We need Marx!

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Arise, you independent artists!
Arise, fair users great and small!

Those evil cartels and their jurists
Have, through their exploits, chained you all!
(To the tune of “The Internationale”)

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The following, written by Bill Kerr, originally appeared in 2005 at LastSuperpower. The context was a challenge at a blog called Harry’s Place to discuss whether Marx and Engels are still relevant in the C21st.

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We need Marx and Engels because they understood things and said some things better than anyone else has since. It’s important to read the original because people who call themselves Marxists have always been in violent disagreement with what it means. If you don’t read the original then you have no chance of working it out for yourself.

Communism has had bad press following the failures of the Soviet Union, China etc. It’s seen as a dull grey world, with no variety in the shops, controlled by faceless, heartless apparatchiks- freedom of thought and expression is not allowed. At one time (the 1930s- WW1, The Great Depression, fascism in Spain destroyed faith in capitalism) it was fashionable to be communist or fellow traveller, but nowadays it is definitely not fashionable.

Personally, I draw these insights from the Manifesto, which help me understand the world today:

  • Capitalism is progressive relative to feudalism/ religious fundamentalism

It’s far better to live in our bourgeois democracy than to live under the rule of fascist Saddam or the religious fundamentalism of the Taliban.

Marx was very clear about the historical progressiveness of capitalism, a point also made by Marcus [who was one of the contributors at Harry’s Place blog] with this quote:

The bourgeoisie historically has played a most revolutionary part. The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations, It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man his “natural superiors:, and has left no other nexus between the people than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned out the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade.

  • The melting, dynamic vision of capitalism and progress

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all the earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All this is solid melts into air, all that is holy of profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his, real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

http://www.marxists,org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/cho1.htm

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We live in a world where things change, everything changes due to the continual development of productive forces and scientific progress. This provides the material basis for the elimination of poverty and a feeling of optimism and excitement about the future.

‘All that is solid melts into air’ is also the title of a great book about modernity and modern interpretation of Marx and others, by Marshall Berman, which I would highly recommend. Here’s a quote from Berman:

To be modern is to live a life of paradox and contradictions. It is to be overpowered by the immense bureaucratic organizations that have the power to control and often destroy all communities, values, lives; and yet to be undeterred in our determination to face these forces, to fight to change their world and make it our own. It is to be revolutionary and conservative; alive to new possibilities for experience and adventure, frightened by the nihilistic depths to which so many modern adventures lead, longing to create and to hold on to something real even as everything melts. We might even say that to be fully modern is to be anti-modern: from Marx’s and Dostoevsky’s time to our own, it has been impossible to grasp and embrace the modern worlds potentialities without loathing and fighting against some of its palpable realities. No wonder then that, as the great modernist and anti-modernist Kierkegaard said, the deepest modern seriousness must express itself through irony. Modern irony animates so many great works of art and thought over the past century; at the same time, it infuses millions of ordinary peoples lives. This book aims to bring these works and these lives together, to restore the spiritual wealth of modernist culture to the modern man and woman in the street, to show how, for all of us, modernism is realism. (pp 13- 14)

  • Productive forces are held back by capitalist productive relations

After praising capitalism for developing the productive, Marx and Engels then tear it down because the property relations of capitalism periodically (boom and bust) produces slow down and crisis:

                 The productive forces of the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of the bourgeois society; endanger the existence of bourgeois property. The conditions of the bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them.

The dominant productive relations today in western society are boss/worker. No thinking person much likes working for a boss but it’s what we have to do to survive.

The point about boss/worker relations is that they are anachronistic, they hold back the further rapid development of the productive forces. Workers hold back and do not work at their full capacity, initiative and creativity. In a society where the workplace nexus between people (is) naked self-interest (and) callous “cash payments” it makes no sense to give it your best shot.

The real communist critique of capitalism is that capitalism social relations – boss/worker relations – holds back in the rapid development of productive forces.

For example, the dominance of Microsoft holds back the rapid development of  either superior or potentially superior software development such as the Linux operating system, which has been developed out of gift culture. We seem to have very significant groups of the open source software developers today who practise communist principles from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs- without even realising or connecting to the source.

This surfaced in a recent exchange between Bill Gates and his open source critics after Gates said:

               There are some new modern-day sort of communists who want to get rid of the incentive for musicians and moviemakers and software makers under various guises.

This led to a flurry of design activity in the open source/creative commons community, who renamed themselves “creative communists” and developed a series of red flags and logos in response to the gibe:

 One Gates critic has even adapted the words of ‘The Internationale’ as an anthem for the freedom of information movement.

‘The Free Culture Internationale’

(Lyrics by Andrew Mike (2005) To the tune of “The Internationale” by Pierre Degaytre, 1888)

Arise, you independent artists!

Arise, fair users great and small!

Those evil cartels and their jurists
Have, through their exploits, chained you all!

But we have thought up a new system,

To make the fairer through and through;

Right now, they say, “We’ll never miss them,”

But one day soon, they’ll say “We do!”

So Bill Gates calls us commies,

But he can’t stand the sight

Of information freedom,

Reform of copyright!

So we go on creating,

Joyous and full of mirth,

For our great newborn copyleft

Shall shine upon the earth!

The spirit of communism as envisaged by Marx is alive and well in the open source community but perhaps because communism has such a bad name and Marx is little read by software developers they have not made the connection.

4) Atheism, materialism, facing reality abandoning the hopeful, sentimental approach

The Communist revolution is the most radical rupture with traditional relations; no wonder that its development involved the most radical rupture with traditional ideas.

Before capitalism the rulers of society were the religious rulers.

With the development of science our Universe became far more interesting and beautiful place than anything envisioned by religion.

Atheism is strong in the Manifesto through its exposure of religious hypocrisy, as the transition was made into a society dominated by money. The Manifesto is an invitation to think for ourselves and to reject artificial soothings of religion.

Once again the most articulate exposures of these sorts of views comes from people like Richard Dawkins, who don’t personally identify with communism but who nevertheless show the relevance of the views expressed by Marx in 1848.

 

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2 thoughts on “We need Marx!

  1. Excellent article!

    But I don’t agree with reference to Richard Dawkins at the end. Would not compare him with free software people who engage in and promote communist mode of production despite not knowing much about Marxism (and even being influenced by opposing theories including “gift culture”). Dawkins is more like a “high church atheist”. Marx took great delight in excluding some Bakunist groups from the first international as their proclaimed atheism directly opposed the principle of uniting workers on the basis of class interests and against any division according to religion. Dawkins promotes an elitist position that does not help people overcome religion by gaining confidence in their abilities to change the world rather than hoping for divine salvation. Instead it divides and sneers.

    Anyway, still an excellent article.

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  2. I think the neo-atheists in general are an arrogant lot. They bring to mind what Marx said in one of his letters: “I desired there to be less trifling with the label ‘atheism’ (which reminds one of children, assuring everyone who is ready to listen to them that they are not afraid of the bogy man), and that instead the content of philosophy should be brought to the people. (Letter to Ruge, November 24, 1842.)

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