It is no secret that this year marks the 200th anniversary since the birth of Marx. In looking back, we confront a paradox which perhaps no one in the 19th century, or even the 20th century, could have imagined: the economic theories of Marx, in particular the declining rate of profit – as we enter into this age of robotics, 3D printing, and automation – have never been more relevant and pressing as they are today. Likewise, that we live in a world dominated by a few who live and live well at the expense, on the backs of those who work, is in such proportions that never before has the gulf, the gap, the disparity between the haves and have-nots been so pronounced. Yet the rub is, also, that never before has the meaning of the word ‘left’ been so meaningless, and never before has the meaning of its antithesis, the right, likewise been so confused and unrelated to reality.
So what are we left with? Well, we can say of course that it’s still true that the history of the world has been the history of the class struggle. Throughout history, there have been at least two classes of people, master and slave. There have been classes in between, in the struggle of these classes we have seen the motor-force of history. This reality has been constant.
It is also true that the means for which a class maintains its supremacy over the oppressed have only changed, whether it’s by divine right, or through the abstract concept of “private property.” All power and authority rests upon force, for if a ruling body loses the monopoly of force it holds over a people, then the oppressed classes will rise up and replace their masters.
These oppressed classes were poised to break there chains wherever a progressive, revolutionary forces has taken power, in order to either impose their own progressive ideals upon a people, or to vastly improve the lives of millions of toiling masses. And as it is so well known, this revolutionary political force was the left-wing, and the conservative political forces right wing.
But now approaching the close of the second decade of the 21st century, the words, meanings, concepts, and superstructural images which we conjure with the utterance of words like ‘left’ and ‘right’ are more and more removed from their origins. So much so, that we are forced to ask some critical, even painful questions.
One of the essential questions to be asked regarding leftism then is, what does it mean to be a leftist? What are the general principles that would make one a leftist? Does it mean championing social and political equality? Does it mean simple progressivism?
Today, we are at a point when the rather broad notions of left and right are arbitrary and are often subject to semantics. These phrases today are becoming meaningless, as the “left wing” can include everyone from Barack Hussein Obama to Saddam Hussein. When we approach the question of “what it means to be a leftist”, we need to take account for the historical and contemporary forms.
As the well known story goes, which in truth cannot be known well enough, the origin of the dichotomy of left and right goes back to 1789 during the French revolution with the establishment of the Estates General. Those who sat on the left in the assembly included those who opposed monarchy and supported the revolution, and the establishment of a secular republic. Those who sat on the right of the assembly were the conservatives who wanted to maintain the monarchy and the traditional institutions of the Ancient Regime. What is fascinating is that Marx’s own analysis of the class struggles in France not only held tremendous explanatory power, but also predictive power as well.
The historical and economic conditions of France at this time were ones of contention between the blossoming capitalist class and the nobles that have ruled by divine right for centuries. This merchant class who finds his own origins in the burgs of the middle ages, has found himself at the forefront of a revolutionary and progressive point in history. Liberty, equality, and fraternity would triumph over the crown.
The French revolution had brought about a new age, with the dissolution of the former. With a brazen throat of war, the new ruling class, the bourgeoisie, had laid waste to the fortress of the old world. Championing the values of individualism and secularism, the French revolution would be the most revolutionary event of the modern world.
With the supremacy of the bourgeois class now established, the foundation for the proliferation of rational ideas and new social constructions has been laid. The establishment of a secular republic, universal suffrage, rule by law, and the consolidation of a bourgeois class within arbitrarily drawn up borders which would constitute the nation-state have all come into being with this new, progressive turn in history.
The establishment of a bourgeois republic was a game changer in that it symbolized for the first time in history that the bourgeoisie had effectively gained political power. However, this was due to a historical necessity, as the modes of production are the nucleus of every societies super structure, whether it be monarchical (i.e feudal economics), liberal (capitalist economics), and so forth. The future Napoleons and Bismarcks were effectively the executives of capitalist directives.
The consolidation of the capitalist bourgeoisie would facilitate a new historical titan: the industrial revolution. Historical necessity chose that British isle of Vikings and businessmen to be the birthplace of this revolutionary change in the modes of production.
With the power of steam and electricity, the conditions of labor had reached a mass character. No longer were goods and products created on a singular basis by an individual for the user, but as the mass production of goods had produced a material abundance and surplus of goods, the relations of power had also undergone a drastic evolutionary change. From 1760 onward, populations of rural peasants would leave their ploughs and wheat fields and flock to the urban factory, to form the basis of a new army of industrial laborers: the proletariat.
Just as the capitalist bourgeoisie would find their birth in the cities surrounding the castles and chateaus of the kings and emperors of the feudal age, the industrial proletarian was born in the urban factory. However what really distinguishes the modes of production in the capitalist from the former is the mass mobilization of the productive elements of society.
The consolidation of bourgeois power and the mobilization of the urban labourer into the cities would mean the formation of a new social-structure: the nation-state. This social-structure would be the new body into which the modern military-industrial complex would sprout. Such are the conditions in which iron-handed Bismarck’s come forth.
Historical conditions bring about not only new Caesars, but also new Martin Luther’s and new Spartacus’. Along with Bismarck, Prussia would be the home of another historical figure whose name we all certainly know: Karl Marx.
Karl Marx was living with the formation of industrial capitalism right before his eyes, and set out to formulate a coherent analysis of the grand economic and social conditions of his time. Coming from a Hegelian philosophical background, Marx would set out to formulate his dialectical thesis on the development of history, and with the partnership of Friedrich Engels, would bring forth dialectical materialism into our intellectual world.
Marx and Engels posited that class struggle moved the wheels of history, that existence itself was a contest between a master and slave class. With the changes in the means of production through the evolution of material circumstance, a new class rises in necessity to appropriate for himself the means of production, and by extension political and social supremacy.
Such is the case when the Cromwell and his bands of farmers, soldiers, and civil servants put the monarchy to the sword, and when the colonialists drove the British Empire out of the new world. Let us remember the class circumstances of the US’s founding fathers: farmers and businessmen seeking emancipation from imperialists. They were a progressive force in this point of history.
Marx analyzed the machinery of capitalism and came to the conclusion that it’s essential element is the collectivization of labor. The collectivist character of industrial labor fosters the mass-production of material goods in society, creating a surplus value of goods. This surplus value, however, is converted into profits for the proprietor; the bourgeoisie.
And this is the basic sum of it all. To understand that history is a dynamic process, and while people are driven by ideals and ideas, wants and needs – their ideals, and needs are defined in large part by the very machinery, the very logic, of the system and society within which they live. These are not formed in a vacuum. They are not separable from history and its development. This is the staple contradiction inherent in capitalism as postulated by Marx; that those who create the wealth and infrastructure of our society, i.e the proletarian, collect for themselves mere scraps of the the surplus value that they create with their labor. The bourgeoisie, through titles and permits, lines their pockets with the majority of the wealth.
Also staple to Marx’s philosophy, is the belief that the age of capitalism will decline into a revolutionary epoch, marking the beginning of the transformation of the social organization of capitalism into socialism. This is of course, contingent upon the development of historical development of history.
And so we confront a contradiction that perhaps Marx himself would have predicted, had he ever conceived that in the present year, the contradictions between capitalism and its relationship to the developing world, would have enabled a system of capitalism to continue – although not unchanged – right up unto the precipice of full and total automation.
In 1848, revolutions surge throughout Europe. Workers uprisings and strikes shake the system, despite their overall failure. Concessions made by the government to provide state-funded employment projects for the strikes are achieved. This marks historically the first proletarian strike which led to reform. Yet, as we shall observe in history these concessions foster the growth of social democracy. Old school revolutionaries would abandon their rifles, the tool for maintaining the freedom of a proletarian, for parliamentary chairs. Enter: social democracy… half-revolutionary, half-liberal universalist, fully contradictory.
Marx postulates that the failures of the workers uprisings are rooted primarily in lack of cohesion between the various sections of the workers movements. Lacking cohesion, discipline, and falling to ideological differences, the workers movements would inevitably fail, this time around. As we look deeper into the Marxist weltanschauung, we will come across the true praxis of the class conscious, revolutionary proletariat.
“The dictatorship of proletariat” over the bourgeoisie is postulated by Marx to be the transitional social arrangement in the establishment of communism. This corresponds also with the means of which the bourgeoisie gained total political power in the French revolution, ala a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.
Wars waged between contending nation-states shook Europe as Marx’s writings reverberated throughout the continent, and in 1871, in the midst of a tottering French empire, the first workers commune was established in Paris. Urban workers, peasants, and soldiers, electrified by Marx’s philosophy took up arms and seized Paris. The commune was met with suppression from the government within a week, yet armed with muskets and sabers, the communards fought them back. However, the commune was destroyed by government forces within two months. The Paris Commune, by Marx’s definition was a manifestation of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
And this, that, here is the story of the revolutionary ideas of Marx. This is not to say that there isn’t an active and lively criticism of Marx, and more can be said of course about the so-called ‘Marxists’. And so when we look at what we have written here today, half homage, half setting the record straight, we must be sober in our appraisal.
People are driven not just by logical reasoning and people do not simply act and behave in their own conscious interests as a class. People are driven by prejudice, by dreams, by love, and by hate. People are empowered by hopes, desires, obligations, and a sense of what is right and what is wrong.
Words carry so much weight, they contain the power to telegraph, to upload, to drop, entire minds, entire conceptions which have framed the world we are in. Words hold us back, and it is the meaning and the content of the message we must focus on. The labels left and right, are stale, old, moldy, no – indeed – the gangrene has already set in, they are moribund and indeed …. contagious.
So while we must understand Marx, the man who red-pilled generations to come on the machinations of the capitalist machine which had become their lives, and gave some clues and proscriptions about how people could overcome the rule of the robber barons and bankers, we also must understand that Marx was a man of his time.
The project, the work of humanity to overcome this entire system of oppression has never before been so critical. It is time to let go of words and tribal divisions like ‘left’ that hold us back.
This liberates us, frees us, to speak truth to power and launch the counter-offensive, bringing together and uniting under a single revolutionary banner, beyond left and beyond right.