From the moment Karl Marx put pen to paper, pro-capitalist political commentators and academics have attempted to bury his ideas. But successive generations of political activists have continually turned to Marx’s ideas, from the best working class fighters who joined the various communist and socialist parties in the early 20th century to the student radicals who stood up to the horrors of Vietnam war in the 1960s, embracing his searing indictment of capitalism and his argument for revolution. 

Today, with millions around the world plunged into the indignity and pain of unemployment, hunger and homelessness, and with whole swathes of the Middle East torn apart, Marx’s ideas have an enduring relevance. They are essential for understanding why modern capitalism is so obscene; for those of us who want to win a society free of the misery and class inequality that scar our world, they are also indispensable as a guide to action.

“Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other – Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.” – The Communist Manifesto

Despite all the pronouncements that class doesn’t exist, that the biggest divisions are those between nations, sexes, or cultures, Marx was right about the nature of capitalism. It is a system defined by the exploitation of the working class by the capitalists. When Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto and later, Capital, capitalism dominated only in pockets of Europe and North America. The vast majority of the world’s population were peasants, independent farmers or tribal groups.

However, capitalism quickly became a global system. Around the world peasants were thrown off their land and pushed into rapidly-developing urban centres. The working class and the capitalist class grew as nation states were established. Society became more and more polarised between these two main social classes. The working class, which includes white collar and blue collar workers – anyone who has to sell their labour power to a boss in exchange for a wage – is now estimated to number 2 billion people.

The capitalists on the other hand are an infinitesimally tiny part of the population. Yet they wield enormous power through their private ownership and control over the means of producing wealth in our society, whether that’s arable land, the mines, the offices or the factories. They are the ones who get to decide what gets produced and how it’s distributed, who will have a job and who will be thrown into poverty. They are the ones who decide whether our natural resources will be plundered or preserved. They are ones who can make or break governments.

As society has become polarised between the working class and capitalists, it has been increasingly marred by grotesque inequality. In Australia, the average CEO’s total pay packet is worth almost 100 times that of the average worker’s wage. Globally the concentration of wealth means, according to a UN document published in 2006, that the richest 1 percent of adults now own 40 percent of global assets and the top 10 percent own 85 percent. In contrast, the bottom half of the world’s adult population – or about 1.85 billion people – own only 1 percent of the world’s assets.

This is part of the structure of our society, and it helps to explain why the classes not only exist, but are “hostile camps”. Their wealth doesn’t just come from thin air. The profits of the capitalists are not a product of their genius or hard work, but rather they come from workers: they come from paying us less than the value that we produce at work. And because the capitalists are locked into competition with each other, they’re always seeking ways to cut costs and maximise the profits they can squeeze out of us. 

Capitalism is therefore characterised by a never-ending struggle between labour on one side against the capitalists and their allies in the parliamentary and legal system on the other. This class struggle is waged over the rate of exploitation, over safety and conditions at work, over whether essential services like hospitals and public transport that working class people rely on will be publicly funded or privatised, and so on. 

This class struggle is sometimes hidden and at other times it is part of an open battle. It can be clearly seen in the attempts by governments to slash social spending and freeze wages.

“What the Bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own gravediggers.” – The Communist Manifesto

Marx was also right when he argued that the only group in society capable of fundamentally challenging the inequality, war and oppression was the very class that was most impacted by these things – the working class. The horrors of capitalism inevitably push all its victims to resist. But Marx argued that the working class has a special capacity to be the system’s gravediggers. 

Marx saw the working class as the agent for revolutionary change for a number of reasons. Firstly, we have numbers on our side. As the poet Percy Shelley famously put it, “Ye are many, they are few”. But more important than our numbers is the centrality of workers to production and profit-making. Without our labour in the workplace, not a single wheel of industry would turn, not a single product would be produced. If we withdraw our labour en masse, the source of their profits would dry up. 

No other group in society has this power to challenge the functioning of capitalism in such a fundamental way. The working class brings together all people – blacks, whites, gays, straights, men, women, etc. While everyone has a different identity in some way, it is as workers that they can truly wield power.

While capitalism forces workers to compete against each other for scarce jobs, housing, university places and so on, it brings us together in the world of work where we need to cooperate with each other for our workplace to function. Similarly, to bring the economy to a halt, individual heroism won’t do. It requires the active involvement of our workmates. The need for collective action in turn requires that workers build democratic organisations that can inspire solidarity and convince and organise the majority of workers to take action. 

It is this collective nature of working class life and struggle under capitalism that gives us the capacity to reorder society in the interests of the majority. In seizing control from the capitalists, workers can’t simply divide up the factories, the hospitals and the offices and share them out individually – one person taking a steel furnace, another a heart monitoring machine, another a photocopier. Obviously, none are sufficient for sustaining life. The only way workers can abolish the conditions of exploitation is to collectivise and socialise the means of production and distribution, democratising all aspects of production and decision making. 

Given the interdependent nature of the world economy, this process would have to be international, hence Marx’s call for workers of the world to unite. 

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” – The German Ideology 

Today, pretty much every idea pushed by the education system, the media, advertising companies etc. justifies capitalism as it is. Ruling ideas include the notion of social mobility, that if we work hard, anybody can make it. Inequality, accordingly, is not structured into the system. They also include the idea that the competitive, individualistic, dog-eat-dog nature of capitalism reflects, not the interests of the elite, but instead our human nature. And because of this “nature”, any attempt to radically alter society through revolutionary struggle will inevitably end in dictatorship, so we’d better not try. 

Once again, Marx was right when he argued that a key weapon in the hands of the ruling class is ideology – systems of ideas that attempt to naturalise their privileges and the subordinate position of the majority of people. This isn’t surprising: the capitalist system tramples on the needs and desires of the majority of people in the interests of a minority. To preserve the status quo and stop the gravedigging, they have to both break up the majority and win some of us over to the idea that nothing else is really possible. The ruling class has at its disposal the means of disseminating and promoting its ideas on a huge scale.

Take the mass media, which have the capacity to shape public debate on a national scale. They are far from neutral observers. To deflect attention away from the real problems – like crap public transport and overcrowded hospitals – the media help stoke anti-refugee sentiments whenever they decide to give politicians prime time coverage to talk tough about “stopping the boats”. Why would anyone even notice, let alone resent, desperate refugees if it weren’t for the mass media carrying front page stories announcing their arrival? 

Another key institution for the dissemination of ideas in our society is the education system, where we’re taught that to get by in society you need to obey the rules and respect or at least tolerate the authority of those above you. These are the types of classroom lessons our rulers hope you will take with you into workforce. We’re also taught about how history is made by great men (and very, very occasionally great women), downplaying the role that masses of ordinary people have played in creating historical change. 

The reality of life under capitalism also plays a role in reinforcing pro-capitalist ideas. For instance, because of sexist discrimination in our society, women are generally in lower paid jobs which carry less authority. This fact can in turn reinforce the ideology that women are naturally inferior. The norms under capitalism can become established as natural rather than being seen for what they are – a social construction. 

However, while ruling class ideas are dominant, they are never completely hegemonic. Lived experience under capitalism not only reinforces ruling ideas, it also clashes with them. For instance, the promise of social mobility that capitalism holds out to us is continually dashed against the rocks of economic crisis; in the richest country in the world, for example, 1 in 7 in the US now rely on food stamps to survive. 

The clash produces a welter of contradictory and mixed ideas in workers’ heads. Most workers accept aspects of capitalist ideology at the same time as holding oppositional ideas. If this weren’t the case, if we were all brainwashed, radical social change would be all but impossible. The civil rights and women’s movements, which were a direct challenge to the ruling ideas, could not have happened.

Key to undermining these ruling ideas is the class struggle itself. When workers go on strike it can reveal to them the real social power that they do have. It can reveal just how indispensable we are to the capitalists and how little we actually need them. It can also undermine the bigoted ideas that workers may hold, because successful working class struggle requires unity in action and solidarity.

Divisions that the capitalist class tries to sow, like sexism and racism, can be overcome because the special oppression of one section of the working class actually sets back the entire class. As Marx wrote in Capital, “Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded”. 

“Philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” – Theses on Feuerbach

Marx was not an armchair thinker. He argued that just understanding the world – knowing the real reasons for war, knowing about the lies the ruling class push, knowing that their wealth is based on our exploitation – was not going to change it.

For Marx, gaining a deeper insight into the contradictions of capitalism was not some purely intellectual exercise. The point of developing theory was so that it could inform his political practice. The point of learning about historical struggles was so he could better understand what are the most effective levers for changing society. 

Ideas alone were insufficient for altering the world around us. It wasn’t the ideas of liberty, fraternity and equality that chopped off the heads of the aristocracy during the French revolution. For ideas to have force, especially those that run completely counter to the common sense under capitalism, they need to be organised, they need to be embodied in the actions of working class men and women, which is why Marx played a leading role in radical organisations like the Communist League and the International Working Men’s Association. 

Far from being a mechanical determinist, Marx understood that the victory of socialism over capitalism was not inevitable. Capitalism, despite being wracked by internal contradictions and periodic economic crisis, is not going to collapse of its own accord. Revolutionary social change needs to be fought for. 

Indeed to achieve any progressive social change we need to demand, agitate and organise for it. If you want to see an end to the murderous wars; if you want to win marriage equality for LGBTI people; if you want to see the refugees freed from the cages that our government locks them in, then you need to put your actions where your mouth is. As the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass put it, “Power concedes nothing without a demand”. 

Just a cursory glance at history confirms this. It is working class people who had to fight to win the 8-hour day. It is working class people who have had to fight for and continue to fight for equal pay for women. None of these gains were handed to us by some impersonal law of economic development. Nor were they handed down by some benevolent politician. 

The leopard has not changed its spots. Twenty-first century capitalism continues to be steeped in the blood and suffering of ordinary people. It’s high time our generation learned how to fight with passion and tenacity against this beast.

[This article was first published in Socialist Alternative magazine in January 2011. The online archives of Socialist Alternative and Direct Action (newspaper of the Revolutionary Socialist party, which merged with SA in 2013) is now available at Socialist Alternative’s updated website sa.org.au.]