What is Marxism for?
Presented on a panel discussion with Benjamin Studebaker, Donald Parkinson and James Heartfield at the 2022 Platypus Affiliated Society International Convention in Chicago on April 2, 2022 at Northwestern University.
Marxism is borne of critique. Critique is not mere criticism, not fault-finding or debunking or falsifying of things, but exploring conditions of possibility for change, and not merely accidental, random or otherwise “objective” change, as in entropic processes, but conditions for transforming things as subjective agents of freedom, the realization of potential in what exists beyond itself. Furthermore, critique is not opposition, not treating things as if from the outside, but finding potential from within things of which we are inextricably parts and participants. The aim of critique is to recognize the possibilities for being subjects rather than objects of change: not change as something that happens to us, but change for which we can claim responsibility as the product of our own action.
There was a socialist or communist movement before Marxism, originating in the early 19th century. Marxism was borne of the critique of an existing socialist and communist movement. Marxism sought to clarify the aims of a movement already under way, by critiquing it, finding its conditions of possibility in its symptomatic expressions, diagnosing its prognosis aoa Shim Kung.
Socialism was not possible before capitalism. Nor was it necessary, nor even desirable. Marxism hence held a dialectical relationship between capitalism and socialism. For Marxism, capitalism is nothing but the possibility and necessity of socialism. Capitalism was for Marxism the crisis borne of the contradiction of bourgeois social relations by the industrial forces of production that were the product of the historical progress of bourgeois social relations. In this way, Marxism found the industrial forces of production pointing beyond the bourgeois social relations to be the expression of the self-contradiction of those social relations. What were these “bourgeois social relations,” according to Marxism? They were the social relations of labor: the exchange of labor as a commodity as the basis for society, emerging in and through and as the product of the dissolution of the preceding caste community of traditional civilization. Bourgeois society was the liberation of production through the emancipation of labor.
The bourgeois revolution regarded itself as the revolt of labor: the revolt of the Third Estate against the illegitimate authority of the religious and noble-aristocratic orders, the First and Second Estates. The Third Estate comprised all those who worked, as opposed to those who prayed and those who fought. Bourgeois right was the right of labor against the right of might, the right of conquest, upon which the preceding social and political order had been based, and which religious authority regarded as the Divine Right of God’s (or the gods’) will, in which “might makes right.” This was the rule of society for thousands of years — perhaps of nature for eons Download The Empire of Sensibility. Bourgeois society is one in which there are “no gods and no masters,” no traditionally sanctioned patriarchs and no slaves, but only human social rights: it was the rule of freedom over nature. Marxism regarded the struggle for socialism or communism to proceed from this already accomplished bourgeois emancipation. If there was still illegitimate power — not right based on labor and its exchange-relations in freedom — Marxism regarded this not as a holdover from the ancient past but a new modern problem due to capitalism. In this respect, Marxism regarded capitalism as the regression of bourgeois society — the regression from bourgeois freedom: “wage-slavery.” It was the regression from a history of freedom to pre-history, a reversion to nature.
Marxism regarded the emerging self-contradiction of bourgeois social relations in capitalism to point beyond the emancipation of labor from traditional civilization, which was found to be necessary but insufficient for full freedom. Alongside the subjective phenomenon of the socialist or communist movement for working class freedom emerging after the Industrial Revolution, there was a new objective phenomenon of a proletarianized working class, workers expropriated of the social property of their labor as self-possessing owners of commodities, their labor-power and its products as contributions to social cooperation, participating as bourgeois citizens in society through their labor. The “proletariat” refers to citizens without property in the Ancient Roman Republic: tribal Romans who were entitled to rights as citizens despite not owning property — which meant not possessing the land of Rome’s conquests Download the Play game. (Tribal Romans were a ruling class in the sense of an aristocratic warrior caste of conquerors ruling over subjugated peoples and territories.)
But in bourgeois society, property is not a physical possession claimed through conquest, but a social right recognized through the social relations of labor in free association and cooperation. Hence, a proletarianized working class in bourgeois society is a contradiction in terms, a phenomenon of the self-contradiction of society. For Marxism, it is the Industrial Revolution that divides the bourgeois Third Estate of labor and its social relations into antagonistic interests of capitalists and workers: owners of capital as the means of social production and owners of labor-power as a commodity that is increasingly stripped of its material contribution to social cooperation. This division was an expression of the self-contradiction of freedom in social production: the self-production of society and its free self-transformation.
This is why Marxism regards capitalism as a self-contradiction and crisis of production — and not a matter of unequal distribution and inequitable consumption. It is a crisis of society and its freedom. It is a real crisis of the basis or substance of society, in which workers as citizens lose their social rights, not intentionally or deliberately, but as a result of a seemingly “objective” process of the development of social production. It is not the result of ruthless exploitation or theft — which bourgeois society condemns as not only illegitimate but criminal — by others, but Marxism thought was the result of the actions of the workers themselves, and was their responsibility centos openssl. Workers’ demands for the social value of their labor as participants in bourgeois cooperation — the cooperation of citizens in bourgeois society — is an engine driving the improvement of production, to realize and maximize the value of labor in the production of wealth, but undermines the social measure of wealth according to the time of labor, as industrial production — science and technology — outstrips the measure of human labor-time as the basis for the value of wealth in society. The unintended consequence of this is the devaluation of labor even while social wealth increases.
This is a complex phenomenon that is expressed at both a micro and macro level. It manifests as a phenomenon of the reproduction of the human species in the historical succession of generations, in which a surplus of workers is experienced as over-population — the crisis of the overproduction of both material wealth and of the human species itself. But Marxism regarded it not as surplus humanity but surplus labor and surplus capital, the waste of social production and of human life, pressing for a resolution. It was a contradiction of wealth and value, or of wealth and the means of appropriation of that wealth by society in its social relations of labor. The struggle for the appropriation of social wealth and its potentialities beyond itself between capital and labor is not a struggle for possession between groups but a self-contradiction of wealth and its social value in capitalism.
Thus Marxism regarded communism as the “real movement of history” in capitalism, namely the real potential possibility of industrial production pointing beyond bourgeois society and its relations of labor y Tragedy. But this real movement of history is contradictory. It is not only linear but also cyclical: it points backwards as well as forwards, as society struggles to restore the social value of labor even while the industrial condition of material production leaves it behind. The result of this contradictory movement of society in history is not only to divide the bourgeois Third Estate between workers and capitalists, but also and more importantly to divide the proletarianized working class between high-wage and low-wage sectors as well as between employed and unemployed, etc. in a disparity and hierarchy of exploitation and wealth and participation in social production within the working class, which takes place not only within local communities but between localities in global production; and not only in space but in time, for instance between generations, in which older workers might benefit from capitalism at the expense of younger workers or younger workers benefit at the expense of older ones.
In short, it creates competition between workers — competition within the working class — as a new dynamic of historical movement, fundamentally affecting the concrete forms of social production in capitalism, especially as the conditions for production are struggled over, economically, socially and politically. But this competition not only promotes innovation or improvement of production as in the original bourgeois vision, but actually undermines and destroys the basis of social production, and is less than even a zero-sum game, by devaluing both labor and capital, throwing human beings and concrete forms of production prematurely on the scrapheap of history before their full potentials are even begun to be realized.
In Marx’s own time, it appeared that the widening contradiction between bourgeois right — bourgeois social relations — and industrial production in society led directly to social and political crisis and antagonism — a political struggle — that demanded resolution. As Marx put it, the capitalists and workers both had bourgeois right — the right of the social value of labor in production, whether in the form of wages or capital — on their side, and that hence, “where right meets right, force will decide,” namely politics (not violence!). Hence, capitalism was a condition of “insoluble contradiction” and the “class struggle” was inevitable. This class struggle, however, was understood originally by Marxism to be not merely the antagonism of different social groups — capitalists and workers — but the struggle for the proletarianized working class to constitute itself as a social and political force and thus as a class: the proletariat vs. the bourgeoisie. But since the working class not only suffers but benefits from capitalism — depending on wage-labor to survive and indeed to thrive — the class contradiction of the proletariat vs. the bourgeoisie is not the same as the antagonism of the capitalists and the workers — which itself is not identical to the contradiction of capital and labor.
The workers’ labor is capital — it is for instance, circulating capital vs. fixed capital and variable vs. constant capital, according to Marx — and so the social antagonism of capital and labor is always also an antagonism within labor as well as an antagonism within capital. It was not enough for Marxism that the social disintegration of production in capitalism manifest as antagonism, for instance the Darwinian struggle for existence among capitalist firms or among many capitals — for example, between “national” capitals — but also such a struggle among workers — including among “national working classes [sic]” or national sectors of the global working class.
What Marxism regarded as necessary was the self-constitution of the working class as a class in-itself objectively, through constituting itself as a class for-itself subjectively. For example, Marxism recognized that, for the value of labor as a commodity to be constituted in industrial (as opposed to artisanal) production at all requires collective bargaining; without collective bargaining, for instance through trade unions, labor is not even a commodity, not even a unit of social exchange, and there is no bourgeois social relation or bourgeois right of labor to be found at all — this is why liberal democratic bourgeois thought found labor union collective-bargaining to be necessary to not only preserve but constitute bourgeois social rights in capitalism.
But the workers’ struggle to constitute their social right in capitalism was for Marxism the constitution of the contradiction of capitalism: the contradiction of industrial forces by bourgeois social relations. Society itself seemed to face the crisis — choice — between supporting human labor in the working class and supporting scientific technique and technology in production. It is society as a whole that faces the choice and contradiction of capital vs. labor. This includes the working class in its collective bargaining as a social subject in capitalism — whether this takes place economically through trade union negotiation in private employment contracts, or as the public subject of citizenry in political democracy adjudicating law and policy.
For Marxism, the limits — the self-contradiction — that the proletarianized working class came up against in capitalism had already been faced in bourgeois society and liberal democracy, in both civil society and political democracy in the early 19th century, and the struggle for socialism or communism had emerged as a consequence of such limits being reached and contradictions made manifest as an inevitable impasse in history. But this contradiction and limit had manifested and reached an impasse in the socialist or communist movement itself, producing divisions and antagonisms in both theory and practice among the socialists who predated and lived into and as contemporaries of Marx’s own time.
Not only that, but the self-contradictory character of socialism had already been recognized in bourgeois economic, social and political thought and among bourgeois politicians — sometimes more acutely than among the socialists themselves. Not only Marxists and socialists, but bourgeois thinkers and political actors found the real movement of history to lead inevitably to socialism. Conservative bourgeois and reactionary observers in the 19th century bemoaned it, but nonetheless recognized the inexorable tide of history moving against them towards socialism. So the problem was one to be faced and overcome by the would-be reformers and “revolutionaries” of capitalism themselves, whether from among the workers or the capitalists. For Marxism, the class struggle was one over the direction of society within and beyond capitalism.
Marxism began by taking up and critiquing the crisis and confusion of contemporary reformers and revolutionaries as a matter of their self-contradictory social and political aspirations and visions — how these were not observations from outside but perspectives from within capitalism itself, from within its self-contradiction and crisis pointing not only to potential possibilities beyond itself but to its seemingly inevitable end.
The purpose of Marxism in its original historical moment was to serve as a critical faculty in the progress of the proletarianized working class’s struggle for socialism. It was to arm socialists with an awareness of the reasons for the historical crises besetting their own movement, and precisely in its success and forward motion. — But not only that success and forward motion but the movement itself ended long ago.
Today, by contrast, after the rise and fall of historical Marxism over a century ago, and due to its failure, capitalism no longer appears to have an inevitable end expressed by the possibility and necessity of socialism, but rather “socialism” seems to be a mere desire, a utopian vision divorced from practical reality, whether economic, political or social — for instance, an aspiration that, as the DSA’s Jacobin magazine founder and editor Bhaskar Sunkara put it recently, is “at its core moral and ethical in nature,” but which drives not inevitably towards its revolutionary realization but rather motivates capitalist reforms to render distribution more “equitable,” and this is primarily on a national-state and not international let alone global level. It necessarily and not accidentally avoids the contradiction of capital.
The problem of capitalism is today no longer faced let alone grasped as Marxism once did, as a self-contradiction of the workers’ struggles leading to the necessity of socialism as a historic task, but is just a matter of unbearably excessive social pathologies demanding capitalist political measures to try to deal with mounting discontents: Sunkara’s Jacobin/DSA is formulating solutions for capitalism to continue.
The current crisis of neoliberalism is not a terminal crisis of capitalism — not even one that could be made so politically — but merely an opportunity for the reconstitution of capitalism, and not through the self-constitution of the working class as an economic, social and political subject of history, but just as an electoral constituency of liberal democracy — and not even a subject of liberal democracy but an object of state policy.
Jacobin agonizes over its role as would-be professional managers of the working class; really, they are not even that but just self-deluded ideologues opining their craft of spin for the latest capitalist messaging — and not even policy. More or less unemployed Millennial and Zoomer workers watch YouTube videos as neurasthenics between anxious applications for their next gigs, seeking to explain the “reasons” for their endless misery. — Hopefully they will quickly forget them for the niche click-bait ephemera that they are, in favor of more mainstream and hence more socially rational pursuits.
This is why the existential crisis of humanity and society shows up today not in the battle of politics and democracy in a proletarianized society and its working class but rather in culture and psychology, about which Marxism has nothing to say beyond how these are already expressed by humanistic bourgeois culture in crisis, including its most radical anthropological questioning such as speculations on the “trans-“ or “post-human” condition of society in capitalism. It is not raised to the level of collective politics in public life — not even as technocratic management, which is just reified and ossified mechanized humanism — but devolves upon isolated individuals in private misery.
Supposed “Marxism” today is not the critical self-clarification it once was of a historic revolutionary or even reform movement for socialism, but is just an obscure justification for choosing among policies for managing a crisis that is no longer regarded as an insoluble contradiction and historical impasse, but has become naturalized as a permanent condition of society and of humanity, purported “human nature” itself — including the degraded condition of what passes for “politics” as the gang-warfare — telling you which “side” to be on — among the ruins and desperate new upshoots of chaotic permutation in the long disintegration of decaying bourgeois society in capitalism.
Marxism today has no purpose — there is no purpose to Marxism — but serves only as a reminder that there once was a purpose, a purpose to capitalism, in socialism. Without an existing struggle for socialism, Marxism has no purpose. Without the purpose of socialism, there is no Marxism. | P