Karl Marx – political philosopher, historical materialist, economic analyst of capitalism and its class society; above all, revolutionary fighter – was born in Trier, Germany on 5 May 1818. For anyone today fighting for an end to capitalism his life is cause for celebration.
Marx’s work enabled us to understand the basic dynamic of capitalism, its place in the history of civilisations, and learn from the historical ebb and flow of the class struggle. As Engels said at the grave-side of his friend,
Marx was before all else a revolutionary. 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, to make it conscious of its situation and its needs, and conscious of the conditions for its own emancipation – that was his real life work.
Marx was not the first person to recognise the struggle between classes or to hold out the prospect of communism springing from the revolt of the oppressed against the powerful and wealthy who robbed them of the product of their toil. But when the Communist Manifesto was published in 1848 it was also revolutionary in a deeper sense. It took the age-old struggle for a classless society out of the realm of utopian dreams and millenarian uprisings and put it firmly onto historical, materialist ground.
It is fashionable to regard the Manifesto as a brilliant piece of prose by a young Marx before he became an intolerant dogmatist in later years. There is no denying the inspirational style of the document which Marx re-shaped out of Engels’ drafts. From its famous opening:
A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism, to its defiant: Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win, the Manifesto was a rallying call to the working class.
This was a time when revolution was threatening the old feudal regimes throughout much of Europe, a time when the working class was already organising on its own account but not yet in a position to overthrow the rule of capital. But the Manifesto should not be dismissed as a romantic flight of fancy by an over-exuberant young Marx.
Ever since joining the Young Hegelians as a student at Berlin University, Marx had devoted his considerable brain power to challenging existing institutions and ideas, including religion, philosophy, history, politics and the economic basis of society itself. Underpinning it all was the historical materialist approach which he and Engels worked out as they undermined and went beyond the Young Hegelians. Like all revolutionary ideas, historical materialism did not spring from nowhere and it is essentially uncomplicated. (In fact too straightforward for most academic Marxists.) Starting from the insight that … life involves before everything else eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing and many other things. The first historical act is, therefore, the production of material life itself. … the whole of human history appears in a different light. Instead of the actions of ‘great men’, the power of religious beliefs or the ideas of philosophers being the key to shaping the world, we can see that underlying it all is the class struggle over who *controls* the production and distribution of life’s necessities. In this light the various civilisations of the past can be understood in terms of how one class in society – the people whose labour produces life’s necessities – are denied ownership or control of the land, raw materials and tools they work with as well as the product of their labour. Much less than a ‘social contract’ the domination of the ruling class is reinforced by laws, religious precepts, military force – in other words, the state.
So far all the epochal changes in history have been the result of the struggle of a rising class to consolidate their economic hold over the means of production by getting control of the state. However, when it comes to the proletariat, the working class, who live by wage labour whose numbers are growing with the expansion of capitalism, They have nothing of their own to secure and to fortify;… All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority. The only way we proletarians can become masters of society at large is by destroying the basis of our exploitation – i.e. capitalism and its wages system – by putting the means of production back into the hands of society as a whole so that everyone can participate in deciding how best to meet human needs. In the process the state, that weapon for securing the domination of one class over everyone else, will fade away as,
In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonism, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.
The Need for Political Struggle
There is nothing inevitable about this. Marx’s materialism is far from a religious creed. While it’s true that his later economic studies enabled him to explain capitalism’s inbuilt tendency to crisis and collapse, Marx never argued that capitalism’s economic crisis would in itself lead to communism. On the contrary, precisely because the working class has no property to use to build up its own power within capitalism, the struggle for communism has to be a conscious political struggle where workers as a whole can see the prospect of a different world beyond their day-to-day skirmishes with capital. In other words, the onus is on the Communists, those who have the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement to form a distinct political party which will spearhead the struggle.
This is not to say that the communist programme was set in stone in 1848. Marxism is nothing if not a method to learn and preserve the lessons from historical experience in order to frame a clear guide for action to the wider working class movement. Marx devoted much of his life to the First International whose members accepted that, To conquer political power has therefore become the great duty of the working class. [Marx’s Inaugural Address, November 1864] When it collapsed after the defeat of the Paris Commune the historical calumny is that this was due to Marx’s ‘statism’. (For the anarchists the need for political struggle was equated with taking over the existing state.) Nothing could be further from the truth. As the International at first accepted:
One thing was especially 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. [The Civil War in France; Address of the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association, written by Marx.]
This is one of the cornerstones of the communist programme today but it is not the only issue. Now, when world capitalism is facing a crisis of existence, when the next financial crash is waiting to happen; as more and more proletarians are excluded from ‘the labour market’, when trade wars are already on the agenda and the carnage in Syria is openly presented as a global proxy war … In short, when it is more urgent than ever for the global working class to recognise that they alone hold the possibility of a civilised alternative to capitalist barbarism, the most important lesson we can draw from Marx today is the urgent need to form a political organisation which can always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole. This party will not be a government in waiting but a guide of the wider class movement which through the communal organisations it creates can alone build a new society.
It is vital that 21st century Marxists, who have rejected the old lie that Stalinism = communism, or that state ownership is a step towards communism, should be ready to engage in the urgent political work needed for forming the international revolutionary party. Understanding the falling rate of profit provokes crises, recognising that beyond hierarchy and elites there is a ruling capitalist class and a working class; investigating the real working and living conditions of today’s wage workers; encouraging workers to resist and organise for themselves: all these are part of today’s communist work. We just need to remind ourselves of the need to create that international political body which understands the line of march of the proletariat as a whole.
From Aurora 43