By NAT WEINSTEIN
Following is a lecture given at the Socialist Action National Educational Conference, in San Francisco on Aug. 22, 1999.
Lenin wrote a piece outlining the three component parts of Marxism. They also serve as the heart and soul of Scientific Socialism. They are what make scientific socialism a realistic-and therefore, practical-road to genuine progress for the human race.
Lenin’s three components of Marxism are:
1) Historical and dialectical materialism (also known as the logic of Marxism);
2) The Marxist analysis of capitalist economy;
3) The revolutionary role of the proletariat.
I will take up the three components of Marxism in the logical order arranged by Lenin. But I will end with a few thoughts on the dialectics of the class struggle today.
But before I begin to talk on the philosophy of Marxism and its relevance to the struggle for a better world, I want to place it all in the context of the awesomely critical stage reached by human society at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the third millennium.
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If there is a single phrase that sums up the state of the world today it is condensed in the Marxist slogan, Socialism or Barbarism!
What may have appeared far-fetched in the time of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels took on apocalyptic meaning with the nuclear annihilation of two Japanese cities in August 1945. This abominable crime against humanity committed by American imperialism caused the deaths of well over 100,000 innocent men, women and children.
This crime was even more unconscionable when it is known that Japan had weeks before offered to surrender on exactly the same terms as were ultimately imposed by the American capitalist government. But it was much more than an act of barbarism. It revealed in the starkest terms imaginable that the very existence of the human race was in question!
The nuclear arms race that followed almost immediately after the Second World War has resulted in tens of thousands of nuclear-tipped missiles in silos, submarines, and warships. And despite the end of the Cold War, an untold number of these weapons of mass destruction are still pointed at the world’s major cities and at least hundreds of them can be launched in a matter of minutes.
Meanwhile, nuclear weapons continue to be manufactured and one nation after another continues to join the club of nuclear-armed military powers.
The late physicist Carl Sagan warned that even if a small portion of the many hydrogen bombs stored in missile silos were exchanged, the results would be mind-bogglingly catastrophic. He warned that a dust cloud could be thrown into the sky of such proportions as to block the sun’s light from penetrating to the earth’s surface for months or more.
Sagan noted that there is convincing evidence that such a cloud caused the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The evidence suggests that a comet struck the earth, sending aloft a cloud of dust that blocked sunlight from reaching the surface of the entire planet for an extended period. This destroyed much of the food chain on the planet earth.
Insects, mammals, and other smaller species survived but dinosaurs and other of the world’s larger animals were extinguished.
Moreover, hardly a week has gone by this past century without a war taking place somewhere in the world-and today not a day goes by without wars in more than one place on this planet. In fact, the so-called Cold War, which began a year after the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was far from cold.
Hot wars, small and large, plagued the nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. And since the Cold War was ended, hot wars have been on the increase.
Worse yet, scientific and technological progress-which the ruling capitalist class tends to first apply to increase the destructive power of its weaponry-has not ceased its rapid pace of development. In fact, the forces of destruction have been increasing exponentially since the first atom bomb was exploded.
But while the forces of construction and technological progress can be increased at the same pace, capitalism has been proven to be absolutely incapable of putting this enormous creative power at the service of humanity.
And making bad matters worse, world capitalism hovers at the brink of a global economic crisis. When it breaks out of control it will be far more devastating than the Great Depression that sent the entire world into a pre-revolutionary crisis. It’s just the way the world works: the longer any sort of crisis is artificially patched and repatched, the deeper and more prolonged it will be when it busts through its rotting shell.
And when this one breaks out of control and global economic equilibrium collapses, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men cannot put it all back together again.
But that’s not to say that capitalism will disappear and socialism simply take its place. Rather a global struggle between workers and capitalist will ensue-and not some time in the distant future-“that will end either in the revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”1
This short description of the mortal threat facing humanity underscores the extraordinary importance of revolutionary Marxism today. In a word, the challenge before us is not simply a struggle to make a better and happier place for the inhabitants of this planet. That’s a worthy enough goal in and of itself. But as I will attempt to prove, if socialism doesn’t prevail the very existence of the human race will be in serious doubt.
So, having placed the subject of today’s discussion in its proper context, let’s see what Marxism, scientific socialism and the Marxist philosophy of dialectical materialism looks like.
I. Dialectical Materialism
In the first place, we need to know what is meant by materialism.
Materialism, like everything in this world, is best understood by contrasting it with its own opposite-which is called idealism. These are philosophical terms, which have different meanings than in their everyday sense. They are labels, as it were, of diametrically opposed conceptions of reality.
The essential philosophical difference between materialism and idealism can be given in two short sentences:
· The materialist sees the material universe as the substance of reality, and sees ideas about concrete reality as its reflection inside the human brain.
· The idealist, conversely, sees ideas as the insubstantial substance of reality and sees the material universe, outside one’s brain, as its reflection. As you can see, it’s reality turned upside down.
The ultimate test of any philosophy, of course, is how well it accords with experience and how well it serves to advance our day-to-day class interests, and the interests of humanity as a whole. So let’s take a closer look at these opposing philosophical conceptions:
The idealists believe that the source of all knowledge exists in the form of the absolute idea, from which all reality springs. According to idealist philosophers, the absolute idea exists somewhere out there in the universe, but cannot be known, or understood by ordinary mortals.
In the materialist world we all inhabit, however, a hypothesis about how things work has value only as a guide to the truth. But a hypothesis has no independent viability unless it is supported by observation and experiment.
That’s why rational juridical systems are based on the principle that a person accused of a criminal act is innocent until proven guilty. Why? Simply because it’s sometimes impossible to prove a person innocent of a crime. Only the evidence presented by the accuser can be proven to be true or false; while the innocence of the accused in all too many cases is very difficult or impossible to prove.
So the juridical principle of innocence until proven guilty is entirely in accord with the scientific method, whereby any alleged truth about how nature works must be based on material evidence before it has any claim on truth.
There are, however, two contradictory conceptions of materialism. The most familiar version, Mechanical materialism, is in accord with the laws of nature according to Isaac Newton and pre-20th-century science. Newton’s materialism, as we shall see, is based on formal logic-otherwise known as common sense. But as we shall also see, dialectical materialism is in accord with the laws of nature according to Albert Einstein and 20th-century science.
Newton’s materialism is most often likened to the workings of a clock or to billiard balls colliding and rebounding according to the laws of classical mechanics. But there are many forces operating with measurable effect on the scale of the very small and others on the scale of the very large that were not known until the latter part of the 19th century.
Clearly, the most brilliant scientists of Newton’s time could not even dream of the new conceptions of reality flowing from the leaps in scientific discovery that began to flower at the start of the 20th century.
It’s important to also note that Newton, like other scientists and philosophers of his time, had a dualist conception of reality, which was an attempt to reconcile materialism and idealism.
(Let me explain: Dualism is the view that there is one set of laws that affect everything in the universe and that these laws are all capable of being comprehended by the human mind. But dualists believe that there is another world that is entirely inaccessible to the understanding of human beings.)
Thus, on the one hand, Newton proved that a single gravitational law governs all matter on earth and in the heavens. And he proved that these laws governing matter in motion and gravity-from the fall of an apple, to the trajectory of a ball shot from a cannon, to planets orbiting around the sun-consistently explained the strictly lawful movement of matter in the entire universe.
But, on the other hand, Isaac Newton and his peers also believed that God set it all into motion by the force of His will.
Newton’s contribution to science, however, represented a giant leap for mankind toward an ever-deeper understanding of the universe and how it works.
But how is the inconsistent dualist philosophy of Newton and his followers to be explained? The simplest and most reasonable answer to that question is that they, like all of us throughout history, are creatures of the times in which we live. Even a genius like Newton could not rise above his times and go beyond the given level of human culture-in the broadest sense of the term-reached at that time in world history.
Moreover, Newton’s dualism was a quite logical deduction based on what was then known about the natural world. He and his peers perceived their clockwork universe as flawlessly and perfectly balanced. It seemed to them entirely logical that their perception of an infinitely perfect universe implied a “designer” of infinite perfection.
From this conception flowed the logical deduction that the perfect designer and infallible master mechanic of a perfect universe had no need to intervene further by regulating His creation.
Or to put it in the language of religion: God had no need for further miracles after the miracle of creation. After all, unlike mere mortals and the lesser gods of mythology, Newton’s God makes no mistakes and allows no accidents.
But by any measure, with or without God’s help, Newton’s historic contribution was based on the highest intellectual conquests of 17th century science. The achievement is underscored by the fact that Newton’s laws of nature-laws that are valid, for the most part, to this day-prevailed for over 300 years.
We come now to dialectical materialism, which lies at the heart of Marxist philosophy.
In the first place it’s important to understand at the outset that historical and dialectical materialism are organically interconnected. In other words, dialectical materialism is historical and historical materialism is dialectical.
Dialectical materialism perceives all things in nature to be in motion; that is, undergoing a process of uninterrupted change. Everything, consequently, has a history-individuals have a history as does society, biology, geology, astronomy, and cosmology-to name just a few of the spheres of knowledge undergoing permanent change. And everything changes in time-you, me, society, and all those other spheres of study.
To put this idea in philosophical terms, everything is what it is and what it is becoming.
Lenin put it most simply and clearly when he said: The essence of the dialectic “is the cognition of the one and its division into antagonistic parts.” That is the dialectical law of the unity of opposites. Or as Trotsky put it, the evolution of all things “proceeds through the struggle of antagonistic forces; that [is] a slow accumulation of changes at a certain moment explodes the old shell and brings about a catastrophe, revolution …”
Dialectics deepens the meaning of materialism. It is founded on the proposition that the universe is knowable, and that while we will never know everything, there is nothing that cannot be known.
The conquests of 20th century science provide a rich supply of evidence confirming the infinitely contradictory and dialectical nature of matter in motion. It reflects the precept that the more we know, the more we find out how much we don’t know.
Contradictory nature of reality
The two most outstanding conquests of 20th century science, relativity and quantum theory, transcend the limits of formal logic and mechanical materialism. And by so doing, they provide a deeper explanation of how nature works.
For instance, physicists disputed whether light was a particle or a wave for more than 200 years. Isaac Newton believed it to be a particle, and other physicists during his time and until the beginning of the 20th century believed it to be a wave.
The reason they couldn’t agree was because in some ways light acts like a particle and in other ways like a wave. And, of course, according to the logic of common sense, it can’t be both a particle and a wave at the same time.
This dispute over the nature of light continued until Einstein’s Special Relativity theory proved, among other things, that light was both a wave and a particle. Its waveness and particleness have been repeatedly confirmed to be two opposing sides of a single thing-a unity of opposites called a photon-that is, a particle of light.
Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, published after his Special Relativity theory, further overturned previously accepted concepts that also went beyond the limits of common sense. For instance, matter and energy, and space and time, rather than being absolute and discrete phenomena, were proven to be relative and interconnected.
In other words, matter and energy are two contradictory forms of existence of the same thing. Energy is the massless substance of matter, and matter is the congealed substance of energy.
Similarly, space and time are also two interconnected aspects of the same thing. Furthermore, according to general relativity, space itself is inwardly curved, or compacted by matter as well as by matter in motion.
Thus, the greater the mass, the more dense is the space around the massive object. And, on the one hand, the closer a material object approaches the speed of light, the more massive it becomes and the shorter it is in the direction of motion. And on the other as mass and/or velocity of the given body in motion approaches the speed of light, time itself dilates.
In other words, twins, one on earth and the other on a space ship traveling at close to the speed of light, grow older at different rates so that when the space voyager returns he or she is younger than his or her twin that remained in the space-time continuum on earth.
There is no mystery in dialectics
The main reason for the mystery that appears to enshroud dialectical materialism derives from the idealist dialectics of Hegel, the late 18th century and early 19th century philosopher who initiated the dialectical revolution in logic. Hegel took the elements of dialectics familiar to Aristotle and other ancient philosophers and developed it into a coherent and consistent system.
Hegel had made a huge impact on Marx and Engels and both considered themselves his students.
But the mystery of dialectics derives from Hegel’s idealist interpretation of the science of logic. Although he buttressed his case for an essentially contradictory nature of reality with evidence from the real, concrete world, his fundamental premise that reality was the reflection of the absolute idea was in conflict with the way the universe works.
Marx and Engels perceived the mystical side of Hegelian dialectics as a source of confusion because it was reality turned upside down. One of the great contributions by the founders of scientific socialism boiled down to turning Hegel rightside up.
Intuition and counter-intuition
There is another factor that contributes to the seeming mystery of dialectics. It’s what scientists call intuition and counter-intuition. These two things, like everything, are organically connected.
Some of the confusion comes from everyday usage of the often vaguely perceived phenomenon called intuition. Many people who use the term believe it to be a mode of thought derived from something beyond experience-that is, it is perceived by some as a form of extrasensory perception.
Scientists, in contrast, see intuition as a subtle form of reasoning based on the half-digested experiences we accumulate in our memories every day of our lives. From these experiences we draw conclusions, some of which lie in the area between the subconscious and the conscious. As it happens, the mass of our experiences-many of which are barely perceived and half remembered by our conscious minds-often give us an accurate feel for what is true and what is not true.
When a thing looks right and experience proves it to have been right, that is an example of a valid intuitive judgement confirmed by experience-not extrasensory perception. But intuition must certainly be considered tentative, at best, until passing the test of experience.
In fact, even theories that have successfully met all experimental and observational tests are still, in a sense, tentative. Science says that any physical theory is provisional, in that no matter how many times evidence confirms the theory, you can never be sure that something will not come along that contradicts it.
And when when new evidence contradicting the theory is confirmed, the theory must be modified or abandoned, and replaced by one in closer accord with all the evidence.
On the other hand, every time a theory is confirmed by new evidence, confidence in the theory grows. That, by the way, is the basis of our confidence in Marxism. It has repeatedly passed the test of events. That’s why after over 150 years, Marxism-to paraphrase the opening words of the “Communist Manifesto”-remains a specter haunting world capitalism to this day.
Let’s take a look at how ordinary everyday experiences stored in the semiconscious regions of our brains provide the raw material for what is called intuition.
For instance, it’s a widely accepted fact among biologists today that all living matter was originally inanimate or dead matter. That means that lifeless matter, under the right conditions, can and does become living matter.
That conception, most of us would agree, however, is counter-intuitive. It goes so much against our intuitive sense of what is possible and what is not possible, that it tends to require a pretty heavy dose of factual evidence before most people will accept it as true.
In fact, in the 19th century, the rush of scientific progress and the growing influence of materialism, led some careless scientists to mistakenly believe that life originates from dead matter in a process they called spontaneous generation-that is, they believed that complex living organisms-worms, bugs, and other things-were spontaneously generated from non-living matter under special circumstances.
Today, of course, scientists believe dead matter becomes alive, but under very special conditions and on the most elemental scale of the simplest of organisms. Thus, some scientists believe that viruses are close to the first forms of life.
A virus, which happens to be one of the most graphic examples of the unity of opposites is, in a sense, half alive and half dead: When outside a microbe, a virus appears to be an inert crystal that can remain dormant and unchanging indefinitely. But after penetrating into the nucleus of its host microbe, it takes over the microbe’s reproductive machinery and reproduces itself repeatedly-doing a lot of damage along the way.
To be sure, that may be too big a jump from inanimate to animate matter. The actual first living thing or things may be a whole lot simpler.
On the other hand, everyone knows that living matter can die and return to its inanimate form of existence. But that is so obvious that it is considered to be just plain common sense. That is, it is supported by such an abundance of evidence that it is generally considered to be a simple fact of life and death.
But formal logic tells us that a thing is either alive or not alive, and that it can’t be both alive and dead at the same time. In a sense, that notion is true. But it is only half true, and therefore it’s false.
Just a slightly deeper look at the matter of life and death will easily show that it’s not a one-way proposition in which living things die and become inanimate, but inanimate things can never become living things.
In fact, the overwhelming abundance of facts are to the contrary; plants live and grow by taking in the lifeless elements in the soil, air and water. And then powered by the sun’s energy, life is infused into lifeless matter.
Besides, all we animals eat living, dying and dead things in order to live, grow and reproduce the living tissue of our bodies. In other words, we routinely bring life to the lifeless matter we consume. And while much of the dead matter animals consume is burnt in their internal heat engines to keep them alive, another part of the dead matter consumed serves as the raw material that is transformed into new living matter.
But even more convincing of the dialectical materialist thesis that living matter is merely a special form of inanimate matter is the fact that the billions of living cells that make up an organism like one of us are composed of molecules containing chemicals that in and of themselves are not alive. Even the molecules that make up the DNA and RNA in the genomes of living organisms are certainly complex organic molecules, but they are not alive, in and of themselves.
This complex interrelationship between the lifeless molecules of matter that make up a living organism is summed up in the simple maxim-the whole is qualitatively greater than the sum of its parts. That’s also in line with the dialectical principle that quantity changes into quality. And what can be more of a qualitative transition than dead matter changing into living matter, and vice versa?
As medical science progresses, the realization grows that the dividing line between life and death is a highly ambiguous one. At one time the line between life and death was generally considered to be when an animal, like one of us, stopped breathing or its heart stopped beating. Today, however, it is generally believed to be when the brain ceases to function.
Furthermore, whatever criterion is used to determine the moment of death of a living organism, all its organs and all its cells do not cease functioning-that is die-at the same time!
And finally, medical science is creeping ever closer to transforming in the laboratory ordinary living human cells into entire organs to replace those in a sick person-a living, beating heart, for instance, to replace a dying heart.
Viewed in this light, the dialectical conception-that a living organism can be both alive and dead at the same time-is not at all difficult for people with normal intelligence to grasp.
The birth and death of suns
But inanimate matter also undergoes a process of evolution from what it is to something else. Some of these transformations of things from what they are to what they are not takes too long to be perceived in a single lifetime. Other transitions, however, happen fast enough to be perceived in a moment or two.
For instance, striking a cold match produces a hot flame in an instant. Frying an egg taken from a hen takes a minute or so to change from an egg to an omelet, that is, from a living organism to dead matter.
But other things, such as stars like our sun, take billions of years to be born, more billions of years burning nuclear fuels, and more billions before dying. Thus to talk of the life and death of a sun may certainly be counter-intuitive, but it is a fact just the same. And the seeming incredibility of suns being born and dying disappears when the facts are known.
Similarly, the evolution of a living cell from a single microscopic organism to the simplest collection of cells; that is, into a qualitatively new species, illustrates one of the simplest evolutionary transitions from the simplest to ever more complex organisms-and back again. Evolution is not a one-way proposition, it’s not like a ladder, it’s more like a bush with its parts growing in all directions.
Evolution is a process that never ends and has produced such a diversity of billions of species from viruses to clams to fishes, to reptiles, to mammals, to apes to homo sapiens. Consequently, evolution is also counter-intuitive, but it is a fact nonetheless.
And while the evolution of human social organization is recorded in history books and in archeological and anthropological artifacts, the conception that human society has been in transition for over ten thousand years from what it was to what it became and is becoming, is also far from something that is readily apparent.
As we can see, all that has been said here about life and death and of matter changing in form adds up to a dialectical conception of reality. However, it is also understandable in terms of ordinary common sense! After all, I am not talking in “dialectese.” My language, your language, is the language of common sense!
Leon Trotsky put it simply, but to profound effect in a wonderful little book on the dialectic as applied to the analysis of a serious political problem that divided our movement in 1940. In the book, titled, “In Defense of Marxism,” he made this insightful observation:
“The dialectic and formal logic bear a relationship similar to that between higher and lower mathematics.”
Trotsky also noted in the same book-and this may boggle your mind-that even foxes are unconscious dialecticians. Listen to what he had to say about that:
Every individual is a dialectician to some extent or other, in most cases, unconsciously. A housewife knows that a certain amount of salt flavors soup agreeably, but that added salt makes the soup unpalatable. Consequently, an illiterate peasant woman guides herself in cooking soup by the Hegelian law of the transformation of quantity into quality. Similar examples from daily life could be cited without end….
Thus a fox is aware that quadrupeds and birds are nutritious and tasty. On sighting a hare, a rabbit, or a hen, a fox concludes: this particular creature belongs to the tasty and nutritive type, and-chases after the prey. … When the same fox, however, encounters the first animal which exceeds it in size-for example, a wolf-it quickly concludes that quantity passes into quality, and turns to flee.(!)
But once again, intuitive dialectical reasoning is not enough. We require more than what foxes are capable of. We require conscious application of the dialectical mode of analysis and reasoning.
Conscious dialectics is indispensable for understanding the way things work. And that includes everything-mechanics, natural science, the social sciences and the science of revolutionary Marxism.
II. Contradictions of Capitalist Production
Let’s now take a look at how Karl Marx applied dialectics in his most important scientific work, “Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production.”
We get some idea of Marx’s combined respect for, and merciless criticism, of Hegel’s idealist dialectics from this brief extract from his afterword to the second German edition of Capital. Marx writes:
The mystifying side of Hegelian dialectic I criticized nearly 30 years ago, at a time when it was still the fashion. But just as I was working at the first volume of “Das Kapital.” … [Hegel fell into disfavor in the eyes of arrogant and mediocre, “cultured Germans,” who considered him and his ideas to be a “dead dog.”]
I therefore openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker, and even here and there, in the chapter on the theory of value, coquetted with the modes of expression peculiar to him.
The mystification which dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general form of working in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.
The chapter on the theory of value in which Marx says he pays homage to his teacher by “coquett[ing] with the modes of expression peculiar to him,” is the first and most difficult chapter in his analysis of capitalist production. But it also one of the most instructive examples of dialectical materialist analysis.
Let’s take a look at what that looks like when applied by the man who turned Hegel rightside up.
In the first chapter of “Capital,” Marx attacks the false notion, widely circulated by the vast propaganda machine of the ruling capitalist class, that profit is value added to commodities by capitalists.
However, the contrary is true: Profits are, in fact, not an addition, but a deduction from the value added by the labor of workers. But, like everything, this also is a contradictory thing needing analysis.
Marx begins to unravel the mystery of the source of profit. He explains that on the one hand workers receive full value for their labor power in the form of wages and that it is an equal exchange of things of the same kind. But workers, he goes on to show, are shortchanged just the same.
Now I must note, parenthetically, that this assertion seems to be inconsistent and self-contradictory. But it’s a real contradiction which seems inconsistent only because such real contradictions are not allowed by the rules of formal logic. On the contrary, real contradictions are in complete accord with the way the world is and the way it works. And that, of course, is precisely what dialectical materialism is all about.
The mystery disappears when we perceive that the value of wages is not the same thing as the value that workers add to the commodities they produce! The value of the latter is, with rare exception, higher than the former and that is the source of the surplus value expropriated by the capitalists from workers. And that boils down to profits.
Let’s look a little closer:
In the case of wages-which is the price of a given quantity of labor power-its value is determined by how much it costs workers to buy enough of life’s necessities for them and their dependents to live and reproduce. Obviously, without a wage high enough to support workers and their families they would be unable to raise the next generation of workers to supply the future needs of capitalists.
And that’s not to mention that capitalists need workers to stay alive and healthy enough to come back to work as hard as they can the next day.
If they are paid too little, workers cannot survive, much less continue working for their employer for very long. And since capitalists, like any other buyer, will not pay more than what the market demands, they assiduously strive to keep wages down as close to subsistence levels as they can.
That’s a law of the capitalist market and has little to do with the goodness or badness of individual capitalists. But has a lot to do with the capitalist class as a whole.
Now here’s how it can appear to be an equal exchange but in the end proves to be an unequal one. And as we shall see, it also explains why labor power is the only source of surplus value-that is, the sole source of profits. Here’s how the thing works:
Let’s assume that workers reproduce the value of their wages in around four hours on average (it’s no doubt much less today). But workers are fully able to work much longer than what Marx calls “the necessary labor time.”
However, the capitalist-all other things being equal-is not compelled to pay a higher wage for a day’s labor consisting of eight hours than he would have to pay for a day lasting four hours or 12 hours, since the amount needed for one day’s subsistence doesn’t substantially change.
So if workers on average are compelled to work eight hours for a day’s pay, the boss gets the value produced in the extra four hours-for free! And if workers are compelled to work 12 hours, the boss gets twice as much free labor every day!
Marx, by the way, calls an unusually long work day and workweek, super-exploitation. And he calls the higher rate of expropriated surplus value, superprofits.
To be sure, in real life there is a never-ending struggle between labor and capital over how much a day’s labor is worth. And that depends in great part, on what the given category of workers think their labor power is worth.
Thus, this irrepressible war over wages, hours, and working conditions is an expression of the fundamental thesis of scientific socialism-the class struggle is the driving force of historical development.
Falling average rate of profit
We come now to the contradiction between the two components of invested capital; what Marx calls constant and variable capital. The law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall is the fundamental contradiction that will bring the entire structure of world capitalism tumbling down. This is how the contradiction is manifested:
Constant capital-that is, the portion of capital invested in factory buildings, machines and raw materials-is merely reproduced in commodities, creating no new added value.
On the other hand, variable capital, the portion spent on labor power, both reproduces itself and adds new value to the commodities produced.
In other words, even automatic machines can’t produce anything unless there are humans to turn them on and off, maintain them, transport the commodities, and distribute them to wholesalers and retailers.
And much less can machines produce surplus value; that is, a profit. In fact, if completely automated production was achieved, there would be no workers, and thus zero surplus value and zero profit.
But as can be seen from this chart on the wall,2 long before the rate of profit falls to zero, a massive crisis of overproduction is inevitable. And the lesson of history is that the real value of commodities including the value of the means of production themselves will fall to their real values when a crisis of overproduction erupts, and goods pile up unsold, halting the cycle of production, sale, and more production.
And along with a sharp fall in prices, otherwise known as deflation, there tends to be a qualitative collapse in the rate of profit as well.
I hope that this brief excursion through the Marxist analysis of capitalist production will not scare anyone away from a more patient and thorough study of Marx’s “Capital.” My aim today could not be to teach you either Marxist philosophy or economics in one quick and easy lesson. But only to inspire as many of you as I can to seriously study at least the first chapter of “Capital.”
And as Marx pointed out in his preface to the French edition: “There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.”
Now on to the matter of the role of the workers as the class created by history to lead the socialist revolution. As will be seen, the emphasis in this part of the report is on the historical side of dialectical materialism.
III. The revolutionary role of the proletariat
I will begin with a short quote from the first page of Chapter I of the “Communist Manifesto.” It’s titled, “Bourgeois and Proletarians”:
The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.
Freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in the revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.
I want to call your attention to the main idea in this quotation. And that is the idea that each time the class struggle ends, it ends either in social revolution or the ruin of the contending classes.
The collapse of the Roman Empire, which was based on chattel slavery, was a case in point. While the slaves of Roman society were fully capable of rebellion, they were incapable of initiating a revolutionary reconstitution of existing society.
The reason for this is that neither the slaves nor any other class in Roman society represented an alternative system capable of expanding the level of the productive forces.
Thus, as it turned out, the slave system ended in the “mutual ruin of the contending classes” and Roman civilization disintegrated.
Feudalism too, was based on slavery, but of a different kind. Under the Roman system of chattel slavery, the total product of the slaves’ labor was the property of the slaveowner. However, under the feudal system, the lords of the land claimed a right to only half the product of the serfs’ labor. But it was slavery, nonetheless.
But while the serfs were also in unending conflict with their oppressors, they, like the slaves before them, were not the bearers of an alternative mode of production and their rebellions led them into a blind alley. However, in the towns and cities of feudal society a new class, the bourgeoisie, emerged that did represent a higher economic system.
And it’s a matter of history that the bourgeois class in the feudal cities mobilized all sectors of the population in town, city and countryside around the revolutionary slogan of Liberty! Fraternity! Equality!
The bourgeoisie thereby succeeded in leading all those oppressed by the feudal lords in the revolutionary reconstitution of society. Feudal society, based on the predominance of landed property right over all other rights, was overthrown. Capitalist property and capitalist production became dominant and opened the door to the vast expansion of the forces of production.
The socialist revolution begins
With the conquest by capitalism over feudalism, a new struggle began. Along with the explosive expansion of the productive forces set into motion by the capitalist revolution, the working class grew and the struggle between capitalists and workers expanded in scope and in intensity.
And just as the bourgeois revolution grew inside the womb of feudal society, so too did the proletarian revolution also begin to gestate inside the womb of capitalist society.
Now, to understand the source of the revolutionary potential of the proletariat, it’s vital for revolutionary socialists to understand how capitalism actually socializes productive relations in the workplace and, in the process, develops the proletariat into the revolutionary class.
Thus, strange as it may seem, all capitalists, in course of advancing their own narrow class interests, must compel their workers to cooperate. Every worker in every separate capitalist enterprise is assigned a set of tasks-each worker being compelled by the boss to act in close cooperation with all others in the various stages of the production of commodities.
In other words, capitalists impose a consciously organized system of socialized productive relations to be carried out by their wage workers for the sole benefit of their employer.
Next time you go for a hamburger at MacDonalds, you can see such a highly organized, cooperating collection of socialized workers in action carrying out the plan of and for their capitalist.
At the same time, the socialized labor process in each factory is diametrically opposed to the anarchic system of capitalist production outside each plant-that is, in the economy when it is considered as a whole.
Now think what that means! It means that inside the factory, the conflict is between workers and bosses. But, at the very same time, outside the factory there is a relentless competitive struggle between each capitalist against all others.
The collectivization of the labor process in the capitalist factory has an even more important revolutionary consequence. The system of socialized production creates an intuitive sense of collective ownership among workers.
This seemingly strange and paradoxical result of the socialized productive system inside the capitalist workplace derives directly from the alienation of workers from the product of their individual labor.
While there are few workers who understand how the seemingly fair exchange of labor power for wages is robbery, they feel it, nonetheless. It’s intuitive-that is, workers know that somehow or other the bosses who do no work wind up with everything, while they-in their great majority-end up empty-handed after a lifetime of hard work.
That’s why in good times, when workers have jobs and can pay their bills, they tend only to struggle for higher wages, shorter hours, better working conditions and other reforms.
However, in bad times, when warehouses are glutted with unsold goods and factories start shutting down, and the army of unemployed swells, everything changes. Workers begin seeing things in the light of the new conditions. They tend to feel that they have no choice but to challenge the system that has left them on the edge of permanent pauperization and homelessness
But what contributes heavily to the revolutionary character of the proletariat is that they are the only class that has the raw economic power to turn the tables on the capitalist class. This power derives primarily from their strategic position at all the points of production, transportation, communication and distribution. If the workers as a class say stop, everything stops!
Of course that isn’t the end of the story, not by a long shot. Revolutionary leadership is indispensable for making the most out of any situation and avoiding all the traps set for them by the capitalist class and its agents inside the ranks of the working class.
There is another, no less important factor contributing to the revolutionary potential of the working class. Workers have been trained by the capitalist mode of production to be disciplined, punctual, exceedingly cooperative, and aware of the importance of planning and centralized command-all this training, of course, to be carried out for the sole benefit of the capitalist and the maximization of profits.
However, workers throughout the history of capitalism have turned the skills taught them by capitalists to their own purpose and to the advantage of their class.
Working-class organizations, like trade unions and workers’ political parties, tend to be organized according to the principles of efficient cooperative action they were taught in capitalism’s mines, mills, factories, and railroads. But with a big difference: all skills learned in the school of capitalist production are applied by workers, for the exclusive benefit of workers-not capitalists.
Moreover, just as workers can only reclaim the full product of their labor collectively, so too their organizations must be commanded collectively-that is, democratically and by the workers themselves.
And like the revolutionary bourgeoisie of the 17th and 18th centuries, who reconstituted society by subordinating landed property to capitalist property, the working class is the only section of society with the power to carry out a revolutionary reconstitution of society on a socialist basis.
In other words, that’s why the nationalization of industry organized according to a plan integrating every sphere of production, distribution, and communication for the production of things needed by society is called socialism. And the only class capable of leading the human race toward that goal is the working class.
The class of chattel slaves and serfs had no alternative social system to slavery and feudalism-that is, they had no alternative form of property ownership peculiar to them as slaves and serfs to put in the place of the existing social order.
But as we have seen, the working class does indeed have an alternative social order to put in place after the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist class. And socialism-a society based on production for us-is in every way superior to the capitalist system of production for profit.
Strange as it might seem at first sight, the socialized system of production in a typical well-organized large capitalist industrial enterprise serves as a model for the socialist organization of the economy as a whole. We need only to apply the planned and cooperative organization of production inside the capitalist enterprise to the economy as a whole.
But instead of capitalists doing the planning, elected representatives of the workers in every industry would come together to work up a plan for the production of all the things needed in a modern industrial society.
That’s what Lenin called the third component part of Marxism-the revolutionary character of the working class.
The dialectics of class struggle
The last topic I will discuss now is the application of dialectical materialism to political problems in the class struggle and the question of revolutionary leadership.
Leon Trotsky, for instance, in his book “In Defense of Marxism,” went into great detail regarding the many conflicting forces involved in the global class struggle preceding and during World War II. It would take too much of the time left to me today to even so much as list them all.
But I will tell you a couple of thought-provoking ideas he presents in that book. Trotsky explained that every important political problem related to proletarian internationalism and the world proletarian revolution was fundamental.
But, he explained that while nationalism is in polar opposition to internationalism, the struggle of the oppressed nationalities against the ruling capitalist oppressor is an organic part of the class struggle.
As you can see, I’m talking about the nationalism of the oppressed, which is diametrically opposed to the nationalism of the oppressor.
But it can sometimes be difficult to determine when the nationalism of the oppressed and proletarian internationalism are in harmony or not; and most importantly, the question of which may take precedence in any given concrete situation.
And finally, a correct solution to the problem depends on the overall context of the given problem, and after all factors are taken into consideration-in a word, when considered from the viewpoint that the thing as a whole is qualitatively greater than the sum of its parts.
For instance, what should we say and do when two oppressed nationalities find themselves at cross purposes? That’s often a very difficult problem, and there’s no rule that applies in all cases.
On the other hand, what does apply in every instance is whether or not it advances or retards the overall class interests and unity of the workers of the world.
After all, that’s why Trotsky called the world movement he founded “the world party of socialist revolution.” Moreover, the Second and Third Internationals were founded on essentially, the same idea.
And that’s why Lenin and Trotsky in the Soviet Union led the break from the Second International to found the Third International, and why Trotsky and James P. Cannon in this country led the break from the Third International to found the Fourth International.
The terrible plight of the nations of Africa, all of which are oppressed by world imperialism, is another case in point. There, we can see case after case of dominant nationalities oppressing those under their sway.
And, while chauvinism is always wrong and we are always in principled opposition to ethnic oppression, at the same time we should never lose sight of the role of imperialism that sets it all in motion.
World imperialism, for instance, raped, murdered and pillaged the peoples of Africa and imposed the world’s most appallingly miserable conditions of life on all the oppressed nations of Africa. At the very same time each of the world’s imperialist powers were in an economic war with all others to cut out for themselves as large and juicy a piece of Africa as possible.
And from time to time, like a pack of hyenas devouring the carcass of their killed animal, they snarl and snap at each other. But unlike hyenas, imperialists-like all capitalist predators-are greedy. They use their military power to settle disputed claims among them over the hunks of the captive peoples in the neocolonial world.
Two world wars, and many smaller wars, before and since, were fought by competing packs of imperialist hyenas for the largest and choicest morsels of Africa, Asia, and South America. And always for the highest possible humanitarian motives.
So, you can see, that so long as imperialism is allowed to relentlessly suck Africa dry, the lives of ordinary people become as desperate as those in the proverbial lifeboat adrift and helpless on a vast ocean.
Thus, while the nationalism of the oppressed and their resistance to oppression is entirely just, it’s a long way away from a solution. And worse: In such situations it can became a substitute for a common struggle by all the super-exploited and oppressed against the imperialists who oppress them all!
The only real and lasting solution is a struggle by all the exploited and oppressed in Africa and in the world as a whole against capitalist imperialism, which feeds on us all. And need I say, without the slightest regard for the fate of the meal they are devouring.
“Humanitarian” imperialists? “Good” capitalists? Now, those are good examples of a contradiction in terms!
My emphasis throughout this talk, as you could not help but notice, has been on Lenin’s profoundly simple description of the essence of the dialectic-that it is “the cognition of the one and its division into antagonistic parts.”
The dialectic of the revolutionary workers’ party
That takes me to the final and most important example of the dialectic of the revolutionary proletarian party. How does the democratic process in Socialist Action work? How do we decide on what to do next and then how to carry it out?
Our democratic system is based on the Leninist organizational concept called democratic centralism. Democratic centralism has absolutely nothing to do with the Stalinist bureaucratic perversion of Leninism. In fact, democratic centralism is diametrically opposed to the bureaucratic centralism of Stalinism. Genuine Leninist organizational principles are in every way more democratic than any other form of democracy.
Democratic centralism is not an equivalent to an Orwellian contradiction in terms such as the very well known, Everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others. No, that is a beautiful example of sharp criticism by an effective satirist getting to the heart of the inconsistency of such expressions as “humanitarian imperialist,” or “pro-labor capitalist.”
But rather than proving the difference purely by abstract analysis, let’s take a look at how it works in real life to see the internal organic consistency of the term, democratic centralism.
I give the following example of how democratic centralism works because it is the way union’s function-at least where strikes and other class actions are concerned. Trade unionists, however, would never dream of calling their democratic system by any such a term.
This is how it works in many unions to this day, despite more than a half century of bureaucratic and corrupt misleadership. When a majority decision to strike has been made in a union with an average membership, every member is obliged to do their level best to secure the goals of their strike.
The minority that might have voted against the decision to strike are free to disagree, but they are nonetheless obliged to abide by the decision of the majority.
Thus, in practice, any member of the given union-or anyone else for that matter-who attempts to cross the picket line set up by striking workers has put themselves on the side of the class enemy in the course of a class battle. And you can be sure that workers know by tradition and intuition how to stop scabs from breaking their strike.
Whether the strike succeeds or not depends on many factors. As a general rule, striking workers unable to keep out strikebreakers tend to lose their strike, all other factors being equal. But on the other side of the question is the fact that those who succeed in shutting production down tight have tended to be victorious.
What may seem most remarkable, however, is that neither Lenin nor Trotsky claimed credit for inventing this democratic centralist organizational principle. That, in fact, is simply because this principle was first deduced by Lenin from careful study of the history of the workers’ struggle. But even that is dialectical if you think about it a little bit.
That’s it, that’s the philosophy of Marxism. And that’s what this party is based upon. We invite you to find out more about what it means to join Socialist Action and/or Youth for Socialist Action. The days ahead are sure to be more fateful and world historic in their significance than you might imagine.
1 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in the “Communist Manifesto.”
2 The chart showing the basic mechanics of the falling rate of profit can be found at the beginning of Part III, Chapter 8, in Volume III of “Capital,” by Karl Marx.