The REDSTAR2000 Papers

Listen to the worm of doubt, for it speaks truth. - Leftist Discussion

The "Tools" of Marxism July 19, 2003 by RedStar2000

I use that phrase--the tools of Marxism--a good deal. What I mean by it is the ability to look at modern capitalist society "the way" Marx and Engels would do so if they were alive today.

I think their ideas are quite straightforward...even if it did take genius to think of those ideas in the period in which they lived. Thus, I think using the tools of Marxism is something anyone can do, if they wish.


One must concede that much of 20th century Marxism, especially that "Marxism" produced within the Leninist paradigm, was little more than the repetition of formulas or, worse, the invention of "Marxist-sounding" rhetoric to justify immediate political purposes that had nothing to do with Marxism at all.

It does not have to be that way, however, and even in the last century there was useful work done; work that remains underpublicized and often unknown. Perhaps over the next few decades, some of this will be recovered and put on line.

In the meantime, you, an aspiring young revolutionary, want to "think like Marx". What do you do?

1. You begin with materialism, of course. Whether you are looking at global society for the next century or something as "insignificant" as neighborhood development (in your neighborhood), you base your examination on the fact that material reality has material causes...and no others. When told that "Jesus rose from the dead", you conclude at once that his corpse was removed and disposed of by living humans, and you proceed to the question of who would benefit if it were widely thought that this poor country preacher had actually accomplished the impossible.

2. Marxist materialism is historical. That is, it is best applied in real situations with real and discoverable qualities. It is certainly possible to make some sweeping generalizations across broad historical epochs using Marxist tools, but they are best applied in specific situations, with as much detail as can be discovered.

3. Marxist historical materialism is based primarily on classes...the observable fact that different groups of humans in any society have different relationships to the means of production in that society and, consequently, to each other. It was further asserted by Marx and Engels that struggle between classes was something that took place constantly in every class society, often hidden behind the scenes, sometimes erupting openly and dramatically. A careful Marxist does not accept the superficial appearance of "class peace" but rather looks harder for the particular forms of class struggle that are taking place at that moment out of public view.

4. To Marx and Engels, change was the "constant" in human societies. Humans constantly innovate their "means of production" and there can be no such thing as a changeless human society. Despotisms can be remarkably stable, lasting for a thousand years or more, but even they crumble away eventually, to be replaced by more dynamic forms of class society. The casual assumption that "things will go on as before" is regarded as "least probable" and ultimately impossible by a Marxist.

5. Marxists assume that humans operate primarily from the motive of perceived material interest; they are indeed "selfish" by nature. Co-operation is practical only when it is in the perceived self-interest of the participants to do so...and only when material conditions make that possible.

6. Marxists take quite seriously the quip by Marx himself: "the ruling ideas of an epoch are the ideas of its ruling classes". Marxists do not take "ideas" at "face value" or as "interesting abstractions" but rather see them as reflections of class realities. Thus, Marxists are "critical" and "sceptical"--not in the sense necessarily of always being "negative", but in the sense of "looking deeper" into every question, probing for the underlying realities beneath "accepted" or "fashionable" "wisdom".

7. The "tools of Marxism" can be a "guide to action", to direct and informed participation in the class struggle...but they don't have to be. There are academic Marxists who write books (some of which are quite interesting) for other academics...and there's nothing "wrong" per se in that use. It's just a very "weak" use of a powerful tool; like installing a state-of-the-art personal computer to balance your checkbook and keep track of your grocery list.

8. And at the same time, the tools of Marxism are most powerful precisely in the "realm of ideas"--they can be used to directly challenge and defeat the entire "bourgeois paradigm" that rules our era. The bourgeoisie tell us from our first breath that "this is all there is and all there is ever going to be; adapt, submit, or die". The tools of Marxism allow us to say, truthfully, "No, things are going to be very different...and here's why."

So when you hear me say (as I often do), that the real task of communists is to furnish the working class with the "tools of Marxism" that they might emancipate themselves from wage slavery (instead of "us" "leading" them out of bondage)...this is what I'm talking about.

When the working class "thinks like Marx", the victory of communism is assured.
First posted at RedGreenLeft on July 14, 2003

Using the "tools" of Marxism--A Practical Example

How does a Marxist analyze a proposal like this one?


The reality is that the world does not look like it did when Marx was alive. There are far more people, The 'workers' in western states are far more prosperous, They have more apparent say in how their lives are controlled, the military weapons of state control are far more advanced, the weaponry available to put down socialism in foreign nations is far more advanced, the psychological control mechanisms are both far more advanced and far more deeply ingrained, there is a much deeper divide between the conditions of 'workers' in the first world and those in the third world.

Marx would not have been surprised to find that the world looked very different from that in which he lived--"change is a constant"--but he would find this "snapshot" unsatisfying, for there is no motion in it.


Workers in the first world in fact have a stake in capitalism. Indirectly they are all capitalist beneficiaries of third world exploitation. In other words they are all bourgeois or petit bourgeois themselves.

I daresay Marx would hardly have welcomed such a conclusion, but then he would want to know: if "first world" workers are now part of the bourgeoisie, why is it that they are still selling their labor power and still generating surplus value?

Even more curious: inspite of the ever more vigorous exploitation of the "third world", the living standards of this first world "worker-bourgeois" are stagnant or declining...and this has been the case for the last three decades.

The reason that there is an ever widening gap between the first-world worker's standard-of-living and the third-world worker's is that the third world standard is falling faster...and not that the first world worker's standard is rising.

But even that is too simple. If you compared a steel worker's wages in Indonesia with one in Indiana, I suspect that you'd find that the gap is getting smaller, not larger. The multi-national corporation that builds a plant in an undeveloped country pays higher wages than the local standard, outbids the local bourgeoisie for labor, and exerts a slight but measurable upward pressure on urban wages. The reason the overall gap between the first and third world continues to grow is (1) by definition, the third world is burdened by a huge and ever poorer peasantry; and (2) the fact that third world mineral resources are extorted by first world corporations at far below "free market prices", thanks to the military power that those corporations can count on if needed.

To put it crudely, the modern bourgeoisie have discovered that organized looting can be as profitable as ordinary commercial enterprises (Iraq, for example).


Simply put Marx’s crisis is not going to occur in such a way that workers will revolt against the ‘bourgeois bosses’ and win.

This expresses the weakness of the non-Marxist analysis that says "what what will be". Things will go along pretty much as they do right now, hence, no crisis and no revolution. (By the way, if there is a "crisis", the author suggests fascism as the most probable outcome.)

Given the present material conditions, what does look plausible from a Marxist standpoint? In my view, the working class in the advanced capitalist countries will continue to see their standards decline, slowly or more rapidly as time passes. They will organize with increasing militance to stop or slow the decline (though I suspect the period in which actual gains for the working class are possible is over). They will become more "class conscious" and more "open" to communist ideas...especially as the "horrors" of 20th century communism fade from living memory.

They will also become more disaffected from another cause...the corpses in the body bags will be arriving on regularly scheduled flights as part of the "cost" of empire and garrison duty in the new "colonies", rich in both resources and resistance.

There is already wide-spread working class cynicism towards the bourgeois electoral political system; this will deepen towards outright contempt and hatred as things continue to get worse. Fewer people will vote; more people will protest. Active sabotage will appear. Workplace rage will become more common as well as spontaneous riots in the poorest neighborhoods. And so on.

The ruling class will become steadily more repressive as their other tools decline in utility. In addition, prison labor (slave labor) will become an ever more attractive investment opportunity...the chance to extract the maximum surplus value, at least for a little while.

Discontent will simmer, and then boil, and then explode in rage at the old order. The rank-and-file draftees and even the mercenaries will mutiny. The police will "melt away" when no one is looking. The prison camps will be opened. New public authorities will spontaneously arise, on the initiatives of tens of thousands of "leaders".

And nothing will ever be the same again.

I've left out and skipped over a lot here, but you get the idea.


All of history shows that lasting change tends to evolve, not to be ushered in one fell swoop.

Well, not exactly. Change in history is pretty complicated; sometimes it proceeds slowly and quietly "in the background", so to speak. Other times it explodes with sudden violence and centuries-old institutions, traditions, etc. disappear "overnight". When conditions have fully matured for a dramatic can happen in "the blink of an eye" (for example the permanent abolition of the Russian landed aristocracy in a single year, 1917).

But the attempt to evolve an "evolutionary" path to socialism is an old one. People who support it do so because they think (1) revolution is "impossible", the ruling class is "too strong" and/or (2) revolution is frightening, they might lose some privilege that they personally value to the anger of the "lower orders".

If the evidence in support of the Marxist scenario for communist revolution in the advanced capitalist countries is very weak thus far (and it is), the evidence for the "evolutionary path to socialism" is nonexistent. While political parties that embraced this strategy have, from time to time, come to power in bourgeois elections, their attempts to introduce "socialist" measures have been ineffective or nonexistent.

Why? Because the bourgeois state machinery was designed as an organ of rule by the capitalist class and has evolved ever more closely to fit that purpose. A "socialist" party that attempts to use it to introduce socialist measures finds itself in the position of someone trying to use a car to go sailing. It's the wrong tool for the job.

Thus the irony of the criticism of communists and anarchists by those who embrace the "evolutionary path"--"You are impractical utopians," they cry--when nothing is more "utopian" than the strategy they propose.

Which won't stop them from trying, of course. People often learn best from personal experience, and participation in reformist politics can certainly be a "learning experience". I still remember, with a lingering sense of shame, a couple of years in my youth when I "bought into" the idea of "gradual change" and "working from within", etc. (Yes, it's true.) It didn't take long for me to find out what was really going on, the corruption, the careerism, the intrigue, etc. It disgusted me and I quit, never to return.

Come to think of it, it was around that time that I first started reading...Marx.
First posted at Che-Lives on July 15, 2003

A few points not touched upon in my previous post...


If you went into the average factory or building site and declared ‘Brothers although we are doing better than the 3rd world we could ultimately all be better off, study Marxist tools carefully and will become obvious to you, as it is to me’ at the same time as a Neo Fascist entered it and said ‘Its immigrants that cause the problems, and our jobs being shifted to Africa, vote for us and we will sort it out’; there’s not a shadow of a doubt who would gain the most support. In fact your ‘policy’ of education can only work at all in times when there is no great passion to sort out dramatic problems quickly. Because in other circumstances an easy solution will always be preferred whether it is a good one or not; no-one will follow something which seems passive and difficult to understand at such times.

A very useful bit of bourgeois mythology is that workers are both "reactionary racists at heart" and rather "simple-minded" as well. Its purpose is to discourage people from advocating communism; better to advocate some slight "reform" that the "backward" masses can "understand".


...just what exactly is your opposition to putting up socialist candidates for whom they can vote and who may be able to achieve something? For that matter even if we cannot organise a consolidated candidate just exactly why are these people not voting for at least one of the Marxist candidates available to them?

Those "socialist" candidates will achieve nothing except possibly adding a tiny degree of legitimacy to an illigitimate political process.

And those "Marxist" candidates are an obvious joke; would you or any sensible person vote for a party that openly says it wants to establish a dictatorship?


On the other hand evidence for effective gradual change is overwhelming. Living standards have increased; social barriers have eroded, Social spending has increased, more people are enfranchised, etc. etc. etc.

This is quite clever: suggesting that progressive changes in capitalism (even if accurately summarized), are somehow "steps" on the road to "socialism".

The reformist "in decay" completely forgets the fact that socialism once meant a change in which class rules. Now, an increase in the National Health Service budget is, presumably, "a step towards socialism".


There is far less worker protest now than there was 30 years ago. And if it does happen this is no guarantee that the resolution will be socialism or communism...

There are no guarantees. The scenario I propose could be one that doesn't materialize until the middle of the next century or even the one after that.

IF, as you contend, Marx was wrong, then it won't happen that way. I'm not worried about that; why are you?

What do you stand to gain by telling people that revolution is "impossible" and that we should "therefore" concern ourselves with modest improvements, gradually implemented, as a "result" of participation in the bourgeois electoral spectacle?

If your views are indeed correct, then revolutionaries will never be more than a few malcontents or cranks on the fringes of society, listened to by no one except each other. There are probably tens of thousands and maybe even hundreds of thousands of people in the U.K. who agree with you right now and who would think I was a nutball.

So what is your real purpose nip that "revolution" crap in the bud, to keep anyone from hearing it or possibly taking it seriously?


I am not saying that the gap between social democracy and socialism can be jumped without any defining moments or events. Or that there is no danger that Social democracy will lapse. Indeed I’m suggesting ways to bridge enough of the gap that the jump will become feasible. And I would imagine others could suggest more if they were allowed out of the straightjacket of slogans like ‘the workers will unite and institute a glorious communism’.

In other words, we revolutionaries have put straightjackets on people's minds and are thus "holding back" the struggle for reforms.

All three of us?!


Do you seriously imagine that your spontaneous workers revolution is going to happen without organisation? Can you really imagine the actions and decisions of hundreds of millions co-ordinating without hierarchy and advance planning?



I’ll just focus on trying to make it clear that you are no part of any movement I belong to.

First posted at Che-Lives on July 16, 2003

But about this "impractical" thing...I get this so much that I'm almost tempted to start "glorifying" impracticality. There are, unfortunately, both a number of long-winded reformists and a number of equally long-winded Leninists at Che-Lives and they compete with one another in "demonstrating" the "impracticality" of working class revolution, the end of wage-slavery, classless society, etc. One says the only way forward is to pursuade the existing bosses to be "nicer" and the other replies "make us the bosses and things will be great".

Realistically, if I'm "allowed" to use that word, neither of those perspectives have, in the last analysis, amounted to a puddle of warm spit...but I'm "impractical".

It seems to me that the real world choice comes down to (1) accept the prevailing social order or (2) advocate an entirely new one...and hope that conditions emerge to make that possible.

The reformists and the Leninists end up choosing the first option, all their rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding. Revolutionary communists and anarchists choose the second.

It must be frankly admitted that, thus far at least, history offers no guarantees...only probabilities, at best. It's also possible that Marx was wrong and all those who preach the "eternity" of class society, hierarchy, exploitation, oppression, etc., are right. That's a disgusting possibility, but a real one.

An old American socialist (Gene Debs) said it well back at the beginning of the last century: It's better to fight for what you want and lose than it is to fight for what you don't want and win.

I think that's good advice.
First posted at RedGreenLeft on July 17, 2003


You seem to forget here that what is being presented is evidence that gradual change towards a society less biased towards owners and aristos can be achieved. However, as a matter of fact I would say that social appropriation of profits for use in social projects is a step closer to socialism.

And there you are. That's what reformism actually means now. You can like that or not...but that's what's in the package.

This fellow likes it...


The only remaining way to gain socialism is to allow further liberalistic reform until liberalism reforms to socialism, just as feudalism reformed to modern capitalism. History has shown us this on many occasions.

What "history has shown us" is where your path goes...New Labour.

Have a nice trip.
First posted at Che-Lives on July 17, 2003


I assume that it is the act of purchase that you find absurd in the idea. Once purchased all you have is common ownership of a means of production. Exactly what we all say we want. If we cant run things once purchased or prevent someone from becoming exploitative then socialism is impossible. Just pack up now. I dont believe this of course.

It is certainly possible and even practical for a group of workers to purchase a functioning business and run it anyway they please. If I'm not mistaken, The Economist ran an article a few years ago about a company in England that is the largest manufacturer of surgical instruments in Europe and is owned and managed by its employees. It's also, again if I'm not mistaken, been around for decades. The account I read suggested that it's a wonderful place to work.

That probably suggests the difficulty, even in a "best case scenario". A group of workers who managed to organize such an enterprise would quickly see the immediate benefits of such an arrangement; why then would they reduce or eliminate such gains in order to benefit another group of workers? They truly would be "bourgeois-workers" (a hybred-class) and would likely consider themselves truly "superior" to the poor sods who were still working at regular companies. (I have no way of knowing, of course, but I suspect that English worker-owned factory recruits its young workers from the competent sons and daughters of the existing work force...inheritance would logically follow from such an arrangement.)

That's the best case; the experience in Yugoslavia is even less promising. Many workplaces (or enterprises) were effectively owned and managed by the workers who happened to be there as of a certain date (when the central government released control); almost at once, the workers who were the initial beneficiaries of this move set up barriers against "new hires" enjoying the same benefits...not only lower financial compensation but less or no voice in management decisions. Eventually--that is within a few years--you did indeed have "workers" exploiting workers.

This suggests to me that the idea of "ownership" is, in and of itself, incompatable with any form of socialism or communism; that is, the "feeling of ownership" matched with the actual ability to make "ownership-type decisions" leads directly to capitalist or quasi-capitalist consciousness. This has not yet happened in the English factory mentioned above...but at some point it ought to.

In theoretical terms, the workers in a particular workplace must indeed be "in control of" that workplace and must "manage" it directly...but that is not the same as "ownership" and should not be confused with the latter.

The point is not to transfer ownership from the capitalist class to the working class; it is to abolish private property in the means of production altogether, in any form. The means of production will "belong" to everyone collectively...the use of those means of production will be decided by the people that work there and the people that need what they produce. No doubt this will generate many arguments; classless society will be very argumentative.

Not unlike message boards, though the stakes will be considerably higher.
First posted at Che-Lives on July 17, 2003
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