Photo: Duncan Harris from Nottingham, UK CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What It Means to Be a Marxist

It’s unfortunate that there isn’t a better word for “Marxism.” Marx himself famously once said that he himself was “not a Marxist” if certain askew interpretations of his theories of historical materialism and capitalism were “Marxist.” Part of the problem is that the theories and processes that Marx helped create are too big to fall under a single -ism; Marx was a philosopher (and sort of historian) of political economy, that is, the study of production and trade in relationship to laws, customs, and human systems, whose theories helped inform numerous other disciplines and practices: economics, sociology, history, literature and practical politics, among others.

The closest analogy that I can think of is to what we would today call “Darwinism,” the theories of nineteenth century biologist Charles Darwin. Darwin didn’t invent biology, paleontology, genetics, or any of the numerous disciplines and practices that are informed by “Darwinism.” And in fact, there are many aspects of classical “Darwinism”—the theories and conclusions arrived at by Darwin and his immediate disciples—that have been outright revised or rejected by people who today would still consider themselves “Darwinists.” Since Darwin published On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, hundreds if not thousands of scientists and philosophers have expanded on and improved on Darwin’s theories (the so-called “modern synthesis”)—obviously a necessity since during Darwin’s lifetime there was no deep concept of molecular genetics.

It’s useful to think of Marxism the same way. Marxism is not a detailed plan for how to create socialism. Marxism isn’t a moral philosophy, in the way that the Enlightenment philosophers and their progeny—like John Rawls—tried to build up moral systems from first principles to determine what is the most “fair.” It does not instruct us to engage in violent insurrection.

Marx, through his analysis of human society, gave us an understanding of the laws governing how society develops and how we can understand the process of history. His theories of alienation and class struggle inform us as to the causes of human misery and the obstacles to human flourishing. This is the “historical materialism” that is the strongest single thread of his work. Historical materialism is, simply stated, the theory that human societies develop according to how the “forces of production” are ordered, and that the features of a society will, ultimately, relate back to the ordering of the forces of production. People will “relate” to the system of production as a class. Therefore, the core conflict in society has been between classes on opposing sides of the systems of production—this is the dialectical part of his theory.

Just as Darwin was not the first “evolutionist,” Marx was not by any means the first socialist. And as with Darwin and the word “evolution,” “socialism” meant something fairly different before Marx came along. Socialism was basically a moral system, sometimes rooted in Christian values, utopian in character and justified based on what was “fair” or “just.” Marx and Engels spent much of their active years differentiating their theories from prior theories of “utopian” socialism built on moral persuasion—Engels going as far as to publish a book-length pamphlet on it.

Darwin revolutionized existing theories of “evolution” by introducing the concept of natural selection over geologic time—he should better be remembered for the theory of natural selection than evolution; the early title of his book Origin of Species was Natural Selection. In the same way, Karl Marx took existing historical and philosophical analysis of human society and political economy and applied an objective approach, from which he developed the theory of historical materialism/dialectical materialism.

What Marxism teaches us is simply to approach questions of society from a material basis: how does human life persist? Through production of the goods and services needed to live. How are these things produced under capitalist society? Through exploitation of the labor of the working class, that is, by requiring one class of people to sell their labor as a commodity to another class to produce values. What is the result of this system? That workers are “alienated” from their labor, meaning from much of their waking life, constantly required to produce more and more with an ever-precarious access to the means of subsistence.

If we want to engage in political competition and analysis of what Marx would have called “political economy,” there isn’t an alternative to Marxism that has anything near its explanatory power or guidance. That said, I understand the caution many socialists or social democrats may have to subscribing to “Marxism”: Marx’s focus on class “struggle,” the “overthrow” of the capitalist class, and the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” all of which may strike modern American ears as prescriptions for violence and authoritarianism.

It’s important to understand what Marx meant by these things.

The class struggle doesn’t necessarily mean barricades in the streets and summary execution of plutocrats. That these things can result from struggle is a historical fact; but the “struggle” Marx is talking about is the social and political competition between classes, which is always present: whether in the form of wage demands, petitions, law changes, strikes, non-compliance, all the way up to armed revolt. In the Manifesto, Marx describes how sometimes, the capitalists will cave in to demands made via demonstrations and strikes; other times, they will resist until concessions are forcibly extracted. Only the relative strength of the sides determines the nature of the struggle. The whole point of Marx’s method is to understand that the struggle is inherent to the capitalist system; it is objective. How socialists choose strategically to win the struggle depends on many factors, including the avenues available to them to win changes to the system—this is subjective. Whether we like it or not, the way commodities are produced under capitalism will always require struggle between the classes; workers want more, capitalists want them to have less and less.

As for “overthrow,” Marx looks at how previous systems of production were ended and changed into new forms: from hunter-gatherer to militarized, to slave chiefdoms and kingdoms, to feudalism, and then to capitalism. It is true that these transitions were generally marked by periods of violent competition; but (just like with Darwinism) historical study has showed that the violent outbursts were not the chief or only means of change. In fact, decades, sometimes centuries, of smaller changes accumulated over time to put stress on existing systems and bring about major changes. This is especially true of capitalism, which arose in Europe not all at once after the French beheaded enough nobles, but took place over an extended period beginning as far back as the Fourteenth Century. The growth of state-like kingdoms, “free” trading cities, incremental changes in technology, improvements in communications and logistics, and changes in legal systems eroded the basis of feudalism; the French Revolution was one part of a much longer and broader process of change.

Perhaps most misunderstood is the idea of the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” which comes from the Manifesto and a work called Critique of the Gotha Program, but is often interpreted according to the later theories of Vladimir Lenin. The dictatorship of the proletariat does not mean revolutionary terror against class enemies and the death of freedom. It means something very simple: look around you. Do you see how in “free market” democracies, political power is monopolized (or nearly monopolized) by the ownership class? The “dictatorship” of the proletariat just flips this. For Marxists, the dictatorship of the proletariat simply means a period where political power is held in common for the sole benefit of the working class. Getting to this point requires the working class to realize it is in fact a single class, and acting in its own interests. That this be accompanied by violent revolution isn’t necessary.

Dictatorship is bad. We live under a form of dictatorship today: a dictatorship on behalf of the capitalist class. This doesn’t mean working class people have zero freedoms; it means that the states we live in are specifically organized to protect the capitalist system of social relations. Some people can own the means of production and the rest of us have to sell our labor to survive. The dictatorship of the proletariat just inverts this: it organizes the state to preserve the common ownership of the means of production.

Marx and Engels were critical of moral and “fairness” arguments for socialism because they were ahistorical; they lacked a truly rational basis, and were therefore just formed by ruling class ideology. This isn’t unique to Marx, either: a contemporary philosopher, Bernard Williams (no socialist himself) is among the definitive moral philosophers who rejects the idea that we can reason our way to morality. Historically, the forces of production—the thing that determines human flourishing—had never been reordered through moral argument; it had required engaging in struggle—in political competition. Marx was not trying to provoke people into violence. He was merely exposing and acknowledging that the forces of production create a class struggle, which will resolve in a change to the forces of production.

As socialists post-Marx, as with biologists post-Darwin, we merely accept the material reality of the system we live in. The forces of production rest on exploitation to extract “surplus value” and requires commodifying labor, which alienates workers. Struggle is inherent to the capitalist system. Only when workers become conscious of themselves as a class and act on their own behalf will they act to affirmatively end the system. There isn’t really a deep question of morality here; this isn’t about fairness. It is about the struggle between those who control their own destiny and are not alienated from their means of subsistence (capitalists) and those who want this condition for themselves, but are kept from it (the working class).

A word about violence. Like most people, I abhor violence. Violence degrades its perpetrators as it harms its victims. Marx does not prescribe violence, although he does treat it as an obviously common outcome of periods of dramatic change in the forces of production—that is, in periods of “overthrow.” We need to ask ourselves whether major social change has ever avoided violence, and where that violence came from. Consider the U.S. civil rights movement, treated in historical memory as the best example of change from “non-violence.” But wasn’t there violence? The fact is that the state, and individuals, reacted to the demands of Black Americans with violence. There was violence during the civil rights movement; it just wasn’t meted out on a large scale by those demanding their rights. And once those demands were won, there was “violence” of another sort—when the state prosecuted and rounded up hate groups, like the Klan for example, that was a sort of state “violence” we would consider appropriate. Not to mention that attacks on freedom fighters, whether they were freedom riders, civil rights lawyers, or a person protecting their home from a lynch mob, always entailed violence.

And what about the labor movement? From private guads to local police to the federal army, violence was regularly called down on those engaging in struggle to win rights in the workplace. The U.S. labor movement, in fact, was particularly marked by violence, even over its European counterparts, especially in the mountain west where mining and energy concerns regularly called down armed forces to break strikes. Struggle for the workers were strikes and non-compliance; the reaction was violence.

In historical struggle, those clinging to the system under attack are the first to resort to violence. To be a Marxist doesn’t require belief in an armed uprising to bring about a new world, in violent change or authoritarianism. It just means acknowledging as a fact something that already exists: the class struggle. The tactics and strategies workers employ to achieve class consciousness and act to end the exploitative system are ours to determine.

Why contemporary socialism is entwined with Marxism is this understanding of how history moves and how it will move, based not on the moral arguments we make, but on the objective conditions we live in. Workers will not struggle against abstract principles but against living human beings with material interests. In his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Marx wrote that “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.” We can only change the world if we truly understand the actual forces around us. If we want to change the world, we need to be in it, to build from it; to truly be in it, we need to understand it. That makes us Marxists.

I’m a Socialist but I’m Not a Marxist

In the last few months, I’ve been told a dozen times that we DSA members are Marxists. This has come from a variety of sources. I’ve heard it said by old Trotskyists who hope to offer a unified vision of the left. It has been told to me by younger members who probably never read a word of Das Kapital. I’ve heard it in lectures given by the political education working group to new members and seen it on Chicago DSA’s baseball t-shirts.

However, in the light of these various announcements I have a confession to make: I’m not a Marxist, nor are a number of other DSA members whom I have spoken to.

As I was a philosophy major in college with left-wing sympathies, I have read a great deal of Marx and commentaries on him. I find his diagnoses for what is wrong with capitalism to be profound and generally accurate. He deserves praise for his ideas on the alienation of labor. He is, to my understanding, the first person to even suggest that demand-side failures were possible in a market system.

In other areas, I find his theories lacking. His theory of history is unscientific and impossible to use in a way that doesn’t demonstrate that he was correct, even when the data seems to suggest otherwise. I maintain that his visions of an all-consuming and unpreventable final revolution have more in common with a religious view of the apocalypse than a political philosophy based in reason. I am one of many who find his economic ideas to be flawed.

However, even without being a Marxist, I am still a democratic socialist and active member of the DSA. I just have other philosophical justifications for it.

My political philosophy is primarily influenced by the liberal philosopher John Rawls. His famous book A Theory of Justice brilliantly argues for social democracy using liberal principles of justice. These principals demand equal rights for all and a just distribution of wealth which benefits everyone and forbids inequalities that serve only the rich. Rawls also understood that a vastly unequal society would suffer harms to its liberal institutions, which further mandates the correction of massive inequalities.

While his theory is liberal, it doesn’t forbid public ownership of the means of production. Rawls’ primary concern isn’t who owns the means of production, but rather what becomes of the wealth that society generates overall.

He explicitly states that both socialist and capitalist societies could satisfy his principals. Such a socialist society would require a large measure of democratic control. Such a capitalist society would require significant protections for the worker, regulations of the market, and social benefits available to everyone.

Since I largely agree with Rawls, the question is if I should strive to help build a social democratic society in the vein of the Scandinavian model on steroids or a democratic socialist one.

Given the rollback of social democracy around the world over the last few decades even in countries where social democratic parties were the strongest, I am convinced that the only way to assure a just distribution of goods over the long run and assure the success of liberty and equality is to give control of the means of production to the workers.

In this way, I am a socialist for liberal reasons.

These philosophical considerations probably do make me a more moderate socialist than others, but this does not mean that I cannot find common ground with my comrades on the far-left. My 80 percent friend is not my 20 percent enemy.

While I disagree with the end goals and analysis of my Marxist comrades, I agree with them on who should own the means of production. Politics often makes for strange bedfellows and the left has always had problems with this. If we want to avoid the mistakes of the 20th Century, we must not drive away those who largely agree with us over small ideological distinctions.

Marxists of the DSA unite and keep up the good work, but remember that some of us are on your side without sharing your ideology.

Podcast: Sewer Socialism

Sarah sits down with candidate for Municipal Water Reclamation District board seat candidate, and her celebrity crush, Geoffrey Cubbage. He tells her all about why you should care about our sewers and why you should stop being so mean to the Green party.

They also discuss hot topics like:

The great river reversal of 1900
How a sewage treatment plant works
The sketchy dealings that almost kept this seat from getting to a vote
Why Geoff is taking back the term “sewer socialist”
For more information on the Greens for MWRD campaign visit:

And make sure to vote on November 6th!

Report Back: Nebraska’s Red State Conference

The hot August air was stifling as the sun beat down on Lincoln, Nebraska. The oppressive atmosphere was befitting. Like the rest of the country, Nebraska’s marginalized and working class communities are under assault by reactionary forces—attacks on healthcare, education, and women; ICE raids terrorizing communities and tearing apart families; and just last month, for the first time in 20 years and steered by the barbaric whims of its millionaire governor, the state executed a man.

Despite these grim circumstances and the sweltering atmosphere, over 100 people gathered on a Saturday in the cool confines of Lincoln’s Unitarian Church: leftist thinkers, activists, organizers, and newcomers from all over the region. Together, they began creating a new vision of what it means to be a “red state.”

The first annual “Red State” Leftist Conference was the state’s largest explicit gathering of leftists in many decades. Nebraska DSA, Nebraska Left Coalition, Lincoln ISO, and the Black Cat House sponsored the one-day event. The purpose was to nurture unity and share ideas and strategies, all toward building a working-class movement that seeks to dismantle capitalism and other oppressive structures and shift power to the people.

The day kicked off with the panel: “What is the Red State?” Organizers Zac Echola, Jewel Rodgers, Reed Underwood, and Rose Welch discussed the challenges and opportunities of organizing in the Midwest. Discussions ranged from tackling the town and country divide to organizing conversations and models for campaigns.

When contrasting organizing in the Midwest to the coasts, Welch took what she acknowledged to be a controversial stance: “It’s a lot easier here.” She argued that here people actually show up. “There is a lot of opportunity here.”

Between panels, attendees came together in breakout workshops. Topics included post-Marxist thought, intersectionality, accountability and self-assessment, starting a radical space, one-on-one conversations, printmaking, and more. The scope and depth of the workshops reflected the breadth and diversity of the working class. It also reminded us how often capitalism limits our ability to express ourselves, even when we are with our comrades. Rarely are there settings where educators practice having a one-on-one with a steelworker. In one instance, in a workshop on Theatre of the Oppressed—a form of theatre designed to promote social and political change—attendees paired up and engaged in an exercise called “Columbian Hypnosis.” In this exercise, pairs took turns following the hand of their partner as closely as possible with their head. While a fun exercise, it also became a simple demonstration of how class conditions and power relations function.

The second panel of the day was “Where Does the Red State Go from Here?” Three prominent organizers in the region—Hannah Allison, Amanda Huckins, and Brett O’Shea—discussed the future of building leftist power in the Midwest. The discussion included building a strong anti-fascist infrastructure, building dual power, left plurality, and sharing spaces.

“We have access to power,” Huckins told the crowd when explaining her housing work. “But we’re not using that power.” On a similar note, O’Shea explained the importance of leftists reaching out to the working class beyond their political bubble, namely the “depoliticized and the apolitical.” Occasionally the panelists disagreed, particularly along the question of electoral politics. But overall, it ended with an atmosphere of respect and unity, keeping in line with the purpose of the conference.

As the sun began to set and our part of the world slowly cooled, the attendees dispersed. But we had formed relationships, developed new ideas, and strengthened our collective resolve. One thing was certain: Nebraska is not beyond saving. On the contrary, it is just one spark away from a prairie fire.

The Red State conference began, as all things do, as little more than an idea. It was made not only possible, but monumentally successful, through the hard work and planning of many individuals and organizations.

If you have any interest in organizing a regional conference in the model of Red State, contact DSA Lincoln at dsalincoln at We’ll be here, ready to organize with you.

Podcast: Gentrification

Sarah spoke to Jose Requena and Loreen Targos of Pilsen Alliance about what gentrification is and what their organization is doing to push it back. We discuss the Illinois ban on rent control, affordable housing and what needs to shift in politics to make Chicago a city where people can thrive.

Podcast: Cooperative Economy

Sarah sits down with three leaders of Chicago’s blossoming cooperative economy: Renee Hatcher – Director of the Business Enterprise Law Clinic at John Marshall Law School, Mike Strode of the Kola Nut Collaborative and Termaine Davis of Together Systems. What steps are people in Chicago are taking toward creating a solidarity economy? What is a solidarity economy? Also, neoliberalism, de-growth, the problem with TIF (Tax Incremement Financing) funds and Sarah debuts her plan to convince Jeff Bezos to turn Amazon into the world’s largest co-op.

Video: Reflections on 1968: Joanna Misnik and Micah Uetricht in Conversation

Jacobin’s Spring 2018 issue is on the complicated legacy of the upheavals of 1968, fifty years later. To discuss that legacy, Joanna Misnik, longtime socialist activist and Chicago Democratic Socialists of America member, spoke with Jacobin managing editor Micah Uetricht.

Joanna was present for some of the major battles of 1968 and has been a socialist militant ever since. She and Micah discussed how she joined the New Left, what it did right and what it did wrong, and what we should take from those struggles today.

Podcast: Joanna Was There in 1968

This week marked the 50th anniversary of the 1986 protests of the Democratic National convention. Jacobin recently sponsored an event in which managing editor Micah Uetricht interviewed long time leftist activist Joanna Misnik about her experience organizing in 1968 and in the years the followed. She demonstrated alongside everyone from Allen Ginsberg to Abbie Hofman and learned from the victories and defeats of their movements.

Debs Dinner 2018: A Speech by Alderman Dylan Parker

The following is a transcript of a speech given by Rock Island alderman and DSA member Dylan Parker at Chicago DSA’s Debs-Parsons-Randolph Dinner fundraiser on May 18, 2018. This speech has been edited for length and clarity.

My name is Dylan Parker and I am honored to stand before you today. In April of last year, I became one of a handful of DSA members that are also privileged to represent our communities with elected office. I am proud to represent Rock Island’s 5th Ward—a ward of diverse and organized neighborhoods—on City Council.

While socialism admittedly did not come up much during my election, my campaigning on municipal broadband internet, resident-focused development, and neighborhood organizing won me two votes for every one that my opponent received. However, I feel I should fill you in on a conversation I had recently with a local business owner. He informed me that he had heard I was one of these “socialists” and that I was going to take all the money hard working folks had earned and give it to people that didn’t work. By the end of our conversation, he told me that I was a fine individual and that he would, should I ever desire, support me in running for higher office. I thanked him for his words and left it at that—but between you and me, we all know what he was describing is actually capitalism.

Let me offer a little backstory for the 2017 Rock Island municipal elections. For several years prior to the election, the previous council and city staff, recognizing the need for more retail sales tax revenue to support city functions, engaged in a multi-year $25 million dollar bonding campaign to bulldoze a derelict strip mall in an economically depressed part of town in hopes to secure a new Walmart. It was massively unpopular with residents and when Walmart finally rescinded their proposal to build in Rock Island, the city was left holding the multi-million-dollar debt bag. Money that historically had been used for street repair was shuffled to finance debt payments and we still, to this day, have a massive empty lot waiting for development. Understanding this climate, it didn’t take ardent socialists to respond to my campaign mailers renouncing “corporate welfare.” However, what was most incredible, upon being sworn in as alderman, was the council’s complete lack of ideas for what to do next.

So, I pounced on the opportunity and used the citizen backlash against city-funded speculative development agreements to fuel support for programs that benefit ordinary residents: neighborhood empowerment, open government, urban gardens, and welcoming policies for immigrants and refugees. As our council is revving up for this year’s strategic goal setting session, I’m confident that we’ll pass policies that clamp down on landlords and vacant property owners, increase our city’s commitment to environmental sustainability, and explore ideas like participatory budgeting.

None of this, mind you, is under the banner of Socialist Alderman Parker. I recently had a conversation with our mayor, who is likely the most opposite from me regarding the political spectrum, about our city’s problem of local small businesses failing to have succession plans. When the owner is ready to retire, they simply close shop, resulting in job loss and tax revenue loss for the city. I recently proposed that our city create a worker-buyout program to assist workers to collectively buy their places of work from their ready-to-retire bosses. It’s 100 percent within the motto of socialism’s “workers owning the means of production,” but it’s also a realistic proposal to resolve an issue we have in our business community. I’m often asked what it’s like being a DSA elected official, implying that every day is some Bernie Sanders-style battle with “the establishment,” but in many of our cities and smaller communities around the country, people are simply looking for ways to alleviate the devastation that capitalism has wrought. I pride myself on the fact that my constituents—if they’re paying attention—will easily state that their elected representative is a socialist, but it’s often made matter-of-factly and without drama. That’s where we should aim to be: recognized as responsible members of society and government that offer realistic solutions to the problems that regular working people face.

I don’t mean to make this sound easy. By proposing realistic solutions, we, in turn, threaten the ruling class’s wealth and ability to control. Local internet companies haven’t started a smear campaign against our city-owned ISP proposal, but it may very well be coming. I don’t think I’m the only one in this room that recognizes the naivete of walking up to the Democratic Party and asking if they’ve simply ever heard of cooperative-based economies. But, the way that we defeat the rhetoric-laced red-scare attacks on socialism is by advocating politics and policies that clearly benefit most of humanity: workers.

So, where do we go from here? In the words of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., what is the “real and genuine alternative providing the same living standards and opportunities which were swept away by a force called progress?” All of us in this room know the answer: democratic socialism. The threat of automation is not a threat of liberating the working class from repetitive menial labor, but rather a threat of further ownership consolidation by the capitalists. As socialists, we should advocate for replacing human-machines with mechanical-machines. As humans, our days should be spent in recreation or the humanities—outdoorsmanship, music, family, or creative ambitions—not tied to an assembly line for hours on end.

No, the threat of automation is the same threat of capitalism: that the individual with private property rights to the means of production deserves all wealth generated from said system. Just as the very 35,000 workers that assembled here in Chicago back in 1884 knew, so do we know today: the private property rights that allowed man to enslave man, king to conscript serf, and boss to employ child are corrupt, arbitrary, and immoral. So, too, is a system that “snuffs out the hopes and lives of the people by whom the industry was built.”

Therefore, we offer an alternative to massive unemployment or meritocratic job-readiness training programs: that each cabbie replaced by an autonomous vehicle be part-owner of their replacement; That social safety nets are sufficient to alleviate the suffering of unemployment; That the basic necessities of life be ripped from commodification and privatization and rather offered to and provided by all.

This is our charge—from the smallest of cities to the largest of metropolises, from rural farmland to concrete jungles—the needs of all shall not be subservient to the desires of a few. It is a simple message, but it is a deep-rooted and powerful message, one that resonates in the quiet chambers of Rock Island’s City Hall and through the boundless neighborhoods of Chicago.

It is a brand-new day in America, comrades. The crimes against our communities by the Walmarts of the world are becoming more and more apparent. The truth of wealth inequality, racial inequality, sex inequality, class inequality, and all the other ways in which humanity subverts the autonomy of another is rising. The truth of liberty, justice and equality is still climbing the scaffold. With your help, it shall be overcome.

Solidarity Forever. Thank you.