The Montreal Marxist Winter School has become the biggest Marxist meeting in Canada, but this year's event was something special. There was record attendance at the school, with close to 230 people participating. People were present from Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, British Columbia, Mexico, France, Britain and Switzerland. Two hundred years after Karl Marx’s birth, the 2018 Marxist Winter School has shown that Marxist ideas are advancing across the board.
The history of the Communist Manifesto
Marco La Grotta, activist with Socialist Fightback Students in Toronto and member of the editorial board of Fightback, gave the first presentation of the weekend titled “The Communist Manifesto Today.” He pointed out that there is no other book that has struck as much fear into the hearts of the ruling class than this manifesto written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848, precisely because it retains its burning relevance today. Marco quoted The Economist, which in a recent article explained that there was much to be learned from Marx, and that to avoid being his next victim you must take him seriously!
Following this brief introduction, Marco began explaining the history of the development of Marx’s ideas. He explained how Marx was influenced by Hegelian philosophy and the ideas of Ludwig Feuerbach in the 1840s. He showed how Marx adopted the dialectical method of Hegel, and was also influenced by Hegel’s idealism. This is when Feuerbach made an impression on Marx with his materialist critique of religion. But Feuerbach also had his limits in the sense that his goal was not to do away with religion, but to perfect it. Marx criticized Feuerbach because he completely avoided the world of politics. The young Marx was already active politically, and he had nothing but contempt for philosophers who had no intention of transforming the world.
Marco recounted that it was in Paris that Marx studied French materialism, communism, and the working class. Marx came to understand that it was the working class which would be the force capable of leading the next revolution, and in liberating itself would in turn liberate all of humanity. Marco explained that it was in Paris that “Marx became Marxist.”
It was at this time that Marx wrote his first book in which he provided a concise explanation of historical materialism—The Poverty of Philosophy, published in 1847. It was also in this period that Marx and Engels joined the League of the Just, a secret society of German revolutionaries. It was in this league that Marx and Engels fought for the ideas of scientific socialism that they had recently developed. This led to the League of the Just transforming itself into the Communist League and publishing a program, written by Marx and Engels: The Manifesto of the Communist Party.
At the end of his presentation, Marco underlined the unshakeable confidence in the working class and optimism for the future of humanity that motivated Marx and Engels. Marco explained that we have no reason to be cynical, and that there is no greater cause than fighting for the emancipation of humanity. He ended by stating that he was confident that we would overthrow capitalism within our lifetimes!
You can watch the video of Marco's presentation here:
Marx’s revolutions: 1848-Paris Commune
Jérôme Metellus, Parisian Marxist and editor of the French Marxist journal Révolution, began the afternoon session speaking on the topic of “Marx’s Revolutions: 1848-Paris Commune.” He began his talk by providing a historic backdrop for the French Revolution of 1848. Jerome mentioned that while the Great French Revolution of 1789 had eliminated the old feudal mode of production, a political counter-revolution set in after 1795. There were a series of regimes, one after another, which eliminated all of the political conquests of the revolution—first with the empire being established in 1804 by Napoleon Bonaparte, and then the Bourbon monarchs returned to power in 1815 under Louis XVIII.
In the late 1840s, a massive economic crisis hit all of Europe, and it was on this basis that the bourgeois opposition acted as a channel for the discontent. In February 1848, when Louis Philippe banned a series of political banquets organized by the opposition, the masses flooded onto the streets and the banquet was transformed into a mass demonstration. This insurrection led to the fall of the regime of Louis Philippe and the establishment of the Second French Republic.
It is quite often thought that the French bourgeoisie was revolutionary and fought in a steadfast manner for a republic, but this is really not true. Even in 1789, most of the big French bourgeois actually supported the monarchy. The bourgeoisie were more terrified of the workers than they were of the monarchy. It was in fact the masses, as they did in 1789, that once again flooded onto the streets to fight for a republic. However, it was not the masses who took power, but again the bourgeoisie who stole power.
Over the four years of the Second Republic, there was a vicious fight between the different class forces who attempted to put their stamp on the republic. The workers fought for a “social republic” while the republic for the bourgeoisie was only valid so long as it could be used to reinforce their class dominance. There was a deadlock in the class struggle, in which neither the bourgeoisie or the workers could gain the upper hand. This led to a situation which Marx referred to as “Bonapartism”, in which Louis Bonaparte, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, was able to maneuver between the different classes, playing them off against each other. He was able to successfully do this all the while gaining more power for himself, eventually destroying the republic with a coup d’état in 1851 and then establishing the Second French Empire in 1852.
Jérôme then fast-forwarded to talk about the Paris Commune of 1871. On the basis of a major capitalist boom, the Second Empire was able to last for almost two decades. But the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 brought to the surface all of the contradictions in French society. The war was a complete debacle for the French and at a certain point, Bonaparte was captured and the Prussian military surrounded Paris. This led to the creation of a Third Republic headed up by Adolphe Thiers.
Paris was surrounded by the Prussian army, defended by the armed people of Paris organized through the national guard. The bourgeois republican government was afraid of the armed Parisian workers, so they negotiated a surrender to the Prussians and a common battle against the workers of Paris. On Jan. 28, 1871, Thiers capitulated to the Prussians, but the national guard was still armed. Thiers tried to disarm the workers but this ended up being a huge failure and the republican government, along with the Parisian bourgeoisie, fled the city.
On March 18, the working class woke up with power in its hands. This opened up the amazing episode of the first workers’ government in the history of humanity, which in spite of eventually being put down, made amazing advances. Just to name a few, the Paris Commune established the separation of church and state, the abolition of night work, and free public education. In addition, the commune nationalized, under democratic workers’ control, all of the factories that had been closed, and reorganized them into a single federation of enterprises which constituted the embryo of a socialist plan of production.
The commune also established a state, the likes of which had never been seen before. This was a radically different state based on the working class, and was made to defend the workers’ interests. There was no standing army but the armed people; all officials were elected, responsible and revocable at any time; and no official was paid more than the wage of an average worker. This brief experience forced Marx to update his ideas on the state, as he saw clearly that the workers could make no use of the bourgeois state, but in the course of the revolution would smash it and build a new one in the likeness of the Paris Commune. The experience of the Paris Commune showed that workers are capable of running society and gave us a glimpse of what type of society they will create.
You can watch the video of Jérôme's presentation here:
Marxism in action: The First International
On Sunday morning, Hélène Bissonnette, activist with La Riposte socialiste in Montreal, gave a presentation on the history of the First International, otherwise known as the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA). Hélène explained that the International was an application of the celebrated phrase of Marx that “philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” This was the first attempt to unite the workers of the world into one genuine international organization. This task stems from the international character of capitalism. It was through the First International that Marx and Engels worked tirelessly to spread the ideas of scientific socialism among the working class.
Hélène’s presentation showed the difficulties which confronted Marx and Engels in the International after it was founded in 1864. Right from the beginning, there was a plethora of political tendencies united in this organization: Owenites, Chartists, reformist trade unionists, Proudhonists, republicans, utopian socialists etc. Marx and Engels had to work patiently, struggling for their ideas. To use the words of Marx, they had to be “bold in matter, mild in manner.” These are precious words of wisdom for those today who are fighting for Marxist ideas within the workers’ movement! We must find a way to connect our revolutionary ideas with the masses, using flexible tactics without making any concessions on the fundamental principles.
Hélène spent a good part of her presentation explaining the fight that Bakunin led against Marx and the General Council of the IWA. Bakunin was first briefly active in a bourgeois organization in Switzerland, the League for Peace and Liberty. He then formed the Alliance for Democratic Socialism and demanded membership in the International. Bakunin wanted to have his own organization inside of the International, with separate structures, its own program, and its own meetings. This amounted to demanding to form an international inside of the International. Despite several maneuvers from Bakunin to have his organization admitted, his organization was eventually refused, so he had to dissolve it and join as an individual. He then secretly revived his organization, creating many problems for the International.
But what were the ideas that Bakunin was putting forward within the International? Most notably, he put forward the idea that workers must abstain from all political struggles taking place in bourgeois society. Hélène explained well that this was a complete misunderstanding of how the class struggle takes place. In its struggle for better living conditions under capitalism, the working class is inevitably confronted with struggling for political demands such as freedom of association, freedom of expression, the right to strike etc. In order to fight for their class interests, the workers are forced to form their own organizations. Marx explained that the workers would be forced to create their own political parties, separate from those of the bourgeoisie. To not do this, as Bakunin suggested, was to condemn the workers to be subordinated to the bourgeois parties. Hélène also explained that Bakunin demanded class equality, while the Marxists were demanding the abolition of classes.
Last but not least, there was conflict around the question of authority. Bakunin refused to recognize the authority of the General Council of the IWA, which was re-elected at the yearly congress of the organization. This struggle has led to a common myth that Marxists are “authoritarian.” According to Bakunin, workers must avoid authority like the plague. In her presentation, Hélène explained that the question of authority for Marxists can be boiled down to the following: Which class has authority in society, the workers or the bosses? A socialist revolution is clearly an authoritarian act in which the workers impose their will onto the bourgeoisie.
The First International operated according to the principle of democratic centralism. This meant that there was complete freedom of discussion, but unity in action. Hélène used the example of a strike to explain that if the majority of workers vote to strike, then all of the workers go on strike. A scab who crosses the picket line, against the will of the majority of the strikers, is clearly authoritarian, attempting to impose their individual will on the majority of workers. Bakunin essentially wanted to be a part of the International, but to also have the autonomy to not be submitted to the decisions and the democratically decided program of the International. This anarchist individualism led Bakunin to use all sorts of anti-democratic methods in order to advance his ideas in the International, such as secretly sending his program to different branches of the International, distributing letters defaming Marx and the General Council, etc. These methods are in antithesis to the democratic methods of the workers’ movement, those of democratic centralism.
The struggle with Bakunin weighed heavily on the International. But there were also many other debates and problems, most notably in the British and American sections. In these two sections, reformist and petty-bourgeois elements entered the organization. In Britain, the relative boom of capitalism permitted the bourgeoisie to give concessions to a layer of the workers, which led to a union bureaucracy that did not have any intentions of fighting against capitalism. Similarly, in the United States, the international attracted petty-bourgeois elements such as Victoria Woodhull, who was a banker and was leading a branch of the American section! Hélène explained how the working class does not live in a vacuum and is subject to bourgeois and petty-bourgeois pressure. She underlined the importance for Marxists to fight against the influence of these ideas inside the workers’ movement. With regards to the English trade unions, Hélène explained that it was necessary for Marx and Engels to maintain links with them, in spite of their reformist leaders. Marxists must be able to connect their ideas with the masses within their organizations.
The crushing of the Paris Commune and the ensuing capitalist boom made life difficult for the IWA. The International took up the task of aiding refugees from the Paris Commune and the capitalist boom forced many sections to focus on local economic struggles. These difficult objective conditions, combined with internal conflicts within the International, led to its decline. The 1872 Hague Congress marked the unofficial end to the IWA which was officially dissolved in 1876.
Even if the International only lasted 12 years, it was during this period that Marx and Engels laid the foundation for what was to come later. The Second International, founded by Engels in 1889, was a mass international based on the ideas of scientific socialism. The struggle that Marx and Engels led for their ideas in the First International was not in vain! It is their ideas and their methods that we use today to build the International Marxist Tendency. The task to build an international organization for the workers is more than ever on the order of the day!
You can watch the video of Hélène's presentation here:
150 years of Marx’s Capital
The final session of the Marxist School was presented by Adam Booth. Adam is a British Marxist, editor of Socialist Appeal and co-author of the recently published book Understanding Marx’s Capital. Adam started by noting that in spite of being 150 years old, Capital is more relevant now than when it was written. From the Bitcoin bubble and financial speculation to the “threat” of automation and “technological unemployment”, to the gig economy and precarious work, Marx described all of these processes in Capital.
Adam explained how it was actually classical bourgeois economists such as David Ricardo and Adam Smith who, through scientifically investigating the inner workings of capitalism, first established the labour theory of value, which explains that labour is the source of all value. This idea is obviously extremely dangerous for the bourgeoisie, and all bourgeois economists since then have sought to disprove Smith and Ricardo. It was therefore up to Marx to lay bare the laws of the system.In his own words, he hoped “to deal the bourgeoisie a theoretical blow from which it will never recover.” And they have never been able to answer his critique!
Marx begins Capital by talking about the commodity. The commodity is a good or a service produced for exchange on the market. While this process existed in earlier class societies, it was largely marginal, and capitalism as a system only really takes hold as commodity production becomes predominant. Adam explained that each commodity has a dual character, that of its usefulness (use value)—without this quality no one would want it and therefore it could not be exchanged—and its quantitative relationship with other commodities through the market (exchange value).
Adam explained that the value of these commodities is not determined subjectively or simply through supply and demand in a one-sided manner, as many bourgeois economists argue, but through their relationship with each other. Through comparing commodities against each other on the market, we realize that they share a common property—they are all products of human labour. Marx developed the old labour theory of value from Ricardo and Smith and expanded it with the concept of socially necessary labour time. Marx explained that when commodities are exchanged, it is not just the simple labour-time contained within each commodity that is exchanged, but the socially necessary labour time—determined by the general level of technique and productivity in any given society—that determines the value of the commodity. The cobbler using old methods will be forced to adopt the newest techniques under pain of extinction on the market. The price of a commodity on the market simply fluctuates above and below this real value of the commodity.
Adam described the process by which the capitalist becomes divorced from having anything to do with production. Modern-day managers are simply wage-labourers themselves. In fact, the capitalist would prefer to not have to worry about production at all. This senile decay of the system is shown today with the unprecedented increase in speculation, largely based on fictitious capital, trading not values but entitlement to an assumed future profit.
But where does profit come from? Under capitalism, what appears to happen is that the capitalist pays the worker for their labour, and all is fair and square. But Marx points out that this is not true as, if the capitalist paid the worker for the full value of their labour, no profit would be made. What the capitalist is actually paying for is what Marx referred to as “labour-power”—the ability of the worker to work. Adam explained that labour-power is a commodity and therefore the value of this commodity is determined in the same manner that the value of any commodity is determined. Wages therefore tend towards what is required to sustain and reproduce the worker. This is why the market, if left up to itself, will always tend to push wages down to the bare minimum. But the value produced by the worker during his work hours is much higher than what they receive back in the form of wages. Herein lies the secret to the capitalist’s profit—it comes from the unpaid labour of the working class.
The source of capitalist profit has led to its downfall. The reason for economic crises, such as the global economic crisis we are currently experiencing, is due to the nature of the system in and of itself. The unpaid wages of the working class that lead to the profits of the capitalist also mean that the workers can never buy back the very products that they produce. This leads to what Marx describes as a “crisis of overproduction,” a completely irrational situation in which society enters into crisis because it has produced too much for the actual market to absorb. The forces of production end up rebelling against the narrow limits of the market.
Capitalism, while it played a progressive role in the past in the sense that it massively developed the means of production, has now become a huge fetter on the development of society. The “free market” has been turned into its opposite with giant monopolies controlling large parts of the economy, restricting investment and innovation.
Today, we are a decade into the biggest economic crisis in the history of capitalism. Capitalist governments have tried all of their “solutions” and none of them have worked. From loose monetary policy, to low interest rates, to quantitative easing, to austerity, to Keynesian deficit spending—none of these measures have resolved the fundamental problems. Even capitalist economists are talking about “50 years of stagnation,” a “permanent slump” or “secular stagnation.”
These laws seem imposed on us, like an omnipotent force controlling our lives. But these laws can be understood, overcome and replaced. It is the task of Marxists to analyze and explain these laws so that we can, as Engels said make a “leap from the kingdom of necessity into the kingdom of freedom.”
You can watch the video of Adam's presentation here:
Marxism on the march!
Throughout the weekend, the enthusiasm among the participants was palpable. There was a “Massive Marxist Party” on the Saturday night, where the young attendees filled the bar and dominated the dance floor! The discussions generated by the four presentations were a testimony to the high political level of the comrades. We could see that Fightback/La Riposte socialiste is growing not only quantitatively, but also qualitatively. Alex Grant, editor of Fightback magazine, gave the final words for the school. Alex pointed out that while pessimism reigns among the bourgeoisie and the reformists, the Marxists are the only ones filled with optimistism. Marxist ideas are on the march and growing in popularity every day! In an electric atmosphere, the school ended with the tradition of signing The Internationale, the song of the Paris Commune, followed by the Italian communist song, Bandiera Rossa.
Activists and sympathizers with the International Marxist Tendency left the school pumped up and ready to promote the ideas of Marx inside of the workers’ movement. This year, we had the privilege of welcoming socialist groups from Quebec City and Kamloops, B.C. who came to Montreal specifically for the Marxist Winter School. We are glad to work with socialists from all over the country, and this school was an important step forward in the goal of building a genuinely pan-Canadian revolutionary organization. We appeal to all who believe in revolutionary change to join us in this struggle.