Referendum: The Future of Europe. Part 2. Forward March of King Capital

Forward march of king Capital

The shape of things to come

The struggle between progress and reaction is central to human history. Liberals see progress in terms of abstract values such as human rights, freedom, morality or a fairer society. Capital was improving the world, morally progressive a progressive force bringing civilisation. In the Communist Manifesto the class struggle is the motor force of progress, seen in material terms in the development of the forces of production, not least the productivity of labour.

Capital is constantly reshaping the world. No sooner are the old means of production and technology discarded than new ones takeover, and then these in turn are overthrown. Capital’s revolution is thus permanent as backward forms of organisation and labour productivity are replaced by more advanced forms. As capital grows and becomes more concentrated and centralised, wage labour becomes more socialised, more productive and increasingly automated.

This meets furious opposition from reactionary classes threatened by change. The Manifesto says “To the great chagrin of Reactionists”, Capital “has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old established national industries have been destroyed and are being daily destroyed. In place of the old national seclusion and self sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations”. (The Communist Manifesto p18).

The Manifesto rejects the liberal view of progress. Capital transforms social productivity by creating a new form of slavery – wage slavery. The forward march of Capital tramples the proletariat under foot. Capital is thus a contradictory force, revolutionary and exploitative. It continues to revolutionise the forces of production, destroying outdated technologies and forms of organisation. It does this by exploiting and oppressing an ever larger army of wage labour.

Free trade

Liberals promote the doctrine of free trade as a universal benefit for society. Marx and Engels critically examined the contradictions of free trade. For Engels “Free trade is the normal condition of modern capitalistic production. Only under free trade can the immense productive powers of steam, of electricity, of machinery, be fully developed; and the quicker the pace of this development”. (MECW 26: 523-24). Herein was economic progress.

However, as Marx explained, “When you have overthrown the few national barriers which still restrict the progress of capital, you will merely have given it complete freedom of action. So long as you let the relation of wage labour to capital exist, it does not matter how favourable the conditions under which the exchange of commodities takes place, there will always be a class which will exploit and a class which will be exploited”. (MECW check 26: 523-24).

Liberals claimed that free trade would benefit all. Marx and Engels had no time for this. In his ‘Speech on the Question of Free Trade’ Marx attacked “free trade sophisms” and poured scorn on the sudden “philanthropy of the factory owners” who exploited their workers and opposed trade unions in the name of free trade. (MECW 6: 464-65). “All this cant” will not convince workers, because free trade is “the freedom which capital has to crush the worker.” (check this MECW 6: 464-65).

However in comparing trade protection with free trade, the latter had a revolutionary aspect. It broke down barriers between countries and stimulated productivity through greater exploitation. The unintended consequences were the greater socialisation of the forces of production taking Capital objectively towards the possibility of social revolution.

Marx says “the free trade system is destructive. It breaks up old nationalities and pushes the antagonism of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie to the extreme point.” (MECW 6: 464-65). Hence “the free trade system hastens the social revolution. It is in this revolutionary sense alone, gentlemen, that I vote in favour of free trade” (MECW 6: 464-65). Engels confirms “the conditions for the inevitable social revolution will be the soonest created – for this reason, and for this alone, did Marx declare in favour of free trade” (MECW 26: 523-24).


Marx wrote about British imperialism in India in the New York Daily Tribune (The Marx-Engels Reader Edited Robert Tucker Norton USA 1972 p583). He analysed the contradictions of economic progress. “England has to fulfil a double mission in India: one destructive, and the other regenerating – the annihilation of the old Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundations of Western society in Asia.” He continues “the work of regenerating hardly transpires through the heap of ruins. Nevertheless it has begun.”

Marx recognised a ‘progressive’ side of this contradiction. The “political unity of India, more consolidated, and extending farther than ever it did under the Great Moguls, was the first condition of its regeneration. That unity, imposed by the British sword, will now be strengthened and perpetuated by the electric telegraph”. (The Marx-Engels Reader Edited Robert Tucker Norton USA 1972 p584). Further it is railways and steam ships that are transforming India, linking it ever more closely to Britain and Europe.

There is no attempt to cover up the brutal nature of British imperialism. Has Capital “ever affected a progress without dragging individuals and peoples through blood and dirt, through misery and degradation”? (The Marx-Engels Reader Edited Robert Tucker Norton USA 1972 p586). No, and India is no different, destroyed “by breaking up the native communities, by uprooting native industry, and by levelling all that was great and elevated in the native society.” (The Marx-Engels Reader Edited Robert Tucker Norton USA 1972 p583).

British rule “will neither emancipate nor materially mend the social conditions of the mass of the people”. The development of the productive powers will benefit the ruling classes of Britain and India. The Indian people will only gain “on the appropriation by the people”. Marx draws revolutionary conclusions from the imperialist ‘modernisation’ of India. (The Marx-Engels Reader Edited Robert Tucker Norton USA 1972 p583).


In ‘The Nation and the Economy’ (‘The Nation and the Economy’ July 1915) Trotsky identifies the tendency of “capitalist-thievish” imperialism to overcome national borders. Capital is tearing itself “completely away from the idiocy of national narrowness”. (‘The Programme for Peace’, 1944: 282). Overcoming the limits of the nation state is in one sense progressive and must be taken over and not discarded.

The working class must not throw the baby out with the bath water. Hence “while fighting against the imperialist form of economic centralisation, socialism does not at all take a stand against the particular tendency as such but, on the contrary, makes the tendency its own guiding principle” (‘The Programme for Peace’, 1944: 282). In general communism is for unification not disintegration. Nationalism which is defending the past is reactionary and backward.

Trotsky says “it would truly be a miserable petty-bourgeois utopianism… to think that the fate of development in Europe and the entire world will finally be secured if the state map of Europe is brought into correspondence with the map of nationality, and if Europe is split into more or less complete nation-state cells ignoring geographic conditions and economic ties” (Day and Gaido 2012: 879-880).

Regional and global

Globalisation is the modern term for Capital’s tendency to accumulate and spread across national borders and integrate the world economy. Giant multinational corporations plan and organise production on a regional and world scale. In their search for profit and exploitable labour, they are destructive of local business, local employment, damage the environment, and undermine social gains and workers rights.

The global advance of multinational corporations therefore generates criticism and opposition. As the Communist Manifesto recognised, opposition to globalisation comes from two directions. First reactionary forces oppose globalisation, looking back to a more idealised pre-global past, by appealing to nationalism. Second a communist perspective opposes the anti-social consequences of globalisation. But the problem is ‘insufficient globalisation’ and how to transcend it to a higher more advanced global economy – “workers of the world unite”.

Nation states

Capital’s globalisation does not however abolish the need for nation states. Chris Harman says that “the whole trend of the development of production might be to transcend national boundaries, but in fact remains that the vast majority of firms continue to be owned from and operate within a particular national base”. He argues “the role played by the national state in the functioning of the system has increased in parallel with the concentration of national capital”. (Chris Harman 1971 article quoted in “The EU a left case for exit” p17)
If Harman is right, nation states will continue to be important in a world of capitalist globalisation. It does not follow that the current given number of nation states or their sizes are fixed. The combined and uneven development of Capital will create new political formations including the breakup of some states and the unification of others. The revolutionary force of Capital awakens democratic aspirations for popular democracy and democratic revolution.

Forward march

The EU is part of the world capitalist economy. It is capitalist in a capitalist world. It is comparable with other major capitalist countries such as the United States, China, India, Russia and Japan. The UK will remain part of global capitalism whether the UK votes to leave or remain in the EU. A socialist case for leaving the EU cannot be based simply on a moral condemnation of the EU because of the evils of Capital.
The essence of Marx’s scientific study is that Capital is not fixed. It is constantly changing, driven by the force of accumulation. The impact of Capital on the world is contradictory, revolutionary, destructive, creative and exploitative. The EU reflects and is being shaped and reshaped by the dynamics of Capital. Those who say the EU is fixed and cannot be changed are simply wrong.

The central question for working class and progressive politics is to understand how the world is changing. A scientific analysis of the EU should enable us, as the Communist Manifesto says, to “comprehend the march of modern history”. The dynamic processes of Capital are leading to greater European integration and the merger of nations. The by-product of this is the creation of a larger, more productive and more integrated working class.

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