1980s >> 1983 >> no-947-july-1983

What Marx really meant . . .

Over the years there have been many wide ranging interpretations of Marx’s writings by journalists and academics, most of them littered with distortions and references to nationalist uprisings and guerrilla warfare as “Marxist inspired”. Then there are the cynical statements of those on the political left who seek to use supposedly Marxist theories to justify their own essentially elitist idea of leading the working class to power through violent insurrection, or who attempt to equate the state capitalist dictatorships of Russia and its satellites with the concept of socialism put forward in the writings of Marx and Engels.

The task of the Socialist Party of Great Britain is to cut through the confusion surrounding the meaning of these writings, something especially important in this centenary year of Marx’s death. Let us consider the legacy of Marx to the SPGB and its associated parties worldwide, by selecting some excerpts from the original works which reflect our claim to be the sole propagators of socialism as understood by Marx. This is not to say that we rigidly adhere to Marx’s every utterance — the socialist case stands up on its own merits. Marx’s writings are merely a part of the historical process of workers beginning to understand the mechanics of the political system under which we have lived, as a class for 200 years. Karl Marx was no more than one person endowed with an ability to analyse and express this information in a logical and comprehensible way. The questions for those who have studied the economic and social basis of the system of exploitation which we know as capitalism are these:

What did Marx mean by socialism? What does this proposed society entail? How is it to be brought about? To answer the last question first: socialism must be brought about through a conscious, democratic decision — not superior intellectual theorising by leaders. Ordinary working people themselves must use the existing political institutions to take power from the capitalist class, as illustrated in the SPGB’s Declaration of Principles which states “That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself”.

This concern for the peaceful use of democratic institutions to gain power is shown in the following extract from a speech made by Marx at the Hague Congress of the International in 1872:

We know that heed must be paid to the institutions, customs and traditions of the various countries, and we do not deny that there are countries, such as America and England . . . where the workers may attain their goal by peaceful means

Although Marx goes on to say that force would still be necessary in most continental countries, a century of social and economic development has made possible the peaceful capture of political power in the majority of the world’s countries. This view is reinforced by an article written in 1852 for the New York Daily Tribune in which Marx asserts that,

The carrying of universal suffrage in England would, therefore, be a far more socialistic measure than anything which has been honoured with that name on the continent. Its inevitable result, here, is the political supremacy of the working class.

While still waiting for this to result in our political supremacy as a class, it is nevertheless clear that Marx’s prime concern was for the democratic capture of political power by a conscious majority: that the main task is for workers themselves to grasp that it is they alone who must decide to take the initiative to sweep away the old society of exploitation and degradation and to bring in a new order based on — based on what?

Let us return to Marx’s own writings for an answer. He writes in Capital of “. . . cooperation and the possession in common of the land and the means of production” (Vol. I. p. 79. Allen & Unwin edn ). That this common ownership as advocated by the SPGB is at the very core of Marx’s own conception of socialist society is further illustrated by an extract from his Critique of the Gotha Programme which speaks of a mode of wealth production wherein “… the material conditions of production [are] the cooperative property of the workers themselves” and by the reference, earlier in the same work, to “. . . the cooperative society based on common ownership of the means of production”.

These ideas obviously have nothing to do with nationalist movements, since it is quite evident that the person who exhorted the working people of all countries to unite realised that it would be ludicrous to propose the existence of a “socialist country” in isolation. That workers must organise and must unite internationally is clear when one considers that, say, steel workers in Britain have more in common with fellow steel workers in France or Germany than with any members of the British capitalist class.

When we read in the Communist Manifesto of “. . . the Communistic abolition of buying and selling”, and. further, in one of Marx’s classic economic expositions Value, Price and Profit, of “. . . the final emancipation of the working class, that is to say, the ultimate abolition of the wages system”, we can fully appreciate the relationship between people which Marx is proposing. It is a society without classes (that is to say, without sections of the population standing in differing relationship to the means of producing wealth), and without money, since exchange will be superfluous when property is held in common.

To summarise, the real message behind all the volumes of detailed and painstaking scientific enquiry is no more than this — study the evidence, consider the alternative and take action by and for yourselves to bring it about. One of Marx’s better known conclusions is that “the philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways; the point is to change it”. It is a message which is as appropriate now as it was in 1845.

Paul G Robinson