Marx at the Millennium by Cyril Smith

5 Some Questions for the Twenty-first Century

In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.[1]


In the ‘Marxist’ tradition, it was customary to end a book with a rousing answer to the question: ‘What is to be done?’ Maybe the day for conclusions like that will return some time, but I certainly don’t know how to provide one now. Instead, I shall take a rather tentative look at a few of the problems which beset the world at the end of the century, and see if the ideas of Karl Marx can help us to formulate them.

None of these questions are easily answered. However, if it is thought that humanity is a network of computers, or that each human being is a survival machine for some bits of DNA, they are absolutely insoluble. Each of them involves some aspect of the barrier which stands between human beings and their humanity, that is, the control of their own lives. In each case, this denial of humanity is itself the result of human activity, and so a distorted form of that very potential for self-consciousness and self-creating which is humanity.

It is easy to see what is not to be done. There have been too many attempts at ‘social engineering’ – people who know what is good for us trying to impose answers on us. Humanity implies freedom, sociality and self-consciousness. The achievement of a human society must itself be the outcome of free, conscious activity, involving profound alterations in the way billions of people think about each other and about themselves.

Marx’s scientific work aimed to pose such questions in a shape in which they could be answered in practice – one reason why this work could never be completed. Once it is grasped that the truth about humanity is concealed by the collective activity of humanity itself, it is possible to ask what stands in the way of a ‘truly human society’.

Today’s list of problems must include many items which Marx himself never encountered. So it is obvious that he could not provide ready-made answers to the questions of the twenty-first century, or even those of the nineteenth and twentieth. It is no good looking for recipes for a better way of life. However, you might get a clearer understanding of the tasks which the species must collectively work to accomplish.

But what can be meant by ‘collective work’? For each of the issues I raise in this chapter, it turns out that, from the standpoint of the ‘single individual in civil society’, the phrase has no meaning at all. Each problem is the outcome of the activity of the whole of society and its solution can only be found by us all.

Neither utopianism nor cynicism can see what Marx saw so clearly: the potential for a human way of living is already in being. Marx’s communism was not a utopian vision, but the realisation of possibilities which are already here, the human potential hidden inside our inhuman existence. Marx’s question was: how are we to become what we already are?

That transformation means altering many different aspects of human life at the same time. Attempts to change this or that particular feature must inevitably fail. Although, in the following pages, I will look at specific aspects individually, it is important to bear in mind that each one is bound up with all of the others.

Technology and the Market

Compare the technical powers now available to our species with those of only a few decades ago, and you will see how much things have changed, and how enormous has been the speed of change. In the last twenty years, the advance in productive capacity and speed of communication has affected almost every part of the globe.

But is it an advance, and where is it taking us? For example, when people talk about the ‘economic development’ of parts of the world which seem not to have enjoyed it as yet, what do they really mean? Just look at the consequences of being ‘developed’ for some of these countries: they have often been as bad as the underdevelopment which was being cured. And in the ‘advanced’ countries, has technology and industrialisation proved such a wonderful thing? The plight of millions of people shows otherwise.

How can this be? Isn’t technology the means to liberate us from the burden of labour? If each application of scientific knowledge is the outcome of the work of the entire human race, why does it increasingly fragment and impoverish our lives? Is this outcome of technological advance inherent in the nature of machines?

We might think we use machines, but we are mistaken: in their form as elements of capital, they use us. The life of a producer must be twisted to conform to the needs of the machine, while the shape, operation and use of the machine is determined by the impersonal workings of the market. Marx showed how this reversal overtook us. Each human was transformed into a ‘personification’ of one of the conflicting elements of capital. Relations between them were fixed as if they were acting out these roles from a script.

Among our other shortcomings, we ‘Marxists’ did not take enough notice of the extent and speed of the advance in productive capacity in recent decades, or ask what changes these implied. Combining the satisfaction of the needs of the world’s population with a reduced expenditure of effort seemed to socialists of older generations to be a massive task. It has now become quite a modest aim.

Looked at in terms of technique alone, there really is no necessity for hunger or homelessness in the world, and that has been true for a long time. Shortages of material goods only express a tremendous waste of effort and resources. A huge proportion of the labour carried out in the industrialised countries is directed to quite useless ends, if ‘usefulness’ is measured in human terms. People are chiefly engaged in keeping capital gainfully employed. In other countries, millions of lives are used up in the most inefficient methods of labour, while millions more are unemployed.

Of course, in a world where money rules and consciousness is gripped by financial psychosis, such questions can not be seen in terms of technique. For example: what is the ‘best’ way to make cars? Is it any use asking about how many cars it is possible to make, without the inking about their relationship to the way humans live? Who will buy them? If we increase the rate of production, what does this mean for those who make them, for their future livelihood and their future lives? What happens to those who used to make them, but are no longer needed? When those cars are driven, what effect will their exhaust fumes have? How will their future owners feel about them, and about other car-owners?

In every part of the world, the new technology has made its mark on all our lives through the same medium: the market on which goods and ‘services’ are globally bought and sold. It has become fashionable lately to take it for granted that we just cannot live without ‘the market’. The global system of production, we are always being told, has become so complicated that we have to allow the wonderful ‘market mechanism’ to organise productive relations for us and to distribute the resulting wealth. The only alternative, they say, is oppressive bureaucratic direction.

To rely on the invisible hand of ‘market forces’ to arrange things for us is to assume that the productive activities of five billion individuals can only be linked by setting them against each other, each fragment fighting for his or her own ‘interest’. Marx’s insight into the implications of exchange-relationships is vital to grasp what all this means. He showed how exchanging commodities led necessarily to the emergence of money, and that money grew into capital.

Not only did the owners of capital exploit the labour of their employees, but capital as an impersonal power came to dominate the whole of world society. If society is seen from the standpoint of the isolated individual – and this way of thinking is continually hammered into our heads by this very way of living – it is impossible to see it for what it is.

‘The market’ is not a neutral ‘medium’ at all. Human powers and human needs appear in the mystified forms of the powers and needs of capital. Look at a plant making those cars, at the machines, the activities of those who work on them and the cars they turn out. These don’t exist only as material entities and processes. More important is their social being, and these two aspects are in general opposed to each other. They are all subsumed under the needs and laws of capital, beyond the control of any human consciousness.

The parasitic capital which predominates today, controls us in the shape of finance, involving the movement of credit. When Marx wrote about the first signs of the development of this kind of capital in the 1860s, he referred to ‘all manner of insane forms’.[2] But perhaps he could not imagine just how crazy these forms could get.

Surplus-value, extracted from the labour of wage-workers, is the ultimate source of all the immense wealth of the financier of today. It flows from this source along all kinds of intricate paths: interest, commissions, bribes, tax evasion, share dealing, currency speculation, commodity trading, and so on. These manipulations of financial instruments, and the many and varied kinds of lying and cheating through which they operate, are increasingly remote from the production going on in factories. It is almost impossible to disentangle the channels through which they control the lives of each of us, as impossible for those in charge as for the rest of us.

Marx showed the source of the resulting mystification of economic relations. But, over the last few decades, this mystery has deepened enormously, and the implications of the leap in technology which has gone on in the same period have been concealed from us. Once again, our own actions affect us in ways which are out of control.

Industry provides the potential for the liberation of humanity from drudgery and monotony. What changes are needed, in the relationships between us and the ways we see those relationships, for that potential to be released? About fifty years ago, there was much talk of ‘automation’ and how it would lead to the reduction of the working week. In the 1980s there was a lot of chatter about ‘post-industrial society’.

In practice, introducing the new technology has brought about the two-tier labour market. People in the growing lower layer are trapped by poor education and inner-city housing either in long-term unemployment or in degrading and mindless forms of work. The official response is a combination of indifference and utopian chatter about an ‘economic recovery’. At the upper level, people in high-tech occupations, driven by the search for money, are desperately busy performing tasks of less and less meaning. In each case, technology encased in the market acts to dehumanise life and to destroy it.

And yet, even with the existing level of technology, there is no need for either poverty or for drudgery to persist. The technical possibilities already exist for the machines to be made to fit human needs, rather than the other way round, and for the opposition between working and living to begin to fade. Then we could realise the possibilities locked inside the market-controlled technology. Everything turns on understanding what humans and their needs are.

On the other hand, if we don’t break technology out of its market shell, it is powerful enough to destroy us. At the end of the second millennium, we have no choice. The inhuman forms of life which surround us all threaten our very survival. Unless we escape and liberate our true humanity, they will strangle us.

Technology and the Natural Environment

That the rise of modern industry has been disastrous for the natural environment has been known for a long time. In the 1960s the extend of these effects began to show themselves. Some side-effects of industrialism started to worry some people. There was much discussion about a ‘population explosion’: more humans were being born and surviving than the world could hold. The earth’s natural resources were being used up. Complex, naturally evolved systems of living organisms were being thrown out of balance. Species of organisms were disappearing fast.

Of course, we ‘Marxists’ tended to brush aside the ‘Green’ movement’s concerns, declaring that these were just by-products of the drive for private profit. We were sure that central planning of industry would put a stop to all such dangers. The Chernobyl disaster, followed by revelations about the disgraceful environmental record of the Stalinist governments, made this confidence look a bit stupid.

But the Green movements which have developed over the past three decades are marked by enormous confusion. Some Greens accuse Marx of favouring ‘human domination of nature’, which they say is evil. There is much talk of ‘animal rights’ and the ‘rights’ of nature generally, of ‘our responsibility to nature’. Of the inherent destructiveness of homo sapiens.

I don’t see how you can speak about ‘rights’, except in terms of human responsibility. How can individuals be responsible for a situation where individual action is meaningless and where there is no way to act collectively? Does human destructiveness deny its ability to create? Behind the attitude of the ecologically minded, you can often see peeping out the idea that technology itself is a Bad Thing, and behind that, sometimes, the not very sensible notion that the world would be a better place without humanity. (this is actually the stated view of the self-styled ‘deep ecologists’.)

Environmental issues are often expressed as if these were a choice between an environmentally sound policy and higher living standards. Such arguments are always based on the assumption that the existing economic set-up, or something like it, is here to stay. Greens seem to blame the modest living standards of ordinary people in industrialised countries for environmental dangers. Where does this leave the countries which have not yet industrialised? There is sometimes an appeal to masochism which can give ‘Green’ rhetoric a nasty authoritarian flavour, a characteristic it shares with a lot of utopianism.

Humanity is a part of nature, certainly, but what part? As the self-conscious, self-creating outcome of natural evolution, only socialised humanity provides the standpoint from which nature can be understood and assessed. This includes understanding the necessity to look after the natural environment on which human life depends. To live humanly, conscious that we create ourselves socially as part of nature, must imply that we treat the world around us in a way which protects our present and future well-being. That is the only sensible criterion for the ‘wellbeing’ of nature.

I can see no inherent reason why technological development has to be damaging to the eco-system. Freed from the dead hand of the market mechanism, it could be directed to providing for the satisfaction of the needs of everybody, and, properly understood, that includes the avoidance of ecological destruction. On this basis, instead of trying to make people feel guilty that they are consuming too much, it becomes possible to show them what collective actions are needed to look after the well-being of us all.

Industry and the State

‘Marxists’, and indeed many other sorts of socialist, were really hung up on the idea of central planning. Instead of the anarchy of privately owned industrial enterprise, each following its own agenda, we wanted to see the state centrally deciding what would be made and how it would be allocated in the community.

We thought that the problem was the ‘class nature’ of the state, its relationship with the ruling class. Once this class had been got out of the way, either expropriated or bought off, the state would first represent the working masses and then ‘wither away’. Life has proved that things were not so simple. There has been a lot of state planning and state intervention everywhere, both ‘nationalisation’ of the Fabian variety and especially the Stalinist bureaucratic nightmare. We have to stop and think again about this question.

Certainly, private ownership of the means of production and their exploitation for private profit is at the root of all our troubles. But what would ‘social ownership’ look like? That is not so obvious. If industry is to be directed consciously, how is this consciousness to be achieved and how is it to function?

The state came to act as a false substitute for the community – as Marx said, it was the ‘illusory community’. (Lenin glimpsed this after the collapse of the Second International – and then forgot about it.) However ‘democratic’ the form taken by this machine, it could never be the instrument for human self-creation.

These days, when the national character of the state collides with the global forms of capital, this problem cannot be avoided. Moreover, while I used to think that the state should regulate economic life, we now see that every government is controlled by the market, which is increasingly beyond the reach of any of them.

In the 1990s, the state in the most important countries is securely tied up with the dominance of parasitic capital, utterly permeated with global money. Its traditional connections with the most powerful sections of capital are less clear than they used to be. Instead, the personnel who actually count in the state, chosen as media personalities or military leaders, often have very personal links with finance. As the last remnants of the old bureaucratic structures of the USSR crumble away, their replacement by ‘modern’ – that is, financially corrupt – states, exhibit some instructive lessons.

Rather than giving up in despair at these features of the uncontrollability of modern life, we have to see that they demonstrate the impossibility of going on this way. Since the state is an expression of our inhuman life, it is not merely a matter of changing its ‘class character’.

Can humans collectively govern themselves? When human productive powers have been freed from the social form of capital, the opposition between society and community can disappear. Relations between ‘social individuals’ will not be regulated by an unconscious, impersonal, machine-like power, but consciously by the ‘associated individuals’.

These are old questions for socialists. As we enter the new millennium, we know that they cannot be evaded, but we also have more experience on which to base our answers.


When the feminist movement began to demonstrate that ‘the personal is political’, ‘Marxists’ found the notion hard to handle. What had the most personal of relationships got to do with ‘laws of history’ and ‘economic doctrines’? The oppression of women would be overcome through the socialist revolution, and not before, and this was a matter of ‘class politics’, not personal relations.

I can now see that this was a very narrow-minded attitude. The work of the feminists has important elements to offer communists. There were many attempts to construct a ‘Marxist-feminism’, but sometimes the result combined the worst aspects of both. By the 1990s, a lot of feminist work has dwindled from a bold attack on the inhuman treatment of one half of humanity by the other, into the trivialised sterility of ‘political correctness’. What began as a movement to change the situation of women here and now found itself increasingly adapting to the existing social order, often focussing its attention on a small section of the better-off women in the better-off countries.

It should not have happened like that. Looking at the human race from the angle of some of its most oppressed individuals, the women’s movement ought to have made us search out Marx’s fundamental ideas from their hiding place inside the ‘Marxist’ tradition. The importance of forms of oppression which ‘Marxism’ had ignored might then have been investigated. Shortcomings of Marx himself would have been brought into the open and their correction would have shown the way to deeper insight into what he was trying to do.

Remember that Marx ended his ‘criticism of religion’ and began his ‘criticism of politics’ with ‘the teaching that man [Mensch] is the highest being for man, hence with the categorical imperative to overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, forsaken, despicable being’.[3] It is clear that his fundamental conceptions and the struggle of women for their emancipation must have the deepest relevance for each other. To develop his ideas, we have to see that struggle as a vital part of human emancipation and not to isolate it as a ‘women’s issue’.

Some tendencies within feminism unfortunately took the centuries-old inhuman treatment of women by men, and tried to turn it upside-down. (This bears some resemblance to ‘crude communism’, which Marx attacked in 1844, among other reasons because of its reactionary attitude towards women.)

I think that ‘Marxism’ proved unable to deal with the issue of feminism. In the rediscovery and development of the ideas of Marx, the questions raised by feminism have great importance. In particular, the feminists have pointed out the role of power and dominance in social relations, especially with reference to sexuality.

If we could see gender-relations in a broader, human context, then the question arises: what is power? What does it mean for one human being to dominate another? Is this something ‘natural’, given by our biological make-up? What can be said about the relationship between social forms of domination and their psychological expression? Is it possible for human society to exist without such features?

I do not think Marx could possibly have answered all such questions. But I do believe that his penetration of the nature of property and its forms shows the way they might be tackled.

Racism, Nationalism and Other Horrors

As we check the ideas of Marx against the problems of the new millennium, we must never forget that this was the century of Auschwitz. Perhaps we might add some ‘lesser’ monstrosities, like Dresden, Hiroshima, the Gulag, My Lai, Shatila and Sabra. Some think this list of horrors of our time – all state-organised, and using the best technology available – puts in question the very notion of a ‘truly human society’. The shadow of the Holocaust is the backdrop for all the scepticism and evasion of ‘post-modern’ moods.

If these questions have been forgotten at all, then the break-up of the USSR and its satellite regimes, and especially the disintegration of Yugoslavia, has refreshed the memory. Homo sapiens has seen itself yet again in its most brutal and repulsive forms. Murderous civil wars, fought in the name of ‘the nation’, have yielded several fresh items for our list, adding the phrase ‘ethnic cleansing’ to the world’s vocabulary. How can the notion of humanity survive such monstrous experiences? It is certainly not easy to answer questions like these, but we must not look away from them. Marx did not answer them in advance, but I believe his idea of humanity points us towards answers.

Humanity must be a unity and there cannot be more than one. That is why, at the end of the century, the appearance of extreme expressions of fragmentation, like nationalism and racism, is so alarming. The trouble does not lie in the idea of ‘nations’, those specific cultural or linguistic entities which have developed in the course of history. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this notion played an essential role in the struggle for liberation from the old oppressive regimes. Formation of the nations of Europe and North America was part of the fight to break the might of landowning aristocrats, kings and emperors, and to establish liberty, equality and fraternity.

For those engaged in that struggle, the freedom and independence of one nation did not contradict the freedom and independence of another. Diversity and unity were complementary, not mutually exclusive. In this century, when capital had enslaved the peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America, the struggle against it has often taken up the slogans of those earlier battles, demanding the right to ‘national self-determination’. So my remarks about nationalism in no way detract from the justice of the struggles which still go on against imperialist oppression and the remnants of colonialism.

The ‘ism’ of nationalism is something quite different. Its essence is to assert that the ‘nation’ is the basis for the organisation of social life. Nationalism usually centres, not on the liberation of a group of people, but on the oppression or even the destruction of others. Asserting the rights of your group necessarily implies treating the rest as less than human, claiming the right to do what you want with them. Since the state is ‘the illusory community’, an impersonal power, the fight for a nationalistic state cannot be about the ‘true community’ at all.

These movements pretend to be motivated by the history of their nation. Usually, this means highlighting or even inventing quite false accounts of episodes of aggression against them from the pages of history. Sometimes they are associated with the foul and stupid lie that nationhood has a biological character, determined by descent, ‘blood’ or skin pigment. In other versions, ancient religious differences have been unearthed and erected into causes for inter-communal warfare, in which God Almighty, like some divine football hooligan, murderously favours His chosen team against its rivals.

These days, the destructiveness of nationalism provides itself with the latest equipment. While yelling its archaic war cries, it is likely to be equipped with the very latest in high-tech weaponry. It is usually under military leadership, and has close contact with the forces of parasitic capital and of one or other established state power.

There are many who see the cruelty and destructiveness of our time as proof of the inherent evil of human beings. To say that is really to say nothing. Modern technology has certainly increased the scale of inhuman actions, but it has not added anything essentially new to the long story of inhumanity. Marx was talking about the exploitation of child-labour and the modern slavery of the Southern United States when he wrote: ‘if money, according to Augier, “comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek,” capital comes dripping with blood from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt. ’[4]

Marx’s contribution was to grasp how the horrors of modern slavery and the African slave trade were the inhuman outcome of the activities of humans. This series of actions was explicable as attending the birth of capital. During Marx’s own lifetime, both slavery and child-labour were abolished, at least in the ‘advanced countries’ where they had flourished. The further development of human self-consciousness, he believed, would reveal that the struggles for these advances were steps on the road to the abolition of all forms of exploitation and oppression.

The Holocaust will always – must always – remain in the minds of future generations as a monument to the debasement of human society. But even this industrialised bestiality was the work of humans expressing the self-creating power of humanity in the most perverted, fetishised shapes. Powerful forces still maintain this perversion. In the shape of fascism they did enormous damage, and might do so again.

Under all conditions, while humanity survives, its conflict with its inhuman forms goes on. Since the obscenities of the concentration camps are the work of human beings, albeit dehumanised ones, human beings can erase them. That, it seems to me, is the way that Marx’s conceptions can show the way forward.

Socialism and the Labour Movement

For over two centuries, wage-workers have been combining in the fight against the power of capital. Marx was effectively the first to connect this movement with the conception of a truly human way of life. We have seen how the many varieties of ‘Marxist’ long ago lost sight of Marx’s central notion of humanity. Of course, in the ‘official’ labour movement, the idea of socialism has been adapted to the political life of the bourgeois state, until almost nothing remains of its origins.

Today, the movement is blessed with leaders whose chief preoccupation is their own careers within the existing set-up. The very idea that capital might disappear fills these men and women with as much dread as it does the capitalists themselves. Those rank-and-file workers who keep the movement alive generally limit themselves to purely defensive actions, trying as best they can to protect their past gains in rights and conditions. The main organisations of the movement have little relation with some of the most oppressed and deprived sections of society.

The revolutionaries, utterly determined to eradicate ‘capitalism’ and its state, saw this task in terms of the construction of a ‘party’. This would organise the ‘vanguard’ of the working class into a centrally organised body, which could win the allegiance of the majority in setting up a ‘workers’ state’.

The perversion of Marx’s ideas by Stalinism had an especially powerful impact in this area, even on those who fought against it. The idea of ‘democratic centralism’ was turned into to the pernicious notion that the ‘correct theory’ was the property of the historically chosen group, and especially its ‘leadership’. Social change was a mechanical process which these leaders could somehow initiate by an act of will.[5]

Marx himself, of course, never belonged to a ‘Marxist party’ or anything like it. His understanding of revolution and revolutionary activity concerned the conscious, collective remaking of social relations between people, through their joint action. The impulse for such a change could only come from the way they live now.

It is certain that, in the new century, the socialist project will revive in the thinking of masses of people. The question is, how will that new generation of socialists get to grips with the problems of the new millennium? The aim is not to force the creation of something which has never existed, but to free those forces which already exist, to ‘develop potentialities slumbering within’[6] existing social being. The task is to discover, hidden inside the chaos of modern life, the elements of a set of relations between human beings, including their relations with the natural world, which are ‘worthy of their human nature’.

Suppose we are in the dark and lost in a maze. There is a well-known and infallible method of escaping: just put the left hand on the wall and keep walking forwards. Occasionally we will hit the end of a blind alley and have to turn round and retrace our steps. But, eventually, we will emerge into the daylight. In humanity’s efforts to find its way out of the nightmare world of the twentieth century, the Russian Revolution might be thought of as an excursion down such a blind alley. This heroic attempt to blast a way through the solid rock failed to achieve its objective and turned out to be a gigantic and tragic historical detour, but that could not be known until the attempt was made.

On our way back from this cul-de-sac, moods of disappointment and cynicism are understandable, but we should not succumb to them. Instead of just bemoaning the time we lost, we must try to understand it as a part of the search as a whole, a process which must take more than one lifetime and more than one generation to accomplish. That means carefully and calmly assembling all the lessons we can from that section of our journey towards the light, using them to clarify the next stage.

It is in this spirit that I have been trying to re-examine the ideas of Karl Marx. If we can clear the ground of the errors of the past, it might be possible to extend Marx’s work in the context of the problems of the present.


1. Communist Manifesto, 6: 506.

2. C3: 596.

3. Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of the State, Introduction, 3: 182.

4. C1: 925-6

5. I cannot resist the urge to report here the Three Principles of Democratic Centralism, as formulated by my friend Don Cuckson: 1 Father knows best; 2 Not in front of the children; 3 Keep it in the family.

6. C1: 283.