This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Karl Marx’s ‘Das Capital’, and I was invited by the Guyana Peace Council, Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union and the Cheddi Jagan Research Centre to make a presentation, “How to translate Capital into meaning for one’s life” at a seminar held last Saturday at National Library in Georgetown. The above are essentially PPP-associated organisations, and while the PPP’s hierarchy knows quite well my antipathy to anything Marxist/Leninist, they are also aware that I hold that the works of Karl Marx himself contain a vision of humanity that is worthy of our consideration.
Karl Marx was an Enlightenment thinker for whom human autonomy, not material wealth was foremost. For him, the human being should be an active participant in the making of history. My position is that his vision as expressed in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscript of 1844, when he was about 24, was alive and well when he died in 1883, for it was again stated in Volume III of Das Capital, which was published by his close friend and collaborator Frederick Engels in 1894. I argued that this vision contains an extremely radical notion of freedom of man in society that is still relevant today.
Speaking to his method, Marx begged us not to ‘metamorphose my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into an historico-philosophic theory of the marche generale [general path] imposed by fate upon every people, whatever the historic circumstances in which it finds itself’ (Marx to Editor of Otecestvenniye Zapisky, 1887). He further claimed that: ‘no credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. … What I did that was new was to prove: (1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production, (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, (3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society’ (Marx to J. Weydemeyer, March 5, 1852).
Given these reminders, whatever we may think of the first of Marx’s acclaimed accomplishments it is obvious that the dictatorship of the proletariat is unlikely to occur, and even if society ultimately becomes ‘classless,’ from the standpoint of our historical juncture, this would be expressed differently and in my opinion it would be rooted in Marx’s theory of alienation.
As Marx claimed in the Manuscript alienation is expressed: ‘First, in the fact that labor is external to the worker, i.e., that it does not belong to his nature, that therefore he does not realize himself in his work, that he denies himself in it, that he does not feel at ease in it, but rather unhappy, that he does not develop any free physical or mental energy, but rather mortifies his flesh and ruins his spirit. The worker, therefore, is only himself when he does not work, and in his work he feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labor, therefore, is not voluntary, but forced—forced labor. It is not the gratification of a need, but only a means to gratify needs outside itself. Its alien nature shows itself clearly by the fact that work is shunned like the plague as soon as no physical or other kind of coercion exists.’
If the Manuscript provided the philosophical underpinnings for Marx’s more technical and practical works, Das Capital sought to present a systematic account of how the capitalist system functioned just over a century after the start of the industrial revolution to explain the labour theory of value and the horrendous suffering of the working people at that time and to predict the ultimate demise of the capitalist system. The capitalist system created far more wealth than any previous class system but it also dehumanized the workers to a greater degree as it alienated them from the product and process of labour, from each other and from their human nature. How then is the worker to be liberated from this bondage? It is usual to claim that Marx did not provide a blueprint of this process, but I believe that the following sizable quotation from Capital Volume III, provides a good insight.
‘The realm of freedom does not commence until the point is passed where labour under the compulsion of necessity and of external utility is required. In the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of material production in the strict meaning of the term. Just as the savage must wrestle with nature in order to satisfy his wants, in order to maintain his life and reproduce it, so civilised man has to do it, and he must do it in all forms of society and under all possible modes of production. With his development the realm of natural necessity expands, because his wants increase; but at the same time the forces of production increase, by which these wants are satisfied.
Freedom in this field can consist only of the fact that socialised man the associated producers regulate their interchange with nature rationally, bring it under their common control instead of being ruled by it as by some blind power and that they accomplish their task with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most adequate to their human nature and most worthy of it. But it always remains a realm of necessity. Beyond (it) production for necessities begins the development of human power which is its own end, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can flourish only upon that realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working day is its fundamental prerequisite.’
In other words, for Karl Marx, labour as in work, is an unavoidable unfree condition. It is unavoidable because to survive and fulfill new needs at whatever level of development man will have to do some work. However, the fact that a level of work is necessary does not make it agreeable, and as a result mankind has historically consistently sought a reduction of the working day. Freedom at work entails the elimination of capitalist commodity production and the democratic organisation of the production process that will allow the working people to rationally utilise their environment and work in a fashion that will limit the need for both.
So what does all this mean to our today? Firstly, the workers’ right to a comparatively decent living is no longer explained by the value of their labour in the production process but by citizenship, even world citizenship, as we can see from the current demand for a global universal basic income. Secondly, aided by the uneven development of capitalism, the notion that the proletariat will ever become a class for itself and overthrow capitalism either national or globally appears absurd. Thirdly, while in the 19th century, industrial workers worked an average of about 90 hours a week in horrendous conditions, today the shortest working week in the world (in the Netherlands) is about 28 hours for a wage of about US$1,000. In Guyana, we have an average working week of 40 hours for US$200 and workers in countless other countries are in a much worse position. Nevertheless, while the structural contradictions of capitalism remain, freedom has increased and will continue to increase for at least three reasons.
Our planet cannot provide all its 7.5 billion people with the standard of living of the industrial West and therefore more rational use of our environment is demanded each day, and our culture is changing in that, for example, ‘use’ rather than ‘ownership’ is now more prevalent, e.g. people are now even renting baby clothes.
The growth of science and technology has been unprecedented and will both help us to fulfill new human needs and expand the level of real freedom by further reducing the need for human labour.
Yet, until, in one way or another, the control of the means of production is totally democratized worker estrangement will continue. Total human freedom as expressed by Karl Marx requires the destruction of the structural formation of capitalism, i.e. the contradictions between social production and private ownership and control of the means of production.