Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 5: capitalism’s achievements

classroom-19th-century-1140x684One comment on an earlier post on the blog relating to the situation in Greece included the following: “So I think the task at hand is not to solve Greece’s economic crisis, this will certainly take years. Rather it is to add some political organisation and direction on to the instinct to fight. I believe that you are thinking too far ahead, overly concerned with what socialism should be in the future, and not really catching the fire of the present.”

Leaving aside whether this was true of this particular post on Greece or even of other posts; a point I have made is that the Marxist movement is too concerned with attempting to “catch the fire of the present”.  This has usually meant jumping on whatever bandwagon it thinks might propel it along in some opportunist direction.  This is informed by the view that socialism will arrive through a capitalist crisis that precipitates political revolution that will destroy the existing state and then introduce the new society.  All of which it will lead through “catching the fire” in some sort of eschatological conflagration.

Missing is the development of the alternative, evolving within capitalism in advance of any crisis, that creates and develops workers’ power in the present and most of all creates the conditions that means workers actually seek a socialist alternative long before any crisis.  Missing is the building of a working class movement that fights for an alternative society now, sees such a new society as its answer to its problems and does not limit itself to the necessarily defensive struggles against capitalist attacks.

This understanding of the working class movement, as embodying the future alternative within itself, is now more or less completely lost but would have been the foundation of workers’ socialist consciousness during most of the first century of the movement’s existence.  So, the building of mass workers’ parties, trade unions, friendly societies, educational organisations and cooperatives were all seen to be the visible rise of the more or less inevitable final victory of socialism.

No such confidence now pervades the socialist movement and part of this impoverished outlook is the perspective of fighting for and relying on the state to deliver the goods.  This and/or the view that some future, but always more or less near, political crisis will quickly precipitate a struggle and a consciousness adequate for a successful political revolution.   A view that forgets that socialist revolution is distinguished by it being primarily a social one and the Marxist view that social being determines consciousness: that is the development of consciousness is based on the development of capitalism, including what workers do over many decades to develop their own power and organisation within it. There is no exception in such a view for small groups propagandising for revolution, crisis or no crisis.

The patient building of workers organisations, such as cooperatives, is viewed by some as simply reform of capitalism when in fact no successful revolution will be possible without them.  Opposition to what has been termed the stages theory of revolution, that every workers struggle is inevitably limited to certain non-socialist goals, is confused with rejection of the truth that the working class will go through stages of development and that earlier stages that do not immediately threaten the system are also just as necessary because they are expressions of the workers own activity and power.

That this has been more or less forgotten is both a product and producer of the decline of the socialist movement.

That is why I started to write a series of posts on Marx’s alternative to capitalism, because without such an alternative there will be no, well to state the obvious – alternative!  It’s why this series is now continued.

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In the last post on Marx’s alternative I said I would look at the evidence that the development of capitalism continues to provide the grounds for socialism as an alternative.  By this I mean the contradictory nature of capitalism is still creating on an increasing scale its gravediggers, the working class, and that even “with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society.” Marx.

A look at the long term development of capitalism illustrates what Marx called its civilising mission, a product not just of the growing requirements of capitalist production for an educated and relatively healthy workforce but of the needs of the capitalist state itself that provides most of this education.  By 1985 mass education was compulsory in 80 per cent of the countries of the world and over 90 per cent of the world’s children spent some time enrolled in school.

Estimates for the year 1900 put participation rates in primary education at under 40 per cent in most parts of the world outside North America, northwest Europe and English speaking areas of the Pacific, where it was over 70 per cent.  By the beginning of the twenty-first century every part of the world had achieved the minimum of the most industrialised countries at the start of the 20th century and most had exceeded it.

The picture of course is far from universally rosy and a 2007 UNESCO report estimated that in 2004 781 million adults did not have minimum literacy skills and close to 77 million children of school age were not enrolled in school.  Nevertheless the twentieth century was the first in human history in which the majority of the world’s population learned to read and write.

The development of higher level education has been just as dramatic.  In 1900 roughly half a million were enrolled in higher education institutions across the world.  By 2000 the number had grown two-hundredfold to 100 million people.  Growth in higher education has not slowed but accelerated in the latter part of the twentieth century; particularly after about 1960, with enrolment rates climbing rapidly, especially of women.  This growth has created what amounts to a global higher education system with “the same subjects . . . taught with the same perspectives leading to very similar degrees . .” (The Worldwide Expansion of Higher Education in the Twentieth Century)

If we look at population and health we can see the capacity of the productive system to support a growing population and improved health.  “Since 1800, global population size has already increased by a factor of six and by 2010 will have risen by a factor of ten. . . . The length of life, which has already more than doubled, will have tripled . . In 1800, women spent about 70 percent of their adult years bearing and rearing young children, but that fraction has decreased in many parts of the world to only about 14 percent, due to lower fertility and longer life.” (The Demographic transition: Three centuries of Fundamental Change)

Global life expectancy (years at birth) in 1700 was 27, still 27 in 1800, 30 by 1900 47 by 1950 and 65 by 2000, while population was 0.68 billion, 0.98, 1.65, 2.52 and 6.07 billion in the same years.  This decline in mortality began about 1800 in northwest Europe, and in many lower income countries at the beginning of the twentieth century, accelerating after the Second World War.

“The first stage of mortality decline is due to reductions in contagious and infectious diseases that are spread by air or water. Starting with the development of the smallpox vaccine in the late eighteenth century, preventive medicine played a role in mortality decline in Europe. However, public health measures played an important role from the late nineteenth century, and some quarantine measures may have been effective in earlier centuries. Improved personal hygiene also helped as income rose and as the germ theory of disease became more widely known and accepted. Another major factor in the early phases of growing life expectancy is improvements in nutrition. Famine mortality was reduced by improvements in storage and transportation that permitted integration of regional and international food markets . . .”

“In recent decades, the continuing reduction in mortality is due to reductions in chronic and degenerative diseases, notably heart disease and cancer (Riley, 2001). In the later part of the century, publicly organized and funded biomedical research has played an increasingly important part, and the human genome project and stem cell research promise future gains.”

“Many low-income populations did not begin the mortality transition until some time in the twentieth century. However, they then made gains in life expectancy quite rapidly by historical standards. In India, life expectancy rose from around 24 years in 1920 to 62 years today, a gain of .48 years per calendar year over 80 years. In China, life expectancy rose from 41 in 1950–1955 to 70 in 1995–1999, a gain of .65 years per year over 45 years.” (The Demographic transition: Three centuries of Fundamental Change)

Again however the gains in life expectancy are not uniform and the productive advances of capitalism, some of which are reflected in public health and medical advances, are subordinated to the accumulation of profit.  This is most clearly seen in the two significant exceptions noted in the article quoted above – the stagnation in mortality gains and increased mortality from HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa and the decline in life expectancy in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union arising from their transition to capitalism.  The article quotes the UN in 2002 noting that male life expectancy in the Russian Federation was 60, similar to that of India.

Back to Part 4

Forward to Part 6

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