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The Meaning of Marxism

Here, we've collected Paul D'Amato's biweekly columns on "The Meaning of Marxism" that look at the basic ideas and theories of the Marxist tradition and how to apply them in today's world.

The ABCs of Marxism
History and class struggle
Capitalism and crisis
How can we change the world?
War and imperialism
The struggle against oppression
Marxism in the modern world


Socialism, struggle and the united front
One of the most important questions for socialists is how to relate their ideas to a larger audience and win wider layers of people to socialism.


Marxism is more relevant than ever
Marx's ideas are alive because his indictment of capitalism--that it is a class society that creates great wealth for the few at the expense of the many, that it is prone to economic crisis and war--continues to be confirmed on a daily basis.

"Not a dogma, but a guide to action"
"The reports of my death," wrote Mark Twain, "are greatly exaggerated." The same could be said of Marxism as a body of ideas.

Proving Marxist ideas into practice
What is there to recommend Marxism over any other view of society and how to change it?

The real Marxist tradition
To Karl Marx, and generations of socialists after him, socialism wasn't about state ownership or party loyalty, but the self-emancipation of the working class.

Socialism: What will it look like?
"We know what you're against. What are you for?" is a question that we socialists get a lot.

Isn't socialism about conformity?
Mass-market capitalism imposes conformity on the majority--at work, where we are expected to follow strict rules, and outside it, where we are treated as "mass consumers."

The economics of laziness
No one can deny that people cease to be bored as soon as they are engaged in an activity they enjoy and are not compelled to do. Socialism eliminates these compulsions.

Can individuals change history?
Most history books treat historical change as the accomplishment of great men (and an occasional woman). The opposite, though less popular, view is that history follows a path which no individual can influence. Both ideas are mistaken.

Can ordinary people run society?
Often, it is workers' hard-won, first-hand knowledge that engineers and managers use to figure out how to improve production--to squeeze as much out of workers as possible.

What leads workers to fight together?
The same conditions that drive workers to compete with one another for jobs and that appear to impose themselves as "natural laws," also propel workers into collective struggle--into organizing and fighting back.

Alienation in capitalist society
The term "alienation" in normal usage refers to a feeling of separateness--of being alone and apart from others. But for Karl Marx, alienation was an economic and social condition of capitalist society.

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The materialist conception of history
A defining feature of human life is social organization. Human beings, with the exception of shipwrecked individuals, appropriate their material needs as a group, not in isolation.

What they don't teach us in school
Why was history so boring in high school? Because textbooks talked about historical events as if they were a lifeless collection of things--like a grocery list, only you had to memorize it.

Class struggle in the ancient world
So long as society has been divided into classes and presided over by a ruling or exploiting class, there has been resistance from the exploited class.

Are things getting better or worse?
The most common view of human progress is that there is no such thing. "History," says a character in James Joyce's Ulysses, "is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake."

Is there enough to go around?
One of the most pernicious of all "common sense" ideas is that resources are limited, and, therefore, "difficult" choices must be made about who gets what.

Workers' struggle is the best school
Karl Marx's concept of self-emancipation--that those who bear the chains of exploitation must themselves break them--was different from the ideas of other radical traditions.

No substitute for workers' power
Workers cannot be freed by "philanthropic bourgeois" reformers. They cannot be freed by a heroic guerrilla force. The exploited and oppressed must free themselves--that was Marx's starting point.

How the ruling class shapes the media
The process by which ruling ideas are disseminated is sometimes very crude. But more often, direct interventions to shape media spin are not really necessary.

What we mean by the working class
Class is commonly viewed as something based upon income level: upper, middle, lower. This view only serves to distort the real class issues that structure our society.

Marxism, class and oppression
Marxism is sometimes presented as solely concerned with economic questions. But this emphasis doesn't prevent Marxists from dealing with questions of race and gender.

Can a revolution end inequality?
In all past revolutions, the universal goals expressed by their participants masked underlying differences. Appeals to the interests of humanity, "the people" or the nation covered over the fact that there were different class forces with differing ideas about the revolution's goals.

The first glimpse of a society run by workers
The Paris Commune
"The first step in the revolution by the working class," Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto, "is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class." The Paris Commune of 1871 showed how.

What will socialism look like?
The truth is that societies of equality have already existed in one form or another, in all parts of the world, in what is known as "primitive communism."

Marxism and the dialectic of change
Marxism is, in a nutshell, the theory and practice of working-class emancipation. Marxism is also a method of looking at the world. One of the most important foundations of Marx's method was dialectical thought.

Their hollow talk about democracy
We are told that government expresses the "will of the people." But phrases like "the people" disguise the fact that the U.S. is divided by class.

Why the U.S. isn't a classless society
U.S. citizens have long been force-fed garbage about this country being a land where there are no class divisions, where everyone is "middle class." These ideas come under severe strain whenever economic crisis begins to stalk us.

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How the capitalist system was born
The violent wrenching of millions of peasants off the land was a necessary condition for the development of wage labor--which is the essential condition of modern capitalism.

The "halves" and the have-nots
In 1562, three American Indians were brought to France. Coming from a society with "no practice of subordination or of riches or poverty, no contracts, no inheritances, no divided estates," the Indians were shocked at what they saw.

The drive for profit at capitalism's core
Profits are not the capitalists' just "reward" for owning everything. Rather, they represent the fact that workers are paid for only a part of the value they add to what they produce.

How the bosses make their profits
Capitalist wealth presents itself to us as, to quote Karl Marx, "an immense accumulation of commodities." And commodities are the product of labor.

Are there any good capitalists?
Scrooge-like behavior is built into the makeup of capitalism. If you're a capitalist, therefore, concern for your employees is actually bad for business.

They offer charity instead of justice
The press emphasizes Warren Buffett's generosity, but doesn't ask how it's possible for one man to have such wealth that he still has $6 billion when he gives four-fifths of it away.

"Being your own boss" is no solution
One of the great dreams promoted in the U.S. is being "your own boss"--starting up a small business where there isn't anyone bossing you around for lousy pay and benefits.

What's behind the boom-bust cycle?
Capitalism's boom-bust cycle is central to its operation, not some temporary aberration. It is the product of the unplanned, anarchic nature of capitalism.

How to explain the mystery of money
Money seems to possess mystical powers--pieces of paper or metal that seem to give their bearer the power to convert them into real objects. But there's nothing magical about money.

The role of credit in booms and slumps
The role that credit plays as facilitator of capitalist expansion creates a larger financial overhang when the crisis finally hits. It therefore makes both the boom and the crisis more extreme.

Modern factories beside straw huts
Capitalism has replaced "national exclusion and self-sufficiency" with the "universal interdependence of nations," as Karl Marx wrote. But capitalism as a world system did not spread smoothly and evenly.

Capitalism and bureaucracy
Profitable enterprises are supposed to be the guarantee against bureaucracy, but this claim by free-market ideologues fails utterly to describe reality.

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Is social change always gradual?
We're taught in school that change is something that happens gradually. But gradual change and big, qualitative leaps shouldn't be counterposed. They go together.

Workers' revolt to revolution
Revolutions are windows of opportunity where the old habits of deference and passivity are suddenly destroyed on a mass scale among ordinary people.

Getting from anger to action
Many of what appear to be outbursts of spontaneous struggle have had the ground prepared for them by years of patient organizing.

The question of organization
Few leftists would deny that at least some rudimentary forms of organization are needed to fight exploitation and social injustice. But what kind of organization is necessary?

Are "anti-authoritarians" the real left?
Being against all authority has a certain radical ring to it, but if strictly adhered to is a recipe for confusion.

Is all organization authoritarian?
The error that anarchism falls into is believing that the means to achieve a classless, stateless society themselves must prefigure the end result.

Saving Marx from anarchist distortion
The working class can overthrow the political power of the ruling class, but it has not thereby created the immediate conditions for a free and classless society.

Preparing the party to advance
Russia's Bolshevik Party experienced both great advances and devastating retreats. At every major turn, the party went through serious crises over the best way to proceed.

Can reforms alone win socialism?
Historically, the main divide in the socialist movement has been between reformists and revolutionaries.

The relationship of reforms and revolution
Workers don't simply move from protesting and striking to wanting to overthrow capitalism. There is a process in which the experience of struggle wins them to these conclusions.

Can elections bring socialism?
The most popular view of the state, even among most radicals, is that its character can change if only the right people were to run it. History teaches us how mistaken a notion this is.

Should we trust the liberal elite?
The Bolshevik and Menshevik wings of the Russian socialist movement drew different conclusions about their attitudes toward representatives of Russia's liberal bourgeoisie.

Don't fight and you'll never win
The message is always the same: Surrender something now to salvage what you have--or you might lose it all.

What workers gain from strikes
During the past few decades of working-class retreat, it has become fashionable to argue that strikes are an "an outdated labor model."

When will union leaders fight back?
A pattern seems to be repeated throughout the history of U.S. unions. Rank-and-file militancy creates unions, but some time after they form, the leaders of the unions lose the will to fight.

Can U.S. workers change society?
The U.S. working class has a long and rich tradition of struggle that we aren't taught about in history class.

Lenin, Trotsky and internationalism
The socialists who led the 1917 revolution in Russia "staked our play upon an international revolution," in Lenin's words.

Myths and slanders to justify the "war on terror"
Bush's lies about Lenin
A few days before September 11 this year, George Bush compared Osama bin Laden to Adolph Hitler and to the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin.

Are our actions willed or destined?
Is historical change a product of human will power, or is something else at work?

What do Marxists say about morals?
To the profoundly immoral character of capitalism and the hypocrisy of its rulers, we must counterpose the morality of solidarity and equality.

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A world without war
The historian Eric Hobsbawm calculates that 187 million people have died from wars in the last century. Given this grim picture, it's tempting to view war as something that is inherent in human nature. But it isn't.

"Dividing the loot of others' labor"
"Capitalists are like hostile brothers," Marx wrote. Throughout history, they have alternately fought each other--using armies made up of the same workers who produce their profits--and closed ranks to suppress working-class revolt from below.

Bringing back the old days of empire
The idea that the United States should cast itself in the image of the old colonial empires is sprouting like weeds from right-wing journals and think tanks.

The greater terror of U.S. power
The concept of a "war on terror" is a logical absurdity. For what is war if not terror--which is defined in many dictionaries as the systematic use of violence?

Haditha: The rule or the exception?
The Marines' actions at Haditha are counterposed to the presumably more reasonable attacks by the U.S. in Iraq. But can we make such a clean distinction?

Why we argue U.S. out now
Immediate or delayed withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq--this is one of the key questions confronting the antiwar movement today.

Who fired the "first shot"--and when?
Trying to figure out who fired the first shot is a poor way to figure out which side, if any, has justice on its side.

Why Israel is on the attack in Gaza
Coverage in the U.S. media of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is presented through a camera obscura--a lens that turns images upside down.

Israel's lies about Lebanese casualties
If you didn't resist, we wouldn't have to destroy you--that's the Israel Defense Force's message to the people of Lebanon and Gaza.

Israel--aiding the world's butchers
In the bourgeois media, as in war, truth is always the first casualty, often buried alive at the bottom of stories rather than killed outright.

Why U.S. troops should leave Haiti
We would laugh off the idea of Haitian troops coming to Florida to supervise an election, but no one bats an eyelid when U.S. Marines patrol the streets of Port-au-Prince.

Is the Iraq war just about the oil?
If world capitalism suddenly began running its businesses and militaries on something other than oil, would that end, or at least lessen, the threat of war? If only it were so easy.

Obey the U.S.--or pay the price
The practice of the conqueror blaming the conquered for the casualties inflicted on them is as old as conquest itself.

A kinder, gentler U.S. imperialism?
The talk about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction was an extremely flimsy excuse for the real motives of the U.S. invasion.

Is there a "good" U.S. intervention?
The tradition of anti-imperialism in the antiwar movement--principled opposition to U.S. intervention--is perhaps the weakest it has been in decades.

Asking a war criminal to stop war crimes
Paul D'Amato writes an open letter posing some questions to Don Cheadle and other Hollywood figures who call for the U.S. to intervene to "save" Darfur.

Imperialism in liberals' clothing
When a wolf attacks one farm, breaks into the coop and eats the chickens, no sane person demands that the wolf move to another farm where it can cause more mischief.

The new "white man's burden"
The U.S. has always projected its own narrow economic and military interests around the world as being in the broad interests of everyone on the planet.

No refuge for Rafah refugees
Since 2000, Israel has driven more than 11,000 people from their homes in the Rafah camp in Gaza--making refugees out of people who were already refugees.

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Marxists and the right to self-determination
We Marxists are internationalists. "Workers of the world, unite!" was the call of Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto. "You have nothing to lose but your chains." Does this mean, then, that Marxists turn their backs on national oppression?

Who is the savage and who the hero?
The publication of cartoons in Denmark caricaturing the prophet Muhammad belongs on a long list of caricatures of various peoples to justify colonialism.

Why the family oppresses women
The family is the cornerstone of women's continuing oppression in our society. While the relation between men and women has changed immensely over the past few decades, women remain oppressed.

How Lincoln came to be an abolitionist
"Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life." So wrote Karl Marx in his "Preface to a Critique of Political Economy." The American Civil War fits this description well.

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Double standards about violence
You cannot equate the violence of the oppressor (designed to maintain oppression) and the violence of the oppressed (designed to free them from oppression).

How "natural" are natural disasters?
We Marxists are sometimes rebuked for blaming everything on capitalism. Yet often, if a chain of events is traced back carefully, capitalism is to blame

The line between legal and illegal
Just as the state, though it enforces the interests of the dominant exploiting class, appears to stand above society, law appears in the same way, as a fair arbiter between all of society.

Bush to the poor: Let them eat guns
In the late 1800s, a series of famines ravaged India, killing tens of millions. They were triggered by droughts and bad harvests, but the real cause was man-made.

Plundering the world's poor
Go to the Web site of the World Bank, and you will find a downloadable brochure entitled "Working for a World Free of Poverty." A better title would be "Putting Profits First."

"The border crossed us"
"We didn't cross the border, the border crossed us." This slogan of the immigrant rights movement expresses a historical fact--that much of the Western U.S. was once part of Mexico.

Who benefits from immigration bans?
In the global capitalist economy, corporations are constantly pushing for a borderless world market. But whereas capital is relatively free to cross borders, labor is not.

Lifestyles of the rich and very rich
U.S. Army Col. Mark McKnight insists that in today's Iraq, "an elite few can no longer erect expensive and ornate palaces." He should look in his own backyard.

The real crimes of Stalin's Russia
Joseph Stalin's regime had had nothing to do with socialism. His rule was consolidated on the ruins of everything the Bolshevik Party and Russian workers fought for in 1917.

Is the media ever balanced and fair?
What is presented as news is based on many factors--not least the fact that the media owners share a world outlook with the rest of the ruling class they rub elbows with.

A chance to take a "crucial first step"
The most important thing isn't finding a perfect candidate in the presidential election, but that we take the opportunity to promote a political break with the Democratic Party.

The politics of the "lesser evil"
The narrow choice offered in American politics of electing one capitalist politician to replace another has doomed the U.S. left to holding its nose and voting for something they don't want. Is there any alternative?

Can we change the Democrats?
One of the greatest obstacles to building a working-class movement for fundamental change in the United States has been the two-party political system.

Beware wolves in Democrat clothing
The semi-oppositional stance of the Democrats to Bush takes as its starting point an agreement between the two parties that the U.S. should be able to dominate the world.

Surrendering is not a strategy
No matter who's in or out of the White House, the left is going to have a lot of holes to repair after Election 2004.

What passes for "independence"
That giant sucking sound around election time is the "progressive independents" stampeding toward the Democratic moderate as the only "realistic" choice.

The CP adapts to the right...again
Though the Communist Party today is a shadow of its size and influence in the 1930s, its political outlook remains virtually unchanged since it adopted its "popular front" strategy.

The CP: Liberals in radical clothing
The logic of the Communist Party's popular frontism is to accommodate to liberals in order not to frighten them, and to provide cover for them when they behave like…liberals.

Is George Bush a fascist?
Calling the Bush administration "fascist" without also calling equally repressive Democratic administrations the same thing is simply a way of scaring progressives into voting for the lesser evil.

The cop and the groundskeeper
If we were to guess by the portrayal of police work on television shows, a cop's job is one of the most dangerous in the world. What do the facts tell us?

Capitalism, crime and corruption
The word "corruption" is a misnomer, for it implies that there is something called honest capitalism. Crime and corruption is worked into the fabric of capitalism.

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