The weapon of criticism cannot replace the criticism of the weapon: What knowledge do we need for revolution against capitalism

Originally published: LINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal (June 2021)

Abstract: Ideas are needed for social change. But what kind of ideas is the question. The capitalist system is destroying lives and livelihood. It is destroying the environment. It cannot be reformed. It must go. It will not go without a revolution. If we do not see ‘signs’ of a revolution, that is not because we do not know how the capitalist economic structure works and produces its adverse effects on the people and the environment. We, more or less, have this knowledge that explains and critiques the system. Explanatory critique of the system is not enough. What we lack is knowledge about the obstacles to revolution. Among other things, we need to know what is stopping a united revolutionary struggle against the system. This short paper, written as a birthday gift to Karl Marx, aims to address this matter.

A world in crisis

The ongoing pandemic has resulted in millions of death.1 Millions of people have been pushed to extreme poverty due to COVID-19. According to the World Bank, “The COVID-19 pandemic is estimated to push an additional 88 million to 115 million people into extreme poverty this year, with the total rising to as many as 150 million by 2021, depending on the severity of the economic contraction”.2 The consequences of the 2007 economic contraction have not been fully neutralized. Hundreds of millions are under- or unemployed: “Almost half a billion people are working fewer paid hours than they would like or lack adequate access to paid work” (ILO, 2020). And those who are lucky to be employed are subject to “a global wages scandal, with some countries even having a minimum wage that is lower than the poverty line”.3

There has been very little progress on the climate change front, which means that the prospect of humanity being roasted and charred is real. With the crisis of capitalism, fascistic tendencies are gaining strength everywhere. The threat of war is real. Recently, a large number of people in Palestine have been bombed to death by Israeli forces, with the explicit support of the U.S. and other imperialist countries and institutions, and with criticisms by Russia and China of Israel being muted. Thousands of Palestinians have been rendered homeless. In India, millions of Kashmiris live in fear, as do millions of Muslims: they constantly fear political, ideological and physical attack from fascistic Hindu-religious fundamentalist forces backed by a right-wing government.

The upshot of all this is the following. There is an economic crisis every 10 years or so. There is a refugee crisis. There is a livelihood crisis. There is a public health crisis. There is an environmental crisis. There is a crisis of liberal democracy. There is an employment crisis. There is a crisis of public services (due to austerity). There is a crisis of world peace (with the constant threat to world peace).

What do we know about the world crises? Capitalism is the main cause

We know that underlying these crises is one single thing: capitalism. It is the fact that society’s natural and financial resources and the means of production are monopolized by a tiny minority (approximately the top 1% or so), which are using these resources to make money (profit, interest, rent, etc.) at the expense of the vast majority. The latter, being property-less or property-poor, live as wage-earners or petty producers. They are exploited in various ways by the capitalist class: they surrender a large part of the product of their labour without compensation.

There are strong limits to the extent to which capitalism can be reformed: there are strong limits to durable and significant improvement in the conditions of common people. Among other mechanisms is the fact that if the rise in wages interferes with the normal rate of appropriation of surplus value, the wage increase will stop, as Marx explains in Chapter 25 of Capital Vol. 1. The interests of the majority (the exploited masses) and the interests of the minority (capitalists, along with their political backers) are simply incompatible. Capitalism must go.

The world needs a socialist society. Albert Einstein’s (1949) view of the social world was no match for his scientific genius (and he was the first to acknowledge this), and yet this super genius believed that capitalism was not serving humanity, and that socialism is the answer. He emphatically wrote:

I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils [e.g. unemployment, economic instability, excessively competitive attitude, etc.] namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals.

What would such an economy look like? Einstein describes this in his own elementary way:

In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion. A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child.

And there is a cultural dimension of such a society, according to the scientific genius who unlocked some of the mysteries of the physical universe:

The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.

Yet, capitalism continues to exist.

One cannot say that capitalism continues to exist because it is not ripe enough to be overthrown and that there are no objective conditions for revolution. In fact, capitalist class relations have been fettering the development of productive forces and thus inflicting intolerable suffering on the masses of the world for many decades. Consider Trotsky’s (1938) remarks on this:

The economic prerequisite for the proletarian revolution has already in general achieved the highest point of fruition that can be reached under capitalism. Mankind’s productive forces stagnate. Already new inventions and improvements fail to raise the level of material wealth. Conjunctural crises under the conditions of the social crisis of the whole capitalist system inflict ever heavier deprivations and sufferings upon the masses. Growing unemployment, in its turn, deepens the financial crisis of the state and undermines the unstable monetary systems. Democratic regimes, as well as fascist, stagger on from one bankruptcy to another.

Therefore:

All talk to the effect that historical conditions have not yet “ripened” for socialism is the product of ignorance or conscious deception. The objective prerequisites for the proletarian revolution have not only “ripened”; they have begun to get somewhat rotten. Without a socialist revolution,… a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of mankind.

Yet, there is no sign of socialist revolution. Why? Could one answer lie in the lack of adequate knowledge, given that ideas are necessary for revolution, or indeed, for any human action?

Does the bloody capitalist/imperialist system–and yes, it is a bloody system–that thrives on racism, patriarchy, casteism, oppression of indigenous people, etc., continue because we do not have good explanatory ideas about capitalism, the kind of ideas that Marxist academics, including those writing in scholarly journals, spend their time on? The answer is: no.

We know how exploitation in all class societies happens (Das, 2017a). It is caused by the fact that a tiny minority of people control society’s productive resources. As Marx explains:

Wherever a part of society possesses the monopoly of the means of production, the labourer, free or not free, must add to the working-time necessary for his own maintenance an extra working-time in order to produce the means of subsistence for the owners of the means of production… (Marx, 1977:344).

We do know how exploitation under capitalism happens. What I consider to be Marx’s most famous line in Capital Vol. 1 examines the ugliness of exploitation in a beautiful way: “The fact that half a day’s labour is necessary to keep the labourer alive during 24 hours, does not in any way prevent him [or her] from working a whole day” (Marx, 1977: 300). We know from Capital Vol. 1 and other Marxist analyses, how the rate of exploitation can be increased (prolongation of the working day and technical change). We know from Marx and especially from Lenin (1916), how monopolies emerge from capitalist competition, laying the stage of imperialism, which exploits workers and petty producers of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in the hands of the big business of advanced countries supported by their militarily powerful states.4 We know capitalism is behind gender and racial oppression (Giminez, 2018). It is not rocket science that capitalism causes geographically uneven development (Das, 2017b; Harvey, 2006) and is behind ecological degradation via metabolic rift (Burkett and Foster, 2017; Das, 2018). It is no secret that capitalism continues to dispossess small-scale producers and privatize what are social commons (e.g. state-owned factories, welfare provisioning) (Harvey, 2005; Das, 2017c). In enabling this, the state can turn extremely violent and crush all sorts of resistance against dispossession and austerity. It is also no secret that capitalism results in direct producers losing access to their means of production through market mechanisms, causing class differentiation. The latter mechanism is well explained by Lenin (1899). Even if there is disagreement about the actual mechanisms of economic crisis, we know capitalism is perennially crisis-prone, and that when it goes into crisis, millions suffer. We know that crisis-proneness is ultimately, if not immediately, rooted in the fact that, thanks to technical change, labour, the source of value, is being replaced by inanimate productive forces (e.g. machines), as seen in the organic composition of capital rising faster than the rate of exploitation. And so on.

We have a lot of knowledge about how capitalism functions. Of course, we can always research the details: for example, what good things might happen if x amount of money is spent as stimulus package during a pandemic. We can research if x amount of reduction happens in carbon consumption, how much reduction can happen in global warming. This relatively middle-order pursuit of knowledge–pursuit of knowledge about some small tiny parts of the capitalist system–can generate good insights, and this is basically what most academics, trade union and social-democratic type party consultants do. But what is the purpose of all this: to use these insights to make capitalism a better system. But the fact is that, no matter what, capitalism cannot simply be made a better system. A time has come when changing the whole requires changing the parts.

Why does capitalism continue to exist?

Does capitalism continue to exist because our critique of it is not robust? The answer, for me, is also “No”. Marxist explanatory ideas about how capitalism operates and how it produces effects on the masses, are at the same time a critique of the system: the explanatory ideas represent a severe condemnation and indictment of capitalism. There is a robust explanatory critique of capitalism. Capitalism has indeed been ruthlessly criticized by Marxists (and not just them) since Marx’s time (and even earlier). But criticism is not enough. As Marx (1844) said: “[T]he weapon of criticism cannot…replace criticism of the weapon, material force must be overthrown by material force”. This is the crux of the matter. What is the nature of this material force? One type of material force–the raw material of revolution–are revolutionary ideas that explain and critique the world and that grip the minds of the masses. Marx (1844) says:

Theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses. Theory is capable of gripping the masses as soon as it …becomes radical. To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter…

Capitalism will go only when the capitalist class cannot rule and when the masses cannot accept its supremacy/rule and are ready to overthrow the capitalist rule. For a revolution to happen, certain conditions must exist (Das, 2019a). Given the unresolvable contradictions of a society dominated by exploitative private property relations, there is a propensity towards revolution. This propensity is negatively associated with economic prosperity of the masses (this means a combination of rising absolute and relative immiserization). This condition exists in most places, especially in the LDCs and in working class areas in advanced countries. The propensity towards revolution is positively associated with the numerical mass of the proletariat and the level of its concentration spatially (in cities) and sectorally (in large-scale enterprises). And we know that this condition, more or less, exists as well. Finally, the propensity towards revolution is increased with the increase in the level of class consciousness and the level of organized action. It is this latter condition that is not fully present even if capitalism is fully ripe to be overthrown.

I should add that capitalist contradictions are leading to new signs of radicalization in the world. For example, in November 2017, a poll conducted by YouGov showed that 51 percent of Americans between the ages of 21 and 29, and 37 percent of Americans overall, would prefer to live in a socialist or communist country than in a capitalist country. A majority of millennials (56 percent) said they would not be offended if someone accused them of being a communist (Niemuth, 2017). And across Europe polls “show growing support among young people for social revolution.” (London, 2019). According to a survey conducted in May 2017 by the Union of European Broadcasters of people between 18 to 35 years of age, “more than half said they would participate in a ‘large-scale uprising’. Nine out of 10 agreed with the statement, ‘Banks and money rule the world’.” (London, 2019). Similarly, in a poll conducted by the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), a right-wing think-tank, the overwhelming majority of Australian “millennials”–defined as those born between 1980 and 1996–have a favourable view of socialism (Grenfell, 2018). When respondents were asked for their “overall view of socialism,” some 58 percent indicated a favourable view, compared to 18 percent with an unfavourable opinion. Around 59 percent of all respondents agreed that “capitalism has failed” (Grenfell, 2018). In India, millions (more than 150 million) are participating in national-level strikes against neoliberal capitalism and the right-wing regime.

Yet, in spite of these signs, there is a crisis of revolutionary leadership of the masses: “[T]he world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat” (Trotsky, 1938). This was true in the 1930s and it is true now. The question is why and what can be done about this? If capitalism is not going, it is no good just pointing fingers at capitalism, its supporters and its state. All is not well with the organizations/groups that are genuinely socialists and that wish to see a worldwide revolution. They are deeply divided.

Need for knowledge about the crisis of revolutionary leadership

We do have knowledge about how capitalism operates, at a general level, in terms of its broad dynamics, and how it is destroying lives, livelihoods, and environment. But we lack the knowledge about what is to be done about capitalism in terms of transcending it, or getting rid of it. This knowledge about what is to be done must include knowledge, historical and theoretical, about the obstacles to a united political struggle against capitalism. These obstacles do include those posed by reformist organizations. Recently, certain leaders of a US-based organization supported the criminal assassination of Leon Trotsky, the co-architect of 1917 with Lenin, by one of the recruits of Stalin, the dictator. How much more counter-revolutionary can one be while appearing to support socialism.5 The organization in question is DSA (Democratic Socialists of America).6 Given this sort of political view and action, DSA would seem neither democratic nor socialist.

There are many types of struggle and there are many types of organizations. I wish to briefly mention the obstacles to the unity among “Far Left” organizations/groups, those who take seriously the Leninist legacy, including the ideas and strategies developed by Trotsky and his followers in the past and in current times, because I think that any project of transcending capitalism must keep at the center that legacy. Trotsky was not entirely right when he said that revolution was not happening because of “the treacherous politics of the old workers’ organizations”, including Stalinist organizations (Trotsky, 1938). One must point to the problems with the organizations inspired by him and Lenin as well. These I will group as part of the Marxist revolutionary Left.

The Marxist revolutionary Left has remained utterly divided on a large number of topics. These include:

  1. Approach to economic class struggle (or trade union struggle)
    1. What is the relation between economic struggle and class struggle proper, or the struggle for socialism?
    2. Should Marxists operate inside existing trade unions, including by forming communist caucuses inside the unions?7
    3. Or, should they build alternative organizations such as rank-and-file committees at the enterprise level, and nationally and internationally? If yes, are these committees another name of trade unions?; if not how are they different from trade unions?
    4. What is the importance of the fact that significant reforms are only by-products of revolutionary struggle.8
  2. Approach to imperialism
    1. What does imperialism mean now when capital is moving in all directions, north and south and east and west, and when there are multinational corporations operating from what are not yet advanced countries?
    2. Is a country imperialist just because it has the power to bully another country?
    3. Is Russia/China imperialist?
  3. Approach to the class character of the LDCs
    1. What is the nature of capitalism in the periphery?
    2. Are there still remnants of pre-capitalist relations?
    3. Is capitalism the dominant mode of production there?
    4. What is the stage of revolution in the LDCs: is it a version of democratic revolution or is it the socialist revolution
  4. Approach to special oppression
    1. Do class relations have causal primacy (not moral primacy) over special oppression based on race, gender, caste, indigeneity, religion, etc.?
    2. Can special oppression be significantly reduced, or even eliminated, in capitalist societies through anti-oppression struggle?
    3. Should Marxist organizations downplay racial, etc. identities of workers because of the possibility that these identities divide and weaken them politically?
    4. Should Marxists take special oppression seriously as a part of the fight against capitalism, because special oppression is an important part of people’s daily life?
  5. Approach to global economy vs national economy
    1. Do we live in a fully, or almost fully, globalized world where national borders do not matter at all or matter very little and where hypermobile capital is undercutting the power of the state and trade unions?
    2. Has the degree of globalization reached a level where there is no point in sub-national struggles for economic, social and political rights?
  6. Approach to state power and the dictatorship of the proletariat
    1. Does the state have such a high degree of autonomy vis a vis the capitalist class that it can be used for progressive causes in a significant and durable manner?
    2. Should Marxist organizations participate in bourgeois governments?
    3. Should Marxists work towards the dictatorship of the proletariat–political hegemony of the working class–to replace the current bourgeois dictatorship?
    4. Or, is there a real danger that strategy will necessarily result in authoritarianism? Should there be multiple socialist parties in socialism?
    5. How does a Marxist party treat all those workers and petty producers who do not accept socialism in a post-revolution society?
  7. Approach to Stalinist and social democratic parties and to post-1917 societies
    1. Should Far Left organizations treat Stalinist and social-democratic organizations and individuals necessarily as ‘untouchables’?
    2. Or, is it possible to work with them under some circumstances and attract them on the basis of principled and polite arguments and united action?
    3. To what extent were post-1917 societies prior to 1989 counter-revolution socialist? What is the relation between socialism and the abolition of capitalist private property? Does mere abolition of capitalist property make a society socialist? Conversely, is there no difference between a capitalist society and a society where private property has been abolished through a proletarian (type) revolution and which may be forced to accumulate due to global law of value?
  8. Approach to the fight against fascistic forces; united frontism vs popular frontism
    1. In the fight against fascistic tendencies, is the lesser evil theory (support for a bourgeois party) a good strategy? Should Far Left organizations enter into an alliance with bourgeois parties (popular frontism)?
    2. Or, should Marxist organizations mobilize the workers and petty producers–communist and social-democratic–independently of all bourgeois formations (united frontism)?
  9. Approach to ecology and ecological struggle
    1. How should revolutionary organizations respond to people’s struggles against ecological degradation even if they are not socialistic?
    2. How would society-nature relation be different if socialism emphasizes the development of productive forces like capitalism does?
  10. Approach to the issue of the leadership of the masses
    1. How should the danger of the party leadership substituting itself for the party and the party for the masses be averted?9
    2. How can the personality cult within organizations be avoided and democratic functioning nurtured in a manner that still respects democratic centralization?
  11. Approach to non-communist struggles, movements and parties and progressive NGOs
    1. Should these struggles and organizations be completely ignored
    2. Should they receive critical support depending on the time and situation.

Apart from these, there is also the issue of the class character of the Cuban state.10 Here the issue is whether it should be treated as a petty-bourgeois nationalist regime or does it represent a struggle for socialism within the limits of the global system?

Conclusion

When Marx said “[t]he philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it”, he should have said something more. Revolutionary ideas are needed to change the world in a revolutionary way:

[W]ithout revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement. This idea cannot be insisted upon too strongly at a time when the fashionable preaching of opportunism goes hand in hand with an infatuation for the narrowest forms of practical activity’ (Lenin, 1901).

The perspective of radically changing the present world into a socialist world (or conversely, the perspective of maintaining the current society as it is or in a slightly modified form) must ‘shape’ the production of ideas too. Almost all of Lenin’s writings were inspired by a political question of their days to address.

According to Lenin, revolutionary work has four main parts: theoretical work, propaganda, agitation, and organization (Lenin, 1901, Das, 2019b). There is a need to produce knowledge about the obstacles to revolutionary struggle in all these areas. Of course, our knowledge about what is to be done about revolution, including knowledge about the divisions within the revolutionary Marxist Left, cannot be separated from the knowledge about how the system objectively operates. Only Marxism can provide that knowledge. No wonder, Lenin (1913) said:

The Marxist doctrine is omnipotent because it is true.11 It is comprehensive and harmonious, and provides [people] with an integral world outlook irreconcilable with any form of superstition, reaction, or defence of bourgeois oppression.

The power of Marxism must be materialized in practice (through revolutionary struggle). Whether this can happen will depend on how well we understand the obstacles to unity within the revolutionary Left inspired by Lenin and his followers and act on that understanding to build a democratically-organized, revolutionary, proletarian, internationalist, socialist movement.


Raju J Das is Professor at York University. Email: rajudas@yorku.ca. Website: https://euc.yorku.ca/faculty-profile/das-raju-j/ Twitter: @Raju_DasYorkU

Notes:

  1.  As of May 22, 3.45 million people have died due to COVID-19, according to the Johns Hopkins University resource center (https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html)
  2.  https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2020/10/07/covid-19-to-add-as-many-as-150-million-extreme-poor-by-2021.
  3.  More than “[s]eventy-six percent of people in the ITUC [International trade union confederation] Global Poll 2020 do not believe the minimum wage is enough for a decent life. Hundreds of millions of workers are living on the edge, and their plight has only worsened during the COVID-19 crisis, even as tech billionaires and pandemic profiteers extract billions of dollars. It is crucial to guarantee minimum living wages to all workers in order to allow them and their families to live in dignity.” (ITUC, 2020)
  4.  See also: Amin, 2018; Callinicos, 2009; Harvey, 2005; Patnaik and Patnaik, 2016; Smith, 2016; and Wood, 2003.
  5.  Eric London (2021) of the WSWS writes: “[I]ndividuals who solidarize themselves with the crimes of Stalin have absolutely nothing to [do] with genuine left-wing politics. The trajectory of their politics is not toward socialism, but toward supporting state repression against the socialist movement.”
  6.  DSA has Jacobin as its mouthpiece. Jacobin does publish useful Marxian and radical material from time to time. But it will continue to fail to publish the material in support of revolutionary socialist movement in the world.
  7.  What does one make of Lenin’s (1920) point that “[w]e cannot but regard as equally ridiculous and childish nonsense the pompous, very learned, and frightfully revolutionary disquisitions of the German Lefts to the effect that Communists cannot and should not work in reactionary trade unions, that it is permissible to turn down such work, that it is necessary to withdraw from the trade unions and create a brand-new and immaculate ‘Workers’ Union’ invented by very pleasant (and, probably, for the most part very youthful) Communists, etc., etc.”
  8.  “We solved the problems of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in passing, as a ‘by-product’ of our main and genuinely proletarian-revolutionary, socialist activities. We have always said that reforms are a by-product of the revolutionary class struggle. We said—and proved it by deeds—that bourgeois-democratic reforms are a by-product of the proletarian, ie, of the socialist revolution” (Lenin, 1921).
  9.  How does one make sure that “[i]n the internal politics of the Party” the following does not happen: “the Party organisation ‘substituting’ itself for the Party, the Central Committee substituting itself for the Party organisation, and finally the dictator substituting himself for the Central Committee?” (Trotsky, 1904).
  10.  I am thankful to Murray Smith from Brock University for reminding me about this important point about Cuba.
  11.  Its explanatory and practical power comes from the fact that its scientific character helps it get at the truth in an objective manner.

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About Raju J Das

Das is a Professor at York University, Toronto. His most recent book, published in 2017, is Marxist Class Theory for a skeptical world, Brill, Leiden. He is currently writing a book on Marx’s Capital (vol. 1), entitled ‘Marx, Capital, and Contemporary Capitalism: A Global Perspective’, to be published by Taylor and Francis, London. He serves on the editorial board and on the manuscript collective of Science and Society: A Journal of Marxist Thought and Analysis.