To understand Marxism, we need to know Marx! Preliminary notes on Marx and Marxism

Lalan Kishor Singh

Summary: This reflection by a worker in Nagpur, India consists of his effort to come to grips with the basic principles of Marx’s thought and its relevance to the current period – Editors

Translated by
Arvind Ghosh

The revolutions that have occurred in the name of Karl Marx after his death have all failed in the long run. These revolutions, including the Russian Revolution of 1917, were not led by the collective leadership of the working class, although workers in large numbers participated in these revolutions. These revolutions were led by political parties in the name of the working class and were not transformed into socialism/communism as conceptualized by Marx. Many eventually became transformed, as under the rule of Stalin, into totalitarian state-capitalism. However, the question remains: how could “state capitalism” eventually result from revolutions originally designated as “socialist” or as the “transition to socialism.”? To understand this question, we need first of all to understand the capitalist system which Marx spent his life fighting against and writing about in his life-long work named Capital.

Capitalism as a socio-economic relation came into existence around the beginning of the 16th century and evolved into a full-fledged industrial system after the French Revolution of 1789, more specifically during 1800 to 1870. As we all know, capitalism is based on the exploitation of the working class. In capitalism wealth in monetary form, or value, which appears on the surface of society as exchange-value, is produced through a specific form of the exploitation of labor-power. Capitalism flourishes through a drive for unlimited “value” production. Capital is the dead labor which accumulates by sucking the blood of living labor. Surplus value is created through the exploitation of labor power, which is the sole source of profit for the capitalist class. Members of the capitalist class are in constant in competition among themselves in order to earn maximum surplus value and profit. The expansion of capital all over the world is the result of this competition for surplus value and profit. It is the search for cheap raw materials and control of foreign markets in order to sell their products that compels capitalism to pursue imperialism.

1) Marx describes this expansion of capital all over the world in these words: “We thus see how the method of production and the means of production are constantly enlarged, revolutionized, how division of labor necessarily draws after it greater division of labor, the employment of machinery greater employment of machinery, work upon a large scale work upon a still greater scale. This is the law that continually throws capitalist production out of its old ruts and compels capital to strain ever more the productive forces of labor for the very reason that it has already strained them—the law that grants it no respite, and constantly shouts in its ear: March! March!”

2) In order to obtain as much profit as possible through the extraction of surplus value, capitalism not only exploits the labor power of the working class but also exhausts the natural resources of our planet. Millions of tons of minerals are extracted from the womb of the Earth every year in order to keep production going. Millions of trees are felled and jungles are set on fire in the name of “development” which does irreparable damage to the ecology, thus placing humanity as well other species on the verge of extinction. The recent burning of the Amazon Rain Forest in Brazil is an example in point. In their its search for unlimited profit, the capitalist class ignores the fact that the natural resources of the planet are limited and that the future generations of humanity as well as other species are fully entitled to them. Hence it has become extremely urgent that the capitalist mode of production is brought to an end and a new society is created—a completely new society wherein there would be a harmonious relationship between Humanity and Nature. Otherwise, in view of the continuing ecological crisis we are facing today it is certain that within less than a century this planet would become inhabitable for humanity as well as for most other species. Since capitalism is based on the unlimited exploitation of Nature, the present ecological crisis is a gift of capitalism.

The question may be asked: “Have there not been attempts to overthrow this anti-human anti- nature capitalism? Has not the working class (whom Marx designates as the most consistent revolutionary class), made several attempts to overthrow capitalism and replace it with a new human society free from all kinds of exploitation?” We have seen that in 1871 workers of Paris had given birth to Paris Commune through a Proletarian upsurge. Similarly, in 1917 Russia a “socialist revolution” had taken place under the leadership of Bolshevik Party and supported by much of the Russian working class. Subsequently many more similar revolutions had taken place in 20th century in different parts of the world. However, as we have mentioned earlier, all these revolutions failed miserably for multiple reasons. To investigate and find out the reasons for these failures is the most important task facing us today.

3) The question may even be asked: Why did Marx designate the working class as the subject for the destruction of capitalism and the creator of a new society?

Marx responds to this question in the Communist Manifesto thusly: “Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class. The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of Modern Industry; the proletariat is its special and essential product.”

To clarify this point Marx further says “The proletariat has nothing of their own to secure and to fortify; their mission is to destroy all previous securities for, and insurances of, individual property.”

The emancipator of the working class, according to Marx, is none other but the working class itself. Marx had entered in the Rules of the First International “The Emancipation of the working class is the act of workers themselves.” The working class not only has to emancipate itself but has to connect its emancipation with the freedom movement of all other oppressed sections of the society. In Marx’s view the struggle for the emancipation of the working class is in reality a struggle for human emancipation.

Marx had emphasized that the working-class movement is a conscious and independent movement of the vast majority of society. In his own words: “All previous historical movements were movements of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority.”

The conflict between labor and capital is inevitable within capitalism and this conflict takes the shape of a class struggle. This very struggle finally pushes capitalism towards its end:

In depicting the most general phases of the development of the proletariat, we traced the more or less veiled civil war, raging within existing society, up to the point where that war breaks out into open revolution, and where the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat. (The Communist Manifesto)

4) Along with the modernization of the production process (the latest form of which is automation and robotization), capitalism has pursued globalization. Through the centralization of the capital of corporate houses and multinational companies, finance capital has emerged as a powerful force in which bank capital that has played an increasingly important role. Finance capital dreams of earning profit without investing in the productive sphere, but this attempt to earn profit away from the productive sphere invites economic crisis. As a result, capitalism becomes afflicted with frequent crises that have an extremely harmful impact on the lives of the working class in the form of unemployment, poverty and starvation.

Capitalism today is undergoing a serious crisis and the bourgeois economists are finding themselves incapable of suggesting effective remedies. This is why, in spite of the failure of all previous revolutions, the ideas of Marx have remained as relevant as ever.

5) Let us discuss briefly some of the issues raised in two of Marx’s most important works which are 1) The Communist Manifesto and 2) The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.

In the Communist Manifesto Marx presents the international viewpoint of working class thusly:

The Communists are further reproached with desiring to abolish countries… The working men have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got. Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation, it is so far, itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word.

Marx further says:

Though not in substance, yet in form, the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is at first a national struggle. The proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie.

It is important to note that the Communist Manifesto does not dismiss the national question, nor does it take an indifferent attitude towards the issue. When the Manifesto says workers do not have a country it has the bourgeois state in the form of a nation in mind and not a national boundary within which workers live. Workers do not have a country because the bourgeois state in the form of a nation is an instrument of oppression against them. Even after the seizure of power the working class would not have a country of their own; the “workers states” will be in different phases of transition towards the classless, stateless society of the future and such a communist society can be established only on a world scale. This viewpoint helps us take our movement forward by bringing forth the internationalist content of our movement. Through this viewpoint Marx inspires us to organize on an international plane.

The second important book work of Marx which was published many years after his death is Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. In this series of notebooks Marx exposes the deceptive nature of the socio-economic system of capitalism. Entering into the depth of capitalist exploitation, Marx exposes its anti-human face. Marx talks of the inseparable relation between Humanity and Nature. He describes the relation between Man and Woman as the measure most natural of all social relations. We present a few relevant quotes from this which helps us to understand Marx better.

On the critique of political economy:

According to the political economist, the interest of the worker is never opposed to the interest of society. But society is invariably and inevitably opposed to the interest of the worker.

But it follows from the analyses made by the political economists, even though they themselves are unaware of the fact, that labor itself—not only under present conditions, but in general, insofar as its goal is restricted to the increase of wealth–is harmful and destructive.

But political economy knows the worker only as a beast of burden, as an animal reduced to the minimum bodily needs.

…According to [economist Adam] Smith, the normal wage is the lowest which is compatible with common humanity—i.e., with a bestial existence.

On the relationship between Humanity and Nature:

Humanity lives on nature – means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die. That man’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.

On the relationship between Man and Woman:

The direct, natural, and necessary relation of person to person is the relation of man to woman. In this natural species-relationship man’s relation to nature is immediately his relation to man, just as his relation to man is immediately his relation to nature—his own natural destination. In this relationship, therefore, is sensuously manifested, reduced to an observable fact, the extent to which the human essence has become nature to man, or to which nature to him has become the human essence of man. From this relationship one can therefore judge man’s whole level of development. From the character of this relationship follows how much man as a species-being, as man, has come to be himself and to comprehend himself; the relation of man to woman is the most natural relation of human being to human being. It therefore reveals the extent to which man’s natural behavior has become human, or the extent to which the human essence in him has become a natural essence—the extent to which his human nature has come to be natural to him. This relationship also reveals the extent to which man’s need has become a human need; the extent to which, therefore, the other person as a person has become for him a need—the extent to which he in his individual existence is at the same time a social being.

On the nature of communism:

Communism therefore as the complete return of man to himself as a social (i.e., human) being —a return accomplished consciously and embracing the entire wealth of previous development. This communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man—the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species. Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution.

On the relation of naturalism with idealism and materialism”

Here we see how consistent naturalism or humanism is distinct from both idealism and materialism, and constitutes at the same time the unifying truth of both. We see also how only naturalism is capable of comprehending the action of world history…

Now let us look into Marx’s concept of dictatorship of proletariat. Some people draw conclusions from this: Communism and democracy are antithetical. However, the fact is, for Marx not only are communism and democracy interrelated but for him “true democracy” is Communism and Communism is true democracy. Marx claimed that his original contribution had been “to prove: 1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production; 2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; 3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.”

In 1850 Marx was a member of World Society of Revolutionary Communists. The very first article of this society said: “The aim of the association is the overthrow of all privileged classes, their subjugation by the dictatorship of the proletariat which will maintain the revolution in permanence until communism, the last organizational form of the human family will be constructed.”

Although soon after Marx and Engels disassociated themselves from this organization (the chief inspiration behind which was Auguste Blanqui), they did not renounce the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat which meant for them an absolute democracy for the immense majority of the people excluding the bourgeoisie overthrown through the proletarian revolution. In the Communist Manifesto Marx says: “All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.”

According to Marx, in a democratic dictatorship the majority will is realized in and through the dominant class. For example, Marx described the Paris Commune as a “free association of producers” characterized by universality of suffrage, equality of wages and the right to recall all officials. For Marx “proletarian dictatorship here means the fulfillment of democracy.

Hence the dictatorship of the proletariat, which is a product of this movement of the immense majority, does not need the instruments of suppression that the bourgeoisie a minority class needed for its rule. The dictatorship of the proletariat is required to overthrow the remnants of bourgeois power over society and to provide complete democracy to the working class and the entire society, through which workers remain active in building a new society leading to the abolition of all classes.

Marxism, a Science or a Philosophy?

Two different viewpoints exist among Marxists regarding whether Marxism is a science or a philosophy. We think Marxism cannot be called a “science,”  according to which socialism would come into existence through the inevitable laws of history. This kind of “scientific” viewpoint is economic determinism, whereas Marxism is a philosophy based on human activity.

Similarly, we cannot say that in opposition to an idealist philosophy, Marxism is materialist. This is because Marxism adopts the viewpoint of human activity from idealism, although in idealism human activity is abstract and exists in the form of mysticism. Marx rejects the inactive and contemplative viewpoint towards knowledge, which according to Marx was an inalienable part of philosophy of his time. Due to this alienation, philosophy could see and understand the world only in retrospect. Hence, Marx rejects all inactive and contemplative philosophy to adopt a new approach to philosophy known as the philosophy of praxis.

Philosophy is inherent within praxis; but by ending the difference between human agency and the real world, the philosophy of praxis develops an active concept of knowledge. The philosophy of praxis developed by Marx is not a return to the old contemplative materialism but is a dialectical negation as well as unity of both idealism and materialism.

Thus, revolutionary critical praxis is the fundamental basis of Marx’s philosophy of human liberation which emphasizes the emancipatory power of human agency. It is in this sense he says in the 11 the thesis on Feuerbach, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Finally, the question may arise: Why Marx?

Being a worker, I find Marx’s philosophy of praxis closest to the working class. It is the philosophy of praxis which inspires the working class to learn from past mistakes (both theoretical and practical) while struggling relentlessly against capitalist exploitation and oppression. When Marx talks of emancipation of working class, he means primarily freedom from wage slavery, since without ending wage-labor, human society cannot free itself from all forms of exploitation and oppression it is afflicted with today.

The struggle of the working class for self-emancipation is an ongoing movement. In order to participate in this struggle as a conscious worker it is imperative for us to make an attempt to understand Marx in depth so that we may contribute towards the success of future proletarian revolutions.

(Written originally in Hindi and translated by Arvind Ghosh, Nagpur, India)


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