Roderic Day
Editing: Alice Malone, Nia Frome

Communist Self-Confidence (2023)

95 minutes | English | The Crew

Everyone is anti-capitalist now! Good. Questions remain, though: What exactly is capitalism? And what are communists planning to do about it?


1. The “classic” definition of capitalism

It is the destiny of abstract categories to come to mean different things.
 — Domenico Losurdo, 2004. [1]

Capitalism is often defined as “the private ownership of the means of production.” Is this a good definition? It seems to have attained something akin to official status, but let us examine how it fares in the present.

Today even those who suffer the most privation find the definition suspicious and confusing, and it reliably brings about conversations about whether a toothbrush or a laptop counts as “private” or “personal” property. The answer to that question is essentially besides the point — if such a conversation is being had at all, capitalists have won the day: it’s capitalism’s equivalent of peasants discussing whether tomatoes are fruits or vegetables while the lord seizes the lion’s share of their produce. Nevertheless, these scholastic disputes cast doubt on socialist theory’s ability to speak meaningfully about our world.

Meanwhile, for many sworn anti-capitalists, the definition is fine. The specifics hardly matter. Capitalist and proletarian are merely the latest costumes worn by eternal rivals: rich and poor, haves and have-nots, oppressors and oppressed — antagonists locked in struggle since the dawn of humanity. Despite the bravado, this smug dereliction of the duty to theoretical precision has not produced practical results.

If we want to improve this state of affairs — vying for correctness but also meeting people where they’re at — we need to understand what worked about the definition, and what has changed.

“Private ownership of the means of production” featured prominently in the 1891 Erfurt Program. It constitutes a kind of condensed (and posthumous) summary of Marx’s lengthy and thorough description of capitalism in works such as Capital[2] It became pretty popular. What’s most important here, in my view, is not whether we can really attribute this view to Marx, but rather that both the writings and the summary came about at a time when capitalism was still new. Throughout the 1800s people could readily observe how gentlemen with unremarkable surnames were starting up factories, how aristocratic families that had wielded power for hundreds of years were losing their grip on it, how common lands were being enclosed, [3] and how serfs were being herded like animals into manufactories and workhouses. The relationship between serf and lord wasn’t a distant cultural memory, it was a real observable fact of life, and it could be readily held up for comparison against the relationship between the capitalist and the proletarian. Additionally, markets (and money and salaries) were known to have existed as far back as ancient times. It was generally understood that the interesting phenomenon wasn’t the mere existence of markets, but the advent of their total supremacy.

Let’s have a closer look, then, at this transition from feudalism to capitalism.

Both feudalism and capitalism involve widespread suffering and oppression, but this does not make them identical. The feudal lord had the duty to protect the land tilled by his serfs (hence, for example, the British head of state long being known as the “Lord Protector”), whereas the capitalist has no duty whatsoever to workers other than fulfilling the contract and paying wages. The serf was bound to their lord, whereas the proletarian is at liberty to choose their master. The term “private property,” when brought up in a context where “common” feudal property was still dominant, immediately conveyed the character of social change through implicit juxtaposition. The proletarian and capitalist really were more free than the lord and serf before them. Social mores centered around the link between master and slave (a thick, involved, and even ritualistic relationship) had given way to a more minimal and flexible feudal link between lord and serf (through the land), and this in turn was giving way again to absolute minimalism: one single periodic transaction (a wage) between formally independent persons.

Though some things were changing, others weren’t: one set of people owned property, and the other did not. We may consider here an analogy: a dozen women bound to one man in a harem are released from bondage, but remain disenfranchised — they’re freed from shackles binding them to one particular tyrant, but only to be thrust into circumstances where all women are (as a class) compelled to sell themselves to all men (as a class), piecemeal and “voluntarily.” This is how the sellers of labour-power stand before their buyers. Is this the disappearance of tyranny? No. Old tyranny gave way to generalized and interchangeable tyranny, one day (or evening) at a time. The capitalist workplace wasn’t (and isn’t) democratic or free — it’s characterized by private despotism. The advent of capitalism, then, is a two-sided historical development: a kind of progress, a partial and incomplete emancipation that brought with it also novel forms of misery.

Another essential development is that the concept of hereditary privileges of rank fell in importance. Social mobility between strata increased, and there was a change in the relative size of each stratum: a larger amount of people were able to see themselves as individuals than ever before — a privilege hitherto afforded only to a handful of aristocrats. However, this increase in individualism came hand-in-hand with an increase in collectivism, as members of previously isolated villages came to identify themselves with whole nations and beyond. [4]

All of the above is merely a rewording of ideas that we encounter in the Communist Manifesto:

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors,” and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment.” It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation. [5]

With “private” opposed to common, “ownership” opposed to tenure, and “production” opposed to cultivation, “private ownership of the means of production” was powerfully loaded with immediate and poignant meaning.

That said, Marxists emphasized at all times one curious thing, out of a commitment to truth: it’s not all bad. If, like anarchists often imply, every step humanity has taken towards modernity has meant a further departure from perfect, unspoiled nature, then the fact that capitalism won is rendered inexplicable, and, moreover, we should be attempting to travel backwards through feudalism and slavery into bare subsistence in search of salvation. Putting aside the dubious mass appeal of such a proposition, such a strategy, were it even feasible, faces the problem that it would merely put us back in a position where a tyrant could begin the cycle anew! Any past arrangement is an arrangement from which, by definition, we can reach our present predicament. Therefore, in explicit rejection of backward-looking naturalist nihilism, Marxists developed and leaned into forward-looking historical materialism[6] In Marxism — its detractors are not wrong to accuse it of presupposing this — history marches forward, and whatever happened must be accounted for, with or without an accompanying denunciation. Because they operated under this paradigm, Marx and Engels had no problem whatsoever giving capitalism its due in the Manifesto:

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? [7]

Marx formulates his rejection of anarchist declamations against money and gushing liberal praise in its favour particularly elegantly in 1859:

It is therefore as absurd to regard buyer and seller, these bourgeois economic types, as eternal social forms of human individuality, as it is preposterous to weep over them as signifying the abolition of individuality. [8]

Marx and Engels’s analysis resonated because it most successfully explained what people were witnessing: a transition from the countryside to the town, an incessant celebration of unprecedented political freedoms coupled with equally unprecedented inhumane suffering. Their work exemplifies Hegel’s famous dictum that “the owl of Minerva flies at dusk”: true wisdom comes from experience, it’s not some genius invention out of the blue. What before them had seemed like a bustling cacophony of providence, corruption, accidents, and technological explosion was made reasonable and intelligible by their theory. Dialectical materialism’s account of history was both parsimonious and clear, and it gave history a rhythm and an orientation.

As soon as human history was understood not as a mystical, eternal, pessimistic “cycle” [9] but rather as an evolving arc, the question of a “next” stage — a better stage — inevitably arose. The mere act of properly grasping the definition of capitalism as “the private ownership of the means of production” immediately and irrevocably presented it as a conceptually obsolete arrangement that needed to be practically overcome (just as feudalism had been), and flipping some terms (“public ownership”?) already hinted at what this solution might look like. This is why it has been historically considered sufficient for Marx and Engels to have laid out capitalism’s hidden logic in order for them to widely receive credit as the forefathers of socialism — this despite the term “socialism” predating them, and despite their writing dealing comparatively little with the specifics of how to implement such a society.

Shulamith Firestone, a Canadian-American feminist writing in 1970, described their historical achievement thus:

Socialist thinkers prior to Marx and Engels, such as Fourier, Owen, and Bebel, had been able to do no more than moralize about existing social inequalities, positing an ideal world where class privilege and exploitation should not exist — in the same way that early feminist thinkers posited a world where male privilege and exploitation ought not exist — by mere virtue of good will. In both cases, because the early thinkers did not really understand how the social injustice had evolved, maintained itself, or could be eliminated, their ideas existed in a cultural vacuum, utopian. Marx and Engels, on the other hand, attempted a scientific approach to history. [10]

A similar opinion was expressed by Fidel Castro in 1986:

When I first got hold of The Communist Manifesto, I found an explanation, and, in the midst of that forest of events, where it was very difficult to understand phenomena and where everything seemed due to the wickedness of men — their defects, perversity and immorality — I started to identify other factors that weren’t dependent on man, his morals and his individual attitude. [11]

And the same opinion was expressed by Xi Jinping in 2018:

Marxism is chiefly composed of three parts: philosophy, political economy, and scientific socialism. Taken separately, these parts originate from German classical philosophy, British classical political economy, and French utopian socialism. However, the fundamental reason these ultimately sublimated into Marxism was due to Marx’s penetrating observations of the world and age in which he lived, and his profound ken of the patterns underlying the development of human society. […] Marxism is a people-oriented theory; it was the first system of thought to be founded so that people may achieve self-emancipation. Marxism, though wide-ranging and profound, can be summed up in a sentence: the pursuit of the emancipation of humankind. [12]

Persuading people to see things this way in the West in 2023, however, remains a challenge.

One obstacle is that capitalist societies and capitalist relations of production are no longer a novelty, they’re dominant, and there’s scarcely any major institution against which they can be readily contrasted. In other words: there’s no reference point. Wages, once a bizarre and alien thing to most humans — because most humans were tributing peasants or slaves — have been naturalized. Wherever wages didn’t predominate, capitalist ideologues reinvent our past and simply claim all ancient practices were like wages: proto-wages, etc. In fact, not only have wages become normalized, but even bizarre inventions like insurance and mortgages and index funds encroach in our daily imagination and become absolutely essential concepts that any respectable citizen must master — the most respectable citizens think of nothing but such things. A kind of secular religiosity then arises and prevails: liberals are believers in capitalism, and they praise the pursuit of profit as the beneficent source of all that is good and holy and free in human history, whereas radicals are apostates who excoriate money as the source of all evil, polluting and corrupting otherwise honest human souls, and express despair at the supposed inescapability of our predicament.

Still, this would all seem like not much of a hurdle. Surely everyone can understand that it’s silly to pretend, without justification and against the observable finitude of all other observable phenomena, that capitalism can be eternal? Surely interested parties can be asked to calm down somewhat, to slow down, and to begin contemplating the possibility of a better world?

The fact that Westerners by and large have reacted with hostility to such a proposition suggests that there is a more real and durable obstacle standing in our way. Such a state of affairs cannot boil down to miscommunication, or to “brainwashing.” Marxism rejects the thesis that society has been historically shaped by mass hypnosis — religious, mediatic, or otherwise. [13] There must therefore be a material source for all of this confusion.

2. Confounding the “classic” definition

Between the darkness and the dawn
There rises a red star.
 — Langston Hughes, 1938. [14]

The particular arc traced by the history of our world introduces one major difficulty that Marx and Engels did not have to contend with: the advent of the welfare state. Our usage of the term here will refer both to its maximalist manifestation in places like Europe and Canada, and the more meager version that arose in the United States in connection with Roosevelt’s “New Deal.”

There’s a great phrase, usually attributed to English writer Samuel Johnson, that I find very useful: “The fact of twilight does not mean that we do not speak of night and day.” This phrase expresses the fact that a transition between two states (twilight), does not in itself negate the existence of either state (night, day) — neither conceptually nor in actual fact. It is impossible to meaningfully discuss most transitions, such as that between ice and vapour, without understanding the possibility of admixture — and possibly more than one kind of admixture! Trying to understand socialism and capitalism is no exception, but this must be approached carefully.

Let us venture some preliminary definitions based on our previous inquiry: Capitalism is an evolved kind of serfdom where workers, lacking alternatives, feel privileged if they get to take home a wage, a wage that by the very definition of profit is a mere fraction of the value of the labour they gave away to their employer. Capitalist talk of “job creation” is akin to feudal talk of “lord protection”: the worker is ignorant or impotent before the reality that, regardless of any meager work put towards job creation or land protection, in actual fact it is the master who really lives off of the slave, and not the slave off of the master. However, in contrast to slaves bound to masters or serfs bound to lords, workers have some flexibility on which capitalist they work for: they get to choose who they engage with in “the free market.” That said, this minor difference masks a major continuity: capitalists as a class still relate to workers as a class in the same old parasitic way. Proletarians don’t own property, so if they refuse to sell themselves to some capitalist (or if they try and prove unable to), they starve. This bargaining situation is asymmetric: the archetypal capitalist is under no equivalent compulsion to purchase labour, and will refuse to purchase labour in order to discipline unruly workers whenever necessary. (Notice that here we are not bringing up any of the legal and extralegal tools available to capitalists, nor are we talking of thuggery or “corruption”: we’re dealing with “the best possible version of capitalism, its ideal, in which all trades are fair.”) [15]

Of socialism, we’ll leave it open-ended and say only this: faced with the logical impossiblity of everyone becoming a propertied capitalist (who would do the work?), the aforementioned propertied rule must be overcome through the empowerment of the property-less.

Is the welfare state, then, insofar as it improved the living conditions of the property-less and therefore their bargaining power, a transition state between capitalism and socialism? In a word: No. But reality is more complicated than this curt answer implies.

Let’s travel back in history to the founding of the first socialist state in human history: the Soviet Union. What did the world look like in 1917? Here are a few refreshers:

  • There was no such thing as a “welfare state”;
  • the 1948 “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” was at least another world war away;
  • the working poor were a visibly miserable majority everywhere in the “developed world”;
  • Americans were lynching Black people, who were treated as sub-citizens;
  • Britain and France held a tight grip over their sizeable colonial possessions;
  • massive countries like China and India and Vietnam were fully colonized or semi-colonized;
  • women barely had any rights anywhere.

The state of affairs of the increasingly “global” and “free” capitalist world could perhaps be summed up by pictures depicting kidnapped Filipinos being presented as zoo animals at Coney Island’s “Dreamland” in 1906 New York. [16] This occurred about 40 years after the supposedly sin-cleansing Civil War formally abolished slavery in the American South and allegedly set the United States on the path of moral righteousness.

In reality, far from receding, the still-racist consolidated capitalist empire was just revving up: the American acquisition of the Philippines (as well as Cuba and Puerto Rico) was the outcome of a 1898 war the U.S. orchestrated against Spain under the false pretense of “liberating oppressed peoples.” None other than Mark Twain expressed his own evolving perception of where this “free world” was headed:

I wanted the American eagle to go screaming into the Pacific […]. Why not spread its wings over the Philippines, I asked myself? […] But I have thought some more, since then, and I have read carefully the treaty of Paris (which ended the Spanish–American War), and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem. [17]

The rise of the Soviet Union at the end of the first “World War” bucked this trajectory. This point is non-negotiable. Champions of national liberation struggles around the world like Sun Yat-sen in China explicitly cited the cannonblast of the October Revolution as the event that emboldened them in their struggle. This is how Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh recalled his time in France:

Formerly, during the meetings of the Party branch, I only listened to the discussion; I had a vague belief that all were logical, and could not differentiate as to who were right and who were wrong. But [after reading Lenin’s “Theses on the National and Colonial Questions”], I also plunged into the debates and discussed with fervour. Though I was still lacking French words to express all my thoughts, I smashed the allegations attacking Lenin and the Third International with no less vigour. My only argument was: “If you do not condemn colonialism, if you do not side with the colonial people, what kind of revolution are you waging?” [18]

Throughout the years of the Soviet Union’s existence, ruling capitalists around the world, terrified by their inability to bury the successes of communist workers with propaganda, were coerced into making a series of “concessions” to their own domestic workers as a matter of sheer survival. We can illustrate the historical fact of this “action and reaction” with representative examples drawn from Alice Malone’s research. [19]

In 1952, U.S. Attorney General James P. McGranery made clear the great extent to which school desegregation was meant to ward off propaganda coming from the Eastern Bloc:

Racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills, and it raises doubts even among friendly nations as to the intensity of our devotion to the democratic faith.

In 1979, Nobel Prize-winner Friedrich Hayek, one of capitalism’s fiercest and most celebrated ideologues, denounced human rights as follows:

[The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights] is admittedly an attempt to fuse the rights of the Western liberal tradition with the altogether different concept deriving from the Marxist Russian Revolution. […] The conception of a “universal right” which assures to the peasant, to the Eskimo, and presumably to the Abominable Snowman, “periodic holidays with pay” shows the absurdity of the whole thing.

In 1992, another Nobelist, Steven Weinberg, explained the context surrounding the scrapping of the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) in Texas due to the end of the “Cold War”:

Spending for the SSC had become a target for a new class of congressmen elected in 1992. They were eager to show that they could cut what they saw as Texas pork, and they didn’t feel that much was at stake. The cold war was over, and discoveries at the SSC were not going to produce anything of immediate practical importance.

The existence of the Soviet Union forced capitalists to attenuate their tyranny. Many had to be dragged by their peers into cooperating — for example, Democratic Senator Burton K. Wheeler denounced liberal-capitalist President Roosevelt as “totalitarian” and “a dictator” back in 1941. [20] Capitalists were essentially forcing each other to pay for imitations of many socialist policies. Whatever workers in the East decided to do for its own sake, because they felt like it, workers in the West received in the form of a bribe, and were told to be grateful for it. Policies that in socialism were the raison d’etre of the State, such as providing universal access to education or healthcare or transportation, appeared in capitalism transmogrified as “necessary evils” — alien citizens temporarily naturalized for the sake of staving off revolution, derided with barely-restrained contempt as “handouts.”

Here we begin to see clearly the solution to the hitherto confusing question of whether welfare policies in the West count as socialist or capitalist: they’re capitalist copies of socialist policies. To say that Western welfare policies are capitalist in origin is to misunderstand how they came into being; to say they’re socialist in execution is to settle for the capitalist-controlled imitation of the real thing.

This “survival” thesis leads to another important truth: it’s far too simplistic and premature to describe the West’s victory over the Soviet Union as “capitalism triumphing over socialism.” Putting aside existing socialist states — if the West was forced to a great extent to socialize in order to squeak by, can we really say capitalism defeated socialism? One of the most notorious philosophers of reaction, Friedrich Nietzsche, wrote the following: “He who fights with monsters should see to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” Of course, for Nietzsche, “monsters” and “the abyss” referred to the working masses and the poor, for he believed that “the misery of toiling men must still increase in order to make the production of the world of art possible to a small number of Olympian men” and that “if you want slaves, then it is stupid to train them to be masters.” Now, what is this philosopher really saying about the great ongoing struggle between socialism and capitalism? If the only way that “Olympian” capitalists could defeat socialism was by betraying their own principles and becoming “monsters” (preaching peace, giving the poor healthcare, children breakfast, etc.), then it’s far from clear that they won the war. [21]

The validity of Nietzsche’s concern is demonstrable. Consider how American Vice-President John C. Calhoun, himself a slave-owner, expressed himself in his 1837 address “Slavery as a Positive Good”:

I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other. […] There is and always has been, in an advanced stage of wealth and civilization, a conflict between labor and capital. [22]

This is a clear and remorseless defense of capitalism. In fact, it’s more than that: it not only defends capitalism as a novelty, but in fact defends class society — “one portion of the community [living] on the labor of the other” — as a human inevitability, and American chattel slavery along with it. [23]

About 100 years later Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union, would denounce that same capitalist ethos in the following terms:

Among the capitalists, the most desirable thing, deserving of public approval, is to be a bondholder, to live on interest, not to have to work, which is regarded as a contemptible occupation. Here, in the U.S.S.R., on the contrary, what is becoming the most desirable thing, deserving of public approval, is the possibility of being a hero of labour, the possibility of being a hero in shock-brigade work, surrounded with an aureole of esteem among millions of working people. [24]

It’s important to understand the context: German fascists were openly announcing that they considered slavery to be essential for civilizational flourishing. They justified their eager “master race” pursuit of populations to enslave in Eastern Europe by pointing out that this was the way that classical empires (Rome), colonial empires (England), and settler empires (America) had achieved their glory. Unfortunately for them, the worker-nation of the Soviet Union, under the leadership of Stalin, would go on to astonish the world and shatter these prejudices by crushing the “undefeatable” Nazi menace and its Reich-building attempt to enslave all of Eastern Europe. As if that wasn’t enough, the Chinese peasantry under the leadership of Mao Zedong and the Communist Party of China would do the same against Imperial Japan.

Now let’s leap another 100 years into the future — into our present, shaped by those victories. In 2023, multi-billionaire Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz defended himself in front of a U.S. Senate hearing with the following argument:

I came from nothing. […] Yes, I have billions of dollars — I earned it. No one gave it to me. And I’ve shared it constantly with the people of Starbucks. [25]

Schultz is obviously lying here, but that’s not the point. Capitalists claiming that they “worked for their billions” and that they “pay their fair share” must be seen in historical context in order to understand the significance of the fact that they’re making such a plea to begin with. This is not a firmly-moored, unapologetic ruling class handing down edicts from Mount Olympus. Even as their capital holdings soar to dimensions never before seen in human history, their rhetoric reveals that they know that capitalism’s ideological grip is precarious. They know that the only reason they’re tolerated is because we all pretend that they are, on some level, workers like the rest of us. They still feel the need to pander to our values and ideals. This is meaningful.

Sadly for socialists, twilight encroaches on daylight as much as it pierces night. A combination of neo-colonial looting, the aforementioned welfare policies, and a bit of clever rhetoric has given capitalism truly extraordinary resilience. [26] By granting concessions, capitalists in the West avoided ever being dethroned, and their liberal ideologues then proceeded to persuade workers in the West (and the world) that “retiring early” and “living off of passive income” (becoming a landlord, or a shareholder) are in fact viable and honourable dreams within the reach of everyone. Now that “everyone” can throw their savings into an investment account and become a little bit of a capitalist, Stalin’s plea to lionize and empower workers arouses pity, fear, or scorn.

Countless people hailing from all over the world have now been able to taste what it feels like to belong to a leisurely aristocracy that can drown itself in novelties while barely lifting a finger, and this arrangement is set up in such a way that suburbanites don’t even have to burden themselves with learning the names of the slaves servicing such a lifestyle! The “American Dream” has extremely wide appeal, and not only among Germans of the 1930s. It’s a mistake to underestimate it. Liberalism gets credit for policies fought for by workers in the same way that business owners get credit for the products made by workers, leaving workers (on whom everyone depends) with the same social standing as beggars. As a result, workers begin to attempt to rid themselves of this pitiful condition as soon as possible. The fact that many today offer up “anti-work” as a pro-worker slogan is a stark index of how far we’ve strayed from Marx’s conceptualization of labour as “not only a means of life, but life’s prime want.” [27]

In short: we live in a world of twilight between capitalism and socialism. If it’s hard for communists today to convince workers to champion socialism, it’s partly because nobody outside of a few repulsive libertarians is courageous (or foolish) enough to openly defend the essence of capitalism — exploitation. It’s because, thanks overwhelmingly to Eastern socialists, working people in the West were able to attain a very good standard of living, and as a result these workers have been generally more afraid of rocking the boat and losing what they have, than in fighting for more of it.

The “honeymoon” decades of fear-driven welfare transfers ended in the ’80s, and since then we’ve regressed a great deal towards untrammeled capitalism. There’s really no need for adjective-laden distortions like “crony capitalism” or “neoliberal capitalism” or “neofeudal capitalism” — we’re simply going back to capitalism. This is tragic, but the return of the triumphalist capitalist and the miserable working poor cannot but manifest a stubborn dialectic: the more capitalist society eradicates the traces of its defensive imitation of socialism, the more Marx’s (and Stalin’s) communist specter returns to haunt it.

Simply waiting around until things get really miserable, however, obviously isn’t a serious option. So, how can we take the initiative here? Insisting on defining capitalism around the denunciation of “private ownership” — for example, through the “classic” definition, or by calling it “a system of paying wages for labour” and asserting that socialism is “the abolition of wage-labour” — may at first appear like a principled and fierce commitment to fully breaking with the status quo. In reality, however, it immediately lands every socialist in the awkward position of having to unconvincingly explain the suspicious historical fact that no socialist country has successfully eliminated the practice of wages and worker alienation, or even the worst forms of toil. These socialists, while rhetorically claiming that they will never give up on socialism, in practice give up on it thoroughly.

To be clear: This isn’t just a tactical or strategic or branding problem, it directly contradicts the Marxist principle that communists express reality, not impose their ideals upon it:

The theoretical conclusions of the Communists are in no way based on ideas or principles that have been invented, or discovered, by this or that would-be universal reformer. They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes. [28]

The result of lack of clarity and widespread confusion is that the “Communist” movement in the West is reduced to a tug of war between self-righteous and marginal advocates of “pure” socialism, and theory-shy opportunists that justify just about anything in terms of the promise of a glorious but uncertain future. These camps are both unappealing. Is it any wonder that so few people call themselves Communists?

3. A modern definition of capitalism

In capitalist society, spare time is acquired for one class by converting the whole life-time of the masses into labor time.
 — Karl Marx, 1867. [29]

Let us consider an alternative definition of capitalism, and explore some of its merits. In private correspondence with Nia Frome, she once casually offered the following: “Capitalism is the cult of dead labour.” Fun.

The immediate objections are obvious, though. It’s an esoteric phrase, the imagery is Lovecraftian, and it’s hard to imagine it proliferating outside of the internet. Nevertheless, it really struck a chord with me. It seemed to encapsulate how I first summarized a key Marxist insight (to myself) when I began my studies years before:

Feudal lords were the masters of feudalism. Capitalists, however, aren’t the masters of capitalism. They are merely the high priests of capitalism. The master of capitalism is Capital itself. [30]

“Dead labour” is an intuitive metaphor with a long history:

Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the labourer works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has purchased of him. [31]

The real novelty here, therefore, lies in the use of the term “cult.” The cult needs a constant inflow of tribute, sacrifices. Cultists as described by Lovecraft are both insane and right insofar as the objects of their adoration do exist; likewise, capitalist competition is real, and the monstrous behavior it incentivizes does obey a certain rationality. Cultists believe that they have a privileged relationship to their god, and they do: CEOs remake themselves into avatars of capital, desensitizing themselves to everything but value’s self-valorization. The cultists may do right or wrong, but their beloved transcends such things. [32]

Nia’s definition, compared to the classical one, places a bigger focus on who the capitalist is as a human individual. It emphasizes the particularities of capitalism without implicit reference to older modes of production. This is useful because we in the West are so far removed from feudalism that a comparison to it (let alone an implicit comparison) no longer carries much weight — modern workers are more likely to imagine themselves as royals in regency dramas than to sympathize with serfs. On the other hand, today we are absolutely awash with media romanticizing capitalists, and with propaganda exhorting regular workers to try their best to emulate them (“10 Habits of Highly Successful People”, etc.). Even supposedly harsh critiques of capitalism tend to present the figure of the evil billionaire as a genius mastermind. It’s a portrayal that, despite the negativity, gives them immense credit, and therefore it’s no surprise that the likes of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are perfectly happy to lean into it. [33]

Introducing the metaphor of the “cult” expresses a fundamentally different understanding. At its most innocent, a cult is a kind of community that respects a hierarchy and systematically follows a set of beliefs and procedures. At its most sinister, it’s servile and unquestioning worship of a false deity — an elaborate farce. By arguing that capitalists are servile cultists or priests we can concede the objective fact that they are entrenched and powerful but without ceding to something else that they very eagerly lay claim to: the halo of brilliance, of creativity. In fact, we can insist on the exact opposite: that they are a fundamentally cowardly class of people whose power derives principally from their obedience to a “higher power” — from efficiently doing what the market wants them to do. In this model their distinguishing virtue isn’t genius (after all, there are many impoverished geniuses), but rather their unscrupulousness, their ruthlessness — their willingness to swindle others, to callously ignore suffering, to look out only for themselves, and to sand off any regulatory obstacles and rapidly pivot towards any new opportunities for exploitation.

The idea is to understand and not underestimate their power, but without granting them adulation. Additionally, and more importantly, we want to clearly convey why it’s such a massive problem to put such single-minded enthusiasts of human sacrifice in charge of society.

Is this characterization justified? Also, if capitalists aren’t really in control of the cult, then who is? Well, the idea that capitalists are far from all-powerful and in fact submissive to capital itself is certainly present in Marx and Engels:

  • Estrangement appears not only in the fact that the means of my life belong to another and that my desire is the inaccessible possession of another, but also in the fact that all things are other than themselves, that my activity is other than itself, and that finally — and this goes for the capitalists too — an inhuman power rules over everything. (Marx, 1844)
  • The “New Era,” in which genius rules, is thus distinguished from the old era principally by the fact that the whip imagines it possesses genius. (Engels, 1850)
  • It is not individuals who are set free by free competition; it is, rather, capital which is set free. (Marx, 1858)
  • Free competition brings out the inherent laws of capitalist production, in the shape of external coercive laws having power over every individual capitalist. (Marx, Capital, 1867)
  • If mankind, by dint of science and its inventive genius, has bent the forces of nature to its will, the latter avenge themselves by subjecting humanity, insofar as it employs them, to a true despotism independent of all social organisation. (Engels, 1872)

We also see this understanding expressed by great revolutionary leaders of the 20th century:

  • The capitalists divide the world, not out of any particular malice, but because the degree of concentration which has been reached forces them to adopt this method in order to obtain profits. (Lenin, Imperialism, 1916)
  • Would you say capitalism, with its blind laws, its selfishness as fundamental principle, has given us something to emulate? Man should have the possibility to chart his own course, to plan his own life, to employ human resources and natural resources rationally, instead of this mad race that has led us nowhere, and will lead us nowhere. (Castro, 1991)

And we also see it in theorists from both the East and West today:

  • In America, capital — the interests of capital and capital itself — has risen above the American nation. The political authority cannot check the power of capital. (Li, 2016)
  • We are trapped in a giant collective action problem generating machine, a machine that we have inadvertently created and from which it will be extremely difficult to extricate ourselves. (Roberts, 2016)

Christian Thorne’s account of the philosophical origins of Marx’s critique of capitalism in 1830s Germany is particularly to-the-point:

Anyone can tell you that their job sucks or that most people are unhappy at work. When Marx first writes about the economy, he immediately makes claims quite a bit more extravagant than these. Chief among them is the idea that in capitalist societies, people relate to capital in the same distorted way that church-goers relate to God. There are three related claims that a radical critic of monotheism might make in this regard:

  1. Humans invented God (and HaShem and the Almighty). God has always been a human creation.
  2. Having invented God, humans then assigned to Him their own powers of creation. […]
  3. Having projected thought onto a non-human and invented entity, humans then subordinate themselves to it. Endowing their own creation with a specious authority, they take themselves to be lesser than it.

Such is the core of the Hegelian account of alienation. What we’ll want to see now is that all three of these points carry over to Marx’s critique of capitalism.

  1. People make capital. Everything that counts as capital is a human creation. […]
  2. Having created capital, people then assign to it the powers of creation. […]
  3. Once the creative powers of work get misassigned to capital, actual workers are made subordinate to it. A created thing that lacks the powers to create is taken to be the all-creative thing and so allowed to lord it over the real creators. [34]

We could go on. This surfeit of examples merely serves to illustrate that it is indeed the case that Marxists insist on the emergent nature of an impersonal kind of domination, especially against the incredibly powerful temptation to settle for simplistic narratives that damn the moral failures of capitalists and romanticize the goodness of those exploited by them.

Let us recall, however, that Marxists do not believe in “brainwashing.” This situation is not a matter of mere opinion. In 1845, starting with The German Ideology, Marx and Engels reject the thesis of “mass delusion,” and set out to understand the predicament of class society in terms of a fully materialist understanding of nature, and of the way humans interact with it:

The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. [35]

They find that it’s the level of technological development that leads to commodity production, not any kind of ideological contamination or contagion. Real circumstances, not behind-the-scenes intrigue, are what leads money to overcome land as the primary source of social power. It’s human development itself that unleashes — for better and worse — boundless and explosive economic competition:

The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist. [36]

In antiquity over-work becomes horrible only when the object is to obtain exchange-value in its specific independent money-form […] but as soon as people […] are drawn into the whirlpool of an international market dominated by the capitalistic mode of production […] the civilised horrors of over-work are grafted on the barbaric horrors of slavery, serfdom, etc. [37]

Capitalism makes its appearance only as a result of widely developed commodity circulation. […] Capitalism is that stage in the development of commodity-production in which labour-power, too, becomes a commodity. [38] [39]

With this materialist perspective in hand, we can revisit the metaphor of “dead labour,” and see why it’s not just a spooky turn of phrase.

Consider the following phenomenon: During times of economic turmoil, speculators will get into heated arguments over the question of whether it’s wiser to have investments in assets valued in “fiat money” terms, or in commodities such as gold. From a strictly financial point-of-view it’s a fairly interesting question: liberals tend to vouch for the sophistication of financial instruments and their robust institutional backing, whereas conservatives insist that real tangible mineral assets are the only thing one can trust in volatile times. What’s missing from this picture? From the perspective of Marxism we’re not really dealing with two radically different asset classes, but in fact merely comparing two kinds of dead labour. The discussion could be seen this way: Liberals insist that investing in profitable corporations or government debt treasuries is the closest possible thing to investing in society itself; conservatives, meanwhile, skeptical of the present and of society, look for a safe haven from it all. The loud bickering of these privileged investors precludes the raising of an obvious question: if one is trying to find an asset class that won’t devalue, if one is trying to minimize losses by distributing stakes across different economic verticals, then why are we limiting ourselves to private investments? Nothing would guarantee better “returns on investment” than actually investing in society itself, certainly not excluding public schools and transportation, and having society take care of one in return! Everyone, including the tight-fisted tyrants of our present day, would be better served by a thriving society where every child is given every possibility to reach their full potential. But such a thing requires recognizing oneself in another; it requires trust.

Terrified of putting their fate in the hands of “the rabble,” both the liberal and the conservative prefer the despotic safety promised by property ownership. They prefer being able to bark orders from a position of contractual authority than having to coordinate and discuss and negotiate democratically, just as they prefer to hire expensive armies of brutal cops than to tackle the source of crime by alleviating poverty. Or, to put it in the context of our metaphor: they prefer zombie-like dead labour — profit, interest, and rent — to the unpredictability of living labour in all of its infinitely varied and complex manifestations.

The advent of pitiless capitalist competition leads humans to see in other humans not the key to solving large-scale social problems, but merely threats to their petty hoarding. The tool of money, which served an extraordinary historical role in incentivizing an explosion of productive human activity and allowed for hitherto impossible coordination, came to dominate its creators.

Is our task, then, to drag society back to the golden era of “competitive entrepreneurial capitalism”? No, that would be like trying to create the conditions for feudal warlords to take over again. We already know our past leads to our present. Can we simply decree the abolition of money, then? According to Marx, no:

The simple commodity form is therefore the germ of the money form. […] Circulation sweats money from every pore. [40]

In case this sounds somewhat cryptic, here’s a paraphrase:

It would be stupid to do away with money without doing away with commodity circulation, since money would inevitably come back. [41]

What is to be done, then? Rather than pull backwards from the tendencies that have partially and half-heartedly manifested with capitalism — social integration, technological development, material abundance — socialism pushes forward and actually delivers on capitalism’s phony promises. It was not only Deng Xiaoping, [42] but also Marx and Engels, who argued that “liberation is a historical and not a mental act” [43] and that “necessity calls for the liberation of the productive forces by means of a change in the mode of production.” [44] More precisely:

Freedom does not consist in any dreamt-of independence from natural laws, but in the knowledge of these laws, and in the possibility this gives of systematically making them work towards definite ends. [45]

Scottish author Iain M. Banks expresses this sentiment with a brilliant metaphor:

The market, for all its (profoundly inelegant) complexities, remains a crude and essentially blind system […]. Intelligence, which is capable of looking farther ahead than the next aggressive mutation, can set up long-term aims and work towards them; the same amount of raw invention that bursts in all directions from the market can be — to some degree — channelled and directed, so that while the market merely shines (and the feudal gutters), the planned lases, reaching out coherently and efficiently towards agreed-on goals. [46]

Very well! But how do we get there?

“Private ownership of the means of production” invited us to envision a socialist society based on the “public ownership of the means of production.” Does “the cult of dead labour” possess a similar virtue?

4. Implications of a modern definition

Is it possible, then, to doubt that we can and must gain victory over the German invaders? The enemy is not as strong as some terror-stricken pseudo-intellectuals picture him. The devil is not as terrible as he is painted.
 — J. V. Stalin, 1941. [47]

We’ve read about the single-minded and even mindless behaviour of capitalists. Should one rush ahead and declare that they’re nothing but useless, worthless, talentless parasites? One can, of course, but it’s not clear whether such fulmination would do anyone any good. If they’re pathetic, and yet they rule over us, then what does that say about us?

If we think back to the transition from feudalism to capitalism, a related question comes to mind: Why did it take until the advent of capitalism for landholding kings and aristocrats to be toppled? Why didn’t it happen sooner? Why did so many righteous peasant wars end in political failure or tepid reforms? The peasants were suffering terribly; it’s unquestionable that they weren’t lacking for motivation, or zeal. How did capitalism achieve here something unprecedented in human history?

The question can be asked in a different way. Particularly when it comes to the genocidal and enslaving American Empire, one should grapple with (and not shamefacedly try to bury) the fact that radical figures as varied as Marx, Engels, Frederick Douglass, and Fidel Castro all, at various times, praised the United States for its role in the world’s struggle for freedom. What did these socialist figures continue to find praiseworthy about this capitalist superpower, even after its criminality was made abundantly clear?

Joseph Stalin, in Foundations of Leninism (1924), writes lines that many today might find puzzling, if not downright scandalous:

Russian revolutionary sweep is an antidote to inertia, routine, conservationism, mental stagnation and slavish submission to ancient traditions. Russian revolutionary sweep is the life-giving force which stimulates thought, impels things forward, breaks the past and opens up perspectives. Without it no progress is possible. […]

American efficiency, on the other hand, is an antidote to “revolutionary” Manilovism and fantastic scheme concocting. American efficiency is that indomitable force which neither knows nor recognises obstacles; which with its business-like perseverance brushes aside all obstacles; which continues at a task once started until it is finished, even if it is a minor task; and without which serious constructive work is inconceivable. […]

Leninism is the combination of Russian revolutionary sweep with American efficiency. [48]

Is Stalin justified in imputing such views to Lenin? Yes. Consider Lenin’s plea to workers in 1921:

Get down to business, all of you! You will have capitalists beside you, including foreign capitalists, concessionaires and leaseholders. They will squeeze profits out of you amounting to hundreds per cent; they will enrich themselves, operating alongside of you. Let them. Meanwhile you will learn from them the business of running the economy, and only when you do that will you be able to build up a communist republic. Since we must necessarily learn quickly, any slackness in this respect is a serious crime. And we must undergo this training, this severe, stern and sometimes even cruel training, because we have no other way out. [49]

One could be tempted to write this off as a quirk of the Soviets, but then one would also have to reckon with Mao Zedong:

State-owned and co-operative economy should be developed, but the main economic sector in the rural base areas today consists not of state but of private enterprises, and the sector of non-monopoly capitalism in our economy should be given the opportunity to develop and be used against Japanese imperialism and the semi-feudal system. This is the most revolutionary policy for China today, and to oppose or impede its execution is undoubtedly a mistake. […] The Communist Party of China is working in a complicated environment, and every Party member and especially every cadre, must temper himself to become a fighter who understands Marxist tactics. A one-sided and over-simplified approach to problems can never lead the revolution to victory. [50]

The purist thesis that this or that real revolutionary just keeps making a clumsy mockery of Marxism, and that only enlightened Western academics truly understand it, begins to appear dubious (and more than a little bit racist). What is happening here? The truth is simple: Communists believe education and truth cannot be sacrificed at the altar of pure, righteous indignation. Indignation must be given full play, since denying the human role of emotion is folly, but not at the expense of strategy and pragmatism.

To be sure, the spirit animating all of the above revolutionaries is unquestionably present even in the earliest texts of the tradition:

Communists do not oppose egoism to selflessness or selflessness to egoism, nor do they express this contradiction theoretically either in its sentimental or in its highflown ideological form; they rather demonstrate its material source, with which it disappears of itself. The Communists do not preach morality at all.

They do not put to people the moral demand: love one another, do not be egoists, etc.; on the contrary, they are very well aware that egoism, just as much selflessness, is in definite circumstances a necessary form of the self-assertion of individuals. Hence, the Communists by no means want to do away with the “private individual” for the sake of the “general,” selfless man. That is a statement of the imagination. [51]

So, we do need to learn from capitalists. Just not in a useless and obsequious way that uncritically reproduces their self-flattery.

The answer to the mystery of the resilience of feudalism against peasant uprisings turns out to not be very complicated: It’s not hard to understand that the medieval context was so resource-poor that only a limited number of people had access to education, literacy, and especially training in military strategy. In a context where military supremacy was the primary factor driving prosperity, feudal lords, for all their flaws, were probably (not altogether wrongly) seen as essential to society’s safeguarding. Whether they did so for the sake of the peasants or for their own sake was less important than the fact that they did so — this “least bad” proposition won them supporters even among those they exploited.

This understanding addresses the question of America’s very limited progressive merit: despite their sinister motives (in genocidal Westward expansion), the Americans did display courage — a courage rooted in experience with self-management and cutting-edge technology — in declaring independence from the seemingly invincible British Empire. We might imagine one “Founding Father” telling another, cultivating the revolutionary virtue of patience: “Learn from the crown so that one day you may replace the crown, and only when you do that will you be able to build up a capitalist republic.” Whatever else we may say about America, for over two hundred years it has absolutely proved that it learned, and that it was both willing and able to take charge.

Amílcar Cabral, a West African revolutionary and student of Lenin, had these considerations in mind when he wrote a careful analysis of the class structure in Portuguese-held Guinea. The struggle he led eventually succeeded, likely due in no small part to Cabral’s remarkable balance of sympathy, insight, and expediency when addressing the question of revolutionary self-confidence:

[I]t is not the degree of suffering and hardship involved as such that matters: even extreme suffering in itself does not necessarily produce the consciousness required for the national liberation struggle. In Guinea the peasants are subjected to a kind of exploitation equivalent to slavery; but […] it is difficult to convince them by means of an inexperienced explanation of a technico-economic kind that they are the most exploited people; whereas it is easier to convince the workers and the people employed in the towns […] that they are being subjected to massive exploitation and injustice, because they can see. To take my own case as a member of the petty bourgeois group which launched the struggle in Guinea, I was an agronomist working under a European who everybody knew was one of the biggest idiots in Guinea; I could have taught him his job with my eyes shut but he was the boss: this is something which counts a lot, this is the confrontation which really matters. This is of major importance when considering where the initial idea of the struggle came from. [52]

This line of thinking is why Marxists from very early on identified divisions within the oppressed classes, and spoke about the proletariat while distancing themselves from more traditional Christian talk about the poor. It had nothing to do with providence or just deserts: factory workers were set to become an exceptionally revolutionary class because of at least three special characteristics:

  1. Their labour conditions being socialized to an unprecedented degree (because they saw their human reflection every day in the densely-packed factory floor, in those other “cogs” with whom they evidently shared a common destiny),
  2. their economic insights being sharper than ever before (because they knew for a fact that their labour power had value, because they negotiated for a wage rather than paid tribute to a “protector”), and
  3. their technical mastery (because, much to Nietzsche’s chagrin, elites were being compelled, by competition, to educate “the rabble” to basic literacy and beyond, to accomplish tasks that capitalists themselves were quite incapable of).

In short: never before had history placed the underclasses in such a position that the proletariat could lead all the other oppressed underclasses (slaves, peasants, vagabonds) to permanent victory over their masters.

Were Marx and Engels proven wrong by, for example, China’s peasant-based Communist revolution? No, for two reasons. Firstly, Marx’s famous letter to Vera Zasulich sees him contemplate just this possibility. Had the social conditions been ripe for revolution in agrarian Russia in the 1870s (instead of proletarian Russia in 1917), Marx argued, the revolutionary “fulcrum” could have had been found elsewhere:

The “historical inevitability” of [proletarian revolution] is therefore expressly restricted to the countries of Western Europe. The analysis in Capital therefore provides no reasons either for or against the vitality of the Russian commune. But the special study I have made of it, including a search for original source material, has convinced me that the commune is the fulcrum for social regeneration in Russia. [53]

As Russian urban centers industrialized, their conditions became propitious for the textbook example of “Western European”-style industrial proletarian revolution that history bore witness to. Semi-colonial China, meanwhile, closely matched the specific prediction here, socialized on a national basis in the context of an epic anti-colonial revolution waged by a peasant army. But celebrating Marx’s foresight here is secondary to the more important reason: Even without such explicit guidance, we should be smart enough to understand that Marxism is “a general theory of social conflict” [54] that aims to discover the “patterns underlying the development of human society,” [55] and not a list of ingredients or a recipe. This should always be kept in mind as we face a multiplicity of class struggles expressing themselves as conflicts of a racial, sexual, religious, or national character.

Do socialists in the West today seem like champions of labour to anyone? Let’s put aside the fraudulent gasbags pushing “Fully Automated Luxury Communism,” and focus only on those rallying under Labour Parties (and even some “Communist” Parties). Is going around yelling slogans like “Tax the Rich!” or “Make billionaires pay their fair share!” expressing a Marxist understanding of history and economics? Absolutely not. These slogans bring to mind not so much the heroic revolutionaries of yesteryear, ready to take charge of the State or else, as they do teenagers crying out for a larger allowance. They play directly into the infantilization of the working class that is the bread and butter of liberal propaganda: as wayward children in need of a sometimes generous, usually severe parent. Marching is configured not as a means to an end but as an end in itself. [56] Some of the more hardline institutions feel more like Russian Civil War reenactment societies than modern and dynamic vanguards of labour — which is to say that they seem more dead than alive.

Let us recall at this point our exploratory definition of capitalism as “the cult of dead labour.” “The cult of dead labour” worships the mummified cadavers of labour in the form of profit, interest, and rent. It builds shrines to them and clamors for their multiplication. Due to the logic of capitalist competition, capitalist “cultists” are impervious to any complaint or reason. They routinely demonstrate that they have no actual control over capital, and that they will prostrate before it even when their cowardice works to their own detriment in the long run. Capitalists being unable to put aside petty competition to organize anything resembling a united response to the climate crisis or a global pandemic is a perfect illustration of their constitutive ineptitude.

Who can break this gridlock? Labour can. With its own emancipation, it can reintroduce work for its own sake, rather than for the sake of turning a profit. Why would the working class be in a better position to make system-scale decisions than the capitalist class? Not in spite of the fact that it labours, not as a kind of after-hours commitment that poorly approximates the leisurely touch-and-go activity of the capitalist, and not because humbler men are born with nobler hearts. Rather, because the labourer labours and therefore knows the systems, because they understand the technical aspects involved in problem-solving better than anyone else, because their engagement with reality is more intimate and experiential than that of the capitalist, whose engagement with reality is out of touch and fully mediated by capital. As Malcolm X put it: “The servant knows the house better than the master does.” [57]

Moreover, capitalists are shackled to the ethos of competition. Any camaraderie with other capitalists is still essentially riven by suspicion, and it cannot be otherwise, due to the nature of private property:

The bourgeoisie finds itself involved in a constant battle. At first with the aristocracy; later on, with those portions of the bourgeoisie itself, whose interests have become antagonistic to the progress of industry; at all times, with the bourgeoisie of foreign countries. [58]

Labourers, on the other hand, live and breathe the habitus of collaboration. They already understand that their individual success is intertwined with the success of countless other labourers throughout the production chain. Even today we see this ethos manifesting in domains often sneeringly dismissed as void of revolutionary virtue:

  • software developers insist that open source leads to better results than proprietary development,
  • academic researchers express frustration that they cannot pledge themselves fully to the advancement of science,
  • both artists and critics denounce intellectual property as insane and repressive, etc.

Marxists should be present even in these “small” struggles, guiding all labourers — and definitely not excluding these labourers — towards understanding the unique power that labour wields. They should be helping every worker understand why, rather than humbly plead for more “free time” to dedicate to their “hobbies,” they are destined to wrest the reins of the economy (“the means of production”) from petty-minded capitalists. They should purposefully drive society towards constant improvement and evolution, along the lines that they already instinctively pine for as “unambitious” workers, and do away with the wrongheaded prejudice that such decision-making is “above their pay grade.”

At any rate, we cannot build a thriving working class movement around a working class that doesn’t believe in itself, that is self-contemptuous and ashamed of its labourer status.

The self-contempt of the worker has more than one form of expression. On the one hand there are the right-leaning social liberals who want nothing more than to swell the ranks of the capitalist class, and recover benefits in order to turn all of society into an early-retirement community of sorts, served by robots (or perhaps just foreigners). On the other hand, self-contempt also finds a left-leaning expression: the hope that we can transform angry workers into a bloodthirsty army of willing martyrs. Though more courageous and selfless, these latter fail to understand that romanticizing soldiers is really not much different than romanticizing capitalists. This is a cult of dead labour in a much more literal sense. These leftists fail to appreciate the strategic importance of labour to any war effort: achieve control of supply and you can starve a capitalist and his henchmen without firing a shot. [59]

Past revolutionaries understood this point well. Assata Shakur, one of the most notorious Black Panthers, wrote the following in her 1987 Autobiography:

A lot of the sisters and brothers had joined [the Black Panther Party] because they were sick and tired of the oppression they had been suffering. Most of them had never been in the struggle before. Quite a few joined thinking the Party was going to issue them a gun and direct them to go out and shoot pigs. Most of these brothers and sisters had attended inferior schools which either taught them lies or nothing at all. Education of every kind was sorely needed. Without an adequate education program, many Panthers fell into a roboton bag. They repeated slogans and phrases without understanding their complete meaning, often resulting in dogmatic and shortsighted practices. [60]

Assata Shakur’s comrade Sundiata Acoli, reflecting on his experience with the Black liberation struggle, had this to say about the “failure to organize economic foundations”:

[The Panthers] often gave the impression that to engage in any business enterprise was to engage in capitalism and they too frequently looked with disdain upon the small business people in the community. As a result the BPP built few businesses which generated income other than the Black Panther newspaper, or which could provide self employment to its membership and to people in the community. The BPP failed to encourage the Black community to set up its own businesses as a means of building an independent economic foundation which could help break “outsiders” control of the Black community’s economics, and move it toward economic self reliance. [61]

In 1936, in the context of the struggle againt British colonial occupation, Indian revolutionary Bhagat Singh, writing from death row, implored his comrades not to take the wrong lesson from his example:

Let not the revolutionary be lashed round and round the vicious circle of aimless outrages and individual self-immolation. The inspiring ideal for all kinds of workers should not be that of dying for the cause but of living for the cause, and living usefully and worthily. [62]

Much less tragically, but along similar lines of understanding the real advantage workers have over capitalists, Mao Zedong explained how Americans ineptly armed Chinese communists against their own imperial designs:

Some Americans had said that the Chinese revolution was led by Russian aggressors, but in truth the Chinese revolution was armed by Americans. […] China’s liberation forces had grown in numbers and strength by recruiting to their side the troops trained and armed by the Americans for Chiang Kai-shek. The movement was called “changing of hats.” [63]

Finally, for good measure, we can go back to Lenin:

Proletarian culture must be the logical development of the store of knowledge mankind has accumulated under the yoke of capitalist, landowner and bureaucratic society. All these roads have been leading, and will continue to lead up to proletarian culture, in the same way as political economy, as reshaped by Marx, has shown us what human society must arrive at, shown us the passage to the class struggle, to the beginning of the proletarian revolution. [64]

Communists championed the proletarian class not because the proletariat was the most oppressed or the most pitiful, and certainly not because a prophet decreed it to be “the chosen class” (in the way America imagines itself to be a “chosen nation”). They did so because under certain determinate historical circumstances the proletariat was being educated, unintentionally and through the course of its own practical experience (through the course of its own dual experience of oppression and responsibility), to be able to take charge. Even when it comes to those misguided workers who have come to see themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” this essential dynamic remains unchanged.

5. A conclusion

All reactionaries are paper tigers. In appearance, the reactionaries are terrifying, but in reality, they are not so powerful. From a long-term point of view, it is not the reactionaries but the people who are powerful.
 — Mao Zedong, 1946. [65]

“Private ownership of the means of production” is a definition of capitalism that reflects (albeit implicitly) the march of history, from feudalism to capitalism to socialism, and centers the question of who owns what.

“The cult of dead labour” is a definition that captures, without leaning so heavily on an idea of historical stages, capitalism’s mindless yet methodical hunger for human sacrifice, which becomes the more intolerable and undeniable the more capitalism is consolidated, and thus is felt as acutely today.

Regardless of which definition we opt for, the Marxist lesson isn’t a mechanical or dogmatic insistence that proletarian salvation is immediately at hand — as we’ve seen, the theory can account for the fact that the Chinese revolution relied to a great extent on the peasantry. Rather, we must grasp how and why class struggle drives the evolution of human society towards the elimination of ruling classes. Therefore, championing the definition of capitalism as “the cult of dead labour” isn’t the main conclusion of this study. The real conclusion is that we need to be more dynamic, adaptive, historical, and creative in our overall approaches. Labour must play to its unique strengths, not its weaknesses.

To conclude on a firm note, I will try to lay down some specific recommendations that follow from the preceding analysis.

At a social level, though it is understandable that newly-initiated socialists act with due reservation as an acknowledgement that they have much to learn, they shouldn’t be too careful. I’ll venture a controversial opinion here: we in the West err far more in the opposite direction. The socialist movement is stagnant, and its members are often too demure and tolerant of ineffective leadership. Some organizations might be swelling their ranks with new recruits, but if this is the direct result of widespread immiseration, then it is not to their credit. Newcomers shouldn’t wait forever to speak up if they have ideas for regenerating socialism. Ours is a movement that is still missing entire categories of skills and the participation of many social groups, and juniors should not imagine that they have nothing to contribute over seniors, since — with all due respect to their years of service and acknowledgement of material conditions — the latter haven’t led any successful revolutions.

At an educational level, Western Marxists must study hard to become immune to atrocity propaganda. This has not been the main focus of this essay, but one of the main ways liberals break down the self-esteem of workers is by spreading horror stories about socialism. Many socialists then react to this strategy by becoming intellectual beggars; they flee from history in order to peddle unconvincing utopias, imagining that this way they can rid themselves of Soviet baggage. [66] This is wrong. The study of history is the beating heart of the Marxist tradition — of historical materialism — and liberal fairytales cannot be allowed to trample all over that. Rather than try to learn a little bit about every single horror story out there, wearing yourself down, take stock of which one story you hear brought up most often in your local context, and learn its real history in depth. To volunteer from my own trajectory: I would not have studied socialism with such determination if I hadn’t first undergone the incredible experience of gathering material to debunk the Iraq-WMD-esque accusation, popular among Canadians, that China is committing a “secret genocide” in Xinjiang. [67] Learn one case study in depth, in enough depth to hold your own against any “expert” (trust me: the emperor isn’t wearing fine robes), and then use that experience to approach, with self-respect, all other such horror stories. Some parts of socialist history are bitter and even criminal and therefore demand an explanation, but you’ll find that the vast majority of accusations are false, and that liberals happily sweep far more damning crimes under the rug — especially the American-capitalist essence of German Nazism. [68] What’s more, this refutation of liberal smugness will carry over to practical everyday work relations and general self-esteem.

Finally, and most importantly, at a professional level, communists must at all times seek to improve their ability to organize. The virtue of initiative needs to be developed and refined to the point that there is no question whatsoever about the ability of worker-leaders to handle responsibility, and to handle it more capably than any bean-counting cultist of capital. This organization should not (and can not) develop exclusively within political or radical circles, especially not secret ones. Radical political circles are too small in size, too different in composition from mainstream society, and don’t offer enough opportunities to grow one’s skills to the level demanded by modern operations. It’s therefore very communist to find opportunities to build connections and build up camaraderie — within a sports league, religious community, grocery store, corporation, etc. We’re not really in a position to balk at or be too choosy about our learning opportunities. We need resources, and we need skills, and positioning ourselves to acquire both cannot be construed, in itself, as a betrayal of socialism.

In sum: We need to take seriously the challenge of overcoming capitalism, not merely refine our attacks against it into sharper and wittier denunciations of its horrors. We would do well to recall Lenin’s advice to workers that we “learn from [capitalists] the business of running the economy,” that “only when [we] do that will [we] be able to build up a communist republic,” [69] as well as his optimism that “[we] will learn, given the will to learn.” [70] Or perhaps it’s more fitting to conclude by citing a Westerner who’s still alive. Christian Thorne puts it better than most: “At this point, it becomes possible to adapt to the spheres of production and distribution the politics of the German Idea: We demand an economy that we have made, that we know we have made, and that we are capable of remaking ongoingly.” [71]

The working class movement cannot be primarily focused on abolishing work, or on transforming workers into soldiers. It must place work at its very heart: re-centering it, understanding it, gaining control over it, re-imagining it, and making it enjoyable. That’s probably what it would mean to shatter the cult of dead labour for the sake of the emancipation of living labour. This is a sentiment that stands a chance of spreading, perhaps articulated somewhat differently, amid any population that is, self-contempt notwithstanding, still overwhelmingly composed of workers.

Regarding definitions, one last thought: So long as there’s hostility to learning anything new, all definitions will fail. On the other hand, if the movement is alive with practical enthusiasm, just about any definition will work. It’s only with the advent of real organizational confidence, communist confidence that palpably chafes against the crude fetters of stagnant and unimaginative capitalism, that the pitiful yap to “Tax the rich” will credibly make way for the fearsome roar to “Seize the means.”

[1] Domenico Losurdo, Hegel and the Freedom of Moderns, 2004, p. 80. 

[2] See, for example: “From the standpoint of higher economic form of society, private ownership of the globe by single individuals will appear quite as absurd as private ownership of one man by another.” — Karl Marx, 1894. Capital, v. III. [web] 

[3] Ellen Meiksins Wood, “The Agrarian Origins of Capitalism” (1998). [web] 

[4] “The social character of production [in feudalism] embraced only the members of the one village community. Capitalism, however, gives production a social character in a whole country.” — V. I. Lenin, “The Sentimental Criticism of Capitalism” (1897). [web] 

[5] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848). [web] 

[6] For a discussion of the underlying philosophies from Rousseau and Bakunin to Hegel and Marx, see Domenico Losurdo’s “The Celebration of Nature and the Ideology of Reactionism” (2000) [web] and Ann Robertson’s “The Philosophical Roots of the Marx-Bakunin Conflict” (2003). [web] 

[7] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848). [web] 

[8] Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), Ch. 2, Part 2, Section A. [web] 

[9] “The tragic cycle” is a classic fascist motif championed by Italian “ultra-fascist” Julius Evola, because of how it naturalizes caste and slavery. [72] Today this philosophy is propagated by the likes of Joe Rogan and Jordan Peterson. [73] 

[10] Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (1970). 

[11] Fidel Castro, Fidel and Religion: Conversations with Frei Betto (1986). [web] 

[12] Xi Jinping, “Speech at the Conference Celebrating the 200th Anniversary of Marx’s Birth” (2018). [web] 

[13] Roderic Day, “Masses, Elites, and Rebels” (2022). [web] 

[14] From Lenin. Cited in “Langston Hughes: Two poems about Lenin” (21 April 2020). Struggle / La Lucha. [web] 

[15] Nia Frome, “An Extremely Condensed Summary of Capital” (2020). [web] 

[16] See Episode 4 of Raoul Peck’s Exterminate All the Brutes, a documentary series on colonialism, genocide and slavery. 

[17] Mark Twain for the New York Herald (15 October 1900). [web] 

[18] Ho Chi Minh, “The Path Which Led Me To Leninism” (1960). [web] 

[19] Alice Malone, “Concessions” (2023). [web] 

[20] Richard Hofstadter, Great Issues in American history: From Reconstruction to the Present Day, 1864-1969 (1969), Vintage, New York, p. 400. [web] 

[21] Hegel and Nietzsche agree on one thing: justifications are dangerously progressive. For Nietzsche, gods should act like gods and not debase themselves by offering justifications to the rabble. For Hegel, the universal demand for justification drives history ceaselessly forward. 

[22] John C. Calhoun, 1837. “Slavery as a Positive Good.” Bill of Rights Institute. [web] 

[23] Marx and Engels were teenagers when this was written, which should lay to rest any misconception that inventing social classes was their contribution. 

[24] J. V. Stalin, 1930. Political Report to the 16th Congress of the CPSU. [web] 

[25] Twitter. [web] 

[26] To better understand “neo-colonialism” see: Che Guevara’s The American Working Class: Friend or Foe? (1954) [web], Kwame Nkrumah’s The Welfare State and Collective Imperialism (1968) [web], Walter Rodney’s Fascism at Home and Colonialism Abroad (1972). [web] 

[27] Karl Marx, 1875. Critique of the Gotha Program. [web] 

[28] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848). [web] 

[29] Karl Marx, Capital (1867). [web] 

[30] Roderic Day, 2020. Why Marxism? [web] 

[31] Karl Marx, Capital (1867). [web] 

[32] For more along these lines, see Nia Frome’s “Two Cthulhus” (2021). [web] 

[33] 2018-03-13. “Here’s a picture of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos eating an iguana.” Business Insider. [web] 

[34] Christian Thorne, 2017. Marx’s Philosophical Context. [web] 

[35] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (1845). [web] 

[36] Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy: Answer to the “Philosophy of Poverty” by M. Proudhon (1847). [web] 

[37] Karl Marx, 1867. Capital

[38] V. I. Lenin, “Uncritical Criticism: Regarding Mr. P. Skvortsov’s Article ‘Commodity Fetishism’ in Nauchnoye Obozreniye, No. 12, 1899” (1900). [web] 

[39] Readers will notice that this is a pretty succinct definition of capitalism! In fact, it’s not just a definition — it’s one of the best definitions I’ve found. However, it presumes a clear and precise understanding of commodities and labour-power. 

[40] Karl Marx, 1867. Capital

[41] Nia Frome, “An Extremely Condensed Summary of Capital” (2020). [web] 

[42] “In order to realize communism, we have to accomplish the tasks set in the socialist stage. They are legion, but the fundamental one is to develop the productive forces so as to demonstrate the superiority of socialism over capitalism and provide the material basis for communism.” — Deng Xiaoping, “Reform is the only way for China to develop its productive forces” (1985). [web] 

[43] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (1945). [web] 

[44] Friedrich Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886). [web] 

[45] Friedrich Engels, Anti-Dühring (1877). [web] 

[46] Iain M. Banks, “A Few Notes on The Culture” (1994). [web] 

[47] J. V. Stalin, “Speech at the Red Army Parade on the Red Square, Moscow” (7 November 1941). [web] 

[48] J. V. Stalin, The Foundations of Leninism (1924). [web] 

[49] V. I. Lenin, “The New Economic Policy and the Tasks of the Political Education Departments” (1921). [web] 

[50] Mao Zedong, “Preface and Postscript to Rural Surveys” (1941). [web] 

[51] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (1945). [web] 

[52] Amílcar Cabral, “Brief Analysis of the Social Structure in Guinea” (1964). [web] 

[53] Karl Marx, “Marx-Zasulich Correspondence February/March 1881” (1881). [web] 

[54] Domenico Losudo, Class Struggle: A Political and Philosophical History (2016). 

[55] Xi Jinping, “Speech at the Conference Celebrating the 200th Anniversary of Marx’s Birth” (2018). [web] 

[56] Marcie Smith, “How Gene Sharp’s Neoliberal Nonviolence Shaped the Left” (2020). [web] 

[57] In full context: “The servant always knows his master better than the master knows his servant. The servant watches the master sleep, but the master never sees the servant sleep. The servant sees the master angry. The master never sees the servant angry. So the servant always knows the master better than the master knows the servant. In fact, the servant knows the house better than the master does. And my contention is that the Negro knows this country better than the white man does, every facet of it, and when he wakes up he’ll prove it.” — Malcolm X, in interview with Robert Penn Warren (1964). [web] 

[58] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848). [web] 

[59] There’s a famous Lenin folktale precisely to this effect. [web] 

[60] Assata Shakur, An Autobiography (1987). [web] 

[61] Sundiata Acoli, “A Brief History of the Black Panther Party and Its Place In the Black Liberation Movement” (2008). [web] 

[62] Bhagat Singh, “Our Opportunity” (1936). [web] 

[63] Mao Zedong, “Interview with Edgar Snow” (1965). [web] Admittedly, Mao goes on to talk about peasants being prepared to kill soldiers, but I think the essential understanding that power is being held in the hands of toilers stands! 

[64] V. I. Lenin, “The Tasks of the Youth Leagues” (1920). [web] 

[65] Mao Zedong, “Talk with the American Correspondent Anna Louise Strong” (August 1946), Selected Works, Vol. IV, p. 100. [web] 

[66] Domenico Losurdo, “Flight from History? The Communist Movement between Self-Criticism and Self-Contempt” (1999). [web] 

[67] This full and detailed breakdown, “The Xinjiang Atrocity Propaganda Blitz” (2021), is freely available online. [web] 

[68] Roderic Day, “Really Existing Fascism” (2021). [web] 

[69] V. I. Lenin, “The New Economic Policy and The Tasks Of The Political Education Departments” (1921). [web] 

[70] V. I. Lenin, “On the Significance of Militant Materialism” (1922). [web] 

[71] Christian Thorne, “Marx’s Philosophical Context” (2017). [web] 

[72] Julius Evola, Revolt Against the Modern World (1934). [web] 

[73] Joe Rogan on Instagram (27 November 2021): “‘Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And, weak men create hard times.’ We are in Kali Yuga. The age of conflict. All of the chaos we’re seeing right now was predicted in Hinduism thousands of years ago. Civilizations move in predictable cycles, and we are in the lower left hand square of the chart. Do your best to elevate yourself and the world around you from the madness that is in the air, but understand that this insanity is all a part of an infinite process.” [web]