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Don’t blame Marx for capitalism

This article is over 18 years, 4 months old
COLIN BARKER continues his defence of Marx's Communist Manifesto
Issue 1866

THE Communist Manifesto, I suggested last week, identified the new forces being unleashed by modern capitalism. Marx’s classic pamphlet argued that capitalism also created a new exploited class, the ‘proletariat’-the modern working class.

Unlike previous exploited classes, workers have no property, and can only live by working for capital, selling their labour power in the market like any other commodity. Fear of unemployment is a permanent threat. But capitalism also forces workers together in large workplaces, where they are organised like armies, ‘under the command of a perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants’.

They are ‘wage slaves’-bossed around at work, compelled to serve the capitalist machines. Marx describes their condition as ‘despotism’. The working class grows with capitalism, gathering into its ranks many who are displaced by competition. As capital expands, so does the struggle of workers against it. Out of this struggle they build trade unions and parties.

For Marx, the expanding working class is the only ‘really revolutionary class’. It has the greatest interest in challenging capitalist power. Because of the way it is concentrated together in cities and workplaces, it also has a new capacity for self organisation and struggle. It is the most capable exploited class in history.

The old ‘middle’ classes, based in small-scale production, were-Marx suggested-destined to shrink in their relative size. Insofar as they still maintained a distinctive politics, they would tend to be conservative.

It is sometimes suggested that Marx ‘reduced’ the complexity of modern social relations to a simple conflict between capitalists and workers. George Monbiot, whose critique of Marxism I discussed last week, makes this argument. In fact what Marx was analysing were broad tendencies of development within capitalism. This analysis of how capitalism worked is not a programme, as if Marx wanted these things to happen!

George also argues that Stalin was a careful follower of Marx and set out to eliminate anyone who didn’t ‘fit conveniently into the industrial proletariat’. Yet Stalin was the murderer of Marxists. And Marx argued that it is capitalism that tends to eliminate peasants, aristocrats, artisans and shopkeepers and the like.

Marx, suggests George, was even in favour of exterminating the ‘lumpenproletariat, which came to include indigenous people’.

This is simply false. Marx’s co-author Engels, in his book The Origin of the Family, praised such peoples for the equality and dignity with which they treated women-not quite the same as demanding their ‘disposal’. George also says of Marx, ‘By personalising oppression as ‘the bourgeoisie’ he introduced the justification for numberless atrocities. Even today, it is hard to read The Communist Manifesto without wanting to go out and shoot a member of the bourgeoisie, in the hope of obtaining freedom from oppression.’

Well, George’s own book is full of criticism of the ‘rich’ and the ‘powerful’, but I wouldn’t accuse him of inciting individual violence against them!

Two things are clear. The first we’ve already mentioned. Marx identified a tendency-for old classes to be displaced by capitalist development. But to translate that into a positive demand that Marx made is silly. It’s like blaming a weather forecaster for malevolently causing rain!

The second is that not everyone who calls themselves a Marxist is a Marxist. Stalin claimed to be a Marxist, so he must have been, runs the argument. Never mind that Marx was an egalitarian, while Stalin attacked egalitarianism. Marx sympathised with the peasants, Stalin stole their land. Marx was a democrat, Stalin brutally suppressed democracy. Marx favoured higher wages, Stalin cut them. Marx said workers have no country, Stalin said they must be patriotic. Marx was an atheist, Stalin turned him into an icon.

This simply won’t do. These differences are important-Marx and Stalin were diametric opposites on key questions, and it makes no sense to call Stalin any kind of Marxist.

It makes far more sense instead to see that Stalin’s conservative politics rose out of the defeat and degeneration of the Russian Revolution, and converted Russia to an anti-communist and state capitalist path. That’s where the roots of Stalin’s tyranny lay.

Next week: Marx’s politics

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