There’s still only one thinker who not only explains the horrors of capitalism but also offers an escape route, writes Lindsey German
It’s really a great tribute to the importance of Karl Marx’s thinking that the 200th anniversary of his birth has seen praise showered on him from unexpected quarters. From the Economist magazine to the New York Times, those who spend their time defending capitalism and its priorities have been forced to concede that Marx was right. They admit that the global system of capital produces much misery, that inequality is growing, that a few gigantic corporations dominate, and that exploitation is a fact of life for billions around the world.
But – and here’s where they part company with Marx – there’s nothing really to be done about it. The cure, as the Economist puts it, is worse than the disease. So working people might be living in terrible conditions, but they just have to suck it up, because, in the words of Margaret Thatcher, there is no alternative.
I took part in a very good event at the weekend entitled Why Marx was Right. It was a stimulating and interesting day, which emphasised many different aspects of Marx’s work and his thinking. Perhaps most importantly, and I think this is a point stressed by all the speakers in one way or another, it also emphasised that there is an alternative. Marx believed that the only way of workers overcoming the exploitation and alienation which was their condition of life under capitalism, was to organise collectively in order to overthrow the system and to take control of what they produced and how society was organised.
It is this alternative which the ‘opinion formers’ of the Economist and the other mouthpieces of capitalist rule fear so much. They are not stupid and they know that there is a great deal of discontent and unhappiness with the system. So a large part of their message has to be – it isn’t easy to change things, and even when you think you do, it just ends up as bad as before – ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’, in the words of the song by The Who.
So socialists are probably regaled more with questions about how or why socialism can go wrong than they are about anything else. This is of course partly because the models of socialism have so failed to live up to any idea of genuine democratic socialism. But it is partly because working people lack the confidence to believe that they can change the world – or at least that they can change it fundamentally.
That changes usually in the process of them acting to change relatively small aspects of society – when they get involved in a fight against injustice, when they combat particular expressions of sexism or racism, or when they go out on strike against their employer. It is this action which opens them up to looking at the world in a different way, and to grasping a sense of their own objective power to change the world. In the process, they begin to change their ideas and see the possibilities open to collective organisation.
This marks a very difficult situation for those who own and control capital. They can put up with people being discontented, even throwing them some scraps at election time, or trying to divert them from worrying. But they can’t put up with people organising to change their situation and that of others.
The great strength of Marx and of Marxism is precisely that it is not a set of academic ideas (although there are too many academics around who think it is), but a guide to action. Its explanation of what is wrong with the world is also an explanation of how to change the world. In a world where inequality is growing, where a handful of billionaires have an income equal to half the world’s population, where in some of the richest parts of the world life expectancy is falling, it is little wonder that there is a growing interest in what Marx said. And what he did, because ‘fighting was his element’, in the words spoken at his graveside by his old friend, Friedrich Engels, and capitalism will not be transformed without a fight.
Labour, damn lies and electoral statistics
The headline of London’s Evening Standard on Friday was ‘No Jeremy Corbyn’. It might strike you as amazing, given that Labour gained seats and votes across London, while the Tories lost them. Part of the answer to how this barefaced lie of a headline was allowed to stand is that the paper’s editor is George Osborne, the former Tory Chancellor who brought us austerity. Osborne’s aim in editing the paper is to divide his fire against Labour and against his Tory arch enemy Theresa May – but his class interests always ensure that he will back the Tories in the end.
You would never know that the Tories came within 200 votes of losing their flagship borough Wandsworth to Labour, and that Labour’s vote across the borough was higher than the Tories’. You would never know that the other supposed failures – Westminster, and Kensington and Chelsea – were never serious possibilities for Labour. These are the two wealthiest areas of London, containing not only Buckingham and Kensington palaces, most of London’s royal parks, Harrods, Mayfair, Belgravia, but also some of the richest people in the world. Even here, however, Labour made gains in votes and seats – although mostly in the poorer parts of these boroughs. It is sickening, but nonetheless a fact, that the horrors of Grenfell or the scandals of Windrush make no impression on the wealthy electors in these boroughs, because, as Marx pointed out, there is no appealing to their better nature where money and profit are concerned.
The one borough where Labour did less well than expected was Barnet, where it looks like the anti-Semitism row had an impact. But even here we should put this into perspective. Barnet has for the most part been a Tory borough, and is relatively well off, so class was likely a factor here as well. Labour boroughs of Hackney and Redbridge, which saw Labour increase its seats - in the case of Redbridge quite substantially – also have sizeable Jewish populations. In any case, part of the responsibility for this must lie with those Labour MPs who, in my opinion, exaggerated the extent of anti-Semitism within Labour and who supported the witch-hunt of Marc Wadsworth.
Outside London was patchier, but nonetheless was perfectly creditable for Labour, especially following what was already a good result in 2014. So what is going on? Well, there is in part the determination of Blairite MPs and their media echo chamber to do down anything that they can in relation to Jeremy Corbyn. Do we really have to listen to Alastair Campbell, whose boss Tony Blair lost 1 million Labour votes between 2001 and 2005, lecturing us on local elections and telling the truth?
But there is another question, and that is the fact that Labour does well under Corbyn when it challenges the status quo, not when it looks like another social democratic party. Indeed, the fate of social democratic parties which follow the model so beloved of Campbell and the Progress crowd is grim indeed, with polling in single figures in a number of countries and with electoral decline in France, Italy, Germany and elsewhere. Corbyn has saved Labour from that fate precisely because he has posed alternatives to neoliberalism, war and racism. But the Corbyn insurgency has to continue, and that means it has to look outside the conventional two-party politics games at Westminster towards the arenas of struggle in which those who want change are engaged.
It seems to me that the opportunities for agitation are growing over the next few months: on Windrush, Grenfell, the NHS, the TUC demo, and of course the protests against Donald Trump. The Tories are on the back foot over all these issues, and the last thing they want is protests and campaigns which challenge them further. Labour has a very important job to do inside parliament, but we should never forget that real change comes from how people organise, how they fight, and the changes that they bring about as a result.
This is the key to Marx’s arguments and it remains as true today. In addition, a Corbyn-led Labour party is never going to get the same treatment as one led by a more right wing figure, because of the threat that it poses to the ruling class and their supporters in the Tories, the media and even in Labour's own ranks. That means the rules of the game have to change, and a mass, labour movement challenge - with an emphasis on extra-parliamentary activity - to politics as usual has to be centre stage.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
More articles from this author
- Too rich to fail - weekly briefing
- The most leftwing Labour leader doesn’t need advice from the most unsuccessful one - weekly briefing
- This rudderless government deserves a hostile environment – weekly briefing
- Racism starts at the top in Britain, and we’re seeing the result with Windrush - weekly briefing
- The mission accomplished that is nothing of the sort – weekly briefing
- Lindsey German on Victoria Derbyshire: Don't bomb Syria - video
- Lies, damn lies, and Boris Johnson - weekly briefing