This weekend I competed at the 2020 Senior National Tournament in Greco Roman Wrestling. At a few points throughout the day, I stopped to wonder if I was the only Marxist competing in this tournament. I noticed one athlete from Arizona State who warmed up in a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt. It was nice to know I’m not the only athlete in this sport who feels compelled to take a stand on societal issues. Although I enjoyed seeing a fellow athlete making a statement with a politically charged T-shirt, I realized that I was likely the only athlete who had made it their life goal to create political change, and likely the only athlete in favor of radically changing the current economic system. I was the only Marxist.
Next, I began to ponder some questions which I find myself asking constantly. What do most American people think Marxism is, and how much do they know about what I actually believe? Quite a few close friends of mine with no understanding of Marxism have asked me to explain to them why I call myself a Marxist in the year 2020, in the middle of a country which has demonized the ideology for more than 80 years. Every one of these conversations has ended with mutual understanding, with some friends asking for books to learn more, and even leading some to become Marxist themselves. These conversations have compelled me to write this article. I’m simply going to tell you why I call myself a Marxist, and why I believe Marxism is the most valuable intellectual tradition in the 21st century.
One of the most important things to understand about Marx, is that while he was a philosopher, he was also an economist. After years of studying philosophy, and digesting the works of Hegel, Kant, and Feuerbach, Marx realized that in order to truly understand the world around him, he would need to study economics. Starting in 1843, Marx began reading the works of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and James Mill, who had all written theories of Political Economy. Marx learned much from the work that these men had done, but he knew his work needed to go further than the Political Economists of the past. Marx began to combine what he had learned from studying philosophy, with the information he was now learning from the Political Economists. This led him to produce the theory of Dialectical Materialism. Entire libraries of books have been written about the idea of Dialectical Materialism, but I will give you the most simplified explanation that I can. Dialectical Materialism is the idea that everything on earth is constantly in motion, and through struggle between contradictory opposing forces, new phenomena and systems are birthed from the systems of the past. While thinkers like Hegel believed the constantly changing material world was a reflection of human ideas, Marx inverted this, and said that everything stems from concrete and observable forces existing in the material world. While Marx believed ideas to be important, he said that ideas are formed from the concrete material realities of life. Marx saw that this idea of materialist dialectics, which says the world is constantly moving and changing based on contradictions, could be applied to economics, observing that economic systems have been changing since the beginning of time. The system prior to capitalism was feudalism, where peasants both lived and worked the lands of powerful lords. Over time struggles and revolutions transformed the feudalist mode of production, into the capitalist mode of production we have today. A system where capitalists own the land, while workers sell their labour to those capitalists in exchange for the necessities of life. Marx saw that like Feudalism, over time capitalism too would change, and eventually be replaced by an entirely new system.
If you didn’t understand any of that, don’t worry. For the rest of this article I will refrain from using philosophical jargon. If you still have no idea what I mean by Dialectical Materialism, just think of what American’s call Progressives. Folks who think that rather than remaining the same, society should look to constantly change and improve to something better. This is not to say that all progressives are Marxists, but progressivism clearly finds its intellectual roots in dialectical philosophy.
So how are the economic observations of a man living in the 1800s still relevant today? It is because Marx used the scientific method to study capitalism. He conducted a systematic analysis of capitalism in order to draw conclusions about how the system works, and the effects it has on those who live in it. The book Capital, which consists of three volumes around 800 pages each, observes all the different pieces which make up the capitalist system, as well as their relations to each other. Marx visited factories, and cited pages upon pages of accounting books in order to conceptualize, and study the flow of capital. He found that a number of capitalists have ownership of private property, which he called the means of production. This means all the material things necessary for the production of goods, including factories, tools, and raw materials. The class of people who own the means of production, are who Marx labeled as the bourgeoisie. Marx also observed another class within capitalist society, which he called the proletariat. The Proletarians do not own private property, but instead possess only their own human labour, which can be sold to a capitalist in exchange for money. Marx called this Human Labour Power, which is unique when compared to all other commodities which are bought and sold in capitalism. Labour is a special commodity, because it has the ability to add value to a product. To conceptualize this, imagine a capitalist who owns a chair company. The capitalist can own an entire forest of trees, but if he wants to make money from those trees, he must pay workers to cut them down, take them to a factory, and carve them into chairs, which can then be sold at a profit. When the capitalist then sells his chair on the market, he assigns it a price which will be enough to pay for the production of the chair, plus a surplus for himself. He must pay for the replacement of raw materials used to make the chair, the deterioration of tools used in the production process, the wages of the workers, and finally a surplus value for the capitalist himself. This surplus value is used either to expand the companies’ operations, or it is taken by the capitalist himself as profit. Surplus value then, is a value which is created by the labour of workers, but is pocketed by the capitalist, who has added no actual value himself.
These relations between workers and owners within capitalism creates a situation in which the less a capitalist has to pay their worker, the more surplus value they can take for themselves. Every extra penny a capitalist pays for labour, is a penny which can’t be taken as profit, or invested to expand the company. In addition, capitalists are in constant competition with each other. If a company doesn’t make enough money, it will go out of business. This drives capitalists into a “race to the bottom”, where they look to pay the lowest wages possible, in order to create more surplus value than other competing capitalists.
Additionally, capitalism creates a situation where workers must sell their labour to a capitalist in order to survive. Being that Proletarians do not own the means of production, the only commodity they have to sell is their own labour power. Workers seek to sell their labour for the highest price they can, in conflict with the capitalist, who looks to keep wages as low as possible. The worker has no interest in creating surplus value, but only in bringing home enough money to support their family. These contradicting motivations of the worker and capitalist put them in constant conflict with one another, whether the worker realizes it or not.
Workers Unions provide a perfect way to conceptualize the conflict between capitalist and worker. A union is an organization of workers who can threaten to withhold their labour power from the capitalist via strike, if the capitalist does not meet the workers’ demands. Workers’ demands could include vacation time, health insurance, higher wages, or improvement unsafe working conditions. If a singular worker were to make demands of his boss without the protection of a union, he would simply be fired. This demonstrates how in the capitalist system, which creates constant conflict between capitalist and worker, the capitalist has all the power, until workers band together in solidarity. On his own a singular worker has no power to reclaim his surplus value from the capitalist. However, when formed into unions, workers hold all the power, as proletarians make up the majority of society, and the capitalist’s wealth is completely reliant on the labour of the proletariat.
Marx’s work is so useful today, because his observations on the interworking’s of capitalism, explain so many of the societal issues we face presently. While the US is the richest nation in the history of the world, with a vast abundance of commodities for consumption, 78% of the country still lives paycheck to paycheck. No matter how much material wealth capitalism produces, it does not change the fact that the system leaves the majority of society living in relative discomfort. In present day wealth inequality has reached astounding levels, as the drive for capital accumulation has led one man, Jeff Bezos, to accumulate $175 billion. Meanwhile, the workers creating the surplus value which Bezos hoards, are thrown measly scraps of the value their labour created in the form of wages. Incomprehensibly wealthy capitalists like Bezos, who pay their workers starvation wages, show us why capitalism cannot be fixed. The contradictions existing at the core of capitalism will always create a society where those who don’t work hold all the wealth and power, while those who spend all day toiling have just enough to survive. These capitalist contradictions are what Marx warned us about over 100 years ago.
It is also vital to mention that Marxism is an intellectual tradition based on using the scientific method to study the development and movement of the economy, or human society as a whole. By this I mean that Marxism is not a religion. Marxists do not read Capital as if it is absolute truth, the way Christians interpret the bible. While Marx made many important discoveries about the capitalist mode of production, Marxists intellectuals following his death both critiqued, and expanded on his work. In 1917 Vladimir Lenin used Marx’s method of analysis to conclude that capitalism would inevitably lead to imperialism. Lenin saw that finance capital circulating in the global banking structures would give capitalists the impetus to expand their companies overseas. What Lenin predicted is exactly what happened following World War 2, as the United States became a capitalist superpower, using the military and other armed organizations, such as the CIA, to overthrow any governments who threaten the growth of private capital. While Marx predicted that developed capitalist countries would be the first places to have workers revolutions, Lenin argued that it would be the workers in impoverished countries who revolted first, fighting back both against their native capitalists, as well as foreign imperialists. Lenin’s theories have proven to be incredibly prescient, as Marxist movements have had huge impacts on countries in the global south who are exploited by multinational corporations mostly in the US and Europe, who demand the destruction of anything which threatens to slow their accumulation of surplus value.
Lenin’s work shows us that Marxism is not a dogmatic ideology, but a scientific one, that can be subject to change when presented with new evidence. Other theorists like Rosa Luxemburg used Marx’s method of analysis to discover that as capitalism continues, power and wealth will become increasingly concentrated at the top, finding itself in fewer and fewer hands. Again, we see a Marxist intellectual predicting something that came to fruition over the next 100 years. Because Marxism is a method of analysis. Rather than a dogmatic belief, it will always be a useful tool for analyzing the economic system we live in. Marxists of today can analyze the way in which automation is pushing people out of manufacturing jobs, and into the service industry. Rather than ignore this phenomena, because it doesn’t match with the conditions of Marx’s time where most of the proletariat worked in factories doing manufacturing, Marxists can instead analyze the way automation is changing the economy Marx observed, and adapt our conclusions, and political strategies accordingly.
So, that is why I’m a Marxist. I’m a Marxist because I’ve watched many of my peers be forced into the military out of desire to pay for college, and subsequently be shipped into combat overseas. I’ve watched my parents work three jobs between them to put me through college, then left that college with $82,000 in student debt. I’ve watched close friends who suffer from diabetes being forced to ration their insulin due to high costs. I’ve seen my friends in Puerto Rico have their city leveled by a hurricane, only to receive little to no help from the richest country in the world, who hold them as a territory. I’ve watched all these things happen in America which I was told growing up is the greatest, and most free country in the world. This is why I turned to Marxism. I turned to Marxism because I am tired of being lied to.
Let me conclude by using Marxism to analyze the most contentious political issue in American society today, racism and police brutality. The primary ideologies in the US today are Liberalism and Conservatism. Ideologies which scream and cry about the ills of society, while having nothing to say about the way in which those ills stem from capitalism. When police are murdering people of color in the streets, resulting in mass protests, Liberalism tells us that this happened because all cops are bad and racist. On the other hand Conservatism claims that it is those who are committing the crimes who are the bad guys, and if they hadn’t committed a crime in the first place, the cop wouldn’t have needed to kill them. I find both these specific arguments, as well as the dominant political ideologies of our time as a whole, to be entirely vapid, and honestly just plain stupid. A Marxist analysis of police brutality says that wealthy capitalists control the American justice system, which allows capitalists to use prison workers for cheap labour, paying them less than a dollar per hour. Capitalists also have ways to make money directly form the prison system, such as telecom companies charging prisoners lofty fees to make calls to loved ones. As a result of the profit that can be made from the prison system, capitalists are incentivized to keep the prisons full of bodies. For this reason, capitalists lobby the government to perpetuate a “war on drugs.” A war disguised as a way to fight drug addiction, which in reality is a ploy to keep the prisons filled with people. America currently holds 22% of the world’s prison population, with many of those prisoners being nonviolent offenders, who never physical harmed another person. The war on drugs necessitates a highly militarized police force, whose job becomes scouring impoverished communities searching for criminals. This of course leads to violence being committed by the police against people who have seemingly done little wrong. While videos like the killing of George Floyd filled many of us with outrage, it takes a Marxist analysis to explain the systemic issues which is leading to so many civilians being killed by officers, whose jobs are supposed to be protecting and serving the public.
Marxism allows us to look below the surface, and see the roots of societal issues, in the face of a media who only want us to be outraged by the outcomes of a broken system. The political movements of today must recognize, and take aim at the roots of societal issues, rather than feign outrage about the inevitable undesirable outcomes of our broken economic system. This is why Marxism is relevant today, and it is why I proudly call myself a Marxist.
 Friedman, Zack. “78% Of Workers Live Paycheck To Paycheck.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, January 11, 2019. https://www.forbes.com/sites/zackfriedman/2019/01/11/live-paycheck-to-paycheck-government-shutdown/.
 Initiative, Prison Policy. “How Much Do Incarcerated People Earn in Each State?” Prison Policy Initiative. Accessed October 13, 2020. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2017/04/10/wages/.