A short reply to @Sushi_Goat regarding my alleged bastardization of historical materialism

by Jehu

Sushi_goat has accused me of bastardizing Engels’ “Socialism”.

(“I am Jack’s hurt feelings.”)

Of course, this is not the first time my interpretation of that text has been challenged; and I don’t feel the criticism is out of place, since it challenges a long established mainstream Marxist view. In the mainstream Marxist view, the capitalist class is the enemy of the proletariat, whose rule must be overthrown by the latter. However, in Engels’ “Socialism”, the capitalist class is explicitly characterized as ultimately superfluous to capitalism, while the state becomes the direct exploiter of labor power that is actually overthrown by the working class.

Almost no Marxist accepts my view of Engels’ remarks, since it implies bourgeois politics itself no longer serves as a path to communism once the state has replaced the capitalist class as direct exploiter of labor power. My interpretation, therefore, challenges the entire notion of classes, class struggle and the struggle for communism as Marxists view it.

Since my interpretation directly challenges the whole of accepted Marxist dogma on this point, it should receive a complete argument, which I have yet to provide. So I am going to do that briefly in this post. I do it not because it makes a difference, but to show how little of historical materialism Marxists actually understand.

If Marx and Engels were right, communism is not a theory but the real movement of society; so, theoretical differences have absolutely no impact on the process. Thus. it likely does not matter if I am right or Sushi_Goat is right, because the process does not depend on either of us being right. Hence, this review of Engels’ “Socialism” only intends to establish what Marx and Engels actually wrote, not “who is right”.

So let us begin with a little background

In 1846, Marx and Engels and a few other members of their small circle gathered together to set out their approach to social analysis. This collaboration produced the German Ideology which was intended for publication but never published until it was rediscovered in the 1920s.

Personally, I think this was the most important mistake Marx and Engels made, because they set forth certain assumptions that intimately define their approach. There is more than enough evidence that many of the errors of Marxism can be traced to this negligence.

In that document Marx and Engels make two assertions that Marxists have never understood on their own: First, the working class has no interest to assert against the ruling class (bourgeoisie):

“This subsuming of individuals under definite classes cannot be abolished until a class has taken shape, which has no longer any particular class interest to assert against the ruling class.”

Second, Marx and Engels argue that to achieve emancipation, the working class must overthrow the state:

“Thus, while the refugee serfs only wished to be free to develop and assert those conditions of existence which were already there, and hence, in the end, only arrived at free labour, the proletarians, if they are to assert themselves as individuals, will have to abolish the very condition of their existence hitherto (which has, moreover, been that of all society up to the present), namely, labour. Thus they find themselves directly opposed to the form in which, hitherto, the individuals, of which society consists, have given themselves collective expression, that is, the State. In order, therefore, to assert themselves as individuals, they must overthrow the State.”

I have never spoken to a single Marxist who realizes that in historical materialism, as first defined by Marx and Engels, the proletariat has no interest to assert against the bourgeoisie. The very idea seems preposterously counterintuitive: why would the proletariat overthrow capitalism if it has no interest to assert? How could the proletariat overthrow capitalism if it never has a beef with capitalists. Tell Marxists that the proletariat has no beef with the bourgeoisie and never tries to overthrow the ruling class and they will laugh at you.

For instance, while I was drafting this post one comrade asked:

“Doesn’t the proletariat have an interest in not being exploited? I don’t understand how any agency can exist without an interest.”

This is a very good question, because, as the question suggests, if the worker does not even have an interest in not being exploited, Marxism has very little to say regarding a revolutionary subject. So does the worker have an interest in not being exploited?

The answer is, “No”. In fact, since the production of surplus value is a condition for the sale of her labor power and the sale of her labor power is the essential condition for her life. The worker cannot have an economic interest in not being exploited — although she might, in theory, even be a communist and, therefore, hate every minute of her labor. Since her exploitation is the essential condition for the sale of her labor power, this exploitation appears under social conditions that seem entirely natural to her: a condition not of the specific production relations within which she labors, but almost a condition of nature itself. Indeed, if she has any grasp of the connection between her labor and the profits of the capitalist at all — which is almost never true — it appears almost natural that her necessary labor should be used by the capitalist to produce his surplus value.

But this is not my bastardization of Marx’s and Engels’ argument: Instead, the the actual bastardization was the idea the working class has a class interest that motivates it to overthrow the capitalist class. The working class has no such interest and Marx and Engels never said they did — in fact, Marx and Engels never used the term ever. As Kautsky and Lenin imply, (See, for instance, Lenin’s What is to be done) the working class has a commercial conflict with the capitalist class over the terms and conditions of a sale. This commercial conflict does not and cannot lead to the overthrow of capitalism precisely because it is the means by which the capitalist relationship itself is constituted: the selling and buying of labor power.

Moreover, the assumption Marx and Engels make is critical to their overall argument in the German Ideology because of one salient fact: As can be seen in the first quote, precisely because the working class has no class interest to assert against the ruling class, it has the capacity to bring classes and class society to an end. The proposition, accepted by most Marxists, that the proletarian revolution brings an end to class society is itself premised on the claim by Marx and Engels that the proletariat has no particular class interest.

Engels argument in Socialism, Utopian and Scientific

But now we have a really big theoretical problem. If it has no interest to assert, what is the motivation of the proletariat to bring down capitalism?

Part of this is explained by Engels in chapter 3 of “Socialism”. A solution to the problem of how the proletariat overthrows capitalism without ever asserting an interest against the capitalists is simple: Most of the heavy lifting of killing off the members of the capitalist class is done by the capitalists themselves.

“The fact that the socialized organization of production within the factory has developed so far that it has become incompatible with the anarchy of production in society, which exists side by side with and dominates it, is brought home to the capitalist themselves by the violent concentration of capital that occurs during crises, through the ruin of many large, and a still greater number of small, capitalists.”

Almost all Marxists think the capitalist class is somehow done away with by the proletariat, but this is not true. Every advance of the mode of production consists, on the one hand, of a great increase in the numbers of workers; and, on the other hand, of the violent reduction of the numbers of capitalists at the hands of other capitalists. The working class plays no direct part in this ongoing economic bloodshed between members of the capitalist class.

What in fact happens is that the constant concentration of capital and the constant increase in the scale of production implies constant increase in the anarchic character of production.

“This rebellion of the productive forces, as they grow more and more powerful, against their quality as capital, this stronger and stronger command that their social character shall be recognized, forces the capital class itself to treat them more and more as social productive forces, so far as this is possible under capitalist conditions.”

This, in turn, gives rise to increasingly social methods of managing the forces of production in the form of cartels, trusts, monopolies, etc. And it is this process that, Engels argues, finally leads to the state itself being forced to take control of the forces of production and function directly as the national capitalist. As Engels puts it, the capitalist class is no longer necessary for this purpose — they are rendered entirely superfluous to the production of surplus value:

“All the social functions of the capitalist has no further social function than that of pocketing dividends, tearing off coupons, and gambling on the Stock Exchange, where the different capitalists despoil one another of their capital. At first, the capitalistic mode of production forces out the workers. Now, it forces out the capitalists, and reduces them, just as it reduced the workers, to the ranks of the surplus-population, although not immediately into those of the industrial reserve army.”

There is no ambiguity whatsoever in Engels’ description of the process leading to the emergence of fascism — i.e., to the state as national capitalist. There is no way I can twist Engels’ argument to mean something other than what his words already say.

It is critical to understand that, in Engels’ “Socialism”, nowhere in this chapter does he state the working class overthrows the capitalist class. The capitalists are killed off by each other and, finally, the state itself expropriates the lot of them. Thus, in “Socialism”, as in the German Ideology, it is not the capitalist class that is overthrown by the workers, but the state itself. Marx and Engels wrote “Socialism” almost 40 years after the German Ideology, but in that time their view did not change one jot.

Workers don’t see the world the way you think they should

In the typical Marxist explanation, I find only the most truncated, heavily vulgarized, explanation of what is taking place: namely, “the workers overthrow the capitalist class.” In fact, the working class never confronts the capitalist class in the form most Marxists assume. Instead, as Marx explained in Capital, one capitalist kills off many. The truncated, sophomoric or simplistic description of this process may be adequate for simpleton bourgeois textbooks, but not for communists.

We can and must do better than this for a very good reason: when communists actually approach the working class with this sort of simple-minded argument, they have no idea what the fuck you are talking about; your agitation makes no sense to them, because — simply stated — they will tell you that their boss is not that much of an asshole and, besides, they really need the job. Which is to say, they do not empirically perceive social relations the way the typical Marxist describes the process.

Thus all of your communist agitation and you yourself look ridiculous to the working class.

“Socialism” was the most popular pamphlet of its time Marx and Engels ever produced and outsold both Capital and the Manifesto. They did not hide their analysis; rather, they seemed to want workers to understand how the process worked. Compare their description of the process of capitalist development with any material written by Marxists today. I have not found a single document written by any Marxist today that captures even a tiniest fraction of the complex argument Marx and Engels made in that pamphlet.

So the next time you go to your union meeting and talk about how “the woikahs have to overthrow the bahsses”, just remember they haven’t a fucking clue what the fuck you are talking about. Nothing of how they empirically perceive capitalistic social relations prepares them to understand your gibberish about “the class struggle”.

If it did you wouldn’t need fucking theory to understand it yourself! Theory is only necessary, because social relations don’t appear in real life the way the theory says it does. By definition, any theory only says, “Reality does not appear to work this way.” Now, unless you think you can give 7 billion people a crash course on historical materialist theory overnight, capitalism cannot end the way you think it does.

How consistent do Marx and Engels have to be shown to have been throughout their careers before Marxists will accept my interpretation? Well, it doesn’t matter because theory is complete bullshit and doesn’t matter in the least. The question is purely of historical interest. No society makes a revolution in theory before it makes it in practice — no society does this.

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