A Marxist Analysis of Ideology and Class Consciousness

I have argued that, under capitalism, the working class is the group which has not only the ability to make change, but the objective interest to do so. Why, then, does this class seem to go along with the status quo so often, or even embrace out-and-out reactionary ideas that are opposed to these objective interests? If the working class can change the world, why don’t they do it? Here, I want to go back through the theoretical underpinnings of this question with an eye towards answering two specific questions that are related to this broader one: 1) what are the effects of ideology on the working class, and 2) what is the relationship of Marxist theory and organization to these effects?

For Marxists, an understanding of ideology must begin with an understanding of consciousness and its relationship to the material world. Ideology is one aspect of consciousness, but is not identical to it. Marx and Engels’ first conceptions of consciousness developed in struggles against idealism on the one hand and mechanical materialism on the other. It is through these struggles that we come to understand ideology and its effects on consciousness. This requires an understanding of the philosophical core of Marxism: dialectical materialism.

At a very basic level, dialectical materialism (or diamat) is a way of understanding reality through the material world. As one might expect, it is the combination of dialectics and materialism. I will attempt to define and analyze each of these in turn.

Dialectics is a method of philosophical reasoning which aims to understand things as they exist concretely. It accounts for the movement and change of things, examining their contradictory sides in concert with one another.

There are three components of dialectics within Marxism. They are the law of the unity and conflict of opposites, the law of the passage of quantitative changes into qualitative changes, and the law of the negation of the negation [1].

The law of the unity and conflict of opposites, also called the law of the interpenetration of opposites, refers to the idea that there is no perfectly sharp division between opposite sides. There are borderline cases and contradictions between opposites [2]. In physics, for example, changes in either the electrical field or the magnetic field will cause the other to change [3].

The next law is concerned with quality and quantity. A quality is a property that cannot be measured in numbers and does not come in degrees, such as being at war or unemployed. A quantity is a property that can be measured in numbers, such as hourly wage or rate of profit. Change of quantity usually goes through intermediate stages, but change of quality can happen without going through an intermediate stage. The general principle is that if a quantitative change occurs long enough, a qualitative change will occur [4]. One example is the heating of water. The change in the temperature of water is quantitative, but the change from not-boiling to boiling is qualitative [5].

The last of these laws refers to Hegel’s idea that the thesis generates its negation in the antithesis. The synthesis is the resolution of the tension between the thesis and the antithesis [6]. These laws have their roots in Ancient Greek philosophical thought, as well as ancient Chinese and sub-Saharan African philosophies. There is unity of dialectical thought across all philosophy, not just the west [7]. It is also worth noting that Hegel himself never used these three terms, they were simply used to describe his ideas later [8].

Dialecticians oppose the formal mode of thought which operates with a fixed definition of things according to their attributes. Let’s take the example of fish. The formal understanding of fish would be something like “a fish is an animal which lives in water and has no legs.” A more essential understanding, however, is dialectical in nature. Some animals living in water are not fish, and some fish have legs. To explain the nature of a fish, we must take the whole interconnected process of what makes a fish. That is, we must understand that a fish came from something and is evolving into something else. Only when we consider these two forms (and their contradictions) can we understand what a fish really is [9].

Dialecticians seek to go beyond the appearance of something and understand its  essence. Within formal thought, there is little if any difference between the form of a thing and the essence of a thing. A fish appears as something with no legs which lives in water, so that must be what a fish is. However, dialecticians study the existence of contradictions between form and content. A good example of this would be parliamentary democracy in capitalist societies. In form it is a system which allows the masses of people to determine the structure of society, but in content it is a way for the capitalist class to  monopolize this process. Democracy in form, dictatorship in content [10].

Dialecticians understand that there can be contradictions in the essence of things as well. Formal thought dictates that light must be either a wave or a particle, but the truth is that light can be either or both. Light acts dialectically [11].

In other words, dialecticians see the truth as the whole picture. Each understanding or aspect of this picture is one-sided and incomplete. Dialecticians seek to understand things by synthesizing the different aspects and looking at their contradictions.

Now let’s look at materialism. Thankfully, this is a much simpler concept than dialectics. It is  a mode of thought which stands in opposition to the notion that an idea can determine the world. For Marx and Engels, thoughts were not passive, independent reflections of the material world. Thoughts were the product of human labor, and contradictions within them had their roots in the contradictions of human society [12]. This meant that dialectical materialism was not something that had been imposed from the outside. It could not be discovered merely by study or reason. It was a product of human labor changing the world; people changed and developed its form. It could only be understood by the struggle to overcome these contradictions, not merely in thought, but in practice. It sees the material world as primary [13]. Our ideas are in large part determined by the way in which goods and services are coordinated within society. Being, matter, and nature are the base forces of society. Thinking, mind, and spirit are secondary to and derived from these. This concept serves to counteract idealism, which states that historical events are brought into existence when people act on their ideas. This is a flawed perspective because it does not explain how or why the idea came to exist in the first place. Through an analysis of productive forces, materialism does answer these questions [14].

Since dialectical materialism is concerned with practice, Marx and Engels were very interested in applying the philosophy to historical and political reality. The result of this process is known as historical materialism. Engels gave the best summary of this approach to history in his speech at Marx’s graveside. As he put it, “Marx discovered the law of human history. The simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion and so on. That therefore the production of the immediate material means of subsistence, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institution, the legal conception, art, and even the ideas on religion of the people concerned, have been evolved” [15]

This is the basis of what Marx and Engels Called the materialist conception of history, which later came to be called historical materialism. In order to survive, human beings must first meet their material needs. The way in which we go about meeting those needs profoundly shapes our society and the individuals in it. To take a contemporary example, the attitudes and beliefs of people who grow up in rural areas and engage in agricultural production are typically very different to those of the people who perform industrial labor in heavily populated urban areas [16].

In his speech, Engels calls the way production is organized and the level of economic development that a society has achieved the foundation on which other ideas and institutions rest [17]. Elsewhere, he and Marx sometimes call it the base that supports a legal, political, and cultural superstructure. In using this metaphor of base and superstructure, Marx and Engels are not proposing that influence only goes in one direction. Legal, political, and even religion ideas can affect the way production is organized, and vise versa. These two things are constantly interacting with and shaping one another, in a dialectical relationship [18].

Over the long run, however, it is the productive base of a society that has the most profound effect on how that society develops. One reason why this is true is because human societies are and have been divided into classes. Those who are at the top of society will obviously use their considerable resources and influence to shape ideas and institutions in ways that benefit them. That is why Marx and Engels say in The German Ideology that “the ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class” [19]. The power and wealth of the ruling class rests on their control of the economy. This is one important way in which the economic base and the material interests to which it gives rise determine the superstructure.

If the base in some way explains the superstructure, then we should expect fundamental changes in society as a whole to be due to changes in the base. Perhaps Marx’s most famous substantiation of this claim is contained in the preface to his 1859 book A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Here, he writes “in the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations which are independent of their will. Namely, relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of their relations of production constitute the economic structure of society, the real foundation on which arises a legal and political superstructure….It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness” [20].

Marx uses a lot of technical terms in this passage, but the two most important ones are the forces of production (productive forces) and the relations of production. The forces of production are all the elements needed to engage in the labor process. In other words, the things humans use to act upon and change the natural world in any particular historical period [21]. These things will obviously change depending on a variety of factors, but there are two components needed for any labor process. Human labor power and means of production.

Human labor power includes not just the efforts of individuals, but what Marx calls modes of cooperation. These are the ways in which individuals work together to produce something. The social relations of slavery entailed slaves working together with their own tools, whereas the modern factory sees a number of workers operating large machines, often in concert with one another. These are two fundamentally different modes of cooperation [22].

The labor process also requires means of production. Land, raw materials, and the technology created to use them. These are things like factories, farms, machinery, and offices. Essentially, means of production are anything one would need to do work [23].

The labor process by itself, however, does not tell us what kind of society we have. As Marx put in it Capital Volume One, “the taste of porridge does not tell us who brewed the oats, and the production process we have presented does not reveal the conditions under which it takes place, whether it is happening under the slave owner’s brutal lash or the anxious eye of the capitalist” [24].

This fact brings us to the relations of production. These have to do not with the inner workings of the labor process, but with who controls the labor process and its output. As we have already noted, human societies have been divided into antagonistic classes for the past several thousand years. The class structure of any given society might be quite complicated, but there are generally two central classes: those who produce for  not only for their own immediate needs but also produce a surplus, and those who control this surplus. In slave societies, slaves produced the surplus, which was then controlled by the slave owners. In feudal societies, peasants produced the surplus, which was controlled by lords. In capitalist societies, workers create surplus value, which is then controlled by capitalists [25].

It is these relations of production that define society. In the earliest human societies, there was little surplus produced. When there was a surplus, it was owned in common. These were primitive communist societies with no class differentiations. Since then, we have seen a variety of class societies emerge, including slave, feudal, and capitalist societies. Each one is distinguished by the specific way in which the rulers extract a surplus from the direct producers. The sum of all of a society’s relations of production constitutes what Marx calls its economic structure, or base. It is on this that the legal, political, and cultural superstructure rest [26].

There are two more things to say about the relations of production. First, in class societies, relations of production involve not just the specific relations of the ruling class to the producing class, but also the relationship of the members of the ruling class to each other. Members of the ruling class in one country want bigger market shares than members of the ruling class in another country, so their relationships are often antagonistic. However, different ruling classes may unite to combat a particular crisis or moment of intense class struggle. Fourteen capitalist nations were able to set aside their differences to invade the USSR and attempt to crush socialism, for example [27].

Second, there is an important relationship between the level of development of the forces of production and the specific relations of production that exist within a society. Marx says that the relations of production correspond to, or are appropriate to, specific stages in the development of the forces of production [28]. What this means at a minimum is that not every set of relations of production is compatible with a given level of development in the forces of production. Modern industrial production is not compatible with chattel slavery, except at the margins. This is because it requires a workforce with the high level of technical knowledge necessary to operate complex machinery. This would be impossible in a chattel slave society. There, slaves must be kept ignorant so that they do not revolt against their masters. This is why it was illegal for slaves to learn to read in the American South prior to the Civil War. This is also because a modern industrial workforce must be highly flexible, able to be shifted from one sector to another relatively quickly, or laid off when the economy slows down. This would not be possible if the ruling class owned the producers, because they could not be gotten rid of so easily.

Similarly, Marx argues that communism is impossible in a society in which the development of the forces of production is not high enough to produce relative abundance. Without a high level of abundance, scarcity cannot be abolished. The result would be, as Marx and Engels put it it in The German Ideology, that “want is merely made general, and with destitution, the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced” [29]. This is one reason why the transition period of socialism is necessary. It is in this period that the abundance necessary for communism is reached.

The forces of production, therefore, put limits on what relations of production are possible. Yet this is not all. As we will see, the forces of production can significantly affect the ways in which the forces of production develop. These, too, interact with and alter one another dialectically.

At any given point, the combination of the forces of production and the relations of production in a society make up what Marx called the mode of production in that society [30].

What is the point of all this terminology? The distinctions Marx draws are crucial for understanding the process of historical change. That is, how one economic structure, one network of social relations governing material production shift to a different structure. Put another way, how can a dominant class, be it feudal lords or modern capitalists, ever be removed from power given the vast amount of resources at its disposal? The ruling class not only has society’s ruling ideas in its favor, it also has control of the state and the armed men that come along with that.

Marx addresses this question of basic change in the above-mentioned 1859 preface. He writes “at a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production. From forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure” [31].

At a certain point, the development of the forces of production brings them into conflict with the existing relations of production. Relations that had previously been conducive to the development of the forces now hold them back. This results in a social crisis that weakens the power of the ruling class, and eventually results in its overthrow or transformation. This is how we went from slave society to capitalist society: the contradictions between the forces of production and the relations of production necessitated that this change take place.

According to this theory of historical materialism, the primitive communism of tribal societies represented the original thesis of human development. This in turn generated the antithesis of private ownership and class society (which came about through the development of productive forces). The synthesis of these ideas will be advanced communism, in which the workers own the means of production in an advanced industrial society. This can only emerge after various stages of development, such as slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and socialism [32].

Many people have interpreted this theory as being deterministic. They argue that, because developments in the forces of production are inevitable, communism must also be inevitable. At some point, the forces of production will develop to such a degree that socialism, and eventually communism, will come about naturally. There is no need, argue the determinists, to fight for socialism or communism, because history dictates that they will happen of their own accord.

But history is not an automatic process. Marx was well aware that there is no inevitability to human history. As he points out in the beginning of The Communist Manifesto, class struggle can culminate either in “a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes” [33]. Marx argued that the end of capitalism was inevitable, due to the development of the productive forces. But the end of capitalism is not the same as the beginning of socialism. If we do not actively struggle for socialism, capitalism will result in the destruction of the planet. It is, as Rosa Luxembourg put it, a question of “socialism or barbarism” [34].

Marx continually emphasized the role of class struggle in history. His most often-quoted line is again in The Communist Manifesto, in which he wrote “the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles” [35]. He did not believe that history could be reduced to impersonal economic forces. Rather it was the result of humanity acting, consciously or not, in the class interests dictated by its relationship to the means of production. In 1845, he wrote, “History does nothing. It possesses no immense wealth, wages no battles. It is man, real living man, who does all that, who possesses and fights. History is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims. History is nothing but the activities of man pursuing those aims” [36]. Marx never denies the importance of human agency.

It follows from this that neither socialism nor communism are inevitable. The end of capitalism is likely inevitable due to the system’s need to progress and develop its forces of production. However, advanced communism will not come about in its own. The working class must first break free from the institutions of repression that capitalist society has created in order to perpetuate itself. This necessitates a violent revolution, ending in the establishment of socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat.  This is a sudden qualitative change, coming about after a quantitative change in the number of class-conscious proletarians. Notice that this is in keeping with the second law of dialectics, the passage of quantitative change into qualitative change.

Dialectal materialism has further implications for revolutionaries, beyond that which I have just mentioned. To explain what I mean by this, I would like to introduce a metaphor. Capitalism is seen as being similar to gravity, in the sense that it envelopes our world completely. It does this to such a degree that it is easy for us to forget about it entirely. One can go through an entire day without thinking about how gravity or capitalism operate, but both still hold sway over one’s life.

In fact, the two are seen as so important that attempts to distance oneself from them can result in serious injuries or death. No one would look at a staircase and think they could simply avoid the reality of descending that staircase. If one did believe this, they would in all likelihood break their neck.

By the same token, workers in capitalist societies do not believe that they can simply take home with them that which they produced. To do this would be to risk the threat of job loss or even incarceration.

A consequence of this metaphor, which is propagated nearly every day in all spheres of life, is that capitalism is seen as immutable and eternal. The power of capitalism to structure the social world, like gravity’s pull on everything around us, is so all-encompassing that many people never even become aware of it as a force with its own laws. Other than physicists, few could state Newton’s law of universal gravitation. Other than economists, few could articulate capitalism’s law of surplus value extraction. Capitalism, like gravity, is treated by the masses as simply something that happens, rather than something that can be escaped from or transcended.

Capitalism, of course, is unlike gravity in the sense that it can be transcended. Capitalism is a historically specific social structure, the product of thousands of years of prior human civilizations. It is a product of human activity that emerged out of thousands of years of historical development. Just like the fish, it came after something (feudalism) and comes before something else. With any luck, this will be Socialism.

The dialectical method is a crucial tool, not only for understanding history, but for revealing the passing and transitory nature of a social system that, most of the time, appears to be a fact: as real and unmovable as the floor at the bottom of the staircase. As I said above, dialects takes as its starting point that the world is in a constant state of change, of motion. It follows from this that capitalism is a product of human activity that arises out of the material world.

The idealists saw ideas, rather than the material world, as the driving force of society, and thus saw the “criticism of false and mystifying ideas as the chief tasks of radicals” [37]. Marx and Engels, by contrast, argued that consciousness arises from practical activity and is conditioned by that activity. They wrote, “[people], developing their material production…alter, along with this…their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness but consciousness by life” [38]. Elsewhere, they maintained this view: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but…their social being that determines their consciousness” [39]. Engels put this succinctly in his speech at Marx’s graveside, saying, “mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing before it can pursue politics, art, religion…the production of the immediate material means…form the foundation upon which [ideology and consciousness] of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must therefore be explained….” [40]. Yet this is not all. If one simply stops with these selections, we will come away with a one-sided view of what Marx is arguing. Marx did not see the material world as a separate, objective reality independent of human activity. Rather, he saw the world as being constituted by human activity. Even nature, which would seem the most solid and objective fact, is itself changed by human activity. Marx explained this in the context of an argument against those who advocated going “back to nature” as an escape from class struggle. He wrote that “the nature that has preceded human history today no longer exists anywhere…” [41]. Human activity changes nature, meaning that nature itself does not stand above human activity. The objective, material world does not exist independent of human activity. Indeed, the opposite is true. As Marx put it, “human activity is itself objective activity” [42]. In other words, the material world is a product of human creation. We confront facts, but these facts were historically constituted by human action.

This was essentially Marx and Engels’ criticism of the mechanical materialists. These theorists viewed the world in a static way, as a series of objective factors that existed outside of, but simultaneously dictated, that activity. Marx, on the other hand, grasped the unity of thought and being. Although these things “[were] indeed distinct, they [were] also in unity with each other” [43]. Marx viewed the material world in a dialectical sense. The world reacted upon humans, changing their conditions and modes of thought, but humans also acted upon and changed the world. In so doing, humans were able to alter “the products of their thinking,” as Marx put it above.

This is an incredibly important development in the history of revolutionary thought. Looking at the world today, with its hunger, poverty, inequality, and oppression, it is natural to feel helpless at times. But Marx shows us that these factors are historically contingent, created by humans engaging in activity. What we create, we can also tear down.

In light of this understanding of dialectical materialism (which opens up revolutionary action as a distinct possibility), we can come to understand ideology and consciousness. Consciousness, in dialectical thinking, is the “subjective link between objective processes” [44]. How is this subjective link determined, and how is it that this subjective link is often distorted, rather than a useful guide to action? Why is it that, as Marx says, “the outward appearance of things and their essence do not in fact coincide?” [45]. This gap between appearance and reality, in the realm of consciousness, is the context in which ideology assumes its importance.

A common refrain on the “broad left” is that we need to be attentive to people’s divergent lived experience, that those who live oppression know best how to organize around it. There is a significant sense in which this is true, and indeed obvious. It is the height of arrogance, of chauvinism, to assert that individuals (particularly oppressed individuals) do not have an accurate picture of themselves and their experiences regarding that oppression. The assertion that those who know most about oppression are those most fit to combat it is one that all revolutionaries should abide by. As Mao put it, “no investigation, no right to speak” [46].

But our lived experiences are not the end-all, be-all of life. Our consciousness often fails us. One might assume they are angry when they are really just afraid, for example. “False consciousness” is a phenomenon which we ignore at our own peril.

Additionally, individual lived experiences deviate strongly, and thus can never form a complete picture of a situation. If members of a particular social group report having similar lived experiences, then it would be reasonable to assume that these experiences are universal and “correct.” But this is not the end of the investigation; it is the beginning. Consciousness of the experience of oppression is an important part of political action, but more components need to be addressed. Where does this oppression come from and who does it serve? These are questions that cannot be fully answered by appealing to immediate lived experiences. Rather, they require rigorous social and theoretical investigation that takes lived experiences into account. Experiences are always mediated by the collective, social world. Conducting an investigation into a social issue without taking into account this collective world can only result in confusion and political failure.

In fact, trusting personal experiences without the weight of systemic investigation is a tactic used to uphold capitalism and oppression. The idea, for example, that a gay person has a correct analysis on all issues affecting the queer community, is a profoundly anti-revolutionary one. It shuts out any opinion that contradicts that which has been expressed by the particular gay person, and thus turns the queer community into a monolith. It actually contributes to the further marginalization of the oppressed, rather than their liberation.

Under capitalism, this means that pro-capitalist perspectives will always be privileged over and above anti-capitalist ones. Many queer perspectives (such as mine) hold that capitalism harms LGBT+ people, and should therefore be abolished. But absolute trust in personal experiences allows one to justify ignoring that perspective on the basis that some queer individuals (usually those in positions of power) believe that capitalism is beneficial to their community. Since these privileged perspectives are the ones that threaten the capitalist status quo the least, they are the ones likely to receive the most media coverage and public attention (this gets at the role of media in perpetuating ideology, which we will return to in some detail later). Since this is the case, the masses will be more likely to hear these opinions and treat them as incontrovertible facts. This means that radical queer perspectives will be ignored because they fail to conform to the “gay opinion. In this way, capitalism and oppression are strengthened rather than undermined. What we need is not a blanket accepting of personal experience, but a rigorous analysis that situates these experiences within a broader social context. We need to understand how these two components interact. What we need, in a word, is a dialectical materialist analysis.

How do we go from personal, immediate consciousness to a systemic consciousness? This question, Marxists argue, must be understood as a consequence of the division of society into dominating and dominated classes. Once society has been divided into classes, a growing division between mental and manual labor is introduced. For the first time, there are people who are able to concentrate their full efforts not on producing material goods, but on producing intellectual goods. This is where “ideology,” in the sense of a cache of ruling ideas and systems of thought, first arises.

In feudal society, these “Ideologues” were largely persists and other members of the clergy. Under capitalism, intellectual labor has been diversified. It is now carried out by the clergy, yes, but also economists, academics, think tanks, and media pundits. These intellectual laborers are, like manual workers, beholden to capital. Although they often have more autonomy and investment in this relationship, the fact remains that the ideas espoused by the “commentariat” will be those ideas that are least likely to offend their bosses and keep them employed. As such, these ideas will be ideas that work to uphold capitalism against the interests of labor. This is what Marx means when he says that “the ruling ideas are, in every epoch, are the ideas of the ruling class” [47].

These “ruling ideas” should not be understood mainly, or even primarily, as “propaganda” or ideas created for the specific purpose of “duping people” and upholding the supremacy of capital. Ideology arises out of definite social relations, the most fundamental way we organize our society to meet our basic needs. Ideology is not cooked up in the laboratory of capital (though it is often exacerbated by this), but is the product of real activity engaged with at the point of production. Objects, even ideological objects, are nothing but the result of human practice. Ideology arises out of the mode of production, but it does not do so unmediated. There is not a one-to-one relationship between ideology and mode of production. We cannot say, “because people live under capitalism, they all universally believe X,” in the same way that we cannot say “one gay person believes that capitalism is beneficial, so all gay people believe that capitalism is beneficial. The point is that mode of production is the first factor in determining the dominant ideology of a given society [48].

Ideology is an expression of the mode of production, but this does not mean that ideology is an accurate reflection of the mode of production. Rather, ideology is an inversion of the mode of production that helps to conceal its true character. Like many of his key concepts, Marx initially borrowed the idea from Hegel, then “turned it on its head” [49]. Hegel argued that there was a distinction between appearance and essence, form and content. He further argued that the outward appearance was the inverse, the direct opposite, of the essence that it was meant to conceal. As Hegel puts it “it is the world itself and its opposite in a single unity” [50]. For Hegel, this inversion arises out of the very process of objectified practice itself. When human beings create objects, when they produce things, their consciousness becomes split from that object. The object then appears as an alienated expression of human practice. As soon as we start to produce things that exist outside of us, there is a split between ideas and the object produced. For Hegel, this is a necessary consequence of the division between an object and abstract thought. Hegel implies that this inversion is inherent in the human condition of practice, and as such can never be overcome [51].

Marx approached inversion in a radically different way. For him, the fact that human beings produce objects independent from themselves is not inherently alienating. The process of object production only becomed alienating when the object, in addition to being literally independent from producer, is then forcibly taken from the producer and used to satisfy a need other than that of the producer. It is not production that is alienating, but a particular kind of production: the production of commodities [52].

Humans are not inherently unable to grasp the inner essence of a thing, to move beyond the appearance of that thing. Through conscious practice, we produce an objective power that is the conjunction of the relations of production (the manner in which we produce things) as well as the forces of production (our capacity to produce things). This objectification of our human activity is not in itself alienating. There is nothing unknowable about it, there is nothing that makes human beings unable to comprehend and consciously guide their practice. The alienation of human  practice arises out of the fact that people do not control its results, but are controlled by them. This is not inevitable, but the product of definite social relations and conditions [53].

For Hegel, inversion and alienation are the product of a necessary split between consciousness and objectified practice, and thus are overcome (if they are overcome at all) purely through consciousness rather than material practice. All we need to do, in Hegel’s conception, is to recognize that objects are nothing but the result of our practice. On the question of religion, for example, humans simply needed to understand that they had created the idea of gods, not the other way around. God was the inverted product of human consciousness. Hegel assumed that as soon as we realized this, religious ideas and superstitions would disappear [54].

For Marx, on the other hand, inverted consciousness is the product of an inverted material reality. Religion was not just the product of an inverted conscious (in simple terms “bad ideas), but the way in which consciousness helped to explain a twisted and distorted reality. Ideologies are not just “bad ideas” but ideas that explain bad things. One cannot simply abolish religion by getting people to see it as an illusion, because it arises to explain a truth. This truth is inverted, but it is true nonetheless. Marx, then, proposes the existence of a “double inversion” with two main components. These are the “inversion of consciousness” and the “inversion of objectified social practice.” It is the inversion of consciousness that gives rise to ideology, while the inversion of objectified social practice gives rise to alienation. They are two aspects of the same process, two sides of the same coin [55].

All of this becomes clear when we look at the concrete workings of capitalism. The essence of the capitalist mode of production is the expropriation of surplus value from labor, or exploitation. But this is achieved through a “sleight of hand.” Workers are paid a wage, which appears as a free and fair exchange on the market. There may be a negotiation of the conditions under which this exchange takes place, lending credence to the idea that this exchange is fair. The terms of the exchange may ultimately be seen as unfair, but the exchange itself appears as legitimate. In fact, this is not the case. Under capitalism, the exchange of labor power for a wage is based, in its essence, on theft. While it may appear that labor is being bought, the capitalist is actually purchasing Labor Power-the ability to work. The capitalist buys the worker’s ability to produce as much as possible within the given amount of time. This produces a value far in excess of what the worker is paid, or even what is needed to reproduce the worker’s conditions of life. The excess is appropriated as surplus value [56]. (see “What is Exploitation?”).

The dominant ideology is one that will explain and justify this appropriation. This is illuminated when we compare capitalist relations of production to feudal ones. Under feudalism, the labor of the producing class was split. Part of the day or year was spent producing the immediate needs of this class, while another part was spent producing goods that were then taken by the owning class (in this case the lords). It was obvious that the products of labor were being expropriated by a dominating class. Ideological forms emerged to make this seem like “common sense.” Religion and the Church came to dominate the feudal order. The Church preached obedience to one’s master and reward in the afterlife. The idea was that if you keep your head down and do as you are told, you will be rewarded with riches beyond your wildest dreams. This was meant to dissuade the producing class from struggle, since to struggle would mean jeopardizing their chances of entering heaven. The producers largely accepted this because they were beholden to the feudal lords (literally tied to the land) and thus felt that the lords were more intelligent than them [57].

Under capitalism, labor is still expropriated by a dominating class, but this process is concealed in the wages system. It appears to us as an objective, immutable function of market relations. Our very labor power is bought and sold via a “free market” governed by forces we are powerless to change. Like religion in the feudal era, free market ideology is meant to keep us from struggling against capital. Unlike the feudal epoch, however, ideology is also concealed. Workers do not struggle against capitalism proper not because they believe it will jeopardize their chances at some future reward, but because they believe it is impossible to do so. They see “the market” as something beyond human action, something that they could never hope to influence. As such, they see no point in attempting to abolish it [58].

Let us return to Marx’s “double inversion.” First, we have the inversion of material life, the dispossession of the laborer from the products of their labor and their labor power. Next, we have the inversion of appearances: the wage form that disguises this relationship and makes it appear as a fair exchange on the market. This inversion expresses itself in an inverted consciousness or ideology: “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work” [59].

In order for the capitalist class to realize surplus value, the products of labor must be sold on the market for a profit. This is what makes the products of labor commodities, with labor itself being the most essential commodity. Thus, everything produced by the working class appears not as products of their own creation, but as things separate from workers that have a life of their own on the market. This is the process of reification and commodity fetishism discussed in “What is Alienation?” [60].

This is why the reigning champions of bourgeois ideology are things like “freedom,” “equality,” and “the centrality of the individual.” These ideas conceal fundamental contradictions at the heart of the relations of production. We are “free” to sell our labor power to any capitalist we choose, but we are not free to abstain from selling our labor power altogether. We have no choice but to go to work in order to survive. We are “formally equal” before the law in a way that was not true of peasants, but we are fundamentally unequal in the sense that our bosses have near-absolute power over us. We are “individuals” in the sense that we must fend for ourselves in order to survive, but we do not have the capacity to develop and express the full range of our personalities. The most important and pervasive elements of bourgeois ideology are built into the workings of the system, baked into our social relations [61].

Because we must continually reproduce our social relations, the ideology that justifies these social relations is also reproduced. This is what Marx describes as “reproductive practice” [62]. Through the labor process, workers sink deeper and deeper into false consciousness promoted by the capitalists. Ideology is not merely “ideas” but the material basis through which these ideas perpetuate themselves. Capital is compelled to reproduce itself by reproducing its opposite, labor. In order to ensure that capital’s opposite does not overtake capital, capital must ensure that the opposite is constantly made to feel as though it is impossible to do this. Reproduction of material wealth goes hand in hand with the reproduction of contradictory ideology.

This is where the idea of contradiction becomes important. It is not simply the case that the relationship between capital and labor exists at the heart of capitalist society as a whole. The important thing is that this relationship is contradictory. Labor and capital are not simply two halves of a whole, they are contradictory opposites that could not survive without conflict. They have antagonistic and irreconcilable interests. In a certain sense, however, they are dependent on one another. Capital is compelled to maintain itself, but it can only do so by further maintaining labor. This is its central struggle. For the working class, the inverse is true. It is compelled to abolish capital, and, by consequence, itself.

This antagonistic relationship gives rise to contradictory forms of consciousness and differing worldviews. The ruling ideas may be the ideas of the ruling class, but the ruling ideas are not (and cannot possibly be) the only ideas. They are contested. Thus, the dominant class has a very real interest in concealing the contradictions of capitalism. It is critical that the social relations within which we live are seen as natural, universal, and transhistorical. The history of how these relationships came to be must be obscured. The working class, however, has an interest in revealing the contradictions that are the genesis of its own inhuman conditions. The relationship between capital and labor is fundamentally antagonistic.

Bourgeois ideology, then, must be legitimized, justified, and reimposed. To do so successfully, it will necessarily avoid becoming monolithic. It will incorporate experiences of subordinate classes, and will attempt to create frameworks within which even oppositional movements will articulate their interests. For example, the capitalist class’ adoption of neoliberalism is not only a policy that serves their own interests, but also a framework in this vein. Movements can oppose neoliberalism rather than capitalism proper, thus allowing the bourgeoisie to adapt and continue its rule.

We will recognize these articulations as taking place in what Marx called the superstructure. Marx argued, as we have seen, that the economic foundation (the base), there arises a set of legal, political, and cultural institutions to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness (the superstructure). The superstructure is the arena in which contending forces (capital and labor) become conscious of their antagonisms and fight to resolve them. This often takes the form of competing political ideologies. For example, trade unionism and Keynesianism versus laissez-faire capitalism. Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci spoke of the superstructure as establishing the “terrain” on which people wage their initial struggles [63].

The rise of superstructures-and the component ideologies-is a historical process that goes through different stages. When a class is “rising” (when it is in a position to resolve the contradictions of society in its favor), it has a material interest in laying bare these contradictions and gaining a total understanding of them. Bourgeois economists, in their rising phase, “discovered” the idea that labor creates all wealth so that they could better discipline labor, though this is just one example [64].

A ruling class that is consolidating its hold, rather than on gaining a hold in the first place, has an interest in maintaining the existing social relations, and will therefore attempt to conceal contradictions. It can necessarily obtain only a partial view of the society it controls, because to have a full view of the society would be to reveal the necessity of its own destruction.

At this point, theory and ideas degenerate into attempts to transform specific, superficial aspects of society into general laws. This is reflected, for example, in the forms of social science under capitalism. We are presented with a series of separate, self-contained disciplines, such as politics and sociology. Each of these treats aspects of society as independent of one another rather than intimately connected. This is an ideological formation because the very way in which it is structured prevents us from understanding the whole of existing society. Ideology sanctifies the status quo [65].

Capitalism uniquely structures the way in which ideas are produced and put forward. Under capitalism, the market reigns supreme, even in the realm of ideas. There is a “marketplace of ideas” that tends towards a proliferation of different, if only slightly varied, ideas. Rather than the totalizing, hegemonic workings of the clergy present in feudalism, many ideas are “allowed” to contend. The very fact that there are so many of them helps to conceal the contradictions of class domination. We assume that because so many ideas are given airtime, no one can be oppressed. In actuality, however, all of these ideas perpetuate the rule of capital in some form or another [66].

If human beings create and recreate their own alienated conditions, and thus reproduce the ideological justification for these conditions, how is it possible to change these conditions? It would seem that we are doomed to be hemmed in by ideology. If ideology is built into the very ways in which we reproduce ourselves as people, how do we escape? We understand how consciousness arises, now we must contend with another problem: how does consciousness change?

For Marxists, the process of change is not an intellectual exercise, but a guide to action. Our conception of change is fundamentally linked to our end goal: revolution and the fundamental reordering of society. With this in mind, I would like to spend some time going over common non-Marxist ideas about change are and explaining why they are insufficient. There are three very common ideas about change that most of us will hold at one point or another in our political development. I am going to take each of these ideas in turn.

The very worst idea, the one that is least conducive to liberation, is that people do not change at all. This idea sees human beings as fundamentally static, unalterable, preprogrammed into certain modes of behavior. Its conclusions are profoundly cynical, and is often used to legitimate the worst forms of oppression, exploitation, and bigotry. If people are fundamentally unalterable, change in societal structures is out of the question entirely. Given this, it scarcely needs proof that we ought to abandon this idea. If oppression (or even oppressive behavior) is a given fact, why bother struggling against it all?

The second idea is very much the opposite of the one I just laid out. It proposes that we are all “sheep,” blindly following whatever lies the media feeds us. In this conception, we are blank slates, ready to do or buy anything the television tells us to. Of course, we are profoundly influenced by television, advertising, and the like. That is the point of these institutions! We must soberly assess the influence of these things if we wish to succeed. However, we must reject the idea that working class people are not capable of complex thought. This argument, as the explanation for why a certain group is not more progressive, is used to dehumanize the poor, exploited, and oppressed, and in this sense lets the capitalist class off the hook. It proposes that oppressed people are responsible for their own oppression, that it is their fault for not fighting against it sooner. But this ignores that the working class and the oppressed will always struggle. The question is not whether they will struggle, but how far that struggle will go.

The third idea is that ideas change through the gradual accumulation of better ideas. On this view, injustice is the result of ignorance or lack of knowledge about the rest of the world and the people in it. There is an element of truth to this concept. If one is never given the opportunity to learn about other cultures, this will impact one’s understanding of the world. This does not mean, however, that people’s lives would improve if they simply had “better ideas” or were “more educated.” According to this framework, the primary role of those interested in changing the world is to educate the masses, rather than organize them. This implies that those responsible for oppression are not in this position willfully, but because they have “bad ideas.” It asserts that we can convince the capitalist class and the oppressors to give up their positions of power and privilege. In order to be a capitalist, one must understand not only how to manage capital and read the market, but also how to wage war and make political deals. One does not get to run the world by being stupid. They know exactly what they are doing. The oppressors are not ignorant. Rather, they are interested in maintaining their own authority. The danger of this conception of change is that it blames individuals for their condition, not the system as a whole. If we are focused on individuals, we will never be rid of oppression. The capitalist class is like a hydra: cut off one head and two more grow in its place. What we need to do is not disempower or win over individual capitalists, but create a world in which the existence of capitalists is impossible.

If these explanations for how ideas or consciousness changes do not hold up, then what does? I would argue that dialectical materialism is the answer to this problem. In the above paragraphs, I attempted to explain why this is the case. We are shaped by our environment, but we are capable of shaping our environment as well. As Hericletus put it, “strife is the father of all things” [67]. Contradiction, the struggle between two competing things, is the natural order, not the opposite. In light of this, we should interpret ideology as a thing constantly in flux, adapting and shifting. Not only this. We should see ideology for what it really is: something that can be overcome. There is nothing that cannot be transformed into something new. The old axiom holds true: the only constant is change.

The human capacity for changing the world, Marx argues, is what separates humans from other animals. He writes, “the species-nature of animal is an eternal repetition. That of humans is transformation, development, and change” [68]. Our ability to consciously interact with and transform the world through labor, is what makes us human. Marx further argued that “humans make their own history, but they do not make it…under circumstances of their own choosing.” Rather, these circumstances are “directly…transmitted from the past” [69]. History is the activity of real people interacting with and struggling against one another. Put simply, change is the product of struggle within and against a contradiction.

Ideas, then are not static, nor will they slowly evolve into better ones. Ideas do not evolve, they explode. They tend to change quite dramatically and suddenly, passing over from quantitative to qualitative. This occurs on both a collective and individual scale. Change is the product of contradiction. There are a number of contradictions inherent to capitalism that make change likely, and in some sense inevitable.

The major contradiction is that capitalism creates the conditions of exploitation and oppression (it cannot survive without either of these things), but these conditions produce resistance. It creates a class of people-the working class-that is not only interested in overcoming these conditions, but materially positioned to do so. Capitalism produces the potential for its own demise. To ask why the working class is not struggling for socialism is to miss the point. The struggle for socialism is a both a product of and the negation of capitalism. Revolution is an actuality, a determinate and distinct possibility.

How does the working class become aware of this possibility? In simple terms, they do so through struggle. The ruling ideas of society, no matter how powerful, come into contradiction with the lived experience of the working class. Gramsci put it this way: “worker resistance signifies that the social group in question may indeed have its own conception of the world, even if only embryonic, a conception which manifests itself in action” [70]. It is only when struggle erupts that workers can understand the true nature of society and their place within it. It is only in activity that workers glimpse their real potential as a class, and come to understand what their interests are. It is in this process of struggle that workers come to understand their power and ability as well as their objective interests. They break free of the narrow vantage point that sees oppression and exploitation as individual issues rather than systemic ones. When the working class understands itself, it, in an admittedly somewhat limited sense, understands society as a whole. When what we are told comes into contradiction with what we experience, we are driven to struggle. The core of this is that people learn by doing. We learn about the world through a process of interacting with and being changed by it. It is in this learning that workers can overcome ideology.

A concrete example of this overcoming can be found in the Russian Revolution. The eight months in Russia between February and October consist in some of the most hurried and monumental political development the world has ever seen. Here, I want to examine how and why the workers went from handing power to the capitalists in February to seizing it for themselves by October. How is it that they went from creating dual power to insisting on sole power? This step requires a huge shift in consciousness, and I believe it has a number of lessons for how we ought to approach these questions today.

There are a few major periods that we ought to delineate between in order to learn these lessons, some of which lasted only a few weeks. The major period was an initial feeling of euphoria among workers and peasants, characterized by national unity, in February and March. This gave way to clear, opposing interests-antagonisms-in April. These antagonisms would sharpen into a premature attempt by some workers to take power in July, which lead to a time of reaction in which the bourgeoisie was capable of regaining control. That was followed by an overstep in August in which the capitalists attempted to institute a military dictatorship. Finally, of course, we have the October revolution itself, in which the working class realized it had no choice but to take complete control of the country. For the sake of space, I will largely focus on developments in Petrograd, which are in general reflective of the general mood of the country.

Amazing abilities in terms of working class consciousness flourished in February and April. Glimpses of the conflicts that would explode over the course of the year were visible in the first weeks of the revolution. Before getting into that, though, it is necessary to answer a burning question: why were two revolutions necessary in 1917? Why didn’t the workers jump straight ahead to running society after overthrowing the tsar?

Recall that after the fall of the tsar, two forms of government sprung up: the provisional government for the capitalists and the elected soviets for the workers. The soviets were stronger, and after the fall of the tsar, could have taken control of the country. It chose instead to willingly hand over power to the bourgeoisie. There are two major reasons for this.

The first is that no socialist organization in Russia called for soviet rule at the time. The main parties in the leadership positions of the soviets, the Mensheviks and the Social-Revolutionaries, both believed that the next step in struggle was establishing liberal capitalism. They thought the soviet was necessary, but only as a kind of “check” to prevent the return to tsarism [71]. Even the Bolsheviks were divided on this question with up to four different positions. It would take several weeks, and Lenin’s return to Russia, before the Party would reach a consistent line. This was due in no small part to the publication of Lenin’s “April Theses” [72].

The second reason, and the most important for our purposes here, is that the workers themselves were not ready. They were caught up in a mood of national unity, a desire to return to normalcy after years of war. They faced fear of a return to tsarism or of civil war, and were underconfident in their own abilities. It is also important to note that the workers were generally making gains without a worker’s state. The secret police had been abolished, and trade unions had been legalized. Left political parties were allowed to operate aboveground. For many workers, taking on the burden of ruling seemed superfluous, unnecessary [73].

This does not mean that working class militancy was absent from the landscape. Workers struck over everything in this period. The eight-hour day, overtime pay, and maternity leave for women were all sites of struggle. In some cases, striking workers dumped hated bosses into canals from wheelbarrows. This shows that, even in a situation vastly improved from their previous one, workers will be driven to struggle by the very conditions of the economic system. In March, 95% of strikes lead to advancement [74]. Workers won nearly every time they made demands. These victories, though not yet revolutionary, helped to develop the consciousness and ability of the working class.

This can be seen in the way that the workers resisted the attempts of the bourgeoisie to drive a wedge between their class and the soldiers. In response to the lie that the “greedy strikes” of the workers were endangering the war effort, workers at one factory sent a letter to the soldiers which read, “to our enemies, who are attempting to divide us, we loudly declare: no, stand back, for you are enslavers…living off our labor” [75]. The bosses’ press campaign backfired, binding workers and soldiers more closely together. Some soldiers, although they were practically starving, sent money to the families of workers who had died in the revolution. Despite the tremendous power of the bosses (who controlled the majority of the newspapers) workers were able to form alliances with their ostensible enemies, the soldiers. Although ideology is often a stupefying force, it is not insurmountable. Workers will learn the falseness of the bourgeoisie’s ideas through struggle. They are not timid, but resolute and willing.

Not only did the workers have to wage ideological struggle with their own bourgeoisie, they also came into conflict with the early leaders of their soviets over a number of issues. One of these was the so-called “liberty loan,” proposed by the Provisional Government in April as a means to help fund the war effort. The soviet leadership was for it, even though individual factory committees-and the Bolsheviks-were against it. On April 7, the Soviet Executive Committee voted 21 to 14 to endorse the loan. On April 10, the workers retaliated. One engineering department resolved, by a vote of over 400 to 7, drafted a declaration which read, in part, “this fratricidal war…is a benefit only to the imperialist bourgeoisie, we do not consider it the interest of the socialist proletariat to take part in this loan. [T]he money should be taken from the pockets of the bourgeoisie that has instigated and continued this slaughter, making millions in profit….We consider [acceptance of the loan] to the cause of the proletariat a betrayal….” This issue lead to the first recall of soviet delegates, with Bolsheviks generally being elected in their place [76].

As a result of all this activity, some workers began to recognize the need to take over some elements of management. During this period, the workers were making gains at the same time that they were accruing a kind of “struggle debt.” The settlements worker’s made with the bosses could not solve the fundamental contradictions of an anarchic, war-torn capitalist economy. They could only postpone further reckoning. The gains made were outstripping the economy’s ability to deliver. Workers, through the very process of winning reforms, came to understand that capitalist ideology was wrong: capitalism could not create a society in which the working class and the oppressed were truly free [77].

In the April days, a secret note was published by the Provisional Foreign Minister Miliukov, swearing to Russia’s allies that the country would be in the war “until the last drop of blood” [78]. Petrograd exploded in a series of political strikes that called for an end to the war and attacked the soviets for not taking more concrete steps towards this goal. Bolsheviks used this opening to push workers further, towards revolution. We see here that worker’s struggles lead to a rudimentary form of political consciousness, rather than simply more and more ambitious economic demands. Workers begin to overcome bourgeois ideology in the process of their own struggles.

During the course of May and June, Petrograd workers became increasingly fed up with the Provisional Government, moving far ahead of the rest of the country, which still accepted dual power. In early July, discontent began to boil over. More and more workers became angry, leading to greater revolutionary zeal. Dialectically speaking, a quantitative change gave way to a qualitative one. A layer of workers set their sights on toppling the provisional government, despite their battles being confined to the factory floor a few short months prior. This lead to massive repression, and Lenin was forced into hiding [79].

By May, inflation had eaten away at all the gains made by the workers previously. Food shortages abounded, while rations were cut. In some instances, factory owners attempted to move machinery out of the cities on barges. Far from leading to deteriorated class consciousness, this further galvanized workers and pushed them towards the seizure of power. Having learned through struggle that victory in the realm of reforms was possible, workers were ready to defend them with their lives. They physically blocked machine removal and struck to protect their gains, the eight-hour day chief among them. The length of strikes doubled between March and May [80]. While it might seem that ideology is a mountain that cannot be climbed, workers will continue to struggle even in periods of defeat. This struggle is a matter of survival. It is the working class’ need to struggle against the bosses that allows them to break through ideology.

Soon, many workers began to realize that a system requiring owners would always leave their class at a disadvantage. In early June, a delegate from a power company said, “for us workers, it is clear that the bourgeoisie is waging a counter-revolution against democracy…the immediate establishment of worker’s control [can alone put an end to] the counter-revolutionary ideas of the capitalists” [81]. Another statement from an infantry reserve regiment read, in part, “we demand that the soviets seize all power…we will never allow anyone to destroy [our revolution]” [82]


By August, most workers were completely fed up with the bourgeoisie. In Moscow, the Provisional Government discovered that waiters would not serve them in restaurants, cabbies would not drive them to their meetings, and hotel workers refused to clean their rooms. This was in spite of the moderate leadership of the Moscow soviet telling workers want to strike. In many cases, the experience of struggle leads workers to run ahead of the traditional leadership [83]. Would this be the case if ideology were the death blow many claim it to be?

Despite this tremendous leap in class consciousness (which again puts the lie to the idea that ideology is impenetrable), many workers still believed that factory owners were necessary. They simply wanted to maintain control commissions that would oversee every aspect of their work. Although the advanced workers understood that their class could rule, the majority was still inundated with the bourgeois idea that they could not do so.

We see here that, although workers are able to overcome certain aspects of ideology on their own, class consciousness will always remain uneven. The advanced workers must organize into a vanguard party and lead the majority towards revolution. This can be seen by the fact that the workers were transformed into a fighting force by following Bolshevik orders. The Bolsheviks helped form a defense committee, which expanded the workers militias, procured weapons, and taught thousands of workers how to shoot. The factories increased production to arm these budding revolutionaries, producing as much in three days as usually took three weeks [80]. With the intervention of the Bolsheviks, workers came to understand that a new society was not only necessary, but possible.

The role of organization cannot be overstated. My aim here has not been to convince you that workers are already revolutionary, but that they are worth being made revolutionary. We ought not despair at the prominence of ideology. The experience of the Russian Revolution shows that workers will always struggle and seek to overcome ideology. The working class did not immediately reach revolutionary consciousness. It required months of agitation on the part of the advanced workers, represented by the Bolshevik Party.

The fact remains, though, that working class struggle is inevitable. This raw material, revolutionary in aims, must be molded into a disciplined force capable of winning a revolution rather than just wishing for one. The answer to the question “why haven’t workers made revolution?” is not just “ideology,” but “organization.” Workers have yet to make revolution not because they think it impossible, but because, on some level, socialists do. The power of the working class must be refined and awakened in struggle. If we want to make a revolution, we must organize workers for this purpose.

The point, ultimately, is this: people’s ideas are not fixed. People can and do move from accepting the status quo to turning it on its head, but this process is one of long, protracted struggle. It is neither mechanical nor determined. It requires politics, discipline, and organization.

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  65. Larrain, Jorge. “The postmodern critique of ideology.” The Sociological Review 42.2 (1994): 289-314.
  66. Ibid.
  67. G. S. Kirk (2010), Heraclitus: The Cosmic Fragments, Cambridge University Press.
  68. Quoted in Western, David, Rosemary Groom, and Jeffrey Worden. “The impact of subdivision and sedentarization of pastoral lands on wildlife in an African savanna ecosystem.” Biological Conservation 142.11 (2009): 2538-2546.
  69. Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The german ideology. Vol. 1. International Publishers Co, 1972.
  70. Quoted in Amoore, Louise. The global resistance reader. Psychology Press, 2005.
  71. Biersteker, Thomas J. “Evolving perspectives on International political economy: Twentieth-century contexts and discontinuities.” International Political Science Review 14.1 (1993): 7-33.
  72. Frankel, Jonathan. “Lenin’s Doctrinal Revolution of April 1917.” Journal of Contemporary History 4.2 (1969): 117-142.
  73. Nabokov, Vladimir. The Provisional Government. John Wiley & Sons, 1970.
  74. Ascher, Abraham. The revolution of 1905: Russia in disarray. Vol. 1. Stanford University Press, 1994.
  75. Steinberg, Mark D. Voices of revolution, 1917. Yale University Press, 2001. p. 92
  76. Chamberlin, William Henry. The Russian Revolution, Volume I: 1917-1918: From the Overthrow of the Tsar to the Assumption of Power by the Bolsheviks. Vol. 1. Princeton University Press, 2014.
  77. Ibid.
  78. Lincoln, W. Bruce. Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War, 1918-1921. Da Capo Press, 1999.
  79. Rabinowitch, Alexander. Prelude to revolution: The Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July 1917 uprising. Vol. 661. Indiana University Press, 1991.
  80. Chamberlin, Op. Cit.
  81. Rabinowitch, Alexander. The Bolsheviks come to power: The revolution of 1917 in Petrograd. Pluto Press, 2004.
  82. Chamberlin, Op. Cit.
  83. Ibid.



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.

Neoliberalism, Capitalism, and Prisons

The advent of the neoliberal period has lead many to assert that we are living in an entirely new historical epoch, for which Marx is inadequate. I have argued previously that neoliberalism is primarily in continuity with capitalism, rather than rupture with it. Given the role of mass incarceration in the neoliberal era, I believe it is worth examining private prisons in order to drive this point home.

The institution of private prison is the subject of much debate. Proponents argue that the system is a cost-effective option. It allows the government to conserve tax dollars and allows cash-starved states to reallocate the funds. However, these assertions run counter to the vast majority of data. In this essay, I will argue that private prisons are not in fact cost effective. Instead, they serve only to incentivize criminalization and exploit the labor of inmates. Further, their function is one that capitalism-and especially neoliberal capitalism-cannot do without. As such, the abolition of private prisons is impossible under capitalism.

The most important argument offered up by the pro-privatization camp is that for-profit prisons are cheaper than publicly owned correctional facilities. This argument rests on the assumption that cost-cutting is important enough to overlook the violence and exploitation that occurs in private prisons, which strikes me as spurious. A great many activities that harm humanity, such as the cutting of environmental safety regulations, result in greater profits. Despite this, no one (except perhaps a particularly unscrupulous capitalist) would say that profit stands above the wellbeing of the environment. Why, then, should this logic apply to prison privatization? Regardless, this is a myth that has been employed time and again in defense of private prisons, so it is worth taking the time to deconstruct it.

It is true that there is no database of public and private prisons through which it would be possible to control for things like size, jurisdiction, and so on. This makes a comparative cost analysis admittedly difficult. However, the data that does exist does not support the idea that private prisons are more cost effective than public ones. Data from the Arizona Department of Corrections show that private prisons can cost as much as $1,600 more per year, while many cost about the same as they do in state-run prisons [1].  Further, researchers at the University of Utah concluded in 2007 “cost savings from privatizing prisons are not guaranteed and appear minimal” [2]. Finally, a review of the 24 studies on the cost effectiveness of private prisons revealed inconclusive results regarding cost savings. They also found no considerable difference in cost effectiveness [3]. These studies all show that the myth of the cost-effective private prison is just that: a myth. At best, the data are inconclusive. There is simply no credible way to assert that private prisons are more cost effective than their public counterparts.

There have been several studies that claim to prove this point, however. One was conducted at Temple University by two researchers who claim to be independent. However, the study received funding from Correctional Corporation of America, the United State’s largest private prison company [4]. Clearly, studies that are paid for by the very industry they seek to expose cannot be considered credible. There have been very few truly independent studies that have found that private prisons provide a monetary gain to taxpayers. As such, there is no economic justification for the proliferation of private prisons.

If private prisons do not justify themselves from a monetary standpoint, as I have just argued, what exactly do they do? Their purpose cannot be saving taxpayers money, but neither could they exist without a purpose. It must be the case that private prisons perform some function. The question now is, which function? They are certainly not concerned with rehabilitation, and may even incentivize criminalization. Data from one Minnesota report confirm, “that privatization significantly lowers the level of correctional effectiveness, facility security, and public safety compared to what is now provided by the public system” [5]. Private prisons, therefore, cannot be considered more effective or safer than public facilities. Their purpose must be something other than the rehabilitation of criminals.

As Angela Davis has argued, the true purpose of private prisons is the exploitation of labor. According to Davis, the use of prison as a source of labor began earnestly in the 1980’s. She writes, “Companies such as Correctional Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group reaped the profits attracting investments from household names, including the Bank of America, Fidelity Investments and Wells Fargo and also from many universities around the nation” [6]. They gained these profits by forcing their inmates to engage in labor. The inmates are well aware of this. According to one report, as many as 60,000 detained immigrants have engaged in “forced labor” for profit-driven correctional facilities [7]. Private prisons, to put it bluntly, are sites of a new American slavery.

This slavery is completely legal. The 13th amendment prohibited slavery-with one exception. The so-called “punishment clause” mandates that forced labor shall be prohibited “except as a punishment for crime” [8]. This clause was taken directly from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The clause reflected a common belief that hard work was essential to the rehabilitation of criminals. From its inception, however, the clause was used to police black citizens and restrict their rights. Frederick Douglass described it this way at the time: “[States] claim to be too poor to maintain state convicts within prison walls. Hence the convicts are leased out to work for railway contractors, mining companies and those who farm large plantations. These companies assume charge of the convicts, work them as cheap labor and pay the states handsome revenue for their labor. Nine-tenths of these convicts are negroes” [9]. Douglass also notes that so many blacks were behind bars because law enforcement tended to target them. This insight remains relevant to discussions of private prisons today. Law enforcement targets vulnerable populations-immigrants and people of color-and force them to labor for the profit of the owners. This is not fundamentally different from the institution of slavery of centuries past. Correctional corporations have used the specter of economic efficiency to perpetuate a barbaric and inhuman institution. For this, there is no excuse.

It is true that criminals should be expected to forfeit some portion of their freedom when they commit crimes. However, many of the aforementioned detained immigrants have committed no offenses beyond entering the country illegally. Many immigrants must contend with immense poverty in their home countries, oftentimes imposed by the United States. The North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, was intended to promote economic development for the United States and Mexico. According to a report from the CPER, however, “Mexican poverty has risen since the deal’s implementation in 1994 as economic growth and real wages stagnated while nearly 5 million family farmers were displaced, propelling Mexico’s poor toward migration to the United States” [10]. Immigration is directly attributable to the poverty imposed upon Mexico by NAFTA. Private prisons do not generally house dangerous elements that must be cut off from wider society. They are used to pen in desperate workers who believe they have no other choice.

This is remarkably similar to the processes that beget the development of capitalism in Europe. European capitalism arose out of feudalism, but this was not a natural occurrence. Rather, it came about through the enforced transformation of the peasant masses and feudal retinues into an industrial working class. Peasants were driven off their land and into the cities to work in factories. Drunkenness, pauperism, and vagrancy-the cardinal sin of existing while homeless-these became criminal offences. Prisons began as a means by which to discipline an emergent working class [11].  Even the classical political economists of the time understood the integral role of prison in the exploitation of labor. Bentham, a celebrated economist, detailed plans for a structure he called the Panopticon. In the words of author Michael Perelman, this was, “a prison engineered for the maximum control of inmates in order to profit from their labor” [12]. Although the Panopticon never materialized, the prison system continued to be a weapon for the repression of the workers during this period. This system was widely considered a success at the time, so it is no wonder that the American ruling class has seen fit to replicate it today.

A predictable rebuttal would be that this is an unfair comparison, since there is not a developing working class in the United States as was the case in England. Granted, Mexican farmers and English peasants in the feudal era have very different experiences of day-to-day life. In a broad sense, however, parallels can be drawn between them. Both worked land, often communally, until capitalist states forced them off this land and into poverty. Faced with starvation, both migrated to other areas to work for bosses in exploitative conditions. Many Mexican farmers still perform agricultural labor, while feudal peasants often worked in then-new factories. Further, feudal peasants migrated within England, whereas Mexican immigrants have been forced to leave their home country entirely. Despite these differences, however, both instances have meant mass migration and an increase in the amount of exploitable labor in a particular area. As such, the characterization of Mexicans displaced by NAFTA as a “developing working class” or an “emergent proletariat” is accurate, at least in the American context.

Private prisons are not about rehabilitation. They are not even about crime. Like the prisons of the industrial revolution, they are about disciplining the working class. They serve a purpose that is necessary for the perpetuation of capitalism at this particular moment. The experience of capitalism’s beginnings shows that prisons themselves have always been a tool of the ruling class. The privatization of prisons was inevitable, brought about by changes in the relations of production (the movement from feudalism to capitalism). It therefore follows that private prisons cannot be done away with without the abolition of capitalism.

The prison industrial complex, as Davis has termed it, can only be understood in a dialectical sense [13]. Prison profiteering is both the cause and effect of mass incarceration. Capitalism’s contradictions spawned the prison system. One of the many causes of crime under capitalism is poverty. The results of one study “imply that if there is a culture of violence, its roots are pronounced economic inequalities” [14]. Capitalism, as a system that pits workers in competition with one another, requires poverty in order to function. Poverty allows capitalists to drive down wages and worsen conditions. If one worker will not accept a particular job, poverty ensures that some other worker will. In this sense, capitalism uses poverty as a tool to perpetuate itself.

German political economist Karl Marx elucidated a similar point in his book The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, in which he wrote, “When society is in a state of progress, the ruin and impoverishment of the worker is the product of his labor and of the wealth produced by him” [15]. Because workers under capitalism produce wealth that does not belong to them, the very process of production ensures that workers will be poor. The principle of exploitation states that workers are only ever paid enough money to enable them to continue working, nothing more. This means that the vast majority of workers will be poor. Even if poverty did not serve the function mentioned above, it would still be an unavoidable aspect of capitalism. This being the case, capitalism is structurally incapable of addressing the root of crime. The system must, therefore, find a way to profit from it. The prison system, as a result, is now a lucrative investment opportunity for innumerable corporations.

Microsoft, Wal-Mart, and Dell, among others, have adopted a system that bares a striking resemblance to the convict-leasing system described by Douglass. In prisons across the country, work sunup to sundown for major corporations. They produce or package every kind of commodity, from weapons intended for military use to Starbucks coffee. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, “Sentenced inmates are required to work if they are medically able. Institution work assignments include employment in areas like food service or the warehouse, or work as an inmate orderly, plumber, painter, or groundskeeper. Inmates earn 12¢ to 40¢ per hour for these work assignments. Approximately sixteen percent (16%) of work-eligible inmates work in Federal Prison Industries (FPI) factories. They gain marketable job skills while working in factory operations, such as metals, furniture, electronics, textiles, and graphic arts. FPI work assignments pay from 23¢ to $1.15 per hour” [16].

In addition to private prisons getting away with paying lower wages than private corporations, they also subject their inmates to atrocious conditions. A prisoner forced into agricultural labor describes her experience this way: “They wake us up between 2:30 and three AM and kick us out of our housing unit by 3:30AM. We get fed at four AM. Our work supervisors show up between 5AM and 8AM. Then it’s an hour to a one and a half hour drive to the job site. Then we work eight hours regardless of conditions . . .. We work in the fields hoeing weeds and thinning plants . . . Currently we are forced to work in the blazing sun for eight hours. We run out of water several times a day. We ran out of sunscreen several times a week. They don’t check medical backgrounds or ages before they pull women for these jobs. Many of us cannot do it! If we stop working and sit on the bus or even just take an unauthorized break we get a major ticket which takes away our ‘good time'” [17].

Here, we see the true purpose of private prisons. They are intended to create an easily manipulated workforce who can legally be paid wages that are below the value of their labor power. The exploitation and disciplining of the working class represented the impetus for prisons to exist in the first place, and the same logic is being used to promote their privatization today.

It should be noted that the function of prisons as a method of social control-a tool to discipline the woirking class-is the primary function of prisons, both public and private, in the United States. While private prisons are in many cases a money-making venture for capitalists, their major function is to control the working class of oppressed nations. When we look at prison populations (whether private or public), we can see where mass incarceration gets its impetus. The vast majority of prisoners are New Afrikans, Chicanxs, and peoples of the First Nations (even though euro-Americans are the majority of the U.S. population). The prison is not primarily a revenue racket, but an instrument of social control. Although profit-making (and thus exploitation) is a motivating factor in their proliferation, they should be seen as tools to beat the working class into submission [18].

Scholars Wagner and Rabuy support this idea in their paper “Following the Money of Mass Incarceration”. The paper presents the division of costs within the prison industry as the judicial and legal costs, policing expenditures, civil asset forfeiture, bail fees, commissary expenditures, telephone call charges, “public correction agencies” (like public employees and health care), construction costs, interest payments, and food/utility costs [19].

The authors outline their methodology for arriving at their statistics and admit that “[t]here are many items for which there are no national statistics available and no straightforward way to develop a national figure from the limited state and local data” [20]. Despite these obvious weaknesses in obtaining concrete reliable data, the overwhelming correctness of this analysis stands.

Wagner and Rabuy discuss the private prison industry at the end of the article. Here, they write:

“To illustrate both the scale of the private prison industry and the critical fact that this industry works under contract for government agencies — rather than arresting, prosecuting, convicting and incarcerating people on its own — we displayed these companies as a subset of the public corrections system [21].”

Private prisons have been justified on the basis that they are more cost-effective than the alternative. Data show that this is incorrect. Even if this were the case, however, that would not justify the rank exploitation of the inmates. Chattel slavery is no longer justified by this logic, so there is no reason that slavery behind bars should be subject to this argument either.

Private prisons, contrary to what proponents argue, have nothing to do with rehabilitation. They are about amassing profits for wealthy corporate owners and, chiefly, controlling undesirable populations. There is no argument, economic or otherwise, that can be used to justify their continued use. Private prisons and the capitalist system that necessitates them must be abolished. What this shows is that neoliberalism is simply a new era of capitalist development. In our struggle against it, we should continue to look to Marx and those who came after him.

  1. Oppel, Richard A. “Private Prisons Found to Offer Little in Savings.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 May 2011, 
  2. Lundahl, Brad, et. al. MSW “Prison Privatization: A Meta-Analysis of Cost Effectiveness and Quality of Confinement Indicators” Utah Criminal Justice Center, College of social work, University of Utah. April 26, 2007. 
  3. Oppel, Richard A. “Private Prisons Found to Offer Little in Savings.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 May 2011, 
  4. Petrella, Christopher. “CCA Continues to Cite Misleading Study It Funded.” American Civil Liberties Union. American Civil Liberties Union, 26 Apr. 2015
  5. Austin and G. Coventry, “Emerging Issues on Privatized Prisons,” Bureau of Justice Assistance, February 2001.
  6. “Dr. Angela Davis – The Voice of the Oppressed.” Center for the Study of Democracy, 9 Nov. 2015.
  7. Short, April M. “As many as 60,000 detained immigrants may have engaged in forced labor for private prison companies.” Salon
  8. Kamal, Ghali. “No Slavery Except as a Punishment for Crime: The Punishment Clause and Sexual Slavery.” UCLA Law Review, 22 Oct. 2009, 
  9. “The Convict Lease System by Frederick Douglass.” The Reason why the colored American is not in the World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893.
  10. TeleSUR et al. “NAFTA Plunges 20M Mexicans into Poverty: Report.” News | teleSUR English, www.telesurtv.net/english/news/Thanks-to-NAFTA-Mexico-Poverty-Grew-Economy-Stagnated-Report-20170329-0033.html.
  11. “Poverty and the workhouse.” The British Library – The British Library, www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item106501.html.
  12. Michael Perelman, The Invention of Capitalism. Duke University Press, 2000, p. 21
  13. “Dr. Angela Davis – The Voice of the Oppressed.” Center for the Study of Democracy, 9 Nov. 2015. Op. Cit.
  14. Judith R. Blau and Peter M. Blau, American Sociological Review Vol. 47, No. 1 (Feb., 1982), p.114-129
  15. Karl Marx, “Marx 1844: Wages of Labor.” Marxists Internet Archive 
  16. “Federal Bureau of Prisons.” BOP: Work Programs,
  17. Victoria Law, Truthout. “Martori Farms: Abusive Conditions at a Key Wal-Mart Supplier.” Truthout, 2011.
  18. Peter Wagner and Bernadette Rabuy, Following the Money of Mass Incarceration (Prison Policy Initiative), 25 January 2017. 
  19. Ibid
  20. Ibid.
  21. Peter Wagner, Are Private Prisons Driving Mass Incarceration? (Prison Policy Initiative), October 7, 2017. 
  22. Ibid.

Marxism and Elections Part Two

In my last blog post, (here) I argued that Marxists cannot hope to win socialism solely through the electoral system. The capitalist state is rigged against the interests of workers. Sacrificing other kinds of organizing in favor of intervention in the electoral sphere can only result in the defeat of the socialist movement. However, this does not mean that socialist parties should abstain from elections entirely. There are a variety of benefits to standing in elections, In this essay, I hope to outline them from a Marxist perspective.

I think the best place to begin is with The Communist Manifesto. This document was drafted at the founding of the Communist League, a revolutionary organization that Marx and Engels helped to organize. The Manifesto was meant to serve as a set of perspectives that could guide the League in its revolutionary struggle. In it, Marx and Engels pointed to three strategic tasks for the Communists. The first was that they needed to build working class organizations at the primary site of worker’s power: the workplace. Secondly, they had to build social movements to fight against all forms of oppression in society more broadly. Finally, struggle necessitated the construction of an independent political party of and for the working class to, as they put it, “win the battle of democracy” [1].  This battle broke out in a very serious way in 1848, before the ink on the Manifesto had even dried. The 1848 revolutions, by way of background, essentially constituted mass uprisings against the reactionary feudal order and replace it with a representative, democratic one. During this period, the workers were the most militant and dedicated fighters. They were prepared to carry the revolution through to its democratic end. The capitalists, although they mouthed support for democracy and revolution, betrayed the struggle by forming alliances with the feudal oligarchy [2].

The Communist League was far too small to determine the course of these events, but by relating to the wave of revolutions that broke out across Europe in this period, Marx and Engels could better articulate what they meant when they called for an independent working class political party. Marx wrote a document entitled “The March 1850 Address to the Communist League.” In it, he put forward a strategy to prevent another 1848-style betrayal of the working class. He wanted to ensure that the next democratic revolution would be completed to its fullest extent. This strategy grants insights into the ideas of Marx and Engels concerning the relationship between revolutionary socialism and electoral politics. This document was of such great importance that Lenin supposedly committed it to memory [3].

The document warned against workers entering into tight alliances with capitalists. Marx again argued for the formation of an independent worker’s party, in which the working class could realize its potential to lead the revolution through to the end. This political party was described as “the coming together or coordination of various communes and worker’s associations” [4]. The communes referred to local branches of the Communist League, while worker’s associations meant unions, clubs, and the like. Each of the local worker’s groups formed by this coordination was to act as a nucleus or center in which “the position and interests of the proletariat can be discussed free from bourgeois influence” [5]. Here, Marx is arguing not merely for the organizational independence of the working class, but also its political independence, which would be formed from the ground up.

Marx points out that this organization-formed again by the merger of the advanced communist organizations and the worker’s movement as a whole-must be capable of functioning both in secret and in the open. Further, this organization must arm itself to create a military force independent of the existing state. Then, as a product of the revolutionary creation of a representative democracy, this organization must “run its own candidates within the new electoral system and take every opportunity to put forward [its] own demands so that the bourgeois democratic government not only immediately loses the support of the workers but finds themselves, from the beginning, supervised and threatened by authorities behind which stand the whole mass of the workers” [6].

Here, we see one of the key reasons why standing in elections can be a useful tool. Seeing a worker’s party on the ballot threatens the bourgeoisie’s stranglehold over the status quo. It shows them that they are being watched, that we are working to overthrow them. This may help reign them in and push them further left. Although running in elections can never bring about socialism on its own, our mere presence on the ballot may be enough to win workers minimal gains in the short term. When we explain to workers how these gains were won, they will be more likely to rally behind us. It is only at this stage that the Party can really become a force to be reckoned with. Electoral engagement, then, does two things: it keeps the bourgeoisie in check and shows workers that there is an organization fighting for their interests.

The second element is the most important. Even when there was no potential at all of getting a candidate elected to government, Marx and Engels argued that the worker’s party must still put forward their own candidates. This helped to preserve the independence of the working class, project working class politics into public life, and assess the audience for such politics and count the forces behind the workers. Standing for elections, even when we know we cannot win them, is an important ideological and organizational tool. It shows workers that someone is standing with them, someone really does represent their interests. Socialist candidates give us a rallying point. They give us a face. Standing in elections turns us into a legitimate, visible political movement capable of making public gains.  It also provides us a point to refer people who have questions about politics. In effect, socialist intervention in the electoral sphere makes working class politics visible, and thus helps to radicalize those sectors of society most willing and able to bring about socialism.

Further, standing in elections can help us gain key information about the strength of our movement. We will know how many votes the worker’s party received, and thus understand the kind of manpower we have at our disposal. We can measure the strength of our movement against the strength of our opponents, and use this data to ascertain what kind of action is possible in the streets. In this sense, standing in elections is not only advantageous for the masses, but for the Party itself.

It is often claimed that standing in elections is counterproductive, because socialist candidates will split the vote between themselves and the mainstream “center left” party. It is argued that instead of running our own candidates, we should accept the lesser of two evils. Marx and Engels took a firm stance against this, writing,

“All such talk means, in the final analysis, is that the proletariat is to be swindled. The progress which the proletarian party will make by operating independently in this way is infinitely more important than the disadvantage resulting from the presence of a few reactionaries in representative bodies. If the forces of democracy [meaning the liberals] take decisive action against the reactionaries from the very beginning, the reactionary influence in the election will already have been destroyed” [7].

Essentially, what Marx and Engels mean is that if the liberals lose elections, it is not because a proletarian party has split the vote. Rather, it is because the liberals themselves have failed to put forward a program that the masses can rally around, and in so doing neutralize the reactionaries.

The purpose of running in elections, in Marx and Engels’ view, was this: win the masses over politically, challenge the political hegemony of the capitalist class, pose a real alternative to its agenda, and to defend that alternative by force. The electoral strategy, then, was to be part of a process of self-activity, leading to the self-emancipation of the working class.

Marx and Engels, therefore, saw the fight for representative democracy as crucial. It opened up important political space, as well as a range of tactics and tools that workers could integrate into the revolutionary struggle. This did not, however, mean that radical change could be won by electing socialists to office and legislating it into being. Elections were seen as a tool, one component part of a wider revolutionary strategy that included an armed and militant working class. Elections were not to be a substitute for this militant organization.

Twenty-five years after the March Address was written, the German Socialist Party (SDP) came into being. Within ten years, they had already won half a million votes for their candidates running for seats in parliament. By 1912, they had built up an impressive membership and exercised a considerable degree of political influence in working class life [8]. This shows that elections can be a kind of “broadcasting station” for the Party and its platform. Elections cannot bring about socialism, but they can help galvanize workers to do so.

The experience of the SDP, although it does prove that standing in elections has some benefit, also shows the dangers of treating the electoral area as the primary site of struggle. Given the aforementioned success in this area, it is perhaps understandable that a significant faction within the Party argued that a socialist society could be voted into being. The left wing of the SDP, led by Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, and Paul Levey, understood that this was a pipe dream. The real power in society, they argued, does not lie with the elected officials. It lies with the board members of corporations and the heads of the major financial institutions in society. These people are not elected, but the government is really set up to serve them [9]. Of course, this fact must remain a secret. This is why politicians make promises they can never hope to keep: they need to win over the majority and convince voters that the state is looking out for their own best interests. When these politicians enter office, however, they do little more than serve the interests of capital. A recent example of this can be found with Barack Obama, who campaigned on a slogan of hope and change. He was the “people’s candidate,” ready and willing to take the government back from the greedy corporate parasites who had taken it over [10]. Once in office, he immediately rescinded this vision of a new egalitarian order, making ninety percent (90%) of the Bush tax cuts permanent [11].

This gets at the core problem of reformism, which I discussed at length in the previous post. Representative government, like the military and police, is a component of the state. The state is an organ that functions to protect the interests of a particular class. The capitalist state, then, has been developed and tuned to defend the interests of capital against labor. Marx developed this point in a letter to his German comrades. He wrote,

“A historical development can remain peaceful only for so long as its progress is not forcibly obstructed by those wielding social power. If, in England, for instance, or in the United States, the working class were to gain a majority in parliament or congress, they could, by lawful means, rid themselves of such laws and institutions as impeded their development. However, the peaceful movement might be transformed into a forcible one by resistance on the part of those interested in restoring the former state of affairs. If they are put down by force, it is as rebels against lawful force” [12].

In other words, if the ruling capitalist class feels that its power is threatened, it will not hesitate to use the state to remove that threat. If attempts at cooptation or coercion fail, the military and police will employ brutal force to crush the socialist movement.

This was not abstract speculation on the part of Marx and Engels. Rather, it was arrived at through a rigorous analysis of the 1871 Paris Commune. For a short time, the workers of Paris took control of the city and formed their own institutions of direct democracy. The Commune taught Marx and Engels that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes” [13]. A radically different form of worker’s self-government would need to be established and defended against counterrevolution. The Paris Communards were content to establish an island of socialism within the city, but did not defeat the existing bourgeois state of France. As a result, the deposed ruling class was quickly able to regroup and, as Marx put it, “drown the Commune in its own blood” [14].

In analyzing elections, we should always be mindful of the corrosive and destructive effects of capital. Our goal, in this respect, should not necessarily be to win office, but to spread our message and rally the workers behind a concrete political program. Capitalism, as the Paris Commune proves, can never be voted out of existence. Those in power will never let us peacefully take that power from them. There must be a revolution in which the workers and oppressed forcibly defeat the bourgeoisie, break up their state, and create a radically new one in its place.

As I argued above, reformist socialism necessarily entails watering down our political program to appeal to the widest possible audience of voters. Receiving as many votes as possible becomes the goal, instead of winning socialism. This negates the tactical benefit of elections described above: elections no longer show workers that someone is fighting for their actual interests, but merely sow confusion as to what those interests are. In order for elections to benefit the Party, therefore, they must remain subordinate to other forms of struggle. Only in doing so can they actually serve to push workers towards socialism.

This dynamic played itself out disastrously in the SDP at the outbreak of World War One. They turned their backs on their working class comrades around the world and supported their own state in the conflict. They did this in order to win over German voters, who had been temporarily whipped into a pro-war frenzy by the bourgeoisie. This abandonment of international solidarity by the Party-the most advanced detachment of the worker’s movement-caused German workers to believe that international solidarity was not in their interests and set the worldwide struggle for socialism back by decades [15].

In fairness, the SDP took their pro-war position at a time when speaking out against the war would mean imprisonment of leaders and the outlawing of the organization entirely. This, of course, would have eliminated their electoral strategy altogether and jeopardized the progress they had made in that arena. While their actions are understandable, they also reveal the strategic problem with focusing on elections. By engaging exclusively in legal modes of struggle, we subject ourselves to the whims of the law. Since the judicial system is part of the state, this means that we put ourselves at a disadvantage. By acting openly in the electoral sphere, and leaving open no other avenues of struggle, repression of the Party would have meant the complete downfall of the movement. Not diversifying our tactics, as the experience of the SDP shows, can only mean death [16].

Given this experience, it is understandable that some revolutionaries could develop a complete aversion to political elections under capitalism. It is understandable that some would argue that we should not partake in elections under any circumstances. I would, of course, argue against this view. Lenin and the Bolsheviks engaged in a similar debate as a result of the 1905 revolution. In response to mass upheaval, the Russian Tsar granted the creation of a parliament called the Duma. He did not do this because his mind had been changed by the masses, but rather because he knew that the revolutionary movement was most dangerous in the streets. If he could redirect it to legal channels, the pressures of the parliament would render it ineffective. The Duma, because it was stacked with pro-tsarist forces, could easily control and neutralize the revolutionary struggle. For the Tsar, the establishment of the Duma was not matter of principle. It was a purely tactical consideration based on an actual assessment of a particular situation. It is important to note at this juncture that even our enemies are aware that there is no electoral road to socialism [17]. When standing for elections, we must be ever vigilant and on guard, ensuring that we do not get caught up in the spectacle of anti-worker politics. If our enemies utilize bourgeois democratic institutions in a tactical manner, we must also understand them in this way.

Initially, the Bolsheviks organized an active boycott of the election. They recognized that it was a trap and chose to focus their energy on harnessing the rising struggle in the streets. In this context, this was the correct line. The point that we need to take away from this is that we ought not use elections as a substitute for struggle, but neither should we swear them off completely. Whether we intervene in the electoral sphere at a given moment should be dependent on a rigorous analysis of the concrete material conditions of struggle. This is how the Bolsheviks understood this question as well. In 1906, when it was clear that the struggle was turning towards a period of reaction, the Bolsheviks changed their position on the Duma [18]. This was the result of a long theoretical and practical debate in the Party. The Bolsheviks understood that at that particular point, the forces of reaction had vastly outnumbered the forces of progress. In order to rally the workers behind the Party, it was necessary to unify them around a program and a “face.” Elections here functioned, as I said above, as a “broadcasting unit” capable of carrying the struggle forward.

Lenin also published a pamphlet called “Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder” in which he put forward another argument for participation in the Duma. He argued that, while revolutionaries understand that the electoral system is set up to serve the people in power, the masses have not necessarily drawn this conclusion. If the electoral arena garners the political attention and focus of the working class, if the masses believe that the government can serve them, then revolutionaries must play an active part in it. This is part of how we relate to the masses, shift their consciousness, and win them to revolution. This theoretical point reflects an understanding of the mass line, which I have argued should be the primary method of work of the Party. The mass line begins when we meet the people where they are at. We cannot run ahead of the masses. If we do so, we risk alienating them and dooming the Party to isolation [19].

The Bolsheviks, based on this understanding, participated in the Duma and eventually won six delegates (which they called Deputies) to it. In the same vein as the Marx-Engels attitude outlined above, the Bolshevik Deputies were used as a tactic in pursuit of a wider strategy of raising the revolutionary consciousness and combativity of the masses. The elections were not an end in and of themselves, but rather a means to an end. For this to be possible, the Deputies had to engage in activity outside the Duma as well as inside it. They needed to have strong, intimate connections with both the workers and the rest of the Bolshevik party. Unlike capitalist politicians, the deputies were not divorced from the real conditions of working people and subject to the totalizing influence of the bourgeoisie and their lackeys. Nor could they be like the German socialist representatives mentioned above. They were not put on a pedestal and divorced from the socialist party from which they came. The Bolshevik deputies were deeply involved with non-electoral Party work as well as the Duma. They made daily contact with the editorial board of Pravda, the Bolshevik newspaper, and were also in close contact with the central leadership of the Party. They also attended the regional and national Party congresses. All the Bolshevik deputies were workers themselves, and Bolshevik trade union work meant that they had already cultivated grassroots connection to the class. The Bolsheviks knew that electoral engagement was merely one tactic among many, not to be used in place of genuine organizing [20].

They also understood, however, that electoral intervention gave them a unique advantage, in that it allowed them to reach sections of the masses they would ordinarily have been cut off from. Having seats in the Duma helped to legitimize the Party and its platform in the eyes of the general public. It gave them an opportunity to meet with labor leaders and other working class organizations within their districts, and thus exercise greater influence on the worker’s movement as a whole. Elections, as this experience makes clear, can help extend the influence of the Party and carry the struggle towards revolution [21].

The Bolshevik deputies made cunning use of the privileges that came with being members of the government. They were able to conduct propaganda among the masses, give radical speeches at strikes and protests without legally being arrested. When the police and the government tried to crack down on the deputies, it only enhanced the ties between the Party and the masses, making it more difficult to follow through with the persecution [22].

The deputies also used the Duma as a platform to concentrate the attention of the masses on crimes committed by the Tsarist government. They found that they could do this effectively in the Duma by using a procedure called an interpolation. This involved the deputies giving a speech on the floor of the Duma and officially asking the government to explain their reasoning behind a particular anti-worker policy or action. Knowing full well that liberal ministers within the Duma wanted to cast themselves as sympathetic to the workers, the Bolshevik deputies would bring them worker concerns, publish a full account of the conversation-including the false promises made by the ministers-and then use the breaking of those promises to appeal to the workers to continue their struggles and not place any hope in the liberal authorities moving forward [23].

The Bolshevik deputies utilized the Duma to expose the workers to the actual nature of the system, to show the workers that they could not rely on liberals who pretended to speak for workers while apologizing for violence against them. They could only rely on themselves and their party to make real, lasting change [24].

This point is key to our understanding of elections. Because the masses are focused on the parliamentary sphere, winning seats in it actually allows the Party to spread its critique of the system to a wider audience. We cannot change the system from within, but we can call it out from within. This, again, reflects an understanding of the mass line. Once we meet the people where they are (in this case in parliament), we must develop their understanding of the issues and move them forward in struggle. Because elections are seen as legitimate by the masses, winning seats in representative bodies is an excellent way to do this.

The Bolshevik deputies were always careful to meet the people where they were, often literally. Upon hearing of any worker incident or protest, the deputies would rush there, provide solidarity, and collect information from the workers on the ground. They would then use this information for the next interpolation. Before long, resolutions began streaming in from the workers to the deputies, requesting that the government be questioned on everything from the persecution of trade unions to the treatment of political prisoners. In this way, the Duma functioned as a rallying point for the workers, showing them that the Party was willing and able to fight for their interests. To quote the Bolshevik deputy A.Y. Badayev, “the worker’s deputies were in the thick of the fight. We were in constant communication with the strikers, helped to formulate their demands, handed over funds collected, negotiated with various government authorities, etc” [25]. The deputies would collect strikes and deliver the money to workers so that they would have an income even when they were on strike. This was a way of providing concrete solidarity with workers and winning them over to the cause of the Party. Badayev continues,

“Workers would call on me to ask all sorts of questions, especially on paydays when money and aid for strikers was brought. I had to arrange supply passports and secret hiding places for those who became illegal, help to find work for those victimized during strikes, petition ministers on behalf of those arrested, [and] organize aid for exiles. Where there were signs that a strike was flagging, it was necessary to instill vigor into the strikers, to lend the aid required, and to print and send leaflets….There was not a single factory or workshop, down to the smallest, with which I was not connected in some way or another. Often, my callers were so numerous that my apartment was not large enough for them, and they had to wait in a queue down the staircase. Every successive stage of the struggle, every new strike, increased these queues, which symbolized the growing unity between the workers and the Bolshevik faction, and at the same time furthered the organization of the masses” [26].

To reiterate, socialism cannot be handed down from above, but must be a product of the self-activity of the workers and their party. Revolutionaries cannot simply win seats in parliament and cloister themselves off from the struggle. They must remain in contact with the masses every step of the way. Elections are merely one path by which to do this.

Putting this electoral strategy into action not only increased the self-activity and consciousness of the masses, it also gave the Bolsheviks a thermometer through which they could measure the mood of the masses and tailor their practice to fit that mood. This helped them win the masses over to their program with much greater expediency than if they had abstained from elections entirely.

Ultimately, in 1917, it was by assessing their elections to the soviets that allowed the Bolsheviks to ascertain whether they had enough support to wage an armed revolutionary struggle [27]. If you think back to the strategic perspectives put forward by Marx and Engels in 1848, all of this should sound familiar. Elections were not the be-all and end-all of socialist practice. They were a tool to be utilized as part of a greater strategy of winning the masses over to revolution and organizing them to take power.

Of course, there are some significant differences between where we are as a movement today and where we were in 1848 or 1917. Just like the Bolsheviks debating whether or not to boycott the Duma, all strategy and tactics need to be based on as accurate an assessment as possible of the concrete situation. They must be based on our weaknesses as well as our strengths, on what we think we can accomplish. Above all, however, we must always return back to the central question every revolutionary should ask: what will it take to increase the consciousness, combativity, and organization of the workers and the oppressed? In short, what will it take to win?

Elections ought to be subordinate to this goal, but they can play an important role in catalyzing and sustaining revolutionary struggle. In the United States particularly, one of the major factors holding back the progress of the worker’s movement is the Democratic Party. Unlike in other countries, where workers have their own political Party, the American working class is tied to an organization that, although it claims to support their interests, is actually bound up with the interests of capital. Election law in this country is rigged against third party challenges. Unlike in Europe, where seats in parliament are dictated by the proportion of the vote a party receives, America has a winner-take-all system. As a result, workers feel that they only have two choices at the ballot box [28]. One is voting for the party which openly supports the rich and powerful, the Republicans, and the other is the Democrats. Although this party may occasionally pay lip service to the issues of workers and oppressed people, at the end of the day they carry forward the same capitalist, imperialist agenda as the Republicans. This creates a dynamic in which the workers, no matter how frustrated they are with the Democrats, feel compelled to vote for the “lesser of two evils.”  Every four years, there is pressure on the worker’s movement to put militant organizing on pause and focus on making sure a Republican is not elected into office. When Democrats feel like the have the working class vote on lock, there is nothing to stop them from shifting further and further to the right once they actually get into office.

This was never clearer than in the Obama presidency. On the 2008 campaign trail, Obama said he was going to “put on his walking shoes” and walk picket lines with workers [29]. He was nowhere to be found when Democrat Rahm Emanuel attempted to smash the teacher’s strike in Obama’s hometown of Chicago [30]. This strike was waged for better working conditions and against racist school closures. You would imagine that, if there was ever a time for a black Chicago native to walk a picket line, this would be it. The Left’s ties to the Democratic Party, as this example illustrates, serves only to demobilize and demoralize the working class and oppressed. Marx’s call for an independent political party of the working class has never been more relevant and vital.

Imagine the impact it would have on the consciousness of the working class and oppressed if they had candidates that jumped in the opportunity to participate in and support strikes the way the Bolshevik delegates to the Duma did. While the conditions in the United States are very different from the conditions of more than a century ago, we are still faced with the historic task of building an independent political party of the working class and oppressed. In this country, that means breaking the stranglehold of the Democratic Party on the working class. This is not going to be easy. It will be a long process, encompassing a wide variety of tactics, strategies, and moments. In this task, we should never cut ourselves off from the tools at our disposal. Standing in elections is just such a tool. Insofar as we assess that standing in elections would carry the struggle forward, that it would make a real impact on the consciousness of the masses, we should make use of this tactic. We must always remember, though, that the goal of the revolutionary party is to raise and direct the consciousness of the masses. Elections are nothing more than a way to help this along. We should stand firmly against reformist roads to socialism and firmly in favor of a working class revolution, one that can create a better society for everyone.

  1. Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The communist manifesto. Penguin, 2002.
  2. Marx, Karl, and Céline Surprenant. The class struggle in France. 2000.
  3. Nimtz, August. Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from Marx and Engels through the Revolution of 1905: The Ballot, the Streets—or Both. Springer, 2016.
  4. Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League. Communist League, 1850.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Retallack, Imperial Germany p. 187
  9. O’Kane, Rosemary HT. Rosa Luxemburg in Action: For Revolution and Democracy. Routledge, 2014.
  10. “Candidate Obama,” Francine Orr. Los Angeles Times, 2017.
  11. “Budget Deal Makes Permanent 82 Percent of President Bush’s Tax Cuts.” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. N.p., 10 June 2015.
  12. Quoted in Nimtz, August H. Marx and Engels: Their contribution to the democratic breakthrough. SUNY Press, 2000.
  13. Lenin, Vladimir Ilʹich, and Todd Chretien. State and revolution. Haymarket Books, 2015.
  14. Ibid.
  15. See Retallack, Op. Cit.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Lenin, Vladimir Ilʹich, et al. Selected Works: The Revolution of (1905-1907). Vol. 3. 1967.
  18. Badaev, Alekseĭ Egorovich. The bolsheviks in the tsarist Duma. International Publishers, 1932.
  19. Lenin, Vladimir Ilʹich. ” Left-wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder. Resistance Books, 1999.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Lenin, Vladimir Ilʹich. Lecture on the 1905 Revolution. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1951.
  28. “Problem with US elections: winner-takes-all electoral system.” Consultant’s Mind. N.p., 08 Aug. 2016.
  29. O’Brien, Michael. “Obama in 2007: ‘I’ll walk on that picket line’ if bargaining rights threatened.” TheHill. N.p., 03 Feb. 2016.
  30. Layton, Lyndsey, Peter Wallsten, and Bill Turque. “Chicago teachers strike places Obama at odds with key part of political base.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 11 Sept. 2012.

Marxism and Elections Part One

There has been much debate about how radical political actors should engage with electoral politics. Some, like anarchists, argue that the correct tactic is to ignore electoral politics entirely, focusing on what they see as the more useful path of direct action or “propaganda by the deed” [1]. Among those who identify as Marxists, thought on this topic is generally more varied. Some parties have chosen to confine themselves entirely to the electoral sphere, attempting to win socialism through the ballot box. Others have boycotted elections and embarked upon a “people’s war” of armed struggle with the state and capital. The point here is that there is no one Marxist theory of elections. This is partly because elections themselves are a vastly different from place to place. The electoral system in Britain, for example, is quite different from the one in Peru. As such, it is impossible to approach elections in a vacuum. Marxists understand that tactics must be based on the material conditions of the struggle, so attempting to craft a platonic plan of action in the electoral sphere is useless. In the essays that follow, I will not attempt to craft such a theory. This is not a manual or a blueprint for Marxist organizations. What I want to do here is sketch out, in broad terms, an analysis of electoral politics from a Marxist perspective. This is simply my opinion of the topic, and I caution readers not to trust in it blindly. It is important to conduct concrete social investigation of every issue rather than simply reading about it. We must, in the words of Mao, “oppose book worship” [2].

In this post, the first of two on the topic of elections, I want to refute the idea of “voting our way to socialism.” This strategy has been a failure nearly everywhere it has been attempted. I am firmly in favor of a revolutionary road to socialism, based on smashing the existing state and building new organs of worker’s power where it once stood.

It is important to note that the social democratic parties-that is, parties whose main goal is to win socialism through elections rather than revolution-have failed to abolish capitalism even once. This is especially egregious in the context of Western Europe, where many of these parties have enjoyed media backing and majorities in parliament. These parties have not only failed in their aims to bring about socialism peacefully, however. In many cases, they have actually become parties of the bourgeois elite or the labor aristocracy. Across the region, social democratic parties have implemented dramatic cuts in social spending, as well as a host of reforms designed to boost the position of capital at the expense of workers. In Greece and Italy, proposed or recently passed budgets will reduce spending over the coming years by about 29 billion dollars [3]. In Germany, this number is as high as $96 billion. This figure constitutes the largest collection of spending cuts in this country since World War Two [4]. Cuts will also total as much as one billion dollars in France [5]. Planned or approved reforms in this region include a host of anti-worker measures. This involves a three-year increase in the age at which French workers can retire [6], the elimination of payments into the pensions of the unemployed in Germany [7], and changes to Spain’s labor laws which will make it cheaper and easier for employers to lay off workers [8]. These attacks have, predictably, been met by a great deal of militancy from workers. Many will have heard of the mass strikes and violent protests opposing catastrophic austerity plans in Greece [9].

I bring all of this up because they tell us quite a bit about the nature of social democracy, or “socialism through the ballot box.” As I said above, Western Europe has traditionally been a hotbed of reformist socialism. Many of these parties still exist across the continent. At one point, they hoped to slowly implement reforms culminating in the transition to socialism. This view stood opposed to that of revolutionaries, who sought a sharp, rapid overthrow of the system [10]. After the Second World War, however, many of these parties gave up even this goal. They instead settled on a program of slow progressive alterations to capitalism, offering piecemeal improvements in the lot of workers within the bounds of a “managed capitalism” [11]. They focused on creating welfare institutions, extensive public sector employment, and government support for unions. All of these measures, meager though they are, have been or are being destroyed. In many cases, this destruction is being spearheaded by the same parties that instituted them in the first place. This gets at the real problem with reformism. Because reformist socialist parties want to work within states designed to uphold the rule of capital, they will forever be bound by the laws of capitalism. This means that any reforms they win will be subject to market forces and cut back at the first opportunity. We can never hope to win socialism by passing one reform after another, because these reforms will always be fragile. The capitalist class will seek to cut public services and benefits so that they can better exploit their workers. A socialist party working within a capitalist state will also find themselves subjected to this pressure. This is why social democratic parties have, in many places, become a vehicle for the set of pro-free-market, anti-worker policies often grouped under the banner of neoliberalism. In Greece, Germany, and elsewhere, it is social democratic governments or coalitions pushing these measures [12]. Even outside of government, reformist socialists have led no sustained or comprehensive attempts to resist the neoliberal order.

How has it happened that in Europe, where the power and influence of social democratic parties has been greater than anywhere else, social democrats have not only failed in their original mission of abolishing capitalism in the electoral sphere, but have largely come to serve the interests of capital against labor? Perry Anderson, editor of the New Left Review, explained the trajectory this way in 1994: “Once, in the founding years of the Second International, social democracy was dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism. Then it pursued partial reforms as gradual steps towards socialism. Finally it settled for welfare and full employment within capitalism….[I]t now accepts the scaling-down of one and the giving-up of the other…” [13].

I want to make some theoretical points about why this shift has occurred. Firstly, socialism is not just state ownership of the economy, as many social democrats believe. In many cases, efforts to bring about socialism in the electoral process failed because the “socialism” these parties were working towards did not actually challenge capitalism. It is entirely possible that an economy could be majority state-owned and still be controlled by capitalists. The state is an instrument of class power, so a transition to state ownership does not automatically correlate to worker’s power. For Marxists, the question is not whether the state owns the economy, but who owns the state. Socialism is the collective rule of a class, the working class. It thus cannot be handed down from above, but must won through the self-activity of the class guided by a Party which is deeply imbedded in it. Reformist socialism ignores the fact that socialism can only be a collective project, instead trusting the will of a group of politicians rather than the advanced workers. This is one reason why efforts to vote in socialism have continually failed.

Further, the electoral system is rigged in favor of capital. However, this is not a new development, as social democrats like Bernie Sanders say [14]. The American state was not “taken away” from the people, but instead was designed from the beginning to subjugate them. James Madison, the fourth President of the United States, admitted as much in a 1787 debate on the constitution. He wrote:

The man who is possessed of wealth, who lolls on his sofa or rolls in his carriage, cannot judge the wants or feelings of the day-laborer. The government we mean to erect is intended to last for ages. The landed interest, at present, is prevailed lent; but in process of time, when we approximate to the states and kingdoms of Europe, — when the number of landholders shall be comparatively small, through the various means of trade and manufactures, will not the landed interest be overbalanced in future elections, and unless wisely provided against, what will become of your government? In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place. If these observations be just, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation. Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority. The senate, therefore, ought to be this body; and to answer these purposes, they ought to have permanency and stability” [15].

In other words, wealth (“landed interests”) will be increasingly concentrated into fewer and fewer hands through markets (“various means of trade and manufactures”).  The wealthy, therefore, would be outvoted in a democratic system and government would be overrun by the majority of working people.  To prevent the working class from attaining political power and expropriating the property and wealth of the rich (“an agrarian law”), we have to “wisely” ensure that government “protect the minority” of the rich against the majority of the poor.

What this means is that the very institutions socialist parties engage with in the electoral arena-the senate, the congress, and even city councils-are designed to hamstring worker’s parties. The American electoral system is explicitly engineered so that socialists-or those opposed to the rule of capital-can never take power within it. Thus, we should not see electoral engagement as the primary means of struggle. We cannot put all our eggs in that basket, as it were. It is vital that, in our engagement with elections, we do not neglect other kinds of mass organizing, such as strikes. Elections, I want to stress, are a tool in our arsenal, one tactic among many.

The capitalist state is, whether “democratic” or otherwise, is constructed to serve the interests of a class that exists for and through the exploitation of workers. As Engels, Marx’s longtime friend and collaborator, once put it, ”the modern representative state is an instrument of exploitation of wage labor by capital” [16]. This function is expressed not simply in the parliament itself, but also in the civil services sector, the courts, and-crucially-the fundamental bodies of the state: the “bodies of armed men,” as Lenin put it [17]. These institutions-the army, the police, and so on-cannot simply be redirected towards defending worker’s power. Workers “cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes” [18]. Rather, workers must smash the existing state and build their own worker’s state.

Where reformist socialists take power, the institutions of the state-army, police, courts, etc-will revolt. This was seen in General Pinochet’s 1973 military coup, backed by the United States, of the reformist socialist government in Chile [19]. The army and police were created in the interests of capital. This purpose is baked into their very DNA. Attempts to build socialism without fundamentally altering these institutions will inevitably be, to quote Marx in a different context, “drowned in blood” [20].

The reality, however, is that there have been very few Chiles. Despite a long-held rhetorical commitment to socialism, reformists have rarely, in practice, done things that threaten the power of capital in a significant way. To explain that failure, revolutionaries often point to the character flaws of reformist politicians. The reformists have historically been bourgeois, and this explains why they did not build socialism. This is an incorrect tactic. Our objection is not to reformists as people, but to reformism as a strategy. No matter their background, social democrats, by virtue of their position, eventually become members of a class distinct from the workers they supposedly represent. Well-paid and freed from the daily insults of normal working-class existence, reformist leaders come to occupy a privileged position. This condition is dependent upon their ability not to fight for the emancipation of workers, but to balance the competing interests of capital and labor. They grow conservative and become the out-and-out representatives of capital. We might also add that the importance of campaign contributions and positive media coverage in modern elections mean that electorally-oriented politicians of all stripes must gain support from those who own the money and the media: the capitalist class [21].

Despite the power of this argument, there are deeper reasons for the failure of reformism. Even if the social democratic parties were run by a collection of true proletarians who spent their free time laboring in factories, and even if such parties have media backing and a majority in parliament (which, to reiterate, they often have), they still would not legislate socialism into being. Reformism is definitionally contradictory, and it is these contradictions that are to blame for its continued failure.

Reformism posits that socialists can win elections and use their control over the state to legislate the destruction of capitalism, but the nature of electoral competition itself prevents socialists from forging the kind of solidarity necessary to create majority support for socialism. Elections are static and passive forms of political action that encourage compromises on important principles and the formation of alliances based on lowest-common-denominator politics. Prioritizing elections leads socialists to adapt to, rather than challenge, popular but conservative ideas. The point of elections, for reformists, is not to advance ideas (that comes later, once they are in power) but to win elections. Because reformists believe that the parliament is the site of liberation, they cannot actually begin liberating the people until they are in parliament. In service to this goal, reformists must learn to avoid radical positions or actions that might threaten short-term vote totals. Persuing a reformist strategy inevitably leads to missing the forest for the trees. Social democrats cannot lead politically, which is what the masses require, but are instead doomed to tail the most backward elements in the movement.

This leads reformists to hold back mass movements at moments of radicalization, to channel mass grievances into elections and parliamentary maneuvering, and to limit demands to those that do not threaten the power of elites to a degree that those elites would be forced to engage in open struggle against the popular movement, and thus reveal their true character to the masses. In this respect, reformism blinds the masses and makes them incapable of understanding society as it actually exists. Unless one understands society, one cannot hope to change it. Reformism, therefore, actively prevents the transition to socialism from taking place. It confuses the masses so that they become distracted, unable to carry the struggle forward.

Reformists might move left when faced with pressure from the masses, but always within very strict limits. They will attempt to restabilize capitalism at those moments of social, economic, and political crisis: precisely the moments at which very large numbers of people could come to understand that there is something deeply wrong with the system. A perfect example of this is Syriza in Greece which, at the moment of crisis, chose to ignore the issues really facing the masses and embrace austerity [22].

Finally, profits are the lifeblood of the capitalist system. As long as capitalism exists, profits are what will keep it afloat. If the state is to have resources to distribute to workers and the poor, as reformists claim to want, they must collect enough taxes to do so. That will only happen if the economy is growing. If workers are to win ever greater wage and benefit increases, the firms in which they are employed must stay in business. Not only that, they must be profitable enough relative to their competitor capitalists to afford concessions. As one Swedish social democratic leader put it, “because social democracy works for a more equal distribution of property and incomes, it must never forget that one must produce before one has something to distribute” [23]. This raises a dilemma. The reality is that large-scale structural reforms, such as wage increases or social welfare, can drive capitalists to reduce investment in a given country. This happens because capitalists want to punish governments that implement policies antithetical to their interests. Pro-worker reforms mean that capitalists can invest their money more profitably elsewhere, and those who choose not to do this will go out of business. When capitalists stop investing or lack the capital to invest, the result is economic crisis, declining tax revenue, and inflation. This leads to a sharp drop in support for the government, resulting in its fall from power. Social democrats must, by necessity, balance their desire to reform the country towards socialism with their need to keep capitalists profitable and investing. When there is a contradiction between these two impulses, there are structural pressures built into the state, described above, that push them to side with capital over labor. This can be seen happening right now in Norway, the supposed liberal utopia [24].

It should be noted, by virtue of Western social democracy’s need to accommodate the interests of capital, it has failed to provide an alternative to imperialism. Scandinavia, for example, largely maintains itself through violent imperialist policies just like other Western nations.

In 2008, Norwegian communications multinational, Telenor was exposed in a documentary as partnering with a Bangladeshi supplier that employed child labor in horrendous conditions. The report also uncovered that the children were made to handle chemical substances without any protection and one of the workers even died after falling into a pool of acid. Not only was the treatment of workers unacceptable, they also ruined the crops of farmers in the surrounding areas with the waste from the plant. Like other Western multinationals that deliberately go to the developing world looking to save money on labor and operations costs, the company washed its hands of the accusations, denying knowledge about their partner’s inhumane practices [25].

Similarly, Norwegian oil and gas company Statoil, has been involved in multiple corruption cases around the world-especially in underdeveloped countries-where they have bribed state companies and government officials in order to obtain licenses for extraction. Their involvement is not only limited to these aggressive economic practices, they are also deeply involved in the West’s military exploits. Norway dropped 588 bombs on Libya but scarcely is mentioned as being part of these imperialist operations. Statoil has since started joint extractions operations worth millions in the ruined country [26].

Both of these companies, it is crucial to note, are partly owned by the state. This furthers the above argument that state ownership does not automatically translate to a more equitable system of production or distribution. By working within the capitalist state, reformist socialists will be forced to make concessions to that state. This will always mean exploiting workers at home and abroad.

The Swedish clothing giant H&M can retail affordable products in rich nations and make huge profits only because they exploit and underpay workers in impoverished nations such as Bangladesh. As John Smith points out in his book Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century , only 0.95 euros of the final sale price of an H&M T-shirt remains in Bangladesh to cover the cost of the factory, the workers, the suppliers, and the government. The remaining 3.54 euros goes for taxes and transportation in the market country, with the bulk going to the retailer. In other words, Western nations capture most of the profit although it is the poor workers and nations that have put most of the input in terms of labor and resources [27].

The ‘Nordic Model’, as it has come to be known, is hardly a system that we should look to for inspiration. No model, system, or structure that depends on the exploitation and domination of others can be ethical. Western nations and their people—if they are to be taken seriously by the rest of the struggling world—must begin to think about developing socialist political and economic structures that are internationalist and crucially, anti-imperialist at their foundations. This can never be done by working within the capitalist state. Imperialism is, as Lenin put it, “the highest stage of capitalism” [28]. It is a phenomenon that is bound up with capitalist production. Once a capitalist economy becomes sufficiently developed, imperialism must arise in order to keep it afloat. Social democratic parties, because they are working within the capitalist state, must bow to the pressures of capitalist markets. As such, they must engage in imperialism and rank exploitation.

This is the crux of the matter: the state under capitalism is an organ of capitalist power. In light of this, attempts to build socialism by winning seats in parliament or similar political bodies will always result in failure. Treating the electoral arena as the primary space in which socialism will be won is a recipe for disaster. In order to achieve victory, we must organize workers in a militant communist party capable of smashing the existing state and running society in the interests of all.

  1. John Most, “Action as Propaganda” Freiheit, July 25, 1885
  2. Mao Zedong, Oppose Book Worship, 1930.
  3. Beirne, John, and Marcel Fratzscher. “The pricing of sovereign risk and contagion during the European sovereign debt crisis.” Journal of International Money and Finance 34 (2013): 60-82.
  4. Tomasson, Richard F. “Government old age pensions under affluence and austerity: West Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, and the United States.” Research in Social Problems and Public Policy 3 (1984): 217-72.
  5. Levy, Jonah D. “Partisan politics and welfare adjustment: the case of France.” Journal of European Public Policy 8.2 (2001): 265-285.
  6. Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth Kreitler. “The retirement test: An international study.” Soc. Sec. Bull. 37 (1974): 3.
  7. Börsch-Supan, Axel. “Incentive effects of social security on labor force participation: evidence in Germany and across Europe.” Journal of public economics 78.1 (2000): 25-49.
  8. Bentolila, Samuel, and Juan J. Dolado. “Labour flexibility and wages: lessons from Spain.” Economic policy 9.18 (1994): 53-99.
  9. Rüdig, Wolfgang, and Georgios Karyotis. “Who protests in Greece? Mass opposition to austerity.” British Journal of Political Science 44.03 (2014): 487-513.
  10. Paul Blackledge (2013). “Left reformism, the state and the problem of socialist politics today and Jesus followers”. International Socialist Journal.
  11. Stan Parker (March 2002). “Reformism – or socialism?”. Socialist Standard.
  12. Puetter, Uwe. “Europe’s deliberative intergovernmentalism: the role of the Council and European Council in EU economic governance.” Journal of European Public Policy 19.2 (2012): 161-178.
  13. Giddens, Anthony. The third way: The renewal of social democracy. John Wiley & Sons, 2013.
  14. “Bernie Sanders: The Democracy Now Interview.” Democracy Now, 2016.
  15. Madison, James. “Federalist no. 39.” The Federalist Papers (2007): 246.
  16. Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The communist manifesto. Penguin, 2002.
  17. Lenin, Vladimir Ilʹich, and Todd Chretien. State and revolution. Haymarket Books, 2015.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Petras, James F., and Morris H. Morley. The United States and Chile: Imperialism and the Overthrow of the Allende Government. Monthly Review Pr, 1975.
  20. Marx, Karl, and Céline Surprenant. The class struggle in France. 2000.
  21. Epstein, David, and Peter Zemsky. “Money talks: Deterring quality challengers in congressional elections.” American Political Science Review 89.02 (1995): 295-308.
  22. Kouvelakis, Stathis. “SYRIZA’S RISE AND FALL.” (2016): 45-70.
  23. Quoted in John Hall, The State: Critical Concepts. 1993. p. 325.
  24. Bayulgen, Oksan. Foreign Investment and political regimes: The oil sector in Azerbaijan, Russia, and Norway. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  25. Falkenberg, Andreas W., and Joyce Falkenberg. “Ethics in international value chain networks: The case of telenor in bangladesh.” Journal of business ethics 90 (2009): 355-369.
  26. Ask, Alf Ole (2003-09-12). “Statoil’s international director resigns”. Aftenposten.
  27. Foster, John Bellamy, Robert W. McChesney, and R. Jamil Jonna. “The global reserve army of labor and the new imperialism.” Monthly Review 63.6 (2011): 1.
  28. Lenin, Vladimir Ilʹich. Imperialism: The highest stage of capitalism. Resistance Books, 1999.

Against Utopia: Marxism, Worker’s Cooperatives, and Prefigurative Politics

 Recently, social movements and projects of resistance have been characterized by the rejection of leaders and structure in favor of spontaneous uprisings against the system. From Wisconsin to Yemen, many places have been the site of mass participatory assemblies and directly democratic processes. These struggles, I want to emphasize, are valuable. They have positively transformed the lives of millions of people. I do not want to disparage them in this regard. However, these movements set a dangerous precedent. In the past, it was common sense that discipline and accountability to an organization were necessary components of victory. However, the rise of these spontaneous movements has led many to proclaim that “prefiguring” the new society is sufficient to build a new world.

When one looks at recent protests and sees hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom have never been involved in politics before, doing a far better job of struggling for their rights than the political establishment, it is easy to claim that leaders are unnecessary. This is only compounded by the fact that many leaders who are supposed to struggle for the rights of the masses, such as union bosses, have been more than willing to acquiesce to the demands of the oppressors. In short, it is completely understandable why leaderless and prefigurative movements would spring up in such great numbers.

However, there is another way to understand this question. Leaderless and prefigurative movements are often touted as being models for a future society. They are taken as evidence that the people can govern themselves. I do not disagree with this statement as such. Direct democracy and mass assemblies are indeed the sorts of institutions I would like to see form the basis of the future. But in creating the model of a future society, proponents of leaderless movements have forgotten that we still live in the present. Leaderless movements might offer an attractive vision of the future, but they do not present a path to it. Creating models is not enough. The ruling class will not simply roll over and allow us to implement the kind of society we want.

The author and activist Andy Cornell defines prefigurative politics as, “the principle that activists and social-change organizations should model in their present-day lives and work the new values, institutions, and social relationships they advocate for on a broader scale, as part of their strategy for bringing about that change” [1].

Under the umbrella of prefigurative politics, therefore, can fall a broad number of different institutions and practices, including cooperative workplaces, communal houses, urban gardens, consensus decision-making and “horizontal” leadership structures.

Prefigurative politics borrows and builds upon various historical and contemporary movements—including the anarchist, pacifist, and environmentalist movements.  The arguments for prefigurative politics, therefore, are very diverse.  Some see it as a way of ensuring against the reproduction of political and social hierarchies; others as a form of propaganda, proving in practice the superiority of revolutionary politics.

Communes, co-ops, free schools, and community gardens can also offer a sort of safe haven from the abuse of capitalism.  They create spaces for people that in one way or another can resemble the possibility of seeing another world in our lifetime.  They reflect a sincere desire to overcome capitalism.

The most thorough explanation to date of “prefigurative politics” has been provided by Wini Breines, a professor of sociology and former New Left activist. For Breines, “prefigurative politics” centers on “participatory democracy,” understood as an ongoing opposition to hierarchical and centralized organization that requires a movement that develops and establishes relationships and political forms that “prefigure” the egalitarian and democratic society that it seeks to create. Breines sees prefigurative politics as integrally connected to the notion of community, by which she means a network of relationships that are more direct, more total, and more personal than the formal, abstract, and instrumental relationships that characterize contemporary state and society. These new relationships meld together the public and private spheres of life and are to be embodied in the non-capitalist and communitarian counter-institutions forged by the movement. Quite significantly, Breines counterposes “prefigurative politics” to “strategic politics,” at the center of which are “strategic thinking” and the commitment to build formal organizations to achieve major structural changes in the political, economic, and social orders [2].

I should state here that I do not believe that “survival programs” such as the free breakfast program initiated by the Black Panther Party [3], constitute prefigurative structures. While these programs did intend to work outside of capitalism, the BPP was under no illusion that they would be enough to abolish capitalism. The BPP coupled their free breakfast program with struggle sessions, self-defense classes, and mass-line work. They understood that in order to create a new society, revolutionaries must first break up the old. Free soup kitchens and the like ought to be supported by revolutionary socialists, so long as they are undertaken in conjunction with the “strategic politics” that will actually bring down capitalism.

An initial problem with prefigurative politics is, of course, that we are not already free. Prefigurative Politics is not a strategy for changing society, but a strategy for escaping it, attempting to create spaces of harmony in a society determined by struggle and conflict—again confirming the neoliberal assumption that there is no alternative to capitalism, that we must transcend it or find alternatives within it instead.

But class struggle doesn’t go away if you ignore it.  Just like gravity will pull you back to the earth, whether or not you acknowledge it—so too will the capitalists poison your rivers and food, foreclose on your home, and throw you in prison. They will do this regardless of whether or not you acknowledge they exist or organize against them.

In creating the model of a future society, proponents of prefigurative movements have forgotten that we still live in the present. Leaderless movements might offer an attractive vision of the future, but they do not present a path to it. Creating models is not enough. The ruling class will not simply roll over and allow us to implement the kind of society we want.

In fact, throughout history there have been numerous instances of the ruling class violently crushing attempts to build a new society in the here and now. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the Paris Commune of 1871. Here, workers seized Paris and ran it themselves through elected assemblies, factory committees, and other such institutions. In just three short months, however, the French army unified with the Prussians to drown the Commune in blood. It is crucial to note that the French and the Prussians had been engaged in bloody battles with one another for years prior to this. Different sections of the ruling class have historically been willing to put aside their differences to destroy examples of the new society that attempted to establish themselves within the old [4].

Using the world “ought to be” as the starting point of our politics becomes a substitute, therefore, to developing a political strategy for the present.  Projects built from this perspective largely depend upon ideal circumstances with ideal people—not the world as it is: contradictory and ever changing.

Prefigurative politics urges activists to draw the means they use today from their vision of the future.  However, means suited for the ideal circumstances and ideal people of the future, are not sufficient for revolutionaries who have to live in the present.

Without the proper terrain, prefigurative projects become stillborn or corrupted as they’re planted in the hostile soil of capitalist exploitation and competition. Worker’s cooperatives, I will examine here, are a perfect example of this.The economist Richard Wolff holds that worker cooperatives are sufficient to bring about a non-capitalist society [5].

These are firms in which workers directly elect managers and have a say in the day-to-day management of production. To quote Wolff, “In each enterprise, the co-op members . . . collectively own and direct the enterprise. Through an annual general assembly the workers choose and employ a managing director and retain the power to make all the basic decisions of the enterprise” [6]. Certainly, many of these elements, such as the election of managers, are important aspects of socialism. Workplaces in the Soviet Union, for example, were generally organized along very similar principles [7]. What differentiates socialist workplaces from worker cooperatives, however, is ownership. Cooperatives are owned directly by the workers in them, whereas socialist workplaces are owned by the state-which is itself controlled by workers. In this essay, I want to argue against Wolff’s conception of cooperatives as an already-existing alternative to capitalism.

I should begin by saying that I think cooperatives are a useful tool in struggle, and they have many benefits. However, I reject the notion that they are a pathway out of capitalism in and of themselves. Marx himself praised the cooperative movement in 1864, writing,

“The value of these great social experiments cannot be overrated. By deed instead of by argument, they have shown that production on a large scale, and in accord with the behests of modern science, may be carried on without the existence of a class of masters employing a class of hands; that to bear fruit, the means of labor need not be monopolized as a means of dominion over, and of extortion against, the laboring man himself; and that, like slave labor, like serf labor, hired labor is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated labor plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart . . .” [8].

Marx was right in asserting that cooperatives play an important role in capitalism. They show that workers are in fact capable of managing production without the “carrot and stick” imposed upon them by the capitalist. Workers can take control of production and, by extension, of society.  Further, the fact that workers control their own immediate work, in a cooperative fashion, is itself a contribution to enhancing their well-being. It decreases their alienation from their work, and permits them to flex their intellectual as well as their physical muscles. There is cause to establish cooperatives within capitalism, but treating them as if they are themselves a road out of capitalism can only harm our movement.

Marx understood that cooperatives showed the possibility and desirability of socialism. This is still true today. Cooperatives show that it is something of a myth that people dislike labor. To prove this, I will quote a very large passage from sociologist Alfie Khon’s book Punished by Rewards. He writes,

“To study what he calls ‘flow’ experience, which consists of feeling active, challenged, and fully engaged, the psychologist Mihaly Csiksgentmihalyi likes to give people beepers…to carry around with them. When they are beeped at various times during the day and evening, subjects describe what they are doing and how they are feeling. It turns out that, despite their stated that they would prefer not to be, people actually reported more flow experiences while at work than at any other time. (This was true of workers on assembly lines, too.)” He goes on to say that, “People do not heed the evidence of their senses. They disregard the quality of immediate experience, and base their motivation instead on the strongly-rooted cultural stereotype about what work is supposed to be like” [9].

What is clear from this is that people do not hate work. Rather, they despise the loss of autonomy that occurs in the workplace under capitalism. When work becomes something that you have to do in order to survive, the intrinsic value is removed from the activity. This is also shown by “a more conventional survey, in which participants were asked to rate the enjoyment they derived from over two dozen common activities” [10]. The survey found that, “The intrinsic rewards from work are, on average, higher than the intrinsic rewards from leisure” [11].

It is obvious from the research that, when one’s ability to survive is not dependent on their work, they are able to enjoy it fully. Given that this is the case under socialism, it is reasonable to say that people would actually do better work than they currently engage in.

It is also worth mentioning the research of Michael Albert, a proponent of participatory economics, who once ran an experiment wherein he determined how much he could lower the salary of a surgeon before they elected to take a much higher-paid job in a coal mine. He found that, so long as the surgeon was getting paid just enough to live on, they would stay at their current occupation. What this shows is that so long as the work itself is engaging, incentives are meaningless [12].

This is corroborated by research by none other than the Federal Reserve. They funded an experiment at MIT in which a group of students was given a set of challenges. These included things such as memorizing strings of digits, solving spacial puzzles, and throwing a ball through a hoop. The students were given a monetary reward proportional to their performance. It was found that there is an inverse relationship between the amount of money. So long as a task requires basic thinking skills, financial incentives lead to poorer performance. Incentives only work if the task is purely mechanical [13].

One other objection to the organization of work under socialism that cooperatives show to be false is as follows. If workplaces are democratized, workers will spend all their time bickering, and nothing will get done. This will result in the vast majority of people being underfed or otherwise disadvantaged. The reason capitalist workplace organization has survived for so long is because, although it might result in a loss of autonomy, it is efficient. Like the previous objection, this makes sense on a surface level. We have all seen the amount of bureaucracy and gridlock that results from supposedly democratic societies such as the United States. But, also like the previous objection, it simply doesn’t stack up to the facts.

For this reason, it shouldn’t be a surprise that there’s a large body of research which shows that worker cooperatives can be at least as productive and successful as capitalist-owned firms [14]. “Cooperative firms do seem to produce moderately more output with a given set of inputs” concludes a study  of the US plywood industry [15]. “Cooperatives are at least as productive as conventional firms” finds research  on French firms [16].

As Brent Kramer, a senior associate at the Fiscal Policy Institute, writes,

“Using a statistical procedure that compared each EO company to its matching KO company (or companies), I found that, on average, EO companies had 8.8% greater sales per employee during the period for which I had data. Fully (100%) owned companies had better “EO advantages” than the rest on this measure, smaller firms had better sales-per-employee advantages than larger ones, and firms with greater ESOP assets per employee (effectively the average employee financial investment) also did better. These additional results tend to validate my hypothesis that it was the culture of ownership in the EO firms that led to higher “productivity” (as measured by sales per employee). I also conducted a survey of EO firm managers to try to determine which (if any) factors of worker control or influence might strengthen this indirect measure of productivity. While many proposed factors failed to show an influence, high worker influence on new products, work design, and marketing all seemed to improve the advantages that EO firms had over KO ones. While there is no way to rule out the possibility that firms that became employee-owned over the years before this study were those that were already more productive because of better employment practices, this analysis does indicate that employee ownership per se does not mean lower efficiency. Firms don’t need worker ownership to become better employers, or more efficient in their use of both material and human resources. But there is no “efficiency” reason for not moving toward more worker-ownership and control, and every reason to do so” [17].

Further, a study from the Harvard Business Review states that, “An emerging suite of literature and research—including our 2013 workplace survey—clearly points to the power of choice and autonomy to drive not only employee happiness, but also motivation and performance. We found that knowledge workers whose companies allow them to help decide when, where, and how they work were more likely to be satisfied with their jobs, performed better, and viewed their company as more innovative than competitors that didn’t offer such choices” [18].

An article published in the first issue of the Labor Relations Review (1995), states that,

“Using meta-analytic techniques, the author synthesizes the results of 43 published studies to investigate the effects on productivity of various forms of worker participation: worker participation in decision making; mandated codetermination; profit sharing; worker ownership (employee stock ownership or individual worker ownership of the firm’s assets); and collective ownership of assets (workers’ collective ownership of reserves over which they have no individual claim). He finds that…profit sharing, worker ownership, and worker participation in decision making are all positively associated with productivity. All the observed correlations are stronger among labor-managed firms (firms owned and controlled by workers) than among participatory capitalist firms (firms adopting one or more participation schemes involving employees, such as ESOPs or quality circles)” [19].

Despite these benefits, Marx did not think that cooperatives were socialism in and of themselves. Marx rejected the idea that we could get out of capitalism simply by establishing one cooperative after another. He held that the only real way out of capitalism was the complete destruction of it, rather than a gradual “changing from within.”

It should be noted that from the very beginning the co–op saw itself as providing an alternative to struggle against the system. The Mondragón cooperative-which Wolff upholds as a prime example and which we will return to later-was originally the idea of a Catholic priest named José Maria Arizmendiarrieta who regarded class struggle as destructive and who hoped to overcome it not by directly challenging the power of the exploiting capitalist class, but by creating a small corner of the economy in which class differences supposedly did not exist [20]. Cooperatives establish a form of worker’s power in a single workplace, but they leave the normal capitalist order in place elsewhere. Cooperatives on their own do not fundamentally alter the system. For this reason, a reliance on cooperatives in the socialist movement may divert energy from real anti-capitalist struggle. Marx noted this in the aforementioned speech. He also noticed that a variety of establishment figures had come to support the cooperative movement. In his words,

“[P]lausible noblemen, philanthropic middle-class spouters, and even kept political economists have all at once turned nauseously complementary to the very co-operative labor system they had vainly tried to nip in the bud by deriding it as the utopia of the dreamer, or stigmatizing it as the sacrilege of the socialist” [21].

Even fascists have sometimes praised co–ops. In the 1960s, the labor minister of Spain’s fascist dictator General Franco awarded the Gold Medal for Merit in Work to Mondragón’s Arizmendiarrieta. [22]. Decades earlier, in fascist Italy, Benito Mussolini established the National Fascist Cooperative Agency (Ente Nazionale Fascista della Cooperazione) and encouraged the expansion of cooperatives in the farming and food processing sectors as a way to downplay class differences [23].

Individual co–ops do not threaten the system and can absorb time and resources that could be used for other kinds of organizing. Yet, as Marx put it in his speech, “To save the industrious masses, cooperative labor ought to be developed to national dimensions, and, consequently, to be fostered by national means” [24]. Cooperatives can be an important starting point for establishing socialism, but they can never do so on their own. The advocacy of cooperatives by forces objectively hostile to socialism should be evidence enough of this.

Worker’s cooperatives, in addition to diverting energy from socialist organizing, are not in and of themselves powerful enough to challenge capitalism from within. Capitalism, as its name suggests, is a system organized for the perpetuation of the supremacy of capital. The economic, political, and legal systems are organized to prevent forces antagonistic to capital-such as the workers-from taking power. James Madison, the fourth President of the United States, admitted as much in a 1787 debate on the constitution. He wrote:

The man who is possessed of wealth, who lolls on his sofa or rolls in his carriage, cannot judge the wants or feelings of the day-laborer. The government we mean to erect is intended to last for ages. The landed interest, at present, is prevalent; but in process of time, when we approximate to the states and kingdoms of Europe, — when the number of landholders shall be comparatively small, through the various means of trade and manufactures, will not the landed interest be overbalanced in future elections, and unless wisely provided against, what will become of your government? In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place. If these observations be just, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation. Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority. The senate, therefore, ought to be this body; and to answer these purposes, they ought to have permanency and stability” [25].

In other words, wealth (“landed interests”) will be increasingly concentrated into fewer and fewer hands through markets (“various means of trade and manufactures”).  The wealthy, therefore, would be outvoted in a democratic system and government would be overrun by the majority of working people.  To prevent the working class from attaining political power and expropriating the property and wealth of the rich (“an agrarian law”), we have to “wisely” ensure that government “protect the minority” of the rich against the majority of the poor.

What does this mean for worker’s cooperatives? In short, it means that the system is set up to discourage and crush these firms. Since worker’s cooperatives represent a kind of worker’s power, they do in some sense threaten the capitalist order. While they do not change the system as a whole, they do make workers aware of the fact that they are capable of running things by themselves, without capitalists. This, obviously, is very bad for the capitalists. Therefore, the very market mechanisms that allow capital to exercise control over labor also discourage attempts by labor to threaten capital.

In order to effectively be an alternative to capitalism, worker-managed organizations must receive support from a state that represents the interests of the working class. If this is not the case, the cooperatives will crumble under market mechanisms. Worker’s cooperatives will always be at a disadvantage under capitalism, and will therefore never be able to do away with it unaided.

German Marxist Rosa Luxemburg, in her pamphlet “Reform of Revolution,” expanded upon this idea. “Co-operatives,” wrote Luxemburg, “especially co-operatives in the field of production, constitute a hybrid form in the midst of capitalism. They can be described as small units of socialized production within capitalist exchange” [26]. The problem is that cooperatives that are established in the context of the capitalist market must compete in order to survive, and if the rate of exploitation is high among your competitors, then you must match it. Cooperatives must always “self-exploit” in order to keep up with capitalist enterprises, and thus compromise their own egalitarian ideas.

As Luxemburg put it,

“In capitalist economy exchanges dominate production. As a result of competition, the complete domination of the process of production by the interests of capital—that is, pitiless exploitation—becomes a condition for the survival of each enterprise” [27].

She continues:

“The domination of capital over the process of production expresses itself in the following ways. Labor is intensified. The workday is lengthened or shortened, according to the situation of the market. And, depending on the requirements of the market, labor is either employed or thrown back into the street. In other words, use is made of all methods that enable an enterprise to stand up against its competitors in the market” [28].

Some cooperatives find small niche markets in which to survive, but the majority will either be driven out of business or be forced to copy the practices used by other employers. In Luxemburg’s words:

“The workers forming a co-operative in the field of production are thus faced with the contradictory necessity of governing themselves with the utmost absolutism. They are obliged to take toward themselves the role of capitalist entrepreneur—a contradiction that accounts for the usual failure of production co-operatives which either become pure capitalist enterprises or, if the workers’ interests continue to predominate, end by dissolving” [29].

The history of the world’s biggest co–op, the Mondragón Cooperative Corporation in Spain, is a perfect illustration of Luxemburg’s argument. Mondragón was set up with the ideals of worker participation, solidarity and equality, but as the business has grown bigger and bigger, and become more and more integrated into global capitalism, its founding principles have applied only to a shrinking percentage of its workforce.

In 1993, Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that Mondragón was restructuring to get ready to compete in the European single market. It noted that “increased salary differentials, advertising campaigns in Fortune and cooperative alliances with companies like Hotpoint have had many co–op workers wondering whether in the new Mondragón Cooperative Corporation [MCC] some members are more equal than others” [30].

By this time daily life for most Mondragón workers was not noticeably different from working for a more traditional capitalist employer, although with greater job security. Decision-making had become highly centralized, with most co–op members having no say in the company’s day-to-day operations. Perhaps not surprisingly, in a survey comparing job satisfaction of Mondragón manual workers with workers in a similarly sized privately-owned company, there was little difference between the two groups, with the Mondragón workers slightly less satisfied [31].

A few years later the Guardian reported, “MCC members have learned to think like the shareholders of any other global business. In order to protect their own jobs from fluctuations in demand, 20% of the workforce are on part-time or short-term contracts and can easily be shed.” The corporation president, Antonio Cancelo explained: “Our clients cannot guarantee us steady workloads, so we have to have a number of people on temporary contracts. We live in a market economy. That we cannot change” [32].

Meanwhile, most workers employed by Mondragón outside of the Basque region are not members of the co–op. By the late 1990s Mondragón was setting up joint ventures with capitalist firms in other parts of Spain, and operating plants employing low-wage labor in countries such as Morocco, Egypt, Thailand, and China [33].

MCC adopted an ethical code for its foreign employees and promised that their treatment would reflect the cooperative’s “core values.” But in early 2011, Mondragón was accused of employing sweatshop labor in an appliance manufacturing company it owns in Poland, where low-paid workers started a work-to-rule. According to one commentator sympathetic to Mondragón:

“The Polish struggle represents the dark underside of worker co-operation. Our movement can’t engage in the exploitation of workers even to protect other members of the co-operative or, worse, a nostalgic legacy. I don’t think that this means that Mondragón should simply accept worker demands; however, when the situation gets to the point of a work slow-down, work-to-rule, or all-out strike, it seems to me that a worker cooperative is no longer acting according to the principles of co-operatives or worker rights” [34].

MCC’s image as an egalitarian paradise suffered a further blow in November of 2013 when one of its largest components, the domestic appliances manufacturer Fagor Electrodomésticos, was forced to declare bankruptcy. Fagor had run up debts of over one billion dollars during Spain’s severe and continuing economic crisis, and the Mondragón Group General Council decided it could not risk lending the company any more money. Attempts by Fagor’s management to persuade US hedge funds to invest in the co–op also fell through.

Almost 2,000 workers lost their jobs in the Basque region and another 3,500 were laid off from Fagor factories in France, China, Poland, and Morocco. MCC’s Corporate Employment Office offered the Basque workers help with finding work, but hundreds of them occupied one of the affected plants in Edesa and workers later formed a human chain outside MCC’s main office in Mondragón [35]. Even the world’s largest cooperative has been forced to bend to the market in order to survive. It has proven incapable of challenging capitalism by itself.

In addition to the totalizing nature of market mechanisms analyzed above, worker’s cooperatives do not alter the material basis of capitalist production to the degree necessary for the establishment of socialism. They are useful for showing workers that they have power, but they do not actually allow them to exercise that power across the whole of society.

In order to explain why that is, I want to turn to the Spanish Civil War of 1936. In Spain, just before the bourgeoisie’s attack led by Franco, anarchists were leading the most important mass trade union (the CNT had more than one million members) and had a political apparatus, despite what they claim, with the Federación Anarquiste Ibérica (FAI). In a dominating position, anarchists had the organizational capacity and the possibility to lead the proletarian and peasant masses in the abolition of capitalism [36]. It was partly their reliance on decentralized worker-owned cooperatives that resulted in their defeat by fascist and capitalist forces.

Spanish anarchists believed, much like those of today, that a system of autonomous self-managed communes, with the weakest links between each other, was the alternative to capitalism. They thought that as soon as they had collectivized villages in the countryside and cooperative factories in the city, they would also have socialism.

But, as Lenin argued, “small production engenders capitalism” [37]. This is true whether the small companies are owned by a single owner or by the entire workforce.  Despite the  heroism of anarchist activists, their Spanish project failed because the material basis which gave birth to capitalism, namely social classes and the resulting inequality is compatible with cooperative production. Anarchism failed because it saw small production units, organized along cooperative principles, the solution to capitalism.

The market forces of capitalism quickly reasserted themselves within communes led by anarchists. These forces were not mainly linked to difficulties of the civil war, but by economical relationships between communes. The communes’ incapacity to overcome inequalities, as with other problems, was noticed by all serious civil war commentators, from various tendencies, and even by some leaders of the CNT [38].

This inability to overcome inequality does not mean that the communes were a failure. Some functioned well, others not. Again, despite their faults, they demonstrated that workers could continue production without bosses. But cooperatives were not enough to stave off the return of capitalism.

This was precisely because of the  worker cooperative method of ownership. In Anarchist Spain, cooperatives were owned by the workers who directly made use of them, not by a state managed by the entire proletariat. This caused workers to consider their factory as the possession of those who worked in it rather than property of the whole proletariat. While unemployment was high, workers in collectivized shops tended more often than not to proceed to improve their own working conditions through better wages and social programs than to distribute their advantages with other workers. As with agricultural communes, great disparities lasted between laboring workers and unemployed ones, between workers from better-paid strategic sectors and those from secondary sectors [39]. This does not reflect the egalitarian, cooperative values of proletarian socialism, but is rather reminiscent of the bourgeois doctrine “every man for himself.” This bares a striking resemblance to the all-too-common phenomenon of settler workers betraying immigrant workers within unions, in that both prioritize the individual over the collective [40]. Small ownership caused this mentality to flourish, which is why it was incapable of staving off the return of capitalism. Socialism, to put it succinctly, is collective ownership of the means of production. Socialism is not “collectively private” ownership of these means.

The Marxist theory of historical materialism holds that ideas are the result of the ways in which humans change the world, that is, the ways in which they engage in labor [39]. Therefore, we can conclude that the commune’s decision to look out for one’s own workplace rather than the working class as a whole is a result of fundamentally bourgeois relations of production. Cooperatives in ‘non-capitalist societies’ such as anarchist Spain, therefore, failed to prevent the inequalities of capitalism from resurfacing, because they did not sufficiently change the material basis of capitalism. Because prefigurative political projects do not change this material basis, there is nothing to ensure that capitalist dynamics will not resurface in them.

In the case of cooperatives, the actual results of the prefigurative experiments left much to be desired. In Anarchist Spain, for example, evidence of difficulties in the union-controlled economy soon came in abundance. The Republican Minister of Industry reported that by January 1937 he had received petition asking for state intervention in no less than 11,000 enterprises [41]. This is nothing less than proof of Marx’s assertion that cooperatives require a state to function on the market. Cooperatives are simply not designed to function on the market (or, more accurately, markets are designed to inhibit the functioning of cooperatives). As such, they cannot possibly represent an exit strategy from capitalism.

This method of small collective ownership, which led to inequalities, also led to a lack of independence for many workers in rural cooperatives. The poorest collectivized workplaces did not have the necessary funds to pay wages. They were forced to acquire these funds by mortgaging their workplace’s equipment, as well as their warehoused material with the bourgeois Catalan government. One by one, workplaces passed from proletarian hands to those of the bourgeoisie. Eventually, capitalism returned entirely. In this sense, the direct ownership of workplaces by those employed there meant a lack of freedom for the working class as a class. Direct ownership would seem to be more conducive to freedom than state ownership, but the case of Anarchist Spain shows this to be far from the truth.

What is missing from the strategy of establishing cooperatives is any way of achieving this bigger goal, because “the lords of the land and the lords of capital will always use their political privileges for the defense and perpetuation of their economic monopolies. So far from promoting, they will continue to lay every possible impediment in the way of the emancipation of labor” [42].

Economic democracy is an important element of of socialist society, but this can only be permanently established by adopting a strategy aimed at dismantling the power of the capitalist state and expropriating the expropriators. The working class must create its own state which can organize production for the benefit of everyone, rather than a small minority (or groups of minorities) who owns the factories, land, and so on. In other words, what is needed is  a political strategy, not one focused primarily on attempting to create alternative economic models within existing capitalist society. We must become, in a word, revolutionary.

There cannot be a one-to-one correlation between the methods, strategy, and tactics of an opposition movement and those of the socioeconomic and political system that emerges from it. The “good society” assumes an egalitarian distribution of resources and power that allows for the resolution of differences in a peaceful and democratic manner. Today’s society, on the other hand, is characterized by a vast disparity of power and resources between the rulers and their opponents, by rulers who cannot be expected to willingly accept defeat in struggles even over reforms, let alone peacefully hand over their power over society, and who will sooner or later mobilize their power to violently oppose radical social change. It is also true that the more the existing relation of forces favors the insurgents, the less likely the rulers are to put up a violent resistance. But far from this being an argument in support of pacifism or nonviolence, it reinforces the likelihood that an opposition movement will have to confront violence, including armed violence, and needs to be prepared to deal with it.

Social movements focused on emulating the future (while they may experience a momentary success, if they tap into popular anger and frustration) face similar challenges in navigating the contradictions of politics and consciousness in the present.  These movements can often become encapsulated to a small group of committed radicals as they find it hard to build a base—since most people don’t already share a commitment to a post-revolutionary vision—or as they become inward looking and aim to perfect their relations among each other first.

For many of the theoreticians of prefigurative politics, the problems presented by revolutionary politics can be avoided by simply redefining them out of existence. Questions involving the relationship between reform and revolution are simply wished away by redefining revolution as no longer involving the actual overthrow of the capitalist system through a set of discrete and relatively short-lived events. As John Holloway, the Irish social scientist teaching in Mexico, and one of the best exponents of prefigurative politics, argues in his Crack Capitalism, “the revolutionary replacement of one system by another is both impossible and undesirable,” and that the only possible way of conceiving revolution is as an interstitial process that involves the creation, expansion, and multiplication of cracks—such as the Zapatistas in the Mexican state of Chiapas [43].

“Strategic leftists” appreciate,  too, the self-organization and emancipatory potential of plant occupations and community self-rule, but at the same time underscore the limitations of these important but nevertheless defensive struggles. Occupied plants, to survive, have to function within the economic and political context of capitalist society, particularly under the pressures of a chaotically competitive system, which sooner or later forces many compromises and encroaches on worker self-management. This is why they cannot “prefigure” the future society, even as they may, at least initially, strengthen the independence and self-confidence of the workers involved in those struggles.

Similar concerns apply to the self-governed communities in Chiapas led by Marcos and the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation). While the Mexican government has decided, perhaps for the sake of political stability, to permit the continued existence of the EZLN self-governed communities in the Lacandona jungle—one of the poorest and most isolated parts of the country—these communities continue to be subject to the same powerful pressures of capitalism. As the veteran Latin American leftist Guillermo Almeyra points out, they are still immersed in the market, forced to sell their labor for most of the year, to buy tools, fertilizers, and agricultural products unavailable in the Zapatista zones, to sell or exchange their products in town markets outside of their own region, and even to turn to the official health and education systems [44].

For Holloway, however, these movements are the “cracks” whose growth will bring the revolution. Thus, revolution for him is a question of movement, of direction, but not a break. As he puts it, “Movement is what matters. The possibility of the cracks is in their moving,”  [45]. echoing the outlook of Edward Bernstein and the evolutionism of classical social democracy except, of course, that Holloway clearly advocates an evolutionism of struggle, while the “revisionist” wing of classical social democracy placed a great deal of emphasis on the inevitable development of an electoral political majority that would take over the state and eventually introduce socialism [46].

Paradoxical as it may sound, Holloway’s notion of revolution as evolution through struggle is also central to the thought of revolutionary anarchists like anthropologist David Graeber. If, on one hand, Graeber takes a self-styled radical stance supporting the notion of “diversity of tactics” that entitles small minorities of activists to break windows and engage in other similar “trashing” activities. even against the express wishes of the sponsors and the great majority of participants in demonstrations, on the other hand, like Holloway, he rejects the notion of a “clean break,” that is, a revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system. That is what he does when he speculates on what might have happened had the Spanish anarchists won in 1937. “Spain,” he writes,

would have ended in a situation similar to Chiapas with a stalemate between Anarchist and anti-Anarchist factions that would have tilted in favor of the Anarchists only after a protracted, long lasting, and arduous effort to win over their [statists’] children, which could be accomplished by creating an obviously freer, more pleasurable, more beautiful, secure, relaxed, fulfilling life in the stateless sections [47].

By redefining revolution as nothing more than a progressive increase of “cracks” in society, Holloway’s prefigurative politics negates the centrality of the state, and state power as key to the process. As he himself put it in an earlier work, we “can change the world without taking power” [48]. By negating state power, Holloway is able to avoid the realities of power. For example, the fact that the state will tolerate “cracks” only up to the point when they threaten its power and the power of capitalism. For Holloway this problem simply does not exist. The very examples that he chooses to illustrate his vision are very revealing: the Zapatista movement and its self-governing community in the Lacandonian jungle; a social center in Edinburgh, Scotland; or going to an all-night rave in Berlin. The very fact that he creates the impression that they all embody the same revolutionary potential gives away his lack of regard for power. This lack of regard is evident even when only taking into account his example of the Zapatista communities in Chiapas. To the extent that they pose—or have posed—a threat to the Mexican state, they could conceivably be seen as part of a dynamic analogous to what in classical Marxism is known as “dual power”: the dichotomy, in revolutionary situations in modern capitalist nation-states, between competing centers of revolutionary struggle on one hand, and on the other ruling-class power [49].

For Holloway, and also for Graeber, who also looks at the Zapatistas as a model to be applied everywhere, including civil-war Spain of the 1930s, this state of “dual power” could go on indefinitely, with the Zapatistas being able to survive in their communities and serve as an example to be cumulatively reproduced elsewhere. He sidesteps, however, the fact that the Zapatista communities survive so long as the Mexican state is willing to live, for conjunctural political reasons, with pockets of power outside its control in what are, from the state’s point of view, areas of marginal political and economic importance. But even if the Zapatistas became a real threat to the Mexican state, the dynamics of dual power that this would generate could not last long, if only because it would severely impact the predictability and security that modern capitalism requires to function. This necessarily leads to considerations of repression, response to repression, and so on, that Holloway wishes away [50].

This is a very similar problem to the one that the Utopian socialists faced several hundred years ago. Like Holloway, these activists tended to lionize the spontaneous struggles of the masses and downplay-or argue against-the need for revolution. They failed the key motor force in historical development-the struggle of social classes to organize and reorganize the economy.

Between 1825 and 1830, groups of urban workers made their first concerted attempt to escape deteriorating conditions in the cities by acquiring land and setting up cooperative communities based primarily on agriculture. Many urban wage-earners had the goal of becoming farmers, but the skyrocketing price of land was making it harder and harder to realize that dream. This development mirrored the skyrocketing cost of means of production and farming equipment, making it even more difficult to opt out of the existing society [51].

Cornelius Blatchley first popularized the ideas of the cooperative movement in his essay On Common Wealth, published in 1822. He advocated the formation of peer communities, in which collective good and cooperation would replace selfishness and competition [52].

Blatchley essay was influenced by the ideas of utopian socialist Robert Owen, whom he had been in contact with. In Owen’s A New View of Society, published in 1813, he originated the idea that the capitalist system could be transcended by the formation of ever greater numbers of cooperative communities. Like advocates of prefigurative politics, the utopians wished to ignore the capitalists rather than challenge them directly. All the unemployed could settle in these communities, as well as former workers who wanted their freedom. They would then produce for each other’s needs and for exchange with the outside world. These cooperative villages would grow and federate “in circles of tens, hundreds, and thousands,” eventually transforming the whole of society. From inside the shell of the old, immoral world, a new moral world would arise, characterized by perfect freedom and equality [53].

Owen did not see this project as one with a class character. He thought that he could simply convince the capitalists to join in their new society and avoid struggle altogether. As with worker’s cooperatives, the ultimate aim of Owen’s free communities was not to end class conflict by abolishing classes, but to ignore class conflict entirely through peaceful means. This was reflected when Owen established the “Association of All Classes of All Nations” to bring the new society about [54].

Blatchley soon convinced Owen that America was the most fertile ground for building socialism. Owen set sail for America soon after to build a colony called New Harmony in Indiana. In explaining his reasoning, Owen wrote that America had “open land and a free society in the making.” But American freedom was not what the utopians made it out to be. Freedom in the United States meant not only freedom of the colonizers to genocide natives, and freedom of the southern aristocrats to enslave Africans, but also freedom for the Northern capitalists to build a society in their own image: one based on extreme class differences [55].

Owen, Blatchley, and their communalist followers would soon find out that it was these capitalists who would emerge victorious.

In the Spring of 1825, New Harmony opened its doors to all who shared their vision of a cooperative society. Soon, over 900 mostly urban working people had crowded in. The community thrived for a year. Members worked in a cooperative system, with each person responsible for settling communal debts with work credits on an annual basis. No money was exchanged. New Harmony, along with Owen’s theories, received wide enough publicity and showed enough success as to inspire the founding of other cooperative communities across the United States, particularly in the United States [56].

Owen soon offered a plan for a “community of equals,” a commune in which each member would receive according to need rather than labor performed. Despite the community’s enthusiasm for this project, it met with disaster [57].

The 900 inhabitants of New Harmony included a wide range of people from varying class backgrounds: workers and their families, middle class intellectuals, and impoverished vagrants. The transition to commune resulted in factions and feuds between people of differing classes, with different class interests. The community split into at least five groups, each forming an independent community on different parts of the land [58]. Without New Harmony as its center, the movement lost direction and eventually dissipated. Class differences and ideologies from the old society still persist in the new. Without a commitment to smashing the material basis of these ideologies, they will return. The process of the Spanish Revolution ironically prefigured itself in New Harmony and other communes.

Most urban workers found that moving to the countryside did not solve their economic problems. Capitalists, bankers, and land speculators squeezed out land all around the country. It was becoming increasingly difficult for people who had known farming all their lives to make a living, let alone former factory workers. The experience of the early utopian socialists should teach us that social transformation has to be based on more than a better model or a good idea. Ultimately, the project of building a new society in the shell of the old was unsuccessful because the utopians failed to fully understand, much less combat, the real power of the capitalist class [59].

Prefigurative politics does not offer a path out of the existing society. It simply wishes it away. Putting our hopes in this idealist conception of history can only spell death for our movement.


  1. https://opentextbc.ca/introductiontosociology/chapter/chapter21-social-movements-and-social-change/
  2. Wini Breines, The Great Refusal: Community and Organization in the New Left: 1962-1968 (New York: Praeger, 1982), 6-7
  3. Judson Jefferies, On the Ground: The Black Panther Party in Communities across America (University Press of Mississippi, 2010); David Hilliard, The Black Panther Party: Service to the People Programs (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 2008).
  4. Vladimir Lenin, “Lessons of the Commune.” Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1972, Moscow, Volume 13, pages 475-478.
  5. “Yes, there is an alternative to capitalism: Mondragon shows the way,” The Guardian, Sunday, 24 June 2012 (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree…).
  6. Capitalism Hits the Fan: The Global Economic Meltdown and What to Do About It, 2nd ed. (Northampton, MA: Interlink Books, 2013).
  7. See my blog post “Socialism and Democracy in the USSR”
  8. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1864/10/27.htm
  9. https://webs.zd-cms.com/cms/res/files/385/Punished-by-Rewards.pdf
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BTNui0ug1aw&feature=youtu.be&t=31m31s
  13. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc
  14. http://esop.com/pdf/esopHistoryAndResearch/researchEvidence.pdf
  15. https://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Projects/BPEA/1995%20micro/1995_bpeamicro_craig.PDF
  16. https://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/halshs-00838518
  17. http://www.geo.coop/node/618
  18. https://hbr.org/2014/01/employees-perform-better-when-they-can-control-their-space
  19. http://econpapers.repec.org/article/saeilrrev/v_3a49_3ay_3a1995_3ai_3a1_3ap_3a58-77.htp
  20. Kasmir, The Myth of Mondragón, p. 86
  21. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1864/10/27.htm Op. Cit.
  22. Vera Zamagn, “Italy’s cooperatives from marginality to success,” paper presented at XIV International Economic History Congress, Helsinki, Finland, August 2006 (http://www.helsinki.fi/iehc2006/papers2/…).
  23. Ibid.
  24. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1864/10/27.htm Op. Cit.
  25. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-10-02-0044
  26. http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxembur….
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Andy Robinson, “Co–ops face an unequal fight,” January 2, 1993.
  31. Sharryn Kasmir, The Myth of Mondragón: Cooperatives, Politics, and Working Class Life in a Basque Town (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1996), chapters 5 and 6. See especially pp.162–4.
  32. Giles Tremlett, “Basque co-op protects itself with buffer of foreign workers,” October 23, 2001 (http://www.theguardian.com/business/2001…).
  33. John McNamara, “Contradictions in Paradise: When the Workers Become Bosses,” January 31, 2011, http://www.cooperativeconsult.com/blog/?….
  34. “Trouble in workers’ paradise,” The Economist, November 9, 2013 (http://www.economist.com/news/business/2…); Andrew Bibby, “Workers occupy plant as Spanish co-operative goes under,” The Guardian, November 15, 2013 (http://www.theguardian.com/social-enterprise-network/2013/nov/15/spanish-co-op-workers-occupy-plant)
  35. Christopher Bjork, “Recession Frays Ties at Spain’s Co-ops,” Wall Street Journal, December 26, 2013 (http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10…).
  36. Pierre Broué and Émile Témime, The Revolution and the Civil War in Spain, London: Faber & Faver Limited, 1972.
  37. https://www.marxists.org/subject/economy/authors/pe/pe-ch04.htm
  38. Joseph Green, “Anarchism and the marketplace”, in Communist Voice, No. 4, Sept. 15, 1996.
  39. Ibid.
  40. Jacobson, Robin and Geron, Kim (2008)’Unions and the Politics of Immigration’,Socialism and Democracy,22:3,105—122, Page 112
  41. See my blog post, “Marxist Dialectical and Historical Materialism.”
  42. Juan Peiró, De la fábrica de vidrio de Mataro al Ministerio de Industria – Valencia 1937
  43. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1864/10/27.htm Op. Cit.
  44. Raúl Zibechi, ‘Sobre la “forma superior de lucha.”’ Rebelíon, November 30, 2013. http://rebelion.org/noticia.php?id=177552
  45. John Holloway, Crack Capitalism (London: Pluto Press, 2010), 11.
  46. Guillermo Almeyra, “Los vaivenes de los movimientos sociales en México,” Colección CLACSO. Textos Completos. OSAL – Observatorio Social de América Latina, Año IX, No. 24, octubre de 2008, 92. http://bibliotecavirtual.clacso.org.ar/a…
  47. John Holloway, Crack Capitalism, 72. Holloway’s emphasis.
  48. David Graeber, Revolutions in Reverse. Essays in Politics, Violence, Art and Imagination (London: Minor Compositions, 2011),
  49. Pitzer, Donald (2012). New Harmony Then and Now. Quarry Books. p. 50. Donald E. Pitzer, “The Original Boatload of Knowledge Down the Ohio River.” Reprint. Ohio Journal of Science 89, no. 5 (December 1989): 128–42.
  50. Wilson, William (1964). The Angel and the Serpent. Binghamton, N.Y.: Vail-Ballou Press, Inc. pp. 102–103.
  51. William E. Wilson, The Angel and the Serpent: The Story of New Harmony (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1967, 2nd ed.), p. 105, 110, 116.
  52.  Wilson, p. 116.
  53. Joel Hiatt, ed., “Diary of William Owen: From November 10, 1824, to April 20, 1825” Indiana Historical Society Publications 4, no. 1 (1906): 130.
  54. Carmony and Elliott, p. 168. Op. Cit.
  55. Wilson, p. 122. Op. Cit.