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Rethinking the Alternative with Marx

Marcello Musto is Associate Professor of Sociological Theory at York University, Toronto, and editor of the Marx, Engels, and Marxisms book series. His most recent publication with Palgrave was Karl Marx’s Life, Ideas, and Influences: A Critical Examination on the Bicentenary (co-edited with Shaibal Gupta & Babak Amini). Read Marcello’s chapter “Marx’s Critique of German Social Democracy: From the International to the Political Struggles of the 1870s” free until 25th November 2019. 

The return to Marx following the economic crisis of 2008 has been distinct from the renewed interest in his critique of economics. Many authors, in a whole series of newspapers, journals, books and academic volumes, have observed how indispensable Marx’s analysis has proved to be for an understanding of the contradictions and destructive mechanisms of capitalism. In the last few years, however, there has also been a reconsideration of Marx as a political figure and theorist.

The publication of previously unknown manuscripts in the German MEGA2 edition, along with innovative interpretations of his work, have opened up new research horizons and demonstrated more clearly than in the past his capacity to examine the contradictions of capitalist society on a global scale and in spheres beyond the conflict between capital and labour. It is no exaggeration to say that, of the great classics of political, economic and philosophical thought, Marx is the one whose profile has changed the most in the opening decades of the twenty-first century.

Rethinking the alternative again

Recent research has refuted the various approaches that reduce Marx’s conception of communist society to superior development of the productive forces. In particular, it has shown the importance he attached to the ecological question: on repeated occasions, he denounced the fact that expansion of the capitalist mode of production increases not only the theft of workers’ labour but also the pillage of natural resources. Another question in which Marx took a close interest was migration. He showed that the forced movement of labour generated by capitalism was a major component of bourgeois exploitation and that the key to fighting this was class solidarity among workers, regardless of their origins or any distinction between local and imported labour. 

Marx went deeply into many other issues which, though often underestimated, or even ignored, by scholars of his work, are acquiring crucial importance for the political agenda of our times. Among these are individual freedom in the economic and political sphere, gender emancipation, the critique of nationalism, the emancipatory potential of technology, and forms of collective ownership not controlled by the state.

Furthermore, Marx undertook thorough investigations of societies outside Europe and expressed himself unambiguously against the ravages of colonialism. It is a mistake to suggest otherwise. Marx criticized thinkers who, while highlighting the destructive consequences of colonialism, used categories peculiar to the European context in their analysis of peripheral areas of the globe. He warned a number of times against those who failed to observe the necessary distinctions between phenomena, and especially after his theoretical advances in the 1870s he was highly wary of transferring interpretive categories across completely different historical or geographical fields. All this is now clear, despite the scepticism still fashionable in certain academic quarters. 

Thus, thirty years after the fall of the Berlin wall, it has become possible to read a Marx very unlike the dogmatic, economistic and Eurocentric theorist who was paraded around for so long. Of course, one can find in Marx’s massive literary bequest a number of statements suggesting that the development of the productive forces is leading to dissolution of the capitalist mode of production. But it would be wrong to attribute to him any idea that the advent of socialism is a historical inevitability. Indeed, for Marx the possibility of transforming society depended on the working class and its capacity, through struggle, to bring about social upheavals that led to the birth of an alternative economic and political system.

Communism as free association

In contrast to the equation of communism with “dictatorship of the proletariat”, which many of the “real world socialisms” espoused in their propaganda, it is necessary to look again at Marx’s reflections on communist society. He once defined it as “an association of free human beings”. If communism aims to be a higher form of society, it must promote the conditions for “the full and free development of each individual”. 

In Capital, Marx revealed the mendacious character of bourgeois ideology. Capitalism is not an organization of society in which human beings, protected by impartial legal norms capable of guaranteeing justice and equity, enjoy true freedom and live in accomplished democracy. In reality, they are degraded into mere objects, whose primary function is to produce commodities and profit for others. 

To overturn this state of affairs, it is not enough to modify the distribution of consumption goods. What is needed is radical change at the level of the productive assets of society: “the producers can be free only when they are in possession of the means of production”.  Therefore, according to Marx, the objective of the workers’ struggle should be to restore those assets to the community. Thanks to the emancipatory potential of technology, this would make it possible to achieve a basic aim of communism: the reduction of necessary labour time and a resulting increase in the capacities, creative talents and pleasurable activities of individuals. The socialist model that Marx had in mind did not allow for a state of general poverty but looked to the achievement of greater collective wealth and greater satisfaction of needs. 

Marx also remarked that, in the communist mode of production, “private ownership of the planet by individuals will appear as absurd as the ownership of one human being by another”. He directed his most radical criticism against the kind of destructive possession inherent in capitalism, pointing out that society does not own the environment but has “a duty to pass on the world in better conditions to future generations”. 

Today, of course, the Left cannot simply redefine its politics around what Marx wrote more than a century ago. But nor should it commit the error of forgetting the clarity of his analyses or fail to use the critical weapons he offered for fresh thinking about an alternative society to capitalism.  

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