Relevance of MARXISM today: Ghassan Dibeh intervention at the "Relevance of Marxism" seminar
How can we anticipate or evaluate Karl Marx's relevance in the present day? In general, there are three aspects to consider regarding Marx's contemporary significance. The first aspect pertains to Marxist thought: Does Marx still inspire Marxist thinking or serve as a reference for non-Marxists? The second aspect addresses the possibility of understanding today's reality through Marx's ideas. And the third aspect examines the feasibility of forming political or historical movements that embrace Marxist thought and possess political effectiveness.
Within Marxism, these three aspects are interconnected through the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: "Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it." It is worth noting that the theses on Feuerbach were written in 1845, and after the revolutions of 1848, Marx dedicated much of his time to explaining the world. Even when he hastily co-authored the Communist Manifesto with Engels that same year as a manifesto for the Communist Party, interpreting the world remained crucial to him. In the preface to a new edition of The Communist Manifesto, the renowned Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm highlights two essential characteristics of the Manifesto. Firstly, it recognized that the mode of production, despite capitalism's triumphant march, was not the culmination of history but a temporary stage in human development. Secondly, it observed the long-term historical trajectory of capitalism. Although the potential for revolution within the capitalist economy was apparent during that period, the accomplishments of the bourgeoisie in 1848 fell far short of the miracles ascribed to them in the Manifesto.
What did Marx uncover?
To determine Marx's contemporary relevance, it is necessary to define his scientific criteria. Unlike many political thinkers and philosophers, Marx established a distinct scientific framework. In this context, we can revisit the eulogy of Marx by his friend and intellectual companion Friedrich Engels. Engels remarked, "Just as Darwin discovered the law of development in organic nature, Marx discovered the law of development in human history." He further added, "Marx also uncovered the specific law of motion governing the current capitalist mode of production and the bourgeois society it engendered. The revelation of surplus value suddenly illuminated the problem that all previous investigations by both bourgeois economists and socialist critics had fumbled in the dark." In Marx's thought, there are also theories concerning commodification and alienation, which appear to hold greater relevance today than in Marx's time. Alienation, the sense of being estranged from the world, from other human beings, and from the product of one's own labor, was discussed by Marx in the Paris Manuscripts of 1844 and was not extensively revisited later. The phenomenon known as the "Great Resignation" following the Covid-19 pandemic in the United States could be seen as an embodiment of this alienation, as millions of American employees resigned from their jobs upon realizing the disconnect between themselves and their work during the pandemic, aligning with Marx's concept of alienation.
Hobsbawm asserts that "Marx and Engels did not describe the world as capitalism changed in 1848; rather, they predicted what logically had to change through it." Marx displayed intellectual courage by presenting his theory of history and the causal mechanisms underlying the transition from one social system to another. Even Francis Fukuyama, who proclaimed the end of history in 1992 with the triumph of capitalist liberalism, thus suggesting the demise of historical materialism, recently acknowledged the resurgence of the idea of socialism. In a 2018 interview, Fukuyama stated, "It seems to me at this point that some of Marx's statements appear to be true". Furthermore, non-Marxists acknowledging a crisis in capitalism and the proliferation of theories regarding capitalism 2.0 and 3.0, even if they do not fully embrace the idea of capitalism's transience, underscore the historical nature of capitalism and its ability to assume different forms, be it through technological advancements, the struggle with nature, or capitalist crises.
"Marxist" models for non-Marxists
The concept of surplus value unveils the hidden exploitation within capitalism, placing the conflict between capitalists and workers over wages, working hours, and technological advancements at the core of economic analysis. I won't delve into discussions about surplus value and the so-called value-to-price conversion dilemma. However, I will reference studies conducted by non-Marxist economists in the United States, which shed light on the significance of class struggle in explaining the origins of inflation and workers' share of the GDP. A recent scientific article titled "Inflation is the Conflict" presents a model developed by economists from the University of Chicago and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, two prominent institutions in the field of macroeconomics. This model emphasizes the role of conflict between workers and institutions (i.e., capital), wages, and profits as an explanation for inflation in a capitalist economy, rather than alternative theories focusing on increased public demand, monetary expansion, or interest rate reduction. It's important to note that Marx did not specifically attribute the conflict between workers and capital over surplus value to inflation, underscoring the relevance of Marx's methodology in explaining economic phenomena. This paper acknowledges the correctness of the Marxist interpretation of capitalism, albeit referring to the economists who previously discussed it as post-Keynesian economists.
In another recent paper authored by economists from the University of Massachusetts, it is suggested that the inflation experienced after the Covid-19 pandemic follows a sequential pattern. Initially, concentrated and monopolistic companies increase prices to maximize profits, which then leads to a state of "conflict" where workers strive to protect their real wages. In this context, it is essential to consider research and data indicating a correlation between the decline in workers' share of the GDP, wage stagnation in the United States over the past four decades, and the decrease in union membership, despite increased productivity in the country. This suggests that the majority of the growth has been channeled into profits. These developments have transpired since the 1980s, a period characterized by capital's assault on workers, commonly referred to as the "Volcker moment" in the United States.
Marx makes a comeback
Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, which dealt a severe blow to Marxism at the time, Marx did not fade away. His influence persisted not only within various communist parties but also in Western intellectual circles. Let me provide a few examples. In 1997, The New Yorker published an article by John Cassidy titled "The Return of Karl Marx." It recounted a conversation Cassidy had with a friend working on Wall Street, the heart of American capitalism, who remarked, "The more time I spend working on Wall Street, the more I realize that Karl Marx was right." After the 2008 crisis, Marx experienced a resurgence. The BBC even produced a documentary titled "Masters of Money," which featured Marx alongside John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek. As I mentioned in my article "The Crisis of Lebanese Capitalism: Lessons from Marx," Richard Bookstaber, a prominent financier in American financial markets, acknowledged Marx's insight in his book "A Demon of Our Design." Bookstaber stated, "Karl Marx recognized that the capitalist system requires a constant expansion of markets to maintain profits. In order for capitalism to thrive, it must generate new products or access markets in less developed regions. Innovation creates new products ahead of the markets, while external expansion secures markets for existing products." Bookstaber further noted that the Marxist perspective applied both literally and metaphorically to the desire for financial product innovation. He explained that investors in long-term bonds represented a "less developed" market in Marxist terms and were easily "exploited" by those utilizing sophisticated models and specialized expertise to create derivatives based on home loans. "Every innovation added complexity to the markets because complexity was what was being sold, and those who sold it made the most money." Therefore, Marx's resurgence after 2008 was not inconceivable, as capitalism's pulse demonstrated that it continued to produce deep crises, this time linked to financial innovation. If not for the intervention of the US Federal Reserve, the US government, and central banks worldwide, the crisis could have toppled capitalism as we know it. In 2011, Georg Magnus, a former senior economic adviser at UBS Global Bank, wrote in Bloomberg, "Give Karl Marx a chance to save the world." Additionally, in 2013, the prestigious Nature magazine published an article on a study indicating that Marx was the most influential scientist globally, followed by Sigmund Freud. As an academic indicator, the Communist Manifesto is widely used in higher education in the United States, with over 3,000 university courses referencing it, according to Market Watch in 2016. Moreover, Thomas Piketty's book "Capital in the Twenty-First Century" became a bestseller in 2013, reviving the analysis of capitalism and reigniting debates about general laws of capitalism, albeit loosely related to Marxism. From Ricardo to Marx to Keynes and Schumpeter, those who reject the existence of overarching rules for capitalism that invariably lead to unfavorable outcomes faced criticism.
ChatGPT and Marx
Now, let's turn our attention to technological advancements and the dawn of the era of robots and artificial intelligence, often referred to as the second machine age. The first machine age commenced with the industrial revolution, encompassing innovations such as the steam engine, electricity, and the internal combustion engine, which gave rise to trains, planes, cars, and various appliances reliant on engines and electricity, like washing machines. Marx, as the theorist of the first machine age, recognized technological progress as the foundation for societal development and modes of production. He regarded it as an inevitable outcome of technological advancements, stating, "The hand mill gives you society with the feudal lords, and the steam mill gives you society with the industrial capitalist."
What was referred to as the "great resignation" following the Covid-19 pandemic in the United States can be seen as a manifestation of this alienation. However, the most significant and closely associated with the emergence of the second machine age is a writing spree that Marx engaged in during the winter of 1857-1858. It resulted in what is now known as the Manuscripts or the Grundrisse, a massive book that was not published until 1939. Within the Grundrisse, there is a section of approximately twenty pages referred to as the "Fragment on Machines." It delves into the ongoing development that Marx argues will lead to science and technology becoming future sources of wealth, relegating work to a marginal role. Free time will then become the foundation of wealth rather than working time, giving rise to the formation of the social individual. Presently, when technologists discuss the advancement of artificial intelligence systems towards general artificial intelligence, or when economists predict the impending end of the working age, they echo the fragments released by Marx in the Fragment on Machines. In these developments, Marx posits that "the creation of wealth no longer depends primarily on labor time and the amount of labor employed... Instead, it depends on the general state of science, on the stage of its development, or on the application of science to production. The real wealth of society is the developed productive power of all individuals... Thus, the measure of wealth is no longer the labor time but the available time." This highlights the profound contradiction between capitalism and automation. Consequently, we are now confronted with the forces of production conflicting with the relations of production, necessitating a historical shift towards socialism to resolve it. Hence, we can complete Marx's statement by adding, "...as for the automated mill, it gives you a society with communism."
Additionally, it is crucial not to overlook Frederick Engels, often regarded as "General Marx." In his book "The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844," Engels discussed the working class's conditions at the outset of the industrial revolution. British historian Robert Allen referred to this analysis as the "Engels Pause," during which wage growth stagnated, and increases in growth favored profits. However, after the 1860s, Engels' thesis waned, and real wages began to increase, a trend that persisted for over a century. Nevertheless, the ongoing technological modernization is likely to bring about a resurgence of the "Engels Pause." Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of England, indicated in his 2018 intervention on "the future of work," while he was still a conservative, that the return of Engels' ideas in the twenty-first century is a result of technological progress, stating, "Marx and Engels may become relevant again."
Cold War 2.0 and China as the Embodiment of Historical Materialism
At the political level, the defining aspect of the current global situation is what is referred to as Cold War 2.0. It is not merely a conflict between China and the United States, two powerful countries with economic interests worldwide, but it is also an ideological conflict. This perspective is evident from the viewpoint of the United States, as Congress passed a resolution denouncing socialism last February. Prior to this, in October 2018, the Trump administration released a report titled "The Costs of Socialism" by the Council of Economic Advisers, the highest government economic think tank directly linked to the US president. These developments indicate a global resurgence of socialism, including among American youth.
In China, on the other hand, after a period between 1978 and 2012 during which Marxism took a backseat, it has returned to the forefront since Xi Jinping assumed the General Secretary position of the Chinese Communist Party. Following the reforms of 1978, the People's Republic of China maintained a model of high and stable growth, presenting the world with a new development model as it strives towards achieving a modern socialist society by the year 2049. In this context, present-day China may serve as the practical laboratory of historical materialism and the primary pillar of Marx's scientific thought. As Engels emphasized, the significance of historical materialism lies in its ability to determine the objective conditions for the establishment of socialism and communism. The reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping in 1978 can be seen as an application of historical materialism, as Deng himself stated during their initiation: "One of our shortcomings after the founding of the People's Republic of China was that we did not devote enough attention to developing the productive forces."
In the introduction to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx asserts, "No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society." In line with this understanding of historical materialism, Deng Xiaoping implemented reforms in China, including the introduction of markets, foreign investments, and the rise of the private sector. These measures were not intended to abandon socialism but rather to achieve it. The recent twentieth conference has reaffirmed three interconnected aspects: the socialist objective, technological development, and the continuous advancement of productive forces, all while adhering to Marxism in order to construct a modern socialist state by the year 2049. China's journey towards socialist construction has spanned over a century.
Most of the growth increases go to earnings, and this has been the trend since the 1980s, during the period of capital's assault on workers, known as the "Volcker moment" in the United States. In Europe, there is a general impression that the left is retreating in the face of right-wing populist movements, but there are indications that this is not entirely true. Spain, for example, is still governed by a leftist coalition that includes the Communist Party. In France, the left has achieved significant success and now constitutes an important political force. However, there are two examples in Europe that I want to focus on, which are of interest to us as communists in the Arab world.
Firstly, in Austria, the Austrian Communist Party has been experiencing consecutive victories after more than eighty years of political decline. In 2021, they won the mayoralty of Graz, the second-largest city in Austria, which has humorously been referred to as "Leningrad." In the state elections of Salzburg last April, they also secured 11% of the vote. Secondly, in Belgium, the Belgian Workers' Party, a Marxist party, is expected to become the third-largest party in the 2024 elections, surpassing its previous status as a small party with no parliamentary representation just fifteen years ago. The newfound strength of these parties has caught the attention of The Economist magazine, which wrote in November 2021: "In 1869, Karl Marx called Belgium a cozy little paradise, well protected and owned by the landowner, capitalist, and priest. In 2021, Belgium offers the EU's best hope for the ideology that bears its name."
Finally, I have not touched upon the topics of justice and equality. While many people turn to Marxism and Marxist parties in search of justice, they also stay for the sake of scientific analysis. This is where Marx's relevance lies, and it is evident in his eleventh thesis on Feuerbach.
This article is an intervention delivered at the seminar "140 years since the death of Karl Marx: The Relevance of Marxism," held in Beirut on May 11, 2023.