anti-Russia hysteria in the U.S. started in 2016 when Russia was blamed for the defeat of Hilary Clinton by Donald Trump. This conspiracy theory that Russia “hacked” the U.S. elections was perpetrated with intense fervor across the mainstream U.S. media with not a shred of evidence to support the claim . Trump was identified with Russia, a precursor to how the western ruling elite sees the twin challenge to “democracy” in this time.
Indeed, the western ruling elite has conceptualized the whole fight as that between “democracy” and “authoritarianism”, an ideological framing they use to describe both the internal populist rebellions in the U.S. and Europe as well as the nature of the government in China, Russia and India. It is therefore important to understand the nature of both the changes on the international level as well as the internal changes in the west.
A changing World Order
It is now evident that the larger consequence of the war in Ukraine has been the acceleration of the ongoing decline of the west and of processes that will eventually lead to a new world order. Evidently, even though the west has united around the Ukraine war it has failed to gain the support of India, China, Iran, South Africa, Vietnam, Algeria, Brazil and others. As the New York Times reported in February, “The West tried to Isolate Russia. It didn’t work.” 
Western Sanctions on Russia have totally failed and its trade has recovered. Further, several countries are now implementing trade in national currencies forgoing the dollar . Russia, Bangladesh and Brazil have been trading with China in the Yuan with reports of even some Indian state refiners purchasing Russian crude oil in Yuan [14, 15]. Brazilian president Lula has spoken of a common South American currency . There have been talks of BRICS floating a new currency . This will mean the end of western sanctions and dollar domination of the world.
At the center of the changing world order is the rise of China. The astonishing rise of China is a bitter pill to swallow for the west. China represents not merely an ideological challenge to the west, but a technological challenge as well. It is an example of a political system that is distinctly different from the hegemonic form of liberal democracy but has succeeded remarkably in uniting and developing a society of more than a billion people. Most impressive of all has been the elimination of extreme poverty in Chinese society.
To condemn China as “authoritarian” is typical of the racist mentality that holds that the world must be made in the image of white people and white society. The western ruling elite has produced moral monsters who would rather see the world destroyed than accept that they will not be at the center of it. “They are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin” .
The rise of Xi Jinping represents not the death of democracy but is an expression of the democratic re-ordering of the world. This is a new democracy where the teeming millions are surging forward shaping their own destiny, able to participate in the shaping of the world for the first time. Those liberals who have nostalgia for the good old days when most of the world was under poverty and a few white men and their allies ruled the world merely betray their profound contempt for the majority of people.
It is this new democratic awakening, the rise of the peoples of the formerly colonized nations, their opportunity to contribute to modern culture, politics and science that is the real promise of democracy.
The Internal Politics of the West
However, the biggest crisis for the West lies not abroad but at home. This is best seen in the leading power of the West, the United States of America. The U.S. Government faces a profound “crisis of legitimacy”. The U.S. population has unprecedented levels of mistrust in every single U.S. institution including the Courts, Congress and News Media . The American population is discontented and pessimistic about democracy in the U.S . Close to half the population thinks there might be a civil war .
In this context, a recent speech by the National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan is particularly significant. Sullivan identified four challenges that the U.S. faced, the hollowing out of the industrial base, geopolitical competition, climate crisis and the challenge to democracy from inequality. He said, further, “And frankly, our domestic economic policies also failed to fully account for the consequences of our international economic policies.”. This speech, the start of a “new Washington consensus” is an admission at the highest levels of the destructive nature of the policies of neoliberal globalization that the West instituted particularly after the overturning of the Soviet Union.
The economic consequences, which became acute after the financial crisis, have hit ordinary Americans hard. There have been so called “deaths of despair” of more than 100,000 people from drug overdoses . The people primarily affected by these deaths are middle aged white men without college degrees i.e. the white working class.
The political consequence of these facts has been a tri-pronged rebellion in the United States which is preparing for a presidential election next year. Within the Republican party, Donald Trump continues to be the leading candidate. However, he has significantly radicalized his campaign. Trump is campaigning for an end to the Ukraine war, saying “Every day this proxy battle in Ukraine continues, we risk global war…We need PEACE without delay.” and further
“There must also be a complete commitment to dismantling the entire globalist neo-con establishment that is perpetually dragging us into endless wars, pretending to fight for freedom and democracy abroad…” . Robert F Kennedy Jr. is similarly running a campaign in the Democratic primaries against Biden for an end to the war. His campaign website says “As President, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. will start the process of unwinding empire. We will bring the troops home. We will stop racking up unpayable debt to fight one war after another. “ . Finally, Cornel West’s campaign as a third-party candidate is important not so much for its electoral prospects, but for the possibility that it may re-energize a people’s movement for peace. One of his campaign issues is to “Support veterans, stop all foreign military aid, close the bases, disband NATO, and ban nuclear weapons globally” .
These three candidates, who have many differences on many political issues, are nevertheless unified by the fact that they are against the American ruling establishment and are each campaigning on a platform of peace. They reflect the fact that the American people are tired of wars and earnestly searching for peace. The forward movement of the American people in their struggle to end these wars may be the determining factor in the struggle for peace in our time.
India and a New Peace Movement
As we face an era of the end of neoliberal globalization, the rise of the darker nations of the world and the possibilities of a new democratic world order, what are the tasks in India today? India is at the center of this changing world. It has a huge amount of moral legitimacy abroad that it gained from the Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi governments and their support for anti-colonial struggles around the world. It is no surprise that S. Jaishankar has gained such prominence today because India’s international role is being watched around the world. Currently, the government seems to be hedging its bets, participating in both the Quad and the SCO.
However, the public discourse is quite shallow with editorials in leading newspapers, from a “leading expert” in an appropriate think-tank routinely warning us of the dangers of Chinese authoritarianism and Russian aggression. Further, a section of the Indian liberal intelligentsia has fully swallowed the narrative that the west represents “democracy” as opposed to authoritarianism around the world including at home. Indians are the richest ethnic group in the U.S. by median income and Indian intellectuals have immense prominence in the west. This link to the west no doubt serves to shape the narrative among our intelligentsia.
India has played a historic role in the peace movement and it is important that we live up to our legacy today. Apart from the role that our government played, such names as Rameshwari Nehru, Aruna Asaf Ali, Saifuddin Kitchlew, Romesh Chandra and E.S. Reddy stand out as examples of how Indians contributed to world peace.
A huge responsibility rests with the Indian people and the peace movement in particular. It must re-energise itself and achieve clarity on its objectives. The peace movement faces the following tasks:
First, the peace movement must seek the broadest possible basis. Peace is a precondition for all other positive changes in society. The peace movement must include all of those who have an interest in peace and not be sectarian or narrow in its basis.
Second, It must reject the idea that the west, which has committed genocide, colonialism, racism and imperialism for centuries represents the hope for “democracy”. There are different paths to democracy which ultimately involves the ability of the majority of human people to rise above poverty and find creative fulfillment as human beings. We must struggle for the right of a people to take their own democratic path unmediated by western elites. Clarity on this will also deepen our own internal struggle for a more democratic country.
Third, the peace movement must work for peace between India and China. In the past, there have been reservations about the role of China internationally for several good reasons. However, the China of today is not the China of 1962 and its leadership has a very different vision. We must seek to understand the changes taking place in China, and encourage dialogue and communication with it.
Fourth, the peace movement must renew itself on the fountain of its legacy. This legacy includes the fight against American military bases in Asia and Africa, a new international economic and information order and the struggle for Afro-Asian solidarity.
Finally, the peace movement must look towards the future. The shared global challenges of Artificial Intelligence and Climate Change can only be resolved if Asia and Africa, which will be at the center of the new world, seek a united and common perspective in how it views these challenges. It is the task of the peace movement to fight for this solidarity and common perspective.
The new peace movement in India has the Indian people at its base. Alongside them stand the world’s people who are more inclined towards peace today than ever before. The children of the peasantry and the working masses of people deserve a future, and we must fight against a small ruling elite which seeks to take away their future. Peace is the call of today and it is the need of tomorrow.
 A fact routinely acknowledged see e.g. China and the Revenge of Geopolitics, Edward Luce https://www.ft.com/content/a17a14f2-704f-478f-bfa6-18f41eed0a40
 As documented by the journalist Aaron Mate. See his book: https://www.amazon.com/Cold-War-Hot-Russiagate-Washington/dp/1682193659
 White Man’s Guilt by James Baldwin (https://www.douglasficek.com/teaching/phil-4450-phil-of-race/baldwin.pdf)
Archishman Raju is a scientist based in Bengaluru also associated with the Saturday Free School in Philadelphia and the Gandhi Global Family.
Republished from Countercurrents.
I intend to analyze this 1918 work by Lenin to see what is still relevant for our day and what is for the present historically dated. Many Socialist/Communist parties have at the present time abandoned Marxism as understood by the historical world communist movement and adopted revisionist, rightest, and opportunist positions that are no threat to the imperial powers or the ruling bourgeois parties throughout the world. They have leaders which Lenin would classify as renegades. I will try and determine if that classification is still accurate. There are 11 parts to this work and I will go over them in sequence and highlight the issues that still have contemporary significance.
Lenin wrote this work in response to Kautsky’s The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, 1918. Lenin considers this work to be a complete abandonment of Marxism and full of revisionist errors regarding the nature of democracy and of the state. Lenin says he had to write this reply because the “proletarian revolution is now becoming a practical issue in a number of countries.” We may not feel this urgency today because the proletarian revolution is not now on the agenda as it seemed to be in 1918. Nevertheless, capitalism and US imperialism are in advanced stages of decay and the possibility that a revolutionary outbreak may occur cannot be discounted. In any event, the revisionist views Kautsky has on the nature of the state is his “chief theoretical mistake.” These renegade views are still prevalent in many Socialist and Communist Parties.
HOW KAUTSKY TURNED MARX INTO A COMMON LIBERAL
A working class takeover of the state, violently or not, would constitute a victorious outcome of a proletarian revolution. Kautsky’s work is about what Lenin calls the “very essence” of such a revolution: the dictatorship of the proletariat. Kautsky claims there are two ways to conduct the proletarian revolution — “the dictatorial [Bolshevik] and the democratic [non-Bolshevik.]”
This is not a case of dictatorship versus democracy as Kautsky would have us believe. For Marxists it is a question of what kind of democracy will exist after the revolution. “The question of the dictatorship of the proletariat is a question of the relation of the proletarian state to the bourgeois state, of proletarian democracy to bourgeois democracy.”
The revisionist Kautsky confuses this issue. He speaks just like the liberal bourgeoisie referring to “democracy” with no qualifications. He ignores the “class term” that Marxist use to discuss this issue— I.e., “bourgeois democracy” as the kind of democracy before the revolution that prevails under capitalism. In contrast to bourgeois democracy after the revolution we will have “proletarian democracy.” The difference reflects which class controls the State— the bourgeois exploiters or the working people and their allies.
Lenin quotes Marx (Critique of the Gotha Program) to clarify this: “Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat”.
This quote from Marx, Lenin says, “sums up the whole of his revolutionary teaching.” Kautsky must have known this, but it is typical of revisionists, renegades, and the bourgeois liberals to try and play down the quote.
Lenin stresses the fact that Marx and Engels never tired of saying that the revolution had to dismantle the bourgeois capitalist state and replace it with a new proletarian state. Kautsky knows but ignores the fact that the term “dictatorship of the proletariat’ is a “historically concrete and scientifically exact formulation of the proletariat’s task of ’smashing’ the bourgeois state machine.”
Revisionists and renegades never tire of disparaging the use of the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” (DP) as used by Marx, Engels and Lenin (MEL). Here is a contemporary quote by an alleged Marxist that could have come from Kautsky’s pen: “‘Dictatorship of the proletariat’. Probably the worst phrase uttered by a political theorist ever. Who wants to live in a dictatorship?” (Joe Sims, “Ten Worst and Best Ideas of Marxism,” Political Affairs 2008).
But MEL never viewed the DP as a typical bourgeois dictatorship such as run by Franco or Pinochet. Marxism maintains that history is the history of class struggle and in class societies we find a ruling class and an exploited class— masters and slaves, feudal lords and serfs, capitalists and proletarians, etc. All of these societies exist as States. And every State has a ruling class that controls it and uses it to control and exploit the productive and abused underclass whose labor makes its continued existence possible.
Marxists maintain that all bourgeois States are real class dictatorships. The State qua State is the instrument for one class to hold down and oppress another. The socialist revolution overthrows the bourgeois dictatorship and installs the proletarian State which deprives the capitalists of all political power and the ability to exploit working people. The DP is a class dictatorship and the State is now a tool of the working class to eliminate the bourgeoisie as a class— not physically, but by depriving it of its power to rule. This is elementary Marxism 101 and all the windbag fulminations against the DP won’t change that, but it will allow us to spot the revisionists and renegades when they raise their heads. These people claim to be defending “democracy” when they reject the DP but Lenin points out “It is natural for a liberal to speak of ‘democracy’ in general; but Marxists will never forget to ask: “for what class.”
The DP is necessary because “The proletarian revolution is impossible without the forcible destruction of the bourgeois state machine and the substitution for it of a new one which, in the words of Engels, is “no longer a state in the proper sense of the word.”
Kautsky tries to convince us that the DP can come about through “universal suffrage” without having to curtail the political rights of the bourgeoisie (the franchise) and he cites the Paris Commune as an example. But the Commune only lasted three months and its early use of “universal [male] suffrage” was not its main merit. “Marx and Engels analyzed the Paris Commune in a most detailed manner and showed that “its merit lay in its attempt to smash, to break up the ‘ready-made state machinery’.”
BOURGEOIS AND PROLETARIAN DEMOCRACY
As long as we live in a capitalist State we cannot just speak of ‘’democracy’’ as if it is some great system we have dispensing ‘’liberty and justice for all’’ as the Pledge would have it. We have two types of democracy to consider. “History knows of bourgeois democracy which takes the place of feudalism, and of proletarian democracy which takes the place of bourgeois democracy.”
This distinction is rarely, if ever made, by the revisionists and renegades that defend the Biden administration against the specter of Trumpism (an ultra-right, racist faction of the monopoly capitalists which controls the Republican Party and which the Democrats want to work with under the guise of bipartisanship.)
The problem of defending bourgeois democracy just as ‘’democracy’’ is that it disarms the workers in the class struggle against fascism and the monopoly capitalist class. Proletarian democracy is a higher state of democracy which preserves what is of value in bourgeois democracy — universal suffrage for all working people, the right to form unions, equal rights for all the oppressed, and eliminates what is no longer historically justified — anti-labor laws (‘’right to work laws’’), election restrictions by gerrymandering, laws which de facto discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and it puts forth what is now historically called for— the abolition of private property in the means of production, and the construction of a new people’s economic system, socialism – which puts people before profit. Bourgeois democracy can be defended against Trumpism but not at the expense of not also pointing out its limitations and the need to advance along the road to proletarian democracy. Not to constantly remind our class and allies of our goal, to take their eyes off the prize, is to betray them and to de facto leave them at the mercy of the enemy.
“Bourgeois democracy, although a great historical advance in comparison to medievalism always remains, and under capitalism is bound to remain, restricted, truncated, false and hypocritical, a paradise for the rich and a snare and deception for the exploited, for the poor. It is this truth, which forms a most essential part of Marx’s teaching, that Kautsky the ‘Marxist’ has failed to understand.’’ Not only Kautsky, but the modern-day revisionists and renegades as well.
Lenin says that even in the most democratic of bourgeois states the masses are still oppressed, slaves dependent on the capitalist economy (’wage slaves’’). “It is this contradiction that the agitators and propagandists of socialism are constantly exposing to the people, in order to prepare them for revolution!’’ Ay, there’s the rub. Lenin wrote this because he thought the “the era of revolution has begun.”
Well, it was 1918 and Soviet Russia was coming into its own with the overthrow of the capitalist government (1917) that had replaced the Tsar. World War I had ended and revolutionary movements were breaking out in many countries, the renegade parties in the Second International were beginning to split with their left-wings becoming Communist Parties around the world. The Third International advocating world communism was soon to be founded (1919). International capitalism appeared doomed.
To make a long story short, capitalism wasn’t doomed; it consolidated itself and by 1923 the revolutionary wave had broken, at least in Europe. Lenin was ill and died at the beginning of 1924 and by the end of the year Stalin and the Third International had embarked on the polices of ‘’Socialism in One Country.’’ Did all this mean Kautsky was right after all and Lenin was wrong?
The answer is no. In the theory of democracy Lenin was 100% correct and also in the practice of the new Soviet Russia where Lenin points out proletarian democracy replaced bourgeois democracy. At the time Lenin wrote, Soviets of the workers and exploited people had taken over the ruling of the country and the old State bureaucracy had been scattered. ‘’Proletarian democracy is a million times more democratic than any bourgeois democracy; Soviet power is a million times more democratic than the most democratic bourgeois republic.” The Soviet working class and exploited masses had their own state, if they could keep it.
CAN THERE BE EQUALITY BETWEEN THE EXPLOITED AND THE EXPLOITER?
Kautsky, not understanding Marxism, can’t see why if we can win an election with democracy we need a dictatorship, I.e., the DP. Lenin lists 4 reasons:
1. To break down the resistance of the bourgeoisie (don’t think the ruling class will go quietly into the night).
2. To inspire the reactionaries with fear (regrettable but necessary unless you want to end up like Allende.)
3. To maintain the authority of the armed people against the bourgeoisie (Allende should have armed the workers the day after his election — he must have forgotten this part of MEL).
4. That the proletariat may forcibly hold down its adversaries. (Revolution— once you’ve had that there’s no going back).
Kautsky further argues that there must be “equality” for all, and the DP violates this [bourgeois] principle. We have this in the Pledge: ‘’I pledge allegiance … blah, blah … with liberty and justice for all.’’ In other words, bourgeois democracy treats everyone equally under the law. But Lenin maintains “The exploiter and the exploited cannot be equal.”
Kautsky [and his modern epigones] “takes formal equality (which is nothing but a fraud and hypocrisy under capitalism) for actual equality!” Lenin stresses the fact that, “there can be no real, actual equality until all possibility of the exploitation of one class by another has been totally destroyed.”
Not all the exploited are on the right side of the revolution, we should also note “that a section of the exploited from the least advanced middle-peasant, artisan and similar groups of the population may, and indeed does, follow the exploiters has been proved by all revolutions, including the Commune.” Advanced industrial societies don’t have ‘’peasants’’ but this observation applies to elements both of the middle class and the urban lumpenproletariat [traditionally denizens of the demimonde sans class consciousness and prone to utilization by fascist and reactionary forces].
Now, to be very clear, Lenin was well aware that his views were shaped by the experiences of the Russian Revolution. He would understand perfectly today what the Chinese mean by “Socialism with Chinese characteristics.” The way the DP will treat the bourgeoisie, will it be stripped or not of all political rights, the franchise, etc., “is a nationally specific” question. Other revolutions are not bound by the actions of the Russian Revolution. Stripping the bourgeoisie of the franchise “is not absolutely necessary for the exercise of the dictatorship, it is not an indispensable characteristic of the logical concept ‘’dictatorship,’’ it does not enter as an indispensable condition in the historical and class concept ‘’dictatorship.’’
But, theoretical and practical situations do not always coincide during a revolution. How the exploiters will be dealt with ‘’is a question of the specific national features of this or that capitalism, of this or that revolution.’’ So we can have classes and discuss in theory ‘’is the dictatorship of the proletariat possible without infringing democracy in relation to the exploiting class.” We know pretty much how revisionists, renegades, and those looking to get rid of the worse ideas of Marxism or “reload” it with blanks will answer this question. However, in practice, there is a fact that must be faced. ‘’The proletariat cannot achieve victory without breaking the resistance of the bourgeoisie.’’ This will require [if history is any guide] the proletariat ‘’forcibly suppressing its adversaries.’’ And, “where there is ‘forcible suppression’, where there is no ‘freedom’, there is, of course, no democracy,’’ that is, no bourgeois democracy.
THE SOVIETS DARE NOT BECOME STATE ORGANIZATIONS
Bad as Kautsky was, he was still to the left of those today who advocate such anti-Marxist counter-revolutionary nonsense as ‘’vote for all Democrats, defeat all Republicans’’ or ‘’vote blue no matter who,’’ which does nothing to increase the class consciousness of workers regarding the need for socialism and creates the false impression that the Democratic Party is pro-working class — a view also propagated by the trade union bureaucracy which supports and benefits from the capitalist system and only demands a bigger share of the spoils as their reward for keeping the class struggle confined to parameters acceptable to the bourgeoisie.
What were the Soviets? Lenin said, ‘’The Soviets are the Russian form of the proletarian dictatorship.’’ What did Kautsky say about the Soviets? They first appeared in the 1905 Revolution [the dress rehearsal for October]. He called them “the most all-embracing form of proletarian organization, for it embraced all the wage-workers.” Not only that, but they are the most advanced revolutionary expression of the working-class consciousness. He says, “it appears that everywhere the old methods of the economic and political struggle of the proletariat are inadequate against the gigantic economic and political forces which finance capital has at its disposal.” He also notes that the “trade union bureaucracy’’ is ‘’useless for the purpose of directing the mighty mass battles that are more and more becoming a sign of the times….”
So what’s the problem? The same situation is facing us today 100 years later — we are not in a revolutionary situation, it is true, but we are at least in the beginning of a pre-revolutionary situation as world capitalism — especially in the form of the ‘’American Century” is beginning to crack up. Capitalism could crash as unexpectedly and as suddenly as most of the world Communist movement did 30 years ago. Maybe that is too much to hope, but it is possible. The Romans never expected the Vandals.
Anyway, the above was Kautsky’s view before the Bolsheviks came to power in October 1917 and took up the slogan “All power to the Soviets.” They overthrew the provisional government (Kerensky) which took over in February after the Tsar’s abdication. After the Bolsheviks took over, Kautsky changed his tune. He supported the February Revolution and the attempt to create a bourgeois democratic form of government. He supported the Soviets as a militant force representing the working class and its role to pressure the government progressively from the outside.
Lenin’s “All power to the Soviets” overthrew the government of Kerensky and instituted the DP. The Bolsheviks “destroyed the democracy which the Russian people won in” the February Revolution, Kautsky said. In other words, while the Soviets represented the working people as a whole, (the vast majority by far of the Russian people were workers or peasants [agricultural work]), they had no business becoming the government of Russia. Kautsky had said the Soviets were needed in the “decisive battles” between labour and capital. Well then, Lenin asks, won’t that decisive battle ‘’decide which of the two classes will assume state power?”
It was clear to the revolutionaries of 1917-18 that the Soviets should take state power through the agency of the Bolsheviks. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was established in 1922 and came to an end in 1991. Just when did the Soviets cease to control state power and power devolved to the party, to a clique, to an individual, to a ‘’new’’ class— was it due to Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev? The debate still rages and many party leaders just want to blame the CIA and move on — criticism and self-criticism can be unsettling.
At any rate, Lenin concluded: ‘’Bourgeois democracy was progressive compared to medievalism. And it had to be utilized. But now it is not sufficient for the working class. Now we must look forward instead of backward— to replacing the bourgeois democracy with proletarian democracy.’’ Are there any forces in the USA today that can do this, or even want to?
THE CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY AND THE SOVIET REPUBLIC
‘’The All Russian Constituent Assembly was a constituent assembly convened in Russia after the February Revolution of 1917. It met for 13 hours, from 4 p.m. to 5 a.m., 18–19 January [O.S. 5–6 January] 1918, whereupon it was illegally dissolved by the Bolshevik-led All-Russian Central Executive Committee proclaiming the Third All-Russian Congress of Soviets the new governing body of Russia.’’— Wikipedia.
This action by the Bolsheviks is, Lenin says, “the crux” of the book by Kautsky he is critiquing.
The Bolsheviks are accused of ‘’destroying’’ democracy. ‘’This question is really an interesting and important one, because the relation between bourgeois democracy and proletarian democracy here confronted the revolution in a practical form.”
How does Kautsky justify his attack on Lenin and the Bolsheviks? He wants to use Lenin’s own words against him. He will take quotes from Lenin but, as we shall see, they are taken out of context. This is still a practice today used by revisionists and renegades who take quotes from MEL out of context to justify their deviations from sound Marxist principles.
In the year between the February Revolution and the October one, Lenin often praised the idea of a Constituent Assembly but, as the revolution progressed and the balance for forces shifted away from the Mensheviks and radical bourgeois forces, Lenin’s attitude towards the Constituent Assembly (CA) changed. When the elections were held that formed the basis for the CA the bourgeois democrats had the majority votes and the Bolsheviks were in the minority. But then the Soviets exploded in popularity due to the inability of the bourgeois democratic government to take any actions to improve the wellbeing of the masses.
When the CA finally got seated to begin governing the Bolsheviks were in the majority of the population, but this was not represented in the CA. The Soviets dismissed the CA and proclaimed themselves the government of Russia — this was accepted by the workers and peasants and the soldiers and sailors throughout Russia and Lenin and the Bolsheviks were in power —the Soviet government lasted until 1991. How it lost power is still being debated.
But there was no debate about it in 1918 except by Kautsky, the Mensheviks, and the out of power bourgeois forces. Kautsky says Lenin justified the takeover by the following quote: “The Republic of Soviets is not only a higher type of democratic institution (as compared by the usual bourgeois republic crowned by a Constituent Assembly), but is the only form capable of securing the most painless transition to socialism.”
Kautsky implies Lenin is a hypocrite by saying, “It is a pity that this conclusion was arrived at only after the Bolsheviks found themselves in the minority in the Constituent Assembly. Before that no one had demanded it [the CA] more vociferously than Lenin.”
The problem with this is Lenin had been touting the superiority of the proletarian state to a bourgeois state long before the CA had come into existence. “Everyone knows that on the very day of my arrival in Russia, on April 4, 1917, I publicly read my theses in which I proclaimed the superiority of the Paris Commune [Soviet] type of state over the bourgeois parliamentary republic.”
So much for Kautsky’s libels. The important issue is the theoretical one: “Is it true that the bourgeois-democratic parliamentary republic is inferior to the republic of the Paris Commune or Soviet type?”
There was no doubt in 1918 that the answer was yes. The new Soviet government ended the war with Germany, redistributed land to the peasants, and ended the economic and social anarchism that was reigning in Russia and which the bourgeois government was unable to control. There were still many problems, but the majority of the people supported and worked with the Soviets to make the new government succeed.
Lenin wanted to be fair to Kautsky and says that before he got cold feet and afraid of revolution, before he became a Marxist renegade, he had been a real Marxist thinker and from this time “such works of his will remain a permanent possession of the proletariat in spite of his subsequent apostasy.’’
Lenin felt the same way about Plekhanov. We can make the same distinctions today between the works of Stalin, Trotsky, and Mao, among others— I mean between correctly formulated Marxist works and deviationist works when they responded to events hastily and without a correct theoretical grasp of the situation.
Even the current running dogs of the Democratic Party occasionally adopt a correct position in spite of their right-opportunistic pseudo-socialist positions. It is absolutely correct to support workers striking for living wages, for example, but to tell them that President Biden has their backs is problematic – as the rail workers found out when it was a different part of their anatomy he had them by when he forced them not to strike and take a bad contract.
The real problem with Kautsky was he didn’t prioritize in reality proletarian rule over the “formal” ideals of bourgeois democracy. He didn’t see that class struggle was more important than abstractly presented “democratic” struggles. The universal right to vote can produce reactionary, even fascist, governments as well as liberal or progressive ones. Bourgeois democracy gave us Trump (at least the US version did).
The issue regarding the overthrow of the CA and the establishment of the Soviet state boiled down to the fact that the class interests of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat are not compatible — they contradict one another. Despite Kautsky’s views on the value of “pure” or “bourgeois” democracy, the masses of the workers and exploited Russian people had “turned away from petty-bourgeois leadership, from the illusion that it was possible to reach a compromise with the bourgeoisie, and had joined the proletarian revolutionary struggle for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie.”
We haven’t reached this point in the US yet, and we never will as long as our so-called Marxist leaders don’t forcibly tell the masses we must sometimes compromise and even vote for the lesser of two evils, but they are still evils and we have to build the class consciousness of the exploited masses and intensify the class struggle, not confuse it with petty bourgeois radical demands which are also worthy of support but as part of the class struggle. Lenin would likely suggest we give up unrealistic slogans such as ‘’left-center unity’’ (which doesn’t exist), and ‘’coalition partners’’ (only a few really qualify) for temporary cooperation with petty bourgeois progressives and unions on issues of common concern.
THE SOVIET CONSTITUTION
The closing of the CA did not, in fact, exclude the petty bourgeois parties from ‘’democracy’’— these parties were also represented in the Soviets and thus participated in proletarian democracy— only now they were minority parties. The new constitution didn’t come about until the middle of 1918, so the Soviets ran the country directly from 1917 onwards. Besides the Bolsheviks the other main parties were the Mensheviks, the Socialist Revolutionaries, and the Constitutional Democrats (Cadets). The Bolsheviks never set out to ban opposition parties and kick them out of the Soviets, but that is what happened.
Lenin explains what occurred in this section. I am not going over every detail as the historical minutiae are unimportant in the context of this essay (they are readily available in history books.)
What it boils down to is that the bourgeoisie as a class refused to accept the fact that working people controlled the State. Kautsky and his followers attacked the Soviets in the press and at meetings constantly. Fine, Lenin and the Bolsheviks could live with that— reality was on their side politically.
In the time between the Soviet assumption of power in 1917 and the adoption of the constitution in 1918 the bourgeoisie not only formulated military mutinies, but also, with western support, waged a civil war that raged in Russia from 1917 until 1923. The bourgeois parties gave support to the White armies (the anti-Soviet side). The Soviet constitution proclaimed the Russian State to be a proletarian State and outlawed all enemy classes— since the bourgeois parties were engaged in treason, supporting an attempt to overthrow the government, they were outlawed. It was the complete refusal of the bourgeois parties to coexist with the Soviet State that led to a one-party State.
It’s true, however, when you get down to the brass tacks, that Marxists really hate the capitalist system and what it has done to the people of the world. We want to abolish it and all its oppressive institutions. But what about Bill of Rights Socialism? Yes, Lenin would have supported a Bill of Rights under Socialism. What is a rose by any other name? Socialism is itself the living embodiment of any Bill of Rights.
Lenin said this to the bourgeoisie: “You, exploiters and hypocrites, talk about democracy, while at every step you erect thousands of barriers to prevent the oppressed people from taking part in politics. We take you at your word and, in the interests of these people, demand the extension of your bourgeois democracy in order to prepare the people for revolution for the purpose of overthrowing you, the exploiters. And if you exploiters attempt to offer resistance to our proletarian revolution we shall ruthlessly suppress you; we shall deprive you of all rights; more than that, we shall not give you any bread, for in our proletarian revolution the exploiters will have no rights, they will be deprived of Fire and Water, for we are socialists in real earnest, and not in the Scheidemann or Kautsky fashion.” [Phillip Scheidemann 1865-1939 SPD/ Weimar Republic leader; anti-Bolshevik revisionist and de facto fascist enabler.]
There will be a Bill of Rights Socialism for the oppressed and exploited masses who come to power in the revolution (peaceful or not)— it won’t be for the exploiters and oppressors of the people; it will be the essence of Socialism itself.
WHAT IS INTERNATIONALISM?
Marxists are supposed to be internationalists: “Workers of the world unite….” etc. Just what does this mean? After the breakup of the socialist international over WWI, the ensuing peace, and the Russian Revolution, it began to mean different things to different groups of people calling themselves Marxists and socialists. This section will try and elucidate what it means to those who take MEL seriously.
Lenin says he is going to ‘’dwell’’ on Kautsky’s form of “internationalism” because it is the major form taken by the Mensheviks and parties of the Second International. The Mensheviks disbanded as a party in 1921, but their views live on and are mentioned after 1921. Today there are both socialist and Communist Parties practicing, to a greater or lesser degree, Menshevik, revisionist, Euro-communist, and /or purely social-democratic ideas. They comprise a hodgepodge, and if I use one of the four terms to describe a group it is highly probable the other terms could also have been applied.
Kautsky, who was not a Menshevik, was a supporter and agreed with them on the CA and how the war should end. They did not support a separate peace (between Russia and Germany) but wanted to fight on with the Allies until there was a general peace. He said the Bolsheviks wanted a separate peace and were willing to undermine the army to get it. Well, he was right, but that was what the masses in the Soviets wanted, and they overthrew the provisional government (which included the Mensheviks) to get it. Kautsky was totally against the Bolsheviks taking power and dismissing the CA.
What did Lenin think of the idea of prolonging the imperialist war and leaving the bourgeoisie in charge of the government? “Theoretically, this shows a complete inability to disassociate oneself from the social-chauvinists and complete confusion on the question of the defense of the fatherland. Politically, it means substituting petty-bourgeois nationalism for internationalism, deserting to the reformists’ camp and renouncing revolution.”
Here Lenin makes a major distinction between Marxists, Communists, and the revisionist de facto allies of the bourgeoisie. “The proletariat fights for the revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeoisie; the petty bourgeoisie fights for the ‘’reformist’’ improvement of imperialism, for adaptation to it, while submitting to it.”
But, as Lenin said, this is what we must do when we are in a time of revolutionary ferment. But this is not such a time. To pull off a revolution we have to be able to weaken and disorganize the armed forces of the bourgeoisie, and to be successful we have to “smash the old army and replace it with a new one.” In fact, the five only still existing socialist countries did just that. I don’t think any sane Marxist think we are in a time in which the Armed Forces of the USA are about to be smashed by the US working class.
But, Kautsky and the renegades reply, what to do in the meantime. If a war breaks out and people use violence against our country, we have the duty to defend it. Even today we have such arguments extended to our friends” as well. Look, Russia is using violence against Ukraine, our friend, by helping Ukraine we are imposing violence back against Russia. How’s that different than WWI when the working people fought for their own countries? How should Marxists respond to violence?
Lenin says, “Socialism is opposed to violence against nations.” It’s also against individual people using violence against one another. But Socialists are not pacifists. In a revolutionary situation, Lenin says, Socialists have never opposed the use of revolutionary violence when it was necessary. This also includes a revolutionary war such as the one the US colonials proclaimed against the British beginning in 1775-76.
This does not apply to WWI. “The imperialist war of 1914-18 is a war between two groups of imperialist bourgeoisies for the division of the world, for the division of the booty, and for the plunder and strangulation of small and weak nations.’’ The desire to continue to participate in this war until a general settlement is reached, as Kautsky, the Mensheviks, and other renegades propose, has nothing to do with Socialism and is a position of bourgeois lackies.
The position of Kautsky and company (defense of the fatherland/motherland) is commonplace jingoism having nothing to do with class analysis and proletarian internationalism. This is ‘’My country right or wrong” nonsense. The only thing of importance is which class or group is benefitting from the war— the imperialists, the capitalists or the workers, the masses. It “does not depend on who the attacker was, or in whose country the ‘enemy’ is stationed; it depends on what class is waging the war, and what politics this war is a continuation of.’’ Socialists are duty bound to educate the workers and instill in them the basics of MEL— that wars, imperialism, and plunder of the poor by the rich can only be ended by the establishment of Socialism and they must adopt a revolutionary perspective to be ready for revolutionary situations when they occur.
As an example, let’s ask this question concerning the proxy war between the USA and Russia going on now, July 2023. The class question:1. Russia: with a national bourgeoisie recently emerged from the collapse of the USSR. This class is relatively new, weak, and inexperienced. The GDP of Russia, for all its size and great extent, is smaller than that of South Korea. Russia’s economy is #11 in the world. 2. USA: run by a monopoly capitalist bourgeoisie with international connections and controlling the number 1 world economy. It commands a worldwide imperialist empire with 780 military bases in 80 different countries and a military budget larger than the combined budgets of the next 10 nations combined. Russia has about 20 foreign bases— outside of 2 in Syria and 1 in Vietnam the others are in former parts of the USSR.
The politics behind the war: 1) The USA seeks to enlarge its empire using its NATO military alliance and the threat of force in other areas of the world. It is the most aggressive military imperialism in history which has been waging and fomenting wars and overthrowing governments continuously since the end of WWII. 2. Russia, since the end of the USSR, has used its military defensively in two ways 1. Fighting separatist movements mostly in southern Russia against Islamist militants. 2) Taking defensive action against USA provocative and aggressive actions, overt and covert, using NATO expansion along its borders, including Ukraine (de facto) and in Georgia along its southern border. It wants to weaken US imperialism, end its Unipolar control of globalization, and create a multi-polar world free of USA domination.
These are the facts of the current state of internationalism. There will be other events now and in the future in which Marxists will have to decide what is in the best interests of the world’s workers and exploited masses, as well as their own working class. How should they react to events such as above— support one of the two sides or be neutral, or something else. This is important because we are not now in a revolutionary situation and one of, if not the most important, conclusions, Lenin draws in this section of his work is: “It is the ABC of Marxism that the tactics of the socialist proletariat cannot be the same both when there is a revolutionary situation and when there is no revolutionary situation.’’
In the remainder of this section Lenin excoriates Kautsky for attacking the Bolsheviks and other revolutionary sections of the working class from the point of view of positions taken as if there was not a revolutionary situation in 1918, one that was produced by the violence and destruction of the world war. At this time Lenin was clearly correct and Communist movements were springing up all over Europe and the working class was joining and leading them. The Second International had dissolved by 1916 into three different groups— Central Power pro-war ’socialists,’ Triple Entente pro-war ‘socialists,’ and anti-war socialists. The third group carried on the anti-war tradition that had been the official position of the Second International until the actual war broke out. Lenin and the Bolsheviks and their allies realized a new international was needed to unify the third group.
“Bolshevism has created the ideological and tactical foundations of a Third International, of a really proletarian and Communist International, which will take into consideration both the gains of the tranquil epoch and experience of the epoch of revolutions, which has begun.” The Third International was founded in 1919.
A lot has happened in a century. The revolutionary fervor of the immediate post war years died down as capitalism proved more stable than was anticipated by the revolutionary socialists. Lenin had provided for this possibility and stated, regardless of what the future might hold, the “Soviet government has done so much that even if Soviet government in Russia were to be crushed by world imperialism tomorrow….it would still be found that Bolshevik tactics have brought enormous benefit to socialism and have assisted the growth of the invincible world revolution.’’ It took world imperialism almost seventy years to crush the Soviet government and the last word on the world revolution has yet to be written.
SUBSERVIENCE TO THE BOURGEOISIE IN THE GUISE OF ‘’ECONOMIC ANALYSIS’’
It is difficult to get lessons for advanced capitalist states from the economic arguments between Lenin and Kautsky regarding the Russian Revolution since some of the concepts used are not applicable to countries such as the USA today. We have no peasantry which the proletariat needs to ally with, and petty bourgeoisie and semi-proletarians are terms used differently. There is also a classification used by some today, “the professional-managerial class” or PMC that was not in use in Lenin’s day. In traditional Marxist analysis, such as found in MEL, the PMC doesn’t qualify as a “class” but as a mixture of capitalist or proletarian strata based on relations to the means of production either directly expropriating surplus value or by receiving excessively high incomes from wages or salaries paid by those who do.
Basically, there were two approaches, exemplified by Lenin and Kautsky, about how the workers should relate to the bourgeoisie. Kautsky and Lenin were more or less on the same page regarding the 1905 Revolution that broke out and failed. The Mensheviks held that it was a bourgeois democratic revolution because capitalism was not advanced enough in Russia to sustain a proletarian revolution. The aim should be to reform the state and the workers should follow the lead of the bourgeoisie.
The Bolsheviks held that the revolution was bourgeois because the peasants were, and the workers should ally with them and then win over the “semi-proletariat” (all the workers and oppressed not in the industrial proletariat) and overthrow the middle peasants and big bourgeoisie and begin a Socialist Revolution. The peasants were divided into lower (the vast poor majority) the middle, and the rich or higher (Kulaks). Lenin pointed this out in Two Tactics (1905).
The idea that Lenin is rejecting is ‘’that in a bourgeois revolution one must not go farther than the bourgeoisie!’’ Kautsky had come to this Menshevik view by 1918. In terms of the modern tactic of “Left-center Unity” Mensheviks, ever subservient to the bourgeoisie, would urge us not to outstrip the most advanced demands of the Center. Some even refuse to criticize the Center at all— for the sake of ‘’unity.’’
The next few pages concern Kautsky’s claim that the Soviets are exercising a dictatorship in Russia, but that it’s not a proletarian dictatorship but a peasant dictatorship because the proletariat is small and the vast majority are peasants. Lenin says, this is just Kautsky not understanding how the Revolution has developed.
The Soviets first called for unity with the peasantry as such. The rich peasants didn’t go for this and supported the bourgeoisie. The middle peasants began to waver and oscillated between the bourgeoisie and the workers, The poor peasants did unite with and support the workers. The Revolution, therefore established the Soviets of workers and poor peasants. The Bolsheviks were the leading force in these Soviets, so the Revolution was a proletarian revolution of the workers and poor peasants.
It is important to remember that the peasants are members of the petty bourgeoisie and Lenin points out that “owing to the basic features of its economic position, the petty bourgeoisie is incapable of doing anything independently.’’ This is why it broke up with the middle and upper elements supporting bourgeois rule and the lower and poor elements falling in with the proletariat and semi-proletariat.
Lenin says it would have been foolhardy for the Bolsheviks to have proclaimed a socialist revolution right off the bat in 1917. The peasant majority in the rural areas were not prepared for this. The Bolsheviks called for a worker-peasant alliance, when the kulaks balked, they made concessions to the middle peasants, and as the class divisions became clearer, they ended up with a worker- (poor) peasant alliance representing a majority of the population. It is necessary for us ‘’to understand that a general peasant revolution is still a bourgeois revolution, and that without a series of transitions, of transitional stages, it cannot be transformed into a socialist revolution in a backwards country.”
This is a general feature of the petty bourgeoisie as such, wavering, not just the peasant faction. This is why, in our day, Left-center Unity, a revisionist bourgeois Menshevik position, is a failing strategy and leads to the victory of the neoliberals and the defeat of the workers. It’s because the center defects to the right when push comes to shove. Obama, once elected for example, moved to the right and supported neoliberalism and imperialism and gave only a few halfhearted reforms to the workers (Obamacare, for example, rather than Medicare for all, which still leaves over 26 million out in the cold with no coverage). The Center in the USA has its own right, middle, and left wings and what we need now is a Left-Center Left alliance, not a Left-Center alliance because as things fall apart the Center cannot hold.
In alliances it is important to support the demands and slogans that the masses are making, even if they are not as advanced as the vanguard (the party, the Bolsheviks) think they should be. This involves compromises and patience and at the same time keeping the more advanced positions alive and discussing them within the alliance but not trying to force the issue (ultra-leftism). These less advanced positions cannot just be dismissed out of hand.
“And the ideas and demands of the majority of the working people are things that the working people must discard of their own accord: such demands cannot be either ‘abolished’ or ’skipped over.’” Communists must help the masses “to disregard petty bourgeois slogans, to pass from them as quickly and easily as possible to socialist slogans.’’ It is the failure to do this that has led many Communist Parties to fall off the Road to Socialism into revisionism, right opportunism and liberalism, aping organized parties like the Democratic or Republican parties and de facto supporting the bourgeoisie.
All the issues facing the American people, for example, are the same that have been facing them since the end of WWII and even earlier: women’s rights, civil rights, police brutality, constant war, weak unions, homelessness, racism, low wages, lack of proper health care, poverty, etc., etc., whichever party is in control the problems never go away, they go up and down, new ones come, but the old ones never go away. The Left has no program to solve these problems — it just circles around with the same old ideas; build coalitions, fight the ultra-right, target the Republicans, blah, blah, blah, the more they dust off and renew their same old responses to capitalism, the more they stay the same, and now, what some call the “socialist moment,” the socialist “plus” or even their “superpower” based on collectivity (while they purge their ranks of dissidents) the political reality around them has moved beyond the ultra-right towards outright fascism while the same losing tactics remain the same.
In his response to the renegade Kautsky, Lenin outlined what the job of the Left was. The bourgeois democratic revolution in the USA has long ago reached its limit— the two-party system alternating in the White House, a Congress controlled by finance capital whichever party happens to control it, the Supreme Court, as usual, serving the interest of corporations not people.
Marxists have to tell the workers the truth their bourgeois sellout labor leader bureaucrats won’t. The bourgeois democratic revolution which founded the USA has long ago reached its limit as a progressive force.
Any bourgeois revolution that has reached its limit, has stagnated, whether in Russia in 1917 or the USA now in decline, shows that by ‘’reaching its limit, it all the more clearly, rapidly and easily reveals to the people the inadequacy of bourgeois-democratic solutions and the necessity of proceeding beyond their limits, of passing on to socialism.” The only raison d'être for a Communist Party is to lead the working class beyond the limits of bourgeois democracy, not play it up as the be all and end all of the struggle.
It is true we are not yet in a revolutionary environment. The delusions of bourgeois democracy still have a grip on the masses not yet won over to fascism. As long as we live in a society based on private ownership of the means of production and commodity production, “socialism” remains an ideal future solution to the contradictions of poverty and wealth, universal suffrage and voter suppression, justice for all (the rich not the poor), the social production of wealth and its private appropriation – but Marxists have to keep directing the eyes of the workers on the prize and not, like Kautsky and today’s revisionist leaders, present to the workers, “as far as theory is concerned, an incredible hodge-podge which is a complete renunciation of Marxism, and, as far as practice is concerned, a policy of servility to the bourgeoisie and their reformism.’’
Lenin didn’t actually finish this last part of his polemic against Kautsky. Because “news was received from Germany [November 9,1918] announcing the beginning of a victorious revolution….”
North Germany was in turmoil and a revolutionary council had taken power in Berlin. As far as this work was concerned, “The conclusion which still remained to be written to my pamphlet on Kautsky and on the proletarian revolution is now superfluous.’’
The German Revolution of 1918-1919 overthrew the Kaiser and ended with the establishment of the Weimar Republic. It failed to become a socialist revolution because the revisionist leaders of the SPD allied with the military and the bourgeoisie against the workers. I leave it to the perspicacity of the reader to determine whether or not a conclusion would have been superfluous.
There are two items at the end of Lenin’s polemic listed as appendices.
Appendix I. Theses on the Constituent Assembly
The Bolshevik closing of the Constituent Assembly was a big deal in 1918 and I have covered all the arguments for it in the main body of this text. Here we find 19 numbered explanations of why this was a justified action. It is unnecessary for our purposes to go over this appendix, but it is worth reading on your own just to reinforce Lenin’s position given in the main body of the text.
Appendix II. Vandevelde’s New Book on the State
Emile Vandervelde (1866-1938) was, along with Kautsky, a top leader of the Second International and his book Socialism versus the State (1918) was another renegade, revisionist anti-Marxist tract dealing with the State in the same manner as Kautsky dealt with the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. This appendix is a brief review by Lenin along the lines of his criticism of Kautsky. You can read it on your own, but it isn’t necessary here to go over its arguments. The arguments focus on the nature of the State and the transition to socialism and from socialism to the withering away of the State and are the same as or similar to the arguments against Kautsky.
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 and Eurocommunism: A Critical Reading of Santiago Carrillo and Eurocommunist Revisionism.
“...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.”
Lenin’s speech to these young Communists in the early twentieth century could very easily be given to young people learning Marxism in the USA of the twenty-first century. 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?
Probably not, right?
If we are interested in viewing things from the Marxist perspective, this is backwards from how we should be going about things. It is not, after all, people’s consciousness that determines their existence, but on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness. From the Marxist perspective, the material world is primary, and our thoughts and ideas are reflections of that primary material world. The idea does not determine reality. It is reality that determines the idea.
And you know, speaking of Lenin - in the Soviet Union, people did not simply decide to call themselves Communists. Being a Communist was something you earned, something you achieved. It meant you had passed all of the tests and joined the Communist Party. You had built yourself into a Communist, rather than made a decision on how you choose to perceive yourself. The difference between the two begins at the level of worldview, of ideology. In twenty-first century America, the way we see things, think, and the characteristics of the way we approach issues and problems is by default a reflection of what Marxists call the “economic base”. That material world is primary, and our thoughts and ideas are reflections of it, right? And so this is a reflection of the brand marketing economy, that what matters is the brand of a thing, rather than the product itself. In this case, the brand is Communist.
There is a whole lot more that goes into how peoples’ identities are shaped these days, but that’s so far outside the scope of this paper that you’d need a telescope to see it from way over there. So we’ll briefly mention that Carlos Garrido dissects this in his recent book The Purity Fetish and the Crisis of Western Marxism, wherein he says, “In the era of profilicity, where, as Hans Georg Moeller and Paul D’Ambrosio argue, identity formation takes the form of profile curation, the socialist identity is most clearly seen in people’s social media bios, where they mention the sort of socialism they identify with, either through the word itself or through emojis (democratic socialist rose, communist hammer and sickle). In the context of the hyper-individualist West’s treatment of socialism as a personal identity, the worst thing that may happen for these ‘socialists’ is for socialism to be achieved. That would mean the total destruction of their counter-cultural fringe identity. Their utter estrangement from the working masses of the country may in part be read as an attempt to make socialist ideas fringe enough to never convince working people, and hence, never conquer political power. The success of socialism would entail a loss of selfhood, a destruction of the socialist-within-capitalism identity. The socialism of the West is grounded on an identity which hates the existing order but hates even more the loss of identity which transcending it would entail. This is how Western Marxism’s purity fetish manifests itself in the sphere of identity formation in the age of profilicity. What matters is having the perfect bio, the perfect posts, the perfect online comeback. The conquest of political power by the working class is, in short, an existential threat for the identity-socialists of the West,” and get back to the matter at hand, shall we?
If we’re speaking of genuinely embodying this thing called “Communist”, and viewing what that is from the Marxist mode of the material being primary, well, then we must understand that a Communist is a universal thing that must concretize in particular form, embodying the process of Communism itself - the new society taking shape in the shell of the old, and embodying the best traits of the revolutionary class in society. Even being a member of a Communist Party isn’t enough. How many members of our own Party have no interest whatsoever in actually overthrowing capitalism or in becoming the type of people capable of carrying out such an immense task? How many lie and cheat and engage in the scummiest of middle class prejudices, looking down on the people of their own country, rather than being guided by a love of the people?
This, my friends, is no Communist. As Che Guevara once said, a true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is IMPOSSIBLE, he explained, to imagine a genuine revolutionary lacking that quality. And a Communist must at the same time be a revolutionary.
But that isn’t the whole list of things we must build ourselves into. Not even close.
A Communist must hold his or herself to the highest standard possible, even if the Party they belong to has not yet built or rebuilt itself into an institution capable of demanding they do so. In fact, in doing this building, they are helping to build that Party into just such an institution, and leading those not there yet, like the folks mentioned above, by setting an example. The Bolsheviks were just such a Party, but we should always be realistic and approach our current situation with clear eyes and clear heads. In 2023, we are in a period of ascendancy, but there is a lot of ground to cover to even bring ourselves to the level of the old Communist Party in the USA, let alone surpassing that and becoming the institution capable of leading the American people through the struggles ahead of us and into revolution. And we’re not going to get there by putting hammer and sickle emojis in our Twitter profiles and then telling everyone who doesn’t have every opinion we do how awful they are. The Bolsheviks did not gain the support and respect of the working masses of the Soviet Union by bragging and talking down to them. The massively powerful and effective Chinese Party doesn’t win their support (an 85% approval rating) by continually organizing witch hunts against each other, or “trolling” each other, or making up wild fantasies about each other in order to look down on each other.
They lead by example.
And an American Communist must do the same.
If we are serious about what we say our goals are; if we intend to overthrow the most powerful ruling class in human history, then even learning our theory, analyzing the world with Marxism, and dropping bourgeois standpoint epistemology is not enough. Shaping the theory of our era is not enough. We must also deal in shaping ourselves into the people who can earn the respect and support of the toiling masses. And, in fact, it is that theory that leads us to this conclusion. If we keep in mind that the default way that the people are trained to view things (without even knowing other ways are possible) is through that brand marketing economy, then we must create a brand of “Communist” that disproves all the lies spread about us from the ruling class over the last hundred years, in ALL their forms. Even being correct is not enough. If we do not package a correct message in a way that appeals to regular working class people, we are learning nothing about the people and allowing middle class prejudices that wormed their way into our organizations over the last period of history to maintain dominance. And I don’t know about you, but pretending we are the enlightened few and hating everyone not as “enlightened” as we think we are seems to be a sign that we have done neither. This is precisely what Mao was talking about when he said that a Communist must humble him or herself before the people. In order for Communists to lead the people, we must recognize that the people are the ones leading Communists.
And this means we must carry ourselves in a certain way. We must work on making ourselves into a certain thing. We must be above reproach and humble, strong, capable, and intelligent. We must never take ourselves too seriously, even as our task is the most serious task in the world.
For every hundred people I see who call themselves Communists these days, I can honestly say I see only one who 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. A Communist earns that respect through his or her actions.
This is an incredibly difficult task, and I don’t think we can ever be truly done with it. For me, there are certain people I try to imagine the opinions of, when deciding what I should do in a given situation. My father (whom everyone in the union and the neighborhood fondly referred to as “Pops”), who was one of the greatest people I’ve ever known, and taught me everything I know about what it means to be a man - the epitome of what it takes to earn respect through action; Henry Winston, the man who could inspire better in everyone around him and the greatest American Communist in history; and JV Stalin, whose character was above reproach and whose hard work and dedication helped lead the Soviet Union, the first land of the working class, from rural huts to space in a handful of decades. Or I think about whether or not my son can look at me and say, “That’s my dad. I’m proud of him and I want to be more like him when I grow up.”
And so, if we are deciding on a course of action, think about having to explain it to your children (or maybe your future children), or your parents, or… Henry Winston, if you don’t have any of these in your situation. Would they respond by saying what you are doing is a good thing? Would they respect it? Would Henry Winston see you trying to bring yourself up at the expense of a random stranger online and greet it with admiration, or with disappointment?
If we can embody all of the traits above, if we can approach that question with honesty and humility, we can begin to build ourselves into the kind of people worthy of the respect of the toiling masses.
The contradictions of capitalism are growing more acute every day. We have run out of time to waste. Our ruling class is quickly leading us to destitution and nuclear war. The impossibility of continuing on in the old way grows as re-proletarianization does. The time for childishness and larping is over. The time for action is now.
So let’s get to action.
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.