Despite my unapologetic Marxism, I never have considered myself a sectarian. But last year when asked by a member of a small progressive group (is there any other kind?) at George Washington University, why since on some issues in terms of tactics at least, me and several YDS campus activists at GWU (we constituted ourselves as the “Democratic Left”), seemed to be to the right of our liberal and anarchist comrades, did we still bothered to cling to the socialist label and engage directly with Marx? Wouldn’t our goals be better served through a total fusion of the different progressive groups instead of mere popular-fronts on what seemed like every single, particular issue? I replied that we saw the importance of trying to build the embryo of a presence for DSA and YDS in the Washington D.C. area. I didn’t mention that the predominantly undergraduate, new Democratic Left would probably never come close to achieving this feat if it liquidated itself, while it was still growing independently.
We made it a point to reach out to the unpoliticized and mainstream Democrats, so we were able to make more inroads with Obama supporters than liberals who supported Nader or the Greens, but didn’t have any ideological misgivings about the limits of bourgeois democracy. I would also add that we have less of a penchant for alienating people by seeing brick throwing and veganism as the highest stage of revolutionary consciousness than certain (not all) American anarchists. I have a fun time organizing and socializing with like-minded people, but I try to engage in more than a lifestyle or the politics of “personal liberation.”
One tendency I noticed in my dealings with both these groups of activists is the tendency to see their activism in the terms of a biblical battle between the forces of justice and those of malevolence. I’ve always had no problem playing along with this narrative, though it always struck me, just like a lot of things on the psuedo-left, as intellectually wanting.
To preface I began my forays into Marxism by reading Animal Farm and the first 100 pages or so of a biography of Leon Trotsky before high school. The Spanish Civil War, the Russian Revolution and the figures of George Orwell and Leon Trotsky were where my very unlikely 21st century introduction to politics began, though I will admit that the vast majority of the material went completely over my head. In high school I discovered Howard Zinn and Richard Wright, more ordinary introductions to leftism, though at the time I probably wouldn’t have described myself as anything but a liberal with radical sympathies. Born to immigrants from the post-colonial world, who moved to the United States just months before my birth, my household was paradoxically always a bastion of support for not only Clinton, but for the Castro regime.
When I finally discovered Karl Marx it was through his early “humanist” writings, in particular the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, though the humanist streak of early Marx can certainly be seen throughout theCommunist Manifesto and Das Kapital. The Manuscripts went unpublished during Marx’s lifetime until it was released in 1932 by researchers in the Soviet Union. It is in this document where the concept of alienation is elucidated. How important the manuscripts are and whether or not there was an “epistemological break” between the young Marx and the mature Marx, as Louis Althusser put it, have been points of contention between generations of Marxists, an overview of which is beyond both my modest capacities as a writer and my fleeting attention span as a student.
It was through the Marxist-Humanist tradition of Marshall Berman (Adventures in Marxism) and the Praxis School (a group of Marxists who advocated for change in Tito’s Yugoslavia) that I got my real start in Marxism. There is something about the writing style of early Marx, the Hegelian flourishes, that appealed to me. Moreover examining Marx as a theorist of the human condition first and foremost allowed me to table my own questions about the record of state-socialist police states. It was not until I later more fully examined Marx that I reached the revelation that is now obvious to me, that Marx was a democratic socialist and more of a theorist of capitalism and modernity than a writer of blueprints for future revolutions.
Concurrent with my examination of Marxist-Humanist thought I also attempted to dive into “neo-Marxist” theorists like Antonio Negri. Needless to say… well, needless to say. Luckily around the same time I started reading another Antonio (Gramsci), Rosa Luxemburg and most importantly Karl Marx through more of an “orthodox lens.” Reading Capital was a bit of a chore and certainly there are some concepts in there that you don’t have to read directly through Marx. I probably would’ve been just as well-off reading the basics of the use-value, exchange-value concepts from Wikipedia than from the horse’s mouth. It’s no wonder that Marx’s magnum opus easily passed the censors allowing its publication in 1867 Germany. Yet a comprehensive reading of Capital really reshaped my understanding of capitalist society and social change.
Reading chapter ten of Capital, the one on the working day, was particularly important to this understanding. In order for capitalism to function workers must have a property right in their capacity to perform labor (unlike the slave) and they must be separated from ownership of the means of production. They are thus compelled to sell their property right (labor-power) to the owners of the means of production, rent the means of production from the owners, or starve. (I would argue that workers’ renting the means of production from the state and running it in a democratic workplace even within a market economy, would constitute a post-capitalist society, but I’ll leave that for some other time.)
In short, the capitalist is renting the worker for the course of production and is thus entitled to maximize the “rate of exploitation,” the only line they won’t cross is infringing on the ability of labor to reproduce itself. If the worker feels she is overworked or the conditions are dangerous, she is free to seek employment elsewhere (labor flexibility and mobility are natural in capitalism). Ostensibly it appears that the cards are in the hands of the capitalist class. It seems like the bourgeoisie can decide whether their factories are safe or not, whether they employ children, give their workers a decent wage, etc. Lots of liberal activism still works from this assumption.: vilifying Wal-Mart and other corporations for not providing employee health care, attempting to force private corporations to “do the right thing” and serve the public good.
These ideas are utopian, because they ignore the fact that while it appears that the working conditions of proletarians are held captive to the caprice of capitalists, the capitalists themselves are imprisoned to market forces. Marx illustrates this point when he discusses the directors of the “Cyclops Steel and Iron Works” arguing with the factory commission that twelve-year old boys should be forced to work throughout the night. Responding to objections, the owner replies:
“But then there would be the loss from so much expensive machinery, lying idle half the time, and to get through the amount of work which we are able to do on the present system, we should have to double our premises and plant, which would double the outlay.”
Yes it may sound like the owner is a giant douche unable to see that his relentless pursuit of surplus value is ruining the lives of the young labor he is employing, but what is his alternative? Be altruistic, rebel against his interest to maximize the rate of exploitation and be undercut and driven out of business by less amiable competition? Leave both himself and his employees destitute?
Yet market forces can be managed and tamed to varying degrees by social solidarity. Workers individually have limited power, but collectively they can bargain with the capitalist class. Not to get dialectical, but it’s a matter of force. Two contrasting interests stand at opposite poles; the interest of the capitalist to make the workday longer, wages lower and the pace of work quicker and the interest of workers to shorten the workday, increase wages and slow down the pace of work. Neither is right or wrong. Short of a revolutionary rupture with the capitalist system, or the use of coercive state machinery to suppress worker organizations, the end result will lie somewhere in between these two poles. Of course activism at union locals and individual factories doesn’t change the fact that the market will continue to favor those capitalists that manage to keep labor in check, either through the reserve labor army of the unemployed, physical force or ideological co-option.
Thus the real triumphs of the developed world’s labor movement, for instance, came when workers were able to organize themselves politically, when they were able to either directly contend for state power or pressure existing parties enough to force concessions. The limitation of the workday was the major gain that Marx discusses inCapital and it was this kind of non-reformist reform that he was probably alluding to when he claimed that “democracy is the road to socialism.” The biggest triumphs of social democracy occurred in places like Swedenduring the 20th century where an organized labor movement was able to achieve power through a mass social democratic party and cajole a numerically small capitalist class into accepting sweeping transformations that made capital work largely towards social gains. The scale of these transformations happened nationally in the 20th century, but the world has changed since then. With the globalization of capital and the general transformation of the world, the labor movement of the future will have to transform itself from a national movement to an international one, just like throughout the 19th and 20th century it transformed itself from embryonic local and regional movements into national ones. The only way to accomplish this daunting task is through organization, politicization, class struggle and social transformation.
Reading Capital eviscerated liberal, moralist bather from my vocabulary and since I also took to a “stagist” (two-stage theory) reading of the work, it also caused me to frown upon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution (despite my great respect for the man himself). The historical legacy of Leninism and my qualms with the dependency theory of whose locus classicus is Lenin’s theory of imperialism, the irrelevancy of Luxemburgism in a stable liberal democracy, my distaste for identity politics, “third worldism” and anarchistic ultra-leftism, all led me to embrace a democratic socialism rooted firmly in the ruminations of Marx, Kautsky and Harrington.
I find that ignoring the pitfalls of portraying the other side as evil or malevolent makes one a more effective debater, maintains intellectual clarity and historical context, and it also makes it easier to convey radical politics to mainstream workers. The other day I had a discussion with two local union activists and one ununionized worker (who helped manufacture boats for the U.S. Navy) in which I was able to explain the basics of Marxist thought in much the same way as I did above. The conclusion I believe they came to was that through concerted worker organizations, struggle and political involvement the balance of power between the capitalist class and labor could be brought to a point where something closer to social democracy could triumph in America. Not exactly that agitational, I know, but I implore a bleeding heart liberal or someone who thinks American workers are the enemies of more oppressed third world labor to do any better. (And to be clear, I don’t mean to say that socialist politics will inevitably arise out of class struggle or that the goals of trade unionism and socialism are always one and the same).
A more through answer to the question that I was posed by that campus activist would be “I don’t understand how ‘anarcho-liberals’ working to stop sweatshop goods being sold on their campuses don’t put their actions into a broader context or perspective.” They think I’m wasting my time with Marxism, but I think they are wasting their time spouting self-righteous petit-bourgeois moralism and confused anti-imperialist sloganeering without it. And some of the worst offenders relishing identity politics don’t seem to me to be engaging in anything more than a silly construct to allay white guilt. They would be better off taking a few doses of “vulgar” Marxism and preparing to join the transition from a post-political psuedo-left to the Next Left.
I think I could gleam an enamoring enough smile to pull off saying this to someone clad in a Balaclava or wearing a Che t-shirt with a Barack Obama button on it (I’ve seen it); what do you guys think?