The following is a transcript of a paper that was presented at the Socialist Party of Great Britain’s 1998 Summer School, which was held at Fircroft College in Birmingham, England. It is reproduced from the pamphlet, Marxism Revisited.
“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 Liebknecht’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 ones 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 doneaway 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 – 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.
Steve Coleman (SPGB)