by Brian Jones
March 4, 2009
Socialism isn’t a utopian dream. It is a part of the real world, a struggle already in progress. Brian Jones examines Marx’s revolutionary ideas in this last of three articles.
KARL MARX is widely condemned as a utopian dreamer. The irony in this is the fact that Marx is distinguished from previous socialists precisely by his departure from a utopian approach.
The real utopians were the socialists before Marx. They dreamed of an egalitarian society, and drew up elaborate plans for them–rigorously detailed blueprints for industry, education and social life. The utopians hoped that if these plans were presented to rich and powerful people, they would be convinced by the rationality of socialism, and they–the bourgeoisie–would give us an egalitarian society.
I have an image in my mind of Donald Trump leading a march for economic equality. Now that is utopian.
Marx and Engels were the first to bring socialism down from the clouds and put it on a real-world, scientific basis. Their starting point was not ideals, but reality:
The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, but those which they find existing and those produced by their activity.
Marx and Engels were the first socialists to support trade unions. Why? Because Marx and Engels were the first to see socialism as the logical end result of the class struggle that was already in progress.
We are usually taught that change is the product of enlightened, courageous minorities working on behalf of the grateful masses. Marx’s was a 180-degree change in approach. “All previous historical movements,” he wrote, “were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.”
This continues to be a radical departure from the usual way that revolution (or really any social change for that matter) is conceived.
Furthermore, this “immense majority” is organized in the first place, not by people preaching socialism, but by the capitalists! As Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto:
[W]ith the development of industry, the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more. The various interests and conditions of life within the ranks of the proletariat are more and more equalized, in proportion as machinery obliterates all distinctions of labor, and nearly everywhere reduces wages to the same low level.
Today, “the various interests and conditions of life within the ranks of the proletariat are …equalized” to an amazing degree. Basically, in 2009, the life of a wage laborer has the same essential features in every corner of the globe. It’s the spread of capitalism all over the globe that explains why you see people organizing unions all over the globe–from Nigeria to Venezuela, from South Korea to Canada.
Further, socialist proselytizers don’t have to convince people of the “idea” of fighting back. Capitalism forces people to do that.
When management tried to take away all of their sick days and cut pay by 25 percent, the workers who make cookies at the Stella D’oro factory in the Bronx went on strike. When the owners of the Republic Windows & Doors factory in Chicago tried to close the factory in December and cheat the workers out of their severance pay, the workers occupied the factory.
This movement of the “immense majority” is not a utopian dream. It is a part of the real world, a struggle already in progress. Ever since Marx, it is these struggles that are the starting point for the socialist movement. As Marx wrote in a letter:
We do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for… explaining to it the meaning of its own actions.
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BUT WHERE is this struggle headed? What is the meaning of a strike?
Even small strikes (such as the two mentioned above) can have big implications. In effect, the owners are telling the workers how it’s going to be, and the workers are collectively saying, “No, this is how it’s going to be.”
Who’s going to decide how many sick days there will be? Who’s going to decide whether the factory stays open or closes? Who’s going to decide the hours, the pay and so on? A strike is like a revolution in embryo, because it’s the first step towards working people saying, “We’re going to decide.”
When students occupied a cafeteria at New York University to protest (among other things) the outrageous rate of tuition, their classmates gathered in the hundreds outside the building to support them, chanting, “Whose school? OUR SCHOOL!” What’s the implication of that?
Furthermore, what if the working class actually won this struggle once and for all? What if the students and teachers took over the schools? What if the nurses and doctors controlled the hospitals? What if we–the workers–controlled all of the workplaces?
If capitalism was the product of the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the kings and queens, then the outcome of the new class struggle–the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat–is socialism. As Marx and Engels wrote:
It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will historically be compelled to do. Its aim and historical action is visibly and irrevocably foreshadowed in its life situation, as well as in the whole organization of bourgeois society today.
What is it that is foreshadowed? Marx is saying that a truly collective society is foreshadowed by the life of the working class under capitalism.
We already work collectively. If we struggle, we must struggle collectively or we lose. Marx pointed out that if the working class were to rule, the only way it could rule would be…you guessed it: collectively.
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WHAT WOULD that look like? Marx and Engels (unlike the utopian dreamers) wrote very little on what socialism would precisely look like, because it’s not for two people sitting in a room to decide. The whole point is for the “immense majority” to remake society as they see fit.
We don’t have to draw up elaborately detailed plans for a socialist future, but we can imagine the broad outlines of would be possible if we, regular working people, ran society:
— We could provide free health care to everyone.
— We could house everyone (why not free housing?).
— We could feed everyone (why not free restaurants?).
— We could give people real leisure time, to spend with their friends and families, travel, pursue other interests.
Impossible, you say? Well, it’s happened before.
In 1871, the workers of Paris took over the city and ran it for two months. They set up an egalitarian workers’ government. They abolished the standing army, and instead armed the people. They elected representatives with no term of office and no perks, who were paid only an average worker’s wage and were recallable at any time. They opened up education for women (unheard of) and for working people in general. Marx described how:
The whole of the educational institutions were opened to the people gratuitously, and at the same time cleared of all interference of church and state. Thus, not only was education made accessible to all, but science itself freed from the fetters which class prejudice and governmental force had imposed upon it.
The mass of people participated directly in the running of the Commune, and they planned to reorganize the factories under worker’s control. Crime virtually disappeared since everything was organized for the purpose of meeting people’s needs. Marx wrote that the masses of Paris had “stormed heaven,” and the wealthy classes of the world howled in protest:
It is a strange fact. In spite of all the tall talk and all the immense literature, for the last 60 years, about emancipation of labor, no sooner do the working men anywhere take the subject into their own hands with a will, than arises at once all the apologetic phraseology of the mouthpieces of present society, with its two poles of capital and wage-slavery…The Commune, they exclaim, intends to abolish property, the basis of all civilization!
Yes, gentlemen, the Commune intended to abolish that class property which makes the labor of the many the wealth of the few. It aimed at the expropriation of the expropriators. It wanted to make individual property a truth by transforming the means of production, land and capital, now chiefly the means of enslaving and exploiting labor, into mere instruments of free and associated labor. But this is communism, “impossible” communism!
Even this socialist society, Marx argued, is not some dreamland. It’s really just a first step:
The working class did not expect miracles from the Commune. They have no ready-made utopias to introduce…They know that in order to work out their own emancipation…they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men. They have no ideals to realize, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant.
If you think that capitalism is an utterly corrupt system, and that our society is “pregnant” with the possibility of radical change, and if you have some intuition that we, the working people of the world, could run things in a better way, then you should join the socialist movement and help to make that dream a reality.
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