The resilience of the ideas of Karl Marx

How many times have we heard university professors, economists, politicians and journalists declaring that Marx was wrong and that although he had some insights in to the workings of capitalism he failed to see the dynamism of the capitalist system and its ability to recover from crises and move ever forward? However, in the past few years, as the system has been sinking into its most serious crisis in history, every now and then we hear commentators pointing out that Marx was right. The latest is an article published by Time magazine yesterday, called Marx’s Revenge: How Class Struggle Is Shaping the World.

The opening sentences to the first three paragraphs are: “Karl Marx was supposed to be dead and buried… Or so we thought…A growing dossier of evidence suggests that he may have been right.”

The first paragraph points out why Marx was supposed to be dead and buried: the collapse of the Soviet Union, the softening of the class struggle, the expansion of world trade, the Asian boom, and so on.

The second paragraph, however, highlights the protracted crisis that has afflicted the system, causing rising levels of poverty, unemployment and falling wages and quotes Marx when he wrote about, “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole.”

The author points out that, “Between 1983 and 2010, 74% of the gains in wealth in the U.S. went to the richest 5%, while the bottom 60% suffered a decline…”

Having acknowledged that thus far everything seems to indicate that Marx was right, the author then throws in the standard, “That’s not to say Marx was entirely correct. His ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ didn’t quite work out as planned’.” This is clearly a reference to the collapse of the Soviet Union. With this it is hoped the public will be warned from taking Marx too seriously.

This is the usual scarecrow that is thrown up, the aim being to make people believe that although Marx may have developed an interesting analysis of the contradictions of capitalism, he didn’t really have a workable alternative and therefore we simply have to live with what we’ve got: capitalism!

The fact that what existed in the Soviet Union was not communism is something these journalists prefer to ignore. Marx never envisaged socialism as a system that could exist within the confines of one country, let alone a backward, underdeveloped one as Russia was in 1917. Lenin who built the Bolshevik party that led the Russian Revolution, also never had such an idea. That is why he spent so much energy in building the Communist International and why he had such high hopes in the German revolution.

It was Stalin who developed the idea of “Socialism in One Country”, breaking with all the fundamental ideas of Marxism on this question. Trotsky explained what happened in the Soviet Union in many writings and especially in his classic, The Revolution Betrayed, in which he explains the objective reasons why the Russian revolution – which started out as a healthy workers’ revolution – eventually degenerated into the monstrous Stalinist regime.

In school history books and in the media, none of this is explained. It is better that the Soviet Union under Stalin be presented as being what Marx’s ideas inevitably lead to, so that successive generations are not tempted to delve into the writings of Marx. Unfortunately for the capitalist class and all their hanger-on, it is the today’s severe crisis that is pushing more and more workers and young people to look for an alternative.

In spite of what they say, the ideas of Marx keep coming back and more so today than at any other time for decades. This is because class struggle is back on the agenda on a global scale. The Time magazine article points this out: “the consequence of this widening inequality is just what Marx had predicted: class struggle is back. Workers of the world are growing angrier and demanding their fair share of the global economy. From the floor of the U.S. Congress to the streets of Athens to the assembly lines of southern China, political and economic events are being shaped by escalating tensions between capital and labor to a degree unseen since the communist revolutions of the 20th century.”

The article makes some interesting points about how class conflict is expressed in the USA even in the rhetoric between Obama and the Republicans over how the cost of solving the crisis should be shared out between the different classes in society. Every time Obama raises the idea of greater taxes on the wealthier sections of US society the Republicans accuse him of class war, while they are carrying out their own class war against the workers and poor!

However, class struggle is not confined solely to crisis-ridden America and Europe. The author points out that even where growth has been significant in recent years, such as China, there is growing class struggle: “Even though wage income in China’s cities is growing substantially, the rich-poor gap is extremely wide. Another Pew study revealed that nearly half of the Chinese surveyed consider the rich-poor divide a very big problem, while 8 out of 10 agreed with the proposition that the ‘rich just get richer while the poor get poorer’ in China.”

This is not surprising at all to Marxists. We understand that the development of the economy under capitalism means the strengthening of the working class in terms of its weight in society, and because of the unequal distribution of the wealth produced this inevitably means tension between the classes, even when there is a boom. We saw this in the past in Europe with the explosive class struggles in France in 1968 and Italy in 1969, at the height of the post-war boom!

The author quotes a Chinese worker Peng Min: “People from the outside see our lives as very bountiful, but the real life in the factory is very different… The way the rich get money is through exploiting the workers… Communism is what we are looking forward to… Workers will organize more… All the workers should be united.”

From his overview of growing tensions between the classes worldwide, from the USA to China, from Spain to Greece and beyond, the author concludes the following: “There are signs that the world’s laborers are increasingly impatient with their feeble prospects. Tens of thousands have taken to the streets of cities like Madrid and Athens, protesting stratospheric unemployment and the austerity measures that are making matters even worse.”

Then, as if hoping to offer some consolation to any capitalist who may be reading, he states that, “So far, though, Marx’s revolution has yet to materialize.” On this we can agree. There hasn’t been a socialist revolution yet. But what the author obviously hopes is that it will never materialize. That is something we cannot agree on.

What he tries to present is a picture of workers who do not want to overthrow the system, but simply to reform it. In this he calls on the aid of a so-called “expert on Marxism”, Jacques Rancière, from the University of Paris. Rancière is an example of that kind of University Professor that portrays himself as a progressive, but in reality spends his time negating the essence of Marxism. This is clear when he explains that, “We’re not seeing protesting classes call for an overthrow or destruction of socioeconomic systems in place. What class conflict is producing today are calls to fix systems so they become more viable and sustainable for the long run by redistributing the wealth created.”

Professor Rancière’s analysis – that the workers are not calling for socialist revolution – may be of comfort to those who wish to preserve the capitalist system. He states that, “the prospects of Labor or Socialists parties or governments anywhere significantly reconfiguring — much less turning over — current economic systems to be pretty faint.”

He bases all this on the present state of the labour movement everywhere, in particular of its leaders. If the future of the international working class movement depended on these leaders then the Professor would be right. The point we have to understand is that leaders do not remain leaders for life. The crisis of the system is putting all ideas to the test. The idea that the system can be reformed is being questioned by the impasse it finds itself in. There is no room for reforms as in the past. On the contrary, all the reforms that were won in decades of class struggle are being destroyed. Workers everywhere face the prospect of being thrown back into the conditions suffered by their grandparents.

What the French professor quoted above does not understand is that workers do not start out with the idea that revolution is the only way. They start with the idea of opposing the attacks on wages, conditions and welfare. They hope that a solution can be found within the system itself. They dream of returning to the period of the boom when reforms were possible, when life seemed tolerable. But the point that has to be stressed is that any such hopes will be dashed by experience.

There is widespread political instability across Europe and beyond – in America, in the Arab world, in Africa and Asia – which is being expressed in electoral volatility. Parties that were once powerful, such as PASOK in Greece, have been crushed by the pressures of the situation. Workers have been voting against whoever has been in government carrying out austerity measures. That means the workers know what they do not want. The problem is that they have not yet discovered the programme and policies that can combat the austerity.

Marxists always tell the truth, even when it is difficult to swallow: there is no solution to the problems facing the workers and youth of the world within the confines of the capitalist system. So long as power is in the hands of the capitalist class, they will use this to hold on to their wealth and privileges at the expense of working people. The system cannot be reformed; it must be removed.

As the author of the article in Time magazine points out, “If policymakers don’t discover new methods of ensuring fair economic opportunity, the workers of the world may just unite. Marx may yet have his revenge.”

We believe that Marx was right not just in his economic analysis, but also in his political conclusions. The crisis of the system inevitably leads to the workers of the world drawing revolutionary conclusions. What is required is a radical change of the mass organizations of the working class, their parties and trade unions. The present leaders hope this crisis will go away and that sooner or later they can return to the cosy relationships they had established with the bosses in the past. That is a pipe-dream.

What we face are years of austerity, with a dramatic decline in living standards everywhere. Once it becomes clear that this crisis is not going to go away after a short period of austerity, once it becomes clear that this system offers no future, then the only road will be towards a revolutionary overthrow of the whole system. That is where the present situation is leading.