The enduring appeal of Marx

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Karl Marx was born two centuries ago. There have been ups and downs since, but he’s never gone entirely out of fashion. Sally Campbell introduces a monthly column looking at his life, work and relevance today.

The spectre of Karl Marx has never disappeared — a fact that will be reinforced when his bicentenary is celebrated this year on 5 May. A production at the National Theatre recently portrayed him as a lovable rogue. And a forthcoming film by Raoul Peck shows the young Marx, and his great friend Friedrich Engels, embedded in the revolutionary movements of the 1840s.

His ideas, too, are enduring. In May last year Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell said, “I believe there’s a lot to learn from reading [Marx’s] Capital.” The next day Jeremy Corbyn described Marx as “a great economist”. And although it is not surprising to hear such praise from two socialists, what is more notable is that mainstream and even right wing commentators tend to agree — to an extent.

In response to McDonnell’s comments the Economist columnist Bagehot wrote, “Mr McDonnell is right: there is an enormous amount to learn from Marx. Indeed, much of what Marx said seems to become more relevant by the day.” Despite a fundamental misunderstanding of Marx’s analysis of capitalism, Bagehot went on to rightly attack bloated parasites such as George Osborne, the former Tory chancellor, who now rakes in “more than £650,000 for working for BlackRock investment managers one day a week, earns many tens of thousands for speeches and edits the Evening Standard”.

Of course, these kinds of articles tend to come to the conclusion that Marx’s theories led to tyranny and would suppress the brilliant potential of entrepreneurship. Even so, Bagehot concluded, “The best way to save yourself from being Marx’s next victim is to start taking him seriously.”

French economist Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the 21st Century, published in French in 2013 and in English in 2014, became a worldwide bestseller — in the first month after its English edition came out it was the top selling book on Amazon US, including fiction.

Although Piketty proposes only mild reforms to capitalism, the book’s title inescapably evokes Marx’s own work, and its popularity can only be explained by the continued impact of the economic crisis that exploded in the credit crunch a decade ago.

Millions are grappling with how to understand a system which is so bad at meeting the mass of people’s needs, while enriching a small layer at the top. Even in the US, a place where the organised socialist and communist movements were thoroughly smashed, a recent survey of 18 to 29 year olds found that 51 percent rejected capitalism and a solid one third supported socialism.

The popularity of Marxists such as David Harvey, whose online Capital lectures have reached hundreds of thousands, does greater justice to the legacy of the man himself.

Throughout this year Socialist Review will be looking at Marx’s writings, life and context and examining how useful his work is to the movement today.

First, a word from Tony Cliff from his 1961 “Lecture Notes on Marxist theory”:

“Marxism sees capitalism as a total system in which all the parts are interlinked. So its critique covers all levels of analysis, and tries to link them together. Therefore it is important, even in a basic programme, not to neglect any level… This means that the question of the state is not to be treated just as a political question, the question of production as simply an economic question, the class struggle at simply a social level, etc. Every topic should be looked at from every aspect — the historical, social, economic, political, philosophical, ideological, empirical, etc — in order to see how they link up, and in the end how capitalism functions as a total system and how it can be overthrown.”

The last five words are significant here. Marxism is not primarily an analysis of capitalism and how it works — it is a theory of the self-emancipation of the working class. This is the bit that modern commentators have trouble with — even some of those who are on the left. I was once told by a lecturer, who identified as a Marxist, that, “Of course, there are no proletarians any more — except in China.”

Yet, even in a time of historically low workers’ struggle, it is still the case that the working class — which is exponentially bigger both in the West and worldwide than it was in Marx’s day — has the potential power to transform everything.

And it is involvement in collective struggles which makes Marxist ideas comes alive.

As Cliff put it: “Finally, a knowledge of basic Marxism is only part of what any member of a revolutionary party needs to have. It provides a framework which can help make sense of the world, but needs to be applied to every concrete situation. This can only be learnt in one’s day to day practice, discussion and debate, and in the real battles of the class struggle. Without this application, the most elegant educational programme becomes totally meaningless.”

“Lecture Notes on Marxist Theory” is available in Tony Cliff, Selected Writings, Volume 3: Marxist Theory After Trotsky (Bookmarks, 2003)