Google

www ISR
For ISR updates, send us your Email Address


Back to home page

ISR Issue 50, November–December 2006


Why Marx still matters

Paul D'Amato's new book,The Meaning of Marxism (Haymarket Books), makes the case for the continuing importance of Marxism. Below, we print two chapters.

1. The relevance of Marxism

Every so often-usually after a period of economic instability and crisis that has given way to stabilization and growth-some talking head comes along and declares that Marxism is dead and capitalism is the final form of human fulfillment. As the late socialist author Daniel Singer aptly put it, “The purpose of our pundits and preachers is to doom as impossible a radical, fundamental transformation of existing society.”1

The most common theme is that socialism has failed to make inroads, especially in the United States, due to the prosperity and social mobility that even the lowliest members of society can experience. “On the reefs of roast beef and apple pie,” wrote the German writer Werner Sombart in his famous 1906 book, Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?, “socialistic Utopias of every sort are sent to their doom.”2 The Depression years of the 1930s made these ideas harder to swallow, but variations on the argument were dusted off and refurbished during the economic boom after the Second World War. Daniel Bell's The End of Ideology told us that postwar Western prosperity and the rise of Stalinism signaled “the exhaustion of the nineteenth century ideologies, particularly Marxism, as intellectual systems that could claim truth for their views of the world.”3

Writers on the left, too, like German radical philosopher Herbert Marcuse, could ask, “Why should the overthrow of the existing order be of vital necessity for people who own, or can hope to own, good clothes, a well-stocked larder, a TV set, a car, a house and so on, all within the existing order?”4 For Marcuse, whose ideas were typical of a whole generation of post-Second World War left-wing thinkers, working-class struggle was no longer the connecting link between our society and a future socialist society. Workers were either bought off or simply so enmeshed in capitalism, and unable to see beyond it, that they were now part of the problem rather than the solution.5

The mass general strike of 10 million French workers in May 1968 offered strong evidence to the contrary, as did a whole period of working-class and student rebellion that spanned the globe in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Poland's Solidarnosc in 1980 and the major role played by Black workers in the downfall of apartheid South Africa are two other examples). But those movements receded and capitalism found its footing again, utilizing a period of economic crisis to begin an assault on working-class living standards that has continued unrelentingly to this day. Ideologists once again sprang forward to justify capitalism in its most naked, brutal, “free market” form.

Then came the collapse of the bureaucratic regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe in 1989-1993. We were told then that the “free market” and liberal democracy had triumphed over “totalitarian” systems like fascism and communism. Historian Francis Fukuyama came forward and argued that society had indeed evolved, as Marx argued, from lower to higher forms of human social organization. However, instead of that evolutionary process leading to socialism, Fukuyama argued, liberal free market capitalism constituted the “end point of mankind's ideological evolution,” and the “final form of human government”; as such, it constituted the “end of history.”6

In a flush of exuberance, Western pundits waxed lyrically about a new era of endless peace and prosperity. But if this was the end of history, it didn't seem things were ending all that well.

Instead, we entered a world of incessant war, where the United States, as the world's sole superpower, felt free to throw its military weight around, and did; a world of growing disparities between rich and poor (even in the midst of the economic growth of the 1990s); and a world-as we moved into the twenty-first century-of economic and social instability. It was a world in which the much-touted benefits of free trade and “globalization” dramatically enriched a very few but left tens of millions in ever-worsening conditions. In short, it seemed like we had returned to the days of the robber barons and sweated labor of the late nineteenth century, only on a more colossally destructive, global scale.

The obscenity of capitalism today is expressed in a few simple facts:

o The assets of the world's top three billionaires are greater than those of the poorest 600 million people on the planet.7

o Globally, there are seventy thousand people who possess more than $30 million in financial assets-enough to fill a large sports stadium. Half of the world's 587 billionaires (enough to fill a large disco) are Americans, whose wealth increased collectively by $500 billion in 2003 alone. They possess the same amount of wealth as the combined gross domestic product of the world's poorest 170 countries combined.8

o More than a third of the world's people-2.8 billion-live on less than two dollars a day.

o 1.2 billion people live on less than one dollar a day.9

The statistics for the United States reveal a society that is certainly rich-but only for a minority:

o The average compensation in 2004 for the CEOs of the top 367 U.S. companies was $11.8 million, up from $8.1 million in 2003. On average, CEOs in 2004 made 431 times what a production worker made, up from a 107:1 ratio in 1990 and a 42:1 ratio in 1982.10

o CEO pay has increased by 300 percent over the last fifteen years, whereas wages have increased in the same period by only 5 percent (and minimum wage workers have seen their pay fall 6 percent). If wages had kept up with the percentage increase in CEO pay, in 2004 the average pay for production workers would have been $110,136, instead of $27,460.11

o The top 20 percent of American households control 83 percent of the nation's wealth, while the bottom 80 percent of Americans control only about 17 percent of the nation's wealth.12

o A total of 34.6 million Americans in 2002-12.1 percent of the population-lived below the official poverty line (which is set absurdly low), and 8.5 million of them had jobs. Overall, Black poverty is double that of whites.13

Poverty is always horrible. It only becomes an obscenity when the material means exist to eliminate it, yet it persists. But the priorities of world capitalism are such that the two things-unimaginable wealth and great misery-exist side by side. The priorities of capitalism are starkly revealed by the fact that the per capita income in sub-Saharan Africa is $490, whereas the per capita subsidy for European cows is $913.14

These obscenities make the case, if not for Marx and Marxism, then at the very least for some project to change the world.

That is why, try as the pundits may to bury him-Marx keeps resurfacing. His ideas are alive because his indictment of capitalism-though first penned in the 1840s-is still confirmed on a daily basis. As the misery worsens, the glaring class divisions give rise to what Marx had argued was the motor of historical change-the class struggle. Everywhere around the world, the working class (called the “proletariat” in Marx's day)-those whose labor produces society's abundant wealth in exchange for a pittance-continues to organize, demonstrate, strike, and resist in various ways.

Marx not only exposed the ills of society-many had done so before him-but he revealed how capitalism developed, how it went into crisis, and how it would meet its end. At Marx's grave site in 1883, Marx's friend and lifelong collaborator, Frederick Engels, said that Marx “discovered the special law of motion governing the present-day capitalist mode of production.” Even Marx's critics sometimes acknowledge that he had brilliant insights into the nature of capitalism. But, Engels continued,

Marx was before all else a revolutionist. His real mission in life was to contribute, in one way or another, to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the state institutions which it had brought into being, to contribute to the liberation of the modern proletariat, which he was the first to make conscious of its own position and its needs, conscious of the conditions of its emancipation.15

Of course, much has changed since Marx's day. But the essence of capitalism-the exploitation of the many by the few for profit-remains, and wreaks its damage on an ever-expanding scale. The insane anarchy of a world market that can produce enough food to feed everyone, but fails to feed the 6 million children who die every year from malnutrition,16 remains with us. The unplanned character of capitalist production, with its incessant drive for profit, has created an environmental crisis that threatens the earth's inhabitants like a runaway train threatens its passengers. Indeed, many of the trends described by Marx and Engels-the creation of an increasingly interdependent world market; the system's tendency toward periodic economic crises; increasing productivity and wealth on one side and poverty on the other; the concentration and centralization of capital and the growth of monopolies-give their writings an almost prophetic air.

The task today, set out so long ago by Marx and Engels, also remains the same-to replace competition with association, to build a society in which all wealth is produced and held by its producers in common, and distributed according to human need rather than profit. “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms,” wrote Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, “we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”17 Only in such a society can humankind develop its full creative capacities, using our scientific knowledge to enhance lives rather than destroy them.

Moreover, those who loudly applauded the fall of Stalinism left out one important factor: The death of what passed for communism in the East-but what was in reality bureaucratic, state capitalism-paved the way for people to rediscover the real Marxist tradition hidden behind years of distortion in both the East and the West during the Cold War era. It is the tradition of working-class self-emancipation.

Far from being dead, therefore, Marxism is experiencing a rebirth. Marxist ideas remain crucial to our understanding of the world today and the task of changing it.

There is, of course, no substitute for reading Marx and Engels, or the great revolutionary socialists who followed them, such as Rosa Luxemburg, Vladimir Lenin, and Leon Trotsky. I've read and reread works such as Marx's Civil War in France, Engels' Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Rosa Luxemburg's Reform or Revolution, Trotsky's Lessons of October, and Lenin's State and Revolution, among many others, and each time I reread them I learn something new in light of fresh experiences.18

But as Lenin said in a postscript to State and Revolution, “It is more pleasant and useful to go through the 'experience of revolution' than to write about it.”19 Marx and Engels, like Lenin, were not armchair thinkers. First and foremost, they were revolutionaries who fought for a world free of oppression and exploitation. But they understood that to change the world, it is necessary to understand how that world works, and to learn from past struggles the effective levers for its transformation.

2. Can it happen here?

Socialism, it has often been argued, has never taken hold in the United States because of certain peculiarities that distinguish this country from the rest of the world. Various arguments are offered to back up this claim of “American exceptionalism”: Americans are too individualistic, the United States is too egalitarian (or, everyone is middle class), workers can easily become their own boss, divisions between workers are too strong, and finally, workers are too prosperous to want another kind of society. Each of these reasons for the weakness of the socialist tradition in the United States is either false, historically obsolete, or surmountable.

Be all that you can be?

A uniquely fluid class system that allows for significant upward mobility is “the promise that lies at the heart of the American dream,” according to a New York Times study on class in the United States.20 The ability of the poor and the working class to climb the social ladder has always been exaggerated. But in the early phases of industrial development it had a certain amount of validity. The abundance of cheap land in the West for a time offered workers the opportunity to “retire” from wage labor and become farmers. Each new wave of immigrants would start at the bottom, but might dream of improving their lot by moving up and out of the working class. This provided a safety valve preventing the formation of what Engels called a “permanent proletariat.”21 Once westward expansion had completed its course by the end of the 1890s, however, the safety valve was closed.

But the “dream” never disappeared. Being your own boss-starting up a small business where there aren't any foremen or managers bossing you around-continues to be seen as a way out of the working class. The dream is a backhanded acknowledgement of the alienating, tedious, and unrewarding quality of wage labor. But the dream also has an ideological purpose-to promote the idea that individuals can make something of themselves, not through collective struggle, but by dint of individual spunk and hard work. Conversely, it reinforces the idea that those who are stuck in the working class or in poverty deserve it because they haven't tried hard enough to get out.

How realistic is it for most workers to become their own boss? There are lots of small businesses in the United States, but they are responsible for only a small part of total employment and total wealth. In the United States, there are 3,551 larger firms that employ twenty-five hundred or more workers, accounting for 37 percent of the total workforce and 43 percent of the total payroll. On the other hand, the 3.75 million businesses that employ 9 or fewer workers account for only 11 percent of employment and a paltry 8.7 percent of total payroll.22

The problem with the dream of owning your own business is that it is a precarious existence that often ends in bankruptcy. Only half of newly created small businesses are still in business after four years. Indeed, every year about as many small businesses close as are created. In 2004, for example, 580,900 new small businesses opened, but 576,200 closed-34,317 of these ended in bankruptcy.23

For millions of people, the dream of ownership means pouring your life savings into a business venture that requires endless work and the constant threat of failure to show for it. The small minority that are lucky enough to grow into real businesses end up surviving by exploiting other workers-profiting from the difference between labor's output and labor's pay. That is, by becoming their own boss, they also became someone else's boss.

According to the New York Times study, income mobility in the United States has been on the decline for the last three decades. In the past, notes one Michigan economist cited in the study, “people would say, 'Don't worry about inequality. The offspring of the poor have chances as good as the chances of the offspring of the rich.' Well, that's not true. It's not respectable in scholarly circles anymore to make that argument.”24 According to Sharon Smith, “This is…the first generation of young workers in U.S. history that faces a substantially lower standard of living than their parents.”25

While there are certainly some people who move out of the working class, and some middle-class people who become capitalists, the movement also works in the other direction, toward downward mobility. Whether we use the more superficial measure of income, or whether we use the more accurate measure of class mobility, the overall picture doesn't change much from year to year; income distribution today is as unequal as it was on the eve of the Great Depression.26

The ultimate argument against the dream of upward mobility for the majority is the fact that the economy is a social pyramid; lots of room at the bottom, very little room at the top. Workers in the United States, just like workers everywhere else, can only advance through joint struggle with their class, not by trying to climb out of that class.

Playing on divisions

Another obstacle to workers' unity in the United States, Engels noted, was the way in which native-born workers were pitted against immigrants, established immigrants pitted against newly arriving immigrants, and white workers pitted against Black workers. Native-born workers “assumed an aristocratic posture,” leaving the “badly paid occupations to the immigrants.”27 The immigrants, moreover, were divided by nationality and language. “And your bourgeoisie,” wrote Engels to a fellow socialist in the United States, “knows much better even than the Austrian Government how to play off one nationality against the other: Jews, Italians, Bohemians, etc., against Germans and Irish, and each one against the other.… In such a country, continually renewed waves of advance, followed by equally certain setbacks, are inevitable.”28

These divisions, however, were never absolute barriers to class unity. We have already spoken of the populist movement, which demonstrated impressive class solidarity across racial barriers in the Jim Crow Deep South. The United Mine Workers, from its formation in 1890, organized Black and white coalminers in the South, often in the same locals. Half of the UMW members in Alabama were Black, many of the union's officers were Black, and the state's largest local was integrated.29 The 1912 Lawrence strike-which brought together twenty-five thousand textile workers made up of twenty-eight different nationalities and who spoke forty-five different dialects-is another example.30 Historian Phillip Foner wrote of Lawrence:

The spontaneous outburst quickly gave way to a methodical strike organization rarely paralleled in the annals of the American labor movement.… A general strike committee of 56 members was set up. The 14 largest nationality groups were each allowed to elect four members. (Later, another nationality was given representation thus increasing the membership to 60.) Of the principal nationalities taking part in the strike, only the Germans were not represented on the committee…. The strike committee was the executive board of the strikers, charged with complete authority to conduct the strike, and subject only to the popular mandate of the strikers themselves. All mills on strike and their component parts, all crafts and phases of work, were represented. The committee spoke for all workers.31

A history of class struggle

The U.S. working class has a long and rich tradition of struggle. But it has followed a boom and bust pattern: extended periods of surface calm interrupted by huge explosions. The eruption of pent-up anger appears on the surface to come from nowhere, but it has its roots in the preceding period of employer attacks on the working class and its organizations. The attacks, which often involve intense violence directed against strikers and their families, have usually been successful in weakening or destroying unions and crippling the left. The result has been periodic breaks in the organizational and political continuity of the movement. Each new wave of struggle has not necessarily had the benefit of learning from the experiences of previous waves. This herky-jerky history prompted Trotsky to observe, “The American workers are very combative-as we have seen during the strikes. They have had the most rebellious strikes in the world. What the American worker misses is a spirit of generalization, or analysis, of his class position in society as a whole.”32

An example of the break in continuity is the fact that until the mass protests of immigrant workers on May Day, 2006, most American workers were only vaguely aware of May Day's significance as a holiday marking the international solidarity of the world working class. Fewer still know that the first May Day in the world was marked in 1886 by a strike of two hundred thousand U.S. workers demanding the eight-hour day. The memory of the working class can only be embodied in organizations that are capable of carrying on the tradition. In the United States, that memory has been continually lost, and then relearned.

Yet having said this, it is important to point out that in every upturn of mass struggle, tens of thousands of workers have embraced socialist ideas and organization. The Socialist Party, for example, peaked at 150,000 members in 1915. Eugene Debs got almost a million votes in his 1912 presidential run. Tens of thousands of workers went through the school of the IWW, and at its height in 1938, the Communist Party (CP) boasted 80,000 members and twice as many close collaborators. In 1969, at the height of radical ferment, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover warned President Nixon that “a recent poll indicates that approximately 25 percent of the black population has great respect for the Black Panther Party, including 43 percent of blacks under twenty-one years of age.”33

The American ruling-class tradition is one in which it uses every means at its disposal to divide and weaken the working-class movement-and to try and crush it when it rises up. It is distinct from other ruling classes not in nature, but in degree. The racism it has employed, for example, has historically surpassed that of every other advanced industrial society, with the exception of apartheid-era South Africa. Moreover, the political system it presides over is based on the rule of nearly identical capitalist parties, in which one party masquerades as an ally of workers and the oppressed in order to absorb the movements. And the scale of violence it is willing to use to smash workers' resistance is the most extreme in the industrialized world. These are the real obstacles workers have faced. Yet these obstacles would not be placed in front of workers by the bosses unless the possibility of class unity was a real threat.

Workers can choose two different responses to the bosses' attempts to divide them. They can accept those divisions, and see lower-paid, more oppressed workers as their competitors. Or they can learn from their own hard experience that the best way to defend themselves is to unite and raise the conditions of all. Obviously, American capitalism would not have survived to this day without succeeding in dividing workers. But every example of real solidarity reminds us of the potential for things to be different. As Eric Foner recounted:

“We are commencing to see a few things,” declared a Davenport, Iowa, local of the United Brotherhood of Electrical Workers after the employers had taken advantage of the union's discrimination policy to use Negro workers as strikebreakers. “The prejudice we have held against color is beginning to vanish. A man may be white, black, brown, red or yellow, if he is a toiler he is one of us and part of us, for if his scale of living is lower than ours, our own is not secure, for 'no chain is securer than the weakest link in it.'”34

1930s-the aborted possibility

The 1930s were a time when the working class had a real opportunity to fulfill its revolutionary potential.35 The statistics show the scale of the upheaval. Strikes tripled to 1,856 between 1933 and 1934, and peaked in 1937 at 4,470. Union membership rose from 2.6 million in 1934 to 7.3 million in 1938. In 1930, only 50,000 Black workers were in unions. By 1940, half a million were unionized. In 1937, 193,000 workers engaged in 247 sit-down strikes in the aftermath of the Flint strike, and before the year's end half a million workers had engaged it the sit-down tactic. Out of this upheaval came the formation of the mass industrial unions and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

Communist Party militants played a leading role in many struggles, attracting to their ranks many of the best working-class rebels. The party took on racism head-on-organizing Black sharecroppers in the South, and picketing stores, demanding the hiring of Black workers in New York City. It organized a campaign for justice for the “Scottsboro Boys” (nine young Black men framed for rape in Alabama) that united Blacks and whites in marches and meetings across the country. As a result, thousands of Blacks joined the party, increasing its African-American membership in 1938 to about 9 percent of its total membership. It was able to demonstrate, in a society racked by racism and lynching, not only that Black and white workers could unite in the struggle for common demands, but that white workers could be won to the fight against racism.36

But if the CP showed that American workers weren't at all averse to socialism, it also was the single greatest obstacle to building a left challenge to the Democratic Party. The problem is that by the 1930s the CP had ceased to be a genuine revolutionary party. At the height of the struggle in the 1930s, the CP was in its “Popular Front” phase-having been ordered along with other Western Communist Parties to make uncritical alliances with bourgeois parties as part of Stalin's agreement with the Allies against Hitler. In the United States, this meant instructing members to give their full backing to Roosevelt and the Democratic Party. The party that had denounced Roosevelt as “an inspirer of fascism” in 1935 was singing his praises just a year later. Though the Communist Party's members had played a leading role in the sit-down strikes, the party's leadership agreed to throw a wet towel on the struggle. A December 1937 article in the CP's paper, the Daily Worker, declared “unequivocally and emphatically that the Communists and the Communist Party had never in the past and do not now in any shape, manner or form advocate or support unauthorized and wildcat action and regard such strikes as gravely injurious … to the cause of cooperative action between labor and middle-class groups.”37

Instead of building a party of workers committed to genuine socialism, the CP helped steer workers away from that alternative, and into the arms of the Democratic Party. When thousands of workers expressed support for a labor party alternative to the Democrats, the CP and the union bureaucracy created fake local labor parties whose purpose was to siphon workers' votes toward Roosevelt's reelection.

Bought off? The race is to the bottom, not to the top

In the period after the Second World War, world capitalism entered an unprecedented boom. For a layer of workers, it seemed that 1930s-style poverty was a thing of the past. Workers could now expect that their children's lives would improve, and their children's after that. Radical ideas seemed unnecessary. Labor unions partnered up with the employers, trading economic benefits for their members in exchange for class peace. The Cold War anticommunist witch hunts, carried through by employers, the state, and the union bureaucracy, purged thousands of socialists and militants from the trade unions and other institutions, severing the connection between the radical traditions of the 1930s and later generations of workers. The tragedy is that the CP contributed to this process. To ingratiate itself with Roosevelt, it applauded repression against other radicals in the labor movement. When it was attacked and vilified by the state and in the unions, it failed to mount any defense. Party activists denied they were members, and some even participated in the red-baiting.

The postwar prosperity prompted a new battery of pundits to herald the end of socialism and the triumph of capitalism, giving rise to new arguments about how workers were too contented to want change. The claim was exaggerated, though it contained a grain of truth. But there were contradictions. The Civil Rights movement, and later the fight for Black power in the North, was a stark reminder that the “American Dream” never applied to African Americans. These social movements provided the impetus for the anti-Vietnam War movement, the women's movement, and the stirrings of a new labor movement.

The endless prosperity came to an end in the late 1960s, shattering the postwar honeymoon. As crisis began to hit the U.S. economy, and as the social movements peaked, workers began to stir, bucking against both employers and a sclerotic labor bureaucracy that had become proud of its partnership with capital and looked on picket lines with unease. The number of wildcat strikes doubled from one thousand to two thousand through the 1960s. A strike wave in 1970 included a strike by forty thousand miners demanding disability benefits, and postal workers, though legally prohibited from striking, organized a successful two-week national walkout. In the Detroit auto plants, Black workers organized the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement and other similar organizations to fight racism and demand rights for Black workers. Socialist ideas became attractive again to a layer of students and young working-class activists. There was a real possibility at this point to begin the process of rebuilding a militant, socialist current rooted in the working class.38 But there was a problem. The bulk of the radicalized activists were attracted to Maoist and Stalinist politics that turned their back on the working class as “bought off,” looking instead to third world national liberation movements for inspiration. Some left organizations did make a turn to the working class, but in the mid-1970s economic recession hit and, instead of provoking more working-class rebellion, heralded the beginning of a retreat.

The balance of class forces shifted decisively toward the employers beginning in the late 1970s. Unions, wages, and the social safety net were ravaged while corporations fed at the state trough, courtesy of the working-class taxpayer. As wages and unionization rates declined, there was a tremendous shift of wealth from the poorest to the richest-shown most dramatically by the 728 to 1 ratio of average CEO compensation to average wages in the United States.39 This economic offensive was backed up by a right-wing ideological assault that pinned the blame for poverty on the poor themselves. The 1980s became known as the “looting decade.”

The collapse of what passed for socialism seemed another dagger in the heart of the left, already battered and demoralized by the Reagan era. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, writes Ahmed Shawki,

Western politicians and the mainstream press were celebrating the miracles of the market system and proclaiming the victory of capitalism over communism. The introduction to the 1989 edition of the annual Economic Report of the President proclaimed, “The tide of history, which some skeptics saw as ebbing inevitably away from Western ideals ... flows in our direction.”40

But the excitement of capitalists and their spokespeople could not conceal the fact that their gain turned out to be a great loss for most people. Continues Shawki, “The much-heralded promises of Western politicians and business leaders at the time of the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989 have given way to the stark realities of a global capitalist system.”41 The stark reality was that in the United States and the rest of the world, inequality grew to staggering proportions while a handful of people became very rich.

Indeed, the period since 1989 has been one that Sharon Smith describes as “the employers' offensive unhinged”-with record profits accompanying a growing race to the bottom for the working class.42 Anyone who can argue today that the working class is “bought off” simply does not know what happened to the working class at the end of the last century and the beginning of this one. Income inequality, child poverty, and a widespread lack of access to health care are more pronounced in the United States than in all other advanced countries. The minimum wage in 2005 was below what it was fifty years ago. According to one report, “The wealthiest 20 percent of households in 1973 accounted for 44 percent of total U.S. income, according to the Census Bureau. Their share jumped to 50 percent in 2002, while everyone else's fell. For the bottom fifth, the share dropped to 3.5 percent from 4.2 percent.”43

The very ferocity of the ruling-class attack was bound to provoke a response. As Shawki notes, the “class inequality and social polarization [that] have accelerated over the decade of the 1990s … form the underpinnings to a new radicalization.”44 Yet that radicalization, emerging from a long period of defeat for the working class and the left, was at first slow in coming. As Shawki relates,

While the collapse of Stalinism opened up the possibility of rebuilding a genuinely revolutionary socialist movement internationally, it also produced enormous demoralization and confusion within the existing left.… Thus, in many countries, the immediate beneficiaries of the end of Stalinism were the defenders of capitalism.45

A strike by Teamsters in 1997 was one of many false starts in the return of working-class combativity, gaining popular support but failing to spark further class struggle. Then came the “Battle in Seattle” in 1999, the mass antiwar protest of February 15, 2003, in cities across the country, involving hundreds of thousands of people, and then the mass immigrant rights upsurge in Spring 2006. In Los Angeles alone, a million people-mostly low-paid workers, many of them undocumented, formerly invisible-poured into the streets on two separate occasions in March and May to demand their rights. These were the stirrings of the most downtrodden sections of the working class that has for years not been able to see or feel its own power.

The argument of today's pundits is not that the United States is different, but that the rest of the world is now as exceptional, that is, as closed to a socialist alternative, as the United States. In this depressing view, the United States provides the dystopian model-low wages, poor benefits, and inadequate social services-that the rest of the world is bound to follow. This may be a model that capitalists salivate over, but for the majority it is a model to resist. And they are resisting, from Paris to Buenos Aires, from Los Angeles to La Paz. The single biggest obstacle to the development, or the redevelopment, of genuine socialist currents in the United States and elsewhere-Stalinism-is gone; and the claims of capitalism's great triumph look like a cruel joke. In these conditions, genuine socialist ideas can once again spread and take hold.

Paul D'Amato is managing editor of the ISR.


1 Daniel Singer, Prelude to Revolution: France in May 1968, 2nd ed. (Boston: South End Press, 2002), xxvi.

2 Sombart quoted in Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology (New York: Collier Books, 1962), 277.

3 Bell, The End of Ideology, 16.

4 Marcuse quoted in Paul Mattick, Critique of Marcuse: One-Dimensional Man in Class Society (London: Merlin Press, 1972).

5 Some examples of this line of argument, in various permutations, can be found, for example, in: “Marcuse Defines His New Left Line,” interview with Marcuse in The New Left of the 1960s: The Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse, ed. Douglass Kellner (New York: Routledge, 2005); Ernest Laclau and Chantalle Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (London: Verso, 1985); and André Gorz, Farewell to the Working Class (London: Pluto Press, 1982). Many other examples could be cited. The most rabidly anti-Marxist tract against the central role of the working class in achieving a new society is Murray Bookchin's nasty little essay, “Listen, Marxist!,” in Post-Scarcity Anarchism (Buffalo, N.Y.: Black Rose Books, 1986), 193-242.

6 Francis Fukuyama, “By Way of an Introduction,” in The End of History and the Last Man (London: Penguin, 1992).

7 UN Human Development Report 1999: Globalization with a Human Face (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 3.

8 Jane Chapman, “Forbes Report: Billionaires' Wealth Grew by 36 Percent in Last Year,” March 9, 2004, World Socialist Web site.

9 United Nations Human Development Report 2003: Millennium Development Goals (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 5.

10 Sara Anderson et al., Executive Excess 2005: Defense Contractors Get More Bucks for the Bang, 12th Annual CEO Compensation Survey for the Institute for Policy Studies, August 30, 2005, 13. Available at http://www.faireconomy.org/press/2005/EE2005.pdf (accessed August 1, 2006).

11 Ibid., 14-15.

12 Americans for Democratic Action, “Income and Inequality: Millions Left Behind,” report, February 2004, 5. Available at http://www.adaction.org/Income2004.htm (accessed August 1, 2006).

13 Ibid.

14 Human Development Report 2003, 155.

15 Frederick Engels, “Karl Marx's Funeral,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works (hereafter MECW), vol. 24 (New York: International Publishers, 1989), 468. Note: Many of the Marxist works cited in this book can be found at the Marx-Engels Internet archive at http://www.marxists.org.

16 Frances Moore Lappé et al., World Hunger: Twelve Myths (New York: Grove Press, 1998), 8. The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2005 (Rome: United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, 2005), 20.

17 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, in The Communist Manifesto: A Road Map to History's Most Important Political Document, ed. Phil Gasper (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005), 72. (Hereafter, Communist Manifesto.)

18 Karl Marx, Civil War in France: The Paris Commune (New York: International Publishers, 1989); Frederick Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (New York: International Publishers, 1989); Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution, in Rosa Luxemburg Speaks (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970); Leon Trotsky, The Lessons of October (London: Bookmarks, 1987); V. I. Lenin, State and Revolution (New York: International Publishers, 1994).

19 Lenin, State and Revolution.

20 “Class Matters” series, New York Times, April-May 2005, available at http://www.nytimes.com/pages/national/class/index.html (accessed August 7, 2006).

21 Frederick Engels, “Appendix to the American edition of The Condition of the Working Class in England,” in MECW, vol. 26, 403.

22 U.S. Small Business Administration, “Employer Firms, Establishments, Employment, and Annual Payroll Small Firm Size Classes, 2003” table, available at http://www.sba.gov/advo/research/us_03ss.pdf (accessed August 7, 2006).

23 U.S. Small Business Administration, “Frequently Asked Questions,” available at http://app1.sba.gov/faqs/faqindex.cfm?areaID=24 (accessed August 7, 2006). These statistics are misleading because they consider a small business any firm that employs fewer than five hundred workers. The businesses that have the most difficulty surviving, however, are the small “mom and pop” stores, and businesses run by individuals out of their homes.

24 Quoted in Janny Scott and Danny Leonhardt, “Shadowy Lines That Still Divide” in the “Class Matters” series, New York Times, May 15, 2005.

25 S. Smith, Subterreanean Fire, 300.

26 Lee Sustar, “Autopsy of the American Dream,” Socialist Worker, September 17, 2004.

27 Frederick Engels to Herman Schluter, in Marx and Engels on the United States, 328.

28 Ibid., 328.

29 Foner, Organized Labor and the Black Worker, 82-84.

30 William Haywood, The Autobiography of Big Bill Haywood (New York: International Publishers, 1929), 252.

31 Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, vol. 4 (New York: International Publishers, 1997), 318.

32 Leon Trotsky, “American Problems,” Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1939-1940 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), 335.

33 Quoted in Dick Cluster, They Should Have Served That Cup of Coffee (Boston: South End Press, 1979), 44.

34 Quoted in Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, vol. 3 (New York: International Publishers, 1981), 254.

35 Facts and quotes in this section, unless otherwise cited, come from Sharon Smith, “Depression Decade: The Turning Point,” in Subterranean Fire, 102-52.

36 Paul D'Amato, “The Communist Party and Black Liberation in the 1930s,” International Socialist Review 1, Summer 1997.

37 Bert Cochran, Labor and Communism: The Conflict That Shaped American Unions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), 138.

38 See S. Smith, Subterranean Fire, 219-223.

39 Ahmed Shawki, “Between Things Ended and Things Begun,” ISR 18, June-July 2001.

40 Ibid.

41 Ibid.

42 S. Smith, Subterranean Fire, 298.

43 “Income Gap Widens,” Associated Press, August 26, 2004.

44 Shawki, “Between Things Ended and Things Begun.”

45 Ibid.


Bio paragraph here

Back to top