The average person has no shortage of misconceptions about Marxism and Socialism. There are, of course, the obvious ones: the conflation of Marxism and Stalinism, and of socialism and the capitalist welfare state. But perhaps just as widespread is another claim. Pro-capitalist education has propagandized the idea that Marxists are concerned only with an abstract notion of “equality,” and that this is an ideal from which we attempt to create a “utopia.” Many liberal intellectuals are quick to “defend” the Marxists with the claim that “communism is a good idea on paper—but it just can’t work in practice.” What wonderful “friends” these are, who think we are small children!
Equality as an ideal
Those very same liberals who are quick to accuse us of well-meaning idealism would do well to look to their own history. The rise of the bourgeois class was accompanied by the development of radical new ideas. The American Revolution declared the triumph of “god-given rights,” while the great bourgeois revolution in France raised the banner of “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity,” and proclaimed the triumph of reason and the rights of man. These ideas were undeniably progressive for their time, but they were also held back by the constraints of idealist philosophy, the bourgeois worldview, and above all, the level of development of the productive forces of the day.
To the revolutionary bourgeois, these new ideas justified their right to rule, and also gave them a moral justification for private property and the bourgeois-democratic republic. To these radical liberals, “equality” was mostly a matter of “equality under the law,” but even this was not completely realizable under a system of private property. As the great French author Anatole France would put it: “The poor must labor in the face of the majestic equality of the law, which forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
It is true that the early socialists were utopians—they were guided by an idealist philosophy which convinced them that socialism would succeed simply because it was desirable, or because equality was a noble ideal that was pleasing to god, or part of the nature of man. Men such as Robert Owen, Henri de Saint-Simon, and Charles Fourier were geniuses who were very much ahead of their time—they were inspired by the social upheaval and revolutionary movements of the time, and the radical philosophical and social ideas which this upheaval had given birth to. Despite their genius, however, these individuals were members of the bourgeois and aristocratic classes. Their idealist philosophy meant that they were unable to look at the motor forces of history in a scientific manner. Their lack of any scientific perspective led them to attempt to build their ideal society through a policy of class collaboration and persuasion.
Nonetheless, at the time, the rise of capitalism was on balance, a progressive step in human history. Industry and trade were no longer restrained by the limits feudalism had imposed on it, and the means of production were constantly revolutionized in order to keep competitive—leading to never before seen advances in the standard of living. Of course, not everyone could be a large capitalist. The rise of monopolies threatened the livelihood of the petty bourgeoisie—the middle peasants, the small capitalists, the professionals, and the mid-level state functionaries. This layer of society feels threatened by both the big capitalists—and by the working class—leading it to develop ideas which stress class collaboration as well as individualism, and the protection of their “way of life.” Often this takes the form of libertarianism and anarchism, or of forms of populism which call for the “equality of the classes,” which Marxism considers to be a utopian fantasy, and essentially reactionary; our aim is for the abolition of all class distinctions altogether, not their continuation.
We have already shown the relationship between bourgeois ideology and utopian ideas regarding equality—but what of Marxism? Surely equality is its highest ideal! This is in fact partially true—but not entirely. Marxism is often called the “real movement” because it is the only political movement to base itself on a scientific and materialist study of society as it is, rather than a preconceived ideal of “how it should be.” Marx was not just the founder of scientific socialism, but also the first person to apply the Hegelian dialectic in a fully materialist manner. This materialist dialectic is a brilliant tool that allows us to much better understand the world. The application of this dialectic to human history, or “historical materialism,” led Marx to conclude that “The history of all hitherto existing [class] society is the history of class struggles.”
No longer was it necessary to try to explain history as the result of the actions of great personalities, or as preordained by God. It was now possible to subject history to real scientific analysis. The Marxist view of history holds that all historical forms of social organization (with the exception of prehistorical communal societies) are based on the rule of an owning class, which lives entirely off of the labor of the toiling class (whether slave, serf, or proletarian). It also holds that in each society there are inherent contradictions which will invariably lead to its replacement by a new form of social organization which will further the development of productive forces.
The specific characteristics of capitalism
Despite what many have been led to believe, Marxists do not “hate” capitalism on principle, nor do they believe that “capitalists are evil.” In fact, Marxists recognize the historically progressive role that capitalism played. Capitalist competition and wage slavery revolutionized the productive forces and led to increased globalization on a scale far beyond anything that could be imagined in societies based on serfdom or slavery. There are those today who have proclaimed the “end of history”—that the perfection of human society is incarnated in modern capitalism and the bourgeois-democratic republic. What these propagandists do not take into account is that along with the historic advances that capitalism brought over all previous systems, it brought class contradictions much sharper than at any other point in history.
Capitalist society is divided into two main classes: the bourgeois/capitalist class which owns the means of production, and the proletarians/workers who own only their own ability to work. Because they lack capital, proletarians must sell their labor power to the capitalist for a wage. The capitalist buys this labor power (variable capital), and invests in machines, equipment, and raw materials (constant capital), in order to produce goods or services for sale on the market. The capitalist is only able to turn a profit by ensuring that the wages paid to the laborer are much lower than the total value of the goods produced—it is this that leads to capitalism’s most dangerous contradiction. As mentioned before, Marxists do not criticize capitalism simply out of abstract moral disdain for exploitation or injustice—but because it is not capable of fulfilling human needs, and is inherently unequal and unstable.
The reason for this inherent instability lies in precisely the same economic transaction which allows it to work in the first place: in order to make a profit, the capitalist must pay the worker only a small portion of the total value of the products he or she produces. This leads to an unavoidable disparity between the number of products on the market, and the amount of money available to buy them. The working class cannot afford to buy back all of the products which it has produced, leaving many of these products unsold—leading to a loss for the capitalist. This loss may temporarily be averted through the use of credit, but only at the cost of a much deeper crisis down the road. There is no permanent way out of this contradiction; the system inevitably finds itself embroiled in periodic crises of overproduction.
The proletarian revolution
Marxists hold that this contradiction will ultimately lead to the radicalization of the proletariat through objective necessity and the eventual replacement of capitalism—which can be described as the “dictatorship of capital”—with the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. While it is easy to understand why someone could confuse this term as implying a totalitarian autocracy, the term actually has its origin in the belief that the working class must necessarily take over state power in order to expropriate capitalist industry, democratically plan the economy, and defend against capitalist counterrevolution. This new semi state of the majority over the minority will eventually wither away, eventually leading not to the “equalization the classes”, but to the total abolition of class contradictions. Frederick Engels wrote extensively on this concept in Anti-Dühring:
“The proletariat seizes state power and turns the means of production into state property, to begin with. But thereby it abolishes itself as the proletariat, abolishes all class distinctions and class antagonisms, and abolishes also the state as state.”
Shall all people in a workers’ state receive the same wage?
The simple answer: No, socialism does not demand the equalization of all wages to an identical level. What it does require, however, is that an equal wage be paid for work of equal value. It also aims to collectively provide everyone with the basic necessities such as health care, education, affordable safe housing, food, and transportation, so that wage differentials will not mean as much. Money is not something that can be abolished overnight, and even if the democratic planning of the economy has raised the productive forces to never before imagined levels, it may for a time be necessary to allocate goods through the use of money.
If not equality, what is the goal of socialism?
The goal of scientific socialism is the liberation of the proletariat from wage slavery and the economic and social development of society to a much higher level. Rather than an abstract, idealist notion that “all should be equal,” the Marxists believe that all individuals should be able to pursue their own interests and self-development with as few impediments as possible. The liberation of the individual can only result from the liberation of collective humanity from the fetters of class society. In the words of Marx: “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” No man or woman shall be deprived of the right to enjoy the goods and services produced collectiely by society, but only of the right to enrich themselves off of the labor of others.
By providing the conditions in which each individual will have the time and means to pursue his or her own interests, we will open up the path for the expansion of culture and technology in ways never before imagined. How many great philosophers, artists, or scientists shall we find, who under capitalism would never have discovered their true potential? The internal contradictions of the capitalist system are already causing unrest and revolutionary upheavals around the world. The question is not whether the working class will rise up against the system, but whether there will be a revolutionary leadership capable of leading this movement to victory. The International Marxist Tendency, and its US section, the Workers International League, are dedicated to building this revolutionary leadership. The United States will be the most decisive battleground in the world revolution. Only a mass party of labor based on the unions, armed with a Marxist analysis and socialist program, can lead the revolutionary masses to victory.