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9 June 2018

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By Wole Engels

Recently, some articles were published in the Nigerian media to 'commemorate' the 200th year since the death of Karl Marx. But rather than soberly reflect on the continued validity of Marx's ideas of scientific socialism, the articles carried from subtle to bold attempts – including those authored by some who 'sympathise' with Marxism – to disparage his revolutionary thoughts as sterile diagnosis while consequently portraying him as a fanciful dreamer. Sam Omatseye, chairman of the editorial board of the Nation newspaper, in his own appraisal of Marx captioned "Lazarus and the Rich Man", wrote: "But what was Marx's virtue? He was a great diagnostician. He knows what was wrong." However the eminent journalist in subsequent lines of his piece got the ideas of Marx wrong and stripped it of its essence.

We could not know Marx better than his comrade, co-thinker and co-author of some of his most reputable works, Friedrich Engels, whose brief appraisal of Marx – contained in Engels' speech at the grave of the thinker of the millennium at Highgate Cemetery, London, on March 17, 1883 – shall further illuminate some of the misconceptions recently penned down about Karl Marx. Highlighting the essence of Marx, Engels noted "Marx was before all else a revolutionist. His real mission in life was to contribute, in one way or another, to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the institutions which it had brought into being, to contribute to the liberation of the modern proletariat, which he was the first to make conscious of its own position and its needs, conscious of the conditions of its emancipation. Fighting was his element. And he fought with a passion, a tenacity and a success such as few could rival."


Right before Engels identified the revolutionary and fighting essence of Karl Marx, he attributed to him two fundamental discoveries – that "just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact that mankind must eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc..." On the second discovery credited to Karl Marx, Engels further noted "Marx also discovered the special law of motion governing the present-day capitalist mode of production, and the bourgeois (capitalist) society that this mode of production has created. The discovery of surplus value (also known as "profit") suddenly threw light on the problem, in trying to solve which all previous investigations, of both bourgeois economists and socialist critics, had been groping in the dark."

In Sam's piece, he compared Marx with Jesus who he claimed "saw before Marx that humans would gloat over other beings when those who lack would chafe over the few who have." This assertion flows from his premise that Marx was no more than a diagnostician, and discovered nothing that has not been hitherto unknown. By employing the term "diagnosis", Sam was of the opinion that Marx's greatest contribution to history was the analysis of the suffering of the masses under capitalism.

It is true that Marx carried out a detailed analysis of capitalism and its operations, but Marx went beyond this to show that capitalism constitutes a mortal threat to the workers who literally produce its wealth and influence. In the pages of Capital, which the thinker diligently wrote for a period spanning over thirty years, Marx observed that the vital element needed for the transformation of commodity from its raw material form is human labour power. In the 21st century, we are witnesses to how human labour – both physical and mental exertion – has shaped technology. It is easier on the basis of the proliferation of machines (and technology) to underestimate the value-creating nature of human labour power, but even technology in its most recent form depends on the creativity of human mental exertion and fleshed up with steel or other raw material by man's physical exertion. Even today, Marx's position that labour alone gives a new, transformative value to raw material continues to hold as a correct classical economic perspective, despite being initially unappreciated and unnoticed by the vast majority of mankind. The crude oil under the earth and shore of the Niger-Delta requires drilling technology created by human labour and operated by human beings to be lifted. It requires human mental and physical energy to produce both hardware and software that make up a computer. There is no area of production today that does not prove the correctness in this assertion of Marx.


The meticulous attention Marx paid to the details of the operations of capitalist society remains unrivalled. But while Marx's diagnosis of capitalism at its most nascent stages was a remarkable work of a genius, he was more interested in changing society for the benefit of mankind. The last thesis of Marx's "Eleven Thesis on Feuerbach" reads: "Philosophers have interpreted the world, the point, however, is to change it." Remarkably, Marxist political economy and Marx's analysis of capitalist mode of production were premises for the essential conclusion of scientific socialism. Having recognised the social and transformative character of labour, Marx concluded that the next progressive stage of human and society's history is such that entails the appropriation of society's wealth by the producers (workers) for the sake of advancing humanity.

The scientific socialism of Karl Marx has been a subject of conscious adulteration and obscuration as part of a strategy to avoid or thwart challenges to the capitalist system. Marx was not prophesying when he suggested that the next superior mode of production that would replace capitalism would be scientific socialism. While analysing the nature of profit (surplus value), Marx found in it the basis for the periodic crisis of capitalism. Contrary to the opinion expressed by Sam that capitalists have outsmarted Marx by employing his ideas to circumvent the periodic crises of capitalism, the world economic situation in the 10 years since the current economic crisis first developed shows the inability of capitalist governments to deal with the fundamentals of the crisis.

Sam's opinion was superficial at best, because it took for granted the fact that those measures (ranging from 'Protectionism' to 'Keynesianism') could give momentary respites for the world/local economy, but with the same crises re-emerging sometimes in more aggravated forms, something which many capitalist institutions fear right now. And these periodic crises, characterised by unemployment, inflation, overproduction etc., are still today traceable to the motive of profitability, which overrides any other humanistic consideration as far as the capitalist consortiums and multinationals are concerned. The Ebola outbreak in Africa in 2014 was an underreported scandal for big pharmaceutical interests, which could not find research on, and production of, anti-Ebola vaccines profitable in the wretched African communities of Liberia and therefore contributed in no small way to the loss of human lives to this deadly disease. Profitability, rather than humanistic considerations, is responsible for the pollution of the Niger-Delta, where multinationals scoop oil without regard to the environmental damages they cause with their "liberal" approach to the oil business.


Karl Marx was arguably the first thinker to anticipate not only globalisation, but also its drastic effects on the advancement of human beings. In the "Manifesto of the Communist Party" (1848), co-authored by both Marx and Engels, they observed that "the bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. ... it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood." They continued, "all old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe." The role of Nigeria in the global capitalist market as producer of raw material (crude oil) and importer of processed commodities (including tooth picks) gives credence to Marx and Engels' revelation concerning the global character of the capitalist market.

Genuine Marxists would not be surprised that the Nigeria's government continues to spend millions of dollars to import petroleum products, despite the availability of crude oil in the country. The division of labour under the global capitalist framework as Marx and Engels noted in the "Manifesto of the Communist Party" "has subjected the country to the rule of the towns." Decades after the left scholar, Walter Rodney published his landmark book "How Europe Underdeveloped Africa", the symbolic independence of Africa states in mid-twentieth century has not ended the economic colonialism going on with multinational domination of Africa's economy, and the insulting role of supplier of raw materials and grand consumer that Africa plays in the division of labour of modern capitalism.

However, Marx did not simply lament the injustice and absurdity of capitalist political economy. He argued for a genuine, scientific change to the capitalist system, and worked towards such end with his immense role in the building of the International Workingmen Association, which is also known as the First International, a body that brought together workers' organisations in many countries. Marx understood that it would require socialist policies, plus international organisation and solidarity of working people, to defeat capitalism which is a global phenomenon. "Workers of the world unite!" he bellowed. Marx saw in the working class not only the production of profit for the capitalist bosses, but the seed of a new politico-economic history. He noted in the 'Civil War in France' how in the Paris Commune of 1871 the "proletariat for the first time hold political power … to work out the economical emancipation of labour."

Although Marx showed that the only additional value given to raw materials is created by human labour, but he did not suggest that the labourer would be done justice if he merely pockets the difference between the cost of production and selling price of commodity. This would contradict everything Marx stood for. He correctly saw the social character of production, where different human beings contribute their various forms of specialised labour to produce even the simplest of commodities – for example, a chair has the labour of the hewer of wood, the carpenter, including the transporter. Marx saw absolute power, comparable in essence to the absolutism of feudalist monarchs, in the capacity of the capitalist to claim ownership of the products of social labour. Instead Marx proposes a new social system that involves the association of the producers, who shall democratically plan production and appropriation of the proceeds of labour for the benefit of mankind rather than some few powerful billionaires.

As long as capitalism exists, organisations like Oxfam, which exist to give the iniquitous system a humane face, would continue to lament the absurdity of how the wealth of the five richest Nigerians could resolve the crisis of poverty in the country. Education, health and other social sectors that directly benefit the masses would continue to lag behind under capitalism as long as they are not profitable to the capitalist investors like oil and gas. In Nigeria, a complete break with global capitalism, with the enthronement of a scientific socialist system that entails the direct control of economic production and its ownership by the people – i.e., nationalisation of the mainstream of the economy, banks and financial house, and putting them under direct democratic control of the workers and the people – remains the way forward out of the conundrum created for us by global capitalism.


Like most critics of Marx's scientific socialism, who only rehash the textbook-arguments of bourgeois economists, Sam equally suggested in his piece that the fall of "socialism" in Russia and the idiosyncrasies of some countries who claim to be practicing socialism mean that "Marx is a King without a kingdom." This position adulterates Marxism, and borders on a one-sided analysis of the causes of the fall of "socialism" in the USSR, including a misunderstanding of the ideas of Marx. In his days, Marx carried out a spirited attack on those like Proudhon, who tried giving socialism an unscientific basis in "cooperative societies" or other unrealistic approach to changing society for the benefit of the vast majority – the last chapter of the Communist Manifesto was also aimed at exposing the unscientific nature of the various trends of socialism that preceded Marx. Marx before he died was therefore aware that his ideas could be distorted in practice, and would have carried out a frenetic attack on the Stalinist regimes that betrayed the Russian revolution of 1917 just as Leon Trotsky did later.

One hundred years ago, the masses of feudalist Russia went ahead to dethrone the Tsar (monarch of Russia), and put to test the scientific socialism of Marx. But rather than ridicule the validity of Marx's politico-economic perspectives, the events after the Russian revolution of 1917 vindicated Marx. Marx had noted long before the Russian revolution that socialism in essence means a more advanced and superior mode of production than capitalism; which means society would be able to deploy its labour force and resources for the purposes of advancing mankind, i.e. revolutionizing agriculture, providing housing, modern health care etc. to remove scarcity and shortages, one of the key bases to all class divided societies. But the revolution in Russia occurred in a country with a backward agrarian economy, comparable to the present-day Nigeria.

This however does not mean that a backward country cannot go ahead to begin the implementation of socialism. Leon Trotsky, one of the leaders of the Russian 1917 revolution, noted in his "Theory of Permanent Revolution" that revolution in a backward economy, as witnessed in Russia, entails that a workers' state strives towards socialism by aggressively developing the mode of production beyond the best standards obtainable under capitalism, while putting management of local and national economy under the direct control of the people. But for this to succeed the revolution must spread to other countries. Before the Stalin-led grouping came to power, the Bolsheviks saw the Russian revolution as the beginning of the world wide socialist revolution which would see workers coming to power in the more advanced capitalist countries. Lenin described the successful 1917 revolution in Russia as "capitalism breaking at its weakest link". Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks hoped that this would open up an epoch of world revolution the success of which is the only guarantee for the sustenance of proletarian power in Russia for any length of time.

Unfortunately, this was not the case. Although there were many revolutions in Europe, and China, in the years after 1918 a combination of pro-capitalist workers leaders', mistakes and later the role of the Communist International led to failure of revolutions in Germany, Hungary, Italy and other countries. Capitalism's survival, the subsequent international isolation of Russian revolution and the exhaustion of Russia's small working class after years of war and deprivation allowed a clique, headed by Josef Stalin, to exploit their positions in the state machine to give themselves privileges. Steadily this grouping increasingly sought to defend their elite position with policies which were a serious threat to the survival of the non-capitalist economy in Russia. Although it took decades, it was these policies which undermined the gains which were initially made after 1917 and prepared the way for the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991.


Today, capitalism relies on the global integration of the world to boost the profits of the multi-national bosses; but scientific socialism would employ this integration to boost the advancement of mankind and the production of the means of human survival. Marx understood this, and called for an international solidarity of the oppressed to defeat capitalism. But after the death of Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the 1917 Russian revolution, the Josef Stalin led clique increasingly tightened its grip and a principle that was entirely at odd with the internationalist essence of Marx's scientific socialism. A workers' state would have to consciously support intervene in the struggles of the masses of other nations in order to help break its isolation and ensure its survival through the enthronement of socialism on the planet – but Stalin objected as his clique increasingly feared that revolutions in other countries could inspire the Russian workers to challenge the elite which had developed there from the 1920s onwards.

Josef Stalin's departure from scientific socialism was accentuated by the undemocratic character of his regime. Leon Trotsky in one of his writings during the period of degeneration of the revolution under Stalin noted that just as oxygen is important to the human brain, democracy is the oxygen of socialism. Marx equally devoted a number of his writings like the Gotha Programme to accentuate the importance of democratic, direct control of the state apparatus by the people in a workers' state, the form of state needed during the building of socialism. Marxists betray no illusion in individual human moral qualities; but through democratic control and participation of everyone in the affairs of the state, it is possible to prevent the dark, corrupt side of human beings from taking precedence over the common good. Russia after Stalin witnessed the enrichment of a bureaucratic elite that held the people down to assure their privileges and parts of which, in the 1980s and 1990s, began to model themselves on the bourgeois ruling class in other countries.

Those who are quick to point at the collapse of "socialism" in Russia always fail to acknowledge that Stalin's murder squad executed nearly all the leaders of the 1917 Russian revolution, including Leon Trotsky. Ultimately, what failed in the defunct Soviet Union was not scientific socialism as envisioned by Marx but a deformed workers state, a state with a nationalized economy but ruled by the dictatorship of a privileged elite. However, Russia after 1917 was not the total failure that bourgeois commentators want us to believe; based on the planned economy, at some point the economic growth in Russia superseded that of the US and Britain by over 100%. The advancement in the technology of Russia, considering that it grew within few years from an agrarian settlement to becoming the first nation that put human being in space, was a remarkable feat, yet often overlooked maliciously. Through the state ownership of the means of production, Russia was able to progress rapidly than anyone could have imagined before the 1917 revolution – it became a world power not on the basis of capitalism, but a corrupted state form that was a caricature of Marx's idea. While bureaucratic rule eventually undermined the old USSR, we could start to imagine what a complete, democratic socialist planning would mean for mankind on the basis of the feats attained under a burlesque caricature of socialism.

However, in China, the ruling elite, fearful of a fate similar to that of the old USSR elite, have taken increasingly conscious steps towards what is now a 'special form of state capitalism'. They may be able to survive for some time, but they have created the world's biggest working class and the elite are fearful of it, hence the recent centralization of power around President Xi Jinping.


Sam's misconception about socialism is not accidental. The West after the 1990s conducted a frenetic propaganda campaign to diminish the essence of Marx's thoughts. It is therefore the responsibility of genuine Marxists to correct some quite wrong impressions that have arisen as a result of this conscious distortion of a revolutionary idea. Marx during his time conducted one of the most ferocious campaigns, not only against capitalists, but against attempts by some of his collaborators to distort his ideas. Sam Omatseye noted that his piece was inspired by the commemorative writings of Kayode Komolafe and Issa Aremu on the 200th year anniversary of Marx's birth, who sometimes publicly showcase some sympathy for Marxist ideas. Going through their essays, the source of the misconceptions in Sam's pieces could be easily sighted.

Kayode Komolafe on his part reduced the essence of Marx to the identification of social inequality, while he used a significant portion of his essay to lament the inability of the Nigerian ruling class to implement Chapter Two of the nation's 1999 constitution. But rather than celebrate Marx, his piece deprived it of its essence – which is the displacement of capitalism as a politico-economic system by scientific socialism. It would be obvious to genuine Marxists that logic of capitalism where everything is first of all a commodity and the economic interest of the Nigeria ruling class prevent it from providing free, quality education as innocuously conceded by Chapter Two of the constitution. It is only struggles or fear of losing their hold of power that can force bourgeoisie to grant a degree of concessions as it happened in post-war Western Europe. Laws are merely letters that hide the naked class/economic interests of the ruling class. To fund education to the point where it will be free and quality would require adequate funding and democratic management of the sector. It is therefore only a complete break with capitalism that can see society being developed for the masses, rather than being ravaged as it is currently for the profit motive of the few.

Issa Aremu noted quite correctly that the revolutions that keep haunting the world show the relevance of Marx's ideas. However, he equally denied Marx the essence of his thoughts, of the enthronement of a state controlled by the producing class over capitalism. Ironically the social tensions and revolts recorded in the world recently showed why precision is required in the understanding and application of Marxism to social crisis. Marx and Engels, including Lenin and Trotsky, have noted the vital leadership role the modern working class must play to change society on the basis of socialist programmes. The secret of commodity production is hidden in the brains and muscles of the unappreciated workers working in the factories and industries of our time. To build a society where production is diverted towards building human lives rather than profits requires the leadership of the working class, together with the peasants of the countryside. Genuine Marxists do not sermonise politicians operating under this bourgeois political framework to be of "good behavior", they instead advance the cause of the working class and the masses, and patiently explain the need for them to take political power. Issa Aremu is a prominent labour leader, and his love for Marx could have been better reflected in unflinchingly working for the emancipation of the working class and masses, as Marx put it, "by working classes themselves".

There are genuine Marxists in Nigeria, and it is wrong the assertion of Sam that "we have tribes of socialist who still diagnose our country but cannot go further." Recently, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) for the first time in the political history of Nigeria was forced by political and legal struggles to register an open socialist party. This is a party that aims to play against the tide of elitist politics, and being built and funded by the masses, and on a socialist programme of free education, free health care, nationalisation of the mainstream of the economy. Marxists are not sterile theoreticians, which is why the foremost Marxist-Trotskyist organisation in Nigeria, the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM), took the initiative to register a socialist party in the absence of a mass working people party that the estranged masses of this country can identify with as well as against the background of the bastardisation and infestation of the Labour Party founded by NLC. There is no daydreaming on the point that the party has a lot of work before it, considering the hitherto unchallenged ideas of privatisation, "government has no business with business" among others which have distorted the consciousness of the average person. And when SPN joins the fray, for the first time in electoral history of Nigeria, there is going to be a serious ideological debate, not over ethnicity or zoning arrangement, but over complete democracy and the ills of lack of democracy such as corruption. It is in the correctness of Marx's perspectives that men and women building the first Socialist Party in the history of Nigeria draw their inspiration from; such perspective that the people have to save this country from the greed and excessive accumulation of its elites.

Surely Marx remains influential, and a better society is possible if fundamental economic principles change! Indeed, the experiences of working people with events and struggles including the current crisis of global capitalism that has lasted over 10 years, have spurred many to begin to find out about socialism in a search for a better alternative to capitalism which has proved to be, as Lenin put it, a horror without end. The impact of socialist ideas can prepare the way to building a movement to change society.