Is Karl Marx dead?

Written By: - Date published: 11:38 am, May 8th, 2018 - 60 comments
Categories: capitalism, China, class war, colonialism, Europe, Globalisation, grant robertson, International, jacinda ardern, labour, Russia, uk politics, us politics - Tags:

2018 marks several anniversaries of Karl Marx whose significance for the critique of capitalist society is hard to diminish. It was the 170th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto in February 2018, and Karl Marx’s 200th birthday in May 2018. Last year was the 150th anniversary of Capital. Coming up is the centenary of the short-lived German revolution in November 1918. There’s even a special thing called Marx 200.

Even now, Karl Marx is the big bearded daddy of leftist thought and activism.

It would be hard to imagine The Standard existing without what Marx wrote.

Was Karl Marx right? Well, here’s a few throwaway lines from The Economist to start the ball rolling

Who was he anyway?

He was someone wrestling with the damage of the 19th century European economic system, proposing alternatives through analysis of that damage

Arguably, Marx, together with the French and American revolutions, were for over two centuries – and remain – the core drivers for political reform across the world

In the largest remaining country to cite themselves as Marxist – China – he remains a powerful source of inspiration for their leader Xi Jinping. He still calls Marx “A tool to win the future.”

I’m not going to bother about whether all his successive Marxist movements were on balance a good thing, because that’s as hard as attributing Christianity to Jesus Christ. I suspect Jesus would want a wee sit down about that one.

You can all have a go at the political heritage of Marx-ism if you want to. I have my favorite Marxist variants, perhaps you Ragged Trousered Philalthropists have your own

However, throughout the twentieth century, his thinking started massive political change. There was Russia:



… and so many more.

China itself felt this bicentenary so important that it has made and donated a major statue of Karl Marx to his home town in Germany a few days ago

Probably this Minister of Finance is not likely to be singing The Internationale

That is to say, he would not call himself a Marxist.

Maybe they would be Soclialists

… but perhaps not Marxists.

Which is fine. We can argue the differences.

We can walk and chew gum between Marx’s legacy and New Zealand government today.

There are still variants of it kicking about in little rooms here and here.

Each country has had its internal fights about the different micro-ideologies, including our own. It’s certainly been viewed as a threat here

But was Karl Marx’s Marxism really that good?

Is his thinking worth celebrating at its bicentennial?

Is he done, or is there more to come?

60 comments on “Is Karl Marx dead?”

  1. Matthew Whitehead 1

    Well, firstly, the important thing to point out about Marx’s theories is that nobody’s really ever tried them as written- it was largely poorer states that had resource shortfalls that attempted revolutionary communism, and anyone with passing familiarity with his writings would know that he would have thought they were starting the revolution prematurely, sabotaging the process by starting it before the imperative for communism- that Capital classes were truly parasitic due to resource over-abundance- was met.

    What I think we can say is definitely dead is the idea of a command economy. Any modern conception of communism has to rely on decentralized power structures- the sort of authoritarian permanent revolution that has been tried in historical or existing communist regimes has, with the possible exception of Cuba, led to mass suffering. (Cuba has its economic problems and did create a class of exiles who emigrated to the US, but most of its economic issues were caused by the blockade, not poor domestic policy management)

    There’s also very valid critiques against violent revolution, which I think is probably the most informed critique of Marx’s conception of communism. In accepting some concessions to hierarchical power and violence in the process of revolution, Marx’s theories left these revolutionary states vulnerable to capture by left-wing authoritarian forces, who then consolidated their power rather than letting go of it. Because the system was born in violence and hierarchy, it continued into violence and hierarchy, despite its stated goals. A communist system that can’t start with a nonviolent foundation is inevitably doomed to fail.

    • Gosman 1.1

      Most of the economic problems in Cuba were caused by the blockade – I call BS on that.

      Cuba is free to trade with most other nations on the planet and indeed does so. It has up until quite recently receiving generous amounts of oil from Venezuela. It can sell stuff it makes to places like China or India or Russia or pretty much any country in Central and South America, Europe and Africa not to mention Australia and New Zealand. Yet for some reason the fact it can’t buy or sell from the US makes it poor. Care to explain that?

      • McFlock 1.1.1

        Cuba is “free to trade” with anyone who didn’t want to get on the bad side of the US. They are free to import cargo off ships that don’t want to go to the US on the same trip, etc. Their closest and biggest potential trading partner embargoes any company that trades with them.

        So yeah, it’s not just the US Cuba can’t trade with.

        • Gosman

          Stop making stuff up McFlock. Cuba engages in trade with a number of countries who also trade with the US.

        • Gosman

          Cuba did quite well (not great though) right up till the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. This was well after the US imposed the embargo. The Cubans could quite easily trade with nations like China with no problem. The issue is that Cuba is not open for Trade not that they can’t trade.

          • McFlock

            They can’t trade with companies that want to trade with the US.
            Any ship that visits a cuban port is barred from the US for six months.

            Which is fucking stupid, because the quickest way to democratise cuba would be to sell them reeboks and xboxes. And if the cuban govt said no, there’s your counter-revolution.

            • Gosman

              I agree the embargo is stupid and counter productive. It works more to strengthen the Cuban regime than to weaken it. It does not explain why Cuba is an economic basket case though. That is mainly down to the wrong headed policies of the Cuban Socialists

              • McFlock

                I think that you underestimate the economic effects of the embargo.

                • Gosman

                  What element of the Cuban economy has been negatively impacted by the embargo and how?

                  None of this “But they can’t sell to the big country just to the north”. That is not the sort of analysis I am meaning. I want to know the extra costs imposed on the Cubans as a result of the embargo. How much extra do they have to pay for transport for example?

                  Distance to market shouldn’t be a factor anyway. Look at how New Zealand can remain competitive despite being so far away from most of our major markets. Even Australia is 2000 Kilometers distance. But if you can show me how it is causing massive pain I am quite willing to reconsider my view of the embargo.

                  • McFlock

                    matthew goes into that below.

                    But ships that visit NZ do so as part of a route that includes the major markets. Ships that visit cuba cannot use a similar efficiency, they have to exclude the biggest market of all, well after their freight trip to cuba. That would have a non-trivial effect on transport costs, no?

                    • Gosman

                      Quantify this extra cost then? If you can’t do it the Cuban government certainly should be able to. In fact the Cuban government should be focused on reducing this extra costs any way they can.

                    • McFlock

                      You want me to write a thesis on the relative costs of special vessel charters vs regular line freight as an impact on a national economy?

                      You said I was making shit up about the embargo. I wasn’t. Now you want to argue the effects of the embargo.

                      Well, if you want to argue the trade embargo has a negligible effect on the cuban economy, you write the fucking thesis and send it to the yanks – they might actually give a shit about your slithering opinion.

                    • Gosman

                      I am arguing that the effects of the embargo are minimal. This is evidenced by the fact that Cuba trades quite happily with a number of other countries without hassles.

                      You seem to be trying to argue that it is massive simply based on the fact that the US is a big economy close to Cuba. There is nothing else behind your assertion

                    • McFlock

                      Well if you’re not going to bother with the geographic realities of trade, or look at the excellent (sarc) relations most of cuba’s main trading partners have with the US, or indeed read what I actually wrote rather than responding to what you wish I’d written, you might have a barely relevant point.

                      But only a moron or a true zealot would be that much of a steaming turd.

      • Drowsy M. Kram 1.1.2

        Why a conservative NZ government was more accommodating (than Australian equivalents) to Marxist-Leninist Cuba’s international medical training and assistance programmes is beyond me.

        Why doesn’t Cuba do the decent thing and charge through the nose for medical training? FFS, an opportunity for profit is going begging here!

      • Matthew Whitehead 1.1.3

        McFlock has already addressed your objection quite ably, but I will point out that even if it were just the US that was refusing to trade with Cuba, (and it wasn’t) at the time of the blockade almost three quarters of Cuba’s economy was based on either exported goods or to the USA or services provided to US citizens. Adapting to that sort of economic shock without hardship would be almost impossible.

        It would be the equivalent for NZ of everything but our financial services and insurance industries shutting down overnight, and suddenly everyone else being unemployed. If you think a capitalist government would do well under those conditions you’re absolutely mad, in fact I would be surprised if it did as well as Cuba did.

        • Gosman

          Name me the nations that refuse to trade with Cuba.

          • greywarshark

            Name them yourself. If you want TS to act as a tutor to test your meagre knowledge on, you should make a decent donation of say
            $100 to show good faith.

    • Gosman 1.2

      There is a reason Marx and the people who came after him supported violent revolutions. Do you know what it was?

      • solkta 1.2.1

        The reason that Marx supported violent revolution is because it was inconceivable for him at the time to give any probability to the working class gaining the vote. He was right. Working class men only gained the vote in Britain at the end of WW1 and in direct response to the Russian revolution. The English aristocracy wanted to keep their heads and so caved.

        Violent revolution is not necessarily necessary but the threat of it is.

      • McFlock 1.2.2

        Because capitalists shoot workers who try to unionise.

        • Gosman

          Maybe or more precisely that is certainly what Marx and his followers believed. Hence the need to confront the Capitalists in a violent Class struggle.

            • Gosman

              Noone has claimed here it has not happened. I am not sure why you bothered to post that link.

              • McFlock

                My mistake. I thought your use of the word “maybe” indicated the position that capitalists might not shoot workers who mobilise.

                It seems we both agree that they do.

                • Gosman

                  No, we agree that some have done in the past. Just as some Workers have destroyed employers lives.

                  • McFlock

                    I wouldn’t want to be a union organiser in colombia today, that’s for sure.

        • tracey

          Now they just vilify them in the media or release personal info about them 😉

        • greywarshark

          Paul Robesons beautiful voice and anthem of Joe Hill.

      • Matthew Whitehead 1.2.3

        I’m sure you’re going to tell me regardless, lol.

      • Stuart Munro 1.2.4

        Because he recognized the violence inherent in the system.

  2. McFlock 2

    Marx was absolutely bang on about the problems with capitalism.
    The revolution… not so much

    • Gosman 2.1

      So you agree with his critique on the Labour theory of value do you? It is complete nonsense and is one of the main reasons why Marxism falls over repeatedly.

      • McFlock 2.1.1

        meh. It’s just a different perspective. “What was put into it” vs “what can I get out of other people”.

        The real problem was the use of the dialectic.

        But the theory of alienation, the commodification of life and relationships, was totally accurate. The description of how existing for profit warps people and the structures of society, and how social mobility becomes a myth, were all accurate.

        • Gosman

          The heart of his critique is that Capitalist “steal” value from workers via profits. This is so fundamentally wrong. It also means Marxist economics never works because it can’t successfully price goods and services.

          • McFlock

            They do.

            Marxist economics works fairly well, it’s the politics that falls down.

            • Gosman

              Do you agree with his Labour theory of value ? It is a simple question.

              • McFlock

                Yes, as a description of the exploitative nature of capitalism.
                As I also agree with the supply and demand model as a description of the price a product will get in the market.

                • Gosman

                  There are fundamental differences between them. You would be hard pressed to accept both.

                  • McFlock

                    No they aren’t. They look at the same thing from two different perspectives, each useful in different situations.

                    • Gosman

                      I don’t think you really understand the Labour theory of value. What is your take on it?

                    • McFlock

                      What I studied at university seems to pretty much go in line with the wikipedia article I just flicked through, and you’re dumber than my pols lecturers ever were.

                    • Gosman

                      So explain the Labour theory of value to me then

                    • McFlock

                      Before or after the thesis you demanded on the economic impacts of alternative logistical routes caused by the US embargo on Cuba?

                      How about we just cut straight to the bit where you show me how there are fundamental differences that preclude them both being correct, albeit from different perspectives?

        • Gosman

          Have you ever read about his Labour theory of value ?

          • McFlock

            Yup. Would I plan an overall economy that way? Not so much. Might I use it as a justification to limit CEO salaries? Definitely.

            • Gosman

              You wouldn’t just limit them. You would basically eliminate them if they were not deemed necessary to the production of whatever it was that was being made.

              • McFlock

                No, because A) I’m not a communist and B) I’ve already said I don’t follow marx’s prescriptions faithfully.

                But minimum wage cleaners working 12 hour days getting paid 1/12th of a CEO on an 8 hour day when CEO salaries are irrelevant to company performance? You bet I’d be closing that ratio.

                • Gosman

                  Written like a true wanna be despot.

                  • McFlock

                    Yeah, a living wage is totes like the great leap forward. 🙄

                    • greywarshark

                      You deserve three cheers for a mighty and patient dialogue with the die-hard log. I’m just giving them quietly here at home.

                  • tracey

                    So when mcflock wont agree with your view you resort to “despot” name calling.

      • mikesh 2.1.2

        All things bought and sold are created by labour, and value resides in things bought and sold, so the labour theory of value is presumably valid.

  3. Bill 4

    Marx had some good points. And Marx had some bad points. In my book, his most damaging one was suggesting that history and progress were deterministic.

    It was that which allowed Lenin and others to kill off nascent socialist revolutions and establish dictatorships in their stead.

    • Pat 4.1

      lol…aint folk grand?

      Marx may have considered humans deterministic…unfortunately in the wrong direction.

  4. Cold Hard Truth 5

    No its not dead…China is heading more and more back towards traditional Communism…..extending social services into regional areas…etc

    Its more here in the West where we have sold out any form of socialist system for bare faced late stage capitalism….just look at the stance of this govt on the CP-TPP……

  5. CHCOff 6

    The problem with Marxism (as with most ‘modern’ political ideologies coincidently) is not so much the private central bank element but rather that it is built upon underlying political power for it’s own sake.

    The ‘pragmatists’ say there is no alternative to this truth and while it is certainly true of human nature in this regard, it is a very narrow band of the societal construct to govern upon. In fact for most of humanities evolutionary progression, the various traditions and rites have been such like, so the society wouldn’t be governed by this narrow band or aspect of socialisation alone, as before the advent of the technological buffer between survival and the seasonal lay of the lands that allowed more individual development to take place, the purely political having it’s way in societal affairs would lead quite quickly to the extinction of the group.

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