To: Detroit/Seattle Workers' Voice mailing list
May 31, 2018
RE: The 200th anniversary of Marx's birth

The half-seen Karl Marx

  1. State-ownership is not socialism
  2. Value is not always a good thing
  3. The abolition of commodity exchange
  4. The planned economy and the environment
  5. Support of democratic struggles from a socialist standpoint
  6. The right of national self-determination
  7. Forming the working class into a party
  8. A note on the book Marx 200
  9. Notes

By Joseph Green

This month saw the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx (May 5, 1818-2018). It occurs as inequality, misery, and environmental ruin are increasing throughout the capitalist world, and so Marx's views now seem as fresh as ever. Many articles, books, and even a movie, The Young Marx, have appeared. Leftists are writing their assessment of Marx's legacy, while even some establishment journalists are writing that Marx's critique of capitalism is well-aimed and trenchant, although they claim that the idea that socialism is an alternative is dead.

But while there is a flood of material about Marx, many of his views are brushed aside or forgotten or even regarded by the much of the left itself as obsolete. The movie The Young Marx showed, among other things, how the Communist Manifesto was born in the midst of a struggle against some of the most fashionable left-wing views of the time, such as those of Proudhon, the Left Hegelians, and William Weitling. Today there also has to be a struggle against fashionable views on the left if the Marxist viewpoint is to be remembered. There is much that is useful in the many commemorative articles about Marx that have appeared, but there is much that is generally ignored or misrepresented. And what is only half-seen are some of the Marxist stands that are most relevant for dealing with the crisis of left-wing thought today.

Some of these points are treated briefly below.  Each of these points is worth greater elaboration, and readers are invited to write in their views on these questions.

State-ownership is not socialism

The economists and journalists repeatedly tell us that state-ownership is socialist. During the life of the apartheid regime in South Africa, the conservative Detroit News used to sneer that, due to its state sector,  the apartheid regime in South Africa was socialist. On the left, many groups, pointing to the state sector, regard a number of repressive regimes as socialist or non-capitalist workers regimes. And so, from the Chinese state-capitalist regime to the Assad dictatorship, a substantial part of the left has apologized for repressive regimes.

When the identification of socialism with the state sector is attributed to Marx, one sees the degradation of a revolutionary doctrine to an apology for exploitation and oppression. In reality, Marx and Engels did not regard either the state sector or the social programs of a capitalist economy as socialist, nor did they regard the Lassallean scheme of state subsidies for workers cooperatives as socialist. They held that the state itself would wither away in a fully socialist, classless society, and that only a state controlled by the working class would be a step towards socialism.

Social programs and state-ownership, depending on how the state sector is run, are important reforms under capitalism, but they do not constitute socialism: the class that dominates the economy runs the state, and hence runs the state sector.  Extensive nationalization will be used during the transition between capitalism and socialism, but nationalization itself doesn't tell us what the class character of an economy is. Progress towards socialism is measured by how far the working masses plan and determine what takes place in the economy, not by the size of the state sector.

Value is not always a good thing

It is well-known that Marx championed the labor theory of value, and that he showed how capitalist profit came from surplus-value extracted from the labor of the working class. Marx made a point of showing that even when commodities and wage-labor were paid for at their value, the working class was exploited by the capitalists.

Yet there is a widespread view that if only everything was paid for at its value, exploitation would cease. In the history of the workers movement, there were many attempts to establish labor-banks which bought and sold things at their true value.  They inevitably collapsed, and Marx's theory showed why. Value is not necessarily a good thing: socialism requires overcoming the law of value, not perfecting it by having everything sold at the proper value.

This is as important with respect to environmentalism. It is often noted that the labor-value of a commodity doesn't take account of the greenhouse gases used in producing the item, or of other environmental damage. Many ecosocialists conclude from this that the Marxist definition of value is wrong. They don't realize that it is a positive feature of the labor-theory of value that it helps show that capitalist exchange, even when things are bought at their fair value, not only exploits the workers but damages the environment. They therefore propose correcting everyday capitalist value by defining the true value of a product in accord with the amount of greenhouse gases produced. Far from pricing according to true value saving the environment, such a plan capitulates to the capitalist backlash against environmentalism that saw mandatory regulations replaced with market measures that let firms pick and choose what they will do.

The abolition of commodity exchange

Marx held that a fully socialist society would not carry out buying and selling according to the true value of products, but abolish commodity exchange altogether. That means money, prices, and financial exchange would be gone.  He held that just as the flow of materials and labor takes place today within an enterprise without money, so it could take place without money within the economy as a whole.

This a vastly more radical proposal than the reforms proposed by the market socialists, who can't see beyond a state sector and proper pricing. It's instructive to look back at Engels's book Anti-Duhring, where he criticized the would-be "socialitarian" system of Prof. Eugen Duhring. His system would abolish the capitalist banks and corporations and have all production carried out through local collectives. It was far beyond the fashionable market socialism advocated today, but it did, however, have exchange between those collectives based on the value of the goods produced, and the collectives paid their members according to the value of their labor. And this, Engels demonstrated, would suffice to bring back inequality and the capitalist ills. Although corporations and banks would be gone, the economy would still be subject to the law of value, and that would not liberate the workers but enchain them.

The planned economy and the environment

Because of the oppressive example of the state-capitalist regimes, planning has gotten a bad name. Most of the articles lauding Marxism and its criticism of capitalism shy away from this. Yet the planned economy is the only way to eliminate the invisible hand of market forces, which exist both in market capitalist economies and in societies run by a myriad of localities.

The looming environmental catastrophes underline the need for planning, and planning which embraces whole industries, regions, and even the world. It's total world greenhouse emissions that affect the climate, and it's total plastic and waste dumped into the oceans that poisons life in the seas. It's the economy as a whole which, under the stimulus of the profit motive, is destroying the environment, and it's the economy as a whole that requires more and more regulation.

Marx look ago noted that the lack of overall planning helped devastate the environment. But ecosocialist books that describe in detail the damage wrought by capitalism on the environment generally shy away from discussions on planning. The noted Australian naturalist and environmentalist Timothy Flannery, for example, looked to market measures in the fear that comprehensive planning must degenerate into a "carbon dictatorship".(1)

But there's planning and regulation in the interests of the big corporations, and planning and regulation in the interests of the working masses. Moreover, capitalist and state-capitalist planning, such as that of the USSR, or China, or Cuba, can't even eliminate the deep-routed anarchy of production that goes on in these economies underneath the official planning. Only planning done by the working class, if it is in accordance with the material realities of the economy, can avoid the anarchy of production and protect the environment. In capitalist countries, only if the working masses succeed in having major influence on planning, will that planning take some account of their needs.

So the environmental crisis will undoubtedly bring the class struggle into the sphere of what type of planning. A serious discussion of Marxism has to deal with his view of planning, and with the experience of planning since then. Overall planning in socialism is not only compatible with individual freedoms and initiative, but is a prerequisite for such freedoms to be enjoyed by the population. But what both the market capitalists and the state-capitalist regimes offer is planning that benefits the few and holds the working masses down.

Support of democratic struggles from a socialist standpoint

Marx showed that democracy alone does not liberate the working class, but he didn't thereby denigrate the democratic movements and revolutions. He held that the workers might go through decades of preliminary struggles before the socialist revolution, and these struggles would help mold them into a revolutionary class. This might seem like something everyone on the left agrees with. Yet much of the left disagrees in practice.

For years now we have seen much of the left denounce the struggle against the Assad dictatorship in Syria. There isn't a slander known that hasn't been thrown at the Syrian democrats; even the non-armed White Helmets who simply provide medical care for the victims of the conflict have been denounced as alleged imperialist agents. Similar abuse has been thrown at democrats in Hong Kong, in the former republics of the USSR, and elsewhere.

We see the same disregard for democracy from the apologists for state-capitalist regimes. They label them workers' regimes no matter how few political rights the workers have. When this is repeated year after year about one regime after another, it seems that a section of the movement has lost faith in anything but benevolent dictatorship.

Sometimes this denigration of democracy appears in theory as well as practice. We see this in the Trotskyist theory of "permanent revolution". It claims that Marx's view of democratic struggles is outdated in the present epoch of imperialism, and that nowadays unless a democratic struggle is followed very soon by the formation of a workers' regime, it can't accomplish anything. This theory led many Trotskyist groups to draw fantastic pictures of various democratic uprisings leading to socialism.

There are others on the left who don't believe in "permanent revolution" but nevertheless think that a revolutionary movement can be whatever the activists want it to be. According to this point of view, if activists know the importance of socialism, then any  democratic movement can be turned into a socialist one. But Marxism is based on showing the class distinction between democratic and socialist movements. There are those who say that this distinction means betraying socialism. On the contrary, it has been shown again and again that this distinction is necessary to allow activists to make the best use of participation in the democratic movement. Only in this way can the socialist movement be built up in the midst of the democratic struggle.

Thus Marx didn't just support various democratic struggles, but showed that the working class participated in them in a way different from that of the pure democrats. He showed the need to bring the class issues to the fore of the struggle, even in those situations where socialism is still far off, and he exposed the treachery of the bourgeois democrats.

The right of national self-determination

Marx and Engels made a point of supporting the right to self-determination of Ireland, Poland, and various other countries. They showed the importance of this democratic struggle for the revolutionary class. Engels even famously noted that if Britain had a socialist revolution, then India would separate from it, and should be allowed to do so. Engels's view was that a socialist country should not carry out a colonial war.

The left in general talks of support for national liberation, and yet has repeatedly opposed this. Some on the left supported the brutal Soviet occupation of Afghanistan because they thought the USSR was socialist or a workers' state. Others opposed the national rights of the Kosovars, or the rights of the Eritreans for independence from the Ethiopian Dergue, or the rights of the Ukrainians, etc. This not only displays a view of socialism that omits democracy, but is the opposite of Engels's view that a socialist country would not wage a colonial war.

Forming the working class into a party

Marx and Engels wrote the Manifesto of the Communist Party, but the idea of Marxism without a party is still widely promoted. The oppressive Stalinist parties in  state-capitalist countries have helped discredit the idea of the party, and so have the innumerable Trotskyist sects with their mechanical and rigid views of party discipline, allegedly made democratic if only they admit a few factions.

But we might learn from the fact that Marx and Engels didn't just want a party like the political parties and clubs that already existed in their youth. The film The Young Marx showed Marx and Engels helping reorganize the League of the Just into the Communist League, for which the Communist Manifesto was written. But this was just the start of their striving for organization. They  ended up devoting their lives to working towards the development of a type of mass party that had never been seen before.

The Communist League seems ideal to some people today, as it was composed of a group of active, knowledgeable, and dedicated members. These members played a major role in Germany in the revolution of 1848-49. But they did so as individuals, while the CL played little role as an organization. It wasn't able to carry out agitation, and the mass organizations formed by workers in the revolution were separate from it.

So after the defeat of the revolutions of 1848-49, Marx and Engels embarked on a long process to build up a party that was connected to the workers' economic struggles, that could carry out nation-wide political agitation, and that had a mass membership which was expected to be active and to determine party policy. There were no previous models to follow. The  Jacobin Club, for example, had led the most radical moments of the great French Revolution, but viewed revolution as a matter of the will rather than the conscious action of a class. The effort to create a new form of organization led through the First International, to the building of  socialist workers parties in individual countries, and finally, after the deaths of Marx and Engels, to the Second International. For a time, the Second International was the organization of class-conscious workers, but it capitulated to capitalist governments at the start of World War I. It would be the Third International that would build stronger parties, capable of resisting the bourgeoisie even at times of extreme crisis, and capable,  at their best, of unleashing far more activity from the masses of the working class. The Second International, meanwhile, still exists today under the name of the Socialist International, but it degenerated long ago into pro-capitalist parties representing bourgeois interests and even heading some bourgeois governments.

Today one shouldn't follow the model of the Second International, a number of whose parties are trusted by large sections of the bourgeoisie to serve its interests. Nor can we copy everything from the Third International, which at its best built parties capable of leading difficult revolutions as well as surviving through periods of reaction, but whose parties degenerated into the state-capitalist and revisionist parties of today. Today we need to build up parties that take account of the lessons of the parties of the past and continue the Marxist tradition of party-building. Today these would have to be anti-revisionist parties, opposed to the revision or parody of the views of Marx and Lenin which have been promoted by the Stalinist and Trotskyist parties.

A note on the book Marx 200

As I was finishing this article, I received the copy I had ordered of the book Marx 200 - a review of Marx's economics 200 years after his birth by Michael Roberts. He is regarded by many as a Marxist economist, and he promises in the introduction that "This book will look back at Marx's economic ideas and see just how relevant they are for 21st century." And yet it ignores most of the points mentioned above.

Roberts, for example, has nothing to say about the nature of the state sector in the present-day economies. And in particular, he doesn't speak directly to the nature of the former USSR or of China or Cuba. Are these state-capitalist countries or did they escape capitalism and the law of value? Are these models of what he considers the alternative to capitalism? These are questions of importance, as people don't want the oppressive Stalinist system that eventually was seen in the USSR. If Marx's economics is still relevant, it must have some relevance to discussing such issues.

When it comes to the environment, Roberts says that Marx and Engels denounced capitalism for devastating it. But Roberts avoids their analysis of the need for planning. He says nothing about the contrast between the market measures championed by bourgeois environmentalists and effective regulatory measures. If Roberts really was showing the relevance of Marxism,for the 21st century, why does he leave out an issue which is becoming more pressing by the day -- the role of planning and regulation with respect to the environment, and what this means about capitalism and the need for an alternative?   Indeed, when Roberts talks about "capitalist accumulation" devastating this or that, he doesn't say how an economy could be organized without this. Perhaps that's because if he went into this, it would discredit the Russian and Chinese examples he prefers.

Even a number of bourgeois economists will say that Marx is relevant in the sense that he showed that there are problems with capitalism. But they claim there is no alternative to capitalism. In fact, Marxism points the way towards an alternative. If one leaves this out, the impression is that one would be satisfied with present-day economies, if they developed a dominant state sector, like the state-capitalist countries, and pushed through some social programs. All the criticism of capitalist accumulation would vanish before an energetic state sector, if one's analysis of capitalism omits its relationship to the state sector. Such a conception will leave the working class disarmed when even Western capitalism has to resort to increased state regulation when the economic and environmental crises finally panic the upper classes.

What we need is not simply to learn to use Marxist terms like "capitalist accumulation", but to see how Marx's analysis applies to one crucial issue facing us after another. Instead Michaels's book is a toothless version of Marxism, more concerned with debating with other detached economists then with dealing with what we need to do today.


(1) Flannery, The Weather Makers, p. 295, cited in "The Coming of the Environmental Crisis", Communist Voice, January 2007, <>

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Posted on June 10, 2018 (some typos corrected)
Some typos have been corrected.