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What’s wrong with Marxism? In defence of the communist bogeyman

What’s wrong with Marxism?

MAY 9 — A Malaysian group had planned to organise a seminar on Marxism. This was to take place last March in Petaling Jaya but was eventually cancelled. The authorities claimed that it was an illegal event and that it would jeopardise public safety. What was clearly displayed by certain sections in Malaysian society is an element of what I would call Marxophobia. This refers to the unreasonable fear of Marx’s ideas, which in reality pose no danger to our society. In fact, one could argue that there are important ideas in the thought of Karl Marx that can help our society progress.

Let us take May Day as an example. May Day is celebrated in Malaysia. It is a public holiday. Why do we celebrate it? It has something to do with Marx. Marx who was born on May 5, 1818 in the German city of Trier, actually wrote very little about communism. Most of his research and writings dealt with the problems of capitalist economic system. Both his writings and activism eventually lead to the strengthening of the labour movement in Europe and elsewhere in the nineteenth century. The proclamation of May 1 as Labour Day has a great deal to do with Marx’s efforts.

Among social scientists all over the world as well as lay people, Marx is famous for his three-volume study, Das Kapital (Capital). No leading university anywhere in the world would dispense with the teaching of Marx’s theories on capitalism. Marx is seen to be a founder of the modern discipline of sociology. He was above all a theorist of capitalist society. Most of his writings seek to understand the genesis, nature and consequences of the capitalist mode of production. Capitalism can be defined as a system in which workers sell their labour to the owners of capital, the capitalists. Marx believed that this resulted in a relationship of exploitation between those who owned capital and those who did not. By exploitation Marx means that the worker does not get back in the form of a wage the full value of what she puts into the production process.

A major issue that was brought up by Marx and others who criticised the capitalist system was the length of the working day. The wages that are determined by the labour market are such that number of hours that a worker works creates economic value that exceeds the wages that the capitalist pays to the worker. This excess value is known as the surplus value. The surplus value is created by the worker but is appropriated by the capitalist and is what enables the capitalist to make profits. It is this very appropriation of surplus value that is defined as exploitation by Marx. Exploitation arises from the differential between the wage paid to workers and the actual value that workers put into what they produce.

Marx also spoke of the alienation that people experience in capitalist societies. Technological progress results in workers becoming more specialised and interdependent. The specialised, routine and even dull nature of work in modern, industrialised societies does not allow people to develop their full potential as creative and sensuous human beings. In other words, they become alienated from human qualities and from one another. They relate more to the machine or computer than to fellow human beings.

Exploitation and alienation are two major pathologies of modern capitalist societies. Marx’s own view was that these conditions would eventually result in the members of this class becoming conscious of their situation. They would come to understand the working of the capitalist system. They would understand their role in the creation of value, how wages were determined, and that they were being exploited. It is this consciousness of the workings of the system of capitalism and their role in it that Marx referred to as class consciousness.

Marx wrongly believed that capitalism would soon give way to a more equitable system, socialism. While history proved him to be wrong, Marx did have a great influence on capitalist societies. Many changes that capitalism went through were due to the pressure mounted by Marxists and the working class movement that was influenced by Marx’s ideas. But Marx was no armchair theoretician. While he wrote very theoretical and abstract works about capitalism, he was also an active participant in the working class movement. He played a crucial role in the founding of the International Workingmen’s Association, also known as the First International. Established in 1864 in London, Marx drew up its statutes and composed the “Inaugural Address”.

Marx can also be said to be the inspiration behind the idea of May Day or International Workers’ Day or Labour Day. This day, celebrated on May 1 in Malaysia and around the world, recognises the plight and exploitation of the working class, a matter theorised by Marx. The day is meant to be a day of celebration of the working class. May 1 was originally the date of a European pagan holiday. The Second International, the successor to the First International that was founded by Marx, chose May 1 as the date for International Workers’ Day to commemorate the Haymarket demonstrations in Chicago that took place on May 4,1886, in which some workers were killed by police. During the founding of the Second International in 1889, it selected May 1 as the day of commemoration of the struggle of the working class.

Although Marx’s central concern was with the exploitation of the working class, his understanding of capitalism can be creatively extended to the critique of corrupt government. In many developing societies, the regimes are in reality kleptocracies. “Kleptocracy” is derived from the words “klepto” (to steal) and “cracy” (rule). It literally refers to rule by theft. Some governments are dominated by kleptocratic politicians and officials. They abuse their office and power in order to amass a great deal of wealth. Such wealth is not merely acquired for supplementing their income but can be considered as part of the process of the accumulation of capital.

Capital is one of the factors of production, the other three being land, labour, and entrepreneurship. All four factors of production are inputs that go into the process of production. It goes without saying that capital is the dominant factor of production in modern capitalist societies. In economies dominated by kleptocracts, however, capital has illegal sources. Corruption practices such as bribery, extortion and nepotism, may be so widespread that they constitute a major means of capital accumulation. Two Sudanese scholars, El-Wathig Kameir and Ibrahim Kursany, writing more than thirty years ago, had recognised such a role of corruption in the Sudanese economy, and declared corruption to be the fifth factor of production (“Corruption as a ‘Fifth’ Factor of Production in the Sudan”, The Scandinavian Institute of African Studies, Uppsala 1985).

Apart from Marx having got certain things about the progress of capitalism wrong, Marx was not the evil theorist and ideologue of the horrors of communism that was witnessed in the Soviet Union, China or Cambodia. Only the ignorant fear the teachings of Marx. To teach Marx is not to preach communism but critique capitalism.

In defence of the communist bogeyman

MARCH 4 — There was a sudden reappearance of Marxism in Malaysian news last week when our dear IGP vowed that he would block any attempt to spread its “teachings” in the country.

This was in reference to a course on the subject at Gerakbudaya. So why is communism still seen as such a bogeyman?

Like any Malaysian pupil of that era, I was told of our communist nemesis very early on in school. Our brave soldiers were in the jungles weeding out these communists and had won the battle by the time I entered Form One back in 1989.

The communists had surrendered and it was a celebrated victory. The film Bukit Kepong with his ensemble cast played on TV and writing about it just now made me realise the racialised treatment of the film. One particular race was typified as the good guys and one race, the bad. There was not even a small attempt at political correctness.

In my young adulthood, I found myself working near a Marxist bookshop and I was curious enough to enter. To my surprise, I found that Marxism was not just about Marx himself but also included a plethora of other thinkers.

Together, they formed the Marxist tradition. Marxism had begun in 19th century Europe as a natural evolution to the socialist ideas which had been brewing up to that point. Karl Marx himself had a tremendous following in London. He even died here and was buried in Highgate.

This piqued my curiosity a great deal. Why were Malaysian pupils not told these important details in our Sejarah lessons? As I recall, the lessons offered a cursory look at Marxism as an emerging ideology in Europe. Communism, whose theories were based on Marxism, had taken over Russia and China.

A more contemporary lesson was about how the Cold War had the US capitalists (champions of freedom, as they styled themselves) fighting the “Reds” in Korea, Vietnam and Cambodia.

We were not told of the motivating forces behind Marxism, namely the need for social justice. Nor were we told of the evolution in Socialism ideology, how Marxism mutated into Leninism, Trotskyism and ultimately, Stalinism.

Mao’s version and Pol Pot’s were more distant cousins. This is something which British socialists are very indignant about. They refuse to acknowledge violent manifestations of Marxism as authentic.

Ironically, Muslims of today face a similar problem when Islamphobes lump them in the same basket as the so-called Islamic State. If there are many versions and misrepresentations of Islam, why can’t there be the same with Marxism?

A few years ago, a quarter of a century after the surrender of Malaysian Communist insurgents, I was surprised to find Malaysian socialists popping up all over Facebook.

Unlike what the Umno-racists and their supporters tell you, these socialists did include Malays. Not only included but were driven by Malays as well!

This flew in the face of the racist stereotype that Malaysian communism is a Chinese thing brought down from the People’s Republic of China. I made it a point to speak to these activists and contrary to what the authorities would have us believe, they are not terrorists. Rather, they are asking some very pertinent questions about social justice.

This is exactly how socialism emerged in Europe. When people started questioning the status quo and asking why their lives are not more fruitful.

At the time, the royal houses of Europe were living in opulence off the backs of the people and on top of that, conducting protracted wars. At the same time, the Industrial Revolution had workers living robotic, alienating lives.

Socialism was simply their solution to overturn that status quo and achieve more fulfilling lives. There is nothing morally wrong about that. The situation has not changed much in Malaysia today either.

Umno elites with their cronyism and shadowy activities have made it difficult for the rakyat to trust them anymore. Instead, the rakyat is faced with tighter squeezes on their already narrow budgets so I am not surprised that people are looking for alternatives.

The IGP may be able to stop the classes but I doubt he will be able to stop the momentum of the rakyat’s growing dissent.

Farouk A. Peru Malaymail Opinion Friday March 4, 2016 07:54 AM GMT+8

Tags: communist, kapitalisme, sosial

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