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Why Marx matters

This article is over 16 years, 1 months old
The ideas of Karl Marx are a good place to start if we want to provide an alternative to capitalism and change the world, writes Alex Callinicos
Issue 2098

The past decade has seen the emergence of new movements of resistance. They were initially provoked by the form of corporate globalisation imposed by the neoliberal policies of the leading Western governments.

Resistance was intensified by the war drive launched by the US under George Bush after 11 September 2001.

But one question that still has to be answered is, what ideas can best express the aspirations of these movements?

In the early 2000s, the most influential figures were those who celebrated the existence of the movements and their decentralised methods of organising, such as Antonio Negri, Naomi Klein and John Holloway.

But, offering little direction, these ideas have somewhat faded.

Noam Chomsky remains an immensely respected figure for his unrelenting critique of US imperialism, but he makes a point of abstaining from anything resembling an overall analysis or strategic direction for the movement.

Maybe instead of looking for new thinkers, it would be better to return to an old one – Karl Marx. To many this may seem like a ridiculous suggestion – surely Marx is an outdated, Victorian figure?

But far from being obsolete, Marx is the most contemporary of social theorists.

The reason for this is simple. It’s a cliche that we live in an era that is dominated by dynamic, globalised capitalism.

Marx’s great subject was capitalism. Part of his originality was to grasp, back in the 1840s, that industrial capitalism, based on mass, technology-driven production, would spread out from its British beachhead to conquer and transform the world.

In the Communist Manifesto, published in 1848, Marx sketched out the process of capitalist expansion that would only begin to be fully realised 150 years later.

More than that, he grasped how fragile capitalism is.

In his masterwork, Capital, Marx struggled to uncover the mechanisms that made capitalism inherently liable to profound and destabilising economic crises. This is an immensely important insight.


There has been much criticism of contemporary globalisation for being socially unfair and environmentally unjust. But there has been much less recognition, even among its critics, of how vulnerable free market capitalism is to crisis.

This is, of course, even more true of the boosters of neoliberalism. For the past few years, when the world economy grew quite fast, they proclaimed that capitalism was entering a new golden age.

Instead we are now faced with a severe financial crisis, radiating out from the very core of the system in the US and threatening to create a major recession. Now the boosters have changed their tune.

Instead of relying on what former US president Ronald Reagan used to call “the magic of the marketplace”, they are turning to the state to bail them out.

Marx saw that capitalism wasn’t just an economic system, but a regime of power riven by a fundamental antagonism – the class conflict between workers and bosses.

Marx argued that the source of the profits that fuel capitalism lies in the exploitation of the workers. This basic division broke society in two, unleashing a class struggle between exploiters and exploited that would transform the world.

This is the side of Marx’s thought that is most frequently dismissed as obsolete, as it supposedly reflects a polarisation of society between rich and poor that belongs to the 19th century. But it is the critics who look increasingly out of date.

To begin with, the polarisation between rich and poor has not disappeared.

On the contrary, the current rises in food prices have provoked a surge of riots around the world as poor people find themselves unable to buy basic staples such as bread and rice.

Marx argued that capitalist crises don’t arise from there not being enough to go round.

People starve not because there isn’t enough food, but because they lack the money to buy it. Rising prices reflect the anarchy of the capitalist system.

Jean Ziegler, the United Nations’s special rapporteur on the right to food, said last weekend, “Hunger has not been down to fate for a long time – just as Marx thought. This is silent mass murder.”

The division between rich and poor exists within the advanced economies as well. Indeed, the era of neoliberalism has seen the gap grow.

The problem in the US, the richest country of all, seems increasingly to be one of an absolute fall in living standards. Median family income was lower in 2006, towards the end of the latest boom, than it was in 1999, at the same stage in the previous boom.

But Marx didn’t approach the question of class like a sociologist. He wasn’t trying to draw a map of the distribution of income and of the kind of jobs people did.


He was interested in the class antagonism because it provided the key to where power lay – both to preserve present-day society and to change it.

This is why those who criticise him for ignoring gender or race or religion don’t get the point.

Marx was aware that there are all sorts of divisions in society that can lead to one group dominating and oppressing another. But suffering isn’t necessarily a source of power.

The point about the working class is that its labour provides the capitalists with their profits. The very fact that workers are exploited gives them power over the bosses.

This power is expressed in every strike, when workers act collectively to withdraw labour and thereby cut off the flow of profits.

Some strategically placed groups of workers have even greater power, since they can hit the profits not just of their own bosses but of other ones as well.

The chaos caused in London by the last tube workers’ strike in the late summer of last year is an illustration of this power.

It’s important also that Marx didn’t think of the working class in the way in which media and academic cliche invites us to do – as composed of male, manual, industrial workers.

For him, class was defined by the relation between exploiter and exploited.

From this perspective, to be a worker you have to lack the economic independence to support yourself out of your own resources.

So, in order to live, you have to sell your ability to work to a capitalist firm.

Because of your lack of bargaining power, the result is that you are exploited at work.

To be a worker in this sense, you don’t need to work with your hands or in a factory. You can work in an office, a hospital, a school or a university.


You can produce services, rather than physical goods. You can be employed by the state rather than by a private boss.

The working class in this broad social sense is the large majority of the population in the rich countries. It is also growing on a global scale.

The industrialisation of coastal China over the past two decades is hugely increasing the size and power of the world working class.

But Marx didn’t imagine it was enough for the working class to exist.

He distinguished between a “class in itself” and a “class for itself” – between a class that merely exists, and a class that is a self-conscious political subject fighting for its own interests.

Marx saw in the struggles of his youth – in particular, the British Chartists and the French Revolution of 1848 – the beginnings of workers’ political movements in which they became a class “for itself”.

But he recognised that this would be a long drawn-out and painful process in which there would be defeats as well as victories.

He saw the Paris Commune of 1871, where workers took power for a short time but were then crushed by the ruling class, as a source of important lessons.

It showed that workers in struggle would forge new forms of political power, directly under their own control and radically more democratic than anything imaginable under capitalism.

Marx indeed regarded socialism itself, the alternative to capitalism, as developing out of this process.

He called it the self-emancipation of the working class – workers could only free themselves through their own organisations and struggles. No one else, no elite, however benevolent, could do it for them.

Marx’s conception of socialism is therefore radically at odds with the Stalinist system that came to rule in his name in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China.

These societies were caricatures of genuine socialism.

The new movements of resistance that have emerged since the collapse of the Stalinist regimes at the end of the 1980s represent a renewal of the process of struggle through which Marx expected workers would emerge as a self-conscious “class for itself”.

But they are only likely to be effective if they see in Marx not an outdated figure only of historical interest, but an essential ally in these new battles against the viciously exploitive globalised capitalism that confronts us.

Alex Callinicos is the author of The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx. Many of Karl Marx’s writings are available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Go to » or phone 020 7637 1848. See also the Marx and Engels internet archive »

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