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What is Marxism?

This article, by Ben Hillier, appeared in Socialist Alternative online on 19 March 2010.

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, the world is still reeling from the greatest economic crisis in generations: 1.1 billion people don’t have access to clean drinking water, 1 billion endure hunger on a daily basis, every hour 1,200 children die from preventable diseases and we are marching headlong into what may be environmental catastrophe.

Karl Marx’s famous call to action – “Up until now, philosophers have only interpreted the world…the point is to change it” – still rings true 150 years after it was written. Marx spent the best part of his life fighting for the revolutionary transformation of society. He argued that the working class – the mass of the population who need to sell their labour to someone else in order to survive – could smash capitalism and replace it with a socialist society based on production for human need rather than profit.

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”
The Communist Manifesto

Marxism is a theory which puts material forces and the struggle between different social classes for control of those forces at the centre of its analysis.

Marxism takes as its starting point a basic fact: before human beings can engage in politics, art, sport religion etc. we first have to eat, drink and have shelter. That is, we have to be alive. Without labouring activity, humanity would cease to exist in a matter of weeks. So the relationships that people enter into with one another in the process of satisfying our basic needs – the production and reproduction of human existence – forms the foundation of any society.

For the last several thousand years, these production relationships have been class relationships in most parts of the world – slaves and slave owners, peasants and nobles, workers and bosses. In each pair, the latter does not produce, but lives off the labour of the former, who are exploited and oppressed.

Marx argued that a number of things follow from this basic fact. Firstly, the different social institutions, norms, legal codes, etc. of different societies have their foundations in the different ways production is organised. The purpose of the norms, institutions, legal codes and the like is to protect and maintain the existing organisation of production. So understanding any given society begins with understanding a society’s class structure.

Secondly, the starting point for understanding human history is understanding the conflict between the different social classes over those things which are produced. On one level it’s simply the conflict over who gets what. That conflict is expressed in different ways – the big arguments over social spending versus tax cuts, the content of industrial relations legislation, and from mass strikes right down to the act of a worker taking an extra five minutes on a lunch break or nicking a pen from the office.

Finally, over time there is the general development of technology and knowledge which allows more things to be produced in less time using less labour. This general development is, at certain historical moments, thwarted by the particular class structure of society. At that moment, the class struggle can lead to a revolution – a complete transformation of how production is organised and the ushering in of a new form of society.
“Capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”
Capital Vol. 1

To understand Marx’s theory of revolution we have to look at his specific analysis of capitalism in light of these insights into history. Capitalism is promoted as the best of all possible worlds, where freedom and democracy are the highest expressions of human advancement. Yet the system itself was established through mass violence, theft, enslavement and the denial of basic rights.

Six million African slaves, the dispossession of millions of peasants, the slaughter of indigenous communities, complete social upheaval across the world and bloody revolutionary transformation. All of this requiring a legal code to sanction every act of butchery.

Given the violence required to establish the system, Marx argued that there is nothing “natural” about it. Class society has existed for only a fraction of human existence, so there is clearly nothing about human nature that compels human beings to organise ourselves as we do in this or any other class system. In fact, throughout history the way society has been organised has changed, and exactly what human behaviours people consider “natural” have also changed.

The point here is that capitalism, like all systems that came before it, is transitory. That another world is possible has been confirmed by history.

However, Marxism is not just the dream of a future that overcomes the decay of the present. In all previous societies there were problems of scarcity which created barriers to a world based on cooperation and equal access to resources. Capitalism has created a world of abundance which overcomes that obstacle. There is now more than enough food and other material goods to satisfy the needs of everyone. So the material basis for socialism now exists.

Further to this, Marx’s analysis locates the real force within society that can make socialism a reality.

“What the capitalists therefore produce, above all, are their own grave-diggers.”
The Communist Manifesto

Marxism argues that socialism is capable of emerging out of capitalism precisely because the system itself creates the conditions for its own abolition.

The driving force of capitalism is competition. This competition between businesses for profits drives increases in productivity and gives the system an amazing dynamism. The contradiction though, is that the thing that actually gives the system such tremendous power – the power to create skyscrapers, aeroplanes, computers, mountains of food – is the cooperation of workers.

As individuals we are forced to compete for jobs, forced to sell ourselves and outdo those around us. As workers, however, we are forced to cooperate.

The scale of this cooperation is immense. For example, every time a mobile phone is answered, the labour of countless workers is brought to life – programmers, technicians, truck drivers, pilots, mechanics, miners, electricians, factory hands, retail workers, power station workers… An endless list of workers from around the globe have all contributed to the call, either through their collective role in the production of the phone or their maintenance of the telecommunications system.

In fact, examine any item – a pen, a book, a loaf of bread – and you can quickly see that its existence required a chain of cooperation stretching into hundreds of thousands of workers.

This is the reason why the working class has the potential to create a world based on cooperation – on one level the world is already based on the cooperation of the working class. Not only this, though. The very conditions of existence of workers push them towards fighting for a world based not just on cooperative labour, but on democratic control of the entire process of production.

Why? In their relentless pursuit of profits, capitalists (the bosses) have to ensure that the goods or services that are produced are produced more cheaply than those produced by their competitors. So they have to constantly get workers to work longer, or for less, or cut conditions etc.

This means that workers have to cooperate on a different level. Cooperation becomes an organised force to protect livelihoods as workers form unions and associations dedicated to sticking together against attacks. So it is because of the competition between businesses that the cooperation of workers for the system turns into cooperation against the system.

It is at the point of production where the profits, along with the goods and services which keep us alive, are created. Workplaces are therefore the site of social power. Here, the working class’s greatest power lies in the collective capacity to not work. When the working class stops working, the lights literally go out, the water stops running and the food doesn’t appear on the supermarket shelf. The system grinds to a stop.

Yet getting to this level of class struggle is not an automatic process. If it were, capitalism would be long gone. Workers not only have to struggle collectively (you can’t go on strike by yourself), they have to choose to struggle, to fight back against the bosses. Unlike the (sometimes) unconscious cooperation of the global supply chain, the cooperation of workers in the struggle against the system is by necessity a conscious and democratic process.

So workers’ struggle has both a negative and a positive aspect. Negative in the sense that they can paralyse the existing order by simply doing nothing. Positive in that in order to do this, through doing this, they create the conditions for a new society based on democratic control of the workplace.

This is why the working class is central to Marxist theory. Only the working class can wrest economic power away from the capitalist class. No other social force has this capacity. 

Yet the capitalists will never cede power voluntarily, so Marx argued that it is hopelessly utopian to believe that this system can be fundamentally changed through parliament. Getting left-wing people into office or having nicer people in charge doesn’t alter the system itself. It doesn’t alter the fundamental contradiction that is at the root of class conflict – collective production by the majority versus the private ownership of the few.

Only world wide revolution led by the working class can overcome this contradiction. Only then can capitalism be replaced by a system where our lives are spent fulfilling the needs of everyone, not the wants of a few.

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.”
The German Ideology

So capitalism is violent and unjust, it is not the logical outcome of human nature, it can be done away with through revolution and the people who can make that happen are workers. They have an interest in doing it, they have the power to do it, and on one level the system compels them to do it. So why haven’t they done it?

There are a number of reasons, but one of the most significant is that the ruling class (those who control society’s productive assets) use those social institutions, norms, legal codes, etc. to resist any challenge to their rule. They have immense means to disseminate their own ideas and ideology through the mass media and the education system.

The key ideological prop of the system – the idea that nothing can change – is continually pounded into our heads. The pressure we face day in and day out is to accept the social order as it stands. Further, a raft of ideas are used to divide workers. You don’t have to look very far to find out how “dole bludgers”, immigrants and terrorists are all grave threats to society’s well being.

These ideas gain a hearing not because workers are stupid, or naturally duped. Despite the fact that as a class we wield immense power, as individuals we have no control over the world. Workers produce everything, but everything we create is taken away from us. We are left with a sense of powerlessness. The real functioning of the world becomes distorted to us because our lives are dominated by the working of the market. One result of this is that people often hold a mixture of confused ideas about the world.  There is an uneven development of political consciousness.

While some workers are militant and always looking to fight the system, others passively accept their situation or even side with the rich and powerful. Others move between, sometimes convinced to fight, at other moments drawn the other way. Even when most can see through the lies of the capitalist press – like when we were told about “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, when it was clear that the invasion was about oil –  the idea that we can’t change anything can be all-pervasive. Only at moments of social crisis might most move in the direction of fighting for a better world.

“Our primary and imperative practical task [is] to establish an organisation of revolutionaries.
– V.I. Lenin, What is to be Done?

This reality of contradictory ideas meant a theory of revolutionary organisation evolved out of working-class struggles. It was born out of the recognition that workers’ struggles don’t just happen. There is always the conscious intervention of the most politically engaged workers against reactionary ideas. There are always people who lead and who have the capacity to convince others to fight as well.

One of the great misconceptions about Marx himself is that he was simply a theorist. In fact Marx was also a political leader. He argued that revolutionaries should meet to discuss their ideas. He was involved in founding the first communist party in the world and wrote its program – The Communist Manifesto.

He was also involved in founding the International Workingmen’s Association, the first international working-class organisation. As a member of its general council Marx no only fought for ideological leadership but also expended time on a range of organisational tasks.

So Marxism is a theory of action. The practical task of building a revolutionary organisation was carried through most successfully by the Bolshevik party of Vladimir Lenin, which led the Russian revolution of 1917. Lenin’s idea of the party was to group together the most politically conscious workers in an organisation that could win arguments with other workers and lead the fight against capitalism.

The revolutionary organisation, Lenin argued, must involve itself in the practical struggles and campaigns of the day. It must also wage an ideological struggle to win people to revolutionary politics. By grouping together in an organisation those who are most prepared to fight against the system, political ideas can be turned into action and political action can change reality.

So while the working class as a whole has the power to overthrow the system, socialism becomes a reality only through the process of the most political workers winning over other sections of the class. The revolutionary organisation, then, is a practical expression of Marx’s call to action – “The point is to change it!”

“The workers have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”
The Communist Manifesto

Today, the fundamental features of capitalism remain as they were in Marx’s time – class domination, exploitation, oppression. Capitalism has spread form a small pocket of Europe to encompass the globe. Further to this we now have industrial warfare of a scale unimaginable to those living 150 years ago.

But with the spread of the system has come the growth of the working class. It is bigger and potentially more powerful than ever. Every day, the struggle continues. Sometimes it hums quietly, at other moments its roar echoes across oceans. When the struggle against capitalism reaches its crescendo, the self-emancipation of the working class will lay the basis for the liberation of all humanity. This is Marxism.



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