by J. Bialek
The spectre which once haunted Europe long ago in 1848, materialized in corporeal form in 1917 and was seemingly exorcized in 1991 has returned in force. This time the “spectre of communism” is haunting the entire world. In 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published the Manifesto of the Communist Party, also called The Communist Manifesto, in order to explain to the population at large the general beliefs of communists, and to differentiate communists from liberals and other social movements which existed during that revolutionary era.
Today it cannot be denied that we are once again living in a revolutionary era. As capitalism continues to degenerate, demonstrating with each passing day that it has outlived its usefulness to the vast majority of humankind, we see violent explosions of popular rage, ranging from peaceful demonstrations to chaotic riots. The ruling class and its “free” press would have us believe that even in these dark times progress is being made. We have the Arab Spring, a series of revolutions supposedly made possible thanks to the help of the Western-developed Twitter and Facebook. The Occupy protests, which complained of a media blackout during its infancy, soon managed to capture the attention of the world and to make its mark on the year 2011. As the media would have it, all that is necessary to solve the ills of the world are “democratic” revolutions in certain countries such as Egypt, but not in others such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain or Yemen, and of course maybe a little more participation for “the little guy” in American politics. While the press has in recent years admitted that there are some flaws in the global economic system, those who have been paying attention since the start of this crisis might have noticed an explosion of increasingly shrill anti-communist propaganda.
The renewed interest in Marx and his theories, along with a rising tide of dissatisfaction and nostalgia for pre-1989 life within the former Eastern Bloc nations and the ex-U.S.S.R., has clearly sent chills down the spines of Europe’s elite. Their message could not be more clear. On one hand the media concedes that something is broken with the capitalist system, but on the other hand it warns the working class not to consider alternatives to capitalism. They are once again trying to exorcize this spectre that is haunting them, and indeed terrifying them; they insist that the working class limit their protests against the system so as to fit within the boundaries established by the ruling class. For them the greatest tragedy would be the rejection of the slogan that there is no alternative to capitalism and the assumption that mankind has reached its peak of societal evolution in the system of free markets and commodity trading. So here we are again, so far from 1848, and communists are again compelled to disclose their ideas and distinguish themselves from all other factions who claim to have a solution to our present crisis.
In these times of crisis it comes as no surprise that working people find themselves faced by a large number of proselytizers from a wide spectrum of ideological backgrounds preaching the superiority and explanatory power of their ideas. Each has an explanation as to why we are in this crisis today and a set of proposals which can supposedly solve the problem. In this marketplace of ideas, Marxists cannot pretend as though we sit above the fray, treating our theory as some kind of esoteric revealed knowledge in a manner similar to many of those aforementioned ideologues. We have an explanation, a theory, but what sets us apart is not simply our assertion that these are true, but rather that what we are truly offering is not so much a set of pre-packaged answers which constitute some kind of universal truth, but rather a methodology of analysis which allows people to find what can reasonably be judged as true. This is not to state that we do not believe in the correctness of our theories, but that Marxism is a living theory to which we add our observations and experiences year after year, rejecting that which has been found to be no longer accurate and adopting that which is relevant and observable.
Other ideologies will claim that our problems stem from lack of regulation, too much regulation, the Federal Reserve, hierarchical authority, the Illuminati, the breakdown of the family, “multiculturalism” and a whole host of other scapegoats either real or imagined. By contrast, while Marxist analysis has identified certain laws or truth about the history of human society and the capitalist system, it is up to us in modern times to apply this analysis to our changing world, and to come up with answers based on our analysis rather than simply accepting some alleged axioms and then setting about to envision our ideal world. In this sense, Marxism does not reject all ideas outside of itself; in fact it does acknowledge the validity of many other ideas or concepts. However, Marxists see in many of these other ideological strains the neglect, either by accident or design, of certain factors which, without being accounted for, cause these other ideological analyses to be lacking and one-sided.
If we consider as an example neo-classical or “mainstream” economics, we cannot fault its proponents for ignoring class struggle, denying the existence of exploitation, and not dealing with the question of creating a more egalitarian, just society. Neo-classical economics was never intended to deal with these matters, and indeed, a common answer to questions about inequality and social injustice under capitalism is that these problems are outside the realm of economics, which of course means neo-classical economics, and that these are issues for sociologists to discuss. Marxism, on the other hand, sees all things in the world as being interrelated; any effect can have potentially infinite causes and any cause can have potentially infinite effects. This is important to keep in mind when one encounters a common straw man argument against Marxism, such as the claim that Marxism is “economic determinism,” or that Marxism sees class struggle as the main focal point of all human history. Marxism sees many factors influencing human society. On the other hand, class has been, via observation of history, a crucial factor in understanding inequality within society, and thus if one wants to change society in order to eliminate inequality and exploitation, Marxist theory says we must take this into account as a crucial factor. Of course, if one is not interested in changing society in such a way that deals with these problems, then class isn’t so important. Every individual who professes a political ideology insists that they want a more just society, but justice to the worker differs greatly from the justice of the owners of capital.
For the sake of argument, let us assume a position that declares the world as it is to be unjust, and in need of a significant change. From this starting point, let us now deal with the questions, “Why socialism? Why do we need revolution and why can’t we do something else?” For practical purposes this text will deal primarily with “left-wing” objections to socialism under the assumption that bearers of such arguments are at least sympathetic to ideals such as social justice and equality. However, while they really deserve to be dealt with in separate articles, we will have a look at some objections coming from the right and even the far-right. Right-wing reactionaries have a history of clothing their arguments in populist language so as to propagate their message among otherwise unsuspecting people who would never give them the time of day if they knew exactly who they were dealing with.
A word of caution – the reader should not assume that what follows is a false dichotomy insisting that Marxism is the only path out of the current crisis. Crisis is both inherent and cyclical in capitalism, and thus we can assume that the current crisis will eventually work itself out. This process may be violent, and in the end yesterday’s winners may be tomorrow’s losers, but the system will go on. It is important to understand that a system’s ability to perpetuate itself isn’t necessarily a merit; it only means that humans simply do not give up and resign control over their society. What this text argues is not simply “socialism or else,” but rather that while other solutions may have progressive and positive outcomes, so long as capitalism and its core contradictions are not dealt with these same painful effects will only return a few years down the road. Furthermore, these ad hoc solutions will not resolve some of capitalism’s cruelest effects such as starvation, war, imperialism, death due to preventable diseases, and the like. The second thing this text will not attempt to do is try to play a logical game so as to lead the reader to the idea that Marxism is “right” based on formal reason alone. If one does not see inequality or exploitation as morally wrong or at worst a necessary evil, no amount of logical arguments can convince them that socialist revolution is necessary. Logic dictates that those who stand to benefit from the system as it is are likely to defend it.
Why do we need revolution? Why can’t we fix the problem through the electoral system? You have to work within the system to make changes otherwise you’re just a dreamer who’s wasting everyone’s time.
Here we have typical arguments from lifelong supporters of the Democratic Party. They acknowledge that they too are disappointed in their hero Obama, but they warn us that things will be much worse under a Republican president. When we express our disapproval of Obama, they accuse us of being dreamers and spoiled children who are now throwing a fit because we didn’t get everything we wanted from the president. Communists find this argument somewhat amusing, seeing as how we never expected anything from Barack Obama. Communists do not see Obama in a vacuum, but rather as part of a clear and obvious rightward trend within the Democratic Party. The truth about “what Obama has done so far” is not a matter for this article. Media outlets such as the outstanding Black Agenda Report have easily cut through the excuses and lies of Obama and his party lackeys. For those pressed for time, sites like obamatheconservative.com catalogue nearly every hard right turn this supposedly “progressive” president has made, complete with sources for each item. Mainstream leftists often label Obama’s compromises with the radical right as “disappointments” at best and “betrayals” at worst. To communists on the other hand, everything is going as intended, not because these actions are part of some secret plan, but because the state is merely carrying out the very function it was designed to do. In other words, our opposition to supporting Obama has nothing to do with Obama himself; it is in fact opposition to voting for anybody. The state is designed to provide a foundation for a capitalist society, and however much “freedom” it may permit in its best moments, it will never permit the freedom to abolish capitalism and its relations of production. The system is meant to self-perpetuate, and the system inevitably favors the wealthy.
To some this might sound like political cynicism, but this is a readily observable fact throughout history. Let us first consider the remedies that liberals have offered us thus far in the endeavor to limit the influence of wealth in American society. Some demands will simply never be fulfilled. Congressmen are not going to consciously eliminate their own perks, including those which they gain from courting lobbyists both when they are in office and after they leave or retire from public service. The idea that politicians can be convinced to give up the vast privileges they gain from their relations with corporations and lobbyists simply based on an appeal to their conscience about “fairness” is simply laughable, and even more so when it comes from the mouth of an Obama supporter who chides leftists for not being realistic.
What of regulation, which will supposedly keep banks and corporations in line? Any attempt to pass such regulation through Congress will inevitably be met with a massive blitzkrieg by lobbyists, but for the sake of argument let’s say they somehow pass. What comes next? The advocates of regulation are fond of referring back to some earlier period in American history when various regulations of industry and banking still existed. The massive trend of deregulation since the 1980s is responsible for our problems, these people say. In this case we are forced to ask, if regulations can solve our economic problems, how did this deregulation take place to begin with? Perhaps more importantly, what will ensure that the new regulations won’t be overturned ten, twenty, or thirty years down the road? How can we be sure the exact same thing won’t happen again? As to why the regulations failed, we are again faced with the reality that the republican system we live under in the United States of America favors those with money, which inevitably means corporations and wealthy individuals. It cannot do otherwise. Some have suggested measures such as ending corporate personhood, but this is about as realistic as limiting or abolishing access for lobbyists. The politicians are not going to cut their own throats.
There are some on the so-called “left” who accuse us of being unrealistic, overly-cynical, and counter-productive by not working within the system. We are accused of wanting our way or no way, and that if we were really serious about change we would participate in the political process and then perhaps we would get the change we wanted, if only incrementally. First, the change we seek is radical; it is revolutionary and not a matter of reforms. Does this mean that we totally reject any participation in the political system as it is, or that we reject any reform in favor of total revolution? Absolutely not; every reform that the working class can squeeze out of the state for their benefit is a small victory. On the other hand, we will not cede massive ground to the right in exchange for a few crumbs from the table, nor will we line up to support candidates that do not represent our interests. To those who say we should stop complaining and vote “our people” into office, we may respond thusly: we would happily cast our vote for “our people,” that is candidates who represent our working class interests, but we will not vote your people into office. Moreover, if we somehow manage to find “our people” to vote for, we will reject all your attempts to blame us for the failure of your people if they should fail. You cannot accuse us of being unrealistic contrarians for not using the choices we supposedly have, and then condemn us when our choice differs from yours.
Getting to the bottom line, we must acknowledge that if we dare to say our problems stem from capitalism, as an increasingly larger segment of mainstream liberals and “leftists” are, we must set about finding a way to abolish capitalism, the root of the problem. By extension, we cannot expect to abolish capitalism via the very same state structure which serves as its foundation and defense. On this point we must agree with the anarchists who say “smash the state.” Politics can be likened to a sort of game, wherein players are permitted to make various decisions and perform actions so long as they do not violate the rules of the game. You can make many moves in chess but you cannot substitute its rules for those of another game, and you must make your moves on the chessboard. If for any reason we can achieve meaningful goals within the rules of the game, we will happily use these opportunities so long as they do not compromise our end goals. What we will not do, is accept the assumption that the game cannot be changed entirely and that we must forever struggle to achieve our gains within the confines of a system which is stacked against us.
Why can’t we fix capitalism? Can we not eliminate the negative effects of capitalism while keeping its benefits?
This is a relatively easy question, which has been somewhat answered in the previous section. However, it is worth taking a closer look at this argument because one can propose a radical change in government without necessarily eliminating capitalism and its trappings, or as we call them, its relations of production. Here we won’t bother debunking the efficacy of reforms or regulations, but rather we will pose a question ourselves, along with a novel answer. People have been working against the ills of capitalism ever since its emergence in human society, yet to this day we still experience the same problems, oftentimes on a worse scale than before. Awareness of poverty, super-exploitation of workers in developing countries, and even modern-day slavery is higher today than it was in previous decades, but has any of this actually solved these problems? It is simply untrue that the resources necessary to solve these ills do not exist; rather it is one of capitalism’s hallmarks that resources necessary for life can be created in abundance, yet those who are in charge of their creation will not do so unless it proves profitable to them. In fact “relief” is often itself a very profitable industry, to the point that experienced relief workers often warn donors to carefully evaluate charity organizations before handing over their money. In any case, the solution to these problems lies not in increasing charity, but rather eliminating the conditions which make charity necessary.
Finally on this point, when we speak of eliminating the ills of capitalism while preserving its benefits, we would assert that this does describe socialism to an extent. We seek to create a society in which the great productive power brought into being by capitalism is put to use by the masses, for the benefit of the masses, as opposed to a minority of owners and investors. So long as these means of production are owned by a minority of individuals driven by the quest for profits, this cannot happen. Socialism is a synthesis which arises from the struggle to eliminate the contradictions inherent to capitalism, and when it triumphs, we will ultimately be left with capitalism’s benefits without its disadvantages. This may be a long, arduous process, but we have no reason to assume that it cannot be done. And if our struggle for a better, more just world never achieves our highest ideals, what does it matter so long as we strove to achieve all that we could?
The problem isn’t capitalism! We don’t live in a capitalist society! Our society is corporatist, or even socialist!
This kind of objection is as absurd as it is common in today’s discourse. It has often been propagated by Libertarians (typically followers of the Ron Paul cult), fellow admirers of the Austrian school of economics, and all manner of right-wing populists. We might ignore such absurd claims were they only espoused by such reactionaries, but because of their propensity for attempting to inject their ideas into left-wing movements, and the mainstream left’s susceptibility toward superficially radical attacks on everything “corporate,” we cannot avoid addressing such claims. Granted, this is a subject which demands its own article, and in fact many on this subject already exist. Here we will deal with it for the benefit of an audience which sees itself as left-wing or progressive, and we will do so in an abbreviated manner.
If capitalism is not the system under which we live now, then we must ask not only what capitalism is, but also when it has existed. If one asserts that it has never existed, as a few fanatical libertarians will occasionally admit under pressure, this is in itself an indictment of capitalism. Who can fault the U.S.S.R. for not achieving communism in seventy years if people have been championing the idea of capitalism for several centuries without ever having established it anywhere? But we need not concern ourselves with this rarer, ludicrous argument. Instead we will deal with the assertion that our modern system has transformed from some kind of “good” capitalism into something more grotesque. This assertion is especially troubling for those progressives and even more “radical” leftists who assert this argument, as it logically implies that there was some better time in the past, which is remarkably similar to the claims of right-wing ideologues.
The corporation, which earns so much hatred from the mainstream left, did not fall out of the sky one morning. It came into being through a natural process of capitalism’s evolution. The claim that our system is different than it was thirty, forty, or fifty years ago, regardless of who is making the argument, is based on a wholly metaphysical view of the world and in particular of capitalism. It presents capitalism as defined by a particular ideal, and then asserts that if reality should differ from this ideal, then reality must then be something other than capitalism. This way of thinking does not allow one to see capitalism as a system which went through changes from its inception to the present day. It is essential to deal with capitalism as it exists today, and as it has existed hitherto, as opposed to some abstract ideal.
In limiting our objections to this argument only as it is asserted by “leftists” as opposed to reactionary free market fanatics, then we find that we have come full circle back to the idea of “fixing capitalism.” To attack corporations and champion small and local business amounts to attacking the weeds without pulling up the roots. Again, these corporations did not fall from the sky one day, fully formed. To deny the connection between small businesses and multi-national corporations is akin to an economic Intelligent Design theory, as though the latter were once called into existence as they appear today. Even small local businesses will put their money into banks which will loan it out all over the country, if not the world. Communists seek not to cut the weeds of capitalism, but rather to uproot it entirely.
Can’t we subvert capitalism by changing our lifestyle and choices as consumers?
From the counter-cultural revolution of the 1960’s and 70’s emerged an idea which began as a bastardization of Marxist thought, one that has recently gained popularity again, stripped of any hint of Marxism whatsoever. The gist of this idea goes like this: capitalists and by extension the capitalist system itself are compelled to sell their products in the market, and thus must ensure that consumers will continue to spend money on an ever-increasing array of products. Many of these products are not necessary to human life, and some wholly unnecessary, making it essential to somehow convince people they need such products. The conclusion of these observations is that capitalism requires conformity in order to survive. Via aggressive and seemingly omnipresent advertising, people are encouraged to follow trends and buy what other people are buying. This leads to the rise of what is generally termed “consumerism,” a lust for ever more material goods that always seems to afflict other people, as opposed to the person decrying it.
From this argument it follows that this system can be subverted via a revolt against consumerism, and in particular, the “jamming” of cultural messages which promote this lifestyle, namely advertisements. We allege that these theories are nothing but idealistic nonsense, wholly divorced from even a superficial analysis of how capitalism works. Capitalism does not require that people act alike and have the same tastes; on the contrary, it thrives when people seek to express their individuality via their lifestyle and purchases. There will always be a capitalist willing to fulfill some desire so long as there is profit to be had. Decades of counter-cultural rebellion have failed to put a dent in the capitalist machine, and there is no reason to believe that “fair trade” products, defaced advertisements, and the occasional street rave will succeed at overthrowing capitalism in the future. Moreover, making the struggle against capitalism a matter of purchases is little more than funneling money from big capitalists to small or medium-sized capitalists.
Aren’t you reducing everything down to economics? What about feminism, the struggle for people of color, and so on?
Marxists fight for an egalitarian society which means we fight against racism, xenophobia, bigotry, sexism, homophobia, and all other social ills which create division and conflict within the working class. Despite this, we are still continually accused of reducing all matters to economics or class struggle, which is a woefully bad interpretation of Marxist theory. This accusation comes from a variety of directions but occasionally it is voiced by some die-hard followers of certain identity politics movements. Some, but by no means all or even a majority, put the struggle of their particular group above all others. History has shown identity politics to be largely a failure when it comes to achieving equality, much less overthrowing capitalism and its systematic division and oppression of people based on ethnicity, gender, sex, and so on. While many recognize the role of class in the oppression of their particular group, there are those who prefer to spend their time bickering over redefinitions of what it means to be a part of this or that group, who is more oppressed and how, and tit-for-tat arguments about who is “co-opting” their movement.
Marxists on the other hand recognize a historically observable fact that oppression of women, ideas of race, caste systems, and other forms of systematic oppression are very much rooted in class society. They all serve the purpose of maintaining, in one form or another, a system whereby one class exploits another. We may liken class society to a disease, and things like sexism, racism, and so on represent symptoms of that disease. History has shown that struggles for civil rights and the liberation of women have often failed because they focused on symptoms without having any kind of historical material analysis of that which they were struggling against. In many cases, this often led dedicated fighters into alliances with their class enemies, all in the name of liberation for a particular repressed group. The promised liberation has yet to come. Marxists do not reduce every issue down to class struggle, but if we are analyzing two particular subjects, specifically the history of human society and formulating a way to build a better one, we see that class plays a major role in relation to both.
Of course this should not be taken to mean that problems like racism or patriarchy will simply disappear once the capitalist class is overthrown. Some forms of oppression are quite old; patriarchy, in particular, dates back to the dawn of class-based society. And while a struggle must be waged during and after the revolution to right these wrongs, one thing is clear- we simply cannot ultimately triumph over these social ills until we overthrow that system and its ruling class which has a vested interest in maintaining a complex society of privileges designed to divide the exploited class and incite them against one another. This having been said, Marxists have an obligation to set the standard for the kind of society they wish to live in by waging the day-to-day struggle against forms of oppression such as racism and patriarchy both inside and outside of their organizations and parties. Those who feel that this question can be put off till “after the revolution” are shirking their responsibility and not setting a good example of what could be possible once the system of class-based organization is overthrown.