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Dayo F Osibamowo
13 min read

Understanding Marxism

Understanding Marxism

Richard D. Wolff (2019)

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Location 10: Brexit, Trump, and the global anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner, right-wing wave show just how deeply troubled capitalism is after the 2008 crash. They replicate what happened in many places after capitalism's 1929 crash. Millions are frightened by economic decline. Neither education nor media nor engagement with critical political movements had prepared them for another crash and the subsequent lost decade that lingers.

Location 14: Given the previous half-century of Cold War and its effects on politics, culture and ideology, it was hardly surprising that major early surges of political protest took right-wing forms. Millions turned against political establishments that presided over the economic forces that led to the crash, then bailed out those who caused it and imposed harsh austerities on all those victimized by it. Voting socialist mostly failed as major socialist parties had accommodated to the dominant neoliberalism.

Chapter I

Location 32: Why should we pay attention to the great social critics like Marx? Critics see and understand any society differently from its admirers. To understand anything, intelligent people consider society directly but also consider how others see and understand it. Thus, they consider
(1) what those people believe who like it, but also
(2) what those people believe who don't like it.
From all those considerations, thoughtful conclusions are drawn.

Location 35: As an example, imagine wanting to understand the family that lives up the road (mama, papa, and their two kids). Let's suppose we know one kid thinks it's the greatest family there ever was, and the other one thinks it's a basket case of psychological dysfunction. To study the family, it would be bizarre to choose to talk to only one child. Basic honesty would require us to talk with both children, ask questions, hear what each has to say, as well as interview and observe the parents and the family together, etc. On the basis of all that we then draw our own conclusions about that family, making the best judgment we can. So it is with understanding capitalism. It requires that we consider the system directly but also consider the assessments of critics as well as admirers or celebrants.

We must all acknowledge that words like Marx and Marxism, socialism, communism, and all that, have been scare words for many people for many years. In the US, even before the Cold War erupted, capitalism's defenders and admirers often demonized capitalism's critics as dangerous, disloyal, foreign, and/or anti-American, anti-Christian, and so on. Since 1945, Americans were widely taught, encouraged or pressed to view socialism, communism, Marxism, the USSR, etc. with fear, anxiety, and hatred. Therefore, most Americans paid little or no attention to the work of Karl Marx. Teachers at all levels either ignored that work or subjected it to brief dismissive treatments. Business leaders, journalists, and academics learned (or rather, did not learn) from those teachers and so replicated their ignorance or dismissals of Marx and Marxism. It took the latest crash of capitalism in 2008 to shock many into the realization that capitalism had remained the same old unstable economic system it had always been.

Chapter II

Location 64: But the roughly 75 years that separated his arrival at adulthood from the French and American revolutions presented Marx with a profoundly challenging contradiction. The revolutions had succeeded in establishing capitalism. It was pulsating and growing all around him in Western Europe. Gone or going were the old economic systems of masters and slaves, lords and serfs. In their places were relatively "free"men and women in the new capitalist system of employers and employees. But the capitalism Marx saw and lived in had not established liberty, equality, fraternity or real democracy. Moreover, it showed few signs of moving in such directions.

Location 69: Instead, when Karl Marx looked around the Europe of his time, he saw pretty much what emerged, for example in the novels of Charles Dickens (or of Emile Zola, Maxim Gorky, and Jack London). He found an enormous gap between a relatively small part of the population that was well-off, well educated, literate and comfortable, and a mass of agricultural, industrial and service workers who were suffering: poor, uneducated and often illiterate. Marx felt that capitalism had betrayed the promise that had led so many people he admired to support ending feudalism, slavery, etc., with bloody revolutions where needed. Capitalism had failed to deliver liberty, equality, fraternity and democracy.

Location 76: He discovered that the reason why capitalism failed to realize liberty, equality, fraternity and democracy, was that its own structure and social effects were themselves obstacles to realizing those lofty goals.

Location 106: Marx's argument then hits home: capitalism remains like slavery and feudalism because
(1) it too divides the participants producing and distributing goods and services into two groups (employers and employees), and
(2) it too divides the laborer's working day into necessary and surplus portions.

Location 114: The "free" laborer of capitalism – the person who sells his/her labor power in exchange for wages – is exploited just like the "unfree" labor of slaves and serfs. Capitalism, Marx said, never went beyond those economic models where a few dominate a majority. Capitalism just replaced the dichotomies of master/slave and lord/serf with a new one. A dominating and exploiting minority was still there, but it had a new name: employers.

Location 121: Marx showed that one key foundation for capitalism's failure to realize liberty, equality, fraternity and democracy was the internal organization of the capitalist enterprise. There, a tiny group of people at the top (major owners and top executives) make all the key decisions regarding what, how, and where to produce and what to do with the fruits of their employees'surplus labor. The employees are systematically excluded from making those decisions, but they must live with the results of those decisions. That's not democracy; that is its opposite.

Chapter III

Location 130: A major part of Marx's contribution was in economics. He was a broadly engaged and educated European intellectual of his time when relatively few people were educated or even literate. Formally trained in philosophy, he began his adult working life as a professor of philosophy. However, his interests in the world around him moved him quickly to become what we would nowadays call an economist. Here we present the core finding of his economic studies before following his fascinating elaboration of that core. In every human society, from the earliest records we know to the present, people produce and distribute something Marx called a surplus.

Location 136: In laboring, humans use their brains and muscles to transform nature into useful consumable products upon which human societies depend. But not all people work, not all use their brains and muscles to transform nature. There are always parts of each human society –large and small –that do not work. Those parts survive if and only if the members of the society who do work produce more than they themselves consume. That output exceeding what the workers themselves consume is what Marx means by a surplus. That surplus, if distributed to people other than the workers who produced it, enables such other people to survive and function in the society. Babies are one example of those other people who couldn't possibly use their brains and muscles to transform nature because they haven't managed to stand up yet. Some members of society must produce surpluses if babies are to survive by living off that surplus.

Location 143: In most societies the producers of surpluses – Marx calls them productive laborers precisely because they produce a surplus – distribute them to more than the society's babies. Children, the sick and the elderly are often recipients of surpluses. So too are people capable of producing surpluses, but who do not do so. The surpluses produced by some members of human societies sustain the members who live off the surplus distributed to them.

Location 177: The difference between value added and wage paid is the surplus produced by the worker in a capitalist enterprise. The employer captures the surplus within the revenue obtained when the enterprise's output is sold. The employer divides that revenue into three portions. One is used to replace/replenish the tools, equipment and raw materials used up in producing the enterprise's output. Another portion goes to the hired workers as wages. And the third comprises the surplus retained and thus appropriated by the employing capitalist.

For a minority to appropriate and distribute the surplus produced by a majority is inconsistent with and undermines the progressive social goals advocated by the French and American revolutions and given lip service everywhere ever since.

Location 193: Marx argues that exploitative societies typically use their surpluses to maintain that exploitation. Masters use the surplus taken from slaves to maintain slavery; lords use their serfs'surplus to maintain feudalism. Capitalists likewise use the surplus appropriated from productive workers to reproduce the social relations of capitalism, the society of employers and employees. This means giving capitalists –and their delegated representatives –the dominant positions not only in the economy but also in politics and culture.

Location 200: Before Marx (indeed, for thousands of years) many people had classified populations into sub-groups according to how much wealth they owned or how much power over others they wielded. Those who focused on wealth separated the propertied from the propertyless, the rich from the poor, and, of course, middle classes from those above and below them. Those who focused on power distinguished rulers from ruled, powerful from powerless, etc. For all these people class was a category dividing and thereby describing people according to the distributions of property or power among them.

Location 205: However, unlike those others, Marx also invented and used another, different concept of class: one based on his surplus analysis. There was the class of surplus producers, the class of surplus appropriators, and the class of those receiving shares of the surplus distributed to them by the appropriators. The conflicts among them undermined capitalists' often-repeated commitments to liberty, equality, brotherhood and democracy. Put in other terms, Marx invented and used his surplus-based concepts of class to explain why previous social critics of grossly unequal distributions of wealth and power had so far been unable to overcome those social injustices.

Chapter IV

"As in private life one differentiates between what a man thinks and says of himself and what he really is and does, so in historical struggles one must still more distinguish the language and the imaginary aspirations of parties from their real organism and their real interests, their conception of themselves from their reality."– Karl Marx

Location 225: The reasons for both pressures lie in the simple arithmetic of capitalist exploitation: the greater the value added by the laborers and the smaller the portion returned to them as wages, the greater the surplus acquired by the capitalist.

Productive laborers will likewise always seek higher wages as their standard of living (and that of their family) usually depends on those wages.

Location 232: However, as Marx pointed out, capitalism's operations and reproduction were as "efficient"in producing wealth as in producing poverty. Poverty has proved to be a continuing "problem"for capitalism that it never eradicated. For Marx, to eradicate poverty you need to change to an economic system other than capitalism.

Chapter V

Location 242: Just as earlier societies had made the inequalities resulting from slavery and feudalism matters caused rather by nature or God, in capitalism strong ideological tendencies make inherent individual variability ("human nature") the cause. It too, like nature and God, cannot be changed by mere mortals. The passing social convention –made and changed by society –becomes instead moored and unmovable in cement.

Those who rule societies need desperately to believe and have others believe their positions are permanent.

Location 254: For capitalism to reproduce itself, it requires performers and enablers, productive and unproductive laborers, but that does not mean their differences do not matter. Quite the contrary: in every exploitative economic system, the two different kinds of laborers have played varying roles in supporting or overthrowing the system, in seeking political alliances with each other or alternatively with surplus appropriators. In slavery, for example, field and house slaves exhibited varying relationships. So too did serfs assigned to agriculture versus crafts. Capitalism has had its blue and white collar employees. To Marx's credit, his surplus theory – and the class analysis built on it – grasped the deeper, systemic importance of these differences.

Chapter VI

Greed is not the cause of capitalists' behavior; it is a quality they acquire in accommodating to and internalizing the requirements of competitive survival within the capitalist system.

Location 309: Every four to seven years on average, wherever it has existed, capitalism produced an economic downturn. Workers suddenly lost jobs, businesses collapsed, and real mass suffering ensued for months or years. This instability occurred in addition to the destabilizing effects of natural disasters (floods, droughts, etc.) and of social disasters (wars). Any individual exhibiting a personal instability comparable to the economic and social instability of capitalism would long ago have been required to seek professional help and to make basic changes. Marx's basic point is that capitalism produces and reproduces inequality and instability. That alone suggests we ought to challenge anyone who accepts a system that works this way.

Location 316: It is precisely how the system works – how in particular it produces, appropriates, and distributes its surpluses – that proved to be the obstacle preventing capitalism from realizing liberty, equality, brotherhood and democracy. And by focusing us on the organization of the surplus, Marx also provided us with the knowledge that the next system must be one in which the organization of the surplus is democratic, where those who produce the surplus are identical with those who appropriate it and where the productive and unproductive laborers together and democratically decide who gets what portions of the surplus to perform what social services.

Chapter VII

Location 321: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it."– Karl Marx

Location 323: Marx himself said and wrote little about the future beyond capitalism. He didn't believe in future-gazing; no one could know how the world would evolve. Marx gave us some ideas of what might have to happen if we were going to get beyond capitalism. But he offered no blueprints or road maps. Later Marxists did not always share these hesitations, especially after Marxists came to play leading roles in what they called "socialist" societies.

Marx never suggested, contrary to what so many have said, that the state – the government – had to play some sort of ongoing, central role in what this future post-capitalist world would look like. Some later Marxists interpreted him to have suggested that, but it's hard to find within Marx's writings any idea like that. He never wrote a book about the state, because it wasn't the center or focus of his analyses.

Location 332: To achieve a society that exhibits liberty, equality, fraternity and democracy, the object to change first and foremost is production.

Location 333: There has to be a fundamental change in how production gets done: at the office, factory, store, or home, wherever work gets done. For Marx, the goal of such change is to end the dichotomy between a few surplus-appropriators at the top of the workplace, those who make the key production-related decisions, and everybody else engaged at that workplace. No more mass of people producing or enabling a surplus that flows into the hands of a small surplus-appropriating minority. The goal is a different economic system, one in which the workplace becomes fundamentally egalitarian and democratic. The producers of the surplus become identically the appropriators and distributors of that surplus; exploitation thus ends. The decisions at the workplace –what, how, and where to produce and how to distribute the surplus –must be made democratically by productive and unproductive workers together on the basis of one-person, one-vote.

Location 341: If you believe in democracy, if you believe that freedom for adults requires a democratic social environment, then that democracy must include your workplaces. That is where most adults spend most of their time, or at least major parts of it. Thus the solution for capitalism's problems requires transforming the capitalist workplace. What must go is the top-down, dichotomized hierarchy of employer at the top, mass of employees at the bottom. Instead, workplaces become democratic institutions where everyone has an equal say on what happens there. What must happen to the economy is like what many democrats have long advocated for politics. After all, ridding ourselves of kings, czars and emperors proceeded on the grounds that subjection to a tiny group of people making all basic political decisions for all of us was unacceptable. The same logic can apply to economics; indeed that is one way to grasp Marx's argument.

Location 347: The democratization of politics has been a mantra, has been a slogan, and has been a goal for a long time. Marx asks: why only the democratization of politics? Why not the democratization of the economy?

To go a step further, Marx effectively argues that a genuine political democracy requires an economic democracy as its ground and partner.

Location 350: If we permit any economic system to enrich only a few, those rich will use their wealth to corrupt the political system so it secures their wealth. The histories of feudalism, slavery and capitalism attest to this truth repeatedly. Today's gaudy spectacle of billionaires competing to buy votes is being lived by every reader of these lines.

Location 354: Nationalization or socialization of the means of production will not get us beyond capitalism in so far as it retains the employer versus employee dichotomy. Over the last hundred years, when state capitalism has replaced private capitalism, it has led some to refer to such state capitalism as socialism or even communism. Thus some people refer to state-run post offices, railway systems or banks as evidence of socialism. Other people reserved the term socialism for whole societies that instituted state capitalism as their prevailing economic system such as the USSR, the People's Republic of China and so on. Of course, definitions can and do vary. The point of studying Marx is to be clear that in his analysis, replacing private capitalist exploiters with state officials in the parallel relationship with productive and unproductive workers is not the going beyond capitalism he had in mind in his critique of capitalism.

Is the realization of Marx's solution merely a utopian dream? I don't think so. Indeed, I think many human beings have understood and supported Marx's way of thinking. That is why ideas of cooperative, communal, and other sorts of more democratic workplace organizations have been discussed and tried repeatedly across human history everywhere. Early American history had worker cooperatives: workers in farms, stores, small craft enterprises, getting together in democratic, egalitarian ways. Today, Spain has a famous example in the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation. Emilia Romagna in Italy is a place where roughly 40% of businesses are run as a worker cooperatives, etc.

Location 372: Marx's work can remind us that capitalism's proponents and celebrants often make the same mistake as the proponents and celebrants of slavery and feudalism before them. They imagine wishfully that their system is the end of history, that their preferred system is as good as it can ever be, that humankind cannot do better. Every single one of those people has been proven wrong. Why then believe people who tell us today that we can't do better than capitalism? Marx, like many other historians, had noticed that economic systems such as feudalism, slavery, and all others had histories; they were born, evolved over time, died and gave way to another system. By the 1850s, capitalism had shown Marx enough for him to seek its replacement by something better. His analysis was the fruit of that seeking.

Location 377: Americans especially now confront serious questions and evidence that our capitalist system is in trouble. It clearly serves the 1% far, far better than what it is doing to the vast mass of the people. For a while, mass bitterness, decline, and anger may be deflected away from the critique of a dysfunctional economic system. For a while, this anger can be used to scapegoat immigrants, trade partners, minorities and others among a sadly familiar set of candidates. But scapegoating has not solved problems. It does not do so today. Sooner or later, those serious about the problems and finding solutions will, as they always have, find their way to Marx and the Marxist tradition as a rich resource.

About Democracy at Work

Location 419: Democracy at Work is a non-profit 501(c)3 that advocates for worker cooperatives and democratic workplaces as a key path to a stronger, democratic economic system. Based on the book Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism by Richard D. Wolff, we envision a future where workers at every level of their offices, stores, and factories have equal voices in the direction of their enterprise and its impact within their community and society at large.