A new unifying principle for the 21st century

Captains of industry sweated as they waited for computer clocks to roll over to the 21st century, a symbol of the social contradictions besetting capitalism.

On the first day of the new century, capitalists heaved a $3 trillion sigh of relief. Their global system of industries, markets and services did not come crashing down. Media everywhere trumpeted the successful and expensive fix for the “Y2K bug,” a little software programming oversight made three decades ago and reproduced ad infinitum in computer operating systems right through the 1990s. At the heart of a global system lay a technological “brain” so limited that it loomed as a barrier to progress itself, had the best engineering minds not been put to work making the cyberworld “Y2K compliant” and ready for business in the 21st century.


The “Y2K bug,” however, was far from the only contradiction in technology developed and implemented first and foremost for the self-expansion of capital. Less publicized was the death of Hisashi Ouchi, 35, who succumbed Dec. 21 to radiation poisoning from the Sept. 30 accident at the Tokai, Japan nuclear processing plant where he worked. When safety rules were made subservient to production quotas, human life subordinate to the bottom line, technology assumed the character of its creator, capitalism and its bloodthirsty quest for profits.

Furthermore advances in medicine, epidemiology, meteorology, seismology, and engineering have done little to stem preventable human loss and misery from the likes of the AIDS epidemic in Africa which has surpassed the Black Plague’s grim death count, and the mud slides in slums surrounding Caracas, Venezuela which entombed thousands in December. To say that accidents will happen is, in capitalism, sacrificing the play of human inventiveness which can evade catastrophe. Indeed the wastage of human life has become the ethos of capitalist society. The consummate example is the prison-industrial complex where a whole generation of youth has been sent to hide the social and economic crises of the U.S. in 2000. Scientific projects which promised to tell us something of who we are and eliminate disease, like the human genome project, remain mired in our jaded past. Pieces of the map of the body’s genes have been patented and heredity itself is headed toward the status of intellectual property with price tag attached. Old elitist and racist attitudes which stifled human diversity and potential now threaten to be given new life, breeding a caste system which dictates who has the right genes and who doesn’t, who lives and who suffers.


More than wit or intuition gave Karl Marx the sense to characterize capitalism in words that become truer across the changes of centuries: “This antagonism between modern industry and science on the one hand, and dissolution on the other hand; this antagonism between the productive powers and the social relations of our epoch is a fact, palpable, overwhelming, and not to be controverted.” His dialectical methodology beginning with a “new Humanism” allowed him to see the contradiction at the heart of commodity production, a fetish so powerful that we believe we are subject to forces that appear not to be our making, even though they are within our powers to control: how we work, love, procreate, communicate, and otherwise live.

While viewers of the British Broadcasting System elected Karl Marx the millennium’s greatest thinker, TIME magazine’s editors let their prejudices for technology and profits show when they named Albert Einstein their Man of the Century. Focusing on his scientific contributions, they failed to acknowledge Einstein’s own socialist view of science. At mid-century he was adamant that “we should be on our guard not to overestimate science and scientific methods when it is a question of human problems,” adding, “We should not assume that experts are the only ones who have a right to express themselves on questions affecting the organization of society.” The “unifying principle” that would make technology and human society a single progression was the concern of Einstein at the birth of the 20th century when he wrote the Theory of Relativity in 1905, the same year that the FIRST Russian Revolution inaugurated a whole century of new kinds of revolutions. Each revolution in its own way contained a search for a philosophy of revolution, from Russia to Africa and the Third World to industrially developed countries, so-called Communist and Western alike. The birth of industrial unionism in the U.S., the Women’s Liberation Movement, the 1960s Black “Freedom Now” struggles are children of the 20th century, each an unfinished revolution however. Counter-revolutionary descents into barbarism-Stalinism, Nazism, Pol Potism, and “ethnic cleansing”-have shown how more profound and urgent that quest for a philosophy of freedom has become for today.


The shortcomings of “post-Marx Marxists” who were not able to re-create Marx’s philosophy of revolution in permanence have not relieved the 2000 generation of the responsibility for making revolution real once more, for finishing the unfinished revolutions. Marxist-Humanism succeeded in articulating a unifying principle in the post-World War Two world. Raya Dunayevskaya called this epoch-when new revolutions have vied with “ethnic cleansing” and nuclear madness-“our age of absolutes.” At the birth of the 21st century, a new generation of young protesters in Seattle reasserted their determination not to let the World Trade Organization’s cabal of capitalists control their future. Sweatshop labor conditions and environmental pillage are human effects, and humans can stop them, they declared.

They also appropriated the internet “brain” of the burgeoning so-called information revolution to use email and web sites to organize a week of demonstrations. They extended Marx’s “solution” to the limitations of technology: “We know that to work well the newfangled forces of society, they only want to be mastered by newfangled men-and such are the working men”-and women, youth, Blacks and oppressed minorities, and gays and lesbians. The “science” of making a successful revolution remains the new frontier in the 21st century.

Originally appeared as an unsigned editorial in News & Letters, Jan.-Feb. 2000


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