The Communist Manifesto opens with the lines, “A spectre is haunting Europe.” Over 160 years later it appears that the spectre of Marxism is as potent as ever, with supporters and detractors increasing daily. Why is it that an old German philosophy student, buried over 100 years ago in Highgate cemetery in London, excites such controversy?
If one searches the newspapers, the utterances of leading statesmen, jurists, businessmen, and academics, even His Holiness the Pope, you will hear that Marxism is old, dead, irrelevant, and wrong. This, of course, begs the question, why spend so much time, energy, and money refuting something that is dead? The Pope, of all people, should know that the Bible says, “Let the dead bury the dead.” Businessmen are a great many things, but spendthrift is not one of them. The only conclusion one reaches as to why the wealthy and powerful exhaust so much money and time combating a so-called “dead” idea is that it is not dead at all; that in fact, Marxism reveals the truth about their system, capitalism, and they must do whatever is necessary to hide this fact from the mass of the people — especially the workers and youth.
“Marxism is old”
It has been said that Marxism is an old idea and we need something new. There are a number of different fallacies with this critique. There are a great many old ideas that are equally valid today as when they were developed. Should we throw away all of Greek philosophy because it is too old? Is there nothing to learn from the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the British Empire, Nazi Germany, etc? What is too “old”? Is it 100 years ago? 50 years? 10 years? Last month? Or yesterday? Taken to its logical conclusion, this critique destroys all knowledge and experience. Additionally, this argument on behalf of capitalism is hypocritical. If Marxism is old, then capitalism is even older. Adam Smith, who developed the classical political economy of capitalism, wrote a full century before Marx! Smith is still taught in universities and provides the basis for economics curricula.
Pick up a copy of the Communist Manifesto. Then go to the library and search for any other book written in the 19th century. Unless you select Darwin’s Origin of the Species then it is almost certain that your book will only contain a historical relevance and tell us relatively little about today’s society. Conversely, with this or that exception, there is no more modern book than Marx and Engels’ Manifesto. It explains the division of society into classes, it explains the phenomenon of globalization, global crises of overproduction, the state, it even explains the exploitation and oppression of women.
“But Marx talks about the working class — the working class no longer exists like it did in the 19th century!” This statement is absolutely true, but at the same time it is not a critique of Marxism. Those who discount the “old” are frequently blissfully ignorant of how things actually were in the past. If we are to believe the tales, the industrial armies awoke each morning ready to receive the gospel of St. Karl, not like today where we have iPads and social media to distract ourselves. If only this fantasy were true. In Marx and Engels’ day, the overwhelming majority of humanity were peasants, not wage workers. Only in Britain did the working class make up the majority of society. In the 1871 Paris Commune, the only workers’ revolution Marx was alive to see, the average workshop was made up of just eight workers. This is less than half the number of “associates” at a chain fast-food outlet or coffee shop, who are supposedly “atomized” and impervious to class-consciousness. And yet, the workers of Paris “stormed Heaven,” in the words of Marx.
The critics say that was all well and good for Paris in 1871, but things are different now. Again, it is never specified what is different and why it would make any fundamental impact. It is like the people who went through these events were not humans at all, but some alien species. This sort of accusation doesn’t just apply to people from a different time; it’s also used to justify why we can’t learn from movements and events from other places. There is an essentially racist idea that movements in other countries, such as the Arab revolution, have nothing to teach us because we aren’t like those people. A powerful Marxist quote that refutes this is “social conditions determine social consciousness”. It tells us that if you put a population under conditions of inequality and injustice for sufficient time, then they will eventually rise up. This is a far more profound idea than each of us having nothing in common with anybody else — just a series of random individuals floating around with no meaning in a void of alienation. Incidentally, in physics, it is impossible to predict the movement of a single molecule in a gas, but when you put millions of molecules together very precise predictions can be made. This is known as Brownian motion. Marx never said that individual conditions determine individual consciousness, and he ridiculed efforts to paint his theory in such a deterministic fashion. Marxism is completely alien to economic determinism (although some Stalinists have been guilty of this); all he and Engels ever said was that economic conditions provide a base, and that politics and culture interact indirectly with this base. Again, isn’t this more profound than saying that economics has no effect at all?
“The working class does not exist”
Let’s get back to the fact that the working class does not exist like it did in Marx’s day. This is a truism. The working class began manufacture in small shops. Large industry and the Fordist assembly line are really features of the 1920s and 30s, long after Marx’s death (although he predicted it). Subsequently, since the 1970s, there has been a process of de-industrialization in the Western world. However, on a global scale, it is not true to say that the working class is weaker than before; precisely the opposite. For example, in 2013, China had over 230-million industrial workers, an increase of 29-million workers in the past five years. This needs to be compared with the total labour force of 155-million in the USA, which includes workers in every sector of work. The working class has changed, and it always changes, but that doesn’t mean that these people are not workers. If you work for a living and rely upon a wage to pay your bills, then you are working-class and Marx’s observations apply to you. Service sector workers are still workers. Ironically, in the 1930s, Marxism’s critics thought that the assembly line was the answer to Marxism. There were armed guards on the doors of the big auto plants and union organizers were lucky to get away with only a beating. They chimed, “The working class has changed, you see.” And yet, the logic of the class struggle won out eventually. After a series of militant strikes and occupations, the workers in these plants won unions. Subsequently, from being implacably anti-union, they became the backbone of the labour movement in the post-war period. Now these gains are under threat due to off-shoring and contracting out, and a bitter fight is in process. However, at the same time, there are more bitter struggles being waged by Chinese workers to gain their basic rights. The class struggle continues.
The reality is that things are different now than they were in Marx’s day — the working class is a far stronger sector of the population with far more power. Whether workers are conscious of that fact is another matter, and gets to questions of leadership. However, in the advanced capitalist countries, wage labour is upwards of 85% of the population, and makes up over 50% of society in almost every country on the planet. Prior to the Second World War, most European countries were less than 50% working class.
And yet, in the hallowed halls of academia, professors still tell us that the working class no longer exists. These individuals do this completely ignorant of the fact that somebody, we know not who, unlocked the door to the lecture theatre. Someone else cleaned the floors and emptied the trash. Others provided the power for the lights, projectors, and other visual aids that tell the assembled students the people who provide these things do not exist. At lunch, in the cafeteria, food magically appears without the assistance of anybody of any importance. Sometimes these non-existent people go on strike, which makes them even more difficult to ignore. Early in 2014, just over 1,000 truckers in the Port of Vancouver struck for better conditions. This act idled $885-million of goods per week. It may be true that there are fewer industrial workers in Western countries, but those that remain still have immense power if they choose to use it. Service sector workers are more fragmented and some have less power, but these sectors also face lower pay and worse conditions. It may be easier for these workers to enter the political struggle directly, while organizing a union could be difficult under conditions of high turnover and shift work. Many of these workers are highly educated and are capable of far more demanding tasks. It was this contradiction between an educated youth and the lack of decent prospects that provided the impetus for the Arab revolutions. Eventually, similar social conditions lead to a similar social consciousness.
“Everything is great under capitalism”
The right wing asserts that capitalism is the best way for allocating resources. If that was really true then we wouldn’t have to have this discussion in the first place as everybody would be too happy to care about Marx. Marxism would hold as much traction as the feudal system (and as much effort to critique, i.e. practically none). These people frequently wrap themselves up in the most amazing and hypocritical contradictions. In one breath they say that capitalism is great, and the next they are calling for massive austerity and cuts to the standard of living of the working class. Well, which is it? Is capitalism great and can it therefore provide a home, a job, free education, childcare, and public transport to the population; or is it a system of crisis that cannot provide these things? It can’t be both.
The global financial crisis of 2008-9 marked a turning point in the world situation and the strategists of capital see no way out. They are predicting 10 to 20 years of cuts and austerity. This has been the slowest “recovery” in the history of capitalism and any recovery that exists is definitely not going to the majority of the population.
Working-class and young people do not need to be told there is an economic crisis; all they need to do is look at their bank balance and credit card statement. Yet, while insecurity is increasing at one pole, wealth is amassing at the other. Productivity, the amount of wealth produced per hour of work, has risen more than 50% since the 1970s in most Western countries, and yet real wages have stagnated over the same period. This surplus wealth is going to the richest in society, what the Occupy movement called the 1%. Oxfam released a statistic that showed the world’s richest 85 people are worth more than the poorest 3.5-billion, half of all humanity. Marx predicted all of this as can be seen clearly from this quote:
“The modern labourer, on the contrary, instead of rising with the process of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth. And here it becomes evident, that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an over-riding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him. Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society.” (The Communist Manifesto)
What is to be done?
Never has it been clearer that Marx was right and we need a new society. And yet, it is this point that is the most contentious. Rolling Stone, the New York Times, even the Economist, have all released commentary praising the power of Marx’s analysis. However, they all focus on his critique of capitalism and balk at any notion of what is to replace it. Instead, they propose modest reforms to the tax system that in no way alter the fundamental property relations. Capitalism is not in crisis because it is working aberrantly, it is in crisis because it is working exactly as it is supposed to.
In the USA, corporations are hoarding over $1.5-trillion in uninvested “dead money”. In Canada, the figure is $626-billion, the highest proportion of money hoarding in the G7. This is because there is no market to invest these vast sums and return a profit to the capitalist. Today’s economists call this overcapacity, but in reality they use such terms because they are afraid to call things by their real names. This is overproduction, just as Marx explained in 1848. Marx also explained that there was no way to force the bosses to invest these resources while they retain ownership of the means of production. There is a fundamental contradiction in capitalism whereby increased wages eat into profits and increased profits erode wages. There is no “fair division” within this system, and exploitation cannot be reformed out of the system of private property.
Marx proposed a revolution, whereby the working class wins the battle of democracy. Capital, the means of production and the money hoards, must be taken out of the hands of the parasitic capitalist class and placed in the hands of the workers — the vast majority of humanity who do the real work to create this wealth. The first aim is to invest these resources in meeting real human needs, instead of private gain; to provide universal housing, free schooling, and a vast improvement of the productivity of labour. Marx said that the banks must be nationalized and placed under the control of the workers to meet human needs.
On this basis, Marx proposed to do away with all the filth, muck, and inefficiency of capitalist society. From a society riven with poverty, injustice, and class divisions, a new society would be built based upon production for need. This new socialist society would work to remove classes and make it impossible for a person to subjugate the labour of others. As Marx said, “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”
Marx has never been more right and more relevant than today. It is the task of our generation to put his words into action.