(The Locomotive of History.)
In a notable expression, Marx described revolutions as the ‘locomotives of history‘. His point was that a substantial build up of power was necessary to drive, or sometimes drag, socio-economic changes forward – anything less powerful would fail. To keep with the analogy, Marx considered, the steam, or fuel, which would energise the engines working parts, would be provided by the anger, desperation and determination of the working class. Marx and Engels jointly came to this conclusion by considering the social conditions and labour process developed by capital by the19th century. They did this in two seminal works, the Economic and Philosophic notebooks of 1844 by Marx, and the ‘Conditions of the Working Class’ of 1845, by Engels.
The results of their research led them to conclude that the industrial working classes, because of their working and living condition, would be the ones to rise up and challenge the capitalist system. Their reasoning is summed up in the following extracts from the two works previously mentioned. First Marx. After discussing the exploited and precarious position of workers within the capitalist system, and the pouring of surplus capital into the production process, he noted that;
“This leads to overproduction and ends up either by putting a large number of workers out of work or by reducing their wages to a pittance….Eventually wages, which have already been reduced to a minimum, must be reduced even further in order to meet the new competition, This then leads necessarily to revolution.” (Marx 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts.)
In this early work, Marx had identified and examined, the overall tendency of capitalism to overproduction through competition and mechanisation along with its alienating effects upon the lives of working people. It was a tendency, which if not offset, by some other factors (such as further world expansion) could, and would produce such epoch changing results. Engels examining conditions in England, the most advanced capitalist country at the time, concluded that the middle classes, were largely indifferent to the conditions experienced by workers.
“Hence also the deep wrath of the whole working-class, from Glasgow to London, against the rich, by whom they are systematically plundered and mercilessly left to their fate, a wrath which before too long a time goes by, a time almost within the power of man to predict, must break out into a Revolution..” (Engels. Condition of the Working Class in England.)
The working classes at that period in time were largely employed in mass-production industries. Huge labour-intensive textile and metal-working factories; mining and extraction industries; docks and shipping, shipbuilding, railways etc. It was the pattern of capitalist labour process for at least a hundred years, during which wages were relatively low, working conditions grim and living circumstances dire. Marx and Engels, considering these conditions, similar throughout Europe, reckoned that the poverty, long hours, fatiguing repetitive work, low pay and regular unassisted unemployment would drive workers to rebel. Further, if this rebellion occurred at a particular acute stage of crisis, a revolution could occur. But revolution for what?
Marx and Engels, did not see themselves as the grand planners of future society. They considered that would be the creative work of the working classes themselves together with their allies. For this reason, they did not indulge in projecting fantasy solutions onto the future. Marx in particular sought to arm the working and oppressed classes with nothing more than very sharp and durable weapons of criticism. Accordingly, most of his writings are analytical critiques of philosophy, economics, politics and history, with only occasional logical, but sketchy, possibilities of what might unfold in the future. The main problem, for the working classes was to overcome the contradictions of capitalism and solve the alienation of the bulk of humanity from the process of production and from each other.
Nevertheless, there was at the time a wide-spread and popular idea of a future post-capitalist society, termed ‘socialism’. Among hundreds of thousands of workers in trade unions, political groups and the 1st International the concept of socialism, although somewhat vaguely imagined, was considered workable, achievable and desirable. It also became a popular idea among many middle-class intellectuals at the time, who did project their fantasy systems into the future and persuade workers to accept them. Marx often ridiculed these ‘utopian’ grand system planners and builders, eventually discarding the term socialism as being too tainted and confusing. He and Engels adopted the term Communism instead. This too was left as a somewhat vague concept for future determination and development by associated communities once the capitalist system had been overthrown.
So to sum up. The overall perspective of 19th century European anti-capitalism was that the contradictions of capitalism, sooner or later, would mature sufficiently to create irreconcilable tensions between capitalists and workers. This would lead to serious and prolonged class confrontations. During a crisis, the industrial workers, with no other option than to fight for their very existence, armed with a highly developed anti-capitalist criticism, and with the legitimate goal of socialism in mind, would fight both against capitalism and for something better. Of course we know that this didn‘t happen in the UK or Europe. Capitalist crises of overproduction did occur there, but were successfully diverted and brutally resolved by two world wars. Contradictions, crises and war occurred in the east also, but with very different results.
In Russia and China internal revolutions did occur, ostensibly for the benefit of the working and oppressed classes and the leaders deceptively used the terminology of Marx. The disastrous experiences and results of these two oligarchy-led revolutions effectively distanced many workers from both the desirability of a post-capitalist form of society and from the analytical tools developed by Marx. New generations of post-Second World War workers were born into an atmosphere of increasing hostility to Stalinism and Bolshevism and into the new forms of labour processes, developed by 20th century capitalism. These new production techniques gradually replaced labour-intensive factories and workshops, with highly mechanised, automated production techniques – producing larger quantities and needing less blue-collar industrial workers.
So now, in the 21st century, the 19th and 20th century labour-intensive aggregations of textile, metal-working, mining, docks, shipbuilding and railways etc. have all gone or been drastically reduced. The socio-economic composition of the working classes has been changed by the economic and social dynamics of capitalist society. Capitalism has not eliminated its systemic contradictions and crises of overproduction, but these now mature in a different class composition and situation than they did 100 years ago. The social composition and workplace locations of the working class in the advanced countries has altered considerably. The working class is now predominantly white-collar, further or higher educated than previous generations and is largely employed, when not unemployed, by central or local governments. (See ‘Workers and others, in the 21st century’ at www.gmanticapitalists.)
Yet once again, the economic contradictions of capitalism have matured and along with them in the 21st century, a highly unstable finance capital crisis has developed. Class conflict over how this crisis will be resolved is already occurring and will only increase as the crisis deepens. The working and oppressed classes will have to fight against the system or go under. So the revolutionary tasks facing the working class remain broadly the same as they were when the anti-capitalists, Marx and Engels were alive. Yet the working class defensive struggle against capital will inevitably give rise to unresolved questions of what can replace it. For this reason, the tasks facing present day anti-capitalists are only slightly different than previous generations. I suggest they can be encapsulated in the following four connected areas.
1. The ideas concerning a post-capitalist form of society need to be freed from the ideological pollution of Stalinism and Bolshevik authoritarianism. The distortions of Marx’s revolutionary-humanism, need to be publicly acknowledged and rejected in theory and practice. With large number of F.E., and university educated workers and unemployed this and the following tasks should not be overly difficult to achieve.
2. The systemic crisis-riddled economic nature of capitalism needs widespread public explanation and dissemination. The weapon of criticism sharpened by Marx, needs to be unsheathed and shared out to wide sections of the anti-capitalist working class and their allies.
3. The ecological and environmental implications of capitalist expansionary impetus need to be explained in terms of their systemic origins in the capitalist mode of production. Ecology is an anti-capitalist issue, not simply an environmentalist reform issue.
4. The form of anti-capitalist organisation, needs to acknowledge and correct the past (and present) mistakes and sectarian posturing of previous party-building ideologies. The form of a new anti-capitalist organisation needs to reflect both the needs of participants and be consistent with its future as well as its present tasks.
Roy Ratcliffe (May 2012.)
Thanks for this essay on Marx’s work. I’d argue that your line “So now, in the 21st century, the 19th and 20th century labour-intensive aggregations of textile, metal-working, mining, docks, shipbuilding and railways etc. have all gone or been drastically reduced.” and your four points flowing on from there, however, are a bit insufficient; crucial to any 21st-century refounding of socialist politics has to be a strong internationalist understanding of the interconnectedness of the capitalist systems of first and third world nations and the importance of global struggle to answer the global nature of capitalism. I’d argue this is a fifth point as important as the four you’ve listed above.
Thanks for your comments on the above article. I agree that this contribution is a bit insufficient,in some details. Indeed a lot insufficient in one sense. However, the valid point you raise, which I agree with, I think I have addressed in a number of other articles both on this blog and the Wigan Green Socialist and Greater Manchester anti-capitalist blogs. More importantly than this – as I see it – none of us have the complete answers or are capable of reaching even more than approximate answers on our own. The process of developing an international, non-sectarian anti-capitalist movement, with all that implies, including the point you raise above and including a critical and self-critical reflection on our own movement will need to be and ought to be a collective effort. The first stage perhaps being to begin to ask the right questions and suggesting further areas for important consideration as I hope I am doing in this blog and as you have also done in your comment.