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In Defense of Marxism

Michael Zweig
November 7, 2017

by Michael Zweig

From the Autumn 2017 issue of Jewish Currents

To read Sam Friedman’s recent “Why I’m (Still) a Marxist” in Jewish Currents, click here. To read Lawrence Bush’s “Why I’m Not (Still) a Marxist,” click here. To read about Jewish Currents’ communist history, click here.

UNTIL I RETIRED in 2016, I taught an undergraduate course on Marxist economics at SUNY Stony Brook for many years. Each first day of class, in addition to sharing the usual logistical information, I wrote four names on the blackboard: Einstein, Darwin, Freud, and Marx.

Each, I explained, had transformed human knowledge and ways of thinking, so that it is impossible to address their areas of interest properly without acknowledging their discoveries. To understand the physical world, one has to appreciate Einstein; to understand the natural world, one has to know Darwin; to understand the human psyche, one has to account for Freud’s insights; and to understand society, it is essential to go through Marx.

For each of these great thinkers, some of what they wrote has turned out to be wrong, and none left us with complete knowledge of their subjects. Still, to take Marx as our example, it is not possible to develop an understanding of capitalist society without absorbing into our thinking much in his work that is profoundly true and remains relevant to our times.

The common complaint that “Marxist” countries have proved Marx’s theories to be wrong because those countries failed to create the workers’ paradise communists promised is misguided. Yet this approach is present in both Jewish Currents essays on Marx in the Summer 2017 issue. It is central to Lawrence Bush’s renunciation of Marxism, and figures also in Sam Friedman’s acknowledgement, in his defense of Marx, that 20th-century communist societies had many problems.

These countries experienced failing economies and did not have even a semblance of democratic accountability to discipline their governments and ruling communist parties. They did not allow their people the freedom of mind and spirit that undergird creativity. I saw all this myself when visiting family in Poland in 1961 and 1963, and traveling in the Soviet Union as a guest of the Communist Party in 1974. In Kiev, I asked a city bus driver (in German, our common language) if he was a communist. He laughed uproariously and exclaimed: “No! I am not a communist. I am a worker!

Yet that whole line of argument, and the realities on which it is based, are completely irrelevant to an evaluation of Marx’s thinking. Marx wrote almost nothing about socialist society. Whatever he did write, in the Communist Manifesto or Critique of the Gotha Program or other places, was purely speculative, since Marx had no socialist society to analyze. He wrote almost exclusively and most deeply about capitalism, basing his work in meticulous examination of the capitalist labor process and its economic and social arrangements. His three volumes of Capital, three volumes of the Theory of Surplus Value, and the Grundrisse all analyzed capitalism as it operated around him in the mid-19th century. Marx also deeply understood and critiqued the English political economy of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill and others who developed the intellectual framework for explaining and defending the capitalist system as it emerged and triumphed over feudalism and its intellectual framework.

IN HIS REJECTION of Marxism, Bush dismisses such basic elements of Marx’s thought as the central role of class struggle in history, the concept of surplus value, and the method of dialectical materialism. I rise in defense of these elements in the following brief observations.

Marx, as a young philosopher, brought together two thought traditions that were thousands of years old: materialism and dialectics. By infusing materialism — the belief that matter precedes spirit and that an objective material world exists outside the human mind and sense perceptions — with dialectics, Marx was able to analyze society in entirely new ways. One cannot understand his analyses without appreciating this basic method of thought.

I will leave the defense of materialism to another time, confident that most JC readers are largely comfortable with it. Dialectics, on the other hand, could probably use a bit of explanation. Four observations are fundamental to it. First is the claim that the basic state of nature and society is change. Society is in motion. Stability is transitory and always pregnant with change. The most important problem is to understand the processes that drive the changes, to see in the apparent stability of the moment the dynamics that can transform it in one way or another

Second, the basis of change is internal to what is changing. External forces can be important, but they operate by affecting internal dynamics, which are determinative. No “outside agitator” can come into a plant to organize a union, go into a town to organize a civil rights movement, travel to the Finland Station to organize a revolution, or, for that matter, enter into another’s personal relationship to bust it up, without a deep appreciation of the internal conditions of the shop, town, country, or marriage. And no manager, sheriff, tsar, or bullying partner can long hold the status quo while blind to the conditions in which s/he is enmeshed.

Third, the internal dynamics that guide change are best understood as contradictions. These are sometimes called unities of opposites, suggesting something more than the colloquial use of “contradiction” to mean opposite and irreconcilable propositions like cold and hot, or good and bad. Dialectics turns away from the dualisms that are so common, like mind and body, politics and economics, race and class, theory and practice, matter and energy. Dialectics proposes complex dynamics that unite in one process of change these opposite, yet not fully independent, elements.

Marx analyzes capitalist production as a process uniting the opposite but deeply intertwined social relations and private forces of production. He explores how, while completely distinct in certain ways, they also engage and shape each other to transform capitalist production over time. Marx describes history as a process uniting the opposite, yet deeply intertwined and mutually determined, working and capitalist classes, and the mutually determining, distinct yet not separate, economic base and political superstructure of society. Marx’s insights into capitalism are only superficially understood and too easily dismissed without appreciation of the dialectical meaning of contradiction, clarified by a careful reading of Marx.

Fourth, dialectics proposes that change is not a smooth process but one of periodic leaps that follow relatively long periods of more subtle change. We know this from such colloquial images as “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” or the enraged “That’s IT! I’m leaving” that marks a sharp break in a relationship after a gradual accumulation of grievances. Dialectics proposes that quantitative changes lead, at a certain point, to a qualitative change in the basic situation. Stephen Jay Gould expressed this in his understanding of evolution as a process of punctuated equilibrium. In Marx, economic crises are breaks that arise from gradually accumulating changes in underlying conditions that, as they gather, may not be apparent.

It may seem obvious today that economics and politics are connected, or that economic questions are central to history’s unfolding, or that sociology and economics can be looked at in isolation for only so long before it becomes necessary to unite them in the study of society’s contradictions. But these insights originated with Marx and were largely unknown or ignored before him. Rather than seeing these fields of study as wholly separate, contemporary social science is developing by exploring the mutual determination of its many aspects, breaking down the silos of traditional academic departments.

I AM A MARXIST because I value these developments. I am a Marxist because I have found that the method of dialectical materialism, as applied to society, is more fruitful of understanding and a better guide to progressive practice than any other way of thinking I have encountered.

I am also a Marxist because I have found the concepts of exploitation and surplus value useful in understanding the capitalist economy in which I have grown up. The idea of an economic surplus is unquestionably relevant and simple. Surplus is everything produced beyond the survival requirements of the producers. These requirements are determined by customary living standards that result in part from the ability of producers to win from their exploiters whatever comforts might go beyond the biological minimum for bare subsistence.

Classes arise when one group of people, not the producers, systematically take for themselves the surplus produced by others, the producers. This taking, which Marx called exploitation, is enforced through violent means and organized and explained in various ways in different societies, all designed to justify why takers may properly take from those who make.

Marx was not the first to discover classes, nor the first to say that capitalists take the surplus produced by workers as the basis of their profits. Adam Smith taught us all that decades before Marx was born. But Marx was able to explain the particular mechanisms by which the exploitation process works in capitalism, in part by explaining that surplus in capitalist societies takes the form of surplus value.

Bush is correct to say that classes are relatively new in human society. That’s because the human productivity required to create any surplus is relatively recent. Bush takes this recent arrival of classes to reject Marx’s claim that class struggle is the motor force of history and that the working class is the most transformative element in capitalist dynamics. Whatever governed the development of human society in the hundred millennia before we could produce a surplus and classes came into being, it seems nevertheless reasonable to think that social dynamics changed qualitatively when that time finally arrived and became Marx’s field of study.

If the working class is not the main agent of change, what is? Bush is silent on the matter, but as an activist completely fed up with the capitalism I see around me, I require an answer. The working class is, after all, the majority of the population in the U.S. and around the developed capitalist world. It seems to me that any hope for a democratic transition to post-capitalist life must start with the identification and mobilization of that class. This is not wishful thinking or an assertion just to have an answer. It is based on Marx’s analysis of the material operations of capitalism and their economic, political, and cultural effects.

We live today in an era of capitalism triumphant across the planet. While capitalism today is radically different from capitalism of the mid-19th century, and capitalism in the United States is different in important ways from capitalism in China or Argentina or France, all these economies today are still capitalist. This is not the time to discard Marx. It is a time to develop Marxist analysis more deeply.

Marx had no actual post-capitalist society to evaluate. But now we do have those experiences, which should be subject to Marxist analysis with the tools appropriate to the investigation of capitalism. Ironically, Marxism has had a stunted development in capitalist and communist countries alike. In capitalist societies, the ruling class suppressed it as dangerously threatening. In communist societies, the ruling communist parties subordinated free economic thinking to the political needs of the party, subjecting economic claims to strict, and sometimes deadly, ideological control that broke the connection between theory and actual social experience.

Now is the time to invigorate Marxist study for concrete analysis of the new “precarious” labor process; of globalization; of 20th-century socialist experiments; of all that has come after Marx but is still usefully subject to a Marxist analysis. We need a rigorous investigation of actual conditions and relationships among capitals, between capital and labor, among sections of the working class.

I am a Marxist because I believe that the dialectical materialist method and the analytic categories Marx proposed offer the best hope of understanding what is going on in ways that suggest the effective transformative politics we need to get beyond the terrible mess we are in.

Michael Zweig is emeritus professor of economics and founding director of the Center for Study of Working Class Life at SUNY Stony Brook. His most recent book is The Working Class Majority: America’s Best Kept Secret (Cornell University ILR Press, 2nd ed. 2012). Reach him at