Is Marxism Still Relevant to the Left?

by Kay T. Liberato

As a Marxist, or Revolutionary Socialist, I believe that it is important to think of Marxism as a family. We share a common lineage, but there are different variations within and we don’t all agree on interpretation. But we are all committed to revolutionary socialism, which is the belief that all capitalist social relations must be transformed in order achieve true human freedom.

It is common to hear people colloquially refer to Marxism as an ideology. Marxism is not an ideology. An ideology is a set of beliefs designed to justify and reproduce existing social practices. An ideology develops after the practices develop in order to maintain some adherence to what is in existence. Furthermore, an ideology is uncritical since its purpose is to marginalize alternative ways of thinking and being. Ideologies are based on reality but are distorted since they do not consider all vantage points. Ideologies are inherently contradictory since they are developed in order to deny people the possibility of critical thinking and, thus, the opportunity to develop criticism of existing struggle. For example, liberalism is an ideology since it is based on the myth of individualism and the logic that through hard work all people can “succeed”. This is an ideology because it is contradictory. In a liberal economy (capitalist economy), some must be at the bottom in order for others to be at the top. The whole notion of upward mobility and middle class status is predicated on disparity and exploitation. In other words, the notion of progress, success, and freedom in liberal society is based on climbing up by standing on the backs and heads of others within a particular society and across the larger human society.

Leninism is a Marxist-inspired ideology. Leninism is an ideology because it attempts to achieve working-class empowerment and freedom through methods and organizational strategies that would deny people the possibility of becoming empowered. Furthermore, Leninism tries to transpose Bolshevik practices on communities of people without considering the cultural-historical development of existing social conditions in which people live and struggle. There are also those who subscribe to a post-Marxist ideology that devalues theoretical questioning and strategic action. Instead, they argue for small-scale local politics based on immediate needs only. These ideologies reproduce the current political and economic structure. Each fails to adequately pattern their organizational and activist approaches according to the cultural-historical realities of the oppressed.

I have already stated what Marxism is not. The question then is what is Marxism? Marxism is a worldview. A worldview is a theoretical framework (a collection of theories that do not contradict each other) with a particular method and rationale of questioning (mode of inquiry/questioning). Marxism is not one theory; it is many different theories about different aspects of human existence. The different theories are Marxist in that they correspond to and are based on the mode of questioning and concept development (conceptualization).

A theory is nothing more than a plausible explanation based on careful systematic observation and reflection on what we see, hear, smell, and feel and its relation to other things in our lives. For example, there are Marxist theories of education, race/racism and gender. They are based on Marxist principles. I will not attempt to talk about all of the Marxist theories in existence. Instead I want to focus on the essence of Marxism.

There are three major pillars to Marxism: dialectical methodology, historical materialism, and socialism. Dialectical methodology is the way every social structure and practice is examined. The principle here is that all human relationships are dialectical, which means the relationship is not direct. “A” does not equal “B.” Instead, “A” and “C” are related because of a shared relationship with another intermediate relationship, or a common dimension, “B.” So, “A” and “C” are related because they both share a common internal property, which is called “B.” Together “A,” “B” and “C” form one social relationship called “ABC.”

Let’s use the categories of “woman” and “man”. A non-dialectical logic would say a woman is a woman because a woman is not a man. One would then continue to list biological distinctions. However, Marxists would argue that while there are biological differences between males and females, the concept of who and what man or woman is, is socially constructed through institutional practices. A man is not a woman, because of the historical economic power, political rights, and cultural privileges bestowed upon males. By definition, in a capitalist society, which is at its roots both patriarchal and racist, a man is privileged over a woman: “A” (man) is related to “C” (woman) by “B” (past and present cultural-historical institutional practices of exploitation and disempowerment). In sum, the dialectical method assumes that what we see clearly is only part of the relationship. The other part of the relationship is concealed and must be uncovered in order to get at the truth.

Historical materialism is the Marxist theory of how societies are developed and structured. As explained previously, all societies are based on human activities, which mediate each other. The word “material” does not only refer to money or economics in the narrow sense. Material is another way of saying that which is necessary and central to all human existence. For example, health, nutrition, housing, our bodies and our senses, our physical capabilities and our psychological and mental faculties are material. For Marxists, history refers to the particular social processes through which human existence and society develop over time and space. For example, the history of American capitalism may focus on British colonialism, which includes enslavement of Africans through the particular practices of chattel slavery in the U.S. south. From there, we can look at the explosion of the northern industrial cities through the very low cost of slave-produced cotton. At the same time, political-legal developments treated Black people as less human and facilitated the exploitation of Blacks.

Along with economic exploitation buttressed by government policies, a white supremacist cultural structure developed which reinforced the political structure and promoted a consensus among the white working – and the white capitalist — class that Blacks and ethnic minorities are inferior. This is also reinforced by economic and political practices that create the objective evidence of such through denial of dignified living circumstances. Historical materialism is, thus, a framework for understanding how we got from one point in time to the present, in such a way that we can consider the ways to change it. The core assumption of historical materialism is everything that exists today has its roots in systematic practices of the past, and those past practices drive the present. Therefore, in order to change the present we have to understand the mechanism through which present conditions came to be.

Revolutionary/Auto-Emancipatory Orientation

The final pillar of Marxism is its auto-emancipatory (self-emancipatory) orientation. This, ultimately, is what distinguishes Marxism from other socialist theories. Many socialists focus on the redistribution of financial wealth through taxing the rich and nationalization of industries and schools. Among democratic socialists, it is popular to call for cooperatives and democratic workplaces as part of a democratic revolution.  Marxism distinctively argues that revolution requires the end of capitalist social relations. That means replacing those relations with new ones that have a different goal in mind. The purpose of work must be radically different from today’s purpose. Today, we work in order to produce profits for our employer, and we work to accumulate money in order to secure our existence and more. The Marxist perspective holds that we have to create social practices and forms of work that satisfy human needs, among which are joy and wellbeing. The motive for work must go beyond survival and the need for money. Lastly, the auto-emancipatory orientation of Marxist socialism holds that only the oppressed — the exploited — can liberate them in a revolutionary way. This doesn’t mean that people not considered to be members of the working class cannot join the cause of the working class. The point here is that one can, as Amilcar Cabral said, commit class suicide and work in solidarity with working-class people for working-class goals, from the vantage point of the working class. What this means is that one must struggle with the most oppressed groups in society to establish conditions of justice for them as well as everyone else in society. The revolutionary orientation in Marxism is not about an apocalyptic fight between the forces of good (the proletariat/working class) and the bourgeoisie (capitalist class).

This is all metaphor. In reality, class struggle is a long process filled with stops and starts. Marx’s dialectical revolutionary perspective is not just about transforming social institutions. To transform an institution is really to transform the consciousness of people. Consciousness does not just mean the way we think, it means the things we aspire to be — the ideals we hold close — and that which motivates us each day. In reality, every institution functions according to the will of the people within them and the implicit and explicit consent of the general public. The goal of class struggle is to transform the consciousness of the working class from ideals and practices that support and reinforce capitalism, a system of exploitation organized and structured by racism and patriarchy. This requires that we convince people that another world and way of existing is possible. It also requires that we teach each other to fight together, plan together, and build power together.

Because the foundation of capitalism is the interlocking systems of racism (exploitation and ideological misrepresentation on the basis of “race”) and patriarchy (exploitation and ideological misrepresentation on the basis of biological sex and sexuality), class struggle requires that we struggle against patriarchy and racism in order to build working class solidarity and build a socialist society.

KAY T. is a Black Revolutionary/Radical Humanist of Dominican, Puerto Rican & Cuban descent. He is a working-class community organizer in Philadelphia and a Ph.D candidate studying Social Movement Theory and researching social movement practice and building. 


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