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A Citizen's Guide to Marxism




Marxism does not define a political system, it provides a very specific analytic framework for examining economic relationships under capitalism. Within those relationships lie antagonistic forces, those forces, labour and capital and, the struggle between them, create change.

And the point of it all....

The Theses on Feuerbach, (1845) tells us "the philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it".

That's it, there's no more. Simply put, Marx felt that philosophy's validity was in how it informed action.

Marxism: what is all the fuss about? Engels tells us....

Frederick Engels in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. (1880)

"State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then dies out of itself; the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of processes of production. The State is not "abolished". It dies out...

Socialized production upon a predetermined plan becomes henceforth possible. The development of production makes the existence of different classes of society thenceforth an anachronism. In proportion as anarchy in social production vanishes, the political authority of the State dies out. Man, at last the master of his own form of social organization, becomes at the same time the lord over Nature, his own master — free."

This is Engels, Marx's friend and financial backer, setting out the vision, the hope, the endpoint - Communism.

Which obviously makes Marx and Engels responsible for the failure of the Soviet Union, China and the tragedy of North Korea - only if you read the Daily Mail.

Marx's own thought was shaped both by the revolutions and struggles of the mid-19th century and the philosophical quagmire of Hegelian philosophy. Marx spent half of his time arguing with intellectuals across Europe over the minutia of meaningless philosophical points, he spent the other half hiding from secret policeman.

Much of Marx's work is turgid and painstakingly long-winded, especially in Capital. But he did have some special moments....

His writing (with Engels) is at its best in the Communist Manifesto (1848) and the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louie Napoleon (1852).

Marx told his readers in the Manifesto...

"A spectre is haunting Europe -- the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre..."

"The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles."

"Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose except your chains."

This is Marx the poet, galvanizing the troops, warning the bourgeois of their impending doom. In the event, the revolutionary moment was missed. And in the Eighteenth Brumaire Marx's reflects.....

"The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living."

This is Marx attempting to understand the failure of the revolutionaries. They held within their grasp something new and vital and yet kept looking backwards for some kind of anchor... the traditions of the dead generations, looking for reassurance. This is Marx the psychologist, revisiting recurring themes - the lack of a working class consciousness and the hegemony (the predominance of the ruling elite's ideology).

This was also Marx standing on Tom Paine's shoulders. Paine anticipated Marx in his essay Commonsense (1774)

"...a long habit of not thinking a thing WRONG, gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason."

Note: The American revolutionaries were happy enough to beat up the British with Paine's ideas but not grateful enough to grant him a pension in his old age - he got that from the French, prepared to acknowledge the debt they owed..

Is Marx relevant today?

In 1867 Marx wrote in Capital....

"Within the capitalist system all methods for raising the social productiveness of labour are brought about at the cost of the individual labourer; all means for the development of production transform themselves into means of domination over, and exploitation of, the producers; they mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in his work and turn it into a hated toil; they estrange from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power; they distort the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labour process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital."

This was capitalism in 19th Century Britain, this is capitalism in Africa, India, China, and Latin America today. Marx's analysis is still relevant. From the tin mines of Bolivia to sweat shops of Munbai, the labourer is still being mutilated into a fragment of a man.

Is Marx Relevant in Britain Today?

The short answer is yes. There's more to Marx than capitalist juggernauts rolling over children and mutilating the workers.

The key concern of much of Marx and Engels writing is the notion of class consciousness, or rather the lack of it. For Marx, the exploitation of the worker was an objective fact, a fact that the worker was unaware of. Engels invented the term, false consciousness to explain this phenomenon.

The world that Marx and Engels considered was the world of work, twelve hours a day, six and seven days a week. Marx was fixated on the workplace but it wasn't the workplace exclusively that shaped the way people thought about their circumstances.

These workers were born into a world where the legitimacy of the State was a given. Their masters and their betters claimed to be the standard bearers for State legitimacy, that is, a social contract based on agreement and consent. And that contract, devised by Hobbs, Locke and Rousseau and many more, went back to the barons at Runnymede.

It's as if some kind of spontaneous consensus exists, revisited and revised, reconstructed - a negotiated construction or seemingly so, in which the ideas of the ruling elites inform the actions of the masses.

It has to be right, it's based on agreement and consent, it has to be right, the alternative would be chaos.

How marvelous, everyone signed up to chaos. A banking crisis, a Euro crisis, a crisis of hope - where political stooges look to third world struggles for signs of social progress, talking nonsense about Arab Springs while waging hopeless wars against fanatics who wont buy into the consensus.

Marx and Fetishism

Marx argued, fetishism is "the religion of sensuous appetites" , adding that

"the fantasy of the appetites tricks the fetish worshipper into believing that an 'inanimate object' will give up its natural character to gratify his desires. The crude appetite of the fetish worshipper therefore smashes the fetish when the latter ceases to be its most devoted servant"

This is Marx discussing the "fetishism of commodities" that replaces human and social relations under capitalism with unnatural attachments to things. Here Marx is anticipating modern day neuroses; narcissism and the obsession with celebrity that drives a young girl to have her face rearranged by a surgeon to resemble her pop idol?

What sort of social arrangements are these in which a highly trained doctor turns into a bastard sculptor for profit and brings about the estrangement from self-worth for a young girl.


Marxism is then not concerned with Soviet five year plans and the Gulag, rather it's concerned with understanding how capitalism continues to constantly reinvent itself through the consent of the masses.

Capitalism is not just about economic relations, it is also about a host of social relationships that foster fetishism and estrangement - bizarre forms of behaviour antithetical to human development and social progress.