Thursday, March 14, 2013

Remembering Marx

In Capital, Karl Marx's famous treatise on economics, he describes how an aristocratic lady’s lands were accrued because of her skills at performing fellatio “Lady Orkney’s endearing offices are supposed to have been foeda labiorum ministeria,” ( base services performed with the lips).

"I treat the ridiculous seriously when I treat it with ridicule." Marx explained in "On Freedom of the Press and Censorship."
Born on 5 May 1818, Karl Marx died 14th March 1883 after a long illness, his end undoubtedly being hastened by the death of his wife in 1881 and his favourite daughter, Jenny, in 1882. Marx devoted the best years of his life in the struggle for socialism and the fruits of his labours are a legacy of inestimable value to the working class. There were less than a dozen mourners for his funeral at Highgate Cemetry. You can tell capitalism is in trouble when people start talking about capitalism – people become aware of capitalism in crisis, just as an illness or injury makes you newly aware of the body you always took for granted. Thanks to the crisis, people all around the world are talking about capitalism again. To get a proper understanding of the phenomenon of recessions you have to look back to someone the press and TV tell us has been discredited and whose influence in the world is supposed to have been wholly bad – Marx. It was Marx who developed a real understanding of how the capitalist system operates and why it constantly fails to live up to the hopes of the politicians who preside over it.
For years Marx's work was treated either by a conspiracy of silence or under ceaseless attack by politicians and academics who defended capitalism. These days it is different. In 1999 Karl Marx was voted the “Greatest Thinker of the Millennium” in a BBC online poll. Then in 2005 he was voted the “Greatest Philosopher” in another BBC poll. Karl Marx, the one-time almost unknown exile, the patient digger for economic facts in the British Museum Library, is now a "world figure." No man of his generation could claim so many alleged followers, so many bitter enemies, as Marx, if he were alive to-day. Often a lot of nonsense is talked about Karl Marx, most of it from people who have never read him. But nowadays practically every bookshop will have the works of Marx for sale. These days it is fashionable to write long, confusing, dull books about Marx. Practically every place of higher education will have a course on some aspect of Marxism. Thanks to these modern Marxist scholars we have not just one Marx but many: Hegelian Marx, Young Marx, Mature Marx. Karl Marx was a "man of science" (his studies of capitalism) and a revolutionary who saw the working class having the "historical", mission to abolish capitalism and to take humanity on to socialism. Marx wasn't just a scholar, but an activist and commentator on the world he often painfully lived in. No man's ideas have suffered more at the hands of his self-claimed disciples. Even in Marx's own time his views were distorted and misrepresented by would-be friends as well as opponents, so that Marx himself was driven to declare that he "was no Marxist." Despite the widespread myth that he was discredited by the events of the 20th Century and given the gross distortions and misrepresentations of Marx’s ideas from Leninism, Trotskyism, Stalinism and Maoism, Marx’s ideas are in fact as relevant as ever today. Far from discrediting Marx, the events have vindicated him. Not only would Marx not have supported the Eastern European regimes, but he would have welcomed their downfall.
But what did Karl Marx actually have to say? Was he in favour of dictatorship? Did he think that the state should impose dull uniformity, rigid regimentation and boring work on its citizens? Did he think that human nature and talents should be suppressed in the name of equality and altruism and for the benefit of a collectivity? No. In fact, Karl Marx's driving passion his whole life was the free development of the individual. Karl Marx was not opposed to the capitalist ideas of choice, liberty and individual freedom. He supported the ideas, but opposed the society that prevented them becoming a reality. He wanted to be able "to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic".
Marx had come to socialism via German philosophy becoming a socialist sometime in the winter of 1843-4 and only later interested himself in economics. Marx comments that during the course of his studies he reached the conclusion that the explanation of social development was not to be found merely in the realm of ideas but rather in the material conditions of life, and that a proper understanding of capitalism is to be found in economics. Capital, written in the 1850s and 60s, was in fact not published till 1867. Marx became a socialist out of a moral objection to what money and the state were doing to human dignity, before he began his scientific study of capitalism and the working class. Marx stood for a society without class conflict, without State power and without monetary fetishism and that the abolition of capitalism is not mechanically inevitable, but can only come about as a result of a conscious choice by the working class; if they don't make this choice then capitalism will continue. Marx held that the working class should take political action to end politics and the state and that one of the forms this could take was democratic electoral action. Marx held that socialism could not be established unless a majority of workers had come to want and understand it.

“For the ultimate triumph of the ideas set forth in the Manifesto Marx relied solely and exclusively on the intellectual development of the working class, as it necessarily had to ensue from united action and discussion.” - Engels' Preface to the 1890 German edition of the Communist Manifesto
Marx analysed the social and economic system he lived under in methodical detail by starting from the very categories used by the bourgeois economists themselves: the commodity, the exchange of commodities and then, most important, the buying and selling of labour power, which is at the core of the system of wage-slavery, a system we still live under in 2013 throughout the world. Marx solved the paradox of the origin of profit created in the production process. He did so by distinguishing labour from labour power. The latter is the worker’s ability to work for a given number of days, whereas simple labour is the work performed during this time. If you pay someone a wage of £500 per week, that is what they need to live on and carry on being fit for work. You have bought their labour power for the week. But they will be able to generate £500’s worth of value well before the week is over, and the surplus belongs not to them but to the employer. The basis of life under capitalism is the workers' sale of labour power to the employers, although this is not generally accepted as a true description of the world we live in. Marx, in a long, closely-reasoned analysis, has shown that this surplus is provided by the unpaid labour-power of the workers. Put into simple terms, this means that the wages of the worker are always less than the value of the articles he produces in the time covered by those wages. This is fully admitted in all business transactions, as no employer will engage a worker unless he can make the engagement "pay"—that is, unless he obtains a profit as a result of employing that worker. Marx also correctly outlined:
1) the boom-slump cycle endemic to capitalism and how no government intervention—however benign—would be able to prevent it;

2) how the market economy would eventually spread its tentacles into every aspect of human life, conquering the entire planet in the process;

3) how an excess issue by governments of paper currency beyond that required by additional value production is the real cause of inflation;

4) class division and the modern development of a world economy where the division between the richest and the poorest is the widest in human history;

5) the growth of a colossal credit-based financial apparatus that, as time goes on, becomes increasingly isolated from the realities of the wealth production process which it depends.

The body of thought known as ‘Marxism’ comprises the labour theory of value, the materialist theory of history and the political theory of the class struggle. These are tools of analysis, which have been further developed and modified by socialists, to explain how the working class are exploited under capitalism and how world socialism will be the emancipation of our class. The validity of Marx’s theories is independent of Marx the man. Nonetheless, criticisms of Marx have been made because of the misinterpretations and distortions of Marxism that have occurred in the twentieth century. Marxism is not a dogma, not a record of the sayings and doings of Karl Marx to be carefully preserved and uncritically applied whatever the circumstances. Marxism is a method of assessing what, at any particular time, is in the best interest of the working class and should be done to hasten the establishment of socialism. Marx's political activity to further the cause of Socialism was shaped by the conditions of his time. Marx was politically active in an age when capitalism had yet to become the dominant world system, economically or politically. This decisively shaped his political tactics. Since he believed that capitalism paved the way for Socialism and that it still had part of this work to do, he advocated that, in this circumstance, socialists ought to work not only for Socialism but also for the progress of capitalism at the expense of reactionary political and social forms. This involved Marx in supporting campaigns to establish political democracy or which he felt would have the effect of stabilizing or protecting it. So we find him supporting independence for Ireland in order to weaken the power of the English landed aristocracy, who were an obstacle to the development of political democracy in Britain, and Polish independence in order to set up a buffer state between Tsarist Russia and the rest of Europe so as to give political democracy a chance to develop there. Marx supported the establishment of centralized States in Germany and Italy as he felt this would allow a more rapid capitalist development in these countries; and he supported the North in the American Civil War since he felt that a victory for the slave-owning South would slow down the development of capitalism in America. In the circumstances of the time it seemed logical to Marx that he should accept that for the moment the workers' interests coincided with those of the bourgeois democrats, until such time as the absolutist regimes had been overthrown, and should then continue their struggle against the new bourgeois regimes. It was assumed that "the bourgeois democratic governments" could be placed in the situation of immediately losing "all backing among workers" (Marx's address to the Communist League, 1850). These policies made certain sense at a time when capitalism had not yet fully created the material basis for Socialism as a means of hastening this. But once capitalism had done this then they became outdated and reactionary. In these changed circumstances, an application of the Marxist method showed that socialists need no longer help capitalism prepare the way for socialism — it now has accomplished this and so has become a completely reactionary social system—but should rather concentrate exclusively on encouraging the growth of socialist consciousness and organization amongst the working class.
The best tribute to Marx is to recognise what is permanent in his work and put aside that which was dictated by temporary circumstances of the time in which he wrote. Marx is beginning to once more figure in the discussion within the protest movements and hopefully will bring some grounding to this confusing diversity of protesters; the conscious recognition in this movement of the international nature of our adversary, capitalism and the awareness of the necessity of a global action against it.

Further Reading



A Joke

When Karl Marx arrived at the Pearly Gates, St Peter had a problem: Marx was listed in the Big Book. St Peter gave God a quick call to explain that Marx had turned up and what he should do about it.

”Marx!” said God “How did he get on the list. He’s been bad-mouthing me for years. 'Opium of the masses’ indeed! Give Old Nick down below a call and see if he’ll take him, he owes me a favour or two.”

St Peter dutifully rang Satan. ”Yeah, go on, we’ll take him.” replied Satan ”Don't know how he didn’t get sent here in the first place given all the trouble he’s caused.”

So Marx was sent to Hell.

Two weeks later, Satan rang God. ”See that Marx, its really not working out. All the demons are out on strike, there’s protests and demonstrations everyday with Marx keep urging people to cast off their chains. He’s causing absolute chaos. He was on your list so you need to take him back.”

Eventually God reluctantly agreed that Marx could be admitted to Heaven after all.

After a couple of weeks went by and Satan rang God to see whether everything was working out, but an angel answered the phone. “Hey, Gabriel”, said Satan “can I speak to your boss?”

”Boss?” said the angel

”Yeah, you know, God” said Satan, impatiently

“Oh, him! Ah, no, not any more”, replied Gabriel “No bosses here, we’re all comrades now!”

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