The scientific analysis of Karl Marx
A comprehensive synthesis from below tied to political practice
Marx forged a synthesis of British political economy and German philosophy from the vantage point of the worker. On a foundation of encounter with the emerging proletarian movement, Marx discerned meaning in human history, and he envisioned a future society established on a foundation of automated industry and characterized by versatile work and by the reduction of labor time. His work represented the most advanced formulation of his era, overcoming the idealism of German philosophy and the ahistorical empiricism of British political economy, and analyzing human history and capitalism from the vantage point of the exploited and dominated class. Marx’s formulation was a threat to the capitalist class, because it was an emancipatory paradigm, pointing to the transition to a socialist society through the political action of the working class.
Marx’s achievement established the possibility for significant advances in understanding human societies and political-economic systems. But these possibilities were contained by the subsequent bureaucratic organization of elite-funded universities. The fragmentation of knowledge into the disciplines of philosophy, history, economics, political science, sociology, and anthropology functioned to marginalize the work of Marx.
The “revolution of 1968” critiqued the epistemological assumptions of science and social science, stimulating many historians, social scientists, and philosophers to move beyond the disciplinary boundaries and to search for the true and the good through alternative epistemological assumptions. However, as Immanuel Wallerstein observed, they have done so in a context in which the dysfunctional organization of the fields of knowledge remains institutionally strong, thus preventing the emergence of a necessary new epistemological consensus.
With the blocking of the development of knowledge of social dynamics in the universities, the further development of knowledge was left to the exceptional leaders of revolutionary movements, who made important contributions to theory. When Lenin observed in Russia the revolutionary action of the peasantry, he reformulated Marx with the concept of a revolution forged by workers and peasants, led by a vanguard of workers. When Lenin observed that the European proletarian revolutions of the period 1919 to 1922 were not going to triumph, he projected that the vanguard of the global revolution would pass to the oppressed nations of the world. In China, Mao formulated a concept of a revolutionary peasantry in opposition to the Chinese landholding class, a relatively weak Chinese bourgeoisie, and foreign capitalist penetration of China. In Indochina, Ho Chi Minh synthesized the Vietnamese tradition of Confucian nationalism with Marxism Leninism, leading a revolution of peasants for national and social liberation. Similarly, Fidel in Cuba forged a synthesis of Marxism-Leninism with the revolutionary nationalism of José Martí, conceiving a revolution by the people against the national bourgeoisie and the U.S. capitalist class, seeking national sovereignty as well as social transformation. In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, responding to the neoliberal attack on Latin America, synthesized Mao and Fidel to proclaim a new form of socialism adapted to the conditions of the twenty-first century.
Thus, the epicenter of the global socialist revolution had shifted from Europe to the region of the world that called itself the Third World. This shift creates a global political realignment from East-West confrontation of the first Cold War to North-South confrontation seeking cooperation from the South. The realignment expressed itself beginning in the 1950s in the form of the Non-Aligned Movement; and in the past two decades in the emergence of a pluripolar world order, now a recognized political reality
In addition, the shift of the epicenter of the revolution gives rise to a Marxist theoretical formulation rooted in concepts and principles of Marx and at the same time is based in the revolutions of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This Marxist reconceptualization is expressed by leaders and intellectuals of the vanguard nations of the pluripolar world construction, and by intellectuals of all regions who have cast their lot with the nations constructing socialism today.
In the Marxist reconceptualization of our time, the capitalist world-economy is understood as developing as a dimension of a neocolonial world-system that has been built on the foundation of European conquest and colonialism. The capitalist world-economy is characterized by the superexploitation of labor in vast peripheral and semi-peripheral zones, in which trading relations are structured to reinforce global inequality. In the neocolonial world-system, nations are independent in name only, lacking real effective control of their economies, currencies, and natural resources, which are controlled by the strong states in core of the system.
In the neocolonial situation, the most advanced movements of the people are anti-imperialist, seeking above all the true sovereignty of their nations. They advance through the ideological and political unity of all sectors of the people, including workers, peasants, professionals, students, women, and indigenous communities. They seek to take control of important branches of the state, in order that delegates of the people can direct the state toward the development of the nation and the protection of the social and economic rights of the people. Although there are universal principles, the people’s revolutions have particular characteristics in each nation.
In the Marxist reconceptualization of our time, class interests and class struggles play a central role. In the core nations, a percentage of the workers develop unions, demanding of managers higher wages and compensation, which improves the standard of living only in a situation of expanding productivity. If there is not a growth in productivity, higher compensation increases demand without increasing supply, resulting in inflation. During World War II and the post-war era, the condition of expanding productivity was present, due to state investments in war and a military-industrial complex. But with the turn to neoliberal policies and financial speculation, growth in productivity stagnated, such that the corporate elite saw itself compelled to limit concessions to workers and government spending on social programs.
However, elevating the standard of living of core workers, when it occurs, does not address the global inequalities that are based in the colonial foundation of the world-system. Indeed, during the golden age of American neocolonial hegemony, concessions to workers were financed in part by capital flowing from the neocolonized zones. Although the international corporate elite can make real concessions to core workers in particular conditions, its concessions to Third World governments are far more limited. This is because Third World states and people’s movements are oriented toward power; they seek greater control over the natural and human resources and the economies and financial systems of their nations. Such a quest implies structural changes that strike at the foundations of the neocolonial world-system.
The principal strategy of the corporate elite in the containment of the Third World is the exploitation of class differences within the neocolony. The national bourgeoisie in the neocolony is not a true bourgeoisie. It is in varying degrees subordinate to the international corporate elite; and its capital is based in enterprises that are functional to the capitalist world-economy, such as large estates dedicated to the exportation of agricultural products to core markets. In this situation, the national bourgeoise has an interest in the preservation of the neocolonial relation, but it also has a potential interest in the autonomous economic development of the nation, so that it can function as a true and not a dependent bourgeoisie. Thus, the national bourgeoise has a progressive ideological current, which can attain political power in the nations through alliance with other classes in the neocolony. The progressive wing of the national bourgeoisie rises and falls in accordance with national and international developments.
The workers and peasants in the neocolony have an interest in severing the neocolonial relation and promoting the economic development of the nation in a form that protects their social and economic rights. A true revolution by and for workers and peasants is a threat to the interests of the conservative wing of the national bourgeoisie and the international corporate class.
The middle class plays a decisive role in the revolutions of the Third World. In the neocolonial situation, the middle class lives in relative material comfort, and for this reason, it is most susceptible to the ideologies that justify the neocolonial order. But its quality of life would be enhanced by the socioeconomic development of the nation, providing expanded opportunities in social service fields like health and education, and providing dignity and a sense of purpose to the nation. So the middle class is ideologically divided in the neocolonial situation. A conservative wing is allied with the conservative national bourgeoisie, and a progressive wing casts its lot with the workers and the peasants. In Third World revolutions, leaders are often from the middle class, guiding and educating workers and peasants and taking them beyond rebellion to revolution, both before and after the taking of political power.
Confronting the inherent political instability of the neocolonies, the international corporate class persistently interferes in the internal affairs of the neocolonies, which are recognized as independent nations in the norms of the international world order. The corporate class uses all methods at its disposal, including the most barbaric, to put in political power those politicians that are prepared to accommodate to the interests of the imperialist powers. And the corporate class demonizes and discredits leaders that are following a revolutionary road of transformation of neocolonial structures, especially when they attain sustained political power on the basis of the consensual support of the workers, peasants, and the middle class.
In the implementation of its corporate interests, the North American/European corporate elite has forged in the core nations a political system of representative democracy that ensures the subservience of politicians. The elite attains political control through think tanks, funding of educational institutions, ownership of the media, and the financing of political campaigns. Thus, the political establishments of the core nations are accomplices in the betrayal of the nation and the people. Seeing the “electoral farce” of the representative democracies of the North, triumphant socialist revolutions in the neocolonies have developed alternative structures of people’s democracy.
The reconceptualized Marxism of our time sees that capitalism has entered a final stage of imperialist decadence and desperation, which has been established by objective conditions. The world-system has reached and overextended the geographical and ecological limits of the earth, eliminating the system’s historic mechanism of expansion through the conquest and peripheralization of new territories. As a result, the capacity of the system to generate surplus value is reduced. With declining rates of profits, core elites have turned since 1980 to the imposition of neoliberal economic policies and military aggression, which have deepened the structural problems of the system. At the same time, the systems of representative democracy in the core nations are demonstrating their incapacity to understand and constructively address the structural crisis of the world-system.
Inasmuch as imperialism has fallen into decadence and desperation, the peoples of the nations of the core now have an objective material interest in a transition to a socialist world-system. In this new world order, already emerging in practice, nations constructing socialism are in the vanguard in shaping the norms of the system. In the socialist world-system, relations among nations, regardless of ideology, are defined by mutual respect and mutually beneficial trade. A socialist world-system is the necessary foundation for the future peace and prosperity of humanity.
Webinar on Marx’s Capital
The above reflections on the importance of Marx were inspired by a March 26 Webinar sponsored by the International Manifesto Group, “Clarifying the Struggle for Socialism: Uses and Misuses of Marx's Capital.” The International Manifest Group brings together intellectuals and activists from all regions of the world who reflect on the texts of Marx in the context of the current stage of capitalism and imperialism; and taking into account the lessons and experiences of the socialist projects in China, Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, and Venezuela as well as anti-imperialist movements in Latin America, India, and Africa.
The first presentation was by Radhika Desai, convener of the International Manifesto Group and Director of the Geopolitical Economy Research Group, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada; and the author of Geopolitical Economy: After US Hegemony, Globalization and Empire. She maintained that Marx gave us the intellectual tools that we need to understand capitalism today. In his analysis of political economy, Marx was able to resolve problems that neither Adam Smith nor David Ricardo were able to resolve, by drawing upon Hegel to place the issues in the context of the historical unfolding of contradictions between national classes and states. In doing so, he exposed the aggressive character of capitalism.
Marx, therefore, was the most advanced expression of classical political economy. However, in the hands of Marx, classical political economy could no longer legitimize capitalism, as was the case with the political economy of Smith and Ricardo. Accordingly, the science of political economy evolved to what later would be called neoclassical political economy. It was political economy in a narrow sense, with the contradictions between classes cast aside.
Neoclassical political economy, therefore, portrayed an ahistorical capitalism that was an impoverishment of Marx. Intellectuals and activists could not escape the influence of neoclassical economic theory. They often formulated abstract conceptions of capitalism with positivist epistemological assumptions, separating the economy from the social sphere, and leaving out the historical development of political-economic systems. These misunderstandings of Marx were evident in the Second International; they are refuted by Volume One of Capital.
In Desai’s view, with the turn to neoclassical political economy following 1870, Marx’s analysis of history was lost, with devastating consequences for the understanding of the Left. If we do not understand the historically evolving contradictions between national classes and between states, we cannot see the necessary relation between capitalism and imperialism. And if we do not understand the logic of imperialism, we cannot understand the logic of existing socialism today. We cannot see that the Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cuban revolutions took control of states and used the power of the state to protect the sovereignty of the nation and to direct economic development, thus placing themselves against the economic interests of Western imperialist states. We cannot see that the current expression of the historic conflict between classes and states is moving toward resolution through the development of a pluripolar world of cooperation and mutual respect among nations and peoples, and a corresponding decline of the European-centered capitalist world-economy under U.S. hegemony.
Desai maintains that, in addition to the confusions of the Left, mainstream thinking also has been characterized by misunderstanding. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the influential German intellectual Max Weber put forth the notion that the differentiation of institutions in modern societies made necessary the separate study of each of the institutions. Fragmented social sciences emerged, formulating laws that supposedly shape human behavior, obscuring the role of human actors as agents of change in the unfolding contradictory dynamics in human history. These developments laid the foundation for a misunderstanding of Marx by mainstream academics in the social sciences, history, and philosophy.
Mainstream Western thought did not grasp that modern capitalism was a particular historical world-system that came into being as a result of the unfolding contradictions between classes and states and will come to end as a result of such contradictions. Modern Western thought assumes that capitalism is a superior and eternal economic system. And under the influence of neoclassical political economy, it assumed that state intervention or direction of the economy was detrimental to productivity and profits, and that the market should be given unrestricted freedom. In the post-World War II period, Keynesianism placed checks on the destructive tendencies of capitalism in order provide health and education as well as a certain degree of production for use rather than for profit. But neoliberalism, the most complete expression of neoclassical political economy, eliminated the Keynesian checks. Neoliberalism has guided the economic policies of the imperialist powers for the last forty years, making evident the decadence of capitalism and imperialism.
Desai notes that in the 1880s, Marx anticipated that capitalism would enter a stage of monopoly capitalism. In that stage, capitalism is ripe for the transition to socialism., because the big corporations plan the economy. The transition to socialism involves the planning of the economy by the state; taking planning out of private hands.
Marx’s thought, Desai maintains, must be liberated from the misinterpretations of mainstream and Marxist intellectual traditions. We must go back to classical political economy and to Marx, especially Volume One of Capital. Marx has everything we need to free ourselves from the misunderstandings that we have been taught. Marx provides the scientific foundation for the collective understanding that we need, empowering us to be effective agents of change in support of a possible global transition to a socialist world-system.
Gabriel Rockhill is the Founding Director of the Critical Theory Workshop and Professor of Philosophy at Villanova University. He has published nine books, including Counter-History of the Present. He stressed that the Frankfurt school, which is the source of many theories that dominate today, formulated a radical critique of consumerism that redefined the Left as a compatible non-communist Left. Max Horkheimer, the leading intellectual of the Frankfurt school, emphasized cultural concerns rather than the historical development of economic dynamics, and he did not support anti-colonial movements. The Institute for Social Research, the institutional base of the Frankfurt school, received financial support from capitalist foundations.
Derek R. Ford is an Assistant Professor of Education Studies at DePauw University, USA, and an instructor with The People’s Forum. He is the author of seven books, including Encountering Education: Elements for a Marxist Pedagogy. He recently led and narrated the podcast series, “Reading Capital with Comrades,” available on all streaming platforms.
Ford maintains that Marx understood that colonialism was the foundation to the development of England. He quoted Volume One of Capital, in which Marx writes: “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the running of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signaled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.” Marx understood, Ford observes, that colonialism is a counteraction to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.
Megha Summer Pappachen is a Ph.D. student of comparative politics and political theory at Northwestern University; and an organizer in Chicago with the Party for Socialism and Liberation. Her research is grounded in Marxist and feminist theory and in the history of the global South. She observed that feminists are critical of Marx and Marxists, but such critiques are not based on a careful study of Capital, in which Marx criticizes the institution of the family, comparing women in the family to slaves. Marx understood that women’s work is gendered, isolated, and invisible; and his analysis paid attention to the exploitation of women. Marx, Pappachen noted, did not write in the terminology of today’s feminist studies, yet it offers a deeper understanding by focusing on women’s work.
Alan Freeman is co-director, with Radhika Desai, of the Geopolitical Economy Research Group at the University of Manitoba. He was an economist at the Greater London Authority between 2000 and 2011, where he held the brief for the Creative Industries and the Living Wage. He is honorary life vice-president of the UK-based Association for Heterodox Economics and a Vice-Chair of the World Association for Political Economy.
Freeman maintains that Marx anticipated the decline of capitalism that is evident today. He presented slides showing that the growth rate of the great nations of the North has been declining since 1951. And that the U.S. growth and profit rates have declined since 1950. The same is true for the countries of Europe; for the countries of the global North; and for the “Asian tigers.”
The decline in the growth and profit rates is completely ignored by economists today, a phenomenon explained by Marx when he referred to “imperial hubris,” a belief in the superiority of capitalism. Economists have not seen the decline of the great powers because it is inconsistent with their prejudices, and because they only look at short-term fluctuations and not long-term trends.
The decline has been caused by the failure to invest in production. In response to the slump of 1974, capitalists reduced investments in real assets and production and increased investments in financial assets, where the rate of profit was higher. But as Marx and Keynes understood, you cannot grow the economy by growing banks. Thus, Freeman observes, the decline in the rates of growth and production is a consequence of what capitalism does to itself.
Following the Great Depression of the 1930s, the rate of profit recovered during World War II. The reason, Freeman says, is that in response to the needs of war, investment was taken out of private hands and placed in the hands of the state, in the form of government contracts with war-related industries. Thus the economy was reconstructed as a supplier of the means of war to the nation and to the world. The United States became what Freeman calls a “warfare state.”
Freeman maintains that the suppression of Marx was the suppression of science and economic rationality. When we rescue Marx, we are rescuing economics. We need a generalized economic literacy, which is not difficult to attain, but the field of economics today cannot do it, because it is a field in which science is replaced by the assumption of the superiority of capitalism.
The International Manifesto Group Webinar on Marx’s Capital makes clear the need for intellectuals and activists of the Left to study Marx, so that his insights can aid us in our pedagogical, communicational, and political tasks as active agents of change in the possible global transition to socialism. Given the extensive amount of Marx’s writings, this can be too much to expect of people who are otherwise occupied with their lives. It seems to me that the dissemination of secondary sources would be a useful strategy, written by those with an orientation to liberating Marx from Leftist and mainstream distortions, discovering Marx the scientist who speaks to our days. I imagine that some secondary sources of this character have been written, and that others could be prepared.
The study of Marx must be combined with study of real socialism today in China, Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua and study of anti-imperialist movements in Latin America, Africa, and India. We must learn collectively, learning from one another.
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Sign the new socialist manifesto
The Geopolitical Economy Research Group supports the initiative of the International Manifesto Group, which has written a socialist manifesto, “Through Pluripolarity to Socialism.” The Group invites all who agree with its broad thrust to sign it, to encourage colleagues and comrades to sign, and to encourage progressive organizations to discuss it. You can find the manifesto here.
Follow me on Twitter: Charles McKelvey@CharlesMcKelv14