"Philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways, the point however is to change it". These words, written by the young Karl Marx, are inscribed on his grave in Highgate Cemetery in London. And rightly so, for they inspired everything he did and wrote throughout his political life.
Today, more than 150 years on, it is easy to see that the world needs changing. The horrendous and ever growing inequality within and between nations; the almost unimaginable sums spent on arms while billions lack the basic necessities of life; the proliferation of destructive wars and the hatred and racism they generate; the crude domination of the world by the big corporations and by their representatives in the US government; the powerlessness and alienation experienced by the large majority of people in their daily lives and especially in their soul destroying jobs; the continuing subordination of women ie half the human race; the hypocrisy, lies and cruelty of our politicians and rulers the world over; the criminal inaction of governments in the face of environmental and human catastrophe through global warming.
All these things, and many others, make it obvious that we, humanity, need a better society. The only people who really can’t and won’t see it are those who benefit massively from the present system, the rich and powerful. But HOW to change the world? That is the real question.
Perhaps the problem is just that the wrong people are in charge. Get rid of Bush and Blair, replace them with … Hilary Clinton and Gordon Brown ? Or maybe not. Maybe what we need is for mankind to have a collective change of heart, but how do we bring that about? Prayer? Or is the solution to try to improve things gradually,bit by bit , reform by reform, country by country? If that won’t work and we need a revolution , what does that mean? Planting bombs or plotting a coup d’etat? Indeed can the world be changed ? After all people have been trying a long time – at least since Spartacus – and don’t seem to have done very well so far.
A moment’s reflection on these questions shows that to change society we need an understanding of how it works. We need to know what causes the inequality, war, racism and other evils listed above. We need to know the system’s weak points, the fault lines along which it might fracture if the right pressure is applied. We need to know who will be our friends and potential allies in the struggle and who will be our enemies. If we are going to change this society we need to understand the principles governing the changing of society in general.
This is where Marxism, or Marxist theory, comes in. The simple fact is that of all the various critiques of the system, all the theories of reform or revolution, all the strategies for change,by far the most serious , the most worked out , the most coherent and the most effective as a guide to action is Marxism. This is why, generation after generation, the majority of the most determined fighters for a better world, whether they were intellectuals like Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg and Gramsci , or militant workers like the fighters of the Paris Commune or proletariat of Petrograd in 1917 or the student rebels of the sixties, have been drawn towards Marxism.
Sometimes the version of Marxism to which people have been drawn – that of Stalin’s Russia is the prime example – has proved to be a vicious caricature of the real thing and has betrayed them terribly. This is a real problem , a bitter legacy we have to deal with. But always the genuine Marxism of human liberation has survived .
Time and again the establishment, the media and the professors have declared Marxism dead, out of date, and superceded. Again and again Marxism has reemerged as the principal intellectual and practical challenge to the status quo.This column is the first in a fortnightly series that will introduce and explain the basic ideas of Marxism.
There are, of course, many readily available ‘introductions to Marxism’. Every serious library and bookshop will stock at least a few. Some are very good, some are very dry and academic and some are seriously misleading. What will distinguish this series from most of the rest is that it will be written , in the first place, for the activist – for that generation of young, and sometimes not so young , people who have come into politics through the struggle against authoritarian rule, neo-liberal globalisation and war and who are looking to deepen their critical understanding of the system and clarify their strategy for challenging it.
The next column, in a fortnight’s time, will discuss what is the central idea in the whole of Marxism, namely the revolutionary role of the working class.
This article was written for the Koran socialist newsletter CounterFire in June 2006.