Have Any of Karl Marx’s Critics Today Actually Read Him? / by Ben Burgis

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)

Originally published in Jacobin on May 31, 2023

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.

On Revolutionary Situations / by V.I. Lenin

Posted on Marxism Leninism Today by the MLT editors on January 30, 2023

Excerpted from Lenin’s The Collapse of the Second International, Part II (1915)
Find the the full text at marxists.org

“To the Marxist it is indisputable that a revolution is impossible without a revolutionary situation; furthermore, it is not every revolutionary situation that leads to revolution. What, generally speaking, are the symptoms of a revolutionary situation? We shall certainly not be mistaken if we indicate the following three major symptoms: (1) when it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the “upper classes”, a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth.

For a revolution to take place, it is usually insufficient for “the lower classes not to want” to live in the old way; it is also necessary that “the upper classes should be unable” to live in the old way; (2) when the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual; (3) when, as a consequence of the above causes, there is a considerable increase in the activity of the masses, who uncomplainingly allow themselves to be robbed in “peace time”, but, in turbulent times, are drawn both by all the circumstances of the crisis and by the “upper classes” themselves into independent historical action.

Without these objective changes, which are independent of the will, not only of individual groups and parties but even of individual classes, a revolution, as a general rule, is impossible. The totality of all these objective changes is called a revolutionary situation. Such a situation existed in 1905 in Russia, and in all revolutionary periods in the West; it also existed in Germany in the sixties of the last century, and in Russia in 1859-61 and 1879-80, although no revolution occurred in these instances.

Why was that? It was because it is not every revolutionary situation that gives rise to a revolution; revolution arises only out of a situation in which the above-mentioned objective changes are accompanied by a subjective change, namely, the ability of the revolutionary class to take revolutionary mass action strong enough to break (or dislocate) the old government, which never, not even in a period of crisis, “falls”, if it is not toppled over.”

Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, [197[4]], Moscow, Volume 21, pages 260-265.

Karl Marx’s Literary Style Was an Essential Part of His Genius / by Daniel Hartley

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).

Why and How Class Still Matters / by Nick French

A custodian working on a stairway at the Zakrzewska Building in Boston, Massachusetts, October 5, 2022. (David L. Ryan / The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Originally published in Jacobin on January 21, 2023

Review of The Class Matrix: Social Theory After the Cultural Turn by Vivek Chibber (Harvard University Press, 2022)

It’s fashionable to declare that Marxism doesn’t have much to say about complex, modern societies. But class and the material interests it generates are still the central features of capitalism.

Though Occupy Wall Street, the Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns, and other developments have brought the themes of class and economic inequality back into public consciousness in recent years, this resurgence has been accompanied by denunciations of Marxism as an outdated framework for social and political analysis. Pundits and politicians warn us of the dangers of focusing too much on class or treating it as in any way “more important” than other social identities or forms of hierarchy.

These popular refrains echo claims that have become dominant in academic social theory for decades. Where Karl Marx and his followers saw economic forces as central to understanding social stability and conflict, proponents of “the cultural turn” in social theory give pride of place to noneconomic factors. If class is a matter of a person’s location in an economic structure — whether, say, they own means of production or must sell their labor for a living — then class has little predictive power in explaining why people do what they do, culturalists argue. We should look instead to contingent cultural factors: social norms, values, and religious practices.

It’s easy to see the attraction of these arguments. Despite renewed concern with economic inequality represented by Sanders and related phenomena elsewhere (Corbynism in Britain, Podemos in Spain, La France Insoumise), class-based critiques have failed to capture the support of the working classes on a large scale. The old parties of the Left are in decline, with ever more workers gravitating to the Right. Global politics continues to undergo class dealignment: compared to the early and mid-twentieth century, class is becoming a less and less salient category of political identity and conflict. Partisan divisions are hardening, but no side credibly claims to represent the interests — or can win the loyalty — of workers.

If class is so important, why do so few people think so? Why, as the chasm of economic inequality widens, aren’t workers rallying around the red flag and trying to overthrow the system?

In his recent book, The Class Matrix: Social Theory After the Cultural Turn, sociologist Vivek Chibber argues that dismissing the importance of class analysis is a grave error. A proper Marxist understanding of class, he argues, can rise to the challenge of culturalist arguments in social theory. But more than that, Marxism can give us a framework to understand why workers under capitalism will be more likely to acquiesce to the capitalist system than to revolt against it — and can shed light on how to make revolutionary change a reality.

Economic Structure and Culture

At the core of Chibber’s argument is an elegant explanation of the relation between the class structure of capitalism and culture. Culturalists argue that all intentional human behavior is mediated by the “interpretive work of human actors,” as social theorist William Sewell puts it. For a social structure — like, say, the capital–wage labor relation — to become effective in motivating behavior, the agents participating in that structure must learn and internalize the appropriate cultural scripts.

This argument, Chibber writes, suggests that “the very existence of the structure seems to depend on the vagaries of cultural mediation.” If I am a worker, I must learn and internalize the fact that I have to find and keep a job in order to sustain myself, and I must learn and internalize the norms and habits required to do so (norms of speech and dress, certain skills, a “work ethic,” and so on). If I’m a capitalist, I need to learn and internalize the fact that success means maximizing profits, and I must learn and internalize the norms and habits that allow me to do that (a single-minded focus on expanding market share and cutting costs, for instance, which requires a ruthlessness in dealing with my employees.)

So, it may seem that human motivation is explained by culture “all the way down.” But this isn’t so. Though culturalists are right that people must adapt to certain cultural scripts to participate in social structures, Chibber admits, it doesn’t follow that these cultural scripts have causal primacy in explaining the structure. Instead, the economic structure itself explains why people need to learn and internalize the relevant scripts in the first place.

Consider what happens if a worker fails to internalize the cultural script appropriate to their role. That means they will fail to secure a job; or, if they do manage that, they won’t be able to keep it for very long. The outcome will be destitution, hunger, and worse. Likewise, a capitalist who fails to internalize the script relevant to their role will soon find their firms going under — and if they don’t get their act together, they’ll eventually find themselves in the desperate situation of a propertyless proletarian.

For capitalists and workers alike, the economic structure generates powerful material interests that compel them to internalize the cultural scripts corresponding to their class positions. The fundamentals of their individual well-being are on the line if they fail to do so.

None of this is to deny the importance of culture. But it is to say that, if we want to understand why people in capitalist societies act as they do, economic structure must be given a primary explanatory role. This claim is borne out, Chibber argues, by the global spread of capitalism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Far from particular cultural understandings being either prerequisites or insurmountable obstacles to the development of capitalist class structures, the imposition of capitalism has transformed cultures around the world — including those once thought to be inimical to capitalist relations — to suit its purposes.

The False Explanation of False Consciousness

Marxists argue that capitalism essentially involves the exploitation and domination of the working class by the capitalist class. Because they don’t have access to “means of production,” workers must sell their labor power to those who do: the capitalists. Once a worker secures a job, they are subject to the tyranny of the boss, who will attempt to get as much work out of them for as little pay as possible. Though workers are the ones who produce the goods and services that the capitalist sells, the capitalist gets to keep the lion’s share of the social surplus produced by their employees in the form of profits, while workers receive a pittance in the form of wages.

This antagonism of interests involved in the capitalist–wage labor relationship, and the harms it imposes on workers, leads to conflict. Marx, observing the nascent labor organizations and political movements of his day, thought that this conflict would take on an increasingly collective and revolutionary form: workers would band together to resist their exploitation and eventually “expropriate the expropriators,” abolishing private property and doing away with capitalism entirely.

This didn’t happen. There were, of course, socialist revolutions in countries where capitalism was just starting to develop, beginning with Russia in 1917, but these societies soon degenerated into authoritarian regimes and by the end of the century were evolving in a capitalist direction. In the West, socialist parties gradually accommodated themselves to the capitalist system and eventually moved away from even promoting significant reforms to the system and representing their traditional working-class bases. Even labor unions have now been on the decline globally for decades.

Why didn’t Marxism’s revolutionary prophecies come true? According to thinkers of the New Left, the answer lies in culture. Workers do have an interest in organizing collectively to defend their well-being and, ultimately, in overthrowing the capitalist system. But they have been thoroughly indoctrinated by bourgeois ideology to accept the system as morally legitimate, and anesthetized by the shallow consolations of “the culture industry,” the promise of consumer goodies, and the like. If only workers could pierce the veil of illusion and recognize their true interests, the thought goes, they would revolt.

Chibber deploys his materialist understanding of class to dismantle this argument. The problem with this explanation is that, as a result of their class position, workers daily experience pervasive harms and loss of autonomy at work, anxiety over finding or keeping a job, and the struggle to maintain a comfortable standard of living. To say that the working class in general has fallen prey to ideological indoctrination is to say that ideology has overwhelmed these prominent features of workers’ lived experience — that the influence of “bourgeois culture” is so strong as to induce systematic “cognitive breakdown” — in other words, false consciousness. Worse still, this explanation bizarrely positions the theorist as having more insight into the workers’ experience than the workers themselves.

And, in fact, workers do often resist their exploitation. They shirk when they’re on the job; they call in sick when they’re not; they occasionally engage in acts of petty theft and sabotage against their employer. These widespread forms of individualized resistance show that working people aren’t simply dupes of pro-capitalist myths.

Why Workers (Only Sometimes) Revolt

So, why don’t workers revolt? The answer lies in the costs and risks associated with collective action. Workers depend on their jobs to sustain themselves and their families. It is not the case that workers “have nothing to lose but their chains”: in organizing or taking action with their coworkers, they could very well lose their livelihood. “The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all,” the economist Joan Robinson quipped.

Besides the vulnerability to unemployment, there are plenty of other obstacles to a strategy of collective resistance. Workers have diverse interests that sometimes push against collective action. For instance, while the vast majority of workers would benefit from building powerful labor unions and political organizations in the long run, in the short term, lucky or very skilled workers may be able to secure a better deal for themselves through individual bargaining with employers.

Then, there is the problem of free riding: while everyone benefits from the fruit of collective effort, no individual worker will be worse off if they don’t contribute. That creates a strong incentive for workers to shirk their responsibilities to collective organizing efforts — but, if enough individuals shirk, the efforts will of course fail.

Chibber’s conclusion is that Marx was wrong to think that capitalism would naturally produce its own “gravediggers.” Instead, the material interests generated by the class structure usually militate against collective action and instead push workers to advance their interests by working hard and “keeping their heads down,” while engaging in occasional acts of individualized resistance. New Left theorists who say workers don’t revolt because they’re under the sway of bourgeois ideology make the same mistaken assumption as Marx — they think the reasons for workers’ acquiescence must come from outside the economic structure. In fact, in most times and places, the class structure provides strong-enough reasons of its own to eschew collective resistance, let alone revolutionary activity.

But workers can and do sometimes organize together to fight their exploiters. Under what conditions does collective action become feasible? A crucial ingredient, Chibber argues, is the creation of a culture of solidarity:

[Workers] have to make their valuation of possible outcomes at least partly on how it will affect their peers; this stems from a sense of obligation and what they owe to the collective good. . . . In directing every worker to see the welfare of her peers as of direct concern to herself, a solidaristic ethos counteracts the individuating effects normally generated by capitalism. In so doing, it enables the creation of the collective identity that, in turn, is the cultural accompaniment to class struggle.

When workers come to see their own well-being as bound up with that of others, the normal obstacles to collective action become smaller. They become more willing to take individual risks, and they become averse to free riding on the efforts of their comrades.

Again, culture is constrained by material interests here. A solidaristic ethos is not the same as an altruistic ethos, in the sense of a selfless concern for the welfare of others. Solidarity is rather about forming a sense of reciprocal obligation around shared interests. Knowing that, in the long term, they all stand to benefit from strong workers’ organizations, workers internalize norms that change how they weigh the costs and risks associated with collective action. My sense of obligation to my coworkers may allow me to overcome my fear of the boss’s retaliation; it may encourage me to see an individual wage increase here and now as less important than the security offered by a union contract; it will make me see free riding as a shameful betrayal of my comrades.

Where workers build cultures of solidarity, they are more likely to pursue, and succeed in, strategies of collective resistance. But we should emphasize that class-based organization is not the only way that workers under capitalism might pursue their interests collectively. They also of course belong to formal and informal organizations based on race, ethnicity, religion, kinship, and other social identities. Workers may use such networks to navigate the vicissitudes of labor market competition by hoarding resources and job opportunities; the usefulness of these strategies gives rise to justifying ideologies of racism, ethnocentrism, and the like.

Such collective identities, then — like class — have a basis in the economic structure of capitalism. Yet over time, workers’ prioritizing their identification with (say) members of their race or coreligionists makes it less likely they will forge large, durable coalitions to advance their interests and makes it easier for capitalists to pit workers against each other. (If a union refuses to admit nonwhite workers, for instance, it will sooner or later find the bosses employing those excluded workers as scabs.)

So, the reason to treat cultures of class solidarity as particularly central is not because we chauvinistically regard class oppression as more morally significant than other social hierarchies, as some ill-tempered critics charge. It’s because organizing along class lines is the only feasible long-term strategy for resisting and eventually overcoming capitalist domination and thereby undermining the material basis of racial and other forms of oppression.

Class, Politics, and Class Politics in the Twenty-First Century

It follows that class formation — the transformation of workers from a “class in itself” to a conscious, organized “class for itself,” in Marx’s terms — is an extremely fraught proposition. The material incentives generated by capitalism’s economic structure discourage collective class organization and instead push workers to seek individualized means of pursuing their interests or otherwise to fall back on networks of kinship, race, and so on that pit them against their potential comrades in arms.

Thanks to the heroic efforts of ideologically committed left-wing organizers to build cultures of solidarity, the workers’ movement was born and grew by leaps and bounds in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These organizers were aided by propitious circumstances. Rapid industrialization brought ever-greater numbers of workers into large factories and dense urban centers and decreased workers’ fear of long-term unemployment. In most of the capitalist world, workers were politically disenfranchised, strengthening their sense that they were unjustly treated and making clear the need to organize along class lines to demand political well as economic rights. Workers lived close to each other in city slums, segregated from other elements of society, facilitating an awareness of their shared interests and the forging of a collective identity.

These structural and institutional facts were fertile ground for the growth of powerful labor movements and socialist parties. Those organizations fought for a partial “humanization” of capitalism, redistributing wealth and income toward the poor and working classes. For a while, especially in the postwar era, rapid economic growth meant that employers could (reluctantly) absorb unions’ and left parties’ redistributive demands. Yet a decline in profit rates starting in the 1960s forced employers to be less tolerant, and capitalists began to fight back, successfully crushing unions and rolling back the welfare state across much of the developed world.

This story brings us to the neoliberal period, which workers haven’t yet been able to fight their way out of. For decades, they have suffered from stagnant wages and the erosion of public goods. At first, Chibber notes, workers responded by retreating from political activity and civic life. But recent years have seen active expressions of discontent, in the form of an uptick in strike action (though still at historically low levels) as well as explosions of anger at the ballot box in the form of support for populist, antiestablishment parties and candidates of both the Left and Right.

This pattern of working-class disaffection and anger is understandable in materialist terms — as are the obstacles to a renewal of the organized labor movement and mass working-class political parties. The structural and institutional factors underlying the birth and expansion of the Old Left are no longer in place. Globally, capitalist economies are now deindustrializing, which has meant slower employment growth; the dispersion of workers into smaller firms; and less job security. Workers in most capitalist democracies now have full political rights, and they are no longer geographically isolated in their own densely populated communities but spread out in the suburbs among other classes.

These facts mean the project of organizing workers has a totally different character than it did in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. “Workers’ electoral status and social conditions once worked in tandem with the class structure to push workers toward a common identity,” Chibber writes, “but this is no longer the case.” Their electoral status and social conditions today pull workers apart, exacerbating the tendency to adopt individualized or parochial modes of resistance.

Back to Class

The Class Matrix is not without its flaws. Nowhere does Chibber explicitly offer or defend a definition of material interests, a notion fundamental to his account of human motivation under capitalism and to his distinction between materialist and culturalist explanations of social structure. Nor does he discuss the connections between interests, preferences, and motivations — a topic that has long bedeviled philosophers as well as social scientists, and one on which Chibber makes some controversial assumptions that he does not entirely bring to the surface. (Very briefly: he seems to be working with a definition of material interests as universal components of well-being, rooted in human biological needs and capacities, that systematically regulate people’s preferences and motivations across cultural contexts. That is certainly a plausible and defensible conception of interests, but not, I think, a self-evident one.)

Finally, many of the book’s formulations suggest a dichotomy between individualistic forms of resistance to domination and class-based collective action. But as discussed above, and as Chibber himself acknowledges at points, collective strategies of interest advancement can also take the form of reliance on racial, ethnic, and other nonclass collectivities. There is, of course, an important similarity between individualistic forms of resistance and reliance on parochial networks to hoard advantage: they mean failing to unite workers to challenge capitalism at the root and are, for that reason, ultimately self-defeating.

However, these are complaints about presentation rather than substance. Overall, The Class Matrix is a clear, compelling, and systematic statement of the view that class is an objective reality that predictably and rationally shapes human thought and action, one we need to grapple with seriously if we’re to comprehend contemporary society and its morbid symptoms.

Socialists today face the difficult task of building cultures of solidarity on different, and less favorable, terrain than our predecessors. Whether and how exactly we can do so are questions Chibber leaves to his readers. But his contribution to understanding what class is, and why it matters, will likely be indispensable to finding the answers.

Nick French is an assistant editor at Jacobin.

Karl Marx Was Right: Workers Are Systematically Exploited Under Capitalism / by Ben Burgis

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

The first volume of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital

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 in society 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 to eighteen 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 Burgis is 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.

Jacobin, June 11, 2022, https://jacobin.com/