A Hundred Years After The Death Of Marx, The future belongs to Marxism

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Karl Marx died on the 14th March 1883. It is thus 100 years since the workers' movement lost its greatest, theoretician.

The bourgeoisie -- this class that Marx fought un­tiringly all his life and which paid him back in kind -- is preparing to celebrate this centenary in its own way by heaping new mountains of lies over Marx and his work.

Each fraction goes about this in its own way, according to the particular interests it has to defend and its specific place in the apparatus of mystification.

Those for whom Marx was ‘an evil being', a kind of ‘incarnation of wrong' or ‘creature of the devil', have practically disappeared. They are in any case the least dangerous today.

By contrast, there are any number left of those for whom Marx, while ‘always remaining a very intelligent and cultivated man, was nonetheless completely mistaken'; a variation on this lie is the one that says ‘while Marx's analysis was valid in the 19th century, it is now completely out of date'.

However, the most dangerous are not those who reject Marx's work explicitly. Rather, it is those who claim to continue it, whether they belong to the social-democratic, the Stalinists, the Trotskyists, or that we might call the ‘university- -- ‘marxologist' - branch of the ruling class.

At the centenary of Marx's death, we shall see all these fine gentlemen get very agitated, make a lot of noise, speak authoritatively, invading the columns of the press and the television screen. It is thus up to revolutionaries to refute this thickly-woven tissue of lies, to sweep away all these self-interested panegyrics, and so establish the simple truth of plain facts and this, moreover, is the real homage they have to render Marx and his work.

Is Marx out of date?

Marx uncovered the underlying secret of the cap­italist mode of production: the secret of surplus value, appropriated by the capitalists thanks to the unpaid labor of the proletarians. He showed that work impoverished the proletarian instead of enriching him, and that crises become more and more violent because the need for outlets inr­eases while the world market contracts. He took on the job of showing that its own laws drive capitalism to its destruction and create the conditions for, and the necessity of, the communist revolution. Born covered in blood and filth, fed like a cannibal on the proletarians' labor-power, capitalism would leave the scene in a cataclysm.

This is why the bourgeoisie, for a hundred years, has fought the ideas of Marx. Army upon army of ideologues has tried again and again to wipe his thought from the earth. Preachers and learned professors have made a business out of ‘refuting' Marx. Through its schools and universities, the bourgeoisie has kept up a continual barrage of fire against Marx. Within the workers' movement itself, the revisionists attacked Marxism's fund­amental principles in the name of its ‘adaptation' to the new realities of the period (end of the 19th Century). It was, moreover, no accident that Bernstein, the theoretician of revisionism, set himself to attack marxism on two fundamental points:

-- capitalism's supposed discovery of a way to overcome its catastrophic economic crises;

-- the supposed diminution in the exploitation of the working class to the point where it would eventually disappear.

These are the two main ideas that the bourgeoisie has frantically advertised every time that the economic situation has apparently improved to the point of allowing a few crumbs to the working class. This was particularly the case in the re­construction period following the Second World War, where economists and politicians were to be heard announcing the disappearance of crises. Thus, in his book Economics Samuelson (a Nobel prizewinner for economics) exclaimed, "everything is happening today as if the probability of a great crisis - a profound, sharp and durable depression of 1930, 1870 or 1890 - had been reduced to zero." (p. 226)

President Nixon, for his part, confidently declared on his day of inauguration (January 1969) that "we have at last learned to manage a modern economy in such a way as to ensure its continued expansion."

And so, until the beginning of the 1970s, those for whom ‘Marx is out of date' spoke with great authority[1]. Since then, the clamor has died down. Inexorably, the crisis unfolds. All the magic potions prepared by the Nobel prizewinners of different schools have failed and have only mada matters worse. Capitalism is beating all the records: record indebtedness, a record number of bankruptcies, record under-utilization of productive capacity, record unemployment. The specter of the Great Crash of 1929 and the crisis that followed has returned to haunt the bourgeoisie and its appointed professors. Blind optimism has given way to black pessimism or disarray. Some years ago the Nobel prizewinner Samuelson noted sadly "the crisis of economic science" which had shown itself incapable of providing solutions to the crisis. Eighteen months ago, the Nobel prizewinner Friedman confessed that "he no longer understood anything". More recently, the Nobel prizewinner Von Hayek stated that "the Crash is inevitable" and that "there is nothing to be done".

In his postface to the 2nd German edition of Capital, Marx observed that the "general crisis ..., by the universality of its action and the intensity of its effects was to ram the dialectics even into the heads of those scribblers who sprouted like mushrooms" during one of capitalism's prosperous phases. The economists, those scribblers par excellence, are once again going through the same experience: the crisis unleashed today is beginning to make them intell­igent. They are beginning to discover, to their great alarm, that their 'science' is impotent, and that there is "nothing to be done" to rescue their beloved capitalism from the abyss.

Not only is Marx not ‘out of date' today; it needs saying loud and clear that never before have his analyses been so clearly relevant.

The whole history of the 20th Century is an illustration of the validity of Marxism. Two world wars and the crisis of the 1930s proved that capitalism cannot overcome the contradictions of its mode of production. Despite its defeat, the revolutionary upsurge of 1917-23 confirmed that the proletariat is indeed today's only revolutionary class, the only social force capable of overthrowing capitalism, of being the ‘gravedigger' (as the Communist Manifesto put it) of this dying system.

Today's acute and deepening capitalist crisis is sweeping away the illusions sowed by the second post-war reconstruction. The illusion has fallen of an eternally prosperous capitalism, of ‘peace­ful coexistence' between the great imperialist blocs, of a ‘bourgeoisified' working class and ‘the end of the class struggle', the latter demonstrated since May ‘68 by the historic res­urgence of the working class and amply confirmed in particular by the battles in Poland in 1980. Once again, the alternative pointed to by Marx and Engels reappears in all its clarity: "soc­ialism or a fall into barbarism".

The first homage paid to Marx's thought on the centenary of his death thus comes from the very facts of the crisis, the ineluctable aggravations of the convulsions of capitalism, the historic resurgence of the class struggle. What better homage could there be to him who wrote, in 1844: "The question of whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory, but is a practical question. In prac­tice man must prove the truth, that is, the real­ity and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking." (Theses on Feuerbach)

Marx used against the working class

"During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes relentlessly persecute them and treat their teachings with malicious hostility, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaign of lies and slanders. After their death attempts are made to canonize them, so to speak, and to surround their names with a certain halo for the ‘consolation' of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping them, while at the same time emasculating the revolutionary doctrine of its content, vulgarizing it and blunting its revolutionary edge." (Lenin, State and Revolution)

These words of Lenin's, written in 1917 against the Social-Democracy and especially against its ‘pope' Karl Kautsky, have since been borne out on a scale their author never dreamed of. He himself was transformed literally after his death into a ‘harmless icon' since his mummy remains a place of pilgrimage to this day.

The degenerating Social-Democracy which passed openly to the bourgeois camp had already done much to ‘emasculate' Marx's thought and empty it of its revolutionary content. While the first offensive against marxism - Bernstein's at the end of the 19th Century -- proposed to ‘revise' this theory, Kautsky's offensive of around 1910 was conducted in the name of ‘marxist orthodoxy'. Through a careful choice of quotations, Marx and Engels were made to say the exact opposite of their real thought. This was the case in partic­ular on the question of the bourgeois state. Kautsky passed in silence over Marx's repeated insistence, after the Paris Commune, of the need to destroy the state and went on to hunt out quotations that might give some credence to the opposite idea. And since revolutionaries, even the greatest, are not immune from ambiguities, or even mistakes, Kautsky succeeded in his aim -- to the profit of the Social-Democracy's reform­ist practice, and to the great loss of the prol­etariat and its struggle.

But the ignominy of the Social-Democracy did not stop at falsifying Marxism. This falsification, after preparing the proletariat's total demobilization in the face of the threat of war, announced Social-Democracy's complete betrayal, its passage body and soul into the bourgeois camp. In the name of ‘marxism' it jumped feet first into the blood and filth of the first imp­erialist war; in the name of ‘marxism' it helped the world bourgeoisie fill the breach opened in capitalism's edifice by the October Revolution; in the name of ‘marxism' in 1919 it coldly order­ed the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Lieb­knecht, and thousands of Spartakists. By usurping Marx's name the Social-Democracy won ministerial portfolios in bourgeois governments, positions as prefects of police or colonial governors. In Marx's name, it undertook to be the executioner of the European proletariat and the colonial populations.

But however abject the debasement of social-dem­ocracy, it was completely surpassed by Stalinism.

The social-democratic falsifications of marxism were nothing beside those of the Stalinists. Never have the bourgeoisie's ideologues been so cynical in deforming the slightest phrase to give it a meaning exactly contrary to its real one.

While internationalism and the total rejection of chauvinism were the cornerstone of both the Oct­ober Revolution and the foundation of the Comm­unist International, it was left to Stalin and his accomplices to invent the monstrous theory of ‘building socialism in one country'. In the name of Marx and Engels, who had written in 1847: "The communist revolution will not be a purely national revolution, it will occur simul­taneously in all the civilized countries .... It is a universal revolution, and so will have a universal terrain" (Principles of Communism) and "The workers have no fatherland" (Communist Man­ifesto) -- in their name, the degenerated Bolsh­eviks and other so-called ‘communist' parties called for ‘the construction of socialism in the USSR', for the defense of the ‘socialist father­land', and later for the defense of the national interest, of flag and fatherland in their res­pective countries. The jingoism of the socialists in 1914 pales by comparison with the stalinist parties' hysterical chauvinism before, during and after the second imperialist butchery -- the "To every man his Bache" and the "Long live eternal France" of L'Humanite (newspaper of the Parti Communiste Francais) in 1944[2].

In the hands of the stalinists, marxism, enemy of religion and a more consistent enemy of the state than anarchism has ever been, has become a state religion and a religion of the state. Marx, who always considered liberty and the state to be incompatible, slavery and the state to be in­dissolubly linked, is used as an ideological knout by the powers that be in Russia and its satellites, and has been turned into a pillar of the repressive police apparatus. Marx, who began his political life in the struggle against religion, which he described as "the opium of the people", is now recited like a catechism by school children in their hundred thousands. In the name of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which Marx saw as the condition for the emancip­ation of the exploited and the whole of society, the bourgeoisie exercises a brutal reign of terror over millions of proletarians.

After the revolutionary wave that followed the First World War, the working class suffered the most terrible counter-revolution in history. The spearhead of this counter-revolution was the ‘socialist fatherland' and the parties that def­ended it. And this counter-revolution, with its millions of dead in its stalinist concentration camps and in the second imperialist holocaust, was conducted in the name of Marx and in the name of the communist revolution for which he struggled all his life.

Stalinism has repeated tenfold all the ignominies the Social-Democracy could boast of.[3]

Marx: savant or militant?

It has not been enough for the bourgeoisie to transform Marx and marxism into symbols of the counter-revolution. To finish off the job, it has turned marxism into a university discipline, the subject for theses in philosophy, sociology and economics. On the centenary of Marx's death, we can therefore expect plenty of activity alongside the socialists and stalinists from the ‘marxolo­gist' (who are frequently socialists or stalin­ists, moreover). A sinister irony! Marx, who ref­used a university career in order to devote him­self to the revolutionary struggle, is relegated to the ranks of the philosophers, economists and other bourgeois ideologues.

It is true that, in many realms of thought, there is a ‘before' and ‘after' Marx. This is especially true in economics; this discipline was completely transformed by Marx's enormous con­tribution to the comprehension of society's econ­omic laws. But this phenomenon is by no means the same as, for example, the discovery of an import­ant new theory in physics. In the latter case, the discovery forms the point of departure for an advance in knowledge (so the ‘after' Einstein, for instance, constitutes a considerable deepening in the study of the laws of the Universe). By contrast, Marx's discoveries in economics inaugurated, not an advance, but on the contrary an immense regression. The reason for this is very simple. The economists who preceded Marx were the intellectual representatives of a class that incarnated historical progress, of a revolutionary class against feudal society: the bourgeoisie. Despite their inadequacies, Smith and Ricardo could push forward society's know­ledge because they defended a mode of production -- capitalism -- which at the time constituted a progressive step in the evolution of society. Faced with the obscurantism of feudal society, they needed to deploy all the scientific rigor that their epoch made possible.

Marx acknowledged and used the work of the classical economists. His objective, however, was completely different. If he studied the capitalist economy, it was not to try and improve its functioning but to combat it and prepare for its overthrow. This is why he did not write a ‘Political Economy', but a ‘Critique of Political Economy'. And it is precisely because, in study­ing bourgeois society, he did so from the stand­point of its revolutionary overthrow that he was so well able to understand its laws. Only the proletariat, a class which has no interest in the preservation of capitalism, could lay bare its mortal contradictions. If Marx was able to make such progress in understanding the capit­alist economy, this is above all because he was a fighter of the proletarian revolution.

After Marx, any new progress in the understanding of the capitalist economy could only be made with his discoveries as point of departure, and there­fore from the same class standpoint. By contrast, bourgeois political economy, which by its very nature rejects this standpoint, could no longer be anything other than an apologetic, a discipline aimed at justifying capitalism's preservation by whatever argument came to hand, and so inherently unable to understand its real laws. This is why today, even the brightest econ­omists look like cretins.

Marxism is the theory of the proletariat; it can­not be a university discipline. Only a revolutionary militant can be a marxist. This unity of thought and action is precisely one of marx­ism's foundations. It is clearly expressed as early as 1844 in the Theses on Feuerbach, and especially in the last one: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it."

Some have tried to make Marx out as a scholar shut away with his books from the world outside. Nothing could be further from the truth. When, one day, one of his daughters made him play the parlor-game, ‘Confessions', (the answers were pub­lished later by Riazanov) and asked him his idea of happiness, he replied: "struggle". And like any revolutionary militant, the struggle was at the centre of his life.

As early as 1842, before he had yet committed himself to communism, he began his political struggle against, Prussian absolutism on the edit­orial committee, and later as director, of the Rheinische Zeitung. Thereafter, this untiring fighter was expelled from one country to another by the various European authorities until he finally settled in London in August 1849. In the meantime, Marx had taken part directly in the battles of the revolutionary wave that shook all Europe in 1848-49. He took part in these strugg­les at the head of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, in which he had invested all his savings. But he made his most important contribution to the proletarian struggle through his role in the Communist League. For this was always Marx's app­roach: unlike some of today's pseudo-marxists, he considered the organization of revolutionaries as an essential instrument of the proletarian struggle. The most famous and the most important text of the workers' movement -- the Communist Manifesto written by Marx and Engels in 1847 -- was in fact entitled the Manifesto of the Comm­unist Party and constituted the program of the Communist League, which the two friends had joined a few months previously, after "the elim­ination from the Statutes of everything that fav­ored authoritarian superstition." (Marx).

Just as he played a major role in the development of the Communist League, so he played a leading part in the foundation and life of the First Int­ernational -- in other words, the first great worldwide organization of the proletariat. To him we owe the International's inaugural address and Statutes as well as most of its fundamental texts, in particular the address on the Civil War in France written during the Paris Commune. But this was not his only contribution to the life of the International. In fact, between 1864 and 1872 he was continuously and untiringly active in the International's General Council whose main driv­ing force he was, though without ever taking credit for it. His participation in the life of the International cost him an immense time and energy which he was unable to devote to the com­pletion of his theoretical work, Capital, whose first volume only was published in 1867, the rest being published after his death by Engels. But this was a deliberate choice on his part. He con­sidered his activity as a militant of the Inter­national as fundamental because this was the liv­ing organization of the world working class, the class that in freeing itself would free all hum­anity. As Engels wrote: "Marx's life without the International would have been like a gem-stone without its setting."

In the profundity of his thought, the rigor of his reasoning, the breadth of his learning and his untiring search for new knowledge, Marx indubitably takes on the appearance of a ‘great scholar'. But his discoveries never brought him honors or official titles, nor material advantage. His commitment to the working class' cause, which lent energy to his theoretical work, earned him, on the contrary, the permanent hatred and antagonism of the ‘respectable society' of his time. It also meant that he struggled for most of his life against an extreme material poverty. As his biographer Franz Mehring wrote: "Not only in the poverty of his way of life, but in the total insecurity of his whole existence, Marx shared the lot of the modern proletarian."

But never was he diverted from his fight, neither by adversity, nor even by the cruelest defeats suffered by the proletarian struggle. Quite the reverse. As he himself wrote to Johann Philipp Becker: "... all really well-tempered characters, once they are engaged on the revolutionary path, constantly drain new strength from defeat and become ever more resolute the further the river of history carries them."

To be a marxist today

In all the history of human thought, there has never been a great thinker who has not been involuntarily betrayed by one or other of his disciples. Marx, who even during his lifetime saw his method of analysis of reality transformed into a facile catch-phrase, was not immune from this common fate. He denied in advance all responsibility for the emasculation of his theor­etical method by certain social-democrats. In­stead of a sterile scholasticism, he intended that they should study a society in constant revolution with the help of a method, and not that they should indiscriminately transform everything he said into an unvarying law.

To seek in Marx, solutions ready-made for art­ificial transplantation from a past epoch into a new one is to crystallize a thought that was con­stantly alert and spurred on by the desire to remain a critical weapon. Thus, rather than un­critically accepting everything that comes from Marx, the marxist today must determine exactly what still serves the class struggle and what has ceased to do so. In a series of letters to Sorge (1886-1894), Engels urges him to avoid all big­otry since, in his own words, Marx never claimed to be setting up a rigid theory, an orthodoxy. For us, to reject a so-called ‘invariant' doctrinarism means to reject a contradiction in terms: an eternally true theory, the Word that creates Action and awaits only its catechists to become Action.

This ‘invariance' is nowhere to be found in Marx's work, for it is incapable of distinguishing the transitory from the permanent. No longer corr­esponding to a new situation, it is useless as a method for interpreting reality. Its truth is deceptive, despite its repeated pompous assertions.

"Such ideas are only of interest to a satiated class, that, feels at ease and confirmed in the present situation. They are worthless for a class that struggles and tries to go forward and is necessarily unsatisfied by the situation as it is." (Karl Korsch, At the Heart of the Material­ist Conception)

To be a marxist today does not therefore mean sticking to the letter of everything Marx wrote. This would, moreover, be difficult to the extent that numerous contradictory passages are to be found in Marx's work. Nor is this at all a proof of any incoherence in his thought: on the contr­ary, even his adversaries have always recognized the extraordinary coherence of his thought and method. In fact, it is a sign of the living qual­ity of his thought, of the fact that it was con­stantly alert to reality and historical exper­ience; in the image of the "proletarian revol­utions (which) ... criticize themselves con­stantly, interrupt themselves continually in their own course, come back to the apparently accomplished in order to begin it afresh, deride with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies, weaknesses and paltrinesses of their first attempts ..." (Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte) Marx never hesitated to go back on his earlier analyses. Thus he recognized, in the preface to the 1872 German edition of the     Communist Manifesto that "no special stress is ­laid on the revolutionary measures proposed at the end of Section II. That passage would, in many respects, be very differently worded today ... One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz; that, ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield for its own purposes'."

This is the approach of real Marxists. It was Lenin's method in 1917 when he fought against the Mensheviks who stuck to the letter of Marx in order to support the bourgeoisie and oppose the proletarian revolution in Russia. It was Luxemburg's in 1906 when she came up against the union bosses who condemned the mass strike on the basis of an 1873 text of Engels written against the anarchists and their myth of the ‘general strike'. It was precisely in the name of marxism that she defended the mass strike as the essential weapon of the proletarian struggle in the new period:

"If, therefore, the Russian revolution makes it indispensable fundamentally to revise the previous marxist view of the mass strike, it is nonetheless the method and general viewpoint of marxism which emerges from it victorious, in a new form." (Mass Strike, Party and Unions)

To be a marxist today means using the "method and general viewpoints of Marxism" in defining the tasks fixed for the proletariat by the new period of capitalism opened up by the First World War: its decadence as a mode of production.[4]

In particular, it means using the same method that led Marx and the First International to encourage the workers' unionization, to denounce all forms of unionism. It means denouncing any participation in Parliament or elections from the same viewpoint as Marx and Engels when they fought against the abstentionism of the anarchists. It means refusing all support to today's so-called ‘national liberation' struggles, using the same method as the Communist League and the International used in understanding the need to support certain of the national struggles of their time. It means rejecting the conception of the mass party in the coming revolution, for the same fundamental reasons that made the First and Second Internationals mass organizations.

To be a marxist today means drawing the lessons from the whole experience of the workers movement, from the successive contributions of the           Communist league, of the First, Second and Third Internationals, and of the left fractions that split from the latter as it degenerated, in order to enrich the proletarian battles that have broken out since 1968 in response to the capitalist crisis and to arm them for the overthrow of capitalism.


[1] It is important to pint out that the confessed defenders of the capitalist system were not alone in putting forward this idea. During the 1950s and ‘60s a tendency developed in certain groups claiming to defend the communist revolution to call into question the fundamental basis of marxism. Thus the group Socialisme ou Barbarie, led by its ‘great theoretician' Castoriadis (alias Chaulieu-Cardan) built up a theory of the ‘dynamic of capitalist', affirming that Marx was totally mistaken in trying to prove that the system's economic contradictions could not be resolved. Since then, things have fallen into place again: professor Castoriadis has distinguished himself with his ‘left' justification of the Pentagon's war effort by publishing a book that ‘demonstrates' that the USSR has an enormous military advance on the USA (!). Naturally enough, for Castoriadis, his rejection of Marxism has opened wide the doors of the bourgeoisie.

[2] Clearly, this in no way either excuses the crimes of Social-Democracy or diminishes their seriousness. The proletariat has no choice to make between the plague of Social Democracy and the cholera of Stalinism. Both pursue the same goal: the preservation of capitalism, with methods that may vary following the particular characteristics of the countries where they act. What makes Stalinism still more shameful than the Social-Democracy is its extreme position within decadent capitalism, within its evolution towards the historical form of state capitalism and its development of state totalitarianism. In backward countries, where the private bourgeoisie is undeveloped and already senile, this inexorable process of capital demands a particularly brutal political force, capable of the bloody installation of state capitalism. This political force appears, according to country, as a military dictatorship or as Stalinism which not only maintains a bloody repression but claims to be doing so in the name of ‘socialism', ‘communism' or ‘marxism', so beating every record for ignominy and cynicism.

[3] With their modest means, the Trotskyists have fallen into step with their big brothers, Social-Democracy and Stalinism. They invoke Marx and Marxism with an exaggerated vehemence (witness the Parti Communiste Internationaliste, the ‘lambertiste' tendency, launching a fund to republish the biography of Marx written by Franz Mehring) when for more than forty years they have not missed an opportunity to give ‘critical' support to Stalinist ignominies (the Resistance, defense of USSR, glorification of so-called ‘national liberation struggles', support for left governments).

[4] Within the limits of this article, we are unable to go over all the implications of capitalist decadence for the methods of the working class struggle. On this subject, see the ICC's Platform and the article The Proletarian Struggle in Capitalist Decadence, in IR 23.