Who Is Che Guevara? A Sketch of the Philosophy of an Iconic Revolutionary

“Che Guevara” is a name that pairs with revolution as well as Marlon Brando does with acting. In the Western world, he is almost exclusively known from his legendary photograph Guerrillero Heroico taken by Alberto Korda in 1960 and then processed and commodified into an equally famous T-shirt. This commodification and simplification of Che’s revolutionary résumé also has the effect in capitalist societies of ignoring Che’s subversive beliefs as a full Marxist, socialist, and communist. Almost chiefly from a letter he wrote in 1965, the goal of this blog post then is to sketch out Che’s unique philosophical and Marxist critiques of capitalism and make them more visibly known by summarizing and perhaps even applying them. Before doing so however, it would be appropriate to very briefly provide a biography of him that gives a historical context to his Marxist critiques. Readers should note that for this historical section I almost exclusively borrow and cite from Jon Lee Anderson’s Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, an absolutely exhaustive and authoritative biography on the man.

Che was born as “Ernesto Guevara” in 1928 in the Argentinean city of Rosario. In his college years he studied medicine at the University of Buenos Aires and eventually finished schooling to become a doctor, a profession that proved to be useful in later years when his armed revolutionary career began. In the 1950s, he embarked on his famous motorcycle road trips throughout the South American continent with his friend Alberto Granado who was also a medical student. Che fully documented these trips in his memoir The Motorcycle Diaries, and these trips proved to be extremely influential for both his personality and his ideological beliefs. Che witnessed intense capitalist exploitation, poverty, persecution, and other injustices that when joined with his later reading of left-wing literature solidified his views as a revolutionary Marxist.

In 1953, Che found himself in Guatemala and later fully observed the CIA-led overthrow of Guatemalan president Jacobo Árbenz. The CIA had overthrown Árbenz because his progressive policies of agrarian reform agitated the American corporation United Fruit Company (still existing today as Chiquita). In Profit Over People: Neoliberalism & Global Order Noam Chomsky analyzes this as a case study of how capitalist interests directly affect foreign policy. Earlier, Che had written a letter to his mother mentioning the “Capitalist octopuses” when referring to the United Fruit Company and their exploitation of the continent. In 1954, Che arrived in Mexico City, and in 1955 he had a most critical meeting with lawyer and revolutionary Fidel Castro. Castro had already made an unsuccessful attempt at revolution in Cuba when assaulting the Moncada Barracks the year before, but now with Che he was planning a second comprehensive attempt. Che very quickly arose as a distinguished fighter with leadership abilities during these covert military preparations in Mexico City.

Che and Fidel sailed off to Cuba with their band of revolutionaries, the setting where Che was to achieve his global fame. Involving both jungle and urban battlefields, the Cuban Revolution had lasted a total of five years and led to the overthrow of the American-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista and his replacement by a fully socialist administration with Fidel and Che as the two highest leaders. For several years then Che was involved less in combative endeavors but more in political and economic issues like serving as Cuba’s chief diplomat abroad, leading a highly successful literacy campaign, instituting land reform, and serving as the national bank president. Later, Che was involved in two more revolutions that were unsuccessful, one in the Congo and the second in Bolivia. In Bolivia he was then finally captured and executed in the village of La Higuera on October 9th, 1967 by a joint project led by both the CIA and the Bolivian Army. His last words were “Shoot coward, you are only going to kill a man.”

Che Guevara and Fidel Castro fishing, 1960

Che Guevara and Fidel Castro fishing, 1960

In 1965, Che wrote perhaps the definitive piece of his Marxist theories titled “Socialism and Man in Cuba.” Including historical content, Che claims the central purpose of this letter was to refute the anti-socialist argument that individualism is abolished for the sake of the state in a socialist society. Che proceeds with a variety of case examples to argue his point, but the letter itself contains a number of fascinating philosophical and economic comments that stand alone. The central theory that Che operates under with this letter is that of Karl Marx’s base and superstructure, a mapping of the entirety of society and its systems and institutions. Che then works under the same framework that the Frankfurt School and other critical theorists adhered to, a school that focuses on the type of social relations that a socio-economic system creates. Che then sticks out with his unique Marxism by focusing on socialism as not merely an economic system as many socialists do, but one that also alters morality in a positive fashion. Next is a brief summary of Marx’s base and superstructure followed by an analysis of this letter.

In A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) and other works, Marx argued for a particularly bold social theory called the base and superstructure. For Marx, the base is the given socio-economic system of a time period, “socio-economic” in the sense of how people work, who owns and manages their workplace, and who picks the fruits of the laborer’s work in the format of profit. The superstructure is essentially the category which contains every other aspect of human society, including morality/ethics, religion, family, the state, politics, law, media and so forth. Marxist theorists have argued that the base is what creates and influences the superstructure, and moreover that the superstructure is something which rationalizes and defends the base. Since the two groups are connected, a particular superstructure changes only when the base does too. Che was focused on the superstructure, a superstructure which defends a socialist base after a capitalist base had been destroyed. In his Critique of Political Economy, Marx gives us a rough outline of how this theory works:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.

[...] No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.

Karl Marx argued for a social theory where economics creates and drives many aspects of our lives.

Karl Marx argued for a social theory where economics creates and drives many aspects of our lives. (image author unknown)

In the section “Invisible laws of capitalism,” Che precisely contends that there are invisible, economic laws of capitalism that we are under the influence of but not made aware of due to ideology:

In capitalist society individuals are controlled by a pitiless law usually beyond their comprehension. The alienated human specimen is tied to society as a whole by an invisible umbilical cord: the law of value. This law acts upon all aspects of one’s life, shaping its course and destiny. The laws of capitalism, which are blind and are invisible to ordinary people, act upon the individual without he or she being aware of it. One sees only the vastness of a seemingly infinite horizon ahead. That is how it is painted by capitalist propagandists who purport to draw a lesson from the example of Rockefeller whether or not it is true — about the possibilities of individual success. The amount of poverty and suffering required for a Rockefeller to emerge, and the amount of depravity entailed in the accumulation of a fortune of such magnitude, are left out of the picture, and it is not always possible for the popular forces to expose this clearly.

Che’s analysis of these “invisible” economic laws connects to Marx’s theory of “ideology,” defined not merely and conventionally as belief systems but specifically beliefs which reinforce the ruling, property-owning class of our society. Che referenced the classic “individual success” ideology of capitalism that we also know as the American Dream. Here it does not appear to be that Che is arguing this as unrealistic as the common rebuttal to it goes, but rather that even if it does occur we do not see the immense bottlenecking and hoarding of wealth in capitalist society needed for a CEO to arise. From the vantage point of an economist concerned about inequality it may be easy to see the CEO as part of a class which perpetuates this inequality, but for the vast majority of working class people who are concerned about living the American Dream such a phenomenon that Che calls “invisible” is not even contemplated.

Right after this section, Che introduces his central normative argument, the argument that best summarizes his unique vision of socialism as a moral framework:

I think the place to start is to recognize the individual’s quality of incompleteness, of being an unfinished product. The vestiges of the past are brought into the present in one’s consciousness, and a continual labor is necessary to eradicate them.

[...]

There is the danger that the forest will not be seen for the trees. The pipe dream that socialism can be achieved with the help of the dull instruments left to us by capitalism (the commodity as the economic cell, profitability, individual material interest as a lever, etc.) can lead into a blind alley. When you wind up there after having traveled a long distance with many crossroads, it is hard to figure out just where you took the wrong turn. Meanwhile, the economic foundation that has been laid has done its work of undermining the development of consciousness. To build communism it is necessary, simultaneous with the new material foundations, to build the new man and woman.

The “new man and woman” is the heart of this normative argument throughout the letter, an individual that is essentially more ethical than one could ever be under a capitalist superstructure. It is precisely this new individual that would reinforce a socialist economic base and likewise be reinforced by the base in a feedback loop as previously described. It is possible that Che was unsatisfied by the Marxist theorists of his time who focused merely on the economic base. In the Soviet Union, industrialization was the primary concern and vision for the Communist project, and a conscious focus on superstructure was lacking. Given Che’s mixed feelings about the practice of “socialism” in the USSR in other texts, it’s plausible he was responding to this by offering an alternative framework.

Later in the letter Che explains exactly how such a normative argument would play out in practice. It would involve a new form of labor:

In order to develop a new culture, work must acquire a new status. Human beings-as-commodities cease to exist, and a system is installed that establishes a quota for the fulfillment of one’s social duty. The means of production belong to society, and the machine is merely the trench where duty is performed. A person begins to become free from thinking of the annoying fact that one needs to work to satisfy one’s animal needs. Individuals start to see themselves reflected in their work and to understand their full stature as human beings through the object created, through the work accomplished. Work no longer entails surrendering a part of one’s being in the form of labor power sold, which no longer belongs to the individual, but becomes an expression of oneself, a contribution to the common life in which one is reflected, the fulfillment of one’s social duty.

In order to fully comprehend why Che proposes such a thing, it is important to understand a massive philosophical underpinning that was influential for Che in Marx’s works: alienation. Marx’s theory of alienation was articulated in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and became popular and influential during the time when Che wrote this letter. Marx essentially argued that the laborer is alienated from his or her work in our capitalist society, and he went about detailing this by describing multiple forms. Two of the most notable ones involve the fact that firstly we do not own what we produce in a capitalist enterprise, but rather our product or service belongs to the business owner to be sold by them. Secondly, our labor is used as a means to an end for the owner in this enterprise, and that it is not an end in itself. When this is taken into account, it is easy to see how Che’s conception of labor in a socialist society is a complete negation of Marx’s alienation.

Che Guevara and Fidel Castro playing golf to mock Eisenhower, 1962

Che Guevara and Fidel Castro playing golf to mock Eisenhower, 1962

In the section “Individualism,” Che presents one of his arguments regarding art to rebut the claim about socialism abolishing individualism, which he mentioned at the beginning of the letter. On the contrary, Che sees a lack of individualism in art produced under capitalism, and he finds such individualism only possible under socialism:

For a long time individuals have been trying to free themselves from alienation through culture and art. While a person dies every day during the eight or more hours in which he or she functions as a commodity, individuals come to life afterward in their spiritual creations. But this remedy bears the germs of the same sickness: that of a solitary being seeking harmony with the world. One defends one’s individuality, which is oppressed by the environment, and reacts to aesthetic ideas as a unique being whose aspiration is to remain immaculate. It is nothing more than an attempt to escape.

[...]

The realistic art of the 19th century, however, also has a class character, more purely capitalist perhaps than the decadent art of the 20th century that reveals the anguish of the alienated individual. In the field of culture, capitalism has given all that it had to give, and nothing remains but the stench of a corpse, today’s decadence in art.

In the first passage, Che mentions the alienated, tired, and commodified nine-to-five worker that we all have firsthand experience of. This desolate being then either consciously or subconsciously expresses their alienation through art in a futile attempt to escape their condition. In the second passage, Che claims that the realism in the art of the 19th century has a “class character” and is strongly bourgeois, though he does not analyze any specific piece of art to back up this view. On the other hand, Che critically asks why we should dogmatically consider the only valid prescription for this in the art form of socialist realism that was prominent during the Cold War, and he seems to be wary of placing oneself in a “strait-jacket” by negatively viewing the artists who still reproduce 19th century art and who are in the slow and gradual process of attaining a socialist consciousness. This passage undoubtedly has the tone of critical theory, the framework Max Horkheimer described as seeking “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.”

If Che’s arguments are correct here, then we can conclude at least two things. The first is that individualism is definitely under a stranglehold in capitalist societies, and that not until we advance to socialism can we allow the kind of enamored individualism we desire today to actually be possible. Secondly, and most importantly, any construction or conception of socialism must not be conceived as merely an economic system, but as a wholesome change in the consciousness of the individual to be more ethical. Using the theory of the base and superstructure would mean that vices like egoism feed, defend, and make capitalism possible, while equality and solidarity would feed and defend socialism. This theory also expresses a limitation, because the virtues of the latter are not possible under a capitalist system, and it precisely requires the revolutionary action Che called for and practiced to smash the system and make the building of the new man and woman possible. As Che explains:

It is not a matter of how many kilograms of meat one has to eat, or of how many times a year someone can go to the beach, or how many pretty things from abroad you might be able to buy with present-day wages. It is a matter of making the individual feel more complete, with much more inner wealth and much more responsibility.

- Dino Mehic (Moontouch)

What Went Wrong with Communism?

Definition of terms:

socialism – an economic system characterized by worker control of the means of production. See the following posted earlier on this blog for a full introduction.

Communism with a capital “C” – countries run by Communist Parties who claim to have an interest in moving to lower case communism.

communism with a lower case “c” – A stateless, classless, and moneyless society with the means of production held in common under a post-scarcity economy after socialism has been established. This is the Marxist definition of the term.

Marxism – The mode of analysis of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels centered upon a materialist understanding of society and history and later developed/modified by many intellectuals.

_______________________________________________________________________________

Whether conservative or liberal, many if not most Americans find it easy to proclaim that the 20th century experience with leftism has definitively proven that socialism, communism, or Marxism are “failed” systems. A wide variety of arguments are used by these critics when this is discussed, but many all seem to deal with an alternate economic system different from capitalism being impossible to materialize itself without considerable tyranny or democide. Human nature, it is said, is much too egoistic and selfish to pull off a system as selfless as socialism or communism. It is also said that great evil men like Joseph Stalin had further contributed to the disaster and fanned the flames of totalitarianism. In this post I will propose a significantly different explanation for the root cause of Communism’s problems that will be new to most general readers but is familiar in certain sociological and Marxist circles.

When analyzing history and attempting to find explanatory power for what and why something happens, it is impossible to do so satisfactorily without some kind of theoretical framework. In the United States for example, laypeople are quick to subscribe to the Great Man theory popularized by Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle in the 19th century. The theory is well familiar to us – what happened in Nazi Germany can mostly be attributed to the vicious yet influential Adolf Hitler and likewise the same with Stalin in the Soviet Union. If some other political figures had simply been in place instead of them, history may not have been so painful for so many Germans and Russians.

I will not seek to do a philosophical refutation of this theory alone in this particular post, but rather to propose Marx’s own historical materialism as a satisfying alternative framework for understanding what happened with Communism. This gives us the radical result that Marx’s very own theories can explain the failure of the many societies that claimed to be inspired by Marx. I believe the end result will be persuasive for many readers.

In Marx’s theory of history, called historical materialism, society moves forward to new states, cultures, economic systems, etc. through a conflict between economic classes. A wealthy exploiting class, possessing property while the rest of the society use it but do not own it, is overthrown by the exploited class, creating a completely different socio-economic system. Marx’s definition of class is not based on things like income level, but whether or not one has any ownership of the means of production (factories, restaurants, stores, etc. and all other businesses). In one very critical phase of Marx’s historical timeline, capitalism has the function of modernizing and industrializing a society. This consequently creates a very huge sum total of wealth in a society despite the fact that the majority of the wealth is owned only by a very small section of the business-owning population. Socialism would follow capitalism as Marx argued, and it would improve upon the society by having the entire working class democratically control businesses allowing for a more equitable distribution of wealth (although not a perfect equality and not without material incentives for us to still pursue1)

Milovan Djilas, a Marxist critic of Communism from Yugoslavia, published The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System in 1957. Djilas used Marx’s theory and progression of history to underline a fundamental problem: most or all of the societies that underwent leftist revolutions were not fully capitalist and even to a great extent feudalistic like Russia. As a result, Marx had been wrong on a key point of predicting that the advanced capitalist regions like North America or Western Europe were to be the first movers to socialism. In many of these new Communist countries the leaders themselves understood that their society was too backward and impoverished for socialism and so they developed their nation through an economic system called state capitalism - a term many believe best describes the nations we falsely call “Communist” whether past or present.2 The attempt to rush through this phase of Marxist history had failed as Djilas argued, and a new bureaucratic class had formed signifying a lack of democracy and socialism.

Russia experienced a left-wing revolution on an economically backward society

Russia experienced a left-wing revolution on an economically backward society. (A Peasant Leaving His Landlord on Yuriev Day by Sergei V. Ivanov)

Djilas goes in great detail to solidify his description of the “new class,” which involves them doing everything from using Marxism as a form of religious dogma to inflating their personal wages like CEOs in capitalist countries. As mentioned, the new class had formed because these societies based themselves on state capitalism to industrialize and modernize themselves. One critical aspect of this involved highly centralized planning to industrialize a nation more quickly than a market could, especially during Stalin’s rule and regardless of how much death and suffering was involved. Djilas explains that such intense centralization and capitalist behavior in the society gave birth to a bureaucratic and oligarchic class unaccountable to the vast majority of citizens living in Communist nations, a ruling class just like the slaveholders in ancient Rome, the land barons in medieval Europe, or capitalists in the United States.

Whether they rule Communist or capitalist nations, this historical theory would entail we view political leaders as products of their economic and social time rather than intrinsically good or evil persons who intend to improve or damage societies. Had they been born in and ruled a different society in a different period of time, Communist rulers like Stalin, Mao Zedong, or Pol Pot would have taken extremely different actions and consequently been viewed very differently. Historical materialism then remains a potent tool in the present day to understand the limitations political leaders have with their personal agency. Rather than viewing them as the exclusive carvers and landscapers of history, they are deeply limited by their social systems and in fact directly influenced by them. It is also important to understand that historical materialism is not an ethical framework, and it neither praises leaders we see as good nor excuse the tyrants we see as bad. It is purely a descriptive methodology that does not excuse the actions of Stalin or lionize the braveries of Martin Luther King.

If we assume this historical theory to be true, relentless critics of socialism and communism will find their arguments about post-capitalist systems being eternally impossible to materialize themselves to hold much less weight. A left-wing revolution built on an extremely developed capitalist society like the United States for example would occupy a different trajectory on a historical materialist timeline. Far from the book being closed on post-capitalism, it is more than ever open and with blank pages.

- Dino Mehic (Moontouch)

References:

1. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/ch01.htm

2. http://rdwolff.com/sites/default/files/attachment/4/State%20Capitalism%20versus%20Communism%20CS%202008.pdf

How Capitalism Influences Our Morality

When most people criticize capitalism and its corporations for allegedly creating certain problems in society, they are keen to expose and analyze problems that are very clear and conspicuous. These problems can range from starving minimum wages, pollution of the planet, profit-driven war, inequality of wealth, inefficiency and many other social issues that are concrete and visible. There is one peculiar and more abstract social theory however that is less widely known, and it is the ability in capitalism or any socio-economic system to create and control our ethical beliefs, beliefs that can render our public verdicts on anything from illegal substances, abortion, racism, premarital sex or any particular issue of the day. By use of a known Marxist theory, in this post I shall examine a couple of historical and contemporary ethical issues to draw direct causal links from the economic phenomenon of capitalist profit to ethical behavior or belief. Moreover, because of issues like these I’ll defend that the theory ought to be taken more seriously at least in regards to the morality of our day.

In A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) and other works, Karl Marx argued for a particularly bold social theory called the base and superstructure. For Marx, the base is the given socio-economic system of a time period, “socio-economic” in the sense of how people work, who owns and manages their workplace, and who picks the fruits of the laborer’s work in the format of profit. The superstructure is essentially the category which contains every other aspect of human society, which includes morality/ethics, religion, family, the state, politics, law, media and so forth. Marxist theorists have argued that the base is what creates and influences the superstructure, and moreover that the superstructure is something which rationalizes and defends the base. Since the two groups are connected, a particular superstructure changes only when the base does too. In his Critique of Political Economy, Marx gives us a rough outline of how this theory works:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.

[...] No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.

Karl Marx argued for a social theory where economics creates and drives many aspects of our lives.

Karl Marx argued for a social theory where economics creates and drives many aspects of our lives. (image author unknown)

Marx is very firm and adamant about drawing a direct causal link between the economic system of a time and the previously described phenomena that compose the superstructure. Since his original theory is radical in arguing that most everything reduces to an economic system, many contemporary social scientists do not agree that is the case for absolutely every element of the superstructure. Acknowledging this criticism however, is it possible to understand at least moral opinion or behavior in the context of this theory? Let’s examine two possible applications of Marx’s theory, of which the first will be a function of racism against American blacks in the days of slavery and the second of the legal and moral views on marijuana.

In his highly influential A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn not only plays his historian’s role of detailing the atrocities of racism in the 19th century US but also boldly argues for its material function in society in the master-slave relationship. Far from racism simply being a result of physical discrimination of persons who look very much different from another, racism is a crucial tool for the slaveholding capitalist class to keep slaves in their subservient position required for the slaveholder’s profit:

It may be that, in the absence of any other overriding factor, darkness and blackness, associated with night and unknown, would take on those meanings. But the presence of another human being is a powerful fact, and the conditions of that presence are crucial in determining whether an initial prejudice, against a mere color, divorced from humankind, is turned into brutality and hatred.

[...]

Racism was becoming more and more practical. Edmund Morgan, on the basis of his careful study of slavery in Virginia, sees racism not as “natural” to black-white difference, but something coming out of class scorn, a realistic device for control. “If freemen with disappointed hopes should make common cause with slaves of desperate hope, the results might be worse than anything Bacon had done. The answer to the problem, obvious if unspoken and only gradually recognized, was racism, to separate dangerous free whites from dangerous black slaves by a screen of racial contempt.”

By this view, racism would rest in the superstructure and function as something created and guided by Marx’s base, which in this specific scenario is capitalist slavery. The capitalist has legal ownership and management of the slave’s workplace and the slave’s created profit from the products the slave creates but does not keep. It would be absurd for us to imagine an American slave society, which Zinn argues was historically of the time one of the worst in the world, as being absent of viewing the subjugated group as a lower people. As mentioned before, the superstructure often does prop up and defend the base, which would give racism the function of legitimizing and rationalizing the capitalist base. For example, one common point of racist ideology was and is to compare blacks to wild monkeys in appearance, behavior, and intelligence and to deduce from this that a black person is not socially fit to live independently from slavery. Clearly showing superstructural belief, the racist slaveholder in this case argues that slavery and their participation in it is a vital necessity for society.

More than a century later, American capitalism continued to grow in concentration and de-emphasize smaller level hierarchy like with chattel slavery and instead focus on the corporate model. This also paved the way for new and more complex methods to influence law and ethics. For most of human history, including in the US, cannabis was a substance that was freely produced and consumed.1 In 1619, the Jamestown Colony went as far as to mandate and encourage the growth of the plant because of its immense economic benefits. Not including the many contemporary US presidents who admit to cannabis use, cannabis was also a substance that was used and farmed by many Founding Fathers from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson.2 Lacking any moral and social stigma for much of American history, the legal and ethical climate behind marijuana began to dramatically change starting with the 20th century.

The eventual increased ease and affordability of processing cannabis into many other valuable forms, such as paper and plastic, seriously began to threaten the profit models of established capitalists who owned businesses related to these materials.3 William Randolph Hearst, one such capitalist who owned the nation’s largest chain of newspapers, regularly published propaganda in his papers. In one example, black men became berserk because of cannabis use and raped white women. The chief financial backer of the petrochemical company DuPont, which still exists today, appointed Harry J. Anslinger to the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1931 who campaigned against marijuana. Anslinger also lobbied for the Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act which passed in 1934 allowing individual states to regulate the substance.4 The definition of illegal use of cannabis was continuously expanded over the years by additional laws to ultimately bring us to the status quo.

Starting with the 20th century, American capitalism and government began to successfully propagandize the masses to disapprove of cannabis

Starting with the 20th century, American capitalism began to successfully propagandize the masses to disapprove of cannabis

Even today, lobbying against the growing acceptance and legalization of the plant continues to be purely dominated by capitalist interests whose profit models would be seriously threatened by legal and more widespread use of the plant. Among the top five special interest groups doing so include alcohol companies, private prisons, and the pharmaceutical industry.5 Alcohol companies would face more serious competition in regards to what people recreationally consume, and so they lobby against laws to legalize and tax the plant like with California’s Proposition 19 in 2010. Private prisons, whose populations are composed of huge portions of drug offenders allowing them to make millions of dollars through incarceration, frequently bankroll anti-cannabis politicians and worm their way into our state to combat legalization. Pharmaceutical corporations understand that cannabis is a highly effective replacement for countless prescription drugs that have side effects, and so they are the second most tenacious lobby against legalization. The latest data shows that a majority of Americans support the legalization of marijuana, and yet this corresponds to a majority of states keeping it strictly illegal.6 With the previously described capitalist businesses, it becomes clear then that there is a huge potential for economics being a primary culprit in this with corporations influencing the legal and ethical superstructure.

If Marx’s theory holds any kernel of truth in regards to culture and morality, then there is a serious systemic problem brought on by capitalism which exists in our society and impacts this. If the problem is systemic, then certain social approaches we believe need to be more aggressively pursued will hold little to no societal sway due to attacking the symptoms and not the disease. For example, many anti-capitalists believe that the US government should have gone on a spree of legal prosecution of bankers and other capitalists who contributed to the current economic crisis like in Iceland.7 Presumably such an event would create a legal and moral precedence against others who play the capitalist game to not ever repeat such a catastrophe. A systemic approach to attacking capitalist ethics and behavior would unfortunately not find such a thing effective, as behind the courtrooms and legal codes still exists the socio-economic system of capitalism which drove such behavior in the first place.

By this approach, a paradigm shift is then necessary for all reformers and anti-capitalists if they wish to truly become more effective in reducing capitalism’s power in shaping our moral beliefs and behaviors. Instead of appealing to raw ideas about justice, equality, and altruism within capitalist society in hopes of fighting its morality, we should instead play the role of the social scientist as Marx would recommend and locate the systemic problem: capitalism itself. By doing so we would rattle the foundations of Marx’s base and consequently cause its collapse and that of the superstructure also. Society would finally be free of such economic relations built on hierarchy and self-interest which have a stranglehold on our morality, and we would be able to pave the way for a new economic system which allows the possibility in society to finally enter into the ethical relationships we desire.

- Dino Mehic

References:

1. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/dope/etc/cron.html

2. http://norml.org/marijuana/industrial/item/introduction-5

3. http://wafreepress.org/article/090304marijuana.shtml

4. http://brainz.org/420-milestones-history-marijuana/

5. http://www.republicreport.org/2012/marijuana-lobby-illegal/

6. http://www.gallup.com/poll/165539/first-time-americans-favor-legalizing-marijuana.aspx

7. http://rt.com/op-edge/iceland-bank-sentence-model-246/

What the Hell Is Socialism?

When it comes to the news, political pundits, politicians and even general conversation, “socialism” is quite the buzzword. In fact, Merriam-Webster, the leading dictionary of American English, declared the word as tying with “capitalism” to be the #1 most looked-up word of 2012.In the American liberal and conservative divide of mainstream politics, socialism as a word is generally looked upon favorably from the first group and something to be despised and used as an accusation from the second. Conservatives believe socialism is the forceful and unjust redistribution of wealth, while liberals see it as humanitarian economics modeling itself after allegedly socialist Scandinavian states like Sweden. It may come as a surprise then that both of these views are actually myths, and socialism is something much more transformative as this post will hopefully explain. In this particular post I will seek to neither make a case for or against socialism, but rather to objectively explain it as a socio-economic system so you can draw your own opinion but with more knowledge. In order for us to understand what socialism is however, it’s necessary to understand at least the fundamentals of our own economic system so the immediate contrast against socialism becomes clearly seen, which is where we shall begin.

In every society, including the one in which we live in, people come together socially to transform the properties of nature into a product or service of some value. In early hunter-gatherer societies for example, people cooperated to kill animals, find plants and immediately consume or use that which they created or caused with their own hands. Even if we fast-forward thousands of years to the present we still find ourselves socially manipulating nature to create objects of worth, but with one exception: we are not the masters of our own work like in early societies. When we work in groups, our workplace is always legally owned and managed by someone else, and decisions over the workplace ultimately rests in the hands of this one person or group of individuals at the top. A simple term to describe this which we all understand is the business owner, but social theorists and economists instead prefer the term private property for this hierarchical system called capitalism – the economic system which the vast majority of the working world lives in, including the Western world.

Capitalism's hallmark is the bold, creative and intelligent business owner

Capitalism’s hallmark is the bold, creative, and intelligent business owner.

This most central feature of our economic system of capitalism is that work is structured in such a way that a person’s labor is always being used as a means to another person’s end. Whether it’s the mom-and-pop grocery down the street, McDonalds or a sweatshop in Bangladesh, all capitalist businesses function to generate a profit for their owners, have that profit be placed into their pockets, and for society to generally respect their moral or legal right to do this. In exchange for this the workers of these businesses agree to contracts of wage labor, another defining characteristic of capitalism, which pays them a certain amount of money for a certain amount of work which they need to live in society. In order for the worker to receive their end of the bargain they must create the products or services that the owner wishes to sell and generate a profit out of, but the worker is not allowed to have a share in that profit.

Most economic historians and social theorists agree that this economic arrangement came after the end of feudalism – another socio-economic system that dominated the world in the Middle Ages. Like the advocates of capitalism who pushed society away from feudalism, socialists then came along who wanted to eliminate this hierarchical system of capitalism between business owners and workers and replace it with one which can be roughly summarized as applying democracy to work. Socialists argued that the workplace should not be owned and managed by one or a handful of persons like with the capitalist institution of private property, but rather that it should belong to the whole society or at least to all the workers in the workplace. In this new economic system is also included the belief that the profit of the business which accumulates after a period of time should also belong into the hands of all those who brought it in with their labor – the workers. The socialist argues that an individual’s labor is no longer being used as a means to an end in socialism, but that the labor is an end in itself which allows the individual to pick all the fruits of it.

Aside from resisting inequality of wealth and income, the many famous socialist academics throughout history have argued for a huge range of possible reasons why such a different economic arrangement would be a better and more efficient one. Karl Marx, the extremely influential 19th century thinker for example argued that it would end a psychological alienation that we experience when we work,2 and Vladimir Lenin, economist, political theorist, and the first leader of the Soviet Union theorized it would help to end war which was according to him totally driven by capitalist profit3. In fact, many other people who are highly inspirational to us were also supporters of a socialist society but often kept the opinion under the radar because of the huge social stigma that has surrounded the word. These people include Albert Einstein,4 Martin Luther King,5 Nelson Mandela,6 Charlie Chaplin,7 Marilyn Monroe8 and countless others.

For centuries socialists have envisioned and fought for a different type of society.

For centuries socialists have envisioned and fought for a different type of society.

If it is true that socialism is a complete undoing of capitalism as defined by its workplace hierarchy and a replacement of it with social or democratic ownership and management of the means of production, (the dictionary definition of socialism9) then at least a handful of existing myths should easily be seen to be untrue. First, the liberal belief holds no weight in viewing certain efficiently administered states like Sweden as socialist societies simply because they provide excellent and cheap healthcare, education, transportation etc. Despite these generous services, Sweden still retains the core capitalist hierarchy between owners and workers in its economy, and many socialist critics argue that this capitalist sector flourishes, especially in its controversial dealings with the Third World, and is the only reason for why Sweden is able to sustain its welfarism domestically. Sweden’s economic philosophy is based on a different system called social democracy, a system which was before in history a form of gradual progression to socialism but is now a practice of heavily taxing private profit and income to create a theoretically more humane capitalism. On a similar note, the conservative protest of viewing progressive taxation as socialism, a system where the tax rate increases if income does too, is also false even if the amount that’s taxed from the wealthy is transferred to the poor. Socialists argue to end the need for redistribution in the first place if according to them poverty and inequality of wealth/income are capitalist creations.

A hugely thick fog of myths surround socialism, especially in the United States.

A hugely thick fog of myths surround socialism, especially in the United States.

Another important myth to dispel that comes from both liberal and conservative camps is the idea that socialism always necessitates a full state to exist. Since socialism is a socio-economic system and not a view of government, it does not directly say anything about the latter. Socialism has in fact existed in societies with anything ranging from a very large state to being completely absent of one in the form of anarchism. One such highly fascinating and seldom known example of the second is revolutionary Catalonia, an actual anarchist society of several million people that existed in Spain during the 1930s.10 If a state is to exist, the political theory behind it is known as state socialism and has been advocated for by many academics from Karl Marx to Ferdinand Lassalle. Under this theory, the working class must be fully, democratically, and authentically in charge of the state under a principle similar to the American one of a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” who use the state as a tool to represent socialism. The 20th century left-wing states who competed against capitalist states in the Cold War looked to this theory as their model, but with controversial levels of success.

The final issue to be discussed, and the most complex one without a definitive answer, is socialist attitude towards the market. Defenders of capitalism claim that a crucial part of their system involves a “free market” – an economic system where people can engage in voluntary transactions with minimal to no state interference. Socialists from the Marxist sphere have argued to ultimately but not immediately end all forms of market transaction, while other socialists, like market socialists, have argued that businesses ought to be democratically owned, run, and engaged in the market without any planning - an economics that is run outside of the market and exists even in capitalist countries like with public transportation, libraries, roads, etc. Many socialists believe in balanced approaches where certain industries are democratically planned and the rest are owned and managed by workers who equally divide the profits of the workplace. Most socialists also agree that pay should not be absolutely equal for all workers as some critics believe, but rather that pay amounts should be democratically set (before the equal profit division) by the principle of “to each according to his contribution.” 

In a society where political pundits and propaganda try to push our beliefs one way or another, an accurate understanding of socialism will be one point against them!

- Dino Mehic

References

1. http://www.merriam-webster.com/info/2012words.htm

2. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/labour.htm

3. http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/imp-hsc/

4. http://monthlyreview.org/2009/05/01/why-socialism

5. I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr by Michael Eric Dyson

6. Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

7. http://socialistworker.org/2009/04/16/never-afraid-to-stand-up

8. http://www.pslweb.org/liberationnews/news/marilyn-monroe-targeted-by.html

9. http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/socialism

10. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell