The reason why a person will identify themselves as a Marxist will be biographical, a product of their background, history and circumstances, their attitudes, character, personality and intellectual curiosity. All these will be individual and accidental to a greater or lesser extent, the product of one’s actions and decisively, the views and actions of others that one comes into contact with, directly and indirectly.
On the other hand their background and circumstances and the views and actions of others that influence them will be social, the product of society as a whole. Even their individual character and intellectual curiosity will be shaped strongly by their social circumstances. So also the reason to identify as a Marxist is not individual or accidental but crucially derives from the content of Marxism itself.
It constitutes the most rational alternative to capitalism and all the irrationality and oppression that that system entails. The most consistent and coherent alternative to capitalism is Marxist because Marxism comprehends capitalism in a way that is adequate to its replacement.
Marxism best encapsulates the view that ‘another world is possible’ because it best understands capitalism itself and can identify whether, and to what extent, an alternative can develop out of it. Any alternative must come out of it in some way, yet be sufficiently different to actually be an alternative, and not a refurbished version of existing society which must enforce the limitations and strictures of the existing system. Marxism must therefore identify in what precisely this alternative consists.
The strength of Marxism is not that it has developed a brilliant idea from the brain of an exceptional intellect but that it seeks to bring to consciousness the development of capitalism itself and the alternative that is pregnant within it.
“In that case we do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.” Karl Marx 1843.
If capitalism does not contain within it the struggles that will replace it, and the grounds for those struggles to succeed, then there will be no alternative to capitalism, at least not with the features or characteristics associated with a socialist alternative.
The claim that Marxism is the social and political alternative to capitalism thus rests on its claims to understand the development of capitalism so that the alternative it poses is not then a utopian one, sprouted more or less fully formed from the brain of this or that social reformer, but from the perceptible development of capitalism itself.
Just as the alternative to capitalism grows out of capitalism itself so too does the understanding of the alternative grow in the same way from the development of the system.
This is held to account for Marx’s known aversion to setting out a blueprint of what the alternative will look like. It was, for example only when Marx was in his mid-50s that he claimed he had found, or rather the working class itself had found, through the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871: “the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour.”
In his review of this experience Marx made many observations on the alternative to capitalism that apply today, including that:
“The working class did not expect miracles from the Commune. They have no ready-made utopias to introduce par décret du peuple. They know that in order to work out their own emancipation, and along with it that higher form to which present society is irresistibly tending by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men. They have no ideals to realize, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant.”
A book published a few years ago is an extremely useful guide to Marx’s concept of the alternative to capitalism, more particularly of the principles that underpin it. It demonstrates that the alternative is not some perfected socialist state or society, not some condition of social equilibrium but a movement of people and their own self-activity and self-development.
“Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence,” (Marx in The German Ideology).
There is no end-state to socialism, perfect or otherwise, but the social conditions that allow the full flourishing of the individual and humanity as a whole, which will in turn change social conditions.
Socialism cannot be reduced to principles such as a planned economy because planning itself is only one human activity, the totality of which is the expansive alternative that Marx foresaw.
The alternative to capitalism is the self-development of humanity, its overcoming of an alienated existence within which its own powers over its environment and its own development appear separated from and oppressive to it. So humanity understands the danger of environmental destruction but has no transparent means of control to stop it despite its own actions being the cause of the threat. So it witnesses economic disruption, unemployment, poverty and suffering, caused by a drop in ‘value’ of pieces of paper – shares, bonds, swaps, options, derivatives etc -that it has created but which by themselves are simply pieces of paper, which in any rational society it would be impossible for them to cause the suffering involved in economic crisis.
Emancipation therefore is the result of the actions of humanity itself, led by a class within society whose liberation must entail the liberation not only of itself but of society as a whole – what is called a universal class because it represents the universal interests of all humanity.
This universal class is the product of the prodigious development of the forces of production under capitalism, to a degree that could never have been conceived in previous history, including the rapid development of technology, scientific knowledge and overall cultural development.
It is people however who create history, ‘history’ itself does nothing, and it is the development of the working class that is the carrier of the wonders of the new capitalist society and the bearer of the new within it.
What is required then is that the working class becomes conscious of its role in existing society and the necessity for it to change this society. Decisive for the working class is therefore its awareness of itself as a separate class with its own interests, requiring a change in the consciousness of the mass of workers.
This change in consciousness to an awareness of class interest does not mean the nullification of individual personality or character but the recognition of shared interests that will allow creation of a society in which the free development of individuals is the condition for the free development of everyone; no one is subject to the requirement to work to live in order that someone else can live without working. The creation of wealth will be for the satisfaction of individual needs and desires and not the pathological pursuit of profit for a few. People will labour to satisfy their needs not the accumulation of money, wealth and capital for others.
The structures of society will therefore be the consciously directed products of human activity, transparent in their operation. They will not entail the domination of people by impersonal, disembodied powers such as the ‘rule of the free market’ or ‘rule of law’ or ‘state authority’, over which individuals feel and have no control. No longer will workers face wage cuts or unemployment because the things they produce are no longer profitable to produce and the needs of ‘the economy’ then require the sacrifice of their livelihood. Things no longer control them, they control the things that would not exist without them. No longer will the price of pieces of paper wreak economic devastation.
Instead workers will control the things that are their creation, including the machines they build, the firms they create, the agencies that provide services or set rules for them – all the organisations appointed for any purpose that affect them. They control them because they work in them. Managing them is not a detached function to be carried out by a separate class or bureaucratic group but is the task of everyone. Management and control become part of everyone’s job description.
By this means the supreme authority, the State, that rules over society is not set apart from it but is gradually abolished through its functions being incorporated into society itself and into its day to day functioning. Only in this way can the rule of a minority become the rule of the majority, can the working class become the new ruling class, before there is no class system whatsoever because no relations of economic and social domination exist.
For this to happen the majority of society have to be not so much ready to carry out these million and one tasks but more and more actually carrying them out beforehand. The problem then is not so much to revolutionise the means of production or state structures but to revolutionise the working class.
So how does capitalism create the conditions for this? In what way does capitalism itself prepare the ground for its supersession by the working class?
Forward to Part 2