Learning About Marx with Jordan Peterson

During his debate with Zizek Jordan Peterson makes two main arguments against what he calls proposition number 1 of the communist manifesto: “history is to be viewed primarily as an economic class struggle.” Peterson appears to have derived this proposition from the opening sentence of the Communist Manifesto’s 1st chapter: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” (Marx and Engels 2002, 219)

First Argument

Peterson’s first argument is that Marx focuses on class struggle but ignores the human struggle for survival within the natural world. He says,

“The other thing that Marx didn’t seem to take into account is that there are far more reasons that human beings struggle than economic class struggle . . . we’re also actually always at odds with nature and this never seems to show up in Marx and it doesn’t show up in Marxism in general. It’s as if nature doesn’t exist. The primary conflict as far as I’m concerned, or a primary conflict human beings engage in, is the struggle for life in a cruel and harsh natural world and it’s as if that doesn’t exist in the Marxist domain. If human beings have a problem it’s because there’s a class struggle that’s essentially economic. No, humans beings have problems because we come into life starving and lonesome and we have to solve that problem continually and we make our social arrangements at least in part to ameliorate that.” 

There are several problems with what Peterson says here. Firstly, Peterson is wrong to claim that “it’s as if nature doesn’t exist” in Marx. This is because Marx consistently argues within both his early and later writings that in order to survive humans must engage in labour which uses or transforms the natural world. In The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 Marx claims that, “[t]he worker can create nothing without nature, without the sensuous external world” because “nature provides labour with the means of life in the sense that labour cannot live without objects on which to exercise itself, so also it provides the means of life in the narrower sense, namely the means of physical subsistence of the worker.” (Marx 1992a, 325)

Within his economic notebooks of 1857-8, which were published under the title The Grundrisse, Marx refers to the “obvious, trite notion” that “in production the members of society appropriate (create, shape) the products of nature in accord with human needs.” (Marx 1993, 88)

A decade later in Capital Volume 1 Marx writes that “labour is . . . a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature. He sets in motion the natural forces which belong to his own body, his arms, legs, head and hands, in order to appropriate the materials of nature in a form adapted to his own needs.” For Marx the “labour process” so understood “is the universal condition for the metabolic interaction between man and nature, the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence, and it is therefore independent of every form of that existence, or rather it is common to all forms of society in which human beings live.” (Marx 1990, 283, 290)

Marx reiterates this point in Capital Volume 3 when he writes that human beings “must wrestle with nature to satisfy his needs, to maintain and reproduce his life” and “he must do so in all forms of society and under all possible modes of production.” (Marx 1991, 959)

The importance Marx placed on the fact that humans must struggle for survival within the natural world through engaging in acts of production can be seen not only in the fact that Marx consistently advocates this position across both his early and later writings. It can also be demonstrated by the fact that within the German Ideology, which is an edited compilation of manuscripts that were written by Marx and Engels between 1845-6, he critiques previous historians for over focusing on the history of states, religions or ideas and in so doing excluding “the relation of man to nature” and “the real production of life” from history. (Marx 2000, 189)

Secondly, Marx talks about nature in chapter 1 of the Communist Manifesto. This is both the specific text Peterson claimed to have read in preparation for the debate and the specific chapter from which Peterson derives the proposition that he is responding to in this section of his speech. A few pages after saying that “[t]he history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” Marx describes how capitalism has created technology and human capacities which enable human beings to have a historically unprecedented ability to transform the natural world. He writes,

The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground — what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour? (Marx and Engels 2002, 224-5)

The fact that Peterson claims that “it’s as if nature doesn’t exist” in Marx therefore demonstrates not only the fact that Peterson has failed to read The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, The German Ideology, the Grundrisse, Capital Volume 1 and Capital Volume 3. It also shows that he failed to pay attention when reading the Communist Manifesto.

Thirdly, Peterson is wrong to claim that the relationship between humans and the natural world “doesn’t show up in Marxism in general.” Ecology has in fact been one of the main topics discussed in the recent academic literature on Marx. Peterson has clearly never heard of, let alone read, John Bellamy Foster’s 2010 book Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature, Foster and Paul Burkett’s 2017 book Marx and the Earth: An Anti-Critique and Kohei Saito’s 2017 book Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy. Peterson has in addition to this failed to familiarize himself with ecological Marxist texts more broadly, such as Jason Moore’s 2015 book Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital.

Given the above, in saying that Marx specifically and Marxism in general ignore nature and the fact that humans must struggle to survive within the harsh natural world Peterson was only demonstrating how little he knows about Marx.

2nd Argument

Peterson’s 2nd argument is that human beings are not motivated purely by economics and that Marx ignores non-economic motivations. He says, “there are many other motivations that drive human beings than economics and those have to be taken into account, especially that drive people other than economic competition, like economic co-operation for example. So that’s a problem.”

There are once again several problems with Peterson’s argument. Firstly, Peterson is claiming to be refuting Marx’s notion that “history is to be viewed primarily as an economic class struggle.” Yet in this section of his speech he’s instead making an argument against the distinct idea that people are motivated solely or primarily by economic motivations. This ignores the fact that it doesn’t follow from the proposition that the main driving force of history is economic class struggle that the human beings who engage in class struggle do so because they are purely or largely motivated to do so by economic motivations. People could be psychologically motivated to participate in class struggle for non-economic reasons. For example, a person could be driven to overthrow capitalism because they empathise with the suffering of others or could decide to become a capitalist because they want to impress their conservative father who has read a dangerous amount of Ludwig von Mises.

Secondly, although Peterson is correct to say that Marx talks about economic competition as a feature of capitalism, such as in the Communist Manifesto (Marx and Engels 2002, 225), Peterson is wrong to claim that Marx ignores economic co-operation. In chapter 13 of Capital Volume 1, which is called co-operation, Marx writes that, “when numerous workers work together side by side in accordance with a plan, whether in the same process, or in different but connected processes, this form of labour is called co-operation.” For Marx such co-operation results in “an increase in the productive power of the individual” and “the creation of a new productive power, which is intrinsically a collective one.” (Marx 1990, 443) Marx returns to this idea in Capital Volume 2 when he claims that under capitalism “the working period . . . can be shortened in some branches simply by an extension of cooperation”, such as “the completion of a railway” being “hastened by setting afoot great armies of workers and tackling the job from many different points in space.” (Marx 1992b, 312)

Thirdly, Marx did not hold that people are motivated solely or primarily by economic motivations. Marx instead held that people deploy their powers, by which he meant capacities, to satisfy their needs. Although Marx thought that some very important needs within his society were economic, such as a worker’s need for a job in order to earn money or a capitalist’s need to out-compete other businesses, he did not specify that human needs as a whole are only or largely economic and in fact gives several examples of non-economic needs.

Peterson would know this if he’d been intellectually responsible and read the recent academic literature on Marx before publicly speaking on the matter to an incredibly large audience. According to David Leopold in his 2007 book The Young Karl Marx: German Philosophy, Modern Politics and Human Flourishing Marx refers to a variety of basic and complex human needs. Basic human needs are such things as,

a human need for sustenance (he talks about ‘eating, drinking’ and, more generally, ‘nourishment’), for warmth and shelter (he lists ‘heating’ and ‘clothing’ as well as a ‘dwelling’), for certain climatic conditions (he mentions both ‘light’ and ‘air’), for physical exercise (the need ‘to move about’ and the need for ‘physical exercise’), for basic hygiene (‘the simplest animal cleanliness’), and for reproduction and (heterosexual) sexual activity (he writes of ‘procreation’ and describes sexual relationships between women and men as characteristic of the ‘species’). (Leopold 2007, 228)

Complex needs, in comparison, are things like the,

human need for recreation (to ‘go drinking’, to ‘go dancing’, to ‘fence’, to ‘sing’), for culture (to ‘go to the theatre’), for education and intellectual exercise (to ‘think’, to ‘theorise’, to ‘buy books’, to engage in ‘learning’), for artistic expression (to ‘paint’), for emotional fulfilment (to ‘love’), and for aesthetic pleasure (Marx identifies ‘a musical ear, an eye for the beauty of form’ as among our essential human capacities and powers). (Leopold 2007, 229)

Some of the basic needs, such as needing food, could be construed as economic motivations in a broad sense. Others, such as needing to exercise or have sex, cannot. None of the complex needs Marx mentions can be construed as strictly speaking economic needs. Even those needs whose satisfaction within our society rests on the exchange of money, such as buying alcohol to drink or buying books from a shop, are entangled with other non-economic needs such as the desire to get drunk in order to have fun or the desire to read a book in order to learn about the history of socks.

Fourthly, although Marx did subscribe to the view that the economy plays a key role in shaping society he did not conceptualize this primacy in terms of the idea that people are primarily motivated by economic needs. In his 1859 preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy Marx wrote a highly condensed and simplified summary of his theory of history. According to Marx,

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political, and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. (Marx 2000, 425)

In claiming that the “economic structure of society” is the “real foundation” upon “which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness” Marx was not, as is often falsely asserted, committing himself to the view that the economy is always the main determining element of all other aspects of society throughout all of human history. This is clearly demonstrated by the fact that within Capital Volume 1 Marx writes in a footnote that “the Middle ages could not live on Catholicism, nor could the ancient world on politics. On the contrary, it is the manner in which they gained their livelihood which explains why in one case politics, in the other case Catholicism, played the chief part.” (Marx 1990, 176)

In this passage Marx explicitly states that politics played “the chief part” in the ancient world and that Catholicism played “the chief part” in the middle ages. Marx was therefore not a strong economic determinist who ignored that other aspects of society are important or can play a more important role than the economy at certain historic moments. Marx was instead committed to the weaker view that the economy provides the “real foundation” of other elements of society. What does this mean? On my reading Marx holds that the economy provides the “real foundation” of other elements of society in three main ways which I shall discuss in turn.

(a) the economy produces the necessities of life and so guarantees the survival of humans. The consequence of this fact is that although humans can survive without social structures like religion or the state they cannot survive without an economy because in the absence of production humans would die. As Marx writes in the German Ideology, “the first premiss of all human existence and, therefore, of all history” is “that men must be in a position to live in order to be able to ‘make history’. But life involves before everything else eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing, and many other things. The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself.” (Marx 2000, 181) There is therefore a sense in which other social structures rest on the economy because the economy is a necessary condition for human existence over time in a way that other social structures are not.

(b) the production of material life itself is a concrete form of activity which necessarily shapes those who engage in it in significant ways. Marx writes that the “mode of production must not be considered simply as being the production of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce.” (Marx 2000, 177)

(c) the economy establishes the real possibilities for other forms of human action and thereby sets the parameters in which other social structures exist. One of the main reasons why Marx thinks that the economy plays this role is because what social structures humans can potentially establish are inherently limited by what technology and skills to use this technology humans possess. The manner in which a modern state is organised for example is only made possible due to computers, the internet, email etc and the ability to use this technology, such as knowing how to use Microsoft office. In the absence of these necessary productive forces the modern state would have to be organised in a very different manner or could not even exist in the first place. Hunter gatherers living in the Palaeolithic, for example, would not be able to create a modern state and its accompanying bureaucracy even if they somehow wanted to due to lacking key productive forces, such as writing or the mass production of pens and paper.

It is in turn the case that the development of new productive forces transforms how society is organised due to the new real possibilities for human action they enable. The invention of instant messaging for example transformed how humans were able to socially relate to one another and thereby transformed how society was structured. The technology and its application provided humans with the real possibility to enter into sexual relationships through tinder or grindr, rather than previous methods which were limited by earlier forms of technology, such as arranged marriages established through letters or dates organised via adverts in lonely hearts sections of newspapers. As Marx writes in the Poverty of Philosophy,

Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist. (Marx 1955, chapter 2: second observation)

Conclusion

Given the above, Jordan Peterson’s two main arguments against the idea that “history is to be viewed primarily as an economic class struggle” are wrong and rest on an entirely inaccurate understanding of Marx. Peterson made these false claims about what Marx thought with total confidence despite the fact that he himself knew that his understanding of Marx is based on reading the Communist Manifesto, rather than an extended study of Marx’s other major and much longer works, such as volumes 1 to 3 of Capital, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts or the Grundrisse.

Jordan Peterson fans often complain that critics of Peterson have not read his most scholarly book Maps of Meaning and so do not understand his worldview. But for some reason they have not to my knowledge applied this same standard to Peterson himself who has publicly critiqued Marx to a huge audience without actually bothering to find out what Marx thought. In 12 Rules for Life Peterson argues that “in societies that are well-functioning . . . competence, not power, is a prime determiner of status.” (Peterson, 2018) If we apply this yardstick to Peterson we are forced to conclude that in a well-functioning society he would exist at the bottom of the knowing things about Marx competence hierarchy. The fact that so many people in our society wrongly view Peterson as a source of knowledge on Marx who has raised a number of powerful objections to Marx’s worldview only demonstrates the extent to which society has failed to conform to Peterson’s own ideals.

Bibliography

Leopold, David. The Young Karl Marx: German Philosophy, Modern Politics and Human Flourishing (Cambridge University Press, 2007)
Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto (Penguin, 2002)
Marx, Capital Volume 1 (Penguin, 1990)
Marx, Capital Volume 2 (Penguin, 1992b)
Marx, Capital Volume 3 (Penguin, 1991)
Marx, Early Writings (Penguin, 1992a)
Marx, The Grundrisse (Penguin, 1993)
Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy (Progress Publishers, 1955). https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/poverty-philosophy/index.htm
Marx, Karl Marx: Selected Writings 2nd Edition, ed. David McLellan (Oxford University Press, 2000).
Peterson, Jordan. Maps of Meaning (Allen Lane, 2018).

 

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Maoist Rebel News Does Not Understand Marx

Maoist Rebel News and Muke had a debate on whether or not the Soviet Union was socialist. During this debate they had the following exchange:

MRN: Marx doesn’t necessarily stand against the existence of profit inside of socialism because Marx didn’t actually write very much about what socialism is, he wrote more about what communism is than what socialism is.

Muke: . . . Marx says quite specifically almost in the critique of the gotha programme, one of the few places where he does talk about lower phase and higher phase communism, which, by the way he never made a distinction between socialism and communism.

MRN: socialism, communism are two different things

Muke: Well for Marx they’re not, he never made that distinction. There’s only lower phase communism and there’s

MRN: That’s not true

Muke: Really? Where does he?

MRN: Mode of production of socialism is transitory period between the two.

Muke: Um… No. He never said that.

MRN: Do you want a quote?

Muke: I’d love a quote

MRN: “Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Muke: Yer so that’s from part 4 or 3 of critique of the Gotha? At no point does he use the term socialist there. I totally admit that there is a transitionary period between capitalism and lower phase communism and that is the dictatorship of the proletariat. But Marx never said that this phase was socialism. That’s something Lenin introduced himself.

MRN: Even if that were true, that its something which Lenin invented, which I don’t believe is true, it would be an irrelevant point.

After the debate Maoist Rebel News wrote a blog post in which he said,

Communism and Socialism are not the same things. His assertion that they are, is totally false. While Marx did not specifically theorize both of these stages of development, it is clear he was referring to two different things.

Communism is a stateless classless society, while he specifically says, “Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.” (Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program (1875))

This is clearly differentiating between two things. One cannot have a state and not have a state at the same time. This is referring to two different periods of development. The state is part of the development towards communism.

He continues,

Finally, I will deal with the very core of Xexizy’s argument, which relies on one hugely incorrect idea: communism and socialism are the same things. This claim essentially erases the transitory period between capitalism and communism even if Xexizy claims he doesn’t. He has done so by refusing to acknowledge them as two different things. Essentially, if the society doesn’t conform to the end result of communism, then, therefore, it is capitalism. Such a transformation cannot be carried out instantaneously, this is utopian anarchist garbage. A transitory period in which perfection does not exist is necessary. A building under construction is still a building even if you want to nitpick that it is not the final product. This almost a Nirvana fallacy. If we take him at his word that they are the same, then a higher and lower stage doesn’t exist according to him. He would do well to study quantity into quality as well.

Maoist Rebel New’s view can be summarized as follows: Muke is wrong to think that Marx does not distinguish between socialism and communism because if communism is a stateless society and if Marx advocates a revolutionary state during the transition from capitalism to communism then there must be a mode of production in-between capitalism and communism which has a state. A mode of production cannot after all simultaneously be stateless and have a state. The mode of production which contains the dictatorship of the proletariat is socialism. Given this, Marx holds that the achievement of communism is a three step process during which society transitions from the capitalist mode of production to the socialist mode of production and from the socialist mode of production to the communist mode of production.

In arguing this Maoist Rebel News is operating on the false assumption that the only way to conceptualize the transition from capitalism to fully fledged communism is through the notion of an intermediary mode of production called socialism. Marx himself, as Muke correctly pointed out, did not distinguish between socialism and communism. Marx instead held that there was a single mode of production – communism – at two different moments of its development: communism during its phase of becoming, when it is arising out of capitalism and contains the dictatorship of the proletariat, and communism during its phase of being, when it is stateless. To explain what this means I will have to explain a) how Marx thinks about society, b) what Marx thought about the transition from feudalism to capitalism and c) what Marx thought about the transition from capitalism to communism. I shall discuss each in turn. Before I do so its important to note that the ideas presented here do not stem entirely from my own original research but are rather largely based on the ideas presented by the Marxist theorist Michael Lebowitz in his books The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development and The Socialist Imperative: From Gotha to Now, which I highly recommend.

Marx’s View of Society

For Marx society is a totality, or as he sometimes calls it, an organic system, composed of parts which come together to form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The parts which form the whole are not separate independent entities but rather co-exist with one another, mutually determine one another, co-define one another and support, constrain or damage one another. This perspective can be seen in the Poverty of Philosophy where Marx writes that an organic system is one “in which all the elements co-exist simultaneously and support one another”. (Marx and Engels 1976, 167) Marx similarly claims in the Grundrisse that “production, distribution, exchange and consumption . . . all form the members of a totality” in which “[m]utual interaction takes place between the different moments”, as is “the case with every organic whole.” (Marx 1993, 99-100)

On this view, to understand one part of society you have to understand how it is related to other parts of society and visa versa. You cannot, for example, understand racism in isolation from the rest of society because racism permeates different aspects of society, such as how black women are depicted on television. To understand racism, you therefore have to understand the relations between racism and other parts of society, such as patriarchy and television. Likewise, you cannot fully understand what patriarchy or television are in our society unless you understand how they are related to racism. Crucially the relations that stand between different parts of society themselves constitute what these different parts are. It’s not just that there are relations between racism and patriarchy but that part of what racism is, is its relations with patriarchy and part of what patriarchy is, is its relations with racism. You cannot understand one without understanding the other.

Given this framework, Marx holds that we must think about economic systems as totalities composed of parts that presuppose one another because each part is constituted through its relations with all the other parts. This perspective can be seen throughout Marx’s work. In the Grundrisse Marx writes that,

 in the completed bourgeois system every economic relation presupposes every other in its bourgeois economic form, and everything posited is thus also a presupposition, this is the case with every organic system. (Marx 1993, 278)

Marx similarly writes in Wage Labour and Capital that,

 capital presupposes wage labour; wage labour presupposes capital. They reciprocally condition the existence of each other; they reciprocally bring forth each other. (Marx 2000, 283)

Capitalism is therefore reproduced in so far as a chain of interlocking parts, which presuppose one another, continually create the necessary social relations that not only stand between each part but in addition constitute them. For Marx one of the prime examples of this was the process whereby capitalism continually reproduces the division between capitalists and workers. As Marx writes in Capital Volume I,

The capitalist relation presupposes a complete separation between the workers and the ownership of the conditions for the realization of their labour. As soon as capitalist production stands on its own feet, it not only maintains this separation but reproduces it on a constantly extending scale. (Marx 1990, 874)

This process of reproduction begins with capitalists who own the means of production and seek to make profits, and workers, who do not own means of production and so must, in order to reproduce themselves, sell their labour to a capitalist in exchange for a wage. As a result, a worker enters the labour market and competes with other workers for jobs. Once a worker has a job they engage in labour under the direction of a capitalist, who in turn appropriates the products produced by the worker. The capitalist proceeds to sell these products as commodities and pays the worker less than the value that they produce. The worker uses up their wage to buy commodities and thereby reproduce themselves, while the capitalist re-invests their profits in the business and is thereby able to keep earning profits. The cycle then begins again with a worker needing a wage to reproduce themselves and a capitalist needing workers to make profits from.

This narrative can be seen in the Grundrisse where Marx writes that,

 the result of the process of production and realization is, above all, the reproduction and new production of the relation of capital and labour itself, of capitalist and worker. . . the worker produces himself as labour capacity, as well as the capital confronting him, while at the same time the capitalist produces himself as capital as well as the living labour capacity confronting him. Each reproduces itself, by reproducing its other, its negation. The capitalist produces labour as alien; labour produces the product as alien. The capitalist produces the worker, and the worker the capitalist etc. (Marx 1993, 458)

Marx likewise writes in Capital Volume 1 that,

 Capitalist production therefore reproduces in the course of its own process the separation between labour-power and the conditions of labour. It thereby reproduces and perpetuates the conditions under which the worker is exploited. It incessantly forces him to sell his labour-power in order to live, and enables the capitalist to purchase labour power in order that he may enrich himself. It is no longer a mere accident that capitalist and worker confront each other in the market as buyer and seller. It is the alternative rhythm of the process itself which throws the worker back onto the market again and again as a seller of his labour-power and continually transforms his own product into a means by which another man can purchase him. In reality, the worker belongs to capital before he has sold himself to the capitalist. His economic bondage is at once mediated through, and concealed by, the periodic renewal of the act by which he sells himself, his change of masters, and the oscillations in the market-price of his labour.

The capitalist process of production, therefore, seen as a total, connected process, i.e. a process of reproduction, produces not only commodities, not only surplus value, but also produces and reproduces the capital-relation itself; on the one hand the capitalist, on the other the wage labourer. (Marx 1990, 723-4)

For capitalism to be a dominant mode of production is therefore for every economic relation to presuppose every other in its capitalist form, such as the economic relation of selling labour power presupposing the existence of a labour market which in turn presupposes production for profit, the private ownership of the means of production by capitalists, and workers having nothing to sell but their labour power.

Marx on the Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism

Society has of course not always been capitalist. Rather, capitalism became the dominant mode of production by displacing a previous economic system – feudalism – in which a very different set of economic relations presupposed one another. To understand the development of capitalism is therefore to understand how it came to establish the chain of interlocking parts that simultaneously constitute and reproduce it as an economic system. From now I will refer to this process as an economy developing its own foundations.

In the Grundrisse Marx conceptualized an economy developing its own foundations as follows,

This organic system itself, as a totality, has its presuppositions, and its development to its totality consists precisely in subordinating all elements of society to itself, or in creating out of it the organs which it still lacks. This is historically how it becomes a totality. The process of becoming this totality forms a moment of its process, of its development. (Marx 1993, 278)

In this passage Marx distinguishes between two different moments: when an organic system is in the “process of becoming” a totality and when an organic system is a “totality” or, to use the language Marx uses later in the Grundrisse, is “being”, rather than “becoming”. What exactly Marx means by this can be seen in his discussion of the development of capitalism. When capitalism was in the phase of becoming it established new social relations within and in reaction to the previous organic system, feudalism. He writes that,

It must be kept in mind that the new forces of production and relations of production do not develop out of nothing, nor drop from the sky, nor from the womb of the self-positing Idea; but from within and in antithesis to the existing development of production and the inherited, traditional relations of property. (Marx 1993, 278)

This can be seen in continental Europe which suffered,

not only from the development of capitalist production, but also from the incompleteness of that development. Alongside the modern evils, we are oppressed by a whole series of inherited evils, arising from the passive survival of archaic and outmoded modes of production, with their accompanying train of anachronistic social and political relations. We suffer not only from the living, but from the dead.(Marx 1990, 91)

According to Marx when capitalism was becoming it rested on parts from the previous economic system but once it had reached the phase of being and developed its own foundations it rested on parts that it creates itself as an economic system. This perspective can be seen in the Grundrisse where he writes that a capitalist bringing “values into circulation which he created with his own labour”, as opposed to that of a wage labourer, belongs to capitalism’s “historic presuppositions, which, precisely as such historic presuppositions, are past and gone, and hence belong to the history of its formation, but in no way to its contemporary history, i.e. not to the real system of the mode of production ruled by it.” In a similar fashion, “the flight of serfs to the cities is one of the historic conditions and presuppositions of urbanism” but “is not a condition, not a moment of the reality of developed cities”. It “belongs rather to their past presuppositions, to the presuppositions of their becoming which are suspended in their being.” Given this, “[t]he conditions and presuppositions of the becoming, of the arising, of capital presuppose precisely that it is not yet in being but merely in becoming.” Such conditions and presuppositions of the becoming of capitalism “disappear as real capital arises” and capital “itself, on the basis of its own reality, posits the conditions for its realization.” (Marx 1993, 459)

Importantly, not all of the parts which acted as preconditions for the becoming of capitalism disappeared once capitalism reached the phase of being. Some parts that were once preconditions for its becoming were transformed into aspects of its being that it itself produces. To return to the earlier example, in order for capitalism to develop it was necessary for a division between capitalist and worker to be established. Once capitalism had reached the phase of being this division was continuously reproduced by capitalism itself. Marx states this explicitly in the Grundrisse, where he writes

capital creates its own presuppositions. . . by means of its own productive process. These presuppositions, which originally appeared as conditions for its becoming – and hence could not spring from its actions as capital – now appear as results of its own realisation, reality, as posited by it – not as conditions of its arising but as results of its presence. It no longer proceeds from presuppositions in order to become, but rather is itself presupposed, and proceeds from itself to create the conditions of its maintenance and growth. (Marx 1993, 460)

To become an organic system is therefore to undergo a process of development whereby the foundational parts of the system come to be produced by the system itself, rather than its foundation still resting on historical parts inherited from a previous organic system. For Marx one of the main foundational parts created during the becoming of capitalism was a working class who not only reproduce capitalism but also view capitalist social relations as an inevitable and natural part of life. Marx writes in Capital Volume 1 that,

The advance of capitalist production develops a working class which by education, training and habit looks upon the requirement of that mode of production as self-evident natural laws. The organization of the capitalist process of production, once it is fully developed, breaks down all resistance. The constant generation of a relative surplus population keeps the law of the supply and demand of labour, and therefore wages, within narrow limits which correspond to capital’s valorization requirements. The silent compulsion of economic relations sets the seal on the domination of the capitalist over the worker. Direct extra-economic force is still of course used, but only in exceptional cases. In the ordinary run of things, the worker can be left to the ‘natural laws of production’, i.e. it is possible to rely on his dependence on capital, which springs from the conditions of production themselves, and is guaranteed in perpetuity by them. (Marx 1990, 899)

The creation of a working class which meets the needs of capitalism as an organic system did not occur automatically. Instead, capitalism emerged out of a previous organic system, feudalism, in which workers did not look upon the requirements of capitalist production as “self-evident natural laws”. Instead, due to the education, training and habits they experienced under feudalism they considered the sale of their labour to a capitalist as unnatural. Given this,

Centuries are required before the ‘free’ worker, owing to the greater development of the capitalist mode of production, makes a voluntary agreement, i.e. is compelled by social conditions to sell the whole of his active life, his very capacity to labour, in return for the price of his customary means of subsistence, to sell his birthright for a mess of pottage. (Marx 1990, 382)

In other words, during its phase of becoming capitalism had yet to develop its own foundations and so lacked the interlocking chain of parts which through the “silent compulsion of economic relations” force people to be wage labourers. As a result, during its phase of becoming capitalism relied upon what Leibowitz terms the capitalist mode of regulation in order to make people conform to the needs of capitalism. This capitalist mode of regulation was the state. Marx writes in Capital Volume I that,

capital in its embryonic state, in its state of becoming, when it cannot yet use the sheer force of economic relations to secure its right to absorb a sufficient quantity of surplus labour, but must be aided by the power of the state. (Marx 1990, p382)

State violence was used to discipline the working class, remove alternatives to selling labour to a capitalist and crush working class resistance to the development of capitalism. Marx writes in Capital Volume I that,

during the historical genesis of capitalist production. . . [t]he rising bourgeoise needs the power of the state, and uses it to ‘regulate’ wages, i.e to force them into the limits suitable for making a profit, to lengthen the working day, and to keep the worker himself at his normal level of dependence. (Marx 1990, 899-900)

A few pages later Marx refers to,

the forcible creation of a class of free and rightless proletarians, the bloody discipline that turned them into-wage labourers, the disgraceful proceedings of the state which employed police methods to accelerate the accumulation of capital by increasing the degree of exploitation of labour . . . (Marx 1990, 905)

Marx on the Transition from Capitalism to Communism

With Marx’s views on society and on the transition from feudalism to capitalism in mind we can now turn to what Marx thought about the transition from capitalism to communism. In the Critique of the Gotha programme Marx writes,

What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges. (Marx 2000, 614)

In this passage Marx distinguishes between communist society when “it has developed on its own foundations” and communist society “just as it emerges from capitalist society” and is “still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges”. What Marx means by this can be understood by re-phrasing what Marx said about capitalism as an organic system so that it refers to communism. Re-phrasing Marx quotes in this way is a standard practice among Marx specialists, such as Michael Lebowitz and Istvan Meszaros. Doing so is not anachronistic in this case since Marx explicitly says that the conceptual points he makes about capitalism as an organic system are “the case with every organic system.” (Marx 1993, 278)

According to Marx, communism has “developed on its own foundations” when “every economic relation presupposes every other in its communist economic form, and everything posited is thus also a presupposition”. That is to say, it is composed of a chain of interlocking parts that simultaneously constitute and reproduce it as an economic system. Communism’s development into an organic system with its own foundations “consists precisely in subordinating all elements of society to itself, or in creating out of it the organs which it still lacks.” It must come to create “its own presuppositions. . . by means of its own productive process” such that “it no longer proceeds from presuppositions in order to become, but rather is itself presupposed, and proceeds from itself to create the conditions of its maintenance and growth.” It must in short become self-reproducing.

In order to do so communism must pass through a “process of becoming” in which it arises out of capitalism and so initially exists in “its embryonic state”. During this phase it is “still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges”. That is to say, during its phase of becoming the foundation of communism rests on parts inherited from capitalism. This results in communist society initially being “oppressed by a whole series of inherited evils, arising from the passive survival of archaic and outmoded modes of production, with their accompanying train of anachronistic social and political relations.” For Marx one of the primary evils communism would inherent from capitalism is people being paid with labour vouchers per amount of labour performed, rather than receiving freely according to need. Marx holds that “these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society.” (Marx 2000, 615) As communism develops into a phase of being and establishes its own foundations these defects are removed. Marx writes,

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs! (Marx 2000, 615)

Communism will not of course develop its own foundations overnight. As a result, during its phase of becoming communism requires a communist mode of regulation which enables it to subordinate “all elements of society to itself” and create out of society “the organs which it still lacks”. For Marx the communist mode of regulation was the dictatorship of the proletariat. Marx writes,

Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat. (Marx 2000, 611)

Maoist Rebel News has read this passage as Marx describing a distinct mode of production called socialism. He has done so because he cannot see how a mode of production can simultaneously have a state and be stateless. If it is stateless it is communism, so if there is a state it cannot be communism and must be something else, namely socialism. This reading of Marx ignores his views on the being and becoming of an organic system. The dictatorship of the proletariat is a component of the becoming of communism which enables it to develop its own foundations and reach the phase of being. Once communism has developed into a phase of being the dictatorship of the proletariat will be dissolved. It is therefore a “historic presuppositions of communism, which, precisely as such historic presuppositions, are past and gone, and hence belong to the history of its formation, but in no way to its contemporary history, i.e. not to the real system of the mode of production ruled by it.” It “belongs rather to their past presuppositions, to the presuppositions of their becoming which are suspended in their being.”

Given this, there is no contradiction between saying that communism is a stateless society and saying that the dictatorship of the proletariat is part of communism. The dictatorship of the proletariat is a presupposition for the becoming of communism that is suspended in the being of communism and so is not a component of communism as an organic system which has developed its own foundations. It belongs to the “history of its formation” but not the “the real system of the mode of production ruled by it”. There is therefore no need to do as Maoist Rebel News has done and posit a distinct mode of production called socialism. Marx’s conceptual system enables us to simultaneously view communism as a stateless society and hold that a state will exist within communist society as it is emerging out of capitalist society.

Conclusion

Maoist Rebel News is, as I have shown, wrong to think that Marx posited a distinct intermediary mode of production called socialism. His error in part arises from his failure to understand the basic concepts through which Marx thinks about society, such as Marx’s notion of an organic system or his distinction between being and becoming or his views on how an economy becomes self-reproducing. This failure to understand Marx’s conceptual system is unfortunately widespread online. Internet Marxists consistently fail to read Marx on his own terms but instead read Marx through the lens constructed by later thinkers, such as Kautsky or Lenin. They are less concerned with understanding Marx himself and more concerned with perpetuating orthodoxy and intellectual stagnation. Marxism is, to re-phrase Marx, “oppressed by a whole series of inherited evils, arising from the passive survival of archaic and outmoded readings of Marx, with their accompanying train of anachronistic social and political relations.” If Marxism is to remain relevant it must engage in the “ruthless criticism of all that exists” (Marx 1843) and this includes a ruthless critique of those Marxists who have failed to understand Marx and spread only mis-information and stale theory.

Bibliography

Marx, Karl. Marx to Ruge, September 1843.

Marx, Karl. Capital Volume 1. Penguin Books, 1990.

Marx, Karl. Grundrisse. Penguin Books, 1993.

Marx, Karl. Karl Marx: Selected Writings. Edited by David McLellan. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick. Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 6. Laurence and Wishart, 1976.

The Finnish Bolshevik is Wrong About Anarchism Part 2: The State

According to the Finnish Bolshevik the Marxist perspective on the state is as follows,

The state is all the oppressive mechanisms like the police, the army and all that, secret police, intelligence service and then the bureaucracy which is needed to run things at this stage of development.”

“the state is the result of class society whether it be a society where the ruling class is the capitalist class or where the ruling class is the proletariat. When there’s no more class society, no more class conflicts, then we don’t need the state anymore.

The Finnish Bolshevik contrasts this Marxist analysis of the state with the anarchist analysis of the state. According to him anarchists,

say that the state is the root of all evil and that it should be abolished. This is incredibly naïve and denies class struggle. I’ve actually heard a very well known anarchist on youtube called anarchopac, who I actually have a lot of respect for, say that he stopped being a Marxist because anarchism supposedly offers a more in depth analysis than Marxism and dialectical materialism because anarchism according to him doesn’t restrict and reduce itself to only economics like he says that Marxism does, that anarchism doesn’t attribute inequality and all kinds of bad things to economic relations like Marxism does but to power relations.

This is actually completely backwards and not more in depth but much more simplistic. Power relations themselves don’t come from nowhere but are results of economic relations. . . Where do the bankers get their power? Do they just get their power magically and then they have money because of that? No. They have money and because of the money they have power. That’s wrong. Its not even just money. It’s the economic relations. Bankers control capital so they have power. Sure. Cops don’t control the economy but they serve the ruling class which gives them that power. Denying that social ills are the results of economic relations and saying they’re merely the result of power is denying the class nature of capitalist society, the class nature of the state, and denying class struggle itself.

Now we already know that anarchists deny the class nature of the state. The truth of the matter is though that states are controlled by people with class interests. States in themselves don’t do anything. This anarchist claim that states in themselves cause all problems helps the bourgeois in hiding the class nature of the capitalist state and propagating the myth that capitalist states represent the interests of all classes of society equally and not merely the interests of the capitalists. Anarchists and capitalists are ideologically the same boat here. They both deny the class nature of the state.

Elsewhere he expands on what he means by this,

When I said that anarchists deny the class nature of the state what I meant was that they see the state as such as being the root of all problems. You know, fascists believe in the state as such. Its generally a right wing conservative idea that the state is some kind of universal force which like goes beyond classes. There is no specific class nature of the state, that the state is some kinda power above classes that is a universal power for serving the interests of all classes. In typical anarchist fashion they take this right wing idea and they just turn it on its head. Traditional right wingers they say that the state is something objective, something that guards the interests of all classes. Anarchists, on the other hand, say that basically the total opposite of that. They say that the state is something that is bad in itself regardless of what class controls it. The state is some kind of independent force but instead of being an independent positive force its an independent negative force.

For the Finnish Bolshevik this way of thinking about the state leads to a false understanding of the USSR, China, Cuba and so on:

you guys think that the proletarian state and the capitalist state are the same thing. That is why you guys in your philosophical outlook are the same as right wingers.

The Finnish Bolshevik’s view can be summarized as follows: anarchists understand society in terms of power relations but fail to conceptualize the economic underpinnings of power. As a result, they ignore the class nature of the state and instead view it as an embodiment of power which exists independently of the economy and so of class society. This leads them to mistakenly think that, despite their different class character, workers’ states and capitalists’ states are the same since they are both embodiments of power. This negative evaluation of all states in turn reflects the false anarchist view that the state is the root of all problems in society.

The Finnish Bolshevik provides no textual evidence from anarchist authors to support this interpretation. His single source for this interpretation is two not very good videos I made several years ago called why I’m no longer a Marxist parts 1 and 2. I made the videos private once I realized that I was presenting a critique of a certain version of Marxism as a critique of Marxism as a whole. I re-watched the videos and I at no point say that we should ignore the economy and just talk about power. I at no point deny that many forms of oppression have an economic underpinning. I at no point say that the state isn’t connected to the economy or that the state is just an embodiment of power. I at no point deny the state’s role in reproducing class society. I actually barely talked about the state. All I said was that there are forms of domination, such as patriarchy, which cannot be reduced to or entirely explained by the structure of the economy. I then said that the problem with seizing state power is that the practice of exercising power over other people transforms the party leaders into tyrants concerned with preserving their power, rather than abolishing it. I would play a clip to prove this, but I find 18 year old me far too cringe inducing so you’re going to have to trust me.

The Finnish Bolshevik not only inaccurately represented what I thought but also inaccurately represented anarchist views on the state. To demonstrate this I will have to explain a) how anarchists define the state, b) what anarchists mean by the ruling class, and c) what anarchists think about really existing state socialist societies like the USSR. With this in place I shall show that anarchists do not consider the state to be the root of all problems in society.

Anarchist Definition of the State

The difficulty with explaining how anarchists define the state is that different anarchists use different terminology. Kropotkin sometimes distinguishes between government and the state and other times uses the terms as if they are equivalent. In some moods he says anarchism is self-government and in others says that anarchism is no-government. Malatesta, in comparison, thought that anarchists should speak of government rather than the state because the word state has many meanings that anarchists aren’t talking about. It is all very confusing. I will explain this in lots of detail in a future video. In this video I’m going to simplify things by only using the term state.

Anarchists generally define the state as a hierarchically and centrally organised institution which uses violence to reproduce class rule and is controlled by a ruling minority in their interests against the masses. Malatesta defines the state as “the aggregate of the governors”, such as “kings, presidents, ministers, members of parliament” who “have the power to make laws, to regulate the relations between men, and to force obedience to these laws.” In short, the power to force others to do as they, the minority of governors, wish. The state so understood is “the brutal, violent, arbitrary domination of the few over the many” which in addition acts as “an instrument ordained to secure domination and privilege to those who, by force, or cunning, or inheritance, have taken to themselves all the means of life, and first and foremost the soil, whereby they hold the people in servitude, making them work for their advantage.” (Malatesta 2014, 113, 115)

For Kropotkin, the state is “the force to which minorities resorted for establishing and organising their power over the masses.” The state therefore “not only includes the existence of a power situated above society, but also . . . a territorial concentration as well as the concentration in the hands of a few of many functions in the life of societies . . . A whole mechanism of legislation and of policing has to be developed in order to subject some classes to the domination of others.” (Kropotkin 1993, 160) It’s important to note here that anarchists do not define the state exclusively in terms of its function as an instrument of class rule but instead argue that in order to be a state an institution must in addition to this have a particular organisational form – it must be hierarchical, centralized and controlled by a minority.

For both Kropotkin and Bakunin the modern state, as opposed to ancient states like Rome, first emerged in the 16th century. (Bakunin 2005, 9; Kropotkin 1995, 94) Over the next few centuries there was a process of “military, police, and bureaucratic centralization” which occurred in parallel with the development of capitalism. This is because, as Bakunin put it, “modern capitalist production and bank speculation require enormous centralized states, which alone are capable of subjecting the many millions of laborers to their exploitation.” (Bakunin 2005, 26, 13) Or as Kropotkin wrote, the modern state developed as “a society of mutual insurance between the landlord, the military commander, the judge, the priest, and later on the capitalist, in order to support each other’s authority over the people.” Given this, anarchists held that “the State, considered as a political power, State-Justice, the Church, and Capitalism are facts and conceptions which we cannot separate from each other. In the course of history these institutions have developed, supporting and reinforcing each other.” (Kropotkin 1995, 94)

The idea that the state reproduces class society in general and capitalism in particular permeates the writings of the classical anarchists. Bakunin, for example, claims that “[t]he State is the organized authority, domination, and power of the possessing classes over the masses.” (Bakunin 1972, 256) Reclus likewise writes that “the present function of the state consists foremost of defending the interests of landowners and the “rights of capital,”” (Reclus 2013, 147) Malatesta argues that, “the landowners are able to claim that land and its produce as theirs and the capitalists are able to claim as theirs the instruments of labour and other capital created by human activity” because “the dominant class . . . has created laws to legitimize the usurpations that it has already perpetrated, and has made them a means of new appropriations.” (Malatesta 2005, 45) Berkman writes that, “the government needs laws, police and soldiers, courts and prisons to protect capitalism.” (Berkman 2003, 16) For Goldman “the State is necessary only to maintain or protect property and monopoly.” (Goldman 1996, 51) I could go on and on.

The Finnish Bolshevik is therefore entirely wrong to claim that anarchists ignore the class nature of the state. Far from ignoring it anarchists hold that one of the defining aspects of the state is its role in reproducing class rule and serving the interests of the capitalist class.

Who are the Ruling Classes?

Anarchists do not, however, think that capitalists are the only class which composes the ruling class. According to the modern anarchist theorist and historian Lucian van der Walt the ruling class is composed of two groups: economic elites “who own or control the means of production through private (and state) companies”, such as the CEO of Apple or the top managers of state owned companies like China Tobacco, and political elites “who own or control the means of administration and coercion, mainly through the state apparatus” such as generals, politicians, ministers and high ranking civil servants. Given this, the power of the ruling class “rests on two institutions that centralize power and wealth so that this minority can rule the majority, the popular classes. And these two institutions are the corporation and the state, which share the basic features of top-down rule by and for an elite, exploitation of workers, the priority of ruling class interests.” (van der Walt 2016, 257) This is not a new perspective in anarchist theory. Malatesta argued in 1897 that while “the State is the defender, the agent, and the servant of the propertied class” it “also constitutes a class by itself, with its own interests and passions. When the State, the Government, is not helping the propertied to oppress and rob people, it oppresses and robs them on its own behalf.” (Malatesta 2016, 213) Political elites “constitute a class” who “are to politics as property-owning classes are to economics.” (Malatesta 2016, 123)

Given that the state is a hierarchically and centrally organized institution wielded by a political elite in their interests it follows that, to quote Bakunin, the state “is placed by its very nature and position above and outside the people and must inevitable work to subordinate the people under rules and for objectives foreign to them.” (Bakunin 2016, 15) Or as Bakunin writes elsewhere, states “are in essence only machines governing the masses from above, through . . . a privileged minority, allegedly knowing the genuine interests of the people better than the people themselves.” (Bakunin 1964, 211) As a result, “the State has always been the patrimony of some privileged class or other; a priestly class, an aristocratic class, a bourgeois class” and eventually a “bureaucratic class”. (Bakunin 1972, 318)

Anarchist Analysis of USSR etc

This leads us to the anarchist analysis of state socialist societies like the USSR, China and Cuba. Most anarchists argue that these societies were not in fact socialist but were instead state capitalist. They do so for the following reasons. Anarchists view capitalism as an economic system based on a division between capitalists – who own the means of production and direct the productive process – and workers – who do not own the means of production and must engage in work as instructed by the capitalist. Socialism, in contrast, is understood as a society in which this division is collapsed. Workers both own the means of production and direct the productive process themselves.

Given these definitions, socialism cannot in practice be achieved through the state. The state is a hierarchically and centrally organization institution ruled by a political elite. If the state becomes the owner and manager of the economy then the economy will in practice be owned and managed by the elite who controls the state. The elite may proclaim that the working class are the ruling class and that the means of production are collectively owned but this is false. The state owns the means of production and the state is ruled by the self-proclaimed leaders or representatives of the working class, rather than by the working class themselves. This contradiction between rhetoric and reality is similar to how under Western representative democracies politicians claim that they represent and serve the people when they actually represent and serve the rich and powerful.

State socialist economies therefore rest on the same capitalist division between those who own and command and those who do not own and obey. The rulers of the state, such as the USSR’s central committee, politburo and general secretary, perform the same role as that of the capitalist: owning and managing the economy. Under market capitalism the economic elite and the political elite are largely two separate groups that exercise power through two distinct institutions – the corporation and the state. Under state capitalism the economic elite and political elite exercise power through the same institution – the state – and are frequently the same group of people. Market capitalism and state capitalism are not the exact same economic system but they do share an important common characteristic: a ruling minority who economically oppress the working class through hierarchical and centralized institutions based on relationships of command and obedience.

This perspective can be seen throughout anarchist discussions of state socialism. According to Bakunin the leaders of the communist party will “create a single state bank, concentrating in their own hands all commercial, industrial, agricultural, and even scientific production, and will divide the people into two armies, one industrial and one agrarian, under the direct command of state engineers, who will form a new privileged scientific and political class.” (Bakunin 2005, 181) Kropotkin wrote that anarchists “cannot look upon the coming revolution as a mere substitution of . . . the State as the universal capitalist for the present capitalists.” (Kropotkin 1995, 106) Elsewhere Kropotkin concluded that,

to hand over to the State all the main sources of economical life—the land, the mines, the railways, banking, insurance, and so on—as also the management of all the main branches of industry, in addition to all the functions already accumulated in its hands (education, State-supported religions, defence of the territory, etc.), would mean to create a new instrument of tyranny. State capitalism would only increase the powers of bureaucracy and capitalism. (Kropotkin 2014, 165)

Malatesta similarly wrote that,

Whoever has power over things has power over men; whoever governs production also governs the producers; who determines consumption is master over the consumer. This is the question; either things are administered on the basis of free agreement among the interested parties, and this is anarchy; or they are administered according to laws made by administrators and this is government, it is the State, and inevitably it turns out to be tyrannical. (Malatesta 2015, 138)

The consequence of this is that a dictatorship of the proletariat that was institutionalized through the state would in reality “be the dictatorship of “Party” over people, and of a handful of men over “Party””. (Malatesta 2016, 27)

If a self-proclaimed workers’ state was based on the workers’ themselves directly owning the means of production and collectively organising the economy in particular and society in general then it would not be a state in the anarchist sense of the word. This is because it would be based on the collective self-determination of the majority, rather than minority rule. Bakunin makes this very clear in Statism and Anarchy. He writes,

What does it mean, “the proletariat raised to a governing class?” Will the entire proletariat head the government? The Germans number about 40 million. Will all 40 million be members of the government? The entire nation will rule, but no one will be ruled. Then there will be no government, there will be no state; but if there is a state, there will also be those who are ruled, there will be slaves. (Bakunin 2005, 178)

We can now see how misleading the Finnish Bolshevik’s claims are. Anarchists do not ignore the different class character of workers’ states and capitalist states because they view the state as an embodiment of power that exists independently of the economy. Anarchists actually argue that these workers’ states were workers’ states in name only because they were controlled by a ruling class of economic and political elites, rather than by the workers themselves. From the anarchist perspective their rejection of really existing state socialism is based on an accurate understanding of the class nature of these states and of the relationship between these states and the economy they controlled and the working class that they oppressed along both economic and political dimensions. Anarchists do not ignore what class controls the state but instead point out that the working class do not.

The Finnish Bolshevik might respond to this by arguing that the anarchist characterization of really existing state socialist societies is historically inaccurate. Doing so would entirely miss my point. All I am arguing here is that the Finnish Bolshevik inaccurately portrayed anarchist views on the state, not that the anarchist views are themselves accurate. That is a separate question.

Is the State the Root of All Problems?

We can now turn to whether or not anarchists think that the state is the root of all problems. The short answer is: no. Anarchists consider the root of social problems to be oppressive hierarchical social relationships and argue that two of the most damaging hierarchical social structures are capitalism and the state. Importantly, they hold that these two social structures are inter-connected with one another because capitalism relies upon the state to reproduce itself. This can be seen in Kropotkin’s claim that,

anarchists, in common with all socialists, of whom they constitute the left wing, maintain that the now prevailing system of private ownership in land, and our capitalist production for the sake of profits, represent a monopoly which runs against both the principles of justice and the dictates of utility. They are the main obstacle which prevents the successes of modern technics from being brought into the service of all, so as to produce general well-being. The anarchists consider the wage-system and capitalist production altogether as an obstacle to progress. But they point out also that the State was, and continues to be, the chief instrument for permitting the few to monopolise the land, and the capitalists to appropriate for themselves a quite disproportionate share of the yearly accumulated surplus of production. Consequently, while combating the present monopolisation of land, and capitalism altogether, the anarchists combat with the same energy the State, as the main support of that system. Not this or that special form, but the State altogether, whether it be a monarchy or even a republic governed by means of the referendum.(Kropotkin 2014, 164)

The great importance that anarchists placed on abolishing capitalism can be seen in the fact that the first point of Malatesta’s anarchist programme of 1899 was the “[a]bolition of private property in land, in raw materials and the instruments of labour, so that no one shall have the means of living by the exploitation of the labour of others”. It is only after this point that Malatesta calls for the “[a]bolition of government and of every power which makes the law and imposes it on others”. (Malatesta 2014, 281) If anarchists, as the Finnish Bolshevik claimed, viewed the state as the root of all problems then surely Malatesta would not have done this.

Nor do anarchists limit themselves to critiquing capitalism and the state. For Goldman “while all Anarchists agree that the main evil today is an economic one, they maintain that the solution of that evil can be brought about only through the consideration of every phase of life – individual, as well as the collective; the internal, as well as the external phases.” (Goldman 1996, 64) Kropotkin likewise argued that anarchists held “that the whole of the life of human societies, everything, from daily individual relationships between people to broader relationships between races across oceans, could and should be reformulated.” (Kropotkin 2014, 197-8) Historically this led anarchists to critique such things as organized religion, authoritarian schools, sexism, racism and homophobia.

In the modern anarchist movement combating patriarchy, queerphobia, ableism and racism has taken on an even greater importance than it did historically. Modern anarchists will place special emphasis on the way that these forms of oppression interact with and are perpetuated by capitalism and the state but they will not reduce them to capitalism and the state. Instead they will focus on the specific character of these forms of hierarchical social relationships and the specific mechanisms through which they are reproduced. Patriarchy, for example, is perpetuated through socialization into gender roles, the enforcement of the gender binary, and the subordination of women, trans and non-binary people. The state plays an important role in reproducing patriarchy, such as the Tory government in the UK cutting funding to domestic abuse shelters or the police victim blaming women who are raped, but the state is not the main cause of patriarchy. This way of theorizing makes zero sense if anarchists view the state as the root of all problems. The Finnish Bolshevik is once again entirely wrong.

Conclusion

I hope that listeners are noticing a pattern here. The Finnish Bolshevik says things about anarchism that are false and does so with a huge amount of confidence, despite providing zero textual evidence for his interpretation. This is all the more worrying when one considers that many of the points I’m making have already been made at length in the anarchist faq. I do not have a problem with Marxists critiquing anarchism. I merely wish that Marxists would first gain an accurate understanding of anarchism before they decided to try and critique it. To not do so is to lack basic intellectual integrity.

Bibliography

Bakunin, Michael. The Political Philosophy of Bakunin: Scientific Anarchism. Edited by G.P. Maximoff. New York: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1964.

Bakunin, Michael. Bakunin on Anarchy: Selected Works by the Activist-Founder of World Anarchism. Edited by Sam Dolgoff. New York: Vintage Books, 1972.

Bakunin, Michael. Statism and Anarchy. Edited by Marshall Shatz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Bakunin, Michael. Bakunin: Selected Texts 1868-1875. Edited by A W Zurbrugg. London: Merlin Press, 2016.

Berkman, Alexander. What Is Anarchism? Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2003.

Goldman, Emma. Red Emma Speaks: An Emma Goldman Reader. Edited by Alix Kates Shulman. 3rd ed. New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1996.

Malatesta, Errico. The Method of Freedom: An Errico Malatesta Reader. Edited by Davide Turcato. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2014.

Malatesta, Errico. Life and Ideas: The Anarchist Writings of Errico Malatesta. Edited by Vernon Richards. Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2015.

Malatesta, Errico. A Long and Patient Work: The Anarchist Socialism of L’Agitazione 1897-1898. Edited by Davide Turcato. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2016.

Reclus, Élisée. Anarchy, Geography, Modernity: Selected Writings of Élisée Reclus. Edited by John Clark and Camille Martin. Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2013.

Kropotkin, Peter. Fugitive Writings. Edited by George Woodcock. Montréal: Black Rose Books, 1993.

Kropotkin, Peter. Evolution and Environment. Edited by George Woodcock. Montréal: Black Rose Books, 1995.

Kropotkin, Peter. Direct Struggle Against Capital: A Peter Kropotkin Anthology. Edited by Iain McKay. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2014.

Walt, Lucien van der. “Alternatives From the Ground Up: Globalization School Input on Anarchism/Syndicalism and (Black) Working Class Self-Emancipation in Postapartheid South Africa.” WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labour and Society 19, no. 2 (2016).

 

The Finnish Bolshevik is Wrong About Anarchism Part 1: Bakunin and Freedom

Introduction

One of the dangers of the internet is that people who don’t know what they’re talking about can make videos on any subject and be believed by their fans simply because they said it with enough confidence. Viewers rarely fact check youtubers and so as youtubers we have a responsibility to seriously research a topic before we make a video on it. I know that in the past I made the mistake of making videos having not done enough research, such as the videos on Marxism I made in 2013 which I deleted once I’d realised my errors.

A youtuber who has decided to talk about anarchism despite neither understanding it or having done enough research is the Finnish Bolshevik. In this video I shall be responding to what he says about Bakunin and freedom. According to the Finnish Bolshevik,

Bakunin is one of the craziest people out there. Nothing much that is of any value in Bakunin really.

Bakunin certainly didn’t like the dictatorship of the proletariat. He didn’t want worker government. So here’s Bakunin in statism and anarchy: “They say that such a yoke – dictatorship is a transitional step towards achieving full freedom for the people: anarchism or freedom is the aim, while state and dictatorship is the means, and so, in order to free the masses of people, they have first to be enslaved!”

. . . As you can see from the rhetoric here anarchism is not about welfare of the people, its not about ending exploitation, its not about collective ownership. Most of all its about individual freedom. That’s what its really about.

The Finnish Bolshevik has provided no argument here. He has provided no substantial textual evidence to support his highly un-orthodox reading of Bakunin. He has merely read a quote in which Bakunin places an emphasis on freedom and on the basis of this asserted that Bakunin only really cares about freedom and does not care about or does not place importance on the welfare of the people, ending exploitation or the collective ownership of the means of production. This reading of Bakunin is entirely false. To explain why I will have to provide a detailed overview of Bakunin’s value system.

Bakunin’s Value System

The three core values of Bakunin’s anarchism are freedom, equality and solidarity. For Bakunin these three values are inter-connected. You cannot have one without the other two. He writes, for example, that freedom can “only be realised by means of society and through the strictest equality and solidarity of each and everybody.” (Bakunin 1973, 149) What then did Bakunin mean by freedom, equality and solidarity? I shall discuss each in turn.

Bakunin defined freedom as having two components: freedom as self-determination and freedom as the development of oneself as a human. This can be seen clearly in Bakunin’s statement that,

by freedom we mean, on the one hand, the fullest possible development of all the natural faculties of each individual, and, on the other, [the individual’s] independence — not vis-à-vis natural and social laws, but vis-à-vis all the laws imposed by other human wills, whether collective or isolated. (Quoted in McLaughlin 2002, 17)

Bakunin consistently refers to these two aspects of freedom throughout his writing. He speaks of freedom as self-determination when he claims that,

Freedom is the absolute right of every adult man and woman to seek no other sanction for their acts than their own conscience and their own reason, being responsible first to themselves and then to the society which they have voluntarily accepted. (Bakunin 1972, 76)

He refers to freedom as human development when he writes that,

I am a fanatical lover of freedom, considering it as the unique environment within which the intelligence, dignity and happiness of mankind may develop and increase. . . the freedom which consists in the full development of all the material, intellectual and moral powers which are found in the form of latent capabilities in every individual. (Bakunin 1973, 196)

For Bakunin freedom so understood is inherently social. He writes,

Man completely realizes his individual freedom as well as his personality only through the individuals that surround him, and thanks to the labor and the collective power of society. . . Society far from decreasing his freedom, on the contrary creates the individual freedom of all human beings. Society is the root, and liberty is its fruit. (Bakunin 1972, 236)

Bakunin’s reason for thinking this is that it is society which provides people with the real possibility to lead self-determining lives in which they develop themselves. In order for society to do so it must be egalitarian and based on relationships of solidarity.

Bakunin distinguishes between “political equality” and “economic and social equality”. (Bakunin 1973, 76). By political equality he means the “[c]omplete equality of political rights for all men and all women”. (Bakunin 1973, 66) For Bakunin this includes the right to self-determine one’s own life and not be subject to domination by others. This can be seen when he refers to, “my human right, which consists in not obeying any other man and behaving only in accordance with my own convictions”. (Bakunin 1973, 148) A society based on political equality would be one in which each individual is free “to enjoy the utmost possible liberty” but lacks “the power to set himself above others or to dominate them, except through the natural influence of his own intellectual or moral qualities, which must never be allowed either to convert itself into a right or to be backed by any kind of political institution.” (Bakunin 1973, 153) In other words, everybody would be equally free to self-determine their lives but would not be free to violate the freedom of others, especially through hierarchical social structures.

A society organised according to political equality would be one in which each individual belonged to a community of equals who formed a horizontal, rather than a hierarchical, association. This is because if individuals live in groups and if each individual has an equal right to self-determine their life then it follows that when a group makes decisions they must do so collectively and each individual must have an equal say in decisions which affect them. As Bakunin says, “[o]rder in society must be the outcome of the greatest possible development of all local, collective and individual liberties” The consequence of this is that “[t]he political and economic organization of society must . . . not flow downwards, from high to low, and outwards, from centre to circumference, as it does today on the principle of unity and enforced centralization, but upwards and inwards, on the principle of free association and free federation.” (Bakunin 1973, 65)

This takes us to social and economic equality. Bakunin defines social equality as “equality at the outset”, or in other words, equality of opportunity. Bakunin thinks that society should be structured such “that each human individual born into it may find . . .  equal means for his development from infancy and adolescence to coming of age, first in upbringing and education, then in the exercise of the various capacities with which each is endowed by nature.” (Bakunin 1973, 76-7) Equality of opportunity is essential for individual freedom because without it each individual will lack the resources they need to develop themselves, such as having enough food or access to a dance teacher.

In order for there to be social equality Bakunin thought that there had to be economic equality by which he meant the communal ownership and management of the means of production. Bakunin writes, “equality must be established in the world by the spontaneous organization of work and of the collective ownership of producers’ associations, freely organized and federated into communes, and by the equally spontaneous federation of these communes, but not by the overriding and enslaving activity of the state.” (Bakunin 1973, 197) By spontaneous Bakunin doesn’t mean that this will just appear out of nowhere and happen. Nor does he mean that it will occur without conscious planning or organisation. He means that it will be a product of voluntary co-operation and collective self-determination, rather than being imposed on people by an external authority.

This advocacy of collective ownership is not a one-off occurrence. Bakunin advocates it throughout his writings. In 1868 Bakunin states that, “instruments of labour, land and all forms of capital should become the collective property of society, as a whole, and should be used only by workers, that is to say by industrial and agricultural associations.” (Bakunin 2016, 34) In 1869 Bakunin explains that the “full emancipation of labour and of labourers” requires “the creation of collective property”. Collective property is according to Bakunin “the absolute precondition for real, universal equality, for freedom, justice and meaningful fraternity.” (Bakunin 2016, 36)

In Appendix B of the Marshall Shatz edition of Statism and Anarchy, the book which the Finnish Bolshevik quotes from, Bakunin proclaims that the

[a]bolition of the state, the right of property, and the juridical family alone will make possible the organization of popular life from below upward, on the basis of collective labor and property . . . This will be achieved by means of the completely free federation of separate individuals into associations or autonomous communes . . . and the federation of communes into nations and of nations into humanity. (Bakunin 2005, 219)

The idea that Bakunin does not advocate, value or place importance on collective ownership is therefore entirely false. One of the main reasons why Bakunin advocates the collective ownership of the means of production was that it would end the domination and exploitation of the working class by the capitalist class. He writes,

Have you understood that there is an irreconcilable antagonism between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie and that this is the inevitable consequence of their respective economic positions? That the prosperity of the bourgeois class is incompatible with workers’ freedom and well-being, because the particular wealth of the bourgeoisie exists and can be based only on the exploitation and servitude of labour; and that for this reason, the prosperity and the human dignity of the working masses demands the abolition of the bourgeoisie as a distinct class. And that in consequence the war between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is a matter of life and death, and it can end only with the destruction of the former? (Bakunin 2016, 43)

In this passage Bakunin not only advocates the abolition of exploitation but also clearly argues that a capitalist economy damages the wellbeing, and so welfare, of the working class. Elsewhere he argues that a socialist economy would promote human wellbeing. He claims that the socialist revolution aims to “ensure that all who are born on this earth become fully human in the fullest sense of the word, that all should have not just the right but the means necessary to develop their faculties, to be free and happy, in equality and through fraternity!” (Bakunin 2016, 100) Note the explicit reference to happiness. In another passage he writes that, “I am a convinced supporter of economic and social equality, because I know that, outside that equality, freedom, justice, human dignity, morality, and the well-being of individuals, just as much as the prosperity of nations, will never be anything but lies.” (Bakunin 1973, 197)

For Bakunin freedom and equality as actually existing social phenomena are maintained over time by relations of solidarity between human beings. By solidarity Bakunin meant individuals co-operating with one another in pursuit of a common goal and forming reciprocal caring relationships in which they preserve the freedom and equality of one another. This can be seen in Bakunin’s statement that “solidarity” is “the confirmation and realization of all liberty, drawing its strength not from any political law but from man’s own collective nature, according to which no man is free if all the men around him and all those who have the slightest influence on his life are not equally free.” (Bakunin 1973, 259-60) Bakunin understood that a free life is a life in which we are positively connected with other humans. For me to view myself as a self-determining human is for others to treat me as one. For me to develop myself as a human is for others to help, teach, support and encourage me. Bakunin writes,

Liberty is therefore a feature not of isolation but of interaction, not of exclusion but rather of connection, for the liberty of any individual is nothing more or less than the reflection of his humanity and his human rights in the awareness of all free men — his brothers, his equals. (Bakunin 1973, 147)

The Finnish Bolshevik’s claim that Bakunin values individual freedom is therefore highly misleading to the uninitiated. It suggests that Bakunin thinks of freedom in terms of isolated individuals who are separated from other people. Yet, as I have shown, Bakunin thinks that in order to be free an individual must be immersed within friendly social relations with other humans, such as having loving friends or belonging to a highly connected community.

Conclusion

I hope the listener now has a better understanding of what Bakunin actually thought. With everything I’ve just said in mind lets re-listen to what the The Finnish Bolshevik had to say:

anarchism is not about welfare of the people, its not about ending exploitation, its not about collective ownership. Most of all its about individual freedom. That’s what its really about.

We can now see just how wrong this statement is. Bakunin clearly cared about human wellbeing and advocated the abolition of exploitation and the establishment of collective ownership of the means of production. Bakunin clearly held that individual freedom was inherently social and that it could only be realised in and through a free society. The Finnish Bolshevik talks as if caring about these things is in some sense in opposition to or in tension with caring about freedom. But for Bakunin we should care about these things precisely because we care about freedom.

Things are, however, much worse than they appear. We might forgive the Finnish Bolshevik for not having read enough Bakunin but he cannot be forgiven for failing to read the source that he himself cites. The Finnish Bolshevik has clearly not read the entirety of Statism and Anarchy. I know this because there is only one complete edition of the book available in English and the sentence he quotes uses a different translation. The translation that the Finnish Bolshevik relies upon is Sam Dolgoff’s translation, which is publicly available on the Marxist internet archives. In the extracts which Dolgoff translates Bakunin explicitly critiques exploitation and argues that in order to be both free and happy the working class must self-manage society through workers’ councils. Bakunin writes,

Modern capitalist production and bank speculation inexorably demand enormous centralization of the State, which alone can subject millions of workers to capitalist exploitation. Federalist organization from the bottom upward, of workers’ associations, groups, communes, cantons [counties], regions, and finally whole peoples, is the sole condition for true, non-fictitious freedom, but such freedom violates the interests and convictions of the ruling classes, just as economic self-determination is incompatible with their methods of organization.

He continues,

The exploitation of human labor cannot be sugar-coated even by the most democratic form of government … for the worker it will always be a bitter pill.

He also says that,

We think that people can be free and happy only when organized from the bottom up in completely free and independent associations, without governmental paternalism though not without the influence of a variety of free individuals and parties.

Given this, the Finnish Bolshevik is either deliberately misrepresenting Bakunin, or has not actually read the text which he quotes from, or, and I think this is most likely, decided to make a video having not re-checked if the source he read a while ago actually supports his conclusions. Either way it doesn’t look very good, especially when we consider how strongly and confidently he stated his inaccurate understanding of Bakunin.

Bibliography

Bakunin. Michael. 1972. Bakunin on Anarchy: Selected Works by the Activist-Founder of World Anarchism. Edited by Sam Dolgoff. Vintage Books.
Bakunin, Michael. 1973. Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings. Edited by Arthur Lehning. London: Jonathan Cape.
Bakunin, Michael. 2005. Statism and Anarchy. Edited by Marshall Shatz. Cambridge University Press.
Bakunin, Michael. 2016. Bakunin: Selected Texts 1868-1875. Edited by A W Zurbrugg. London: Anarres Editions
McLaughlin, Paul. 2002. Mikhail Bakunin: The Philosophical Basis of His Anarchism. New York: Algora Publishing.

Marx and Engels Were Not Egalitarians

Marx and Engels are often depicted as egalitarians by people on the right. In reality Marx and Engels rejected equality as a social ideal and as a permanent yardstick against which social arrangements should be judged. This can be seen in Marx and Engel’s reaction to the programme of the Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany.

In March 1875 Engels complained in a letter that the programme mistakenly advocated “[t]he elimination of all social and political inequality”, rather than “the abolition of all class distinctions”. For Engels, the goal of total social equality was impossible and represented the ambitions of an under-developed form of socialism. He wrote,

As between one country, one province and even one place and another, living conditions will always evince a certain inequality which may be reduced to a minimum but never wholly eliminated. The living conditions of Alpine dwellers will always be different from those of the plainsmen. The concept of a socialist society as a realm of equality is a one-sided French concept deriving from the old “liberty, equality, fraternity,” a concept which was justified in that, in its own time and place, it signified a phase of development, but which, like all the one-sided ideas of earlier socialist schools, ought now to be superseded, since they produce nothing but mental confusion, and more accurate ways of presenting the matter have been discovered.(Engels 1875)

According to Raymond Geuss in ‘Philosophy and Real Politics’ Marx makes two main points about equality in his 1875 ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’. (Geuss 2008, 76-80) Firstly, Marx claims that it makes no sense to speak of equality in the abstract. This is because we can only understand what it means for x to be equal or unequal with y if we first specify the dimensions along which they are being compared. For x to be equal to y is for them to be equal in a particular concrete respect. For example, if x and y are people then they can only be judged equal relative to particular criteria such as their height, how many shoes they own, or how much cake they have eaten. Therefore, one can only be in favour of equality along specific dimensions, such as equality of cake consumption, and never equality as an abstract ideal.

Secondly, Marx claims that advocating equality along one dimension, such as everyone in a society earning the same amount of money per hour worked, will lead to inequality along other dimensions. Everyone earning an equal amount per hour of work would, for example, lead to those who work more having more money than those who work less. As a result, those unable to work a large amount (if at all) such as disabled people, old people, or women who are expected to do the majority of housework, will be unequal with those who can work more, such as the able-bodied, young people, or men. Or those doing manual labour, and so unable to work long hours due to fatigue, will be unequal to those who engage in non-manual labour and so can work more hours. If a society decides to instead ensure equality of income by paying all workers the same daily wage then there would still be inequality along other dimensions. For example, workers who don’t have to provide for a family with their wage will have more disposable income than workers with families. Therefore we can never reach full equality but merely move equality and inequality around along different dimensions.

If Marx was not an egalitarian in the strict sense of the term then what was he? The answer in short is a believer in human freedom and human development. For Marx, the “true realm of freedom” consists in the “development of human powers as an end in itself”.  (Marx 1991, 959) As a result, he conceives of a communist society as one in which “the full and free development of every individual forms the ruling principle”. (Marx 1990, 739) In such a society there are “[u]niversally developed individuals, whose social relations, as their own communal . . . relations, are hence also subordinated to their own communal control”. This “communal control” includes “their subordination of their communal, social productivity as their social wealth”. (Marx 1993, 162, 158) Marx therefore justified the forms of equality he did advocate, such as the communal ownership and control of the economy, on the grounds that they led to human freedom and human development, rather than simply because they were egalitarian.

Bibliography

Geuss, Raymond. Philosophy and Real Politics (Princeton University Press, 2008).

Engels, Frederick. Engels to August Bebel in Zwickau (1875) https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/letters/75_03_18.htm

Marx, Karl. Capital Volume I (Penguin Books, 1990)

——— Capital Volume III (Penguin Books, 1991)

——— Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875)
https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/ch01.htm

——— Grundrisse (Penguin Books, 1993)

What Is False Consciousness?

Marxists like to talk about ‘false consciousness’. But what exactly is it? The term false consciousness was used by Friedrich Engels in his 1893 letter to Franz Mehring. Engels writes,

Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, indeed, but with a false consciousness. The real motives impelling him remain unknown to him, otherwise it would not be an ideological process at all. Hence he imagines false or apparent motives.

His example of false consciousness is people thinking of the history of ideas as a succession of abstract thinkers producing thoughts independently of the society in which they lived and overcoming previous generations of thinkers with better thoughts. Such a view is a form of false consciousness since it ignores that the history of ideas is bound up with the history of society. Thinkers live in societies and so their thoughts change as society changes. Indeed, the very idea that the history of ideas is a history of great men with great thoughts who live outside of history is itself a product of a particular kind of society. Someone who ascribed to this view of history would therefore have false consciousness in two senses. Firstly, they would have a false view of the history of ideas. Second, they would have a false view about how they came to hold the views they do.

Building on Engels, we can hold that false consciousness refers to consciousness which is false or inappropriate in a general sense. Lorna Finlayson distinguishes between five different kinds of false consciousness in her book ‘An Introduction to Feminism’. These are,

1. A false belief about the world. For example, a worker who thinks capitalism doesn’t oppress them or a misogynist who thinks women are innately bad at maths.
2. An inaccurate representation of the world. For example, a woman who looks in the mirror and sees herself as ugly and larger than she actually is.
3. An emotional response that is inappropriate to the situation. For example, a victim of abuse who blames themselves for their abuse and venerates their abuser.
4. The failure to notice a relevant truth. For example, a white person who doesn’t notice racism and thinks they live in a “post-racial’ society, or a man who doesn’t notice the reproductive labour that women perform.
5. The failure to experience a certain emotional state. For example, a capitalist who doesn’t feel empathy for their employees or a trans-person who doesn’t love themselves because of internalised transphobia. (Finlayson 2016, 15-17)

A further distinction can be drawn between mere false-consciousness and ideological false consciousness. False-consciousness is not necessarily political since I am technically experiencing false consciousness when I think it is Wednesday but it is in fact Thursday as I have a false belief about the world. But the kind of false consciousness which Marxists are interested in is false consciousness which is produced by particular power relations and is therefore inherently political. This is ideological false consciousness, which refers to false consciousness whose existence and character is explained by its tendency to promote the interests of one social group over another. (Finlayson 2016, 18)

An example of ideological false consciousness is patriarchal ideology, which consists of the distorted ways of seeing, feeling and relating to the world which exist and have the character they do because of their tendency to further the interests of men, who are dominant, over women, who are subordinate. (Finlayson 2016, 18, 21) For example, the idea that women are naturally best suited to child care contributes to a situation in which women do the majority of child care and are expected to by people of all genders. This idea helps reproduce patriarchal gender roles and patriarchy’s gendered division of labour by ensuring that people think this arrangement is natural and should exist and by producing people who judge the worth of women relative to their success at being mothers. This in turn leads women to feel compelled to do the majority of childcare so that both others and themselves do not judge them as failing to be good women. The fact that this idea reproduces patriarchy in turn explains why the idea exists and permeates patriarchal culture. After all, young girls are taught these ideas as children in order to prepare them for an adulthood in which it is assumed that they will be mothers and wives.

One important feature of false-consciousness so understood is that it affects both the oppressor and the oppressed. In the case of patriarchy, for example, people of all genders possess patriarchal false-consciousness, although it takes different forms depending on sex, gender, race, class, the country you live in, the culture you grew up in and so on. (Finlayson 2016, 21) One of the most startling examples of this in the modern world is women who make their living on youtube by attacking feminists and validating the misogyny of their majority male audience. Since women are just as much subject to patriarchal ideology as men we should keep in mind that just because a women does or thinks something does not automatically mean that it is furthering the emancipation of women or that it reflects an accurate understanding of gender relations in our society.

In a similar fashion, both workers and capitalists experience capitalist false consciousness. A worker may falsely believe that there is no alternative to capitalism, while a capitalist may falsely believe they have earned their wealth through their own hard work, when in reality they have exploited the labour of others. Marx himself thought that the English philosopher and utilitarian Jeremy Bentham suffered from capitalist false consciousness. In Das Capital, Marx describes Bentham as “that insipid, pedantic, leather-tongued oracle of the ordinary bourgeois intelligence of the 19th century.” He continues in a footnote, “[w]ith the driest naiveté he takes the modern shopkeeper, especially the English shopkeeper, as the normal man. Whatever is useful to this queer normal man, and to his world, is absolutely useful. This yard-measure, then, he applies to past, present, and future. . . Mr. Jeremy a genius in the way of bourgeois stupidity.”

False consciousness is thus not a patronising idea about the benighted masses suffering under delusions consciously created by a conspiracy of capitalists. In reality, the capitalists and their ideologues are subject to a vast amount of false-consciousness themselves, as can be seen when one reads fortune magazine or neo-classical economics or when one watches interviews with silicon valley entrepreneurs talking about why they are successful.

Bibliography

Finlayson, Lorna. 2016. An Introduction to Feminism. Cambridge University Press

We Must Bring Socialism to Identity Politics

The political reality is that identity politics, at least within English speaking countries, is far more popular and influential than socialist politics, especially among younger people. Therefore, there exists a large body of people who, while not socialists, are nonetheless politically engaged, understand many of the problems with modern society, such as white supremacy or patriarchy, and value equality and freedom. The problem is that these people generally speaking lack a good understanding of class politics. This can be seen in the fact that they often understand class oppression in terms of classism, such as middle class people talking down to working class people, and don’t advocate worker self-management or the abolition of the state.

The task of socialists in such a political climate is not to try and persuade people to drop identity politics in favour of socialism. This is for two reasons. Firstly, there is a huge amount of good ideas within mainstream identity politics, such as understanding the connection between police brutality and racism, or holding that victims are not to blame for being raped. This goodness is incredibly important when one considers how widespread racism and sexism is in our societies, especially historically. In other words, the problem with liberal identity politics is not the identity politics, but the liberalism. Secondly, critiquing identity politics is not an effective way of persuading people to develop socialist politics. People generally stop listening once you start attacking their core belief system. This is especially true if it is a belief system that they are emotionally invested in, such as a traumatised queer who learned to love herself by spending time on tumblr and reading about liberal feminism.

Reflecting on my own political development I cannot remember many cases in which a critique of my ideas made me change my mind. Instead, what consistently happened was that I read about a new political perspective, found it interesting, thought about the ideas a lot, and gradually over time dropped my previous political beliefs as I began to see flaws in them. I think part of the reason for this is that as you learn about new ideas you transform your mental landscape and become able to understand things you could not before. For example, I didn’t understand queer perspectives on gender until I’d read more widely on feminist views on gender and so understood the larger conceptual framework that queer feminists were coming from. In a similar fashion, it is unsurprising that many liberals do not understand socialist critiques of their politics. To understand these criticisms, they must first have a general understanding of socialist theory. But if they had an understanding of socialist theory then they would themselves be in a position to critique liberal identity politics from a socialist perspective.

Given this, instead of attacking identity politics, socialists should produce socialist identity politics which combines the good elements of mainstream identity politics with a solid class politics based in Marxism or anarchism.  In particular, socialists should show how the core values which underpin identity politics, such as empathy for the oppressed or the belief that people should be free from domination, entail a Marxist or anarchist politics if they are consistently applied. For example, we could argue that if you support black lives matter then you should also support the abolition of the police and prisons. From there we could further argue that the police and prisons play a larger role in perpetuating class society and that, given this, the working class as a whole, regardless of race, has a shared interest in fighting state violence.

On this approach, socialist engagement with liberals consists in telling them the ways in which their politics could be better, rather than attacking them for having bad politics. The idea being that liberal feminists will, when presented with a better and more developed version of identity politics, work out for themselves the flaws with their old politics. Socialists should not expect such a transformation to happen overnight. They must be patient and understand that it takes time for people to learn a whole new approach to politics and to discard previous beliefs in favour of better ones.

To conclude, socialists must bring class politics to identity politics, rather than expecting liberals to drop identity politics in favour of socialism. We must try to blow people’s minds with socialist theory and have interesting conversations with them, rather than using socialist theory as a weapon with which to attack people for having bad politics and thereby prove our inherent superiority and radicalism. We must build a movement, not a sect.