Palinurus: Engaging Political Philosophy

Journal Home
About Palinurus
Editorial Collective
On The Political
Issue Number

Paul D’amato: The Relevance of Marxism


Every so often-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. As the late socialist author Daniel Singer aptly put it, “The purpose of our pundits and preachers is to doom as impossible a radical, fundamental transformation of existing society” [1].

The most common theme is that socialism has failed to make inroads, especially in the United States, due to the prosperity and social mobility that even the lowliest members of society can experience. “On the reefs of roast beef and apple pie,” wrote the German writer Werner Sombart in his famous 1906 book, Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?, “socialistic Utopias of every sort are sent to their doom” [2]. The Depression years of the 1930s made these ideas harder to swallow, but variations on the argument were dusted off and refurbished during the economic boom after the Second World War. Daniel Bell's The End of Ideology told us that postwar Western prosperity and the rise of Stalinism signaled “the exhaustion of the nineteenth century ideologies, particularly Marxism, as intellectual systems that could claim truth for their views of the world” [3].

Writers on the left, too, like German radical philosopher Herbert Marcuse, could ask, “Why should the overthrow of the existing order be of vital necessity for people who own, or can hope to own, good clothes, a well-stocked larder, a TV set, a car, a house and so on, all within the existing order?” [4]. For Marcuse, whose ideas were typical of a whole generation of post-Second World War left-wing thinkers, working-class struggle was no longer the connecting link between our society and a future socialist society. Workers were either bought off or simply so enmeshed in capitalism, and unable to see beyond it, that they were now part of the problem rather than the solution [5].

The mass general strike of 10 million French workers in May 1968 offered strong evidence to the contrary, as did a whole period of working-class and student rebellion that spanned the globe in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Poland's Solidarnosc in 1980 and the major role played by Black workers in the downfall of apartheid South Africa are two other examples). But those movements receded and capitalism found its footing again, utilizing a period of economic crisis to begin an assault on working-class living standards that has continued unrelentingly to this day. Ideologists once again sprang forward to justify capitalism in its most naked, brutal, “free market” form.

Then came the collapse of the bureaucratic regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe in 1989-1993. We were told then that the “free market” and liberal democracy had triumphed over “totalitarian” systems like fascism and communism. Historian Francis Fukuyama came forward and argued that society had indeed evolved, as Marx argued, from lower to higher forms of human social organization. However, instead of that evolutionary process leading to socialism, Fukuyama argued, liberal free market capitalism constituted the “end point of mankind's ideological evolution,” and the “final form of human government”; as such, it constituted the “end of history” [6].

In a flush of exuberance, Western pundits waxed lyrically about a new era of endless peace and prosperity. But if this was the end of history, it didn't seem things were ending all that well.

Instead, we entered a world of incessant war, where the United States, as the world's sole superpower, felt free to throw its military weight around, and did; a world of growing disparities between rich and poor (even in the midst of the economic growth of the 1990s); and a world-as we moved into the twenty-first century-of economic and social instability. It was a world in which the much-touted benefits of free trade and “globalization” dramatically enriched a very few but left tens of millions in ever-worsening conditions. In short, it seemed like we had returned to the days of the robber barons and sweated labor of the late nineteenth century, only on a more colossally destructive, global scale.

The obscenity of capitalism today is expressed in a few simple facts:

- The assets of the world's top three billionaires are greater than those of the poorest 600 million people on the planet [7].

- Globally, there are seventy thousand people who possess more than $30 million in financial assets-enough to fill a large sports stadium. Half of the world's 587 billionaires (enough to fill a large disco) are Americans, whose wealth increased collectively by $500 billion in 2003 alone. They possess the same amount of wealth as the combined gross domestic product of the world's poorest 170 countries combined [8].

- More than a third of the world's people-2.8 billion-live on less than two dollars a day.

- 1.2 billion people live on less than one dollar a day [9].

The statistics for the United States reveal a society that is certainly rich-but only for a minority:

- The average compensation in 2004 for the CEOs of the top 367 U.S. companies was $11.8 million, up from $8.1 million in 2003. On average, CEOs in 2004 made 431 times what a production worker made, up from a 107:1 ratio in 1990 and a 42:1 ratio in 1982 [10].

- CEO pay has increased by 300 percent over the last fifteen years, whereas wages have increased in the same period by only 5 percent (and minimum wage workers have seen their pay fall 6 percent). If wages had kept up with the percentage increase in CEO pay, in 2004 the average pay for production workers would have been $110,136, instead of $27,460 [11].

- The top 20 percent of American households control 83 percent of the nation's wealth, while the bottom 80 percent of Americans control only about 17 percent of the nation's wealth [12].

- A total of 34.6 million Americans in 2002-12.1 percent of the population-lived below the official poverty line (which is set absurdly low), and 8.5 million of them had jobs. Overall, Black poverty is double that of whites [13].

Poverty is always horrible. It only becomes an obscenity when the material means exist to eliminate it, yet it persists. But the priorities of world capitalism are such that the two things-unimaginable wealth and great misery-exist side by side. The priorities of capitalism are starkly revealed by the fact that the per capita income in sub-Saharan Africa is $490, whereas the per capita subsidy for European cows is $913 [14].

These obscenities make the case, if not for Marx and Marxism, then at the very least for some project to change the world.

That is why, try as the pundits may to bury him-Marx keeps resurfacing. His ideas are alive because his indictment of capitalism-though first penned in the 1840s-is still confirmed on a daily basis. As the misery worsens, the glaring class divisions give rise to what Marx had argued was the motor of historical change-the class struggle. Everywhere around the world, the working class (called the “proletariat” in Marx's day)-those whose labor produces society's abundant wealth in exchange for a pittance-continues to organize, demonstrate, strike, and resist in various ways.

Marx not only exposed the ills of society-many had done so before him-but he revealed how capitalism developed, how it went into crisis, and how it would meet its end. At Marx's grave site in 1883, Marx's friend and lifelong collaborator, Frederick Engels, said that Marx “discovered the special law of motion governing the present-day capitalist mode of production.” Even Marx's critics sometimes acknowledge that he had brilliant insights into the nature of capitalism. But, Engels continued,

Marx was before all else a revolutionist. His real mission in life was to contribute, in one way or another, to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the state institutions which it had brought into being, to contribute to the liberation of the modern proletariat, which he was the first to make conscious of its own position and its needs, conscious of the conditions of its emancipation [15].


Of course, much has changed since Marx's day. But the essence of capitalism-the exploitation of the many by the few for profit-remains, and wreaks its damage on an ever-expanding scale. The insane anarchy of a world market that can produce enough food to feed everyone, but fails to feed the 6 million children who die every year from malnutrition [16], remains with us. The unplanned character of capitalist production, with its incessant drive for profit, has created an environmental crisis that threatens the earth's inhabitants like a runaway train threatens its passengers. Indeed, many of the trends described by Marx and Engels-the creation of an increasingly interdependent world market; the system's tendency toward periodic economic crises; increasing productivity and wealth on one side and poverty on the other; the concentration and centralization of capital and the growth of monopolies-give their writings an almost prophetic air.


The task today, set out so long ago by Marx and Engels, also remains the same-to replace competition with association, to build a society in which all wealth is produced and held by its producers in common, and distributed according to human need rather than profit. “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms,” wrote Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, “we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” [17]. Only in such a society can humankind develop its full creative capacities, using our scientific knowledge to enhance lives rather than destroy them.


Moreover, those who loudly applauded the fall of Stalinism left out one important factor: The death of what passed for communism in the East-but what was in reality bureaucratic, state capitalism-paved the way for people to rediscover the real Marxist tradition hidden behind years of distortion in both the East and the West during the Cold War era. It is the tradition of working-class self-emancipation.


Far from being dead, therefore, Marxism is experiencing a rebirth. Marxist ideas remain crucial to our understanding of the world today and the task of changing it.


There is, of course, no substitute for reading Marx and Engels, or the great revolutionary socialists who followed them, such as Rosa Luxemburg, Vladimir Lenin, and Leon Trotsky. I've read and reread works such as Marx's Civil War in France, Engels' Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Rosa Luxemburg's Reform or Revolution, Trotsky's Lessons of October, and Lenin's State and Revolution, among many others, and each time I reread them I learn something new in light of fresh experiences [18].


But as Lenin said in a postscript to State and Revolution, “It is more pleasant and useful to go through the 'experience of revolution' than to write about it” [19]. Marx and Engels, like Lenin, were not armchair thinkers. First and foremost, they were revolutionaries who fought for a world free of oppression and exploitation. But they understood that to change the world, it is necessary to understand how that world works, and to learn from past struggles the effective levers for its transformation.




1. Daniel Singer, Prelude to Revolution: France in May 1968, 2nd ed. (Boston: South End Press, 2002), xxvi.


2. Sombart quoted in Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology (New York: Collier Books, 1962), 277.


3. Bell, The End of Ideology, 16.


4. Marcuse quoted in Paul Mattick, Critique of Marcuse: One-Dimensional Man in Class Society (London: Merlin Press, 1972).


5. Some examples of this line of argument, in various permutations, can be found, for example, in: “Marcuse Defines His New Left Line,” interview with Marcuse in The New Left of the 1960s: The Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse, ed. Douglass Kellner (New York: Routledge, 2005); Ernest Laclau and Chantalle Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (London: Verso, 1985); and André Gorz, Farewell to the Working Class (London: Pluto Press, 1982). Many other examples could be cited. The most rabidly anti-Marxist tract against the central role of the working class in achieving a new society is Murray Bookchin's nasty little essay, “Listen, Marxist!,” in Post-Scarcity Anarchism (Buffalo, N.Y.: Black Rose Books, 1986), 193-242.


6. Francis Fukuyama, “By Way of an Introduction,” in The End of History and the Last Man (London: Penguin, 1992).


7. UN Human Development Report 1999: Globalization with a Human Face (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 3.


8. Jane Chapman, “Forbes Report: Billionaires' Wealth Grew by 36 Percent in Last Year,” March 9, 2004, World Socialist Web site.


9. United Nations Human Development Report 2003: Millennium Development Goals (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 5.


10. Sara Anderson et al., Executive Excess 2005: Defense Contractors Get More Bucks for the Bang, 12th Annual CEO Compensation Survey for the Institute for Policy Studies, August 30, 2005, 13. Available at (accessed August 1, 2006).


11. Ibid., 14-15.


12. Americans for Democratic Action, “Income and Inequality: Millions Left Behind,” report, February 2004, 5. Available at (accessed August 1, 2006).


13. Ibid.


14. Human Development Report 2003, 155.


15. Frederick Engels, “Karl Marx's Funeral,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works (hereafter MECW), vol. 24 (New York: International Publishers, 1989), 468. Note: Many of the Marxist works cited in this book can be found at the Marx-Engels Internet archive at


16. Frances Moore Lappé et al., World Hunger: Twelve Myths (New York: Grove Press, 1998), 8. The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2005 (Rome: United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, 2005), 20.


17. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, in The Communist Manifesto: A Road Map to History's Most Important Political Document, ed. Phil Gasper (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005), 72. (Hereafter, Communist Manifesto.)


18. Karl Marx, Civil War in France: The Paris Commune (New York: International Publishers, 1989); Frederick Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (New York: International Publishers, 1989); Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution, in Rosa Luxemburg Speaks (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970); Leon Trotsky, The Lessons of October (London: Bookmarks, 1987); V. I. Lenin, State and Revolution (New York: International Publishers, 1994).


19. Lenin, State and Revolution.



Excerpt from The Meaning of Marxism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006).