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Zeitgeist and ‘Marxism’

The Zeitgeist Movement, founded in America in 2008 by Peter Joseph and Jacque Fresco, stands for a worldwide ‘resource-based economy, which in many respects resembles what we called ‘socialism’ (and, if pressed, ‘communism’): the Earth’s resources would become the common heritage of all humanity and be used in a rational way to provide what people need and to which they would have free access without money; and calculations concerning production would be done solely in units of resources and not duplicated by monetary calculation, as today.

The Movement’s opponents have also noticed a similarity and have denounced Zeitgeist for propagating ‘Marxist Communism’, still a powerful swear-word in the US. ZM’s response, in a new guide to their orientation just published on the internet, is to insist that they are not Marxists (see thezeitgeistmovement.com/orientation). This is true. They aren’t. While they are scientific materialists and do see humans as adapting their social arrangements in the light of changing economic and technological conditions, they do not see the agency for these adaptations as some class pursuing its material class interest.

Referencing the Communist Manifesto of 1848, they acknowledge that the goal it advocates is a ‘stateless and classless society’. (Curiously, they omit ‘moneyless’ even though the Manifesto speaks specifically of ‘the communist abolition of buying and selling’.) But they go on:

‘On the surface, reformations proposed in TZM’s promoted solutions might appear to mirror attributes of ‘Marxism’ if one was to completely ignore the underlying reasoning. The idea of a society ‘without classes’, ‘without universal property’, and the complete redefinition of what comprises the ‘State’ might, on the surface, show confluence by the mere gestures themselves …. However, the actual Train of Thought to support these seemingly similar conclusions is quite different. TZM’s advocated benchmark for decision making is not a Moral Philosophy, which, when examined at its root, is essentially what Marxist philosophy was a manifestation of.’

Continuing the same theme, they say ‘the Marxist notion of a “classless society” was to overcome the capitalist originating “inhumanity” imposed on the working class or “proletariat”.’

They then expound their own approach:

‘TZM’s advocated train of thought, on the other hand, sources advantages in human studies. It finds, for example, that social stratification, which is inherent to the capitalist/market model, to actually be a form of indirect violence against the vast majority as a result of the evolutionary psychology we humans naturally possess. It generates an unnecessary form of human suffering on many levels which is destabilizing and, by implication, technically unsustainable.’ (Their emphasis)

So, unless all they are concerned about is that capitalism is ‘technically unsustainable’, they too want to overcome the ‘indirect violence’ and unnecessary suffering that its ‘social stratification’ imposes on the ‘vast majority’. So let’s not argue about who is more scientific than thou.

Is ‘Marxism’ really a ‘moral philosophy’? What, in fact, is ‘Marxism’? Is it the views of Marx the individual or the system of thought that Engels called ‘Scientific Socialism’? It is true that in his earliest writings, just after becoming a socialist at the end of 1843, Marx’s approach was philosophical rather than scientific. He denounced ‘political economy’ and ‘private property’ for resulting in the treatment of the ‘proletariat’ in a way that was contrary to the ‘species-nature’ of humans. This could indeed be interpreted as basing the case for socialism on a ‘moral philosophy’ –a view of how humans should be treated but weren’t.

However, while Marx never abandoned his indignation at what the working class had to suffer under capitalism, he soon ceased to base the case for socialism on a philosophical theory of human nature. Already in the Communist Manifesto he was criticising other German Socialists for not seeing socialism as the movement and outcome of the struggle of ‘one class with another’ but as representing ‘not the interest of the proletariat, but the interest of Human Nature, of Man in general, who belongs to no class, has no reality, who exists only in the misty realm of philosophical fantasy.’

As Engels was later to put it, in Socialism Scientific and Socialism, based on something he had written in 1875:

‘Modern Socialism is, in its essence, the direct product of the recognition, on the one hand, of the class antagonisms, existing in the society of to-day, between proprietors and non-proprietors, between capitalists and wage-workers; on the other hand, of the anarchy existing in production.’

Socialism was a class issue, not a mere moral issue; it was when this was recognised that socialism ceased to be ‘utopian’ and became ‘scientific’.

Engels’s pamphlet was in effect the founding document (much more than the Communist Manifesto) of what has come to be called ‘Marxism’ – though not by Marx himself. Marx was right about this, as the term suggests that socialist theory was the product of ideas thought up by one man, whereas, in fact, being a reflection of an on-going struggle built-in to capitalist society, it would have developed even if Marx and Engels had never been born and stands independently of whatever they may or may not have said or done. But inadequate as the term is, we are lumbered with it.

So, when, in their criticism of what we will have to call ‘Marxism’, ZM go on to say the following, they are in fact expressing a view shared by Scientific Socialism:

‘TZM is not interested in the poetic, subjective & arbitrary notions of “a fair society”, “guaranteed freedom”, “world peace”, or “making a better world” simply because it sounds “right”, “humane” or “good”.’

They go on:

‘Rather, TZM is interested in Scientific Application, as applied to societal sustainability, both physical and cultural. …. The Method of Science is not restricted in its application to the “physical world” and hence the social system, infrastructure, educational relevance and even understanding human behavior itself, all exist within the confines of scientific causality. In turn, there is a natural feedback system built into physical reality which will express itself very clearly in the context of what ‘works’ and what doesn’t over time, guiding our conscious adaptation.’

Apart from the language, Marx had said something similar in 1859 in his well-known outline of the materialist conception of history in his Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, in particular:

‘Humanity always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve: indeed, on closer examination, it will always be found that the task itself only arises when the material conditions for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation.’

In other words, as long as a social and economic system is ‘working’ there will be no pressure to change it. Marx identified the pressure for change as arising when a contradiction developed between a newly emerging way of organising the production of the wealth of society and a social and political superstructure reflecting an earlier technico-economic basis; the agent for change was a class that organised and benefitted from the new method and which would engage in a struggle with the old ruling class for control of political power. Technico-economic changes made a change of society necessary but the agent of change would be a specific class rather than the members of society in general that Zeitgeist seem to be suggesting

The same applies to the change from capitalism to socialism where, according to Marx, the agent of change will be the majority class of wage and salary workers and their dependents struggling against the entrenched minority capitalist class for control over the means of wealth production.

Insofar as ZM reject the class struggle they can be acquitted of the charge of ‘Marxism’. However, as they stand for the Earth’s resources becoming the common heritage of all, they must be found guilty of standing for ‘Communism.’