Transcript of a speech given by Matt Collins of the SWP Belfast at the Think Left conference on 10th October.
I want to start off by quoting the new British Shadow Chancellor. Just two weeks ago John McDonnell said that the teachings of Karl Marx are back in fashion:
“Marx has come back in to fashion because people have gone back to his analysis of just the basics of how the system works,” said McDonnell.
Now I start with that quote for two reasons. The first is simply because I have been involved in socialist politics for a fair few years now and I have considered myself a Marxist in that time, and I think we would all agree that after years of New Labour and Blairism, its pretty good to be able to quote some mainstream Labour politicians who finally have something positive to say about Marx— whatever the limitations of people like McDonnell and the Labour Party, which we can maybe come to later, if necessary.
But the second and most important reason its worth starting with that quote is that I think it indicates a very important shift that has taken place in the world over the past number of years—not just the whole Corbyn phenomena, which in British terms has emerged like an island of optimism in an ocean of despair—but the fact that John McDonnell is absolutely right; Karl Marx is back in fashion and its not too hard to see why. Yet it hasn’t always been that way.
For decades the architects and prize-fighter’s of free market neoliberal capitalism would have had people believe that Marx was dead, that his ideas were no longer relevant and that history had proven it so. This of course happened in the context of the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. It was the “end of history” and marked the triumph of capitalism they said. Now of course it has to be stated that many of us in the socialist movement never accepted that tired old line.
Indeed, when we look back at those countries that have been in the past, still some today, termed Marxist’, its one of the many myths of Marxism isn’t it? — That those countries that practiced repressive state ownership and control somehow represented Marx’s theories of workers liberation. In fact it was quite the opposite. Somebody wrote that blaming Marx for the many horrific crimes of Stalinism and other so-called socialist countries was akin to blaming the Spanish inquisition on Jesus Christ, and it’s true.
Nevertheless, that never stopped many academics, writers and theorists who, against all logic, tried to route the source of the Gulags or whatever else in the theories of Marx. There have always been honourable exceptions of course, and if anybody wants to read a brilliant and thoughtful defence of Marx ideas you could do no better than pick up a copy of Terrys Eagleton’s book, which for me is certainly one of the most readable and relevant books on Marx’s ideas.
But the wider point is that this whole caricature that Marx was no longer relevant was shattered with the world economic crash in 2008. They said that capitalism had triumphed, that it was a stable system, the best we could hope for and that the logic of the free market should be embraced in every facet of life. Then the balloon went up and we were plunged into the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s. All of a sudden it seemed clear that the basic tenants of Marx’s theories were correct— that despite what the now disgraced profession of economic neoliberals said, capitalism is an inherently unstable system in which its very internal contradictions guarantee crisis for the vast majority of people who inhabit the earth and create the world we live in.
The return of Marx is an attempt to make sense of this world. It’s a combination of people critiquing the world we live in and trying to articulate a different road, and its found real expression in many of the most progressive movements that we have seen in recent history. Hugo Chavez talked of Marx when he argued for “Socialism in the 21st century”; across Europe where the radical left has emerged its most strongest in fighting against he sharp edge of austerity, in Greece Yanis Varouvakis describes himself a Marxist, albeit an erratic one. In Spain, Pablo Iglesias leader of Podemos also talks in the language of Marxism. But it’s not just about individual figures. These people are all products of working class people fighting and struggling for a different world.
Across the world people are looking for an explanation that can explain the many injustices, horrors and inequalities of the system that we live under. Whether it is in regard to the horrific Refugee crisis, the endless escalation of war in the Middle East. Or, closer to home, the ruthless austerity driven class war that has been waged upon working class people over the past number of years, north and south. There’s a massive yearning for a different type of world.
Indeed, If you want to get a sense of the thirst that there is for an understanding of how the world works just think of the proliferation in society of all the weird and wonderful conspiracy theories that are out there. Some people say that the world is run by the illumaniti, with some even claiming that the illumanati is some sort of plot between Jay Z, Lady Gaga and Rhianna. Others claim its run by the New World Order, some claim its the Free Masons.
Still others have advanced the extraordinary proposition that the world is run by a cabal of shape shifting Lizards. Now if these kinds of theories are your thing then fair enough: I mean don’t get me wrong I still think its nonsense that Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK… All jokes aside, many of you will rightly conclude that these theories are a load of rubbish. But it does say something about the world we live in; that these types of theories are even widely discussed and often accepted. What I want to argue is that Karl Marx offered a far more simple, but altogether more profound and radical explanation for the world we live in today, and how we can change it.
That’s not to say that Marx fundamentally refuted the Lizard Theory. But to understand why there’s poverty in the world, why the world thrives on continual war and recession and hardship for the majority of the people, we have to look at the system as a whole; how it works, what drives it and more importantly, how we can challenge and change it. What’s important about Marx is that he didn’t view the world at face value; he tried to explain the world by looking at what was beneath the surface, what was really driving the system and the underlying tensions or contradictions within it that brought both its expansion and its horrors. I want to say something about the current crisis of capitalism and show how Marx offered an explanation of this; and then I want to talk about how Marx viewed how we can change the world. Marx’s critique of the way capitalism continually goes into crisis is the first thing that springs to mind today.
Contrary to popular belief Marx was an early exponent of the power of capitalism to grow and expand. In the Communist Manifesto Marx talks about how capitalism cannot exist without constantly expanding and remaking the world in its own image. Capitalism in Marx’s day was only emerging and confined to sections of Western Europe and parts of North American. Indeed, Marx’s appreciation of capitalism shows how insightful and revolutionary his thinking was, as he understood that this system would spread across the globe. Today there are very few parts of the world that the tentacles of capitalism have yet to reach. You’ll see the same Starbucks in Belfast, New York, Moscow and Beijing. So capitalism is a massively dynamic system but as we all know it’s also a system that can go into deep crisis with terrible consequences for millions of people.
“Accumulate, accumulate, that is the Moses and the prophets” of capitalism according to Marx, what did he mean by this? Marx wrote that the central driving force behind the capitalist system is the necessity to make profit. He described the ruling class as a band of hostile brothers, united in their robbery of the world’s poor but interlocked in competition with one another. It’s this competition that drives each component of capitalism, both companies and nation states, and it is at the centre of why capitalism keeps going into crisis.
But there’s a problem at the heart of capitalism; profit does not emerge from nowhere, just as money does not grow on trees. Profits are extracted from the exploitation of the labour of the workers of the world. If labour is the source of profit, then as capitalism expands into a world system in the pursuit of profit, capitalists don’t have much choice but to outbid one another—either by attacking their workforce by, for example, making us work longer or cutting our wages, which anyone in employment ought to know about— or by accumulating more wealth and investing in new ways of producing and exploiting, in order to out compete competitors. It is this process that underlies an economic crash and leads to the overall rate of profit to fall. Today financial capitalism creates investment bubbles to temporarily stave off these contradictions; this is what explains the subprime mortgage crash leading to the recession. It the dynamic of competition and profit that explains the crisis that we are in.
And for Marx this exposes something else. It shows that while capitalism creates a huge productive capacity that has never before been seen in history. Crisis hits the system when it cannot meets the needs of the vast majority of people in the world. And we need to understand that this is quite literally true; today there is more than enough food in the world to feed the world over, yet companies dump food that is produced in order to save prices from dropping.
Today we have the productive power and capabilities to abolish poverty and want across the board; instead what we have witnessed for the last number of decades is a rise of inequality. All the evidence shows that the gap between the rich and the poor is growing day by day. A recent Oxfam study showed that the richest 85 people in the world owned as much wealth as half of the world’s population. Think about that for a second, the richest 85 people in the world could fit inside this room, yet they enjoy more wealth than the poorest 3.5 billion people on earth. That’s 21st century capitalism summed up in one figure.
We live in a world based upon making profit at all cost; the motive force of the system is not human need but accumulating profit. Its what explains austerity and hunger for the poor and tax breaks for the rich. The central driving force of the system that we live under is harmful toward the vast majority of people that live in the world. In many ways that’s how Marx explained how capitalism would grow. Marx himself said that capitalism was a ‘vampire’ like system. If you want another metaphor, I would say that for Marx capitalism is a bit like a Shark, it has to keep consuming and keep going forward to continue to exist, unless it dies.
But the other central argument Marx made was that capitalisms internal tensions and contradictions also make class struggle a permanent feature of the system. A constant tension between those who labour and those who exploit. Or what Marx called its potential gravedigger, the global working class. Today, many people have dismissed the potential for the working class to act as an agency for revolutionary change.
We’ve seen a proliferation of theories that say the working class had during the period of ‘boom’ been bought off “bourgeoisiefied”, that we no longer have a proletariat, but a “precariat”. Much of this, I would argue, lies on a misconception of how we define class. As if because many people now work in office jobs, white collar workplaces, the service industry or call centres, instead of dawning overalls and going down into mine shafts or doing manual labour in factories, they are not working class. But class isn’t about our aesthetic look, our culture or image, how we speak or our interests. Class isn’t even about how we choose to define ourselves. When people talk about class in that way I always think of that episode of Only Fools and Horses; Del Boy might have told the whole of Peckham that he was a yuppie; Del Boy was many things but never a yuppie. Class doesn’t work like that.
Marx had a simple and to this day lasting understanding of class: that it is based upon our relationship to the world that we create. If human beings are social beings that create the world we live in through our labour. Then we are greatly shaped by our role in that process. Class is determined by our role in society and our role in the process of production, distribution and exchange. Marx’s concept of class is, put simply, that those who have to sell the fruits of their labour and have no control over it compromise the worlds working class.
Viewed this way then, while the global expansion of capitalism has thrown up new technology, new types of employment and has and shifted workplace patterns, the major divisions have stayed the same. It’s between the 1% of exploiters and the 99% of those who are exploited. Obviously when you get into the finer details of this its not quite as simple as that— and Marx never claimed it to be simply a question of two classes. But it still stands as a way of viewing the great divide in the world that continually shapes us through our economics, politics and culture. Viewed this way it is clear that the Irish working class is now bigger and perhaps more exploited than it has ever been as we stare into the deepest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s. Indeed, the ever expanding global working class now inhabits an increasingly crisis prone world. Marx is back because Marx’s insights into capitalism are more relevant than ever.
In truth, I think that while many people have not read Marx or have a socialist view of the world; they do have an understanding of their role in the system and can see its inequalities. If we think about it has almost become good sense for people to realise this. Across the board people know that the system is rotten, they know that the politicians are corrupt, they know that wars are unjust. They know that working class people increasingly eat shit while the bosses enjoy a lavish life of luxury.
The problem lies in what can be done about it, as people often conclude that this is the way the world works and we have to just put up and shut up. Marx had a take why this was the case too. He argued that the prevailing ideas in society were those of the ruling class, and today its obvious that the corporate media carriers this out with great success, blaming immigrants and benefit recipients on the crisis as opposed to the real sources of poverty and despair.
But Marx also had something else to say about this— Marx argued that it was through working class struggle we can powerfully challenge these ideas, and in doing so we can change ourselves and our society. Thus beginning to articulate a vision for another world where those who create the world through their labour power control that process. And it was far from a baseless theory; Marx viewed the present historically, and argued that the history of all class society was the history of class struggle. That it is the struggle and tension between exploited and exploiter which drives history forward and which contains the agency capable of fighting for a more democratic and equal society, from the bottom up, based upon working class democracy. If workers create the world through their labour power then they have the ability to control it in their own interests, in doing so we can vastly change our society and ourselves.
Think about in terms of here in the North. Although many people rightly identify with being part of working class, on the surface it does not feature in politics, it hides beneath the surface. We are led to believe that sectarian politics is what compromises our identity, has driven our history and determines our future. But nothing could be further from the reality, and its when working class people struggle that we unearth the real underlying conditions and the agency that can fight for a better world. Austerity, for example, the fight against the Tories in defence of our services; in order to beat the Tories, Protestant and Catholics have to unite and fight together, not because it’s a nice idea, but because they have to in order to win.
If we want to defend our NHS and our education service we need to unite and fight together, and it is only in doing so that people in large numbers begin to change their ideas and become capable of creating a world in which sectarian politics doesn’t feature and determine our lives.
For me that’s the central argument of Marx and the central premise of Marxism, struggle and change— that struggle brings change, and it’s something that is often missing from the way in which Marx is taught in universities like this. Karl Marx was above all else a revolutionary who set out to understand the world for the purpose of changing it. Often held up as simply a great thinker, Marx himself said that while Philosophers interpret the world, the point was to change it. If you look at Marx’s life he was driven by a searing hatred of the inequalities and injustices in the world and he is concerned with the struggle to do something about it.
I want to finish with recounting a line from Francis Wheen’s biography of Marx. People have probably read it; Wheen tells a story when Marx later in life is interviewed by a journalist and is asked the simple question, “what is?” to which Marx replies “Struggle”. For Marx, what is life? Life is struggle, and Marx sought to understand and take part in that struggle. Class struggle manifests itself in different ways, but it is what drives history. If we look over the history of humanity we can see that its how bad things are done away with and how positive developments are born. That’s why conferences like this are important. That’s why people should read Marx, and it’s also why people should get involved in socialist politics.
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