“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx
Jun 23, 2018
The following text is a presentation given on June 23, 2018 in London, England by the comrades of Workers Fight, a Trotskyist organization.
As revolutionary communists, we are not into celebrating individuals. Nor do we have gods or idols. As the words of the “International”, the battle song of the world working class, declare,
“There are no supreme saviors
“Neither God, nor Caesar, nor tribune.
“Producers, let us save ourselves.”
So, this forum will not be a celebration of Karl Marx, the man. Rather, we want to use the opportunity of the bicentenary of his birth to discuss what Marxism is, beyond the “ism,” and to recall how it has been tested through history, as an instrument for social change, in order to show that it is more relevant and necessary than ever, for the working class today.
Of course, that fact makes it indispensable for the capitalist class—faced as it is with a system in constant crisis—to show that Communism is irrelevant and unnecessary. But no matter that they have declared Marx and Marxism “dead” so many times, the capitalist media barons just cannot resist unearthing Marx’s corpse again and again, the better to bury it!
Capitalism is rotting on its feet. In fact, real progress for humanity, which would imply a solution to deprivation, hunger and wars at the very least, has not only not been halted, but unprecedented calamities have arisen, like the refugee crisis which has forcibly displaced 65.6 million people around the world, according to UN figures. They define 22.5 million of these as refugees, but all of these millions have had to leave their homes because of war or famine. It is as if the whole of the British population suddenly had to up sticks and flee. The list of refugee “emergencies” officially recognized by the UN goes like this: “Burundi situation, DR Congo emergency, Iraq emergency, Rohingya emergency, Syria emergency, Central African Republic situation, Nigeria emergency, South Sudan emergency, Yemen emergency.” And that’s not a full list of the countries from which men, women and children are fleeing -- only the main ones. Last year Mediterranean migrant arrivals in Europe were 171,635, while 3,116 drowned on the way. And how many hundreds, if not thousands, of miles have the survivors been forced to walk, how many borders did they have to cross illegally, how many jails were they locked into, in their desperate search for a safe, decent life?
The supposed falling levels of world poverty are no more. Since the 2008 financial crisis workers in the rich countries, let alone the poor countries, have seen living standards crash. Precarious employment has been rising for decades everywhere and the so-called “gig economy” is now the norm for the new generation of workers. And that means the poverty suffered by the working class is increasing. “Uber” exists in every country. Anyway, the 2008 crisis, which was triggered by the subprime mortgage scandal in the USA means that much of the derisory private property owned by the working class in the world’s richest country was confiscated and the poorest faced homelessness. And what about in the other rich countries? In fact, homelessness was something which was unknown on Britain’s streets 40 years ago, but now seeing people sleeping in doorways is normal. Who can deny today that society has, in almost every respect, been sliding backwards?
And of course, these social manifestations are just the tip of the iceberg. There are on-going conflicts all over the world, which the current politicians see fit only to aggravate, stoking a series of powder kegs, ready to blow at any moment—whether it be in Palestine or the rest of the Middle East, the African states being torn apart by fundamentalist militias, like in Nigeria with Boko Haram, or by the greed of western mining companies, like in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And then, here in Britain, there is Brexit. What kind of degenerate bourgeois politicians would actually undertake to shoot themselves in the foot in this way, for purely selfish political reasons, and damn the consequences for everyone else? Of course, Brexit will just deepen and multiply the effects of the on-going financial crisis. It is hard to believe this is happening, even while knowing how rotten their system has become.
But what Marxism tells us is that there is a way out of this bloody mess—in fact only one way—provided those who produce all the value in this society, the international working class, takes its fate—and that of humanity—into its own hands, in order to restore some sanity into today’s world. Marxism tells us this by providing us with a scientific method to understand how society has changed through history; how these changes have taken place in parallel with the evolution of the productive forces, whenever their development was prevented by the existing social organization; how and why the capitalist social order has long reached the point where it has become an obstacle to the further development of these productive forces; why, therefore, the replacement of capitalism with a new social organization allowing humanity to resume its march forward is a historical necessity and why the working class is the only force capable of delivering this change. But Marxism also tells us that historical necessity does not mean inevitability.
Social change will only take place as a result of a conscious, collective effort of the working class. And the whole history of our movement—the communist movement—has been one of learning, experimenting and learning again, in order to build up this collective consciousness that the working class will need, to achieve social change. In a way, this is what our forum is really about today: where Marx’s ideas came from and what they involved at the time; how they were subsequently vindicated through the militant activity of successive generations of communist activists; how each generation refined its understanding of its political tasks by learning from the experience of the previous struggles; and where this long process has taken us today.
Karl Marx and his life-long comrade in struggle, Friedrich Engels, were, first and foremost, the products of a remarkable period. They found themselves—largely by chance—in the right place at the right time. Their individual abilities and merits were, obviously, real. But if they were able to build up their ideas as they did, this was primarily because history had already prepared the bricks that they needed.
So, what was so special about this early part of the 19th century, which made them decide to get stuck into politics, rather than make a career as most bourgeois intellectuals do, in order to change the world?
In fact, unlike the English revolution which had little impact outside Britain in the 17th century, the energy of the French revolutionary bourgeoisie in the 18th had an impact right across the whole of Europe. This had started even before the revolution itself; when natural sciences and philosophy were transformed forever by the efforts of the French bourgeois intellectuals of the Enlightenment, who were determined to deprive religion of its monopoly over knowledge, nature and society. And then, vindicating these efforts and bringing this energy to a climax, the French revolution proved that even what was considered at the time as the strongest monarchy in Europe, could be completely wiped out, together with its privileged classes—and this, despite the combined military intervention of all the European monarchies.
The democratic prestige of the French revolution was so great that when the armies of Napoleon 1st, who was himself anything but a democrat, moved into central and eastern Europe, its soldiers were more often than not welcomed by the populations as liberators.
By the 1830s, when Marx was a student, Europe was still feeling the aftershocks of this great French Revolution, which had demonstrated the revolutionary power of the poor masses. But nothing was yet settled—France had already seen another revolutionary explosion, in 1830. Throughout eastern Europe, motley crowds of artisans and youth plotted armed uprisings against their ruling tyrants, in the hope that, like in France, this would set alight the revolutionary spirit of the oppressed masses. Everywhere these attempts failed but new ones kept occurring. For rebellious youth like Marx and Engels these were interesting times indeed.
Compared to France, it must have seemed to Marx that German-speaking Europe was living in a time-warp, dominated as it was by the rivalries of countless despots, whose only preoccupation was to protect themselves and their fiefdoms, while bleeding the population dry in order to fund luxurious courts. Nothing could be more frustrating for the radical youth of this part of Europe than to live in an apparently immutable society, under the bigoted rule of small-time autocrats, when, next door, the French population had freed itself from the yoke of a far more powerful absolute monarchy.
Marx and Engels belonged to this radical youth. Like their peers, they took every opportunity to stand up against the feudal despots, whether in the streets or in their writings—and they got into a lot of trouble for that, to the point where Marx was forced to flee into exile when he was just 23. But unlike most of their peers who were satisfied with venting their frustration in obscure debates and maybe joining the odd obscure conspiracy, Marx and Engels wanted to see change. If ideas were to be worth anything, they had to be turned into an instrument for action. But Marx was under no illusion. Ideas could only change the course of history when, like in the French revolution, they became a weapon in the hands of large numbers of people, whose energies were welded together by a common objective based on a common understanding of what had to be done and why.
But where were the troops required for this to come from? Very early on, they realized that the affluent German bourgeoisie was far more interested in defending its wealth against the poor masses, than in risking its comfort by taking part in any kind of revolutionary action. And this prompted Marx and Engels to turn to those who were at the bottom of the social pile, those whose labor was allowing the privileged classes, both feudal and bourgeois, to live as parasites on their poverty—just as, in the French revolution, it was the impoverished masses of the big towns who had decisively tilted the balance of forces toward carrying out the complete eradication of the feudal order, rather than some sort of accommodation with it.
If ideas were to be a tool for action and action was aimed at changing society, then it was necessary to study how society had changed in the past, in order to figure out how it might change in the future. Modern natural science of the time described natural phenomena as the result of contradictory forces which acted against one another and as on-going processes which kept evolving. Man was an integral part of nature and so therefore, was society. History, i.e., society seen as an always evolving process, had to be the result of contradictory forces—but what forces?
In fact, these forces were rooted in man’s material life—which began with his interaction with nature in order to obtain the necessities of life and in so doing changing nature and being changed by it. This was the so-called dialectical process which Marx and Engels had derived from the German philosophers Hegel and Feuerbach. And it was by studying man’s social evolution as a result of the development of the ability to produce his necessities—that is, through the development of the productive forces—in other words the economy, that it became possible to understand the decisive changes which society went through along the way.
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx writes that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”. If we trace each stage in the development of society, we see that it corresponds to a stage in the development of the productive forces. Indeed, society changes in parallel with these forces, each stage featuring a ruling class which appropriates the products of human labor for itself, but also giving birth to a new class which will eventually take over the running of society in the next stage of its development. This was the gist of Marx’s so-called historical materialism, designed to be a scientific approach to understanding history. We can leave it to Marx to explain it in his own words:
“In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or—what is but a legal expression for the same thing—with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic—in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.”
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx summarized his view of history as “the history of class struggles”: “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstruction of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes... The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones. Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinctive feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.”
For Marx, therefore, the battle lines in the pursuit of social change were clearly drawn.
By 1844, the bourgeoisie had already lost the revolutionary potential which had previously allowed it to do away with feudal rule. But the workings of capitalism and its dependence on the exploitation of human labor meant that the growing industrial proletariat was to be the next revolutionary class.
Besides, according to the news Marx was getting from Britain, this proletariat was learning very fast indeed and proving capable of organizing itself in a way that no other oppressed class had ever shown in society. So, from this point onward Marx’s and Engels’ work was to be focused on preparing the ground for the development of a political organization representing the interests of the working class—that is, a communist party.
In 1847, having been forced to leave France as a “dangerous revolutionary”, Marx together with Engels joined a group of fellow German-speaking revolutionary exiles in Brussels—who had formed an underground society which they called the Communist League. It was at the request of this League that they had drawn up the Communist Manifesto, which first appeared in February 1848—the first program for a proletarian revolutionary communist party in history outlining the basis for the pivotal role of the proletariat in transforming society. This is what it says about it:
“Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class. The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of Modern Industry; the proletariat is its special and essential product. The lower middle class, the small manufacturer, the shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant, all these fight against the bourgeoisie, to save from extinction their existence as fractions of the middle class. They are therefore not revolutionary, but conservative. Nay more, they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history. If by chance they are revolutionary, they are so only in view of their impending transfer into the proletariat; they thus defend not their present, but their future interests; they desert their own standpoint to place themselves at that of the proletariat.”
In fact, the revolutions of 1848, both in France and in Germany, proved this very point. The bourgeoisie of both countries, having first formed a united front with the workers to overthrow the existing order, turned violently against them, when it came to the crunch—out of fear of their mobilization. And the failure of the working class to have its own independent political leadership meant that in both cases it was unprepared and thus crushed by reactionary forces.
With the ebb in the class struggle, between 1848 and 1864, Marx devoted himself to the study of political economy in general and capitalism in particular, preparing for his writing of Capital. But when the struggles revived in the 1860s, he threw himself into the activities of the International Workingmen’s Association—the First International—which was founded in London in 1864. This International brought together all kinds of socialists, but also anarchists and radical nationalists, as well as representatives of the English trade unions. Within its ranks, Marx fought for the adoption of a fighting proletarian program, which the international working class could use in its struggles.
It was not always plain sailing for Marx. Many disagreed with the importance he gave to the class struggle in practice, as a school of communism (although the formula was coined by Lenin later) and as a means of preparing the ground for a future mass mobilization of the proletariat.
For Marx, the problem was to help develop the consciousness of the working class through struggle, rather than having the working class rely on the consciousness of an elite few, who could then stage some kind of coup. And precisely because the class struggle was to be a school of communism, the task of the International was to get the working class to learn in practice how much strength it could acquire, by ignoring national differences and building on the fact that exploitation feels the same and requires the same fighting methods of struggle and objectives, whichever language you speak.
Two major assumptions contained in the Communist Manifesto had never been—and never had a chance to be—put to the test of history at the time of its writing, in 1847. One was the ability of the proletariat to “set itself up as the ruling class” and therefore exercise its own rule—its own dictatorship, in fact. And the other was that, in this process, the proletariat would be paving the way for the end of class divisions and, by the same token, for the end of the state as an instrument of class domination. This is how the Communist Manifesto puts it:
“If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organize itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.”
The Paris Commune of 1871 vindicated these assumptions. It was the first workers’ state—or dictatorship of the proletariat—in history and it was to serve for several decades as a kind of blueprint for communists as to what to do and what not to do. The Commune was the result of the extraordinary coincidence of exceptional factors. The rout of the French army in an ill-conceived war aimed at preventing the Prussian state from unifying Germany had sparked off the mass mobilization of the Paris proletariat. But, this time, the bourgeoisie failed to turn this mobilization to its own advantage. Highly politicized and experienced after their own devastating and bloody defeat by these same bourgeoisie in 1848, but also by now schooled by the First International, the Parisian masses scared the privileged classes into withdrawing their forces from the capital. And then, taking advantage of the resulting political vacuum, the Paris proletariat set up its own state.
Although short-lived—it lasted two months—the Paris Commune vindicated Marx’s anticipation of proletarian dictatorship in the Communist Manifesto. It allowed Marx himself, who followed events day by day, to demonstrate in practice that the proletariat did indeed have the capacity to fulfil its historical task. But it also clarified another vital element of the struggle for socialism: that it was not enough to take power; the working class, in order to wield it and transform society had to smash all vestiges of the old state and build its own, proletarian state, suited to the task of creating the basis for a new society without exploitation or classes.
Having seized power almost by chance, the small Paris proletariat rose to the occasion. But it had little or no chance of holding out for very long against the combined forces of the French and Prussian bourgeois states. However, it certainly made the best of a bad situation by demonstrating in practice what the proletariat can achieve once it has the means to run society. In particular, it showed that its dictatorship was indeed far more democratic than so-called bourgeois “democracy” could ever be and why it could therefore pave the way for the “withering away of the state”, as part of the transition to communism, to use Engels’ formula.
The Commune was a magnificent demonstration of the proletariat’s capability which terrified the bourgeoisie. A brutal wave of repression followed, not just in France but throughout Europe. But soon the low ebb of the class struggle reassured the bourgeoisies and industrial development followed, fed by the rock-bottom cost of labor.
The time had come for the working class to build real working-class parties, as opposed to the small communist groups of the 1st International which had rarely had more than a few thousand active members.
The center of gravity of the communist movement shifted to Germany, where the communists had been less decimated by the repression following the Commune. Being now unified, Germany had a large working class and hundreds of experienced communist activists on the ground. And it was there that, despite being driven underground for over a decade by repression, the largest mass revolutionary workers party, so far, was built—the Social Democratic Party or SPD—a development followed closely, first by Marx and, after his death, by Engels.
At the same time Marx and Engels were sharpening their understanding of the workings of the capitalist system, the better to arm the proletariat for the future revolutionary explosions. The first volume of Marx’s Capital had already been published in 1867, but Marx was now working on the next two volumes which would look, among other things, at the financial workings of the system and elaborate on the recurring economic crises that shook the capitalist economy and why the capitalist class was unable to prevent them. Marx died in 1883 at the age of 65, before completing this work, and it was left to Engels to fulfill this task, which he undertook until his own death in 1895.
In the meantime, the huge electoral successes won by the SPD after it was unbanned had been feeding the illusion that maybe there was a reformist road to social change, avoiding the need for a revolution. These illusions and the growing integration of the SPD into the institutions of the state on which they fed, concealed the reality of the class war. Those who warned against the danger of forgetting the mortal danger that the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie represented for the working class, even behind the facade of an apparently lenient “democratic” regime, were ignored. And then came WWI and the wholesale betrayal of the working-class movement by its own organizations, including the mighty SPD itself.
At the time, some were quick to argue—and this is an argument which is still very much alive today—that the betrayal of the working-class movement by the SPD leaders had always been in the cards. Some said it was due to their having accepted to play along with bourgeois democracy by standing candidates in elections; others that it was due to the very idea of trying to organize the proletariat politically—and that any attempt to set up a disciplined working class political party would inevitably produce the same result.
Lenin, then the leader of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party, thought otherwise. In his view, the evolution of capitalism toward what he called its “imperialist phase” had been completed. The huge increase in the wealth of the rich, imperialist bourgeoisies had enabled them not just to bribe politicians and parties, but to also give whole layers of workers the illusion that they had a stake in the system, by offering them a few crumbs out of their huge profits. This, combined with a long period in which the working class had been invisible on the political scene, at least as an independent force, let alone a revolutionary one, had built up enormous social pressure on its organizations and when faced with a major crisis, they were paralyzed.
However, this imperialist epoch was also opening up new prospects in front of the proletariat. Its main features, the massive concentration of capital and the fact that the capital of just a few of the world’s capitalist classes was now flooding the entire planet, were trends which had already been noted by Marx, although they were now operating on a scale which would have been impossible to imagine in Marx’s time. The irony, as Marx himself had noted, was that the ruthless competition between individual capitalists was driving the capitalist system to increasingly unify the world into a single economic entity which by-passed the existing national borders; just as much as the growing concentration of capital was centralizing the world economy and preparing it for the time when it would be taken over by the proletariat.
But, at the same time, as Lenin explained, these features of imperialism were amplifying the contradictions of the capitalist system: the expansion of the world market, which made national borders increasingly redundant, reinforced the role of the state machineries of the imperialist countries, pushing their rivalries to unprecedented levels. Meanwhile the increasing concentration of the economy in the hands of a small number of big companies, controlled by an even smaller number of even bigger banks, exacerbated their trade war. The contradictions of capitalism were reaching such a heightened level that they were becoming an obstacle to its development. The political and economic crises of this imperialist era, argued Lenin, would break out on a world scale, just as its chronic economic crises would affect the whole world.
WWI was the first drastic illustration of this. But this did not make a proletarian revolution more inevitable, even if it made it more urgent.
Fortunately, there was a proletarian revolutionary party which was ready to lead the proletariat on the road to power in these tumultuous times—namely, Lenin’s Bolshevik party in Czarist Russia. This may have seemed the most unfavorable of places. Marx and Engels had always argued that a successful socialist revolution would require an economic base provided by full-blown capitalist development and Russia was only very partially industrialized. On the other hand, it was, in Lenin’s words, “the weakest link in the imperialist chain” and because capitalism, as the world war proved, no longer functioned on a national basis, but actually operated on a world scale—so too, of necessity, would proletarian revolution need to spread itself internationally. If revolution started in Russia, it could only be successful if the proletariat of other countries, especially the richest ones, followed the Russian proletariat’s example. There was every reason to think that it was only a matter of time before German workers did just that. But as we know, this was not to be.
However, the Bolshevik party had managed to avoid falling into the same reformist trap as the German SPD. In a way, this was partly due to the fact that the harsh conditions created by the Czarist regime left little space for reformist illusions. But this was not the only reason. Lenin and the Bolshevik leaders had drawn the necessary lessons from the rising reformist trends in the German SPD. Not only had the Bolshevik party been built as a militant organization specifically to conduct the class struggle and prepare for the seizure of power, but it was above all designed to operate on the basis of a close, democratic relationship between its activists and the broader ranks of the working class. This ensured that the party would be less likely to be led astray by any kind of non-proletarian social pressure.
In addition, the Bolshevik party had the experience of the failed revolution of 1905 under its belt. In fact, 1905 had provided the working-class movement with two new weapons: the mass strike and the soviet, or workers’ council. Equipped with this experience and tradition, the Russian working class led by the Bolsheviks, was able to take power in October 1917 in its own name—and to retain this power against the largest coalition of counter-revolutionary forces ever seen in history.
But the revolutionary wave following the Russian workers’ victory eventually collapsed, leaving the Russian workers’ state completely isolated—for lack of workers’ parties elsewhere which had the same necessary qualities demonstrated by the Bolsheviks in October 1917. For them it was a question now of surviving until the next revolutionary upsurge—if and when.
But the pressure of the imperialist-dominated world became too overbearing, feeding the development of a bureaucracy, which, under the leadership of Stalin, hijacked political power. The fight had to move elsewhere in order to keep the tradition of the revolution alive and protect what had been gained. This became the task of a Left Opposition under the leadership of the former commander of the revolutionary proletarian Red Army, Leon Trotsky. Had this opposition not raised the flag of revolutionary Marxism, the Soviet Union would probably have collapsed even before WWII.
So, what about Marxism today? What does it amount to in this 21st century? First and foremost, as we’ve already pointed out, it is the accumulated experience of generations of communist activists who devoted their energies to organizing the working class in its fight for social change, over the past century and a half. It is the sum total of what can be learnt from its attempts to deal with the many different circumstances and obstacles it faced.
For the working class, the class struggle has always involved successes and setbacks, victories and defeats. But whether successful or not, there was always something new for the communist movement to learn from these struggles. And this was true even of the many revolutionary situations in history, when the working class rose up without having any realistic chance of success.
The Paris Commune is a case in point. Although it was doomed to fail, both its achievements and its failures allowed the communist movement to take an enormous step forward. It gave a concrete content to Marx’s concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which, so far, had been solely based on historical reasoning, rather than on real-life experience. And last but not least, it redefined and clarified the tasks ahead for the working class in its march to revolutionize society.
So, to go back to what Marxism is today, it is primarily this accumulated collective experience of the working class over time. But this experience would be useless without the foundation on which Marxism is based—i.e., its scientific approach to the understanding of society as a process in constant motion, driven by the class struggle. Those who want to act in order to change society have to learn from its past. If they don’t, they will endlessly have to reinvent the wheel, while repeating the same mistakes. It is precisely because the Marxist approach requires us to learn from the past evolution of society in order to understand its present operation and trends, that we can benefit from the experience of the past generations of working-class fighters.
But, by the same token, precisely because it constantly incorporates the experience acquired by the working class in the class struggle, Marxism is not, contrary to what its critics claim, a “frozen dogma”. On the contrary, as a body of ideas and reasoning, it is permanently evolving, as history moves forward.
Marxism is often presented as an economic doctrine—especially by its arch-pro-capitalist critics. But it is not and has never been such a thing. Marx’s choice to devote so much time and effort to studying the niceties of the inner workings of capitalism was never an end in itself, but a means to an end. His aim was to equip the working class with a deep understanding of its class enemy, of the economic system on which it was based and of the precise nature of the capitalist exploitation that it was subjected to. And the purpose of this was to contribute to the development of the class consciousness of the proletariat—in other words its consciousness of the necessity to carry out its historical task of overthrowing capitalism in order to replace it with a new form of social organization, free of the contradictions of the old system.
So, today, Marxism incorporates this understanding of the workings of capitalism produced by Marx in the 19th century. But just as it has constantly been incorporating the fighting experience of the working class as it developed, it has also incorporated the evolution of capitalism as it happened. That said, there are some aspects of today’s crazy economic system whose intricacies we don’t really need to know about, in order to fight it. Famous speculators like Warren Buffett or George Soros have often been quoted, explaining that they did not understand anything about many of the so-called financial products which are available today—despite the fact that, every day, tens of billions of pounds worth of these financial products are traded and billions of pounds worth of profits are made from this trade. Yet ignorance has not prevented Buffett and Soros from becoming billionaires, thanks to gambling on these same financial products. So why should we bother to try to penetrate their pernicious complexity, like bourgeois economists do day after day in the columns of such newspapers as the Financial Times?
What really matters to the working class is the extent to which this gambling has become parasitical on the real economy, to the point of causing devastating financial crashes which, in turn, result in the serial closure of productive facilities and mass unemployment. In that sense, Marxists are not economists and we make no apologies for this. On the contrary, let’s leave the champions of capitalism to the pleasure of arguing between themselves over the quickest way to make a fast buck! This is not our problem!
Finally, Marxism is often accused of being a “biased” approach to understanding the workings of society. And yes, it is! And defiantly so, since it was built from the bottom-up as an instrument designed to help the oppressed and exploited masses to free themselves from the cause of their oppression and exploitation—which is capitalism. So, yes, today as yesterday, being a Marxist is first and foremost about making a choice—the choice of the best instrument available to fight the capitalist system and change society.
The question which is often raised today is whether Marxism is still relevant, almost two centuries after Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto. Many of those who raise this question have already made up their minds on this issue and decided that the answer is no. They invoke a long list of arguments, which are worth examining one by one.
Are we still living in a class society?
Some say that the fundamental Marxist notion that we live in a class society is no longer valid. Well, has the capitalist exploitation of human labor disappeared? Of course not. If the shareholders of British companies netted an all-time record of Â£95bn in dividends last year, it was certainly not because they produced the equivalent value in goods and services using their own manicured hands.
Indeed, this colossal amount of dividends still represents, as it did in Marx’s time, part of the value produced by waged workers which has been stolen from them by their employers—while the rest of this stolen value is kept by companies as retained profits. In other words, capitalist exploitation—that is, the institutional theft of workers’ labor by the capitalist owners of the means of production—remains as extensive as ever.
In fact, this exploitation has been increasing for a very long time. One way of measuring this is to compute the total value of wages as a proportion of the total value produced in any given country. In the rich countries, this proportion has been shrinking more or less constantly ever since the end of the so-called “postwar boom”, in the early 1970s. In the poor countries, this proportion started shrinking during the following decade, in the 1980s, when the international financial institutions of the richest countries, such as the IMF, began to impose austerity programs on them, in order to force their governments to service and repay their debt.
So, yes. Not only is capitalist exploitation still there, but it is getting increasingly vicious, just in the same measure that social injustices have been steadily growing over these same decades and that, more recently, social deprivation has returned to the rich countries with a vengeance. So, those who claim that we live in a classless society today, must either be wearing blinkers or else, like Blair and Thatcher, they must have chosen to side with the capitalist exploiters once and for all!
Is there still a working class in the rich countries?
While acknowledging the obvious fact that social inequalities still exist today, some claim that the working class no longer exists in the way Marx saw it. They claim, in particular, that the working class has now been fully integrated into what they call the “middle-class”, which is more preoccupied with mortgages, consumer goods and even shares, than with defending their collective interests against the bosses.
Obviously, this argument does not hold water when it comes to the proletariat of the poor countries. In this respect, more than enough has already been exposed in the media about the appalling conditions of the Chinese workers who manufacture Apple’s electronic gadgets and of the Bangladeshi workers who produce clothes for the likes of Benetton or Primark!
But even in the rich countries, this argument does not hold any more water—and not just because of the recent rise of the “gig economy”. In passing, it is worth noting that this way of burying the working class as a class, is almost as old as the capitalist system itself. Already, in the late 19th century, commentators were ridiculing the fighting capacity of relatively well-paid skilled workers, who were wearing bourgeois clothes and top hats and having heated arguments over the price of their railway shares. Well, yes. But this did not prevent the British working class from staging some of the biggest strikes in its history during that same period. Nor did it prevent these same skilled workers—or their sons, rather—from taking the lead of the wartime strikes in engineering, during World War I.
The truth is that outside revolutionary periods, the working class has never shown revolutionary consciousness. Only a minority of workers have, those who are committed activists. This is nothing new. But the fact that today’s workers get indebted up to their necks and become tenants of their banks by taking a mortgage, or that Royal Mail workers, for instance, hold shares in their own company thanks to privatization, does not change anything when it comes to their exploitation by the capitalist class. And it is this exploitation, together with the way in which capitalism concentrates workers in large numbers in the same workplaces, which makes them members of a specific class, with specific collective interests opposed to those of the capitalist class.
As to the consciousness workers have of being part of their class, it has always depended on circumstances—on the collective experience and the sense of collective strength they had acquired in the class struggle and the quality of the organizations they had managed to build in the course of their struggles. This was true in Marx’s and Lenin’s days and remains just as true today.
Of course, today, the class struggle may seem subdued or even, non-existent, in the rich countries. But this has often been the case in the past: periods of lull and resignation have often preceded periods of large-scale unrest and determined upsurge. The truth is that the class struggle never stops. There is always a certain level of resistance against exploitation among workers, even when it takes only a molecular form. As to the capitalists, they are always on the lookout for an opportunity to boost their profits on the backs of workers, by turning the screw of exploitation a bit more. But then comes a day when they turn the screw one notch too far. Suddenly, the class struggle comes back to the forefront of the political scene, with a vengeance—and with it, the rejuvenated class consciousness of the working class, including in the rich countries.
Can the working class still deliver social change?
Another common argument is that the working class has somehow lost its capacity to deliver social change. Various allegations are made to support this point of view: that the days of the very large concentrations of workers in huge factories are long over and, therefore, the collective strength of the working class is now much less than it used to be in the past; that, due to mechanization, there are already fewer and fewer industrial workers; and that, tomorrow, robots will take over productive jobs, thereby reducing the working class to barista-like jobs. In short, the working class is supposed to have already lost most the muscle it had due to its vital role in production and will lose even more of it in the future, to the point of being completely marginalized by robots.
Of course, all this certainly reflects the image that the media and politicians of the capitalist class try to give of the working class in rich countries like Britain. But even the capitalists’ own statisticians show that this is just smoke and mirrors. It is true that successive crises and profit drives have literally turned whole regions of Britain into industrial wastelands. It may seem just as true that the number of industrial jobs has dramatically shrunk over the past decades. But is this so? There are far fewer permanent industrial jobs, yes, without any doubt. But what about the jobs in so-called “industrial services”—i.e., subcontractors working on-site or off-site for big manufacturing companies? What about the growing number of casual workers—temps or self-employed, on part-time and zero-hours contracts—who are now working yesterday’s permanent industrial jobs, but at a much, much, lower cost for the capitalist class? Taken altogether, the number of workers in industry has not shrunk all that much over the past three decades, since the wave of big closures and casualization started. Nor have robots taken over as many manual jobs as it is often claimed.
And there is a very good reason for this: quite simply because, capitalist exploiters may be able to rob workers of part of the value they produce as a matter of course, but they can’t play this trick on machines or robots, which they have already paid for, anyway. Workers can be pushed beyond their limits; if they refuse, break down or walk out, they can be sacked and replaced by other, more docile workers. But when machines are pushed beyond their limits, they break down, and must be replaced at huge extra cost. In short, workers are exploitable and exploited, but machines aren’t. And this is why machines are not used to do so many hard, repetitive jobs in which they could easily replace human labor—because it wouldn’t be as profitable for the employers. In short, no matter the level reached by technology, the capitalist class cannot do without large numbers of workers simply because workers, unlike machines, are their only source of profits. In other words, even in the rich countries, the working class is still bound to incorporate a very large section of the population for the foreseeable future, at least as long as the profit system remains.
But, more importantly, overall the size of the international working class and its importance in the production process on the scale of the planet, keeps increasing more or less at the same speed as the size of the world economy. And this is what really matters for us communists, because, for us, social change is not the task of the British or French or American working classes alone, it is the historical task that only the international working class can accomplish.
Hasn’t capitalism changed?
Then, there are those who tell us that capitalism has changed, that it has mended its ways and has finally managed to overcome the contradictions that Marx so carefully dissected in his day.
Well, yes, capitalism has changed. But, as was explained earlier, these changes are now fully incorporated into Marxism. More importantly, though, while capitalism has indeed changed, it has changed for the worse. Let’s take the example of the chronic capitalist crises. Since the advent of the imperialist epoch, more or less in the very early years of the 20th century, these recurrent crises changed from affecting one industry in a relatively limited geographical area, as they used to do in the 19th century, to become wider and wider in scope.
Since the 1920s, as a result of the ever-increasing integration of the world market, every single capitalist crisis has affected a long list of countries and virtually every industry.
Then, from the 1970s onwards, a growing proportion of the capital available across the world was turned into colossal flows of floating capital which roamed the planet at increasing speeds in search of a quick buck. This was due to the fact that, following the sudden world crisis in production of the early 1970s, the richest capitalist classes were no longer willing to invest long-term in the productive sphere. Instead they were looking for ways of making profits out of very short-term investment—or should we say speculative operations—which allowed them to pull their capital out easily and quickly at the first sign of danger. The truth was that the capitalists themselves no longer had any confidence in their own system. And this lack of confidence, together with the increasing flurry of speculation which went with it, has become a permanent feature of the world economy ever since. This made the world economy more fragile than it had ever been before.
Ever since then, the world economy has been shaken by crisis after crisis, at least one in every decade, which all presented similar features. They initially seemed to be triggered by some obscure hiccup, somewhere in the world financial sphere. Then they spread like wildfire to the rest of the world through the high-speed channels which allow floating capital to travel across the planet. In the process, they severely affected stock or bond markets, commodity or derivative markets, banks, real estate lenders, or any combination of these. Eventually, the financial shock ended up hitting the real economy by reducing the amount of money that companies could borrow and increasing the cost of borrowing, thereby pushing many of them to the wall, causing plant closures and redundancies.
Of course, superficially, these modern crises appear to be different in nature from those described in the 19th century by Marx. But in reality, the mechanisms which are producing them are identical. They are driven by the same old contradictions of capitalism whereby instead of capital being allocated to every sector of the economy according to need, its allocation is driven by the frantic competition between individual capitalists to maximize their own benefits. In Marx’s day, this was what produced periodic crises of over-production and plant closures in each particular industry. Whereas, today, similar crises are still taking place in the production sphere, but they remain more or less hidden by the financial merry-go-round, until the financial sphere itself is affected, crashes, and finally reveals what was really going on all along in the real economy. So, no, capitalism hasn’t reformed itself nor overcome any of its contradictions. If anything, on the contrary, their scale has enormously increased.
Isn’t “globalization”, rather than capitalism, the real problem faced by the world today?
Some critics of Marxism also argue that, today, the real problem faced by humanity is not capitalism but “globalization” and that, therefore, Marxism should be dumped into the dustbin of history. They point to the countless ills from which the whole planet suffers—and rightly so—but, instead of blaming these ills not on capitalism itself, they blame them on the way capitalism now operates on a worldwide scale.
So, in their view, multinational companies are the main enemies, but not the local medium-size employer who exploits his workforce on zero-hours contracts. They blame the big banks and investment funds for the on-going disruption of the world economy by large-scale speculation, but not the greed of the many individual capitalists who use these banks and funds to increase their own wealth. They blame international institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank for the catastrophic austerity programs they impose on deeply indebted poor countries, but not the fact that the dramatic impoverishment of these countries is primarily due to the fact that capitalist profiteering rules overall economic relations across the world.
Ironically, “globalization” as it is described today by its opponents is something that Marx had long outlined as one of the main characteristic tendencies of the capitalist system itself. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx described how, in their frantic competition to increase their profits, the capitalists had to expand their markets and, therefore, their operation to the whole planet, thereby creating an increasingly integrated world market in which national borders would become not only irrelevant but, increasingly, as many obstacles to the normal operation of the world economy. Almost 70 years later, Lenin was to show how this expansionist tendency had finally produced a new stage in the development of capitalism—which he called imperialism. And reading the description that Lenin gave of this new stage, back in 1916, one can find all the features which are described today as “globalization”.
In other words, today’s “globalization” is nothing but the face of capitalism after one century of evolution since Lenin described the features of its imperialist stage.
But instead of recognizing this fact—and drawing from it the conclusion that capitalism must be overthrown, as Marx and Lenin did in the past—the “anti-globalization” movement generally argues for measures which, in its view, would “tame” the excesses of the system and produce, so to speak, a more lenient, acceptable form of capitalism. So, for instance, they argue for a reduction in world trade, for national economies to be more self-sufficient and for national borders to be used to shield them from the world market. Under the pretext of containing the rapacity of the big multinationals, the “anti-globalists” propose to raise protectionist barriers—as if the capitalist classes were likely to be any less ruthless in their search for profits within their respective national markets! In order to “tame” capitalism, they propose to scale it down. In other words, while world-scale capitalism is evil, small-scale capitalism is beautiful—as Thatcher could have said. As if the law of the jungle which is the very foundation on which capitalism—and its cut-throat competition between individual capitalists—is based could ever be “tame”, whatever the scale on which it operates.
However, this tweaking around the edges of capitalism advocated by the “anti-globalization” movement is not just an ineffective remedy—it is a reactionary one. Indeed, what they argue is that humanity should return to the “good old days” when capitalism was still in its infancy—as if there had ever been “good days” for the exploited under capitalism!
Compare this harking back to a past which never existed, with the infinitely more enthusing stance adopted by Marx in 1847, when he declared that, on the contrary, the tendency of capitalism to expand to the entire planet was a progressive development “(because) all economical laws, with their most astounding contradictions, will act upon a larger scale, upon a greater extent of territory, upon the territory of the whole earth; and because from the uniting of all these contradictions into a single group, where they stand face to face, will result the struggle which will itself eventuate in the emancipation of the proletarians.”
And, indeed, Marx has been proven right: capitalist expansionism has indeed united the planet into one single economic entity, concentrated the production process of material goods and made possible the pooling together of all material resources worldwide; it has created ties between the working classes of all countries; but at the same time it has increased the contradictions of capitalism to an unprecedented level, worldwide, thereby setting the scene for the final battle between the exploiters and the international working class, which will free humaniy, at last, from the capitalist straitjacket. What remains to be done is to prepare for—and to win—this final battle. But only Marxism can help us to do this.
Finally, to complete the list of arguments of those apostles of capitalism who deny any relevance to Marxism, there are those who keep repeating, like broken records, that Marxism is invalid because it has failed in Russia, China and/or Cuba.
First of all, this is the pot calling the kettle black. With its two World Wars, countless colonial wars, and now its endemic proxy wars across the world, not to mention its on-going economic crisis, surely capitalism has more than failed—especially since, unlike communism, it has had over two centuries to resolve its contradictions but has never managed to do it.
But, in addition, this only exposes the crass ignorance of our capitalist apostles. Otherwise they would know that neither Mao’s China nor Castro’s Cuba had anything to do with communism or the proletariat. Both saw successful revolutions, yes, which overthrew regimes which were in hock to imperialism. But in neither of these revolutions did the working class, the only class which can overthrow capitalism to bring about a new social organization, play any role. Not in the revolution itself, nor in building the society which came out of it. These were nationalist revolutions, with a petty-bourgeois leadership and armies recruited among the poor peasantry. But they were not proletarian revolutions. And the fact that both countries have now more or less returned, almost seamlessly, into the womb of the imperialist market, shows that the social interests these regimes represented were not those of the proletariat.
As to Russia, it is a different issue altogether. The Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union was a consequence of the total isolation of the new workers’ state, after the failure of the October revolution to expand to the rest of the world. Nevertheless, despite the Soviet Union’s isolation, the economic backwardness of the country and the parasitism of the bureaucracy on its economy, the expropriation of the Russian capitalists and feudal classes did allow the Soviet Union to reach a level of economic development that no capitalist country starting from the same level of poverty, has been able to achieve. If this is not a vindication of Marxism—that is, of the enormous step forward that humanity would be able to take, just by ending the private ownership of the means of production and expropriating the capitalist class—what is?
Ironically, of course, understanding what really happened in Russia, China and Cuba, requires the use of the Marxist method—that is, a class analysis of the forces which shaped the evolution of these three countries. But this is precisely what the apostles of capitalism are incapable of!
As we hope to have shown throughout this forum, Marxism is designed to be an instrument for social change. Supporters of capitalism may borrow from it, in a futile attempt to protect their chosen class, but they can’t really do anything useful with it. Quite simply, because, in every situation, the Marxist method can only highlight the inbuilt contradictions of the capitalist system and the impotence of the capitalist class to resolve these contradictions. So, adopting Marxism only makes sense for those who choose the side of the working class against the capitalist exploiters, in order to free society of the increasingly rotten capitalist system.
Of course, we often come across people who ask us what “guarantee” we have that Marxism can provide an alternative to the ills of capitalism, that a proletarian revolution will ever be successful again or that communism will work. And our answer is that we have no guarantee of success whatsoever.
But what other choice do we have? Don’t we know what capitalism has in store for humanity? In her first leaflet opposing WWI in Germany, the Polish revolutionary leader Rosa Luxemburg summarized the alternative we are confronted with in one formula, which is more valid today than it has ever been: “Socialism or Barbarism”. By “Barbarism”, of course, Rosa Luxemburg was referring to WWI, which had only just started and had not even begun to reveal all its horrors—particularly the systematic use of chemical weapons against soldiers stuck in their trenches. At the time, Luxemburg had no idea of the far more horrifying methods that capitalism would produce during WWII, with its gas chambers, atomic bombs, etc. Nor could she anticipate how the U.S. army would use Agent Orange to effectively turn whole regions of Vietnam into sterile land for years to come.
But nor could Rosa Luxemburg even begin to imagine the damage caused by the capitalist system’s criminal profiteering in peacetime. How many millions of workers have suffered—and often died—from occupational diseases such as silicosis or asbestosis? Just because protecting workers from these diseases would have dented the profits of the mining and construction giants. And this is not to mention the immeasurable consequences of man-made global warming and other similar ecological disasters, which are not anywhere close to being addressed, because it would not be profitable for the capitalists to do this.
The fact is that “barbarism” is already visible everywhere in this capitalist world. So, yes, barbarism—that is, the collapse of human civilization as we know it—is the only thing that is guaranteed, should capitalism fail to be overthrown soon enough.
On the other hand, we know that capitalism is rotting on its feet because of its contradictions—mainly due to the private ownership of the means of production and the resulting mad competition for profits. We know that, by taking power in the past, the working class has already shown that it can free society from these contradictions, even if it was only for short periods of time. Marxism gives us the tools to understand the society in which we live, how we can change it and what pitfalls we will have to avoid. It also tells us what practical instrument the working class will need to achieve social change—a revolutionary communist workers’ party, like the party built by the Bolsheviks. This is the first step: the building of a party which can provide a collective backbone to the fights of the working class, develop its class consciousness, as an integral part of the international working class, and provide it with the confidence that it can—and must—aim at taking over the running of society. Building such a party is what we can do today. Succeeding in doing this is the only guarantee that when the next revolutionary explosion takes place, and we can be sure that there will be one at some point in the future, the working class will be ready to make the best of its revolutionary energy—and to pave the way for the construction of a new communist society across the planet; the only way forward for humanity.