In September 1867, 150 years ago, a book appeared in Hamburg with a first edition print run of 1,000 copies. This book was called Das Kapital, by Karl Marx. In the book, Marx sets out to analyse the capitalist reality in the form of a ‘critique of political economy’. He begins with an analysis of the commodity, describing its use and exchange value, and laying out, both economically and historically, how capital is produced, extracted and accumulated.
Marx spent most of his life amassing the research and developing this critique, with revolutionary intent. Capitalist society is shown to be a class society which needs to be superseded, and the class that would be able to do this would be the proletariat.
A mistake of some of Marx’s followers has been to fetishise the proletariat as salt of the earth. This is as idiotic as looking down on proletarians as primitive and dumb. Proletarians are not better or worse people than others. The unique position of the proletariat as a class is that it is capable of halting the production of commodities. Once this occurs, it begins producing communism, abolishing the class society – including the proletariat itself.
It’s thus crucial to understand that communism is not an ideology (nor is Marxism for that matter), rather the ‘actual movement’ to overcome capitalist relations, and that the ruling class is not a sinister cabal conspiring to suck the life out of the working people and the planet but indeed a function of the capitalist system. Hence there can also be no ‘good’ capitalism, not of a green, social democratic, or state capitalist variety.
Soon after Das Kapital‘s publication, groups in various countries used Marx’s writings as an orientation in their struggles and strived towards social revolution. The Paris Commune of 1871 was the first temporarily successful proletarian insurrection, before it was drowned in blood by the counter-revolution.
In 1917, 100 years ago, the Bolsheviks, a communist group led by Lenin and Trotsky, managed to gain power in Russia. Although it was often other far left groups holding more weight in the self-organised organs of revolutionary decision making (the Councils), it was the Bolsheviks who managed to take over the central state power. They went on to disempower the Councils and unleash terror campaigns against not only the remnants of the old regime, but also their revolutionary comrades.
Controlling what was supposedly the first socialist state, the Bolsheviks had immense political capital in the revolutionary milieus around the world and became the dominating force in the newly founded Communist International. This had terrible consequences for the international movement. Marx’s ideas were turned into the ideology of Marxism-Leninism in the service of a new ruling bureaucracy, the idea of communism was corrupted. However we choose to interpret the details, what happened is that Soviet Russia had ended up in the grip of a capitalist counter-revolution. Not in 1989, but already in the 1920s.
Lasting damage was done to the ‘revolutionary project’ as communism has been associated with oppression and the stifling of cultural and intellectual life. Nevertheless, it emerged again on a larger scale in the late 60s. The ‘red decade’ of 1967-1977 is similarly vilified as the Red October of 100 years ago and judged as a failure. The collapse of the Eastern state capitalist bloc in 1989/91 did the rest to hammer home the message: There is no alternative to capitalism.
This is however not a satisfactory answer to the question of why there is no widespread social resistance to capitalism in the present times. Is it because it has become so all-encompassing, so all-pervasive, listening to and cataloguing all of our expressions, deciding on our desires, bullying us into the heap of commodities in front of us? Or is it because people regress towards paranoid concepts, conspiracy theories, closing borders, excluding others, clinging to idiotic concepts of identity based on skin pigments? Why do such detrimental ideas have such a gravitational pull?
Or is it because the left itself has become nostalgic or even reactionary? Whenever it seems to get an injection of life-force, of rejuvenation, it just unpacks the same old slogans from the textbook of a discredited past, smuggling its outdated ideas of anti-imperialism and identity politics into a public realm that is not receptive – and quite rightly so.
Meaningful intervention seems increasingly impossible in a social media environment that is paradoxically hierarchical. Tweeting, posting and blogging seem more often than not just like throwing paper planes with messages scribbled onto them into a furnace. Although we do engage in these activities, we hope that by using a wider range of strategies we are able to have a positive function. Not as a mobilising tool, that would be unrealistic, but as a magnifying glass pointing to those dots of our collective history, experience, and utopian experimentation that we think need to be joined together.