Ideas & Debates
IDEAS AND DEBATES
Marxism: A Method, Theory and Practice
A central question for those awakening to political life today is this: What is Marxism, and what does it mean for our political analysis and practice? To begin to answer this question, we must see Marxism not only as a theory but as a method of analysis and a political practice.
June 29, 2018
In the final essay I wrote in high school, I argued that Marx was the most important thinker in modern history—a bold claim that everyone in my Catholic high school scoffed at. I remember someone even telling me that Marxism would soon be forgotten and fall into oblivion. That was 2004.
Today, even the capitalist media have to contend with the “renewed” relevance of Marx, in articles such as this one, this one and this New York Times article titled “Happy Birthday, Karl Marx. You Were Right!”.
Although “socialism” is no longer a dirty word, its meaning is very much in dispute. There are academics writing countless books about different facets of Marxism, but they generally pay little attention to its role in advancing class struggle. We also have the Democratic Socialists of America, who quote Marx while supporting one of the two most important capitalist parties in the world—the Democratic Party. There is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who has caused a commotion in the political establishment, forcing Nancy Pelosi to announce that socialism is not “ascendant” in the Democratic Party. And there is the infamous Al-Jazeera video entitled “5 ways America is already socialist” (!?) because we have a few minimal public services. Marx must be rolling in his grave.
So, a central question for those awakening to political life today is this: What is Marxism, and what does it mean for our political analysis and practice? To begin to answer this question, we must see Marxism not only as a theory but as a method of analysis and a political practice.
Marxism as a method
As a method of analysis, Marxism is based in dialectical materialism. This means that, far from being a dogmatic set of truths written in “The Communist Manifesto,” Marxism is a way of analyzing the world in its current moment, taking into account multiple elements. Distinct from other methods of analysis, including religious, postmodern and empiricist methods, Marxism is based on an understanding of a material reality that is in constant motion.
Materialism can be summed up by the idea that, in the final analysis, our material reality—not God, not ideas, not language—shapes our existence. Marx, deeply influenced by Hegel, criticized the Young Hegelians, an intellectual circle he was once associated with, who believed that changes in society come about through ideas and language—quite similar to today’s postmodernism. In “The German Ideology” (1846), he writes,“In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say, we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process, we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. ... Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.”
In other words, we exist within material bodies that have material needs fulfilled through production, and it is this process of production and the “life process” that produces our consciousness. In “The German Ideology” Marx says, “Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc.—real, active men, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these, up to its furthest forms. Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men is their actual life-process.”
Our ideas do not come from thin air; they are a product of the way we live. What we think, what we imagine, what we want and what we believe are conditioned by the fact that we live in capitalism, which on the one hand connects people around the world as never before, while on the other hand prooduces miserable conditions for the vast majority. This form of production opened up immense creative possibilities for humanity to think, create and imagine, in contrast to the provincialism of feudal thought, while also closing off many of these possibilities for the working class.
While Marx has important criticisms of Hegel, he does not break with all of Hegelian thought. Rather, Marx took up Hegel’s dialectic, based on the idea of contradictions—thesis and antithesis coming into conflict and forming a synthesis. Likewise, Marx sees society as characterized by conflicts and tensions, in constant movement. But for Marx, these tensions are rooted in the material character of society, not in ideas. Marx took Hegel and “turned him on his head”—using a similar dialectical method as Hegel, but arguing that material reality moves society.
It is in this sense that Marxist political economy is considered a science—not because it deals in the realm of absolute truths, but because it deals in the realm of the measurable, material world. Marx uses this method to develop theories of capitalism, surplus value and socialism. The latter he does not view as a utopian ideal, but rather a material possibility that will resolve the contradictions of capitalism. In fact, he rejects utopian socialism divorced from the current conditions of society. As Engels argues in “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific” (1880),“From that time forward, Socialism was no longer an accidental discovery of this or that ingenious brain, but the necessary outcome of the struggle between two historically developed classes—the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Its task was no longer to manufacture a system of society as perfect as possible, but to examine the historical-economic succession of events from which these classes and their antagonism had of necessity sprung, and to discover in the economic conditions thus created the means of ending the conflict.”
Marx’s goal was not to dream up a perfect society. It was to examine society as it is and point to the possibility of a socialist society to arise from what exists. In sharp contrast to utopian socialists, Marx sought to understand the inner workings of capitalism so as to “get mastery of it” and find the mechanism to overthrow it. In this sense, Marx argues that one cannot begin the struggle against capitalism in the conditions one wants—one begins in the conditions that exist. This is the basis of Marxist theory.
Marxism as a theory
Using the scientific method of dialectical materialism, Marx explores the foundation of the capitalist system. As “The Communist Manifesto” (1848) famously begins, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” In this sense, Marx sees the conflict between the distinct social classes as a constant throughout history, bringing about revolutions and changing the structure of society. The causes of these changes, according to Marx and Engels, are rooted in the changes in production and exchange.
In the “Manifesto,” Marx and Engels argue that changes in technology allowed for the growth of the capitalist mode of production—with the division of labor and centralization of production in factories in cities that created massive profits for the bourgeoisie. Marx and Engels argue that because feudalism “no longer sufficed for the growing wants of new markets,” it gave way to capitalism, with revolutions that brought the bourgeoisie to power. Slavery and racism helped strengthen the European capitalist class, as well as form the basis of emergent capitalism in the Americas. Colonialism and later imperialism assured the spread of capitalism around the world.
Paradoxically, the spread of capitalism creates the foundations for socialism. The basis of socialism is not only that capitalism is “bad” or oppressive, although this is certainly true; the basis of socialism is found in the fact that the productive forces of capitalism created conditions so that we can all have more than enough. As Engels says in “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific,”: “The means of production, and production itself had become in essence socialized. But they were subjected to a form of appropriation which presupposes the private production of individuals, under which, therefore, everyone owns his own product and brings it to market. The mode of production is subjected to this form of appropriation, although it abolishes the conditions upon which the latter rests.”
Capitalism makes production more efficient, faster and capable of providing subsistence for every human being. In capitalist society, however, production exists for the sake of creating profit, not bringing about the common good, creating the absurd contradiction of food getting thrown away while people starve or, as occurred during the Great Depression, food being burned for the sake of the market.
While Marx certainly could (and did) write about the horrible effects of capitalism—the inequality and the miserable working conditions for the proletariat—his focus was on describing the internal mechanisms of capitalism. How does it work? In the first volume of “Capital,” Marx begins by discussing a building block of capitalism—the buying and selling of commodities. While this seems to be essentially a process that takes place between things—exchanging money for a commodity, both commodities and money hide the social relations of production within them.
Marx unmasks a commodity that the capitalist buys but that produces more profit than its price: labor power. What does this mean? It means that workers are paid enough to stay alive—to come to work the next day and keep producing. The worker may produce enough to secure her subsistence for that day in only a few hours — or less. But “the value of labor-power and the value which that labor power creates in the labor process are two entirely different magnitudes; and this difference of the two values was what the capitalist had in view when he was purchasing labor power.”
The hours of labor that produce profit for the capitalist is called surplus value. In this sense, all capitalists are stealing from their workers—forcing them to work longer hours than they get paid for in order to produce profit. This is the heart of capitalist production.
In the quest for profits, individual capitalists have a massive incentive to make production more efficient and to innovate the means of production. Engels says, "We have seen that the ever-increasing perfectibility of modern machinery is, by the anarchy of social production, turned into a compulsory law that forces the individual industrial capitalist always to improve his machinery, always to increase its productive force. The bare possibility of extending the field of production is transformed for him into a similarly compulsory law."
The constant revolutionizing and technological advances create the objective conditions for communism. Production is already socialized and taken out of the purview of individual families and towns. There is already the machinery to guarantee that each person in the world has more than enough. A communist revolution will take production out of the hands of the capitalists, who care only about profit, and put it in the hands of the working class as a whole, who will control production based on what is good for all society.
Marxism as a practice
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”
Eight people hoard half the world’s wealth today, and the thirst for profits has led to massive environmental destruction with irreparable consequences. In the wealthiest country in the world, some students go to school only four days a week because there “is no money” to open school the fifth day. Amazon workers struggle to pay rent while the company’s CEO Jeff Bezos is the wealthiest person in history. Technology seems to be the enemy of the working class, taking away workers’ jobs rather than providing them with more free time. Reasons for revolution abound.
So, how can we bring about socialism? To begin with, Marx makes clear that the revolutionary subject is the working class—the class whose very existence is in eternal conflict with the capitalist class and the state that protects the capitalists. He argues that capitalism creates its own gravediggers, bringing the working class together to organize against the capitalists.
Although the objective conditions for socialism exist, there is nothing automatic or deterministic about Marxist theory—socialism will not come about spontaneously. In the “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844” Marx says, “It takes actual communist action to abolish actual private property. History will lead to it; and this movement, which in theory we already know to be a self-transcending movement, will constitute in actual fact a very rough and protracted process.”
No matter how much theorizing one does about capitalism and socialism, and no matter how rotten the conditions of capitalism are, it is only the action of communists—at the head of the workers’ movement—that can end capitalism. As Marx and Engels say in the Manifesto, "The Communists ... are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement."
In this sense, communists (many which should be organic leaders in their workplace) are responsible for a clear plan forward; we are responsible for using Marxist theory to analyze society and to impel the working class to realize its interests. For this, Marx argues, the proletariat will need a political party, independent from all capitalists, to build a material force to crush capitalism. In "Address to the Communist League" Marx and Engels argue that unity of a working class party with the democratic petty bourgeois would be “to their advantage alone and to the complete disadvantage of the proletariat. The proletariat would lose all its hard-won independent position and be reduced once more to a mere appendage of official bourgeois democracy. This unity must, therefore, be resisted in the most decisive manner. Instead of lowering themselves to the level of an applauding chorus, the workers, and above all the League, must work for the creation of an independent organization of the workers’ party...”
It is our great task to build such an organization, with deep roots in the working class and seasoned in class struggle. Thus, to be a Marxist means to employ his method to analyze current problems, to convince the working class that capitalism can only lead to the “common ruin of contending classes” and, importantly, to fight, independently from all capitalist organizations, to bring about a communist society.