Arguing with Louis Proyect about Marxist theory is like playing chess with Garry Kasparov, or discussing physics with Albert Einstein. It doesn’t look like much fun for the amateur. I hardly dare take him on. Still, his recent post entitled Does anyone ever get the revolution they ask for? is so compellingly interesting that I can’t resist a reply. Along the way he asks another great question: Is Marxism dead? Let’s consider that one first.
Marxism is not dead for generally the same reason that creationism is not dead. Both -isms resonate strongly in the human psyche--it is easy for people to believe them. Creationism offers the simpler example. Imagine a toddler having a conversation with his mother:
Toddler: Mommy, why is that mountain there?
Mother: Because God put it there.
Most 2-year-olds will find this explanation entirely satisfactory. Mother’s reply asserts that the mountain is intentional, and the natural, nearly irresistible inclination for people to ascribe motives to everything means that evolutionists will never win the public relations argument.
Now consider this dialogue between toddler and mom:
Toddler: Why are we so poor?
Mother: Because the rich people stole all the money.
This is even more believable, for it not only assigns motives--it also assigns blame. Mother’s explanation slides into the mind like oil in an engine--it is so easy to learn, and very hard to unlearn. Marxism is not only not dead--it never will die.
The problem, of course, is that neither creationism nor Marxism are true. The Marxist assertion that rich people got that way by cheating workers out of their rightful wages is just straight-out, empirically false.
Walmart is an excellent example. The Walton family today is worth about $100 billion--a fortune that Sam Walton accumulated during his 40-year career. It sounds like a lot of money until you learn that the annual net revenue (sales minus cost of product) for Walmart is $500 billion. In other words, Walmart nets five times more than Sam Walton’s entire net worth in one year. Multiply that sum over forty years (and adjust for inflation), a conservative estimate is that Walmart has generated $10 trillion in revenue over the course of Sam’s career.
So Sam managed to pocket about 1% of Walmart’s total revenue. Who got the 99%? Well, to borrow a phrase, the 99% got the 99%. First, workers got paid. And more importantly, customers got good deals. Since Walmart’s customers are mostly poor people, the primary benefits of low prices accrue to the bottom half of the income distribution. That’s not the whole story--Sam bought much of his product from China, and so did a lot to raise the standard of living in China. Indeed, I think Sam Walton did more to eliminate poverty than any other human being in history. Far from stealing from workers, he created millions of jobs for the poor, and fulfilled his mission to give common folk the chance to buy the same things that rich people buy.
Marxism is just flat-out wrong.
Regarding the other question--can we get the revolution we want--I am not capable of following the debate between Mr. Proyect and Erik Olin Wright. Still, at risk of getting into a discussion that’s over my head, let me weigh in on this.
For Marxism, the study of history is central. Marxists view history in large-scale, hydrodynamic, tectonic terms--there are powerful social forces, irresolvable conflicts of interest, class struggles, historical trends, and material conditions. All these ingredients are combined into some mysterious dialectic through which the tea-leaves can be read, and the path forward for humanity can be discerned.
This does not seem to me to be an accurate view of history. History is instead a sequence of random events, piquantly illustrated by the (apocryphal) German newspaper headline of 1919: “Archduke Ferdinand discovered alive! Great War was a mistake!” And indeed, whether or not the Archduke survived his assassination, World War I was a mistake--and nothing more than that. It reflected no great, underlying social or historical conflict. And neither did World War II, which could easily have been prevented had the colonels’ plot to assassinate Hitler been successful. History, far from being the grand drama of class conflict, is instead a tawdry little tale about how, for the want of a nail, the kingdom was lost.
Now even I acknowledge that history can’t be entirely random, for some long-term trends are readily apparent. For example, how can one explain persistent technological progress, much accelerated over the past 400 years? This is not random. And neither is the readily measurable decline in violence over past millennia--we live in the most peaceful time in history. And finally, social structures have become ever more enabling, making people richer. Capitalism is vastly better than slavery. These phenomena do require explanation, though I suggest the answers are more likely to be found in evolutionary psychology, not in Marxist dialectics.
A revolution is a radical change in the political dynasty, during which exists a period of mob rule. In the French revolution, there was a dynastic change from a monarchy to a republic, separated by mob terror. In the Russian revolution the dynasty changed from a serf-based monarchy to a “proletarian” republic, separated by mob rule. The so-called Arab Spring involves a dynastic change from secular dictators to (not totally yet clear what), separated by mob rule (which we are still in the middle of).
The problem with mob rule is that there are many more ways for it to go wrong than there are for it to come out right. Mobs have a way of bringing out the worst in people. You want Trotsky--instead you get Lenin and Stalin. You want Liberty, Equality, Fraternity--instead you get Robespierre and Napoleon. You want an Arab democracy--instead you (likely) get religious fanatics. And so forth. The odds are against you. You’ll lose.
The only exception I can think of is the American Revolution. Now perhaps this wasn’t even a revolution by my definition--I’m not sure the Colonies ever succumbed to mob rule. But semantics aside, it is only by the purest, most unexpected good fortune that our country escaped that fate. Today we call it American exceptionalism--in reality it’s as if our country just hit the jackpot in Vegas. No other revolution has been anywhere near as lucky or as successful.
So, the answer to the question Mr. Proyect poses--Does anyone ever get the revolution they asked for?--the answer is almost always No. Unless you’re really lucky. And you won’t be.
Revolutions are bad things.