Understanding the world in order to change it

Some ten years ago, when the first edition of Paul D’Amato’s The Meaning of Marxism was published, George W. Bush was still president, the US stock market surged to new highs, more than 120,000 American troops were waging disastrous war in Iraq, former Goldman Sachs CEO Henry Paulson was sworn in as secretary of the treasury—and 1,259,118 housing foreclosures were filed, up 45 percent from 2005. This second edition is being read in an economic and political context very different from but also deeply connected to that of the first.

As the second term of a Democratic African-American president comes to an end, the United States and the rest of the world are still reeling from the deepest crisis in global capitalism since the Great Depression. Armed conflict in the Middle East and elsewhere, far from being resolved, has intensified and heightened tensions between the United States and its global military rivals, particularly Russia and China. Refugees from these conflicts and from violence and poverty in Latin America are desperately looking for survival in countries still reeling from the effects of the Great Recession.

D’Amato opened the first edition of The Meaning of Marxism by noting that “usually after a period of economic instability and crisis that has given way to stabilization and growth . . . some talking head comes along and declares that Marxism is dead and capitalism is the final form of human fulfillment.” Such smug ruling-class dismissal can still be heard but this time around it sounds pretty feeble in the face of widespread doubts about the wonders of capitalist productivity and by a new openness to serious economic and political alternatives.

The introduction to the 2014 edition is titled “The Return to Marx” and notes that in 2013 Time magazine ran a story called “Marx’s Revenge: How Class Struggle is Shaping the World.” In this edition D’Amato renews his commitment to using current illustrations “to highlight the application of Marx, Engels, and other Marxists’ ideas to the present” and has accordingly “updated . . . examples to take into account the changes that have occurred over the past several years.”

The revisions to the second edition of The Meaning of Marxism involve changes in structure and emphasis as well as of contemporary illustration. The original chapter 4, “Marxist Economics: How Capitalism Works, and How it Doesn’t,” is now divided into two chapters. This gives D’Amato additional scope to connect the Great Recession crash to Marx’s foundational account of capitalist crisis and the strategies deployed by the ruling class to rescue itself at the expense of everyone else.

The original title of chapter 7, “The Need for Socialist Organization,” has been changed to “From Marx to Lenin: Marxism and Political Organization” (now chapter 8), reflecting a more detailed analysis of what the Left today can learn from the building of the Bolshevik party in the first quarter of the twentieth century. The separate chapter devoted to “Arguments Against Socialism” in the first edition has now been integrated into appendix 1, “Answers to Common Arguments Against Socialism,” and appendix 2, “Study Questions.”

The challenge in writing a book that is both basic and comprehensive like this one is to sustain a clear, relevant account of ideas that, because they usually conflict with the way we are usually taught to think about reality, can seem difficult and complicated. D’Amato meets this challenge admirably throughout, especially in the first three chapters devoted to the historical and philosophical development of Marxist theory.

In chapter 1 we learn how Marx broke from the idealist radicalism of early nineteenth-century socialism and laid the basis for socialism “rooted in real, rather than ideal, conditions”—a socialism that grows out of the contradictory material forces of capitalism itself. Marx’s materialism is historical: it understands society in terms of humanity’s transformative engagement with actual historical circumstances. It is also dialectical: it understands nature, human thought, and society in terms of dynamic movement and conflicting, contradictory formations.

This provides the basis for a materialism that is the antithesis of a static, deterministic worldview in which human behavior is confined to passive responses to physical laws and phenomena. D’Amato elucidates Marx’s conception of human nature as uniquely malleable and plastic—in contrast, for example, to the reductive biological or genetic materialism propounded these days by many sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists. It is above all through the concept of human labor, he shows, that Marx develops his historical account of human beings’ interaction with the physical world and with each other in the course of meeting their basic needs.

Chapters 4 and 5 are devoted to Marxist economics. Here D’Amato demonstrates with great effectiveness the centrality of Marx’s labor theory of value to his broader analysis of the ways in which capitalist exploitation creates the potential for its own defeat and replacement by a new kind of society run by and for workers themselves. Readers who may have felt intimidated by the prospect of taking on the three volumes of Marx’s Capital and his other major contributions to political economy will find in these chapters an overview that is accessible and true to the empowering insights of Marx’s work.

“Marx rescued economics” from capitalism’s advocates, D’Amato writes, “and turned it into a tool for explaining inequality, exploitation, and crisis—as well as a way to end all three.” The chapter called “How Marxism Works” explains such fundamental concepts as “means of production,” “accumulation,” “labor time,” “surplus value,” and “commodity” in terms that enable us to see through the system we are asked to accept as inevitable by politicians, most academics, and the mainstream media, and to grasp its most important features and tendencies.

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, chapter 5, “How Capitalism Fails,” has a particularly timely relevance. It opens with Marx’s account of the “crisis of overproduction”—as in the overproduction of housing in 2005–2006 that led to the sub-prime mortgage catastrophe and to the speculative bubble created by the banks as they rushed to take advantage of high-risk credit and corresponding explosion of debt.

If you came away from watching “The Big Short” still wondering what a “credit default swap” is, D’Amato provides a succinct account of the role this shady “product” played in the financial meltdown. He quotes Socialist Worker’s Lee Sustar, who notes, “In early 2008 it was estimated that credit default swaps were valued at $62.8 trillion—‘nearly five times the annual output of the US economy.’”

D’Amato explores the ways in which the recession of 2008 may be related to what Marx termed the “law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall”—a tendency rooted in capitalism’s efforts to seek short-term competitive advantage by investing in “constant capital” (machinery, technology, access to cheaper raw materials) rather than in “variable capital” (human labor power).

The following four chapters show how the key theoretical concepts of Marxism enable us to understand the history of modern class struggle. It’s helpful to read these chapters in an election year in which the Bernie Sanders campaign has brought the terms “working class,” “socialism,” and “revolution” back into public discussion. What is the working class? Is this a category defined entirely by annual income or net worth? What version of socialism does Sanders embrace, such that it might be implemented by his being elected president? And what kind of social as well as governmental transformation does he have in mind when he speaks about the need for a political revolution?

At the beginning of chapter 6, D’Amato returns us to the core Marxist understanding of the modern working class as “that class in society which lives entirely from the sale of its labor, and does not draw profit from any kind of capital.” Under capitalism all such workers are exploited, no matter what their wages, because they have no control over the means of production and because so much of the value of their labor is extracted from them in the form of surplus value, the source of profits.

At the same time, however, because workers are the primary source of value created through capitalist production, they have the potential to withdraw their labor, stop production, and assert their power not just to reform the system that exploits them but also to ultimately create an entirely different system run by them and in their own collective interest.

Can the working class assert its power and emancipate itself from within capitalism by taking advantage of the mechanisms of bourgeois representative democracy, gradually winning enough reforms to make the exploitation intrinsic to the system less onerous, more open to worker participation, and to a sharing of the wealth that derives from profit? This is the question D’Amato takes up in chapter 7, “Democracy, Reform and Revolution.”

Acknowledging that “workers have had to fight every step of the way for what limited democracy capitalism is willing to concede,” D’Amato shows that capitalist political systems—particularly the version in the United States where two major parties set the limits of what working-class participation can achieve—will never allow an end to exploitation and oppression. Historically this recognition has been at the center of debates between reform socialism and revolutionary socialism. It still is today.

The concluding section of chapter 7, “What Does a Revolution Look Like?” argues that “working-class self-organization”—not armed conspiracy or sheer spontaneous violence—is the essential revolutionary force. “A precondition for socialism is the formation of organs of working-class self-organization that can be both the means to organize the struggle and the potential institutions of revolutionary state power,” D’Amato argues.

Chapters 8 and 9 are both centered around the Russian Revolution, the historical event in which the principles of revolutionary Marxism were, for the first time in history, briefly realized and—in the course of being realized—expanded and deepened. “To say . . . that the working class is a revolutionary class is to describe its potential,” D’Amato says. Only by being organized into a political force capable of taking on the capitalist state can working-class self-emancipation move from potentiality to actuality.

In “From Marx to Lenin: Marxism and Political Organization,” D’Amato offers a compelling account of how Lenin extended Marx’s ideas about revolutionary organization in the course of building the Bolshevik party, overthrowing tsarism, and establishing the first real workers’ state. Then, in “Russia: The God That Failed?” he defends the achievements of the revolution against those who reject or dismiss it as a conspiratorial coup leading inevitably to Stalin’s dictatorship.

D’Amato’s account moves from “How the Revolution Was Won” to “How the Revolution Was Lost” in a way that is sober and historically concrete. The final section of this chapter offers a detailed analysis and rejection of Stalinist “state socialism,” emphasizing that Stalin’s ideology of “socialism in one country” maintained through violent repression and imperialist militarism amounts to nothing less than a counterrevolution, a rejection of Marx’s own vision of socialist revolution and of the Bolshevik’s short-lived internationalist extension of that vision.

Chapter 10, “Imperialism, Nationalism, and War,” offers among other things an important transition from the chapters on the historical development of Marxist politics to the concluding chapters on Marxism’s relevance to today’s political struggles. Imperialism was already an inescapable reality for Marx and his nineteenth-century contemporaries. For Marx’s most important twentieth-century followers—Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, and Gramsci—it was in important respects the defining context of their work. The 1917 Revolution coincided directly with and was deeply shaped by World War I.

D’Amato provides an overview of empire in the centuries when capitalism was establishing its global reach, not that “War, conquest, and plunder accompanied capitalism from its inception.” Far from being a “natural,” unchanging element of human behavior, war is a fairly modern product of the rise of class society and the concomitant battle for control of wealth. “Modern warfare has economic rather than biological roots,” he argues.

D’Amato provides a cogent account of Lenin, Trotsky, and Bukharin’s contributions to understanding the mutually constitutive relationship between imperialist war and international capitalist rivalry. He then extends his analysis to the present era of economic “globalization” and super-power intervention in the name of fighting the “war on terror.” Ruling-class cheerleaders for globalized capitalism, such as the New York Time’s Thomas Friedman, openly acknowledge, “’the hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist.’”

Of course even in the case of Obama’s drone warfare, the fist is only partly hidden within the glove of remote technology and the rhetoric of “humanitarian intervention.” Working-class internationalism, D’Amato argues, is the only real counterforce to global capitalism’s willingness to secure its interests through both direct and indirect military coercion.

Today we find ourselves in a period when organized working-class struggle and the political left generally have been in retreat—mainly because of a decades-long ruling-class attack on workers’ living standards and on their unions and their parties. In the United States until quite recently, political resistance has tended to focus on issues of social identity such as racism, sexism, and homophobia. Activism around the rights of immigrants, Native Americans, and people with disabilities has been important and often inspiring. In chapter 11, “Marxism and Oppression,” D’Amato asks how these critically important causes are related to questions of class identity and class struggle.

It’s sometimes alleged that Marxists only care about class identity and economic exploitation—that they aren’t really committed to fighting identity-based discrimination. D’Amato’s response? “Marxism seeks not to separate economic exploitation and social oppression, but to show how they are interconnected and condition each other, and how the solution to one cannot be separated from the solution of the other.” For instance, socialists participate in Black Lives Matter and antiracist activism generally from a perspective that emphasizes the historical roots of racism in chattel slavery as an economic institution, of white supremacy as an ideology invented to justify the exploitation of Black labor, and of capitalism’s deployment of racism to divide Black workers and white workers.

Acknowledging that “Marx and Engels did not fully theorize oppression . . . and its relationship to exploitation under capitalism,” D’Amato shows how later socialists have built upon Marxism’s early opposition to all forms of oppression in the conviction that “socialism is not only a theory of the liberation of the working class. It is a theory of the liberation of the working class as the foundation for the liberation of all humanity—and not only from class exploitation, but all forms of oppression.”

The first edition of The Meaning of Marxism included a chapter called “Capitalism and the Environment.” In the second edition the title is sharper and more urgent—“Capitalism’s Ecological Crisis”—and the entire chapter has been revised to reflect new evidence of the “environmental degradation of our planet.” Anyone reading this book who assumes that Marxists are fixated exclusively on the importance of industrial production and industrial workers is in for a surprise.

D’Amato takes up a wide range of crucial questions in the current debate about the ecological crisis. In the process he takes a fresh look back at the ways in which “Marx and Engels saw human beings as a part of nature” and “sought to heal the rift” between human beings and the natural world. In seeing human beings as part of nature, they also understood that “whereas other animals merely collect nature’s bounty, human beings also produce their subsistence by altering the material wealth provided by nature.” This gives humanity both a distinctive capacity and a distinctive incentive to regulate its relation to the earth. Among the many valuable resources in this chapter is a wonderful concluding discussion of the meaning of “human need.”

The Meaning of Marxism is a book designed for people involved or thinking about being involved in serious political action. This is vividly evident in the last three sections. D’Amato’s final chapter, “Imagine . . . the Socialist Future,” responds to questions commonly asked by activists who are beginning to think seriously about a socialist alternative to capitalist exploitation, inequality, and war. An important part of becoming a socialist involves being able to imagine a revolutionary process in which ordinary working people take state power into their own hands and begin to construct a new kind of society based on the democratic control of production and distribution of wealth to meet human need.

No one can—or should—claim to predict in detail exactly how this process will unfold. D’Amato projects guiding principles, not detailed policies: “The new workers’ state must begin by implementing a series of reforms that, step by step, abolish profit and the market and replace [them] with conscious, democratic planning.” The final chapter engages our belief that “another world is possible” without claiming to specify in advance precisely how this new world will be created by workers once they free themselves from capitalist exploitation.

Two final comments about this remarkable book: First, D’Amato is well aware that there are different versions of “the meaning of Marxism.” In making clear his commitment to the international socialist tradition of socialism from below through the revolutionary self-emancipation of the working class, he is sometimes directly critical of Stalinist and Maoist perspectives. But the book avoids sectarian polemics and sustains a positive focus on the principles of the Marxist tradition as it evolves historically. Secondly, while The Meaning of Marxism is written with readers new to socialist politics clearly in mind, its theoretical depth and wealth of current examples make it an invaluable resource for experienced activists as well. Everyone who is serious about fighting against the ravages of global capitalism needs to read—and reread—it.

Issue #99

Winter 2015-16

The Left after Syriza

Issue contents

Top story




  • The roots of the deep state

    Joe Cleffie reviews Phantom Terror: Political Paranoia and the Formation of the Modern State, 1789–1848 by Adam Zamoyski
  • Revolutionary parliamentarism?

    Todd Chretien reviews Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from Marx and Engels through the Revolution of 1905: The Ballot, the Streets—or Both by August H. Nimtz and Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from 1907 to the October Revolution of 1917: The Ballot, the Streets—or Both by August H. Nimtz
  • Slavery, capitalism,
 and imperialism

    Sandy Boyer reviews The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist; Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert; River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom by Walter Johnson; and The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815-1860 by Calvin Schermerhorn