What is Marxism? In a phrase,  'workers' power'. All that's essential can be derived from that single phrase. For instance, 'workers' are the working class, the vast majority of capitalist society. 'Power' is the ability to get what you need. To get what it needs, the working class must have democratic control of society. So that 'workers' power', slightly expanded, becomes democratic control by the working class over society. That's the most important principle of Marxism. But from 'workers' power' we can also derive Marxism's next most important principle.


The history of capitalism demonstrates nothing so much as that production for profit will never yield what the majority, the working class, needs. Once the working class achieves democratic control of society, it must produce what it needs. So that from 'workers' power' can be derived Marxism's two most important principles: democratic control by the working class over society; and production for need rather than profit.

'Workers' power', therefore, is  the short answer to 'What is Marxism?'.  But by far the greatest essay-length answer is The Communist Manifesto.   It begins:


"The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles..."


Man's entire history- following the rise of classes and the state- is the history of class struggles. It continues:


"The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old..."


From one era to the next, from one form of society to its successor, we find the same history of class struggles. So I suggest we view Marxism as a project: the historical struggle of the working class for democratic control of society. But behind this project lies a theory, historical materialism. And because, for Marxists, the value of a theory is as a guide to practice, Marxism is the unity of theory and practice. But what is historical materialism?


As a child we enter society as a dependent member of a family subject to basic human needs (e.g. for food, clothing, shelter, etc.). To satisfy these needs society must act on its environment  through cooperative labor.


In so doing, it is further subjected to the conditions of its environment  (e.g. the availability of food, water, raw materials, the climate and fertility of the soil). This universal condition, what Marxists call the 'labor process', is common to all human history. It is the basis of historical materialism, whose basic concepts are forces, relations and modes of production.


The forces of production are our means of making a living. They consist of the means of production  (i.e. tools, machines, and raw materials) and labor power (i.e. our knowledge, strength, skills). The relations of production connect men to the forces of production. The nature of this connection determines the structure of society, its mode of production.


In pre-class society the relations of production consisted of the collective control of the means of production by the members of the clan. The only division of labor was between the sexes: men, in charge of hunting and fishing; women, of gathering and child­ rearing. Then came the discovery of agriculture and the domestication of animals, the most momentous change in human history. For the first time men produced enough to put aside reserves of food, a social surplus. This revolution in the forces of production  led to a revolution in the relations of production (the rise of classes and the state). From that point on, history becomes the history of class struggles, between the direct producers and those who own the means of production over the social surplus. Class struggle takes place within a social system, what Marxists call a mode of production.


In class society a mode of production has three components: an economy, based on the relationship of the owners of the means of production to the direct producers; a family unit, for the reproduction of labor power; and a state, to maintain the system in the interests of the ruling class. Let me now present a historical materialist sketch of the beginnings of human history.



In pre-class society scarcity prevailed; men lived at the level of subsistence. Labor productivity had yet to allow for a social surplus (e.g. food reserves, tools). Men acted on their environment through cooperative labor. The rights and duties of the group were based on custom or religion. The highest value of the community  was social solidarity; without  it, the group could not survive. Competition and individual enrichment were discouraged; these would have led to starvation.


Pre-class society consisted of hunting and gathering: the group traveled to wherever there was food. The constant movement from place to place prevented the accumulation of much in the way of private property. With the discovery of richer hunting or fishing grounds, the group would settle down. Richer sources of food permitted reserves for times of scarcity and a division of labor between those that produced food and those that made tools. The transition from hunter-gatherer bands

to agricultural villages was the result of changes in global climate.



The cooler, drier weather caused a decline in wild grains and in the size of wild herds. Settled hunter- gatherer villages had to choose between return to a nomadic way of life and increased labor productivity. Over many generations this led to a revolution  in the forces of production: agriculture and the domestication of animals, around 10,000 B.C.. For the first time the means of subsistence were brought under human control. The accumulated knowledge of generations led to the selection of more fruitful seeds for planting. Regular harvests provided more reliable reserves, allowing for the tethering  and feeding of animals. The use of irrigation, draft animals, and the practice of letting land lie fallow, further  multiplied the productivity of labor.


But unlike hunter-gatherer society, agriculture's stocks of food and weapons provided a motive for war. And the defense against enemies required leaders: for a minority with decision-making power. The result was the development  of classes and the state.


So long as the product of labor was equal to its cost, there was no basis for exploitation. Only when growth in the productivity of labor made it possible to realize a difference between the cost of labor-power  and the value of its product, a social surplus, did the struggle to appropriate it and the exploitation  of labor begin.


The accumulation of a substantial social surplus enabled one part of society to free itself from productive labor and obtain leisure at the expense of the remainder. This leisure enabled a minority, the ruling class, to enjoy wealth, power and privileges. Henceforth, history

became a series of class struggles over the social surplus.


Each type of class society had its own method of extracting the surplus: its own form of exploitation. The next mode of production, the ancient slave state, bought and sold human beings. Its form of exploitation  was the transparent use of force. Under feudalism, the peasant worked so many days on his own land and so many on his lord's. The form of exploitation  was separated by time and space: paid labor on the serf's land; unpaid, on his lord's. Only under capitalism is exploitation concealed behind the apparently free exchange on the market. But this freedom is a sham; the worker has no choice. If he doesn't accept a job, he must starve, beg or turn to crime. Because the capitalist owns the means of production, his exploitation  of the worker's labor-power enables him to extract  surplus-value: the difference between the cost of labor-power and the value of its product.


I have suggested that  Marxism may be viewed  as the historical struggle  of the working class for democratic control of society, which leads us to the question: What do Marxists  mean by social class?


Class is a social category based on one's relationship to the means of production. Class membership determines one's interests. But class, for Marxists, is an objective category: one can be a member of a class without knowing it. And one's knowledge (i.e. class consciousness) is a matter of degree. Marxists speak of the class "in itself" (objective) versus the class "for  itself" (subjective).


Marxism employs  a bi-polar model  of classes. At one pole, at the top, is the capitalist class, owning and controlling the means of production and, through its wealth, controlling the state.  At the opposite pole, at the bottom, is the working class, which is forced  to sell its labor power  for wages. And in the middle is the petit­ bourgeoisie or middle class, pulled  alternatively in the direction of one polar class or another, depending  on who they identify with and who provides leadership. The petit-bourgeoisie is a miscellany of groups: farmers, small businessmen, professionals and managers. Their common characteristic  is individualism. Their daily experience tends to isolate them from each other, either on plots of land or in separate workplaces. They see themselves as largely self-sufficient or above the class struggle, not requiring a common effort. Lacking a common program, they tend to follow  the lead of the polar classes, workers or capitalists.


In sharp contrast to the petit-bourgeoisie, the experience of the working class is collective, concentration in workplaces and common  effort. The division of labor within the productive process (e.g. into work shifts, labor teams. along assembly lines) may teach the working class the value of organization: the value of combining to increase the power of the group; and the value of disciple and subordination of the individual to the group. It may also teach it that it has the power to withhold its labor (i.e. its indispensability within the productive process). The social division of labor, between worker and capitalist, may also teach it that it has an irreconcilable conflict of interests with its employers. This leads us to ask why only the working class can lead the fight for socialism.


The working class constitutes the majority in virtually every country. It has an irreconcilable conflict of interest with the capitalist class. Finally, its location within the process of production enables it to bring the system to a halt by withholding its labor. Only the working class has this interest and capacity: the ultimate form of 'workers' power'. Having sketched the nature of social class, let us now turn to Marxism's program.


Marxists must begin with the working class as it is, becoming members of its organization (e.g. unions, social movements, parties) and leaders of its day-to-day struggles. Acting as the leftwing of these movements, they seek to raise its consciousness and further  its organization through the lessons of these struggles. But

in a society of irreconcilable class conflict, the working class needs an organization of its own to represent its interests, a party. This party will work within other organizations of the working class to win them to its program. But under modern capitalism this must be a party of a special type, a Leninist party. What is a Leninist party and why does the working class need it?


Membership in the working class does not automatically lead to class consciousness. Individual members develop different  degrees of knowledge and display different  degrees of militancy (i.e. willingness to fight for their class interests). To overcome this uneven development the working class needs an organization, a party, whose members demonstrate these qualities to the highest degree (i.e. a leadership). Such a party has the following functions: (1) to be the memory of the class (to retain the hard-one lessons of the past); (2) to maintain and develop its theory and program; (3) to train its members; and (4) to raise the consciousness and confidence of the class. Finally, we arrive at the end we seek: a workers' state and socialism.


This end requires the appropriate means. To create a society that is democratically controlled by the working class, it is necessary that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class, itself. No charismatic leader or elite can emancipate the working class. Self-emancipation is a process; and the workers' state and socialism, itself, is nothing more than the process of working class democracy. Marx did not envision an ideal model of socialism. He left it to the working class to create it according to trial and error. The closest thing we have to models are the historic practice of the working class during the Paris Commune of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917. Nevertheless, Marx did suggest some principles that might help shape this process.


The first is {{self-actualization". Unlike capitalism, where the worker is no more than a means to the end of profits, under socialism, the free, all-around development of the individual will be the very purpose of society.


Another principle is 11the psychology of scarcity versus the psychology of abundance". As the labor productivity of society increases, more and more of our necessities will be freely provided; until we may very well reach a point where the basic insecurity of material life ends. Under such conditions, human solidarity and cooperation could become as natural as the effort to succeed individually at the expense of others appears to us today. With our necessities provided for, we might at last devote ourselves to what we really want to do with our lives (e.g. to create, learn, help one another, play). Under socialism, 'workers' power' would ultimately mean the power of workers- of all of us- to lead a life in which (as ••• The Communist Manifesto says)   11 the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all..."

© 2015 By Mark Dickman