Against the grain: Labour Day and Karl Marx

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 30, 2018 - May 06, 2018.
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Governments and people alike often display a certain degree of what we may call Marxophobia. This refers to the unreasonable fear of Marx’s ideas, which in reality pose no danger to our society. There needs to be a distinction made between the thought of Karl Marx, on the one hand, and the ideas and violent, even terrorist, acts of certain communist groups, on the other. In fact, one could argue that there are important ideas in the thought of Karl Marx that can help our society progress.

Take May Day or Labour Day as an example. It is celebrated in Malaysia and is a public holiday. That we celebrate it has something to do with Marx. Born on May 5, 1818, in the German city of Trier, Marx actually wrote very little about communism, although many people associate him with communism. Most of his research and writings dealt with the problems of the capitalist economic system, or what he called the capitalist mode of production. His writings and activism played an important role in the strengthening of the labour movement in Europe and beyond in the 19th century. The proclamation of May 1 as Labour Day had a great deal to do with Marx’s efforts.

Among both social scientists as well as lay people all over the world, Marx is famous for his three-volume study, Das Kapital (Capital). No leading university anywhere in the world would dispense with the teaching of his theories on capitalism. Marx is also seen to be a founder of the modern discipline of sociology. His main objective was to understand the workings of capitalist society and not to provide a blueprint for communism.

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 or he puts into the process of production.

Among the major issues brought up by him 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 the number of hours a worker works creates an economic value that exceeds the wages the capitalist pays to him. This excess value is known as the surplus value.

For example, if a worker creates RM100 worth of a product a day on the factory assembly line but gets paid a daily wage of RM50, the surplus value is RM50. The surplus value is created by the worker but is appropriated by the capitalist and is what enables the latter to make profits. It is this 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.

He wrongly believed that capitalism would soon give way, during his time, 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. Celebrated on May 1 around the world, it recognises the plight and exploitation of the working class, a matter theorised by Marx.

May 1 was originally the date of a European pagan holiday. The Second International, the successor to the First International chose it 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. Corrupt 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 30 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, he 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 the evils of communism as it was practiced in the 20th century but to critique capitalism.


Syed Farid Alatas is Professor of Sociology at the National University of Singapore

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