Monday, July 03, 2006

The Principle of Internationalism

"Workers of the world, unite!" Ever since these words brought to a close the Communist Manifesto of 1848, this has been the basic slogan of our movement.

It brings together, in the most succinct form, two fundamental ideas:

1) that our movement is the movement of a definite class, the working class or proletariat;
2) that it is an international movement – the working people of all countries are our brothers and sisters. The first of these ideas I discussed earlier in this series; in this column I shall discuss the principle of internationalism.

"The proletariat has no fatherland". With these words, also from the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels signaled their complete break with the ruling ideas, the ideas of the ruling class, on the question of patriotism and nationhood. Across the globe, from the cradle to the grave, we are all indoctrinated to believe that our first loyalty is to, and our basic identification is with, our nation. Education, culture, sport and politicians all contribute to this process to the point where it is made to seem almost unnatural not to support ‘our’ (Korean, British, American, Chinese, whatever) industry, team, army, etc.

In reality there is nothing ‘natural’ at all about nationalism. For the vast bulk of human history people had no sense of nationhood whatsoever for the simple reason that there were no nations. Nationalism emerged in Europe over the last 4-500 years and in most of the world only in the last century. This is because nationalism is a product of capitalism.

Like capitalism itself, nationalism was originally progressive. It served as a rallying cry against the dynastic empires, monarchies and petty principalities of feudalism – witness its role in the French Revolution. Like capitalism it has long since become reactionary, acting as the principal ideological mechanism for obscuring the conflict of interest between the working class and the capitalist class and creating a false sense of identity between exploiters and the exploited. At the same time it works, like racism, to divide and weaken the working class by making them see foreign workers as their rivals and enemies.

Breaking with nationalism is, therefore, central to breaking with capitalist ideas and is one the key dividing lines between Marxists and reformists, who, by and large, go along with nationalism (as they tend to go along with much of bourgeois ideology, importing it into the workers’ movement).

The question of internationalism versus nationalism comes to head in time of war. For the socialist movement the test case was the beginning of World War 1 in 1914. This led to split between the reformist leaders of most European socialist parties who supported their ‘own’ ruling classes in the imperialist slaughter and the revolutionary Marxists, such as Lenin and Trotsky in Russia and Luxemburg and Liebknecht in Germany, who opposed the war and followed Liebknecht’s maxim that "The main enemy is at home".

In general terms the internationalist attitude to war is to condemn wars between big capitalist, ie imperialist, powers and to work for the overthrow of our own ruling class and the unity of the workers of the contending nations. In wars of imperialist conquest, such as the Vietnam War or the Iraq War, internationalists both condemn the war and positively support the right to self-determination of the oppressed nation , including its right to wage a war of national liberation.(Though it must be remembered that each war is different and a concrete analysis must always be made.)

Does this support for ‘national’ liberation violate the principle of internationalism? No. The support is given to the struggle against national oppression, not to nationalism. Its aim is to weaken imperialism, our common enemy, and to facilitate the voluntary unity of the working class and oppressed of all countries.

There is a further, equally important, reason why Marxists are internationalists. Capitalism is a global system and the workers’ struggle against it can only be waged successfully on an international basis. The revolution may begin in one country but to be completed it must be spread. A socialist society cannot be built in one country, because of the counter revolutionary pressure, both economic and military, that will inevitably be applied to by the rest of world capitalism.

Marx and Engels realized this from the beginning. Already in 1847 in The Principles of Communism Engels directly posed the question, ‘Will it be possible for this revolution to take place in one country alone ?’ and answered ‘No. By creating the world market, big industry has already brought all the peoples of the earth… into such close relation with one another that none is independent of what happens to the others.’

The experience of Russia proved the point in practice. The adoption of the policy of ‘socialism in one country’ by Stalin in 1924 marked Stalin’s break with Marxism and produced not socialism but state capitalism. Having abandoned international revolution the Soviet bureaucracy was forced to compete with western capitalism on its own terms ie in terms of the exploitation of its working class.

Today, in the age of globalisation and global warming, internationalism is more relevant and vital than ever. It must be applied at home in defense of refugees and migrant workers, in the trade union struggle against the multinationals, in the struggle against Bush and Blair’s ‘War on Terror’, and in the international anti-capitalist and socialist movements.

Now more than ever we have a world to save and to win!

This article was written for the Koran socialist newsletter CounterFire in July 2006.

Why Revolution ?

"Marx was above all else a revolutionist", said Engels in his speech at Marx’s graveside. But why, and why do Marxists go on about "the revolution"?

Revolutions are dangerous affairs. People get killed in revolutions, especially working people. And they have a habit of going wrong: look what happened in the French Revolution and in Russia and China – all that sacrifice and they ended up with tyrants as bad or worse than before. Besides revolution doesn’t look very likely. Most of the working class people you actually meet don’t seem in the least revolutionary. They are more interested in TV and football than revolution.

So, surely, it is better and more realistic to try to change the system step by step – to work through trade unions and parliament to raise living standards and win reforms that benefit working people. Maybe that way we will eventually arrive at socialism but even if we don’t at least things will get better for us and our children.

On the face of it these are powerful arguments and my guess is that many millions of working people have reasoned like this and as a result supported ‘moderate’ politicians and trade union leaders who have promised them reforms without the risks of revolutionary struggle.

The history of what really happened in the French, Russian and other revolutions is obviously very important in this debate but space does not allow me to deal with it here. Instead I want to focus on Marx’s own answer to this question which was summed up in a single sentence written in 1845.

"This revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but because only in a revolution can the class overthrowing it rid itself of all the muck of ages and fit itself to found society anew."

Like so many of Marx’s sentences this one combines a number of profound ideas and repays detailed examination and explanation. Let us start by noting that Marx is a revolutionary not out impatience or bitterness or love of violence or excitement, but out of necessity, because there is no other way of fundamentally changing society. The reasons for this are both economic and political.

The dynamic of capitalism is the relentless drive to accumulate capital, made compulsory for each individual business and nation by competition from other businesses and nations, on the basis of exploitation. When accumulation is going well, i.e. the economy is growing and profits are high, increased living standards and reforms ( under pressure from below) are possible but only on condition that they do not threaten the central mechanism of accumulation. Thus, even in this most favourable scenario, reforms result only in more crumbs for the workers from the rich man’s table, while the gap between the workers and the rich grows wider and the power of the capitalists in society increases.

When accumulation is going badly and profits are falling the ruling class attacks workers’ living standards and fights to claw back reforms granted in the past. The struggle for reforms, though it has to be waged, is like the labour of Sisyphus, the character from Greek mythology condemned to push a ball up a hill only for it to roll back down again.

But if step by step reform cannot change society what about electing a socialist government committed to the overall transformation of society? Surely that at least would be peaceful? Unfortunately not. Faced with such a threat the capitalist class, as it has shown many times in the past, would use all its economic and political power to undermine, frustrate and destroy the government.

It would attack the currency through speculation, go on investment strike, close down factories, lock out workers and thus provoke an intense economic crisis. It would use the state apparatus, which is not neutral but tied by a thousand threads to the interests of the ruling class, to block legislation and government action, and in the final analysis it would use force, in the shape of a military or fascist coup.

The working class would only be able to resist this offensive by using its power, by occupying the factories and workplaces, by breaking up the existing state machine and taking control of society itself. In other words, far from avoiding the need for revolution, the election of a socialist government would either be a prelude to revolution or it would fail. And unless there existed within the movement an organized body of workers with a revolutionary perspective – a revolutionary party – the chances of success in this confrontation would be slim.

But this is all fantasy, our skeptic might object. The working class is never going to opt for revolution, it’s too brainwashed by the system. This is where the second part of the quote from Marx comes in, for it is true that the system , through the media, education etc. stuffs workers’ heads with reactionary ideas – nationalism, racism, sexism, deference, belief in capitalism and so on – the ‘muck of ages’ as Marx calls it.

It is often assumed that for there to be a revolution the majority of people have first to be convinced of revolutionary ideas. This is not how it happens says Marx. Revolutions begin spontaneously when large masses of workers engage in struggle, usually over a particular issue or against a particular regime. It is in the process of revolutionary struggle, above all because of the sense they get of their collective power, that the mass of workers rid themselves of their prejudices and illusions and develop revolutionary consciousness.

This is why revolution is both necessary and possible.

This article was written for the Koran socialist newsletter CounterFire in June 2006.

What is Capitalism?

Know your enemy is an old and useful maxim. The enemy of the working class movement and of millions of others round the world – peasants, students, intellectuals etc – is capitalism. Yet amongst the general public and also within the movement there is often only the vaguest of notions what capitalism is.

This is because our rulers want it that way and thus ensure that from the lowest journalism to the top universities confusion reigns on the subject. Above all they want it to appear that capitalism is practically eternal – a matter of human nature – so as to dispel any idea of getting rid of it.

Consequently they identify capitalism with a human character trait, namely ‘greed’ which, at least to some extent, has been around as long as humans, or with ‘money’ which has been around about 5000 years or with ‘private property’ which has existed for about 10,000 years. Inevitably ‘ordinary’ people are influenced by this. It doesn’t stop them disliking capitalism, especially the effects of capitalism which they experience daily. Nor does it stop them resisting capitalism, sometimes very fiercely. But it does seriously hamper any attempt to overthrow it.

It was one of the most important of Karl Marx’s many intellectual achievements that he produced a clear and precise analysis of what defines capitalism, of how it emerged historically, and of the fundamental dynamic that drives it.

The first thing to grasp is that capitalism is neither an attitude nor an idea, but a definite economic system, a way of organising production, which arose initially spontaneously and relatively recently in human history. It began to develop seriously in Europe in the late Middle Ages within the previous mode of production, feudalism.

It was, and still is, a system of commodity production (commodities are goods produced for sale on the market) in which labour power becomes a commodity and wage labour becomes the main form of labour. The system is dominated by capital ( hence its name ), which is accumulated wealth used to employ wage labour with the aim of increasing its value in competition with other capitals. The wage labour /capital relation is the fundamental social relation that defines capitalism.

In order to fully assert itself capitalism had not only to develop economically, the owners of capital, the capitalists or bourgeoisie, had also to conquer political power. This they did first in the Dutch Revolution of the 16th century and the English Revolution of the 17th century. Following the American Revolution, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution (in Britain) capitalism came to dominate the world. Today it rules virtually everywhere.

These basic features explain why capitalism was a more progressive system than feudalism. First, wage labour was an advance – in terms of human freedom, productivity and revolutionary potential – on the labour of slaves, serfs and peasants that preceded it. Second, the competition between capitalists compelled them to develop production on a scale unthinkable under the sway of the feudal lords or any previous set of rulers.

However these same basic features also contain the seeds of all the inhumanity, inequality, crises, wars and destructiveness that have characterised the history of capitalism and make its overthrow so vital today.

The development of generalised commodity production leads to a world in which everything is for sale – they would sell air if they could. The transformation of labour power into a commodity alienates workers from their labour and the products of their labour. It turns work into mindless drudgery and workers into appendages of the machine ( and the office). The employment of wage labour by capital is a process of exploitation, which grinds workers down and results in ever increasing inequality.

The relentless uncontrolled competition between capitals produces periodic crises in which businesses go bankrupt, production falls, and mass unemployment and poverty ensues. The same competition means that smaller weaker businesses are taken over by larger stronger businesses and capital and production become ever more concentrated in the hands of a few giant corporations. Competition between these corporations – for resources (oil!), markets, labour, investment outlets – leads to wars of increasing ferocity and growing destruction of the environment to the point where the survival of society is threatened.

Historically the two most important errors in the understanding of capitalism have been its identification with a) private ownership and b) the free market. In both cases the mistake has been to equate one important and sometimes dominant feature of the system with the essence of the system.

The social democrats (like the German SPD and the British Labour Party) used to believe that by expanding state ownership and state planning, by the capitalist state, it would be possible gradually to abolish capitalism or at least tame it. They were wrong. It produced not a mixture of capitalism and socialism but only a mixture of capitalism and state capitalism. The Stalinists believed that those countries where state ownership and state planning were close to total (the USSR, China etc) were therefore socialist even though the workers controlled neither production nor the state and wage labour remained and the state was in competition with the rest of world capitalism. They were wrong. Control of society by a privileged state bureaucracy was not socialism but bureaucratic state capitalist tyranny.

In today’s anti-globalisation movement there are some who identify the enemy as only neo-liberalism, not capitalism as such. Neo-liberalism is indeed an enemy , but it is only one head of the capitalist hydra. Cutting it off , which is both good and necessary, will not, however, render the other heads less deadly.
Ultimately there is only one way to abolish capitalism and achieve socialism. That is for workers themselves to take ownership and control of the process of production and to do that , like the bourgeoisie before them, they must take political power.

Rosa Luxemburg summed it all up when she wrote, "Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there must they be broken!"

This article was written for the Koran socialist newsletter CounterFire in June 2006.

The Revolutionary Role of the Working Class

Today there are millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, who broadly identify with the international anti-capitalist movement and want to see a change in the system. For the most part these people do not have a clear idea as to how this change can be made or who can make it. Many look to NGOs and single issue campaigns; others put their hopes in progressive governments like Chavez in Venezuela or Morales in Bolivia. Still others, though very much a minority at present, back some form of armed struggle.

In Marx’s day there was also range of opinion among radicals. In the 1840s ,prior to Marx, two trends, both deriving from the French Revolution, dominated the left .

The first, inspired by the Jacobins, believed that a small group of enlightened individuals should seize power by means of a secret conspiracy and then enact laws to establish a just society on behalf of the masses.This would be an egalitarian republic, without inherited privilege, but still with private property.

The second, known as the Utopian Socialists, included figures such as Charles Fourier in France and Robert Owen in Britain. They were convinced that socialism ( collective ownership) was a better way to order society than capitalism and sought to bring it about by rational argument and force of example i.e. forming model communities.

In other words the revolutionaries were not socialists, while the socialists were not revolutionaries. Marx rejected, or rather transcended, both these approaches to found revolutionary socialism. The key to revolutionary socialism was the identification of the working class or proletariat as the agent of social change.

By the working class Marx meant those who live by the sale of their labour power, employed and exploited by the capitalists. – the new class was emerging from the Industrial Revolution in cities such as Manchester, Birmingham and London and, to a lesser extent, in Europe especially its north western corner.

Whereas for the conspirators and the Utopians change was to brought about from above, for Marx change was to come from below, made by the workers themselves. ‘ The emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working class itself’, he wrote.

What made Marx base his politics on the working class was not its suffering but its power. The suffering and exploitation of the working class was, of course, appalling and it gave workers the motive and the interest in challenging the system, but slaves and peasants had suffered and been exploited for millennia. What distinguished the working class was a) its power actually to defeat capitalism, and b) its ability to create a new society.

The working class is the unique child of capitalism. As capitalism expands so does the working class. Capitalism can defeat the worker class in battle after battle, break its strikes, smash its unions, curtail its liberty, but it cannot do without it to produce its profits, so always the workers return to fight again.

Capitalism draws workers together in large workplaces, links them in national and global industries, and concentrates them in vast cities. This gives them massive potential political power. Without their work no train, bus, or lorry moves; no coal, iron or oil leaves the earth; no papers are printed, no TV station broadcasts, no bank or school opens. Even the armed forces of the state depend on workers in their ranks. In creating the working class, capitalism creates the most powerful oppressed class in history.

The struggle of the working class is, by its nature, a collective struggle. To take on the mill owners of the !9th century or Ford or Hyundai today, workers have to combine their efforts and act together. To take possession of Ford or Hyundai the workers cannot divide the company up between them (as peasants divided the land) but have to turn it into social property. This what makes the working class a socialist class.

Moreover, when the working class takes power it remains the producing class in society, with no class below it, which it can exploit or live off. And being concentrated in big industry and big cities at the center of economic and political power, it has the capacity to prevent any new class emerging above it; it will be able to produce and rule at the same time, thus laying the foundation for a genuinely classless society. In liberating itself the working class liberates humanity.

This, the revolutionary role of the working class, is the core of Marxism. All Marx’s philosophy, history, economics and politics starts from here. No proposition in Marx has been so roundly dismissed by academics and pundits, including those otherwise "sympathetic" to Marxism. "The working class has changed", is their familiar cry.

Yes, the working class has changed, in its jobs, its clothes, its pay, its nationalities and its culture. But in its fundamental conditions of existence it remains: it is still the child of capitalism, still living by the sale of its labour power, still exploited and still struggling collectively; while in its size and potential power it has grown enormously. In Marx’s day the proletariat was more or less confined to western Europe, today it stretches and fights on all five continents, from Sau Paulo to Seoul. Therein lies the basis of socialism and the hope for humanity.

This article was written for the Koran socialist newsletter CounterFire in June 2006.

The Point is to Change it

"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.