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Black Nationalism and the Struggle for Self Determination

A Statement by Workers Action

The Experience of Race

The scourge of racism pervades our society, even as we step into the 21st century, although not in the blatant form of past decades. Vicious racists now feel somewhat compelled to restrain themselves, although with exceptions, and the more mild versions of racism are not so much publicly articulated as unconsciously expressed.

We have a perverse culture when it comes to race. Whites and Blacks experience their designated racial category in diametrically opposite ways, not because of some intrinsic characteristic inherent within each race, but because each race, in part, is defined by the attitudes of the other.

For example, since whites have not as a rule been victimized by racism, when asked what they think about race, they will often respond that they are not aware of it and, with a touch of moral superiority, are puzzled why Blacks seem almost fixated on it. Of course, no one has forced the white population to become aware of its race. For whites, their own race is experienced more like the color of one’s eyes when looking out at the world; it simply isn’t noticed at all.

Blacks find themselves in a rather different situation. Whites have directed their racism towards Blacks on both conscious, intentional levels and subconscious, unintentional levels. And consequently Blacks experience themselves on almost a daily basis as members of a race. Whether because of the elderly white woman who clutches her purse when passing a Black man on the sidewalk, or a white sales clerk especially watching Black customers to guard against shoplifting, or an employer who hires a white applicant over a more qualified Black applicant, Blacks experience themselves as members of a race.

In a Detroit study conducted in 1999 to measure racism in hiring, a Black and white member of the study were sent out to apply for completely unskilled jobs so that any skill level was entirely irrelevant to the position. The white applicant secured a job after an average of 91 hours while the Black applicant required an average of 167 hours. During those additional 76 hours, Blacks experience themselves as belonging to a race.

Because our neighborhoods are to a large degree segregated, whites and Blacks rarely have the opportunity to discuss their conflicting experiences of race. And the mass media almost never reports what it means to be Black in America today.

Consequently two levels of separation are wedged between whites and Blacks. Because whites are not themselves the victims of racism, they are ignorant of the experience of belonging to a race. They know intellectually that they belong to a race, but it is not something they experience and feel. But Blacks have been forced into this experience as a defining moment of their lives. This is why we sometimes speak of “the Black community” but almost never of “the white community” and why Blacks constitute “a people” while whites do not. Racism has established an indelible bond among Blacks and has set them apart.

But in addition to this level of separation, a second level intrudes which doubles the separation. Whites as a rule have little to no knowledge of the abundant racism directed at Blacks. For whites, the racism is invisible. Consequently white liberals, for example, attribute the failure of Blacks to attain the same economic level as whites to poor schools, lack of proper training, or even to the lack of the will to “succeed” because of the legacy of slavery. All the blame is placed on the past; none of it on the present. White liberals consequently want to “help” Blacks through tutoring programs, job training, etc., but they constantly fail to appreciate the current role of racism as an explanatory factor of inequality. This ignorance of the racism Blacks experience therefore constitutes the second level of separation because Blacks note disapprovingly that whites do not bother to see what for them is blatantly obvious.

The Historical Context

During the late 1950s and through much of the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement made giant strides in dismantling many forms of discrimination. But it did not succeed in eradicating racism root and branch, nor could it. In the final analysis racism is generated and nurtured by the system of capitalism that continually worships greed and profit while trampling on human needs. Racism plays a double role in the service of capitalists. First, it allows Blacks and people of other races to be paid less, which directly translates into higher profits for the capitalists. Second, and perhaps more important to capitalists, by treating workers differently, the bosses create divisions and resentments within the working class and therefore undermine class solidarity, which is indispensable in the struggle for higher wages, etc., not to mention socialist revolution.

Because of its failure to eliminate racism, the Civil Rights movement spawned a more militant version of itself, the Black Power movement and Black nationalism, including Malcolm X, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Black Panther Party, all drawing tremendous support from within the Black community, especially youth, and additionally from some whites. With its explosive impact on the general culture, for example, through such songs as “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” it raised the consciousness of both Blacks and whites. Universities were forced to establish Black Studies Programs on their campuses by students who embraced Black nationalism, and these programs proceeded to change the culture of the universities. Emphasizing Black pride, the movement reversed the liberal analysis that Blacks themselves, due to their special history, were somehow deficient. The movement turned on white liberals and accused them of the more subtle forms of racism that took the form of paternalism and condescension. Embracing the notion that Black liberation could only be achieved by Blacks themselves, not well wishing whites, proponents of Black Power organizationally restructured the movement so that Blacks would no longer be led by whites. The goal was now self-liberation.

Here are examples of this sentiment from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) “Position Paper on Black Power” of 1966:

“The myth that the Negro is somehow incapable of liberating himself, is lazy, etc., came out of the American experience.”

“Negroes in this country have never been allowed to organize themselves because of white interference.”

“What does it mean if black people, once having the right to organize, are not allowed to organize themselves? It means that blacks’ ideas about inferiority are being reinforced… Further (white participation) means in the eyes of the black community that whites are the ‘brains’.”

The National Question and Self-Determination

In order to broach the national question, we must place it in the proper context.

Marxist revolutionaries fight for world revolution, not socialism in one country. We know full well that an entirely isolated socialist country does not by itself have the necessary economic resources to provide its population with a comfortable standard of living, free from the stress of poverty and deprivation. Moreover, isolated socialist countries are inevitably the victims of imperialism’s aggressions, either through direct military intervention or economic embargoes, both of which in turn lower the standard of living of those in the “socialist” country.

Consequently, as revolutionaries we fight to unite the world’s proletariat. Only together can we definitively overthrow capitalism, tear down national borders, and create an economic system that is dedicated to serving the interests of humanity, not profits for the super rich. We condemn going to war against another country in order to defend “our national interests” because, in the final analysis, these interests always turn out to be corporate interests, not our interests. We fight U.S. imperialism, which seeks to dominate other countries for economic gain. And when workers in other countries are attacked by their own ruling class, we protest.

The Marxist approach to nationalism is consequently constructed with the goal of maximizing world working class unity. If national self-determination in the form of separation promotes international working class unity, then we support it; if it undermines this unity, then we oppose it. For this reason, no simple formula can provide us with the correct position. Each situation must be analyzed on its own terms in order to determine which path to follow. However, general considerations can serve as a guide.

Because the nation-state, as a product of capitalism, has historically brought diverse people together within a single border, it has served to unify working people on a much larger scale than the system of feudalism, which was divided into small principalities. In this respect, capitalism has played a progressive role in relation to feudalism. It would be regressive to return to principalities.

But when capitalism reached its highest stage of imperialism, its rapacious greed for profit sent it scurrying around the globe, defeating entirely foreign countries, incorporating them into its empire, and then ruthlessly exploiting them. Here the victims in Africa, Asia, and the Americas felt that they had little in common with their new imperialist masters. And the Marxist analysis of the national question had to assume a correspondingly nuanced version. Given Russian imperialism and the scope of its empire prior to the revolution, the Bolsheviks were compelled to provide an analysis, and Lenin took the lead.

But first, a few comments about terms. When oppressed people have involuntarily been incorporated into an imperialist nation’s empire, the oppressed have generally responded with resentment and resistance, which in turn has translated into a struggle for some form of “self-determination.” This struggle for self-determination has frequently assumed the form of demanding a separate political state. Economic independence here is not an issue since capitalism has woven the world’s economies into a complex web so that none can claim economic self-sufficiency. Moreover, self-determination can assume different forms. At one extreme lie complete political independence and the establishment of a new state or the reestablishment of a former state. At the other extreme, an oppressed nationality may choose to remain within the borders of the existing state within which they are located; if they themselves make the decision whether to go or stay, then they have exercised self-determination.

Here is Lenin’s formulation: “The right of nations to self-determination implies exclusively the right to independence in the political sense, the right to free political separation from the oppressor nation. Specifically, this demand for political democracy implies complete freedom to agitate for secession and for a referendum on secession by the seceding nation. This demand, therefore, is not the equivalent of a demand for separation” [emphasis added] (“The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” 1916).

The point that an oppressed people can exercise self-determination without separating was reiterated by Trotsky in his discussions with the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) on Black Nationalism and Self-Determination: “And yet, by achieving self-determination these groups [within the Russian empire] remained with the Soviet Union” (1933).

Furthermore, self-determination can range along a continuum between complete political separation and no separation at all. Lenin, for example, spoke of the possibility of establishing “… autonomous areas, however small, with entirely homogeneous populations, towards which members of the respective nationalities scattered all over the country, or even all over the world, could gravitate…” (“Critical Remarks on the National Question,” 1913).

Most importantly, Lenin argued that the policy of defending the right of oppressed nationalities to self-determination had the potential to maximize unity between the respective working classes of the oppressor and oppressed nations, even when the oppressed opted for separation, because genuine unity, in the final analysis, can only be forged on a voluntary basis and on equality: “… the Social-Democrats of the oppressor nations must demand that the oppressed nations should have the right of secession, for otherwise recognition of equal rights for nations and of international working-class solidarity would in fact be merely empty phrase-mongering, sheer hypocrisy” (“The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination”). And in the same essay he added: “… we want large states and the closer unity and even fusion of nations, only on a truly democratic, truly internationalist basis, which is inconceivable without the freedom to secede.” Were the oppressed nationality forced to remain within the empire, the resentment of the oppressed would only be further fueled towards all members of the oppressor nation. If they separated with the support of the working class of the oppressor nation, then this support could serve as a foundation to strengthen ties between the two working classes.

And this principled approach in fact proved entirely correct. As Trotsky noted during discussions with the SWP in reflecting on the experience of the Soviet Union in comparison with the Austro-Hungarian empire: “The Austrian Social Democrats said that the national minorities were not nations. What do we see today? The separated pieces [of the old Austro-Hungarian empire…] exist, rather bad, but they exist. The Bolsheviks fought for Russia always for the self-determination of the national minorities including the right of complete separation. And yet, by achieving self-determination these groups remained with the Soviet Union… The dialectic of the developments shows that where tight centralism existed the state went to pieces and where the complete self-determination was proposed a real state emerged and remained united.”

Neither Lenin nor Trotsky consequently concluded that secession or separation was inevitably reactionary. For example, Lenin argued: “The petty bourgeois are letting themselves be frightened by the spectre of a frightened bourgeoisie…. They are afraid of secession. The class-conscious proletarians are not afraid of it. Both Norway and Sweden gained from Norway’s free secession from Sweden in 1905, it made for mutual trust between the two nations, it drew them closer together on a voluntary basis, it did away with the stupid friction, it strengthened the economic and political, the cultural and social gravitation of the two nations to each other, and strengthened the fraternal alliance between the workers of the two countries” (“Finland and Russia”). In The Junius Pamphlet Lenin added: “National wars [for self-determination] against the imperialist powers are not only possible and probable; they are inevitable, progressive and revolutionary….” And Trotsky, in the discussion on Black Nationalism with the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), asserted: “To fight for the possibility of realizing an independent state (for Blacks) is a sign of great moral and political awakening. It would be a tremendous revolutionary step.”

Black Nationalism and Self-Determination in the U.S.

It is helpful to begin our analysis with a review of the discussions conducted by Trotsky with members of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the 1930s where many of the basic Marxist methodological principles were at play. The question of the proper approach was particularly pressing since Blacks, as the most oppressed, have the potential to be the most revolutionary, but the SWP had not developed any coherent policy statements on this vital subject.

During the discussion, the question was raised whether Blacks constituted a racial minority or an oppressed nationality. If they were simply an oppressed racial minority, then the question of self-determination, in the sense of complete national separation, would not apply because they would lack the potential to become a nation since they would fail to exemplify the necessary cohesiveness to constitute themselves as a distinct people. Hence, the correct approach would proceed in the direction of integration and civil rights, not some form of self-determination. On the other hand, if they were judged to be an oppressed nationality, then the choice of some form of self-determination would become an option. Gradually, the discussion coalesced around the conclusion that Blacks, at that point in history, were an oppressed racial minority, not an oppressed nationality. At that time there seemed little evidence that Blacks wanted to define themselves first and foremost as a distinct people and separate themselves, in one form or another, from the dominant white population. However, Trotsky left open the possibility that they might yet evolve into a nationality sometime in the future. Such a development would above all revolve around the desires of Blacks themselves.

Of particular importance in this discussion are the criteria Trotsky employed to judge whether Blacks constituted an oppressed nationality or an oppressed racial minority. His revolutionary dialectical approach led him to reject abstract, metaphysical considerations, such as whether Blacks constituted a majority in any particular state, or whether a single language was spoken, or people adopted a common religion. He pointed out, for example, that Belgium would have no right to nationhood if a single language were a requirement. Following Lenin, who believed that people could be scattered “all over the country, or even all over the world” and still constitute a nationality, Trotsky at no time stipulated that Blacks must occupy a common territory in order to qualify as a nationality. Instead, he insisted that the consciousness of Blacks themselves is the crucial consideration: “An abstract criterion is not decisive in this question, but much more decisive is the historical consciousness, their feelings and their impulses.” And he kept returning to this theme: “We do, of course, not obligate the Negroes to become a nation; if they are, then that is a question of their consciousness, that is, what they desire and what they strive for.”

In other words, for Trotsky the material basis of the emergence of Black nationalism was not understood in terms of territory but in terms of the experience of racism which cements ties among Blacks and, while invisible to most whites, defines them apart from the remaining population and constitutes them as a separate people. He put it this way: “In any case the suppression of the Negroes pushes them toward a political and national unity.”

The emphasis on how Blacks themselves feel is fundamental to a revolutionary approach. However, we, as Marxists do not base our positions solely on people’s feelings. An additional material component has been provided by capitalism as it has singled out the Black population to victimize with its most vicious excesses. This fact leads to the possibility that Blacks might overwhelmingly become the most dedicated proponents of capitalism’s overthrow. We, as Marxists, would alienate ourselves from a potentially explosive, anti-capitalist movement if we dismissed Black nationalism as irrelevant on the grounds of failing a territorial, linguistic, or religious test. And as a historical fact, the most important of the Black Power movements of the 1960s moved in the direction of socialism without abandoning their nationalism, in part because their right to self-determination was being vigorously defended by Marxist socialists.

Moreover, Trotsky’s approach implies that the question whether Blacks constitute an oppressed nationality or an oppressed racial minority remains open as long as racism exists. If the U.S. spirals into a deep economic crisis, racism might come out of the closet in full force, which in turn could tempt Blacks to move into a more separatist direction, even though this separation might simply take the form of wanting their own political party. And Trotsky felt under no compulsion to venture a prediction regarding which direction events might evolve, especially since the decision to proceed in the direction of nationalism, according to him, could only be resolved by Blacks themselves.

But Trotsky also argued that even if Blacks constituted themselves as a nationality, revolutionary Marxists might nevertheless discourage any impulses towards political separation, while defending their right to do so. At one point he envisioned Black members of the SWP saying, for example, in response to a proposal for Blacks to separate: “Our Negro comrades [of the SWP, which was affiliated with the Fourth International] can say, ‘The Fourth International says that if it is our [Blacks’] wish to be independent, it will help us in every way possible, but the choice is ours. However, I, as negro member of the Fourth, hold a view that we must remain in the same state as the whites,’ and so on.”

At other points in the discussion Trotsky entertained the possibility that impulses in the direction of separation should not only be defended but encouraged. For example, he insisted: “Those American workers who say: ‘The Negroes should separate when they so desire and we will defend them against our American police’ — those are revolutionists, I have confidence in them” [emphasis added]. In other words, Trotsky left open both possibilities of relating to Black nationalism, if it did emerge. One would have to examine the specific conditions of such a movement before adopting a definitive position.

We believe that in today’s historical juncture, Blacks are defining themselves more in the direction of a racial minority. Their sentiment leans more in the direction of integration and equal rights rather than separation. However, as long as racism exists, this is not a closed question. Nor should we regard it as one of EITHER oppressed racial minority OR oppressed nationality. These categories are not static but exist in a dialectical tension where many intermediate positions between the two extremes stand as options. Sometimes, for example, Black movements have called for self-determination in relation to their own communities with no thought of pursuing a complete break with the U.S. This urge corresponds to Lenin’s stipulation that oppressed nationalities have the right to pursue “autonomous areas, however small” [emphasis added]. In such cases they are moving more in the direction of acting as a nationality. We believe, in today’s context, it is important to offer support to these demands for Black control over Black communities.

A Black Political Party

In the course of the discussion among Trotsky and members of the SWP, attention turned to the proper relation to the possible emergence of an exclusively Black organization. What is striking is Trotsky’s sensitivity to the problem of racism, including his awareness that much of it emanated from the white working class. In fact, this is one of the reasons why Black oppression was of paramount importance to confront: not only do capitalists divide the working class through their racist practices, but workers themselves have contributed to these divisions, as Trotsky noted: “The skilled workers who feel set in the capitalist society help the bourgeois class to hold the Negroes and the unskilled workers down to a very low scale.” And earlier he remarked: “99.9 percent of the American workers are chauvinists, in relation to the Negroes they are hangmen and they are so also toward the Chinese.”

With the suffering of Blacks and the need to unite the U.S. working class as his point of departure, Trotsky argued: “…this oppression is so strong that they [Blacks] feel it every moment; that they feel it as Negroes. We must find the possibility of giving this feeling a political organizational expression. You may say that in Germany or in England we do not organize such semi-political, semi-trade-union, or semi-cultural organizations; we reply that we must adapt ourselves to the genuine Negro masses in the United States” [emphasis added].

And he continued: “They [Blacks] were enslaved by the whites. They were liberated by the whites (so-called liberation). They were led and misled by the whites and they did not have their own political independence. They were in need of a pre-political activity, as Negroes. Theoretically it seems to me absolutely clear that a special organization should be created for a special situation. The danger is only that it will become a game for the intellectuals.”

Although Trotsky referred to this Black organization as “semi-political” and “pre-political,” it is clear he is discussing an independent Black political party. The discussion later turns to formulating a recommended political program for the party and the possibility of it running political candidates.

Trotsky’s embracing of the possible need for some form of a separate Black political organization that would be based on the Black working class flows directly from his recognition that racism has not been the exclusive possession of white capitalists, but has infiltrated the white working class as well. And he astutely recognized that well meaning white liberal intellectuals have exhibited racist tendencies as well: “Many of them [white liberal intellectuals] continue to imagine that by the improvement of the mentality [of Blacks], and so on, the discrimination will disappear.” In other words, white liberals viewed racism as a Black problem, not a white problem.

We believe that if at some point a strong sentiment among the Black population, in response to racism, coalesced in the direction of establishing a separate political party, it might deserve both support and encouragement. For example, if a Black party, independent of the Democrats and Republicans, enjoyed widespread support in the Black communities and was leading a progressive liberation struggle during a period where, for lack of a Labor Party, the U.S. working class was not united, then this movement could serve as a catalyst in igniting other sectors of the working class to organize themselves independently and fight for liberation as well. In such circumstances, far from dividing the working class, such a movement could spark its resurgence. Moreover, our willingness to offer support in the form of united front struggles around specific issues or campaigns will in turn provide us the opportunity to reach out to receptive individuals or groups within the movement and introduce our program as a whole in favor of uniting the entire working class in order to overthrow capitalism.

Democratic and Transitional Demands

The struggle for self-determination is what we term a struggle for democratic rights. Capitalism claims to offer equal rights for all, but never delivers on the promise because treating workers differently raises profits and undermines worker solidarity. Ethnic and racial minorities, not to mention women, and undocumented workers, have historically been accorded second-class status when it comes to equal rights in terms of access to owning property, voting, getting a job, etc. These are the types of struggles in which liberals can comfortably join since they do not challenge the fundamental existence of capitalism.

Nevertheless, as Marxist revolutionaries, we do not turn our backs on democratic rights. By winning, or partially winning, democratic demands, we can not only help unify the working class (by diminishing racism and sexism, for example,) but success can infuse the working class with a sense of its own power and inspire it to pursue more ambitious goals. Therefore these struggles have the potential to change the balance of power, to one degree or another, between the exploiting capitalists and the oppressed working class.

However, we do not restrict ourselves to the struggle for democratic rights. As revolutionaries, we are constantly dedicated to maximizing the anti-capitalist thrust of any movement. For this reason, we combine the struggle for democratic rights with the struggle for transitional demands. The latter offer a bridge to socialism. If they are won, then the victory represents a blow at the capitalist functioning of the economy. For example, if we were to win “30 for 40,” meaning 40 hours worth of pay for doing only 30 hours of work, then we would have seized from the capitalists their “right” to arbitrarily dictate our wages and the length of the workweek with only their interests in mind. Nationalizations mean that companies have been removed from the sphere of the private economy and operate more in the direction of a planned economy. Workers’ control means that the capitalists cannot dictate the work process or control hiring and firing. All of these programs make significant strides in the direction of socialism and weaken the capitalist class. When transitional demands have been won, capitalism has suffered debilitating wounds.

We support the right of oppressed nationalities to self-determination, but we do not restrict the struggle to this demand. We combine it with transitional demands. As Lenin argued: “We must combine the revolutionary struggle against capitalism with a revolutionary program and tactics on all democratic demands: a republic, a militia, the popular election of officials, equal rights for women, the self-determination of nations, etc.,” (“The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination”). But this also means that we do not focus exclusively on transitional demands and turn our backs on the special struggles of the most oppressed elements of the working class.

Consequently such an approach implies that if the Black community were engaged in a struggle against a particular racist employer, demanding that the employer end discrimination and hire Blacks on an equal basis, then we would join this movement by creating a united front with the community. The united front is defined by sectors of the working class coming together to fight for specific, limited demands, in this case “End Hiring Discrimination,” or in the antiwar movement, “Bring the Troops Home Now.” Here the participating groups maintain their political independence, meaning that each group has the freedom to introduce its own political perspective by selling its newspaper, etc. In this way, we could introduce, through our publication, transitional demands such as “jobs for all,” “workers control over hiring and firing,” “30 for 40,” etc. By injecting these transitional demands into the struggle, we can show the way for all workers to unite and secure much bigger gains for everyone.

Affirmative Action

Affirmative action refers to programs that were initiated in the 1960s by the U.S. government as a result of intense pressure from the Civil Rights movement to end discrimination, particularly around hiring and promotions, although labor unions and businesses have also implemented affirmative action programs on a voluntary basis. By aiming to achieve equality, particularly in hiring practices where discrimination has had, and continues to have, a virulent legacy, affirmative action addresses a democratic demand. It has taken various forms, from the most mild versions where employers are required to make extra efforts to ensure that all qualified potential applicants know about the job opening, on the one hand, to the more strict versions where employers are required to hire according to racial quotas on the other hand.

No simple formula can provide us with a compass for supporting or rejecting a particular affirmative action proposal in advance. Each case must be judged according to its own merits, always aiming at uniting the working class as our highest consideration.

We believe that affirmative action is often an effective tool for uniting the working class, especially during periods when Blacks are struggling for integration and equal rights. Blacks, Latinos, women, etc. have been victimized by discriminatory hiring practices in the past and continue to be victimized in the present. Consequently, they have fallen behind white workers economically. These practices have particularly benefited capitalists by undermining class unity. Blacks, for example, resent whites who are hired or promoted over them when Blacks themselves are the more qualified, and Blacks resent it when whites seem indifferent to the injustice. Whites resent Blacks when they are used as strike breakers. Many affirmative action programs have the potential to remove racist and sexist barriers so that all members of the working class have equal access to jobs, thereby eliminating major differences among workers and hence helping unify the working class.

We also believe that quotas at times can play a positive role in uniting the working class. Quotas have been a popular demand among the Black population, particularly when racist employers fight tenaciously to maintain their racist hiring practices. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, demanded quotas: “If the proportion of blacks to the total population was 12 percent, then we would ask that 12 percent of the employees be black.” More recently, the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Coalition in New Orleans has called for affirmative action with quotas of 67 percent for all federal jobs involved in reconstruction. Quotas have also been employed successfully to desegregate schools. In San Francisco, for example, as a result of a court case mounted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a court ruling prohibited more than 45 percent of any single race to attend the same school. While such examples of quotas have enjoyed popularity among the most oppressed, popularity alone is not a sufficient reason to embrace them, although it should be taken into consideration.

People resent quotas when they result in unqualified candidates being hired or promoted at the expense of qualified candidates. We think this resentment is understandable and would not support such a perversion of quotas. However, other situations can arise where recourse to quotas might be entirely appropriate. For example, if a company has engaged in documented intentional discrimination, and if no particular skills are required for the job, then we might very well support and join a united front movement, initiated by those who have been discriminated against, that has coalesced around the demand to hire applicants according to the same percentage as their presence in the surrounding community.

Affirmative action programs have often assuaged people’s basic sense of moral outrage in the face of blatant racist hiring practices, and have accordingly won support from both Blacks and whites for this reason. These programs also have the potential to help diminish divisions within the working class in so far as workers are placed on a more level “playing field” when applying for jobs. However, in and of itself, affirmative action does not advance us in the direction of socialism. We believe that our support for affirmative action programs must be combined with transitional demands, for example, for “30 for 40” or for massive public work projects aimed at employing the unemployed, both of which would increase the number of jobs for everyone. In this way, we can further strengthen working class solidarity so that we can march together towards our historical destiny of overthrowing capitalism and finally replacing it with a system where the good of the entire community replaces the lust for profits of a super rich minority as its guiding principle.

history, Politics,

Obama Snubs Africa, Then African Americans

Many people believed that after Bush had left the White House, rampant arrogance combined with stunning hypocrisy had also gone. Events have proven otherwise. A recent speech delivered in Africa — and one later directed specifically at African Americans — carried with them all the baggage of the Bush years, to the extent that one could safely claim that absolutely nothing had changed. And although Obama is able to give a more compassionate and intelligent speech than was possible with Bush, the essence of their policies is identical. Both Africans and African Americans can expect no help from the U.S. government in addressing their serious and specific grievances, themselves the result of past and current U.S. government policy. Instead, both were given the same solution: if you want help, help yourselves, “no excuses.”
In Africa Obama gave brief mention to the Continent’s tragic past in regards to slavery and colonialism, but prescribed a cure that fell short of inspirational, when he said, “Africa’s future is up to Africans,” which essentially means not to expect too much help from the U.S. The Economist magazine correctly noted that “there was little in the speech that could not have been said by George Bush…” (July 16, 2009).

What Obama failed to mention was the active role the U.S. government played in ensuring that resource-rich Africa remains a continent plundered by foreign powers. This continued ransacking happens not only through U.S. corporations, the IMF and World Bank, but through U.S. sponsored proxy wars, such as the current ones in Somalia and Congo, and the recent conflicts in Kenya, Sudan, Rwanda, etc.

The successful proxy war in Sudan achieved a Bush-led plan to eventually partition the country so that the oil-rich south could be exploited by western corporations. The president of Sudan, Omar el-Bashir, has close links to China, which the U.S. cannot tolerate. Bashir is therefore labeled a war criminal for his actions against the U.S. backed militia that sought to undermine his government.

Obama is continuing the Bush-era campaign of undermining Bashir, demanding that he be tried for war crimes. Obama was clear in his speech: “We will stand behind efforts to hold war criminals accountable.” Obama is hypocritically ignoring the fact that his predecessor is by far the world’s biggest war criminal; and Bush has absolutely no worries about being prosecuted for his crimes. Interestingly, the African Union does not agree with Obama that Bashir is a war criminal, creating the conflict that prompted Obama’s comments.

Also troubling in Obama’s speech was the promise that only countries that achieved “good governance” would receive aid from the U.S. The fact that the most vicious dictatorship on earth — Saudi Arabia — continues under Obama to be a “very close” U.S. ally, puts to question the definition of “good governance.” Especially since otherextremely repressive governments — Israel, Colombia, Egypt, etc. — also receive enormous sums of U.S. financial and military aid. When applied to Africa, “good governance” refers simply to those governments that do exactly as the U.S. wishes.

Most revealing for Obama’s real plans in Africa is his support for Bush’s blueprints for AFRICOM, a planned U.S. military command specifically dedicated to U.S. “conflicts” in Africa. One can assume that such a command was planned with future U.S. military intervention in mind.

Although Obama is correct when he said, “I have the blood of Africa in my veins,” he unfortunately shares the political views of a conservative Republican.

For example, when Obama gave a recent speech in front of the N.A.A.C.P, his main message was “personal responsibility.” Obama is very fond of this catchphrase, which is in fact at the foundation of conservative philosophy.

The reason that “personal responsibility” is such a lynchpin in Conservative thought is its implications: it strongly justifies the status quo, and those who benefit from it. Thus, the rich deserve their place atop society, while those at the bottom are likewise “responsible” for it.

All the factors that create generational poverty and generational wealth are ignored, especially the fact that there exists a tiny class of people who own the banks and other corporations, and another much larger class actually doing the work; assuming they’re lucky enough to have a job.

In making his point, Obama said that, “growing up poor can’t be an excuse to get bad grades.” The many difficulties that come with being poor needn’t be “excuses,” but mere facts of existence, including: demoralization, general instability, anxiety, poor nutrition, inadequate resources, lack of safety, no health insurance, poor public schools, etc.

Obama surely knows that economic opportunities in predominantly black communities are more than scarce, especially given the present state of the economy and the widespread disease of racism. If one wants to have enough money for both food and to pay their rent, resorting to the informal economy is often a very reasonable choice.

When it came to the issues of racism and discrimination, Obama spoke very little: “Make no mistake, the pain of discrimination is still felt in America.” But while recognizing that these evils still exist, his solution was to all but ignore them. “No excuses” was the mantra — the right-wing media publications were all very impressed.

For Africans and African Americans, the especially high expectations that came with Obama’s presidency are destined to become colossal letdowns. Correcting the past and present wrongs to Africa and African-Americans would take great structural changes in U.S. government policy; away from benefiting a tiny privileged elite and working towards policies that benefit the great majority of people.

For African American communities, giant government investment is needed in education, housing, health care, and public works so that living-wage jobs are created that allow an actual route out of poverty. This, combined with an increase in affirmative action programs, is a way to enact real change; much more than Obama’s encouraging words will provide.

Of course, the people who actually control the Democrats and Republicans — the big banks, health care industry, oil companies, weapons producers, etc. — want no such change. They greatly benefit from the cheap labor that racism and discrimination provide them. Organizing outside of the realm of the two-party system is therefore a necessary first step towards change in action, not in words.

history, Legal & Law,

Justice Denied for Oscar Grant

Two years ago, with the election and inauguration of the first African American President, the corporate media in the U.S. was giddy with excitement that America had entered a post-racial era. The hollowness of that claim was revealed today with the sentencing of white transit policeman Johannes Mehserle for the killing of African American resident of Hayward, California, Oscar Grant. Mehserle was found not guilty of second-degree murder, which carries a sentence of 15 years to life and means that the defendant is aware that his or her action is dangerous to human life but does not act with premeditation. Instead he was found guilty of a far lesser charge, involuntary manslaughter, meaning that death resulted from negligence. It carries a sentence of 2 to 4 years.

This is an unconscionable verdict that flies in the face of justice. But that is typical for capitalist “justice” in Black America. Police may kill African Americans with virtual impunity — what is remarkable is that Mehserle was convicted of the lesser charge at all.

The jury, which did not have one African American on it, met for less than one full day — six hours  —  after an alternate juror had to be seated. All Black potential jurors were excluded, but white jurors who had contact with police in the past were permitted. Where is the blind justice promised?

Anyone familiar with handguns understands that the verdict is preposterous. While Mehserle might have been issued the taser relatively recently, nevertheless he had the gun from the beginning of his service with BART so he was certainly familiar with it. The gun has a unique safety that must be physically disabled. Moreover, the gun’s grip and trigger both have an unmistakable feel and weighs approximately 4 times the taser. The gun is handled by officers everyday, if simply at the beginning and end of a shift. It is beyond belief that the gun could be mistaken for a taser with an entirely different feeling.

This verdict underscores the institutional failure of the criminal justice system to prosecute police officers who attack or kill African Americans specifically and non-whites in general. The police are protected by the entrenched order of justice that serves the interest of a tiny minority: the U.S. capitalist class. The logic of capitalist rule seems to reveal that social inequity for African Americans is a fundamental fact of social relations in the United States. The system protects the police, the frontline enforcers of social and class relations. The system will back up its agents, even a mere transit cop, over the life of any African American.

Liberals of all varieties are urging “calm,” as if injustice after injustice can be endured without social protest. This system breeds violence  — how much can people endure without rage, without striking back? Revolutionaries understand this system requires a divide and conquer approach and yet humanity can only endure so much. When the oppressed of this country, faced with chronic high unemployment, layoffs, school closures and mortgage defaults  — something is going to give.

We revolutionaries say this: It is right to rebel. What we need is to organize and mobilize to overturn this rotten system of racist capitalism. We have to build our own political united front, based on the interests of the majority, the multiracial working class. This will be a long struggle, but we have been oppressed for a long time. We have nothing to lose but the chains that imprison us and a world to win.


Why Mass Marches Still Matter: 2013’s March on Washington

In terms of the numbers it attracted, the August 24, 2013 March on Washington was an inspiring success. The question remains, however, how politically effective was it?

In the March 20th edition of USA Today, during the build-up to the 50th Anniversary of 2013’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Rick Hampson’s article entitled “Do Marches Still Make a Difference?”  addresses the tradition of mass marches on Washington:

March fatigue: so many of them for so many causes to so little apparent effect. Is marching on Washington, one of the signal rituals of American popular democracy, out of step?

The article argues that while such large marches can rally the faithful and provide them the courage of knowing they are not alone, this tactic no longer carries much weight. With the National Parks Service issuing 1,600 march permits a year on the Mall, the impact of mass mobilizations in DC have been diluted to an easily ignored routine. They rarely receive much publicity or help to push legislation forward that would be supported by their participants. Politicians remain deaf, skeptics remain on the sidelines, and the uninformed continue to know nothing of the causes that motivated large numbers to come out. As a result, disillusionment sets in among the participants.

Certainly, Hampson’s question on the effectiveness of mass marches is a good one to ask. It is always necessary to critically evaluate which tactics can work, when they are appropriate, and which goals should be promoted in order to build a bridge from the current situation to achieving the desired political results.

Unfortunately, Hampson’s article does not do this. Instead he substitutes a near categorical rejection of mass marches as an effective tool for any issue at any time. Cloaked in the illusion of journalistic objectivity, his broad-brush strokes paint an abstraction that is, in effect, an editorial against ever taking mass action in DC, without proposing an effective alternative to achieve political change. This leaves the reader with the impression that there is nothing that can be done.

Coming four days before the 2013 March on Washington, it is impossible not to conclude that the political intent behind this article was to undermine its success and discourage anyone from paying attention.

False arguments

Yet Hampson’s arguments for supporting his conclusion are, even on the surface, ridiculous. For instance, he writes:

…Who remembers Washington marches for colon cancer screening (2006) or public broadcasting (2012), or against Scientology (2008), or genetically engineered food (2011) or African warlord Joseph Kony (2012)?

Comparing 1963’s and 2013’s March for Jobs and Freedom to these marginal issue events, that only attract small numbers of the already committed, doesn’t work. Both 1963’s and 2013’s events had a long list of civil rights, community and Labor endorsements, representing millions of working class people. This demonstrates the broadness of their appeal and power in dramatic contrast to the events Hampson compares them to. This method of argument is like putting an equal sign between a Play Station football game, enjoyed by isolated individuals, to the Super Bowl.

The goals of Jobs and Freedom in 1963 and the aspirations motivating tens of thousands to mobilize in 2013 represent the immediately felt needs of the vast majority. The fulfillment of these needs runs in opposition to a tiny corporate elite’s interest who profit from high unemployment and underemployment, low wages, institutional racism and cuts to public programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Consequently, these events demonstrate and encourage a potentially explosive social fissure, no matter how peacefully conducted, that put the ruling elite and their politicians on edge. If fundamental social change is to occur that will benefit workers, it will have to be made by them at the expense of those corporate owners who control the economy and political system now. Mobilizing around workers’ immediately felt needs helps to build their power to succeed, since the demands represent the interests of the vast majority. This cannot be said of the other examples that Hampson cites.

Finally, there is the claim that mass marches on the Capital accomplish very little, if anything, and therefore, are not worth the effort. This depends on what participants expect to be accomplished and the longer-term perspective of what needs to be done after the event.

Sometimes the mere threat of a huge march will win the battle. When A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and many civil rights organizations, threatened to organize a huge march on Washington, D.C. in 1941 and refused to back down at President Roosevelt’s insistence, the president caved in and decreed what Randolph had demanded without having to follow through with the march: an end to hiring discrimination in the defense industries. Most times, however, when challenging the interest of those in power, one massive mobilization alone will not be able to get the job done, let alone the threat of one. It would be naïve to think otherwise. However, events on such a large scale should not always be seen as a one-time event.

Instead, they must be viewed as part of an escalating movement-building process. If it is possible to organize a demonstration of hundreds of thousands, it is possible to expand a movement’s influence. If this influence grows, it is possible to take more militant large-scale actions, such as massive rallies, strikes, and raise stronger demands, such as full employment, because of the increased collective confidence of workers. This, in turn, can create greater capacity for more advanced forms of organization that can directly challenge the political and economic machinery of the corporate elite.  For example, just with the most recent past demonstrations of millions of people have shown that governments can be brought down by such actions.

Building independent power

Those on top are much more aware of this potential power of the vast majority than those who possess it. That is why they are sometimes willing to try to shut down this process by offering partial reforms. Two examples of this were the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965 — the first effective race-related pieces of Civil Rights legislation in 86 years! Had it not been for the massive grassroots efforts of the Civil Rights Movement and significant elements of the Labor Movement that 1963’s March on Washington helped to gather together, these acts would be forgotten failures today.

The gains made during this period, as well as those of the union movement in the 1930s, are under severe attack by both the Republicans and Democrats. Today it is more necessary than ever that we march on the capital, as well as engage in other ways of mass organizing, if we are to reverse this process.

A prerequisite for these efforts to be effective is that they are done independently of the corporate political parties who would rather have us believe that such an approach only worked in days gone by, or never at all. Unfortunately, by putting big name Democratic Party politicians on the podium, the independent power of 2013’s March on Washington is compromised.

How can we be expected to ignore that Senator Nancy Pelosi, following Obama’s initiative, has helped lead the charge to cut Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security when she addressed those assembled at the Mall? How can we overlook the fact that Attorney General Eric Holder, who also spoke, is the overseer of a growing prison system that incarcerates blacks at a vastly greater rate than their percentage of the population and has refused to bring a civil rights case against George Zimmerman? And how is it that the grassroots potential of the 50th Anniversary events cannot be considered compromised when President Obama will be speaking on August 28? He has refused to launch a significant federal government jobs program to help put millions of the unemployed back to work and he has let the minimum wage fall far below its 1963 level. In contrast, the 1963 march demanded jobs and a higher minimum wage since these are some of the most important issues in the Black community.

It is the policies of these politicians and their corporate backers that are responsible for the conditions that have motivated many to support the current protest. Asking these politicians to speak from the stage, when their actions have consistently promoted big business interests at the expense of the majority, is akin to asking foxes to speak on behalf of the chickens they hunt.

This could be an indication that the lead organizers of the march wish to steer the widespread discontent behind 2013’s March on Washington back into the dead-end of “lesser evil” electoral politics. This poses a greater threat to its promise than all those who would dismiss the power of taking mass action.

Nevertheless, when hundreds of thousands come together to protest with the hope of winning their demands and they begin to get a taste of collective power, that experience is not so easily derailed. The Democratic Party, because of its ties to the corporations, will only betray these expectations. But the longer the hopes and needs of the 99% are suppressed, the greater the explosion when these needs are too intense to be contained by the usual methods of empty promises and minuscule crumbs thrown to them by duplicitous politicians.


Democrats versus Public Education

Public education in the United States is under heavy attack. And because a so-called “progressive” President is leading the charge, many education activists have been lulled to sleep while on lookout duty.

Obama recently announced his “race to the top” program to “reform” education. Much like Bush’s No Child Left Behind, Obama’s plan represents progress for education in name only.

In reality, Obama’s plan is to lure cash-starved schools into a “competition” to accept federal funds, with dangerous strings attached. The two most devious conditions are the widespread creation of charter schools and the implementation of teacher merit pay. Both of these items have been long-condemned by progressive educational advocates as well as the majority of the nation’s teachers. If implemented, they would have a destructive effect on public education.

It should be no surprise that charter schools and merit pay are two of the most cherished ideas of Conservative Republican thought. As usual, their motives can be reduced to the following proverb: what is good for big business is good for America. For many of these right-wingers, the very existence of public education — or anything run publicly — is considered “socialism” — their unexplained sworn enemy. Instead, they advocate “market solutions to reform public education,” a profit system where the youth of the rich receive quality educations, the poor receive nothing, while giant corporations rake in billions. Obama is likely to make more progress towards this end than Bush could ever dream.

The reasons that charter schools remain a bedrock for Conservative “education reform” are many. Most importantly, however, is the fact that — aside from eliminating teacher unions charter schools act as a powerful wedge to break apart public education, allowing new space for corporations to squeeze through. The level of privatization varies from school to charter school, with some being publicly funded and privately administered, to others being explicitly for-profit.

Many non-profit charter schools “contract out” their management to for-profit companies — such as Edison Schools, Chancellor Beacon Academies and Mosaica Education — which treat schools like a typical corporation: costs are cut to boost profits. Thus, revenue rises as materials and resources are reduced, teachers’ salaries are slashed, un-certified teachers are hired — as are unqualified principals — while counseling, psychological services, and extracurricular activities are non-existent. Of course, for the better off, these services are available for the right price.

The fact that the Democrats have completely accepted a long-standing Republican perspective on education represents yet another sharp right-turn for the Democrats. Although Obama denounced Bush’s much-hated No Child Left Behind, the criticism amounted to petty bickering over secondary issues. The only thing that needed changing was the name, because of the connection to Bush. This was confirmed by Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, who referred to Obama’s ideas by saying, “It’s like the new Coke. This is a re-branding effort,” (Washington Post, June 23, 2009).

Another more alarming example of Obama’s rightwing stance on education was his pick for Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, chosen for his presiding over the destruction of Chicago’s public schools, themselves a carbon copy of the “restructuring” of New Orleans’ schools after hurricane Katrina. In both cases dozens of public schools were shut down, teachers were fired in en masse, and privately-administered charter schools were opened. The living wages teachers once earned were replaced by low-wage, inexperienced, and often uncertified teachers. It is this nightmarish model that Obama wishes to replicate on a nationwide scale.

Teachers would of course be severely affected by such a plan, and should be organizing now if they want to avoid the fate of the Chicago Teachers Union, which was unprepared for the steamrolling dolled out by Obama’s new Education Secretary.

Historically, teachers’ unions have held a prominent place within the education debate, long having been viewed by Conservatives — and now Democrats — as needing to be crushed. This animosity is based on the understanding — and thus combativeness — that teachers displayed over the ideas of Charter schools and merit pay.

They correctly viewed both as ways to not only undermine public education, but teachers’ unions. Merit pay supposedly pays teachers for “performance,” which both Obama and Bush agree should be based on a test score. The problem with the simplistic equation between a teacher’s merit and a student’s test score is that the scores are largely a reflection of the student’s home environment as well as class size and school funding, factors beyond the control of the teacher. The real motive behind merit pay, however, is to destroy both union-won annual wage increases and the union-won rules regarding seniority — one of the cornerstones of a strong union. Merit pay also serves to concentrate power in the hands of the principal who dispenses merit pay. Teachers are reluctant to criticize administrators who control their salaries, and principals routinely abuse this power by rewarding friends and withholding salary increases from critics.

Although teachers reacted strongly against Bush’s plans to implement these “reforms,” the reaction to Obama’s identical plan has been more reserved. Shamefully, the Presidents of both major teachers’ unions — the AFT and NEA — attended Obama’s recent reform announcements, giving his plan credibility where there should be none. (In a sign of gratitude, Obama thanked them mid-speech for attending.)

During the speech, Obama mentioned the need not only for merit-pay and charter schools, but the possibility that, in a “failing school,” all the teachers could be replaced. Of course, this directly contradicts the idea of having a union protected job, a cold reality that the teachers in Chicago had to learn.

Obama also mentioned in his speech how “collective bargaining should be a catalyst to reform.” This simply means that teachers should voluntarily give away past gains — raises and seniority, etc. — at the bargaining table, instead of making Obama look bad by having to take them back and possibly causing a strike.

While Obama acknowledges that many of these schools fail because they are under-funded, dilapidated, with large classroom sizes, etc. — his only solutions are to blame teachers and build charter schools.

With Obama’s plan comes the direct threat not only to teacher unions, but public education, both are in danger of extinction. All working people have an interest in salvaging both entities, since, if the teachers’ unions are crushed, other unions will be targeted, and if public education falls, many children will simply not be educated.

There are ample resources in the U.S. to have a world-class education system, but not if trillions of dollars continue to flow towards bailing out banks and fighting foreign wars. The Democrats have thus shown that their priorities match the Republicans. Only by organizing outside of the grasp of both parties can real social progress begin.

For teachers, adopting a united and aggressive approach against the implementation of Obama’s reforms is the necessary first step to save their living standard and jobs, along with public education.

history, Legal & Law,

A Curious New York Times Article on Teacher Evaluations

A recent New York Times article, “Curious Grade For Teachers: Nearly All Pass,” finds incredulous the idea that, “In Florida, 97 percent of teachers were deemed effective or highly effective in the most recent evaluations.” The author goes on to cite similar percentages in other states and concludes: “The teachers might be rated all above average, like students in Lake Wobegon, for the same reason that the older evaluation methods were considered lacking.” In other words, the teachers score well because the measuring standard is flawed. And this conclusion is reinforced by the observation that teachers’ high marks were achieved “even when students were falling behind.”

Unfortunately, newspaper journalists are apparently not held to any standards at all because the article omits all the crucial information that situates these statistics in a meaningful context.

Teachers typically must have a college degree and between one and two years, if not more, additional college course work to obtain a teaching credential, not to mention hours spent in classrooms where they can practice teaching and receive mentoring from experienced teachers. Is it really surprising that after such intense training almost all teachers achieve competency?

Imagine a course in basic welding where students attend class for several months. At the end of the course students are required to take a test. Would it be surprising that 98 percent of those who completed the course passed the test? If fewer passed, one might reasonably raise questions about the quality of the welding course.

More importantly, there is no mention in The New York Times article of the authoritative study on student performance conducted in the 1960s, as reported by New York Times columnist, Joe Nocera in an April 25, 2011 article (“The Limits of School Reform”): “Going back to the famous Coleman report in the 1960s, social scientists have contended – and unquestionably proved – that students’ socioeconomic backgrounds vastly outweigh what goes on in the school as factors in determining how much they learn.”

Similarly, the article fails to note the growing poverty among children in the U.S. Currently more than one in five children live in poverty. Between 2009 and 2010, child poverty grew by more than a million. Given the debilitating impact of poverty on child development, there can be little wonder that more students are “falling behind,” despite teachers’ valiant efforts. And when the poverty statistics are coupled with the dramatic decline in government funding of public education, one can only marvel that our public schools succeed at all.

The current corporate narrative that has pervaded the mindset of politicians and the mainstream media inverts logic. Student failure is not a result of poverty or underfunded schools. The blame lies entirely with the teachers and the unions that defend them – a classic example of blaming the victim. Of course, politicians find it much more convenient to blame teachers and their unions for student failure rather than address the real causes of student failure since the politicians themselves are at fault. They have chosen to cut the social safety net and funding for schools so that the rich can continue to enjoy their ludicrously low tax rates and huge tax loopholes.

As inequality in wealth grows, inequality in power grows proportionately. The corporations and the rich want to eviscerate the teacher unions, impose market relations on public education, and open the door to private, profit-making alternatives. As corporations funnel more money into lobbying and campaign contributions, politicians have become cheerleaders for the corporate agenda. By underfunding schools and allowing poverty to grow, they are causing the kind of failure that can be used as an excuse to open the doors to private profiteers. Hence it is a must to always have financial back ups and playing some sports betting at could help us out with that.

What is really curious is why The New York Times author was so quick to uncritically adopt the corporate perspective and jump on the bandwagon of attacking the teachers. Perhaps she was one of the few students who failed his critical thinking course.


Marxism and Anarchism: The Philosophical Roots of the Marx-Bakunin Conflict

This article is available as a PDF.  Please see the Publications page. This the first part of this article has been translated into Greek and Italian.


Again, I’m not enough of a Marx scholar to pretend to an authoritative judgment. My impression, for what it is worth, is that the early Marx was very much a figure of the late Enlightenment, and the later Marx was a highly authoritarian activist, and a critical analyst of capitalism, who had little to say about socialist alternatives. But those are impressions.

Noam Chomsky

The tempestuous relation between Marx and Bakunin is a well-known legacy of the history of western socialism. As co-members of the International Working Men’s Association, they seem to have devoted as much energy battling one another as their common enemy, the capitalist system, culminating in Marx’s successful campaign to expel Bakunin from the organization. While at times engaging in cordial relations, they nevertheless harbored uncomplimentary mutual assessments. According to Marx, Bakunin was “a man devoid of all theoretical knowledge” and was “in his element as an intriguer”, [1] while Bakunin believed that “… the instinct of liberty is lacking in him [Marx]; he remains from head to foot, an authoritarian”. [2]

For some, the intensity of the conflict has been puzzling, given that the two authors seem to be struggling for identical goals. Convinced that capitalism is predicated on the exploitation of workers by capitalists, they were equally dedicated to fighting for a socialist society where economic classes would be abolished and all individuals would have the opportunity to develop all of their creative capacities. Hence, both envisioned socialism as eliminating the division of labor, especially between mental and manual work, and between men and women. In other words, the work process was to be transformed so that all workers would take an active role in the organization, design and implementation of it. Moreover, both argued that the oppressed must liberate themselves — one should not expect any benevolent impulses from members of the ruling, capitalist class; and to ensure success, the revolution must assume an international scope. Finally, they agreed that the State was an instrument of class oppression, not some neutral organ that equitably represented everyone’s interests, and in the final analysis must be abolished. The 1871 Paris Commune offered, in their opinion, a model to be emulated.

However, their most profound point of disagreement centered on their conflicting analyses of the State. Most importantly, while Marx envisioned a transitional stage between capitalism and a fully mature communist society, which included a state in the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat (i.e., a workers’ state), Bakunin adamantly rejected the establishment of any kind of state, including a workers’ state. In fact, this rejection is the defining principle of the school of anarchism, a term that literally translates as “no government”. For Bakunin, the only consistent, revolutionary option was to move immediately to a fully mature communist society which, both authors agreed, would be distinguished by the absence of a state. As a corollary to this disagreement, Marx supported attempts by independently organized workers to pursue their class interests by pressing for reforms within the bourgeois state – for example, for a reduction in the length of the working day — arguing that such victories would promote class consciousness, whereas Bakunin contested this proposal on the grounds that any political engagement whatsoever would constitute a perversion of the revolutionary movement and instead advocated complete abstention from the bourgeois political arena. The proper form of a revolutionary organization was also a point of dispute. Bakunin enthusiastically created secret societies as catalysts for a revolutionary upsurge while Marx flatly rejected them. Finally, the two contested the proper role of the peasants in a revolutionary movement. Bakunin argued that they might play a leading role while Marx designated the proletariat as the exclusive, leading revolutionary agent.

Because of the preponderance of the points of agreement, some commentators have resorted to personality flaws to account for the interminable disharmony that plagued their relation. For example, Bakunin has been accused of being both anti-Semitic and anti-Germanic while Marx has been considered to suffer from an incurable strain of rigid authoritarianism. A more promising line of explanation of their intractable differences, however, lies in an investigation into the profoundly divergent philosophical frameworks that served as the points of departure for their respective political analyses. As will be shown below, their foundational concepts are so incompatible that even their points of agreement are rendered more illusory than substantive.

Bakunin’s Philosophic Positions

Some of the important philosophical assumptions Bakunin employed in his approach to human reality were borrowed from the European Enlightenment, particularly the empiricist branch of this tradition, so a proper appreciation for his framework requires a brief excursion into its principles.

Having witnessed the phenomenal success of the natural sciences with such practitioners as Galileo and Newton, among others, many Enlightenment philosophers were inspired to transpose both the method and guiding assumptions of the natural sciences onto the domain of human behavior. These borrowed assumptions included the conviction that different kinds of natural objects contain their unique and defining fixed essence; objects interact with one another according to immutable mechanical laws of cause and effect; and after careful observation of individual interactions, the appropriate laws can be conclusively identified and codified. Consequently, the assumption was commonly adopted by members of the Enlightenment that humans are entirely natural creatures along the lines of other natural species and accordingly embody a unique and permanent essence and exhibit behavior that is entirely determined by natural causes. This approach was highlighted by the popular recourse to the concept of “the state of nature”. As a state that either literally or figuratively preceded the formation of organized societies, it purported to offer a glimpse into human nature in its purely “natural” state, prior to alterations resulting from the impact of society. Philosophers during this period, which coincided with the rise of capitalism, almost universally described humans as individualistic, autonomous and independent and to one degree or another strongly inclined to pursue their own self interest, in conformity with the prevailing bourgeois norms.

Bakunin deviated somewhat from this philosophic tradition by rejecting the description of humans as essentially individualistic. For example, he mocked the conception of society as originating by means of isolated, independent individuals contracting with one another, labeling this version a philosophic “fiction”, and argued instead that humans were naturally social and always lived in communities. But he profoundly subscribed to the view that humans should be regarded on the same theoretical plane as other natural objects and that consequently human behavior was governed entirely by mechanical, natural laws. The following quotations offer a sample of this outlook:

There are a good many laws which govern it [society] without its being aware of them, but these are natural laws, inherent in the body social…. [T]hey have governed human society ever since its birth; independent of the thinking and the will of the men composing the society. [3]

[Natural laws] … constitute our being, our whole being, physically, intellectually, and morally: we live, we breathe, we act, we think, we wish only through these laws. [4]

History and statistics prove to us that the social body, like any other natural body, obeys in its evolutions and transformations general laws which appear to be just as necessary as the laws of the physical world. [5]

Man himself is nothing but Nature…. Nature envelopes, permeates, constitutes his whole existence. [6]

Bakunin’s ethics at first glance seem to be a logical corollary to his general naturalistic framework in so far as he identifies what is morally good with what is natural:

The moral law … is indeed an actual law … because it emanates from the very nature of human society, the root basis of which is to be sought not in God but in animality. [7]

I speak of that justice which is based solely upon human conscience, the justice which you will rediscover deep in the conscience of everyman, even the conscience of the child and which translates itself into simple equality. [8]

In other words, justice is a natural human sentiment which permanently resides in the human constitution.

Bakunin’s definition of evil, however, was not altogether consistent. On the one hand, he seems to have followed the empiricist tradition by identifying it with what is also natural: “We know very well, in any case, that what we call good and bad are always, one and the other, the natural results of natural causes, and that consequently one is as inevitable as the other.” [9] On the other hand, perhaps because he found it politically advantageous, Bakunin also identified evil, not with a natural impulse or sentiment, but with what is “unnatural”, thereby creating a dualistic universe that was not entirely captured by natural laws. What lay outside these laws was the unnatural, the artificial, a domain which consequently could persevere only by constant recourse to force and coercion: “We must distinguish well between natural laws and authoritarian, arbitrary, political, religious, criminal, and civil laws which the privileged classes have established….” [10]

One final important component of Bakunin’s philosophic arsenal is his notion of freedom. We shall see that when Marx and Bakunin mention this term, they have in mind two entirely different concepts. Bakunin’s understanding of this term contains several important facets. For example, for Bakunin, acting freely means, above all, acting “naturally” or according to one’s natural impulses: “The liberty of man consists solely in this: that he obeys natural laws because he has himself recognized them as such, and not because they have been externally imposed upon him by any extrinsic will whatever, divine or human, collective or individual.” [11] In other words, this definition rests on the conception of humans as natural creatures governed by natural laws. To act naturally is simply to be spontaneous, to be “oneself”: “Once more, Life, not science, creates life; the spontaneous action of the people themselves alone can create liberty.” [12]

The identification of freedom with spontaneity or impulsive behavior then leads to a second feature of Bakunin’s definition. He is embracing a conception of freedom that can be exercised by a single individual, isolated from a human community. One can act spontaneously entirely alone; it does not, for example, require a special, acquired mental capacity. Consequently, for Bakunin, freedom was an attribute of individuals, not of humans constituting a collectivity:

Liberty … consists in my being entitled, as a man, to obey no other man and to act only on my own judgment. [13]

Liberty is the absolute right of all adult men and women to seek no sanction for their actions except their own conscience and their own reason, to determine them only of their own free will, and consequently to be responsible for them to themselves first of all, and then to society of which they are a part, but only in so far as they freely consent to be a part of it. [14]

However, because he viewed humans as naturally social, at times he tried to take this understanding of freedom and demonstrate that it could operate consistently in a human community:

I am a fanatical lover of liberty…. I do not mean that formal liberty which is dispensed, measured out, and regulated by the State…. Nor do I mean that individualist, egoist, base, and fraudulent liberty extolled by the school of Jean Jacques Rousseau and every other school of bourgeois liberalism, which considers the rights of all, represented by the State, as a limit for the rights of each…. No, I mean the only liberty worthy of the name, the liberty which implies the full development of all the material, intellectual, and moral capacities latent in everyone of us; the liberty which knows no other restrictions but those set by the laws of our own nature. Consequently there are, properly speaking, no restrictions, since these laws are not imposed upon us by any legislator from outside, alongside, or above ourselves. These laws are subjective, inherent in ourselves; they constitute the very basis of our being…. [T]hat liberty of each man which does not find another man’s freedom a boundary but confirmation and vast extension of his own; liberty through solidarity, in equality. [15]

Leaving aside the question whether this formulation is consistent with his earlier versions, Bakunin is basically arguing that it is our nature to live together in equality, cooperating with one another, where no one exploits or is exploited. Hence, if I am acting naturally and consequently freely, then I am not exploiting my neighbor, thereby allowing my neighbor to live naturally and freely. In this way one individual’s freedom serves as a confirmation and extension of another. But still, this conception of freedom is grounded on the individual: “… collective liberty and prosperity exist only so far as they represent the sum of individual liberties and prosperities.” [16]

To summarize Bakunin’s philosophy, he is operating, by and large, within the naturalistic framework established by the empiricist current of the Enlightenment. Humans are conceived as embodying a permanently fixed nature with behavior basically determined by natural laws. This state of affairs is then identified with what is good. However, when coercion enters into the relations among people, we enter the realm of the unnatural. We are alienated from our natural condition and we lose our freedom.

The Philosophy of Marx

While Bakunin’s major theoretical assumptions were firmly rooted in materialist Enlightenment philosophy, Marx was impacted by this tradition for the most part only after it underwent a significant transformation in the hands of Hegel. Most importantly, Hegel rejected the Enlightenment conviction that humans are a natural species, conforming to the same kind of permanently fixed laws as the rest of the natural world. Instead, he postulated a vision of humanity engaged in a developmental process, constantly transforming and recreating itself in its struggle to become increasingly rational. Moreover, this undertaking was conceived as a collective endeavor since rationality, in the final analysis, is an attribute that requires, both for its original emergence and its continual exercise, the contribution of the entire species. For example, each new generation builds on the rational accomplishments of its predecessors, and in this way humans gradually succeed in creating a scientific grasp of reality. Finally, in Hegel’s opinion, this historical process culminates in a state of consummate rationality when humanity acquires self-knowledge. Here humans achieve the capacity to regulate their interactions according to conscious, rational canons and have come to understand themselves as a rational species in a collective sense.

Marx adopted Hegel’s vision of humans engaged in a collective undertaking but argued in favor of a different logic governing the process. For Hegel, the logic of history reflected the logic of human consciousness while Marx anchored the logic to a materialist substructure. In particular, for Marx, the manner in which humans go about satisfying their basic needs stamps a certain structure on the kind of society they create, the relations people have with one another, and the ideas they formulate about themselves and the surrounding world:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. [17]

Moreover, this economic foundation contains a certain logic that unleashes a historical movement:

… [W]e must begin by stating the first premise of all human existence and, therefore, of all history, the premise, namely that man must be in a position to live in order to be able to ‘make history.’ But life involves before everything else eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing and many other things. The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself. The second point is that the satisfaction of the first need … leads to new needs; and this production of new needs is the first historical act. [18]

Like Hegel, Marx viewed this historical process as a collective endeavor since humans depend on one another both for the satisfaction of their basic physical needs and for the acquisition of higher needs:

The object before us, to begin with, material production. Individuals producing in society – hence socially determined individual production, is, of course, the point of departure. The individual and isolated hunter and fisherman, with whom Smith and Ricardo begin, belongs among the unimaginative conceits of the eighteenth-century Robinsonades, which in no way express merely a reaction against over-sophistication and a return to a misunderstood natural life, as cultural historians imagine. As little as Rousseau’s contrat social, which brings naturally independent, autonomous subjects into relation and connection by contract, rests on such naturalism. [19]

While Bakunin posited a fixed, natural human essence, Marx, again following Hegel’s lead, believed that human nature itself unfolded in a developmental process whereby the specific nature of one historical epoch was shed and a new nature was donned in a perpetual process of re-creation. As humans invent ever more sophisticated instruments to employ in the production process, they simultaneously transform themselves into more rational, universal individuals. At the beginning of history, the human species was hardly distinguishable from the rest of the animal kingdom; people were impulsive and lacked a conscious understanding of themselves and their environment. In other words, Bakunin’s picture of humanity as a fixed, natural species only enjoys a fleeting validity at the earliest stage of history in Marx’s perspective:

This beginning is as animal as social life itself at this stage. It is mere herd-consciousness, and at this point man is only distinguished from the sheep by the fact that with him consciousness takes the place of instinct or that his instinct is a conscious one. This sheep-like or tribal consciousness receives its further development and extension through increased productivity, the increase of needs, and, what is fundamental to both of these, the increase of population. [20]

But in the course of a communist revolution, a remarkable transformation takes place: the working class seizes control of the instruments of production and, for the first time, begins to direct them according to a conscious, rational plan:

All-round dependence, this natural form of the world-historical co-operation of individuals, will be transformed by this communist revolution into the control and conscious mastery of these powers, which born of the action of men on one another, have till now overawed and governed men as powers completely alien to them. [21]

Here humans have abandoned their animal-like, impulsive existence in favor of a deliberate, rational regulation of their affairs. But conscious mastery of the productive forces can only be achieved when humans work in cooperation and harmony with one another, for as long as economic classes exist with their accompanying exploitation, relations of domination will substitute for rational discussion, thereby precluding the possibility of consciously controlling the productive forces:

First, the productive forces appear as a world for themselves, quite independent of and divorced from the individuals, alongside the individuals: the reason for this that the individuals, whose forces they are, exist split up and in opposition to one another, whilst, on the other hand, these forces are only real forces in the intercourse and association of these individuals. [22]

For this reason, the involvement of all individuals in the conscious control of the economy is an absolute prerequisite:

In all appropriations up to now, a mass of individuals remained subservient to a single instrument of production; in the appropriation by the proletarians, a mass of instruments of production must be made subject to each individual, and property to all. Modern universal intercourse can be controlled by individuals, therefore, only when controlled by all. [23]

In stark contradiction to Bakunin, Marx believed that a successful revolution does not signal the recapturing of an original, natural essence that was stifled by the advent of the State and the creation of classes, but rather the creation of a new human being:

Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew. [24]

Thus, in the revolutionary process, the proletariat transforms itself from a passive class, following the dictates of the bourgeoisie, into a self-determining agent capable of taking the reins of history into its own hands and directing events according to a conscious plan. This represents the dawn of a new age in which individuals act collectively and consciously in determining social policy: “Only at this stage does self-activity coincide with material life, which corresponds to the development of individuals into complete individuals and the casting off of all natural limitations.” [25]

We see, therefore, that Marx and Bakunin have developed two dramatically divergent visions of humanity. Bakunin adopted a static version of human nature, identifying it with what is physically natural while Marx posited a humanity that was undergoing maturation, leaving behind a more animal-like existence as it achieved ever higher levels of rationality and self-consciousness.

Their ethical doctrines correspondingly reflected these different conceptual frameworks. While Bakunin defined the good in terms of what is “natural,” Marx relativized ethical terms historically so that each new mode of production was seen to spawn new ethical assumptions:

The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct efflux of their material behavior. The same applies to mental productions as expressed in the language of politics, laws, morality, religion, metaphysics, etc., of a people. Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc. – real, active men, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these, up to its furthest forms. [26]

In the context of criticizing Gilbart, a 19th century British historian of economics who claimed that deriving profit from money through interest was “naturally” just, Marx argued that there is no natural justice, i.e., no justice that is permanently valid:

To speak here of natural justice, as Gilbart does … is nonsense. The justice of the transactions between agents of production rests on the fact that these arise as natural consequences out of the production relationships. The juristic forms in which these economic transactions appear as willful acts of the parties concerned, as expressions of their common will and as contracts that may be enforced by law against some individual party, cannot, being mere forms, determine this content. They merely express it. This content is just whenever it corresponds, is appropriate, to the mode of production. It is unjust whenever it contradicts that mode. [27]

Marx’s notion of freedom also involves a paradigm shift in relation to Bakunin and the empiricist school of the Enlightenment. There are two pivotal turns that Marx executed in departing from this tradition and in both cases he was following Hegel’s analysis.

First, for Marx, freedom does not amount to following one’s impulses or engaging in spontaneity. Impulses are a part of one’s natural constitution – they are not the product of choice. When we act impulsively, we act “naturally” and without conscious reflection. However, when we rationally and consciously direct our behavior, we ourselves, through thoughtful deliberation, determine our course of action. Marx accordingly allied himself with that sector of the Enlightenment that was represented, for example, by Kant and Rousseau, where both endorsed the autonomy of the subject:

Really free working, e.g. composing, is at the same time precisely the most damned seriousness, the most intense exertion. The work of material production can achieve this character only (1) when its social character is posited, (2) when it is of a scientific and at the same time general character, not merely human exertion as a specifically harnessed natural force, but exertion as subject, which appears in the production process not in a merely natural, spontaneous form, but as an activity regulating all the forces of nature. [28]

Second, and connected with the first point, freedom is not a capacity that is exercised fundamentally by an individual; rather it is for Marx undertaken primarily by a community of people and in this respect his analysis deviates from Kant and Rousseau. Science, for example, is not a discipline that can be created or employed by an isolated individual. Humans existed for thousands of years before they were in a position to begin to engage in scientific thought, and many more thousands of years passed before they were able to create formal, scientific theories. And no progress could be made at all in this direction until humans developed the ability to build on the contributions of previous generations.

Moreover, because humans are dependent upon one another for the satisfaction of their needs, both physical and psychological, they are compelled to work with one another. Within capitalist society, rather than working with one another directly, cooperation is enforced indirectly by people competing against one another, each consulting only his or her private interest in determining which option to pursue. But such behavior entails that the structure people operate within does not become an object of critical reflection precisely because, from the vantage point of an isolated individual, it is impossible to alter. Hence, from this perspective society appears to be as inflexible as the law of gravity. But the goal of a socialist society is to invert this relation. Instead of individuals feeling powerless in the face of their own social institutions, by directly coming together through organized discourse, they place themselves in a position to alter these institutions according to their own needs and values. But this can only be accomplished when individuals are operating as a coordinated force, where they are discussing, debating and voting on which options to pursue, and where everyone has the opportunity to participate. Consequently a socialist society brings into play a new definition of freedom, and, in Marx’s opinion, a superior conception: the collective, rational determination of social policy. “Freedom in this field can only consist in socialized man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by blind forces of Nature.” [29]

Consequently, Bakunin’s individualistic definition of freedom, in Marx’s opinion, remains mired in the conceptual framework of bourgeois philosophy and simply sows confusion when transplanted onto a socialist foundation:

Liberty [i.e. the bourgeois conception], therefore is the right to do everything that harms no one else. The limits within which anyone can act without harming someone else are defined by law, just as the boundary between two fields is determined by a boundary post. It is a question of the liberty of man as an isolated monad, withdrawn into himself…. But the [bourgeois] right of man to liberty is based not on the association of man with man, but on the separation of man from man. It is the right of this separation, the right of the restricted individual, withdrawn into himself. [30]

In fact, this bourgeois conception of freedom, when compared to a more advanced socialist conception, is simply another form of slavery:

Precisely the slavery of civil society is in appearance the greatest freedom because it is in appearance the fully developed independence of the individual, who considers as his own freedom the uncurbed movement, no longer bound by a common bond or by man, of the estranged elements of his life, such as property, industry, religion, etc., whereas actually this is his fully developed slavery and inhumanity. [31]

The differences between Marx’s and Bakunin’s definitions of freedom, in the final analysis, stem directly from their opposed philosophical presuppositions. For Bakunin, since humans are a natural species, it only makes sense to define freedom as acting naturally. But for Marx, since he regards humanity as in the process of lifting itself above nature, freedom is identified with collective, rational action.

One final cornerstone of Marx’s philosophic foundation concerns his analysis of the laws of history. As we have seen, his historical, materialist approach committed him to emphasizing the role of economic conditions in determining the course of history. But while Bakunin argued that historical laws could be reduced to natural laws, thereby implying that humans have no more control over their destiny than natural objects, Marx postulated a dynamic relation between human intentions and the surrounding economic environment:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. [32]

It shows that circumstances make men just as much as men make circumstances. [33]

Here, the material environment and human intentions conjoin to nudge, or hurl, as the case may be, history in a particular direction.

This dynamic relationship for Marx is rooted in the basic production process through which humans relate both to one another and to nature:

Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both men and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material reactions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway. We are not now dealing with those primitive instinctive forms of labour that remind us of the mere animal…. We pre-suppose labour in a form that stamps it as exclusively human. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. [34]

In other words, the economic foundation itself upon which history rests in Marx’s system, includes the role of human consciousness as an irreducible moment.

Consequently, Marx’s materialism does not commit him to a mechanical explanation where each historical event is conclusively determined by a preceding set of conditions, as in the natural sciences. Rather, the surrounding economic conditions establish certain parameters within which human intentions operate, thereby stamping a general logic on these intentions without entirely determining them. It is impossible, for example, to create a computer when one has only stone implements at one’s disposal, but one is not compelled to create a computer even if all the necessary technology is available.

For this reason Marx insisted upon drawing a sharp boundary between nature, on the one hand, and history on the other:

Nature does not produce on the one side owners of money or commodities, and on the other men possessing nothing but their own labour-power. This relation has no natural basis, neither is its social basis one that is common to all historical periods. It is clearly the result of a past historical development, the product of many economic revolutions, of the extinction of a whole series of older forms of social production. [35]

And for this reason he was also critical of attempts to depict history as one more branch of the natural sciences:

Does not the history of the productive organs of man [i.e. technology], of organs that are the material basis of all social organization, deserve equal attention [as the history of the organs of plants and animals]? And would not such a history be easier to compile, since, as Vico says, human history differs from natural history in this, that we have made the former, but not the latter? … The weak points in the abstract materialism of natural science, a materialism that excludes history and its process, are at once evident from the abstract and ideological conceptions of its spokesmen, whenever they venture beyond the bounds of their own speciality. [36]

The Dispute Over the Dictatorship of the Proletariat

From Bakunin’s perspective, the most important revolutionary act aimed at the destruction of the institution of the State: “We think that the necessarily revolutionary policy of the proletariat must have for its immediate and only object the destruction of States.” [37] The State, by establishing the right of inheritance, creates economic classes and thereby introduces an “unnatural” dimension in human relations, a perversity, as it were, that can only be maintained through force which, by means of the military and the police, the State monopolizes. When the State is abolished and coercion is removed, people can immediately revert back to their “natural” condition and recapture their “natural” freedom. No transitional period is required. The dictatorship of the proletariat, as another State, would only serve to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Operating within his historical, materialist framework and placing economics first, Marx countered this analysis by arguing that the State, far from creating economic classes, was itself created by them, by the clash of opposing class interests. The ruling class, in order to consolidate its economic privileges, uses the State to create laws which enshrine its monopoly on wealth in a cloak of legal legitimacy, and it establishes a military apparatus that is prepared to implement these laws by brute force.

Consequently, from Marx’s perspective, classes could persist beyond the destruction of the bourgeois state, although with some difficulty, and the bourgeoisie could survive even after its property has been expropriated. People who have enjoyed privileges are molded by them, they tend to view their elevated position as “natural,” and accordingly seldom relinquish their assets voluntarily. As history has proven, they will often fight tenaciously to reinstate them. Hence, according to Marx, if the proletariat is truly determined to succeed, it must be prepared to use decisive force, if the situation demands. Therefore the working class must establish its own coercive apparatus, i.e. state, so that it can defend its interests and enforce a genuine form of majority rule. Otherwise it will find itself at the mercy of a counterrevolution.

In criticizing Marx’s program of the dictatorship of the proletariat, Bakunin raises this challenge: “If the proletariat is to be the ruling class, one may ask whom will it govern? There must be yet another proletariat that will be subjected to this new domination, this new state.” [38] Here Bakunin’s reaction stems from his belief that the State itself is the creator of classes so that whoever controls the state is identified with the ruling, capitalist class while those being victimized by it are the equivalent of the proletariat. But for Marx, as we just saw, the proletarian dictatorship is not aimed at any section of the working class but at the former bourgeoisie, which simply does not disappear overnight.

Bakunin, however, proceeds: “There are about forty million Germans. Are all forty million going to be members of the government?” [39] And Marx responds: “Certainly, because the thing starts with the self-government of the commune.” [40]

This last criticism of Bakunin is connected with a fundamental misunderstanding of Marx’s program. Operating within an a-historical framework, Bakunin was quick to assume all states are basically the same. Hence, he concluded that Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat was not essentially different from the bourgeois state: “… according to Mr. Marx’s theory the people not only must not destroy it [the State] but on the contrary must reinforce it and make it stronger….” [41]

But this was not Marx’s intention. In 1852, for example, in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx argued:

This executive power with its enormous bureaucratic and military organization, with its ingenious state machinery, embracing wide strata, with a host of officials numbering half a million, this appalling parasitic body, which enmeshes the body of French society like a net and chokes all its pores, sprang up in the days of the absolute monarchy, with the decay of the feudal system, which it helped to hasten…. Finally, in its struggle against the revolution, the parliamentary republic found itself compelled to strengthen, along with the repressive measures, the resources and centralization of governmental power. All revolutions perfected this machine instead of smashing it. [42]

Almost twenty years later he reiterated this position: “… If you look at the last chapter of my Eighteenth Brumaire, you will find that I declare: the next French Revolution will no longer attempt to transfer the bureaucratic-military apparatus from one hand to another, but to smash it, and this is the precondition for every real people’s revolution on the Continent.” [43]

The determination to smash the bourgeois state was a cornerstone of Marx’s political program. Its destruction opens the door to the political participation of the entire working class where everyone can have a voice in shaping public policy. If the bourgeois state were to survive, the proletariat would remain hopelessly paralyzed in a bureaucratic quagmire.

Aside from the need of the dictatorship of the proletariat to guard against the bourgeoisie, Marx envisioned the establishment of a socialist society as an arduous task, requiring a transitional period in which the groundwork could be laid for a radically new society. Not subscribing to any concept of a natural, pristine condition that could serve as a point of return, Marx conceived of the revolutionary process as one that actually involved the creation of a new human being, one that was capable of acting both socially and rationally. But such an achievement could not be secured instantaneously; considerable time and effort was required for it to mature.

What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges. [44]

But in order for a moral and intellectual transformation in humans to take place, or, as mentioned above, “an alteration of man on a mass scale,” the proper economic conditions must exist because, as Marx persistently argued, humans are molded by their economic environment:

He [Bakunin] understands nothing whatever about social revolution; all he knows about it is political phrases; its economic prerequisites do not exist for him. Since all the economic forms, developed or undeveloped, that have existed till now included the enslavement of the worker (whether in the shape of the wage-worker or the peasant, etc.) he presumes that a radical revolution is equally possible in all of them. [45]

These economic improvements would include the abolition of the division of labor, especially between mental and manual labor, and the development of the productive forces:

And … this development of productive forces … is an absolutely necessary practical premise because without it want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced; and furthermore, because only with this universal development of productive forces is a universal intercourse between men established, which … finally has put world-historical, empirically universal individuals in place of local ones. [46]

Therefore, the dictatorship of the proletariat was also required since it could not be assumed that relations among people will immediately proceed smoothly. Time would be needed for humanity to recreate itself along more humanitarian principles. Then:

“… after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life, but life’s prime want, after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banner: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!’” [47]

Organizational Differences

Another major point of dispute centers on the form of organization needed to wage a revolution.

Although Bakunin was a member of the International Working Men’s Association, most of his organizing efforts were concentrated on the creation of secret societies which were governed by a top-down structure. The following quote gives a sense of the role Bakunin assigned to them and why they appeared to be a sensible alternative for him:

This organization rules out any idea of dictatorship and custodial control. But for the very establishment of the revolutionary alliance and the triumph of revolution over reaction, the unity of revolutionary thought and action must find an agent in the thick of the popular anarchy which will constitute the very life and all the energy of the revolution. That agent must be the secret universal association of international brothers.

This association stems from the conviction that revolutions are never made by individuals or even by secret societies. They come about of themselves, produced by the force of things, the tide of events and facts…. All that a well-organized secret society can do is first to assist the birth of the revolution by sowing ideas corresponding to the instincts of the masses, then to organize, not the army of the revolution – the army must always be the people – but a kind of revolutionary general staff made up of devoted, hardworking and intelligent men, and above all of sincere friends of the people, without ambition or vanity, and capable of acting as intermediaries between the revolutionary idea and the popular instinct.

Therefore there should be no vast number of these individuals…. Two or three hundred revolutionaries are enough for the largest country’s organization. [48]

There are several important points contained in the above passage. First, the emphasis is placed on the instincts of the masses for the fuel that will erupt in a revolutionary upheaval. Second, there is no emphasis on organizing the masses themselves. Third, the secret societies act somewhat as midwives, assisting in the birth of the revolution but are certainly not considered the main engine of it. They engage in translating the instincts of the masses into revolutionary concepts. Fourth, precisely because these societies are in fact secret, they are not elected by the masses, but are self-appointed representatives of the masses. They themselves determine whether they are genuinely hardworking and intelligent. Using these principles as his point of departure, Bakunin then criticized Marx for failing to appreciate the crucial role of instinct or temperament:

Likewise, Marx completely ignores a most important element in the historic development of humanity, that is, the temperament and particular character of each race and each people, a temperament and a character which are themselves the natural product of a multitude of ethnological, climatological, economic and historic causes…. Among these elements … there is one whose action is completely decisive in the particular history of each people; it is the intensity of the spirit of revolt…. This instinct is a fact which is completely primordial and animalistic…. [I]t is a matter of temperament rather than intellectual and moral character…. [49]

And for this reason there is no need to educate the masses. In order to mount a revolution, Bakunin’s self-appointed leaders must simply mix with the oppressed so that this instinct to revolt might be ignited. Then, because instincts are true and just, one can depend on them entirely to push the revolution to a successful conclusion. Consequently, Bakunin complained that Marx was actually contaminating this natural flow of events in that Marx was “ruining the workers by making theorists out of them”. [50]

For Marx, the revolutionary process was far more complicated, requiring ongoing education of the proletariat. For example, it was crucial for him that the proletariat acquire class consciousness because, without this consciousness, it would not come to the realization that the entire capitalist system must be abolished and replaced by a system that operates in the interests of working people, as opposed to a small, extremely wealthy minority. In other words, without class consciousness, members of the proletariat assume that their miserable condition is a function of their own individual initiative, or lack thereof, or simply bad luck, as opposed to resulting from naked class exploitation. But class consciousness is not simply gained instinctively since the bourgeoisie, for example, is relentlessly on a campaign to assert ideological hegemony by arguing that capitalism represents the highest achievement in individual freedom, fairness in the distribution of wealth, etc. For these reasons, Marx was always insistent on the importance of propaganda or education:

To assure the success of the revolution one must have ‘unity of thought and action’. [Marx is quoting Bakunin.] The members of the International are trying to create this unity by propaganda, by discussion and the public organization of the proletariat. But all Bakunin needs is a secret organization of one hundred people, the privileged representatives of the revolutionary idea, the general staff in the background, self-appointed and commanded by the permanent ‘Citizen B’ [i.e., Bakunin]. [51]

But in order for education to take place, the working class must be organized, and one such venue is the trade union movement: “It is in trade unions that workers educate themselves and become socialists, because under their very eyes and every day the struggle with capital is taking place.” [52]

Moreover, for Marx, beyond their trade union experience, workers must be organized on a political level so that they can challenge the bourgeoisie for state power. A political party is the organ through which the working class develops and expresses its class consciousness. It is the instrument with which it articulates and promotes its own class interests in opposition to the bourgeoisie:

“Here, in order to be able to offer energetic opposition to the democratic petty bourgeois, it is above all necessary for the workers to be independently organised and centralised in clubs… The speedy organisation of at least a provincial association of the workers’ clubs is one of the most important points for the strengthening and developing of the workers’ party; the immediate consequence of the overthrow of the existing governments will be the election of a national representative assembly. Here the proletariat must see to it:

I. that no groups of workers are barred on any pretext or by any kind of trickery on the part of local authorities or government commissioners.

II. that everywhere workers’ candidates are put up alongside the bourgeois-democratic candidates, that they are as far as possible members of the League, and that their election is promoted by all possible means. Even where there is no prospect whatever of their being elected, the workers must put up their own candidates in order to preserve their independence, to count their forces and to lay before the public their revolutionary attitude and party standpoint. In this connection they must not allow themselves to be bribed by such arguments of the democrats as, for example, that by so doing they are splitting the democratic party and giving the reactionaries the possibility of victory. [52a]

Furthermore, from Marx’s perspective, these working class organizations must encompass the entire proletariat. The working class as a whole must become actively engaged so that the discussions and debates truly amount to “universal intercourse”. If only some are engaged in the decision-making process, then the decisions will reflect only these special interests so that the decisions will not be universally valid.

Thus things have now come to such a pass, that the individuals must appropriate the existing totality of productive forces, not only to achieve self-activity, but, also, merely to safeguard their very existence… In all appropriations up to now, a mass of individuals remained subservient to a single instrument of production; in the appropriation by the proletarians, a mass of instruments of production must be made subject to each individual, and property to all. Modern universal intercourse can be controlled by individuals, only when controlled by all. [53]

Therefore, while Bakunin was intent on organizing secret societies and relying on the instincts of the masses to push the revolution to a successful conclusion, Marx was urging that the workers themselves become organized. These working class organizations not only serve as vehicles for education, but they have the potential to become powerful weapons aimed at challenging the bourgeoisie for state power. In the process of this struggle, workers not only deepen their self-consciousness as an oppressed class, but gradually acquire the realization that they are capable of seizing control of society and running it in their own interests.

Political Reforms

Bakunin consistently condemned all efforts on the part of the proletariat to improve its lot by pressing for specific legislation that seemed in its interest. The State, after all, was an unnatural excrescence, implying that any participation in it would only contaminate the revolutionary movement. Marx, on the other hand, not only regarded this political engagement as permissible but even, at times, as indispensable, provided that the conquest of state power was not on the immediate agenda, either because the objective conditions were lacking or because the proletariat had not already achieved the appropriate level of class consciousness and organization. Struggling for reforms involves a certain level of organized, self-determination and hence contributes to the transformation of the working class into active agents. Also, when these campaigns are successful, they can endow the working class with a sense of its own power, enhance its self-confidence, and consequently lead to even bolder initiatives in a revolutionary direction. Moreover, the legislation can in turn open up greater opportunities for working class self-activity, for example, by shortening the working day. Finally, as mentioned earlier, this kind of political engagement is an expression of, and contributes to, the development of class consciousness:

On the other hand, however, every movement in which the working class as a class confronts the ruling classes and tries to constrain them by pressure from without is a political movement. For instance, the attempt by strikes, etc., in a particular factory or even in a particular trade to compel individual capitalists to reduce the working day, is a purely economic movement. On the other hand the movement to force through an eight-hour, etc. law is a political movement. And in this way, out of the separate economic movements of the workers there grows up everywhere a political movement, that is to say, a class movement, with the object of enforcing its interests in a general form, in a form possessing general, socially coercive force. [54]

For Marx, the development of class consciousness is a slow process that traverses a number of stages. On the lowest level, a worker who is suffering from the relations of exploitation approaches the employer as an individual, pleading for ameliorated working conditions. After meeting with failure, workers eventually come to recognize that a more promising avenue lies in collective action, for example, in organizing a union and launching a strike. Here the individual’s consciousness rises one level as he or she realizes that co-workers are also suffering and collective action can be far more effective than the pleas of an isolated individual. But these struggles can in turn lead to action on a more universal plane where one realizes that one’s plight is not simply the function of a particular workplace but emanates from the capitalist system itself. Here, individuals recognize that all workers are suffering and that by organizing the entire working class, a powerful agent is created that has the capacity to change such laws as the length of the working day; and so on. The political arena offers an important opportunity for the proletariat to embark on this path of growth.

The Revolutionary Agent

Another strategical disagreement dividing Marx and Bakunin centered around the question of who would lead the revolution. Both agreed that the proletariat would play a key role, but for Marx the proletariat was the exclusive, leading revolutionary agent while Bakunin entertained the possibility that the peasants and even the lumpenproletariat (the unemployed, common criminals, etc.) could rise to the occasion. Bakunin argued, for example, that the peasants were a revolutionary class for three reasons: (1) They have retained “the simple, robust temperament and the energy germane to the folk nature.” (2) They work with their hands and despise privilege. And (3) as toilers they have common interests with workers. [55] In other words, being close to nature, the peasants are less alienated from their true, natural essence since they have suffered less corruption by the evils of society. Bakunin adopted a similar argument in relation to the lumpenproletariat:

By flower of the proletariat, I mean precisely that eternal ‘meat’, … that great rabble of the people (underdogs, ‘dregs of society’) ordinarily designated by Marx and Engels in the picturesque and contemptuous phrase lumpenproletariat. I have in mind the ‘riffraff’, that ‘rabble’ almost unpolluted by bourgeois civilization, which carries in its inner being and in its aspirations … all the seeds of the socialism of the future…. [56]

In both cases, Bakunin’s conclusions flow directly from his conviction that inherent in humanity is a natural essence which can be suppressed but never entirely extinguished. Those in society who are more distant from the State apparatus (the peasants are scattered throughout the countryside, the lumpenproletariat simply refuses to obey the laws) are accordingly natural leaders.

In contrast, Marx consistently argued that the proletariat alone was the revolutionary agent: “Of all classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class. The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of Modern Industry; the proletariat is its special and essential product.” [57] Here again their different philosophical frameworks led these revolutionaries in opposed directions. Because Marx believed human nature was shaped by the economy, he analyzed the possible revolutionary agents by analyzing how the economy would influence their development. And economic considerations led him to conclude that the peasants could not play a leading revolutionary role. For example, they do not constitute a cohesive class. Some are large landowners and hire other peasants to work for them while the latter are often landless and destitute. Moreover, the desire for land by a majority of the peasants could serve as an anchor, holding them back from a truly revolutionary perspective. Rather than rallying for a thoroughgoing, socialist revolution where private ownership of land is abolished, they often veer in the direction of seeking to augment their own modest, private property land holdings at the expense of the large landowners. But aside from these economic considerations, Marx also believed that the situation of the peasants, not only prohibited them from attaining class consciousness, but from becoming a truly revolutionary class:

The small holding peasants form a vast mass, the members of which live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with one another. Their mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse…. Their field of production, the small holding, admits of no division of labor in its cultivation, no application of science and, therefore, no diversity of development, no variety of talent, no wealth of social relationships. Each individual peasant family is almost self-sufficient; it itself directly produces the major part of its consumption and thus acquires its means of life more through exchange with nature than in intercourse with society. A small holding, a peasant and his family; alongside them another small holding, another peasant and another family…. In so far as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests and their culture from those of other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. In so far as there is a merely local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests begets no community, no national bond and no political organization among them, they do not form a class. [58]

Marx was even less enthusiastic about the lumpenproletariat because it was not directly related to the production process at all, being comprised of the permanently unemployed, criminals, etc.


We can now see that when Marxists and anarchists refer to such concepts as “human nature” and “freedom”, they have diametrically opposed definitions in mind and therefore are frequently talking at cross-purposes. Bakunin’s notion of spontaneity stands starkly opposed to Marx’s notion of collective, rational action. Each author, armed with his own definition, could then logically categorize the other as a tyrant. One can understand, therefore, why Bakunin labeled Marx an “authoritarian” when Marx would not concede to Bakunin’s impulsive politics. Marx, on the other hand, viewed Bakunin’s conceptual framework as mired in an antiquated 18th century Enlightenment philosophy, lacking any historical dimension, theoretically inconsistent, and parading metaphysics as if it were materialism. As far as Marx was concerned, Hegel could easily have been speaking of Bakunin when he declared:

Since the man of common sense makes his appeal to feeling, to an oracle within his breast, he is finished and done with anyone who does not agree; he only has to explain that he has nothing more to say to anyone who does not find and feel the same in himself. In other words, he tramples underfoot the roots of humanity. For it is in the nature of humanity to press onward to agreement with others; human nature only really exists in an achieved community of minds. [59]

Neither the early nor the later Marx was a figure of the late Enlightenment, a philosophic school which trumpeted the autonomy of the isolated individual, divorced from a human community. And Marx had little to say about socialist alternatives, except by suggesting broad parameters, since socialism, in the final analysis, is to be defined and created by the participants themselves, i.e. by “freely associated men” engaged in “universal intercourse” who in this way achieve “control and conscious mastery” of their lives.

I would like to thank Bill Leumer, Paul Colvin and Fred Newhouser for their valuable suggestions in connection with this article.


A Short Introduction to Marx’s Das Kapital

Ann Robertson

Marx’s analysis of capitalism, unlike bourgeois accounts, is conducted from a historical perspective. In other words, Marx was keenly aware that during the march of history, one economic system, because of internal, irreconcilable contradictions, has been replaced by another until it too falls victim to similar contradictions. Of course, when one is born and matures within a single economy and lacks knowledge of any other system, one tends to take one’s own for granted, believing that it will persevere forever. A historical perspective has the advantage of forcing us to rise above the provincial perspective that assumes economic systems are eternal. We survey from above the vast array of systems that have played their fleeting role on history’s stage. For this reason, Marx’s analysis of capitalism is specifically written with the purpose of unveiling its inner contradictions so that the possibility of its demise stands boldly in relief. This runs directly opposed to bourgeois portrayals of capitalism as “natural” and hence as unalterable as the law of gravity itself.

What distinguishes capitalism from all other economic systems for Marx is, first, the prevalence of the commodity. Under capitalism it becomes the universal form that frames all economic relations. 1 A commodity is by definition something that is produced specifically for the purpose of being exchanged, either for money or directly for another commodity. Therefore it must satisfy some desire on the part of someone other than the producer. This quality is referred to as its “use value,” and is a function of the specific physical qualities of the commodity. When a member of a family cooks dinner and serves the other members, the various dishes are not commodities — they are not produced for exchange. Gifts are also not commodities since supposedly nothing is demanded in exchange. But if someone bakes cookies in order to raise money, the cookies are commodities.

In capitalist society, in its most basic form, producers come together in a market in order to sell their various commodities and buy others. This in turn means that the economic relations among members of capitalist societies are no longer direct, personal relations. People do not come together and collectively calculate the needs of society so that they can plan what should be produced accordingly. Rather, producers assume the roles of private, independent entrepreneurs, each seeking to maximize his private welfare, and all of them relating to one another, at least as far as their economic relations are concerned, only through their commodities.

The question then arises: When producers exchange their commodities, what determines the ratio in which the exchange is conducted? Why, for example, might 2 pounds of coffee exchange for 1 yard of linen? Or, using Marx’s term, what determines the “exchange value” of a commodity?

The Value and Exchange Value of Commodities

Imagine that 2 pounds of coffee and 1 yard of linen each require 10 hours of labor to produce. But suppose that when the weaver brought his linen to market, he only succeeded in securing 1 pound of coffee in exchange for his 1 yard of linen. Under such circumstances, the weaver would undoubtedly calculate that the arrangement did not proceed in his favor. He brought the equivalent of 10 hours of labor to the market but only left with the equivalent of 5. If labor were a process of pure joy, the weaver might shrug off the lack of equivalence and simply look forward to producing more linen. But whenever work is unpleasant, and this is particularly true under capitalism, this unequal exchange is no trivial matter. The weaver would quickly conclude that life would be better as a producer of coffee precisely because he could acquire more wealth in a shorter period of time, thereby expending less of his energy than if he remained in the business of weaving. If he and others like him turned to producing coffee so that fewer people were producing linen, a new set of circumstances would emerge. Eventually, the supply of coffee would rise, but, assuming all other factors were equal, the demand for it would remain as it was before. Because of the new abundance of coffee, its producers would soon encounter difficulties in finding customers. To their chagrin, they might be forced to settle for less if they wanted to sell at all. Meanwhile, since the number of weavers declined, less linen would have been produced. Those who remained in this line of business would discover that they could command a higher price for their linen since buyers would be forced to compete among each other over the scarce supply. Instead of 1 yard of linen exchanging for l pound of coffee as before, it might now exchange for, not 2, but 3 pounds of coffee. Here the weaver comes away with the better deal. He brought the equivalent of 10 hours of labor to the market and left with the equivalent of 15 hours. 2

One might conclude that these transactions lack any rational principle, given the constant fluctuations in the ratios of exchanges among the commodities. However, a logic slowly emerges. All the participants attempt to maximize their wealth in relation to the amount of time they are required to expend on procuring it. If they come away from a transaction with the equivalent of less labor time than they invested in the article they sold, they conclude that their line of business is not “profitable” and migrate to a sector of the economy where they could at least receive the equivalent of what they sell, but hopefully get even more in the transaction. Of course, this assumes that producers have the option to change businesses or produce more or less of any particular commodity as they choose, and this option is indeed a requirement of capitalism. When a commodity sells at a rate above its labor time, more producers gravitate into this sector, wanting to take advantage of the windfall. But their move serves to increase the supply of the commodity, thereby eventually reducing its cost since supply has expanded in relation to demand. Conversely, when a commodity sells at a rate below its labor time, producers abandon this sector, thereby decreasing the supply in relation to demand, which eventually translates into a rise in the commodity’s price. If one were to average the fluctuations of each particular commodity over an extended period of time, one would discover that this average hovers around the amount of socially necessary labor time required to produce the article. Or, put differently, when supply and demand exactly balance out with respect to the two articles being exchanged, then both will embody the same amount of socially necessary labor time.

Marx is quick to point out that the socially necessary labor time required to produce an article does not necessarily coincide with the amount of time actually spent in the production process. If a producer intentionally slows down in order to stretch the amount of time to produce a commodity, this added time does not raise the exchange rate of the article. If the producer nevertheless tried to extract a higher price from the buyer, he would quickly find himself with no customers since, operating in their own self-interest, they would seek the better deal from the more efficient producer.

The socially necessary labor time required to produce a commodity is what Marx refers to as “Value.” The “exchange value” of a commodity designates the number of other commodities or amount of money it can be exchanged for at a particular time. The exchange value will rise or fall, given the relations of supply and demand, while nevertheless fluctuating around the amount of labor time required to produce the commodity. In order to facilitate the process of exchange, money is introduced into the transaction. Money expresses the exchange value of a commodity in the form of a “price.” So Marx is arguing that over time, the average of the various exchange values or prices of a particular commodity will equal its Value. This law is referred to by Marx as “the law of Value.” Others have called it “the labor theory of value.”

This law is not enforced by means of the producer attaching a tag to his article, stipulating the amount of labor required for its production, and demanding an equivalent in exchange. Instead, labor time, as the determination of Value, is only achieved indirectly and impersonally through the mechanism of the market. And unfortunately for the producers, they generally have no idea of the intentions of other producers since all act from the standpoint of isolated, individual, private self-interest. Consequently, at times far too many commodities of a particular type are produced, thereby forcing prices down, to the horror of the producers. At other times far too few of them are produced and the prices surge upwards. This rise and fall in prices is the impersonal, unconscious mechanism that forces the supply of each commodity roughly to conform to the prevailing demand.

Capitalism is consequently an economy in which people only indirectly cooperate with one another. Some people are bakers, others are tailors, others are carpenters, etc. Each person depends on the others to produce the things that he needs. But this cooperation is only achieved through the buying and selling of commodities. Instead of coming together and democratically calculating how much bread, clothes or chairs will be needed by the members of society and then allocating people to these various occupations in proportion to the needs that have been identified, these assignments are determined entirely through the anarchic, unplanned exchange of commodities.

The Determination of Wages

As we have seen, every commodity necessarily has both a use value and an exchange value. The exchange of these commodities then constitutes the surface appearance of the capitalist economy. What lies underneath this surface is labor, for without labor, nothing is produced and society comes to a grinding halt. And this leads to the second defining condition of capitalism: the buying and selling of labor power.

In capitalist society workers, unlike the slaves or serfs of previous societies, sell their labor to the capitalist. In other words, one’s ability to work is itself converted into a commodity and sold like any other commodity. Almost no one would engage in such a transaction voluntarily, but as capitalism emerged from feudalism and serfs were torn from the land, two strikingly different classes of people emerged. On the one hand, there were those who had no means of support: they lacked land, they did not own a shop, and many lacked any tools whatsoever. In Marxist terms, they did not own “the means of production.” Their only asset was their ability and willingness to work. On the other hand, there were landowners, owners of manufacturing shops, etc. who needed people to work for them. In such a situation those with nothing found themselves compelled by the struggle for survival itself to approach those who owned in search of work, and this brought two new social classes face-to-face: the working class or proletariat on one side and the capitalists or bourgeoisie on the other. And before any work began, the two parties negotiated the amount the worker would be paid. One worker, for example, might be offered $10 an hour while another might be offered $20 an hour.

The question then arises: What determines the amount a worker receives? Why are the wages of some workers higher and others lower? Marx’s response was entirely consistent with his previous analysis. The workers’ ability to work has been transformed into a commodity and accordingly its Value is determined in the same way as every other commodity — by the amount of socially necessary labor time required to produce it. But a crucial distinction is required in order to follow Marx’s analysis. The worker does not sell the actual labor performed to the capitalist because the wage is negotiated before the work ever begins. The worker is made an offer and only then decides whether or not he will accept the job. Consequently the worker is technically only selling his capacity or potential or ability to work, which Marx designates by the term “labor power.” Some abilities, however, require more labor time to produce than others.

For example, if the job requires unskilled labor, then in order for a worker to have the capacity or ability to do the job, he must be capable of expending minimal mental and physical energy. And for this to take place, the worker must be relatively healthy, he must have eaten food and found clothing and shelter. The amount of time required to produce these basic necessities for one day would then be the amount of socially necessary labor time required to produce this worker’s labor power. Suppose, for example, a farmer required 4 hours of labor to produce enough food for one person to live for a day, a house builder had to do on the average one hour of work a day to maintain an apartment, and weavers, tailors, etc. were required to perform on the average 1 hour a day of labor to clothe an individual. Under these circumstances the worker would have to be in a position to pay all of these people in order to live from one day to the next, meaning that to survive, he would need a job that paid the equivalent of 6 hours of labor time. On the other hand, if the work requires the expertise of an engineer, then the worker would not only require the previous amenities, but years of education as well. Hence, much more labor time would be required to produce the ability for someone to perform the function of an engineer than to perform unskilled labor. For this reason, the wage of the engineer, that is, the price or exchange value of his labor power, is higher, all other things being equal, than the wage of an unskilled worker.

The Origin of Surplus Value

We are now in a position to follow Marx’s analysis of the origin of surplus value that for him is the source of capitalist exploitation. Let us suppose that we are dealing with unskilled labor power that requires 6 hours of labor time each day to produce. Let us also suppose that supply and demand are exactly equal so that exchange value directly coincides with the Value of the articles as measured by labor time. Let us add to this stipulation the supposition that 1 hour of labor time creates the equivalent of $5 of exchange value. Under such conditions, since the labor power of the worker requires 6 hours to produce, the worker would require $30 each day in order to maintain his ability to work. This would be the price of his labor power. Finally, let us suppose that the capitalist offers the worker $30 a day, and the worker accepts the offer.

We must now examine the actual work process. Production, as a general rule, is composed of three elements: (1) the actual work itself; (2) the material upon which the work is performed, which might include linen to be transformed into clothing, wheat to be made into bread, etc.; and finally, (3) the instruments of labor, which in turn might include tools, machines, computers, etc.

If during a 10-hour work day, the worker transforms 2 yards of linen into one coat and if the 2 yards of linen themselves required 20 hours of labor to produce, then the completed coat would therefore include not only the 10 hours of labor performed on that day, but also the 20 hours of labor already contained in the linen. This would amount to 30 hours of labor or $150 hours of exchange value, given our assumption that 1 hour of labor creates an exchange value of $5. Also, if a particular instrument, requiring 1 hour of labor time to produce, is used by the worker to make the coat and if the tool must be replaced each day because of wear and tear, then this would mean that an additional hour is required to make the coat, bringing the total to 31 hours of labor time, translating into $155. Marx argues that neither the instruments of labor, whether they are primitive tools or sophisticated machines, as well as the raw materials do not create new Value — only labor creates Value. Rather, the value embodied in them due to previous labor is transferred to the new article by the current labor.

Throughout this process we have been assuming that supply and demand are exactly balanced so that the price of all commodities is exactly commensurate to the amount of socially necessary labor time required to produce them. Under this assumption, the above coat would sell for $155. Let us now examine how the capitalist has fared in this transaction. In order to acquire the $155 at the end of the day, various expenses were advanced, including $30 in wages paid to the worker, $100 paid for the linen, and $5 for the instrument, totaling $135. To his good fortune, the capitalist ends the day with $20 more than he started, an increase which Marx designates “surplus value.” If this entire process were repeated for another 6 days, the capitalist would enjoy, including the original $20, a total surplus value of $140, which would allow him to hire an additional worker for $30, 2 more yards of linen for $100, and another instrument of labor for $5. And then in 7 more days, the capitalist would be in a position to hire two more workers, etc., all thanks to the labor of the workers he hired, with the exception of his original investment.

But from where exactly did the surplus value arise? Marx insists that in this entire process “… the laws governing the exchange of commodities have not been violated in any way. Equivalent has been exchanged for equivalent.” 3 The answer lies in the crucial distinction between labor time and labor power. As we saw, one’s labor power is simply a potential or capacity to work. As with all other commodities, ts value is a function of how much time is required to produce it. The value of one’s labor power is consequently established prior to the beginning of the working day. In the above example, the value of the labor power was the equivalent of $30. But after the worker accepted the job and actually performed the work, he was engaged in creating new value from the moment he started working. During the first 6 hours of the working day, he recreated the amount of value equal to his own wages, but the workday continued another 4 hours, which accounted for the surplus value of $20.

Class Conflict

Thus far we have considered the basic concepts of Marx’s analysis from which he derives the fundamental laws of capitalism. We must now focus our attention on a few of the general tendencies of the movement of capitalism that will in turn highlight the social relations spawned by this system.

Keeping in mind that capitalism rests on the principle of competition, we observe that when it operates according to its defining principles, individuals compete against one another in pursuit of their private interest, often at the expense of each other. Capitalist apologists have assured us for centuries that this is all for the best. They argue, for example, that if one butcher sells healthy meat while the meat of his competitor is rancid, then consumers, operating in their self-interest, will patronize the former establishment and shun the latter with the result that the latter will be forced to shut down. Or, if two butchers sell the same quality meat but one operates his business more efficiently, reducing the labor time necessary to produce the meat and passing this saving on to the consumer, then customers will patronize his shop. And so, we are told, capitalism creates the best of all possible worlds by forcing producers to create commodities with the highest quality at the lowest price.

But such an analysis, by restricting its focus to business owners and consumers, conveniently omits consideration of the impact of this system on workers, who constitute the vast majority of the population in capitalist societies.

Every capitalist who is intent on survival is compelled to reduce his production costs to a minimum. Otherwise, an industrious competitor who succeeds in this endeavor and passes the savings on to the consumer can lure the customers to his business and eliminate his less efficient opponent. However, labor costs comprise a major component of production costs, and consequently, in order to remain in business, each capitalist is compelled to reduce labor costs to the absolute minimum, given this fiercely competitive environment.

But workers, shunning a purely animal existence, are determined to enjoy a comfortable life. They want enough money to provide for themselves and their families in terms of putting food on the table, buying a house, accessing quality health care for the entire family, etc. They want long vacations and shorter working days so that they can spend time with family and friends and indulge in recreational interests.

Of course, all of these amenities cost money with the unavoidable result that an irreconcilable contradiction is wedged between the workers and their employers which, when the social niceties are peeled away, is nothing short of class war. Sometimes this war is barely visible and at other times it explodes into violent conflict, but whatever guise it assumes, it is relentless and abiding.

Accordingly, workers organize themselves into unions and conduct strikes with the intent of imposing their collective will on the bosses. Meanwhile, the capitalists have devised a myriad of insidious tactics aimed at undermining working class solidarity and lowering wages. For example, they introduce a two-tiered wage system or convert full-time positions into part-time positions, tactics that in either case divide workers among themselves, lower the wages of some, and weaken the resolve of all. Or they pack up and move to another country where wages are cheap and environmental standards are almost nonexistent. Or they replace workers by machines so that they can lower labor costs and reduce the threat of a strike. All of this is accomplished with little concern for the misery that is left in its wake: families are destroyed because workers, having been laid off, can no longer provide for their dependents, and communities are devastated because factories have abandoned them. The capitalists mercilessly press forward, casting demoralization in all directions, but unshakable in their conviction that their own survival is at stake in this dog-eat-dog “war of everyone against everyone” where life is “nasty, brutish and short.” 4 Meanwhile they arrogantly assure us that capitalism is the best that history can deliver, even though the rich are forever getting richer while the well-being of working people, the majority of the population, is relentlessly being trampled under foot by the inexorable laws of capitalism.

Strategical Implications

Marx’s analysis in CAPITAL provides a foundation for understanding these tendencies and simultaneously shines a light, in the form of specific strategical guidelines, on the path that can lead to a better world. For example, his analysis directly implies that capitalism cannot be reformed — its basic laws rule out the possibility of a benign version. If workers organize, strike, and win a substantial wage increase, the employer, due to the pressure of competition, will immediately launch a campaign to undermine these gains. He will remind the workers that if the business is to remain competitive, they must all work together to keep costs down. He might get them to agree that newly hired workers should not be eligible for the raise. Finally, if all else fails, he can threaten to close down and relocate in another country.

This is not to say that reforms should be shunned since they often contain valuable learning experiences. When a victory is scored, workers are often inspired to mount even more ambitious struggles, having gained an appreciation for the power they can wield when they are organized and unified. Even in defeat, important lessons can be learned for future struggles. Nevertheless, reforms alone offer no panacea. As soon as workers relax their guard and try to enjoy their victory, the laws of capitalism re-engage and silently set to work undoing all that was won. Like waves pounding sand castles on the beach, even the most magnificent edifices are soon reduced to nothing.

Moreover, Marx’s analysis indicates that any so-called “partnership” between workers and capitalists will function to the detriment of workers, somewhat like helping the hangman when you are the victim. The capitalist must reduce production costs if he is to survive. Hence, when workers commit themselves to helping their employers maintain a competitive edge, they sign on to a program to lower their own wages and in this way not only undermine their own interests but place themselves in an adversarial relationship with their brothers and sisters who work for other employers. Such a strategical orientation has only been promoted enthusiastically, outside the ranks of capitalists, by the labor officials high up in the trade union bureaucracy, perhaps because of their bloated salaries and relatively secure employment, thanks to undemocratic elections. But it has spread defeat and demoralization throughout the ranks of the American working class.

If workers are to defend their interests with any success, they must recognize that capitalism, at its very core, is an economic system that incorporates the exploitation of one class by another since capitalists pursue profits at the expense of workers, and where those who work the hardest are usually rewarded the least. The only salvation of working people therefore lies in organizing themselves as a class, steeled with the determination to overthrow the entire system and abolish exploitation altogether. And such a transformation is entirely realistic. After all, capitalism cannot survive a single day unless workers agree to go to work.

Socialism represents the only rational solution to the irresolvable contradictions of capitalism. Starting with the premise that humans are social animals and that we must cooperate with one another in order to prosper, it rests on the conclusion that no one can be truly free unless everyone is free and that “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” 5 Accordingly, socialism is predicated on the principle that society should be organized in such a way as to promote the interests of the entire community, not simply a tiny elite minority, and that rational planning is the best way to attain this goal, not the impersonal mechanism of the market or the selfish whims of the rich. In other words, socialism proceeds on the principle that everyone should have a voice in deciding the fundamental economic policies that define the community. This means everyone should have at their disposal all the relevant information so that an informed discussion can take place, where people can debate the virtues of various alternatives, and in the final analysis vote, meaning that the majority will truly rule. In this way, socialism raises humanity to a higher stage: it replaces the market with rational planning and it replaces insatiable greed, arrogance, and blind self-interest with the well-being of the entire community as the guiding principle.

Marx’s painstaking analysis of capitalism contained in the four volumes of CAPITAL is intended to serve as a door which, when opened, illuminates an entirely different universe, one governed by reason, freedom, genuine democracy, prosperity for all, peace, and humane principles in general. It is well worth opening.

history, Politics,

Why Join a Revolutionary Socialist Party

Ann Robertson and Bill Leumer

There are basically two benefits to being a member of a revolutionary party. The first, an educational benefit, plays out on several different levels.

(1) Having a strong command of Marxist theory can be extremely valuable on many different fronts. (a) For example, Marx’s Capital provides a sharp analysis of capitalist society so that one can see why irreconcilable differences divide the working class and the capitalist class (because of the extraction of surplus value). Moreover, because these irreconcilable differences form the basis of the system, it becomes clear why capitalism cannot be reformed (capitalism is defined by the production of profit or surplus value). (b) An understanding of history is invaluable. One learns, for example, that the ruling class has never relinquished power voluntarily. And the study of history leads to the conclusion that the history of all hitherto existing societies has indeed been the history of class struggle. Moreover, one learns that ordinary working people, contrary to the convictions of the reformists and almost everyone else, have in fact stood up, organized themselves, taken history in their own hands, and fundamentally altered the social landscape. This insight alone is of incalculable importance. Most of our experience in capitalist society leads us to conclude that any effort to change things is hopeless. Being a member of a party that has a clear picture of history helps individuals maintain a greater perspective. (c) An understanding of human nature is indispensable since one of the most common objections to socialism is that it contradicts human nature. Many people today automatically adopt the assumption that humans are by nature individualistic, selfish, and greedy. Therefore, some argue that socialism, in so far as it contradicts this nature, can only be achieved through force and constant coercion. However, anthropologists who have studied a variety of human societies have concluded that human nature has exhibited a rich array of characteristics and traits and is far from static. And they argue that individuals, far from possessing some fixed, permanent essence, merely reflect the society and culture they are raised in, a thesis that is easily verified by a cursory examination of history. Consequently, the individualism, selfishness, and greed that seem so prolific today do not stem from the individual but from the surrounding capitalist society.

(2) Learning how to provide a sufficient analysis of a particular historical political-economic situation is not easy. For example, what is the correct position to adopt in relation to the movement around Chavez in Venezuela, or Nader in the U.S., or Cindy Sheehan? Different revolutionary parties have adopted radically different approaches to these questions. How does one determine which approach is correct?

(3) In close conjunction with the preceding point, how does one intervene in a specific historical situation? For example, some call for votes for people like Chavez and Sheehan and offer them critical support. Many groups on the left do not do this. What demands do we raise in a union struggle? If one does not provide the correct answers to these questions, one can sometimes perform a major disservice to the working class. However, when some members of the revolutionary party have successfully led struggles in the past, or have participated in them, these experiences provide a wealth of knowledge that can be applied to similar struggles in the present and future. In this way, the party can become a repository of wisdom that can illuminate the path forward.

(4) One learns through all this that Marxism is indeed a science, meaning that it is a rational body of knowledge. Most people today who consider themselves Marxists have no clue how to conduct a rational Marxist analysis. They think all you have to do is declare yourself a revolutionary and suddenly you acquire perfect theoretical vision. Or they think that Marxism is a fundamentally mechanical way of thinking where one simply adds transitional demands, such as workers control, to every struggle. Anything less, in their opinion, constitutes a betrayal of the working class. It takes years of hard work and experience before one becomes adept at providing a genuine Marxist approach. And even when one becomes proficient, mistakes will be made.

All the above points indicate that mastering Marxist theory requires training. And training can best be acquired in a group where discussions are conducted regularly. Moreover, the educational process within a party, when properly conducted, does not stem from the top-down where some esteemed leader simply offers correct analyses from on high. It helps if some members of the party have experience, both theoretically and practically. But all situations are in some sense new and require a new analysis. And the proper analysis can best be achieved through a process of discussion where everyone contributes.

Secondly, aside from education, a revolutionary party can provide a practical benefit. When a group, even a small group, acts in a coordinated way, it can have a significant impact on the course of events. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) never had more than a few thousand members, but even The New York Times had to acknowledge that its impact was far greater than its numbers would suggest. For example, during the antiwar movement around the U.S. war in Vietnam, the SWP eventually succeeded in winning the majority to the slogan: Bring the Troops Home Now. The Communist Party, on the other hand, peddled the slogan, Negotiate Now, as if the U.S. government had a right to negotiate Vietnam’s future with the Vietnamese government. By adopting the SWP slogan, the antiwar movement exerted much more pressure on the U.S. government to withdraw. Moreover, the SWP slogan was specifically formulated with the idea of winning G.I.’s in the military to an antiwar position. The SWP knew the G.I.’s wanted to come home, and when they did return, many joined the antiwar movement. But more importantly, in part because of the antiwar movement, many G.I.’s began to oppose the war while still stationed in Vietnam. That fact made it extremely difficult for the U.S. to continue to conduct the war. In any case, the Spartacist slogan, Drive the G.I.’s into the Sea, obviously did not strike a receptive chord among the G.I.’s, and the Spartacists had no impact on the course of events.

Although this is far from apparent to most people, the capitalist class realizes its hold on power is tenuous. After all, the capitalists constitute only a small minority of the population. However, the working class represents the vast majority, it occupies the moral high ground, but it constantly suffers from a society that does not operate in its interests. Consequently, representatives of the capitalist class, particularly politicians and the media, incessantly attempt to convince the working class that fundamental change is impossible. They use many subtle tricks in order to accomplish this. For example, there might be a huge antiwar demonstration in San Francisco and The New York Times will not report it, as if to say what ordinary people do is of no significance. Or The New York Times will state that single-payer health care is not an option because the political will to promote it is absent. But The Times does not mention the fact that most people in the U.S. want a single-payer health care system. So The New York Times insinuates that what most people want is irrelevant.

These are just a few examples of the subtle ways used to demoralize people who want fundamental change. But once people are demoralized, the battle is lost because then they won’t put up a fight. And, of course, at this point in history in this country, most working people are severely demoralized. And as the economy continues its downward dive while spreading suffering far and wide, working people will become even more demoralized in the coming year, if there is no mass struggle that successfully resists these conditions.

As isolated individuals, we become easily demoralized, in part because we lack the means to initiate significant change and in part because we are not members of a party that can help shield us from the ideological warfare waged by the capitalist class. So the point of joining a party is to refuse to give up. Joining is a refusal to become a victim of demoralization. Instead, we resolve to put up a fight and try to convince others to do the same. And if we do not put up a struggle, we can be assured that the capitalists will get emboldened and make things much worse for us than otherwise.

However, having educated ourselves, when workers are engaged in struggle, we can make a contribution by perhaps proposing the correct demands to form the basis of a united front, or by perhaps suggesting the right tactic to adopt in a specific situation, or even by perhaps leading the struggle itself. In the process we will help educate other workers so that they will be in a better position to launch a struggle aimed at self-liberation. And in the final analysis we can take some satisfaction in knowing that we helped create a better world.


Why Socialism?

Albert Einstein

This essay was originally published in the first issue of Monthly Review (May 1949).

Editor’s note: For compelling background on the FBI’s 22-year investigation of Albert Einstein please visit: BBC and FBI Freedom of Information

Is it advisable for one who is not an expert on economic and social issues to express views on the subject of socialism? I believe for a number of reasons that it is.

Let us first consider the question from the point of view of scientific knowledge. It might appear that there are no essential methodological differences between astronomy and economics: scientists in both fields attempt to discover laws of general acceptability for a circumscribed group of phenomena in order to make the interconnection of these phenomena as clearly understandable as possible. But in reality such methodological differences do exist. The discovery of general laws in the field of economics is made difficult by the circumstance that observed economic phenomena are often affected by many factors which are very hard to evaluate separately. In addition, the experience which has accumulated since the beginning of the so-called civilized period of human history has—as is well known—been largely influenced and limited by causes which are by no means exclusively economic in nature. For example, most of the major states of history owed their existence to conquest. The conquering peoples established themselves, legally and economically, as the privileged class of the conquered country. They seized for themselves a monopoly of the land ownership and appointed a priesthood from among their own ranks. The priests, in control of education, made the class division of society into a permanent institution and created a system of values by which the people were thenceforth, to a large extent unconsciously, guided in their social behavior.

But historic tradition is, so to speak, of yesterday; nowhere have we really overcome what Thorstein Veblen called “the predatory phase” of human development. The observable economic facts belong to that phase and even such laws as we can derive from them are not applicable to other phases. Since the real purpose of socialism is precisely to overcome and advance beyond the predatory phase of human development, economic science in its present state can throw little light on the socialist society of the future.

Second, socialism is directed towards a social-ethical end. Science, however, cannot create ends and, even less, instill them in human beings; science, at most, can supply the means by which to attain certain ends. But the ends themselves are conceived by personalities with lofty ethical ideals and—if these ends are not stillborn, but vital and vigorous—are adopted and carried forward by those many human beings who, half unconsciously, determine the slow evolution of society.

For these reasons, we should be on our guard not to overestimate science and scientific methods when it is a question of human problems; and we should not assume that experts are the only ones who have a right to express themselves on questions affecting the organization of society.

Innumerable voices have been asserting for some time now that human society is passing through a crisis, that its stability has been gravely shattered. It is characteristic of such a situation that individuals feel indifferent or even hostile toward the group, small or large, to which they belong. In order to illustrate my meaning, let me record here a personal experience. I recently discussed with an intelligent and well-disposed man the threat of another war, which in my opinion would seriously endanger the existence of mankind, and I remarked that only a supra-national organization would offer protection from that danger. Thereupon my visitor, very calmly and coolly, said to me: “Why are you so deeply opposed to the disappearance of the human race?”

I am sure that as little as a century ago no one would have so lightly made a statement of this kind. It is the statement of a man who has striven in vain to attain an equilibrium within himself and has more or less lost hope of succeeding. It is the expression of a painful solitude and isolation from which so many people are suffering in these days. What is the cause? Is there a way out?

It is easy to raise such questions, but difficult to answer them with any degree of assurance. I must try, however, as best I can, although I am very conscious of the fact that our feelings and strivings are often contradictory and obscure and that they cannot be expressed in easy and simple formulas.

Man is, at one and the same time, a solitary being and a social being. As a solitary being, he attempts to protect his own existence and that of those who are closest to him, to satisfy his personal desires, and to develop his innate abilities. As a social being, he seeks to gain the recognition and affection of his fellow human beings, to share in their pleasures, to comfort them in their sorrows, and to improve their conditions of life. Only the existence of these varied, frequently conflicting, strivings accounts for the special character of a man, and their specific combination determines the extent to which an individual can achieve an inner equilibrium and can contribute to the well-being of society. It is quite possible that the relative strength of these two drives is, in the main, fixed by inheritance. But the personality that finally emerges is largely formed by the environment in which a man happens to find himself during his development, by the structure of the society in which he grows up, by the tradition of that society, and by its appraisal of particular types of behavior. The abstract concept “society” means to the individual human being the sum total of his direct and indirect relations to his contemporaries and to all the people of earlier generations. The individual is able to think, feel, strive, and work by himself; but he depends so much upon society—in his physical, intellectual, and emotional existence—that it is impossible to think of him, or to understand him, outside the framework of society. It is “society” which provides man with food, clothing, a home, the tools of work, language, the forms of thought, and most of the content of thought; his life is made possible through the labor and the accomplishments of the many millions past and present who are all hidden behind the small word “society.”

It is evident, therefore, that the dependence of the individual upon society is a fact of nature which cannot be abolished—just as in the case of ants and bees. However, while the whole life process of ants and bees is fixed down to the smallest detail by rigid, hereditary instincts, the social pattern and interrelationships of human beings are very variable and susceptible to change. Memory, the capacity to make new combinations, the gift of oral communication have made possible developments among human being which are not dictated by biological necessities. Such developments manifest themselves in traditions, institutions, and organizations; in literature; in scientific and engineering accomplishments; in works of art. This explains how it happens that, in a certain sense, man can influence his life through his own conduct, and that in this process conscious thinking and wanting can play a part.

Man acquires at birth, through heredity, a biological constitution which we must consider fixed and unalterable, including the natural urges which are characteristic of the human species. In addition, during his lifetime, he acquires a cultural constitution which he adopts from society through communication and through many other types of influences. It is this cultural constitution which, with the passage of time, is subject to change and which determines to a very large extent the relationship between the individual and society. Modern anthropology has taught us, through comparative investigation of so-called primitive cultures, that the social behavior of human beings may differ greatly, depending upon prevailing cultural patterns and the types of organization which predominate in society. It is on this that those who are striving to improve the lot of man may ground their hopes: human beings are not condemned, because of their biological constitution, to annihilate each other or to be at the mercy of a cruel, self-inflicted fate.

If we ask ourselves how the structure of society and the cultural attitude of man should be changed in order to make human life as satisfying as possible, we should constantly be conscious of the fact that there are certain conditions which we are unable to modify. As mentioned before, the biological nature of man is, for all practical purposes, not subject to change. Furthermore, technological and demographic developments of the last few centuries have created conditions which are here to stay. In relatively densely settled populations with the goods which are indispensable to their continued existence, an extreme division of labor and a highly-centralized productive apparatus are absolutely necessary. The time—which, looking back, seems so idyllic—is gone forever when individuals or relatively small groups could be completely self-sufficient. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that mankind constitutes even now a planetary community of production and consumption.

I have now reached the point where I may indicate briefly what to me constitutes the essence of the crisis of our time. It concerns the relationship of the individual to society. The individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence upon society. But he does not experience this dependence as a positive asset, as an organic tie, as a protective force, but rather as a threat to his natural rights, or even to his economic existence. Moreover, his position in society is such that the egotistical drives of his make-up are constantly being accentuated, while his social drives, which are by nature weaker, progressively deteriorate. All human beings, whatever their position in society, are suffering from this process of deterioration. Unknowingly prisoners of their own egotism, they feel insecure, lonely, and deprived of the naive, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life. Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society.

The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source of the evil. We see before us a huge community of producers the members of which are unceasingly striving to deprive each other of the fruits of their collective labor—not by force, but on the whole in faithful compliance with legally established rules. In this respect, it is important to realize that the means of production—that is to say, the entire productive capacity that is needed for producing consumer goods as well as additional capital goods—may legally be, and for the most part are, the private property of individuals.

For the sake of simplicity, in the discussion that follows I shall call “workers” all those who do not share in the ownership of the means of production—although this does not quite correspond to the customary use of the term. The owner of the means of production is in a position to purchase the labor power of the worker. By using the means of production, the worker produces new goods which become the property of the capitalist. The essential point about this process is the relation between what the worker produces and what he is paid, both measured in terms of real value. Insofar as the labor contract is “free,” what the worker receives is determined not by the real value of the goods he produces, but by his minimum needs and by the capitalists’ requirements for labor power in relation to the number of workers competing for jobs. It is important to understand that even in theory the payment of the worker is not determined by the value of his product.

Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of smaller ones. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.

The situation prevailing in an economy based on the private ownership of capital is thus characterized by two main principles: first, means of production (capital) are privately owned and the owners dispose of them as they see fit; second, the labor contract is free. Of course, there is no such thing as a pure capitalist society in this sense. In particular, it should be noted that the workers, through long and bitter political struggles, have succeeded in securing a somewhat improved form of the “free labor contract” for certain categories of workers. But taken as a whole, the present day economy does not differ much from “pure” capitalism.

Production is carried on for profit, not for use. There is no provision that all those able and willing to work will always be in a position to find employment; an “army of unemployed” almost always exists. The worker is constantly in fear of losing his job. Since unemployed and poorly paid workers do not provide a profitable market, the production of consumers’ goods is restricted, and great hardship is the consequence. Technological progress frequently results in more unemployment rather than in an easing of the burden of work for all. The profit motive, in conjunction with competition among capitalists, is responsible for an instability in the accumulation and utilization of capital which leads to increasingly severe depressions. Unlimited competition leads to a huge waste of labor, and to that crippling of the social consciousness of individuals which I mentioned before.

This crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism. Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career.

I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion. A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child. The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.

Nevertheless, it is necessary to remember that a planned economy is not yet socialism. A planned economy as such may be accompanied by the complete enslavement of the individual. The achievement of socialism requires the solution of some extremely difficult socio-political problems: how is it possible, in view of the far-reaching centralization of political and economic power, to prevent bureaucracy from becoming all-powerful and overweening? How can the rights of the individual be protected and therewith a democratic counterweight to the power of bureaucracy be assured?

Clarity about the aims and problems of socialism is of greatest significance in our age of transition. Since, under present circumstances, free and unhindered discussion of these problems has come under a powerful taboo, I consider the foundation of this magazine to be an important public service.