Rethinking emancipation and the role of Marxism



200 years since Marx’s birth and 150 years after he wrote Das Kapital, capitalism is in deep crisis.  We are seeing the re-intensification of inter-imperialist rivalries in the context of waning United States hegemony and the unravelling of the neoliberal paradigm. The world remains addicted to extractivism and the destruction of our natural environment. In this context, we are seeing a transfer of the costs of this crisis onto the working class. While these issues may seem removed from the global political economy, they are intrinsically linked.

As these crises deepen, people find it more difficult to accept modes of thought, which rationalise the system that is unravelling. Begging us to be critical of the role of the education system and dominant ideologies in society, which in effect are used to perpetuate the class structure of society.  

It is in this context that we desperately need to find anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchal and eco-socialist alternatives, particularly when capitalism uses ideology, including bourgeois economics to distort our perceptions of how the world works.

It is here that we should ask the question is Marxism still relevant as an emancipatory framework of analysis that can potentially help us to understand the changes in the global, African and South African economy? Not to understand, as an end in itself but toward shifting the balance of power towards the marginalised people in society in fostering and bringing into being alternatives.

Is Marxism still relevant?

Why ask this question? I think this question arises in the context where there is an argument that Marxism is an old idea that is no longer relevant. In response to this, I think that it is useful to begin by asking ourselves whether changes in time and place make a difference to whether Marxism is relevant or not? Or to what extent does Marx’s method extend across time and place? To ask the question more directly – is a Marxist method valid for black people, women and gender non-conforming people in the twenty-first century? To be able to answer this question we need to turn to Marx’s methodology.

Marx’s method  

Marx set out to develop a scientific approach to understanding the history of human beings. For Marx, the way people are cannot be separated from the society in which they live, so to understand how people behave, we must first analyse the historically changing totality of social relations.

Thus, in a sense Marx rejects the idea of an unchanging human nature; nonetheless, he argued that human beings in very different societies share certain things in common. For him, it is precisely these common characteristics that can help us understand why societies change including the core beliefs, wants and capacities of the people who make up these societies.

For Marx, labour is the essence of human beings and the basis of society. What does this mean? Human beings are a part of nature, and like the rest of nature we are motivated by the need to survive and reproduce ourselves. But we are different from other animals in that there are many different ways in which people can meet their needs. This is because human beings are conscious and self-aware beings and have been able to change the way in which we produce over time. As human beings, we can do this because of our ability to reflect on what we have done and think about how we can do it better.

Consequently, Marx considered productive labour to be fundamental to what human beings are, but the labour of human beings is not independent from the objective reality (or natural environment) in which they find themselves. This results in a dynamic interchange between nature, which influences people and people through their labour transforms the natural environment in this robust way. This process does not end here – in the process of transforming nature – human beings also transform themselves.

This means that if we agree that production is the essence of human activity, then it follows that in trying to make sense of society we have to pay attention to the way in which production is organised. The implications of this is that if production is a social activity, then it means that changes in the way production is organised will result in changes in society. Marx thus concentrated on the social relations of production. Forming the underlying basis of his method – this is the core of a materialist conception of history – known as historical materialism – immersing his analysis in a concrete reality.

There is another dimension to Marx’s method and that is the dialectic – or the movement of contradictions. There is no end to contradictions; it is contradictions that lead to change. The dialectic thus becomes intertwined in the theory of historical development. Each form of social organisation contains within it the contradictions that provide the potential for change.

Therefore, Marxist thought begins by developing an understanding of people’s relation with the material world in which they are located. And so, Marx’s method conceives of society as a whole that is driven by the unity and struggle of opposites. Given this, it is fair to conclude that Marx’s method can be applied anywhere and anytime the only difference will be the conclusions drawn from applying historical materialism.

Marxism applied

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