This article is part of an ongoing series on Marxism and the struggle against oppression.
Every revolution is preceded by a growing thirst for ideas that can explain the world we live in and how to transform it. In this epoch of economic and political crises, war, revolution, and counterrevolution, capitalism is increasingly perceived by millions as a historical blind alley. The question of Marxism and the struggle against oppression cannot be isolated from the general process of radicalization that is unfolding in the US and around the world.
Events are moving quickly as the capitalist crisis deepens and society is increasingly polarized. On the basis of experience, consciousness is changing rapidly. In the last decade, we witnessed the election of the country’s first black president, the Wisconsin uprising, and the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements. During the 2016 election, 47% of all respondents and 69% of those under 30 said they would vote for a socialist for president. Bernie Sanders’s call for a “political revolution against the billionaire class” generated mass enthusiasm and opened an unprecedented national discussion on socialism in the land of Joseph McCarthy.
The Trump administration has declared war on the poor and oppressed and stirred up the most backward and bigoted layers of society. But the whip of reaction has provoked a mood of resistance. The spontaneous protests against Trump’s election and his immigrant ban show the instinctive class unity and internationalism of millions of Americans. The teachers are on the move, with the so-called “backward” workers of West Virginia at the forefront. And Generation Z has now entered the scene in the movement against capitalist violence.
The youth, in particular, reject and resist any and all attempts to use our differences to divide and rule us. They are appalled by a world that turns a blind eye to femicide and sexual violence against women, to black people being brutalized by the police with impunity, to the assault and harassment of LGBT+ people and religious minorities. They will not stand idly by while they, their friends, coworkers, and loved ones are humiliated, dehumanized, and murdered for not conforming to the antiquated norms of a dying and diseased system.
People are looking for ideas and want to fight back. After several decades of ebb in the class struggle, more Americans are open to socialism and revolution than ever. But the forces of Marxism are as yet too few to influence the masses with our ideas. In the absence of a mass working class, socialist, or communist identity and pole of attraction, and with no lead given by the labor leaders, other ideas and methods have filled the vacuum. The campuses and social media are rife with postmodernist ideas and anarchism, a reflection of the impasse of the capitalist system and of the petty bourgeois intelligentsia. This pessimistic dead end is especially prevalent in the advanced capitalist countries.
As we shall see, despite their apparent radicalism, identity politics and intersectionality are forms of postmodernism and offer no way forward for those who want to fight for a more egalitarian and democratic society. However, most people have not yet encountered a revolutionary Marxist position and have not yet drawn the conclusion that the solution to oppression goes far beyond the present economic system. For many, identity politics and intersectionality are the first concepts they encounter in their quest for ideas and can represent a healthy rejection of the politics and morality of the status quo. In some cases, identity politics may open the road to the understanding that all forms of oppression can be traced to class society and exploitation, and that only mass struggle for socialism by the united working class can lay the basis for ending it.
However, it is not an accident that identity politics rose to prominence at a time when the class struggle was at a historic low and many on the Left were seeking alternatives to the Marxist conception of class struggle as the motor force of history. Identity politics and intersectionality have the dangerous effect of blurring class lines and introducing eclecticism and division into the movement. For example, for many adherents, identity politics includes the idea that only those who experience a particular form of oppression can define and fight against it—an explicit rejection of the need for united working class struggle. The ruling class also uses identity cynically for reactionary purposes. For example, Trump’s efforts to revive American “economic nationalism,” and Clinton’s repulsive call to “vote for me because I’m a woman.”
It absolutely correct that various forms of oppression can overlap and that they have different expressions, historical roots, and degrees of severity. However, some general conclusions can be drawn that apply to the struggle against oppression in all its forms. Marxists do not stand on the sidelines of the struggle against oppression or combat it merely with words. We understand that it is only in the course of collective struggle against our common enemies that the working class can forge the kind of unity needed to end the class roots of oppression. However, a theoretical framework for understanding the fundamental class contradictions that underlie society is an indispensable lever for ending those contradictions. For Marxists, political and economic struggle cannot be divorced from ideological and philosophical struggle. Theory provides a perspective, strategy, and tactics that can be applied and tested in practice.
Ideas and social relations do not exist in a vacuum. The convulsions of the capitalist crisis are expressed, not only in sharp and sudden economic and political changes but in dramatic and contradictory shifts in the consciousness of all classes. The relationship between a social formation’s economic skeleton, muscles, connective tissue, organs, and its ideological nervous system is complex and dialectical, not direct and mechanical. However, in the final analysis, the economic infrastructure frames society’s basic parameters.
Roughly a century ago, a tipping point was reached, and capitalism passed from playing a progressive historical role to becoming an absolute brake on human advancement. Since then, we have seen an accelerating divergence between society’s economic potential and the reality lived by billions. Without exception, every aspect of our lives is affected by the constant instability of the system, including our individual and collective relations with one another.
In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels presented a vision of humanity’s future after the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism by the working class:
Within communist society, the only society in which the genuine and free development of individuals ceases to be a mere phrase, this development is determined precisely by the connection of individuals, a connection which consists partly in the economic prerequisites and partly in the necessary solidarity of the free development of all, and, finally, in the universal character of the activity of individuals on the basis of the existing productive forces. We are, therefore, here concerned with individuals at a definite historical stage of development and by no means merely with individuals chosen at random, even disregarding the indispensable communist revolution, which itself is a general condition for their free development.
In The Communist Manifesto, they summarized and developed this idea as follows:
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.
Marx’s conception is clear: the individual can only flourish once collective humanity is allowed to flourish—and vice versa. If the whole is not in equilibrium, the individual parts comprising it will also be out of balance. More than a century and a half since Marx wrote these lines, humans have developed the most astonishing technology and laid the material basis for a world of superabundance. And yet the absurdities of capitalist overproduction, hunger, homelessness, and the humiliating “enforced idleness” of mass un- and underemployment remains.
The root of this contradiction was explained long ago by Marx and Engels: the surplus wealth created through social production continues to be appropriated privately by individuals who no longer play a socially useful role in the productive process. The cooperative creation of wealth by the working class is artificially hobbled by capitalists’ ownership of the means of production and the drive to sell commodities at a profit on the market, leading to the absurdity of mass unemployment and recurring crises of overproduction.
In Marx’s A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, written in 1859, he explained:
The bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production—antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism, but of one arising from the social conditions of life of the individuals; at the same time the productive forces developing in the womb of bourgeois society create the material conditions for the solution of that antagonism.
In other words, the “embryo” of socialism has developed within capitalism itself, and the old society is pregnant with the new. But the belated nature of the revolution, due to the lack of the subjective factor, means the antagonisms have not yet been resolved. On the contrary, they have intensified to a degree far beyond what Marx himself could have possibly imagined. In 1938, Trotsky explained in The Transitional Program that the objective conditions for socialism were “rotten ripe.” Nearly 80 years later, one could say that the conditions are ripe to the point of liquefaction.
For a revolution to be successful, a whole series of factors must converge, including the presence of a revolutionary leadership willing to fight to the end to win and defend workers’ political and economic power. This is the key political lesson we must draw from the experience of the last 100 years; building such a leadership remains the Marxists’ primary historic task.
The prolonged post-World War II boom was an anomaly of capitalist development, made possible only by the terrible destruction of the war and the tenuous balance between US imperialism and Russian Stalinism. The fall of the Soviet Union was greeted with euphoria by the bourgeois who presented it as the fall of “socialism.” In reality what failed in the USSR was not socialism but a bureaucratic and totalitarian caricature. But that was merely the prelude to a far greater historical drama that is playing out before our eyes: the global crisis of capitalism.
As long as the system seemed to deliver the goods for a substantial proportion of the population, the contradictions were temporarily softened and concealed. But with capitalist society stuck in neutral and sliding backward, the disconnect between the potential and the actual becomes increasingly intolerable. Not only is quality of life declining but even basic democratic rights are no longer guaranteed. As the crisis accelerates, so too does discontent with the obscene inequality, oppression, and injustice.
Millions of people are out of work although industrial capacity utilization and labor force participation are at nowhere near full capacity. Potentially liberating advances in science and technique are throttled in the cradle by the market and the nation state. The economy is organically trending towards ever-greater socialization and “sharing,” yet competition between privately owned entities leads to mind-boggling waste and inefficiency. Added to the “normal” alienation of labor that always exists under capitalism, the resulting super-alienation of individuals from each other introduces an extraordinary array of distortions.
The bourgeois family is coming apart at the seams as its economic basis deteriorates, yet capitalism is incapable of developing social structures to replace it, leading to even further human estrangement. Capitalist culture elevates and exalts crass egotism over social well-being. As a result, the development of character, personality, and identity are stunted. Contradictory centrifugal and centripetal tendencies whipsaw us psychologically. A sense of malaise, hopelessness, cynicism, narcissism, and nihilism tries to force its way into every aspect of our lives. Loneliness, depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem have reached epidemic levels.
However, it is a law of dialectics, confirmed in every field of human inquiry, that things eventually turn into their opposite. These negative pressures also lead to enormous resentment and a spirit of rebellion against a system that forces us to live this way. There is colossal pent-up revolutionary energy and enthusiasm already bursting forth in different ways—and it is only the beginning.
What is lacking to transform the colossal potential already developed under capitalism is the subjective factor: a revolutionary leadership. In The Transitional Program, Trotsky repeatedly emphasized that the “crisis of humanity” is the crisis of leadership of the working class. It is not merely an optional choice between the status quo and a nominally better alternative. As social decomposition and the nightmares of war, terror, unemployment, and climate change destroy the lives of hundreds of millions, it is not an exaggeration to say that the choice confronting us is socialism or barbarism.
Every day that capitalism is allowed to continue means another day of “horror without end” for billions. This is the price we must pay for the failed revolutions of the past. It is no coincidence that the main strands of identity politics became prevalent when they did, after the mass struggles of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, a time when the class struggle was at a low ebb. For example, the New Left looked to any and every “social agent” for revolutionary change except the working class. People sought individual, piecemeal solutions to different forms of oppression, and turned to postmodernism, reformism, and class collaboration. This is always the case in the aftermath of mass defeats and derailments. The revival of pre- and anti-Marxist ideas in these periods represents an ideological dead end, ultimately expressing the economic and social impasse of capitalism.
However, far from being pessimistic, Marxists are imbued with unquenchable revolutionary optimism. We understand that it was a crisis of working class leadership, not a fatal flaw in the fundamentals of Marxism that led to capitalism’s decades-long survival beyond its expiration date. While there is “horror without end,” the general line of historical development is trending steadily in favor of the working class. Big events, movements, victories, and in particular the example of a successful socialist revolution anywhere in the world will transform the situation, unleashing an irresistible flood tide of struggle. The rise of DSA and anti-Trump mood are just the beginning of the beginning. Millions of people are organically moving to the left, feel determined to fight oppression, and have already forced some changes. But a few changes will not be sufficient.
We must explain that as long as class society continues, so too will oppression. We must also understand that, in the epoch of the death agony of capitalism, it can and will get even worse. Capitalism leads to artificial scarcity for the majority and unimaginable opulence for a tiny minority. To divert attention from this glaring disparity, the ruling class consciously attempts to set workers against each other to fight over the crumbs. The system is engaged in a life or death struggle against incipient socialist society and will stop at nothing to keep its profits flowing.
The task of the Marxists is to fight ideologically and politically to unite the working class in struggle. To do this, we must lay bare the real mechanisms of the world in which we live, filled with the utmost confidence in the Marxist method and the working class. We must harness our passion and anger to build a political force that can channel the power of the working class into the successful revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. Join the IMT and the fight for socialism in our lifetime!