Karl Marx

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Bristol South Labour Party Passes Motion of Solidarity with Indian Farmers

Bristol South CLP held its monthly meeting last Thursday, and passed a number of motions. Due to the Coronavirus, these are now held over Zoom, like many meetings up and down the country generally. A number of motions were debated and passed during the meeting, one of which was solidarity with the Indian farmers. Explaining the issues was a guest speaker, Dal Singh, from the Sikh community. According to Mr Singh, the central issue is the poverty caused by the BJP’s government’s privatisation of the state purchasing apparatus for agricultural goods. The Indian government had a state organisation that bought up the farmer’s produce, giving them a fair price. But now Modi is handing this process over to private entrepreneurs, who are paying starvation prices for the produce purchased. Singh said that as a result, the farmers are going to be in debt for the rest of their lives. The farmers affected and involved in the protests aren’t all Sikhs, but Sikhs form a majority of those affected. When asked what the attitude of the Sikh community was to it, Mr Singh seemed to indicate that they were more or less resigned to it. He called it a ‘genocide’ several times, and said that Sikhs regarded it as part of the long history of their people’s suffering going back to the horrors of the partition of India and the British occupation of the Punjab. He also described how the police and armed forces were being used by the Modi government to brutalize protesters and muzzle the press, with the arrest and beating of journalists covering the protests. As well as explaining the situation, Mr Singh also gave details of charities to which people could donate to help the affected farmers, though I’m afraid I’ve forgotten what they were.

I had absolutely no problem supporting the motion. Socialists are internationalists, as the Style Council song reminds us, and we have to stand in solidarity with working people around the world. ‘Workingmen of all countries, unite!’ as Marx and Engels said in their little Manifesto. I am very pleased that others agreed, and that the motion was passed.

Someone at the meeting commented that the Indian farmers were yet more victims of Neoliberalism. Absolutely. Around the world, working people are being pushed further and further into poverty as wages are slashed, hours increased, rights at work taken away, industries privatised and deregulated. The book Falling Off the Edge, which is a critical examination of this process, the poverty it’s causing, and the violence and terrorism that it engenders as a backlash, describes very clearly how its affecting the average Indian worker. And this poverty is the creation of Modi’s BJP Hindufascist government.

Hindufascist? Yes, absolutely. The BJP is a nationalist organisation, which actively persecutes non-Hindus like Christians, Sikhs and Muslims. One of Modi’s fellow BJP politicos was the governor of a province, which took absolutely no action when pogroms broke out against the Muslim population back in the 1990s. The BJP also have connections to the RSSS, a Hindu nationalist paramilitary outfit modelled on Mussolini’s Fascists. Not only has the BJP followed the standard Neoliberal policies of privatisation, deregulation and low wages, they’ve also been trying to abolish the affirmative action programmes intended to improve the conditions of the Dalits, the former ‘Untouchables’. Debt slavery was one of the forms of exploitation and servitude that afflicted many Indians, and Mr Singh’s comment that Modi’s privatisation will mean that farmers will not be able to get out of debt certainly makes you wonder if the scumbag is actively trying to bring it back.

It’s not only non-Hindus and the lower castes Modi is persecuting. The BJP, or at least parts of it, have a real, bitter hatred of Gandhi and his influence on Hinduism, because he preached tolerance and the inclusion of the Muslims rather than turning India into a Hindu state. The party also actively persecutes liberal Indian journalists and writers. Tony Greenstein, the long term campaigner against Zionism, racism and Fascism, has also rightly criticised Labour party leader Keir Starmer for supporting Modi. Yes, I know – India is now a global powerhouse. Yes, it’s a vital trade partner with this country. But the country’s prosperity should not come through the exploitation of its working people. Just like ours shouldn’t. But this seems lost on Starmer and the rest of the Blairites.

I am very glad, however, that my local Labour party has made this gesture of support for the Indian farmers, and hope this will give them strength in their struggle with a Fascistic, exploitative government.

Book on Utopias from the 17th Century to Today

Ruth Levitas, The Concept of Utopia (Oxford: Peter Lang Ltd 2011).

I’m sorry I haven’t posted anything for several days. Part of that is because the news doesn’t really inspire me. It’s not that it isn’t important, or that the Tories have stopped trying to strip working people of their rights and drive them further into poverty and degradation. Or that I’m unmoved by Trump trying to organise a coup to keep himself in the Oval Office like just about every other tin pot dictator throughout history. Or that Brexit isn’t threatening to destroy whatever remains of British industry and livelihoods, all for the benefit of the Tory superrich and investment bankers like Jacob Rees-Mogg, who have their money safely invested in firms right across the world. Or that I’m not outraged by even more people dying of Covid-19 every day, while the government has corruptly mismanaged their care by outsourcing vital medical supplies and their services to firms that are clearly incompetent to provide them, because those same firms are run by their chums. Ditto with the grossly inadequate food parcels, which are another vile example of Tory profiteering. It’s just that however disgusting and infuriating the news is, there is a certain sameness about it. Because all this is what the Tories have been doing for decades. It’s also partly because I can’t say anything more or better about these issues than has been already said by great bloggers like Mike, Zelo Street and the rest.

But I’ve also been kept busy reading some of the books I got for Christmas, like the above tome by Ruth Levitas, a sociology professor at Bristol Uni. The blurb for this runs

In this highly influential book, Ruth Levitas provides an excellent introduction to the meaning and importance of the concept of Utopia, and explores a wealth of material drawn from literature and social theory to illustrate its rich history and analytical versatility. Situating utopia within the dynamics of the modern imagination, she examines the ways in which it has been used by some of the leading thinkers of modernity: Marx, Engels, Karl Mannheim, Robert Owen, Georges Sorel, Ernst Bloch, William Morris and Herbert Marcuse. Utopia offers the most potent secular concept for imagining and producing a ‘better world’, and this classic text will be invaluable to students across a wide range of disciplines.

It has the following chapters

  1. Ideal Commonwealths: The Emerging Tradition
  2. Castles in the Air: Marx, Engels and Utopian Socialism
  3. Mobilising Myths: Utopia and Social Change in Georges Sorel and Karl Mannheim
  4. Utopian Hope: Ernst Bloch and Reclaiming the Future
  5. The Education of Desire: The Rediscovery of William Morris
  6. An American Dream: Herbert Marcuse and the Transformation of the Psyche
  7. A Hundred Flowers: Contemporary Utopian Studies
  8. Future Perfect: Retheorising Utopia.

I wanted to read the book because so many utopias have been socialist or socialistic, like the early 19th century thinkers Karl Marx described as utopian, Saint-Simon, Fourier and Robert Owen, and was interested in learning more about their ideas. In this sense, I’m slightly disappointed with the book. Although it tells you a little about the plans for the reformation of society, and the establishment of a perfect state or political system, the book’s not so much about these individual schemes as a more general discussion of the concept of utopia. What, exactly, is a utopia, and how has the concept been used, and changed and developed? Much of this debate has been within Marxism, beginning with the great thinker himself. He called his predecessors – Owen, Fourier and Owen ‘utopian’ because he didn’t believe their particular schemes were realistic. Indeed, he regarded them as unscientific, in contrast to his own theories. However, Marx did believe they had done a vital job in pointing out the failures of the capitalist system. Marxists themselves were split over the value of utopias. The dominant position rejected them, as it was pointless to try to describe the coming society before the revolution. Nevertheless, there were Marxists who believed in their value, as the description of a perfect future society served to inspire the workers with an ideal they could strive to achieve. This position has been obscured in favour of the view that Marx and his followers rejected them, and this book aims to restore their position in the history of Marxist thought. This idea of utopia as essentially inspirational received especial emphasis in the syndicalism of Georges Sorel. Syndicalism is a form of radical socialism in which the state and private industry are abolished and their functions carried out instead by the trade unions. Sorel himself was a French intellectual, who started out on the radical left, but move rightward until he ended up in extreme nationalist, royalist, anti-Semitic movements. His ideas were paradoxically influential not just in the Marxist socialism of the former Soviet Union, but also in Fascist Italy. Sorel doesn’t appear to have been particularly interested in the establishment of a real, syndicalist utopia. This was supposed to come after a general strike. In Sorel’s formulation of syndicalism, however, the general strike is just a myth to inspire the workers in their battle with the employers and capitalism, and he is more interested in the struggle than the workers’ final victory, if indeed that ever arrived.

The book also covers the debate over William Morris and his News from Nowhere. This describes an idyllic, anarchist, agrarian, pre-industrial society in which there are no leaders and everyone works happily performing all kinds of necessary work simply because they enjoy it and find it fulfilling following a workers’ revolution. Apart from criticisms of the book itself, there have also been debates over the depth of Morris’ own socialism. Morris was a member of one of the first British Marxist socialist parties, Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation, and the founder of another, the Socialist League, after he split from them. Critics have queried whether he was ever really a Marxist or even a socialist. One view holds that he was simply a middle class artist and entrepreneur, but not a socialist. The other sees him as a socialist, but not a Marxist. Levitas contends instead that Morris very definitely was a Marxist.

When it comes to the 20th century, the book points out that utopias have fallen out of fashion, no doubt due to the horrors committed by totalitarian regimes, both Fascist and Communist, which have claimed to be ideal states. However, the critic Tom Moylan has argued that utopias have still been produced in the SF novels of Joanna Russ, Ursula le Guin, Marge Piercy and Samuel Delaney. He describes these as ‘critical utopias’, a new literary genre. The heroes of this literature is not the dominant White, heterosexual male, but characters who are off-centre, female, gay, non-White, and who act collectively rather than individually. The book criticises some earlier utopias, like News from Nowhere, for their exclusive focus on the male viewpoint, comparing them with the Land of Cockayne, the medieval fantasy that similarly presents a perfect world in which everything is seemingly ordered for men’s pleasure. In contrast to these are the feminist utopias of the above writers, which began in the late 19th century with Harriet Gilman’s Herland. It also discusses the value of satires like Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, and dystopias like Eugene Zamyatin’s We, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984.

Levitas does not, however, consider utopianism to be merely confined to the left. She also considers Thatcherism a form of utopianism, discussing the late Roger Scruton’s Conservative Essays and citing Patrick Wright’s On Living in an Old Country. This last argued that the Conservative promotion of heritage was being used to reinforce old hierarchies in a markedly racist way. Some members of society were thus delineated as truly members of the nation, while others were excluded.

The book was first published in 1990, just before or when Communism was falling. It shows it’s age by discussing the issue whether the terrible state of the Soviet Union served to deter people dreaming and trying to create perfect, socialist societies. She argues that it doesn’t, only that the forms of this societies are different from the Marxist-Leninism of the USSR. This is a fair assessment. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy of books about the future colonisation of Mars, Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, the colonists not only succeed in terraforming the planet, but also create socialist society in which authority is as decentralised as possible, women are fully equal and patriarchy has been overthrown and businesses run by their workers as cooperatives. At the same time, those wishing to return to a more primitive way of life have formed hunter-gatherer tribes, which are nevertheless also conversant with contemporary technology.

Further on, although the Fall of Communism has been claimed to have discredited not just Marxism but also socialism, recent history has shown the opposite is true. After forty years of Thatcherism, an increasing number of people are sick and tired of it, its economic failures, the glaring inequalities of wealth, the grinding poverty and degradation it is creating. This is why the Conservative establishment, including the Blairites in the Labour party, were so keen to smear Jeremy Corbyn as an anti-Semite, a Communist and Trotskyite, or whatever else they could throw at him. He gave working people hope, and as Servalan, the grim leader of the Terran Federation said on the Beeb’s classic SF show, Blake’s Seven, ‘Hope is very dangerous’. A proper socialist society continues to inspire women and men to dream and work towards a better world, and it is to stop this that the Blairites contrived to get Corbyn’s Labour to lose two elections and have him replaced by Keir Starmer, a neo-liberal vacuity who increasingly has nothing to say to Johnson and his team of crooks.

Back to the book, its discussion of the nature of utopia therefore tends to be rather abstract and theoretical as it attempts to describe the concept and the way it has changed and been used. I didn’t find this really particularly interesting, although there are nevertheless many valuable insights here. I would instead have been far more interested in learning more about the particular ideas, plans and descriptions of a new, perfect, or at least far better, society of the many thinkers, philosophers and authors mentioned.

Book Review: Karl Marx’s Life, Ideas, and Influences: A Critical Examination on the Bicentenary edited by Shaibal Gupta, Marcello Musto and Babak Amini

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 01/12/2020 - 10:44pm in

In Karl Marx’s Life, Ideas, and Influences, editors Shaibal Gupta, Marcello Musto and Babak Amini bring together contributors to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth and to discuss the relevance of his theoretical and political legacy today. The book offers an open-minded, informative and thought-provoking collection of contributions that inspires in-depth discussions not only of past Marxian and Marxist legacies, but also of how we learn from them to act upon our present and future world, writes Janaína de Faria.

Karl Marx’s Life, Ideas, and Influences: A Critical Examination on the Bicentenary. Shaibal Gupta, Marcello Musto and Babak Amini (eds). Palgrave Macmillan. 2019.

Karl Marx’s Life, Ideas, and Influences, edited by Shaibal Gupta, Marcello Musto and Babak Amini, brings together a selection of high-quality papers that were presented at one of the largest international conferences organised in 2018 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth and to discuss the relevance of his theoretical and political legacy to today’s world.

As a byproduct of the international diversity of the participants of the conference – held at the Asian Development Research Institute in Patna, India – the book contains sixteen chapters by scholars from and/or based in various parts of the globe and it includes four women among its contributors. This deliberately internationalist approach is undoubtedly welcome and necessary. More fundamentally, it is not a mere formality: the editors do justice to this internationalism in showcasing the heterogeneous nature of the revival of Marxism in the 21st century around the world. This heterogeneity concerns the wide range of complex topics and styles explored in the book as well as its openness to different and controversial (re)interpretations of Marx and Marxism. While the anti-dogmatic perspective can be considered the stamp mark of the book, readers should not expect it to be an easy read for complete beginners in the broad research field on Marx and Marxism.

The structure of the book was designed with consistency by the editors: the various themes are organised under the intertwined umbrellas of Part One, ‘On the Critique of Politics’, and Part Two, ‘On the Critique of Political Economy’. I found this organisation particularly clever because it directly alludes to Marx’s early project in 1844 to write a two-volume work on the Critique of Politics and Political Economy. For reasons explained in his famous 1859 ‘Preface’ to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx’s studies led him to instead begin with an in-depth study of Political Economy, which later culminated in his (unfinished) masterpiece Capital.

However, as Michael Krätke has pointed out elsewhere, Marx’s plan to develop a critique of politics was deferred, but never abandoned, throughout his lifetime. In my view, despite all the efforts and advances made in the past 150 years or so to unfold the mediating elements between the inner laws of capital accumulation and national and international politics, this articulation remains one of the core frontiers for categorical development within Marxism. The editors’ structuring of the book is thus not only appropriate when it comes to the content of its chapters, but also reminds us of the need to strengthen the theoretical nexus between the critique of politics and the critique of political economy.

It is in this sense that I share my reflections on the theory of fetishism and the theory of interest that were triggered by the seemingly unconnected chapters by Paula Rauhala and Jan Toporowski, respectively presented in Parts One and Two. Rauhala’s analysis brilliantly articulates different interpretations of Capital from West and East Germany by providing the historical context of each side of the country both in terms of the general living conditions of the working class as well as the (geo)political structure under which they lived. Rauhala is especially interested in counterposing West German readings of Capital that stress Marx’s theory of money and commodity fetishism but are dismissive of the underpinning role of the theory of surplus value in Marx’s more complex concept of capital fetishism. Toporowski, in turn, is spot on when he emphasises that Marx antagonised both classical political economy – mainly David Ricardo, who regarded ‘interest as determined by the current rate of profit’ (225) – as well as French socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who ‘attributed the evils of capitalism to excessive interest or usury’ (215). For Marx, they both held a fetishistic conception of money and interest.

Rauhala is thus absolutely right when she insists that: ‘fetishism is a crucial concept, and it is present in all three books of Capital. The fetishisms of commodities and money are just the beginning of the story, and after the fourth chapter of the first volume, the concept of fetishism is always related to surplus value and to the mechanisms of its production, circulation, and distribution’ (186). In Chapter Four of the first volume of Capital, one reads that:

capital is money, capital is commodities. In truth, however, value is here the subject of a process in which, while constantly assuming the form in terms of money and commodities, it changes its own magnitude, throws off surplus-value from itself considered as original value, and thus valorises itself independently. […] By virtue of being value, it has acquired the occult ability to add value to itself (Capital, vol. I, Penguin ed. 1990, 255).

Indeed, Marx further argues in the third volume that ‘in interest-bearing capital […] this automatic fetish is elaborated into its pure form, self-valorising value, money that makes (breeds) money, and in this form it no longer bears any marks of its origin. The social relation is consummated in the relationship of a thing (money) to itself’ (Economic Manuscripts of 1864-5 [vol. III], Brill ed. 2016, 492-93).

Toporowski particularly discusses Marx’s argument in Capital that capitalist industrial investments allow for the extraction of surplus value from workers, the source of profits, ‘out of which interest may be paid’ (225). It is thus class exploitation that underpins capitalist interest payment but, in contrast to Ricardo’s position, ‘not necessarily from the surplus value produced at the time of the interest payment’ (219). I do have reservations, nonetheless, about Toporowski’s claim that Marx’s theorisation was limited by his ‘time of ‘’classic capitalism’’’ (225), when productive and commercial capitalists depended primarily on past accumulated monetary hoards for loans, through the intermediation of banks. I find this view overlooks the fact that Marx sketched an analysis of the credit system in the third volume of Capital grounded on his concept of fictitious capital, with a particular focus on banking, share capital and public debt assets. Crucially, he was well aware that banks did not rely, in absolute terms, on accumulated deposits and reserves in order to provide credit money for those who demanded it – a feature of the banking system that is today reinforced by post-Keynesians.

In short, Rauhala’s and Toporowski’s chapters highlight that class exploitation and surplus-value extraction cannot be sidelined – they are at the heart of Marx’s critique of political economy’s trinity formula. Capital indeed culminates in revealing that the capitalist mode of production encompasses a particular mode of distribution that reproduces the illusion that revenues (rent, interest, profit, wages) emerge out of things themselves (land, money, machines, labour) instead of from underlying exploitative social relations. The deep political implications of this involve the predominant liberal fetishistic notions of equality, freedom and fairness, which many Marxists may also fall prey to up until today.

Regarding other notable contributions in the edited collection, Ramaa Vasudevan’s chapter on the state-credit standard particularly caught my attention and inspired me to search for her other works. Ajit Sinha’s chapter is very coherent and elaborates effectively on the discussion of the supposedly logical inconsistency in Marx’s exposition of the transformation of value into prices of production in Capital. He takes the standpoint of the Italian economist Piero Sraffa, but readers would have benefitted from a critical engagement with Fred Moseley’s counterarguments on the topic, developed in his latest book, Money and Totality. Kohei Saito’s chapter effectively clarifies the intertwined relation between the economic and political spheres in Marx’s works, and can be read alongside Musto’s and Amini’s contributions, as they complement each other.

I must also mention that I learnt a lot from Miguel Vedda’s discussion on the ‘elective affinity between dialectical materialism and the tradition of essayism’. Vedda convincingly argues that this affinity – ‘not only as a genre but also, and more importantly, as a method of enquiry and even as an ethical and political stance towards the world’ (4) – can be particularly helpful for grasping ‘the possibilities and the limits of Marxism in Latin America’ (5). Finally, it should be noted that Peter Beilharz’s chapter is very impressive, not only when it comes to its academic content, which focuses on the recent revival of interest in Marx’s works across the globe, but also regarding its creative ‘breakdance’ style.

All in all, the book offers an open-minded, informative and thought-provoking collection of contributions that inspires in-depth discussions not only of past Marxian and Marxist legacies, but also of how we learn from them to act upon our present and future world.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.

Image Credit: Statue of Karl Marx, Berlin, Germany (David Merrett CC BY 2.0).

 


Karl Marx, Class Struggles in France and the historical materialist method!

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 29/03/2016 - 6:00am in

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Karl Marx

Karl Marx did not only involve himself in abstract conceptual work on how to understand the capitalist social relations of production. He was also an engaged analyst of class struggles at his time. This included three separate writings on developments in France: The Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850 (1850); The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852); and The Civil War in France (1871). In this post, I will discuss key aspects of Marx’s historical materialist approach in relation to The Class Struggles in France, 1848-50 and conclude with some ideas of what this method implies for efforts today to understand the global political economy as well as the possibilities for revolutionary change.

Key aspects of Marx’s method include (1) a focus on the social relations of production, (2) an acknowledgement of different class fractions, (3) the importance of the international dimension in understanding class struggle, as well as (4) the historical specificity of developments in individual countries.

Focus on the social relations of production

For Marx, a focus on the social relations of production is essential, when analysing historical developments and class struggle. He asserts that ‘wage labour is the existing bourgeois organisation of labour. Without it there is no capital, no bourgeoisie, no bourgeois society’. Equally, when examining the reason for the eventual defeat of workers in France in the period of 1848 to 1850, he refers to the social relations surrounding production. ‘What succumbed in these defeats was not the revolution. It was the pre-revolutionary traditional appendages, results of social relationships, which had not yet come to the point of sharp class antagonism’. It is on the basis of how production is organised that he identifies a range of different relevant classes and class fractions in the French struggles from 1948 to 1950.

Different class fractions

Marx assumed that ultimately all capitalist societies would be divided into two large classes, capital and labour. However, he was sensitive to the fact that the development towards this situation was a historical process, within which many more classes and class fractions were involved. In other words, rather than simply thinking in terms of capital and labour, he identified a range of relevant classes on the basis of an analysis of the social relations of production. In France in 1848, this included the industrial proletariat, the petty bourgeoisie such as small shop keepers, the peasant class as well as capital. The latter were sub-divided into different class fractions. ‘The bourgeois class fell apart into two big fractions, which, alternately, the big landed proprietors under the restored monarchy and the finance aristocracy and the industrial bourgeoisie under the July monarchy, had maintained a monopoly of order’. He further established that finance capital was dominant in France, while manufacturing played a subordinate role. In short, Marx was prepared to modify and adjust his general concepts such as capital and labour to the concrete empirical situation he was investigating.

The international dimension

Marx always understood capitalism as an international phenomenon and appreciated that class struggles within one country were directly affected by economic developments elsewhere. In 1848 he wrote that ‘French production relations are conditioned by the foreign trade of France, by her position on the world market and the laws thereof; how should France break them without a European revolutionary war, which would strike back at the despot of the world market, England?’. And equally, when discussing why there had been a revolution in France in February 1848, he pointed out that ‘the second great economic event which hastened the outbreak of the revolution, was a general commercial and industrial crisis in England’. The capitalist social relations of production and class struggle can only be understood within an international context.

The historical specificity

When analysing concrete struggles, Marx was careful not to generalise his findings from one country to another. In the case of France, he acknowledged the rather different production structure from the one in England, which then, in turn, led to a different assessment. Discussing the position of French manufacturing, he stated that ‘in England industry rules; in France, agriculture. In England industry requires free trade; in France, protection, national monopoly besides other monopolies. French industry does not dominate production; the French industrialists, therefore, do not dominate the French bourgeoisie. This focus on historical specificity already included an implicit reference to uneven development, the fact that different countries are in rather different positions within the global economy, which was later developed by Leon Trotsky in the notion of ‘uneven and combined development’. ‘Just as the period of crisis occurs later on the Continent than in England, so does that of prosperity. The original process always takes place in England; she is the demiurge of the bourgeois cosmos. On the Continent, the different phases of the cycle through which bourgeois society is ever speeding anew, occur in secondary and tertiary form’. This historically different location has then also implications for where revolutionary uprisings are more likely to erupt. ‘Violent outbreaks’, Marx argues, ‘must naturally occur earlier in the extremities of the bourgeois body than in its heart, since here the possibility of adjustment is greater than there’ (see also Uneven and combined development and the issue of resistance in the UK!).

Karl Marx and the analysis of the global economic crisis

In his assessment of class struggles in France from 1848 to 1850, Marx highlighted the importance of crisis as an opportunity for revolutionary change. ‘A new revolution is only possible in consequence of a new crisis. It is, however, also just as certain as this’. Today, we face another, much larger economic crisis on a global, but especially also European scale. Marx’s method developed more than 100 years ago remains relevant. First, we cannot understand the crisis by looking solely at issues such as the regulation of financial markets, as vulgar economists do. Rather, we need to analyse the underlying social relations of production and the related developments, which have brought this crisis about. Second, we need to identify the different social class forces, when thinking about agency for change. We cannot automatically assume, for example, that all workers are likely to be revolutionary agents. Different class fractions of labour are likely to act differently. Third, the international dimension is of importance. As different countries are in a different location in the global economy, so are different labour movements. It is no surprise that Greek workers are much more involved in open resistance, being in the periphery of the European political economy, than British workers from the core. Finally, we need to investigate the historical specificity of the capitalist social relations of production and here the way capitalism has evolved since the mid-19th century. While Marx’s method can be used for an analysis today, his findings cannot simply be transferred.

This post was originally posted on Trade Unions and Global Restructuring (5 July 2012) and appears here as one of the texts originally read in the Marxism Reading Group. 

Karl Marx and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 19/03/2016 - 7:35am in

HollowayThe notion of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ is widely vilified. Often linked to Stalin’s authoritarian rule in the Soviet Union, there is little positive said about it. Moreover, the negative evaluation is also regularly linked back to Lenin and his idea of a vanguard party taking over state power in order to change society for the better. As John Holloway argues in Change the World Without Taking Power, ‘you cannot build a society of non-power relations by conquering power. Once the logic of power is adopted, the struggle against power is already lost’. And yet, these reflections overlook Marx’s own discussion of what the dictatorship of the proletariat may entail in practice. Most importantly they neglect his analysis of the Paris Commune in The Civil War in France (1871). For as Engels pointed out in 1891, ‘well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat’.

In this post, I will look more closely at Marx’s discussion of the Paris Commune and his ideas about how to organise popular government.

It is especially the third part of the Third Address, given by Marx to the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association in May 1871, which is relevant for our purpose here. First, Marx makes clear that the proletariat cannot simply take over the bourgeois state and its institutions, if it wants to change society. ‘The working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes’. Parallel to the ‘pace at which the progress of modern industry developed, widened, intensified the class antagonism between capital and labour, the state power assumed more and more the character of the national power of capital over labour, of a public force organised for social enslavement, of an engine of class despotism’. In order to bring about a new society, therefore, the very institutions of the bourgeois state form have to be changed first. For example, ‘the police was at once stripped of its political attributes’ in the Paris Commune. Furthermore, Marx recognised the importance of education for a truly free society and praised the Commune’s steps in this area. ‘The whole of the educational institutions were opened to the people gratuitously, and at the same time cleared of all interference of church and state’.

Second, Marx highlights the governance structure, introduced by the Paris Commune. ‘The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms’. In other words, rather than representing authoritarian government, ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ is a fundamentally democratic set-up, within which the individual has a direct impact on decision-making in that delegates have the task to transfer local decisions and can be re-called and replaced at any time. Equally, in relation to the judiciary, ‘like the rest of public servants, magistrates and judges were to be elective, responsible, and revocable’. The overall goal is the ‘self-government of the producers’. This system, once established in Paris, should then also be implemented in the rural communities, with delegates being elected to represent these districts to the National Delegation in Paris. Again, each delegate was ‘to be at any time revocable and bound by the mandate imperative (formal instructions) of his constituents’. In short, for Marx the dictatorship of the proletariat always implied direct participation by the people in all aspects of the decision-making process. It did not mean authoritarian rule.

Importantly, restructuring of the bourgeois state form did not simply focus on bourgeois institutions. For Marx, it was always clear that capitalist exploitation was rooted in the way production was organised around wage labour and the private ownership of the means of production. To overcome exploitation, therefore, it was necessary to abolish private property and this is precisely what the Paris Commune did. ‘Yes, gentlemen, the Commune intended to abolish that class property which makes the labour of the many the wealth of the few. It aimed at the expropriation of the expropriators. It wanted to make individual property a truth by transforming the means of production, land, and capital, now chiefly the means of enslaving and exploiting labour, into mere instruments of free and associated labor’. In other words, the economy cannot be regarded as separate from politics, if true change is to be accomplished.

Finally, Marx was aware of the importance of the Commune’s international dimension. ‘If the Commune was thus the true representative of all the healthy elements of French society, and therefore the truly national government, it was, at the same time, as a working men’s government, as the bold champion of the emancipation of labour, emphatically international’. Thus, for Marx it was always clear that the defeat of capitalism could not only be achieved in one country or even one city – after all the Paris Commune fell after a couple of months – but must always have an international aspiration.

To establish ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ as experimented by the Paris Commune is not really on today’s agenda. And yet, perhaps developments in Venezuela are potentially one step into this direction? The so-called Housing Mission, for example, did not only succeed in building thousands of homes for the poor, but also managed to include barrio residents in their planning and construction, as argued by Steve Ellner in 2012. To conclude, the dictatorship of the proletariat, as envisaged by the Paris Commune, is an aspiration at best at this point in time, but an aspiration worthwhile to pursue and push further.

This post originally appeared on Trade Unions and Global Restructuring (14 September 2012) and appears here as one of the texts originally read in the Marxism Reading Group.