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.

Marx 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 to 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 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.

Back to top

Socialist Studies

email: enquiries@socialiststudies.org.uk | www.socialiststudies.org.uk