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MARXISM IN WORLD HISTORY
1 Why we need Marxist theory
2 Understanding history
3 Class struggle
4 CapitalismЧhow the system began
5 The labour theory of value
6 Economic crisis
7 The working class
8 How can society be changed?
9 How do workers become revolutionary?
10 The revolutionary socialist party
11 Imperialism and national liberation
12 Marxism an d feminism
13 Socialism and war
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There is a widespread myth that Marxism is difficult. It is a myth propagated by the enemies of socialism Ц former Labour leader Harold Wilson boasted that he was never able to get beyond the first page of MarxТs Capital. It is a myth also encouraged by a peculiar breed of academics who declare themselves to be СMarxistsТ: they deliberately cultivate obscure phrases and mystical expressions in order to give the impression that they possess a special knowledge denied to others.
So it is hardly surprising that many socialists who work 40 hours a week in factories, mines or offices take it for granted that Marxism is something they will never have the time or the opportunity to understand.
In fact the basic ideas of Marxism are remarkably simple. They explain, as no other set of ideas can, the society in which we live. They make sense of a world wracked by crises, of its poverty in the midst of plenty, of its coups dТetat and military dictatorships, of the way in which marvellous inventions can consign millions to the dole queues, of СdemocraciesТ that subsidise torturers and of СsocialistТ states that threaten each otherТs people with nuclear missiles.
Meanwhile, the establishment thinkers who so deride Marxist ideas chase each other round in a mad game of blind manТs buff, understanding nothing and explaining less.
But though Marxism is not difficult, there is a problem for the reader who comes across MarxТs writings for the first time. Marx wrote well over a century ago. He used the language of the time, complete with references to individuals and events then familiar to virtually everyone, now known only to specialist historians.
I remember my own bafflement when, while still at school, I tried to read his pamphlet The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.
I didnТt know either what Brumaire was or who Louis Bonaparte was. How many socialists have abandoned attempts to come to grips with Marxism after such experiences!
This is the justification for this short book. It seeks to provide an introduction to Marxist ideas, which will make it easier for socialists to follow what Marx was on about and to understand the development of Marxism since then in the hands of Frederick Engels, Rosa Luxemburg, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and a whole host of lesser thinkers.
Much of this pamphlet first appeared as a series of articles in Socialist Worker under the title СMarxism Made EasyТ. But I have added substantial fresh material. A little of this I have lifted wholesale from two previous attempts to provide a simple exposition of Marxist ideas: Duncan HallasТs The Meaning of Marxism and Norwich SWPТs СMarxist Education SeriesТ.
One final point. Space has prevented me from dealing in this pamphlet with some important parts of the Marxist analysis of the modern world. I have included a substantial further reading section at the back.
1. Why we need Marxist theory
What do we need theory for? We know there is a crisis. We know we are being robbed by our employers. We know weТre all angry. We know we need socialism. All the rest is just for the intellectuals.
You often hear words such as these from militant socialists and trade unionists. Such views are strongly encouraged by anti-socialists, who try to give the impression that Marxism is an obscure, complicated and boring doctrine.
Socialist ideas, they say, are СabstractТ. They may seem all right in theory, but in real life common sense tells us something else entirely.
The trouble with these arguments is that the people who put them forward usually have a СtheoryТ of their own, even if they refuse to recognise it. Ask them any question about society, and they will try to answer it with some generalisation or other. A few examples:
СPeople are naturally selfish.Т
СAnyone can get to the top if they try hard enough.Т
СIf it werenТt for the rich there wouldnТt be any money to provide work for the rest of us.Т
СIf only we could educate the workers, society would change.Т
СDeclining morals have brought the country to its present state.Т
Listen to any argument in the street, on the bus, in the canteen Ц youТll hear dozens of such sayings. Each and every one contains a view of why society is like it is and of how people can improve their condition. Such views are all СtheoriesТ of society.
When people say they do not have a theory, all they really mean is they have not clarified their views.
This is particularly dangerous for anyone who is trying to change society. For the newspapers, the radio, the television, are all continually filling our minds with attempted explanations for the mess society is in. They hope we will accept what they say without thinking more about the issues.
But you cannot fight effectively to change society unless you recognise what is false in all these different arguments.
This was first shown 150 years ago. In the 1830s and 1840s the development of industry in areas such as the north west of England drew hundreds of thousands of men, women and children into miserably paid jobs. They were forced to endure living conditions of unbelievable squalor.
They began to fight back against this with the first mass workersТ organisations Ц the first trade unions, and in Britain the first movement for political rights for workers. Chartism. Alongside these movements were the first small groups of people dedicated to winning socialism.
Immediately the problem arose as to how the workersТ movement could achieve its aim.
Some people said it was possible to persuade societyТs rulers to change things through peaceful means. The Сmoral forceТ of a mass, peaceful movement would ensure that benefits were given to the workers. Hundreds of thousands of people organised, demonstrated, worked to build a movement on the basis of such views Ц only to end defeated and demoralised.
Others recognised the need to use Сphysical forceТ, but thought this could be achieved by fairly small, conspiratorial groups cut off from the rest of society. These too led tens of thousands of workers into struggles that ended in defeat and demoralisation.
Still others believed the workers could achieve their goals by economic action, without confronting the army and the police. Again, their arguments led to mass actions. In England in 1842 the worldТs first general strike took place in the industrial areas of the north, with tens of thousands of workers holding out for four weeks until forced back to work by hunger and privation.
It was towards the end of the first stage of defeated workersТ struggles, in 1848, that the German socialist Karl Marx spelt out his own ideas fully, in his pamphlet The Communist Manifesto.
His ideas were not pulled out of thin air. They attempted to provide a basis for dealing with all the questions that had been brought up by the workersТ movement of the time.
The ideas Marx developed are still relevant today. It is stupid to say, as some people do, that they must be out of date because Marx first wrote them down more than 150 years ago. In fact, all the notions of society that Marx argued with are still very widespread. Just as the Chartists argued about Сmoral forceТ or Сphysical forceТ, socialists today argue about the Сparliamentary roadТ or the Сrevolutionary roadТ. Among those who are revolutionaries the argument for and against СterrorismТ is as alive as it was in 1848.
Marx was not the first person to try to describe what was wrong with society. At the time he was writing, new inventions in factories were turning out wealth on a scale undreamt of by previous generations. For the first time it seemed humanity had the means to defend itself against the natural calamities that had been the scourge of previous ages.
Yet this did not mean any improvement in the lives of the majority of the people. Quite the opposite. The men, women and children who manned the new factories led lives much worse that those led by their grandparents who had toiled the land. Their wages barely kept them above the bread line; periodic bouts of mass unemployment thrust them well below it. They were crammed into miserable, squalid slums, without proper sanitation, subjected to monstrous epidemics.
Instead of the development of civilisation bringing general happiness and well being, it was giving rise to greater misery.
This was noted, not just by Marx, but by some of the other great thinkers of the period Ц men such as the English poets Blake and Shelley, the Frenchmen Fourier and Proudhon, the German philosophers Hegel and Feuerbach.
Hegel and Feuerbach called the unhappy state in which humanity found itself СalienationТ Ц a term you still often hear. By alienation, Hegel and Feuerbach meant that men and women continually found that they were dominated and oppressed by what they themselves had done in the past. So, Feuerbach pointed out, people had developed the idea of God Цand then had bowed down before it, feeling miserable because they could not live up to something they themselves had made. The more society advanced, the more miserable, СalienatedТ, people became.
In his own earliest writings Marx took this notion of СalienationТ and applied it to the life of those who created the wealth of society:
The worker becomes poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and range... With the increasing value of the world of things proceeds in direct proportion the devaluation of the world of men... The object which labour produces confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer...
In MarxТs time the most popular explanations of what was wrong with society were still of a religious kind. The misery of society, it was said, was because of the failure of people to do what God wanted them to. If only we were all to Сrenounce sinТ everything would turn out all right.
A similar view is often heard today, although it usually purports to be non-religious. This is the claim that Сto change society, you must first change yourselfТ. If only individual men and women would cure themselves of СselfishnessТ or СmaterialismТ (or occasionally СhangupsТ) then society would automatically get better.
A related view spoke not of changing all individuals, but a few key ones Ц those who exercise power in society. The idea was to try to make the rich and powerful Сsee reasonТ.
One of the first British socialists, Robert Owen, began by trying to convince industrialists that they should be kinder to their workers. The same idea is still dominant today among the leaders of the Labour Party, including its left wing. Note how they always call the crimes of the employers СmistakesТ, as if a bit of argument will persuade big business to relax its grip on society.
Marx referred to all such views as СidealistТ. Not because he was against people having СideasТ, but because such views see ideas as existing in isolation from the conditions in which people live.
PeopleТs ideas are intimately linked to the sort of lives they are able to live. Take, for instance, СselfishnessТ. Present day capitalist society breeds selfishness Ц even in people who continually try to put other people first. A worker who wants to do their best for their children, or to give their parents something on top of their pension, finds the only way is to struggle continually against other people Ц to get a better job, more overtime, to be first in the queue for redundancy. In such a society you cannot get rid of СselfishnessТ or СgreedinessТ merely by changing the minds of individuals.
ItТs even more ridiculous to talk of changing society by changing the ideas of Сtop peopleТ. Suppose you were successful in winning a big employer over to socialist ideas and he then stopped exploiting workers. He would just lose in competition with rival employers and be driven out of business.
Even for those who rule society what matters is not ideas but the structure of the society in which they hold those ideas.
The point can be put another way. If ideas are what change society, where do the ideas come from? We live in a certain sort of society. The ideas put across by the press, the TV, the educational system and so on defend that sort of society. How has anyone ever been able to develop completely different ideas? Because their daily experiences contradict the official ideas of our society.
For example, you cannot explain why far fewer people are religious today than 100 years ago simply in terms of the success of atheistic propaganda. You have to explain why people listen to atheistic ideas in a way they did not 100 years ago.
Similarly, if you want to explain the impact of Сgreat menТ, you have to explain why other people agree to follow them. It is no good saying that, for example. Napoleon or Lenin changed history, without explaining why millions of people were willing to do what they suggested. After all, they were not mass hypnotists. Something in the life of society at a certain point led people to feel that what they suggested seemed correct.
You can only understand how ideas change history if you understand where those ideas come from and why people accept them. That means looking beyond the ideas to the material conditions of the society in which they occur. That is why Marx insisted, СIt is not consciousness that determines being, but social being that determines consciousness.Т
2. Understanding history
Ideas by themselves cannot change society. This was one of MarxТs first conclusions. Like a number of thinkers before him, he insisted that to understand society you had to see human beings as part of the material world.
Human behaviour was determined by material forces, just like the behaviour of any other natural object. The study of humanity was part of the scientific study of the natural world. Thinkers with such views were called materialists.
Marx regarded materialism as a great step forward over the various religious and idealist notions of history. It meant that you could argue scientifically about changing social conditions, you no longer depended on praying to God or on Сspiritual changeТ in people.
The replacement of idealism by materialism was the replacement of mysticism by science. But not all materialist explanations of human behaviour are correct. Just as there have been mistaken scientific theories in biology, chemistry or physics, so there have been mistaken attempts to develop scientific theories of society. Here are a few examples:
One very widespread, non-Marxist, materialist view holds that human beings are animals, who behave СnaturallyТ in certain ways. Just as it is in the nature of wolves to kill or in the nature of sheep to be placid, so it is in the nature of men to be aggressive, domineering, competitive and greedy (and, it is implied, of women to be meek, submissive, deferential and passive).
One formulation of this view is to be found in the best selling book The Naked Ape. The conclusions that are drawn from such arguments are almost invariably reactionary. If men are naturally aggressive, it is said, then there is no point in trying to improve society. Things will always turn out the same. Revolutions will Сalways failТ.
But Сhuman natureТ does in fact vary from society to society. For instance, competitiveness, which is taken for granted in our society, hardly existed in many previous societies. When scientists first tried to give Sioux Indians IQ tests, they found that the Indians could not understand why they should not help each other do the answers. The society they lived in stressed cooperation, not competition.
The same with aggressiveness. When Eskimos first met Europeans, they could not make any sense whatsoever of the notion of СwarТ. The idea of one group of people trying to wipe out another group of people seemed crazy to them.
In our society it is regarded as СnaturalТ that parents should love and protect their children. Yet in the Ancient Greek city of Sparta it was regarded as СnaturalТ to leave infants out in the mountains to see if they could survive the cold.
СUnchanging human natureТ theories provide no explanation for the great events of history. The pyramids of Egypt, the splendours of Ancient Greece, the empires of Rome or the Incas, the modern industrial city, are put on the same level as the illiterate peasants who lived in the mud hovels of the Dark Ages. All that matters is the Сnaked apeТ Ц not the magnificent civilisations the ape has built. It is irrelevant that some forms of society succeed in feeding the СapesТ, while others leave millions to starve to death.
Many people accept a different materialist theory, which stresses the way it is possible to change human behaviour. Just as animals can be trained to behave differently in a circus to a jungle, so, say the supporters of this view, human behaviour can similarly be changed. If only the right people got control of society, it is said, then Сhuman natureТ could be transformed.
This view is certainly a great step forward from the Сnaked apeТ. But as an explanation of how society as a whole can be changed it fails. If everyone is completely conditioned in present-day society, how can anyone ever rise above society and see how to change the conditioning mechanisms? Is there some God-ordained minority that is magically immune to the pressures that dominate everyone else? If we are all animals in the circus, who can be the lion tamer?
Those who hold this theory either end up saying society cannot change (like the naked apers) or they believe change is produced by something outside society Ц by God, or a Сgreat manТ, or the power of individual ideas. Their СmaterialismТ lets a new version of idealism in through the back door.
As Marx pointed out, this doctrine necessarily ends up by dividing society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. This СmaterialistТ view is often reactionary. One of the best known adherents of the view today is a right wing American psychologist called Skinner. He wants to condition people to behave in certain ways. But since he himself is a product of American capitalist society, his СconditioningТ merely means trying to make people conform to that society.
Another materialist view blames all the misery in the world on Сpopulation pressureТ. (This is usually called Malthusian after Malthus, the English economist of the late 18th century who first developed it.) But it cannot explain why the United States, for instance, burns corn while people in India starve. Nor can it explain why 150 years ago there was not enough food produced in the US to feed 10 million people, while today enough is produced to feed 200 million.
It forgets that every extra mouth to feed is also an extra person capable of working and creating wealth.
Marx called all these mistaken explanations forms of СmechanicalТ or СcrudeТ materialism. They all forget that as well as being part of the material world, human beings are also acting, living creatures whose actions change it.
The materialist interpretation of history
Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence Ц their food, shelter and clothing.
With these words, Karl Marx first stressed what was distinct about his explanation of how society developed. Human beings are animals descended from ape-like creatures. Like other animals, their first concern is feeding themselves and protecting themselves from the climate.
The way other animals do this depends on their inherited biological make up. A wolf stays alive by chasing and killing its prey, in ways determined by its biologically inherited instincts. It keeps warm on cold nights because of its fur. It brings up its cubs according to inherited patterns of behaviour.
But human life is not fixed in this way. The humans who roamed the Earth 100,000 years ago or 30,000 years ago lived quite different lives from ourselves. They lived in caves and holes in the ground. They did not have any containers to keep food or water in, they depended for their food on collecting berries or throwing stones at wild animals. They could not write, or count beyond the fingers on their hands. They had no real knowledge of what went on beyond their immediate neighbourhood or what their forefathers had done.
Yet physically their make up 100,000 years ago was similar to that of modern man and 30,000 years ago it was identical. If you washed and shaved a caveman, put him in a suit and walked him down the high street, no one would think him out of place.
As the archaeologist C. Gordon Childe has noted:
The earliest skeletons of our own species belong to the closing phases of the last Ice Age Е Since the time when skeletons of Homo sapiens first appear in the geological record Е manТs bodily evolution has come virtually to a standstill, although his cultural progress was just beginning.
The same point is made by another archaeologist, Leakey:
The physical differences between men of the Aurignacian and Magdalenian cultures (25,000 years ago) on the one hand, and present day men on the other is negligible, while the cultural difference is immeasurable.
By СcultureТ the archaeologist means the things which men and women learn and teach one another (how to make clothes from furs or wool, how to make pots out of clay, how to make fire, how to build homes, and so forth) as opposed to those things that animals know instinctively.
The lives of the earliest humans were already vastly different from those of other animals. For they were able to use the physical features peculiar to humans Ц large brains, forelimbs capable of manipulating objects Ц to begin to shape their surroundings to suit their needs. This meant humans could adapt themselves to a wide range of different conditions, without any change in their physical make up. Humans no longer simply reacted to conditions around them. They could act upon those conditions, beginning to change them to their own advantage.
At first they used sticks and stones to attack wild beasts, they lit torches from naturally occurring fires to provide themselves with heat and light, they covered themselves with vegetation and animal skins. Over many tens of thousands of years they learnt to make fire themselves, to shape stones using other stones, eventually to grow food from seeds they themselves had planted, to store it in pots made out of clay, and to domesticate certain animals.
Comparatively recently Ц a mere 5,000 years ago, out of half a million years of human history Ц they learnt the secret of turning ores into metals that could be shaped into reliable tools and effective weapons.
Each of these advances had an enormous impact, not merely in making it easier for humans to feed and clothe themselves, but also in transforming the very organisation of human life itself. From the beginning human life was social. Only the joint efforts of several humans could enable them to kill the beasts, to gather the food and keep the fires going. They had to cooperate.
This continual close cooperation also caused them to communicate, by uttering sounds and developing languages. At first the social groups were simple. There was not enough naturally growing produce anywhere to support groups of humans more than perhaps a couple of dozen strong. All effort had to be put into the basic tasks of getting the food, so everyone did the same job and lived the same sort of life.
With no means of storing any quantities of food, there could be no private property or class divisions, nor was there any booty to produce a motive for war.
There were, until a few years ago, still hundreds of societies in many different parts of the globe where this was still the pattern Ц among some of the Indians of North and South America, some of the peoples of Equatorial Africa and the Pacific Ocean, the Aborigines of Australia.
Not that these people were less clever than ourselves or had a more Сprimitive mentalityТ. The Australian Aborigines, for instance, had to learn to recognise literally thousands of plants and the habits of scores of different animals in order to survive. The anthropologist Professor Firth has described how:
Australian tribes Е know the habits, markings, breeding grounds and seasonal fluctuations of all the edible animals, fish and birds of their hunting grounds. They know the external and some of the less obvious properties of rocks, stones, waxes, gums, plants, fibres and barks; they know how to make fire; they know how to apply heat to relieve pain, stop bleeding and delay the putrefaction of fresh food; and they also use fire and heat to harden some woods and soften others Е They know something at least of the phases of the moon, the movement of the tides, the planetary cycles, and the sequence and duration of the seasons; they have correlated together such climactic fluctuations as wind systems, annual patterns of humidity and temperature and fluxes in the growth and presence of natural species Е In addition they make intelligent and economical use of the by-products of animals killed for food; the flesh of the kangaroo is eaten; the leg bones are used as fabricators for stone tools and as pins; the sinews become spear bindings; the claws are set into necklaces with wax and fibre; the fat is combined with red ochre as a cosmetic, and blood is mixed with charcoal as paint... They have some knowledge of simple mechanical principles and will trim a boomerang again and again to give it the correct curve...
They were much more СcleverТ than us in dealing with the problems of surviving in the Australian desert. What they had not learnt was to plant seeds and grow their own food Ц something our own ancestors learnt only about 5,000 years ago, after being on the Earth for 100 times that period.
The development of new techniques of producing wealth Ц the means of human life Ц has always given birth to new forms of cooperation between humans, to new social relations.
For example, when people first learnt to grow their own food (by planting seeds and domesticating animals) and to store it (in earthenware pots) there was a complete revolution in social life Ц called by archaeologists Сthe neolithic revolutionТ. Humans had to cooperate together now to clear the land and to harvest food, as well as to hunt animals. They could live together in much greater numbers than before, they could store food and they could begin to exchange goods with other settlements.
The first towns could develop. For the first time there was the possibility of some people leading lives that did not involve them just in providing food: some would specialise in making pots, some in mining flints and later metal for tools and weapons, some in carrying through elementary administrative tasks for the settlement as a whole. More ominously, the stored surplus of food provided a motive for war.
People had begun by discovering new ways of dealing with the world around them, or harnessing nature to their needs. But in the process, without intending it, they had transformed the society in which they lived and with it their own lives. Marx summed up this process: a development of the Сforces of productionТ changed the Сrelations of productionТ and, through them, society.
There are many more recent examples. Some 300 years ago the vast majority of people in this country still lived on the land, producing food by techniques that had not changed for centuries. Their mental horizon was bounded by the local village and their ideas very much influenced by the local church. The vast majority did not need to read and write, and never learned to.
Then, 200 years ago, industry began to develop. Tens of thousands of people were drawn into the factories. Their lives underwent a complete transformation. Now they lived in great towns, not small villages. They needed to learn skills undreamt of by their ancestors, including eventually the ability to read and write. Railways and steamships made it possible to travel across half the Earth. The old ideas hammered into their heads by the priests no longer fitted at all. The material revolution in production was also a revolution in the way they lived and in the ideas they had.
Similar changes are still affecting vast numbers of people. Look at the way people from villages in Bangladesh or Turkey have been drawn to the factories of England or Germany seeking work. Look at the way many find that their old customs and religious attitudes no longer fit.
Or look at the way in the past 50 years the majority of women have got used to working outside the home and how this has led them to challenge the old attitude that they were virtually the property of their husbands.
Changes in the way humans work together to produce the things that feed, clothe and shelter them cause changes in the way in which society is organised and the attitude of people in it. This is the secret of social change Ц of history Ц that the thinkers before Marx (and many since), the idealists and the mechanical materialists, could not understand.
The idealists saw there was change Ц but said it must come out of the skies. The mechanical materialists saw that humans were conditioned by the material world but could not understand how things could ever change. What Marx saw was that human beings are conditioned by the world around them, but that they react back upon the world, working on it so as to make it more habitable. But in doing so they change the conditions under which they live and therefore themselves as well.
The key to understanding change in society lies in understanding how human beings cope with the problem of creating their food, shelter and clothing. That was MarxТs starting point. But that does not mean Marxists believe that improvements in technology automatically produce a better society, or even that inventions automatically lead to changes in society. Marx rejected this view (sometimes called technological determinism). Again and again in history, people have rejected ideas for advancing the production of food, shelter or clothing because these clash with the attitudes or the forms of society that already exist.
For example, under the Roman Empire there were many ideas about how to produce more crops from a given amount of ground, but people didnТt put them into effect because they required more devotion to work than you could get from slaves working under fear of the whip. When the British ruled Ireland in the 18th century they tried to stop the development of industry there because it clashed with the interests of businessmen in London.
If someone produced a method of solving the food problem of India by slaughtering the sacred cows or providing everyone in Britain with succulent steaks by processing rat meat, they would be ignored because of established prejudices.
Developments in production challenge old prejudices and old ways of organising society, but they do not automatically overthrow those old prejudices and social forms. Many human beings fight to prevent change Ц and those wanting to use new methods of production have to fight/or change. If those who oppose change win, then the new forms of production cannot come into operation and production stagnates or even goes backwards.
In Marxist terminology: as the forces of production develop they clash with the pre-existing social relations and ideas that grew up on the basis of old forces of production. Either people identified with the new forces of production win this clash, or those identified with the old system do. In the one case, society moves forward, in the other it remains stuck in a rut, or even goes backwards.
3. Class struggle
We live in a society that is divided into classes, in which a few people have vast amounts of private property, and most of us have virtually none. Naturally, we tend to take it for granted that things have always been like this. But in fact, for the greater part of human history, there were no classes, no private property, and no armies or police. This was the situation during the half a million years of human development up to 5,000 or 10,000 years ago.
Until more food could be produced by one personТs work than was needed to keep that person fit for work, there could be no division into classes. What was the point of keeping slaves if all that they produced was needed to keep them alive?
But beyond a certain point, the advance of production made class divisions not only possible but necessary. Enough food could be produced to leave a surplus after the immediate producers had taken enough to stay alive. And the means existed to store this food and to transport it from one place to another.
The people whose labour produced all this food could simply have eaten the extra СsurplusТ food. Since they lived fairly meagre, miserable lives, they were strongly tempted. But that left them unprotected against the ravages of nature, which might lean famine or a flood the next year, and against attacks from angry tribes from outside the area.
It was, at first, of great advantage to everyone if a special group of people took charge of this extra wealth, storing it against future disaster, using it to support craftsmen, building up means defence, exchanging part of it with distant peoples for useful objects. These activities came to be carried out in the first towns, where administrators, merchants and craftsmen lived. Out of the markings on tablets used to keep a record of the different sorts of wealth, writing began to develop.
Such were the first, faltering steps of what we call СcivilisationТ. But Ц and it was a very big but Ц all this was based on control of the increased wealth by a small minority of the population. And the minority used the wealth for its own good as well as the good of society as a whole.
The more production developed, the more wealth came into the hands of this minority Ц and the more it became cut off from the rest of society. Rules, which began as a means of benefiting society, became СlawsТ, insisting that the wealth and the land that produced it was the Сprivate propertyТ of the minority. A ruling class had come into existence Ц and laws defended its power.
You might perhaps ask whether it would have been possible for society to have developed otherwise, for those who laboured on the land to control its produce?
The answer has to be no. Not because of Сhuman natureТ, but because society was still very poor. The majority of the EarthТs population were too busy scratching the soil for a meagre living to have time to develop systems of writing and reading, to create works of art, to build ships for trade, to plot the course of the stars, to discover the rudiments of mathematics, to work out when rivers would flood or how irrigation channels should be constructed. These things could only happen if some of the necessities of life were seized from the mass of the population and used to maintain a privileged minority which did not have to toil from sunrise to sunset.
However, that does not mean that the division into classes remains necessary today. The last century has seen a development of production undreamt of in the previous history of humanity. Natural scarcity has been overcome Ц what now exists is artificial scarcity, created as governments destroy food stocks.
Class society today is holding humanity back, not leading it forward.
It was not just the first change from purely agricultural societies to societies of towns and cities that gave rise, necessarily, to new class divisions. The same process was repeated every time new ways of producing wealth began to develop.
So, in Britain 1,000 years ago, the ruling class was made up of feudal barons who controlled the land and lived off the backs of the serfs. But as trade began to develop on a big scale, there grew up alongside them in the cities a new privileged class of wealthy merchants. And when industry began to develop on a substantial scale, their power in turn was disputed by the owners of industrial enterprises.
At each stage in the development of society there was an oppressed class whose physical labour created the wealth, and a ruling class who controlled that wealth. But as society developed both the oppressed and the oppressors underwent changes.
In the slave society of Ancient Rome the slaves were the personal property of the ruling class. The slave owner owned the goods produced by the slave because he owned the slave, in exactly the same way as he owned the milk produced by a cow because he owned the cow.
In the feudal society of the Middle Ages the serfs had their own land, and owned what was produced from it; but in return for having this land they had to do a number of days work every year on the land owned by the feudal lord. Their time would be divided Ц perhaps half their time they would be working for the lord, half the time for themselves. If they refused to do work for the lord, he was entitled to punish them (through flogging, imprisonment or worse).
In modern capitalist society the boss does not physically own the worker nor is he entitled to physically punish a worker who refuses to do unpaid work for him. But the boss does own the factories where the worker has to get a job if he or she wants to keep alive. So it is fairly easy for him to force the worker to put up with a wage which is much less than the value of the goods the worker makes in the factory.
In each case the oppressing class gets control of all the wealth that is left over once the most elementary needs of the workers have been met. The slave owner wants to keep his property in a good condition, so he feeds his slave in exactly the same way as you might oil your car. But everything surplus to the physical needs of the slave, the owner uses for his own enjoyment. The feudal serf has to feed and clothe himself with the work he puts in on his own bit of land. All the extra labour he puts in on the lordТs fields goes to the lord.
The modern worker gets paid a wage. All the other wealth he creates goes to the employing class as profit, interest or rent.
The class struggle and the state
The workers have rarely accepted their lot without fighting back. There were slave revolts in Ancient Egypt and Rome, peasant revolts in Imperial China, civil wars between the rich and poor in the cities of Ancient Greece, in Rome and Renaissance Europe.
That is why Karl Marx began his pamphlet The Communist Manifesto by insisting, СThe history of all hitherto existing societies has been the history of class struggles.Т The growth of civilisation had depended on the exploitation of one class by another, and therefore on the struggle between them.
However powerful an Egyptian pharaoh, a Roman emperor or a medieval prince, however luxurious their lives, however magnificent their palaces, they could do nothing unless they guaranteed that the products grown by the most miserable peasant or slave passed into their possession. They could only do this if alongside the division into classes there also grew something else Ц control over the means of violence by themselves and their supporters.
In earlier societies there had been no army, police or governmental apparatus separate from the majority of the people. Even some 50 or 60 years ago, for instance, in parts of Africa, it was still possible to find societies in which this was still so. Many of the tasks done by the state in our society were simply done informally by the whole population, or by meetings of representatives.
Such meetings would judge the behaviour of any individual who was considered to have broken an important social rule. Punishment would be applied by the whole community Ц for instance by forcing miscreants to leave. Since everyone was agreed on the necessary punishment, separate police were not needed to put it into effect. If warfare occurred all the young men would take part, under leaders chosen for the occasion, again without any separate army structure.
But once you had a society in which a minority had control over most of the wealth, these simple ways of keeping Сlaw and orderТ and organising warfare could no longer work. Any meeting of representatives or any gathering of the armed young men would be likely to split along class lines.
The privileged group could only survive if it began to monopolise in its own hands the making and implementation of punishments, laws, the organisation of armies, the production of weapons. So the separation into classes was accompanied by the growth of groups of judges, policemen and secret policemen, generals, bureaucrats Ц all of whom were given part of the wealth in the hands of the privileged class in return for protecting its rule.
Those who served in the ranks of this СstateТ were trained to obey without hesitation the orders of their СsuperiorsТ and were cut off from all normal social ties with the exploited mass of people. The state developed as a killing machine in the hands of the privileged class. And a highly effective machine it could be.
Of course, the generals who ran this machine often fell out with a particular emperor or king, and tried to put themselves in his place. The ruling class, having armed a monster, could often not control it. But since the wealth needed to keep the killing machine running came from the exploitation of the working masses, every such revolt would be followed by continuation of society along the old lines.
Throughout history people who have really wanted to change society for the better have found themselves up against not just the privileged class, but also an armed machine, a state, that serves its interest.
Ruling classes, together with the priests, generals, policemen and legal systems that backed them up, all grew up in the first place because without them civilisation could not develop. But once they are established in power, they come to have an interest in hindering the further development of civilisation. Their power is dependent upon their ability to force those who produce wealth to hand it over to them. They become wary of new ways of producing wealth, even if more efficient than the old, lest control escape from their hands.
They fear anything that could lead to the exploited masses developing initiative and independence. And they also fear the growth of new privileged groups with enough wealth to be able to pay for arms and armies of their own. Beyond a certain point, instead of aiding the development of production, they began to hinder it.
For example, in the Chinese Empire, the power of the ruling class rested upon its ownership of the land and its control over the canals and dams that were necessary for irrigation and to avoid floods. This control laid the basis for a civilisation that lasted some 2,000 years. But at the end of this period production was not much more advanced than at the beginning Ц despite the flourishing of Chinese art, the discovery of printing and gunpowder, all at a time when Europe was stuck in the Dark Ages.
The reason was that when new forms of production did begin to develop, it was in towns, through the initiative of merchants and craftsmen. The ruling class feared this growth in power of a social grouping that was not completely under its control. So periodically the imperial authorities took harsh measures to crush the growing economies of the towns, to drive production down, and to destroy the power of the new social classes.
The growth of new forces of production Ц of new ways of producing wealth Ц clashed with the interests of the old ruling class. A struggle developed, the outcome of which determined the whole future of society.
Sometimes the outcome, as in China, was that new forms of production were prevented from emerging, and society remained more or less stagnant for very long periods of time.
Sometimes, as in the Roman Empire, the inability of new forms of production to develop meant that eventually there was no longer enough wealth being produced to maintain society on its old basis. Civilisation collapsed, the cities were destroyed and people reverted to a crude, agricultural form of society.
Sometimes a new class, based upon a new form of production, was able to organise to weaken and finally overthrow the old ruling class, together with its legal system, its armies, its ideology, its religion. Then society could go forward.
In each case whether society went forwards or backwards depended on who won the war between the classes. And, as in any war, victory was not ordained in advance, but depended on the organisation, cohesion and leadership of the rival classes.
4. Capitalism Ц how the system began
One of the most ludicrous arguments you hear is that things could not be different to the way they are now. Yet things were different. And not on some distant part of the globe, but in this country, not so long ago. A mere 250 years ago people would have regarded you as a lunatic if you had described to them the world we live in now, with its huge cities, its great factories, its aeroplanes, its space expeditions Ц even its railway systems were beyond the bounds of their imagination.
For they lived in a society which was overwhelmingly rural, in which most people had never travelled ten miles outside their local village, in which the pattern of life was determined, as it had been for thousands of years, by the alternation of the seasons.
But already, 700 or 800 years ago, a development had begun which was eventually to challenge this whole system of society. Groups of craftsmen and traders began to establish themselves in towns, not giving their services for nothing to some lord as the rest of the population did, but exchanging products with various lords and serfs for foodstuffs. Increasingly they used precious metals as a measure of that exchange. It was not a big step to seeing in every act of exchange an opportunity to get a little extra of the precious metal, to make a profit.
At first the towns could only survive by playing one lord off against another. But as the skills of their craftsmen improved, they created more wealth, and they grew in influence. The СburghersТ, the СbourgeoisТ or the Сmiddle classesТ began as a class within the feudal society of the Middle Ages. But they obtained their riches in a quite different way to the feudal lords who dominated that society.
A feudal lord lived directly off the agricultural produce he was able to force his serfs to produce on his land. He used his personal power to make them do this, without having to pay them. By contrast the wealthier classes in the towns lived off the proceeds of selling non-agricultural goods. They paid workers wages to produce these for them, by the day or week.
These workers, often escaped serfs, were СfreeТ to come and go as they liked Ц once they had finished the work for which they had been paid. The СonlyТ compulsion on them to work was that they would starve if they did not find employment with someone. The rich could only grow richer because rather than starve, the СfreeТ worker would accept less money for his work than the goods he produced were worth.
We will return to this point later. For the present what matters is that the middle class burghers and the feudal lords got their wealth from quite different sources. This led them to want society organised in different ways.
The feudal lordТs ideal was a society in which he had absolute power in his own lands, unbound by written laws, with no intrusion from any outside body, with his serfs unable to flee. He wanted things to stay as in the days of his father and grandfather, with everyone accepting the social station into which they were born.
The newly rich bourgeoisie necessarily saw things differently. They wanted restraints on the power of individual lords or kings to interfere with their trade or steal their wealth.
They dreamed of achieving this through a fixed body of written laws, to be drawn up and enforced by their own chosen representatives. They wanted to free the poorer classes from serfdom, so that they could work (and increase the burghersТ profits) in the towns.
As for themselves, their fathers and grandfathers had often been under the thumb of feudal lords, and they certainly did not want that to continue.
In a word, they wanted to revolutionise society. Their clashes with the old order were not only economic, but also ideological and political. Ideological chiefly meant religious, in an illiterate society where the chief source of general ideas about society was church preaching.
Since the medieval church was run by bishops and abbots who were feudal lords in their own right, it propagated pro-feudal views. attacking as СsinfulТ many of the practices of the urban bourgeoisie.
So in Germany, Holland, Britain and France in the 16th and 17th centuries the middle classes rallied to a religion of their own: Protestantism Ц a religious ideology that preached thrift, sobriety, hard work (especially for the workers!) and the independence of the middle class congregation from the power of bishops and abbots.
The middle class created a God in their image, in opposition to the God of the Middle Ages.
Today we are told at school or on television about the great religious wars and civil wars of that period as if they were just about religious differences, as if people were daft enough to fight and die merely because they disagreed over the role of the blood and body of Christ in the Holy Communion. But much more was at stake Ц the clash between two completely different forms of society, based upon two different ways of organising the production of wealth.
In Britain the bourgeoisie won. Horrific as it must seem to our sent ruling class, their ancestors consecrated their power by ting off a kingТs head, justifying the act with the rantings of Old Testament prophets.
But elsewhere the first round went to feudalism. In France and Germany the Protestant bourgeois revolutionaries were wiped out after bitter civil wars (although a feudal version of Protestantism survived as the religion of northern Germany). The bourgeoisie had to wait two centuries and more before enjoying success, in second round that began without religious clothing in 1789 Paris.
Exploitation and surplus value
In slave and feudal societies the upper classes had to have legal controls over the mass of the working population. Otherwise those who worked for the feudal lord or the slave owner would have run away, leaving the privileged class with no one to labour for it.
But the capitalist does not, usually, need such legal controls over the person of the worker. He doesnТt need to own him or her, provided he ensures that the worker who refuses to work for the capitalist will starve. Instead of owning the worker, the capitalist can prosper providing he owns and controls the workerТs source of livelihood Ц the machines and factories.
The material necessities of life are produced by the labour of human beings. But that labour is next to useless without tools to cultivate the land and to process naturally occurring materials. The tools can vary enormously Ц from simple agricultural implements such as ploughs and hoes to the complicated machines you find in modern automated factories. But without the tools even the most highly skilled worker is unable to produce the things needed for physical survival.
It is the development of these tools Ц usually referred to as Сthe means of productionТ Ц that separates modern human beings from our distant ancestors of the Stone Age. Capitalism is based on the ownership of these means of production by a few people. In Britain today, for instance, 1 percent of the population owns 84 percent of the stocks and shares in industry. In their hands is concentrated effective control over the vast majority of the means of production Ц the machines, the factories, the oil fields, the best agricultural land. The mass of the population can only get a livelihood if the capitalists allow them to work at and with those means of production. This gives the capitalists immense power to exploit the labour of other people Ц even though in the eyes of the law Сall men are equalТ.
It took some centuries for the capitalists to build up their monopoly control over the means of production. In this country, for instance, the parliaments of the 17th and 18th centuries had first to pass a succession of Enclosure Acts, which drove peasants away from their own means of production, the land which they had cultivated for centuries. The land became the property of a section of the capitalist class and the mass of the rural population were forced to sell their labour to capitalists or starve.
Once capitalism had achieved this monopoly of the means of production, it could afford to let the mass of the population enjoy apparent freedom and equality of political rights with the capitalists. For however СfreeТ the workers were, they still had to work for a living.
Pro-capitalist economists have a simple explanation of what then happens. They say that by paying wages the capitalist buys the labour of the worker. He must pay a fair price for it. Otherwise the worker will go and work for someone else. The capitalist gives a Сfair dayТs wageТ. In return the worker should give a Сfair dayТs workТ.
How then do they explain profit? This, they claim, is a СrewardТ to the capitalist for his СsacrificeТ in allowing the means of production (his capital) to be put to use. It is an argument that can hardly convince any worker who gives it a momentТs thought.
Take a company that announces a Сnet rate of profitТ of 10 percent. It is saying that if the cost of all the machinery, factories and so on that it owns is £100 million, then it is left with £10 million profit after paying the wages, raw material costs and the cost of replacing the machinery that wears out in a year.
You donТt have to be a genius to see that after ten years the company will have made a total profit of £100 million Ц the full cost of its original investment.
If it is СsacrificeТ that is being rewarded, then surely after the first ten years all profits should cease. For by then the capitalists have been paid back completely for the money they put in in the first place. In fact, however, the capitalist is twice as wealthy as before. He owns his original investment and the accumulated profits.
The workers, in the meantime, have sacrificed most of their lifeТs energy to working eight hours a day, 48 weeks a year, in the factory. Are they twice as well off at the end of that time as at the beginning? You bet your boots theyТre not. Even if a worker saves assiduously, he or she wonТt be able to buy much more than a colour television set, a cheap central heating system or a second hand car. The worker will never raise the money to buy the factory he or she works in.
The Сfair dayТs work for a fair dayТs payТ has multiplied the capital of the capitalist, while leaving the worker with no capital and no choice but to go on working for roughly the same wage. The Сequal rightsТ of the capitalist and the worker have increased inequality.
One of Karl MarxТs great discoveries was the explanation for this apparent anomaly. There is no mechanism that forces a capitalist to pay his workers the full value of the work they do. A worker employed, for example, in the engineering industry today might create £400 of new output a week. But that does not mean he or she will be paid this sum. In 99 cases out of 100, they will get paid considerably less.
The alternative they have to working is to go hungry (or live on the miserable sums handed out by the social security). So they demand not the full value of what they produce, but rather just enough to give them a more or less acceptable living standard. The worker is paid only enough to get him to put all his efforts, all his capacity for work (what Marx called his labour power) at the disposal of the capitalist each day.
From the capitalistТs point of view, providing the workers are paid enough to keep them fit for work and to bring up their children as a new generation of workers, then they are being paid a fair amount for their labour power. But the amount of wealth needed to keep workers fit for work is considerably less than the amount of wealth they can produce once working Ц the value of their labour power is considerably less than the value created by their labour.
The difference goes into the pocket of the capitalist. Marx called it Сsurplus valueТ.
The self expansion of capital
If you read the writing of apologists for the present system, you will soon notice that they share a strange belief. Money, according to them, has a magical property. It can grow like a plant or animal.
When a capitalist puts his money in a bank he expects it to increase in amount. When he invests it in the shares of ICI or Unilever he expects to be rewarded by offshoots of fresh money every year, in the form of dividend payments. Kari Marx noted this phenomenon, which he called the Сself expansion of capitalТ, and set out to explain it. As we saw previously, his explanation began not with money, but with labour and the means of production. In present society, those with enough wealth can buy control of the means of production. They can then force everyone else to sell to them the labour needed to work the means of production. The secret of the Сself expansion of capitalТ, of the miraculous capacity of money to grow for those who have plenty of it, lies in the buying and selling of this labour.
LetТs take the example of a worker, who weТll call Jack, who gets a job with an employer. Sir Browning Browne. The work Jack can do in eight hours will create an additional amount of wealth Ц worth perhaps £48. But Jack will be willing to work for much less than this, since the alternative is social security. The efforts of pro-capitalist MPs, such as the obnoxious Tory Peter Lilley, ensure that he will only get £12 a day on social security to keep himself and his family. They explain that to give more would be to Сdestroy the incentive to workТ.
If Jack wants to get more than £12 a day he has to sell his ability to work, his labour power, even if he is offered much less than the £48 worth of wealth he can create in eight hours. He will be willing to work for, perhaps, the average wage, £28 a day. The difference, £20 a day, goes into the pocket of Sir Browning. It is Sir BrowningТs surplus value.
Because he had enough wealth to buy control of the means of production in the first place, Sir Browning Browne can guarantee growing richer by £20 a day for every worker he employs. His money keeps growing, his capital expanding, not because of some law of nature, but because his control of the means of production allows him to get someone elseТs labour on the cheap.
Of course, Sir Browning does not necessarily have all the £20 to himself Ц he may rent the factory or the land, he may have borrowed some of his initial wealth from other members of the ruling class. They demand in return a cut of the surplus value. So perhaps he forks out £10 to them as rent, interest and dividend payments, leaving himself with only £10 profit.
Those who live off dividends have probably never seen Jack in their lives. Nevertheless, it was not the mystical power of pound coins that gave them their income, but the all too physical sweat of Jack. The dividend, the interest payments and the profit all came out of the surplus value.
What decides how much Jack gets for his work? The employer will try to pay as little as possible. But in practice there are limits below which he cannot go. Some of these limits are physical Ц it is no good giving workers such miserable wages that they suffer from malnutrition and are unable to put any effort into their work. They also have to be able to travel to and from work, to have somewhere they can rest at night, so that they do not fall asleep over the machines.
From this point of view it is worth even paying for what the workers think of as Сlittle luxuriesТ Ц like a few pints in the evening, the television, the occasional holiday. These all make the worker more refreshed and capable of doing more work. They all serve to replenish his labour power. It is an important fact that where wages are Сheld too lowТ the productivity of labour falls.
The capitalist has to worry about something else as well. His firm will be in business for many years, long after the present set of workers have died out. The firm will require the labour of their children. So they have to pay the workers enough to bring up their children. They also have to ensure that the state provides these children with certain skills (such as reading and writing) through the educational system.
In practice, something else matters as well Ц what the worker thinks is a Сdecent wageТ. A worker who gets paid considerably less than this may well neglect his work, not worrying about losing his job since he thinks it is СuselessТ.
All these elements that determine his wage have one thing in common. They all go towards making sure he has the life energy, the labour power, that the capitalist buys by the hour. The workers are paid the cost of keeping themselves and their families alive and fit for work.
In present capitalist society, one further point has to be noted. Huge amounts of wealth are spent on such things as police forces and weapons. These are used in the interests of the capitalist class by the state. In effect, they belong to the capitalist class, although they are run by the state. The value which is spent on them belongs to the capitalists, not the workers. It too is part of the surplus value.
Surplus value = profit + rent + interest + spending on the police, army and so on.
5. The labour theory of value
But machinery, capital, produces goods as well as labour. If so, itТs only fair that capital as well as labour gets a share of the wealth produced. Every Сfactor of productionТ has to get its reward.
That is how someone who has been taught a little pro-capitalist economics replies to the Marxist analysis of exploitation and surplus value. And at first sight the objection seems to make some sense. For, surely, you cannot produce goods without capital?
Marxists have never argued that you could. But our starting point is rather different. We begin by asking: where does capital come from? How did the means of production come into existence in the first place?
The answer is not difficult to find. Everything people have used historically to create wealth Ц whether a Neolithic stone axe or a modern computer Ц once had to be made by human labour. Even if the axe was shaped with tools, the tools in turn were the product of previous labour.
That is why Karl Marx used to refer to the means of production as Сdead labourТ. When businessme
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