Richard Kuper


The Meaning of Marxism

A Study Guide


Published for the International Socialists by Pluto Press in February 1972
Each part of this Study Guide is linked to the relevant parts of The Meaning of Marxism.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for REDS – Die Roten.


The Meaning of Marxism originated in a series of articles published weekly in Socialist Worker. It makes no claim to be a complete guide for the education of revolutionary cadres. Nonetheless it provides a focus around which Marxist education can be organised. Problems raised in practice in such clams will of course be of great importance in the formulation of a more definitive syllabus.

The study guide fills in gaps left in the original work. It adds relevant references and guides to reading. But above all it is an attempt to promote discussion and debate around the issues touched upon. Marxism is a living method of analysis and a guide to action. Dogma on the theoretical level and practical impotence are not unconnected and no part of The Meaning of Marxism or the Study Guide should be swallowed unquestioningly. The questions and discussions points appended at the end of each section are important; they touch on some of the problems which can-and must-be raised in discussion classes if this guide is to serve its useful purpose.

Ideally small groups of comrades should read one or two sections of The Meaning of Marxism and the Study Guide and then come together to tackle the problems raised. A possible study programme would be as follows:

1. Marx’s theory of history: section 1

2. The rise of capitalism: section 2

3. Why the working class: section 3

4. Exploitation and production: section 4

5. The contradictions of capitalist production: sections 5 and 6

6. Monopoly capitalism: section 7

7. Imperialism at the turn of the century: section 8

8. Imperialism today: section 9

9. The post-second war expansion of capitalism: sections 10 and 11

10. Ideology: sections 12 and 14

11. Nationalism and movements of national liberation: section 13

12. The Russian Revolution: section 16

13. Aspects of the history of the movement, in Britain and abroad: sections 15-17

14. The Revolutionary Party and the way ahead: section 18

Topics such as the nature of the state, reformism etc are not singled out here but are interwoven throughout The Meaning of Marxism and the Study Guide.

What is important to stress is that Marxism sees capitalism as a total system in which all parts are interlinked. So its critique covers all levels of analysis and tries to link them together. Thus even in the most basic programme it is important not to neglect any level, to try to have some discussion on each topic from every aspect in turn. This means for instance that the question of the state is not to be treated as just a political question, the question of production as simply an economic question, the class struggle as purely a social question etc. Every topic should be looked at from every angle-the historical, social, economic, politics, philosophical, ideological, empirical etc-in order to see how they link up, and in the end how capitalism functions as a total system and how it can be overthrown.



1. Why we need a theory

The Marxian theory of history is most easily found in the Communist Manifesto, in Engels’s Principles of Communism and in Marx’s short Preface to the Critique of Political Economy. [1] The problem Marx sets out to explain is just why it is that “men make their own history but not in circumstances of their own choosing ...” Society is made by men-the way they develop technology, extract the riches of the natural world, the way they work together. Yet at the same time society seems to be above men, beyond their control, controlling them in fact. How this comes about and how it can be changed is the problem Marx posed.

Scarcity is the key. In all forms of society before capitalism there was never, to put it crudely, enough to go around. Some groups in society were able to monopolise most of the wealth which the members of the society as a whole produced. They formed the ruling classes in these societies. Only with the tremendous development of the productive forces under capitalism is it now possible – in theory – to have a free egalitarian society.

To understand what is going on in any society we must investigate how men organise production in co-operation and/or conflict with other men. This is what Marx calls the “economic base” of the society, made up as it were of “productive forces” and the “relations of production”. The productive forces means simply man’s ability to work, and by extension anything which increases this ability – such as new technology, cooperation between people in the division of labour and so on. The relations of production refers to the social organisation of production – who controls and who decides.

At some stages of development there is a good fit between these forces and relations of production. At other stages the relations become fetters on the further development of the productive forces. Then, says Marx, in more less rapid periods of social revolution these old relations have been overthrown and new ones set up which allow the expansion of the productive forces.

Under capitalism now there is just such a misfit. The mass of working people create the wealth of the society, but not directly to serve their needs. Instead goods are only produced if they make a profit. So the possible development of the productive forces is held back – at the same time as we have poverty, slum housing and on a world-scale even widespread starvation, we also have unemployment, vast amounts of money spent on armaments, factories not working at full capacity. This isn’t because there is already enough for everyone. Far from it. It is because it wouldn’t give the capitalist a big enough profit.

We need a theory to understand society at all. But society looks different according to whether one is a member of the ruling class or selling one’s capacity to labour for wages. Marxism is a theory of society from the view-point of the worker.

Discussion Points

1. Why say that “the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle”? Why not of religious struggle or struggle between nations?

2. Why do we need a theory of society? Why do we need Marxism as our theory of society?

3. What is the difference between relations of production and forces of production?



2. The battle for markets

The best book on the social and political effects of the industrial revolution is E.J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution, (Mentor paperback). Chapter 2 gives an excellent analysis of the industrial revolution in Britain – showing for instance how the textile industry grew by smashing the Indian economy. There was nothing “natural” about Britain’s supremacy in the nineteenth century!

It stresses too how one can’t look at the industrial revolution as the result of new inventions. Important though these may be, their application requires a society ready and able to use them and rising social groups who will fight for power on the basis of new modes of organising production. The conflict between the productive forces and the relations of production, fought out in the class struggle, was the motor of historical development, here as elsewhere.

So too at the level of ideas. The new ways of seeing the world weren’t just moral concepts. The struggle for liberty, equality, tolerance and so on had a precise meaning in the development of a market society in freedom to buy and sell with anyone whose credit was good, equality under the new laws for regulating the market relationships of men. These new revolutionary ideas embodied the destruction of the old stable relations of feudal society and as Marx puts it in the Manifesto, “All that is solid melts in air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

C.L.R. James, Black Jacobins (Vintage paperback) gives a tremendously exciting account of the eighteenth century slave trade and of an early revolt of negroes inspired by the French Revolution. He shows well the materialist roots of Britain’s abolition of the slave trade for example in the rivalry between the French and British bourgeoisies: “Rich as was the French bourgeoisie, the colonial trade was too big for it. The British bourgeois, most successful of slave-traders, sold thousands of smuggled slaves every year to the French colonists and particularly to San Domingo. But even while they sold slaves to San Domingo, the British were watching the progress of this colony with alarm and envy ... The British bourgeoisie investigated the new situation in the West Indies and on the basis of what it saw, prepared a bombshell for its rivals. Without slaves San Domingo was doomed. The British colonies had enough slaves for all the trade they were ever likely to do. With the tears rolling down their cheeks for the poor suffering blacks, those British bourgeois who had no West Indian interests set up a great howl for the abolition of the slave-trade.”

The ideas of the revolutionary bourgeoisie lost their revolutionary meaning for that class once its power was consolidated. For instance freedom became for the mass of the population freedom to sell their labour power, and this is something they have to sell if they are not to starve. So freedom turns into coercion, and the struggle for real freedom shifts to the new exploited class created by capitalism-the working class.

Discussion Points

1. Why was socialism not possible before the growth of capitalism?

2. In what ways does the world market determine what happens in each individual country in the modern world?

3. Is it possible for a “backward” country today to industrialise by following the path that Britain, Germany etc. followed?



3. The workers’ vital role

The working class is the basis of the socialist alternative to capitalism because it is the class whose exploitation has led to the tremendous growth of the productive forces. Its very basis of existence is co-operative social production. Other social groups have been more oppressed, or still are such as peasants in India, women in every society. Workers can act as a collective offering a new way of ordering society and production – for social need not for profit. No other social group can.

Ruling classes always talk in terms of representing the general interest, the universal-parliamentary democracy for instance is supposed to express this universal interest of all groups in society. But what is the state? It consists, as Lenin put it, of “special bodies of armed men who have. prisons etc at their disposal”. What it does depends on the pressures on it and the resources at its disposal: in certain periods lots of reforms have been won by the strength of the workers’ movement. But the one thing never won, in Britain say, have been reforms which threaten the capitalist system as a whole – reforms are only given if they don’t cut into the capitalists’ profits too much. The state claims to be neutral, above society and its petty conflicts, representing what everyone has in common. In fact it represents a particular interest and as Marx said in the Manifesto is “the executive committee of the bourgeoisie”.

The working class on the other hand represents a genuinely universal interest – the interest of all mankind. For its basis of existence does not depend on exploiting other groups. Workers learn co-operation and solidarity in their daily lives under capitalism: this genuine humanity will form the basis for a new society – socialism.

In revolutionary periods we have seen glimpses of what workers power can mean and how it can be organised – in the Paris Commune, in the soviets of 1917 in Russia, in Spain in 1936, in Hungary in 1956. The principles on which the new workers’ state would be organised would include:

  1. The armed people – in place of the “special bodies of armed men”.
  2. No bureaucracy – all officials will be elected and subject to recall, receiving workers’ wages.
  3. Parliament will be replaced by soviets – workers’ councils – which will join together control over political and economic decisions and will control production.
  4. Control of the means of communications – newspapers, television etc – will be in the hands of the soviets.

Some people say that they are against any form of dictatorship – even by the working class. To them we say that the proletarian dictatorship right after the revolution will be more democratic than any existing system. In fact, the proletarian dictatorship is the most democratic conception possible straight after the revolution. The word dictatorship signifies that while there are still classes in society one of these must rule – or another will seize power. Workers’ power will be the conscious rule of a whole social class, the majority class in society.

Lenin’s State and Revolution is a masterly analysis of the state in capitalist society and the workers’ alternative. John Reed’s book Ten Days that shook the World (Penguin) shows how it worked in the early years of the Russian revolution. Marx, The Civil War in France does the same for the Paris Commune. All three are excellent.

Discussion Points

1. Why do we regard the working class as the agency for bringing about socialism? Why not the peasantry in underdeveloped countries? (or the students!)

2. Why will there still be a state after the workers ta)ce power?

3. What is a “worker’s state”?



4. Who produces the wealth?

Marx’s theory of exploitation is crucial for understanding how capitalism works. Lots of people regard capitalism as unfair – somehow, year in year out, workers, old-age pensioners and so on don’t seem to get enough. If only wages were a little higher all would be well ... This view is common among reformists, who think the system is basically all right, but the way we distribute what is produced isn’t.

But what does fairness mean under capitalism? According to the laws of the market equal values exchange. Commodities are produced and sold on the market: the worker too sells a commodity – his labour power, that is his ability to work, and like any other commodity it is bought at its value. It’s all quite fair and square really.

But hold on, you might say. The worker isn’t a commodity. He’s a person with thoughts and feelings and needs and desires. So he is, but as far as the market is concerned that’s just a nuisance. Capitalism continually tries and has to try to make the worker into nothing more than a commodity because that’s the only kind of value it deals in.

So Marx’s analysis of exploitation shows that it isn’t how much the worker gets which is wrong with capitalism – it’s him being treated as a commodity in the first place. But the whole way in which capitalism is organised is based on this! It’s not just the distribution of what is produced which is, wrong (which it certainly is!) – it’s the organisation of production which leads to it and which must be changed.

Exploitation is based on the fact that the worker, or really the working class taken as a whole, produces more value than it itself receives – this difference being called surplus-value. Now if I buy an apple, under the laws of the market it is mine and I can do what I like with it. Similarly, under just these laws, the capitalist who buys labour power can do what he wants with it, and, generally he puts it to work in say a factory, and what is produced doesn’t belong to the workers but, rightly and justly, to the capitalist! Rightly and justly, that is, only if you’re mad or deluded, but that is exactly what fairness means under the laws of the market.

Marx describes the consequences of capitalism in the following way: “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. But all methods for the production of surplus-value are at the same time methods of accumulation; and every extension of accumulation becomes again a means for the development of these methods. It follows, therefore, that in proportion as capital accumulates, the lot of the labourer, be his payment high or low, must grow worse.”

Marx’s two pamphlets, Wage-Labour and Capital, and Value, Price and Profit are both quite readable introductions to Marxian economics. The subject can get a bit technical-all economics does! – but as pointed out in the first chapter we need a theory to explain how capitalism works from our point of view. All bourgeois economics starts off by denying that there is any such thing as exploitation.

Discussion Points

1. Both capitalists and workers contribute equally to production – surely they deserve equal shares of what is produced?

2. If we all pull together and double production then surely workers would get “enough”? Do we really need a revolution?

3. How is it possible for a “well paid” car worker to be more exploited, in the technical sense, than a poor peasant?

4. Are there workers who do not produce surplus value?



5. The system’s driving force

6. What causes the crisis?

Competition between different units of capital leads to the necessity for each firm constantly to try to improve its methods of production. For instance if Ford Motor Co introduce a new technical process, Chrysler’s will have to follow suit or find a new substitute process, otherwise Ford will undercut them in the market. This competition makes it constantly necessary for capital to be accumulated so that new investment can be made. And, as the capitalists and the press never tire of saying, this is good for everyone, leading to better and cheaper goods for all.

But it isn’t really. For under capitalism new goods are produced, new processes introduced, only if it makes a profit for someone, increasing the amount of surplus-value the capitalists can pocket.

On the one hand, as more machinery is introduced to replace workers, or as Marx puts it, as the organic composition of capital rises, there is less and less living labour (i.e. workers) from whom surplus-value can be extracted. So there is a tendency for the rate of profit to fall. It’s only a tendency, but much of what capitalists have to do to stay in business is an attempt to offset this tendency – for instance by finding cheap raw materials in the underdeveloped countries, by increasing the rate of exploitation by speed-up, productivity deals etc. At the same time, as pointed out in section 2, capitalism is a revolutionary system of production. There is a constant tendency to produce more than members of society can actually buy. A high rate of accumulation to keep up profits means there is less to be spent on consumption goods.

Were it not for the first tendency of the rate of profit to fall the capitalists could solve the second problem by raising wages – workers would then have more money and so buy more goods. Were it not for the second tendency, for production to grow faster than available markets, they could solve the first by cutting wages, so keeping up profit rates.

Now the contradictory nature of capitalism is such that both these problems occur at the same time. Sometimes one, sometimes the other is more severe, and capitalism oscillates between trying to solve one or other problem. It really is in difficulties when both are pressing problems at the same time-such as now in the United States in particular but in Britain too. Much of the economy isn’t producing full-out – there is stagnation, and inadequate markets for what could be produced. At the same time the rate of profit is sufficiently low for firms not to undertake investment for the future on a scale which would mop up the large percentage of unemployed workers. Of course the blame for all these problems is put on the shoulders of the “greedy workers”.

The material in Section 6 is best taken together with this section. It shows what form crises within capitalism have taken over the last century and a half. The point of Marx’s analysis is to show that however strong capitalism looks at any particular time, it is based on real contradictions which it can never finally solve while profits are the motor of the system. In the late 1950s almost everyone was saying that the system had solved its problems. C.A.R. Crosland, the Labour Party theorist, was saying we couldn’t even call it capitalism any longer – it was so different from the system of the 1930s.

Reformists in the Labour Party say we could solve the problems today quite easily – incomes policy, rapid growth, planning and so on. It’s true, so we could, if we dismantled our trade unions, worked twice as hard for the capitalists, accepted slum housing, scrapped the schools rebuilding programmes, cut old-age pensions, dispensed with the National Health Service. All this would help – for a while. That’s what planning under capitalism is all about. Planning for a better rate of profit. And the more we resist the more they say we are responsible for the economic problems. So we are from their point of view. And that’s why we need to get rid of capitalism once and for all and of “their point of view”.

Discussion Points

1. Why does the system develop crises?

2. Why can’t a genuine reformist economic policy work?

3. Why is the rate of profit so important for economic activity?



7. The march of the giants

The competitive market system – laissez faire as it was known – is supposed to work to the benefit of all members of the community. Competition forces prices down, leads to the development of new goods and cheaper ways of doing things. But this ignores that under capitalism the major commodity whose price is being continually put under pressure is the workers’ ability to labour. So although the apologists for such a system (such as Enoch Powell today) don’t say it, a major feature of what they want is cheap labour, and they believe maximum competition will bring this about.

But the system has changed radically from what it was in the middle of the last century. The dominant economic institution is no longer the small firm, the independent small capitalist business. Rather, it is the giant corporation. In 1965 in the United States about 500 corporations produced about 70 per cent of all goods made in the US! These same firms made 80 per cent of all the profits made by American industry in that year. There is a huge network of interlocking directorships among them. Many of them also operate on an international level. ICI and Unilever two “British” firms are really gigantic international capitalist combines.

Nonetheless these giant corporations are just as much forced to exploit their labour force, to extract surplus-value and transform it into capital as the small nineteenth century cotton firm was. Unless they expand they will be taken over. To expand they must invest. Investment depends on accumulating capital, i.e. having a high rate of profit, and profits come from screwing both the workers and the consumers (through keeping wages down and prices up).

The Labour Party programme Signposts for the Sixties said “On the whole the large corporations are serving the country well”. It should have been the other way round. On the whole the country is serving the large corporations well!

Reformists always argue that “planning” has transformed capitalism into a “social” system. But in a sense capitalism has always been planned. The anarchy of the market has always forced planning in the individual capitalist firm, in order to try to offset this anarchy. What has changed is the scale. Competition that matters is now mainly world competition. It is the international market which dominates. So often whole capitalist countries have to plan to offset this world market anarchy. This “planning” has nothing to do with socialism. It is an essential feature of the present stage of capitalism.

What is the point of producing cheaper cars for export so we can undersell Volkswagen or Renault? The better it is done, the more the owners of Volkswagen and Renault are forced to exploit their work force in order to stay in business. Whoever wins from this, one thing is clear. It is the working class which pays every time.

Arguments very similar to those put forward by reformists today were already advanced by Edward Bernstein over 70 years ago. They were effectively demolished by Rosa Luxemburg in her Social Reform or Revolution. This is not an easy pamphlet but is well worth reading, not only for what it says against the economic arguments in favour of reformism, but also for its arguments on the conquest of political power, the role of the trade unions under capitalism, the role of the state.

Discussion Points

1. How has the development of large corporations changed capitalism?

2. What is the role of planning under capitalism?



8. The white man’s burden

The essential work to read on this section is Lenin’spamphlet Imperialism, Highest Stage of Capitalism. He gives there a definition of imperialism which includes the following five basic features:

1. The concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life; 2. the merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation, on the basis of this finance capital’, of a financial oligarchy; 3. the export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance; 4. the formation of international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves, and 5. the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed.

The imperialist phase, culminating in the First World War and its aftermath, had devastating effects. In the colonies cheap labour was viciously and ruthlesslessly exploited, contributing to the super-profits of the monopolies. In the capitalist countries the tendency of the rate of profit to fall was offset by the, cheap raw materials and the super-exploitation of the colonies. The stage was set for the problem which still afflicts us today, whereby two-thirds of the world’s population live in non-industrial surroundings. Underdevelopment is not just the stage before industrialisation. It is a product of how capitalism is organised; it is an essential feature of capitalism. The tendency of capitalism to develop unevenly, to concentrate its productive powers leads not only to regional imbalances such as the depressed areas of the north-east and Scotland in Britain, or of Southern Italy. It leads to the mass of underdeveloped countries being in a state of continuing “underdevelopment”. Imperialism put them into this situation. The organisation of the world economy today ensures that they stay there.

Not only this. Imperialism had a real corrupting effect on the internationalist spirit of the working class. The ideology of imperialism was racist through and through – from the soft sell of the liberals talking about the white man’s “civilising mission” to the gutter-language of the empire-builders who regarded the natives as “just down from the trees”, as sub-human machines to be exploited.

And many workers, exploited and demoralised at home, who served in the imperialist armies of oppression actually came to absorb some of these racialist ideas. Nationalism and patriotism were consciously used to deflect workers from the class struggle at home and against the struggles of their fellow workers abroad who happened to have different coloured skins.

Racialism as we know it today in Britain is a product of empire. It is still one of the most dangerous weapons the ruling class has at its disposal to undermine our internationalism which is the only basis we have to overthrow the capitalist system once and for all.

Discussion Points

1. Why did capitalism turn into imperialism in the late nineteenth century?

2. What were the effects of imperialism within the imperialist countries?

3. What was the difference between the imperialism of Lenin’s day and the earlier phase of empire building in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries?



9. Imperialism today [2]

Certain features of imperialism as Lenin described it have become even more pronounced since he wrote. The growth of monopolies, the concentration of capital, the international economic stranglehold of a small number of corporations, all these have advanced in spectacular fashion since Lenin’s day.

But there have also been real changes. Firstly export of capital has lost its decisive importance as a means of stabilising capitalism, replaced by massive waste on armaments expenditure (see section 10). Secondly direct political control of the whole world by the imperialist powers is virtually a thing of the past. Backward capitalist countries like Spain and Portugal still have colonies, advanced capitalist countries like France, Britain and the United States have (virtually) none. Anguilla is no substitute for the Indian sub-continent!

Thirdly the corporations are not really dependent on bank loans and finance capital. Industrial capital dominates within the capitalist class and this is important for how one analyses modern capitalism and works out a strategy for opposing it.

Finally the role of the state is different from what it was 50 years ago. It is much more involved in running the economy directly – for instance in all the capitalist countries of Western Europe some 20-25 per cent of the economy is nationalised, under direct state control. This is a trend in the direction Lenin envisaged but nonetheless it represents a major, qualitative change since his day.

Many socialists, basing themselves on Lenin, drew the conclusion that the weak link of imperialism was in the colonies, and if these fought for and won independence, capitalism would be mortally wounded. Imperialism, it was (and still is) said, is crucially dependent on the raw materials from the developed world.

This theory has two consequences. Firstly it assigns a passive role to the working class in the capitalist countries, except mainly for them giving support to struggles in the third world. (And of course as internationalists we give these struggles unconditional support). Secondly it leads to impotence for one simple reason. It is wrong.

By and large capitalists buy their raw materials from the cheapest source. It doesn’t mean they can’t get them elsewhere. For instance the United States gets vast quantities of raw materials from Canada and Australia already. Secondly the United States has vast reserves of iron ore and oil (as well as other basic materials) which it could use if it had to. Thirdly the development of synthetics of all kinds is going on apace, and often the making of a substitute has been brought about when underdeveloped countries have tried to up the price of the raw materials they produce.

The truth of the matter – and the tragedy of it – is that underdeveloped countries have been growing more and more dependent on the industrialised countries, the latter less and less dependent on the underdeveloped ones.

This is not to say that imperialism is not cruelly repressive all over the world today. It undoubtedly is, and one only has to look at the barbarity of the war in Vietnam to appreciate this. It is a system which has led to more human suffering and degradation than any other the world has ever seen.

The real lesson is that to destroy it, it will have to be overthrown in the metropolitan countries, and the only social group who can bring that about is the working class. This class may not be the most oppressed social group in the world – it clearly isn’t. But it is nonetheless the most exploited – a starving peasant family produces no surplus for anyone to appropriate, while the working class produces the surplus value on which the yew maintenance of the oppression of the underdeveloped countries depends.

Trotsky’s work Permanent Revolution is essential for understanding how revolutionary movements in one country affect developments in others, in other words in what ways and in what conditions international socialism is possible. His ideas are taken up and developed in Tony Cliff’s article on Permanent Revolution (In International Socialism 12) and in Nigel Harris’s article The Third World, in International Socialism 42. Copies of the latter are available still. Cliffs article is unfortunately virtually unobtainable, as is Kidron’s evaluation of Lenin’s theory Imperialism: Highest Stage but One, International Socialism 9. It is hoped to republish them in the not too distant future, but in the meantime the bones of the arguments, and much else besides, is available in Nigel Harris’s excellent contribution to the International Socialists’ book World Crisis (Hutchinson Publishers).

Discussion Points

1. How has imperialism changed since Lenin’s day?

2. Can the movements for national liberation in Vietnam, the Middle East and elsewhere lead to socialism?



10. Arms: key to postwar recovery

11. The end of postwar stability

Various explanations have been put forward to explain why there has not been a major economic crisis in Western capitalism since the war. Reasons given include the rebuilding of the economies after the destruction of the war, new technological innovations, the growth of world trade, and state planning of the economy. All of these have happened but they don’t explain the stability. They must themselves be explained in terms of their role in capitalism as a profit-making system of production.

The last of these arguments is the most important because it is the one used by reformists to prove that the system is all right really. Planning has overcome the problems. But one has to ask: planning by whom and for what? Remember, planning is not foreign to capitalism. It has always been a planned system at the level of the units of production. Indeed planning is necessary to offset the anarchy of the market. Now the level at which planning is necessary has changed, and often an attempted regulation of the whole national economy is forced upon capitalism. It is a planning to ensure survival in international competition.

If the state were indeed neutral one would expect it to give all kinds of reforms when the left were in power, and not otherwise. Reformists always point proudly at the 1945-51 Labour Government and its welfare state. But when we look at all the Western European countries we see that some kind of welfare state has grown up whatever the political colour of the governments in power. Of course it is always the result of working class pressure.

By 1960 official welfare payments in Britain formed a smaller proportion of gross national product than in most other countries – 6.4 per cent compared with 10.4 per cent for West Germany, 9.2 per cent for Austria, 9.1 per cent for Sweden, 8.8 per cent for Belgium, 8.3 per cent for France, 7.9 per cent for Italy, 6.8 per cent for Denmark.

The real reason for the period of prosperity was state expenditure of a special kind – “waste” expenditure on armaments. Waste that is from any social point of view, but crucial from the capitalists’ point of view because it maintained prosperity for about 20 years.

It works like this. State expenditure provides employment for large numbers of workers. It thereby expands the market for consumer goods which the system could produce but could not otherwise sell. The tendency for production to outstrip the available markets is overcome.

But not any kind of expenditure would do. If the state built houses it would compete “unfairly” with private speculators: if it made cars it might drive the private car firms out of business. So only certain types of state spending can be used as “public works”: they mustn’t compete with private business.

Arms spending has great advantages. It doesn’t compete directly with private firms. It doesn’t even sell its products on the market so it doesn’t even compete indirectly with other capitalists trying to sell their wares. It gives lots of giant contracts to the big corporations and there is no risk involved (remember the 4 million extra profit which Ferranti made by fiddling their prices!). It maintains demand ip Department 1 which has traditionally been the sector of the capitalist economy which is most vulnerable to depression and slump. Further it forces competitors to “waste” some of their resources on unproductive arms expenditure as well.

Left-wing reformists argue that the capitalist state has found the key to stabilising capitalism. All we need to do is to ensure that the state spends its money on socially useful items instead of arms. It’s quite encouraging to reformists but unfortunately for them it’s just not true.

Firstly, as shown above one can’t just spend money on socially useful things without upsetting the whole capitalist system of profit-making. Secondly, and even more importantly, state expenditure only solves one aspect of capitalist crisis and reformists conveniently ignore the other – the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

Arms expenditure only developed on its present scale because of the failure of private industry to be able to find enough outlets for productive investment. The state has to subsidise private capitalism in all kinds of ways – for instance in Britain the power industry, transport and so are on are run to give cheap subsidies to the capitalists.

Arms spending has to be paid for out of taxes, and loans to the government. Those fall on the workers, increasing their exploitation, and on private profits which have to be used, at lout in part, to pay for arms spending. So profits are lower than they might otherwise be. But this is just the weird contradiction. Without arms spending there could be a crisis of over-production and still lower profits! For a certain period of time arms spending seemed to provide the answer to the capitalist crisis.

We are now seeing the solution begin to fail. British and American arms expenditure may have stabilised Western capitalism as a whole, but because they could reap the advantages of this spending without having to bear any of the burden, countries like Germany and Japan have been able to soar ahead economically. The Deutschmark is stronger than the dollar. American capitalists want the “burden” of taxation cut so they can compete more effectively in the international market.

Arms expenditure is a delicate mechanism. It is not used consciously by the ruling class as a stabiliser of the economy, but has a logic of its own based on the needs of military competition. In the 1950s these two largely coincided: Now they are starting to diverge. As the armaments industry becomes more and more technologically sophisticated it provides fewer jobs than before per unit spent, for instance. It also provides less of an aid to private industry by way of useful technological innovation etc.

To act as a stabiliser today the burden of arms spending must be increased. To permit effective competition in the world market it must be decreased. What we are seeing is both creeping inflation (an indication that arms expenditure was creating a pseudo-prosperity, not a genuine one) and economic stagnation. What we are seeing in social terms is the realisation by masses of workers that the system can’t fulfil the promises it made in the period of stability. The level of militancy is rising.

So is unemployment, one of the classical signs of capitalist crisis. As the stabilising effects of arms spending decrease, so signs of the boom-slump cycle of capitalist production, temporarily overlaid by the arms economy, are once more making their appearance.

On the permanent arms economy see Michael Kidron, Western Capitalism Since the War, Penguin books, Part I. Duncan Hallas’s review of this book in International Socialism 44, spells out the core of the argument, adding cogency to it. [See also M. Kidron, A Permanent Arms EconomyREDS]

Discussion Points

1. How can “waste” expenditure temporarily stabilise capitalism? What are the limitations as to the nature of this spending?

2. What are the contradictions of the permanent arms economy?



12. Ideas: How the ruling class keeps its grip

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class, which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance.

So wrote Marx in the German Ideology. It is essential to understand this for otherwise there is no way to explain the relative stability of capitalism throughout most of its history. The fact is that in most periods and at most times the majority of the members of the society are not aware of their real interests. The ruling ideas penetrate down to all groups in society and operate as the common sense ideas which members of the society take for granted by and large. Sections 13 and 14 deal with some of these common sense ideas which are important today in keeping workers in submission.

Marx’s theory of historical materialism deals with the relationship of the economic base (see section 1) and what he calls the superstructures of society – the legal, political, religious, aesthetic and philosophical forms in which men become conscious of the conflict between the forces and relations of production and fight this conflict out. These are ideological ways of viewing what is actually happening in society – partial, one-sided attempts to understand society.

For instance history is sometimes interpreted as a straightforward progress in which more and more people have steadily been brought under the rule of law, applying equally to all members of the society. The steady growth of democracy in Britain in the nineteenth century is often given as a example. We are all equal because we all have the same political rights. This “ignores” the fact that although we are all formally equal, in practice this becomes a great inequality, because we don’t start off equal in the process of production. There is an unbridgeable gulf under capitalism between those who own the means of production and those who have nothing to sell but their labour power. Thus Anatole France was able to pierce the ideological veil which the law shrouds itself in with the remark: “The law in its majesty forbids both rich and poor to sleep under the bridges of the Seine.”

So too the idea of democracy. It just looks at political life in isolation from the social and economic realities of our society. Each individual, isolated in the polling booth once every five years, is equal. A genuine democracy, on the other hand, would start from the realities of production in society. The real collectives are made up by groups of workers in their social production. The day-to-day democracy of the shop-floor is real because it is social collective democracy, uniting together people in a common life-situation. The basis of parliamentary democracy is false, insisting as every political leader will affirm, that we must keep industrial and political action separate. Its effect has always been to shackle effective working-class action, for the very basis of our democracy and our power is industrial.

It is important to stress that the ideologies which prevail in our society are not just a massive confidence trick. They prevail because for many people-including masses of workers – they seem to make sense. They take aspects of people’s experience and draw wrong conclusions from them. As it has been so well expressed, “Every false consciousness has its moment of truth”. It exposes an aspect of the situation and is part of the reality of that situation. We have to reckon with the fact that a third of the working class still votes Tory? They do so because for them it seems to make sense.

So too with racialism. Oppressed groups faced with poverty, inadequate housing and social services find it relatively easy to explain their problems as resulting from all these foreigners taking what should be theirs. It has no basis in reality but it seems to explain. Or to put it even more strongly, it explains, but it explains wrongly.

At this level the role of socialists is a propagandist one, showing how all the parts of capitalism are interlocked, how one can’t look at just one part in isolation. But it is only when they are forced into struggle that masses of workers are forced to become aware of the inadequacies of their past analyses and explanations of how the system works, are driven in a Marxist direction.

It is not an automatic process. The revolutionary party in its broadest sense is a grouping of those members of the working class – and of other classes – who have seen through the illusions which cloud the way most people look at society most of the time: it is the vanguard of the class. But not in any academic sense. As a result of its analysis of how capitalism works it must be able to formulate strategies and tactics which enable workers to make gains against the pressure of capitalism, to win more members for the revolutionary struggle, to prove in practice that it is the leadership in the class struggle.

Such parties existed in most European countries in the 1920s. They do not exist today. They must be built,

Part I of the German Ideology deals in some detail with Marx’s theory of history. It is not easy reading but is essential for anyone wishing to pursue the topic further. Lenin’s What is to be Done? draws the distinction between a trade union and a socialist consciousness and the role of the party in transforming one into the other. Provided one remembers the circumstances in which it was written, and does not elevate it into dogma as far too many revolutionary groups have done, it can be fantastically illuminating.

Discussion Points

1. How do the ideas of the ruling class become the ruling ideas in our society?

2. How and under what conditions can a socialist consciousness be developed?



13. Greedy workers

Patriotism and nationalism have been major weapons used by the ruling class in order to keep workers in subjection. The crisis point for pre-First World War socialism was 1914 when the international movement was smashed on the rock of nationalism.

In the Communist Manifesto Marx had written that one of the points which distinguished the Communists from other working-class parties was that “in the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality.”

But, contrary to what Rosa Luxemburg argued, nationalism is not in itself a totally reactionary phenomenon. There are different kinds of national movements. The nationalism of the British empire was part and parcel of British imperialism. The nationalism of the masses in Asia and Africa was a reaction and struggle against that very imperialism. These nationalisms can in no way be equated.

As international socialists we of course give unconditional support to the struggles of oppressed minorities for national liberation. But it is support in their struggle against imperialism, without illusions that what they are building is socialism. In the absence of an international spread of revolution single countries cannot build socialism. In the absence of a working-class leadership to these struggles there is no possibility of the revolution becoming “permanent” and so an integral part of the worldwide struggle for socialism. (see section 9).

This is important to stress. We support the right to national self-determination unconditionally. As socialists in the imperialist heartland we have no choice. But were we fighting in Vietnam say, our role would not be to give unconditional support to the NLF, whose programme is in no way socialist, nor unconditional support to Ho Chi Minh. Our role would be, there as here, to work for the creation of independent working-class organisations and struggle, for the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Or take the case of Ireland. Once again we support unconditionally the right of the Irish people to national self-determination: here is a nation suppressed culturally and economically and politically by British imperialism for centuries, and we would be reactionary chauvinists if we did anything less. At the same time we give our own organisational and political support to those groups within the Irish movement which are trying to build a revolutionary socialist organisation. Further, our analysis leads us to believe that in the present epoch the bourgeoisie cannot even carry the struggle for national liberation (a demand which some so-called socialists regard still as a purely bourgeois, reactionary demand). It will be the working class which will realise national independence as part of its struggle for socialism-or else national independence will not be won.

The national and the social question cannot be viewed independently. Some socialist groups have collapsed back into a purely nationalist position when it comes to analysing the struggles of oppressed minorities regarding national liberation as such as socialism. Others completely ignore the realities of oppression, and say for instance that there is no difference between the situation of white and black workers.

But the revolutionary movement has to start from the existing consciousness of oppressed and exploited groups and no “theory” can do away with the reality of oppression as experienced by black workers in their daily lives. Unless we recognise the right of oppressed groups to define the realities of their own oppression we cannot hope to win them over for the struggle for socialism.

Tony Cliff gives a short critical evaluation of Luxemburg’s position in his study Rosa Luxemburg, Chapter 6. Lenin’s detailed argument against her is in his essay The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, Selected Works, Vol.I (in the current 3-volume selected works). Leon Trotsky on Black Nationalism and Self-Determination tackles this part of the problem. The central parts of this were reprinted in International Socialism 40. The writings listed at the end of section 9 are also relevant here.

Discussion Points

1. Why, as socialists, do we support the right of national self-determination?

2. What is our attitude to “Black Power” organisations in Britain today?

3. Why, and in what way, do we support the National Liberation Front in Vietnam?



14. Public interest: dust in workers’ eyes

The ideas of the ruling class become the ruling ideas in peculiar and complex ways and show themselves in all aspects of every day life. What unites such diverse views as “socialism is impossible because man is naturally greedy”, “we are all equal under the law”, “we live in the ‘free’ world, in a democratic society” is a two-fold myth – what these ideas underline and reinforce is the view that whatever the problems workers face our present system has the means of coping with them, and, secondly, however bad the present system, anything else would be much worse.

Marx wrote in the German Ideology that “each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it, is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society, that is, expressed in ideal form: it has to give its ideas the form of universality, and represent them as the Only rational, universally valid ones.”

The most obvious level on which this occurs is that of “the national interest”. Both Labour and Tory Parties talk of us as part of one great happy nation with common interests, united in the face of adversity by “the spirit of Dunkerque”. We must pull together, increase productivity (good), abolish restrictive practices (bad), pull in our belts, make sterling strong and then at the end of it all there will be a bigger cake to share around.

Actually there is no such thing as a “national interest”. The nation is made up of a number of different social groups, the two most important of which are the ruling class and the working class. They have fundamentally different interests – the one wants to increase production for profit, the other wants production to be social, to satisfy social needs. What “national interest” can possibly bridge this gulf?

So when one sees any set of ideas which imply that we do have interests in common, what we have to do is relate them to the process of production in order to determine their real meaning. What do productivity deals mean under capitalism? More production, fewer workers, more exploitation. What does abolition of “restrictive practices” mean under capitalism? Breaking whatever areas of control over production workers have managed to build up in opposition to the bosses. What does getting the balance-of-payments right imply? Increased investment which means higher profits which means pressure to keep wages down and production up in order to export more to undercut the products made by foreign workers.

There is an immense ideological struggle to be waged to win workers away from common sense prejudices and ideas which when looked at carefully turn out to be assumptions favourable to the ruling class. Who hasn’t come across the notion of “a fair day’s work for a fair day’s wage”? Whatever else it means it presupposes that we are going to keep the system of wage-slavery which is capitalism. It, and ideas like it, must be hammered wherever they crop up.

Part of the struggle of revolutionary socialists is to build up an alternative view of the world from that peddled by the apologists of bourgeois society. People don’t have fixed ideas (and fixed natures), and when what they do and the struggles they are forced to engage in come into conflict with the ideas they have been operating with until then they are particularly open to discussion and debate about socialist ideas. Indeed in their practice they already embody, often uncritically and without being aware of it, the embryo of an alternative socialist conception. There is generally a contradiction between what men do and their own understanding of their actions.

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, in an essay The Study of Philosophy, had this to say on the matter: “This conflict between thought and action, that is, the co-existence of two conceptions of the world, one affirmed in words and the other explaining itself in effective actions, is not always due to bad faith. Bad faith can be a satisfactory explanation for some individuals taken singly, or even for more or less numerous groups, but it is not satisfactory when the contrast shows itself in the life of large masses: then it cannot be other than the expression of more profound contradictions of an historical and social order. It means that a social group, which has its own conception of the world, even though embryonic (which shows itself in actions, and so only spasmodically, occasionally, that is, when such a group moves as an organic unity) has as a result of intellectual subordination and submission, borrowed a conception which is not its own from another group, and this it affirms in words. And this borrowed conception also it believes it is following, because it follows it in ‘normal’ times, when its conduct is not independent and autonomous but precisely subordinate and submissive.”

It is the task of revolutionaries to work on this ideological level, systematically exposing and fighting against this ideological submission. The common-sense assumptions, the common-sense prejudices of vast masses of ordinary working people must be revealed for what they unwittingly are-an almost unconscious acceptance of the framework of capitalist society.

Discussion Points

1. Take any current newspaper editorial – in the Mirror, the Sun etc – and examine how its assumptions are in effect “the ideas of the ruling class”.

2. Aren’t we in fact all equal under the law?

3. How and under what conditions can a socialist consciousness be developed? What do we mean by revolutionary propaganda?



15, 16 & 17. History of the Movement

The most important single experience in the history of the revolutionary working class movement has without a shadow of doubt been the conquest of state power in Russia in October 1917. It is within this context that the betrayal of the Second International and its collapse into chauvinism in 1914, the failure of the European revolution in the period from 1919 to 1923 and the degeneration of the Third International following this failure become of crucial significance for our understanding of our own history and our own prospects.

October 1917 was the only successful working class revolution in history. How it was possible in a relatively backward outpost of capitalism and how it degenerated is dealt with in Chris Harman’s pamphlet How the Revolution was Lost. Its direct relevance for the question of organisation is taken up in Cliff and Hallas’s contributions to Party and Class, and Harman’s contribution there draws out the wider implications for the kind of party we need to build today in Britain.

In very general terms, as Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution made clear, the bourgeoisie in Russia was weak, undeveloped and incapable of carrying trough the bourgeois revolution and solving the agrarian problem. Only the working class could provide the leadership which the peasantry required in order to find a solution to their problems. And yet the peasantry were not socialist. The alliance between the working class and the peasantry was always an uneasy one. It survived the ravages of the civil war but only just. The strategic retreat into the New Economic Policy in 1921, essentially restoring a free market in grain with all the attendant dangers of the emergence of a rural bourgeoisie, made sense only with the perspective of the spread of socialist revolution to other European countries, in particular to Germany. The policy of the Communist International at its first four Congresses was founded on the premise that the success of the revolution in Russia and the spread of revolution internationally were inextricably interlinked. The receding of the revolutionary wave in Europe put the seal on the degeneration of the Russian revolution, but not without intense but unsuccessful resistance from the Left Opposition led by Leon Trotsky. It was only in 1929, with the introduction of the first five-year plan and the subsequent liquidation of the peasantry as an independent class that one section of the Bolshevik Party was able to transform itself into a new state capitalist ruling class, a stability which was only finally ensured in the purges of the 1930s when the vast majority of the Stalinist cadre were themselves liquidated.

The early recognition of the dangers of degeneration by Lenin himself is brilliantly elaborated by Moshe Lewin in his book Lenin’s Last Struggle (Faber). The emergence of the programme of the left opposition in coherent form is accessible in Trotsky’s work The New Course (Ann Arbor, paperback).

With the internal degeneration went the degeneration of the Communist International itself. In this period the three key moments are the Chinese Revolution, 1925-27, the rise of Fascism in Germany in 1933, and the butchery of the Spanish revolution, 1936-39. Subsequent developments of crucial significance to us today include the rise and fall of the Fourth International (1938-53); the revolutionary situations in the post-Second World War period, especially in France, Italy and Greece; the Eastern European “transformations”; Mao’s conquest of power in China; the Cold War and its debilitating effects on the revolutionary movement and finally the revolutions in the third world and the dramatic revolts in advanced capitalist and state capitalist countries – East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, France and Czechoslovakia in 1968.

There is no adequate survey of the period. Earlier works such as C.L.R. James’s World Revolution and H. Tilak’s Rise and Fall of the Comintern are almost inaccessible and are dated in many respects. The International Socialists are at present working on a two-volume history of the period, the first volume covering the period up to 1943, the second bringing the history up to date. In the meantime the reading list appended at the end of The Meaning of Marxism gives a guide to some of the more important and relevant works easily available which deal with aspects of the period. Anyone who wants further help or guidance on any particular aspect has only to write to the Education Committee, International Socialists, 6 Cottons Gardens, London E2 8DN and we will do our best to help.



1. Available together with Engels’ Historical Materialism in a new Pluto Press edition.

2. This section is called Capitalism today in the 1975 edition.


Last updated on 11.9.2002