Paul D’Amato has written a clear and accessible introduction to Marxist thought, including a review of the main arguments made by Marx and Engels, a brief history of Lenin’s place in Marxist history, a post mortem on the Russian experiment, applications of Marxist analysis to the current stage of global capitalism, and a convenient FAQ. It is a book well worth reading if for no other reason than that it is a book infused with clarity and passion.

When I was 16 to 18 years old I considered myself a Marxist, but I had no good idea of what that meant. Oh sure, I had read Capital and The Communist Manifesto, and I had even read some essays by Lenin, such as Revolution and the State. But in fact I scarcely understood what I was reading, and lacked the desire to get the necessary historical background to achieve understanding. So it was not Marxism that I was drawn to, but rather it was that Marxists were against the things that I was against: the Vietnam war, war in general, imperialism, racism, the exploitation of labor, etc. Though Marxist opposition to those things was, at an institutional level, cynical - merely a convenently expedient way of making propaganda points for the Soviet Union - rank and file Marxists were true believers and genuinely saw the struggle against imperialism as important in itself, as well as being part of the larger struggle for the destruction of capitalism. This appealed to me.

Eventually, sometime after my first year in college, I walked away from Marxism, because I began to see the association between the Communist Party and the USSR, and saw nothing about the USSR that seemed worth supporting. Also, I read Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies and Conjectures and Refutations (sometime a couple years later), and was persuaded by his arguments.

Of course, it was only one specific brand of Marxism that acted as a propaganda front for the USSR: the CPUSA. Trotskyite groups were (and remained) as fiercely antisoviet as the craziest of right-wing anti-Communists, though on a more principled basis. Maoist groups were antisoviet for obvious reasons, but had merely substituted one form of centralized state control for another as the object of their efforts. But in my case it was the CPUSA that drew me in and it was the CPUSA that led to my abandonment of Marxism. A case, I believe now, of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

For the past decade, since about the time of the US invasion of Iraq, I have come to understand that the constant cycle of never-ending war is not merely an aberration, but is an essential aspect of this stage of capitalism; just as the takeover of the economy by financial firms is an essential part of late-stage capitalism. These two aspects, endless war and financialization, work together to effect the final looting of the meager wealth that had been accumulated by the US working class in the post WWII boom. As Matt Taibbi put it, the financiers are running through the streets of the US ghetto, stealing the last of the hubcaps. War siphons tax dollars which can be easily looted, and financialization makes the looting systematic. There is just one more plum waiting to be plucked: Social Security - and we’ve seen the desperate moves made by the Obama administration to help that process along, so the end is in sight.

Against that backdrop I began to take another look at Marxism, and Paul D’Amato has been an excellent guide (along with David Harvey). D’Amato writes a regular series of articles for Socialist Worker explaining Marxist ideas and their application to our current situation. The Meaning of Marxism collects material from those articles along with additional material and provides a coherent explanation of the core of Marxist thought and practice. It is Leninist and Trotskyist in orientation, and consistently and bitingly critical of the USSR, China, and Cuba, which he sees as fundamentally at odds with the core concepts of Marxism.

So, what is the meaning of Marxism, exactly? This is where things get a bit tricky. Marxism consists of an economic theory (the labor theory of surplus value), a philosophical framework (dialectical materialism), a theory of history (historical materialism plus dialectical contradictions that make possible the emergence of a new class structure), an approach to revolutionary praxis (organizing within mass movements and guiding them beyond their original aims), and a theory of revolutionary organization (flexible and democratic bottom up organization). And I’m sure there is more. The relationship of these aspects of Marxism is complicated - and it is by no means obvious that there actually is a relationship in the conventional sense. For example, the approach to organization arose out of the specific experience of the Russian revolution experience from 1905 through October 1917, and even that was not a single approach to organization but one that changed rapidly as the objective conditions of the revolution changed. Whether Leninist organizational principles are “Marxist” in any fundamental way is questionable, at best.

You are in no danger of becoming a Marxist by reading this book: if you aren’t already predisposed to Marxism you will find plenty of ways to disagree with D’Amato’s facts as well as his arguments.

For example, a key element in Marxist arguments for socialism is the supposed plasticity of human attitudes and behavior: Marxists deny the idea of “human nature”, and contend that what appears to be human nature is simply a reflection of the dominant ideology - the ideology of the ruling class.1 In support of this idea, D’Amato offers up various anecdotal evidence and studies that show a lack of armed violence in pre-historical societies; and he proposes that early humans were subsistence hunter gatherers, and did not therefore have the means to accumulate goods that others might be inclined to steal with violence. It’s a curious argument, really. The study that he cites in support of relatively peaceful pre-historic groups says, according to him that about two thirds of the studied groups did not engage in violent warfare. Which means that one third did; and that, it seems to me, is suggestive of a high degree of propensity towards violence, given the premise that there was not much motivation for violent behavior. The curious part of the argument is that he argues that human nature is not prone to violence and competition by explaining that humans don’t engage in violence when there’s no motivation to do so. This leaves open the suggestion that humans actually are prone to violence as soon as the material conditions become ripe. In the end he allows that humans clearly have the capacity for mass violence, but that such violence is not a foregone conclusion, and in the proper socialist environment the need and desire for violence will decrease if not vanish altogether.

In a later section D’Amato writes about the environment, providing a nice summary of the causes and impact of global warming, along with other environmental disasters mostly related to oil extraction. Naturally enough, he argues that it is the nature of capitalism to create this kind of problem because capitalists pursue profit to the exclusion of all else, so environmental problems are a side effect of the anarchy of the market. With socialism, planning would eliminate these problems because the worker-controlled society would naturally want to avoid environmental catastrophe. There is no way to test this idea directly, of course, since we have never had an actually existing socialist society, but we are meant to see the logic of this argument and accept it at face value. But given the haplessness of socialist political organizations in the past century I am inclined to believe that they would not be able to organize a picnic in June,2 so I’m a little skeptical about their eventual ability to organize and plan society and thus avoid the worst effects of capitalism.

In that same section D’Amato rejects the idea that a substantial part of our environmental problem is that world population is too large. His arguments are entirely circular, unfortunately, even while he is accusing his opponents of circular reasoning. The question that needs to be asked is: what level of consumption, if evenly distributed, can the planet support at the current level of population? And what level of consumption could be supported at a lower or higher level of population? Even if the high-consuming countries were to increase their energy efficiency and reduce the amount of rubbish that they consume, it is pretty clear that an equally distributed level of consumption would represent a pretty big step down for the developed economies. One of D’Amato’s arguments against the idea that there are too many people is that food production has kept up or even exceeded population growth. That seems pretty disingenuous to me, given that the increase in agricultural productivity has been driven by many of the practices that he decried earlier in the chapter: massive use of petroleum based products and environmentally unsound use of pesticides and herbicides, and the GMO crops that enable their use.

One final criticism before I get on to the good parts: D’Amato makes excessive use of quotations and passages from his fellow writers at SocialistWorker and International Socialist Review. They are good quotations, but don’t really add much to the credibility of his arguments: basically it amounts to the assertion that he and several of his friends agree on something.

I’ve been pretty harsh so far, but overall I found the book useful. As expected, he does a great job of explaining the Marxist conception of “class”. In American news media the word is used in a way that is anodyne and useless, and the only “class” ever mentioned is “the middle class”, unhelpfully defined as the middle 60% of incomes: such a usage obscures all class distinctions. Marxism defines class, quite concisely, in terms of one’s relationship to the means of production. A wage earner with a given income therefore is in a different class than a small business owner with the same or lower income, and in the same class with another wage earner who is paid considerably more or less. The reason? Wage earners are implicitly in a struggle with employers in a game that is not quite zero-sum, but close enough. The wage earner wants to be paid as much as possible and to have the best possible working conditions; the business owner wants to pay as little as possible and cares about working conditions only to the extent that they affect productivity and therefore profit. So the same-paid worker and business owner have interests that are opposed to one another. We can see this being played out today in the fight for a higher minimum wage: business owners are almost uniformly opposed to any increase, while workers are much more likely to support an increase. The income-based version of “class” cannot account for such distinctions. D’Amato does an excellent job of describing this idea.

He is equally clear in describing the meaning of dialectial and historical materialism, quickly dispensing with the false idea that materialism implies determinism. A common misconception about Marxism is that it predicts that capitalism will inevitably be transformed into socialism by way of some historical mechanism. D’Amato makes it clear that capitalism can hang on for a long time, in some form, unless there is effective struggle followed by violent overthrow of the existing institutions. The violence, if it comes, will be due to the fact that the ruling class in any society never simply gives up power without a fight, and the ruling class has always the full force of the state at its disposal.

He also explains why Marxists believe that the establishment of socialism means the abolition of class distinctions once and for all: socialism in the Marxist sense means that all productive property is owned and managed collectively, and so by the definition of class, every individual has the same relationship to the means of production as every other.

Finally, D’Amato gives a very clear account of why Marxists support every form of liberation struggle, and not just class struggle. In short: divisions of ethnicity, race, nationality, and gender and gender identity serve only to divide the working class and are therefore useful to the capitalist class. By entering into the struggles for racial and gender justice, Marxists are, first, doing the right thing, and also advancing the more fundamental class struggle.

In the end I think I understand Marxism better than I did, but find myself in the same relationship to it that I started with. What I see is a kind of Arcadian vision of the distant past (the peaceful and cooperative hunter gatherers), a fair bit of plausible and insightful theory of economics and social dynamics (the labor theory of surplus value, and the clearly articulated definition of class, with its many ramifications) and a Utopian vision of the future.3 But the idea that the working class would actually work effectively together to build a socialist society just strains the imagination. The workers I know (and practically everyone I know, including myself, is a worker) are fractious, cynical, self centered, competitive, and easily distracted. That could all change in a revolutionary instant, I guess, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Just when and how that revolutionary instant might occur is a dark mystery. D’Amato quite rightly makes the point that “socialism in one country” is an impossibility because the full weight of capitalist power would be arrayed against it until the last vestiges of socialism are driven out. We’ve seen what happens when even the mildest forms of state sponsored socialism arise, as in Venezuela and Chile. But somehow the socialist revolution will occur simultaneously in enough countries that capitalism will not be able to strangle it at birth. I just don’t see it.

So I remain as before: against nearly all the things that Marxists are against, but with no real hope or expectation that anything will change for the better in my lifetime. The “bourgeois liberal” idea that capitalism is somehow compatible with democracy and can be effectively reformed has been a complete and fraudulent failure. Anarchism rests on the same Arcadian and Utopian visions as Marxism, but without the potentially effective Marxist organizational model and theoretical grounding. And there is simply nothing else, other than a sort of snarky sidelined non-participation or an utterly meaningless participation in what passes today for mass protest (which will definitely not be televised).

The world will change, to be sure, but not in the way any of us want. We can see the direction of that change in the sweatshops of Vietnam and China and the US South Pacific protectorates; and in the looting of the US economy by the big financial institutions; and in the radical ahistorical fundamentalism in the middle east and south Asia; and in the deadly austerity being imposed on Greece and the other European periphery countries. The world to come will be a dystopian nightmare of resource scarcity, walled gardens for the elite, and a cramped subsistence for the vast majority. It is pretty to think that a Marxist-led revolution would transform that future into one of shared abundance but, as Miracle Max said, “it would take a miracle.”

  1. A question we could ask in this regard: if Marxism depends on the assertion that so called “human nature” is merely or mostly a reflection of the dominant ideology, would Marxists reject Marxism if there were clear evidence that the assertion is not true?↩︎

  2. Though, in fact, Communists acted very effectively during WWII in leading the resistance. My remarks here are mostly aimed at American socialists in the modern period.↩︎

  3. D’Amato denies multiple times that Marxism is utopian, because both the possibility and the necessity of worker control of the means of production are implicit in the dialectical contradictions of capitalism.↩︎