Essay: Marx’s Marxism vs. Trump-Putin’s barbarism

March 21, 2017

From the March-April 2017 issue of News & Letters

by Gerry Emmett

“In the final analysis, racism is evil because its ultimate logic is genocide…I submit that however unpleasant it is we must honestly see and admit that racism is still deeply rooted all over America.”
—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The resistible rise of Donald Trump and his circle of Far Right (“Alt-Right”) henchmen has created a crisis for U.S. bourgeois democracy as well as for revolutionary thought. The outcome of this crisis is by no means certain. Massive demonstrations of women outraged not only by Trump’s misogyny and history of abuse but as well by his entire plan for the U.S., and further mass demonstrations against his attempted ban of Muslims, have lent some spine to anti-Trump elements of the ruling class.

The difference in the people’s resistance and the bourgeoisie’s opposition is notable. The demonstrators called out Trump’s misogyny, racism, xenophobia, homophobia and religious bigotry. The bourgeoisie has settled for attacking his very real links to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and Putin’s interference in the U.S. election.

Dr. King’s insight, expressed after witnessing the violent Northern “white backlash” in places

To order your copy of "American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard," click here.

To order your copy of “American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard,” click here.

like Marquette Park in Chicago, catches the essence of the Trump administration from a revolutionary perspective. The bigotries embodied in Trump’s policies—ICE raids, Dakota Access Pipeline, border wall, “law and order” rhetoric—have their roots in U.S. society’s history of racism and genocide.

To uproot the basis of U.S. reaction would be to connect with Karl Marx’s concept of revolution in permanence. As Raya Dunayevskaya put it in American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard, “The Black Dimension is crucial to the total uprooting of existing exploitative, racist, sexist society and the creation of new, truly human foundations.”


Attorney General Jefferson B. Sessions is the latest Trump appointee—as of this writing—to have been caught

lying about his contacts with Russian representatives during the presidential campaign. There are calls for his resignation, or a special prosecutor. We shall see.

In truth, his confirmation was an outrage. In 1984, as Alabama U.S. Attorney, Sessions prosecuted Black civil rights activists (the Marion Three) for alleged voter fraud. They were quickly found not guilty by a grand jury. But they faced a potential prison sentence of 115 years and a $40,000 fine. As Coretta Scott King wrote in 1986, Sessions had “used the awesome power of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters.”

Protesters in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 14, 2014, marching against the murder of Michael Brown by the police.

Protesters in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 14, 2014, marching against the murder of Michael Brown by the police. Photo: Jamelie Bouie.

Sessions did this by busing these elderly men and women over 140 miles to Mobile; photographing and fingerprinting them; demanding handwriting samples; then compelling them to testify before the grand jury. It was a taste of post-Voting Rights Act Black voter suppression. It also coincided, by no accident, with the most explosive growth in the prison population and the “war on drugs,” which was really a war on Black Americans.

Trump’s political strategist, Stephen Bannon, declared that Sessions’ racism (and misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, and religious bigotry) represents the “philosophy” of this administration. Trump’s advisers are steeped in U.S. and European varieties of fascism—it is why their first move was to appoint Bannon to the National Security Council, unprecedented in the U.S., where the NSC is posed as non-political, but directly in line with Heinrich Himmler’s political/ideological role in Hitler’s Reich Main Security Office.


“The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population…and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of black skins…are the chief moments of primitive accumulation.”
—Karl Marx, Capital

Trump, Bannon, Sessions and company’s emphasis on “law and order” is sheer hypocrisy. They are happy to defy court orders they disagree with, and will push their allies in the police, border patrol, customs, ICE, etc. as far across legal lines as they can. It is a conscious strategy. They intend, ultimately, to make the laws unchallenged.

Thus the mass movement of women refusing to submit their minds and bodies to this sexual predator is a negation of their whole program. Likewise, the mass refusal to accept the demonization of the Other.

The movement these neo-fascists despise most is that which has shined the light of truth through all the smokescreens of U.S. history: Black Lives Matter.

Black Lives Matter challenges the false narrative of U.S. history with the truth about its basis in slavery and genocide. It challenges the nostalgia peddled by the Tea Party, Neo-Confederates and Klansmen. It challenges the reactionary edifice of lies that has arisen since Reagan’s presidency, when outdated school texts began to be recycled as right-wing ideology—the Texas schoolbook syndrome.

The generation that created Black Lives Matter is informed by decades of study of the genesis of racist “law enforcement” in enslavement, slave catching, and the brutal inhumanities of U.S. primitive accumulation of capital. It brings the youth alongside Marx, who stated forthrightly that without the wealth stolen through forced Black labor, and the genocide of Indigenous peoples and theft of their land and resources, the modern world couldn’t exist.

Illustration by Dignidad Rebelde,

Illustration by Dignidad Rebelde

This understanding has helped inform the anti-Trump protests. It worries the ruling class. Black Lives Matter points to the root of today’s crisis in capitalism’s intractable worldwide crisis, in which it is returning to the violence of the so-called primitive accumulation—whether through outright genocide, as in Syria, or through draconian cuts in social services that are often racially targeted.

It represents the theoretical consciousness that can illuminate Marx’s category of “freely associated human beings,” for whom social relations present themselves in a rational form.

One consequence of Marx’s critique and appropriation of Hegel’s dialectic has too long been overlooked. That is, where Hegel avoided the issue of primitive accumulation—despite his grasp of political economy—and where Hegel avoided dealing with the U.S., except to say it represented a next stage—Marx wrote these matters into the very structure of his greatest work, Capital, as the development of an absolute contradiction.


“Classical socialist thought never succeeded, in general, in conceiving the struggle for the equality of the oppressed also as the struggle for the recognition of their right to be different.”
—Enzo Traverso, The Marxists and the Jewish Question

Philosophic retrogression isn’t confined to the U.S. As Salil Shetty of Amnesty International wrote following Trump’s election: “Around the world, the forces of division seem to be gathering momentum. Walls rising up along borders, hatred and fear welling up within and between populations, repressive laws assailing basic freedoms.”

Trump’s attempted anti-Muslim Executive Order represents a coalescence of U.S. racism with the anti-Muslim religious bigotry that has taken hold in Europe since the 1990s. It has deep roots in the Bosnian genocide, in the Russian imperialist wars on Chechnya, and in the non-stop promotion of anti-refugee sentiment by those who excuse Assad’s Syrian genocide. Trump’s Russian ally Putin’s state media vomit this filth 24/7.

(Unfortunately, too many on the Left have fallen in line behind Assad and Putin. It is painful to see ANSWER signs at rallies against the travel ban when these same people would silence the voices of anti-Assad Syrians as quickly as Trump would deport them.)

The parallels between Putin and Trump are many. Not least, Putin also surrounds himself with reactionary ideologues. Alexander Dugin glorifies the Russian history of primitive accumulation, whether as the conquests of the Czars or the state-capitalist monolith of Stalinism. He sees Putin and Trump as representing a new world vision.

On the other hand, Vladislav Surkov, the founder of Putin’s violent youth group, a former bohemian who did public relations work for oligarchs, makes clear that he believes in nothing but power. All else is mutable: PR rules.

European reactionaries have profited from Putin’s help. The anti-immigrant Brexit vote; the rise of anti-immigrant parties in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Hungary, etc.; and deep confusion among a part of the Left, all have, to a greater or lesser degree, his fingerprints.

Contains: Raya Dunayevskaya's "A Post-World War II View of Marx's Humanism, 1843-83; Marxist Humanism in the 1950s and 1980s as well as articles, editorials and essays from News & Letters. To order, click here.

Contains: Raya Dunayevskaya’s “A Post-World War II View of Marx’s Humanism, 1843-83; Marxist Humanism in the 1950s and 1980s as well as articles, editorials and essays from News & Letters. To order, click here.

The failure of mainstream or Leftist forces to block the rise of this new Right is traceable to the failure to come to terms with the meaning of the Bosnian struggle. As News & Letters wrote in 1993: “What Yugoslavia proves today is that World War II did not defeat fascism…‘Free market capitalism’ and state-capitalism alike have always managed to co-exist with the new forms of barbarism that they disgorge. The only alternative is the total uprooting of this degenerate barbaric society and its reconstruction on new human foundations.” (Bosnia-Herzegovina: Achilles Heel of Western ‘Civilization,’ 1996)


The Syrian Revolution has been problematic for the Left. Some “Leftists” have degenerated into outright fascists—and they won’t be coming back. But the depth of passion and contradiction, the involvement of all the world’s great powers, and the testing of every ideology and tendency have also lifted theory to a new plane.

Who are these working-class men, women and children holding signs to the camera: “Assad terrorism has turned the world upside down; only people’s interaction can turn the tables again”? Or who write, “After all this slaughter, we ask, do the Syrian people not belong to the human community?”

They were foreseen by Marx in 1844, when he recognized that social revolution has “the point of view of the whole” because the community “is man’s true community, human nature.”

When Marx calls on the “power of abstraction” in Capital, and posits freely associated human beings as able to transcend capitalism, he is referring to this revolutionary human subject, not to algebra, however significant it is there. Primitive accumulation lives in humans as history, as memory, and the historical tendency of capitalist accumulation will birth in them revolutionary ideas and passions. We are living through the international revolutions and counter-revolutions of our time.

Marx, in his last writings, extends and deepens that section of Capital to the study of non-capitalist societies (prefigured in his Grundrisse) and the role of women in history. The absolute relevance of every “stage” of Marx’s philosophic development to today—to the reality of Syria, of Trumpism, of Black Lives Matter—illuminates the category of “Marx’s Marxism” that Dunayevskaya developed in her 1982 book Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution.

In light of experience, I would submit that to have efficacy today, Marx’s body of ideas must be grasped and projected as a whole. This concept was difficult to grasp in 1982. It is only the very difficult wrestling with U.S. racism, sexism, heterosexism, with Bosnia, with Syria, that have begun to clarify it and make it practical today. The movement from theory needs to meet the challenge of history, of freedom struggles and revolution, because this is how human relationships become transparent and rational—and thus potentially free.

This is no academic luxury, but a matter of life and death.

One thought on “Essay: Marx’s Marxism vs. Trump-Putin’s barbarism

  1. Gerry Emmett’s “Marx’s Marxism vs. Trump-Putin’s barbarism” highlights today’s barbaric return to so-called primitive accumulation that accompanied capitalism’s totally violent anti-human dawn. Marx noted these “rosy” beginnings in the widespread enslaving of native populations as in the silver mines in Bolivia and turning Africa into a warren for Black skins. The latter was a central feature of the 19th century globalization of capitalism, even as opposition to slavery, lead by freedmen and slaves themselves, helped to energize a proletarian global awakening and the birth of the International Workingmen’s Association led by Marx. Thus, the Black dimension, then and now, was, and still is, at the forefront of Marx’s “concept of revolution in permanence” and reconstructing society on “new, truly human foundations.”

    Today’s global capitalist order, has devolved into the brutality of primitive accumulation through a neo-fascist opposition to globalization. This nationalist opposition to globalization has turned, in various degrees, to accumulation through conquest and plunder, to scapegoating the “Other” and to accepting genocide. Those struggling to live, let alone live free and get rid of their brutal dictators are now in the crossfire of terror from internal reactionaries and competing multiple regional and global powers who have no regard for human life. The Syrian revolutionary, cited by Emmett, put it aptly, “After all this slaughter, we ask, do the Syrian people not belong to the human community?” This “revolutionary human subject” is immanently diverse and multidimensional. However, Emmett’s conclusion isn’t clear as to exactly what Marx’s “power of abstraction” has to do with this immanently diverse, “revolutionary human subject.”*

    Marx began CAPITAL with the power of abstraction in its particular capitalist incarnation: the commodity-form of the product of labor. He did not put off discussion of so-called primitive accumulation to the end of CAPITAL because he wanted to underplay the very real, totally inhuman brutality that was organic to capital’s global emergence. CAPITAL begins with the commodity-form because Marx wanted to show capitalist reality and its logical unfolding at its purest. The commodity-form of the product of labor shapes capitalist social life. It leads in-and-of-itself to totally inhuman results, the domination of things, commodities and capital, over humans who create them. The domination emerges purely from an abstraction, socially necessary labor time, which is congealed in these human created things, commodities. Capitalist human relations really are social relations between things. Things of human creation fetishistically have a life of their own, become dead labor, capital or machines, dominating living labor. The ability to labor becomes itself the prime commodity, making labor a mere means to life. Capital drives to eliminate living labor, its source of value or congealed labor time in things thus creating the general crises and collapse in the rate of accumulation. The collapse in the rate of accumulation resulted in fascism and total global war in the 30s. Many note that the stakes today, with a vastly expanded capacity for total annihilation are much greater. Fewer appreciate that a different outcome demands digging into Marx’s dialectic in-and-for-itself.

    Beginning from capitalism as a concept, enabled Marx to create a totally new concept of theory. CAPITAL became an engagement with the revolutionary human subject that confronts the unfolding of capital’s inhuman logic at every step along the way–from the struggle for a normal working day to fighting the alienating torture of the dominating machine and creating totally new kind of production through freely associated labor as in the greatest social revolution of Marx’s time, the Paris Commune. However, the path to a totally new beginning on the other side of capitalism is only clear when revolutionary human subjects fully comprehend the power of their own thought, the concept vis a vis reality, along with the physical might of spontaneity.

    The most profound HUMANIST dimension of CAPITAL is precisely Marx’s beginning from the power of abstraction which he declared is the only way to engage capitalist society’s cell-form that had boggled the human mind for 2,500 years. Marx honed in on a specific idea, the commodity-form of the product of labor, as capitalism’s Spirit (Geist). But Marx had declared earlier that “the power of abstraction” ALWAYS gives form to human spirit, that is, always shapes human relations and in turn human nature and relations with external nature. This power, said Marx, sets humans apart from “the beast.”

    Thus, the power of abstraction is more than philosophy as action in overcoming the capitalist epoch. While only freely associated labor can go beyond capitalism’s particular conceptual cell-form, bringing forth a new transparency to human relations and relations with nature, revolution in permanence demands a return to the power of abstraction and Marx’s concept of human nature, human essence, as the multi-dimensional, multi-linear drive to freely determine one’s everyday life activity. In this discussion neither power of abstraction nor Marx’s concept of “HUMAN nature” can be taken for granted or even confined to “social revolution” overcoming capitalism.

    Marx means something very specific by “human nature.” Humans are natural beings, suffering under the yoke of necessity imposed externally, but they are HUMAN natural beings. As Marx puts in CAPITAL Vol III, the goal is always human power which is its own end. That can only be achieved when freedom within the realm of necessity is worked out in a manner most appropriate to human nature, most appropriate to each one freely, consciously determining their own everyday life activity. In other words, what has to come to the fore is not alone confronting external necessity but the internal necessity of the Idea of freedom and its movement. The immanent striving to work out how to confront necessity in a manner most appropriate to human nature, faces ever anew the spiritual concept, the power of abstraction, in all the ways abstractions shape human relations, that is, shape spiritual life, the social individual. Marx develops the power of abstraction, spirit as concept, for the rest of his life.

    Thus, the remarkable new moments of Marx’s last decade–the return to the man/woman relation, pre-capitalist forms reaching for a new freedom without going through capitalism, the ground for revolutionary organization that is inseparable from a vision of a new society–all demand a return to specifically human activity, that is free conscious activity, as the first necessity of life. Marx’s new moments, which were so mysterious to post-Marx-Marxists, are no mystery at all. Revolution in permanence means that movement through spirit as concept never ends. Marx’s concept of freedom, human essence as free conscious life activity, keeps re-enlivening the movement because it is never directly identical with any given moment of spirit. Thus, Dunayevskaya, can declare that Marx’s concept of revolution in permanence is one with Hegel’s absolute spirit, or the unity of the self thinking idea with the self bringing forth of liberty.

    *At another time I would like to discuss Emmett’s seemingly gratuitous contrast of “revolutionary human subject” to “algebra.” Algebra, which reveals the power of abstraction within the narrow realm of quantity which is itself an abstraction, was a significant human achievement that arose in Arabic world when Europe was an intellectual backwater. Emmett’s contrast may refer to Merleau-Ponty’s designation of the dialectic as the “algebra of revolution.” Dunayevskaya approvingly highlighted this expression. Indeed, the German edition of Dunayevskaya’s Philosophy and Revolution, which begins from Hegel’s dialectic of absolute negativity, is titled Algebra der Revolution. Dunayevskaya developed what Merleau-Ponty called “adventures of the dialectic” which became, for Dunayevskaya, “adventures of the commodity as fetish” to make clear how “the power of abstraction” is integral to the “revolutionary human subject.”

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