MARX AND ENGELS BEGAN THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO with the words, “A spectre is haunting Europe”. The spectre in question was the political doctrine they supported – communism, which as they understood it bore little resemblance to the regimes claiming the label during the 20th century. The point they were making was that the mere mention of the politics they supported was capable of striking fear into many hearts and evoking panic.
Nearly 170 years later, that capacity remains. One of the many accusations thrown at Labour’s newer members is that some of them have an association with Marxism. In actual fact, there have always been Marxists in the Labour Party. One of the founding organisations of the Party in 1901 was the Social Democratic Federation, which professed an unattractive, dogmatic and pseudo-scientific version of Marxism, but was Marxist for all that.
Marx has fallen on hard times. Once almost compulsory reading for anyone vaguely on the left, since the welcome fall of the Iron Curtain he has gone out of fashion. This is ironic, since the collapse of Stalinism provided the opportunity for engaging with Marx without the distorting prism of Moscow. Yet this did not happen. In fact, the only call for a return to Marx in recent years has come from sections of the ruling class, desperate to find some explanation of the 2008 financial crisis. They had no time for his politics, but wondered if there might be something to be said for his economic analysis. In its own terms, this wasn’t a daft idea.
I think we do need to revisit Marx. There is a strength and enthusiasm on the Labour left without parallel in recent memory. It feels wonderful, but there is a danger of complacency. We lack a compelling narrative, a way of understanding the world, which makes sense of our politics. This means that we are not well equipped for the battles that lie ahead. There are three ways in particular that Marx can help us. First, Marx offers an account of what is wrong with capitalist society. We are alienated, by which Marx means that the way capitalism organises work distorts our relationship to our creative capacities, our work itself, our human nature and our fellow human beings. We are prevented from thriving, from being everything we could be, by the way our world is organised.
Second, Marx has a story to tell about how that world works and about the history that brought it into being. The crown of his life’s work, the unfinished three volumes of Capital, engages with the economists of his day. Marx doesn’t so much think that orthodox economics is wrong, but that it is incomplete. It fails to recognise how the capitalist market it describes is grounded in the exploitation of human beings. It is, for Marx, by virtue of human labour that the commodities bought and sold under capitalism have value. Yet the bulk of that value accrues to the benefit not of the workers who produce it, but to a small minority of property owners. This system is unstable and prone to crisis, and the result is upheaval and suffering on an unprecedented scale. Finally, Marx doesn’t just explain the world, he offers an account of how it can be changed. Capitalism gives birth to the working class, by which is meant not, as is often claimed, factory workers, but rather those who lack the means to support themselves without working. Class, in Marx’s view, is not a matter of culture, or even of income. It is rooted in relationships of ownership and control. The working class, then, has not gone away in 21st century Britain. Marx believed that the working class has the potential to organise to bring about a socialist world. If that is true, then it matters for those of us in the labour movement. If you want to start reading Marx, don’t start with the Manifesto, which is a political tract written to a specific situation. Browse the Marxists Internet Archive and find something that captures your interest (https://www.marxists.org/). Or read Capital, along with a guide such as David Harvey’s Reading Marx’s Capital (http://davidharvey.org/). Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right is a good and general entertaining introduction to Marx in general. But however you do it, pay attention to Marx. He is a deeply necessary part of our heritage as socialists.
Leeds Central CLP and member of UCU executive committee at Leeds University,