Marx in the 21st century

Talk given by Tim Bowron at a public forum at the Christchurch WEA in November 2008 organised by the Workers Party.


It seems as though these days the only time you are likely to hear the name of Karl Marx mentioned is when he is being dismissed as the proponent of some outlandish utopian ideology which had marginal relevance in nineteenth century Europe but none at all now (the view of most standard history texts) or as a the prophet of capitalist globalisation who also had some rather funny ideas about workers and exploitation with which we need not concern ourselves too much (the view of more sophisticated bourgeois pundits such as the writers for The Economist).

It is indeed true that the idea that the working class of which Marx wrote so volubly is rapidly vanishing from the stage of history has some material basis (at least in first world countries like New Zealand).  However while the number of workers directly engaged in the creation of surplus value in areas such as manufacturing and raw material extraction has certainly decreased in New Zealand over the past few decades, the amount of exploitation i.e. the mass of surplus value created by workers in these sectors and expropriated by the capitalists has not.

In addition, although the largest occupational group as measured in the 2006 New Zealand census were labelled as “professionals” (18.85%) followed by “managers” (17.14%), the relationship of these individuals to the means of production is clearly shown in the “status in employment” category where we learn that over 75% of the population are still dependent on selling their labour power in order to earn a living.

The real problem here then is not the absence of class but rather the collapse of working class consciousness (such that a supermarket checkout supervisor may now well consider themselves a “manager”, and various politicians can proclaim that we are “all middle class now”).

And contrary to what the school textbooks might say, this development would not have surprised Marx.  While his political opponents have often charged him with predicting the inevitable demise of capitalism and the victory of the working class, in fact he did nothing of the sort.  What Marx outlined in his writings (most notably in his magnum opus, Capital) were the basic laws, tendencies and internal contradictions of the capitalist system.

Dialectical View

In order to identify these processes Marx employed the method of dialectics, pioneered by the German philosophers Georg Hegel and Ludwig Feuerbach.  However unlike those philosophers Marx was also a materialist, and realised that the primary contradictions driving human history were located in the modes and forces of production – not the ideas in peoples’ heads.  Marx’s materialism allowed him to avoid the making the same mistakes as the utopian socialists and anarchists, who imagined that sheer revolutionary willpower was all that was required to bring about political change.  While the subjective factor of peoples’ consciousness was extremely important, other vital prerequisites were the existence of material abundance and a certain level of technological progress. As Marx put it in The German Ideology (anticipating by over a century the central problem which would bedevil the attempts to construct socialism in countries such as Russia, China and Cuba), wherever there is generalised want and scarcity “…the struggle for necessities begins again and all the old crap revives”.

Returning to the subject of the laws of motion of capitalism, the major dialectical contradiction that Marx perceived was the creation of a large landless, propertyless class with nothing to sell but their labour who are then forcibly collectivised by the need for capital to valorise itself in production.  This development, coupled with the increasing division of labour and specialisation, gives rise to the possibility of a society in which production is organised and run collectively rather than on an anarchic individual basis.

The hidden nature of exploitation under capitalism

However, as Marx pointed out under capitalism (unlike say feudalism) the real relations of exploitation are obscured.  The worker sells his or her labour and is duly remunerated at a mutually agreed price. The capitalist provides his or her tools, factory premises and raw materials and in return claims his or her rightful share. What could be simpler or fairer?

The secret of course as Marx discovered was that unlike raw materials, machinery or tools which only transmit a portion of their replacement value into the process of production and wear out over time, labour transmits not only the value equivalent to the cost of its own reproduction but also an additional surplus value.

Thus the worker may in a 9 hour day create in 4 hours labour sufficient value to pay for the cost of their daily upkeep, and then work another 5 hours creating surplus value for the capitalist employer.

This is very different from the state of affairs under feudalism, where it was obvious when the peasant worked on their own land to meet their own subsistence requirements and when they worked on their lord’s demesne to grow crops for the lord of the manor and his retainers.

Effect on workers consciousness

In this way while under feudalism the peasantry was held in check only through the threat of armed force (or eternal damnation in Hell), under capitalism workers will usually willingly acquiesce in their own exploitation since on surface appearances all that takes place is a free and equal exchange.

As Marx put it in Chapter 28 of Capital (Volume 1):

It is not enough that the conditions of labour are concentrated in a mass, in the shape of capital, at the one pole of society, while at the other are grouped masses of men, who have nothing to sell but their labour-power. Neither is it enough that they are compelled to sell it voluntarily. The advance of capitalist production develops a working-class, which by education, tradition, habit, looks upon the conditions of that mode of production as self-evident laws of Nature. The organisation of the capitalist process of production, once fully developed, breaks down all resistance. The constant generation of a relative surplus-population keeps the law of supply and demand of labour, and therefore keeps wages, in a rut that corresponds with the wants of capital. The dull compulsion of economic relations completes the subjection of the labourer to the capitalist. Direct force, outside economic conditions, is of course still used, but only exceptionally. In the ordinary run of things, the labourer can be left to the “natural laws of production,” i.e., to his dependence on capital, a dependence springing from, and guaranteed in perpetuity by, the conditions of production themselves.

To be sure, from their practical experience an individual worker will often perceive a common interest in joining with other workers together to sell their labour at a higher price (through a trade union) or support efforts to legislate for better working conditions.  However they will not spontaneously draw from this experience the revolutionary conclusion that they are being exploited – not just by the lack of fairness or compassion of a particularly reactionary employer – but by the economic system itself.

Need for a revolutionary political organisation

This realisation, as Marx made clear in the Communist Manifesto, can only come about through the organised intervention of a revolutionary political organisation.  As he put it:

The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.

In the Communist Manifesto Marx also made clear that it was the actual process of struggle against the capitalist class which would create the preconditions for the future socialist society.  In this sense, what mattered were not so much the demands or slogans under which workers were organised but rather the dialectical process that led them to see themselves as a collective revolutionary subject, as opposed to merely an agglomeration of marginalised individuals.

As for the often quoted section of the manifesto which says that

The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties…

it should be born in mind that this was written in 1848 – before the historic betrayals of the Second International in World War I and successive social democratic governments throughout Europe in the decades since then. However, in places such as Venezuela where new untried and untested working class movements, oscillating between reform and revolution, have emerged in recent years Marx’s advice still holds good.

The most important thing that we as 21st century socialists can learn from Marx is not to fetishise programs or lists of demands (which change depending on the time in history and geographical place) but rather to stress the need for self-activity of workers and to overcome all barriers (racial, sexual, national) to class unity.

This is the reason why the Workers Party includes “open borders” as well as  “opposition to all New Zealand and Western imperialist intervention in the Third World and all Western imperialist alliances” in our 5 point platform, but does not lay out a prescriptive plan or blueprint telling workers how to implement socialism, such as calls to nationalise industries a b and c or more spending on social programs x y and z (such points may be raised as secondary agitational demands during an election campaign, but do not challenge or advance the existing level of consciousness in the same way that slogans such as “open borders” or “workers should be running the country” do).

Tactics for revolutionaries in a period of downturn

Today in “First World” countries such as New Zealand it can seem as though communists are also alone in advocating any kind of  class-based politics at all, due to the collapse of social democracy and the sharp decline in the levels of unionisation among workers.  Some ostensible marxists infer from this that we need to drop for the moment all talk about the need for revolutionary change and instead adapt our agitation and slogans to the current low level of political consciousness.

Such a viewpoint however runs counter to Marx’s materialist approach to politics which led him to realise that small groups of revolutionaries must not try to substitute themselves for the lack of a mass movement.  When the wave of revolutions that swept Europe in 1848 ended in defeat for the working class  and the onset of a sustained period of reaction Marx did not decide to abandon his revolutionary politics – although the conditions did necessitate for the time being a retreat from mass agitation to carrying on political activity in small revolutionary study circles and propaganda groups.  The revival of struggle across Europe in the 1860s and 70s allowed Marx to once again direct his political activities on a larger public stage through the International Working Men’s Association (the so-called “First International”).

At all times Marx sought to lend to the mass struggles that were taking place a revolutionary dynamic and stress the need for workers’ self-activity and workers control (often despite opposition from his own nominal allies such as the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, who advocated building a clandestine conspiratorial organisation to organise the revolution rather than the formation of a public, mass democratic revolutionary party).

The important point here though is that at no stage did Marx attempt to substitute himself or his followers for the lack of a genuinely mass movement, or disavow his belief in the need to overthrow capitalism simply to pander to the reformist mentality of some of his more opportunist colleagues in the First International (such as the followers of Ferdinand Lassalle, who argued for the exclusion of women from the workforce on the grounds that there was only a fixed amount of money available in the capitalist “wage fund”).

Instead, Marx maintained throughout his lifetime a standpoint of uncompromising, ruthless criticism towards all apologists for capitalism (including the progenitor of the modern day Green movement, Thomas Malthus) while adjusting his perspectives and methods of organising according to the ebb and flow of the class struggle.

Capitalism still incapable of resolving its internal contradictions

The current crisis on the world financial markets came as a shock to many of the so-called “business commentators” who opined that capitalism had in the world of hedge funds, derivatives and futures trading a means of transcending its roots in commodity production and exchange. However, it would have come as no shock to Marx, who in Capital explained that all profit is ultimately derived from surplus value, and that surplus value can only be created in the exploitation of wage labour engaged in actual production.

Marx even anticipated that as capitalists looked to produce commodities more cheaply and increase the level of workers exploitation by investing more in machinery (so that the worker would spend a greater proportion of their work day creating surplus value for the capitalist) that there would be a decline in the amount of surplus value relative to the total capital outlay. He referred to this as the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to decline.  Marx also identified that there were two main ways in which the capitalists could try to get around this difficulty:

1)      through implementing speedup and lengthening the working day

2)      redirecting investment away from production into credit and loan markets

However, as we are discovering in New Zealand at the moment there are definite limits beyond which both of these strategies cease to work!

Utilising the scientific and dialectical approach to politics and to analysing capitalism pioneered by Marx we can see that capitalism is a flawed and historically aberrant economic system that contains within it the seed of its own negation. It is for this reason that now in the 21st century when the ideas of empiricist philosophers or utopian writers from 50 or 150 years ago have surpassed their useful shelf-life, Marx’s political and philosophical method continues to be as relevant as ever.

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