Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the printing house of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (newspaper published in Cologne, Prussia, at the time of the Revolution of 1848–49). Painting by E. Capiro. (Roger Viollet via Getty Images)
The Right never seems to stop talking about “Marxism” and its wily tricks. But for all their denunciations, conservative pundits really just keep proving they don’t even know the basics of Karl Marx’s thought.
On Monday, Jacobin columnist Ben Burgis gave a lecture at the How the Light Gets In festival in the Welsh village of Hay. Here is a condensed and revised version.
Karl Marx deserves a better caliber of critics. I’ve thought that many times in the last few years, but perhaps never more so than in March when I saw the conservative James Lindsay post a picture of himself pretending to pee on Marx’s grave in London.
I couldn’t help but notice the lack of any actual stream of urine in the picture. In a way, that made it a perfect metaphor for the Right’s approach to their greatest intellectual adversary. They’re making a show of desecrating his grave. But they know too little about his ideas to even make contact with the target of their critique.
Lindsay, Levin, Kirk, and Peterson
Lindsay isn’t some obscure right-winger. He’s a globally prominent figure. He testifies before state legislatures explaining why they should ban “critical race theory,” which he sees as Marxism in disguise. His book, Race Marxism, was a bestseller.
So was Mark Levin’s book, American Marxism. Levin was never quite as popular as his colleagues Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, but his talk radio show has blared out from hundreds of AM stations around the United States for many years. Originally, I was slated to cowrite a review of American Marxism with Matt McManus, but after many attempts to get through it, I ended up admitting defeat and letting Matt write it by himself. The book feels like the transcript of an endless, breathless, incoherent rant. I’d be surprised if Levin even cracked open Marx’s magnum opus, Capital.
Right when I was trying and failing to ingest Levin’s book, I did a public debate with one of conservative media’s most omnipresent figures: Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk. At one point, Charlie asked me what I thought about Karl Marx. I responded that while I didn’t think Marx was right about everything, he was right about a lot of important subjects — in particular, his theory of history.
Charlie seized on that to say Marx’s theory of history was “basically Hegel’s” — after all, he said, wasn’t Marx the “president of the Young Hegelians”?
This could hardly be more wrong. G. W. F. Hegel had an “idealist” theory of history — he saw it as driven by the progressive self-realization of what he called the “World Spirit.” Marx did start out as a Young Hegelian, but this was the name of a philosophical current, not an organization with membership cards and a president! More substantively, Marx — though deeply influenced by Hegel’s methodology — came to reject idealism in favor of a “materialist” theory of history in which the primacy is given to economic factors: the “forces of production” and “relations of production.”
Lindsay, Levin, and Kirk aren’t the only prominent conservatives who insist on prattling on about Marx despite not knowing the ABCs. In Jordan Peterson’s 2019 debate with the Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek, Peterson said that he’d prepared for the debate by rereading the Communist Manifesto for the first time since he was eighteen.
That in itself was an astonishing admission. Here you have someone who wrote mega-best-selling books that contain strenuous denunciations of “Marxism” admitting that he hadn’t read the Communist Manifesto — a short pamphlet that can be consumed in an afternoon — in decades.
But even more striking was how little understanding Peterson seemed to have of what he’d read. He expressed surprise that Marx and Friedrich Engels “admitted” capitalism had spurred more and faster economic development than any previous system — when in fact they devote pages to the observation because it’s a crucial part of their analysis. And in a swipe at the first sentence of chapter one of the Manifesto, about how all “hitherto existing history” is a “history of class struggle,” Peterson argued:
Marx didn’t seem to take into account . . . that there are far more reasons that human beings struggle then their economic class struggle. Even if you build the hierarchical idea into that (which is a more comprehensive way of thinking about it), human beings struggle with themselves, with the malevolence that’s inside themselves, with the evil that they’re capable of doing, with the spiritual and psychological warfare that goes on within them. And we’re also actually always at odds with nature, and this never seems to show up in Marx . . . . (my emphasis)
But the way that humans are “at odds with nature” is right at the heart of Marx’s theory of history! Marx thinks the “legal and political infrastructure” of any society is downstream from the “relations of production” — i.e., the relationship between the immediate producers (whether slaves or peasants or modern wage workers) and the class in charge of the production process (whether slaveowners or a feudal aristocracy or capitalists). And Marx thinks these relations are themselves, in an important way, downstream from the level of development of the forces of production — roughly, the capacity of a society to transform what we get from nature into products that meet human needs.
Marx’s Theory of History
Marx’s account of history goes something like this:
Early hunter-gatherer societies lacked a class of nonproducers because there wouldn’t have been enough to eat if there was a ruling class that wasn’t out hunting or gathering. Absolute scarcity reined. The agricultural revolution boosted human productive capacity to the point where it could support a ruling class, but only if some of what was created by the “immediate producers” was directly taken by force — as in modes of production like slavery and feudalism.
The development of modern industry creates (and requires) a different mode of production where the immediate producers are “doubly free”— free in the sense of being free citizens with a legal right to move around and make contracts with any employer who will have them, and also “free” from any means of supporting themselves except for selling their working time to a capitalist employer — so they end up submitting themselves to a new ruling class. And yet, Marx says, capitalism pushes the forces of production to such advanced heights that there’s a new possibility: workers themselves can take over the means of production and create a better future.
Marx is very clear that having to work to transform the deliverances of nature into human “use values” is a necessity originally imposed by nature and not by any particular social system. But those systems force immediate producers not just to produce to meet their own needs, but also to spend additional hours doing unpaid labor on behalf of the ruling class.
This happens right out in the open in a system like feudalism, where serfs are legally forced to spend part of their time toiling in the lord’s field instead of the little plot of land with which they feed themselves and their families. But Marx thinks the same thing happens in a disguised form in capitalism — officially, you’re being paid for every hour you work, but in practice some of the work you do creates the goods and services that are sold to pay your own wages, and some of it goes toward your boss’s profits. Under socialism, when “free associations of workers” run the show, workers themselves would get to decide how the proceeds of their labor would be divvied up. Some portion would go to nonproducers like children, retirees, and those unable to work, but none would be taken by a capitalist class.
One of the crucial differences between Marxism and earlier forms of socialist thought is that Marx doesn’t see capitalism as an avoidable moral mistake. However ethically abhorrent, and however desirable surpassing it might be, capitalism to Marx is a necessary stage of historical development. That’s why Marx and Engels devote such space at the beginning of the Manifesto to talking about the amazing ways the forces of production have been developed under capitalism. For the first time, there’s the possibility of something better — not the combination of freedom and material hardship experienced by early hunter-gatherers, or even by independent small farmers who have to work all day every day just to produce the necessities of life, but an egalitarian and democratic version of high-tech modernity.
There are real criticisms you can make of Marx’s vision. Some people argue, for instance, that to deal with the climate crisis we need to roll back our industrial infrastructure — we need “degrowth.” I disagree, but that’s at least an argument with people who know what they’re arguing against. That’s not the argument we’re having with the Right.
One way you can tell as much is that they’ll cite the failures of authoritarian state socialist governments — starting with the Soviet Union — as a great refutation of Marx. But what did Marx actually say about Russia?
As Steve Paxton points out in his book Unlearning Marx, Marx specifically wrote that it would be impossible for undeveloped, semifeudal Russia to skip capitalism and leapfrog into the socialist future unless a revolution in Russia was accompanied by a revolution in industrialized western Europe. Don’t get me wrong. I know twentieth-century Marxists would have preferred to see a politically democratic and materially prosperous form of socialism take root in the Soviet Union than see Marx’s theory confirmed. But that theory being confirmed is exactly what happened.
Better Critics, Please
Iactually want better critics of Marxism. Everyone should want that. Anti-Marxists should want it because they clearly think criticizing “Marxism” is important — the contemporary right never shuts up about it! — and you can’t do that effectively if you don’t know what Marx’s theory of history even is. Marxists should want it because the best version of our view will come through engagement with the smartest criticisms. I want critics who can make us think hard about our premises and revise the parts that need revising. That’s how intellectual progress works.
Give me conservative intellectuals who’ve carefully read Marx — who can formulate critiques that make me squirm. I might not like it in the moment, but we’ll all benefit from the process.
Instead, we get the kind of right-wingers who say environmentalists are secret Marxists and that the crypto-Marxist plan is to make us all eat bugs for the sake of conserving the environment. Or who express confusion about why Marx and Engels talk about rapid economic development under capitalism in the Communist Manifesto. Or who think Marx thought Tsarist Russia could skip to socialism. Or who, dear God, say things like, “We’re also actually always at odds with nature and this never seems to show up in Marx.”
Real critics can serve a useful purpose. The would-be grave desecrators, though? They’re just wasting everyone’s time.
Ben Burgis is a Jacobin columnist, an adjunct philosophy professor at Rutgers University, and the host of the YouTube show and podcast Give Them An Argument. He’s the author of several books, most recently Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, How He Went Wrong, and Why He Still Matters.
Bernie Sanders is calling for a reduction in the workweek to 32 hours, at full-time pay. He’s absolutely right. Gains in productivity should serve the working class.
Earlier this month, Bernie Sanders renewed his long-standing call to reduce the workweek to thirty-two hours. He pointed out that there have been “huge advances in technology and productivity” in the eight decades and change since the Fair Labor Standards Act capped the workweek at forty hours.
Critics argue that it’s fine if technological advances deliver the shorter workweek without government intervention, but that “top-down” interference in the free market is a bad idea. This idea doesn’t stand up to even cursory scrutiny. If the reduction in hours was going to happen without being mandated, it would have happened long ago.
Bernie is right. If we want increased productivity to benefit the working class, we need to take political action to make that happen.
Top-Down or Bottom-Up, Someone Better Mandate It
The idea is slowly gaining traction. Last year, a state-level version was proposed in California, and this March, there was an attempt in Congress to institute a thirty-two-hour workweek by amending the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Right now, these efforts face an uphill battle to say the least. The California bill stalled out in 2022, though it could be amended and reintroduced this year. The federal attempt is going to be strangled in the crib as a matter of course. It was introduced in the House Education and Workforce Committee, whose chair, Republican representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, has said that “blanket federal regulations often cause more harm than good” because they don’t account for the “unique needs” of various groups, and that “Main Street America” doesn’t need “more top-down federal mandates.”
When the California version was proposed last year, Reason magazine’s Scott Shackford made similar complaints:
If modernization inevitably leads to people getting as much (or more) work done in fewer hours than they did in the past, then shorter workweeks are an awesome byproduct. We’re certainly not going to complain about people having to work less. . . . However, it’s not something that can be ordered top down via fiat by government officials who don’t have to deal with the consequences.
All this talk of “top-down” mandates makes me wonder what Foxx or Shackford would think about “bottom-up” mandates imposed by strong labor unions. I suspect neither of them would support the PRO Act or similar efforts to create a more favorable legal environment for organizing unions.
In fact, Shackford treats as insidious the provision in the California proposal that would exempt companies that have collective-bargaining agreements with their unions. He equates this with extortion to accept unionization. “It would be a shame if something happened to your company’s business model.”
Personally, I find it difficult to sympathize with the plight of employers “extorted” to stop their union-busting efforts. And a choice between accepting blanket rules mandating shorter hours or negotiating directly with your employees about what hours and other conditions they’re willing to accept seems reasonable enough on its face. But the real point here is that all this talk of “top-down” regulations misses the point. What the critics object to isn’t really that the proposed mandate comes from the “top,” but the fact that it’s a mandate.
Shackford’s claim that he’d be fine with a shorter workweek if it resulted “inevitably” from technological advances willfully misses the point. We know perfectly well that it won’t happen that way. There was a 299 percent increase in labor productivity from 1950 to 2020. As Senator Sanders rightly suggests, the benefits of that increase largely went to the top of society. It certainly didn’t automatically generate a shorter workweek.
The nature of capitalist property relations make such “natural” decreases deeply unlikely. If workers collectively owned and democratically ran their own workplaces, they would have the option of responding to laborsaving technological advances by simply voting themselves reduced hours with no reduction in income. But with labor and ownership separated, owners have little incentive to make that decision.
The “Modest Magna Carta” for the Working Class
In nineteenth-century Britain, even the struggle for a sixty-hour week — ten hours a day, Monday through Saturday — was waged in the face of ferocious resistance by employers. Chapter Ten of Karl Marx’s masterpiece Capital is devoted to analyzing this struggle.
Much of the chapter is spent chronicling horrors like deaths from overwork and children deprived of time to play through endless hours in factories, workshops, or bakeries. He mentions a town that held a public meeting to petition for working hours to be reduced to eighteen hours a day. But Marx’s overall focus is analytical. He spends a lot of time taking apart the rationalizations offered up by apologists for the capitalist class, like the Oxford political economist Nassau Senior, who absurdly argued that the “last hour” of the workday was so essential to profits that the economy would collapse if hours were reduced at all.
At the end of the chapter, Marx celebrates the eventual passage of the Ten Hours Act:
For “protection” against “the serpent of their agonies,” the labourers must put their heads together, and, as a class, compel the passing of a law, an all-powerful social barrier that shall prevent the very workers from selling, by voluntary contract with capital, themselves and their families into slavery and death. In place of the pompous catalogue of the “inalienable rights of man” comes the modest Magna Charta of a legally limited working-day, which shall make clear “when the time which the worker sells is ended, and when his own begins.”
If the Ten Hours Act in Britain — or the Fair Labor Standards Act in the United States — was the equivalent of the Magna Carta for the relations between labor and capital, that analogy is worth unpacking a bit. When King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, recognizing certain rights he couldn’t infringe, this was the first major limitation on royal power. But Britain wouldn’t be anything like the advanced democracy it is today if the struggle to roll back royal power had ended in the thirteenth century.
Technology and productivity have advanced to an astonishing degree since President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act. But the limitation on how many hours workers can be made to spend on the job if they want to be able to make a living has stayed in place. They don’t get one more lousy hour a week to spend with their loved ones or spend pursuing their own interests that their grandparents didn’t get in the 1940s.
Bernie is right. We’re long past the time for that to change.
Ben Burgis is a Jacobin columnist, an adjunct philosophy professor at Rutgers University, and the host of the YouTube show and podcast Give Them An Argument. He’s the author of several books, most recently Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, How He Went Wrong, and Why He Still Matters.
Lithograph of Karl Marx, 1866. (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)
Originally published in Jacobin on January 31, 2023
Review of Marx’s Literary Style by Ludovico Silva, translated by Paco Brito Núñez (Verso, 2023)
Karl Marx wasn’t merely a great thinker who was also a glorious prose stylist. His brilliance as a writer was inseparable from his greatness as a thinker.
Karl Marx was one of the greatest intellectuals of the nineteenth century. He was also one of its greatest writers. Like Charles Dickens, Honoré de Balzac, and the Brontë sisters, Marx looms large among the peaks of nineteenth-century prose.
Ludovico Silva’s newly translated Marx’s Literary Style, originally published as El estilo literario de Marx in 1971, shows indisputably that the two aspects are related. Marx was one of the greatest intellectuals because he was one of the greatest writers.
A Venezuelan Polymath
Translated with gusto by Paco Brito Núñez, to whose initiative anglophone readers owe a debt of gratitude, Marx’s Literary Style is one of those short little books (just 104 pages) that packs a punch far in excess of its diminutive size. It should rank alongside Roland Barthes’s Writing Degree Zero, D. A. Miller’s Jane Austen, or The Secret of Style, and Paolo Virno’s A Grammar of the Multitude as a classic of the genre.
Educated at a private Jesuit college in Caracas, then in Madrid, Paris, and Freiburg, Ludovico Silva (1937–88) was a Venezuelan polymath: poet, essayist, editor, and philosophy teacher. He played an active role in the Latin American cultural front, founding and editing a series of avant-garde journals.
Silva kept his distance from official organizations of the revolutionary left, although as Alberto Toscano informs us in his excellent introduction, he was sympathetic to the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria. In the 1970s, he referred positively to Yugoslav experiments with self-management and to the experience of poder popular in Matanzas, Cuba.
Marxism and Style
Literary style has proved a curiously productive concept for Marxist critics. For Fredric Jameson, style is synonymous with modernism: the invention ex nihilo of so many private languages that are the literary DNA of their creators — from Marcel Proust and Gertrude Stein to Martin Heidegger and Ernest Hemingway.
Such is style’s imbrication with modernism that for Jameson it becomes a periodizing category. He equates the era of market capitalism with the narrative drive of realism and claims that when monopoly capitalism became dominant, it restrained the power of narrative, unleashing the affective minutiae captured in the elaborate private idioms of modernist style. The latter in turn eventually gave way under late capitalism to the stylelessness of postmodernism, in which only the blank affect of pastiche is said to survive.
For Terry Eagleton, meanwhile, style is at once political and theological. He sees polemic as a stylistic prerequisite for any revolutionary, transposing the incipient insurgency of the proletariat into the domain of discourse. At the same time, style is a form of linguistic sensuousness: it must figure forth the world but never forget its own materiality, treading a fine line between self-negating objectivity and self-regarding formalism.
Fine style, for Eagleton, is always a compromise between bodily immediacy and conceptual abstraction. In his early work (to which he has latterly returned), he saw this as a Catholic, sacramental prefiguration of the overcoming of alienation.
Finally, for Raymond Williams, who was far more skeptical of the category than Eagleton or Jameson, style was a linguistic mode of social relation. He saw the stylistic struggles of writers like Thomas Hardy, who sought to combine the down-to-earth expressions of ordinary working-class men and women with the most advanced modes of bourgeois articulation, as a literary internalization of the class-divided nature of language in capitalist society in general. Williams saw the battle for good prose as coextensive with the struggle for just social relations, from which style could not be judged in isolation.
Marx himself was acutely aware of the importance of style. In one of his earliest journalistic articles, published in 1842, he railed against a Prussian censorship decree promulgated by Friedrich Wilhelm IV that supposedly would “not prevent serious and modest investigation of the truth.” In saying so, however, the decree limited the very style in which journalists were legally allowed to write.
Marx was contemptuous:
The law permits me to write, only I must write in a style that is not mine! I may show my spiritual countenance, but I must first set it in the prescribed folds! What man of honour will not blush at this presumption. . . ?
Marx equates a writer’s style with her unique physiognomy or inner spiritual being. The state censorship law effectively demanded that writers screw their literary faces into a state-decreed rictus, imposing upon them an alien identity that stifled their own unique modes of expression.
Marx’s response informed his more general early critique of the modern state. He saw the latter as premised upon a split between civil and political society: between “man in his sensuous, immediate existence” (bourgeois) and “man as an allegorical, moral person” (citizen). This split, he argued, was the political form of capitalist alienation.
From Love Poems to Systems
Ludovico Silva is an important contributor to this rich vein of materialist stylistics. It is impossible to read Marx’s Literary Style and not emerge with a very different understanding of the literary to that with which one began.
Style has been seen historically as “the dress of thought” — an aesthetic supplement or superficial “finish” added to the primary meaning communicated. As Silva is at pains to show, however, this common-sense view of style is inadequate to a true grasp of Marx’s work. Marx’s style is a constitutive aspect of his overall project of critique. It is also the means by which he makes the abstractly conceptual sensuously perceptible, and in this sense it has a pedagogical function.
In chapter 1, Silva locates the origins of Marx’s mature literary style in four areas: his early (failed) poetic compositions; his intense aesthetic and linguistic study of the classics (Latin and Greek); his youthful passion for metaphorical idealization; and his early ruthless critique of his own formative attempts at literary writing. Marx came very quickly to see the inadequacy of the abstract Romantic sentimentalism that characterized the early love poems he had written for Jenny von Westphalen, whom he later married. As he put it in a remarkable letter to his father in 1837: “Everything real became hazy and what is hazy has no definite outline.”
The letter testifies to Marx’s breathless conversion from poetry to Hegelian philosophy, but the trajectory beyond Hegel is already prefigured: Marx had come to realize the need for a style that adheres closely to the real and the actual, one that is concentrated and compressed, and enlivened by objective density. This is the style that would characterize Marx’s subsequent published work and is encapsulated in Silva’s paradoxical phrase “concrete spirit.”
Chapter 2 is the longest in the book and sets out the fundamental features of Marx’s style. Silva argues that Marx’s work must be understood as a single “architectonic,” a term he borrows from Immanuel Kant who defines it as “the art of systems” [die Kunst der Systeme]. Architectonics are common to both science and art: science is premised upon systematic knowledge, and for expression to become art it must, on Silva’s reading, be governed by the art of systems.
Silva insists throughout the book on a sharp division in Marx’s oeuvre between those works he prepared carefully for publication, and those endless unfinished manuscripts or notebooks that he never published. While these writings all form part of the architectonic of science (a single project of the critique of political economy), only those works that Marx reworked for publication — most famously, volume 1 of Capital — exemplify the art of system by overlaying the skeletal structure of science with the vital flesh of metaphorical expression.
Silva’s casual invocation of Kantian architectonics raises a thorny issue: to what extent can we say that Marx’s historical materialism inherits preexisting notions of science and systematicity from German idealism? Silva passes over the matter in silence.
Dialectic of Expression and Metaphor
The second feature of Marx’s style is what Silva calls “the expression of the dialectic” or “the dialectic of expression.” He is referring here to Marx’s constant use of chiasmus or syntactical reversals in which terms from the first half of a sentence are inverted in the second: “Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life” (The German Ideology), or “The mortgage the peasant has on heavenly possessions guarantees the mortgage the bourgeois has on peasant possessions” (The Class Struggles in France, 1850).
It is a figure that embodies the dialectical movement of reality itself: “The literary secret behind how ‘rounded’ and striking so many of Marx’s sentences are,” writes Silva, “is also the secret behind his dialectical conception of history as class struggle or a struggle of opposites.” Marx’s style is a mimetic reproduction or performance of the real movements of history: “Marx’s language is the theatre of his dialectic.”
The third and most important feature of Marx’s style is his use of metaphor. The book focuses on three of the most influential: the (in)famous base-superstructure metaphor, the notion of “reflection,” and religion as a figure of alienation. Like Aristotle before him, Silva emphasizes the cognitive import of such metaphors, yet also — crucially — insists upon the necessary distinction that must be made between metaphors and theoretical scientific knowledge.
In a series of bravura analyses, he reveals the total inadequacy of the base-superstructure and reflection metaphors as a basis for scientific theory yet still upholds their pedagogical potential. One senses here Silva’s contempt for the dogmatic travesties of Marx’s work in official Communist Party manuals of the time. His argument comes uncannily close to that of Williams’s work Marxism and Literature, published just six years later, which also challenged the base-superstructure and reflection metaphors.
Williams and Silva concur that, if followed to their strictly logical conclusion, these metaphors invite division between an economic base and a celestial realm of ideas precisely where Marx had sought to expose their total interrelation. It is thus unsurprising that Silva chose as one of his epigraphs the phrase “language is practical consciousness” (from The German Ideology), which also formed the basis of Williams’s mature theory of language, literature, and form.
Ironies of History
The rest of the book reveals the subtle connection between polemic, mockery, irony, and alienation that recurs throughout all of Marx’s writing. Wilhelm Liebknecht once wrote of Marx’s style that it reminded him of the etymological roots of the word itself: “The style is here what it — the stylus — originally was in the hands of the Romans — a sharp-pointed steel pencil for writing and for stabbing.”
Marx knew how to write dirty; he was master of the blade at close quarters. Yet Silva also insists, rightly, that Marx’s fiery indignation went hand in hand with irony: “How many have tried to imitate Marx’s style, only to copy the indignation while forgetting the irony!” Just as the “dialectic of expression” was a stylization of the dialectical movement of reality, so irony is the stylistic mode of Marx’s general conception of history. According to Silva:
If Marx is a materialist, it is because he always sought to discover, by going beyond or beneath the ideological appearance of historical events (state, law, religion morality, metaphysics), their underlying material structures. This is why his stylistic ironies always play a key role: that of denunciation, of the illumination of reality.
Yet again, an attribute of Marx’s style is read as a literary formalization of a historical process.
The book ends by pushing this line of argument to its logical conclusion: alienation is one great metaphor. Just as metaphor requires the transfer of one meaning to another, so in capitalist society “we find a strange and all-encompassing transfer from the real meaning of human life towards a distorted meaning.” Rather than being a simple rhetorical figure that can be extracted from the reality it “merely” represents, Silva insists that capitalist alienation itself has a metaphorical structure.
Perhaps the same could be said of individuals, who are dealt with in Capital vol. 1, in Marx’s famous words, “only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, the bearers [Träger] of particular class-relations and interests.” When Marx referred to individual capitalists as “capital personified,” he was not suggesting that capitalists act as if they were (allegorical) personifications, but that they are living personifications of capital, thereby collapsing any too neat distinction between literary figure and historical content.
When style becomes a matter of the fundamental movement of history itself, it can no longer be brushed aside as mere literary affectation. Silva makes the point gracefully, with no little force, and admirable concision.
Daniel Hartley is an assistant professor in world literatures at Durham University (UK). He is the author of The Politics of Style: Towards a Marxist Poetics (Brill, 2017).
Kohei Saito’s book Capital in the Anthropocene has become an unlikely hit among young people and is about to be translated into English.
The climate crisis will spiral out of control unless the world applies “emergency brakes” to capitalism and devises a “new way of living,” according to a Japanese academic whose book on Marxism and the environment has become a surprise bestseller.
The message from Kohei Saito, an associate professor at Tokyo University, is simple: capitalism’s demand for unlimited profits is destroying the planet and only “degrowth” can repair the damage by slowing down social production and sharing wealth.
In practical terms, that means an end to mass production and the mass consumption of wasteful goods, such as fast fashion. In Capital in the Anthropocene, Saito also advocates decarbonization through shorter working hours and prioritizing essential “labour-intensive” work, such as caregiving.
‘I was as surprised as everyone else’ Few would have expected Saito’s Japanese-language solution to the climate crisis to have much appeal outside left-wing academia and politics. Instead, the book — which was inspired by Karl Marx’s writings on the environment — has become an unlikely hit, selling more than half a million copies since it was published in September 2020.
As the world confronts more evidence of the effects of climate change — from floods in Pakistan to heat waves in Britain — rampant inflation and the energy crisis, Saito’s vision of a more sustainable, post-capitalist world will appear in an academic text to be published next year by Cambridge University Press, with an English translation of his bestseller to follow.
“It is broadly about what’s going on in the world … about the climate crisis and what we should do about it,” Saito said in an interview with The Guardian. “I advocate for degrowth and going beyond capitalism.”
The mere mention of the word “degrowth” conjures negative images of wealthy societies plunged into a dark age of shrinking economies and declining living standards. Saito admits that he thought a book that draws on strands of Marxism as a solution to modern-day ills would be a tough sell in Japan, where the same conservative party has dominated politics for the best part of 70 years.
“People accuse me of wanting to go back to the [feudal] Edo period [1603-1868] … and I think the same sort of image persists in the U.K. and the U.S.,” he said. “Against that background, for the book to sell over 500,000 copies is astonishing. I was as surprised as everyone else.”
The 35-year-old needn’t have worried about using the language of radical change; as the world emerges from the pandemic and confronts the existential threat posed by global heating, disillusionment with the economic status quo has given him a receptive audience.
The pandemic has magnified inequalities in advanced economies, and between the Global North and South — and the book struck a nerve with younger Japanese.
“Saito is telling a story that is easy to understand,” says Jun Shiota, a 31-year-old researcher who bought Capital in the Anthropocene soon after it was published. “He doesn’t say there are good and bad things about capitalism, or that it is possible to reform it … he just says we have to get rid of the entire system.
“Young people were badly affected by the pandemic and face other big issues, such as environmental destruction and the cost of living crises, so that simple message resonates with them.”
Saito agrees that growing inequality has given his writing more immediacy. “Many people lost their jobs and homes and are relying on things like food banks, even in Japan. I find that shocking. And you have essential workers who are forced to work long hours in low-paid jobs. The marginalization of essential workers is becoming a serious issue.”
The response to COVID-19 had shown that rapid change is not only desirable but possible, he says.
“One thing that we have learned during the pandemic is that we can dramatically change our way of life overnight — look at the way we started working from home, bought fewer things, flew and ate out less. We proved that working less was friendlier to the environment and gave people a better life. But now capitalism is trying to bring us back to a ‘normal’ way of life.”
‘Marx was interested in sustainability’
Saito is deeply skeptical of some widely accepted strategies for tackling the climate emergency. “In my book, I start a sentence by describing sustainable development goals [SDGs] as the new opium of the masses,” he said in reference to Marx’s view of religion.
“Buying eco bags and bottles without changing anything about the economic system … SDGs mask the systemic problem and reduce everything to the responsibility of the individual while obscuring the responsibility of corporations and politicians.”
“I discovered how Marx was interested in sustainability and how non-capitalist and pre-capitalist societies are sustainable because they are realizing the stationary economy, they are not growth-driven,” Saito said.
Since the book was released, Saito has made Japan noticeably less squeamish about the German philosopher’s ideas.
The conservative public broadcaster NHK gave him four 25-minute segments to explain his ideas for its Masterpiece in 100 Minutes series, while bookshop chains cleared space for special displays of revivalist Marxist literature.
Now he hopes his message will appeal to an English-language readership.
“We face a very difficult situation: the pandemic, poverty, climate change, the war in Ukraine, inflation … it is impossible to imagine a future in which we can grow the economy and at the same time live in a sustainable manner without fundamentally changing anything about our way of life.
“If economic policies have been failing for 30 years, then why don’t we invent a new way of life? The desire for that is suddenly there.”
Justin McCurry is the Guardian’s Tokyo correspondent
Kohei Saito received his Ph.D. from Humboldt University in Berlin. He is currently associate professor of political economy at Osaka City University. He has published articles and reviews on Marx’s ecology, including “The Emergence of Marx’s Critique of Modern Agriculture,” and “Marx’s Ecological Notebooks,” both in Monthly Review. He is working on editing the complete works of Marx and Engels, Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA) Volume IV/18, which includes a number of Marx’s natural scientific notebooks.
A young worker at a Nestlé factory. (Nestlé/Flickr)
Even among Marx-friendly economists, the labor theory of value has fallen out of favor. But its technical validity is less important than the core message: workers are exploited because the value they create is undemocratically taken by capitalists.
In 1865, Karl Marx filled out a questionnaire. We thus know, for example, his favorite color (red), his favorite food (fish), and his favorite names (Jenny and Laura, those of his wife and daughter). He left the line for “figure in history you dislike the most” blank (my best guess is that he had trouble narrowing down the list) and listed two for “your hero” — Johannes Kepler and Spartacus.
Those latter choices tell you everything about how Marx understood his theoretical project. Kepler assimilated the study of the heavens into mundane physics by discovering laws of planetary motion. Spartacus led a slave revolt.
Marx’s collaborator, Friedrich Engels, called their project “scientific socialism.” The idea wasn’t that social science by itself could tell you that socialism was better than capitalism. The “science” — Marx’s drive to uncover the “laws of motion” of capitalist economies — was an engineering science, one meant to understand how capitalism worked in order to overcome it and thus, in Marx and Engels’ eyes, remove arbitrary economic obstacles to human flourishing.
In his magnum opus, Capital, Marx used the most advanced economic theory of his day to decipher the structure of capitalist exploitation. Like David Ricardo and other previous nonsocialist economists, Marx thought that the value of a commodity was a product of the labor time it took to produce — the “labor theory of value.” Sharpening Ricardo’s analysis with his own insights, Marx conceived of value as the “congealed” result of average socially necessary labor time.
If you think of “value” in this way, the traditional socialist charge that workers are exploited under capitalism is easy to understand: workers produce value but capitalists control how much of it is returned to them in wages.
Like every other area of empirical inquiry, though, economics has changed a lot since Capital was published in 1867. Today, most economists — including many who are committed Marxists — reject the labor theory of value (LTV).
But does the apparent obsolescence of the LTV mean capitalism is innocent on the charge of exploitation? Not quite. As the Marxist philosopher G. A. Cohen demonstrated, Marx’s core insight about exploitation can be reformulated in an even simpler way if you drop his nineteenth-century assumptions about value and prices. The key point is that workers are the source of the products that have value and capitalism systematically forces them to surrender some of that value to the boss.
That’s a complicated proposition. So let’s walk through it, starting with Marx’s original formulation.
Marx’s Analysis of Labor and Capital
Marx spends the first five chapters of Capital analyzing several economic concepts, starting with commodities, money, and value. He then considers them in relation to capital, using his famous three-letter diagrams.
For instance, even a subsistence farmer might sell some of the goods he and his family don’t need to buy products they can’t make — a chain of transactions that Marx renders as C-M-C (commodities-money-commodities). The capitalist does the opposite: M-C-M (money-commodities-money). While a miser simply keeps his money, perhaps filling a swimming pool with gold coins like Scrooge McDuck, the capitalist turns his cash into commodities and turns those commodities into more money (representing an underlying increase in value) — whether by selling them (in the case of the merchant capitalist) or using them to manufacture new goods and selling those (in the case of the industrial capitalist).
Crucially, the capitalist drive to accumulate money isn’t primarily about individual capitalists being bad, greedy people but rather the relentless pressures of the system itself. A capitalist who doesn’t ruthlessly pursue profits will be outcompeted by those who do — as Marx says, the capitalist is a kind of “rational miser” (while the miser is a “capitalist gone mad”).
But, Marx asks, how does the store of value held by the capitalists increase?
To be sure, some people are better at business than others and can buy cheap and sell dear, but how does the supply of value insociety as a whole increase over time? Where does the new value come from? Marx’s answer is that a worker’s capacity to work — her “labor power” — is a “c” that has the capacity to turn “m” into more “m.”
At this point in the discussion, any good defender of capitalism will counter that the capitalist provides the physical means of production — the factories, equipment, and so on. Isn’t the capitalist the source of that value? But Marx points out both that the physical means of production are a source of value insofar as they are used by workers and that these are themselves the result of the activity of previous workers — in Marx’s phrase, “dead labor” used by “living labor” to produce more value.
And yet, despite being the source of value, labor is dominated. In a striking passage at the end of chapter six, Marx portrays a stylized exchange between the “owner of money” and the “owner of this peculiar commodity, labor-power,” who meet in a marketplace to exchange their property. They meet as equals to make this exchange, but then:
When we leave this sphere of . . . the exchange of commodities, which provides the “free trader vulgaris” with his views, his concepts, and the standard by which he judges the society of capital and wage-labor, a certain change takes place, or so it appears, in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He who was previously a money-owner strides out in front as a capitalist; the possessor of labor-power follows as his worker. The one smirks self-importantly and is intent on business; the other is timid and holds back — like someone who has brought his own hide to market and now has nothing to expect but — a tanning.
As the book continues, turning at last to the key concept of class struggle, Marx writes at length about what the “tanning” looks like and how it works. He describes “half-starved widows” giving up their children to toil in the match-making industry — working all day every day and facing very early death because of the industrial process. He writes about groups of desperate workers and their families petitioning local governments to reduce their worktime toeighteen hours a day.
But Marx’s key analytic point is that mainstream economists who ignore the class antagonism at the heart of capitalism are obscuring a central element. Under feudalism, the direct producers (peasants) are clearly forced into giving up some of their “surplus labor” (the time they spend working but not to meet their own needs) to the ruling class. The coerced transfer is out in the open. Under capitalism, the immediate producers (workers) are legally free to make contracts with anyone or — if they’re willing to simply go hungry — no one. The coercion is disguised.
Yet the underlying reality, Marx insists, is a crude relationship of domination and extraction.
G. A. Cohen’s Analysis of Exploitation
In his 1989 book History, Labour, and Freedom, socialist philosopher G. A. Cohen points out that while most economists (including many contemporary Marxist economists) reject the labor theory of value, rank-and-file socialists often talk as if the LTV is obviously true. What explains the disconnect?
The LTV, as Marx inherited it from Ricardo and sharpened it with his own analytic contributions, may or may not be true, but it certainly isn’t obvious. To begin with, the relationship between value and price that Marx postulated is complicated. A whole series of facts about competition and supply and demand pressures can carry the actual market price of a commodity far away from its underlying value. Nevertheless, Marx thinks, prices are still a kind of distorted reflection of labor-time value.
This view isn’t as easy to refute as many barstool libertarians seem to believe. Marx doesn’t think, for example, that products have more value if they’re made by particularly slow workers. Marx sees value as stemming from the social average in necessary labor time at a particular time and place.
Still, even the non-strawman version doesn’t persuade most contemporary economists. As economist and Jacobin contributing editor Mike Beggs notes, economists today think in terms of supply and demand schedules rather than supply and demand as forces operating on commodities — which makes Marx’s argument that something must account for prices when these forces are in balance much less compelling.
But Cohen believed that rank-and-file socialists who think the LTV is obvious are moved by something other than Marx’s technical claims about value. Instead, what moves them is something like a “labor theory of things that have value,” which is very obviously true! Regardless of what value is, no commodity that has value has ever been the product of anything except some combination of (a) the nonhuman natural world and (b) human labor.
And once that’s in place, the entire analysis in the previous section still applies. I faithfully reproduced several of Marx’s key arguments in Capital there, but nothing I’ve said presupposes the technical details of the LTV.
OK, but Are Workers Really Exploited?
Pro-capitalist economists like to talk about “land, labor, and capital” as independent factors that all contribute to production and say that therefore the disconnect between the part of a firm’s revenues that goes into workers’ wages and the part that isn’t under their control is unobjectionable — after all, workers only supply one of the three factors. But if capital means the share of society’s resources (above and beyond what’s present in unaltered nature) used in production, that’s just the fruit of previous labor. It hardly rebuts the charge that workers don’t control the products of their labor.
Of course, capitalists sometimes do managerial labor themselves, but that doesn’t mean that “manager” and “capitalist” aren’t distinct roles. In a small enough business, the owner might even sweep the place up herself at closing time. But that doesn’t make the role of a capitalist the same as the role of janitor.
Fine, a defender of capitalism could argue, but aren’t capitalists still making an important contribution by hiring the managers that oversee the production process?
If anything, not routing Marxist analyses of exploitation through nineteenth-century assumptions simplifies the issue and sharpens Marx’s original analogy between feudalism and capitalism.
While some managerial labor wouldn’t be necessary if workers controlled the means of production and their incentives were different, some would be. But any managers who are performing useful tasks could be hired by a workers’ committee as easily as by a capitalist. As Cohen puts it elsewhere, what’s socially necessary is “what is delegated” — not the capitalist who happens to be empowered by existing social structures to do the delegating.
When it comes to land, the equivocation is even more obvious. Does ownership of land contribute somehow to production? Only in the sense that the owner permits it to take place. (If that counts, in an absolute monarchy where the king has to grant individual approval to every productive act in his kingdom, he, too, is usefully contributing!)
The land itself makes a valuable contribution, but how does that refute the Marxist charge that it’s exploitative for workers not to control the output of their labor? As radical scholar David Schweickart argues in his book After Capitalism, unless the idea is that some of the crops produced by the combination of land and agricultural labor are going to burned as a “sacrifice to the God of Land,” the land’s contribution seems rather irrelevant to questions of distribution.
In the same vein, G. A. Cohen argues that it doesn’t matter for the charge of exploitation whether autoworkers are directly producing value or simply producing cars which have value (and transporting the cars, and selling them). If anything, not routing Marxist analyses of exploitation through nineteenth-century assumptions about equilibrium prices simplifies the issue and sharpens Marx’s original analogy between feudalism and capitalism. As with feudal peasants, workers are deprived of control over the product — and hence whatever price it fetches if the person who does control it sells it.
Cohen’s Analysis of Working-Class Unfreedom
To be clear, neither Marx nor Cohen thought that workers should receive the entire product of their labor. Marx argued that this would be both impractical and wrong for a variety of reasons. For one, what about upkeep of old factory equipment? Or about building new factories? What about “common needs” like schools and hospitals or the consumption needs of those unable to work?
What makes the surrender of some of the value produced by workers or the value of the commodities they produce exploitation is that it’s surrendered not in some democratic process in which the beneficiaries have to make a convincing case but that it’s taken as a result of the power one class has over another.
The real question, then, is whether the part of the value controlled by the capitalist is voluntarily surrendered by the worker. In fact, Cohen argues that the LTV being true would do nothing to strengthen the charge of exploitation. To see why not, assume a simply “marginalist” account of value whereby value is produced by the desire of consumers. Does that somehow give consumers a right to the things they desire? Of course not. The real issue is who produces the goods and services themselves, and whether the arrangements by which those products come under the control of separate capitalists are ones the workers accept of their own free will.
Libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick argued that someone can only be “coerced” to do something if their property rights aren’t respected, but Cohen argues in a brilliant 1983 paper that this gets things backward, and not just because libertarian theories of property rights are deeply implausible. We can and should establish that something is coercive before we ask whether anything could justify that coercion. A serial killer, for example, is forced to stay removed from society — and that’s a good thing.
Nor does it do any good to say that the worker with no realistic ability to start a business of his own has at least some other choices besides going to work for a capitalist — that he can “go on the dole, or beg, or simply make no provision for himself and trust to fortune.” You might as well say a bank teller forced with a gun to her head to give up the code to the safe isn’t really forced because she had the option of wrestling away the gun or giving her life for the bank. When we say that someone was forced to do something, Cohen points out, we don’t generally mean they had literally no other choices — just that they had no acceptable choices.
Cohen thinks the best argument against the claim that workers are forced to submit to the rule of capitalists, and hence forced to give up the part of the product of their labor that isn’t under their control, is the simple fact of upward mobility. Some workers, even some who start in very desperate positions, are eventually able to claw their way up to a higher position in the class structure — for example, by starting small businesses of their own.
But Cohen argues a crucial point: it’s structurally impossible for everyone in a complex modern economy to own their own little business. Either the labor force will collectively control the means of production or they’ll be dominated by capitalists who can then extract their surplus labor — the labor that goes not toward meeting their own needs but toward the remainder of a firm’s revenues, which, whether kept by the capitalists or reinvested, is outside of the workers’ control.
“Capitalism requires a substantial hired labor force,” Cohen writes, “which would cease to exist if more than a few workers rose.” This means that even though there are a few lifeboats, the working class is collectively trapped aboard the wage-labor ship.
He introduces an analogy:
Ten people are placed in a room, the only exit from which is a huge and heavy locked door. At various distances from each lies a single heavy key. Whoever picks up this key — and each is physically able, with varying degrees of effort, to do so — and takes it to the door will find, after considerable self-application, a way to open the door and leave the room. But if he does so he alone will be able to leave it. Photoelectric devices installed by a jailer ensure that it will open only just enough to permit one exit. Then it will close, and no one inside the room will be able to open it again.
There is a sense in which any of those prisoners can escape. But there’s also a clear sense in which they’re collectively unfree. A prisoner in Cohen’s hypothetical room, like a worker under capitalism, might be able to make their individual escape, but they can’t escape with their fellow prisoners.
The only way for workers to be free to all escape together, Cohen says, is for them to achieve a “deeper kind of freedom” — freedom from class society.
Ben Burgisis a Jacobin columnist, an adjunct philosophy professor at Morehouse College, and the host of the YouTube show and podcast Give Them An Argument. He’s the author of several books, most recently Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, How He Went Wrong, and Why He Still Matters.
In my last commentary of April 1, I reviewed a March 26 Webinar, “Clarifying the Struggle for Socialism: Uses and Misuses of Marx’s Capital,” sponsored by the International Manifesto Group. My commentary included a summary of the presentation of Radhika Desai, convener of the International Manifesto Group and Director of the Geopolitical Economy Research Group, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada; and the author of Geopolitical Economy: After US Hegemony, Globalization and Empire.
In her presentation and in the Q&A that followed, Desai maintained that imperialism, (which is the policy of controlling markets and natural and human resources in other nations), is an intrinsic and necessary dimension of the pursuit of profit, the fundamental driving force of capitalism. Capitalists, in the pursuit of profit, are compelled to direct their national state to carry out aggressive military actions and economic policies against other states and nations, so that other states will allow full and cheap access to natural resources, cheap labor, and markets. As is logical, the peoples in other lands resist; they to a greater or lesser degree forge anti-imperialist movements, which impact the evolution of the world-system. Thus, Desai maintains, the central dialectic of the capitalist world-economy is between imperialism and anti-imperialism.
Desai maintained that Marx understood the intrinsic and necessary relation between capitalism and imperialism, but subsequent Western Marxists and Western thinkers have not seen the relation. Their blindness is due to the influence of neoclassical political economy, which impoverished Marx’s analysis by removing the dimensions of history and contradiction, or more precisely, by eliminating from Marx’s analysis the historical unfolding of contradictions between states and between classes within nations. Desai maintains that we most go back to Marx to rediscover the insights of classical political economy, which attained intellectual maturity in Marx’s analysis, and to free ourselves from the misunderstandings that we have been taught.
At the conclusion of the Webinar, Desai made available a digital version of her 2020 article, “Marx’s critical political economy, ‘Marxist economics’ and actually occurring revolutions against capitalism,” published in Third World Quarterly. In today’s commentary, I offer a summary and reflections on the article.
In “Marx’s critical political economy, ‘Marxist economics’ and actually occurring revolutions against capitalism,” Desai maintains that, in Marx’s analysis, in the capitalist stage of human history, nations have been protagonists as much as classes. Marx grasped that the search of the big capitalists for profits drove the advanced capitalist societies to imperialist domination of other lands, which logically generates an anti-imperialist resistance; creating a dialectic between imperialism and anti-imperialist struggles, which could only be organized as national struggles. This means that the class struggle would be expressed primarily, not as a struggle between an international working class and an international capitalist class, but as a struggle within nations for control of the state. At stake was the power to direct the state in accordance with class interests, either as a class of big capitalists seeking to dominate other nations in the pursuit of profit, or as a working class seeking to defend the nation against the imperialist aggressions and economic exploitation of the great powers.
Marx thus saw a complex interrelation between class conflict and conflicts among states, with international relations driven by the imperialist aggressions of the advanced economies and by greater or lesser degrees of anti-imperialist resistance by the less advanced economies and weaker states; and with class conflict primarily unfolding within nations.
Marxists by and large have not seen this complex interrelation among classes and nations, tending to reduce Marx to class conflict. The limited understanding of Marxists, Desai maintains, is due to the influence of neoclassical economics on their understanding. Neoclassical economics was the bourgeois challenge to Marx’s advanced analysis; it was an intellectual counterrevolution, a counterrevolutionary attack on classical political economy, which Marx had brought to culmination.
Desai outlines the ways in which neoclassical economics differed from classical political economy. Neoclassical economics focused on consumption and exchange, and not on production. Neoclassical economics thought that prices are determined by supply and demand, not seeing that value originates in labor, and that prices are pushed downward through competition. Neoclassical economics denied the contradictions and crisis tendencies of capitalism, and it justified colonial patterns of trade. Neoclassical economics did not see the significance of powerful capitalist countries exporting their excess production to colonial or otherwise unprotected markets, thus undermining industrial development in these regions. Neoclassical economics, therefore, denied the essential link between capitalism and territorial expansionism and imperialism. Whereas classical political economy analyzed capitalist society, neoclassical economics abstracted the economy from history and society as a separate autonomous ahistorical phenomenon. Whereas classical political economy sees capitalism as a historically specific mode of production that historically develops through its contradictions, culminating in its demise; neoclassical economists deny historical change and always speak in the present tense.
The limited understanding of neoclassical economics ultimately led to a distorted and simplistic supposedly Marxist discourse, which resulted in the confusions and historic errors of the Second International. Moreover, neoclassical economics cast its obscuring shadow not only on Marxists and leftists, but also on mainstream academic thought, ensuring that Marx’s scientifically advanced analysis would be lost to the West.
Among the issues that have been lost to our understanding was the evolution in Marx’s thinking. Desai writes:
“Marxism was born of revolution, its first iconic text, The Manifesto of the Communist Party, written to orient workers in the revolutions that gathered steam in early 1848. However, their defeat impressed on Marx and Engels the staying power of capitalism and turned Marx to the lifelong engagement with classical political economy that issued in the penetrating (if also incomplete) historical materialist analysis of capitalism as contradictory value production.”
So, seeking to understand the capacity of capitalism to sustain itself beyond its appropriate time on the human stage, Marx arrived to understand more completely the integral role of imperialism in temporarily overcoming capitalism’s demand problem (or its tendency to overproduce beyond the market demands of national economies). But the resolution would be temporary, because imperialism itself would generate contradictions that would have to be resolved by a transition to socialism, if humanity is to avoid self-imposed extinction or collective self-destruction of the advanced civilizations that humanity has created.
Thus, Volume One of Capital, published in 1867, is more scientifically advanced than Marx’s earlier work. It pushes scientific understanding further, going beyond the 1848 formulation of The Communist Manifesto, which gave primacy to class analysis. And going beyond the previous formulation of Part One of The German Ideology, perhaps the most readable and most coherent of the Marxian corpus. In the more mature formulation of Capital, Marx explains the dynamics of the necessary transition to socialism, which include the emergence of transnational monopoly capital and of anti-imperialist nationalist movements.
There was a notable exception to the confusion of Marxists. Rosa Luxemburg, in Accumulation of Capital, grasped that capitalism needed non-capitalist spheres to export excess production; she appreciated that demand deficits (or excess production) was a major contradiction of capitalism. However, Desai laments, her arguments were dismissed without encountering her theory in its full integrity.
Even the great Lenin was influenced by the pervasive neoclassical confusions. He described imperialism, as is well-known. But he focused on the competition among the imperialist countries for colonies in a specific stage in capitalist development, and not on the inherent imperialism of capitalism. Only Luxemburg paid specific attention to the consequences of imperialism for the colonies.
However, Desai recognizes, from the perspective of backward Russia, Lenin could not ignore imperialism. By 1916, he recognized the centrality of national revolutions against imperialism. And the Third International focused on imperial and colonial questions.
Because of the impact of the Third International on Marxism, imperialism occupied a prominent place in any Marxist discussion from the early 1920s to the 1970s. However, the attention to imperialism was in the form of an eclectic Marxism blended with imperialism. Paul Sweezy is an example. Sweezy believed that the problem of overproduction and the falling rate of profit could be solved by the management of demand, thus believing that the contradictions could be managed and would not result in the self-destruction of capitalism. Sweezy saw the possible demise of capitalism not through contradictions that could not be managed within the logic of capitalism, but through the “increasingly attractive power of a productively superior socialism.” Thus Sweezy, in Desai’s view, surrenders to neoclassical economics.
Desai maintains that Monthly Review made important contributions, but its analysis overlooks important insights of Marx. She writes:
“Monthly Review produced rich and insightful analyses of imperialism – particularly American – of its militarism, its wars, its corporations and surplus transfer, its history and resistance to it. It gave rise to dependency theory and world systems analysis. It informed, and continues to inform, generations of the left and Marxists. However, its analysis dispensed with Marx’s analysis of capitalism as value production and was based on a conception of a capitalism which was, if not free of contradictions, at least free of unmanageable ones.”
Desai further observes that imperialism disappeared from the pages of Marxist journals following the 1970s. Robert Brenner’s famous article, “The Origins of Capitalist Development,” set the tone in in 1977. He did not see the tendency of capitalism to overproduce national markets, and accordingly, he and other political Marxists held that capitalism did not need imperialism.
Ricardian Marxists, who leap over Marx to selectively read Ricardo, set back our understanding of imperialism and the dynamics of the relations among states. The Ricardian Marxists recognized that imperialism does happen and aids capitalist accumulation, but it is not required by the logic of capitalism, in their view. Moreover, Ricardian Marxism, Desai maintains, does not understand that dominated countries are the sources of the development of the West.
Not understanding the logic of Third World anti-imperialist people’s revolutions, it follows that Western Marxists have a limited and vague concept of revolution. “Having dispensed with the notion of contradiction, Western Marxism relies on (western) working-class mobilisation alone to magically overcome a capitalism assumed to be all-powerful, worldwide and eternal.” It cannot imagine autonomous national development in the neocolonies as a process integral to the transition to socialism.
Discussion of imperialism among leftists is renewing, because of the current decadence of imperialism. But unlike the 1960s and 1970s, Desai maintains, we must not ignore the resources that are found in Marx’s mature scientific analysis, found especially in Volume One of Capital.
Understandings of imperialism rooted in practice
Radhika Desai is on to something important. By its own logic, capitalism requires, first, the conquest and peripheralization of new territories; and then, imperialist control over the political-economic systems of the colonies, semi-colonies, and neocolonies. Moreover, because of the universal desire of human beings to be individually or collectively in control of their own affairs, the capitalist logic of imperialism necessary creates its opposite, anti-imperialist struggles, which can, in determined conditions, take control of semi-colonial or neocolonial states and transform them into anti-imperialist states. This dialectic of unfolding contradictions and conflicts between imperialist powers and anti-imperialist states and movements is fundamental to the capitalist world-economy and the neocolonial world system.
As Desai maintains, if you don’t understand the imperialist logic of capitalism, you cannot understand the anti-imperialist logic of the people’s revolutions in the vast semi-peripheral and peripheral zones of the world-economy. And if you don’t understand their logic, you may misinterpret what they are doing, thinking perhaps, that they a violating some dearly held human value.
Desai is dedicated to the task of showing that Western intellectuals, academics, leaders, and activists, confused by bourgeoisie counterrevolutionary intellectual maneuvers, do not understand the logic of anti-imperialist Third World revolutions.
However, we are speaking here of intellectuals, academics, leaders, and activists of the West. The ideological dynamics of the Third World are different. In the colonies, semi-colonies, and neocolonies, observing the profound ignorance and moral decadence of the West, leaders and intellectuals have taken upon themselves the task of discerning the true and the right, and leading their peoples toward an alternative world order, necessary for the preservation of the great civilizations that humanity has created.
The starting point concerns fundamentals. When a people experience that they have been conquered and colonized, and have had systems of forced labor imposed, coercing them to participate in the foreign plunder of their natural resources, it will not be long before leaders and thinkers emerge who interpret this experience, proclaiming that the wealth of the colonizers has been constructed on a foundation of force. They will arrive sooner or later, depending on objective and subjective conditions, to the understanding that the European colonial domination of the world is the source and the foundation to the advanced economies of Western Europe and the settler societies of North America.
I first encountered the Third World anti-imperialist perspective in the early 1970s at Chicago’s Center for Inner City Studies, where Jacob Carruthers and Anderson Thompson were formulating what they called “colonial analysis.” They saw European colonial domination of Africa as the foundation to the underdevelopment of Africa and the development of Europe, and they saw race relations in the USA through this prism. Their analysis included class divisions within the African colonies, in which an African elite educated in the West played a central role in facilitating the transition to European neocolonial domination. They concurred in Kwame Nkrumah’s description of neocolonialism, in which supposedly independent African nations are placed in an “economic stranglehold,” with accommodation expected from the African “educated elite.” They appreciated Julius Nyerere’s vision of “ujamaa socialism,” a uniquely African socialism constructed on a foundation of a modern reformulation of traditional African values. They rejected Marxism, but what they were rejecting was a superficial Marxism in the USA that historically had applied a unidimensional class analysis to the African-American colonial situation in the United States.
In the 1970s, the North American sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein initiated publication of his multi-volume work on the modern world-system, which described the historical development of the world-system on a foundation of the conquest and colonial domination of vast regions of the Americas, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa during the course of four centuries. In the preface to Volume One of the Modern World System, published in 1974, Wallerstein noted the importance of his experiences in Africa during the process of “decolonization.” Listening to “the angry analysis and optimistic passions of young militants of the African movements” inspired him to turn to world-systems analysis, because it had become clear to him that “society” was a dysfunctional “unit of analysis” for understanding the African “colonial situation.” Although Wallerstein formulated a historically accurate description of the development of the capitalist world-economy and its structures of superexploitation, confirmed as valid by Third World intellectuals, he never arrived to understand Third World anti-imperialist revolutions. He did not continue to encounter and study the anti-imperialist revolutions of the Third World beyond his early period in Africa, and he subsequently confined himself to a few references in his writings to a possible future “socialist world-system,” the characteristics of which he did not attempt to define. Sadly, he went to his eternal reward without ever having demonstrated an understanding of any of the real existing socialisms of our times.
In the early 1990s, I traveled extensively to Honduras, where I again encountered the Third World anti-imperialist perspective and movement. The Honduran national narrative begins with the Spanish conquest of the indigenous populations, and it continues with the quest of the Honduran nation for sovereignty, first from Spanish colonialism, and then in the face of American imperialism. The Honduran popular movement placed its origins in the 1954 general strike, initiated by the banana workers strike, illegal at the time, against the American banana companies that dominated the economy and politics of the nation.
In the early 1990s in Honduras, a popular movement against IMF-imposed neoliberal policies emerged in reaction to the destructive consequences of the neoliberal project for the nation. (Especially detrimental was the weakening of the capacity of the Honduran state to regulate its national currency, resulting in a significantly reduced purchasing power of Honduran wage earners). The Honduran popular movement of that time united the agricultural workers in the U.S.-owned banana companies (who called themselves “salaried peasants”), small peasant subsistence farmers, economically displaced peasants living in urban “marginal neighborhoods,” informal workers, workers in low-wage foreign-owned export manufacturing, students, teachers and professors, women (whom had recently gained recognition as an economically exploited gender), and indigenous communities (who also had gained recognition as a new social movement).
Since 1993, I have traveled extensively to Cuba, deepening my understanding of the Cuban Revolution as an anti-colonial, anti-neocolonial, and anti-imperialist people’s revolution, expressing itself in different stages from 1868 to the present, which has included an effort to construct socialism since 1959. Its defining moment was the Agrarian Reform Law of May 17, 1959, which Cuban scholar and diplomat Jesus Arboleya described nearly a half century later as a step that “defined the anti-neocolonial character of the revolution.”
Cuba in 1959 confronted a situation in which most agricultural land was in foreign hands, and there was high concentration of land ownership. Addressing this structural problem in the Cuban economy, the Agrarian Reform Law of 1959 nationalized large-scale agricultural lands, making no distinction between foreign and national ownership, and providing for compensation in the form of “Agrarian Reform Bonds” that were to mature in twenty years. Approximately one-third of the nationalized land was distributed to peasants who had worked on it as tenant farmers or sharecroppers; and two-thirds of the land was used for the establishment of state-managed farms and cooperatives. The Agrarian Reform Law provided the foundation for a fundamental transformation in the quality of life of the rural population and for rural socioeconomic development.
In addition to agricultural land, banks and other companies in Cuba were under foreign ownership, including electricity and telephone companies, gasoline refineries, mining companies, and importing companies. The Revolutionary Government on July 6, 1960, emitted a law authorizing nationalization of U.S. properties. It established compensation through government bonds, and it required the Cuban government to contribute to a compensation fund through bank deposits equal to 25% of the value of the U.S. purchase of Cuban sugar in excess of the U.S. established sugar quota. On the basis of the law, the Revolutionary Government emitted three resolutions on August 6, September 17, and October 24, 1960, nationalizing all 197 U.S. companies in Cuba.
These decisive steps struck at the heart of the Cuban neocolonial condition. They did not intend the severing of relations with the United States; rather, they sought the transformation of the Cuban-US political-economic relation from exploitation and domination to cooperation and mutual respect. The Cuban gesture toward cooperation was ignored by the USA, which was well on its road in its project of counterrevolutionary regime change.
The Cuban Revolution also had to address the question of the Cuban national industrial bourgeoisie. At the time of the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, the Cuban national industrial bourgeoisie was politically and ideologically weak relative to the Cuban landed estate bourgeoisie. And it was totally subordinate to U.S. capital. It was, Arboleya would later explain, a figurehead bourgeoisie, unable to lead the nation in the development of an autonomous national project.
Because of these conditions, the probability was low that the national industrial bourgeoisie would participate in the autonomous development of the Cuban economy under the direction of a people’s revolution. However, Fidel had the political intelligence to not prejudge the matter. Representatives of the bourgeoisie were initially included in the revolutionary government, and Fidel called upon Cuban industrialists to support the revolution by, at a minimum, keeping their factories running and depositing their profits in Cuban banks. But the Cuban industrial bourgeoisie demonstrated its incapacity to adapt to the new revolutionary political reality. Its members abandoned their factories and their country and incorporated themselves in the Cuban counterrevolution directed by the U.S. government. As a result, in 1961, the Cuban revolutionary government nationalized Cuban big industry and liquidated the Cuban industrial bourgeoisie as a class.
In addition to understanding the structure and dynamics of neocolonialism, Arboleya also understood the necessity of imperialism for capitalism. With reference to the concentration of capitalist enterprises in the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century, he wrote: “The immense increase of the North American monopolistic industry and capital required the constant growth of the markets to find outlets for products and to avoid provoking a fall in prices. In this contradiction is found the need for external markets.” It was necessary to obtain new consumer markets in order to maintain and even increase profits. “This objective converted the North American monopolies into transnational companies, which required a new expansionist policy of the state. These tendencies attained consolidation in 1896 with the election of William McKinley as president of the country.”
Imperialist policies, Cuban scholars see, are driven by their necessity as a correction to the insufficient demand of the domestic market; accordingly, they have been a persistent characteristic of U.S. foreign policy from McKinley to our days, even when imperialism was packaged as a “Good Neighbor” policy or an “Alliance for Progress.” In their works, Arboleya and Cuban scholar Roberto Regalado describe the persistence of U.S. imperialist policies from one presidential administration to the next. In Cuba, this is not a surprising view. The belief that the United States is an imperialist power that must of necessity pursue imperialist policies in one form or another is widely held in Cuba.
Moreover, anti-imperialism is a fundamental principle of Cuba foreign policy. The Cuban Constitution 2019 affirms the right of Cuba to sovereignty in international relations: “The economic, diplomatic, and political relations with any other State can never be negotiated under aggression, threat, or coercion.” It affirms Cuba’s foreign policy principles of sovereignty, anti-imperialism, and self-determination. It recognizes the need for the unity of the Third World in opposition to colonialism, neocolonialism, and imperialism. It reaffirms its commitment to integration and solidarity among the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean. It condemns interference in the internal affairs of states. It describes wars of aggression and conquest as international crimes. A similar anti-imperialist approach to Cuban foreign policy was formulated in the previous 1976 Constitution, with minor differences reflecting a different international situation.
In the practical implementation of its constitutionally guaranteed foreign policy, Cuba is allied with China, Vietnam, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Russia, and Iran in the construction of a pluripolar world based on cooperation and mutually beneficial trade among nations, standing against the unilateral hegemony of the USA and the potential multilateral imperialism directed by Europe.
The anti-imperialist, anti-neocolonial projection of the Cuban Revolution is a general phenomenon in the Third World. In 2006, I was able to attend with a press credential the Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Havana, when Cuba assumed the presidency for the second time. I was struck by the extent to which the Movement had retaken its historic anti-neocolonial and anti-imperialist agenda, influenced by the rising global popular movement in opposition to neoliberalism. The Non-Aligned Movement’s 2006 Declaration of Havana, endorsed unanimously by the 118 member nations, called for a “more just and equal world order,” and it lamented “the excessive influence of the rich and powerful nations in the determination of the nature and the direction of international relations.” It rejected the neoliberal project as promoting global inequality and “increasing the marginalization of countries in development.” It affirmed the principles of the UN Charter, including the equality and sovereignty of nations, non-intervention in the affairs of other states, and “the free determination of the peoples in their struggle against foreign intervention.” It proclaimed that “each country has the sovereign right to determine its own priorities and strategies for development.” It called for the strengthening and democratic reform of the United Nations, and it proposed South-South cooperation as a complement to North-South cooperation. It rejected the politicization of the issue of human rights, and the double standard used by the global powers, as a pretext for intervening in the affairs of nations of the Non-Aligned Movement. It proclaimed its support for the peoples of Palestine, Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Iran in their conflicts with the global powers.
The Non-Aligned Movement is rooted in a conference in Bandung, Indonesia in 1955, of representatives of twenty-nine newly independent Asian and African nations. Sukarno of Indonesia was the leading force; Nehru of India, Nasser of Egypt, Zhou En-lai of China, and U Nu of Burma were among its prominent participants. The Bandung conference declared the importance of Third World unity in opposition to European colonialism and Western imperialism. It advocated economic cooperation rather than exploitation as the base of international relations. It sought to break the core-peripheral relation, in which the Third World nations export raw materials and import manufactured goods, and thus, it called for the diversification of the economies of the formerly colonized nations and the development of their national industries. It supported the regulation of international capital flows.
The Bandung conference led to the establishment of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, by representatives of twenty-three governments of Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe. Tito of Yugoslavia, Nehru, and Nasser were its leading voices. U Nu, Ben Youssef (Algeria), Sukarno, Nkrumah (Ghana), and Osvaldo Dorticós (President of Cuba) were present at the first Summit in Belgrade. The Summit called for the democratization of the United Nations, particularly with respect to the Security Council, which holds unbalanced power vis-à-vis the General Assembly, and which is dominated by the imperialist powers.
With the turn of the global elites to neoliberalism in the late 1970s, the Non-Aligned Movement lost its ideological orientation toward the defense of the sovereignty of the Third World nations. However, beginning in 2000, the Non-Aligned Movement began to retake its radical agenda in defense of the sovereignty of Third World nations and in opposition to imperialism, which has been expressed in the various declarations from 2006 to the present.
The great majority of intellectuals and leaders of the Third World do not have the disadvantage of having read neoclassical economists. Freed from such distortions, their theoretical understanding was able to advance in accordance with the level of their commitment to the people’s movement, reflecting on the lessons learned in the concrete struggle in practice. In this context, the most insightful leaders and intellectuals developed an advanced understanding of the dynamics of colonialism, neocolonialism, and imperialism in the capitalist phase of human history. They constitute an indispensable resource for understanding today’s world-system dynamics.
For those of us who are intellectuals of the Left, from and/or located in the imperialist heartlands, our task must be a study and rediscovery of Marx, the intellectually mature political economist of Volume One of Capital; combined with study of and encounter with real socialism today in China and various nations of the Third World. This double focus on theory and practice would enable us to further develop the science of political economy in our time, such that it would be a tool enhancing the necessary greater understanding of our peoples and enlightening the correct courses of action.
Top Image: A scene from the mural on the side of the United Electrical Workers’ Western Region headquarters in Chicago, Illinois. Terence Faircloth / Flickr
Charles McKelvey is Professor Emeritus at Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina, USA. He is influenced by black nationalism, the Catholic philosopher Lonergan, Marx, Wallerstein, anti-imperialism, and the Cuban Revolution. Since my retirement from college teaching in 2011, I have devoted myself to reading and writing on world affairs.