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Marx for dummies

by James Cooke Wednesday, Apr. 19, 2006 at 7:57 PM

It’ no accident that many people are finding a rekindled interest in the writings of Karl Marx; the international assault of workers wages and benefits, continued warfare, and economic instability in general are causing a revival of the buried and slandered ideas of Marxism. Many of these concepts offer tremendous insight about the origins and workings of capitalism, and thus the causes of many of society’s current problems. Needless to say, involved are immense implications for anybody interested in becoming an activist. A “Marxist” is someone who accepts some of the key points about history and society first explained by Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels, and elaborated further by the writings of Lenin, Trotsky, and many others (Stalin, Mao, etc are Marxists in name only). Unfortunately, one cannot learn about these ideas by going to college, aside from the many biased and bastardized versions of the subject. The following is a brief explanation of some of the more important concepts of Marxism.

Marxists often use the analogy of an organism to explain society. Society is not the creation of mystical forces or a phenomenon too complicated to study— it is the result of certain concrete, historically definable events and processes. In taking this to be true, the next step is looking for defining characteristics or general laws that could help explain the fundamental nature of this highly-complex organism, attempting to address some basic questions like: what type of thing is it? How was it born? What does it do? And because Marxists believe all things to be in motion, it was possible to discover the general direction this thing was evolving, and to ask further questions: how is society changing? Is society evolving into something different? But first things first: what kind of thing is it? This very beginning idea is often the most perplexing to the current crop of university professors.

At its foundation human society is, and always has been, the re-creation of social life; or to put it differently, society is none other than people organized in a way to maintain their existence through food gathering, the construction of shelter, and as society becomes more complex, a variety of new desires and problems that need to be addressed. The difference between types of societies, whether they are hunter-gatherer, slave societies, feudal, or capitalistic, is how they are arranged, i.e., what system of organization and production handles the continuing existence of social life. If this still seems too abstract, examples will hopefully clarify things.

Since the advent of private property society has been arranged according to a class-basis, or rather, there have been a minority of individuals who have controlled how society is organized, and benefited from it. In the first post hunter-gatherer societies, slavery was the ‘mode of production’ – the way in which society reproduced, or arranged itself. This means that slaves did everything that needed to be done in order for everyone to live; they did the agricultural and building work, as well as the variety of other tasks that enabled the elite to dedicate their lives to either the pursuit of culture or simply extravagance.

In hunter gatherer societies, such a class division was impossible due to the need for everyone to work in order for anybody to survive. At this point, it may be necessary to further define what ‘class’ is, as there are many who believe it to be merely different levels of privilege. Certainly even in hunter-gatherer societies people were treated differently according to age, gender, and ability. This is undoubtedly true. However, the idea of class is a slightly more complex subject. Class implies that there is a group of people who own the basis of society’s wealth, what Marx called ‘the means of production’. In a slave society, the wealth of society was extracted from a combination of land and slaves, both of which were owned by the elites. This meant that there were two principle classes: slave owner and slave. These two groups were chiefly responsible for societies continuance, either in the productive or managerial sense. There have always been room for other classes to exist within what has historically been a two-class system; these are groups that find some kind of niche in between the two principal and conflicting classes, they benefit either by becoming overseers for the elite, or are able to live indirectly off the wealth produced by the oppressed class; for example, the ‘freemen’ in Rome’s slave state did not always own slaves, nor did they work, but lived off the wealth the slaves produced due to their status as citizens. Class, simply defined, is the way in which a group is organized in relation to the means of production, society’s wealth— either you are born into the class that owns the wealth, or the class that produces it.

Crucial to the understanding of how society functions is a comprehension of how wealth is produced, and consequently siphoned into the hands of the elite. When mass-agriculture was first established, the grounds for civilization became possible. This is because for the first time there was a surplus of food, enabling humans to permanently settle in certain regions and expand in population. It also meant an increase in humanities ‘productive forces’, meaning, that less work was able to produce the same amount of things, enabling labor to be focused in a variety of new directions and capacities. The unfortunate result was not that everyone had to work less, but that a certain class of people did not work at all.

The ability for humans to produce more than they needed to survive was termed by Marx as “surplus value”; a class-based social system is thus the way in which the elite-class is able to organize society in such a way as to obtain the majority of surplus-value for itself, minus the work. Each type of class-based society is arranged according to this crucial fact. Along with every different mode of production comes the social structure created to keep the system in tact. This includes the body of laws that justify the accumulation of surplus-value into the hands of a minority, and the repressive measures needed to enforce such a fundamentally unjust system, i.e., police, courts, jails, armies, etc. For instance, many slave-states, whether it was Egypt or the Inca and Maya civilizations, had a social structure that revolved around a central idea of the elite as ‘gods on earth’. The Pharaoh in his relatives were justified in living in luxury because they were heavenly creatures; this was also the reason why the slaves had to endure such miserable lives, they were born to serve their earth-bound gods, and the laws of society reinforced this.

When the Roman slave-state was finally abolished by the German barbarians, a whole new mode of production was arranged. The feudal system was a class-based system as well, with a whole new social-structure developed to justify the new type of inequality; this time, the elites were simply appointed by god, and not gods themselves. The slaves became serfs, with additional rights but subject to a similar method of exploitation. In this system, the surplus-value (food or money) produced by the serfs was taken by the elites in the form of rent, since the royalty owned the land which the serfs were bound to. Once again, this system needed a variety of laws and bailiffs to ensure that things ran smoothly— to convince the people that this was ‘just the way things are’.

Then, a sea of revolutions erupted across the feudal landscape. Finally the average person was given equality, freedom, and liberty. The American and French revolutions used these cherish ideals to end the rule of Monarchy, explaining that men were inherently equal and should be treated as such. Unfortunately, our founding fathers were not simply well-intentioned men with high morals, but businessmen as well. Although many of them most likely intended well, the mode of production they helped to form did not quite live up to its billing. Capitalism too is a class-based system, with all the inequities inherent. However, the new system is slicker than the previous ones, and it has to be, given that the elites are no longer able to lean on their god-given royal rights to justify their fortunate status.

Like the previous class-based modes of production, capitalism relies heavily on a social system to justify its existence. Aside from the usual array of repressive institutions used to crush dissent, a new intellectual milieu has developed to rationalize what has grown to be a completely irrational system. Education from kindergarten through the university is subject to these forces, and helps to instill certain fundamental beliefs so that one can work in the systems favor rather than against it. Central to the ideology of capitalism is the belief in private property, or to be more exact, realizing that an unlimited accumulation of wealth is sacred; we are taught that it’s ok for the likes of Bill Gates to have 40+ billion dollars, while billions of people have barely enough to survive. Like every class-based system before it, the wealth of capitalism is created by the majority of the population, while the majority of the wealth is funneled into the hands of a parasitic elite.

So, to answer a question raised in the opening paragraph: what type of thing is society? We can say with certainty that society’s foundation, it’s ‘mode of production’, is currently capitalism. Merely defining society as ‘capitalistic’, however, is not enough. Society changes, as it always has, and although we are definitely under the rule of capitalism, it is important to understand the stage of development of this system, its workings and direction. What separates Marxism from the other radical perspectives is its adherence to the scientific method. Economics thus becomes a crucial focus in this regard for several reasons. As this economic system changes through cycles of booms and recessions, the social system attached to it is automatically affected. During recessions, standards of living drop, and people become disillusioned and angry. A desperate nation might see a remedy in its economic problems by going to war, creating a whole new set of problems within the population. In extended periods of boom, the government may be able to pacify a populace with increased incomes and benefits, things that are stripped away when prolonged downturns take effect; the current era of capitalism testifying to this fact.

A constant evolutionary trend within the flux of booms and recessions has been an ever-increasing consolidation of wealth into the hands of fewer and fewer people. Although capitalism began amid relatively free competition, the fitter of the businessmen accrued larger and larger amounts of wealth, while the losers dropped out of the race entirely. This process led to the current political and economic landscape, where giant corporations and state-sponsored monopolies constantly battle the corporations of other nations for raw-materials and markets— occasionally intensifying into a military conflict. The coalescing of corporations and governments has occurred gradually for the last 200 years, and is at a point where terms like ‘imperialism’ and ‘neo-colonialism’ are no longer mere theories or accusations, but discussed openly in the media, though thinly veiled behind such terms as ‘US interests’, or ‘regional competitor’, and made legal by institutions like the Word Bank and United Nations.

Perhaps Marx’s most important discovery (besides an accurate explanation of history) is realizing that capitalism has inherent tendencies that lead to crisis. This is the result of industries consolidation of wealth and machinery that leads to less human labor, ever-growing profits, but shrinking ‘rates of profit’, (fully explained in Marx’s Capital). The current situation of the world is testament to this economical fact. Corporations are making record profits with unheard of levels of efficiency, but in spite of this, international investments are desperate to retain the same level of profitability they had been previously making; their returns are shrinking due to internationally falling corporate profit rates. This is in part why every nation is desperately slashing social services and wages; to attract investment cheap labor is needed, resulting in a capitalist-style globalization that has been a disgusting race to the bottom. Globalization and capitalism are not synonymous, but a profit-driven globalization not only threatens living standards and the environment, but global peace as well.

One way Marxism is slandered (besides calling China and Russia “communist”) is by accusations of ‘utopianism’. This allegation is easily overcome when one considers some basic ideas about the ‘goals’ of Marxism. Marx correctly stated that it was in the interests of the majority of the earth’s population to bring the ‘means of production’ (society’s wealth) into the hands of the public, meaning that society could use the tremendous technology created under capitalism for the purposes of human needs, as opposed to the current demands of profit. This alone is what Marx proposed, expressing clearly what the common worker desires at an intuitive level. The media and universities have conveniently decided that such a system is impossible due to human nature (greed), ‘lack of incentive’, totalitarianism, and many more creative excuses; in actuality, there is no objective reason why humans cannot work together to decide their fate in a rational and planned way, rather than having a small-group of oligarchs calling the shots for their own benefit.

Such a system does however, have many obstacles. Since we live in a class-based society, the upper classes have proven themselves hardened defenders of the arrangement from which they benefit. Mass uprisings, no matter how well organized or democratic, find themselves horribly repressed if their intentions go beyond shallow reforms. This is why society cannot be transformed peacefully— it is unimaginable that capitalism’s beneficiaries will simply abandon their kingly positions, no matter how much democracy or pressure is thrown in their face. No ruling class in history has gone down without a fight—which leads us to the next topic: leadership.

Anarchists agree with some of the above analysis, but differ when it comes to the discussion of tactics. Marxists contend that in order for a socialist-minded revolution to take place it must be done consciously, meaning, that the goal of the movement must be the complete economic restructuring of society; otherwise, the basic system of exploitation is left in tact, and any change or progress will inevitably succumb to the power of profits. Implied in a conscious mass movement with direction is leadership. Anarchists cringe at the idea of authority, and envision a revolution totally free of it; though nice-sounding, such a philosophy becomes problematic when tested. An entire population of people will never spontaneously and unanimously agree to revolution; as mentioned above, the upper class will fight tooth and nail in keeping their positions. Will the revolution have to wait till this class submits? Or must some authority make them submit? The latter option seems more realistic. Marx called this the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, or, the ‘dictatorship of the majority’.

Historically, during revolutionary times, sections of the working class will side with the elites, either because of fear, habit, or personal gain. If non-authoritarians plan on a time when all the workers harmoniously rise in unison, they will be waiting a very long time indeed. Sections of the working class, whether they are policemen, army, security guards, mercenaries, etc, have livelihoods that are dependent on the permanence of capitalism. Authority is thus required in order to abolish a repressive system that will not leave on its own accord. Alternative strategies to implement revolution often disregard the factor of class entirely, focusing instead on egalitarian and peaceful ways to transform society that would work, if real democracy had actually existed, or if a class of elites did not have the police at its disposal. This is why historically, many ‘non-authoritarians’, vulgar Marxists, and anarchists could be rightly accused of reactionary politics— they are waiting for that perfect revolution which will never come, and thus use their influence to damper the revolutionary zeal of the masses (the current movement in France serves as a good example). Marxists insist that if given the option, mass sections of the population during revolutionary times would enthusiastically agree to a socialist program; ‘leadership’, or, an organized group of individuals, is needed to give the workers an opportunity to properly channel their energy, since all capitalist political parties will lead the movement to a dead end (this includes the current so-called Socialist and Communist parties of Europe, as well as the Green Party).

To justify its tactics Marxism studies the history of conflicting classes. In the last 300 years of capitalism, there have been countless uprisings, riots, and attempted revolutions. Most of these happen unconsciously, spontaneously, and naturally— not because Marx created the concept, but because the objective conditions of society gave birth to such an atmosphere. Socialism simply explains these phenomena, and thus acts as a guide to action. If a dispossessed class rises without goal or orientation, chaos and rage develops, and afterwards nothing is changed. When a more organized movement takes place, goals are just as important—if the aim is not the abolition of a class-based society, than wars, poverty, and inequality will remain.

If a political group desires deep social change, no amount of letters or phone calls to senators will prove effective. Only the power of the masses— the working and disenfranchised classes— are capable of creating the conditions that will end the despotism of wealth that is currently threatening the destruction of the planet. To be a revolutionary it is not necessary to call one a Marxist, though recognition of some of the above ideas is indeed required; these ideas serve as a basis for understanding the political process, and thus enable a better focus of ones energy. Contrary to what television and politicians tells us, activism requires more of us than just action— it requires that we act consciously.

To learn more about Marxism visit:

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