How can one account for the continuing vitality of Marxist thought?
24th April 2008
Karl Marx is one of a handful of thinkers from the last two centuries who has had a truly transformative effect on society, on culture, and on our very understanding of ourselves.
In the most fundamental sense of the term Marxism refers to a system of thought created by Karl Marx, which provides the theoretical basis for modern socialism and communism, and is frequently taken to include the works of Marx’s literary partner and friend Friedrich Engels. The term is also commonly applied to the subsequent works and ideas of Marx’s followers, derived from or based upon his work. His system of thought, Marxism, has been taken up by innumerable followers and has had an unprecedented effect on modern life developing into a worldwide movement of historic proportion. Marxism could be said to be as an essential core of social and economic theory. Vladimir Lenin wrote of Marx’s theories as being a starting place from which to develop, he said that “We do not regard Marx’s theory as some thing completed and inviolable; on the contrary, we are convinced that it has only laid the foundation stone of the science which socialists must develop in all directions if they wish to keep pace with life” (Lenin 1899).
After the fall of the communist system in the former Soviet Union and the end of the cold war, many people celebrated what at the time was called the “death” of the Marxist regime. It was also a time for the widespread rejection of the authorised form of Marxism that had been for so long an unchallengeable collation of state-socialist doctrine. There were more than a few critics at this time claiming an end to Marxist thought and even an end to ideology. As observed by Susan Marks, one author on the topic, Fredric Jameson, made special note that it seemed “paradoxical to celebrate the death of Marxism in the same breath with which you greet the ultimate triumph of capitalism. For Marxism is the very science of capitalism…” (Jameson 1996). It could be argued that, it is understandable that, until the fall of the Soviet Union, the study of Marxism within the discipline of international relations was restricted largely to discussion of the state ideology Marxism-Leninism. For many followers of Marxism the situation that was to be observed in the former Soviet republic was more than just a little embarrassing. The depravity and intolerance witnessed could not possibly be the idealistic society and conditions that Marx had promised them.
During this period of time some Marxists were openly critical of the Soviet Union’s apparently obvious corruption and degradation of Marx’s ideologies, while others continued to remain quiet in the hope that their current situation and indeed the human rights records would improve. The eventual division of the Soviet Republic into its principle countries or states effectively cleared the way for the reopening of arguments in favour of Marx’s ideas. The argument could now be discussed without the necessity of explaining or defending the actions of a government that justified their own actions and conduct by reference to them. More importantly, the demise of the Soviet republic has encouraged an appreciation of Marx’s works and theories in their pure forms without reference to the state ideologies so frequently seen as tainted by the crudeness of Leninism. This is especially important since many of the principles and concepts often viewed as self evident to Marxism are either corruptions of the original works by Marx or as is frequently found nothing more than a loose interpretation and / or not actually appearing in the writings of Marx at all. From the time of their conception Marxist ideas have continued to have an important influence on critical thought in all aspects of modern life. This influence has become more noticeable since the recent rise of importance and interest in globalization studies. Perhaps because of this to some degree it has been adapted to new conditions, extended into new areas of though and enquiry, and developed in a variety of intellectual contexts, that even Marx himself may never have imagined.
Social scientists throughout the world have found the Marxist theory of classes to be an invaluable tool for the analysis of the many forms of social inequality and conflict that persist in the capitalist world. This is primarily because of his ability to dissect the workings of the social system showing as parts of the whole. He “disclosed the nature of modern capitalist economy by explaining how the hire of the laborer, the purchase of labor-power, conceals the enslavement of millions of property-less people by a handful of capitalists, the owners of the land, factories, mines, and so forth” (Lenin 1899).In the field of political theory, debate has often focused on Marx’s view that capitalism would be marked by an increasing separation, in though and feeling, between the classes leading inevitably to revolution.
In the development of productive forces there comes a stage when productive forces and the means for intercourse are brought into being, which, under the existing relationship, only cause mischief, and are no longer productive but destructive forces (machinery and money), and connected with this a class is called forth, which has to bear all the burdens of society without enjoying its advantages, which, ousted from society, is forced into the most decided antagonism to all other classes, a class which forms the majority of all members of society, and from which emanates the consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution (Marx 1845).
In the field of economics, Marx based his initial analysis of capitalism on components derived in principle from various classical political economies (see appendix 1). The concept of value, the labour theory of value, and Marx’s account of the mechanisms of economic crisis have been the subjects of continuous debate within the various economic academic communities.
It is argued that periodic crisis is not an inevitable feature of the capitalist system but that crisis can be averted through the implementation of appropriate government policies. Policies such as the emergence of Keynesian demand management, widespread nationalisation of key industries, indicative planning and the introduction of the welfare state were widely adopted during the period of time directly after the Second World War with some initial success. Recently however, with the slowing of economic activity and rapid increase in the rates of unemployment, Marx’s theories and issues relating to ‘periods of crisis’ are once more finding themselves to be at the centre of international debate.
Many of the issues problems and questions raised by the study Marxism are increasingly becoming central topics of discussion in philosophy and other branches of the social sciences. During the last decade, in the area of social sciences, a lot of work has been focused on the questions of ‘method’. In one of Engels’ various accounts of relating to the work of Marx, he portrays Marxism as the development of the materialist and the scientific approaches to the study of society. He tells us that, “To make a science of socialism, it had first to be placed upon a real basis.”
He also tells us that “modern materialism is essentially dialectic, and no longer needs any philosophy standing above the other sciences.” [Engles 1894, “ANTI-DÜHRING Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science”]. However dialectical materialism, or the combination of scientific materialism and Hegelian dialectics, have always been an unstable and potentially volatile mixture. It is frequently debated if in fact it is possible to combine these two different frames of reference into a single and stable political philosophy. There are many though that feel, that for Marxism to be directly regarded as a social science it must be based upon methods that are separate and distinct from those of the natural sciences. This being the case, Marxism, by many people, fails their perception as being complete resulting in the arguments against it being a science of its own accord. These two great discoveries, the materialistic conception of history and the revelation of the secret of capitalistic production through surplus value, we owe to Marx. With these discoveries socialism became a science” (Engles 1894).
Most recently, during the continuous debates for and against the theories of Marx, the nature of language has become a major preoccupation of contemporary western philosophy. Similar ideas are frequently expressed during these debates in views where meanings cannot be comprehended in causal terms, since the arguments are often drawn in terms of structural linguistics, analytical philosophy, psychoanalysis and other forms of traditional social theory. Marx’s ‘reflection theory’ of knowledge is the most frequent of his theories criticized in this manner for being overly concerned with the mechanics and the hopeful or expected outcome of the argument. Since tradition views people as subjects with a central conscience and a formulated system of values rather than just objects, Marx’s clinical and separatist manner is frequently highlighted. His ability to dissect a given process or thought is clearly seen in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy. The greatness of Hegel’s phenomenology and its end result-the dialectic of negativity as motive and productive principle-is thus … that Hegel grasps the self-generation of man as a process, objectification as de-objectification, as alienation and the overcoming of this alienation; in other words, that he grasps the essence of labour and comprehends objective man, who is true man because of his reality, as the result of his own labour (Marx 1844).
Throughout the English-speaking world, a growing interest in social and political philosophy, together with a revival of realism and materialism, has led to a greater interest in Marxism and its problems. Marxism is now not only the concern of revolutionary socialist groups. Its thoughts and ideas have moved into more mainstream life and application. In this area these ideas have interacted and mixed with multiple schools of thought. Recent events such as the protests at the G7 and IMF conferences have successfully served as a medium to bring the reality Marxism more into the daily lives of the world’s people as an important political effect rather than merely portraying its ideas and theories.
In Capital Volume 1, Marx introduces what is called the ‘general formula for the transformation of money into capital’ [chapter 4]. He states that capital in its most general and basic form can be defined as distinct value which has the sole intent of expanding itself. He tells us that “The value originally advanced, therefore, not only remains intact while in circulation, but adds to itself a surplus-value or expands itself. It is this movement that converts it into capital.” [Marx K, 1867, Capital Volume 1].
It seems that as money-capital and commodity-capital pass through the ‘sphere of circulation’ some redistribution of value can occur, but it must be noted at this point that in doing so its magnitude cannot be increased. From this Marx identifies that a commodity which when purchased, can be used in various methods of production to create new value-labour power.
During Capital Volume 2 he continues the point of capital accumulation emphasizing that capital, as ‘self-valorizing value’, is “a value which goes through a series of interconnected, interdependent transformations, a series of metamorphoses which form just as many phases, or stages, of the process as a whole. ” [Marx K, 1867, Capital Volume 2].
Of the three forms of capital Marx notes that “two of these phases belong in the sphere of circulation, one of them in that of production. In each one of these phases capital-value has a different form for which there is a correspondingly different, special function.. Within this movement the advanced value does not only preserve itself but grows, increases in magnitude. Finally, in the concluding stage, it returns to the same form which it had at the beginning of the process as a whole. This process as a whole constitutes therefore the process of moving in circuits. ” [Marx K, 1867, ‘Capital Volume 2’].
As Marx sets out to explain, “the capital which assumes this forms in the course of its total circuit and then discards them and in each of them performs the function corresponding to the particular form, is industrial capital, industrial here in the sense it comprises every branch of industry run on a capitalist basis.” [Marx K, 1867, Capital Volume 2]. If at some point in time a breakdown or stoppage occurs in one part of the circuit, the whole process of capital generation will stop. Because of this the circular motion of capital accumulation has the possibility of crisis at every stage. As Marx writes, “if it stops in the phase of production, the means of production lie without functioning on the one side, while labor-power remains unemployed on the other; and if capital stops short in the last phase piles of unsold commodities accumulate and clog the flow of circulation”…”every delay in the succession brings the coexistence into disarray, every delay in one stage causes a greater or lesser delay in the entire circuit, not only that of the portion of the capital that is delayed, but also that of the entire individual” [Marx K, 1867, Capital Volume 2].
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