What do the Libertarian Marxists want?
The most pompous and misinformed servants of the existing order cry that because we are Marxists, even “Libertarian Marxists”, that we want to instill upon America the same despotism that reigned in East Germany, in Romania, in the Soviet Union, the same tyranny that reigns in China and North Korea today. “They want a dictatorship! They want to overthrow our democracy and create a dictatorship of the proletariat!” so our misinformed worker/ proletarian cries.
We certainly do want to bring about the dictatorship of the proletariat. But what even is “the proletariat”? The proletariat is really just another word for the working class. But in America the “working class” typically refers to the most impoverished subsection of the proletariat. A proletarian is anyone who lives off their own labor, is anyone who receives a wage or a salary. In popular terms, the “proletariat” refers to the 99%.
Our hypothetical critic (who no doubt exists) is horrified by the word “dictatorship”. But such a person has not the faintest knowledge of the class nature of our capitalist/ bourgeois society, or of the role social classes have played throughout human history generally.
The word “bourgeois” or “bourgeoisie” refers to the capitalist class, who does not derive its income from its own work, but rather lives off the labor of the proletariat, or the working class. The bourgeoisie is the ruling class in capitalist society, the class that owns the “means of production”, the factories, enterprises, and implements used by the workers to create all the wealth in our society. This is what is meant by the term “private property”.
Our most ancient knowledge of democracy in practice stems from where? The Greek city slave states. The first real exercise of democracy in practice, while an enormous step forward, was nonetheless an expression of a democracy and a dictatorship at the same time. No democracy in all of human history has ceased to be a class dictatorship in one form or another.
In Ancient Greece the only people allowed to vote and run for office, the only people with any real power or influence, were members of the ruling social class that owned the instruments of production– the slave-owners. Ancient Greek democracy, according to the Marxist interpretation of history, was a dictatorship of the slave-owning class by means of democracy. After those thousand or so years of feudalism, in which democracy was once again proclaimed by the nobility and feudal lords (the ruling class of feudalism) to be “against human nature” and something that “if tried always fails and reverts back to the God-ordained order of the monarchy”, democracy once again emerged supreme.
The early French and American revolutions only solidified the political and economic rule of the emerging bourgeoisie or capitalist class. The newly declared capitalist/ bourgeois republics did this by abolishing feudalism and toppling the monarchy, they then took control of society not in the name of its own class, but in the name of the whole of society. At once, it identified its own class interests with those of the people as a whole.
But history is not a straight line, progress is the trend, but not the rule. In France, for instance, the first French republic was overthrown and the monarchy was restored. The economic rule of the capitalist class, however, remained unchallenged. In America too the first real expression of bourgeois/ capitalist state power failed miserably and the Articles of Confederation were graduated into the dustbin of history. It was, nonetheless, a heroic attempt to establish a bourgeois republic.
The class dictatorship of the bourgeoisie historically becomes self-evident when looks at how the electoral process works. The bourgeois/ capitalist Founding Fathers of America, who were though well intentioned, the top 1% of the 1%, wanted to establish a system that, while serving the interests of the whole people and maintaining liberty, represented exclusively the minority bourgeois/ capitalist class to the exclusion of the majority proletariat/ working class, slave, and the agrarian petty-bourgeois classes. So it was said in the constitutional convention of Philadelphia by John Jay, “Those who own the country (the bourgeoisie) ought to control it”. The right to vote was restricted not only to the male sex, but to the minority subsection of the male sex that owned the means of production in one form or another (private, not personal property). No matter how benevolent and in the actual interests of the whole people this republic was, it was still a dictatorship of the bourgeois/ capitalist class minority to the exclusion of the majority. A bourgeois/ capitalist republic, no matter how open a society it creates, still represents a class dictatorship of the minority to the exclusion of the majority.
But, naturally, we must take into account the countless proletarian/ working class social movements from below that did away with the formal bourgeois/ capitalist restriction on electoral politics, that abolished slavery and gave the black man the right to vote and be elected, that gave women the right to vote and be elected, that opened the way for a democracy of “the whole people”. The natural development of our bourgeois/ capitalist democracy is a people unconsciously longing to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat, a democracy of the majority in practice and not merely on paper.
A proletarian today is not merely the “industrial factory worker of the 19th century”, but according to the Marxist analysis of society, is anyone who earns a salary or a wage, is anyone who works and does not live off the labor of others. This is why we refer to the Marxian “working class” as the proletariat, because “working class” refers to the lowest strata of the proletariat in American society. Certainly, then, the proletariat constitutes the overwhelming majority of society. The expression “the 99%” and “the proletariat” are in actuality, the same thing.
In spite of these formal declarations of a democracy “of the whole people”, we nonetheless find that those who hold positions of power in electoral politics are members of the bourgeois class, are capitalists, or rich men and women. We find that the two parties in this country are thoroughly bourgeois/ capitalist in nature. We find that candidates running for office only become successful through the corporate funding and financing of bourgeois/ capitalist institutions. To receive money from wall street is the only way to get elected to a high office in this country, with the small exception of people like Bernie Sanders and Kshama Sawant who had massive grass-roots social movements behind them.
Let us look at how corporations fund candidates. The workers in any industry or enterprise, produce all the wealth “made” by that enterprise (minus initial investments on the part of the capitalist). An individual worker, let’s call him Karl, produces 40$ an hour on average. Karl earns a salary that is the equivalent of about 10$ an hour. “But wait! What happens to the other 30$ that Karl makes?” you might ask. The answer is simple. To keep the business running, naturally 2$ or so needs to go to keeping the lights on and paying the bills, and another 3$ or so needs to go towards buying more raw materials needed in the production process. But that still leaves another $25 that Karl is making but not getting. Where does this go? Well Karl, working in a capitalist enterprise or corporation, has bosses, not merely the managers he “sees” everyday but the ones he doesn’t see, the ones who may have never even been to the place Karl works. Those bosses happen to be the ones who own the building Karl works at, who own the tools Karl uses to make whatever it is he makes. In other words, they own the means of production.
These bosses aren’t elected by people like Karl, Karl has no say in how the business (in which he spends over half of his life) operates, nor is he represented by them. Instead the board of directors at the top is elected by share-holders, where one share is equal to one vote. Naturally, the top 1% owns over 50% of all the stocks on the market, so naturally it is they who are being represented more than anyone else. The board of directors can do whatever it likes, if it wants to, it can decide not to pay any dividends to the share-holders at all (though this would probably be a bad idea and isn’t all too common). The board of directors, naturally, has to pay taxes to the government. Assuming there aren’t any Islands in the Caribbean where they can funnel their funds, let us assume that this business does, in fact, pay taxes. 5$, we will say, goes to taxes. From the $20 left, the board decides it will invest 5$ into the further expansion of the business. The bigger the company is, the more there is to make. But they realize that Karl is making 10$ an hour in America, and that workers in Mexico or China only are paid 3$ an hour. So that 5$ goes to the construction of a plant in Mexico or China, a plant that will eventually take Karl’s job. Karl has no say in this, in fact he doesn’t even know it’s going to happen. He will simply show up for work one day only to find he no longer has a job.
But then there is still 15$ Karl makes but does not receive. What happens to this? Well the board of directors and CEO feels they have been working very hard and deserve a raise, already they are taking 3$ of Karl’s labor every hour (all to go into the pockets of 10-15 people) but that is not enough, so they decide to give themselves a raise in celebration of the increased profit margins they will get out of foreign labor, say, an additional 2$ from Karl’s labor (which adds up to a whole lot, that’s 5$ from every working employee at the company per hour on average). They have 10$ left, and decide that they should pay dividends, so they give 1$ away to the share holders to encourage further investment. So what do they do with the remaining 9$? Well the workers have managers and clerks who do the paperwork and make sure the workers are actually working, so for the managers, 5$ from the remaining 9$ is taken. When that 5$ is taken from the average $40 or so every worker makes, the managers end up making significantly more than Karl.
But then of course there is the (albeit unlikely) danger that the workers will realize what a scam this all is in the future. The capitalists at the top want to ensure this system of exploitation (making lots of money without really working very hard) continues. But there is still 4$ left. Where does this go? The board of directors decides they want to fund a candidate who is running for office, a candidate that, being pro-capitalist, will look after their interests and ensure the cycle of exploitation continues unfettered (they may call it innovation of course). If the workers are seriously disgruntled, they can fund a democrat who will give the workers small enough concessions to keep everything running smoothly for the people on top. If they want, they can fund a candidate who will blame everyone but themselves (who are in actuality responsible) for all the jobs that are going overseas, someone who will blame the individual Mexican and Chinese workers instead of the people making the decisions. This is all very good for the capitalists/ bourgeois class.
In a nutshell, Karl says he “makes 10$ an hour”. In Karl’s mind, this is a “fair wage”. But Karl doesn’t think about the fact that he is in fact producing an average of $40 an hour because he never sees those numbers. Out of the 40$ made in one hour, 10$ is going to Karl (who made the entire $40), $5 goes to “necessary expenditures” paying the bills, buying more raw materials, another 5$ goes into investing further into the business (by exporting Karl’s job abroad), and another 5$ goes towards paying taxes, and another 5$ goes to the salaries of the clerks and managers. $10, though, is left over for the capitalists at the top to do with as they will. It should come as no surprise that they decide to make $5 an hour off of every $40 Karl produces (the equivalent of half of Karl’s wage), and that this “$5” is in fact exponentially greater than $5 alone because they make $5 per hour, per employee who works for the company. 1$ of the $5 left goes to dividends, and the remaining 4$ goes towards a politician who will look after not Karl’s interests, but the interests of the people running the corporations who funded said candidate.
Just over half of the total amount of work Karl does is actually necessary to produce his wage (and pay the bills, get the raw materials, pay his managers salaries, and pay taxes). This is Karl’s socially necessary labor time, the minimum amount of time he has to work to start producing a profit for those who own the means of production. For the rest of the time he spends at work though, he is actually producing the extremely high salary his bosses at the very top make He is also making money for share-holders and producing the funds that will be poured into the political system, to fund candidates chosen by the board of directors. It doesn’t matter if Karl here is pro-choice, his bosses can use the money he directly produced to fund a pro-life candidate or vice versa. He has no say in the matter. This is capitalism in a nutshell.
When Karl is fired from his job and learns that his job was taken by someone in Mexico, he rallies behind a billionaire politician (who was, consequently, funded by his former bosses) who demonizes the workers in Mexico and those who are coming across the border illegally to “take our jobs”. It never occurs to Karl how corrupt this whole system really is. The idea of democracy in the workplace (socialism) certainly never crossed Karl’s mind. Socialism to Karl, means the dictatorship of a central committee, of a one party state. Socialism in Karl’s (Karl being fictitious and bearing no relation to Karl Marx) mind, is a system where “the state controls everything and there is no freedom”.
It doesn’t matter what pompous slogans of a “democracy of the whole people” the bourgeoisie/ capitalist class promotes. Yes, everyone can vote, but not everyone can or does pour money into ensuring a particular political candidate is heard. That privilege belongs almost exclusively to the bourgeois/ capitalist class, the big capitalists who own the means of production. The American political system in a nutshell, belongs to Wall Street.
No matter how “open” a bourgeois/ capitalist democracy is, those who hold office will consist overwhelmingly of those who either are capitalists, or those who represent the interests of the capitalist class to the exclusion of the proletarian majority. Lenin once said the ratio of capitalists to non-capitalists in such a republic was about “nine tenths” to one. But if we look at the socioeconomic makeup of the federal Government in America, we see that “nine tenths” is far too conservative an estimate.
Many people promote the idea of “going back” to a supposedly more democratic America, before Wall Street “corrupted” American democracy. But such a thing never existed. The dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and the relationship between wall street and American politics has always been there. Yes, America is an astoundingly free country, and all of human civilization should aspire to have such negative liberty as we Americans enjoy, but we have reached an impasse beyond which point America can only become a freer and more democratic nation by ousting the political and economic rule of the bourgeois/ capitalist class, by divorcing money from politics and abolishing the capitalist system. This can only be done by the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and with it, direct democracy at the local level.
To our misinformed critic who accuses us of wanting to abolish our bourgeois/ capitalist “democracy” and replace it with the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, we plead guilty. But in place of our bourgeois/ capitalist democracy we do not want a “dictatorship” of one party or of a small group of politicians as we saw under Stalinism in the 20th century. That is not the dictatorship of the proletariat, that is a dictatorship in the bourgeois/ capitalist sense of the word, in the sense of the Jacobin’s.
America, though a democracy, is a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie/ capitalist class because its democratic institutions are dominated almost exclusively by the bourgeois/ capitalist class, a class that is the 1%, or the extreme minority. When we say we want the “dictatorship of the proletariat” we mean that we want our political institutions to represent the majority, the 99% or proletarian class, and not the wealthy minority. Such a system can but only be a democracy so “open” and “free” that it would make modern America look like an authoritarian nation. We do not want to abolish freedom of the press as some accuse us. We are not Stalinists, we recognize that the political rule of the masses is impossible without an absolutely free and unfettered press. But we go further, as Rosa Luxemburg said,
“Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently. Not because of any fanatical concept of “justice” but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when “freedom” becomes a special privilege…
Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule. Among them, in reality only a dozen outstanding heads do the leading and an elite of the working class is invited from time to time to meetings where they are to applaud the speeches of the leaders, and to approve proposed resolutions unanimously – at bottom, then, a clique affair – a dictatorship, to be sure, not the dictatorship of the proletariat but only the dictatorship of a handful of politicians, that is a dictatorship in the bourgeois/ capitalist sense, in the sense of the rule of the Jacobins! Yes, we can go even further: such conditions must inevitably cause a brutalization of public life: attempted assassinations, shooting of hostages, etc.”
Rosa here foreshadows the Stalinist despotism that would rule in Europe for nearly a century, but in the same sentence she also dismisses any notion of such a tyranny being by any interpretation a “dictatorship of the proletariat” as many liberals and Stalinists claim today. The dictatorship of the proletariat means exorcising from our current flawed notions of “democracy” its domination by wall street, big business, and the bourgeois/ capitalist class generally. It means a political system “of the people, by the people, and for the people” in actuality and not merely on paper. Not of the bourgeoisie in the name of the people, but of the people themselves. We believe that political democracy without industrial democracy (socialism) amounts to virtual oligarchy in practice.
Some claim we are “totalitarians” because we say we are communists. But such a flawed understanding of the word “communism” negates entirely the entire school of socialist thought. By those standards, anarcho-communists too, are “totalitarians” because they too say they are communists. By such an absurd definition, we could call them “radically anti-authoritarian-totalitarians”. Such a contradiction in terms alone would make the entire broad school of anarcho-communist thought invalid. But communism means the establishment of a classless, moneyless, stateless society. We believe that with the expansion of industrial and scientific achievements, coupled with industrial and political democracy, such a state of being is inevitable. Unlike the Stalinists, we are vehemently opposed to the totalitarian pursuit of a socialist or communist society. Such a pursuit is, in and of itself, anti-Marxist. Communism has nothing to do with totalitarianism, it is the method of pursuing such a society, that can be either totalitarian or radically anti-authoritarian in nature. This goes for capitalism too.
The Jacobins were totalitarian capitalists, but no one today claims that “to be a capitalist means you must be a totalitarian”. Such notions are dismissed by the clearly non-totalitarian paths many nations took to establish a capitalist political and economic system. The only reason they say such things about communism is because the only notable historical expression of the attempt to realize such a society in the public’s mind, has thus far has been totalitarian in nature. We are as horrified by such systems as anyone else. If anything, the current state of affairs in America today is far more authoritarian than any political system we seek to bring about. We, for instance, view mass surveillance programs as indefensible in any society, and believe they should be done away with entirely. The broad consensus of the masses is that individual liberty is precious and should be protected at all costs, that state power is a threat to civil liberty and should be limited, that we should expand the rights we have now to include education, health-care, housing, etc. This is what the socialists want.
As Rosa Luxemburg said, “The proletarian revolution requires no terror for its aims; it hates and despises killing. It does not need these weapons because it does not combat individuals but institutions, because it does not enter the arena with naive illusions whose disappointment it would seek to revenge. It is not the desperate attempt of a minority to mold the world forcibly according to its ideal, but the action of the great massive millions of the people, destined to fulfill a historic mission and to transform historical necessity into reality.”
The dictatorship of the proletariat in America will not come as the result of some armed violent insurrection by a small party of intellectuals. On the contrary, it will come as a result of the conscious actions of tens of millions of people who want a freer, more equal and just world. It will not be something opposed to the popular will of the people, but something that is fully in line with the will of the overwhelming majority, and something that can only come about by the popular will of the people themselves. It will not declare itself militantly atheistic, but something compatible with all religious faiths.
As Leon Trotsky said, “Should America go communist as a result of the difficulties and problems that your capitalist social order is unable to solve, it will discover that communism, far from being an intolerable bureaucratic tyranny and individual regimentation, will be the means of greater individual liberty and shared abundance.
At present most Americans regard communism solely in the light of the experience of the Soviet Union. They fear lest Sovietism in America would produce the same material result as it has brought for the culturally backward peoples of the Soviet Union… Actually American soviets will be as different from the Russian soviets as the United States of President Roosevelt differs from the Russian Empire of Czar Nicholas II… Who else will fight against communism? Your corporal’s guard of billionaires and multimillionaires? Your Mellons, Morgans, Fords and Rockefellers? They will cease struggling as soon as they fail to find other people to fight for them.”
We are not utopians who claim the path to such a society lies as a ready-made formula in the book of some political party. On the contrary, it can come about only through the open and free democratic process itself. The arguments against industrial democracy (socialism) by the bourgeois/ capitalist class today are no different from the arguments against political democracy made by the feudal nobility in the middle ages. They too will be graduated into the dustbin of history. As Rosa Luxemburg said,
“The modern proletarian class does not carry out its struggle according to a plan set out in some book or theory; the modern workers’ struggle is a part of history, a part of social progress, and in the middle of history, in the middle of progress, in the middle of the fight, we learn how we must fight… That’s exactly what is laudable about it, that’s exactly why this colossal piece of culture, within the modern workers’ movement, is epoch-defining: that the great masses of the working people first forge from their own consciousness, from their own belief, and even from their own understanding the weapons of their own liberation.”
The dictatorship of the proletariat is against the political rule of a “central committee”, which almost always constitutes itself as the “only thinking element” within a political party. As Rosa also correctly said,
“The nimble acrobat fails to perceive that the only ‘subject’ which merits today the role of director is the collective ‘ego’ of the working class. The working class demands the right to make its mistakes and learn the dialectic of history.
Let us speak plainly. Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee.”
Our call is a call for the dictatorship of the proletariat is a call for the preservation of individual liberty in a world where privacy, the only real prerequisite to civil liberty in the digital age, is being eroded more and more, day by day, by an increasingly authoritarian far-right shift in global politics. We believe only the socialism can act to truly preserve the grand ideas of freedom, democracy, and equality. And more than that, we believe that only socialism can realize these grand ideas in actuality and not merely on paper. The cause of socialism is the cause of liberty. Such is the nature of the dictatorship of the proletariat.