A theory for revolutionary change
Phil Walden challenges the prejudices of post-modernism
To change the world we need to understand it. For that we require a way of analysing reality that brings us closer to the movement of economic, political and social life in the 21st century.
This brings us immediately up against the popular prejudice that "reality is what you make of it" and that to argue for any other approach is to "impose" on people. The beauty of this "post-modern" outlook, of course, is that it leaves the status quo unchallenged.
Although Karl Marx developed his approach in the 19th century, the method he outlined, which others like Frederick Engels developed, remains as crucial for today as it was then.
Commentators in papers like the Financial Times, in fact, often refer to Marx's concepts when trying to get to grips with the manic logic of global capitalism. Michael Prowse, for example, in his article headlined "Consumption, consumption, consumption", wrote:
"This new Britain is rich in everything that can be readily priced and sold on the market, and poor in everything that cannot be easily commodified. Market forces have turned the urban landscape into a parody of shop-until-you-drop America (which I know well, having spent six years in Washington DC). The London traffic is now relentless seven days a week. Even Sunday has its rush hour as the shoppers flood into the malls to pay their respects to Mammon. When I ventured out this week, I began to understand what Karl Marx meant when he wrote of 'commodity fetishism'. The metropolis seemed to be utterly in thrall to capitalists and their commodities." (September 16, 2000)
Marx developed the approach of historical materialism, which showed that class struggle (the conflict between the productive forces and the existing relations of production) was the main cause of historical transformation. He showed that the main political force for revolutionary change was the working class. So the possibility of overcoming the exploitation of capitalism was located within modern and changing reality.
Marx demonstrated that only social ownership could establish the possibility for co-operative, democratic and planned productive activity. Furthermore, Marx argued that it was not possible to reconcile the different perspectives of reform and revolution. Principled socialism wasn’t about accommodation to the state, but its overthrow.
The 19th century saw rapid advances in both natural and social sciences. Marx and Engels championed the discoveries of people like Charles Darwin and his book On the Origin of the Species. Engels established a distinctive Marxist standpoint about these new advances in knowledge.
He developed a dynamic conception of the objective, material world of matter in motion, which showed that the world consisted of change and becoming, and this was expressed by dialectical laws of contradiction and the negation of the negation.
Lenin defended this materialist outlook against the view that 20th century science was showing that matter had disappeared, or that reality could be reduced to the role of the thinking subject, or observer.
He argued that whilst science may continually modify or change our particular conceptions of reality it is still possible to show that the materialist standpoint concerning an independent material reality remains valid. As Gerry Healy later showed, if materialist theory is repudiated we can end up justifying egotistical and self-created images of the world.
The ideological climate
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 created the ideological climate for many people to associate Marxism with Stalinist bureaucratic elitism and repression. Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and The Last Man (Penguin 1992) announced that capitalism had won the class struggle and was now the definitive historical future.
Furthermore, post-modern philosophy maintained that Marxism was now "antiquated" because it allegedly defended monolithic and absolute universal truths about the necessity of revolutionary change.
But the domination of the world by giant corporations is increasingly rejected by people who want to understand how to change things. Engels and Lenin's emphasis on contradiction helps us to understand that reality is presently based upon social antagonism and class conflict. Despite the optimism of the apologists for capitalism the exploitative and oppressive nature of capitalism remains.
We live in a global world economy that is still based upon the exploitation of wage labour by capital. Hence the perspective of world revolution is still necessary, even if it has to be continually modified in accordance with the constant changes within social reality.
The changes in the nature of global capitalism, and other questions about social reality, do not do away with the necessity for Marxist theory as the basis for principled political practice. Rather it is necessary to continually enrich our theory.
One important argument against the above analysis could be: if Marxism is still an intelligible doctrine why don't more people support it? The answer to this question is contained in the Marxist view that social being is the primary basis for understanding social consciousness.
In other words, the existing forms of human activity under capitalist social relations of production continually generate illusions and artificial images that make it difficult for people to understand capitalism and the need to transcend it. Post-modern philosophy is just one form of the adaptation to these idealist images of reality, that is to say it accepts the accomplished fact of capitalism.
Post-modernism equates immediate sensations with reality. By contrast Marxism has the explanatory power to comprehend the objective reality behind these images and to show the full extent of the continuing exploitative character of capitalism. We could add that Marxism is not just against capitalism but continues to show why an alternative system is required in order to realise the human aspiration of a classless society.
The ecology movement basically support the view that small is beautiful and a small-scale economy will realise economic needs in terms that are compatible with the requirements of nature. This sentiment is ethical and noble but it does not tackle the problem that the world economy is dominated by transnational corporations.
It is true that the technological development that occurs under capitalism does create the potential for the material well-being of the people of the world. Marx showed, however, that social improvement is not an automatic or mechanical process but requires the conscious intervention of human beings.
In this context only a democratic plan of production can achieve the aims of humanity. The only social force that can challenge the bastions of global capital remains the international working class.