Marx, Gandhi, And The U.S. After The 2016 Elections


Both Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Mohan Karamchand (“Mahatma”) Gandhi (1869-1948) would be very alarmed by the U.S. elections of 2016 and what we are now facing with President Donald Trump and the Trump Administration. They would be alarmed by the campaigns and elections, the language used, the power relations, the role of money, the role of the media, and the situation today.

Since Trump is so incredibly self-centered and thin-skinned, personalizing and demonizing anyone who criticizes him, it is tempting for critics, including those who are endangered by his attacks and policies, to focus on Trump the dishonest, ignorant, and bigoted person. Both Gandhi and Marx warn against overly personalizing what is happening and instead urge us to focus on the economic, political, cultural, and other structures and relations. In other words, their focus would not be so much on Donald Trump as a flawed, ego-driven, demagogic, sexist, racist, lying, ruthless individual, but more on what these personal characteristics express and represent of political, economic, patriarchal, xenophobic, environmental relations and power interests.

In my understanding, Marx and Gandhi would often have similar reactions with regard to the U.S. after the 2016 elections. However, they would also often differ in their reactions with regard to what they emphasize and how they analyze our current and future situations. In most case, I find that their differences are complementary, but this is not always the case.

I’ll provide an exposition of eight, interrelated topics: morality, nonviolence, truth and reality, egalitarianism, political parties, capitalism and U.S. capitalism today, major contradictions today, and the need for a radical paradigm shift. I’ll provide very brief treatments of most of these topics, with more detail analysis of political parties, capitalism and U.S. capitalism today, and especially major contradictions today.

1) Morality

Gandhi emphasizes the primacy of the ethical and his focus is on how we can socialize and educate human beings so that they become virtuous, kind, compassionate, loving, nonviolent, truthful beings with moral character. In this regard, he would be alarmed by Trump’s blatantly immoral character and his lack of kindness, empathy, and nonviolent and truthful living.

With his primary ethical perspective and focus on moral living, Gandhi would be critical of many opponents of Trump and his policies, who advocate adopting the tactics and strategy of the reactionary Tea Party and those who ran Trump’s presidential campaign as providing the lessons of how to win. Gandhi would advise us not to lower our moral standards or marginalize or silence our central moral concerns as ineffective for “winning.” Both supporters and critics of Gandhi, who often elevate or dismiss “the Mahatma” as some moral and spiritual being, usually ignore the fact that he is a pragmatic thinker concerned with being effective. Gandhi not only urges us to uphold moral truthful living, but he also asserts that the moral is pragmatically effective. When we emphasize how the dominant economic, political, and environmental policies and the growing inequality and unsustainability are immoral, unfair, and unjust, we are able to empathize with and connect with other human beings and to build a dynamic, interconnected, effective movement of resistance and alternative values.

Marx sometimes expresses contempt for superficial moralists, and he rejects the primacy of morality in our understanding Trump, his billionaire corporate and other capitalist-serving appointees, and in analyzing their values and policies. However, unlike some Marxist scholars who claim that Marx is giving a scientific, historical, economic analysis that has nothing to do with ethics, I think that Marx has deep moral concerns. Not only is this apparent in his earlier writings expressing his ethical humanism. When he analyzes Trump’s values and policies and those of U.S. capitalism today as based on exploitation and as unjust, to eliminate moral concerns completely would be not to understand the full nature of his analysis and his passion for revolutionary change.

2) Nonviolence

Gandhi is the best-known and most influential modern proponent of nonviolence. For him, nonviolence is an absolute ideal, although he grants that there are exceptional situations in which some violence may be necessary as the most nonviolent means available. Gandhi would certainly critique Trump’s blatant physical, psychological, linguistic, sexist, racist, Islamophobic, and environmental violence as expressed through his violent tweets, priorities, policies, and actions.

Marx, while agreeing with Gandhi about the dangerous violence of Trump, his administration, and his economic and political policies would not accept nonviolence as some absolute. While he agrees that nonviolent change, even revolution, is preferable if it is possible, he submits that people with wealth and power rarely give up their power voluntarily, and he would allow far more cases in which violent resistance and struggles are necessary than does Gandhi.

3) View of Truth and Reality

Gandhi has an organic, holistic view in which he emphasizes the unity and interconnectedness of all of life. This is a unity with a respect for differences. Gandhi would view the 2016 campaign, Trump’s victory, and his approach in 2017 as expressing the opposite of truth and reality. In his ego-driven obsession with winning at any cost, Trump does not hesitate to lie, to make up “facts,” and to use any means necessary defeat his “enemies.” Even more basically, Gandhi submits that Trump has an untruthful view lacking in reality in its emphasis on and exploitation of the primacy of what divides us in terms of gender, race, religion, and national chauvinism.

Marx also has an organic, holistic view in which he emphasizes our dialectical unity and interconnectedness. However, Marx would focus more on contextualizing this view of truth and reality, as in the need to understand the potential for working class unity and real class-defined differences. In this regard, we should not overemphasize vague, abstract, decontextualized appeals to how we are all one as human beings. Instead we need to recognize that Trump and his administration and his other key appointeesrepresent real class, race, gender, and other privileged differences and uphold the class interests of the wealthiest and most powerful 1% capitalist elite.

4) Egalitarianism

Gandhi and Marx are both radical egalitarians. Gandhi claims that economic and social inequality always expresses violence. Marx analyzes our abstract, ideological, political focus on equality for all as really expressing bourgeois rights of equality, hiding and justifying real inequality. Both Gandhi and Marx would be alarmed by the growing inequality in the U.S. and the world, although Marx would not in any way be surprised since he analyzed this growing inequality as a predictable consequence of advanced capitalist economic and technological development. They would view Trump and his administration as representing the unequal power interests of violent military supremacy and violent economic exploitation and domination.

5) Political parties

Establishment media and establishment politicians tell us that the means for change comethrough electoral politics and the identification with the Democrat or Republican Party. Gandhi and Marx disagree that major change can come through or only through established political parties.

Gandhi wants a decentralized politics with a limited state. He repeatedly warns against giving the state and political parties too much power and authority. As he critiqued his own Congress Party at the time of Indian Independence, he warns that political parties tend to become corrupt, reward those with wealth and power, and become more interested in deceiving and controlling the masses and maintaining and furthering their own political power.

Therefore, Gandhi would advise those alarmed by Trump and his reactionary and dangerous administration and policies not necessarily to avoid progressive Democrats and socialist and other political parties. However, he would place greater focus on how we can resist the oppressive and unjust policies and provide constructive political alternatives largely outside the established political framework of the political parties. In this regard, he would be impressed with the potential expressed through the women’s marches on January 21 and through the thousands of local, statewide, and national expressions of outrage, protest, and resistance, while also emphasizing an agenda of consciousness-raising education, self-discipline, and unity efforts for building a movement.

Marx is even clearer on the political parties with his more rigorous economic and political analysis. The Democrats and Republicans are capitalist political parties that are part of a capitalist state. It is not that there are no differences. Hillary Clinton certainly was more progressive in concerns about sexism and women’s reproductive rights, recognition of the reality of climate change, and some other issues, and she certainly moved to more progressive positions than she would have taken in responding to the unexpected challenge of the Bernie Sanders campaign. Nevertheless, Marx would submit that the Clintons and their Democratic Party leadership for the most part represent the class interests of the 1%, of Wall Street and financial capital and corporate globalization, and of aggressive war-making and militarism.

Marx would agree with Gandhi that we must resist Trump and Republican and other reactionary priorities and policies, that we must not give too much of our power to the Democrats, and that we must develop our own alternative political values and relations. And, at least in terms of some future communist ideal, that we must work for some very limited state, abolishing what we know as a top-down state, so that we can become moreself-empowered and struggle for the empowerment of others.

6) Capitalism and U.S. capitalism today

Gandhi is not a rigorous historical and economic thinker, but claims to be a socialist and even a communist, if communism could avoid violence and centralized state power. He is not a Marxian historical and dialectical socialist, but more of a spiritual and moral socialist. Gandhi is very insightful in his critique of capitalism in terms of his analysis of the centrality of ego, ego desires, and ego-attachments that always lead to false and immoral values and views of self and self-other relations and are always violent. Gandhi would look at Trump’s personality, his past history, his language, and his view of his capitalismas clear illustrations of ego-driven, exploitive, and violent capitalism at its worst.

Marx has a much more developed analysis of capitalism, and, remarkably, of U.S. capitalism today. In many ways, his analysis of developed capitalism in the Communist Manifesto and other writings is much truer today of the U.S. and the world than it was during his lifetime. In this sense, Marx analyzes capitalism as a dynamic ever-changing system based on laws of capital accumulation. Capitalism must expand, commodifying and bringing under its domination all areas of life at home and abroad. In this regard, capital necessarily becomes more concentrated and centralized in the hands of the most powerful capitalists, it necessarily become globalized, and it necessarily leads to increasing class inequality. Marx even writes of future Free Trade Agreements, which are neither free nor fair, and are among the many ways that the state-monopoly-militarized capitalist ruling class dominates and exploits natural resources, workers, technology, and all of life.

Such a view of U.S. and global capitalism in 2017 may result in a particular confusion. Didn’t Donald Trump, in his campaign largely aimed at attracting white working class voters who are alienated from the capitalist and Washington elite and in his inauguration address, reject much of this view of dominant capitalism? After all, in his reactionary populist nationalist rhetoric, he claims that he will represent the exploited and alienated workers and not the elite;that he will reject capitalist trade agreements and corporate globalized relations; that he willbring back the lost jobs and make America great again; that he willbuild walls and focusinternally on America first. Doesn’t this contradict Marx’s view of modern, developed capitalism today? This brings us to key role of major contradictions in understanding Trump’s unexpected success and how Gandhi and Marx would respond.

7) Key Contradictions

There is a simple explanation of the apparent contradiction we just cited. On the one hand, Trump is an unscrupulous self-centered opportunist, determined to win by any means necessary. Heuses his populist, anti-establishment rhetoric, while exploiting sexist, racist, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim feelings, in appeals to the legitimate anger and alienation of large numbers of economically hurting, white, working class voters. On the other hand, Trump is in reality a billionaire, part of the capitalist 1%, driven to identify with the super-rich andwith influential celebrities. As seen in his neo-liberal wealthy appointees to key cabinet posts and other positions, as well as his own economic investments, he really represents the interests of the ruling capitalist class. So, in reality, there is misleading self-serving rhetoric but not a substantial contradiction. This is true, but it is also too simple a resolution of deep-rooted and complex contradictions defining the situation of the U.S. today and responses by Marx and Gandhi.

A major contradiction underlying the 2016 elections and the U.S. today can be traced back to the post-WWII period. The U.S. emerged from the WWII as the world’s superpower. The U.S was number one­—economically, politically, militarily, scientifically, and culturally. American capitalism greatly developed and expanded to all areas of life at home and abroad. The American capitalists did the best, of course, but most workers shared in the wealth and had the confidence and security of increasing wages, increasing levels of consumption, good paying union jobs, opportunities for education, the promise of their own homes, cars, latest appliances, and the highest workers’ standard of living as part of “American Exceptionalism.”

This pattern began to change in the late 1970s and especially during the Reagan 1980s and was especially exacerbated in recent decades, as seen in the 2008 financial collapse: While the wealthiest capitalists made a killing, wages of workers became stagnant or declined, factories closed and workers lost their jobs or had to take lower paying service and other employment, workers lost their homes, their local communities were devastated, and confused, angry, and resentful workers lost their earlier security and confidence that the ruling class listened to or cared about them.

So this is the objective situation that Trump’s campaign and his populist rhetoric exploited. It is important to note that in terms of developed, technology-driven, globalized capitalist relations, this reactionary, nationalistic, populist backlash is not a unique American phenomenon. One finds such nationalistic, often violent, populist rhetoric and appeals in Britain, as seen in the Brexit vote, throughout Eastern Europe, in France and Germany, and throughout the developed capitalist and even parts of the developing world. This reactionary economic and political backlash is often accompanied with xenophobia, anti-science and anti-technology reactions, anti-immigrant appeals, direct or coded appeals to male and white supremacy, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and other dangerous and violent appeals and reactions.

This serious contradiction involves the objective, changing situation of the U.S. in 2017. The U.S is still the most powerful nation, economically and especially militarily, in the world, but it is a superpower on the decline. There are many such historical precedents, including the decline of the British Empire before and after WWII. Unlike the decades of U.S. superpower hegemonic domination, we now live in a multipolar world with many centers of economic, political, military, and other power relations.

As globalized capitalism develops, the capitalist value of U.S. workers has declined; investing in American workers usually does not bring about the largest return on capital’s investments. Large corporations, including American-based firms, have realized that Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, Mexican, and other foreign workers can usually do the same work for much lower wages.

In addition, along with the loss of these U.S. manufacturing jobs, we have seen the increasing financialization of U.S. capitalism. The top fraction of 1% of the capitalist elite, with their financial institutions and corporations, have realized that they can make much more money through financial manipulations and transactions that produce nothing of any real value for society.

And, finally, as U.S. and globalized capitalism changes and develops, as U.S. capitalism is increasingly financialized and produces far fewer products of value, workers are increasingly displaced by new technology and automation. It is increasingly more profitable, and without the threat of worker dissatisfaction and anger, to have machines do the work. That is why most of the earlier, good-paying jobs are never coming back, and, increasingly, are going nowhere since they are becoming nonexistent.

What this means is that there are real objective contradictions between the U.S. and its capitalist system in 2017 and the Trumpian and other populist appeals, just, as there were, in less transparent ways, with the Obama and Clinton appeals and realities. Therefore, in contradiction to Trump’s rhetoric and appeals to how he will “Make American Great Again,” by restoring American military supremacy and economic domination, there are objective reasons that the U.S. will never regain its earlier superpower status, privilege, and domination. Therefore, in contradiction to Trump’s pledge to bring back all of those lost manufacturing, coal mining, and other jobs, there are objective reasons involving increasing necessary automation and technological development from a competitive, corporate, globalized capitalist point of view that make this impossible.

How will Trump and especially his white, male, working class followers react to this contradiction? The future opens up exciting opportunities for those influenced by Gandhi and by Marx, but it is fraught with dangers. Trump, of course, is the elite ruthless capitalist in making money, in making deals, even in bankrupting his companies while making a personal financial killing. How will his working class followers react when they are forced to recognize the reality of his capitalist ruling class priorities and policies that most benefit the ultra-wealthy and privileged elite? How will they react when they recognize that few of their well-paying jobs are coming back?

Gandhi would view the contradictions expressed through Trump’s values as expressing greed and our lower undeveloped human nature.He would viewdominant U.S. and global capitalism as blatantly and transparently violent, exploitative, and oppressive. Trump and his capitalism promote the dangerous growing inequality and destruction of the earth. In doing this, they offer us movement-building opportunities for greater awareness, nonviolent mobilization and resistance, and post-capitalist, more sustainable, alternative values and policies. Indeed, we are offered wonderful opportunities for revitalizing the U.S. and “making America great,” but this is possible only through alternative, qualitatively different, nonviolent, compassionate, truthful, moral, sustainable values, priorities, policies, and ways of living.

Marx would agree that the increasingly transparent developed contradictions of contemporary transnational corporate capitalism, of the integral and unsustainable relations of state-monopoly-militarized-globalized capitalism, offer the opportunities for working class and other resistance and socialist transformation. He would agree with Gandhi that Trump’s values, appointees, and polices express our lower undeveloped human nature, a denial of our human potential as “species beings” who can act in free, conscious, multisided, creative, meaningful ways as social individuals. In becoming aware of the key objective contradictions, we can relate to the objective, violent, untruthful, alienated, economic, social, political world and engage in transformative relations and actions in which we recreate our world as integral to recreating our selves

Nevertheless, heightened, major, transparent objective contradictions do not necessarily lead to constructive change. The reactions from the manipulating ruling class representatives and from the exploited and oppressive workers may be reactionary, violent, scapegoating, racist, sexist, homophobic, and fascistic. As seen earlier in history, and as evident in the U.S. and throughout the world today, those who are objectively exploited and treated unjustly may direct their anger at women, immigrants, and ethnic and religious minorities and not at those who have created and benefit from their objective situation.

This points to another major contradiction that is reflected in Donald Trump’s personality, his values, his past history,and in his major cabinet and other appointees. It is certainly true that, more than any previous administration. Trump has selected the super wealthy, who represent the interests of global, transnational,militaristic, corporate capitalism. However, as best exemplified by senior White House strategist Steve Bannon and senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, Trump has also privileged the role of those who attack the establishment, neo-liberal, global, corporate capitalists as representing the interests of anti-American “crony capitalism.” The inner circle of Bannon, Miller, Sebastian Gorka, and others expresses an ideology of America First (usually intended as white Christian America First), a reactionary populist nationalism, embracing the violent view of the necessary “clash of civilizations” and communicating ideological messages that are anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, often anti-Semitic, often sexist, anti-diversity, and racist.

As seen in his personal and economic history, his Presidential campaign, and his first months in office, Donald Trump embraces both tendencies and both perspectives. On the one hand, we find the interests of big corporate and financial capitalism with the key cabinet and other appointees who deny climate change and want to free fossil fuel corporations from government restrictions and regulations, who favor corporatized for-profit schools and prisons, who are determined to free Wall Street financial institutions from even the inadequate current regulations, etc. On the other hand, we find the stereotypical, emotional, ideological appeals to angry and alienated working class individuals, the fundamentalist and evangelical Christian Right, and others who are drawn to narrow reactionary populist nationalism with its America First, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, racist, etc. messages.

These two approaches often complement each other, as when the ruling class uses racist and sexist appeals to divert attention from understanding in whose interests economic, political, military, and environmental policies are being enacted and who is really responsible for the exploitation and injustice of the masses. As Trump has shown through his impulsive tweets and other means, he is a master of such diversionary tactics. However, these two approaches express divergent, often contradictory, values, priorities, worldviews, and conflicting interests. That is why, from the perspective of the wealthy corporate and financial viewpoint, the reactionary populism is often based on ignorance, is short sighted, and is irrational. That is why, from the perspective of the reactionary, nationalistic populism, the transnational corporate elite have sold out the U.S. and the “real America.” It is not clear how Trump will deal with these irreconcilable contradictions and what exacerbated forms they will develop in the coming years.

As Trump and his ruling class exploiters and political and military leaders fail to make good on their misleading and false campaign and present rhetoric and promises, will the U.S. become more repressive, more violent, less democratic, and more fascistic? Or will workers and others provide the resistance and progressive alternatives toward non-capitalist and post-capitalist relations, love and compassion over hate and selfishness, unity over divisiveness, justice and equality over inequality and injustice, and sustainable and harmonious economic, political, social, cultural, and environmental relations?

We may cite one other related contradiction that would be addressed by Marx and especially by Gandhi. Repeatedly, and especially after the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Gandhi wrote of the very dangerous contradiction between our modern, rapid development of technology with its incredible power of destruction and our underdeveloped moral and higher human qualities. This reflects the same contradiction expressed by the socialist Albert Einstein when he warned that we have developed our scientific and technological capacity to destroy all life on the planet, but we have not progressed and are extremely undeveloped when it comes to our moral, social, cultural, and other human relations and values.

In so many ways, Trump, his personality, his values, and his priorities reveal this contradiction in clearest and most dangerous terms. As numerous leading psychiatrists, scholars, and media figures have noted with great alarm, and as Marx and Gandhi would take very seriously, Trump, more than any incoming U.S. president, seems greatly unprepared. He has little knowledge, limited attention span, little curiosity to gain knowledge, and a blatant disregard for “facts” and truth. This is accompanied with a very immature, unstable, and undeveloped character, with a narcissistic incapacity to empathize and learn from others, and with a psychological thin-skinned personality with quick impetuous violent reactions. And yet Trump now has the most powerful political and military position in the world, with nuclear weapons and other militarized forces and technologies and corporate destructive economic and environmentalpolicies under his command. How will we in the U.S. and other citizens of the world respond to this most dangerous contradiction?

8) Need for a Radical Paradigm Shift

There are many other concerns shared by Marx and Gandhi relating to the election and the U.S. today. For example, both would agree that we in the U.S. have had a valuable but very limited form of democracy, and even that limited democracy is threatened today. Both Gandhi and Marx, often in very different ways, emphasize the need for transformative action that will move us toward greater, real, substantive democracy,

Both Marx and Gandhi, often with different emphases and different approaches, insist that we need a radical paradigm shiftif we are going to confront the challenges and dangers of Trumpism and the U.S. in 2017 and beyond. This was indicated briefly in the above section on key contradictions, as in the formulation of the urgent transformative need to develop our human potential.We must be more serious in our understanding of and movement toward more moral, nonviolent, egalitarian, and truthful relations. We must relate constructively and critically to the dominant political state and its partiesand to the dominant capitalist economical system. We must understand, resist, and resolve the dangerous contradictions that define our lives in the U.S. and elsewhere on the planet.To achieve these, we must struggle for a radical paradigm shift of qualitatively different presuppositions, principles, values, and policies, at least partly informed by the deep insights of Marx and Gandhi.

Doug Allen is Professor of Philosophy, The University of Maine, Orono, Maine 04469, U.S.A. Email: [email protected]

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