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Introduction to "Four Marxist Classics"

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The present short volume is composed of several of the most important basic Marxist classics: the Communist Manifesto, Socialism: Scientific and Utopian, State and Revolution, and the Transitional Program.  It is intended to introduce readers in the USA to the most fundamental aspects of Marxist theory. I have been asked by my American friends of the Workers’ International League (WIL) to write a brief preface – a task which I readily agreed to, given the enormous importance of the USA in the worldwide struggle for socialism.

In performing this task, I am aware that the presentation of Marxist ideas in the USA is confronted with certain difficulties. Years of Cold War propaganda, together with the assumption that socialism and communism equals a dictatorial, totalitarian and bureaucratic regime that denies the personality and democratic rights of the individual, have created many prejudices. That was precisely the intention. Both the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia and the defenders of the so-called free market economy (that is, capitalism) had a vested interest in distorting the real message of Marxism. It is high time that the American public were given access to these marvellous ideas, dispensing with the services of biased and hostile “interpreters”.

The only way to learn about Marxism is to read the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. After all, nobody has ever expressed these ideas better than the authors themselves. There is a common assumption that the works of Marx are difficult to read and that therefore it is better to read books that purport to tell us “what Marx really meant.” These books are mostly useless and frequently ill-intentioned. They remind me of something Lenin wrote after reading a book called The Secret of Hegel: “The secret is well kept!”

It is simply not the case that Marx is difficult to read. In general, Marx and Engels wrote for workers, and any person of average intelligence can read the works presented here without any particular difficulty. It may be that at first one experiences some problems with an unfamiliar vocabulary. But Marxism is a science, and like every science it has its own terminology that may differ from everyday language. But one soon gets used to this, and the terminology of Marxism is considerably easier to understand than the kind of gobbledegook that is to be found in current university textbooks of sociology, philosophy, economics and politics.

However, the first question that needs to be asked is why we attach such importance to theory, and why we should bother studying the classics of Marxism at all. What possible use can it be to read a book like the Communist Manifesto, written as long ago as 1848? To this question, we can answer by issuing the following challenge. Go to any public or university library and take out any bourgeois book written 150 years ago and one can say in advance that this book will have no more than a mere historical interest. Its application to the practical or political life of the 21st century will be close to zero. 

Now let us issue another challenge: read the Communist Manifesto, written by two young men in 1847-8, and you will have a great surprise. For here is a book, written over 150 years ago, which accurately describes the world of today. In fact, it is far more relevant now than when it was first written. For example, modern economists claim that globalization is a recent discovery. In fact, Marx and Engels predicted it in the pages of the Manifesto. They explain that capitalism, beginning by creating a national market, inevitably goes on to develop a world market: 

“The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilized nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.

“The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.”

How exactly these lines convey what is happening today! The crushing domination of the world market is the most important phenomenon of our epoch. No nation, however big, can withstand the colossal pull of the world market; the USSR and China were unable to do so, and the USA, notwithstanding the fears and prejudices of the backwoodsmen who still hanker after splendid isolation, is also compelled to enter into the maelstrom of the world economy, subjecting its economy to all its unpredictable vicissitudes.

But there is an irony in all this that has turned history on its head. Over the last 20 years the big US corporations piled into China with gay abandon. They saw China as the salvation of world capitalism, as a huge market for their products and investments. For a time it all worked splendidly. The capitalists of the USA earned fabulous profits from China. But now the dream has turned sour. We warned the capitalists 20 years ago of the consequences of this. If you invest vast amounts of capital in building modern plants in China, these plants, equipped with the most advanced technique and with access to a huge and skilled labour force earning very low wages, sooner or later they will produce a vast amount of goods that cannot be absorbed by the national market. They must be exported onto the world market, and that means the USA.

The Chinese economy, fed by huge sums of foreign direct investment, has been growing at more than 10% a year. In 2006 foreign investment in China (excluding the financial sector) was $69.47 billion. Chinese factories are producing an immense quantity of commodities. In the same year China for the first time overtook the USA as an exporter of high-tech goods (1.8 billions). It also had a record trade surplus of $23.8 billions and foreign currency reserves of more than one trillion dollars. Now the US capitalists look on with horror as the cheap commodities of the Chinese penetrate the US market, provoking howls of pain and demands for protectionism from the erstwhile advocates of “free trade”.

However, those who predict that China will soon become stronger than the USA are mistaken. Similar predictions were made about Japan in the 1980s, until the Japanese economy collapsed in a recession that lasted for more than a decade. All serious economists are agreed that China cannot maintain the present feverish rate of growth, and that a “correction” is on the agenda – that is a euphemism for a crisis of overproduction. The recent sharp falls on Chinese stock markets are evidence of nervousness on the part of investors that undoubtedly presages a serious crisis. When this happens it will knock the bottom out of the boom in Asia and have a serious effect on the entire world economy.

Like every other boom in history the present unstable boom will end in a slump. The only question is whether a crisis in China will topple the US economy into recession or whether a crisis in the USA will have the same effect in China. Either way the dominance of the world economy will assert itself. The illusion of the bourgeois that participation on the world market will solve all their problems will be exposed. All the factors that boosted the economic upswing in the last decade will turn into their opposite. Globalization will manifest itself as a global crisis of capitalism.

In other aspects, too, the Manifesto is a remarkably modern document. It predicted long in advance the inevitable process of the concentration of capital, the inexorable concentration of obscene wealth on the one hand and extreme poverty on the other. For decades the bourgeois sociologists attempted to disprove these assertions and “prove” that society was becoming more equal and that, consequently, the class struggle was as antiquated as the handloom and the wooden plough. The working class had disappeared, they said, and we were all middle class. As for the concentration of capital, the future was with small businesses, and “small is beautiful”.

How ironic these claims sound today! The entire world economy is now dominated by no more than 200 giant companies, the great majority of which are based in the USA. The process of monopolization has reached unprecedented proportions. In the first quarter of 2006 mergers and acquisitions in the USA amounted to $10 billion dollars a day. This feverish activity does not signify a real development of the productive forces, but the opposite And the pace of monopolization does not diminish but increases. 0On 19-20 November 2006 the value of mergers and acquisitions in the USA amounted to a record of $75 billion – in just 24 hours!. Takeovers are a kind of corporate cannibalism that is inevitably followed by asset-stripping, factory closures and sackings – that is, by the wholesale and wanton destruction of means of production and the sacrifice of thousands of jobs on the altar of Profit.

At the same time there is a constant increase in inequality. In all countries the share of profits in the national income is at a record high level, while the share of wages is at a record low level. The real secret of the current boom is that the capitalists are extracting record amounts of surplus value from the working class. In the USA the workers are producing on average a third more than ten years ago, yet real wages stagnate or fall in real terms. Profits are booming and the wealthy are becoming ever wealthier at the expense of the working class.

On a world scale the results are horrifying. In 2000 the richest 200 people had as much wealth as the 2 billion poorest. According to the figures of the UN, 1.2 billion people are living on less than two dollars a day. Of these eight million men, women and children die every year because they do not have enough money to survive. Everybody agrees that the murder of six million people in the Nazi Holocaust was a terrible crime against humanity, but here we have a silent Holocaust that kills eight million innocent people every year and nobody has anything to say on the subject.

Alongside the most appalling misery and human suffering there is an orgy of obscene money-making and ostentatious wealth. Worldwide there are at present 945 billionaires with a total wealth of $3.5 trillion. Many are citizens of the USA. Bill Gates has a personal fortune estimated at around $56 billions. Warren Buffet is not far behind with $52 billions. Now they boast that this unseemly wealth is spreading to “poorer nations”. Among the super-rich there are 13 Chinese, 14 Indians – and 19 Russians. And this is supposed to be a reason to celebrate!

The capitalists rejoiced when the USSR collapsed. This was supposed to prove the superiority of democracy and the “free market economy” over “communism”. In reality what collapsed in Russia was not socialism or communism but a bureaucratic and totalitarian caricature of socialism called Stalinism. But what has happened afterwards? The rush to a market economy has made a handful of people very rich but caused the biggest economic disaster in history. Now there is widespread and appalling poverty in Russia, which was not the case before. Three million Russian children are now living on the streets, sleeping in doorways and even in sewers to keep warm. Many will die. This is what Trotsky meant when he warned that the re-introduction of capitalism in the USSR would lead to a collapse of the economy, living standard and culture.

The collapse of Stalinism was supposed to usher in an epoch of peace, prosperity and democracy. It has not. Instead there is a picture of general instability and turbulence at all levels: economic, social, political and military. There is war after war and terrorism is spreading like an uncontrollable epidemic. There was supposed to be a “peace dividend”. But now the USA is spending over $500 billion a year on arms. The barbaric war in Iraq is costing the US Treasury about one billion dollars a week. To date almost 3,500 US servicemen have lost their lives, and nobody knows how many Iraqis have perished. This shows the limits of the power of US imperialism on a world scale.

The attempts of US imperialism to impose its will on the entire world in the epoch of the senile decay of capitalism is placing an intolerable strain on the economy and US society, which is more fractured than at any time since Vietnam. Slowly but surely American citizens are beginning to realize that they have been deceived by the President, the government and the ruling class. There is a smoldering mood of anger and frustration with the old system of two bourgeois parties – in reality, as the greatest living American writer Gore Vidal has pointed out so eloquently, just one Party representing two wings of the same ruling oligarchy.

The anti-war movement and the recent strikes in the USA herald the beginning of a movement in the USA to change society. In my book of Marxism and the USA I tried to counter the image so often encountered in Europe of Americans as organically backward and reactionary. The working class of the USA has very militant and revolutionary traditions that have lain dormant for many years but which are destined to re-emerge under radically changed conditions. An increasing number of activists will come to see the need for a consistent revolutionary programme. This can only be provided by Marxism.

The inclusion of Trotsky’s transitional Programme in this anthology was an excellent idea. Here in  succinct form we have the distilled essence of the programme and policies of the Bolshevik Party as applied to modern conditions. Although it was written in 1938, the main lines of this important document can serve, with minor adjustments, as the starting point for a programme of action for the workers and youth of the USA today. Marxists must always set out from the immediate conditions and problems of the working class and fight for every demand that tends to improve the living standards, wages and conditions of working people. The socialist transformation of society would be impossible without the day to day struggle for advance under capitalism. The point is to link these demands to the general perspective of socialist revolution, and this is just what the Transitional programme does. It is obligatory reading for every working class activist.

Lenin’s State and Revolution, written in the summer of 1917 in the heat of the Russian Revolution, is a key work of Marxism. It deals with the central question of the state, following in the footsteps of Engels’ famous classic The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State. It explains that in the last analysis, the state is “groups of armed men”, the army and the police, and represents an organ of repression of one class over another. Lenin comprehensively demolishes the false theories of reformism and anarchism and reiterates the argument of Marx that it is impossible for the working class to base itself on the existing state power to change society.

The present situation in Venezuela completely vindicates this argument. In order to change society it is necessary for the working class to take power into its own hands and sweep away the old repressive bureaucratic state. The working class needs its own state, but it will be a state completely unlike any other state ever seen in history. A state that represents the vast majority of society does not need a huge standing army or police force. In fact, it will not be a state at all, but a semi-state, like the Paris Commune. Far from being a bureaucratic totalitarian monster, it will be far more democratic than even the most democratic bourgeois republic – certainly far more democratic than the USA today. Lenin worked out four conditions for a workers’state:

1. Free and democratic elections with right of recall of all functionaries in the Soviet state.
2. No official to receive a higher wage than a skilled worker.
3. No standing army but the armed people (militia).
4. Gradually, all the functions of administration to be performed by everyone in turn (“when everybody is a ‘bureaucrat’ in turn, nobody is a bureaucrat).

Anybody can see that this programme is completely democratic and the very antithesis of the idea of socialism as a bureaucratic dictatorship. Socialism, as understood by Marxists, is democratic or is nothing.

The final document that needs to be mentioned is Engels’ Socialism: Scientific and Utopian, one of the seminal documents of Marxism. It is based on Engels’ famous book Anti-Duhring, which, in the form of a polemic, sets forth all the basic postulates of Marxism, from philosophy to economics and from science to the class struggle. We should not forget that Marxism began as a philosophy and that its scientific method is that of dialectical materialism. It is necessary to grasp this method in order fully to master the theories of Marxism in all their richness and profundity.
Each and every one of these important works contains key lessons for the reader in the USA today. The central task facing the US Marxists is the building of a revolutionary party. And it is impossible to build a revolutionary party without revolutionary theory. Many groups exist in the USA and internationally that claim to stand for Marxism in one way or another, but they fail on two basic questions: 1) the need to fight for theoretical clarity and 2) the need to link up with the mass movement of the working class. A notable exception is the WIL, which shares the ideas, programme and traditions of the International Marxist Tendency. The record of the WIL in its active intervention in the movement is second to none. And its decision to publish these marvellous texts of Marxism shows they are equally serious on questions of theory. Such a group is destined to grow together with the movement of the US workers and youth. I wish them every success

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