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John Passant

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May 2013



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What would Marx think if he were alive today?

Would Marx be partying today?

5 May was the anniversary of Marx’s 195th birthday and I have been thinking about what he might think if he were alive today. If Karl Marx were to miraculously reappear today, what would he make of the world?

Firstly, no doubt, he would feel some dismay that despite the advent of space travel, robotics and fibre optic cables, modern medicine has failed to develop an effective cure for carbuncles – an affliction he endured for the better part of his mature years.

But how would he now judge the proclamations he made and the theories he devised so long ago? When Marx was alive, capitalism was established only in a small pocket of Western Europe and the working class was a small fraction of the world’s population. He wrote his most famous work, The Communist Manifesto, as a revolutionary wave was sweeping the continent. At that time, he was confident not only that “A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism,” but that capitalism could not last:

The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.

Today, capitalism is established across the entire world and the working class is the largest class on the planet. Living standards for those in the West have increased dramatically, and with them, life expectancy. Millions of workers own their own property in the form of houses and have cars, television sets, washing machines, mobile phones and computers. Was Marx’s certainty misplaced?

No doubt he might be surprised at just how resilient the system he spent his entire adult life fighting has been; he might also be surprised at the material quality of life that some sections of the working class have achieved. Yet there is also no doubt that Marx would not see the fact of capitalism’s continued existence as refutation of his general ideas. Take this striking passage from his masterpiece, Capital:

[Capitalism] establishes an accumulation of misery, corresponding with accumulation of capital. Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole, i.e.,on the side of the class that produces its own product in the form of capital.

Despite some of the more obvious changes in the system, all the talk that it is fundamentally different from the Victorian-era England in which Marx lived is not true. The picture Marx painted above still applies: the richest 5 per cent of the world’s population today control 71 per cent of the wealth while the poorest 50 per cent hold barely 1 per cent. In fact, the concentration of wealth in Britain is on track to reach the same Victorian-era extremes of Marx’s time by 2030 if current trends continue, according to the High Pay Commission.

The same sort of destitution, the workhouse factories, and the poverty of Marx’s time are replicated in countries across the world. And the alienation and social dislocation found in more well-off Western countries would not surprise him at all. He saw that the system cannot fulfil the needs of the majority of humanity. This was only one aspect of his theory of revolution, however.

The certainty that Marx displayed in relation to the coming of a socialist society also rested on the understanding that capitalism produces a conflict between those who produce all the wealth – workers – and those who control that wealth – capitalists.

There is a view today that because Marx argued that each stage of social development – feudalism, capitalism, socialism – comes about as a result of the tensions within the one before, the “evolution” towards socialism will therefore occur automatically, as part of the inevitable march of history, without any need for conscious action.

But for Marx, the decisive element in the struggle for a socialist society was the agency and consciousness of the working class, who are pushed again and again to fight against the inequality they endure and the lack of control they have over the world.

He would have encouraged and intervened in the strikes and demonstrations against austerity in Europe and the US today – seeing in them the potential development of an anti-capitalist consciousness necessary for the building of a socialist society. At the same time he would be under no illusion that this consciousness and activity would grow in a linear fashion. Indeed he argued that the “mutual destruction of the contending classes” could occur before the working class overthrew capitalism – a not entirely outlandish prospect in the age of nuclear weapons and climate change.

His understanding that the system produces misery for the majority – and his unflinching confidence in the capacity of the mass of the working class to create socialism – was supplemented by a third factor.

Capitalism is faulty on its own terms. Marx argued that the competitive and expansionist nature of the capitalist world economy means that economic crises are inevitable, take on the most irrational character, and threaten the very viability of the system:

In these crises, there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity – the epidemic of over-production. 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 above description, written in 1848, is strikingly confirmed by developments just in the last five  years. Just think of the economic situation today: millions of unsold and empty houses in the US, Spain and Ireland while millions sleep rough; massive excess capacity in the world manufacturing sector while unemployment remains stubbornly high across the developed world; a glut of unsold cars, computers and factory machinery sitting idle in warehouses.

The rampant speculation in housing which was the catalyst for the current global financial crisis, the reluctance of businesses to invest lest the returns not prove lucrative enough and the determined efforts by those in charge to force workers to bear the brunt of the crisis through cuts to social spending, lower wages and unemployment were all features of capitalism described by Marx over 150 years ago.

Marx also pointed out that measures to offset crises tend in the longer run to exacerbate them. The current debt crisis facing many of the European governments, a result of their desperate efforts to rescue the banks and other financial institutions in 2008, is one example of this phenomenon.

It is actually this understanding of systemic crisis that grounds Marx’s conviction that revolution would come. Just two years after writing the Manifesto, as the revolutionary wave ebbed in Europe, he wrote that “A new revolution will be made possible only as the result of a new crisis, but is just as certain as is the coming of the crisis itself.”

This is no simple equation that crisis equals revolution. A crisis does increase the level and intensity of class struggle, as the already existing class antagonisms become sharpened and workers become more aware of their interests and the need to act on them.

For large-scale revolutionary participation to sustain itself, however, major changes in the way people see themselves and the society around them are necessary. Workers need to break with the subservience which is inculcated into them under capitalism and become conscious of their power and ability to organise society themselves. The process of revolution is crucial to this. As Marx wrote:

[R]evolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.

So today’s Arab revolts have their basis in the build-up of frustrations associated with decades of neoliberal economic policies that have impoverished huge sections of the Arab working class and required dictatorial regimes to implement. But their victories are the result of confidence, creativity, courage and determination – not long-suffering silence.

Viewing the scenes in Tahrir Square in 2011, the nerve centre of the Egyptian revolution where men and women, Muslims and Christians joined together to overthrown the Mubarak dictatorship, Marx would have taken great encouragement.

The wave of revolutions in the Arab world, along with the growing movement against austerity across Europe, would represent to Marx a source of hope for a better future and an exciting opportunity to win greater numbers behind the need for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism everywhere.

One thing we can be certain of is that if he were around today he would repeat again and again: “Workers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains!”

This article first appeared in Socialist Alternative.



Comment from paul walter
Time May 5, 2013 at 10:21 pm

Wealth and power concentrated into fewer and fewer hands was exactly what Karl Marx predicted, along with the triumph of exchange value over use value and over or false production.
But what we take to be famine-producing false production of course means little to the oligarchs, its only the unarmed units that are damaged,while the system reifies on the ideological psycho drama of the tragedy of life and each rat for itself.
How the new empire is over thrown I couldn’t begin to guess, though, unless it comes from the inside- Assange and the Mid east revolutions indicate we must identify what “production” is (dominant) and employ whatever interstices become apparent before the bosses do, but whether this can extend to the oligarchy and its financial networks that underpin the system, remains unclear.
Is capitalism just another form of feudalism, ultimately?

Comment from Kay
Time May 6, 2013 at 8:54 am


A very good article.

Capitalism has proved to be a very resilient and adaptive animal.

Rather than a ‘revolution’, I would hope to see a major rejigging of capitalism to better distribute the wealth in society. Probably just as vain a hope as your hope for a revolution. I would think the likelihood of a ‘workers’ revolution’ is inversely proportional to the percentage of the population owning shares, and their own homes.

I think that ANY political system will ultimately result in the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the few – due entirely to the basic nature of mankind. World history to date suggests that past revolutions have resulted in dictatorships/totalitarian regimes. Capitalism, accompanied by its Western liberal democratic political systems, as inequitable as it may be, seems to me to produce a better outcome for the population as a whole than any ‘revolution’ to date.

As pleasing as it was to see the people rise up against the oppressive Mubarak regime, only time will tell how fair, equitable and open Egyptian society will become. The signs so far are not promising.

Comment from Chris Warren
Time May 6, 2013 at 6:14 pm


You are living in a misunderstood fantasy.

There is no capitalism “accompanied by a Western liberal democratic political system” because every Western capitalism is, in fact, based on exploiting other economies where there is no liberal democracy.

There is no capitalism “with liberal democracy” that is not based on ballooning per capita debt and which therefore ends up denying jobs to workers through so-called “liberal democracy”.

So-called “liberal democracy” is reality means Thatcher, Fraser, Regan, and Abbott.

“Liberal democracy” means increasing suicides, increased unemployment, mounting bankruptcies, loss of savings, creeping terrorism, and climate catastrophe.

“Liberal democracy” is nothing but a propaganda device for the capitalist welfare state funding by colonialism, imperialism, and cheap labour.

So do you mean Western capitalism containing elements of liberal democracy but based on offshore exploitation.

Democracy for the few, wage-slavery for the rest.

Comment from Shane H
Time May 6, 2013 at 6:23 pm

Paul – Strictly wealth concentration was self evident so not a prediction. Class has been self-evident to most people until quite recently.

Kay – I think you are right that we need to look at how capitalism is an adaptive system and what has changed. Of course the argument about revolution is an old one – any system is more or less vulnerable to abuse and we need to design better ones. Capitalism is a horror for most people but we don’t think its a product of human nature but vice versa. If you live in a tribal sharing based on sharing and kinship you get a different type of person than if you have a system based on greed like ours then you get greedy people.

Be interesting to think what Marx would say if he re-wrote the Manifesto today.

Comment from Connie Singleton
Time May 6, 2013 at 9:08 pm

Gender and Race: Gender and race issues are often compared to class, but gender and race struggle have their own material bases in society distinct from class, but exist within the class structure. The existence of the working class is created by the capitalist mode of production – capitalism could not survive without wage labor – therefore the political emancipation of the working class as a whole can only be achieved through revolution . Capitalism can survive, and in fact necessitates the need for completely free labor, with equality between workers of all races and genders; thus women and minorities, through tremendous and painful struggles, slowly gain political emancipation through reformist movements (“women’s liberation”, “civil rights”, etc.). The struggle of gender and race are critical political and social issues, because without these struggles and victories there can be no real unity between workers. Unity is imperative for workers to free all humanity from exploitation, so long as workers are divided, we will continue to be conquered. For further readings see the subject section on Marxism on Women .

Comment from Kay
Time May 7, 2013 at 8:48 am


I am curious about you. Your age, employment situation, where you live etc.. I am looking for an explanation for your TOTAL negativity about capitalism. To date you have refused to reveal any info about yourself at all!

Surely you live in Australia? When you look around you, don’t you see people living very comfortable lives? – nice homes, new cars, nice clothes, holidays, computers, TVs, you name it… I live near one of greater Brisbane’s lower socio-economic areas, and even there I see these things. Probably the biggest difference between that area and other slightly more affluent areas nearby is the size of the house, the make of car, the holiday destination, the ease of paying the bills, the size of their superannuation savings etc.. So what do you see near you? And how do you live?

And if you travel abroad you will see the same scenario in all liberal democratic countries. Even in China, the number of those living in poverty has dropped to a quarter of the number it was only 10 years ago or so – and certainly since Deng Xiaoping led his country towards a market economy, the economic situation of the population as a whole has improved significantly .

It is true that in all these liberal democratic countries there are pockets of poverty. Unemployment plays a major role in that. And the GFC has greatly exacerbated this problem. And the GFC was caused by greedy and irresponsible bankers and a complete lack of regulation. But this is a problem that can be addressed via tougher tax regimes, tighter regulation and safety-net social security until the economy starts to turn around.

The countries where the population is less ‘comfortable’ are, in general, not liberal democracies. These countries still suffer from the obscene accumulation of wealth by a few, versus the poverty of the many – more so than in liberal democracies.

And in countries ‘exploited’ by capitalism, you will find that the workers there initially welcome the opportunity to get work of any kind. It is up to the country where these industries exist, and to the international union movement, to bring in some ‘safety net’ workers’ protections. In the longer term, those exploitative industries do help to bring a little more wealth into the population, and over time working conditions and pay scales do improve.

I can recall when I was a kid in the 1950s and the shops were awash with very cheap Japanese products – which we thought were grossly inferior rubbish. But times have changed…. And so they will for those workers currently being ‘exploited’. But a revolution would not necessarily result in a better long-term outcome.

An interesting case study is Venezuela – a relatively ‘bloodless’ Bolivarian revolution. The economic situation for the population as a whole is much better than during the previous corrupt elites’ regimes. Venezuela now has the fairest income equity in Latin America. Chavez however has also left a nation beset by crumbling infrastructure, unsustainable public spending and under-performing industry. And Venezuela has high debt, mainly to China, which it services via its apparently endless oil reserves (around a third of oil income is used to service this debt). The gap between income and spending is widening. The inflation rate is around 20%. How will this progress over time? It will be interesting to watch.

When I see an economic system somewhere in the world that delivers long-term benefits for the population as a whole that is better than the clearly-flawed capitalist system we now have, I’ll be very interested. I have yet to see it.

Look, Chris, we clearly disagree about capitalism. But in my personal lifetime I have certainly seen a growing level of comfort amongst the Australian working class. When I look back at my somewhat impoverished childhood, and the conditions in which we and all our neighbours lived, I see a significant improvement for all over the past 60 years. Very hard for me to deny what I have seen. And very hard to turn my back on that.

Comment from Shane H
Time May 7, 2013 at 10:26 pm


You are right gender and race are critical issues but I don’t see how they can be separate from class or have separate material base. The working class created by capitalism is made up of gendered and race bodies from the get-go its not separate to how capitalist society reproduces itself.

I have no idea why you think the tremendous struggles by women and black people for liberation are somehow consistent with capitals need for free labour. (unraced and ungendered?) Of course when we win things Capital doesn’t give up it accomodates and uses the victory to its own ends.

By assuming that these struggles are ‘merely’ reformist or that they are merely a step on the road to a real (i.e. class based) revolution is a pretty backward form of classical marxism. Race and gender are central to the way Capital reproduces itself not secondary contradictions.

Comment from John
Time May 8, 2013 at 4:51 am

I agree Shane. Well said.

Comment from Callie Sykes
Time May 8, 2013 at 10:54 am

Owners vs. workersIn all class societies, be it ancient slavery, feudalism or capitalism, wealth is the product of human labor. All of these social systems are based on exploitation. A few own and control the surplus product produced by the labor of the many.

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