James Petras on the CM

Wed, 04 Mar 1998 13:28:43 -0500
Louis Proyect (lnp3@columbia.edu)

The sequence of capitalist expansion, destruction of traditional bonds and
global integration was, according to Marx, the process of creating a
unified working class, conscious of its class interests and linked across
national boundaries. His chain of reasoning lacks a clear understanding of
the importance traditions and social bonds preceding capitalism played in
creating social solidarity for confronting capitalism and sustaining class
consciousness. When Marx describes the bourgeoisie as reducing human
relations to the "cash nexus" as a prelude to the development of class
consciousness, he is essentially describing the condition of the U.S.
working class--probably the least willing and able to identify its source
of exploitation let alone struggle against it. The stripping of older
beliefs--what Marx and Engels unfortunately called "philistine
sentimentalism"--includes the sense of community and not necessarily belief
in a "natural superior." Thus the assumption that the "everlasting
insecurity and agitation" that the Manifesto's authors associate with
capital's "revolutionizing of the means of production" does not necessarily
"compel [man] to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life and
his relations with his kind." In fact, economic processes are having the
opposite effects in deepening reaction, atomizing labor, stimulating ethnic
warfare and undermining a vast swath of economic production throughout
Latin America, Africa, the ex-USSR and elsewhere.

Thus the centrality of "tradition" and culture and community in defining
the formation of class consciousness is lost before Marx and Engels'
sweeping and uncritical celebration of the revolutionary potential of the
development of the forces of production.

Similarly, the savaging of the Third World labor force occurring under the
aegis of the internationalization of capital has not led to greater class
consciousness or "civilized" behavior. One look at free trade zones should
dissuade anyone of that notion. Instead, it has broken class ties and
fostered greater deference and servility.

Bourgeois globalization has not created "a world in its own image" as Marx
and Engels argued. Today these are the "sentimental pieties" printed out in
World Bank public relations handouts trumpeting the "modernization" of the
Third World.

Their lack of a sense of class consciousness directly related to the
producers and not derived from the capitalist process of production
explains the difficulties many "Marxists" have in creating an alternative
to capitalism. Today capitalists don't "call into existence the men who
will wield the weapons" to deal a death blow to capitalism. They create
millions of frightened, uncertain, temporary workers, tied to the cash
nexus. To become a Marxist in the sense of realizing the goals of the
Manifesto, one must reject Marx and Engels' false assumptions about the
"revolutionary role" of the bourgeoisie. To move toward working class
action, their conception of the transformation of workers into a
revolutionary class must be subjected to the harshest criticism.

Where Marx and Engels say that "man's consciousness changes with every
change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations
and in his social life" the changes that capitalism has wrought have
undermined the construction of a revolutionary consciousness at every
point. The notion that the bourgeoisie revolutionizes production through
competition and in the course "forces" workers to "confront" their
conditions and subsequently join together is false on all counts. The most
important change is not the revolutionizing of production, but the
transformation of political and social relations throughout the world in a
fashion that undermines the possibility of "material recognition of

To speak of the Manifesto today, one must move from the brilliant economic
analysis to the revolutionary conclusions by constructing a new theory of
revolutionary action.

(from a symposium on the CM, in the latest issue of New Politics)

Louis Proyect