- that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production
- that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat,
- that this dictatorship itself only contributes to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.
There are a few subsidiary clauses about what each of these key phrases--the development of production, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the classless society--mean in Marx's usage that can be found in The Critique of the Gotha Program (1875), but the essentials are all here at least in embryo.
Over the course of the 20th century several social formations and events arose whose leaders and supporters claimed to be instantiations and proof of the Marxist hypothesis, but we have yet to see the classless society. Insofar as they developed production, it was either on a temporary basis, only to later fall behind the competitive baseline of surrounding capitalism (the Stalinist USSR and afterward), or through flagrantly capitalist methods (post-Maoist China). To claim to be the dictatorship of the proletariat, rather than over the proletariat, required both in Stalin's Russia and Mao's China the torturing of a few concepts and more than a few human bodies. From a point of view that regards Marx's original hypothesis as worth testing and the classless society as a goal to be achieved, these are easy to reject.
More challenging is the comparatively humanist example of the 1959 revolution in Cuba and its aftermath. In ways that had been obscured early on by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, each eager to claim pride of place for the guerrilla foco, but that have been recovered by subsequent historiography, the overthrow of the Batista regime was to a great extent the work, the doing, of the urban and rural working class in Cuba, much as the overthrow of first the Tsar and then the Provisional Government had been in Russia in 1917. Yet unlike Russia, power was not captured by any party rooted in the proletariat, but rather by a loosely affiliated set of political leaders from urban middle-class origins. The party that did have the strongest roots in the Cuban working class, the Popular Socialist Party (aligned with the USSR), had largely held aloof from the uprising and had attempted at various points to sabotage it; it only began to join post-revolutionary governing circles as Fidel Castro and others tightened their own alignment with the Soviets, and sought to ally with a disciplined, practiced bureaucratic structure for use in calming outbreaks of working-class radicalism and demands. Thus, unlike the post-World War II overturns in most of Eastern Europe, or the "People's War" that culminated with the proclamation of the People's Republic of China in 1949, it would be false to say that the Cuban revolution was not a working-class revolution. But it is accurate to say that it was not a revolution led by the working class, and that the resulting government was not a "dictatorship of the proletariat." The role played by the working class in Batista's overthrow accounts for why, throughout the subsequent 57 years, Fidel Castro had to be far more attentive than his former counterparts in eastern Europe or east Asia to the well-being of the masses. The advances in medical care and education of which the Cuban people have cause to be proud (though they know the present system's limitations better than most external observers, e.g. the emergence of a two-tiered medical system since the "Special Period") are in fact the gains of the Cuban working class itself, alienated from them and presented as the beneficent product of the leadership generally, and Fidel in particular. (There is a longer story to be told about how the defeat of an earlier, more explicitly proletarian uprising in the mid-1930s made possible this particular combination of events, but retelling it would take me too far afield from the point of this essay.)
The preceding paragraph is a very concentrated summary of research that I undertook, extending over several years, with an eye toward at least an article, possibly a book, attempting to explain the Cuban Revolution from within a theoretical framework that regarded the Marxist hypothesis as still open to validation. As I have explained in previous entries on this blog, however, unfortunately the possibility of validation of the Marxist hypothesis is most likely closed, due to impending impacts of climate change, brought about by the accumulation of capital. My best statement of the case so far remains this one from May 2013:
As powerful as Marxism may be as a method of critique--i.e., as a means of understanding and predicting the destruction that is being perpetrated by those who rule us--its utility as a guide for positive political action was premised on a conditional hypothesis: That the working class would come to a conscious understanding of its own interest in and capacity for revolutionary reconstruction of society after the capitalist class had created the material prerequisites for a higher order of social organization, and before the capitalists had managed to destroy those material prerequisites. In Rosa Luxemburg’s words, the choice facing humanity was that between socialism--understood as a classless society based upon a level of technical development and productivity of labor sufficient to allow the steady and expansive satisfaction of human needs--or barbarism.
If we reach 450 ppm [of atmospheric carbon dioxide], however, then even if the working class were to take power, it would do so in a context of runaway climatic feedback processes, sea-level rises sufficient to inundate major cities (and even entire nations), dramatic desertification of the world’s bread-baskets, deadly heat waves in some of the most densely populated regions of the planet, etc. Marxism as a method of critique would tell us that new scarcities will give rise to new oligarchies, new distributions of power, and new modalities of exploitation and oppression. Marxism as a mode of critique will tell us that the moment for its realization has passed, that its fundamental positive hypothesis has been invalidated, not as a moment of a self-devouring dialectic of negativity but as an inexorable consequence of physical processes triggered by humanity but escaping its control.
The choice, then, is not between socialism and barbarism, but between various flavors of barbarism. And there may well be some flavors of barbarism which label themselves socialism....
More than three years later, the only thing I would change about this passage would be to remove the reference to 450 parts-per-million. Already at 400 ppm we are seeing evidence of accelerating feedback processes and all the rest. Three years ago I thought we had a window of about 35 years for recomposition of working-class revolutionary leadership, and judged, based on the state of affairs at the time and the history of political development, that such recomposition was unlikely in that timeframe. That was based on what was known scientifically at the time. But the methodological conservatism of climate science--which has an eerie parallel in the routinist conservatism of most putatively Marxist organizations--meant that this timeframe was too generous. The window is already closing, and the world political situation is, if anything, worse.
So I want to return to what I hinted at in that last sentence, "some flavors of barbarism which label themselves socialism." At present there are only a few "actually existing" examples of such "socialist barbarism" remaining. In most of them, the element of barbarism has such an overpowering stench as to render nauseating the lingering pretense to socialism--the billionaires' party of today's China, the barrel-bomb Ba'athism of Assad's Syria, or Venezuela, where the boliburguesia and its ruling clique loyally pay their debts to the world's banks while food and medicine disappear from the shelves. For the moment, Cuba remains the best (most attractive, least repellent) example of socialist barbarism on offer.
How long that moment will survive the death of Fidel remains to be seen. During the peculiar interregnum of the last five years, in which he had formally turned over his positions of authority to his brother Raúl and others but remained, insofar as his health allowed, a vocal public figure, he often subtly undermined the plans and policy initiatives of Raúl, who has made little secret of his desire to be Cuba's Deng Xiaoping, by making speeches or writing newspaper columns that hearkened back to the egalitarian traditions of Cuba's working class. Aside from the differences in ideology and personality between the brothers, well-known to long-time Cuba watchers, this reflects more importantly a dialogue within the ruling stratum, trying to gauge how much the masses will tolerate increased openness to world capital and the growth of inequality that would necessarily result. With Fidel's death, the ruling stratum loses a well-respected voice--not for the working class, but for an ingenious combination of revolutionary romanticism and Machiavellian caution. The ghoulish celebrations by Trump-voting gusanos in Miami hoping to regain a share of the lucre ought not to blind us to the fact that world capital already has its tentacles coiled around the neck of the Cuban working class, extending from Canada, Spain, Germany, Britain and, yes, Russia and China.
For those of us who want to retain some element of socialism within the heritage of barbarism which capital has bequeathed to us, Cuba represents not an unsurpassable horizon, but a target of what can be attained and exceeded. The task remains to salvage as much of the Marxist hypothesis as is materially possible. If not the full abundance promised by the classless society, then at least the proletarian dictatorship--that is, rule of, for, and most importantly by the working class. If not development of production--for production as it exists at present accelerates the destruction of its natural basis--then reorganization of production to minimize, end, and ultimately repair the destruction wrought by capital. In this we can learn a few things from the Cuban people--for example, the dramatic reduction in petroleum use and carbon emissions during the Special Period, cited even by Jill Stein of the U.S. Green Party as something to learn from--but that means being frankly critical of their past and present leaders.