Karl Marx, revolutionary scientist


Statutes of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in Berlin

The disinterring of Marx today is now common, even if the body dug up is usually not that of Marx but imposters like Zizek who claim to be Marxists but are really academics who never organise the workers struggle. Marx had to suffer many attacks in his own lifetime and further indignities in death as Marxism was plagued by a constant stream of caricatures and misrepresentations, the most important being that Marxism was never a ‘science’ and has no relevance today.  Some even attack Marxism as a utopia that diverts us from making meaningful, incremental, progressive ‘change’.

Danylmc writing in the Dimpost blog decides after a quick skimming of Marxism that it never was scientific and moreover is counter-revolutionary because it calls for “smashing capitalism” rather than evolving through many iterations into a new, better society…or not.  For some reason Danylmc does not include the ‘labour theory of value’ (LTV) as one of Marx’s utopian ideas gone wrong. Maybe because Marx did not originate this theory as it was a fundamental plank of the political economy of his day.  Either Danylmc understands the LTV as Marx does, or not. Either way by accepting it he fails to see that it makes a mockery of his argument. [i]

So let’s see what Marx means by science. Was he copying 19th century chemistry and reducing social revolution to a law like water turning into steam at the right heat as Danylmc claims?  No, social science has to account for the interaction of conscious subjects and their material environment.   For example, humans learn over millennia how to boil water more efficiently (that is conserving labour time) a reality that the young Marx observed when as a radical journalist he campaigned for the right of landless peasants to collect firewood in the Rhineland. This experience proved that social interaction is not the random behavior of individuals because humans’ actions are ultimately determined by their social relations. And it was capitalists that burnt coal to heat water to drive their industrial revolution so as to exploit human labour power more efficiently/profitably and even enable workers to buy firewood or coal as a commodity.

So let’s go back to the make-or-break LTV.  The LTV was a theory shared by bourgeois political economy which observed the flood of peasants off the land into the factories.  Marx also began with the presupposition that humans must reproduce themselves by means of their labour. Marx was trained in philosophy and law which meant he had to test the meaning of the words he used against the social reality. What turned Marx onto the scientific analysis of society was the failure of Hegelian philosophy to account for the actions of humans as part of God’s plan. Similarly he rejected the bourgeois political economy that turned social history into a march of human progress culminating in the rise to power of the bourgeoisie.

The difference between natural and social science is that in the latter the scientist is a partisan or ‘interested’ observer. It was Marx’s taking the side of peasant wood collectors in the class struggle that converted him from a bourgeois intellectual into a proletarian intellectual.  He did this by critiquing political economy and developing the presupposition of the LTV into the Law of Value (LOV).[ii]  Political economy was empiricist and merely described value as the total labour embodied in commodities. Since this commodity production resulted from the contributions of workers, capitalists and landlords, each ‘class’ could claim a ‘fair share’ of the total labour/value as wages, profits and rents. It justified this expropriation of labour value as a reward to capital and land for the use of private property in the process of production. This empiricist rationale was elevated by Hegel into a divine mission. For Marx, it was one thing to defeat the bourgeois political and economic holy rollers in philosophical class struggle, but it would not stick unless the empiricist bourgeois political economy that justified the exploitation of labour in the process of production was blown apart by a scientific critique.

Marx’s Scientific Method

Marx’s method borrowed from Hegel in moving from concrete appearances to abstract essence and then back to the reconstituted concrete. Hegel observed the social classes, politics, state and law of German society of the early 19th century as a contradictory unity of appearances accompanying the rise of capitalism. The appearances formed a real historical society (the market lives!) but the essence which explained them was the spirit of God.  The Political economy of Smith and Ricardo also took the appearance of developing capitalism but appealed to the idealism of material progress to resolve social contradictions into the universal freedoms of bourgeois society

Marx put Hegel on his feet and argued that the essence was not ideal but material. God and material progress were just idealist slogans used by the bourgeoisie to claim it represented the interests of all classes and nations.  In the Critique of the German Ideology, Marx and Engels settled their accounts with the followers of Hegel.  History was one of social revolutions in which successive modes of production made up of social relations of production where the ruling class extracted the surplus product of the producing class and justified it by invoking Gods.  Each mode reached its limits when the ruling class oppression of the producing class produced a rising class consciousness leading to a social revolution.  Capitalism would follow course and give rise to its successor, communism.  For the young Marx this was still a philosophical critique. The real task of proving it scientifically began. Hegelian Marxists typically arrest at this point and explain history as a ‘lawful’ transition without any conscious subjective intervention unless it is the will to power of the heroic individual!

Here we have to begin with Capital Vol 1 and read it from start to finish. It is no good relying David Harvey as a guide because he recommends leaving the ‘difficult’ Part 1 for ‘later’.  Marx deliberately started Capital with the concept of the commodity because it was the “cell” of capitalism.  His method for arriving at the essence of value was to abstract from surface appearances of equal exchange down to the commodity ‘cell’ and then move back to the surface where the appearances are now understood as the result of “many determinations”.  The class struggles on the surface now reveal their deeper causes. The commodity had a dual character, a contradictory unity of use-value and exchange value. Labour power could be exchanged for its value and at the same time create surplus value as it was the only commodity to produce more value than its own value.

How did this come about?  The primitive accumulation of pre-capitalist material wealth in the colonial world gave capitalism its kick start in Europe.  But capitalism as a mode of production did not come into full existence until commodity production was generalised by commodifying labour power of wage labour as a result of creating a class of landless labourers.  The secret, hitherto denied by political economy, was that the use-value of labour power to the capitalist was defined as its capacity to create more value that its exchange value, i.e. the wage needed to reproduce it daily.

What is scientific about this discovery?  The dual nature of the commodity allowed Marx to resolve an anomaly in political economy where labour as the equivalent of value did not exchange at its value.  It if exchanged at its value capitalism would be all wages and no profits.  Therefore political economy had to fiddle with its LTV to account for this anomaly, adding qualifications to explain why some of labour’s value ended up as profits and rent. Marx resolved this so that the LOV explained the exploitation of labour-power and expropriation of surplus-value during the process of production. Capitalism was not an equal opportunity society of the political economists assuming unequal exchange could be corrected. Capitalism was inherently unequal and would develop in a contradictory way until it could no longer reproduce itself giving rise to the conditions for socialism.

Marx learned from both Hegel as well as Smith and Ricardo, critiqued their errors, using a method of analysis that exposed their limitations and laid the foundations for his own science.  This was to be a scientific revolution greater than those of Copernicus, Newton, Darwin or Einstein.  From henceforth all social knowledge would have to be subjected to the rigorous methodology of the scientific method.   Social science not only incorporated natural science it had to explain the constant interaction between society and nature where social classes determine these relations within limits set by nature.

Marxism:  science or utopia in Russia?

Danylmc writes: “After the Russian Revolution the Bolsheviks were very disappointed to learn that (a) history and (b) humans didn’t work like this at all. Firstly their revolution happened in an underdeveloped, mostly agrarian economy, not an advanced economy like Marx predicted. Second, the revolution failed to spread so they were stuck with ‘Communism in one country’. Thirdly, it turns out that if you have a capitalist economy – even a very basic one like Tsarist Russia – and you take away the market and put the workers in charge of the means of production (and execute anyone trading on the black market) then instead of transforming itself into a utopia because of the scientific laws of history and the malleability of human nature, the entire economy collapses, and people in cities end up eating their own children to stay alive, and everyone who can still walk rises up and joins the capitalist counter-revolutionaries trying to overthrow you.”

This is a complete travesty of what happened in Russia. First as we have seen assumptions (a) and (b) bear no relation to Marxism.  Marx did not hold to an idealist view of capitalism following inexorable laws would arrive at a communist utopia. Rather class conscious workers must overthrow it and seize power.  He excoriated the German Social Democrats in the 1870s for thinking that capitalism would evolve peacefully into socialism by means of objective laws of progress. We have seen that Marx’s scientific method makes class struggle the driver of capitalist development. It motivates the contradiction that causes periodic crises which we can see today are now terminal since the bourgeoisie can no longer overcome these crises without the destruction of humanity and nature. Either we the workers become the gravedigger of capitalism, or capitalism buries us all.

We only know this because Marxism as a revolutionary science proves that the dual nature of the commodity contains the fundamental contradiction between use-value (nature) and exchange value (capital) that is the basis for determining what happens at the surface of capitalist society.  Class struggle over the rate of exploitation at the point of production explains class struggle at the level of the market, nation state and international relations. [iii] In Capital Vol 3 Marx shows how the LOV is the basis of other ‘laws of motion’ accounting for development of capitalist production, crises of falling profits, and the drive to expand capitalist production on a world scale. Here he sets out his theory of crisis whereby the periods of boom and bust, the concentration and centralisation of capital, and the widening income gap between capital and labour are explained. While both he and Engels anticipated many of the developments of capitalism in the 20th and 21st centuries, we have to look to the work of succeeding Marxists to see how they used his finished and unfinished work as the basis for the testing and validating of his scientific theory.

Lenin finished off Marx’s unfinished volumes in one small pamphlet entitled “Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism”. To do this he had to go back to Vol 3 and show how the state, world market and international relations were explained by the laws of motion underlying crisis and counter-crisis tendencies motivated by class struggle.  This enabled him to break with the mechanical evolutionary Marxism of the 2nd International in Europe and the Mensheviks in Russia.  The result was Bolshevism, the concrete application of Marxist revolution that made the revolution in Russia, the “weakest link in imperialism”, and which led the 3rd Communist International.

The most important breakthrough of Lenin was to recognise the need to form a proletarian party as the mechanism of uniting theory and practice to test the scientific method of Marx.  Without Marxism that penetrated the veils of capitalist exploitation revealing the essence of the fundamental contradiction contained in the commodity, then workers would lack the “consciousness” necessary to fight to overthrow capitalism and replace it with socialism. While Marx had stood as the scientific ‘authority’ against the lapses into bourgeois idealism within the ranks of the workers movements, it remained trapped in by bourgeois ideology and constantly lapsed back into class struggle over the distribution of ‘fair shares’ that did not require the overthrow of capitalism.

The result was the Bolshevik party that was as response to the extreme contradiction between European imperialism and the old Tsarist feudal regime. The party became the Marxist scientist that tested theory in practice in the “weakest link” of imperialism in Russia. The old evolutionary Marxist utopia was destroyed in theory and practice. The February Revolution that began as the strike of women textile workers threw up a bourgeois Provisional Government which was incapable of breaking from British and French imperialism. It proved this by collaborating with the Tsarist General Kornilov in a Tsarist Coup. The Bolsheviks quickly drew the conclusion that the workers must take the road to socialist revolution in the almost bloodless October insurrection.

Far from ‘disappointment ‘resulting from the Revolution it inspired world wide support from workers who rose to defend it when it was invaded and isolated by the invasion of the imperialist nations. The Bolsheviks already knew that socialism could not be built in one country, let alone a backward isolated country. The survival of the Russian revolution depended on the spread of revolution and they knew in advance what was necessary to make this happen.  They formed the Communist International to organise Bolshevik type parties, the worker scientists, in every country. Only the failure of workers to break from their ties to the bourgeoisie and its ideology of market equality to form such parties capable of leading revolutions, allowed the imperialist ruling classes to hang onto their decrepit capitalist system and condemning the revolution to degenerate into a Stalinist caricature of “communism”.

The Bolshevik Revolution still stands as the most advanced struggle of the international proletariat against the reactionary utopia of rotting, dying capitalist society.  If we look around the world today we can see the bourgeoisie “eating their own children by the million” as they fight to our death to hold onto the stolen wealth of generations of workers.  Our hope must be in the revolutionary science of Marxism, embodied in the international revolution party, capable of putting into practice the scientific program that can guide our struggle to take power and replace capitalism with socialism.


[i] The Labour Theory of Value was the issue in Marx’s “The Modern theory of Colonisation” Chapter 25 in Capital Vol 1. Mr Peel emigrated to the Swan River (Perth, Australia today) with capital, machines and men. The men shoot through to the bush to become independent producers, so Mr Peel’s machines rust and his land lies unproductive. Never mind, Mr Peel does what any good capitalist does when he cannot profit from the exploitation of labour-power, he becomes a land agent and speculates in founder’s rent.

[ii] The LOV means that value equals the socially necessary labour time required to produce it. Socially necessary labour time equals the average time of work enabling wages to buy the average commodity basket to allow the working family to live at the average standard of living.

[iii] Vol 2 examines the circuit of capital including the transformation of value into prices in the market while holding competition constant.  Vol 3 moves to the more concrete level of competition among capitalists in the market. He had planned 3 other volumes on the State, World Trade and International Relations to return to the most complex concrete level of reality which he never completed drafting.