Happy Birthday 200th Birthday, Karl Marx!

Karl Marx, Helen Razer and May Day 2018: Marx’ 200th birthday Anniversary – May 5th

In Australia, in the middle of our month of actions to build the Change the Rules Campaign, we should pause for a while to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx, May 5th.

That might be a big ask for many Australian labour movement activists. And probably also for those of you in the First Nations liberation, environment movements, feminist activity, anti-racism, refugee solidarity, and so on.

Therefore, “Why pay attention to Marx?” 

Back in the nineteenth century Marx gave our forebears – the workers of the world – the first coherent and worker oriented explanation of how capitalism worked in his day, and some basic principles for a true alternative, a true socialism.

21st century capitalist society is quite different from way back then, but in its essences it is so much the same. There is a connection between the way in which 21st century capitalism is different and the way it is the same. We are still living in a world of exploitation, with various levels of hyper exploitation, of both the majority of humans and of most of nature as we know it. The exploitation is driven by the dynamic of the system.

Karl and Fred, with Jenny and some others lending a helpful hand in many ways (see the recent bio, “Love and Capital”), explained that dynamic thoroughly. Even right wing commentators in the financial media can’t help but recognise it, especially to understand the 2007-9 financial crisis and why it is taking so long for a recovery to happen, and that so far there is no recovery for the lives of billions of humanity.

It’s worth paying attention to Karl for lots of reasons, including a sparkling and at times bawdy wit, and his contribution as a refugee solidarity activist with the rest of his immediate family (again, take a look at “Love and Capital”).

Earlier this week we in Australia were reminded in several ways why millennial workers, and others like me (post ww 2 generation), might find using a marxist approach to understand wtf is going on worth the effort.

They included the media coverage reports of

– what the Australian government is going to do to continue the failure of successive governments to tackle and reverse climate change at the rate that is desperately needed;

– and, the housing crisis: there was this summary of a new report from Anglicare that told us, among other horrible things, that out of 67,365 rental properties surveyed across the country, only 3 were affordable if you needed Centrelink (social security) payments;

– and this that described precarious employment plight for workers of the millennial generation … unemployment at 12.5% average, double the general average, underemployment at huge levels, the government driven destruction of vocational education and the apprenticeship system, and “wage theft”, the systemic payment of wages at less than the legal minimum rate.

Helen Razer and Marx

Helen Razer is a popular and sharpish marxist social commentator. Her most recent (2017) book is “Total Propaganda”, a plain speaking, witty and bawdy (in a way that Marx and his household would smile at) 21st century introduction to Marx and Marxism for workers of the millennial generation. I recommend it as a good (with a couple of weakness though) 21st century introduction from an Australian starting point.

Her Introduction includes this:

“You guys have it bad … There is nothing character building about not being able to afford a permanent place to live. There is nothing fun about a shrinking job market. Stagnant wages are not exhilarating.”

And this:

“You are not a pussy for feeling that the world has failed you. The world has failed you, and it’s hardly your fault that its systems have begun to break down. You guys are not choosing to flit from job to job. You are not choosing to hurt those Chinese and Congolese workers who made that iPhone with their blood. You did not throw your chance at a home after a gourmet sandwich.” (You can read the next bit yourself “Oh Millennial Sandwich Eater.”)

At the end there is a chapter about what to do about it and also a pretty good suggested reading list.  (It leaves out a couple that I would recommend. For example I would include Terry Eagleton’s equally entertaining “Why Marx Was Right”, and Malcolm Robert’s blog posts that offer good plain language explanations of how the economy we live in right now is working / not working, based on key marxian ideas, see below.)

In between there is a sparkling overview of how Marx was motivated by his passion for freedom for all people by analysing how freedom worked (works) in a capitalist system, including its cultural and political dimensions, not just its economic. She points also to what she sees as weaknesses in Marx’ thinking.

She gets into 2 key “economic” concepts essential to understanding things like exploitation and recurring and irresolvable crises. They are the labour theory of value and the tendency for profitability to fall. She doesn’t quite nail these, nor the value of dialectical thinking (eg capitalism changes by staying the same, but retains its impulse into crisis and inability to fully recover from it.)

She does nail pretty well Marx on alienation and the fundamental reality that our material existence is the foundation for all else. Its also funny and entertaining, using the “problem” of masturbation as the starting point.)

She also grabs hold of another core Marxian idea and shakes our brains with it: “The free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”.

This is a good entry point to understand the essential difference between individualism, as lauded by the employers and their Liberal Party, and individuality. The promotion of individualism – rooted in selfishness, greed, self-centredness – is a central idea of 21st century capitalism, just as it was in Marx’ 19th century. The material economics of individualism – capitalism – kills individuality. Individuality – the precious unique potential of each human being – nourishes and amplifies the possibilities for each one of us and, in itself, is dependent on the power of workers uniting across the boundaries varies of gender and race.

Her “what is to be done” chapter is simple and powerful: get engaged including through study and thinking. Act. Bring identity politics into the common struggle against exploitation and hyper exploitation. Study exploitation using Marx because his legacy provides the best perspective for doing that. It’s time for that now and over these next few years. No more whinging.

The place for millennial workers is in the struggle to Change the Rules, in the workplace. Its rescuing our environment. Its standing in solidarity with our First Nations peoples. And so on. It’s on the streets for May Day. It’s in the public meetings, the rallies, the demonstrations and the meetings that plan them. It’s in the development and driving of strategy, from below and the mid-levels of our movement, not just leaving it to “heroic” leaders, elected or otherwise. Its breaking out of the boring cycle of rapacious LNP governments followed by marginally better (oh we should be so grateful) Labor governments, followed by … more getting nowhere at all.

Everyone has the potential for it. Find a way.

Author: Don Sutherland

I am a retired left wing and labour movement activist. Before that I worked for a long time in the Australian union movement in union education, Australian and international solidarity and organising. I am also active in Cuban solidarity, the SEARCH FOUNDATION, and promoting discussion, debate and action about green socialism based on workers control and social ownership.

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