Economics, Theory

Marxism for the 21st Century

The following article is adapted from a talk given by Iannis Delatolas at our spring Marxism conference co-hosted with International Socialists Canada. He explores the origins of Marx’s revolutionary thought and its enduring relevance today.

After the collapse of the Stalinist regimes, from the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 to the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, Marx and his work were largely portrayed as marginal. Being a Marxist was considered out of date — something of a curiosity suited best for academics, specialists and a minority of those on the far left.

You may have heard of Francis Fukuyama’s famous “The End of History” text that claimed the era of wars and revolutions had come to end, and stability was now the way of the future: it was to be free markets, liberal democracy, and capitalism. History had proven this was the best possible world after all.

Today, thirty years later, this is certainly not the picture. In fact, even in the “belly of the beast”, the United States, we have seen a rejection of this capitalist consensus going back some years now. Socialism is once again a very popular idea. This is a sea-change, a radical break in public opinion since the Cold War ended. There is somewhat of a reversal of the Cold War anti-communist ideology emerging today.

This is especially the case with young people. The Bernie Sanders phenomenon, AOC and the very impressive growth of the DSA are all signs of a leftward shift in the US that resisted, and one can say even intensified, during the worst years of the Trump presidency. Let’s remember the teachers’ strikes of 2018-19 that spread from one side of the US to the other, winning victories and inspiring workers in other sectors. They showed the power workers have to fight and win even in the most difficult circumstances. Equally inspiring and important were the protests against the Muslim Ban. Marches against the far right, the #MeToo movement, and more all erupted during these reactionary years.

Let’s also not forget the anti-racist rebellion of 2020 that exploded last summer, despite the hardships caused by the pandemic, where 26 million people demonstrated against the racist police murder of George Floyd and for Black lives. This uprising transformed consciousness across the country, and even spilled over into the union movement. Postal workers marched in Minneapolis with a banner following the murder of George Floyd, and unions were pushed into actions in solidarity with Black lives. Bus drivers in New York and Minneapolis refused to cooperate with the police– refusing to allow the use of buses to transport those arrested in the antiracist rebellion. 

Let’s remember Angela Davis addressing the Longshoremen’s Union strikers‘ rally in Oakland, who reminded workers that they have the power to end racism. 

This statement by Angela Davis is the real legacy of Karl Marx. The idea that the working class is central to the struggle towards a better and just world. That workers have the power to do this precisely because of the role they hold within capitalism. As Marx pointed out with his life’s work, because workers are the producers of wealth in society, our collective power has the potential to shut down capitalism. For a day, for the duration of a strike, or for good, ultimately with a workers’ revolution and a world run by workers and for workers, this is how a new world will be built.

Marx is here to stay

The ongoing problems with the capitalist economy, never fully recovered from the crisis of 2008 were only amplified with the Covid-19 pandemic. This brought into sharper focus all the faultlines of capitalism. 

The inability of the system to regulate itself in order to address the climate crisis has helped drive millions of people to look towards socialism for answers. In this context we have seen Marx make an incredible comeback. Not only in left wing circles, which is to be expected. But even the ruling class press admitted some admiration for Marx’s thought. For example: The Financial Times back in 2018 argued: “Even the best 21st century social science pales beside the complexity and richness of Marx’s protean, 19th century thought…” In The Economist a 2018 article was titled: “Rulers of the World: Read Karl Marx!”

Of course the ruling class’s interest in Marx ends with the analysis of the pitfalls of capitalism and how to fix them. For us, Marx and his work are important for other reasons. Marx has made a comeback because at the root of all the crisis we face today lies capitalism. And now people talk explicitly about the economic system and capitalism itself as being the root of the problem. 

But it was not always like this in the US. I remember in the early 1990’s in New York when being an active member of a socialist organization meant that we were the only ones who ever brought up capitalism in political discussions and people often had a baffled look on their face. “Capitalism?! As opposed to what?!” Some would even say something like “go back to Russia” and other insults. We did not try recruiting this last group, of course.

All this began to change with the historic demonstration against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, also known as the 1999 Battle of Seattle. That was really the start of people naming the problem they saw as capitalism. It was where environmentalists and union activists came together in what is often referred to as “Teamsters and Turtles.” The rejection of “capitalism” became wider after the economic crisis of 2008. 

The crisis we are facing today is bringing into sharp focus what lies at the center of all this. The capitalist system and its inability to address the environmental crisis, the ongoing economic crisis and the threat of racism and the far right using this crisis to advance its racist agenda. Consider for a moment the real possibility that Marine Le Pen, the French crypto-fascist, might win the next elections in France. 

All of this has brought Marx front and center, as people are looking for solutions and answers to the many existential threats we face today. 

Marx the revolutionary

As his longtime collaborator Friedrich Engels said when he spoke at Marx’s funeral, Marx was above all else a revolutionary. He grew to political maturity in Germany in the 1830s and 1840s.   As a student of philosophy, he was drawn into the democracy movement in Germany and worked alongside left Hegelians who wanted to stamp out feudalism and establish democratic rights by trying to replicate the experience of the French Revolution. Germany at this time was a patchwork of repressive states—the democracy movement wanted both national unity and an end to oppression, an end to censorship and so on. And to establish a form of democratically elected government. 

We can say two crucial events characterize this era. First it was the great French Revolution. It broke the absolute power of the monarchy and opened up questions of democracy and liberation. Second, the Industrial Revolution. It had created a new system of industrial capitalism with the large factories where entire working class families were swallowed up in the production, including children, and working in horrendous conditions and suffering. Meanwhile, the factory owners were becoming extremely rich.

Marx and the movements of his time

From the 1840s onwards, Marx was involved in a series of political organizations and struggles. First, the 1848 revolutions, which swept Europe, and helped to complete the work of the French Revolution. 

While the early capitalists had supported the French Revolution, the 1848 revolutions involved the participation of the workers movements and this time the capitalists saw this as a threat to their power. This became very apparent to Marx in the early 1840s when he was working with some progressive capitalists in a pro-democracy alliance in Cologne, and writing for a newspaper. The capitalists would fork out money for Marx to write, but only in order to target the old regime, they did not want him to go very far with his critique against capital. The era of bourgeois revolution was ending—and a new era of workers’ revolution was beginning. 

After the defeat of the 1848 revolutions and the repression that followed, Marx was eventually expelled from Germany and lived most of his life as a refugee, in Paris, Brussels and London.

In Paris he began to frequent socialist meetings. He was also heavily influenced by Engels who had returned from Manchester, where he helped run his family’s factory. Engels had a first hand account of the exploitation and misery of workers and he was a traitor to his class and a great revolutionary himself. He wrote his book The Condition of the Working Class in England, a study of the industrial working class in Victorian England.  

Engels also wrote a seminal book for our tradition, that we refer to often in discussing issues of gender and sexual oppression: The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Engels went on to financially support Marx and his family as Marx embarked on writing his sweeping analysis of capitalism, the 3 Volumes of Capital. The meeting of Marx and Engels was very important and a defining one for Marx’s development as well as Engels’. 

Back at the time they first met, Engels’s lover was a working class Irish migrant, Mary Burns who was a militant, and she undoubtedly played a key role introducing Engels, and through him, Marx, to the workers’ movement—which was, in those days, highly advanced in the northwest of England. So we can say that due to Engels and Mary Burns, Marx discovered the working class. 

Marx the organizer

The most important organization Marx built was the International Workingmen’s Association, which he founded while he was living in London—and while he was writing Capital. This was a genuine workers’ organization, drawing together various European socialist organizations with British trade unions.

This organization was not simply interested in economic questions. In Capital Marx refers to “the great event of contemporary history: the American civil war.” Among other things, this was a war in which slavery was a key issue. As Marx put it: “Labour in a white skin cannot emancipate itself, while labour in a black skin is branded.”

This was an issue the International Workingmen’s Association took up. It also reflected the best internationalist traditions of the working class of the period. One of the aftereffects of the American Civil War was the shutting down of the cotton trade, and that caused unemployment and misery for thousands of workers in England. Yet these same workers overwhelmingly supported the North in the Civil War, particularly once Lincoln was forced to decree the emancipation of the slaves in order to win the war.

So what this shows is that for Marx, socialism was from the very start very much engaged with the struggle against oppression and overall human liberation.

For those interested in reading more about the life and work of Karl Marx I highly recommend Alex Callinicos’s book: The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx. Marx went on to be a founding member of the First International and continued on to write his sweeping study of capitalism, Capital. 150 or so years after he wrote it, Capital remains a pivotal work for all who want to understand in depth the workings of capitalism. As interest in socialism and Marx has grown recently, so has interest in Capital.

Historical materialism

Marx examined human society through the prism of the material reality in which he lived. It is this material reality that determines our everyday reality, how we live, how we feel and what we think. This is a break with idealism and the philosophers that saw the ideas people held in their heads as defining their reality.

Inevitably this means that the way he saw history was radically different from historians of the time who saw history as a linear accumulation of events where “great men” and less often “great women” are credited with pushing history forward. This is why history as it is taught in school is so boring and can seem like an endless list of names and dates.

Instead Marx turned this on its head and placed ordinary people at the center of the scene of history. 

So for Marx what makes history move forward are the existing class antagonisms in a period and the struggle between classes with opposing economic interests. Class struggle as we refer to it.  Not the actions of a certain king or powerful individual.

For Marx and for Marxists, capitalism is not eternal. It is a stage in the development of society. Just as feudalism was replaced by capitalism when the bourgeoisie and the social relations it fostered, created the conditions that led to the revolutions that deposed the aristocracy and placed the capitalist class in power. 

And by extension the capitalist class is not going to reign forever. Capitalism is another stage in history, one that could be replaced by a more just social order with the intervention of the working class and the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. 

Not that there is anything inevitable about this. Which is why what we say and do as socialists in the here and now, is extremely important, as we try to build organizations that could provide leadership in the workers movements going forward. 

Capitalism is a very dynamic system. Look at the immense production that happens every day across the globe. And also look at the immense waste and environmental degradation daily, as products are produced not based on what society needs, but based on capitalist competition and the market. Millions live in misery as a privileged minority enriches themselves. 

What all this means is that there is the potential for workers, through a revolution, to take over the means of production: the factories, the hospitals, the schools and run them for the interests of the working class and create a just and a socialist society. But this is not automatic as I said, and if anything we have entered a period of rapid climate change that makes revolution more important and pressing than ever. 

Exploitation 

Marx was motivated in his life and work by his hatred of capitalism, and the horrors it inflicted on workers and the vulnerable. He wrote with one explicit goal and aim. To understand how capitalism works in order to destroy it. In order to arm the workers movement with the ideas and the tools towards this task. And in doing so Marx showed how the working class can become the gravedigger of the bourgeoisie and of capitalism itself. 

Not only does capitalism create the conditions for socialism, in the sense of creating sufficient wealth to do away with scarcity, it also creates above all “its own gravediggers.”

The whole process of capitalism, Marx argues, is founded on a new form of exploitation. 

All class societies rested on exploitation—ancient Rome had slaves and slave owners, under Feudalism there were lords and peasants—but capitalist exploitation is hidden behind a wage packet. Marx’s argument is that the worker creates greater wealth in the work day than required to reproduce his labour power. 

But no capitalist taps the worker on the shoulder after four hours and says: “Ok you are done now making your living for the next four hours, you’re working only to enrich me”. Yet, as Marx shows in Capital, this is exactly how capitalism works.

This exploitation, in fact, poses a problem for capitalism, because it’s a two-way dependency. The worker depends on the capitalist for work. The capitalist owns the means of production. Workers have nothing aside from their ability to sell their labor power.  Workers can’t work without the capitalist. But the capitalist depends on the worker to do the actual work.

In other words, capitalism creates a working class majority on whom it is utterly dependent. Most managers can vanish without having any impact on production. If a group of workers refuse to work, nothing happens and the factory, or the country, even several countries, can freeze during a general strike. 

When Marx was writing Capital, capitalism was fairly new and only existed in England, and parts of Northern Europe and North America. Also the working class was proportionally much smaller.  

Today capitalism reigns internationally and the working class is global. There are about 2 billion workers globally. Add to these their families, their children and the elderly, and there is a clear working class majority. Not only is the working class vast, it is also concentrated in big cities and industrial centers. 

When groups of workers fight collectively, they tend to create new democratic organs of workers’ power. 

Workers’ power

Marx realised this in 1871, when workers in Paris rose up and, for a couple of months, ran the city themselves during the Paris Commune. But such forms of organisation have originated in every great revolutionary struggle. Workers councils are the rule and not the exception in times or revolutionary upheavals. 

Not only is revolution necessary in order to break the logic of capitalism, but it is part of the process through which workers’ ideas are themselves transformed. 

Workers change themselves as they are changing the world. In the course of the struggle they realize the power that lies in their unity and they rid themselves of reactionary ideas, or backward thinking around sexism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and more.

Marx showed how the workers and the capitalists are interlocked in an antagonistic relationship of interdependence. Because of the role the workers play in production they have the power to shut it down.  It is this power that makes the working class central to revolutionary change. Workers can become the gravediggers of capitalism. It is this what we call the centrality of the working class.

Class struggle

Because the ultimate site of profit generation is the workplace, capitalists devote a great deal of time and energy to making sure that their workers work long and hard. The reality of exploitation ensures there are struggles over questions such as the length of the working day or the degree of intensity of exploitation. This is all extensively discussed in Marx’s Capital.

The wage, the amount workers receive to reproduce their labour power, is not a fixed amount. The reality of exploitation and the resulting battles over it show how class struggle between capitalists and workers is an inherent part of capitalist society. As they resist, workers can become aware of the power they hold. And this power is considerable. 

But here lies a crucial contradiction: Unlike with other forms of oppression, such as racism and sexism, the exploitation of workers is actually a source of power for the working class. The ability of workers to go on strike,withdraw their labor, or to occupy their workplace, is  a power over the profits generated by their bosses. 

With class struggle workers can resist and reduce their exploitation in the short term with strikes. And that ultimately the workers can take over the means of production and by staging their own revolution cancel the capitalist class and Capitalism itself, and usher in a new society based on human need. With a planned economy where the workers own and run the means of production towards satisfying human need and for the benefit of the majority of society. 

Marx’s ideas emerged out of a study of German philosophy, British political economy, and French socialism. But Marx did not come to his idea of revolution while reading in a library, but through involvement in worker’s movements. When working class demands scared the bourgeois into pulling back from the revolutionary wave of 1848 to compromise with the aristocracy, Marx and Engels called for a “permanent revolution” (a concept later developed by Leon Trotsky), with the working class continuing to fight for socialism, and recognized the need for workers’ organization for this to happen. The only major modification of this conception came after supporting the unfolding events of the Paris Commune of 1871.  The Paris Commune showed a concrete example of radical workers’ democracy.

The Paris Commune

Even though the Paris Commune lasted only for two months, it offered a glimpse of a workers’ democracy and of a radically egalitarian society that had not been witnessed before. Marx looked at these events and learned from the workers. He wrote as a result a pamphlet called The Civil War in France. It was based on speeches he gave to the First International. It is a very important work for all socialists. And it was Marx’s writings here, on the nature of the capitalist state, that Lenin later expanded on in his own book The State and Revolution. When he argued for a 2nd workers’ revolution to take power in the midst of the Russian Revolution of 1917, Lenin was building on themes that Marx had developed in “The Civil War in France” based on the events as he was witnessing them. 

Paris in 1870 was left battered and under siege from the Franco-Prussian War. The Republican government that had overthrown Napoleon the 3rd had delivered nothing to the workers and the poor who lived in squalor and suffered great poverty. There was no “liberty, no equality and no fraternity” for the workers and the poor of Paris. There was mass unemployment and 60% of Parisians could not even afford to pay for their funerals. 

The commune achieved very radical reforms not seen before. All public officials were elected, subjected to immediate recall, and paid the wage of an average skilled worker. As Marx wrote, “instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in parliament, universal suffrage was to serve the people.” The commune abolished conscription and established a national guard of workers. Women made big gains as divorse was granted on demand and public canteens established. Marx recognised that the Commune represented a new form of radical workers’ democracy, writing of “…a working class government….the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labor.”

The commune was a living and breathing example of what he meant by the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Not a small group ruling in the name of workers but the collective democratic rule of the workers over the bourgeoisie. The working class had the power. 

By looking at the events of the Paris Commune, Marx developed his theory of the state. While the commune was instituting previously unheard of radical reforms, the French bourgeoisie, with assistance of the Prussian leader Bismark,  were mobilising troops to crush the commune. The old state machine was operating outside of Paris. Between 10,000 and 50,000 were killed in the fighting as Paris fell and the commune was drowned in blood, and thousands executed following the Commune’s fall and the fall of worker’s power in Paris.  

Revolutionaries still look to the commune and understand its importance a century and a half later. Marx’s The Civil War in France is a seminal work for all revolutionaries. In it Marx shows both the huge potential workers have to change society by taking over and running society themselves. But also he showed the terrible risks revolutions can face as the ruling class viciously will try to take back control. As Marx put it: “one thing especially was proved by the commune…that the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.”   

Today the capitalist class is politically bankrupt. They cannot stop the destruction of the planet. At the time of writing, there are record temperatures in the West Coast of North America with hundreds of deaths. Siberia has been experiencing a persistent heatwave and also the arctic circle, with temperatures as high as 118.4F. While frost was reported in Brazil’s sugarcane, coffee and corn producing regions.    

Revolution today is more urgent than ever. In this effort, the work of Karl Marx and of all the other revolutionaries who built on his work, will be indispensable.

Marxist tradition

There can be as many interpretations of Marx and his work as there are different stripes of socialists. Stalinism distorted Marx in order to justify the state capitalist regimes where a small minority around the state controlled the production and benefited from oppression.

Social Democrats used (and continue to use) Marx to justify their parliamentarism and their dead end strategy of the bourgeois elections, and limiting “socialism” to reforms of existing capitalism. 

Both of these are examples of “socialism from above,” opposed to Marx’s statement that “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves” and means “the abolition of all class rule.” 

Many followers of Trotsky treated Marxism like a dogma. Trotsky had predicted that capitalism would not survive the Second World War in the west and that political revolutions would overthrow the Stalinist bureaucracy in the east.

When this did not happen, some Trotskyists continued into a spiral of futile attempts to try to fit the real world and the post-war boom that followed, attempting to make reality fit their dogmatic interpretations of Trotsky’s mistaken predictions. 

Trotsky was a towering revolutionary, to whom we owe the survival of the revolutionary tradition  of socialism from below. But, like any theory, it must be tested with reality. In the International Socialist Tendency, we took the aspects of Trotsky’s thought and life’s work, and developed them to better explain the world we live in now. For instance, we did not call the Stalisnist regimes “deformed workers’ states,” but state capitalisms. 

For us, Marxism is not a religion or a dogma. Neither is it an academic exercise. Marxism is a living and breathing theory that needs to evolve and develop in order to explain the ever changing world and chart a path for the revolutionary overthrow of Capitalism. Marxism is a set of tools that guide our practice.

We take from Marx and his work the dynamism and the truly revolutionizing aspects of his thought. We have a clear understanding of capitalism, of the capitalist state and of the need for revolutionary organization. And a clear understanding that socialist society means workers’ power and the abolition of capitalism. And all this we owe to Marx and Engels and to all the other revolutionaries who built on Marx’s work. Marx pushed the early radicals of his day to go from the slogan: “all men are brothers” to “workers of the world, unite.” Marx laid down the foundations of revolutionary politics. 

We in Marx21 are continuing to build on this tradition of socialism from below for the 21st Century. Join us in building the revolutionary organizations that we need to further Marx’s ideas, to intervene in the workers movements and struggles of today, and also in the long term goal of revolution and socialism.

Iannis Delatolas


Further Reading

Alex Callinicos,  The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx. Bookmarks. 

Mike Gonzalez, A Rebel’s Guide to Marx. Bookmarks, 2006. 

Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848. (available online

Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, 1871. (available online

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