In a recent article for Reuters, titled “Karl Marx and the World Financial Crisis,” Bernd Debussmann discusses the present global crisis. The reporter, far brighter than most we are used to in “mainstream” US media, quoted the Communist Manifesto’s statements on the centralization of credit as a major step on the road toward socialism and suggested that Marx and Marxism may be relevant to understanding what is happening in the world today.
These views shouldn’t surprise anyone. They are views that smart people in the capitalist world, especially those who had no desire to see a working-class revolution take place, noted when they began to take Marx and Marxism seriously in the late 1870s. These were the last years of Marx’s life, but the beginning of the establishment of mass socialist parties strongly influenced by and/or committed to the general theories propagated by Marx and Engels. Debussmann, to support his analysis, also quotes warnings from IMF historians and US analysts who saw disaster, the equivalent to an international economic “train wreck,” in the offing.
The article is an excellent one for general readers and should be circulated widely. Debussmann mentions that since 1980 (the beginning of the “free market” reign), the top one percent of US income earners has seen their share of the national income grow from around eight percent to about 20 percent. Meanwhile the percentage of workers in private sector unions has dropped to about 7.5 percent, “the lowest in the industrialized world,” which should be a source of both anger and concern for American working people. Debussmann also mentions positively the campaign labor is waging for the Employee Free Choice Act.
But there are some points of Debussmann’s interpretation that need to be challenged, along with important omissions in the article. Let me begin with the omissions, which I see as wholly constructive and friendly.
Marx stressed the battle for democracy as essential for the Communists to support as a necessary condition to the eventual establishment of socialism.
He also saw the attempts by capitalists to save the capitalist system from its chronic crisis, the crisis of overproduction, leading to depressions, as not only hopeless but self-defeating. In their centralization of credit, their creation of bigger and bigger monopolies, their search for foreign markets to dump surplus goods and gain access to greater and cheaper quantities of raw materials and pools of labor, the capitalists were digging their own grave. Marx believed that they were literally setting the stage for bigger crises in the future, breaking down the distinctions between workers in various countries and regions of the world by putting more and more of them, from Beijing to Brooklyn, from Calcutta to Cleveland, in the same boat so to speak.
The capitalists’ development of manufacturing, centralization of credit, expansion of both capital and productive capacity, would create the conditions that make socialism possible. By themselves, these things are not socialism. Capitalism also created a working class whose material interest would be to establish socialism, not only, or even primarily, to create a “better society,” to achieve “social justice,” but to survive beyond a hand to mouth existence, losing jobs, skills, homes, and fighting endlessly to keep up with a “labor market” whose rules are fixed for bigger and bigger, richer and richer employers seeking to the cheapest labor costs possible.
Marxism has little meaning (except as an understanding of what modern capitalists are trying to do and why they are trying to do it) without this understanding of the class struggle as the foundation for understanding social development in class divided society. The future of the capitalist class and working class are as Marx and Engels understood as closely intertwined as that between slaveholder and slave, feudal landlord and serf.
A strong possibility of a “global depression” – rather than the euphemism “recession” – is what the world today is facing. It is rooted in enormous over-production and income inequalities among and within the “producing nations” (China and India for example as against Britain and the US). there are also many possible outcomes. The worst would be new imperialist alliance systems and a global and probably nuclearized world war (the “ruin of the contending parties” to quote the Communist Manifesto). The best would be either the establishment or re-establishment of working-class power and socialist policies of economic development based on cooperative planning and public ownership in both industrialized and industrializing countries. Many other outcomes, such as global systems of resource and labor management through corporations, trade unions and governments operating through international organizations are also possible, depending on the developing social struggles as they are enacted in political-economic contexts.
What we can be sure about, though is, that “free market capitalism,” “self-regulating markets,” “supply side economics,” and all of the reactionary romanticism which was dusted off from its 19th century archives after 1979 in Britain and 1980 in the US and paraded as “cutting edge” economic theory and practice have lost their luster.
Marxism is what Marx and Engels meant it to be: a guide for action for the working class. The author’s contention that there are “few Marxists” in the industrialized world after the “dismal failure” of the Soviet Union is a significant slight to Marxists and a spectacular one to the former USSR. Marxism, stated or unstated, is a force in all of the struggles of labor movements to keep the capitalists of their countries from foisting the economic crisis on them, in the attempts, limited as they have been for workers movements to achieve international labor cooperation.
Still, Debussmann article is thoughtful and captures where the capitalists of the world are going, while Americans are forced to watch the Republican Party leadership debate among themselves about what set of names to call Barack Obama in the last weeks of the campaign. While the economic crisis deepens, the stalwarts of the Republican “base” engage in racist hate speech.
Debussmann expresses strong pessimism, however, about the possibilities for major changes in the US, which I think are unfounded. The US does have, as he writes, “an Everest size debt” along with its crumbling infrastructure and backward health care. Today, the US, to use the term that Lenin used about Czarist Russia at the time of the revolution, may be the “weak link” among the major capitalist states, not the “anchor” that he quotes another writer as saying. No one really expected the Czarist Russian Empire at the beginning of the 20th century to become the citadel for a world socialist movement and no one really expects the US at the beginning of the 21st century to play such a role in the future.
But, as Marx and Engels always understood, beneath the surface of events, the struggles of factions and parties, there are class and social forces at work, seeking to fit theory to practice to make an understanding of the world a force to change it. And the US, with its popular democratic culture, its skilled and educated working class, and its central, albeit declining role in the global capitalist economy, may have surprises in store for its own ruling class and the rest of the capitalist world in the future.