By W. T. Whitney Jr.
Victor Wallis recently catalogued problems plaguing the United States, among them: “under-representation of oppressed communities,” “voting limitations,” militarization, privatization, “criminalization of oppressed populations,” “constitutional structure” making for an “extreme lack of accountability,” “assault on environmental protection,” and “corporate funding” of political processes.
“Technical transformation” with “pervasive computerization” has “replace[d] human labor-power,” facilitated “speculative trading,” enabled drone warfare, and led to “mass addiction to social networking.” And, yes, wealth inequalities are unprecedented, of which more ahead.
Capitalism is “unhinged,” says Wallis, managing editor of Socialism and Democracy. It’s a “crisis of legitimacy.” But crises are part of capitalism’s make-up, according to Karl Marx (Communist Manifesto) who was thinking of “commercial” crises stemming from “the epidemic of overproduction.” He asks, “[H]ow does the bourgeoisie get over these crises?” Answer: “by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces [and] by the conquest of new markets.” But these measures end up “paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises.”
But help is on the way. “[N]ot only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself,” Marx explained, “it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons, the modern working class, the proletarians.” Workers, “a commodity,” are aroused because, “the resulting commercial crises” make wages “ever more fluctuating.”
“[W]ith the development of industry, the proletariat not only increases in number, it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more.” Crisis begets “numerous local struggles,” and soon they become “one national struggle between classes.” And “every class struggle is a political struggle,” says Marx.
Marx thus introduces the notion of class struggle. Workers, together, will rid the world of capitalism and thereby crises of capitalism. He was thinking primarily of capitalism’s economic crises. Indeed, the Soviet economy, without capitalism, emerged mostly unscathed by the worldwide Great Depression.
But the crisis at hand now extends far beyond the realm of economics. Commenting in 1998 on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Communist Manifesto, the late Paul Sweezy, economist and former editor of the socialist journal Monthly Review, pictured a “capitalism wallowing in a new multi-dimensional crisis – most visibly economic but also ideological, moral, and spiritual.”(1) Almost two decades later, capitalism in crisis threatens the survival of marginalized people throughout the world, and ultimately of all people. The question here is whether or not workers as a class can stave off mounting capitalist crises and their dreadful consequences.
What of the crisis of legitimacy mentioned by Victor Wallis? His “legitimacy” may refer to democratic liberties, rule of law, stable institutional relationships, and tolerance for citizen autonomy, all products of a bourgeois revolution that overcame feudal – era restraints. These reforms contributed to the development of modernity and in Marx’s time benefited bourgeoisie and working class alike.
Now restoration of legitimacy is hardly enough. There is a storm on the way, and its origins lie in the workings of capitalism. Over the years since 1848, when the Communist Manifesto appeared, capitalists have shown that they stop at nothing to defend their gains and generous arrangements. Evidence of their plundering and of pending disaster showed up recently in reports grouped here under three headings: huge inequalities in the distribution of the world’s wealth, the looming threat of nuclear war, and climate change.
Most of the world’s people still lack resources they need for dignity and secure lives, mainly because the rich and powerful have commandeered the world’s wealth. Oxfam reports that, “Since 2015, the richest 1% has owned more wealth than the rest of the planet … Eight men now own the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of the world … The incomes of the poorest 10% of people increased by less than $3 a year between 1988 and 2011, while the incomes of the richest 1% increased 182 times as much.” The New York Times records that the 10 percent richest people in the world control 90 percent of the planet’s wealth. The Credit Suisse Bank says that 149,900 persons in the world each possess more than $50 million; half of them are U.S. Americans. The very rich increased their combined wealth by 17 percent in 2016. There are 1542 billionaires in the world.
The one percent wealthiest U.S. families control 38.6 percent of the country’s total wealth while the top ten percent possess 76 percent. And 400 U.S. citizens have wealth equal to that of 64 percent of their compatriots. Wealth claimed by poorest half of the U.S. population rose to 2.4 percent of total U.S. wealth in 1987, only to fall to less than zero in 2014.
The threat of nuclear extinction compounds hazards of inequality. In fact, “U.S. war planners and weapons manufacturers have set out to make that arsenal more ‘usable’ in order to give the president additional nuclear “options” on any future battlefield.”
Author Michael T. Klare further notes that “Trump signed a presidential memorandum instructing the secretary of defense to undertake a nuclear posture review ensuring ‘that the United States nuclear deterrent is modern, robust, flexible, resilient, ready, and appropriately tailored to deter 21st-century threats and reassure our allies.’” Klare, who teaches“Peace and World Security Studies” at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, concludes that the U.S. action will “make the likelihood of escalation to all-out thermonuclear extermination more imaginable for the first time in decades.”
Law professor L. Ali Khan claims that, “The U.S. warfare establishment comprised of the Pentagon, CIA, White House, warfare industry and their lobbyists, imperial think-tanks (Heritage Foundation), warmongering theoreticians, and ‘hawkish’ congressmen in the House and the Senate, all stimulate a culture of domestic and global fear to promote the making and vending of deadly weapons. Now for years, the war on terror has been used as a grand ploy.”
Climate change, icing on a poisonous cake, was the subject of a recent New York Times op-ed report. Author Benjamin Y. Fong declares that, “The real culprit of the climate crisis is not any particular form of consumption, production or regulation but rather the very way in which we globally produce, which is for profit rather than for sustainability.” He titled his essay “The Climate Crisis? It’s Capitalism, Stupid.”
“So long as this order is in place,” he writes, “the crisis will continue and, given its progressive nature, worsen. This is a hard fact to confront…. It should be stated plainly: It’s capitalism that is at fault.” Fong observes that, “Climate change has made anticapitalist struggle, for the first time in history, a non-class-based issue.” He raises the central question, which is: who will fight to reverse the crisis of climate change and - we would add - the crisis of possible nuclear destruction? Marx’s choice would be the working class. And with good reason: “All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.”
Besides, there’s no one else. Rosa Luxemburg defined options in 1916: "Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism." In order that, as per Karl Marx, the working class can take charge of that transition, his followers need to be rethinking old assumptions. They are building the mass movement and so would do well, first, to downplay for a while the forces of struggle as “industrial workers and their allies.” They would take on a non-sectarian vision of an inclusive working class. Their guiding principle would be that anyone losing the proceeds of his or her labor to exploiters is fit for revolutionary struggle. Not only have factory and shop workers joined revolutions, but also service workers, intellectual workers, the unemployed, and farm workers of the hired-hand, subsistence, tenant, and small-owner kind. Anyone needing regular pay to survive belongs to the working class; others, bent on accumulation and otherwise idle, don’t. Further, working people may become revolutionaries on the strength of grief not directly associated with the extraction of surplus value.
For example, Chinese workers were acting to restore their nation’s independence when they liberated China from Japanese rule in the mid-20th century. Cuban counterparts did likewise in taking on U.S. imperialism. And racial oppression spurred the growth of communist parties in apartheid South Africa and in the U.S. South in the inter-war years. More to the point: exhaustion, terror, and killings caused by prolonged wars helped set the stage for the growth of revolutionary movements in both Czarist Russia and in China. The impact of wars played a role perhaps similar to that of forebodings now of people waiting for the worst of catastrophes.
Waiting no more, masses of people would be taking the revolutionary road as they defend themselves against what’s on the horizon. Communist parties, taking on leadership roles, would suspend judgment on each other’s perceived shortcomings. They would unite and join with non-communist working people and their organizations - for example, groups making up the worldwide peace movement. Communists would do what they do best: agitate, work hard, organize, and educate. They would prioritize consciousness-raising about the root causes of things. Working within political and social movements, even helping out with reform efforts, communists would act to ensure both the end of capitalism and a socialist future.
 Paul Sweezy, “Foreword,” Communist Manifesto, (Monthly Review Press, NY, 1998)