By Ann-Katrin Orr
Even 175 years after writing the Communist Manifesto, the ideas of Karl Marx remain as relevant as ever. Together with his friend and co-thinker Friedrich Engels he penned this text that not only contains their core analysis of capitalism but also a call to working-class people around the world to unite – to get organised to overthrow the moribound capitalist system because we have nothing to lose but our chains!
Back then, Marx was already identifying the inbuilt exploitation and inequality which the capitalist system relies on; exposing that while workers create all wealth in society the working-class does not have control over what we produce. Figures from 2022’s wealth inequality report illustrate this clearly. They found that the poorest 50% of the world’s population have 2% of the world’s wealth while the richest 10% account for 76% of the world’s wealth! Yet, this wealth is not created by the top 10%, and even less so by the top 1%. Even Jeff Bezos had to acknowledge this when he thanked Amazon workers for making his personal vanity project of a trip close to space possible. Since Marx’s time, the inequality that is stitched into capitalism’s DNA has only intensified.
Capitalism = exploitation, oppression & destruction
Marx also identified the destructive nature of capitalism and how different aspects connected and overlapped. Writing in Capital he identified how “all progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil”. That capitalist production places no value on the natural world and sees natural resources as “free” components to be used and exploited at will in the pursuit of profit. The reckless nature of capitalism is becoming more exposed as modern economic production continues to force the planet into further extreme weather patterns that are having and are set to have even more extreme consequences on food production, water supplies and sustainability. Estimates suggest that by 2050 there could be 1.2 billion climate change related refugees. This problem will not be solved by individual measures such as the often heralded switch to electric cars – only with a complete reorganisation of the economy can we stop corporations from treating the planet’s oceans as their waste ground and not caring about emissions or sustainability of natural resources. That reorganisation cannot stop at increased regulation or caps – which time and time again have demonstrated their ineffectiveness at curbing corporate greed – we have to take large companies out of private hands and into public ownership and run them democratically.
Marx analysed the world around him with incredible sharpness but also foresight. This was based on his ability to understand minute details in full but always also in their complete context. He also understood how things change over time and that while change is ongoing, it is not linear. His philosophical outlook allowed him to not only imagine a completely different world but also see how working-class people could move from the present unsustainable status-quo to a different way of organising the economy and society as a whole. Crucially, his analysis illustrated then as it does today that this different way of organising society, namely on a socialist basis, is not simply theoretically or morally superior – but is in fact an absolute necessity as otherwise capitalism’s inbuilt contradictions and the issues it leads to will result in society being pushed backwards. The relevance of this as we face political crises in many countries, economic and military conflicts, a push back on the hard-won rights in many countries and climate chaos is evident.
Marx left a legacy that is rich in insight and clarity. Most importantly, he developed a Marxist method which is not about repeating slogans or demands by rote but about analysing each situation to itsin its fullest. It is about understanding all issues in their full context and recognising that this context is shaped by the fundamental class divide that continues to exist between those who have a huge, increasing and by all measures obscene amount of wealth on the one side. And on the other side the vast majority of the world’s population: the working-class that must sell its ability to work and create wealth in order to survive.
We have a world to win
Marx also understood that capitalists utilise all tools at its disposal to prevent a successful challenge to their rule. Dividing working class people by pitting workers from different ethnic minorities against each other or by ensuring gender oppression, whose origins pre-date capitalism and which developed and was tied to the emergence of early class societies, or by emphasising differences between religions or any other form of oppression has been part of their arsenal. Marx analysed all aspects of capitalist society including the family and showed how ideology was a tool in gender oppression. The current right-wing backlash that is most evident in the attacks on abortion rights and trans rights in the USA and other countries around the world show how applying a Marxist understanding to oppression is essential – to help us understand the role played by oppression in this system and crucially that building an active movement of working-class people of all ages, genders and backgrounds is the only way in which we can build a society in which oppression and exploitation are eradicated.
Marx’s legacy also includes one further, vital component: the understanding that another world is possible. That, if united and organised, the working-class has the power to break free from the constraints of the capitalist system and create a different society. A society in which collective ownership and democratic control of the economy allow us to plan production and distribution of goods in order to meet the immediate, medium and long-term needs of both people and the planet; a world which does not rely on exploitation and oppression therefore laying the basis for real liberation from all forms of oppression. In short: a socialist world. That his ideas are ultimately a call to action is encapsulated by one of his most famous quotes: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”