Legacy of Michael Harrington, Hillary Clinton, and the Marxist Critique
Where do we go from here?
From the moment Karl Marx put pen to paper, pro-capitalist political commentators and academics have attempted to bury his ideas. But successive generations of political activists have continually turned to Marx’s ideas, from working class labor activists who joined the various communist and socialist parties in the early 20th century, to student radicals who stood up to the horrors of Vietnam war in the 1960s. All have bravely embraced Marx’s searing indictment of capitalism and the nature of class antagonisms resulting in revolution. Today, with millions around the world plunged into the indignity and pain of unemployment, hunger, and homelessness, Marx’s ideas have an enduring relevance. Indeed, for those of us who want to win a society free of misery and class inequality that scar our world, Marx’s ideas are essential for understanding why modern capitalism is so obscene. We argue that Marxist thought and action is an indispensable guide to action.
Despite all the pronouncements that class does not exist, that the biggest divisions are those between nations, sexes, or cultures, Marx was correct in his assessment about the nature of capitalism. It is a system defined by the exploitation of the working class by the capitalists. When Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto and later on Capital, capitalism dominated only in pockets of Europe and North America. The vast majority of the world’s population was peasants, independent farmers, or members of tribal groups. However, capitalism quickly became a global system as demonstrated by the work of world systems theorists, such as Immanuel Wallerstein. Capitalist strategies, from colonial times to the industrial revolution, sought to remove peasants and indigenous peoples from their land and push them into rapidly-developing urban centers where capital intensive industries were emerging. What developed as a result was a working class dependent upon selling their labor power in exchange for wages while becoming increasingly polarized with respect to the grotesque inequalities that resulted from labor and capital being pit against each other.
Let’s look at this on a global scale. According to a UN document published in 2006, the concentration of wealth reveals that the richest 1 percent of adults own 40 percent of global assets and the top 10 percent own 85 percent. In contrast, the bottom half of the world’s adult population – or about 1.85 billion people – own only 1 percent of the world’s assets. Far from being a broken economic system, international capitalism is designed to function accordingly. This is part of the structure of society and helps to explain why the social classes not only exist but are “hostile camps” to each other. For the international elites, their wealth does not simply result randomly out of thin air. Neither are the profits of the capitalists the product of genius or hard work, but rather they come from workers: the surplus value they create. And because the capitalists are locked into competition with each other, they are always seeking ways to cut costs and maximize profits. Capitalism is, therefore, characterized by a never-ending struggle between labor and capital. Thus class struggle is waged as an open battle but desperately kept hidden and hushed as inappropriate public discussion.
Marx was also correct when he argued that the only group in society capable of fundamentally challenging inequality, exploitation, and oppression was the very class that was most impacted by those injustices: the working class. The horrors of capitalism, Marx argued, inevitably push its victims to resist the very system that keeps them in chains and that the working class has the revolutionary capacity to be that same system’s gravediggers. The reasons are numerous for Marx. First, the working class has the majority on their side. But more important than numbers is the centrality of workers to production and profit-making. Without labor in the workplace, industry produces nothing, not a single product would be produced. Even in the case of technology and robotics, trained workers are needed to maintain the very technology that attempts to cut labor costs. Second, if labor withdraws en masse from capital, the source of profits dry up. No other group in society has this power to challenge the functioning of capitalism in such a fundamental way. This is how workers truly wield power. While capitalism forces workers to compete against each other for scarce jobs, it does unite workers in the need to cooperate with each other to combat exploitation. Third, the need for collective action in turn requires that workers build democratic organizations that can inspire solidarity in order to organize the majority of workers to take action (see Martin and Pimentel, Future of Solidarity and Marxist Praxis, Catholic Solidarity, and Human Dignity).
It is this collective nature of struggle and working class life under capitalism that gives workers the capacity to reorder society, or “socially construct” and new economy in the interests of the majority. The only way workers can abolish the conditions of exploitation is to collectivize and socialize the means of production and distribution, democratizing all aspects of production and decision making, through worker-owned cooperatives or as major stockholders in enterprise. Given the interdependent nature of the world economy, this process would necessarily be international, and hence Marx’s call for workers of the world to unite translates counterintuitively to saving capitalism and capitalists from themselves. If workers have no money to spend, then any economic system, no matter how primitive or modern, collapses on itself—and on all of us together.
“ruling ideas” today insist on the notion of social mobility, meaning, that if
individual actors “work hard,” anybody can make it. Inequality, accordingly, is
not structured into the system. Moreover, the competitive, individualistic,
dog-eat-dog nature of capitalism reflects, not the interests of the elite, but
instead something so basic as human nature that it is easily legitimized as a
self-evident truth of nature. Once again, Marx was correct when he argued that
a key weapon in the hands of the ruling class is ideology, that is, systems of
ideas that attempt to naturalize privileges and the subordinate position of the
majority of people, the working class. This is not surprising: the capitalist
system tramples on the needs and desires of the majority of people in the
interests of a minority. To preserve the “status quo” and prevent the “grave
digging,” the 1% must successfully break up the majority, subvert “solidarity,”
and win over others to the idea that nothing else, as a socially constructed
economic model, is really possible. The ruling class has the resources and
assets for disseminating and promoting its ideas on a huge scale. The working
class needs to disseminate its propaganda as counterpoint to capitalist
Edward Martin is Professor of Public Policy and Administration, Graduate Center for Public Policy and Administration at California State University, Long Beach, and co-author of Savage State: Welfare Capitalism and Inequality.