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Date: Sun, 21 Feb 1999 18:59:48 -0600 (CST)
From: prisma <prisma@cdepot.net>
Subject: Materialism and the Left: Remembering Marx
Article: 55676
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Message-ID: <bulk.22494.19990222181723@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

Materialism and the Left:
Remembering Marx

By Ted Keller, 21 February 1999

Make the ossified conditions dance by singing them their own melody! Cause the people to be frightened by their own image, in order to give them courage!
Karl Marx

Behold, then, our glaring contradiction! For more than a hundred and fifty years, from the time when Marx presented his unique theory of politics and revolution, the Left of industrial nations has been identified by the materialism of its inquiry. Yet, with rare exception Leftists, including those who consider themselves Marxists, have steadfastly avoided any materialist examination of their own orientations or those of the publics to whom they address their appeals. If prodded about the matter they become angry or confused, often finding it impossible to comprehend what it is that distinguishes the materialist analysis they so assiduously apply to their opposition.

Marx himself was crystal clear regarding not only the nature of materialism but why most self-described Leftists of his own era similarly neglected to use it on themselves. Indeed, his conclusions concerning both issues were but logical extensions of his fundamental propositions about the when, why and how of socio-economic-political constancy and change.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a small but growing number of individuals have proposed that while they would like to be Leftists, there is no longer any genuinely Left paradigm for them to embrace, no social revolutionary perspective which they might adopt. In the words of writer Carolyn Chute, 'today there is only an up or down.' Others, e.g. Nancy Mitchell of WORKERS' WORLD, have begun urging a recommitment to materialism as the proper mode of investigation and understanding. His present unpopularity notwithstanding, then, perhaps it is time to remember Marx.

MARX'S MATERIALIST THEORY OF SOCIAL STABILITY AND REVOLUTION Marx began by offering a tightly reasoned answer to the question that preoccupied Thomas Hobbes and John Locke two centuries earlier: "What binds people together in community?" Where Hobbes proposed it was the force wielded by those in authority, and Locke believed we enter into a "social contract" in order to protect each others' lives and possessions, in Marx's opinion we are tied together by raw self interest, an individualistic and assumed desire to preserve whatever socio-economic status ("social existence" in his vernacular) we personally enjoy. "Individuals seek ONLY their particular interest," wrote Marx. "It is NATURAL NECESSITY, the ESSENTIAL HUMAN PROPERTIES however estranged they may seem to be, and INTEREST that hold members of civil society together; CIVIL, not POLITICAL life, is their REAL tie." (Marx's emphasis.)

Now, if we establish and pay allegiance to communities in order to maintain our social existences, to the degree that some members of a community have an elite status they will need to dominate the community's practices in its defense. This, too, was one of Marx's central conclusions. He believed it explained the very origin of politics and the political state, concluding both would automatically die if a genuinely egalitarian community ever came into being.

Surely, Marx's initial premises are supported by our common experience. With nothing material to defend, the poorest citizens of every country, north and south, east and west, rarely engage in political activity. Unless coerced, most don't even bother to vote. Just above them on the socio-economic ladder, people with low-paying jobs and a few material possessions are slightly more politically involved. Next come individuals with solid middle class interests who not only vote with greater frequency but are more apt to make additional political gestures; in the U.S., advertising candidates with bumper stickers and window posters and driving friends and acquaintences to the polls. At the apex of every country's socio-economic scale are the wealthy for whom life is politics and politics life. "The elites", political scientist Russell Neuman observed of American politics, "are ten times as politically active. These findings, which are replicated in other cultures, emerge as a central fact of political life."

It also follows that if people tie themselves to given communities because their socio-economic existences are thereby sustained, insofar as they cease to be sustained the allegiance will be broken. This, too, describes the world we all inhabit. In their respective revolutions, expropriated Russians left for Western Europe, expropriated Chinese fled to Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, and expropriated Cubans moved to the U.S., refusing to continue paying allegiance to their communities as newly constituted. Today, American, French, German, British, Japanese, etc., financiers and industrialists who have international material existences to defend regard themselves not as citizens of any particular country but of the world, and urge the establishment of a global political authority.

Each productive order (way of producing and distributing goods), Marx continued, is able to provide a finite number of people with a particular socio-economic status. Again, he certainly told it like we live it. If tomorrow Americans opted to return to an agricultural-elite (feudal) existence we would obviously have to exile or kill around 60 percent of our people. An estimated 4 to 6 percent of the U.S. population produces about 90 percent of our foodstuffs, using sophisticated irrigation systems, tractors, plows and combines which only an advanced industrial economy can provide. The foodstuffs are then distributed via trains, planes and semis, which likewise require a complex industrial order for their manufacture. Ditto with virtually everything else we enjoy, including housing, clothing, medical care, entertainment, and travel. In the same way, sustaining the social existences of the French or English during the 16th century would have been impossible if they had decided to raze their feudal systems and revert to using a hunting and gathering order of production.

Marx, of course, started with the past and reasoned his way forward, proposing the use of every specific productive order, including hunting and gathering, semi-nomadic-slave, agricultural-elite (feudal) and industrial-elite (capitalist) gradually gives rise to a subpopulation whose social existences can no longer be sustained. Social conflict invariably results, he observed, including intra-community strife, war and, ultimately, revolution.

"Population" and "overpopulation," Marx proposed, are only relative concepts. What is overpopulation for a hunting and gathering community, for instance, is underpopulation for a community which utilizes the more cornucopean feudal order of production. Marx made this particular argument in GRUNDRISSE, writing:

The amount of overpopulation posited on the basis of a specific production is thus just as determinate as the adequate population. Overpopulation and population, taken together, are THE population which a specific production base can create. . . . The overpopulation e.g. among hunting peoples, which shows itself in the warfare between the tribes, proves not that the earth could not support their small numbers, but rather that the condition of their reproduction required a great amount of territory for few people. Never a relation to a NON-EXISTENT absolute mass of means of subsistance, but rather a relation to the conditions of reproduction, of the production of these means, including likewise the CONDITIONS OF REPRODUCTION OF HUMAN BEINGS, of the total population, of relative surplus population. This surplus /is/ purely relative . . .

(Marx's emphasis.)

Revolutions, Marx's paradigm instructs, only occur under specific conditions: 1) A subcommunity must exist whose members have gradually found it necessary to begin creating and enjoying a more bounteous suborder of production in the very act of defending their social existences. (E.g., the industrialist-elite subcommunities which formed in feudal Britain and France.) 2) A stage must have been reached at which further development of the more beneficient suborder of production required to maintain them is no longer possible WITHIN THE EXISTING socio-economic-political structure. 3) Engaging in internacine struggles or participating in wars must have become costlier ways for them to preserve their social existences than carrying out a revolution and establishing the dominance of their new and more cornucopean productive system.

Marx's logic explains why when WWI began Russians, including nearly all the "Marxists," rushed to defend that nation's feudal order and the Tsar. Only when the war was being lost and the economy collapsing did revolutionary ideas become more than foolish romantic notions. So it was, too, with the course of the Chinese revolution during and after WWII. In our own hemisphere, Cuba underwent revolution only after a 10-year decline in per capita income brought the country's economy virtually to a halt and no less disruptive way remained for supporters of the revolution to be socio-economically sustained.

Thomas Jefferson said of humankind that we are "so conservative we hesitate to change our institutions though all the world sees the necessity for it, and even the opportunity presents itself." Marx repeatedly made the same point, stressing the arch-conservative nature of all politics, including revolution. "No social order ever disappears," he contended, "before all the productive forces, for which there is room in it, have been developed." "Men never relinquish what they have won," he wrote:

but this does not mean that they never relinquish the social form in which they have acquired certain productive forces. On the contrary, in order that they may not be deprived of the result attained, and forfeit the fruits of civilization, they are obliged, from the moment when the form of their commerce no longer corresponds to the productive forces acquired, to change all their traditional social forms.

Marx illustrated his argument by noting the conservative dynamics of the overthrow of feudalism in England:

The privileges, the institutions of guilds and corporations, the regulatory regime of the Middle Ages, were social relations that alone corresponded to the acquired productive forces and to the social condition which had previously existed and from which these institutions had arisen. Under the protection of the regime of corporations and regulations, capital was accumulated, overseas trade was developed, colonies were founded. But the fruits of this men would have forfeited if they had tried to retain the forms under whose shelter these fruits had ripened. Hence burst two thunderclaps--the revolutions of 1640 and 1688. All the old economic forms, the social relations corresponding to them, the political conditions which were the official expression of the old civil society, were destroyed in England.

In GRUNDRISSE, Marx described Rome's development of a colonialist and slave-holding system using the indicated dialectical proposition that new productive relationships and orders arise out of a conservative effort to preserve already existing situations:

After the CITY OF ROME had been built and the surrounding countryside cultivated by its citizens, the conditions of the community were different from what they had been before. The aim of all these communities is survival; i.e., REPRODUCTION OF THE INDIVIDUALS WHO COMPOSE IT AS PROPRIETORS, I.E., IN THE SAME OBJECTIVE MODE OF EXISTENCE AS FORMS THE RELATION AMONG THE MEMBERS AND AT THE SAME TIME THEREFORE THE COMMUNE ITSELF. THIS REPRODUCTION, HOWEVER, IS AT THE SAME TIME NECESSARILY NEW PRODUCTION AND DESTRUCTION OF THE OLD FORM. For example, where each of the individuals is supposed to possess a given number of acres of land, the advance of population is already underway. If this is to be corrected, then colonization, and that in turn requires wars of conquest. With that, slaves, etc. Also e.g., enlargement of the AGER PUBLICUS, and therewith the patricians who represent the community, etc. Thus the preservation of the old community includes the destruction of the conditions on which it rests, turns into its opposite. (Marx's emphasis.)

Marx reasoned it was this same conservative impulse which drove the capitalist. In DAS KAPITAL, he observed:

. . . the development of capitalist production makes it constantly necessary to keep increasing the amount of capital laid out in a given industrial undertaking and competition makes the immanent laws of capitalist production to be felt by each individual capitalist, as external coercive laws. It compels him to keep constantly extending his capital, IN ORDER TO PRESERVE IT, but extend it he cannot, except by means of progressive accumulation. (Emphasis added.)

This, too, depicts our world. Since the 1970s, large corporations have been rushing to establish production facilities in non-industrial nations, reaping fantastic profits from the employment of workers often paid as little as $.50 an hour. A greedy and aggressive underaking? Business economists consider it axiomatic that manufacturers rarely take this step until the rising tide of competition has begun threatening to drown them.

According to Marx's paradigm, it is by virtue of its very structure that the government of every viable productive order represents and defends the order in all of its dimensions, including its particular inequalities of social existence. As Marx put it:

Protection of acquisitions etc. When these trivialities are reduced to their real content, they tell more than their preachers know. Namely that every form of production creates its own legal relations, form of government, etc.

The State is the form in which the individuals of a ruling class assert their common interest, and in which the whole civil society of an epoch is epitomized.

Marx called subcommunities of individuals who fight to tear down established productive orders, and their opponents who are still being maintained by the existing orders, hence use force to defend them, "classes," and his definition of "class" was likewise deducible from the other axioms of his theory. For a subcommunity to constitute a class its members must find it necessary to struggle against another community/- class in defense of their social existence. Of the bourgeoisie he wrote: "The separate individuals form a class only insofar as they have to carry on a common battle against another class, otherwise they are on hostile terms with each other as competitors."

Of the peasantry:

In so far as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests, and their culture from those of the other classes and PUT THEM INTO HOSTILE OPPOSITION TO THE LATTER, they form a class. In so far as there is merely a local interconnection among these smallholding peasants and the identity of their interests begets no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them, they do not form a class. (Emphasis added.)


While Marx agreed with Hegel that idea and experience (theory and practice, knowing and doing) constitute "a unity" (i.e., our ideas are mental representations of our experiences/interests, our experiences/- interests the material bases of our ideas), he was in total disagreement regarding which takes the lead. Like others of his era, Hegel believed it is the birth of new ideas in people's heads which prompts them to undertake new practices (consciousness leads). Where do the new ideas come from? According to Hegel they're reflections in the minds of humans of ideas being formulated by the "Universal Spirit." Calling Hegel's "Universal Spirit" just another name for God, Marx put experience/interest rather than ideas in the fore, arguing our new socio-economic-political ideas arise defensively as we go about protecting our material existences under conditions which the very development of a productive order renders increasingly problematic.

"My dialectical method," said Marx:

is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. To Hegel the life process of the human brain, i.e., the process of thinking, which under the name of "the Idea," he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external phenomenal form of "the Idea." With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind and translated into forms of thought.

Having argued what welds people together in communities and classes and engages them in politics, oppression, war, revolution and counter- revolution is the desire to defend their social existences, having proposed idea and experience are a unity, Marx was logically bound to determine social consciousness, including revolutionary social consciousness, always follows rather than leads. Revolutionary logics must be products of revolutionary situations, a revolutionary conflict of material being. In his words:

Even if this theory, theology, philosophy, ethics, etc. comes into contradiction with the existing relations, this can only occur as a result of the fact that existing social relations have come into contradiction with existing forces of production. . . .

The existence of revolutionary ideas in a particular period presupposes the existence of a revolutionary class.

If idea and experience are a unity and elites invariably protect their hegemonic statuses by dominating community practice, logic further argues the elites will dominate the community's self-knowing, its consciousness, as well. That, too, was one of Marx's tenets.

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. . . . The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.

Yet another syllogistic implication of Marx's theory is that insofar as non-elite members of a community are being socio-economically sustained they will think and act an acceptance of the elite's perspective. Not doing so would put them in perpetual conflict with the latter, making it difficult-to-impossible for any of them to have their social existences preserved. In other words, we would expect the elite-dominated consciouness of a viable productive order to constitute the community's internalized (assumed and unchallenged) philosophy. That, of course, is another of Marx's root propositions. Insofar as a new productive order becomes viable (i.e., insofar as it becomes able to maintain nearly every community member's social existence), he proposed its

Philosophy then ceases to be a definite system in presence of other definite systems. It becomes philosophy generally, in presence of the world, it becomes the philosophy of the world of the present. The formal features which attest that philosophy has achieved that importance, that it is the living soul of culture, that philosophy is becoming worldly and the world philosophical, were the same in all times . . .

Marx labelled the unexamined philosophical manifestations of a viable productive order its "Spiritual Quintessence."

This feature of Marx's theory likewise characterizes our world. The elites of feudal societies East and West justified their dominion with Religious Absolutism, the belief that truth respecting both facts and values was absolute, came from God, and arrived on earth via the elites and high religious authorities; the "Divine Right of Kings" in feudal Europe, the "Mandate of Heaven" in feudal China and Japan. In times of crisis peasants would often question specific elite dictates. If the crisis was profound they might even attack the king. But not until agricultural-elite productive orders were becoming unable to sustain them did nascent industrial-elites start to challenge the indicated assumptions regarding what truth is, where it comes from and how it gets passed around. Today, the same theocratic feudal logic is aggressively propagated by raw-material and agricultural elites in the Middle East and Africa: in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, by the Taliban in Afghanistan, etc. Conversely, industrial-elites East and West-- self-described "Marxist" as well as anti-Marxist--justify their personal dominion over community consciousness with Scientific Absolutism; the conviction that while values are relative, social truth is absolute, and, that "objective" individuals (who happen to be of and represent the industrial-elite) armed with the "correct" perspective, and properly trained by the appropriate institutions, are best able to determine what it is.

That Religious Absolutism is the "Spiritual Quintessence" of the feudal productive order becomes immediately obvious when one tries to imagine building and maintaining a feudal society without it. For a week or two everyone might "play along," with those who elected to be peasants bowing to the dictates of priests and bishops, lords and ladies, kings and queens just for the fun of it all. But if the system was going to have any permanence, it would be imperative for everyone to internalize the feudal logic, sincerely believing God had determined their respective stations in life, who they were, what they thought and how they behaved toward one another.

Important for those who dream of an egalitarian world, Marx's paradigm argues that if there are individuals with elite social existences among the members of a revolutionary class struggling to gain power, in defense of their favored interests they will spontaneously/reflexively assume control of the struggle, both its thinking and its doing:

Each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society . . . It can do this because, to start with, its interest really is more connected with the common interest of all the other non- ruling classes. /i.e., the revolutionary elite's more cornucopean productive order is better able to maintain the social existence of those below it on the socio- economic ladder./

Insofar as the productive order of a revolutionary elite is able to preserve the social existences of non-elites the latter will internalize its "Spiritual Quintessence" and guide their actions according to its perimeters. One would therefore expect that, upon assuming control and discovering any further movement in the direction of equality will be expropriative of their own social existences, a new elite will promptly cease being a radical force and its revolution will grind to a halt.

As Marx said of revolution:

As the main thing is not to be deprived of the fruits of civilization, of the acquired productive forces, the traditional forms in which they were produced must be smashed. From this moment the revolutionary class becomes conservative.


What Marx believed to be the requirements for an equalitarian revolution can also be deduced from the other axioms of his theory. Since elites spontaneously think and act control of a revolution, reflexively producing elitist logics in defense of their special interests, a revolutionary subcommunity (class) would have to be born which contained no elite elements. In effect, a socialist revolutionary class would ITSELF have to be "the expression of the dissolution of all classes, nationalities, etc., within present society."

In order to develop an egalitarian perspective, the socialist revolutionary class would also have to be on the bottom of society in socio-economic terms. There could be no more deprived class against which it would need to defend its interests. Anything the socialist revolutionaries would have to defend, EVERYONE would have to defend. In Marx's words:

A class must be formed which has . . . a universal character because its sufferings are universal, and which does not claim a PARTICULAR REDRESS because the wrong which is done to it is not a PARTICULAR WRONG but WRONG IN GENERAL . . . a sphere, finally which cannot emancipate itself without . . . emancipating all . . . other spheres.(Marx's emphasis.)

/The/ subsuming of individuals under definite classes cannot be abolished until a class has taken shape, which has no longer any particular class interest to assert against the ruling class.

Since communities/classes only fight in order to keep, the socialist revolutionaries would have to discover that the development of industrial-elite society had created an unresolvable clash between their increasingly cooperative and egalitarian forces of production and the existing bourgeois relationships of/control over production.

For the oppressed class to be able to emancipate itself it is necessary that the productive powers already acquired and the existing social relations should no longer be capable of existing side by side.

Finally, if new struggles were not going to arise over who would keep and who would lose after the revolution, the productive forces of society would need to have already been refined to a point at which they were capable of producing in abundance, thus meeting everyone's needs.

/T/his development of productive forces . . . is absolutely necessary as a practical premise: firstly, for the reason that without it only WANT is made general, and with want the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced . . .

Marx believed he was witnessing the formation of just such a class, confronting precisely such conditions. In defense of their populations' social existences, he held capitalist countries were extending their material interests to the farthest reaches of the globe, creating a capitalist world-economy controlled by an ever more internationalized industrial-elite. As that stage developed, industrial-elites had begun to find they could no longer protect their hegemonic social existences by locating cheaper labor and raw materials in distant regions and/or by vying with one another. As a consequence, they were drawing more tightly together and further expropriating the likewise internationalized working class their conservative efforts had created. Increasingly dispossessed, members of this international working class were recognizing that the full development of capitalism had not only given them a common socio-economic existence, it had forced them to work cooperatively in its defense, i.e., had socialized them.

Along with the constantly diminishing number of magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolize all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working-class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself.

The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with it, and under it. Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labor at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument.

Thus things have now come to such a pass, that the individuals must appropriate the existing totality of productive forces, not only to achieve self-activity, but, also, merely to safeguard their very existence. /I/t becomes evident that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an overriding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery . . .

Understanding they could no longer maintain social existence by utilizing the industrial-elite order of production, Marx reasoned the socialized working-class would organize, rise up and carry out its revolutionary dismantling. Having done so, the political state and political consciousness, those great protectors of socio-economic inequality, would die a natural death. Only an administrative state would remain. Marx described the reflexive construction of truths in defense of elite interests that had gone before, along with their uncritical acceptance by peoples whose social existences were thereby sustained, as "pre-human history." With the socialist revolution, he urged, aware of the non-egalitarian origin and function of prior socio-economic knowing and doing, humanity would turn around, thereafter establishing progressive goals and building truths for their realization. Ideas would henceforth lead experience; as at long last human history, directed not by elites opportunistically obsessed with protecting their personal situations present, but by a species that cooperatively dreamed, then built, a better and more humane future for all, began.


Think of the five analyses of U.S. policy you consider most radically Leftist. Now identify the five most materialist expositions. You will find they are one and the same, which is hardly a matter of chance. We Leftists, quite simply, HAVE NO ALTERNATIVE when it comes to evaluating our nation's foreign and domestic policies. Being Left means being against an existential present. To be against the existential present means judging by what is actually being done (by material practice), rather than by the policy justifications (ideas) proffered by government officials.

In the introduction to his brilliant critique of U.S. foreign policy entitled KILLING HOPE, William Blum announces a commitment to materialism in that work, writing: "I am declaring that American foreign policy is what American foreign policy does." Blum proposes he will use the same materialist methodology concerning practices of "the Soviet Union, China, various communist parties, etc.," saying: "Emphasis is placed upon what their bodies have actually done, not upon reference to what Marx or Lenin wrote." "The Soviets like to be thought of as champions of the Third World," he observes, "but they have stood by doing little more than going 'tsk, tsk,' as progressive movements and governments, even Communist parties, in Greece, Guatemala, British Guiana, Chile, Indonesia, the Philippines and elsewhere have gone to the wall with American complicity."

But if materialist analysis of our enemies is a requisite for we self-styled Leftists, it produces downright unappealing conclusions when applied to ourselves. Consider the behavior of a not-so-hypothetical American political science professor who depicts himself as an anti-imperialist. After giving a lecture condemning U.S. imperialism in Central and South America the professor leaves the campus to buy a shirt made of Brazilian cotton picked by peasants paid an exploitative wage. Enroute to the department store he stops for an espresso made with Colombian coffee, likewise picked by individuals he insists are victims of imperialist exploitation. Finding a shirt he likes, he pays with a check drawn on a bank that regularly finances corporations whose Third World imperialism he decries. Next, the professor phones his wife, utilizing the services of a communications industry he recognizes as having vast exploitative Latin American investments. At his wife's request, he then enters a supermarket to purchase bananas, products of Conchita Brands imperialistic exploitation in Central America. Just before heading home he mails a tax payment at the post office, part of which his government will use to provide Latin American military officers with the interrogation techniques and weaponry used to hold any rebellious Latin American masses down. If our professor gave himself a materialist definition, he would have to declare: "I'd like to be an anti-imperialist, but it would cost more than I'm currently willing to pay." Not a very happy proposition.

On the other hand, applying materialism to opponents (THEY ARE WHAT THEY DO), idealism to ourselves and our friends (WE ARE WHAT WE THINK AND SAY), not only enables we Leftists to maintain social existence, in many instances it improves our material situations. Having neither dependents to support nor mortgage payments to make, not yet tightly bound to the existing system through remunerative employment, university students are more open than other Americans, French, Germans, British et al., to critical examinations of the industrial-elite productive order which currently sustains us all. As a result, self-styled anti- imperialist social science professors frequently find they have larger and more enthusiastic classes than their conservative colleagues, a distinct advantage when it comes to tenure and promotion. The books of prominent Leftist writers have a profitable appeal for a sizeable university audience; an audience which commonly invites their authors on campus to make $2,000-plus presentations. In brief, at this stage of the industrial-elite productive order's development, looking at ourselves through an idealist rather than a materialist lens makes it possible for we Leftists to endure, often prosper, while enjoying condescension for our opponents and feeling good about ourselves. Hypocrisy has its advantages for the Left as well as the Right.

Unfortunately, there are negative upshots to the practice described. Unable to make material sense of situations and events examined through an idealistic lens, we Leftists commonly embrace the most preposterous declarations of government officials. Consider the Left's characterizations of the Russian and Chinese revolutions, and of post-WWII revolutionary movements in the Third World. His declared materialism notwithstanding, William Blum presents the standard idealist depiction of Russia's revolution and the West's response, intoning:

/T/he Bolsheviks had displayed the far greater audacity of overthrowing a capitalist-feudal system and proclaiming the first socialist state in the history of the world. This was uppitiness writ incredibly large. This was the crime the Allies had to punish, the virus which had to be eradicated lest it spread to their own people.

The absurdity of Blum's proposition becomes immediately apparent to anyone who makes even a superficial materialist examination of the Russian Revolution.

Socialism, not only for Marx and Engels, but for their contemporaries, including those who railed against it, meant wage equality (Marx's "From each according to his ability, to each according to his work.") Following the failed Paris Commune Marx modified this definition slightly, concluding for a brief time after a socialist revolution there might be a 2-to-1 disparity of income, as practiced by the Communards. From the outset, income differences in post-revolutionary Russia and the rest of the U.S.S.R., as in "Communist China," were no less drastic than those found in the West. Russian and Chinese industrial-elites, along with their Communist Party political representatives/defenders, have enjoyed ALL the usual perquisites, including fine food and clothing, luxury automobiles and private planes, expensive art collections, deluxe housing and vacation quarters, premium medical care, and an array of social subordinates to serve them. This, while the working class majority in both countries labored long hours, often under arduous conditions, to secure a mediocre-to-miserable existence. And beneath them a vast army of slave-laborers endured shortened lives under the most brutally inhumane and oppressive conditions, in order to build functioning industrial-elite infrastructures without diminishing the status of the elites.

Not bothering to read Marx, self-styled Western Marxists have often accepted U.S., Russian, Chinese, et al. equations of socialism with state ownership and control of the means of production; a practice that requires turning their prophet not only upside down but inside out. Marx reasoned that whereas early capitalists were able to extract sufficient profit (surplus value) from their workers to repair and expand factories, their successors soon found they had to tap a larger source of funding in order to build the grand-scale enterprises which successful competition demanded. This inevitably led them to sell stocks and bonds, producing a concomitant challenge to their control that Marx considered "seeds of socialism."

Moreover, Marx observed, it was becoming imperative for some capitalists to establish such huge productive networks that even the sale of stocks and bonds no longer sufficed. They were having to draw surplus value from virtually every citizen, and that meant bringing in the state. State assistance had also become crucial for protecting the industrial-elite's hegemonic interests against the rapidly expanding and more unified work force, and against the predatory actions of one another. However, Marx argued, this turning to the state did not make a productive order any less capitalist, a point stressed by Engels in his essay "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific."

/T/he transformation, either into joint stock companies and trusts, or into state ownership, does not do away with the capitalististic nature of the productive forces. In the joint-stock companies and trusts this is obvious. And the modern state, again, is only the organization that bourgeois society takes on in order to support the external conditions of the capitalist mode of production against the encroachments as well of the workers as of individual capitalists. The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine, the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage workers, proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. . . . State ownership of the productive forces is not the solution of the conflict, but concealed within it are the technical conditions that form the elements of that solution.

For Marx, capitalist productive orders were by definition productive orders dominated by individuals who derived and maintained elite social existences through their control of industrial production. According to his materialist paradigm, "industrial-elite societies" WERE "capitalist societies", much as "agricultural-elite" and "feudal" societies were one.

Viewing the U.S.S.R as more "socialist" than Western industrial-elite communities has not only required the Left to focus on what political authorities were saying, rather than what was being done, it has necessitated ignoring the pre-revolutionary understandings of both Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, along with the post-revolutionary analyses of Lenin.

According to the Russian Marxists who began preaching revolution during the 1880s, their country was a textbook example of Marx's thesis that feudal societies spawn industrial-elite subcommunities whose social existences can eventually only be sustained by tearing down their agricultural-elite orders and building more beneficient and progressive industrial-elite systems in their stead. They considered it a truism that feudal Russia was about to undergo a capitalist revolution. So, too, did members of the Menshevik and Bolshevik parties which arose out of a split in the Socialist Revolutionary organization. What divided Mensheviks and Bolsheviks concerned not what sort of society Russia was; it was feudal. Nor did they disagree over what it would soon become; obviously capitalist. Rather, their disputes concerned how long the country would remain capitalist before experiencing a second, socialist revolution; and how, as a consequence, Marxist revolutionaries should behave after the capitalist revolution occurred.

The Mensheviks believed it would take a long time for Russia's industrial-elite order to develop, exhaust its creative capacities, and give birth to a socialist-egalitarian class that had to protect itself by carrying out an anti-capitalist revolution. Hence, they proposed, following the capitalist revolution Marxist revolutionaries should work within the government to protect workers as the industrial-elite system flowered. The Bolsheviks, conversely, expected Russia's progression from feudalism to capitalism to socialism to happen quickly. They argued that by transforming the country's relationships with Europe, capitalist revolution in Russia would throw Western Europe's mature capitalist systems into crisis, "sparking" (the Bolshevik newspaper was named Iskra, "the spark") socialist revolutions on the continent. The latter, in turn, would push capitalist Russia back into crisis. Aided and abetted by West European revolutionaries, Russia would then undergo its own socialist revolutionary transformation. Since the entire process would be rapid, the Bolsheviks held that following Russia's capitalist revolution Marxist revolutionaries should pressure the government from without, just as they had done with its feudal predecessor.

When Russia lost a war with Japan in 1904 and its economy began to collapse, both Marxist parties focused on convincing industrialists to carry out the capitalist revolution. When that effort failed, the Bolsheviks in particular decided they would have to lead the capitalist revolution themselves. Ironically, when the revolution finally occurred the Bolsheviks implemented the Menshevik program in aces, becoming, rather than merely entering, the nascent industrial-elite order government. By late 1917, Bolshevik spokesmen were already promoting the opportunistic thesis that the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II in February 1917 and establishment of a provisional government constituted Russia's capitalist revolution; their own seizure of power in October its socialist transformation.

Lenin, however, continued to describe Russia as engaged in building a state-capitalist, rather than a socialist productive system. The U.S., England and France had no serious competitors when they constructed their industrial-elite productive orders and were able to go about it gradually, he reasoned. Russia, on the other hand, would face stiff competition from mature capitalist nations and must either establish large-scale industries quickly or fail to survive. Being late comers to capitalism, Japan and Germany had confronted the same dilemma, Lenin noted. When the Meiji Restoration destroyed Japan's feudal structure in 1867, Japanese industrialists immediately understood that building a competitive capitalist economy would require rapid industrialization; and that, in turn, necessitated getting financial assistance from virtually every citizen by way of the state. So, Japan established a state-capitalist order. Under the direction of Otto von Bismarck, a unified Germany had to make the same accelerated transformation from feudalism to capitalism a few years later. Recognizing it could only do so by obtaining government assistance, Germany became even more state-capitalist than Japan. Russia, Lenin emphasized, would have to adopt the same state-capitalist policies. He argued it was Russia's small and medium-sized entrepreneurs, not its capitalists, who threatened to impede the country's progress. Challenged by anarchists and other strident anti-capitalists, in June 1921 Lenin declared:

The alternative (and this is the last possible and only sensible policy) is not to try to prohibit or put the lock on the development of capitalism, but to try to direct it into state capitalism. This is economically possible, for state capitalism--in one form or another, to some degree or other--exists whereever the elements of free trade and capitalism in general exist.

Can the Soviet state, the dictatorship of the proletariat, be combined, united with state capitalism? Are they compatible? Of course they are. This is exactly what I argued in May 1918. I hope I proved it in May 1918. Nor is that all. I then proved that state capitalism is a step forward compared with the small proprietor (both small- patriarchal and petty-bourgeois) element. Those who juxtapose or compare state capitalism only with socialism commit a host of mistakes, for in the present political and economic circumstances it is essential to compare state capitalism also with petty-bourgeois production.

The whole problem--both theoretical and practical--is to find the correct methods of directing the inevitable (to a certain degree and for a certain time) development of capitalism into the channels of state-capitalism; to determine what conditions to hedge it round with, how to insure the transformation of state capitalism into socialism in the near future.

In order to approach the solution of this problem we must first of all picture to ourselves as distinctly as possible what state capitalism will be and can be in practice within our Soviet system, within the framework of our Soviet state.

At the time, Trotsky remarked that only Lenin had the courage to make such an admission. Most Bolshevik authorities had already begun defending their hegemonic social existence, and that of the nascent industrial-elite, with the argument that Russia was building a classless, communist society, an idea which contradicted virtually every tenet of their idol Marx's logic.

Marx's paradigm, of course, argues there was not the remotest possibility Russia would have a socialist revolution in 1917. It had none of what Marx described as preconditions for that kind of transformation. Moreover, vis-a-vis the country's peasants and industrial workers, with few exceptions, the Marxist activists had elite statuses to protect. Whereas the average Russian had 3 to 4 years of schooling, many Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, including nearly all the party leaders, were college educated. Most peasants and industrial workers lived in poverty, whereas Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were in general middle class or above.

To be sure, many Bolshevik Party founders lived austerely and had deep ideological commitments to equality. However, following the revolution they soon found themselves losing their former authority. When the Party seized power it had approximately 23,000 members. By 1922 that figure had soared to over 700,000, as individuals with elite social existences to protect discovered they had been "communists" all along and flooded the party's ranks, assigning more dedicated and egalitarian "Old Bolsheviks" pen-pushing, busywork to do. Then, as the 1930s began, with the country's fledgling state-capitalist economy devastated by the three years of civil war which followed the revolution, and now hammered by a deepening international depression, most Russians drew together behind Stalin and the party bureaucracy, electing to maintain their social existence and that of the industrial-elite by killing or enslaving 20-plus million peasants, along with a few thousand others who had sufficient humanity and courage to open their eyes, see what was happening, and protest.

That China's political authorities are also directing the construction of a state-capitalist productive order in the name of socialism and communism is today so blatantly obvious it would be pointless to make an elaborate argument. Visiting China in 1975, John Burns, of Toronto's GLOBE AND MAIL, was already reporting:

Curtained limousines, sumptuous banquets, exclusive recreational facilities, access to special shops, privileged seats on trains and aircraft, salaries five to ten times that of the average worker--such are the perquisites of authority in China, where the Party is forever caricaturing the inequalities of life in the capitalist West . . . . A foreigner has to wonder when he sees middle-echelon cadres arriving for a football game at the stadium in a Mercedes-Benz 289 SE.

As San Francisco State Speech and Communications professor Hank McGuckin more recently observed:

Some of us may remember that when student demonstrators were gathered at Tiananmen Square to protest gross inequity, and corruption among the Party's leadership and venture capitalists so beloved of George Bush, we heard the students singing the Communist International--and we saw the tanks sent by the Party leadership to crush them.

A materialist can accept the claims of Russian or Chinese political authorities that their revolutions were necessary and progressive, that they occurred because both countries had reached the point at which a rapidly-growing majority of their populations could no longer maintain social existence unless they dismantled their feudal structures and industrialized. But, agreeing to call the way they have gone about it "socialist" or "communist" makes about as much sense as concurring with a drunk who pronounces himself a teetotaler and vegetarian as he staggers from the local saloon eating a roast beef sandwich. To a materialist, the two countries ARE WHAT THEY DO, and what they have done has, from the very beginning, been capitalist to the core.


We Leftists want to change the world. But to change any material situation one must first understand its material operation. Finding U.S. Third World practices odious, from the late 1950s to the late 1980s the American Left internalized the government's definition of events, then tilted against its conclusions. Our authorities claimed we were fighting Soviet-instigated "communism" in Castro's Cuba, Allende's Chile and Ortega's Nicaragua, insisting if we failed to do so all of Latin America would soon be lost. Having accepted the government's definition of Castro, Allende, Ortega and the Soviet Union as "communist," the Left could only feebly reply that perhaps a little communism would be good for the hemisphere. As a consequence, we appeared weak-minded or weak-willed to Americans in general, in view of the brutal oppression known to be occurring in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China.

A materialist analysis would have been far more compelling. It would have entailed exposing the operational meanings being given to "socialism" and "communism" by peoples for and against; i.e., defining what they MEAN by what they DO. To the antis, "those policies and programs are socialist/communist which are expropriative of my social existence, and the more they would expropriate me, the more they are socialist/communist designs." In acting upon that definition Latin American landholders have with clear conscience oppressed, tortured and slaughtered peasants, priests, educators and anyone else who posed a material threat. In defense of U.S. agricultural, raw-material, communications, maquiladora and banking interests in Latin America and other Third World regions our government has done the same; our policies toward Iraq revealing there is apparently no limit to how barbarous we are willing to become.

For the industrial-elites of China and the former Soviet Union, on the other hand, as for their progressive sub-elite counterparts in Latin America, the Middle East and Asia, "those polices and programs are sufficiently socialist/communist unto the moment which sustain my social existence. Policies, programs and their supporters which threaten a diminishment of my interests are 'capitalist' or 'leftist adventurist,' depending upon the direction from which they come, and are to be energetically, if necessary, brutally opposed."

Had the U.S. Left been consistently materialist in its analyses it would have concentrated on puncturing our government's ludicrous pretension that its reactionary and oppressive anti-Soviet, anti-China and Third World policies, including the trillions spent on weapons systems, had something to do with battling socialism/communism. It would have hailed Castro, Allende, Ortega, for their progressive expropriation of the foreign raw-material interests which throttled their countries' economies, while condemning the oppressive and elitist activities of their own regimes. It would have welcomed the U.S.S.R.'s attempts to bring industrial development to the Third World, while reminding them they were doing it to keep their own industrial-elite system solvent.

Marx predicted that as the industrial-elite productive order grew increasingly disfunctional and a socialist-revolutionary class developed, here and there individuals with more elite interests would grasp what was happening and go over. We Leftists often give the impression we see ourselves as of that breed as we concentrate on accusing capitalists for the ills of the system. However, Marx's logic makes it evident that any individual who joins a socialist-revolutionary community in formation will spend as much time on confession as on accusation. It was not capitalists who Marx's paradigm depicts as the enemy. It was the capitalist productive system, and its day-to-day preservation is something for which we are all responsible.

One of the most worrisome things about the U.S. Left's idealism is that while our country's practices are becoming increasingly fascist at home and abroad, we go on deluding ourselves we will be able to turn things around just through the presentation of our ideas. Bemused to find most Americans support our government's genocidal policy toward Iraq and our oppressive anti-drug operations in Latin America, we assure ourselves it's because they have been propagandized, then we begin to shout ever louder. Without question, our elites spend a lot of time and money producing and propagating the ideas required for their socio-economic defense. But, as Marx insisted is the case with all elite-manufactured logics, Americans in general accept them out of mundane self-interest, not because they are "brain washed." The Left has apparently forgotten that when millions of young middle-class Americans discovered their social existences no longer being sustained by elite logics in the 1960s they created alternative publications, RAMPARTS, ROLLING STONE, THE VILLAGE VOICE, THE BERKELEY BARB, 7 DAYS, a revived MOTHER JONES, Paul Krassner's THE REALIST, etc. It has forgotten that when modifications in the economy provided the rebellious youths with secure niches once again, editors of the indicated periodicals found they would either have to sing the industrial-elite's songs like other media, or, fold. Some attempted the former, but having nothing different to say, most of those soon ceased publication. The others disappeared virtually overnight.

As observed at the outset, thus far the Left has pragmatically resisted abandoning its idealistic interpretations of events. In an email discussion with the author, William Blum changed his mind about why the West was so opposed to the Russian Revolution, saying it was actually "because of the capitalists' very material investments that they were worried, not the idea per se." However, Blum found distinctions between materialism and idealism "abstract" and "uninteresting" and not something he was willing to discuss.

Perhaps most alarming of all is the rememberance of what our counterparts in Germany did under circumstances very similar to our own. As their country descended into fascism in the late 1930s, with the economy rapidly improving and their disruptive ideas falling on deaf ears, many German Leftists enthusiastically put on brown shirts, while the majority fell silent and went along, comforting themselves it was not their fault. They tried to warn everyone. But, alas, the propagandized masses had simply refused to listen.