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Competition, monopoly and planning: the market vs socialism

The defenders of capitalism like to tell us stories about free competition and the wonders of the market mechanism. But can we really talk about a ‘free’ market, when the world economy is dominated by 500 monopolies?

The development of capitalism has brought into being massive multinational corporations, most of them ‘too big to fail’, as we saw in 2008, when the state intervened to prop up many of them. These companies engage in planning on a massive scale, whilst, of course, claiming that planning is impossible.

Yet, at the same time the world market still maintains its chaotic existence, dominating everything and wreaking havoc across the world. How would socialist planning be different and what advantages do modern technology bring?

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The Revolutionary Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg

The great revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg has often been misrepresented, when not openly slandered, by bourgeois academics and Stalinists as an opponent of the October Revolution – or as an advocate for a ‘softer’, ‘anti-authoritarian’ Marxism, as opposed to that of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Some contribute to distorting Luxemburg’s legacy through the invention of ‘Luxemburgism’, as a set of ideas opposed to Bolshevism.

In this session, Marie Frederiksen, author of a new biography of Luxemburg, will explain the true content of her political thought, and how it developed as the international class struggle unfolded. A class-conscious revolutionary and staunch defender of Marxist theory to the end, Luxemburg waged a battle against revisionism, opportunism, class-collaboration national chauvinism and pacifism, always on the side of the socialist revolution. Marxists today must reclaim Luxemburg’s revolutionary legacy.

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The Permanent Revolution in Europe: 1848

In February 1848 the Communist Manifesto declared, “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.” Only days later, the workers of Paris overthrew their king and ignited a revolutionary inferno that scorched the whole of Europe. In just a couple of months, the old absolutist powers of Europe buckled under the pressure of the masses. Universal male suffrage, national liberation and the end to the last vestiges of feudal oppression were fought for heroically by the masses and even won, for a time.

In all countries, the working class formed the most determined fighting force of the revolution, but in France the workers went so far as to challenge directly for power in the great June insurrection: “the most colossal event in the history of European civil wars”. But trembling at this first bold attempt at a “Communistic revolution”, the ruling classes in every country ran directly into the arms of military and clerical repression, and carried out a vicious counter-revolution which destroyed even the most basic democratic gains of the revolutions of 1848.

To understand these titanic events, Marx and Engels had to grapple with questions that still confront revolutionaries today, and the conclusions they drew, on the permanent revolution, the national question, the dictatorship of the proletariat and more, still provide us with an inexhaustible armoury of lessons. In this session we will draw out these lessons in the context of 1848, and discuss the impact of these events on the future class struggle, and on Marxism itself.

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The Marxist theory of knowledge: how do we know things?

How do we acquire knowledge? This central question in philosophy has confounded thinkers for millennia. On the one hand you have the idealists, who argue that truth exists a priori of the material world and finds its reflection in our minds – ultimately implying that knowledge comes from outside of nature – from a higher being.

Then there are the bourgeois materialists, whose main theory of knowledge (empiricism) states we can only know the content of our senses, making it impossible to talk with confidence about generalisation, causation – or even the existence of material reality outside of our own, direct experience.

Marxists argue that knowledge comes from the world, and it is by generalising our experience of the particular (e.g. burning ourselves) that we can form abstractions that let us comprehend the general (e.g. fire is hot). Thus, practice and concrete experience are the basis of knowledge. Meanwhile, passing our experiences on to one another allows us to develop human society, production, science and technique to ever-higher levels of complexity, thus deepening our knowledge of the world.

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Marxism, money and inflation

The spectre of inflation hangs over world capitalism, putting a major squeeze on the masses around the world. The cost of basic necessities like food and fuel is skyrocketing, and is already provoking major social eruptions, like the insurrection in Kazakhstan in January.

Right-wing economists such as the monetarists blame workers for causing a ‘wage-price spiral’, refusing to point the finger at the real culprit for inflation: capitalism.

To avoid complete collapse as a result of the pandemic, capitalist governments spent trillions on stimulus and bailouts. But this has now upset the economic equilibrium, leading to instability and volatility in the global economy. Meanwhile, war and supply-chain chaos have pushed up the prices of many key commodities.

This all shows the limits of attempts to manage and reform capitalism. Despite the voodoo economics advocated by Keynesianism and so-called Modern Monetary Theory, you cannot spend money you don’t have without consequences.

The solution is not tinkering with the money supply, but democratic ownership and socialist planning of production, geared towards human needs, rather than maximising the profits of a parasitic few.

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Blood and gold: the Spanish conquest of the Americas

The brutal invasion of the Americas by Spain, Portugal and others represented a clash between two modes of production: capitalism, in its very earliest stages; and that of the Mesoamerican world, with all of its peculiarities. The great civilisations of pre-Hispanic America were sacrificed to feed the burgeoning primitive accumulation of the capitalist system, with the majority of the local populations wiped out by musket fire, sabres and disease. 

The conquistadors went on to rule with an iron fist, with countless thousands of indigenous peoples perishing in conditions of slave labour. This discussion will present a Marxist perspective on these events, and how they factor into the history of capitalism a system that erupted onto the scene leaking blood and dirt from every pore.

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How Marx made history: the development of historical materialismin

At school and university, history is taught in certain ways. Either it is understood as the product of ‘Great Men’ or, as postmodernists would say, it is just a series of unconnected and unrelated events. Marxism, on the other hand, analyses the hidden mainsprings that lie behind the development of human society, from the earliest tribal societies up to the modern day.

The way in which Marxism traces this winding road is called the materialist conception of history. This scientific method enables us to understand history, not as a series of unconnected and unforeseen incidents, but as part of a clearly understood and interrelated process. It is a series of actions and reactions which cover politics, economics and the whole spectrum of social development.

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The enlightenment and the struggle for rational thought

The rise of capitalism was accompanied by a bitter struggle against the religious obscurantism of feudal reaction. The rationalists, the empiricists and the French materialists struck blow after blow against the dominant ideology of the day. The struggle for rational and scientific thought was an indispensable weapon in the bourgeois revolution.

Today however, the capitalist class has turned into a counter-revolutionary and conservative force. It has taken up the banner of idealism and turned against the revolutionary materialism which it relied on in the struggle against feudalism. Today, the struggle to defend science, materialism and rational thought is an essential part of the struggle for socialism. While the old bourgeois schools of thought have degenerated into irrationalism and mysticism, Marxism has managed to rescue their revolutionary kernel and raise them to a higher level in the philosophy of scientific socialism: dialectical materialism.

Recommended Reading: History of Philosophy, “The Renaissance”, “Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz”

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The labour theory of value: the origins of Marxist economics

Marx revolutionised political economy with the publication of Capital, in which he brilliantly analysed capitalism in all its aspects, and explained why it inevitably goes into crisis. However, Marx did not suck his ideas out of his thumb. Rather, he stood on the shoulders of the most-advanced bourgeois political economists: in particular Adam Smith and David Ricardo.

These two thinkers both proposed the labour theory of value, which is to say, that the value of commodities originates with human labour. However, later bourgeois economists abandoned this theory, because its implications were dangerous. After all, if workers are the source of all value, shouldn’t they lay claim to the fruits of their labour? 

While Smith and Ricardo were limited by their one-sided, bourgeois approach to economics, their ideas were nevertheless a major breakthrough that Marx was able to develop and refine with his theory of surplus value, from which profit is extracted. This laid the foundation for Marxist economics: the most powerful tool of analysis available to us.

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Marxism and art: unshackling culture from capitalism

Under capitalism, art and culture are nothing but business, to be exploited for profit. Meanwhile, the finest artistic accomplishments of humanity are locked up in the private vaults of the wealthy, or behind the gilded doors of expensive galleries and theatres – what Trotsky called the “concentration camps of the mind.”

The vast majority of people are prevented from producing art, forced to devote the bulk of their time toiling for a parasitic few, with barely enough time left over for rest. Expensive art colleges and elitist salons ensure the working class is kept out of ‘high’ culture, while the need to make a living prevents artists from experimenting and developing their craft.

The crisis of capitalism is also a crisis of culture: as we see in the endless parade of near-identical Hollywood superhero blockbusters, and stagnation in one discipline after another: from literature, to theatre, to music. Marxists’ fight for revolution is also a fight to liberate art from the profit motive, harnessing the whole of humanity’s creative potential.

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