What is Marxism?
Marx himself did not call his theories of history, society and the capitalist economy ‘Marxism’. That would have been arrogant and, besides, to attribute the views he developed to the mind of some uniquely great individual would be contrary to his own theory that social conditions gave rise to ideas that were relevant to the social circumstances and problems of the time. If Marx had never lived, ‘Marxist’ ideas would still have arisen.
Nevertheless, after his death those who agreed with his theories began to call themselves ‘Marxists,’ despite this originally being a term of abuse coined by his opponents, and to call the body of his work ‘Marxism’: the materialist conception of history, with technology and class struggles as the driving forces; his analysis of the economic workings of capitalism as a mechanism of uncontrollable capital accumulation that proceeded in fits and starts; and his insistence on the need for the wage working class to win control of political power in order to establish a communist (or, the same thing, a socialist) society based on the common ownership of productive resources and production to directly meet people’s needs rather than for sale with a view to profit.
Marx himself would no doubt have favoured an impersonal description such as ‘communist theory’ or ‘the theory of revolutionary socialism’. But ‘Marxism’ is the term that, historically, revolutionary socialists have inherited even though it is also a term that others have appropriated or been wrongly identified with, in particular the ‘Leninism’ that evolved in primitively capitalist Russia as the theory of state-led capitalist development in countries with a weak private capitalist class .
Marx foremost a socialist
An important aspect of Marx’s view that academics, even those who claim to be Marxists, tend to overlook, in fact often deliberately play down so that they can treat his views as merely academic, is that he identified himself with an already existing movement to see a communist (or, in later usage, a socialist) society established. As he wrote in the conclusion of his main published work Capital, this society was to be based on ‘cooperation and the possession in the common of the land and of the means of production’ (chapter 32 on ‘The Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation’). He further described it, in some 1875 notes on the programme then adopted by German Social Democrats, as a ‘cooperative society based on the common ownership of the means of production’ where ‘the material conditions of production are the co-operative property of the workers themselves’.
At the present stage in the evolution of human society and technology, a world society in which the Earth’s natural and industrial resources are the common heritage of all humanity is the only framework within which the problems currently facing humanity in general and the wage working class in particular can be rationally tackled and permanently overcome.
This is the next stage in human social evolution, the material basis for which has developed under capitalism, as indicated by such current terms as ‘world market’, ‘world trade’, ‘world wars’, ‘globalisation’ and ‘global warming’. A single worldwide network of productive units already exists, but the ownership and control of these is in the hands of only a small part of humanity, either directly as rich individuals or indirectly via corporations and states. Instead of this network being co-ordinated to produce what the world’s population needs, it is used to produce items of wealth for sale by private and state enterprises, competing to make profits.
Marx in his day
Today, and for the past hundred or so years, this has been an immediate possibility whereas this was not the case in Marx’s day, in the middle of the nineteenth century. Then, capitalism was still in its ascendancy and had yet to fully build up the material basis for a world socialist society. Marx himself recognised this and it led him to take the long view and support what he judged would speed up the development of capitalism, its political forms as well as its spread as an economic system. For instance, he supported the Franco-British-Turkish side in the Crimean War, the North in the American Civil War, independence for Poland as a buffer between Tsarist Russia and the rest of Europe, and independence for Ireland to strengthen the hand of Britain’s industrial capitalists against the ruling landed aristocracy.
This is one source of the distortion of Marx’s view into one that supports the development of capitalism even after this was no longer necessary. Not all went as far as the so-called ‘legal Marxists’ in Tsarist Russia who openly favoured capitalist development by private capitalists, but it was an aspect of Social Democracy and Bolshevism which, both in their ways, favoured – and in practice advanced – the development of capitalism, generally in the form of a state capitalism (state organised production for sale with a view to making a monetary surplus), which they imagined, and even defined, as ‘socialism’. However, state or government ownership is not the same as the common or cooperative ownership envisaged by the movement Marx was engaged in.
Marx supported the further development of capitalism in his day in order to hasten the creation of the material basis for world socialism. Once this had been achieved, towards the end of the nineteenth century, the logic of this position no longer applied. There was no longer a case for those who wanted socialism to support the further development of capitalism; they could now work directly for the immediate establishment of world socialism. The tragedy of the twentieth century was that so few took this position.
This underlines that Marxism is not what Marx did, but his general approach to economic and social development.
Materialist conception of society
Marx’s analysis of society, as set out in the well-known Preface to his A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, has, following Engels, traditionally been called ‘the materialist conception of history’ but it also applies to existing capitalist society and its transformation into world socialist society. It was called ‘materialist’ to distinguish it from the openly ‘idealist’ theories of history that were prevalent at the time, in particular that of Hegel who saw human history as the unfolding of some abstract Idea, though this was also the view of other Christians.
Marx was essentially making the point that the basis of any human society was the way in which its members were organised to satisfy their material needs, to produce the food, clothes and shelter that they needed to stay alive, together with the technology and infrastructure used to do this. As a particular system of production changed, so did all the other ways of social living.
Marx’s materialism was not a denial of the role of ideas. On the contrary, ‘Man makes his own history,’ with humans motivated to act by the ideas they held, even if these arose from the social circumstances in which they found themselves, including, in class-divided societies, the different social circumstances of different classes with regard to production. The driving force of history was struggle between classes, in which a newly arising class championing a new way of organising production challenged an entrenched ruling class that wanted to preserve an established way from which it benefitted.
This view is still valid as a general approach to the study of the past but, more importantly, is of practical relevance for the change from a world capitalist to a world socialist society since it implies that this change of society too will be the result of a class struggle. This will be the last class struggle in history in fact, between the minority class that monopolises the world’s productive resources and the excluded majority. World socialism is going to have to be the outcome of the excluded, majority class pursuing its material interest to establish a society in which the satisfaction of its material needs, indeed those of all humans, will be the direct aim.
As to Marx’s analysis of the way the capitalist economy works – his ‘critique of political economy’ as he subtitled Capital—this has been confirmed time and again. Marxian economics has proved a better tool for explaining how capitalism works than any other economy theory.
Marx analysed capitalism as a system based on what his first English translator called ‘the self-expansion of value’, value being the basis of the economic exchange value that products of labour acquired through being produced for sale on a market, a concept Marx inherited and refined from the classical political economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo.
When the producers’ ability to work – translated as ‘labour power’ – also became an item for sale due to their being separated from the ownership of land or instruments of production, they produced a value greater than the value of their labour-power, a ‘surplus value’ or, in its monetary form, profits. It was through their work that pre-existing value ‘expanded’, with the production and accumulation of surplus value becoming the driving force of the economic system that Marx called ‘the capitalist mode of production.’
For Marx, this was not a choice by the owners of means and instruments of production but an imperative imposed on them by the competitive struggle for profits that they were engaged in with each other; they were not free agents but cogs in the mechanism of capital accumulation. This competitive struggle for surplus value gave rise to economic laws which acted on economic agents as if they were laws of nature that humans could not change. This has proved to be the case even for governments, which have also had to submit to these economic forces, despite the much-increased role in economic affairs that they have assumed since Marx’s day.
So, capitalism is an uncontrollable, impersonal system of capital accumulation out of surplus value. This, Marx analysed, is not a smooth process. The trend is upward but in fits and starts, with periods of expansion ending in a crisis and a period of reduced production during which the conditions are created for a resumption of the upward trend, which will eventually be stalled by another crisis and slump, and so on in an ever-repeating cycle of booms and slumps. No government, no type of political regime, has ever found a permanent solution to this. The capitalist economic system is simply not amenable to human control. For so long as capitalism lasts Marxian economics will have a future in demonstrating this.
The lesson here is that capitalism cannot be reformed to work for the benefit of all, and certainly not for that of the excluded majority, the exploitation of whose labour to produce surplus value is the basis of the whole system. However, capitalism will not collapse economically of its own accord. It will move uncontrollably from boom to slump and back until the excluded majority organise consciously to put an end to it and move on to the next stage of human social evolution of a united world society based on the common ownership of the planet’s productive resources.