In a letter to Ludwig Kugelmann on December 13, 1870, on the subject of the combination of civil war with revolutionary wars, Karl Marx opined that socialists should embrace giving “the proletariat practice in arms.”
141 years later, capitalist governments such as the US have been given permission by the UN to arm rebels in Libya.
Today, also, Tory backbencher Mark Pritchard said the “international community should allow rebels access to arms”.
And what have the UK’s Marxist representatives said? Simon Assaf for the Socialist Worker has said:
It may seem callous to oppose intervention in the face of such harrowing repression. But any Western intervention will come at a heavy price.
Since arming the revolution would count as “Western intervention” I guess that’s out of the question.
The world has turned upside down.
If, apropos Marx and Engels, the lowest common denominator of a State is a body of armed men, then full-fledged opposition to the State not only warrants violence, it requires it.
A truism this may be, though it seems to have escaped the voluminous ramblings of politicians and pundits after last week’s incident at Conservative Party HQ. Truisms cannot be the end of the story however.
This “body of armed men” do not simply represent naked force, they represent compulsion of all forms. If you disobey the law, the end result is forcible incarceration.
Resistance to this compulsion is a challenge to the legitimacy of the State. This is a violence equal and opposite to the compulsion of the State. Whether actual fisticuffs or property destruction takes place is frankly irrelevant.
To me this makes all the supportive noises around “civil disobedience” seem so disingenuous. If pursued to their logical conclusion, violence is inevitable; the ruling class will not relinquish power willingly. Human history threatens to bear me out on this point.
In critiquing the move towards violence, we must thus be more politically sophisticated than simply stating that violence is wrong, or recycling the truism that it is ‘counterproductive’, as though that answers anything. What the leaders of the NUS and other organisations usually mean by ‘counterproductive’ is that it upsets their pleasant media strategy, so they have to go on breakfast shows and apologise like naughty schoolchildren rather than pontificate.
This wouldn’t mean anything if the campaigns of ‘civil disobedience’ were concerted, sustained efforts dedicated to bringing about a democratic, accountable, mass movement that could override the authority of the State in the matter of education provision.
Attacking Conservative Party HQ was a tactical mistake, and a presumption by a minority of hotheads that they had the right to assume control of the whole march. It was anti-democratic, it served no purpose – but it was not wrong merely because it was violent.
Contra spokespersons for the Green Party (and inevitably the pro-capitalist parties), I believe that the announced plans of the Conservative/Lapdog coalition do justify violence. The question is what sort of violence. If they feel they can strip bare the lives of the least vocal, the least politic, the least able of this country, then they justify our pulling down the government and dancing in its ashes.
This is not a terroristic demand, nor does it take place separate from the political consciousness of the people of this country. It is a goal we realise through agitation along class lines; if workers are to be exploited by the cronies of those who run the State (cronies who at whiles populate the arms of the State), then workers have the right to resist.
As that resistance is a challenge to the legitimacy of government and State, it will ultimately be violent if we are to carry it through to its end – the reversal of these policies and the destruction of the class system which produced them.
Today’s continuing anti-fee protests and occupations might perhaps be a tentative first step along that road, beset as it will inevitably be by wrong turns, misjudgments and the fork-tongued.
John Harris said something in the Guardian today which resonated with me. His article is about how, when we question the Liberal Democrats’ free market, orange book clique taking over the party and being further to the right than some Tories, we forget that the party will not collapse “under the weight of its own contradictions” but will continue to fight on – the Labour party is one case in point.
Firstly, we at TCF certainly do not forget that the Labour party organised around the central contradictions of free market, laissez-faire capitalism, and I suspect not many others have forgotten this either.
Secondly, to use the Liberal Democrats being in power, as Harris does, as a sign that they are a working force, and not collapsing “under the weight…” does not add to his argument at all – the Liberal Democrats were mere kingmakers in the coalition, and their downfall has yet to be seen (I’m thinking the snubs they’ve been getting from the electorate locally, and the scheming eye of Simon Hughes).
By comparing them with the Labour, Harris is not matching like for like.
But nevertheless, the thing he said which resonated with me:
Marx and Engels may not be quite the influential titans they once were, but even among some of the most modernised minds on the left, one of their followers’ behavioural tics is alive and well: surveying something you either don’t like or can’t understand, and then loftily pronouncing that it will fall apart under the weight of its own contradictions. So far, it hasn’t applied to capitalism. Neither, I would wager, will it be true of either the coalition or the Liberal Democrats, though that doesn’t seem to have quietened August’s loudest political noise.
Having been to university myself, I too have been a Marxist (a phase that sadly wore off soon after I left), but I always saw this point – made by many – a little stupid. And Marx was not naive to this point. Because an economic model does not fall apart under the weight of its own contradictions, that does not mean it is not a spent force and that the end of history is in capitalism (which is why Francis Fukuyama wrote that book Our Posthuman Future – to show that he was wrong in 1989); it means either that we are playing with rusty goods so to speak (by which I obviously mean its existence is continued only because people are desperately trying to keep afloat a broken system for as long as possible after its sell by date, because it makes them better off) or that it has had to supplement itself with other models so as to sustain itself.
I think it is a cross between the two – a system that is past its sell by date that has saturated itself with liberal or social democratic systems of government welfare to hide that fact that its cracks are enormous (and they quite often fail to hide those gaps).
It was a flippant remark, but it’s not an unusual critique of Marx. The real case is he was right about capitalism, he just underestimated the power of bullshit by capitalists.
In responses to my recent postings I have encountered scepticism about the validity or relevance of Marxian economics today. So I thought it would be worth explaining a few reasons why he has to be taken very seriously as an economist.
It feels a bit like summarizing Proust in 100 words to say this but, the two most important things that Marx wrote about the economy were that labour is the source of exchange value, and that the incomes of the propertied classes derived from the exploitation of labour.
He was not the first to make these points, they were an established strand of early 19th century thought, but Marx made the points more clearly and with greater cogency than any of his predecessors. Nowadays, these ideas are absent – not only from the economics curriculum but even from Communist Party policy.
Why? Have they been proven wrong?
Well orthodox economists are pretty confident that the labour theory of value has been proven wrong, but if you follow up the literature, their proofs are of a type peculiar to contemporary economics. In most sciences, hypotheses are evaluated by confronting their predictions with empirical data. In economics proof is rather different. It is mathematical proof of the form: Let us assume the following axioms, and then see what must be true about the economy.
Using proofs of this sort, Samuelson for example claimed to have demonstrated that the labour theory value provided no useful information about prices.
The problem with this is that if the axioms are wrong, the proof is worthless. By a judicious choice of axioms one can prove all sorts of things.
They found that the predictions of Marx and before him Ricardo had been spot on. Market prices were actually correlated with labour values to the remarkable degree of 95% or more. That meant that 95% of the variation in the prices of goods is explained by the labour cost of making them.
More strikingly, it was shown that the more capital intensive an industry was, the lower was its rate of profit. This is exactly what one would expect if labour rather than capital was the sole source of value. This explains why railway projects like the Channel Tunnel are almost always unprofitable. They involve a lot of capital but employ little labour on which to make a profit.
Marx had said that : “Very large undertakings, such as railways, on the other hand, which have an unusually high proportion of constant capital, do not yield the average rate of profit, but only a portion of it,“ Those in favour of rail privatisation in other countries take note, they will never be profitable.
Capital itself creates no value.
Once it is realised that the determination of value by labour is a well proven scientific theory, then Marx’s analysis of exploitation follows – with all sorts of disturbing moral consequences for the established order.
It gives moral strength to Unions opposing exploitation and it undermines any claim of capital to a share in the national income.