Applying Marxist Thought to…Product Work?


We recently examined an approach to strategy that grew out of RAND and US military planning. Today’s article will go in a different direction and discuss lessons gleaned from…Marxism?

That’s right. There are many concepts here that offer an extremely insightful lens through which to examine aspects of both organizational leadership and product strategy. For instance, I have long thought there are aspects of Agile and design that sound like Marxist thought. (For the record, I am not saying that’s where these things came from, so please don’t start messaging me.) If this sounds nuts, well, I invite you to read with an open mind. You might be surprised.

In this post, we will focus on the Marxist concept of base and superstructure, the Leninist concepts of commandism and tailism, the Marxist notions of struggle and contradiction, and, finally, the Maoist concept of the mass line.

Feel free to leave comments. If they’re thoughtful I’ll approve them.

Let’s get started.

Base and Superstructure

Marxism explicitly rejects Carlylian Great Man Theory, which sees history as driven primarily by the actions of individuals. Inspired by thinkers like Epicurus, Hegel, Feuerbach, and Adam Smith, Marx’s approach, historical materialism, along with its Hegelian dialectics, can be thought of as a precursor to modern dynamic systems theory. To the historical materialist, important innovations, inventions, and reforms are not primarily understandable as stemming from the actions of individuals as much as the result of larger systems or social movements and, as we will see, their inherent contradictions (or conflicts).

The core idea is that ideas themselves, like technologies, are the result of a process of evolution. As such, all knowledge is collective. We do not have what we have because of the efforts of “lone geniuses”. Our insistence that history is a story about various personalities is, in this view, an ad hoc narrative fallacy. Take the theory of evolution itself: Darwin didn’t “discover” it as much we today discount the larger fabric from which it emerged, emphasizing in retrospect the role his writings played in the Kuhnian paradigm shift that followed. Similarly, no one “invented” the computer or the car or the lightbulb. They are ideas that evolved across both time and people.

In rejecting Great Man Theory, the aim is to zoom out from individuals to the larger underlying systems at play. As Marxist economist David Harvey has put it, to blame outcomes on individuals within a system distracts from the larger fact that the system is producing the effects that it will as such in fact produce. And this likely sounds familiar. To quote W. Edwards Deming, “Every system is perfectly designed to get the result it gets.” Such thinking permeates Marx’s notion of “base and superstructure”. The results we get are often “superstructure” stemming at least in part from some underlying systemic or economic “base”.

We love focusing on superstructure. Indeed, the base itself often operates entirely outside our frame of reference. Notice what we tend to do. We announce a new corporate culture with new values. We roll out a new policy. We give management new training. We ignore that this is all superstructure and that the most effective way to change the organization would be to change some aspect of the underlying base. This can be thought of as organizational root cause analysis. The point is to stop intervening at the level of symptoms.

Superstructure changes not reflected in the base are often just lip service. So, instead of telling people what their new values are, give them better tools, give them better resources, and/or change how they relate to their customers. Instead of announcing a “culture of innovation”, change what behaviors are actually being incentivized. If we don’t, then, as Gerald Weinberg put it, our “words and music” are probably in some way misaligned. We’re incongruent and, what’s more, people can probably tell.

Ironically, in reading about the causes of inefficiencies in Soviet bureaucracy, a lot of it sounds like most modern corporations. Below is a summary excerpted from Parenti. Notice how much of it comes down to the unintended consequences of incentives. Where there is pressure to meet targets there will not tend to be slack time, time to experiment, innovate, and continuously improve. Quality will slip, which will further slow things down. If production improvements are then met with higher targets, this incentivizes sandbagging. Where managers are given reason to protect their role, this incentivizes stasis.  

Commandism and Tailism

Commandism is when leaders use formal authority to push an agenda against the will of those they lead. This is a failure to surface solutions from social investigation that the masses themselves accept. Lenin contrasted this with tailism (khvostism), which is a wholesale failure to lead. Whereas commandism is to dictate, tailism is to follow, making it akin to populism. Both fail to optimize results for the group, commandism by abandoning the principles of cooperative action and tailism by not surfacing better solutions than whatever people happen to be asking for in a given moment.

Consider, in most organizations we tend to do research only after we have a predetermined focus handed to us, such as a product that has already been decided on. This is commandism, ignoring that whatever we happen to think users are struggling with is not a substitute for engaging with them and surfacing larger systemic issues. Conversely, if we confuse design research with taking requests, that is tailism. This fails to root cause and surface bigger issues. It also fails to work with, reframe, and improve the assumptions of the people we are engaging with.

Struggle and Contradiction

As Deming once said, “A system cannot understand itself.” It’s like McLuhan’s fish. “Struggling” is how we learn about the water we are in. Instead of seeking individual opportunistic gains within the system’s status quo (what Lenin criticized as “economism” and “opportunism”), we strive to keep the focus on the continuous improvement of the surrounding system itself, which requires consciousness raising and the exposing of the system or base at play. Whatever the issue in question, we should link it to the system by identifying underlying political issues and, in a Hegelian sense, by seeking the principal contradiction or conflict determining results.

Consider Donella Meadows’ notion of “dancing with systems”. As she puts it, we must engage with systems in a way that surfaces mental models and exposes them to the air. This is essentially what organizers mean by “struggle”. Struggling exposes the system and brings it into view so we can then focus on improving it by identifying and working with its inherent contradictions. This is the process of dialectics. Every system contains opposing forces or “contradictions”. These contradictions, furthermore, are nested, such that identifying the “principal” contradiction is akin to a systemic root cause analysis.

As Marxist activist Torkil Lauesen notes, dialectical reasoning teaches us to view the world as an interconnected, contradictory, and continuously changing whole. Identifying the principal contradictions at play allows us to discover more optimal ways to then intervene in (or struggle with) the system, which then improves our analysis. Logician Kelvyn Youngman has compared this to Goldratt’s Evaporating Clouds. (As Youngman observes, Goldratt’s cloud diagrams are not causal as much as they are dialectical, focusing as such on the resolution of opposing forces.)

In Marxism proper this process tends to focus on contradictions related to ownership and economics, such as corporations emphasizing free market capitalism externally while internally operating as planned economies, or that the web of work that makes corporations even possible is already socialized and largely unremunerated, depending as it does on the social reproduction of people, education, and skills, whereas the ownership of said corporations is private, which is then viewed as a transfer of wealth from the many to the few.  

The Mass Line

Mass systemic work requires mass struggle, which requires mass organizing. The mass line is a philosophy that enables this. It can be compared to a centralized factory focused on the production of improved systemic understanding. This is related to Lenin’s argument that grassroots organizing should be aided by a central vanguard organization operating in a parallel, tops-down fashion. It thus emphasizes the importance of centrally surfaced strategic objectives enacted through decentralized tactics, a key similarity to the older Austrian military doctrine of “Auftragstaktik”.

In the mass line, we draw upon the experience of the group we are aiding as our main source of information in organizing to then improve their conditions. This begins with an analysis of the group and its larger context. We immerse ourselves in the group and learn about their needs and problems. We refine our analysis as we go, iteratively improving our understanding of the surrounding system. In this way, the Marxist process of cyclic theory and praxis (practice) is not all that unlike what is now described as “agile”, or Lean Startup’s concept of “build, measure, learn”, or design’s older notion of “design and critique”.  

In mass line organizing, as we work with the individuals in the group in question we link and raise their concerns to the level of joint issues, akin to what is now taught in negotiation. Below, for instance, is the “Circle Chart” from Fisher and Ury’s classic, Getting to Yes. (The parallels are striking!) In addition to surfacing options for mutual gains, however, the aim here is to organize individuals into collective action, thus simultaneously growing a coalition while building a platform.  

This process is described as an endless spiral wherein we cyclically learn, synthesize, share our summations back with the group, and assess whether they resonate. As we proceed, we consolidate gains and continually improve our approach. As we reengage with the group, they internalize discoveries that resonate as we then collectively decide on actions, building a network as we simultaneously amplify impact. According to this philosophy, it is this engaging with and immersion in the masses that grants leaders legitimate authority. The spiral below visualizes the overall process, as described by Mao in “Some Questions Concerning Methods of Leadership”.

A crucial concept in this process of joint discovery and organizing is the use of segmentation to customize the overall approach. The mass line stresses the importance of distinguishing between the advanced, the intermediate, and the backwards (or reactionary), or as sometimes stated, the active, the semi-active, and the inactive. We will here use the terms the “ready”, the “reluctant”, and the “resistant”.

The “ready” are those eager to join, to help with the process, and to grow overall impact. They will typically be the most in tune with the effort and the most politically aware of the systems at play. They are also good candidates to help with the overall organizing effort. The “reluctant” will be only marginally interested and their thinking on the issue will be less developed. We should both learn from them and educate and bring them up. The “resistant” may be more reactionary and might try to thwart the effort. We should learn about their position and reasons and then either win them over or bypass their resistance.

To maximize impact, we should seek to identify, unite, and leverage the ready, learn from, motivate, and mobilize the reluctant, and either educate and win over or bypass the resistant. We must remain flexible in this, as conditions are always changing. All efforts have their own lifecycle, and people who are ready at one point will be reluctant or even resistant at others.

Relevant here is Deming’s concept of critical mass and the square root. To effect change, start with the square root of the size of the organization. In a company of 100k, that is about 300 people. Do not spend too much time trying to persuade detractors. Focus on growing a coalition and then leveraging their networks to further expand it. As Jane McAlevey advises, we should use structure tests and power analyses to assess the lay of the land, ensuring we have a super majority on the issue at hand before taking action.

As we network, learn, and educate, it is important that we also increase the skills of everyone we work with so they can themselves adopt this empirical and iterative approach. This will not only amplify impact in this particular effort but will then enable them to launch their own efforts in the future, which is in the long run more important than any isolated gains. This helps build the organizational muscle of keeping the focus on the larger system and striving for its continuous improvement for all involved and not just the few in power positions.


To close, these concepts, stripped of emotional loading, are useful in many contexts. One could argue they are largely political, but, then again, all org change work is essentially political. Design, furthermore, is at its core the optimization of decisions within given constraints to achieve certain outcomes, which itself entails conflict, politics, and organizing. To ignore this is to limit our impact and potential.

2 thoughts on “Applying Marxist Thought to…Product Work?

  1. A nice, if overly long, validation of organisational psychotherapy.
    But how can you write a whole such article without once mentioning OP? Ignorance? Bias? Peevishness? Other?


    1. Bob, my friend, for this post I only read worlds explicitly about Marxism. Are you saying there are also strong parallels between Marxist theory and OP?


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