that Marx thing again

Published online 14 December 2008.

I’m getting these questions about Marx, again.  “You’re against capitalism; are you some kind of marxist?” they ask.  To me it doesn’t really matter: either I am a marxist or I’m not a marxist, depending on whether or not the gang affiliation of “being a marxist” means a lot to the person asking the question.  But here’s a diary about old Moor, his chicken-scratchings, and his legacy.

OK, so this isn’t going to go away.  I wrote a long diary on this last year, but I can see it’s time for another one.

OK, so your stock Republican association about Marx is that he was the father of Communism, that totalitarian evil which at last fell with the collapse of the Berlin Wall.  We all know this is just more of the guilt-by-association tactic we hear and read from Republicans every day.

In fact, they tried to pull this garbage on Obama.  GregMitch picked up on this back in April.  I like “Trotsky The Horse”‘s response: You Call Him Socialist Like That’s A Bad Thing!

Most of my reluctance to discuss this stuff is because of the great nest of popular canards which have been spun about Marx and about socialism or communism.  The generally Republican notion about all of this is that any form of sharing can be criticized as “socialism” if it’s the type of sharing they don’t like, i.e. sharing that is dependent upon “taxes” within a capitalist system.  None of this has anything to do with Marx’s idea of socialism.  That sort of stuff is about punishing poor people for being poor.

You see, Marx was all about suggesting that everyday business in the capitalist system was making the rich richer while everybody else just got by.  His description of the capitalist world, as such, is even more correct today than it was when he was writing (in the 19th century).  This is why the Republicans hate him so.

There’s also the standard canard about how “Marx wanted everyone to be equal.”  He had no such ideas, and repudiated them in his “Critique of the Gotha Program.”  He knew that people were not equal in talent, size, or intelligence; what he wanted to see was an end to social classes, an end to the society that (today) supports 1,125 billionaires while letting the bottom 40% of the human race live on less than $2/day.  He suggested that the way to end social classes was not merely through redistribution, but through the creation of a solidarity among the world’s workers, such that sharing could eliminate class divisions.  Thus his idea of socialism.

His idea of socialism, moreover, has an appeal which continues to this day.  Republicans hate this idea more than anything in Marx, because it reveals the grasping emptiness in their inner beings.

As Ernest Mandel points out in a short piece on Marx:

Socialism is an economic system based upon conscious planning of production by associated producers (nowhere does Marx say: by the state), made possible by the abolition of private property of the means of production.

Yeah, we could use socialism right now.  There are a couple of complex meanings in that complex sentence.  “The abolition of private property of the means of production” means that there is a general commune around the stuff we use to produce the stuff we need, so that we all participate together in decisionmaking about it.  Your personal property will still be yours under socialism.  “Conscious planning of production by associated producers” means working people, operating democratically.  It means we think before we produce: this is a necessary aspect of survival for the future.

What I am suggesting is that none of that nice stuff that A Siegel promotes in his numerous, wonderful diaries will do us any good against impending ecosystem crisis unless we have “socialism” (using this definition), too, because solar power etc. will simply supplement the drive to ecosystem ruination through “global warming,” habitat destruction, and other damages.

The canard that Marx’s version of socialism would provide no incentive for workers is often cited by ignoramuses who haven’t read Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Program.”  I’ve cited the purple passage in my earlier essay, down toward the bottom.  Socialism would indeed be possible, if state repression combined with media propaganda did not continually inhibit it.  And, of course, if the great majority of people were to want it.  It would, even from the “wealth” standpoint, be more free than capitalism.

Marx’s goal of socialism has little to do with Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, or Kim Jong-Il.  The whole appropriation of Marx by “communist states” was about the propaganda claim that these states made that “at least we’re working toward socialism.”  When Che Guevara disputed the Soviet Union’s claim to be “working toward socialism” too many times, he was sent on a suicide mission to Bolivia.  When the Chinese had to “switch over” to the propaganda of capitalism, some time after Nixon went there in ’72, the government’s claim at that point was that socialism had been achieved.  Uh-huh.

What really happened with Marx’s ideal was that it was appropriated by “contender states,” governments which wished to proclaim that they were “communist.”  Kees van der Pijl discusses the idea of “contender states” in his books.  The spread of capitalism around the world, van der Pijl suggests, created two state-society complexes:

  1. The “Lockean heartland,” the states most directly responsible for propping up the capitalist system
  1. The “contender states,” states outside of the “Lockean heartland” which wished to catch up with the “Lockean heartland” in capitalist development, usually through authoritarian forced-march construction projects.

Marx didn’t think very carefully about the effects of the spread of capitalism upon the international state system.  He wanted the states to be taken over by working people and abolished: the “dictatorship of the proletariat” idea was the idea that there would be an ad-hoc administrative entity that would deal with the problems that would arise in the transition between capitalism and socialism.  It wasn’t supposed to last very long.  Instead, what the world got was seventy years of the Soviet Union and a few decades of the People’s Republic of China under Mao Zedong.  Neither of these regimes succeeded in being a “dictatorship of the proletariat”; both were merely contender states.  Contender states, you see, need some form of strict discipline to catch up with the Lockean heartland: the “liberated” workers must push the “communist state” forward, if it is not to be taken over and parted out by capitalists.

Marx also did not think carefully about whether people would want socialism more than continued capitalism, as capitalism continued to take control over the world during his lifetime.  For instance, Craig Calhoun argues in his classic The Question of Class Struggle that “from Marx’s day to the present, the conditions of revolutionary mobilization have been continually eroded in the advanced capitalist countries.” (239)  Maybe the people who would otherwise want a revolution just want a better-paying job with benefits and decent working conditions, nowadays.

Both of these objections to Marx’s notion of socialism can be summed up with a single idea: capitalist discipline.  It took later thinkers, most notably Michel Foucault, to dramatize the notion of capitalist discipline.  Marx did not imagine, writing as he did so long ago, that he would need a theory to understand the forces which disciplined the bodies of workers so that they would accept capitalism as natural.  Thus he underestimated the longevity of the capitalist system.  The problem of capitalist discipline, and of how we can replace it with a form of discipline which will allow us to live in harmony with Earth’s ecosystems, is a problem for our times.  Most of my diaries are about that problem, and not the problem of class struggle.

OK, so that (and 330 other diaries written for DKos over the past three years) deals with Marx.  That’s where I stand.


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