A Farewell to Marxism

Marxism, that body of political thought based on the writings of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, has had a hard time of it. When it’s been tried, it has failed to bring about its most fundamental goals. Only rarely has it improved the condition of the proletariat. More often, it has resulted in the rise of a new ruling class that exploited its people as badly as the old one.  Often Marxists argue that the failure of the system has been caused by improper implementation or by capitalist meddling. But now, as we move from modern to post-modern society, Marxism as a political philosophy has become irrelevant.

The world has changed. No longer do we exist as citizens of nations of industrial workers exploited by those who hold the means of production. Rather, we industrial workers now number ourselves among the very rich of the world. The vast majority of the population of this global community lives in abject poverty– but not necessarily because of exploitation by capitalists.

Roughly half the world’s population lives by subsistence agriculture. That’s the half that lives on less than $2.50 a day. They exist primarily outside the capitalist system, growing enough food for themselves and perhaps a little to trade or sell to someone else. They own their means of production: hand tools, and if they’re very lucky, perhaps a draft animal such as a water buffalo.  And though the agri-giants of the capitalist world seek alternately to sell them things they don’t need, or throw them off their land completely, they exist in conditions largely unchanged for decades.

The main challenge of such people is overpopulation, which causes their subsistence plots to get smaller with each generation. They’re not often exploited by cannibalistic capitalists, but they are politically marginalized by urban politicians.

What they need is not a centralized system of socialization or rescue by a benevolent dictatorship of the proletariat, but rather a devolved political system that allows them self-determination. Call it subsidiarity (as the Catholics do– decisionmaking at the lowest possible level) or gramswaraj (village-based government, as the Sri Lankans do), but the principle is the same: decisions that can be made locally are made locally, and each community has equal input into the regional and national government.

A secondary challenge for such people is meddling from outside. Development agencies, economists, capitalists, and even some Marxists want them to give up their means of production and join the ranks of industrial workers. They can, it is argued, triple their income by working in a factory.   And that’s true– but without self-produced food and the family plot of land, they sink ever deeper into poverty.  I’ve seen places where so many factory workers live, they have to sleep in shifts because there isn’t room for them all to lie down on the floor at the same time.  It’s hard to argue that the economic system causes this problem: when subsistence farmers abandon their farms for the realm of industrialization, they trade a self-sufficient life for dependence upon someone else’s management, and they get poorer.

That such an approach increases poverty is not its worst failure– centralized government attempts to impose a one-size-fits-all solution that ignores differences in culture, ethnicity, language, and religion.  It favors (no surprise here) those who are in power, regardless of whether the system is capitalist or otherwise. The result, from Chiapas to Jaffna to East Timor, is conflict as people try to reclaim their right to self-determination from a government that by its very centralization has only its own interests at heart.

The political challenge of the 21st century is not to create kinder, gentler centralized governments, but rather how to devolve power to the community level. Its goal is not centralized orthodoxy (capitalist, Marxist, Maoist, or otherwise), but community self-expression and self-determination. There are groups all over the world now working diligently toward that end, each in its own individual way.

Marxism, in its orthodox form, dictates a strong central government.  It tells people how they ought to think and how they should relate to each other. That, like nationalism and colonialism, is an idea whose time has passed.

  • Honestly, Bob, does it matter what you want to call it — the scale of the changes required have to be, when it all washes up, embraced by the majority of the population. Hugo Chavez doesn’t call himself a Marxist but there are only a few Marxian types who’d have an issue with that.

    I expect he isn;t one anyway as he took a copy of Chomsky to the UN.

    Castro didn’t use the word until the sixties. Even Marx abhorred it.

    So you need to be careful with all this word stereotyping.

    On this point you miss a startling historical fact:” when subsistence farmers abandon their farms for the realm of industrialization, they trade a self-sufficient life for dependence upon someone else’s management, and they get poorer.”

    People leave their ‘farms’ because they are forced to. (They were serfs only yesterday by the way not “farmers’). My forbears did. They were pauperised by enclosures and the process that ended serfdom. Mine were so poor that they were transported to Australia as convicts. — it was thievery or starvation.

    Later they were driven from the land here by the 1890s depression.That’s how we were industrialised. The conditions of the British working classes was abysmally worse than anywhere else in the world. India was like a Shrangri La in comparison at the time. The “Third Wolrd” was only invented toward the end of the 19th century and when that third world was ripped off it was the working class in the Western countries who wallowed in the fruits of that largesse. That’s why this working class we know isn’t often very radical. It’s been bought off and will settle for an Obama rather than anything else more radical.

    You cannot have a proletariat unless you have a massive section of the population with nothing to offer but their labour. In China at the present time as CAPITALISM expands at a great rate of knots we are witnessing probably the largest shift of humanity from rural to industrial activity in the history of humankind in the space of a few years.

    The irony is that the whole collective farming ethos in China had cynically been dismantled so this process could unfold. In Cuba in contrast the CP is engineering a process to encourage people to return to the land so it can be farmed on permaculture principles which require density of labour time.

    You wanna know about all this — go read your Marx. You wanna knwo about “Finance Capital” and the crash we’re going through — go read Marx’s “labour theory of value”.

    Start here: . and then come back and say to your readers that Marxism is as you have summarily caricatured it.

    And on this point I gotta ask: “There are groups all over the world now working diligently toward that end, each in its own individual way.” I gotta ask you to name them and tell your readers what strategy these groups have that can impact on the rest of humanity given the massive scale of our problems — like, umm..climate change?

    THERE ARE groups all over the world working toward change locally and farther afield and thats’ the pluralism that enriches the whole shebang — a pluralism that may include card carrying (spit) “Marxists.”

    And all these people move in a radical change direction — as they did in Venezuela — are you gonna say:”Hang on! Lets not go that way because that’s what the Marxists advocate!”

    [By the way the Venezuelan right wing (backed by the US)argue for provincial devolution rather than allow the Chavez disease to spread . That’s what the right did to in Bolivia recently. And the argument: opposition to “BIG” government like that of Chavez and Morales.]

    The Venezuelan process is a text book exercise in how complicated change is and how many threads there are in the quilt that is being made afresh there. Some few are “Marxists” most aren’t. The key question that the majority of the population seems to prefer is that they want to proceed in a socialistic direction. And they call their ‘socialism’ Bolivarianism. And “Marxists” are key activators in that process in partnership with millions of others. Even the new socialist party has millions of members and a democratic processes that would shame the rest of the world.

    But they don’t go calling them selves Marxists — but in that mix Marxism is being rejuvenated and seized afresh and adapted to everyday needs. But that’s not self evident. What we are experiencing is the “end of ideology” and the dawn of ‘doing’ — you know what Jerry Ruben said” Do it! ”

    Fight then see.

    And any adaptable Marxist I know of here in far off Australia who I work with — are making a b- line for Caracas to learn and be inspired. Thats’ our “School of the Americas”. That’s 21st Century Socialism warts and all.

    [I have to wonder what the PLS taught you in regard to Marxism. I know they are sectarianists to a T but I have to wonder what sort of Marxism and revolutionary change program they espouse.]

  • Sue

    Dave, the post is by Bob’s friend DJ Mitchell. I don’t think DJ has ever been a member of PSL or any Marxist or socialist group (?)

    DJ’s background as I understand and definitely over-summarize it, this: * was born and raised in rural New Hampshire among the grumpy Yankees, * moved to sprawling, urban, industrial Los Angeles for the typical 70’s-80’s boom-bust wild ride, * received advanced degree in theology from Loyola Marymount (though he’s a Buddhist), * worked for a number of years as a peace worker with Saradovya in Sri Lanka, * returned recently to his roots, in a way, by moving with his wife to quite rural Utah to embrace farming. He returns to Sri Lanka occasionally at Saradovya’s request to help implement a peace plan for which he is a primary author. He’s quite concerned about global warming, overpopulation, and the overconsumption of the world’s resources by the West, which he blogs about at

    He brings his own view of Marxism, resulting from this life experience, to this forum. I don’t think that Bob necessarily agrees with his points?

  • As Sue points out, the post was by DJ, who lived in Sri Lanka for several years working with Sarvodaya, a grass roots organization that at one point did broker a ceasefire in their decades-long civil war.

    Hmm, yeah, it now seems clear that PSL is probably the most extreme of the most extreme. But here in the States, such groups in general do not seem adaptable and sectarianism can reach near-idiotic levels. We can’t join forces with the Left grouplet next to us on antiwar organizing because their view on Cuba is different from ours, that kind of self-inflicted marginalization is too common. Thus they doom themselves to irrelevance, IMO. In other countries where such groups have an actual effect, things might be different.

    Socialism posits a strong central government in order to implement the programs. But governments worldwide are “hollowing out” as globalization continues. That’s something socialist theory needs to deal with.

    I don’t necessarily agree with what DJ says, but he raises some interesting ideas. (He has more posts coming.)

  • DJ

    Dave, my central point is that the future of centralization is dead– read, for example, John Robb. Any political philosophy that relies on it is looking backward. The fact that Rightists promote devolution when it opposes supposed Leftism does not in itself make it wrong– that’s like saying it’s wrong to give food to your needy neighbor just because some Evengelicals do it.

    As for subsistence farmers, these days they’re not so much forced of their land as seduced with the promise of wealth, both overtly and also covertly through TV and movies. This I have seen first-hand in Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, and Mexico.

    The fundamental problem centralization fails to address is this: political capital, like economic capital, concentrates at the top. And it doesn’t matter who’s in charge. The bigger the government, the more powerless the people. I have studied Sri Lanka extensively, where neither side in the civil war represents the people. Rather, both sides create an enemy in order to coerce support from the people. That should sound familiar; it’s the post-modern means of gaining power.

    Devolution puts the political capital back in the hands of the people. And here’s a partial list of organizations working in countries I’m familiar with that are toward these goals:

    Commonway Institute (USA)
    Common Society Movement (USA)
    Conscious Community Campaign (USA)
    DISAC (Thailand)
    Sarvodaya (there are dozens of independent movements under this umbrella in India)
    Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement (Sri Lanka– not affiliated with Indian Sarvodaya)
    Sarvodaya USA (USA)

    There are many more.

  • The problem and the process isn’t either/or or neither/nor. The problems and the process has to be pluralistic and a partnership between differing perspectives.

    I object to your summary dismissal of Marxism by trying to crudely caricature it as a centralist doctrine when I know that you are basing that view on gross ignorance. Marxism is a method of analysis applied to history and reality and in that sense fits in anywhere as a tool to comprehend whats’ happening .

    On Sri Lanka, my comrade Chris Slee ahs this very good over view here:The Tamil question in Sri Lanka .

    I value the Marxian method as much as it can be applied to psychology (Eg: Lev Vygotsky) or biology (Stephen Jay Gould for example)or anthropology or physics or whatever as it is utilised in economics or politics.

    My argument in regard to devolution isn’t that it is wrong per se but that you cannot be generic about it as though not being centralist is itself a massive credential and a standalone ism. US Libertarianism — right wing especially — is dedicated to devolution and ‘small” governance. But that doesn’t make it progressive does it?
    ‘Nor does “big” or centralised government necessarily mean that there is an absolute commitment to reaction.

    In the case of the US Civil War whose side do you want to ally with — the centralists, the Union — or the splitters, the Confederacy? Regardless of Lincoln’s pragmatism did you want to root for the abolition of slavery or not ?

    That was a very centralised platform item was it not, set to be forcibly imposed on the South?

    It’s a false argument you are trying to lay down as though centralism is inherently problematical in all circumstances.

    So let’s have some respect for the hard yards that are involved in trying to comprehend a particular method or perspective. So I’ll do my homework on these movements you mentioned.

    In the same light we can talk about the 60s Civil Rights Movement and the laws that were engineered as a result of that struggle.

    I know Bob refers to the conundrum here quite often and I agree with the way he poses it. There is a problem with centralised planning and local control as much as it relates to the electricity grid as anything else. But at some level you have to defer to the massive complexity of our social matrix and it is not a sustainable solution to take localities off the political grid as a bona fide self evidentt course

    The Zapatistas do that — and do that very well — but they face this contradiction: what next? How do they advance the struggle to the rest of Mexico and how do you link up with outburst elsewhere?

    Similarly we could talk about many guerrillaist struggles in Latin America over the past 40 years where whole regions were taken out of government control — but inevitably the question of state power had to be confronted as there was no way to sustain that separation.If you don’t face up to that overwhelming logic you are still stuck in sixties Hippiedom.

    In Marx view the state is a body of armed men. And I think in any sense he is correct. In the Marxian view too the core challenge is to foster the “withering away ” of the state. The problem is that the any state in transition from capitalism to socialism is threatened constantly by the capitalist cabal. Similarly there are some key economic and social imperatives that have to be addressed as efficiently as possible, given available resources — from literacy campaigns, to medical care , to infrastructure, to the whole financial setup which aren’t so easily devolved quickly.

    The main problem too is that those who the ‘masses’ defeat when they “win” do not sit idly by and sulk. Cuba is a great example in that regard and today 50 years on Miami & Bush still wants to take Cuba back for Batista and the Mafia. So what do you say? “Don’t worry about all that? The Bay of Pigs never happened? The blockade doesn’t really exist? Just go off and devolve, get local? We’ll just sit back and drink the rum and dance some salsa”

    Thats’ a problem that warps your ability to proceed. The Nicaraguan Sandinista Revolution (1979)wore that consequence big time too.
    For a country to freely devolve its state power it needs to have in place the ability to freely do so without the threat of interference.

    However, any devolution movement has to be embraced as an ally. Again that’s a key aspect in most Marxist activity. While you refer to “political capital back in the hands of the people” historically that perspective was fostered under the banner of nationalism and in that sense we can talk about such struggles as those in Timor Leste , Palestine, Aceh, or whatever. But we can also talk about the Black struggle in the US and reference the outlook of Malcolm X in the same way that we address the indigenous movement here in Australia. To propose that Marxism is inherently counterposed or hostile to those struggles for autonomy is a lie.

    I’d defer to the Tamil struggle in the same breath as that too is about placing “political capital back in the hands of the [Tamil] people”. You may disagree with the methods deployed but we aren’t talking about Marxists are we when we come to the LTTE or whatever? But the Tamil people have a right to be free of the threat of pogroms and the same right as others to opportunities?

    There’s one final feature I ‘d like to point out and that is the overreaching problem of big issue politics as it relates, say, to the US: How do we stop the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan? What should we do to remake the health system in the US? Should the motor industry be paid their 20 odd billion ransome? Do we defend Roe vs Wade? What should we do about the coal fired electricity grid?

    Aren’t those questions also about putting “political capital back in the hands of the people” and aren’t they also about ensuring that a state follows the will of the majority of the people? We want the state to do our democratic bidding. But when it doesn’t we simply cannot afford to turn our collective backs on it. What Marxism suggests is that you struggle against it and one day, you take it over and deploy it for the collective good, for the majority.

    That process of “taking over the state’ is happening in vivo in Venezuela today. That the good guys have the presidency and most of the chamber isn’t enough.Their power lies outsode parliamnet in the street. There’s a for the moment passive military but a hostile police force, mass media and corporate sector. So what does Chavez do? He tries to do the thing Marxists urge him to do and cheer him for and put “political capital back in the hands of the people” .

    Is he doing it right? Do you know a better way? But then is “Marxism” being farewelled in Venezuela?

  • DJ

    Wow, Dave, that’s a lot of material. And the short answer is, “No.”

    First, my perspective of Marxism and the central state comes directly from the Communist Manifesto, which I first read in high school and to which I linked in the post. Second, Marx’s analytical methods were brilliant, and can be adapted to post-modern issues and society. But his political theory was grounded in a view of the world that no longer exists. I’ll argue in a later post that the rise of 4GW, the growth of population to the point that local activity creates global environmental effect, and the rise of waste as an economic activity all demand decentralization– but that’s an argument too lengthy to make here.

    You refer to the past two hundred odd years of history as a background for the argument that a central state is inherently necessary. However, that’s the only period in history when a strong centralized state WAS necessary. As for the movements that have engendered progress within the central state– the unions, the civil rights movement, and the abolitionists– they all developed in the context of the central state.

    I’ll grant you that the State cannot disappear. Indeed, what we are inevitably moving toward is a global State. That’s in some sense the paradox: the nation-state hinders progress in both directions. The Principle of Subsidiarity argues that decisions should be made at the lowest possible level. That means most of the political and economic decisions today made at (or in the context of) a central government should really be made at the local level.

    Should a central government exist to guarantee the rights of minorities? Absolutely. However, the rise of oppression of minorities can be charted alongside the growth of the state, from early anti-semitism in recently-united 12th century England, to colonialism and western slavery, to National Socialism (Nazism) and the Holocaust. In general, oppression rises as a central government identifies a scapegoat or a human “resource” to be exploited. The less power vested at the center, the less problem with exploitation of minorities. That’s not to say such issues will ever be completely eliminated, but concentrated power makes them worse.

    In addition, the less power vested at the center, the less resistance to moving that power upwards to a more global government.

    Having grown up in a primarily libertarian community in NH, I would argue that modern libertarianism DOES NOT promote these values. It promotes individualism, not strong communities. This is in contrast with what might be described as pragmatic communalism that used to exist in New England, the the hallmark of which is the barn raising.

    One last note: on the Tamil question in Sri Lanka, Chris Slee gets much right, but he (like the international media) misses an important complexity. He fails to note that when the Sinhalese proposed disenfranchising the Estate Tamils, the Sri Lankan Tamil leadership wholeheartedly supported the move. He also misses that the estate Tamils today are squarely in the GOSL camp– the LTTE wants nothing to do with them. This makes no sense unless one digs deeper into the source of the conflict.

    The Sri Lanka conflict is too often viewed as an ethnic conflict, Sinhalese versus Tamils, when in fact that’s a gross simplification. The real conflict on the island has nothing to do with the Tamils– it’s what could be described as a class war for the control of the diverse Sinhalese people. The Tamils are merely a pawn in that struggle. And on the Tamil side, you cannot understand the LTTE without realizing that they came from the low caste of the Tamils– a minority within a minority– in a centralized democratic society, they would never have any power. It’s also important to understand that the Eastern Tamils differ in culture and circumstance from the Northern Tamils– and that Northern Tamils look down on their Eastern “brothers.” Easterners too want self-determination. Surveys have consistently shown that Eastern Tamils don’t want to be dominated by either Colombo or Jaffna. So the concept of ethnic nations on BOTH sides is a myth perpetrated by those who want to dominate one group or the other.

    Lastly, the goal of the LTTE is not to bring self-determination to the Tamils– it’s to bring power to the LTTE (a formerly powerless minority within the Tamil community). Were they to win and establish a seperate state, Tamils would have exchanged one exploiter for another.

  • “Having grown up in a primarily libertarian community in NH, I would argue that modern libertarianism DOES NOT promote these values. It promotes individualism, not strong communities. This is in contrast with what might be described as pragmatic communalism that used to exist in New England, the the hallmark of which is the barn raising.”

    I’d agree with you there — individualism.

    I’m all for strong communities and community control — absolutely. But — well, let’s be pragmatic shall me and recognise that any community no matter how strong it may be and how communalist, still is not outside “the world of other men”(as Marx noted).

    And this is a major problem — in fact the problem — even for states en route beyond capitalism — in transition.

    Vietnam declared its independence in 1945 but lo and behold the French thereafter re-invaded their prized colony. Then after the Geneva Accords — a few years later it was the Yanks. Unless you want to say that the Vietnamese were too statist oriented — especially given the wars and all — then I suggest they had a problem asserting their right as a “community”.

    To remind the audience the invasion of Vietnam cost those people — According to the Vietnamese government, 1,100,000 North Vietnamese Army and National Front for the Liberation of Vietnam military personnel died in the conflict.Estimates of civilian deaths caused by American bombing in Operation Rolling Thunder range from 52,000 to 182,000. Complete statistics for the 1972 bombings are unavailable. Overall figures for North Vietnamese civilian dead range from 50,000 to “several million.”

    And today that country still bears the scars of that brutal slaughter for which neither the US, Australia nor France etc have paid any recompense. And then some bright sparks i know here come along as and say –“Look at ‘socialist’ Vietnam still caught up in maintaining a centralized state. That proves it, socialiam doesn’t work.”

    So there’s more to life than barn raising. It may be a good excuse for a hootenanny but there’s more in the social and economic mix that is our attainment & burden after x thousands of years.

    The irony is that the state is one of those attainments especially with the rise of the modern bourgeoisie because the means by which they took over the state was by deploying the Jewell of Democracy. Nonetheless these new entities — the modern capitalist states — were all about a national economy, infrastructure and jingoism rooting for one ruling class over another.

    I don’t believe all that globalisation crap about the tendency to a international statehood as the current economic crisis will no doubt prove how much competition there is between imperialist powers. You may as well say that NAFTA is all about bringing the Americas together .

    The main point that Marx made is that the core obstacle to any human aspiration is the capitalist system and unless you deal with the imperative — eg:class, power,profit, etc — all other options are precluded. It’s the dead hand that rests upon us.

    Communalism as a doctrine — invested in small communities — can also lack context. For example I think the kibbutzim movement in Israel after the war was an exciting experiment in communal living. Not all kibbutz were radical but some were and their shared living experiments have enriched our experience of this phenomenon.

    But hang on! Isn’t “Israel” Palestine — and weren’t these kibbutz out stations in that colonial settler state orchestrated by Zionism with absolute US and British backing? These communities may have indeed been communalist — but their core function was to disenfrancise and displace Palestinians from their homeland by dint of force and weaponry. [In the exact same way that the US was colonized by a succession of barnraisers.]

    So I’m saying that such communalist communities aren’t the whole deal. While it is true that the whole movement has spent in Israel itself anyway the underlying reality remains that these communities were created on Palestinain land and any such community has absolutely cheapened its worth for being a primary part of such a tactic. (Indeed today you can go to Israel and form any community you like so long as it displaces Palestinains in the process and they function as watchtowers & forts for the Zionist state.

    So I’ m all for communalism — bring it on — so long as we note that communalism is never outside the “world of other men(and women).”

  • DJ

    Wow, I didn’t realize how pervasive the notion of nationalism or statism really is! The Vietnam conflict was about colonialism on the one side and statism on the other– not communalism. And most of your argument stems from a focus on the State as the primary focus of power.

    What you’re missing is that it’s not necessary to overthrow the State to have communalism. Alvin Toffler observed in 1988 that the nationalist state was becoming irrelevant. We don’t have to overthrow the State– we just ignore it. As I said once before, it doesn’t matter which government controls what real estate. Sarvodaya Shramadana Sanghamaya pioneered this approach fifty years ago, and (though they are now under a second attack from the Sri Lanka government) they have created a network of communities that transcends nationalist and ethnic politics.

    This approach has been used in intentional communities for centuries. What’s changed now is twofold: one, we NEED communalism to survive (see John Robb) and two, the central state has hollowed out to the point that it really can in large part be ignored. I’m not saying there aren’t pitfalls, or that the wounded beast that is nationalism holds no danger. But I AM saying that we need to get beyond statist thinking and start working. The revolution is now.

  • All I gotta say is: good luck ignoring the state in the fond hope, I guess, that it will leave you alone.

  • DJ

    I think what you’re overlooking is that this is not a centralized movement. Robb describes it as “viral”– spreading through contact, not control. There IS no head to attack. Perhaps that’s what its opponents find so frightening.

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