Two hundred years after the birth of the great revolutionary Karl Marx, across the world, the capitalist system is in crisis and the working class are moving into action to change their lives. In ruling class circles, no longer do they snidely declare the death of Marx. On the contrary, there is fear and consternation in their ranks. There has, therefore, never been a more urgent time to study his ideas.
This short book, released for the two hundredth birthday of Marx, contains a series of articles on the man, his life, and his ideas: from an explanation of the philosophy of Marxism; to Marx’s battles against petty-bourgeois anarchist ideas; to Trotsky’s assessment of the Communist Manifesto. And much more!
This book should be read by all class-conscious workers as the beginning of the study of the ideas of Marxism. As Lenin said, “without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement."
Available from Wellred in paper copy and as an ebook
Table of Contents
- Introduction (by Alan Woods)
- The Ideas of Karl Marx (by Alan Woods)
- The Three Sources & Three Component Parts of Marxism (by V. I. Lenin)
- Marx’s Revolution in Philosophy (by Alan Woods)
- Ninety Years of the Communist Manifesto (by Leon Trotsky)
- Marx versus Bakunin (by Alan Woods)
- The Relevance of Marxism Today (by Alan Woods and Ted Grant)
- Speech at the Grave of Karl Marx (by Friedrich Engels)
Philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways. The point is, however, to change it. (K. Marx, Theses on Feuerbach.)
Two hundred years ago on 5 May, 1818, in the German city of Trier, one of the greatest figures in human history was born. Two centuries later, despite all the furious attacks, malicious distortions and spiteful attempts to undermine his image as a man and a thinker, Karl Marx has established his place in history as a towering genius in the realm of theory.
Whether you agree or disagree with him, there can be no doubt that Karl Marx carried out a great revolution in human thought and thereby changed the entire course of history. He belongs to the great pantheon of outstanding thinkers. His name can stand alongside all the great heroes of the past: Heraclitus and Aristotle, Hegel and Charles Darwin.
Marx’s discoveries in the realm of philosophy, history and political economy can stand as colossal monuments in their own right. Even if his life’s work had begun and ended with the first volume of Capital, that would in itself be a sufficiently great achievement. But Marx was not just a thinker; he was a man of action, a revolutionary who dedicated his entire life to the struggle for the cause of the working class and socialism.
Such a rich and variegated life cannot be adequately described in a few lines. However, on the occasion of Marx’s bicentenary, it is necessary to provide a brief, and inevitably incomplete, sketch of that life as an introduction to this book.
Marx was born two hundred years ago, in Germany, in what was then part of Prussia. However, the Rhineland provinces to which Trier belonged differed in many respects from the backward, semi-feudal and reactionary Prussian lands further to the east.
Annexed by France in the Napoleonic Wars, the inhabitants had been exposed to new ideas such as freedom of the press, constitutional liberty and religious toleration. Though the Rhineland was reincorporated into imperial Prussia by the Congress of Vienna three years before Marx’s birth, the imprint of those years left its mark on the progressive thinking of the most enlightened sections of society.
Karl Heinrich was one of nine children in the family of Heinrich and Henrietta Marx. Marx’s father was a lawyer with a relatively progressive outlook, who read Kant and Voltaire, and advocated reform of the Prussian state. The family was reasonably prosperous. Marx never experienced poverty or privations during his childhood and early youth, although he suffered these things a great deal in his later life.
Both parents were Jewish, but in 1816 at the age of 35, Karl’s father converted to Christianity. This was probably in response to a law of 1815 banning Jews from high society. It is significant that although most people in Trier were Roman Catholics, he chose the Lutheran faith, because he “equated Protestantism with intellectual freedom.” However, Heinrich Marx was very far from being a revolutionary and would doubtless have been horrified had he been aware of the future trajectory of his beloved son Karl.
On leaving school, Marx went on to university, where he studied law, and later history and philosophy. While studying in Berlin he fell under the spell of the great philosopher Hegel. He saw that, beneath the superficial crust of idealism, Hegel’s dialectic had the most profound revolutionary implications. This dialectical philosophy was to form the basis of all his subsequent ideological development.
Marx joined the tendency known as the ‘Left Hegelians’, who drew radical and atheistic conclusions from the Hegelian philosophy. However, he soon became discontented with the endless word chopping and dialectical juggling of these academic radicals who soon degenerated into a mere debating society.
Marx was very impressed by the ideas of Ludwig Feuerbach, who, starting from a criticism of religion, moved in the direction of materialism. But he criticised Feuerbach for his radical rejection of Hegelian dialectics. Marx brilliantly succeeded in combining philosophical materialism with dialectics to produce an entirely different and revolutionary philosophy.
Armed with these revolutionary ideas, the young Marx collaborated with a group of Left Hegelians in the Rhineland who had founded a radical newspaper, the Rheinische Zeitung. As editor of the paper, Marx wrote a number of brilliant revolutionary articles. The paper was an instant success but soon attracted the attention of the Prussian authorities who subjected it to strict censorship. However, the young Marx, with brilliant ingenuity, managed to evade the iron vice of the censors. In the end, they had no choice but to close it down.
In 1836, as he was becoming more politically active, Marx was secretly engaged to Jenny von Westphalen, a handsome young woman from an aristocratic family who was known as the ‘most beautiful girl in Trier.’ She was four years older than him and from a decidedly higher class. But she and Marx had been childhood sweethearts and from everything we know they were totally devoted to each other.
Jenny’s father, Baron Ludwig von Westphalen, a senior official of the Royal Prussian Provincial Government, was a man of doubly aristocratic lineage: his father had been Chief of the General Staff during the Seven Years’ War and his Scottish mother, Anne Wishart, was descended from the Earls of Argyll. It is therefore hardly surprising that they kept their relationship quiet for so long. Three months after the closure of the Rheinische Zeitung, in June 1843, he finally married Jenny von Westphalen, and in October, they moved to Paris.
I believe that not enough attention has been paid to this remarkable woman, who made colossal sacrifices to support her husband in his revolutionary work. She must have suffered a great deal, breaking from her family, travelling from one country to another, sharing all of Marx’s privations and living in the most difficult conditions. She saw her children suffer hardship, fall sick and die. When her son Edgar died in London, she and Marx did not even have enough money to pay for a coffin.
Jenny’s elder brother Ferdinand later became a zealously oppressive Minister of the Interior in the Prussian government between 1850 and 1858, that is to say, during the height of European reaction. We are thus faced with the paradox of one man engaged in revolutionary work to subvert the Prussian state from his London exile, while his brother-in-law in Berlin was in charge of persecuting revolutionaries both within and without the borders of Prussia. History knows of no more ironical situations than this!
In the autumn of 1843, Marx moved to Paris in order to publish a radical journal abroad, together with Arnold Ruge. In the heated atmosphere of Paris at that time, Marx soon made contact with organised groups of émigré German workers and with various sects of French socialists. By now the winds of revolution were blowing strongly throughout Europe, particularly in Paris. Not for the first time, or last, Paris was the political heart of Europe in 1843.
However, only one issue of this journal, Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, appeared. Publication was discontinued owing mainly to the difficulty of secretly distributing it in Germany, and to philosophical differences between Marx and Ruge. Marx then began writing for another radical newspaper, Vorwärts, which was linked to an organisation that would later become the Communist League. 1
About this time there commenced one of the most extraordinary collaborations in history. In September 1844, a young man called Friedrich Engels came to Paris for a few days to work as a contributor to the journal. From that time on, he became Marx’s closest friend and collaborator. Today the names Marx and Engels are so completely inseparable as to be almost fused into a single person.
During his time in Paris, from October 1843 until January 1845, Marx lived at 38 Rue Vanneau in Paris. Here, Marx engaged in an intensive study of political economy, devouring the works of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, James Stuart Mill, and also the French Utopian socialists, Saint-Simon and Fourier. Here we see the embryo of his future discoveries in the field of economics.
Marx’s revolutionary activities soon attracted the attention of the authorities in Berlin. The Prussian government demanded that the French authorities take action, which the latter were only too pleased to do. Expelled from Paris at the end of 1844, Marx moved to Brussels, where he joined the secret propaganda society, the Communist League. Despite the move, Marx still had severe restrictions on his activity. He had pledged not to publish anything on the subject of contemporary politics.
Marx and Engels immediately formed a close relationship in which the two men brought together different experiences and temperaments in order to work out an entirely new and original set of ideas. As the son of a wealthy German manufacturer, Engels was able to combine his concrete experiences of capitalist production with Marx’s ground-breaking work in the field of philosophy. Engels showed Marx his recently published book The Condition of the Working Class in England. He had already come to the conclusion that the working class would be the most important agent of social change.
It was also Engels who first began to work out the fundamental principles that were later to be brought to fruition in the three volumes of Marx’s Capital. But with characteristic modesty, he always accepted the primacy of Marx in the field of ideology, reserving for himself the role of a humble and loyal disciple, although, in fact, his contribution to Marxist theory must stand shoulder to shoulder to that of Marx himself.
In April 1845, Engels moved from Germany to Brussels to join Marx. Together, the two began writing a criticism of the philosophy of Bruno Bauer, a Young Hegelian with whom Marx had previously been close. The result of Marx and Engels’ first collaboration, The Holy Family, was published in 1845. It marked the beginning of a break with the Left Hegelian trend and the starting point for the entirely new departure.
In 1846, Marx and Engels wrote The German Ideology, in which they first developed the theory on historical materialism. This marked the final and irrevocable rupture with the Young Hegelians. Marx had finally embraced the idea of socialism as the only solution to the problems of humankind. Unfortunately, no publisher was willing to take the risk of publishing The German Ideology, which, along with Theses on Feuerbach, did not see the light of day until after Marx’s death.
Marx and Engels together waged a relentless struggle against the confused ideas of petty-bourgeois socialism, striving to put the ideas of socialism on a scientific basis. In Paris at that time the semi-anarchist ideas of Proudhon were in vogue amongst some revolutionary groups. Marx subjected them to a withering criticism in 1847 in the Poverty of Philosophy, backed up by facts, and substantial quotations from the writings of Proudhon himself.
At the beginning of 1846, Marx attempted to link socialists from around Europe by means of a Communist Correspondence Committee. He had been in contact with a secret organisation of artisans in Paris and Frankfurt called the League of the Just. It was a small group (about a hundred in Paris and eighty in Frankfurt) with very confused ideas. Marx persuaded them to abandon their underground methods and operate in the open as a workers’ political party. It fused with others to form The Communist League.
At the Second Congress of the Communist League, held in London in November 1847, Marx and Engels were charged with producing a document which became known as The Communist Manifesto. This epoch-making document was published in 1848.
The Communist Manifesto and the Neue Rheinische Zeitung
It seems astonishing today that The Communist Manifesto was written when Marx and Engels were still young men; Marx was not yet 30 years of age and Engels three years younger. Yet this remarkable document represents a turning point in history. It is as fresh and relevant now as when it first saw the light of day. Indeed, its relevance is even greater today.
The timing of the publication of this document could hardly have been better. The ink was hardly dry on its pages when a mighty wave of revolutions broke out all over Europe. The February Revolution in France overthrew the Orleans monarchy and led to the creation of the Second Republic.
There is an anecdote that, having recently received a substantial inheritance from his father (withheld by his uncle), Marx used a large part of it to buy arms for the Belgian workers who were moving towards revolutionary action. Whether the story is true or false we do not know, but the Belgian Ministry of Justice certainly believed it. They used it as an excuse for arresting him.
Marx was thus forced to flee back to France, where he believed that he would be safe under the new republican government. But that was a vain hope. The French bourgeois Republicans were terrified of the workers, who were beginning to advance independent class demands that threatened private property. Under these circumstances the last thing they needed was the presence in Paris of a man like Marx.
Marx was convinced that, after France, Germany was on the eve of a revolution. He moved to Cologne, where he founded a new paper – the Neue Rheinische Zeitung – which commenced publication on 1 June 1848. The paper put forward an extremely radical democratic line against the Prussian autocracy and Marx devoted his main energies to its editorship (the Communist League had been virtually disbanded). He continued in this position from June 1848 to 19 May 1849, when the paper was suppressed.
The Neue Rheinische Zeitung was a model of revolutionary journalism and played an active role in the revolutionary events of 1848-49. But the victory of the counter-revolution put an end to this activity. Marx was put on trial for his revolutionary activity. He was acquitted on 9 February 1849, but subsequently banished from Germany on 16 May 1849.
Marx again returned to Paris. However, he was then banished from France after the demonstration of 13 June, 1849. Since Prussia refused to give him a passport, Marx was now a stateless and penniless exile. He moved to London, which in those days was more tolerant and welcoming to political exiles than it is today. Although Britain too denied him citizenship, he remained in London until his death. In May 1849 he began the “long, sleepless night of exile” that was to last for the remainder of his life.
Arriving in London, Marx remained as optimistic about the imminence of a new revolutionary outbreak in Europe. He wrote two lengthy pamphlets on the 1848 revolution in France and its consequences: The Class Struggles in France and The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. He concluded that “a new revolution is possible only in consequence of a new crisis” and then devoted himself to the study of political economy in order to determine the causes and nature of capitalist crisis.
For most of the time he spent in London, Marx and his family lived in conditions of the direst poverty. He found work as a correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune, a collaboration that lasted for ten years from 1852 to 1862. However, Marx was never able to earn a living wage from his journalism. During the first half of the 1850s, the Marx family lived in squalid conditions in a three room flat in the Soho quarter of London. Marx and Jenny already had four children and two more were to follow. Of these, only three survived.
“Blessed is he that hath no family,” Karl Marx wrote wearily in a letter to Friedrich Engels in June 1854. He was thirty-six at the time and had long since lost all contact with his relatives. His father was dead and relations with his mother were bad. Only through the selfless generosity of his friend Friedrich Engels was Marx and his family able to survive.
The Marx family had seven children, four of whom died in infancy or childhood. Despite all the hardships, they were a happy family. Marx deeply loved his daughters, who, in turn, adored him. In his spare moments in the evenings he would play with them and read from the classics. Don Quixote was a particular favourite, but they also performed Shakespeare plays, with Marx and his children reading different parts. “He was a unique, an unrivalled storyteller,” his daughter Eleanor recalled.
Of the three surviving daughters – Jenny, Laura, and Eleanor – two married Frenchmen. One of these men, Paul Lafargue, played an active role in the Marxist movement and helped to establish the socialist party in Spain. Eleanor Marx was active in the British workers’ movement as a militant labour organiser.
Marx’s work was not confined to theory alone. All the time he was in London he played a most active role in promoting and developing the international labour movement. Marx helped found the German Workers’ Educational Society, as well as a new headquarters for the Communist League. But he was increasingly frustrated and alienated by the endless sectarian squabbles of the émigrés and finally severed all relations with them, while always maintaining close contacts with active members of the British workers movement.
A decisive turn in the situation occurred in 1864. On 28 September, the International Working Men’s Association – known to us as the First International – was founded. From the very beginning Marx was the heart and soul of this organisation, the author of its first address and of a host of resolutions, declarations and manifestos. For the next few years much of his time was devoted to maintaining the work of the International. Together with Engels he kept up a vast correspondence with advanced workers and co-thinkers in many countries, including Russia.
Marx was obliged to carry on a relentless struggle against all kinds of petty-bourgeois deviations within the ranks of the international: Proudhon’s utopian socialism, the bourgeois nationalism of the Italian Mazzini, the opportunism of the British reformist trade union leaders, and above all the intrigues of the anarchist Bakunin and his followers.
In the end, Marx succeeded in winning the ideological struggle, but the conditions in which the young forces of the international were being formed turned in an unfavourable direction. The defeat of the Paris commune was the final death blow.
Given the unfavourable situation in Europe, Marx proposed the transfer of the seat of the General Council from London to New York in 1872 in the hope that the developing class struggle in the New World would provide the International with new opportunities. But nothing could prevent its decline. The most important achievement of the First International was that it provided a firm ideological basis for future developments. But as an organisation it virtually ceased to exist.
Marx’s health was undermined by the exhausting work in the International and his still more strenuous theoretical studies and writing. He continued to work tirelessly on the question of political economy and on the completion of Capital, for which he collected a mass of new material and studied a number of languages including Russian.
Marx never looked after his own health. His love of heavily spiced foods and wine, together with excessive smoking of cigars may well have contributed to the deterioration of his health, which was fatally undermined by years of poverty. In the final dozen years of his life, his recurrent illnesses no longer permitted him to do any continuous intellectual work.
Despite increasing bouts of ill health, Marx threw himself into a monumental study of the laws and history capitalism, developing an entirely new economic theory. In preparation for the writing of Capital, he read every available work in economic and financial theory and practice. It is sufficient to read the extensive footnotes of this great book to realise the astonishing amount of painstaking research that went into its elaboration.
In 1867, he published the first volume of Capital. He spent the rest of his life writing and revising manuscripts for the remaining volumes, which remained incomplete at the time of his death. The remaining two volumes were painstakingly assembled, edited and published posthumously by Engels.
The final blow to Marx’s health was the death of Jenny von Westphalen, who passed away as a result of cancer on 2 December, 1881, at the age of sixty-seven. Together with the death of his eldest daughter, this was a cruel personal tragedy from which Marx never recovered. It clouded the last years of his life.
Karl Marx died of pleurisy in London on 14 March, 1883, passing away peacefully in his armchair. He was buried next to his wife in Highgate Cemetery in London. When he died, a daguerreotype photograph of his father was found in his breast pocket. It was placed in his coffin and interred in Highgate cemetery. His original grave had only a modest stone, now sadly vandalised and largely ignored by visitors who flock to the gigantic monument erected in November 1954 when Marx and his family were reburied on a new site not far from the old one.
The new tomb, unveiled on 14 March 1956, carries the inscription: “Workers of all lands unite!” and the equally celebrated words of the Theses on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways – the point however is to change it.”
But the real monument to Marx is not in Highgate cemetery. It is not made of stone or bronze, but of far stronger and more durable material: the immortal ideas contained in more than fifty volumes of his Collected Works. That is the only monument that Marx would ever have desired. It is the foundation stone of the world working-class movement and the guarantee of its future victory.
1 An organisation of German émigré workers based in London of which Marx and Engels were to become the chief theoreticians.
The Ideas of Karl Marx
It is one hundred and thirty years since the death of Karl Marx. But why should we commemorate a man who died in 1883? In the early 1960s the then Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson declared that we must not look for solutions in Highgate cemetery. And who can disagree with that? In the aforementioned cemetery one can only find old bones and dust and a rather ugly stone monument.
However, when we speak of the relevance of Karl Marx today we refer not to cemeteries but to ideas – ideas that have withstood the test of time and have now emerged triumphant, as even some of the enemies of Marxism have been reluctantly forced to accept. The economic collapse of 2008 showed who was outdated, and it was certainly not Karl Marx.
For decades the economists never tired of repeating that Marx’s predictions of an economic downturn were totally outdated. They were supposed to be ideas of the 19th century, and those who defended them were dismissed as hopeless dogmatists. But it now turns out that it is the ideas of the defenders of capitalism that must be consigned to the rubbish bin of history, while Marx has been completely vindicated.
Not so long ago, Gordon Brown confidently proclaimed “the end of boom and bust”. After the crash of 2008 he was forced to eat his words. The crisis of the Euro shows that the bourgeoisie has no idea how to solve the problems of Greece, Spain and Italy which in turn threaten the future of the European common currency and even the EU itself. This can easily be the catalyst for a new collapse on a world scale, which will be even deeper than the crisis of 2008.
Even some bourgeois economists are being forced to accept what is becoming increasingly evident: that capitalism contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction; that it is an anarchic and chaotic system characterised by periodic crises that throw people out of work and cause social and political instability.
The thing about the present crisis was that it was not supposed to happen. Until recently most of the bourgeois economists believed that the market, if left to itself, was capable of solving all the problems, magically balancing out supply and demand (the ‘efficient market hypothesis’), so that there could never be a repetition of the crash of 1929 and the Great Depression.
Marx’s prediction of a crisis of overproduction had been consigned to the dustbin of history. Those who still adhered to Marx’s view that the capitalist system was riven with insoluble contradictions and contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction were looked upon as mere cranks. Had the fall of the Soviet Union not finally demonstrated the failure of communism? Had history not finally ended with the triumph of capitalism as the only possible socio-economic system?
But in the space of twenty years (not a long period in the annals of human society) the wheel of history has turned 180 degrees. Now the erstwhile critics of Marx and Marxism are singing a very different tune. All of a sudden, the economic theories of Karl Marx are being taken very seriously indeed. A growing number of economists are poring over the pages of Marx’s writings, hoping to find an explanation for what has gone wrong.
In July 2009, after the start of the recession The Economist held a seminar in London to discuss the question: What is wrong with economics? This revealed that, for a growing number of economists, mainstream theory has no relevance. Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman made an astonishing admission. He said “the last 30 years development in macroeconomic theory has, at best, been spectacularly useless or, at worst, directly harmful.” This judgement is a fitting epitaph for the theories of bourgeois economics.
Now that events have knocked just a little sense into the heads of at least some bourgeois thinkers, we are seeing all kinds of articles that grudgingly recognise that Marx was right after all. Even the Vatican’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, published an article in 2009 praising Marx’s diagnosis of income inequality, which is quite an endorsement for the man who declared religion to be the opium of the people. Das Kapital is now a best seller in Germany. In Japan it has been published in a manga version.
George Magnus, a senior economic analyst at UBS bank, wrote an article with the intriguing title: ‘Give Karl Marx a Chance to Save the World Economy’. Switzerland-based UBS is a pillar of the financial establishment, with offices in more than 50 countries and over $2 trillion in assets. Yet in an essay for Bloomberg View, Magnus wrote that “today’s global economy bears some uncanny resemblances to what Marx foresaw.”
In his article he starts by describing policy makers “struggling to understand the barrage of financial panics, protests and other ills afflicting the world” and suggests that they would do well to study the works of “a long-dead economist, Karl Marx.”
Consider, for example, Marx’s prediction of how the inherent conflict between capital and labor would manifest itself. As he wrote in Das Kapital, companies’ pursuit of profits and productivity would naturally lead them to need fewer and fewer workers, creating an “industrial reserve army” of the poor and unemployed: “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery”.
The process he [Marx] describes is visible throughout the developed world, particularly in the U.S.. Companies’ efforts to cut costs and avoid hiring have boosted U.S. corporate profits as a share of total economic output to the highest level in more than six decades, while the unemployment rate stands at 9.1 per cent and real wages are stagnant.
U.S. income inequality, meanwhile, is by some measures close to its highest level since the 1920s. Before 2008, the income disparity was obscured by factors such as easy credit, which allowed poor households to enjoy a more affluent lifestyle. Now the problem is coming home to roost.
The Wall Street Journal carried an interview with the well-known economist Dr. Nouriel Roubini, known to his fellow economists as ‘Dr. Doom’ because of his prediction of the 2008 financial crisis. There is a video of this extraordinary interview, which deserves to be studied carefully because it shows the thinking of the most far-sighted strategists of capital.
Roubini argues that the chain of credit is broken, and that capitalism has entered into a vicious cycle where excess capacity (overproduction), falling consumer demand and high levels of debt all breed a lack of confidence in investors that in turn will be reflected in sharp falls on the stock exchange, falling asset prices and a collapse in the real economy.
Like all the other economists, Roubini has no real solution to the present crisis, except more monetary injections from central banks to avoid another meltdown. But he frankly admitted that monetary policy alone will not be enough, and business and governments are not helping. Europe and the United States are implementing austerity programs to try to fix their debt-ridden economies, when they should be introducing more monetary stimulus, he said. His conclusions could not be more pessimistic: “Karl Marx got it right, at some point capitalism can destroy itself,” said Roubini. “We thought markets worked. They’re not working.”
The phantom of Marxism is still haunting the bourgeoisie a hundred and thirty years after Marx’s mortal remains were laid to rest. But what is Marxism? To deal properly with all aspects of Marxism in the space of one article is an impossible task. We therefore confine ourselves to a general, and therefore sketchy account in the hope that it will encourage the reader to study Marx’s writings themselves. After all, nobody has ever expounded Marx’s ideas better than Marx himself.
Broadly speaking, his ideas can be split into three distinct yet interconnected parts – what Lenin called the three sources and three component parts of Marxism. These generally go under the headings of Marxist economics, dialectical materialism and historical materialism. Each of these stands in a dialectical relation to each other and cannot be understood in isolation from one another. A good place to begin is the founding document of our movement that was written on the eve of the European Revolutions of 1848. It is one of the greatest and most influential works in history.
The Communist Manifesto
The immense majority of the books written one and a half centuries ago are today merely of historical interest. But what is most striking about the Communist Manifesto is the way in which it anticipates the most fundamental phenomena which occupy our attention on a world scale at the present time. It is really extraordinary to think that a book written in 1847 can present a picture of the world of the 21st century so vividly and truthfully. In point of fact, the Manifesto is even truer today than when it first appeared in 1848.
Let us consider one example. At the time when Marx and Engels were writing, the world of the big multinational companies was still the music of a very distant future. Despite this, they explained how free enterprise and competition would inevitably lead to the concentration of capital and the monopolisation of the productive forces. It is frankly comical to read the statements made by the defenders of the market concerning Marx’s alleged mistake on this question, when in reality it was precisely one of his most brilliant and accurate predictions.
During the 1980s it became fashionable to claim that small is beautiful. This is not the place to enter into a discussion concerning the relative aesthetics of big, small or medium sizes, about which everyone is entitled to hold an opinion. But it is an absolutely indisputable fact that the process of concentration of capital foreseen by Marx has occurred, is occurring, and indeed has reached unprecedented levels in the course of the last ten years.
In the United States, where the process may be seen in a particularly clear form, the Fortune 500 corporations accounted for 73.5 per cent of total GDP output in 2010. If these 500 companies formed an independent country, it would be the world’s second largest economy, second only to the United States itself. In 2011, these 500 firms generated an all-time record of $824.5 billion in profits – a 16 per cent jump from 2010. On a world scale, the 2000 biggest companies now account for $32 trillion in revenues, $2.4 trillion in profits, $138 trillion in assets and $38 trillion in market value, with profits rising an astonishing 67 per cent between 2010 and 2011.
When Marx and Engels wrote the Manifesto, there was no empirical evidence for his claims. On the contrary, the capitalism of his time was based entirely on small businesses, the free market and competition. Today, the economy of the entire capitalist world is dominated by a handful of giant transnational monopolies such as Exxon and Walmart. These behemoths possess funds that far exceed the national budgets of many states. The predictions of the Manifesto have been realised even more clearly and completely than Marx himself could ever have dreamed of.
The defenders of capitalism cannot forgive Marx because, at a time when capitalism was in the stage of youthful vigour, he was able to foresee the causes of its senile degeneration. For decades they strenuously denied his prediction of the inevitable process of the concentration of capital and the displacement of small businesses by big monopolies.
The process of the centralisation and concentration of capital has reached proportions hitherto never dreamed of. The number of take-overs has acquired the character of an epidemic in all the advanced industrialised nations. In many cases, such take-overs are intimately connected with all kinds of shady practices – insider dealing, falsification of share prices, and other types of fraud, larceny and swindling, as the scandal over the manipulation of the Libor interest rate by Barclays and other big banks has revealed. This concentration of capital does not signify a growth in production, but quite the contrary. In every case, the intention is not to invest in new plant and machinery but to close existing factories and offices and sack large numbers of workers in order to increase profit margins without increasing production. Just take the recent fusion of two big Swiss banks, immediately followed by the loss of 13,000 jobs.
Globalisation and inequality
Let us proceed to the next important prediction made by Marx. Already in 1847, Marx explained that the development of a global market renders “impossible all narrowness and national individualism. Every country – even the largest and most powerful – is now totally subordinate to the whole world economy, which decides the fate of peoples and nations.” This brilliant theoretical anticipation shows, better than anything else, the immeasurable superiority of the Marxist method.
Globalisation is generally regarded as a recent phenomenon. Yet the creation of a single global market under capitalism was long ago predicted in the pages of the Manifesto. The crushing domination of the world market is now the most decisive fact of our epoch. The enormous intensification of the international division of labour since the Second World War has demonstrated the correctness of Marx’s analysis in an almost laboratory fashion.
Despite this, strenuous efforts have been made to prove that Marx was wrong when he spoke of the concentration of capital and therefore the process of polarisation between the classes. These mental gymnastics correspond to the dreams of the bourgeoisie to rediscover the lost golden age of free enterprise. Similarly, a decrepit old man longs in his senility for the lost days of his youth.
Unfortunately, there is not the slightest chance of capitalism recovering its youthful vigour. It has long ago entered its final phase: that of monopoly capitalism. The day of the small business, despite the nostalgia of the bourgeoisie, has been relegated to the past. In all countries the big monopolies, closely related to banking and enmeshed with the bourgeois state, dominate the life of society. The polarisation between the classes continues uninterrupted, and tends to accelerate.
Let us take the situation in the USA. The richest 400 families in the U.S. have as much wealth as the bottom 50 per cent of the population. The six individual Walmart heirs alone are ‘worth’ more than the bottom 30 per cent of Americans combined. The poorest 50 per cent of Americans own just 2.5 per cent of the country’s wealth. The richest 1 per cent of the US population increased its share of the national income from 17.6 per cent in 1978 to an astonishing 37.1 per cent in 2011.
During the past 30 years the gap between the incomes of the rich and the poor has been steadily widening into a yawning abyss. In the industrialised West the average income of the richest 10 per cent of the population is about nine times that of the poorest 10 per cent. That is an enormous difference. And figures published by the OECD show that the disparity which began in the US and UK has spread to countries such as Denmark, Germany and Sweden, which have traditionally had low inequality.
The obscene wealth of the bankers is now a public scandal. But this phenomenon is not confined to the financial sector. In many cases, directors of large companies earn two hundred times more than their lowest-paid workers. This excessive difference has already provoked growing resentment, which is turning to fury that spills over onto the streets in one country after another. The growing tension is reflected in strikes, general strikes, demonstrations and riots. It is reflected in elections by protest votes against governments and all the existing parties, as we saw recently in the Italian general election.
A Time magazine poll showed that 54 per cent have a favourable view of the Occupy movement, 79 per cent think the gap between rich and poor has grown too large, 71 per cent think CEOs of financial institutions should be prosecuted, 68 per cent think the rich should pay more taxes, only 27 per cent have a favourable view of the Tea Party movement (33 per cent unfavourable). Of course, it is too early to speak of a revolution in the USA. But it is clear that the crisis of capitalism is producing a growing mood of criticism among broad layers of the population. There is a ferment and a questioning of capitalism that were not there before.
The scourge of unemployment
In the Communist Manifesto we read:
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.
The words of Marx and Engels quoted above have become literally true. There is a growing feeling among all sections of society that our lives are dominated by forces beyond our control. Society is gripped by a gnawing sense of fear and uncertainty. The mood of insecurity has become generalised to practically the whole of society.
The kind of mass unemployment we are now experiencing is far worse than anything Marx foresaw. Marx wrote of the reserve army of labour: that is to say, a pool of labour that can be used to keep down wages and acts as a reserve when the economy recovers from a slump. But the kind of unemployment we now see is not the reserve army of which Marx spoke, which, from a capitalist point of view played a useful role.
This is not the kind of cyclical unemployment which workers are well acquainted with from the past and which would rise in a recession only to disappear when the economy picked up again. It is permanent, structural, organic unemployment, which does not noticeably diminish even when there is a ‘boom’. It is a dead weight that acts as a colossal drag on productive activity, a symptom that the system has reached a blind alley.
A decade before the crisis of 2008, according to the United Nations, world unemployment was approximately 120 millions. By 2009, the International Labour Organisation put the figure at 198 million, and expects it to reach 202 million in 2013. However, even these figures, like all the official statistics of unemployment, represent a serious understatement of the real situation. If we include the enormous number of men and women who are compelled to work in all kinds of marginal ‘jobs’, the real figure of world unemployment and underemployment would not be less than 1,000 million.
Despite all the talk of economic recovery, economic growth in Germany, the former economic powerhouse of Europe, has slowed down almost to zero, as has France. In Japan too the economy is grinding to a halt. Quite apart from the misery and suffering caused to millions of families, from an economic point of view, this represents a staggering loss of production and waste on a colossal scale. Contrary to the illusions of the labour leaders in the past, mass unemployment has returned and has spread all over the world like a cancer gnawing at the bowels of society.
The crisis of capitalism has its most dire effects among the youth. Unemployment among young people is soaring everywhere. This is the reason for the mass student protests and riots in Britain, for the movement of the indignados in Spain, the occupations of the schools in Greece and also for the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, where about 75 per cent of the youth are unemployed.
The number of unemployed in Europe is constantly increasing. The figure for Spain is nearly 27 per cent while youth unemployment stands at an incredible 55 per cent, while in Greece no fewer than 62 per cent of the youth – two in every three – are jobless. A whole generation of young people is being sacrificed on the altar of Profit. Many who looked for salvation to higher education have found that this avenue is blocked. In Britain, where higher education used to be free, now young people find that in order to acquire the skills they need, they will have to go into debt.
At the other end of the age scale, workers approaching retirement find that they must work longer and pay more for lower pensions that will condemn many to poverty in old age. For young and old alike, the prospect facing most people today is a lifetime of insecurity. All the old bourgeois hypocrisy about morality and family values has been exposed as hollow. The epidemic of unemployment, homelessness, crushing debt and extreme social inequality that has turned a whole generation into pariahs has undermined the family. It has created a nightmare of systemic poverty, hopelessness, degradation and despair.
A crisis of overproduction
In Greek mythology there was a character called Procrustes who had a nasty habit of cutting off the legs, head and arms of his guests to make them fit into his infamous bed. Nowadays the capitalist system resembles the bed of Procrustes. The bourgeoisie is systematically destroying the means of production in order to make them fit into the narrow limits of the capitalist system. This economic vandalism resembles a policy of slash and burn on a vast scale.
George Soros likens it to the kind of smashing ball used to demolish tall buildings. However, it is not only buildings that are being destroyed but whole economies and states. The slogan of the hour is austerity, cuts and falling living standards. In every country the bourgeoisie raises the same war cry: ‘We must cut public expenditure!’ Every government in the capitalist world, whether right or ‘left’ is in reality pursuing the same policy. This is not the result of the whims of individual politicians, of ignorance or bad faith (although there is plenty of this also) but a graphic expression of the blind alley in which the capitalist system finds itself.
This is an expression of the fact that the capitalist system is reaching its limits and is unable to develop the productive forces as it did in the past. Like Goethe’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice, it has conjured up forces it cannot control. But by slashing state expenditure, they are simultaneously reducing demand and cutting the whole market, just at a time when even the bourgeois economists admit that there is a serious problem of overproduction (‘overcapacity’) on a world scale. Let us take just one example, the automobile sector. This is fundamental because it also involves many other sectors, such as steel, plastic, chemicals and electronics.
The global excess capacity of the automobile industry is approximately 30 per cent. This means that Ford, General Motors, Fiat, Renault, Toyota and all the others could close one third of their factories and lay off one third of their workers tomorrow, and they would still not be able to sell all the vehicles they produce at what they consider to be an acceptable rate of profit. A similar position exists in many other sectors. Unless and until this problem of excess capacity is resolved, there can be no real end to the present crisis.
The dilemma of the capitalists can be easily expressed. If Europe and the USA are not consuming, China cannot produce. If China is not producing at the same pace as before, countries like Brazil, Argentina and Australia cannot continue to export their raw materials. The whole world is inseparably interlinked. The crisis of the Euro will affect the US economy, which is in a very fragile state, and what happens in the USA will have a decisive effect on the entire world economy. Thus, globalisation manifests itself as a global crisis of capitalism.
With incredible foresight, the authors of the Manifesto anticipated the conditions which are now being experienced by the working class in all countries:
Owing to the extensive use of machinery and to the division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him. Hence, the cost of production of a workman is restricted, almost entirely, to the means of subsistence that he requires for his maintenance, and for the propagation of his race. But the price of a commodity, and therefore also of labour, is equal to the cost of production. In proportion, therefore, as the repulsiveness of the work increases, the wage decreases. Nay more, in proportion as the use of machinery and division of labour increases, in the same proportion the burden of toil also increases, whether by prolongation of the working hours, by increase of the work exacted in a given time or by increased speed of the machinery, etc.
Today the USA occupies the same position that Britain held in Marx’s day – that of the most developed capitalist country. Thus, the general tendencies of capitalism are expressed there in their clearest form. Over the last 30 years, CEO pay in the USA has grown by 725 per cent, while worker pay has risen by just 5.7 per cent. These CEOs now make an average of 244 times more than their employees. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. According to the Center for Economic Policy Research, if the minimum wage had kept up with worker productivity, it would have reached $21.72 in 2012. If inflation is taken into account, median wages for male American workers are actually lower today than they were in 1968. In this way, the present boom has been largely at the expense of the working class.
While millions are compelled to eke out a miserable existence of enforced inactivity, millions of others are forced to have two or even three jobs, and often work 60 hours or more per week with no overtime pay benefits. 85.8 per cent of males and 66.5 per cent of females work more than 40 hours per week. According to the International Labour Organisation, “Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers.”
Based on data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average productivity per American worker has risen 400 per cent since 1950. In theory, this means that in order to achieve the same standard of living a worker should only have to work just one quarter of the average working week in 1950, or 11 hours per week. Either that, or the standard of living in theory should have risen by four times. On the contrary, the standard of living has decreased dramatically for the majority, while work-related stress, injuries and disease are increasing. This is reflected in an epidemic of depression, suicides, divorce, child and spousal abuse, mass shootings and other social ills.
The same situation exists in Britain, where under the Thatcher government 2.5 million jobs were destroyed in industry, and yet the same level of production has been maintained as in 1979. This has been achieved, not through the introduction of new machinery but through the over-exploitation of British workers. In 1995, Kenneth Calman, Director General of Health, warned that “the loss of life time employment has unleashed an epidemic of stress related illnesses.”
The class struggle
Marx and Engels explained in the Communist Manifesto that a constant factor in all of recorded history is that social development takes place through the class struggle. Under capitalism this has been greatly simplified with the polarisation of society into two great antagonistic classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The tremendous development of industry and technology over the last 200 years has led to the increasing concentration of economic power in a few hands.
“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” says the Manifesto in one of its most celebrated phrases. For a long time it seemed to many that this idea was outmoded. In the long period of capitalist expansion that followed the Second World War, with full employment in the advanced industrial economies, rising living standards and reforms (remember the Welfare State?), the class struggle did indeed seem to be a thing of the past.
Marx predicted that the development of capitalism would lead inexorably to the concentration of capital, an immense accumulation of wealth on the one hand and an equal accumulation of poverty, misery and unbearable toil at the other end of the social spectrum. For decades this idea was rubbished by the bourgeois economists and university sociologists who insisted that society was becoming ever more egalitarian, that everyone was now becoming middle class. Now all these illusions have been dispelled.
The argument, so beloved of bourgeois sociologists, that the working class has ceased to exist has been stood on its head. In the last period important layers of the working population who previously considered themselves to be middle class have been proletarianised. Teachers, civil servants, bank employees and so on have been drawn into the ranks of the working class and the labour movement, where they make up some of the most militant sections.
The old arguments that everybody can advance and we are all middle class have been falsified by events. In Britain, the US and many other developed countries over the past 20 or 30 years, the opposite has been happening. Middle-class people used to think life unfolded in an orderly progression of stages in which each is a step up from the last. That is no longer the case.
Job security has ceased to exist, the trades and professions of the past have largely disappeared and life-long careers are barely memories. The ladder has been kicked away and for most people a middle-class existence is no longer even an aspiration. A dwindling minority can count on a pension on which they could comfortably live, and few have significant savings. More and more people live from day to day, with little idea of what the future may bring.
If people have any wealth, it is in their houses, but with the contraction of the economy house prices have fallen in many countries and may be stagnant for years. The idea of a property-owning democracy has been exposed as a mirage. Far from being an asset to help fund a comfortable retirement, home ownership has become a heavy burden. Mortgages must be paid, whether you are in work or not. Many are trapped in negative equity, with huge debts that can never be paid. There is a growing generation of what can only be described as debt slaves.
This is a devastating condemnation of the capitalist system. However, this process of proletarianisation means that the social reserves of reaction have been sharply reduced as a big section of white collar workers move closer to the traditional working class. In the recent mass mobilisations, sections that in the past would never have dreamt of striking or even joining a union, such as teachers and civil servants, were in the front line of the class struggle.
Idealism or materialism?
The idealist method sets out from what people think and say about themselves. However, Marx explained that ideas do not fall from the sky, they reflect more or less accurately, objective situations, social pressures and contradictions beyond the control of men and women. But history does not unfold as a result of free will or conscious desires of the ‘great man’, kings, politicians or philosophers. On the contrary, the progress of society depends on the development of the productive forces, which is not the product of conscious planning, but develops behind the backs of men and women.
For the first time Marx placed socialism on a firm theoretical basis. A scientific understanding of history cannot be based on the distorted images of reality floating like pale and fantastic ghosts in the minds of men and women, but on real social relations. That means beginning with a clarification of the relationship between social and political forms and the mode of production at a given stage of history. This is precisely what is called the historical materialist method of analysis.
Some people will feel irritated by this theory which seems to deprive humankind of the role of protagonists in the historical process. In the same way, the Church and its philosophical apologists were deeply offended by the claims of Galileo that the Sun, not the Earth, was at the centre of the Universe. Later, the same people attacked Darwin for suggesting that humans were not the special creation of God, but the product of natural selection.
Actually, Marxism does not at all deny the importance of the subjective factor in history, the conscious role of humankind in the development of society. Men and women make history, but do not do it entirely in accord with their free will and conscious intentions. In Marx’s words:
History does nothing, it “possesses no immense wealth”, it “wages no battles”. It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; “history” is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims. (K. Marx and F. Engels, The Holy Family.)
All that Marxism does is to explain the role of the individual as part of a given society, subject to certain objective laws and, ultimately, as the representative of the interests of a particular class. Ideas have no independent existence, nor their own historical development. “Life is not determined by consciousness,” Marx writes in The German Ideology, “but consciousness by life.”
The ideas and actions of people are conditioned by social relations, the development of which does not depend on the subjective will of men and women but takes place according to definite laws which, in the last analysis, reflect the needs of the development of the productive forces. The interrelations between these factors constitute a complex web that is often difficult to see. The study of these relations is the basis of the Marxist theory of history.
Let us cite one example. At the time of the English Revolution, Oliver Cromwell fervently believed that he was fighting for the right of each individual to pray to God according to his conscience. But the further march of history proved that the Cromwellian Revolution was the decisive stage in the irresistible ascent of the English bourgeoisie to power. The concrete stage of the development of the productive forces in 17th Century England permitted no other outcome.
The leaders of the Great French Revolution of 1789-93 fought under the banner of ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’. They believed they were fighting for a regime based on the eternal laws of Justice and Reason. However, regardless of their intentions and ideas, the Jacobins were preparing the way for the rule of the bourgeoisie in France. Again, from a scientific standpoint, no other result was possible at that point of social development.
From the standpoint of the labour movement, Marx’s great contribution was that he was the first to explain that socialism is not just a good idea, but the necessary result of the development of society. Socialist thinkers before Marx – the utopian socialists – attempted to discover universal laws and formulae that would lay the basis for the triumph of human reason over the injustice of class society. All that was necessary was to discover that idea, and the problems would be solved. This is an idealist approach.
Unlike the Utopians, Marx never attempted to discover the laws of society in general. He analysed the law of movement of a particular society, capitalist society, explaining how it arose, how it evolved and also how it necessarily ceases to exist at a given moment. He performed this huge task in the three volumes of Capital.
Marxism analyses the hidden mainsprings that lie behind the development of human society, from the earliest tribal societies up to the modern day. The way in which Marxism traces this winding road is called the materialist conception of history. This scientific method enables us to understand history, not as a series of unconnected and unforeseen incidents, but rather as part of a clearly understood and interrelated process. It is a series of actions and reactions which cover politics, economics and the whole spectrum of social development. To lay bare the complex dialectical relationship between all these phenomena is the task of historical materialism.
The great English historian Edward Gibbon, the author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, wrote that history is “little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.” (E. Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 1, p. 69.) In essence, the latest postmodernist interpretation of history has not advanced a single step since then. History is seen as a series of disconnected ‘narratives’ with no organic connection and no inner meaning or logic. No socio-economic system can be said to be better or worse than any other, and there can therefore be no question of progress or retrogression.
History appears here as an essentially meaningless and inexplicable series of random events or accidents. It is governed by no laws that we can comprehend. To try to understand it would therefore be a pointless exercise. A variation on this theme is the idea, now very popular in some academic circles, that there is no such thing as higher and lower forms of social development and culture. They claim that there is no such thing as progress, which they consider to be an old fashioned idea left over from the 19th century, when it was popularised by Victorian liberals, Fabian socialists and – Karl Marx.
This denial of progress in history is characteristic of the psychology of the bourgeoisie in the phase of capitalist decline. It is a faithful reflection of the fact that, under capitalism progress has indeed reached its limits and threatens to go into reverse. The bourgeoisie and its intellectual representatives are, quite naturally, unwilling to accept this fact. Moreover, they are organically incapable of recognising it. Lenin once observed that a man on the edge of a cliff does not reason. However, they are dimly aware of the real situation, and try to find some kind of a justification for the impasse of their system by denying the possibility of progress altogether.
So far has this idea sunk into consciousness that it has even been carried into the realm of non-human evolution. Even such a brilliant thinker as Stephen Jay Gould, whose dialectical theory of punctuated equilibrium transformed the way that evolution is perceived, argued that it is wrong to speak of progress from lower to higher in evolution, so that microbes must be placed on the same level as human beings. In one sense it is correct that all living things are related (the human genome has conclusively proved this). Humankind is not a special creation of the Almighty, but the product of evolution. Nor is it correct to see evolution as a kind of grand design, the aim of which was to create beings like ourselves (teleology – from the Greek telos, meaning an end). However, in rejecting an incorrect idea, it is not necessary to go to the other extreme, leading to new errors.
It is not a question of accepting some kind of preordained plan, either related to divine intervention or some kind of teleology, but it is clear that the laws of evolution inherent in nature do in fact determine development from simple forms of life to more complex forms. The earliest forms of life already contain within them the embryo of all future developments. It is possible to explain the development of eyes, legs and other organs without recourse to any preordained plan. At a certain stage we get the development of a central nervous system and a brain. Finally with homo sapiens, we arrive at human consciousness. Matter becomes conscious of itself. There has been no more important revolution since the development of organic matter (life) from inorganic matter.
To please our critics, we should perhaps add the phrase ‘from our point of view’. Doubtless the microbes, if they were able to have a point of view, would probably raise serious objections. But we are human beings and must necessarily see things through human eyes. And we do assert that evolution does in fact represent the development of simple life forms to more complex and versatile ones – in other words progress from lower to higher forms of life. To object to such a formulation seems to be somewhat pointless, not scientific but merely scholastic. In saying this, of course, no offence is intended to the microbes, who after all have been around for a lot longer than us, and if the capitalist system is not overthrown, may yet have the last laugh.
The motor force of history
In The Critique of Political Economy Marx explains the relation between the productive forces and the ‘superstructure’ as follows:
In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production… The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence (which) determines their consciousness.
As Marx and Engels were at pains to point out, the participants in history may not always be aware of what motives drive them, seeking instead to rationalise them in one way or another, but those motives exist and have a basis in the real world.
Just as Charles Darwin explains that species are not immutable, and that they possess a past, a present and a future, changing and evolving, so Marx and Engels explain that a given social system is not something eternally fixed. That is the illusion of every epoch. Every social system believes that it represents the only possible form of existence for human beings, that its institutions, its religion, its morality are the last word that can be spoken.
That is what the cannibals, the Egyptian priests, Marie Antoinette and Tsar Nicholas all fervently believed. And that is what the bourgeoisie and its apologists today wish to demonstrate when they assure us, without the slightest basis, that the so-called system of ‘free enterprise’ is the only possible system – just when it is beginning to sink.
Nowadays, the idea of ‘evolution’ has been generally accepted at least by educated persons. The ideas of Darwin, so revolutionary in his day, are accepted almost as a truism. However, evolution is generally understood as a slow and gradual process without interruptions or violent upheavals. In politics, this kind of argument is frequently used as a justification for reformism. Unfortunately, it is based on a misunderstanding.
The real mechanism of evolution even today remains a book sealed by seven seals. This is hardly surprising since Darwin himself did not understand it. Only in the last decade or so with the new discoveries in palaeontology made by Stephen Jay Gould, who discovered the theory of punctuated equilibria, has it been demonstrated that evolution is not a gradual process. There are long periods in which no big changes are observed, but at a given moment, the line of evolution is broken by an explosion, a veritable biological revolution characterised by the mass extinction of some species and the rapid ascent of others.
The analogy between society and nature is, of course, only approximate. But even the most superficial examination of history shows that the gradualist interpretation is baseless. Society, like nature, knows long periods of slow and gradual change, but also here the line is interrupted by explosive developments – wars and revolutions, in which the process of change is enormously accelerated. In fact, it is these events that act as the main motor force of historical development. And the root cause of revolution is the fact that a particular socio-economic system has reached its limits and is unable to develop the productive forces as before.
A dynamic view of history
Those who deny the existence of any laws governing human social development invariably approach history from a subjective and moralistic standpoint. Like Gibbon (but without his extraordinary talent) they shake their heads at the unending spectacle of senseless violence, the inhumanity of man against man (and woman) and so on and so forth. In place of a scientific view of history we get a parson’s view. However, what is required is not a moral sermon but a rational insight. Above and beyond the isolated facts, it is necessary to discern broad tendencies, the transitions from one social system to another, and to work out the fundamental motor forces that determine these transitions.
By applying the method of dialectical materialism to history, it is immediately obvious that human history has its own laws, and that, consequently, the history of humankind is possible to understand as a process. The rise and fall of different socio-economic formations can be explained scientifically in terms of their ability or inability to develop the means of production, and thereby to push forward the horizons of human culture, and increase the domination of humankind over nature.
Most people believe that society is fixed for all time, and that its moral, religious and ideological values are immutable, along with what we call ‘human nature’. But the slightest acquaintance with history shows that this is false. History manifests itself as the rise and fall of different socio-economic systems. Like individual men and women, societies are born, develop, reach their limits, enter into decline and are then finally replaced by a new social formation.
In the last analysis, the viability of a given socio-economic system is determined by its ability to develop the productive forces, since everything else depends on this. Many other factors enter into the complex equation: religion, politics, philosophy, morality, the psychology of different classes and the individual qualities of leaders. But these things do not drop from the clouds, and a careful analysis will show that they are determined – albeit in a contradictory and dialectical way – by the real historical environment, and by tendencies and processes that are independent of the will of men and women.
The outlook of a society that is in a phase of ascent, which is developing the means of production and pushing forward the horizons of culture and civilisation, is very different to the psychology of a society in a state of stagnation and decline. The general historical context determines everything. It affects the prevailing moral climate, the attitude of men and women towards the existing political and religious institutions. It even affects the quality of individual political leaders.
Capitalism in its youth was capable of colossal feats. It developed the productive forces to an unparalleled degree, and was therefore able to push back the frontiers of human civilisation. People felt that society was advancing, despite all the injustices and exploitation that have always characterised this system. This feeling gave rise to a general spirit of optimism and progress that was the hallmark of the old liberalism, with its firm conviction that today was better than yesterday and tomorrow would be better than today.
That is no longer the case. The old optimism and blind faith in progress have been replaced by a profound sense of discontent with the present and of pessimism with regard to the future. This ubiquitous feeling of fear and insecurity is only a psychological reflection of the fact that capitalism is no longer capable of playing any progressive role anywhere.
In the 19th century, liberalism, the main ideology of the bourgeoisie, stood (in theory) for progress and democracy. But neoliberalism in the modern sense is only a mask that covers the ugly reality of the most rapacious exploitation; the rape of the planet, the destruction of the environment without the slightest concern about the fate of future generations. The sole concern of the boards of the big companies who are the real rulers of the USA and the entire world is to enrich themselves through plunder: asset-stripping, corruption, the theft of public assets through privatisation, parasitism: these are the main features of the bourgeoisie in the phase of its senile decay.
The rise and fall of societies
The transition from one system to another was always determined by the growth of the productive forces, i.e., of technique and the organisation of labour. Up to a certain point, social changes are quantitative in character and do not alter the foundations of society, i.e., the prevalent forms of property. But a point is reached when the matured productive forces can no longer contain themselves within the old forms of property; then follows a radical change in the social order, accompanied by shocks. (L. Trotsky, Marxism in Our Time.)
A common argument against socialism is that it is impossible to change human nature; people are naturally selfish and greedy and so on. In reality, there is no such thing as a supra-historical human nature. What we think of as human nature has undergone many changes in the course of human evolution. Men and women constantly change nature through labour, and in so doing, change themselves. As for the argument that people are naturally selfish and greedy, this is disproved by the facts of human evolution.
Our earliest ancestors, who were not yet really human, were small in stature and physically weak compared to other animals. They did not have strong teeth or claws. Their upright stance meant that they could not run fast enough to catch the antelope they wished to eat, or to escape from the lion that wished to eat them. Their brain size was approximately that of a chimpanzee. Wandering on the savannah of East Africa, they were at an extreme disadvantage to every other species – except in one fundamental aspect.
Engels explains in his brilliant essay ‘The Part Played by Labour in the Transition of Ape to Man’ how the upright stance freed the hands, which had originally evolved as an adaptation for climbing trees, for other purposes like the crafting and use of tools. The production of stone tools represented a qualitative leap, giving our ancestors an evolutionary advantage. But even more important was the strong sense of community, collective production and social life, which in turn was closely connected to the development of language.
The extreme vulnerability of human children in comparison to the young of other species meant that our ancestors, whose hunter-gatherer existence compelled them to move from one place to another in search of food, had to develop a strong sense of solidarity to protect their offspring and thus ensure the survival of the tribe or clan. We can say with absolute certainty that without this powerful sense of co-operation and solidarity, our species would have become extinct before it was even born.
We see this even today. If a child is seen to be drowning in a river, most people would try to save it, even placing their own life at risk. Many people have drowned trying to save others. This cannot be explained in terms of egotistical calculation, or by ties of blood relationships in a small tribal group. The people who act in this way do not know who they are trying to save, nor do they expect any reward for doing what they do. This altruistic behaviour is quite spontaneous and comes from a deep-rooted instinct for solidarity. The argument that people are naturally selfish, which is a reflection of the ugly and dehumanised alienation of capitalist society, is a vile label on the human race.
For the majority of the history of our species, people lived in societies where private property, in the modern sense, did not exist. There was no money, no bosses and workers, no bankers and landlords, no state, no organised religion, no police and no prisons. Even the family, in our understanding of the word, did not exist. Today, many find it hard to envisage a world without these things; they seem so natural that they could have been ordained by the Almighty. Yet our ancestors managed fairly well without them.
The transition from hunter-gathering to settled agriculture and pastoralism constitutes the first great social revolution, which the great Australian archaeologist (and Marxist) Gordon Childe called the Neolithic Revolution. Agriculture needs water. Once it goes beyond the most basic production on a subsistence level, it requires irrigation, digging, damming and water distribution on a big scale. These are social tasks.
Large-scale irrigation needs organisation on a vast scale. It demands the deployment of large numbers of labourers and a high level of organisation and discipline. The division of labour, which already existed in embryonic form in the elementary division between the sexes arising from the demands of childbirth and the rearing of children, is developed to a higher level. Teamwork needs team leaders, foremen, overseers, etc., and an army of officials to supervise the plan.
Co-operation on such a vast scale demands planning, and the exercise of science and technique. This is beyond the capabilities of the small groups organised in clans that formed the nucleus of the old society. The need to organise and mobilise large numbers of workers led to the rise of a central state, together with a central administration and an army as in Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Time-keeping and measurement were necessary elements of production, and were themselves productive forces. Thus Herodotus traces the beginnings of geometry in Egypt to the need to re-measure the inundated land on an annual basis. The word geometry itself means neither more nor less than earth-measurement. The study of the heavens, astronomy, and mathematics enabled the Egyptian priests to foretell the flooding of the Nile, etc. Thus, science arises from economic necessity.
At the heart of this cleavage into rich and poor, rulers and ruled, educated and ignorant, is the division between mental and manual labour. The foreman is usually exempt from manual labour which now carries a stigma. The Bible speaks of the “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” the masses who were excluded from culture, which was wrapped in a cloak of mystery and magic. Its secrets were closely guarded by the caste of priests and scribes whose monopoly it was.
Here we already see the outlines of class society, the division of society into classes: exploiters and sub-exploiters. In any society where art, science and government are a monopoly of a minority, that minority will use and abuse its position for its own interests. This is the most fundamental secret of class society and has remained so for the last 12,000 years.
During all this time there have been many fundamental changes in the forms of economic and social life. But the fundamental relations between rulers and ruled, rich and poor, exploiters and exploited remained the same. In the same way, although the forms of government experienced many changes, the state remained what it had always been: an instrument of coercion and an expression of class rule.
The rise and fall of slave society was followed in Europe by feudalism, which in turn was displaced by capitalism. The rise of the bourgeoisie, which began in the towns and cities of Italy and the Netherlands, reached a decisive stage with the bourgeois revolutions in Holland and England in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the Great French Revolution of 1789-93. All these changes were accompanied by profound transformations in culture, art, literature, religion and philosophy.
The state is a special repressive force standing above society and increasingly alienating itself from it. This force has its origin in the remote past. The origins of the state, however, vary according to circumstances. Among the Germans and Native Americans it arose out of the war band that gathered around the person of the war chief. This is also the case with the Greeks, as we see in the epic poems of Homer.
Originally, the tribal chiefs enjoyed authority because of their personal bravery, wisdom and other personal qualities. Today, the power of the ruling class has nothing to do with the personal qualities of leaders as was the case under barbarism. It is rooted in objective social and productive relations and the power of money. The qualities of the individual ruler may be good, bad or indifferent, but that is not the point.
The earliest forms of class society already showed the state as a monster, devouring huge amounts of labour and repressing the masses and depriving them of all rights. At the same time, by developing the division of labour, by organising society and carrying co-operation to a far higher level than ever before, it enabled a huge amount of labour power to be mobilised, and thus raised human productive labour to undreamed-of heights.
At the base, all this depended on the labour of the peasant masses. The state needed a large number of peasants to pay taxes and provide corvée labour – the two pillars upon which society rested. Whoever controls this system of production controls power and the state. The origins of state power are rooted in relations of production, not personal qualities. The state power in such societies was necessarily centralised and bureaucratic. Originally, it had a religious character and was mixed up with the power of the priest caste. At its apex stood the God-king, and under him an army of officials, the Mandarins, the scribes, overseers etc. Writing itself was held in awe as a mysterious art known only to these few.
Thus, from the very beginning, the offices of the state are mystified. Real social relations appear in an alienated guise. This is still the case. In Britain, this mystification is deliberately cultivated through ceremony, pomp and tradition. In the USA it is cultivated by other means: the cult of the President, who represents state power personified. In essence, however, every form of state power represents the domination of one class over the rest of society. Even in its most democratic form, it stands for the dictatorship of a single class – the ruling class – that class that owns and controls the means of production.
The modern state is a bureaucratic monster that devours a colossal amount of the wealth produced by the working class. Marxists agree with the anarchists that the state is a monstrous instrument of oppression that must be eliminated. The question is: How? By whom? And what will replace it? This is a fundamental question for any revolution. In a speech on anarchism during the Civil War that followed the Russian Revolution, Trotsky summarised very well the Marxist position on the state:
The bourgeoisie says: don’t touch the state power; it is the sacred hereditary privilege of the educated classes. But the Anarchists say: don’t touch it; it is an infernal invention, a diabolical device. Don’t have anything to do with it. The bourgeoisie says, don’t touch it, it’s sacred. The Anarchists say: don’t touch it, because it’s sinful. Both say: don’t touch it. But we say: don’t just touch it, take it in your hands, and set it to work in your own interests, for the abolition of private ownership and the emancipation of the working class. (L. Trotsky, How The Revolution Armed, vol. 1.)
Marxism explains that the state consists ultimately of armed bodies of men: the army, police, courts and jails. Against the confused ideas of the anarchists, Marx argued that workers need a state to overcome the resistance of the exploiting classes. But that argument of Marx has been distorted by both the bourgeois and the anarchists. Marx spoke of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, which is merely a more scientifically precise term for ‘the political rule of the working class’.
Nowadays, the word dictatorship has connotations that were unknown to Marx. In an age that has become acquainted with the horrific crimes of Hitler and Stalin, it conjures up nightmarish visions of a totalitarian monster, concentration camps and secret police. But such things did not yet exist even in the imagination in Marx’s day. For him the word dictatorship came from the Roman Republic, where it meant a situation where in time of war, the normal rules were set aside for a temporary period.
The Roman dictator (‘one who dictates’), was an extraordinary magistrate (magistratus extraordinarius) with the absolute authority to perform tasks beyond the normal authority of a magistrate. The office was originally named Magister Populi (Master of the People), that is to say, Master of the Citizen Army. In other words, it was a military role which almost always involved leading an army in the field. Once the appointed period ended, the dictator would step down. The idea of a totalitarian dictatorship like Stalin’s Russia, where the state would oppress the working class in the interests of a privileged caste of bureaucrats, would have horrified Marx.
His model could not have been more different. Marx based his idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat on the Paris Commune of 1871. Here, for the first time, the popular masses, with the workers at their head, overthrew the old state and at least began the task of transforming society. With no clearly-defined plan of action, leadership or organisation, the masses displayed an astonishing degree of courage, initiative and creativity. Summing up the experience of the Paris Commune, Marx and Engels explained:
One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz. that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes”… (Preface to the 1872 German edition of the Communist Manifesto.)
The transition to socialism – a higher form of society based on genuine democracy and plenty for all – can only be accomplished by the active and conscious participation of the working class in the running of society, of industry, and of the state. It is not something that is kindly handed down to the workers by kind-hearted capitalists or bureaucratic mandarins.
Under Lenin and Trotsky, the Soviet state was constructed in order to facilitate the drawing of workers into the tasks of control and accounting, to ensure the uninterrupted progress of the reduction of the ‘special functions’ of officialdom and of the power of the state. Strict limitations were placed upon the salaries, power, and privileges of officials in order to prevent the formation of a privileged caste.
The workers’ state established by the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 was neither bureaucratic nor totalitarian. On the contrary, before the Stalinist bureaucracy usurped control from the masses, it was the most democratic state that ever existed. The basic principles of the Soviet power were not invented by Marx or Lenin. They were based on the concrete experience of the Paris Commune, and later elaborated upon by Lenin.
Lenin was the sworn enemy of bureaucracy. He always emphasised that the proletariat needs only a state that is “so constituted that it will at once begin to die away and cannot help dying away.” A genuine workers’ state has nothing in common with the bureaucratic monster that exists today, and even less the one that existed in Stalinist Russia.
The Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies were elected assemblies composed not of professional politicians and bureaucrats, but of ordinary workers, peasants and soldiers. It was not an alien power standing over society, but a power based on the direct initiative of the people from below. Its laws were not like the laws enacted by a capitalist state power. It was an entirely different kind of power from the one that generally exists in the parliamentary bourgeois-democratic republics of the type still prevailing in the advanced countries of Europe and America. This power was of the same type as the Paris Commune of 1871.
It is true that in conditions of appalling backwardness, poverty and illiteracy, the Russian working class was unable to hold onto the power they had conquered. The Revolution suffered a process of bureaucratic degeneration that led to the establishment of Stalinism. Contrary to the lies of bourgeois historians, Stalinism was not the product of Bolshevism but its bitterest enemy. Stalin stands approximately in the same relation to Marx and Lenin as Napoleon to the Jacobins or the Pope to the early Christians.
The early Soviet Union was in fact not a state at all in the sense we normally understand it, but only the organised expression of the revolutionary power of the working people. To use the phrase of Marx, it was a “semi-state”, a state so-designed that it would eventually wither away and be dissolved into society, giving way to the collective administration of society for the benefit of all, without force or coercion. That, and only that, is the genuine Marxist conception of a workers’ state.
The rise of capitalism
Trotsky pointed out that revolution is the motor force of history. It is no coincidence that the rise of the bourgeoisie in Italy, Holland, England and later in France was accompanied by an extraordinary flourishing of culture, art and science. In those countries where the bourgeois revolution triumphed in the 17th and 18th centuries, the development of the productive forces and technology was complemented by a parallel development of science and philosophy, which undermined the ideological domination of the Church forever.
In contrast, those countries where the forces of feudal-Catholic reaction strangled the embryo of the new society in the womb were condemned to suffer the nightmare of a long and inglorious period of degeneration, decline and decay. The example of Spain is perhaps the most graphic in this regard.
The rise of capitalism began in the Netherlands and the cities of northern Italy. It was accompanied by new attitudes, which gradually solidified into a new morality and new religious beliefs. Under feudalism economic power was expressed as the ownership of land. Money played a secondary role. But the rise of trade and manufacture and the incipient market relations that accompanied them made money an even greater power. Great banking families like the Fuggers arose and challenged the might of kings.
The bloody wars of religion in the 16th and 17th century were merely the outward expression of deeper class conflicts. The only possible result of these struggles was the rise to power of the bourgeoisie and new (capitalist) relations of production. But the leaders of these struggles had no prior knowledge of this.
The English Revolution of 1640-60 was a great social transformation. The old feudal regime was destroyed and replaced with a new capitalist social order. The Civil War was a class war which overthrew the despotism of Charles I and the reactionary feudal order that stood behind him. Parliament represented the new rising middle classes of town and country which challenged and defeated the old regime, cutting off the head of the king and abolishing the House of Lords in the process.
Objectively, Oliver Cromwell was laying the basis for the rule of the bourgeoisie in England. But in order to do this, in order to clear all the feudal-monarchical rubbish out of the way, he was first obliged to sweep aside the cowardly bourgeoisie, dissolve its parliament and base himself on the petty bourgeoisie, the small farmers of East Anglia, the class to which he belonged, and the plebeian and semi-proletarian masses of town and country.
Placing himself at the head of a revolutionary army, Cromwell aroused the fighting spirit of the masses by appealing to the Bible, the Saints and the Kingdom of God on Earth. His soldiers did not go into battle under the banner of Rent, Interest and Profit, but singing religious hymns. This evangelistic spirit, which was soon filled with a revolutionary (and even sometimes a communistic) content, was what inspired the masses to fight with tremendous courage and enthusiasm against the Hosts of Baal.
However, once in power, Cromwell could not go beyond the bounds established by history and the objective limits of the productive forces of the epoch. He was compelled to turn against the left wing, suppressing the Levellers by force, and to pursue a policy that favoured the bourgeoisie and the reinforcement of capitalist property relations in England. In the end, Cromwell dismissed parliament and ruled as dictator until his death, when the English bourgeoisie, fearful that the Revolution had gone too far and might pose a threat to property, restored the Stuarts to the throne.
The French Revolution of 1789-93 was on a qualitatively higher level. Instead of religion, the Jacobins appealed to Reason. They fought under the banner of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity in order to rouse the plebeian and semi-proletarian masses against the feudal aristocracy and the monarchy.
Long before it brought down the formidable walls of the Bastille, it had overthrown the invisible, but no less formidable, walls of the Church and religion. But when the French bourgeoisie became the ruling class, faced with the new revolutionary class, the proletariat, the bourgeoisie quickly forgot the rationalist and atheist intoxication of its youth.
After the fall of Robespierre, the victorious men of property longed for stability. Searching for stabilising formulae and a conservative ideology that would justify their privileges, they quickly rediscovered the charms of Holy Mother Church. The latter, with her extraordinary ability to adapt, has managed to survive for two millennia, despite all the social changes that have taken place. The Catholic Church soon welcomed its new master and protector, sanctifying the domain of Big Capital, in the same way as before the same church had sanctified the power of feudal monarchs and the slave owners of the Roman Empire.
In the writings of Marx and Engels we do not have a philosophical system, like that of Hegel, but a series of brilliant insights and pointers, which, if they were developed, would provide a valuable addition to the methodological armoury of science. Unfortunately, such a work has never been seriously undertaken.
There is a difficulty for anyone who wishes to study dialectical materialism thoroughly. Despite the immense importance of the subject, there is no single book of Marx and Engels that deals with the question in a comprehensive manner. However, the dialectical method is in evidence in all the writings of Marx. Probably the best example of the application of dialectics to a particular field (in this case political economy) consists of the three volumes of Capital.
For a long time, Marx had intended to write a book on dialectical materialism, but it proved impossible because of his work on Capital. In addition to this monumental task, Marx produced numerous political writings and was constantly engaged in active participation in the labour movement, particularly in the construction of the International Workingmen’s Association (the First International). This occupied every moment of his time, and even this work was frequently interrupted by bouts of illness brought on by his miserable living conditions, poor diet and exhaustion.
After Marx’s death, Engels planned to write the book on philosophy that his friend was unable to produce. He left us a precious legacy of writings on Marxist philosophy, such as Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, Anti-Dühring and Dialectics of Nature. But unfortunately, Engels also failed to write the definitive book on Marxist philosophy for various reasons.
First, the emergence of an opportunist trend within the Social Democratic Party in Germany forced him to leave his scientific research to one side in order to write a polemic against opportunism that has become one of the most important classics of Marxism. This was the celebrated Anti-Dühring which, among other things, contains a contribution to Marxist philosophy of the first order of importance.
Later on, Engels returned to his preparatory studies for a comprehensive book on philosophy. But with the death of Marx, on 14 March, 1883, he was again obliged to suspend this work in order to prioritise the difficult task of putting in order and completing the manuscripts of Volume Two and Three of Capital that had been left unfinished.
Marx and Hegel
Dialectical philosophy reached its highest point in the philosophy of the German idealist Georg Hegel. His great contribution was to rediscover dialectics, originally invented by the Greeks. He developed this to new heights, but he did this on the basis of idealism. This was, in Engels’ words, the greatest miscarriage in history. Reading Hegel, one has the sensation of a truly great idea that is struggling to escape from the straitjacket of idealist mystification. Here we find extraordinarily profound ideas and flashes of great insight, but buried amidst a heap of idealist nonsense. It is a very frustrating experience to read Hegel!
Time and again this great thinker drew tantalisingly close to a materialist position. But at the last minute he always drew back, fearful of the consequences. For that reason, Hegelian philosophy was unsatisfactory, contradictory, botched and incomplete. It was left to Marx and Engels to dot the I’s and cross the T’s, to carry the Hegelian philosophy to its logical conclusions, and, in so doing, to negate it utterly and replace it with something qualitatively superior.
Hegel carried traditional philosophy as far as it could go. In order to carry it further, it had to go beyond its bounds, negating itself in the process. Philosophy had to return from the nebulous realms of speculation back to the real world of material things, of living men and women, of real history and struggle from which it had been separated for so long.
The problem with Feuerbach and some other Left Hegelians, like Moses Hess, is that they merely said no to Hegel, negating his philosophy by simply denying it. Hess’ move to materialism was a bold one. It required courage, especially in the given context of general European reaction and the repressive Prussian state. It provided inspiration to the young Marx and Engels. But ultimately, it failed.
One can negate a grain of wheat by crushing it underfoot. But the dialectical concept of negation is not merely to destroy: it is to destroy while simultaneously preserving all that deserves to be preserved. A grain of wheat can also be negated by allowing it to germinate.
Hegel pointed out that the same words in the mouth of an adolescent do not carry the same weight as on the lips of an old man, who has lived life and accumulated great experience. It is the same with philosophy. In returning to its starting point, philosophy does not merely repeat a long-surpassed stage. It does not become childish by returning in old age to its infancy, but it returns to the old ideas of the Ionic Greeks enriched by 2,000 years of history and the development of science and culture.
This is not the mechanical movement of a gigantic wheel, the senseless repetition of previous stages, like the endless process of rebirth that features in certain Oriental religions, but the negation of the negation, which posits the return to an earlier phase of development, but on a qualifiedly higher level. It is the same, and not the same.
However, although he reached some deep and important conclusions, at times drawing close to materialism (for example in The Philosophy of History), Hegel remained a prisoner of his idealist outlook. He never managed to apply his dialectical method correctly to the real world of society and nature, because for him, the only real development was the development of the world of ideas.
Marx’s philosophical revolution
Of all the theories of Marx, no other has been so attacked, distorted and slandered as dialectical materialism. And this is no accident, since this theory is the basis and foundation of Marxism. It is, more or less, the method of scientific socialism. Marxism is much more than a political programme and an economic theory. It is a philosophy, the vast scope of which covers not only politics and the class struggle, but the whole of human history, economics, society, thought and nature.
Today, the ideology of the bourgeoisie is in the process of disintegration, not only in the field of economics and politics but also in that of philosophy. In the period of its ascent the bourgeoisie was capable of producing great thinkers like Hegel and Kant. In the period of its senile decay it produces nothing of value. It is impossible to read the barren products of the university philosophy departments without a feeling of tedium and irritation in equal measure.
The fight against the power of the ruling class cannot stop in the factories, the streets, parliament and local councils. We must also carry out the battle in the ideological field, where the influence of the bourgeoisie is no less pernicious and harmful by being hidden under the guise of a false impartiality and a superficial objectivity. Marxism has a duty to provide a comprehensive alternative to the old and discredited schemes.
The young Marx was heavily influenced by Hegelian philosophy that dominated the German universities at that time. The whole of Hegel’s doctrine was based on the idea of constant change and development through contradictions. In that sense it represented a real revolution in philosophy. It is this dynamic, revolutionary side that inspired the young Marx and is the starting point for all his ideas.
Marx and Engels negated Hegel and turned his system of ideas into its opposite. But they did so while simultaneously preserving all that was valuable in his philosophy. They based themselves on the “rational kernel” of Hegel’s ideas and carried them to a higher level by developing and making actual what was always implicit in them.
In Hegel, the real struggle of historical forces is expressed in the shadowy form of the struggle of ideas. But, as Marx explains, ideas in themselves have no history and no real existence. Therefore, reality appears in Hegel in a mystified, alienated form. In Feuerbach things are really not much better, since Man here appears also in a one-sided, idealistic and unreal manner. The real, historical men and women only appear with the advent of Marxist philosophy.
With the philosophy of Marx, philosophy at last returns to its roots. It is both dialectical and materialist. Here theory and practice once again join hands and rejoice together. Philosophy comes out of its dark and airless study and enjoys the sun and air. It becomes an inseparable part of life. In place of the obscure conflict of ideas without substance, we have the real contradictions of the material world and society. Instead of a remote and incomprehensible Absolute, we have real men and women, living in real society, making real history and fighting real battles.
The dialectic appears in the work of Hegel in a fantastic and semi-mystical guise. It is ‘upside down’, so to speak. Here we do not find the real processes taking place in nature and society, but only the pale reflection of those processes in the minds of men, especially of philosophers. In the words of Engels, the dialectic in Hegel’s hands, despite his great genius, was a colossal miscarriage.
He points out that Marx was the only one who could strip away the mysticism contained in Hegelian logic and extract the dialectical kernel. This represented the real discoveries in this field. Through the reconstruction of the dialectical method, Marx managed to provide the only true development of thought.
While the philosophy of Hegel interpreted things only from the point of view of the mind and spirit (i.e. from the idealist standpoint), Marx showed that the development of ideas in the minds of men is only a reflection of developments that occur in nature and society. As Marx says:
Hegel’s dialectic is the basic form of all dialectic, but only after being stripped of its mystical form, and it is precisely this which distinguishes my method. (‘Letter to Kugelmann’, 6 March 1868, MECW, vol. 42, p. 543.)
What is dialectics?
Trotsky, in his brilliant little article The ABC of Dialectical Materialism, defined dialectics thus:
The dialectic is neither fiction nor mysticism, but a science of the forms of our thinking insofar as it is not limited to the daily problems of life but attempts to arrive at an understanding of more complicated and drawn-out processes. The dialectic and formal logic bear a relationship similar to that between higher and lower mathematics.
The combination of the dialectical method with materialism created an extremely powerful analytical tool. But what is the dialectic? For reasons of space, it is impossible to explain here all the laws of dialectics developed by Hegel and perfected by Marx. I have attempted to do this elsewhere, in Reason in Revolt: Marxist Philosophy and Modern Science, published by Wellred Books. In a few lines I can only give the sketchiest of outlines.
In his book Anti-Dühring Engels characterised it as follows: “The dialectic is simply the science of the general laws of motion and development of nature, human society and thought.” In Dialectics of Nature Engels also sketches in outline the main laws of dialectics:
1. The law of transformation of quantity into quality.
2. The law of the unity and struggle of opposites and transformation into each other when they are taken to extremes.
3. The law of development through contradictions, or put another way, the negation of the negation.
Despite its unfinished and fragmentary nature, Engels’ book Dialectics of Nature is very important, along with Anti-Dühring, for the student of Marxism. Obviously, Engels had to rely on the knowledge and scientific discoveries of the time. Consequently, certain aspects of the content have a mainly historical interest. But what is surprising in Dialectics of Nature is not this or that detail or fact that has been inevitably overtaken by the march of science. On the contrary, what is astonishing is the number of ideas advanced by Engels – often ideas that ran counter to the scientific theories of his day – which have been corroborated brilliantly by modern science.
Throughout the book, Engels emphasises the idea that matter and motion (now we would call it energy) are inseparable. Motion is the mode of existence of matter. This dynamic view of matter, of the universe, contains a profound truth that was already understood, or rather guessed as, by the early Greek philosophers like Heraclitus. For him “everything is and is not, because everything is in flux”. Everything is constantly changing, coming into being and passing away.
For common sense, the mass of an object never changes. For example, a spinning top when rotating, has the same weight as one that is motionless. Mass was therefore considered to be constant, regardless of speed. Later it was discovered that this is wrong. In fact, mass increases with speed, but such an increase is only appreciable in cases where the velocity is approaching that of light. For the practical purposes of everyday life, we can accept that the mass of an object is constant regardless of the speed with which it moves. However, for very high speeds, this claim is false, and the higher the speed, the falser is the claim.
Commenting on this law, Professor Feynman says:
[P]hilosophically we are completely wrong with the approximate law. Our entire picture of the world has to be altered even though the mass changes only a little. This is a very peculiar thing about the philosophy, or the ideas, behind the laws. Even a very small effect sometimes requires profound changes in our ideas… (R.P. Feynman, Lectures on Physics.)
This example clearly demonstrates the fundamental difference between elementary mechanics and advanced modern physics. Similarly, there is a big difference between elementary mathematics, used for simple everyday calculations, and higher mathematics (the differential and integral calculus), discussed by Engels in Anti-Dühring and Dialectics of Nature.
The same difference exists between formal logic and dialectics. For everyday life, the laws of formal logic are more than enough. However, for more complex processes, these laws are often turned upside down. Their limited truth becomes false.
Quantity and quality
From the point of view of dialectical materialism, the material universe has no beginning or end, but consists of a mass of material (or energy) in a constant state of movement. This is the fundamental idea of Marxist philosophy and it is completely supported by the discoveries of modern science over the last one hundred years.
Take any example from everyday life, any phenomenon that is apparently stable, and we will see that below the surface it is in a state of flux, although this change is invisible at first glance. For example, a glass of water:
To our eyes, our crude eyes, nothing is changing, but if we could see it a billion times magnified, we would see that from its own point of view it is always changing: molecules are leaving the surface, molecules are coming back. (R.P. Feynman, The Feynman Lectures on Physics, p. 8.)
These words are not of Engels, but a renowned scientist, the late Professor Richard P Feynman, who used to teach theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology. The same author repeats Engels’ famous example of the law of transformation of quantity into quality.
Water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen atoms in a state of constant motion. Water does not break up into its component parts due to the mutual attraction of the molecules. However, if it is heated to 100 ° C at normal atmospheric pressure, it reaches a critical point where the attractive force between the molecules is insufficient and they fly apart suddenly.
This example may seem trivial, but it has tremendously important consequences for science and industry. It is part of a very important branch of modern physics: the study of phase transitions. Matter can exist in four phases (or states), solid, liquid, gas, and plasma, plus a few other extreme phases, like critical fluids and degenerate gases.
Generally, as a solid is heated (or as pressure decreases), it will change to a liquid form, and will eventually become a gas. For example, ice (frozen water) melts into liquid water when it is heated. As the water boils, the water evaporates and becomes water vapour. But if this vapour is heated to a very high temperature, a further phase transition occurs. At 12,000 K = 11,726.85 Celsius, steam becomes plasma.
This is what Marxists call the transformation of quantity into quality. That is to say, a large number of very small changes finally produces a qualitative leap – a phase transition. Examples may be cited at will: If one cools a substance such as lead or niobium, there is a gradual reduction of its electrical resistance, up to a critical temperature (usually a few degrees above -273 ° C). Precisely at this point, all resistance will suddenly disappear. There is a kind of ‘quantum leap’, the transition from having a small resistance to having none.
One can find a limitless number of similar examples in all the natural sciences. The American scientist Marc Buchanan wrote a very interesting book called Ubiquity. In this book, he gives a long series of examples: heart attacks, forest fires, avalanches, the rise and fall of animal populations, stock exchange crises, wars, and even changes in fashion and different schools of art (I would add revolutions to this list).
All these things seem to have no connection, yet are subject to the same law, which can be expressed by a mathematical equation known as a power law. What this is, in Marxist terminology, is the law of the transformation of quantity into quality. And what this study shows is that this law is ubiquitous, that is to say, it is present at all levels in the universe. It is a truly universal law of nature, just as Engels said.
Dialectics versus empiricism
‘Give us the facts!’ This imperious demand appears to be the acme of practical realism. What can be more solid than the facts? Only what appears to be realism turns out to be just the opposite. What are established facts at one time, can turn out to be something very different. Everything is in a constant state of change, and sooner or later everything changes into its opposite. What appears to be solid dissolves into thin air.
The dialectical method allows us to penetrate beyond appearances and see the processes that are taking place beneath the surface. The dialectic is first of all the science of universal interconnection. It provides a comprehensive and dynamic view of phenomena and processes. It analyses things in their relationship, not separately; in their motion, not statically; in their life, not death.
Knowledge of dialectics means freedom from the slavish worship of the established fact, of things as they are, which is the chief characteristic of superficial empirical thinking. In politics this is typical of reformism that seeks to cloak its conservatism, myopia and cowardice in the philosophical language of pragmatism, the art of the possible, ‘realism’ and so on.
Dialectics permits us to penetrate beyond the ‘given’, the immediate, that is, the world of appearance, and to uncover the hidden processes that are taking place beneath the surface. We point out that behind the appearance of calm and absence of movement, there is a process of molecular change, not only in physics but also in society and in the psychology of the masses.
It was not so long ago that most people thought the boom was going to last forever. That was, or appeared to be, an unquestionable fact. Those who did question it were regarded as deluded cranks. But now that unquestionable truth lies in ruins. The facts have changed into their opposite. What seemed to be an indisputable truth turns out to be a lie. To quote the words of Hegel: Reason becomes unreason.
Using this method more than a century ago, Friedrich Engels was able, in a number of instances, to see further than most contemporary scientists, anticipating many of the discoveries of modern science. Engels was not a professional scientist, but had a fairly extensive knowledge of the natural sciences of his time.
However, based on a deep understanding of the dialectical method of analysis, Engels made a number of very important contributions to the philosophical interpretation of science today, although they have remained unknown to the overwhelming majority of scientists until now.
Of course, philosophy cannot dictate the laws of the natural sciences. These laws can only be developed on the basis of a serious and rigorous analysis of nature. The progress of science is characterised by a series of approximations. Through experiment and observation we get closer and closer to the truth, without ever being able to get to know the whole truth. It is a never-ending process of a deepening penetration of the secrets of matter and the universe. The truth of scientific theories can only be established through practice, observation and experiment, not by any commandments of philosophers.
Most of the questions with which philosophers have wrestled in the past have been solved by science. Nevertheless, it would be a serious mistake to suppose that philosophy has no role to play in science. There remain only two aspects of philosophy which remain valid today which have not been absorbed by the different branches of science: formal logic and dialectics.
Engels insisted that “the dialectic, stripped of mysticism, becomes an absolute necessity” for science. The dialectic, of course, has no magical quality to solve the problems of modern physics. Nevertheless, a comprehensive and coherent philosophy would be of inestimable help in guiding scientific investigation onto the most fruitful lines and prevent it from falling into all manner of arbitrary and mystical hypotheses that lead nowhere. Many of the problems facing science today arise precisely because of its lack of a firm philosophical foundation.
Dialectics and science
Many scientists treat philosophy with contempt. As far as modern philosophy is concerned, this contempt is well deserved. For the past one and a half centuries the realm of philosophy resembles an arid desert with only traces of life. The treasure trove of the past, with its ancient glories and flashes of illumination, seems utterly extinguished. Not only scientists but men and women in general will search in vain in this wasteland for any source of illumination.
Yet on closer inspection the contempt displayed by scientists to philosophy is not well grounded. For if we look seriously at the state of modern science – or more accurately at its theoretical underpinnings and assumptions, we see that science has in fact never freed itself from philosophy. Unceremoniously expelled by the front door, philosophy slyly gains an entry through the back window.
Scientists who proudly assert their complete indifference to philosophy in reality make all kinds of assumptions that are philosophical in character. And in fact, this kind of unconscious and uncritical philosophy is not superior to the old fashioned kind but immeasurably inferior to it. Moreover, it is the source of many errors in practice.
The remarkable advances of science over the past century seem to have made philosophy redundant. In a world where we can penetrate the deepest mysteries of the cosmos and follow the complex motions of sub-atomic particles, the old questions which absorbed the attention of philosophers have been resolved. The role of philosophy has been correspondingly reduced. However, to repeat the point, there are two areas where philosophy retains its importance: formal logic and dialectics.
A major advance in the application of the dialectical method to the history of science was the publication in 1962 of T.S. Kuhn’s remarkable book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. This demonstrated the inevitability of scientific revolutions and showed the approximate mechanism whereby these occur. “All that exists deserves to perish” holds good not only for living organisms but also to scientific theories, including those which we currently hold to be of absolute validity.
As a matter of fact, Engels was far ahead of his contemporaries (most scientists included) in his attitude towards the natural sciences. He not only explained motion (energy) as inseparable from matter, but also explained that the difference between the sciences consisted only in the study of the various forms of energy and the dialectical transition from one form of energy into another. This is what is now known as phase transitions.
The whole evolution of science in the twentieth century has rejected the old compartmentalisation, recognising the dialectical transition from one science to another. Marx and Engels in their day caused great indignation amongst their opponents, when they said that the difference between organic and inorganic matter was only relative. They explained that organic matter – the first living organisms – arose from inorganic matter at a given time, representing a qualitative leap in evolution. They said that animals, including man with his mind, his ideas and beliefs were simply matter organised in a certain way.
The difference between organic and inorganic matter, which Kant considered an insurmountable barrier, has been eliminated, as Feynman points out:
Everything is constituted by atoms. This is the key assumption. For example, the most important assumptions in biology are that everything that animals do, atoms do. In other words, there is nothing living things do that cannot be understood from the point of view that they are made of atoms, acting in accordance with the laws of physics. (R.P. Feynman, Lectures on Physics.)
From the scientific perspective, men and women are aggregations of atoms arranged in a particular way. But we are not merely an agglomeration of atoms. The human body is an extraordinarily complex organism, in particular the brain, the structure and functioning of which we are only now beginning to understand. This is something far more beautiful and wonderful than all the old fairy stories of religion.
At the same time that Marx was carrying out a revolution in the field of political economy, Darwin was doing the same in the field of biology. It is no accident that while Darwin’s work aroused a storm of indignation and incomprehension, it was immediately recognised by Marx and Engels as a masterpiece of the dialectic, although Darwin himself was unaware of it. The explanation for this apparent paradox is that the laws of dialectics are not an arbitrary invention, but reflect processes that actually exist in nature and society.
The discovery of genetics has revealed the exact mechanism that determines the transformation of one species into another. The human genome has provided a new dimension to Darwin’s work, showing that humans share our genes not just with the humble fruit fly but with the most basic forms of life, the bacteria. In the next few years, scientists will carry out an act of creation in a laboratory, producing a living organism from inorganic matter. The last patch of ground will be cut from under the feet of the Divine Creator, who will finally be rendered utterly redundant.
For a long time scientists argued as to whether the creation of new species was the result of a long period of accumulation of slow changes or arose from a sudden violent change. From a dialectical point of view, there is no contradiction between the two. A long period of molecular changes (quantitative changes) reaches a critical point where it suddenly produces what is now termed a quantum leap.
Marx and Engels believed the theory of evolution of species was clear proof of the fact that nature ultimately works in a dialectical way, i.e. through development, through contradictions. Three decades ago, this statement received a powerful boost from such a prestigious institution as the British Museum, where a furious debate broke the decorous silence of centuries. One of the arguments against the defenders of the idea of qualitative leaps in the chain of evolution was that it represented Marxist infiltration in the British Museum!
However, despite itself, modern biology has had no choice but to correct the old idea of evolution as a gradual, linear, uninterrupted process, without abrupt changes, and admit the existence of qualitative leaps, characterised by the mass extinction of some species and the emergence of new ones. On 17 April 1982, The Economist published an article on the centenary of Darwin that said:
It will be increasingly clear that fairly small mutations that affect what happens at a key stage of development can cause major evolutionary changes (for example, a small change in the mode of operation of certain genes could lead to a significant increase in brain size). Evidence is also accumulating that many genes undergo a slow but steady mutation. Thus, little by little, scientists solve the ongoing controversy of whether species change slowly and continuously for long periods, or remain unchanged for a long time and then experience a rapid evolution. Probably both types of changes occur.
The old version of evolutionary theory (phyletic gradualism) maintained that species change only gradually as individual genetic mutations arise and are selected. However, a new theory was put forward by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge called ‘punctuated equilibrium’ according to which genetic change can take place through sudden leaps. Incidentally, the late Stephen Jay Gould pointed out that if the scientists had paid attention to what Engels had written about human origins, they would have saved themselves a hundred years of error.
Whole nations bankrupt
The first phase of the crisis that began in 2008 was characterised by the default of big banks. The entire banking system of the USA and the rest of the world was only saved by the massive injection of billions of dollars and Euros by the state. But the question must be asked: what is left of the old idea that the free market, if left to itself, will solve all problems? What is left of the old idea that the state must not interfere in the workings of the economy?
The massive injection of public money solved nothing. The crisis has not been resolved. It has merely been shifted onto states. All that happened is that in place of a massive deficit of the banks we have a gaping black hole in public finances. And who will pay for this? Not those well-heeled bankers who, having presided over the wrecking of the world financial order, have calmly pocketed the public’s hard-earned money and are now awarding themselves lavish bonuses with the proceeds.
No! The deficits about which the economists and politicians are complaining so bitterly must be paid for by the poorest and most defenceless sections of society. Suddenly there is no money for the old, the sick, the unemployed, but there is always plenty of money for the bankers. This means a regime of permanent austerity. But this merely creates new contradictions. By cutting demand, it reduces the market still further, and thus aggravates the crisis of overproduction.
Now the economists are predicting a new collapse, when currencies and governments will go under, threatening the very fabric of the world financial system. And despite what the politicians say about the need to curb the deficit, debts on the scale that have been run up cannot be repaid. Greece provides a graphic example of this fact. The future is one of even deeper crises, falling living standards, painful adjustments and increasing impoverishment for the majority. This is a finished recipe for further upheavals and class struggle on an even higher level. It is a systemic crisis of capitalism on a world scale.
Some sophists ask: if socialism is inevitable, why should one have to struggle to achieve it? As a matter of fact, it is possible to be a convinced determinist and yet be committed to an active revolutionary role. In the seventeenth century the Calvinists were determinists of the most categorical and absolute kind. They believed fervently in predestination, that the fate and salvation of every man and woman was determined before they were born.
Nevertheless, this iron determinism did not prevent the Calvinists from playing a most revolutionary role in the struggle against decaying feudalism and its main ideological expression, the Roman Catholic Church. Precisely because they were convinced of the justice and inevitable triumph of their cause, they fought all the more bravely to speed up its victory.
The old society is dying on its feet, and a new society is struggling to be born. But those who have derived vast riches from it will never accept the inevitability of its demise. Sooner than see it sink into oblivion, the ruling class would prefer to drag the whole of society down with it. The prolongation of the death agony of capitalism constitutes a mortal threat to human culture and civilisation. Our task is to assist in the birth of the new society, to ensure that it takes place as swiftly and painlessly as possible, with the smallest cost to humanity.
Contrary to the calumnies of our enemies, Marxists do not advocate violence. Nevertheless, we are realists, and we know that the whole history of the last ten thousand years proves that no ruling class or caste ever surrenders its wealth, power and privileges without a fight, and that usually means a fight with no holds barred. That remains the case today.
It is the decay of capitalism that threatens to unleash the most terrible violence on the world. In order to reduce the possibility of violence, to put an end to chaos and wars, to ensure the most peaceful and orderly transition to socialism, the prior condition is that the working class must be mobilised for struggle and be prepared to fight to the end.
‘All roads lead to ruin’
Contrary to the comforting picture that used to be presented of the capitalist system offering a secure and prosperous future for all, we see the reality of a world in which millions suffer poverty and hunger, while the super rich become richer every day. People live in constant fear of an insecure future that will be decided, not by the rational decisions of people but solely by the wild gyrations of the market.
Financial crises, mass unemployment and constant social and political upheavals turn many things upside down. What appeared to be fixed and permanent dissolves overnight and people begin to question things they always took for granted. This state of perpetual unrest is what prepares the ground psychologically for revolution, which in the end becomes the only option that is realistically imaginable. In order to see this in practice one only has to look at present-day Greece.
Everybody knows that the capitalist system is in crisis. But what is the antidote to the crisis? If capitalism is an anarchic and chaotic system that inevitably ends in crises, then one must conclude that in order to eliminate crises it is necessary to abolish the capitalist system itself. If you say ‘A’, you must also say ‘B’, ‘C’ and ‘D’. But this is what the bourgeois economists refuse to do.
Are there no mechanisms that could allow the bourgeois to get out of a crisis of overproduction? Of course there are! One method would be to lower the rate of interest in order to boost profit margins and stimulate investment. But the rate of interest is already close to zero. Reduce it any further and we would be talking about a negative rate of interest: the banks would pay people to borrow money. This is completely crazy, but they are even discussing it. That shows that they are becoming desperate.
The other method is to increase state spending. This is what all the Keynesians and reformists are advocating. In the first place, this exposes the bankruptcy of free market economics. The private sector is so feeble, decrepit, so bankrupt in the literal sense of the word that it must rely on the state just as a man with no legs relies on crutches. But even that option does not offer a way out.
It is an obvious fact that the banks and big monopolies are now dependent on the state for their survival. As soon as they were in difficulties, the same people who used to insist that the state must play no role in the economy, ran to the government with their hands out, demanding huge sums of money. And the government immediately gave them a blank cheque. Trillions of pounds of public money has been handed over to the banks, totalling some $14 trillion. But the crisis continues to deepen.
All that has been achieved in the last four years is to transform what was a black hole in the finances of the banks into a black hole in public finances. In order to save the bankers, everybody is expected to sacrifice, but for the bankers and capitalists no sacrifices are demanded. They pay themselves lavish bonuses with the money of the taxpayer. This is Robin Hood in reverse.
The existence of huge deficits means that the Keynesian argument about increasing state spending falls under its own weight. How can the state spend money it does not possess? The one avenue still open to them is printing money, or, as it is euphemistically known, Quantitative Easing (QE). The injection of large amounts of fictitious capital into the economy is subject to the law of diminishing returns. It has a similar effect to that of a junkie who has to inject himself with ever bigger quantities of a drug in order to get the same effect. In the process they are poisoning the system and undermining its health.
This is a really desperate measure that must result sooner or later in an increase in inflation. In this way, they are preparing for an even deeper slump in the coming period. This is the inevitable result of the fact that in the previous period the capitalist system went beyond its limits. In order to postpone a slump, they used up the very mechanisms that they need to get out of the present crisis. This is the reason why the crisis is so deep and so intractable. As Marx explains, the capitalists can only solve their crises “by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented.” (The Communist Manifesto.)
In the olden days the Church used to say: ‘All roads lead to Rome.’ Now the bourgeoisie has a new motto: ‘All roads lead to ruin.’ It is unthinkable that a crisis that is throwing the whole world into chaos, that condemns millions of people to unemployment, poverty and despair, that robs the youth of a future and destroys health, housing, education and culture – that all this can occur without producing a social and political crisis. The crisis of capitalism is preparing the conditions for revolution everywhere.
This is no longer a theoretical proposition. It is a fact. If we take just the last twelve months, what do we see? Revolutionary movements have occurred in one country after another: Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, Spain. Even in the United States we have the Occupy movement and the earlier mass protests in Wisconsin.
These dramatic events are a clear expression of the fact that the crisis of capitalism is producing a massive backlash on a world scale, and that a growing number of people are beginning to draw revolutionary conclusions. As long as a tiny minority holds in its hands the land, the banks and the big corporations, it will continue to take all the fundamental decisions that affect the lives and destinies of millions of people on the planet.
The intolerable gap that has developed between rich and poor is placing an increasing strain on social cohesion. The basis of the old Social Democratic dream of class peace and social partnership has broken down irremediably. This fact was summed up by the Occupy Wall Street slogan: “The one thing we all have in common is that we are the 99 per cent that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1 per cent.”
The problem is that the present protest movement is confused in its aims. It lacks a coherent programme and a bold leadership. But it reflects a general mood of anger that is building up under the surface and which sooner or later must find a way out. But they are definitely anti-capitalist movements, and sooner or later, in one country or another, the question of the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism will be posed.
Under capitalism, as Marx explained, the productive forces have experienced the most spectacular development in history. Yet the ideas of the ruling class, even in its most revolutionary epoch, lagged far behind the advances in production, technology and science.
The threat to culture?
The contrast between the rapid development of technology and science, and the extraordinary delay in the development of human ideology, is presented in a clear manner in the most advanced capitalist country of the world: the USA. This is the land where science has achieved its most spectacular results. The steady progress of technology is the precondition for the final emancipation of man, the abolition of poverty and illiteracy, ignorance, disease and the domination of nature by man through the conscious planning of the economy. The road is open to conquest, not only on Earth, but in space. And yet, in this technologically advanced country, the most primitive superstitions reign supreme. Nine out of ten Americans believe in the existence of a divine being and seven out of ten believe in life after death.
On Christmas Day 1968, when the first man to fly around the Moon had to choose a message to convey to the American people from his spaceship, out of the entire corpus of world literature, he chose the first book of Genesis. As he hurtled through space in a spaceship crammed full of the most modern gadgets, he pronounced the words: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” It is more than 130 years since Darwin’s death. Nevertheless, there are still many people in the USA who believe that every word of the Bible is literally correct, and who wish the schools to teach the version of human origins contained in Genesis, rather than the theory of evolution based on natural selection. In an attempt to make Creationism more respectable, its proponents have renamed it ‘intelligent design’. The question immediately arises: who designed the intelligent designer? To this entirely reasonable question they have no answer. Nor can they explain why their ‘intelligent designer’ made such a hopeless botch of the job when he created the world in the first place.
Why design a world with things like cancer, bubonic plague, aids, menstruation and migraine? Why design vampire bats, leeches and investment bankers? Come to think of it, why is it that apparently most of our genes are made of useless junk? Our intelligent designer turns out to be not so intelligent after all. In the words of Alfonso the Wise, King of Castile (1221-1284): “Had I been present at the Creation, I would have given some useful hints for the better ordering of the universe.” Indeed, an eleven year old of average intelligence could probably have done a better job.
It is true that the authority of the Church is in decline in all Western countries. The number of practicing believers is decreasing. In countries like Spain and Ireland the Church is finding it difficult to recruit new priests. Attendance at mass has suffered a sharp decline in recent times, especially among the youth. However, the decline of the Church has opened the door to a real Egyptian plague of religious sects of the weirdest varieties, and a flowering of mysticism and superstitions of all kinds. Astrology, that remnant of medieval barbarism – is back in fashion. Cinemas, television and bookstores are full of works based on the most brazen mysticism and superstition.
These are only the outward signs of the putrefaction of a social system that has outlived itself, that it has ceased to be a historically progressive force and that has definitely entered into conflict with the needs of the development of the productive forces. In this sense, the struggle of the working class to surgically cut short the agony of bourgeois society is also the struggle to defend the achievements of science and culture against the encroaching forces of barbarism.
The only alternatives open to humanity are clear: either the socialist transformation of society, the elimination of the political and economic power of the bourgeoisie and the initiation of a new stage in the development of human civilisation, or the destruction of civilisation, and even of life itself. The ecologists and Greens moan continually about the degradation of the environment and warn of the threat this poses for humanity. They are right. But they resemble an inexperienced doctor who points to the symptoms but is unable to diagnose the nature of the disease, or to suggest a cure.
The degeneration of the system is felt at all levels, not only in the economic field, but in the realm of morality, culture, art, music and philosophy. The existence of capitalism is being extended at the expense of the destruction of the productive forces, but it is also undermining culture, boosting demoralisation and the lumpenisation of entire layers of society, with disastrous consequences for the future. Ultimately, the existence of capitalism will enter into conflict with the existence of the democratic and trade union rights of the working class.
The increase in crime and violence, pornography, bourgeois selfishness and the brutal indifference to the sufferings of others, sadism, disintegration of the family and the collapse of traditional morality, drug addiction and alcoholism – all those things provoking the hypocritical wrath and indignation of reactionaries – are only symptoms of the senile degeneration of capitalism. In the same way that similar phenomena accompanied the period of decline of slave society under the Roman Empire.
The capitalist system, which puts profit before any other consideration, is poisoning the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. The latest scandal of the massive adulteration of meat products in Europe is only the tip of the iceberg. If we allow the rule of the big banks and monopolies to continue for another five decades or more, it is entirely possible that the destruction of the planet may reach a point where irreversible damage is done that will threaten the future existence of humankind. The struggle to change society is therefore a life and death question.
The need for a planned economy
For the past two decades we have been fed a steady diet of economic propaganda which assured us that the idea of a planned socialist economy was dead, and that the ‘market’, left to its own devices, would solve the problem of unemployment, bringing about a world of peace and prosperity.
Now, following the crash of 2008, the truth is beginning to dawn on people that the existing order is incapable of assuring even the most basic of human needs – a job, a living wage, a home, decent education and health provisions, a proper pension, a safe environment, clean air and water – for the great majority, and not only for those in the Third World.
Such a system must surely stand condemned by all thinking people who are not blinded by the constant avalanche of spurious arguments, the sole purpose of which is to defend the vested interests of those who are doing extremely well out of the present set-up and cannot or will not believe that it will not last forever and a day.
The central point of the Communist Manifesto – and herein lies its revolutionary message – is precisely that the capitalist system is not forever. This is the element which the apologists of our present system find most difficult to swallow. Naturally! It is the common delusion of every socio-economic system throughout history that it represents the very last word in social progress. Yet even from the standpoint of common sense, such a view is clearly flawed. If we accept that everything in nature is mutable, why should society be any different?
These facts indicate that the capitalist system had already exhausted its progressive mission. Every intelligent person realises that the free development of the productive forces demands the unification of the economies of all countries through a common plan which would permit the harmonious exploitation of the resources of our planet for the benefit of all.
This is so evident that it is recognised by scientists and experts who have nothing to do with socialism, but are filled with indignation at the nightmare conditions in which two thirds of the human race live, and are worried by the effects of the destruction of the environment. Unfortunately, their well-intentioned recommendations fall on deaf ears, since they conflict with the vested interests of the big multinationals that dominate the world economy and whose calculations are not based on the welfare of humanity or the future of the planet, but exclusively on greed and the search for profit above all other considerations.
The superiority of economic planning over capitalist anarchy is understood even by the bourgeois themselves, although they cannot admit it. In 1940, when Hitler’s armies had smashed France, and Britain had its back against the wall, what did they do? Did they say: ‘Let market forces decide’? No! They centralised the economy, nationalised essential industries and introduced sweeping government controls, including economic conscription and rationing. Why did they opt for centralisation and planning? For the very simple reason that it gives better results.
Of course, it is impossible to have a real plan of production under capitalism. Nevertheless, even the measures of state capitalist planning introduced by Churchill’s wartime coalition were essential for defeating Hitler. An even more striking example was the Soviet Union. The Second World War in Europe was in reality a gigantic conflict between Hitler’s Germany, with all the resources of Europe behind it, and the Soviet Union.
It was the Soviet Union that defeated Hitler’s armies. The reason for this extraordinary victory can never be admitted by the defenders of capitalism, but it is a self-evident fact. The existence of a nationalised planned economy gave the USSR an enormous advantage in the war. Despite the criminal policies of Stalin, which nearly brought about the collapse of the USSR at the beginning of the war, the Soviet Union was able to swiftly recover and rebuild its industrial and military capacity.
The Russians were able to dismantle all their industries in the West – 1,500 factories and a million workers – put them on trains and ship them east of the Urals where they were beyond the reach of the Germans. In a matter of months the Soviet Union was out-producing the Germans in tanks, guns and aeroplanes. This demonstrates beyond doubt the colossal superiority of a nationalised planned economy, even under Stalin’s bureaucratic regime.
The USSR lost 27 million people in the Second World War – half the total deaths on a world scale. Its industries and agricultures suffered terrible devastation. Yet within ten years everything had been rebuilt, and without the kind of vast amounts of foreign money that were channelled into Western Europe by the Americans under Marshall Aid. That, and not Germany and Japan, is the real post-war economic miracle.
Of course, real socialism must be based on democracy – not the fake formal democracy that exists in Britain and the USA, where anybody can say what they want as long as the big banks and monopolies decide what happens – but a genuine democracy based on the control and administration of society by working people themselves.
There is nothing utopian about such an idea. It is based on what already exists. Let us take just one example. It is a never-ending source of amazement to the author of these lines how a big supermarket like Tesco can calculate precisely the amount of sugar, bread and milk that is required by an area of London with tens of thousands of inhabitants. They do this by scientific planning, and it never fails. If planning on such a level can work for a large supermarket, why cannot the same methods of planning be applied to society as a whole?
Socialism and internationalism
Anyone who reads the Communist Manifesto can see that Marx and Engels anticipated this situation more than 150 years ago. They explained that capitalism must develop as a world system. Today, this analysis has been brilliantly confirmed by events. At the present time nobody can deny the crashing domination of the world market. It is in fact the most decisive phenomenon of the age in which we live.
Yet when the Manifesto was written, there was practically no empirical data to support such a hypothesis. The only really developed capitalist economy was England. The infant industries of France and Germany (the latter did not even exist as a united entity) still sheltered behind high tariff walls – a fact which is conveniently forgotten today, as Western governments and economists deliver stern lectures to the rest of the world on the need to open up their economies.
In the last few years economists have talked a lot about ‘globalisation’, imagining that this was the panacea which would permit them to abolish the cycle of booms and slumps altogether. These dreams were shattered by the collapse of 2008.
This has profound implications for the rest of the world. It shows the reverse side of ‘globalisation’. To the degree that the capitalist system develops the world economy, it also prepared the conditions for a devastating world slump. A crisis in any part of the world economy rapidly extends to all the others. Far from abolishing the boom-slump cycle, globalisation has invested it with an even more convulsive and universal character than at any previous period.
The fundamental problem is the system itself. In the words of Marx, “The real barrier of capitalist production is capital itself.” (Capital Volume III.) The economic pundits who argued that Marx was wrong and capitalist crises were things of the past (the ‘new economic paradigm’) have themselves been proved wrong. The present boom has all the features of the economic cycle Marx described long ago. The process of the concentration of capital has reached staggering proportions. There is an orgy of takeovers and ever-increasing monopolisation. This does not lead to the development of the productive forces as in the past. On the contrary, factories are closed as if they were matchboxes and thousands of people are thrown out of work.
The economic theories of monetarism – the Bible of neoliberalism – were summed up by John Kenneth Galbraith in the following way: “the poor have too much money, and the rich do not have enough.” Record profit levels are accompanied by record inequality. The Economist has pointed out that “the one truly continuous trend over the past 25 years has been towards greater concentration of income at the very top.”
A tiny minority are obscenely rich, while the share of the workers in the national income is constantly reduced and the poorest sections sink into ever deeper poverty. Hurricane Katrina revealed to the whole world the existence of a subclass of deprived US citizens living in third world conditions.
In the USA workers now produce 30 per cent more than ten years ago, yet wages have hardly increased. The social fabric is increasingly strained. There is an enormous increase in tensions in society, even in the richest country in the world. This is preparing the ground for an even greater explosion of the class struggle.
This is not only the case in the USA. Around the world the boom is accompanied by high unemployment. Reforms and concessions are being taken back. In order to become competitive in world markets, Italy would need to sack 500,000 workers and the remainder would have to accept a wage reduction of 30 per cent.
For a time, capitalism succeeded in overcoming its contradictions by increasing world trade (globalisation). For the first time in history, the entire world has been drawn into the world market. The capitalists found new markets and avenues of investment in China and other countries. But this has now reached its limits.
The American and European capitalists are no longer so enthusiastic about globalisation and free trade, when mountains of cheap Chinese goods are piling up on their doorstep. In the US Senate protectionist voices are raised and are becoming increasingly insistent. The Doha round of talks about world trade has been suspended and so great are the contradictions that there is no agreement possible.
The current unstable economic boom is already running out of steam. The consumer boom in the USA is based on relatively low interest rates and a vast extension of credit and debt. These factors will turn into their opposite. A new crisis is being prepared on a world scale. Thus, globalisation reveals itself as a global crisis of capitalism.
Is there no alternative?
Bourgeois economists are so blinkered and narrow minded that they cling to the outmoded capitalist system even when they are forced to admit that it is terminally diseased and condemned to collapse. To imagine that the human race is incapable of discovering a viable alternative to this rotten, corrupt and degenerate system is frankly an affront to humanity.
Is it really true that there is no alternative to capitalism? No, it is not true. The alternative is a system based on production for the needs of the many and not the profit of the few; a system that replaces chaos and anarchy with harmonious planning; that replaces the rule of a minority of wealthy parasites with the rule of the majority who produce all the wealth of society. The name of this alternative is socialism.
One may quibble over words, but the name of this system is socialism – not the bureaucratic and totalitarian caricature that existed in Stalinist Russia, but a genuine democracy based on the ownership, control and management of the productive forces by the working class. Is this idea really so very difficult to understand? Is it really utopian to suggest that the human race can take hold of its own fate and run society on the basis of a democratic plan of production?
The need for a socialist planned economy is not an invention of Marx or any other thinker. It flows from objective necessity. The possibility of world socialism flows from the present conditions of capitalism itself. All that is necessary is for the working class, which constitutes the overwhelming majority of society, to take over the running of society, expropriate the banks and giant monopolies and mobilise the vast unused productive potential to solve the problems of society.
Marx wrote: “No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed.” (K. Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.) The objective conditions for the creation of a new and higher form of human society have already been established by the development of capitalism. For the last 200 years the development of industry, agriculture, science and technology has acquired a speed and intensity without historical precedent:
The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. (K. Marx and F. Engels, The Communist Manifesto.)
How true are these words of Marx and how applicable to our time! The solutions to the problems we face are already in existence. Over the last 200 years capitalism has built up a colossal productive power. But it is unable to utilise this potential to the full. The present crisis is only a manifestation of the fact that industry, science and technology have grown to the point where they cannot be contained within the narrow confines of private ownership and the nation state.
The development of the productive forces, especially since the Second World War, has been unprecedented in history: nuclear energy, microelectronics, telecommunications, computers, industrial robots have meant a dramatic increase in productivity at work, to a level much higher than could have been imagined in Marx’s time. This gives us a very clear idea of what would be possible in a future society based on a socialist planned economy on a global scale. The present crisis is merely a manifestation of the revolt of the productive forces against these suffocating limitations. Once industry, agriculture, science and technology are freed from the suffocating restraints of capitalism, the productive forces would be capable of immediately satisfying all human wants without any difficulty. For the first time in history, humanity would be free to realise its full potential. A general reduction in working hours would provide the material basis for a genuine cultural revolution. Culture, art, music, literature and science would soar to unimaginable heights.
The only road
Twenty years ago Francis Fukuyama spoke of the end of history. But history has not ended. In fact, the real history of our species will only begin when we have put an end to the slavery of class society and begun to establish control over our lives and destinies. This is what socialism really is: humanity’s leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom.
In the second decade of the 21st century, the human race stands at the crossroads. On the one hand, the achievements of modern science and technology have provided us with the means of solving all the problems that have plagued us for all of history. We can eradicate diseases, abolish illiteracy and homelessness and make deserts bloom.
On the other hand, reality seems to mock these dreams. The discoveries of science are used to produce ever more monstrous weapons of mass destruction. Everywhere there is poverty, hunger, illiteracy and disease. There is human suffering on a massive scale. Obscene riches flourish side by side with misery. We can put a man on the moon, but every year eight million people die simply because they do not have enough money to live. 100 million children are born, live and die on the streets, and they do not know what it is like to have a roof over their head.
The most striking aspect of the present situation is the chaos and turbulence that has gripped the entire planet. There is instability at all levels: economic, social, political, diplomatic and military.
Most people turn away from these barbarities in disgust. It seems that the world has suddenly gone mad. However, such a response is useless and counterproductive. Marxism teaches us that history is not meaningless. The present situation is not an expression of the madness or the inherent wickedness of men and women. The great philosopher Spinoza once said: “neither weep nor laugh, but understand!” That is very sound advice, for if we are not able to understand the world we live in, we will never be able to change it.
When Marx and Engels wrote the Manifesto, they were two young men, 29 and 27 years old respectively. They were writing in a period of black reaction. The working class was apparently immobile. The Manifesto itself was written in Brussels, where its authors had been forced to flee as political refugees. And yet at the very moment when the Communist Manifesto first saw the light of day in February 1848, revolution had already erupted onto the streets of Paris, and over the following months had spread like wildfire through virtually the whole of Europe.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the defenders of the old order were jubilant. They spoke of the end of socialism, and even the end of history. They promised us a new era of peace, prosperity and democracy, thanks to the miracles of the free market economy. Now, only fifteen years later, those dreams are reduced to a heap of smoking rubble. Not one stone upon another remains of these illusions
What is the meaning of all of this? We are witnessing the painful death agonies of a social system that does not deserve to live, but which refuses to die. That is the real explanation of the wars, terrorism, violence and death that are the main features of the epoch in which we live.
But we are also witnessing the birth-pangs of a new society – a new and just society, a world fit for men and women to live in. Out of these bloody events, in one country after another, a new force is being born – the revolutionary force of the workers, peasants, and youth. At the UN, President Chavez of Venezuela warned that “the world is waking up. And people are standing up”.
These words express a profound truth. Millions of people are beginning to react. The massive demonstrations against the Iraq war brought millions onto the streets. That was an indication of the beginnings of an awakening. But the movement lacked a coherent programme to change society. That was its great weakness.
The cynics and sceptics have had their day. It is time to push them out of our way and carry the fight forward. The new generation is willing to fight for its emancipation. They are looking for a banner, an idea and a programme that can inspire them and lead them to victory. That can only be the struggle for socialism on a world scale. Karl Marx was right: The choice before the human race is socialism or barbarism.
1 This article was originally published in 2013 on marxist.com.
The Three Sources & Three Component Parts of Marxism
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin
Throughout the civilised world the teachings of Marx evoke the utmost hostility and hatred of all bourgeois science (both official and liberal), which regards Marxism as a kind of ‘pernicious sect’. And no other attitude is to be expected, for there can be no ‘impartial’ social science in a society based on class struggle. In one way or another, all official and liberal science defends wage-slavery, whereas Marxism has declared relentless war on that slavery. To expect science to be impartial in a wage-slave society is as foolishly naïve as to expect impartiality from manufacturers on the question of whether workers’ wages ought not to be increased by decreasing the profits of capital.
But this is not all. The history of philosophy and the history of social science show with perfect clarity that there is nothing resembling ‘sectarianism’ in Marxism, in the sense of its being a hidebound, petrified doctrine, a doctrine which arose away from the high road of the development of world civilisation. On the contrary, the genius of Marx consists precisely in his having furnished answers to questions already raised by the foremost minds of mankind. His doctrine emerged as the direct and immediate continuation of the teachings of the greatest representatives of philosophy, political economy and socialism.
The Marxist doctrine is omnipotent because it is true. It is comprehensive and harmonious, and provides men with an integral world outlook irreconcilable with any form of superstition, reaction, or defence of bourgeois oppression. It is the legitimate successor to the best that man produced in the nineteenth century, as represented by German philosophy, English political economy and French socialism.
It is these three sources of Marxism, which are also its component parts, that we shall outline in brief.
The philosophy of Marxism is materialism. Throughout the modern history of Europe, and especially at the end of the eighteenth century in France, where a resolute struggle was conducted against every kind of medieval rubbish, against serfdom in institutions and ideas, materialism has proved to be the only philosophy that is consistent, true to all the teachings of natural science and hostile to superstition, cant and so forth. The enemies of democracy have, therefore, always exerted all their efforts to ‘refute’, undermine and defame materialism, and have advocated various forms of philosophical idealism, which always, in one way or another, amounts to the defence or support of religion.
Marx and Engels defended philosophical materialism in the most determined manner and repeatedly explained how profoundly erroneous every deviation from this basis is. Their views are most clearly and fully expounded in the works of Engels: Ludwig Feuerbach and Anti-Dühring, which, like the Communist Manifesto, are handbooks for every class-conscious worker.
But Marx did not stop at eighteenth-century materialism; he developed philosophy to a higher level, he enriched it with the achievements of German classical philosophy, especially of Hegel’s system, which in its turn had led to the materialism of Feuerbach. The main achievement was dialectics, i.e., the doctrine of development in its fullest, deepest and most comprehensive form, the doctrine of the relativity of the human knowledge that provides us with a reflection of eternally developing matter. The latest discoveries of natural science – radium, electrons, the transmutation of elements – have been a remarkable confirmation of Marx’s dialectical materialism, despite the teachings of the bourgeois philosophers with their ‘new’ reversions to old and decadent idealism.
Marx deepened and developed philosophical materialism to the full and extended the cognition of nature to include the cognition of human society. His historical materialism was a great achievement in scientific thinking. The chaos and arbitrariness that had previously reigned in views on history and politics were replaced by a strikingly integral and harmonious scientific theory, which shows how, in consequence of the growth of productive forces, out of one system of social life another and higher system develops – how capitalism, for instance, grows out of feudalism.
Just as man’s knowledge reflects nature (i.e., developing matter), which exists independently of him, so man’s social knowledge (i.e., his various views and doctrines – philosophical, religious, political and so forth) reflects the economic system of society. Political institutions are a superstructure on the economic foundation. We see, for example, that the various political forms of the modern European states serve to strengthen the domination of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat.
Marx’s philosophy is a consummate philosophical materialism which has provided mankind, and especially the working class, with powerful instruments of knowledge.
Having recognised that the economic system is the foundation on which the political superstructure is erected, Marx devoted his greatest attention to the study of this economic system. Marx’s principal work, Capital, is devoted to a study of the economic system of modern, i.e., capitalist, society.
Classical political economy, before Marx, evolved in England, the most developed of the capitalist countries. Adam Smith and David Ricardo, by their investigations of the economic system, laid the foundations of the labour theory of value. Marx continued their work; he provided a proof of the theory and developed it consistently. He showed that the value of every commodity is determined by the quantity of socially necessary labour time spent on its production.
Where the bourgeois economists saw a relation between things (the exchange of one commodity for another) Marx revealed a relation between people. The exchange of commodities expresses the connection between individual producers through the market. Money signifies that the connection is becoming closer and closer, inseparably uniting the entire economic life of the individual producers into one whole. Capital signifies a further development of this connection: man’s labour power becomes a commodity. The wage-worker sells his labour power to the owner of land, factories and instruments of labour. The worker spends one part of the day covering the cost of maintaining himself and his family (wages), while the other part of the day he works without remuneration, creating for the capitalist surplus value, the source of profit, the source of the wealth of the capitalist class.
The doctrine of surplus value is the corner-stone of Marx’s economic theory.
Capital, created by the labour of the worker, crushes the worker, ruining small proprietors and creating an army of unemployed. In industry, the victory of large-scale production is immediately apparent, but the same phenomenon is also to be observed in agriculture, where the superiority of large-scale capitalist agriculture is enhanced, the use of machinery increases and the peasant economy, trapped by money-capital, declines and falls into ruin under the burden of its backward technique. The decline of small-scale production assumes different forms in agriculture, but the decline itself is an indisputable fact.
By destroying small-scale production, capital leads to an increase in productivity of labour and to the creation of a monopoly position for the associations of big capitalists. Production itself becomes more and more social – hundreds of thousands and millions of workers become bound together in a regular economic organism – but the product of this collective labour is appropriated by a handful of capitalists. Anarchy of production, crises, the furious chase after markets and the insecurity of existence of the mass of the population are intensified.
By increasing the dependence of the workers on capital, the capitalist system creates the great power of united labour.
Marx traced the development of capitalism from embryonic commodity economy, from simple exchange, to its highest forms, to large-scale production.
And the experience of all capitalist countries, old and new, year by year demonstrates clearly the truth of this Marxist doctrine to increasing numbers of workers.
Capitalism has triumphed all over the world, but this triumph is only the prelude to the triumph of labour over capital.
When feudalism was overthrown and ‘free’ capitalist society appeared in the world, it at once became apparent that this freedom meant a new system of oppression and exploitation of the working people. Various socialist doctrines immediately emerged as a reflection of and protest against this oppression. Early socialism, however, was utopian socialism. It criticised capitalist society, it condemned and damned it, it dreamed of its destruction, it had visions of a better order and endeavoured to convince the rich of the immorality of exploitation.
But utopian socialism could not indicate the real solution. It could not explain the real nature of wage slavery under capitalism, it could not reveal the laws of capitalist development, or show what social force is capable of becoming the creator of a new society.
Meanwhile, the stormy revolutions which everywhere in Europe, and especially in France, accompanied the fall of feudalism, of serfdom, more and more clearly revealed the struggle of classes as the basis and the driving force of all development.
Not a single victory of political freedom over the feudal class was won except against desperate resistance. Not a single capitalist country evolved on a more or less free and democratic basis except by a life-and-death struggle between the various classes of capitalist society.
The genius of Marx lies in his having been the first to deduce from this the lesson world history teaches and to apply that lesson consistently. The deduction he made is the doctrine of the class struggle.
People always have been the foolish victims of deception and self-deception in politics, and they always will be until they have learnt to seek out the interests of some class or other behind all moral, religious, political and social phrases, declarations and promises. Champions of reforms and improvements will always be fooled by the defenders of the old order until they realise that every old institution, however barbarous and rotten it may appear to be, is kept going by the forces of certain ruling classes. And there is only one way of smashing the resistance of those classes, and that is to find, in the very society which surrounds us, the forces which can – and, owing to their social position, must – constitute the power capable of sweeping away the old and creating the new, and to enlighten and organise those forces for the struggle.
Marx’s philosophical materialism alone has shown the proletariat the way out of the spiritual slavery in which all oppressed classes have hitherto languished. Marx’s economic theory alone has explained the true position of the proletariat in the general system of capitalism.
Independent organisations of the proletariat are multiplying all over the world, from America to Japan and from Sweden to South Africa. The proletariat is becoming enlightened and educated by waging its class struggle; it is ridding itself of the prejudices of bourgeois society; it is rallying its ranks ever more closely and is learning to gauge the measure of its successes; it is steeling its forces and is growing irresistibly.
1This article was originally published in 1913 in Prosveshcheniye (Enlightenment) No. 3, dedicated to the Thirtieth Anniversary of Marx’s death.
Marx’s Revolution in Philosophy
Reflections on the Theses on Feuerbach
The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth – i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question. (K. Marx, Theses on Feuerbach.)
The problem of knowledge has occupied a central place in philosophy for centuries, but this so-called problem only arises when human knowledge is regarded:
a) As something separate from a physical body, and
b) As something separate from the material world.
What we have here is a one-sided view of consciousness, which is presented as a barrier that is supposed to shut us off from the ‘external’ world. In fact, we are part of this world, not separate from it, and consciousness does not separate us but connects us to it. The relationship of humans to the physical world from the very beginning was not contemplative but active.
We do not only think with our brain, but with our whole body. Thinking must be seen, not as an isolated activity (‘the ghost in the machine’) but as part of the whole human experience, of human sensuous activity and interaction with the world and with other people. It must be seen as part of this complex process of permanent interaction, not as an isolated activity that is mechanically juxtaposed to it.
Materialism rejects the notion that mind, consciousness, soul etc. is something separate from matter. Thought is merely the mode of existence of the brain, which, like life itself, is only matter organised in a certain way. Mind is what we call the sum total of the activity of the brain and the nervous system. But, dialectically, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
This materialist view corresponds closely to the conclusions of science, which is gradually uncovering the workings of the brain and revealing its secrets. By contrast, the idealists persist in presenting consciousness as a ‘mystery’, something that we cannot comprehend. At this point our old friend the Soul re-emerges triumphantly accompanied by the Holy of Holies, angels, the Devil and all the rest of the mystical paraphernalia that science ought to have consigned to a museum long ago.
Descartes and dualism
Hiding behind the respectable façade of philosophical idealism is religion and superstition. Idealism is always, at bottom, religion. The Immaculate and Eternal Soul was supposed to be locked up inside the grubby, imperfect and short-lived material body, longing for release at the moment of death, when we ‘give up the ghost’ and float up to Paradise (if we are lucky).
In this way, matter was thought of as a second-class citizen, a scruffy peasant, destined to give way before His Majesty the Immortal Soul. This idea is as at least as old as Plato and Pythagoras, who saw the physical world as a poor imitation of the perfect Idea (Form), which existed before the world was thought of.
The idea that the soul existed independently of the body was carried into modern times by the famous French philosopher Descartes (1596-1650). He confused the issue then and it has been confused ever since. He introduced the notion of dualism, which says that thought (consciousnesses) is something separate from matter. Here, mind is regarded as something that is present inside the body but is quite different to it. The insurmountable difficulty with dualism is this: if the mind is entirely different to the physical body, how can they interact?
The mistake is to treat consciousness as a ‘thing’, an independent entity, separate and apart from human sensuous activity. Modern science has forever banished the notion of consciousness as an independent ‘thing’. We now know what Descartes did not know about the workings of nature, the world of molecules, atoms and sub-atomic particles, of the electric impulses that govern the workings of the brain. In place of a mysterious soul, we are beginning to acquire a scientific understanding of how the human body and brain function.
The action of nerve cells is both electrical and chemical. At the ends of each nerve cell there are specialised regions, the synaptic terminals, which contain large numbers of tiny membranous sacs that hold neurotransmitter chemicals. These chemicals transmit nerve impulses from one nerve cell to another. After an electrical nerve impulse has travelled along a neuron, it reaches the terminal and stimulates the release of neurotransmitters from their sacs.
The neurotransmitters travel across the synapse (the junction between the neighbouring neurons) and stimulate the production of an electrical charge, which carries the nerve impulse forward. This process is repeated over and over again until a muscle is moved or relaxed, or a sensory impression is noted by the brain. These electrochemical events can be considered the ‘language’ of the nervous system, by which information is transmitted from one part of the body to another. This scientific explanation immediately does away with the mystical-idealist view of thought and consciousness as something mysterious and inexplicable, something divorced from the normal workings of nature and other bodily functions.
Hand and brain
The idealist view of consciousness and language is at odds with the facts of human evolution. It is abstract and arbitrary. It is also unhistorical. The relationship of early humans (and proto-humans) to the physical environment was determined by the need to find food and escape from the attentions of predators. The erect stance (brought about by the changes of the environment through climate change) freed the hands, which could then be used for manual labour.
Consciousness arises from the evolution of the brain and the central nervous system. This evolution is in turn intimately related to human practical activity, that is, work. Humans transform their environment through physical labour, and in doing so, also transform themselves. This process has taken place over millions of years, and has its roots in earlier stages of evolution, in particular, the transition from invertebrates to vertebrates, which leads to the development of a central nervous system and eventually a brain.
The connection between hand and brain is well documented. Increased manual dexterity and the development of a multiplicity of manual activities led to a rapid growth of the brain and increased capacity for thinking. As a matter of fact, there is a dialectical relationship between the large size of the brain, the erect posture and the development of the hand for specific operations. What a marvellous production of evolution is the human hand! The opposition of the thumb to the rest of the hand is the first adaptation that permits gripping and manipulation. This is the prior condition for all subsequent development.
The apes used their hands to swing in the trees. They also used them for grasping sticks and in some cases even as primitive tools for quite sophisticated operations like digging for termites. Once our distant ancestors adopted the upright stance, the hands were free to experiment with many other operations. With constant practice, the hands became ever more skilled and able to perform finer and more complex operations, particularly the manipulation of natural objects as tools.
It was the hand that developed the brain, not vice versa. This can be seen also in lower animals. They also do not contemplate the world – they eat it. In the same way a human baby ‘knows’ the world by putting it in its mouth. Likewise, language is not a ‘tool’, like a hammer or a shovel that is manufactured and manipulated at will. In fact, language evolves together with consciousness, as a product of social intercourse and collective production. It is not ‘made’ but arises spontaneously from collective human activity and social life over a long period of time.
The regular use of tools and collective labour must have necessitated some kind of language, triggering off a whole series of interdependent factors. All bodily and mental functions are closely connected. Dialectically, cause becomes effect and effect becomes cause. The human hand is closely linked to the eye and the brain, and the co-ordination needed to create even the most rudimentary stone tool is considerable. All humans make and use tools and the correlation of hand, eye and brain required for tool making is what drove the development of the brain over millions of years.
Use of tools appears to have pre-dated major growth of the brain in mankind and is associated with fossil men of the Australopithecus type. (H.J. Fleure and M. Davies, A Natural History of Man in Britain, p. 47.)
The conscious manufacture of elementary stone tools was clearly the driving force of the formation of elementary concepts and therefore the development of thinking. This undoubtedly had an effect on the inner structure of the brain, which was manifested in a growth in brain size. These transformations, taken in their totality, represented the qualitative leap that separated humanity from all other forms of living matter. Our species was therefore not fashioned by God as a special act of creation, but was the product of evolution, in which the decisive element was manual labour. Thus, as Engels explained over a hundred years ago, it was not the brain that developed our humanity, but the hand that developed the brain.
Marx’s philosophical revolution
In his third thesis on Feuerbach, Marx wrote:
The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of changed circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated. Hence this doctrine is bound to divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change [Selbstveränderung] can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.
In these few concentrated sentences is contained a philosophical revolution. The great German philosopher Hegel came close to discovering the truth but, despite his colossal genius, he failed to make the decisive leap from theory to practice, blinded as he was by his idealist preconceptions. In Hegel, the dialectic remained obscured, its profound truths hidden in a mass of abstract and abstruse reasoning. It required the genius of a Marx to discover the rational kernel that lay hidden in the pages of Hegel’s Logic and apply it to the real, material world.
With Marx, philosophy finally emerges out of the dark, airless cellar to which it was confined for centuries by scholastic thought and dragged out, blinking, into the light of day. Here at last thought is united with activity – not the one-sided purely intellectual activity of the scholar but real, sensuous human activity. The great German poet Goethe, answering the biblical assertion “in the beginning was the Word,” wrote: “In the beginning was the Deed.”
But real human activity (labour) is not the activity of isolated atoms. It is necessarily collective in essence. It is the combination of the individual efforts, strivings and creativity of men and women that gives rise to all the wonders of civilisation. It is the concrete realisation of what old Hegel called the unity of the Particular and the Universal. Yet this necessary unity has been stubbornly denied. The thoughts and actions of humankind are presented, not as a collective activity, but as the work of isolated individuals.
This false idea is at once a reflection of bourgeois prejudice and an attempt to justify the structures, morals and values of bourgeois society, a society in which the Ego (the ‘individual’) is said to rule supreme. In reality, the individuality of the great majority is crushed and enslaved to the individuality of a tiny handful that own and control the means of production and thus the key to life itself. And to tell the whole truth, even this minority is subject to forces that they do not control.
Alienation and bourgeois society
The late unlamented Margaret Thatcher once remarked famously: “there is no such thing as society”. But when Aristotle said Man is a political animal, he meant: Man is a social animal. The key to all human development (including thought and speech) is social activity, and this has its roots in collective labour. Hegel said that the richness of a person’s character is the richness of their connections. A person who is marooned on a desert island or held for many years in solitary confinement would find their ability to think and communicate gravely impaired.
Capitalism tends to isolate, atomise and alienate people, who are taught to see themselves as ‘individuals’, that is, as isolated atoms. This reflects the social reality of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie, who are constantly competing against each other. This finds its reflection in politics, religion and philosophy. The bourgeoisie wages its first great battles against feudalism in the wars of religion of the 16th and 17th centuries when the Protestants claimed the right of every individual to worship God in his own way.
Bourgeois individualism was a progressive force in the period of capitalist ascent, when the bourgeoisie was still capable of developing the productive forces and pushing forward the horizons of human civilisation and culture. But that has receded into the mists of history. In the epoch of capitalist decay, individualism has become mere egotism, selfishness and inhumanity. It breeds indifference towards the sufferings of others and foments barbaric attitudes and behaviour that threaten to undermine the very basis of culture and civilisation.
We all like to think that we are ‘free’ to do what we like, but this is not the case. As the German philosopher Leibniz once observed, if a magnetic needle could think, it would doubtless imagine that it pointed north from its own free will. In the 19th century Darwin fought to show that human beings were not the special creation of the Almighty but had evolved from the animal world. In the 20th century, Freud demonstrated that many of our actions are unconscious and that ‘free will’ is really an illusion.
At every stage, however, men and women have tried to deny these facts and sought to assert a special, privileged status for human beings in the great order of things. The very notion that we are not free agents, and that our actions are determined by forces we cannot understand and control is profoundly repugnant to us. Yet, as Hegel explained, true freedom is not the denial of necessity but the understanding of necessity.
Consciousness is determined by the physical environment. If Albert Einstein had been born in a peasant’s hut in some Indian village, his native intelligence might have made him an expert in planting rice, but does anyone believe that he would have discovered the theory of relativity? Trotsky once asked: “How many Aristotles are herding swine, and how many swineherds are sitting on thrones?”
The whole outlook of the bourgeois is egotistical, but with the working class, things are very different. Marx explains that without organisation the working class is only raw material for exploitation. The workers are obliged to co-operate in collective labour, on the production line, where the mode of production is social, not individual. A peasant can say: I grew that cabbage, but no worker in Ford can say: I made that car.
The consciousness of the worker is therefore naturally collective. The weapons of working-class struggle are collective in character: the strike, the general strike, the mass meeting and mass demonstrations. Individualism is the hallmark of a strike-breaker who places his own egotistical interests above those of his workmates. That is why the capitalist press always praises the ‘courage’ of the scab, who is allegedly standing up for ‘the freedom of the individual’.
Men and women make their own history by fighting to change and mould the circumstances that surround them. However, in changing social conditions, we also change ourselves. The idea that there is an eternal and fixed thing called ‘human nature’ is a deeply ingrained prejudice but has no basis in fact. So-called human nature has been transformed many times in history. It is still changing and will change even more in the future.
We live in an alienated, irrational world, which people cannot understand. In such a world, rational thought is unfashionable. In such a world it is better not to think at all. The emptiness of modern bourgeois philosophy reflects this idea perfectly, as in the vacuous platitudes of Postmodernism. Men and women feel that they have lost control of their lives, that they are being displaced by strange and incomprehensible forces that are beyond their control. Human life is stripped of all its value and humanity and plunged into savagery and violence that destroys the foundation of a civilised and rational existence. “Reason becomes Unreason”, as Hegel put it.
The alienation that is an all-pervasive feature of life in modern bourgeois society is even expressed in popular culture. How can one explain this strange modern fascination with robots, which are frequently portrayed as escaping from human control and taking over the world, as in the Terminator movies? Such works of science fiction tell us little or nothing about the nature of consciousness, whether in humans or robots, but rather speaks volumes about the alienated world that humans inhabit in the first decade of the 21st century.
In the nightmare world of Terminator, ‘things’ (machines, robots) have taken over the world and are enslaving people. But this nightmare is already a reality. In our times, people are reduced to the level of things and things (especially money) are elevated above the level of people. In ancient times pagan priests sacrificed babies to Moloch. Today millions of babies are sacrificed every year at the altar of Capital.
The only way to abolish this sense of alienation is to abolish its material base. The only way to abolish irrational thought is to abolish the irrational relations between human beings in capitalist society. The only way to eliminate the feeling that we have lost control of our lives and destinies is to overthrow the contradictory relations of production and establish a rational planned economy, where all the decisions are taken democratically by free men and women.
In a rational society, that is to say, a socialist planned society, the domination of people by things will be replaced by the administration of things by free men and women. Instead of being slaves to the machines, the latter will be our obedient slaves. Under capitalism, every advance of technology only serves to lengthen the working day and increase the servitude of the workers. Under socialism, instead of toiling longer to produce ever greater amounts of surplus value, people will work less and live life more.
The stunning advances of science and technology over the past century have placed in our hands all that is necessary to transform the planet. What science has revealed about the workings of the universe is far more fascinating, exciting and beautiful than all the supposed ‘revealed truths’ of religion. By revolutionising its conditions of life, humanity will prepare the way for transforming itself, putting an end to the prehistory of our species, so that human beings will live, act and think as humans, not animals, as free men and women, not slaves.
This brings us back to Marx’s third thesis on Feuerbach where he wrote:
The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of changed circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated. Hence this doctrine is bound to divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change [Selbstveränderung] can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.
This means simply: To revolutionise thought it is necessary to revolutionise society.
Ninety Years of the Communist Manifesto
It is hard to believe that the centennial of the Manifesto of the Communist Party is only ten years away! This pamphlet, displaying greater genius than any other in world literature, astounds us even today by its freshness. Its most important sections appear to have been written yesterday. Assuredly, the young authors (Marx was twenty-nine, Engels twenty-seven) were able to look further into the future than anyone before them, and perhaps than anyone since them.
As early as their joint preface to the edition of 1872, Marx and Engels declared that despite the fact that certain secondary passages in the Manifesto were antiquated, they felt that they no longer had any right to alter the original text inasmuch as the Manifesto had already become a historical document, during the intervening period of twenty-five years. Sixty-five additional years have elapsed since that time. Isolated passages in the Manifesto have receded still further into the past. We shall try to establish succinctly in this preface both those ideas in the Manifesto which retain their full force today and those which require important alteration or amplification.
The materialist conception of history, discovered by Marx only a short while before and applied with consummate skill in the Manifesto, has completely withstood the test of events and the blows of hostile criticism. It constitutes today one of the most precious instruments of human thought. All other interpretations of the historical process have lost all scientific meaning. We can state with certainty that it is impossible in our time to be, not only a revolutionary militant, but even a literate observer in politics without assimilating the materialist interpretation of history.
The first chapter of the Manifesto opens with the following words: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” This postulate, the most important conclusion drawn from the materialist interpretation of history, immediately became an issue in the class struggle. Especially venomous attacks were directed by reactionary hypocrites, liberal doctrinaires and idealistic democrats against the theory which substituted the struggle of material interests for ‘common welfare’, ‘national unity’, and ‘eternal moral truths’ as the driving force of history. They were later joined by recruits from the ranks of the labour movement itself, by the so-called revisionists, i.e., the proponents of reviewing (‘revising’) Marxism in the spirit of class collaboration and class conciliation. Finally, in our own time, the same path has been followed in practice by the contemptible epigones of the Communist International (the Stalinists): the policy of the so-called People’s Front flows wholly from the denial of the laws of the class struggle. Meanwhile, it is precisely the epoch of imperialism, bringing all social contradictions to the point of highest tension, which gives to the Communist Manifesto its supreme theoretical triumph.
The anatomy of capitalism, as a specific stage in the economic development of society, was given by Marx in its finished form in Capital (1867). But even in the Communist Manifesto the main lines of the future analysis are firmly sketched: the payment for labour power as equivalent to the cost of its reproduction; the appropriation of surplus value by the capitalists; competition as the basic law of social relations; the ruination of intermediate classes, i.e., the urban petty bourgeoisie and the peasantry; the concentration of wealth in the hands of an ever-diminishing number of property owners, at the one pole, and the numerical growth of the proletariat, at the other; the preparation of the material and political preconditions for the socialist regime.
The proposition in the Manifesto concerning the tendency of capitalism to lower the living standards of the workers, and even to transform them into paupers, had been subjected to a heavy barrage. Parsons, professors, ministers, journalists, Social Democratic theoreticians, and trade union leaders came to the front against the so-called ‘theory of impoverishment’. They invariably discovered signs of growing prosperity among the toilers, palming off the labour aristocracy as the proletariat, or taking a fleeting tendency as permanent. Meanwhile, even the development of the mightiest capitalism in the world, namely, U.S. capitalism, has transformed millions of workers into paupers who are maintained at the expense of federal, municipal, or private charity.
As against the Manifesto, which depicted commercial and industrial crises as a series of ever more extensive catastrophes, the revisionists vowed that the national and international development of trusts would assure control over the market, and lead gradually to the abolition of crises. The close of the last century and the beginning of the present one were in reality marked by a development of capitalism so tempestuous as to make crises seem only ‘accidental’ stoppages. But this epoch has gone beyond return. In the last analysis, truth proved to be on Marx’s side in this question as well.
“The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” This succinct formula, which the leaders of the Social Democracy looked upon as a journalistic paradox, contains in fact the only scientific theory of the state. The democracy fashioned by the bourgeoisie is not, as both Bernstein and Kautsky thought, an empty sack which one can undisturbedly fill with any kind of class content. Bourgeois democracy can serve only the bourgeoisie. A government of the ‘People’s Front’, whether headed by Blum or Chautemps, Caballero or Negrín, is only “a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” Whenever this “committee” manages affairs poorly, the bourgeoisie dismisses it with a boot.
“Every class struggle is a political struggle.” “The organisation of the proletariat as a class is consequently its organisation into a political party.” Trade unionists, on the one hand, and anarcho-syndicalists, on the other, have long shied away – and even now try to shy away – from the understanding of these historical laws. ‘Pure’ trade unionism has now been dealt a crushing blow in its chief refuge, the United States. Anarcho-syndicalism has suffered an irreparable defeat in its last stronghold – Spain. Here too the Manifesto proved correct.
The proletariat cannot conquer power within the legal framework established by the bourgeoisie. “Communists openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.” Reformism sought to explain this postulate of the Manifesto on the grounds of the immaturity of the movement at that time and the inadequate development of democracy. The fate of Italian, German, and a great number of other ‘democracies’ proves that ‘immaturity’ is the distinguishing trait of the ideas of the reformists themselves.
For the socialist transformation of society, the working class must concentrate in its hands such power as can smash each and every political obstacle barring the road to the new system. “The proletariat organised as the ruling class” – this is the dictatorship. At the same time, it is the only true proletarian democracy. Its scope and depth depend upon concrete historical conditions. The greater the number of states that take the path of the socialist revolution, the freer and more flexible forms will the dictatorship assume, the broader and more deep going will be workers’ democracy.
The international development of capitalism has pre-determined the international character of the proletarian revolution. “United action, of the leading civilised countries at least, is one of the first conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat.” The subsequent development of capitalism has so closely knit all sections of our planet, both ‘civilised’ and ‘uncivilised’, that the problem of the socialist revolution has completely and decisively assumed a world character. The Soviet bureaucracy attempted to liquidate the Manifesto with respect to this fundamental question. The Bonapartist degeneration of the Soviet state is an overwhelming illustration of the falseness of the theory of socialism in one country.
“When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character.” In other words: the state withers away. Society remains, freed from the straitjacket. This is nothing else but socialism. The converse theorem: the monstrous growth of state coercion in the USSR is eloquent testimony that society is moving away from socialism.
“The workingmen have no fatherland.” These words of the Manifesto have more than once been evaluated by Philistines as an agitational quip. As a matter of fact, they provided the proletariat with the sole conceivable directive in the question of the capitalist ‘fatherland’. The violation of this directive by the Second International brought about not only four years of devastation in Europe, but the present stagnation of world culture. In view of the impending new war, for which the betrayal of the Third International has paved the way, the Manifesto remains even now the most reliable counsellor on the question of the capitalist ‘fatherland’.
Thus, we see that the joint and rather brief production of two young authors continues to give irreplaceable directives upon the most important and burning questions of the struggle for emancipation. What other book could even distantly be compared with the Communist Manifesto? But this does not imply that after ninety years of unprecedented development of productive forces and vast social struggles, the Manifesto needs neither corrections nor additions. Revolutionary thought has nothing in common with idol-worship. Programmes and prognoses are tested and corrected in the light of experience, which is the supreme criterion of human reason. The Manifesto, too, requires corrections and additions. However, as is evidenced by historical experience itself, these corrections and additions can be successfully made only by proceeding in accord with the method lodged in the foundation of the Manifesto itself. We shall try to indicate this in several most important instances.
Marx taught that no social system departs from the arena of history before exhausting its creative potentialities. The Manifesto excoriates capitalism for retarding the development of the productive forces. During that period, however, as well as in the following decades, this retardation was only relative in nature. Had it been possible in the second half of the nineteenth century to organise the economy on socialist beginnings, its tempo of growth would have been immeasurably greater. But this theoretically irrefutable postulate does not invalidate the fact that the productive forces kept expanding on a world scale right up to the World War. Only in the last twenty years, despite the most modern conquests of science and technology, has the epoch of out-and-out stagnation and even decline of world economy begun. Mankind is beginning to expend its accumulated capital, while the next war threatens to destroy the very foundations of civilisation for many years to come. The authors of the Manifesto thought that capitalism would be scrapped long before the time when from a relatively reactionary regime it would turn into an absolutely reactionary regime. This transformation took final shape only before the eyes of the present generation, and changed our epoch into the epoch of wars, revolutions, and fascism.
The error of Marx and Engels in regard to the historical dates flowed, on the one hand, from an underestimation of future possibilities latent in capitalism, and, on the other, an overestimation of the revolutionary maturity of the proletariat. The revolution of 1848 did not turn into a socialist revolution as the Manifesto had calculated, but opened up to Germany the possibility of a vast future capitalist ascension. The Paris Commune proved that the proletariat, without having a tempered revolutionary party at its head cannot wrest power from the bourgeoisie. Meanwhile, the prolonged period of capitalist prosperity that ensued brought about not the education of the revolutionary vanguard, but rather the bourgeois degeneration of the labour aristocracy, which became in turn the chief brake on the proletarian revolution. In the nature of things, the authors of the Manifesto could not possibly have foreseen this ‘dialectic’.
For the Manifesto, capitalism was – the kingdom of free competition. While referring to the growing concentration of capital, the Manifesto did not draw the necessary conclusion in regard to monopoly, which has become the dominant capitalist form in our epoch and the most important precondition for socialist economy. Only afterwards, in Capital, did Marx establish the tendency towards the transformation of free competition into monopoly. It was Lenin who gave a scientific characterisation of monopoly capitalism in his Imperialism.
Basing themselves on the example of industrial revolution in England, the authors of the Manifesto pictured far too unilaterally the process of liquidation of the intermediate classes, as a wholesale proletarianisation of crafts, petty trades, and peasantry. In point of fact, the elemental forces of competition have far from completed this simultaneously progressive and barbarous work. Capitalism has ruined the petty bourgeoisie at a much faster rate than it has proletarianised it. Furthermore, the bourgeois state has long directed its conscious policy toward the artificial maintenance of petty-bourgeois strata. At the opposite pole, the growth of technology and the rationalisation of large-scale industry engenders chronic unemployment and obstructs the proletarianisation of the petty bourgeoisie. Concurrently, the development of capitalism has accelerated in the extreme the growth of legions of technicians, administrators, commercial employees, in short, the so-called ‘new middle class’. In consequence, the intermediate classes, to whose disappearance the Manifesto so categorically refers, comprise even in a country as highly industrialised as Germany about half of the population. However, the artificial preservation of antiquated petty-bourgeois strata in no way mitigates the social contradictions, but, on the contrary, invests them with a special malignancy, and together with the permanent army of the unemployed constitutes the most malevolent expression of the decay of capitalism.
Calculated for a revolutionary epoch, the Manifesto contains (end of Chapter II) ten demands, corresponding to the period of direct transition from capitalism to socialism. In their preface of 1872, Marx and Engels declared these demands to be in part antiquated and, in any case, only of secondary importance. The reformists seized upon this evaluation to interpret it in the sense that transitional revolutionary demands had forever ceded their place to the Social Democratic ‘minimum programme’, which, as is well known, does not transcend the limits of bourgeois democracy. As a matter of fact, the authors of the Manifesto indicated quite precisely the main correction of their transitional programme, namely, “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.” In other words, the correction was directed against the fetishism of bourgeois democracy. Marx later counterpoised to the capitalist state, the state of the type of the Commune. This type subsequently assumed the much more graphic shape of soviets. There cannot be a revolutionary programme today without soviets and without workers control. As for the rest, the ten demands of the Manifesto, which appeared ‘archaic’ in an epoch of peaceful parliamentary activity, have today regained completely their true significance. The Social Democratic ‘minimum programme’, on the other hand, has become hopelessly antiquated.
Basing its expectation that “the German bourgeois revolution… will be but a prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution,” the Manifesto cites the much more advanced conditions of European civilisation as compared with what existed in England in the seventeenth century and in France in the eighteenth century, and the far greater development of the proletariat. The error in this prognosis was not only in the date. The revolution of 1848 revealed within a few months that precisely under more advanced conditions, none of the bourgeois classes is capable of bringing the revolution to its termination: the big and middle bourgeoisie is far too closely linked with the landowners and fettered by the fear of the masses; the petty bourgeoisie is far too divided and in its top leadership far too dependent on the big bourgeoisie. As evidenced by the entire subsequent course of development in Europe and Asia, the bourgeois revolution, taken by itself, can no more in general be consummated. A complete purge of feudal rubbish from society is conceivable only on the condition that the proletariat, freed from the influence of bourgeois parties, can take its stand at the head of the peasantry and establish its revolutionary dictatorship. By this token, the bourgeois revolution becomes interlaced with the first stage of the socialist revolution, subsequently to dissolve in the latter. The national revolution therewith becomes a link of the world revolution. The transformation of the economic foundation and of all social relations assumes a permanent (uninterrupted) character.
For revolutionary parties in backward countries of Asia, Latin America, and Africa, a clear understanding of the organic connection between the democratic revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat – and thereby, the international socialist revolution – is a life-and-death question.
While depicting how capitalism draws into its vortex backward and barbarous countries, the Manifesto contains no reference to the struggle of colonial and semi-colonial countries for independence. To the extent that Marx and Engels considered the social revolution “in the leading civilised countries at least”, to be a matter of the next few years, the colonial question was resolved automatically for them, not in consequence of an independent movement of oppressed nationalities but in consequence of the victory of the proletariat in the metropolitan centres of capitalism. The questions of revolutionary strategy in colonial and semi-colonial countries are therefore not touched upon at all by the Manifesto. Yet these questions demand an independent solution. For example, it is quite self-evident that while the ‘national fatherland’ has become the most baneful historical brake in advanced capitalist countries, it still remains a relatively progressive factor in backward countries compelled to struggle for an independent existence.
“The Communists,” declares the Manifesto, “everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things.” The movement of the coloured races against their imperialist oppressors is one of the most important and powerful movements against the existing order and therefore calls for the complete, unconditional, and unlimited support on the part of the proletariat of the white race. The credit for developing revolutionary strategy for oppressed nationalities belongs primarily to Lenin.
The most antiquated section of the Manifesto – with respect not to method but to material – is the criticism of ‘socialist’ literature for the first part of the nineteenth century (Chapter III) and the definition of the position of the Communists in relation to various opposition parties (Chapter IV). The movements and parties listed in the Manifesto were so drastically swept away either by the revolution of 1848 or by the ensuing counter-revolution that one must look up even their names in a historical dictionary. However, in this section, too, the Manifesto is perhaps closer to us now than it was to the previous generation. In the epoch of the flowering of the Second International, when Marxism seemed to exert an undivided sway, the ideas of pre-Marxist socialism could have been considered as having receded decisively into the past. Things are otherwise today. The decomposition of the Social Democracy and the Communist International at every step engenders monstrous ideological relapses. Senile thought seems to have become infantile. In search of all-saving formulas, the prophets in the epoch of decline discover anew doctrines long since buried by scientific socialism.
As touches the question of opposition parties, it is in this domain that the elapsed decades have introduced the most deep going changes, not only in the sense that the old parties have long been brushed aside by new ones, but also in the sense that the very character of parties and their mutual relations have radically changed in the conditions of the imperialist epoch. The Manifesto must therefore be amplified with the most important documents of the first four congresses of the Communist International, the essential literature of Bolshevism, and the decisions of the conferences of the Fourth International.
We have already remarked above that according to Marx no social order departs from the scene without first exhausting the potentialities latent in it. However, even an antiquated social order does not cede its place to a new order without resistance. A change in social regimes presupposes the harshest form of the class struggle, i.e., revolution. If the proletariat, for one reason or another, proves incapable of overthrowing with an audacious blow the outlived bourgeois order, then finance capital in the struggle to maintain its unstable rule can do nothing but turn the petty bourgeoisie, ruined and demoralised by it, into the pogrom army of fascism. The bourgeois degeneration of the Social Democracy and the fascist degeneration of the petty bourgeoisie are interlinked as cause and effect.
At the present time, the Third International, far more wantonly than the Second, performs in all countries the work of deceiving and demoralising the toilers. By massacring the vanguard of the Spanish proletariat, the unbridled hirelings of Moscow not only pave the way for fascism but execute a goodly share of its labours. The protracted crisis of the international revolution, which is turning more and more into a crisis of human culture, is reducible in its essentials to the crisis of revolutionary leadership.
As the heir to the great tradition, of which the Manifesto of the Communist Party forms the most precious link, the Fourth International is educating new cadres for the solution of old tasks. Theory is generalised reality. In an honest attitude to revolutionary theory is expressed the impassioned urge to reconstruct the social reality. That, in the southern part of the Dark Continent, our co-thinkers were the first to translate the Manifesto into the Afrikaans language is another graphic illustration of the fact that Marxist thought lives today only under the banner of the Fourth International. To it belongs the future. When the centennial of the Communist Manifesto is celebrated, the Fourth International will have become the decisive revolutionary force on our planet.
Marx versus Bakunin
For the rest, old Hegel has already said: A party proves itself a victorious party by the fact that it splits and can stand the split. (‘Engels to Bebel’, 20 June, 1873.)
There have been many splits in the history of the Marxist movement. The enemies of Marxism seize upon this fact as proof of an inherent weakness, an intolerant spirit, excessive centralism, bureaucratic and authoritarian tendencies, and so on. In fact, periodic crises and splits are an inevitable consequence of development. Crises are a fact of human existence: birth is a crisis, as is adolescence, old age and death. Weak individuals will allow a crisis to drag them under. Men and women of stronger character will overcome the crisis and emerge stronger and more confident than before.
It is the same with a revolutionary tendency. The movement must constantly strive to rid itself of sectarian and opportunist tendencies, which partly reflect the pressures of alien classes, partly the inability of a layer of the organisation to advance to a higher stage of development. This was the case in the First International, or International Workingmen’s Association (IWA), when Marx and Engels were obliged to wage a ferocious struggle against the followers of the anarchist Bakunin.
The document that we recently published in instalments, Fictitious Splits in the International,1 is a useful reminder of the differences between Marxism and anarchism. We believe it deserves a careful reading for the lessons it has for Marxists today.
Bakunin’s intrigues against the General Council began in 1871, although he was in contact with Marx before that. In 1864 he met Marx in London, from whom he learned of the founding of the International. He promised to cooperate. However, Bakunin held the view that Marx exaggerated the importance of the working class, while he held that the intelligentsia, the students, the lumpenproletariat, and the middle classes – representatives of bourgeois democracy – were more likely agents of revolution.
For this reason, Bakunin began his activity, not in the workers’ movement, but in a bourgeois organisation in Switzerland called The League for Peace and Freedom (Ligue de la Paix et de la Liberté). He was actually elected to its central committee. He thought he could take over the League and use it as a vehicle for advancing his anarchist doctrines. But at the League’s Berne Congress he failed to make any impact, and split away with an insignificant minority.
It was only at this point, having fallen out with and split from the bourgeois League, that he entered the Romande Section of the IWA in Geneva. That was at the end of 1868. Bakunin hit on the idea of forming inside the IWA an anarchist faction with himself as leader. For this purpose, he established the International Alliance of Socialist Democracy. His aim was to get control of the IWA and foist his anarchist ideas upon it.
But he had a serious problem: the IWA was led by the General Council in London, where Marx had considerable influence. In order to achieve his aim, therefore, Bakunin had to undermine the General Council and blacken the name of Marx. This he did with no regards to the democratic rules of the International by factional intrigues and personal attacks. These intrigues, directed ostensibly against the General Council, were in reality directed against the International itself, the ideas, methods and programme of which Bakunin was fundamentally opposed to.
Marxism and anarchism are completely opposed and mutually exclusive ideologies. The first is a scientific theory and a revolutionary policy reflecting the class interests of the proletariat. Anarchism is a confused and unscientific doctrine that finds its class base in the petty bourgeoisie and the lumpenproletariat. This is not the place to deal in detail with the ideas of Bakunin, although we may return to this topic in the future. His programme (insofar as it existed) was a superficial mishmash of ideas taken from Proudhon, Saint-Simon and other utopian socialists. Above all, he preached abstention from the political movement – an idea that he also took from Proudhon.
As far as the rejection of political action and organisation is concerned, Marx wrote:
N.B. as to political movement: the political movement of the working class has as its object, of course, the conquest of political power for the working class, and for this it is naturally necessary that a previous organisation of the working class, itself arising from their economic struggles, should have been developed up to a certain point.
On the other hand, however, every movement in which the working class comes out as a class against the ruling classes and attempts to force them by pressure from without is a political movement. For instance, the attempt in a particular factory or even a particular industry to force a shorter working day out of the capitalists by strikes, etc., is a purely economic movement. On the other hand, the movement to force an eight-hour day, etc., law is a political movement. And in this way, out of the separate economic movements of the workers there grows up everywhere a political movement, that is to say a movement of the class, with the object of achieving its interests in a general form, in a form possessing a general social force of compulsion. If these movements presuppose a certain degree of previous organisation, they are themselves equally a means of the development of this organisation.
Where the working class is not yet far enough advanced in its organisation to undertake a decisive campaign against the collective power, i.e., the political power of the ruling classes, it must at any rate be trained for this by continual agitation against and a hostile attitude towards the policy of the ruling classes. Otherwise it will remain a plaything in their hands, as the September revolution in France showed, and as is also proved up to a certain point by the game Messrs. Gladstone & Co. are bringing off in England even up to the present time. (‘Marx to Bolte’, 23 November, 1871, published in Marx and Engels Correspondence, 1968.)
The confused ideas of Bakunin got a certain echo in Italy and Spain, where capitalism was still in an embryonic state and the workers’ movement still poorly developed, and to some extent in French Switzerland and Belgium. In countries like Britain and Germany it made little progress. In the ranks of the First International the supporters of Bakunin were a small minority. The prevailing influence in the leadership of the International Workingmen’s Association (the General Council, based in London) was that of Marx and Engels.
Anarchism or democracy?
To this very day there are people who repeat the arguments of Bakunin as if they were good coin. In particular, the arguments that Marxism is ‘authoritarian’ and dictatorial, and that a centralised revolutionary organisation crushes the freedom of the individual, stifles all creative thought and prepares the way for totalitarian dictatorship, are frequently repeated by the critics of Marxism, although they were answered long ago by Marx and Engels.
It was Bakunin, not Marx, who engaged in dictatorial Machiavellian politics, intriguing behind the backs of the International in order to discredit its leaders, disorganise it and set up a rival organisation. It was Bakunin, not Marx, who associated with the likes of Sergei Nechayev. Together with the latter he wrote pamphlets on a new social order, to be created “by concentrating all the means of social existence in the hands of Our Committee, and the proclamation of compulsory physical labour for everyone.”
In this anti-authoritarian paradise, there would be compulsory residence in communal dormitories, rules for hours of work, feeding of children, etc., on which Marx commented ironically:
What a beautiful model of barrack-room communism! Here you have it all: communal eating, communal sleeping, assessors and offices regulating education, production, consumption, in a word, all social activity, and to crown all, Our Committee, anonymous and unknown to anyone, as the supreme dictator. This indeed is the purest anti-authoritarianism…
For Bakunin and his followers, the word ‘authoritarian’ just meant anything they didn’t like. But it is an undeniable fact that in certain situations authority is necessary and unavoidable. As Engels says:
A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets, and cannon – authoritarian means, if such there be at all. (F. Engels, On Authority.)
Should the revolutionary party mirror the future society?
Another oft-repeated argument of the anti-authoritarians is that a centralised, disciplined party cannot lead to genuine socialism and must lead to totalitarian dictatorship. How many times have we heard this? How many times have we been told that Stalinism is the inevitable product of Leninist centralism?
Some kind of decision-making structure is necessary at any level of human cooperation or organisation. In any community I must necessarily sacrifice part of my freedom to others. Even in the future classless society, people will still have to make decisions, which will be the decisions of the majority. And under capitalism, the workers must organise collectively to fight to defend their interests. How is this to be done, unless the minority submits to the will of the majority?
It is a regrettable fact that sometimes people do not agree. What are we to do in such circumstances? History has never produced any better instrument for expressing the popular will than democracy. True, even the most perfect democracy has its limitations, but to date nobody has ever proposed anything more perfect. What is the alternative? ‘Consensus’? But that only means the law of the lowest common denominator. Or perhaps the solution is that all decisions must be unanimous? That is the most undemocratic method of all, since the opposition of just one individual can paralyse the will of the majority: in other words, it is the right of veto – the dictatorship of a single individual!
The middle classes are used to individualistic methods and have an individualistic mentality. An assembly of students can debate for hours, days and weeks without ever coming to a conclusion. They have plenty of time and are accustomed to that kind of thing. But a factory mass meeting is an entirely different affair. Before a strike, the workers discuss, debate, listen to different opinions. But at the end of the day, the issue must be decided. It is put to the vote and the majority decides. This is clear and obvious to any worker. And nine times out of ten the minority will voluntarily accept the decision of the majority.
The best example of an anti-authoritarian is a strike breaker, who declares that, no matter what his workmates decide, he or she demands the right to express his or her free individuality – by breaking the strike. We know these arguments in favour of the absolute freedom of the individual, which are proclaimed during every strike by the bourgeois press in defence of the scabs. And we also know how the workers on strike regard the latter and how they see ‘the absolute freedom of the individual.’
In reality, anarchist organisations (surely a contradiction in terms?) always suffer from the most extreme bureaucracy, because someone has to make decisions. Who are they? In practice, decisions are made ‘spontaneously’ by self-appointed groups that are elected by nobody and responsible to nobody – that is to say, government by cliques. That was the method of the Bakuninists in the IWA. Behind the backs of the membership, they organised an intrigue under the slogan of combating the ‘authoritarian’ General Council.
One might add that the same people who were allegedly waging a struggle for democracy and against authoritarianism, were elected by nobody and responsible to nobody. The General Council was the elected leadership of the International. The Bakuninist Alliance was self-appointed and functioned outside the democratic structures of the International. Its members represented only themselves, although their activities were organised and orchestrated by the man referred to as ‘Citizen B’ (Bakunin), who in reality decided everything.
The International Alliance of Socialist Democracy
Bakunin was an unprincipled adventurer who was constantly scheming and intriguing to boost his own position and prestige. For him, theory was always a secondary consideration: merely a means of his personal self-assertion. There have been many such people in the movement both before and since.
Marx wrote to Friedrich Bolte about Bakunin:
He – a man devoid of theoretical knowledge – put forward the pretension that this separate body was to represent the scientific propaganda of the International, which was to be made the special function of this second International within the International.
…If he is a non-entity as a theoretician, he is in his element as an intriguer. (‘Letter to Friedrich Bolte’, 3 November 1871).
The Alliance was characterised by radical-sounding verbiage. It declared war upon God and the state and demanded that all its members be atheists. Its economic programme was confused and ambiguous. Instead of fighting for the abolition of class society, it demanded the equality of all classes. Instead of the expropriation of the means of production, it limited itself to a demand for the abolition of the right of inheritance. And in order not to frighten away the middle class and liberal bourgeois, it was careful not to clearly define its class character.
The new organisation approached the General Council with the request that it be taken into the International as a separate organisation, with its own constitution and programme. Bakunin wrote an ingratiating letter to Marx, full of false flattery. He wrote:
Since taking leave solemnly and publicly from the bourgeoisie at the Berne Congress, I no longer know any other society, any other environment, than the world of the workers. My country is now the International, of which you are one of the most important founders. So, you see, my dear friend, that I am your disciple, and proud of my title.
Marx was not impressed. Up to the end of 1868, his attitude toward Bakunin was that of extreme tolerance. He had welcomed Bakunin as a collaborator in 1862. Now he was suspicious of the latter’s motives – and he was not wrong. Let us remember that only four years earlier Bakunin had written from Italy promising to work for the International. Not only did he not keep his promise, but he devoted all his energies into promoting a rival bourgeois movement, the League for Peace and Freedom. Only after his efforts to take over that organisation had failed did he turn his attention to the International, which was now obviously growing in strength and influence.
The General Council refused the Alliance’s request, and Bakunin resorted to a manoeuvre. He announced that the Alliance would disband and transform its sections (which would continue to hold to their own programme) into sections of the International. After these assurances, the General Council agreed to admit the sections of the former Alliance into the IWA.
The Alliance claimed to have dissolved on 6 August and informed the General Council of this. But a few weeks later it reappeared in the guise of a new ‘Section of Revolutionary Socialist Propaganda and Action,’ which declared itself in agreement with the general principles of the International but reserved itself the right to make full use of the freedom which the statutes and the congresses of the International afforded.
It did not take Marx long to conclude that Bakunin had deceived the General Council. Despite having officially disbanded his society, he maintained its central organisation intact for the purpose of taking over the International. Subsequent events proved that the Alliance continued to exist. It conducted a continuous guerrilla war against the International under the guise of fighting the ‘authoritarianism’ of the General Council. For this purpose, Bakunin and his followers did not hesitate to resort to any means, even the basest slanders and the most dishonest intrigues.
How intriguers work
It is not difficult for professional intriguers to influence honest party activists. When dealing with this kind of individual, naive honesty is a definite disadvantage, since honest people cannot recognise an intrigue. They take things at face value and believe what is said to them, since they have no reason to suspect the other person’s motives, believing them to be honest party workers themselves.
Bakunin hatched the plan of a secret faction, L’Alliance Internationale de la Démocratte Socialiste, which, while formally a branch of the IWA, in reality formed a parallel International Association “with the special mission to elaborate the higher philosophical etc. principles” of the proletarian movement. He “would, by a clever trick, have placed our society under the guidance and supreme initiative of the Russian Bakunin.”
Bakunin was a skilful intriguer and soon convinced the veteran German revolutionary and friend of Karl Marx and Engels, Johann Philipp Becker, who lived in Switzerland, to put his name to his programme. Marx wrote with regret:
Brave old Becker, always anxious for action, for something stirring, but of no very critical cast of mind, an enthusiast like Garibaldi, easily led away. (‘Marx To Paul and Laura Lafargue’, 15 February 1869.)
The way in which they set to business was characteristically dishonest. They sent their new programme, placing Becker’s name at the head of the signatures, thus hiding behind the moral authority of a veteran of unquestionable honesty. Then, behind the backs of the General Council, they sent emissaries to Paris, Brussels, etc. (In those days they did not possess the Internet, which would have saved them a lot of time and effort). Only in the last moment did they communicate the documents to the London General Council.
The General Council took action to stop these factional intrigues. On 22 December, 1868, a unanimous decision of the General Council declared the rules of the Alliance laying down its relations with the International Working Men’s Association null and void and refused the Alliance admittance as a branch of the International Working Men’s Association. All the branches of the IWA approved the decision.
Becker was resentful towards Marx for this, but, as Marx wrote to the Lafargues: “with all my personal friendship for Becker I could not allow this first attempt at disorganising our society to succeed.” (‘Marx to Paul and Laura Lafargue’, 15 February 1869.) Bakunin reacted by declaring that the Alliance was ‘dissolved,’ when in fact it remained in being as a secret organisation working behind the backs of the International.
The Nechayev affair
An indication of Bakunin’s adventurism was his association with the notorious Russian terrorist Nechayev, who was tried for the murder of a young student member of his group in Russia and ended his life in a tsarist prison, having seriously compromised the revolutionary cause. It was partly to divert attention away from this scandal that Bakunin intensified his attacks on Marx and the General Council.
There were profound differences between the ideas advocated by Bakunin and those of Marx. Bakunin utterly rejected the idea of the proletariat seizing power. He denied any form of political struggle insofar as it had to be conducted within bourgeois society, which had to be destroyed. Ryazanov sums up the essence of Bakunin’s creed:
First destroy, and then everything will take care of itself. Destroy – the sooner, the better. It would be sufficient to stir up the revolutionary intelligentsia and the workers embittered through want. The only thing needed would be a group composed of determined people with the demon of revolution in their souls. (D. Ryazanov, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, p. 185.)
This is a completely false conception of the class struggle. The working class can only learn through struggle. Without the day-to-day struggle for advance under capitalism, the socialist revolution would be impossible. The struggle for reforms, higher wages, better conditions, a reduction of working hours, etc. creates more favourable conditions for the class organisation of the proletariat. At a certain historical stage, the economic struggles of the working class necessarily become political, as in the fight for democratic rights, freedom of speech and assembly, the right to strike, the right to vote, etc. It is unthinkable that the working class could remain indifferent to such questions.
The slogan of political abstentionism merely means that the working class would remain politically subordinate to the parties of the liberal bourgeoisie, as the example of England already showed clearly. In order to achieve independence from the bourgeoisie in the political sphere, the proletariat must fight for its own independent political party. That was why Marx considered the political struggle and the political organisation of the proletariat for the conquest of political power indispensable. But for the Bakuninists this was a book sealed by seven seals.
As we have seen, Bakunin’s adventurism was completely exposed by the Nechayev affair. Nechayev was a young fanatic, a revolutionary adventurer who turned up in Geneva in the spring of 1869, claiming to have escaped from the fortress of St. Peter-Paul. He also claimed to represent an all-powerful committee that would overthrow tsarist Russia. This was a pure invention. He had never been in St. Peter-Paul and the committee never existed.
Nevertheless, Bakunin was impressed by “the young savage,” “the young tiger,” as he used to call Nechayev. Nechayev was a devoted disciple of Bakunin. But unlike his master, Nechayev was always characterised by an iron consistency. Bakunin had preached that the lumpenproletariat were the real carriers of the social revolution. He regarded criminals as desirable elements to be recruited into the revolutionary movement. So, it was logical that his loyal disciple Nechayev should conclude that it was necessary to organise a group of lumpens for the purpose of ‘expropriation’ in Switzerland.
In the autumn of 1869 Nechayev returned to Russia with a plan to set up a Bakuninist group there. There is no doubt that he went with Bakunin’s full support. He carried with him a written authorisation from Bakunin which declared that he was the “accredited representative” of a so-called European Revolutionary Alliance – another invention of Bakunin. He even issued an appeal to the officers of the tsarist army, calling on them to place themselves unconditionally at the disposal of the “committee,” although it did not exist.
When a member of Nechayev’s group, a student called Ivanov, began to doubt the existence of the secret committee, Nechayev murdered him. This led to numerous arrests, but Nechayev himself managed to avoid arrest. The Nechayev trial opened in St. Petersburg in July 1871, and the whole ghastly affair was publicly exposed. There were over eighty accused, mostly students, Nechayev himself having conveniently escaped to Geneva.
The Nechayev affair did a lot of damage to the movement in Russia and internationally. It affected the IWA because Nechayev let people believe that he was acting in the name of the International, whereas in fact he was an agent of Bakunin. Later, in order to explain away this wretched affair and absolve Bakunin from his personal responsibility for it, it had been claimed that Bakunin fell under the influence of Nechayev who tricked him and used him for his own purposes.
However, it was Bakunin who provided him with fake documents that purported to be from the International and were signed by him. It was Bakunin who wrote most, if not all, the proclamations and manifestos of the non-existing ‘committee,’ and it was Bakunin who defended Nechayev after he had fled from the scene of his crime, describing the murder of the unfortunate Ivanov as “a political act.” Meanwhile, the majority of the students that were put on trial were sentenced to long terms in prison or to a living death in the Siberian mines.
The Basel Congress
It was at Basel that Bakunin first made his appearance, and his faction was well represented there. But as he was still feeling his way, he was cautious about putting forward his real programme. Ironically, the same Bakunin who had always been violently opposed to opportunism, confined himself to demanding the immediate abolition, not of private property, but of the right of inheritance.
As usual, Bakunin stood everything on its head. It is not the right of inheritance that is responsible for private property, but the existence of private property that gives rise to the right of inheritance. After the seizure of power, the proletariat will deal with this question, along with many other related secondary issues. But the main task is the expropriation of large-scale private property through the nationalisation of the land, the banks and private monopolies. But this is a political act, and therefore anathema to the anarchists.
To propose the abolition of the right of inheritance in general, apart from its clearly utopian character, leaves out of account the fact that a large part of the middle class, peasants and even a section of the working class would be affected. A workers’ state would not expropriate the small property owners, but only large-scale private property. In the meantime, it would be sufficient to impose a heavily graduated tax on wealth and limit the right of inheritance.
For Bakunin, however, these concrete circumstances were irrelevant. His scheme of social revolution was a pure abstraction, outside of time and space. As usual, his empty demagogy only served to sow the maximum confusion. When the question was put to the vote, neither of the resolutions won a sufficient majority, and the whole affair was left in a confused state, which was the inevitable result of the anarchists’ ‘theoretical’ interventions. Having made a big mess, Bakunin then forgot about the right of inheritance and passed onto something else. This was absolutely typical conduct on his part: a) beat the drum loudly on some issue or other; b) cause the maximum confusion; c) move on to some other matter. The disorganising results of this conduct are self-evident.
It is interesting to note that the ‘authoritarian’ structures of the International that Bakunin protested against so vehemently in 1871 and 1872 were introduced to the International on the motion of Bakunin’s supporters, with Bakunin’s support. That was at a time when he was aiming to gain control of the International. Only when this plan failed did Bakunin suddenly discovered the ‘authoritarian’ character of the International’s structure and rules. Bakunin always ruled his own faction, the Alliance, with a rod of iron. Certainly, the charge of authoritarianism and dictatorial tendencies can with far greater justice be directed against Bakunin than against Marx.
About this time Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel, after a sharp factional struggle with the Lassallean Schweitzer, had succeeded in establishing a separate party at the Eisenach convention (1869), based on the programme of the International. Bakunin’s activity in the League for Peace and Freedom were discussed and rejected by this party congress. The next Congress was supposed to take place in Germany, but it could not be convened. Immediately after the Basel Congress, tensions between France and Prussia were deteriorating fast, and the outbreak of war was imminent.
To the degree that the members of the International became aware of the disorganising conduct of Bakunin and his followers, they reacted against. Marx wrote to Engels on 30 October, 1869:
Apropos. The secretary of our French Genevan committee is utterly fed up with being saddled with Bakunin and complains that he disorganises everything with his ‘tyranny’. In the Égalite, Monsieur Bakunin indicates that the German and English workers have no desire for individuality, so accept our communisme autoritaire. In opposition to this, Bakunin represents le collectivisme anarchique. The anarchism is, however, in his head, which contains only one clear idea – that Bakunin should play first fiddle. (Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 43, p. 363.)
Bakunin and the Franco-Prussian War
In the middle of all this, stormy events were being prepared. The thunderclouds of war that hung over Europe erupted in the Franco-Prussian War. The defeat of the French armies at Sedan led to the collapse of the Bonapartist regime and to the Paris Commune. France was once more in the throes of revolution. Here the adventurist character of Bakunin was exposed in practice.
During the war Bakunin supported France, fearing that it would become a German colony, “and then instead of living socialism we will have the doctrinaire socialism of the Germans.” (J. Joll, The Anarchists, p. 90.)
When on 19 July, 1870, the war erupted, it took Europe by surprise. A few days after the outbreak of hostilities the General Council published a proclamation written by Marx, which began with a quotation from the Inaugural Address of the International on war: “a foreign policy in pursuit of criminal designs, playing upon national prejudices and squandering in piratical wars the people’s blood and treasure.”
Marx fiercely denounced Napoleon III, pointing out that whichever side won, the last hour of the Second Empire had struck. This was a prophetic prediction. In about six weeks the regular French army was smashed at Sedan. On 2 September, Napoleon had already surrendered to the Prussians. Two days later a republic was declared in Paris, but the war continued. It passed into the second phase, in which Prussia was no longer fighting a defensive war against the Empire, but a predatory war against the French people to seize Alsace-Lorraine and plunder France.
On 9 September, 1870, immediately after the proclamation of a Republic in France, the General Council issued its second Manifesto on the war, also written by Marx. It contains one of the most profound analyses in all of Marx’s writings. Long before the fall of Sedan, the Prussian general staff declared itself in favour of a policy of conquest. Marx opposed any annexations or indemnities, and prophetically predicted that such a predatory peace would create a state of permanent war in Europe. France would fight to regain what she had lost and would enter into an alliance with tsarist Russia against Germany. This was exactly what happened in 1914.
The Manifesto urged the German workers to demand an honourable peace and the recognition of the French Republic. It also advised the French workers to keep a watchful eye on the bourgeois republicans and make use of the Republic for the purpose of strengthening their class organisation to fight for their emancipation. However, Marx warned the French workers not to try to take power under present circumstances.
While Marx was trying to restrain the French workers from entering into an untimely battle against overwhelming forces, Bakunin was doing his best to stir them to revolt at all costs. As soon as he heard of a local uprising in Lyons, Bakunin went to that city on 28 September, where he installed himself in the Town Hall. He declared the “administrative and governmental machinery of the State” abolished and the “Revolutionary Federation of the Commune” proclaimed in its place.
Bakunin carried his rejection of authority to the point that he neglected to post guards on the door of the Town Hall, so that when the state finally appeared in the form of the National Guard, it was able to enter the premises without difficulty and arrest everyone inside. Marx wrote about this episode with heavy but justified irony:
London, 19 October, 1870
As to Lyons, I have received letters not fit for publication. At first everything went well. Under the pressure of the ‘International’ section, the Republic was proclaimed before Paris had taken that step. A revolutionary government was at once established – La Commune – composed partly of workmen belonging to the ‘International,’ partly of Radical middle-class Republicans. The octrois [internal customs dues] were at once abolished, and rightly so. The Bonapartist and Clerical intriguers were intimidated. Energetic means were taken to arm the whole people. The middle class began if not really to sympathise with, at least to quietly undergo, the new order of things. The action of Lyons was at once felt at Marseilles and Toulouse, where the ‘International’ sections are strong.
But the asses, Bakunin and Cluseret, arrived at Lyons and spoiled everything. Belonging both to the ‘International,’ they had, unfortunately, influence enough to mislead our friends. The Hotel de Ville was seized for a short time – a most foolish decree on the abolition de l’état [abolition of the state] and similar nonsense were issued. You understand that the very fact of a Russian – represented by the middle-class papers as an agent of Bismarck – pretending to impose himself as the leader of a Comité de Salut de la France [Committee for the Safety of France] was quite sufficient to turn the balance of public opinion. As to Cluseret, he behaved both as a fool and a coward. These two men have left Lyons after their failure.
At Rouen, as in most industrial towns of France, the sections of the International, following the example of Lyons, have enforced the official admission into the ‘committees of defence’ of the working-class element.
Still, I must tell you that according to all information I receive from France, the middle class on the whole prefers Prussian conquest to the victory of a Republic with Socialist tendencies. (‘Marx to Edward Beesly’, Marx and Engels Correspondence.)
His attempt to proclaim anarchism having ended in farce, ‘Citizen B’ was compelled to return to Switzerland empty-handed. Now he turned his attention once more to the IWA. Unable to overthrow the bourgeois state, he intensified his efforts to overthrow the General Council, which, on the eve of the Paris Commune, had to take up precious time with Bakunin’s constant intrigues.
The Paris Commune
Just as Marx thought, the French republicans immediately showed their cowardice and their readiness to enter into an agreement with Bismarck against the working class, who were prepared to fight against the Prussian forces. The attempt of the French bourgeois to disarm the workers of Paris was the spark that lit the flame of the Paris Commune.
The Commune lasted three months (18 March to 29 May, 1871), but finally succumbed to overwhelming force. A few days after the defeat of the Commune, Marx wrote the famous address we now know as The Civil War in France. At a time when the Communards were being systematically maligned by the bourgeois press, Marx defended them. He pointed out that the Paris Commune was the prototype of a future workers’ state, a concrete expression of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”
Basing himself on the experience of the Revolution of 1848, Marx had come to the conclusion that the working class, after having seized power, could not simply lay hold of the bourgeois apparatus of the state and use it for its own purposes, but that it would have to demolish this military-bureaucratic machine and erect in its place a new state, a state that would not be a replica of the old state of the oppressor class, but a workers’ state, democratically run by the working class, a transitional state dedicated to its own eventual dissolution. The Paris Commune was just such a state.
Bakunin and his followers arrived at diametrically opposite conclusions. Their opposition to politics and the state became even more insistent, advocating the creation of communes in separate towns as soon as possible, with the idea that these communes would inspire other towns to follow their example. But one of the reasons the Commune failed was precisely that it remained isolated in Paris. What was required, as Marx explained, was to march on Versailles, where the counter-revolution was based, and crush the enemy before the enemy crushed the Commune, which was unfortunately what occurred.
Sometime later, Garibaldi replied to the Bakuninists that the Paris Commune was defeated because it was not centralised and disciplined enough:
“You intend, in your paper, to make war upon untruth and slavery. That is a very fine programme, but I believe that the International, in fighting against the principle of authority, makes a mistake and obstructs its own progress. The Paris Commune fell because there was in Paris no authority but only anarchy. Spain and France are suffering from the same evil.” (Quoted in F. Engels, ‘Comment upon Giuseppe Garibaldi’s letter to Prospero Crescio’, 7 July 1873, MECW, vol. 23, p. 453.)
After the Commune
The defeat of the Commune inevitably created a very difficult situation for the International, which faced the attacks of enemies on all sides. There were the slanderous attacks by the bourgeois press of all countries. But the General Council was able to reply to such attacks openly, and for a while they actually served to strengthen the International.
In France, however, the raging counter-revolution meant that for a few years the French workers’ movement was paralysed and links with the International were broken. As a consequence of the defeat and the White Terror that followed it, an army of Communards refugees flooded into London, virtually the only place in Europe that would receive them. At a time when almost all governments now began to mobilise their forces against the International, it was overwhelmed by the necessity of assisting the many refugees from the Communards, most of whom ended up in London. The collection of the necessary funds to assist them absorbed a lot of the time of Marx and other members of the General Council.
Worse was to come. As so often happens in exile circles following the defeat of a revolution, the French refugees were demoralised and disoriented by events, and bitter factional strife was continually breaking out among them. This affected the General Council, which had co-opted a number of refugees to make up for the loss of contacts in France itself. It was later exposed that a number of French police agents and provocateurs had penetrated the ranks of the French exiles and infiltrated the ranks of the International.
The International was besieged by enemies on all sides. Bakunin launched an attack on Marx and ‘State communism’:
“We shall fight to the hilt against their false authoritarian theories, against their dictatorial presumption and against their methods of underground intrigues and vainglorious machinations, their introduction of mean personalities, their foul insults and infamous slanders, methods which characterise the political struggles of almost all Germans and which they have unfortunately introduced into the International.” (Quoted in F. Mehring, Karl Marx.)
Meanwhile, Mazzini published violent attacks on the Commune and on the International in a weekly publication which he published in Lugano, but Garibaldi, who was a genuine revolutionary and a national hero, saw in the International ‘the rising sun of the future.’ The German labour movement also suffered the attacks of the state. Bebel and Liebknecht, who had protested against the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine and declared their solidarity with the Paris Commune, were arrested and sentenced to confinement in a fortress. Bismarck came down hard on the German working-class movement and particularly the supporters of the International.
Ultra-leftism and opportunism
Marx was forced to fight on different fronts. On the one hand there were the ultra-left anarchists, but on the other there were all kinds of confused, reformist elements who had joined the International as a means of furthering their trade union activity but were by no means revolutionaries. These people were frightened by the Paris Commune and the ferocity of the repression that followed. More than one of them deserted the International on one pretext or another.
A typical representative of this trend was the English trade unionist John Hales, who was at the time the General Secretary of the IWA. Hales was a reformist with nationalist prejudices. Marx said that in his dealings with the English reformist workers’ leaders he had to be very patient: “mild in manner but bold in content.” He must have had the patience of Job!
On reading the minutes of the General Council, one gets a clear impression of what Marx and Engels had to put up with from such people. The English members of the Council displayed a narrow-minded parochial attitude to most questions, indulging in petty quarrels over trivial organisational matters, which often detracted from far more important work.
Needless to say, men like Hales were deeply suspicious of genuine revolutionaries and had an ambivalent attitude to the Paris Commune. They were hostile to Republicanism and inclined to seek accommodation with liberal elements, as Hales showed in his attitude to the Irish question. He demanded that the Irish members of the IWA should come under the control of the British Federal Council – a demand that was rejected by the General Council with only one vote in favour – that of Hales.
At first sight, it may seem that there could be no common ground between English reformists like Hales and Co. and the Bakuninists. But in politics we can find all sorts of strange bedfellows. The Alliance’s demand for autonomy for the national sections found a sympathetic hearing from some of the English. To the degree that Hales felt that his position as General Secretary of the IWA was being threatened, to establish his position he manoeuvred the British Federal Council as a counterweight to the General Council.
And that was not all. Bakunin’s demand that the workers must abstain from politics also chimed well with the class collaboration politics of the trade union leaders who were stuck firmly to the apron strings of the Liberal Party and had no desire to take the initiative of setting up an independent Labour party. All this was sufficient grounds for the English reformists to make common cause with the Spanish and Italian anarchists – and always against Marx and the General Council.
Barrage of letters
Anarchism is the communism of the petty bourgeois and the lumpenproletariat. In both cases, the central consideration is always the same: extreme individualism, a total rejection of any rules, discipline and centralisation. In the course of the dispute with the Bakuninists, the latter ignored all the democratic structures of the International. They refused to recognise the General Council, although it had been elected by the World Congress and repeatedly re-elected.
The Bakuninists were small in numbers but made a lot of noise. On 28 July, 1871, Engels wrote to Carlo Cafiero:
The Bakuninists are a tiny minority within the Association and they are the only ones who have at all times brought about dissension. I am referring mainly to the Swiss, because we had little or nothing to do with the others. We have always allowed them to have their principles and to promote them as they thought best, so long as they renounced all attempts at undermining the Association or imposing their programme on us. (MECW, vol. 44, p. 183.)
The limited resources of the General Council were put under severe strain by the problems that flowed from the defeat of the Commune. The constant attacks by the enemies of the International, the intrigues of the Bakuninists, and the need to assist the ever-increasing numbers of starving and destitute refugees from France, took up a colossal amount of time. For weeks on end Marx was unable to dedicate any time to Capital and other important theoretical work. He wrote in desperation to Kugelmann:
Remember, mon cher, that if the day had 48 hours, I would still not have finished my day’s work for months now.
The work for the International is immense, and in addition London is overrun with refugees, whom we have to look after. Moreover, I am overrun by other people – newspaper men and others of every description – who want to see the ‘monster’ with their own eyes.
Up till now it has been thought that the emergence of the Christian myths during the Roman Empire was possible only because printing had not yet been invented. Precisely the contrary. The daily press and the telegraph, which in a moment spreads its inventions over the whole earth, fabricate more myths in one day (and the bourgeois cattle believe and propagate them still further), than could have previously been produced in a century. (‘Marx to Ludwig Kugelmann’, 27 July 1871, MECW, vol. 44, pp. 176-77.)
One way of sabotaging the work of an organisation is by overloading it with tasks that surpass its real ability to cope. The Bakuninists adopted the tactic of bombarding the sections and individual members with a barrage of letters, circulars, etc., defaming Marx and the General Council. Commenting on this tactic, Engels wrote:
As private correspondents these men are assiduous beyond belief; and if he [were] a member of the Alliance they would certainly have bombarded him with letters and blandishments. (‘Engels to Paul Lafargue’, 19 January, 1872, MECW, vol. 44, p. 301.)
Engels fortunately did not live in the age of emails, or he would have had a lot more to complain about.
The Sonvillier circular accused the London Conference of the deadliest of all deadly sins – authoritarianism:
This Conference has… taken resolutions… which tend to turn the International, which is a free federation of autonomous sections, into a hierarchical and authoritarian organisation of disciplined sections placed entirely under the control of a General Council which may, at will, refuse their admission or suspend their activity [!]
The circular claimed that the very fact that some people were members of the General Council had a “corrupting effect,” for “it is absolutely impossible for a person who has power” (!) over his fellows to remain a moral person. The General Council is becoming a “hotbed of intrigue.” This is just another way of expressing the common prejudice of backward workers that “all leaders are corrupt.” If that were really the case, the outlook for socialism would be very poor indeed.
Yet another complaint of the ‘anti-authoritarians’ is that the same members of the General Council were re-elected every year. The same leadership was sitting in the same place (London). The General Council has been “composed for five years running of the same persons, continually re-elected.” To this complaint Marx gave the obvious answer: “The re-election of the General Council’s original membership, at successive Congresses at which England was definitely under-represented, would seem to prove that it has done its duty within the limits of the means at its disposal.” (Ibid.)
It is clear that the Congress would only re-elect a leadership if it considered that its work was generally satisfactory. The Sixteen, on the contrary, interpreted this only as a proof of the “blind confidence of the Congresses,” carried at Basel to the point of “a sort of voluntary abdication in favour of the General Council.” In their opinion, the Council’s “normal role” should be “that of a simple correspondence and statistical bureau.”
The idea that the International should have no guiding centre, and that its leading bodies should only coordinate the work of the national sections, was later put into practice by the Second International, which, as Lenin remarked, was not an International but only a post office. This played a big part in bringing about the national-reformist degeneration of the Second International.
Moreover, this argument is not confined to the International. It equally applies to national and local organisations. The logic of it would be to dissolve the organisation altogether – which suits the anarchist point of view admirably. Unfortunately, the workers are involved in the class struggle and cannot do without strong centralised organisation to fight the bosses. The workers’ organisations are very democratic and willing to discuss different opinions as to whether to call a strike or not. But at the end of the day, the issue is put to the vote and the majority decides.
The question is: what is the real character of a revolutionary leadership? Is it to provide political leadership, or merely to act in an administrative (i.e. bureaucratic) character? Is it to organise and centralise the work or merely to pass on information and coordinate the work of the constituent bodies that will function with complete autonomy? Is the revolutionary organisation a school without any definite ideas, which discusses endlessly the views of every comrade in order for an idea to ‘emerge’ of its own accord? Or is it an organisation that is formed on the basis of very definite ideas, theories, and principles that are regularly re-discussed, concretised, and voted on in democratic congresses with elected delegates?
Marx answered the anarchists as follows:
First, the General Council should be nominally a simple correspondence and statistical bureau. Once it has been relieved of its administrative functions, its correspondence would be concerned only with reproducing the information already published in the Association’s newspapers. The correspondence bureau would thus become needless.
As for statistics, that function is possible only if a strong organisation, and especially, as the original Rules expressly say, a common direction are provided. Since all that smacks very much of ‘authoritarianism,’ however, there might perhaps be a bureau, but certainly no statistics. In a word, the General Council would disappear. The federal councils, the local committees, and other ‘authoritarian’ centres, would go by the same token. Only the autonomous sections would remain.
What, one may ask, will be the purpose of these “autonomous sections,” freely federated and happily rid of all superior bodies, “even of the superior body elected and constituted by the workers”?
Here, it becomes necessary to supplement the circular by the report of the Jura Federal Committee submitted to the Congress of the Sixteen:
“In order to make the working class the real representative of humanity’s new interests,” its organisation must be “guided by the idea that will triumph. To evolve this idea from the needs of our epoch, from mankind’s vital aspirations, by a consistent study of the phenomena of social life, to then carry this idea to our workers’ organisations – such should be our aim,” etc. Lastly, there must be created “amid our working population a real revolutionary socialist school.”
Thus, the autonomous workers’ sections are in a trice converted into schools, of which these gentlemen of the Alliance will be the masters. They “evolve” the idea by “consistent” studies which leave no trace behind. They then “carry this idea to our workers’ organisations.” To them, the working class is so much raw material, a chaos into which they must breathe their Holy Spirit before it acquires a shape. (K. Marx and F. Engels, Fictitious Splits in the International, MECW, vol. 23, p. 114.)
As the elected leadership of the International, the General Council could not allow itself to be bullied and blackmailed by self-appointed individuals and groups. In a letter to Carmelo Palladino, dated 23 November, 1871, Marx explained his attitude to all this:
Whatever your fears in regard to the great responsibility the General Council has taken upon itself, that Council will remain ever loyal to the flag entrusted to its care seven years ago by the faith of the working men of the civilised world. It will respect individual opinions, it is prepared to transfer its powers to the hands of its mandators, but as long as it is charged with the supreme direction of the Association, it will see to it that nothing is done to vitiate the character of the movement which has made the International what it now is, and will abide by the resolutions of the Conference until such time as a congress has decided otherwise. (MECW, vol. 44, pp. 261-62.)
Marx pointed out that the only sin the General Council was guilty of was carrying out Congress decisions. The Congress consists of elected delegates who, after participating freely in democratic debate, decide by a majority what ideas and methods the International has to follow. The International elected a leadership composed of the most capable and experienced people to do precisely this. And democracy has always consisted of the fact that the majority decides. The minority has the right to express its views within the organisation, but if you are in a minority you have to accept it, not shout about ‘authoritarianism’.
The problem here – and in general with the ‘anti-authoritarians’ – is that they do not respect the rights of the majority. Their real complaint is that they are a minority, and not the majority. They believe that the tail ought to wag the dog. Marx remarked ironically:
They seem to think that the mere fact of belonging to the General Council is sufficient to destroy not only a person’s morality, but also his common sense. How else can we suppose that a majority will transform itself into a minority by voluntary co-options? (Fictitious Splits in the International, MECW, vol. 23, p. 114.)
Factional use of private correspondence
As part of their ‘anti-authoritarian’ campaign, the Bakuninists did not hesitate to make unscrupulous use of private correspondence for factional purposes, and even demanded that the General Council should debate with them in public. When the Bakuninist paper Égalité joined the Progrès in inviting the Travail (a Paris paper) to denounce the General Council, Marx wrote:
The General Council does not know of any article, either in the Rules, or the Regulations, which would oblige it to enter into correspondence or into polemic with the Égalité or to provide ‘replies to questions’ from newspapers. The Federal Committee of Geneva alone represents the branches of Romance Switzerland vis-à-vis the General Council. When the Romance Federal Committee addresses requests of reprimands to us through the only legitimate channel, that is to say through its secretary, the General Council will always be ready to reply. But the Romance Federal Committee has no right either to abdicate its functions in favour of the Égalité and Progrès, or to let these newspapers usurp its functions. Generally speaking, the General Council’s administrative correspondence with national and local committees cannot be published without greatly prejudicing the Association’s general interests. Consequently, if the other organs of the International were to follow the example of the Progrès and the Égalité, the General Council would be faced with the alternative of either discrediting itself publicly by its silence or violating its obligations by replying publicly. (Fictitious Splits in the International, MECW, vol. 23, p. 90 – my emphasis, AW.)
This is quite clear: the leadership of the International is not under any obligation to enter into public polemics with anybody. On the contrary, to do so would represent a violation of its obligations. Internal correspondence cannot be published without greatly prejudicing the Association’s general interests. Such correspondence must be conducted through the normal channels that exist for that purpose. To suggest anything else would be tantamount to proposing the dissolution of the International, eradicating the difference between members and non-members, and abolishing any element of internal democracy, congress decisions, elections, etc. In other words, it would represent the triumph of anarchy over democratic centralism – which is precisely what Bakunin wanted.
The Sonvillier circular complained bitterly that:
…the [London] Conference aimed a blow at freedom of thought and its expression… in conferring upon the General Council the right to denounce and disavow any publicity organ of the sections or federations that discussed either the principles on which the Association rests, or the respective interests of the sections and federations, or finally the general interests of the Association as a whole (see L’Égalité of 21st October).
What had L’Égalité of 21 October published? It had published a resolution in which the Conference “gives warning that henceforth the General Council will be bound to publicly denounce and disavow all newspapers calling themselves organs of the International which, following the precedents of Progrès and Solidarité, discuss in their columns, before the middle-class public, questions exclusively reserved for the local or federal committees and the General Council, or for the private and administrative sittings of the Federal or General Congresses.”
To which Marx replied:
To appreciate properly the spiteful lamentations of B. Malon, we must bear in mind that this resolution puts an end, once and for all, to the attempts of some journalists who wished to substitute themselves for the main committees of the International and to play therein the role that the journalists’ bohemia is playing to the bourgeois world. As a result of one such attempt, the Geneva Federal Committee had seen some members of the Alliance edit L’Égalité, the official organ of the Romanish Federation, in a manner completely hostile to the latter. (Fictitious Splits in the International, MECW, vol. 23, p. 104.)
Marx and Engels did not regard the party press as an open forum where anyone could air their views in public. On 9 August, 1871, Der Volksstaat published a statement by Amand Goegg addressed to the editors of the Schwäbischer Merkur, in which he declared himself an advocate of anarchist individualism. On 12 August Der Volksstaat published a letter by Bernhard Becker referring to the time of his expulsion from the General Association of German Workers in 1865.
When Engels found out, he was furious and wrote to the German social-democratic leader Wilhelm Liebknecht: “Why bother to rehabilitate that good-for-nothing B. Becker? And allow that jackass Goegg to parade his own idiocies before the public?” (MECW, vol. 44, p. 199.) Even the publication of a letter by an undesirable element was considered to be unacceptable. This shows how far Marx and Engels were from the idea of the party press as a free-for-all.
Another issue was the public distribution of private and internal correspondence for factional purposes. On this we can cite Marx’s numerous comments on the subject. Marx wrote a letter to Nikolai Danielson, 12 December, 1872, in which he says:
From the enclosed you can see the results of the Hague Congress. I read out the letter to Lyubavin to the Commission d’enquête on the Alliance in the strictest confidence and without divulging the name of the addressee. Nevertheless, the secret was not kept, firstly because the Commission included Splingard, the Belgian lawyer, among its numbers, and he was in reality no more than an agent of the Alliancists; secondly, because Zhuhovsky, Guillaume and Co. had already earlier – as a preventive measure – recounted the story all over the place in their own way and with apologist interpretations. This was how it came about that, in its report to the Congress, the Commission was compelled to pass on the facts relative to Bakunin that were contained in the letter to Lyubavin (of course, I had not revealed his name, but Bakunin’s friends had already been informed on that score by Geneva). The question that presents itself now is whether the Commission appointed by the Congress to publish the minutes (of which I am a member) may make public use of that letter or not? That is for Lyubavin to decide. However, I may note that – ever since the Congress – the facts have been doing the rounds of the European press, and this was none of our doing. I found the whole business all the more distasteful since I had reckoned on the strictest discretion and solemnly demanded it. (‘Marx to Nikolai Danielson’, MECW, vol. 44, pp. 455-56 – last sentence my emphasis, AW.)
We see here that Marx considered the public use of private and internal party correspondence as something absolutely unacceptable, in fact, distasteful. It amounts to a breach of trust between comrades and an unscrupulous misuse of information. It goes without saying that one does not necessarily speak in the same terms about a subject in a private conversation as one would in a public meeting. If I believe that any chance remark I make in a private communication (either spoken or written) will the next day be broadcast to the four winds, I will be very careful about what I say, and a frank and honest interchange of ideas will be impossible.
This is particularly true in the course of a factional dispute, where tempers can flare up and even the most reasonable comrades may make comments that they may later regret. If one wishes to solve a dispute in the best (i.e. political) way, it is necessary to shrug one’s shoulders at such things, which constitute the small change of politics, trivial details that represent nothing serious. But if one wishes, not to solve a dispute, but to inflame it, to poison the atmosphere, increase tension, create personal clashes and carry matters to the point of a split, then the correct tactic is to spread all kinds of gossip, reveal in public what has been said (or written) to you in private, and violate every norm of comradely behaviour.
When Engels discovered that the Italian Bakuninists had got hold of a letter he had written to a comrade in Italy, and were using it for factional purposes, he was indignant. This is what he wrote:
Having rebelled against the whole organisation of the International and knowing that it will have great difficulty in justifying itself at the Congress next September, the Jura Committee is now looking for letters and mandates from the General Council in order to fabricate false accusations against us. I, like all of us, willingly consent to all letters being read to the Congress, but we do not find it agreeable to learn that the same letters, written for this or that section, have been put at the disposal of these gentlemen. (‘Engels to Cesare Bert’, 7 June 1872, MECW, vol. 44, p. 392.)
Problems in England
The triumphant reaction in Europe rained blows down on the International. The correspondence of Marx and Engels reflect the increasingly desperate position:
In Spain many people have been imprisoned and others are in hiding. In Belgium the government is trying with all its might to give free rein to the law and even more against us. In Germany the followers of Bismarck are even starting to play this game too. (‘Engels to Carlo Cafiero’, 16 July 1871, MECW, vol. 44, p. 171.)
There were internal problems everywhere, including in England. The war between France and Germany had benefited the English capitalists, who were able to give a part of their enormous profits to a section of the working class. As a sign of the confidence of the English bourgeoisie, several of the old anti-union laws were abolished. The idea of class collaboration began to take firm root among trade union leaders, including some who were members of the General Council.
As the International was becoming more radical, many of the union leaders were becoming increasingly moderate. To tell the truth, the alliance of these reformist union leaders with the revolutionary socialists was never very firm or wholehearted. Now it was put under extreme pressure by the Paris Commune. Some of the trade union leaders were alarmed by the Commune and the ferocious reaction that followed the defeat frightened them even more.
The intensity of the attacks on the International in the bourgeois press made them uneasy. It threatened their good relations with the bourgeois liberals, and they were anxious to put some distance between the General Council and themselves. Marx’s address, The Civil War in France, was the last straw. Although it had been written by Marx at the request of the General Council, two English Council members, Lucraft and Odger, disassociated themselves from it and resigned in protest. Engels wrote to Carlo Cafiero on 28 July, 1871:
If Mazzini calls our friend Marx a “man of corrosive…intellect, of domineering temper,” etc., etc., I can only say that Marx’s corrosive domination and his jealous nature have kept our Association together for seven years, and that he has done more than anyone else to bring it to its present proud position. As for the break-up of the Association, which is said to have begun already here in England, the fact is that two English members of the Council, who had been getting on too close terms with the bourgeoisie, found our address on the civil war too strong and they withdrew. In their place we have four new English members and one Irishman, and we reckon ourselves to be much stronger here in England than we were before the two renegades left. (MECW, vol. 44, p. 186.)
The fact is that the trade union leaders were already beginning to seek a rapprochement with the Liberals in order to win seats in Parliament. Even in 1868 Marx had complained of these “intriguers,” naming Odger, who stood for Parliament on several occasions, as one of them. After they split, Marx accused them of having sold themselves to the Liberal Ministry.
This caused a split in the English section of the International. However, not all the English trade union leaders broke away. Applegarth signed the Address of the General Council on The Civil War in France and remained a member of the Council to the end. But now there were serious problems with John Hale. He was pushing strongly for the establishment of a special Federal Council to be formed for England. Marx opposed the proposal, fearing, rightly, that it would become a tool in the hands of radical bourgeois members of Parliament.
Conflicts in the American section
Marx placed great hopes in the prospects for the International in the USA, where a young and fresh proletariat was developing rapidly with the growth of industry. But even in the New World there were problems. They were the exact opposite of the problems the IWA faced in Europe, where after the Paris Commune the bourgeois and middle class were ferociously hostile to the International. In America on the contrary, socialism was becoming quite fashionable among the cultured middle classes.
Here the International was seen, not as a threat, but rather as an interesting novelty. It attracted the attention of all sorts of middle class ‘progressives’: liberals, pacifists, feminists, temperance societies and even religious preachers. In New York, Section 12 of the IWA was taken over by a wealthy bourgeois feminist by the name of Victoria Woodhull, who Marx described as “a banker’s woman, free-lover, and general humbug [hypocrite],” and Tennessee Claflin, her sister.
Section 9 was founded by her sister and was of the same kind. Woodhull was the first woman, along with her sister, to operate a brokerage firm in Wall Street, and then open a weekly newspaper called modestly Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, advocating among a hodgepodge of demands: sex education, free love, women’s suffrage, short skirts, spiritualism, vegetarianism, and licensed prostitution. But its main purpose for the sisters was advertising themselves and their bourgeois-liberal ideas.
Marx referred to Section No. 12 as a group “founded by Woodhull, and almost exclusively consisting of middle-class humbugs and worn-out Yankee swindlers in the reform business.” On 30 August, 1871, the journal published ‘An Appeal of Section No. 12’ (to the English-speaking citizens of the United States) signed by W. West, secretary of Section 12. The following excerpts are from this appeal:
The object of the International is simply to emancipate the labourer, male and female, by the conquest of political power. (…) It involves, first, the Political Equality and Social Freedom of men and women alike.
Political Equality means the personal participation of each in the preparation, administration, and execution of the laws by which all are governed. (…) Social Freedom means absolute immunity from impertinent intrusion in all affairs of exclusively personal concernment, such as religious belief, the sexual relation, habits of dress, etc.
The proposition involves, secondly, the establishment of a Universal Government… Of course, the abolition of… even differences of language are embraced in the programme.
These extracts are sufficient to give an accurate idea of the class content and ideas of these people.
The most militant, class conscious and revolutionary sections of the young American proletariat were refugees from Europe: Germans, Poles, Russians, Irish, Jews, etc. Many did not speak English. By contrast, Section 12 was dominated by middle-class English-speaking Americans with political ambitions. Section No. 12 invited the formation of “English-speaking sections” in the United States on the basis of this programme. In practice, this was an attempt by bourgeois careerists to use the name of the International for place hunting and electoral purposes:
If practicable, for the convenience of political action, there should be a section formed in every primary election district.
There must ultimately be instituted in every town a municipal committee or council corresponding with the common councils; in every state, a state committee or council corresponding with the state legislature; and in the nation, a national committee or council corresponding with the United States National Congress.
The work of the International includes nothing less than the institution, within existing forms, of another form of government, which shall supersede them all.
This Appeal led to the formation of “all sorts of middle-class humbug sections, free-lovers, spiritists, spiritist Shakers, etc.” It caused a split in the American section, when Section 1 (composed mainly of German-speakers) of the old Council demanded 1) that Section 12 be expelled, and 2) that no section be admitted to membership unless it consisted of at least two-thirds workers.
Marx considered it imperative that the IWA should purge its ranks of these elements. He wrote to Bolte:
Obviously, the General Council does not support in America what it combats in Europe. Resolutions I (2) and (3) and IX [I, II, III, and IX – ed.] now give the New York committee legal weapons with which to put an end to all sectarian formations and amateur groups and if necessary to expel them.
This was what was done: five dissidents formed a separate Council on 19 November, 1871, which consisted of English-speaking Americans as well as Frenchmen, and Germans.
On 19 November, 1871 Woodhull’s journal protested against Section 1 and declared, among other things:
The simple truth is that Political Equality and Social Freedom for all alike, of all races, both sexes, and every condition, are necessary precursors of the more radical reforms demanded by the International. (our emphasis.)
The extension of equal citizenship to women, the world over, must precede any general change in the subsisting relations of capital and labour.
Section 12 would also remonstrate against the vain assumption, running all through the Protest (of Section 1) under review, that the International Working Men’s Association is an organisation of the working classes… (K. Marx, ‘Notes on the American Split’, The General Council of the First International 1871-1872, Minutes, p. 324.)
In these few lines the bourgeois-liberal character of this trend stands out clearly. Here we have very similar ideas to that of the ‘trendy lefts’ today: feminists, pacifists, ecologists and all the other petty-bourgeois movements that have infiltrated the labour movement in a period when the class struggle was at a low ebb. These elements tend to be highly eloquent and assertive in pushing their particular views. They elbow the workers to one side and seize positions, which they use for their own advantage.
For these people, the struggle for socialism is always subordinate to their particular hobby, in this case, feminism. Although they were very far removed from anarchism, like Bakunin, they were very keen to assert their ‘autonomy’ against the General Council, and their absolute right to ‘do their own thing.’ This is very characteristic of middle-class tendencies at all times – the assertion of ‘my’ rights as an absolute and inviolable principle as against the rights of the majority. In the pages of Woodhull’s journal, 21 October, 1871, Section 12 asserted:
The independent right of each section to have, hold, and give expression to its own constructions of said proceedings of the several Congresses, and the Rules and Regulations [!] of said General Council, each section being alone responsible for its own action.
This is how these people understood the role of the proletariat. In Woodhull’s journal, 25 November, 1871, we read the following:
It is not true that the ‘common understanding or agreement’ of the workingmen of all countries, of itself, standing alone, constitutes the Association… The statement that the emancipation of the working classes can only be conquered by themselves cannot be denied, yet it is true so far as it described the fact that the working classes cannot be emancipated against their will [!].
This is the authentic voice of the bourgeois socialist, loud and clear!
On 3 December, 1871, the new Federal Council for North America was formally founded. The very next day it denounced the bourgeois swindlers in a circular to all sections of the International in the United States. It states, among other things:
In the Committee [of the old Central Committee] which was to be a defence against all reform swindles, the majority finally consisted of practically forgotten reformers and panacea-mongers…
Thus, it came about that the people who preached the evangels of free love sat fraternally beside those who wanted to bring to the whole world the blessing of a single common language – land co-operativists, spiritualists, atheists, and deists – each striving to ride his own hobby-horse. Particularly Section 12, Woodhull… The first step that has to be taken here to further the movement is to organise and at the same time arouse the revolutionary element to be found in the opposing interests of capitalists and workers…
The delegates of Sections 1, 4, 5, 7, 8, 11, 16, 21, 23, 24, 25, and others, having seen that all efforts to control this mischief were in vain, decided, after the adjournment of the old Central Council sine die (3 December, 1871), to establish a new one, which would consist of real workers and which would exclude all those who would only confuse the question. (New Yorker Democrat, 9 December, 1871.)
The break with Section 12
The two rival Councils appealed to the General Council for recognition. This obviously caused some confusion. Various sections, for example, the French Section No. 10 (New York), and several Irish sections, withdrew their delegates from both councils until the General Council made its decision.
The Woodhull journal (West, etc.) lied unashamedly when it asserted that it was sure of the support of the General Council. An article of 2 December carried the headline: ‘Section 12 Sustained. The Decision of the General Council’. This was a direct fabrication. On the contrary, the decision of the General Council, 5 November, 1871, sustained the Central Committee against the claims of Section 12, which tried to replace it.
The fate of the International in the United States depended on carrying out a complete break with Woodhull and Co. As soon as the resolutions reached New York, they began to follow their old tactics. First, they had discussed the original split in the most notorious New York bourgeois papers. Now they did the same against the General Council (presenting the matter as a conflict between Frenchmen and Germans, between socialism and communism), to the joy of all the enemies of the International.
The middle-class elements particularly resented the proposal of the General Council that two-thirds of the members of any section should be made up of workers. Very characteristic were the marginal comments in Woodhull’s journal on 15 December, 1871:
No new test of membership, as that two-thirds or any part of a section shall be wage slaves, as if it were a crime to be free, was required.
The journal dated 4 May, 1872, commented on the resolution of the General Council:
…In this decree of the General Council its authors presume to recommend that in future no American section be admitted of which two-thirds at least are not wage slaves. Must they be politically slaves also? As well one thing as the other…
To these complaints of the petty-bourgeois elements, Marx replied:
The intrusion into the International Working Men’s Association of bogus reformers, middle-class quacks, and trading politicians is mostly to be feared from that class of citizens who have nothing better to depend upon than the proceeds of wage slavery.
Ignoring the clear repudiation by the General Council, Woodhull and her supporters continued to organise a ceremony of confusion, arguing, without the slightest justification, that the International had accepted her feminist views. In an article signed W. West, in Woodhull’s, etc., journal, 2 March, 1872, one reads:
The issue of the ‘Appeal’ of Section 12 to the English-speaking citizens of the United States in August last was a new departure in the history of the International and has resulted in the recognition by the General Council of Political Equality and Social Freedom of both sexes alike, and of the essential political character of the work before us.
Meanwhile, as the Presidential elections approached, the cloven hoof showed itself – namely, that the International should serve in the election of – Madame Woodhull! She decided to run as the first woman for the United States Presidency in 1872, but it turned out to be a farce. In order to get support for her campaign, she flirted with the bourgeois Liberals. On 2 March, 1872, under the title, ‘The Coming Combination Convention’, we read the statement:
There is a proposition under consideration by the representatives of the various reformatory elements of the country looking to a grand consolidated convention to be held in this city in May next, during Anniversary week… Indeed, if this convention in May acts wisely, who can say that the fragments of the defunct Democratic party will come out from them and take part in the proposed convention… Everybody of radical [mind] everywhere in the United States should, as soon as the call is made public, take immediate steps to be represented in it.
The Appeal was headed by the signature: Victoria C. Woodhull, followed by Theodore H. Banks (one of the founders of the Counter Council) and R.W. Hume. In this Appeal: the convention will consider “nominations for President and Vice-President of the United States.” Specially invited were:
Labour, land, peace, and temperance reformers, and Internationals and Women Suffrages – including all the various suffrage associations – as well as all others who believe the time has come when the principles of eternal justice and human equality should be carried into our halls of legislation.
The whole affair was the laughing stock of New York and United States. Section 2 of the IWA stated:
Recognising the principle of women’s right to vote, in view of the insinuations of Citizeness Woodhull, at the meeting in Apollo Hall, leading the public to believe that the International supports her candidacy.
That for the present the International cannot and should not be taken in tow by any American political party; for none of them represents the workers’ aspirations; none of them has for its objective the economic emancipation of the workers.
Section 2 had thought:
That our sole objective ought to be, for the present, the organisation and the solidarity of the working class in America.
Under the title ‘Internationals, watch out!’, the same issue of Socialiste states, among other things:
The International is not, and cannot be, persecuted in America; the politicians, far from aiming at its destruction, think only of using it as a lever and supporting point for the triumph of their personal views. Should the International let itself be dragged into this path, it would cease to be the Association of Workers and become a ring of politicians.
For a long time now, there have been cries of alarm; but the convention in Apollo Hall, nominating, in the name of the International, Madame Woodhull as candidate for the Presidency, should henceforth open the eyes of the less perceptive. Internationals of America, watch out!
Ms. Woodhull tried to use her money to buy herself an International, but it proved to be too expensive. The bourgeois policies advocated by Section 12 were sufficient grounds for the expulsion of the Woodhull group and its supporters from the First International. The Hague Congress ratified the expulsion of these middle-class interlopers and recognised the new, proletarian Council.
The London Conference
The congress in Basel in 1869 had decided that the next congress should take place in Paris, and was now (1871) due, but under conditions of ferocious state repression, the General Council decided to hold a closed conference in London, similar to the one which had taken place in 1865. Under the general conditions of reaction, the Conference had to have a secret character. Marx wrote to the Russian Utin on 27 July, 1871:
Last Tuesday the General Council resolved that there would not be a Congress this year (in view of extraordinary circumstances) but that, as in 1865, there should be a private conference in London to which different sections would be invited to send their delegates. The convocation of this Conference must not be published in the press. Its meetings will not be public ones. The Conference will be required to concern itself, not with theoretical questions, but exclusively with questions of organisation. (‘Marx to Nikolai Utin’, MECW, vol. 44, p. 178.)
The London conference took place from 17 to 23 September with only 23 delegates present, including six from Belgium, two from Switzerland and one from Spain. Thirteen members of the General Council were also present, but six of them had only a consultative vote.
It approved a resolution that the emancipation of the working class could be achieved only by constituting itself into a special political party against the bourgeois parties. The conference also declared that the German workers had fulfilled their proletarian duty during the Franco-Prussian War. And it rejected all responsibility for the so-called Nechayev affair. The resolution adopted on the question of the political struggle represented a total defeat for the Bakuninists, as we see from the concluding paragraphs:
In presence of an unbridled reaction which violently crushes every effort at emancipation on the part of the working men, and pretends to maintain by brute force the distinction of classes and the political domination of the propertied classes resulting from it…
That this constitution of the working class into a political party is indispensable in order to ensure the triumph of the Social Revolution and its ultimate end – the abolition of classes;
That the combination of forces which the working class has already effected by its economical struggles ought at the same time to serve as a lever for its struggles against the political powers of landlords and capitalists –
The Conference recalls to the members of the International:
That in the militant state of the working class, its economical movement and its political action are indissolubly united. (The General Council of the First International 1870-1871: Minutes, pp. 444-45.)
The General Council was convinced that, despite Bakunin’s protestations, his secret society continued to exist. The conference adopted a resolution prohibiting any organisation with an independent programme to function within the body of the International.
The conference declared that the question of the Alliance was settled now that the Geneva section had voluntarily dissolved itself. With regard to the Jura sections, the conference ratified the decision of the General Council, recognising the Federal Council in Geneva as the only representative body for the Latin Swiss members. It advised the workers of the Jura sections to affiliate once again to the Federal Council in Geneva. Alternatively, they should call themselves the Jura Federation.
The conference further declared categorically that the International had nothing to do with the Nechayev affair, and that Nechayev had falsely appropriated and utilised the name of the International. This was directed at Bakunin, who was well known to have been connected with Nechayev for a long time. Finally, the Conference left it to the discretion of the General Council to decide the time and place of the next congress or conference.
Marx regarded the results of the Conference as positive. He wrote to Jenny Marx on 23 September, 1871, with a tone of palpable relief:
The conference is at last coming to an end today. It was hard work. Morning and evening sessions, commission sessions in between, hearing of witnesses, reports to be drawn up and so forth. But more was done than at all the previous Congresses put together, because there was no audience in front of which to stage rhetorical comedies. (‘Marx to Jenny Marx’, MECW, vol. 44, p. 220.)
Attacks on the General Council
The London Conference brought the conflict with the Bakuninists to a head. For years the General Council had to fight against this conspiracy. Unable to prove what was going on behind the backs of the members of the International, Marx and Engels had to put up with the campaign of insults and attacks for almost a year. At last, by means of Conference resolutions I, II, III, IX, XVI, and XVII, it delivered its long-prepared blow.
The Bakuninists now declared open war against the General Council. They accused it of rigging the conference and of forcing upon the International the dogma of the necessity of organising the proletariat into a special party for the purpose of winning political power. The Bakuninists accused Marx and his followers as opportunists who were hindering the social revolution. They demanded another Congress where this question would be definitely settled.
In a barrage of circulars and letters, the Bakuninists publicly abused Marx in the most foul and disgusting language. In this furious campaign to discredit Marx and the General Council, they did not hesitate to accuse Marx of being an agent of Bismarck. They were even prepared to make use of anti-Semitism.
Bakunin felt threatened by Resolution XIV and made strenuous efforts to get a protest started against the Conference decision. For this purpose, he made use of some demoralised elements among the French political refugees in Geneva and London. Playing unscrupulously on the anti-German sentiments of the French, Bakunin compared Marx to Bismarck. He put out the slogan that the Geneva Council was dominated by Pan-Germanism.
Bakunin used national prejudice without scruples. He argued that all Germans held authoritarian views, and repeatedly compared Marx to Bismarck. He also repeatedly accused Marx of advocating a universal dictatorship, and a socialism “decreed from the top down.” This accusation had not the slightest basis in fact. All his life Marx insisted that “the emancipation of the working classes can only be the work of the working classes themselves.” But as the hack journalists say: why let the facts spoil a good story? Lies and slanders are the stock-in-trade of all intriguers. And if a lie is repeated with sufficient insistence, some people are sure to believe it.
In slandering Marx, Bakunin did not even stop at racist and anti-Semitic smears, which he raised on more than one occasion. For example, he wrote in 1872:
Proudhon understood and felt liberty much better than Marx; Proudhon, when he was not dealing with doctrine and metaphysics, had the true instinct of the revolutionary – he worshipped Satan and proclaimed anarchy. It is possible that Marx might theoretically reach an even more rational system of liberty than that of Proudhon – but he lacks Proudhon’s instinct. As a German and a Jew, he is authoritarian from head to foot. Hence come the two systems: the anarchist system of Proudhon broadened and developed by us and freed from all its metaphysical, idealist and doctrinaire baggage, accepting matter and social economy as the basis of all development in science and history. And the system of Marx, head of the German school of authoritarian communism. (J. Joll, The Anarchists, p. 90.)
Marx refers to all this as “the intrigues of this bunch of scoundrels,” a description that, as we see, was fully justified.
Bakunin had a base in Italy and the French region of Switzerland. His main base was among the skilled watchmakers of the Jura region of Switzerland who were beginning to suffer from the competition of the developing industries.
The London Conference had given the General Council authority to disown all alleged organs of the International which, like the Progrès and the Solidarité in the Jura, discussed internal questions of the International in public. The Bakuninists changed the name of Solidarité to La Révolution Sociale, which immediately began a ferocious attack on the General Council of the International, which it described as the “German Committee led by a brain à la Bismarck.”
This was a scandalous attempt to play on the anti-German prejudices of the French. Marx wrote to an American friend:
It refers to the unpardonable fact that I was born a German and that I do in fact exercise a decisive intellectual influence on the General Council. Nota bene: the German element in the General Council is numerically two-thirds weaker than the English and the French. The crime is, therefore, that the English and French elements are dominated (!) in matters of theory by the German element and find this dominance, i.e., German science, useful and even indispensable. (K. Marx, ‘Letter to Bolte’.)
The Bakuninists then tried the trick of changing their name. On 20 October the new Section for Revolutionary Socialist Propaganda and Action appeared in Geneva and approached the General Council with a request for affiliation. After the General Council had consulted the Federal Council in Geneva, the request was rejected. In the end the Bakuninists set themselves up as the Jura Federation. Marx wrote to the Belgian César de Paepe on 24 November, 1871:
On the other hand, there will be the Jura Federation in Switzerland (in other words the men of the Alliance who hide behind this name), Naples, possibly Spain, part of Belgium and certain groups of French refugees (who, by the by, to judge by the correspondence we have had from France, would not appear to exert any serious influence there), and these will form the opposing camp. Such a split, in itself no great danger, would be highly inopportune at a time when we must march shoulder to shoulder against the common foe. Our adversaries harbour no illusions whatever about their weakness, but they count on acquiring much moral support from the accession of the Belgian Federal Council. (MECW, vol. 44, p. 264.)
The Jura sections organised a congress on 12 November in Sonvillier, although only 9 out of 22 sections were represented, by only 16 delegates. However, to make up for their small numbers, they made more noise than ever. They expressed resentment at the fact that the London Conference had forced a name on them, but for tactical reasons they decided to call themselves in the future the Jura Federation.
In Switzerland many members of the International supported the London Conference. On 21-22 December, Marx’s daughter Jenny wrote to Kugelmann as follows:
In Geneva, that hotbed of intrigants, a congress representing thirty sections of the International has declared itself for the General Council, has passed a resolution to the effect that the separatist factions cannot henceforth be considered to form parts of the International, their acts having clearly shown that their object is to disorganise the Association; that these sections, who, under another name, are only a fraction of the old Alliance faction, by continuing to sow dissentions, are opposed to the interests of the Federation. This resolution was voted unanimously in an assembly of 500 members. The Bakuninists, who had come all the way from Neuchatel to be present, would have been seriously ill-used had it not been for the men whom they style ‘des Bismarckians’ – Outine, Perret, etc. – who rescued them and begged the assembly to allow them to speak. (Outine of course was well aware that the best means of killing them altogether was to allow them to make their speeches.) (Documents of the First International, p. 530, notes.)
However, in revenge, the Sonvillier congress sent out a circular to all the Federations of the International attacking the validity of the London Conference and appealing against its decisions to a general congress to be called as quickly as possible. They began to spread the rumour that the International was in a mortal crisis and on a downward path. In their view, the IWA had been formed as “a tremendous protest against any kind of authority,” and that every section had been guaranteed complete independence. They argued that the General Council was only an executive organ, but now the members had come to place a blind confidence in it. As a result, the Basel Congress had given the General Council authority to accept, reject or dissolve sections, pending the approval of the next congress.
What the author of the circular (Guillaume) did not mention was that this decision had been adopted after Bakunin had spoken enthusiastically in its favour, and that Guillaume had been in complete agreement with it. The reason was quite simple: the Bakuninists, who were strongly represented at Basel, believed that the General Council was going to be moved to Geneva, and they could control it. It is usually the case that the ‘anti-authoritarian’ tendency is only against authority when they are in a minority. When they are in the majority, they are invariably despots and bullies.
The Congress of Sixteen proceeded to ‘reorganise’ the International by attacking the Conference and the General Council in a ‘Circular to All Federations of the International Working Men’s Association.’ The Sonvillier circular used demagogic arguments to ‘prove’ the dictatorial nature of the General Council, which had consisted of the same men and met in the same place for five years. This was cited as proof that the General Council now regarded itself as the (Bismarckian) ‘brains’ of the International. Why were the ideas of the General Council regarded as the official theory of the International? Why were they considered to be the only ones permissible? Why did the General Council regard the different opinions of other groups and individuals as heresy?
A stifling orthodoxy had developed in the International and in the members of the General Council, they argued, which prevented creative thinking and oppressed the free spirits of everybody else. The omnipotence of the General Council necessarily had a corrupting effect. It was impossible that a man like Marx who held such power could retain a moral character. This was a recipe for tyranny, and so on and so forth.
The decisions taken at Basel were bad enough, they said. But now the London Conference had taken further steps to transform the International from a free association of independent sections into an authoritarian and hierarchical organisation in the hands of the General Council. It had decided that the General Council should have power to determine the time and place of the next congress, or of a conference to replace it. Thus, the General Council had the power to replace the congresses with secret conferences.
They demanded that the powers of the General Council be reduced to those of a simple bureau for correspondence and the collection of statistics, and dictatorship and centralisation be replaced by a free association of independent groups “without any directing authority, even if set up by voluntary agreement.”
The General Council was to be no more than a “simple statistical and corresponding bureau.” The International must be the very image of the future communist society:
The future society should be nothing but a universalisation of the organisation which the International will establish for itself. We must therefore try to bring this organisation as close as possible to our ideal… The International, embryo of the future human society, must henceforth be the faithful image of our principles of liberty and federation, and must reject any principle leading to authoritarianism, to dictatorship.
This whole line of argument (which is still repeated today, even by people who think they are Marxists) is false from start to finish. The revolutionary party is a necessary tool for overthrowing capitalism. Must a tool resemble what it produces? In order to make a chair, a saw is required. But a saw that resembled a chair would never produce a chair or anything else.
This is not only nonsense but dangerous nonsense, and particularly so at the time we are considering, when, following the defeat of the Commune, the International was under attack from the bourgeois state, its members in many countries facing arrest and imprisonment or deportation.
As Marx remarked:
The Paris Communards would not have failed if they had understood that the Commune was ‘the embryo of the future human society’ and had cast away all discipline and all arms – that is, the things which must disappear when there are no more wars! (MECW, vol. 23, p. 115.)
The real attitude of the ‘anti-authoritarians’ was shown by the following incident. When the IWA representative, the Russian Utin, went to Zurich, he was attacked and beaten by eight men, who would have killed him if it was not for the fact that four German students happened to appear and saved him. It seems that this attack was organised by Slav supporters of Bakunin, whose activities were to be investigated by Utin. This kind of conduct was not only considered acceptable by Bakunin. He actively encouraged it, as we see in the case of Nechayev.
The Jura circular did not achieve its aim. The demand for the calling of a congress met with no support. Only in Belgium was it decided to call for a change in the Statutes of the International, to turn it into an association of independent federations and make the General Council ‘a Centre for Correspondence and Information.’
The Sonvillier circular provided welcome ammunition to the enemies of the International and was widely publicised by the bourgeois press, which, particularly since the fall of the Paris Commune, had been assiduously spreading lies about the sinister power of the General Council. These fairy stories were now confirmed from within the ranks of the International. The Bulletin Jurassien, which now took the place of the Révolution Sociale, reprinted the articles of approval of the bourgeois newspapers.
It was the noisy campaign of slander and disinformation initiated by the Sonvillier circular that caused the General Council to issue an answer to it, also in the form of a circular, entitled Fictitious Splits in the International (Les prétendues Scissions dans l’Internationale). In this circular the General Council answered all the lies and distortions of the Bakuninists.
The London conference’s acknowledgement that the German workers had done their proletarian duty during the Franco-Prussian War was used as an excuse for the accusation of ‘Pan-Germanism,’ which was said to dominate the General Council.
These ridiculous accusations were brought forward in order to undermine the centralisation of the International, which, in practice, would have meant its complete dissolution. Particularly in the prevailing conditions of counter-revolution, state repression and the systematic infiltration of workers’ organisations by police spies, centralisation was the only possibility of saving the organisation, as Marx explained:
It [the Alliance] proclaims anarchy in the ranks of the proletariat as the infallible means of breaking the powerful concentration of political and social forces in the hands of the exploiters. Under this pretext and at a moment when the old world is seeking to destroy the International it demands that the latter should replace its organisation by anarchy.
But such considerations made no difference to the anarchists, whose unprincipled and baseless attacks on the International leadership from within served to reinforce the attacks of the bourgeois state from without. Marx systematically exposed the machinations of the intriguers, and in particular Bakunin.
The Hague Congress
This Congress was convened in September 1872. For the first time Marx was present in person, but Bakunin stayed away, probably because he knew he would be heavily defeated. The resolution of the London Conference on political action was ratified. There was one small addition which was copied verbatim from the Inaugural Address of the International. It reads:
Since the owners of land and capital are always using their political privileges to protect and perpetuate their economic monopolies and to enslave labour, the great duty of the proletariat is to conquer the political power.
On 5 March, 1872, the General Council had announced the calling of the annual congress for the beginning of September. In a letter to Kugelmann on 29 July, Marx wrote:
The international congress (Hague, opens on 2 September) will be a matter of life or death for the International and before I withdraw2 I want at least to protect it from the forces of dissolution.
Part of Marx’s plan to protect the International from the destructive activities of the Bakuninists was the proposal to move the General Council from London, where it was becoming increasingly bogged down in rows and conflicts, to New York. The Bakuninists were not represented on the General Council, but they had succeeded in causing such confusion among the German, English and French members that the Council was obliged to form a special sub-committee to deal with the constant disputes.
The Hague Congress met from 2 to 7 September. There were 61 delegates, and Marx had a certain majority. With the exception of Lafargue, all five Spanish delegates were Bakuninists, as also were the eight Belgian and the four Dutch representatives. But the Italian Bakuninists sent no representatives to the congress, since their Rimini conference in August had broken off all relations with the General Council. The Jura Federation sent Guillaume and Schwitzguébel.
The rows began immediately, with the preliminary examination of the mandates, which lasted three days, so that the actual business of the congress began only on the fourth day with the reading of the report of the General Council, which was drawn up by Marx. The report detailed all the acts of repression against the International, the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune, the terrorism of the English government against the Irish sections. It also reported on the steady progress made by the International in Holland, Denmark, Portugal, Ireland and Scotland, and its growth in the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Buenos Aires. The report was adopted with acclaim.
It is interesting to note the attitude of Marx and Engels to the question of imperative mandates: that is, the practice of mandating delegates to vote in a particular way. This is an essentially undemocratic practice, which prevents delegates from arriving at their own conclusion as a result of participating in a debate and listening to the arguments of all sides. Engels wrote on the subject:
We shall only note that if all electors gave their delegates imperative mandates concerning all points on the agenda, meetings and debates of the delegates would be superfluous. It would be sufficient to send the mandates to a central counting office which would count up the votes and announce the results. This would be much cheaper. (F. Engels, ‘Imperative mandates at the Hague Congress’, 17 September 1872, MECW, vol. 23, p. 277.)
Nowadays, when it has become fashionable in certain quarters to revive anarchist theories on organisation, using the pretext of modern technology and particularly the Internet, these lines have a great relevance. If all that is required is the click of a mouse; congresses, conferences, debates and so on, are quite unnecessary. They can be replaced by emails. How Engels would have enjoyed that idea!
There followed the discussion on the General Council. Lafargue explained that the daily struggle of the working class against capitalism could not be conducted effectively without a central leadership. Opposing this, Guillaume denied the necessity for a General Council except as a central office for correspondence and statistics and without any authority. The International was not the property of one clever man, and so on and so forth.
The discussion ended on the fifth day of the congress in a closed session. In a long speech Marx demanded that the previous powers of the General Council should not only be maintained, but increased. It should be given the right to suspend, not only individual sections, but whole federations, under certain conditions, pending the decisions of the next congress. It had neither police nor soldiers at its disposal, but it could not permit its moral power to decay. Rather than degrade it to a letter-box it would be better to abolish the General Council altogether. Marx’s viewpoint was carried with 36 votes against 6, with 15 not voting.
Engels then moved that the General Council should be moved from London to New York for at least a year. The proposal caused consternation, particularly from the French delegates, who succeeded in getting a separate vote first on whether the seat of the General Council should be moved at all, and secondly whether it should be moved to New York. In the end, the motion that the seat of the General Council should be moved was carried with a small majority. Twelve members of the new General Council were then elected and given the right to co-opt seven other members.
In the same session the discussion on political action was opened. Vaillant brought in a resolution in the spirit of the decision of the London conference, declaring that the working class must constitute itself its own political party independent of, and in opposition to, all bourgeois political parties. He pointed to the lessons of the Paris Commune, which had collapsed for the lack of a political programme. Guillaume, on the other hand, wanted to have nothing to do with this. The anarchists wanted to destroy political power, not to conquer it.
The Blanquists Ranvier, Vaillant and the others left the congress in protest at the decision to remove the General Council to New York. Serge took the chair in place of Ranvier and Vaillant’s proposal was then adopted with 35 against 6 votes, and 8 votes not cast. Some of the delegates had already left for home, but most of them had left written declarations in favour of the resolution.
The last hours of the last day of the congress were taken up with the report on Bakunin and the Alliance. The problem had been hanging round the neck of the International like a heavy millstone. It is one thing to engage in internal discussions about political differences, something that can be highly educational, but it is another thing to be involved in the kind of constant wrangles with intriguers whose aim is not to fight for ideas but to confuse, disorient and disrupt because they cannot convince the majority.
Such a phenomenon does not educate or raise the level, but spreads demoralisation. Marx already pointed to the destructive effects the Bakuninists were having in Switzerland, when he wrote in Fictitious Splits in the International that “the Geneva Federal Committee… was exhausted after its two years of struggle against the sectarian sections.” (MECW, vol. 23, p. 93.) It was not the only case.
A committee of five declared with four votes against one (a Belgian) that it considered a secret Alliance had existed with statutes directly contrary to the statutes of the International, although there was not sufficient evidence to prove that the Alliance still existed.
Additionally, it was proved by a draft of the statutes and by letters of Bakunin that he had attempted to form a secret society within the International with statutes differing fundamentally from the statutes of the International. Bakunin had also adopted fraudulent practices in order to obtain possession of the property of others, and either he or his agents had used intimidation. On these grounds, the majority of the committee then demanded the expulsion of Bakunin, Guillaume and a number of their supporters from the International.
This was accepted. The Congress had ample reasons for expelling Bakunin on purely political grounds, but there is one final point to make: in addition to the above-mentioned grounds Bakunin was expelled also for a ‘personal reason’.
This ‘personal reason’ refers to matters related to the Nechayev affair. While in Switzerland, Nechayev had been involved in an act of blatant blackmail. In order to earn some money, Bakunin had promised to undertake the translation of Das Kapital for a Russian publisher, who paid him an advance of three hundred roubles. The translation was never done, but Bakunin agreed that Nechayev should arrange to release him from his contract. Nechayev then wrote a letter to Lyubavin, the publisher’s agent in Switzerland, threatening him with “the vengeance of the People’s Justice” (i.e., death) if he continued to bother Bakunin.
Marx alludes to this in a letter to Nikolai Danielson, dated 15 August, 1872:
Bakunin has worked secretly for years to undermine the International and has now been pushed by us so far as to throw away the mask and secede openly with the foolish people led by him – the same man who was the manager in the Nechayev affair. Now this Bakunin was once charged with the Russian translation of my book [Volume I of Capital], received the money for it in advance and, instead of giving work, sent or had sent to Lubanin (I think) who transacted for the publisher with him the affair, a most infamous and compromising letter. It would be of the highest utility for me, if this letter was sent me immediately. As this is a mere commercial affair and as in the use to be made of the letter no names will be used, I hope you will procure me that letter. But no time is to be lost. If it is sent, it ought to be sent at once as I shall leave London for the Haag Congress at the end of this month. (MECW, vol. 44, p. 422.)
The Hague Congress settled this question once and for all.
The expulsion of Bakunin
Bakunin and his chief lieutenant Guillaume were finally expelled at the Hague Congress. Engels wrote:
These expulsions constitute an open declaration of war by the International to the ‘Alliance’ and the whole of Mr. Bakunin’s sect. Like every other shade of proletarian socialism, Bakunin’s sect was admitted in the International on the general condition of maintaining peace and observing the Rules and the Congress resolutions. Instead of doing so, this sect, led by dogmatic members of the bourgeoisie having more ambition than ability, tried to impose its own narrow-minded programme on the whole of the International, violated the Rules and the Congress resolutions and finally declared them to be authoritarian trash, which no true revolutionary need be bound by.
The almost incomprehensible patience with which the General Council put up with the intrigues and calumny of the small band of mischief-makers was rewarded only with the reproach of dictatorial behaviour. Now at last the Congress has spoken out, and clearly enough at that. Just as clear will be the language of the documents concerning the Alliance and Mr. Bakunin’s doings in general which the Commission will publish in accordance with the Congress decision. Then people will see what villainies the International was to be misused for. (F. Engels, ‘On the Hague Congress of the International’, 17 September, 1872, MECW, vol. 23, pp. 268-69.)
Guillaume had already refused to appear before the committee set up to investigate the activities of the Alliance. He was called upon by the chairman to defend himself but declared that he would make no attempt to do so as he was unwilling to take part in a ‘farce’. The attack, he declared, was not directed against individuals, but against the federalist (i.e., anarchist) tendency as a whole. The supporters of this tendency had already drawn up a statement, which was then read to the congress. It was signed by five Belgian, four Spanish and two Jura delegates and also by an American and a Dutch delegate.
Engels later described the scene at the Congress:
The debate on this question was heated. The members of the ‘Alliance’ did all they could to draw out the matter, for at midnight the lease of the hall expired and the Congress had to be closed. The behaviour of the members of the Alliance could not but dispel all doubt as to the existence and the ultimate aim of their conspiracy. Finally, the majority succeeded in having the two main accused who were present – Guillaume and Schwitzguébel – take the floor; immediately after their defence the voting took place. Bakunin and Guillaume were expelled from the International, Schwitzguébel escaped this fate, owing to his personal popularity, by a small majority; then it was decided to amnesty the others. (Ibid., p. 268.)
Engels, who spoke in the debate, said:
The good faith of the General Council and of the whole International, to whom the correspondence had been submitted, was betrayed in a most disgraceful manner. Having once committed such a deception, these men were no longer held back by any scruples from their machinations to subordinate the international, or, if this were unsuccessful, to disorganise it. (F. Engels, ‘Report on the Alliance of Socialist Democracy presented in the name of the General Council to the Congress at the Hague’, late August 1872, MECW, vol. 23, p. 231.)
Seeing that they were in a minority, as usual the Bakuninists resorted to a manoeuvre. Allegedly in order to avoid a split in the International, they declared that they were willing to maintain “administrative relations” with the General Council but rejected any interference on its part in the internal affairs of the Federations. The signatories of the Bakuninist resolution appealed to all federations and to all sections to prepare themselves for the next congress in order to carry the principle of free association (autonomie fédérative) to victory.
However, the congress was not prepared to be side-tracked by such tricks and sophistry. It voted to expel Bakunin immediately with 27 against 7 votes, 8 votes not being cast. Then Guillaume was expelled with 25 against 9 votes, and 9 votes not being cast. The other expulsion proposals of the committee were rejected, but it was instructed to publish its material on the Alliance.
After the expulsion of Bakunin and Guillaume, the Alliance, which had control of the Association in Spain and Italy, unleashed a campaign of vilification against Marx and the General Council everywhere. It joined forces with all the disreputable elements and attempting to force a split into two camps. Marx was not dismayed. He wrote to Nikolai Danielson:
However, its ultimate defeat is assured. Indeed, the Alliance is only helping us to purge the Association of the unsavoury or feeble-minded elements who have pushed their way in here and there. (Marx to Nikolai Danielson, 12 December, 1872, MECW, vol. 44, p. 455.)
After the Hague Congress
Crises and splits put people to the test. The result can have a demoralising effect on the weaker elements and people who are not theoretically prepared. This was no exception. Writing on 8 May, 1873, to Sorge, Engels declared:
Although the Germans have their own squabbles with the Lassalleans, they were very disappointed with the Hague Congress where they expected to find perfect harmony and fraternity in contrast to their own wrangling, and they have become very disinterested.
The split also had a demoralising effect on the French émigrés, who were already disoriented by the defeat of the Commune. Writing again to Sorge on 12 September, 1874, Engels declared:
The French emigrants are completely at sixes and sevens. They have quarrelled amongst themselves and with everyone else for purely personal reasons, mostly in connection with money, and we shall soon be completely rid of them… The irregular life during the war, the Commune and in exile has demoralised them frightfully, and only hard times can save a demoralised Frenchman. (‘Engels to Friedrich Adolph Sorge in Hoboken’, MECW, vol. 45, p. 40.)
In Italy, the Bakuninists were strong and the Marxists were a small minority. Engels wrote:
I hope that the outcome of the Hague Congress will make our Italian ‘autonomous’ friends think. They ought to know that wherever there is an organisation, some autonomy is sacrificed for the sake of unity of action. If they do not realise that the International is a society organised for struggle, and not for fine theories, I am very sorry, but one thing is certain: the great International will leave Italy to act on its own until it agrees to accept the conditions common to all. (F. Engels, Letters from London – More about the Hague Congress, 5 October, 1872, MECW, vol. 23, p. 283.)
The wavering elements naturally raised the banner of unity at all costs. But the loud demands for unity were answered in advance by the Bakuninists who, in their Rimini Conference held at the beginning of August 1872, publicly announced that they had split from the International and formed a separate organisation. By so doing they had placed themselves outside the ranks of the IWA, as Engels pointed out:
The Bakuninists have now finally placed themselves outside the International. A conference (ostensibly of the International, in reality of the Italian Bakuninists) has been held in Rimini. Of the 21 sections represented, only one, that from Naples, really belonged to the International. The other 20, in order not to endanger their ‘autonomy,’ had deliberately neglected to take all the measures on which the Administrative Regulations of the International make admission conditional; they had neither written to the General Council requesting admission, nor sent their subscriptions. And these 21 ‘International’ sections decided unanimously in Rimini on 6 August:
“The Conference solemnly declares to all workers of the world that the Italian Federation of the International Working Men’s Association severs all solidarity with the General Council in London, proclaiming instead, all the louder, its economic solidarity with all workers, and urges all sections that do not share the authoritarian principles of the General Council to send their representatives on 2 September, 1872, not to The Hague, but to Neuchâtel in Switzerland in order to open the general anti-authoritarian Congress there on the same day.” (F. Engels, ‘On the Rimini Conference’, 24 August, 1872, MECW, vol. 23, p. 216.)
Engels always spoke with the greatest contempt of the unity-mongers, who went around shouting at the top of their voice that the split was a disaster, that unity must be restored at any price, and all the rest of it. In a letter to Bebel written on 20 June, 1873, he wrote:
One must not allow oneself to be misled by the cry for ‘unity’. Those who have this word most often on their lips are those who sow the most dissension, just as at present the Jura Bakuninists in Switzerland, who have provoked all the splits, scream for nothing so much as for unity. Those unity fanatics are either the people of limited intelligence who want to stir everything up together into one nondescript brew, which, the moment it is left to settle, throws up the differences again in much more acute opposition because they are now all together in one pot (you have a fine example of this in Germany with the people who preach the reconciliation of the workers and the petty bourgeoisie) or else they are people who consciously or unconsciously (like Mühlberger, for instance) want to adulterate the movement. For this reason, the greatest sectarians and the biggest brawlers and rogues are at certain moments the loudest shouters for unity. Nobody in our lifetime has given us more trouble and been more treacherous than the unity shouters. (‘Engels to August Bebel’, MECW, vol. 44, p. 512.)
The Blanquists split
The subsequent proposal that the permanent residence of the General Council be transferred to New York was dictated in part by purely practical considerations. Given the prevailing wave of counter-revolution, the International lost its base not only in France and Germany, but also in England. But the proposal was bound to meet with vigorous resistance from the German, French and English leaders, and the resistance to it after the Hague Congress was ferocious and embittered.
The immediate effect was that the Blanquists walked out of the International. They were furious at the decision to move the Council to New York because they had hoped to get control of it. They split from the International as a result. The proposal of Marx and Engels to move the General Council to New York had been taken in order to prevent the Blanquists from using the Council to promote their adventurist tactics. But by splitting from the International they consigned themselves to oblivion.
On the two chief questions at issue, the question of political activity and the question of strict centralisation, the Blanquists were in agreement with Marx, but their political adventurism and advocacy of revolutionary coups made them an even greater danger than the reformists in the prevailing conditions of European reaction. It was presumed that the transfer of the International would be a temporary move, to be reversed when conditions permitted. However, as it turned out, the Hague Congress was the last of any significance in the history of the International.
Eccarius, Jung and Hales
It frequently happens in politics, as in other aspects of life, that the most trivial personal considerations (jealousy, ambition, spite, etc.) can play a disproportionate role in shaping events. Of course, in the revolutionary movement, such factors play the role of a catalyst for far more deep-seated political differences, which are not immediately obvious, but become clearer ex post facto. To use the celebrated expression of Hegel, necessity expresses itself through accident.
This was the case with Eccarius and Jung, two members of the General Council who had been Marx’s most loyal comrades for years. But in May, 1872, a definite breach occurred between Marx and Eccarius. The immediate cause was quite trivial. Eccarius announced that he was leaving his position as General Secretary of the International as he was unable to live on his weekly salary of fifteen shillings.
Unfortunately, he was replaced by the Englishman John Hales, and Eccarius unjustly blamed Marx for this. Marx, on the other hand, was annoyed by the fact that Eccarius published information about the internal affairs of the International in the bourgeois press in return for payment, in particular information concerning the private conference of the International in London.
To give an indication of the problems Marx and Engels had to put up with from Eccarius on the General Council, the following extract from the meeting of 11 May, 1872, will suffice. When questioned about his making public the internal affairs of the General Council, Eccarius refused to show the incriminating correspondence, taking refuge behind legalistic arguments:
Citizen Eccarius said he was in the same position as Hales; he kept no copies and should decline to answer; he should stand on the principle of English law, which was that those who prosecute should prove…
Citizen Marx considered Hales had been guilty of grave indiscretion, as he had compromised the Council.
Citizen Engels agreed with the remarks of Citizen Marx. With respect to the defence of Citizen Eccarius, the Council has nothing to do with British law. It had a right to know: had Eccarius written the letter he was charged with writing? Yes or no?
Citizen Eccarius thought when the charge was made the proofs would be forthcoming, but instead of the proofs being produced he was asked to acknowledge his guilt. He should refuse to give any answer until the letter was in his hand. It had all along been assumed that he had been guilty of criminal correspondence, and he should let those who made the charge prove it.
Citizen Marx said he said nothing about criminal correspondence, but he did say it was a crime if Eccarius wrote the letter which had the damaging character – of destroying the influence of the Council.
With regard to the demand that the charge should be proved, he would point out that this was not an ordinary tribunal where there was a defendant and a prosecutor. It was a question of the conservation of the influence of the Council…
Citizen Engels said that the sentimentality of the previous sitting, when it was said it was cruel to let charges hang over a man’s head etc., only made the cry for delay more comical. (Documents of the First International, vol. 5, pp. 191-92.)
It is not the last time we have heard the demand that, in dealing with disciplinary cases, the International must follow the strict procedures of bourgeois law – an argument, which, as we see from the above, was indignantly rejected by Marx and Engels, who also had no time for appeals to sentimentality, hurt feelings and so on. The overriding consideration was to defend the revolutionary organisation. By releasing internal information and spreading gossip, Eccarius had damaged the influence of the General Council, and Marx considered this to be a crime.
For his part, Jung was jealous of Marx’s closeness to Engels, with whom he was in daily contact since he moved to London from Manchester. Jung and Eccarius felt offended by this and complained that ‘the General’, as Engels was nicknamed in the circle, had an abrupt military tone. Whenever he took the chair at the meetings of the General Council, there was usually a row, they said.
It is fairly typical of mediocre individuals to make such complaints about the ‘tone’ of a discussion, and the alleged ‘arrogance’ of people more able than themselves. Trotsky pointed out that it was unworthy of a revolutionary to take offense because he or she has suffered a “flip on the nose.” In revolutionary politics what is important is not form but content, not the tone with which something is said but what is said.
Sometimes, however, such secondary considerations can give rise to friction and enmities that can later be filled with a political content. That was the case with Jung and Eccarius. They were not necessarily bad people, but they had a limited political understanding and allowed their personal feelings and hurt pride to cloud their political judgment. With Hales things were very different. When he was elected General Secretary, a sharp personal conflict arose between him and Eccarius. On the part of the latter it was mainly a question of jealous resentment. But Hales was an opportunist and a reformist to the marrow of his bones and he had always distrusted the revolutionary ideas of Marx.
The London conference decided to set up an English Federation, and it held its first congress in Nottingham on 21 and 22 July. This was Hales’ opportunity to build a counterweight to the General Council and cancel out the influence of Marx. He proposed to the 21 delegates who were present that the Federation should establish contact with the other Federations not through the General Council, but directly, and that at the coming congress of the International the new Federation should support a change in the Statutes of the International with a view to reducing the authority of the General Council.
This was music to the ears of the Bakuninists, fitting in well with their slogan of the ‘endangered autonomy of the Federations’. In fact, the English trade unionists had absolutely nothing in common with the ideas of the Bakuninists, being inclined towards English liberalism. But none of this mattered. They were all agreed on one thing: implacable opposition to Marx and the ‘authoritarian’ General Council. In this way an unholy alliance was formed between Hales, Eccarius and Jung.
Although, as we have seen, the reformist Hales had nothing in common with the ideas of the anarchists, he had secretly entered into close relations with the Jura Federation at the Hague. This unprincipled bloc was based on the well-known idea: ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. For these people, any weapon or ally was useful if it gave one a stick to beat Marx and the General Council!
On 6 November, 1874, writing in the name of the English Federal Council, Hales declared that the “hypocrisy of the old General Council” had now been exposed. Previous to this, on 18 September, Hales moved a vote of censure against Marx in the British Federal Council, using as an excuse Marx’s comments at the Hague concerning the corrupt nature of some English working-class leaders. The vote of censure was adopted. Hales then gave notice that he intended to present a resolution for the expulsion of Marx from the International, while another member gave notice for a resolution rejecting the decisions of the Hague Congress.
The theory of ‘two rival bureaucracies’
Hales developed an original and peculiar theory: Marx and Bakunin were really – the same. According to Hales, Marx had attempted to organise a secret society within the International on the pretext of destroying another secret society which it had invented to suit its aims. It was only a matter of one authoritarian bureaucracy fighting against another authoritarian bureaucracy to get control of the International!
At the same time, however, Hales pointed out that the English were not in agreement with the Jura Federation politically. They (the English) were convinced of the usefulness of political action. Here he spoke the unvarnished truth, since the English trade union leaders were trying to get into parliament, and for this purpose they needed the help of the Liberals. However, they were quite prepared to grant complete autonomy to all other federations as demanded by the different conditions in the various countries – and the different interests of the leaders.
Politics knows strange bedfellows. Although Hales and Eccarius had previously entertained a violent dislike for each other, they now became the most zealous allies, and Jung finally became one of the most violent opponents of Marx and Engels. In the cases of both Eccarius and Jung, they permitted their political judgment to be clouded by personal jealousies and resentments. As Lenin once remarked, spite in politics always plays the most destructive role.
In the past, Eccarius and Jung had become known to the whole International as the most faithful defenders of the opinions of Marx. Now they did a 180-degree somersault and appealed for support for the Jura Federation against the ‘intolerance’ of the Hague decision and the ‘dictatorial tendencies’ of Marx and Engels. However, the two men met with vigorous resistance in the English sections, and in particular the Irish. Even in the Federal Council they encountered opposition. So, as befits such committed advocates of democracy and toleration, they carried out a coup d’état in the English branch of the International. They issued an appeal to all sections and all members, declaring that the British Federal Council was so divided against itself that further cooperation was impossible. They demanded the calling of a congress to reverse the decisions taken at the Hague.
The minority immediately replied to these manoeuvres with a counter-appeal, probably written by Engels, which condemned the proposed congress as illegal. Nevertheless, the congress took place on 26 January, 1873. Hales delivered violent attacks on the old General Council and on the Hague Congress, and was actively supported by Jung and Eccarius. The congress unanimously condemned the Hague decisions and refused to recognise the new General Council in New York, and declared itself in favour of a new international congress. Hales intrigued quite openly against the General Council and in August he was removed from his post. But the split in the British Federation was by now an accomplished fact.
The end of the International
The history of the First International really ends with the Hague Congress. The leading figure of the new General Council in New York was Sorge, who was well acquainted with American conditions and a loyal supporter of Marx. But still the moving of the new General Council to New York failed to save the IWA. The movement in America lacked the experience and material means to prosper there.
The sixth congress of the International was called by the General Council in New York for 8 September in Geneva. But its only purpose was to sign the death certificate of the International. The Bakuninists organised their counter-congress in Geneva on 1 September. It was attended by two English delegates – the old arch-enemies Hales and Eccarius, five delegates each from Belgium, France and Spain, four delegates from Italy, one delegate from Holland and six delegates from the Jura.
Marx frankly admitted that the congress had been “a fiasco” and advised the General Council not to emphasise the formal organisational side of the International for the moment, but, if possible, to keep the centre point in New York going, to prevent it from falling into the hands of adventurers and others who might compromise the cause. Events would assure the recreation of the International on a higher level in the future. History was to prove Marx correct.
In 1876 the General Council in New York published the notice that the First International had ceased to exist. For ten years the International had dominated one part of European history. But now it faced an uncertain future because of objective difficulties and internal problems. In 1874, Engels wrote:
A general defeat of the working-class movement such as was suffered in the period from 1849 to 1864 will be necessary before a new international, an alliance of all proletarian parties in all countries, along the lines of the old one can come into being. At present the proletarian world is too big and too diffuse.
Unlike its successors, the Second (Socialist) and Third (Communist) Internationals, the First International was never a mass organisation. Moreover, in its beginnings it was politically confused, being made up of all kinds of different elements: English reformist trade unionists, French Proudhonists, followers of Mazzini, the Italian nationalist, Blanquists, Bakuninists and others. But thanks to the patient and tireless work of Marx and Engels, the ideas of scientific socialism eventually triumphed.
In the building of a genuine International, the importance of ideas is as fundamental as are strong foundations in the building of a house. The International Workingmen’s Association was the first real attempt to establish an international organisation of the working class. It was the equivalent of laying down the foundations of a house. If a house is to withstand the battering of the elements, it must have strong foundations.
The great merit of Marx’s work in the IWA was that it established a firm theoretical base for the movement, without which the future development of the International would have been impossible. The First International laid the basis for the creation of the mass social-democratic workers’ parties in Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Portugal, Italy, Belgium, Holland and North America. It had established the theoretical foundations for the future development of socialism on a world scale.
An important role in this was the fierce ideological battle with other trends, especially Bakuninist anarchism. In the end, the combination of an extremely unfavourable objective situation following the defeat of the Paris Commune and the destructive factional intrigues of the Bakuninists undermined the International. Marx and Engels transferred the centre to New York, partly to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Bakuninists and other intriguers, but partly because they hoped that the workers’ movement in North America would come to the rescue.
In the end, these hopes did not materialise, and they were compelled to recognise that the IWA had played out its historical role. The International, as an organised force, ceased to exist. But the tradition of the International lived on. It survived as an idea and a programme, to re-emerge about a decade later on a higher level. The emergence of mass workers’ parties and trade unions towards the end of the nineteenth century provided the basis for the founding of a new International – the Second International.
In July 1889 the International Socialist Congress opened its doors in Paris, attended by delegates from 20 countries. They founded the new Socialist International and declared May Day an international working-class holiday. And they adopted the principles of the International Workingmen’s Association founded a quarter of a century before. The International, like the phoenix of ancient legend, had risen from the ashes to spread its mighty wings.
2 Marx and Engels had both decided not to stand for re-election to the General Council – ed.
The Relevance of Marxism Today
Alan Woods and Ted Grant
On the threshold of the twenty-first century, humanity stands at the crossroads. On the one hand, the achievements of science, technique and industry point the way forward to a dazzling future of prosperity, social well-being and unlimited cultural advance. On the other, the very existence of the human race is threatened by the ravishing of the planet in the name of profit; mass unemployment, which was confidently asserted to be a thing of the past, has reappeared in all the advanced countries of capitalism, not to speak of the nightmare of poverty, ignorance, wars and epidemics which constantly afflict two thirds of humanity in the so-called ‘Third World’.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the bureaucratic Stalinist regimes of Russia and Eastern Europe provoked a wave of euphoria in the West. The demise of Stalinism was heralded as the ‘end of Socialism’. The final victory of the ‘free market’ was trumpeted from the pages of learned journals from Tokyo to New York. The strategists of capital were exultant. Francis Fukuyama even went so far as to proclaim the “end of history.” Henceforth, the class war would be no more. Everything would be for the best in the best of all capitalist worlds.
In the last few years we have witnessed an unprecedented offensive against the ideas of socialism on a world scale. The collapse of the bureaucratically controlled planned economies of the East was held up as the definitive proof of the failure of ‘communism’, and, of course, the ideas of Marx.
This is not the place to deal in depth with the reasons for the collapse of Stalinism. The fall of Stalinism came as no surprise to the Marxists, who had predicted it in advance. Indeed, Leon Trotsky already analysed the bureaucratic regime in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and, using the Marxist method, explained the inevitability of its collapse.
In the first place, Stalinism and socialism (or communism), so far from being identical, are mutually exclusive. The regimes in the USSR and its Eastern European satellites in many ways were the opposite of socialism. As Trotsky explained, a nationalised planned economy needs democracy as the human body requires oxygen. Without the democratic control and administration of the working class, a regime of nationalisation and planning would inevitably seize up at a certain point, especially in a modern, sophisticated and complex economy. This fact is graphically reflected in the falling rate of growth of the Soviet economy since the early 1970s, after the unprecedented successes of the planned economy in the earlier period.
However, what the Western critics of Marxism do not want to publicise is that the movement in the direction of a capitalist market economy in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, far from improving the situation, has caused an unmitigated social and economic disaster.
It is true that the productive forces stagnated under Brezhnev. But what is the position now? Every index points to a catastrophe of unprecedented dimensions. If we take the last three years, there has been a decline of industrial production in Russia of about 40-45 per cent. This is a staggering collapse – far worse than the slump of 1929-32 in the West. Investment fell by 45 per cent in 1992, and an additional 12 per cent in 1993, and continues to fall. Inflation topped 20 per cent every month in mid-1993. The rouble has collapsed and the rate of exchange is now 1,250 to the dollar, and still falling.
This situation can only be compared to the effect of defeat in a devastating war. The effects on the population, which has rapidly been reduced to absolute misery, can best be shown in the sudden deterioration of life expectancy.
Under the planned economy, the people of the Soviet Union enjoyed a level of life expectancy, health care and education on a level with the most developed capitalist countries, or in advance of them. What is the position now?
The Financial Times of 14 February 1994 carried a front-page article with the title ‘Russia faces population crisis as death rate soars’. The article points out that:
In the past year alone, the death rate jumped 20 per cent, or 360,000 deaths more than in 1992. Researches now believe that the average age for male mortality in Russia has sunk to 59 – far below the average in the industrialised world and the lowest in Russia since the early 1960s.
These figures merely confirm what is self-evident: That the attempt to impose a ‘market economy’ on the peoples of the former Soviet Union has been a finished recipe for destroying all the gains of the past seventy years, driving down living standards and plunging society as a whole into an abyss.
Of course, the apologists of capital assure us that all this will be temporary, that ‘in the long run’ the market will create the conditions for prosperity. To which we can answer in the words of Keynes: “In the long run, we’re all dead.”
A few years ago, the Western media confidently predicted that capitalism was about to enjoy a new period of dazzling economic success, on the basis of new markets in Russia and Eastern Europe. These illusions have been rapidly shattered by reality. Under capitalism a ‘market’ is not a question of the size of population. If that were so, then India and Africa would be huge markets. A market depends upon purchasing power – something which is noticeable by its absence in the ex-Stalinist countries. Far from providing new markets for capitalism, these countries represent a colossally destabilising factor, as most clearly shown by events in former Yugoslavia and the former USSR itself.
World Capitalist Crisis
Trotsky’s Introduction to The Living Thoughts of Karl Marx represents a classic restatement of the basic positions of Marxism. In all its essentials, it has been brilliantly confirmed by the present evolution of capitalism on a world scale. Nevertheless, for a whole period following the Second World War, it appeared to many to have been falsified by the march of events.
As Trotsky had predicted, the Second World War ended in a new revolutionary upsurge. In the period 1943-7, the working class moved time and again to transform society in Italy, France, Greece, Britain, Denmark and Eastern Europe. The betrayal of the revolution by Stalinism and Social Democracy provided the political basis for a recovery of the equilibrium of capitalism. This was the prior condition for the economic upswing which lasted from 1948 to 1974.
It must be emphasised that there is no such thing as a ‘final crisis of capitalism’. Marxism understands history as a struggle of living forces, not an abstract schema with a pre-ordained result. If the working class does not overthrow it, the capitalist system will always find a way out.
The reasons for the post-war economic upswing have been explained by Marxists since the 1950s (see Ted Grant: ‘Will There be a Slump?’). There were many different factors, such as post-war reconstruction, the discovery of new industries during the war, and to some extent the increased involvement of the state (‘state capitalism’) through arms expenditure, deficit financing and nationalisation, which, for a temporary period partially mitigated the central contradiction of private ownership of the means of production.
However, the main factor which acted as a motor-force driving the world economy was the unprecedented expansion of world trade. Thus, the Financial Times (16 December 1993) pointed out that:
Over the whole period between 1950 and 1991, the volume of total world exports grew twelve times, while world output grew six times. More startlingly still, the volume of world exports of manufactures rose twenty-three times, partly because this is where trade liberalisation was concentrated, while output grew eight times.
These figures clearly show how the rapid expansion of world trade in the post-war period acted as a powerful motor-force which drove the growth in output. This is the secret of the capitalist upswing from 1948-74. It means that, for a whole historical period, capitalism was able partially to overcome its other fundamental problem – the contradiction between the narrowness of the national market and the tendency of the means of production to develop on a global scale.
Now, however, this tendency appears to have reached its limits. In 1992, world trade grew by 6.5 per cent. While this is a lower rate than in the period of the post-war upswing, it is nevertheless historically quite high. (In the period between the Wars it was nearer 2.5 per cent.) Despite this, it did not stop Europe and Japan from sliding into recession. In other words, the growth of world trade no longer has the same effect as in the previous period.
During the period of capitalist upswing from 1948-74, we saw a staggering increase in the productive forces, fuelled and stimulated by an unprecedented expansion of world trade.
The capitalists, above all in Japan, the USA and Western Europe, were prepared to invest colossal sums in expanding the productive forces in pursuit of profit. The productivity of labour increased enormously as a result of a constant revolutionising of the means of production. New branches of industry were established – plastics, atomic energy, computers, transistors, lasers, robots, etc.
From a Marxist point of view, this was an historically progressive development, which creates the material basis for a socialist society. The strengthening of the working class and the squeezing out of the peasantry in Western Europe, Japan and the United States, also changed the class balance of forces within society to the advantage of the proletariat.
However, this period of capitalist expansion came to an end with the recession of 1973-4. Already in that period we saw the re-emergence of mass unemployment, not seen since the 1930s. The big movements of the working class in Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Britain showed that the workers were beginning to draw revolutionary conclusions from their experience.
This was temporarily cut across by the boom of 1982-90. However, this boom was completely different to the economic upswing of 1948-74. Originally sparked off by the Reagan rearmament programme, the boom of the 1980s was of an unsound character. Whereas the parasitic service sector underwent a big expansion, the capitalists continued to close factories and lay off workers in all countries.
The boom was kept going by a massive expansion of credit, which, as Marx explains, can temporarily take capitalism beyond its limits, before bouncing back like an elastic band stretched almost to breaking-point. A further element in the situation was a colossal increase in the public deficit of the USA and other capitalist countries which fuelled the boom for a while, but which could not be sustained indefinitely.
Precisely these factors which served to prolong the boom of the 1980s have now turned into their opposite. Part of the reason why the Western world is finding it so hard to drag itself out of recession is because they used up during the boom mechanisms which capitalism uses to get out of a slump.
The uncontrolled expansion of credit has left the West with a painful hangover in the form of huge consumer indebtedness. In Japan, for example, for every 100 yen earned, 170 yen are owed. In the United States, for every dollar earned, one dollar and two cents are owed, and so on.
The bourgeois economists failed to predict this recession, which is the longest and most severe since the Second World War. Of course, sooner or later they will get out of it. However, it is proving to be extremely difficult. With the exception of a very shaky recovery in Britain and a rather stronger one in the USA, the other economies of Western Europe and Japan remain stubbornly depressed. The official predictions of recovery are constantly postponed and revised downward.
The Economist (December 1993-January 1994) reports that:
The OECD now predicts that average growth in its member countries will speed up (!) to 2.1 per cent in 1994 and 2.7 per cent in 1995, after average growth of only 1.2 per cent in each of the past three years. Some countries will fare better than others. A solid, if unspectacular, recovery is already underway in the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand – the countries that dipped into recession first. All five are tipped to grow by around 3 per cent or more in both 1994 and 1995.
Continental Europe and Japan, however, remain obstinately in recession.
Even a growth of 3 per cent would be a miserable result. It would not mean a substantial fall in unemployment. Hence, the Financial Times refers glumly to “a joyless recovery.” But it is not even certain that they will attain this level of growth. A year ago, the OECD predicted that Japan would grow by 2.3 per cent in 1993, and 3.1 per cent in 1994. Instead, Japan’s GDP actually fell by 0.5 per cent in 1993 and the forecast for 1994 is only 0.5 per cent. Compare these figures to the normal Japanese growth rate of 4-5 per cent a year and we see the very profound nature of the crisis.
Even on the most optimistic estimates, unemployment in the OECD will remain (officially) at 8.5 per cent for the next two years. In Europe, the average rate of unemployment will continue to rise to at least 11.5 per cent. In other words, a sluggish (“joyless”) boom will solve none of the fundamental problems of the capitalist system. In fact, it will exacerbate them.
Whereas in the period of upswing from 1948-74 we had long periods of boom interrupted by shallow and short recessions, a very different picture is now emerging: of relatively weak periods of boom, characterised by low rates of investment, low growth and permanently high unemployment, which are only the prelude to increasingly deep and prolonged periods of slump. Such is the glittering prospect which capitalism offers to humanity on the eve of the new millennium.
One of the most malignant symptoms of the diseased state of capitalism in its epoch of senile decay is the appearance of mass organic unemployment.
During the period of capitalist upswing, mass unemployment was alleged to be a thing of the past. Through Keynesian deficit financing and ‘managed capitalism’, the capitalist cycle of ‘boom and bust’ was supposed to have been overcome. Marx had been shown to be fundamentally wrong!
In point of fact, even in this period, the capitalist cycle of boom and slump continued to exist. However, under conditions of general upswing, the small slumps or recessions which took place were generally short, shallow and were hardly noticed by the masses.
In the 1950s and 60s, the average unemployment in the advanced capitalist economies of the OECD was about 2-3 per cent. Most Western governments defined this as ‘full employment’. Now this situation appears as a dim and distant memory. Today, half the OECD countries have a jobless rate of 10 per cent or more. Since the early 1970s, unemployment in the advanced capitalist world has more than doubled.
According to the official statistics, which deliberately falsify and underestimate the true levels of unemployment, a record 35 million people are out of work in the OECD. The real figure would be nearer 50 million or more, particularly if we add the ‘discouraged’ workers who have given up looking for a job.
Unemployment in the European Union (EU) has increased inexorably over the past two decades from 2.4 per cent in 1970, to 6 per cent in 1980, to almost 12 per cent at present. This amounts to about 20 million people – roughly the population of Greece and Portugal combined. In the USA, 6.5 per cent are out of work and in Japan, too, unemployment is rising for the first time in decades. In fact, many economists consider that the true rate of unemployment in Japan is not the official 2.5 per cent but nearer 10 per cent. Bear in mind that unemployment in Japan has not exceeded 3 per cent since the Second World War. Now all that is about to change.
The main point is that this unemployment is qualitatively different to anything we have seen since 1945. This is not ‘cyclical’ unemployment, which rises and falls with the normal trade cycle of capitalism. It is not even the ‘reserve army of unemployed’ which, as Marx explains, is a necessary feature of capitalism.
This is a permanent, organic, or as the bourgeois economists call it, ‘structural’ unemployment. The system is no longer able to absorb the large numbers of workers who enter the labour market each year. On the contrary, it cannot even keep those who are already at work in employment.
Even in periods of booms, like the boom of 1982-90, the capitalists behave like Luddites, destroying the means of production, closing down factories and throwing large numbers of workers onto the streets. In periods of slump, this situation gets worse. But even when the economy finally picks up, it is unable to re-absorb them.
Unemployment is a cancer, which gnaws at the bowels of society. The atrocious waste represented by unemployment is shown by the fact that we are currently losing (on official figures) the equivalent of 35 million man-years of production every year.
In addition to this, the money spent on unemployment benefit and social security, insufficient as it is, serves to aggravate the problem of budget deficits which plague all Western governments. Since they cannot just let 35 million people and their dependants starve to death (not out of any charitable feeling, but because of fear of the social and political consequences), the capitalists are compelled to pay out huge sums of money for people not to work.
In the words of the Communist Manifesto, the bourgeoisie is “unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slaves within its slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him.”
Like some uncontrollable and terrifying epidemic, unemployment strikes the young and old, men and women, black and white, educated and uneducated, skilled and unskilled. Even the managerial strata, professional people and white-collar workers who never thought they would be out of work find themselves unceremoniously thrown on the scrap heap in the prime of life. Many 40-year-olds (and even younger people) who lose their jobs now may never find work again.
As The Economist (7 July 1993) put it: “Many who toiled long and hard to climb a career ladder are, indeed, finding that the rungs are falling away under their feet.”
The capitalists have no answer to the problem of unemployment. The old Keynesian recipes have been shown to be bankrupt. The huge budget deficits which exist in all capitalist countries (except Japan, for special reasons) mean that deficit financing and ‘pump priming’ to artificially boost demand through state expenditure is ruled out.
The dominant wing of the bourgeoisie has unceremoniously ditched the old Keynesian nostrums (which were, let us recall, supposed to have provided the definitive answer to Marxism).
In the 1930s, when jobless rates soared above 20 per cent in America and Britain, a British economist, John Maynard Keynes, argued that the cure for unemployment was to stimulate demand by increasing public spending or cutting taxes. In the 1950s and 1960s Keynesian demand management seemed to do the trick. Unemployment stayed low. But since the early 1970s, it has ratcheted up in each cycle. An increasing proportion of unemployment is clearly structural. (The Economist, 12 February 1992.)
The fact is that, even in the event of a shaky recovery, which seems likely in the next period, unemployment will not go down noticeably in most countries. It will remain an ugly and chronic ulcer, sapping the strength of society.
The Daily Express of 11 February 1994, in an article on the dire position of Britain’s manufacturing sector pointed out that more than 360,000 jobs had been lost in the industry during the recession in the three years to 1993, and that a further 47,000 were forecast to disappear in 1994, precisely in a period of recovery of the British economy. It goes on to predict that “Even though the industry is expanding, engineering companies will continue to cut workforces as new technologies force out the unskilled.” And this is not the exception, but the rule, and not only in Britain. In 1993, nearly half the unemployed in Europe had been out of work for a year or more, with little or no prospect for improvement.
The situation in Japan, where until recently most workers thought that their jobs were guaranteed for life, is no better. Although the overall unemployment figures seem low by comparison with Europe, the underlying trend is sharply up. The Economist (18 December 1993) points out that the number of full-time jobs in Japan increased over the year to October 1993 by a mere 0.1 per cent. But since the workforce is growing by 0.5 per cent a year, unemployment continues to increase: “The number of people registered as unemployed is up 20 per cent on last year. Until September 1992, job vacancies outnumbered jobs seekers: now there are 67 openings per 100 job seekers,” and the article concludes pessimistically: “Unless the yen falls along with Japan’s trade surplus, the present troubles may soon seem mild.” In fact, the yen has risen, and Japan’s crisis has gone from bad to worse.
Machinery and the Working Day
Those of us with long enough memories can remember the days when the ‘experts’ promised us a glorious vista of the future when, on the basis of applied science and technology, the burden of work would be done away with, hours reduced and the central problem of society would be what to do with our leisure time.
How ironic these arguments sound today! Today, millions of unemployed people languish in conditions of enforced ‘leisure’. At the same time, others lucky to remain at work are subjected to ever-increasing pressures. They must work longer hours for lower pay and worse conditions, while exerting their nervous system and muscle-power to the limits in the cause of greater ‘productivity’ (read: ‘profitability’).
Yet, in truth, all the earlier predictions concerning the possibility for reducing the working day were correct. The potential for a universal reduction in working hours – and thereby the abolition of unemployment – is implicit in the spectacular advance of technology in the past few decades.
Let us consider the implication of industrial robots. There are 500,000 of these machines in the world at the present time. Japan, with just 0.3 per cent of the surface of the world, and 2.5 per cent of its population, possesses more than 300,000 of the total – double the number of five years ago.
In the USA, the number of robots has grown by 50 per cent in the same period, according to figures published by the McKinsey Global Institute. Italy, France, Spain and other countries have likewise increased their number of robots.
The introduction of these machines means that the number of workers in a factory can be drastically reduced, while the productivity of those who remain, vastly enhanced by machinery, registers a substantial increase.
In France, for example, the two major car manufacturers have reduced their workforce by no fewer than 200,000 over the past twelve years, with an increased productivity of 12 per cent in the same period. Similarly, the Peugeot factory in Spain reduced its 12,000 workforce by half over the last decade.
The same technology can be applied to many other fields – the transformation of plastics, for example, or the textile industry. Even in the food industry, such operations as the packaging of cheese is done by robots, which can also be used to eliminate human participation in dangerous occupations. Robots mean greater quality, more flexibility in production, and speed.
The universal application of such technology in the context of a rational and harmonious plan of production, with the democratic involvement of the workers at all levels, would signify a complete transformation of the life of society.
The working week could immediately be reduced to a four-day, thirty two-hour week with no loss of pay. At the same time, production could be rapidly increased, both in quantity and quality. Thereafter, the working day could be steadily reduced, thus providing the material conditions for a flourishing of democracy, art, science and culture as the world has never seen.
This is precisely the material basis for socialism – a new and qualitatively higher form of human society. These are not utopian day-dreams, but conclusions which flow logically and inevitably from the present state of knowledge and the actual demands of the productive forces.
And yet, at every step reality knocks its head against the potential of production and technique. Instead of a world of leisure and self-fulfilment, we have a social nightmare of mass ‘structural’ unemployment on the one hand and relentless, inhuman squeezing of labour power on the other. How to explain such a crying contradiction?
In the first volume of Capital, Marx explains that the introduction of machinery under capitalism necessarily means a lengthening of the working day. The purpose of employing machinery is to cheapen the product by economising on labour.
However, there is a contradiction implicit in this. The profits of the capitalist are extracted from the unpaid labour of the working class. The increase in the productivity of labour made possible by the introduction of machinery is achieved by a heavy initial outlay on costly machinery which, in themselves, add no new value to the end product, but merely import to it, over a period, bit by bit, their own value:
Machinery, like every other component of constant capital, creates no new value, but yields up its own value to the product that it serves to beget. (K. Marx, Capital Volume 1, p. 387.)
The only way to ensure a greater return on this outlay, is to make his machinery work non-stop, day and night, with no interruptions, while simultaneously squeezing every atom of surplus value from the worker, both by lengthening the working day through overtime, the abolition of tea-breaks, etc. (‘absolute surplus value’), and by enormously increasing the intensity of labour by speed-ups, productivity deals and all kinds of pressure (‘relative surplus value’).
Thus, as Marx explains:
Machinery, while augmenting the human material that forms the principal object of capital’s exploiting power, at the same time raises the degree of exploitation. (K. Marx, Capital Volume 1, p. 395.)
If machinery be the most powerful means for increasing the productiveness of labour – i.e. for shortening the working-time required in the production of a commodity, it becomes in the hands of capital the most powerful means, in those countries first invaded by it, for lengthening the working-day beyond all bounds set by human nature. (K. Marx, Capital Volume 1, p. 403.)
Competition, the constant revolutionising of the productive forces and techniques, the desire to ‘corner the market’ and get an advantage over others, were the factors which, in the past at least, compelled the capitalist constantly to re-invest in expensive machinery.
However, once having introduced new machinery, it is in the capitalist’s interest to use it to the maximum. It cannot be allowed to stand idle for an instant, partly because it deteriorates, and partly because it can quickly become obsolete. That is why, under capitalism, the introduction of machinery leads to greater exploitation and an increase in the working day.
The introduction of new technology to a given branch of production means that in that branch, for a time, huge super-profits can be earned. Later, however, the other capitalists catch up and the rate of profit is levelled out.
Ultimately, the amount of surplus value obtained by the capitalist depends upon two things: a) the rate of surplus value and b) the number of workers employed. However, the introduction of machinery tends to reduce the number of workers and therefore change the ratio of variable to constant capital. Machinery (constant capital), as we have seen, does not add any new value to the final product above and beyond what is already present in it. “Hence, the application of machinery to the production of surplus value,” Marx explains, “implies a contradiction which is immanent in it.” (K. Marx, Capital Volume 1, p. 407.)
The Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall
In the Grundrisse, Marx refers to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall as “the most important law in modern political economy.” Nevertheless, Marx never considered this as an absolute phenomenon. In the third volume of Capital, he explains the tendencies which served to counteract this law. For example, Marx points out that the intensification of exploitation (‘relative surplus value’) can restore the rate of profit, and also the tendency to cheapen the price of commodities, including machinery. We have seen precisely these factors operating in the recent period, as the capitalist attempt to increase their profit margins by squeezing every atom of surplus value from the sweat and nervous strain of their workers.
In other words, what we are dealing with is only a tendency which manifests itself over the whole history of capitalist development. Nevertheless, there can be long periods – even decades – in which the tendency of the rate of profit to fall is cancelled out by the counteracting tendencies already mentioned.
In his book The Current Crisis written in 1987, Mark Glick publishes figures for the long-term rate of profit in the United States, which are reproduced in table 6.1 overleaf.
This shows that, from an historical point of view, we see that, leaving aside the inevitable cyclical fluctuations, the rate of profit now is lower than it was a hundred years ago. However, for whole periods this tendency has been reversed.
If we take the figures for the main capitalist countries during the period of the post-war upswing, when colossal sums were spent on new plant and machinery, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall is clearly revealed, as is seen in table 6.2.
(6.1) Long-term rate of profit in the United States
Rate of Profit (%)
(M. Glick, The Current Crisis.)
The slight discrepancies between the figures in tables 6.1 and 6.2 are due to the fact that the statistics are often evaluated differently. However, the important thing is the trend, which is quite clear.
In the subsequent period, particularly the 1980s, this tendency was sharply reversed, as the capitalists of all countries took steps to restore the rate of profit. This was mainly done by drastically increasing the rate of exploitation. Employers took advantage of the huge ‘shake-out’ of the early 1980s to squeeze extra surplus value from the workers who remained in employment. This was particularly true in Britain and the USA.
In general, the boom of 1982-90 represented the weakest investment cycle since the Second World War. Only in Japan and Germany was there a significant increase in capital investment. In the United States, investment in productive industry remained weak in comparison to the booms of the past. On the other hand, merciless pressure was exerted on the American workers to keep wages down and boost profit margins.
(6.2) Profit Margins in Manufacturing Industry as a Percentage of the Value of Production
By such means, the capitalists have succeeded in partially restoring the rate of profit. But even so, the rate of profit is still far less than it was in the ‘golden age’ of the 1950s and early 1960s. Nevertheless, the capitalists can accept, for a time, a reduced rate of profit, provided the mass of profit is maintained.
Some people imagined that a new period of capitalist expansion would be guaranteed by the opening of new fields of investment in the ‘information revolution’. This illusion has been rapidly shattered. The computer and software market has also rapidly reached saturation. In two years, the cost of personal computers fell by half, and the price of related products – spreadsheets, word processors, databases and the rest, is being dragged down after it.
In point of fact, this new area of production is a classic case which illustrates the correctness of Marx’s economic theories. The costs of developing complex new products are huge. Microsoft’s Access database alone cost about $60m. This can only be offset by a rapid increase in market share and a huge volume of sales.
However, with the appearance of overproduction and falling prices, profit margins have begun to fall. In the quarter to September 1993, Borland’s net profit margin sank to 2.6 per cent of sales, down 4.2 per cent a year earlier. The equivalent figures for Lotus were 7 per cent and 14.6 per cent. Even Microsoft anticipates a fall in its net profit margin to around 15 per cent from falling sales of application software.
The capitalists can, for a time, tolerate the tendency of the rate of profit to decline, on condition that the mass of profit is maintained.
As we have pointed out, the Japanese capitalists for decades have led the world in investment in new machinery and technology. The long-term decline in the profitability of Japanese industry is a well-documented fact.
Between late 1986 and early 1991, capital investment in Japan accounted for two-thirds of GNP growth. According to investment experts Smithers and Co, the current slump in business investment in Japan is directly related to this phenomenon; the graph shows a continuing decline of the rate of return on physical capital: “it takes more and more investment to deliver a given increase in output. This fact has its counterpart in Japan’s declining long-term growth rate.” Before the ‘oil crisis’ of 1974, the trend growth of real GNP was nearly 9 per cent. Then it declined to 4 per cent. One of the factors in this was “that the return on investment has declined sharply. Business investment became even less profitable in the most recent capital-spending binge.” (The Economist, 29 May 1993.)
Experience in Europe and America suggests that a ratio of capital spending to GNP of about 12-15 per cent is typical for a mature economy. Japan’s ratio peaked at 22 per cent in 1991. Since then companies such as Toyota have announced steep reductions in investment. But capital spending still accounted for 20.5 per cent of GNP in 1992. Further severe cuts seem inevitable, with consequences for both employment and consumer confidence, Smithers and Co. expects capital spending to fall by almost half before this adjustment is complete. (Ibid.)
All the big Japanese companies have seen their profits slashed. In the six months to September 1992, Matsushita (the world’s biggest electronic manufacturer) experienced a fall of 66 per cent in pre-tax profits, NEC, 71 per cent, Mazda, 72 per cent, Nippon Steel, 74 per cent. The average drop in pre-tax profits was 36 per cent. Nissan saw its first ever loss since it was quoted on the stock exchange in 1951 – a total of $114 million.
The result? Factories mothballed, wages frozen, bonuses paid in unsold goods and, for the first time in decades, Japanese workers sacked. In other words, the much-vaunted ‘Japanese model’ has finally collapsed.
The aggressive exporting methods of Japanese companies are part of an attempt to restore profitability by intensive participation on the world market. On the other hand, together with massive investment in the most modern machinery, the Japanese capitalists have developed new techniques and working practices designed to squeeze the maximum productivity from the workers. Thus, the Nissan plant in Sunderland produces 80 cars per worker per year (the same as in Japan) compared to an average of about 45 cars in the European car industry. However, both the stepping up of pressure on the workers and the attempt to find a way out of the crisis through exports come up against insuperable barriers.
One of the ultimate causes of capitalist crisis is overproduction. The working class can never purchase the total product of its labour. The capitalists cannot increase wages to the point where its surplus value is eliminated, since the pursuit of surplus value is the motor-force of the entire system. Other things being equal, if the real wages of the working class increase, the capitalists’ profits will fall, producing a collapse of investments, the life-blood of the system.
In the recent period we have seen a ferocious struggle to push down real wages, while simultaneously forcing up the productivity of labour. In the United States, for example, real wages have not risen in twenty years. In British manufacturing industry, the workforce has been reduced from six million to four million over the past decade, yet the level of production remains the same. And this has been achieved without the massive introduction of new machinery, which would have been a progressive development.
However, the relentless squeezing of the workers to achieve higher rates of profit is reaching its limits. There is a point beyond which the workers’ physical ability to produce cannot go. The drive to go beyond these limits will inevitably produce an explosion.
Even leaving this out of account, from a strictly economic point of view, the continuing ‘shake-out’ of workers from the factories creates new contradictions. On the one hand, the rise in unemployment reduces demand and thereby deepens the crisis. On the other hand, since surplus value can only be produced by human labour, at a certain point the expulsion of workers from the factories must lead eventually to a fall, not only in the rate of profit, but in the mass of profit.
The attempt to find a solution by increased participation in world markets also has a limit, insofar as the capitalists of all countries are attempting to do the same thing.
Compared to these points, the trusts of Marx’s day were mere child’s play. The only solution is to attack the workers’ living standards. We see this tendency in all countries at the present time. However, this merely gives rise to new contradictions. To the extent that they succeed in cutting wages, on the basis of the ‘need to be competitive’ in one country, the competitive advantage will be cancelled out, all the capitalist countries will be back to square one, but the masses of all nations will be worse off.
The attempt to solve the problem by increased participation on world markets has led to an ever-fiercer struggle between the USA, Europe and Japan. Such is the sharpness of the conflict that, in any other historical period, it would have already led to war. In the modern epoch, for reasons explained by the Marxists in the past, a world war between the main imperialist nations is virtually ruled out (although ‘small’ wars such as the Gulf War and the Yugoslav conflict are inevitable). Instead, we have the threat of trade wars, and the increasing division of the world into rival blocs, dominated by the USA, Japan and Western Europe.
The ferocious struggle for competitive advantage, the desperate attempt to boost profit margins, means that each national capitalist class will seek to put extra pressure on its workers. Wages, hours, conditions, social reforms, trade union rights – all the gains of the past – are under attack. This is a recipe for class struggle.
Concentration of Capital
It is ironic that, precisely in this epoch, when the entire world economy is dominated by huge multinationals, the apologists of capital try to show that the future lies with small enterprises, or, to use their favourite catch-phrase, ‘small is beautiful’.
This wishful thinking is like the day-dreams of a decrepit old libertine who tries to forget his present ailments by recalling the vigour of youth. However, the youthful phase of capitalism is gone beyond recall.
Marx explains how free competition inevitably begets monopoly. In the struggle between big and small capital, the result is always the same:
It always ends in the ruin of many small capitalists, whose capitals partly pass into the hands of their conquerors, partly vanish. (K. Marx, Capital Volume 1, p. 626.)
Today, the vast power of the monopolies and multinationals exercises a total stranglehold on the world. With the access to staggering sums of money, their economies of scale, their ability to manipulate commodity prices and even their power to determine the policy of governments, they are the true masters of the planet.
The brilliance of Marx’s method is shown precisely from the fact that he was able to predict the inevitable tendency towards monopolisation when ‘free competition’ was still the norm.
Nowadays, despite the demagogic twaddle of journals like The Economist about ‘small is beautiful’, there can be no question of this general historical tendency being reversed. Quite the contrary. The last few decades have witnessed an unprecedented tendency towards the concentration of capital.
The broad historical tendency towards the concentration of capital is absolutely incontrovertible. If we take the percentage of total assets held by companies in the United States, for example, we get the results shown in table 6.3 overleaf.
At the present moment in time, no less than nine-tenths of the US economy is in the hands of the top 500 companies, and 80 per cent of that is in the hands of the 100 biggest. A US Senate report of 1980 further revealed that the controlling interests of the stocks of these companies was in the hands of just two dozen big financial institutions. In turn, these companies are controlled by each other. For example, over a third of the shares of Citibank were held by just twenty-four of its leading ‘competitors’.
(6.3) Percentage of total assets held by companies in the United States by year
The figures for Britain are no less illuminating. Let us take the percentage share of the largest 100 firms in manufacturing, which is shown in table 6.4.
The situation as regards Germany is no different. In 1982, firms with over 200 employees accounted for only 11.9 per cent. By 1991 it was 45.1 per cent.
Small may or may not be ‘beautiful’, but the plain fact is that firms with over 500 employees overwhelmingly predominate in all major capitalist economies as against small enterprises, accounting for 49 per cent of manufacturing in France, 66 per cent in Britain, 60 per cent in West Germany and a staggering 71 per cent in the USA.
The only exception is Japan, with 33 per cent, but this is more apparent than real, since the large number of small firms are heavily dependent on the monopolies, and really represent auxiliaries of the industrial giants. At the present time, Japanese small firms are going bust at the rate of more than 1,000 each month. A similar position exists in Europe.
(6.4) Share of the largest 100 firms in manufacturing
An editorial in The Economist (18 July 1992) points out that:
There were 3.6 million more small and middle-sized enterprises in the European Union in 1989 at the start of the decade.
Now the gap is back, and widening. Many small firms have collapsed as economies stagnated and the share prices of the survivors have done less well than those of the big companies. Banks have cut their lending.
And this is the voice of the journal which used to wax lyrical about the small and medium firms which were allegedly going to represent the future of the ‘free market economy’!
Yet these figures do not tell the whole story. In the recent period, especially during the boom of the 1980s, the tendency towards the concentration of capital has been enormously accelerated, as the big monopolies made huge fortunes out of take-over bids, often accompanied by all kinds of fraud and corrupt practices – leverage bids, junk bonds, asset stripping, insider dealing, and so on. This kind of speculative fever, the urge to ‘make a fast buck’ out of non-productive activity, and not at all the creation of real wealth through investment, is what characterises the present period of capitalism.
In Britain, where the capitalist class has operated in an entirely parasitical way for years, the ‘merger-mania’ revealed itself in a particularly crude way throughout the ‘Thatcher decade’, coinciding with the wholesale dismantling of manufacturing industry. Thus, in 1979 there were 534 takeovers, with a total value of £71.6 billion. By 1987, that figure had risen to a staggering 1,125, with a total value of £715.5 billion – ten times as many.
The same phenomenon can be seen on a global scale. In the first nine months of 1990, the number of world-wide mergers and acquisitions stood at 6,883. The following year, despite the recession, the corresponding figure was still 6,151. The process of the concentration of capital proceeds apace, despite all the propaganda about ‘free enterprise’.
In Britain, fifty big companies control 90 per cent of international trade. On a different level, one third of world trade is in the hands of giant multinationals with truly staggering sums of capital at their disposal. The speculative movement of this capital around the world can make or break governments. The power of the big monopolies was revealed by the crisis of the European Monetary System (EMS), when the manipulation of billions in the international money markets compelled the devaluation of the pound, the lira, the peseta, and other currencies.
In the period of capitalist ascent, the bourgeois played a progressive role in developing the productive forces, investing in industry, science and technology. In the epoch of capitalist decline, we see a very different picture emerging. Speculative activity and investment in the parasitic service sector is displacing investment in productive activity as a source of profit. When huge fortunes can be made by a single telephone call by a currency speculator, why bother to risk capital in costly machinery which may never make a profit?
Gambling on the stock exchange has reached epidemic proportions. Nearly $200 billion a year goes to finance speculative takeovers in the United States alone. While factories were being continuously closed, in the period 1989-91 more than half of world-wide investment was dedicated to services. While part of this was of a productive character (transport and other parts of the productive infrastructure which is incorrectly included under the heading of ‘services’ by the bourgeois analysts), the majority, from junk-food shops to banking and insurance, was parasitic and non-productive.
Every day about $1,000 billion exchanges hands on the foreign exchange markets. Yet only 5-7 per cent of this represents real production and exchange deals. The rest is made up of massive speculation in international currencies, where fortunes are made in a matter of hours without the need for any productive activity, whatsoever.
To understand the explosive growth is speculative activity, between 1980 and 1990, the volume of world-wide cross-border transactions in equities increased at a compound rate of 28 per cent a year, from $120 billion to $1.4 trillion a year. Currency trading has grown by more than a third since April 1989, when a central bank survey estimated net daily turnover at $650 billion – and that was double the previous survey’s estimate for 1986.
The vast sums of money handled by the big banks, and used mainly for speculative purposes, is shown by the following figures. In 1980, the level of international lending (including domestic deals in foreign currency) was $324 billion. By 1991, despite the sharp cut-back in lending to Third World countries, as a result of the debt crisis, that figure had increased to a staggering $7.5 trillion.
To give an idea of the meaning of these figures, it is necessary to remind ourselves that in 1980, the combined gross domestic product of the 24 OECD countries (the entire developed capitalist world) was $7.6 trillion. In 1991 it was $17.1 trillion. So, in one decade, the stock of international bank lending rose from 4 per cent of total OECD GDP to 44 per cent.
These figures give a true picture of the power of the big banks and monopolies on a world scale. At the last count, in 1990, there were approximately 35,000 ‘transnational corporations’ with 147,000 foreign affiliates. However, in reality, a handful of giant monopolies predominate. The parasitic and speculative character of these monopolies explains why the boom of 1982-90 had an entirely different character to the post-war upswing.
Benjamin Friedman of Harvard University points out that between 1980 and 1989:
Corporations were borrowing not to invest but to finance transactions – including mergers, acquisitions, stock repurchases and leveraged buy-outs – that merely paid down their own or other corporation’s equity. As a result, the corporate sector’s aggregate net worth declined by more than one-fourth compared to the size of the economy.
Marx explains that the bourgeois in the end are dealing in ‘phantom figures’ – interest and speculative activities which would swallow up the whole production of the world. The statistics show that the fever of speculation vastly exceeds the actual level of production on a world scale. Marx also warned that this process cannot be prolonged indefinitely, but as we now see in Japan, inevitably leads to a collapse of production, once the speculative bubble is burst.
The destiny of millions of human beings is in the hands of these monstrous monopolies, guided purely and simply by the predatory instinct to make ‘easy money’ by non-productive means. The collapse of the EMS and the permanent instability of world finance markets are a graphic illustration of this power, which is an additional factor for instability, threatening at any time to engulf the world in a new financial crisis, which, given the precarious and unsound state of world capitalism, could end in a deep slump.
To put it at its mildest, governments have no grounds for complacency about the risk of another depression. Today’s financial markets are more than capable of assembling the preconditions, and economic policy may not be able to cope if they do…
Global capital flows are one of the biggest reasons to fear that a financial upset might cause a deep, worldwide recession. (The Economist, 19 September 1992.)
Overproduction and Slumps
The sickness of the system is shown by the phenomenon of excess capacity which affects all the main capitalist economies. In Marx’s day, the crisis of capitalism manifested itself in periodic crises of overproduction. Under modern conditions, the big monopolies have the necessary technology to calculate in advance the available market for their products. Therefore, they have tended to reduce production before getting to the point of actual overproduction.
The fact that the capitalists are not capable of fully utilising the productive capacity even in a boom is a graphic illustration of the Marxist assertion that the productive forces have grown beyond the narrow limits of private ownership and the nation state.
However, the situation at the present time is even worse. Instead of excess capacity we see the re-appearance of actual overproduction in a number of areas, not only agriculture, where the ‘food mountains’ appear as an obscene insult to the starving millions in the Third World, but cars, computers and many other commodities.
In the Communist Manifesto, written in 1847, Marx and Engels accurately described the kind of crisis which we now see:
In these crises a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed. In these crises there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity – the epidemic of overproduction. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism: it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence: industry and commerce seem to be destroyed and why? Because there is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce. The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them. And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented. (K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works, vol. 1, pp. 113-4.)
These lines are as fresh and relevant today as when they were written, over 140 years ago.
Just take the state of the car industry, where hundreds of thousands of workers have been thrown on the scrap heap because the market is saturated. The Japanese car makers had obtained a big advantage over their foreign rivals partly on the basis of investing in modern technology, partly by a more ruthless and ‘scientific’ squeezing of relative surplus value from their workers.
The Japanese monopolies, with their strong emphasis on modern machinery, were prepared to put up with a relatively low rate of return on investment, made up by a greater volume of sales through exports.
However, most families in Japan, the USA and Western Europe now possess at least one television, a car, a video, Hi-Fi equipment, etc. The tendency to expand the market artificially through credit has reached its limits, leading to a general crisis of debt.
In this situation, there has been a fall, not of the rate, but of the mass of profit. In the past, every Japanese car made 83,000 yen in profit. The figure is now about 15,000 yen. Moreover, Japanese car manufacturers had developed a productive capacity based upon the assumption of a 10-15 per cent market growth every year. In fact, market growth has been at most 2-3 per cent in the recent past.
Western Europe’s car market declined by 16 per cent in volume terms in 1993, giving rise to a vicious price war between car companies trying to dump their surplus products. Only the biggest and most powerful companies can survive in such a situation, and not all of them.
The Economist (5 February 1994) explained the seriousness of the position:
The underlying proof of the European car industry’s problems is surplus manufacturing capacity of about 2 million cars a year. If all Europe’s plants were manned and equipped to run at full stretch, the overcapacity could be 3.5 million cars a year.
For a period of almost four decades after the Second World War the capitalist system experienced a new lease of life for reasons outlined above. This was reflected in increasing living standards for a large part of the population in the advanced capitalist countries.
In the Introduction to the Living Thoughts of Karl Marx, Trotsky deals with the so-called ‘theory of increasing misery’, which the bourgeois critics of Marx have utilised to try to discredit Marxism, pointing triumphantly to the increased living standards of the workers of the West in comparison to the past.
However, Marx never denied that, under certain conditions, wages could rise. Such an assertion would be utterly childish. On the contrary, he went to some lengths to explain how wages inevitably rise in certain periods of capitalist development and fall in others. But even in the most prosperous periods of capitalism, the relative improvement of living standards can never abolish surplus value, and can never change the social position of the worker:
But just as little as better clothing, food and treatment, and a larger peculium (a slave’s allowance – EG and AW), do away with the exploitation of the slave, so little do they set aside that of the wage-worker. A rise in the price of labour, as a consequence of accumulation of capital, only means, in fact, that the length and weight of the golden chain the wage-worker has already forged for himself, allow of a relaxation of the tension of it. (K. Marx, Capital Volume 1, p. 618.)
When the capitalists are making super-profits from the labour of the working class, when demand is rising and order-books are full, and when the workers feel strong enough to combine, through their trade unions, to demand an increased share in the product of their labour-power, then the capitalist can agree to part with some of the booty.
At best, an increase in wages in a favourable period would signify a relative reduction in the amount on unpaid labour ‘given’ by the worker to the capitalist. What it can never mean is the abolition of exploitation. On the contrary, a growth in wages is frequently accompanied by an increase in the rate of exploitation, and a relative worsening of the position of the worker vis-à-vis the capitalist.
Workers are generally interested in the amount of cash they receive in wages, and what it can buy. They are not so conscious of the amount of labour they give in return, in the form of overtime, productivity deals and the rest of it. As long as the money is there at the end of the week, workers can, for a time at least, put up with a killing pace of work, which undermines their health, family and social life. Nor are they aware that, while their wages are increasing absolutely, the profits of the bosses are increasing relatively even more.
The fact that a worker can afford to buy a television or a second-hand car (on credit) does not alter his or her position vis-à-vis the capitalist. Above all in the period of monopoly capitalism, the idea that a worker can ‘better himself’ by working hard is a farcical illusion.
Marx referred to the tendency of capitalism to depend increasingly on the labour of women and children. Nowadays, child labour is supposed to have been abolished in the advanced capitalist countries. Nevertheless, it still enters into the composition of capital through the products of the Third World, where extensive and horrific exploitation of children still exists.
However, the exploitation of women and young people is an important and growing factor in the economic life of advanced capitalist countries. How many working-class families could maintain their present standard of living without wives, sons and daughters contributing to the household income with the income from low-paid jobs?
Under modern conditions of production, sheer physical strength is frequently less important than agile minds and hands. This means the possibility of widespread exploitation of women and young people, usually taken on at low wages on the basis of part-time employment means that the clock is being put back a hundred years.
Women still account for a lamentably small share of senior jobs; but lower down the ladder, things are different. In Britain, the number of women in work has increased by 18 per cent since the late 1970’s, while male employment has fallen by 7 per cent. Britain now has almost as many female employees as male ones, though many are part-timers. In America, too, women have taken the larger share of America’s new jobs since the late 1970’s. On current trends, a ‘typical’ worker in America and Britain will be a woman by early in the next century. (The Economist, 11 December 1993.)
The participation of women in the productive process is the prior condition for their emancipation from the narrow confines of the home. The entry of women workers into the ranks of industry represents a new and vital source of strength for the working class and the labour movement. However, despite the boastful tone of this bourgeois editorial writer, the crude reality of female labour, now as in Marx’s time, is one of blatant exploitation in every sense of the word.
“The rise in female employment is welcome – both for the new employees and for the economy as a whole,” gloats the leader writer. But then he lets the cat out of the bag: “Nonetheless, the slump in demand for unskilled labour and the influx of female workers have combined to depress pay for unskilled and part-time jobs. Men are less willing to work for very low pay.” (The Economist, 11 December 1993.)
Incidentally, the same Tory hypocrites who bewail the rise in crime and anti-social behaviour among young people and the ‘decline of the Family’ allegedly caused by women working, turn a blind eye to the effect of capitalist crisis on the family. Relate, the marriage guidance charity, reports a 50 per cent increase in its workload over the past five years. Unemployment and mounting debts are having a “devastating effect on family life,” it says.
Thus, even in the best period, the rise in living standards is accompanied by increased exploitation, by a relative decline in the workers’ position relative to the capitalists, and by the super-exploitation of women and young people in low-paid jobs which are increasingly of a casual or temporary character.
However, the illusion of ‘prosperity’ is now being rapidly undermined. The inexorable spread of unemployment means that even the relative gains of the past, the little pleasures which afford some consolation, which make life more civilised, are threatened. Not only these things, but even the roof over people’s head can be taken away almost at a moment’s notice. Thus, society is afflicted by an increasing sense of insecurity and malaise.
All the gains of the past are under threat, as the capitalists try to boost their profit margins at the expense of the working class and the poorest sections of society. The unemployed, the aged, the sick are faced with the continuous attacks on the welfare state. Those workers who are ‘fortunate’ enough to have a job are faced with a general assault on wages and conditions.
In Britain, which once boasted one of the most developed welfare systems, the Tory government has abolished the Wages Councils established by Winston Churchill in 1910, which were intended to protect the wages of millions of low-paid workers. Everywhere, the employers take advantage of anti-trade union laws to push down wages.
A recent report by Doctor Neil Millward of the Policy Studies Institute, commissioned by the government’s Department of Employment provoked the Financial Times (15 February 1994) to comment:
The increasingly unregulated labour market is returning to the way it was in the 19th century before trade unionism… The study suggests the sharp decline in workplace trade unionism since 1980 (with a fall from 58 per cent to 40 per cent in membership) has not led to any spontaneous move by employers to introduce alternative forms of worker representation or joint consultation.
Instead, the report states, they “appear to be moving towards the situation in which non-managerial employees are treated as a ‘factor of production’.”
Since when have workers been treated as anything else? However, there is no doubt that the bosses, in Britain and elsewhere, are taking advantage of mass unemployment, and reactionary anti-union laws and other forms of ‘deregulation’ to try to carry through a real counter-revolution on the factory floor. Even the conservative Financial Times is compelled to recognise that “Management is growing increasingly autocratic in its wielding of autocratic power.”
The report adds that:
The recent growth in inequality in wages and earnings which has been widely observed to be greater in Britain than in almost any other developed economy is being matched by a widening in the inequalities of influence and access to key decisions about work and employment.
According to figures published recently by Mr. Nick Adking, a statistician at the Department of Social Security, the real income of the poorest 20 per cent in Britain fell by about 3 per cent, after housing costs, between 1979 and 1990-91. On the other hand, the richest 20 per cent saw their incomes go up by 49 per cent, in the same period. In 1990-91, the poorest 20 per cent depended on state benefits for 69 per cent of their income.
The abolition of wages councils in 1993 has resulted in a substantial drop in pay rates, according to the Low Pay Network, which found that 18.1 per cent of jobs were paying below the minimum rate previously established. In some sectors, the position was much worse:
The survey, covering 1,500 vacancies at 45 Job Centres found that 27.1 per cent of jobs in the retail sector were paid below the last wages council rate, followed by hairdressing with 20.8 per cent, the clothing industry with 13.8 per cent and hotel and catering with 12.2 per cent.
It found underpayment ranging from an average of 9.2 per cent in the clothing sector to an average of 22.6 per cent in hairdressing, where the last set rate was 2.88 an hour.
Before abolishing the wages councils, the government argued that removing the statutory minimum wage would have little impact on wage levels or employment. (Financial Times, 14 February 1994.)
According to the official figures, the average Briton saw his or her real income rise by 25.4 per cent since 1979. But this disguises a huge increase in living standards for the better-off, and, at the other extreme, a rapid process of impoverishment.
It is true that many workers, in the last period, have been able to purchase things like videos, dishwashers, Hi-Fi equipment and the like which would have been unthinkable for an earlier generation. This creates a sensation of well-being and ‘prosperity’. However, on the one hand, this partly reflects the general cheapening of commodities, manifested in rapidly falling prices of what were previously considered luxury items (computers are a good example). On the other hand, the consumer boom of the 1980s was achieved at the cost of a colossal increase in indebtedness through credit which, as we have seen, is one of the reasons why the present recession has been prolonged.
Take Japan, for instance. In 1986, Japanese households had debts worth 92 per cent of their annual post-tax incomes. The figure for the USA was about the same. By the end of the decade, Japan’s ratio had jumped to 116 per cent. But the trouble with credit, as every worker knows, is that eventually it has to be paid back – and with interest. It is a way of taking capitalism beyond its normal limits. But at the end of the day, the price must be paid in the form of a deepening of the crisis. According to some estimates, the burden of debt repayment in Japan has cut consumer demand by around 2 per cent since 1990. Britain and America experienced a similar phenomenon earlier on.
In other words, the absolute increase in living standards during the boom was achieved in the advanced capitalist countries, on the one hand by workers toiling extra, stretching themselves to the limit, working overtime, week-ends and so on. On the other hand, it was achieved by the cheap labour and exploitation of women and young people. Finally, it was the result of the ‘artificial paradise’ of credit, which ended up in a nightmare of debt.
All this, of course, refers to the workers in average or ‘well-paid’ jobs. But at the bottom end of the scale, we see the relentless spread of poverty, and even the creation, at the lowest level, of a kind of ‘under-class’ of people who are, in effect, excluded from the right to a civilised existence.
In London and Paris, we have the scourge of homelessness and a large number of young people with no job, living on the streets in conditions reminiscent of Victorian times – easy prey to crime, drug addiction and prostitution.
The Economist (11 April 1992) carried an article describing the conditions of the urban poor in the United States:
These crumbling vertical ghettos, housing 20,000 people, all of them black: another 5-7,000 live as illicit stowaways. It is down there, in that wasteland of smashed windows and stale urine, that America’s most pathological ills are concentrated. The statistics speak plainly of how 50 years of public housing has failed to help those it was meant to help… Nine-tenths of households have a single parent, so parental authority is spread thin. Nearly everyone depends upon government assistance of some sort. This housing was meant to provide shelter of last resort. Yet many families have lived in it for three generations.
These lines refer to the Robin Taylor Homes in Chicago, but they could refer to any one of a thousand such ‘inner city areas’, and not only in the United States. The article goes on:
The Housing Act of 1949 promised “a decent home and a suitable looking environment for every American family.” During the economic boom of the 1980s, the country’s poorest fifth got poorer and housing assistance rose. The number of poverty level households assisted grew by 161 per cent between 1974 and 1989 to 2.4 million according to the joint centre for housing studies at Harvard University. But the growth in poverty outstripped the growth in Federal Resources. Over 5 million renters and 4 million home owners live, unassisted, below the poverty level.
In the past, housing used to be like the car market: through deterioration, units become cheaper and so affordable for the poor. No longer. The number of housing units that were rented for less than $250 a month (in 1989 dollars) fell from 8.6 million in 1974 to just 6 million in 1989. A lot of ‘low cost’ housing became gentrified during the 1980s. In poor neighbourhoods, even more housing promised landlords so little prospect of return that buildings have been abandoned, reinforcing urban decay.
The cost of housing now lies at the heart of America’s poverty. More than three quarters of renters live below the poverty level and more than half of poor home owners spend more than half their income on housing costs. It would take $20 billion to clear up America’s housing and make it ready to sell.
But consider this. Some 56 per cent of Federal housing subsidies or 49.9 billion dollars goes (mostly in the form of mortgage interest relief) to the richest fifth of Americans each year. Just $14.9 billion goes to the poorest fifth. The disparity is absurd, visibly so.
The same journal (21 March 1992) dealt with the spread of diseases, like tuberculosis in the poor urban areas of the most developed capitalist country:
The United States thought it had eradicated TB. Yet the disease has already reached epidemic proportions in New York city: Doctors estimate that there were almost 5,000 new cases last year, 35 per cent more than in 1990 (the most recent year for which an official tally is available), and about 300 deaths. More than one in six of America’s TB sufferers is in New York city.
Measles and syphilis struck last year too, and the struggle against AIDS goes on all the time. Now the resurgence of TB threatens to overwhelm the city’s health officials. The long decline in TB stopped in New York at the end of the 1970s, but it is only in the last couple of years that the disease has once more spread rapidly. The HIV virus, homelessness, poverty, and drug abuse all make people more vulnerable. The disease has been incubated in the city’s overcrowded prisons, hospital wards and shelters. Two out of three sufferers are young blacks or Hispanics. New Yorkers have a worse record than the people of most Third World countries when it comes to completing treatment. In Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique, according to the World Bank, the completion rate (for TB) is 80 per cent; in East Harlem, with one of the highest rates of infection, it is 11 per cent.
Marx and Engels pointed out over a century ago that the bourgeoisie was compelled to take action to introduce better sanitation into the workers’ districts when the epidemics of disease begun to spread to the ‘respectable’ middle class areas. The article goes on to point to the risk of court actions against the New York City council, and comments: “New York cannot afford them. Even less, however, can it afford to let TB spread – as it will – to plush offices and nice homes.”
Behind the righteous indignation of the bourgeois against the so-called ‘law of increasing immiseration’ lies an uncomfortable awareness that, in fact, there has been a tendency to reduce a significant layer of society to absolute poverty.
While the rich have grown richer, the poor have sunk to a level which literally approaches the type of conditions we associate with the novels of Charles Dickens – or the chapters in Marx’s Capital on machinery and the working day – among the greatest examples of social criticism in the whole of political literature.
A recent study by a children’s charity revealed that basic social security benefit paid to more than 1.5 million families in Britain does not even pay for the diet prescribed for a child in a Victorian workhouse.
The Food Commission costed the diet of a child in a workhouse in the East End of London in 1876 and arrived at the figure of £5.46 a week at today’s prices. This compared to £4.15 a week allowed in income support for a child under 11.
Tony White, the charity’s chief executive commented: “It is appalling, as we approach the year 2000, that even an 1876 workhouse diet is too expensive for the families of one in four of our children.”
Marx wrote about the terrible conditions of the mainly women workers in the garment trade in the East End of London. The abolition of the wages councils and the drastic reduction of factory inspection under the Tory government means that, in all probability, the conditions of the (mainly Asian) women workers in these trades will be all too similar.
And not only in Britain. In California, one of the most prosperous and ‘liberal’ states of the most powerful and wealthy nation on earth, we have the same phenomenon – the “agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality and mental degradation,” of which Marx wrote. Thus, The Economist (12 February 1994) reports: “The garment industry in California has long depended on seamstresses, usually Chinese immigrants, toiling in back alley sweatshops for illegally low rates of pay.” For a dress retailing at $150, a seamstress will “probably pick up about $6.”
“In December (1993), a sweep through 71 shops in San Francisco and Oakland found more than half of them in violation of minimum-wage standards. Sewing jobs for Esprit, Liz Claiborne, Izumi and other glittering names were being done by underpaid workers.”
It tends to be forgotten that all the gains made by the working class in the past were obtained through struggle. The ruling class has never conceded anything without a fight. It is true that, in a period of economic upswing, the capitalists can afford to part with a small part of their profits, so long as they continue to enrich themselves at the expense of the working class. But now that the period of upswing has ended, they have launched an all-out offensive to eliminate the conquests of labour.
In the United States, even during the ‘Reagan boom’, of the 1980s, unit-labour costs in manufacturing industry actually declined by an average of 6.4 per cent a year (in 1985-93). In Germany and Japan, they rose 4.2 per cent and 6.6 per cent respectively in the same period. But now the German and Japanese capitalists want to pursue the same policy. Chancellor Kohl lectures the German workers, complaining that they are “over-paid,” “lazy” and work too few hours.
The capitalists of all other countries are singing the same song. Fred Lempers of the Netherlands Chamber of Employers recently stated that Dutch companies were hoping that the minimum wage (2,163 guilders, or $1,141 a month) would “at least be halved.”
In Belgium, the imposition of a series of austerity plans provoked a general strike in November 1993. The attempt of the Spanish government to impose deregulation of the labour market also provoked a 24-hour general strike.
Everywhere you look, the capitalists and their governments are attempting to find a way out of the crisis at the expense of the working class. The illusions in a future based upon full employment and prosperity which became widespread in the advanced capitalist world on the basis of nearly four decades of economic upswing, are swiftly disappearing:
The American tradition is based on the expectation of rising wealth. Large parts of the population are now faced with the reality of being poorer than their parents, or even their grandparents. The price of industrial competitiveness may thus be the lowering of expectations, not only for wages but for working hours and conditions. In the US, the lesson is proving painful. Europe, for the most part, has yet to confront it. (Financial Times, 7 February 1994.)
The ‘Third World’
The period since the Second World War has been one of uninterrupted turmoil in the underdeveloped capitalist countries. The people of Africa, Asia and Latin America, amounting to two thirds of the human race, derived little benefit from the fireworks display of economic growth in the industrialised West. They remained hungry spectators at the feast of world capitalism.
Even the relative development of industry made possible by the world economic upswing of 1948-73 did not prevent a fall in national income for most of these countries, leading to a general economic and social crisis.
Nominally independent, they are even more enslaved than before. The economies of these countries are tied by a million chains to the chariot of world imperialism, which exercises its domination through international trade and the mechanisms of the world market based on the exchange of more labour for less.
According to figures published by the UN Development Programme for 1992, the gap between rich and poor countries has increased inexorably over the past decades. Since 1960 the share of the world’s gross product of the richest 20 per cent grew from 70.2 per cent to 82.7 per cent. This means that the industrialised capitalist countries are now 60 times wealthier than those countries where the poorest 20 per cent live. The gap between the two has doubled in the last thirty years.
However, even these figures understate the reality. In the advanced countries of capitalism, millions live in poverty, while the Third World has its share of wealthy parasites and exploiters. The same report reveals that the difference of income between the world’s richest billion and the world’s poorest billion is more than 150 to one.
In the last decade of the 20th Century, despite all the wonders of modern science, two thirds of humanity live on the border line of barbarism. Common diseases, such as diarrhoea and measles kill seven million children a year. Yet this can be prevented by a cheap and simple vaccination. 500,000 women die each year from complications during pregnancy, and perhaps another 200,000 die from abortions. The ex-colonial countries spent only 4 per cent of their GDP on health – an average of $41 a head, compared with $1,900 in the advanced capitalist countries.
According to United Nations reports, more than 6 billion people will inhabit the earth by the year 2000. About half of them will be under the age of 20. Yet most suffer from unemployment, lack of basic education and health care, overcrowding and bad living conditions. An estimated 100 million children aged 6 to 11 are not in school. Two thirds are girls. Incidentally, even in the USA, UNICEF estimates that 20 per cent of children live below the national poverty line. However, the situation in third world countries has reached a horrific level.
As many as 100 million children live on the streets. In Brazil, this problem has been ‘solved’ by a campaign by the police and murder squads to exterminate children for the crime of being poor. Similar atrocities are being carried out against homeless people in Colombia.
One million children have been killed, 4 million seriously injured, and 5 million have become refugees or orphaned as a result of wars in the past decade. In many ex-colonial countries, we have the phenomenon of child labour, often amounting to slavery. The hypocritical protests in the Western media do not prevent the products of this labour from reaching Western markets and increasing the capital of ‘respectable’ western companies. A typical example was the recently published case of a match factory where children, mostly girls, work a 6-day, 60 hour-week, with toxic chemicals, for three dollars. A letter to The Economist of 15 September 1993 pointed out that: “Parents do realise the value of education for the future of their children but often their poverty is so desperate that they cannot do without the wages of their labouring children.”
The main reason for the grinding poverty of the third world is the two-fold looting of the resources through the terms of trade, and the trillion dollars debt owed by the third world to the big western banks. Just to pay the interest on the debt, these countries have to export food needed by their own people and sacrifice the health and education of the people. According to UNICEF, debt repayments have caused incomes in the third world to fall by a quarter, health expenditure by 50 per cent and educational expenditure by 25 per cent. Despite the hypocritical outcry against the destruction of the Amazonian rainforest, Brazilian economists have proved that this is mainly motivated by the need to raise cash for agricultural exports, such as beef, raised on reclaimed land. The financing for such export projects comes from the World Bank and other international financial organisations.
The plight of the third world was vividly expressed in the 1989 UNICEF report:
Three years ago, former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere asked the question, “must we starve our children to pay our debt?” That question has been answered in practice. And the answer has been ‘yes’. In those three years hundreds of thousands of the world’s children have given their lives to pay their countries’ debts, and many millions more are still paying the interest with their malnourished minds and bodies.
Impasse of Capitalism
Before the war, Trotsky referred to the capitalist class “tobogganing towards disaster with its eyes closed.” The same could be said of capitalism today, after an interval of more than half a century.
Since World War Two, bourgeois governments have tried everything from Keynesianism to Monetarism, and every conceivable combination in between. The Keynesian experiment was responsible for an explosion of inflation at the end of the 1970s and forced them to beat a hasty retreat.
Since then, we have seen the monetarist reaction, which was allegedly going to restore sound finance and balanced budgets. What was the result? In Britain, the application of monetarist policies under Thatcher led to a collapse of industry, from which it has still not recovered. From 28.4 per cent of GDP in 1971, manufacturing industry fell to 23.1 per cent in 1989. Those employed in manufacturing fell from 8.4 million in 1969 to 5.1 million in 1990. On the other hand, the parasitic banking sector increased from 9.3 per cent in 1971 to 18.7 per cent in 1989.
At the same time, in all the advanced capitalist countries, there has been an inexorable rise in budget deficits, and this in spite of sharp cut-backs in state expenditure. Last year, the average budget deficit of the OECD countries stood at 4.2 per cent of GDP – a huge increase from 1 per cent of GDP in 1989. Worse still, their total public-sector debt rocketed to about 63 per cent of GDP (up from 42 per cent in 1980). The interest on this debt alone represents a colossal drain on the resources of society.
In the European Union, the average budget deficit increased from 3 per cent of GDP in 1989 to about 7 per cent in 1993 – the highest level since the Second World War, and even bigger, proportionately, than America’s (4.4 per cent).
Moreover, the OECD reckons that as much as three-quarters of America’s budget deficit, and two-thirds of Europe’s is ‘structural’ and will persist even when the economy picks up again.
Given this situation, a return to Keynesian methods of deficit financing would provoke an explosion of inflation. On the other hand, attempts to cut the deficit will decrease demand, thereby aggravating the crisis.
The fact that these staggering deficits were piled up during the boom of 1982-90 is a further indication of the sickness of the system. In the past, deficits were used by the Keynesians to get out of slumps by ‘creating demand’. Now Western governments cannot do this because the deficit was allowed to get out of hand in the previous period.
Far from increasing public spending, they are continually cutting back, despite the fact that in countries such as Britain, the infrastructure (health, schools, roads, railways, housing) is falling to pieces. Even the meagre ‘benefits’ of the unemployed, invalids, single parents and old age pensions are singled out for attack. And still the budget deficit continues to grow, as a result of the fall in production and huge interest repayments.
The bourgeois economists contradict themselves continually. On the one hand they argue that there is ‘not sufficient demand’ in the economy, while simultaneously arguing in favour of a cut in demand in the form of wage cuts and slashing public expenditure. Wherever they turn, they are trapped between the twin evils of inflation and deflation. In other words, whatever they do will be wrong.
In the long term, the outlook for capitalism is hopeless. However, that does not mean that it will automatically disappear. Capitalism always moves through booms and slumps. It is like breathing in and out. It accompanies capitalism from the cradle to the grave. However, the vigorous respiration of a healthy child is not the same as the painful wheezing of senile decrepitude. The capitalist system is sick, and the sickness is terminal.
Karl Marx explained over a hundred years ago that the final barrier to capitalist production is capitalism itself. It is true there is no ‘final crisis’ of capitalism. It is true that, until it is overthrown by the working class, it will always find a way out. But, in finding a way out, the bourgeois always increase the contradictions of the system and ultimately make matters worse.
For reasons which we have outlined above, the capitalist system, after four decades of expansion, is now reaching its limits. The long period of relative peace and prosperity in the advanced capitalist countries is drawing to a close. Halfway through the last decade of the twentieth century – a century already characterised by two world wars and untold calamities for the human race – the world is faced with a new period of wars, civil wars, revolution and counter-revolution. In the course of this period, the destiny of humanity will be settled, one way or another.
What ‘way out’ can there be for capitalism? As Lenin used to say, the truth is always concrete. The bourgeois have tried Keynesianism and Monetarism. Both ultimately failed – the second far more quickly than the first. They can try a mix of both these witches’ brews. That will bring them the worst of all worlds – a mixture of inflation and deflation, which will rapidly provoke new social and political convulsions.
Over many decades, all the contradictions have been piling up. Now they must pick up the bill. In 1914 and 1939, they took to the path of war to attempt to resolve their problems. But the existence of terrifying weapons of destruction – nuclear, chemical, biological – means that an all-out war between the major powers would necessarily end in mutual annihilation. Since the capitalists do not wage war for the fun of it, but in order to conquer markets, raw materials, territory and spheres of influence, this road is effectively blocked, at least as long as the working class and its organisations remain intact.
This means that the contradictions of capitalism must express themselves in an ever-sharper conflict between the classes. The bourgeois of every country are agreed on one thing: it is necessary to drive down living standards, to slash state expenditure, to destroy the welfare state because ‘we’ (that is to say, the capitalist system) cannot afford it. That means that they threaten to eliminate all those things which make life bearable for the majority of people, all those elements which make for at least a semi-civilised existence.
“The revolution needs the whip of counter-revolution,” Marx used to say. The counter-offensive of capital will have a profound effect on the working class, which has accumulated colossal power over the past few decades. The general strikes in Spain, Belgium and Italy are a warning that the workers will not stand idly by to watch their living standards destroyed.
The next period will see big battles between the classes that will put the struggles of the past in the shade. Once again, the workers will begin to move through the mass organisations of the class, beginning with the trade unions, to attempt to transform society. Sooner or later, they will take power in one country or another, as they did in Russia in 1917. When that happens, it will transform the world far more quickly than in 1917-21. The basis will be laid for the victory of socialism on a world scale.
For a Workers’ Democracy!
“Owing to the extensive use of machinery and to the division of labour,” wrote Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, “the work of the proletarian has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily required knack, that is required of him.” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works, vol. 1, p. 114.)
In the days of Ancient Rome, a slave was described as ‘instrumentum vocalis’ – a ‘tool with a voice.’ Nowadays, the position of most ‘free’ workers is not much better. Not only the deadly monotony and exhausting work of the production line, but also the soul-destroying nature of the work of many white-collar workers working with computers in large offices which, in effect, increasingly resemble factories. And this is the way most people spend their lives, if they are lucky enough to find work at all!
Yet the development of technique means that it is possible to abolish, or reduce to a minimum expression, this kind of inhuman toil. The word ‘robot’ comes from the Czech ‘robotnik,’ which means ‘a slave’. That is just what industrial robots are. They do not sleep, they do not stop for a tea-break or lunch, they work ceaselessly 14 hours a day, performing their tasks with great flexibility and to the highest standard. In fact, just as the boss would like the worker to be!
It is quite possible nowadays to have big factories with no workers at all, other than those required for maintenance. The general introduction of industrial robots to large-scale industry therefore potentially represents the greatest labour-saving revolution in history.
Under capitalism, such a development would lead to unemployment on an unimaginable scale, and ultimately provoke the collapse of the whole system. Hence, although the technology exists and also, as we have seen, huge amounts of capital which is not being put to productive use, the introduction of the new technology has been extremely slow and uneven.
The same economic system which dooms 50 million people in the industrialised countries, and further hundreds of millions in Africa, Asia and Latin America to a life of enforced idleness and misery, and which systematically destroys the means of production, closing down factories like so many matchboxes, also prevents the utilisation of technology which could transform the lives of the peoples of the world.
One of the most striking features of modern capitalism is the way in which it has united the whole world under its control. The prediction of the authors of the Communist Manifesto has been borne out in an almost laboratory pure fashion. The international division of labour has been carried to an extreme. The world market exercises an irresistible pull on all national economies. No power, not the USA, not Russia nor China can tear itself free from it.
Under capitalism the ‘New World Order’ manifests itself as the ruthless domination of a handful of imperialist powers, headed by the United States, and a few hundred giant multinationals, which treat the semi-colonial countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America as their feudal fiefdoms. For the masses of the Third World, capitalism is, in the phrase of Lenin, “horror without end.”
Yet the case for a genuine New World Order is really unanswerable. It is not only the means of putting an end to the crazy economic imbalances and the crying social injustices which are an endless source of human misery, wars and conflicts. It is a matter of absolute necessity for the very survival of the planet.
The blind search after short-term gain for the monopolies leads to the rape of the world’s resources and the destruction of the environment. Not just the felling of rainforests, but the systematic poisoning of the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe. In the first volume of Capital, Marx already pointed to this destructive tendency of the profit system. But now it has reached a critical point. If this rampage is allowed to continue unchecked, the future not just of the human race, but possibly of life on earth could be placed in terrible danger.
The reality is that the productive forces have long outstripped the limits of private ownership and the nation state. In order to realise the astonishing potential of modern industry, science and technique, it is necessary to achieve a system based upon the harmonious planning of production on a global scale. The prior condition for this is the overthrow of the dictatorship of the big banks and monopolies, and its replacement by a genuine regime of workers’ democracy.
The development of production and new techniques enters in contradiction with the old idea of the worker as a mere appendage of the machine. In order to make the best use of sophisticated techniques, and achieve a high level of quality, it is necessary to achieve the conscious participation of the workers at all levels. In effect, this fact is recognised, although in a distorted way by the latest Japanese production concepts. Even the most sophisticated robots can never attain the same level of creative consciousness as a human being, although it may be far more efficient at performing mechanical tasks. The necessity for democratic workers’ control and management, far from being a Marxist utopia, flows inevitably from the demands of modern production itself.
Instead of mindlessly carrying out a single, repetitive operation, tomorrow’s car worker is more likely to be a team member with many skills and greater responsibilities…
For some car firms, survival will depend on how successful they are at promoting teamwork throughout their organisations. People are so much more dexterous, flexible and inventive than robots – which is why the Japanese believe that automation should help people to work in factories rather than replace them. Robots alone could not achieve the Holy Grail of flexible production. (The Economist, 17 October 1992.)
Of course, in practice, the intention of the Japanese monopolies is to invent a new way of squeezing more surplus value out of the workers. Despite the fine words printed above, about robots helping people to work in factories, the big Japanese car makers did not hesitate to lay off workers once their profits were affected.
In a genuine socialist planned economy, the general introduction of the new techniques would be used to reduce the working day to a minimum expression. This would provide the material basis for a qualitative advance of human civilisation.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle said that “Man begins to philosophise when the necessities of life are provided.” By philosophise we mean the ability to think in general, to lift one’s eyes above the worries and immediate pressures of every day existence, to seek a broader horizon, to contemplate life, nature, and the universe. In present-day society, the minds of men and women are oppressed by the struggle for survival – whether or not they will find work, whether they will be able to pay the bills at the end of the month, find a roof over their heads, obtain provision for sickness and old age. Only when these degrading obsessions are eliminated will men and women become genuinely free human beings, able for the first time to realise their full potential.
Trotsky once asked the question: “How many Aristotles are herding swine? How many swineherds are sitting on thrones?” Throughout history, the mass of humanity has been deprived of access to free time, education and culture which would permit them to contribute to society’s store of knowledge. It is a crime of class society that such a vast reservoir of human talent is wasted. By releasing it, socialism would prepare the way for such a blossoming of culture, art and science as has never been seen in human history. Humanity would draw itself up to its full height. This would mark the end of human pre-history and the commencement of the true history of the human race.
Speech at the Grave of Karl Marx
On 14 March, at a quarter to three in the afternoon, the greatest living thinker ceased to think. He had been left alone for scarcely two minutes, and when we came back we found him in his armchair, peacefully gone to sleep – but forever.
An immeasurable loss has been sustained both by the militant proletariat of Europe and America, and by historical science, in the death of this man. The gap that has been left by the departure of this mighty spirit will soon enough make itself felt.
Just as Darwin discovered the law of development or organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.; that therefore the production of the immediate material means, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case.
But that is not all. Marx also discovered the special law of motion governing the present-day capitalist mode of production, and the bourgeois society that this mode of production has created. The discovery of surplus value suddenly threw light on the problem, in trying to solve which all previous investigations, of both bourgeois economists and socialist critics, had been groping in the dark.
Two such discoveries would be enough for one lifetime. Happy the man to whom it is granted to make even one such discovery. But in every single field which Marx investigated – and he investigated very many fields, none of them superficially – in every field, even in that of mathematics, he made independent discoveries.
Such was the man of science. But this was not even half the man. Science was for Marx a historically dynamic, revolutionary force. However great the joy with which he welcomed a new discovery in some theoretical science whose practical application perhaps it was as yet quite impossible to envisage, he experienced quite another kind of joy when the discovery involved immediate revolutionary changes in industry, and in historical development in general. For example, he followed closely the development of the discoveries made in the field of electricity and recently those of Marcel Deprez.
For Marx was before all else a revolutionist. His real mission in life was to contribute, in one way or another, to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the state institutions which it had brought into being, to contribute to the liberation of the modern proletariat, which he was the first to make conscious of its own position and its needs, conscious of the conditions of its emancipation. Fighting was his element. And he fought with a passion, a tenacity and a success such as few could rival. His work on the first Rheinische Zeitung (1842), the Paris Vorwärts (1844), the Deutsche Brüsseler Zeitung (1847), the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (1848-49), the New York Tribune (1852-61), and, in addition to these, a host of militant pamphlets, work in organisations in Paris, Brussels and London, and finally, crowning all, the formation of the great International Working Men’s Association – this was indeed an achievement of which its founder might well have been proud even if he had done nothing else.
And, consequently, Marx was the best hated and most calumniated man of his time. Governments, both absolutist and republican, deported him from their territories. Bourgeois, whether conservative or ultra-democratic, vied with one another in heaping slanders upon him. All this he brushed aside as though it were a cobweb, ignoring it, answering only when extreme necessity compelled him. And he died beloved, revered and mourned by millions of revolutionary fellow workers – from the mines of Siberia to California, in all parts of Europe and America – and I make bold to say that, though he may have had many opponents, he had hardly one personal enemy.
His name will endure through the ages, and so also will his work.