Since the break-up of the USSR and its eastern European empire, with the consequent collapse of Leninist ideas of revolution, it has become the accepted wisdom that Marxism is outdated. In this series of public forums The Socialist Party examined that body of thought known as Marxism and reassessed its relevance to modern conditions and to the development of an alternative society.
Each forum lasted two hours including the discussion which followed each talk.
From Summer School 1998, 3-5 July, at Fircroft College, Birmingham. Audio recordings are available here or by clicking the audio links below.
1. Who the hell was Karl Marx? – Audio here
2. Was Marx ever a Leninist? (Did Lenin really distort Marx?) – Audio here
3. The fetishism of commodities (or is Nike cooler than Adidas?) – Audio here
4. Has the modern market superseded Marxian economics? – Audio here
5. Is The Socialist Party Marxist? – Audio here
“Prepare to meet the greatest, perhaps the only, genuine philosopher of our times, who will soon attract the eyes of all the world. Imagine Rousseau, Voltaire, Holbach, Lessing, Heine and Hegel, fused into one person—I say ‘fused’, not juxtaposed—and you have Karl Marx.”
That was written by Moses Hess to his friend Feuerbach, at the time when Marx was only twenty-four years of age. By that time, he had already attracted the attention of most of those people in Europe who were interested in formulating socialist ideas. He had made the acquaintance of the leading radical democrats in Germany; and, of course, he had met with the one person who, before Marx had been writing about communist ideas, had been producing work advocating a communist society in Germany, namely, Moses Hess, whose work, The Sacred History of Mankind, put forward ideas later to be adopted in Marx’s writings.
That is one, very complimentary, statement about Marx. Here is another:
“Marx was the best hated, and most lied about, man of his time. Governments, both absolutist and republican, deported him from their territories. Capitalists, whether conservative or ultra-democratic, vied with one another in heaping slanders upon him. All this he brushed aside as though it were cobweb, ignoring it, answering only when extreme necessity compelled him; and he died, beloved, revered and mourned by millions of revolutionary fellow workers—from the mines of Siberia to California, in all parts of Europe and America—and I make bold to say that, though he may have had many opponents, he had hardly one personal enemy. His name will endure through the ages; and so will his work!”
That was, of course, the speech at his graveside on the 14th of March 1883 by his lifelong collaborator, Frederick Engels.
Here is just one other comment which tells you something about the personal qualities of Marx, personal qualities that are often somewhat overlooked. “Of all the great, little, or average men that I have ever known, Marx is one of the few who was free from vanity. He was too great and too strong to be vain. He never struck an attitude: he was always himself.” That was William Liebnecht’s comment in the biographical memoirs of Marx that he wrote.
I want to begin by saying, not simply, “When Karl Marx was born…” but that Karl Marx was born. In other words, he was a human being. Unlike many great figures of history and of philosophical thought, whom people gather to remember and to think about, Karl Marx is not some kind of miraculous, messianic figure who came down to earth in order to produce some sort of miraculous picture of the future. He was not someone from whom works of genius emanated because he was, himself, some extraordinary genius. He was not somebody who was out of this world; he was somebody who was of this world. He made mistakes: he was born at a certain time; he reflected that time; he transcended many of the conventions and errors of that time; and he was to make errors of his own which would contribute, to some extent, to the understanding of Marxism in our own time, and that is a very important point, because I think that, at the outset of a weekend of talking about Marx and who he was and what he did, it is extremely important that we don’t push ourselves into this rather dangerous ghetto of turning Marxism into a figure of religiosity and Marx himself into some kind of extraordinary, non-human, prophetic entity.
So, Marx was born, Marx died, Marx left us a legacy of ideas that we must now build upon; and I propose to deal with those ideas (and a huge number of such ideas) in four categories. Marx started off in his writings in the 1840s by addressing himself to the problem of human alienation. Marx did not discover the alienated position of human beings in society. Human beings in property societies have always felt alienated. They have always felt to some extent separate from themselves; mediated in their social activity through the channels of property; limited and constrained in their development because of the particular class they were born into; capable only of that which was historically possible at any one time. And there has always been an element of frustration and constraint within the human condition as long as people have been divided into classes in society.
Marx started off in the group around the philosopher Hegel, and particularly the radical disciples of Hegel, who looked at the problem of society as being the expression of alienation through religion, and who questioned religion as being a means of salvation from alienation. Marx went on to produce his own critique of their anti-religious position, because what he said is that to simply secularise what had hitherto been seen as religious problems is in fact to fail to understand why a society requires illusions in the first place in order to sustain it.
Marx says, “The real happiness of the people requires the abolition of religion, which is their illusory happiness. In demanding that they give up illusions about their conditions, we demand that they give up a condition that requires illusions.”
There is something fundamental in the methodology of Marx’s thinking inherent in that statement. It is that illusions themselves are not simply errors of judgement. They are not simply failures to grasp what sensible people would understand. They are, in fact, the reflection of a condition in which the only way that you are going to be able to develop yourself—the only way that you are going to be able to reflect the social situation that is around you—is by building illusions that will protect you.
In a capitalist society of the kind that we have now, the illusion that, not only do we have to go to work to earn a living, but that there is some sort of innate freedom in going to work and some choice in whom we work for, is precisely a reflection of a condition in which we do not have those choices. In fact, in any society, the more that people talk about choice, the more you can be certain that choices simply do not exist. It is only a condition where there is an absence of choice that makes choice such an important part of the lexicon of self-delusion.
Marx is therefore saying that to seek happiness—and one can actually find enormous reservoirs of happiness in illusion; in self-deception; in the belief that life might be miserable, but heaven will be wonderful; in the assumption that, if you work hard now you will have a horrible time and you will be paid very little and perhaps your family and your immediate circumstances will suffer, but think of what life will be like in ten years’ time when you are one rung up the ladder of wage slavery. These illusions are part of a necessary superstructure which exists to reflect a society that requires illusions in order to tolerate it.
The essence of these illusions, for Marx, is not simply metaphysical or about philosophical apprehensions of existence, but it is, in fact, rooted in the most material activity of human beings—arguably, apart from speech, the most unique capacity of human beings—and that is the ability to work. Work, says Marx, is the basis of alienation in a property society, because property is, in fact, merely the accumulation of appropriated—or, if you like, stolen—work from other people. So, in his earliest writings about alienation, Marx says:
“The worker does not affirm himself in his work, but denies himself, feels miserable and unhappy, develops no free physical and mental energy, but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind. His work is not voluntary but coerced, forced labour. It is not the satisfaction of a need but only a means to satisfy other needs. Its alien character is obvious from the fact that, as no physical or other pressures exist, labour is avoided like the plague.”
And, of course, we see that today with the distinction that arises in our vocabulary between work and employment. When people say, “I hate work!” They don’t hate work: they need to be physically and mentally energetic. They will very often return from their jobs to work very hard, to have hobbies, to go to places, to help other people, to do things which are going to be of benefit to themselves and those they like; but what they hate and what they regard as some sort of fearsome plague is the coercion of having to work for somebody else, of having to be employed, which after all comes from the French verb ‘to be used’—to be used up—by somebody else.
Marx went beyond what most philosophers start and finish with, which is a position of human beings alienated in society, and an attempt to enquire as to the cause of that alienation. Marx said, not only is the position of human beings as, at worst, an unfree people within a productive environment which does not allow them to be free, which necessitates illusions as a source of happiness; but all of this is historically rooted.
Here is a second, broad theme of Marx’s outlook in relation to human development. He sees history as a dynamic force. “In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will.” The first, very important, point: people do not enter into relations with one another in society because of choice—again that important concept which is always there as a delusion where you don’t have real freedom. There is no independence from one’s social environment. There is not a choice about whether you are rich or poor, whether you are born into the aristocracy or whether you are a peasant. There is not a choice as to which part of the world you are born into and what kind of historical developments have occurred before you are born. These relationships are inherited as a result of the position of classes that have gone before you and the formation of society into a pattern which is independent of you. These relations of production, says Marx, correspond to a particular stage of development of the material forces of production.
So here Marx juxtaposes two approaches to production: the relations of production and the forces of production. Broadly speaking, we can say that the forces of production are the means whereby wealth is produced, services are produced. The factories, the mines, the offices, the transport systems, the communication systems—these are forces of production, and they develop at a particular rate and in a particular way; but they develop within the context of particular relationships, and those relationships are relationships of class: who owns them; who doesn’t own them; who has power over them; who doesn’t have power over them; who has access to the people with power; and who is disempowered entirely. The forces of production and the relations of production are the two key concepts. The sum total of these relations constitutes the economic structure or, you might say, the system of society, the real foundation upon which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond particular forms of social consciousness.
Two points here: the first one is that there is a social system. Marx is moving beyond this idea that society is simply a set of relationships which are developing independently of people’s wills, and a set of forces of production which have their own independent momentum. He is saying that there is, in fact, a systemic whole; there is a structure; there is something which is beyond exit if you are going to be part of society, and that is the system of society in which you live. You cannot live as a person of capitalist society in a feudal society. You could not live as a feudal landlord in the classical antiquity of slave ownership. You are entrapped within that system of society as long as those particular relationships exist. And, secondly, Marx is saying that the ideas which support that society, the laws, the political ideologies, all of the social consciousness, is in fact an ideology. It is, in Marx’s own terms, a false consciousness which is there in order to bolster and maintain and concretise those relationships of society and make them in fact appear as if they will always exist.
“The mode of production in material life determines the social, political and intellectual life processes in general”. And then Marx says, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” And here, again, Marx is saying something extraordinarily important, and something that nobody had said before: that the way in which people think is not, as the idealist philosophers had imagined, the process of the production of ideas independently of the material environment within which the humans live. The mind does not have some life of its own. Ideas do not have some capacity to uproot themselves from the world around them, but, in fact, the basis of all social consciousness is the existence of human beings in a material world. And most importantly here—and here is where the concept of dialectic, very often associated with Marxist thought, is so important—the thought of human beings is itself part of the material environment. The material environment is not separable from thought. And, similarly, thought is inconceivable outside of the material environment. So, in fact, the material determination of thought means simply that ideas cannot emancipate themselves independently from the social environment that they are in. (They cannot meaningfully do so, at least. One could conceive of a situation where people fantasised within a particular material environment about that which is, in reality, materially quite impossible.)
What Marx was not saying here—and he had been frequently accused of saying this—is that economics determines everything. What he is not saying when he talks about the forces of production and how those forces of production, in developing, set the scene for particular relations of production to develop, and then break the boundaries of existing relations of production, he is not saying that there is nothing in life apart from production, and nothing aside from a rather vulgar, reductionist, economic analysis that one needs to think about. He is not saying that the music of any period or the artistic production of any period or the philosophical creativity of any period in contemplating the times in which people live is something aside from and irrelevant to what is happening in society. What Marx is saying is that there is something fundamental, there is a primacy, about the economic drive of the development of society which means that all of those other factors, artistic, political, legal, become secondary in relation to it.
Engels, in a letter of 1890 clarifies this: he says, “The determining element in history is ultimately the production and reproduction of real life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. If therefore somebody twists this into the statement that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms it into a meaningless, abstract and absurd phrase.”
So Engels himself, reflecting everything that Marx also wrote about historical materialism, is saying that history is something greater than economics but not extricable from the economic process.
What Marx particularly turns to in understanding the relations of production is the manifestation of these relationships in broad social terms in the class position of human beings. What is the class position of human beings? It is the relationship in which any one of us stands to the means of production. Is it a relationship of ownership and control or is it a relationship of disempowerment, of dispossession, of having to sell ourselves in one form or another physically in the form of a slave for eight hours a day and forty hours a week in the form of a wage-slave to an employer?
Marx, in the Communist Manifesto, put the position of classes as a manifestation of social relationships over and above anything else. In a very famous opening to the very first section of the Manifesto he says (and he wrote it together with Engels), “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Straight away, that means that when you go back to that first notion of alienation: the single, frustrated, self-deluding, constrained individual in society and you look at this notion of history and forces and relations, you now have a concrete, historical picture. You start to have something which is empirically testable. You can look at history and say, is it the history of class struggles, or is it the history of great men, or evil, or moral goodness, or creative ideas, or sublime imagination, or the will of God? Is it any of those things, or is it, as Marx says and as I think the historical picture shows, the history of class struggles, between free men and slaves, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, all standing in contrast to one another.
Modern capitalist society, said Marx, which has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society, has not done away with class antagonisms. That is very important because, bear in mind that Marx was writing at a time when capitalism was new. That is probably one of the biggest differences between Marx and us. Marx was writing at a time when capitalism was new, confident, and asserted all kinds of illusions which had yet to be tested, but which people like Marx could see to be untrue. We are at a time when capitalism is old, sterile, used up. Unconfident in its own programmes for change; lost for any kind of ideological direction; and no longer open to be tested in terms of its promises to be about liberty and fraternity and classlessness—all of the promises of the early capitalist system, from the French revolution and the American revolution onwards.
So it is a class society, capitalism, and it has established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in the place of old ones. Our epoch has simplified the class antagonisms. Society as a whole is splitting up more and more into two great hostile camps into two great classes directly facing each other: the capitalists and the proletariat, or the working class.
Is this true? Well, let us look at those excellent figures that Adam Buick produced for the Socialist Standard a few years ago which went into this in great detail, because one can not simply assert these things: one has to analyse them; one has to investigate them; one has to find out from the very authorities of capitalist economic control— the Inland Revenue, the Treasury—are these figures true or not? What we were able to show was that the top one per cent in British society—where there is a more even spread of wealth than in the vast majority of countries in the world at the moment—the top one per cent of the population owned 18 per cent of the marketable wealth, nearly one fifth. The top two per cent owned a quarter of all the wealth; the top ten per cent, fifty-three per cent of the wealth, more than half the marketable wealth so it would seem that what Marx was saying about the significance of class in understanding history is still extremely important. How could you understand the Gulf War; how could you understand the Second World War; how could you understand the conflict between one party and another, or the imagined religious difficulties between one group and another without understanding it in terms of the real underlying class conflicts?
Marx, in a letter to Annenkov in 1846, says something which, I think, helps us to move on to the next theme and helps us also to understand the very essence of why history is at the heart of Marxism: “A man who has not understood the present state of society may be expected still less to understand the movement which is tending to overthrow it.” And I think that what Marx is saying there is that the movement to overthrow society is not something which stands above history, as an ideal, as a dream, as a transcendent force rejecting history because history is something too messy and horrible and divided and antagonistic. It is actually born from within history. It is a process of history. That which it leads towards is itself historical in its very essence.
Then Marx gets into perhaps the most complex investigation of his life. Perhaps the one that is overstated in relation to his historical investigation because of its unique brilliance. That is the understanding of the economics of commodity production. First of all, Marx makes a distinction between that which is produced for use and that which is produced as a commodity. A baker bakes bread all day in order to sell it. He doesn’t care if it is stale; he doesn’t care if it tastes good; he doesn’t care if it contains all kinds of things that make people sick. And then he bakes one loaf of bread, not to sell, but to eat, for himself, to share with a friend, to pass on to somebody who is not well in hospital, let us say; and that is the distinction between the production of commodities and the production for ones own needs.
But what is it that makes a commodity have a value? Commodities derive their value from social labour. And Marx considers it important to talk about the crystallisation of social labour, not simply an individual making one particular thing in separation from everyone else, but socialised labour. The value of a commodity, for Marx, is determined by the total quantity of labour contained in it. But part of the quantity of labour in any production of commodities is unpaid labour, because labour power, that commodity which the working class has under capitalism, that commodity which defines the working class, is in fact a quite unique commodity. It is the only commodity which has the capacity to produce values over and above itself. It can, by being applied to other wealth, make more wealth than it can be sold for on the market.
So when one talks about the application of capital as a relationship which is there to produce more and more and wealth (that is the function of capital—wealth which is there to produce more wealth) that is to say everything which is not part of the human labouring process in production; the fixed machines, the dead labour embodied in those machines; the electricity and other energy sources that are used; the lighting that is used during the production process—all of that is constant capital. It starts out with one value; it finishes with one value, and that value has to be embodied into the commodity that is produced.
But then there is a second form of capital, and Marx recognises the importance of this in terms of the trickery of capitalist production. That is variable capital, the human labour power which goes into the production of all commodities. And the importance of human labour power is that it produces value greater than itself and it is paid, therefore, less than the value of what it produces.
So commodities can be sold at their value, whilst at the same time labour power in being paid its own value is always producing more and more and more than that value. And the moment, of course, that labour power does not produce more than its own value it becomes redundant. It becomes dispensable. It can be thrown on to the scrap heap of unemployable labour power, as, of course, has happened to millions of people here in Europe at the moment and millions more throughout the world.
Marx then says, well, what do you do in response to this sense of being a seller of labour power, of being forced into this position where you can do nothing else but go out and work for someone else by hand or by brain—in fact, by both. What do you do in relation to all of that? And what the trade unions were saying, even then, in the early days of industrial capitalism, is that, if you constantly push up the value of labour power—if labour power which is producing all of this surplus can claw back some of this surplus—then it will be able to bring dignity to labour. It will be able to provide the full fruits of labour and fair wages and decent jobs and all of the other things which, at that time, at least seemed like a radical proposition and now seems like a rather sterile and laughable trade union demand.
Marx put an extraordinarily radical and revolutionary position in relation to that trade union attempt to keep your head above water within the market. First of all he said, do it, because if you don’t do it you will be stamped on and degraded to the lowest possible position. So Marx had no argument with the need for strike action, for trade union organisation, for workers to try to get as much as they can. But he said:
“Quite apart from the general servitude involved in the wages system, the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects. They are retarding the downward movement but not changing its direction. They are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerrilla fights incessantly springing up from the never-ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economic reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto: ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,’ they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: ‘Abolition of the wages system.’ ”
I want to say two things about that. First of all, that what Marx was saying here was that there is essentially a choice, a fundamental political choice that you have in any position confronted with any power that you don’t like to be up against. One is to constantly try to drive back the malignant consequences of that power that you don’t like. One is to constantly find yourself on this treadmill of resistance against the awful developing and ever more sophisticatedly original ways of making your life difficult and exploited and oppressed. But the other, and the revolutionary one, says Marx, is to actually see the system as a system; to recognise that there will never be such a thing as a fair wage, because wages are, by their inherent nature, legalised robbery. They are taking from the workers that which produces profit by denying the workers the ability to have all of the fruits of their labour. And secondly, what Marx is doing here is positing the possibility of there being an alternative to the current system. This leads to the final section of what I have to say: the necessity of revolutionary action, the necessity of revolution.
Returning to the earlier quote that I gave from the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy, there is a point there where Marx is talking about how the relations of production change. He says, “At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production. From forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution.” Now, actually, that epoch of social revolution existed when Marx was writing. It was inherent in the very birth of industrial capitalism; the very contradictions between the ability to produce an abundance and the lack of access to wealth by so many people who were in positions of poverty; the capacity to create enough for everybody to have harmonious and peaceful lives and the inherent drive towards competition and its ultimate manifestation: warfare and mass murder; the ability of human beings to become creative and ever more intelligently in control of their environment and the crushing control of the social system as an environmental force upon people, surrounding people, entrapping people within the system. What Marx was saying is that there comes a point where these contradictions become such manifest fetters on development in society that the epoch of revolution begins. Well, we are now in the epoch of revolution. Of course, it is a very long epoch of revolution, but then all of history has been an epoch of revolution, because history is itself a constant state of motion. History is not something which is a final situation; it is a dynamic and dialectically developing process.
So to the necessity of revolution: in the Communist Manifesto, Marx says, “All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interests of minorities. The working-class movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority.” Two very important points, here: one is that when you come to look at the historical movements, however grand their rhetoric, however much they talked about fraternity and liberty and equality; however much they talked about national liberation and the rights of man, and so on, they were essentially, all of them, movements of minorities to take power at the expense of the majority. The significance of the development of the working class is that the working class is the first class in history which is a majority class. It is not a minority. When the working class becomes aware of its position, it becomes aware of the position of most people, and it becomes aware of the audacity, the exploitation, the oppressiveness of only a minority of people.
Secondly, the working-class movement, when it becomes a movement for itself, not simply an unthinking movement but an intelligent movement, is a self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, for the immense majority. It is, in other words, a movement directed by the members of a class because they are members of a class, in order to end the system of class relations. They have understood the relations of production in which they find themselves, and they have decided to end that as a majority—not to become a new ruling class, but to end class.
Marx became involved in the 1860s, in 1864, at the very time when he was struggling with this huge economic effort of trying to produce an analysis of commodity production, with an organisation called the International Working Men’s Association, which is now known as The First International. His life at this time was really divided, split between three things: first of all the struggle for his own survival that was often not an easy one with a large family, frequent problems of intense deprivation for members of his family, certainly the early death of at least one of his daughters as a result of poverty; certainly at least one of his children who died soon after he was born died as a result of poverty and the absence of health care; and the early death of his wife (* see note at end) —all of those things Marx was struggling to deal with. Secondly, he was struggling, very much on his own, very much as an independent scholar, looking at the economics of capitalist society; and then, thirdly, he was involved in this new international social organisation of the working class, which he was desperate to try to move, politically, in the direction of understanding the economics and historical dynamic of capitalist society, rather than planning to reform that society or reconstitute it as another kind of capitalism or co-operative capitalism or more trade unions within capitalism.
In drawing up the rules for the First International, Marx sat on a committee with two other people and established as the very first principle of the working-class movement internationally that the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class themselves. The working class cannot, in other words, rely upon others to change society for them, leaders to do it for us, and, above all, cannot be a movement which is outside of this idea that he puts in the Communist Manifesto of being a majority, independent, self-conscious movement.
I began by saying let’s not turn Marx into a heroic suprahuman figure of history. He wasn’t. He made mistakes. He didn’t always apply the theories that I have outlined here to everything that he looked at practically or participated in. He didn’t always manage to see what was ahead of him, and he didn’t always fully understand the history of every part of the world that he wrote about, because he had an immense determination to write about countries, not only that he lived in, but that he didn’t live in, and he actually taught himself languages at a speed that would certainly be beyond most of us here.
That was Marx, the man. What we are left with is Marx, the legacy: the legacy of a theory of society which is fundamentally revolutionary, which is absolutely pertinent to the kind of society we are living in today (which is still a capitalist system of society) and a theory which will simply not go away, much as it is derided or declared dead, as long as there is a capitalist society to be analysed, fought against and replaced by socialism.
It’s a silly question of course since Lenin was only 13 when Marx died in 1883 and the two never met. But Lenin considered himself to be a Marxist and saw nothing incompatible between Marx’s views and his own view that a minority, vanguard party could seize power in the course of a bourgeois revolution and turn it into a socialist revolution. Indeed, he probably sincerely believed that this was Marx’s view too. If Lenin sincerely believed this, this means that he didn’t simply make things up. It implies that there must have been something there for him to distort, some at least superficially plausible basis for him not to see it as a distortion.
After he became a socialist in 1843, Marx was politically active (in the sense of being involved in politics as a member of an organisation) for two periods of his life—from 1846 to 1851 and from 1864 to 1873—but under two quite different political conditions. In the 1840s, Germany had yet to undergo its bourgeois revolution—as a revolution that would bring the capitalist class of factory owners and merchants to power in place of a semi-feudal landed aristocracy and an absolutist monarch—while in the 1860s Marx, in Britain, was working with British and other trade unionists and political activists interested in running what amounted to a trade union (not to say reformist) international.
Lenin, naturally since conditions in Tsarist Russia were more akin to 1840s Germany than 1860s Europe, was more interested in Marx’s first period of political activity, when Marx was a Socialist active in a pre-bourgeois-revolutionary situation. Most of Marx’s writings from this period—including the Communist Manifesto—were concerned with the tactics Socialists should adopt in the course of a bourgeois revolution.
Marx’s position was that Socialists—or Communists, as most Socialists including Marx then called themselves—should support the struggle of the bourgeoisie to win political power from the absolutist rulers and should virtually act as its extreme left wing (advocating a democratic republic rather than a constitutional monarchy advocated by the moderates). But that, after the bourgeoisie had come to power, Socialists should urge the workers to wage a political class struggle against them to begin their own struggle for political power.
Marx adhered to this position fairly strictly, even to the extent of criticising those Socialists who argued either that workers should oppose the bourgeoisie politically even before the latter had won political control or that workers should concentrate on the economic struggle leaving the capitalists to fight their own political battles. In the context of Tsarist Russia, this would have made Marx more of a Menshevik than a Bolshevik—the Mensheviks being the non-Leninist wing of the Russian Social Democratic movement who held that pre-1917 Russia was ripe only for a bourgeois revolution. However, for a period from the beginning of 1848 to the middle of 1850, Marx did believe that there was a real possibility that the German bourgeois revolution could turn into—could be turned into, in fact—a “proletarian revolution” in which the proletariat would come to control political power.
“Proletarian revolution”is not a term we normally use and it is not to be understood as the same thing as a “socialist revolution”, i.e. a revolution that would lead directly to the establishment of socialism. Marx used it to mean a political revolution which would bring the proletariat into control of political power. He knew perfectly well that, in the conditions prevailing in 1848, the immediate establishment of communism/socialism was impossible but he believed that some inroads into capitalist property rights and conditions of production could be made and gradually extended. This of course meant that he was committed to the concept of a more or less lengthy “transition period” of “proletarian rule”.
It was from some of Marx’s writings from this period that Lenin was able to convince himself that his tactics in 1917 had some basis in Marx.
The Communist Manifesto itself advances the view that the coming bourgeois revolution in Germany would be rapidly followed by a proletarian revolution. The actual title of the manifesto was The Manifesto of the Communist Party—of course it had nothing to do with the parties which after 1917 called themselves “the communist party” in most of the countries of the world. In 1848 the word “party” was not yet understood in its modern sense of an organisation with its own structure and membership. At that time it simply meant a current of opinion—and this was the sense in which it was meant in the title (it should be party with a small p). Actually, today the title under which it is generally known of Communist Manifesto conveys the meaning more accurately than its actual title of Manifesto of the Communist Party. Having said this, the manifesto was in fact that of a specific organisation—The Communist League of Germany, of which Marx and Engels were members.
Marx’s view on what was likely to happen in Germany and what socialists there should do are stated right at the end of the Manifesto:
“The Communists turn their attention chiefly to Germany, because that country is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution that is bound to be carried out under more advanced conditions of European civilization, and with a much more developed proletariat, than that of England was in the seventeenth, and of France in the eighteenth century, and because the bourgeois revolution in Germany will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution.”
Marx and the Communist League soon had a chance to test their theory. In February 1848 a revolution in Paris overthrew the king there and established a democratic republic. In March street battles broke out in Berlin, Vienna and Milan (then ruled by Austria). In Berlin the King of Prussia was forced to allow the election of a national assembly to draw up a constitution, the first step towards turning Germany into a constitutional monarchy.
At the time of the February revolution in France Marx was in Brussels but was soon expelled to France where he had lived before for a while and where he was welcomed back with honours as “Citizen Marx”. With the outbreak of the German revolution in March, Marx moved to Germany, but to Cologne in the Rhineland rather than to Berlin, the capital city. There were two reasons for this choice. One was that, as the Rhineland had been occupied by Napoleon’s troops, feudalism had been abolished there and the Napoleonic Code was in force as the basic law, which allowed more freedom of organisation and the press than in Prussia proper, even though the Rhineland formed part of the Kingdom of Prussia.
The second reason was that Marx had been politically active there before—In 1842 and 1843 when he had been the editor of a Cologne paper, the Rheinische Zeitung (Rhenish Gazette). That was before he had become a Socialist and was still merely a republican democrat. But even democratic views were too much for the Prussian authorities and Marx left for France where he met Parisian workers and completed his conversion to Socialist ideas (so, incidentally, refuting another of Lenin’s views: that socialist ideas had to be first brought to workers by bourgeois intellectuals; in fact it was the other way round: Marx, the bourgeois intellectual, learned his socialist ideas from German and French workers in Paris).
When he returned to Cologne in 1848 Marx’s idea was to revive the Rheinische Zeitung as a daily paper, to be called the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (New Rhenish Gazette), to agitate for “democracy” (i.e. a democratic republic, i.e. but also not socialism). The subtitle of the paper—the first issue of which appeared in June 1848—was precisely “Organ of Democracy”. This was in accordance with Marx’s general political position that workers should first help the bourgeoisie destroy absolutism and feudalism before beginning the political struggle against them. So in practice the Neue Rheinische Zeitung acted as the voice of the extreme left wing of the radical section of the bourgeoisie. In fact Marx was a member for a while of the Democratic Association as well as the Communist League.
As editor much of Marx’s time was taken up with the routine tasks of bringing out a daily paper and most of the articles were in fact written by Engels.
Engels later explained that, although the members of the Communist League knew that what was going on in Germany in 1848 and 1849 was essentially a bourgeois revolution, the only model they had to go on was the French revolution, particularly the period 1793-4 when Robespierre and the Jacobins were in power. There had in fact been two revolutions in France. The first in 1789 which, with the storming of the Bastille, led to the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. And a second in 1792 which eventually led to the establishment of a republic, the execution of the king and the waging of a revolutionary anti-feudal war against the absolutist states of Europe.
Engels, in his articles, called for the German bourgeois revolution to follow the same course as the French revolution, and move on from the constitutional monarchy stage to the more radical stage of dictatorship, terror and revolutionary war. That Engels was calling for a strong centralised government that would use terror against the old ruling classes and their supporters, and wage a revolutionary war against Russia can be seen from the following quotes:
“Every state which finds itself in a provisional situation after a revolution requires a dictator, an energetic dictator at that,” (14 September 1848).
“. . . the only way of shortening, simplifying and concentrating the murderous death pangs of the old society, the bloody birth pangs of the new, only one way— revolutionary terrorism.” (7 November 1848).
“. . . hatred of the Russians was, and still is, the first revolutionary passion of the Germans…We can only secure the revolution against these Slav peoples by the most decisive acts of terrorism.” (16 February 1849)
It was not precisely clear what “acts of terrorism” Engels had in mind for the Czechs and the Croats; it is probably as well not to ask. To a Socialist today such views are unacceptable and even shocking. Engels himself later played down their significance, attributing them to an erroneous assessment of the conditions of the time. But they were of course music to Lenin’s ears and provided a superficial justification for his own practice, after 1917, of dictatorship and terror.
One thing Lenin ignored, however, was that Engels was talking about what should happen in the course of a bourgeois revolution and not about what should happen in a proletarian revolution. He and Marx had already developed a theory of the significance of terror during a bourgeois revolution as something necessary to wipe out feudalism but which, because the bourgeoisie was too timid to do this itself, fell to other more radical groups within society.
In an article written in October 1847, for instance, Marx had written:
“The terror in France could thus by its mighty hammer-blows only serve to spirit away, as it were, the ruins of feudalism from French soil. The timidly considerate bourgeoisie would not have accomplished this task for decades. The bloody action of the people thus only prepared the way for it.” (Moralising Criticism and Critical Morality)
Engels said more or less the same thing in one of his articles in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung on 15 December 1848. Where, in the course of a bourgeois revolution, he wrote,
“the proletariat and the other sections of the town population which did not form part of the bourgeoisie. . . stood in opposition to the bourgeoisie, as for example in 1793 and 1794 in France, they were in fact fighting for the implementation of the interests of the bourgeoisie, although not in the manner of the bourgeoisie. The whole of the French terror was nothing other than the plebeian manner of dealing with the enemies of the bourgeoisie, with absolutism, feudalism and parochialism.”
This didn’t mean that Marx and particularly Engels didn’t support such decisive actions against feudalism and the old ruling class and their supporters, but they saw this as a necessary stage through which a bourgeois revolution had to pass if it was to deal decisively with feudalism and clear the way for the free development of capitalism—and so for the proletariat to wage its political class struggle against the bourgeoisie. It does, however, provide some clues as to how they thought a bourgeois revolution might develop into a proletarian revolution.
Engels, writing nearly 50 years later in 1895 (in his introduction to a new edition of some of Marx’s writings from the period, The Class Struggles in France), suggested that what revolutionary socialists like himself had thought at the time was that, whereas in 1794 the bourgeoisie had got rid of the radicals once they had done the dirty work of eliminating feudalism and its supporters for them, in 1848 it could be different: Socialists could get the proletariat to push the revolution even further and turn it from a minority, bourgeois revolution (which it would be even in its radical phase) into a majority, proletarian revolution. Two reasons were given for supposing that the outcome in 1848 could be different from what it had been in 1794, both of which are mentioned in the Communist Manifesto: one was the existence of a more developed and politically advanced working class; the other was the presence and intervention of revolutionary socialists who understood what was going on.
But we don’t need to rely just on Engels’ reminiscences of 47 years later. There exists a document, drafted by Marx on behalf of the central committee of the Communist League and known as the “Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League (March 1850)” which is explicit enough.
The German bourgeois revolution had not succeeded. On the contrary, in November 1848 the counter-revolution had won a decisive victory. The national assembly in Berlin was dissolved. In reply, its more radical members called for a tax strike—which Marx and the Neue Rheinische Zeitung fully supported (in fact Marx later went on trial in Cologne for this, but was acquitted)—but things got worse and in May 1849 the last issue of the daily Neue Rheinsiche Zeitung appeared (printed in red). Marx went into exile, first in France, then in England where he settled. Engels went on to fight on the barricades in Southern Germany (to give him his due, he wasn’t all talk) and when these were put down went to Switzerland and then to England.
At first Marx, Engels and the other members of the central committee of the Communist League, in exile in London, refused to believe that it was all over. In fact they thought that the bourgeois revolution would soon break out again in Germany and still thought that this could be immediately followed by a proletarian revolution. The March 1850 Address advances this view, arguing that once the working class had helped the bourgeoisie against feudalism and absolutism they should refuse to hand over their arms; they should organise workers’ councils in working-class districts; and socialists should encourage them to raise ever more radical demands.
Marx and the Central Committee of the League called this a policy of “permanent revolution”. This of course is a phrase which Trotsky and Trotskyists use—and this is in fact where Trotsky got it from. This Address was also a favourite of Lenin’s, for obvious reasons, as it appeared to provide some justification for his policy of Socialists trying to win power in the course of a bourgeois revolution.
In fact we don’t have to be mealy-mouthed about this and say it “appeared to justify” Lenin’s policy; it didn’t just appear to, it did justify it. But, unfortunately for Lenin, before the year 1850 was out Marx realised that his assessment had been completely mistaken: the bourgeois revolution was not going to break out again in the near future (that would have to await the next economic crisis, he said) and it was merely revolutionary romanticism for Socialists to continue to think in terms of the working class winning power in the immediate future.
This change of attitude on the part of Marx, Engels and the majority in fact of the central committee of the Communist League led to a split in the organisation. The issue was precisely about whether or not a proletarian revolution was on the cards. The Minutes of the meeting of the central committee of 15 October 1850 refer to a discussion at a previous meeting on “The position of the proletariat in the next revolution” and record the views of Marx and of Karl Schapper, one of the minority on the central committee who disagreed with him and the majority.The Minutes make interesting—and amusing—reading:
Marx says, criticising his opponents:
“The will, rather than actual conditions, was stressed as the chief factor in the revolution. We tell the workers: If you want to change conditions and make yourselves capable of government, you will have to undergo 15, 20 or 50 years of civil war. Now they are told: We must come to power immediately, or we might as well go to sleep.”
To which Schapper replied:
“It boils down to whether we do the beheading at the outset or whether we ourselves are beheaded. The workers will have their turn in France, and thereby we will in Germany. If that was not the case I would [indeed take to my bed].”
“We are devoted to a party which would do best not to assume power just now. The proletariat, if it should come to power, would not be able to implement proletarian measures immediately, but would have to introduce petty bourgeois ones. Our party can only become the government when conditions allow its views to be put into practice. Louis Blanc provides the best example of what happens when power is assumed prematurely.”
Engels, in a long article written about the same time (later published as a separate pamphlet, The Peasant War in Germany), developed the same argument about what would happen in the event of a premature capture of power, even using the same example of Louis Blanc as a member of the provisional government that took over from King Louis Phillippe in February 1848:
“The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government when society is not yet ripe for the domination of the class he represents and for the measures which that domination implies. What he can do depends not on his will but upon the level of development of the material means of existence, and of the conditions of production and commerce upon which class conditions always repose… Thus he necessarily finds himself in an unsolvable dilemma. What he can do contradicts all his previous actions and principles, and the immediate interests of his party, and what he ought to do cannot be done. In a word, he is compelled to represent not his party or his class, but the class for whose domination the moment is then ripe.”
Marx had said the same thing in the October 1847 article already quoted:
“If therefore the proletariat overthrows the political rule of the bourgeoisie, its victory will only be temporary, only an element in the service of the bourgeois revolution itself, as in the year 1794, as long as in the course of history, its ‘movement’, the material conditions have not yet been created which make necessary the abolition of the bourgeois mode of production and therefore also the definitive overthrow of the political rule of the bourgeoisie.” (Moralizing Criticism and Critical Morality).
These two quotes were put to very effective use by the Mensheviks to criticise Lenin and the Bolsheviks and to develop a theory, based on Marx’s views, of what happened in Russia in 1917: in 1917 a bourgeois revolution was taking place; in the course of it the Bolsheviks seized power in the bid to promote a socialist revolution; however, since conditions were not ripe for a socialist revolution or for socialism, Bolshevik rule would be merely “an element in the service of the bourgeois revolution itself” (Marx).
The Bolsheviks certainly did live up to the terror of 1794—the Tsar and many other supporters of the old regime were executed or put into camps and the whole Tsarist order was completely uprooted—but, in the end, this did not turn out to be an entirely adequate theory. This was because, contrary to what it posits and to what many Mensheviks and Social Democrats expected as late as 1929, Bolshevik rule was not overthrown and replaced by that of the bourgeoisie (it was eventually, but after 80 years). Instead, they remained in power and evolved into a new ruling class themselves. What developed in Russia was not private capitalism after a more or less brief period of Bolshevik rule and terror against Tsarism, but a new form of capitalism under state ownership and control not seen before—which was not anticipated by Marx in the 19th century.
Nevertheless, these two passages do provide the basis for an explanation as to why the Bolshevik revolution, insofar as it was an attempt to move towards socialism, was bound to fail and for why the Bolshevik leaders would end up as the servants not the masters of objective material conditions.
What Marx and Engels were in effect saying was that conditions in 1848 and 1850 were not ripe for what Marx sometimes called “the dictatorship of the proletariat”. This was a phrase borrowed from French revolutionary socialists of the time, but to which Marx gave a more democratic content.
In fact, in April 1850 the Communist League joined with some French revolutionary socialists, or “Blanquists” as they came to be called, and leftwing Chartists to form a secret international organisation called the World Society of Revolutionary Communists. Its stated aim, which Marx signed on behalf of the League, was:
“The aim of the association is the overthrow of the privileged classes and their subjugation to the dictatorship of the proletariat, which will carry through the permanent revolution until the realization of communism, the ultimate form of organization of the human family.”
Marx, however, never understood the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” in the Leninist sense of a dictatorship exercised by a vanguard party claiming to represent the proletariat (though the same cannot be said of the Blanquists), but its use was still ambiguous. Not so much the word “dictatorship” which had not yet acquired its modern sense but meant something like “full powers”. The ambiguity was over who was to exercise these “full powers”. Who was the “proletariat”? If it was meant, as Marx generally did, the working class in the sense of those who were forced to sell their labour-power to live, this would have meant that the “full powers” would have been exercised by a minority only of the population—since the working class proper was at this time still only a minority class (most producers were either peasants or artisans working with their own instruments of production, those Marx called the “petty bourgeoisie”). But this would be a denial of the democracy Marx said he stood for (and really did stand for). If, on the other hand, the “full powers” were envisaged as being exercised by the people via their democratically-elected representatives (as Marx did envisage) then this could only be legitimately called the “dictatorship of the proletariat” if the word “proletariat” was stretched to include the petty bourgeoisie and the peasantry. Which was precisely one of the criticisms Marx had made of Schapper:
“The word ‘proletariat’ has been reduced to a mere phrase, like the word ‘people’ was by the democrats. To make this phrase a reality one would have to declare the entire petty bourgeoisie to be proletarians, i.e. de facto represent the petty bourgeoisie and not the proletariat.”
Here again, Marx was saying that conditions weren’t ripe for the rule of the proletariat and that to attempt it would lead to rule by or on behalf of the petty bourgeoisie. In 1850, he was in effect saying even the “dictatorship of the proletariat” as the beginning of a transition to socialism, let alone socialism itself, was not possible.
Engels’ comments in 1895 can serve as an epitaph to the illusions he and Marx had entertained in 1848-1850 about “an immediately following proletarian revolution”:
History has proved us, and all who thought like us, wrong. It has made clear that the state of economic development on the Continent at that time was not, by a long way, ripe for the elimination of capitalist production.
The time is past for revolutions carried through by small minorities at the head of unconscious masses. When it gets to be a matter of the complete transformation of the social organisation, the masses themselves must participate, must understand what is at stake and why they are to act. That much the history of the last fifty years has taught us. But so that the masses may understand what is to be done, long and persistent work is required (1895 Preface to Marx’s ‘The Class Struggles in France 1848-1850’).
So, some time between April and September 1850, Marx came to the conclusion that not only were conditions not ripe for a “proletarian revolution” at that time but that, precisely because of this, it was a mistake to try for one since even if Socialists were to come to power they would not be able to serve the interests of the working class nor to further the cause of socialism. All they would be able to do was to serve the interests of a section of the bourgeoisie and to further the development of capitalism.
This represented a repudiation of his previous views, which were those Lenin latched onto to justify the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917, and in fact represented a powerful and far-sighted criticism of it.
So, we can say, in answer to the question “Was Marx a Leninist?”, that he did flirt with Leninist-type ideas for a while but then abandoned them and always thereafter opposed them in favour of a long and protracted process of working-class self-organisation which would eventually lead to them being ready to win political control and establish socialism.
The Socialist Party must as a scientific organisation constantly re-examine its principles and practice. I intend to re-examine this afternoon a small part of Marx’s Das Kapital (published in 1867). This is a mere 12 pages long and is entitled ‘The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof.’ I intend to show:
1. This is a major insight into how society operates;
2. This fetishism explains many modern social developments;
3. Why a non-commodity producing society is our goal.
According to The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, “fetish” is of French derivation, first used in 1613 and defined as, “Any object used by the Negroes of the Guinea coast and neighbourhood as an amulet or means of enchantment, or regarded by them with dread.” and further, “Any inanimate object worshipped by savages…”
Fetishism is defined as, “The worship of fetishes, or the superstition of which this is the feature.” Why did Marx use such a term for value in a commodity-producing society? In his own words:
“There it is a definite relation between men that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.”
Marx is here showing that what appears to be a relationship between things is in fact a relationship between the producers of those things. Marx viewed everything historically. For him the capitalist mode of production disguised the value relationship so that it appears as a relationship between things instead of between producers. In his own words:
“As a general rule, articles of utility become commodities only because they are products of the labour of private individuals or groups of individuals who carry on their work independently of each other. The sum total of the labour of all these private individuals forms the aggregate labour of society. It is only by being exchanged that the products of labour acquire, as values, one uniform social status, distinct from their varied form of existence as objects of utility.”
For Marx, capitalism was distinct from all previous modes of production because wealth took the form of commodities. Articles that were produced and reproduced for the purpose of sale or exchange on the market with a view to realising a profit.
Previous societies had produced commodities but inside capitalism commodity production was the prevailing form of production. In order to analyse how capitalism operated it was necessary for Marx to take an historical approach or, as he writes:
“Man’s reflection on the forms of social life, and consequently, also, his scientific analysis of those forms, take a course directly opposite to that of their actual historical development. He begins, post festum, with the results of the process of development ready to hand before him. The characters that stamp products as commodities , and whose establishment is a necessary preliminary to the circulation of commodities, have already acquired the stability of natural, self-understood forms of social life, before man seeks to decipher, not their historical character, for in his eyes they are immutable, but their meaning.”
With the market economy of capitalism established, this circulation of commodities does indeed seem to be “natural, self-understood” but behind this apparent relationship between commodities what is actually being compared is the abstract human labour embodied in these commodities.
Frederick Engels in his supplement to volume 3 of Marx’s Capital shows how in pre-capitalist society the relationship was obviously one between producers and not products:
“The peasant of the Middle Ages therefore knew fairly accurately the labour time requisite for producing the things he obtained by exchange. The blacksmith and the wagoner worked in his sight, as did the tailor and she shoemaker who, in my own youth, went from hut to hut among our Rhenish peasants making clothes and shoes from home-made cloth and leather. Both the peasant and those he purchased from were themselves labourers: the articles exchanged were the products of their own labour. What did they expend to produce these objects? Labour and only labour; for the replacement of working tools, for the production of raw material and for its working up they expended nothing but their own labour power; how could they then exchange these products otherwise than in proportion to the labour expended on them? Not only was the labour time expended on these products the sole appropriate measure for the quantitative determination of the magnitudes involved in the exchange, but any other measure was unthinkable. Or does anyone believe that the peasant and the artisan were so foolish as to exchange a thing that took ten hours’ labour for something that took only one labour hour?”
Here Engels explains how in a pre-capitalist economy the role of abstract human labour was self-evident. In modern society with all the complexity of the market this relationship is more difficult to grasp. Modern pundits talk glibly about “the dictates of the market”, forgetting that markets are human products, or possibly because they lack an historical view, not even knowing it.
Like modern day savages human beings worship at the feet of capitalism’s markets, while the high priests of Madison Avenue tell us we can only be truly human if we consume the products that they are advertising. The sum total of human possibility has been reduced to how many designer labels we can purchase, and we are assured by the inner sanctums of Whitehall that the “invisible hand of the market” deems this or that policy necessary. In 1998 the worshippers of the fetishism of commodities are everywhere.
Modern social developments
This fetishism of commodities explains many modern developments. It touches every human activity, even those apparently divorced from it. Sport, education, arts, science and politics are affected by it. At present we have the World Cup Tournament in France with 32 of the world’s best football teams competing, but this is more than a sporting event. According to the American magazine ‘Adbusters’:
“But the fiercest battle of all will be the one waged off the pitch between Stripes and Swoosh, the boot wars between the sportswear manufacturers Nike and Addidas.”
The Adidas spokesman, Steve Martin, is quoted as saying:
“Youths wear 75 to 80 per cent of our products for leisure, while only 20 to 25 per cent wear it for sport. Sportswear sales have grown at a phenomenal rate in the past five years. Football is the only truly global sport; control that and you’ve got the cornerstone of a $30 billion global sportswear industry.”
If any football supporter wondered why Brazil were playing all over the world prior to the World Cup , here is the answer:
“For the 1994 World Cup, held in the US, not one national team was sponsored by Nike. In France it will have six, including World Champions and favourites, Brazil, who’ve been signed on a ten-year deal for $400 million. Part of Brazil’s deal requires them to play five matches a year for Nike, which the company promotes and owns the TV rights to.”
In the USA sport is dominated by advertisers and manufacturers of commodities. American football (grid-iron) is played on television around the advertising slots and it is not difficult to see why. According to the San Francisco Examiner (18.1.98):
“Over the eight years of a contract that will amount to at least $17.6 billion. Each of the 30 NFL teams will get an average of at least $73.3 million; less at the beginning, more at the end. This season they’re getting $40 million each from television.”
Sport in a pre-commodity society was a healthy, enjoyable pastime. Inside capitalism it has become a vehicle for selling commodities.
When we look at education, the pervasive influence of the commodity is even more awful. Rather than engender a spirit of enquiry and wonder in the young, capitalism sees only another potential market. In the same issue of the San Francisco Examiner we learn of Channel One TV, owned by Whittle Communications:
“Beaming news and commercials into 12,000 of the nation’s secondary schools, the programme reaches 8 million teenagers. In California, the telecast is delivered to 180 schools. In return for broadcasting the Channel One program—broken up into 10 minutes of news briefs and 2 minutes of flashy, MTV-style ads for companies such as Pepsi and Reebok—schools receive free TV monitors for each classroom, VCRs, satellite dishes and wires.”
The exploitation of the classroom is not peculiar to the USA. McDonalds has got its greasy paws on the kids in Britain. The Observer of 26.6.98 reports:
“But since 1993 the company has offered teachers in all schools ‘resource packs’ which could take the place of elusive, expensive textbooks. History, one pack recommended, should be taught by getting the children to ‘explore the changes in the use of McDonald’s site’. Music teachers were advised to encourage pupils to ‘make up words for “Old McDonald had a store” to the tune of “Old McDonald had a farm”. The English pack includes such literary tasks as identifying the words “Chicken McNuggets”’ .”
Opera doesn’t escape the dead hand of big business. The thinking seems to be that if businessmen, the modern high priests of commodity worship, know about markets then they must know about everything else. Commenting on the growing involvement of capitalists with the arts, The Observer (18.1.98) reported:
“The new and dominant values were vividly expressed in the withering words with which Gerald Kaufman [in June 1998] forced the resignation of the entire board of the Royal Opera House: ‘We’d prefer to see the House run by a philistine with the requisite financial acumen than by the succession of opera and ballet lovers who have brought this great and valuable institution to its knees.’ ”
The popular arts fare no better at the hands of the commodity worshipper. The same paper commented on Hollywood’s thraldom to the fetishism. The production of the film Godzilla cost about $120 million, but the marketing cost an additional $60 million.
“Moreover, Godzilla was released to such a monstrous flood of tie-ins—cameras from Kodak, tortillas from Taco Bell, watches by Swatch and beer by Kirin—that Robert Levin, Sony’s marketing chief, remarked: ‘We aren’t launching a movie, we’re launching a franchise.’ ”
It is when we turn to the world of science that we find the commodity fetishism at its most hellish. Here one would imagine is the one field of human endeavour and achievement above the sordid cash nexus of capitalism. Alas, this is far from the truth. More and more the perversion of commodity worship has distorted the idea of a disinterested pursuit of knowledge. One of the world’s leading geneticists, R.C. Lewontin, in his book The Doctrine of DNA, explains the role of science in capitalism:
“Science uses commodities and is part of the process of commodity production. Science uses money. People earn their living by science, and as a consequence the dominant social and economic forces in society determine to a large extent what science does and how it does it.”
The idea of disinterested devotees of science is knocked on the head by his further disclosure about some of his fellow scientists:
“No prominent molecular biologist of my acquaintance is without a financial stake in the biotechnology business.”
Perhaps the maddest example of commodity fetishism is reported in Adbusters magazine, where Pepsi Cola are reported as possibly seeking a copyright for the shade of blue they use on their cola cans. This isn’t as unlikely as it seems:
“In 1995, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a colour can be registered as a trademark provided there’s evidence that shows the colour has become associated with a particular product.”
Nor does Keith Hughes, the Pepsi Cola spokesperson, rule out their attempting to copyright Pepsi Blue:
“We’re reviewing the possibilities. We’ve got some exciting plans, but I couldn’t really address that question at this point. I think we already do own that colour of blue, in the beverage market anyhow.”
In 1848, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels saw how capitalism was turning once revered human occupations into mere wage slaves; they stated in the Communist Manifesto:
“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.”
Prophetic as these words were, it is unlikely that even Marx and Engels could have imagined a statesman like Mikhail Gorbachev, head of state of the USSR, ending up as the lackey of a western capitalist company. According to The Guardian (5.12.97) he was a major world figure:
“Ten years ago Mikhail Gorbachev was a name with which to move mountains. When he spoke to the UN offering unprecedented troop cuts in Eastern Europe, this newspaper’s Washington correspondent said that one could “almost feel the earth shifting inside the building.” ”
So there you are. A great man. What’s he doing now? Working for Pizza Hut! Not serving behind the counter but advertising for them on television:
“Mr Gorbachev will be paid more than £100,000 for the adverts, more than Pizza Hut paid to Pamela Anderson.”
Inside a socialist society all wealth will be produced solely for use. There will be no need for markets. Men and women will produce only use values. There will be no need for the duplicity brought about by the insane worship at the shrine of commodities. Education will be free of the hucksters and con men of advertising and can become free to inform our children of all the wonders of the world.
Science liberated from the market place can become humanity’s crowning achievement. Sport can once again become an enjoyable, healthy pursuit. Dramatists, poets and artists can depict the real world with all its natural beauty and portray human existence in all its splendour and drama.
Best of all, we can become fulfilled human beings, no longer mere consumers worshipping commodities. We will not be blinded by the market system but able to look at the world clear-eyed and clear-headed.
The convulsions in the economies of S E Asia and Japan make fascinating and disturbing reading. The toll of working-class suffering has been, and continues to be, enormous. The fortunes made by some of the new capitalist class in the region, such as the Suharto family in Indonesia, have been correspondingly huge.
The ‘Asian Tiger’ economies were models of energetic, enterprising, extremely profitable, capitalism for the Thatcher and Major governments and their tame economists and financial journalists. Now it has all gone sour—the bubble has burst. Inevitably, its effects will be felt throughout the worldwide capitalist politico-economic system.
“Ah! but what we didn’t know,” explain the economics experts, “is that there had been massive corruption, false accounting…” Our wise men of the economy blame corruption for the slump—not capitalism itself. Now, this is of especial interest to those who are radical critics of capitalism—to Marxists. The champions of capitalism have always boasted that this politico-economic system is basic, natural, suited to human nature. Yet now they are pleading that it won’t work properly if people are dishonest and unscrupulous. It’s a rather poor piece of apologetics.
I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised, however. If we look at what academically respectable economists have written over the past 150 years, we can see that they have trotted out some absurd, as well as some very weak ideas. Behind every avowed attempt at analysis and explication has been the implicit assumption that capitalism is a fully viable, inherently stable, healthy, progressive system. In fact, these are the writers whom Marx labels ‘vulgar economists’, the ‘hired prize-fighters’ of capitalism. Their main function has been to justify the workings of capitalism, to confer respectability upon its social effects and institutions, and to concoct excuses for its more blatant inadequacies.
Insofar as they discover or explain anything useful or new about the micro- or macro-economics of this society, it is done in order to afford some means of control over what happens. In other words, they work in the service of the capitalist class and their investing organisations—governments and other financial power groups such as the IMF or the World Bank. In spite of all their efforts, however, slumps, depressions, economic stagnation, have occurred throughout the last two hundred years as if the economists had never existed.
Marx’s contention was that such efforts as theirs were futile. Because of the anarchic, secretive and infinitely complex nature of world-wide capitalism, it was, he insisted, unpredictable, uncontrollable and unaccountable to anything but the maximisation of profit. Indeed, he maintained that even the true rate of profit at any one time was an unknowable magnitude because of the averaging-out of profit rates which was constantly being effected by stock markets. And this has been repeatedly borne out over years of experience since he was writing. The experts know very little more now than they did a hundred years ago; and they still cannot predict with certainty which way markets will go.
Marx’s own investigation of capitalism had a completely different approach. Seeing the effects of the pauperisation of peasants across Europe and the herding of untold thousands of undernourished, unhealthy men, women and children into the mines, mills, factories and machine shops of the expanding industrial revolution in Britain, he set about examining the fundamental workings of capitalism so that he could expose the causes of these miseries to view.
He insisted, however, that this type of analysis was of little, if any, use to those whose purpose was to invest and make profits. Instead of supporting, bolstering up and apologising for the effects of capitalism, Marx was analysing and examining it in order to criticise and expose the weaknesses and culpabilities of the system. He wanted to provide intellectual weapons for a revolutionary working class which would, he hoped, jettison capitalism entirely in favour of a world society based upon meeting the needs of its whole people. Such a world society, he and Engels, at different times, called socialism or communism, to mean the same thing.
Well, the working class has not yet done what Marx and Engels and William Morris and many other socialists hoped they would. Capitalism has grown and developed scientifically and technologically and it has spread more widely around the world, as Marx predicted. The mass of profit made across the world from the exploitation of working men, women and children today beggars the millions made in Marx’s day into insignificance. The wealth produced is vast; and the possibility of plenty for everyone is painfully obvious with every cut in farmers’ prices and every subsidised meat and butter and wheat mountain that is built up.
It is also obvious with OPEC plans to cut back oil production which were announced last week. And with the overproduction of computer memory chips, motor cars, etc, etc. But what has not changed is the poverty, the starvation and the millions of deaths through malnutrition and squalid living conditions every year. This pauperisation of the new working class has taken place, and is still going on, everywhere where capitalism spreads around the globe. In this, capitalism makes no progress, except to expand the area and the scale of its effects. Now, there are those who say that Marx was entirely wrong to predict that capitalism would produce increasing misery. Looking at Europe and North America, they claim that this social system has brought increased living standards. The trouble is that their view is too restricted. They forget to take in Mexico, Haiti, Brazil and the rest of South America. They ignore Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, Japan, Korea, India and Pakistan, many parts of Africa and so on, and so on. In these countries, Victorian oppression, exploitation, squalor and disease have spread almost everywhere and are still rampant.
And the world’s investors do very nicely out of it all. So much so that large sectors of ‘Western’ industry have been moved out to China and south east Asia. Millions more workers than in Marx’s day are being used as industrial fodder, to be thrown aside when their energy has been sucked dry or the market no longer needs their efforts. And the land, the seas, and the minerals lying underneath both of them are being pillaged and wasted in an orgy of consumerism in order to yield ever greater profits.
Another thing that has not changed is the cycle of booms and slumps. As I was writing this, the Japanese economy, pivotal for E Asia, was sliding into collapse. This feature of social life, the ‘trade cycle’, so peculiar to the capitalist politico-economic system, has occurred with distressing inevitability ever since it began. In spite of countless futile attempts to understand this phenomenon of recession (or depression or slump) which ruins livelihoods and costs many lives, none of the economics professors or government advisors has devised a plan which has ameliorated, let alone prevented, this inbuilt feature of capitalism.
Some capitalist economists, however, have just begun to glimpse a trace of the reality by moving towards Marx’s analysis of the system. In The New Yorker in October, last year, John Cassidy wrote:
“Early this summer, I enjoyed a weekend at the Long Island vacation home of a college friend—a highly intelligent and level-headed Englishman whose career has taken him (by way of the upper echelons of the British Civil Service and a financial firm in the City of London) to a big Wall Street investment bank. There he has spent the last few years organising stock issues and helping his firm milk the strongest market in living memory. Between dips in his pool, we discussed the economy and speculated about how long the current financial boom would last. To my surprise, he brought up Karl Marx. ‘The longer I spend on Wall Street, the more convinced I am that Marx was right,’ he said. I assumed he was joking.
‘There is a Nobel Prize waiting for the economist who resurrects Marx and puts it all together in a coherent model,’ he continued quite seriously. ‘I am absolutely convinced that Marx’s approach is the best way to look at capitalism.’ ”
Instead, therefore, of becoming progressively out of date as capitalism expands and progresses, Marx’s work increasingly shows itself as forward-looking—prophetic. This is because it laid bare the anatomy and physiology of the capitalist system. Marx showed—not only how capitalism worked—but how it must work, given its class-exploitative structure. What his analysis shows is that, however powerful, sophisticated, labour-saving, energy-efficient, the production processes and the commodities that emerge from it are, capitalism is bound to keep its workers perpetually on the edge of poverty, because, if it did not, they could break free.
This is not just a bitter opinion of mine, or socialists in general: is an objective political/economic fact. It is the basis upon which capitalism continues to exist and operate.
This state of affairs is, however, not simply “economic”. In fact, as I have repeatedly hinted, there is no such thing as pure economics. The real situation is of a particular pattern of life and work imposed upon society by a dominant class. In other words, it is a politico-economic system.
The fascinating thing is that this way of life is accepted by millions of human beings, not as a regime imposed upon them by other human beings, but as “reality”—”the real world”—”That’s life”, and so on.
The fact is that it is not life; it is not reality, naked and unadorned. It is just a regime, like an African dictatorship or an Amish cult, or a Ku Klux Klan vendetta. Marx showed how it was imposed and how it is maintained. This is the key to his success in analysing its workings and explaining its peculiar features, such as crises and slumps.
The rate of profit
One feature of the workings of the capitalist system which Marx analysed in great detail in Volume III of Capital was the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. He pointed to the increase in mechanisation which capitalists employed to get more and more production out of each worker. To do this, they had to reinvest the bulk of their profit as new capital in buying more and better machinery. On p208 of the Moscow edition Marx writes:
“This [capitalist] mode of production produces a progressive relative decrease of the variable capital [that is, wages] as compared to the constant capital [premises, plant and machinery] and consequently a continuously rising organic composition of the total capital. The immediate result of this is that the rate of surplus value, at the same, or even a rising, degree of labour exploitation, is represented by a continually falling general rate of profit.”
This corresponds, he says, to a progressive cheapening of products. In spite of the figures being obscured by inflation, we can see that this has in fact happened. A car costs a smaller fraction of the average annual wage than it used to. And the price of personal computers and their components falls almost daily, at present. Nevertheless, Marx goes to a great deal of trouble to demonstrate that this basic tendency of the rate of profit to fall in capitalist production is, in practice, usually offset by countervailing forces, in particular, that force of the speed of technological development. If the rate of extraction of surplus value from the workers escalates at a greater rate than the fall in the rate of profit would be, then the rate of profit can actually continue to rise.
The silicon revolution
The figures involved here are enormous, although we cannot accurately discover them. Moreover, for most of this century, such a rate of increase (outstripping that of the expansion of capital) was impossible. But all that has changed—for the time being. The impetus for the change is probably best attributed to World War II (as are many technological advances). The drive to generate unbreakable codes for radio transmission, on the part of the German forces and the more desperate drive to decipher those codes by the British Intelligence agencies produced a hothouse development of computer capability that cost sums of money that no peacetime capitalist agency, private or public, would have dared to spend. Alan Turing (the computer genius who killed himself because his homosexuality was intolerable to the society which wanted his expertise) and his colleagues at Bletchley advanced computer design into a new level of complexity and power which demanded a new technology—solid state electronics.
The transistor replaced the thermionic valve but even this was still large and clumsy in comparison to today’s microchip assemblies of millions of transistors and resistors and capacitors in circuits on silicon chips no larger than a fingernail.
The wide range of computers and control systems that have been produced based upon these have replaced millions of workers around the world whose job used to be watching and correcting semi-automatic systems.
Today, not only factory production machines, but the control of power stations, and traffic systems, and motor car engine and braking systems, and washing machines, and almost every other device of any complexity that we use is being handed over to computers, simple or complex, small or large. Somewhere, far down the line, a human being, a member of the working class, is responsible for ensuring that such machines behave impeccably, but he or she now takes charge of a hundred times the number of devices his/her mother or father used to control. Productivity has not simply doubled or trebled, as with older automotive systems. It has risen a hundred or a thousand fold, and still has a long way to go in virtually every field of capitalist investment.
The production of memory chips themselves is a good illustration of this development. Ten years ago, ten megabytes of memory cost roughly £100. Even five years ago, thieves found it worthwhile to break into offices and steal these chips out of the office computers. They were then worth their weight in gold. Today, ten megabytes of memory cost £10.
Hundreds of millions of dollars and marks and yen and pounds have been invested in building more of the highly sophisticated factories which make microchips. Factories in which human contact is avoided everywhere possible because of the danger that people will pollute the sterile environment in which these microscopic production processes are carried out. So the production is heavily automated and computer-controlled.
This fall in prices, precisely along the lines described by Marx, has taken place so swiftly that it has become almost impossible to keep pace with the price changes. Advertisements for these components now say ‘Ring for a quote’ instead of listing a price.
But components that can be picked up, or fitted together, even if they are brains of a sort are only half of the phenomenon of the silicon revolution. The brains are useless without the thinking processes and the thoughts that make brains useful. (The hardware is no good without software.) Alongside companies like IBM, Motorola and Intel, therefore, companies producing computer programs have sprung up and grown at prodigious speeds. Bill Gates, the president of Microsoft Corporation, is now reckoned to be the richest man that ever lived. His capital amounts to something like 50 billion dollars. Of course, a stock market crash could wipe out a large fraction of this value. Capital is like that. But Gates—together with quite a large cohort of multimillionaire directors of Microsoft—has made this colossal fortune in only a few years. The rate of accumulation of capital has been stupendous.
Microsoft, however, have no factories, as such. Their product is not even computer disks. it is the software printed on them, much as music is printed on to CDs, or words and pictures are printed in books. But fiction, and information, and advice have all been common features of books since they were first invented. The difference with the computer programs which constitute the software is that they actually direct and control machines. They bridge the gap between information and action. In the home, they take the place of servants: washing the clothes, washing the dishes, baking the bread, and so on. But also doing most of the drudgery in writing letters, keeping accounts, and accessing information, in the case of the personal computer.
In industry, they have almost become a new stratum of worker, already instructed in the performance of extremely complex tasks, capable of making decisions in management, medical diagnosis, stock market dealing, etc.
Drawing offices, for example, which used to have rows of qualified draughtsmen hunched over drawing boards, have been replaced by one or two individuals with computers and CAD programs. Unlike automation, which used error, and the degree of error, to correct or modify error, computerisation is not limited to the confines of the process or system involved, but can introduce new parameters, new instructions, and can learn from experience, becoming increasingly effective and efficient. Above all, computerisation, in contrast with most automation systems, is cheap. Tailor-made software is being increasingly supplanted by versatile off-the-peg programs.
This new layer of semi-intelligent machinery has multiplied the rate of surplus value extracted from a large range of workers in a relatively sudden boost. This rate of change will most likely go down. Nevertheless, capitalism has moved into a higher gear. From now on, increasing numbers of machines and devices will become ‘smart’. They will perform tasks automatically whenever the pre-determined ‘trigger’ is operated.
For society as a whole, this increases the mass of surplus value being produced enormously. For a socialist world it will be an absolute boon in its removal of drudgery from human beings. For capitalism, however, it will increase the already huge embarrassment of riches. It will increase and sustain the scourge of unemployment for years to come. Moreover, the scarcity that all markets depend on, the scarcity which provides the excuse for keeping workers working hard, and consuming only enough to carry them on to the next pay day, will have to be imposed more and more oppressively, as it becomes more obviously absurd.
More wasteful consumption, pointless pursuits, organised leisure and expensive luxuries will have to be hyped and heralded as necessities in order to sustain the myth that human wants are insatiable and that no productive potential could ever satisfy everyone. More surveillance systems and more control procedures will be needed to ensure that men, women and children of the working class do only what they are allowed to do, and go only where they are allowed to go.
And, of course, the consequences of all this are the more rapid depletion and waste of resources, the more inevitable pollution of the planet with the rubbish that this society generates in increasing quantity and toxicity. For Marx, and for the analysis of capitalism he spent his life developing, all this is ‘the mixture as before’—more massive, more complex, more threatening, more outrageous—but basically unchanged in the way it works. In fact of course, it is basically as it is now just because of the way it has been working since he died 115 years ago.
It was impossible for Marx to foresee the technological and scientific developments which would emerge from the frenetic pursuit of profit. But he knew—far better than anyone else of his time—that the institutionalised avarice and paranoia of the system which was still being established would change the face of the earth, the nature of work, and the relationships of human beings, towards one another and towards the actual planet they lived upon.
It is because of this breadth of vision and this scientific open-mindedness that we value his contribution so much.
The Socialist Party of Great Britain was formed in London on 12th June, 1904. 142 people signed the original document of formation of the party. Of those, not all of them were to remain inside the party. Over the course of more than ninety years, the party has stood for a single object and a set of principles which have made it a unique political organisation. It has been, to answer the question very directly at the outset, guided by a Marxist outlook throughout those nine decades. It is undoubtedly an organisation which, when the history of capitalism comes to be written in those better days when capitalism is a thing of the past, will be seen as the party which has pioneered and stood the ground of Marxist principles throughout its lifetime. But, while we are a Marxist party, we are not bound to Marx as a revolutionary deity, nor to Marxism as a dogmatic, fixed, immutable religion.
The Declaration of Principles of the party is quintessentially Marxist. The principles start off by declaring that there are two antagonistic classes in society—not a multiplicity of classes, but two classes—those who produce but do not possess and those who possess through their ownership and control of the means of wealth production the power in society but do not have to produce.
The principles argue that only by the self-emancipation of the working class can socialism come about, exactly replicating the words that Marx used in his preamble to the Rules of the First International.
In the analysis of the state, or government, and the armed forces, the Declaration of Principles puts a clearly Marxian position. “They exist,” it says, “only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers.” And therefore the state itself is a property phenomenon. Once you get rid of property society, then you have the immediate abolition of the state.
One area of the declaration of principles which could conceivably be seen as in conflict with Marx’s own outlook about what a revolutionary party should do is the seventh clause of the eight clauses in the Declaration of Principles. “That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working-class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.”
In the final principle, The Socialist Party goes on to say, “The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist.”
Now, this stands in, at least apparent, contradistinction to Marx’s position about the role of communists as stated in the Communist Manifesto, where he said, “The communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working-class parties. They do not set up sectarian principles of their own by which to shape and mould the working-class movement.” There are three readings of this apparent contradiction. One of them is that Marx was right and the Socialist Party is wrong; that you cannot, in fact, as a socialist movement stand outside of and, through your principles, distinct from the working-class movement as it develops: the trade unions, the democratic changes or reforms, and so on.
The other one is that the Socialist Party in its declaration of hostility to all other working-class parties has advanced beyond the thinking of Marx in the 1840s, recognising the importance of an independent, uncompromising organisation that stands separate from those parties of the working class which are of but not for the working class.
There is a third reading of this (what I would suggest is a dialectical reading) that whilst Marx is quite right that it is not the job of socialists to set out sectarian principles, to see itself as separate from and superior to everything that is around it, it is also the case that the Socialist Party is right in the course of experience; that whilst one must avoid such sneering sectarianism (and the Socialist Party hasn’t always avoided it) you have in fact got to avoid the danger of being incorporated into every wrong-headed movement thrown up by a working class not yet conscious of its historical destiny.
The record of the Socialist Party speaks enormously well for the clarity of its commitment to Marxian thought. From the outset it rejected the Labour Party and, indeed, the social democratic parties that grew up in Europe claiming to have a mixture of socialist ultimate vision with immediate working within capitalism and that endless sordid quest for power within a system that always sucks the power seeker into the running of the exploitation system.
In relation to allegedly socialist revolutions and rebellions, the Socialist Party has had to take a cool, dispassionate look. As early as the beginning of 1918, in a quite superb and prescient article in the Socialist Standard on the events in Russia, a writer said, “Not unless a mental revolution of a kind never before seen in human history has occurred, could Russia, where the majority of people are illiterate peasants have established a socialist revolution.”
The Socialist Party has an honourable position of opposing all wars: not just opposing them when there isn’t a war, which is very easy, but opposing them during a war, when it is difficult to do; not just opposing some wars, which are manifestly imperialistic, but opposing all wars, even those which have within them elements of justice for one side and manifest tyranny and lack of principle on the other side, such as, for example, the Spanish Civil War, therefore reflecting that position of Marx that socialists, or communists, as he said, must “point out and bring to the forefront the common interest of the working class independently of all nationalities.” The Socialist Party’s globalist position in doing that is one of immense pride to those people who study its history.
The Socialist Party has refused to identify itself with reform programmes to adjust the system of wage labour and capital. With Marx, it has said, let us not fight against effects; let us eradicate the cause. So, from the ‘Right to Work’ campaigns, which are effectively ‘right to be exploited’ campaigns to constitutional campaigns to set up an assembly here and a new voting system here, an act of parliament there that will release a few documents to people, the Socialist Party has maintained a clear-cut position: that this is not enough. Whether they may benefit sections of the working class or not, it is the working-class interest as a whole that lies in one objective and one only, and that is the socialist replacement of society for the capitalist system.
But I want, in the remainder of the time I have available, to suggest to you that the Socialist Party’s thought is not rooted solely in Karl Marx. I want to suggest, although it is a hypothesis so historically fanciful that I don’t think we want to elaborate upon it very seriously, that if Karl Marx had never existed there would still be a socialist party. It would still have clear-cut socialist ideas, and we would have to—by a much more laborious and painful process—arrive at some of the clarity of theoretical vision that Marx has given us. But within the history of the working class, independent of those great philosophers and that great mind of Karl Marx, there is an embryonic socialist tradition, always there, putatively putting forward this idea of socialist liberation, which cannot be ignored and cannot be reduced to a mere off-shoot of Marxism.
SoI am going to deal briefly with the utopian strand, the radical democratic strand, and the early socialist movement. First of all, Utopia. Utopia has a very bad name, not least of all because Marx and Engels in asserting the clear scientificity of their position made a point of emphasising and dismissing and, frankly, sneering at the significance of utopian vision, the mere utopian thinkers who had fanciful thoughts about the future. Having said that, Marx and Engels, in Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, gave the respect that was right to those utopian socialists who had influenced them.
But it goes back a lot further than that. You go back to the fourteenth century in England. You had a tradition of utopian vision, the first utopian poem was published, The Land of Cockaygne, a wonderful poem about a society where everybody had free access to food. In fact, the geese fly around ready roasted, shouting out, “Geese, all hot! All hot!” They even ask you if you want a particular kind of sauce poured on them. “Every man takes what he will/ As of right to eat his fill/ All is common to young and old/ To stout and strong, to meek and bold.”
It is a tremendous vision of how things could be. Why did it arise? Because, during the course of the fourteenth century you had one of the greatest dislocations of European society that we have ever seen. There were the bubonic plagues of 1349, 1361, 1369, 1375, wiping out more than a third of the population of this country, the largest single devastation of the population that occurred. As a result of the plague, you had the landlord class, the feudal parasites, increasing peasant rent and making the feudal dues that were exacted higher and higher upon those who managed to survive on the land that was now left. In 1380, this culminated in the king introducing a tax of one shilling per head to pay for the cost of his war against France. And there was an uprising, the first peasants’ uprising in England of 1381.
Here again, we see primitive socialist ideas starting to form. The peasants’ leader, John Ball, advocated the idea of common ownership. From a contemporary account, we have these words:
“My good friends, things cannot go well in England, nor ever, until everything shall be in common, when there shall be neither vassal nor lord and all distinctions levelled, when lords shall be no more masters than ourselves.”
150 years after the peasants’ revolt, Thomas More, in his book Utopia (which is, of course, based on a pun. One meaning of the word utopia is ‘no place’. Another spelling of the same word ‘utopia’ means ‘the good place’. Perhaps the good place, then, had to be no place at all) envisaged a society where:
“The head of each household looks for what he or his family needs and carries off what he wants without any sort of payment or compensation. Why should anything be refused him? There is plenty of everything and no reason to fear that anyone will claim more than he needs.”
A century later, in the revolutionary upheaval of the mid seventeenth century, when the ascendant capitalist robbers were fighting their class war against the declining aristocratic muggers, there you also saw a small voice of the propertyless, expressed through the movement called the Diggers, who attempted to take over areas of land and run them on the basis of communism. And in the work of 1652 by the Diggers’ leader, Gerard Winstanley, he says:
“If any want food or victuals, they may either go to the butcher’s shop and receive what they want without money or else go to the flocks of sheep or herds of cattle and take and kill what meat is needful for their families without buying or selling.”
I want to put in a word for this utopian vision. Utopias, on their own, don’t change society. They are imaginative excursions into a possible future. But I also want to suggest that, without such imaginative excursions, the future will always seem remote, unknowable, perhaps even unappealing to travel to.
The second strand of rootedness for The Socialist Party is the working-class movement itself because, where there is a working class, which is the dispossessed majority, it is quite understandable that workers will seek to have the right to assemble, the right to combine. The very first concern, of course, is the right to be able to sell your labour power at a negotiated price on an organised basis. Up until 1824 trade unions were illegal; but as early as 1710 the English miners up in the north-east went out on their first strike. In 1771 they burned the stocks of coal. All of this was a movement towards the creation of a trade union movement that could show working-class people uniting together, combining as a force, showing that, through numbers, they were at least a force to be reckoned with.
More importantly, perhaps, than this economic battle, this incessant fight for the crumbs of capitalism, there was the embryonic political movement for the radical, democratic transformation of capitalism; and there are those who may say seeking democratic changes is something that capitalism will bring about anyway: that capitalism inherently has a logic that will make this happen and make that happen. This is not so: historical change comes through struggle. On 25th January, 1792, the London Corresponding Society was set up by just eight men. We, by comparison, are a mass movement in this room today. They met in The Bell Tavern in London and they stood for the apparently utopian aim of winning votes for everyone, and most of their fellow workers laughed at them. By the end of 1792 the London Corresponding society had three thousand members, mainly working-class men, not many women, and they demanded the vote. They argued for the alternative to a system where they were completely cast out from an influence upon political power, and at his trial for sedition up in the city of Sheffield, one of them described the objectives of the London Corresponding Society as being:
“To enlighten the people; to show the people the reason, the ground of all their complaints and sufferings, when a man works hard for thirteen or fourteen hours a day the week through and is not able to maintain his family. That is what I understand of it: to show the people the ground of this: why they are not able.”
And then, in the early 1830s, there was the movement of the Chartists, and the Chartists stood for the vote at least for all men. They had not advanced enough to speak about the vote for women. On three occasions the Chartists had mass petitions and they took them to parliament in 1839 and 1842 and, finally, in 1848. When they went to parliament in 1842, Macaulay, the Liberal, Whig, expressed the fear of the ruling class towards this democratic vision within the working class. He said:
“I am opposed to universal suffrage. I can see that civilisation rests on the security of property. Therefore we can never, with our absolute danger, entrust the supreme government of the country to any class which would, to a moral certainty, commit great and systematic inroads against the security of property.”
In short, capital and democracy were seen from the outset to be incompatible, just as capital and the freedom of communication is seen to be incompatible within the monopolistic media system of today.
Out of the failure of the Chartist movement at the end of the 1840s there came another movement, not as big a movement but, in embryonic form, a very important one for laying down the roots of the tradition of which socialists today are a part. This was the movement known as The Charter and Something More. And there were (and this is a very important point, I suggest) a number of very significant individual activists who gave huge amounts of time to this movement: Bronterre O’Brien, Julian Harney, Ernest Jones—working-class men, people who didn’t have huge fortunes to spend on any of this, gave time, thought, an enormous amount of intelligence to the proposal that democracy and, indeed, the widest form of democracy was necessary.
Julian Harney, who edited a journal called The Red Republican, wrote, on 12th October, 1850:
“It is not any amelioration of the conditions of the most miserable that will satisfy us; it is justice to all that we demand. It is not the mere improvement of the social life of our class that we seek; but the abolition of classes and the destruction of those wicked distinctions which have divided the human race into princes and paupers, landlords and labourers, masters and slaves. It is not any patching and cobbling of the present system we aspire to accomplish; but the annihilation of the system and the substitution, in its stead, of an order of things in which all shall labour and all shall enjoy, and the happiness of each guarantee the welfare of the entire community.”
What is important is that those words which, in many respects, sum up what the socialist party today stands for, were written before the works of Marx were at all available in most cases, and certainly widely circulated in this country. They came from within working-class experience. In his Inquiry into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth William Thompson—never read Marx; never heard of Marx—wrote:
“The idle possessor of the inanimate instruments of production not only secures to himself by their possession as much enjoyment as the most diligent and skilful of the real efficient producers but in proportion to the amount of his accumulation, by whatever means acquired, he procures ten times, a hundred times, a thousand times as much of the articles of wealth, the products of labour, the means of enjoyment as the utmost labour of such efficient producers can procure for them.”
So you see (and this is all I want to say about this): it was there; the thoughts were growing; the seeds were planted—not by Marx, not by great thinkers on their own, but by capitalism itself. That was the soil in which these revolutionary ideas were bound to develop.
Thirdly and finally, I want to move on to the socialist movement as it originated in this country, in Britain. At the beginning of the last quarter of the last century, it would be very hard to suggest that there were more than a couple of dozen people in the whole of Britain who would call themselves socialists. In 1874 there were two main radical clubs in London where socialism was talked about. One of them met in Rupert Street, and it consisted of about two hundred non-socialist radicals, the majority of whom were refugees, mainly from Germany, some from the Paris Commune.
The other, which met in the Blue Post pub in Newman Street, was made up entirely of German refugees. About forty of them would attend on a good night, and most of them would claim to be socialists. They met—no doubt a very curious sight, these refugee Germans, speaking in a foreign tongue—about the need for socialist revolution, while all around them the workers of London not only could not understand their ideas but even the language in which they spoke.
A few British workers started to join these clubs and started to obtain a socialist education from some of the regulars, such as Herman Jung, who introduced Belfort Bax to Marx’s writings; and Bax was to become the first person in Britain to publish an exposition of Marx’s works. There were people like Frederick Lessner who liaised with the few English trade unionists who had anything to do with The First International and who was subsequently to become an active member of the Hammersmith Branch of William Morris’s Socialist League.
In general, the refugees sitting in their pubs didn’t make a lot of difference and, as Engels—rather sour, very often, towards small groups of people struggling against difficult forces—wrote to Becker on 1st April, 1880:
“So far as the course of the world is concerned it is more or less indifferent whether a hundred German workers in London declare themselves for one side or the other.”
The first socialist organisation in Britain to consist of workers was formed, in Birmingham, by John Sketchley, so it is appropriate that we are in Birmingham to talk about it. He was a worker who had been taught about socialism as a young boy by advocates of The Charter and Something More campaign. He had met Bronterre O’Brien; he had read the works of Julian Harney.
He first came across the Communist Manifesto in The Red Republican. The opening lines of the Communist Manifesto, which some of you will recall were translated in a very odd way in The Red Republican. Instead of “A spectre is haunting Europe…” it said, “A giant hobgoblin is stalking all over Europe” (If only we had stuck to those words, perhaps more people would have read it), and in 1878 Sketchley founded the Midland Social Democratic Association.
It existed as an organisation with socialist ideas mixed with all kinds of other radical ideas before 1878; but it was in 1878 that it was to develop a socialist programme. And there were a number of other organisations—some of them in London, some of them in parts of the country that were really quite accidentally affected by all of this—that grew up in the course of the 1870s.
Sketchley not only founded the first socialist organisation in Britain, but he wrote the first book in English by a member of the working class which advocated the case for socialism. It is called The Principles of Social democracy published in 1879 and, although it might owe a certain amount to the land nationalisation ideas of Henry George, it owes a great deal to the kind of ideas which have subsequently lived on in the thinking of The Socialist Party.
In 1881, the first organisation to call itself socialist, which had more than a dozen members, was formed. It was the Labour Emancipation League, founded by Joseph Lane. And in 1880 Henry Myers Hyndman read Das Kapital by Marx, agreed with its analysis of the system, decided to write his own version called England For All, in which he did not mention Karl Marx because he said the English would not listen to someone who was a German, less still a Jew, and said that they should look at his Marxist version first. And Hyndman was responsible, in 1883, for the adoption of a socialist programme by the Social Democratic Federation, a federation of clubs that had got together, first of all in 1881, the various radical clubs that in 1883 committed themselves to a socialist programme, Socialism Made Plain.
In June 1884 the SDF launched a journal called Justice, which was the first Marxist journal in British history. The Social Democratic Federation existed on the basis of a queer mixture between, on the one hand, clear-cut socialist ideas no different in their terminology and certainly in their vision of an alternative society from those propagated by The Socialist Party and, at the same time, a list of immediate reforms of capitalism, what were called ‘stepping stones’ to socialism.
The SDF attracted hundreds of workers to its side; but this rift between the revolutionary objective of socialism and the reform programme tore it apart, as did the profound arrogance and leadership ambitions of Hyndman, who, essentially, saw himself as the new socialist prime minister. In fact, he described himself as a future socialist prime minister of a revolutionary Britain.
The movement against these contradictions in the SDF was pushed for by a number of people who, at the end of 1884—in fact, on New Year’s Eve, 1884—split away from the SDF and formed their own organisation, the Socialist League. Amongst these people, William Morris, arguably the greatest of socialist thinkers to have been produced in this country, Marx’s daughter, Eleanor, her husband, Edward Aveling, and a number of others who left the SDF formed the Socialist League.
The Socialist League, I would suggest, was the nearest thing, the nearest model you can find, to a party that was doing the kind of thing that The Socialist Party does today: making socialists, as William Morris put it. As Morris rightly argued, on the issue of reformism:
“The palliatives, or reforms over which many worthy people are busying themselves now, are useless because they are but organised, partial revolts against a vast, wide-spreading organisation which will, with the unconscious instinct of a plant, meet every attempt at bettering the condition of the people with an attack on a fresh side.”
Morris was saying that in the 1880s. Over a hundred years later, how right he was! Every effort, every huge organisation for reform, for amelioration, for greater humanisation of capitalism, and how the system has fought back, making two new problems for every one that appears to have gone away. Well, the Socialist League initially prospered. It started off with a membership in July, 1885 of 230. By October, it had nearly 400 members. At the beginning of 1886, 500. Six hundred, by the summer of 1886, and 700 at its peak in 1887. It was, undoubtedly, an embryonic socialist movement.
What happened to those socialists who stayed in the SDF was that the contradictions between its reformist, minimum programme and its lip-service to socialism became more and more apparent. Hyndman accepted money from the Tory party in order to stand against Liberal MPs. The SDF was manifestly undemocratic in its behaviour. The reading and teaching of works by Karl Marx within the SDF was actually forbidden by one of its rules. And then one of its members, Jack Fitzgerald, started to run education classes based upon the teachings of Marx. He decided to defy the rules, and at the conference of the SDF in 1904 Fitzgerald and another socialist called Hawkins were called upon to apologise for disobeying the leadership of the party. They refused to apologise. Instead, they and a number of others produced a document—and I suspect most of you won’t have seen this document so, as I move rapidly to a conclusion, I will show it to you. This was the circular that was produced inside the Social Democratic Federation by the ‘impossiblists’, as they were called, the true revolutionaries, who sought, still, to try to turn the SDF into a real Marxist, socialist organisation. It is interesting to see what they were advocating:
“We advocate the only policy which we believe to be consistent with our principles: that is the adoption of an uncompromising attitude which admits of no arrangements with any section of the capitalist party or of those supporting any section of the capitalist party nor permits any compromise with any individual or party not recognising the class war as a basic principle and not prepared to work for the overthrow of the present capitalist system. In advocating this policy, we recognise that, in the political field, there are only two parties: one, for the retention of the present system; and the other, the social democratic, organised for its overthrow. Therefore, all entering into political action must join either one side or the other.”
They were thrown out of the SDF; and still, all entering into political action have to join either one side or the other: the capitalist party—be it New Labour, old Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Communist—or The Socialist Party.
And so, in June 1904, The Socialist Party was formed. I have completed the circle. Is it a Marxist Party? Yes, it is, but perhaps a Marxist Party and something more.
* Note: in fact, Marx’s wife died in 1881, only two years before Marx.