Happy birthday, Karl Marx!

By | May 5, 2021

Guest post by Mark Steven

Karl Marx was born in Prussia 203 years ago today and his writing and thinking are as crucial now, during the year of a global pandemic, as ever before. 

In a frequently quoted sentence written in the spring of 1845, Marx issued what reads as a statement of intent. “The philosophers,” he claimed, “have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Thinking, for Marx, would not be enough to achieve the freedom of all humans. For that kind of freedom, we need to change the material conditions and social relations through which we live, and we do so with revolution.

But why might such a revolution be desirable today, and what might it look like? 

Marx provides some answers to these questions by showing how society is propelled by economic forces and internal contradiction, and by the conflict of interests between property owners and dispossessed workers.  He writes with Friedrich Engels:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other – Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.

The enduring relevance of this core idea will be uncontroversial to anyone familiar with the fact that, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the world’s 10 richest billionaires have collectively seen their wealth grow by over $540 billion while, for millions of others, the pandemic has meant heightened levels of suffering through intense exploitation, forced destitution, or deprivation to the point of death. 

Even if macroscopic factoids fail to capture the social sedimentations of a globalized class hierarchy, or the actual experience of dispossession with its hunger and its deprivation, Marx explained why these conditions exist in the first place. 

One of his major achievements was to prove that, rather than creating wealth from nothing, capitalism and its beneficiaries are ruthless expropriators. For Marx, inequality is not just the result of uneven distribution, to be remedied by charitable provision. Instead, the so-called free market — from which the wealthiest distil their riches — depends upon dispossession to generate its profits. 

Specifically, “freedom” under capitalism is freedom to purchase, to buy what you choose, but this “freedom” is a precondition for a second, negative sense of that term: the freedom to sell one’s own labor, which becomes an imperative, insofar as it is required for subsistence, whereby only those who work are permitted to purchase their food and shelter and basic dignity.

This dynamic is very much alive and with us today. 

In the UK, shelf-stackers and delivery drivers, school teachers and security guards, fire and rescue services, utilities and waste disposal, medical staff and carers of all kinds: these “key workers,” as they have been rechristened, form a racialized and gendered “frontline” for whom survival necessitates paid work at a time when work means proximity to other humans and their potentially lethal bacteria. 

Despite state-sanctioned calls for “social distancing,” the idea of a virtual society decoupled from living, breathing humans remains a privilege afforded only to those who can, by the providence of capital distribution, retreat from the outside world. For those corralled into shelters and hospitals, into housing projects and prison systems, who live on the street or are simply forced to work for sustenance, that retreat is impossible. 

In Marx’s account, the capitalist economy results from manufactured dispossession, compelled in equal measure by legislative rule and coercive force, and the subsequent reabsorption of the dispossessed now as workers, from whom profits might be engineered. 

In the decline of feudalism, governments affixed prohibitively expensive prices to the land, bequeathing real estate to the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, thereby compelling a landless working class to earn wages that are in turn extorted back from us as ground rent. This historical and systemic account of capitalism is the one advanced by Marx, but it will also read as obvious and true to anyone who has ever had to work in order to eat and who is subject to the laws of tenancy for their shelter. 

Finally, as populations grow in negative correlation with capital’s capacity or willingness to absorb labor, we encounter that freedom to work now severed from the freedom to purchase, with the vast swathes of persons left to fend for themselves beyond that relative safety of waged employment. By shuttering numerous industries, the pandemic has also exacerbated this tendency, revealing what Marx called “the general law of capitalist accumulation” with a vengeance. 

COVID-19 has been a daily reminder of the capitalist horizon, its unreconstructed class hierarchies and its imperative to work and consume. In other words, it has confirmed what many of us already know: Marx was right. 

While Marx championed the kind of revolution that would end all of this, controversy redoubles with the proposed alternative: a classless, stateless society, arranged according to cooperation; material equality between all people as realized through the abolition of private property ; or, in Yanis Varoufakis’ ultra-humanist precis, what Marx and Engels propose is nothing short of “authentic human happiness and the genuine freedom that must accompany it.”

The proper name for this society, with its happiness and its freedom, is communism, a way of living together that does not and cannot belong to any one state or nation. 

So ends the Manifesto: 

The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.

Of course this idea is controversial. For those at the top, for whom we work and to whom we pay rent, that fight and our victory will mean the loss of something aside from chains: to say we are their “gravediggers” is not entirely metaphorical. 

The opposite of this is true for the rest of us, who are comprised by a class which, in its contradiction with capital at a given time, wields the potential to abolish capital, all classes that exist within capitalism, and therefore capitalism itself. This is another lesson of Marx and Marxism, that the driving force from here to freedom begins with our collective subject saying no to capital and embracing the fight for real change — and this subject speaks not in words but with action, in a language made up of strikes and riots, of barricades and looting, of occupations and insurrection.

Finally, in the year of “key workers,” we might use Marx’s thinking to undertake a revolutionary reconfiguration of that concept. 

When this phrase is used by the government, “key” is intended as “essential” to the economy; these workers are of crucial importance, to be revered, because they “unlock” profitable social relations. But the phrase is also self-contained: ”key” modifies “worker” insofar as the key worker is only “key” because they “work.” ”Key worker” therefore names the worker who cannot not work: they belong to, in Marx’s words, “that class in society which lives entirely from the sale of its labor power and does not draw profit from any kind of capital; whose weal and woe, whose life and death, whose sole existence depends on the demand for labor.” “Key” thus conjures related words: locked, chained, enslaved, now within potentially fatal working conditions. 

But, to amplify the Marxist echo, “key” also suggests unlocking the chains of economic compulsion, precisely by forging the kinds of revolutionary solidarity and committing to the kinds of action that such an adjective might also suggest. To fully realize one’s status as “key worker” is to obtain revolutionary consciousness: to recognize that collective power, the power to overturn all of this, is alive and waiting, because without its key workers capital is nothing.

Mark Steven is Senior Lecturer in Twentieth- and Twenty-first Century Literature at the University of Exeter, UK. He is the author of Red Modernism: American Poetry and the Spirit of Communism (2017), Splatter Capital (2017), and Understanding Marx, Understanding Modernism (2020).

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