Is Marxism Deterministic?

A primary criticism of Marxism (often employed by people with a poor understanding of Marxism, incidentally) is that Marxism, and Marxists, are rigid determinists. The critique goes something like this:

“Marxism is a determinist philosophy. Marx thought that communism was inevitable, and that individual people are just automatons; mere pawns of historical forces. This strips people of their free will and individuality, and reduces them to cogs in a deterministic machine. Marx’s theory of history is basically just a secular version of Divine Providence or Destiny, and therefore should be discarded.”

Needless to say, this is untrue; and the point of this short essay will be to correct this common misconception.

First and foremost, while Marx did believe that history unfolded based on certain historical laws over which individuals have no control, he did not think that this meant human beings were merely plankton swept up in the oceanic wave of history, being tossed to and fro, with no ability to influence what happened to them. Marx argued, as I do, that although history unfolds via a process that human beings can’t dictate, it unfolds via human beings as it’s agents. Therefore, once human beings become conscious of the fact that history unfolds in certain ways, they can then be free to pick what role they want to play in that process. We are the agents of historical change; we are the vehicles through which history unfurls. To be conscious of that fact, and to choose action in the face of it, is to be as free as a human being can be.

Some Marxists, it is true, have been such strict determinists that they effectively gave up on political action; opting instead to either work within the capitalist system, or abandon politics all together, while waiting for the glorious revolution, and the subsequent ushering in of Communism which they viewed as inevitable and imminent. But this is a perversion of Marxism, if not an outright subversion of it. Marx was the person, after all, who famously declared that “philosophers hitherto have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it”. Marx himself was doggedly engaged in European politics during his life, and his theory and methodology was explicitly a call to action! It was meant to give the working class an understanding of their material and historical condition so that they could weaponize that understanding in pursuit of their own liberation. It’s our job as Marxists to organize, participate in direct action, form resistance movements, fight back against fascists, and do all the other difficult political work that there is to do in order to realize, in so far as we can, the system we want. To sit back and wait for history to play itself out as a convinced determinist is to effectively abandon Marxism altogether.

Other Forms Society Can Take As Capitalism Collapses

Marx was well aware of the fact that when capitalism began to break down, it would not necessarily lead to communism, it could just as well devolve into fascism, devolve into a sort of neo-feudalism, devolve into barbarism, or even result in “the common ruination” of the contending classes altogether.

The most likely of these outcomes, based on what has happened in the recent past, is the rise of fascism. As is commonly said “fascism is what capitalism does when its under threat”; and history proves this again and again. Most notably, Nazi Germany arose out of the Weimar Republic after the Great Depression and the national humiliation of WWI. In contemporary America we have just elected a white nationalist with fascistic dispositions and a segment of his base which is explicitly and unapologetically fascist. This is largely a reaction to the excesses, depravities, and the impotence of neoliberalism (i.e. globalized capitalism). The narratives on offer from the far right are always simplistic, visceral, bigoted, and broadly appealing to people who have been beaten down by the capitalist system but who lack a comprehensive understanding of how they ended up where they are. Capitalism creates problems, then brings out the teeth and claws in the form of fascism as the solution to the very issues that it has created.

It’s essential to understand this point, so I will restate it in a slightly different way: fascism is just a form of capitalism cleverly disguised as not only a totally different system, but also as a solution to the failures of  the system which it still essentially represents. This provides a unique challenge to revolutionary leftists. The right wing narratives are simpler than ours; whereas we try to describe reality as it actually is, the far right appeals to gut prejudices and creates convenient and easy scapegoats to distract people from the failures of the system itself. “It’s not capitalism that is to blame”, they say, “it is that Muslim, or that Mexican, or that Jew. THEY are the problem.” In this way the system protects itself.

Therefore it is by no means an inevitability that communism will arise out of the ashes of capitalism. To the contrary, we could get capitalism recapitulated as fascism, or we could merely descend into chaos and barbarism as institutions fracture and collapse. The left needs to understand this and organize in order to be a force and viable option when that time comes, so that we can push the system in the correct direction and not merely hand it over to the worst elements of our species by virtue of our impotence, disorganized state, and general inability to act. Communism isn’t inevitable, its merely an option among many, and it’s our responsibility to implement it. This requires action.

A Word On Social Democracy

One thing that Marx did fail to anticipate is capitalism’s ability to use it’s economic surplus to pacify the working class and the poor.

If fascism is capitalism with it’s fangs out, social democracy is capitalism with a smile.

In times of relative prosperity, capitalism maintains its hierarchy of wealth and power by handing out concessions to the lower classes. Northern Europe is a place where this aspect of capitalism has been fully developed. But it’s important to realize that social democracy is one way the capitalist system, when it is in good health, holds off revolutions and maintains it’s stranglehold. It essentially “buys off the revolution” by pacifying the working class with goods and services as part of the social safety net (healthcare, education, and maybe even a basic income), while ensuring the basic social relations, power inequalities, and authoritarian hierarchies of capitalism stay firmly in place. This strategy, while certainly the best that capitalism has to offer, suffers from the same flaws of capitalism generally, and, as I said above, only takes hold in times of relative prosperity. The moment economic times get rough, social democracy and it’s bedazzled social safety net is the first thing to be sacrificed on the alter of “austerity”. So social democrats should be wary of hitching their wagon to capitalism: it’s failures will be your failures. Additionally, anti-capitalists should be wary of social democrats. For us, social democracy can only be a means to a further end, something to support while working for more radical changes. But it can never be the end itself.

Conclusion

Marxism is not a fundamentally deterministic philosophy. It does not preach a narrow-minded inevitability, and Marxists can only truly be Marxists, in my opinion, if they act on their Marxism. To sit back, endlessly theorizing and waiting for the magical revolution, is to abandon a fundamental aspect of Marxist philosophy: political action. That is not to say that theory has no place in Marxism, of course it does! But theory only becomes relevant when it is backed by concerted, organized political action. Marx and Engels knew that as well as anybody, and it’s worth noting that the Communist Manifesto, which they wrote together, was a call to arms, not armchairs.

 

 

 

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Six Ways of Approaching and Interpreting Marxism

Marxism, like many philosophical traditions, is a huge series of concepts and ideas with plenty of complexity and nuance. Too often discussions of Marxism are befuddled and unproductive because people are using the term in different ways than their conversational partner, and so they end up talking past one another. What I want to do here is propose six basic ways of approaching and studying Marxism in an effort to bring some of these complexities and nuances to light, and thereby, hopefully, increase clarity and understanding with regards to discussions of Marx and Marxism. I am motivated to do this because I think Marx, more than ever, offers an essential and important way of orienting oneself to current social, political, and economic events in the pursuit of understanding them fully. However, for a plethora of reasons, there continues to be a stigma attached to Marx and Marxism, and a large reason for this is because so much confusion exists as to what exactly it is; I hope this short essay will clear some of that confusion up.

Here are six general ways of understanding Marxism (in no particular order):

1) As a historical, empirical subject of study: If you were asked, for example, to do a paper on Marx in a college class, you would likely approach him in this  way; as a subject of third-person research or of a biography, in which the historical facts of his life and writings are explicated in as objective a way as possible.

2) As a doctrine: as a core set of ideas. This is done by extracting what one considers to be the central points of Marxism, and molding them into a coherent doctrine that can be subscribed to or refuted. This involves abstracting away from any changes in his thought over time in order to put forward a cohesive net of basic ideas. It is a rational reconstruction of Marx’s thought based on what one believes to be the most important, or most central, aspect of his thought. 

3) As a conceptual revolution: One could view Marx, fundamentally, as starting a *tradition* of thought; as re-conceptualizing capitalism and history, and thereby spawning a philosophical and political tradition. Much like Darwin and Freud re-conceptualized biology and the mind, starting long traditions which expanded on, edited, corrected, and carried forward those basic ideas.

4) As a branching-off: You could study the thought of *the people who called themselves Marxists* throughout history (Lenin, Adorno, Althusser, Gramsci, Debord, Kautsky, Luxemburg, etc.). So Marxism just becomes a loosely connected net of different strains of thought as represented by different thinkers after Marx. In this interpretation, Marxism becomes identical to the thought of historical figures who called themselves Marxist.

5) As a historical application: You could study Marxism merely by studying the ways in which his ideas were put into practice, focusing more on how they operated in the real world (Soviet Union, Cuba, China, etc.) instead of on the ideas themselves or the methodology he proposed. In this interpretation, Marxism most often becomes synonymous with Leninism and Stalinism. Many of Marxism’s opponents take up this interpretation as the ONLY valid interpretation for obvious reasons.

6) As a methodology: as an interpretive lens through which one can make sense of historical and political events and through which one can analyze the economic paradigm. It can be seen as a continuing project of consistently applying the methodology that Marx put forward. Under this view, it matters less what the exact ideas of Marx himself were, and instead focuses on the WAY in which Marx proposed we analyze the world.

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I study Marxism largely via #3 and #6. And insofar as I call myself a Marxist, I mean that I view him as a conceptual revolutionary who put forward an interpretive lens and a methodology (namely historical and dialectical materialism, theory of alienation, the critique of political economy, etc.) that I find particularly useful in analyzing current social, political, historical, and economic events. It is not a dogma or a doctrine to which I blindly adhere, rather its a general approach I take, fully backed up and informed by my own critical thinking, ethical values, and political / historical context. Beyond that basic orientation to Marxism, I also find #4 extremely important. Marx was just a human being, and as such he was wrong about a lot, and many thinkers that came after him took his thought in new and exciting directions, and expanded on his philosophy in such a way that it was improved and updated, and continues to be improved and updated. I place myself in that long tradition of people who studied Marx and his philosophical heirs, and who continue to update Marxism and apply it in new and unique contexts (as Marx himself would have wanted).

But NONE of these ways of interpreting Marxism are completely wrong. All of them are valid ways of studying Marxism, its just a matter of realizing that all these approaches exist and are valid in their own ways, and then being conscious about how you are using the terms involved at any given moment.

Lots of confusion stems from people talking past one another by using different approaches without being clear, in their own minds as well as explicitly, about which one they are using. I’ll often get into arguments with people interpreting Marxism STRICTLY as #5, when I am using it in the ways outlined by #3 and #6. Such discussions are bound to fail because we are literally talking about different things without realizing it, and no constructive dialogue can blossom out of that fundamental miscommunication.

So, whether you are sympathetic to Marxism or are firmly opposed to it, I hope you keep these distinctions in mind going forward, and do your best to articulate them explicitly when engaging in dialogue about Marx and Marxism. It’s not only an intellectual obligation, its also a moral one, because in these times of rapid change, ubiquitous corruption, and constant upheaval, understanding Marx, and what he had to offer, is more important than ever.

Anarchism In The Context Of Today’s World

Being an anarchist, for me, does not mean that I think we can have, or even should have, a stateless society overnight, or in the near future. That wont happen.

What being an anarchist REALLY means for me is to be constantly surveying the political, social and economic landscape in search of all forms of hierarchy, power, authority, and injustice, and then systematically analyzing and critiquing those structures; forcing them to justify said hierarchy/power/authority, or be opposed in every way possible.

Those systems of hierarchy, authority, and power can be obvious, like in the case of governments or corporations, but they can also be more subtle, albeit just as dangerous, like in the case of patriarchy, institutional racism, homophobia/transphobia, etc. An anarchist opposes them all, and knows *exactly why* she/he opposes them.

Additionally, its our social duty, to whatever extent possible, to self-govern. This means making a concerted, daily effort to behave as morally as possible; to plant, in you own little sphere of influence, the seeds of a better world. A world of cooperation, solidarity, social responsibility, and love.

If you call yourself an anarchist, you better be trying everyday to do these things or what’s the point? Anarchism is not just wanting to “smash the state”; its much, much more than that. Its about developing yourself and your community, its about caring for your fellow human beings, its about opposing injustice anywhere and everywhere that it appears.

Ultimately, its about believing that a better world, a more just world, is possible, and then taking on the responsibility of trying to help build that world…

Fascism in the UK and Liberalism’s False Equivalency

The fascist, right-wing, neo-nazi asshole who murdered a British politician a few days ago shouted “Britain First” before killing the mother of two. He killed her because she was an advocate for immigrants and opposed Britain leaving the European Union.

“Britain First!” is the UK equivalent of “Make America Great Again!”, reflecting the same right-wing elements of the respective countries: Anti-immigrant, nativist/nationalist, and white supremacist in nature.

The murder came almost exactly a year after the White Supremacist, and Confederate-Flag waving racist, Dylann Roof, walked into a black church in Charleston and slaughtered innocent black people because of the color of their skin.

These are examples of right-wing terrorism. This is what happens when fascism and racism go unchecked. You NEVER see Socialists or Communists or Anarchists doing this shit. We don’t shoot up abortion clinics, or churches, or gay clubs. We don’t slaughter innocent human beings to get our points across. **Ever**. The ONLY people we want to be violent with are the fascists and racists who have proven to be violent against innocent people, ethnic/racial/religious minorities, LGBTQ people, and vulnerable communities.

Anyone (often liberals and conservatives) who draw a false equivalency between the violence of fascists and the violent self-defense of anti-fascists are morally and intellectually bankrupt, and actually support and perpetuate fascism indirectly via their unprincipled pacifism and refusal to take action against an obvious, proven threat.

Obama, Hillary, and the Liberal Version of Liberation

Obama (the first black president) and Hillary (the possible first woman president) are representative of *liberal notions* of equality and advancement for oppressed groups.

Liberalism, with its focus on individualism and its radically impoverished class analysis, insists that the way to equality is by simply having *representatives of certain oppressed groups* in the ranks of the ruling class. Even if those representatives have policies that are directly detrimental to the group from which they came.

It is individualist because it conflates the success of an *individual* person from a group (a woman, a black person, a LGBTQ person, etc.), with the success of their entire group.

It lacks class analysis precisely because it insists on an individualist approach to equality; and to examine class is to examine the power relations between economic groups of people.

A socialist approach to equality is an approach which rejects this individualism. It analyzes the liberation of oppressed groups in terms of the entire group. It recognizes the humanity of poor women (and of women in countries who are often at the receiving end of bombs sent by other women in power), and doesn’t pretend that their situation is made better by Hillary Clinton being president (just as their position was certainly not made better by Hillary Clinton being Secretary of State).

Any feminism, for instance, that doesn’t take into account the women who have died from Hillary’s hawkish foreign policy isn’t a genuine feminism.

Any feminism, in addition, that doesn’t take into account the women’s lives who have been ruined by neoliberal economic policies and “free trade” agreements like NAFTA, or by recessions created by the recklessness of the Big Banks, isn’t a genuine feminism.

Nobody is free until we are all free.

The Difference Between Democratic Socialism and Social Democracy

Many people do not understand the difference between Social Democracy and Democratic Socialism, so let me explain:

The difference is that Democratic Socialism ultimately aims at transcending capitalism, and their methodology of doing so is by implementing social democracy to build up the momentum and coalitions in the populace necessary to make that ultimate jump.

Social Democrats are exactly the same EXCEPT they don’t have any desire to make that last jump to socialism. They are fine with letting capitalism be the economic engine, and just redistributing wealth via progressive taxation. The problem with social democracy, though, is that they hitch their wagon to the capitalist system, and when it fails, social democracy fails.

In practice, though, they have historically amounted to the same exact thing. The moment a social democracy makes the jump to socialism, then we can talk about the efficacy of Democratic Socialism, until then, Democratic Socialists have the burden of trying to explain why they haven’t achieved socialism throughout history.

In the same way that Marxism-Leninism tends to devolve into various forms of authoritarianism and stay there, Democratic Socialism tends to devolve into social democracy and stay there.

I am not opposed to building up social democracy in the U.S., to do so would represent a huge material gain for working people within the country. But radicals must always keep in mind that social democracy depends on capitalism, and capitalism in America inevitably takes the form of imperialism. Therefore, any social democracy that we build here will be invariably tied to the violent domination and exploitation of our brothers and sisters in poorer countries, mostly in the global south. Additionally, capitalism, in its rabidly endless pursuit of profits and growth, will always end up harming the environment, polluting the oceans, and perpetuating Climate Change.

Social democracy (and Democratic Socialism insofar as it virtually always means social democracy in practice) depends on capitalism, imperialism, and environmental degradation. Therefore it is, at best, a step in the right direction; but never an end-point in and of itself. Democratic Socialists would do themselves a favor by realizing this and taking a more radical stance against capitalism itself, which entails pointed criticism of social democracy. Social democrats would do themselves a favor by realizing that capitalism is not sustainable, and any gains made under the capitalist system can always be rolled back when they become inconvenient for the plutocratic ruling class.

The clock is ticking, our oceans are dying, human beings are suffering, and the global ruling elite are hoarding more and more of the wealth and resources for themselves.

We need Leftists, not liberals.
We need anti-capitalists, not compromises.
We need radicals, not reformists.

The future depends on it.

How The Two-Party System Suppresses Democracy

The two party system in American electoral politics acts an explicit suppressant to democracy and representative republicanism. There are, without a doubt, other corrupting influences in American politics; “big money” being chief among them. But in this essay, I want to briefly explore some of the main ways in which the two major political parties in the U.S. act as barriers to the very things they claim to be manifestations of: democracy and equal representation.

 

Delegates (and Super-Delegates)

The current 2016 primary season is showcasing for the American citizenry just how much control the parties have over the entire primary process. The delegate system itself is coming under broad suspicion from folks all over the political spectrum. This is largely because this election cycle both parties have an “outsider” candidate that they have to deal with. Usually all of the candidates running in both parties are official and long-standing members of those parties (usually consisting of governors, congressmen/women, and senators). This means that the parties do not have to be so obvious in displaying their total control over how the primaries unfold. For example, in the 2008 Democratic primary, both Hillary and Obama were legitimate members of the Democratic Party, and so when Obama started picking up steam, and it was clear he could win, many of the superdelegates (who are just party insiders) had no problem switching from Clinton over to Obama.  This year, though, Bernie Sanders is running; he has been a registered independent for years, and only ran as a Democrat this year out of political necessity (an issue I will address later in this essay). To the DNC (Democratic National Committee) Sanders, unlike Obama, is not “one of them”, and he is annoyingly standing in the way of their chosen candidate, Hillary Clinton.  In this context, it becomes clear what their superdelegate system is designed to do: to act as a defender of the Democratic Party’s interests against any populist or grassroots candidates that may arise. This is why we get such absurd results, like the recent Wyoming caucus, where Sanders won 55.7% of the vote compared to Hillary’s 44.3%, and yet still walked away with less delegates. Sanders only got out of Wyoming with 7 delegates while Hillary left with 7 pledged delegates and 4 superdelegates, bringing her Wyoming delegate count to a grand total of 11. Sanders won the popular vote by a wide margin, yet the Democratic Party machinery made damn sure their preferred candidate won anyways.

This is clearly antithetical to any coherent notion of representing the popular will of the people, and its an insult to the intelligence of the American voter.

Election Structure and the Third Party Blockade

The primary process is largely conducted at the state level by the Democratic and Republican parties of each state. They have a lot of room to make their own rules surrounding their delegate systems, dates of elections, brokered conventions, and the voting process as a whole.  However, the voting infrastructure is funded by the American taxpayers. In effect, citizens fund the primary process, but private parties own and manage the process. And since those two parties do not represent the entire swath of political sentiment in the population, we are effectively subsidizing political parties that don’t adequately represent the will of the majority of Americans. And since the primary process is the sole mechanism that gives us our two general election candidates, the fact that we have no say in these party rules means that our final two choices are not the result of real democratic procedures, but rather the result of two narrow organizations putting forth whoever they want.  To add insult to injury, and further solidify their duopolistic grip on our political system, they work together to create policies that make it nearly impossible for third parties to gain traction and compete in any meaningful way. All over the nation, the Democratic and Republican parties have created ways of preventing third party challenges to the duopoly.  One way in which they do that is to restrict ballot acces

“Nationally, ballot access laws are the major challenge to third party candidacies. While the Democratic and Republican parties usually easily obtain ballot access in all fifty states in every election, third parties often fail to meet criteria for ballot access, such as registration fees. Or, in many states, they do not meet petition requirements in which a certain number of voters must sign a petition for a third party or independent candidate to gain ballot access.”

Or by implementing cynical and arbitrary debate rules to hide third party candidates from the public:

“Debates in many state and federal elections exclude Independent and third party candidates, and the Supreme Court has upheld such tactics in several cases. The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) is a private company.  In 2000 revised debate access rules made it even harder for third party candidates to gain access by stipulating that, besides being on enough state ballots to win an Electoral College majority, debate participants must clear 15% in pre-debate opinion polls.”

Pat Buchanan, who finished in fourth place in the 2000 presidential race and won four states when he ran in the Republican primary in 1992, told CBS News that the system as it now stands amounts to a “monopoly” maintained by the major parties: “It’s an instrument of the two political parties to ensure that the presidency is passed back and forth between them,” he said. “The very fact that this duopoly can keep you out of the debates means you don’t play in the Super Bowl.”

In these ways, among others, the two parties all but guarantee their continued dominance. But this dominance is not just the dominance of two different political parties, it’s the dominance of the banks and corporations who own the two parties.

One Big Corporate Party with Two Flanks

Both major political parties are completely bought and paid for by the U.S. capitalist class; those who own the vast majority of wealth and resources in this country. They fund both sides of the races between Democrats and Republicans, and therefore have vastly disproportionate say over policy decisions in both parties. This means that the parties who dictate our small candidate selection every election cycle act in the interest of the richest and most powerful people in our society and are structurally prevented from acting in the genuine interests of the American people as a whole. The only thing that can pose a challenge to the total domination of big money in American politics is millions of highly organized American citizens. But the demands of work and family, the risk of being met with state violence, the confusion about the root causes of our issues perpetuated by the corporate media, etc., conspire to naturally decrease the likelihood of mobilized mass movements that can effectively fight back. All of this means that political and economic power remain in the hands of the ruling class, who then use that power and wealth to turn our government into a shield that protects them from us.

In turn, most American citizens uncritically accept the two parties as indicative of the two main currents of thought in our society, and then orient themselves to one party or the other.  Once they identify with one party or the other, they defend their parties as true representatives of their values and beliefs, which in turn, reinforces the stronghold of the two party system. So the system, as all good ones do, reinforces and maintains the power dynamics that empower it while giving off the illusion that it’s all natural and unforced.

Restricting the Sphere of Acceptable Opinion

The Democratic and Republican Parties represent a very limited spectrum of political thought, and via their dominance, ensure that the American people mostly stay within that limited spectrum.  In America, what are called “liberal” and “conservative” are merely two slightly divergent manifestations of the political philosophy of Liberalism.  The former is slightly more concerned about “equality” while the latter is slightly more concerned about “liberty”. But both uphold Capitalism, fully equipped with a large State Apparatus, as the preferred politico-economic system; and both support the Imperialism needed to protect and maintain global capitalism and American hegemony. Views that fall outside of that narrow range are relegated to the margins of society, and given no airtime on major media and popular culture outlets. More to the point, any views that challenge the fundamental economic assumptions of Capitalism are not only marginalized, but mocked if and when they do come to the fore. These are ways in which Capitalism defends its hegemony over social, cultural, and intellectual life. The two political parties are merely the political flanks of Capitalism; giving us the illusion of democratic control while maintaining total domination over all aspects of our political and economic (and thus our social) lives.

Conclusion

The American system is in desperate need of dramatic revolutionary changes. The longer we wait to begin implementing the necessary changes, the more drastic and perhaps even violent the inevitable upheaval will be when it finally arrives. By making small reforms immediately and moving up to larger changes methodically, we can decrease the chances of dangerously disruptive sudden upheavals, and move more smoothly into the future. One place we can, and should, begin our project of changing the system is overhauling the two party system; getting rid of the legal and procedural obstacles to other parties entering the political landscape, thus allowing a more robust dialogue to take place, and getting corporate money out of politics. By implementing these practical changes, we can make our political systems more responsive to the needs of the people, and only in a context where our political system is sincerely working for us (as opposed to the rich ruling elite) can we hope to make the larger necessary changes towards a sustainable, egalitarian, democratic, and yes, socialist future.