What is Alienation?

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 [1].

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.” [2]. 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 [3].

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 [4].

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” [6]. 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 [7]. Similar results were obtained by a 2006 survey on workplace stress by the Anxiety Disorders Association of America [8].

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 [9].

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 [10].

  1. Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The economic and philosophic manuscripts of 1844 and the Communist manifesto. Prometheus Books, 2009.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Nelson, Lindsay, and Wayne O’Donohue. “Alienation, psychology and human resource management.” (2006).
  8. Shin, Lisa M., and Israel Liberzon. “The neurocircuitry of fear, stress, and anxiety disorders.” Neuropsychopharmacology 35.1 (2010): 169-191.
  9. Health Inequalities among British civil servants: the Whitehall II study”. Lancet. 337 (8754): 1387–1393.
  10. Marx, Op. Cit.

What is Exploitation?

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 [1].

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 [2].

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 [3].

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 [4]. 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 [5].

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” [6]. 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 [7]. 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 [8].

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” [9]. 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 [10].

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 [11].

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 [12].

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” [13]. From this study,  Marx “went on to reveal the relations among people hidden behind commodities” [14].

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 [15].

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” [16] and consequently the only genuinely revolutionary class existing under capitalism.

  1. Karl Marx, “The Class Struggle in France 1848 to 1850,” Marx and Engels Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers 1973), Vol. 1, p. 282.
  2. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (Moscow: Progress Publishers, emphasis in original), pp. 43-44.
  3. Mao Tse-tung, “On Practice: On the Relationship Between Knowledge and Practice, Between Knowing and Doing,” July 1937.
  4. Karl Marx, “Preface and Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,” (Peking: Foreign Language Press), p. 3.
  5. V.I. Lenin, “The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism,” March 1913.
  6. Mao Tse-tung, “Talk at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art,” May 1942.
  7. V.I. Lenin, “‘Left-wing’ childishness and the Petty Bourgeois Mentality,” May 5, 1918.
  8. V.I. Lenin, “‘Left-wing’ Communism – An Infantile Disorder,” April/May 1920.
  9. V.I. Lenin, “‘Left-wing’ Communism – An Infantile Disorder,” April/May 1920.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Joseph Stalin, “The Foundations of Leninism,” April 1924, note 48.
  12. Joseph Stalin, “Concerning the Question of the Proletariat and the Peasantry,” January 27, 1975.
  13. Mao Tse-Tung, “Criticize Han Chauvinism,” March 16, 1953.
  14. V.I. Lenin, “Collected Works,” Volume 4, p. 280.
  15. V.I. Lenin, “Collected Works,” Volume 4, p. 282.

What is a Class?

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 [1]. Bernie Sanders’ rhetoric of “political revolution” galvanized a new generation of activists [2]. 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 [3].

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 [4]. Means of Production are things like factories, machinery, farms, and offices. In short, anything that is necessary to do work [5]. Labor power, which I will describe more later, is the ability to do work [6]. 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 [7].

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 [8]. 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 [9]. 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 [10].

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 [11]. 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” [12]. 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.

  1. Parkin, F. Marx’s Theory of History: A Bourgeois Critique. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.
  2. Edward Andrew (September 1983). “Class in Itself and Class against Capital: Karl Marx and His Classifiers”. Canadian Journal of Political Science. 16 (3): 577–584. JSTOR 3227396.
  3. Hanagan, Michael P. (1994). “Class”. In Stearns, Peter N. Encyclopedia of social history. Taylor & Francis. p. 184. ISBN 978-0-8153-0342-8.
  4. Dahrendorf, Ralf. Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1959.
  5. David McLellan, ed., “Capital.” The Marx-Engels Reader, 1977. Oxford University Press: Great Britain.
  6. Kingston, Paul W. The Classless Society. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000.
  7. Marx & Engels. The Communist Manifesto. New York: Penguin group, 1998.
  8. Parkin, F. Marx’s Theory of History: A Bourgeois Critique. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.
  9. Youth for International Socialism- NewYouth.com
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.

Saints and Deacons: The Role of Violence in the Struggle for Freedom

Since the dawn of the struggle against capitalism, the question of the relationship between violence and resistance has occupied the minds of radicals, class enemies, and the masses alike. Some have argued that violence should never be used. These pacifists see violence as contrary to their goal of a world without violence. In the first section this essay, I want to continue the critique of prefigurative politics that I began laying out here and developed here. I would like to argue that, although it is true that socialists seek a world free of the systemic violence that characterizes class society, this does not mean that we should swear of violence in a tactical sense. The new society is a very different thing from the means to achieve said new society. If we want to win, we must discard moral absolutes and see the question of violence for what it really is: a tactic.

The first response by radicals is always to point out the hypocrisy of the political establishment when it comes to violence. The ruling class loves to wring its hands over burnt-down convenience stores, but says nothing about the millions killed via drone strikes, hunger, poverty, and homelessness. How is it that stealing baby formula from a store is considered violent, but denying healthcare to the people who work in that store is not? Why are talking about broken windows when we should be talking about broken backs?

This hypocrisy, while glaring, is no mere character flaw. The Russian Revolutionary Leon Trotsky pointed this out when he wrote, “the appeal to abstract norms of nonviolence is not a disinterested philosophical mistake, but a necessary element in the mechanics of class deception. The ruling class reserves for itself the sole monopoly on the right to the use of all means of violence, but denounces in angelic tones the violence of the oppressed” [1]. They are perfectly fine with drones, and tanks, and bombs, and targeted assassinations, but the second an occupying Israeli soldier is killed by a Palestinian, the ruling class is up in arms. This is perfectly rational for the ruling class, in the same way that riots on the part of oppressed groups are rational for these groups. By claiming that violence is strictly the province of rioters, looters, and the like, the ruling class paints its actions as necessarily non-violent, and therefore necessarily more humane. Both the ruling class and “principles pacifists” identify violence as an anti-human undertaking. Rather than motivating the ruling class to swear off violence, this definition causes them to redefine violence to suit their aims. In effect, upholding nonviolence as a principle lets the ruling class off the hook.

No action, in and of itself, possess an essential moral character. Take, for example, pulling the trigger of a firearm. This is a mute gesture. The fact of this gesture’s innate muteness can be seen in the way the media characterizes police violence as “officer-involved shootings.” This passive phrasing denotes the fact that a shooting, in the sense of the discharge of a weapon, is not immoral on its own. The ruling class seizes upon the moral blankness of shootings to cover up the fact that the shootings committed by police are actually violent. The morality of a shooting is dependant upon context: is the target a rabid dog who is about to harm a child, or a black man running away from a person who was trained to kill him?

Our stance on violence as a moral tabula rasa has two lessons: one, we should avoid elevating the tactic of nonviolent resistance to the level of absolute principle, since moral absolutes are a weapon of the ruling class.

At the same time, we should also avoid adopting an adventurist approach that fetishises violence as the end-all, be-all of socialist revolution. It is very dangerous to make a virtue out of a necessity. As the Russian revolutionary Joseph Stalin put it in an interview with HG Wells, “you are wrong if you think that the Communists are enamoured of violence. They would be very pleased to drop violent methods if the ruling class agreed to give way to the working class. But the experience of history speaks against such an assumption” [2]. This point cannot be stressed enough: violence is a tactical consideration, based on a rigorous historical analysis rather than moralistic assumptions about the innate goodness or badness of the people.

What socialists want is a world without violence. We understand that the vast majority of violence in the world, at least that which takes place on a large scale, is the product of capitalism: the system that allows a tiny minority to control the vast wealth produced by the immense majority. From the ravages of colonialism and chattel slavery at its birth to the furies of its wars as a result of its highest stage, imperialism, it causes untold misery, suffering, and death. Capitalism starves a person to death every four seconds. In the United States alone, a hundred fifty workers, mostly poor people of color, die every day as a result of unsafe working conditions. Roughly eight million children die of preventable diseases each year due to inadequate access to medical equipment. Capitalism, from its beginning, was and is a violent system. As Marx put it over one hundred years ago, “capital comes dripping from every pore with blood and dirt. It must be continually drenched in new blood all the time” [3]. Capitalism is not only violent, capitalism requires violence to perpetuate its existence. Socialists want a world free of this violence, and we want it passionately.

In order to have a society without violence, we must have a society without classes, exploitation, and oppression. But the capitalist class will never willingly give us this world. History has shown that those who accumulate vast amounts of wealth and power will do anything to hold onto it, up to and including genocide. If this is the case, and I think it is, then we must be prepared to use violence against the ruling class in our struggle for a world free of violence.

With this in mind, I would like to provide a critique of the pacifist philosophy, which says that we can have a nonviolent world simply by refusing to participate in violence. To do this, I want to look at two prominent historical examples of pacifism in action: the Indian independence movement under Mohandas Gandhi and the Black Freedom Movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Finally, I want to counterpose both of these examples to what I see as the correct understanding of violence, which, to reiterate, is as a tactical consideration. Violence, though permitted, must be subservient to the greater goal of a social revolution with a mass character.

Indian anti-colonial fighter Mohandas Gandhi is probably one of the most important theoreticians of nonviolent social change. Gandhi promoted a syncretic blend of vegetarianism, occultism, and Hinduism is often held up as the purest form of a nonviolent activist, yet even he claimed that he would nuke Europe if he thought it could liberate his people. Despite being treated as an icon of nonviolence, even Gandhi (at least at one phase of his life) understood that violence was permissible in the fight for liberation [4].

It should also be noted that Gandhi’s tactics of nonviolence were not passive. Gandhi and his comrades organized civil disobedience actions, symbolic arrests, and marches that demonstrated an organized, disciplined, and courageous response to the viciousness of British Colonialism. In this sense, Gandhi’s methods (if not Gandhi himself) deserve praise. These nonviolent tactics are often effective at galvanizing popular support for radical movements. They can draw more people into struggle [5].

However, it would be a mistake to see the Indian anti-colonial movement as a monolith of marches, hunger strikes, and so on. The path to Indian independence involved the use of a variety of different tactics, from mass strikes to riots. It was not a homogenous movement led entirely by the “barefoot saint.”

At key points, Gandhi’s extreme adherence to nonviolence actually held back the movement. At the victory of independence in 1947, Gandhi was being pushed to what might be called the political margins of the movement. He argued against strike actions and often cut off disobedience campaigns prematurely when he sensed the masses beginning to strain under his moralistic theses. His close ally, who would later become the first Prime Minister of an independent India, put it this way: “After so much sacrifice and brave endeavor…I felt angry with him at his religious and sentimental approach to a political ” [6]. The ally of Gandhi, therefore, was already beginning to formulate a critique of moral absolutes and the principle of pacifism, even as the movement itself raged on.

In 1946, the Royal Indian Navy mutinied against their officers due to complaints of racism and issues regarding food rations. This was a mass action based on solidarity between Hindu and Muslim soldiers among the rank and file. Despite the enormous potential of this action, Gandhi and the Indian National Conference condemned not only the mutiny by the soldiers, but also a walk-out by 300,000 workers in Mumbai who struck in solidarity with them [7]. Gandhi put his pacifism ahead of the actual struggle for liberation, demonstrating the danger of morally absolute positions.

It is important to note that Gandhi was actually in favor of the Indian caste system. He did not want to end class society, the true purveyor of violence. Instead, he wanted to appeal to the “soul-force” of the oppressor [8]. This often resulted in him talking frankly deplorable stances on tactical matters, such as arguing that Jewish people should commit mass suicide to “shame Hitler” [9]. He was also an advocate for the rights of the untouchable caste, in a certain, very limited sense. He championed welfare campaigns but refused to support their basic economic demands of land reform. Bring the poor roads and wells, bring them charity, but do nothing about their fundamental position in society. Here, we see another problem with nonviolence as an end in itself: it focuses on appealing to the oppressor rather than asserting the humanity of the oppressed [10]. The pacifist argument is that the oppressor should give into the demands of the oppressed because the oppressed played by the rules, rather than because the oppressed are just as human as the oppressor. This moralistic argument, in the case of Gandhi, actually resulted in holding back the Indian masses.

The other historical example often provided for the merits of nonviolence is Martin Luther King, Jr and the black civil rights movement more broadly. Gandhi looms large over this period as well. His political method came to America through the theologian Howard Thurman, who met with Gandhi in India in the 1930s [11]. Thurman was the dean of Boston University, where King received his doctorate, and attended school with father [12]. Thurman also connected James Farmer (founder of the Congress for Equality) with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an international organization formed after World War One to train pacifist cadre. It closely followed, studied, and propagated the politics of Gandhi described above [13].

The tactic of  civil disobedience was utilized in a variety of ways throughout the civil rights movement, through boycotts, peaceful marches, and sit-ins across the American south. The principle of nonviolence meant that when the freedom fighters of the movement were attacked by police with dogs, fire hoses, and the baton, there was a general expectation that the participants would not retaliate [14].

This strategy was largely effective, in the sense that it galvanized the moral outrage of the American people, unsheathing the brutality of American racism. Most people have a general conception that police brutality is undesirable, particularly when utilized against nonviolent protestors. While this perception is not necessarily where we would like the masses to be, latching onto it had the effect of making King’s program more palatable for the general public [15].

The tactical vanguard of the movement was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who radicalized students inspired by their nonviolent actions, particularly sit-ins. It was this group that played a pivotal role in dismantling de jure segregation in the South [16].

Like the example of the Indian independence movement, we see that the tactic of nonviolent civil disobedience had the effect of rallying the masses around the movement, and thus increasing its chances of success. These examples illustrate that we ought not repudiate nonviolent tactics as a whole. The problem is with nonviolence as a principle, not as a tactic.

However, the purity of the nonviolent ideal was tested by the real hurdles the movement faced. White reaction began to learn that blatant violence directed at the protesters themselves only polarized support against their racist cause. They turned to a strategy of assassination and terror that had been employed in the region since Reconstruction. SNCC activists who began organizing in the South faced violent reprisal from white reactionaries, including murder. It is crucial to note that this reprisal often took place outside of official actions. When SNCC activists left actions to return home, they would be shot or firebombed [17]. This is another problem with nonviolence: it proposes a distinction between the planned action and the “private sphere” that simply does not exist. Even if police fear the repression of protesters on camera, there is no guarantee that they will not assassinate the protesters once the action is over. Nonviolence as a principle would hold that activists cannot retaliate anywhere, inside or outside of formal sites of struggle. This idealist concept is at odds with the material realities of revolutionary work. The police and the ruling class do not respect the boundaries between struggle and private life, so neither should we.

Luckily, self-defense against racists was not a new occurrence. As the student activists began to organize outside the campus on which they started, they found that there was a long tradition of armed struggle in the area. People in the community, despite SNCC insistence and their own discomfort with guns, stepped up to guard the civil rights activists. SNCC field chair secretary Charles Sherrod describes an event that took place when he went to stay with a woman named Momma Dolly. He says, “Momma Dolly had this big shotgun. I tried to talk her out of guarding me, but she said ‘baby, I brought a lot of these white people into this world, and I’ll take them out of this world if I have to.’ Sometimes, no matter what, she would sit in my bedroom window, leg propped up with that big ol’ gun. She knew how to handle it better than I did” [18].

The story of civil rights in the South is full of moments like this. While guns were not central to the marches and the sit-ins proper, they were there under the pillows and in the trunks of the freedom fighters. Many supposedly nonviolent activists, from Medgar Evers to Fannie Lou Hammer carried arms for their own protection [19]. Dr. King’s own home was described as an “arsenal” [20]. He applied, for, and was denied, a concealed weapons permit [21].

Armed defense in the South, however, existed outside of the protective sphere. There were a number of groups, many semi-clandestine, who worked as an organized, armed defensive wing of the movement and the people. The most notable was perhaps the Deacons of Defense, who formed in Louisiana as an armed association for the explicit purpose of protecting workers, organized meetings, and sometimes the peaceful marches themselves [22]. Their founding was encouraged by James Fenton, himself a member of the nonviolent CORE organization [23].

The reason for this founding was described by Richard Haley, the CORE’s Southern Director, as being instantiated because “protected nonviolence is apt to be more popular with the participants than unprotected” [24]. The Deacons of Defense, which at its height had hundreds of members and chapters all across the south, protected, with violence, the nonviolent organizers. Even those leaders and activists who were formally committed to nonviolent tactics understood the need to protect themselves with the threat of violence. No activist, not even King, adhered to pacifism as a dogma. Indeed, during the 1966 march on Selma, organized by King and the SNCC, armed Deacons marched beside the protesters, on the lookout for racist interlopers [25].

King himself never changed his nonviolent stance. He still preferred the method, but he developed a different context for it. He couched his critique of violence in the practical difficulties of the movement, due to its provoking greater repression. Despite King’s preference for nonviolence, he began to understand it as a tactical question rather than a moral one [26].

King was seeking to broaden these ranks of his movement, and he saw nonviolence as the best way to do this. In his own words, “by nonviolent resistance we can…enlist all men of good will in our struggle for equality” [27]. Politically, the strategy was successful not only in drawing the masses into the struggle, but also in splitting the Democratic Party on the national level. Because King and his supporters remained nonviolent, it became difficult for the northern Democrats to distance themselves from the movement [28]. This is precisely because, as members of the ruling class, they treated nonviolence as an absolute moral good. They were backed into a corner: if they supported King, their grip on power would be lessened. If they decided not to support King, however, the public would realize that peace was not really on the agenda. It was either give up some of their power or reveal to the masses that they were self-interested hypocrites. If they did this, the masses might come to realize that nonviolence was not the only path to a better world [29].

Ultimately, the ruling class chose to cede some of their power to King’s movement. Democrats like Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were pressured to support civil rights legislation that combatted segregation and expanded black voter participation [30]. The nonviolent strategy was successful not only in drawing ever broader layers of the masses into the struggle against white supremacy, but also in pressuring and exposing the machinations of the ruling class.

Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin argued that the symptoms of a revolutionary situation would come about when the masses knew that they did not have to live in the old way, but also when the ruling class could not go on ruling in the old way [31]. Although King’s movement did not bring about revolution, it did bring the country closer to meeting these two conditions. The takeaway here is that nonviolence, in conjunction with other tactics, can be a revolutionary weapon.

The broader the movement became, the more confident the masses grew. With this confidence came the radicalization of ever more oppressed stratas of the black community. Young people, poor people, domestic workers, and sharecroppers-people who had justified and deep-seated grudges-became active in the movement. The movement passed over, in a dialectical sense. Quantitative change lead to qualitative change [32]. The more participants the movement gained, the more the actions went beyond the boundaries of nonviolence as a principle.

In Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, when King lead his “Project Confrontation,” an attempt to shut down the commerce of the whole city through mass activity, it actually lead to rioting. In fact, it prefigured the violent urban rebellions that would take place in the North in the summers to follow [33]. It is an instructive irony that the very success of King’s nonviolent strategy lead to a multi-summer stretch of urban rioting across the entire country. King himself expressed some support for these actions, writing that “a riot is the language of the unheard” [34].

The nonviolent strategy that King advocated was practical at a particular time and in a particular place: the struggle for civil rights in the Jim Crow South in the 1950s and early 1960s. As soon as that struggle began to spread geographically, around the whole of the United States, the strategy began to crumble. Black people as a whole began to struggle against not just the worst aspects of American racism, but against the fundamentally racist institutions at the heart of the entire national government. The politics of nonviolence was revealed to be inconsistent at this juncture. Many people were very invested in maintaining the systemically racist institutions that the movement was beginning to attack. It was not enough to simply change the minds of these people. They had to be confronted directly. Their privileges had to be called out, identified, and smashed, in many cases by force. The larger a movement becomes, the more resistance it is bound to run into, the more class enemies it is bound to encounter. Many of these enemies will occupy positions of power or privilege. No matter how moral we are, those in positions of power will never willingly give them up. It is in this context that violence becomes a viable tactic.

This is what Malcolm X meant when he critiqued Martin Luther King, Jr. by saying “you can’t change [the white man’s] mind…[He] has lost all conscience” [35]. He was appealing to a mass movement that had begun to understand that the ruling institutions and conventions of American “democracy” were fundamentally unequal, and could not be changed through civil dialogue. Everyone who could be convinced by the sight of nonviolent protesters being massacred by police had already joined the movement. It was time to deal with those who had a material interest in perpetuating inequality. They could not be convinced nonviolently.

Black people in the North faced unequal job conditions, housing, and education, but not state-sanctioned segregation as in the South [36]. This pointed northern blacks towards the redistribution of wealth and power: issues that dealt with both race and class. Malcolm understood that the class conflicts his movements were engaged in, owing to their deeply-entrenched nature, could only be settled antagonistically. Still, he did not fetishize violence. Like King, he understood it as a tactical question. This is why he counseled, “be peaceful…but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery” [37].

In the world of moral absolutism, we are stuck in a tragic bind: we must choose between peace and self-determination. But in the real, material world, we must understand that morality is relative to space, time, and social class.

To hammer the point home, we ought to go back in time to the Civil War. Lynd, the great American Radical, part of the Freedom School movement, said that he wanted to find an alternative to the violence of the Civil War [38]. Abraham Lincoln, however, took a different view. In his second inaugural address to the Union, he said that it was possible that every drop of blood drawn by the lash would need to be repaid with the sword [39]. By virtue of the fact that the oppressed live in a violent society, violence must be used to liberate them. Indeed, as radical educator Paulo Freire puts it, “there would be no oppressed had there been no prior situation of violence to establish their subjugation” [40]. Violence is necessary to create and sustain oppression. It follows, therefore, that it will also be necessary to end oppression. In enacting violence against their oppressors, the oppressed are in fact asserting their dignity, their right to be treated like human beings instead of property.

The point is not to glorify violence, as I made clear in the introduction above. But we must understand violence as a necessity, another stage of struggle, one step on the path to liberation.

Violence and nonviolence both complement and influence one another. Martin Luther King, Jr could not have lead his nonviolent campaigns had it not been for the violence of the Civil War, in which black slaves forced themselves into Union armies, one hundred years earlier.

From the above examples, we should draw two lessons. It is important to say again that nonviolent tactics can help draw more people into struggle and garner mass support. The world that socialists wish to see is a deeply democratic one, involving the power and imitative of the working class as a whole. We cannot win democracy for the working class if the revolution itself does not involve the broadest possible numbers of that class. Nonviolent tactics, then, do have a place in the struggle for freedom.

We should, however, avoid putting nonviolence on a pedestal. In the real world, our principles will be challenged by difficult situations. We must refrain from enshrining these principles as immutable moral absolutes. If we want to win a world free of systemic violence, we must treat the use of violence as a tactical and political question rather than a moral one.

  1. Quoted in “Pacifism and War” by Paul D’Amato. International Socialist Review, July-August 2002.
  2. “Marxism Vs. Liberalism: an Interview with HG Wells.” Works, Vol. 14. Red Star Press Ltd., London, 1978. Marxists Internet Archive.
  3. “Chapter Thirty-One.” Karl Marx, Capital, Volume One. Marxists Internet Archive.
  4. Quoted in Mahatma Gandhi: The Last Phase Volume Two. Payarelal. Navajivan Publishing House, 1956, p. 17.
  5. Gene Sharp (2005). Waging Nonviolent Struggle. Extending Horizon Books. pp. 50–65.
  6. Quoted in George Francis Bailey, God-botherers and Other True Believers: Gandhi, Hitler, and the Religious Right. Berghahn Books, 2008  p. 151.
  7. Sen. History Modern India. New Age International. p. 202.
  8. SN Uma Majmudar (2005). Gandhi’s pilgrimage of faith: from darkness to light. SUNY Press. p. 138.
  9. Gandhi & Zionism: ‘The Jews’ (November 26, 1938). Jewish Virtual Library.
  10. Miki Kashtan, “Gandhi and the Dalit controversy: The limits of the moral force of an individual.” Waging Nonviolence. Feb. 27, 2012.
  11. Quinton Dixie and Peter Eisenhardt, “When Howard Thurman Met Mahatma Gandhi: Non Violence and the Civil Rights Movement.” Beacon Broadside: A Project of Beacon Press. October 02, 2014.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Gross, David M. (2014). 99 Tactics of Successful Tax Resistance Campaigns. Picket Line Press. pp. 15–17
  15. Ibid.
  16. Bond, Julian (October 2000). “SNCC: What We Did”. Monthly Review. p. “Legacy”.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Quoted in Charles E. Cobb, This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible. Basic Books, 2014. p. 169.
  19. Ibid, 94.
  20. Ibid, 254.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid, 202.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid, 202.
  25. Ibid, 241.
  26. Bruce Hartford, 2004. “Two Kinds of Nonviolence.”
  27. Ibid.
  28. SA Samad – ‎2009  “Nonviolence in the Civil Rights Movement” JFK Institute, 2008.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid.
  31. VI Lenin, “The Symptoms of a Revolutionary Situation” Marxists Internet Archive.
  32. Charles D. Lowery; John F. Marszalek; Thomas Adams Upchurch, eds. (2003). “Birmingham Confrontation,” The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Civil Rights: From Emancipation to the Twenty-1stCentury. 1 (Second ed.). Greenwood Press. p. 47.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Kail Holloway “9 MLK Quotes the Mainstream Media Won’t Cite,” AlterNet, December 16, 2015.
  35. Quoted in Manning Marable and Leith Mullings, Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices of Resistance, Reform, and Renewal, 2009. p. 411
  36. Ibid.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Staughton Lynd, Andrej Grubacic, Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism and Radical History, 2008. p.234
  39. Ibid.
  40. Paulo Freire. Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 30th Anniversary Edition p.55

Class Society, the Family, and Queer Oppression: A History

Before reading this essay, it may be helpful to read or revisit my article on Identity Politics, which provides a more general theoretical framework for understanding the issues presented below.

There are times when a myth becomes so pervasive as to cloud all analytical thinking or historical investigation. Such is the myth of Marxism’s supposed blind spot concerning questions of queer oppression and queer rights. It is argued that Marxism ignores queer oppression or refuses to analyze it. In this essay, I want to argue that the opposite is true. It is only through Marxism that queer communities can be fully liberated.

It is worth noting at the outset that Marxists have never ignored the question of queer oppression. Rigorous theoretical works on the subject include Capitalism and Gay Identity, by John D’Emelio and The Roots of Gay and Lesbian Oppression: A Marxist View by Bob McCubbin. I will lean heavily on these two works in the analysis detailed below.

It is important here to recognize, at this point, the difference between behavior and identity: while behavior transcends time and location, its significance varies in each time period and each place. For example, a man having sex with another man meant something very different in ancient Rome than it does in modern-day San Francisco. By saying that capitalism has created contemporary gay and lesbian identity, D’Emilio-and other Marxists-are not saying that gay and lesbian people only arose with the development of capitalism. Rather, we claim that the demarcation-the line between straight and gay identities-arose in this context. Homosexual and gender-nonconforming behaviors have existed as long as humans have, but these behaviors were not always identifying characteristics. D’Emilio writes, “What we call ‘homosexuality’…was not considered a unified set of acts, much less a set of qualities [used in] defining  particular persons, in pre-capitalist societies….Heterosexuals and homosexuals are involved in social ‘roles’ that pertain to a particular society, modern capitalism” [1]. We see, then, that there is a distinction between homosexual acts and homosexuality as an identity. One is trans-historical, while the other is the result of a process that occurred at a specific point in time.

An important fact to keep in mind in light of this distinction is that queer oppression has not always existed. Indeed, historical evidence shows that what we would now call queer people were successfully integrated into many pre-capitalist and pre-class societies. Many Native American nations, for example, have historically recognized more than two genders. People who filled both masculine and feminine gender roles were known as “two-spirit” people. To quote one article on the subject,

“The Navajo refer to Two Spirits as Nádleehí (one who is transformed), among the Lakota is Winkté (indicative of a male who has a compulsion to behave as a female), Niizh Manidoowag (two spirit) in Ojibwe, Hemaneh (half man, half woman) in Cheyenne, to name a few. As the purpose of “Two Spirit” is to be used as a universal term in the English language, it is not always translatable with the same meaning in Native languages. For example, in the Iroquois Cherokee language, there is no way to translate the term, but the Cherokee do have gender variance terms for ‘women who feel like men’ and vice versa [2].”

Another example is Ancient Greece, in which sexual relations between men and boys were celebrated as a form of love [3]. “Variant gender identities” and “alternative sexualities” have not always existed as categories, let alone categories that were marginalized or subjected to oppression and exclusion.

It is difficult to imagine a society in which the nuclear family was superseded by collective child-rearing institutions, but the evidence shows that it was actually quite common. In the Amazon, the Kohlena believed that fetuses were formed by the accumulation of semen. Many men were involved in the literal creation of a child, and a number of women would nurse the child after birth [4]. Both the development and sustaining of the child was thought of as a collective process, owing to the fact that there was no division of labor between those who produced and controlled surplus wealth [5].

Even Darwin identified that, in many societies, the bond between the mother and the child was nowhere near as pronounced as it was in the Victorian era. Many tribes did not even have words for mother, son, daughter, and so on. Instead, their descriptors referred to the tribe as a whole. These tribal societies had far less rigid class boundaries than Darwin’s England, suggesting that the family is a product of class society [6].

As McCubbin argues, the oppression of queer individuals arose in tandem with the oppression of women, itself a product of class society. McCubbin substantiates this analysis by delving into what he has termed “primitive societies” that existed prior to the development of capitalism. He notes that women were highly respected in these cultures. Women were “the domesticators of animals [and] the builders of the first human dwellings” [7]. Women were not cooped up at home, but rather took active roles in the running of society. Many even became political leaders. McCubbin bases this argument on the research and analysis of Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx’s longtime friend and close collaborator.

Engels argued that the family itself arose from class society, in step with the anthropological research sketched out above. As the family shifted to become the primary economic unit, women became increasingly subjugated by this unit. Class society arose when the productive forces-the things humans use to produce and store goods-developed to a point at which it was possible to store a surplus. This created a division of labor between those who produced the surplus (farmers, hunter-gatherers, etc) and those who collected and distributed this surplus. Prior to this, it was not possible for individuals to accumulate wealth, since they only produced enough to sustain themselves. Because wealth did not exist in the sense that we know it today, it was not possible for goods to be passed on to individuals. As such, there was no reason to divide people into individual family units. Indeed, it was not possible to do this. In societies in which a surplus was not produced and appropriated (in pre-class societies), production and distribution was organized collectively and cooperatively, in what Marx and Engels called “primitive communism” [8]. Men and women undertook different tasks in these societies, but women were not systemically oppressed. As I mentioned above, women often became political leaders or otherwise obtained higher status than men.

The oppression of women corresponded to the rise of the monogamous family unit, which was used as a tool to perpetuate class society. The development of the plough and the domestication of cattle to pull it dramatically increased agricultural productivity. For the first time, it was possible to accumulate a surplus-more than was needed simply to survive. This, as I said above, was the determining factor in the rise of class society. Because of the available surplus, it became possible to pass wealth onto offspring in the form of inheritance. It was in this context that the nuclear family as an institution came to prominence [9].

In fact, the very word family was first used to describe the above-mentioned economic arrangement.  Early Romans used the term “famulus” to describe household slaves and “famalia” to refer to “the total number of slaves belonging to one man” [10]. In early feudalism, the aristocracy regarded marriage as an economic relationship, not an emotional one. It functioned as a means to transfer wealth (often concentrated in the form of land) or to secure peaceful relations between estates that had access to such wealth. As the family became dominant, men were increasingly drawn into production. This gave them access to greater social activity as they engaged in cooperative labor. Women, by contrast, were increasingly isolated and confined to the role of reproduction and child-rearing, which slowly shifted away from its “natural form” as a cooperative process. It was here, in the separation of production and reproduction, that the division between women and men began to constitute inequality between the sexes [11].

One of the first inequalities was related to the rights of partners to seek communion with people outside the family relationship. Monogamy was imposed exclusively upon women, so that the father could pass his wealth onto children he knew were his own. Monogamy was the first means by which ruling classes perpetuated their own existences. As Engels explained, “the first class oppression that occurs in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and women in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male” [12].

This was reflected across the entirety of feudal society. Despite the fact that landless peasants (who would later become Proletarians) had no wealth of their own, they were also forced into the nuclear family arrangement. It was common practice for feudal lords to literally arrange marriages between poor peasants. Severe punishment was levied against all who engaged in non-procreative sex. In 1553, King Henry VII of England introduced the Buggery Act, which put men to death for non-procreative sex. This activity was considered “a crime against nature” [13]. Not by coincidence, the Act coincided with similarly draconian laws punishing “vagrants,” poor peasants forced off their land and into factories [14]. From the beginning, the institution of the family, and the puritanical sex norms that accompanied its rise, had an evident class character. The aristocracy knew that monogamous marriages were only advantageous to the ruling class. Unless forced to follow this way of life, either through indoctrination or violence, the laborers would rebel. This is essentially what Marx meant when he wrote “the ruling ideas are, in every epoch, the ideas of the ruling class” [15]. Ideological structures, such as the family, are largely determined by the ways in which a society organizes the production and distribution of its goods.

These norms persisted long after the collapse of feudalism. In the seventeenth century, families were, in effect, small economies of their own. Sex was strictly for procreation, and the family unit was interdependent. Each family member—men, women and children—needed each other for different steps in the production of necessary items like bread and clothes. While homosexual behavior did exist, there was no space for an individual (or even a gay couple) to live outside the family economy. “Solitary living” was legally forbidden. Economic survival depended on the family, so homosexual behavior did not evolve into a way to live or identify [16].

As capitalism began to take hold, individuals worked for wages, became more independent, and no longer needed the old model of the family economy because they could buy food, clothing, etc. with their own wages. The function of relationships and sexuality shifted from procreation to emotional and sexual satisfaction, which created a space where homosexual behavior was an acceptable form of expression. The subsequent rise in homosexual behavior created a community of individuals who were attracted to their own sex, and this community created a new way to identify. In this way, capitalism created the gay identity [17].

With the gay identity came gay oppression. In Britain, laws began to punish gay men caught seeking others like themselves in public venues. In 1861, the death penalty for buggery was ended and a sentence of ten years in prison, later amended to two years of hard labor, was enacted [18].

In Paris and Berlin, medical and legal experts in the 1870s examined a new kind of “degenerate” to determine whether or not these people should be held responsible for their actions. The word “homosexuality” was first coined by a Hungarian physician named Karl Maria Benkert in 1869 [19]. Homosexuality evolved in scientific circles from a “sin against nature” to a mental illness. The first popular study of homosexuality, Sexual Inversion by Havelock Ellis in 1897, put forward the idea that homosexuality was a congenital illness not to be punished, but treated [20]. Nineteenth-century sexologists developed ideas about homosexuality as a form of mental insanity [21].

When the famous British writer Oscar Wilde was convicted of sodomy in 1895 and sentenced to two years of hard labor, the newspapers were filled with lurid descriptions of a form of sexuality few acknowledged had existed. The trial came to define gay men in the popular consciousness as effeminate aesthetes but also raised awareness among latent homosexuals of the existence of others like them. Londoners discovered where to go to find men looking to have sex with other men [22]. In attempting to repress homosexuality, the capitalists actually gave rise to a vibrant-and militant-queer community. This echoes Marx’s thoughts on the creation and the role of the working class: “what the bourgeoisie…produces, above all, are its own gravediggers” [23].

Wilde, who was himself married with two children, accepted the popular clinical thinking about his “condition.” His writings of the period reflect the debate about whether homosexuality was a form of sickness or insanity, complaining of his “erotomania” while in prison [24].

In the early years of the queer movement, lesbians were less visible than gay men. Men’s greater financial independence and integration in the public spheres of work and community afforded men more opportunities to explore alternative sexual lifestyles. Wage-earning men could live in urban boarding houses where they could invite other men to their rooms, providing an outlet beyond familial controls. This was something largely unavailable to working class women, demonstrating the material ways in which gender and sex have been used to divide the working class. In the mid-nineteenth century, a few working class women who “passed” as men in order not only to seek employment but to pursue romantic relationships with other women came to the attention of authorities. Stories appeared in newspapers about crossdressing lesbian women One such woman was “Bill” in Missouri, who became the secretary of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers. This is a testament to the ability of workers to overcome oppression. Despite wider society’s negative view of gender nonconforming individuals, the struggle of the workers necessitated the abandonment of oppressive ideas. One report read: “She drank…she swore, she courted girls, she worked hard as her fellows, she fished and camped, she even chewed tobacco” [25]. Not all of these “passing women” were lesbians. Some simply sought equality with their male coworkers and freedom from raising children (itself an integral part of the perpetuation of the labor process). Performing men’s work for men’s wages, owning property, having bank accounts in their own names, and voting were among the many benefits available to men only. For these women, to be a man meant having privileges not open to other workers. This suggests that gender, or perceptions of gender, are social constructs with specific class natures.

This is not to say that economic benefits were the only motiving factor in whether or not a woman chose to pass as a man. A fair number of these passing women did get married to other women, occasionally several times, and newspaper headlines announced: “A Gay Deceiver of the Feminine Gender,” “Death Proves ‘Married Man’ a Woman” [26], and “Poses, Undetected, 60 Years as a Man” [27].

Queer and gender-nonconforming individuals were arrested, imprisoned, and stigmatized because they opened the populace up to the idea that alternative structures to the nuclear family existed. The ruling class, who had relied on this formation to discipline and train laborers, dreaded this possibility. If you take nothing else from this essay, take this: Queer oppression is a class issue, irrevocably bound up with the capitalist mode of production. As long as there is capitalism, there will be queer oppression.

It was not until the 1880s, that sexual relationships between women in the U.S. were more openly acknowledged. Immediately following this acknowledgement, they were repressed. Laws against “perversion” and “congenital inversion” were applied to women as well as men for the first time. In Britain, though, lesbianism was left out of the criminal code because Victorian prudery dictated that women had no desire for sex and legal authorities feared that including sanctions against women having sex with others of their gender would actually promote homosexuality among them. What might seem like a progressive move was actually a reflection of the sexist ideas of the ruling class, who sought to perpetuate the family structure that isolated women and disciplined labor [28].

Lord Desart, who had been the Director of Public Prosecutions when Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for sodomy, said this about including lesbianism in the 1921 criminal code: “You are going to tell the whole world that there is such an offense, to bring it to the notice of women who have never heard of it, never thought of it. I think it is a very great mischief” [29].

As industry grew, so did the gap between the lives of the wealthy classes and the impoverished working class. In the late nineteenth century, upper- and middle-class men often sought out casual encounters with younger working class men whom, they believed, were indifferent to anti-homosexual mores. Aside from bourgeois (that is, capitalist) prejudice, this belief was also based on the real-life conditions of the working class, which was crowded into one-room tenements and slums where social rules against sexual promiscuity and alternative sexual activities often did not apply [30]. The fact is that workers, left to their own devices (that is to say, out of the influence of bourgeois ideology) have historically not harbored homophobic attitudes. Workers may be homophobic, but these are habits that were inculcated by the capitalists in an effort to serve their interests.

The bourgeois family and its moral codes of sexual control and hard work held the upper classes to strict rules of conduct. They believed that sexual purity among women was essential for them to carry out their domestic roles as teachers and disciplinarians of their children, and sexual control among men allowed them to be successful in business. Men were allowed their occasional discreet trysts, unlike women, but stepping over the line was harshly punished. Of course, members of the ruling class often engaged in the very behaviors they condemned among the workers. This is because they understood the utility of sexual oppression in fostering divison among that class. It did not matter that prohibiting homosexual behavior was ineffective. The important thing that these laws created an impression of abnormality among workers, which initially sabatoged class solidarity.

Oscar Wilde, whose writings were widely read and respected by the middle class, was convicted for having publicly flaunted his sexual activities with much younger men, amid loud outcries over the corruption of youth and the importance of the family to the maintenance of the British Empire. Again, the capitalists did not necessarily have a moral objection to the acts they condemned. They understood that the enforcment of sexual purity was a systemic necessity. As such, lust and sexual perversion were cited by social-purity advocates as enemies of the empire. “Rome fell; other nations have fallen; and if England falls it will be this sin, and her unbelief in God, that will have been her ruin,” wrote one advocate of sexual purity [31].

New patterns of living, however, defied the puritanical calls to abstain from homosexuality. Gay people and lesbians invented new ways of meeting, and by the early twentieth century virtually every major American and European city and some small towns had bars or public places where gay people could find one another. Riverside Drive in New York City, Lafayette Park in Washington, DC, YMCAs and public bathhouses in St. Louis and Chicago: these all served as gathering spots for gay people and lesbians. Poet Walt Whitman, the most famous nineteenth-century American homosexual (also a socialist), called Manhattan the “city of orgies, walks and joys” [32]. and bragged of New York’s “frequent and swift flash of eyes offering me love” [33]. Popular songs circulated among black people in the 1920s and 1930s with lesbian and gay themes and titles such as “Sissy Man Blues” and “Fairey Blues” provide evidence of a thriving African-American gay community [34]. From the very beginning, the gay identity was fomented around resistance to oppression and the struggle to define a new way of life outside the boundaries of industrial capitalism. The gay identity is not merely the result of particular sexual or romantic behaviors, but rather the result of specific class forces and reactions to oppression.

The  openness of gay subcultures, particularly in urban areas where workers congregated, gave way to new theories of homosexual behavior. Doctors advanced the notion that homosexuality was inherent in a person who had no power to change his or her nature. The widespread conception of gay people as butch women and effeminate men ran so counter to the feminine and masculine ideals put forward in popular culture that ruling-class ideology embraced this unscientific conclusion that gay people were suffering from a condition that set them apart from “normal” people. Gay people themselves began to think that their erotic urges and desires made them fundamentally different from heterosexual society. Writers such as Radclyffe Hall, who successfully fought the banning of her lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness in the United States in 1928 (her efforts were sadly unsuccessful in Britain), popularized the medical definition of homosexuality as an inescapable natural deviance. This was a deliberate attack on the working class by the bourgeoisie: the owning class needed a way to justify the division of labor among different sectors of society. Biological essentialism was a tactic they chose to do just that [35].

The development of a visible and identifiable gay minority not only led to gay oppression, but also to the possibility of organized resistance to it. This organized resistance, contrary to popular belief, was led by socialists from the moment of its inception.

Socialist Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl Marx and a close friend of sexologist Havelock Ellis, wrote and spoke frequently to large crowds on women’s liberation and the rights of homosexuals [36]. In Germany, Social Democratic Party (SPD) member Magnus Hirschfeld started the first gay organization, the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, in 1897. Hirschfeld, with the support of the SPD, campaigned to repeal a law against men having consensual sex [37]. During the failed German Revolution of 1918 to 1923, dozens of gay organizations and periodicals appeared calling for the liberation of homosexuals [38]. Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, when all laws against gay people were struck from the books, the German Communist Party argued: “The class-conscious proletariat…approaches the question of sex life and also the problem of homosexuality with a lack of prejudice.…the proletariat…demands the same freedom from restrictions for those forms of sex life as for intercourse between the sexes” [39]. Communist Parties have historically argued in favor of the rights of queer individuals.

In fact, the first politician to speak on record for the rights of queer people anywhere in the world was August Bebel, the leader of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). He addressed the German parliament on this matter on January 13, 1888 [40]. Although many socialists would break with this party fifteen years later at the outbreak of World War One, there is no denying the political significance of the world’s largest socialist party taking an openly pro-gay line. Not only did leading SPD members such as Karl Kautsky and finance minister Rudolf Hilferding sign a petition demanding the repeal of the German anti-sodomy law in 1875, they encouraged thousands more to add their signatures as well [41].  Even earlier, the prominent socialist journal Die Neue Zeit defended the British writer Oscar Wilde in the aforementioned trial. Bourgeois attacks on homosexuality as “unnatural,” wrote socialist Eduard Bernstein, were “reactionary” since “moral attitudes are historical phenomena” [42]. The question of gay oppression as a class issue has been raised by the socialist movement for well over one hundred years.

Despite the tireless activism of Marxists (and anarchists such as Emma Goldman), life for most queer people was filled with self-hatred and public condemnation. Few had the luxury of coming out for fear of losing jobs or the risk of social ostracism. Pervasive legal and religious hostility and social restrictions sent many to doctors seeking a “cure” or to alcohol and drugs seeking release from emotional strain and internalized self-loathing [43].

Ironically, the notion that homosexuality is entirely biologically determined has taken hold among some modern gay people and lesbians. Since the late twentieth century, this thoroughly ahistorical and unscientific view about homosexuality has been embraced by many gay people who claim to have been “born gay.” As an oppressed minority seeking a way to fight discrimination, some gay people have used this defense to argue that, since they cannot change their nature, society must stop persecuting them for something they have no control over. Many, who cannot remember ever having been sexually attracted to a member of the other sex, are simply arguing what seems to correspond to their erotic “natures” [44].

In a certain sense, this adoption of biological essentialism by the queer community is understandable. It is a defense mechanism against bigotry. Any resistance to oppression, even if it is misguided, should be supported. However, there is a more sinister reason underpinning the widespread adoption of this view. In the first place, it does not actually challenge the dominant heteronormative society. The biological essentialists are playing by the straight’s rules. They are arguing that the oppression of queer people is wrong because queer people cannot control their sexualities, rather than because oppression of any kind is wrong. The reality is this: whether or not sexuality is a choice is irrelevant. We should fight for a world in which all people have control over their bodies and their lives. What people choose to do with their own bodies is their business, regardless of whether or not their urges are biological in nature. The queer rights movement must be about the empowerment of the oppressed for its own sake. Buying into biological essentialism only hinders our cause.

The biological essentialist view has been fueled by the widely publicized search for a so-called “gay gene” [45].  First, one must question the ideological drive behind the research itself, which is never targeted to find a gene for greed or warmongering among ruling-class elites, for example. We have seen that the ruling class has been more than willing to twist biological science to justify oppression. Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard University wrote extensively about the search for brain differences related to sex and other behaviors such as alcoholism and criminality, which was largely discredited during the nineteenth century by anatomists who deluded themselves into believing that their brain measurements justified their social prejudices against women [46]. The search for the gay gene mirrors this development. The project is nothing more than an attempt to paint queer individuals as inherently abnormal, and thus perpetuate capitalist oppression and division among the workers.

In the mid-1990s, researcher Simon LeVay’s study was widely interpreted as strong evidence that biological factors directly wire the brain for sexual orientation [47]. But several considerations suggest that this may be an oversimplification. First, his work has never been replicated [48]. Furthermore, in LeVay’s published study, all the brains of gay men came from AIDS patients [49]. His inclusion of a few brains from heterosexual men with AIDS did not adequately address the fact that, at the time of death, virtually all men with AIDS have decreased testosterone levels as the result of the disease itself or the side effects of particular treatments [50]. The fact is that all human beings are 99 percent identical in genetic makeup [51]. While there is certainly some genetic component to sexual and romantic desires, the idea that one’s sexuality is wholly independent of their environment is unscientific and ahistorical. Human sexuality is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon. There are genetic, biological and psychological components to it, and all of this interacts dynamically within a particular context or society. Human sexuality and behavior develops from this and its interaction with societal constraints or the lack of such constraints. It should be noted that diversity and differences arise in this sphere, as with any other aspect of human life. Attempting to reduce human sexual behavior to one cause is a recipe for disaster.

The historical materialist (that is to say, Marxist) perspective of sexuality leads us to conclude that gay identity is the result of a complex set of historical, cultural, and environmental factors. Sexuality, like other behaviors, is fluid and not fixed. Gay oppression, then, is also a fluid, non-fixed historical phenomenon. Only by understanding how gay oppression arose and who it benefits can we seek to end it once and for all. Only by embracing Marxism, with its analysis of class society, can the queer community come to liberate itself.

  1. Quoted in John Boswell, “Revolutions, Universals, and Sexual Categories,” published in Hidden History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. Meridian Books, 1989, p. 20
  2. “Two Spirits, One Heart, Five Genders.” Indian Country Media Network. N.p., 18 Apr. 2017.
  3. David Cohen, “Law, Sexuality, and Society: The Enforcement of Morals in Classical Athens.” Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  4. Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha Sex at Dawn: the Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality Harper Collins, 2010. p. 11.
  5. Ibid, 27.
  6. Gillies, V. (2008), Childrearing, Class and the New Politics of Parenting. Sociology Compass, 2: 1079–1095. doi:10.1111/j.1751-9020.2008.00114.x
  7. Bob McCubbin The Roots of Gay and Lesbian Oppression: A Marxist View. World View publishers, 1976. p.3.
  8. Ibid, 10.
  9. Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. New York, 1972. P.10.
  10. Clara Fraser, Revolution, She Wrote. Red Letter Press, 1988. p. 59.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Engels, p. 21
  13. Jeffrey Weeks, Sex, Politics, and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality Since 1800, Longman Limited, 1989. p. 99
  14. Ibid.
  15. Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The german ideology. Vol. 1. International Publishers Co, 1972.
  16. D’Emilio, p. 13
  17. Ibid.
  18. Noel Halifax, Is there a straight gene? Radical Queer no. 2. cited in Worker’s Liberty
  19. Weeks, Op. Cit, p. 21
  20. Ibid, p. 102
  21. D’Emilio, p. 9.
  22. John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America. Harper and Row Publishers, 1989. p. 113.
  23. Marx/Engels Selected Works, Vol. One, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1969, pp. 136.
  24. D’Emilio and Freedman, p. 30.
  25. Ibid, p. 125
  26. Ibid, p. 184
  27. Ibid.
  28. D’Emilio, p. 9
  29. Ibid.
  30. McCubbin, p. 39.
  31. Quoted in Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England, New York, 1972. p. 13.
  32. Face, Behold This Swarthy. “City of Orgies.” The New Anthology of American Poetry: Traditions and Revolutions, Beginnings to 1900 1 (2003): 445.
  33. Ibid.
  34. D’Emilio, p. 9.
  35. Colin Wilson, Socialists and Gay Liberation, p.14
  36. Ibid, p. 11.
  37. Ibid, p. 12.
  38. Ibid.
  39. Ibid.
  40. Ibid.
  41. Ibid.
  42. Ibid.
  43. Ibid.
  44. Ibid.
  45. Halley, Janet E. “Sexual orientation and the politics of biology: A critique of the argument from immutability.” Stanford Law Review (1994): 503-568.
  46. David A.J. Richards, Identity and the Case for Gay Rights: Race, Gender, Religion as Analogies. 1999, p. 9.
  47. Halley, Janet E. “Sexual orientation and the politics of biology: A critique of the argument from immutability.” Stanford Law Review (1994): 503-568. Op. Cit.
  48. Joy E. Corey, Divine Eros: A Timeless Perspective on Homosexuality, 2014. p. 132.
  49. Ibid, p. 133.
  50. Ibid.
  51. King, Mary-Claire, and A. C. Wilson. “Humans and Chimpanze.” (1975).

Understanding Neoliberalism: A Marxist Analysis

Many have argued that, with the advent of neoliberalism, capitalism has changed so much as to render Marx’s thoughts on it irrelevant. The concept of neoliberalism first arose out of the left in November 1999, amidst the cataclysmic protests surrounding the World Trade Organization, though it had been pursued as a policy for some years before this. From the beginning, the leftist understanding of the term was bound up in anti-capitalist and anti-globalization movements [1]. Despite this, there was a section of the movement that saw neoliberalism not as an outgrowth of capitalism, but as something different from it entirely. Susan George, who spoke about ““the harmful consequences of globalization,” is one such thinker [2]. In this essay, I want to outline what exactly neoliberalism is, and then explain how it is connected to capitalism. Ultimately, I will argue, Marxist political economy is the only lens through which we can properly understand-and fight against-neoliberalism.

In order to understand why this is the case, we need to familiarize ourselves with some basic aspects of Marxist political economy. Chiefly, we need to understand contradictions. It may be obvious to readers, but a contradiction is essentially “a combination of statements, ideas, or features of a situation that are opposed to one another” [3]. It is “a…situation in which inconsistent elements are present” [4]. For Marxists, capitalism itself is founded on a number of important contradictions. For our purposes, we need to understand that there is the contradiction between the social character of production in large scale machine production by collective labor in factories on the one hand and the private appropriation of the product of labor due to private ownership of the means of production on the other hand.  A small part of the new material values  created by the workers goes to them as wages for their subsistence.  The surplus value is divided among the capitalists as profit, the banks as interest on loans, and the landlord as rent.

To maximize profits, the capitalists keep on enlarging the constant capital for equipment and raw materials and keeping down the variable capital for wages.  Every commodity contains the old material values (previously congealed labor)  from the use of the raw materials and depreciation of equipment and new material values that only living labor power (expressible in average socially necessary labor time)  can create [5].

The drive of the capitalists to maximize profits by enlarging constant capital and pushing down wages is that it  results in the crisis of relative overproduction. It becomes more difficult for workers to buy what they produce as the capitalist class takes in more profit and the real purchasing power of the working class declines.  As such, workers become increasingly immiserated while capitalists accumulate more and more wealth. In common parlance, “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” [6]. Capitalism, therefore, is based on exploitation. Workers operate machines collectively, and they are all paid wages for doing so. This wage, however, amounts to only a fraction of the value the workers produced. It is just enough to keep them coming to work the next day, and to ensure that the next generation of workers can survive to sell their labor power in the future. The rest of the value is appropriated-stolen-by the capitalist who owns the machines the worker used to produced the value.

This is where the collective-private contradiction makes itself clear. The process of producing value-the labor process-is performed by large masses of people packed into factories, side by side. They are forced to interact with one another in order to produce value. Under capitalism, there is no such thing as individual labor. Even small business owners, Marx argued, would undergo a process known as proletarianization, in which market mechanisms drove small owners out of market competition and into factories. For Marx, the growth of capital meant the growth of the working class. As capitalism develops, as the means of production become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, small owners would be stripped of their own means of production. They would eventually be left with nothing to sell but their labor power. As such, social labor would proliferate-become more and more common. In this sense, social labor is a defining characteristic of the capitalist mode of production [7].

Despite this, means of production under capitalism are not owned by workers as a class. They are operated by workers (note the plural) but are owned by a singular capitalist. The process of value production is collective, but the process of value extraction is private. This is what makes exploitation possible. The value stolen from the worker goes to the capitalist, who can dispose of it however they desire. They can reinvest it into their business to make it more competitive, or (as is becoming increasingly more common) they can consume it themselves. Regardless of what the capitalist chooses to do, the value produced by the working class (in a collective fashion) will never go to benefit that class. It will always benefit the private capitalist (or small group of private capitalists) who owns means of production. Value produced collectively goes to benefit individuals. This is the contradiction at the heart of capitalism.

How does this relate to neoliberalism? I think it is necessary, here, to offer a simple, working definition of what neoliberalism is. David Harvey, in his book A Brief History of Neoliberalism, provides just such a definition. Neoliberalism, Harvey writes, is “a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms…within an institutional framework [of] strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade” [8]. He goes on to write that neoliberalism “seeks to bring all human action into the domain of the market” [9]. In short, neoliberalism offers a set of market-based solutions to social ills. It supposes that problems experienced collectively can be conquered by individuals. An important aspect of this an antipathy to state intervention. The state, in the neoliberal understanding, only gets in the way of individual entrepreneurs who want to alleviate problems. Hence, deregulation is a prime aspect of neoliberal practice. To quote Steger and Roy in Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction, “the state is to refrain from interfering with the economic activities of self-interested citizens” [10]. Neoliberalism presents a profound hatred of collective action in favor of individual motivation. This does not mean, however, that the state under neoliberalism is impotent, ineffectual, or meaningless. On the contrary. Although the regulatory and public service components of the state will be stripped bare under neoliberalism (we will examine this in more detail later), the military and police-the repressive state apparatus-will be inflated to new heights. Harvey writes that the state must “secure private property rights and…guarantee, by force if need by, the proper functioning of markets. Furthermore, if markets do not exist [in water, healthcare, and education, for example] then they must be created, by state action if necessary” [11]. Neoliberalism, then, is not against the state. It is against the state when it interferes with market mechanisms, but is perfectly happy to lean on the state when the neoliberal order is resisted or challenged. Under neoliberalism, the state must protect the interests of the aforementioned entrepreneurial individuals (the capitalists). It will not hesitate to use violence to do this.

It should be noted that this process of violent state intervention has been common, literally, since the very beginning of capitalism. An important part of the development of capitalism in England, for instance, was the land enclosure. Rich landowners used their control of state processes to appropriate public land for their private benefit. This created a landless working class that provided the labor required in the new industries developing in the north of England. EP Thompson writes, “in agriculture the years between 1760 and 1820 are the years of wholesale enclosure in which, in village after village, common rights are lost” [12]. He goes on to say,  “Enclosure (when all the sophistications are allowed for) was a plain enough case of class robbery” [13].

As I alluded to above, a particularly important feature of neoliberalism is a hatred of regulation and, therefore, a desire to privatize key industries or sectors of the economy. This stands in sharp contrast to the Keynesianism of the 1920s and 30s. During the Great Depression,  state intervention was deemed necessary as an instrument for countering crisis and reviving demand, production and  employment.  The Roosevelt administration established the New Deal and created the Works Progress Administration in order to re-employ large numbers of the unemployed in public works projects intended to “pump-prime” the economy. Subsequently, the use of fiscal policy and public works projects would become known as Keynesianism under Keynes’ theory of general equilibrium [14].

The  use of Keynesianism in civil construction projects did not solve the crisis, but it did hold off fascism in America.  In Nazi Germany, the use  of public works to stimulate the economy glided into feverish military production. The worst consequences of the Great Depression were fascism and World War II.  In the United States, expanded and intensified civil and military production for the war effort overcame the crisis and stagnation brought about by the Great Depression [15].

Neoliberalism did not arise until much later, in the 1970s and 1980s. Up  to the 1970s,  Keynesianism was touted as the economic policy of state intervention that countered the Great Depression, strengthened the US as a bulwark of capitalism, guided the reconstruction of the war-devastated capitalist economies under the Marshall Plan, and maintained equilibrium in capitalist economies. But this could not hold out for long. There was always some resistance to the new Keynesian orthodoxy. A minority of economists, notably Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman, continued to hold on to the old doctrine. Campbell claims that “most finance capital never accepted the Keynesian compromise” [16], but that it accounted for only fifteen percent (15%) of capital [17]. Governments and big corporations accepted Keynesian ideology, not because it was imposed upon them by working class strength, but because increased economic activity by the state was accompanied by much higher levels of profitability in the US and major European states than under the pre-war ideology of economic liberalism [18].

Keynesianism as an ideology reflected the reality of capitalism in the period after the Second World War. National economies were increasingly dominated by near-monopolies that worked with the state to struggle for global dominance against near-monopolies based in other national economies. The result was a seemingly relentless trend towards increased state involvement in capitalist accumulation that had begun in the 1880s. To those of us who were taught economics in the early 1960s, Keynesianism was the explanation for the sustained economic growth of the post-war years [19].

An important byproduct of the stratified capitalist economy (and of its arms spending in particular) in the industrially advanced countries was full employment and therefore a degree of working class strength, which, in the late 1950s and 1960s, capital had to make concessions to. But to see these concessions as causing the stratification or the long boom is to mistake cause for effect [20].

Keynesianism as an economic practice, rather than an ideology, was not put to the test until the first serious economic crisis in 40 years erupted in the mid-1970s – and it proved incapable of dealing with it. Capitalists were faced with a combination of recession and rising prices known as “stagflation” [21]. The Keynesians were at a loss. As one, Francis Cripps, put it, they suddenly realised that “nobody really understands how the modern economy works. Nobody really knows why we had so much growth in the post-war world” [22]. Within three or four years Keynesianism had been replaced as the orthodoxy by reborn versions of the ideas it had pushed aside four decades earlier. This was how neoliberalism came into being. It was not a question of states somehow coming to accept a wrong set of ideas. Rather, as Chris Harman writes, “there was a structural crisis of capitalism. That is, the policies, practices and institutions that had been serving well capitalism’s goal of capital accumulation ceased to do so. More narrowly, one can say that capitalism abandoned the Keynesian compromise in the face of a falling rate of profit, under the belief that neoliberalism could improve its profit and accumulation performance” [23].

When the economic policymakers deployed monetary and fiscal measures to stimulate the stagnant economy inflation would surge and when they applied the measures to dampen inflation, stagnation would further deepen.  Dogmatic proponents of the “free market” based in the University of Chicago School of Economics took the lead in attacking Keynesianism and state intervention in the economy. They blamed wage inflation and social spending as the product of state intervention and the cause of stagflation [24].

The exponents of neoliberal economic policy stressed that the market must be given free rein and that the state must limit itself to the monetarist policy of adjusting the money supply and interest rates in order to cope with fluctuations in the market.  They demanded the pushing down of wages and the cutback on social spending by government and making more capital available to the capitalists for investment by reducing taxes on them and giving all opportunities to raise capital and profits through trade and investment liberalization, privatization of state assets, deregulation and the denationalization of the economies of client-states [25].

It was here, at the peripheries of global capitalism, that neoliberalism was first put to the test. The Chicago Boys were brought in to reconstruct the Chilean economy. This was partly a reaction to working class militancy in the country. The reformist socialist Salvador Allende had gained massive popular support among the working class, students, and other disenfranchised groups. The business elite of Chile formed an opposition group known as “The Monday Club” and constructed deep ties with the Chicago Boys. Neoliberalism originated as an unabashedly anti-working class ideology meant to crush socialism and keep capitalists in power. Pinochet, after a coup against Allende in 1975, brought the Chicago Boys into the government. The team reversed nationalizations, crushed unions, and invaded indigenous territories in search of profits [26].

it is important to note the particular ramifications that neoliberalism has on states: it is not just an adoption of an economic model but rather a profound change in the order and makeup of a society. As Taylor notes, “the attractiveness of neoliberalism was its professed ability to reshape Chilean society [27]. The goal, then, is not merely economic reform, but the establishment of a new idea of society: one in which the market reigns supreme. The model not only offered a solution to the economic crisis, as described above, but also a move away from the state enterprise models of the past. This option must have seemed too alluring to turn down, and from 1975 onwards the regime moved towards full adoption of the model. The declared central tenets of the new model were strict monetary control, opening of the market to international trade, liberalization of capital markets, privatization of state assets and the orientation of the market towards increased exports as opposed to internal industrialization. As Barton notes, “within a five year period (1970-1975), the Chilean economy shifted from a command economy to neoliberalism,” [28]. The military junta was fundamental for such a process to be realised, the harsh repression had effectively allowed the measures to be implemented with little resistance and with the banning of trade unions labor was very flexible with regards to low wages and discipline. As such, Chile became a haven for multinational corporations willing to invest and exploit such conditions along with domestic economic groups. As one would imagine this brought about a major change in Chilean society as a whole. The country was dubbed the Chilean Miracle by several economic observers, including free-market fundamentalist Milton Friedman [29]. It may have been a miracle for the capitalist class, but the same could not be said of the workers who made up the majority of the population. Within two years, Chile was in the grip of a major financial crisis. Wealth inequality skyrocketed [30]. In 1988 Chile had averaged seventeen percent (17%) unemployment, which peaked at thirty percent (30%) during the recession [30]. In this period, wages plummeted to around the same level as 1956 levels [29]. Per capita income was only eight percent (8%) above the 1971 rate and the average GDP growth rates of 3.4% were below those of previous governments [31]. The numerous “modernizations” that took place under the regime, as we can see, had a profound effect on the people of Chile. The miracle must be viewed within the wider socio-economic context that centers the working class. Barton writes,  “Chile retains a large social sector of marginalised urban and rural poor who have seen little or nothing of the fruits of the last quarter century of development” [32]. Economic reforms did not coincide with improvement of social conditions for large swathes of the Chilean populace. The regime’s attempts at social policy were run by top down technocrats who managed the situation with no intention of involving those they were allegedly seeking to help. It also concentrated on specific sections of the populace rather than the whole; as such, vast swathes of people were simply ignored and left to fend for themselves. The “fuck you, got mine” mentality of market competition was on full display.

Perhaps the most telling impact of neoliberalism was the complete destruction of employment rights and labor freedom during the period.  Neoliberalism, as we have seen, is characterized by its distrust of trade unions and labor organizations. In the Chilean context this can be seen in its extreme form. Not only were rights completely removed but also low level wages were a consistent feature. The rights of the working classes, it would seem, are not a part of the “freedom” neoliberalism professes to hold dear [33].

The neoliberal experiment had brutal effects on the working class of Chile, and it was not long before other capitalists-concerned as they were with extracting as much surplus value as possible from workers-came to adopt it themselves.

The neoliberal economic policy became dominant in world capitalist from  1979 to 1981, with Thatcher and Reagan wielding it as a weapon against the working class at home and abroad. The two had seen how effective it had been at holding down labor in Chile and understood the value it had for capitalism as a whole. They claimed that the more savings or capital in the hands  of the monopoly capitalists  translates automatically into productive investment in the so-called free market. In the next three decades, it was made to appear that there was no economic problem that could not be solved by opening up the market and allowing the interests of a few individuals to dictate the lives of millions of people [34].

The ruling-class counteroffensive was put to the test in Britain, where Margaret Thatcher was elected leader of the Tory Party in 1975. She became prime minister in 1979 and went on to win two more general elections, remaining in office until 1990. She was a firm advocate of neoliberalism [35].

The previous Tory government had been broken by industrial action in 1972 and 1974. Thatcher was determined to mount a full-scale counterattack against the unions, the welfare state, and the working class. The miners were the most important target. They had spearheaded the struggle against the previous Tory administration [36].

A massive program of pit closures provoked the miners into a desperate battle to save their livelihoods and communities. It turned into the longest mass strike in history-150,000 workers on strike for a year (1984-1985) [37]. The miners faced paramilitary police violence, courtroom frame-ups, and a barrage of media lies. They were eventually starved back to work [38].

The defeat of the miners broke the back of British trade unionism. In the early 1970s, the British working class was one of the best organized and most militant in the world. Since 1985, union membership has halved [39]. Over the last 20 years, the British strike rate has been lower than at any time since the 19th century [40].

Most immediately, neoliberalism enabled Thatcher and her successors in Britain to unroll a program of cuts and sell-offs. privatizing nationalized industries and public services fragmented large bargaining units formed of well organized public-sector workers, creating conditions in which wages could be driven down as rival employers seek to undercut each other in the competition for franchises and contracts [41].

This is the real purpose of ‘marketization’ and ‘privatization’: they are mechanisms to weaken union organization, ratchet up insecurity, drive down wages, and redistribute wealth from working people to the capitalist class. Neoliberalism is a weapon against labor [42].

In the United States, Ronald Reagan also pursued the neoliberal agenda. The international economic institutions-the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and now the World Trade organization-became fortresses of neoliberalism, pitilessly dominating the “poor” countries on behalf of imperialism to open up their services, industry and agriculture to the rich countries, privatise their industries and make their natural resources freely available to foreign looters. The councils of the European Union, especially the European Central Bank when it was founded, became increasingly influenced by neoliberal market fundamentalism.

Reagan declared that “government was not the solution, but the problem” [43]. As head of the government he strove to make that true for the working class. One of his first acts as President was to destroy the air traffic controllers’ union. When PATCO went on strike in August 1981 Reagan declared the strike illegal and sacked more than 11,000 strikers [44]. Neoliberalism is thus a return to the economic liberalism of the nineteenth century. It is necessarily repressive of the working class, as its central aim is to restore the unfettered hegemony of capital.

Even more important than the election of Reagan was the appointment of Paul Volcker as head of the Federal Reserve, the US central bank, in 1979 [45]. Volcker proceeded to ‘deal with’ inflation by yanking up interest rates and allowing mass unemployment to develop. Since the United States  was the hegemonic capitalist power, this caused interest rates to rise all over the world. Financial shenanigans from the previous decade came back to haunt the world economy. In the two oil price crises of 1973 and 1979 the oil exporting countries had won a fistful of ‘petrodollars’ on the back of the oil price rises [46]. They actually did not know what to do with all this money. The big western banks had been congratulating themselves at how they had recycled the petrodollars. They took this money and hurled it at less developed countries in the form of third world debt, twisting the arms of finance ministers in Latin America to take the cash. But the increase in interest rates in the 1980s made these less developed countries unable to keep up the payments.   

 Mexico was first country to default, in 1982. Throughout the decade the IMF moved pitilessly through Latin America demanding their pound of flesh on behalf of the imperialist powers. They demanded that the governments of Latin America stop trying to improve the living standards of their citizens and instead pump out natural resources to pay their debts. This was called export led industrialisation, all part of the neoliberal project [47].

The result was a catastrophe for Latin America, what was dubbed the ‘lost decade.’ From 1980-89 output and living standards fell throughout the continent. Latin America’s share of world output fell from six percent (6%) to three percent (3%) over the decade. Whereas output had gone up by 2.5% a year through the crisis decade of 1973-80, from 1980-89 it fell by 0.4% a year. As late as 2005 Latin America still had a debt burden of $2.94 trillion, most of it inherited from the 1980s. This was nearly two thirds of all ‘emerging market’ debt [48].

 In 2003 a CEPR Briefing Paper predicted miserable growth of 0.2% from 2000-2004 – 1% for the whole period. They pointed out that over the previous 20 years 1980-99 the region grew by just 11%, a worse result than during the Great Depression. By contrast in 1960-79 Latin America grew by eighty percent (80%) [49]. These figures paint a picture of the poverty, malnutrition and disease that are the achievements of neoliberalism.

Under neoliberalism, private capital replaces state capital as the main provider of public services. Instead of recycling tax revenues as a ‘social wage’ in the form of homes, hospitals, schools, and welfare, the state pays corporate profiteers to become ‘providers’, and they remodel provision according to ability to pay. Unions are weakened, services rationed, and costs cut. The main of neoliberal capitalism beneficiaries are the owners of huge multinational corporations [50].

The security firm G4S is an example. It is the product of a series of acquisitions and mergers. It now employs 650,000 people in 125 countries: thirty-nine percent (39%) of them in Asia [44], nineteen percent (19%) in Europe [45], seventeen percent (17%) in Africa [51], nine percent (9%) in North America [52], and eight percent (8%) in Latin America [53].

In Britain, G4S runs prisons, police services, and security at public events. It is one of the main beneficiaries of public-sector privatization. Its revenue from British operations in 2011 was £1.59 billion. It paid only £67 million (1.5%) in corporation tax [54].

The end of state-managed capitalism does not, to return to an above point, mean the end of the state. Its roles in economic management, industrial investment, and welfare provision have been curtailed. But other roles have been enhanced.

The state has always been a huge market for capital. But business opportunities are increasing massively as public services are sold off. The British government is currently privatizing the National Health Service, for example. The annual health budget is worth £125 billion. A handful of private companies will soon dominate healthcare in Britain [55].

The state (including inter-state bodies like the EU and the IMF) also continues to play a central role in economic crisis-management. Since 2008, it has functioned as a mechanism for shovelling trillions of dollars into bankrupt banks in order to prop up international finance-capital [56].

The state’s primary and original role as an armed force for use against the enemies of the ruling class at home and abroad-anti-capitalist demonstrators, striking workers, guerrilla insurgents, independent regional powers-has increased during the neoliberal era [57].

The relationship between neoliberalism and capitalism proper is hopefully become clear. Neoliberalism offers a set of market-based solutions to social ills. Poverty, bigotry, etc can all be cured by unchaining the market. David Harvey writes that Neoliberalism is about “liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms” [58]. There seems to be a contradiction here: poverty (for example) is experienced collectively, almost in a literal sense. Think of slums in which people are packed into houses like sardines. One in six urban Indians lives in slum housing that is cramped, poorly ventilated, unclean and “unfit for human habitation,” according to the country’s first complete census of its vast slum population. In other words, nearly 64 million Indians live in a degrading urban environment [59]. This example demonstrates that there is no individual poverty.

Marx, as I discussed above, wrote about proletarianization, in which the petty bourgeois were forced into selling their labor through market mechanisms. In this sense, poverty “makes collective.” It subsumes the individual to a greater whole, the “unwashed masses” [60]. Poverty is collective precisely because the labor process under capitalism is collective. This is the fundamental contradiction. Neoliberalism is an expression of this contraction. Collective, social problems are mitigated by private, individual interests. The base of Neoliberalism is the extension of the collective-private contradiction to spheres outside the labor process. It privatizes healthcare, in contradiction to the collective experience of illness [61]. It privatizes water while thirst remains a social ill [62].

Neoliberalism is the marketization of everything. Therefore, it is also the “contradictization” of everything. It makes life contradictory, spreading the social-private contradiction of the capitalist labor process. Neoliberalism, in this sense, is capitalism set free. Capitalism writ large. Capitalism unchained. Neoliberalism is not the concoction of a cabal of evil men (although the Chicago Boys could certainly be described in these terms). Neoliberalism is a specific stage in the development of capitalism: brought about to crush labor struggles and maintain the supremacy of capital amid intensifying struggle against it [63]. Neoliberalism is an effort to roll back the gains of five decades of working class struggle around the world. It was an enforced spreading of capital on a global scale, bringing markets to people who had been “left out” of the “benefits” of capitalism.

There is no way to construct a “compassionate capitalism” without neoliberalism, because the central contraction that neoliberalism is an extension of the central contradiction of capitalism-the contradiction between social labor and private ownership. This is, as I have argued, an intrinsic feature of capitalism. Since neoliberalism is simply the extension of this contraction to the whole of social life, the seeds of neoliberalism are embedded within the capitalist mode of production itself. If we want to defeat neoliberalism-and we do-we must defeat capitalism as a whole.

  1. Interview in Socialist Review 242 (June, 2000).
  2. Bourdieu, 1998, pp.6-7.
  3. “Contradiction-” Dictionary.com.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Engels, Friedrich. Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science Anti-Dühring. CH Kerr & Company, 1935.
  6. Franken, Ingmar HA, et al. “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer: On risk aversion in behavioral decision-making.” Judgment and decision making 1.2 (2006): 153.
  7. Engels, Op. Cit.
  8. David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism. 1989. p.2
  9. Ibid, 3.
  10. Steger and Roy, Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction. 2010. p.3.
  11. Harvey, 4.
  12. Thompson, E. P. (1991). The Making of the English Working Class. Penguin. p. 217.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Tobin, James. “Keynesian models of recession and depression.” The American Economic Review 65.2 (1975): 195-202.
  15. Campbell, Al, 2005, The Birth of Neoliberalism in the United States, in Alfredo Saad Filho and Deborah Johnston (eds), Neoliberalism, A Critical Reader (Pluto).
  16. Ibid.
  17. Campbell, 2005, p.189.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Quoted in Matthews, 1968, p.556. See also Tomlinson, 1981.
  25. Harman, Chris, 1995, Economics of the Madhouse: Capitalism and the Market Today (Bookmarks).
  26. Harvey, 8-10
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Taylor, M. (2006) From Pinochet to the ‘Third Way’ Neoliberalism and Social Transformation in Chile (London, Pluto Press).p.51 2006
  30. Barton, J. (1999) Chile, in Buxton, J. and Phillips, N. (editors) Case studies in Latin American Political Economy (Manchester, Manchester University Press) 1999. p.67
  31. Barton p.66 1999
  32. Barton p.67 1999
  33. Maloney, W.F. (1997) Chile, in Randall, L. (editor) The Political Economy of Latin America in the Post-war Period (Austin, University of Texas Press) p. 53 1997
  34. Taylor p. 53 2006
  35. King, Desmond, and Stewart Wood. “The political economy of neoliberalism: Britain and the United States in the 1980s.” Continuity and change in contemporary capitalism (1999): 371-397.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Ibid.
  39. Ibid.
  40. Ibid.
  41. Ibid.
  42. Harvey, Op. Cit.
  43. Ibid.
  44. Reagan, Ronald. “First Inaugural Address, January 20, 1981.” Speaking My Mind: Selected Speeches (1981).
  45. Fantasia, Rick. “The PATCO Strike: More than Meets the Eye: Response to Art Shostak.” Labor Studies Journal 34.2 (2009): 159-163.
  46. “Paul A. Volcker – Council on Foreign Relations”. Cfr.org.
  47. Ibid.
  48. Allen, Franklin, and Giorgia Giovannetti. “The effects of the financial crisis on Sub-Saharan Africa.” Review of Development Finance 1.1 (2011): 1-27.
  49. Another Lost Decade? CPER. Mark Weisbrot and David Rosnick.
  50. Nathan, Stephen. “privatisation factfile.” MONEY (2009).
  51. Ibid.
  52. Ibid.
  53. Ibid.
  54. Ibid.
  55. Ibid.
  56. Oppenheim, L.H. (1993/1999) Politics in Chile: Democracy, Authoritarianism, and the search for Development, 2nd edition (Oxford, Westview Press).p. 143. 1999
  57. Oppenheim p. 143 1999
  58. Maloney p. 53 1997
  59. Ibid.
  60. Barton p. 72 1999
  61. Ibid
  62. Ibid.
  63. Ibid.

Marxism, Revolution, and Crisis Theory

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” [1]. 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” [2].  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 [3].

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 [4].

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 [5].

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 [6].

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” [7]. 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” [8].

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” [9].

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, then 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 of society. It will continually be hoarded by an ever-decreasing number of wealthy owners [10].

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 [11].

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 [12].

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) [13].

The lack of centralized 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” [14].

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 workpeople, 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”  [15].

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 [16].

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” [17].

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” [18].

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 [19]. 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” [20].

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 [21].

However, revolution is never an organic process. The working class can never come to grasp the need for the overthrow of capitalism on its own, much less make this happen practically. This is due in large part to the pervasive influence of bourgeois (that is, capitalist) ideology on this class. It is up to socialists to organize and mold the proletariat into a disciplined force capable of running society in its own interests. Understanding the endemic nature of crisis is one step towards achieving this goal.

  1. Simon Clark, Marx’s Theory of Crisis. 2016. p. 74.
  2. Ibid, 86.
  3. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Volume 34, p. 75-76.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Karl Marx, Capital: Volume One, Chapter 16, Section 9.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Quoted in Kenneth Lapides, Marx’s Wage Theory in Historical Perspectives 2007, p. 247
  8. 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.
  9. Clark, Op. Cit, p. 85.
  10. See J.W. Moore, Ecology and the Rise of Capitalism 
  11. Karl Marx, Capital: Volume Three, Chapter 15, Section 3.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Marx, Capital: Volume Three, 1867. p. 554
  14. Ibid, 495.
  15. Ibid, 470, 694-5
  16. Lapides, Op. Cit.
  17. Marx, Op. Cit, p. 493.
  18. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx/Engels Selected Works, Vol. One, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1969, p. 100
  19. Quoted in Gerry Mullany, “World’s Eight Richest Have As Much Wealth as Bottom Half, Oxfam Says,” New York Times, Jan. 16, 2017.
  20. Anup Shah, “Poverty Facts and Statistics,” Global Issues. Jan. 7, 2013. 
  21. Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Chapter 5.