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2020 has been a year of turmoil. Alongside an unprecedented pandemic, we are going through a worldwide economic downturn – the 2nd such ‘historic’ recession in most young people’s lifetimes – which has created the spectre of mass unemployment around the world. At the same time, the threats of climate change, international polarisation and reactionary attacks on the rights of women, LGBTQ+ and BAME people add to the mounting crisis the world capitalist system is currently going through.
Given the scale and multifaceted nature of this crisis, it is no surprise that so many working class and young people are feeling that the current system is not working for them, and that we can do better. Many of them are now turning toward socialist and Marxist ideas to help understand the situation we are going through, and to provide an alternative to crisis-ridden capitalism. It is in this context that Socialist Alternative is republishing Leon Trotsky’s classic ‘Marxism In Our Time’ as a pamphlet, with a foreword by Hugh Caffrey of Socialist Alternative’s Political Committee.
Originally written in 1939 as an introduction to Otto Ruhle’s abridged version of Karl Marx’ Capital, Trotsky discusses the renewed relevance of many aspects of Marx’ writings in the stormy international situation before the outbreak of WWII. At the time, the world economy was reeling from a deep global depression, with mass unemployment and heightened tensions between the world’s capitalist powers threatening further turmoil to the lives of working class people. As we go into a new period in capitalist history, characterised by the most severe global economic crisis since the 1930s, and with mass unemployment and inter-imperialist conflict on the cards once again, the parallels with today which are contained in this short text are striking.
One of the first questions Trotsky asks is “is Marxism obsolete”? This is a question undoubtedly on the minds of many today. When Marx wrote Capital in the 19th century, the world was a very different place to what it is now – with the impact of globalisation and modern technology such as the internet completely transforming many aspects of our lives. As a result, some on the left look at more ‘modern’ ideas to change society. Trotsky demonstrates that questions like this are not unique to our times. In fact, the workers’ movement was grappling with similar questions even 80 years ago, against a new background of developing imperialism, WW1 and the looming WW2, and Keynesian economic measures.
But Trotsky points out Marxism’s ability to continue to predict and analyse world events with a level of detail and foresight unmatched by other methods. Trotsky draws out some of the fundamental themes of the analysis Marx laid out in Capital and illustrates their continued usefulness in a new context, many decades after being first written.
‘Theory of increasing misery’
One of the most obvious examples at the time was the trend toward the centralisation of wealth and capital. During the original great depression, the biggest factories, insurers and banks saw a massive increase in their share of the wealth in society, even as small businesses were ruined en masse and millions of working class people were pushed into poverty.
The similarities today are obvious. Whilst unemployment rises and furloughed workers have lost almost a quarter of their wages on the back of a decade of wage stagnation, the wealth of the billionaire class, especially those that own major tech companies, has skyrocketed during the course of the pandemic. Jeff Bezos alone, already the world’s richest man, saw his wealth increase by $10 billion in a single day this year!
There has been a lot of discussion in the capitalist press recently about the “K-shaped” nature of the economic recovery – where the rich have bounced back after the initial shock whilst the rest of us continue to suffer the effects of the crisis. But the concentration of wealth in the hands of an ever smaller section of society is a tendency inherent to capitalism, and is usually only accelerated by economic crises as smaller competitors, and those with no property, face financial ruin. This was described by Marx as the “theory of increasing misery” under capitalism – the process where wealth is gradually concentrated at the top, and misery for those at the bottom of society.
Some critics may point to rising living standards following WWII as proof against Marx. But these gains were not the product of capitalist progress – rather they were the result of working class organisation and struggle. Capitalism’s role has been to roll back and attack these gains at every stage.
The New Deal, the far right and capitalist crisis
Periods of capitalist crisis have emerged at many points in history, and each time have pushed working class people to get organised and fight for an alternative. The mass movements and workers’ struggles that can develop pose a threat to the capitalist class who have an interest in upholding the status quo. This was also the case in the 1930s – and different wings of the capitalist class looked for different solutions.
For some, increased state spending may be seen as a way of pacifying the leaderships of these movements by granting concessions, as with the New Deal in the US. This was the case in some wealthy nations, who could afford to grant such concessions. Other representatives of capitalism looked to confront the working class more directly. This often involves drumming up racism and reactionary forces to maintain their system, leading to the rise of fascism in many parts of Europe. Trotsky points out how, in both cases, the system is fundamentally kept intact and that as a result, even if they serve to push the problems down the line, neither route for the capitalists can address the issues at the heart of the crisis.
The point at the core of Marxism is that capitalist production, based on profit, is unable to take society forward. This underpins the nature of capitalism whether in Marx’ time, the 20th century or even today where the chaotic response to the pandemic and the economic crisis has revealed that the system is still unable to resolve its own contradictions. A socialist solution is needed. We need to fight for real workers’ control over health and safety to protect workers and stop the spread of Covid-19. At the same time, the working day should be shortened with no loss of pay to create jobs for the masses of unemployed.
Ultimately though, the only way to fully ensure a solution in the interests of ordinary people is by replacing the current capitalist system with a socialist one based on democratic planning by the vast majority of working class people in society. This would also allow us to address many of the other issues we face in society such as the climate crisis and racist state violence.
Ideas for a new generation
Neither Marx or Trotsky were merely critics of capitalism – they were also activists and revolutionaries at the forefront of the fight to change society. Marx himself said that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”. Beyond just words, Marxist ideas provide us with the tools to change society and intervene in real struggles of working class people.
‘Marxism In Our Time’ is an excellent example of how Marxism can be applied in new circumstances. It is an easy read, but rich in lessons and can be an invaluable guide to action for anyone looking to explore how we can fight the current system – as well as what kind of change we need.