Why I’m a Marxist (part one)

As some people who’ve known me for a few years know, I used to adhere to a social theory called ‘complementary holism‘ or ‘liberating theory‘ whose intention, like other radical social theories, is to try and explain oppression and exploitation. I’ve since realised that I agree with Marxism, though until now I’ve yet to publically explain the transition. Though the transition has been in the making for a few years, the realisation came more quickly over the past two. When it finally all came together, that quickly integrated well in my practice, and the wonderful events of 2011 temporarily eclipsed this goal. Now, in the period between the events of an amazing fall and what will – we can hope and work for – be an even better spring and summer, I thought it useful to pause and explain the logic behind the political transition, in case it can be of use to anyone during these exciting and dangerous times. The following is the first article in a series on why I think Marxism is the best theoretical framework for understanding history and capitalist society and, most importantly, for understanding how to overthrow it.

‘Liberating theory’ or ‘complementary holism’, claims a “commit[ment] to understanding and paying serious attention to race, class, gender, sex, sexuality, age, ability, and authority without elevating any but instead recognizing the intrinsic importance of each, and their entwinement, and understanding that we must confront the totality of human oppression”. This quote comes from a statement I wrote for the now defunct ‘new Students for a Democratic Society’ (SDS) for one of its conventions (“A Statement on Totalist Politics”). When I left SDS I helped to found a small socialist cadre group – the Organization for a Free Society, or OFS – with several like-minded individuals, a good portion of which I was a member of SDS with. To this day OFS maintains a statement of principles close in essence (and in wording) to the statement I submitted for conventional approval in SDS. It has two other founding documents which elaborate on these principles.

The statement was written in response to a perceived inadequacy in Marxist thought. In reality – a mix of distain for Stalinism (who supported various tyrants like Saddam Hussein), and a misunderstanding and ignorance of what genuine Marxism is and what it claims.

The first motivation – distaste for Stalinism and its adherents is simple enough. It manifested itself in concepts like freedom, democracy, and sensitivity to authority. All of which are important things that I still agree with today.

The statement had a clear source, a book called Liberating Theory, written by Michael Albert, Lydia Sargent, Robin Hahnel, Leslie Cagan, Noam Chomsky, Mel King, and Holly Sklar. Lydia and Michael have been close personal friends and great comrades for several years.

After my first interactions with the book, and other books by the same authors, I liked with the general framework, agreed with it, and sought to integrate it into my practice. But as time went on, I found the framework incapable of explaining a lot important things that I thought vitally needed explaining. Particularly it didn’t, despite its claim to the contrary, highlight a lot of important dynamics that needed highlighting, and it lead people in OFS – and people who adhered to ‘complementary holism’ outside of OFS – to highly divergent conclusions. This frustrated me.

Liberating Theory proposed that to best understand oppression and exploitation, we should abstract from society ‘different spheres of social life’ to try to find their underlying features. So, for example, there is capitalism, which is ‘economics’, sexism, which is ‘kinship’, and so on, and they should be considered separately so to understand their separate processes, which should then be brought back together conceptually into a ‘totality’ that is ‘interconnected’ and ‘entwined’ (how it does this – and why I think it fails in its attempt – I will attempt to clarify in future articles)

I did not find a problem with this method at the time. I was resistant to the claim that there is one way – an accurate or scientific way – to abstract from social reality to come to good conclusions and analysis. That is, to understand society as it really is, or as close thereto as possible. The point was to try to find a way to conceive society that would lead to moral conclusions and moral practice – though I don’t think I understood it precisely in those terms at the time. To do this, ‘complementary holism’ abstracted from the ‘totality’ of modern society four ‘spheres’ of social life: ‘economy’ (which it claims includes ‘production’, ‘consumption’, and ‘allocation’), ‘polity’ (covering ‘authority’, ‘government’; ‘legislation’, ‘adjudication’, and ‘implementation’) ‘kinship’ (covering ‘procreation’, ‘nurturance’, ‘socialization’, ‘sexuality’, ‘gender’, and ‘organization of daily home life’), and ‘culture’ (‘development of collectively shared historical identities’, ‘culture’, ‘religion’, ‘spirituality’, ‘linguistic relations’, ‘lifestyles’, and ‘social celebrations’).

Abstracting capitalist society in this way, like I mentioned above, led to wildly divergent conclusions. It allowed people with completely different theoretical understandings of history and modern capitalist society to believe they had unity when, in fact, they didn’t. Many people found the theory difficult to understand (something that some people have claimed is true of Marxism). Most of those that claimed to understand ‘complementary holism’, understood it in an extremely uncritical way, mainly as a received and accepted dogma. For example, I heard proposals for the addition of another “sphere”, one addressing sexuality in its own right. This pointed both to a misunderstanding of the claimed theory (despite its problematic formulations, it did cover all elements of capitalist society; in other words it was a purely moral proposal – did this or that element of society ‘deserve’ ‘its own’ sphere) and to fundamental problems with the theory itself. Many examples like this were presented, mostly by people trying to understand the theory, and wondering why it was conceived as it was and not differently.

The abstraction of gender and sexuality, for example, into completely different ‘spheres’ of social life (with different purposes, causes, and so on), so that they had to be understood in terms of their ‘intrinsic importance’, began to seem highly suspect to me. That is, homophobia having different causes from sexism, different purposes, and so on, seemed to misunderstand the purpose of the theory. But it was eye opening.

Reading the works of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci was probably what started my accelerating march towards a rejection of these politics, and my eventual embrace of Marxism. This begun with what I saw as the collapse of the idea that ‘politics’ and ‘authority’ were different from other parts of social life.

Gramsci describes, in rich detail, how the state organises the consent of the governed, provides a coercive apparatus to bring into line any who rebel, and disciplines specially oppressed groups so as to sow divisions within the working class and other strata of society. The state under capitalism, when it is broken down to its most fundamental function, is the owners organised as a class to lead and suppress the rest of society. It cannot be understood apart from the mode of production of a given society; that is, it cannot be understood ahistorically or mechanically as merely ‘legislation’, ‘adjudication’, and ‘implementation’.

Once I understood this, it caused me to question the whole theory. For if one ‘sphere’ didn’t make sense, if the theory could be challenged in such a way, without – importantly – taking women’s oppression, national oppression, democracy, racial oppression, class, and so on, ‘less seriously’, then the entire theory – and Marxism, which was posing questions that challenged many of my basic assumptions (assumptions which came more from an upbringing in a bourgeois society than from ‘complementary holism’ itself) – both deserved reconsideration.

Tried as I did, I did not find anyway in which Gramsci’s thought – and the thought of a variety of other Marxist revolutionaries like Karl Marx himself, as well as Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, Clara Zetkin, Vladimir Lenin, and others – could be integrated into ‘complementary holism’ without losing some of its sharpest explanatory power and practical implications. That is to say that one can take snip-its of Gramsci’s thought and integrate it into basically any leftwing theory – academics do this all the time – but Gramsci’s works are most powerfully understood as a system of thought – a system which can’t be taken in part, but only in whole, and which must be considered alongside the theory and practical activity of its other adherents. Anyone who reads Gramsci and is sympathetic to what he says, must grapple with the question, ‘am I a Marxist?’ It cannot be ignored. The same is true of the works of the other Marxist revolutionaries I interacted with.

Gramsci returned me to Marx’s ‘base and superstructure’ metaphor, something which ‘complementary holism’ attempted to provide an alternative explanation to. The metaphor, to explain it simply, is the claim that there is an ‘economic base’ (or ‘structure’) to society as well as an ‘ideological superstructure’ which arises from and rests on that base. Put another way, Marx’s metaphor tries to explain how the way in which humans produce their means of subsistence at a definite point in human history determines politics, ideology, and other social relations in that society.

Marxism is often accused of being ‘deterministic’, but as the Bill Keach has noted (in a video of a talk from the Socialism 2011 conference which is forthcoming on WeAreMany.org), this sets up false argument which is used to uncritically reject marxism. ‘Determinism’ is not a moral term. It does not mean, as ‘complementary holism’ claims is important, taking gender, for example, ‘less seriously’. When ‘determinism’ is defined this way it is really being used as a synonym for ‘having serious blind spots to a particular type of oppression’. But that isn’t what determinism means at all. Keach notes that ‘determinism’ comes from the Greek root ‘terminus’, which means ‘limit’. Marxism is a theory which centers the relationship between freedom and constraint, between agency and limits. Ignoring limits, positing unlimited free will, does not mean you take oppression ‘more seriously’. Arguably it means the opposite.

My first problem, as I realised it, was that I completely misunderstood Marx’s concept of ‘economics’. That is, I understood it in an extremely narrow and mechanical way. I struggled with Friedrich Engels’ book The Origin of the Family, State, and Private Property, which reinforced, alongside Gramsci’s ideas about ‘state’ and ‘civil society’, that the state was merely, in Marx’s word’s, “but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” (The Communist Manifesto). That is, considering ‘government’ and ‘economics’ as somehow separate (as if capitalism could exist without state intervention, as ideologists of market fundamentalism claim) was a useless and highly ahistoric way of abstracting the state from the rest of society. The bourgeois state has a function of domination – physically repressing those who rebelled against the rule of the owners – and a hegemonic or ideological function – indoctrinating the population and maintaining ideological cohesion and support for the status quo. But its purpose was to protect the rule of a particular class – the capitalists.

Similarly, I came to see that the family could not be understood outside of social production (as it if had its own “logic”). The family under capitalism has a very particular function that developed only under capitalism (maintaining reproduction of the next generation of workers, ensuring access to free labour through the oppression of women, the repression of sexual activity which is outside of these narrow needs, the disciplining of young children to become obedient workers, the atomisation of communities into tiny and isolated units, etc) – and a role that was different from how the family operated in feudal society before the development of capitalism, and slave societies before that. And, most importantly, the family as such didn’t exist before the development of classes, before the development of an economic surplus and a ruling class that controlled it while living off the labour of others who made it. Myths of Male Dominance: Selected Articles on Women Cross-Culturally by the late Marxist anthropologist Eleanor Burke Leacock made this case clearly for me using a wealth of historic evidence. This anthology of her writings goes through various reports of European colonists who interacted with the peoples of the Americas for example.

Burke Leacock quotes the Jesuit colonialist Paul Le Jeune who went to what is today called Québec on a ‘civilising mission’ – a mission designed, really, to make way for further European colonisation through the extraction of resources, settlement of land, and control of labour necessary for the expansion of European capitalism. He noted (horrified of course) that the people of the Montagnais-Naskapi society did not engage in corporal punishment (the beating) of children: “The Savages prevent their instruction; they will not tolerate the chastisement of their children, whatever they may do, they permit only a simple reprimand” (p. 46). Burke Leacock records instances where community members would throw themselves between the colonial invaders and their children to prevent the beatings, so horrified were they at the idea of physical punishment. This is but one example in a 300 page book, which talks about a variety of cultures, with different ways of producing their basic means of survival, and covers such topics as violence, sexual divisions of labour, sexual and romantic partnerships, and more. The clearest themes throughout the book are (1) that oppression exists differently at different points in history corresponding closely to the way in which those societies organise production, and (2) the evidence exists that many societies around the world were relatively free of what radicals call oppression – that is, these societies were relatively egalitarian (even societies which were already class societies, but where slavery, feudalism, or capitalism had yet to develop). This changed only when capitalism was violently introduced, as we know, through terrorism, slavery, war, and genocide.

This clarified the confusion I had at some self-identified leftists who hold the reactionary idea that what they call ‘patriarchy’ had always been around (that is, that women were ‘naturally’ oppressed). Patriarchy theory abstracts women’s oppression from historic development. Some theories of ‘patriarchy’ claim that women’s oppression has always existed. Others aren’t so clear on the matter. One person I know takes the position “how could we know?”, which always made my head spin. Most often there is no clear understanding of the topic at all; no understanding that, for example, women’s oppression manifests itself in fundamentally different ways at different stages of economic development. Most important in implication was the claim that women have always been oppressed, for it places serious doubt as to whether women’s oppression could ever be destroyed. “Complementary holism” leaves the door open for a wide range of completely different explanations as to where women’s oppression came from (biology or historical economic development) and whether or not it can be overcome (yes it can, or no it can’t). This is the problem with analysing gender and sexuality from the standpoint of ‘intrinsic importance’. Those who do posit that women’s oppression and the oppression of LGBT people can be ended (such as those who rightly claim sexual and gender binaries should be broken down, and equality should be the goal), should root that claim in a scientific analysis of the history of social development. It makes the argument so much stronger. The best framework for understanding this historic development is, in my view, the materialist conception of history, better known as Marxism.

The same was true with racism. Well before I looked more systematically into Marxist theory I understood that racial oppression and ideology arose at a definite point in human history to divide working people by oppressing one section of the working population, so as to prevent united rebellions and suppress the standard of living of all workers. This was clearly a concept I got from reading content by Marxists and biologists. This idea was made most pointedly for me in an essay by Marxist historian Barbara Jeanne Fields called “Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America” (suggested by a comrade) where Fields noted that:

“Probably a majority of American historians think of slavery in the United States as primarily a system of race relations—as though the chief business of slavery were the production of white supremacy rather than the production of cotton, sugar, rice and tobacco.”

Fields points out that the tendency to analyse social relations – which are apologised for by the capitalist system with racial ideology – in terms of ‘race relations’ is something unique to American racism, and racial ideology around the world more recently in history.

“No one dreams of analysing the struggle of the English against the Irish as a problem in race relations, even though the rationale that the English developed for suppressing the ‘barbarous’ Irish later served nearly word for word as a rationale for suppressing Africans and indigenous American Indians. Nor does anyone dream of analysing serfdom in Russia as primarily a problem of race relations, even though the Russian nobility invented fictions of their innate, natural superiority over the serfs as preposterous as any devised by American racists.”

In other words, racial ideology and oppression is used as a way to protect the prevailing economic order, to protect the ruling class in a given society by oppressing and apologising for the oppression of one section of the working class and, in doing so, dividing the entire class. Disparities and inequalities in economic status between different strata of the working population are purposefully created. Ideologies are devised to apologise for these disparities. Violence results from widespread ideological indoctrination and state sponsored violence. Laws, rules, and regulations are created to repress these specially oppressed groups, and to promote divisions that keeps the entire class from rebelling together.

Properly understood, oppression must be analysed in relation to the mode of production of a given society. Attempting to analyse racial ideology – ‘race’ – from the standpoint of its ‘intrinsic importance’, though it was certainly never my intention before I became a Marxist nor is it the intention of any of my non-Marxist comrades, opens the door for a wide range of divergent ideas ranging from taking no position on the origins of racism to, much more problematically, seeing race as a biological reality (something that has zero basis in reality and which is rejected by the scientific consensus among biologists; see, for example, biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s book The Mismeasure of Man). Note this is way different from ‘not taking racism seriously’. As Eleanor Burke Leacock points out,

“To put national or racial oppression against class exploitation is a sophomoric sociological enterprise; it is not Marxist analysis. That people of color can fall across class lines – a few of them – has befuddled our thinking insofar as we are metaphysical and not dialectical. Class exploitation and racial and national oppression are all of a piece, for in their joining lay the victory of capitalist relations.”

Finally there was class. Class always seemed different in some way. At one point, shortly before I left OFS, I discovered that a good number of comrades in OFS agreed on this point. Some did not, but a good number did. Class involved not just oppression, but also what Marxists call exploitation. Workers only have their labour power to sell to capitalist owners, they own no property, no means of production. They work for a given period of time on a given day, and in return they get a wage. But the wage they get is always less than the amount of labour they put into the process. The owners get to keep a portion of the output – which is called profit – even though they do absolutely no work. This is what Marxists mean by exploitation.

A billionaire owner, even if they are gay (for example) and suffer from some hateful comments on occasion, has the ability to live in extremely beneficial social conditions, free from want or misery. This isn’t true for a working class Black woman, or for a white lesbian worker, for example. They suffer from both economic exploitation and extreme and unavoidable social oppression (though of course in very different ways).

Class is also not simply something that divides people. It also unites people. Class unites the capitalists (despite their competitive interests) for example, as a class, against workers and other economic strata. Workers, by virtue of their place at the heart of production, share a common experience, despite other divisions. Through struggle they can unite, break down divisions, and go on the offensive against their common enemy: the ruling capitalists. In other words, the position workers are in relation to production and in relation to owners, also gives them power. The working class, unlike other subjugated classes throughout history, has both the power and the interests to unite together and to end oppression and exploitation once and for all. This isn’t true of all gay people for example. Gays are a minority for one, they do not have the social power to change society alone as gay people, and their experiences are widely divergent, divided especially on class lines.

It finally sank in, as a comrade in the International Socialist Organization (ISO) pointed out, that the base and superstructure metaphor wasn’t a moral one (what’s more ‘important’, or what’s taken more ‘seriously’), but an analytic metaphor meant to try explain capitalist society as it really was, where it came from, and who has the power to overthrow it. Moralism, which many revolutionaries struggle with (including myself), can be a strong force that clouds analytic judgment – but that’s another article for another day. The comrade that pointed out this reality and gave meaning to what I was already trying to understand, also clarified another important reality. The claim that ‘Marxism doesn’t take oppression seriously’ obviously wasn’t correct. Almost all of the Marxists I know are obviously some of the most resolute fighters against oppression and injustice. Rather, the real issue was a debate on how to understand oppression and exploitation. And that is a discussion and debate we should have openly – for the implications are serious indeed.

Truly liberating theory cannot afford to be neutral on these sorts of questions, especially since the evidence that oppression has not always existed – and has changed under different types of class societies – is quite strong.

My failure to examine Marxism more deeply and – especially – more systematically earlier on, led me to strange conclusions, not merely theoretically, but practically as well, and retarded my political development for far too long.

This will be just the first in a series of articles that addresses several concerns I’ve heard some non-Marxist comrades raise – concerns which I myself shared in the past. Below are some readings and audio talks which people can listen to to learn more. I’m, of course, available to talk with anyone whose interested in a discussion (email me at butterflywalking (at) gmail (dot) com). More articles will come soon.

For now, I’ll close with this. Marx was concerned above all, as others have pointed out, with ‘understanding capitalism – the better to overthrow it’. In his text Theses on Feuerbach he noted that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” That was the basis from which Marx analysed capitalist society and participated in the revolutionary workers’ movements of his time.

I encourage those interested in these tasks to take Marxism seriously, to study its claims and its history (free the distortions of bourgeois ideologists and Stalinism), and to make an informed judgment for themselves. I suspect some of you will be pleasantly surprised.

– – –

Regular Marxist publications, blogs, and book publishers:

Socialist Worker (US)

International Socialist Review (US)

We Are Many (US)

Haymarket Books (US)

Marxist Left Review (AU)

International Socialism Journal (UK)

Bookmarks (UK)

Resistance MP3s (UK)

Socialist Review (UK)

A Better World is Probable (US)

Pink Scare (US)

Sherry Talks Back (US)

Lenin’s Tomb (UK)

International Viewpoint (Int’l)

Left Business Observer (US)


For further reading:

Eleanor Burke Leacock, Myths of Male Dominance: Collected Articles on Women Cross-Culturally.

Alex Callinicos, “Historical materialism“, (Marxism 1998, audio).

John D’Emilio, “Capitalism and Gay Identity” (pdf) from Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality(1983) edited by Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharan Thompson.

Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State: In the Light of the Researches of Lewis H. Morgan (1884).

Barbara Jeanne Fields, “Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America“.

Antonio Gramsci, “State and civil society”.

Chris Harman, “Base and superstructure“.

Chris Harman, A People’s History of the World: From the Stone Age to the New Millennium.

Bill Keach, “Marx and Engel’s historical materialism”, (Socialism 2011, audio).

Antonio Labriola, “Essays on the materialist conception of history (part 1) (part 2) (part 3)” (1896).

Andy Lawson, “The dialectic” (Marxism 2006, audio).

Franz Mehring, On Historical Materialism(1893).

George Novack, The Irregular Movement of History: The Marxist Law of the Combined and Uneven Development of Society.

Rob Owen, “Historical materialism” (Marxism 2006, audio).

Georgi Plekhanov, “The materialist conception of history“.

Kirstin Roberts, “Before Classes: Our Egalitarian Past” (audio, 2010).

Jen Roesch, “Base and superstructure” (Socialism 2011, audio).

Leon Trotsky, Their Morals and Ours (1938).

Sherry Wolf, Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics, and Theory of LGBT Liberation (Haymarket Books, 2009), especially Chapter 7 “Biology, Environment, Gender, and Sexual Orientation”, and Chapter 6 “In Defense of Materialism: Postmodernism, Identity Politics, and Queer Theory in Perspective”.

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2 Responses to “Why I’m a Marxist (part one)”
  1. kevin says:

    Very thoughtful and interesting article… I also think it’s a dead-on critique of “liberating theory” which makes the case extremely well for a historical materialist analysis.

    Look forward to reading more!

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