CPI-ML New Democracy

Relevance of Marxism to the contemporary world

(On the occasion of Birth bicentenary of Karl Marx, CPI(ML)-New Democracy organized a meeting in Hyderabad on May 5, 2018. Rajani Desai was invited to speak in the meeting along with others. She could not attend but sent the following paper to the organizers. Her paper is being published here. -Editor)
Dear friends,
On this, the occasion of 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth, I thank you for your invitation to speak about the relevance of Marxism to the contemporary world. I am sorry that I am unable to attend due to a fracture, and hence am sending this message.
To be frank, I am somewhat overwhelmed by the scale of the topic itself. Marxism encompasses our conception of the world; our understanding of political economy, which is the underpinning of the entire social order; as well as our conception of the social order that must replace the present order. To say anything cogently about such a vast subject is very difficult.
Before we come to the question of the relevance of Marxism to the contemporary world, let us briefly cast a glance back at the last 150 years since Marx completed the first volume of his magnum opus, Capital.
Fifty years after the publication of that work, Marxism inspired workers to set up the world’s first socialist state in the largest country of the world, and later inspired workers and peasants to do so in the most populous country of the world. It inspired most of the anti-imperialist liberation struggles around the world – from Korea to Indochina to Africa to Latin America. In fear of socialism, the imperialist countries instituted welfare measures in their own countries, and even semi-colonial countries like India made a show of ‘planning’ and tagged themselves ‘socialist’. No philosopher, no social scientist, no economist has had such an enormous impact on all of humanity.
Two poles
The imperialists and reactionaries worldwide have been crowing for the last nearly three decades about the alleged death of Marxism. In this very period, global inequality has soared to unprecedented levels: last year 82 per cent of the addition to global wealth went to the top 1 per cent of the population. As the imperialist institution IMF itself admits, this is because the share of national income going to those who labour is going down, and the share going to those who have capital is going up. On the other hand, according to the ILO, three-fourths of the global labour force is in insecurity, misery, or outright unemployment. This strikingly bears out Marx’s statement in Capital that the greater the accumulation of social wealth under capitalism, the greater is the pauperization of the masses. Just when the imperialists and reactionaries are crowing about the defeat of Marxism, reality is bearing out its validity on a world scale.
The coming phase of automation and the use of robots, throwing vast millions out of work and depressing global wage levels, too is in line with Marx’s analysis: he depicted how the entire history of modern industry with the use of machines (in which the labourer becomes a mere appendage to the machine) witnesses waves of displacement of workers, strengthening the hands of Capital. This process generated vast mass suffering among the labouring class in Marx’s day, in the form of unemployment and depression of wages, and it promises to do so again on a global scale today. Even imperialist quarters, such as the governor of the central bank of England, are issuing dire warnings about such a danger. The imperialists are worried because, as the IMF warns, “Inequality can fuel social tension”, i.e., class struggle by the exploited masses.
In fact, under a socialist order, the advances in technology could create opportunities for humanity to spend less time in drudgery, and more time in the development of the human potential in countless ways; but, as Marx noted, under capitalism this is ruled out. As he revealed, all labour-saving machinery, under capitalism, becomes just a way of further driving down the share of wages in the social product, and thereby further exploiting and pauperizing the working class.
Earlier, imperialists used to claim that an efficient socialist economy was impossible because it required the coordination of a huge number of people, factories, farms, transport, storage, and so on, which they claimed could only be done by market forces. But today the development of information and communication technology (ICT), including the internet, has further strengthened the objective basis for the running of a truly socialist economy. Instead, under capitalism, ICT is used as a method of oppressing and exploiting workers more, filling people’s minds with all sorts of degenerate imperialist culture and reactionary propaganda, and carrying out intensified ruling class surveillance and manipulation of the masses. When people try to make use of the internet for the good of humanity, they are stopped and repressed. That shows us again how the productive forces created by capitalism can only achieve their real positive potential under socialism, as Marx taught us.
Since 2008, the world economy has been reeling under a crisis. Before capitalism, a society would be in an economic crisis if it produced too little, due to natural calamities or war. But under capitalism, there emerged a new type of crisis, a crisis of ‘excess’ production, overproduction. There are still needy people, who can put those goods to use. But the production is excess in the sense that capitalists cannot make additional profits on it. This is because working people don’t have the money to spend. And so the capitalists cut down on production, retrench workers, and send the economy into crisis, waiting for the day that it will become profitable to produce once more. It is thus the drive of capitalists to make profits and accumulate wealth that becomes the barrier to society producing more and meeting people’s needs. Marx revealed how this ‘accumulation drive’ of capitalists is what drives the entire capitalist economy. The source of the wealth of the capitalist class is the appropriation of surplus value from labour in the course of production, as well as the expropriation of nature.
This basic contradiction of capitalism is intensified in its current stage, namely, monopoly capitalism, or imperialism, which emerged towards the end of the 19th century, analyzed by Marx’s great disciple Lenin. Industry in the world’s leading economies since then has been dominated by a small number of giant corporations, and the imperialist states represent the interests of these corporations, whether industrial or financial. In the present era, imperialism tries to extricate itself from crisis by resorting to cartels, trade wars, and outright wars, either local or global. It is Marxism alone that provides the concepts with which to understand the developments in the world today.
The environmental crisis and the accumulation drive
Today the world is facing multiple environmental crises – pollution, depletion of natural resources (including water), wiping out of species, climate change. Environmentalists are correct in fighting against all these processes. But they target ‘development’ or even ‘population’, and do not address the root cause of these problems, i.e., the nature of the present social system. The question is, why does the capitalist system destroy the environment? Marx’s concept of the capitalist accumulation drive gives us a most profound insight into the present global environmental crisis. What drives a Bill Gates or a Mukesh Ambani to accumulate capital? Marx shows how the purpose of accumulation by capitalists is not consumption – neither their own nor that of any number of generations of their descendants. Rather, the purpose of the accumulation drive is accumulation itself, no matter how nonsensical this may be to any rational being!
This explains why capitalists are driving the world to environmental hell, even as they accumulate fortunes beyond imagination. Any rational person could tell them that the repercussions of their actions will not spare, in the last analysis, their descendants, in whose name, presumably, the wealth is being accumulated. But they are beyond all such rationality, since they are ruled by Capital. The only way to prevent multiple environmental disasters, or to salvage some semblance of human existence from these disasters, is to overthrow the capitalist system before it destroys all of us.
Revolutionary essence
Words like “overthrow” and “revolution” have become uncomfortable for many current-day Marxists, who adopt many of Marx’s analytic methods without imbibing his revolutionary purpose. Because he grasped the systemic nature of exploitation and oppression, Marx worked all his life for revolution and the “forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions”, and his disciples led such revolutions in Russia, China and other countries. Unfortunately, many present-day ‘Marxists’ more resemble what Marx referred to as “the manifold types of social quacks who wanted to eliminate social abuses through their various universal panaceas and all kinds of patch-work, without hurting capital and profit in the least.” (Communist Manifesto) This is not a new process: it began in Germany in the late 19th century. So the revolutionary essence of Marxism requires constant reassertion today more than ever.
To protect the revolutionary essence of Marxism, it should not be made a dogma. Those who did so tried to impose it mechanically on reality, and when reality did not conform to their dogma, they discovered that revolution itself was not possible, or had to be postponed to the indefinite future, till conditions were ripe. Whereas Marxism is a guide to revolutionary action, and as such must constantly be applied to very varied conditions, and enriched in the course of revolutionary practice. Mao quotes Lenin as saying that the most essential thing in Marxism, “the living soul of Marxism, [is] the concrete analysis of concrete conditions”. This can be seen throughout Marx’s work.
It is an essential concept of Marxism that the forms of organization must change with the objective situation. In Marx’s day, the vanguard of the proletariat did not constitute itself as a separate party, but with the change of era in the late 19th century, the era of imperialism and proletarian revolution, it became necessary for the proletariat to forge the Leninist party to lead the revolution. Much has changed in the objective situation since then, but neither has the era passed, nor has this requirement changed. But to fulfill this requirement in today’s circumstances, we need, among other things, to grapple with the objective conditions of revolutionary practice, with the aim of changing them.
Some scholars rue the fact that, even in the midst of his great theoretical work, Marx devoted a huge amount of his time and energy to building the international working class movement and giving its practice theoretical clarity. Thus Capital itself remained unfinished. Marx gave great importance to revolutionary practice. In his “Theses on Feuerbach”, he says:
The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism… is that …reality… is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as … practice, not subjectively.
The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth… of his thinking in practice.
… circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself…
The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.
In the course of practice, we confront a complex reality, and must learn how to use our Marxist method to take that practice forward to the eventual aim. Thus Marx himself, later in life, indicated distinct paths for revolutions in colonies/semi-colonies (where he advocated the overthrow of imperialist rule), as well as for Russia. Lenin actually applied Marxism to concrete conditions of Russia, formulated the concept of the worker-peasant alliance, and led the Bolshevik Party through democratic revolution directly to the socialist revolution. Mao applied Marxism-Leninism to a country under imperialist domination, where the overwhelming majority were peasants, and the path of revolution ran from the villages to the cities, rather than the other way around. In today’s India too, while the working class is to become the leader, the peasantry is to become the main force. Beyond a broad conception of the path, much actual practice is required to educate the educators for our specific conditions.
It is this living, breathing Marxism that retains its relevance, indeed has even greater relevance, for the world today, and will never become obsolete. It will thrive as long as we grapple with objective reality in order to change it, using the method which Marx and his great collaborator and comrade, Frederick Engels, bequeathed to us all, for which we, and all of humanity, are forever in their debt.