The Ideas of Karl MarxAugust 10, 2018
The ideas of Marx have never been more relevant than they are today. This is reflected in the thirst for Marxist theory at the present time. In this article, Alan Woods deals with the main ideas of Karl Marx and their relevance to the crisis we’re passing through today.
It is 130 years since the death of Karl Marx. But why should we commemorate a man who died in 1883? In the early 1960s the then Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson declared that we must not look for solutions in Highgate cemetery. And who can disagree with that? In the aforementioned cemetery one can only find old bones and dust and a rather ugly stone monument.
However, when we speak of the relevance of Karl Marx today we refer not to cemeteries but to ideas—ideas that have withstood the test of time and have now emerged triumphant, as even some of the enemies of Marxism have been reluctantly forced to accept. The economic collapse of 2008 showed who was outdated, and it was certainly not Karl Marx.
For decades the economists never tired of repeating that Marx’s predictions of an economic downturn were totally outdated. They were supposed to be ideas of the 19th century, and those who defended them were dismissed as hopeless dogmatists. But it now turns out that it is the ideas of the defenders of capitalism that must be consigned to the rubbish bin of history, while Marx has been completely vindicated.
Not so long ago, Gordon Brown confidently proclaimed “the end of boom and bust”. After the crash of 2008 he was forced to eat his words. The crisis of the euro shows that the bourgeoisie has no idea how to solve the problems of Greece, Spain and Italy which in turn threaten the future of the European common currency and even the EU itself. This can easily be the catalyst for a new collapse on a world scale, which will be even deeper than the crisis of 2008.
Even some bourgeois economists are being forced to accept what is becoming increasingly evident: that capitalism contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction; that it is an anarchic and chaotic system characterised by periodic crises that throw people out of work and cause social and political instability.
The thing about the present crisis was that it was not supposed to happen. Until recently most of the bourgeois economists believed that the market, if left to itself, was capable of solving all the problems, magically balancing out supply and demand (the “efficient market hypothesis”) so that there could never be a repetition of the crash of 1929 and the Great Depression.
Marx’s prediction of a crisis of overproduction had been consigned to the dustbin of history. Those who still adhered to Marx’s view that the capitalist system was riven with insoluble contradictions and contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction were looked upon as mere cranks. Had the fall of the Soviet Union not finally demonstrated the failure of communism? Had history not finally ended with the triumph of capitalism as the only possible socio-economic system?
But in the space of 20 years (not a long period in the annals of human society) the wheel of history has turned 180 degrees. Now the erstwhile critics of Marx and Marxism are singing a very different tune. All of a sudden, the economic theories of Karl Marx are being taken very seriously indeed. A growing number of economists are poring over the pages of Marx’s writings, hoping to find an explanation for what has gone wrong.
In July 2009, after the start of the recession The Economist held a seminar in London to discuss the question: What is wrong with Economics? This revealed that for a growing number of economists mainstream theory has no relevance. Nobel Prize winner, Paul Krugman made an astonishing admission. He said “the last 30 years development in macroeconomic theory has, at best, been spectacularly useless or, at worst, directly harmful.” This judgement is a fitting epitaph for the theories of bourgeois economics.
Now that events have knocked just a little sense into the heads of at least some bourgeois thinkers, we are seeing all kinds of articles that grudgingly recognise that Marx was right after all. Even the Vatican’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, published an article in 2009 praising Marx’s diagnosis of income inequality, which is quite an endorsement for the man who declared religion to be the opium of the people. Das Kapital is now a best seller in Germany. In Japan it has been published in a manga version.
George Magnus, a senior economic analyst at UBS bank, wrote an article with the intriguing title: “Give Karl Marx a Chance to Save the World Economy”. Switzerland-based UBS is a pillar of the financial establishment, with offices in more than 50 countries and over $2 trillion in assets. Yet in an essay for Bloomberg View, Magnus wrote that “today’s global economy bears some uncanny resemblances to what Marx foresaw.”
In his article he starts by describing policy makers “struggling to understand the barrage of financial panics, protests and other ills afflicting the world” and suggests that they would do well to study the works of “a long-dead economist, Karl Marx.”
“Consider, for example, Marx’s prediction of how the inherent conflict between capital and labor would manifest itself. As he wrote in Das Kapital, companies’ pursuit of profits and productivity would naturally lead them to need fewer and fewer workers, creating an ‘industrial reserve army’ of the poor and unemployed: ‘Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery’.”
“The process he [Marx] describes is visible throughout the developed world, particularly in the U.S. Companies’ efforts to cut costs and avoid hiring have boosted U.S. corporate profits as a share of total economic output to the highest level in more than six decades, while the unemployment rate stands at 9.1 percent and real wages are stagnant.
“U.S. income inequality, meanwhile, is by some measures close to its highest level since the 1920s. Before 2008, the income disparity was obscured by factors such as easy credit, which allowed poor households to enjoy a more affluent lifestyle. Now the problem is coming home to roost.”
The Wall Street Journal carried an interview with the well-known economist Dr. Nouriel Roubini, known to his fellow economists as “Dr. Doom” because of his prediction of the 2008 financial crisis. There is a video of this extraordinary interview, which deserves to be studied carefully because it shows the thinking of the most far-sighted strategists of Capital.
Roubini argues that the chain of credit is broken, and that capitalism has entered into a vicious cycle where excess capacity (overproduction), falling consumer demand, high levels of debt all breed a lack of confidence in investors that in turn will be reflected in sharp falls on the stock exchange, falling asset prices and a collapse in the real economy.
Like all the other economists, Roubini has no real solution to the present crisis, except more monetary injections from central banks to avoid another meltdown. But he frankly admitted that monetary policy alone will not be enough, and business and governments are not helping. Europe and the United States are implementing austerity programs to try to fix their debt-ridden economies, when they should be introducing more monetary stimulus, he said. His conclusions could not be more pessimistic: “Karl Marx got it right, at some point capitalism can destroy itself,” said Roubini. “We thought markets worked. They’re not working.” (My emphasis, AW)
The phantom of Marxism is still haunting the bourgeoisie a hundred and thirty years after Marx’s mortal remains were laid to rest. But what is Marxism? To deal properly with all aspects of Marxism in the space of one article is an impossible task. We therefore confine ourselves to a general, and therefore sketchy account in the hope that it will encourage the reader to study Marx’s writings themselves. After all, nobody has ever expounded Marx’s ideas better than Marx himself.
Broadly speaking, his ideas can be split into three distinct yet interconnected parts—what Lenin called the three sources and three component parts of Marxism. These generally go under the headings of Marxist economics, dialectical materialism and historical materialism. Each of these stands in a dialectical relation to each other and cannot be understood in isolation from one another. A good place to begin is the founding document of our movement that was written on the eve of the European Revolutions of 1848. It is one of the greatest and most influential works in history.
The Communist Manifesto
The immense majority of the books written one and a half centuries ago are today merely of historical interest. But what is most striking about the Communist Manifesto is the way in which it anticipates the most fundamental phenomena which occupy our attention on a world scale at the present time. It is really extraordinary to think that a book written in 1847 can present a picture of the world of the 21st century so vividly and truthfully. In point of fact, the Manifesto is even truer today than when it first appeared in 1848.
Let us consider one example. At the time when Marx and Engels were writing, the world of the big multinational companies was still the music of a very distant future. Despite this, they explained how free enterprise and competition would inevitably lead to the concentration of capital and the monopolisation of the productive forces. It is frankly comical to read the statements made by the defenders of the market concerning Marx’s alleged mistake on this question, when in reality it was precisely one of his most brilliant and accurate predictions.
During the 1980s it became fashionable to claim that small is beautiful. This is not the place to enter into a discussion concerning the relative aesthetics of big, small or medium sizes, about which everyone is entitled to hold an opinion. But it is an absolutely indisputable fact that the process of concentration of capital foreseen by Marx has occurred, is occurring, and indeed has reached unprecedented levels in the course of the last ten years.
In the United States, where the process may be seen in a particularly clear form, the Fortune 500 corporations accounted for 73.5 percent of total GDP output in 2010. If these 500 companies formed an independent country, it would be the world’s second largest economy, second only to the United States itself. In 2011, these 500 firms generated an all-time record of $824.5 billion in profits—a 16 percent jump from 2010. On a world scale, the 2000 biggest companies now account for $32 trillion in revenues, $2.4 trillion in profits, $138 trillion in assets and $38 trillion in market value, with profits rising an astonishing 67 percent between 2010 and 2011.
When Marx and Engels wrote the Manifesto, there was no empirical evidence for his claims. On the contrary, the capitalism of his time was based entirely on small businesses, the free market and competition. Today, the economy of the entire capitalist world is dominated by a handful of giant transnational monopolies such as Exxon and Walmart. These behemoths possess funds that far exceed the national budgets of many states. The predictions of the Manifesto have been realised even more clearly and completely than Marx himself could ever have dreamed of.
The defenders of capitalism cannot forgive Marx because, at a time when capitalism was in the stage of youthful vigour, he was able to foresee the causes of its senile degeneration. For decades they strenuously denied his prediction of the inevitable process of the concentration of capital and the displacement of small businesses by big monopolies.
The process of the centralisation and concentration of capital has reached proportions hitherto undreamed of. The number of take-overs has acquired the character of an epidemic in all the advanced industrialised nations. In many cases, such take-overs are intimately connected with all kinds of shady practices—insider dealing, falsification of share prices, and other types of fraud, larceny and swindling, as the scandal over the manipulation of the Libor interest rate by Barclays and other big banks has revealed. This concentration of capital does not signify a growth in production, but quite the contrary. In every case, the intention is not to invest in new plant and machinery but to close existing factories and offices and sack large numbers of workers in order to increase profit margins without increasing production. Just take the recent fusion of two big Swiss banks, immediately followed by the loss of 13,000 jobs.
Globalisation and Inequality
Let us proceed to the next important prediction made by Marx. Already in 1847, Marx explained that the development of a global market renders “impossible all narrowness and national individualism. Every country—even the largest and most powerful—is now totally subordinate to the whole world economy, which decides the fate of peoples and nations.” This brilliant theoretical anticipation shows, better than anything else, the immeasurable superiority of the Marxist method.
Globalisation is generally regarded as a recent phenomenon. Yet the creation of a single global market under capitalism was long ago predicted in the pages of the Manifesto. The crushing domination of the world market is now the most decisive fact of our epoch. The enormous intensification of the international division of labour since the Second World War has demonstrated the correctness of Marx’s analysis in an almost laboratory fashion.
Despite this, strenuous efforts have been made to prove that Marx was wrong when he spoke of the concentration of capital and therefore the process of polarisation between the classes. These mental gymnastics corresponds to the dreams of the bourgeoisie to rediscover the lost golden age of free enterprise. Similarly, a decrepit old man longs in his senility for the lost days of his youth.
Unfortunately, there is not the slightest chance of capitalism recovering its youthful vigour. It has long ago entered its final phase: that of monopoly capitalism. The day of the small business, despite the nostalgia of the bourgeoisie, has been relegated to the past. In all countries the big monopolies, closely related to banking and enmeshed with the bourgeois state, dominate the life of society. The polarisation between the classes continues uninterrupted, and tends to accelerate.
Let us take the situation in the USA. The richest 400 families in the U.S. have as much wealth as the bottom 50 percent of the population. The six individual Wal-Mart heirs alone are “worth” more than the bottom 30 percent of Americans combined. The poorest 50 percent of Americans own just 2.5 percent of the country’s wealth. The richest one per cent of the US population increased its share of the national income from 17.6 per cent in 1978 to an astonishing 37.1 per cent in 2011.
During the past 30 years the gap between the incomes of the rich and the poor has been steadily widening into a yawning abyss. In the industrialised West the average income of the richest ten per cent of the population is about nine times that of the poorest ten per cent. That is an enormous difference. And figures published by the OECD show that the disparity which began in the US and UK has spread to countries such as Denmark, Germany and Sweden, which have traditionally had low inequality.
The obscene wealth of the bankers is now a public scandal. But this phenomenon is not confined to the financial sector. In many cases, directors of large companies earn 200 times more than their lowest-paid workers. This excessive difference has already provoked growing resentment, which is turning to fury that spills over onto the streets in one country after another. The growing tension is reflected in strikes, general strikes, demonstrations and riots. It is reflected in elections by protest votes against governments and all the existing parties, as we saw recently in the Italian general election.
A Time magazine poll showed that 54% have a favourable view of the #Occupy movement, 79% think the gap between rich and poor has grown too large, 71% think CEOs of financial institutions should be prosecuted, 68% think the rich should pay more taxes, only 27% have a favourable view of the Tea Party movement (33% unfavourable). Of course, it is too early to speak of a revolution in the USA. But it is clear that the crisis of capitalism is producing a growing mood of criticism among broad layers of the population. There is a ferment and a questioning of capitalism that were not there before.
The Scourge of Unemployment
In the Communist Manifesto we read: “And here it becomes evident, that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an over-riding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him. Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie.”
The words of Marx and Engels quoted above have become literally true. There is a growing feeling among all sections of society that our lives are dominated by forces beyond our control. Society is gripped by a gnawing sense of fear and uncertainty. The mood of insecurity has become generalised to practically the whole of society.
The kind of mass unemployment we are now experiencing is far worse than anything Marx foresaw. Marx wrote of the reserve army of labour: that is to say, a pool of labour that can be used to keep down wages and acts as a reserve when the economy recovers from a slump. But the kind of unemployment we now see is not the reserve army of which Marx spoke, which, from a capitalist point of view played a useful role.
This is not the kind of cyclical unemployment which workers are well acquainted with from the past and which would rise in a recession only to disappear when the economy picked up again. It is permanent, structural, organic unemployment, which does not noticeably diminish even when there is a “boom”. It is a dead weight that acts as a colossal drag on productive activity, a symptom that the system has reached a blind alley.
A decade before the crisis of 2008, according to the United Nations, world unemployment was approximately 120 millions. By 2009, the International Labour Organisation put the figure at 198 millions, and expects it to reach 202 million in 2013. However, even these figures, like all the official statistics of unemployment, represent a serious understatement of the real situation. If we include the enormous number of men and women who are compelled to work in all kinds of marginal “jobs”, the real figure of world unemployment and underemployment would not be less than 1,000 million.
Despite all the talk of economic recovery, economic growth in Germany, the former economic powerhouse of Europe, has slowed down almost to zero, as has France. In Japan too the economy is grinding to a halt. Quite apart from the misery and suffering caused to millions of families, from an economic point of view, this represents a staggering loss of production and waste on a colossal scale. Contrary to the illusions of the labour leaders in the past, mass unemployment has returned and has spread all over the world like a cancer gnawing at the bowels of society.
The crisis of capitalism has its direst effects among the youth. Unemployment among young people is soaring everywhere. This is the reason for the mass student protests and riots in Britain, for the movement of the indignados in Spain, the occupations of the schools in Greece and also for the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, where about 75% of the youth are unemployed.
The number of unemployed in Europe is constantly increasing. The figure for Spain is nearly 27 per cent, while youth unemployment stands at an incredible 55 per cent, while in Greece no fewer than 62 per cent of the youth—two in every three—are jobless. A whole generation of young people is being sacrificed on the altar of Profit. Many who looked for salvation to higher education have found that this avenue is blocked. In Britain, where higher education used to be free, now young people find that in order to acquire the skills they need, they will have to go into debt.
At the other end of the age scale, workers approaching retirement find that they must work longer and pay more for lower pensions that will condemn many to poverty in old age. For young and old alike, the prospect facing most people today is a lifetime of insecurity. All the old bourgeois hypocrisy about morality and family values has been exposed as hollow. The epidemic of unemployment, homelessness, crushing debt and extreme social inequality that has turned a whole generation into pariahs has undermined the family and created a nightmare of systemic poverty, hopelessness, degradation and despair.
A Crisis of Overproduction
In Greek mythology there was a character called Procrustes who had a nasty habit of cutting off the legs, head and arms of his guests to make them fit into his infamous bed. Nowadays the capitalist system resembles the bed of Procrustes. The bourgeoisie is systematically destroying the means of production in order to make them fit into the narrow limits of the capitalist system. This economic vandalism resembles a policy of slash and burn on a vast scale.
George Soros likens it to the kind of smashing ball used to demolish tall buildings. But it is not only buildings that are being destroyed but whole economies and states. The slogan of the hour is austerity, cuts and falling living standards. In every country the bourgeoisie raises the same war cry: “We must cut public expenditure!” Every government in the capitalist world, whether right or “left” is in reality pursuing the same policy. This is not the result of the whims of individual politicians, of ignorance or bad faith (although there is plenty of this also) but a graphic expression of the blind alley in which the capitalist system finds itself.
This is an expression of the fact that the capitalist system is reaching its limits and is unable to develop the productive forces as it did in the past. Like Goethe’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice, it has conjured up forces it cannot control. But by slashing state expenditure, they are simultaneously reducing demand and cutting the whole market, just at a time when even the bourgeois economists admit that there is a serious problem of overproduction (“overcapacity”) on a world scale. Let us take just one example, the automobile sector. This is fundamental because it also involves many other sectors, such as steel, plastic, chemicals and electronics.
The global excess capacity of the automobile industry is approximately thirty percent. This means that Ford, General Motors, Fiat, Renault, Toyota and all the others could close one third of their factories and lay off one third of their workers tomorrow, and they would still not be able to sell all the vehicles they produce at what they consider to be an acceptable rate of profit. A similar position exists in many other sectors. Unless and until this problem of excess capacity is resolved, there can be no real end to the present crisis.
The dilemma of the capitalists can be easily expressed. If Europe and the USA are not consuming, China cannot produce. If China is not producing at the same pace as before, countries like Brazil. Argentina and Australia cannot continue to export their raw materials. The whole world is inseparably interlinked. The crisis of the euro will affect the US economy, which is in a very fragile state, and what happens in the USA will have a decisive effect on the entire world economy. Thus, globalisation manifests itself as a global crisis of capitalism.
With incredible foresight, the authors of the Manifesto anticipated the conditions which are now being experienced by the working class in all countries.
“Owing to the extensive use of machinery and to division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him. Hence, the cost of production of a workman is restricted, almost entirely, to the means of subsistence that he requires for his maintenance, and for the propagation of his race. But the price of a commodity, and therefore also of labour, is equal to the cost of production. In proportion, therefore, as the repulsiveness of the work increases, the wage decreases. Nay more, in proportion as the use of machinery and division of labour increases, in the same proportion the burden of toil also increases, whether by prolongation of the working hours, by increase of the work exacted in a given time or by increased speed of the machinery, etc.”
Today the USA occupies the same position that Britain held in Marx’s day—that of the most developed capitalist country. Thus, the general tendencies of capitalism are expressed there in their clearest form. Over the last 30 years, CEO pay in the USA has grown by 725%, while worker pay has risen by just 5.7%. These CEOs now make an average of 244 times more than their employees. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. According to the Center for Economic Policy Research, if the minimum wage had kept up with worker productivity, it would have reached $21.72 in 2012. If inflation is taken into account, median wages for male American workers are actually lower today than they were in 1968. In this way, the present boom has been largely at the expense of the working class.
While millions are compelled to eke out a miserable existence of enforced inactivity, millions of others are forced to have two or even three jobs, and often work 60 hours or more per week with no overtime pay benefits. 85.8 percent of males and 66.5 percent of females work more than 40 hours per week. According to the International Labour Organisation, “Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers.”
Based on data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics BLS, the average productivity per American worker has risen 400 percent since 1950. In theory, this means that in order to achieve the same standard of living a worker should only have to work just one quarter of the average working week in 1950, or 11 hours per week. Either that, or the standard of living in theory should have risen by four times. On the contrary, the standard of living has decreased dramatically for the majority, while work-related stress, injuries and disease are increasing. This is reflected in an epidemic of depression, suicides, divorce, child and spousal abuse, mass shootings and other social ills.
The same situation exists in Britain, where under the Thatcher government 2.5 million jobs were destroyed in industry, and yet the same level of production has been maintained as in 1979. This has been achieved, not through the introduction of new machinery but through the over-exploitation of British workers. In 1995, Kenneth Calman, Director General of Health, warned that “the lost of life time employment has unleashed an epidemic of stress related illnesses.”
The Class Struggle
Marx and Engels explained in the Communist Manifesto that a constant factor in all of recorded history is that social development takes place through the class struggle. Under capitalism this has been greatly simplified with the polarisation of society into two great antagonistic classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The tremendous development of industry and technology over the last 200 years has led to the increasing the concentration of economic power in a few hands.
“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” says the Manifesto in one of its most celebrated phrases. For a long time it seemed to many that this idea was outmoded. In the long period of capitalist expansion that followed the Second World War, with full employment in the advanced industrial economies, rising living standards and reforms (remember the Welfare State?), the class struggle did indeed seem to be a thing of the past.
Marx predicted that the development of capitalism would lead inexorably to the concentration of capital, an immense accumulation of wealth on the one hand and an equal accumulation of poverty, misery and unbearable toil at the other end of the social spectrum. For decades this idea was rubbished by the bourgeois economists and university sociologists who insisted that society was becoming ever more egalitarian, that everyone was now becoming middle class. Now all these illusions have been dispelled.
The argument, so beloved of bourgeois sociologists, that the working class has ceased to exist has been stood on its head. In the last period important layers of the working population who previously considered themselves to be middle class have been proletarianised. Teachers, civil servants, bank employees and so on have been drawn into the ranks of the working class and the labour movement, where they make up some of the most militant sections.
The old arguments that everybody can advance and we are all middle class have been falsified by events. In Britain, the US and many other developed countries over the past 20 or 30 years, the opposite has been happening. Middle-class people used to think life unfolded in an orderly progression of stages in which each is a step up from the last. That is no longer the case.
Job security has ceased to exist, the trades and professions of the past have largely disappeared and life-long careers are barely memories. The ladder has been kicked away and for most people a middle-class existence is no longer even an aspiration. A dwindling minority can count on a pension on which they could comfortably live, and few have significant savings. More and more people live from day to day, with little idea of what the future may bring.
If people have any wealth, it is in their houses, but with the contraction of the economy house prices have fallen in many countries and may be stagnant for years. The idea of a property-owning democracy has been exposed as a mirage. Far from being an asset to help fund a comfortable retirement, home ownership has become a heavy burden. Mortgages must be paid, whether you are in work or not. Many are trapped in negative equity, with huge debts that can never be paid. There is a growing generation of what can only be described as debt slaves.
This is a devastating condemnation of the capitalist system. However, this process of proletarianisation means that the social reserves of reaction have been sharply reduced as a big section of white collar workers moves closer to the traditional working class. In the recent mass mobilisations, sections that in the past would never have dreamt of striking or even joining a union, such as teachers and civil servants, were in the front line of the class struggle.
Idealism or Materialism?
The idealist method sets out from what people think and say about themselves. But Marx explained that ideas do not fall from the sky, but reflect more or less accurately, objective situations, social pressures and contradictions beyond the control of men and women. But history does not unfold as a result of free will or conscious desires of the “great man”, kings, politicians or philosophers. On the contrary, the progress of society depends on the development of the productive forces, which is not the product of conscious planning, but develops behind the backs of men and women.
For the first time Marx placed socialism on a firm theoretical basis. A scientific understanding of history cannot be based on the distorted images of reality floating like pale and fantastic ghosts in the minds of men and women, but on real social relations. That means beginning with a clarification of the relationship between social and political forms and the mode of production at a given stage of history. This is precisely what is called the historical materialist method of analysis.
Some people will feel irritated by this theory which seems to deprive humankind of the role of protagonists in the historical process. In the same way, the Church and its philosophical apologists were deeply offended by the claims of Galileo that the Sun, not the Earth, was at the centre of the Universe. Later, the same people attacked Darwin for suggesting that humans were not the special creation of God, but the product of natural selection.
Actually, Marxism does not at all deny the importance of the subjective factor in history, the conscious role of humankind in the development of society. Men and women make history, but do not do it entirely in accord with their free will and conscious intentions. In Marx’s words: “History does nothing”, it “possesses no immense wealth”, it “wages no battles”. It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; “history” is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.” (Marx and Engels, The Holy Family, Chapter VI)
All that Marxism does is to explain the role of the individual as part of a given society, subject to certain objective laws and, ultimately, as the representative of the interests of a particular class. Ideas have no independent existence, nor own historical development. “Life is not determined by consciousness,” Marx writes in The German Ideology, “but consciousness by life.”
The ideas and actions of people are conditioned by social relations, the development of which does not depend on the subjective will of men and women but takes place according to definite laws which, in the last analysis, reflect the needs of the development of the productive forces. The interrelations between these factors constitute a complex web that is often difficult to see. The study of these relations is the basis of the Marxist theory of history.
Let us cite one example. At the time of the English Revolution, Oliver Cromwell fervently believed that he was fighting for the right of each individual to pray to God according to his conscience. But the further march of history proved that the Cromwellian Revolution was the decisive stage in the irresistible ascent of the English bourgeoisie to power. The concrete stage of the development of the productive forces in 17th Century England permitted no other outcome.
The leaders of the Great French Revolution of 1789-93 fought under the banner of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity”. They believed they were fighting for a regime based on the eternal laws of Justice and Reason. However, regardless of their intentions and ideas, the Jacobins were preparing the way for the rule of the bourgeoisie in France. Again, from a scientific standpoint, no other result was possible at that point of social development.
From the standpoint of the labour movement Marx’s great contribution was that he was the first to explain that socialism is not just a good idea, but the necessary result of the development of society. Socialist thinkers before Marx—the utopian socialists—attempted to discover universal laws and formulae that would lay the basis for the triumph of human reason over the injustice of class society. All that was necessary was to discover that idea, and the problems would be solved. This is an idealist approach.
Unlike the Utopians, Marx never attempted to discover the laws of society in general. He analysed the law of movement of a particular society, capitalist society, explaining how it arose, how it evolved and also how it necessarily ceases to exist at a given moment. He performed this huge task in the three volumes of Capital.
Marx and Darwin
Charles Darwin, who was an instinctive materialist, explained the evolution of species as a result of the effects of the natural environment. Karl Marx explained the development of humankind from the development of the “artificial” environment we call society. The difference lies, on the one hand, in the enormously complicated character of human society compared to the relative simplicity of nature and, secondly, in the greatly accelerated pace of change in society compared to the extraordinarily slow pace with which evolution by nation selection unfolds.
On the base of the social relations of production—in other words, the relations between social classes—there arises complex legal and political forms with their manifold ideological, cultural and religious reflections. This complex edifice of forms and ideas is sometimes referred to as the social superstructure. Although it is always based on economic foundations, the superstructure rises above the economic base and interacts upon it, sometimes in a decisive manner. This dialectical relationship between base and superstructure is very complicated and not always very obvious. But in the last analysis, the economic base always turns out to be the decisive force.
Property relations are simply the legal expression of the relationships between classes. At first, these relationships—together with their legal and political expression—assist the development of the productive forces. But the development of productive forces tends to come up against the limitations represented by existing property relations. The latter become an obstacle for the development of production. It is at this point that we enter a period of revolution.
Idealists see human consciousness as the mainspring of all human action, the motor force of history. But all history proves the opposite. Human consciousness in general is not progressive or revolutionary. It is slow to react to circumstances and deeply conservative. Most people do not like change, much less revolutionary change. This innate fear of change is deeply rooted in the collective psyche. It is part of a defence mechanism that has its origins in the remote past of the human species.
As a general rule, we can say that society never decides to take a step forward unless it is obliged to do so under the pressure of extreme necessity. As long as it is possible to muddle through life on the basis of the old ideas, adapting them imperceptibly to a slowly changing reality, so long will men and women continue to move along the well-worn paths. Like the force of inertia in mechanics, tradition, habit and routine constitute a very heavy burden on human consciousness, which means that ideas always tend to lag behind events. It requires the hammer blows of great events to overcome this inertia and force people to question the existing society, its ideas and values.
All that revolution shows is the fact that the social contradictions engendered by the conflict between economic development and the existing structure of society have become unbearable. This central contradiction can only be resolved by the radical overthrow of the existing order, and its replacement by new social relations that bring the economic base into harmony with the superstructure.
In a revolution the economic foundations of society suffer a radical transformation. Then, the legal and political superstructure undergoes a profound change. In each case, the new, higher relations of production have matured in embryo in the womb of the old society, posing an urgent need for a transition to a new social system.
Marxism analyses the hidden mainsprings that lie behind the development of human society, from the earliest tribal societies up to the modern day. The way in which Marxism traces this winding road is called the materialist conception of history. This scientific method enables us to understand history, not as a series of unconnected and unforeseen incidents, but rather as part of a clearly understood and interrelated process. It is a series of actions and reactions which cover politics, economics and the whole spectrum of social development. To lay bare the complex dialectical relationship between all these phenomena is the task of historical materialism.
The great English historian Edward Gibbon, the author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, wrote that history is “little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.” (Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 1, p. 69). In essence, the latest post-modernist interpretation of history has not advanced a single step since then. History is seen as a series of disconnected “narratives” with no organic connection and no inner meaning or logic. No socio-economic system can be said to be better or worse than any other, and there can therefore be no question of progress or retrogression.
History appears here as an essentially meaningless and inexplicable series of random events or accidents. It is governed by no laws that we can comprehend. To try to understand it would therefore be a pointless exercise. A variation on this theme is the idea, now very popular in some academic circles, that there is no such thing as higher and lower forms of social development and culture. They claim that there is no such thing as progress, which they consider to be an old fashioned idea left over from the 19th century, when it was popularised by Victorian liberals, Fabian socialists and—Karl Marx.
This denial of progress in history is characteristic of the psychology of the bourgeoisie in the phase of capitalist decline. It is a faithful reflection of the fact that, under capitalism progress has indeed reached its limits and threatens to go into reverse. The bourgeoisie and its intellectual representatives are, quite naturally, unwilling to accept this fact. Moreover, they are organically incapable of recognising it. Lenin once observed that a man on the edge of a cliff does not reason. However, they are dimly aware of the real situation, and try to find some kind of a justification for the impasse of their system by denying the possibility of progress altogether.
So far has this idea sunk into consciousness that it has even been carried into the realm of non-human evolution. Even such a brilliant thinker as Stephen Jay Gould, whose dialectical theory of punctuated equilibrium transformed the way that evolution is perceived, argued that it is wrong to speak of progress from lower to higher in evolution, so that microbes must be placed on the same level as human beings. In one sense it is correct that all living things are related (the human genome has conclusively proved this). Humankind is not a special creation of the Almighty, but the product of evolution. Nor is it correct to see evolution as a kind of grand design, the aim of which was to create beings like ourselves (teleology—from the Greek telos, meaning an end). However, in rejecting an incorrect idea, it is not necessary to go to the other extreme, leading to new errors.
It is not a question of accepting some kind of preordained plan either related to divine intervention or some kind of teleology, but it is clear that the laws of evolution inherent in nature do in fact determine development from simple forms of life to more complex forms. The earliest forms of life already contain within them the embryo of all future developments. It is possible to explain the development of eyes, legs and other organs without recourse to any preordained plan. At a certain stage we get the development of a central nervous system and a brain. Finally with homo sapiens, we arrive at human consciousness. Matter becomes conscious of itself. There has been no more important revolution since the development of organic matter (life) from inorganic matter.
To please our critics, we should perhaps add the phrase from our point of view. Doubtless the microbes, if they were able to have a point of view, would probably raise serious objections. But we are human beings and must necessarily see things through human eyes. And we do assert that evolution does in fact represent the development of simple life forms to more complex and versatile ones—in other words progress from lower to higher forms of life. To object to such a formulation seems to be somewhat pointless, not scientific but merely scholastic. In saying this, of course, no offence is intended to the microbes, who after all have been around for a lot longer than us, and if the capitalist system is not overthrown, may yet have the last laugh.
The Motor Force of History
In The Critique of Political Economy Marx explains the relation between the productive forces and the “superstructure” as follows:
“In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production… The mode of production in ma terial life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence (which) determines their consciousness.”
As Marx and Engels were at pains to point out, the participants in history may not always be aware of what motives drive them, seeking instead to rationalise them in one way or another, but those motives exist and have a basis in the real world.
Just as Charles Darwin explains that species are not immutable, and that they possess a past, a present and a future, changing and evolving, so Marx and Engels explain that a given social system is not something eternally fixed. That is the illusion of every epoch. Every social system believes that it represents the only possible form of existence for human beings, that its institutions, its religion, its morality are the last word that can be spoken.
That is what the cannibals, the Egyptian priests, Marie Antoinette and Tsar Nicolas all fervently believed. And that is what the bourgeoisie and its apologists today wish to demonstrate when they assure us, without the slightest basis, that the so-called system of “free enterprise” is the only possible system—just when it is beginning to sink.
Nowadays, the idea of “evolution” has been generally accepted at least by educated persons. The ideas of Darwin, so revolutionary in his day, are accepted almost as a truism. However, evolution is generally understood as a slow and gradual process without interruptions or violent upheavals. In politics, this kind of argument is frequently used as a justification for reformism. Unfortunately, it is based on a misunderstanding.
The real mechanism of evolution even today remains a book sealed by seven seals. This is hardly surprising since Darwin himself did not understand it. Only in the last decade or so with the new discoveries in palaeontology made by Stephen J. Gould, who discovered the theory of punctuated equilibria, has it been demonstrated that evolution is not a gradual process. There are long periods in which no big changes are observed, but at a given moment, the line of evolution is broken by an explosion, a veritable biological revolution characterised by the mass extinction of some species and the rapid ascent of others.
The analogy between society and nature is, of course, only approximate. But even the most superficial examination of history shows that the gradualist interpretation is baseless. Society, like nature, knows long periods of slow and gradual change, but also here the line is interrupted by explosive developments—wars and revolutions, in which the process of change is enormously accelerated. In fact, it is these events that act as the main motor force of historical development. And the root cause of revolution is the fact that a particular socio-economic system has reached its limits and is unable to develop the productive forces as before.
A Dynamic View of History
Those who deny the existence of any laws governing human social development invariably approach history from a subjective and moralistic standpoint. Like Gibbon (but without his extraordinary talent) they shake their heads at the unending spectacle of senseless violence, the inhumanity of man against man (and woman) and so on and so forth. In place of a scientific view of history we get a parson’s view. However, what is required is not a moral sermon but a rational insight. Above and beyond the isolated facts, it is necessary to discern broad tendencies, the transitions from one social system to another, and to work out the fundamental motor forces that determine these transitions.
By applying the method of dialectical materialism to history, it is immediately obvious that human history has its own laws, and that, consequently, the history of humankind is possible to understand it as a process. The rise and fall of different socio-economic formations can be explained scientifically in terms of their ability or inability to develop the means of production, and thereby to push forward the horizons of human culture, and increase the domination of humankind over nature.
Most people believe that society is fixed for all time, and that its moral, religious and ideological values are immutable, along with what we call “human nature”. But the slightest acquaintance with history shows that this is false. History manifests itself as the rise and fall of different socio-economic systems. Like individual men and women, societies are born, develop, reach their limits, enter into decline and are then finally replaced by a new social formation.
In the last analysis, the viability of a given socio-economic system is determined by its ability to develop the productive forces, since everything else depends on this. Many other factors enter into the complex equation: religion, politics, philosophy, morality, the psychology of different classes and the individual qualities of leaders. But these things do not drop from the clouds, and a careful analysis will show that they are determined—albeit in a contradictory and dialectical way—by the real historical environment, and by tendencies and processes that are independent of the will of men and women.
The outlook of a society that is in a phase of ascent, which is developing the means of production and pushing forward the horizons of culture and civilisation, is very different to the psychology of a society in a state of stagnation and decline. The general historical context determines everything. It affects the prevailing moral climate, the attitude of men and women towards the existing political and religious institutions. It even affects the quality of individual political leaders.
Capitalism in its youth was capable of colossal feats. It developed the productive forces to an unparalleled degree, and was therefore able to push back the frontiers of human civilisation. People felt that society was advancing, despite all the injustices and exploitation that have always characterised this system. This feeling gave rise to a general spirit of optimism and progress that was the hall mark of the old liberalism, with its firm conviction that today was better than yesterday and tomorrow would be better than today.
That is no longer the case. The old optimism and blind faith in progress have been replaced by a profound sense of discontent with the present and of pessimism with regard to the future. This ubiquitous feeling of fear and insecurity is only a psychological reflection of the fact that capitalism is no longer capable of playing any progressive role anywhere.
In the 19th century, Liberalism, the main ideology of the bourgeoisie, stood (in theory) for progress and democracy. But neo-Liberalism in the modern sense is only a mask that covers the ugly reality of the most rapacious exploitation; the rape of the planet, the destruction of the environment without the slightest concern about the fate of future generations. The sole concern of the boards of the big companies who are the real rulers of the USA and the entire world is to enrich themselves through plunder: asset-stripping, corruption, the theft of public assets through privatisation, parasitism: these are the main features of the bourgeoisie in the phase of its senile decay.
The Rise and Fall of Societies
“The transition from one system to another was always determined by the growth of the productive forces, i.e., of technique and the organisation of labour. Up to a certain point, social changes are quantitative in character and do not alter the foundations of society, i.e., the prevalent forms of property. But a point is reached when the matured productive forces can no longer contain themselves within the old forms of property; then follows a radical change in the social order, accompanied by shocks.” (Leon Trotsky, Marxism in Our Time, April 1939.)
A common argument against socialism is that it is impossible to change human nature; people are naturally selfish and greedy and so on. In reality, there is no such thing as a supra-historical human nature. What we think of as human nature has undergone many changes in the course of human evolution. Men and women constantly change nature through labour, and in so doing, change themselves. As for the argument that people are naturally selfish and greedy, this is disproved by the facts of human evolution.
Our earliest ancestors, who were not yet really human, were small in stature and physically weak compared to other animals. They did not have strong teeth or claws. Their upright stance meant that they could not run fast enough to catch the antelope they wished to eat, or to escape from the lion that wished to eat them. Their brain size was approximately that of a chimpanzee. Wandering on the savannah of East Africa, they were at an extreme disadvantage to every other species—except in one fundamental aspect.
Engels explains in his brilliant essay Labour in the Transition of Ape to Man how the upright stance freed the hands, which had originally evolved as an adaptation for climbing trees, for other purposes. The production of stone tools represented a qualitative leap, giving our ancestors an evolutionary advantage. But even more important was the strong sense of community, collective production and social life, which in turn was closely connected to the development of language.
The extreme vulnerability of human children in comparison to the young of other species meant that our ancestors, whose hunter-gatherer existence compelled them to move from one place to another in search of food, had to develop a strong sense of solidarity to protect their offspring and thus ensure the survival of the tribe or clan. We can say with absolute certainty that without this powerful sense of co-operation and solidarity, our species would have become extinct before it was even born.
We see this even today. If a child is seen to be drowning in a river, most people would try to save it even placing their own life at risk. Many people have drowned trying to save others. This cannot be explained in terms of egotistical calculation, or by ties of blood relationships in a small tribal group. The people who act in this way do not know who they trying to save, nor do they expect any reward for doing what they do. This altruistic behaviour is quite spontaneous and comes from a deep-rooted instinct for solidarity. The argument that people are naturally selfish, which is a reflection of the ugly and dehumanised alienation of capitalist society, is a vile label on the human race.
For the immense major part of the history of our species, people lived in societies where private property, in the modern sense, did not exist. There was no money, no bosses and workers, no bankers and landlords, no state, no organised religion, no police and no prisons. Even the family, in our understanding of the word, did not exist. Today, many find it hard to envisage a world without these things; they seem so natural that they could have been ordained by the Almighty. Yet our ancestors managed fairly well without them.
The transition from hunter-gathering to settled agriculture and pastoralism constitutes the first great social revolution, which the great Australian archaeologist (and Marxist) Gordon Childe called the Neolithic Revolution. Agriculture needs water. Once it goes beyond the most basic production on a subsistence level, it requires irrigation, digging, damming and water distribution on a big scale. These are social tasks.
Large-scale irrigation needs organisation on a vast scale. It demands the deployment of large numbers of labourers and a high level of organisation and discipline. The division of labour, which already existed in embryonic form in the elementary division between the sexes arising from the demands of childbirth and the rearing of children, is developed to a higher level. Teamwork needs team leaders, foremen, overseers, etc., and an army of officials to supervise the plan.
Co-operation on such a vast scale demands planning, and the exercise of science and technique. This is beyond the capabilities of the small groups organised in clans that formed the nucleus of the old society. The need to organise and mobilise large numbers of workers led to the rise of a central state, together with a central administration and an army as in Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Time-keeping and measurement were necessary elements of production, and were themselves productive forces. Thus Herodotus traces the beginnings of geometry in Egypt to the need to re-measure the inundated land on an annual basis. The word geometry itself means neither more nor less than earth-measurement.
The study of the heavens, astronomy, and mathematics enabled the Egyptian priests to foretell the flooding of the Nile, etc. Thus, science arises from economic necessity. In his Metaphysics Aristotle wrote: “Man first begins to philosophise when the necessities of life are supplied.” (Metaphysics, I. 2). This statement goes right to the heart of historical materialism—2,300 years before Karl Marx.
At the heart of this cleavage into rich and poor, rulers and ruled, educated and ignorant, is the division between mental and manual labour. The foreman is usually exempt from manual labour which now carries a stigma. The Bible speaks of the “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” the masses who were excluded from culture, which was wrapped in a cloak of mystery and magic. Its secrets were closely guarded by the caste of priests and scribes whose monopoly it was.
Here we already see the outlines of class society, the division of society into classes: exploiters and sub-exploiters. In any society where art, science and government are a monopoly of a minority, that minority will use and abuse its position for its own interests. This is the most fundamental secret of class society and has remained so for the last 12,000 years.
During all this time there have been many fundamental changes in the forms of economic and social life. But the fundamental relations between rulers and ruled, rich and poor, exploiters and exploited remained the same. In the same way, although the forms of government experienced many changes, the state remained what it had always been: an instrument of coercion and an expression of class rule.
The rise and fall of slave society was followed in Europe by feudalism, which in turn was dis placed by capitalism. The rise of the bourgeoisie, which began in the towns and cities of Italy and the Netherlands, reached a decisive stage with the bourgeois revolutions in Holland and England in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the Great French Revolution of 1789-93. All these changes were accompanied by profound transformations in culture, art, literature, religion and philosophy.
The state is a special repressive force standing above society and increasingly alienating itself from it. This force has its origin in the remote past. The origins of the state, however, vary according to circumstances. Among the Germans and Native Americans it arose out of the war band that gathered around the person of the war chief. This is also the case with the Greeks, as we see in the epic poems of Homer.
Originally, the tribal chiefs enjoyed authority because of their personal bravery, wisdom and other personal qualities. Today, the power of the ruling class has nothing to do with the personal qualities of leaders as was the case under barbarism. It is rooted in objective social and productive relations and the power of money. The qualities of the individual ruler may be good, bad or indifferent, but that is not the point.
The earliest forms of class society already showed the state as a monster, devouring huge amounts of labour and repressing the masses and depriving them of all rights. At the same time, by developing the division of labour, by organising society and carrying co-operation to a far higher level than ever before, it enabled a huge amount of labour power to be mobilised, and thus raised human productive labour to undreamed-of heights.
At the base, all this depended on the labour of the peasant masses. The state needed a large number of peasants to pay taxes and provide corvée labour—the two pillars upon which society rested. Whoever controls this system of production controls power and the state. The origins of state power are rooted in relations of production, not personal qualities. The state power in such societies was necessarily centralised and bureaucratic. Originally, it had a religious character and was mixed up with the power of the priest caste. At its apex stood the God-king, and under him an army of officials, the Mandarins, the scribes, overseers etc. Writing itself was held in awe as a mysterious art known only to these few.
Thus, from the very beginning, the offices of the state are mystified. Real social relations appear in an alienated guise. This is still the case. In Britain, this mystification is deliberately cultivated through ceremony, pomp and tradition. In the USA it is cultivated by other means: the cult of the President, who represents state power personified. In essence, however, every form of state power represents the domination of one class over the rest of society. Even in its most democratic form, it stands for the dictatorship of a single class—the ruling class—that class that owns and controls the means of production.
The modern state is a bureaucratic monster that devours a colossal amount of the wealth produced by the working class. Marxists agree with the anarchists that the state is a monstrous instrument of oppression that must be eliminated. The question is: How? By whom? And what will replace it? This is a fundamental question for any revolution. In a speech on anarchism during the Civil War that followed the Russian Revolution , Trotsky summarised very well the Marxist position on the state:
“The bourgeoisie says: don’t touch the state power; it is the sacred hereditary privilege of the educated classes. But the Anarchists say: don’t touch it; it is an infernal invention, a diabolical device. Don’t have anything to do with it. The bourgeoisie says, don’t touch it, it’s sacred. The Anarchists say: don’t touch it, because it’s sinful. Both say: don’t touch it. But we say: don’t just touch it, take it in your hands, and set it to work in your own interests, for the abolition of private ownership and the emancipation of the working class.” (Leon Trotsky, How The Revolution Armed, Vol. 1, 1918)
Marxism explains that that the state consists ultimately of armed bodies of men: the army, police, courts and jails. Against the confused ideas of the anarchists, Marx argued that workers need a state to overcome the resistance of the exploiting classes. But that argument of Marx has been distorted by both the bourgeois and the anarchists. Marx spoke of the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” which is merely a more scientifically precise term for “the political rule of the working class.”
Nowadays, the word dictatorship has connotations that were unknown to Marx. In an age that has become acquainted with the horrific crimes of Hitler and Stalin, it conjures up nightmarish visions of a totalitarian monster, concentration camps and secret police. But such things did not yet exist even in the imagination in Marx’s day. For him the word dictatorship came from the Roman Republic, where it meant a situation where in time of war, the normal rules were set aside for a temporary period.
The Roman dictator (“one who dictates”), was an extraordinary magistrate (magistratus extraordinarius) with the absolute authority to perform tasks beyond the normal authority of a magistrate. The office was originally named Magister Populi (Master of the People), that is to say, Master of the Citizen Army. In other words, it was a military role which almost always involved leading an army in the field. Once the appointed period ended, the dictator would step down. The idea of a totalitarian dictatorship like Stalin’s Russia, where the state would oppress the working class in the interests of a privileged caste of bureaucrats, would have horrified Marx.
His model could not have been more different. Marx based his idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat in the Paris Commune of 1871. Here, for the first time, the popular masses, with the workers at their head, overthrew the old state and at least began the task of transforming society. With no clearly-defined plan of action, leadership or organisation, the masses displayed an astonishing degree of courage, initiative and creativity. Summing up the experience of the Paris Commune, Marx and Engels explained: “One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz. that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes’…” (Preface to the 1872 German edition of the Communist Manifesto).
The transition to socialism—a higher form of society based on genuine democracy and plenty for all—can only be accomplished by the active and conscious participation of the working class in the running of society, of industry, and of the state. It is not something that is kindly handed down to the workers by kind-hearted capitalists or bureaucratic mandarins.
Under Lenin and Trotsky, the Soviet state was constructed in order to facilitate the drawing of workers into the tasks of control and accounting, to ensure the uninterrupted progress of the reduction of the “special functions” of officialdom and of the power of the state. Strict limitations were placed upon the salaries, power, and privileges of officials in order to prevent the formation of a privileged caste.
The workers’ state established by the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 was neither bureaucratic nor totalitarian. On the contrary, before the Stalinist bureaucracy usurped control from the masses, it was the most democratic state that ever existed. The basic principles of the Soviet power were not invented by Marx or Lenin. They were based on the concrete experience of the Paris Commune, and later elaborated upon by Lenin.
Lenin was the sworn enemy of bureaucracy. He always emphasised that the proletariat needs only a state that is “so constituted that it will at once begin to die away and cannot help dying away.” A genuine workers’ state has nothing in common with the bureaucratic monster that exists today, and even less the one that existed in Stalinist Russia. The basic conditions for workers’ democracy were set forth in one of Lenin’s most important works: The State and Revolution:
- Free and democratic elections with the right of recall of all officials.
- No official to receive a higher wage than a skilled worker.
- No standing army or police force, but the armed people.
- Gradually, all the administrative tasks to be done in turn by all. “Every cook should be able to be Prime Minister—When everyone is a ‘bureaucrat’ in turn, nobody can be a bureaucrat.”
These were the conditions which Lenin laid down, not for full-fledged socialism or communism, but for the very first period of a workers’ state—the period of the transition from capitalism to socialism.
The Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies were elected assemblies composed not of professional politicians and bureaucrats, but of ordinary workers, peasants and soldiers. It was not an alien a power standing over society, but a power based on the direct initiative of the people from below. Its laws were not like the laws enacted by a capitalist state power. It was an entirely different kind of power from the one that generally exists in the parliamentary bourgeois-democratic republics of the type still prevailing in the advanced countries of Europe and America. This power was of the same type as the Paris Commune of 1871.
It is true that in conditions of appalling backwardness, poverty and illiteracy, the Russian working class was unable to hold onto the power they had conquered. The Revolution suffered a process of bureaucratic degeneration that led to the establishment of Stalinism. Contrary to the lies of bourgeois historians, Stalinism was not the product of Bolshevism but its bitterest enemy. Stalin stands approximately in the same relation to Marx and Lenin as Napoleon to the Jacobins or the Pope to the early Christians.
The early Soviet Union was in fact not a state at all in the sense we normally understand it, but only the organised expression of the revolutionary power of the working people. To use the phrase of Marx, it was a “semi-state,” a state so-designed that it would eventually wither away and be dissolved into society, giving way to the collective administration of society for the benefit of all, without force or coercion. That, and only that, is the genuine Marxist conception of a workers’ state.
The Rise of the Bourgeoisie
Trotsky pointed out that revolution is the motor force of history. It is no coincidence that the rise of the bourgeoisie in Italy, Holland, England and later in France was accompanied by an extraordinary flourishing of culture, art and science. In those countries where the bourgeois revolution triumphed in the 17th and 18th centuries, the development of the productive forces and technology was complemented by a parallel development of science and philosophy, which undermined the ideological domination of the Church forever.
In contrast, those countries where the forces of feudal-Catholic reaction strangled the embryo of the new society in the womb were condemned to suffer the nightmare of a long and inglorious period of degeneration, decline and decay. The example of Spain is perhaps the most graphic in this regard.
In the epoch of the ascent of capitalism, when it still represented a progressive force in history, the first ideologists of the bourgeoisie had to fight a ferocious battle against the ideological bastions of feudalism, starting with the Catholic Church. Long before overthrowing the power of feudal landlords, the bourgeoisie, in the shape of its most conscious and revolutionary representatives, had to break down its ideological defences: the philosophical and religious framework that had grown up around the Church, and its militant arm, the Inquisition.
The rise of capitalism began in the Netherlands and the cities of northern Italy. It was accompanied by new attitudes, which gradually solidified into a new morality and new religious beliefs. Under feudalism economic power was expressed as the ownership of land. Money played a secondary role. But the rise of trade and manufacture and the incipient market relations that accompanied them made Money an even greater power. Great banking families like the Fuggers arose and challenged the might of kings.
The bloody wars of religion in the 16th and 17th century were merely the outward expression of deeper class conflicts. The only possible result of these struggles was the rise to power of the bourgeoisie and new (capitalist) relations of production. But the leaders of these struggles had no prior knowledge of this.
The English Revolution of 1640-60 was a great social transformation. The old feudal regime was destroyed and replaced with a new capitalist social order. The Civil War was a class war which overthrew the despotism of Charles I and the reactionary feudal order that stood behind him. Parliament represented the new rising middle classes of town and country which challenged and defeated the old regime, cutting off the head of the king and abolishing the House of Lords in the process.
Objectively, Oliver Cromwell was laying the basis for the rule of the bourgeoisie in England. But in order to do this, in order to clear all the feudal-monarchical rubbish out of the way, he was first obliged to sweep aside the cowardly bourgeoisie, dissolve its parliament and base himself on the petty bourgeoisie, the small farmers of East Anglia, the class to which he belonged, and the plebeian and semi-proletarian masses of town and country.
Placing himself at the head of a revolutionary army, Cromwell aroused the fighting spirit of the masses by appealing to the Bible, the Saints and the Kingdom of God on Earth. His soldiers did not go into battle under the banner of Rent, Interest and Profit, but singing religious hymns. This evangelistic spirit, which was soon filled with a revolutionary (and even sometimes a communistic) content, was what inspired the masses to fight with tremendous courage and enthusiasm against the Hosts of Baal.
However, once in power, Cromwell could not go beyond the bounds established by history and the objective limits of the productive forces of the epoch. He was compelled to turn against the Left Wing, suppressing the Levellers by force, and to pursue a policy that favoured the bourgeoisie and the reinforcement of capitalist property relations in England. In the end, Cromwell dismissed parliament and ruled as dictator until his death, when the English bourgeoisie, fearful that the Revolution had gone too far and might pose a threat to property, restored the Stuarts to the throne.
The French Revolution of 1789-93 was on a qualitatively higher level. Instead of religion, the Jacobins appealed to Reason. They fought under the banner of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity in order to rouse the plebeian and semi-proletarian masses against the feudal aristocracy and the monarchy.
Long before it brought down the formidable walls of the Bastille, it had overthrown the invisible, but no less formidable, walls of the Church and religion. But when the French bourgeoisie became the ruling class, faced with the new revolutionary class, the proletariat, the bourgeoisie quickly forgot the rationalist and atheist intoxication of its youth.
After the fall of Robespierre, the victorious men of property longed for stability. Searching for stabilising formulae and a conservative ideology that would justify their privileges, they quickly rediscovered the charms of Holy Mother Church. The latter, with her extraordinary ability to adapt, has managed to survive for two millennia, despite all the social changes that have taken place. The Catholic Church soon welcomed its new master and protector, sanctifying the domain of Big Capital, in the same way as before the same church had sanctified the power of feudal monarchs and the slave owners of the Roman Empire.?
A Caricature of Marxism
In his classic work, What is history? The English historian E.H. Carr said that historical facts are “always refracted through the mind of the recorder” and that you should “study the historian before you begin to study the facts”. By that he meant that the telling of history cannot be separated from the viewpoint, political or otherwise, both of the writer and of the reader and of the times they live or lived in.
It is often said that history is written by the winners. In other words, the selection and interpretation of historical events are shaped by the actual outcome of those conflicts as they affect the historian and in turn his perception of what the reader will want to read. Despite the pretensions of bourgeois historians to an alleged objectivity, the writing of history inevitably reflects a class point of view. It is impossible to escape having some sort of view on the events described. To claim otherwise is to attempt to defraud the reader.
When Marxists look at society they do not pretend to be neutral, but openly espouse the cause of the working class and socialism. However, that does not at all preclude scientific objectivity. A surgeon involved in a delicate operation is also committed to saving the life of his patient. He is far from “neutral” about the outcome. But for that very reason, he will distinguish with extreme care between the different layers of the organism. In the same way, Marxists will strive to obtain the most scientifically exact analysis of social processes, in order to be able successfully to influence the outcome. But we are not dealing here with just a series of facts “one after another” but rather willingly seeking to draw out the general processes involved and explaining them.
From this we can see that the flow and direction of history has been—and is—shaped by the struggles of successive social classes to mould society in their own interests and by the resulting conflicts between the classes which flow from that.
Very often attempts are made to discredit Marxism by resorting to a caricature of its method of historical analysis. There is nothing easier than erecting a straw man in order to knock it down again. The usual distortion is that Marx and Engels reduced everything to economics. This patent absurdity was answered many times by Marx and Engels, as in the following extract to Engels’ letter to Bloch:
“According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimate determining element in history is the production and reproduction of life. More than this neither Marx nor myself have asserted. Hence, if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract and senseless phrase.”
Historical materialism has nothing in common with fatalism. Men and women are not merely puppets of blind historical forces. But neither are they entirely free agents, able to shape their destiny irrespective of the existing conditions imposed by the level of economic development, science and technique, which, in the last analysis, determine whether a socio-economic system is viable or not. To quote Engels:
“Men make their own history, whatever its outcome may be, in that each person follows his own consciously desired end, and it is precisely the resultant of these many wills operating in different directions and of their manifold effects upon the outer world that constitutes history.” (Ludwig Feuerbach).
Marx and Engels repeatedly criticised the superficial way in which certain people misused the method of historical materialism. In his letter to Conrad Schmidt, dated 5 August 1890, Engels writes:
“In general, the word ‘materialistic’ serves many of the younger writers in Germany as a mere phrase with which anything and everything is labelled without further study, that is, they stick on this label and then consider the question disposed of. But our conception of history is above all a guide to study, not a lever for construction after the manner of the Hegelian. All history must be studied afresh; the conditions of existence of the different formations of society must be examined individually before the attempt is made to deduce them from the political, civil law, aesthetic, philosophic, religious, etc., views corresponding to them. Up to now but little has been done here because only a few people have got down to it seriously. In this field we can utilise heaps of help, it is immensely big, anyone who will work seriously can achieve much and distinguish himself. But instead of this too many of the younger Germans simply make use of the phrase historical materialism (and everything can be turned into a phrase) only in order to get their own relatively scanty historical knowledge—for economic history is still as yet in its swaddling clothes!—constructed into a neat system as quickly as possible, and they then deem themselves something very tremendous. And after that a Barth can come along and attack the thing itself, which in his circle has indeed been degraded to a mere phrase”. (Marx and Engels, Collected Works, volume 49, p. 8)
In another letter to Conrad Schmidt dated 27 October 1890, Engels, writes: “What these gentlemen all lack is dialectic. They never see anything but here cause and there effect. That this is a hollow abstraction, that such metaphysical polar opposites only exist in the real world during crises, while the whole vast process proceeds in the form of interaction (though of very unequal forces, the economic movement being by far the strongest, most elemental and most decisive) and that here everything is relative and nothing is absolute—this they never begin to see. Hegel has never existed for them”. (Marx and Engels, Collected Works, volume 49, p. 59)
Marxism does not deny the question of ideas but rather seeks to examine what gives rise to them. Equally it does not deny the role of the individual or indeed that of chance but instead puts them in their correct context. A car crash or a stray bullet may indeed manage to change the course of history but it is certainly not the motive force.
Hegel explained that necessity reveals itself through chance. The assassin’s bullet that killed Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo was an historical accident which served as a catalyst for the outbreak of hostilities between the great powers which had been building up as a result of insurmountable economic, political and military contradictions between the great European powers before 1914.
This brings us to the central question of Marxist philosophy. In the writings of Marx and Engels we do not have a philosophical system, like that of Hegel, but a series of brilliant insights and pointers, which, if they were developed, would provide a valuable addition to the methodological armoury of science. Unfortunately, such a work has never been seriously undertaken.
There is a difficulty for anyone who wishes to study dialectical materialism thoroughly. Despite the immense importance of the subject, there is no single book of Marx and Engels that deals with the question in a comprehensive manner. However, the dialectical method is in evidence in all the writings of Marx. Probably the best example of the application of dialectics to a particular field (in this case political economy) consists of the three volumes of Capital.
For a long time, Marx had intended to write a book on dialectical materialism, but it proved impossible because of his work on Capital. In addition to this monumental task, Marx produced numerous political writings and was constantly engaged in active participation in the labour movement, particularly in the construction of the International Workingmen’s Association (the First International). This occupied every moment of his time, and even this work was frequently interrupted by bouts of illness brought on by his miserable living conditions, poor diet and exhaustion.
After Marx’s death Engels planned to write the book on philosophy that his friend was unable to produce. He left us a precious legacy of writings on Marxist philosophy, such as Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, Anti-Dühring and Dialectics of Nature. But unfortunately, Engels also failed to write the definitive book on Marxist philosophy for various reasons.
First, the emergence of an opportunist trend within the Social Democratic Party in Germany forced him to leave his scientific research to one side in order to write a polemic against opportunism that has become one of the most important classics of Marxism. This was the celebrated Anti-Dühring which, among other things, contains a contribution to Marxist philosophy of the first order of importance.
Later on, Engels returned to his preparatory studies for a comprehensive book on philosophy. But with the death of Marx, on March 14, 1883, he was again obliged to suspend this work in order to prioritise the difficult task of putting in order and completing the manuscripts of volumes two and three of Capital that had been left unfinished.
Marx and Hegel
Dialectical philosophy reached its highest point in the philosophy of the German idealist Georg Hegel. His great contribution was to rediscover dialectics, originally invented by the Greeks. He developed this to new heights. But he did this on the basis of idealism. This was, in Engels’ words, the greatest miscarriage in history. Reading Hegel, one has the sensation of a truly great idea that is struggling to escape from the straitjacket of idealist mystification. Here we find extraordinarily profound ideas and flashes of great insight, but buried amidst a heap of idealist nonsense. It is a very frustrating experience to read Hegel!
Time and again this great thinker drew tantalisingly close to a materialist position. But at the last minute he always drew back, fearful of the consequences. For that reason, Hegelian philosophy was unsatisfactory, contradictory, botched and incomplete. It was left to Marx and Engels to dot the i’s and cross the t’s, to carry the Hegelian philosophy to its logical conclusions, and, in so doing, to negate it utterly and replace it with something qualitatively superior.
Hegel carried traditional philosophy as far as it could go. In order to carry it further, it had to go beyond its bounds, negating itself in the process. Philosophy had to return from the nebulous realms of speculation back to the real world of material things, of living men and women, of real history and struggle from which it had been separated for so long.
The problem with Feuerbach and some other Left Hegelians, like Moses Hess, is that they merely said no to Hegel, negating his philosophy by simply denying it. Hess’ move to materialism was a bold one. It required courage, especially in the given context of general European reaction and the repressive Prussian state. It provided inspiration to the young Marx and Engels. But ultimately, it failed.
One can negate a grain of wheat by crushing it underfoot. But the dialectical concept of negation is not merely to destroy: it is to destroy while simultaneously preserving all that deserves to be preserved. A grain of wheat can also be negated by allowing it to germinate.
Hegel pointed out that the same words in the mouth of an adolescent do not carry the same weight as on the lips of an old man, who has lived life and accumulated great experience. It is the same with philosophy. In returning to its starting point, philosophy does not merely repeat a long-surpassed stage. It does not become childish by returning in old age to its infancy, but it returns to the old ideas of the Ionic Greeks enriched by 2,000 years of history and the development of science and culture.
This is not the mechanical movement of a gigantic wheel, the senseless repetition of previous stages, like the endless process of rebirth that features in certain Oriental religions, but the negation of the negation, which posits the return to an earlier phase of development, but on a qualifiedly higher level. It is the same, and not the same.
However, although he reached some deep and important conclusions, at times drawing close to materialism (for example in The Philosophy of History), Hegel remained a prisoner of his idealist outlook. He never managed to apply his dialectical method correctly to the real world of society and nature, because for him, the only real development was the development of the world of ideas.
Marx’s Philosophical Revolution
Of all the theories of Marx, no other has been so attacked, distorted and slandered as dialectical materialism. And this is no accident, since this theory is the basis and foundation of Marxism. It is, more or less, the method of scientific socialism. Marxism is much more than a political programme and an economic theory. It is a philosophy, the vast scope of which covers not only politics and the class struggle, but the whole of human history, economics, society, thought and nature.
Today, the ideology of the bourgeoisie is in the process of disintegration, not only in the field of economics and politics but also in that of philosophy. In the period of its ascent the bourgeoisie was capable of producing great thinkers like Hegel and Kant. In the period of its senile decay it produces nothing of value. It is impossible to read the barren products of the university philosophy departments without a feeling of tedium and irritation in equal measure.
The fight against the power of the ruling class cannot stop in the factories, the streets, parliament and local councils. We must also carry out the battle in the ideological field, where the influence of the bourgeoisie is no less pernicious and harmful by being hidden under the guise of a false impartiality and a superficial objectivity. Marxism has a duty to provide a comprehensive alternative to the old and discredited schemes.
The young Marx was heavily influenced by Hegelian philosophy that dominated the German universities at that time. The whole of Hegel’s doctrine was based on the idea of constant change and development through contradictions. In that sense it represented a real revolution in philosophy. It is this dynamic, revolutionary side that inspired the young Marx and is the starting point for all his ideas.
Marx and Engels negated Hegel and turned his system of ideas into its opposite. But they did so while simultaneously preserving all that was valuable in his philosophy. They based themselves on the “rational kernel” of Hegel’s ideas and carried them to a higher level by developing and making actual what was always implicit in them.
In Hegel, the real struggle of historical forces is expressed in the shadowy form of the struggle of ideas. But, as Marx explains, ideas in themselves have no history and no real existence. Therefore, reality appears in Hegel in a mystified, alienated form. In Feuerbach things are really not much better, since Man here appears also in a one-sided, idealistic and unreal manner. The real, historical men and women only appear with the advent of Marxist philosophy.
With the philosophy of Marx, philosophy at last returns to its roots. It is both dialectical and materialist. Here theory and practice once again join hands and rejoice together. Philosophy comes out of its dark and airless study and enjoys the sun and air. It becomes an inseparable part of life. In place of the obscure conflict of ideas without substance, we have the real contradictions of the material world and society. Instead of a remote and incomprehensible Absolute, we have real men and women, living in real society, making real history and fighting real battles.
The dialectic appears in the work of Hegel in a fantastic and semi-mystical guise. It is “upside down”, so to speak. Here we do not find the real processes taking place in nature and society, but only the pale reflection of those processes in the minds of men, especially of philosophers. In the words of Engels, the dialectic in Hegel’s hands, despite his great genius, was a colossal miscarriage.
He points out that Marx was the only one who could strip away the mysticism contained in Hegelian logic and extract the dialectical kernel. This represented the real discoveries in this field. Through the reconstruction of the dialectical method, Marx managed to provide the only true development of thought.
While the philosophy of Hegel interpreted things only from the point of view of the mind and spirit (i.e. from the idealist standpoint), Marx showed that the development of ideas in the minds of men is only a reflection of developments that occur in nature and society. As Marx says: “Hegel’s dialectic is the basic form of all dialectic, but only after being stripped of its mystical form, and it is precisely this which distinguishes my method.” (Letter to Kugelmann, 6 March 1868, MECW, Volume 42, p. 543)
What is Dialectics?
Trotsky, in his brilliant little article The ABC of Dialectical Materialism, defined dialectics thus: “The dialectic is neither fiction nor mysticism, but a science of the forms of our thinking insofar as it is not limited to the daily problems of life but attempts to arrive at an understanding of more complicated and drawn-out processes. The dialectic and formal logic bear a relationship similar to that between higher and lower mathematics.”
The combination of the dialectical method with materialism created an extremely powerful analytical tool. But what is the dialectic? For reasons of space, it is impossible to explain here all the laws of dialectics developed by Hegel and perfected by Marx. I have attempted to do this elsewhere, in Reason in Revolt: Marxist Philosophy and Modern Science, published by Wellred Books. In a few lines I can only give the sketchiest of outlines.
In his book Anti-Dühring Engels characterised it as follows: “The dialectic is simply the science of the general laws of motion and development of nature, human society and thought.” In Dialectics of Nature Engels also sketches in outline the main laws of dialectics:
a) The law of transformation of quantity into quality. b) The law of the unity and struggle of opposites and transformation into each other when they are taken to extremes. c) The law of development through contradictions, or put another way, the negation of the negation.
Despite its unfinished and fragmentary nature, Engels’s book Dialectics of Nature is very important, along with Anti Dühring, for the student of Marxism. Obviously, Engels had to rely on the knowledge and scientific discoveries of the time. Consequently, certain aspects of the content have a mainly historical interest. But what is surprising in Dialectics of Nature is not this or that detail or fact that has been inevitably overtaken by the march of science. On the contrary, what is astonishing is the number of ideas advanced by Engels—often ideas that ran counter to the scientific theories of his day—which have been corroborated brilliantly by modern science.
Throughout the book, Engels emphasises the idea that matter and motion (now we would call it energy) are inseparable. Motion is the mode of existence of matter. This dynamic view of matter, of the universe, contains a profound truth that was already understood, or rather guessed as, by the early Greek philosophers like Heraclitus. For him “everything is and is not, because everything is in flux”. Everything is constantly changing, coming into being and passing away.
For common sense, the mass of an object never changes. For example, a spinning top when rotating, has the same weight as one that is motionless. Mass was therefore considered to be constant, regardless of speed. Later it was discovered that this is wrong. In fact, mass increases with speed, but such an increase is only appreciable in cases where the velocity is approaching that of light. For the practical purposes of everyday life, we can accept that the mass of an object is constant regardless of the speed with which it moves. However, for very high speeds, this claim is false, and the higher the speed, the falser is the claim.
Commenting on this law, Professor Feynman’s says: “[…] philosophically we are completely wrong with the approximate law. Our entire picture of the world has to be altered even though the mass changes only a little. This is a very peculiar thing about the philosophy, or the ideas, behind the laws. Even a very small effect sometimes requires profound changes in our ideas…” (R. Feynman, Lectures on Physics)
This example clearly demonstrates the fundamental difference between elementary mechanics and advanced modern physics. Similarly, there is a big difference between elementary mathematics, used for simple everyday calculations, and higher mathematics (the differential and integral calculus), discussed by Engels in Anti Dühring and Dialectics of Nature.
The same difference exists between formal logic and dialectics. For everyday life, the laws of formal logic are more than enough. However, for more complex processes, these laws are often turned upside down. Their limited truth becomes false.
Quantity and Quality
From the point of view of dialectical materialism, the material universe has no beginning or end, but consists of a mass of material (or energy) in a constant state of movement. This is the fundamental idea of Marxist philosophy and it is completely supported by the discoveries of modern science over the last one hundred years.
Take any example from everyday life: any phenomenon apparently stable, and we will see below the surface it is in a state of flux, although this change is invisible at first glance. For example, a glass of water: “To our eyes, our crude eyes, nothing is changing, but if we could see it a billion times magnified, we would see that from its own point of view it is always changing: molecules are leaving the surface, molecules are coming back.” (Richard P. Feynman, The Feynman Lectures on Physics, chapter 1, p. 8.)
These words are not of Engels, but a renowned scientist, the late Professor Richard P. Feynman, who used to teach theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology. The same author repeats Engels’ famous example of the law of transformation of quantity into quality.
Water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen atoms in a state of constant motion. Water does not break up into its component parts due to the mutual attraction of the molecules. However, if it is heated to 100 ° C at normal atmospheric pressure, it reaches a critical point where the attractive force between the molecules is insufficient and they fly apart suddenly.
This example may seem trivial, but it has tremendously important consequences for science and industry. It is part of a very important branch of modern physics: the study of phase transitions. Matter can exist in four phases (or states), solid, liquid, gas, and plasma, plus a few other extreme phases, like critical fluids and degenerate gases.
Generally, as a solid is heated (or as pressure decreases), it will change to a liquid form, and will eventually become a gas. For example, ice (frozen water) melts into liquid water when it is heated. As the water boils, the water evaporates and becomes water vapour. But if this vapour is heated to a very high temperature, a further phase transition occurs. At 12,000 K = 11,726.85 Celsius, steam becomes plasma.
This is what Marxists call the transformation of quantity into quality. That is to say, a large number of very small changes finally produces a qualitative leap—a phase transition. Examples may be cited at will: If one cools a substance such as lead or niobium, there is a gradual reduction of its electrical resistance, up to a critical temperature (usually a few degrees above -273 ° C). Precisely at this point, all resistance will suddenly disappear. There is a kind of “quantum leap”, the transition from having a small resistance to having none.
One can find a limitless number of similar examples in all the natural sciences. The American scientist Marc Buchanan wrote a very interesting book called Ubiquity. In this book, he gives a long series of examples: heart attacks, forest fires, avalanches, the rise and fall of animal populations, stock exchange crises, wars, and even changes in fashion and different schools of art (I would add revolutions to this list).
All these things seem to have no connection, yet are subject to the same law, which can be expressed by a mathematical equation known as a power law. What this is, in Marxist terminology, is the law of the transformation of quantity into quality. And what this study shows is that this law is ubiquitous, that is to say, it is present at all levels in the universe. It is a truly universal law of nature, just as Engels said.
Dialectics versus Empiricism
“Give us the facts”! This imperious demand appears to be the acme of practical realism. What can be more solid than the facts? Only what appears to be realism turns out to be just the opposite. What are established facts at one time, can turn out to be something very different. Everything is in a constant state of change, and sooner or later everything changes into its opposite. What appears to be solid dissolves into thin air.
The dialectical method allows us to penetrate beyond appearances and see the processes that are taking place beneath the surface. The dialectic is first of all the science of universal interconnection. It provides a comprehensive and dynamic view of phenomena and processes. It analyses things in their relationship, not separately; in their motion, not statically; in their life, not death.
Knowledge of dialectics means freedom from the slavish worship of the established fact, of things as they are, which is the chief characteristic of superficial empirical thinking. In politics this is typical of reformism that seeks to cloak its conservatism, myopia and cowardice in the philosophical language of pragmatism, the art of the possible, “realism “and so on.
Dialectics permits us to penetrate beyond the “given”, the immediate, that is, the world of appearance, and to uncover the hidden processes that are taking place beneath the surface. We point out that behind the appearance of calm and absence of movement, there is a process of molecular change, not only in physics but also in society and in the psychology of the masses.
It was not so long ago that most people thought the boom was going to last forever. That was, or appeared to be, an unquestionable fact. Those who did question it were regarded as deluded cranks. But now that unquestionable truth lies in ruins. The facts have changed into their opposite. What seemed to be an indisputable truth turns out to be a lie. To quote the words of Hegel: Reason becomes unreason.
Using this method more than a century ago, Frederick Engels was able, in a number of instances, to see further than most contemporary scientists, anticipating many of the discoveries of modern science. Engels was not a professional scientist, but had a fairly extensive knowledge of the natural sciences of his time.
However, based on a deep understanding of the dialectical method of analysis, Engels made a number of very important contributions to the philosophical interpretation of science today, although they have remained unknown to the overwhelming majority of scientists until now.
Of course, philosophy cannot dictate the laws of the natural sciences. These laws can only be developed on the basis of a serious and rigorous analysis of nature. The progress of science is characterised by a series of approximations. Through experiment and observation we get closer and closer to the truth, without ever being able to get to know the whole truth. It is a never-ending process of a deepening penetration of the secrets of matter and the universe. The truth of scientific theories can only be established through practice, observation and experiment, not by any commandments of philosophers.
Most of the questions with which philosophers have wrestled in the past have been solved by science. Nevertheless, it would be a serious mistake to suppose that philosophy has no role to play in science. There remain only two aspects of philosophy which remain valid today which have not been absorbed by the different branches of science: formal logic and dialectics.
Engels insisted that “the dialectic, stripped of mysticism, becomes an absolute necessity” for science. The dialectic, of course, has no magical quality to solve the problems of modern physics. Nevertheless, a comprehensive and coherent philosophy would be of inestimable help in guiding scientific investigation onto the most fruitful lines and prevent it from falling into all manner of arbitrary and mystical hypotheses that lead nowhere. Many of the problems facing science today arise precisely because of its lack of a firm philosophical foundation.
Dialectics and Science
Many scientists treat philosophy with contempt. As far as modern philosophy is concerned, this contempt is well deserved. For the past one and a half centuries the realm of philosophy resembles an arid desert with only traces of life. The treasure trove of the past, with its ancient glories and flashes of illumination, seems utterly extinguished. Not only scientists but men and women in general will search in vain in this wasteland for any source of illumination.
Yet on closer inspection the contempt displayed by scientists to philosophy is not well grounded. For if we look seriously at the state of modern science—or more accurately at its theoretical underpinnings and assumptions, we see that science has in fact never freed itself from philosophy. Unceremoniously expelled by the front door, philosophy slyly gains an entry through the back window.
Scientists who proudly assert their complete indifference to philosophy in reality make all kinds of assumptions that are philosophical in character. And in fact, this kind of unconscious and uncritical philosophy is not superior to the old fashioned kind but immeasurably inferior to it. Moreover, it is the source of many errors in practice.
The remarkable advances of science over the past century seem to have made philosophy redundant. In a world where we can penetrate the deepest mysteries of the cosmos and follow the complex motions of sub-atomic particles, the old questions which absorbed the attention of philosophers have been resolved. The role of philosophy has been correspondingly reduced. However, to repeat the point, there are two areas where philosophy retains its importance: formal logic and dialectics.
A major advance in the application of the dialectical method to the history of science was the publication in 1962 of TS Kuhn’s remarkable book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. This demonstrated the inevitability of scientific revolutions and showed the approximate mechanism whereby these occur. “All that exists deserves to perish” holds good not only for living organisms but also to scientific theories, including those which we currently hold to be of absolute validity.
As a matter of fact, Engels was far ahead of his contemporaries (most scientists included) in his attitude towards the natural sciences. He not only explained motion (energy) as inseparable from matter, but also explained that the difference between the sciences consisted only in the study of the various forms of energy and the dialectical transition from one form of energy into another. This is what is now known as phase transitions.
The whole evolution of science in the twentieth century has rejected the old compartmentalisation, recognising the dialectical transition from one science to another. Marx and Engels in their day caused great indignation amongst their opponents, when they said that the difference between organic and inorganic matter was only relative. They explained that organic matter—the first living organisms—arose from inorganic matter at a given time, representing a qualitative leap in evolution. They said that animals, including man with his mind, his ideas and beliefs were simply matter organised in a certain way.
The difference between organic and inorganic matter, which Kant considered an insurmountable barrier, has been eliminated, as Feynman points out: “Everything is constituted by atoms. This is the key assumption. For example, the most important assumptions in biology are that everything that animals do, atoms do. In other words, there is nothing living things do that cannot be understood from the point of view that they are made of atoms, acting in accordance with the laws of physics.” (R. Feynman, Lectures on Physics)
From the scientific perspective, men and women are aggregations of atoms arranged in a particular way. But we are not merely agglomeration of atoms. The human body is an extraordinarily complex organism, in particular the brain, the structure and functioning of which we are only now beginning to understand. This is something far more beautiful and wonderful than all the old fairy stories of religion.
At the same time that Marx was carrying out a revolution in the field of political economy, Darwin was doing the same in the field of biology. It is no accident that while Darwin’s work aroused a storm of indignation and incomprehension, it was immediately recognised by Marx and Engels as a masterpiece of the dialectic, although Darwin himself was unaware of it. The explanation for this apparent paradox is that the laws of dialectics are not an arbitrary invention, but reflect processes that actually exist in nature and society.
The discovery of genetics has revealed the exact mechanism that determines the transformation of one species into another. The human genome has provided a new dimension to Darwin’s work, showing that humans share our genes not just with the humble fruit fly but with the most basic forms of life, the bacteria. In the next few years, scientists will carry out an act of creation in a laboratory, producing a living organism from inorganic matter. The last patch of ground will be cut from under the feet of the Divine Creator, who will finally be rendered utterly redundant.
For a long time scientists argued as to whether the creation of new species was the result of a long period of accumulation of slow changes or arose from a sudden violent change. From a dialectical point of view, there is no contradiction between the two. A long period of molecular changes (quantitative changes) reaches a critical point where it suddenly produces what is now termed a quantum leap.
Marx and Engels believed the theory of evolution of species was clear proof of the fact that nature ultimately works in a dialectical way, i.e. through development, through contradictions. Three decades ago, this statement received a powerful boost from such a prestigious institution as the British Museum, where a furious debate broke the decorous silence of centuries. One of the arguments against the defenders of the idea of qualitative leaps in the chain of evolution was that it represented Marxist infiltration in the British Museum!
However, despite itself, modern biology has had no choice but to correct the old idea of evolution as a gradual, linear, uninterrupted process, without abrupt changes, and admit the existence of qualitative leaps, characterised by the mass extinction of some species and the emergence of new ones. On 17 April 1982 The Economist published an article on the centenary of Darwin that said:
“It will be increasingly clear that fairly small mutations that affect what happens at a key stage of development can cause major evolutionary changes (for example, a small change in the mode of operation of certain genes could lead to a significant increase in brain size). Evidence is also accumulating that many genes undergo a slow but steady mutation. Thus, little by little, scientists solve the ongoing controversy of whether species change slowly and continuously for long periods, or remain unchanged for a long time and then experience a rapid evolution. Probably both types of changes occur.”
The old version of evolutionary theory (phyletic gradualism) maintained that species change only gradually as individual genetic mutations arise and are selected. However, a new theory was put forward by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge called “punctuated equilibrium” according to which genetic change can take place through sudden leaps. Incidentally, the late Stephen Jay Gould pointed out that if the scientists had paid attention to what Engels had written about human origins, they would have saved themselves a hundred years of error.
Whole Nations Bankrupt
The first phase of the crisis that began in 2008 was characterised by the default of big banks. The entire banking system of the USA and the rest of the world was only saved by the massive injection of billions of dollars and euros by the state. But the question must be asked: what is left of the old idea that the free market, if left to itself, will solve all problems? What is left of the old idea that the state must not interfere in the workings of the economy?
The massive injection of public money solved nothing. The crisis has not been resolved. It has merely been shifted onto states. All that happened is that in place of a massive deficit of the banks we have a gaping black hole in public finances. And who will pay for this? Not those well-heeled bankers who, having presided over the wrecking of the world financial order, have calmly pocketed the public’s hard-earned money and are now awarding themselves lavish bonuses with the proceeds.
No! The deficits about which the economists and politicians are complaining so bitterly must be paid for by the poorest and most defenceless sections of society. Suddenly there is no money for the old, the sick, the unemployed, but there is always plenty of money for the bankers. This means a regime of permanent austerity. But this merely creates new contradictions. By cutting demand, it reduces the market still further, and thus aggravates the crisis of overproduction.
Now the economists are predicting a new collapse, when currencies and governments will go under, threatening the very fabric of the world financial system. And despite what the politicians say about the need to curb the deficit, debts on the scale that have been run up cannot be repaid. Greece provides a graphic example of this fact. The future is one of even deeper crises, falling living standards, painful adjustments and increasing impoverishment for the majority. This is a finished recipe for further upheavals and class struggle on an even higher level. It is a systemic crisis of capitalism on a world scale.
Some sophists ask: if socialism is inevitable, why should one have to struggle to achieve it? As a matter of fact, it is possible to be a convinced determinist and yet be committed to an active revolutionary role. In the seventeenth century the Calvinists were determinists of the most categorical and absolute kind. They believed fervently in predestination, that the fate and salvation of every man and woman was determined before they were born.
Nevertheless, this iron determinism did not prevent the Calvinists from playing a most revolutionary role in the struggle against decaying feudalism and its main ideological expression, the Roman Catholic Church. Precisely because they were convinced of the justice and inevitable triumph of their cause, they fought all the more bravely to speed up its victory.
The old society is dying on its feet, and a new society is struggling to be born. But those who have derived vast riches from it will never accept the inevitability of its demise. Sooner than see it sink into oblivion, the ruling class would prefer to drag the whole of society down with it. The prolongation of the death agony of capitalism constitutes a mortal threat to human culture and civilisation. Our task is to assist in the birth of the new society, to ensure that it takes place as swiftly and painlessly as possible, with the smallest cost to humanity.
Contrary to the calumnies of our enemies, Marxists do not advocate violence, but we are realists, and we know that the whole history of the last ten thousand years proves that no ruling class or caste ever surrenders its wealth, power and privileges without a fight, and that usually means a fight with no holds barred. And that remains the case today.
It is the decay of capitalism that threatens to unleash the most terrible violence on the world. In order to reduce the possibility of violence, to put an end to chaos and wars, to ensure the most peaceful and orderly transition to socialism, the prior condition is that the working class must be mobilised for struggle and be prepared to fight to the end.
“All Roads Lead to Ruin”
Contrary to the comforting picture that used to be presented of the capitalist system offering a secure and prosperous future for all, we see the reality of a world in which millions suffer poverty and hunger, while the super rich become richer every day. People live in constant fear of an insecure future that will be decided, not by the rational decisions of people but solely by the wild gyrations of the market.
Financial crises, mass unemployment and constant social and political upheavals turn many things upside down. What appeared to be fixed and permanent dissolves overnight and people begin to question things they always took for granted. This state of perpetual unrest is what prepares the ground psychologically for revolution, which in the end becomes the only option that is realistically imaginable. In order to see this in practice one only has to look at present-day Greece.
Everybody knows that the capitalist system is in crisis. But what is the antidote to the crisis? If capitalism is an anarchic and chaotic system that inevitably ends in crises, then one must conclude that in order to eliminate crises it is necessary to abolish the capitalist system itself. If you say “A”, you must also say “B”, “C” and “D”. But this is what the bourgeois economists refuse to do.
Are there no mechanisms that could allow the bourgeois to get out of a crisis of overproduction? Of course there are! One method would be to lower the rate of interest in order to boost profit margins and stimulate investment. But the rate of interest is already close to zero. Reduce it any further and we would be talking about a negative rate of interest: the banks would pay people to borrow money. This is completely crazy, but they are even discussing it. That shows that they are becoming desperate.
The other method is to increase state spending. This is what all the Keynesians and reformists are advocating. In the first place, this exposes the bankruptcy of free market economics. The private sector is so feeble, decrepit, so bankrupt in the literal sense of the word that it must rely on the state just as a man with no legs relies on crutches. But even that option does not offer a way out.
It is an obvious fact that the banks and big monopolies are now dependent on the state for their survival. As soon as they were in difficulties, the same people who used to insist that the state must play no role in the economy, ran to the government with their hands out, demanding huge sums of money. And the government immediately gave them a blank cheque. Trillions of pounds of public money has been handed over to the banks, totalling some $14trillion. But the crisis continues to deepen.
All that has been achieved in the last four years is to transform what was a black hole in the finances of the banks into a black hole in public finances. In order to save the bankers, everybody is expected to sacrifice, but for the bankers and capitalists no sacrifices are demanded. They pay themselves lavish bonuses with the money of the taxpayer. This is Robin Hood in reverse.
The existence of huge deficits means that the Keynesian argument about increasing state spending falls under its own weight. How can the state spend money it does not possess? The one avenue still open to them is printing money, or, as it is euphemistically known, Quantitative Easing (QE). The injection of large amounts of fictitious capital into the economy is subject to the law of diminishing returns. It has a similar effect to that of a junkie who has to inject himself with ever bigger quantities of a drug in order to get the same effect. In the process they are poisoning the system and undermining its health.
This is a really desperate measure that must result sooner or later in an increase in inflation. In this way, they are preparing for an even deeper slump in the coming period. This is the inevitable result of the fact that in the previous period the capitalist system went beyond its limits. In order to postpone a slump, they used up the very mechanisms that they need to get out of the present crisis. This is the reason why the crisis is so deep and so intractable. As Marx explains, the capitalists can only solve their crises “by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented.” (Communist Manifesto)
In the olden days the Church used to say: “All roads lead to Rome.” Now the bourgeoisie has a new motto: All roads lead to ruin. It is unthinkable that a crisis that is throwing the whole world into chaos, that condemns millions of people to unemployment, poverty and despair, that robs the youth of a future and destroys health, housing, education and culture—that all this can occur without producing a social and political crisis. The crisis of capitalism is preparing the conditions for revolution everywhere.
This is no longer a theoretical proposition. It is a fact. If we take just the last twelve months, what do we see? Revolutionary movements have occurred in one country after another: Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, Spain. Even in the United States we have the #Occupy movement and the earlier mass protests in Wisconsin.
These dramatic events are a clear expression of the fact that the crisis of capitalism is producing a massive backlash on a world scale, and that a growing number of people are beginning to draw revolutionary conclusions. As long as a tiny minority holds in its hands the land, the banks and the big corporations, it will continue to take all the fundamental decisions that affect the lives and destinies of millions of people on the planet.
The intolerable gap that has developed between rich and poor is placing an increasing strain on social cohesion. The basis of the old Social Democratic dream of class peace and social partnership has broken down irremediably. This fact was summed up by the Occupy Wall Street slogan: “The one thing we all have in common is that we are the 99 per cent that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1 per cent.”
The problem is that the present protest movement is confused in its aims. It lacks a coherent programme and a bold leadership. But it reflects a general mood of anger that is building up under the surface and which sooner or later must find a way out. But they are definitely anti-capitalist movements, and sooner or later, in one country or another, the question of the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism will be posed.
Under capitalism, as Marx explained, the productive forces have experienced the most spectacular development in history. Yet the ideas of the ruling class, even in its most revolutionary epoch, lagged far behind the advances in production, technology and science.
The Threat to Culture?
The contrast between the rapid development of technology and science, and the extraordinary delay in the development of human ideology, is presented in a clear manner in the most advanced capitalist country of the world: the USA. This is the land where science has achieved its most spectacular results. The steady progress of technology is the precondition for the final emancipation of man, the abolition of poverty and illiteracy, ignorance, disease and the domination of nature by man through the conscious planning of the economy. The road is open to conquest, not only on Earth, but in space. And yet, in this technologically advanced country, the most primitive superstitions reign supreme. Nine out of ten Americans believe in the existence of a divine being and seven out of ten believe in life after death.
On Christmas Day 1968, when the first man to fly around the Moon had to choose a message to convey to the American people from his spaceship, out of the entire corpus of world literature, he chose the first book of Genesis. As he hurtled through space in a spaceship crammed full of the most modern gadgets, he pronounced the words: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” It is more than 130 years since Darwin’s death. Nevertheless, there are still many people in the USA who believe that every word of the Bible is literally correct, and who wish the schools to teach the version of human origins contained in Genesis, rather than the theory of evolution based on natural selection. In an attempt to make Creationism more respectable, its proponents have renamed it “intelligent design.” The question immediately arises: who designed the intelligent designer? To this entirely reasonable question they have no answer. Nor can they explain why their “intelligent designer” made such a hopeless botch of the job when he created the world in the first place.
Why design a world with things like cancer, bubonic plague, aids, menstruation and migraine? Why design vampire bats, leeches and investment bankers? Come to think of it, why is it that apparently most of our genes are made of useless junk? Our intelligent designer turns out to be not so intelligent after all. In the words of Alfonso the Wise, King of Castile (1221-1284): “Had I been present at the Creation, I would have given some useful hints for the better ordering of the universe.” Indeed, an eleven year old of average intelligence could probably have done a better job.
It is true that the authority of the Church is in decline in all Western countries. The number of practicing believers is decreasing. In countries like Spain and Ireland the Church is finding it difficult to recruit new priests. Attendance at mass has suffered a sharp decline in recent times, especially among the youth. ?However, the decline of the Church has opened the door to a real Egyptian plague of religious sects of the weirdest varieties, and a flowering of mysticism and superstitions of all kinds. Astrology, that remnant of medieval barbarism—is back in fashion. Cinemas, television and bookstores are full of works based on the most brazen mysticism and superstition. ?
These are only the outward signs of the putrefaction of a social system that has outlived itself, that it has ceased to be a historically progressive force and that has definitely entered into conflict with the needs of the development of the productive forces. In this sense, the struggle of the working class to surgically cut short the agony of bourgeois society is also the struggle to defend the achievements of science and culture against the encroaching forces of barbarism.
The only alternatives open to humanity are clear: either the socialist transformation of society, the elimination of the political and economic power of the bourgeoisie and the initiation of a new stage in the development of human civilisation, or the destruction of civilisation, and even of life itself. The ecologists and Greens moan continually about the degradation of the environment and warn of the threat this poses for humanity. They are right. But they resemble an inexperienced doctor who points to the symptoms but is unable to diagnose the nature of the disease, or to suggest a cure.
The degeneration of the system is felt at all levels, not only in the economic field, but in the realm of morality, culture, art, music and philosophy. The existence of capitalism is being extended at the expense of the destruction of the productive forces, but it is also undermining culture, boosting demoralisation and the lumpenisation of entire layers of society, with disastrous consequences for the future. Ultimately, the existence of capitalism will enter into conflict with the existence of the democratic and trade union rights of the working class.
The increase in crime and violence, pornography, bourgeois selfishness and the brutal indifference to the sufferings of others, sadism, disintegration of the family and the collapse of traditional morality, drug addiction and alcoholism—all those things provoking the hypocritical wrath and indignation of reactionaries—are only symptoms of the senile degeneration of capitalism. In the same way that similar phenomena accompanied the period of decline of slave society under the Roman Empire.
The capitalist system, which puts profit before any other consideration, is poisoning the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. The latest scandal of the massive adulteration of meat products in Europe is only the tip of the iceberg. If we allow the rule of the big banks and monopolies to continue for another five decades or more, it is entirely possible that the destruction of the planet may reach a point where irreversible damage is done that will threaten the future existence of humankind. The struggle to change society is therefore a life and death question.
The Need for a Planned Economy
For the past two decades we have been fed a steady diet of economic propaganda which assured us that the idea of a planned socialist economy was dead, and that the “market”, left to its own devices, would solve the problem of unemployment, bringing about a world of peace and prosperity.
Now, following the crash of 2008, the truth is beginning to dawn on people that the existing order is incapable of assuring even the most basic of human needs—a job, a living wage, a home, decent education and health provisions, a proper pension, a safe environment, clean air and water—for the great majority, and not only for those in the Third World.
Such a system must surely stand condemned by all thinking people who are not blinded by the constant avalanche of spurious arguments, the sole purpose of which is to defend the vested interests of those who are doing extremely well out of the present set-up and cannot or will not believe that it will not last forever and a day.
The central point of the Communist Manifesto—and herein lies its revolutionary message—is precisely that the capitalist system is not forever. This is the element which the apologists of our present system find most difficult to swallow. Naturally! It is the common delusion of every socio-economic system throughout history that it represents the very last word in social progress. Yet even from the standpoint of commonsense, such a view is clearly flawed. If we accept that everything in nature is mutable, why should society be any different?
These facts indicate that the capitalist system had already exhausted its progressive mission. Every intelligent person realises that the free development of the productive forces demands the unification of the economies of all countries through a common plan which would permit the harmonious exploitation of the resources of our planet for the benefit of all.
This is so evident that it is recognised by scientists and experts who have nothing to do with socialism, but are filled with indignation at the nightmare conditions in which two thirds of the human race live, and are worried by the effects of the destruction of the environment. Unfortunately, their well-intentioned recommendations fall on deaf ears, since they conflict with the vested interests of the big multinationals that dominate the world economy and whose calculations are not based on the welfare of humanity or the future of the planet, but exclusively on greed and the search for profit above all other considerations.
The superiority of economic planning over capitalist anarchy is understood even by the bourgeois themselves, although they cannot admit it. In 1940, when Hitler’s armies had smashed France, and Britain had its back against the wall, what did they do? Did they say: “Let market forces decide”? No! They centralised the economy, nationalised essential industries and introduced sweeping government controls, including economic conscription and rationing. Why did they opt for centralisation and planning? For the very simple reason that it gives better results.
Of course, it is impossible to have a real plan of production under capitalism. Nevertheless, even the measures of state capitalist planning introduced by Churchill’s wartime coalition were essential for defeating Hitler. An even more striking example was the Soviet Union. The Second World War in Europe was in reality a gigantic conflict between Hitler’s Germany, with all the resources of Europe behind it, and the Soviet Union.
It was the Soviet Union that defeated Hitler’s armies. The reason for this extraordinary victory can never be admitted by the defenders of capitalism, but it is a self-evident fact. The existence of a nationalised planned economy gave the USSR an enormous advantage in the war. Despite the criminal policies of Stalin, which nearly brought about the collapse of the USSR at the beginning of the war, the Soviet Union was able to swiftly recover and rebuild its industrial and military capacity.
The Russians were able to dismantle all their industries in the West—1,500 factories and a million workers—put them on trains and ship them east of the Urals where they were beyond the reach of the Germans. In a matter of months the Soviet Union was out-producing the Germans in tanks, guns and airplanes. This demonstrates beyond doubt the colossal superiority of a nationalised planned economy, even under Stalin’s bureaucratic regime.
The USSR lost 27 million people in the Second World War—half the total deaths on a world scale. Its industries and agricultures suffered terrible devastation. Yet within ten years everything had been rebuilt, and without the kind of vast amounts of foreign money that were channelled into Western Europe by the Americans under Marshall Aid. That, and not Germany and Japan, is the real post-war economic miracle.
Of course, real socialism must be based on democracy—not the fake formal democracy that exists in Britain and the USA, where anybody can say what they want as long as the big banks and monopolies decide what happens—but a genuine democracy based on the control and administration of society by working people themselves.
There is nothing utopian about such an idea. It is based on what already exists. Let us take just one example. It is a never-ending source of amazement to the author of these lines how a big supermarket like Tesco can calculate precisely the amount of sugar, bread and milk that is required by an area of London with tens of thousands of inhabitants. They do this by scientific planning, and it never fails. If planning on such a level can work for a large supermarket, why cannot the same methods of planning be applied to society as a whole?
Socialism and Internationalism
Anyone who reads the Communist Manifesto can see that Marx and Engels anticipated this situation more than 150 years ago. They explained that capitalism must develop as a world system. Today, this analysis has been brilliantly confirmed by events. At the present time nobody can deny the crashing domination of the world market. It is in fact the most decisive phenomenon of the age in which we live.
Yet when the Manifesto was written, there was practically no empirical data to support such a hypothesis. The only really developed capitalist economy was England. The infant industries of France and Germany (the latter did not even exist as a united entity) still sheltered behind high tariff walls—a fact which is conveniently forgotten today, as Western governments and economists deliver stern lectures to the rest of the world on the need to open up their economies.
In the last few years economists have talked a lot about “globalisation”, imagining that this was the panacea which would permit them to abolish the cycle of booms and slumps altogether. These dreams were shattered by the collapse of 2008.
This has profound implications for the rest of the world. It shows the reverse side of “globalisation”. To the degree that the capitalist system develops the world economy, it also prepared the conditions for a devastating world slump. A crisis in any part of the world economy rapidly extends to all the others. Far from abolishing the boom-slump cycle, globalisation has invested it with an even more convulsive and universal character than at any previous period.
The fundamental problem is the system itself. In the words of Marx, “The real barrier of capitalist production is capital itself.” (Capital, vol. 3, Part III) The economic pundits who argued that Marx was wrong and capitalist crises were things of the past (the “new economic paradigm”) have themselves been proved wrong. The present boom has all the features of the economic cycle Marx described long ago. The process of the concentration of capital has reached staggering proportions. There is an orgy of takeovers and ever-increasing monopolisation. This does not lead to the development of the productive forces as in the past. On the contrary, factories are closed as if they were matchboxes and thousands of people are thrown out of work.
The economic theories of monetarism—the Bible of neo-Liberalism—were summed up by John Kenneth Galbraith in the following way: “the poor have too much money, and the rich do not have enough.” Record profit levels are accompanied by record inequality. The Economist has pointed out that “the one truly continuous trend over the past 25 years has been towards greater concentration of income at the very top”.
A tiny minority are obscenely rich, while the share of the workers in the national income is constantly reduced and the poorest sections sink into ever deeper poverty. Hurricane Katrina revealed to the whole world the existence of a subclass of deprived US citizens living in third world conditions.
In the USA workers now produce 30 percent more than ten years ago, yet wages have hardly increased. The social fabric is increasingly strained. There is an enormous increase in tensions in society, even in the richest country in the world. This is preparing the ground for an even greater explosion of the class struggle.
This is not only the case in the USA. Around the world, the boom is accompanied by high unemployment. Reforms and concessions are being taken back. In order to become competitive in world markets, Italy would need to sack 500,000 workers and the remainder would have to accept a wage reduction of thirty percent.
For a time, capitalism succeeded in overcoming its contradictions by increasing world trade (globalisation). For the first time in history, the entire world has been drawn into the world market. The capitalists found new markets and avenues of investment in China and other countries. But this has now reached its limits.
The American and European capitalists are no longer so enthusiastic about globalisation and free trade, when mountains of cheap Chinese goods are piling up on their doorstep. In the US Senate protectionist voices are raised and are becoming increasingly insistent. The Doha round of talks about world trade has been suspended and so great are the contradictions that there is no agreement possible.
The current unstable economic boom is already running out of steam. The consumer boom in the USA is based on relatively low interest rates and a vast extension of credit and debt. These factors will turn into their opposite. A new crisis is being prepared on a world scale. Thus, globalisation reveals itself as a global crisis of capitalism.
Is There no Alternative?
Bourgeois economists are so blinkered and narrow minded that they cling to the outmoded capitalist system even when they are forced to admit that it is terminally diseased and condemned to collapse. To imagine that the human race is incapable of discovering a viable alternative to this rotten, corrupt and degenerate system is frankly an affront to humanity.
Is it really true that there is no alternative to capitalism? No, it is not true. The alternative is a system based on production for the needs of the many and not the profit of the few; a system that replaces chaos and anarchy with harmonious planning; that replaces the rule of a minority of wealthy parasites with the rule of the majority who produce all the wealth of society. The name of this alternative is socialism.
One may quibble over words, but the name of this system is socialism—not the bureaucratic and totalitarian caricature that existed in Stalinist Russia, but a genuine democracy based on the ownership, control and management of the productive forces by the working class. Is this idea really so very difficult to understand? Is it really utopian to suggest that the human race can take hold of its own fate and run society on the basis of a democratic plan of production?
The need for a socialist planned economy is not an invention of Marx or any other thinker. It flows from objective necessity. The possibility of world socialism flows from the present conditions of capitalism itself. All that is necessary is for the working class, which constitutes the overwhelming majority of society, to take over the running of society, expropriate the banks and giant monopolies and mobilise the vast unused productive potential to solve the problems of society.
Marx wrote: “No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed.” (Karl Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.) The objective conditions for the creation of a new and higher form of human society have already been established by the development of capitalism. For the last 200 years the development of industry, agriculture, science and technology has acquired a speed and intensity without historical precedent:
“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.” (Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, Chapter I. Bourgeois and Proletarians.)
How true are these words of Marx and how applicable to our time! The solutions to the problems we face are already in existence. Over the last 200 years capitalism has built up a colossal productive power. But it is unable to utilise this potential to the full. The present crisis is only a manifestation of the fact that industry, science and technology have grown to the point where they cannot be contained within the narrow confines of private ownership and the nation state.
The development of the productive forces, especially since the Second World War, has been unprecedented in history: nuclear energy, microelectronics, telecommunications, computers, industrial robots … have meant a dramatic increase in productivity at work to a level much higher than could have been imagined in Marx’s time, giving us a very clear idea of what would be possible in the future under socialism, based on a socialist planned economy, above all on a global scale. The present crisis is merely a manifestation of the revolt of the productive forces against these suffocating limitations. Once industry, agriculture, science and technology are freed from the suffocating restraints of capitalism, the productive forces would be capable of immediately satisfying all human wants without any difficulty. For the first time in history, humanity would be free to realise its full potential. A general reduction in working hours would provide the material basis for a genuine cultural revolution. Culture, art, music, literature and science would soar to unimaginable heights.
The Only Road
Twenty years ago Francis Fukuyama spoke of the end of history. But history has not ended. In fact, the real history of our species will only begin when we have put an end to the slavery of class society and begun to establish control over our lives and destinies. This is what socialism really is: humanity’s leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom.
In the second decade of the 21st century, the human race stands at the crossroads. On the one hand, the achievements of modern science and technology have provided us with the means of solving all the problems that have plagued us for all of history. We can eradicate diseases, abolish illiteracy and homelessness and make deserts bloom.
On the other hand, reality seems to mock these dreams. The discoveries of science are used to produce ever more monstrous weapons of mass destruction. Everywhere there is poverty, hunger, illiteracy and disease. There is human suffering on a massive scale. Obscene riches flourish side by side with misery. We can put a man on the moon, but every year eight million people die simply because they do not have enough money to live. 100 million children are born, live and die on the streets, and they do not know what it is like to have a roof over their head.
The most striking aspect of the present situation is the chaos and turbulence that has gripped the entire planet. There is instability at all levels: economic, social, political, diplomatic and military.
Most people turn away from these barbarities in disgust. It seems that the world has suddenly gone mad. However, such a response is useless and counterproductive. Marxism teaches us that history is not meaningless. The present situation is not an expression of the madness or the inherent wickedness of men and women. The great philosopher Spinoza once said: “neither weep nor laugh, but understand!” That is very sound advice, for if we are not able to understand the world we live in, we will never be able to change it.
When Marx and Engels wrote the Manifesto, they were two young men, 29 and 27 years old respectively. They were writing in a period of black reaction. The working class was apparently immobile. The Manifesto itself was written in Brussels, where its authors had been forced to flee as political refugees. And yet at the very moment when the Communist Manifesto first saw the light of day in February 1848, revolution had already erupted onto the streets of Paris, and over the following months had spread like wildfire through virtually the whole of Europe.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the defenders of the old order were jubilant. They spoke of the end of socialism, and even the end of history. They promised us a new era of peace, prosperity and democracy, thanks to the miracles of the free market economy. Now, only fifteen years later, those dreams are reduced to a heap of smoking rubble. Not one stone upon another remains of these illusions.
What is the meaning of all of this? We are witnessing the painful death agonies of a social system that does not deserve to live, but which refuses to die. That is the real explanation of the wars, terrorism, violence and death that are the main features of the epoch in which we live.
But we are also witnessing the birth-pangs of a new society—a new and just society, a world fit for men and women to live in. Out of these bloody events, in one country after another, a new force is being born—the revolutionary force of the workers, peasants, and youth. At the UN President Chavez of Venezuels warned that “the world is waking up. And people are standing up”.
These words express a profound truth. Millions of people are beginning to react. The massive demonstrations against the Iraq war brought millions onto the streets. That was an indication of the beginnings of an awakening. But the movement lacked a coherent programme to change society. That was its great weakness.
The cynics and sceptics have had their day. It is time to push them out of our way and carry the fight forward. The new generation is willing to fight for its emancipation. They are looking for a banner, an idea and a programme that can inspire them and lead them to victory. That can only be the struggle for socialism on a world scale. Karl Marx was right: The choice before the human race is socialism or barbarism.