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The revolutionary ideas of Karl Marx

April 6, 2007 | Pages 8 and 9

SHAUN HARKIN explains why generations of people have looked to Marxism and its vision of a better world--and why its commitment to justice, democracy and equality remains relevant today.

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"The philosophers have merely interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it."
--Karl Marx

FROM THE vantage point of the oppressed, there was never a golden age of capitalism. Brutality and exploitation were intrinsic features from its start, as Karl Marx pointed out in Capital:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population, the beginnings of the conquest of and plunder of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, are all the things which characterized the dawn of the era of capitalist production.

However, capitalism from its inception has also been marked by a contradiction.

Meetings on Marx

The International Socialist Organization is sponsoring meetings around the country on "The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx." Click to see where and when the meetings are planned.


On the one hand, it has been an incredibly dynamic economic system, producing hitherto unknown levels of wealth, and presenting unlimited possibilities for human society. At the same time, capitalism has produced hitherto unknown levels of misery, destruction and poverty--made all the more conspicuous next to the new mountains of wealth.

Marx captured this in an early writing from 1844:

Labor produces marvels for the rich, but it produces privation for the worker. It produces palaces, but hovels for the worker. It produces beauty, but deformity for the worker. It replaces labor by machines, but it casts some of the workers back into barbarous forms of labor, and turns others into machines.

For the vast majority of the world's population, whose labor produces this immense wealth, so much is possible, but remains out of their reach.

Instead of living in a world where our human needs and well-being come first--where decency and dignity rule and deprivation and want are abolished--we face the opposite: permanent war and occupation; global warming and ecological disaster; tedious, alienating and dangerous jobs; insecurity and debt; racism and repression; sexism and scapegoating; deepening exploitation and poverty.

What else to read

Though written more than 150 years ago, The Communist Manifesto remains the best introduction to the revolutionary ideas of Karl Marx. Haymarket Books has produced an outstanding new edition of the Manifesto, painstakingly annotated by Phil Gasper, and with a wealth of supplementary material.

Frederick Engels' Socialism: Utopian and Scientific is one of the most complete statements of the Marxist conception of history. Marx's The Civil War in France discusses the Paris Commune of 1871, arguing that it was the first example of workers' power. Wage Labor and Capital and Value, Price and Profit are two short booklets by Marx explaining his basic economic ideas.

For an excellent modern-day introduction to Marx's ideas, be sure to read Paul D'Amato's The Meaning of Marxism. Sharon Smith's Women and Socialism: Essays on Women's Liberation gives an excellent account of the Marxist approach to understanding and combating oppression.

The American socialist Hal Draper wrote a five-volume work titled Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution, which provides one of the best overall accounts of Marx's social and political views. The first two volumes are on State and Bureaucracy and The Politics of Social Classes.


While the paid representatives of our rulers may voice concern over these problems every now and then, they have no fundamental interest in challenging the status quo. In fact, as most people's conditions stagnate or slide backwards in an economic race to the bottom, the tiny elite that owns and controls the wealth and means of producing wealth in our society have seen their fortunes vastly improve.

Forbes magazine reports that the number of billionaires around the globe now numbers 946, up from 793 last year. According to the British Guardian newspaper, "The combined wealth on the list grew 35 percent during the year to $3.5 trillion, on the back of rising property prices, commodities and stock markets." Luisa Kroll, who helped compile the list of the world's wealthiest at Forbes, described 2006 as "kind of an extraordinary year."

Contrast this to the fact that more than a third of the world's population--2.8 billion people--live on less than $2 a day.

In the U.S., the wealthiest 0.1 percent of the population--around 129,000 individuals--took home a full quarter of the entire increase in national income in 2003. As the New York Times' David Cay Johnston reported, "The top tenth of 1 percent had more income in 2003 than the poorest third of taxpayers...This is a sharp change from 1979, the earliest year in the IRS report, when the total income of the poorest third of Americans exceeded that garnered by the top tenth of 1 percent by 2.5 to 1."

A 2006 USA Today study of young people and debt found that "[n]early half of 20-somethings have stopped paying a debt, forcing lenders to "charge off" the debt and sell it to a collection agency, or had cars repossessed or sought bankruptcy protection." Some 60 percent said they feel they are facing tougher financial pressures than young people did in previous generations.

"I have nightmares," 29-year-old Heather Schopp of Long Beach, Calif., who accrued $165,000 in student-loan debt to become a chiropractor, told the paper. "I dream I'm on a hot-air balloon, hanging on for dear life."

In 2002, almost 37 million Americans lived below the official government poverty line. Among developed countries, the U.S. ranks behind only Mexico and Russia in social inequality.

Simply put, a parasitical minority benefits from war, racism, exploitation, oppression and poverty--at the expense of the vast majority of humanity.

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KARL MARX wasn't the first person to identify the ills of capitalism. However, Marx did develop a theory that shed light on how capitalism developed, how it functioned (and didn't function) and how it could be challenged.

Despite regular attempts by capitalist apologists to bury Marx, the power of his revolutionary ideas have led millions of people to look to Marxism as a guide for changing the world. Today, it should be no different.

At the root of his ideas, Marx formulated a new way of looking at human society, which he and others called the "materialist conception of history." He focused on how the development of human society starts with how people collectively worked on and interact with nature to produce the materials necessary for life.

"It is not consciousness that determines life," Marx wrote, "but life that determines consciousness." By this, Marx meant that human society isn't shaped by some abstract system of morals, nor the ideas of a few "great men"--but, on the contrary, material conditions shape people's ideas and conceptions.

We're encouraged to believe that society cannot and should not change fundamentally. The conventional wisdom is that society today is basically the same as it has always been, and always will be.

Marxism makes the case that the opposite is true--that human history has been all about struggle and change.

To explain why, Marx borrowed a concept from the German philosopher Georg Hegel--the "dialectic." Ironically, in his native land, Hegel's philosophy was used to justify the existence of an absolutist monarchy.

But for Marx, the "dialectic" was a method for understanding how developments in the capacity of human beings to meet their needs came into conflict with the existing social structure, leading to conflicts and struggles over whether society would move forward or not. In an afterword to Capital Volume I, Marx described why his theory was so unacceptable to the world's ruling classes:

In its mystified form, dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and to glorify the existing state of things. In its rational form [as utilized by Marx], it is a scandal and abomination to bourgeoisdom and its doctrinaire professors, because it includes in its comprehension an affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up; because it regards every historically developed social form as in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence; because it lets nothing impose upon it, and is, in its essence, critical and revolutionary."

It's easy to feel that society and power relations are unchanging. But there are many examples to the contrary. For example, the popularity of the government of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela is the result of masses of people there and throughout Latin America rejecting the free-market neoliberal economics promoted by the U.S.

Within the United States, the idea that "heartland America" is innately conservative, Republican-loving and resistant to any progressive idea--taken as a matter of common sense only a few years ago--is evaporating today.

The point is that small, often unnoticed and seemingly unimportant shifts are part of a process that lead to massive changes. For Marx, the dialectic was a way of explaining how social conditions, people's consciousness and organization interact to create the potential for revolutionary change.

Crisis, rebellion and revolution aren't accidents of history, but inherent features of human society at every stage.

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MARX WAS skilled at identifying the contradictions of capitalism as an economic system, and explaining why it is prone to periodic crises.

Because capitalism is founded on unplanned competitive production for profit between capitalists, the incessant chase for profits leads to overproduction and financial shocks, causing bankruptcy, mass unemployment and the possible dislocation of whole economies and even the world system.

As Paul D'Amato pointed out in his book The Meaning of Marxism:

Economic crises underline the fact that in our society, production is not for human need, but for profit. Crises happen because capitalists can't sell their goods profitably, not because there aren't millions who use the "overproduced" goods...Millions can be homeless, yet there can be talk of a "real-estate glut."

The fact that capitalism is prone to crisis is another reason why revolution is necessary. Under capitalism, reforms--whether economic or political--won through struggle are never permanent. Capitalism in crisis will always attempt to save itself by making workers pay the price for its anarchy.

The world economy has for a long time been ripe for socialist planning. Indeed, this is the only way society can move beyond the anarchy and destruction--and here, we should include imperialist war--of the system.

As Marx and his collaborator Frederick Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto:

In our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinctive feature: it has simplified the class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: bourgeoisie and proletariat.

Marx and Engels were identifying the great inescapable fault line of capitalist society--class and class struggle.

Capitalism gave birth to the proletariat, what we now term the working class. The immense profits of capitalism, apparently "created" in the free market, are actually the difference between what workers get paid and the value of the labor they perform in producing products and services. Marx's labor theory of value explains how this "exploitation" is fundamental to capitalism.

With class division and exploitation, class struggle is also inevitable. As Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto:

[W]ith the development of industry, the proletariat not only increases in number, it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels its strength more...Thereupon, the workers begin to form combinations (trade unions) against the bourgeois; they club together in order to keep up the rate of wages; they found permanent associations in order to make provision beforehand for these occasional revolts. Here and there, the contest breaks out into riots....

This union is helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by modern industry and that place the workers of different localities in contact with each other. It was just this contact that was needed to centralize the numerous local struggles, all of the same character, into one national struggle between classes. But every class struggle is a political struggle.'

Since Marx's day more than a century ago, the potential power of the working class described in this passage has grown enormously. Capitalism has created a global economic system, and with it, a global working class.

The great power of the working class derives from its strategic position in the process of production. Workers can paralyze a factory, an industry and even a whole economy by going on strike. Technological advances mean some groups of workers, even if smaller in number, hold even more strategic power today.

Yet the road to workers' power and socialism is not straightforward. Marx argued that the working class could be the gravedigger of capitalism and the founder of a new society based on equality and democracy, but he also outlined the obstacles to this project.

In particular, he identified how capitalism fosters and depends on divisions within the working class. Taking the example of the working class in England, he wrote:

In all the big industrial centers in England, there is a profound antagonism between the Irish proletarian and the English proletarian. The average English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers wages and the standard of life. He feels national and religious antipathies for him.

He regards him somewhat like the poor whites in the southern states of North America regarded Black slaves. This antagonism among the proletarians of England is artificially nourished and kept up by the bourgeoisie. It knows that this scission is the true secret of maintaining its power.

As Paul D'Amato points out:

The same logic is at work under capitalism today. One has only to think of the deliberate racism fostered against Mexican immigrants. If native-born workers can be made to believe that immigrant workers threaten their jobs; if white workers can be made to hate or resent Blacks; or if Americans can be made to think that Arabs and Muslims are the enemy, it makes it more difficult for workers to unite against their common enemy.

Racist and xenophobic ideas do not benefit workers and the poor, whatever their race, sex, or ethnicity. But they do benefit the exploiters.

Because workers share material interests, these divisions can be overcome through common struggle. But this is far from an automatic process. Reactionary ideas, such as racism, sexism and homophobia, inside the working class have to be consciously opposed and challenged in advance of, and in preparation for, struggle.

Struggle is the key to challenging reactionary ideas and forging a working class that is united and capable of founding a new society that discriminates against no worker. As Marx wrote:

Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration in a practical movement, a revolution; the revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the old crap and become fitted to found society anew.

IN THE Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels addressed the question of how socialists should organize:

In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.

The Communists, therefore are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the lines of march, the conditions and the ultimate general results of the proletarian struggle.

Thus, revolutionaries need to participate in and lead working-class struggles--and at the same time win others to the need for a socialist alternative. Future Marxists developed the question of socialist organization further, but their starting point remained Marx and Engels' general guideline: the construction of an independent working-class revolutionary socialist party.

The ruling class is centralized and organized through the state, so the working class must be as well. For workers as a class to gain political power and overturn the capitalist state machinery, the working-class movement must develop its own political leadership forged around this goal.

At the heart of Marxism is the idea that "the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself."

This is the project that Marx dedicated his life to. As his lifelong friend Engels summarized his contribution:

Marx was before all else a revolutionist. His real mission in life was to contribute, in one way or another, to the overthrow of capitalist society...and to contribute to the liberation of the modern proletariat, which he was first to make conscious of its own position and needs, conscious of the conditions of its emancipation.

The revolutionary ideas of Karl Marx have never been so relevant. We have a world to win.

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