What can Marxism tell us about capitalism that we don’t already know?
In the last few years the movement has taken the lid off the capitalist system and exposed the exploitation on which it all rests. Many of the things we know about how capitalism works come from Marx.
Capitalism seeks out the cheapest labour — the least protected and most exploited workers. But it will happily throw those workers on the scrapheap if a machine is invented that can do what they do. After all, machines don’t need to be paid, fed, or housed.
Marxism adds a way of understanding why all these things happen. Factory owners, heads of multinationals and big farmers don’t exploit workers simply because they are “bad people”. They do it because they are capitalists.
What drives them is a systemic impulse to produce wealth. “Accumulate, accumulate — that is Moses and the prophets,” as Marx described it.
The capitalist invests his or her capital to produce wealth, and only for that purpose. But every other capitalist is doing the same thing. While they might join together against workers, they are always competing with one another.
So what makes one capitalist earn more than another? New technology — spinning machines or computers — can speed up production, and give one capitalist a temporary advantage over another. This leads to production taking place on a larger and larger scale, with smaller manufacturers going to the wall.
What really makes the difference is the amount of work that can be squeezed out of each worker over and above what that worker has to be given to survive. Surplus value, the source of profit, is the difference between the value the worker creates and what they get back in benefits of one kind or another. This is the relationship Marx called exploitation.
So the system as a whole is driven by these two forces — the need to accumulate and the competition between capitalists. But the irony is that it is not capitalists who produce the wealth. Although they take it for themselves and control it, it is workers that do the producing. Yet under capitalism, workers never get to control the wealth they produce.
Individual capitalists and their behaviour are not the fundamental problem. Firms and companies regularly change hands. Bosses and managers are frequently fired and replaced. The way they operate does not change — nor ever will, as long as the capitalist system continues.
Marxists keep banging on about workers. But our movement includes far more people than just workers. What about peasants, students, immigrants, the unemployed, teachers? Don’t they count?
Of course they all count. They are part of the movement. The diversity of people on anti-war demonstrations, protests against the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and so on is staggering.
This range is the great strength of the mobilisations across the world that have grown up since Seattle in 1999 and are expressed in events such as the World Social Forum.
Our numbers are growing all the time. There were 70,000 on the demonstration in Seattle against the WTO. But that figure pales besides the 20 million who marched across the planet against war on 15 February 2003.
We have the numbers on our side. Just as importantly, our movement represents almost every section of the population—national and ethnic groups, immigrant and anti-racist organisations, students and youth, peasant farmers and the unemployed, campaigners against every form of injustice and exploitation.
As the movement has grown, a range of ideas have developed within it that quite rightly celebrate its multiple character. Yet it seems that however many we are, and however powerful the arguments that we make, capitalism and its representatives can still ultimately continue to pursue their own interests.
That’s why more people within the social movements are asking where our power to change the world will come from. Marxists have a very clear answer.
Marx described his ideas as the “theory and practice of proletarian revolution”. He wasn’t analysing capitalism just for the sake of it. He was a revolutionary, who needed to understand capitalism in order to overthrow it.
At the heart of his ideas was the great insight that while capitalists may own machines and capital, workers produce the wealth. Thus if workers refused to switch on the machines, or shovel the coal, the whole shebang would come to a juddering halt.
So we do have power, but why don’t we use it? Workers do use it every time they organise a trade union and fight for better wages and conditions.
That power can be used as a weapon to change the whole system. It is a power that the producers have that other sections of society don’t possess. That’s the reason why workers have a key role in a revolutionary movement. That is why Marxists speak about the workers’ leadership of the revolution.
You don’t have to be on a production line or wield a hammer to be a worker. Everyone who lives on a wage earned by contributing hours of work is a worker, by definition.
Workers are all those who provide the labour that makes production possible — by teaching kids, healing wounds, heating homes, growing food, or caring for those who have been damaged by this ruthless system. It is their collective power that can change the world.
Of course, there are thousands of people employed to persuade us that change cannot come about — that capitalism is natural, that human nature never changes, that leaders are born not made, that capitalists can do good.
It is the task of all of us who believe that revolution is possible to show that we can affect things, that we do have power, that we can act together as a class of producers, irrespective of our other differences.
So how do we get from here to there? How does a revolution become possible?
It’s a rocky road, without question. Although capitalism seems to provide opportunities to bring change by peaceful and legal means — elections, for example — no ruling class has ever accepted defeat and given up quietly.
They try to dazzle us with promises of a better life tomorrow (or in the next world) — or frighten us with threats of force if we don’t conform.
Trade unionists might appear to be free to organise. But when they really take on the system, as the miners did in 1984, parliamentary rules and legal protections are pushed aside. Then we see the reality of the capitalist state.
For Marxists, the role of the state is key. The state is not only, as Marx put it, the “executive committee of the bourgeoisie”. It is also the organised violence that the ruling class will not hesitate to use if its interests are under threat, be it at a miners’ picket line or in Iraq.
There are those within our movement who argue that we can avoid confronting the state and take power in other ways. The problem is that capitalism is a way of organising production — and everything else flows directly from that.
As long as capitalism continues, exploitation will continue and the state will stand as a direct threat to our power. The state is not neutral. It is an instrument of the dominant economic class, designed to defend their interests.
So a revolution will produce a new kind of state, a new kind of social organisation based on the interests of the majority. That new kind of social order begins to be created in the struggle.
For Marxists in our tradition that is fundamental. The socialist society we look forward to will be a democracy so profound and far reaching that we can scarcely begin to imagine it.
But its basis will be a mass revolutionary movement, in the course of which a new collective power will take centre stage. This new society will not just have nicer representatives than the old one — it will be run by the majority of people themselves. That is the fundamental difference.
We can’t know yet how this new society will look. But we can refer back to other moments in history when workers have created new organs of social organisation.
This happened during the Paris Commune of 1871, in Barcelona in 1936, and in Chile in 1972. Above all it happened in Russia in 1917, when “soviets” — workers’ councils — sprang up that were extraordinary expressions of this new kind of society.
It’s true that the hopes of 1917 were betrayed and turned on their head. That’s a lesson we have to learn from history. We have to acknowledge that only workers themselves can make a workers’ revolution — no party, no army, no machine, no substitute can do it for them.
Isn’t that a warning to us — that every time you try to build socialism in a country, it gets distorted or undermined?
It is a warning. It tells us that capitalism will not allow enclaves of socialism to exist, be it a hippy commune or an island of socialism.
Our movement has understood, perhaps more clearly than any other, that capitalism operates on a global scale. When the poor try to cross frontiers in search of work, they are pursued and criminalised. But when a major capitalist moves across the world in pursuit of opportunities for profit, the border posts open magically before them.
Whatever tactical differences our rulers may have, their common interests always prevail — so in the end Jacques Chirac welcomes George Bush to Paris, whatever their differences over Iraq.
It is imperative that we are as global, as coordinated and as centrally organised in our struggle as the capitalists are in their pursuit of wealth and power. We are international, or we are nothing. If we can draw together the interests of all of those who have no stake in the system and connect our anti-capitalist conviction with our power as workers then we have a world to win.