The dictatorship of Big Business
"All governments are more or less combinations against the people. . .and as rulers have no more virtue than the ruled. . . the power of government can only be kept within its constituted bounds by the display of a power equal to itself, the collected sentiment of the people." (Benjamin Franklin Bache, in a Philadelphia Aurora editorial 1794.)
Nowadays, nothing is left of the old America of which de Tocqueville wrote. Yet human consciousness always lags behind the march of history. The development of the productive forces in the USA over the past century has reached vertiginous heights. Industry, agriculture, science and technique have all been developed to the point where it would easily be possible to make a gigantic leap forward. The productive potential of the USA alone - if it were harnessed to a rational, democratic plan of production - would be sufficient to eradicate poverty, illiteracy and disease on a world scale.
However, here too we stumble on a dialectical contradiction. In the first decade of the 21st century, in the United States itself, we see a huge and growing gap between rich and poor. The class divide, which according to the official theories should have disappeared long ago, or at least been reduced to insignificance, has reached unheard of proportions. It does not diminish, but rather increases in times of economic boom. Today, the richest 20 percent of Americans own half the country's wealth, while the poorest 20 percent own barely 4 percent.
In that epoch-making document The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels predicted that free competition would inevitably end in monopoly. For a long time the official economists tried to deny that the concentration of capital predicted by Marx had taken place. Particularly in the last two decades they insisted that the tendency would be in the opposite direction, that is, towards small enterprises, in which the small man would come into his own. They even coined a phrase: "small is beautiful".
How absurdly inappropriate these words sound now! The process of the concentration of capital has everywhere reached unheard-of levels. The whole of world trade is now dominated by no more than 200 giant companies - most of them based in the USA, where this process has gone furthest of all. Today, the lives and destinies of millions of Americans are in the hands of a tiny handful of corporations, which in turn are in practice run by tiny handfuls of super-rich executives. The sole purpose of this new caste of robber barons is to enrich themselves, and to increase the power of their respective companies. The interests of the vast majority of US citizens are of little interest to them, those of the inhabitants of the rest of the globe, of no interest at all.
In his recent best seller Stupid White Men, Michael Moore gives some very telling facts about the world we now live in:
- "From 1979 until now, the richest 1 percent in the country have seen their wages increase by 157 percent; those of you in the bottom 20 percent are actually making $100 less a year (adjusted for inflation) than you were at the dawn of the Reagan era.
- The world's richest two hundred companies have seen their profits grow by 362.4 percent since 1983; their combined sales are now higher than the combined gross domestic product of all but ten nations on earth.
- In the most recent year for which there are figures, forty-four of the top eighty-two companies in the United States did not pay the standard rate of 35 percent in taxes that corporations are expected to pay. In fact, 17 percent of them paid NO taxes at all - and seven of those, including General Motors, played the tax code like a harp, juggling business expenses and tax credits until the government actually owed them millions of dollars!
- Another 1,279 corporations with assets of $250 million or more also paid NO taxes and reported 'no income' for 1995 (the most recent year for which statistics were available)." (Stupid White Men, pp. 52-3.)
These ladies and gentlemen (for there are quite a few females among them now) are the real rulers of America. The famous democracy of which de Tocqueville wrote has become just a cover for the dictatorship of the big corporations. It matters little who the people of America vote into the White House or Capitol Hill, since all the important decisions will be taken behind closed doors by these tiny, unrepresentative cliques that are in practice responsible only to themselves.
The vested interests of this ruling stratum are backed up by the most powerful military machine in history. It claims the right to intervene everywhere, to topple legally elected governments, to launch wars and civil wars, to bomb and destroy supposedly sovereign states, without let or hindrance. Is it any wonder why this America has earned the hatred of millions of people throughout the world? This is really not hard to understand. Yet this is not the real America, or the real people of America who fought British imperialism to win their freedom and then fought a Civil War to extend that freedom (at least on paper) to the black slaves.
Illusions die hard. To many Americans, the USA despite everything remains the land of the brave and the home of the free. They cannot understand why it is that the USA is so unloved by the rest of the world. Yet slowly but surely a realization is dawning that all is not well with America. A recent survey by Business Week revealed that seventy four percent of Americans thought that big business had too much power over their lives. The rest of this interesting survey also showed that beneath the surface of calm and contentment, there is a growing feeling of dissatisfaction with the present state of affairs. The massive demonstrations that began three years ago in Seattle served notice on the ruling class of the USA that something is beginning to stir. This is just the beginning.
"The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it always to be kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then". (Thomas Jefferson, letter to Abigail Adams, 1787.)
The long years of economic upswing that followed the Second World War cut across the revolutionary movement that was developing in the 1930s in the United States and to some extent blunted the class consciousness of the proletariat. But now the world crisis of capitalism is affecting the USA in a serious way. Millions are threatened with closures and sackings. This represents a fundamental change. The USA has not experienced sustained unemployment at the 2000 level since the 1960's. The rate of unemployment now stands at around 6 percent with no improvement in sight. Moreover, workers who have lost their jobs have had more trouble finding new ones. A recent article in The New York Times (November 28, 2002) pointed out that the proportion of those who have been out of work for more than 27 weeks is very high:
"Now, about 800,000 more workers have been out of work for six months or longer, compared with the number in 2000. That is why extending unemployment benefits is so important.
"In addition, the number of part-time workers who would like full-time work has risen by one million. And the increase in the labor force has slowed markedly because many more people have stopped looking for jobs. They do not show up in the unemployment data. In the recessions of the early 1980's and 1990's, the labor force grew far more rapidly, pushing up the unemployment
The boom of the 1990s meant a certain amelioration for many workers and middle class people and fabulous fortunes for a small minority. Even at this time the rich gained much more than the poor, whose position improved far more slowly. But now with the recession that began two years ago, family incomes are once again falling across the board. But they are falling most rapidly for those in the bottom 20 or 30 percent. Inequality is increasing, and the contrast between the fat cats at the top and the "have-nots" at the bottom is more glaring than ever.
The wealthy find ways of avoiding the payment of tax, and the burden of taxation falls heavily on the shoulders of the middle class and the working class. A good example of this is the estate tax, which is overwhelmingly, a tax on the wealthy. In 1999, only the top two percent of estates paid any tax at all, and half the estate tax was paid by only 3,300 estates, 0,16 percent of the total, with a minimum value of $5 million and an average value of $17 million. A quarter of the tax was paid by just 467 estates worth more than $20 million.
Paul Krugman in a recent article in The New York Times (October 20, 2002.) with the significant title "The Class Wars: The End of Middle Class America", writes:
"Income inequality in America has now returned to the levels of the 1920's. Inherited wealth doesn't yet play a big part in our society, but given time - and the repeal of the estate tax - we will grow ourselves a hereditary elite just as set apart from the concerns of ordinary Americans as old Horace Havemeyer. And the new elite, like the old, will have enormous political power."
Even those who still retain their jobs are unhappy. They have little confidence in the future. Nobody feels secure any more. There is a new volatility and a mood of criticism and discontent at all levels. There is a huge and growing alienation between the people of America and those who rule their lives. And a growing number of Americans are becoming aware of this state of affairs and are dissatisfied with it. Maybe they do not know exactly what they want, but they certainly know what they do not want. The sense of alienation is reflected in the large number of people who do not vote in elections. The "defeat" of Al Gore in the last Presidential elections, despite the fact that the US economy had been booming ("It's the economy, stupid!") was a warning to the political establishment that all is not well in US society.
There is a groundswell of discontent that comes from the very heart of America. Millions of ordinary men and women are unhappy with the kind of lives they are leading: the long hours, the remorseless pressure, the dictatorial attitudes of management, the chronic insecurity. These moods are beginning to affect even the formerly affluent layers of the middle class. And even at a higher level, there are those who are beginning to question the values of a society where the laws of the jungle are held up as a model: dog-eat-dog! Each man for himself and let the devil take the hindermost! Is this what life in the 21st century is really all about?
J. K. Galbraith a few years ago wrote a book called The Policy of Contentment, in which he issued a warning to America: "Recession and depression made worse by long-run economic desuetude, the danger implicit in an autonomous military power and growing unrest in the urban slums caused by worsening deprivation and hopelessness have been cited as separate prospects. All could in fact, come together. A deep recession could cause stronger discontent in the areas of urban disaster in the aftermath of some military misadventure in which, in the nature of the modern armed forces, the unfortunate were disproportionately engaged." (The Policy of Contentment, pp. 172-3.)
So far, America has avoided the kind of deep recession predicted by Galbraith. But postponement does not signify avoidance. The present rally of the US economy, based as it is on consumption and debt rather than productive investment, may not be long-lasting and may well be just the prelude to an even steeper fall. In any case, the future of the capitalist economy, both in the USA and on a world scale has a somber aspect. New shocks are inevitable, with unforeseen consequences.
The point is that nobody can control the forces that have been unleashed on a global scale over the past ten or twenty years. The fundamental contradictions of capitalism have not been abolished, as some American economists have claimed, but only reproduced on a far vaster scale than ever before. There is no law that says that these market forces will achieve some kind of automatic equilibrium. On the contrary, the anarchic, unplanned character of capitalism must manifest itself in the most tremendous convulsions. Globalization will manifest itself as a global crisis of capitalism - in fact, it is already doing so.
George Soros, who is certainly no Marxist but is an expert on the workings of world market, has pointed out that the market does not operate like a pendulum but rather like a wrecking ball - demolishing anything that gets in its way. We have recently seen the results of this wrecking ball in Argentina. It will not be the last case.
The rotten heart of Corporate America
The Enron scandal, and the tidal wave of corporate scandals that followed it, completely exposed the lie that the market economy is the most efficient system, the best way to avoid bureaucracy and corruption, and that it is somehow "more democratic" and allows more people a say on how things are run. The fact of the matter is that inside the big corporations in the USA corruption is rife, tyranny reigns, and the jobs, lives and pensions of millions are in the hands of powerful and despotic minorities of super-rich executives.
It is entirely untrue that the present system works well because it rewards efficiency. There is precious little reward for the vast majority of American workers who are obliged to work long hours under remorseless pressure to earn enough to keep their families, and all too often have to take two or three jobs to make ends meet. In the last twenty years, productivity in the USA has been hugely increased and vast profits have been made out of squeezing the US workforce. The working week has been lengthened inexorably from 40 to over 50 hours on average. People are feeling the strain. It is undermining their physical and mental health and ruining their family life. This is increasingly the case, not only with blue-collar workers but also with professional people and lower management. What keeps them going is not free choice or incentive to "get on", but relentless pressure to get results (i.e. profits for the bosses), and fear of losing their jobs.
On the other hand, it is equally untrue that the top executives of the big corporations are guided by the principle of greater rewards for greater results. On the contrary, over the past decades, the CEOs have consistently rewarded themselves with the most staggering sums of money, bearing no relation to performance or productivity. Vast fortunes have been made, and are still being made, by people who do next to nothing (and sometimes nothing at all). Even in the present recession, when company profits are falling and workers are sacked or told to make sacrifices, the fat cats continue to plunder the wealth of America in the most shameless manner.
Quite apart from their huge salaries - which are quite unrelated to performance - the CEOs receive a wide range of perks, amounting to corruption on a grand scale. The best example is the notorious system of stock options. Thus, although AOL Time Warner executives were "punished" by the non-payment of bonuses, they nevertheless received stock options valued at around $40 million a head. Many American workers would be very pleased to receive such "punishment" during a recession!
There is also a wide range of perks that do not appear in the normal surveys of bosses' earnings. Coca Cola demands that both its boss and his wife always travel in the company's jet - a privilege that cost the company $103, 898 last year alone. At AOL Time Warner, Gerald Levin and Richard Parkins, his appointed (I almost wrote anointed) successor, each got $97,500 in "financial services" (for "tax return preparation and financial planning", the company explained - whatever that might mean).
True, some of them have now taken "pay cuts". What do these "cuts" consist of? Stanford Weill, the chief executive of Citigroup, took an 83 percent pay cut recently, which left the poor fellow with a miserable $36.1 million. The Economist (6/4/02) commented:
"One worry is that executive pay has risen to such heights that the bad times look rather like the good times used to: the median total compensation in the Mercer survey [a recent survey of 100 big companies by William M. Mercer and the Wall Street Journal] was still $2.16 m. Nor has pay fallen by nearly as much as profits have done. The total compensation of chief executives is down by 2.9% on a year ago, but after-tax profits fell by nearly 50% last year among the companies included in the S&P 500. Some components of bosses' pay such as basic salaries actually rose healthily on the back of this dreadful performance."
The Economist continues:
"Some of the financial services that American companies offer to their top chaps would put regular banks out of business. Comaq, a computer maker, has agreed to forgive a $5m (!) loan it extended to its boss, Michael Capellas, and is providing him with a new loan to help with the tax bill. Bernie Ebbers, the chief executive of WorldCom, a troubled telecoms firm, borrowed a princely $341m. From his employer, on which he is paying a little over 2% on interest."
When they are employed these executives, responsible in reality to nobody, enrich themselves shamelessly out of the profits that are the unpaid wages of the working class. When a worker is sacked (which these people rarely are) or retires, they receive a very meager compensation - if they get anything at all. But these ladies and gentlemen continue to act like leeches even when they are formally retired.
"On top of his pension, worth around $9m a year, Jack Welch, the retired boss of General Electric, is 'required' under the terms of his contract to consult with the company for the rest of his life, for which he will charge a daily [yes, that's right, daily] rate of $17,000." (Ibid.)
What precisely this "consultation" consists of is not mentioned. But the general picture is pretty clear. What we have here is not the picture of the go-getting, self-made American entrepreneur, so assiduously cultivated by the advocates of capitalism, but the exact opposite. This is a picture of unqualified and unrestrained plunder of the American economy by tiny, unrepresentative and above all, unproductive corporate drones. Comfortably installed in their shiny glass towers, utterly remote from the workforce and the American people, at the head of vast and servile corporate bureaucracies, they quietly determine the fate of millions, both in the USA and on a global scale. This is the real face of corporate America and the reality of the so-called free market economy. Enron was just the tip of a very large, ugly and dangerous iceberg.
In case anyone thinks that this is just Marxist exaggeration and alarmism, let us leave the last word to that champion of the free market economy, The Economist, which we have already quoted. It predicts that on present trends, "by 2021 there will emerge a big American company where the boss is paid more than the firm's entire sales. If that is market forces at work, then market forces had better be ignored."
Socialism and democracy
The idea that socialism and democracy are somehow incompatible is yet another falsehood. On this question, the defenders of capitalism behave like a squid that defends itself by squirting a large quantity of ink to confuse its enemy. The fact of the matter is this: that the democracy in the USA is a cover for the dictatorship of a handful of powerful corporations run by tiny cliques of non-elected and irresponsible people. The latter do not only own and control the wealth of America. They also control its press, television and all other means of molding and conditioning public opinion. While in theory there are two parties, everyone knows that the difference between the Democrans and Republicrats is minimal.
Stalinist Russia was a one-party dictatorship (something that neither Marx nor Lenin ever advocated). America boasts a pluralistic democracy. In this democracy everyone can say what they want (well, almost), as long as the banks and big corporations decide what happen. Elections take place regularly, but in fact the electorate have no real choice. Both Democrats and Republicans stand for the interests of big business. There is no real difference between them: what small differences used to exist in the past have all but disappeared. In order to get elected at all, one has to be either a billionaire, or else have access to vast sums of money. And as the proverb goes: "He who pays the piper calls the tune". The Enron scandal merely confirmed what everyone already knew: that the great majority of senators and congressmen (and let's not forget the women!) are in the pockets of big business. No wonder millions of US citizens feel disenfranchised and do not bother to vote.
Marxists stand for democracy. But we advocate a genuine democracy, not a fraudulent caricature. And the first condition for the introduction of democracy in the USA is the overthrow of the dictatorship of big business. The power of the big banks and corporations must be broken, and the commanding heights of the economy nationalized, under the democratic control and administration of the workers themselves. There would be plenty of scope for personal initiative!
The talents of the engineers, managers, scientists and technicians would play a crucial role in a socialist planned economy. Once private profit was no longer the overriding principle, the way would be open for an unprecedented boom in inventions, innovations of all kinds. Above all, the men and women on the shop floor would be encouraged to participate in discussions and debates on how to improve working practices. In this way, everyone would have a stake in the running of society. Decision-making would no longer be the privilege of a few wealthy executives, but the common property of all Americans.
In what way does this idea contradict the traditional and dearly held American ideals of democracy and individual rights? It does not contradict them at all, but reaffirms them and takes them to a qualitatively higher level. In fact, at the moment there is really very little scope for the free development of the individual in the USA of the giant corporations. None of the important decisions affecting the lives of the people are taken by the people. They are not even taken on Capitol Hill, but by unseen individuals behind locked doors in Wall Street, in the Pentagon and in the State Department, and above all in the boardrooms of the giant corporations that really rule the USA.
Is bureaucracy inevitable?
It is frequently asserted that private ownership is superior to nationalized enterprises because it permits private initiative. But in practice, the big corporations that dominate the US economy are extremely bureaucratic, inefficient and frequently corrupt. They do not allow much room for initiative - at least as far as the big majority of the workforce is concerned. They are fundamentally undemocratic, being run by a handful of super-rich executives whose main aim in life is to make themselves even more wealthy.
The general public good is of no concern to such individuals, except inasmuch as bad publicity may harm sales, and therefore profits. The solution to this problem, however, is not to act in the public interest, but to pay for the services of a slick public relations department which is used to present the company's image in the most favorable light - that is to say, to mislead and deceive the public. The case of Enron is an excellent example of the reality of US corporate practice. It should be noted that this company was so closely connected with the US government at the highest levels that it proved almost impossible to investigate its activities and even now the whole truth has not come out. And there are many more Enrons which have not yet been exposed.
No less an authority than Adam Smith already warned of the dangers of monopoly, when he wrote:
"The directors of such [joint-stock] companies [...] being the managers rather of other people's money than of their own, it cannot be well expected that they should watch over it with the same anxious vigilance with which the partners in a private company frequently watch over their own [...] Negligence and profusion, therefore, must always prevail, more or less, in the management of the affairs of such a company." (Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, part 3, p. 112.)
The solution to this problem cannot be a return to the era of small businesses, as some people advocate. That period has been relegated to history and will not return. The modern capitalist economy is entirely dominated by big monopolies, and nothing can reverse that tendency. Anyone who doubts this has only to examine the history of anti-trust legislation in the USA. There have been laws against monopolies for a very long time, yet their practical effect has been negligible. Witness the present tussle between Bill Gates and the Federal authorities. No-one doubts that Mr. Gates has created the world's biggest monopoly, and that this is harming the progress of technology in a most vital area. Yet in practice, it is proving impossible to reverse the position.
Since it is not possible to halt the inevitable tendency towards monopolization, there remains only one alternative: to bring these giant corporations - which are at present responsible to nobody but themselves - under democratic control. But here we come up against an insurmountable difficulty. It is not possible to control what you do not own. The answer is very clear: in order to control the monopolies, it is necessary to take them out of private hands altogether - that is, to nationalize them. Only then would it be possible to ensure that the key points of the economy are the servants of society, not its master.
But would this not create the danger of a bureaucracy, as existed in Stalinist Russia? This seems to be a very serious objection, but actually it is not. The bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian revolution was not the result of nationalization, but of the isolation of the revolution under conditions of frightful backwardness. It should not be forgotten that in 1917 Russia was an extremely backward semi-feudal country. Out of a total population of 150 millions, there were only four million industrial workers. In a remarkably short space of time, the nationalized planned economy transformed Russia from a backward country like Pakistan is today into the second most powerful nation on earth. For several decades the USSR achieved economic results that have never been equaled by any other country. Nor should we forget the fact that its economy suffered the most terrible devastation in the Second World War when 27 million Soviet citizens perished.
It is not possible to understand what happened in the Soviet Union without considering these facts. Nor is it reasonable to draw an analogy between the fate of the nationalized planned economy in backward Russia and the prospects for a socialist planned economy in the United States. Bureaucracy is a product of economic and cultural backwardness. It is not difficult to prove this. If one considers the state of affairs in those countries which are sometimes referred to as the "Third World" - the states of Africa, Asia and Latin America, then it immediately becomes obvious that bureaucracy is a feature common to every single one of them - whether the means of production are nationalized or not.
It is possible to draw a graph showing that the degree of bureaucratization of a given society is in inverse proportion to the level of its economic and cultural development. The same is true of phenomena like corruption, inefficiency and red tape that are usually connected with bureaucracy. Society tends to free itself of these things to the degree that it lifts itself out of a low level of economic and technological development, and raises the cultural level of the population.
Of course, where a bureaucracy becomes an entrenched ruling caste as happened in Russia after the death of Lenin, it can hang onto its power and privileges even when the level of economic and cultural development renders it entirely superfluous. But in that case, the bureaucracy will suffocate and destroy the nationalized planned economy - which is precisely what occurred in the Soviet Union. But that is exactly the point. The existence of the bureaucracy in Russia was not only not the product of the nationalized planned economy, but was in complete antagonism to it. Trotsky explained that a nationalized planned economy requires democracy as the human body requires oxygen.
Without democracy and the control and administration of society by the working class, the planned economy eventually seized up, clogged and obstructed by the suffocating control of the bureaucracy.
The soul of America
In the first part of Reason in Revolt, a reference is made to the contradiction between the marvelous advances of science and the extraordinary lag in human consciousness. This contradiction is particularly striking in the United States. In the country that has done more than any other to advance the cause of science in the past period, the overwhelming majority of people in the USA believe in god, or are religious in some way. Thirty six percent of Americans think the Bible is the literal world of god, and half believe that America enjoys divine protection. After September 11, 78 percent thought that the influence of religion on public life was growing. Books on the apocalypse became best sellers. This situation is quite different to that of most European countries, where organized religion is dying on its feet (although there is still plenty of superstition and mysticism around).
Strangely enough, the Founding Fathers were not at all religious. These true sons of the 18th century expressed themselves in the most scathing terms about religion in general and Christianity in particular. Founding Fathers George Washington & John Adams, in a diplomatic message to Malta, wrote: "The United States is in no way founded upon the Christian religion."
John Adams, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, went even further when he wrote: "This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it."
Thomas Jefferson, in 1814, commented: "In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own."
And the same Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1823: "The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter." He added: "I do not find in orthodox Christianity one redeeming feature."
Things were no better with Abraham Lincoln, who was also openly irreligious: "The Bible is not my book, and Christianity is not my religion," he said. "I could never give assent to the long, complicated statements of Christian dogma."
These views were the natural outcome of the rationalist philosophy that represented the most advanced philosophical ideas of the 18th century Enlightenment. The rejection of religion was always the first step towards a rational view of nature and society. It was the beginning of all modern progress, the basis of both the American and the French revolutions. And it was equally the starting point for the development of modern science and technology, the true foundation for America's greatness. Nowadays the degree of scientific and technological advance in the USA is unequalled by any other country. Here we have a tantalizing glimpse of the future - the staggering potential of human development. But we also see a contradiction. Side by side with the most advanced ideas we see the persistence of ideas that have been handed down, unchanged, from a remote and barbarous past.
The reason for the persistence of religious belief is that men and women feel that their lives are under the control of strange unseen forces. They do not feel in control of their own destinies, as really free human beings should. And in fact, our lives really are determined by forces not under our control. The wild swings of "market forces" on a world scale determine whether millions of people will have a job or not. The equally wild gyrations of the stock markets can ruin millions of families in a matter of days or even hours. There is a general instability and volatility throughout the world that expresses itself in unending wars, terrorist outrages and other barbarities. This creates a general climate of fear and uncertainty. It is what is called the new world order.
In its period of ascent, capitalism based itself on rationalism. That is just what is expressed in the ideas of the Founding fathers reproduced above. In general, when a particular socio-economic system is in a state of collapse, its decline is expressed in a general crisis of morality, the family, belief and so on. The ideology of the ruling elite becomes increasingly decrepit, its values rotten. People no longer believe in the old ways and the old "ideals" are met with skepticism and irony. Eventually a new set of ideals emerge and a new ideology that reflects the standpoint of the rising revolutionary class. In the 18th century that was the bourgeoisie, which generally adopted a rationalist standpoint. In the 21st century, it is the working class, which must stand on the basis of scientific socialism - Marxism.
In general, when society enters - as capitalism has undoubtedly entered - into a phase of terminal decline, one can react in one of two ways. One response is to turn inwards, try to escape from a horrific reality by closing all the doors and windows and shutting one's eyes to what is happening in the world outside. The problem with this is that the world outside has an uncomfortable way of intruding into the life of even the most private persons. Sooner or later it will come knocking at your door, and usually at a most uncivilized hour. There is really no escape.
The second way is to look reality squarely in the face, to try to understand it and thus prepare to change it. Hegel said long ago that true freedom is the recognition of necessity, that is to say, if we want to change the circumstances in which we live, we must first understand them. Marxism provides us with a wonderful tool to help us to grasp the nature of the world we live in and to make us understand where we have come from and where we are going to. Unlike religion, which offers the consolation of a vision of future happiness and fulfillment beyond the grave, Marxism directs our eyes, not to heaven, but to the present life and helps us to understand the apparently mysterious forces that determine our fate.
Since the book first appeared, there have been a number of other spectacular advances in science - notably the mapping of the human genome. These results have completely demolished the positions of genetic determinism that we criticized in Reason in Revolt. It has also cut the ground from under the feet of the racist "theories" put forward by certain writers in the USA who attempted to enlist the service of genetics to peddle their reactionary pseudo-scientific "theories", that black people are genetically predisposed to ignorance and poverty. They have also dealt a mortal blow to the nonsense of the Creationists who want to reject Darwinism in favor of the first chapters of Genesis, and impose this on American schools.
For many Americans, Marxism is a closed book because it is seen as anti-religious. After all, did Marx not describe religion as the "opium of the people"? As a matter of fact, just before these famous words, Marx wrote: "Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress." In essence, religion is an expression of a desire for a better world and a belief that there must be something more to life than the vale of tears through which we pass in the all too brief interval from cradle to grave.
Many people are discontented with their lives. It is not just a question of material poverty - although that exists in the USA as in all other countries. It is also a question of spiritual poverty: the emptiness of people's lives, the mind-deadening routine of work that is just so many hours out of one's life; the alienation that divides men and women from each other; the absence of human relations and solidarity that is deliberately fostered in a society that proudly proclaims the laws of the jungle and the so-called survival of the fittest (read: wealthiest); the mind-numbing banality of a commercialized "culture". In this kind of world the question we should be asking ourselves is not: "is there a life after death" but rather "is there a life before death?"
The capitalist system is a monstrously oppressive and inhuman system, which means untold misery, disease, oppression and death for millions of people in the world. It is surely the duty of any humane person to support the fight against such a system. However, in order to fight effectively, it is necessary to work out a serious program, policy and perspective that can guarantee success. We believe that only Marxism (scientific socialism) provides such a perspective.
The problem a Marxist has with religion is basically this: We believe that men and women should fight to transform their lives and to create a genuinely human society which would permit the human race to lift itself up to its true stature. We believe that human beings have only one life, and should dedicate themselves to making this life beautiful and self-fulfilling. If you like, we are fighting for a paradise on this earth, because we do not think there is any other.
Although from a philosophical point of view, Marxism is incompatible with religion, it goes without saying that we are opposed to any idea of prohibiting or repressing religion. We stand for the complete freedom of the individual to hold any religious belief, or none at all. What we do say is that there should be a radical separation between church and state. The churches must not be supported directly or indirectly out of taxation, nor should religion be taught in state schools. If people want religion, they should maintain their churches exclusively through the contributions of the congregation and preach their doctrines in their own time.
To the degree that men and women are able to take control of their lives and develop themselves as free human beings, I believe that interest in religion - that is, the search for consolation in an afterlife - will decline naturally of itself. Of course, you may disagree with this prediction. Time will tell which of us is right. In the meantime, disagreements on such matters should not prevent all honest Christians from joining hands with the Marxists in the struggle for a new and better world.
Religion and revolution
Christianity itself began as a revolutionary movement about 2000 years ago when the early Christians organized a mass movement of the poorest and most downtrodden sections of society. It is not an accident that the Romans accused the Christians of being a movement of slaves and women. The early Christians were also communists, as you will know from the Acts of the Apostles. Christ himself worked among the poor and dispossessed and frequently attacked the rich. He said that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. There are many such expressions in the Bible.
The communism of the early Christians is also shown by the fact that in their communities all wealth was held in common. Anyone who wished to join had first to give up all his or her worldly goods. Of course, this communism had a somewhat naive and primitive character. This is no reflection on the men and women of that time, who were very courageous people who were not afraid to sacrifice their lives in the struggle against the monstrous Roman slave state. But the real achievement of communism (that is, a classless society) was impossible at that time because the material conditions for it were absent.
Marx and Engels for the first time gave communism a scientific character. They explained that the real emancipation of the masses depends on the level of development of the productive forces (industry, agriculture, science and technology) which will create the necessary conditions for a general reduction of the working day and access to culture for all, as the only way of transforming the way people think and behave towards each other.
The material conditions at the time of early Christianity were not sufficiently advanced to permit such a development, and therefore the communism of the early Christians remained on a primitive level - the level of consumption (the sharing out of food, clothes, etc.) and not real communism which is based on the collective ownership of the means of production.
However, the revolutionary traditions of early Christianity bear absolutely no relation to the present situation. Ever since the 4th Century AD, when the Christian movement was hijacked by the state and turned into an instrument of the oppressors, the Christian Church has been on the side of the rich and powerful and against the poor. Today the main churches are extremely wealthy institutions, closely linked to big business. The Vatican owns a big bank and possesses enormous wealth and power, the Church of England is the biggest landowner in Britain, and so on.
Politically, the churches have systematically backed reaction. Catholic priests blessed the armies of Franco in their campaign to crush the Spanish workers and peasants. The Pope in effect backed Hitler and Mussolini. Finally, in the USA today, the religious right, backed by millions of dollars, is conducting a campaign in favor of all manner of reactionary causes. It has at its disposal television and radio stations, where religious charlatans make a fortune by playing on people's fear and superstition.
The Kingdom of God may be reserved for the poor, but these ladies and gentlemen have ensured for themselves a very comfortable life on this earth. Jesus' first act on entering Jerusalem was to drive the moneychangers out of the Temple. But those who presume to speak in his name always take the side of the rich and powerful against the poor and oppressed of this earth. They are the most fervent advocates of welfare cuts and other policies directed against the most defenseless sections of society, such as single parents. Christ defended the woman taken in adultery, but the latter-day Pharisees line up to stone the poor and defenseless.
For such "religious" people, we have nothing but contempt. But for those honest Christians who wish to join us in the fight to change society, we extend a warm and fraternal welcome. We may disagree about philosophy, but we can agree that the present society is unworthy of humanity and ought to be changed. And we know that many devoted and self-sacrificing class fighters in the USA are practicing Christians. This has always been the case, as we see from the following extract from The Jungle, that great socialist novel by Upton Sinclair:
"'I am not defending the Vatican,' exclaimed Lucas vehemently. 'I am defending the word of God - which is one long cry of the human spirit for deliverance from the sway of oppression. Take the twenty-fourth chapter of the Book of Job, which I am accustomed to quote in my addresses as 'the Bible upon the Beef trust'; or take the words of Isaiah - or of the Master Himself. Not the elegant prince of our debauched and vicious art, not the jeweled idol of our society churches - but the Jesus of the awful reality, the man of sorrow and pain, the outcast, despised of the world, who had nowhere to lay His head -'
"'I will grant you Jesus,' interrupted the other.
"Well then,' cried Lucas, 'and why should Jesus have nothing to do with His Church - why should His words His life be of no authority among those who profess to adore Him? Here is a man who was the world's first revolutionist, the true founder of the socialist movement; a man whose whole being was one flame of hatred for wealth, and all that wealth stands for - for the pride of and the luxury of wealth, and the tyranny of wealth; who was Himself a beggar and a tramp, a man of the people, an associate of saloon-keepers and women of the town; who again and again, in the most explicit language, denounced wealth and the holding of wealth: 'Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth!" "Sell that ye have and give alms!" - "Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven!" - "Woe unto you that are rich, for ye have received your consolation 1" - "Verily, I say unto you, that a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven!" Who denounced in unmeasured terms the exploiters of His own time: "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" - "Woe unto you also, you lawyers!" - "Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?" Who drove out the businessmen and brokers from the temple with a whip!' Who was crucified - think of it - for an incendiary and a disturber of the social order! And this man they have made into the high priest of property and smug respectability, a divine sanction of all the horrors and abominations of modern commercial civilization! Jewelled images are made of Him, sensual priests burn incense to Him, and modern pirates of industry bring their dollars, wrung from the toil of helpless women and children, and build temples to Him, and sit in cushioned seats and listen to His teachings expounded by doctors of dusty divinity."
The voice of revolt of the oppressed against injustice and oppression has spoken in this kind of language for at least 2,000 years. What is important is not the language but the meaning. What is important is not the form but the content. The original message of the Christian movement 2,000 years ago was both revolutionary and communist. Nobody could be a Christian unless they first gave up all their worldly wealth, renounced private property and embraced the doctrine of the universal brotherhood (and sisterhood) and equality of all. That revolutionary message was restated by the left wing of the Puritans in the 16th and 17th centuries. It has resurfaced many times since, as an expression of the instinctive revolutionism of the masses. Marxism takes as its starting point this instinctive revolutionism but gives it a scientific and rounded-out expression.
Our first task is to unite to put an end to the dictatorship of Capital that keeps the human race in a state of slavery. Socialism will permit the free development of human beings, without the constraint of material needs. As far as the future of religion is concerned, one can say the following: socialism, being based upon full human freedom, will never try to prohibit people from thinking and believing in any way they choose. People should be allowed to hold any religious beliefs they wish - or none at all.
As we have already pointed out above, religion must, of course, be completely separated from the state. Those who wish to practice religion must pay for it out of their own pockets. And there is no place at all for religion in the schools. Once we have established a genuinely free society in which men and women take control of their own lives and destinies, in which they are able to develop to the full all their physical and mental abilities and relate to each other in a really human manner, there will be no room left for the superstitions of the past, and these will gradually disappear.
You do not agree? Well, that is your right. History will decide which of us is correct. But first of all, let us agree to combine all our forces in a mighty movement dedicated to driving the moneychangers out of the temple, or rather, out of our homes, streets and workplaces. Let us cleanse this society of all oppression, exploitation and injustice. Then we can let the future take care of itself.
Marxism and the future
Marxism is a philosophy, but it is quite unlike other philosophies. Dialectical materialism is both a powerful methodological tool to understand the workings of nature, thought and human society and a guide to action. As the young Marx put it: "philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways - the point is, however, to change it."
Now, it may be that you are quite happy with the world in which we live, and do not wish to change it. In that case, you may find this essay educational, or at least entertaining. But you will not have understood it, basically because we will be talking mutually unintelligible languages. However, if ever there was a time when Americans should be seriously re-examining their view of the world and their place in it, that time is now. And in order to obtain a rational insight into this world a knowledge of dialectical materialism is of great importance.
The most essential feature of dialectical materialism is its dynamic character. It sees the world as an ever-changing process, driven by internal contradictions, in which sooner or later things change into their opposite. Moreover, the line of development is not a smooth, linear process, but a line that is periodically interrupted by sudden leaps, explosions that transform quantity into quality. This is an accurate picture of both processes we see in nature and in the process of social development we call history.
Most people imagine that the kind of world into which they are born is something fixed and immutable. They rarely question its values, its morality, its religion, its political and state institutions. This mental inertia, reinforced by the dead weight of tradition, customs, habit and routine, is a powerful cement that permits a given socio-economic order to continue to exist long after it has lost its rational basis. In the USA, perhaps more than any other country in the world, this inertia exercises a major role and prevents people from realizing what is happening to them.
In actual fact, societies are not immutable. The whole of history teaches us that. Socio-economic systems, like individual men and women, are born, mature, reach a high point in their development, and then at a certain point enter into a phase of decline and decay. When a society ceases to play a progressive role (which, in the last analysis, is that point where it is unable to develop the productive forces as it did in the past), people can feel it. It manifests itself in all manner of ways - not only in the economic field. The old morality begins to break down. There is a crisis of the family and personal relations, a growing lack of solidarity and social cohesion, a rise of crime and violence. People no longer believe in the old religions and turn in the direction of mysticism, superstition and exotic sects. We have seen these things many times in history, and we are seeing the same things now - even in the USA.
We are living at a time when many people have begun to ask questions about the world in which they live, and to ask questions is never a bad thing. The terrible events of September 11, 2001 have caused many Americans to think seriously about matters in which they previously showed little interest. They have suddenly realized that all is not well with the world, and that America is deeply involved in a worldwide crisis from which no-one can escape, and in which no-one is safe. The destruction of the twin towers cast a dark shadow over America. For a time, Bush and the most reactionary wing of the ruling class have had things all their own way. But this situation will not last forever. Sooner or later the thick fog of propaganda and lies will dissipate and people will become aware of the real state of affairs both in the USA and on a world scale.
Although many people feel in their innermost being that something is going badly wrong, they find no logical explanation for it. That is not surprising. The entire way in which they have been taught to think from their earliest years conditions them to reject any suggestion that there is something fundamentally wrong with the society in which they live. They will close their eyes, try to avoid drawing uncomfortable conclusions for as long as they can.
This is quite natural. It is very hard for people to question the beliefs they have been brought up with. But sooner or later, events catch up with them - cataclysmic events that compel them to re-think many things that they previously took for granted. And when such a moment arrives, the same people who stubbornly refused to consider new ideas, will eagerly examine what only yesterday they regarded as heresies, and find in them the explanations and alternatives for which they were striving.
Today, Marxism is seen as such a heresy. Every hand is raised against it. It is said to have no basis, to have failed, to be out of date. But if this is really the case, then why do the apologists of capitalism still persist in attacking it? Surely, if it is so dead and irrelevant, they should just ignore it. The power of Marxist ideas is precisely that they - and they alone - can provide a coherent, rigorous, and, yes, scientific explanation of the most important phenomena of the world in which we live.
It is a matter of great regret that so many people, especially in the USA, have the same attitude towards Marxism as the representatives of the Roman Catholic Church had towards Galileo's telescope. When Galileo begged them to look with their own eyes and examine the evidence, they stubbornly refused to do so. They just knew that Galileo was wrong, and that was that. In the same way, many people "just know" that Marxism is wrong, and do not see any reason to investigate the matter any further. But if Marxism is wrong, by studying it, you will be more firmly convinced of its erroneousness. You have nothing to lose, and will have added to your store of knowledge. But the author of these lines is firmly convinced that if more people just took the trouble to read the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, they would soon convince themselves that Marxism really does have a lot of important things to say - and that these things are of great relevance to the modern world.
In recommending the ideas of Marxism to the American public, it is my fervent hope to convince the reader of the correctness and relevance of the ideas of Marx and Engels in the world of the 21st century. If I succeed even partly in convincing you, I will be very pleased. If not, I hope to have dispelled many misconceptions about Marxism and show that it at least has some interesting things to say about the world in which we live. In any event, I hope it will make people think more critically about our society, its present and its future.
London, November 24, 2002.
Those who wish to continue their studies of Marxism, and more importantly join in the historic struggle for socialism, can visit the In Defence of Marxism website at www.marxist.com and the Socialist Appeal magazine of the Workers International League in the US at www.socialistappeal.org. These sites provide regular Marxist analysis of current events as well as historical and economic analysis, theory, and more. The Youth for International Socialism website at www.newyouth.com is also the source of a wealth of information and educational material for those wishing to learn more about Marxism and the struggle for socialism.