A guide to Marx’s theory and politics

The worldwide public realizes there is something deeply wrong with today’s world economic system…. The truth is that the neo-liberal consensus, with its promise of economic “freedom,” has failed to deliver….

Average workers in most of the major rich economies…have seen the real value of their wages shrivel away, as they have found themselves in competition not just with their neighbors, but with workers many thousands of miles away. Yet if the system fails the average worker in the west, it fails even in its own terms, because it undermines consumer demand, and chokes off economic growth….

As we sift through the wreckage of the Great Recession, perhaps it’s finally time to heed Marx’s words, and stand up for workers everywhere.

SO WROTE Britain’s Observer newspaper in an editorial published at the end of January. As the global economic crisis has deepened and refused to go away, it has become increasingly common for mainstream commentators to declare that it may be necessary to revisit Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism (although Marx advocated not simply standing up for workers, but for workers themselves to unite in opposition to the status quo).

Even more importantly, Marx’s ideas are finding a new audience among those fighting against the current system. In Egypt there is a growing audience for a Marxist analysis of why the revolution has stalled and how it can be pushed forward, while here in the United States, teach-ins on the Communist Manifesto were held at many of the Occupy encampments around the country in the fall.

Given this background, the republication of Alex Callinicos’s introduction to Marx’s life and thought—originally issued in 1983 for the centenary of Marx’s death—could not be more timely. As Callinicos notes in his introduction to this new edition of The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx, “Marx is getting a more favorable hearing at a time when anticapitalist politics have been reviving.”

There are so many myths about Marx and misinterpretations of his ideas that returning to the source is absolutely essential if we want to know what he actually advocated. Callinicos’s book begins with a lively account of Marx’s life, showing how his ideas developed and emphasizing “the unity of Marx’s life and thought as critical theorist and revolutionary activist.” Marx, in other words, was interested in understanding the world not as an abstract intellectual exercise, but in order to change it.

He was born in 1818 in the German Rhineland and later became a student in both Bonn and Berlin, where he came under the influence of radical young followers of the philosopher Hegel. They embraced Hegel’s view that history is characterized by contradiction and change but rejected his claims that this process had culminated with the Protestant reformation and that the Prussian state was the embodiment of reason. Instead, the Young Hegelians wanted to fulfill the promises of the French Revolution by promoting democratic forms.

After completing his doctorate in 1842 and being forced to make a living as a journalist, Marx came to see the limitations of the Young Hegelians. They saw “their task as the purely intellectual one of refuting error,” particularly religion, which they viewed as the main obstacle to social change. By contrast, while reporting on a new law that prevented the poor from gathering fallen wood, Marx became aware that their oppression was based not on reason, but on the material interests of the industrial capitalists and feudal landowners who controlled the state. Investigating the dire poverty of peasants in the Moselle region led him to the conclusion that only if private property was abolished could genuine freedom and democracy be achieved.

As Marx’s collaborator Friedrich Engels recalled many years later, “I heard Marx say again and again that it was precisely through concerning himself with the wood-theft law and with the situation of the Moselle peasants that he was shunted from pure politics over to economic conditions, and thus came to socialism.” The key remaining question was how the abolition of private property was to be achieved. It was Marx’s encounter with workers’ organizations in Paris, and the 1844 rebellion of Silesian weavers in Germany, that convinced him that workers were not simply victims, and that the development of capitalism would give them the power to transform society.

Over the next few years, in collaboration with Engels, Marx developed a set of ideas to explain the course of human history, the necessity for a socialist revolution, and the key role that the working class would play in such a struggle. After examining Marx’s political and intellectual influences, Callinicos turns to an exposition of his mature views on history, economics, and revolution, paying close attention to Marx’s own words.

Marx was a materialist in the sense that he believed that material conditions, and in particular the way in which production was organized in a society, explain the way in which ideas, laws and customs develop. He also noted that for all of recorded history, human society has been divided into exploiting and exploited classes—a minority that controls society’s surplus wealth (that is, resources not needed for immediate consumption) and a much larger group that actually produces it. This is why “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.”

Different forms of society are based on different relations of exploitation. In slave societies, the direct producers are literally owned by members of the exploiting class. In feudal societies, peasants are not owned by lords, but they are controlled by political and military means. In modern capitalism, control over workers is mainly exercised through more subtle economic means. Workers are free to leave a job if they choose, but the vast majority of workers can only make a living if they submit to exploitation by someone.

But there have been different forms of class society due to the fact that as changes accumulate in an economy, contradictions begin to develop at the base of society, altering the balance of class forces, and producing major crises. These crises can result “in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”

Marx spent much of his adult life developing an account of how capitalism works and why it too cannot avoid periodic and devastating crises. One of the strongest sections in Callinicos’s book is the chapter on capitalism, which is the best short introduction to Marx’s economic ideas that I know. It is worth buying the book for this chapter alone.

The subsequent chapter on workers’ power, explaining how the working class has the power to change society and the radically democratic alternative to capitalism that Marx envisaged, is also essential reading for anyone who wants to transform the world today. Among other things, it makes clear that Marx’s vision of socialism had nothing in common with one-party dictatorships like the former Soviet Union that declared themselves to be socialist or communist. For Marx, the key question was not whether the economy was controlled by the state, but which class controlled the state. A society can only be socialist if power is in the hands of workers themselves.

Callinicos describes his book as “a contribution to the struggle against capitalism, and for socialism.” By presenting Marx’s ideas in a clear and accessible way, he has made it easier for a new generation of activists to see their relevance for the political battles facing us today.