Which Marxism?
A Discussion with the Peruvian GEC

IP is participating in a discussion forum organized by the GEC (Grupo de Esclarimiento Communista), based in Peru. One of the first themes discussed is ‘how to understand Marxism’. Below is our contribution to the debate, the GEC’s reply and our answer.

Which Marxism?

Marxism is the theory of the internal contradictions of the capitalist mode of production, of its immanent tendencies. Perhaps all who call themselves Marxists can be in agreement with this general description. Nevertheless, they reach very different conclusions and they adopt very different practices. For that reason we must ask the question: which Marxism? And furthermore: which Marx? Because “Marxism” was not a theory that came in a complete and finished way from the head of Marx like goddess Athena from the head of Zeus. Marx’s thought was dynamic. He learned from the practice of the class struggle, from his own errors and weaknesses. A key moment in the development of his theory was the failure of the 1848 revolts that were not the revolution that the young Marx had expected, and which led him to an intense process of theoretical reflection. Until this point, Marx’s understanding of history reflected in part, a mechanistic conception, and the teleological vision of Hegel, and his critique of capitalist economy, centering on the inequalities of capitalism and its exploitation of the proletariat, reflected the influence of Ricardo. He understood that it was necessary to go deeper. His effort finally produced the economic manuscripts of 1857-1864 (Grundrisse and others) and the first edition of Capital (1867) with its theory of the value-form. In these works, Marx laid bare the essential structures of a capitalist social formation (the commodity, abstract labor, etc.) and passed from the critique of capitalist appropriation of the surplus value produced by the workers, to the critique of the production of value itself. His critique showed that value is a social relation between capital and labor, and not a physical quality of the commodity, in spite of the inverse appearance: that social relations are relations between things. He showed that the world of value is not an objective reality that exists outside of and independent of men but a human construction, historically specific. He investigated its origins and internal contradictions. He showed that value continually forces capital to develop the productive forces, even though masses of workers are permanently expelled from the process of production.

He didn’t have a crystal ball to foresee all the future development of capitalism but gave us a foundation to understand today’s reality, its possibilities and dangers. For Marx, the fundamental contradiction of capitalism is its dependence on living labor for the creation of surplus value while it is forced (by the same hunt for surplus value) to reduce living labor as much possible. In this process, the proletariat, the “collective worker,” as Marx put it, to emphasize that it produces value collectively, sees its capacity to create real wealth, the objectification of its concrete labor, grow rapidly while it sees value, the objectification of its abstract labor, grows less and less. Thus the conditions are born to overcome capitalism. We see them mature now in the expulsion of millions from global production, while there are already one and a half billion unemployed; in the weight of debt, in the vertiginous increase of slum cities, in the social convulsions from China to Egypt. Marx gave us the basis to understand that the current crisis is a crisis of the value-form, of the essential being of capitalism, which will not be solved by conquering state power to enforce a just distribution of surplus value “for the people.” Unfortunately, much of what Marx wrote after 1848 was little known until the second part of 20th century, and in the interim an “orthodox Marxism” developed which, when it was inspired by Marx, identified itself primarily with the weaknesses of the young Marx, with the influence of bourgeois thinkers on his evolving theory. A more mechanistic, more simplistic, more “leftist” Marx. Thus a Marxist mythology developed, in which history follows a predetermined outcome, each stage programmed, with socialism as a result guaranteed by the development of the productive forces which require a socialist management of the economy, assumed by the Party, or, if we are lucky, by the councils led by the party. It is not necessary to show here how various followers of Lenin have abused Marxism. We assume that the participants in this forum already are convinced of this. But in left communism also, the influence of “orthodox Marxism” is still very much alive. As well in its partyist expressions like the Italian Left, as in anti-partyist expressions like the Dutch Left, and in the later followers of these currents. They have not managed to free themselves from a mechanistic vision of history; they do not understand the changes in society and hang on to old recipes.

By contrast, Internationalist Perspective proposes a living Marxism, one that is not afraid to criticize its bases, that has no respect for dogma, one that nourishes itself on the practice of the “collective worker.” As Marx did, when the experience of the Paris Commune convinced him that the state cannot be conquered, but must be destroyed.

Internationalist Perspective

Reply of the GEC:

Dear Comrades:

We agree with many of your positions on Marxism. For example, at the beginning, your document affirms that Marxism is the “theory of the internal contradictions of the capitalist mode of production”; we share this affirmation, but for us it is more precise to say that Marxism is the theory of the destruction of capitalism and the construction of communism. Because Marxism’s theoretical premises, for us, are not only about the contradictions of the capitalist mode of production, but also express the revolutionary political principles for its destruction: political principles that the communist minorities have recognized and systematized from the whole of the proletarian struggle.

Also we share your vision of Marxism in understanding that it is not a theory that has leapt full blown from the head of Marx, because Marxism, aside from the points mentioned above, contains the systematization of the proletariat’s struggles throughout its existence and these are not the invention of anybody, but are the product of the class’s struggle in response to the contradictions of Capitalism. But a few lines further, you speak about “Marx’s Thought”. We don’t agree with this, this term for us is mistaken. Marxism is not the same as “Marx’s thought”. Although we agree with what you state further about the different stages in which Marx reached important conclusions about the capitalist mode of production, thus laying a base for our present analysis. But Marx, before being a theoretician who contributed his knowledge, was a militant, part of a communist organization. This last impels us to understand that the theoretical contributions that Marx made are not simply his own and exclusive to him, but are the contributions of the revolutionary minorities within which Marx militated. We have to clarify that the conclusions of the communists are the fruit of constant debates within the international communist movement. Then we must also add that we share the critique of those you call “orthodox Marxists”, but do not share the term by which you designate them. For us, then, those who have distorted and twisted the revolutionary political principles of the proletariat, like all the varieties of Stalinism, cannot be considered Marxist, although they describe themselves as such. It is necessary that as communists we always emphasize this, because Marxism is not mechanical, nor static, as so many see it. For that reason we are in agreement with your last point: “Marxism is a living theory, one that can go back to its source, to criticize its bases; it does not respect dogmas, but bases itself on the practice of the “collective worker”. This last point is the real basis to understand Marxism, in its critical dynamics that its history of struggle expresses.

Antón for the GEC.

March 3, 2011

IP responds:

Dear comrades,

Thank you for your reaction. We agree with your comment that Marxism is more than a “theory of internal contradictions of the capitalist mode of production,” that it is, “the theory of the destruction of capitalism and the construction of communism.” It’s true: Marxism does not pretend to be a science, looking from outside at the “objective” reality. Its point of departure is the struggle of the proletariat, from it, it is born and for it, it exists and must be developed, because it contains the possibility of communism. If we spoke of ‘Marx’s thought’, it was not to indicate an eternal truth (like ‘Mao’s thought’) but, to the contrary, to indicate that Marx’s comprehension of reality changed as a function of the events, the debates among militants, the development of capital, his studies and the praxis of the proletariat in struggle. Therefore, the question: Which Marx? The writings of Marx reflect the work of an entire and very full militant life and is therefore not lacking in internal contradictions. Like all varieties of Christianity can find citations in the bible to justify themselves, each variety of “Marxism” can find something in Marx that serves its purposes. But the problem is more profound. Perhaps it is not difficult to demonstrate that the Stalinists are not Marxists. But already it is a little more difficult when we speak of Trotskyists (at least the more intelligent ones). They have certain “Marxist” dogmas in common with left communists. After Marx’ death, in a context of a strongly developing capitalism, Engels and Kautsky, mainly, molded “orthodox Marxism”. You critiqued the term “orthodox” and perhaps you are right. We use this word ironically but perhaps that is not obvious. It would be better to speak of “traditional” Marxism. But more important than the term is to see that “traditional” Marxism not only has given rise to ideologies of the counter-revolution but also infects the pro-revolutionary minorities. We speak of a mechanical Marxism in which historical materialism and dialectics are nothing more than formulas that hide a crude economic determinism and a teleological vision of history, in which each step, including communism, is predestined, in which the proletariat has a “mission,” assigned by “History.” In this Marxism, the proletariat remains subjected to forces outside of it; consciousness is a thing for specialists or does not play an active role. This Marxism was very convenient for reformism and then the counter-revolution but also was the foundation of the theories of Lenin, Trotsky and even of their critics like Bordiga and Pannekoek and various groups of the communist left of today. The concept itself of an “orthodox Marxism” and its content come from those who saw themselves as orthodox Marxists, faithful to the dogmas on which “scientific Marxism” is based. For us who see Marxism as a living and historical theory, an orthodox Marxism cannot exist.

You agree with our position that “Marxism is a living theory, that has no fear of criticizing its base, that does not respect dogmas, that informs itself of the praxis of the ‘collective worker’.” To make Marxism a living theory, the weapon that the struggle against capital needs, we have to liberate it from the dogmas that until now have infected the pro-revolutionary groups. For this purpose, the later writings of Marx, of which a large part was not published before the 1960’s, are an indispensable help.

Sander for IP

March 18, 2011

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