All too often, Marxists are posed with questions such as “surely Marxism isn’t relevant any more? We’ve moved on since Marx was writing” or “why do you still defend a man who was writing about the conditions of a couple of centuries ago?”
The answer to such questions is simple: not a lot has changed.
In What is to be Done? Lenin famously talks about the spontaneous development of the masses, expressed through trade union politics, that can sometimes to economism, i.e., the waging of the economic war alone, and not the political. This is dangerous because the struggle for socialism must be political as well as economic and without an understanding of that, political ideas alien to the working class can creep into the movement. While we must fight for reform that benefits the working class, by no means is it the be all and end all of the struggle. In the words of Lenin: “Hence, our task, the task of Social-Democracy, is to combat spontaneity, to divert the labour movement from its spontaneous, trade unionist striving to go under the wing of the bourgeoisie, and to bring it under the wing of revolutionary Social-Democracy.”
These words can be seen as truer than ever today. The trade unionist leadership, left without communist ideas and direction, has adopted bourgeois ideas of reformism and “responsible capitalism”. Trade union bureaucrats can get away with such policies during a period of capitalist upswing, and the relative economic boom of the last 60 years has indeed seen a move to the right by union leaders and the Labour Party, epitomised by Blair. As stated before, while we must fight for reforms that benefit the working class, it is not the be all and end all of struggle. However the Labour Party and the trade unions, in the last period and still today, treat it as such. At a time like now, when capitalist crisis is crushing the workers, this reformism without reforms leads only to further misery for the working class. To quote Lenin, “without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.” Quite clearly the modern trade union movement, whose leadership has been left completely without revolutionary Marxist thought, needs revolutionary theory now more than ever so as to build a revolutionary movement against austerity. This is why Marxists must be on marches, demonstrations and rallies making the argument for revolutionary socialism. We should always be where the masses are.
Therefore, we, as Marxists, must argue for a socialist direction for the mass trade union movements. We must use the institutions of bourgeois democracy as well as trade unions, demonstrations, rallies, etc. as a platform to speak our views and to convince people of the need for a socialist transformation of society, which will not fail us in fighting for decent living standards and protection of our rights. To conclude with regards to trade unionism: the relevance of Marxism here is to act as a force for socialist ideas amongst the mass of people, to direct them to a new, internationalist proletarian cause—to break the link with bourgeois politics and economism.
As far as the economic struggle goes, it is fundamental that it is not split from the political struggle. However, that does not mean that it mustn’t go without analysis, without scrutiny. In Wage-labour and Capital, Marx pretty much sums up with the near enough prophetic lines: ‘[But] capital not only lives upon labour. Like a master, at once distinguished and barbarous, it drags with it into its grave the corpses of its slaves, whole hecatombs of workers, who perish in the crises.’ By this, Marx is of course referring to the endless anarchy and cyclical crises of production under capitalism, the crises that take place in the international markets which claim victims each time, be it through poverty, famine, desperation, slavery and even death in the most down-trodden and exploited countries.
In Wage-labour and Capital, Marx explains the dialectical and dependent nature of both wage-labour and capital, and how one sustains the other; without capital, the wage-labourer cannot survive, as he receives no wages; and without wage-labour, capital cannot exist and profits cannot be made.
The question is this: do these social conditions still exist? The simple answer is yes, they do. We have not abandoned this system, thrown away the chains, and released the wage-labourers from the dominion of capital. Workers are still routinely exploited for profit; commodity production, i.e., producing in the name of profit, still exists; imperialism is still attempting to secure its gains in many countries; cyclical crises, owing to the anarchy of production and overproduction, are still borne by sacrifices made by the proletariat without their consent; and the list goes on.
From this, then, the economic relevance of Marxism—in its explanation of the nature of capital, in its offering of an alternative—can be seen in the bluntest and most upfront manner possible. It is to free the workers from the dominion of capital, from the capitalist parasites who, to quote Marx, ‘will do anything for the workers but get off their backs.’
Marxism is still hugely relevant in both the economic and political struggle, as one without the other will inevitably lead to concessions to bourgeois thought. With the seizure of power and with the smashing of the old system, the proletariat will fulfil its potential to change society, and become able, for the first time, to act in its own interests, to free itself, and to lead the way to communism.
Marxism’s relevance in the 21st century is thanks to the fact that things haven’t really changed, and the proletariat is still subordinate to capital. What’s more, as a result of this people are still taught, from a young age, that greed is good, and that merciless selfishness is the basis of their so-called (actually distorted) conception of “human nature”. The most relentless propaganda wars against Marxist thought are waged; people are encouraged not to look past the bourgeois democratic pantomime of Parliament. The ideas of Marxism are the ideas we need to fight back against all these things.
‘‘Let us finally imagine, for a change, an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common.’’ —Karl Marx
by Samuel Connelley