This month, two hundred years ago, (actually on 5 May 1818), Karl Marx was born. And as is usual on any date connected with Marx, a spate of articles by so-called ‘experts’ appeared in periodicals and papers assessing Marx’s contribution to human affairs. Is it not revealing that his birth date is still being used for some kind of public recognition if not quite celebration? Although he has been dead for 135 years his ideas obviously live on. They are lasting far longer, I suggest, than the ideas of those commentators, who frequently declare his irrelevance. In contrast to his painstaking research and conclusions, their feeble assertions will undoubtedly be forgotten only weeks after publication, their names even quicker.
In my experience comments about Marx usually fall into one or other of the following three categories.
1. Those which are hostile to Marx and dismiss him as mistaken and dangerous and therefore not worth the effort of serious study.
2. Those which damn Marx by faint praise and accept (reluctantly or otherwise) that he made some important contributions, but consider he is now outdated and again not really worth the effort to study seriously.
3. Those penned by self-styled ‘Marxists’ who think the Bolsheviks were following in Marx’s footsteps and therefore his works are worth the occasional dip in and out of, before putting them down and getting back to the Lenin or Trotsky version of sectarianism.
This 200 birth date occasion has been no different. So for those who have read one of these recent attempts to disrespect, disregard or distort the great revolutionary-humanists contribution to struggling humanity, I offer this alternative perspective. In this article I will try to point out the shortcomings of each of the above three categories of critique of Marx’s studies and conclusions and provide a more balanced assessment of his efforts to understand the capitalist mode of production and the possibility of a brighter future for humanity.
For a quick example: Marx having read the thoughts of those who (while he was alive) considered themselves ‘Marxists’ (ie category 3 above) declared that he was definitely not a Marxist. This fact and the reasons for expressing it, are rarely considered by those who continue to claim to be ‘Marxist’ and thereby prove that they have not understood the difference between Marx’s revolutionary-humanism and Bolshevik or Stalinist vanguard elitism. Nor have they considered Marx’s views on how some ‘revolutionary men‘ hampered the ‘full development of every previous revolution‘ (Marx. Class struggles in France. Peking edition. page 15.)
Indeed, it is rare to come across anyone – even among his admirers – who has given Marx serious study and this is partly understandable. His economic works comprise of seven substantial volumes of detailed complexity and his political and philosophical writings take up even more substantial volumes. Like any research based branch of intellectual endeavour it takes some time, dedication and persistence to become familiar with the detailed concepts and analysis. It is therefore necessary to make time and summon up commitment. In fact Marx anticipated the difficulty facing readers of his economic researches and methods of presentation, for in a 1872 preface in volume 1 of Das Capital he wrote;
“There is no royal road to science and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.”
I would hazard a guess that more people have done the fatiguing climb and ascended the steep paths of Mount Everest (and succeeded) than have have attempted to traverse the intellectual glaciers and crevasses within the 7 volumes of economic research by Marx. From my own 60 year experience among the left and in academia, it has to be said that the effort to follow the steep trails blazed by Marx’s research has proved to be far too fatiguing for most people whether of left or right persuasion. Some have even baulked at a leisurely stroll among some of his less Hegelian formulations.
So in my experience, a useful starting point with regard to Marx, is to be wary of anyone – including me – who asserts anything, without providing credible evidence. And remember; even quotations can be manipulated or taken out of context to present a distorted picture – particularly if it is being used to serve a dismissive or disrespectful purpose. What follows is my assessment of the contributions – in several areas – that Karl Marx made to our understanding, of the present and future prospects for our species.
One of the important differences between Marx’s critique of capitalist economic activity and most bourgeois economists, including contemporary ones, was with regard to the definition of capital. Most economists describe capital in terms of money or equipment which is supplied by the owners (or borrowers) of capital to fund capitalist production, transport and sales. However, Marx went further and pointed out that capital was accumulated from the previous activities of working people. In fact stripped of its monetary camouflage, it’s bare ‘naked’ form was nothing more (or less) than stored up, previously expended, labour.
Capital, in all its forms, was and is, the result of past labour, but now transformed by workers into commodities, materials, buildings, machinery and money. Or as Marx put it, “Capital is dead labour..” (Capital volume 1 page 233). Workers produce capital – not capitalists! How shocking was that to the minds of the 19th century bourgeoisie? Moreover it was past labour which had been surplus to the direct needs of workers before being creamed off by their employers. He went on to write;
“Wherever a part of society possesses the monopoly of the means of production, the labourer, free or not free, must add to the working time necessary for his own maintenance an extra working time in order to produce the means of subsistence for the owners of the means of production.” (ibid p 235)
Shock, horror!: The source of profit (and capital) – usually shrouded in the esoteric mysteries of book-keeping – was the unpaid, surplus-labour expended by the working classes of the world. And of course, this is the case in the 21st century as it was in the 19th when Marx wrote that. The worker still works part of the day to gain enough to live on but must work another part of the day to make the surplus-products or services and thus value (profits) for the owners and part-owners of the means of production. (So Karl you were definitely right on that). Moreover, he pointed out that improvements in productivity lessened the time needed for workers to earn their wages and increased the time available to produce even bigger profits for the owners. It therefore cannot be surprising that these profits are even more astronomical in modern times than then.
Yet another observation of contemporary relevance given the advent of automation and artificial intelligence, was that mechanisation, meant fewer workers would be needed in the long run, making workers redundant and pushing them into poverty (see Capital volume 1, chapter 15). (You were spot on again Karl!) These elements of Marx’s analysis were hated by the capitalists and their hangers on when he wrote them and they still are. With regard to such negative reactions against the publication of his economic analysis, Marx noted that;
“The peculiar nature of the material it deals with, summons as foes into the field of battle the most violent, mean and malignant passions of the human breast, the Furies of private interest.” (ibid preface)
‘Mean and malignant foes’, adequately describes many of the category 1 critics noted above. And Marx’s economic analysis of capitalism is still hated by some precisely because it is still relevant. Hostility to him is nothing new and his detailed analysis is also why his ideas are considered dangerous by those who continue to benefit from the unpaid labour of working people. They just don’t want working people to read and understand such damning evidence about the system workers are forced to work for when needed. Moreover, we can see from the written evidence that he was certainly not mistaken with regard to the extremes of Poverty and Wealth created under the capitalist mode of production. For in the 21st century, massive wealth is created for the 1% whilst low-wage and food – bank type poverty (or worse) is the structural fate for increasing numbers. This symptom is evident now in all countries dominated by capital, whether we consider the countries which it has dominated for longest or for the shortest.
The financial crisis of 2008, the effects of which were devastating to some, witnessed the collapse of finance houses, the terminal atrophy of building societies and the potential bankruptcy of huge banking companies. Credit default swaps and swindles had long fuelled huge 21st century financial bubbles. Many of the above institutions owed money and either went bankrupt or had to be bailed out at public expense. It should be remembered that prior to this ‘crisis’ the mainstream economists and political pundits of the period said this sort of situation could never happen. But it did! They pretended that they had learned the lessons of the 1939 Wall Street crash, for example, and taken measures to avoid such over-speculation and credit collapse. But they hadn’t really learned anything of the sort. In fact they had not only failed to understand the system they were administering, but had ignored people such as Marx, who had done the hard analytic work for them. For example, as long ago as 1860 he had jotted down the following observation;
“With the development of interest – bearing capital and the credit system, all capital seems to double itself, and sometimes treble itself, by the various modes in which the same capital, or perhaps even the same claim on a debt, appears in different forms in different hands. The greater portion of this ‘money – capital’ is purely fictitious.” (Marx. Capital volume 3 page 460.)
Prior to 2008, the world was awash with fictitious capital and bundled debt instruments such as credit default swaps. (So thanks for the warning Karl.) However, I have to report – not many had listened. Indeed Marx had concluded that this system of finance-capital (interest-bearing capital) could, and indeed would, sooner or later, lead to crisis and collapse. Having studied it thoroughly Marx described the process of crisis, in the following way.
“The chain of payments obligations due at specific dates is broken in a hundred places. The confusion is augmented by the attendant collapse of the credit system, …and leads to violent and acute crises, to sudden and forcible depreciation, to actual stagnation and disruption…” (Capital. volume 3 p 249)
All those confused savers and workers who in 2008 queued up outside building societies and banks, or collected their belongings from collapsed firms such as Lehman Brothers would have recognised – obviously not in Marx’s own words – the violence of the crisis, the sudden depreciation of their investment assets and the actual stagnation and disruption which followed. Stagnation and disruption which persists to this day. It was nice of Marx to give humanity a heads up on this further possibility – but again he was largely ignored.
It is common knowledge that trust in politics is now probably at its lowest point since the 1930s. Politicians and their ‘spin-doctoring’ co-workers, are now almost universally viewed as self-centred and unreliable if not downright dishonest. Being ‘out of touch’ is one of the more gentle rebukes. But even well before the mid 20th century, the problem of politics was evident to all those who bothered to take off their petite-bourgeois blinkers. Marx wrote;
“Where political parties exist, each party sees the root of evil in the fact that instead of itself an opposing party stands at the helm of the state. Even radical and revolutionary politicians seek the root of evil not in the essential nature of the state but in a definite state form, which they wish to replace by a different state form.” (Marx. Collected Works, volume 3 page 197.)
That adequately describes the party-political, sham democracy which pretends to be the best we can expect to conduct our human affairs. Politicians are an integral part of the ‘system’. They are solid branches of the same monopodial bourgeois root stock. When not in power, their ‘opposition’ is not to the system of exploitation but only to the others currently in charge of it. And this doesn’t just apply to reformist politicians. Do you think the so-called ‘Marxists’ Lenin, Trotsky and the rest of the soviet politburo bothered to read or understand this? Not before, during or after the ascendency of Stalin, in my opinion. A few pages later in the same document, Marx noted that the more keener and lively the political mind-set is; the more incapable it is of understanding social ills.” (ibid p 199) Even the very rare examples of non-corrupt political understanding, deceives the social instinct of those involved in it. (ibid 204). They are so deep in the box they cannot see out of it. How perceptive of Marx was (and is) all that?
Ecology and production.
We are becoming more aware, if we want to, of the ecological effects of unbridled production and consumption upon the planet. Air, soil, ground-water and sea pollution are becoming harder to hide or ignore as the engine of capitalist production continues to churn out myriads of useful (and frequently useless) commodities and services, in order to continue to gather in profits. But here again this is nothing new. Marx, developing the concepts of earlier political economists made the following assertion in his extensive research notes known as the Grundrisse.
“..capital must on the one hand strive to tear down every spatial barrier to intercourse, ie to exchange and conquer the whole earth for its market,…The more developed the capital, therefore, the more extensive the market over which it circulates, …the more does it strive simultaneously for an even greater extension of the market..” (Grundrisse. Page 539.)
Of course, Marx could not have known the ultimate lengths to which the needs of capital would drive humanity. Two – world wars, in which rival capitalist elites (Allies and Axis) drafted it’s citizens into armies to fight and mass kill each other over ultimate control of colonial and imperial territories for the raw materials (coal, oil, rubber, metals and minerals) and markets needed to feed capitalist production and absorb it’s sales. The barbarity of the first world war (1914-1918) and the second world war (1938-1945) would have undoubtedly shocked him but given what he wrote above such ‘striving for a greater extension of the market’ would not have entirely surprised him. Nor would news that once rocket propulsion had been invented that capitalists would set up business plans to visit other planets, to obtain rare minerals once they have terminally exhausted and messed up this one. (Apart from not predicting total war, jet and rocket propulsion, the despoiling of the planet was well spotted Karl.)
The lack of humanity of so many of those who claimed to be ‘Marxists’, is well documented, as is the lack of it among those who like to be called Fascists. These are both documented on this blog and massively elsewhere. The indifference and brutality of those who claim to be decent and liberal members of the bourgeoisie is likewise daily exposed as the social-democratic led invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan, the bombing of Libya, Yemen and Syria demonstrate. The lack of humanity displayed toward foreign people is greater than that displayed toward their own citizens, but as noted earlier, poverty, austerity, homelessness, injustice, discrimination, are distributed across the whole spectrum of nations, without impinging too greatly on the bourgeois and petite-bourgeois conscience. Consider Marx on this aspect.
“..the whole of human servitude is involved in the relationship of the worker to production…fully developed humanism…is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man – the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation…”
“Private property has made us so stupid and one-sided that an object is only ours…when it is used by us.” (Marx. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. In Collected Works Volume 3, pages 293 – 306.)
Individual consumer fetishism, conspicuous consumption and retail therapy are more than anticipated by Marx’s scathing remarks. Human beings are primarily a social species. We rely upon each other absolutely. However, the capitalist mode of production has forced us into seeing ourselves as primarily individuals. We live in societies but must compete, rather than cooperate with each other for jobs, housing and other essential needs. We are expected to take for granted those (the ‘other’) who supply us with the essentials to live. We are encouraged by the elite to be indifferent to their standards of living and welfare – providing we are comfortably off.
When the low-paid protest or remove their labour or the desperate underclass rebel we are encouraged to get angry and demonstrative, not sympathetic and supportive. Sadly this look after number one mentality has permeated the whole of bourgeois culture and was only pushed back a little (not completely) by the efforts of a few in areas such as health and social services. But still, ‘conflict between humans and between humans and nature’, badly needs resolving by a ‘fully developed humanism‘.
Modes of production.
Another important contribution Marx made to the understanding of the social and economic history of mankind was with regard to modes of production and their transformation from one mode to another. The hunter-gatherer modes of production gave way to pastoral and herding modes, which in turn became surpassed by modes of production based upon settled agriculture. Each transformation was resisted by some and championed by others.
The current capitalist mode of production arose in competition with the aristocratic feudal mode and the latter’s resistance was eventually overcome. Predictably, the dominant classes of each mode think it should be eternal despite any problems the mode has started to cause for the bulk of society. The capitalist mode based upon money and commodity production for profit, is no different in this regard. When it throws at humanity and the environment more unsolvable problems than the bulk of humanity wish to endure, it is time for a further change in the mode of production. For as Marx, pointed out.
“Nature does not produce on the one side owners of money and commodities, and on the other men possessing nothing but their own labour power. This relation has no natural basis, neither is its social basis one that is common to all historical periods. It is clearly the result of past historical development, the product of many economic revolutions, of the extinction of a whole series of older forms of social production.” (Marx. Capital volume 1 page 169.)
For all the above reasons the contribution made to economic, political and social understanding by Karl Marx should be celebrated, not distorted, demeaned or dismissed. More than any other individual he has furnished a set of intellectual tools for the benefit of humanity to utilise in the struggle for a better world and a healthier planet. Its up to more of us to pick them up, clean away the muck piled upon them by the distorters and wield them – or take the easy way out, sit back and leave them to rust. As always we have a choice.
Meanwhile; ‘Happy birthday dear Karl!’
R. Ratcliffe (May 2018)