Karl Marx Karl Marx. Photo: Wikimedia

The ‘S’ word is back. Here Chris Nineham introduces a brilliant short defence of Marxism by Tony Cliff as part of our ‘key texts’ series

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This piece was written right at the end of the last millennium. This was a time when the left was generally in retreat and a year or so before the onset of the multiple crises of imperialism and the economy that have haunted the system since. The article’s clarity and conviction is all the more impressive.

Its succinct analysis – and the value of Marxism – has been brutally borne out by the history of the last fifteen years. The divergence between those who don’t own the means of production and work and those who own the means of production and don’t work has reached new and dizzying levels. According to Oxfam, by the end of this year, the top 1% will earn more than all the rest of society. Meanwhile, war and economic turmoil are back centre stage.

The article’s predictive power flows from its basic thesis. The author Tony Cliff was a brilliant Marxist writer and leader of the International Socialists and later the SWP, who died shortly after this article was written. His proposition is that inequality, crisis and state brutality are integral elements of the capitalist system. Marxism is  a method of understanding the world in all its interconnections, of grasping its fundamental drives. Developing a coherent explanation of the system as a whole is often regarded as impossible. For Cliff as for Marx, it was essential.

As Cliff wrote elsewhere ‘underestimating the importance of theory… is basically an insult to workers, assuming they are unable to grasp ideas and are uninterested in them’. Anyone serious about changing the world has to take very seriously the job of trying to understand it. 

Is Marxism still relevant?

At school we learn history as a story of great men: kings, generals, emperors. I remember learning about Cleopatra having a bath in milk. The teacher never told us who produced the milk and how many Egyptian children suffered from malnutrition for lack of milk. We were told about Napoleon going to Russia in 1812. We were not told how many Russian peasants or French peasants in uniform died as a result.

The Communist Manifesto makes it clear that what is significant is the action of the millions:

‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.’

Both Stalinist “socialism” and social democratic “socialism” is socialism from above. With the Stalinists this is obvious. When Stalin sneezed, every party member had to take out their handkerchief.

Social democratic “socialism” looks, on the face of it, democratic, but in reality is completely elitist. The man and woman in the street are expected to vote in parliamentary elections once in five or four years, but leave the rest to others. If a person votes ten times in his life, he spends, let us say, 30 minutes in a democratic exercise. Abe Lincoln said, “You can’t have a society half free and half slave.” The social democratic leaders expect the mass of the people to live a life time in slavery and 30 minutes in democracy.

The contradictions in capitalism

Under capitalism those who work don’t own the means of production and those who own the means of production don’t work. Under capitalism production is social. Workers work in big units – factories, railways, hospitals – encompassing numbers of workers. Production is social, but ownership is not. The ownership is in the hands of individuals, capitalist corporations or states.

In every individual unit of production there is planning. But there is no plan to co-ordinate the different units of capital. In Volkswagen they produce one engine per car, one body per car, four wheels (or an additional one in reserve) per car; there is co-ordination between the different aspects of production. But there is no co-ordination between the production of Volkswagen and that of General Motors. Planning and anarchy are two sides of the same coin under capitalism.

It is useful to juxtapose capitalism to feudalism that preceded it and to socialism that will follow it.

Under feudalism there was individual production and individual ownership. Under socialism there will be social production and social ownership.
Under feudalism you cannot speak of any planning, either in an individual unit or in the economy as a whole. Under socialism planning will apply to every unit of the economy and to the economy as a whole.

Because of the massive dynamics and productivity of capitalism at the same time as anarchy exists, we face the phenomenon of poverty in the midst of plenty. For thousands of years people starved because there was not enough food. Capitalism is the only system of society in which people starve because there is too much food. In the United States they build special boats to carry grain in which they are able to open the bottom and sink the grain to keep up its price.

Poverty and wealth take extreme forms as never before in history. It was calculated that 58 multi-billionaires have wealth equal to the income of half of humanity. This half of humanity includes not only the poor but also the relatively affluent.

Competition between capitals and exploitation of workers

Under feudalism the feudal lord exploited and oppressed the serfs as a means of making the feudal lord’s life better. As Marx put it, “The walls of the stomach of the feudal lord is the limitation of the exploitation of the serfs.” What motivates Ford to exploit his workers is not his interest in consumption. If that were the case, the burden of the capitalists would be small. Ford employs 250,000 workers internationally. If every worker gave £1 a day in the form of surplus value, it would be ample for the Ford owners to live on. Not only this. Because the dynamism of the economy is much greater than the dynamism of anyone’s consumption, the burden on the workers would have declined over time. But the motive of exploitation is not the consumption of the capitalist, but capital accumulation. To survive in the competition with General Motors, Ford has to retool the factories again and again to invest mote and more capital. The other side of the anarchy of competition between the capitalists is the tyranny under which workers are suffering in every capitalist unit.

The nature of the capitalist state

Everywhere we are told that the state rises above society, that the state represents the nation. The Communist Manifesto makes it clear that the state is a weapon of the ruling class:

‘The executive of the modem state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.’

Elsewhere Marx writes that the state is “armed bodies of men and their accessories” – army, police, courts and prisons.

Marx also called the army the “slaughter industry”, and it is dependent on real industry. The productive forces determine the destructive forces. In medieval times, when the peasant had a horse and a wooden plough, the knight had a horse (a better one) and a wooden sword. In the First World War, when millions were mobilised into the army, other millions were mobilised into industry to produce the guns, bullets, etc. Today, when a finger can press a button and thus transfer thousands of pounds abroad, a finger on another button can annihilate 60,000 in Hiroshima. The slaughter industry and industry fit like a glove on the hand. If a Martian found a glove he would not understand why there are five fingers, but if he knew the glove was to cover a hand with five fingers, it would be obvious. Also the social structure of the army reflects the social structure of society. If the army has generals, colonels going down to privates, it is similar in the factory where there is manager, foreman, worker. One hierarchy fits the other hierarchy.

The proletarian revolution

To expropriate the capitalists the working class must take political power. But, Marx argued, the workers cannot simply take the existing state machine, because the present state mirrors the hierarchical structure of capitalism. The workers have to smash this hierarchical state machine, and replace it with a state in which there is no standing army, no permanent bureaucracy, all officials are elected and can be removed, and no representative earns more than the workers they represent. Marx came to this conclusion after watching the Paris Commune of 1871, in which the workers achieved just this. The Communist Manifesto says:

‘All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self- conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.’

Marx explained why we need a revolution: the ruling class won’t give up wealth and power unless forced; and the working class won’t get rid of “the muck of centuries” without a revolution.

Capitalism both unites workers and divides them. Competing for jobs, housing and so on, splinters the working class; fighting the bosses unites the workers. The maximum unity and the heart of the revolution is the mass strike. The revolution is not a one-night affair, but a process of strikes, demonstrations and so on, culminating in the workers physically taking power.

Violence, so often misrepresented as the revolution itself, is, as Marx said, “the midwife of a new society”. Note: it is the “midwife”, not the baby itself – just a help.

The most important aspect of the revolution is the spiritual changes of the working class. To give an example. Under Tsarism Jews were harshly persecuted. There were pogroms against Jews. They were not allowed to live in the two capitals, Petrograd and Moscow, without special permission, and there were a host of other major restrictions. Comes the revolution: the chairman of Petrograd Soviet was a Jew, Trotsky; the chairman of Moscow Soviet a Jew, Kamenev; the chairman of the Soviet Republic a Jew, Sverdlov; the head of the Red Army a Jew, Trotsky.

Another demonstration of the huge spiritual changes. During 1917, during the month of the revolution, Lunacharsky held meetings of 30,000 to 40,000 people and would speak for two to three hours on subjects like William Shakespeare, Greek drama, etc.

The conditions for revolution, Lenin explained, are four:

  1. the general deep crisis of society;
  2. the working class makes it clear it cannot stand going on as at present;
  3. the ruling class loses confidence that it can continue to rule as up to now and they therefore split and quarrel, and
  4. the existence of a revolutionary party.

Socialism or fascism

In the above quote from the Communist Manifesto Marx wrote that the class struggle “ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes”. He came to this conclusion based on the experience of the decline of Roman slave society. Spartacus was defeated, the slaves did not manage to overthrow the slave-owning class, society declined, the slaves disappeared and were replaced by serfs, and the slave-owners by feudal lords. (The invasion of the German tribes was only one element in this process.)

Engels formulated the same idea by speaking about the alternatives facing humanity as socialism or barbarism. Rosa Luxemburg developed it further. Neither knew as much about barbarism as we do. Engels died in 1895; Rosa Luxemburg was murdered in January 1919. Both did not know about the gas chambers, about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, about the mass famine in Africa, etc.

When the Nazis were knocking at the gates of power, the leaders of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) thought the alternative to Nazism was the status quo. They therefore voted for Field Marshal Hindenburg to be president, because he was a conservative, not a Nazi, (On 30 January 1933 he called on Hitler to become the prime minister of Germany.) The Social Democrats supported Bruening’s Emergency Decrees that cut workers’ conditions, demoralised them and helped the Nazis along. Fritz Tarnow, the “theoretician” of the trade unions, stated, “Capitalism is sick. We are the doctors of capitalism.” Marx said the working class was the gravedigger of capitalism. There is a difference between a doctor and a gravedigger. The doctor will put the pillow underneath the sick man’s head; the gravedigger will put it over his head.

Because fascism is a movement of despair, while socialism is a movement of hope, to fight fascism it is necessary not only to fight the fascists but also the conditions that lead to despair. One has to fight the rats, but also the sewers in which the rats multiply. One has to fight the fascists, but also capitalism that creates the conditions that breed fascism-unemployment, bad housing, social deprivation, etc.

More relevant than ever

The contradictions of capitalism today are much deeper than they were when Marx died in 1883, contradictions that appear in deep mass slumps, wars that go on and on in one country after another, etc. The working class is much stronger today than in 1883. As a matter of fact the working class of South Korea is larger than the total working class of the world when Marx died. And South Korea is only the eleventh economy in the world. Add to them the American, Japanese, Russian, German, British workers, etc, and the potential for socialism is greater than ever.

Tony Cliff

Born in Palestine to Zionist parents in 1917, Ygael Gluckstein became a Trotskyist during the 1930s and played a leading role in the attempt to forge a movement uniting Arab and Jewish workers. At the end of of the Second World war he moved to Britain and adopted the pseudonym Tony Cliff, later founding the International Socialists, and the Socialist Workers Party. Cliff’s works are available on the Marxist Internet Archive. For more on Cliff’slife see his autobiography ‘A World to Win: Life of a Revolutionary’ and Ian Birchall’s  'Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time'

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