MARXISM IN WORLD HISTORY
1 Why we need Marxist theory
2 Understanding history
3 Class struggle
4 Capitalismhow 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 and feminism
13 Socialism and war
There is a widespread myth that Marxism is difficult. It is a myth propagated by the enemies of socialism former Labour leader Harold Wilson boasted that he was never able to get beyond the first page of Marxs Capital. It is a myth also encouraged by a peculiar breed of academics who declare themselves to be Marxists: 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 detat and military dictatorships, of the way in which marvellous inventions can consign millions to the dole queues, of democracies that subsidise torturers and of socialist states that threaten each others people with nuclear missiles.
Meanwhile, the establishment thinkers who so deride Marxist ideas chase each other round in a mad game of blind mans buff, understanding nothing and explaining less.
But though Marxism is not difficult, there is a problem for the reader who comes across Marxs 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 didnt 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 Marxism Made Easy. 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 Hallass The Meaning of Marxism and Norwich SWPs Marxist Education Series.
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 were 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 abstract. 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 theory 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:
People are naturally selfish.
Anyone can get to the top if they try hard enough.
If it werent for the rich there wouldnt be any money to provide work for the rest of us.
If only we could educate the workers, society would change.
Declining morals have brought the country to its present state.
Listen to any argument in the street, on the bus, in the canteen youll 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 theories 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 workers organisations 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 workers movement could achieve its aim.
Some people said it was possible to persuade societys rulers to change things through peaceful means. The moral force 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 only to end defeated and demoralised.
Others recognised the need to use physical force, 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 worlds 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 workers 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 workers 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 moral force or physical force, socialists today argue about the parliamentary road or the revolutionary road. Among those who are revolutionaries the argument for and against terrorism 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 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 alienation 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 and then had bowe