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Stairway to Communism
Marxism as capitalism with a happy ending
The Marxist progression of history can be pictured as a stairway to communism. The journey begins on humanity’s ground floor. Primitive communism is pre-civilized humanity, for example hunter-gatherers, where class division did not exist in a significant manner. Only with the dawn of civilization and the advent of class society does the staircase appear. After a long climb up the stairway, according to Marxists, we finally arrive mankind’s destination—communism and the end of history.
In Marxist histography, the stairway portion of the journey is broken into four main components, each can be imaged as several steps. The lowest steps on the stairway are Ancient Slavery, the mode of production dominant in Athens and Rome. The Germanic barbarians swept away the Roman Empire and established the next stage, Feudalism, which endured over a 1000 years. Capitalism gradually appeared on the scene as a series of revolutions (English, French, American) violently swept away feudal institutions. That was the past, where Marx’s analysis is heavily abstracted but is on firm historical ground.
The future for Marx was mankind continuing the march up the economic stairway, onward up through the stormy capitalism stage. Marx saw this march as a double movement. With every step higher, mankind was increasing his mastery of nature and productive capability—he was creating more wealth. At the same time, mankind was dividing itself into two primary classes—worker/capitalist—and that the cleavage between these two classes was only increasing. Yes, all ships were rising, the bottom most gently, but the relative gap between rich and poor was increasing at an even faster rate. It was this relative wealth gap that humans feel deepest. Marx declared that as man marched step by step up the staircase through the capitalism stages, the internal contradictions of capitalism--its tendency to simultaneously immiserate and expand the proletariat class while enriching and concentrating the rich into an ever smaller plutocracy, would lead inevitably to revolution by the proletariat. But only if the workers continued their struggle up the stairway.
This revolution would lead to the last step on the stairway—the socialism stage—a dictatorship of the proletariat. Although Marx and Engels sometimes used socialism and communism as synonyms, in my work, socialism refers to this stage and communism indicates the top floor of mankind’s ascent up the economic stairway. Socialism is conceived of as a brief transition period before the the arrival of an everlasting communism of abundance.
With this diagram, Marx’s ambivalence towards capitalism becomes clear. Is Marx anti-capitalist? Does he want to “negate” capitalism? The answer is emphatically no! His goal is to keep the workers marching upwards through the capitalism stage. As much as he denounces capitalism, his true fury is aimed at reactionaries—quitters who want to stop progressing up the stairway and who would even dare to take a step or two back down, perhaps towards an idealized version of feudalism or earlier stages of capitalism. In his scientific analyses, Marx often articulates anti-capitalist strategies. But since his political aim is to keep the workers marching up the stairway, Marx rejects anti-capitalism outside of a revolution. Marx’s doctrine can be best summarized as “Capitalism with a Happy Ending.”
The stairway metaphor shows that contrary to what many capitalists and Marxists claim, communism is NOT conceived as an alternative to capitalism, except at the very last socialist step of the stairway. There is no second parallel stairway in classic Marxism. Marx clearly recognized this and proclaimed that as capitalism progressed, the revolution would erupt in the leading capitalist nations, the nations highest on the stairway to communism, such as England, France, and potentially Germany.
As for the United States, up until the Civil War, Marx saw the US as a bastion of anti-capitalism. Workers owning property is kryptonite to capitalism. With all that land to appropriate from the Natives, why would a worker choose to sweat in a mindless factory job when he could plough his own soil or run his own small shop? After the Civil War, capitalism was slowly imposed on the United States through a increasingly strong central government inspired by Alexander Hamilton. Playing the role of a reserve army of labour, after huge injections of huddled masses, stagnant pools of property-less workers appeared in US cities. Nude of property, the huddled masses were easy prey for capitalist exploitation.
Urban America then settled into a standard second-generation capitalist (2GC) pattern of a private capitalist class owning the means of production; a property-less proletariat doing the producing; and a middle/leisure class conspicuously consuming. Little by little, as industrial output increased, the role of consumer trickled down to the workers.
During his life, Marx experienced disappointment and false hopes for revolution. Shortly before he died in 1883, Marx did become aware of the rising revolutionary spirit in Russia. This posed a conundrum. The long-desired revolution was brewing in exactly wrong place! Marx found a work-around for what posed as a huge contradiction of his theories. Revolution in Russia was desirable on the condition that it triggered a revolution in one of the leading nations, which now included Germany. Otherwise a revolution in backwards Russia would just lead to capitalism by other means.
But then as the Great War loomed, orthodox Marxists, including Mussolini and Lenin, tried to convince European workers to fight the capitalists and not each other. Instead of revolution, nationalist agitation launched the imperialist blood bath of WW1. Surprisingly a series of communist revolutions followed, but in disobedience of Marxist theory, never in the leading capitalist nations.
Today there are “pro-worker” stirrings in the US (Trump/Tucker); France (Marine Le Pen) and rhetorically in Britain (Brexit) that express a naïve and conflicted anti-capitalist sentiment. But throughout the 20th century, Marxist revolutions occurred exclusively in poor, retrograde, mostly agrarian societies such as Russia, China, Vietnam, North Korea, Cuba, Angola and Cambodia. These nations were pre-capitalist, which is not the type of places Marx’s theories predicted revolutions would occur. Why were these revolutions occurring in societies much lower on the stairway to communism at same time that leading capitalist nations were heading towards the Golden Age of capitalism, the Fordist and Keynesian Third Generation Capitalism (3GC)?
After taking power at the end of WW1, Lenin addressed these contradictions. On the one hand the Bolsheviks wanted power, on the other hand they wanted the Marxist doctrine they were following to be correct. Worse yet, Marx had left very few instructions or even descriptions of communism. Christian depictions of heaven are equally sketchy, but according to the Book of Revelation, it is Jesus who will govern the millennium. Lenin executed Marx’s work-around in 1918, by sending revolutionaries to Germany, who briefly established the Munich Soviet Republic. The experiment was a disaster, food shortages instantly led to fears of starvation, and the adventure only succeeded in further cementing deep fears of communism within the Germany psyche, and particularly in the Munich psyche. Launching his political career, a young Adolph Hitler was elected to a soldiers’ council of the Munich Soviet Republic.
Lenin passed and after winning a power struggle against Trotsky, Stalin took power and a split occurred. In opposition, Trotsky continued on a “permanent revolution” line, which thanks to transmission though Trotskyite neoconservatives, this doctrine is now the state religion of US Security State, Such slogans as Full Spectrum Dominance and Indispensable Nation are the banners of a global revolutionary movement to turn the world into mini-Americans and proclaim the end of history.
Securely in power, Stalin dropped the revolutionary baggage and preceded to launch what he called “Socialism in One State.” This was a form of state capitalism, where the private capitalist is exchanged for a state bureaucracy. Although there was some existing industry, through sheer will, Stalin turned a backwards feudal society into an industrial power that would lead the race to space. He was not shy about breaking eggs along the path of making this omelet. In little more than thirty years, Stalin led the Soviet Union through primitive accumulation stage, using the Holodomor, peasant collectivization and ruthless “Kill the Kulak” campaigns, stripped Russian peasantry of all their property, and thus creating a proletariat class, a process that took First Generation Capitalism (1GC) hundreds of years to accomplish. Then applying Fordist and some Keynesian ideas, Stalin conjured through pure will an industrial power that stood up to the Nazi War machine, with a little help from his capitalist friends. Stalin appropriated more property from peasants, and squeezed more surplus value from workers, than any single man in history. These types of statistics are just not kept, but Stalin certainly is capitalism’s GOAT.
The Soviet Union erected a Potemkin façade of ideology deployed to cover up the capitalist machinery behind the socialist realism packaging. At the same time Soviet capitalism was heterodox so there were some real differences. In classical capitalism (2GC), there is a leisure class that consumes the commodities produced by the proletariat. This is a crucial step in completing the commodity chain and pouring money back into the private capitalists pockets. And while Soviet bureaucrats did have many privileges, they could never themselves serve the role of a consuming class. War, infrastructure programs, welfare state institutions, and the space program, all served as mechanism of consumption. A true consumer culture never arose in the USSR.
In the US, fueled by capitalist fear of Marxism and the sobering reality of the Great Depression, 3GC created a flourishing consumer culture. When Henry Ford decided to raise worker salaries so they could buy his products, he made a fatal error—from the capitalist point of view. Combining production and consumption into the same person, trickled and then poured wealth into worker pockets at rates never seen before in capitalism. Workers invested in property, opened businesses, and became independent. Capitalists were not pleased. Again, why go work in the factory if you can buy a garage, open my your restaurant, or buy land and raise cattle? The workers who did show up on the factory floor demanded high wages. There was little to no reserve labor army to drive down wages. Profits started falling and capitalists searched desperately for an answer.
They found it in China. China would dispossess their peasants of their Iron Rice Bowls and send them into shiny new Chinese factories, replacing those shuttered in the Rust Belt by US capitalists. This time production and consumption would be segregated. Fourth generation capitalism (4GC) was born; a Chinese proletariat producing for a consuming American leisure class who will serve as global gluttons of last resort. As the USSR floundered, capitalists recovered from their fear of Marxism and injected this very same fear into the Western working classes. The result was Reagan and Thatcher, who in turn freed US/UK capitalists from their uppity domestic working classes. Profits soon flowed into Wall Street, but as time advances, many more profits flow into Chinese government coffers.
Those familiar with Hegel’s Lordship-Bondsman dialectic already know how this story will end. Consuming feels great in the beginning; over time the tables turn because production is power.
Capitalism and Marxism are fellow travelers climbing up the same shining staircase, the only difference is in the details of the carrot. A capitalist claims it is climbing the stairway to progressive prosperity. A Marxist claims it is climbing the stairway to communism. While certainly containing a powerful anti-capitalist core, Marxism as a doctrine is pro-capitalist, insisting its adherents continue marching up those difficult steps of capitalism. All the while the promised land of communism seems further and further away with each step upward.
Hegel based his philosophy on the striking contradiction between an all-powerful transcendent God and a pathetic dying Christ-God suffering a common criminal’s death at the hands of Rome. In a similar way, Marx’s spectre lay crumpled and dying in the rubble of a fallen Berlin Wall as China was launching its long trajectory seemingly towards capitalist global hegemony, with Karl Marx the figurehead of their state religion.
Marx’s anti-capitalist science is a indispensable ingredient for crafting a political “vaccine” for the working class against the ravages of Fourth Generation Capitalism. The religious aspects of Marxism are are vital for capitalists in keeping the workers trudging up that stairway.