Political activist, philosopher, and revolutionary, the German-born Karl Marx (1818–1883) is arguably the most influential socialist thinker of the 19th century. His Communist Manifesto, co-authored with his collaborator Friedrich Engels, developed communist theory that was the cornerstone of a new political order that took root in the 1900s.
Simon Tormey is Head of the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Sydney. He is the author of numerous books and articles including Making Sense of Tyranny: Interpretations of Totalitarianism (Manchester University Press, 1995), Politics at the Edge (co-edited with C Pierson) Agnes Heller: Socialism, Autonomy and the Postmodern(Manchester University Press, 2001), Anti-Capitalism (Oxford: Oneworld, 2004), and Key Thinkers from Critical Theory to Post-Marxism (London: Sage, 2006).
Simply Charly: Karl Marx is called the father of modern communism. But was he influenced by any of his predecessors or contemporaries?
Simon Tormey: Yes he was. A famous way of summarizing Marx is by saying that he combined German philosophy with British economics—or political economy—and French politics. Probably the greatest influence on Marx was his teacher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who bequeathed the idea of the dialectic—Hegel thought ideas and beyond that, history progressed through contradiction. Marx took that idea up and replaced ‘ideas’ with ‘class struggle’—so that history was seen to be progressing through a struggle between old and new classes. On the British side, Marx was greatly influenced—perhaps provoked—by Adam Smith and James Mill, indeed by ‘classical liberalism’ generally. This is very apparent in the economic works where Marx seeks to challenge the liberal view of the origin of value and the idea that people find their worth or value in the market. He was vexed by the hidden dimension of liberalism: the support for enclosure of land, the transformation of self-sufficient peasants into laborers and so forth. From the French, Marx takes his cue from the French revolutionaries and figures like Babeuf, Fourier, Rousseau, and Saint-Simon. He liked their tough-mindedness in political terms, their optimism and desire to overthrow creaking feudal orders with modern, rational governance. This is not to say that he followed any of their ideas particularly, but he certainly learned from them and engaged with them. So in sum, Marx was very widely read and very interested in a variety of disciplines and genres. Works like Capital are replete with references to various theorists and thinkers—usually, disparagingly it has to be said, but also with grudging respect for the likes of Smith and Mill.
SC: Has he defined the difference between the terms “socialist” and “communist?” A lot of people use those terms interchangeably, but they are not the same, are they?
ST: No, they’re not the same, as Marx makes very clear in The Critique of the Gotha Programme written in 1875. Communism equates to the complete abolition of private property, by which Marx meant property that created value such as land, mines, factories, etc. People would continue to enjoy sole use of items like toothbrushes, socks, etc.! Private property was for Marx at the root of most evils—inequality, injustice, classes, criminality, etc., so with the abolition of property would come the abolition of those antagonisms and contradictions that make the state necessary. However, before reaching that end state there would, by necessity, be a period of ‘transition’ between capitalism and communism—this is what he termed ‘socialism’. Socialism is characterized by increased ‘social power’ i.e. nationalization of key industries, democratic planning, distribution according to maxims such as ‘work’ (X number of hours = X number of goods, etc). During this period, it would be necessary for the state to continue as a mechanism for law enforcement and security against, for example, remnants of the old order. It is for this reason that the transition is also called the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat,’ which replaces the dictatorship of the bourgeois class (what others call ‘representative democracy’). So socialism was a society in transition on the way to communism.
SC: What are the three most important contributions Karl Marx made to social theory?
ST: This would be, amongst Marxists, hotly contested themselves, but for me, the items that stand out are: 1) Methodological collectivism: a great deal of social theory turns on what we think the individual is—what is human nature? What needs are specific to humans? And we use these conclusions to arrive at social theory—thus society is selfish and individualistic because this is what humans are like. Marx argued that society shouldn’t be looked at merely in individualistic terms, but in terms of the larger aggregates of which the individual is a part, and, of course, this meant looking at class. Whatever else one thinks of Marx, the idea that people’s destinies are bound up with their class position is a useful one for looking at relative inequality, poverty and life chances. It is certainly an advance on the kind of thinking that insists that where an individual winds up is a function of his or her own merit or ability—which is pretty feeble sociology. 2) The historicizing of capitalism—a lot of social theory, particularly in its positivist guise, assumes that the order we have is what we must have. It is oblivious to history. Marx shows us that capitalism, rights, individual liberty, and such, are all functions of social reproduction at a particular phase of its development. This also shows that other kinds of systems are possible—not just socialism or communism. 3) Value creation—there is a tendency to think that the creation of value is a business of clever, hard-working people doing well, and others (the lazy, poor unfortunate) doing badly, and thus the hard-working individuals deserve to be where they are, as of course do the poor. What Marx showed, rather convincingly, is that the condition of the poor often worsens as a result of capitalist development. The rich and powerful take the land that peasants and indigenous people lived off, and so created a class of ‘poor’ people who had to sell themselves into labor. Thus, without dispossession there is no capitalism, and without capitalism, fundamental divisions of rich and poor are much harder to sustain and justify in any meaningful or secular sense.
SC: What events in his own life, if any, influenced Marx’s political and philosophical ideas?
ST: Marx was intensely interested in the politics of his day. He closely followed all sorts of insurgencies and crises—such as the strikes of the Moselle winemakers, the 1848 revolutions, the rise of Louis Napoleon, the Paris Commune—and he wrote a great deal about all of them. He was also an activist and so fed the events themselves with manifestos, pamphlets, and analyses. Marx was no armchair philosopher—he walked the walk as well as talking the talk.
SC: Among the early communists, were there any disagreements on philosophy, theory or practical application of Marx’s ideas?
ST: Marx didn’t see his work as a body to be applied and frequently expressed outrage at the notion of ‘followers’ or loyal subjects trying to apply his ideas. He once famously stated that if one particular group were ‘Marxists,’ then he was ‘no Marxist.’ Of course, upon his death sectarianism broke out fairly quickly. The most fundamental distinction after the 1880s was to be that between ‘social democrats’ like Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky, and revolutionary socialists such as Lenin, Trotsky, and Luxemburg. These disagreements were over many issues: the nature of the historical process, the role of the party in developing revolutionary consciousness, the nature of the transition, etc. They plague the history of Marxism up to the present.
SC: Marx’s social, economic and political ideas gained rapid acceptance in the socialist movement after his death in 1883. How were they accepted during his lifetime?
ST: Marx was one of the founders of the International, which was the main umbrella organizationally for left parties and groups from the 1860s onwards—rather like the World Social Forum is today. However, there were many splits and antagonisms, which eventually brought the International to its knees. Probably the most famous of these was with the anarchists who are actually often fairly close to Marx’s ideas. Marx criticized thinkers like Stirner and Proudhon and fell out badly with Bakunin, who rivaled Marx in terms of stature and eloquence within the International. Bakunin was eventually expelled, and the anarchists have since then found it difficult to sit in the same room as Marxists.
SC: How have Marx’s original ideas been modified and his meanings adapted to a great variety of political circumstances?
ST: This is a huge question! The most important development has been in terms of the adaptation of Marxism for relatively backward societies like Russia and China. Here the work of Lenin and Mao was instrumental in adapting Marx for basically pre-capitalist societies or societies with large peasant populations.
SC: What did Marx really mean when he said: “religion is the opium of the masses?”
ST: It has to be understood that Marx was immensely sympathetic to the plight of ordinary people, who lived in misery and poverty. Religion clearly provided comfort and still does to those who have little hope or expectation that their lives would become better. At the same time, he was highly critical of the role of the Church, which seemed to be complicit in maintaining the status quo and thus increasing the misery of the masses. So Marx was essentially a sociologist of religion. Of course, he was also a materialist, which meant that he didn’t believe in God – God was an invention of a class of people who found it incredibly convenient to have an alibi for explaining why some people are living in luxury and others in poverty.
SC: What is the difference between Marx and other early communists of note, especially Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky? And what about later ones, for example, Fidel Castro, Mao Tse-Tung, and Kim Jong-il? Can any of them be called Marxists?
ST: Oh, they are all Marxists, without a doubt. Marx’s collected works run to 50 volumes, and there is something in there for everyone—if you look hard enough. Just as there are many varieties of Christians, so there are many varieties of Marxists. No one possesses the ‘true’ Marx. At the same time, what this means is that Marx is not ‘bad’ (or ‘good’)—he is not a philosopher of the Gulag or the Killing Fields. Marx cannot be blamed for the inhumanities of his followers any more than Jesus or Mohammed can. What unites all ‘Marxists’ is that they have found a plausible account for the misery that surrounds them and some guide as to how to overcome it: via revolution or fundamental transformation. Where they differ is how all this works: what the role of the Party is, who should lead, whether peasants are revolutionary or not, and so on and so forth. But even Stalin was clearly a Marxist—in his speeches he referred repeatedly and directly to the works of Marx to justify what he was doing. That makes him a Marxist—of sorts.
SC: Where in today’s world do we still witness the “class struggle?”
ST: Well, everywhere! Go down to Wal-Mart. There are workers there who have been denied trade union representation, who have been denied holiday pay, health care, etc. Go into any business, and you will see owners and workers—the owners cannot do without the workers and they want to pay them as little as they can for the most amount of product/output; the workers want the most they can get. This is class struggle. Of course, it need not be dramatic or very bloody. The bosses have the laws on their side, the politicians, the state, and the media. They can contain struggle so that it doesn’t disrupt society—for the most part. However, beyond the wealthy countries, the picture is very different. Open and violent struggles are commonplace in much of the world. They just don’t get reported much. The media likes us to concentrate on sport and celebrities—they don’t think people are interested in strikes, lockouts, and beatings of workers in places like China, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa, or violent peasant conflicts in places like Nandigram, India. Look around: class struggle is everywhere and infects almost every human relation.
SC: Of all the communist countries worldwide, which ones followed Marx’s teachings the most closely?
ST: All communist systems have their ‘court’ philosophers using the texts of Marx to explain what they are doing. Even China today explains its neoliberal policies by reference to Marx (‘the necessity for a period of economic growth followed socialization’). It’s simply not possible to say which is closer: they are all in some sense Marxist.
SC: By the same token, is it true that Israeli kibbutz is the only example where Marxism is working quite well to this day? Any other examples?
ST: Kibbutz has very little to do with Marxism—even if some of the early pioneers were influenced by Marx! These are classic utopian socialist communities of the kind that Marx could be rather dismissive of because they fail to connect to the ‘real world’ struggles of the working class. This is not to say he was against them, he just thought them a bit of an irrelevance; almost a middle-class reaction that distracted from the muscular serious business of building a movement capable of challenging the ruling class. I don’t think the Kibbutzim are really up to that sort of task. More generally, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to talk about ‘examples’ of Marxism in action. Marxism is a total explanatory system of thought while communism is a total vision of a different kind of world, and so cannot really subsist in the midst of a capitalist system. There are no and can be no ‘examples’ of communism as long as the outside world remains capitalist. Utopian communities are at best prefigurative or suggestive of other possible ways of living, but nowhere does Marx imply that a better world can be created on the basis of the expansion of communal living of this kind.
SC: Now that most of the Communist world has collapsed, are Marx’s ideas still relevant to today’s times?
ST: If anything, they are more relevant, not less so. The world is pretty much how Marx described it 150 years ago, which is quite impressive in itself. This is to say that we now have a more or less integrated world capitalist system, with a global rich and global poor—as Marx predicted. There is huge exploitation across all societies—the proliferation of sweatshops and export processing zones are all very much in keeping with Marx’s account. The peasantry is being systematically wiped out in a global process of dispossession, and of course social democracy, which started as a form of ultra moderate ‘Marxism’ (Marxism lite) is in retreat in all areas where it once enjoyed hegemony. The wealthy are very much in the ascendancy. At the same time, we are daily reminded of the fragility of the global system, its proneness to wild gyrations and shocks. Only last week one trader nearly brought down one of the largest banks in Europe, which in turn had a very dramatic effect on the stock markets already reeling from increased commodity prices and an escalating debt crisis. All this is highly explicable in Marxian terms. On the other hand, there are problems or shortcomings in the analysis, which should not be lost sight of, not least of which is the resilience of capitalism to deep shocks of this kind. We don’t really see much of a communist movement emerging anywhere either. So the irony might be that at the moment when Marx’s ideas are even more relevant, so the attractiveness of Marxism (or more accurately communism) as a mobilizing ideology seems in decline. But this, of course, can change.
SC: How does your own work relate to Marx, and what are you working on currently?
ST: A lot of my work rotates around the ‘if not Marx, then what?’-type question. Marxism is clearly at some level discredited and unattractive to many, not least because of the experience of communism in action. However, the problems Marx describes have not gone away, and thus the need for some post-capitalist thinking is clearly still there. A lot of my work concerns the efforts of those who have attempted in this way to ‘think past Marx’—figures such as Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, the autonomists, Hardt and Negri, and so forth. I am interested in the new forms of radical politics that have displaced the political party as the primary agent. Young radicals are often much more interested in events like the World Social Forum, and in hacktivism, subvertising, culture jamming, etc. How do we read these kinds of phenomena? Some of that thinking is explicated in my Anti-Capitalism: A Beginner’s Guide (Oneworld, 2004)—but there’s a lot more to say and study on the topic.