Rasmin Canon is an author and editor of the Midwest Socialist, a cooperative digital publication by the Chicago, St. Louis, Dubuque, and Milwalkee DSA chapters. This work is used with permission of the author.
This reading is a combination of Rasmin’s discussion of Marxism and the Marxist notion of value.
What it Means to be Marxist
It’s unfortunate that there isn’t a better word for “Marxism.” Marx himself famously once said that he himself was “not a Marxist” if certain askew interpretations of his theories of historical materialism and capitalism were “Marxist.” Part of the problem is that the theories and processes that Marx helped create are too big to fall under a single -ism; Marx was a philosopher (and sort of historian) of political economy, that is, the study of production and trade in relationship to laws, customs, and human systems, whose theories helped inform numerous other disciplines and practices: economics, sociology, history, literature and practical politics, among others.
The closest analogy that I can think of is to what we would today call “Darwinism,” the theories of nineteenth century biologist Charles Darwin. Darwin didn’t invent biology, paleontology, genetics, or any of the numerous disciplines and practices that are informed by “Darwinism.” And in fact, there are many aspects of classical “Darwinism”—the theories and conclusions arrived at by Darwin and his immediate disciples—that have been outright revised or rejected by people who today would still consider themselves “Darwinists.” Since Darwin published On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, hundreds if not thousands of scientists and philosophers have expanded on and improved on Darwin’s theories (the so-called “modern synthesis”)—obviously a necessity since during Darwin’s lifetime there was no deep concept of molecular genetics.
It’s useful to think of Marxism the same way. Marxism is not a detailed plan for how to create socialism. Marxism isn’t a moral philosophy, in the way that the Enlightenment philosophers and their progeny—like John Rawls—tried to build up moral systems from first principles to determine what is the most “fair.” It does not instruct us to engage in violent insurrection.
Marx, through his analysis of human society, gave us an understanding of the laws governing how society develops and how we can understand the process of history. His theories of alienation and class struggle inform us as to the causes of human misery and the obstacles to human flourishing. This is the “historical materialism” that is the strongest single thread of his work. Historical materialism is, simply stated, the theory that human societies develop according to how the “forces of production” are ordered, and that the features of a society will, ultimately, relate back to the ordering of the forces of production. People will “relate” to the system of production as a class. Therefore, the core conflict in society has been between classes on opposing sides of the systems of production—this is the dialectical part of his theory.
Just as Darwin was not the first “evolutionist,” Marx was not by any means the first socialist. And as with Darwin and the word “evolution,” “socialism” meant something fairly different before Marx came along. Socialism was basically a moral system, sometimes rooted in Christian values, utopian in character and justified based on what was “fair” or “just.” Marx and Engels spent much of their active years differentiating their theories from prior theories of “utopian” socialism built on moral persuasion—Engels going as far as to publish a book-length pamphlet on it.
Darwin revolutionized existing theories of “evolution” by introducing the concept of natural selection over geologic time—he should better be remembered for the theory of natural selection than evolution; the early title of his book Origin of Species was Natural Selection. In the same way, Karl Marx took existing historical and philosophical analysis of human society and political economy and applied an objective approach, from which he developed the theory of historical materialism/dialectical materialism.
What Marxism teaches us is simply to approach questions of society from a material basis: how does human life persist? Through production of the goods and services needed to live. How are these things produced under capitalist society? Through exploitation of the labor of the working class, that is, by requiring one class of people to sell their labor as a commodity to another class to produce values. What is the result of this system? That workers are “alienated” from their labor, meaning from much of their waking life, constantly required to produce more and more with an ever-precarious access to the means of subsistence.
If we want to engage in political competition and analysis of what Marx would have called “political economy,” there isn’t an alternative to Marxism that has anything near its explanatory power or guidance. That said, I understand the caution many socialists or social democrats may have to subscribing to “Marxism”: Marx’s focus on class “struggle,” the “overthrow” of the capitalist class, and the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” all of which may strike modern American ears as prescriptions for violence and authoritarianism.
It’s important to understand what Marx meant by these things.
The class struggle doesn’t necessarily mean barricades in the streets and summary execution of plutocrats. That these things can result from struggle is a historical fact; but the “struggle” Marx is talking about is the social and political competition between classes, which is always present: whether in the form of wage demands, petitions, law changes, strikes, non-compliance, all the way up to armed revolt. In the Manifesto, Marx describes how sometimes, the capitalists will cave in to demands made via demonstrations and strikes; other times, they will resist until concessions are forcibly extracted. Only the relative strength of the sides determines the nature of the struggle. The whole point of Marx’s method is to understand that the struggle is inherent to the capitalist system; it is objective. How socialists choose strategically to win the struggle depends on many factors, including the avenues available to them to win changes to the system—this is subjective. Whether we like it or not, the way commodities are produced under capitalism will always require struggle between the classes; workers want more, capitalists want them to have less and less.
As for “overthrow,” Marx looks at how previous systems of production were ended and changed into new forms: from hunter-gatherer to militarized, to slave chiefdoms and kingdoms, to feudalism, and then to capitalism. It is true that these transitions were generally marked by periods of violent competition; but (just like with Darwinism) historical study has showed that the violent outbursts were not the chief or only means of change. In fact, decades, sometimes centuries, of smaller changes accumulated over time to put stress on existing systems and bring about major changes. This is especially true of capitalism, which arose in Europe not all at once after the French beheaded enough nobles, but took place over an extended period beginning as far back as the Fourteenth Century. The growth of state-like kingdoms, “free” trading cities, incremental changes in technology, improvements in communications and logistics, and changes in legal systems eroded the basis of feudalism; the French Revolution was one part of a much longer and broader process of change.
Perhaps most misunderstood is the idea of the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” which comes from the Manifesto and a work called Critique of the Gotha Program, but is often interpreted according to the later theories of Vladimir Lenin. The dictatorship of the proletariat does not mean revolutionary terror against class enemies and the death of freedom. It means something very simple: look around you. Do you see how in “free market” democracies, political power is monopolized (or nearly monopolized) by the ownership class? The “dictatorship” of the proletariat just flips this. For Marxists, the dictatorship of the proletariat simply means a period where political power is held in common for the sole benefit of the working class. Getting to this point requires the working class to realize it is in fact a single class, and acting in its own interests. That this be accompanied by violent revolution isn’t necessary.
Dictatorship is bad. We live under a form of dictatorship today: a dictatorship on behalf of the capitalist class. This doesn’t mean working class people have zero freedoms; it means that the states we live in are specifically organized to protect the capitalist system of social relations. Some people can own the means of production and the rest of us have to sell our labor to survive. The dictatorship of the proletariat just inverts this: it organizes the state to preserve the common ownership of the means of production.
Marx and Engels were critical of moral and “fairness” arguments for socialism because they were ahistorical; they lacked a truly rational basis, and were therefore just formed by ruling class ideology. This isn’t unique to Marx, either: a contemporary philosopher, Bernard Williams (no socialist himself) is among the definitive moral philosophers who rejects the idea that we can reason our way to morality. Historically, the forces of production—the thing that determines human flourishing—had never been reordered through moral argument; it had required engaging in struggle—in political competition. Marx was not trying to provoke people into violence. He was merely exposing and acknowledging that the forces of production create a class struggle, which will resolve in a change to the forces of production.
As socialists post-Marx, as with biologists post-Darwin, we merely accept the material reality of the system we live in. The forces of production rest on exploitation to extract “surplus value” and requires commodifying labor, which alienates workers. Struggle is inherent to the capitalist system. Only when workers become conscious of themselves as a class and act on their own behalf will they act to affirmatively end the system. There isn’t really a deep question of morality here; this isn’t about fairness. It is about the struggle between those who control their own destiny and are not alienated from their means of subsistence (capitalists) and those who want this condition for themselves, but are kept from it (the working class).
A word about violence. Like most people, I abhor violence. Violence degrades its perpetrators as it harms its victims. Marx does not prescribe violence, although he does treat it as an obviously common outcome of periods of dramatic change in the forces of production—that is, in periods of “overthrow.” We need to ask ourselves whether major social change has ever avoided violence, and where that violence came from. Consider the U.S. civil rights movement, treated in historical memory as the best example of change from “non-violence.” But wasn’t there violence? The fact is that the state, and individuals, reacted to the demands of Black Americans with violence. There was violence during the civil rights movement; it just wasn’t meted out on a large scale by those demanding their rights. And once those demands were won, there was “violence” of another sort—when the state prosecuted and rounded up hate groups, like the Klan for example, that was a sort of state “violence” we would consider appropriate. Not to mention that attacks on freedom fighters, whether they were freedom riders, civil rights lawyers, or a person protecting their home from a lynch mob, always entailed violence.
And what about the labor movement? From private guads to local police to the federal army, violence was regularly called down on those engaging in struggle to win rights in the workplace. The U.S. labor movement, in fact, was particularly marked by violence, even over its European counterparts, especially in the mountain west where mining and energy concerns regularly called down armed forces to break strikes. Struggle for the workers were strikes and non-compliance; the reaction was violence.
In historical struggle, those clinging to the system under attack are the first to resort to violence. To be a Marxist doesn’t require belief in an armed uprising to bring about a new world, in violent change or authoritarianism. It just means acknowledging as a fact something that already exists: the class struggle. The tactics and strategies workers employ to achieve class consciousness and act to end the exploitative system are ours to determine.
Why contemporary socialism is entwined with Marxism is this understanding of how history moves and how it will move, based not on the moral arguments we make, but on the objective conditions we live in. Workers will not struggle against abstract principles but against living human beings with material interests. In his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Marx wrote that “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.” We can only change the world if we truly understand the actual forces around us. If we want to change the world, we need to be in it, to build from it; to truly be in it, we need to understand it. That makes us Marxists.
Why does a tree catch fire so easily? Every tree holds in its cells the energy it has absorbed from the sun. We don’t think of trees as energetic, but in fact, to grow like they do, trees have to absorb and store an immense amount of energy. When touched by fire, that energy is released—the captured energy from the sun, stored in the cells, is released. A tree is a tree, a fixed thing in the world we can climb or sleep under or chop down for wood or sell. A tree is also a process, a relationship between different processes—the interaction of soil, water, energy, air, and animal life.
Soil is formed by the deposit and interaction of minerals, water, and organic matter, being churned up by rain, worms, ants and other animals, and wind. The seed of a tree falls into the soil and is fed by the soil’s nutrients and sunlight. The sunlight itself is part of a process—the thermonuclear reactions of the sun, the travel of the rays of sunlight to the Earth. Rain, too, is part of atmospheric and meteorological processes. All these processes interact to bring the seed into a sapling and the sapling into a tree. The tree itself contains bits of all of these process in its own process of growing.
A tree isn’t just a tree: it is a physical expression of and contains these processes, most of which we never see. What we see is what we get out of the tree. Wood, relief from the sun, comfort from the rain. What goes into making the tree, what we enjoy the tree for, and what we can get for a tree we might all think of separately, but they’re knotted together in a way that can’t be unravelled. Still, we understand these different parts of “tree-ness” pretty instinctively.
So it goes for Marx’s theory of value. Value is one of the most complicated concepts in Marx’s work, so we’ll go easy for this one. But there are three big categories of “value” that are important for us to understand in radical work: the labor value, use value and exchange value.
The stuff we buy and sell, the stuff of life—commodities—contains and expresses these three kinds of value: labor, use, and exchange values.
The labor value is the “socially-necessary labor time” (SNLT) necessary to make the commodity. In a capitalist economy, for example, a house is a commodity we buy and sell, and it has value based on the socially-necessary labor time to make it. By “socially necessary” Marx meant the “average” time the worker or workers would have to spend, using the average productivity and average tools in use at the time the house was built. All of the different bits needed to build that house also had to be produced themselves—the gypsum for the drywall, the wood for the frame, the concrete for the foundation, the architect’s time. There is labor time in these, too. The final house has a certain amount of “embodied labor” in it. With automation (labor-saving equipment), the SNLT goes down; but rarely do workers end up working less; to the contrary, the time-savings results in ever more production of commodities. Why? Well, because commodities have “use-values.”
The use value is more or less what it sounds like: it is what human beings get out of a commodity. In the case of the house, it has many use-values: a house gives us shelter, storage for our stuff, a sense of place; but it can also give us access to schools, and amenities by its proximity to cultural or natural centers. We get the use-value of a thing when we use it. We can assign a thing a use-value separately from its “labor value,” and our trusty tree helps us understand why: a typical forest tree required no human labor to come into being, but we would certainly value it for the shade or wood it would provide us. So “use-value” isn’t really tied to the “embodied labor” value—it isn’t built into the thing itself. It is a “relation” of the thing to the individuals who have a want for it. But there’s no doubt that commodities, the stuff of life, have a use-value.
In capitalist economies, commodities will also have an “exchange-value,” which, mercifully, is also what it sounds like: the worth of a thing in an exchange for another thing or things. This isn’t the same as its price (which is an important difference we’ll see in a minute). The exchange value is the value one commodity or quantity of commodities will get for another or other commodities. In capitalism, exchange-value gets reduced to price, but they are not the same thing.
The reason is that our work and ideas are commodities that we sell. The “socially-necessary labor time” that goes into a commodity is sold and paid for; we “commodify” our labor. The house has all that “embodied labor” in it; and when we sell the house, that embodied labor is being purchased. We look at the house and see shelter, and storage, and a school district; we look at the tree and see shade, and shelter, and wood; but running through those things are processes invisible to us. The house, like the tree, contains the energy spent to bring it into being. This is the labor running through it.
People want the house for the use-value, but cannot acquire it without exchange. The exchange value is related to—but not exclusively made up of—the socially-necessary labor-time, the “embodied labor” in the house. In the modern economy, this is expressed by the “price.” Although exchange value and price are not the same thing, in modern market economies, price is the basic way we see exchange value.
In fact, price is the thing that “hides” the embodied labor. Again, this is something we get instinctively. A rare comic book has a limited use value to a limited number of people, and its price won’t reflect the embodied labor in it. Similarly, a ratty house that happens to be in a good school district will have an exchange value-through-price higher than the embodied labor. Marx called this “commodity fetishism,” and it is a reason why we don’t “see” the labor value of commodities; it’s why an iPhone 7 that costs $220 to make (including all labor, marketing, taxes, etc.) can sell for $650.
If this all seems pretty technical and not very relevant for radical work, it certainly can be; and there is a lot of debate about how relevant Marx’s concepts of “value” are given modern advances in economic thought. But at their very basic levels, there is something very important to take away from the theories of value.
That is how commodities—not just things, but labor and ideas—have a use value that is distinct from its exchange value and/or price. Think of how in cities with thousands of people suffering homelessness, there are foreclosed homes boarded up, or second homes kept empty by absentee owners for short-term vacation rentals. The use-value of these commodities for people without them is intensely important, but it’s the exchange values that determine how they’re distributed.
In fact, it’s the wild-eyed chase for higher and higher exchange values (as “prices”), instead of the reasonable distribution of use-values, that leaves so many people with so little and so few people with so much. Those who own much can’t afford to let the use-values slip from their grasp, because it drives down the price. In fact, as with the case of boarded up homes, they’d rather destroy the use-values than make them available to those in need. Housing is an obvious example, but there are many others. The United States, and the West in general, produces use-values from clothing to food to housing to transportation, in surplus abundance, but finds ways to restrict them to only those who can afford the exchange value. This is the “artificial scarcity” that keeps us at each others’ throats.
Understanding value types helps us understand why our society doesn’t have to work this way. When we see cases of water held behind armed guard during a hurricane, we can point to that and say, we know what the social cost of producing that is; we know its value in use to people who don’t have it; why isn’t it being distributed rationally? Why is the entire distribution system of use-values built on the merciless drive for ever-higher exchange values?
When we understand the processes that went into making a tree and appreciate its uses, we’re a step closer to seeing the world as it really is.