Marx, Capital, Anti-imperialism, and Socialism

I want to try to answer directly a set of questions that I keep encountering now that I publicly defend communist theory and history, legitimate questions that I have grappled with myself. I hope this particular synthesis of existing ideas sheds some light and understanding on the ongoing disputes between socialist tendencies in the imperial core, disputes that at first glance may seem needlessly sectarian.

Marx and Capital

Why defend Marxism at all? What value does it have for us today?

The ideological struggle for a correct political strategy is fierce, even among those who already have identified capitalism as the enemy. Reigning perspectives in the West could be broadly described by three categories: the Reformists (e.g. social democrats, legalists), the Anarchists (e.g. mutualists, syndicalists), and the Marxists (whoever “extends the recognition of class struggle to the recognition of the dictatorship of the proletariat” [1]).

Reformists like the Democratic Socialists of America and Momentum (UK) argue for working within existing organizations. Anarchists like CrimethInc. promote illegalist lifestylism, horizontal consensus-building, and spontaneity. Despite their tactical differences, the two tendencies seem to find it easy to collaborate in the rhetorical domain — both reject the idea of a Vanguard Party with the same rationale: any authority that pretends to serve the general interest by overthrowing and replacing existing authority is a non-starter. For example, Noam Chomsky [2] and Nathan J. Robinson [3] bridge the gap between electoralism and anarchism by citing Mikhail Bakunin’s zinger “when the people are being beaten with a stick, they are not much happier if it is called the People’s Stick.” The rejection of “authoritarianism” is also expressed in slogans like “No Gods, No Masters,” or the well-worn trope “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Belonging to a revolutionary party is widely seen as a stifling anachronism.

Fierce denunciations of Marx are not uncommon, but the more popular tactic is to vaguely pay respects while completely underappreciating his work. The resulting middle-of-the-road position concedes that the history of all hitherto existing society entails some form of proto-capitalism, or “propertarian” forms of social relations. However, it does not appreciate the significance of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, the discontinuity between capitalism and previous modes of production, or identify as properly revolutionary the process whereby the seat of power was transferred from feudal lords to business owners (the bourgeoisie). Thus, it does not understand the true nature of capitalism, or how to organize to defeat it.

Capitalism brought with it an unprecedented expansion in social mobility, both upward and downward. The waning of aristocratic mores led to celebration, but it was short-lived. It soon became clear that these new capitalists were something akin to kings, even those of humble origins. And despite a lot of rhetoric about the freedom and equality of the laborer, capitalists routinely used force to discipline the working poor. Thus philosophers and clergymen of the time began to formulate criticisms of capitalism: it’s heartless, it’s exploitative, it tends towards monopoly, it rewards greed, and so forth.

Marx stood out from other anti-capitalist thinkers of his era precisely because while most focused on the many similarities between kings and capitalists, Marx focused on the differences. Even those who claimed the mantle of science, such as Proudhon, focused on how capitalists exploit the people: “the barons of the middle ages plundered the traveller on the highway, and then offered him hospitality in their castles; mercantile feudality, less brutal, exploits the proletaire and builds hospitals for him.” [4] Studying the threat of poverty and the batons of the police force, he emphasized the continuity with old forms inherited from feudalism, and pleaded for an enlightened future where we reject and transcend them. Marx was more concerned with the why. He wanted to understand what made capitalism unique. What exactly is exploitation? How do we measure it? How is this different in feudalism than in capitalism?

Marx’s impressive predictions are a direct result of this analysis. Weber paraphrases Marx as appreciating that “the limits to the exploitation of the feudal serf were determined by the walls of the stomach of the feudal lord.” [5][6] Under capitalism, on the other hand, we have profit-oriented commodity production. This means that neither “stomach walls” nor any other kind of natural limit impose themselves: accumulation can be infinite, and since everything is tradeable with everything else, the capitalist not only can but must (in order to compete) accumulate without limit. Growth for the sake of growth, a growth that is indifferent to what kind of work anybody actually does.

Rather than deny the virtues of capitalist competition, as many socialists still do, Marx actually conceded that capitalism had unleashed production and stitched together supply chains in a prodigious way: “what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?” [7] However, he went on to explain that this virtue would be its core vice, and lead to its downfall. A contradiction.

Adam Smith writes about how competition would help drive prices to their proper value vis-a-vis market needs, about how capitalists are “led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.” [8] Marx did not outright reject this mechanism, but he challenged the value-judgment. He predicted that even in the hypothetical case that a benevolent capitalist did not personally wish to exploit, they would have to do so anyway, or else they would be replaced by another willing exploiter.

To paraphrase William C. Roberts, capitalists are simply at the top of the pyramid of market-dominated producers. [9] What if humans, capable of rational deliberation, want to make healthcare free? What if they want to assert that the environment is valuable in itself? The invisible hand imposes itself decisively: “No.”

Marx described the phenomenon of “commodity fetishism”: through many small separate acts of exchange, we command each other to behave in very specific ways, while disclaiming this same power and attributing its commands to blind necessity. Commodities are inert objects, and humans are rational beings, but society operates as if humans were helpless against the pressures exerted by the market. Market domination even finds lucid expression in natural-sounding phrases like “if I don’t sell out to Facebook, they’ll just copy my features, so may as well do it myself” and “if I paid you more, I’d have to pay everyone more, and then we’d lose to the competition and all be out of a job.”

There is nothing wrong with denouncing American plutocrats like Bezos and Gates for greed, but we cannot stop there: we must understand that the system of exploitation is not held together by any individual’s vices. As Lenin put it, “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.” [10] If one of them had a major change of heart and stopped pursuing ruthless accumulation, they would quickly be ousted by stockholders for endangering their investment. In the unlikely event that their stockholders were cooperative, a competitor would swoop in and relieve them of their commanding market share. This is not apologia for Bezos, but we need to understand that there is a talent to being a capitalist exploiter, or else we will underestimate our enemy. The market selects for profitability, and it selects well — it just doesn’t select for environmental responsibility or decency or who can bring the most benefits to the greatest number. From Marx, to Lenin, to Deng, we can observe a baseline level of respect for the enemy: “Management is also a technique.” [11]

On my view, the core Marxist insight is the following: 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.

Capital and Anti-imperialism

Why go as far as defending Bolivia, Venezuela, Vietnam, China, the USSR?

One consequence of understanding Marxism is a higher tolerance and sympathy for the difficult compromises and contradictions we have observed in the history of existing socialist societies, and the strategies that they have employed to defend against capitalist siege. Inspired by natural science, Marxist analysis contrasts starkly with the moralistic “David vs. Goliath” lens through which reformists and anarchists understand themselves and all struggles. This is reflected nowhere better than in their shallow diatribes against China and the USSR. Western critics freely buy into the framing of reactionary historians like Sebag Montefiore, who cast Stalin as a “Red Tsar.” They see China as the state-capitalist twin of free-market capitalist USA, and show little interest in engaging with the theory it has produced to account for its own practical experience.

What we see during COVID-19 is stark operational differences between nations where politicians are the top authorities, and nations where Capital is the top authority. We are endlessly told that nations with activist governments are unfree, and that any support for these governments must come from either a pathological culture of obedience or the threat of state violence. And yet socialist nations plainly outperformed capitalist ones in terms of fighting the virus. [12]

This analysis does not imply there were simply two modes of response: capitalist and socialist. Market domination is not a binary affair, and Capital doesn’t rule by decree. As Roberts puts it, the market doesn’t tell capitalists what to do — rather, they have to guess and prognosticate and forecast and hope. Capitalists don’t find out whether they did what the market wanted until after the fact. [13] People around the world defended themselves from the virus, repressing the political will of Capital, in proportion to what they could get away with politically and economically. In socialist states, resources were deployed as deemed necessary to meet the challenge. In capitalist states in the sphere of influence of socialist China, such as South Korea, capitalists offered a decent response, perhaps because catastrophic handling would create a domestic political shift in favour of socialism. In the imperial core, where white supremacy reigns and there is no political will whatsoever to look to China for a good example, self-assured capitalists simply allowed the plague to spread essentially unopposed. In fact, imperialists succeeded to a great extent in turning the ensuing resentment into a foreign policy weapon. [14] This isn’t isolated to the most proudly capitalist nations; the kind of political power, infrastructure, and resources needed to enforce a tolerable quarantine has been completely eroded in social democratic havens like Canada and Sweden. No notable political force in the West referred to socialist successes in their efforts to affect domestic COVID-19 response policy, and I attribute this mistake to chauvinism.

Many westerners come to socialism not out of necessity, but out of disillusionment. We are raised with the idea that Liberal Democracy is the best system of political expression humanity has devised. When confronted with the reality of its shortcomings, rather than narrowly discard liberalism or electoralism, the western anti-capitalist tends to draw sweeping conclusions about the inadequacy of all existing systems. Curiously, though it would at first seem that such denunciations are more principled and severe, they are in fact more compatible with existing and widespread beliefs about the supremacy of the western system. That is to say, when a Marxist-Leninist asserts the superiority of existing socialist experiments, they are directly challenging the idea that westerners are at the forefront of political development. By contrast, the assertions from anarchists and social democrats that we need to build a more utopian future out of our current apex are compatible not only with each other, as discussed earlier, but also do not really offend bourgeois society at large. They in fact end up not sounding too different from the arch-imperialist Winston Churchill holding forth on how ours is the worst system, except for all the others which have been tried. Western chauvinists, consciously or unconsciously, struggle with the idea that they should study and humbly take lessons from the imperial periphery. [15] It is much easier for the chauvinist, psychologically, to position oneself as at the very front of a new vanguard.

A Marxist understanding of capitalism leads to anti-imperialism. Anti-imperialism is understood by detractors as a simple rhetorical dressing over simplistic heuristics like “reflexive anti-americanism,” “history repeats itself,” and “the military-industrial complex needs contracts,” but all of these are reductive. Marxists understand that human political leadership in the imperial periphery, whether enlightened or tyrannical, will only be antagonized by empire for one single possible reason: it is getting in the way of market penetration. This is phrased succinctly by Kevin Dooley when criticizing Noam Chomsky’s support for a military alliance between the Kurds and the USA in Syria: “The difference between [Chomsky’s] position and a hard-line anti-imperialist position isn’t tactical. What he’s arguing is simply a violation of anti-imperialist principles based on a fundamentally different understanding of what can drive the empire to act in the world.” [16]

The accusation that anti-imperialists are unconcerned with human rights deserves a sharp rebuke. The USA was born of slavery and genocide, dropped atomic bombs as a matter of political brinkmanship, imported Nazi scientists and installed war criminals like Klaus Barbie and Nobusuke Kishi around the world to defend and advance anti-communist positions [17], and enthusiastically supports gruesome butcherers today. Simply put, Capital has destroyed innumerable countries and murdered hundreds of millions directly and indirectly. It is precisely a concern for the rights of humans that should make one immediately skeptical of any humanitarian posturing by Capital. Anti-imperialism not only means support for the important pro-social projects of states like Cuba, Vietnam, and China; it also means critical support for non-socialist states such as Iran and Russia. Critical support acknowledges that, though instituting various indefensible policies, enemies of empire are not being antagonized because of said policies. The only thing that can drive empire to act in the world is capital accumulation.

Anti-imperialism and Socialism

Why not just be satisfied defending Norway and Sweden, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? What is real socialism?

The mass popular election of the supreme executive of a nation is a ritual so deeply ingrained in the western psyche that it is possible that any kind of Socialism with Western Characteristics will simply opt to maintain it indefinitely. We should, however, understand that under the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, it is simply a pressure valve for discontent. Figures around the globe that have advanced against Capital while playing completely by the constricting rules of electoral democracy have all quickly found that Capital will soon abandon pretense and move against them in a gangster fashion when able. Some examples that illustrate this pattern are Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, Salvador Allende, Olof Palme, Enrico Mattei, and Mohammad Mosaddegh.

In addition to open gangsterism, we can also observe the steady erosion of the ability of any of these venerable political institutions to challenge Capital. Consider term limits. The US Constitution was amended to enforce term limits in direct response to FDR’s popular 12-year presidency (he died in office, going on for 16). As a policy, it is self-evidently quite anti-democratic (robbing the people of a choice), but nevertheless it has been conceptually naturalized to the extent that the 2019 coup against Evo Morales was premised explicitly on the idea that repeated popular electoral victories constituted a form of dictatorship. If rotation was important to avoid corruption or complacency, corporations and supreme courts would institute term limits too. Term limits ensure that in the miraculous scenario that a scrupulous, charismatic, and intelligent individual becomes a rebellious political executive, they won’t be in power long enough to meaningfully challenge the entrenched power of corporate vehicles manned by CEOs with decades of experience. Wolfgang Schäuble, a powerful advocate of austerity policy in Europe, succinctly summarized the extent to which electoral democracy is subordinate: “Elections cannot be allowed to change economic policy.” [18] One Party States and Democratic Centralism are not the result of lack of sophistication or cronyism, they are a proven bulwark that acknowledges that political power will often need to be exerted against the will of Capital, and so the wielders of said power must necessarily undergo a much more serious vetting process than a popularity contest.

We do not need to copy any of these projects to the letter, but we should look to them for example. There is ample room for creativity and adaptability to our own circumstances in the imperial core. My own political awakening began with an analysis of social democratic achievements in Canada, such as the development of Universal Health Care and Public Transit, policies that I coveted for my home country of Peru. One conclusion was inescapable: without the much more radical USSR striking fear into capitalists, no social democratic politicians in the West would ever have achieved any of their goals. [19] These should not be belittled as mere concessions — Marxists observe them as an interesting example of how socialists can always leverage extant socialist experience anywhere in the world to advance domestic projects.

As Michael Parenti put it, “Whether we call the former communist countries socialist is a matter of definition. Suffice it to say, they constituted something different from what existed in the profit-driven capitalist world — as the capitalists themselves were not slow to recognize.” [20] Domenico Losurdo further develops this idea, and demonstrates the value of focusing on specific policies over focusing on the character of states, in his paper “Reflections on the Transition from Capitalism to Socialism.” [21] He studies the USSR as a sequence of three experiments (War Communism, followed by the New Economic Policy, followed by Collectivization), and goes on to study China as undergoing two experiments (one characterized by the Cultural Revolution, one characterized by Market Socialism), discussing how the adaptations of each new period correspond to the difficulties encountered in the previous period. Thus, in 1985 Deng Xiaoping observes “perhaps Lenin had a good idea when he adopted the New Economic Policy,” [22] and in 2013 Xi Jinping asserts that “to repudiate Lenin, to repudiate Stalin was to wreck chaos in Soviet ideology and engage in historical nihilism” and that “this is a lesson from the past.” [23] We need to recover this tradition. As long as socialists’ main concern is to rhetorically distance themselves from these experiences, we will fail to learn anything more profound from our predecessors than “don’t take power.”

The approach of studying policy decisions as difficult tradeoffs instead of sinister ploys allows us to draw practical lessons about how to overcome the serious and often unexpected challenges that await any implementation of socialism. “We have to have an attitude of understanding, not an attitude of benediction.” [24] In lieu of busying ourselves with pointless taxonomical exercises, like catechists or gatekeepers of the coveted brand of “socialism,” we should study history from a scientific materialist point of view, draw insights, and incorporate them into the design of future strategy. We need to hold Capitalism accountable for its failures, and this requires an acknowledgment and defense of actual socialist achievements, regardless of how we choose to adapt to our own material circumstances.

Conclusion

The strength of Marx’s critique is that in its breadth of disciplinary and historical scope, it managed to identify how the hydra of market economy comes to dominate its operators, how Capital rules in the domains of both production and ideology, and how via the notion of “self-interest” it diffuses responsibility for its crimes in an incredibly elegant way. The social planning and hierarchical organizational structures humans have built to fight Capital stand out as alien when contrasted with the naturalized discipline imposed by the market in the “free world,” however ruthless. Getting over the misconception that these structures are unnecessary allows us to begin learning from the experience of comrades around the world, both in and out of power.

To defeat Capital, we must understand how it works, so we can exploit its weaknesses. As Huey Newton put it: “You cannot oppose a system such as this without opposing it with organization that’s even more extremely disciplined and dedicated than the structure you’re opposing.” [25] An understanding of capitalism’s inner dynamics, coupled with careful and broad study of the real history of class struggle, will enable us to fight to free humanity from domination by Capital from within the imperial core. Nothing less than this will do.


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  2. Chomsky N., 1973. For Reasons of State. [web] 

  3. Robinson N.J., 2019. The Power of Anarchist Analysis. [web] 

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  21. Losurdo D., 2017. Has China Turned To Capitalism? — Reflections onthe Transition from Capitalism to Socialism. International Critical Thought, 7:1, 15-31, DOI:10.1080/21598282.2017.1287585 

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