We are now seventeen years into the "new millennium" – an era that great thinkers and futurists in the 20th Century imagined would be a period of prosperity and comfort for all. And yet, far from living in the technological utopia they imagined, we are increasingly living in a dystopian nightmare of eye-watering inequality and poverty amidst plenty. Hugo Robles of the Southampton Marxists looks at the contradictions of automation and machinery under capitalism.

Why hasn't “the future” arrived yet?

Following the immense leaps and bounds in science and technology that came with the industrial revolution, and the even more impressive feats of ingenuity and discovery in the post-war years, many saw these developments as the beginning of a process of uninterrupted progress that would culminate in humans living relaxed, comfortable lives, with dazzling new inventions helping us to satisfy our every need.

Grand cities under covered roofs with moving sidewalks; journeys to space; personal robot assistants; and, more modestly, the 15-hour week: these weren't the product of the naive imaginations of starry-eyed schoolchildren who had just read a pulp sci-fi novel – these were the predictions made by learned scientists and political thinkers. They saw the potential applications of emerging technologies. But, lacking a Marxist perspective, they did not realise the importance of the political-economic organisation of society in shaping the development and implementation of technology.

As a result, many of these technically feasible predictions rested on the assumption that these new technologies would be applied in a rational way to maximise the happiness of society in general; or that automation would – in a smooth, gradual way – reduce the amount of necessary work and, consequently, the actual need for work.

If we are to understand why these assumptions were not borne out, we have to turn to the ideas of Marxism. Marx wrote in depth about capitalism and technology; and, in particular, about automation and the question of why technological advances are not applied rationally for the benefit of all. His analysis, in short, can be summarised in one sentence: the profit motive.

Automation and the labour theory of value

Labour is a series of actions applied, by a conscious agent, to the means of production. It is the application of labour, meanwhile, that is the source of all new value. The unpaid labour of the working class – that value above and beyond what is paid back to workers in the form of wages – in turn is called surplus value. And it is from this surplus value that the capitalists obtain their profits.

Robots and machines form part of the means of production; they do not create new values, but rather represent existing value – the crystallised labour of the past – that is transferred to the new product in the process of production. Consequently, robots – and all machinery – are not capable of producing value. They merely allow humans to produce surplus value with an efficiency that was unheard of in previous centuries. This makes them incredibly attractive to capitalists as a way of increasing productivity, driving down the labour time needed to produce commodities, and thus outcompeting their rivals.

As Karl Marx wrote in his magnum opus, Capital:

“Like every other instrument for increasing the productivity of labour, machinery is intended to cheapen commodities and, by shortening the part of the working day in which the worker works for himself, to lengthen the other part, the part he gives to the capitalist for nothing. The machine is a means for producing surplus-value.”

If you – as a capitalist – can get workers to produce more in less time, but still hire them for the same wages and hours, you are going to be making a lot of profits; especially since you can just fire some of the workers outright, replacing them with machines.

But what is necessary for one capitalist – to increase profits by investing in machinery and pushing down labour costs – is also going to be necessary for all the other capitalists, causing the adoption of machinery to become generalised. This means a driving down of not just the labour time needed by individual firms to produce a given commodity, but the “socially necessary labour time” (SLNT): the average labour time required across a sector, given the general level of productivity in this industry.

The overall result is that capitalism kills the goose that lays the golden egg. As explained above, it is only the application of human labour that produces new value, and thus surplus value also. But if labour is replaced by machines, then the source of the capitalists’ profits is also removed. At the same time, it is the wages of the working class that form the market for the commodities that capitalism produces. And if workers are made unemployed by automation, then who will buy the plethora of goods being churned out?

modern times

The history of automation

In the heyday of capitalism, this process was a very progressive thing: science and technology were being developed at a rapid pace, allow things to be produced cheaply, efficiently, and uniformly, with less and less effort needed from workers.

At the same time, this progress was also contradictory, reflecting the contradictory nature of capitalism. Yes, automation eliminated the need for workers to do certain things – but only by destroying jobs in the process. Instead of reaping the benefits of higher productivity and efficiency, then, workers are fired, or threatened with being fired in order to force them into accepting a higher rate of exploitation.

This is why throughout history you see developments in machinery being accompanied by opposition, fear, anger, and sometimes even sabotage. Developments that improve the productive forces in society through automation are not developments that the workers have control over. Instead of workers reaping the benefits of these developments, then, they only benefit the capitalists – and at the workers’ expense, of course.

Automation in the 21st Century

Today, as in Marx's day, we see how the application of automation in production follows the same logic: the logic of capital. Capitalists will not always invest in new machines, technologies, or software systems to increase productivity. This is only desirable when the investment reduces costs and increases profits; when the machinery is cheaper than the workers the machinery would replace. This, in turn, is influenced by a number of factors: the strength of the workers’ movement; the availability (supply) of workers; the cost of the new machinery itself; and so on.

Those most vulnerable to losing their jobs to automation today are not the exploited sweatshop labourers in Bangladesh, for example, but the workers in the advanced capitalist countries. Cashiers; drivers of cars, trains and buses; accountants; call centre workers; even writers, nurses and lawyers: all these professions are increasingly becoming threatened with what the bourgeois economists call “technological unemployment”. And sickeningly, the increase in technological unemployment only swells the ranks of the “reserve army of labour”, allowing workers remaining in all sectors to be exploited further, since the alternative of joblessness would be even worse.

Even though individual firms (or, rather, their owners) may benefit from losing some of their workers to technological unemployment, these individual gains disappear as this tendency becomes generalised. With fewer workers employed making more commodities, the ongoing crisis of overproduction is exacerbated. Yet from the perspective of the individual boss, this is how to remain competitive in such a crisis.

So this is what automation has to offer us under capitalism: crisis and unemployment. At least in Marx's day this crisis and unemployment was accompanied by a general development of the productive forces in society. Today, however, this general development has stagnated. But this stagnation is not a technical problem – it is a problem born out of the archaic and anarchic social order that is capitalism.

The potential world offered to us by modern technology is one of plenty; one where everyone can have access to quality housing, food, healthcare and even luxury goods. And yet, the world ahead on the immediate horizon is a pale shadow of this possible world of abundance.

Still want that promised “future”? Fight for socialism!

When the futurists of the early 20th century and before thought of the future, they imagined the world of superabundance that socialists talk about. If history had unfolded according to their utopian visions, we would be living in that world today. But we are not – not because they were overly-optimistic about technological progress, but because they weren't realistic about capitalism's inability to share out the benefits of this technology.

It is not difficult to imagine a world where the vast array of society’s productive power is used for the benefit of all. We can see the enormous potential all around us. The advent of information technology makes it easier than ever to create and distribute what the capitalist leeches currently treat as their “intellectual property”. The development of 3D printing also provides tantalising hints of what modern productive technologies and techniques could achieve, making specialised and complex products available to all.

This goes to show just how much of a fetter capitalist property relations have become to progress. To remove these barriers to progress; to turn the vast array of productive forces humanity have created towards the creation of a better world for all, we must smash the rotten capitalist system itself – a system that, left unchallenged, will only continue to produce crisis and misery.

The task ahead is for the working class – the ones who actually invent these technological marvels and the ones who actually operate them – to unite, organise, and sweep the wreckage of capitalism into the dustbin of history where it belongs.

Marx Capital in a Day

Marx Capital in a Day

Educate Yourself

  • Educate Yourself
  • The Fundamentals of Marxism
  • Dialectical Materialism and Science
  • Historical Materialism
  • Marxist Economics
  • The State
  • Russia, Lenin, Trotsky and Stalinism
  • Anarchism
  • Feminism
  • Fascism
  • The National Question
  • Imperialism and War
  • Revolutionary Strategy
  • Revolutionary History

Socialist Appeal are proud to publish this basic guide to help focus your studies of Marxist theory and practice. Visit the various tabs to find links to introductory articles, classic texts, and audio talks for different topics. We also invite our readers to become acquainted with the more basic ideas of Marxism by starting with the recommended short reading list, going through the FAQ section, reading this article that combats the myths about Marxism, and listening to the following audios:

Why Marx Was Right - Alan Woods

What is Marxism? - Alan Woods

What Will Socialism Look Like? - Fred Weston

What is Capitalism? What is Socialism? - Fred Weston

We will be expanding and developing this section over time. Please contact us if you have any questions, or if you'd like any suggestions on what to read next.

Reading the classics of Marxism is the best way to understand these ideas. At first it may seem difficult, but every worker and young person knows that things worth having are worth working hard for!  Patient and persistent study, discussion, and ultimately, the day to day application of these ideas over a lifetime are the key.

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Marxist theory is the basis upon which our analysis, perspectives, program, and participation in the movement are based. It is our "guide to action." This why Socialist Appeal and IMT place so much emphasis on political education. To this end, we have created an extensive Education Plan to assist comrades in their political development. This is an important resource.

However, it's length and scope may seem daunting to new comrades. With this in mind, Socialist Appeal has compiled a shorter list of classic works and other important writings we think will serve to lay a strong foundation in the ideas and methods of Marxism. We would like to encourage all our supporters and those interested in learning more about Marxism to read (or re-read!) through the works on this list.

This selection of writings is an excellent introduction to many of the fundamentals of Marxist theory. There are many other writings that could be added, but this selection provides a strong basis for those wishing to equip themselves with the necessary ideas for the daily work of fighting for socialism.

Many of these are smaller books or pamphlets; some are more lengthy books; and others are just short articles. This list should therefore be more digestible than the full Education Plan, particularly those with busy work or school schedules. All of them are available to

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Dialectical Materialism is the philosophy or methodology of Marxism. Every political movement, party, or even statement of any kind bases itself, consciously or unconsciously, on some sort of philosophy or world outlook. Marxism is concerned with effecting a radical change in society, and therefore requires an exceptionally clear, thoroughgoing, and systemic set of philosophical principles.

The ideas of Dialectical Materialism, based on the best traditions of philosophical thought, are not a fixed dogma but a system of tools and general principles for analysing the world materialistically and scientifically.

If we are to understand society in order to change it, this cannot be done arbitrarily, since the human will is not master of nature; rather, our ideas and thoughts are reflections of necessary material laws. Instead, we must seek to understand the laws of how human society changes. By following our education plan for Dialectical Materialism, the reader will familiarise themselves with this way of looking at the world so that they too can begin to apply Marxist ideas.

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Historical Materialism is the result of Dialectical Materialism applied to human society and history. It encompasses the general theory of how and why society develops in the way it does. A deeper, more concrete understanding of these principles in combination with a study of real, living history of class struggles enables us to come to a general understanding of where capitalist society is headed and what political strategy is required to successfully influence the course of events.

The basic principles of Historical Materialism are that human society has inherent laws guiding it - its developments are by no means arbitrary or accidental, nor the mere subject of the will of great men and ideas. Human individuals can and do influence society according to their ideas, but only ever within definite material constraints and conditions. Above all, the law determining historical development is that of the development of the means of production - meaning economically productive technology, science, technique etc. The extent of the development of the productive forces determines the social relations of production - i.e. the structure of society, class relations etc. Each social system has its inherent laws of motion. If we want to overthrow capitalist society, we must understand how capitalism works.

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Marxist economics is the study of the laws of motion of capitalist society. Why does capitalism perpetually go into crisis? Why does mass unemployment exist? Are commodity production, the domination of the market, and rich and poor natural, immutable states of being for humanity? Or are they merely the products of this specific mode of production - capitalism? If so, is there any way capitalism can exist without these problems, or by minimising them?

Marxist economics is a “holistic” way of analysing capitalist economy. It starts out by placing it in its real historical context (rather than dreaming up abstract idealisations of capitalism to justify it, as bourgeois economics does), studying all its interconnections and contradictions, rather than artificially isolating one aspect of it. In doing so, Marxist economics lays bare the functioning of capitalism; the exploitation and injustice inherent within it. Those who want to get to the essence of why, in the 21st Century, despite having a more advanced understanding of the world than ever before, humanity seems plunged into perpetual crisis it cannot get to grips with, should look no further than Marxist economics, beginning with the writings of Marx himself.

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Like money, the state is something we are all very familiar with and take for granted, but its real essence tends to elude us. The ideologists of capitalism have tried, in various ways, to justify the capitalist state as supremely rational; a neutral arbiter for society, and the embodiment of justice. For Marxists, the state is not at all neutral, nor just. It is certainly anything but rational. We must strip the vale of mysticism away and reveal the state’s real basis. To do that, we have to treat the state historically - taking in its origins, rise, and eventual fall.

The state has not always existed. It is inseparable from class society. Ultimately, it is the instrument for the ruling class to oppress and hold down the masses, guaranteeing the status quo and the sanctity of property. Although the modern state performs many other functions, these are secondary to its real basis - the protection of a set of property relations. To do this, it needs “armed bodies of men” and a monopoly on the use of violence. To establish socialism, it will not be possible for the working class to use the state as it currently exists - that is, with the same network of judges, heads of police and army etc. All the key texts explaining how exactly we relate to the state, and the

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The Russian Revolution is the greatest event in world history for Marxists. For the first time, the working class successfully took and held power. The slaves fought back and won. For these reasons, the name of Lenin and Trotsky, and the entire 1917 episode, has been deliberately dragged through the mud by the bourgeoisie ever since.

Naturally they are aided in this task by the degeneration of the revolution and by the existence of Stalin’s monstrous dictatorship. However, Stalinism represents the opposite of Bolshevism’s real traditions, which readers can read about in this section, as well as the Marxist explanation for why Stalinism took place and what this means for our movement.

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Radicalised youth, seeking to understand how to change modern society, naturally tend to look to both Marxism and Anarchism in equal measure. The question as to which philosophy, or which combination of the two, has the best answers, has long been at the forefront of the minds of revolutionaries.

Anarchism is naturally attractive to all those correctly alienated by bureaucracy in the revolutionary movement. Anarchists are certainly correct to reject Stalinism and careerism. However, it is not sufficient simply to reject these phenomena. We need to understand why bureaucracy and oppression exist and what role they play, in order to understand how to avoid them. We believe that, for all its opposition, Anarchism has little to say about the alternative to bureaucracy. Instead, it is Marxism’s historical materialist method that allows us to understand these problems. In this section the reader will find a series of articles dealing with anarchism and the issues that anarchism raises.

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The discrimination and oppression of women is integral to class society, such that Engels even referred to it as the “first class oppression”. Along with the class system itself, the oppression of women often takes on the appearance of being natural, immutable and eternal, since it has been with us for so long.

But Marxism is a historical science, concerned with understanding the fundamental changes that society goes through. It cannot be satisfied with comfortable prejudices. A study of the origins of human society, as Engels famously conducted in his book The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, reveals that the oppression of women is by no means natural and was not even known for much of our history. As Engels explains, the oppression of women arose with the emergence of class society and private property; it will fall with it.

Marxists are fully in solidarity with feminists: we are irreconcilably opposed to the oppression of women and fully support the struggle for their emancipation. We believe this will be achieved through the class struggle, since that is the basic locomotive of history in a class society such as ours. However, Marxism represents a distinct set of ideas from feminism, which is a more eclectic and varied set of ideas. We believe that in this section, readers will find the tools Marxism

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Fascism is something of a bogeyman in modern British society, and has an almost mythical character in bourgeois public opinion. But despite constant talk of it, very little is said about why it happened and how it may or may not happen again.

Fascism is really the death agony of capitalism and the “distilled essence of imperialism”. The fascists in Germany, Italy, Spain and other countries were only able to come to power on the back of defeats of the working class. Ultimately, the madness of fascism expresses the historic crisis and dead-end of capitalism that had arrived by the early 20th Century, alongside the inability of the working class to take power and replace capitalism with a workers’ state, due to the corruption of their leadership, in the form of both reformism and Stalinism. Fascism could and should have easily been avoided had the working class possessed a militant and united leadership prepared to take power.

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The question of nationalities - that is, the oppression of nations and national minorities, which has characterised capitalism from its birth till the present time - has always occupied a central position in Marxist theory. Once again, the historical materialist approach of Marxism dissolves the apparent “natural” role of the nation as a necessary expression of human society. Nations have by no means always existed, nor will they always exist in the future.

The nation as we know it today is a product of the development of capitalism and its need to unify peoples into units of a certain size (depending on the level of the system’s development – e.g. more recently formed nations tend to be much bigger) to consolidate the market. The contradictions and tensions between nations are a result of capitalism’s “combined and uneven” development. The contradictions of the capitalist mode of production itself force each ruling class to expand outwards, developing a global market and imperialism in the process.

The violent tensions that this process breeds in turn give rise to nationalism, racism and wars. There is no way a successful world revolution, abolishing the global capitalist system, can take place without a careful and nuanced understanding of the national question, with all the sensitivities and complexity it brings. Therefore this section is of the utmost importance for revolutionaries.

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War is a constant feature of life under capitalism, especially in the epoch of imperialism. There has not been a single day of peace since the end of WWII, despite the appearance of WWII (and all previous wars) of being the “war to end all wars”. Capitalism is inherently unstable, competitive and violent. Moreover, there can be no final peace between the classes, since this system is based on the exploitation of the working class by the rich. 

However, there are wars of different kinds under capitalism. The question of war is the hardest equation of all to judge, so careful study is essential so that revolutionaries are not blown off course by the complexities involved. For example, some “socialists” called for support for the war in Iraq, as it had the appearance of establishing “democracy” over dictatorship. Equally, the failure to understand the true meaning of WWI and its implications was the direct cause of the death of the Second International.

Wars, like revolutions, represent the sharp extreme of capitalism’s crisis. Under capitalism, there will be many wars in the future. The more revolutionaries study and understand capitalism’s previous wars, the better equipped we will be to fight against future wars and the capitalist system itself.

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Socialist Appeal is the British section of the International Marxist Tendency, which is active in around 40 countries. Our aim is to spread the ideas of Marxism, in an organised fashion, in the labour and youth movement. Only the British working class has the ability to change British society, because of the central role they play in production and their shared interest in establishing socialism.

However, we must carefully study the history and traditions of the British working class in order for Marxist ideas to connect with them. There are all too many groups who simply declare themselves the vanguard of the British working class, and have a dismissive attitude to the class’ real traditions.

In this section readers will find a series of articles explaining our position on the class struggle in Britain, the key points in the history of the British working class and the lessons to be learnt from them, and the strategy of the Marxists in relation to the movements of the masses.

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The ideas of Marxism and the need for a revolutionary party are not the result simply of a single individual, but arise from the study of history - the history of class struggle. In this respect, the revolutionary party is often referred to as being the memory of the working class, and our task is to learn the lessons from history in order to prepare for the revolutionary events taking place today and in the future.

In this section we present a series of articles and audios covering the key revolutionary struggles in history - from the early class struggles in Rome to the tremendous movements of the working class in the 20th Century. By reading and listening to these, our readers should gain a good overview of the history of the revolutionary movement and the main lessons to be learnt from these.

For analysis of 21st Century revolutionary movements, check out the News and Analysis sections of the website!

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Marxist theory

Hitler and the Rise of Fascism in Germany Hitler and the Rise of Fascism in Germany
Duration: 00:51:40
Date: 9 Mar 2017
Workers’ control, democracy, and power Workers' control, democracy, and power
Duration: 00:57:00
Date: 2 Mar 2017
In Defence of the Russian Revolution - part two In Defence of the Russian Revolution - part two
Duration: 00:21:16
Date: 17 Feb 2017
In Defence of the Russian Revolution -  part one In Defence of the Russian Revolution - part one
Duration: 00:22:04
Date: 1 Feb 2017
Materialism and Dialectics in Ancient Greece Materialism and Dialectics in Ancient Greece
Duration: 00:48:58
Date: 27 Jan 2017
Imperialism in the 21st century Imperialism in the 21st century
Duration: 00:57:35
Date: 13 Dec 2016
Fascism: What it is and how to fight it Fascism: What it is and how to fight it
Duration: 00:36:44
Date: 12 Dec 2016
Dialectics, science, and nature Dialectics, science, and nature
Duration: 00:48:55
Date: 9 Dec 2016
Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution
Duration: 00:42:54
Date: 30 Nov 2016
Marxism, Imperialism, and War Marxism, Imperialism, and War
Duration: 00:50:16
Date: 25 Nov 2016
The Hungarian Revolution: 60 years on The Hungarian Revolution: 60 years on
Duration: 00:47:10
Date: 1 Nov 2016