Ideas & Debates
The Relevance of Marx at 200
Two centuries after the birth of Marx, the ideas of the German revolutionary are as important as ever.
May 07, 2018
May 5 is the 200th birthday of Karl Marx. However, what is there to celebrate? Surely, Marx is out of date now with the fall of the Soviet Union and the triumph of capitalism.
While capitalism’s champions declared that the system was basically sound, the markets crashed in 2007/2008, unleashing the worst economic crisis since 1929. In the United States, the supposed success of capitalism, a handful of wealthy corporations hold the majority of the wealth, and close to 50 million citizens live below the poverty line.
Since the crisis, there has been a renewed interest in Marx’s criticism of capitalism. According to Gareth Stedman Jones, author of the recent biography Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion, “he gave an amazing picture of the developmental logic of capitalism itself — how it creates world markets, how it invents new needs, how it subverts inherited cultural practices and disregards hierarchies and so on.” He hastens to add, “What we should say is that capitalism may be an inevitable feature of the world, but it can be controlled. It can be channeled into less destructive forms, and that’s what political parties should aspire to do.” In other words, we cannot fundamentally change capitalism because it is the best economic system we have, and trying to do so necessarily leads to tragedy. However, to reduce Marx to just an insightful critic of capitalism is to forget his life’s work as a theorist and practitioner of communist revolution. There lies the enduring relevance of Marx’s work.
The Communist Manifesto
In 1847-8, Marx and his life-long comrade Frederick Engels co-wrote the Manifesto of the Communist Party at the behest of a small German revolutionary group, the Communist League. While the Manifesto was little read at the time of its publication, it has gone down in history as one of the single most influential political pamphlets ever written. The Communist Manifesto contains Marx’s most succinct summary of historical materialism, critique of capitalism, and the need for working class revolution.
The Manifesto’s starting point is that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” This is the basic view of the Marxist theory of history, and while class struggles were recognized as a factor in history by bourgeois writers before Marx, what he did was to recognize that the class struggle was a law of social change. Throughout history, there have been struggles between different classes: “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight...” The existence of class struggle between exploiters and exploited is just as true today as it was in 1848.
Marx and Engels lauded the great achievements of the bourgeoisie and the rise of capitalism. The opening sections of the Manifesto describe capitalism as a dynamic and ever-revolutionizing system which reshapes all of society after its own image. Rather than looking back fondly on feudalism, Marx and Engels saw capitalism as an advance on what came before. The new system of factories and mass production changed the very conditions of life and caused leaps in technological advancement. Thanks to new inventions, one worker could perform the labor of ten or even a hundred in a fraction of the time. Markets expanded across the world, propelled by the steam engine, cheap goods, and the railroad.
In 1848, when capitalism was still in its infancy, the Manifesto was prophetic in its future vision of capitalism conquering the world:
The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.... The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.
Indeed, Marx and Engels conclude: “The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part.”
However, this praise of capitalism is conditional; in fact, the Manifesto also serves as a funeral oration for the bourgeoisie. Marx and Engels viewed capitalism as releasing forces which it could not control “like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world that he has called up by his spells.” Capitalism lacks any plan or logic; its goal is not the satisfaction of human needs but the subordination of everything to the need for profit and capital accumulation. Crises bring unemployment, misery, and want.
At the same time as the birth of the bourgeoisie, there is the creation of the proletariat – the modern working class. Workers are a unique product of capitalism – a class of wage earners without property and with nothing to sell save their labor power. They are the creators of social wealth, but their labor only serves to enrich the bourgeoisie. The proletariat resists their exploitation, slowly and in small battles at first, but gradually they unite on a larger scale to fight.
In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels say that a great feature of the modern epoch was that "[s]ociety 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." In 1848, the working class was only a majority in Britain, while throughout most of the world it didn’t exist. However, Marx and Engels brilliantly forecast the future growth of the working class. Despite claims that the working class is no longer relevant, now the working class numbers in the hundreds of millions in countries such as China and India. If anything, the working class is more of a historical force than it has ever been.
The drive towards capitalist accumulation has resulted in wars and revolutions. This was true during the twentieth century in the aftermath of the Great Depression with the rise of fascism and the Second World War. Big convulsions like that are not a thing of the past. Today, the U.S. remains mired in an imperial occupation of Afghanistan, while launching attacks on at least a half-dozen countries. Capitalism’s crises continue to spawn popular revolts from the Arab Spring, to the general strikes in Greece, to Occupy and Black Lives Matter in the U.S. If anything, Marx’s analysis of capitalism’s crisis remains more relevant today than in 1848.
According to the Manifesto, the working class is the only revolutionary class under capitalism, and their position in production makes them uniquely placed to overthrow it. Their very conditions of life compel the working class to organize and resist, creating a larger movement. The workplace is where they produce wealth and are forced to labor together for capital. With organization and consciousness, the proletariat can organize themselves collectively to run society in their own interests. The interests of the working class as a whole, regardless of whether or not they are consciously revolutionary, are diametrically opposed to the interests of capital, which leads them to struggle. The general course of working-class struggles, with ever-increasing boldness and radicalism, leads them outside of a bourgeois framework. Ultimately, the proletariat is the only class with the social weight and potential power to lead a revolution. While past revolutions replaced one ruling class with another minority ruling class, the proletarian revolution is different: “The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.” The proletarian revolution is, thus, not simply a revolution of the working class, but it is a struggle against all forms of exploitation and oppression, no matter whom they affect.
Once the workers are combined with knowledge of their exploitation and the means to end it, they will lead a revolution to create a communist society, where “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”
The Communist Manifesto took communism out of the realm of sentimental daydreams and gave it a real material and historical basis. Before 1848, there had been revolts and rebellions by the oppressed and exploited for liberation. Most of these great rebels possessed no scientific understanding of the world and believed themselves at the mercy of fate. All those struggles failed because the material conditions for their realization had not arrived. The advent of capitalism had created the possibilities for an egalitarian society. Marx and Engels understood this, providing the working class with a theory of how society was fraught with class struggle, the laws of motion of capitalism, and the necessity for revolution. Engels later said that the Manifesto laid down “the line of action” for communists to fight “as one common army under one and the same flag.”
Marx was an active leader in two organizations – the Communist League and later the First International – where he developed the fundamentals of working-class politics. His guiding axiom was that “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.”
The essential task Marx saw for the working class was to become conscious of its historical mission and to transform itself into a political movement – a revolutionary communist party separate and opposed to all bourgeois parties – with the aim of seizing power. This did not mean abstaining from political struggle, neglecting to defend democratic freedoms, or refusing to fight for reforms, but that workers needed to do so under their own banner and to build their fighting capacity. Unfortunately, it is a lesson that the working class needs to constantly relearn in light of many betrayals and panaceas.
The Paris Commune
The dictatorship of the proletariat is often said to be synonymous with the grim bureaucratic police states of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. When Marx invoked the term, he meant something entirely different, but for the working class to rule society through new democratic institutions in a manner fundamentally different from capitalist oligarchs. During Marx’s lifetime, he hailed the short-lived Paris Commune of 1871 for “storming the heavens” and as “the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labor.” While the Commune went down in defeat, its example has inspired revolutions and revolts throughout the world.
However, the Commune’s errors were not repeated by successful revolutions such as that of the Bolsheviks. Lenin, who built upon Marx, recognized that centralized leadership by a revolutionary party was needed in order to coordinate struggles. Secondly, it was necessary to smash the counterrevolution through a swift offensive. In a time when many are looking for easy paths to socialism such as by elections or supporting friendly progressives, we need to be reminded of the lessons of the Commune and the hard reality of what is needed to win.
During the long years of exile, Marx devoted himself to study in the British library in order to complete his magnum opus: Das Kapital. Marx’s goal was “to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society.” In this work, left incomplete, Marx covers many topics such as the nature of commodities, the exploitation of labor, the laws of motion of capitalism, and the causes of capitalist breakdown. Marx ideas in Capital remain hotly debated by both scholars and militants to this day.
While it would take a library to discuss Capital, we will touch on just one aspect of its enduring relevance. The growth of technology should be welcomed as a way to lessen the burden of labor; under capitalism, however, technology serves a perverse need. According to Marx, the driving force of capital is not the lessening of the workers’ toil but the search for profits. This compels each capitalist to develop technology in order to line their own pockets while showing no regard for workers by slashing their wages, intensifying the pace of work, or just firing them and tossing them into the streets.
Today, the ecological crisis and climate change provide further evidence that Marx was correct about the environmental devastation inherent in capitalism. "Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth — the soil and the labourer.” In the 1860s, it was possible to ignore those words; now that’s no longer the case.
Our War Cry
Since his death, Marx has been declared dead many times over. He remains a spirit who haunts the bourgeoisie because he was right about what matters: Capitalism is the problem, and communism is the solution. As long as capitalism remains, Marx will find worthy disciples in the factories, universities, and slums. On his 200th birthday, the closing words of the Communist Manifesto still remains our war cry:
The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. 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!
 PBSpot Admin, “In the U.S. 49.7 Million Are Now Poor, and 80% of the Total Population Is Near Poverty”, The Political Blindspot.
 Sean Illing, “Karl Marx still matters: what the modern left can learn from the philosopher”, Vox.
 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “The Communist Manifesto”, Marxists Internet Archive.
 Frederick Engels, “The Condition of the Working Class in England”, Marxists Internet Archive.
 Karl Marx, “The International Workingmen’s Association General Rules, Marxists Internet Archive.
 Karl Marx, “The Civil War in France”, Marxists Internet Archive.
 Karl Marx, “Das Kapital: Volume One”, Marxists Internet Archive.
 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “The Communist Manifesto”, Marxists Internet Archive