Karl Marx: hear his name socialists and tremble. It is he who laid the foundations of all the great work that has come after, from the Russian Revolution to the British welfare state. All future generations of socialists should behold the awesomeness of his works.
I have a lot of respect for Marx and his contribution to left wing politics. Although, I have always resisted the temptation to turn him into the socialist equivalent of a prophet. The above is a gentle parody of how some socialists approach the work of Karl Marx. Putting Marx on such a pedestal adds to his legend as an important, but difficult to approach, thinker.
Reading Marx is certainly not as easy as reading the journalism of today, but Marx shouldn’t be inaccessible to the majority of people on the left - like the Bible written in Latin. Marx understood some fundamental truths about capitalism, which still apply 150 years after he published them. Paul Mason, has done a great job making Marx accessible to a modern audience in his book Post-capitalism.
Capitalism changes, but the underlying ideas as understood by Marx don’t. Today’s tech companies and the gig economy are governed by the same principles as the factories of 19th century Manchester.
First of all, Marx understood that capitalism is a revolutionary system. It overthrows everything that came before it and remakes society anew. We can see that in how much industrialisation has changed China has changed during my lifetime, and I’m a Millennial.
Marx also saw that capitalism was a destructive system. Competitive firms are constantly destroying each other and some firms are destroying entire industries that came before them. You can see that in how digital publishing has destroyed the business model of print newspapers leading to the closure of local newspapers up and down the country.
Capitalism is also destructive to the environment. That was true when Marx was writing in the early days of industrialisation and it remains true today. Marx also described how capitalism creates vast inequalities. Before capitalism, there were only so many banquets a landed noble could have and only so many fine clothes he could buy, but under capitalism there is no end to the greed of the capitalists.
Alienation is one of the more difficult Marxist concepts to get your head around, but its effects can be keenly felt today. Marx said that capitalism alienates workers from what they produce as they either can’t afford it or are completely disconnected from the final product. Today we can see that in countries where smartphones are made by workers too poor to afford them or call centre workers who are entirely disconnected from any services that are being delivered. The businesses have changed since Marx’s time, but alienation remains a constant.
Overproduction of unnecessary goods
Mainly Marx knew that capitalism leads to the overproduction of goods that do not have a social value. We can see that today in the unnecessary quantities of plastics wrappings that is produced or in how much more money is poured into making viagra by big pharmaceutical companies as opposed to life saving medicine. This is misallocation of resources on a society-wide scale away from what will make people’s lives better.
Key to Marx’s writing is a fact that remains very much true today, and that is that capitalism needs to be overthrown. The capitalists who have economic power will not give it up easily so a revolution is necessary to have an economic system based not on profit motives, but on people's needs. I believe that this revolution need not be violent and when it happens it will be unlike anything that has come before it, even events that called themselves revolutions but merely changed who sat at the head of the table.
Marx understood that radical change was necessary to fix the problems of a capitalist society. That simple insight remains as relevant today as it did in Marx’s time. We lionise Marx, and his accomplishments are impressive, but the basic truth of his ideas are something we all experience everyday.