“Old fashioned… violent… complicated… boring… nice in theory… nightmare in practice… waste of time… long words… mechanical… years in the library… abstract… Russia… failure… not that simple… time for something new… dead… beard.” Well, that just about sums up all you need to know about Karl Marx. Still with us?
Then you have something in common with Karl Marx when he was a young student in Germany 150 years ago. You don’t always do as you’re told, for a start. And if the powers-that-be tell you their official version of things, (and the list above is about all they’ll tell you about Karl Marx), you try to hear the other side of the story.
Karl Marx’s ideas can be understood by anyone who takes the trouble to study them. They are not mechanical or needlessly abstract, but contain important truths about history and human society. They are not old fashioned or a failure, because they explain the world today. They are not boring or grey because they are about the red hot business of revolution.
The society Karl Marx grew up in had no basic democratic freedoms. In Prussia, power was in the hands of the Kaiser, his army, bureaucracy, and the rich landowners that they defended.
As a student in Berlin, Marx encountered the ideas of the philosopher Hegel, who stressed that everything in society and in nature was in a process of constant change and development. A group of young “Left Hegelians” tried to use Hegel’s ideas to draw radical conclusions. When several radical thinkers were barred from university by the authorities, Marx gave up the idea of an academic career, and set off on a path of political activity that would last for the rest of his life.
He began to write and edit radical newspapers that called for democracy and an end to suffering of the poor. By 1843 he was in Paris, writing a paper that was so revolutionary it had to smuggled back into Germany. In it Marx spoke of the need for “merciless criticism of everything existing” – by which he meant not only criticism in discussion and in pamphlets, but also “criticism by weapon”. Who was to carry this “criticism” out? Not a small group of terrorists, but the masses, and in particular, the “proletariat” or working class.
At this time, there were numerous, small socialist groupings in Europe. Almost all of them were utopians of one sort or another. Thinkers like Fourier in France or Robert Owen in Britain pointed out how the new system of capitalism, which was growing everywhere, allowed the factory owners and bankers to become extraordinarily rich while the workers in the factories and on the land suffered terrible poverty. The utopian socialists came up with schemes and systems for setting up a fairer society, and tried to build new communities based on common ownership and an equal share of wealth.
Throughout the early 1840s Marx began to criticise these ideas and make discoveries of his own. Instead of opting out of society or designing blueprints for a perfect world, he studied how the real world works.
Strange as it may seem, Hegel believed that the real world was just a reflection of the mind. Marx had a more sensible view: our ideas are reflections of a real world that exists outside our minds. So whilst Hegel saw history as a series of conflicts between different sets of ideas, Marx looked for something in the real world that caused these conflicts. He found it in the idea of class struggle. Throughout history the haves and the havenots have fought against each other for control of food, shelter, money and therefore political power.
The capitalist factory owners and bankers had grown fabulously rich by exploiting a new class of industrial workers: the proletariat. The working class had no finished product to sell, no property from which to make a profit. Their only means of making a living was to work for wages.
Marx predicted that as time went by the working class would grow in numbers and would organise itself. Without them nothing in society could work. Here then was a force that could overthrow capitalism – a real, practical alternative to the dreams of the utopians.
The conclusion Marx drew was that practice and real action – not just ideas – were the key to the future. “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways,” he wrote, “the point, however, is to change it.” So together with his friend and co-thinker, Frederick Engels, Marx joined a small organisation called the League of the Just, which would soon change its name to the Communist League. At their request the two men wrote the Communist Manifesto.
Despite being written nearly 150 years ago, the Communist Manifesto is still a cracking read. Its two young authors (Marx was 29 and Engels 27) were obviously fired up with the freshness of the discoveries they had made. The book is brimming over with anger, sarcasm and flashes of brilliant wit. It demolishes arguments that are still being raised against communism today. It daringly called for the liberation of women from the slavery of housework. Against nationalists who accused the communists of being traitors, the Manifesto replied that the workers of all countries have more in common with each other than they have with their “national” capitalist rulers.
It established communism as the aim of the working class movement. This would be a classless society in which people no longer had to compete with each other and fight for their share.
But this communist society could not be established overnight. First the working class would have to “make itself the ruling class” through revolution, using force to stop the capitalists holding on to their property. Gradually the workers would redistribute wealth in the interests of the whole people, abolishing classes and armed authority altogether.
The Manifesto ended with a declaration that has entered into the language and the consciousness of the whole world to this day:
“Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of all countries unite!”
The ink was scarcely dry on the pages of the Manifesto when Europe exploded in revolution. The year 1848 saw the overthrow of King Louis-Phillippe and the proclamation of a republic in France, and mass uprising by the working class in Vienna. In Germany, Marx’s predictions came swiftly true. A revolution began uniting the capitalist class, the peasants and the workers in struggle against the landowners and their regime. But the capitalists quickly did a deal with a Kaiser, won some concessions for themselves, and left the working class without political rights.
In a famous address to the Communist League, Marx explained how the “democratic” capitalists would only fight for those changes which made life comfortable for them. The working class needed its own party, to march together with the democrats against the monarchy and the landowners, but to oppose them whenever they tried to set about exploiting the workers. Marx called for the independent workers’ party to oppose the capitalist government, to fight for the arming of the working class in a “proletarian guard”, and for the workers to set up their own rival governments on the form of “revolutionary community councils” or local workers’ committees. The aim here was not to accept half-way measures, but to “make the revolution permanent” by pushing on to the overthrow of the capitalists and the establishment of a working class government.
The defeat of the revolutionary wave of 1848 opened long years of reaction in Europe, when the tide of class struggle was at a low ebb. Marx devoted his time to writing a detailed analysis of the workings of capitalism, Das Kapital. This weighty scientific volume is a cornerstone of the revolutionary movement. It cannot be quickly skimmed through – like all works of science, it has to be studied: the best way is to read and discuss it in groups. In it Marx showed how the exploitation of workers is not just a result of the sharp practices of individual employers, but is part and parcel of the capitalist system itself. He showed how the system would cause the working class to grow and competition between capitalists would create ever larger monopolies. What is more, he showed how the system has a built-in tendency to go into deep crises, which cause dramatic economic collapses and revolutionary opportunities for the working class.
But Marx did not just retire to the library. In 1864 he played the foremost role in setting up the International Workingmen’s Association – the First International. This brought together socialist, revolutionary and trade union groups from around the world in the first working class organisation to span national boundaries. Within the International Marx campaigned long and hard against the anti-revolutionary approach of the English union leaders, and the tendency of anarchists like Mikhail Bakunin to look to forces other than the mass of the working class to carry out the revolution.
By 1871 the revolutionary storm broke out once again. In a mass uprising in Paris, the first ever working class government, the Paris Commune, was formed. Marx threw himself into support for this historic step forward. From the defeat of the Commune he drew a vital lesson: that for the working class to set about introducing real socialist measures, it will not be possible to use the capitalists’ state apparatus, their parliament and armed forces.
These institutions must be penetrated by revolutionaries in order to undermine them, but “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.” Instead the military and bureaucratic state machine of the capitalists would have to be smashed and replaced by a far more democratic system of working class councils or communes, and a militia based on the arming of the whole working class.
Marx died in London in March 1883. His ideas have shaped the century that we live in. But as the century draws to a close, more people than ever believe that Marx and Marxism are somehow a thing of the past.
They could not be more wrong. The collapse of the Soviet Union was not proof that “socialism does not work”, but that without full working class democracy, and without revolution in several advanced countries, the transformation of society along socialist lines is impossible. This too was predicted by Marx.
Some tell us that the working class is declining, because of the shutting down of many old industries in Britain. But this is just a change in the form of the working class – the number of people who can earn a living only by selling their ability to work has never been greater. The working class today constitutes over a billion people worldwide: a hundred million of them work in heavy industry. In India, the Far East and Latin America, the working class is growing at an extraordinary pace.
Well over a hundred years after Marx’s death, capitalism cannot guarantee democracy to many millions in backward countries, is tearing apart the lives of workers in the former USSR as it brings back mass unemployment, crime and inflation, and is unable to offer the working class in an advanced country like Britain even a guaranteed job or a decent living wage. Instead the capitalists tell us there is less to go round – fewer hospital beds, school books and homes for us – ever greater profit and privilege for them.
All over the world, the struggle of the working class goes on. Deep within the trade unions and working class parties, in the factories and schools, the mines and the offices, new forces are slowly assembling and readying themselves for battle. Marx’s ideas hold out the hope of a totally different, exciting future and explain how to make it a reality. The Dead Man with the Beard is more relevant, more modern, more of our age than a thousand clean shaven, slick, cynical career politicians. We are confident that his ideas can help change the world and get rid of capitalism once and for all.