Marxist-Humanism FAQ


Q: What is Marxism?

A: Marxism, also called the philosophy of dialectical materialism, is a philosophy based on the writings of Karl Marx, 19th century economist and humanist philosopher.  There are many different aspects to Marxism; it contains an interpretation of history, an analysis of economics, certain political positions and other elements.  It is a system of thought.

Q: What is humanism?

A: Humanism is an ethical philosophy in which human interests, values and dignity are most important.  With respect to morality most humanists will focus on the people involved, instead of what some supernatural being (god, the devil, etc.) would want.  Although humanism is popular among atheists, not all humanists are atheists.

Q: What is Marxist-Humanism?

A: Marxist-Humanism is a form of Marxism that focuses on the humanist side of Marx’s philosophy.  Other Marxists often tend to downplay or ignore the humanist side of Marx’s philosophy. 

Q: What theorists do Marxist-Humanists draw from?

A:  Besides Marx, we draw extensively from Raya Dunayeskaya, founder of Marxist-Humanism in the U.S, Rosa Luxemburg, cofounder of the German Communist party, Franz Fannon, and others.

Q: What is the Marxist Interpretation of History?

A: The Marxist interpretation of history is called the Materialist Interpretation of history.  Basically, Marxists believe that the driving force of history is the class struggle.  Class is your relationship to how things are produced and distributed.  All of history has been the struggle of different groups (classes) trying to get larger and larger slices of the economic pie.

The first human societies were hunter-gatherer societies.  Marx described their economic system as primitive communism.  These societies were barely able to produce enough food to survive and had no classes.  Everyone produced what he or she could and things were distributed based upon what they needed.  As time went on we learned betters ways of producing food; we made farms, created tools, etc.  This meant that not everyone would have to work in order to feed everyone.  One group of people could extend the amount of time they work beyond what would normally be required to feed them in order to produce enough food to feed everyone else.  This resulted in the creation of classes.  The creation of classes also resulted in the creation of the state.  The values produced by extending work beyond what is necessary for the producer to survive are called surplus value.  The State was necessary for the ruling class to insure that they remained on top and force the lower class(es) to produce surplus values.

As time went on much of the farmland became concentrated in fewer and fewer hands due to buying up of the land, indebtedness, and inheritance.  People who fell into debt and couldn’t repay it were often made slaves and new slaves were acquired by conquest (in the past it was not uncommon for the victor in a war to enslave part or all of the conquered population).  This resulted in a class system consisting of slaves, a powerful aristocracy (in Rome they were called Patricians) and a poor peasantry (who were called Plebeians in Rome).  As expected, each class fought each other, trying to improve its position.  As trade and commerce grew merchants and artisans grew in power.  The aristocracy initially monopolized political power for itself, however the merchants & artisans allied themselves with the poor peasants in battle against the aristocracy.  In ancient Greece they succeeded in gaining political power, creating the first democracies.  The democracies, however, were really only democratic for the ruling class.  Slaves were not allowed to participate in the government.  In Rome the Plebeians never quite managed to achieve full democracy, although they did manage to get many concessions from the Patricians.

Slaves tend to have a high death rate, and so to keep an economy based on slavery functioning for a long period of time it must continually capture new slaves.  This meant that each country would have to continue conquering new peoples until it was conquered by another nation or until it expands to the point where it can’t expand anymore (as happened to Rome).  As the rate of conquest slowed, the flow of new slaves slowed and the price of slaves increased.  A slave system became more and more inefficient.  This caused the mode of production to change from a slave-based system to a feudal one.

Under Feudalism, all land technically belonged to God.  Former slaves were made peasants and given a plot of land to farm by their landlords.  Peasants produced the food and were required to pay a portion of their work to the ruling class.  There were essentially three classes: the Nobility, the Clergy and the peasants.  Slavery still existed, but it was not done on the massive scale as during Roman times.  This economic system was dominant throughout Europe for all of the Middle Ages.

As with all previous systems, Feudalism eventually gave way to a superior system, Capitalism.  This was caused due to a process that Marx called Primitive Accumulation.  The government carried out actions that deprived large numbers of people of their land and created a new class.  This class had no access to the means of production and were forced to sell their labor to others if they wanted to survive.  They are called the Proletariat (or workers).  Simultaneously large fortunes in money were accumulated due to the conquest of the New World and other colonial ventures (previous fortunes were held primarily in land).

Many of those who had money decided to invest it and make more money.  They purchased (or already owned) a portion of the means of production and then proceeded to buy labor from the proletariat.  When economic times were good, the commodities produced this way were sold at a price higher then the combined price for the labor and the means of production.  This resulted in the owner making a profit.  This created a new class, the bourgeois (or capitalists).  The profit motive caused by this new mode of production causes the means of production to grow at a much faster rate then in any previous system.  Eventually the bourgeois and the feudal nobility came into conflict, each wanted to be the ruling class.

This eventually erupted into revolution as the bourgeois overthrew the Nobility and established themselves as the ruling class.  This is what happened in the French Revolution, the English Civil war and elsewhere.  Out of this emerged modern Capitalist society, which dominates the globe today.

Q: What does the materialist interpretation of history say will happen in the future?

A:  Under capitalism the means of production are constantly revolutionized.  A capitalist economy grows at a rate much faster then any previous system has ever done.  Eventually that economy will have grown so productive that the amount of work required to produce the basic necessities of life will have shrunk to little or nothing.  Then that society will be ready for the next economic system.  Eventually the proletariat, possibly prompted by a depression or a major war, will revolt against the bourgeois.  Once the bourgeois have been defeated a new economic system will emerge.  In this new system the means of production will be democratically owned and controlled by the people and things will be produced & distributed on the basis of need, not profit.  In this society things would be produced “from each according to ability, and to each according to need.”

Q: How is a capitalist economy structured?

A: A capitalist economy is one in which the means of production are owned by a small group of people and the rest of us must sell our labor to them to survive.  Those that own the means of production are called the bourgeois or the capitalists.  The rest of us, who must sell our labor to the capitalists, are called the proletariat or the workers.  When the capitalist buys our labor he has the worker build commodities.  Those commodities are then sold on the market at a price higher then the labor that produced it.  The amount by which the price exceeds the cost of the labor creates profit.  The profit then goes to the capitalist, who usually amasses great fortunes from it without actually producing anything.  There are many variations of capitalism, such as monopoly capitalism and state-capitalism, but all capitalist economies share these basic traits.

Q: Do you have to work in a factory to be a worker?

A:  No.  At least not the way we define the term worker.  A worker is someone who does not own the means of production and therefore makes a living selling their labor power to capitalists.  Whether you flip hamburgers, write computer programs, or build cars doesn’t matter.

Q: Is America a capitalist country?

A: Yes.  The U.S. has all the characteristics of an advanced Capitalist society.  The means of production is concentrated in the hands of a few people while the rest of us must sell our labor to the capitalists.  Most of us don’t own factories or farms – we have to sell our labor to survive.  There are a small number of people who do own the means of production.  They are the CEOs, major stockholders and business owners of our country – the capitalist class.  This capitalist system results in major inequalities in our society; as of 1999 the richest 1% of America makes has more wealth then the poorest 90%.  America, in fact, has gained a reputation of being staunchly capitalist due to our government’s staunch support for the system.

Q: How many other countries have a capitalist economy?

A:  Virtually the entire world is now one big capitalist economy.  This has been referred to as global capitalism; capitalism that extends around the world.

Q: Don’t the rich make a lot because they’ve earned it?

A: No.  The average CEO makes hundreds of times what the average worker makes.  It is physically impossible for a CEO to work hundreds of times harder then a worker, there just aren’t enough hours in the day.  A farmer does much more useful work then an Actor or a CEO (the farmer produces food without which we couldn't even live), yet under Capitalism the CEO gets paid hundreds of times more money.  The rich are rich because they make money off of our work.  We are never paid the full value of what we produce.  If we were then there would be nothing left over for the company’s profits.  The extra value that is produced is distributed to Capitalists.  This is where he gets his income.

Q: Don’t capitalists do valuable work by managing the business?

A: No.  The worker’s have repeatedly proven that they are capable of running the workplace on their own without capitalists bossing us around.  Worker’s revolutions, such as the Paris Commune, have repeatedly proven that worker controlled economic systems work very well.  If we can elect our president, our mayor, our senators and even our dogcatcher, why can’t we elect our bosses as well?  We should; democracy should not stop at the workplace.

Q: How did Capitalism spread around the world?

A: Capitalism first developed in England.  Not long after that other parts of Europe, who were previously feudal like pre-capitalist England, developed into capitalism.  The rest of the world advanced to capitalism through conquest.  When Europeans colonized America they wiped out the original inhabitants and brought people from their own countries in.   These new inhabitants established social systems similar to the ones from their homeland and that included capitalism.  This established Capitalism in the Western Hemisphere.  In the later half of the 19th century capitalist nations began producing more goods then they could sell in their domestic markets.  So they started seeking out foreign markets.  This led to Imperialism.  Foreign countries were required to agree to allow foreign goods to be sold in their country or face the wrath of a superior military.  Puppet governments, protectorates and sometimes outright invasions were frequently (and still are today) the result of Imperialism.  This destruction of native social system and the forcing of goods into their society (thereby creating markets) have caused virtually every country in the world to develop into a capitalist society.

Q: What is socialism?

A: Socialism is an economic system in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the people.  Socialism is economic democracy.  People unfamiliar with socialism (or seeking to slander socialism) sometimes use it to mean state control of the economy, but this isn’t completely correct.  Historically many socialists have advocated state control, but not all socialists.  Those that do are called state socialists.  The idea that socialism is state control seems quite silly when you consider that anarchists, who advocate immediately abolishing the state and capitalism (and all other forms of hierarchy), are socialists.

Q: What is communism?

A: There are basically two definitions of communism.  The first refers to a society similar to the Soviet Union or China.  It has a totalitarian one-party state running the economy and controlling citizen’s lives.  Political rights are frequently repressed.  The second definition is a society in which the means of production are owned by the people and in which things are produced & distributed on the basis of need.  Under communism there would be no money and there would be no rich and no poor.  This kind of Communism is one form of socialism.

Q: Was Marx a Communist?

A: That depends on what you mean by Communist.  If by Communist you mean someone that wants a society in which things are produced and distributed on the basis on need (the second definition as described above) then yes, he was a communist.  Marx called the new society that would come after capitalism Communism.  If you are referring to a one-party totalitarian state then Marx was definitely not a communist.  The Communist manifesto, which he wrote along with his good friend Fredrick Engels, stated, “the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.”  Marx in fact condemned “crude communism”, communism achieved by totalitarian means. Unless otherwise specified, this document will use the word Communism in same sense Marx meant it.

Q: What exactly will Communism look like?

A: The details of what post-capitalist society will look like cannot be predicted ahead of time.  By analyzing previous attempts at revolutions and our own capitalist society one can, however, determine some less specific descriptions of Communism.  Full fledged Communism probably will not appear immediately after the revolution.  There will likely be a transition period from capitalism to communism during which some elements of capitalism remain.

Q: So what will this transition period look like?

A: The first thing that will occur is the revolution.  The workers organize and elevate themselves to the position of ruling class.  They will seize control of the means of production for themselves. The workers would democratically manage the economy.  Pay would be based on how much labor you contribute to production (minus what’s necessary to support the schools, administration, etc.).

Q: What other phase will Communism go through?

A: Immediately after the revolution society will enter what Marx called the lower phase of Communism.  Some Marxists have called this phase Socialism.  In this phase pay would be based on the amount of labor you put in.  During this period of time production would be reorganized so as to be less alienating and more pleasing.  The means of production would probably increase at a rapid rate.  Automation of factories and other jobs will proceed at a much faster rate.  Once “all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly”, scarcity will be ended and society will advance to the higher phase of communist society.  In higher communism distribution on the basis of labor will be ended and things will be distributed on the basis of need.  Marxist-Humanists believe that this will eventually lead to completely new human relations.  Exactly what those will look like cannot be predicted this far ahead of time.

Q: Don’t people need an incentive to work?

A:  The answer to this question depends on what exactly you mean by “work”.  If by work you mean mere labor, then no.  People labor for free all the time.  Linux, the only computer operating system with even a small chance of competing with Microsoft’s Windows, was developed on a volunteer basis with no monetary incentive.  People engage in hobbies all the time – this is labor done without any monetary incentive.  Human beings are naturally productive.  We do not like to sit on the floor and stare at the ceiling for weeks.  We’ll get bored and go do something.

If by “work” you mean unpleasant, alienating work then yes, most people won’t do such work without economic incentives/threats.  That, however, is not a problem for us because we intend to abolish that kind of work.  It will be unnecessary because all work that no one want to do that is necessary for survival will be automated.  If it isn’t necessary for survival and no one is willing to do it then it’s probably not worth doing in the first place.

Q: Doesn’t the fall of the Soviet Union prove that Communism doesn’t work?

A: No.  Except for a brief period in it’s early years the Soviet Union was State-Capitalist, not Communist.  In the USSR you had a minority controlling the means of production and everybody else had to sell their labor to them to survive.  This is the same as in any capitalist system.  Although the state ran the economy the same class relationships as in any capitalist society were there.  A truly socialist country puts the means of production in the hands of the proletariat, not a few unelected bureaucrats.  The transition of State-Capitalist countries to Corporate Capitalism doesn’t say anything about Communism.

Q: Was the USSR always State-Capitalist?

A: No.  The Russian revolution, which created the Soviet Union, was a genuine Socialist revolution.  The Russian lords and capitalists were overthrown and the factories were put under the control of worker’s organizations, called Soviets.  However, with Stalin’s rise to power control over the state and the economy slipped from the hands of the workers and their supporters and into the hands of state bureaucrats.  This went hand in hand with Stalin’s five year plans, which industrialized the Soviet Union.  These bureaucrats ended up becoming a new capitalist class. 

Q: What does the unity of philosophy and action refer to?

A: It is a Marxist-Humanist idea that says that both philosophical theorizing and social activism should be closely linked.  On one hand, if you want to change something you obviously need to do some activism.  On the other hand, if you want to change something you’re also going to need to understand what you’re fighting.  Thus, you need both.  What this means is that we do things like spending the first part of our meetings talking about theory and the other planning activism.