Against The Grain: May Day and socialism

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 3, 2021 - May 09, 2021.
Against The Grain: May Day and socialism
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On May 1, it is appropriate for us to reflect on the significance of Karl Marx, of May Day and the relevance of socialism, all of which are interrelated.

May Day is celebrated in Malaysia. It is a public holiday. Why do we celebrate it? It has something to do with Marx. Contrary to what many people believe, Marx — who was born on May 5, 1818, in the German city of Trier — actually wrote very little about communism. Most of his attention was to the problems of the capitalist economic system.

His research, popular writings and activism eventually lead to the strengthening of the labour movement in Europe and elsewhere in the 19th century. The proclamation of May 1 as Labour Day is also related to Marx’s efforts.

Marx is famous for his three-volume study, Das Kapital (Capital). No leading university anywhere in the world dispenses with the teaching of Marx’s theories on history and the nature of capitalism, what Marx called the capitalist mode of production. 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. Marx is seen to be one of the founders of the modern discipline of sociology.

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 workers do not get back in the form of a wage the full value of what they had put 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 the 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 discussed the alienation experienced by people living in a capitalist society. Technological developments caused workers to engage in work that was very interconnected and interdependent, and did not allow the possibility of their achieving their full potential as creative and sensual beings. In a society like this, people are more connected to machines or computers than they are to their fellow human beings.

Exploitation and alienation are the two main ailments of modern capitalist society. According to Marx, the working class would eventually come to a proper understanding of the nature of their conditions. They would understand the workings of the capitalist system. This means that they would understand their role in the creation of value, how wages are determined and that they are being exploited.

Marx referred to this awareness as class consciousness. He believed that capitalism would eventually give way to a system that was more just, that is, socialism. In this respect, history has proved that Marx was wrong.

Marx wrongly believed that capitalism would soon give way to a more equitable system — socialism. Although he was wrong on this score, 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. Also, Marx did not keep himself aloof from what was taking place around him. While he wrote very theoretical and abstract works about capitalism, he was also an active participant in the working class movement.

In fact, Marx can be said to be the inspiration behind the idea of May Day or International Workers’ Day or Labour Day, as it is variously called. 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 was wrong about the rise of socialism, this does not mean that socialism is irrelevant to us today. Take, for example, the relevance of socialism to Islam.

Islam does not specify a system or political economic order that must be practised by its believers. What is specified and encouraged in Islam is a system of morals and behaviour that should underlie any and every political economic system that has been established by Muslim societies. In the history of Islam, there have been a variety of political economic systems or modes of production from the time of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) until today. During the early development of Muslim society in Mecca and Medina, the political economic system comprised of at least two types, that is, the petty commodity mode of production and the pastoral nomadic mode of production.

During the Ottoman Caliphate, the Safavid Empire and the Malacca Sultanate in the pre-modern era, their political economic systems were characterised, in general, by the prebendal feudal mode of production. Nowadays, the system of most Muslim countries is capitalism or the capitalist mode of production.

In the modern period, some Muslim scholars and thinkers had an inclination towards socialism, which they considered to be far more in line with Islamic values than capitalism. In his work, Islam dan Sosialisme (Islam and Socialism), Syed Hussein Alatas expresses his view that socialism exists in Islam, in the sense that Islam is actually socialist in nature.

Generally, there is no conflict between Islam and socialism. What is opposed by Islam are specific types of socialism. Here, we need to differentiate between religious socialism and irreligious socialism, as was done by the renowned Javanese activist, Haji Omar Said Tjokroaminoto, in his work that was also titled Islam dan Sosialisme.

Exploitation, alienation and corruption are the main problems affecting most Muslim countries in the modern period. The ideas of Marx and other socialists have highlighted these problems. Syed Hussein Alatas demonstrates in his book that some of the concerns of socialists, such as economic equality, social justice and an order free from exploitation by an elite class, are not any different from the concerns of Muslim figures in the past. He urges Muslim societies to think deeply about socialist values and to put them into practice in order to achieve a better order.


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

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