Is Karl Marx still able to show us the way forward – some 168 years after his book was initially published?

Truls Lie
Editor-in-chief, Modern Times Review. Also head of the Norwegian monthly newspaper NY TID. Based in Oslo/Berlin.

You may ask yourself; what is the point of yet another edition of The Communist Manifesto by young Marx and Engels from 1848 (Sentralkomiteen Publishers, translated by Leif Høghaug, 2016). The text was last republished in Norwegian as recent as 2000, and, prior to this, appeared in several different versions. Sans preface or afterword, and in Norway, which is so far removed from the oppressed workers of the Third World – what is the motive behind it?

Firstly, allow me to summarise the action plan of this 168-year old Communist Manifesto from London: landed property was to be expropriated through a revolution and economic rent to be passed to the State. Strong, progressive taxation would be introduced and inheritance rights abolished. Property was to be taken from all emigrants and «rebels». Monetary credit was to be centralised through a national bank, enjoying unlimited monopoly. Furthermore, the manifesto would see all production and transportation placed under one centralised common plan, with the introduction of equal compulsory work duties for everyone – envisaging industrial «armies».

This would lead to the arrival of the classless society – free lives featuring some fishing, a bit of philosophical discussion, and a State in charge of all administration – answerable to the proletariat as the new hegemony. At first, the great class struggle would be carried out with blood and violence – «all existing orders of society were ruled through power». The Bourgeoisie and large industries would not resign their privileges just like that.

Was this possible? No. The heavenly Utopia from the manifesto was simply too lofty. It would have introduced a reign of fear, brought on by the notion of «freedom», but ruled using discipline and control.

PROPERTY. Nevertheless, Marx and Engels foresaw the way «big industry» took control of almost everything, as with today’s multinationals – a sort of raw capitalism. At the same time, their manifesto alludes to the way parts of the Bourgeoisie, or the middle classes, are being forced into the oppressed proletariat by the exploitation of major capitalists. Even today, people worldwide find themselves in situations wherein workers are barely able to stay afloat on the meagre salaries their exhausting work pays. This is brutal exploitation and oppression which any civilisation should have left behind.

Another point is the critique of property: The book underlines that Communism focuses on the «question of property, regardless of its form». In a book published this summer, Fra Marx til Nyere Kapitalkritikk by Dag Østerberg, the division between owners of property/those without property is present throughout.

But, this division is problematic and fraught with grey areas. For instance, most Norwegians enjoy the country’s riches, oil fortune and people’s general affluence. Norway have made billions from oil, due to the historic signatures of diplomats Evensen and Treholt. We enjoy a strong exchange rate and welfare benefits. Is it a matter of course that Norway’s assets exist solely thanks to «Norwegians»? Should we not instead pay an international property tax or wealth tax, contribute one tenth (the percentage previously gifted to the Church) to the global community, which would work out around 700 million Kroner? Is this capitalist or proletarian? A healthy internationalism in along the lines of Marx and Engels would be appropriate here, as in the final words of the manifesto: «Workers have no homeland (…) Proletarians of all countries, unite! »

But, what does it mean that «the communists can summarise their theory in one single expression: abolishment of private property»? Well. Because who would want to work hard, save money, or get into debt, unless certain that your home, business, money or tools would remain yours for a certain amount of time? We not have that long on Earth, but still?

In the aforementioned books published in the summer, I would also have liked to have seen more in depth explanations of «class levels» – for instance, on the individuals who actually take the risks. Both Marx and Engels, and Dag Østerberg, avoid discussing the fact that today’s growing class of entrepreneurs and independents risk not enjoying much profit or added value from their activities. People, companies and organisations are also losing money or just about breaking even. Where is the discussion about these risk-takers, or those borrowing money at their own responsibility or spending savings on something they want to create or be in charge of? Loss and profit can also break even in the long run, and profits can be used as equity in a new project. With tens of thousands of small companies in Norway, for example, many have been partially overlooked as their own employers, without necessarily exploiting anyone but themselves. Many people in West, who earn enormous salaries, take their organisations’ «added values» with them, without necessarily being capitalists. Wage proletarians?

COMPETITION. Marx and Engels make the point that the importance of competition is relevant to parts of our world. Not only internally between wage workers, or in competition amongst the well-heeled Bourgeoisie, but also where large industries eventually tries to outmanoeuvre anyone smaller than themselves. On an enormous consumer globe with falling profit rates and crises that continuously have to create new markets, parts of capitalism are dying alongside the new «gravediggers» Marx mentioned. A rat race, where the margins in the fight for customers are decreasing. The consumers increase their purchasing power while deficit enterprises are headed for the cemetery. There are some hindrances along the way, because nepotism flourishes, and Mafia-like cartels do exist. In addition, there is the State’s involvement, this henchman of capital, who introduces subsidies, national toll barriers, or, for the sake of the proletariat, keeps poor refugees away in order to maintain the geographical class system.

My next point is that this is also about the State: After all, Marx had started writing two big books after Das Kapital; one about the State, and one about the world community – although he was unable to complete these. Marx was, in fact, behind much of the theory of Anarchism – and its harsh criticism of Big Capital, the military and the State – its «freedom and socialism». As Maximilien Rubel stated in Marx, Theoretician of Anarchism (1972), «the communist» in the Marxist sense, did not exist at that time. The Communism imagined by Marx was a new practice that needed to be created. In his writings on Hegel (1843) and The Jewish Question (1844), both the State and the Capital are condemned as devilish institutions in society. The fact that Marx never finished these subsequent works has, according to Rubel, led to the misconception of the century: that Marxism is a state ideology.

Maximilien Rubel

The Manifesto’s statement that «the free development of the individual is the condition for everyone’s free development» is typically Anarchist. And, as Rubel points out from Marx’ critique of Napoleon Bonaparte – the following sentences place Marx among the most radical of anarchists: «The existence of a State is indivisible from the existence of slavery.»  And: «The centralised State machinery which, with its ubiquitous and complicated military, bureaucratic, clerical and judiciary organs . . . Every minor solitary interest engendered by the relations of social groups was separated from society itself … fixed and made … in the form of State interest, administered by State priests with exactly determined hierarchical functions.» (The Civil War in France, 1871)

 ANARCHISM. However, is it not precisely through today’s Anarchism that many of these wishes for change may come true – albeit, firstly on a small scale? Or, must you wait for the revolution your entire life? Allow me to mention Richard J.F. Day’s book Gramsci is Dead – Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements (2005). The key is not to fall into the trap of substituting one hegemony for another (Gramsci) – the proletariat’s new «classless» state.

The socialist idea, that «From each according to his ability, to each according to his need» (Louis Blanc, 1839) is also problematic, due to the human psyche. Unfortunately, needs usually increase faster than the effort of using your abilities. And demands of rights often overshadow the willingness to fulfil duties – this is also true for Norway. The «capitalists» are not the only ones to blame for the fact that the old solidarity alternative of the Norwegian Labour Party enjoys far less power today.

Do people in the West and beyond – often described as the «silent majority» – actually crave big social changes, and are they willing to carry them out? This, of course, differs around the world; revolution is sometimes a necessity, and something I support, a recent example being the Arab Spring. If exploitation goes too far, people will not be able to stand for it anymore. Also, as Marx pointed out, the State apparatus could be the right apparatus to liberate more people – for as long as it lasts. He may also be right that property should not play such a big role, as we are now seeing people getting organised in shared economies, whereby access to certain commodities (home, car, bicycle etc.) is more important than actual ownership of these.

This is similar to today’s anarchism, often called eco-, feminist-, pragmatic-, neo-, or post-anarchism. It is also akin to autonomous Marxism – made famous by philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who authored The Coming Community (1990). Unlike Communism which focuses on the abolishment of private property, post-anarchism is concerned with affinity groups. People who get together based on shared interests needs, abilities, and with a joint goal (or enemy) – both temporarily and long-term. As Day writes, people formed and cooperated long before the invention of the State apparatus. You do not have to have a hierarchically-shaped state or a travelling diplomacy dealing with big politics, to look after ordinary people.

The current breed of anarchists are not in favour of the old socialism or revolution as found in the Communist Manifesto. Anarchism has evolved from Kropotkin (revolution) to Landauer (voluntarism/individualism) and newer political thinkers within post-structuralism (Foucault, Deleuze). It is unnecessary to fight the State, the military or Big Capital head on. Instead, you may circumvent these, and create your own, partially autonomous, collective and community -based. As consumer, you are able to exert power and direct certain exploiters to the graveyard.

Key words from Day’s book are the Zapatistas, Chipa’s autonomy, occupied factories, NGOs such as No One Is Illegal, Earth First, Reclaim the Streets, LGBTIQ groups, Temporary Autonomous Zones, Participatory Economy, Asambleistas in Argentina, squatters in London, Solidarity Across Borders and Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen.

The point may very well be to not fall in love with power. Today, it is easier to find affinity groups online among people whose values you share, as opposed to through the Capital and State which often split and create animosity, fear and competition, dominate and exploit. Today, their new form of power is «the society of control, based on security and terror risk». You may also, as Day writes in his book, wonder why enough is not yet enough, why some feel the need to oppress others – but similarly, why some people are willing to oppress themselves: Because Marx and Engels’ broad revolution of the people, and the anarchists’ alternative, lack sufficient support, because most people, or the silent majority, prefer the State’s established security – and order under surveillance.