Still a world to win

In the coming weeks, the International Socialist Organization will host forums around the country on Marxism and the struggle for a different world. Here, Jen Roesch introduces the central themes of those meetings--Marxism's explanation for the exploitation, oppression and violence at the heart of the free-market system, and its vision of another world based on solidarity, justice and freedom.

High school students on the march against standardized testing

THE BRITISH Marxist Terry Eagleton has observed, "You can tell that capitalism is in trouble when people start talking about capitalism. It indicates that the system has ceased to be as natural as the air we breathe, and can be seen instead as the historically rather recent phenomenon that it is. Moreover, whatever was born can always die."

Certainly, in the last several years, "capitalism" has become a frequent subject of mainstream discussion. Radicals like myself are fond of citing opinion polls showing that young people today have a more favorable view of socialism than capitalism. But as remarkable as the results is the fact that the question is even asked. For decades, we were told that there was no alternative to the free-market system. But the financial crisis of 2008 shook capitalism so violently that questioning its legitimacy became acceptable.

There is no shortage of reasons to question that legitimacy. We can charge capitalism with being a profoundly unequal system; the world's 85 richest individuals control more than half of the world's wealth. We can charge it with being a racist system; the American gulag now houses more than 2.2 million men and women--disproportionately Blacks and Latinos.

We can charge it with failing to meet the basic needs for subsistence of the majority of its population; more than 80 percent of the world's population lives on less than $10 a day, and 22,000 children die each day due to poverty. And--if not most damningly, at least most dangerously--we can charge it with threatening the very ecosystem on which all life of the planet depends.

A World to Win: The Revolutionary Ideas of Marxism | March and April

The list of charges is long, and these are but a small sample. But the revolutionary potential of Marxism is not simply that it offers the most searing and comprehensive indictment of capitalism. It is that it is able to explain how this system came into being, how it organizes every aspect of our society--and, crucially, how it can be overthrown.

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KARL MARX argued that the most basic question that must be answered about any human society is: How does it organize itself to meet its most basic needs--for food, shelter, clothing and other means of survival.

As Marx's friend and collaborator Frederick Engels said in a speech at his funeral, Marx's first great accomplishment was to discover:

the law of development of human history; the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.; that therefore the production of the immediate material means, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved.

So, for example, a society in which people live in small bands, cooperate in meeting their subsistence and share equally both in the feasts and famines produces a more egalitarian relationship between people. Studies of the pre-class societies that existed for the vast majority of time that human beings have been a distinct species show that these types of cooperative relationships were much more common.

This is not meant to idealize such societies--few people would want to return to a world marked by such scarcity and insularity. But it does show that there is nothing natural or eternal about the system as it exists today.

Capitalism is organized quite differently and gives rise to dramatically different social relations. At its heart, capitalism is based around exploitation. People often use this term when describing particularly horrific working conditions or jobs that pay very low wages. This way of talking about exploitation implies that there is something exceptional about it. We are trained to think of these types of conditions as the worst excesses of the system.

Leaving aside the fact that low-wage, no-benefit work is becoming the rule rather than the exception, this is not what Marxists mean when we talk about exploitation.

We mean this: A tiny minority of people controls the resources of society--what Marx described as the "means of production." Because of this, the minority controls the major decisions and gets to set the rules of the game. The majority of people, who do not own or control these social resources, are forced to work to earn what they need to survive. For that work, they are paid a wage--it may be higher or lower, but it is never as much as the value of what they produce. What is left over is the profit for the few.

While individual capitalists may get rich as a result of luck or even skill, the system as a whole has nothing to do with luck. It is a system based on organized theft from working-class people. Put simply, it is not simply the case that some people are rich and others poor; some people are rich because others are poor.

This fundamental dynamic of capitalism governs how work is organized regardless of how well paid the work is or how well workers are treated. Exploitation has existed in all class societies. The difference under capitalism is that this exploitation is hidden behind the veil of the "free market," in which workers and bosses appear as supposed equals.

The market disguises the fact that capitalism is based on a compulsion as systematic--if not as naked--as that of previous societies. Those who have the wealth in this society do so because they own; those who are required to work to survive do so because they do not own.

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THIS ORGANIZED theft that Marxists call exploitation is the basis for the everyday brutality of capitalism. Individual capitalists compete for control over resources and to make a profit on the market. Because the source of profit is the surplus created by workers beyond what they are paid, the constant pressure is to push workers to work harder for less.

This violence is usually hidden; no one shows up with a gun at the door and forces us to go work for a wage. Instead, it appears to us as a natural transaction in the marketplace--the horrors are seen as accidental excesses or individual tragedy.

In the same way that the actual workings of the system are obscured, so, too, are capitalism's origins. Steve McQueen's incredible movie 12 Years a Slave has done a tremendous service in unflinchingly portraying the routine and naturalized violence that characterized slavery in the U.S. A century and a half ago, Marx described how this violence was the basis for capitalism to emerge:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signaled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. Capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.

That which we are born into--which appears as natural to us--is not natural at all. The immense wealth controlled by the few, the absolute and relative impoverishment of the vast majority--these were historically created. Thus, from its very inception, capitalism was founded on roots of naked violence, brutality and racism.

Despite hundreds of years of so-called "progress" and "civilization," this violence still pervades our society. Ruthless competition for profit is capitalism's guiding principle, and as such, it knows no limits.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels described how "[t]he need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere."

This was written in capitalism's infancy. Now that capitalism has subjugated the vast majority of the world's population, that scramble for resources, markets and investment has spilled over into military competition--a dynamic that has claimed millions of lives and created ever deadlier means of destruction.

Because it is a system of minority rule, capitalism relies on both oppression and repression. In order to rule over a majority, it must divide and conquer. There are material roots to this--starting with the fact that under capitalism, workers are forced to compete with one another for scarce jobs, housing, decent schools, etc. Marx wrote: "Competition separates individuals from one another, not only the bourgeois, but still more the workers, in spite of the fact that it brings them together."

But more than this, capitalism has created structures of oppression that both materially support the system and ideologically divide the working class among itself. This is why, for example, despite the abolition of slavery, institutionalized racism has been continually and violently re-imposed in the U.S. for the last 150 years.

The African American author and revolutionary W.E.B. Du Bois described how racism was a bulwark in maintaining capitalist power:

The race element was emphasized in order that property-holders could get the support of the majority of white laborers and make it more possible to exploit Negro labor. But the race philosophy came as a new and terrible thing to make labor unity or labor class-consciousness impossible. So long as the Southern white laborers could be induced to prefer poverty to equality with the Negro, just so long was a labor movement in the South made impossible.

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NONETHELESS, DESPITE all the obstacles, people do fight back. Even a cursory knowledge of U.S. history, let alone world history, shows that people don't forever and always accept oppression and exploitation. And it is when people fight back that the naked violence of capitalism is on full display.

Taking the example of racism again, just look at the Black freedom struggle in this country. Every generation has seen titanic struggles against racism--the slave revolts, abolition, Reconstruction, the working-class movements of the 1930s, and, of course, the civil rights and Black Power movements of the era after the Second World War.

These struggles struck such fear into U.S. rulers that they responded with astounding brutality: the Black Power movement was met with infiltration, assassination and imprisonment. The need for repression helps explain why the U.S. has over 900,000 cops and 600,000 prison guards, not to mention military bases around the world--and why it spends more on the military then on all forms of domestic spending combined.

As novelist and essayist James Baldwin once wrote:

The civilized have created the wretched, quite coldly and deliberately, and do not intend to change the status quo; are responsible for their slaughter and enslavement; rain down bombs on defenseless children whenever and where they decide that their "vital interests" are menaced; and think nothing of torturing a man to death: these people are not to be taken seriously when they speak of the "sanctity" of human life, or the "conscience" of the civilized world.

This is why there can be no such thing as a "gentle capitalism." The everyday violence that lies at the heart of the system--the organized theft perpetrated against the majority by a minority--ripples out and structures all of the other aspects of our society. Capitalism is an elaborate system pervading all aspects of life; it will only be thrown off the historical stage by an alternative social order--one capable of defeating and replacing it on all fronts.

And here is the revolutionary idea that lies at the heart of Marxism: That other world is possible. That which men and women have created, they can tear down and recreate.

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WE LIVE in a society that combines incredible technological sophistication with an extreme primitiveness of social organization.

The last several hundred years of capitalist development have wrought incredible innovation--there can be no doubt about that. We have the capacity to live longer than humans ever have. One hundred years ago, strep throat could kill you--now a simple dose of antibiotics can cure this and other previously deadly diseases. A worker in Beijing and in New York City can communicate instantly via Skype or Facebook or any number of other technologies. Even physical goods can travel across the world at incredible speed. The list could go on and on.

But then you look at how we actually live. In every sphere, the potential that capitalism opens up is closed down because of the nature of how society is organized. And so people die, not because their diseases can't be cured, but because they don't have the ability to access the treatments that could save them. Children go hungry, not because there isn't enough food, but because their parents don't earn enough to buy the necessities of life.

An alternative must start from the idea that it is our social organization that is the problem, and that must be turned upside down. A system based on ownership by the minority must be replaced by one democratically controlled from below by the majority. This simple concept is the essence of the socialist alternative. It is nothing more or less than ordinary people seizing control of what they themselves have produced, and organizing and directing this in their own interest.

This is not the utopian pipedream our rulers would like us to believe it is. All the conditions for such an alternative world have been brought into being by capitalism itself.

The tremendous wealth that now rests in the hands of the few is one of those conditions. We now have the capacity to abolish want and scarcity, and to create a society based on equality. The other condition is the creation, for the first time, of an exploited and oppressed class that has the potential to put an end to all exploitation and oppression.

Marx argued that the working class--a class "with radical chains," as he put it--was the one class that, in liberating itself, had the potential to liberate all of humanity. In abolishing its own exploitation and oppression, the working class also must abolish every rotten aspect of society that is indissolubly bound up with that central axis of exploitation. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels wrote:

All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air.

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THESE CONDITIONS form the objective basis for the real potential for an alternative. But this alone is not enough.

The transition from capitalism to socialism is much more difficult to achieve than previous changes between different forms of class society.

This is not only because capitalism is so entrenched and its ruling class so violent. Fundamentally, the challenge is that this is the first transition that must be achieved by the self-conscious activity of the vast majority of people. It is fundamentally different from all prior social transformations--it is not from one form of class society to another, but from a class society to a society ruled by the vast majority, based on meeting the real needs of the entire population.

This can seem a daunting task. And yet, while this transformation is not inevitable, neither is it an act of pure will power.

Capitalism has failed to meet even the most fundamental needs of its own population. For millions of people, the idea that another world is possible--or at least that this one is not sustainable--has gained resonance. We have seen the first waves of struggle against that system--whether in Egypt, Greece or here in the U.S. As a result, the questions of struggle and an alternative have re-emerged as a result of the concrete actions of working people.

Many people who were inspired by the struggles of the past few years--from the Arab Spring revolutions to the rebellions against austerity and inequality that took the form of the Occupy Wall Street in the U.S.--have become disappointed by recent setbacks, and even questioned whether the struggles are cause for hope at all.

But we could never expect to overcome such an entrenched system in one blow. Instead, we should see struggles such as these as tentative beginnings, which illuminate the possibilities and the difficulties ahead. Daniel Singer described the process by which ordinary people will attempt to take control of their society:

They are the product of circumstances, but also, within the limits set by their physical and social conditions, products of their own action. The "associated producers" on whom we rely to forge a different kind of society, will not be proletarian heroes, red knights in shining armor, with a purity and political consciousness out of hagiographic tales. They will be ordinary people, like you and me, with all our quirks and imperfections, our habits conditioned by the world we live in, our tastes distorted by television and advertising.

As these ordinary people search to gain control over their work and their fate, they will begin to reshape society, they will be affected in the process, and, so transformed, will resume their task. In this mutual reaction, in this advance of step by step and stage by stage, lies both the difficulty and the grandeur of the project.

Singer describes the messy, complex, difficult, uneven and halting--but nonetheless hopeful--process that has opened up in the last several years. It is the only way forward; there is still a world to be won.