Explaining the Spectre


Back in 1989 and the early 1990s, when the Stalinist states of Eastern Europe ceased to exist as such, there were many triumphant crows of triumph from the various cocks of capitalism . I t was, said that staunch old intellectual rhetorician of reaction, the “end of history.” From then on, the so-called free market would be able to do its magic and create a utopian reality for all–those who were being trickled on and those who had been doing the trickling during the trickle-down reigns of Mr. Reagan and Ms. Thatcher in the bulwarks of capitals kingdom on earth. Marx and his critique of capitalism had been proven wrong. Finally, the champions of all that was good in the world could dance on Karl’s grave.

Of course, this triumphant and shortsighted narrative was not only premature, it has turned out to be wrong. Free market capitalism has not created a utopia for anybody but the world’s wealthiest. In fact, it can be convincingly argued that it has not only not created a utopia for most of the world, but has actually shrunk the numbers of earthlings able to avail themselves to the material wealth created by those who labor for the kings. Furthermore, it has also turned out that those who control the wealth of the world have found it easier to go to war in order to expand and maintain their control over the surplus created by the world’s workforce. If there was anything positive to be said about the existence of the Stalinist states, it is that they kept the ravages of the monopoly capitalists (or free market advocates, as they prefer to be called) at bay. Their disintegration ensured a resurgence of imperial desire and its consequent lust of armed force to achieve that desire.

Along with this imagined triumph capitalism came a philosophical justification. Some of that philosophy was merely dusted off John Locke and Adam Smith without the cautions both men expressed about the nature of capitalism when combined with greed. Yet another philosophical creation to justify the nature of the new liberal (or neoliberal) world born in the ashes of the Cold War was something called postmodernism. A bit of Plato’s cave allegory with a good dash of influence of modern communications technology in the brew, this philosophy excused the abuses of labor and the poor in the name of the “new capitalist order” with notions that pretended that these and other abuses were natural phenomenon and occurred without any human agency. Eventually, certain intellectuals (specifically Jacques Derrida) that had been making their names via the exposition of postmodernism came up against its shortcomings and turned back to Marx to make sense of their world.

It’s 2007 now. The world’s most powerful nation is caught up in a war against a nationalist insurgency it cannot defeat. Its domestic political situation is divided from its legislature to the nation’s streets. Yet, the politicians continue to look for a way to resolve the war and a myriad other problematic situations that threaten its dominance without losing that dominance. The war is not only reducing the country of Iraq to rubble, it is shredding the US military and precipitating the further erosion of the US’s infrastructure and economic future. Yet, the damn fools march on.

Into this morass comes a text more relevant than all the millions of words written by establishment scribes like the liberal Thomas Friedman and the rightwing Charles Krauthammer. Written by socialist organizer Paul D’Amato, it is titled The Meaning of Marxism. Simply put, this book takes the essence of Karl Marx’s writings on philosophy, economics and politics and explains them in the context of today’s world. Like many of today’s (and yesterday’s) Marxists, D’Amato has little use for the legacy of Stalin but does not spend much time belittling that legacy. Instead, he looks toward the writings of Marx and their development by the revolutionaries Lenin, Bukharin, Rosa Luxembourg, and Trotsky. Furthermore, and more importantly, the book uses historical and current events to prove Marx’s analysis. Likewise, it uses the prism that Marxism provides to help us understand that history and those events. This is what makes The Meaning of Marxism quite useful for today’s reader looking for a method that makes sense of the mess our world is in.

D’Amato breaks the subject matter into fourteen chapters. The first provides a bit of the history of socialist ideas and their relation to the development of capitalism. From there, one is presented with the Marxist view of history and economics, its take on the nature and origins of political and social oppression and the nature of imperialism. Sprinkled in between one finds a discussion of the Russian revolution and its aftermath and the nature of modern day socialist organizing. For those who wish to read further, the book concludes with a reading list that includes most of the important texts of world socialism. I say most, because there is nothing by Mao or Stalin included. By the way, for those who wish to read some Mao, let me recommend Slavoj Zizek’s recent edition of his series on revolutionists and their writings titled Slavoj Zizek presents Mao On Practice and Contradiction. Coming on the heels of his collection of material written by one of the ultimate bourgeois revolutionaries, Maximilian Robespierre, Zizek opens this collection of Mao with the observation that “one of the most devious traps which lurk in wait for Marxists is the search for the moment of the Fall; when things took a wrong turn in Marxism….” To their credit, neither Zizek or D’Amato spend much time on this question, choosing instead to look at the lessons learned from its failure in Eastern Europe and Asia- a failure that Marxists who debate this kind of thing believe occurred either soon after Lenin’s death in Moscow, Trotsky’s in Mexico or Mao’s in Beijing. Or perhaps as soon as the Bolsheviks assumed power. Not only do they debate these things, they make and lose friends over this question. But then, searching for the Fall is not much different than debating Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden, is it? What matters is not when or even why the Fall happened, but what we do in its wake.

Sensible and modest, D’Amato’s effort to explain Marxism and its relevance to today’s world is without overblown rhetoric or angry attacks. Instead, it is a rational argument for revolutionary change in the capitalist monolith that is the United States while simultaneously an instructional text for those seeking such a change. For those who are not certain about the possibilities of socialism but wondering how to effectively change the world they find fault with, The Meaning of Marxism answers many of their potential questions. It goes well beyond the traditional liberal-conservative politics of the capitalist world and presents a genuine alternative that, if it does nothing else, provides an analysis that maintains its veracity and accuracy no matter what happens in the realm of capital. This book could also easily be used as a college textbook in any course that examines philosophy and economics. In short, this book is a concise and readable addition to the socialist library.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is forthcoming from Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: rjacobs3625@charter.net


Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com