Commentary  Why we need Marxism

A student's perspective on the "immortal science"

Even the most distant observer can see that the world is becoming increasingly unstable, and instability usually comes hand in hand with social, economic, and political crisis. Our generation has been particularly impacted by this unpredictability. In the US, federal reserve data states that we make 20 per cent less money than the baby boomers did when they were our age. This is coupled with devastating student loan debt: in Canada, student loan debt averages at $15,000 a person while in the US it can go up to over $37,000 a person. We all need jobs to pay back these debts, yet it is becoming more and more difficult to find employment; the youth unemployment rate is at 11.1 per cent in Canada (compared to the overall unemployment rate of 6.3 per cent). These obstacles have emerged in a period of relative growth after the 2008-2009 financial crisis: economists claim that the economy has been in a period of expansion (a “boom” phase) since about 2011. Yet in August, three of the largest financial institutions in the world (HSBC, Citigroup, and Morgan Stanley) claimed there is evidence that suggests the end of this growth cycle; another recession could be on the horizon. Times may be bad now, in a period of supposed growth, but once the next recession hits, circumstances could get considerably worse.

A stream of recent events suggests a link between economic crisis and social upheavals; following the 2008 financial crisis, we observed the 2011 Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street movement, the 2012 student strikes here in Quebec, and numerous other reactionary mass movements. Exactly 150 years ago, Karl Marx, in his magnum opus Das Kapital, developed a systematic analysis of the capitalist system and concluded that capitalism inevitably tends toward economic crisis. Following the revolutionary movements of his time, such as the 1848 revolutions in Europe and the formation of the Paris Commune in 1871, he also understood that economic crisis tends to be coupled with social and political disruption.

We all need jobs to pay back these debts, yet it is becoming more and more difficult to find employment.

Today, in a period of relative economic prosperity we observe some of the worst social crises in history. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNHCR) states that, as of June 2017, 65.6 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes as a result of conflict or persecution in their countries; this is the largest number of displaced people in history, surpassing even World War 2. This refugee crisis will be further aggravated by climate change; even if we manage to maintain temperatures below the target set at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, which advises for a maximum increase of two degrees Fahrenheit, experts anticipate that there will be tens of millions of new refugees. However, this target is optimistic and extremely unlikely: four or five degrees of warming by 2100 is what we are on track for based on current emission rates. This will cause unprecedented disaster; New York Magazine writer David Wallace-Wells explains that a five-degree increase in global temperature will be accompanied with a roughly 50 per cent decrease in global food production, and, according to a NASA study, the worst droughts in over a thousand years.

As the economy comes closer to the end of this growth-cycle, the refugee crisis worsens, and climate change develops into an unprecedented threat, a billionaire reality TV show star sits in the oval office. Of all the things on the agenda for the future, stability is not one of them. We have to ask ourselves, will a few bold reforms be enough to combat these crises? Are well-intended politicians and corporate charity initiatives the answers to these horrors? Regardless, we can be certain that, if drastic change is not implemented, the rich will still have food on their tables and the world’s poor will pay the ultimate price for a crisis that they did not create.

Today, in a period of relative economic prosperity we observe some of the worst social crises in history.

The question of ending the inequalities of the international capitalist system is not a new one. Marxism advocates for a socialist organization of society – that is, a planned economic system in which the higher levels of economy are democratically owned and controlled by the working class as a whole instead of by private individuals. Marxists believe that the only way to consolidate socialism is through revolution, and thus the forced expropriation of the economy into a non-hierarchical system. This does not seem to be that farfetched. Can we really expect Exxon-Mobil to willingly participate in the struggle against climate change when its entire basis of profit is its oil sales? Can we anticipate that military companies such as Lockheed-Martin will support peacekeeping efforts when their business is based on selling weapons to belligerent nations? Not to mention, we certainly cannot expect private health insurance companies to support the struggle for free universal healthcare. In fact, a single-payer healthcare bill in California was recently shelved by the Democratic Party leadership despite the support it received by a majority of Californians.

The necessity of preparing for this crucial transition has been thought out by past revolutionaries. Marx had recognized that a revolution is a mass movement, and that, if the movement is to win, it must be guided by a political organization with a reasonable understanding of how it can progress; this particular political organization is called the revolutionary party. His first attempt at constructing such an organization was in 1848, when he and Engels drafted the “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” better known as the “Communist Manifesto.”

Of all the things on the agenda for the future, stability is not one of them.

Less than a century later, Vladimir Lenin’s conception of how to organize this revolutionary party would become one of his most valuable contributions to Marxist theory and practice. He focused on the need for Marxists to fight against all forms of oppression and unite all layers of the oppressed, not just workers. In his 1902 pamphlet, What is to be Done?, Lenin states: “Working class consciousness cannot be genuinely political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence and abuse, no matter what class is affected.”

This is the task that the revolutionary party must pursue fervently; it is not enough to just fight for “higher wages.” All forms of resistance against systematic subjugation, whether it occurs through the fight for basic rights for the queer community or racialized people’s struggle against police brutality must be resolutely supported. Throughout each of these movements, Marxists emphasize that only with unity and solidarity across all oppressed layers of society will we achieve victory against that class which profits off of injustice: the capitalists, the ruling class, what Marx calls the bourgeoisie.

Lenin eventually attempted to put Marxist theory into practice. He extended Marx’s analysis to its logical conclusion: a generalized crisis creates an ample opportunity for a revolutionary situation. Once combined with determined leadership, an international revolution against the capitalist system can then be waged to end this exploitative system once and for all. Exactly 100 years ago, this opportunity arose as a direct consequence of World War 1; it was seized by Lenin and the Bolshevik Party in the 1917 October Revolution. This led to the establishment of the Soviet Union, which consequently changed the entire course of world history. Unfortunately, the opportunity was not effectively seized by the Marxists in Germany at the same time. There were multiple failed revolutions (in 1918 and 1923), and the people of Germany and Europe paid dearly for these failures with the ensuing rise of Hitler and fascism. Our world is coming to a similar junction, where a similar opportunity for ending oppression has arose, and those of us who seek to change the world are not at all sufficiently prepared.

Can we really expect Exxon-Mobil to willingly participate in the struggle against climate change when its entire basis of profit is its oil sales?

Unfortunately, the legacy of Stalin’s rule in the Soviet Union and the bureaucratic degeneration of the revolutionary democracy that had characterized the Russian Revolution has naturally affected people’s conception of Marxism. It is crucial to emphasize that Stalin’s rule in the Soviet Union (and the rule of his successors) had nothing in common with the conception of socialism held by Marx and Lenin. The fundamental difference is that Lenin never envisioned Stalin’s ideal of “Socialism in one Country” as possible. Marx and Lenin understood that the only way for Socialism to succeed would be with international socialist revolution throughout the advanced capitalist world. Not only did the international revolution fail (more specifically those that had started in Germany, Hungary, and Finland), but the Russian economy was only loosely based on a capitalist structure when the socialist revolution occurred. In fact, Russia was a largely feudal country with over 85 per cent of the population being peasants. It is therefore not surprising that socialism failed in Russia – socialism is all about “seizing the means of production,” yet there were barely any means of production to seize in the first place!

I believe that the only way to end oppression is to end the system of capitalism that perpetuates it. At the same time, we cannot neglect any movements against specific forms of injustice. Simply, the task of Marxists is to generalize the fight by widening the scope of the movement into that which addresses all forms of injustice.