Is Marxism a new anti-viral drug prescribed by bourgeois spin doctors to keep the revolution at bay? Is Marx the new black and white? Why is it that Marx is the only thinker to explain what is happening to the capitalist system today? More and more bourgeois thinkers are asking that question. They have a struggle to understand Marx. In their haste to rob his grave they usually find Keynes body. Who was the real Marx? Does he have the magic bullet for the global capitalist crisis today? No, if we think Marx is Keynes and can save capitalism. Yes, if we mean he explains that capitalism has exhausted itself and is ready to give birth to socialism.
Marx discovered the laws of motion of capitalism much as Copernicus discovered the Earth’s orbit, Newton gravity and Einstein, relativity. He therefore made the definitive scientific analysis of capitalism. He advanced beyond the discoveries of Adam Smith and David Ricardo and left a legacy that is rich in its development by his successors like Kautsky, Lenin and Trotsky. But Marx’s science of capitalism was revolutionary in its implications predicting its end and replacement by socialism. So Marxism as a scientific theory was constantly challenged by neo-classical economic theory in his lifetime. Marx called this ‘vulgar’ political economy because it reverted to a crude ideological simplification of the classical theories of Smith and Ricardo (and Marx in one sense) as a market theory of value.
On the left Marx main rivals were first, the Proudhonists who mistook money to be the main problem of capitalism. In Aotearoa Te Whiti developed a similar view, blaming colonisation on the worship of money. But money was only the universal measure of the labour value of all commodities the basis of capitalist production. The Proudhonists treated the symptom not the cause and could not develop a revolutionary critique of capitalism. Marx was right then.
Second, were the anarchists around Bakunin who were expelled from the first Communist International after the Paris Commune in 1871 over the dictatorship of the proletariat. They opposed the working class forming a centralised workers state after the revolution. Marx critiqued anarchism as incapable of destroying the bourgeois state and therefore open to joining it. Anarchists subsequently participated in revolutions and despite their hostility to the state joined in bourgeois government as in Spain in 1936. Marx was right then too.
Third, Marxism itself was exposed to various schools of revisionists like Lassalle who backslid from value theory to exchange theory and reformism. In his own life time he disowned these so-called ‘marxists’ including his own son-in-law Paul Lafargue. He was right then, again.
Today these ersatz ‘marxists’ follow in the footsteps of legions of others from Bernstein to Stalin who have distorted or dragged Marxism in the mud. Wallerstein, Zizek et al talk about the current world situation without reference to the basics of Marxism and ignore the historical dynamics of the bourgeois and socialist revolutions! Marx is still right today.
And finally there are those who come back to Marx to join the “He’s back!”bandwagon claiming Marx was right all along. But this doesn’t mean he is right for the right reason when the Marx of the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ is ‘updated’ to be more presentable to the ‘middle class’, as in Terry Eagleton, or others celebrating Marx new found resonance with the 'chattering class'.
So keeping the Marxist legacy alive was always a battle both with those who defected as well as its traditional enemies. Sometimes these were the same person as in Kautsky, the main German defender of Marx until the Russian revolution which he repudiated. Wars and revolutionary crisis tested Marxist orthodoxy to the limit; some regressed like Kautsky, some became victims of their failure to build a Bolshevik-type party like Luxemburg and Gramsci, some vacillated as centrists like Trotsky, and others remained steadfast like Lenin.
Bolsheviks and Mensheviks
The Great Imperialist War was the first major test of Marxism that found the 2nd International wanting. The big majority betrayed Marxism and backed their capitalist classes sending their workers to kill one another. A tiny minority, the Zimmerwald Left around Lenin and Luxemburg defended Marx and Engel’s internationalism and kept a living link to Marx that carried over to the Bolshevik Revolution.
This revolution was the supreme test of Marxist orthodoxy because it necessitated a major change in Marxist theory at a time when Marxism taught that socialist revolution would arise only in the developed industrial capitalist countries. Karl Kautsky was the main defender of this position which we call Menshevik. Lenin and Trotsky became the main critics giving rise to a new flowering of Marxism as a program for revolution not limited to particular countries but of the global capitalist system. We call that position Bolshevik. Luxemburg and Gramsci took positions close to the Bolsheviks although they arrived late at the need for a Bolshevik party. Had Luxemburg lived, she would have become close to the Bolsheviks of Lenin and Trotsky. Gramsci however shifted from left to right like a centrist and during his years in jail moved away from the Bolshevik camp.
Lenin and Trotsky developed Marxism by applying the dialectical method. They understood the material basis of ‘backwardness’ as a one-sided aspect of global capitalism. There could be a revolution in a backward country but there could never be socialism in one country alone. Kautsky and Luxemburg couldn’t see it. Kautsky rejected a revolution in backward Russia outright. Luxemburg said that the revolution in Russia was premature because the conditions were lacking for realising socialism after the revolution. Gramsci developed a crude typology of backwardness and types of revolution justifying the October revolution and eventually Stalinist revolution in one country.
While the Bolshevik revolution sorted the Bolsheviks from the Mensheviks it left the non-Marxists floundering in its wake. They failed to understand the contradictions of Russia and the revolution, and wound up on the counter-revolutionary side. The Proudhonists had become Fabians who wanted to nationalise the banks. They mistook the Bolsheviks for state socialists. The Webbs went to Russia in the 1930s and lauded Stalin. The anarchists welcomed the October Revolution but then quickly rejected the single party state. They sided with the Peasant leader Makhno against the Red Army during the civil war, and backed the sailors of Kronstadt who staged an insurrection against the state for new elections without the Bolshevik party.
Logically, then these opponents of Bolshevism had become anti-Marxists and counter-revolutionaries adding to the isolation and defeat of the revolution in Russia. Therefore they have no credibility in events since then including the attempts by Marxists to defend the Russian revolution from degeneration under Stalin, the defence of the Spanish Revolution, the fight against fascism, the tactics against social democracy etc.
In class terms these currents are petty bourgeois. Their view of capitalism is one of unequal exchange where the capitalists cheat workers of part of the value of their wage. It falls to the petty bourgeois to correct this by reforming the state. We call this petty bourgeois current that uses Marx’s name in vain centrists.
Reformists and Centrists
Trotsky defined centrism as those currents that vacillate between revolution and reform. In reality any shortfall from revolution makes you a reformist. But centrism tries to disguise this fact with Marxist phrases. So ‘born-again marxist’ Wall St journalists who claim that Marx was right about capitalism but wrong about socialism, are liberal reformists posturing as centrists, distorting and neutralising the revolutionary heritage of Marxism. We can dispense with them as impostors. They are saying that capitalism has to be saved from those who corrupt it. Centrists who hold this position mask it as anti-capitalism based on equalising exchange. David Harvey’s take on Marxism is very popular among centrist groups because while it argues that the crisis is caused by a surplus of capital, it is caused by ‘feral’ capitalism that ‘loots’ wealth (unequal exchange). So the political conclusions he draws are about reforming the unequal distribution of wealth.
For Marx however, unequal exchange is a secondary phenomenon that affects the fluctuation of prices of commodities around their value. It cheapens the costs of production of value because it is essentially theft. Capitalism got its start by theft (primitive accumulation), and grew by sucking slave and unpaid labour into its system. But it developed as a highly productive system only when it could pay a living wage to sustain life and began applying new machinery to increase labour productivity. This reduced necessary labour time and brought down the value of commodities.
Nevertheless capitalism still resorts to unequal exchange (theft) at the margins in the neo-colonies and semi-colonies (like NZ) to boost profits especially when defence of labour’s historic gains prevent devaluation of living standards.
But the basic point is that the system does not function by buying cheap and selling dear except at the margins. At the centre of all the big capitalist powers is highly developed monopoly industry that sets the value of commodities by the value of the labour power expended in production at a level set by a historic compromise between labour and capital.
Capitalist Crisis means socialism or death!
The inherent crisis of capitalism is that it cannot exploit workers enough to extract sufficient value in the process of production to maintain an adequate return of profits over all the capital in existence. So as the rate of profit falls capital is not re-invested in production and overproduction of capital is the result.
This is where Keynesian state intervention comes in, substituting for capitalists who want to hoard their excess capital (or these days engage in casino capitalism betting on future prices of existing commodities or buying future prices of commodities that do not yet exist) to stimulate demand and therefore productive investment. But the fact is that the capitalists control the state and make sure that they receive the bailouts to cover their debts and finance a return to hoarding and speculation rather than invest productively.
It follows that both the banks and corporates have to be socialised, not by a state that consists of corrupt capitalist cronies, but a state that represents the interests of the working class that produces the wealth. Only such a workers state can make sure that capital is socialised and invested in production to meet needs rather than profits. The market is a total handicap to this so no mixed system is feasible.
The crisis of capitalism is now a crisis of human survival so the stakes are high – for workers to survive, capitalism must die. Capitalism depends on drawing down nature’s bounty which includes the labour power of its workers. It destroys nature. We have little time to smash capitalism and rescue humanity and the rest of nature. We can only do that by uniting workers all around the world. This means that Marxists must take the lead in the socialist revolution drawing on the lessons of ‘Why Marxism is Right’.
Capitalism as a system is in a terminal crisis unable to develop human society but rather is destroying it. The crisis can only be resolved either by capitalist barbarism or proletarian socialism. Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto of 1848 “Proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win”. They were right. They are still right. It is up to us to make it come true.