What is Marxism?

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After being discarded as a a supposedly ‘outmoded ideology', marxism is making a comeback.

In recent months,  flashy titles on covers showing large portraits of Marx have been flourishing on bookshop shelves. There is something for everyone. The biblical: "Marx is still alive". The classic "The return of Marx". The emphatic: "Marx, the reasons for a revival". The repetitive, lacking imagination: "The comeback of Marx". Or the sober but in capital letters: "MARX"[1].  In their own way, all these magazines, spicing it up with critiques, have praised the genius of this "great thinker"!

This sudden love is surprising. A few years ago, Marx was depicted as the devil! Moreover,  Francoise Giroud  even wrote a biography of Jenny Marx, wife of Karl, with the simple title: ‘Jenny Marx, or the devil's wife'. He is the one responsible for the horrors of the Stalinist labour camps in Siberia and China, the bloody dictatorships of Ceausescu or Pol Pot.

So why this turnaround? Because the economic crisis has unfolded. The current situation is a grave concern for the working class. And some of them, a minority, are trying to understand why capitalism is moribund, how to resist the degradation of their living conditions, how to fight back and especially - which is harder today - understand whether or not another world is possible. And naturally, some are turning to Marx. Moreover, the sales of Das Capital have also been on the rise recently. This phenomenon is not happening inside the whole working class, but even so, the start of this reflection within a minority, even its subterranean development, is bothering the bourgeoisie. The ruling class hates it when workers begin to think for themselves! It's always eager to feed them its  propaganda and lies and, today, its vision of Marx, its vision of marxism.

Depicting Marx as the devil is not sufficient today to discourage the most curious from examining his works, so the bourgeoisie has been forced to change tactics. It has become tolerant, amiable, and reverent, even flattering, towards the old bearded one... the better to denature him and reduce him to a harmless icon like Lenin's mummy!

According to these magazines, Marx was an economic genius (had he not denounced the fatal role of money, the principal root of all evil, long before Benedict XVI?).  A great philosopher, a great sociologist and even a forerunner in ecology! The bourgeoisie is now prepared to recognize all Marx's talents, all but one that is, the fact that he was a great revolutionary and a fighter for the working class. And marxism is a theoretical weapon forged by the working class to overthrow capitalism. Or, to borrow a phrase from Lenin "Marxism is the theory of the liberation of the proletariat" (The bankruptcy of the 2nd International, 1915).

Marx was won to marxism by the working class!

Marx was not born a communist. He became one. And it was the working class that ‘converted' him. The young Marx was even very critical of the communist theories of his day. Here's what he had to say:

- "Communist ideas are not acceptable in their present form, not even theoretically, so there's even less hope of their practical realisation, no point considering their possibility" (‘Communism and the Allgemeine Zeitung Augsburg')

- Or, in a letter to Ruge, communism is "a dogmatic abstraction".

Initially, therefore, Marx considered "communist ideas" idealistic and dogmatic. Why was this?

Ever since people on earth have been oppressed, man has dreamt of a better world, a kind of paradise on earth, a community where all people are equal and social justice prevails. This was true for the slaves. This was true for the serfs (peasants). In Spartacus' great revolt against the Roman Empire, the slaves who revolted tried to establish communities. The first Christian communities preached the universal brotherhood of man and tried to impose a communism of possessions. John Ball, a leader of the peasants' revolt in England in 1381 (and there were many peasant revolts against feudalism) said: "Nothing will go well in England until everything is held in common and when there will be no more lords or vassals ...." But each time it could only be a beautiful dream. Under Greece or ancient Rome, in the Middle Ages, building a communist world was impossible. Firstly, society was not producing enough to meet all its needs. There could only be a minority, exploiting the majority, that could live comfortably. Thus, there was no social force powerful enough to build an egalitarian world: each revolt would end with the massacre of slaves or peasants. In short, "communist ideas" could only be utopian.

And at first the working class, as an exploited class itself, renewed these old dreams. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, in England, and especially in France, it attempted at times to establish communities. Some thinkers tried to create a perfect world in their imagination. This is why Marx added the adjective "dogmatic" to that of "utopian". These "communist ideas" were "dogmatic" because they were complete inventions based on timeless and immutable ideals like justice, goodness, equality... they would not have to be built little by little, in the permanent interaction between material reality and the brain of man; instead reality was asked to comply with the requirements of these thoughts and the desire for Justice, Equality and the rest.

But why then did Marx finally devote his life to the fight for communism? In fact, his views would be completely changed by his understanding of what the working class is and by witnessing its strikes. Through the struggles of the Silesian weavers in 1844 or those, a little later, of the proletariat in France in 1848, Marx discovered the nature of the working class and its combat. And for him, this combat provided clear evidence of the indispensable motor for transforming the world, a living promise of the future, the first real indication that communism is possible. Here are a few lines that show how Marx was struck by what he had witnessed:

"When communist workmen gather together, their immediate aim is instruction, propaganda, etc.. But at the same time they acquire a new need  - the need for society (...). Company, association, conversation which in its turn has society as its goal, is enough for them. The brotherhood of man is not just a hollow phrase, it is a reality and the nobility of man shines forth upon us from their work-worn figures." (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844).

This is a little bit lyrical but what Marx sees here is that, unlike the previous exploited classes, the proletariat is a class of associated labour. To begin with, this means that it can only defend its immediate interests by means of an associated struggle, by uniting its forces. But it also means that the ultimate response to its status as an exploited class can only lie in the creation of a real human society, a society based on free cooperation. Above all, this "association" has "the means of fulfilling its ambitions" for the first time, because it can build on the tremendous progress made by capitalist industry. Technically, abundance is possible. With the advances made by capitalism, it is possible to satisfy all of humanity's needs. Marx was able to understand all this because the working class made it possible for him.

Marxism is a theoretical weapon that could only be forged only by the working class

To summarise, Marx, but clearly Engels as well, adopted the perspective of the working class and made its revolutionary struggle their own, examined the potential of the proletariat on one side, and the crises and contradictions that afflict capitalism on the other, and gradually they realised that communism had become both possible and necessary. Possible and necessary because of:

- the development of the productive forces worldwide, without which there cannot  be abundance or the complete satisfaction of human needs;

- the birth of the proletariat, the first exploited class which, in its confrontation with global capital, will take on the mantle of gravedigger of the old world;

- the unavoidably transitory nature of capitalism.

Marx and Engels would never have understood all this, if they had not been, first and foremost,  fighters of the working class!

 Indeed, only a class whose emancipation will necessarily lead to the emancipation of the whole of humanity, whose domination over society does not entail a new form of exploitation but the abolition of all exploitation, could have a marxist approach to human history and social relations. All other classes were and still are, totally incapable of this. As we've already said, for the slaves or serfs, another world could only be imaginary. Their approach, their thinking, could be no more than utopian and idealistic. As for the ruling classes, the masters, the nobles or the bourgeois, they were and they still are unable to face up to reality, to study the evolution of human history and their own world objectively, otherwise they would be forced to see that their class, their world, their privileges were and are condemned to disappear.

The nobility felt invested with divine, and therefore eternal, rights. How could it understand the real evolution of human societies?

There's another, more specific and topical example than that. Marx is now acknowledged by all the economists who seek solutions in his famous book, Das Capital, to address the current crisis. This looks very much like the Holy Grail, vain and irrational. These economists can read and reread  all the pages of Capital, they can twist them in every way possible, but a drop from the fountain of eternal youth will not fall on capitalism. On the contrary! If Marx was immersed in studying the economy, it is precisely so he could understand the mechanisms that eat away at capitalism from within and therefore condemn it to perish.  He did not set out to find cures for the problems of capitalism but to fight against it and prepare its overthrow. All our doctors of science, and other specialists in ideology, will never be able to understand anything of the economic literature of Marx because his conclusions are totally unacceptable and even untenable for them!

Having a scientific and objective approach to the question of the history of human societies, to the social question,  means recognising that primitive communism existed, then slavery, then feudalism, then capitalism (and that communism is then possible) because our productive capacities evolved, because the way that society had to organise itself to produce - our relations of production - had to evolve along with it and that finally all this has been embodied in the history of class struggles. We understand why Marxism - this "scientific and objective approach to the history of human societies and the social question" - is totally inaccessible to the bourgeoisie. Quite simply, the logical conclusion of this approach is that capitalism should disappear and the privileges of the bourgeoisie with it!

Marxism: a  revolutionary and living scientific method

As the bourgeoisie blathers on about Marx and Marxism today, it all goes to show that the bourgeoisie is attempting to hide behind its lies and falsifications. As Lenin said in The State and Revolution: "During the lifetime of great revolutionaries the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their teachings with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to surround their names with a certain halo for the ‘consolation' of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time emasculating the essence of the revolutionary teaching, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarising it.". The final phrase is particularly relevant for the current propaganda "... emasculating the essence of the revolutionary teaching, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarising it".

We ourselves, by contrast, must insist that Marx was a revolutionary fighter. And even more: that only a militant revolutionary can be a marxist. This unity between thought and action is simply one of the foundations of marxism. This is what Marx had to say: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point however is to change it" (Theses on Feurbach); or "The theoretical conclusions of the Communists are in no way based on ideas or priniciples that have been invented or discovered by this or that would-be universal reformer. They merely  express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from an historical movement going on under our very eyes" (Communist Manifesto).

Marxism is not an academic discipline or yet another wise and harmless theory, or a utopia, or an ideology, or a dogma. On the contrary! We will finish off  in the fiery manner of  Rosa Luxemburg with this final quote: "Marxism is not a chapel where certificates of ‘expertise' are issued and the mass of believers demonstrate their blind faith in them. Marxism is a revolutionary understanding of the world, the call to a ceaseless struggle for change, a vision that abhores nothing so much as fixed and final formulas and only discovers its real force in the clash of weapons of self-criticism and with the thunderbolts of history" (The Accumulatioon of Capital).  

Pawel 8/10/9

[1] Respectively: Challenges (December 2007), Courrier International (July 2008), le Magazine Littéraire (October 2008) Le Nouvel Observateur (August 2009), Le Point (special issue, June / July 2009).