Photo: Wikimedia Commons Photo: Wikimedia Commons

On 5 May, leading Marxists are getting together to celebrate Marx’s 200th birthday. Chris Nineham argues why the event matters so much.

If Marx came back for his birthday he would no doubt be alarmed by what he saw, but I don’t think he would be all that surprised. One thing that strikes you again and again when reading Marx is the astonishing immediacy of many passages. Take these famous words on the impact of capitalism from The Communist Manifesto. The capitalist system Marx writes,

… has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation. The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.

Foreseeing crisis

His was not just a moral condemnation of capitalist society. Marx analysed its dynamism and its flaws. He recognised the astonishing productivity unleashed by capitalism –‘the bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together’ – but he saw that the chaotic system of competition could not control the forces that it set in motion.

In The Communist Manifesto he went on to say that capitalism,‘a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange,’

is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells. For many a decade past the history of industry and commerce is but the history of the revolt of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production, against the property relations that are the conditions for the existence of the bourgeois and of its rule.

The result, as he goes on to say in the same pamphlet, is that periodically the system generates huge crises created – incredibly – by too much production, too many things, a glut of wealth.

And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented.

What better way to start to explain the current crises that face society? The dizzying combination of unimaginable wealth and degrading poverty, the short termism of the corporations, the growing political authoritarianism in the midst of soaring inequality. Occasionally even the more honest capitalist commentators glimpse these problems. Just this week Martin Wolf in the FT wrote despairingly of the Western neoliberal order in words that could have been lifted from the Communist Manifesto. The problem is he wrote,

the decadence of the west, very much including the US —the prevalence of rent extraction as a way of economic life, the indifference to the fate of much of its citizenry, the corrupting role of money in politics, the indifference to the truth, and the sacrifice of long-term investment to private and public consumption.

But mainstream commentators can’t begin to compete with the power of Marx’s critique, because Marx located these problems in the way the system functions overall.

Grasping the whole

At first sight it is extraordinary that Marx was able to write so prophetically in the 1840s at a time when capitalism had only developed in a few regions of the Atlantic seaboard, and when the working class in the whole world was much smaller than it is in South Korea today.

But the explanation for this and the reason for Marx’s immense significance is that his work was based on a systematic account of how capitalism works. He was the first to theorise the fact that capitalist wealth creation was based on institutionalised robbery. Every time workers go to work, he argued, they produce way more value than they are paid for. Capitalism is nothing but the accumulation of this extra wealth, this surplus, in the hands of the owners of production, mostly what we now call corporations.

It sounds simple, and it is. But on the basis of this insight Marx was able to develop a broader analysis of the way capital functions, how it leads to greater and greater monopoly, to imperialist rivalry, endemic oppression and crises that tend to become deeper and deeper. Some – though not many – mainstream commenters are prepared to reluctantly concede the power of the Marxist critique of the capitalist economy. But even the most open-minded will go no further than that. The political and social implications of Marxism are strictly off limits in polite society.

It is hard not to see this as a wilful blindness to the radical charge of Marx’s critique. In fact his ground-breaking insights into ‘the hidden abode of production’, allowed him to grasp with unparalleled clarity and subtlety the way capitalist society functioned more generally. It allowed him to understand for example the way in which work under capitalism creates the misery of alienation:

The more the worker exerts himself in his work, the more powerful the alien, objective world becomes which he brings into being over against himself, the poorer he and his inner world become, and the less they belong to him. Hence, the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working. (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts)

It led him to see in the consequent rebellion of working people a force that could challenge the structures of power. As he writes in his great economic work Capital:

Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolise all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organised by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. 

But Marx was also able to develop a profound understanding of the way the ruling class tries to hold on to its power. In the first developed account of his social theory, The German Ideology, he recognised that though political and state institutions appear to be neutral, they are in fact constructed to maintain the status quo and keep the profits rolling in:

The bourgeoisie pay their state well and make the nation pay for it, in order to be able without danger to pay poorly.

Marx also understood that the ruling class live in a state of semi-fantasy, convinced of their own superiority and believing their own propaganda. In an early newspaper article he dissected the dynamics of something very similar to what we now call fake news:

The government hears only its own voice and yet it hangs on to the illusion that it hears the voice of the people and it demands that the people likewise hang on to this illusion.

Fate and freedom

A common criticism of Marx is that predictions of the collapse of the capitalist system have proved premature. It is true that Marx’s sensitivity to capitalism’s contradictions and his involvement in the growing workers’ movement gave him a great optimism about the future. But Marx was anything but fatalistic. He never believed that overturning capitalism was inevitable.

He argued in fact that social struggle could lead to impasse and to ‘the common ruin of the contending classes’. For Marx socialism was impossible without conscious, organised self-emancipation. For him, what ordinary people do, what organisations we build, what political analyses we develop were crucial to successful struggle. Why else would he have committed his whole life to organising and developing his critique of the way the system works?

Integrated theories of the way society works are not fashionable at the moment. But that is a weakness. Without a radical analysis of how the system works we have no chance of changing it, no chance of liberating ourselves. This analysis is a work in progress. But Marx speaks to us today so clearly precisely because he grasped the basic drives of the system whose current incarnation is causing more and more chaos around the world.

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.