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Why I’m (Still) a Marxist

Sam Friedman
August 20, 2017


From the Summer 2017 issue of Jewish Currents

by Sam Friedman

LAWRENCE BUSH, the editor of Jewish Currents, asked me to write this essay. He did so because we’ve had a few conversations about Marxism as an important current in Jewish culture, politics, and history. Marxism is also an ideological touchstone for many of the magazine’s readers, despite the fact that events over the last century have made many people on the left skeptical about Marxism. I might add, before beginning, that this is almost an impossible topic to discuss adequately in a single article. Luckily, two recent books have dealt with it with considerable insight and humor: Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right and Danny Katch’s Socialism . . . Seriously.

So here’s why I remain a Marxist: I find its ways of thought invaluable, and its prescriptions for action reasonable and necessary. Marxism says to me that capitalism creates deep crises for humanity, and that these crises provide contexts in which radicalism can sometimes grow and perhaps find ways to replace capitalism with a livable system. Marx’s economics show this through analyses of exploitation and profitability. Marxism points to the working class as the possible solution to these crises, since it is in a position to replace capitalism and since it is potentially motivated to do so. Finally, Marx’s own works, and the history of Marxist efforts over many years, illuminate how changing experiences radicalize people, why workers and others think what they do, and how we can organize to help the struggle along. Finally, as will be clear, I believe that this history also shows that statist approaches to ending capitalism by nationalizing economies leave capitalism intact, unless workers themselves remain in control of their workplaces, neighborhoods, and the wider society.

Why do I think we need Marxist ideas and action? Ever since I became a Marxist in the late 1960s, I have believed that the threats to human survival are dire, and that no other political approach besides Marxism has much chance to help us escape from the traps that capitalism has created. These traps include: 1. an economic system that has to expand to survive, and that will create ecological disaster (climate change, fatal pollution of the oceans, etc.) if we cannot end it; 2. a global system of nation-states that creates imperial wars and subjugation and will probably be unable to deal with the stresses posed by climate change (mass migration of refugees, mass starvation, rebellions, and possible nuclear war and nuclear winter); 3. an economic system that stumbles from global crisis to global crisis, and beggars some nations in between crises — all of which makes the first two problems more difficult to solve.

I do not believe that “muddling through” with variations on capitalism — liberal democracy, neo-liberalism, Keynesian social democracy, fascism, or authoritarian capitalism —can solve these problems. All have had many chances, and all have failed. At their best, they offer some degree of prosperity to billions of people and tolerable poverty to others — at the cost of pollution, emission of greenhouse gases, and expanding militaries.

I also do not believe that what some call “really existing socialism” did any better at solving these problems. Indeed, in some areas, it did worse. Importantly, I also do not think that “really existing socialism,” most notably in the USSR and China, had anything to do with Marxism — although in the USSR, at least, the system started with a revolution by workers, soldiers and peasants that was in many ways what Marx looked forward to. Still, these countries certainly did not set up classless societies. Instead, they set up systems in which workers spent their time creating wealth that was used for alien purposes without solving the problems discussed above. The political and economic elites of these countries justified what they were doing as “Marxism,” but in the process twisted the meaning of Marxism and its concepts beyond all recognition. This has been discussed at great length by Raya Dunayevskaya in Marxism and Freedom (1958), Hal Draper in his five volumes on Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution (1977-90), and many other commentators.

Why, then, do I think Marxism, as a theory and practice of working-class revolution, might still help us find solutions? To begin with, I look at history of the last few hundred years and of more contemporary times, and what I see are class struggles (as well as other struggles, which generally are partly rooted in working-class struggles, as is beautifully described in the 2015 book by Alex Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu, How the West Came to Rule.)

Some people, of course, claim that the working class no longer exists, at least in the U.S. or other “advanced” countries, and that labor unions, for example, are so small as to be irrelevant. Unions in the U.S. have, indeed, suffered many blows and are much different from what they used to be, but they are still many millions strong and, when they act, can transform political and economic situations. We need only think about the union-led revolt in Wisconsin in 2011, or the working-class resistance in France in the last year against laws making it easier to dismiss workers, or the ways in which strikes and worker mobilizations were critical in the Arab Spring struggles in Tunisia and Egypt, to recognize the potential of labor.

But what is the working class? This is a hotly controversial subject in sociology, economics, political science, and on the left. Capitalism is all about constant change, which includes changes in the working class, and that is partly why the history of labor relations in the U.S. and elsewhere is littered with circumstances in which unions or socialists dismiss this or that group as not being workers, or at least as not their kind of workers, only to have these groups erupt in organizing or rebellion and totally transform and strengthen the union movement. Given this history (early unionists disdaining women workers, the AFL disdaining industrial workers, unions disdaining black workers), I think we need concepts of “working class” that are quite flexible. I use three separate but related concepts of “working class” when I think about our contemporary situation:

The first is how many Marxist economists think about the term, which is useful primarily in thinking about trends and crises in the economy: that capital produces value and surplus value from labor power, and that people who create that surplus value are the working class.

A second approach is used by organizers who focus on workplace relations of production and the relationship of the employed sector of workers to the unemployed. A focus on relations of production helps us think about who can be mobilized around workplace issues, what issues may unite or divide workers, and issues of workplace control and attacks on workers’ dignity.

A third approach is to think about what groups of people can do when and if we get a chance to build a new society after a working-class movement eliminates capitalist institutions of government and production and thus have to reorganize and run production and distribution so that we can all eat, meet our other needs, and repair the damage capitalism has done to people and to the world. Who is the “working class” becomes who will be needed when we turn to production for human needs and for restoring the planet. Here, the “economic” issues will center on production for use, not profit: What groups of people, doing what, are needed when we turn to production for human needs and for restoring the planet? I would add that in my thinking, it is only the working class, thought of in these terms, that can create the new world we need.

Doubters will here shake their heads and say, “But won’t this overthrow just lead to dictatorship like in Russia? And to economic collapse?”

There are, of course, no guarantees in anything we do in politics — though we can be pretty sure that doing nothing to change the way things are nearly guarantees disaster due to climate change and the inability of nation-states, under its pressures, to avoid civilization-destroying wars. But I do not think it is likely that we will repeat the Russian experience or those of China and other countries that modeled themselves on the USSR. All of those countries were dirt poor and had populations primarily of peasants and isolated farmworkers, plus a small industrial working class. This meant that they had few resources for production and distribution. Dictatorial solutions can make a lot of sense in those situations, particularly to those in positions of political and economic power. The 20th century is now history, however, and most people in the world understand that a Russian-style dictatorship is not the solution. Workers and others are not going to want to repeat that experience once they have ousted capitalist power.

Of course, if the destruction attendant upon their struggles is bad enough, the working class might find itself disbanding into the countryside to survive — as it did in Russia — and thus be unable to exert control. Hopefully, however, both we and the leaders of capitalism understand that destroying our countries in order to save them is not a good idea.

TO MAKE these hopes real, we need a widely-rooted understanding of the kind of democracy we need under conditions of post-capitalist rule. Some of my notions about it include:

1. We will need a set of revolutionary, working-class parties that actively cultivate the understanding that they and the higher-level workers councils can become “the problem” of unaccountable power once they are the authoritative coordinators. We and the groups we are part of should put a positive political value on, and widely discuss the need for, challenges to parties and workers’ councils from below. We should value and support challenges from below of any and all fetishization of authority or its symbols. And we should be willing to split our parties if they become too powerful or in any way begin to crystallize as a power above the people.

2. Political democracy and struggle within and between parties both before and after the revolution are needed. I expect these will start from and deepen existing definitions of human rights other than those that enshrine the “rights” of capitalist and state property over the rights of workers and other people.

3. If the struggle to supplant capitalism meets fierce resistance, it may be difficult to avoid setting up dangerous state-like structures of repression. Discussion of how this went wrong in the Russian revolution offers valuable lessons about steps that might help resist such pressures. Debate around these issues both before and during these struggles will help us avoid future disaster and should be encouraged.

4. Our ability to prevent dictatorship or bureaucratization derives from the active agency of workers and others in the course of their political struggles at work and in their community. Sometimes this will include struggles against the wishes of local or higher-order councils when workers or communities think the issues require resistance.

5. In past revolutions, arguments based on efficiency and the need to maintain production, together with fear of punishment for unauthorized work stoppages, often convinced workers to use grievance procedures and similar non-disruptive ways to resolve disputes with workplace authorities. Kevin Murphy, in his 2007 book, Revolution and Counterrevolution: Class Struggle in a Moscow Metal Factory, showed that arguments about efficiency and the need to maintain production in that factory helped demobilize and depoliticize workers in post-revolutionary Russia. In my 1982 book, Teamster Rank and File, I showed how similar dynamics demobilized and disempowered activist and mobilized truck drivers in Los Angeles during the 1960s. I would therefore argue for a politics that values defiant and disruptive rank-and-file activism at work as crucial for a successful post-revolutionary social transformation.

6. Post-revolutionary democracy needs to be based on having huge numbers of people take part in discussing social and ecological problems, and making sure that decision-making is truly democratic and participatory. This requires wide discussion among movements before the movements take power, so that different ideas can be tried out as soon as that becomes possible. Part of the solution likely involves redefining what “work” is and how “work time” should be used. Perhaps work time should include considerable time for small-group, departmental, and workplace discussions of what should be produced or done, how it should be done, and socio-political issues that will influence these issues. Perhaps “work” should go beyond production and distribution of workplace products or services, to include the tasks and social interactions people do at home and in their neighborhoods. Perhaps it also should include “self time” that allows people to think, contemplate, and generally maintain their sense of who they are and what they want to do. Making these discussions happen, and having lots of people take part, should be easier because meetings have the power to take effective action. Finally, we need research and discussion about how to run such meetings so that discussions are both productive and fun.

7. Any official armed groups of people should take the form of workplace and community militias that are under local control to the extent that conditions allow it. This will help prevent dictatorship.

8. Education should focus on “building from below” and include training in how to build local opposition movements.

9. We probably should try to establish a network of groups and/or magazines to discuss “afterwards” and its dialectical relationships to the situation now and its implications for parties and for workers councils “now” and “then.” Such discussion should involve a large number of workplace and community leaders, who should see their task as helping people be aware that their leaders and even their councils, in addition to being necessary for authoritative coordination, are potential enemies of worker democracy.

Will a system of production and distribution built on principles and powers like these work? How will it cope with human laziness without imposing draconian controls? How will it allocate resources so that we produce what people want and need in sufficient supply? Again, there are no guarantees. We need to make our own world, once we have the power, and to the extent that we mess this up, people will suffer. But human misery abounds today, with the drive for corporate profits determining so much. We can make things much better even while making some mistakes.

How can we organize production and distribution to minimize these problems? First, make sure that everybody has the basics of a economically viable life. Second, ake work satisfying and interesting, in part by having people’s work lives mix the interesting with the mundane, and also by eliminating arbitrary and disrespectful authority at work so that everyone’s dignity is respected. I also see the need for means by which democratic bodies can resolve conflicts over whether an innovation or a proposal regarding production, land use, etc. is useful or harmful. Thus, instead of an alienated “economy” run by the invisible hand of profit-seeking, I think we should consider establishing a “non-economy” in which socially-validated needs form the basis of production and democratic bodies resolve conflicts over whether a need is socially validated or harmful.

Under these conditions, if you think you need something, it becomes the duty of those you ask to provide it to do so unless there is a good reason not to do so. If the workers at an electricity generating facility ask a factory to make a boiler for coal-fueled power generation, for example, I would hope that the workers running the factory would refuse this request as socially harmful. (I develop these ideas in some detail in a recent article, “Creating a socialism that meets needs: What kind of society might actually work?” Against the Current, Issue 126, pages 32 -36,

We can make sure that most needs and even desires get met. This contrasts with “market socialist” visions in which production continues on a commodity basis. Needless to say, a modern economic and social system driven by the needs and desires of many rather than profit for a few remains only a concept. Turning it into reality will require that people decide they like the idea, that we take power away from capitalism and destroy capitalist social relations, and that we build up dialogue along the way that enables us to figure out how to make a revolutionary system work.

TO SUMMARIZE why I am a Marxist: First, current social relationships are destroying the planet and will destroy us all. Second, to me this means we need a way to think about and to organize struggles to change it. Third, the working class, properly conceived, has the power to change how things are done — and I think the ideas I have outlined give some idea about how this could work out in good ways. Fourth, I think that such a world could be fun to live in.

Finally, I see no other alternative to successful socialism except to accept destruction. Marxism of the kind I discuss here offers a chance to humanity. I invite readers to think if I am right — and if so, to consider how they can best take part in the struggles ahead.

Sam Friedman is a lifelong activist whose first demonstration was the Second Youth March for Integrated Schools (1959). He has been an active member of the Central Jersey Coalition against Endless War since 2004. He is the author of Teamster Rank and File (1982); Seeking to Make the World Anew: Poems of the Living Dialectic (2008); Grief and Rage: An American Jew’s Poems on Palestine (2015), and several articles on what kind of world we want to build.