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Colin Barker

The Marx behind the myth

(October 1991)

From Socialist Review, No. 146, October 1991, pp. 10–13.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

What did Karl Marx really say? Colin Barker cuts through the lies and myths to find the real vibrancy of Marx’s life and ideas. Far from being dead, Marx’s revolutionary tradition can now breathe a new lease of life, no longer tainted by the icons which deadened his thought.

FOR DECADES, the regime in the USSR used the name – and hosts of statues and portraits – of Karl Marx like a magic talisman. They turned this atheistic and very human Victorian revolutionary into the unreal symbol of a state religion – much as Japan’s rulers claimed its Emperors were divine.

Every student was required to study his ideas – or so it seemed. On closer inspection, their textbooks had turned poor old Marx’s ideas upside down and converted them into props for the ruling class. And the students knew if they wanted to pass their course, they had to repeat the lies.

Marx thought that, under socialism, the state would wither away. Stalin declared the state must become stronger. Marx saw the theft of the peasants’ lands as the birthmark of capitalism. Stalin stole the peasants’ lands, and called it communism. Marx opposed slavery, and chose as his favourite hero Spartacus, leader of the slaves’ revolt. Stalin condemned millions to slave labour camps. Marx thought socialism must be international. The Stalinists added a footnote to Marx’s The German Ideology stating this was no longer true. Marx was a critic of religion. They turned him into a Saint. Marx thought freedom for oppressed nations was a condition of freedom for all. Stalin turned the Baltic countries and Eastern Europe into colonies. Marx thought workers’ domination and the accumulation of capital was the very hallmark of alienation. That only applied in the West, Komrade ...

So why, since on every point they utterly opposed Marx’s ideas, did the Stalinist rulers bother with the poor fellow? Because briefly in 1917 there had been a glorious attempt to begin world socialist revolution in Russia. And that attempt was inspired by genuine Marxist ideas. In 1917, the workers created their own new democratic power. Alas, because the Russian Revolution was isolated and (even worse) was embattled in a backward country where workers were only a small minority, they could not keep the new power they’d created in their own hands.

The revolution, in short, degenerated – and within a dozen years was completely overturned. Its defeat produced, under Joseph Stalin, one of the most vicious anti working class regimes known to 20th century history.

Stalin himself, like some of his associates, had once been a rather minor figure in the revolution; he did not now declare himself chief of a counter revolution. Instead, his regime developed to the nth degree the art not just of murder, but also of lying. And one of the Stalinist lies was that their regime represented the ideas of Karl Marx.

Russian socialists who challenged the lies were vilified as ‘fascists’ and slaughtered. Across the world, isolated groups of socialists – predominantly the best of the Trotskyists – also fought to keep the truth about Marx alive.

But what did the rulers of the West say? Yes, they said, Stalin’s lies were true! How convenient for them that words like ‘socialism’, ‘communism’, ‘Marxism’ – words that originally reflected the finest struggles for human freedom – should be associated in the minds of workers with totalitarianism! The Daily Express or the Six O’ Clock News was hardly going to urge people to discover the real Marx behind the lies! Exposing untruths, after all, was not their forte.

If corpses did have attitudes, then for more than half a century old Karl Marx, in his underground opposition in Highgate Cemetery, could only turn and mutter curses.

Now though, things are changing. Marx’s cadaver can chuckle. After more than six decades of nightmare, his real ideas can come to the light of day.

WHO WAS HE, this bearded old fellow? For a start, surprise, he wasn’t always bearded or old. Marx was a radical student and journalist in Germany, on the extreme left of the democratic movement. From the beginning of his career, he was in trouble with the authorities, for attacking state censorship. From the start, he was a committed democrat, and remained so for the whole of his life.

In the early 1840s, young Karl Marx became a communist. This did not mean that he abandoned democratic ideals; rather it meant that he deepened them a hundred-fold. It’s not enough, he argued, to fight for ‘political emancipation’, to win the vote and citizenship rights for all. The real roots of human oppression and alienation lie deeper, in the very way that society itself is organised. Changing the constitution is useful, but limited: real freedom for humankind can only come, not by replacing Monarchy with Republic, but by overthrowing private property, competition and exploitation.

In a democratic republic – the US, or hopefully the nations of the USSR, today – everyone is ‘equal before the law’. But misery and poverty continue. Slavery is abolished: but only outside the workplace. Deliberately using the language of politics, Marx insisted that capitalists have ‘despotic’ power over workers at work, and called the workers ‘wage slaves’.

But the problems of capitalism go deeper. A divided social system across the globe, driven by competition between rival capitalists and rival states, is a system out of all control. It is subject to immense convulsions and crises, which alternately promote mad expansions of exploitation and even more lunatic slumps, when workers are cast on the scrapheap.

Workers, Marx explained, are alienated in every sphere of their life. The whole social world rests on the labour of working people, but it is out of our control. The very thing that distinguishes us from the rest of the animal world is our human power to work creatively and gain mastery over production, but capitalism systematically takes this from us. We are a social species, all of us are inextricably dependent on millions of other people; but capitalism sets us against each other, in competition and war.

Humanity needs to take back, collectively and democratically, its own power to shape the world. To do that, it must destroy the power of the ruling classes.

MARX WAS NOT the first communist. What distinguished his thought from previous communist thinkers was his terrific sense of history, together with an equally powerful sense of ‘realism’ about the struggle for a communist society.

He argued, against a host of utopian critics of capitalism, that it’s no good just wishing for a different world, or drawing up hair brained schemes for social regeneration. Communism only becomes really possible on two conditions.

The first condition is that human productivity should have developed sufficiently to make communism practicable. A poverty-stricken world, where men and women can barely produce enough for their own needs, could not sustain a genuinely democratic society: everyone would be at each others throats.

Anyone reading the Communist Manifesto for the first time always gets a surprise: Marx starts by praising the achievements of the bourgeoisie! It was capitalism’s historic achievement, he argued, that now, for the first time in history, the material conditions for communism were created. Only in the modern world has human mastery of nature developed to the point where everyone can have enough to eat, adequate clothing and housing, and plenty of free time. However, the methods by which the capitalist class developed humanity’s productive forces were barbarous and irrational in the extreme. Nonetheless, in past history recurrent famines were an inescapable part of human fate; today everyone knows that not a child needs to starve, that not a single sick person needs to lack medical care. In the past the only solution to basic human misery seemed to be prayer; today, thanks to capitalism’s achievements, we know the problem is political.

The second condition is connected with the first. For communism to be more than a dream, there must be a real social force to bring it into being. And this too was capitalism’s achievement: as Marx put it, ‘What the bourgeoisie above all produces are its own gravediggers’. Capitalism developed the modern working class.

Why this emphasis? Workers are unlike previous exploited and oppressed classes in history. Capitalism itself shoves them together, in cities and workplaces, endowing them with collective power; capitalism forces them to cooperate with each other; capitalism, precisely in order to exploit workers better, must educate them and raise their cultural level – far above, indeed, the level of previous ruling classes. And capitalism compels them into a life of permanent struggle, whether they like it or not.

What distinguishes the working class, therefore, from all previous exploited classes is not its misery. Indeed, although workers are more alienated than peasants, they live on average better and longer lives. But crucially, the working class has immense power and capacities. It is the first class in history which is capable of overthrowing class society entirely.

And the more that capitalism develops, the bigger and potentially stronger the working class becomes across the globe. In 1848, when Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto, the working class was still tiny: it formed a majority of the population only in Britain and perhaps one or two other countries. Even in England at that time, most workers were still employed in very small workplaces. Today, the working class – those who live by selling their labour power – is for the first time in history a majority of the world’s population.

And the potential power of the working class today is immeasurably greater than in Marx’s own time.

The other side of the coin is that capitalism, as part of its very method of development, is also convulsed by crises. The difference between Marx’s time and ours is not, as some bourgeois thinkers and even some fake socialists have argued, that capitalism has overcome its tendency to crisis: rather, the crises of the 20th century have been on a larger and more terrible scale. Now therefore, the stakes in the class struggle are much higher. When workers’ movements are defeated, the price they pay is on a scale that Marx could not have imagined in his worst nightmares: world wars, fascism, the Gulag and the Holocaust, the threat of nuclear Armageddon.

Marx once wrote that the choice for humanity was between socialism and barbarism: the truth of that observation is more obvious and chilling today.

MARX WAS NOT an Ivory Tower intellectual, but was actively involved in the revolutionary movements of his own time. Expelled from Germany for political activity, he returned to Cologne on the outbreak of revolution in 1848 to edit a radical paper and play a leading part in the popular movement. The defeat of the German revolution saw him exiled once more, this time to England.

Every great revolutionary learns from the experience of both victories and defeats. From 1848 to 1852, Marx wrote a series of brilliant articles and pamphlets, analysing the course of the 1848 revolutions. The sharp conclusions that he drew remain all too relevant to the situation in the USSR today.

In future, he warned, the workers must learn organised mistrust of the middle class democrats, who will betray them at every turn. They must develop their own independent demands and their own organisations, and always be ready to act independently. Whenever the middle class democrats show any sign of fighting the authorities or defending democracy from attack, the workers must always join their side in a united front. But, he insisted, the workers should never forget that those same democrats still want them to remain as exploited workers, and can therefore never be trusted. The workers need their own parties, their own armed militia, and above all their own ideas.

How relevant to the situation of workers in Russia today! When the August coup against Gorbachev began, it was in workers’ direct interest to defeat it. If the coup had succeeded, workers would have lost all union rights, all freedom of speech and organisation. But their attitude to Yeltsin and his supporters needed to be deeply mistrustful: for these same ‘defenders of democracy’ want to impose the ‘free market’, which will mean misery and unemployment for many millions of workers, and will in turn weaken the fighting capacity of the whole working class. Yeltsin and Co only support workers’ rights when it suits them. Socialists in the USSR need to argue, today, for exactly the kinds of practical lessons that Marx drew after 1848.

Of course, 1991 is very different from 1848. The 1850s witnessed a period of huge expansions of capitalism worldwide, and the whole level of the class struggle receded. The prospects for workers today are of years of continuing crisis, and terrible difficulties. The level of the class struggle will rise, not diminish. No socialist in the 1990s will be able to do as Marx did, and retire for a decade from direct political activity.

IN THE 1860s, there was again a revival of the workers’ movement, and Marx again immersed himself in it. In the same years that he was preparing the manuscripts for his great unfinished masterpiece, Das Kapital, Marx also became the secretary of the International Working Men’s Association. This was the first real international organisation of workers, and brought Marx into direct practical contact with the trade unions and workers’ parties of Europe.

From the beginning, the IWMA united ‘economic’ and ‘political’ questions. Until 1871, its chief practical activities were two: it organised support for the Polish struggle for independence, and engaged in quite effective international strike support work. It also identified strongly with the struggle against slavery in America, firmly supporting Abraham Lincoln and the North against the southern Slave owners’ Republic. Marx was at the centre of much of this work. He drafted the IWMA’s rules whose opening words expressed the very heart of his ideas: The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.

The aim of the International was ‘the abolition of all class rule.’ The basis of all servitude, misery, degradation and political dependence across the world, the Rules explained, was the worker’s economic subjection to ‘the monopoliser of the means of labour’. Every political movement should therefore centre on the goal of ‘the economic emancipation of the working classes’. That task could not be undertaken on a local or national basis, but required international solidarity between workers in different countries .

In 1871, after the Franco-Prussian War, the working people of Paris briefly and heroically established a new form of organisation, the Paris Commune. After two months, their immensely democratic and popular government was smashed to pieces in a brutal orgy of ruling class violence. Thousands were killed. In the name of the IWMA, Marx put out a long and noble statement in defence of the Commune. In the principles developed by the Communards, he suggested, there lay the most marvellous advances. In their practice, the Parisian workers had developed the basic framework required for a real workers’ state. They had abolished the old ruling class state machine, based on bureaucracy and privilege. In the Commune every office holder had to be elected and subject to recall: not just the ‘government’ but also the judiciary, police, military officers and the rest. All those who held office were paid no more than an ordinary worker. In place of the professional standing army and police, the armed workers themselves handled all issues of order and military defence .

For Marx, the experience of the Commune showed two things above all. The first he always took for granted: the practical creativity of workers in struggle produces results more advanced than any intellectual or leader could achieve. The Parisian workers and artisans had established what two generations of communist theoreticians had never grasped: the fundamental principles of a socialist constitution. Second, their struggle had shown something that even Marx had never fully grasped before: if working people were genuinely to run society, they needed a new and much more democratic form of regime. And that required sweeping away the old hierarchical state. ‘The working class’, as he wrote, ‘cannot simply lay hold of the ready made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.’

In that one brief sentence Marx drew a line of division between real communists, those who struggle for working class power, and every variant of reformist. The existing state machinery is designed to keep the great majority out of power; it must be broken, and replaced by a new form of state, which is directly subject to popular election and control.

THE DEFEAT OF the Commune meant, in practice, the recession of the IWMA. It would be several years before a new beginning in socialist politics in Europe could be made. When that happened, in France and in Germany, it soon became apparent that the new workers’ parties would be dominated by a new problem: reformism. Marx died in 1883, before these tendencies had fully developed. Nonetheless, among the writings of his last years were two crucial documents that directly related to this question.

In the first, The Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875), he blasted the German socialist party for being soft both on the question of the state and of the market, and for its lack of clarity about the transition to socialism. In the second, a long circular letter to German socialists (1879), he and his comrade Frederick Engels attacked the influence of liberal reformists in the workers’ movement. They concluded:

‘When the International was formed, we expressly formulated the battle cry: the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself. We cannot ally ourselves, therefore, with people who openly declare that the workers are too uneducated to free themselves and must first be liberated from above by philanthropic big bourgeois or petty bourgeois.’

Thus, from the beginning of his life as a communist until his death, the real Karl Marx argued and fought for one thing: that the working people of the world should organise themselves to take every form of power into their own hands, directly.

Always and everywhere he opposed those who preached ‘socialism from above’. For Marx, the working class alone has the capacity to free the new society that lies, waiting to be built, within the present chaotic and divided world of capitalism. No one need starve in a world where food surpluses are produced every year. No one need be homeless, or tortured, or bossed about by bureaucrats or ‘top people’.

In Marx’s view it is the job of socialists to spread these ideas, to organise themselves, not apart from the everyday struggles of working people, but in intimate association with them. The workers, who can and must rule the globe, can only come to a realisation of their own potential through struggle. In every defeat and in every partial movement, the need is for socialists to be involved in the fight, showing the way forward to working class solidarity and power.

IT IS NOT surprising that at this moment in Russia and Eastern Europe workers are rejecting ‘Marxism’. Faced in the 1870s with people (including his son-in-law) who misrepresented his ideas, Marx declared roundly, ‘I am not a Marxist’. For over sixty years, workers have been told that ‘Marxism’ means oppression, exploitation, and lies. For a time, that dead-weight will hold back the movement. But not for very long.

The pressures of the crisis, in the USSR and Eastern Europe but also across the globe, mean that bitter and terrible battles are to come. Russian workers will find themselves pitchforked into struggles in defence of their newly won freedoms and in defence of their living standards. The hard knocks of real life will soon show many of them the need for genuine socialist ideas and organisation.

Stalinism is dead. For the first time in most people’s living memory, the first sprouts of real socialist organisation are already appearing in Moscow, Budapest, Warsaw and the other great proletarian cities.

In these exciting new times, the real Karl Marx can again be discovered: not as some terrible bronze statue of a God, but as an exceptionally fine old comrade and friend of the workers’ movement, with some marvellous ideas that need spreading about.

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Last updated: 20 February 2020