Marxism is Not a System: A Critique of the ISO’s Conception of Surplus Value




Jan Makandal

October 20, 2015


Marxism is not a self-contained, complete system resting on a philosophical base. Rather, it is a theory that has no absolute beginning and is constantly incomplete in its elaboration, as a whole or in any of its aspects (for example the economic aspect as elaborated in Marx’s Capital).

This doesn’t mean Marxism is non-scientific or non-systematic. It clearly defines objects of study in order to explain their objective necessities, establishing its systematic characteristic of analyzing the different forms of class struggle, and the connections between these struggles.

Marxism argues that the history of any society is the history of class struggles. This doesn’t mean that class struggle is merely the principal phenomenon that we can observe in history; instead Marxism asserts that all historical phenomena are diverse and complex historical forms of class struggle.

When a self-defined revolutionary organization pretends to define the “ABCs of Marxism,” it is not only assigning a false beginning to something that is perpetually incomplete, but it is also assigning a false permanency to an interpretation of a reality that is in a constant mode of evolution. Such an approach can only realize dogmatism. It is a reversal, a reduction from an unfinished science to a finished one.

The “ABCs of Marxism,” a series of graphics with texts, or memes, by the International Socialist Organization (ISO) display that erroneous approach. Marxism, with its periodization, cannot be learned by rote. It is to be applied, reinforced, and most importantly it is to be in a constant mode of rectification.

In one of the “ABCs” series, headed “Exploitation,” the ISO attempts to define surplus value this way: “All workers create more value at work than they receive in wages. The extra ‘surplus’ value goes in the boss’s pocket as profit.” [See graphic at end of this piece for reference].

In a paragraph of text added to the graphic in a Facebook post, the Chicago chapter of the ISO developed a technical mechanism to get that money back: “When we say ‘tax the rich’ we’re really just saying ‘give workers back what the bosses stole.’ And once you start thinking about it like this, it becomes obvious to ask whether it’s possible to simply do away with the original theft—the exploitation—itself.”

But confining our goal to simply doing away with exploitation opens the door to reformism, to alternatives other than revolution. Under this conception, the creation of a Labor Party would be another possible route, since presumably if elected they could tax the rich and return profit to the worker. Lowering the cost of labor reproduction through increasing relative surplus value (taxing the rich to fund social programs) would be yet another possible route for the ISO. Whether the ISO advocates a revolution or an electoral or a legislative path, this conception will not be able to lead to a radical transformation of the mode of production from capitalism to something totally different. It cannot possibly realize anything more than a “system upgrade” or a reformed capitalism.