You've come to an old part of SW Online. We're still moving this and other older stories into our new format. In the meanwhile, click here to go to the current home page.
A new book by SW columnist Paul D'Amato
The Meaning of Marxism

November 17, 2006 | Page 8

IT IS fashionable for pundits to declare every so often that Marxism is dead. But the poverty, class inequality and war created by today's globalized capitalist system raises questions for which Marxism still offers fresh and relevant answers. Socialist Worker columnist PAUL D'AMATO has written a new book, The Meaning of Marxism, providing an introduction to the ideas of Karl Marx and the tradition he founded--a book that began with the biweekly column he has written here for the past seven years. Here, we print an excerpt.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Imagine...The Future Socialist Society

"WE KNOW what you're against. What are you for?" is a question often asked of socialists. Socialism can be summed up simply. These words by Eugene Debs are clear and elegant:

The earth for all the people! That is the demand. The machinery of production and distribution for all the people! That is the demand. The collective ownership and control of industry and its democratic management in the interests of all the people! That is the demand. The elimination of rent, interest and profit and the production of wealth to satisfy the wants of all the people! That is the demand.

The end of...class rule, of master and slave, of ignorance and vice, of poverty and shame, of cruelty and crime...That is the demand.

Socialism cannot come from "ready-made utopias," but must be created by workers themselves. That doesn't mean, however, that we have no idea what a future socialist society would be like or how it might develop.

What to read

You can't keep a good theory down. Paul D'Amato's The Meaning of Marxism is a lively and accessible introduction to the ideas of Karl Marx, as well as other key Marxists, with historical and contemporary examples--showing that a "radical, fundamental transformation of existing society" is not only possible, but urgently necessary.


The initial basis for socialism is the working-class solidarity that is forged in struggle prior to workers coming to power. In these struggles, racist, sexist and xenophobic ideas begin to break down. The mass struggles that are necessary to bring down the old order are also necessary to begin the process of creating a different human being.

But this is only the starting point. Socialism will be created by people emerging from a system that stunted and suppressed their human potential. Only over a long transition period will a new generation of people be raised who are free from these old constraints.

"What we have to deal with here," wrote Marx, "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 birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges."

Hence we cannot immediately leap straight into a completely communist society. There must be a transition period in which the old is dissolved, broken apart, and reshaped, and new social relations and habits of intercourse gradually emerge.

"Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other," wrote Marx. "Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat." So the first premise of socialism is that workers are in control and are therefore in a position of power from which they can start to reshape society.

The aim of socialism is to do away with all class distinctions and create a society whereby the state--an instrument of class domination--gradually fades away. As Engels wrote, "The proletariat seizes the public power, and by means of this transforms the socialized means of production, slipping from the hands of the bourgeoisie, into public property."

Having gained power, the working class then uses that power, first to ensure that the old order cannot gain a foothold again. Though this new workers' state represents the interests of the majority, it must still use coercion, where necessary, to suppress those who would use violence to attempt to restore the old exploitive relations in society. Second, the new workers' state must begin implementing a series of reforms that, step by step, abolish profit and the market and replace it with conscious, democratic planning.

"The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie," Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto, "to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.

"Of course, in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measures, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionizing the mode of production."

Some of these measures might include: introducing a progressive income tax against the rich; establishing free education at all levels; abolishing advertising and all other wasteful and costly diversions, with the use of these funds going toward health, education and artistic needs; instituting free abortion on demand and free child care provisions; confiscating all empty houses and mansions of capitalist developers and the rich in order to house the poor and homeless; immediately reducing the workday and providing jobs for the unemployed; creating a community police force on a rotating, elected basis.

The market and money cannot be done away with at one stroke. But the workers' state can nationalize the banks and place them under workers' control, and redirect funds into much-needed state projects, like building a better public transportation system. Money can be transformed from a means of profit-making into a means of accounting for what is produced and how it is distributed. The associated producers, organized into a democratic system of councils, can reorganize production and distribution according to a rational plan that meets human need.

Although inequality cannot be abolished all at once, a number of measures could be implemented to uproot it. Special organizations could be created to wipe out prejudice in the education system, and various affirmative action programs could be stepped up on a qualitatively more intensive level to provide opportunities for education and equal participation in society for all, regardless of race, nationality, sex or language. Education could be provided in all languages, and could be designed to allow individuals to switch jobs, moving from intellectual to manual work with ease.

At first, workers may need to exercise joint control over technicians, engineers and planners, some (but not all) of whom may still hanker for the privileges they received under capitalism. But the extensive reorganization of education and the production process would give everyone the opportunity to pursue a variety of jobs, gradually weakening the barrier between mental and manual labor, and providing an environment in which the full potential of every individual was given the means to develop.

Committees of workers and technicians would begin to reengineer production so that everything was produced to last, and with the best materials. Productivity has advanced to the point that the workday could be reduced to three or four hours. In a socialist society, improvements in labor productivity would be a means to shorten the workday to a minimum in order to free people up as much as possible to devote their energies to other pursuits, including participating in the running of society.

Moreover, since workers would own and control the labor process as well as its results, work would no longer have the sense of emptiness it possesses today. Instead of workers dreaming of Fridays and working only in order to receive a paycheck, work would be a source of fulfillment. The mad intensity of work today, whose pace is a mental health issue for millions, will be humanized in a society where workers control the nature and pace of work collectively.

When the resistance of the old ruling classes is gone, so too is the need for the state. With the abolition of class distinctions comes what Engels called "the withering away of the state." Since the state is an instrument for the enforcement of class oppression, the dissolution of class divisions renders the state obsolete. The coercive apparatus of state repression disappears, leaving only purely administrative tasks such as the postal service, transportation or maintaining the power grid.

What replaces the state is the free association of people--communism. Society is administered according to a plan, but there is no need for organized coercion, because everyone gives what they can and takes what they need. Society might freely choose or pick volunteers to handle small-scale threats of violence--for example, from deranged individuals, or to defuse drunken brawls. But because society is not divided into classes, this coercion would be incidental rather than systematic, and could be handled without the need for "special bodies" of armed people.

Only in such a consciously and democratically planned and administered society can the potentialities slumbering in the millions of people now oppressed and stunted by capitalism have a chance to flourish.

In this higher phase of communist society, wrote Marx, "after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life's prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around 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!"

The Point Is to Change It

THERE ARE three conditions that make socialism imperative for humanity: the abundance that makes class inequality unnecessary, the class solidarity that makes it possible, and the threat of social and environmental ruin that awaits us if we fail to achieve it.

The resources are there in abundance. The 1994 Human Development Report estimated that just 12 percent of military spending in the developing countries (not including the far larger military budgets of the United States and other more developed countries) could provide health care for the 1 billion people who lack access to it; eliminate severe malnutrition in the 192 million children that suffer from it; and provide safe drinking water for all.

The assets of the 200 richest people in the world (more than $1 trillion in 1999) were more than the combined income of 41 percent of the world's population. A yearly contribution of 1 percent of their wealth could provide universal access to primary education for all, according to the 1999 Human Development Report.

We stand on either a threshold or a precipice. Either we move forward to socialism, or the world faces unimaginable barbarism that could come in many forms: nuclear holocaust, environmental disasters, the return of 1930s-style depression. Capitalism condemns itself as a system, in the prophetic words of Marx, because in the midst of the riches labor creates, the capitalist class cannot even assure the survival of humanity, let alone the survival of the poor.

And here it becomes evident, that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society...It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him. Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society.

The alternative is socialism. Shorn of the baggage it never asked to carry, it is an attractive idea. It is not a dream concocted in the head of a utopian thinker: It was born in the collective action of workers themselves.

Eugene Debs first toyed with the idea of going into Democratic Party politics before he became a socialist. But his experience as a trade union organizer changed him. As leader of the newly formed American Railway Union, Debs led a strike of workers at the Pullman Sleeping Car Company in 1894. The strike spread throughout the nation, becoming a national boycott of Pullman cars involving 150,000 workers.

The government stepped in on behalf of the employers and declared the strike illegal because it was obstructing delivery of the U.S. mail (the government was deliberately attaching mail trains to Pullman cars so they would have this excuse). The government sent in federal troops, and the strike was broken--25 strikers were killed, and Debs was imprisoned for six months.

Debs learned that the government--its army, its courts--serves the employers. He learned that they will go to any lengths to try and stop workers from organizing and fighting for what is right. "In the gleam of every bayonet and the flash of every rifle the class struggle was revealed," he later explained. "This was my first practical lesson in socialism, though wholly unaware that it was called by that name."

In every struggle, there are many people who go through the kinds of experiences that Debs went through. Whether they fall back into obscurity, returning to the dull routines of daily life, or become active socialists depends on the existence of groups of socialists in every workplace and school that can relate to their experiences and transform their unconscious strivings for socialism into a conscious commitment to its achievement.

The Hydra of Social Revolution

GIVEN HALF a chance, genuine cooperativeness among workers flourishes, even in dire situations. Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky, two medical workers trapped in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, expected the media to project heroic images of troops and police, but the official relief effort they experienced was atrociously inadequate:

What you will not see, but what we witnessed, were the real heroes and sheroes of the hurricane relief effort: the working class of New Orleans.

The maintenance workers who used a forklift to carry the sick and disabled. The engineers who rigged, nurtured and kept the generators running. The electricians who improvised thick extension cords stretching over blocks to share the little electricity we had in order to free cars stuck on rooftop parking lots. Nurses who took over for mechanical ventilators and spent many hours on end manually forcing air into the lungs of unconscious patients to keep them alive.

Doormen who rescued folks stuck in elevators. Refinery workers who broke into boat yards, "stealing" boats to rescue their neighbors clinging to their roofs in flood waters. Mechanics who helped hotwire any car that could be found to ferry people out of the city. And the food service workers who scoured the commercial kitchens, improvising communal meals for hundreds of those stranded.

The real looters were not the people helping themselves to food and goods to survive a disaster, but the government and their corporate friends who have set the whole system up as a massive looting operation in which the haves take from the have-nots.

Larry and Lorrie Beth helped organize a group of several hundred stranded survivors. Their first camp was broken up by police at gunpoint, and when they tried to cross a bridge into neighboring Gretna, they were turned back by a line of cops firing shotguns over their heads. But the group held together, and in doing so taught us something about what ordinary people are capable of:

Our little encampment began to blossom. Someone stole a water delivery truck and brought it up to us. Let's hear it for looting! A mile or so down the freeway, an Army truck lost a couple of pallets of C-rations on a tight turn. We ferried the food back to our camp in shopping carts.

Now--secure with these two necessities, food and water--cooperation, community and creativity flowered. We organized a clean-up and hung garbage bags from the rebar poles. We made beds from wood pallets and cardboard. We designated a storm drain as the bathroom, and the kids built an elaborate enclosure for privacy out of plastic, broken umbrellas and other scraps. We even organized a food-recycling system where individuals could swap out parts of C-rations (applesauce for babies and candies for kids!).

This was something we saw repeatedly in the aftermath of Katrina. When individuals had to fight to find food or water, it meant looking out for yourself. You had to do whatever it took to find water for your kids or food for your parents. But when these basic needs were met, people began to look out for each other, working together and constructing a community.

Reading their account of the heroism of ordinary workers and poor people in New Orleans, I was reminded of the statement the Spanish anarchist revolutionary Buenaventura Durruti made to Canadian journalist Pierre Van Paasen in 1936, during the Spanish Civil War. Durruti fought with the Spanish workers against the danger of Franco's fascist counterrevolution. "You will be sitting on a pile of ruins if you are victorious," Van Paasen told the Spanish revolutionary. He replied:

We have always lived in slums and holes in the wall. We will know how to accommodate ourselves for a time. For you must not forget that we can also build. It is we who built these palaces and cities, here in Spain and America and everywhere. We, the workers. We can build others to take their place. And better ones. We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth. There is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world, here, in our hearts. That world is growing in this minute.

Home page | Back to the top