Marxism in the 21st Century
Interview conducted in December, 2015
Victor Wallis teaches in the Liberal Arts department at the Berklee College of Music (in Boston) and is the managing editor of Socialism and Democracy. He is the author of articles, book chapters, encyclopedia entries, web-posted columns, and reviews of books and films on a wide range of topics relating to Marxism, ecology, and Left movements. Writings of his have been translated into thirteen languages.
Zhuo Mingliang is a Lecturer in the College of Marxism, Chinese People's Public Security University, Beijing. He received a Ph.D from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 2014.
Do you think Marxism is still relevant to today? Which parts?
Karl’s Marx’s original contribution was to analyze human society on the basis of the historical development of class relations. As long as class differences exist in society, there will be the need to understand them – not only as a matter for scientific investigation, but also with the goal of ending the domination of one class over another (or others).
The need for Marx’s particular approach arose in conjunction with the development of capitalism. In the case of earlier forms of class society, the relations of domination were visible and transparent. What was new under capitalism is that domination -- in particular, the exploitation of labor – was hidden behind contractual and market relations. Bringing to light the structure of domination therefore required the kind of complex analysis that Marx undertook in Capital.
Marx was the first thinker to view capitalist relations (1) as having developed historically, (2) as setting in motion definite global trends, and (3) as creating the conditions under which those relations would ultimately break down. This was in contrast to previous thinkers (notably, Adam Smith) who viewed capitalist relations as the triumphant outcome of a process whereby markets, having been liberated from previous restraints, could routinely – and presumably forever into the future – perform the functions for which they were ideally suited.
Under capitalism, in contrast to previous social orders, the market permeates every sphere of economic calculation – not only trade in goods and services, but also large-scale decisions about the organization of production and the availability of labor power.
Marx’s analysis pertains to the entirety of capital’s sphere of operations. It provides the intellectual framework within which, by definition, capitalism is viewed as a whole, in all its manifestations. For as long as any trace of capitalist relations persists, therefore, “Marxism” will be relevant.
I put the term Marxism in quotation marks here to reflect the fact that the concept is understood in a variety of different ways, in the context of different national experiences. What is more important than any particular version of Marxism, however, is the approach to social reality – and to political action – arrived at and formulated by Marx himself.
In terms of “relevance for today,” those who have proclaimed that Marxism is “dead” have based their argument on the collapse – or reversion to capitalist practice – of particular regimes whose leaders purported to be implementing Marxian principles. What such arguments disregard is that all those regimes – notably, those of the Soviet Union and of the People’s Republic of China – evolved under particular conditions, both internal and external, that reflected the continuing weight (military as well as economic) of private and corporate capital.
Thus, insofar as capitalist relations have been restored in settings where they seemingly had been transcended, we are once again confronted, on a global scale, with conditions similar to those that provoked the anti-capitalist movements in the first place.
But there are several ways in which present-day conditions differ from those that prevailed before 1917, making future transcendence of capitalism at once more difficult and more urgent (globally) than in the earlier period.
What defines the global urgency is now, above all, the environmental crisis – the absolute limits of resource-extraction (including most especially the supply of clean air, clean water, and fertile soil) beyond which human survival is impossible.
The basic insight here is that it is impossible to have infinite growth on a finite planet. Since capitalism is inherently defined by the goals of expansion and accumulation, this means that the rule of capital must necessarily be overcome if the world is to remain livable. We must clearly understand, here, that the “rule of capital” is not a question of whether the decision-making agents are corporations or governments; it has to do, rather, with the basis upon which priorities are defined. If a government, even while calling itself “socialist,” accepts economic goals entailing infinite expansion, then it is acting in accordance with the same dynamic that drives capital.
In terms of Marx’s own relevance, it is important to note, as has been shown in great detail by scholars such as John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett, that Marx himself, especially in his analysis of capitalist agriculture, strongly emphasized the contradictions between capitalist priorities and sound criteria for such matters as soil-conservation and waste-disposal.
The practical requirements for addressing the environmental crisis can be worked out within a framework in which decisions about production are no longer made on the basis of profit-calculations but instead are made on the basis of long-term sustainability. This will mean combating certain capitalist-induced assumptions as to what is desirable (such as universal ownership of private cars) and replacing them with socially evolved plans on how to satisfy legitimate needs in ways that do not deplete the natural resource-base.
This in turn requires a return to Marx’s conceptualization of the alternative to capitalism as consisting in the “society of associated producers.”
On this point, we are brought to a second major way in which the present period differs from pre-1917, namely, in the whole accumulated experience of “20th-century socialism.” This is a topic of vast complexity, but its essence can perhaps be summarized in two observations.
(i) Capital was never completely vanquished by the regimes in question. It continued to exert its influence not only through military, cultural, and market pressures from abroad – reflecting in part the significant material advantages enjoyed by the capitalist/imperialist powers – but also through the continuing influence, within each supposedly socialist country, of sectors imbued with capitalist values, which were only waiting to be able to reassert their dominance.
(ii) Any new attempt at building socialism will have to be grounded, from the outset, in structures that institutionalize massive popular participation in formulating and implementing day-to-day decisions about production, distribution, and consumption. Michael Lebowitz and Rick Wolff have written about this.
Both the environmental crisis and the experience of 20th-century socialism are illuminated by Marxian class analysis. Plunder of the earth’s resources is standard capitalist practice. So also is the political aim of distorting, suppressing or destroying any manifestation of opposition to capitalist rule, whether a nascent revolutionary movement or an established revolutionary regime.
A third major development of the past century must also be mentioned, and that is the extraordinary technological transformations that have taken place. Some have been beneficial (e.g., progress in the treatment of illnesses), some have been clearly harmful (e.g., weapons of mass destruction), and many have provided the illusion of benefit while being in the long run harmful (e.g., blanketing the earth with private automobiles).
Here again, Marxian analysis is important, because Marx was acutely aware that science and technology are not neutral. The choice of where to look for solutions to practical problems is socially determined. Much of the technology developed under capitalism has been devised for such purposes as maximizing capitalist control over the work-process (e.g., through the assembly line) and over nature (e.g., through genetic engineering) and maximizing the numbers of commodities that could be sold. Seemingly benign inventions, as in the field of communications, may have unknown negative health-effects, may have disruptive impacts on human interaction, and may consume inordinate amounts of energy.
The point here is that technology is a double-edged weapon. Marx recognized this, and his approach alerts us to ways in which society could collectively decide which technologies can be used to advantage (or developed further) and which should be rejected.
Referring back directly to your question, I don’t see the point of distinguishing among “parts” of Marxism. What is needed is to continually develop and apply the type of critique pioneered by Marx himself. If anything is to be rejected, it would be certain types of strategic choice made by activists or power-holders that have led to political failures. Whether or not those choices should be blamed on Marxism is, in my view, not a useful debate, because it does not affect the usefulness of Marxian analysis for understanding the broader framework within which all political activity unfolds.
And in terms of political activity, Marx’s direct work, e.g. in his organizing efforts for the First International, again provides some valuable positive examples, encapsulated in his insistence that the revolution of the working class must be achieved by the workers themselves. Whether and to what extent this is possible in any period – with all the historical changes that may occur in the social make-up and geographical placement of the working class – will be for all of us to determine.
You say that the approach to social reality is more important than any particular version of Marxism. Yes, Marxism has different versions – Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese, etc. My second question is about this. As for the Russian version, we all know that the development model of Soviet Communism made a great contribution; what can we learn from its tragic collapse? Also, have you heard about "Sinicization of Marxism"? How do you view the relationship between Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, and Marxism?
I would again underscore the initial point: the great value of Marxism lies in the approach to theory and practice that was developed by Marx himself. Later theorists and activists have necessarily had to build upon Marx’s insights, but when we come to consider the trajectories of particular countries, we must recognize that the original body of Marxist ideas is always used by them in a selective way. Part of such use may be legitimate adaptation, consistent with the criteria and the goals embraced by Marx. But it may also happen, in such a process, that Marx’s approach is fundamentally modified or even violated.
Particular national experiences must be examined in the light of Marxist method. This has several implications. First of all, capitalist relations are global in scope. Therefore, any sizeable project to create an alternative system of relations will inevitably face a repressive response on the part of capitalist regimes. Second, the individuals who comprise the new leadership will inescapably embody, to varying degrees, personal aspirations as well as ways of dealing with people (especially in organizational matters) that reflect prerevolutionary habit. Third, this means – and here I’m reminded of what Marx said in another context – that we can’t necessarily accept a regime’s self-characterization as a description of its true nature.
As for the Soviet contribution to human development, my assessment is a mixed one. On the one hand, Soviet society made great material and cultural advances within a relatively short period of time, and its government to some extent provided a protective shield – including material assistance – to peoples around the world seeking to liberate themselves from imperialism. It also, during the Second World War, bore the decisive military burden – at enormous cost and with little help from its allies – in defeating the Nazi assault and ultimately crushing the Nazi regime.
And yet the Soviet Union had negative impacts as well. You speak of “its tragic collapse”; I would argue that the element of tragedy emerged long before that final moment, as the revolutionary leadership that came to power in 1917 soon proved to be overwhelmed by the enormity of its tasks. Being incapable of mobilizing active/creative popular participation, it resorted to highly repressive methods to retain its hold on power, to industrialize rapidly, and to build its military capacity to repulse an anticipated foreign invasion. Moreover, lacking any support from other governments (prior to the transitory and imbalanced World War II alliance with the US and Britain), it exercised unwarranted power over the strategic decisions of Communist parties all over the world, with generally adverse and sometimes disastrous results.
With regard to Marxism as such, I should note that although it was officially enshrined in Soviet ideology, it was applied in rigid and formulaic ways, for example, positing a crude equivalence between individuals’ social backgrounds and their opinions. Work relations were not transformed in ways envisioned by Marx. And, within the country’s leadership, the kind of open debate that was normal during the early years of the revolution was replaced by a climate of dogmatism and fear. Marx’s own early writings on alienation, which stressed the psychological impact of capitalist production on workers, were not widely diffused.
This whole complex of factors tended to offset whatever material benefits the system had succeeded in achieving for the people. In combination with the external factors that I’ve mentioned, it made large sectors of the population feel that they were not well served by socialism.
Yes, I have heard of the “Sinicization of Marxism”; in fact we published an article about it (by Xu Changfu) in the March 2012 issue of Socialism and Democracy. I hesitate a bit to comment, as an outsider, on what are undoubtedly matters of controversy in China, but I take your question as an encouragement to do so, for which I thank you. I would add that the trajectory of Chinese thinking in these matters has had a global impact, in terms of advancing or inhibiting prospects of revolutionary change in other parts of the world. What happens in China thus affects all of us.
My response to your question will necessarily be schematic, but I hope it will be useful for purposes of discussion.
At the broadest level, I believe that Mao built upon Marxism whereas Deng repudiated Marxism. However, the very fact that Deng’s approach could so quickly gain hegemony after Mao’s death points to the incomplete nature of the transformation that had been carried out under Mao’s leadership.
Although I have never been to China, I was introduced to the Chinese Revolution by writers who conveyed the vast scale of its achievements. I am thinking of Edgar Snow, Felix Greene, Joshua Horn, and, most importantly, William Hinton. From Hinton’s classic work, Fanshen, I gained a vivid sense of the depth of the transformation undergone by the vast majority of the Chinese people. In this same connection, I see Mao’s great contribution as having been to understand and build upon the revolutionary potential of the peasantry.
At the same time, however, there remained an enormous cultural gap between the upper levels of the party leadership and the popular base. On the one hand, the party included elements, personified by Deng, that did not share Mao’s identification with the masses. On the other hand, it proved impossible, even for Mao, to put in place the kind of participatory structures that would have enabled the masses to routinely and systematically guide the formulation of policy. Mao recognized the danger posed by those party-leaders whom he referred to as “capitalist roaders,” and he attempted to dislodge them by means of the Cultural Revolution.
The idea that culture needed to be transformed had a precedent in revolutionary Russia, but Mao carried it further. However, because of the lack of democratic structures, the process was one that consisted essentially of unleashing the fury of the masses and then, when the process had burst too far out of control, suppressing it. In this sense, both the initiation of the Cultural Revolution and its termination were initiatives taken entirely from above, reflecting the continuing absence of effective structural links – mechanisms of accountability – between the leadership and the base.
With the masses once again pacified, with the “capitalist roaders” rehabilitated, and with continuous market-pressure from global capital, there was no longer any obstacle to the revival of capitalist-type economic practices in China and to the eventual consolidation of a class of large-property owners inspired by Deng’s widely propagated slogan, “To get rich is glorious.”
You know the outcome of this reversal much better than I do. I will only mention the manifestations that seem most shocking to me, in the perspective of the revolution’s earlier achievements. These include: (1) integration of the Chinese economy into global financial markets, (2) the proliferation of foreign-owned corporations in China, (3) the extremely harsh working conditions in these enterprises, leading to alarming numbers of worker-suicides, (4) the reintroduction of fees for health services, (5) the consequent rising inequality, and (6) the fostering of a consumer culture including a mass market for private cars.
As you see it, "What is needed is to continually develop and apply the type of critique pioneered by Marx himself." Marx himself criticizes the production relations and class exploitation of capitalism, especially the secret of surplus value, and he views the working class as the "gravedigger" of the capitalist system. So my question is, has the working class in the USA realized its lofty historic mission? What is the influence of Marxism on US workers today? Do they use it as their weapon for self-liberation?
This question needs to be approached first at a general level, and then at a specific national level: first at the level of the capitalist system as a whole, and then at the level of the particular history of the United States.
The role of gravedigger is one that the working class can potentially play. But capitalist power, as Marx already recognized, is global in scope – even though (as he also observed) the primary sites for workers to organize politically are within their respective national territories.
We have already noted how capital, whether through the market or through political intervention, can continue to affect societies where socialist revolutions have taken place, and which are thus beginning to move out of the capitalist system. We should not then be surprised to see that capital can also cause changes, within the regions in which it remains dominant, in the geographical distribution of various occupational sectors.
In Marx’s day, manufacturing industry – which, together with mining, has always generated the highest levels of working-class organization – was concentrated in close proximity to the centers of capitalist power. In two subsequent successive phases of history (partially overlapping, but also manifesting themselves at different times in different countries), the working class’s gravedigger function has been offset by factors that have weakened its capacity to organize politically.
In the first of these phases, when imperialist power was at its peak, the profits accruing to the imperial centers were great enough to make possible certain material concessions to the working class, which in turn made the latter receptive to chauvinistic ideologies, whereby many workers identify more with “the nation” than with their own class interests.
In the second phase, by contrast (especially since the 1980s), the proportion of manufacturing activity that remains in the imperial centers has been greatly reduced, as corporations have moved significant parts of their operations to the formerly colonized regions of the world (in Asia, Africa, and Latin America), where wages are lower and where environmental regulations are less strict.
In some of the former colonized countries, there have indeed been movements that have challenged capitalist power, with varying degrees of success. But such efforts are made difficult by various combinations of (1) severe restrictions on working-class organizing, (2) the instability of employment (sometimes, as in the Persian Gulf states, because the workers are foreigners without citizen rights), and (3) the vulnerability of any initially successful working-class forces – e.g., the elected governments in Chile in the early 1970s and in Venezuela today – to the kinds of disruptive external pressure I mentioned earlier.
At the same time, the increase in manufacturing activity in the neocolonial regions reflects a huge reduction in the number of well-paying working-class jobs in the imperial centers. Although this may lead to discontent in these centers, the affected workers are typically less able – compared either to earlier generations or to workers in poorer countries – to organize on their own behalf. Union membership goes down, contingent or “precarious” jobs become more common, and workers are under pressure to find individual solutions.
We thus find a somewhat contradictory situation in which workers are at once in a worse condition and yet at the same time less prepared to respond to it politically. But this is obviously a situation in which unexpected reversals in a positive political direction can take place. These, however, will depend on some particular mix of experiences or characteristics at the level of the individual, of the workplace or neighborhood, or of the wider culture.
In the case of the United States, the obstacles to class consciousness have on the whole been more severe than in other countries, although there have been moments of intense struggle. The US working class has been particularly weakened by the long history of racial divisions, stemming from the institution of slavery. Marx recognized the importance this factor, as expressed in his celebrated statement (in Capital), “Labor in the white skin can never free itself as long as labor in the black skin is branded.”
That original racial division within the US working class has been repeatedly re-imposed, as steps toward overcoming it have constantly had to face new measures aimed at neutralizing any gains. Thus, although legal segregation was ended in the 1960s, its effects were perpetuated through extra-legal discrimination (in employment and housing), criminalization (via the “war on drugs”), disproportionate prison terms (based on discriminatory sentencing laws), disenfranchisement of former convicts, and other barriers to political participation (including voter-identification laws, gerrymandering, and failing to put sufficient numbers of polling places in densely populated districts).
Who, then, will be the gravediggers of capitalism? All these developments, combined with the environmental crisis and with conditions of perpetual war, have modified the options available for challenging the rule of capital. There is still a common class-basis to the rule of capital and therefore also to any movement opposing capital and seeking a socialist alternative. The basis for such opposition may still be understood as the working class, which (as Michael Zweig has shown) remains a majority of the population in the US, as elsewhere. But given the displacements and the internal divisions I have mentioned, its political expression will have to develop along new paths.
In the first place, the overcoming of capital has become, more than ever, an international project. Although initial challenges will still take place within particular countries, they will not survive without international solidarity. International awareness can draw strength from an understanding of the ecological dangers, which know no borders. (The fossil fuels that are burned in one place affect carbon levels worldwide; the ice-melting that occurs in one zone affects sea levels everywhere.)
International solidarity is challenged by conflicts over immigration. But insofar as immigration points to problems in the countries of origin – whether caused by environmental collapse, by war, or by the economic hardships resulting from “free trade” agreements – it can stimulate, given the necessary political education, an awareness of the need to challenge all those conditions.
Secondly, the social and “racial” divisions within the imperial centers have fostered a heightened consciousness of injustice among the more oppressed groups, for whom the presence of all the other adverse conditions has created a greater receptivity to thinking in terms of common class interests rather than in narrow ethnocentric terms. Sectors of the population that do not suffer from the various special forms of oppression (whether based on “race” or on gender, sexual orientation, or other traits) must be prepared to welcome leadership exercised by individuals coming out of those experiences.
To some extent, capital digs its own grave, by increasingly showing its incapacity to satisfy the basic needs of the majority of the world’s population. But this incapacity has to be recognized if the rule of capital is to be fought. More and more people in the US are gaining such recognition, as shown by their new receptivity to some form of socialist discourse. But now that socialism has been “placed on the table,” its true nature and requirements must be made clearer, with due attention to the experiences that have brought different sectors of the population to their present openness. This is a task for activists who can draw on Marx.
You mentioned "ecological class consciousness" in your article "The Search for a Mass Ecological Constituency" (International Critical Thought, 2013, Vol. 3, No. 4) and "what defines the global urgency is now above all the environmental crisis" in our talk. Can you explain the concept of "ecological class consciousness" more? And how do you think of the relationship between the environmental crisis of capitalism and capitalism's systemic crisis? Is it only one dimension of the latter?
To be ecologically class-conscious means to understand that the struggle over the environment is a class issue. It is a class issue in the sense that capital has an interest in obstructing the measures that would be required in order to preserve or restore the health of the environment. Capital obstructs both the shift to alternative forms of energy and any effort to reduce total demand for energy.
Although some sectors of capital are embracing “clean” forms of energy production (such as solar and wind), it remains true that so long as capital preserves its overall dominance, the drive to exploit fossil fuels will continue. The political will to curb this drive can only come from sectors of society that value our collective survival over preservation of the economic status quo.
The most damning proof of the link between environmental devastation and the interests of capital emerged just a few weeks ago, when it was discovered that Exxon Mobil’s own research team had found, in the 1970s, that burning fossil fuels causes global warming. This was several years before the danger started to be widely discussed. Exxon Mobil (the world’s biggest petroleum corporation) at that time made a policy decision to suppress this revelation; it even became, over the next few decades, one of the leading funders of efforts – very influential in the US – to portray global warming as a “hoax.”
We are talking about all this at the very moment that the environmental summit (“COP 21”) is unfolding in Paris. The US government made clear before the conference that President Obama would not sign any binding agreement to reduce greenhouse gases. The excuse given for this refusal was that any such agreement he might sign would be rejected by the US Congress – a rejection centrally grounded in the “denialist” position pioneered by Exxon Mobil. With the US thus determined to veto a binding accord, any possibility of such an accord was ruled out in advance for the world as a whole.
Given the enormous environmental chaos that has already taken place, as well as the even more extreme disasters that can be projected if there is not a radical change of direction, Exxon Mobil’s suppression of the truth and its campaign of lies can be viewed as a crime against humanity of incalculable proportions.
Although the fossil fuel industry is the most virulent center of anti-environmentalism, all sectors of capital share its general commitment to continued economic expansion, independently of any authentic human need. Other sectors (and the politicians who speak for them) may implement specific green technologies and may acknowledge, in the abstract, the desirability of stronger environmental policies. But there is no political will on the part of capital to support concrete ecological measures on the scale that is needed.
To be ecologically class-conscious means, in practice, to spotlight the distinction between vague pronouncements in support of a healthier environment (which hardly anyone disputes) and serious proposals to reduce the human ecological footprint.
Here is where we confront the need for reducing the total demand for energy. Each of the forms of energy has its drawbacks. Solar and wind power both have limitations in terms of the space they require, the steadiness of the energy-supply, and distances for transmission. Although some of the consequent difficulties may be overcome through technological advances, the notion that such sources offer unlimited energy is illusory.
We therefore have to reconsider the whole “demand side” of the energy equation, and it is precisely here that capital poses the decisive obstacle, because in order to reduce the demand for energy, society must be able determine its production requirements through a political process – a process of informed democratic discussion – and not on the basis of market indicators and the profit motive.
If everyone is to be able to live decently, then what must be reduced are those particular energy allocations which do not serve universal human needs: on the one hand, luxury consumption of the capitalists and their acolytes (for which there is an inexhaustible market), and on the other, the innumerable institutions and practices, whether private or governmental, that reflect the specific needs of capital. These include a vast security apparatus (military, police, the arms industry, prisons, private guards) as well as all kinds of commercial and financial services (banking, insurance, brokerage, lawyers, advertising) as well as the physical infrastructure (buildings, communication facilities, hotels, travel) on which those services depend. Aspects of the regular production cycle that reflect capitalist priorities rather than human need should also be kept in mind. Here the reliance on private mechanized transport – cars and long-distance trucks, with their highways and parking lots – stands out, along with chemical-intensive agriculture.
An ecologically class conscious agenda will be one which is able to target and ultimately break up that whole complex of activities whose sole function is to serve the interests of capital. The impetus to push for such an agenda comes from both the environmental crisis and the crisis of capitalism.
Capitalism has always been marked by cyclical crises of expansion and contraction, but the long-run trend is one of consolidation (into ever larger units) and expansion (into every corner of geographical and human space). But expansion cannot go on forever, and when it reaches its limit, a new and deeper crisis is unleashed.
You ask whether the environmental crisis is a dimension of the capitalist crisis. One can say yes, insofar as the environment sets limits to capitalist expansion. But the environmental crisis is also greater than the capitalist crisis, in the sense that it calls into question not only a specific system of social relations, but also the very existence of the human species. In this sense one would have to make the inverse statement and say that the capitalist crisis – i.e., the drive of capital to push beyond the limits set by its resource-base – is a dimension of the environmental crisis.
In other words, capitalism has set in motion certain global trends that are radically changing the environment, to the point that we may be on the verge of a new geological epoch.
The age of capital is the age of big industry. Addressing the environmental crisis involves calling “actually existing industry” into question. This is a hugely complex task, with no guarantee of success. What is clear, however, is that it cannot be done through the market.
Striving for socialism is the basic task of the world Left, including Marxists and communist parties around the world. Can you please give us a short introduction to the US Left, its brief history and especially its existence, development and influence on US politics since 1968?
The US Left, at present, is a disparate movement. It lacks coherent political leadership. There are many beginnings of such leadership, but no single formation has yet been able to take on that role.
The background to this situation is partly given in the makeup and trajectory of the US working class. I have mentioned the racial abyss that has plagued it from the beginning. While there have recently been new steps toward healing the resulting disunity, they come at a time when, as we have seen, the objective bases for strong working-class organization have been undercut by the combined effects of technological development, “precarization” (sub-contracting of jobs through “temp” agencies), and the shift of significant production centers to other parts of the world.
With these underlying conditions in mind, we can usefully review earlier attempts at forging an effective Left. The first was embodied in the Socialist Party, formed in 1900. This party, with Eugene Debs as its five-time presidential candidate, enjoyed major successes – earning 6% of the presidential vote in 1912 and winning many local elections – until the wave of repression unleashed beginning in 1917, which included the imprisonment of Debs and the deportation of thousands of immigrant activists.
The second major attempt was that of the Communist Party. The CP never had as much electoral success as the SP, but it achieved considerable influence, especially during the Depression years of the 1930s, when it was a big player in the formation of industrial unions. In addition, going beyond the SP and building on the tradition of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), it took major strides toward bridging the racial divide; indeed, its work in the dangerous conditions of the South – defying the vigilante violence of the Ku Klux Klan – helped prepare the ground for the civil rights struggles that would emerge in the 1950s.
The CP’s potential was hobbled, however, by its uncritical adherence to the international line of the Soviet party. This led it, for example, to quash anti-fascist initiatives during the period of the Soviet non-aggression pact with the Nazi regime (1939-41) and then later, during the period of the US-Soviet wartime alliance, to block any working-class economic demands against capital. After 1945, the Soviet link also made the CP vulnerable to the discourse of super-patriotism and thus a transmission-belt for broader denunciations of the Left.
The postwar anticommunist repression – known to later generations as McCarthyism – was perhaps the most sweeping such drive ever conducted within the framework of a constitutional (“democratic”) regime. It stigmatized Marxist analysis in a way that would inflame popular prejudice for decades. It was out of this setting that the New Left of the 1960s emerged – framed first by the struggle against racial segregation and then by opposition to the US war in Vietnam. In the attendant ferment, additional struggles came to the fore, representing other oppressed nationalities and other national revolutionary movements (beginning with Cuba), as well as the vital demands for liberation embodied in the women’s movement and in the movements of gay people, people with disabilities, and those suffering discrimination on the basis of age.
These newly aroused constituencies had a profound impact on the political culture, winning successes around many particular demands, but they did not generate a cohesive political expression. Attempts in that direction were overshadowed by the urgency of immediate demands and, in the case of the student movement, by the contradictory yet complementary impulses toward ultra-democracy (with its suspicion of structures) on the one hand and unaccountable leadership on the other.
The closest approach to a movement on the scale of the SP and CP surges took the form of the Black Panther Party – which, while obviously rooted in a particular community, embraced a class analysis of capitalism and was open to alliance with other working-class constituencies. At its short-lived zenith, the BPP sold some 200,000 copies of its newspaper every week. Launched to defend black people against police killings, it extended its reach with free breakfast programs for schoolchildren, free clinics, and its incipient “Rainbow” (multiracial) approach to organizing.
Denounced by long-time FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover as a grave threat to national security, the BPP was subjected to a more draconian suppression than any of its predecessors, culminating in the FBI’s outright assassination (in a December 1969 nighttime raid) of the young BPP leader Fred Hampton, who, while publicly embracing a Marxist analysis of racism (“an excuse used for capitalism”), had begun to implement the Rainbow approach in Chicago.
Although the movements of the 1960s did not produce an enduring major Left party, they nonetheless had a notable impact – in abolishing legal segregation, in hastening US withdrawal from Vietnam, in transforming the public image of oppressed groups, in creating a new generation of alternative media, and in discrediting the notion that the government represented the interests of the people. All this raised alarm signals in the ruling class, perhaps most clearly expressed in an influential 1975 report for the Trilateral Commission which spoke of an “excess of democracy” as threatening the “governability” of the country.
Key measures were taken, over the next two decades, to weaken popular protest and to undo the gains of earlier generations. Democrats joined Republicans in this process, as the Democratic Leadership Council (founded in 1984), which sponsored future president Bill Clinton and future vice-president Al Gore, denounced “big government” (referring to social programs) and explicitly repudiated the party’s New Deal heritage. Steps taken (by one or other of the two dominant parties) included, among others: (1) firing striking federal employees, (2) reducing public assistance to the poor, (3) instituting the “war on drugs,” thereby establishing heavy police presence in poor communities, and (4) establishing mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug offenders. The latter three measures led to the US having the world’s highest rate of incarceration – concentrated, of course, among people of color. One can add to all this the further steps taken in more recent years, which include (5) extending mass surveillance, (6) using vaguely worded anti-terrorism laws to criminalize peaceful protest, and (7) introducing voter-identification laws (in various states) that would effectively disenfranchise many poor people.
But no matter how far the ruling class goes in obstructing protest, its own conduct and policies continue to generate popular opposition. In response to neoliberal globalization, movements arose to challenge international “free trade agreements.” In response to corporate abuse and to the government’s global War on Terror, with its practices of “extraordinary rendition,” torture, and drone-killings, whistleblowers have leaked information that has significantly increased public awareness. In a slightly delayed response to the financial collapse of 2008, the Occupy movement sharpened the common political vocabulary by focusing on the inordinate power of “the 1%.” In response to the spread of poverty, mass demonstrations of low-wage workers have demanded a living wage. In response to the environmental crisis, activists have induced universities and other institutions to divest from fossil fuel industries. In response to the continuing epidemic of police killings (now often documented on video), “black lives matter” protests have drawn attention to the persistence of structural racism. And in response to mass incarceration and the brutality of prison administrations, a new generation of revolutionary organizers is being forged within the prisons.
The overall political impact of these developments must be viewed as a “work in progress.” The complex electoral system, together with the prodigious flow of cash to both the major parties, makes it difficult for anti-capitalist parties to gain representation in public bodies. Most of the progressive changes that have been won, over the years, have been the result of pressure exerted from outside the formal institutions of government. Organizing is also hampered by the difficulty of sustaining a national movement when for many purposes the arena of demands must be the separate states, which in turn may differ significantly in their laws and in prevalent attitudes.
At the present moment, a rising trend in Left influence is suggested by two conspicuous developments. One is the election and re-election of an openly socialist candidate (Kshama Sawant) to the City Council of Seattle. The other is the unexpected popularity of Democrat presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who as (previously) an Independent inveighed for decades against economic inequality and “the billionaire class.” Although Sanders defines socialism as the New Deal agenda of social reform, and although he does not challenge the imperialist premises of US foreign policy, the mere fact that he embraces socialism as a concept has created a more favorable setting for discussing what it really means.
Meanwhile, other avenues for advancing a Left movement are developing at a less visible level. In addition to political organizing within the prisons, I would note the continuing role of alternative media (including activist websites), the vitality of the cooperative movement, plans for raising systemic issues nationally via university teach-ins, and, finally, the increasingly radical thrust of the Green Party, which, although enjoying little national exposure (being essentially ignored by the corporate media), has broadened its social base and could gain more attention in the event that Sanders would fail to be nominated for president by the Democrats.
What are the main theoretical problems that Marxism needs to solve at present and in the 21st century? Do you have any ideas on how to create a Mass Movement for Ecological Socialism?
The main unsolved problems are suggested in what we have already discussed. I wouldn’t call them purely theoretical, as they are posed by political practice.
Certain theoretical issues unrelated to current practice may still be under discussion, but they pertain primarily to the way Marx understood the dynamics of capitalism. I have not gone deeply into those issues because it seems to me that his basic conclusions about capitalism have already been confirmed – even if not precisely in ways he could have foreseen. The tendency toward ever greater concentration of wealth and power has certainly been demonstrated, globally as well as within particular countries. Of course, there have been counter-tendencies, but capital has so far succeeded in limiting their reach, where it has not crushed them altogether. In other words, the class struggle continues!
The big problem is the same one that existed before 1917, namely, how the “society of associated producers,” i.e., a society not divided by class, will come into being. The fact that capital has kept its hold on power longer than Marx probably expected has made this task of transition more difficult. Compared to Marx’s time, there is much more now that has to be undone – not only some of the technological applications that we’ve discussed, but also the massive damage brought by war, hunger, and environmental devastation. On the other hand, we embark upon the process from a higher level of general awareness and also with due apprehension about some of the political approaches that need to be avoided.
The urgency of a transformation can only increase, although this also magnifies the desperation of the ruling class to tighten its grip on vital resources, by means that include perpetual war.
What more can we say, then, about the “gravediggers of capitalism”? We have looked at the working class and, in the US case, at its racial divisions, and we have noted the class basis for a pro-ecological political force. Beyond this, we need to say more about who will make up that political force, how it will be organized, how it will be able to take power, and how it will be able to rule in a manner consistent with its goals.
Most of the answers to these questions will have to be found within the framework of particular political units, taking into account all their specificities. But there are a few points that seem to apply generally. We build here not only on Marx’s own work, but on that of generations of activists, not all of whom have necessarily thought of themselves as Marxists. Marx’s particular contribution is important not so much for any explicit guidelines he gave as for his method of approaching issues and the example of his own work as an organizer.
The initial point is that the movement has to be, in the words of the Communist Manifesto, “of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority.” This majority has to be, as Marx and Engels say there, “self-conscious,” which means organized. In particular, the various separate movements against oppression – the “new social movements” that arose in the 1960s – need to reach the stage of recognizing their common class interest. They can then have an active role in defining the political mission of the working class, which in turn will thereby be enriched and hence better equipped to constitute an independent political force. Current Left political projects seem to be more aware of this requirement – the need to embrace and embody the demands of the separate oppressed groups – than were their counterparts in earlier generations. From the opposite direction, the separate groups have become more aware of the limits to what they can achieve without being part of a broader movement.
The obstacles to the working class taking power remain daunting, but at the same time there may be new openings. In the face of the manifest failure of capital to address popular needs, the scope for a radical oppositional politics increases. As the old self-congratulatory rhetoric loses credibility, electoral victories of radical left-wing parties become possible. These parties will need to be organized, however, not only to conduct electoral campaigns, but also to educate, mobilize, and defend the population on a continuing basis.
Because of encrusted bureaucratic and military establishments, there remains a big leap from taking elective office to taking full state power. Nonetheless, even transitory occupation of high office may permit the setting in motion of new popular institutions, such as Venezuela’s Communal Councils, which can keep alive the newly developed participatory capacities of previously marginalized populations.
Given the increasingly severe military imbalance between the ruling class (with its armies and police) and the general population, any transfer of state power will depend more and more on an internal crumbling of the ruling class’s enforcement apparatus. I have in mind here the kind of desertions that Marx and Engels foresaw for a sector of the ruling class, and also those which historian Howard Zinn evokes in his chapter-title (in A People’s History of the United States), “The Coming Revolt of the Guards.” We can envisage a tectonic shift of loyalties. In Venezuela in the 1990s, this took the form of mid-level army officers joining forces with progressive civilian movements. In the US today, it is foreshadowed in the emergence of whistleblowers within the military and the intelligence establishments.
All such unforeseeable developments depend on the presence of a broad oppositional culture, which provides encouragement and a promise of support to those who, in betraying state authority, risk ferocious reprisal. This wider popular movement must be nourished by continuous disclosure and analysis of state and corporate malfeasance. Fortified with the resulting insight, the movement will be prepared to safeguard the integrity of whatever new order emerges if and when it is victorious.
But what will be the shape of such a victory? A final issue posed here is the question of leadership. Marx’s notion of “associated producers” implies democratic – and, where possible, consensual – self-government, comparable to what is referred to, in workplace settings, as self-management. The core principle is universal participation – which in any case will be indispensable to the society-wide task of economic/ecological conversion. This is an approach to governing which, as we noted, has been put forward as an alternative to the ultimately unsuccessful experiences of 20th-century socialism.
On the other hand, the political force that will be required in the near term in order to dismantle the capitalist order (including the capitalist state) will inescapably have the aspect of a vanguard. This refers to the concentrated nature of the leadership that is required in order to turn a diffuse and variegated oppositional social movement into an effective political force.
It is widely believed, on the basis of 20th-century history, that there is an inherent antagonism between vanguard and democracy. One can certainly recognize that conflicting tendencies have crystallized around these respective principles. The emphasis on democratic self-management has been associated with anarchist views, according to which the new non-capitalist order must evolve directly, without going through the “detour” of state power. By contrast, the emphasis on vanguard leadership has been associated precisely with the requirements of seizing and running the state.
What I argue is that these two approaches need to be seen as complementary and not necessarily antagonistic. Although there are obvious contrasts in their ways of handling certain practical matters, neither approach taken by itself can be successful. While a vanguard is needed in order to dismantle the existing state, autonomous self-managed associations are needed – as “associated producers” implies – for running the new society. In order to overcome the apparent incompatibility between these two approaches, one has to insist on understanding that a genuine vanguard – as opposed to an elite which merely calls itself a vanguard – is defined by its organic grounding in the masses. This point was actually made by Lenin, although it has often been forgotten by parties claiming to honor his legacy.
The challenge everywhere, then, will be to constitute both a mass movement and a vanguard, with the latter accountable – structurally as well as organically – to the former. This is a distinct project for the 21st century that will take it beyond the achievements of the 20th.