On the anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth, Alex Callinicos looks at the lasting legacy of the great revolutionary
Karl Marx died in obscurity in March 1883. A dozen people attended his funeral at Highgate Cemetery in London.
Even though he had been witch-hunted by the press of Europe for his role in championing the Paris Commune of 1871, The Times learned of his death from its coverage in French papers.
Marx has been buried again symbolically many times since. During the Cold War, the sociologist Daniel Bell announced the “End of Ideology”—by which he meant above all the end of Marxism.
In 1989, as the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe and Russia began to collapse, the US State Department official Francis Fukuyama went even further. He proclaimed the “End of History”. Liberal capitalism had triumphed over its rivals and would dominate the future.
Yet the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth on 5 May was widely covered in the media and marked by many conferences and events.
Even the president of the European Commission, the preposterous Jean-Claude Juncker, helped unveil a statue of Marx in his native Trier.
So why is Marx proving so hard to bury? The fundamental answer is capitalism.
Fukuyama’s “End of History” reflected the height of neo-liberal triumphalism that the free-market capitalism promoted by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan would bring peace and prosperity.
He wrote, “the class issue has actually been successfully resolved in the West. The egalitarianism of modern America represents the essential achievement of the classless society envisioned by Marx.”
These words ring very hollow now. The American working class has experienced a generation of stagnant living standards.
The neo-liberal era is one of growing economic inequality, which the research of Thomas Piketty has shown to be approaching the levels prevailing before the First World War.
The neo-liberal “extreme centre” that has dominated Western politics since the 1980s is facing growing challenge from so-called “populist” revolts from both right and left.
All these problems are failings of capitalism, which is still recovering from its worst crisis since the 1930s. And Marx’s great theme was capitalism.
As a young radical democrat in Germany during the 1840s he found himself, as he later put it, “in the embarrassing position of having to discuss what is known as material interests”.
He came to the conclusion that the great modern revolutions—England 1640, America 1776, France 1789—had confined themselves to narrow political changes.
What he called “human emancipation” required a transformation in “the material conditions of life”, or what the philosopher Hegel called “civil society”.
Marx also discovered that “the anatomy of this civil society, however, has to be sought in political economy”.
But Marx’s studies of the classical political economists—Sir James Steuart, Adam Smith, David Ricardo—led him to what he called the critique of political economy.
This involved criticising not just their theoretical categories but the economic system that these simultaneously revealed and mystified—what Marx called the capitalist mode of production.
His masterpiece Capital develops a systematic analysis and critique of modern industrial capitalism.
At the time he wrote it this system occupied only a few beachheads. These were in Britain, a few other parts of northwestern Europe and on the northeastern seaboard of the US. But Marx understood that this system was in the process of conquering the world.
Indeed, in his most famous work, the Communist Manifesto, Marx almost celebrates capitalism saying the, “Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.”
Many have pointed out that Marx’s description of capitalism in the Manifesto fits the contemporary era of globalisation very well.
He wrote, “The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country.”
But it is in Capital that Marx uncovers the underlying logic that makes capitalism behave like this.
He starts with a chapter called “The Commodity”. It might seem like he’s agreeing with mainstream economists who identify capitalism with the market. But whereas for them the market allows us to realise our desires, for Marx capitalism is a realm of unfreedom and exploitation.
The means of production are controlled by capitalist firms that survive and flourish to the extent that they are able to sell their products.
This means they are driven by competition. The capitalists, like “hostile brothers”, seek to undercut each other, steal each other’s markets, and if necessary to drive each other out of business.
In this deadly struggle, profits are the measure of success. Building on Smith and Ricardo, Marx shows that these are created by the labour of the workers the capitalists employ to make their products.
In what he calls the “hidden abode” of production, workers are systematically exploited in order to screw as much profits as possible from them.
Workers may seem free to choose their employer. But Marx points out, since they own only their labour power, the only way they can get access to the means of subsistence for themselves and their dependents is to submit to exploitation.
In one of the most brilliant parts of Capital he shows how the conditions for capitalist production are created by driving peasants off the land.
They have to become workers and through the process of conquest, robbery, and enslavement through which Europe came to dominate the world.
This is a system no one controls. To survive capitalists must not just exploit, but accumulate, or reinvest their profits in expanded and more efficient production.
It is this that leads to the dynamism and disruption that Marx celebrates in the Manifesto.
But competitive accumulation also gives rise to the crises that regularly punctuate the history of capitalism.
Firms invest more and more heavily in labour-saving technologies that bring down the rate of profit and push capitalism towards these crises.
But, Marx argues, “there also grows the revolt of the working class, a class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united, and organised by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production”.
Capitalism depends on increasing cooperation in production, but seeks to divide and exploit the workers who do the actual producing.
This gives workers an interest in acting collectively against the bosses.
Solidarity is the essence of effective working class action. But it is also the basis of the alternative to capitalism—communism, a society run by the “associated producers”, in which the people who do the work make the decisions.
Contrary to the distortions of Stalinism, Marx conceived the overthrow of capitalism as a fundamentally democratic process.
The First International, which he led between 1864 and 1872, proclaimed that “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes”.
But the International also had to confront the divisions that can prevent workers from making a revolution.
In 1870 Marx pointed to the racial antagonism between “native” British workers and Irish migrant labourers. He said this was “the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation.
“It is the secret of the maintenance of power by the capitalist class.”
Marx’s thought retains its actuality therefore not just because of his critique of capitalism.
He understood that the road to socialism lay through the unity of the workers against the bosses and against the different forms of oppression that divide them.
Not long before his death Marx was interviewed by an American journalist, John Swinton, while on holiday in Ramsgate, in Kent.
Swinton wrote, “I interrogated the revolutionist and philosopher in these fateful words, ‘What is?’
“And it seemed as though his mind were inverted for a moment while he looked upon the roaring sea in front and the restless multitude upon the beach. In deep and solemn tone, he replied, ‘Struggle!’”
Republished from Socialist Worker UK