Mаrxіsm іn wоrld hіstоry
History of the origin and development of Marxism, especially its development under the influence of the K. Marx, Fr. Engels, R. Luxemburg, V. Lenin, L. Trotsky, and many other lesser-known thinkers. Analysis of the relationship of Marxism and feminism.
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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 doesn't 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 worker's source of livelihood - 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 - 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 - usually referred to as `the means of production' - 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 - 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 - even though in the eyes of the law `all men are equal'.
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 `free' 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 `fair day's wage'. In return the worker should give a `fair day's work'.
How then do they explain profit? This, they claim, is a `reward' to the capitalist for his `sacrifice' 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 moment's thought.
Take a company that announces a `net rate of profit' 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 don't have to be a genius to see that after ten years the company will have made a total profit of ?100 million - the full cost of its original investment.
If it is `sacrifice' 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 life's 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 they're not. Even if a worker saves assiduously, he or she won't 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 `fair day's work for a fair day's pay' 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 `equal rights' of the capitalist and the worker have increased inequality.
One of Karl Marx's 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 capitalist's 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 - 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 `surplus value'.
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 `self expansion of capital', 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 `self expansion of capital', of the miraculous capacity of money to grow for those who have plenty of it, lies in the buying and selling of this labour.
Let's take the example of a worker, who we'll 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 - 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 `destroy the incentive to work'.
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 Browning's 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 else's labour on the cheap.
Of course, Sir Browning does not necessarily have all the ?20 to himself - 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 - 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 `little luxuries' - 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 `held too low' 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 - what the worker thinks is a `decent wage'. 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 `useless'.
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, it's only fair that capital as well as labour gets a share of the wealth produced. Every `factor of production' 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 - whether a Neolithic stone axe or a modern computer - 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 `dead labour'. When businessmen boast of the capital they possess, in reality they are boasting that they have gained control of a vast pool of the labour of previous generations - and that does not mean the labour of their ancestors, who laboured no more than they do now.
The notion that labour was the source of wealth - usually referred to as the `labour theory of value' - was not an original discovery of Marx. All the great pro-capitalist economists until his time accepted it.
Such men, like the Scottish economist Adam Smith or the English economist David Ricardo, were writing when the system of industrial capitalism was still fairly young - in the years just before and just after the French Revolution. The capitalists did not yet dominate and needed to know the real source of their wealth if they were ever to do so. Smith and Ricardo served their interests by telling them that labour created wealth, and that to build up their wealth they had to `free' labour from the control of the old pre-capitalist rulers.
But it was not long before thinkers close to the working class began to turn the argument against the friends of Smith and Ricardo: if labour creates wealth, then labour creates capital. And the `rights of capital' are no more than the rights of usurped labour.
Soon the economists who supported capital were pronouncing the labour theory of value to be a load of nonsense. But if you kick truth out the front door, it has a habit of creeping in the back.
Turn on the radio. Listen to it long enough and you will hear some pundit or other claim that what is wrong with the British economy is that `people do not work hard enough' or, another way of saying the same thing, `productivity is too low'. Forget for a minute whether the argument is correct or not. Instead look closely at the way it is put. They never say `machines do not work hard enough'. No, it is always people, the workers.
They claim that if only the workers worked harder, more wealth would be created, and that this would make possible more investment in new machinery. The people who use this argument may not know it, but they are saying that more work will create more capital. Work, labour, is the source of wealth.
Say I have a ?5 note in my pocket. Why is that of use to me? After all, it's only a piece of printed oaper. Its value to me lies in the fact that I can get, in exchange for it, something useful that has been made by someone else's labour. The ?5 note, in fact, is nothing more than an entitlement to the products of so much labour. Two ?5 notes are an entitlement to the products of twice as much labour, and so on.
When we measure wealth we are really measuring the laboul that has been expended in creating it.
Of course, not everyone produces as much with their labour in a given time as everyone else. If I set out, for instance, to make a table, I might take five or six times as long as a skilled carpenter. But no one in their right mind would regard what I had made as five or six times as valuable as a table made by a skilled carpenter. They would estimate its value according to how much of the carpenter's labour would be needed to make it, not mine.
Say it would take a carpenter an hour to make a table, then they would say that the value of the table to them was the equivalent of one hour's labour. That would be the labour time necessary to make it, given the usual level of technique and skill in present society.
For this reason, Marx insisted that the measure of the value of something was not simply the time it took an individual to make it, but the time it would take an individual working with the average level of technology and the average level of skill - he called this average level of labour needed `the socially necessary labour time'. The point is important because under capitalism advances in technology are always taking place, which means that it takes less and less labour to produce goods.
For example, when radios were made with thermionic valves they were very expensive items, because it took a great deal of labour to make the valves, to wire them together and so on. Then the transistor was invented, which could be made and wired together with much less labour. Suddenly, all the workers in the factories still making valve radios found that the value of what they were producing slumped, for the value of radios was no longer determined by the labour time needed to make them from valves, but instead by the time needed to make them with transistors.
One final point. Prices of some goods fluctuate wildly - on a day-to-day or a week-to-week basis. These changes can be caused by many other things besides changes in the amount of labour needed to make them.
When the frost in Brazil killed all the coffee plants the price of coffee shot up, because there was a shortage throughout the world and people were prepared to pay more. If tomorrow some natural catastrophe was to destroy all the televisions in Britain, there is no doubt the price of televisions would shoot up in the same way. What economists call `supply and demand' continually causes such fluctuations in price.
For this reason, many pro-capitalist economists say that the labour theory of value is nonsense. They say that only supply and demand matter. But that is nonsense. For this argument forgets that when things fluctuate they usually fluctuate around an average level. The sea goes up and down because of tides, but that doesn't mean we cannot talk of a fixed point around which it moves, which we call `sea level'.
Similarly, the fact that prices go up and down from day to day does not mean that there are not fixed values around which they fluctuate. For instance, if all the televisions were destroyed, the first new ones to be produced would be very much in demand and fetch a high price. But it would not be long before more and more were on the market, competing with each other until the price was forced down close to their value in terms of the labour time needed to make them.
Competition and accumulation
There was a time when capitalism did seem like a dynamic and progressive system. For most of human history, the lives of most men and women have been dominated by drudgery and exploitation. Industrial capitalism did not change this when it made its appearance in the 18th and 19th centuries.
But it did seem to put this drudgery and exploitation to some useful purpose. Instead of wasting vast amounts of wealth on luxury for a few parasitic aristocrats or in building luxury tombs for dead monarchs or in futile wars over which son of an emperor should rule some God forsaken hole, it used wealth to build up the means of creating more wealth. The rise of capitalism was a period of growth in industry, cities, means of transportation - on a scale undreamt of in previous human history.
Strange as it may seem today, places such as Oldham, Halifax and Bingley were the home of miracles. Humanity had never before seen so much raw cotton and wool turned so quickly into cloth to clothe millions. This did not happen because of any special virtues possessed by the capitalists. They were always rather noxious people, obsessed only with getting wealth into their own hands by paying as little as possible for the labour they used.
Many previous ruling classes had been like them in this respect without building up industry. But the capitalists were different in two important respects.
The first we have dealt with - that they did not own workers, instead paying them by the hour for their ability to work, their labour power. They used wage slaves, not slaves. Secondly, they did not themselves consume the goods their workers produced. The feudal landlord lived directly from the meat, bread, cheese and wine produced by his serfs. But the capitalist lived by selling to other people the goods produced by workers.
This gave the individual capitalist less freedom to behave as he pleased than the individual slave owner or feudal lord had. To sell goods, the capitalist had to produce them as cheaply as possible. The capitalist owned the factory and was all-powerful within it. But he could not use his power as he wished. He had to bow down before the demands of competition with other factories.
Let's go back to our favourite capitalist. Sir Browning Browne. Assume that a certain quantity of the cotton cloth produced in his factory took ten hours of workers' time to turn out, but that some other factory could produce the same amount in five hours of workers' time. Sir Browning would not be able to charge the price for it equivalent to ten hours of labour. No one in their right mind would pay this price when there was cheaper cloth just down the road.
Any capitalist who wanted to survive in business had to ensure that his workers worked as fast as possible. But that was not all. He also had to make sure that his workers were working with the most up to date machinery, so that their labour produced as many goods in an hour as did the labour of those working for other capitalists. The capitalist who wanted to stay in business had to make sure he owned ever greater amounts of means of production - or, as Marx put it, to accumulate capital!
The competition between capitalists produced a power, the market system, that had each and every one of them in its grip. It compelled them to speed up the work process all the time and to invest as much as they could afford in new machinery. And they could only afford the new machinery (and, of course, have their own luxuries on the side) if they kept workers' wages as low as they could.
Marx writes in his major work. Capital, that the capitalist is like a miser, obsessed with getting more and more wealth. But:
What in the miser is mere idiosyncracy is, in the capitalist, the effect of a social mechanism in which he is but one of the wheels … The development of capitalist production makes it constantly necessary to keep increasing the amount of capital laid out in a given industrial undertaking, and competition makes the immanent laws of capitalist production to be felt by each individual capitalist as external coercive laws. It compels him to keep constantly extending his capital in order to preserve it. But extend it he cannot, except by means of progressive accumulation.
Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!
Production does not take place to satisfy human need - even the human needs of the capitalist class - but in order to enable one capitalist to survive in competition with another capitalist. The workers employed by each capitalist find their lives dominated by the drive of their employers to accumulate faster than their rivals.
As Marx's The Communist Manifesto put it:
In bourgeois society living labour is but a means to accumulate dead labour … Capital is independent and has individuality, while the living person is dependent and has no individuality.
The compulsive drive for capitalists to accumulate in competition with one another explains the great rush forward of industry in the early years of the system. But something else resulted a well - repeated economic crisis. Crisis is not new. It is as old as the system itself.
6. Economic crisis
The accumulation of wealth on the one hand, of poverty on the other.
That was how Marx summed up the trend of capitalism. Every capitalist fears competition from every other, so he works his employees as hard as possible, paying wages as low as he can get away with.
The result is a disproportion between the massive growth of means of production on the one hand, and the limited growth in wages and the number of workers employed on the other. This, Marx insisted, was the basic cause of economic crisis.
The easiest way to look at this is to ask: who buys the greatly expanding quantity of goods? The low wages of the workers mean they cannot afford the goods produced by their own labour. And the capitalists cannot increase wages, because that would be to destroy profit, the driving force of the system.
But if firms cannot sell the goods they produce, they have to shutdown factories and sack workers. The total amount of wages then falls still more, and yet more firms cannot sell their goods. A `crisis of overproduction' sets in, with goods piling up throughout the economy that people cannot afford to buy.
This has been a recurrent feature of capitalist society for the past 160 years.
But any quick-witted apologist for the system will soon point out that there should be an easy way out of the crisis. All that's needed is that capitalists invest their profit in new factories and machines. That will provide jobs for workers, who in turn will then be able to buy the unsold goods. This means that as long as there's new investment all the goods produced can be sold and the system can provide full employment.
Marx was no fool and recognised this. Indeed, as we've seen, he realised that the competitive pressure on capitalists to invest was central to the system. But, he asked, does this mean the capitalists will invest all their profits, all the time?
The capitalist will only invest if he thinks he is guaranteed a `reasonable' profit.
If he doesn't think there is such a profit to be made, he won't risk his money in investment. He'll put it in the bank and leave it there.
Whether the capitalist invests or not depends on how he assesses the economic situation. When it looks right, the capitalists all rush to invest at the same time, falling over each other searching for construction sites, buying up machines, scouring the earth for raw materials, paying over the odds for skilled labour.
This is usually called the `boom'.
But the frenzied competition for land, raw materials and skilled labour forces up the prices of these things. And suddenly a point is reached where some firms discover their costs have risen so much that all their profits have disappeared.
The investment boom all at once gives way to an investment `slump'. No one wants new factories - construction workers are sacked. No one wants new machines - the machine tool industry goes into crisis. No one wants all the iron and steel that is being produced - the steel industry is suddenly working `below capacity' and becomes `unprofitable'. Closures and shutdowns spread from industry to industry, destroying jobs - and with them the ability of workers to buy the goods of other industries.
The history of capitalism is a history of such periodic lurches into crisis, into the insanity of unemployed workers going hungry outside empty factories, while stocks of `unwanted' goods rot.
Capitalism creates these crises of overproduction periodically because there is no planning, so there's no way to stop the stampede of capital into and out of investment all at once.
People used to think that the state could stop this. By intervening in the economy, increasing state investment when private investment was low, then reducing it when private investment caught up, the state would keep production on an even keel. But nowadays state investment too is part of the lunacy.
Look at British Steel. Some years ago, when the firm was still nationalised, steel workers were told their jobs were being scrapped to make way for vast modern automatic furnaces designed to produce more steel more cheaply. Now they are being told that yet more workers must lose their jobs - because Britain was not the only country to embark on these massive investment plans. France, Germany, the United States, Brazil, Eastern Europe, even South Korea, all did the same. Now there's a world surplus of steel - a crisis of overproduction. State investment is being cut.
Steel workers, of course, suffer both ways. This is the price humanity is still paying for an economic system where the production of massive wealth is controlled by a small privileged group interested only in profit. It does not matter whether these small privileged groups own industry directly, or control it indirectly through their control of the state (as with British Steel). While they use this control to compete with each other for the largest share of the profits, whether nationally or internationally, it is the workers who suffer.
The final lunacy of the system is that the `crisis of overproduction' is not overproduction at all. All that `surplus' steel, for instance, could help solve world hunger. Peasants around the world have to plough the land with wooden ploughshares - steel ploughshares would increase food production. But the peasants have no money anyway, so the capitalist system isn't interested - there's no profit to be made.
Why crises tend to get worse
Crises do not just take place with monotonous regularity. Marx also predicted they would get worse as time went on.
Even if investment took place at an even rate, without fits and starts, it could not stop the overall trend towards crisis. This is because the competition between capitalists (and capitalist nations) forces them to invest in labour saving equipment.
In Britain today almost all new investments are designed to cut the number of workers employed. That is why there we fewer workers in British industry today than ten years ago, even though output has increased over that time.
Only by `rationalising production', by `increasing productivity' and by cutting the workforce can one capitalist get a bigger share of the cake than another. But the result for the system as a whole is devastating. For it means that the number of workers does not increase at anything like the same speed as investment.
Yet it is the labour a/workers that is the source of the profits, the fuel that keeps the system going. If you make bigger and bigger investments, without a corresponding increase in the source of profits, you are heading for a breakdown - just as surely as if you expected to drive a Jaguar on the amount of petrol needed to keep a Mini going.
That is why Marx argued 100 years ago that the very success of capitalism in piling up huge investments in new equipment led to a `tendency of the rate of profit to decline' which means ever-worsening crises.
His argument can be applied very simply to capitalism today. Instead of the old picture of `bad times' turning into `good times', of slumps turning into booms, we seem to be in a never ending slump. Any spell of upturn, any drop in unemployment, is limited and short lived.
Apologists for the system say this is because investment is not high enough. Without new investment there are no new jobs, without new jobs there's no money to buy new goods. So far, we can agree with them - but we don't agree with their explanation of why this is happening.
They blame wages. Wages are too high, they say, which cuts profits to the bone. Capitalists are frightened to invest because they won't get `sufficient reward'.
But the crisis has continued through long years in which government pay policies have cut workers' living standards and pushed profits up. The years 1975-78 saw the biggest cut in workers' living standards this century, while the rich grew richer - the top 10 percent pushed up their share of the national cake from 57.8 percent in 1974 to 60 percent in 1976.
There still isn't enough investment to end the crisis - and that goes not just for Britain but for other countries where wages have been cut back, for France, for Japan, for Germany.
We would do better to listen to what Karl Marx said 100 years ago than to listen to those who apologise for capitalism today.
Marx predicted that as capitalism got older, its crises would get worse because the source of profit, labour, does not increase nearly as rapidly as the investment needed to put labour to work. Marx wrote when the value of the plant and machinery needed to employ each worker was fairly low. It has shot up since then, until today it can be ?20,000 or even ?30,000. Competition between capitalist firms has forced them to use ever bigger and evermore expensive machinery. The point has been reached where, in most industries, it is taken for granted that new machinery means fewer workers.
The international economic agency OECD has predicted that employment in the world's major economies will fall, even if by some miracle investment soars.
Which it won't. Because capitalists care about their profit, and if their investment increases fourfold but their profit only doubles, they get really upset. Yet this is what must happen if industry grows more quickly than the source of profit, labour.
As Marx put it, the rate of profit will tend to fall. He predicted that a point would eventually be reached at which any new investment would seem a perilous venture. The scale of expenditure needed for new plant and machinery would be colossal, but the rate of profit would be lower than ever before. When this point was reached, each capitalist (or capitalist state) would fantasise about huge new investment programmes - but be afraid to make them for fear of going bust.
The world economy today is very much like that. Rover plans new production lines - but fears it will lose money. British Steel dreams of those big plants it planned - but have to keep them on ice because it cannot sell its present output. The Japanese shipbuilders have given up investing in new yards - and some of the old ones are being shut down.
The very success of capitalism in building ever vaster and more productive machinery has brought the system to the point of seemingly permanent crisis.
A point was reached in the slave societies of the ancient world and the feudal societies of the Middle Ages where either a revolution would transform society or it would enter a permanent crisis that would drive it backwards. In the case of Rome, the lack of a revolution led precisely to the destruction of Roman civilisation and to the Dark Ages. In the case of some feudal societies - Britain and, later, France - revolution destroyed the old order and enabled new social advance to take place, under capitalism.
Now capitalism itself faces the choice between permanent crisis, which eventually will plunge humanity back into barbarism through poverty and war, or a socialist revolution.
7. The working class
Marx began The Communist Manifesto with the statement, `The history of all hitherto existing societies has been the history of class struggles.'
The question of how the ruling class was to force the oppressed class to keep producing wealth for it was crucial. Because of this, in every previous society, there had been enormous struggles between the classes which often culminated in civil war - the slave uprisings in Ancient Rome, the peasant uprisings in medieval Europe, the great civil wars and revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries.
In all of these great struggles, the mass of the insurgent forces were from the most oppressed section of society. But, as Marx hastened to add, at the end of the day all their efforts served only to replace one privileged ruling minority with another. So, for example, in Ancient China there were several successful peasant revolts - but they merely replaced one emperor with another. Similarly, those who made the greatest effort in the French Revolution were the `bras nus' - the poorer classes of Paris, but at the end of the day society was ruled not by them but by bankers and industrialists instead of the king and courtiers.
There were two main reasons for this failure of the lower classes to keep control of the revolutions in which they fought.
Firstly, the general level of wealth in society was fairly low. It was only because the vast mass of people were kept in abysmal poverty that a small minority had time and leisure to develop the arts and sciences to maintain civilisation. In other words, class division was necessary if society was to progress.
Secondly, the life of the oppressed classes did not prepare them to run society. By and large they were illiterate, they had little idea of what things were like outside their own immediate locality, and, above all, their everyday life divided each of them against the other. Each peasant was concerned with cultivating his own plot of land. Each craftsman in the town ran his own small business and was to some extent in competition with other craftsmen, not united with them.
Peasant revolts would start with vast numbers of people rising up to divide the land of the local feudal lords, but once the lord was defeated they would fall to squabbling among themselves about how they would divide the land. As Marx put it, peasants were like `potatoes in a sack'; they could be forced together by some outside power but were not capable of linking permanently to represent their own interests.
The workers who create the wealth under modern capitalism differ from all the previous lower classes. Firstly, the division of classes is no longer necessary for human progress. So much wealth is created that capitalist society itself periodically destroys huge quantities through wars or economic crises. It could be divided up equally and society could still have a flowering of science, arts and so forth.
Secondly, life under capitalism prepares workers in many ways to take control of society. For example, capitalism needs workers who are skilled and educated. Also capitalism forces thousands of people into huge workplaces in huge conurbations where they are in close contact with one another, and where they can be a powerful force for changing society.
Capitalism makes workers cooperate in production within the factory, and those cooperative skills can easily be turned against the system, as when workers organise themselves into unions. Because they are massed together in huge concentrations it is much easier for workers to democratically control such bodies than it was for previously oppressed classes.
Furthermore, capitalism tends increasingly to turn groups of people who thought of themselves as a `cut above' ordinary workers (such as clerks or technicians) into wage labourers who are forced to organise unions and so on as other workers do.
Lastly, the development of communications - railways, roads, air transport, postal systems, telephones, radio and television - allows workers to communicate outside their own locality or industry. They can organise as a class on a national and international scale - something beyond the wildest dreams of previous oppressed classes.
All these facts mean that the working class can not only be a force which rebels against existing society, but can organise itself, (electing and controlling its own representatives, so as to change society in its own interest, and not just to set up yet another emperor or group of bankers. As Karl Marx put it:
All previous historical movements were movements of minorities in the interests of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious independent movement of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority.
8. How can society be changed?
In Britain the overwhelming majority of socialists and trade unionists have generally argued that society can be transformed without violent revolution. All that is needed, they say, is for socialists to win enough popular support to gain control of the `traditional' political institutions - parliament and the local councils. Then socialists will be in a position to change society by getting the existing state - the civil service, the judiciary, the police, the armed forces - to enforce laws to curtail the power of the employing class.
In this way, it has been claimed, socialism can be introduced gradually and without violence, by reforming the present set up.
This view is usually referred to as `reformism', although occasionally you will hear it referred to as `revisionism' (because it involves revising Marx's ideas completely), `social democracy' (although until 1914 that meant revolutionary socialism) or Fabianism (after the Fabian Society which has long propagated the reformist view in Britain). It is a view accepted by the left as well as the right of the Labour Party.
Reformism seems, at first sight, very plausible. It fits with what we are told at school, in the papers and on television - that `parliament runs the country' and that `parliament is elected according to the democratic wishes of the people'. Yet despite that, every attempt to introduce socialism through parliament has ended in failure. Thus there were three majority Labour governments in Britain between 1945 and 1979 - with massive majorities in 1945 and 1966 - yet we are no nearer socialism than in 1945.
The experience abroad is the same. In Chile in 1970, the socialist Salvador Allende was elected president. People claimed that this was a `new way' to move to socialism. Three years later the generals who had been asked to join the government overthrew Allende and the Chilean working class movement was destroyed.
There are three interconnected reasons why reformism must always fail.
Firstly, while socialist majorities in parliaments are `gradually' introducing socialist measures, real economic power continues to lie in the hands of the old ruling class. They can use this economic power to shut down whole sections of industry, to create unemployment, to force up prices through speculation and hoarding, to send money abroad so creating a `balance of payments' crisis, and to launch press campaigns blaming all this on the socialist government.
Thus Harold Wilson's Labour government was forced in 1964 and again in 1966 to drop measures which would have benefited workers - by the wholesale movement of money abroad by wealthy individuals and companies. Wilson himself describes in his memoirs how:
We had now reached the situation where a newly elected government was being told by international speculators that the policy on which we had fought the election could not be implemented... The queen's first minister was being asked to bring down the curtain on parliamentary democracy by accepting the doctrine that an election in Britain was a farce, that the British people could not make a choice between policies.
It only needs to be added that, despite Wilson's alleged indignation, for the next six years he did indeed follow the sort of policies demanded by the speculators.
The same deliberate creation of balance of payments crises forced the Labour government elected in 1974 to introduce three consecutive sets of cuts in public spending in hospitals, schools and social services.
Allende's government in Chile faced even greater disruption at the hands of big business. Twice, whole sections of industry were shut down by `bosses' strikes', as speculation increased prices to an enormous level and hoarding of goods by businessmen caused queuing for the necessities of life.
The second reason capitalism cannot be reformed is that the existing state machine is not `neutral', but designed, from top to bottom, to preserve capitalist society.
The state controls nearly all the means of exercising physical force, the means of violence. If the organisations of the state were neutral, and did whatever any particular government told them, whether capitalist or socialist, then the state could be used to stop sabotage of the economy by big business. But look at the way the state machine operates and who really gives the orders, and you can see it is not neutral.
The state machine is not simply the government. It is a vast organisation with many different branches - the police, the army, the judiciary, the civil service, the people who run the nationalised industries and so on. Many of the people who work in these different branches of the state come from the working class - they live and get paid like workers.
But it is not these people who make the decisions. The rank and file soldiers don't decide where wars are going to be fought or whether strikes are going to be broken; the counter clerk in the social security office does not decide how much dole will be paid out. The whole state machine is based on the principle that people on one rung of the ladder obey those on the rung above.
This is essentially the case in the sections of the state machine that exercise physical force - army, navy, air force, police. The first thing soldiers are taught when they enlist - long before they are allowed to touch weapons - is to obey orders, regardless of their personal opinions of those orders. That is why they are taught to do absurd drills. If they will follow lunatic commands on the parade ground without thinking about it, it is reckoned they will shoot when ordered to without thinking about that either.
The most heinous crime in any army is a refusal to obey orders - mutiny. So seriously is the offence regarded, that mutiny during time of war is still punishable by execution in Britain. Who gives the orders?
If you look at the chain of command in the British army (and other armies are no different) it goes: general - brigadier - colonel - lieutenant - NCO - private. At no stage in that chain of command do elected representatives - MPs or local councillors - get a look in. It is just as much an act of mutiny for a group of privates to obey their local MP rather than the officer. The army is a massive killing machine. The people who run it - and have the power to promote other soldiers into commanding positions - are the generals.
Of course, in theory the generals are responsible to the elected government. But soldiers are trained to obey generals, not politicians. If generals choose to give orders to their soldiers which are at variance with the wishes of an elected government, the government cannot countermand those orders. It can only try to persuade the generals to change their minds, (/the government knows the sorts of orders that are being given - because military affairs are invariably secret, it is very easy for generals to hide what they are doing from governments they don't like.
That doesn't always mean that generals always, or even usually, ignore what governments say to them. Usually in Britain they have found it convenient to go along with most of what the government suggests. But, in a life and death situation, the generals are able to put their killing machine into operation without listening at all to the government, and there is little the government can do about it. This is what the generals eventually did in Chile when Allende was overthrown.
So the question, `Who runs the army?' is really, `Who are the generals?' In Britain about 80 percent of the senior officers went to fee-paying `public' schools - the same proportion as 50 years ago (17 years of Labour government didn't change that). They are related to the owners of big business, belong to the same posh clubs, mix at the same social functions, share the same ideas (if you doubt this, look at the letters column in virtually any copy of the Daily Telegraph). The same goes for the heads of the civil service, the judges, the chief constables.
Do you think these people are going to obey government orders to take economic power away from their friends and relatives in big business, just because 330 people walk into a lobby in the House of Commons? Would they not be much more likely to copy the example of the Chilean generals, judges and senior civil servants, who sabotaged the government's orders for three years and then, when the time was ripe, overthrew it?
In practice the particular `constitution' we have in Britain means that those who control the state machine would be able to thwart the will of an elected left wing government far short of physically overthrowing it. If such a government were elected, it would be faced with massive economic sabotage by the employing class (factory closures, flights of money abroad, hoarding of necessities, inflationary price rises). If the government attempted to deal with such sabotage using `constitutional means' - by passing laws - it would find its hands tied behind its back.
The House of Lords would certainly refuse to ratify any such law - delaying it for nine months at a minimum. The judges would `interpret' any law passed in such a way as to curtail its powers. The civil service chiefs, the generals and the police chiefs would use the decisions of the judges and the House of Lords to justify their own unwillingness to do what ministers told them. They would be backed by virtually the whole press, which would scream that the government was behaving `illegally' and `unconstitutionally'. The generals would then use such language to justify preparations to overthrow an/illegal' government.
The government would be powerless to deal with the economic chaos - unless it really did act unconstitutionally and called upon rank and file civil servants, police and soldiers to turn against their superiors.
Lest anyone thinks this is all wild fantasy, it should be added that there have been at least two occasions in recent British history when generals have sabotaged government decisions they did not like.
In 1912 the House of Commons passed a bill providing for a `Home Rule' parliament to run a united Ireland. The Tory leader, Bonar Law, immediately denounced the (Liberal!) government as an illegal `junta' who had `sold the constitution'. The House of Lords naturally delayed the law as long as it could (two years then), while former Tory minister Edward Carson organised a paramilitary force in the north of Ireland to resist the law.
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