Marxism: Should Marxists rethink it or or just dump it altogether?
I want to take a moment to sum up some of my thoughts regarding Marxism that has occurred to me during my occupation of the Marxist Academy. This is only a rough outline of those ideas and I welcome comments on them from readers of this blog.
Should Marxism be rethought or should it be replaced? And, if it is to be replaced, by what?
I am coming to the conclusion that Marxism is irremediably broken as a tool for indicating theoretically a path forward for working folk. By Marxism I mean the body of works based on a political reading of Marx’s theory that has grown up after the death of Marx and Engels. This political reading of Marx’s theory, I contend, is a particular interpretation of Marx’s theory adapted to the problem of seizure of state power by the working class as a transit point to the abolition of class society. As such it is a body of theory developed over many years that grapples with the notion of preparing a working class that is capable of seizing state power and employing it as a lever to emancipate itself from capitalist relations.
Marxism developed as an alternative to the idea popular among the anarchist wing of communism that, in the words of Marx, the working class should “just wait for the day of general liquidation”. It also developed, I argue, with the knowledge understood by Marx and Engels that capitalism would eventually experience a breakdown that had to result in the state’s assumption of management of the total social capital. In the prophetic words of Engels:
This rebellion of the productive forces, as they grow more and more powerful, against their quality as capital, this stronger and stronger command that their social character shall be recognized, forces the capital class itself to treat them more and more as social productive forces, so far as this is possible under capitalist conditions. The period of industrial high pressure, with its unbounded inflation of credit, not less than the crash itself, by the collapse of great capitalist establishments, tends to bring about that form of the socialization of great masses of the means of production which we meet with in the different kinds of joint-stock companies. Many of these means of production and of distribution are, from the outset, so colossal that, like the railways, they exclude all other forms of capitalistic expansion. At a further stage of evolution, this form also becomes insufficient. The producers on a large scale in a particular branch of an industry in a particular country unite in a “Trust”, a union for the purpose of regulating production. They determine the total amount to be produced, parcel it out among themselves, and thus enforce the selling price fixed beforehand. But trusts of this kind, as soon as business becomes bad, are generally liable to break up, and on this very account compel a yet greater concentration of association. The whole of a particular industry is turned into one gigantic joint-stock company; internal competition gives place to the internal monopoly of this one company. This has happened in 1890 with the English alkali production, which is now, after the fusion of 48 large works, in the hands of one company, conducted upon a single plan, and with a capital of 6,000,000 pounds.
In the trusts, freedom of competition changes into its very opposite — into monopoly; and the production without any definite plan of capitalistic society capitulates to the production upon a definite plan of the invading socialistic society. Certainly, this is so far still to the benefit and advantage of the capitalists. But, in this case, the exploitation is so palpable, that it must break down. No nation will put up with production conducted by trusts, with so barefaced an exploitation of the community by a small band of dividend-mongers.
In any case, with trusts or without, the official representative of capitalist society — the state — will ultimately have to undertake the direction of production.  This necessity for conversion into State property is felt first in the great institutions for intercourse and communication — the post office, the telegraphs, the railways.
The prediction by Marx and Engels that the state would be forced to assume the function of social manager — national capitalist — was clear enough, but, in a footnote, Engels took care to emphasize this would not be a political choice, but a decision forced on the state by the law of value and would have consequences for the mode of production:
I say “have to”. For only when the means of production and distribution have actually outgrown the form of management by joint-stock companies, and when, therefore, the taking them over by the State has become economically inevitable, only then — even if it is the State of today that effects this — is there an economic advance, the attainment of another step preliminary to the taking over of all productive forces by society itself.
Capitalist breakdown: a watershed moment for Marxist theory
Capitalist breakdown, which, I think, occurred in the Great Depression, was a watershed moment in the history of the capitalist mode of production. What made it a watershed moment was that prior to the breakdown capitalist accumulation could function essentially without state control. Following capitalist breakdown capitalist accumulation required state management of the total social capital. The forces of production had grown beyond the control of any capitalist or group of capitalists, cartels, etc.
I think this prediction by Marx and Engels is the context for understanding Luxemburg’s famous slogan, “Socialism or Barbarism”; at the point of capitalist breakdown, the working class would be confronted with a choice of seizing the productive capacity of society or fall under the uncontested rule of the state capitalist. The choice would be stark: working class association or the unhampered despotism of capital. Until the Great Depression, the working class contended for power with capital in every social explosion — usually triggered by wars.
Just as Marx and Engels predicted, the proletariat had grown in both mass and political power in the aftermath of each defeat it suffered. Thus, by the time of the Great Depression and capitalist breakdown, the seizure of the total social capital forced on the state by the law of value carried with it the prospect this total social capital would fall into the hands of a proletarian democratic majority in all the advanced countries. The productive forces raised by the capitalist mode of production had completely escaped the control of the capitalist class. The only alternative at this point was state management of the mode of production, but the balance of political power was held by the proletarian majority. If capitalist relations of production were to survive this crisis, they would have to assume a form consistent with the effective democratic power of the working class.
This, I would argue, is the social basis of Barbarism, or what I have been referring to as the Fascist State. What makes fascism a messy political problem for Marxism, and ultimately drives it into a blind alley, is that the unhampered rule of capital rests on the suffrage of a proletarian majority, rather constituting itself over against this political power. This might appear to be a heresy, but, in fact, every Marxist already knows the capitalist is only a personification of capitalist relations. The personification had already been replaced by the social capitalist in the form of joint stock capital, trusts and cartelization by the turn of the 20th Century. Marx even argued the worker can function essentially as her own capitalist — an argument with which Marxists are familiar. The only objection that might be raised to my argument on this score is that this self-exploitation can take place on the level of the single factory but not for the entire economy.
In fact, there is nothing that prevents the state from acting as the national capitalist despite the effective proletarian majority in the advanced countries, since all we have to assume is that this proletarian majority did not do what is necessary: replace the state with its own association. As we all learned in the first moments we became communists, in Marx’s theory the proletarian majority of society cannot rule through the existing state — every revolution in the 19th and 20th Centuries confirms this observation made by Marx and Engels. The rule of the working class can only be realized in the form of an association of the individuals composing society. Even before capitalist breakdown, the task of the working class was not just to seize the existing state, but to break it and replace it with its own association.
The failure of Marxism to adapt to new problems
In the aftermath of capitalist breakdown, when the state was compelled to seize the total social capital of society, the task of the working class was to put an end to the state itself and replace this state with its associative management of the total social capital. And this is where Marxism ran into a brick wall: it was never able to adapt itself to the new theoretical tasks placed before it by the state’s new function as manager of the total social capital — i.e., how to replace the state with this association. Just as Engels predicted, the seizure of the total social capital by the state represented an advance in the mode of production, but only insofar as it was simply “another step preliminary to the taking over of all productive forces by society itself.”
This seizure brought together labor, property and the state into a single entity, standing over against society, and making possible the abolition of all of them at one stroke. However, even today Marxism continues to treat labor, property and the state as separate, only abstractly connected, categories; it seems incapable of comprehending the unmediated character of the relation between politics and economics in post-breakdown capitalism — a relation no longer mediated by the struggle between classes. The no longer mediated relation between politics and economics implies every economic issue is immediately one of overthrowing the existing state. Marxists recoil at this conclusion because they have been reduced to abject idolatry of the state. They only get so close to this conclusion as to demand the state somehow pursue policies favoring the working class, not capital — and even this demand appears as an ambiguous murky demand, since no Marxist who has not lost all self-respect will ever admit the present state can pursue such policies. On the other hand, since Marxists are vaguely cognizant of the limits of the present state, they find themselves advocating policies favoring the working class by ineffectively demanding an end to fascist state policies favoring capital. But try to nail them down even on this, and they will have to sheepishly admit the capitalist state cannot realize even this minimal demand.
As a theory, Marxism is incompetent, because it makes demands it knows are not only impossible to realize under the present capitalist state, but would even be impossible to realize for the workers’ own association — this association cannot “favor” the wage worker, but only give her the means to throw off her stultified existence as a wage slave. I ran into this problem myself when studying the ex nihilo currency of the fascist state: it was clear this money was a fiction, but it was equally clear this fiction could not, even the lower phase of communism be replaced by sound money — money itself had to be abolished. The solution to state issued fiction is not sound money but abolition of exchange.
In his “Chronicles of Insurrection”, Toscano explains one of the most important features of Marx’s theory. Marx’s theory allows the working class,
A state of exception in which thinking is the force that decides’. And contrary to a facile determinism, ‘to predict the development of capital does not mean subjecting oneself to its iron laws: it means forcing it to take a path, waiting for it at some juncture with weapons stronger than iron, attacking and breaking it at that point’.
I think it is pretty clear this was what Marx and Engels were trying to do with regards to capitalist breakdown; knowing that at some point the law of value would compel the state to assume management of the total social capital offered an opportunity for the working class to take advantage of that event to capture the initiative in the social revolution for its own purpose. But Toscano also describes the downside of theory:
Crucially this link between tendency and initiative in ‘brief political moments’ can mean that certain opportunities for ambushing capital can be irretrievably lost, that defeat is a real possibility.
I think this is precisely what happened during the Great Depression — and moreover, that Marxism did not have a plan B. Not only did the working class miss the opportunity to ambush capital at a moment of great vulnerability during the Great Depression, its theoretical side mistook this defeat for some sort of historic compromise between wage labor and capital, and has reproduced this monstrously egregious theoretical error ever since. A political reading of Marx’s theory, which offered the best hope for the working class at the decisive moment of capitalist breakdown, has now become a dead weight around the necks of the working class. It is this political reading of Marx’s theory that needs to be abandoned in favor of a reading that is explicitly directed at abolition of wage labor, capital and the state — that aims not to critique capital from the standpoint of labor, but to end capitalist labor itself; that seeks not to make private property the common property of society, but to eradicate property itself; that is uncompromising in its determination not to seize state power but to break it once and for all.
Marxism’s ahistorical understanding of the State
From the standpoint of a political reading of Marx’s theory, the task of directly attacking labor, property and the state seems daunting. In Marxism the state has no history and is decidedly unchanged in its basic character both before and after its assumption of the new function of manager of the total social capital of the nation. In Marxist theory the state remains pretty much what it has always been: an institution whose relation to the economic processes of society is mediated by the struggle between wage labor and capital — it therefore cannot accurately determine a course of action when the domination of capital rests on the suffrage of the working class majority.
Barbarism, or the fascist state began with the assumption of state management of the total social capital — a function forced upon it, as Engels predicted, by the development of the mode of production itself. The assumption of state management of the total social capital made capital itself absolutely dependent on the state function of social manager, thus rendering it vulnerable both to political forces within society generally and to demands directed against the state itself. On the other hand, the state is increasingly materially subsumed under the sway of the law of value and the concentration and centralization of capital. While this change renders the political reading of Marx’s theory increasingly problematic, it also renders both the state and capital vulnerable to one and the same demand for the reduction of hours of work.
When the state assumed the function of social manager of the total social capital, this had two effects: first, it subjected capital itself to the stresses of political forces; second, it subjected the state to the economic forces of the law of value. Both of these effects are now playing out within the world market. The first effect implies the further development of capital consists of the throwing off of democratic rule, the growing indifference of the state to the democratic will of the proletarian majority of society. The more the function of management of the total social capital by the state is perfected, the more the state acts as the social capitalist; the more it acts, not as the expression of the collective will of the proletarians but as the practical will of this total social capital. This is already given within Marx’s theory, since his theory argues the working class has no particular interests to assert against capital. Since the working class has no particular interest to assert against capital, it is already clear the state in its function of social manager cannot express the interest of the working class as a class. With regards to the working class, the state can only express the competitive pressure within the class of proletarians. As Marx argues, this is already given in his definition of how a class comes into existence as a class:
The separate individuals form a class only insofar as they have to carry on a common battle against another class; otherwise they are on hostile terms with each other as competitors.
With no interest to assert against capital, competition among the proletarians can assume a level of ferocity unprecedented in human history. Marxism, which assumes the political solidarity of the working class based on a non-existent common class interest, is decidedly incapable of grasping the very real Hobbesian atmosphere within the class that exists, and would be unable to admit it in any case since this competition make common political action impossible in Marx’s theory.
On the other hand, when the state assumes the function of manager of the total social capital, it must begin to act increasingly as an ordinary capital. While the implications of this are clear in relation to the working class within a particular nation, it also has implications for the system of nations which tend to be overlooked: the nation states within this system act more and more like a simple collection of capitals. Which is to say, they are subject to the law of value, the tendency toward a fall in the rate of profit, and the concentration and centralization of capital. The law of value, no longer limited to simple capitals as before, is extended to these national capitals and their state managers.
Because Marxism is merely a political reading of Marx’s theory, it takes the political division of the world market into nation states as an ahistorical category. It cannot, therefore, fully integrate national conflict into its understanding of the law of value, nor understand this conflict as the working out of the law of value. The moment the state assumes the function of manager of the total social capital of a nation, it seals its fate and ensures its demise. Even if we assume it is possible to overcome the Hobbesian environment within the working class, we only get to the point of controlling an institution that is itself increasingly incapable of determining events through its political action. A political reading of Marx’s theory sets as the task precisely the seizure of a state that is becoming more empty and irrelevant each day.
Toward a non-political reading of Marx
In the last part of my summary I want to outline what a non-political reading of Marx’s theory would look like. In particular, I want to show how a non-political reading of Marx changes our entire understanding of his conception of the proletariat, as well as our understanding of his conception of the social revolution itself. The source for my argument is a single chapter of the German Ideology, “Proletarians and Communism”, in which Marx discusses these issues. What is clear in Marx’s discussion almost from the first sentence is that he is making an argument for why this class — proletarians — share little or nothing in common with preceding classes, and what this distinction has for the sort of revolution it is capable of making.
In the first paragraph, Marx explains how the burghers rose and constituted itself as a class only gradually and in opposition to existing classes within the dying feudal order. The interests of this class of burghers forms gradually along with their economic evolution out of customs and concerns they held in common; these customs and concerns themselves arise in the course of conflict with the old order; and represent what is common to this new class. To this extent, what was common to them together in their conditions of life was also independent of anyone of them as individuals. Over time, as the class split up along the lines of the division of labor, the class interest expressed the interest of each only to the extent each in his own conditions reflected the conditions of existence of the class as a whole. It follows from this that the interest of the burgher class as a whole and the interest of each individual burgher were not identical. Moreover, these burghers only form a class insofar as they share common interests against other classes; absent this they are competitors. Marx concludes from this that
“…the class in its turn achieves an independent existence over against the individuals…”
It needs to be noted here that, in Marx’s theory, the interests of any class is not just expressed in society as a pressure generally; it is also expressed as an imposition on the members of the class itself. The class interests of capital are not just the sum of individual interests of the members of the class, but only what is common to them. And this class interest imposes itself, not just on society, but on each member of the capitalist class. Marx then spends almost the entire remaining portion of this section explaining why what he has just outlined as the history of classes is NOT true for the proletariat. He is going to explain, in other words, why this class is not a class like the burghers. And he is going to do this for one reason: the end of class society is only possible when at last a class arises that is not really a class:
“This subsuming of individuals under definite classes cannot be abolished until a class has taken shape, which has no longer any particular class interest to assert against the ruling class. “
What is the distinction to be made: the history of the burgher class is that it emerges in conflict with existing classes of the old order. The proletarians, however, are themselves the product of the rise of the burgher class:
“… it develops the majority of the earlier propertyless and a part of the hitherto propertied classes into a new class, the proletariat…”
The threat posed by the working class to the capitalist class results from the fact that the former is the necessary product of the latter; it is not, and has never been, the result of a clash of interests between the two classes. In fact, in Marx’s theory, the proletarians have no class interests to assert against the capitalist class; and, in Marx’s theory, this fact sets the stage for the abolition of classes and class society.
Try as you might, you will never find any evidence of this argument in the political reading of Marx’s theory — Marxism. Marx demonstrates how the emergence of the proletariat as a product of the capitalist class is related to the state: Class interests, like that of the capitalist class rise over against these individuals, and cannot be dispelled until the individuals again subject their personal relations (interests) to their control. Marx argued this was not possible without community — the state was itself a substitute for this community, an illusory community. Like the interests (personal relations) of a class, this illusory community (State) took a form that was independent of the individuals. The real interests of the individual and the illusory interests of the same individual as member of a class assumed an accidental quality. This is particularly true in the bourgeois epoch, where, in contrast to previous epochs, the individual’s position in society no longer assumes “…a quality inseparable from his individuality.” The individual’s position in society appears altogether accidental; and this accidental character is called freedom.
Marx then says, unlike in the case of the bourgeoisie and the dying estates,
“The difference from the estate comes out particularly in the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.”
Again, there is no continuity between the cases of the bourgeois and proletarian, but a distinction that had to be made. And what is this distinction? Unlike the bourgeoisie,
“For the proletarians, on the other hand, the condition of their existence, labour, and with it all the conditions of existence governing modern society, have become something accidental, something over which they, as separate individuals, have no control, and over which no social organisation can give them control.”
While for the bourgeois class the conflict between the real interests of the individual and the class interests of this individual is expressed in the state, as representative of the class interests of the bourgeois class, no organization could give the proletarians this or a similar expression.
And why is this? Because, as Marx explained previously, this class has no interests as a class to assert!
Show me where Marxism ever acknowledges this argument by Marx: The state cannot serve to express the interest of proletarians as a class, precisely because the proletarians have no interests as a class to assert against the bourgeois class. Even when a democracy is dominated by an actual overwhelming demographic majority of proletarians, the state cannot express their interests. Because they have no interests for it to express. Thus, even the most perfect democracy will always politically express the interests of the capitalist class, not the proletariat.
Someone please show this to Marxists who never tire of repeating their silly fucking demands for more democracy — as if more democracy will fix the problems faced by a class that has no interests of its own to assert!
Thus, says Marx, proletarians cannot assert themselves as individuals through political means, but only by abolishing labor.
“Thus, while the refugee serfs only wished to be free to develop and assert those conditions of existence which were already there, and hence, in the end, only arrived at free labour, the proletarians, if they are to assert themselves as individuals, will have to abolish the very condition of their existence hitherto (which has, moreover, been that of all society up to the present), namely, labour.”
It’s in black and white folks — I am not making this shit up.
This is how far Marxism, as a political reading of Marx, has diverged from Marx’s own theory — that nowhere in any contemporary Marxist argument does the notion of the necessity of abolishing labor even appear. It is as if every word he wrote is given its exact opposite meaning in the Marxist reading of Marx.
Marx then argues the need of the proletarians to abolish labor is expressed in opposition to the existing state. And why is this? Because, of course, the state expresses the interests of the very class that dominates the proletarians and imposes labor on it; and this state cannot express the non-existent interests of the working class.
When I say Marxism is broken beyond repair you need look no further than Marx’s German Ideology and compare it to contemporary Marxist garbage to find evidence of its profound defects. Everything Marx and Engels write after this is nothing more than reiteration, development and extension of their conclusions in this work. All of Marx’s and Engels’ argument rest on the assumption there is no alternative for the emancipation of the proletarians other than the abolition of labor. In this chapter, and in a systematic fashion, Marx and Engels demonstrate why every route provided by class society is a dead end for the working class as means to work out its own liberation; they demonstrate methodically why the proletariat has no route to emancipation without emancipating itself from labor.
And this indicates the very nature of the present barbarism, of the fascist state and it economic policies: this barbarism and fascist state policies have no other economic aim than extending the hours of compulsory labor. As I wrote in my post, A Brief Sketch of the Political-Economy of the Fascist State (Revised and Extended), the entire point of fascist state economic policy — of barbarism — is to divert the attention of the working class from pressing need to articulate a demand for reduction of hours of works:
Besides confirming, I think, that breakdown of the capitalist mode of production was independent of the political action of the working class, the emergence of fascist states in all industrial countries can clarify much about the working out of the law of value. What I find really interesting about the rise of fascism in the aftermath of capitalist breakdown is how these fascist regimes — whether overt or de facto — coped with the crisis. What measures did these fascist regimes take, and why did they work? Moreover, how do you define “work” in this instance?
The working class rallied to capitalists like Roosevelt, or fascist parties like the Nazis, who promised to “fix capitalism”. And, “fix capitalism” they did: they imposed a set of policies that further devalued labor power beyond the impact on wages produced by the Great Depression itself and ended the years of economic contraction. In the United States, these policies generally go by the name of Keynesian monetary and fiscal policy.
To understand how Keynesian economic policies work, we have to understand what the alternative to Keynesianism was at the time. The alternative to Keynesian policies was simple: reduce hours of labor until no one was unemployed. Unions proposed to reduce the work week to 30 hours, and the law almost passed in the United States, until Roosevelt maneuvered to kill it. Reducing hours of work was not a hare-brained scheme thought up by utopian dreamers: everyone expected hours of labor to be reduced as industrialization spread and multiplied the productivity of human labor power with automation. Which is why a reduction in hours of work came so close to being voted into law during the Great Depression — actually passing the United States Senate.
But, since the profits of capitalist firms increase with the increase in the length of the workday, businesses fiercely resisted any attempt to impose limits on hours of work. Ideologists for capital came up with a new tack. They argued the depression happened not because the social workday was too long, but because of what they now termed “insufficient demand” for output. Re-framing the debate this way was essential — if, indeed, the problem could be re-framed as “insufficient demand”, the state could, in theory at least, offset the lack of “market demand” with its own spending.
This is how events played out in the Great Depression — a period Marxism labels the beginning of a brief Keynesian compromise between labor and capital. Yet, even eighty years later, not a single paper on the present crisis by a member of the Marxist academy I have read even attempts correctly frame the current crisis in relation to compulsory labor imposed on the working class — not a single fucking paper!
Marxism is dead by its own hands; the reading of Marx’s theory that must replace the dominant Marxist political reading, must place the abolition of compulsory labor front and center of any analysis of the mode of production.
Rethink Marxism? How about we begin by dumping it in the trash-bin of history where it belongs.