Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain - Marx Studies - Marx at 200

Introduction: Marx at 200

2017 marked CAPITAL’s 150th anniversary as well as the 170th anniversary of the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO in February 2018, and it was Karl Marx’s 200th birthday in May 2018, of this year. A lot to celebrate if you are a socialist.

Together, these anniversaries offer the opportunity to look at Marx’s contribution to socialist theory. Why is Karl Marx still so important? There is a simple explanation. Marx and his critique of capitalism never went away.

Contrary to the claims of anti-Marxists, his ideas were not buried under the rubble of the Berlin Wall in 1989. He was read for the important insights he gave about the development of world capitalism at the turn of the century when so-called ‘globalisation’ was being discussed. He was read again during the economic crisis of 2007/2008 and subsequently during the period of “austerity” when many workers found themselves in the gig economy, forced to take precarious low-paid jobs, visit food banks or desperately tried to find somewhere to live, whether with parents, friends, or in doorways. And, of course, Marx is still read and studied by socialists who want to understand capitalism. And Marx should be read and studied by the working class in order to help it to change the profit system in a revolutionary way towards socialism – the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.

Marx cannot be understood by merely repeating what he said about the conditions of the 19th century. Marx’s critique of capitalism is, in effect, part of an on-going socialist critique of capitalism as it moves from one crisis to the next, one circuit of exploitation to the next and from one war to the next. So long as capitalism exists with the economic, political and environmental problems it causes the Marxian critique of capitalism will never go away.

So, who was Karl Marx?

Karl Heinrich Marx was born on 5 May 1818 in Trier in western German, the son of a successful Jewish lawyer.

Marx studied law in Bonn and Berlin, but was also introduced to the ideas of the philosophers Hegel and Feuerbach. In Berlin, when studying philosophy, Marx came into contact with radical or left-wing Hegelianism and he joined the “Young Hegelians”.

In 1841, Marx received a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Jena. In 1843, after a short spell as editor of a liberal newspaper in Cologne, Marx and his wife Jenny moved to Paris, a centre of revolutionary ideas.

In Paris, forced by exile due to his radical views, Marx became a communist and befriended his lifelong collaborator, Friedrich Engels.

Expelled from France, Marx spent two years in Brussels, where his partnership with Engels intensified. They co-authored the pamphlet 'THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO' which was published in 1848 and asserted that all human history had been based on class struggles, but that these would ultimately end with the victory of the proletariat and the establishment of a classless society of men and women.

In 1849, Marx moved to London, where he was to spend the remainder of his life. For a number of years, his family lived in poverty but the wealthier Engels was able to support them to an increasing extent.

Marx had a long association with working class organisations; first with leading members of the Chartists (KARL MARX: HIS LIFE AND THOUGHT, David McClellan) and then the Working Men’s Association known as the First international. It is during this time that Marx produced his most important critique of political economy: 'DAS KAPITAL' (1867), of which only the first volume was published in his life-time, the remaining two volumes were published posthumously by Engels.

In his final years, Karl Marx was in creative and physical decline. He spent time at health spas and was deeply distressed by the death of his wife, in 1881, and that of one of his daughters. He died on 14 March 1883 and was buried at Highgate Cemetery in London.

Throughout his life, Marx produced a vast amount of work on political economy, philosophy, history and politics. The MARX/ENGELS COLLECTED WORKS is the largest collection of translations into English of the complete works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels covering the period 1835-1895. The 50 volumes contain all the written works of Marx and Engels including formerly unpublished manuscripts and letters. The cost to someone who wanted to buy the entire collection would be £1,600 – a lot of bottles of champagne - and perhaps a life-time to read and digest.

Marx’s intellectual debts are numerous – he was well-grounded in the Greek early pre-Socratic materialists philosophers and Aristotle, but probably most importantly the primary influences go to Hegel (philosophy), to the French utopian socialists (St Simon, and Fourier) and to the English Classical Economists (Adam Smith – THE WEALTH OF NATIONS and David Ricardo – PRINCIPLES OF POLITICAL ECONOMYrinciples of Political Economy) and to the French Physiocrats (Quesnay and Turgot).

There have been numerous debates over whether Hegel walks the pages of CAPITAL, upside down or otherwise, but Ricardo certainly does; there is a critical dialogue between Marx and Ricardo’s writings on political economy.

Marx gave due credit to Ricardo, along with Smith, even though they could never get outside their “bourgeois skins”. Both Ricardo and Smith recognised that human labour is the only source of value although with them the ‘labour theory of value’ was unable to explain the source of profit. Marx’s labour theory of value did what their theory of value could not do.

Marx explained the source of surplus value and the unearned income of rent, interest and profits. In the capitalist commodity – the production process, the workers sell their labour power – their physical and mental abilities – for wages and salaries which are calculated on the basis of the cost of producing and reproducing labour, but the value of what they produce is normally in excess of what is necessary to cover their wages. Smith and Ricardo assumed workers sell their labour so were unable to explain the origin of surplus value and profits.

Marx made a useful distinction between “classical” and “vulgar” economics. The former tried to understand capitalism; the latter dealt only with appearances. To borrow from Oscar Wilde, the vulgar economists know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Marx had an utter contempt for the economists who came after Ricardo, such as Say, Senior and Malthus.

Marx and Engels explained in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO that a constant factor in all recorded history is that social development takes place through the class struggle. Under capitalism this has been greatly simplified with the polarisation of society into two great antagonistic classes, the capitalist class and the working class. The tremendous development of industry and technology over the last 200 years has led to the increasing concentration of economic power and wealth in a few hands.

Although Marx declared in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” he did not invent the class struggle. What Marx did do was to explain the class struggle by the application of his theory of surplus value. As Engels noted in ANTI-DUHRING, Marx’s theory of history, more popularly known as the materialist conception of history, his theory of surplus value were his two most important contributions to socialist theory. Marx also held the revolutionary view that the state is an expression of class interests and class power.

Marx had many personal faults and some of his views on political issues at the time are not shared by socialists today. Socialists do not support “progressive wars” or nationalist groups. Marx was not a prophet and CAPITAL is not “the bible of the working class”. CAPITAL is not a closed set of dogmas but a text to be used by socialists to analyze current issues and trends in capitalism.

Where Marx made errors and misjudgements socialists will point them out. Marx’s economic and political thinking was formed by the time in which he lived. Socialists do not have to agree or defend everything Marx said or wrote. Socialists stand or fall on the OBJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES (1904) of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, much of it informed by the ideas of Marx, notably:

That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself (Clause 5)

What socialists do defend, though, is his scientific analysis of capitalism, his theory of value, his theory of history, known popularly as the materialist conception of history and his political concept of the class struggle. These three interconnected theories form the basis for a scientific explanation of capitalism.

Marx was also a political activist, engaged in the revolutionary politics of his time. He wrote important contributions and carried out useful work for the First International which bought out the global nature of capitalism and the class struggle which had an important bearing on war and the socialist opposition to war.

There is his scathing work – the 18th BRUMAIRE with its criticism of Louis Bonaparte. Or his equally strongly worded pamphlet, the CIVIL WAR IN FRANCE on the bloody crushing of the Paris Commune. These works were not purely theoretical but examples of his political activism as a revolutionary socialist.

And finally, in later life, he studied Russian so as to engage with Russian revolutionaries in correspondence – and voice his objections to the romantic ideals of the Narodniks, and their belief that the peasants in backward Russia, because they had a primitive form of collective, the Mir, could leapfrog past capitalism straight into socialism.

Marx is often referred to as a philosopher. He would have disagreed. As Marx once said: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways: the point is to change it” (THESES ON FEUERBACH).

Or, more tersely, “philosophy stands in the same relation to the study of the actual world as masturbation to sexual love” (THE GERMAN IDEOLOGY, International Publishers, ed. Chris Arthur, p. 103).

Marx, it should be said, was foremost a socialist revolutionary.

2). Critique of Political Economy

Marx’s attention to political economy was first drawn by Frederich Engels’ OUTLINES OF CRITIQUE OF POLITICAL ECONOMY (1843), which was published in the Deutsch Franzpsische Jahrbucher in 1844 (COLLECTED WORKS VOLl. 3), a readable and lucid book on the subject and is worth reading today.

Marx’s early writings on economics include ECONOMIC AND PHILOSOPHICAL MANUSCRIPTS (1844) which was published posthumously (CW 3); POVERTY OF PHILOSOPHY (1847) (collected Works 6); WAGE-LABOUR AND CAPITAL written in 1847 and first published in articles in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung in April 1849 and was written for the German Worker’s Association of Brussels as a contribution to their “political education”; THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO (1848) (with Engels, CW Vol. 6); THE GRUNDISSE (preparatory manuscripts for CAPITAL written during the winter of 1857 – 58 and first published in complete form in 1973; and A CONTRIBUTION TO THE CRITIQUE OF POLITICAL ECONOMY (1859).

Marx also gave a series of lectures to the General Counsel of the International Working-Men’s Association which were subsequently published under the title “Wages, Price and profit

”. There is also the Marginal Notes on Adolph Wager’s “LEHBUCH DER POLITISCHEN OKONOMIE” written in 1881-82 and first published in 1932 as an appendix to the Moscow edition of CAPITAL.

The first volume of CAPITAL was published in German 1867. The second and third volumes were edited by Engels after Marx’s death from manuscripts at varying stages of completion. These were not the in the polished style of the first volume and there has been some criticism by Marx scholars at the way in which Engels edited the two volumes; but that is Marxian Scholars for you.

Volume II of CAPITAL appeared in 1885 and Volume III in 1894.

THEORIES OF SURPLUS VALUE, written between 1862 and 1863, which was to be the fourth volume of CAPITAL was not published until much later when it was edited by Karl Kautsky and published in three volumes between 1905 and 1910.

One route into reading Marx on political economy is letters he wrote to Engels and others. Selections of these letters were published by Lawrence and Wishart. THE RWP also published letters on Capital.

4). Revolutionary Politics

Marx was one of history’s travestied of writers.

Engels’ highlighted this fact at the grave-side speech he gave in houner of Marx: Engels said:

Marx was the best hated and most calumniated man of his time. Governments, both absolutist and republican, deported him from their territories. Bourgeois, whether conservative or ultra-democratic, vied with one another in heaping slanders upon him

The reason why was “the best hated and most calumniated man of his time” was that Marx was a political writer - a socialist revolutionary and a socialist revolutionary who speaks to the working class not intellectuals.

Marx did not write CAPITAL to as a business manual for capitalists or for politicians to run capitalism in a better way. He wrote CAPITAL to help the working class to understand the social system that exploits them, why it can never be run in their interest and why the profit system has to be replaced by socialism through the conscious and political action of the working class.

Marx, though did not condemn capitalism out of hand. He gave fulsome praise in the first part of THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO to the development of capitalism in its early years noting that the bourgeoisie was a revolutionary force in history. Marx believed that in capitalism’s brief existence it had revolutionised the world. It had created fabulous wealth and a political system based on classical liberalism with its representative democracy, human rights and so on.

Capitalism swept away in a considerably short period of time the vestiges of the feudal order with its divine right of kings. Capitalism came into being dripping from head to toe with blood and dirt. Dripping from the neck as well as the toe since two revolutions, one in England and one in France, dispatched kings by the swing of an axe and the drop of guillotine and another – albeit in a coup d’état - by rifle butts and bullets in a basement of a Russian villa.

Capitalism disposed of the ancient regime by one revolution after another. Capitalists believed society was progressive a hidden utopia of a worldwide free market based on free trade with no government interference - Enlightenment classical liberalism of Smith et al.

Capitalism laid the basis for socialism. Socialism is inconceivable without the level of production and distribution - what Marx called the forces of production – which included social labour created by capitalism. Capitalism had to form the basis of socialism. Without capitalism socialism would be impossible. Unless the economic and political conditions are right then you will not get socialism.

Marx may have praised capitalism but he was fully aware of the other side of the coin – exploitation, degradation and poverty of the majority – the working class. Capitalism produces incredible wealth but also human wretchedness, barbarism, war, genocide.

How is it in the midst of the greatest wealth in human history, millions of men, women and children, are dying in poverty and war and where food banks and homelessness exist in one of the richest countries in the world? Where there is a housing crisis but empty luxury homes in London because no buyers can be found? According to Oxfam the world's eight richest individuals have as much wealth as the 3.6bn people who make up the poorest half of the world, according to Oxfam (BBC NEWS 16th January 2017).

What are the forces in capitalism which make such great disparity between richness and poverty? Why does freedom for a few turn into oppression for the many? Why does equality turn into its opposite? Why does fraternity mean war, conflict and violence? Why does political democracy entail the dictatorship of capital? In short, why does the Enlightenment and its abstractions; freedom, equality and fraternity turn in reality into its opposites? What are the underlying processes which cause these negative features to occur? This is what Marx set out to understand, not in politics per se, but in a critique of political economy. And by focussing of political economy his answer was to project a socialist future freed from the necessity of toil and labour – men and women free from “useless toil”, to borrow a phrase from William Morris.

5). Marx’s Theory of History

Marx’s critique of political economy has to be seen in his wider study of society and social systems. For Marx, human existence is social existence which changes as an historical process. Marx viewed social systems as historical phenomena which had specific class relations to the means of production and distribution.

Marx’s theory of history asks a number of questions: how do we understand society, how does society work, what are the cause of its numerous economic and social problems and why does it develop the way it does.

Marx began his study of social systems by looking at the way society makes it’s living, that is, highlighting the material basis of social existence. How does society produce and distribute its wealth, who gets what and how do they get it? Marx wrote:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.

Law, art, philosophy and politics were ultimately determined by, conditioned and limited by the material boundaries of society. Ideas and beliefs were historically formed and had no life of their own. Ideas, then, come and go; sometimes fast sometimes slow but always within a socially formed context informed by material existence.

Marx did not treat ideas as “epi-phenomena” just as he was not a technological or economic determinist.

Marx was interested in ideas but the focus of his attention was how society produced and distributed its wealth, that is, how did groups produce wealth and how was it distributed. Politics enters into the question because a final question would be how one group retained this wealth to the exclusion of others. The answer is the historical formation of the State, the machinery of government and the exercise of political force. Broadening out there is the relationship between one political group and another; between one class and another; those forced to work and those not working but living off the labour of others.

Marx, unlike philosophers, puts ideas into a historical perspective. In other words, ideas are historically specific. There can be no ideas relating to the struggle for trade union rights to be found in Primitive communism. Likewise, there can be no political ideas for the abolition of the wages system to be found in Feudal society. And the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings will not be found within a fully developed capitalist country. Ideas are neither innate nor perennial.

This does not mean that there is an automatic correlation between the material basis of social existence and political ideas and beliefs. It was not until the end of the 19th century, for example, that, in Britain the capitalist class had its first cabinet member when William Henry Smith (of W. H. Smith and Son) was elected Financial Secretary to the Treasury under the Disraeli Government later to become the First Lord of the Admiralty. The appointment gave rise to the character of Sir Joseph Porter, in Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera HMS Pinafore.

W. S. Gilbert's Pinafore lyrics are a scathing attack of this arriviste:

I grew so rich that I was sent
By a pocket borough into Parliament.
I always voted at my party's call,
And I never thought of thinking for myself at all.
I thought so little, they rewarded me
By making me the Ruler of the Queen's Navee!

The political power of the aristocracy to check the will of the capitalist class was not removed until 1911 where they were no longer allowed to prevent the passage of “money bills” and it also restricted their ability to delay other legislation to three sessions of Parliament. And the Hereditary element of the House of Lords did not lose its remaining power until the 1997 Labour Government. For much of the time after the 1850’s the bourgeoisie assimilated into the aristocracy through marriage or aping aristocratic attitudes by reading COUNTRY LIFE and other similar magazines. Adam Smith, the author of THE WEAILTH OF NATIONS, taught the young Edinburgh gentry not factory owners.

Marx and Hegel

Marx was initially influenced by the philosopher Hegel. But Hegel suggested that ideas, or the mind, came before matter; that the material world was ultimately determined by thought. Marx rejected this philosophical view as being obviously at odds with the fact that material existence was a necessary pre-requisite for mental thought. He wrote:

My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. To Hegel, the life-process of the human brain, i.e., the process of thinking, which under the name of “the idea”, he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos [Creator] of the real world, and the real world, is only the external, phenomenal form of “the Idea”. With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought

And again:

The mystification which the dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands, by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general form of working ion a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.

From this view of society, Marx recognised that the different ways in which human beings collaborated to produce their material existence was a powerful basis from which to study the differences between social systems, and the motor force which changed one social system into another.

The mathematician, Jacob Bronowski put it this way:

The world can only be grasped by action, not by contemplation. The hand is the cutting edge of the mind” (THE ASCENT OF MAN).

Talking of Bronowski, he wrote a very interesting essay: THE SENSE OFHUMAN DIGNITY IN SCIENCE AND HUMAN VALUES (Penguin 1958) in which he set out four principles for a community of scientists - principles - applicable to the membership of a socialist Party and a socialist society: independence, originality, dissent and tolerance.

Two factors in Marx’s analysis followed from his materialist starting point. One was the idea of mode of production. The other was his particular concept of the class struggle.

Marx recognised that consumption could not be based upon the “free gifts of nature” other than at an elementary level like blackberry picking on common land. Work or human labour-power had to be applied to the materials of nature for human beings to survive. These he termed means of production; the flint axe and the plough are two examples of the means of production. He then designated the way in which society organises its means of production in order to make a living, together with the social structure that accompanies it, as the mode of production.

Each mode of production is characterized by different social relations of production. A slave in Greece or Rome stood in a particular social relation of exploitation to the slave owner. A wage-worker stands in a particular social relationship of exploitation to an employer or capitalist who owns a factory. Both the worker in capitalism and the slave in Greece or Rome did not own the means of production and had to work for a living. The slave owner and the capitalist owned the means of production but did not have to work.

Mar’s theory of history cannot be separated from his theory of value and his political concept of the class struggle. All three are interwoven in the text of CAPITAL. CAPITAL is not a text book but a critique of political economy; where Marx sets out to ask the question; how did capitalism begin, what is motion and how will it ends: all three theories have a bearing on his answer. Capitalism came out of Feudalism through class struggle and revolution; capitalism persists by class struggle and class exploitation and capitalism is terminated by the conscious and political action of the working class.

Marx’s critique of political economy radically contrasts with the concerns of academic economists, or what Marx called “vulgar” economists; “vulgar” because they dealt with the mere appearances of things.

Academic economics consists of a body of concepts centred on technical relations of commodity production, exchange and consumption. Economists have no interest in how social power is exercised and reproduced through the ownership of the means of production and distribution. Academic economics is only really concerned about the question of how individual consumers with infinite demands can maximise their consumption of commodities within a state of universal scarcity. The labourer making commodities is barely visible and in economic textbooks lost within “the three factors of production”.

Academic economics proceeds as though its subject matter has no history. Marx’s method is completely different. As the social relations of production differ within each mode of production so will the way in which human beings are organized. In particular, people will relate to the means of production in different ways. In Socialism people will have direct access to the means of production because they will be held in common. Under capitalism workers have to sell their labour-power as a commodity in exchange for a wage or a salary before they can have access to the means of production where they produce commodities which are owned by the capitalists.

Those classes who do own the means of production exercise social power over those who do not. Social power therefore, stemmed from the way in which different groups did or did not control the means of making a living. This is why Marx, unlike academic economists, defines class according to how a particular social group relates to the means of production. And it why Marx wrote that:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle” (Marx, THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO).


Nothing could be further from the concerns of academic economics than Marx’s critique of political economy. Yet the difference between the two is not merely one of content. There are differences in method, and they arose in the period after David Ricardo’s death in 1823.

Classical Economists before Marx, and Marx himself did not speak of economics so much as political economy. The change in name was closely associated with the rise of neo-classical economics in the 1870’s. To understand the difference between Marx’s method and those of academic economics it is important to focus on a point Marx made at the beginning of CAPITAL VOLUME 1:

In the analysis of economic forms, moreover, neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of use. The force of abstraction must replace both.” (CAPITAL VOLUME I PREFACE TO THE FIRST GERMAN EDITION p. 19).

Unlike academic economics which presents its subject matter as eternal and timeless, Marx’s study of capitalism and its social relations of production are historically limited. Social “laws” are contingent. The various economic categories to be studied; wage-labour, capital, price, value and so on are tied to capitalism as a historically generated system of class exploitation with a beginning and end in class struggle. Economics, or rather, political economy, lives and dies with capitalism.

While Marx’s point of departure is “an immense accumulation of commodities”, academic economics begins and ends with how capitalism appears to the observer. Mere “facts” coupled with statistics is brought to bear on how capitalism presents itself to the observer. Conceptually, economists, like the former Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, get no further than page I of CAPITAL - or at least the first paragraph. Anything which cannot be quantified like social systems, social relations of production, class ownership of the means of production and class struggle is discarded and dumped into the arid intellectual desert of “sociology”.

Marx, of course, did believe that observable “facts” were an essential part of capitalism which had to be explained: but only a part.

Appearances were not everything, especially when they might actually obscure aspects of social reality. Without abstracting we would be incapable of theorizing and incapable of knowing.

As Marx stated:

It should not astonish us that vulgar economy feels particularly at home in the estranged outward appearances of economic relations in which these pima facia absurd and perfect contradictions appear and that these relations seem the more self-evident the more the internal relationships are concealed from it, although they are understandable to the popular mind. But all science would be superfluous if the outward appearances and the essence of things directly coincided

6). Marx and the State

Marx was hostile to the reality of the state – state socialism would have been for Marx a contradiction in terms. Socialism is for Marx democratic or it is nothing. Marx saw liberal democracy where it existed as being useful for the working class to gain political power but it was limited in as such as democracy did not go into production and distribution where the state was “the executive of the bourgeoisie” – COMMUNIST MANIFESTO - who protected the private ownership of the means of production and distribution by force.

Parliamentary representative democracy is not democratic whereas socialism will be a free association of individuals.

Marx always insisted that the working class must get control of the State machine. He wrote:

…the first step in the revolution by the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy (The Communist Manifesto, 1848 p. 29 SPGB edition). This is because Marx explicitly stated that the class struggle was in fact a political struggle. The means of production and class exploitation are protected by the capitalist state, “the Executive of the bourgeoisie”

He also wrote:

Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one”. It is itself an economic power.
(CAPITAL VOL. 1 Ch. 31 Kerr edition p. 823).

This is frequently distorted to mean that the workers should fight against the State power by armed force. This is a complete reversal of what Marx wrote. He was showing how the capitalists destroyed feudalism and hastened the development of capitalism.

Marx named the different kinds of force used by the capitalists to do this, namely; brute force in the colonies, the national debt, the modern method of taxation, and the protectionist system.

Control of the State power was therefore:

those methods…all employing the power of the state, the centralised and organised force of society”( loc cit).

For 70 years or more critics of the Socialist Party of Great Britain have been misquoting from Marx’s “CIVIL WAR IN FRANCE” pretending that Marx said that the workers must not get control of the machinery of government, or need not do so.

Marx was writing about the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Socialist critics thought that Marx drew from the Commune the lesson that the workers need not get control of the State machine, but must “smash it

”. On the contrary, Marx wrote that the Paris workers rightly got control of the State machine. Quoting from the Central Committee’s MANIFESTO:

…They have understood that it is their imperious duty and their absolute right to render themselves masters of their own destinies, by seizing upon the governmental power” (p. 50 Moscow ed. 1977)

However Marx added the words:

But the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for their own purposes” (page 50).

The Socialist critics-usually supporters of Lenin and Trotsky- conveniently remove or ignore the word “simply”.

There is all the difference in the world between saying that the workers cannot get hold of the State machinery and saying that they cannot simply get hold. Marx said and illustrated it with detail. What the workers had to do was first to get governmental power and then remove its purely coercive features, but retain its legitimate functions.

The point is that in fact all state machinery is both coercive and administrative; it is an exercise of ruling class force, but also the medium for carrying on necessary administrative functions.

As an example we can consider the Home Office (now split into two independent sections) which controlled Police and prisons but also operated health and Safety regulations in factories.

So in Civil War in France Marx wrote:

“The few but important functions which still would remain for a central government, (that is, after lopping off its class coercive exercises), “were not to be suppressed, as has been intentionally mis-stated, but were to be discharged by Communal, and therefore strictly responsible agents” (page 55).

And he continued:

While the merely repressive organs of the old governmental power were to be amputated, its legitimate functions were to be wrested from an authority usurping pre-eminence over society itself, and restored to the responsible agents of society (p. 55).

This statement by Marx should be compared to Clause 6 of the SPGB’s OBJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES where the Party states:

the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that the machinery including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic”.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain has always insisted on the necessity for the workers to gain control of the machinery of government before attempting to establish Socialism.

There has never been a parliamentary test of the power of socialist delegates acting on instructions given to them by Socialists. And here we are talking about a majority of Socialists who understand and agree with the case for Socialism.

In Britain, Parliament has a complete and secure control upon the armed forces. The use of troops to break the last fireman strike demonstrates whose side the State takes in industrial disputes.

The use of the machinery of government against workers by Tory and labour governments demonstrates the necessity for workers to gain control of Parliament before establishing Socialism. And this can only be achieved though a socialist majority sending socialist delegates to Parliament.

The attitude of the Socialist Party of Great Britain on the need to gain control of the political machinery has been logical and consistent. The SPGB holds the same view as Marx as to the necessity of the workers gaining control of the machinery of government before they can establish Socialism. And in countries like Britain the vote will give them that control.

One final point: the one way to prevent capitalists from using political power against workers is to stop voting for their politicians and political parties at elections. The SPGB has always urged workers not to vote for any candidate who is a supporter of capitalism “whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist…” (Clause 8 DECLARATION OFPRINCIPLES)

7). Marx and Utopian Thought

Marx anti- utopian. Criticised the Utopian Socialists and the Ricardian Socialists although he was influenced by both. Reality messy and unfinished.

What of Marx’s socialism – it can be written down on the back of a postage stamp

Marx said that you cannot pre-programme human freedom

Marx was no prophet of the future

No cook book recipes or blue-prints of a future socialist society

No craven image of the future

How can you use the materials of the present to give an image of the future?

Marx was not utopian.

He gave no image of socialism

The only image of the future, for Marx, is the failure of the present. Is a propaganda based on the failure of the present enough to persuade workers to become socialists?

Production and distribution in socialism will be radically different to production and distribution in socialism

Socialists view differs from Marx in wanting to explain key socialist ideas which have a bearing on socialism as opposed to capitalism

* Common ownership
* Democratic control
* Production for use
* Free and voluntary labour
* Direct access to what is produced and distributed.

Of course, you could consider thought experiments of a future socialist society to avoid utopianism

You could produce utopian models to contrast capitalism with socialism

You could produce a mathematical model to show that production and distribution in socialism would meets social needs and is a rational and practical alternative to the profit system and the private ownership of the means of production and distribution

And you could create a computer model showing a schematical socialism in motion producing and distributing directly to a given population

However socialism does not exist. We do not know where we are within capitalism’s destructive, crisis-ridden and exploitive trajectory through human history. There are too few socialists on the ground to express a cogent view of a future socialist society - a view just as it moves away from capitalism, a view a decade or so away from capitalism or a view two or three generations away. We also do not know the nature of the problems bequeathed by capitalism to a future socialist society. We do not know what specific problems will have to be resolved, like health, housing, food, communication and transport. Detailed speculation about socialism is a waste of time.

8). Marx and the Working Class

Marx was committed to the proletariat – the working class. Great majority of workers in Marx’s time were women – domestic workers – skivvies, maids and servants. Proletariat comes from the Latin word “proles” which means progeny – off-spring – children. It refers to those p[people unable to contribute anything to the Roman state except children. Marx’s metaphor of birth – Birth of capitalism its contradictory movement through time to its death – see CAPITALVOLUME 1

Marx often uses the metaphor of “mid-wife” in his writings. A midwife means being with a woman. It is about being with a female in a particularly transition of her life. Some of these transitions are “violent” or “forceful”, like childbirth. The fetus is negated by the neonate, who can only be brought about by the force of childbirth. The midwife facilitates that transition, as political force (or class struggle) facilitates the revolutionary transformation from one form of social relations to another. Criticising the philosopher and economist Professor Duhring, Frederick Engels defended the social force required to fundamentally transform society:

"Force, plays yet another role in history, a revolutionary role; that, in the words of Marx, it is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one, that it is the instrument with the aid of which social movement forces its way through and shatters the dead, fossilised political forms." (Anti-Duhring, found here:

Marx contributed to and read ANTI-DUHRING. Engels was only quoting Marx from CAPITAL:

Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one.

Today the world’s workforce still remains largely female labour particularly in developing countries

Marx and the Communist League

Marx and the Chartists

Marx and the first International

Marx and the Paris Commune

9). Marx and the environment

Among the most serious problems caused by capitalism is environmental pollution including global warming. Capitalist production and exchange for profit has generated air pollution, acid rain, toxic landfill sites, industrial pollutants in rivers and oceans, nuclear waste and ozone depletion. There is not one part of the world which has escaped from being disfigured by the profit system.

What, then, has Marx said on the environment and does it have any bearing on the ecological problems thrown-up by capitalism today and for considerations for a future the socialist society?

Marx, it is often assumed, concentrated upon the development of the forces of production, including social labour and the fetters imposed upon production and distribution by capitalist class relations. This was not the case. One sympathetic writer, John Bellamy Foster, has examined Marx’s neglected writings on capitalist agriculture and soil ecology, philosophical naturalism, and evolutionary theory. He shows that Marx was also concerned with the changing human relationship to nature caused by capitalist production.

In his book MARX'S ECOLOGY (2000), Foster has shown that environmental ideas were important considerations to Marx’s materialist outlook. In the ECONOMIC AND PHILOSOPHICAL MANUSCRIPTS (1844), for example, Marx wrote:

Man 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.

By “man”, Marx meant men, women and children.

Capitalism, for Marx disrupts the link between humans and the rest of the natural world, to the detriment of both. This is referred to by Marx as a "metabolic rift

". He said that capitalism forces: "an irreparable break in the coherence of social interchange prescribed by the natural laws of life.

" Later, in the GRUNDISSE, Marx wrote:

It is not the unity of living and active humanity with the natural, inorganic conditions of their metabolic exchange with nature, and hence their appropriation of nature, which requires explanation or is the result of a historic process, but rather the separation between these inorganic conditions of human existence and this active existence, a separation which is completely posited only in the relation of wage labour and capital.

The capitalist class, in producing and exchanging commodities for profit, finds itself in intense competition both within a nation state and between nation states, where short-term gains ignore the long-term effects of commodity production. Even capitalist governments have to work within the competitive reality of capitalism and is the principle reason for being unable to get quick and effective environmental reforms agreed. Global warming has also seen a well-financed group of politicians and economists prevent necessary environmental form being enacted.

Drawing upon the research of the German chemist Justus von Liebig, one particular environmental problem Marx did consider in some detail was the depletion of soil fertility.

Capitalist production, by collecting the population in great centres, and causing an ever-increasing preponderance of town population, on the one hand concentrates the historical motive power of society; on the other hand, it disturbs the circulation of matter between man and the soil, i.e., prevents the return to the soil of its elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; it therefore violates the conditions necessary to lasting fertility of the soil.

Most obviously, human waste that in the past would have been used as fertilizer now has to be disposed of in other ways. "Excretions of consumption are of the greatest importance for agriculture,"

Marx points out:

"So far as their utilization is concerned, there is an enormous waste of them in the capitalist economy. In London, for instance, they find no better use for the excretion of four and a half million human beings than to contaminate the Thames with it at heavy expense."

In CAPITAL Marx also wrote:

Capitalist production collects the population together in great centres, and causes the urban population to achieve an ever-growing preponderance. This has two results. On the one hand it concentrates the historical motive force of society; on the other hand, it disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e. it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural condition for the lasting fertility of the soil...But by destroying the circumstances surrounding that compels its systematic restoration as a regulative law of social production, and in a form adequate to the full development of the human race...All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress toward ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility...Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker (CAPITAL, VOLUME 1, Ch. 15, Large-scale Industry and Agriculture)

The problem of soil depletion in 19th century Britain was dealt with first by importing large quantities of bones from Europe and guano from South America, and later with the use of artificial fertilizers, which in turn created their own problems of runoff and ground water contamination.

According to Marx:

[A]ll progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility...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 Marx’s day, the environmental damage caused by capitalism was localized to particular regions or countries. Today, the threat of climate change is global in scope, with the production of greenhouse gases by the most developed capitalist economies threatening ecosystems across the planet.

Even though environmental problems caused by capitalism are more extensive than in Marx’s day, his point about the anti-social drive to accumulate capital and expand value causing a “metabolic rift” between human existence and the natural environment are still sound and valid observations.

The imperative of the profit motive means that there can be no social reform or introduction of new technology that will prevent environmental problems, like global warming, from occurring. That is not to say that new environmental technologies that have been introduced like solar farms, windmills and so on will not be useful to a socialist society for long term environmental sustainability.

For Marx, this meant:

"the associated producers...rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature."

Human beings are part of nature and there will need to be a balance in socialism between the needs of human beings and protecting the natural environment.

10). Marx and Surplus Value

Marx thought that his theory of surplus-value was his most important contribution to the progress of economic analysis (Marx, letter to Engels of 24 August 1867):

The best points in my book are: 1. (this is fundamental to all understanding of the facts) the two-fold character of labour according to whether it is expressed in use-value or exchange-value, which is brought out in the very First Chapter; 2. the treatment of surplus-value regardless of its particular forms as profit, interest, ground rent, etc. This will be made clear in the second volume especially. The treatment of the particular forms in classical political economy, where they are forever being jumbled up together with the general form, is an olla potrida (rotten pot of stew)”.

Marx, by using his theory of value to analyse “capitalism in motion” placed capitalism within a historical context allowing him to explain why and how exploitation takes place within the profit system, the peculiarity of the class struggle under capitalism and the contradictions which bear on commodity production and exchange for profit.

The origin, nature and distribution of surplus value play a central role in Marx’s analysis of capitalism. “surplus value” is the translation of the word “Mehwert” which means “value-added?” and is used by Marx to explain how invested money capital brings in more money capital as profit than first invested (M> C > M1, where M is the original money-capital, C is the production of commodities and M1 the original investment plus profit).

Capitalists and workers meet on the labour market on apparent equal terms where the workers sell their labour power to the capitalist in exchange for a wage or a salary. The capitalist pays the worker according to the value of the labour power. Marx made the important distinction between labour-time and labour power. It is not labour which the worker sells to the capitalist, but his capacity to work.

The value of labour power is determined like any other commodity by the amount of socially necessary labour time embodied in its production. The capitalist pays according to the exchange value of the commodity, but obtains the use value of the labour power.

This distinction between the use value and exchange value of the commodity labour power is important in understanding Marx’s concept of surplus value. The commodity, labour power, is a peculiar commodity in as much as the value it creates in the productive process is in excess of its own original value.

The worker, having sold their labour power to the capitalist has now lost control of its use. Instead, the capitalist has use of the worker’s labour power for a specified period of time – the working week.

The worker, having sold his labour power, must work and produce to the dictates of the employer. He has to produce what the capitalist wants him to produce. And what the worker produces as commodities belong to the capitalist.

So how does surplus value arise in this process? Engels expressed the question in ANTI-DUHRING (1877) as follows:

"Whence comes this surplus-value? It cannot come either from the buyer buying the commodities under their value, or from the seller selling them above their value. For in both cases the gains and the losses of each individual cancel each other, as each individual is in turn buyer and seller. Nor can it come from cheating, for though cheating can enrich one person at the expense of another, it cannot increase the total sum possessed by both, and therefore cannot augment the sum of the values in circulation. (...) This problem must be solved, and it must be solved in a purely economic way, excluding all cheating and the intervention of any force — the problem being: how is it possible constantly to sell dearer than one has bought, even on the hypothesis that equal values are always exchanged for equal values?”

We can answer the question with the following example. Say the working week is forty hours long. And in this working week it takes the worker 30 hours to reproduce the value of the wage or salary necessary to buy commodities for the worker and their family to produce and reproduce themselves as workers.

However, the worker cannot just stop work when they have reached 30 hours; the worker must continue to work for free for a further 10 hours of work.

The 10 hours of surplus labour time creates the surplus value. This is the source of the capitalist’s profit. This surplus value is congealed within the commodities the workers produce and is realised as profit once the commodities are sold on the market.

The surplus value is divided as unearned income between the industrialist (profit), the landlord (rent) and the banker (interest), while another portion goes to the capitalist state in the form of taxation.

For the working class, surplus value, explains why the capitalist class will not leave them alone. Capitalists are always trying to extend and intensify the rate of exploitation by making workers work harder: by lengthening the working day, by introducing new machinery, by speeding up, by displacing workers and making those remaining taking a greater burden of the work for the same pay.

As an analytical tool for explaining how capitalism works and how capitalist enterprises are forever forced to speed up production, Marx’s theory of value has no rival.

11). Marx: From Each According to Ability

Marx famously wrote in his CRITIQUE OF THE GOTHA PROGRAMME (1875) that in a developed communist/socialist system the principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” would hold as a guiding principle.

The basis of Marx’s statement was the realisation of a society based upon the common ownership ship of the means of production and distribution under democratic control. There would be an abundance of goods and services to which all people would have direct access. Labour would-be voluntary and there would be a free association of men and women engaged in the life of society at all levels of decision making.

The phrase has a long history within the socialist tradition. The phrase was used by August Becker in WAS WOOLLEN DIE KOMMUNISTEN in 1844 and by Louis Blanc in PLUS DE GIRONDINS (1851). The phrase has also been attributed to the French utopian Etienne-Gabriel Morelly. In his 1755 Code of Nature he wrote that the “Sacred and Fundamental Laws that would tear out the roots of vice and of all evils of society” would include the following three precepts:

1 Nothing in society will belong to anyone, either as a personal possession or as capital goods, except the things for which the person has immediate use, for his needs, his pleasures, or his daily work.

2 Every citizen will be a public man, sustained by, supported by, and occupied at the public expense.

3 Every citizen will make his particular contribution to the activities of the community according to his capacity, his talent and his age; it is on this basis that his duties will be determined, in conformity with the distributive laws.


A useful overview of the history of the origins of the phrase is given by Wikipedia

However, unlike previous usage of the phrase, Marx used “from each according to ability: to each according to need” to a “higher phase of communist society ”.

Today, a ”lower communist society” and a “higher communist society” are irrelevant as capitalism has progressed the forces of production including social and co-operative labour – to such an extent that communism/socialism – both words mean the same thing – can be established now given the existence of a world-wide socialist majority.

A person’s “ability” in socialism will be the self-realisation of their socially useful and creative potential. This ability to do something useful and creative would be freely and unconditionally given to a socialist society. It will not be coerced.

There will be free and voluntary labour. Work, in socialism, would be a creative act where a person would be able to develop their particular talents to the full. Work will not only become “a means of life but life’s prime want

To each according to needs” just means that production and distribution will just take place to produce and distribute goods and services to directly meet people’s needs, whatever they happen to be. Socialism would not be tied to artificial scarcity of the market but will be able to produce an abundance of goods and services in terms of housing, clothes, art and culture, transport and so on.

What prevents the establishment of socialism and the realisation of Marx’s guiding principle is not the forces of production but no socialist majority. For socialism to be possible it first requires a socialist majority. Without a socialist majority there can be no socialism and no way of realising Marx’ principle “from each according to ability: to each according to needs

”. Marx had no love for political economy – referring it in a letter to Engels as “shit”. He once said that nobody has written so much about money but had so little themselves.

Marx critique of political economy was to lay bear the tyrannical grip of capital and economics over human lives. He analysed “capital in motion” from its beginnings, through to its contradictory movement in time and all over the globe, to its death at the hands of the working class – its gravediggers.

If men and women realise their own particular capacity and self-realisation how does this differ from classical liberalism where the individual as an atomised agent pursues his or her self-realisation in isolation from others.

Marx’s answer was that in any complex society men and women could only realise their capacity through the realisation of other people doing the same. The self realisation of the individual will become the self realisation of all – COMMUNIST MANIFESTO

What will be the necessary institutions to enable this association to flourish? For Marx, it was co-operative and democratic institutions of free men and women working voluntarily together.

Marx did not believe in equality as uniformity. He stated:

from each according to ability to each according to needs” – CRITIQUE OF THE GOTHA PROGRAMME

Marx set-out the specific conditions under which such principle would apply—a society where technology and social organization had substantially eliminated the need for physical labour in the production of things, where "labour has become not only a means of life but life's prime want", where there was abundance, no buying and selling and free and direct access to what people needed to flourish and live worthwhile lives.

Marx explained his belief that, in such a society, each person would be motivated to work for the good of society despite the absence of a coercive social mechanism compelling them to work, because work would have become a pleasurable and creative activity.

Marx intended the initial part of his slogan, "from each according to his ability" to suggest not merely that each person should work as hard as they can, but that each person should best develop their particular talents.

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