Before the global economic crisis of 2008 it was uncommon to hear discussions of capitalism in the mainstream media. No one denied that capitalism is the economic system under which most of the world lives, of course, but debate about its desirability was almost wholly absent. Even rarer were mainstream discussions of Marxism as a critique of, or an alternative to, capitalism, except when pointing to the oddity of its persistence in one or two corners of the world. After 2008, however, capitalism began to be much more explicitly discussed and its rising frequency of occurrence in books digitized by Google can be traced in that corporation’s online N-gram viewer. The anti-capitalist Occupy movement, which spread from Wall Street, New York across the world, had intellectual leadership from the anthropologist David Graeber, who insisted that the movement’s principles were strictly more anarchist than Marxist (Graeber 2011). For Occupy’s opponents this was a distinction without a difference: opposition to capitalism is, from this point of view, the essence of Marxism.
From the perspective of the right, every anti-capitalist stance from the anarcho-syndicalism of Noam Chomsky to the democratic socialism of Jeremy Corbyn threatens to destroy a system that we should instead celebrate for bringing prosperity, material well-being and long life to millions living in places that have never known it before. Curiously, Karl Marx himself celebrated capitalism for that very reason. But before we look at what Marx actually wrote on the matter, let us consider who gets called a Marxist these days.
After the election of American President Donald Trump in 2016, the focus of Western disaffection with capitalism shifted from class (the concern of Occupy) to race, most visibly in the rise of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Antifa (an abbreviation of ‘anti-Fascist’) movements. BLM was founded in 2013, first as a Twitter hashtag and online committee and later as a tax-exempt non-profit organization. In an online interview in 2015, the co-founder of BLM, Patrisse Cullors, described the leaders of the organization as “trained Marxists . . . super-versed on ideological theories” (Cullors 2015). BLM co-founder Alicia Garza tweeted on 17 January 2015 that the cause of “black on black crimes” is “not black pathology. It’s capitalism” (Garza 2015). These references to Marxism and anti-capitalism by BLM’s leadership could be multiplied many times. And opponents of BLM and Antifa likewise characterize these as Marxist organizations. Andy Ngo devoted seven pages of his book Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy to BLM’s “Marxist Ideology” (Ngo 2021, 131-37), and the subtitle of Mike Gonzalez’s history of BLM is The Making of a New Marxist Revolution (Gonzalez 2021).
The problem with describing BLM, Antifa, and like-minded movements as Marxist is that they hold little in common with, and much in opposition to, the ideas that we find in Marx’s writing. Marx extolled the achievements of capitalism as an extraordinary improvement upon all previous economic arrangements. In The Communist Manifesto he wrote:
The bourgeoisie . . . has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades. (Marx & Engels 1948, 16)
Marx celebrated capitalism for its freeing up of human productive powers. A true son of the European Enlightenment, Marx considered the arrival of capitalism as an inevitable phase of human Progress, driven by the inexorably increasing human powers of production.
Moving through historical epochs, each new way of doing things starts as a freeing-up of latent and restrained productive forces, endowing humankind with previously unknown material riches. But there is always a still-better way of doing things waiting to take over:
. . . in the place of an earlier form of intercourse, which has become a fetter, a new one is put, corresponding to the more developed productive forces and, hence, to the advanced mode of the self-activity of individuals — a form which in its turn becomes a fetter and is then replaced by another. (Marx & Engels 1974, 87)
For Marx, capitalism was a stage of human development that must be gone through before we can achieve something better. It was nothing like the robbing of the poor by the rich or the black and brown by the white. Peoples had always conquered and enslaved other peoples, but that was not the essence of historical change. Production took that role.
What mattered in any act of colonial expansion or conquest of territory was the prevailing state of human productive powers:
. . . the question is, whether the nation which is conquered has evolved industrial productive forces, as is the case with modem peoples, or whether their productive forces are based for the most part merely on their association and on the community. . . . And finally, everywhere there is very soon an end to taking, and when there is nothing more to take, you have to set about producing. From this necessity of producing, which very soon asserts itself, it follows that the form of community adopted by the settling conquerors must correspond to the stage of development of the productive forces they find in existence; or, if this is not the case from the start, it must change according to the productive forces. (Marx & Engels 1974, 90)
At certain historical moments, expropriation of one group by another might herald a new way of doing things, but this new way cannot itself be built upon expropriation. For Marx, “Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one” (Marx 1954, 703), but something more sophisticated than force maintains and regenerates the new society. Once the capitalist relationship for extracting value has been established, it is self-perpetuating, and it “must constantly result in reproducing the working man as a working man, and the capitalist as a capitalist” (Marx 1899, 61).
Marx did not consider capitalism to be any one group’s personal moral failing and would have been astonished by the claim that it was founded on racial prejudice. Rather, supreme indifference to incidentals such as race was its hallmark: the cut-throat competition between capitalists eliminates those whose choices are shaped by irrational prejudices. Only the utterly rational will survive in the marketplace. For Marx, it was inevitable that peoples with advanced productive technologies would conquer lands and peoples without them, since the latter are by his definition primitive and Progress requires that they be brought up to date.
In the wake of the failed European revolutions of 1848, Marx published in his newspaper the Neue Rheinische Zeitung an article by his collaborator Friedrich Engels about the romantic ideals of some insurrectionists who had contributed to the failures. Mikhail Bakunin’s pamphlet Aufruf an die Slaven (in English, Appeal to the Slavs) had called for a “brotherhood of all nations” to overcome despotism and exploitation. For Engels, such “pious wishes and beautiful dreams are of no avail against the iron reality” (Engels 1849, 4). To illustrate his claim that it is the productive powers and not the organization of states that shapes history, Engels took examples from the recent past:
The United States and Mexico are two republics, in both of which the people is sovereign. How did it happen that over Texas a war broke out between these two republics, which according to the moral theory, ought to have been “fraternally united” and “federated” . . . . And will Bakunin accuse the Americans of a “war of conquest”, which, although it deals with a severe blow to his theory based on “justice and humanity”, was nevertheless waged wholly and solely in the interest of civilization? Or is it perhaps unfortunate that splendid California has been taken away from the lazy Mexicans, who could not do anything with it? (Engels 1849, 5)
Engels correctly predicted that the “energetic Yankees” would dig California’s gold, develop the coastal ports, build large cities, and complete a transcontinental railway. “The ‘independence’ of a few Spanish Californians and Texans may suffer because of it”, he wrote, and “in some places ‘justice’ and other moral principles may be violated; but what does that matter to such facts of world-historic significance?” (Engels 1849, 5).
Marx and Engels believed in the civilizing effect of more advanced peoples conquering primitive ones. They celebrated colonization as the bringing of light into dark places, and they treated local injustices and immiserations as the price worth paying for the march of Progress, which was liberating humankind from material want by mass industrial production. They thought that the particular form this industrialization took in the capitalist economic and class relations would necessarily become choked by the very productive energies it released and that an even better form of social organization would follow.
There is no getting around the problem that Marx and his adherents held ideas that are abhorrent to many who today call themselves, or get called, Marxists. Nor can we ignore that the terms in which Marx and his adherents defended the spread of industrialization — as a raising of all boats in a swell of general prosperity with only localized ill-effects — are strikingly similar to those used by today’s defenders of capitalism who point to rising standards of living across the developing world. The undeniably mixed effects of industrialization present genuinely hard moral problems that are not helped by misrepresentations of where Marx and his adherents stood on them.
Cullors, Patrisse. 2015. ‘Trained Marxist Patrisse Cullors, Black Lives Matters BLM’: Interview with Jared Ball of the Real News Network. Available Online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1noLh25FbKI.
Engels, Friedrich. 1849. “Democratic Pan-Slavism.” [Reproduced in the Encyclopedia of Marxism at http://marxists.org]. Neue Rheinische Zeitung Number 222 (14 February). 1-10 [As paginated in the Encyclopedia of Marxism].
Garza, Alicia. 2015. ‘How Do we Stop ‘Black on Black Crime’:? A Tweet Sent on 17 January. Online Archived at https://archive.vn/Dql77. Using the Twitter name @aliciagarza.
Gonzalez, Mike. 2021. BLM: The Making of a New Marxist Revolution. New York. Encounter.
Graeber, David. 2011. “Occupy Wall Street’s Anarchist Roots.” Aljazeera website Online at https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2011/11/30/occupy-wall-streets-anarchist-roots. n. pag..
Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. 1948. The Communist Manifesto. Trans. Samuel Moore (1888): Centenary edition. London. Lawrence and Wishart.
Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. 1974. The German Ideology. Ed. C. J. Arthur. London. Lawrence and Wishart.
Marx, Karl. 1899. Value, Price and Profit: Addressed to Working Men. Ed. Eleanor Marx Aveling. London. George Allen and Unwin.
Marx, Karl. 1954. Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production. Ed. Frederick Engels. Vol. 1. 3 vols. London. Lawrence and Wishart.
Ngo, Andy. 2021. Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy. New York. Hachette.