From the June 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard
According to all the political pundits, the collapse of state capitalism (or "communism" to them) in Eastern Europe and elsewhere represented a refutation of the theories of Karl Marx. Needless to say, not a shred of evidence derived from Marx's writings has ever been produced to support this view. The main theories of Marx are as sound as ever.
To be a socialist is not to be chapter-and-verse Marxist spouting quotations from the works of Marx and Engels at every given opportunity, rather in the manner of Jehovah's Witnesses, whose ability to regurgitate passages from the bible compensates for their general lack of understanding of life. The Socialist Party is indeed Marxist, but in the sense that we agree with the bases of Marx's main theories and apply these to all aspects of society. A knowledge of Marx's view is, therefore, a useful adjunct to understanding the case for socialism.
Broadly, the essential principles of Marx's theory are three — the materialist conception of history, the class struggle and theory of surplus value. They do not exist independently, but are interrelated and one cannot be used without reference to the others.
The materialist conception of history argues that the general course of historical development is ultimately determined by the changing character of the powers of production.
Productive powers are simply the human command over nature and its resources that enable humans to live. As the powers of production develop, there is also a change in the class structure of human society, and political structures and social ideas change accordingly. Throughout history, as people have developed new and improved ways of tapping and harnessing the world's resources with a greater productive output, there have been corresponding changes in social and economic relationships. This is because any advance in the way people exploit the world's resources, any development in human ingenuity in the arts of producing and distributing wealth, requires a more complex system of social organisation.
Marx saw human history as a succession of epochs, each characterised by humankind's advancing knowledge of the productive arts. In past history, Marx identified three phases of development following the break-up of the classless tribal communism under which all humans originally lived: societies based on slave labour; feudal society, where labourers worked the land giving a share of what they produced to lords and barons for the privilege, and society as we know it, based on wage labour.
These three broad phases Marx saw as paving the way for a fourth, in which "pre-history" would end and true human history would begin — Socialism — a society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing wealth, a moneyless society free of rank and privilege and of exploitation by any dominant class. Marx saw socialism as a society in which each would take from the stockpile of communal wealth according to their needs and plough back into society according to their physical and mental ability.
Marx believed that each economic phase of human development went hand-in-hand with a particular political structure. Slavery went with the despotic states and belligerent empires of the ancient world; serfdom was accompanied by the feudal system that based rights, privileges and duties on the tenure of the land; and the wage system (capitalism), where propagandists claim is the economic system for political democracy, allows its subjects certain legal and political rights. Capitalism, however, is as exploitative as all preceding systems, surviving by living parasite-like off the back of the majority working class who must continually sell their mental and physical powers to live.
Marx believed that a democratic society would only come about when the means of production and distribution were collectively owned and their fruits freely available to all.
Marx's theory of the class struggle ties in with the materialist conception of history. For Marx, conflict had been the dynamic for human progress. In human history there was no smooth transition from one historical epoch to another. The dominant class withstood change even when their system of authority ceased to be a method for advancing the powers of production and became a hindrance to their improved use.
Therefore, once a ruling class had outlived its usefulness, the productive powers having reached a potential it could no longer accommodate, it had to be removed from power by the class below, the class with an improved method of organising production and distribution of wealth.
The ancient and classical empires which operated a system of slavery were overthrown by the lords and barons of the feudal system, and the feudal aristocracy was in turn overthrown by the burgeoning merchant and capitalist class, with their improved system of production, but for profit not use.
The capitalist class, Marx argued, could only be overthrown by the working class, the "proletariat", the exploited majority. Marx believed it was the responsibility, the "historic mission", of the working class to see the forces of production and distribution fully socialised by becoming the common property of the whole of society.
The fourth stage of human history will be when true human history begins, because a victory by the working class over the capitalist class would unchain the powers of production and because a society of free associated labour would leave no subject class capable of being exploited. Once the working class had consolidated their position, classless society would spring up, free of rank and privilege, with production unfettered by the bondage of the money system, and with the exploitation of one section of society by another expunged for ever.
Marx's third general theory is that of surplus value. In the simplest terms, Marx realised that the wage slaves, the people who needed to work to exist but couldn't work unless they exchanged their mental and physical powers for a wage, were continually being exploited. This is because the capitalists, by virtue of their ownership of the means of producing wealth, appropriate a share of the product of their labour.
Because capitalists have the upper hand, stemming from their ownership of the means of wealth production, they are able to buy a workers' power to work on terms favourable to themselves, paying the worker less than the value of what they produce. The difference between what workers are paid for their labour power, and the price the capitalist gets for the finished commodity, once overheads have been taken care of, is what Marx called surplus value — the source of profit, in a sense wide enough to include rents and interest as well as industrial and commercial profits.
The reason the majority working class have never posed a threat, so far, to the system that exploits them is because most believe there is no alternative system. The explanation for this can be found in Marx's materialist conception of history. Marx observed that the ruling class of any historical epoch controlled not only the economic sphere of society. Their influence extended further. They perpetuated their own philosophy and ideas that justified their position as masters. So prevalent have been their ideas that so far the subject class take them for granted but this is being continually undermined by the contradictions of capitalism.
Marxism is not a dogma, but a system for the understanding of human history and society. It basically asserts that as securing the means of living is the predominant influence in human life, it has to be the most dominant historical influence.