Lookout for Karl Marx!

Photograph Source: David Merrett – CC BY 2.0

Marx wrote all of his analyses and criticisms of capitalism well over one hundred and fifty years ago. Since then the capitalists have been working overtime to discount and demonize his assessments of capitalism as a system that exploits and indeed enslaves workers in order to profit from their labor. Our big business rulers have used their monopoly over state power and the mass media to inoculate the population against Marx’ ideas and strategies, which have historically been used to organize the workers and their allies throughout the world, and thus threatened the unchecked power of capital. Our corporate rulers have sought to discount Marx’s ideas as wrong or irrelevant for our times. But if this is so, then why not show this by widely presenting these ideas for discussion and debate? After all, do we not have “democracy” and “free speech” here in the “exceptional “US? Is not our system of education a “market- place for ideas?”

Our rulers will never knowingly provide a forum for Marxism and will continue to demonize it as a threat to “freedom,” which indeed it is if by freedom we understand the continued operation of the capitalists’ “free enterprise” system with all the wealth created by labor going to the corporate owning class, whose failures are palpable today world-wide. Why else would we be treated to the calling out of Marxism by the Right, now led by Donald Trump, who also abuses, literally and verbally, anyone who sees it in their interests to fight racism and fascism? The “centrists” of the Democratic party have also weighed in by blaming and trying to proscribe “socialism” for their own failures and defeats? Is this not boiler plate ruling class red baiting in the face of workers’ demands for a betterment of the conditions of life? We’ve seen this all before: in the ‘20s with the government’s anti-communist Palmer Raids that arrested and deported immigrant workers organizing in the interests of their class after World War I, when the Russian Revolutions struck fear into the hearts of the bankers and big businessmen; then after World War II with McCarthyism, which began the capitalist assault on workers’ gains during the Great Depression that continues today; and now, when workers everywhere are once again looking to defend themselves from another capitalist crisis, this time containing both the threats of nuclear war, and global climate change.

Recently, CounterPunch published a superb essay by Peter Linebaugh, that focused on Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Program.” It was an inspiration to me, (as has been Linebaugh’s work generally), and I sent it out to friends in a discussion group I attend because I thought it made incisive use of Marx’s ideas to show what was needed in working towards a different and better world. It also prompted me to go back and re-read the Critique, which I had not read for 40 years. Here I would like to share some of my reflections on this experience, which I hope will help emphasize the continuing relevance and importance of Marx’s work, and encourage others to read him.

The “Critique of the Gotha Program” was written by Marx (with supporting letters from Engels) in 1875. I read and will be quoting from the one volume Selected Works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, International, Publishers, 1968 (6th printing, 1977), pp. 314-44.

Marx and Engels had been working with the German workers for decades, including years in exile, and the Critique was in response to the unification of political factions of the German working class in 1875 as the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). Marx and Engels were convinced that workers were slaves under capital, and always would be; that they needed a socialist/communist revolution to end the rule of capital, and that this would take an international political movement, but one that would unavoidably have separate national parties that would need to strategize internally, dealing with the conditions in “their” countries. They also thought that the capitalists made use of the ideas of nationalism for their own purposes, while workers faced capitalist control everywhere in the world, and hence had no country. In fact, workers had to deal with the capitalist world market and international competition. In our own time we have seen how easy it has been for big capital simply to move to those places where the labor has been the cheapest, leaving workers here high and dry. How is something like this to be dealt with outside of international working-class solidarity and cooperation?

By 1875, Marx and Engels had learned much from the workers’ struggles to organize trade unions and political parties in response to burgeoning industrialism in the most developed capitalist countries in Europe. Decades earlier, Engels had written about the condition of the English working class, and in 1875 he briefly assessed what workers needed and were doing about their conditions. In this essay I want to let Marx and Engels speak for themselves. Here is Engels: “Complete abstention from political action is impossible … Living experience, the political oppression of the existing governments compels the workers to occupy themselves with politics, whether they like it or not, be it for political or for social goals. To preach abstention to them is to throw them into the embrace of bourgeois politics. The morning after the Paris Commune, which has made proletarian political action an order of the day, abstention is entirely out of the question. We want the abolition of classes. What is the means of achieving this? The only means is political domination of the proletariat … However, our politics must be working-class politics. The workers’ party must never be the tagtail of any bourgeois party; it must be independent and have its goals and its own policy.”

Engels mentioned the example of the Paris Commune, which took place in the midst of Germany’s invasion of France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. Paris was surrounded; French ruling class leaders did nothing, and the French working class took over the fight against the German invasion. The workers showed that they could organize production, distribution and defense in Paris, including successful sorties out of Paris to fight against the Germans. The French ruling class then made a deal with the Germans to bring in French troops to crush the workers’ efforts, and the Paris Commune was defeated (and thousands of workers killed by their own countrymen, in 1871). Marx, of course, drew lessons from this experience, which he writes about in “The Civil War in France,” same volume.

In the Critique, Marx was critical of certain formulations put out by one of the SPD leaders, Lassalle, whose ideas Marx and Engels had been struggling against for some time. Marx quotes these and goes on to criticize them. For Marx, “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.” He develops a very complex argument that is basically both an explanation and justification for communist revolution. There’s no substitute for reading it all, but I will try here to highlight what I think are the most important ideas, and let Marx speak for himself.

The first thing Marx does is address Lassalle’s statement that labor is the source of all wealth. This is how Peter Linebaugh starts his essay, where he is writing to show the continuing relevance of Marx’s ideas. “Labour [Marx’s spelling throughout],” writes Marx, “is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists) as labour, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labour power … The bourgeois have very good ground for falsely ascribing supernatural creative power to labour; since precisely from the fact that labour depends on nature it follows that the man who possesses no other property than his labour power must, in all conditions of [present day]society and culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labour. He can work only with their permission, hence live only with their permission [Marx’ emphases].”

Marx underscores the conditions that capitalism has imposed on the working class by its control of state power and institutions, including all major means of disseminating “information,” which includes imposing the dominance of ruling class ideology. The rulers also have a monopoly on the use of force and violence used both to fight rivals and to keep the working class subjugated. Marx recognizes this as one class’ dictatorship over another.

The capitalists control all means of getting a living; if they have not quite achieved this everywhere in 1875, Marx recognizes that they are on the way to doing so. Land and machinery are privately owned, and increasingly monopolized by a relative handful of the population; so are all the products of labor. If you do not own means of production, or income-generating land as rentier landlords, and you want to live, you must sell your labor to these capitalist bosses. The workers collectively are at the mercy (i.e., slaves) of the capitalist class. Marx spelled out in Capital (you can read a condensed version of this, “Wages, Price, and Profit,” in the volume cited here) that capitalists paid their workers a subsistence wage, buying their labor power for a set amount of time, say 8 hours as is roughly the case in the US today. During this time, whatever the workers produce belongs to the capitalist, of course. The wage paid, however, does not represent the whole value of what the worker produced during the entire time worked, but only a part – let’s say 4 hours (though today it is considerably less than this). So that if the worker works for the capitalist for 8 hours, s/he has earned wages in the first 4 hours and worked another 4 hours without pay. The latter was what Marx called “surplus value.” This is the source of capitalist profits, the labor time expended beyond the time workers worked to get their wage. It was in fact “free” unpaid labor controlled by the capitalists. In the Critique Marx writes sarcastically that “the wage worker has permission to work for his own subsistence, that is, to live, only in so far as he works for a certain time gratis for the capitalist…; that the whole capitalist system of wage labour is a system of slavery, and indeed of a slavery which becomes more severe in proportion as the social productive forces of labour develop, whether the worker receives better or worse payment.”

Today our rulers refuse to consider Marx’s labor theory of value, and instead claim credit as the ‘job creators’ but never take responsibility for when they cut back on production and lay workers off in recessions and depressions or kill them in large numbers in their wars for profit. Above all, the idea that human labor power in interaction with nature creates ALL value, has been disappeared from our discourse, along with unions and workers’ power generally, though workers have not gone away. In fact, there are more of them than ever, because more people in the world have been reduced solely to living by selling their labor power, when they can.

However, there is a major contradiction at work in this quest for profits. Capitalists compete with one another to capture market share. This is ubiquitous and world-wide, and it can and does include the ultimate form of competition, war. But the capitalists have to market what they produce, and who are their customers? Can they sell it all to those like themselves with lots of money? Or is there another mass market out there that does most of the consuming? Industrial capitalism gave rise to mass markets, which require (what is a market after all but?) money in the hands of “consumers” (a nice, neutral capitalist word) coupled with the necessity or desire to spend it. Keynes called it “effective demand.” But what happens to this when the masses of workers’ wages are targeted for reduction in the competition for cost cutting? The more an individual capitalist can reduce the costs of production, the greater their market share and thus profits, while monopolistic pricing, when and where arranged, just adds to profits. All capitalists therefore seek the cheapest labor and raw materials and introduce machinery that produces more with less labor in a process that both reduces the costs of raw materials and consumer goods and displaces workers, but in turn results in “overproduction.” The most egregious example of this was evident in the Great Depression, where the food produced could not be sold to impoverished people who needed it, but instead was wasted (crops plowed under, milk dumped, pigs destroyed, etc.)

What we end up with given this capitalist mode of production is enormous concentrations of wealth in the hands of a few plutocrats, and a vast world population of increasingly impoverished workers. This is exactly what Marx predicted. Today’s workers with jobs are constantly looking over their shoulders at the prospect of joining those without. This increasingly widespread circumstance has prompted the emergence of a new label for workers, which combines the noun, proletariat, with a description of workers’ position in the world economy, precarious, hence “the precariat.” We can remind ourselves of the role the capitalist state has played here over the last 40-50 years of our history in the US during which workers’ gains won in struggle, from the New Deal to the sixties and early seventies, have been undermined or destroyed, while regulations that at least partially held in check Wall Street and the big banks and protected our environment, health and safety (including our food, water and air) have been dismantled. Today a vast amount of our tax moneys goes to the military industrial complex or to the corporate rich who dominate our politics, media and institutions.

Marx saw and analyzed all of this one hundred fifty years ago, and he recognized that it was all a product of the capitalist mode of production. Nevertheless, he also recognized and first made the point in the Communist Manifesto, that capitalism itself had created the conditions for the revolutionary transformation into socialism/communism, and that the working class was the only force capable of making this happen. He continued this insight in the Critique. He noted that the Gotha Programme contains an incontestable proposition: that along with labor’s development comes concentrated wealth and culture for the capitalists, along with poverty and destitution for the workers. We have had a couple of hundred years of capitalism now, and this pattern still prevails in the world. Marx writes that: “This is the law of all history hitherto. What, therefore, had to be done here, instead of setting down general phrases about ‘labour’ and ‘society,’ was to prove concretely how in present capitalist society the material, etc., conditions have at last been created which enable and compel the workers to lift this social curse.” He means that the enormous increases in productivity that capitalism has produced have now made it possible to take care of everyone’s needs by distributing the products of labor, created by labor, according to the common interests of labor. This is clearly a world-transforming vision, particularly when coupled with the insights Linebaugh develops about the labor/nature interchange and the need for these relations to be conscious, not driven by capitalist exploitation. In our own times the mass “overproduction” of goods, a concept the absurdity of which should be evident to all, but that follows from what we have said above about capitalist competition, serves as an appropriate description of a system that functions only for the profit of the few. Capitalist monopolization and overproduction continue to create periodic crises, where people, deprived of “demand,” go hungry and homeless in the midst of plenty. These crises were given names in the course of their history, beginning with business panics, which then were labeled depressions, including the “Great” one. Today we have recessions, with a “great” one in 2007-8 whose effects continue.

In the Critique, Marx attacks Lassalle’s simple-minded ideas about what is entailed in a socialist revolution, and his use of certain phrases, such as the proceeds of labor. Marx writes: “What are ‘proceeds of labour’? The product of labour or its value? And in the latter case, is it the total value of the product or only that part of the value which labour has newly added to the value of the means of production consumed [machinery; raw materials]? ‘Proceeds of labour’ is a loose notion which Lassalle has put in the place of definite economic conceptions … What is ‘a fair distribution’? Do not the bourgeois assert that the present-day distribution is ‘fair’? And is it not, in fact, the only ‘fair’ distribution on the basis of the present-day mode of production? Are economic relations regulated by legal conceptions or do not, on the contrary, legal relations arise from economic ones?”

Marx goes on to raise other questions about Lassalle’s distribution schemes, and these are worth reading for what they show about Marx’s sophisticated understanding of what would be entailed in a workers’- run society seeking to transform the mode of production in its entirety. This is all too long to quote, though Marx begins by making it clear that from the “total social product,” before it could be distributed to the individuals who produced it, there would have to be certain deductions made for production to continue, and deductions made for administrative costs, funds for those unable to work as well as for “the common satisfaction of needs, such as schools, health services, etc. From the outset this part grows considerably in comparison with present-day society and it grows in proportion as the new society develops.” Remember, Marx wrote about this need for schools and health care some 150 years ago, and where are we with it today?

Marx continues to discuss the workers’ revolution as occurring in two phases: first socialism, which will measure work not in money,[to end with the end of the wage system?] but in labor time, where “a given amount of labour in one form is exchanged for an equal amount of labour in another form … In spite of this advance, this equal right is still constantly stigmatised as a bourgeois limitation. The right of the producers is proportional to the labour they supply; the equality consists in the fact that measurement is made with an equal standard, labour.” And workers will be paid with certificates that keep track of their labor time, to be exchanged for what is needed/produced with equal amounts of labor time. Note, no money! What happens to banking, finance, moneylending etc., which Marx considered, at least in part, parasitic?

Marx points out that in this first phase, immediately after a revolution, absolute equality is not possible. People are not the same in their capacities, and “Thus with an equal performance of labour [measured in time on task], and hence an equal share in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right instead of being equal would have to be unequal.” Here Marx is brushing aside the stupid rationalization of capitalist power that says because as individuals we are unequal in our capacities, this means we can expect and achieve nothing but greed and the concentration of wealth and power that is capitalism as the triumph of our humanity. Marx has an answer for this, and socialism is a step towards it.

With the earliest establishment of a socialist society, which Marx makes clear will take a workers’ revolution, “the producers do not exchange their products; just as little does the labour employed in the products appear here as the value of these products, as a material quality possessed by them, since now, in contrast to capitalist society, individual labour no longer exists in an indirect fashion but directly as a component part of the total labour … What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerged.”

Marx continues: “But these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society … Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby. In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly [my emphasis]– only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”

Marx has discussions about the state, and whose interests it serves (clearly, the bourgeoisie and big landlords). Here he takes Lassalle to task again for seeming to seek an alliance with the Junker landlords against the big capitalists, writing off the peasantry and small manufacturers whom Marx saw as potential allies. These eastern German landlords would go on to ally with big capital under Bismarck’s leadership; this was the so-called “marriage of iron and rye,” that confronted the workers, while Lassalle’s ideas about the nature of state power, and his failure to embrace an internationalist strategy, left Germany’s workers at the mercy of big business economically and politically. By Hitler’s time the SPD would continue to try to ally with the Weimar Republic that was the latest manifestation of Junker-big business power, with the Junker WWI General Von Hindenburg at its head. The SPD refused to ally with the KPD (Communists) against the Nazis, while Hindenburg ended up inviting Hitler to form a government (Hitler was not voted into office, but made Chancellor, a bit like G.W Bush in 2000, and like Trump would like to see happen for him today) with results we all know.

Finally, there is Marx’ discussion of what he would call “bourgeois democracy,” which he thought was best exemplified by the US at this time (1875), and at least seemed to allow workers a measure of freedom to organize. He never had illusions, however, that workers’ power could be won by parliamentary means alone. He called for “the dictatorship of the proletariat” directed at and needed to counter the clear dictatorial power of the bourgeoisie. This had to be first broken by a workers’ revolution, though Marx never thought revolution by itself would mean the final defeat of the capitalist class. They would continue after the revolution to try to regain power. To quote him one last time: “Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Clearly, the world’s workers have a long way to go to be in a position to overthrow the rule of capital. They have suffered many defeats, including perhaps the greatest one: being deprived of the ideas needed to make revolutionary change. And today it seems to be a race between the destructive tendencies of the capitalist system in charge of the world economy with no greater motivation than an endless stream of profits for which it must embrace endless war, environmental destruction, and the continued enslavement of labor. If left unchecked the capitalist mode of production will go on to the detriment and perhaps even the extinction of the human race. Alternatively, their remains the possibility of a successful worldwide organization of the working classes to establish a new communal mode of production, if they can gain access to the ideas needed for such a transformation. Presently this is an uphill battle; but in the immediate future: Look out for Karl Marx!