The return of Marx

February 16, 2009

The ideas of Karl Marx--that class society creates great wealth for the few at the expense of the many--ring truer every day. Brian Jones examines Marx's revolutionary ideas in this first of three articles.

IN THE last 150 years of U.S. history, you can't point to a generation whose most active, radical layers have not been drawn to the ideas of Karl Marx.

This was true of the abolitionist movement (Marxist immigrants even fought with the Northern Army in the Civil War), the early pioneers of our labor movement, the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) who passed through Socialist and Communist Parties in the first half of the 20th century, and of the many thousands who joined the Black Panther Party and other parties that declared themselves against capitalism and in favor of socialism in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Millions of people around the world have sought, from the Marxist tradition, a way to win a different kind of society free of poverty, oppression and war. That rather hopeful premise--that a different kind of world is actually possible--goes a long way toward explaining how it could be that the only book that can compete (in terms of paid sales) with the Bible is the Communist Manifesto.

It was that project--the fight for a better world--that motivated Marx. At his funeral, Marx's lifelong collaborator and closest friend, Frederick Engels, said of him: "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 of the state institutions which it had brought into being...Fighting was his element. And he fought with a passion, a tenacity and a success such as few could rival."

But when you try to go out and learn something about Marx, you will quickly discover that it is precisely this tenacious revolutionism that is discarded by mainstream treatments of him. "Marx had good ideas," they want you to believe, "but don't try to put them into practice." Or, as another twist on the same idea: "He was good at analyzing the problems of capitalism, but obviously wrong about the solution."

Time magazine recently published a feature article, "Rethinking Marx" (interestingly, it was available only in Britain), with essentially the same thesis:

Marx's utopian predictions about revolution and the triumph of socialism were dead wrong; indeed, many of the policies carried out in his name in the 20th century brought misery to millions in countries ranging from Russia to China, and including large chunks of Africa.

Yet...if you leave aside the prophetic, prescriptive parts of Marx's writings, there's a trenchant diagnosis of the underlying problems of a market economy that is surprisingly relevant even today...He was moved by glaring inequalities between rich and poor that are more topical than ever today...

In short, Marx painted a picture of the capitalism's excesses, but forget trying to replace it. Replacing capitalism, Time magazine warns, leads straight to Stalin's prison labor camps. Time wants us to "leave aside the prescriptive parts," which is like going to the doctor for a diagnosis, but not for a cure.

MARX HAD a peculiar problem: People formed groups under his name--but Marx actually had fundamental disagreements with their ideas. "I, at least," Marx was fond of joking, "am not a Marxist...God save me from my friends!"

In hindsight, it's not too hard to see that figures like Stalin and Mao were precisely the sort Marx had in mind.

So what were Marx's real ideas?

Let's start with what Marx actually said about capitalism--the diagnosis. Of course, the occasion for Time magazine's feature article--and this talk--is the current global economic crisis.

The free market, touted as the best way to run the world, is currently in free fall. Not only is the market apparently "broken" as an instrument for spreading wealth, it seems apparent to millions (if not billions at this point) that it was never intended to spread wealth in the first place.

New York Gov. David Paterson is making cuts in education and health care to fill a budget hole (for 2009-2010) of about $15 billion. He's planning to cut funding for Head Start, Medicare and food stamps, for example.

Meanwhile, total Wall Street bonuses for 2008 ended up totaling $18.4 billion. Merrill Lynch alone handed out $4 billion in bonuses to top executives before going belly up. We could easily spend a whole evening imagining the miracles we could work if that kind of money were directed to social needs.

People who were hailed for decades as geniuses and heroes, are today exposed as frauds, liars and thieves. But none of the gurus of free-market capitalism were praised to the heavens like Alan Greenspan. Greenspan was the former head of the Federal Reserve, and he was one of those who supported getting rid of the regulations on Wall Street so that the free market could work its magic.

In his recent congressional testimony, though, he admitted that he found a "flaw" in his free-market model.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: In other words, you found that your view of the world, your ideology, was not right, it was not working?

ALAN GREENSPAN: That is--precisely. No, that's precisely the reason I was shocked, because I had been going for 40 years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well.

This should be called "The Madoff Defense": Your honor, with all due respect, my house of cards did stand for almost 40 years.

Yes, Greenspan found a flaw. Shocking.

Now, it turns out that about 160 years ago, Marx also found a flaw with capitalism. The flaw is related to what makes capitalism so dynamic in the first place, which is the fact that

[t]he bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society...All fixed, fast-frozen relations...are swept away...before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air...

Capitalism is driven forward by relentless competition, and in an incredibly short time (historically speaking), this new system has generated an immense output of wealth:

The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together...machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation...what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labor?

But the flaw is that all of production is unplanned. So the system has released this relentless innovative energy, but it's out of human control, and every so many years, there's a crisis.

Modern bourgeois society...a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells...It is enough to mention the commercial crises that by their periodical return put the existence of the entire bourgeois society on trial, each time more threateningly...

There was a time, long ago, when people starved because there was not enough food. Food was under-produced. Along comes capitalism, and people starve because there's too much food!

There's also too many cars, too many TVs, too many basketballs...capitalism's competitive production for profit, means there's too many of everything, and inevitably therefore, a crisis.

In these crises, there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity--the epidemic of overproduction. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilization, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce.

And to what do we owe the honor of our current economic catastrophe? Too many houses!

Not too many houses to house people. Not too many for the millions of homeless. Only too many to be sold at a profit. So houses must sit empty, people must be thrown out of work (2 million people were laid off in just the last four months), stores, factories and offices must be closed, it seems that a "universal war of devastation" is taking place--all so that the free market can repair itself.

BUT EVEN without this flaw, even without overproduction, in "ordinary" times, even in a boom, great wealth and great poverty are two sides of the same capitalist coin.

How did rich people become rich, anyway? Are they rich because they're so thrifty? Are they just more hardworking? No, it's not just that some happen to be rich and others by chance are poor. Under capitalism, people are rich because others are poor. They're rich because they exploit our labor--but it's not obvious how that happens.

In ancient Egypt, if you were a slave, they said to you, "Good morning, you're going to build that pyramid over there until you die. And no, we're not going to give you anything in return. Get started." If you were a peasant in the Middle Ages, the king would send a tax collector who would say, "Oh, what a wonderful crop you've grown! We'll take half. Good job."

It's obvious that they're stealing from you in those systems. In capitalism, however, it's not as obvious.

Capitalists buy and then sell things to make a profit. But it's not just a question of marking up the price in between. You couldn't build a whole society on just marking up everything. All the markups would cancel each other out. Wealth has to be created somehow.

The capitalists buy a lot of things--raw materials, machinery, buildings and labor. Then they turn around and sell a product, hopefully for more than they paid for all of those ingredients. The trick is that one of those ingredients is different from the others, one of them is special: labor.

As Paul D'Amato put it in The Meaning of Marxism:

It is, Marx noted, a "good piece of luck" that labor's use is greater than "what the capitalist pays for that use." The value of labor power--that is, wages--is less than the value of output that this labor can produce. Put another way, workers produce enough value to cover the cost of their just part of the working day. The labor performed for the rest of the working day does not have to be paid for--it is "surplus labor," which produces "surplus value," and therefore when the product is sold, this unpaid portion goes into the pocket of the capitalists.

That our wages are calculated as an hourly payment hides the fact that for part of every working day, the boss is actually getting something for nothing. Ultimately, that's why capitalism creates such disparities of wealth--it's a system where a few people exploit the labor of many.

For a moment, though, leave aside the exploitation. Leave aside the endemic poverty, leave aside the cyclical crises. There remains the fact that capitalism perverts human nature. Marx called this perversion "alienation."

What does this mean? Keep in mind that creative, social labor is what makes us human in the first place--work, in other words. Under capitalism, however, we don't have any real control over our work. So the very thing that makes us human, is the thing this system takes from us. In Marx's words:

What constitutes the alienation of labor?

Firstly, the fact that labor is external to the worker--i.e., does not belong to his essential being; that he, therefore, does not confirm himself in his work, but denies himself, feels miserable and not happy, does not develop free mental and physical energy, but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind. Hence, the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working. His labor is, therefore, not voluntary but forced, it is forced labor. It is, therefore, not the satisfaction of a need but a mere means to satisfy needs outside itself. Its alien character is clearly demonstrated by the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, it is shunned like the plague.

Imagine a bird that hates to fly, or a fish that loathes nothing more than swimming, and you have an idea of just what kind of alienated creatures we are, living under a system that makes us hate working.

That's a super-brief sketch of what Marx had to say about capitalism's crises, about surplus value and about alienation.

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