Marxism Marxist Marxists

The doctrines of those who follow Karl Marx. His most often quoted books are the Communist Manifesto (1848) and Das Kapital (Capital, or Capitalism).

Marx believed only human labor gave value to commodities. Hence any part of the value taken by the factory owner was stolen from the workers. Up to a point this is obviously true for industries at certain periods when very low wages and high profits go together.

Applied strictly, as in the Soviet Union, this theory made all prices arbitrary as there was no automatic (market) yardstick by which prices could be determined. Prices were supposed to be set according to the amount of labor used in production. It also made it difficult to control what was made, as it was easy to order things to be made but not always possible to make people buy them, even when there was no alternative.

Marx believed that Capitalism, as he observed it in Britain in the mid-19th century, would always make the workers poorer. (Actually, during the period he and Friedrich Engels were observing them in Manchester, things were getting better - even if they were still very bad.) He believed that there was an economic mechanism which would impoverish people until they made a revolution. He failed to imagine the modern condition when workers through trade union activity have gained a larger proportion of the income from a business than in his day. However, it may be that the poverty he saw has been displaced to the Third World and that western employed workers have become minor members of the world elite. Chinese Communists in the time of Mao Tse Tung tended to believe this. (The reduced power of modern trade unions, especially in the United States and Britain, may be leading to a new reduction of wages and the income of the poorer and a greater gap between the wealth of capital owners and employees.)

Would Marx have agreed with the dictatorships set up in his name? Probably not. (For example, he never expected a communist revolution in Russia, because it had not experienced capitalism, which he stated was a necessary development before "socialism"). Are things in the western world, i.e. relations between workers and employers, or capital owners and workers always perfect? Obviously not. The environmental effects of industry are now important too.

An important failure of Marx was that he did not assign any value to natural resources so that Marxist states had an even worse effect on the environment than western states. (But Adam Smith and the classical free market economists have also failed to value natural resources, resulting in serious consequences).

After the fall of the dictatorships Marx can perhaps become a source, like any other writer on social and political subjects, to stimulate thinking - but not to be a secular (non-religious) god. It seems probable that many of his followers were motivated by a desire to explain the world after giving up religion. Modern society continues to have many people who look for a "meaning" to life but reject the conventional religions. New systems of belief may arise to replace Marxism - or fill the gap of a life devoted only to shopping.

Some of Marx's ideas have entered the pool of general ideas. Thus no-one now denies that economic activities have a great effect on history, even if few will agree with Marx that they are the only determinant. Economic History is now a normal academic pursuit.

A useful part of his ideas may be that the wealth of society is produced by a collective effort and that company owners are not the only people who should gain from the profits of collective work. Society as a whole has a claim on the benefits. However this is expressed - good wages, corporation taxes, social shares in the business, environmental fees, energy taxes - this marks the responsibility of economic man to other interests and a modification of unregulated capitalism.

In the former Communist countries Marxism was organized into a quasi-religion and was taught in the schools as Scientific Socialism. It had something in common with the Cargo Cult where complicated ideas are introduced into a society without understanding of the basis. Possibly Marx, as a bourgeois, never really understood the British working class movement based on trade unions and cooperatives, where voting was essential (instilled originally by the Methodist Church). His collaborator and patron Friedrich Engels was an employer. Lenin seems to have understood the democratic aspect even less.

This quasi-religion can be expected to disappear as soon as it is no longer compulsory. As a religion it had something in common with Calvinism - a belief in predestination, the idea that the future is fixed like a machine. Like the fortune-teller with a sign "closed due to unforeseen circumstances", they failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet system. Marxists' belief in a prediction of an inevitable movement of history, is surely as futile as the belief in the end times of some versions of Christian eschatology.

Fighting Marxists can still be found: in the Philippines , Peru, Kurdistan and other countries. How will they get on without big brothers to help them? In most countries there are small Marxist "groupuscules" - clubs pretending to be parties - without real political significance.

The european Socialist and Social Democratic parties have given up Marxism as a theoretical basis for their policies - though it can be argued they have gone over to capitalism rather too enthusiastically, as Capitalism's faults become more obvious (2008-9). Does the banking crisis of 2008-9 validate Marx? To some extent it does illustrate his distinction between the "real economy" and the superstructure. He would certainly be pointing out to us the function of the investment banks to extract the surplus value of the economy and give it to the ultra-rich instead of to ordinary people. The antidote would be cooperatives.

In the United States Marx seems to have been demonised, especially by those employers and owners who agitate to have their taxes reduced and their responsibilities to their workers removed. As these are the ones who control the mainstream media and the education system it is not surprising that few people in the US know what Marx actually wrote about. No doubt the employers fear that if ordinary people understood Marx better they might agitate for the Corporations to pay more taxes, and for a fairer health and pension system.

The wordwide economic problems being experienced in 2011 look more and more to be the situation predicted by Marx when money becomes concentrated in the hands of the unproductive part of society - the investment banks and hedge funds.

Useful article

Karl Marx - Capital

Das Kapital, Bd.1: Der Produktionsprozess des Kapitals: Bd 1

Last revised 28/11/11


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