Marxism 101: Introduction to Marxism

The following Q&A, originally published by the British youth organization Communist Students, is part one of the New Communist Party of America’s Marxism 101 political education course. A short list of suggested discussion questions for group or individual study is provided at the end.

1. What is Marxism?
Communist Students is guided by the ideas of Marxism and the history of the communist movement it inspired. For us Marxism is not a dogmatic list of beliefs or policies which come to us ready-made. Rather it is a political strategy for achieving communism, one which must be constantly updated, debated, and enriched.This political strategy boils down to a handful of basic propositions:

1. The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.2. The emancipation of the working class is the fundamental basis for freeing humanity from class-divided society.3. The emancipation of the working class and humanity means abolishing exploitation and ushering in a whole new way of organising society, politically, economically and culturally – communism.4. Communism can only be achieved by the working class itself, through conscious political activity.Marxism is not a monolithic belief system; indeed someone once said that there are more real disagreements within the Marxist school of thought than outside it. Exactly what we mean by communism and the working class (or proletariat), or what it would mean for the workers themselves to overthrow capitalism, are all live issues in Marxist theory.

Disagreements are natural and healthy, resulting in increased understanding and the changing of outdated ideas, and our members are encouraged to air their differences openly. It is only through criticism and struggle – from minor correctives to outdated notions, to painstaking research, to vigorous polemics – that we can arrive collectively the ideas we need to put Marx’s strategy into practice.

2. What does Marxism tell us about capitalism?
By analysing the economic fortunes and political systems of capitalism, Karl Marx concluded that exploitation and oppression would always be part and parcel of the system. The private ownership of productive property (factories, machines, transport networks and so on) meant that some were in a position to profit from their use. The majority, who owned nothing, or at least nothing productive, had no choice but to sell their ability to work, or ‘labour-power’, to the highest bidder. This is inherently an unequal relationship; the workers must work to survive, or else rely on benefits and other meagre handouts, and are reduced to competing with each other to sell themselves for the lowest price.

This is the basic definition of the working class in Marxist theory – the whole mass of people separated from the means of production, who have nothing to sell but their labour, and no political strength beyond their ability to organise together for their own interests.

The machines, automation, and subsequent division of labour which came with capitalism also means that most people are restricted to exercising their abilities in a very narrow field. First came the division of mental and manual labour, and then these were further divided into increasingly narrow specialisms. From the factory worker pulling a lever to stamp a mould, to the office worker filling in the same form again and again, capitalism puts a straitjacket on our creativity and varied human abilities. It is a dehumanising system reducing us all to cogs in a giant machine. Even the worker in ‘creative’ industries must use their talent to sell more stuff for the capitalists. And even the artist or writer must find someone to print or display their work, within a narrow-minded cultural industry which is risk-averse and favours that which has already proved popular.

Further, capitalism is not even successful on its own terms of constantly generating economic growth. It is faced with insoluble contradictions which periodically plunge it into crisis. Not least of which, capitalists have to make profit by not paying workers the full proceed of their labour, but must be able to sell the product to someone. Capital tries to escape from this by creating new markets (a process now termed globalisation, which has in reality been going on for three centuries) and expanding into every sphere of life possible (the much-bewailed commercialisation of all aspects of life). This expansion can only put off the inevitable though, as we are seeing with the present crisis. This is caused, ironically, by an excess of productivity, by there being too much capital and nowhere to profitably invest it. The solution of governments across the world is to make the working class pay for this crisis of capital. It is because there is too much that millions are thrown on the dole, or worse, into starvation. Not because there are not enough resources to supply human needs; far from it. Capitalism is simply incapable of using the planet’s resources to provide for those needs.

Marxists do not believe the system can be tamed or reformed; capitalism relies fundamentally on profit and unceasing accumulation. This systemic logic ends up overriding all blocks to its progress. It assumes the form of an abstraction: the ‘markets’, ‘finance’, an inescapable burden dictating the course of humanity which no individual, however well-intentioned, can escape or subvert. This is why charitable and ‘green’ capitalists, or reformist governments cannot make any fundamental difference to the course of human history. The social results of this logic we, the working class, reap as exploitation, environmental & social degradation; and oppression by the state, the ‘general council of the capitalists’, when we dare to protest.

3. What does Marxism say about abolishing capitalism?
If the system cannot be reformed, it must be overthrown. Marxist political economy not only enables us to make sense of the recurring economic crises which throw millions onto the dole and lead to starvation and war, but also points to the possibility of a world beyond capitalism. Workers, peasants, and the unemployed form a vast majority around the world, with a common interest in abolishing this system for the good of humanity as a whole. This common political interest, continually denied and savaged by the nationalist bourgeois media, is not all. The fact is that this group -the working class- only ever betters it’s position by collective action. Strikes, demonstrations, armed revolts; mass action is the only thing which has improved our material conditions and won the limited freedoms and democracy that some of us enjoy.

There are no solutions in a return to the past, of small-scale farming and barter as fantasised about by ‘deep greens’ and occasionally mainstream liberals. This should be particularly clear now when, for instance, Britain imports over 80% of its food and could never support a population of 70 million even if the whole island was turned over to farming. We want to take the highest achievements of capitalism -global production and distribution networks, advanced science and technology- and democratise them, putting them at the service of social need. Not return to some idealised past.

To challenge this system on a fundamental level, and in a progressive, not a reactionary way, requires an internationalist perspective. ‘The workers have no country’, capitalism is a global system and can only be superseded on a world scale. Governments and business owners around the world have far more in common with each other than they do with the working and unemployed poor. The Russian Revolution, after a brief period of much extended political liberties and social freedoms, ultimately collapsed because it failed to spread. Encircled by hostile capitalist governments enforcing a blockade and supporting a vicious civil war, the revolution turned into its opposite, and became the nightmare of the Stalinist USSR. We are here to reclaim Marxism and communism for what they really mean; radical democracy, freedom of debate and organisation, and the unsparing criticism of oppression wherever it manifests itself.

The only alternative to the undemocratic anarchy of capitalist production is real democracy in every sphere of life. That means majority control over the means of production and distribution, over what we make and where it goes. It means humanising work and education, so everyone has the opportunity to develop their talents to the full and partakes in varied types of work as it suits them. Such a communist society would provide the basis, of material abundance, for the flourishing of our capacities, and represent the real beginning of human history.

4. Marxism and dogmatism
As we have stressed, Marxism is not a petrified body of outdated dogmas. The Hungarian philosopher, Georg Lukács, put it simply:

“Let us assume for the sake of argument that recent research had disproved once and for all every one of Marx’s individual theses. Even if this were to be proved, every serious ‘orthodox’ Marxist would still be able to accept all such modern findings without reservation and hence dismiss all of Marx’s theses in toto – without having to renounce his orthodoxy for a single moment. Orthodox Marxism, therefore, does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx’s investigations…It is the scientific conviction that dialectical materialism is the road to truth and that its methods can be developed, expanded and deepened only along the lines laid down by its founders.”

Unfortunately, many on the left do not heed this warning – or do so only in words, instead considering the essential questions of Marxist politics to be definitively settled by some leader-figure or another. This results in parodies of Marxism, instead of the real thing. The recent history of the Left shows that building groups on the basis of agreeing with every dot and comma of a particular thinker, be it Trotsky, Mao or anyone else, is doomed to fail. The purpose of revolutionary politics, to develop critical, thinking members who are used to democratic debate and can one day take an active part in the running of society, has turned into its opposite – the enslavement of ordinary members to self appointed ‘Priests of the Word’.

Instead various rival groups, or more accurately sects, aim for ideological uniformity and actually exercise tight control over internal debate. This top-down control of debate is often justified by the need for ‘revolutionary discipline’ and ‘unity in action’. We are not opposed to either of these, but unity of ideas, of philosophy and political strategy, is an impossibility. CS members are expected to accept our 14-point platform, ‘What we fight for’, but not to agree with it all – because they may not; and are free to propose motions at our conference to change it. Karl Marx’s starting point was ‘the merciless criticism of everything existing’ and this is a philosophy we aim to stay true to; including the criticism of other left wing groups and our own politics.

1. What are some of the contradictions in capitalism that lead it to crisis?
2. What makes Marxism different from other political methods – like nationalism, liberalism or social democracy?
3. Why is the working class the most consistently revolutionary class? What makes it so special?

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