This is Part 2 of “Is Marxism Relevant? Some Uses and Misuses” by David Gilbert, political prisoner (Read Part 1 here)
The prospects for humanity are not as grim as our historical and contemporary problems would imply, and Marxist theory can be helpful in unlocking today’s revolutionary potential. The “Marxists” were wrong in insisting the revolution would be made by the working classes of the imperial nations. Those of us inspired by how the national liberation movements lit up the world were overly optimistic about their potential to debilitate imperialism and move quickly to building socialism. In a way both errors came from a failure to recognize how much capitalism is a world economy, even while political realities necessitated fighting these battles out on the national terrains. Today’s world is characterized by a major contradiction between the now global organization of production and the continuation of political and cultural formations on the national level.
Marx saw that capitalism was moving in a global direction. The Communist Manifesto (1848) says, “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.” Capital was intended to be the first part of a series of works (never completed) projected to end with a volume on the world market.
But Marx’s own views were mixed and in flux as to what degree that globalization would bring industrialization to the peripheries or alternatively exploit them for agricultural products, as was happening to colonial Ireland. Similarly, while not uniform, much of his writing implied a vision that workers of all nations, genders, and ages would increasingly find themselves in similar situations: poorly paid and unskilled appendages to the relentless machines of industrial production, with their jobs and lives made increasingly precarious via a large reserve army of labor. In contrast, the world today is one of multiple and tremendous variations in life experiences, income, power of workers in different jobs and locations. The biggest divide is between North and South, but within each of those spheres there’s a multiplicity of divisions and fragmentations in workers’ roles and circumstances. To assess this situation it helps to first correct a prevailing, gross misconception about Marx’s theory of revolution.
Mainstream political science when I went to college, and probably still today, dismissed Marx’s theory of revolution in about one paragraph. The refutation went that it was based on his prediction of the immiseration of the proletariat: capitalism’s drive to lower wages, the way advanced machinery eliminated jobs, and the periodic economic crises would all push the conditions of the workers down to bare subsistence or below. That, supposedly, was the situation that would lead the proletariat to rise up. But clearly, the professors would intone, the workers have never been better off. Maybe that has to be modified now with stagnating real wages since 1980, but most people with jobs in the U.S. are not being pushed below subsistence level, and many sectors are still living fairly well.
The standard truisms are radically untrue in two basic ways.
- Capitalism is a global economy, which undermines the very survival of the vast majority of workers, who reside in the Global South (along with many in the Global North)—whether small farmers and agricultural workers, laborers in mines and factories, or the hundreds of millions in the informal sector eking out existences in sweatshops or scavenging in garbage dumps. Jamil Jonna and John Bellamy Foster estimate the global reserve army of labor as 2.3 billion people.[i] Some 4.3 billion, 60% of the world’s population, live on less than $5 a day, 1.2 billion of whom are living on less than $1.25 a day. For these billions of human beings life is precarious indeed.
- Marx’s theory of revolution was never based simply on immiseration. If oppression were enough, it would have been the peasants who overthrew feudalism. They did have many heroic rebellions, but back then it was the bourgeoisie who led the revolution that created the new society. The reason was that new forces of production had been emerging involving dynamic trade routes and a proliferating number of commodities made in workshops. Feudalism, with power and control residing in landed estates, became a barrier to this growing trade and “manufacture” (initially meaning produced by hand). The bourgeoisie was the revolutionary class because they could reorganize society in a way that unchained this emerging commodity- and trade-based mode.
As capitalism matured, it in turn created increasingly social forces of production. Large numbers of people were brought together to work in giant factories. Since a varied number of processes had to be coordinated, communication and transportation systems were created that closely connected people across nations and continents. For Marx, the central contradiction of capitalism was between this increasingly social production and the prevailing private appropriation, the control of it all by a small minority for their own profit. As this tension grew, it got expressed in society in a range of ways—economic crises, wars, labor struggles, political upheavals. The workers who produced the wealth found themselves in increasingly precarious circumstances.
The proletariat was the revolutionary class because they were the social class; they were the ones who could reorganize society on the social basis needed to overcome the mounting crises and move forward. Even though they had to compete against each other for jobs, they were the ones brought together, in large numbers and with increasingly complicated interaction, to work together. In addition, as they faced harsh conditions, they learned to join together in collective action to form unions, carry out strikes, become politically active. In one way this emergence was qualitatively different from all past transformations: for the first time in history the revolutionary class consisted of the vast majority and the most exploited. They embodied the potential for reorganizing society on an egalitarian basis that would eventually abolish class divisions altogether.
Socialization vs. Fragmentation
Today, socialization of production has proceeded to an almost unimaginable degree. When you buy an iPhone, the coltan ore was mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; over a hundred different components were made in countries such as South Korea, Singapore and Japan; the parts were assembled in China; the apps were written in Silicon Valley; the advertising campaign designed on Madison Avenue; the financing arranged on Wall Street; and the call-in service centers set up in Mumbai. (One of many ways this arrangement is very anti-social is the environmental costs of all the global transports involved.)
But the same example shows how capitalism has moved in the exactly opposite direction of putting workers of all nations and backgrounds into a common situation. We now have unprecedented fragmentation with a mind-numbing variety of different roles, pay levels, statuses, circumstances. Patriarchy and white supremacy provide major structural differences, but that’s not all. Each of those blocks of this prison has a number of different floors and cells within it—giving us a multiplicity of divisions and subdivisions. We’ve noted that rulers assiduously cultivate tribal, ethnic and religious antagonism. In addition, even within the working class of a given nation, there are major differences in role, pay and status ranging from high tech honchos to home health aides. In some ways the high rates of exploitation of people of color and women throughout the world support the pay and status of large swaths of workers in parasitic sectors in the centers—like advertising, finance, the military industrial complex, the criminal justice apparatus—engendering their backward sense of superiority and thereby their loyalty to the system
In the U.S., a clear political recognition of the multiple ways people are oppressed and how they intersect emerged out of the women of color movement in the late 1970s. Some critics felt that such an articulation was divisive and ran counter to the universality of all people, or at least of the vast majority who were working class. (Of course most of these women of color were working class.) Certainly what’s now called “identity politics” can be divisive if and when it shifts the focus from fighting the system as a whole to simply having comfortable cultural enclaves and when it’s centered in distinctions from other oppressed sectors. At the same time, it’s healthy and necessary for those who are oppressed to be the ones who articulate their issues and aspirations and how those different oppressions intersect in various people in a range of ways. The white and male dominated unions and political organizations were not universalist. Real unity, real universalism must be built from the bottom up. Raising those concerns isn’t divisive; what’s divisive, and perniciously so, is racism, sexism, elitism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism.
Activists with this perspective have articulated that our fight is against capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy—which is a good way to capture those pernicious structures that reinforce each other. But we need to be explicit that our framework isn’t simply within the U.S.; we are fighting a global system of imperialism, which ruthlessly exploits 3/4 of humankind, while also recklessly destroying the environment.
Toward a Humane and Sustainable Future
Our situation today entails the most colossal contradiction between social production and private appropriation. We have the integration, involving almost instantaneous means of global communication, of the efforts of hundreds of millions of workers controlled by the mega-rich few who push the majority to mere subsistence or below and who wreak havoc on the earth as a habitat for humanity and countless other species. The macabre irrationality of the system is expressed in inexcusable waste alongside massive deprivation, incessant wars, periodic economic crises, the breakdown of earlier generations’ sense of community and comity, and more. Never have we had a greater ability to meet human needs; never have so many suffered.
The challenge for revolutionaries is to build unity on a principled and lasting basis. That hasn’t been achieved by denying differences. The long march to human liberation must smash through each of the many walls of oppression. Nor can we rely on economic depressions to do the job for us. History has shown that the imperial rulers can take white working class frustrations from economic stress and redirect the anger by means of fascist scapegoating of the racial “other.”
The current situation is dangerous and daunting, but not cause for despair. If we don’t fight, we’re doomed. If we do fight, we have a chance, especially given all the unpredictable twists and turns of history. As ferocious as imperialism may be, it’s also unstable and volatile. The great, if far from fully tapped, power on our side is that the vast majority have a fundamental and increasingly urgent interest in revolutionary change. I’m certainly not able to outline a grand strategy, but I want to mention a couple of key elements, some initial wisps that are potential precursors toward forming the mighty, cleansing wind we need.
Overall I don’t think we’re still in the era of national liberation. The challenges of moving out of underdevelopment may be too much for small and/or poor countries given imperial attacks and the inequities of the world market. One counter-strategy would be to build regional blocs—say much of Africa or of Latin America—to be big enough to largely replace investments and trade from the North. Given the range of political regimes and interests involved, forming such a bloc is extremely difficult. And imperialism has targeted any government that leads in that direction, regardless of whether it is authoritarian (e.g., Qaddafi in Libya) or democratic (e.g., Chavez in Venezuela).
I still believe, emphatically, that the front line of struggle is between imperialism and the peoples of the South. That’s where the horror of contemporary capitalism is most glaring, where the consciousness has been highest, where the confrontations have been the most intense. Although we don’t hear much about them in the corporate media, thousands of promising indigenous, women’s, environmental, food sovereignty, and workers’ (very much including China) struggles are in motion around the world.[ii] A few examples include women’s cooperatives reclaiming land for local food needs in the Rishi Valley in southern India; the Mangrove Association fighting to protect the environment in Lower Lempa, El Salvador; the democratic and women-empowering Rojava Revolution in northern Syria; the Unist’ot’en indigenous encampment resisting Canada’s tar sands and fracking projects; community efforts to develop food sovereignty in Kenya; and the Via Campesina union of peasants and small farmers from 73 countries. I don’t know how this myriad of little rivulets might come together to form a mighty stream, but they are beginning to irrigate the soil for revolutionary shoots to grow.
Within the U.S. in this period, Black Lives Matter is especially needed and exciting. We also have a range of other promising efforts on the environment, the criminal justice system, LGBTQ equality and more. We’re still grappling with how to form a vision that brings together these disparate efforts as well as with how to build organizations that are both democratic and effective, even when under intense pressure.
The two needed elements I’ll mention are that all forms of oppression have to be challenged and that internationalism is a necessary cutting edge. Whatever we can do to blunt the attacks emanating from our country can make a big difference for embattled movements in the Global South. Far from solidarity being us deigning to help them, it’s their struggles that are cutting out a path toward a more humane and sustainable world for all of us. The mounting catastrophe of climate change—mainly caused by profligacy in the North but most lethal in the South—is an issue that can unite all the oppressed against this clear and present danger.
Many of the examples of Marxist-Leninist formations make it tempting to echo Marx in saying, “I’m not a Marxist.”[iii] I’m not if Marxism is understood as a pat dogma, as small sects vying to claim leadership of the movement and carrying out political debates by citing opposing quotes from old texts, and especially when it’s used as a “revolutionary” rationale for continuing white and male domination. At the same time, I would encourage today’s activists not to lose a treasure trove in both method and many specifics of analysis by dismissing Marxism out of hand. Of course there are still many unresolved issues. One in particular that has divided anarchists and Marxists is form of organization. I didn’t address that above because I don’t have much that’s helpful to say, except that so far both models seem inadequate to me.
The question looming over us is how to overcome the multiplicity of stratifications, fragmentations, and antagonisms that divide the vast majority of humankind who are oppressed and exploited. This challenge requires engaged, thoughtful practice and creative thinking by all of us. Regardless of whether one is steeped in Marxism, the reality is that we face the gargantuan earthquake fault of the contradiction between social production and private appropriation. The global forces that are now in play are of such magnitude that the continued control by a few whose main goal is profit constitutes an existential threat for humanity. The challenge is to overcome the divisions. To do so in solidarity with the Global South is crucial, to make a difference in their prospects and at the same time for us to be able to advance at home.
Given how world capitalism is hurtling toward ecological crises, we can join Marx’s, “There’s a world to win” with “There’s a world to save!”
About the author: David Gilbert has been an activist since the early 1960s and a New York State political prisoner since 1981. David would love to hear your feedback. Feel free to write to him at:
David Gilbert 83-A-6158
Wende Correctional Facility
3040 Wende Road
Alden, New York 14004-1187
The photo of David is by Breno Altman.
With big thank yous to Dan Berger, Terry Bisson, Kathy Boudin, Chris Dixon, Sara Falconer, Laura Foner, Naomi Jaffe, Karl Kersplebedeb, Vicki Legion, Elana Levy, Rob McBride, Molly McClure, Hilary Moore, Alexis Shotwell, and Victor Wallis.
[i] “Marx’s Theory of Working-Class Precariousness: Its Relevance Today,” Monthly Review, April 2016. They provide a much fuller and more nuanced discussion than mine above of the concept and how it plays out in the global economy.
[ii] A number of such struggles are briefly described in the 2016 Certain Days: Freedom for Political Prisoners calendar.
[iii] As reported by Engels, Marx said this when in the midst of a frustrating political struggle with some sectarian French Marxists.