Karl Marx is one of the most prolific economists the world has ever known. His work awakened millions to a deeper understanding of the relationship between labor and capital. It’s difficult to understate Marx’s influence on present-day left-leaning ideologies, liberals, socialists, and other progressive thinkers draw inspiration from his ideas of the possible. The embracing of Marxism is fueling the rise of a transformative new political effort here in the United States, while simultaneously limiting our shared imagination of the future. This unintended consequence can be overcome if we begin to think beyond traditional dogmas. If we observe Marx’s works from an alternative perspective, we can open ourselves up to the most important lesson he can teach us.
Marx explained that societies operate under specific modes of production that define their social, economic, and political institutions. Each one of these fixed regimes has specific arrangements and challenges unique to its structure.
Observing the present, we find ourselves entrenched in Marx’s warning about the failures of a capitalist mode of production. Increasing social tensions rooted in economic inequalities between the bourgeoisie (the rich) and the proletariat (working class poor) fuel a growing call for a replacement of capitalism with a socialist model. Our present Executive branch is staffed with a tiny number of robber baron capitalists pursuing costly policy initiatives that defund public services and balloon our national deficit to provide tax cuts for our nation’s wealthiest members. What was once a silent bourgeoisie agenda to concentrate wealth is now a deafening war cry.
This collapse is, as Marx predicted, driving people to align with supporting a socialist structure for our production model. What I am arguing is that if Marx were alive today, he would never endorse Socialism as the next logical path forward. That’s because the premise of Marxism is based on an economic model where manufacturing as the most dominant form of production. This is no longer be true as the Knowledge Economy holds that mantle. Socialism was not designed for the present and no amount of creative syntax will change the fact that we can do better.
Critics of that statement would claim that a socialist revolution is the majority theme, but from a programmatic standpoint, a wholesale and immediate regime change is both politically unfeasible and potentially dangerous. The Democratic Socialists of America are doing some great work at the local community level, and I want to be clear that this is not an argument against their efforts, members, or leadership. Policy-wise we see Socialists taking up the banner of the modern Progressives, Universal Healthcare, a $15 minimum wage, immigration reform, etc. These policies are significant steps in the right direction and deserve recognition, but do nothing to address the structural problems of society. Instead, they serve to humanize the efforts of the present day conservative movement funded by our oligarchal class. A lack of real structural vision for the transformation and dogmatic adherence to a wholesale socialist substitution is an unintended byproduct of Marxism as it is written and ignores the larger lesson of Marxism.
Marx’s brilliance does not relinquish him from the shared burden we all bear. Our imaginations of systemic alternatives can extend only so far given our orientation in the world today. All ideas for innovative social change begin at the floor of the established present. Marx framed history as a closed list of alternative modes of production, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and socialism. Societies progress from one to another, often in a revolutionary format. The push for Socialism here in the United States draws from this same theory; Capitalism hasn’t worked, Socialism is next.
The most prolific aspect of Marx’s work is that the texts are an imaginative expression of how Societies are organized. In writing Capital, he demonstrated an ability to think beyond the present to share a new vision of how the future might unfold. His efforts show that there are no closed lists of potential regimes in history if, and only if, we have the foresight to imagine alternatives. Transformation is subject to no laws and only adheres to the restrictions that we choose to embrace.
Taken literally, the historical texts we draw inspiration from do not provide a way of thinking about structural change today. Academic, social sciences and policy discussions naturalize our existing arrangements. In imagining alternatives, we turn to Marxist theories which, while historically revolutionary, no longer serve as a viable option for the future. We abandon the promotion of socialism as the answer while simultaneously applying the best aspects to new alternatives.
In choosing to refuse the potential for greater goods than history provides us we discard one version of structure worship for another. We choose to rely on the past for salvation instead of our creative capabilities in the present. If we are to manifest a genuine transformation of society and humanity, it falls upon us to abandon dogma and open our minds to the possibility of what we could create given modern technology, information, and resources.
Socialism and the Progressive project align in their vision of demanding a deeply socialized suite of vital protections for all individuals codified into constitutional law. I believe our destiny is a shared one, but to achieve our vision, we must transcend history’s claim on the future. By recognizing the limitations of our historical influences, we unleash our full potential for transformation in the world.
Ron is the Founder and Executive Director of the OurSociety Experiment. He’s passionate about shifting our social, political, and economic institutions towards a system that maximizes agency and access for every individual.