Chris Harman

How Marxism Works

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 we’re 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 weren’t for the rich there wouldn’t 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 – you’ll 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 society’s 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 world’s 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.

The idealists

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 bowed down before it, feeling miserable because they could not live up to something they themselves had made. The more society advanced, the more miserable, ‘alienated’, people became.

In his own earliest writings Marx took this notion of ‘alienation’ and applied it to the life of those who created the wealth of society:

The worker becomes poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and range ... With the increasing value of the world of things proceeds in direct proportion the devaluation of the world of men ... The object which labour produces confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer ...

In Marx’s time the most popular explanations of what was wrong with society were still of a religious kind. The misery of society, it was said, was because of the failure of people to do what God wanted them to. If only we were all to ‘renounce sin’ everything would turn out all right.

A similar view is often heard today, although it usually purports to be non-religious. This is the claim that ‘to change society, you must first change yourself’. If only individual men and women would cure themselves of ‘selfishness’ or ‘materialism’ (or occasionally ‘hangups’) then society would automatically get better.

A related view spoke not of changing all individuals, but a few key ones – those who exercise power in society. The idea was to try to make the rich and powerful ‘see reason’.

One of the first British socialists, Robert Owen, began by trying to convince industrialists that they should be kinder to their workers. The same idea is still dominant today among the leaders of the Labour Party, including its left wing. Note how they always call the crimes of the employers ‘mistakes’, as if a bit of argument will persuade big business to relax its grip on society.

Marx referred to all such views as ‘idealist’. Not because he was against people having ‘ideas’, but because such views see ideas as existing in isolation from the conditions in which people live.

People’s ideas are intimately linked to the sort of lives they are able to live. Take, for instance, ‘selfishness’. Present day capitalist society breeds selfishness – even in people who continually try to put other people first. A worker who wants to do their best for their children, or to give their parents something on top of their pension, finds the only way is to struggle continually against other people – to get a better job, more overtime, to be first in the queue for redundancy. In such a society you cannot get rid of ‘selfishness’ or ‘greediness’ merely by changing the minds of individuals.

It’s even more ridiculous to talk of changing society by changing the ideas of ‘top people’. Suppose you were successful in winning a big employer over to socialist ideas and he then stopped exploiting workers. He would just lose in competition with rival employers and be driven out of business.

Even for those who rule society what matters is not ideas but the structure of the society in which they hold those ideas.

The point can be put another way. If ideas are what change society, where do the ideas come from? We live in a certain sort of society. The ideas put across by the press, the TV, the educational system and so on defend that sort of society. How has anyone ever been able to develop completely different ideas? Because their daily experiences contradict the official ideas of our society.

For example, you cannot explain why far fewer people are religious today than 100 years ago simply in terms of the success of atheistic propaganda. You have to explain why people listen to atheistic ideas in a way they did not 100 years ago.

Similarly, if you want to explain the impact of ‘great men’, you have to explain why other people agree to follow them. It is no good saying that, for example. Napoleon or Lenin changed history, without explaining why millions of people were willing to do what they suggested. After all, they were not mass hypnotists. Something in the life of society at a certain point led people to feel that what they suggested seemed correct.

You can only understand how ideas change history if you understand where those ideas come from and why people accept them. That means looking beyond the ideas to the material conditions of the society in which they occur. That is why Marx insisted, ‘It is not consciousness that determines being, but social being that determines consciousness.’


Last updated on 26 January 2010