Part 1: What is a Class?
Part 2: The Origins of Class Society
Part 3: What is Exploitation?
Part 4: Crisis Theory
Part 5: What is Alienation?
Part 6: Class Beyond the Factory
Part 7: The Power of the Proletariat
Part 8: The Labor Theory of Value
Part 9: Allies and Enemies
Part 10: The Proletariat and National Oppression
Part 11: Ideology and Consciousness
Part 12: Trade Unions and Consciousness in Neoliberalism
What is a Class?
People all over the world are becoming increasingly aware of the need for profound social change. Struggles have erupted across the globe, from Wisconsin to Yemen, against the idea that profit should take precedent over human needs . Bernie Sanders’ rhetoric of “political revolution” galvanized a new generation of activists . When it failed, many became lost. They knew that the system had betrayed them, but they did not understand why this was the case. More importantly, they did not understand what to do next. Capitalist politicians had proven themselves to be an insufficient agent for social change, but this did not answer the question of what social force could actually liberate humanity. In this essay, I will argue in favor of the Marxist position that the working class is the only true revolutionary agent.
Before I can get into why the working class has the interest and ability to make change, I must devote considerable time to explaining the Marxist conception of class. Only then can we come to understand the reason behind the centrality of the proletariat.
Classes emerge only at a certain stage in the development of the productive forces and the social division of labor, when there exists a social surplus of production, which makes it possible for one class to benefit by the expropriation of another. The conflict between classes there begins, founded in the division of the social surplus, and constitutes the fundamental antagonism in all class .
Classes, in the Marxist sense, are groups of people who share the same or very similar relationships to the means of production. Marx distinguishes one class from another on the basis of two criteria: ownership of the means of production and control of the labor power of others . Means of Production are things like factories, machinery, farms, and offices. In short, anything that is necessary to do work . Labor power, which I will describe more later, is the ability to do work . Because of these similar relations, the members of a particular class share common interests.
In addition to sharing common interest, classes are aware of these interests. In order to be considered a class, a group must be aware that it is in conflict with other classes. This does not mean that workers must instinctively understand that they are “proletarians,” but only that workers must understand that they are in an antagonistic relationship with their bosses. One need not know the ins-and-outs of capitalism to be considered part of a class .
The final criteria for the formation of a class is collective action. Even if all workers were aware of the need to struggle, they would not be able to do so unless they came together in organizations (such as unions) that could translate their interests into the material world. The working class only becomes a class as such when it bands together in the struggle against capital . By the same token, the capitalist class must create organizations that can oppress workers and keep them from overthrowing the dominant order. The state is an example of one such organization . Because of its position at the top of the class hierarchy, the capitalist class must be more innately conscious of its need to struggle than the workers. Indeed, it must convince the workers (through media, repression, or by offering them concessions), that it does not need to struggle at all. Workers are compelled to struggle, and capitalists are compelled to keep workers from struggling. Already, we see a conflict brewing between these two classes .
Within the system of capitalism, the means of production are concentrated in the hands of a small minority of people. This is the capitalist class, or bourgeoisie. As a result of their relationship to the means of production, these people own everything that is produced. They reproduce themselves through a process known as exploitation, in which the labor of the worker is forcibly taken by the capitalist . Their common interest, broadly, is to ensure that the system remains organized in this way. They often have different ideas about how to do this, and infighting is not uncommon among them. Despite this, their ultimate goal is to remain in control of society. Everything they do is in the service of this goal.
The working class, or proletariat, is the class whose labor the capitalist exploits. Engels, Marx’s longtime collaborator, writes that it is “the class of modern wage-laborers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labor power in order to live” . In short, the working class is the class which produces everything in society, while the capitalist class is the class which owns everything in society.
While there are other classes in capitalist societies, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie are the two basic, or fundamental, classes. The other classes exist on a spectrum between these groups, and generally find themselves pulled in one direction or another by these groups.
Still, an important question remains unanswered. Why is it that we should use the Marxist understanding of class at all? Is it really the case that only this conception of class has the potential to bring about revolutionary change? I would of course argue that the answer is yes. But to really understand why, we have to look at a theory that stands opposed to Marxism, and determine whether or not it can bring about radical social change.
There are several models of class that Marxism stands opposed to, but I would like to draw attention to one prominent sociological model of class. This is known as functionalism, and can be found in the works of Max Weber . In this case, class is simply linked to a particular way of life. It’s linked to opportunity, worldview, societal function, and so on. For functionalists, to talk about means of production is to miss the point. They hold that a factory worker does not belong to the same class as an IT worker. One works in a cubicle and has white collar relations; the other has blue collar relations. They occupy two different planes of existence, two different class categories. This undermines what they see as the easy and vulgar Marxist notion of class.
However, I would argue that this concept is too subjective to be useful. Relationships among lawyers, for example, differ from those among accountants. The first is typically high-energy and competitive, while the second is more low-key. Lawyers often deal with criminals and law enforcement, while accountants inhabit a world of board meetings and computer screens. Despite these marked differences, both are considered white-collar professions. This is obvious nonsense, given the least bit of thought. The functionalist idea of class is linked to social relationships, but there is nothing that unites these two groups in terms of social relationships. The concept not as cohesive as its proponents would have you believe.
The Marxist understanding of class is different. It is linked to relationships to the means of production. Unlike the social relations mentioned above, this is a concrete measurement. While it can often be difficult to determine, everyone relates to the means of production in a specific way. Social relationships between different sections of the proletariat might differ, but the whole proletariat is united by the way in which they relate to the means of production. The Marxist interpretation of class is not objective, but it is far more grounded in material reality than functionalism.
Functionalists tend to place the premium on income rather than relationship to the means of production. In an era of unprecedented income inequality, this seems intuitive. Yet news reports about the income gap, while exposing the injustice and hypocrisy of the system, do not focus attention on the real source of the problem. It is not the distribution of income per se. And the well-meaning efforts of liberals and social reformers to trim the excesses of the income gap, to tweak the tax policies of the capitalist government so that the rich get a little less and the poor get a little more, will not solve the crisis.
Marx showed that the real problem is the private ownership of the means of production. As long as the lifeblood of the economy, its vital resources, factories and technology are owned by a tiny group of individuals, as long as production is governed by the law of capital accumulation and not the needs of society as a whole, poverty, injustice and capitalist crisis will remain and ultimately grow.
Obviously, class plays a major role in determining income and lifestyle, but neither income nor lifestyle determines class. Inequalities of wealth and lifestyle, however wide they may be, nevertheless form a continuum from top to bottom and therefore cannot yield a coherent analysis of the class structure. On the basis of income or lifestyle, one could conclude that there are five, ten, or fifteen classes or none: and either way it is arbitrary. Moreover, individuals might have the same income and be members of different classes e.g. a skilled manual worker and the owner of a small corner shop, or be members of the same class and live very different lifestyles e.g. miners and nurses (both part of the working class). Functionalism, to put it bluntly, is incoherent.
There is yet another reason to oppose functionalism. This idea is thought to be independent of any ideology, but of course this is false. Functionalism and those who advocate for it serve the interests of the capitalist class. The fact is that no concept of class can remain free of ideological baggage. Ideas about class are not, as many assume, merely ways to describe particular societies. Class is a weapon, always used to push some agenda.
Keeping this in mind, I argue the return to this Marxist understanding of class not merely because it is more descriptive, (although it is). I advocate this return as a call to arms. When we say that what it means to be a worker is to not own the means of production, we assert this: if we do not control our economic conditions, we do not control our lives. We are declaring ourselves not only unfree, but worthy of freedom. Rather than drawing lines between this sort of worker and that sort of worker, we should assert the unity of the proletariat. Without this assertion, revolutionary action is not only unlikely but impossible.
The working class alone is able to bring about truly systemic change. Functionalism rejects a unified conception of the working class. In fact, it explicitly divides the working class into more and more restrictive categories. If the working class is not united, it can never pose a threat to the tight-knit capitalist class. Only Marxism offers a way of bringing revolutionary actors together, under one banner. Therefore, it is only Marxism that stands any chance of liberating humanity.
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The Origins of Class Society
It is important to recognize that classes have not always existed. For the vast majority of human history, people have not been divided into classes. Classes did not develop because people became greedy. Class society developed out of the progress that humans made in the management of nature in order to sustain themselves and their communities. Class society came about came about as a result of the methods of production. These methods allowed for the generation of a surplus. In this sense, class society was a historically progressive phenomenon. We should not celebrate its arrival, but we should recognize that certain ideologies and events can be progressive and reactionary at different points, or even at the same time .
Class society, then, developed out of a change in the mode of production: from hunter-gather societies to sustained agricultural societies. This was not a uniform process, however. it happened at different times and in different ways all over the world. In Europe, for example, state-sanctioned enclosures resulted in this change. Elsewhere, European expansion and imperialism brought it about. This process took place over many centuries, and was never instantaneous. Regardless, class society was the result of a fundamental reordering of social relations .
In order to understand where class comes from, we need to understand how people lived before classes. Prior to the development of surpluses, people lived in cooperative communities in which they were mutually dependent on one another. Pre-class societies, therefore, were not characterized by oppression and inequality. Anthropologist Richard Lee puts it this way: Before the rise of the state and the entrenchment of social inequality, people lived for millennia in small-scale, kin-based social groups in which the core institutions of economic life included collective or common ownership…generalized reciprocity in…distribution, and relatively egalitarian political relations.” Class societies are a fairly recent phenomenon .
The lack of control over nature made people dependent on one another for survival. Historically, pre-class societies were based primarily on hunting and gathering. Gatherers supplied the most reliable sources of food, and hunters the most valued nutritionally. Both groups, although they performed largely the same function (the procurement of food) were both valuable to society, in many ways equally so. Those who hunted depended on gatherers for their day-to-day survival, and those who gathered depended on hunters to add much-needed nutritional elements to their diets so that they could remain healthy enough to continue gathering .
Hunters and gatherers did not work alone, but went about their labor in groups. At every point, the premium was placed on cooperation and collective values. This does not mean that life was universally fulfilling for pre-class people. In the same way that we should not romanticize class society for its historically progressive elements, we should also refrain from idealizing pre-class societies for their resemblance to communism. Natural abundance existed in certain places, allowing for a significant amount of leisure time. However, pre-class people existed at the whim of nature, and thus lacked the security necessary for an ideal life. Survival was still in question in pre-class societies, meaning that most time in hunter-gatherer societies was spent hunting and gathering, in order to eek out enough food to survive .
Both hunters and gatherers related to the means of production in the same way: they both used tools that they owned collectively to procure or produce necessary goods. As such, these two groups, although distinct from one another in a number of important ways, did not constitute different classes .
It was not until the neolithic period, with the development of more advanced tools, that people became less reliant on nature to provide them with what they needed to survive. They were more able to exert control over nature and enjoy a more secure and sustainable existence. The development of agriculture, it is important to note, is not synonymous with the development of class society. While agriculture was a necessary condition for this development, it was not a sufficient one .
Roughly ten thousand years ago, in the “fertile crescent,” people used tools to cultivate crops and domesticate animals. Similar developments took place in Mesoamerica and other parts of the world .
This turn to agriculture began to transform the whole of society. However progressive this was in the long term, agricultural societies did not immediately lead to improvements in quality of life. Class society did not make work shorter, easier, or “better.” Class society only made work different. Life expectancy decreased, and women were placed in subordinate positions to men. People did not spontaneously decide to develop agriculture because it made life easier for them. Rather, they were in some sense “forced” to develop agriculture due to the development of the tools they used to work and the environment in which they performed labor. The climate in the area around the fertile crescent became drier, which caused a decline in the direct availability of certain necessary grains, and consequently a decrease in the deer and antelope populations that made up the bulk of the hunter’s prey .
Understandably, the hunter-gatherer societies faced a crisis. They could no longer live as they had in the centuries past. Thus, they had two choices: They could either break up into smaller family units and return to a nomadic lifestyle, or find a way to make up for the deficiencies of nature with their own labor. They chose this latter option because of the experience and knowledge they had acquired from living off of wild vegetation. Their pre-class upbringing influenced the transition into class society, showing that it was largely determined by broader social and economic forces rather than the choices of individuals .
People used this knowledge of wild plants to plant the seeds of wild plants. They became discerning about which seeds would yield the highest return, and soon resolved to plant only those seeds. Once the need to develop agriculture became apparent, the process of development itself took place comparatively quickly and successfully. The wild plants began to breed domesticated varieties, leading to regular harvests. This made it possible to tether and feed more tame varieties of wild sheep goats, cattle, and so on who would then breed animals that were even tamer. This allowed for greater domestication of animals .
The first societies like this were called horticultural societies. These involved the clearing away of land and several years of use of that land. When particular plots of land stopped yielding, people would move onto another group of plots. There was not an immediate jump from hunter-gatherer society to permanent settlements, and thus not an immediate jump from pre-class society to class society .
The reorganization of society also involved the advancement of tools and implements. The name “neolithic” refers to the development of new stone tools, such as axes, which were more effective at clearing away land than previous tools. Over the course of centuries, this change in the mode of production developed into agricultural class societies .
The move to agriculture as a mode of production brought about a total reorganization of the way people worked and lived, even if this process took place over a prolonged period of time. Socially, people became more rooted to their villages than ever before. They could not wander off because they had to tend crops in between planting and harvesting cycles. People also had to figure out new ways of cooperating to clear land. It is impossible for one person to clear an entire forest. It was necessary to clear away land, decide which land would be cleared in the first place, plant crops, and manage the surplus, and raise children. In short, many more tasks needed to be accomplished than just hunting and gathering. Since these tasks required some degree of specific knowledge, people began to specialize in one task or another, This gave rise to what is known as the division of labor, which is an important (though not sufficient) element of class societies.
Despite these profound changes, class society itself did not emerge until many thousands of years after the development of agriculture. Anthropologists have found evidence that, in the early years of agriculture, “significant differentiation in wealth was almost entirely absent.” There was not, then, the traditional hallmark of class society: inequality.
Households tended to be responsible for cultivating a particular piece of land, but private property in land form did not exist, nor did the drive for individuals to pile up goods at the expense of others. Notions of private property and class did not develop just because people needed to plant crops. In the beginning, agriculture was still very much a communal process. The new tasks described above, however, caused people to grapple with ideas about how to organize society. Out of these new ideas we see the origins of class .
On certain occasions, the spread of crop-raising and herding lead to the first differentiation into social ranks, but these did not yet constitute classes. Although one farmer may have been (slightly) wealthier than another, both were still farmers. Both used tools that they owned as a community to plant, tend to, and harvest crops. Both were still members of the same class.
What anthropologists call “chieftainships” or “kingdoms” first arose in this period, with some enjoying greater prestige than others, but this was nothing like the class distinctions that would come later. Chieftains did not consume a surplus which others worked to produce without working themselves. In fact, chieftains were chosen based on their service to the community, meaning that they often worked more than their non-chieftain counterparts. Thus, egalitarian and cooperative principles were still the norm.
How, then, did agricultural societies develop into class societies? In order to sustain agriculture times of hardship (brought about again by changes in climate) society (broadly) took two paths, each of which contributed to the development of classes.
The first was that they engaged in warfare to raid neighboring societies for their supplies, leading to the creation of advanced weaponry and bronze tools. This represented the degradation of the cooperative values that characterized pre-class societies.
The other tactic was the development of more productive and labor intensive forms of agriculture, which placed a premium on technological innovation. Such innovations could be as simple as deciding to plant a new kind of crop, or as complex as using larger domesticated animals and developing the plow. These changes caused new and different forms of organization. The use of the plow, for instance, increased the division of labor between the sexes, since it was a form of labor not easily engaged in by pregnant or nursing individuals. The development of class society, then, gave rise to inequality and oppression both within and outside of the labor process as such.
The building of irrigation canals also lead to a division of labor between the vast numbers of people required to physically construct the waterways, and the handful of people who supervised this construction. Specialized knowledge morphed from a component of society to its primary driver, leading to the creation of classes.
People with this specialized knowledge also took on the storage and maintenance of surplus food, creating a further division of labor between these individuals and those who actually harvested the food. Those who maintained this surplus were unable to engage in any other kind of work, so they related to the means of production in a way unlike the way in which laborers related to the means of production. This, combined with the special status afforded to knowledgeable people and the aforementioned erosion of egalitarian values, lead to the first owning class and the first producing class.
Advanced technological development in this period also lead to the rise of craftsmanship and handiwork. While some people produced food, others (who typically owned their own tools rather than being directed by a lord) physically built the tools they used. The food produced by laborers went not only to the laborers themselves, but also the lords and the artisans who manufactured tools. For the first time, collective labor became something that was only performed by a particular group of people, as well as something distinct from distribution. Thus, a new way of relating to the means of production-a new class was born.
Because of this more productive agriculture, a rise in the growth of the population occurred. Both the production of food and the growth of the population are mutually dependent on one another. If one cannot grow more food, one cannot have a larger population. At the same time, a larger population will necessitate the growth of more food. This rise in population placed a premium on production, which increased the division of labor. Workers needed to produce more and rest less frequently, leading to the creation of a state that could discipline them. The first class conflict, then, was between the workers and those who commanded them to produce, all the while appropriating their surplus labor to feed a growing population. This opened up the possibility of larger towns, settlements, and eventually cities. Societies were no longer confined to small “kin-based social groups” as they had been prior to the development of classes.
Because workers needed to produce more, those who could direct workers-and who understood what needed to be produced and how this could be accomplished-acquired special status. People who directed labor and controlled grain stores became the first priests, and rose to a higher social status than others. They focused all their time on making these choices, rather than engaging in productive labor. Because they did not produce food, this new class had to take part of the surplus away from the workers. Controlling labor became something different from performing labor, and those who controlled labor lived off the work that others performed. They exploited labor. In addition to the division of labor, exploitation is a crucial component of class society. In times of hardship, the exploiters had to use coercion to expropriate the product of the worker’s labor even when the workers themselves were starving. Exploitation soon became a coercive process, leading to class conflict. The advent of this conflict marked the real onset of class society.
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What is Exploitation?
The term “exploitation” conjures up images of workers toiling in sweatshops from sunup to sundown for pennies an hour. While this arrangement is a feature of capitalism, and was certainly very common when Marx was writing, his concept of exploitation is broader. For Marx, exploitation is not merely some horrific anomaly that crops up in capitalism from time to time. Rather, it forms the basis of the capitalist system .
In order to proceed, we must first give ourselves a basic definition of what exploitation is. For the purposes of this essay, exploitation will be defined as the forced expropriation of the unpaid labor of workers .
Certainly, this process is not unique to capitalism. It has been a feature of all societies in which the working class does not rule. In slavery, exploitation occurs on the surface, in a very obvious way. The slave owner provides just enough to keep the slave in good enough condition to work, all the while forcefully appropriating the fruits of the slave’s labor .
Similarly, feudal serfs work on a plot of land that belongs to the lord. They work for part of the time creating their means of subsistence, while the bulk of their time is spent providing for the lord. They receive nothing in return for the labor expended during this period . In this case, too, exploitation is obvious.
Capitalism creates a society in which exploitation is hidden in the wages system. Except in cases of fraud, the capitalist buys the labor power of the worker for a given amount of time. In return, the worker receives a sum of money known as a wage. It appears on the surface that an equal exchange has taken place. However, as Marx is so fond of pointing out, the way things appear is not always the way things are .
As we have established, the capitalist purchases, in addition to machinery and raw materials, labor power. Labor power is defined as increments of time in which the worker creates commodities for the capitalist, during which the capitalist has near-total control of the worker’s physical and mental faculties. It is, wrote Marx in the first volume of Capital, “The aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities, capabilities which [they] set in motion whenever [they] produce a use-value of any kind” . In other words, labor power is the capacity to work, to create value, which the worker is forced to sell to the capitalist by virtue of not owning means of production.
Labor power differs from labor, which is the actual process of value creation itself. Like the buyer of any other commodity, the capitalist claims the right to consume the commodity upon purchase. The consumption of labor power consists of controlling the worker during the labor process and ownership of the products created during the labor process . The distinction between labor power and labor is key to understanding Marx’s analysis of capitalism.
This arrangement has led to a profoundly unequal society. Over the past three decades, the wealth created by workers has increased, while their wages remain stagnant. Instead, a huge portion of the wealth created by workers has flowed into the pockets of capitalists, who already have an inordinate amount of money .
We have seen that capitalists purchase labor power from workers and that a wage is therefore the price of labor power. How is this price determined? Marx wrote in Wage Labor and Capital that the cost of labor power is “the cost required for the maintenance of the laborer and for [their]…training as a laborer” . In other words, the price of labor power is determined by the cost of food, clothing, housing and education at a level that is just high enough to keep the worker in the employ of the capitalist. This standard is determined by the outcome of struggles between the workers and the capitalists. The price must also account for the cost of propagating the next generation of workers.
These factors are completely independent of the actual value produced by the worker during the labor process. The worker is paid a wage that is less than the value produced during this process.
To take a simple example, let’s assume that the worker is able to produce in four hours one hundred dollars worth of value. This is also the amount that the capitalist paid the worker for their labor power. This is what Marx called necessary labor because it is the amount of labor required to replace the wages paid by the capitalist. Further, if the worker did not work for a capitalist, it would be necessary for them to work four hours to maintain their standard of living.
However, the worker does not stop laboring after four hours. They are forced by the capitalist to work for a longer amount of time, usually eight hours. The value created in the time after the worker has already replaced the wages paid by the capitalist is called surplus value .
When this surplus product is sold, the capitalist pockets the proceeds, and the worker gets nothing. This is the secret source of all profits. This is exploitation, and it rests at the very core of the capitalist system.
Understanding this helps us more fully comprehend society. One example of this is the aforementioned inequality. Often, this inequality is treated as separate from the rest of the economy. On the one hand you have the wealthy, and on the other you have the vast majority of the poor. In popular narratives, the two never meet. Exploitation proves that this is a lie. This phenomenon shows that the wealthy are only wealthy because they extract value from workers. In other words, it is not simply that they are rich and we are poor. Rather, they are rich because we are poor.
This is not all that exploitation shows us. The reason that the length of the working day is a prominent issue in the global labor movement is because a longer working day means a larger chunk of time during which the worker is producing more than they need to survive. Business leaders continually argue against shorter working days, on the grounds that it will cut into their profits .
Exploitation is also the reason that business owners push for austerity-attempts to cut wages, benefits, and social services. Capitalists are well aware that the wages paid to workers negatively correlates to profits. This is the very foundation of exploitation. Cuts to social services decrease the living standards of workers, which drives down the level of wages needed to sustain them. This is, as I said above, a key factor in determining the rate of exploitation in a given society. Austerity tips the balance of power away from workers and towards capitalists. It is pursued as a political aim precisely because exploitation is at the core of capitalism .
It is often thought that austerity and long hours are pushed either for no reason or because capitalists are nasty people on a personal level. Marxism shows us that this is not the case. It takes seemingly random instances of austerity and finds the root cause of it. That is, of course, exploitation. Suddenly, complex and apparently chaotic political and economic maneuvers begin to make sense. Marxism helps us understand society and, in so doing, allows us to change it.
The capitalists understand that exploitation is the root of their wealth. The only reason they are rich is because workers are poor. It is not because they work harder than everyone else, it is because they steal from everyone else. Capitalism is fundamentally a system that works against the interests of the laboring classes. It cannot be reformed, it must be abolished. Understanding this is the first step on the path towards socialism. Since the proletariat is the class exploited by capital, they are the class with the most powerful interest in struggling against capital.
Through his political-economic analysis Marx in collaboration with Frederick Engels, identified the fundamental component of capitalist production (namely the commodity) and the principal human relationship and class struggle that forms the basis of commodity relations in capitalist society, namely the struggle between the class of productive wage laborers (the proletariat) and the employing capitalist class (the bourgeoisie). As Mao observed, “[b]eginning with the commodity, the simplest element of capitalism, [Marx] made a thorough study of the economic structure of capitalist society. Millions of people saw and handled commodities every day but were so used to them they took no notice. Marx alone studied commodities scientifically” . From this study, Marx “went on to reveal the relations among people hidden behind commodities” .
Marx set out these studies in his classic works Capital and Wages, Price and Profit. There we find his identification of the proletariat who must sell their labor power at less than its actual value to the bourgeoisie in order to survive, and the bourgeoisie who in turn sells the commodities produced by the proletariat on the market at their actual value and pockets the surplus as profits to become immensely wealthy .
This inherently exploitative relationship leaves the proletariat producing everything that sustains society while owning little to nothing, whereas the bourgeois produces nothing yet owns the entire productive system and means of production, including productive land, factories, transportation infrastructure, machinery, communication systems, etc.
Marx therefore recognized that the proletariat is the only class whose interests are in diametrical opposition to the bourgeoisie’s, and is therefore the only class with nothing to lose and everything to gain by overthrowing the capitalist class and system. In the Communist Manifesto he and Engels therefore metaphorically characterized the proletariat as the only class with “nothing to lose but its chains”  and consequently the only genuinely revolutionary class existing under capitalism.
- Karl Marx, “The Class Struggle in France 1848 to 1850,” Marx and Engels Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers 1973), Vol. 1, p. 282.
- Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (Moscow: Progress Publishers, emphasis in original), pp. 43-44.
- Mao Tse-tung, “On Practice: On the Relationship Between Knowledge and Practice, Between Knowing and Doing,” July 1937.
- Karl Marx, “Preface and Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,” (Peking: Foreign Language Press), p. 3.
- V.I. Lenin, “The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism,” March 1913.
- Mao Tse-tung, “Talk at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art,” May 1942.
- V.I. Lenin, “‘Left-wing’ childishness and the Petty Bourgeois Mentality,” May 5, 1918.
- V.I. Lenin, “‘Left-wing’ Communism – An Infantile Disorder,” April/May 1920.
- V.I. Lenin, “‘Left-wing’ Communism – An Infantile Disorder,” April/May 1920.
- Joseph Stalin, “The Foundations of Leninism,” April 1924, note 48.
- Joseph Stalin, “Concerning the Question of the Proletariat and the Peasantry,” January 27, 1975.
- Mao Tse-Tung, “Criticize Han Chauvinism,” March 16, 1953.
- V.I. Lenin, “Collected Works,” Volume 4, p. 280.
- V.I. Lenin, “Collected Works,” Volume 4, p. 282.
One of capitalism’s most fundamental characteristics is its frequent descent into crisis. The 2008 financial crash and the Great Depression are two of the more well-known examples, but hundreds more could be listed here. Despite capitalism’s tendency to spiral into crisis, however, it still stands. The ruling capitalist class has consistently found ways to shift the cost of crises onto the working class, despite the fact that this class is never responsible for them. In this essay, I want to explore the Marxist theory of crisis so that we can better understand how capitalism functions and what needs to be done about it. The goal of Marx’s crisis theory is to “identify the forces that drive capitalism forward, but simultaneously drive it to its destruction” . The limits of capitalism must be identified as something internal to the system if we want to overthrow it.
Of course, we cannot understand how capitalism leads to crisis unless we know what crisis is. By crisis, I follow economist Anwar Shaikh, who defined it as “a generalized set of failures in the economic and political relations of capitalist reproduction” . Why do these failures occur? The basis of the capitalist system is production for the sake of profit. This profit is derived from surplus value, which is the unpaid labor of a worker. But how is this possible when all workers are paid wages? The answer, in short, is that workers are not paid the full value of what they produce. This is what Marxists mean when we talk about exploitation. It is this exploitation that is at the heart of why capitalism goes into crisis.
The working day can be split into two parts: a part of the day in which the worker produces the value of their own wages; in the rest of the working day, which is effectively unpaid, the worker produces a “surplus” of value–value that the capitalist gets for free. This surplus is then either re-invested into production, or pocketed for the consumption of the capitalist. The worker never gets to absorb surplus value in any form. This is the fundamental characteristic of surplus value .
The wage that the worker is paid gives the illusion of a decent day’s work for a decent day’s pay, but in actual fact the wage is only the amount of money needed to sustain that worker; the amount needed to feed, clothe, shelter, and educate the worker, and thus allow the continuing exploitation of labor .
The fact that capitalism produces for profit–that workers produce more value in a day than they are paid back in the form of wage-means that the wages of workers can never exceed the value produced in society. As a result, workers will never be able to buy back the full value of what they collectively produce. This is not to say that small “luxuries” like TVs, laptops, and cars can’t be bought by individual working families. As a class, though, workers cannot afford to by the sum total of the commodities they produce. Anyone that has to sell their labor power for a wage is classed as a worker, part of the working class. This class makes up the vast majority of the population, and therefore also accounts for a large part of the market for commodities. These facts alone leave the capitalist system prone to overproduction-to produce more than the market can absorb .
Each capitalist is interested in maximizing profits. The rational choice for the individual capitalist, therefore, is to reduce their labor costs in order to undercut their competitors. They can do this in a number of ways, including replacing workers with machinery, cutting wages, or lengthening the working day. Every capitalist must pursue this aim, regardless of whether their doing so is beneficial in the long term. This competition among capitalists has numerous disastrous effects for workers: wages are driven down; unemployment is created; the market for goods shrinks further .
Capitalism creates and destroys the market at the same time, by squeezing more and more surplus value out of the working class, while attempting to hold down wages to the bare minimum. “The part falling to the share of the working class (reckoned per head),” explains Engels, “either increases only slowly and inconsiderably or not at all, and under certain circumstances may even fall” . This, in turn, becomes a barrier to the expansion of the market (and therefore the realization of surplus value).
Contrary to what capitalist economists would argue, capitalism does not produce on the basis of what is needed in society, but on the basis of what is profitable. The capitalist is unable to consider the limitations of the market, which arise as a result of production for profit. In order to survive, each capitalist must make profits, and therefore an endless stream of commodities must be pumped into the market. Capitalists must overproduce to compete. Eventually, the market reaches a breaking point as it becomes saturated by commodities that cannot be sold. Therefore, the system ends up in crisis–crises of overproduction. This is why, to quote economist J. Bloom, “America expends vast resources to feed its population, producing over 590 billion pounds of food annually and simultaneously squandering between 25 and 50 percent of the food that is produced” .
Overproduction is not a mistaken outcome. It is not even an inherently negative outcome for big monopoly capitalists. Rather, it is a means by which smaller producers are forced out of the market and absorbed by larger capitalists. Overproduction is not an accident of competition, but an essential form of it. To quote economist Simon Clark, “overproduction is price that has to be paid for the development of the forces of production within the capitalist mode of production” .
Overproduction is frequently transformed by reformist theorists into “underconsumption,” the idea that the mass of workers are paid too little to buy back what they produce. This leads to the program of persuading wise managers and concerned capitalists to advance their own self-interest by paying the workers more; the workers will then be able to consume and purchase more, and thereby crises will be forestalled or dampened.
There are a number of problems with this theory. First of all, as Marx pointed out, crises arise in the wake of cyclically high wages for labor, not low. Further, much of what is produced and overproduced under capitalism is means of production, not simply commodities meant for working-class consumption: even the best-paid workers do not buy manufacturing equipment. Thirdly, the masses’ underconsumption-in the sense of their inability to afford the full range of commodities needed for a comfortable standard of living-is a constant of life under capitalism through both boom and bust. If underconsumption were the cause of crises, the crisis would not be cyclical but permanent.
Overproduction demonstrates the inherent contradictions of a system that has the potential to produce real abundance, yet under which that very potential causes a breakdown every time it builds up. In the classical age of industrial capitalism, Marx held, the cycle reflected the system’s initially progressive role. The class struggle compelled the capitalists to advance productivity, accumulate more and more means of production and therefore to produce useful commodities more cheaply. For the first time in history, scarcity-with all its endemic misery, starvation, wars and pestilence-could be overcome. However, the dynamics of capitalism (its endless pursuit of profits) mean that this abundance will never be equally distributed across the whole society. It will continually be hoarded by an ever-decreasing number of wealthy owners .
Marx believed that crisis would inevitably result from contradictions within the capitalist system itself, and predicted that these contradictions would become more and more acute as the capitalist system evolved. Over time, Marx writes, capital takes control over the handicraft production processes and later manufacture where the workers were in control of the work process, centralizing the workers into workshops and factories. Through the process of competing for markets, some firms win and others lose, capital becomes enlarged and centralized; science and technology are consciously used to improve the productivity of the workplace, thus throwing many out of work while creating new jobs in service to the machines. In the process of competing for markets, unsuccessful capitalists fall into the proletariat. The crisis of overproduction, then, slims down the number of capitalists that exist at a given time. The crisis is dialectical: it is both the cause and the effect of the concentration of wealth and power .
Other developments also take place on an ever increasing scale. The quest for profit leads corporations to adopt ever more sophisticated technology, to reorganize labor into ever more detailed divisions for the sake of efficient production, and to squeeze wages to maximize profit. Science is more directly harnessed to the production process through the research and the development of technologies that will ever more efficiently automate production and distribution processes. Workers are stripped of their skills and, becoming mere commodities, increasingly exploited to maximize capital .
Agriculture, too, is transformed through science to become an exploitive relationship in which the crops and people are treated as commodities; millions are removed from the land as corporate farms replace the family farms of the past. In effect capital uses science and technology to transform agriculture into agribusiness, in the process not only exploiting the worker but exploiting and ultimately destroying the natural fertility of the land as well. Marx writes,
In the sphere of agriculture, modern industry has a more revolutionary effect than elsewhere, for this reason, that it annihilates the peasant, that bulwark of the old society, and replaces him by the wage laborer. Thus the desire for social changes, and the class antagonisms are brought to the same level in the country as in the towns. The irrational, old-fashioned methods of agriculture are replaced by scientific ones. Capitalist production completely tears asunder the old bond of union which held together agriculture and manufacture in their infancy. But at the same time it creates the material conditions for a higher synthesis in the future, viz., the union of agriculture and industry on the basis of the more perfected forms they have each acquired during their temporary separation. Capitalist production, by collecting the population in great centers, and causing an ever-increasing preponderance of town population, on the one hand concentrates the historical motive power of society; on the other hand, it disturbs the circulation of matter between man and the soil, i.e., prevents the return to the soil of its elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; it therefore violates the conditions necessary to lasting fertility of the soil. By this action it destroys at the same time the health of the town laborer and the intellectual life of the rural laborer” (Emphasis mine) .
The lack of centralized, democratic planning under capitalism results in the overproduction of some goods and the underproduction of others, thus causing economic crises such as inflation and depression, feverish production followed by market gluts bringing on contraction of industry. These booms and busts are part of the structure of capitalism itself, as it grows by fits and starts. As the economy booms, labor costs rise and profit margins are squeezed, thus causing periodic crashes. Labor becomes cheap, industry begins to recover and the cycle begins anew. As Marx puts it,
The enormous power, inherent in the factory system, of expanding by jumps, and the dependence of that system on the markets of the world, necessarily beget feverish production, followed by over-filling of the markets, whereupon contraction of the markets brings on crippling of production. The life of modern industry becomes a series of periods of moderate activity, prosperity, over-production, crisis and stagnation. The uncertainty and instability to which machinery subjects the employment, and consequently the conditions of existence, of the operatives become normal, owing to these periodic changes of the industrial cycle” .
In addition to the booms and busts of capitalism that swing wider as capitalism evolves, there is a constant churning of employment as machines replace men in one industry after another, throwing thousands out of work, thus swamping the labor market and lowering the cost of labor. In all of this the laborers suffer. Mass production, machine technology, and economies of scale will increasingly be applied to all economic activities; unemployment and misery for many workers results. Writing on unemployment, Marx said,
The instrument of labor, when it takes the form of a machine, immediately becomes a competitor of the workman himself. The self-expansion of capital by means of machinery is thenceforward directly proportional to the number of the work people, whose means of livelihood have been destroyed by that machinery. The whole system of capitalist production is based on the fact that the workman sells his labor-power as a commodity. Division of labor specializes this labor-power, by reducing it to skill in handling a particular tool. So soon as the handling of this tool becomes the work of a machine, then, with the use-value, the exchange-value too, of the workman’s labor-power vanishes; the workman becomes unsaleable, like paper money thrown out of currency by legal enactment. That portion of the working-class, thus by machinery rendered superfluous, i.e., no longer immediately necessary for the self-expansion of capital, either goes to the wall in the unequal contest of the old handicrafts and manufactures with machinery, or else floods all the more easily accessible branches of industry, swamps the labor-market, and sinks the price of labor-power below its value.
The expansion by fits and starts of the scale of production is the preliminary to its equally sudden contraction; the latter again evokes the former, but the former is impossible without disposable human material, without an increase, in the number of laborers independently of the absolute growth of the population. This increase is effected by the simple process that constantly “sets free” a part of the laborers; by methods which lessen the number of laborers employed in proportion to the increased production. The whole form of the movement of modern industry depends, therefore, upon the constant transformation of a part of the laboring population into unemployed or half-employed hands” .
As capitalism develops, the system must necessarily create enormous differences in wealth and power. The social problems it creates in its wake of boom and bust-of unemployment and underemployment, of poverty amidst affluence will continue to mount. The vast majority of people will fall into the lower classes; the wealthy will become richer but ever fewer in number .
All of these economic and political transformations and developments are harnessed to the economic interests of the capitalists. With this growing monopoly of economic, political and social power, the exploitation of the many for the benefit of the few grows. With its continued development, the contradictions become worse, the cycles of boom and bust more extreme. As capitalism is international in scale the people of all nations are parts of the capitalist world system with the industrial center exploiting much of the world for raw materials, food, and labor. Writes Marx, “a new and international division of labor, a division suited to the requirements of the chief centers of modern industry springs up, and converts one part of the globe into a chiefly agricultural field of production, for supplying the other part which remains a chiefly industrial field” .
Over the course of its evolution, capitalism brings into being a working class (the proletariat) consisting of those who have a fundamental antagonism to the owners of capital. The control of the state by the wealthy makes it ineffective in fundamental reform of the system and leads to the passage of laws favoring their interests and incurring the wrath of a growing number of workers. As Engels explains, “the executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” .
Now highly urbanized and thrown together in factories and workplaces by the forces of capital, the workers of the world increasingly recognize that they are being exploited, that their needs are not being met by the present political-economic system. The monopoly of capital is preventing the production of goods and services for the many. Needed social goods and services are not being produced because there is no profit in it for the capitalists who control the means of production. Exorbitant wealth for the few amid widespread poverty for the many will become the norm. We can see this happening in the world today. According to Oxfam, the world’s wealthiest eight individuals have as much wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion poorest people combined . At the same time, “nearly half of the world’s population-more than 3 billion people-live on less than $2.50 a day. More than 1.3 billion live in extreme poverty, which is defined as having less than $1.25 a day. One billion children worldwide are living in poverty. According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die each day due to poverty” .
As the crisis mount, governments will be blocked from providing real structural change because of the dominance of the capitalists and their organization, money, and power. As a result, the proletariat will become more and more dissatisfied with their conditions. In time, the further development of production becomes impossible within a capitalist framework and this framework becomes the target of revolt. Eventually, Marx says, these contradictions of capitalism-chiefly its propensity for crisis-will drive the working class towards revolt. Crises, in a sense, beget revolutions . Because the proletariat is the class that is situated at the point of production, it is the class that bears the brunt of the crises of capitalism. As such, understanding crisis theory is a vital for understanding the nature of the proletariat as a class.
For Marx, the existence of inequality or poverty alone is not what compels workers to struggle against capitalism. Because these things have always been a part of the capitalist system, people have more or less (though not always) learned to tolerate them. Of greater social and ideological impact is the insecurity, instability, and ruin that economic crises inflict on the lives of working class people. Crises therefore produce an intensification of class struggle.
Marx argues that crises “carry the most frightful devastation in their train and, like an earthquake, cause bourgeois society to shake to its very foundations” . Thus, it is out of the impact that the possibility (though not the guarantee) of revolutionary change emerges. Marx did not argue that crises would always result in revolutions or even mass movements. The point is that there is a relationship between these things. It is the working class’ role in this relationship that makes it potentially revolutionary.
I want to stress the point that, not only could capitalism not survive without crises, crises are actually necessary for the continued functioning of the system. Booms and slumps are, for capitalism, like inhaling and exhaling. Both are part of the normal functioning of the system and will accompany capitalism to its grave. The business press references this quite often, talking about “inefficient sectors” of capital that need to be “rationalized” .
It is within the crisis that the seeds of the next boom are planted, and the opposite is also true: the seeds of every crisis are planted within the boom. Polish Marxist Rosa Luxemburg, in her book Reform or Revolution, put it this way:
As a result of their periodic depreciation of capital, crises bring a fall in the prices of the means of production: a paralysis of a part of active capital, and in time, this leads to an increase of profits. Crises, therefore, appear to be the instruments of rekindling the fire of capitalist development. Their cessation would not lead to the further development of the capitalist economy, it would destroy capitalism .
The persistence and necessity of crisis under capitalism makes revolutionary change not only possible, but required. The crisis-prone nature of capitalism requires socialist revolution to eliminate the recurrent social and economic disasters inherent in the capitalist system. Capitalism without crisis is impossible. Therefore, the proletariat is instinctively driven towards revolution.
- Simon Clark, Marx’s Theory of Crisis. 2016. p. 74.
- ANWAR SHAIKH, 1978 U.S. Capitalism in Crisis, U.R.P.E., New York
- Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Volume 34, p. 75-76.
- Karl Marx, Capital: Volume One, Chapter 16, Section 9.
- Quoted in Kenneth Lapides, Marx’s Wage Theory in Historical Perspectives 2007, p. 247
- Bloom, J. (2010). American wasteland: How America throws away nearly half of its food (and what we can do about it). Cambridge: Da Capo Press.
- Clark, Op. Cit, p. 85.
- See J.W. Moore, Ecology and the Rise of Capitalism http://www.jasonwmoore.com/uploads/Moore__Ecology_and_the_Rise_of_Capitalism__PhD__2007_.pdf
- Karl Marx, Capital: Volume Three, Chapter 15, Section 3.
- Marx, Capital: Volume Three, 1867. p. 554
- Ibid, 495.
- Ibid, 470, 694-5
- Lapides, Op. Cit.
- Marx, Op. Cit, p. 493.
- Karl Marx and Frederick Engels Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx/Engels Selected Works, Vol. One, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1969, p. 100
- Quoted in Gerry Mullany, “World’s Eight Richest Have As Much Wealth as Bottom Half, Oxfam Says,” New York Times, Jan. 16, 2017. //www.nytimes.com/2017/01/16/world/eight-richest-wealth-oxfam.html?_r=0
- Anup Shah, “Poverty Facts and Statistics,” Global Issues. Jan. 7, 2013. http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats
- Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Chapter 5. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/ch05.htm
- Harry Braverman, Labour and Monopoly Capital, p. 85-187.
- Lidtke, Vernon (1966). The Outlawed Party: Social Democracy in Germany, 1878-1890. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. p. 339.
What is Alienation?
Marx first elucidated the concept of alienation in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, first published in 1927. He held that the worker, as a consequence of living in a society divided into social classes, slowly became estranged from their humanity. On the surface, the worker is an autonomous individual capable of making their own decisions. The capitalist mode of production, however, turns this to fiction. At work, the worker loses the ability to direct their own activity. They cannot determine who they associate with or the kinds of actions they take. These decisions are made by a boss, whose sole interest is to extract as much surplus value from the worker as possible. This arrangement turns the worker into an instrument, a thing, rather than a human being .
In order to explore this concept more deeply, we must understand what it is that makes us human, what differentiates us from mere animals. Most people treat this as a deep philosophical question that one could spend their entire lives answering. Marxists, however, understand that humanity has a scientific definition. Marx argues that conscious labor is what distinguishes humans from animals. He writes in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, “Conscious life activity distinguishes man immediately from animal life activity. It is just because of this that he is a species-being. Only because of that is his activity free activity. In creating a world of objects by his practical activity…man privies himself as a conscious species-being. Admittedly, animals produce. They build themselves nests…[but] the animal only produces what is immediately needed…they produce one-sidedly, while man produces universally. The animal produces only itself, while man reproduces the whole of nature.” . Because we work on nature consciously, we build on our successes, we learn from one another, we develop new ways of performing labor. This gives us a unique relationship to nature. We are able to alter the natural world, but the natural world then come back and alters us. The relationship of humanity to nature is dialectical, while the relationship of animals to nature is static It is the ability to alter and be altered by nature that makes us human. This relationship is contained in the collective labor we perform. The capitalist robs us of the ability to direct the labor process, to determine the ways in which we act on nature. Thus, in turn, means that the capitalist determines the way that nature acts on us. The capitalist determines the nature of humanity for workers. More often than not, the nature of this humanity is not humanity at all, but rather a machine-like repetitive existence. Capitalists would prefer their workers to act like robots because it increases their profits. When given the chance, the capitalist forces the worker to act in a non-human manner. This is the fundamental assertion at the heart of the alienation theory.
This is expressed primarily in the alienation of the worker from the product or products they create during the labor process. The design of the products created by the worker are not determined by the worker or even the consumer, but by the capitalist class which appropriates the labor of the engineers who actually design products. The capitalist, as we have seen, cares little for safety or even utility when determining how products are designed. They create products with the singular goal of maximizing profits, by any means necessary. So, workers have little if any control over the kind of products that create during the labor process. Further, the actual physical objects created during this process belong not to the worker, but to the capitalist. Workers do not own the products of their labor. They create cars which they will not drive, education they will not partake in, and healthcare which they are later denied. They produce for someone other than themselves. This contributes to the “instrumentification” of the worker. In taking the product of their labor, the capitalists are asserting that workers do not need the things they create. It is permissible for an owner to take food that a farmer grows because workers are machines, and machines do not need food. Of course, the workers know they are human, or that they should be treated as such. Therefore, they are aware that they are being degraded at work. This leads to a magnification of the mental anguish they feel. This awareness of pain is the source of alienation.
The alienation of the worker during the labor process is compounded by the fact that the worker is engaging in labor not because they have any desire to do so, but rather because it is the only way they can earn their means of existence. They are forced into labor merely to survive. This paradigm robs labor of its intrinsic worth and turns it into an alienated activity.
Alienation continues beyond the labor process and into the market. Once a product enters the market, no one has any control over it. It sets off on a course which appears governed by laws that are above humanity. This contributes to what Marx called reification, in which social relations between human beings are conceived of as relations between objects, between things .
One example of alienation Marx spoke of at length was what he called commodity fetishism. He argued that the real social relations of production are masked by the presence of commodities within a capitalist society. Commodities, rather than human labor, are seen as the lynchpin of capitalist societies. This view serves to mystify real social realities .
Is a commodity valuable because human labor was expended to produce it or because it is intrinsically valuable? Marx posits that values “appear to result from the nature of the products” . That is, it appears that commodities contain value in and of themselves. People in capitalist societies treat commodities as if the objects themselves contain value, rather than regarding value, as Marx did, as the amount of real human labor expended to produce an object. It is labor, specifically human labor, that gives products their value. However, this is not widely believed in capitalist societies. Human labor is treated as though it has no value. This gives capitalists an excuse to describe the world in a way that, although erroneous, serves their interests. As I said above, market relations are described as though they occur independent of human agency. If market relations are eternal, if they are above humans, then it follows that they cannot be changed or abolished. Commodity fetishism aims to make the working class feel powerless in the face of capitalist exploitation.
These feelings of powerlessness have substantial negative effects, both in the workplace and out of it. The condition of workers under capitalism makes them extremely susceptible to depression, anxiety, and related illnesses, according to a study by Wayne O’Donohue and Lindsay Nelson at Griffith University . Similar results were obtained by a 2006 survey on workplace stress by the Anxiety Disorders Association of America .
The Whitehall Survey of 1968 found that the stresses caused by the capitalist workplace were linked to high blood pressure and other physical ailments as well as mental ones .
These and other studies confirm that alienation is not merely an obscure academic concept, but a material force with real consequences for working people.
Alienation can be overcome only by restoring the collective human aspect of labor. People must work cooperatively to meet their own needs, rather than doing so just to get by. This can never be achieved under capitalism, a system in which the profits of the owning class regularly take precedent over the needs of the environment and the working class. In order to go beyond alienation, we must destroy capitalism and replace it with a system in why’ve the workers have control over their own lives. That system, of course, is socialism. Because the working class is the class that is alienated by capitalist production, it is the class with the interest in abolishing capitalist production .
- Marx, Karl. Estranged Labour, Marx, 1844. Marxists Internet Archive.
- Nelson, Lindsay, and Wayne O’Donohue. “Alienation, psychology and human resource management.” (2006).
- Melchior, Maria, et al. “Work stress precipitates depression and anxiety in young, working women and men.” Psychological medicine 37.08 (2007): 1119-1129.Health Inequalities among British civil servants: the Whitehall II study”. Lancet. 337 (8754): 1387–1393.
- Marx, Op. Cit.
Class Beyond the Factory
I want to stress that the working class is not restricted to just factory workers. It is not only made up of “blue-collar” workers who actually produce goods, but all the workers who make the production of goods possibile. The proletariat is composed of all those who perform the collective labor required to produce the wealth of society. Different groups within this class certainly have different levels of influence and power, as we will see later on, but the power of the working class depends on the entire mass, as a collective.
Only a narrow understanding of capitalism imagines its reach to be limited to the point of production. The centrality of wage labor is, in actuality, “a general illumination which bathes all the other colors and social relations and modifies their particularity” . This is a quote from Marx himself. In analyzing wage labor and the system of factory production under capitalism, Marx hoped to bring to light certain contradictions in capitalist society as a whole. He was not a reductionist as is often claimed. I am going to deal here with how Marx actually conceives of capitalist production, or ‘the economy,’ and why it is important that we look to this understanding for today’s struggles against neoliberal capitalism.
We must begin with the incorrect implications of the term ‘economy.’ The allegations against Marxism as “reductionist” and “economistic” are only true if one understands the economy in one of the following two ways. The first is in the neoclassical sense, where neutral market forces determine the fate of humans by chance. The second is in the sense of a union boss whose understanding of the worker is restricted to the wage earner in a single branch of trade. These two concepts are connected are actually connected in important ways, and I will examine them in more detail later.
First, I want to explain why this restrictive view of the economic is something that Marx actually critiqued. The oft-quoted passage which supposedly proves that Marx is an economic reductionist is in Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, where he claims, “the mode of production of material life conditions the social, political, and intellectual life process in general” . In the common sense reading of this phrase, the “mode of production of material life” is understood to be the economy or economic processes. This, on the face of it, is correct. Marx did mean that the economic base of a society (the process by which we produce the necessities of life) played a very significant role in determining politics, art, and other forms of activity. However, Marx did not conceive of economic processes in the narrow sense of production in the workplace. What, then, did Marx really mean by economic processes? In order to answer this question, it is important to recall that Marx wants us to forget everything we are told about what the economy is by the newspapers and standard economists. Instead of merely describing the surface workings of the economy as these outlets do, Marx is writing about capitalism in a revelatory mode. He is sharing its secrets with us. He stresses that capitalism is not what it seems. By economy, he cannot mean simply “that which goes on in the workplace and market squares” because this is how capitalist economists themselves say we should conceive of it. The view of the economic process as being confined to the workplace is the view, as Lenin said, of the “trade union secretary” . To pretend that Marx also held this view is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of his project.
Marx wants to construct a new picture of the economy. He will expose for us how capitalism actually reproduces itself, rather than how it appears to do so. This involves examination of labor outside the workplace. Marx writes that capitalism reproduces itself in part “behind the back of its direct producers” . He will make us “take leave of this noisy sphere where everything takes place on the surface and in the view of all men” . Marx will lead us “into the hidden abode of production”  where “we shall see not only how capital produces but how capital is produced. We shall at last force the secret of profit-making” . It is clear, then, that Marx could not have focused solely on the production process. The entire point of his work was to show the ways in which capital exists not only because of, but beyond formalized labor.
If what we currently understand as the economy is merely surface, as Marx posits, what is the secret that capital has fought to keep hidden from us? The answer is simple: the animating force is not the movement of products charted by graphs, but human labor. As soon as we, following Marx, restore labor as the source of all wealth and as the very social life of humanity, we restore to the economic process its messy, unruly, gendered, and raced component: living human beings capable of following orders as well as disobeying them. The economy, then, is not merely a static set of relations: worker and machine, boss and employee, et cetera. Rather, it is constantly in motion. It is the actions of human beings, engaging in labor, that determine the nature of the economic process.
The secret source of all profits is exploitation. I explained this concept above, but it is worth going over the concept again. Although the worker produces all the wealth, capital does not pay her for the full value of what they actually produce. Workers are only paid for the cost of their own reproduction as workers. The additional value produced during the working day is appropriated by capital as surplus value or profit. The wage is nothing but the value necessary to reproduce the worker’s labor power. The value produced by the worker beyond this is essentially stolen. In order to explain how this theft occurs every day without the constant use of direct military force, Marx introduces the concepts of necessary and surplus labor time. Necessary labor time is that portion of the workday in which the direct producers make value equivalent to what is needed to sustain them so that they can continue laboring. Surplus labor time, meanwhile, is all the remaining workday where workers make value for capital.
The line between these two concepts is not always clear. There is no bell that rings when workers transition from necessary labor time to surplus labor time. Further, there is no set definition of what the worker needs for their own reproduction. Marx expands upon this fuzziness, writing,
If the owner of labor power works today, tomorrow he must again be able to repeat the same process in the same conditions as regards health and strength. His means of subsistence must therefore be enough to maintain him in his normal state as a laboring individual. His natural wants, such as food, clothing, fuel and housing, vary according to the…physical conditions of his country. On the other hand, the number and extent of his so-called “necessary wants” as also the modes of satisfying them, are themselves the product of historical development and depend therefore to a great extent on the…conditions under which, and consequently the habits, and degree of comfort, to which the class of free laborers has been formed .
Here, we sense that the content of Marx’s critique is inadequate to his form. In simple terms, he is not going deep enough. Is it enough for Marx to say that the so-called natural wants, such as food and clothing, are historically contingent? (That is, they are not static and unchanging, but determined by the society in which they exist). No, it is not.
Marxists must examine the labor expended to prepare the food, to wash and iron the clothing. This is labor that is performed outside the production of commodities. While Marx himself did not spend a great deal of time on this, the centrality of the labor process that is the core of Marxism compels us to do so.
One of the most important Marxists to take up this task was the feminist Lise Vogel. Marx, Vogel rightly argues, did not discuss a second component of necessary labor. Vogel calls this the domestic component. This includes the labor performed at home to make the worker ready for the next day, so cooking, cleaning, and so on. It also includes the biological replacement of labor through childbirth. As we know, the lion’s share of the processes by which individual workers renew themselves away from the site of surplus labor production falls on women of the working class . The domestic component of the labor process, then, is yet another hidden (or secret) element of production. If the aim of Marxist economic analysis is to uncover the secret ways in which capitalism produces itself, then Marxists must take up the question of the domestic component of labor.
Looking closely at Marx’s Capital, Vogel and others argue that the key to the system, our labor power, is actually itself produced and reproduced outside of capitalist production, in a “kin-based” site called the family. In an excellent passage, Vogel explains clearly the connection between class struggle and women’s oppression:
Class struggle over conditions of production represents the central dynamic of social development in societies characterized by exploitation. In these societies, surplus labor is appropriated by a dominant class, and an essential condition for production is the…renewal of a subordinated class of direct producers committed to the labor process. Ordinarily, generational replacement provides most of the new workers needed to replenish this class, and women’s capacity to bear children therefore plays a critical role in class society….In propertied classes…women’s oppression flows from their role in the maintenance and inheritance of property…In subordinate classes…female oppression…derives from women’s involvement in processes that renew direct producers, as well as their involvement in production .
This is essentially the main argument of what Vogel and these other later Marxists call “social reproduction theory.” Social reproduction theory shows how the “production of goods and services and the production of life are part of one integrated process,” as Meg Luxton has put it . If the formal economy is the production site for goods and services, the people who produce such things are themselves produced outside the ambit of the formal economy at very little cost for capital. In short, the working class doesn’t only work in its workplace. A woman worker also sleeps in her home, her children play in the public park and go to the local school, and sometimes she asks her retired mother to help out with the cooking. In other words, the major functions of reproducing the working class take place outside the workplace.
This is why capitalism attacks social reproduction viciously in order to win the battle at the point of production. This is why it attacks public services, pushes the burden of care onto individual families, cuts social care–in order to make the entire working class vulnerable and less able to resist its attacks on the workplace.
Domestic labor does two things: it reproduces humans-thus labor power-and it prepares workers to go to work daily. Canada estimated in 1994 that the value of housework, if it were paid, would be $318 billion . The variety of jobs you must do when you look after home and children are endless: cook, maid, launderer, health-care provider, mediator, teacher, counselor, secretary, transporter of children and household supplies, and so on. All this work-which is necessary for the reproduction of labor power and hence the production of commodities-goes on quietly, unheroically. Many women who toil away for no pay are ground into an early grave through the physical exertion of bearing and raising children while struggling against squalor, disease and poverty.
These activities, which form the very basis of capitalism in that they reproduce the worker, are done completely free of charge for the system by women and men within the household and the community. In the United States, women still carry a disproportionate share of this domestic labor. The relation between (usually women’s) domestic labor and the system of wage exploitation led to the once-fashionable leftist notion that household labor is exploited like factory labor. But the proletarian wife, in her household role, does not produce value and surplus value—and therefore is not exploited by capital. Nor is she exploited by her husband (although she may be oppressed by him). She is responsible for reproducing the labor-power commodity, but not under conditions directly governed by the law of value. (For example, even if there is an excess of the labor power commodity on the market, she must still work to reproduce her family’s labor power so that they survive.) What the working-class housewife does is produce use values in the home. But removal from a direct role in value production in a society where value is the end-all and be-all ensures the subordination of women.
Engels called the position of the proletarian housewife “open or concealed domestic slavery” . Like a slave, the domestic laborer is tied to a particular household and family; she cannot move freely about between “employers”; and like chattel slaves in the capitalist era, she is subordinated to the relations between labor power and capital. But unlike a slave, no particular capitalist ruler directly provides for her welfare or even appears as her master. Rather she depends on the relationship between wage-labor and capital to receive her share of the family wage, an indirect payment from the capitalist class for the maintenance and production of labor power. Although domestic laborers are not exploited by capital directly, the root of their position is caused by capital. Domestic laborers are not strictly proletarian, but they still possess objective revolutionary potential as laborers.
Capitalism’s exploitation of the wage laborer is all the more insidious because it is concealed under the pretension of the “equal exchange” of wages for labor power. Likewise with the oppression of women: the “equal exchange of love” as the foundation of a freely chosen marriage conceals the underlying economic compulsion. Of course, the proletarian woman often faces the double burden of wage and domestic labor. Capitalism takes full advantage of the ideology that woman’s “primary” role is in the home to keep down her wages and rights as a worker.
Despite the above analysis, we probably think of ourselves as workers only when we work outside of home. This was evident during an interview conducted by the historian Susan Stasser for her book Never Done. Stasser said an 88 year-old woman told her she could not believe that her unpaid work (as opposed to her “jobs”) could have any importance to a historian .
One of the first women to challenge the view that domestic labor was not productive work was Maria-Rosa Dalla Costa, who wrote from Italy in 1972 that the housewife and her labor are the basis of capital accumulation. Capital commands the unpaid labor of the housewife as well as the paid laborer. Dalla Costa saw the family as a colony dominated by capital and state. She rejected the artificially created division between waged and unwaged labor and said that you could not understand exploitation of waged labor until you understood the exploitation of unpaid labor .
Other feminist writers have criticized this viewpoint because it does not acknowledge that men directly benefit from having women work in the home. Heidi Hartmann writes in Women & Revolution that white union men early in the 19th century wanted women, children, and non-whites out of the work force because their presence lowered wages. They asked for a wage for men high enough so that their wives could afford to stay home and tend to the house and children. Hartmann sees this as a collusion between workers and capitalists. In this way, white men kept women home for their own personal benefit, and bosses-who realized that housewives produced and maintained healthier workers and future workers-got more docile workers. So the family wage cemented the partnership between patriarchy and capitalism .
This is why Marx and Engels considered the family to be the major economic unit in capitalist societies . At the start of industrialization, men were being thrown out of their craft jobs as mechanization made it easier and cheaper to employ women and children. When the factory system began to employ three children and a woman in place of a man: “now four times as many workers’ lives are used up in order to gain a livelihood for one workers’ family” . The value of labor power decreased, since now it took four wage-earners to earn what had been the norm for one. In this scenario the unemployed male worker became dependent on his wife and children. It meant a type of family wage, but it did not last. The brutality of early industrialization threatened to destroy the working class altogether by killing off women and children at a high rate.
This super-exploitation of the family was opposed by women as well as men. But the domination of the struggle by labor-aristocratic leaders convinced many male unionists that their jobs were directly threatened by female employment; they failed to see-and indeed could not see-that capitalism’s process of bringing women into new lower paid jobs was an attack on the entire class. Women’s employment was seen as the problem, and the establishment of the traditional family wage was posed as the solution . The struggles also won important working-class gains such as child labor regulations and other protective labor laws to benefit women.
Thus the achievement of a family wage was a temporary gain for sections of the class. But it also suited capitalism’s needs. Capitalism maintains itself by reinforcing divisions and backwardness within the proletariat. Workers are often forced to accept what the boss wants because “I have to feed my family.” Women’s family role—above all the inherent conservatism of laboring in isolation rather than collectively—also weakens the ability of the proletariat as a whole to fight the class struggle.
The fact that the family is propertyless is all the more reason it is needed. The male worker is taught to identify with at least one element of bourgeois consciousness, sexism. He doesn’t own productive property, but he can imagine that he controls the family funds and is master of the house, even though in reality he is still only a wage slave. This is what Lenin meant when he wrote,
Present-day capitalist society conceals within itself numerous cases of poverty and oppression which do not immediately strike the eye. At the best of times, the scattered families of poor townspeople, artisans, workers, employees and petty officials live in incredible difficulties, barely managing to make both ends meet. Millions upon millions of women in such families live (or, rather, exist) as “domestic slaves”, striving to feed and clothe their family on pennies, at the cost of desperate daily effort and “saving” on everything—except their own labour .
The family as economic unit not only fills the capitalists’ fundamental need for the reproduction of labor power, but the family-based division of labor also enables capitalism to keep down the social wage: public services like child care, education and health care. To the degree that workers accept the myth of the family as a private refuge from their jobs and dealings with their bosses, no matter how bad things really get in reality, they are restrained from making demands on the state for social needs. Whatever needs are not met at home become the failure of the individual family, especially the wife, rather than the bosses.
The direct wage is also reduced. Capitalism fundamentally depends on a reserve army of labor as an important underpinning of the system. Women are used chiefly as part of what Marx defined as the “floating” section of this reserve. Women still must give priority to home and child-care duties and are therefore willing to accept part-time jobs and lower wages. (In the U.S., a quarter of all working women held part-time jobs in 1986 compared with 9 percent of men) . The bosses use the classic divide-and-conquer strategy to lower men’s wages as well; men are forced to “compete” by accepting lower wages or else risk replacement by women workers willing to work for less. Of course, all women are not wives and mothers. But the family rationale—that woman’s income is supplementary and optional—is used to keep wages down for all.
The tradition of women working for free in the home, and men working for household wages out, has changed. Most men do not get paid enough to support a family. Most women now have paid employment. But, as Ruth Schwartz Cowen notes in her book, More Work for Mother, while the tasks that women do in the home have changed, the time spent on domestic labor has not . This is partly because domestic workers today are held to higher standards of cleanliness, have more cleaning appliances, spend more time as consumers (approximately 8 hours a week buying and transporting goods that were previously delivered), face greater pressure to provide enriching experiences for their children, have less help from adult relatives, and not nearly enough help from male partners. When both male and female household partners have full-time jobs, the woman still does significantly more housework than the man-15 more hours per week, totaling an extra month of 24-hour days each year .
According to a 2012 survey, U.S. women put in 25.9 hours a week of unpaid domestic labor in 2010, while men put in 16.8, a difference of more than nine hours. The survey includes indexable tasks such as child care, cooking, shopping, housework, odd jobs, gardening and others .
According to Forbes magazine, if unpaid domestic work was included in the measuring the GDP, “it would have raised it by 26 percent in 2010.” But, of course, we also have to add to this already formidable list the additional non-indexable tasks such as providing psychic care and support to both the employed and non-worker(s) within the household. Anyone who has had to soothe a child after a hard day at her own workplace, or figure out care for an ageing parent after a grueling shift knows how important such apparently non-material tasks can be . We see yet again that domestic labor plays an incredibly important part in the economy. Although it does not produce value in the Marxist sense, it provides the preconditions for value production. Without domestic labor, productive labor could not function. Since productive labor is what generates all wealth under capitalism, it follows that capitalism itself could not survive without domestic labor.
In this sense, people who engage in labor that does not result in the production of commodities, but rather in the reproduction of the laborer, are oppressed by capital. Capital relies on these reproductive laborers just as much as those who actually produce commodities. It is vital that Marxists broaden their conception of the proletariat or working classes to include these reproductive laborers. This complicates the narrow definition of the economy or production that we began with. Beyond the two-dimensional image of the direct producers locked in wage labor, we see emerge myriad branches of social relations that extend between workplaces, homes, schools, and hospitals. There is a wider social whole sustained and co-produced by human labor that does not end with the factory. The working class is not just those who actually produce commodities, it is also those who perform the labor necessary for the continuation of this production. This includes not only educators and healthcare workers, who reproduce the proletariat in a literal sense (through training the future workforce and keeping them in healthy enough conditions to work), but also those who engage in unpaid home labor. Only in asserting-but more importantly struggling for-this unity can we hope to make a revolution that not only succeeds, but improves the lives of all the laboring people, as Marx wished.
This understanding of the working class compels us towards the following realization: Unemployed people are also working class. Although they do not sell their labor to make a living at this particular moment, they do not own capital. Thus, they will eventually be forced to look for work and engage in the labor process once again. Put simply, just because no one is buying your labor, this does not mean that you do not need to sell it. Further, the unemployed are used by capitalists just as much as the productive proletariat. They function as what Marx called “a reserve army of labor.” This means that when workers strike, the capitalists can bring in unemployed people to fill their positions. Unemployed people also force workers to accept lower wages. If you do not accept bad pay for a job, someone else will be desperate enough to do so. This makes it seem as though workers and the unemployed have fundamentally different interests, but this is not the case. Workers and the unemployed are forced to compete with one another, but so are workers with other workers. This competition does not negate the fact that the unemployed are exploited and victimized by capital. This is, fundamentally, what makes someone a member of the proletariat. This is also what makes them potentially revolutionary.
1.Marx, Karl. Grundrisse. Penguin, 1993.2. K. Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977, with some notes by R. Rojas.
3.Lenin, Vladimir Ilich. What is to be done?. Ed. Sergej Utechin. London: Panther, 1970.
4. Marx, Karl. “Capital, Volume III, translated by David Fernbach.” New York and London: Penguin Books (1981). ch. 47
8.Marx, Karl. “Capital Volume One: the process of production of capital.” (1867). Ch. 25
9. Lachance-Grzela, Mylène, and Geneviève Bouchard. “Why do women do the lion’s share of housework? A decade of research.” Sex roles 63.11-12 (2010): 767-780.
10. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 129, emphasis mine
11. Luxton, Social Reproduction: Feminist Political Economy Challenges Neoliberalism, 2006
12. Grandey, A.A. (2003). “When “the show must go on”: surface acting and deep acting as determinants of emotional exhaustion and peer-related service delivery.” Academy of Management Journal 46(1): 86-96
13.Engels, Friedrich, and Lewis Henry Morgan. The origin of the family, private property and the state. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1978.
14. Strasser, Susan May. Never done: the ideology and technology of household work, 1850-1930. Ann Arbor, MI: U Microfilms International, p 25
15.Costa, Mariarosa Dalla. “Capitalism and reproduction∗.” (1996): 111-121.
16. Heidi Hartmann, Women and the Revolution: A Discussion of the Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism, 1981. p. 60
17. Engels and Morgan, Op. Cit.
18.Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. Wage-labour and Capital. Workers’ Literature Bureau, 1942. Ch. 09.
19.Roberts, Mary Lou. “Women’s Changing Roles–a Consumer Behavior Perspective.” NA-Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08 (1981).
20.Lenin, Vladimir Ilʹich. On the emancipation of women. Progress Publishers, 1974.
21.Ferber, Marianne A. Women in the labor market. Edward Elgar Publishing, 1998.
22.The Female Economy: The Millinery and Dressmaking Trades, 1860-1930. By Wendy Gamber. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.
23.Hartmann, Heidi I. “The family as the locus of gender, class, and political struggle: The example of housework.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 6.3 (1981): 366-394.
24.Bridgman, Benjamin, et al. “Accounting for household production in the national accounts, 1965–2010.” Survey of Current Business 92.5 (2012): 23-36.
25.Crittenden, Ann. The price of motherhood: Why the most important job in the world is still the least valued. Macmillan, 2002.
The Power of the Proletariat
The proletariat is revolutionary precisely because it is exploited, alienated, and victimized by capital. Marxists do not support the working class out of some idealistic conception of their purity. Instead, we recognize that the proletariat’s objective position within capitalism gives it the power to change the system.
Workers struggle because it is in their self-interest to challenge capitalism. That struggle can go in many different directions, but due to the material interests of the workers as a class, the potential for that struggle to develop into revolutionary action is always there.
As an example of this, let’s look at the Flint sit-down strikes. In 1936, coming out of the Great Depression, GM was making 136 million dollars in profit. Despite this, workers in Flint were only making about 900 dollars a year. The poverty threshold for wages was set at 1600 dollars a year, meaning that although GM was extraordinarily profitable, workers were still living 700 dollars under the poverty threshold. This is on top of horrid working conditions. One GM worker, remembering conditions before the strike, said “I’ve gone home so completely exhausted, and my hands so swollen, that I couldn’t get my fingers between each other. Rather than eat my dinner, I would….get up the next morning and go back at it again, not knowing if I was going to work that day or [be] laid off” .
Engels described similar horrors in his book The Condition of the Working Class in England, in which he cites factory reports about children as young as ten worming their way into dangerous machines to make sure they ran smoothly. Engels says, “The condition of the working class is the real basis and point of departure of all social movements of the present because it is the highest and most unconcealed pinnacle of the social misery existing in our day” . These conditions lead the workers to organize, unite, and struggle against their boss. Capitalism lays bare the class antagonisms inherent to it, giving workers a reason to struggle. Although this struggle is not always focused on the system of capitalism, this is less the fault of the workers themselves and more a result of the bourgeois media teaching them that there is no alternative to capitalism. The very fact that workers continue to struggle in spite of this shows that they have a material reason to do so. Workers do not like to struggle more than any other group, they simply have no choice. This compulsion is a key part of their revolutionary character.
More than just the everyday revolting conditions of life under capitalism, there exists a larger contradiction within capitalism that leads workers to struggle. Marx posits that the basic contradiction of capitalism is between social production on one side and private appropriation or control on the other. Essentially, goods are produced collectively, by the labor of countless workers. But, due to the exploitative nature of wage labor, capitalists are able to pocket a portion of the value produced by this labor. Their work produces profits which end up in hands other than their own. This is social production, by a large amount of people, and private appropriation by a tiny minority. Workers take notice of this contradiction. Through it, they begin to see the necessity of extending the social aspect of production into more areas of their lives. While capitalism continually insists upon a separation between the economic and social aspects of life, the collective nature of production causes workers to understand that this is a false perception. This leads them to struggle, in which they push against this separation. Flint workers sat down in their plants, demanding more socialized control of their company in the form of unionization. In doing so, they were challenging the capitalist notion of private appropriation vs social production. This is an important component of why the working class is the revolutionary agent: demands made in the interest of the working class, by their very nature, push outside and against the basic assumptions of the current system .
In addition to giving workers a reason to fight against the capitalists, capitalism as a system also inadvertently organizes the workers for this purpose. Industrial workers are concentrated in one place. In Flint, thousands of people were bused into the city from the South in order to staff the GM production line . This is a dramatic shift from the days of feudalism, in which peasants, though exploited, were spread far and wide. It was not possible for the peasants to communicate or organize across such large distances. proletarians, however, are stuck side by side, working the same shifts on the same lines. Capitalism depends on the ability of the working class to organize and labor collectively. This makes recognition of common interest far easier than it was in feudalism. Marx and Engels sum this up by writing that “this herding together of great masses in one spot makes the proletarians conscious of their own power” . The lines in the GM plants at the time of the sit-down strike moved so fast that the worker could not turn to the person standing next to them and say a single word during production. Before the strike, workers were not even allowed to speak to one another during their lunch hour. Yet, the mere fact that they stood shoulder to shoulder, performing integrated labor, was enough to impress upon them the need to struggle . The fact that workers are grouped together in one place gives them a sense not only of the need to struggle, but also of their ability to do so.
This ability lies in their labor. Or, more accurately, their ability to refuse labor. Marx’s labor theory of value explains that the labor of workers creates the wealth of society. It is not machines, it is not business owners, it is labor. This is precisely why strikes are an effective tactic. The very fact that bosses routinely bring in scabs to replace striking workers is evidence enough of this point. By stopping production, workers are able to hit the capitalists where it hurts: their wallets. The working class is the only social group that possesses the power to disrupt the flow of capital. As you might expect from the name, capitalism is based on this. The power of workers to fundamentally threaten the basis of the entire system makes them the group that is mostly likely to change it entirely. This is why Marx and Engels said, “what the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own gravediggers” .
- Dan Georgakas, Marvin Surkin. Detroit, I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution. Cambridge, Mass: South End Press, 1998
- F. Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England. Panther Edition, 1969, from text provided by the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, Moscow; First Published: Leipzig in 1845
- Dan Georgakas, Marvin Surkin. Detroit, I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution. Cambridge, Mass: South End Press, 1998. Op. Cit.
- K. Marx, Manuscripts, 1999 p. 13
- Dan Georgakas, Marvin Surkin. Detroit, I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution. Cambridge, Mass: South End Press, 1998. Op. Cit.
- Karl Marx and Frederick Engels Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx/Engels Selected Works, Vol. One, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1969
The Labor Theory of Value
At one time, the labor theory of value was an accepted norm in economics. Even bourgeois economists such as Adam Smith adhered to it. Recently, however, the theory has fallen out of favor with both economists and the general public. Economists would have you believe that this is the case because it has been disproven or is no longer valid. This is not the case. The labor theory of value has been consciously pushed to the margins not because it is flawed, but because bourgeois economists have been made aware of its revolutionary implications. In this section, I will first explain what the labor theory of value is, why it is valid, and how it can be used by revolutionaries.
In simple terms, the labor theory of value is the idea that labor is the major source of material wealth. Human beings can only live and satisfy their needs through labor. If all the workers involved in the production of food stopped working, the whole of humanity would starve. This would happen even if capitalists continued to go about their normal business. Without labor, we would all perish.
It should be stressed, however, that labor is not the only source of wealth. We can also receive the proceeds of nature as a “free gift.” These proceeds also contribute to the wealth of society. There are forms of wealth which are supplied simply by nature, such as forests or natural rivers. These things have value independent of the labor used to produce them. This is why Marx, in Volume One of Kapital, said that “labor is the father of wealth, and nature is its mother.” Labor needs raw materials provided by nature. Likewise, there are many raw materials which have no value until they are mixed with human labor. The vast majority of commodities can only be created using some form of human labor.
But what about machines? They seem to create commodities without the addition of human labor. Does not widespread automation disprove labor theory? The answer, contrary to popular belief, is no. In the process of production, machines do not create new value. They simply transfer their own value to commodities bit by bit, in a process known as depreciation. Further, machines must be created, put to use, and serviced by human workers. As such, machines are merely the embodiment of so much human labor. Wired Magazine put this very succinctly when they wrote that “the Verizon strike proves that the Internet still needs humans.” The proliferation of automation and technology does not mean that workers don’t make the system function.
Just as the weight of an object can only be understood in relation to another object, the use-value of a commodity can only be understood when it is exchanged with another commodity. For this exchange to take place, there must be something common to all commodities which allows them to be compared with each other. This commonality cannot be weight, size, color, or other superficial qualities. These things vary hugely from one commodity to the next. A pair of shoes, for example, is very different from a coat, and yet these things can easily be exchanged with one another. The thing commodities have in common is that they are all products of human labor. The labor of one commodity can be compared with the labor of another. So many pairs of shoes can be traded for so many coats, depending on the amount of labor time involved in their production.
Value, in the Marxist sense, is not a natural or physical quality of a commodity. It cannot be touched or smelled, as it has no physical presence. It cannot be seen, even with the most powerful microscope. But then, neither can gravity. Just like gravity, value exists and is not arbitrary. As Marx explained, value is a definite social quantity that only appears when commodities are exchanged. The law of supply and demand does not determine value. Supply and demand cause the market price of commodities to fluctuate above or below their values.
Although value is the result of labor, it is not the result of a particular form of labor. Value is the product of abstract human labor. It is not the result of specific labor, but of labor in general. The particular labor used to make commodities, such as shoes and coats, is different from abstract labor. The shoes and coats are the specific products of the shoemaker and the tailor, but this is irrelevant when they are exchanged. All labor is reduced in the process of exchange to quantities of average labor. Skilled labor is a multiple of unskilled labor. Thus, the value of a commodity can be measured in the amount of socially necessary labor time used in its production.
Often, people reject this idea by saying that the price of commodities does not directly correspond to this measure. If I spend ten hours to make a coat, I cannot exchange it for ten hours worth of currency. The labor theory of value, posit many critics, is ignorant of how a market economy actually operates. There is an element of truth to this argument. The market price rarely corresponds to the value of a commodity. However, what this argument fails to account for is that value and price are two different things. Indeed, the law of value could not function if prices did not differ from value. If coats and shoes were exchanged in proportion to their value, and people decided to buy more coats and fewer shoes, the price of coats would rise above their value and the price of shoes would fall below their value. The money flowing into the production of coats would rise, and less of it would go into shoes. Capital would then flow to the more profitable sector, resulting in an increased supply of coats. This reallocation could not occur without prices fluctuating above or below their values in response to supply and demand.
Nevertheless, the prices of commodities will always hover near their values, as if on an axis. This is why certain commodities, like loaves of bread, will always cost less than an automobile. The price of bread can rise to a high amount due to scarcity, but this will cause capital to flow into the production of bread. This is because capitalists will be attracted to the potential profits to be made. The increased production of bread will reduce its price, and it will eventually settle near its value. This process can be seen taking place across the entire economy. This argument fails because it merely explores the fluctuation of market prices, but it does not examine what lies behind these prices. The answer, of course, is labor.
One of the most common critiques of this idea is what is known as the transformation problem. It says that, because anyone can set any price they want when they sell a commodity, there is no way for price to accurately reflect value. There is no logical explanation for the transformation of value into money prices.
Those who assert this are not merely attempting to put forth a benign idea. They are not impartial academics. Rather, they are attempting to gut Marx of his revolutionary content. Marx’s revolutionary thought derives from his understanding of value. Marx holds that labor is the only commodity that can create more value than it was purchased for. It follows from this that the working class produces all the things society needs, and the only reason they are in poverty is because the capitalists exploit them. The advancement of the transformation problem represents a conscious effort to obscure this and dissuade the workers from supporting socialism. This is why it is important to devote time to addressing what is often seen as a purely economic question.
The argument of the labor theory of value, as I have said, is that behind price fluctuations, there lie equilibrium prices. Not only that, labor theory also states that these equilibrium prices correspond to the value of commodities.
But what happens when some force, some special circumstance (such as an increase in demand or a monopoly situation) allows a capitalist to get away with arbitrarily changing more for a commodity than the majority of their competitors? In that case, the total amount of value in society still corresponds to the total amount of prices. If someone is getting away with arbitrarily high prices, it means that someone else is not getting the total value of their commodity. Profits are moved between people through exchange.
If one capitalist is making more profits off a particular commodity than the others, those other capitalists will start doing whatever the first is doing, this eating into the first capitalist’s profits. This creates an average rate of profit among capitalist. The same process described above is at work here.
The end result of this process is that the total amount of value in society is equal to the total amount of prices. Further, the total amount of profit is equal to the amount of surplus value (that is, value produced by the workers that is above the cost of their labor). Finally, the total amount of value in society is equal to the total rate of profit measured in money. These are the the aggregate equalities that form the three components of the refutation of the transformation problem.
Individual capitalists can have money prices or profits that diverge from their values, but in general, these equalities hold true. All capitalists contribute to the total amount of surplus value, based on the number of workers they employ. Those capitalists who have more workers contribute more surplus value. Capitalists withdraw their profits from this total surplus value according to the average rate of profit, discussed above. Thus, individual capitalists charging more for a commodity are leveled out by those capitalists selling commodities for lower than their value. In light of this, the transformation problem does not actually discredit Marx’s theory. It is too focused on individual actions and does not take wider social forces into account. This is a common theme when it comes to criticisms of the labor theory of value, as we will see going forward.
Many supporters of capitalism, such as the economist S. Bailey, attempt to disprove the labor theory of value by pointing to a hypothetical lazy worker. If the value of commodities is determined by the amount of time it takes to produce them, a worker who spends days producing a coat would appear to create an item of more value than a coat produced in ten hours, even if the coats were otherwise identical. But Marx already refuted this idea. He explained that it was not simply labor that determined value, but socially necessary labor. By this he meant the average amount of labor used to produce goods in average conditions with average productive capacity.
If it takes longer to produce a certain commodity than average, this excessive labor time is useless labor. All the commodities made at a higher cost than average will remain unsold or be sold at a loss. Capitalists employing unproductive labor will soon find themselves driven out of business by cheaper competitors.
If a particular capitalist is able to introduce new production techniques that allow commodities to be produced below their prior cost, they will be able to sell goods more cheaply and make greater profits. Not to be outdone, other capitalists will follow suit and adopt the technique themselves. Once this happens, the price falls to a new value to correspond with new socially necessary labor time. Each commodity now takes less time to produce, effectively reducing its cost of production and its price. This means that, while socially necessary labor time is always changing with the advent of new techniques, is a general, average standard used to measure value. This is why the “lazy worker argument” is ineffective: we are talking about average, collective labor, not the labor of individual workers.
In order to further understand why this argument falls flat, we need to look at what Marx called Use value. Commodities must have a use values because commodities are objects of utility. If something is useless no-one would sell it on the market. Exchange value is the ratio at which different commodities exchange for one another. For instance, two televisions might exchange for three radios.
The reason that these commodities can exchange for one another in a commensurable manner isn’t because of their objective characteristics or because of their chemical properties. It’s because it took a certain amount of socially necessary labor to make these commodities. As Marx puts it in Volume One of Kapital,
The labor time socially necessary is that required to produce an article under the normal conditions of production, and with the average degree of skill and intensity prevalent at the time. The introduction of power-looms into England probably reduced by one-half the labour required to weave a given quantity of yarn into cloth. The hand-loom weavers, as a matter of fact, continued to require the same time as before; but for all that, the product of one hour of their labour represented after the change only half an hour’s social labour, and consequently fell to one-half its former value.
Marx uses the word value to refer to the amount of socially necessary labor time that is embodied in a commodity. He is not talking about the commodity’s price. When subjectivists talk about value, they are using the word synonymously with price. Marxists are not. Price, for us, is simply a specific form of exchange value: the ratio at which a commodity exchanges for money.
Marx makes it abundantly clear that not all labor is socially necessary. If I take nine hours to make a widget when most people can do it to the same standard in five hours, the widget I have made doesn’t have a higher value. If I give a car five coats of paint when it only needs three, I’m just wasting labor. My labor isn’t useful.
The so-called “mud ball” argument is another example. If I take all afternoon using labor to make a mud ball, that doesn’t mean the mud ball has a high value. My labor has been socially unnecessary because no one has a use for a mud ball. No one would sell it on the market because it has no use value. As I said earlier, all commodities must be objects of utility. So the labor I expended making that mud ball was a total waste of time.
Price, therefore, is a specific form of exchange value. It’s a distinct thing from value and just one kind of exchange-value. Commodities with higher value (higher amount of socially necessary labor embodied in them) are usually more expensive on the market because they’re harder to create. Commodities with lower value, like for instance a mug, have a lower market price the majority of the time. Therefore value and price are connected.
Generally speaking, price fluctuates around value because there are other forces at play in determining price. One of the most obvious factors being supply and demand, which Marx did not ignore. Only in a state of market equilibrium, when supply meets demand, would commodities with the same value have the same price. Therefore, it is crucial to recognize that Marxists do not argue that only labor determines price. We argue that labor determines value, but this is not the same as price. Subjectivists tend to argue that this is the case because they conflate the two terms value and price.
Only socially necessary labor creates value, that being the socially necessary labor embodied in a commodity. A combination of various things determines price. Nature, for example, can also bring forth use values as natural resources.
One other objection to the labor theory of value is that it does not account for things like expensive works of art. If the labor theory of value were true, critics say, then a coat worn by a renowned musician during a show would be worth no more than a coat worn by you or eye. Since this is not the case, labor theory must be false. This is based on an incorrect interpretation of Marx. He never said that exchange value was the only thing that determined price. Works of art or coats worn by famous people cannot be produced or reproduced, except in the form of inferior imitations. They exist in a monopoly situation. The labor theory of value deals with commodities that can be reproduced without such limitations or restrictions. Marxism analyzes the system of capitalism as it usually operates. Cases such as the one mentioned above are fairly common, but they do not form the basis of capitalism. You cannot construct an entire economic system around purchasing works of art.
Today, we see that economics is based around the theory of individual preferences, or marginal utility. The whole of economic activity has now been reduced to the notion of individual consumer choices and ceases to have any scientific value. Capitalism is not seen as a global social system but simply a collection of millions of atomized relations between producers and consumers. According to this theory of utility, if someone wants something badly, it has considerable utility for that person. The more they want it, the more they are willing to pay. The amount of labor time spent to produce a commodity has no relevance to this theory. This theory is based upon speculative assumptions: it begins from the premise of individual consumption rather than social production.
Despite the objections of bourgeois economists, the cost of labor is something that can be measured. It is an observable reality. In contrast, utility differs greatly from one person to another. It depends entirely on point of view, on how much satisfaction one gets from consuming a certain commodity. Again, utility is a purely individual thing.
Marxists readily acknowledge that it is possible for a commodity to have different amounts of utility for different people. Nevertheless, it still sells in a supermarket for the same price. A loaf of bread does not cost more if I am hungry at the time of purchase. This means that price cannot be subjective. It must be based on a real foundation of value. If utility is supposed to measure value, how is it that different amounts of utility are sold for the same price?
Simply put, the theory of utility is reductionist. It allows proponents to strip away all the social and historical vestiges of capitalism, including existing class relations. The whole concept is a false abstraction with no historical content whatsoever. In fact, it explicitly eliminates historical analysis by saying that the only things that matter in economics are the choices we make as consumers now. This allows proponents of utility theory to brush over or ignore the atrocities that made the development of capitalism possible. For more on this specific process, I recommend The Invention of Capitalism by Michael Perelman. Here, it is enough to say that capitalism developed in Europe through land enclosures and the forcible divestment of communal peasants into the factories. Capitalism did not arise voluntarily, but rather, as Marx put it, arrived “drenched in blood.”
As a society, we do not live as individuals in isolation. We are not atomized. Our preferences and choices are not inborn, but are generally products of society and our place within it. The subjectivity of utility theory does not translate to the everyday realities of capitalism. As soon as we think in terms of society as a whole, the labor theory of value becomes self-evident. The total number of hours worked by society is the ultimate factor of production, which is then divided among the needs of society. We can therefore see that the labor theory of value has not been disproven, but rather remains as relevant as it ever was. As such, the notion of the working class as the primary agent of change in society also remains relevant.
The economic power of the worker, as we have seen, is an essential piece of the puzzle. Without their labor, production halts completely. The bosses understand that this is the case just as much as, if not more than, the workers. Days before the strike in Flint, the bosses got wind of the plans. They made moves to get materials out of the plants, hoping to prevent a production stoppage. They knew that labor was key to production. Despite all their efforts, the strikers were able to resist. The plants sat idle for six weeks, costing the company millions of dollars. It is the ability of labor to bleed the capitalists dry that is the foundation of their power. The Flint occupation proves this to be the case. It resulted in severance pay and healthcare benefits valuing over 1.7 million dollars. This is a staggering figure, showing just how much ability the workers have to change the system. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Engels wrote “[Strikes are] the strongest proof that the decisive battle between bourgeoisie and proletariat is approaching. They are the military school of the working-men in which they prepare for the great struggles which cannot be avoided.” Strikes teach the working class to struggle. They prove that it is the working class, and the working class alone, that has the power to alter the economic order of society. It is for this reason that Marxists view the working class as the true agent of social change.
Allies and Enemies
There are numerous other classes, and we cannot understand why the working class is revolutionary without also understanding the nature of these non-proletarian classes.
Peasants are individual farmers who are exploited, either directly or indirectly, by landlords. Either they work the land that belongs to the landlord, or they are subject to complex social arrangements which ensure that large landowners ultimately control the production and sale of their goods. Lenin noticed that these peasants who toil under feudal or semi-feudal conditions can enter a temporary alliance with the proletariat to defeat the ruling aristocrats and capitalists. Up to a certain point, the proletariat and the peasantry have a common enemy .
However, peasants ultimately need to make the transition from “small owners” (petty bourgeoisie) to agricultural workers. Rather than owning small individual plots of land, or working for a landlord, a group of peasants will collectively work one large farm. This way, they become agricultural proletarians. Because peasants often own the means of their own production-that is, they own their own tools or plot of land-their ultimate goal is not to destroy the bourgeoisie, but to become the bourgeoisie. They want to ally with the proletariat not so they can abolish the capitalist class altogether, but rather so that they can eventually replace the capitalist class . This is why a process of proletarianization is necessary for the eventual triumph of communism. It is for this reason that Mao argued, “the serious problem is the education of the peasantry. The peasant economy is scattered, and the socialization of agriculture, judging by the Soviet Union’s experience, will require a long time and painstaking work. Without socialization of agriculture, there can be no complete, consolidated socialism” . The key thing to remember about peasants is that they are revolutionary in nearly all cases, so long as they are poor, but only for a specific period of time.
The petty bourgeoisie also consists of small business owners. These are people who own little stores and might employ a small number of workers. Their primary interest, like peasants, is to fight against the big bourgeoisie so that can eventually become the big bourgeoisie. Thus, it is necessary to proletarianize them as well. Lenin argued that this would be a long and gradual process that, to a certain degree, occurs on its own. The bourgeoisie has greater access to cheap labor and raw materials than the small business owner, allowing them to produce more and charge less. Thus, small businesses will most likely fail to compete. This forces the owners to enter the workforce. They must become proletarians simply to survive .
This “middle class” consists of educators, doctors, intellectuals, lawyers, small business owners, middle and lower management and so on. Essentially those professionals who live by mental labor and individual achievement rather than working as collective manual laborers and in the service trades and industries. What distinguishes them from the proletariat is their mental as opposed to manual labor, and their lack of ownership of the means of production distinguishes them from the big bourgeoisie . But what they have in common with the proletariat is their being compelled to sell their labor power for a wage to survive, and they have reliance on individual achievement and specializing in mental labor in common with the big bourgeoisie. Hence, based on their social-economic practice their thinking and practice fluctuates between and muddles the mutually contradictory interests of the proletariat on the one hand and the bourgeoisie on the other. The petty bourgeois small business owners can indeed act as a revolutionary force . However, they are ultimately only revolutionary under very specific circumstances. Because their interests are to acquire more capital, they can never lead the charge against capitalism itself. The proletariat, therefore, is more fully revolutionary .
It is for this reason that Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, Mao maintained that the role of revolutionary leadership lies exclusively with the proletariat. Mao noted, “anything that is truly of the masses must necessarily be led by the proletariat” . and “we must necessarily take the class stand of the proletariat and not that of the petty bourgeoisie” . Lenin similarly cautioned, “even the most revolutionary petty bourgeoisie cannot want what the class conscious proletariat does want….” . He added, it is “that petty bourgeois diffusivity and instability, that incapacity for sustained effort, unity, and organized action, which if encouraged, must inevitably destroy any proletarian revolutionary movement” . Because “through their ordinary everyday, imperceptible, elusive and demoralizing activities, they produce the very results which the bourgeoisie need….” .
Marx and Engels, in their studies of English capitalism in the 1880s, noticed the development of another class, what they called the labor aristocracy . These are workers, usually managers and technical officials, who are paid well enough that their interests are similar to the capitalist class. Their quality of life is far superior to that of the average worker, so they do not identify with the proletariat. Although their daily existence is still alienating, still filled with tedious labor, they become satisfied with it. They can afford a nice car, or a state-of-the-art television, or any number of luxury material things. Because the bourgeoisie tells them that these material possessions are more important than anything else, labor aristocrats lose their revolutionary core. They do not see the need to go beyond capitalism. Even though they have the form of the proletariat, they are not a revolutionary class. They have been bought off by the bourgeoisie. Thus, they willingly accept and spread bourgeois ideology to others. Lenin made a contribution here as well, arguing that the capitalist class was only able to maintain the labor aristocracy through the super profits extracted via imperialism . It is the responsibility of revolutionaries to break the influence of the labor aristocrats and to oppose imperialism wherever it appears. Until the labor aristocracy is divested of its privileges, it will never lead the revolution. The genuine proletariat, however, has nothing to lose but its chains. Therefore, it will generally not have qualms about radically altering the system.
Lenin’s other contribution to Marxist class theory represents a radical break from all previous Marxist thought. He believed that contradictions between classes could be antagonistic (necessarily settled through violent means) or they could be non-antagonistic. There could be different class interests between, for example, the proletariat and the peasants, but this did not necessarily need to end in bloodshed or the domination of one class by another. It could lead to an alliance against a common enemy, as discussed above. By extension, he thought that other classes could engage in revolutionary action so long as they did it independent of their class interest . One key context in which non-proletarian classes can become revolutionary is in anti-imperialism. When imperialism threatens an entire nation, many classes who would otherwise have conflicting interests-such as the bourgeoisie and the proletariat-find a common enemy in the in imperialist aggressor nation. During the Chinese revolution, this idea was proven true. The national capitalists worked as a revolutionary force with the peasants and the proletariat against the foreign invaders. The reason that this is such a radical break is because it means that other classes can be revolutionary without having to be converted into proletarians .
Lenin’s analysis of imperialism can be found in his pamphlet Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, written in 1916. Before we can understand Lenin’s theory, it is important to consider the context in which he wrote it. Lenin wrote the text in the middle of the First World War, as a response to the socialist parties who backed their own governments in the conflict. Lenin’s Bolshevik Party was the only organization that maintained opposition to the war and, by extension, opposed the government of Russia. This was because Lenin held that the war was an imperialist conflict, in which all sides attempted to gain new territory and spread their influences. The goal of Lenin’s book is to show that the imperialism found at the beginning of the 20th century was a fundamentally economic phenomenon, rooted in changes in the capitalist mode of production.
Lenin described the text as a “popular outline,” meaning that it was flexible and open to change. We must evaluate it in the particular contexts in which we find ourselves.
It is also important to note that Lenin never claimed that there was no imperialism before the late 19th century. As he explicitly noted, “Colonial policy and imperialism existed before the latest stage of capitalism, and even before capitalism. Rome, founded on slavery, pursued a colonial policy and practiced imperialism . But, Lenin added:
“general” arguments about imperialism, which ignore, or put into the background the fundamental difference of social-economic systems, inevitably degenerate into absolutely empty banalities, or into grandiloquent comparisons like “Greater Rome and Greater Britain.”
Even the colonial policy of capitalism in its previous stages is essentially different from the colonial policy of finance capital .
What Lenin was attempting to explain was the extremely virulent form of imperialism that began to emerge in the late 19th century, resulting in the scramble for Africa from the 1880s, and the increasing tensions between the major powers that eventually led to world war. This capitalist imperialism differs from earlier forms (such as that seen in the Mongol empire) because only capitalist imperialism can systematically accumulate capital on a world scale. Capitalist imperialism is less focused on the direct plunder of natural resources (though this certainly still takes place) and more focused on investing in other countries. Capitalist imperialism seeks to dominate the economic, cultural, and political life of the Third World and other imperialized countries.
This investment plugs up the falling rate of profit, and is a central feature of capitalism. The source of profit under capitalism is the extraction of surplus value from workers, in a process known as exploitation. This process mutates and replicates across the entire economy. The logic of capital necessitates expansion. It is the job of capitalists to extract more value than they invest, ceaselessly searching for new ways to do so.
If capitalism is exploitative at home, then it must be expansionist abroad. The expansionist nature of capitalism causes it to spread, as Marx and Engels put it, ‘over the whole surface of the globe” . The expansionists crush entire societies that refuse to bend to the whims of the global market. Self sufficient peoples are driven from their land and transformed into wage laborers, in a process remarkably similar to the land enclosure system that gave birth to capitalism in England. From the very beginning, capitalism was driven by its need to expand, to grow. Lenin analysed this dynamic and determined that a new form of imperialism had arisen from it. Those who challenge capitalist-imperialism are, whether they know it or not, challenging the foundational logic of capital: expansion.
For Lenin, any worthy definition of this new imperialism needed to include “five essential features.” They are:
1) The concentration of production and capital is developed to a high enough degree that it creates monopolies, which play a significant role in economic activities. This means that capitalists join together to crush competitors. They fix prices, coordinate production, and make agreements among themselves to prevent others from entering the market.
2) The merging of bank capital with industrial capital to create finance capital. This, in turn, leads to the creation of a financial oligarchy. This had already occurred during Lenin’s era. Three to five big banks manipulated the economies of the major industrial countries.
3) The export of capital becomes extremely important and is distinguished from the export of commodities.
4) The formation of international capitalist monopolies which share the world among themselves.
5) The completed territorial division of the world among the greater capitalist powers.
Lenin was clear that the most important item on this list is the first. He wrote that imperialism was “the monopoly stage of capitalism.” He argued that the rivalries and wars between capitalist powers came about due to the tendency for capital to become more centralized and concentrated. Imperialism arises when the dominant capitalist firms acquire monopoly (or near-monopoly) status in particular sections of the national economy .
This caused capitalism to “decay” as Lenin put it. There is a tendency for production to decline under monopolies, as technological progress and innovation are discouraged. Any innovation could disrupt the monopolies, and so is avoided.
The acute concentration of capital also created inequality between those who owned capital and those who did not. Monopoly capitalism created a large stratum of capitalists known as renters. These are capitalists who live solely on the interest or dividend made on their investments.
This inequality meant that the general population could not absorb the mass of commodities (new products) generated by increased productive capacity. They were simply not wealthy enough. The rate of profit would begin to fall, necessitating the expansion of banks and factories. This expansion would open up new regions for investment, sources of raw materials and cheap labor, and new consumer markets. This, in turn, would allow goods to be produced more cheaply. The masses would again be able to purchase commodities, plugging up the falling rate of profit. Think of imperialism as putting a bandage on the contradictions of capitalism. This is obviously advantageous for the capitalist class, but it works against the interests of the international proletariat. This is further discussed below.
Lenin worked from the premise that the capitalist class controls the state. It followed that monopolistic firms would become linked to the state, using its machinery for the purpose of colonization. Capitalists would use this process to produce commodities and raw materials cheaply, as well as to undermine indigenous industry, making the colonies dependent on investment from imperialist nations. The overall effect of this is that the imperialist nations pumped wealth out of the countries they controlled. The wealth flowing into the domestic economies of imperialist nations stalled the aforementioned falling rate of profit.
This is accomplished by a phenomenon known as super-exploitation. One of the key points in the Marxist analysis of capitalism is that workers are exploited by the bourgeoisie. I have written about this before, but it is worth reviewing the concept in some detail here. Part of the working day is taken up by the time necessary to reproduce the worker. This is known as Necessary Labor Time, or NLT. The worker is paid a wage that is more-or-less equal to this amount. But it does not take the worker all of the working day to produce an amount of value equivalent to the amount necessary to sustain them. The rest of the value they produce goes to the capitalist, not the worker. This value is called Surplus Value. This is the ‘secret source’ of all profits under capitalism .
It is the job of the capitalist to extract as much profit from their workers as possible. As such, they will do whatever they can to increase the rate of exploitation. This can be accomplished in a number of ways. The first is that the capitalist can simply make the working day longer, so that the worker spends more time producing surplus value. However, labor laws in many imperialist countries prevent this, so this is not always possible. This is one reason why imperialism is so common under capitalism. Capitalists need to increase the rate of exploitation, so they will often move their factories to countries with fewer labor regulations. This requires the state to mediate conflict, giving rise to imperialism.
The second is that the capitalist can increase productivity in industries that produce goods for workers, whether by increasing automation or engaging in other strategies, such as cutting wages. This impoverishes workers, because they no longer have jobs. This, in turn, reduces the amount of goods they can buy. This has the effect of reducing the value of wages below that of labor power. Wages no longer represent the amount of value a worker needs to sustain themselves. This is super-exploitation, and it most often takes place in imperialized countries. This is both because of the aforementioned lax labor laws, and because these countries are rich in the natural resources that are required to produce goods. Multinational corporations use the state to buy up these resources, further undermining indigenous sovereignty. It is through super-exploitation-the driving of wages below the value of labor power-that goods are able to be produced more cheaply. This plugs up the falling rate of profit that necessitated imperialism in the first place.
Two notable consequences followed from imperialism. The first was that the surplus value extracted by imperialist nations paid for the creation of the labor aristocracy, a section of well-paid workers with similar interests to those of the capitalist class. This made socialist revolution in imperialist countries less likely than it would have been otherwise, since the working class more closely identified with capitalism.
The second consequence was that nation-state rivalries in the imperial system intensified nationalist sentiment among the working class. This diverted their focus from class struggle. Like the development of the labor aristocracy, this nationalism strengthened the bourgeoisie against the proletariat.
Lenin argued that this strategy could only be effective for a relatively short period of time. In the long term, it would undermine capitalism rather than strengthen it. Competition between imperialist nation-states would escalate to war. These wars would cause financial drain and destruction of productive capabilities. That drain and destruction would weaken imperialist states because their ability to exploit their victims would decay. Nationalist and anti-colonial movements would also weaken imperialist nations, leading to increased class antagonisms, increased class consciousness, and eventually socialist revolution.
Imperialism hit its stride, as Lenin argued, in the 19th century. Industrial nations were plagued with a falling rate of profit exacerbated by economic inequality. They saw the Third World not only as a source of raw materials and cheap labor (which would make goods cheaper and therefore stem the falling rate of profit), but also as a market for goods that had already been produced. Barely a century later, the industrial nations were exporting not only goods, but capital. This capital often took the form of machinery, investments, and loans that were used to control the markets and governments of Third World countries. This was a vital part of the “new imperialism” that Lenin identified.
Although the world has seen dramatic changes since Lenin’s book was published, the core points of the theory are more relevant now than ever.
Most obviously, monopolies or near-monopolies play massive roles in economic life. A handful of corporations and banks, based primarily in the United States and Europe, have unprecedented power over policy and global markets. In the late 1980s, twenty-seven percent (27% ) of world manufacturing industries were dominated by four firms or less, according to John Bellamy Foster’s The Endless Crisis. By 2007, forty percent (40%) of the industries here examined were concentrated in this manner .
Further, these monopolistic entities are fused with the states in which they are based. Investment banks and other firms use the power granted by these states (in the form of the military, legal centers, and so on) to appropriate and concentrate the surplus value of the international working class. This creates yet more inequality, where the capitalist class lives in luxury, and workers in imperialized countries live in abject poverty.
Modern Multinational corporations do, admittedly, constitute a higher form of capitalist monopoly than the cartels and trusts of Lenin’s era. But Lenin never argued that specific forms of monopoly (that is, specific technical stages) represented the highest “stage” that monopoly could take. The specific forms monopolies take is not the point of Lenin’s analysis. What matters is that monopolies increase the degree to which property is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. The stifling of competition that follows from this is part of what leads to imperialism. Thus, the fact that multinational corporations are not necessarily owned by the states in which they are based (as was generally the case in Lenin’s time) matters little when discussing the continued relevance of his theory of imperialism.
It is a strengthening, not a weakening, of capitalist monopoly that has made a greater degree of private control possible. In earlier capitalism, the state (or private and semi-private militias etc.) had to substitute for the weakness of undeveloped capitalist commodity relations. State-sanctioned monopolies like the British and Dutch East Indies companies gave way to higher forms of commodity exchange. Slavery was replaced by wage labor. Colonies won political independence. Bukharin’s “state capitalist trusts” are now superseded by Multinational Corporations. These all represented advances within capitalist relations of production.
The neoliberal era illustrated one principal advantage of private monopoly over state ownership. Private corporations can have a more flexible relationship with the state. They can call for state intervention when they are in crisis, thus allowing multinational corporations to socialize their losses while privatizing their profits. Capitalists also achieve far greater security of privilege when a business is held as private property. The “decoupling” of monopolies from the state does not represent a blow to Lenin’s theory of imperialism. Rather, it shows that the capitalist class has a greater degree of unmediated control over markets. In the neoliberal era, imperialism is more prominent and likely, not less.
Foreign investment, the export of capital, plays an even larger role today than it did when Lenin was writing. The exception was paradoxically the years of the post-war boom (1950s and 1960s) when the rate of growth of international trade generally surpassed the rate of growth of foreign investment in as the growth of international finance was consciously restricted to be mainly the handmaiden of trade .
But this has changed under globalization of the 1980s and 1990s, which is proof in itself of the re-emergence of the classical features of imperialism in this its latest phase.
US income from trade and from investment, 1960-2000 (in bns US dollars)
What is noticeable is that income from capital invested abroad grows in importance as compared to profits from sale of merchandise exports. It amounts to 17 percent of income from trade in 1960 and increases steadily until in 2000 it reaches 31 percent .
Again, it flows from Lenin’s concept of finance capital as essentially loan/banking capital that investment income is conceived entirely as income from “interest and dividends” and hence “speculation” and the source of “parasitism”. But as the last century wore on, it was more and more the case that income from abroad was profits repatriated from fixed assets operated by MNCs in other countries.
On breaking down the above figures for “income receipts on US-owned assets abroad” one discovers that the proportion of income from investment in fixed assets held abroad grew faster than income from bonds and loans in the decades up to 1980 for example .
But interestingly, as with Britain 100 years ago the more mature the imperialist power becomes the more it relies upon “parasitism” (Lenin, following Hobson, also calls it “coupon clipping”). So since 1980 overseas income from bonds and loans outpaces the growth of income from fixed assets.
The UK alone for example today receives a staggering 26 percent of all global US foreign investment. Hence the main capital exporters are also the main capital importers (although the reverse is not necessarily the case) .
In a perverse way of course this is a confirmation of the point Lenin makes that, “The export of capital influences and greatly accelerates the development of capitalism in those countries to which it is exported” .
Exported capital also comes in the form of foreign “aid.” This is often used by the United States to alter the policies of victimized countries. One example of this would be anti-gay laws in Uganda. In this case, there is a lack of direct coercion involved in the passage of the laws. The imperialists are not literally forcing anyone to pass these laws, but the governments of these countries often feel compelled to follow the wishes of the imperialists so that they do not lose what little aid they are given. This is one way in which imperialism is used to expand the hegemony of capitalist states .
Lenin’s conclusion that imperialism would lead to war has also been validated, though not in the form he anticipated. Wars between differing imperialist powers appear to be a thing of the past, but the capitalist class’ unceasing drive to consolidate their control over markets has led to endless bloodshed and countless deaths. One of the results of, for example, the Iraq War was that the United States directly appropriated the oil that belonged to Iraqis . This is an act of imperialism carried out for the express purpose of maximizing the profits of the capitalist class.
Lenin pointed out that the oligarchy of finance capital in a small number of capitalist powers, that is, the imperialists, not only exploit the masses of people in their own countries, but oppress and plunder the whole world, turning most countries into their colonies and dependencies. This leads to independence movements in the colonies. The imperialist countries will do anything they can to crush these movements, including war. Imperialist war is a continuation of imperialist politics. World wars are started by the imperialists because of their insatiable greed in scrambling for world markets, sources of raw materials and fields for investment, and because of their struggle to re-divide the world. So long as imperialism exists, the source and possibility of war will remain. War is inevitable under an imperialist system. Since imperialism is a specific stage in capitalist development, it follows that we cannot abolish war until we abolish capitalism. Lenin pointed this out over one hundred years ago, and it remains true to this day.
Finally, we come to Lenin’s idea that imperialism is used to exploit the labor of workers in other nations, thus driving down the price of goods and plugging the falling rate of profit. The clearest example of this takes place in the Congo. Corporations such as T-mobile buy up military officials, who then force residents of nearby villages to work themselves to death in cobalt mines. These workers are, in many cases, young children. They are subject to the super-exploitation mentioned above .
It is worth noting that in the neoliberal era, the category of imperialism itself enjoyed a resurgence in popularity among the imperialists. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, many writers asserted that “Western imperialism-though few will like calling it that-can now unite the European continent” . Even Foreign Affairs, a journal in the pocket of the state department, asserted that “the logic of imperialism….is too compelling…to resist” . Far from being irrelevant in the epoch of neoliberalism, imperialism has become so ubiquitous that even members of the capitalist class have been forced to say so.
Before I conclude, I want to say a few things about what Lenin’s theory means for the concept of “humanitarian intervention.” Put simply, Lenin proves that it is a myth. Imperialism is born out of the necessity to resolve contradictions within capitalism. Whenever the imperialist countries intervene anywhere, this is what they are doing: ensuring their own survival. They do not care about the welfare of the people in the imperialized countries. Indeed, the logic of capitalism means that they cannot care. To care would interfere in their ability to extract super-profits.
Lenin’s theory of imperialism answers vital questions. Why is the United States always at war? Because war is a tool to plug falling rates of profit and stifle class struggle. War is not the result of a few individual politicians. It is baked into American capitalism. Only when we understand imperialism as a systemic issue-arising from dynamics inherent to capitalism-can we hope to combat it effectively.
The above facts make Lenin’s book as timely as it was when it was first published, and the analysis of imperialism contained within is vital for the victory of the revolutionary movement.
This is why Marxist-Leninists often lend support to some bourgeois nationalist governments, particularly in the Third World. Although these nationalist movements are not guided by proletarian interests, they still serve to weaken imperialism and therefore strengthen the proletariat in the long term. Failure to conform to imperialist foreign policy is the most common wedge issue between bourgeois nationalists and the West. Often driven by pan-national ideological unity, bourgeois nationalist countries objectively support revolutionary people’s struggles and national liberation movements abroad, placing them at odds with imperialism. Stalin addresses this issue in his book Marxism and the National Question. He writes, “The revolutionary character of a national movement under…imperialist oppression does not necessarily presuppose the existence of proletarian elements in the movement, the existence of a revolutionary…program of the movement, the existence of a democratic base of the movement.” The determining factor in the revolutionary character of a national movement is whether it “weakens, disintegrates, and undermines imperialism” .
As an example of such a movement, we ought to look at the Assad government in Syria. Syria has consistently functioned as the most progressive of the multitude of Middle Eastern countries by substantially supporting the major liberation movements in the region. Since the Syrian Ba’ath party took power in 1963, the state has always supported the Palestinian and Lebanese liberation struggles and sought to keep Israeli imperialism in-check. Sharing the common trait of secularism, Syria allows the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the largest Marxist-Leninist revolutionary movement in Palestine, to operate comfortably out of Damascus and materially supports their struggle with supplies and resources . It is clear, then, why Marxist-Leninists should support bourgeois nationalism: bourgeois nationalists are united with proletarian movements in their opposition to imperialism. Thus, they will often strengthen proletarian movements. This is done through the material support mentioned above. Bourgeois nationalists, in cases like these, make proletarian movements more likely to succeed in their revolutionary goals.
Because the nationalist bourgeoisie finds itself opposed to imperialism in the Third World, they can function as a tactical ally for the proletariat and peasantry in these same oppressed nations. Marxist-Leninists should never accept this alliance as permanent, however, and must carefully evaluate the place of the national bourgeoisie in relation to imperialism and the vast laboring masses .
Iraq provides one of the most potent examples of the fickle and unreliable nature of the nationalist bourgeoisie. The Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, for instance, was primarily bourgeois in its orientation and leadership, but it also attracted a mass following in the wake of the Iraq’s independence from British colonialism in 1958 .
Ba’ath was not committed to socialist revolution in Iraq, but they did preside over an aggressive nationalization program in 1972, which seized oil refineries from British and American companies and allowed them to diversify Iraq’s economy. Though these nationalizations were motivated by the access considerations of the national bourgeoisie, they also allowed the Ba’ath state to redirect revenues into public works projects that lifted nearly half the country out of poverty. In a 2006 profile piece on Saddam, PBS News writes of Ba’ath’s accomplishments:
As vice chairman, he oversaw the nationalization of the oil industry and advocated a national infrastructure campaign that built roads, schools and hospitals. The once illiterate Saddam, ordered a mandatory literacy program. Those who did not participate risked three years in jail, but hundreds of thousands learned to read. Iraq, at this time, created one of the best public-health systems in the Middle East — a feat that earned Saddam an award from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization .
True to form, Saddam and Ba’ath rose to power in direct response to British colonialism. Acting in the interests of the Iraqi national bourgeoisie, they ‘took back’ the resources monopolized by the West’s colonial subjugation and used the revenues to rapidly construct a modern Iraq, which required an educated populace, secular government, a functional road system, and social infrastructure like hospitals. One can question the sincerity of Ba’ath’s actions towards the masses, but one cannot dispute the profoundly positive effect these nationalist policies had on the lives of ordinary Iraqis .
Like Assad, Saddam’s Ba’ath state in Iraq financially supported and championed the cause of Palestinian national liberation, which was played up by the West in the months leading up to the 2003 invasion. On March 13, 2003–just six days before the invasion–the BBC reported, “Saddam Hussein has paid out thousands of dollars to families of Palestinians killed in fighting with Israel. Relatives of at least one suicide attacker as well as other militants and civilians gathered in a hall in Gaza City to receive cheques.” Later, the same article estimates that the Iraqi government had paid out nearly $35 million to Palestinian families since 2000. This is yet another example of a case in which the interests of the bourgeois nationalists align with the interests of the revolutionary international proletariat .
However, the social accomplishments of bourgeois nationalist regimes should never obscure their reactionary character. With both Ba’ath and the Communist Party of Iraq (ICP) vying for supremacy after the 1958 revolution, hostile confrontations between the parties continued until 1963, when Ba’ath launched a coup d’etat against Prime Minister Abdul Karim Qasim. . During the coup, communists organized massive militant resistance to Ba’ath, and over the course of the three days in Baghdad, “5,000 Iraqi citizens were apparently killed, including 80 Ba’th Party activists and 340 Iraqi communist activists” .
Following the consolidation of Ba’ath rule in Iraq, the ICP experienced two separate waves of repression: one in 1963 following the coup and the subsequent unrest, and the other in 1977, led by Saddam. Historian Bob Feldman writes in a February 2006 piece on Iraq that “By March 1963, an estimated 10,000 Communist Party of Iraq members had been arrested by the Ba’th regime and many imprisoned Iraqi leftist activists were not treated gently.” . Quoting Said Aburish’s book, “A Brutal Friendship: The West and the Arab Elite”, Feldman continues:
The number of people eliminated remains confused and estimates range from 700 to 30,000. Putting various statements by Iraqi exiles together, in all likelihood the figure was nearer five thousand . There were many ordinary people who were eliminated because they continued to resist after the coup became an accomplished fact, but there were also senior army officers, lawyers, professors, teachers, doctors and others .
The CPI was correct to resist the 1963 Ba’ath coup and oppose the consolidation of a bourgeois nationalist regime. Iraq’s independence in 1958 had shifted their primary adversary from British colonialism to the Iraqi bourgeoisie, seeing as no colonial entity to struggle against still existed. Saddam’s case reminds Marxist-Leninists that it’s strategic to enter into a popular front with bourgeois nationalists against imperialism, but after the national liberation struggle is complete, they constitute a vicious and dangerous foe. We must always approach ideological unity with nationalist bourgeoisie in a tactical manner.
This, again, rests on very specific circumstances. The bourgeoisie are only revolutionary in some cases, whereas the proletariat is revolutionary in all cases. If we want to make change on a global scale, we should not ignore the power of the progressive bourgeoisie or the peasantry. Although the proletariat must be the leading force in the revolution, we should not be afraid to ally with class enemies in tactical contexts.
Among the workers, there is another class: the lumpenproletariat. These people, like the workers, do not own the means of production. Rather, they survive as unproductive members of society. Drug dealers, shoplifters, and so on. Marx held that because the lumpenproletariat was not likely to join with the workers, that they were not revolutionary. Since the lumpenproletariat was not organized and did not have any societal function other than survival, they would join with any leader who came along and offered them a better deal. They were, at their core, reactionary and parasitic on the proletariat . Marx arrived at this position because, at the time he was writing, the lumpenproletariat formed the backbone of Napoleon III’s military . Franco, Pinochet, and Mussolini also had a strong connection to elements of criminality in their regimes .
However, this is not the only analysis of the lumpenproletariat that is present within Marxist thought. Frantz Fanon held that the “lumpen” did in fact have revolutionary potential. He held that the lumpenproletariat was also alienated and faced horrible conditions. Although these conditions were not the direct result of exploitation by capital, their problems were exacerbated and perpetuated by capitalism. Thus, the lumpenproletariat did have some interest in making revolution. As is the common theme, the lumpenproletariat are only revolutionary under special circumstances. Their class interest is generally nothing more than immediate survival. It is therefore unlikely that they could ever be a revolutionary class on their own. If the proletariat could convince them of the need to overthrow capitalism, however, then they could serve as valuable allies .
Taken together, these ideas comprise the general understanding of class within the Marxist political tradition. To sum up, classes other than the proletariat can become revolutionary, but only under the leadership of the proletariat. It is the proletariat that is the consistently revolutionary class, and therefore the true revolutionary agent.
- Mao Tse-tung, “Talk at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art,” May 1942.
- V.I. Lenin, “‘Left-wing’ Communism – An Infantile Disorder,” April/May 1920.
- Under Lock and Key, Vol. 39, p. 8.
- This was stated by MIMP in a letter to us of December 2013.
- Mao Tse-tung, “Combat Liberalism,” September 7, 1937.
- Mao Tse-tung, “Talks to an Enlarged Central Work Conference,” January 30, 1962.
- Mao Tse-tung, “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People,” February 27, 1957.
- Mao Tse-tung, “On Practice: On the Relationship Between Knowledge and Practice, Between Knowing and Doing,” July 1937.
- Mao Tse-tung, “Talks to an Enlarged Central Work Conference,” January 30, 1962.
- Mao Tse-tung, “Talks to an Enlarged Central Work Conference,” January 30, 1962.
- Mao Tse-tung, “Speech at the Assembly of Representatives of the Shenshi-Kansu-Ningsia Border Region,” 1942.
- Joseph Stalin, Marxism and the Problem of Linguistics (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1972) p. 29.
- Mao Tse-tung, “The Role of the Chinese Communist Party in the National War,” October 1938.
- Mao Tse-tung, “Oppose Stereotyped Party Writing,” February 8, 1942.
- Mao Tse-tung, “Talks to an Enlarged Central Work Conference,” January 30, 1962.
- Lenin, Vladimir Ilʹich. Imperialism: The highest stage of capitalism. Resistance Books, 1999.
- Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The communist manifesto. Penguin, 2002.
- Imperialism, Op. Cit
- Roemer, John. “A general theory of exploitation and class.” (1985).
- Foster, John Bellamy, and Robert W. McChesney. “The endless crisis.” Monthly review 64.1 (2012): 1.
- Graham, Edward M. Foreign direct investment in the world economy. No. 95/59. Washington, DC: International Monetary Fund, 1995.
- Imperialism, Op. Cit.
- Griffin, Keith. “Foreign aid after the Cold War.” Development and change 22.4 (1991): 645-685.
- Katz, Claudio. “Imperialism in the 21st century.” Available at www. katz. lahaine. org/. Date of access 2 (2016).
- Hammond, Andrew. “Balkanism in political context: from the Ottoman Empire to the EU.” Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture 3.3 (2006).
- Mallaby, Sebastian. “The reluctant imperialist: terrorism, failed states, and the case for American empire.” Foreign Affairs (2002): 2-7.
- Stalin, Joseph. “Marxism and the national question.” (1974): 290.
- Smyth, Phillip. “The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (Pflp-Gc) and the Syrian Civil War.” Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online) 17.2 (2013): 55.
- Said K. Aburish, “How Saddam Hussein Came to Power,” 2002, From Saddam Hussein: The Politics of Revenge, Published in The Saddam Hussein Reader, pg. 41-42
- Jessica Moore, “Saddam Hussein’s Rise to Power,” 2003, PBS News, http://to.pbs.org/65tro
- Turi Munthe (Editor), The Saddam Hussein Reader, 2002, pg. xv-xviii
- Bob Feldman, “A People’s History of Iraq: 1950 to November 1963,” February 2, 2006, Toward Freedom, http://bit.ly/qwCar2
- CNN, “Iraqi insurgents being trained in Iran, US says,” April 11, 2007, http://bit.ly/nHra0S
- Michael Perry, “So what if Iran is Interfering in Iraq?,” February 21, 2007, AntiWar.com, http://bit.ly/ogwqxd
- Paul Craig Roberts, “Are the Iranian Protests Another US Orchestrated ‘Color Revolution’?,” June 20-21, 2009, CounterPunch, http://bit.ly/pmXj7w
- Talal Alrubaie, “The Iraqi Communist Party and Hegel’s Owl of Minerva,” February 2, 2010, http://bit.ly/rqF6fr
- Marx, Karl, and Céline Surprenant. The class struggle in France. 2000.
- Gregor, A. James. “Fascism, Marxism and some considerations concerning classification.” Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions 3.2 (2002): 61-82.
- Worsley, Peter. “FRANTZ FANON AND THE” LUMPENPROLETARIAT.”
The Proletariat and National Oppression
Often, proponents of social justice and the liberation of oppressed people claim that Marxism is not relevant in their struggles. According to these critics, Marxism focuses too heavily on the working class and the economic sphere, to the exclusion of identity-based oppressions like race, sexuality, gender, or ability. Marxism, assert the critics, is class reductionist. This claim has led many well-intentioned activists to abandon Marxism in favor of atomized movements that struggle around one specific site of identity-based oppression. The introduction of intersectionality theory has alleviated this problem somewhat, but those of us who seriously seek to end oppression still have a ways to go. I will argue in this essay that Marxism is not incapable of addressing ‘non-economic’ identity-based oppressions. On the contrary, Marxism’s assertion that the working class is the true revolutionary agent makes it the ideal political strategy for countering all forms of oppression.
The charge of class reductionism is not a new one. Friedrich Engels, Marx’s close collaborator, had to deal with it himself. In a letter to J. Bloch in 1890, Engels shows that Marxism is not economically reductionist or deterministic. He writes,
“According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as non-existent, as negligible), the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary. Otherwise the application of the theory to any period of history would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree.” .
Marxism merely holds that the economic base of society is the first factor in determining what cultural, political, and social institutions that society will have. It does not pretend that these other institutions are irrelevant or ‘less real’ than economics.
It is important to note that neither Marx nor Engels were infallible. Their rejection of the free love movement and their very low opinion of workers in India serve as examples of their own bigotry, which must be recognized and combated. The basic point that their philosophy allows for an analysis of oppression remains true even in light of their personal failings. It is also worth noting that the Marxist method has been used to critique the racism of Marx and Engels, most notably by Robert Biel in his book Eurocentrism and the Communist Movement (see especially the section “Was Engels a Racist?”) .
In fact, an analysis of these other (‘non-economic’) institutions is key in understanding the nature of the working class as a whole. Proponents of identity politics often see the working class as exclusively white and male, but this is far from the case. Some forty percent of entry-level service jobs are occupied by Black and Latino workers, according to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics . The unpaid labor of homemakers, who are mostly women, is a key part of the continuation of capitalism, and something that Marxists have devoted considerable time to analyze. Engels makes a similar argument in his book The Origin of Family, Private Property, and the State . Socialists have always held that the working class is typically made up of the most oppressed people. Issues of identity-based oppression are not separate from issues of worker’s power. On the contrary, they are integral to it. Racism is obviously more damaging for a minimum-wage black worker than it is for a CEO. Only the latter can afford a yacht to take their mind off of being jeered at by racists. The former, on the other hand, is subject to discriminatory housing policies and hiring practices from which they cannot possibly escape. Many workers of color are forced to deal with racism in the workplace, but they cannot alleviate this by finding another job.
This is not to diminish the effects of racism on members of the capitalist class. Racism must be combated wherever it arises. My point here is that race and class interact with one another. Class is not separate from race, gender, or the like. In racist, sexist, or otherwise oppressive societies, these things will play a role in determining class and will also exacerbate its effects. As J. Moufawad-Paul argues in his book Continuity and Rupture: Philosophy in the Maoist Terrain, “class is always clothed in the garments of oppression.” .
This is why socialists have a long history of fighting oppression. After the direct intervention of Lenin (who wrote extensively on anti colonialism and the right of nations to self-determination, and whom we will return to later), the US Communist Party initiated a campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys, nine young black men who were falsely convicted of gang rape in an Alabama court and sentenced to death in 1931. Many black organizations shunned the case due to its sensitive subject matter. The NAACP did not provide a lawyer to the young men until after they had already been convicted. The CP, however, undertook an international campaign that gained wide support among African-Americans because of its principled defense of the Scottsboro Boys. Ahmed Shawki writes, “A May 16, 1931 protest that began with a March of several hundred Communists…ended with a mass rally involving more than three thousand black Harlemites. At the rally, the throng heard from one of the Scottsboro mothers and from Communist speakers….The Scottsboro Campaign carried on for years with events like this one, which succeeded in stopping the Scottsboro executions and ultimately freeing the men.” . The CP’s black membership had grown from 200 in 1930 to 7,000 in 1938. This was at a time when segregation was still legal in the South (and legal in all but name in the North), and there were virtually no other integrated organizations in the United States.
In 1928, the CP had fewer than 50 black members in the entire country. By 1930, just two years later, the membership had quadrupled to 200. Eight years later, in 1938, it had seven thousand black members. Nationally, the black membership rose to nine percent (9%) of the total party membership, This was at a time when black people were only eleven percent (11%) of the total population. In Chicago, in 1921, black people made up twenty-five percent (25%) of the city’s 2000 members. In this city, almost all the Communists were black. This includes the rank-and-file and the leadership. To reiterate, this was before the integration of the US Military. The Communist Party was, at this point, the most integrated organization in the country. For more on this, I recommend Hammer and Hoe by Robin DG Kelley and and Communists in Harlem During the Depression by Mark Naison  .
The Communist Party had many problems, but the campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys shows that Marxism is not only capable of addressing identity-based oppressions, but that it can be successful in doing so.
The history of socialists fighting racial oppression goes back even further than this. Marx himself had an impressive history of doing so. Not only did he advocate for abolition, he was also the head of an organization that prevented the English from entering the Civil War on the side of the South . Many German socialist organizations literally took up arms against the South in the Civil War . Historically, Socialists have never shied away from fighting identity-based oppressions. Socialists of today should not and have not abandoned this.
Now that we have established that Marxism is not antithetical to the fight against identity-based oppressions, I would like to argue that Marxism represents the only coherent political strategy for ending oppression. This is not in spite of its focus on the working class. Far from it. It is only the working class that possesses both the interest and the ability to eradicate oppression. To prove this, I will focus primarily on the question of racism. This is not because I view other forms of oppression as less important than racism. It is simply that there seems to be a good deal more scholarly work on the origins of American racism than other oppressions.
It is certainly true that Marxists understand racism as a product of capitalism. This outlook does not translate, as the critics claim, to the position that class is more important than race. If this were the case, why would the most prolific black liberation movement in United States history adopt Marxism as an ideology and strategy? The Black Panther Party, the Black Liberation Army, and other Marxists understood that locating the source of racial oppression is the first step in mapping out a political strategy to eradicate it . In separating identity from class, liberals accept several fundamentally reactionary views about the nature of oppression. They implicitly assert that racism is a natural part of the human condition. They hold that racism has existed from time immemorial, or even that it is hardwired into us. This would, of course, mean that it is impossible to do away with racism. In refusing to examine the ways in which racism is bound up with capitalism, liberals bar themselves from taking any significant anti-racist action. Racism and other forms of oppression, on this view, cannot be eliminated, only mitigated or blunted. The oppressed can never be fully liberated within a liberal framework.
Before we can get into how racism perpetuates capitalism, and vice versa, we must have a basic understanding of what capitalism actually is. Capitalism does not mean markets, it is not based on an equal exchange between bosses and workers. Capitalism is a system based on exploitation. It is a system in which a small minority expropriates and controls the wealth produced by a laboring majority. These workers must sell their labor on the market in order to survive. The profit of capitalists is directly proportional to the amount of surplus value from the workers. The foundational relationship of capitalism is that between the owners and the workers, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. This relationship is essentially the same, whether the boss owns a factory or a restaurant, whether the worker produces car parts or flips burgers. At the end of the day, capitalists get more out of the exchange than workers do. That is why we have constant struggle over wages and why capitalists have become so adept at crushing organized labor.
This is also the reason that high levels of unemployment are to the advantage of the capitalists. It forces workers into competition with one another, allowing the capitalists to further exploit labor. It is worth noting that unemployment is particularly high for African-Americans, at 8.8% compared to 4.3% for whites . Thus, capitalism forces workers to compete with one another over artificially scarce resources, not just jobs but housing and education as well. These last two examples are also disproportionately laid at the feet of workers of color. According to data published in Black Demographics, “The percentage of Black homeowners decreased between 2005 and 2012 from 46% to 42.5%. Much of these losses can be attributed to the housing crisis where so many Americans lost their houses to foreclosure. This also means more than half of all African Americans rent.” . Education does not look much better. To quote US News,
More than 2 million black students attend schools where 90 percent of the student body is made up of minority students. Dozens of school districts have current desegregation orders. Minority students represent 57 percent of the population in “dropout factories” — schools where the senior class has 60 percent or fewer students who entered as freshmen — but only 30 percent of the population in all schools.
On average, schools serving more minority populations have less-experienced, lower-paid teachers who are less likely to be certified. A report from the Center for American Progress found that a 10 percentage point increase in students of color at a school is associated with a decrease in per-pupil spending of $75. Disparities in course offerings mean students of color have fewer opportunities to challenge themselves with more difficult courses — the type of courses needed to prepare for a four-year college degree or for a high-paying career in STEM. .
Capitalism, as a system that is based on competition, systematically leaves African-Americans behind. The precise reasons for this will hopefully become clear as we go on. It is this competition that lays the basis for divisions among workers. Capitalists as a class have a material interest in promoting bigoted ideas, which prevent the workers from seeing that their real enemy is not the other worker, who is also forced to sell their labor in order to survive, but the boss who exploits them both. A united working class, conscious of its collective power as the producers of wealth in society and held together by the conviction that an injury to one is an injury to all, that is the last thing that the bosses want to see. They will fight, and have fought, tooth and nail to prevent this from happening. This includes the use of not only physical force but also strict ideological indoctrination. This is what Marx meant when he said that “the ruling ideas are in every epoch the ideas of the ruling class” .
Given the particular history of the US as a settler-colonial state, the ruling class has learned that racism is the most important of these ideas. That history tells us that racism arose in the context of the African slave trade, without which capitalism could not have emerged. Marx wrote, “Direct slavery is just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as…machinery. Without slavery you have no cotton. Without cotton you have no modern industry. It is slavery that has given the colonies their value” . It is impossible for me to go through the entire four hundred year history of slavery here, but I will try to outline in very broad detail what I think is important for our purposes here.
It is estimated that as many as 12 million Africans were brought by force to South America, the Caribbean, and North America . Somewhere in the vicinity of fifteen percent (15%) of these people died during the middle passage . This amounts to a death toll of approximately 1.8 million from transport alone. These unwilling passengers were chained like stacks of firewood for fear of mutiny, unable to so much as change position for months at a time . The conditions that awaited them in the colonies were not much better. The Atlantic Slave Trade is, to this day, the largest forced population transfer in history .
Looking back on slavery today, it is hard to imagine how such barbarity could have ever taken place. Because we live in a world so seeped in racist ideology, it is very tempting to say that what led to slavery in the first place was racism. But, as Trinidadian historian of slavery Eric Williams writes, “slavery was not borne of racism, rather racism is the consequence of slavery” . The concept of race has not always existed. It had to be invented to justify how it was that in a land which proclaimed to be a bastion of freedom and equality, human beings were subjected to treatment far worse than animals. It is important to say here that race as a category has absolutely no bearing on biology. Alan R. Templeton, professor of biology in Arts and Sciences at Washington University, has analyzed DNA from global human populations that reveal the patterns of human evolution over the past one million years. He shows that while there is plenty of genetic variation in humans, most of the variation is individual variation. While between-population variation exists, it is either too small, which is a quantitative variation, or it is not the right qualitative type of variation. It does not mark historical sub lineages of humanity . Race is just as made up, as Dr. Barbara-Jeanne Fields says, as Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny .
Of course, Santa and the Easter Bunny are stories that children eventually grow out of. This is not so for ideologies. These are not simply handed down from generation to generation. They are perpetuated by material conditions in society. Racism emerged from, and continues to be reproduced by, political structures that were erected to satisfy a particular set of economic interests. Fields writes,
Probably a majority of American historians think of slavery in the United States as primarily a system of race relations, as though the chief business of slavery were the production of white supremacy, rather than the production of cotton, sugar, rice, and tobacco. One historian has gone so far as to call slavery the ‘ultimate segregator.’ He does not ask why Europeans seeking the ultimate method of segregating Africans would go to the trouble and expense of transporting them across the ocean for that purpose when they could have achieved the same ends so much more simply by leaving the Africans in Africa….No one dreams of analyzing serfdom in Russia as a problem of race relations, even though the Russian nobility invented fictions of their innate…superiority over the serfs as preposterous as any devised by American racists” .
Fields is going after a circular argument that is present everywhere from racial justice movements to academia, which essentially says that racism is both the cause and product of slavery. In actuality, slavery was an economic institution that racism was created to serve. Racism serves a similar role in capitalism today.
The black abolitionist Frederick Douglass made a similar point centuries ago. He wrote:
The hostility between the poor whites and blacks of the South is easily explained. It has its roots and sap in the relation of slavery, and it was enacted on both sides by the cunning of the slavemasters. Those masters secured their ascendency over both the poor whites and the blacks by putting enmity between them. They divided both to conquer each” .
Douglass recognized the obvious fact that poor whites in the South enjoyed many benefits relative to the black slaves. This quotation comes from a letter in which Douglass was arguing that black people should have the right to vote: a right that even the poorest white person already enjoyed. Douglass believed, though, that poor white people would be better off without white supremacy. That is, the white workers would be better off without the system of practices thanks to which they enjoyed these privileges relative to their black counterparts. It was precisely that system of white supremacy that prevented both poor whites and poor black people from standing shoulder to shoulder against their common enemy who was plundering them both. Douglass recognized, then, that racism had a particular benefit for the owning classes of society.
We ought to consider Douglass’s remarks about racism in the context of Marx and Engels’ The German Ideology, in which they argued, as I showed above, “the ruling ideas are, in every epoch, the ideas of the ruling class” . The system of racist ideas in terms of which the “hostility” between poor people of different races played out belonged to the class of slave-owners. It belonged to them not just in the sense that they themselves believed it, but also in the sense that the circulation of those racist ideas served an important function in sustaining the power that the owning classes exercised over the workers. They were “ruling ideas” in the sense that they were the ideas that enabled the rulers to rule.
We should also compare Douglass’ thoughts on this division to what Marx said about the division between English and Irish workers. He writes,
All English industrial centers now possess a working class split into two camps: English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker because he sees in him a competitor who lowers his standard of life. Compared with the Irish worker, he feels himself a member of the ruling nation, and for this very reason, he makes himself into a tool of the aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, and thus strengthens their domination over himself.
. . .
The Irish worker sees in [the English worker] both an accomplice and the stupid tool of English rule in Ireland. This antagonism is artificially sustained…by…all the means at the disposal of the ruling class. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization….” .
We see that Marx did not ignore the oppression faced by workers and non-workers alike. He simply sought to explain their underlying causes. He recognized that understanding the material origins of oppression was key to ending it.
Marx applied exactly the same analysis to the United States. Expressing his support for the North in the Civil War, he wrote,
In the United States of America, every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed as long as slavery disfigured a part of the republic. Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black skin it is still branded” .
Even today, labor in the black skin is still branded. It is branded in a way that is useful to, and precisely because it is useful to, a tiny class of people who control the vast wealth of society, and therefore control all the things we need to live a decent life. It is useful to this minority class for exactly the reason that Douglass and Marx identified: because it pits labor in the white skin against labor in the black skin.
The point here is not say that racism is ‘not real,’ or that is less important than economics. Obviously Douglass was very aware of the material effects of anti-black racism, being a black man himself. The point is also not to say that racism is merely an ideological issue, and that all we need to do to break racism is wage ideological struggle. On the contrary, racism has a strong material basis. In order to make one group feel superior to another group, you must give the first group more benefits than the second. In the time of slavery, this bribery took the form of land. Today, it manifests as housing, education, employment, and unionization .
Marx himself understood that the granting of land and other privileges to poor whites was integral to the bourgeoisie in the fight against socialism. He wrote, “it is possible to square the interests of ‘poor whites’ with those of the slaveholders…to tame them with the prospect of one day becoming slaveholders themselves” . This was a view recognized by the bourgeoisie themselves. When the Paris Commune was formed in June 1868, Ernest Renan criticized the French capitalists for neglecting “colonization,” which was a safeguard against “war between rich and poor”  In a sense, racism demolishes class differences, materially binding some workers to the cause of the capitalists. It is the responsibility of revolutionaries to destroy these privileges. We must struggle against racism and the privileges that come with it if we are ever to win socialism. Marxists would not be arguing that workers must be united if we did not think there was anything dividing them in the first place.
Racism, to put it another way, is not just a byproduct of capitalism. Marxists who claim that it is mean to say that capitalism and racism go hand in hand. The one necessitates the other. This is a correct reading, but it does not follow from this that racism is a “necessary byproduct” of capitalism. To call something a byproduct is to say that it has no function, that it does no work in the process of which it is a byproduct. If am I sawing a piece of wood with which to build a house, I will inevitably make some sawdust. In this scenario, however, the product of my labor is the house, not the sawdust. To call sawdust a byproduct is to say that is an incidental occurrence whose production serves no purpose in house-building.
Racism is not the sawdust of American capitalism. It is the saw. It is a tool in the hands of the ruling class. Like a tool, it has a definite, material function. Its function is to divide the working class. It is vital that we stop this tool from being used against us. Understood this way, the politics of solidarity is based not on some naive idea that we can all just get along, that there are no real racial divisions in the United States. It based on a sober analysis of the situation and a shrewd calculation about what it would take to change it.
Slavery, which as we now know preceded racism, was invaluable to the planter class. Their very existence as a class depended on it. Slavers and slave traders profited immensely from the slave trade. This is a lesson in the limitless barbarity that spawned capitalism. It can also help explain why modern capitalists know no bounds when it comes to securing their ability to make profits.
An important point is that racism has not always existed. It is an ideology that emerged out of a particular set of circumstances for a particular set of reasons. To see racism in this way is to assert that it can be done away with. If the circumstances that give rise to and perpetuate racism (competition among workers, exploitation, and economic inequality) are combated, so too will racism begin to fade.
What we have to do is examine the material conditions from which it did emerge, as well as those that enable its continuation. Only Marxism is capable of examining these institutions, precisely because of its critique of capitalism. Liberalism, focused on a narrow identity politics that separates identity from economics, can only mitigate racism. Because it does not explain how racism arose, it cannot concoct a political strategy to vanquish it. To pretend that racism is built into us is not only wrong, it actually disarms the activists who are trying to fight it. Only the materialist approach of Marxism can effectively liberate the oppressed.
The above analysis shows that to claim Marxism as class reductionist is to misconstrue the Marxist understanding of ideology. The victory of working class revolution hinges entirely on the ability of the working class as a whole to rid itself of all backwards ideas that prevent it from uniting against its common enemy, the capitalist class. Because of the aforementioned material base of racism in the United States, this necessitates a conscious struggle against white supremacy as well as capitalism. The two are intertwined, but distinct from one another. Marxism is not reductionist, but materialist.
The problem of racism, as we have seen, is more than “skin deep”. As I have argued, there is a long history starting from the slave trade that accounts for the divisions. Over the course of this history, the divisions became real not only in terms of their material basis in privileges or relationship to the means of production, but also in terms of territory, language, levels of bourgeois exploitation. In short, African-Americans have the political, cultural, historical, and economic building blocks of a nation. It is not merely that racism is ideologically strong, but that in the US context, the racialized division is strong enough to have actually passed-in accordance with dialectical materialism-over from quantity into quality. It has become something else entirely: national oppression, wherein more or less the entire African-American nation, including much of the black bourgeoisie, is oppressed and exploited by the imperialist white bourgeoisie . There is division among the working class on the basis of race, but there is also unity between classes on this basis. It is in this unity that we find one source of revolutionary potential.
One of the most important aspects of Marxism-Leninism is the concept of the national question. That is, how to make a revolution in a state comprised of multiple nations. This question-and the national liberation theory that results from it-are key in understanding racism and capitalism.
In order to understand why, we must define what exactly a nation is. A nation, writes Stalin in Marxism and the National Question, is a historically-constituted people. They share a common language, a common territory, and a common economic life. These components come together to form a common culture. It is necessary for a particular group to have all these characteristics in order to be considered a nation .
There are two important characteristics to note about Stalin’s definition. First, while territory and geography is a defining feature of a nation, it is not its sole determining characteristic, meaning that within the existential boundaries of a country–itself a recent social development–many nations may exist. Second, while a common economic life is also a defining characteristic, nations are not formed on the basis of class unity. In other words, there is no proletarian nation or bourgeois nation, but rather these two classes are both part and parcel of their respective nations.
When Lenin was writing, little attention was paid to the existence of nations in revolutionary circles. The majority of Russian Marxists held that distinctions between nationalities served only to divide the working class. In their view, Russia was already a unified whole, so discussions of national oppression were trivial. The unity of the working class, said most revolutionaries, is the only thing that matters when making revolution .
Lenin took a firm stance against this view. He understood Russia not as a unified body which was divided only along class lines, but as a “prison house of nations” . He understood that there was no such thing as a Russian. Rather, there were a variety of nations. These included Muslims, Jews, Georgians, Turks, Azerbaijanis, and others. Under the Tsar, these groups faced an incredible restriction of rights. Many had their languages banned, their religions outlawed, and were forbidden from holding public office. Jews in particular were subjected to brutal massacres known as pogroms. These oppressed nations all faced underdevelopment and feudal conditions .
Thus, Lenin understood that the revolution could not be made merely on the basis of formalistic working class unity. To really win over and unify the people, special attention had to be paid to the violence faced by the workers of oppressed nations. He was clear that the Party had to oppose Great Russian racism and “national chauvinism” at every turn . The Party was to lead the fight for equal education, cultural rights, and religious expression. Only when oppressed nations rallied behind the Party and its movement could true working class unity be attained. This is consistent with the ideas of Karl Marx, who we now know wrote that “Labor in the white skin will never be free so long as labor in the black skin is still branded” .
Lenin’s ideas about the national question can be summed up by the term “self-determination”. This meant that the workers of oppressed nations had the final say in what happened to them. They had full autonomy, including the right to break away and form their own countries should they choose to do so. This did not mean that socialists would advocate for a separate state in every case. Sometimes, succession would be inadvisable. The concrete results of the struggle for national liberation depended, as all struggles do, on the material conditions of society. Still, the core principle of solidarity with and support for oppressed nations remained a constant .
Lenin stressed that national liberation was a struggle that worked in service to and in tandem with the struggle for the liberation of the working class. He rejected imperialist bourgeois conceptions of nationalism, which preached unity between the bourgeoisie of oppressed nations and the workers of oppressed nations. Lenin said that the national liberation struggle’s primary purpose was to unite the working class of the entire world, so that they could eventually overthrow global capitalism .
Lenin also held that the national question was important because of its relevance to the tactics of revolutionaries. By this, he meant that oppressed nations had the greatest interest in revolution, so it was important to win them over to the Party. Working class members of the dominant nation (Settlers) were often handed things like higher wages or better working conditions, while the working class of oppressed nations was left to suffer. This meant that settler workers’ interest in revolution was greatly diminished. As a result, revolutionaries had to go deeper into “the real masses” of oppressed nations .
It is important to recognize that the Marxist-Leninist position on the national question is indeed tactical. Nationalism is a tool that Communists can use to liberate the oppressed masses of society. In determining our support for nationalist movements, we should always evaluate whether or not they serve this goal.
It might at first appear that devoting time to discussing the national question is a pointless exercise. Why are we talking about something so distant in the past? What use could we possibly have for it now? Asking these questions is an important and necessary task, so I will do my best to answer them. I have already explained the continuing relevance of anti-imperialist, bourgeois nationalism, but Lenin’s thought on the matter remains important for other reasons.
As we have seen, Lenin said that Russia was a “prison house of nations.” It was composed of multiple oppressed nationalities, and as such was not divided solely along class lines. I hold that this is also the case for the United States of America. It, too, is a prison house of nations. My aim is to substantiate this claim through historical analysis.
Originally, what would become the United States was made up of several different Native American groups, such as the Sioux, the Cree, and so on. Then, white European colonists landed on the continent. These colonists were primarily English, meaning that they shared a common language, culture, and identity. However, they did not share a common history or territory at the time .
Soon, the colonists began pushing westward. There were two main features to this westward expansion. The first was the genocide of the Native Americans, and the second was slavery. These two main principles allowed the United States to build its economy and eventually become politically dominant .
Throughout this process, Native American nations were continually marginalized. Some were simply destroyed, while others were forced into reservations. They were ripped from their land, slaughtered, and subjected to incredibly harsh conditions. White Christian missionaries stole the children of the natives and forced them to learn English. This meant that Native culture was also destroyed .
A common myth, especially among conservatives, is that since this process took place hundreds of years ago, it has no bearing on our current situation. This is false. There are still reservations, and there are still natives living on them. Natives are a historically constituted people. Today, there are Native American nations within the United States. These nations are still oppressed, still subjected to poverty and isolation .
A 2008 report from American Indian Census Facts showed that the percentage of Natives living below the poverty line is 28.2 percent . Compare this to 14.5 percent of the general population, according to the Census Bureau . A 2010 study determined that the life expectancy for Natives living on reservations trails that of the general population by almost five years. This is primarily due to underfunded health services . A Gallup independent study said that some reservations are “comparable to the third world,” in terms of living conditions . It is plainly obvious that Natives ought to be considered an oppressed nation. I should note that there is not merely one Native nation, but many. Since there are multiple Native tribes, there are multiple Native nations. Their struggles are all very different, but the above issues are ones that every Native nation faces.
As I said above, the second feature of colonial westward expansion was mass slavery. Millions of Africans from the west coast of their home continent were abducted by slavers and brought into the new United States. These Africans stolen into servitude were constituted in a very particular area: the South. In some areas, the concentration of slaves was so great that they outnumbered white slave owners by as much as ninety percent (90%). The effect of this was that, while the slaves came from different African countries, they all began to share a common culture . This culture was created by the economic conditions of slavery, as well as by their struggle against these conditions. Part of this struggle was the creation of a language that was distinct from that of the slave owners. Think of codes that were used to advocate for freedom, as well as the pidgin English slaves came to speak .
This concentration still persists in some form today. There is a belt, stretching roughly from Atlanta to the Mississippi Delta, in which black Africans still form the majority of the population . One of the areas encompassed by this belt is Missouri. This belt is known as the Kush in Pan-Africanist theory . This area includes Ferguson. Roughly seventy out of one hundred of the residents in Ferguson are black . However, less than one out of a hundred members of the police force in the city is black. You will find similar statistics in the rest of this belt. Almost none of the people with actual power in these communities are black, despite the majority of the population itself being black. African Americans in the United States do not even have surface-level control of their own communities, much less control in a substantive sense .
A report from the National Bureau of Economic Research authored by Kevin Lang shows that black workers receive extra scrutiny from employers, leading to worse performance reviews, lower wages, and even job loss . The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that, on average, the black unemployment rate is 2.2 times greater than that of whites . Finally, a report from the Economic Policy Institute showed that the wage gap between white workers and black workers is the worst it has been in nearly four decades . Not only do African Americans share a common economic life, it is a life fraught with difficulties and oppression.
I would be remiss not to mention the epidemic levels of police violence faced by African Americans. A report from the Center for Equitable Policing determined that the use of force in police interactions is more than three times greater for African Americans than it is for whites . A study by the University of California found “evidence of significant bias in the killing of unarmed black Americans relative to unarmed white Americans”  Finally, a 2015 analysis by Campaign Zero found no correlation between police killings and violent crime rates .
The above facts prove that African Americans, like Natives, are an oppressed nation within the United States. While African and Native Americans are by no means the only oppressed nations in the United States, I feel that these examples are sufficient to prove my point. The situation of the United States parallels the situation of Revolutionary Russia regarding the national question. There is not simply a working class and an owning class. There are several oppressed nations who are waging their own liberation struggles. To make a successful revolution in the United States, we must support these struggles unconditionally and work to develop socialist consciousness within them. Above all, we must assert that oppressed nations have a right to self-determination.
Racism, in this context, is not incidental to the main business of capitalism-the exploitation of labor in pursuit of profit-it is the main business. This has a very important lesson for us: fighting racism is fighting capitalism. Every blow against white supremacy is a blow against the most potent weapon the American ruling class has ever had. Therefore, it is a blow against this class itself.
Marxism must, therefore, fight racism and all other kinds of oppression on their own terms. This is what Lenin meant when he said that the working class must become “the tribune of the oppressed” . He wrote, “working class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected” . Marxists are not against the independent struggles of oppressed identities. They merely seek to unite these struggles into a socialist movement that can create a better world for all of us.
This unity cannot come at the expense of the oppressed. Working class unity does not mean that black workers should put aside their differences and organize with racists. Rather, it means that both black and non-black workers should smash white supremacy in order to create a material basis for unity. This must be done on two levels. The first is by attacking the material basis of white supremacy, the privileges that white workers have over black workers. Without this material basis, the ideology of white supremacy becomes must harder to justify. However, the ideology will not disappear immediately after the material basis for it is smashed. It will linger, much in the same way that capitalist ideology remains under socialism-as a kind of “cultural stain.” Oppressed workers must attack oppression on both levels to ensure the victory of the revolution. In short, “working class unity” as a practical aim is not about forcing unity where none exists, it is about creating a material basis for unity. We can only do this by struggling against all forms of oppression. Only when the working class struggles against bigotry as a force in its own right can it hope to be united.
Anti-racism and national liberation, then, are not “distractions from class struggle.” As Marx put it, those who “cannot understand how one nation can grow rich at the expense of another” are unable to understand “how…one class can enrich itself at the expense of another.” Because national oppression is an economic arrangement predicated on exploitation, it is part and parcel of class struggle. The proletariat finds an ally in its struggle against the bourgeoisie in all members of oppressed nations. The class struggle around national oppression has the potential to form progressive cross-class unity.
Oppressed nations face a “particularly revolting division of labor,”  one of the hallmarks of class. In the United States, African-Americans are often intentionally given worse jobs than whites, and working conditions in the Third World are universally more degrading and exploitative than those in the first world. Movements against national oppression (a more accurate name for “anti-racist struggle) seek to challenge this division of labor. These movements, despite being lead by the bourgeoisie, challenge the existing class order. In this sense, they are allies of the proletariat.
The working class of each country, as The Communist Manifesto argues, has to overthrow the bourgeoisie in its nation . In some nations, though, the main oppressor is an imperialist ruling class, which has to be kicked out as a precondition for real workers’ power. Forcing imperialism and national oppression out of a country typically requires mass struggle, which raises among workers expectations of further advances that will always be frustrated as long as the capitalists–even native ones–are in power. But in an independent nation, workers and oppressed groups have the “air, the light, and the elbow room,” as Engels put it, to wage a struggle to take power into their own hands .
Today, demands for “democracy” and control of a nation’s own resources are inextricably tied up with class demands. The fight for the former is bound to spill into a fight for the latter to at least some extent.
Any defeat suffered by U.S. imperialism today is a blow to the power of its rulers, and by extension a victory for the working class of this country. Therefore, socialists should take sides in wars for national liberation, even if we would like the leadership of the struggle of the oppressed to be different politically or along class lines.
Historically, national liberation has been a linchpin in the struggle for communism. Communists in China, Vietnam, and Cuba gained support by leading national liberation movements . National Liberation is an interest the masses come to on their own. Therefore, it is one that communists can use to link with the masses and draw them into the struggle against capitalism, imperialism, and oppression. National Liberation work, while being important in its own right, also reflects a deep understanding of the mass line. At its core, national Liberation is communist and anti-imperialist. National Liberation must be a cornerstone of all socialist work. The proletariat and the Communist Party that represents it must struggle for leadership within national liberation struggles, even if it means allying with native or nationalist bourgeoisie.
This can be seen in the nature of the Russian Revolution, itself partly a national liberation struggle. The counter-revolution of the White Army was defeated because the Bolsheviks urged for “a national struggle of liberation against foreign invasion,” that was intent on turning Russia into a colony of the West . By appealing to the nationalist bourgeoisie, the Bolsheviks were able to repel the invaders and strengthen socialism in the country. The Party was successful in “soldering communist doctrine to the collective…Russian people” . National liberation is in the interests of the proletariat, in the interests of socialism.
In short, Marxists have always understood that racism is more than just an ideological tool to divide workers. It is a material force that must be confronted and smashed on its own terms. Marxism, with its conception of national liberation, provides the only sound theoretical foundation for understanding and ending oppression once and for all.
Although Marxists argue that we should ally with national bourgeoisie in the struggle against national oppression, this does not translate to ignoring the proletariat in these struggles. It is precisely the power of the working class-the power to withhold their labor at the point of production-that allows these movements to become united. The working class is the only social force that can become the tribune of the oppressed, it is the only social force that can end oppression once and for all. The remainder of this essay will be spent examining why this is the case.
Firstly, we have already determined that the working class is always made up of oppressed identities. They will obviously have an interest in ending oppression. Their status as workers gives them the ability to do this. By striking to demand a restitution of affirmative action, or an end to police brutality, workers are hitting the capitalists where it hurts most: their wallets. Whether or not strike demands are purely economic, workers still hold power over the entire system. They can use this power to strike blows at oppressive systems beyond exploitation. The very fact that solidarity strikes (the practice of striking for political rather than economic gains) are illegal in the US is enough evidence of this point . Capitalists care only about their bottom line. The power of workers to affect that bottom line grants them immense influence over society, if only they can be made aware of it.
The ability of the working class to resist oppression extends to more than just its members who themselves belong to oppressed identities. Because of the concentrated and social character of capitalist production, workers of all identities are forced to struggle against their bosses together. In the course of this struggle, it becomes more and more difficult to accept the bigoted ideas workers have been fed their entire lives. It is precisely their position at the point of production, and their need to struggle collectively, that enables the working class to combat oppression. The very structure of work under capitalism, in which workers must compete for jobs, results in workers being pitted against one another. Yet, in order to win gains against the bosses, workers must organize together and struggle collectively. Workers, then, are taught in the crucible of struggle to resist oppression, to unify.
As an example of this, we should look at the 1972 GM strikes in Flint and Cleveland. At first, black people were given work only when employers were trying to break a strike. This is further evidence that unemployment and competition among workers are integral parts of the capitalist system. Employers forced white workers and black workers to compete for the same job. This was during the Great Depression, when unemployment was already high and there was no union at the GM factory. In the 1950s, the company figured out that it could make more profit by letting black workers into the plant. They were initially given the worst jobs available, forced to slave for hours over sweltering foundries. A key reason for this was that it physically separated white and black workers, preventing them from developing a sense of unity. Even the capitalists are aware that the concentrated character of production gives workers a tremendous degree of power.
Yet the problems began even before black workers were admitted. Most whites went on strike to protest the addition of black workers to the plant. They had come to see black workers as having fundamentally different interests to them, because of the competition over jobs they had been forced into . During the strikes, a contingent of black workers picketed outside the plant. The only black worker known to participate inside was Roscoe Vanzant. Nearly all of the workers he associated with were openly, vehemently racist. By the end of the six week strike, however, these same workers voted that Vanzant would be the one to lead the strikers on their victory march. This symbolic gesture is a testament to the bridges that working class struggle can build. It was through the struggle that many workers cast aside their prejudices. They understood that it was only in unifying that they could win. This led to an incredible transformation. Workers carried themselves with more confidence, they spoke up to people who had once been considered their superiors. Through struggle, they unlearned bigoted ideas. The worker became, as one socialist organizer put it, “an entirely different human being” .
This ability to unlearn is a key piece of Marxism. It is one of the reasons why we place such importance on the working class. As workers struggle side-by-side for the same thing, against the same enemy, it becomes more and more difficult to accept the bigoted lessons taught to them so persistently. Marx explains that, for the victory of socialism, “the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement” .
In short, the working class is unique because it is the one class that actually has the material interest and ability to challenge all forms of oppression. Fighting racism, for a worker, is not a moral question. It is a question of what is best for them in the long term. It is in the working class’ position at the point of production that makes it the universal class: the one class capable of putting an end to oppression and restructuring society in the interests of the immense majority. All those who seek to create this kind of society should embrace Marxism.
It should be noted that socialist organizers played an important role in bringing out this tendency in workers during the Flint strikes. The story of Vanzant was not a chance situation. At the same time that he was being voted in as leader of the victory march, black picketers on the outside faced harassment from white strikers. How do we push one result and not the other? As I said above, we need to wage an all-out war against white supremacy, breaking the privilege of white workers and elevating black workers to their level wherever possible. Ideas and organization on the ground are critical in this regard. Socialists were active during the strike. Kermit Dahlinger, a socialist organizer, made sure that white workers received “a decent anti-racist education” . This ‘education’ often involved violence against the racist strikers. Socialist organizers have historically understood the need to take drastic measures to create unity among the working class, as I mentioned above.
This experience shows that the development of an advanced section of the working class, a vanguard, is necessary. The workers with advanced consciousness can help bring out the innate desire of all workers to end oppression. Because of the pervasiveness of bourgeois ideology, this tendency is often suppressed. It is critical that revolutionaries do their part to bring it out into the open again. It is our job to ensure that the workers make use of their ability to end oppression.
The working class is the only group that has this ability, and Marxism is the only ideology that recognizes the centrality of this group. Marxism also understands oppression in a materialist way, meaning that Marxism is the only ideology which believes that oppression can and should be eradicated. It is for these reasons that all those who are interested in the well-being of oppressed people should embrace Marxism and organize for a socialist revolution.
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- Warner, William Lloyd, and Josiah Orne Low. The social system of the modern factory: The strike: A social analysis. Vol. 4. Greenwood Press, 1976.
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- Georgakas, Dan, and Marvin Surkin. Detroit, I do mind dying. Vol. 2. South End Press, 1998. Op. Cit.
Ideology and Class Consciousness
I have argued that, under capitalism, the working class is the group which has not only the ability to make change, but the objective interest to do so. Why, then, does this class seem to go along with the status quo so often, or even embrace out-and-out reactionary ideas that are opposed to these objective interests? If the working class can change the world, why don’t they do it? Here, I want to go back through the theoretical underpinnings of this question with an eye towards answering two specific questions that are related to this broader one: 1) what are the effects of ideology on the working class, and 2) what is the relationship of Marxist theory and organization to these effects?
For Marxists, an understanding of ideology must begin with an understanding of consciousness and its relationship to the material world. Ideology is one aspect of consciousness, but is not identical to it. Marx and Engels’ first conceptions of consciousness developed in struggles against idealism on the one hand and mechanical materialism on the other. It is through these struggles that we come to understand ideology and its effects on consciousness. This requires an understanding of the philosophical core of Marxism: dialectical materialism.
At a very basic level, dialectical materialism (or diamat) is a way of understanding reality through the material world. As one might expect, it is the combination of dialectics and materialism. I will attempt to define and analyze each of these in turn.
Dialectics is a method of philosophical reasoning which aims to understand things as they exist concretely. It accounts for the movement and change of things, examining their contradictory sides in concert with one another.
There are three components of dialectics within Marxism. They are the law of the unity and conflict of opposites, the law of the passage of quantitative changes into qualitative changes, and the law of the negation of the negation .
The law of the unity and conflict of opposites, also called the law of the interpenetration of opposites, refers to the idea that there is no perfectly sharp division between opposite sides. There are borderline cases and contradictions between opposites . In physics, for example, changes in either the electrical field or the magnetic field will cause the other to change .
The next law is concerned with quality and quantity. A quality is a property that cannot be measured in numbers and does not come in degrees, such as being at war or unemployed. A quantity is a property that can be measured in numbers, such as hourly wage or rate of profit. Change of quantity usually goes through intermediate stages, but change of quality can happen without going through an intermediate stage. The general principle is that if a quantitative change occurs long enough, a qualitative change will occur . One example is the heating of water. The change in the temperature of water is quantitative, but the change from not-boiling to boiling is qualitative .
The last of these laws refers to Hegel’s idea that the thesis generates its negation in the antithesis. The synthesis is the resolution of the tension between the thesis and the antithesis . These laws have their roots in Ancient Greek philosophical thought, as well as ancient Chinese and sub-Saharan African philosophies. There is unity of dialectical thought across all philosophy, not just the west . It is also worth noting that Hegel himself never used these three terms, they were simply used to describe his ideas later .
Dialecticians oppose the formal mode of thought which operates with a fixed definition of things according to their attributes. Let’s take the example of fish. The formal understanding of fish would be something like “a fish is an animal which lives in water and has no legs.” A more essential understanding, however, is dialectical in nature. Some animals living in water are not fish, and some fish have legs. To explain the nature of a fish, we must take the whole interconnected process of what makes a fish. That is, we must understand that a fish came from something and is evolving into something else. Only when we consider these two forms (and their contradictions) can we understand what a fish really is .
Dialecticians seek to go beyond the appearance of something and understand its essence. Within formal thought, there is little if any difference between the form of a thing and the essence of a thing. A fish appears as something with no legs which lives in water, so that must be what a fish is. However, dialecticians study the existence of contradictions between form and content. A good example of this would be parliamentary democracy in capitalist societies. In form it is a system which allows the masses of people to determine the structure of society, but in content it is a way for the capitalist class to monopolize this process. Democracy in form, dictatorship in content .
Dialecticians understand that there can be contradictions in the essence of things as well. Formal thought dictates that light must be either a wave or a particle, but the truth is that light can be either or both. Light acts dialectically .
In other words, dialecticians see the truth as the whole picture. Each understanding or aspect of this picture is one-sided and incomplete. Dialecticians seek to understand things by synthesizing the different aspects and looking at their contradictions.
Now let’s look at materialism. Thankfully, this is a much simpler concept than dialectics. It is a mode of thought which stands in opposition to the notion that an idea can determine the world. For Marx and Engels, thoughts were not passive, independent reflections of the material world. Thoughts were the product of human labor, and contradictions within them had their roots in the contradictions of human society . This meant that dialectical materialism was not something that had been imposed from the outside. It could not be discovered merely by study or reason. It was a product of human labor changing the world; people changed and developed its form. It could only be understood by the struggle to overcome these contradictions, not merely in thought, but in practice. It sees the material world as primary . Our ideas are in large part determined by the way in which goods and services are coordinated within society. Being, matter, and nature are the base forces of society. Thinking, mind, and spirit are secondary to and derived from these. This concept serves to counteract idealism, which states that historical events are brought into existence when people act on their ideas. This is a flawed perspective because it does not explain how or why the idea came to exist in the first place. Through an analysis of productive forces, materialism does answer these questions .
Since dialectical materialism is concerned with practice, Marx and Engels were very interested in applying the philosophy to historical and political reality. The result of this process is known as historical materialism. Engels gave the best summary of this approach to history in his speech at Marx’s graveside. As he put it, “Marx discovered the law of human history. The simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion and so on. That therefore the production of the immediate material means of subsistence, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institution, the legal conception, art, and even the ideas on religion of the people concerned, have been evolved” 
This is the basis of what Marx and Engels Called the materialist conception of history, which later came to be called historical materialism. In order to survive, human beings must first meet their material needs. The way in which we go about meeting those needs profoundly shapes our society and the individuals in it. To take a contemporary example, the attitudes and beliefs of people who grow up in rural areas and engage in agricultural production are typically very different to those of the people who perform industrial labor in heavily populated urban areas .
In his speech, Engels calls the way production is organized and the level of economic development that a society has achieved the foundation on which other ideas and institutions rest . Elsewhere, he and Marx sometimes call it the base that supports a legal, political, and cultural superstructure. In using this metaphor of base and superstructure, Marx and Engels are not proposing that influence only goes in one direction. Legal, political, and even religion ideas can affect the way production is organized, and vise versa. These two things are constantly interacting with and shaping one another, in a dialectical relationship .
Over the long run, however, it is the productive base of a society that has the most profound effect on how that society develops. One reason why this is true is because human societies are and have been divided into classes. Those who are at the top of society will obviously use their considerable resources and influence to shape ideas and institutions in ways that benefit them. That is why Marx and Engels say in The German Ideology that “the ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class” . The power and wealth of the ruling class rests on their control of the economy. This is one important way in which the economic base and the material interests to which it gives rise determine the superstructure.
If the base in some way explains the superstructure, then we should expect fundamental changes in society as a whole to be due to changes in the base. Perhaps Marx’s most famous substantiation of this claim is contained in the preface to his 1859 book A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Here, he writes “in the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations which are independent of their will. Namely, relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of their relations of production constitute the economic structure of society, the real foundation on which arises a legal and political superstructure….It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness” .
Marx uses a lot of technical terms in this passage, but the two most important ones are the forces of production (productive forces) and the relations of production. The forces of production are all the elements needed to engage in the labor process. In other words, the things humans use to act upon and change the natural world in any particular historical period . These things will obviously change depending on a variety of factors, but there are two components needed for any labor process. Human labor power and means of production.
Human labor power includes not just the efforts of individuals, but what Marx calls modes of cooperation. These are the ways in which individuals work together to produce something. The social relations of slavery entailed slaves working together with their own tools, whereas the modern factory sees a number of workers operating large machines, often in concert with one another. These are two fundamentally different modes of cooperation .
The labor process also requires means of production. Land, raw materials, and the technology created to use them. These are things like factories, farms, machinery, and offices. Essentially, means of production are anything one would need to do work .
The labor process by itself, however, does not tell us what kind of society we have. As Marx put in it Capital Volume One, “the taste of porridge does not tell us who brewed the oats, and the production process we have presented does not reveal the conditions under which it takes place, whether it is happening under the slave owner’s brutal lash or the anxious eye of the capitalist” .
This fact brings us to the relations of production. These have to do not with the inner workings of the labor process, but with who controls the labor process and its output. As we have already noted, human societies have been divided into antagonistic classes for the past several thousand years. The class structure of any given society might be quite complicated, but there are generally two central classes: those who produce for not only for their own immediate needs but also produce a surplus, and those who control this surplus. In slave societies, slaves produced the surplus, which was then controlled by the slave owners. In feudal societies, peasants produced the surplus, which was controlled by lords. In capitalist societies, workers create surplus value, which is then controlled by capitalists .
It is these relations of production that define society. In the earliest human societies, there was little surplus produced. When there was a surplus, it was owned in common. These were primitive communist societies with no class differentiations. Since then, we have seen a variety of class societies emerge, including slave, feudal, and capitalist societies. Each one is distinguished by the specific way in which the rulers extract a surplus from the direct producers. The sum of all of a society’s relations of production constitutes what Marx calls its economic structure, or base. It is on this that the legal, political, and cultural superstructure rest .
There are two more things to say about the relations of production. First, in class societies, relations of production involve not just the specific relations of the ruling class to the producing class, but also the relationship of the members of the ruling class to each other. Members of the ruling class in one country want bigger market shares than members of the ruling class in another country, so their relationships are often antagonistic. However, different ruling classes may unite to combat a particular crisis or moment of intense class struggle. Fourteen capitalist nations were able to set aside their differences to invade the USSR and attempt to crush socialism, for example .
Second, there is an important relationship between the level of development of the forces of production and the specific relations of production that exist within a society. Marx says that the relations of production correspond to, or are appropriate to, specific stages in the development of the forces of production . What this means at a minimum is that not every set of relations of production is compatible with a given level of development in the forces of production. Modern industrial production is not compatible with chattel slavery, except at the margins. This is because it requires a workforce with the high level of technical knowledge necessary to operate complex machinery. This would be impossible in a chattel slave society. There, slaves must be kept ignorant so that they do not revolt against their masters. This is why it was illegal for slaves to learn to read in the American South prior to the Civil War. This is also because a modern industrial workforce must be highly flexible, able to be shifted from one sector to another relatively quickly, or laid off when the economy slows down. This would not be possible if the ruling class owned the producers, because they could not be gotten rid of so easily.
Similarly, Marx argues that communism is impossible in a society in which the development of the forces of production is not high enough to produce relative abundance. Without a high level of abundance, scarcity cannot be abolished. The result would be, as Marx and Engels put it it in The German Ideology, that “want is merely made general, and with destitution, the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced” . This is one reason why the transition period of socialism is necessary. It is in this period that the abundance necessary for communism is reached.
The forces of production, therefore, put limits on what relations of production are possible. Yet this is not all. As we will see, the forces of production can significantly affect the ways in which the forces of production develop. These, too, interact with and alter one another dialectically.
At any given point, the combination of the forces of production and the relations of production in a society make up what Marx called the mode of production in that society .
What is the point of all this terminology? The distinctions Marx draws are crucial for understanding the process of historical change. That is, how one economic structure, one network of social relations governing material production shift to a different structure. Put another way, how can a dominant class, be it feudal lords or modern capitalists, ever be removed from power given the vast amount of resources at its disposal? The ruling class not only has society’s ruling ideas in its favor, it also has control of the state and the armed men that come along with that.
Marx addresses this question of basic change in the above-mentioned 1859 preface. He writes “at a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production. From forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure” .
At a certain point, the development of the forces of production brings them into conflict with the existing relations of production. Relations that had previously been conducive to the development of the forces now hold them back. This results in a social crisis that weakens the power of the ruling class, and eventually results in its overthrow or transformation. This is how we went from slave society to capitalist society: the contradictions between the forces of production and the relations of production necessitated that this change take place.
According to this theory of historical materialism, the primitive communism of tribal societies represented the original thesis of human development. This in turn generated the antithesis of private ownership and class society (which came about through the development of productive forces). The synthesis of these ideas will be advanced communism, in which the workers own the means of production in an advanced industrial society. This can only emerge after various stages of development, such as slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and socialism .
Many people have interpreted this theory as being deterministic. They argue that, because developments in the forces of production are inevitable, communism must also be inevitable. At some point, the forces of production will develop to such a degree that socialism, and eventually communism, will come about naturally. There is no need, argue the determinists, to fight for socialism or communism, because history dictates that they will happen of their own accord.
But history is not an automatic process. Marx was well aware that there is no inevitability to human history. As he points out in the beginning of The Communist Manifesto, class struggle can culminate either in “a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes” . Marx argued that the end of capitalism was inevitable, due to the development of the productive forces. But the end of capitalism is not the same as the beginning of socialism. If we do not actively struggle for socialism, capitalism will result in the destruction of the planet. It is, as Rosa Luxembourg put it, a question of “socialism or barbarism” .
Marx continually emphasized the role of class struggle in history. His most often-quoted line is again in The Communist Manifesto, in which he wrote “the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles” . He did not believe that history could be reduced to impersonal economic forces. Rather it was the result of humanity acting, consciously or not, in the class interests dictated by its relationship to the means of production. In 1845, he wrote, “History does nothing. It possesses no immense wealth, wages no battles. It is man, real living man, who does all that, who possesses and fights. History is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims. History is nothing but the activities of man pursuing those aims” . Marx never denies the importance of human agency.
It follows from this that neither socialism nor communism are inevitable. The end of capitalism is likely inevitable due to the system’s need to progress and develop its forces of production. However, advanced communism will not come about in its own. The working class must first break free from the institutions of repression that capitalist society has created in order to perpetuate itself. This necessitates a violent revolution, ending in the establishment of socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat. This is a sudden qualitative change, coming about after a quantitative change in the number of class-conscious proletarians. Notice that this is in keeping with the second law of dialectics, the passage of quantitative change into qualitative change.
Dialectal materialism has further implications for revolutionaries, beyond that which I have just mentioned. To explain what I mean by this, I would like to introduce a metaphor. Capitalism is seen as being similar to gravity, in the sense that it envelopes our world completely. It does this to such a degree that it is easy for us to forget about it entirely. One can go through an entire day without thinking about how gravity or capitalism operate, but both still hold sway over one’s life.
In fact, the two are seen as so important that attempts to distance oneself from them can result in serious injuries or death. No one would look at a staircase and think they could simply avoid the reality of descending that staircase. If one did believe this, they would in all likelihood break their neck.
By the same token, workers in capitalist societies do not believe that they can simply take home with them that which they produced. To do this would be to risk the threat of job loss or even incarceration.
A consequence of this metaphor, which is propagated nearly every day in all spheres of life, is that capitalism is seen as immutable and eternal. The power of capitalism to structure the social world, like gravity’s pull on everything around us, is so all-encompassing that many people never even become aware of it as a force with its own laws. Other than physicists, few could state Newton’s law of universal gravitation. Other than economists, few could articulate capitalism’s law of surplus value extraction. Capitalism, like gravity, is treated by the masses as simply something that happens, rather than something that can be escaped from or transcended.
Capitalism, of course, is unlike gravity in the sense that it can be transcended. Capitalism is a historically specific social structure, the product of thousands of years of prior human civilizations. It is a product of human activity that emerged out of thousands of years of historical development. Just like the fish, it came after something (feudalism) and comes before something else. With any luck, this will be Socialism.
The dialectical method is a crucial tool, not only for understanding history, but for revealing the passing and transitory nature of a social system that, most of the time, appears to be a fact: as real and unmovable as the floor at the bottom of the staircase. As I said above, dialects takes as its starting point that the world is in a constant state of change, of motion. It follows from this that capitalism is a product of human activity that arises out of the material world.
The idealists saw ideas, rather than the material world, as the driving force of society, and thus saw the “criticism of false and mystifying ideas as the chief tasks of radicals” . Marx and Engels, by contrast, argued that consciousness arises from practical activity and is conditioned by that activity. They wrote, “[people], developing their material production…alter, along with this…their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness but consciousness by life” . Elsewhere, they maintained this view: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but…their social being that determines their consciousness” . Engels put this succinctly in his speech at Marx’s graveside, saying, “mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing before it can pursue politics, art, religion…the production of the immediate material means…form the foundation upon which [ideology and consciousness] of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must therefore be explained….” . Yet this is not all. If one simply stops with these selections, we will come away with a one-sided view of what Marx is arguing. Marx did not see the material world as a separate, objective reality independent of human activity. Rather, he saw the world as being constituted by human activity. Even nature, which would seem the most solid and objective fact, is itself changed by human activity. Marx explained this in the context of an argument against those who advocated going “back to nature” as an escape from class struggle. He wrote that “the nature that has preceded human history today no longer exists anywhere…” . Human activity changes nature, meaning that nature itself does not stand above human activity. The objective, material world does not exist independent of human activity. Indeed, the opposite is true. As Marx put it, “human activity is itself objective activity” . In other words, the material world is a product of human creation. We confront facts, but these facts were historically constituted by human action.
This was essentially Marx and Engels’ criticism of the mechanical materialists. These theorists viewed the world in a static way, as a series of objective factors that existed outside of, but simultaneously dictated, that activity. Marx, on the other hand, grasped the unity of thought and being. Although these things “[were] indeed distinct, they [were] also in unity with each other” . Marx viewed the material world in a dialectical sense. The world reacted upon humans, changing their conditions and modes of thought, but humans also acted upon and changed the world. In so doing, humans were able to alter “the products of their thinking,” as Marx put it above.
This is an incredibly important development in the history of revolutionary thought. Looking at the world today, with its hunger, poverty, inequality, and oppression, it is natural to feel helpless at times. But Marx shows us that these factors are historically contingent, created by humans engaging in activity. What we create, we can also tear down.
In light of this understanding of dialectical materialism (which opens up revolutionary action as a distinct possibility), we can come to understand ideology and consciousness. Consciousness, in dialectical thinking, is the “subjective link between objective processes” . How is this subjective link determined, and how is it that this subjective link is often distorted, rather than a useful guide to action? Why is it that, as Marx says, “the outward appearance of things and their essence do not in fact coincide?” . This gap between appearance and reality, in the realm of consciousness, is the context in which ideology assumes its importance.
A common refrain on the “broad left” is that we need to be attentive to people’s divergent lived experience, that those who live oppression know best how to organize around it. There is a significant sense in which this is true, and indeed obvious. It is the height of arrogance, of chauvinism, to assert that individuals (particularly oppressed individuals) do not have an accurate picture of themselves and their experiences regarding that oppression. The assertion that those who know most about oppression are those most fit to combat it is one that all revolutionaries should abide by. As Mao put it, “no investigation, no right to speak” .
But our lived experiences are not the end-all, be-all of life. Our consciousness often fails us. One might assume they are angry when they are really just afraid, for example. “False consciousness” is a phenomenon which we ignore at our own peril.
Additionally, individual lived experiences deviate strongly, and thus can never form a complete picture of a situation. If members of a particular social group report having similar lived experiences, then it would be reasonable to assume that these experiences are universal and “correct.” But this is not the end of the investigation; it is the beginning. Consciousness of the experience of oppression is an important part of political action, but more components need to be addressed. Where does this oppression come from and who does it serve? These are questions that cannot be fully answered by appealing to immediate lived experiences. Rather, they require rigorous social and theoretical investigation that takes lived experiences into account. Experiences are always mediated by the collective, social world. Conducting an investigation into a social issue without taking into account this collective world can only result in confusion and political failure.
In fact, trusting personal experiences without the weight of systemic investigation is a tactic used to uphold capitalism and oppression. The idea, for example, that a gay person has a correct analysis on all issues affecting the queer community, is a profoundly anti-revolutionary one. It shuts out any opinion that contradicts that which has been expressed by the particular gay person, and thus turns the queer community into a monolith. It actually contributes to the further marginalization of the oppressed, rather than their liberation.
Under capitalism, this means that pro-capitalist perspectives will always be privileged over and above anti-capitalist ones. Many queer perspectives (such as mine) hold that capitalism harms LGBT+ people, and should therefore be abolished. But absolute trust in personal experiences allows one to justify ignoring that perspective on the basis that some queer individuals (usually those in positions of power) believe that capitalism is beneficial to their community. Since these privileged perspectives are the ones that threaten the capitalist status quo the least, they are the ones likely to receive the most media coverage and public attention (this gets at the role of media in perpetuating ideology, which we will return to in some detail later). Since this is the case, the masses will be more likely to hear these opinions and treat them as incontrovertible facts. This means that radical queer perspectives will be ignored because they fail to conform to the “gay opinion. In this way, capitalism and oppression are strengthened rather than undermined. What we need is not a blanket accepting of personal experience, but a rigorous analysis that situates these experiences within a broader social context. We need to understand how these two components interact. What we need, in a word, is a dialectical materialist analysis.
How do we go from personal, immediate consciousness to a systemic consciousness? This question, Marxists argue, must be understood as a consequence of the division of society into dominating and dominated classes. Once society has been divided into classes, a growing division between mental and manual labor is introduced. For the first time, there are people who are able to concentrate their full efforts not on producing material goods, but on producing intellectual goods. This is where “ideology,” in the sense of a cache of ruling ideas and systems of thought, first arises.
In feudal society, these “Ideologues” were largely persists and other members of the clergy. Under capitalism, intellectual labor has been diversified. It is now carried out by the clergy, yes, but also economists, academics, think tanks, and media pundits. These intellectual laborers are, like manual workers, beholden to capital. Although they often have more autonomy and investment in this relationship, the fact remains that the ideas espoused by the “commentariat” will be those ideas that are least likely to offend their bosses and keep them employed. As such, these ideas will be ideas that work to uphold capitalism against the interests of labor. This is what Marx means when he says that “the ruling ideas are, in every epoch, are the ideas of the ruling class” .
These “ruling ideas” should not be understood mainly, or even primarily, as “propaganda” or ideas created for the specific purpose of “duping people” and upholding the supremacy of capital. Ideology arises out of definite social relations, the most fundamental way we organize our society to meet our basic needs. Ideology is not cooked up in the laboratory of capital (though it is often exacerbated by this), but is the product of real activity engaged with at the point of production. Objects, even ideological objects, are nothing but the result of human practice. Ideology arises out of the mode of production, but it does not do so unmediated. There is not a one-to-one relationship between ideology and mode of production. We cannot say, “because people live under capitalism, they all universally believe X,” in the same way that we cannot say “one gay person believes that capitalism is beneficial, so all gay people believe that capitalism is beneficial. The point is that mode of production is the first factor in determining the dominant ideology of a given society .
Ideology is an expression of the mode of production, but this does not mean that ideology is an accurate reflection of the mode of production. Rather, ideology is an inversion of the mode of production that helps to conceal its true character. Like many of his key concepts, Marx initially borrowed the idea from Hegel, then “turned it on its head” . Hegel argued that there was a distinction between appearance and essence, form and content. He further argued that the outward appearance was the inverse, the direct opposite, of the essence that it was meant to conceal. As Hegel puts it “it is the world itself and its opposite in a single unity” . For Hegel, this inversion arises out of the very process of objectified practice itself. When human beings create objects, when they produce things, their consciousness becomes split from that object. The object then appears as an alienated expression of human practice. As soon as we start to produce things that exist outside of us, there is a split between ideas and the object produced. For Hegel, this is a necessary consequence of the division between an object and abstract thought. Hegel implies that this inversion is inherent in the human condition of practice, and as such can never be overcome .
Marx approached inversion in a radically different way. For him, the fact that human beings produce objects independent from themselves is not inherently alienating. The process of object production only becomed alienating when the object, in addition to being literally independent from producer, is then forcibly taken from the producer and used to satisfy a need other than that of the producer. It is not production that is alienating, but a particular kind of production: the production of commodities .
Humans are not inherently unable to grasp the inner essence of a thing, to move beyond the appearance of that thing. Through conscious practice, we produce an objective power that is the conjunction of the relations of production (the manner in which we produce things) as well as the forces of production (our capacity to produce things). This objectification of our human activity is not in itself alienating. There is nothing unknowable about it, there is nothing that makes human beings unable to comprehend and consciously guide their practice. The alienation of human practice arises out of the fact that people do not control its results, but are controlled by them. This is not inevitable, but the product of definite social relations and conditions .
For Hegel, inversion and alienation are the product of a necessary split between consciousness and objectified practice, and thus are overcome (if they are overcome at all) purely through consciousness rather than material practice. All we need to do, in Hegel’s conception, is to recognize that objects are nothing but the result of our practice. On the question of religion, for example, humans simply needed to understand that they had created the idea of gods, not the other way around. God was the inverted product of human consciousness. Hegel assumed that as soon as we realized this, religious ideas and superstitions would disappear .
For Marx, on the other hand, inverted consciousness is the product of an inverted material reality. Religion was not just the product of an inverted conscious (in simple terms “bad ideas), but the way in which consciousness helped to explain a twisted and distorted reality. Ideologies are not just “bad ideas” but ideas that explain bad things. One cannot simply abolish religion by getting people to see it as an illusion, because it arises to explain a truth. This truth is inverted, but it is true nonetheless. Marx, then, proposes the existence of a “double inversion” with two main components. These are the “inversion of consciousness” and the “inversion of objectified social practice.” It is the inversion of consciousness that gives rise to ideology, while the inversion of objectified social practice gives rise to alienation. They are two aspects of the same process, two sides of the same coin .
All of this becomes clear when we look at the concrete workings of capitalism. The essence of the capitalist mode of production is the expropriation of surplus value from labor, or exploitation. But this is achieved through a “sleight of hand.” Workers are paid a wage, which appears as a free and fair exchange on the market. There may be a negotiation of the conditions under which this exchange takes place, lending credence to the idea that this exchange is fair. The terms of the exchange may ultimately be seen as unfair, but the exchange itself appears as legitimate. In fact, this is not the case. Under capitalism, the exchange of labor power for a wage is based, in its essence, on theft. While it may appear that labor is being bought, the capitalist is actually purchasing Labor Power-the ability to work. The capitalist buys the worker’s ability to produce as much as possible within the given amount of time. This produces a value far in excess of what the worker is paid, or even what is needed to reproduce the worker’s conditions of life. The excess is appropriated as surplus value . (see “What is Exploitation?”).
The dominant ideology is one that will explain and justify this appropriation. This is illuminated when we compare capitalist relations of production to feudal ones. Under feudalism, the labor of the producing class was split. Part of the day or year was spent producing the immediate needs of this class, while another part was spent producing goods that were then taken by the owning class (in this case the lords). It was obvious that the products of labor were being expropriated by a dominating class. Ideological forms emerged to make this seem like “common sense.” Religion and the Church came to dominate the feudal order. The Church preached obedience to one’s master and reward in the afterlife. The idea was that if you keep your head down and do as you are told, you will be rewarded with riches beyond your wildest dreams. This was meant to dissuade the producing class from struggle, since to struggle would mean jeopardizing their chances of entering heaven. The producers largely accepted this because they were beholden to the feudal lords (literally tied to the land) and thus felt that the lords were more intelligent than them .
Under capitalism, labor is still expropriated by a dominating class, but this process is concealed in the wages system. It appears to us as an objective, immutable function of market relations. Our very labor power is bought and sold via a “free market” governed by forces we are powerless to change. Like religion in the feudal era, free market ideology is meant to keep us from struggling against capital. Unlike the feudal epoch, however, ideology is also concealed. Workers do not struggle against capitalism proper not because they believe it will jeopardize their chances at some future reward, but because they believe it is impossible to do so. They see “the market” as something beyond human action, something that they could never hope to influence. As such, they see no point in attempting to abolish it .
Let us return to Marx’s “double inversion.” First, we have the inversion of material life, the dispossession of the laborer from the products of their labor and their labor power. Next, we have the inversion of appearances: the wage form that disguises this relationship and makes it appear as a fair exchange on the market. This inversion expresses itself in an inverted consciousness or ideology: “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work” .
In order for the capitalist class to realize surplus value, the products of labor must be sold on the market for a profit. This is what makes the products of labor commodities, with labor itself being the most essential commodity. Thus, everything produced by the working class appears not as products of their own creation, but as things separate from workers that have a life of their own on the market. This is the process of reification and commodity fetishism discussed in “What is Alienation?” .
This is why the reigning champions of bourgeois ideology are things like “freedom,” “equality,” and “the centrality of the individual.” These ideas conceal fundamental contradictions at the heart of the relations of production. We are “free” to sell our labor power to any capitalist we choose, but we are not free to abstain from selling our labor power altogether. We have no choice but to go to work in order to survive. We are “formally equal” before the law in a way that was not true of peasants, but we are fundamentally unequal in the sense that our bosses have near-absolute power over us. We are “individuals” in the sense that we must fend for ourselves in order to survive, but we do not have the capacity to develop and express the full range of our personalities. The most important and pervasive elements of bourgeois ideology are built into the workings of the system, baked into our social relations .
Because we must continually reproduce our social relations, the ideology that justifies these social relations is also reproduced. This is what Marx describes as “reproductive practice” . Through the labor process, workers sink deeper and deeper into false consciousness promoted by the capitalists. Ideology is not merely “ideas” but the material basis through which these ideas perpetuate themselves. Capital is compelled to reproduce itself by reproducing its opposite, labor. In order to ensure that capital’s opposite does not overtake capital, capital must ensure that the opposite is constantly made to feel as though it is impossible to do this. Reproduction of material wealth goes hand in hand with the reproduction of contradictory ideology.
This is where the idea of contradiction becomes important. It is not simply the case that the relationship between capital and labor exists at the heart of capitalist society as a whole. The important thing is that this relationship is contradictory. Labor and capital are not simply two halves of a whole, they are contradictory opposites that could not survive without conflict. They have antagonistic and irreconcilable interests. In a certain sense, however, they are dependent on one another. Capital is compelled to maintain itself, but it can only do so by further maintaining labor. This is its central struggle. For the working class, the inverse is true. It is compelled to abolish capital, and, by consequence, itself.
This antagonistic relationship gives rise to contradictory forms of consciousness and differing worldviews. The ruling ideas may be the ideas of the ruling class, but the ruling ideas are not (and cannot possibly be) the only ideas. They are contested. Thus, the dominant class has a very real interest in concealing the contradictions of capitalism. It is critical that the social relations within which we live are seen as natural, universal, and transhistorical. The history of how these relationships came to be must be obscured. The working class, however, has an interest in revealing the contradictions that are the genesis of its own inhuman conditions. The relationship between capital and labor is fundamentally antagonistic.
Bourgeois ideology, then, must be legitimized, justified, and reimposed. To do so successfully, it will necessarily avoid becoming monolithic. It will incorporate experiences of subordinate classes, and will attempt to create frameworks within which even oppositional movements will articulate their interests. For example, the capitalist class’ adoption of neoliberalism is not only a policy that serves their own interests, but also a framework in this vein. Movements can oppose neoliberalism rather than capitalism proper, thus allowing the bourgeoisie to adapt and continue its rule.
We will recognize these articulations as taking place in what Marx called the superstructure. Marx argued, as we have seen, that the economic foundation (the base), there arises a set of legal, political, and cultural institutions to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness (the superstructure). The superstructure is the arena in which contending forces (capital and labor) become conscious of their antagonisms and fight to resolve them. This often takes the form of competing political ideologies. For example, trade unionism and Keynesianism versus laissez-faire capitalism. Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci spoke of the superstructure as establishing the “terrain” on which people wage their initial struggles .
The rise of superstructures-and the component ideologies-is a historical process that goes through different stages. When a class is “rising” (when it is in a position to resolve the contradictions of society in its favor), it has a material interest in laying bare these contradictions and gaining a total understanding of them. Bourgeois economists, in their rising phase, “discovered” the idea that labor creates all wealth so that they could better discipline labor, though this is just one example .
A ruling class that is consolidating its hold, rather than on gaining a hold in the first place, has an interest in maintaining the existing social relations, and will therefore attempt to conceal contradictions. It can necessarily obtain only a partial view of the society it controls, because to have a full view of the society would be to reveal the necessity of its own destruction.
At this point, theory and ideas degenerate into attempts to transform specific, superficial aspects of society into general laws. This is reflected, for example, in the forms of social science under capitalism. We are presented with a series of separate, self-contained disciplines, such as politics and sociology. Each of these treats aspects of society as independent of one another rather than intimately connected. This is an ideological formation because the very way in which it is structured prevents us from understanding the whole of existing society. Ideology sanctifies the status quo .
Capitalism uniquely structures the way in which ideas are produced and put forward. Under capitalism, the market reigns supreme, even in the realm of ideas. There is a “marketplace of ideas” that tends towards a proliferation of different, if only slightly varied, ideas. Rather than the totalizing, hegemonic workings of the clergy present in feudalism, many ideas are “allowed” to contend. The very fact that there are so many of them helps to conceal the contradictions of class domination. We assume that because so many ideas are given airtime, no one can be oppressed. In actuality, however, all of these ideas perpetuate the rule of capital in some form or another .
If human beings create and recreate their own alienated conditions, and thus reproduce the ideological justification for these conditions, how is it possible to change these conditions? It would seem that we are doomed to be hemmed in by ideology. If ideology is built into the very ways in which we reproduce ourselves as people, how do we escape? We understand how consciousness arises, now we must contend with another problem: how does consciousness change?
For Marxists, the process of change is not an intellectual exercise, but a guide to action. Our conception of change is fundamentally linked to our end goal: revolution and the fundamental reordering of society. With this in mind, I would like to spend some time going over common non-Marxist ideas about change are and explaining why they are insufficient. There are three very common ideas about change that most of us will hold at one point or another in our political development. I am going to take each of these ideas in turn.
The very worst idea, the one that is least conducive to liberation, is that people do not change at all. This idea sees human beings as fundamentally static, unalterable, preprogrammed into certain modes of behavior. Its conclusions are profoundly cynical, and is often used to legitimate the worst forms of oppression, exploitation, and bigotry. If people are fundamentally unalterable, change in societal structures is out of the question entirely. Given this, it scarcely needs proof that we ought to abandon this idea. If oppression (or even oppressive behavior) is a given fact, why bother struggling against it all?
The second idea is very much the opposite of the one I just laid out. It proposes that we are all “sheep,” blindly following whatever lies the media feeds us. In this conception, we are blank slates, ready to do or buy anything the television tells us to. Of course, we are profoundly influenced by television, advertising, and the like. That is the point of these institutions! We must soberly assess the influence of these things if we wish to succeed. However, we must reject the idea that working class people are not capable of complex thought. This argument, as the explanation for why a certain group is not more progressive, is used to dehumanize the poor, exploited, and oppressed, and in this sense lets the capitalist class off the hook. It proposes that oppressed people are responsible for their own oppression, that it is their fault for not fighting against it sooner. But this ignores that the working class and the oppressed will always struggle. The question is not whether they will struggle, but how far that struggle will go.
The third idea is that ideas change through the gradual accumulation of better ideas. On this view, injustice is the result of ignorance or lack of knowledge about the rest of the world and the people in it. There is an element of truth to this concept. If one is never given the opportunity to learn about other cultures, this will impact one’s understanding of the world. This does not mean, however, that people’s lives would improve if they simply had “better ideas” or were “more educated.” According to this framework, the primary role of those interested in changing the world is to educate the masses, rather than organize them. This implies that those responsible for oppression are not in this position willfully, but because they have “bad ideas.” It asserts that we can convince the capitalist class and the oppressors to give up their positions of power and privilege. In order to be a capitalist, one must understand not only how to manage capital and read the market, but also how to wage war and make political deals. One does not get to run the world by being stupid. They know exactly what they are doing. The oppressors are not ignorant. Rather, they are interested in maintaining their own authority. The danger of this conception of change is that it blames individuals for their condition, not the system as a whole. If we are focused on individuals, we will never be rid of oppression. The capitalist class is like a hydra: cut off one head and two more grow in its place. What we need to do is not disempower or win over individual capitalists, but create a world in which the existence of capitalists is impossible.
If these explanations for how ideas or consciousness changes do not hold up, then what does? I would argue that dialectical materialism is the answer to this problem. In the above paragraphs, I attempted to explain why this is the case. We are shaped by our environment, but we are capable of shaping our environment as well. As Hericletus put it, “strife is the father of all things” . Contradiction, the struggle between two competing things, is the natural order, not the opposite. In light of this, we should interpret ideology as a thing constantly in flux, adapting and shifting. Not only this. We should see ideology for what it really is: something that can be overcome. There is nothing that cannot be transformed into something new. The old axiom holds true: the only constant is change.
The human capacity for changing the world, Marx argues, is what separates humans from other animals. He writes, “the species-nature of animal is an eternal repetition. That of humans is transformation, development, and change” . Our ability to consciously interact with and transform the world through labor, is what makes us human. Marx further argued that “humans make their own history, but they do not make it…under circumstances of their own choosing.” Rather, these circumstances are “directly…transmitted from the past” . History is the activity of real people interacting with and struggling against one another. Put simply, change is the product of struggle within and against a contradiction.
Ideas, then are not static, nor will they slowly evolve into better ones. Ideas do not evolve, they explode. They tend to change quite dramatically and suddenly, passing over from quantitative to qualitative. This occurs on both a collective and individual scale. Change is the product of contradiction. There are a number of contradictions inherent to capitalism that make change likely, and in some sense inevitable.
The major contradiction is that capitalism creates the conditions of exploitation and oppression (it cannot survive without either of these things), but these conditions produce resistance. It creates a class of people-the working class-that is not only interested in overcoming these conditions, but materially positioned to do so. Capitalism produces the potential for its own demise. To ask why the working class is not struggling for socialism is to miss the point. The struggle for socialism is a both a product of and the negation of capitalism. Revolution is an actuality, a determinate and distinct possibility.
How does the working class become aware of this possibility? In simple terms, they do so through struggle. The ruling ideas of society, no matter how powerful, come into contradiction with the lived experience of the working class. Gramsci put it this way: “worker resistance signifies that the social group in question may indeed have its own conception of the world, even if only embryonic, a conception which manifests itself in action” . It is only when struggle erupts that workers can understand the true nature of society and their place within it. It is only in activity that workers glimpse their real potential as a class, and come to understand what their interests are. It is in this process of struggle that workers come to understand their power and ability as well as their objective interests. They break free of the narrow vantage point that sees oppression and exploitation as individual issues rather than systemic ones. When the working class understands itself, it, in an admittedly somewhat limited sense, understands society as a whole. When what we are told comes into contradiction with what we experience, we are driven to struggle. The core of this is that people learn by doing. We learn about the world through a process of interacting with and being changed by it. It is in this learning that workers can overcome ideology.
A concrete example of this overcoming can be found in the Russian Revolution. The eight months in Russia between February and October consist in some of the most hurried and monumental political development the world has ever seen. Here, I want to examine how and why the workers went from handing power to the capitalists in February to seizing it for themselves by October. How is it that they went from creating dual power to insisting on sole power? This step requires a huge shift in consciousness, and I believe it has a number of lessons for how we ought to approach these questions today.
There are a few major periods that we ought to delineate between in order to learn these lessons, some of which lasted only a few weeks. The major period was an initial feeling of euphoria among workers and peasants, characterized by national unity, in February and March. This gave way to clear, opposing interests-antagonisms-in April. These antagonisms would sharpen into a premature attempt by some workers to take power in July, which lead to a time of reaction in which the bourgeoisie was capable of regaining control. That was followed by an overstep in August in which the capitalists attempted to institute a military dictatorship. Finally, of course, we have the October revolution itself, in which the working class realized it had no choice but to take complete control of the country. For the sake of space, I will largely focus on developments in Petrograd, which are in general reflective of the general mood of the country.
Amazing abilities in terms of working class consciousness flourished in February and April. Glimpses of the conflicts that would explode over the course of the year were visible in the first weeks of the revolution. Before getting into that, though, it is necessary to answer a burning question: why were two revolutions necessary in 1917? Why didn’t the workers jump straight ahead to running society after overthrowing the tsar?
Recall that after the fall of the tsar, two forms of government sprung up: the provisional government for the capitalists and the elected soviets for the workers. The soviets were stronger, and after the fall of the tsar, could have taken control of the country. It chose instead to willingly hand over power to the bourgeoisie. There are two major reasons for this.
The first is that no socialist organization in Russia called for soviet rule at the time. The main parties in the leadership positions of the soviets, the Mensheviks and the Social-Revolutionaries, both believed that the next step in struggle was establishing liberal capitalism. They thought the soviet was necessary, but only as a kind of “check” to prevent the return to tsarism . Even the Bolsheviks were divided on this question with up to four different positions. It would take several weeks, and Lenin’s return to Russia, before the Party would reach a consistent line. This was due in no small part to the publication of Lenin’s “April Theses” .
The second reason, and the most important for our purposes here, is that the workers themselves were not ready. They were caught up in a mood of national unity, a desire to return to normalcy after years of war. They faced fear of a return to tsarism or of civil war, and were underconfident in their own abilities. It is also important to note that the workers were generally making gains without a worker’s state. The secret police had been abolished, and trade unions had been legalized. Left political parties were allowed to operate aboveground. For many workers, taking on the burden of ruling seemed superfluous, unnecessary .
This does not mean that working class militancy was absent from the landscape. Workers struck over everything in this period. The eight-hour day, overtime pay, and maternity leave for women were all sites of struggle. In some cases, striking workers dumped hated bosses into canals from wheelbarrows. This shows that, even in a situation vastly improved from their previous one, workers will be driven to struggle by the very conditions of the economic system. In March, 95% of strikes lead to advancement . Workers won nearly every time they made demands. These victories, though not yet revolutionary, helped to develop the consciousness and ability of the working class.
This can be seen in the way that the workers resisted the attempts of the bourgeoisie to drive a wedge between their class and the soldiers. In response to the lie that the “greedy strikes” of the workers were endangering the war effort, workers at one factory sent a letter to the soldiers which read, “to our enemies, who are attempting to divide us, we loudly declare: no, stand back, for you are enslavers…living off our labor” . The bosses’ press campaign backfired, binding workers and soldiers more closely together. Some soldiers, although they were practically starving, sent money to the families of workers who had died in the revolution. Despite the tremendous power of the bosses (who controlled the majority of the newspapers) workers were able to form alliances with their ostensible enemies, the soldiers. Although ideology is often a stupefying force, it is not insurmountable. Workers will learn the falseness of the bourgeoisie’s ideas through struggle. They are not timid, but resolute and willing.
Not only did the workers have to wage ideological struggle with their own bourgeoisie, they also came into conflict with the early leaders of their soviets over a number of issues. One of these was the so-called “liberty loan,” proposed by the Provisional Government in April as a means to help fund the war effort. The soviet leadership was for it, even though individual factory committees-and the Bolsheviks-were against it. On April 7, the Soviet Executive Committee voted 21 to 14 to endorse the loan. On April 10, the workers retaliated. One engineering department resolved, by a vote of over 400 to 7, drafted a declaration which read, in part, “this fratricidal war…is a benefit only to the imperialist bourgeoisie, we do not consider it the interest of the socialist proletariat to take part in this loan. [T]he money should be taken from the pockets of the bourgeoisie that has instigated and continued this slaughter, making millions in profit….We consider [acceptance of the loan] to the cause of the proletariat a betrayal….” This issue lead to the first recall of soviet delegates, with Bolsheviks generally being elected in their place .
As a result of all this activity, some workers began to recognize the need to take over some elements of management. During this period, the workers were making gains at the same time that they were accruing a kind of “struggle debt.” The settlements worker’s made with the bosses could not solve the fundamental contradictions of an anarchic, war-torn capitalist economy. They could only postpone further reckoning. The gains made were outstripping the economy’s ability to deliver. Workers, through the very process of winning reforms, came to understand that capitalist ideology was wrong: capitalism could not create a society in which the working class and the oppressed were truly free .
In the April days, a secret note was published by the Provisional Foreign Minister Miliukov, swearing to Russia’s allies that the country would be in the war “until the last drop of blood” . Petrograd exploded in a series of political strikes that called for an end to the war and attacked the soviets for not taking more concrete steps towards this goal. Bolsheviks used this opening to push workers further, towards revolution. We see here that worker’s struggles lead to a rudimentary form of political consciousness, rather than simply more and more ambitious economic demands. Workers begin to overcome bourgeois ideology in the process of their own struggles.
During the course of May and June, Petrograd workers became increasingly fed up with the Provisional Government, moving far ahead of the rest of the country, which still accepted dual power. In early July, discontent began to boil over. More and more workers became angry, leading to greater revolutionary zeal. Dialectically speaking, a quantitative change gave way to a qualitative one. A layer of workers set their sights on toppling the provisional government, despite their battles being confined to the factory floor a few short months prior. This lead to massive repression, and Lenin was forced into hiding .
By May, inflation had eaten away at all the gains made by the workers previously. Food shortages abounded, while rations were cut. In some instances, factory owners attempted to move machinery out of the cities on barges. Far from leading to deteriorated class consciousness, this further galvanized workers and pushed them towards the seizure of power. Having learned through struggle that victory in the realm of reforms was possible, workers were ready to defend them with their lives. They physically blocked machine removal and struck to protect their gains, the eight-hour day chief among them. The length of strikes doubled between March and May . While it might seem that ideology is a mountain that cannot be climbed, workers will continue to struggle even in periods of defeat. This struggle is a matter of survival. It is the working class’ need to struggle against the bosses that allows them to break through ideology.
Soon, many workers began to realize that a system requiring owners would always leave their class at a disadvantage. In early June, a delegate from a power company said, “for us workers, it is clear that the bourgeoisie is waging a counter-revolution against democracy…the immediate establishment of worker’s control [can alone put an end to] the counter-revolutionary ideas of the capitalists” . Another statement from an infantry reserve regiment read, in part, “we demand that the soviets seize all power…we will never allow anyone to destroy [our revolution]” 
By August, most workers were completely fed up with the bourgeoisie. In Moscow, the Provisional Government discovered that waiters would not serve them in restaurants, cabbies would not drive them to their meetings, and hotel workers refused to clean their rooms. This was in spite of the moderate leadership of the Moscow soviet telling workers want to strike. In many cases, the experience of struggle leads workers to run ahead of the traditional leadership . Would this be the case if ideology were the death blow many claim it to be?
Despite this tremendous leap in class consciousness (which again puts the lie to the idea that ideology is impenetrable), many workers still believed that factory owners were necessary. They simply wanted to maintain control commissions that would oversee every aspect of their work. Although the advanced workers understood that their class could rule, the majority was still inundated with the bourgeois idea that they could not do so.
We see here that, although workers are able to overcome certain aspects of ideology on their own, class consciousness will always remain uneven. The advanced workers must organize into a vanguard party and lead the majority towards revolution. This can be seen by the fact that the workers were transformed into a fighting force by following Bolshevik orders. The Bolsheviks helped form a defense committee, which expanded the workers militias, procured weapons, and taught thousands of workers how to shoot. The factories increased production to arm these budding revolutionaries, producing as much in three days as usually took three weeks . With the intervention of the Bolsheviks, workers came to understand that a new society was not only necessary, but possible.
The role of organization cannot be overstated. My aim here has not been to convince you that workers are already revolutionary, but that they are worth being made revolutionary. We ought not despair at the prominence of ideology. The experience of the Russian Revolution shows that workers will always struggle and seek to overcome ideology. The working class did not immediately reach revolutionary consciousness. It required months of agitation on the part of the advanced workers, represented by the Bolshevik Party.
The fact remains, though, that working class struggle is inevitable. This raw material, revolutionary in aims, must be molded into a disciplined force capable of winning a revolution rather than just wishing for one. The answer to the question “why haven’t workers made revolution?” is not just “ideology,” but “organization.” Workers have yet to make revolution not because they think it impossible, but because, on some level, socialists do. The power of the working class must be refined and awakened in struggle. If we want to make a revolution, we must organize workers for this purpose.
The point, ultimately, is this: people’s ideas are not fixed. People can and do move from accepting the status quo to turning it on its head, but this process is one of long, protracted struggle. It is neither mechanical nor determined. It requires politics, discipline, and organization.
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- Quoted in Western, David, Rosemary Groom, and Jeffrey Worden. “The impact of subdivision and sedentarization of pastoral lands on wildlife in an African savanna ecosystem.” Biological Conservation 142.11 (2009): 2538-2546.
- Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The german ideology. Vol. 1. International Publishers Co, 1972.
- Quoted in Amoore, Louise. The global resistance reader. Psychology Press, 2005.
- Biersteker, Thomas J. “Evolving perspectives on International political economy: Twentieth-century contexts and discontinuities.” International Political Science Review 14.1 (1993): 7-33.
- Frankel, Jonathan. “Lenin’s Doctrinal Revolution of April 1917.” Journal of Contemporary History 4.2 (1969): 117-142.
- Nabokov, Vladimir. The Provisional Government. John Wiley & Sons, 1970.
- Ascher, Abraham. The revolution of 1905: Russia in disarray. Vol. 1. Stanford University Press, 1994.
- Steinberg, Mark D. Voices of revolution, 1917. Yale University Press, 2001. p. 92
- Chamberlin, William Henry. The Russian Revolution, Volume I: 1917-1918: From the Overthrow of the Tsar to the Assumption of Power by the Bolsheviks. Vol. 1. Princeton University Press, 2014.
- Lincoln, W. Bruce. Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War, 1918-1921. Da Capo Press, 1999.
- Rabinowitch, Alexander. Prelude to revolution: The Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July 1917 uprising. Vol. 661. Indiana University Press, 1991.
- Chamberlin, Op. Cit.
- Rabinowitch, Alexander. The Bolsheviks come to power: The revolution of 1917 in Petrograd. Pluto Press, 2004.
- Chamberlin, Op. Cit.
Trade Unions and Consciousness Under Neoliberalism
Marx and Lenin both held that the working class was the chief agent for radical social change in society. It was only this class that was compelled by its very existence to struggle against the ruling force in society, the power of capital. Workers were forced to struggle with their bosses for things like higher pay and better working conditions, and it was this struggle that molded them into a force capable of radically reconstituting society. In 1845, Engels argued, “[W]hat gives these Unions and the strikes arising from them their real importance is this, that they are the first attempt of the workers to abolish competition. They imply the recognition of the fact that the supremacy of the bourgeoisie is based wholly upon the competition of the workers among themselves; i.e., upon their want of cohesion. And precisely because the Unions direct themselves against the vital nerve of the present social order, however one-sidedly, in however narrow a way, are they so dangerous to this social order” . Unions helped to organize the working class into a class, making them conscious of the need to challenge their capitalist masters. The lessons they learned in union struggles laid a foundation upon which socialists could build a revolutionary, anti-capitalist worker’s movement.
However, the capitalist system has changed a great deal since Engels wrote that famous passage. In the mid-1970s particularly, US manufacturing began to lag behind its competitors in Germany and Japan. This led business leaders to adopt a strategy known as neoliberalism. Neoliberalism holds that the government, rather than being a potential solution to the problems of the market as in the earlier Keynesian formulations, was itself the problem. Neoliberalism is thus characterized by the weakening of central state’s’ influence over the economy, deregulation, and, crucially, union-busting. Although neoliberalism claims to detest government intervention in the economy, as I have just described, nothing could be further from the truth. While decision-making was pushed to the localities in many parts of the world (we will discuss this in more detail later), neoliberalism has actually been characterized by what many call “corporate welfare,” in which the government hands out billions of dollars in subsidies per year to industries such as banking and oil. The bank bailouts of 2008’s Great Recession demonstrated this fact vividly: the federal government not only rescued the same Wall Street behemoths whose reckless greed caused the financial meltdown, but has since allowed these corporations to rake in billions of dollars of undisclosed profits . The point here is that there is a wide gap between the professed ideology of neoliberalism and its actual practice.
Forming new organizations such as the Business Roundtable and resurrecting the viciously anti-union Chamber of Commerce, they forged a plan to drastically lower working-class living standards. As Business Week summarized at the time, “It will be a hard pill for many Americans to swallow—the idea of doing with less so that business can have more… Nothing that this nation, or any other nation, has done in modern economic history compares in difficulty with the selling job that must now be done to make people accept the new reality” . This is the essence of neoliberalism: it is about stripping away the sparse gains made by the working class in the Keynesian era and building a society in which the capitalist class openly enriches itself on the backs of the workers. This was plain to see by the mid-1980s, in which corporations published texts which promised to “show you how to screw your employees (before they screw you) and how to keep them smiling on low pay—how to maneuver them into low-paying jobs they are afraid to walk away from — how to hire and fire so you always make money” . Neoliberalism, therefore, is about the capitalist class enriching themselves by any means necessary, workers be damned.
Naturally, one of neoliberalism’s first orders of business was to attack unions. One crucial way in which it did this was to spread anti-union propaganda in the media. During Bill Clinton’s presidency, union manufacturing workers faced tremendous pay cuts, in accordance with neoliberal doctrine . In order to justify this, the media spread a false image of the overpaid autoworker with so-called “gold-plated benefits.” This onslaught has continued to the present day. As recently as 2008, the New York Times falsely claimed that United Auto Workers (UAW) members were earning an average of $70 per hour, including benefits . When the Times made that claim, the starting wage of a newly-hired union auto worker was $14.50 an hour . The media has engaged in a concentrated effort to turn the public against unions, even resorting to outright lies to accomplish their goals.
This tactic has not been as effective as the capitalists would like. According to a 2013 poll by Pew Research Center, “about half of Americans have a favorable view of unions” . The relative failure of the ideological assault on unions has led the capitalist class to adopt more ruthless union-busting tactics, such as threatening to close shops if a union election succeeded. According to a working study produced by the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy, nearly 50 percent of all serious allegations of union busting tactics, both legal and illegal, by employers happens after workers express initial interest in a union, but before an official petition has even been filed requesting a vote on union representation . Employers have become emboldened by neoliberalism, carrying out anti-worker activities that blatantly ignore the gains made by labor struggles in previous eras. Scott Walker’s Wisconsin bill that stripped unions of their basic collective bargaining rights sparked protests that made international headlines . What is not typically known, however, is that this proposed law was not an isolated event. It represented a concerted strategy to attack public workers simultaneously, state by state. This initiative was spearheaded by Republicans in Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana, but echoed in states dominated by Democrats, including Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York . In 2017, similar bills are being considered all across the country. Kentucky house Republicans, to name one example, are currently under fire from union activists for proposing two bills that would prevent public sector workers from going on strike . Neoliberalism’s anti-union strategies have continued to this day. They have also enjoyed bipartisan support, further evidence that neither major American party is grounded within the working class.
It is this climate that led to the labor movement, particularly in the United States, to being what it is now: fractured and impotent compared to the mass strikes of the 1930s. According to one study, “in 2013, there were 14.5 million members in the U.S., down from 17.7 million in 1983. The percentage of workers belonging to a union in the United States (or total labor union “density”) was 10.8%, compared to 20.1% in 1983” . Union membership is in a dismal state in the United States, and strikes are even worse. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2016, there were only 15 work stoppages involving a thousand or more workers,, compared to 270 in 1947 .
This decline in union membership and strikes has the potential to lead many radicals away from the Marxist thesis that the working class is the primary (though by no means only) revolutionary agent in society. After all, that assertion is premised on the idea that the workers are driven to struggle in unions, and that they can become a revolutionary force on the basis of this struggle. It is within this struggle that workers learn of their true power in society: they are the ones that produce all the things we need to live. Thus, their best tactic in struggle is the strike. Strikes involve withholding labor power until demands are met. The economy will grind to a halt as a result of this, which will in turn lead the general population to accept this theory as well. As I have argued previously on this blog, workers still possess the objective ability to withhold their labor and achieve demands. But if they are not even aware of this, much less involved in organizations that would allow them to take advantage of this ability, what use is it? The decline of unionization under neoliberalism, so the argument goes, has resulted in an impotent working class that can never become conscious in a revolutionary way because they are not even conscious of their short-term interests against the bosses. There are elements of truth to this argument, but I would like to argue that it is false, premised on a misunderstanding of what Marx and Lenin meant by “trade-union consciousness.”
To explain what I mean by this, I’d like to return to the passage from Engels quoted above. The important thing about unions, he implies, is that they make workers conscious of their interests against capital, against their bosses. Lenin expanded upon this notion of trade-union consciousness, writing in What is to be Done, “[Trade union struggles] marked the awakening antagonisms between workers and employers; but the workers, were not, and could not be, conscious of the irreconcilable antagonism of their interests to the whole of the modern political and social system, i.e., theirs was not yet Social-Democratic consciousness” . By this, he meant that trade union struggles make workers aware of the fact that they need to struggle, but do not make them aware that they need to abolish capitalism as a whole. “Trade-union consciousness,” then, is merely a shorthand for ‘worker’s organization that is not yet revolutionary.’ The institution of the trade union was the predominant way in which workers attained this level of consciousness in the time of both Marx and Lenin, hence the name. This does not mean, however, that workers cannot come to the above-mentioned realizations in other ways. Put another way, the decline of unions does not necessarily mean a decline in working-class consciousness. As I will argue, neoliberalism has not eliminated this consciousness. It has merely changed the form it takes. In many cases, I think, neoliberalism has led the working class to become more conscious of the need to struggle within the system of capitalism. The working class remains, as Marx put it “a class as against capital” . Thus, it remains a potential revolutionary agent.
To begin, I think it is important to remember that although unions have been weakened hugely under neoliberalism, they are still around. We should focus on the struggles that have occurred around union-busting efforts themselves. In Kentucky, for example, “Hundreds of union workers crammed the hallways of the legislative office building,” in an attempt to prevent the anti-union bill from being passed . Similarly, protests erupted over anti-union bills in Michigan. This was despite the fact that the protestors faced fines and even jail time by doing so . In Indiana, “[T]housands of union supporters that packed the Statehouse this morning and spilled out onto Downtown sidewalks hoped their show of solidarity would be enough to dilute legislative support of a proposed right to work bill” . This is one key problem with the “decline of the working class” theory. Not only do unions still exist, they are active in the struggle against the bosses. There are many criticisms of unions to be made, especially from a Marxist perspective, but the fact remains that mass worker’s actions have sprung up around unions. Clearly, workers retain literal trade-union consciousness, albeit in a highly reduced form. It follows from this that there is still a foundation upon which socialists can build a revolutionary working class movement. The battle in Wisconsin, as well as elsewhere, demonstrated how capitalism could once again propel workers into struggle, opening the door to rebuilding the labor movement on the basis of collective struggle. There is much work to be done, since neoliberalism has so successfully forced workers to compete in a race to the bottom on a global scale over the last three decades. The potential, however, exists.
But, as I have argued, trade union consciousness can exist outside unions. In many cases, it can go beyond unions. Unions, as Engels remarked, are strictly economic organizations. They negotiate the terms of exploitation under capitalism and, as such, are focused purely on economic demands. This is evidenced by the fact that solidarity strikes are illegal in the United States. A solidarity strike is also called a sympathy strike, in which workers strike in support of an action by another enterprise. These strikes are helpful not only in achieving the demands of workers, but also in forging unity among different sections of the working class, a necessary precondition for revolution. Despite these benefits, workers cannot engage in these strikes with the support of unions . While unions can help workers learn how to struggle, they also impose limits on that struggle. Marxists have always understood this to be the case, which is why they have urged activists to develop the working class movement beyond economic struggles.
Neoliberalism has seen the masses of workers breaking away from the restrictive union form in favor of more open, advanced organizations. None of these organizations have been capable of waging a revolution against the whole capitalist system, and many have not even been interested in doing so. As such, these non-union struggles do not invalidate the need for a strong socialist presence in the worker’s movement. Due to the pervasiveness of capitalist ideology, the working class cannot come to revolutionary consciousness through its day-to-day struggles with capital. This necessitates, as Lenin argued, a vanguard party, made up of socialists and the most advanced sections of the working class . Non-union struggles under neoliberalism must therefore be thought of as a more advanced form of trade union consciousness, which I will call movement consciousness. This movement consciousness takes the form of mass self-organization that is independent of the capitalists, though not free from their influence. This self-organization transforms the workers from a class against capital and into a class for itself. It is much easier for socialists to build on this kind of organization than it is to build on union organization. Movement consciousness leads to the creation of institutions that are more radical in content than unions, though often not by much. This is what I mean when I say that neoliberalism has made workers more conscious than previous stages of capitalism. Neoliberal restructuring and austerity push the working class closer to revolutionary tendencies within the existing system. Again, though, the working class cannot completely break free of bourgeois ideology without the concerted effort of socialists. This is because bourgeois ideology is targeted specifically on the working class. It is designed to trap them. (See my posts Lenin’s Theory of the Vanguard Party and Leninism and the Mass Line for more on this).
To better illustrate what I mean by movement consciousness, I would like to turn away from the United States. Proponents of the “declining working class” theory only ever seem to focus on America. Since I am attempting to lay out an alternative theory, it is only natural that I broaden my scope beyond this. Neoliberalism has not just been about the United States. The working class in the Americas and the Global South has felt the lash of neoliberalism to a much greater degree.
The example of India is an instructive one. As of 2015, the union density in this country is nine percent (9%), even lower than in the United States . If the decline of the working class theory is true, then it would follow that workers in India are less conscious, less informed of the need to struggle, as a result of this low union density. Nothing could be further from the truth. In 2016, an estimated 150 million to 180 million Indian public sector workers went on a 24-hour nation-wide general strike against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plans for increasing privatization and other economic policies that could be described as neoliberal in nature. This strike was led, in part, by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) . This group understands that unions are not the only arena in which workers can develop “trade-union consciousness.” The low union density in India, like in the United States, has not meant a decline in the struggles of the working class. The working class will always be driven to struggle, will always attempt to change the world. In the era of neoliberalism, communists and revolutionaries need to broaden their conceptions of how this occurs.
I would like to spend the rest of this essay focusing on Bolivia. This a very small country in Latin America, but it is where some of the most extraordinary struggles against neoliberalism have taken place. Bolivia’s experience with neoliberalism began in the 1980s and it was brutal. The struggle against it, however, was equally as strident. It saw the birth of new social movements that taught workers how to struggle. These movements were then built upon by socialists, showing that they generate a similar form of consciousness to the trade union consciousness spoken of by Marx and Engels.
Like many countries in the Global South, Bolivia was very dependent on a small number of commodities for export. In Bolivia, the export of tin was crucial to the survival of the economy. In the 1980s, the price of tin collapsed. This was not the result of overproduction, but rather international speculation . With the collapse of tin came the collapse of the Bolivian Peso. In 1985, the inflation on Bolivia’s currency ran at twenty thousand percent (20,000%) . Clearly, drastic measures needed to be taken to revitalize the economy. Enter neoliberalism. The project of Bolivarian neoliberalism was initiated by the head of state, Estenssoro. He found allies in Gonzalo Sanchez, the owner of Bolivia’s biggest mine, and the University of Chicago economist Jeffrey Sachs. Economists pegged the peso to the US dollar in order to control inflation. Thirty-five thousand state workers were fired in an effort to cut government expenditures . To put that in perspective, imagine if one million public sector workers had been laid off in the United States. Immediately after neoliberalism came to blight Bolivia, it accrued huge human costs.
The core of the Bolivarian worker’s movement prior to the advent of neoliberalism had been the tin miner’s union, which had an incredible thirty thousand members. Twenty-three thousand of them lost their jobs in one year. Twenty-five thousand rural teachers lost their jobs, and one hundred twenty factories closed after state subsidies were withdrawn . By the end of the 1980s, there were one million Bolivarians who had fled to Argentina seeking work . The total population of Bolivia at the time was about ten million. An astounding ten percent (10%) of the country was gone, and those who could still work were not organized. The State also played a part in smashing old unions. In 1985, 143 leaders who had led strikes against neoliberalism were placed into internal exile. They were dispersed to shantytowns in Cochabamba, El Alto, and elsewhere . From good jobs in the mines, workers were reduced to harvesting cocoa in the fields. By the 1990s, income from cocoa producers supported around fifty thousand families. In a sense, cocoa had replaced tin as the central commodity in the Bolivarian economy .
The “decline of the working class” theory would hold that there was no hope for socialism in Bolivia. Workers, without trade unions, could not hope to organize themselves and resist neoliberalism. In the absence of such self-organization, socialists could never intervene and build a strong anti-capitalist movement. As we will see, nothing could have been farther from the truth.
Although the tin miners had been driven into the cocoa fields, they still had experience in organizing. The cocoa growers, many of them displaced tin miners, became neoliberalism’s biggest opponent. They formed a social movement (the Chiperi) rather than a union . This movement eventually gave rise to a Party. By 2002, this had become the second-largest political party in the region . This shows that workers can still organize without a union. They are driven to struggle under all forms of capitalism, and will always achieve some form of consciousness upon which socialists can build.
As I said above, a key component of neoliberalism involves weakening the central state so that it cannot interfere in the economy. In Bolivia, there was a massive push to decentralize and push decision making to the localities. The mass of the population was situated here. What’s more, they were indigenous, and had been excluded from the process of decision making for generations. The local mobilized indigenous communities took advantage of neoliberal industrialization to become (in many cases) heads of the municipal governments that were formed at the time. Campesino and indigenous representatives were elected to twenty-nine percent (29%) of seats in 200 municipalities . One of these parties, which called itself the Assembly for Indigenous People’s Sovereignty served as the immediate precursor for the Mas, the movement towards socialism, of which Evo Morales is the most well-known figure . Socialists in Bolivia have recognized the role of social movements in the development of working-class consciousness. The old center of popular resistance, the unions, had been weakened. A new one, made up of ex-miners, the unemployed, urban poor, and cocaleros, had emerged as an alternative. This was a deeply working class movement embedded in indigenous notions of community and rights. In which the working class became aware of itself as an agent for social change. They went on to seize political power on a scale that has never before been seen in America. This level of consciousness was only possible because of neoliberal restructuring. It led to a near-revolutionary situation throughout Bolivia. On October 7, a mass demonstration blocked the twin cities of La Paz and El Alto, leading to clashes with security forces. In the ensuing violence, fifteen people died . By October 17, the police were siding with the demonstrators and the head of state had fled to the US . There was nearly an insurrection in the country.
This marks a return-or rather a continuation-of working class self-organization. This was probably the most successful neoliberal attack in the Americas at the time, smashing the preexisting organizations of the working class. Over the next fifteen years, working class organizations remerged in new ways. There were no traditional trade unions, and yet the workers achieved extraordinary levels of consciousness and struggle. The unions were smashed, but the emergence of ex-miners working alongside rural laborers were able to threaten the whole political system of the country. Even though old labor was gone, labor was not. There were thousands of exploited people who found new ways of organizing, created new institutions. This was the key to victory. Far from declining as a force for social change, neoliberalism has caused the working class to become more militant than ever. The over-reliance of some socialists on the trade union form as the originator of consciousness has made them blind to this. The working class of Bolivia created myriad unemployed organizations, women’s organizations, and indigenous organizations, based on mass meetings of thousands of people. These, rather than trade unions, were what taught the working class to struggle. They generated a new form of preliminary consciousness among the workers. Nevertheless, it served the same function as the trade union consciousness of Marx and Lenin.
The experience of Bolivia-and that of India-shows us that the working class will always self-organize. Just because this organization does not take the form of the trade union does not mean it does not exist. If socialists broaden their definition of trade union consciousness, as I have argued, they will realize that there is always something to build upon. Trade union consciousness is not merely “that consciousness which is attained in trade unions.” Trade union consciousness is that which teaches the workers to struggle, and struggle effectively. It can exist outside of trade unions. In Bolivia and elsewhere under neoliberalism, this consciousness most often takes the form of social movements. Recognizing this is key if we want to win the fight for a better world.
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- Drew DeSilver “Job categories where union membership has fallen off most.” Pew Research Center, 27 Apr. 2015,
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- Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Union Membership Summary” Jan 24, 2014
- “Table 1. Work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers, 1947-2016.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
- Lenin, V.I. “Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?: The Spontaneity of the Masses and the Consciousness of the Social-Democrats.” Marxists Internet Archive.
- Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 6 (New York: International Publishers, 1976), 211.
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- Lenin, V.I. “Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?: The Spontaneity of the Masses and the Consciousness of the Social-Democrats.” Marxists Internet Archive. Op. Cit.
- Madan, Karuna (September 2, 2016). “Strike call evokes mixed response in India”. Gulf News India.
- Monique Plesas, “The Effects of Neoliberalism and its Hegemony in Bolivia” Glendon Journal of International Studies, 2013
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- Benjamin Kohi and Linda C. Farthing, Impasse In Bolivia, Neoliberal Hegemony and Popular Resistance (Zed Books, 1988) 72
- Peter D. Little, Living Under Contract (Wisconsin University Press, 2006) 75
- Benjamin Kohi and Linda C. Farthing, Impasse In Bolivia, Neoliberal Hegemony and Popular Resistance (Zed Books, 1988) 81. Op. Cit.
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- Sivak, Martín (2010). Evo Morales: The Extraordinary Rise of the First Indigenous President of Bolivia. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 35
- Benjamin Kohi and Linda C. Farthing, Impasse In Bolivia, Neoliberal Hegemony and Popular Resistance (Zed Books, 1988), 90. Op. Cit.