England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Marxism: An idea for the 2020s?

By Ellie Costain, Socialist Alternative Merseyside

Marx was one of the greatest philosophers of all time – not just a thinker but actively a revolutionary. His ideas offer us today the most comprehensive analysis of how capitalism really works and how to fight it. It is true that when Marx was writing in the 1800s, the world was different than it is now. But we argue that Marxist ideas still provide an unparalleled tool to understand and fight capitalism.

Karl Marx spent his life analysing how capitalism actually works – it is for this reason that his ideas are often referred to as ‘scientific socialism’. Even in the 1800s, Marx identified that capitalists sought to maximise profits above all else. In times of economic growth this means that food, housing, technology and other goods are more abundant than at any other time in history.

The problem however is that capitalism, as a chaotic and unplanned system, is unable to allocate those resources in a just and rational way. The chaos of the market means this abundance becomes a problem for the system. It produces more than the working class, who are constantly squeezed by low wages, are able to buy. Economic instability and crisis is the result. Workers are laid off, and wages are cut as the market ‘corrects’ itself. But workers will not just accept these attacks on our living conditions – we are forced to organise and fight back. This is the case today just as much as it was 150 years ago.

Following a ‘lost decade’ of wage growth, exacerbated by a worldwide crisis of inflation in the economy, workers are fighting back. Over the last year, we have seen a historic strike wave, with over one million people taking action to defend our living standards, protect jobs and see a real pay rise.

In fighting back, the strikes have shown the power that we hold as workers. Without us, the whole system grinds to a halt. More than a century later, the working class looks different to that of Marx’s time – especially in Britain. Years of ‘deindustrialisation’ have transformed Britain from the ‘workshop of the world’ to a servicedriven economy.

But capitalism does not begin and end in Britain. In Marx’s time and today, capitalism is international, and underpinned by an enormous industrial working class – the proletariat, as Marx called it. In the 21st century, this is particularly in the neocolonial world, as capitalists export production abroad to drive down wage costs. But despite the changing roles of British workers, capitalism, and with it, the division of society between the capitalists and the working class, still bears striking resemblance to the picture painted by Marx.

The lockdowns in 2020 highlighted that now, just as then, the working class is the force that really runs society. The health and care workers, shopworkers, logistics workers and educators were rightly highlighted as ‘essential’ workers because now, just as a century ago, the working class plays an essential role in the British economy.

Last year’s strike wave involved rail and postal workers who still play a huge role in the economy – but also doctors, teachers, even barristers. Indeed, many of these layers have even been ‘proletarianised’. Once seen as separate from the rest of the working class, many of these sectors have found themselves at the head of the re-arming of the workers movement in recent years as they feel the effects of pay stagnation, staffing shortages and government cuts like any other worker.

Exploitation and oppression

Some academics criticise Marx and Marxism for having an outlook based only on what was happening in Europe and only around largely white working-class men at the time. Marxism describes how everyone is exploited on the basis of class as long as there is a ruling class who makes vast amounts of wealth off our backs. But how can this explain oppression along the lines of race, gender, and other categories? In the context of movements like Black Lives Matter and mass feminist struggles, does Marxism have anything to contribute?

Far from the portrayal sometimes given, Marx and subsequent Marxists were not crudely fixated on workplace struggles alone. The struggle against oppression is in fact a key feature of Marxism. ‘The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State’, a book completed by Friedrich Engels and based on Marx’ notes, shows how women’s oppression has not always existed. In fact, it developed from the beginnings of class society, which marked (in Engel’s words) a “world historic defeat of the female sex”. The work of anthropologists and historians in the century since has largely vindicated Engels’ analysis.

Even today we can see how capitalism needs this division. Today, women do an estimated $10.8tn worth of unpaid work in the home every year, and ideas about their ‘caring’ nature are used to justify low-paid work in industries such as care and education (see pages 8-9 for more). Marxism points out that gender-based oppression is intimately linked with class society – and that the fight against it must be connected to the fight against this oppressive system as a whole.

The same is true in the struggle against racism. Marx particularly focused on anti-black racism, writing at the time of the fight against slavery in the US. Although slavery has existed in many different societies at different points predating the trans-Atlantic slave trade, capitalism relied, and continues to rely on racism to divide working people and super-exploit black workers. These racist ideas proved a successful way of dividing a newly-emerging working class and justifying the growing capitalist system

This idea of racial inferiority has also been used to subjugate those in parts of the world under colonial rule. The British Empire was the largest in the world, and vast wealth for the capitalist class was created on the back of imperial rule. The idea that these peoples were ‘uncivilised’ was used to justify colonialism and capitalism. Indeed, a whole new genre of ‘science’ in the form of ‘eugenics’ was invented to classify different races.

Through struggle, many of the most outwardly abhorrent features of racism have been pushed back, but centuries of slavery, colonisation and imperialism have left a legacy of racism that keeps the working class divided. It is in the ruling class’ interests to keep and even whip up these divisions to attack working class people in the present day. The Tories’ recent attacks against refugees stand as just one horrifying example.

The same can be said about the oppression of women and gender non-conforming people, and that is why the right have launched a backlash against feminist movements in the past few years. In the context of the attacks against feminist ideas, figures such as Andrew Tate espouse the ideology of male superiority being innate or “human nature”. All the while, he tells his young male following that under this system it is right and natural to pursue making yourself rich and having little regard for the wellbeing of others around you if it does not serve the goal of becoming wealthy.

Liberal politics does not have an understanding of the real historical and material root of oppression. More ‘girl boss’ CEOs and Prime Ministers have not brought us an inch closer to liberation. What Marxism can offer is something different: an analysis of the roots of oppression and a tool to mobilise the multiracial, multi-gender working class around a fighting programme for genuine liberation from all oppression.

Marxism and the climate

In the last few years, we have seen new waves of struggle as part of the climate movement, including groups like Fridays For Future, Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil. Socialist Alternative has also been active in the climate movement. We think that socialist ideas are crucial for fighting the climate catastrophe.

As mentioned, capitalists will always seek to maximise their profits. In practice, this has meant a race to produce more and more, as cheaply as possible, while using more natural resources and energy.

Although Marx and Engels were not alive to see the climate crisis unfold, they already identified the unsustainable way capitalist production affects the planet. Capitalism, they said, creates a ‘metabolic rift’ between human society and the world around us, where the effects of production on the environment are treated as an ‘externality’.

When profit comes first, the planet, as well as working class people, are an afterthought at best. This is especially clear in the neocolonial world, where the effects of climate change are felt hardest by workers, poor and indigenous communities, and where deforestation and other destructive capitalist projects threaten entire ecosystems.

At the same time, natural gas, oil and other fossil fuels are big industries that make big profits in the short term. While these corporations ‘greenwash’ their image by making superficial ‘pledges’ to be more sustainable, representatives from these industries can put pressure on politicians, newspapers etc to downplay the urgency of the climate crisis.

These companies, bound by the laws of profit, cannot be reformed into sustainability – and they will resist tooth and nail any attempts to encroach on those profits in the form of climate-friendly measures. Instead, they aim to pass the cost of the climate crisis onto ordinary people through regressive taxes and rising costs, or use the power of the state against our movements. Climate activists risk being reported to the government’s Prevent ‘anti-radicalisation’ scheme, and the police will much sooner be used to arrest those taking climate action than the capitalist climate criminals.

This is why Marxists see the fight for the planet as intrinsically linked to the fight to overthrow the capitalist system as a whole, and for a truly democratic socialist system, where the economy is planned for the needs of everyone and not for profit. Moreover, Marxism points toward how we can win such change.

Some climate activists will prioritise individual acts of direct action to raise awareness to the issue of climate crisis and government inaction to combat it. Socialist Alternative argues that such action should serve as an auxiliary to building a mass, democratic movement in schools, universities and workplaces using methods like walkouts, protests and particularly strikes.

We need to leverage the power that young people and workers have collectively to demand immediate measures such as free public transport and immediate investment into green energy. As the recent failure of the UK government’s offshore wind farm auction highlights, the market is utterly incapable of delivering on such measures.

A mass movement would have to fight to take society decisively out of the hands of big business and its political lackeys by nationalising big business, including the big polluters, under democratic workers’ control and management to guarantee an immediate green transition while defending jobs and living conditions for ordinary people.

Revolutionary ideas for the 2020s

Although many liberal and reformist politicians and academics would like to see these revolutionary ideas dead and buried (and indeed have declared as such on a few occasions), a new generation of young people are looking toward socialism and Marxism for solutions to the age of disorder we are living through.

Over the course of more than a century, Marxist ideas have been developed by generations of socialists to deal with the constantly-changing world we live in. But the core point remains as crucial as ever: capitalism means crisis and only by building a mass movement of working-class people and the oppressed can we build a society free from oppression, poverty and climate destruction.

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