The Death of Marxism?

A Talk given to the Leicester Secular Society on 13th May, 2007
The major revolutionary doctrine of modern times was Marxism and only thirty years ago, in the mid nineteen seventies, it seemed to be in the ascendant in the world.  The Soviet Union and People’s China appeared to be undergoing socialist transformation and most anti-colonial movements drew their inspiration from Marxism.  Since the mid-nineteen sixties there had been a considerable revival of interest in Marxism in Western countries, especially among young people.  Now, thirty years later, with the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union and China, Marxism as a political ideology appears to be a spent force in many countries where only a few decades ago it motivated major political movements.  In large parts of the world where Marxism had a mass following it has been displaced by Islam, e.g. in Iraq.  The various strands of the New Left which appeared in Britain and other Western countries are fading away.  Most of the Trotskyist and Maoist political organizations which emerged during the late nineteen sixties no longer exist.  Marxism is seen by many young people of a radical inclination as outdated and irrelevant, something which has been tried and failed.  They are more likely to incline towards embracing anarchism.

In the Western capitalist countries Marxism as an active political movement, as opposed to a minor academic current, is rapidly diminishing despite the upsurge of anti-capitalist sentiments in recent years, especially since September 11th. 2001. So, is Marxism an outdated, irrelevant ideology in a state of terminal decline?  Or can it and should it undergo a revival?

 Was Socialism a Failure?

The dominant, widely accepted view of attempts in the twentieth century to bring about socialist transformation, principally in Russia and China, is that it was an unmitigated failure.  This perspective has been intensively and extensively promoted in the mass media, especially since the final collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It has come to be believed, as part of everyday common knowledge, that Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung were the greatest mass murderers in world history.  Socialism is seen as a closed chapter in human history.

In fact, even a fairly cursory examination of the socialist periods in the Soviet Union and People’s China shows the above negative perspective to be at variance with the historical evidence.  The experiences of these attempts at socialist transformation show that they were not complete failures in terms of bringing about real improvements in the lives of the great mass of people.  On the contrary there were very many positive achievements.  For the first time in human history, poor people (workers and peasants) decisively overthrew their masters and kept the hostile imperialist powers at bay, most notably in World War II when the Soviet Red Army played the major part in defeating the Nazi war machine. In the early twentieth century both Russia and China were economically backward, mainly rural, feudal societies where capitalism was only just beginning to appear.  Yet in the Soviet Union massive industrialization took only a few decades and in even less developed China the basis of modern industry was established within three decades of the revolutionary victory in 1949.  Although the workers and peasants made great sacrifices in transforming backward economies and beating off savage imperialist onslaughts, nonetheless they achieved great advances in their material and cultural standards of living.  For example, there were dramatic improvements in health and the creation of mass literacy.  In societies where women and minority nationalities were very oppressed and exploited the positions of both underwent positive changes. What is now usually forgotten is that the fear engendered in the Western ruling capitalist classes by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 led them to concede many of the popular demands for reforms in their societies which had been hitherto resisted.  A very long book could be written detailing the positive revolutionary accomplishments achieved during the socialist periods in Russia and China.  This should be done to set the record straight against the present tirade of denigration against the past achievements of socialism.

Nonetheless it has to be recognized that the revolutionary wave following the Great October Revolution of 1917 is now largely spent.  It is debatable whether there are any socialist countries left in the world today.  It has also to be accepted that the socialist systems in Russia and China were destroyed from within and not defeated from without by imperialist aggression.  Explaining the defeat of socialism and the restoration of capitalism in these countries is a central question for people who seek to move beyond capitalism to something better. This task requires much concrete investigation and analysis.  Even so, it can be seen now that the main factor was the failure to carry forward revolutionary transformation beyond a certain point, especially to bring about the development of mass proletarian democracy where the people really do exercise power instead of a revolutionary party doing it on their behalf.  If in Russia and China the great mass of people really had come to actually exercise a significant degree of societal power it would not have been so easy for new, emergent state bourgeoisies to set about restoring capitalism without any effective mass opposition.

Is Capitalism a Success?

Of course, many critics of the socialist project have always claimed that a society of real mass democracy, one where the people as a whole exercise power instead of a small elite, is an unrealizable utopian fantasy.  So is capitalism triumphant, the only possible world system for the foreseeable future as predicted in the early nineteen nineties by Francis Fukuyama in his book The End of History and the Last Man?

At present there is rampant capitalist economic development in China where growth is occurring at rates previously unprecedented in the world.  In Russia, after the economic collapse brought about by the introduction of instant capitalism under Boris Yeltsin there is considerable recovery.  In India, whose economic growth had struggled to keep up with its population increase, there is runaway development of economic activities based on advanced technologies such as computing.  Despite the major worldwide economic slump in the nineteen eighties, capitalism has recovered and is vigorously growing in many parts of both the developed and developing regions of the world.

But it still produces and reproduces the oppression, exploitation and inequality which it has since its emergence several hundred years ago.  In China new, affluent business and professional classes are emerging in the monstrously growing cities while the housing and working conditions of workers deteriorate and the peasants in the countryside are left behind, having lost many of the social benefits such as education and health services that they gained during the socialist period.  A couple of years ago the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences – an official state body – produced a report boasting that while thirty years ago China was probably the country in the world where inequalities of income were the least that now they are the greatest.  In Russia there is a similar picture with massive state assets having been stolen by instant billionaires such as Ramon Abramovich who are now locked in battle for capitalist possession with the new state bourgeoisie led by Vladimir Putin.  At the same time many workers and peasants have lost most of their social benefits and are struggling against impoverishment.  In India while graduates work in IT firms meeting the requirements of Western capitalism, millions of peasant farmers are facing destitution and resorting to desperate remedies such as suicide.

Also imperialism is still generating murderous wars in many parts of the world. Currently the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq are the most obvious examples of societal disruption brought about by imperialist intervention but social instability and conflict are being generated in many other parts of the world by the pursuit of capitalist economic interests, e.g. the Horn of Africa.  Even within the imperialist powers’ homelands, such as Britain, material inequalities are as great or greater than ever and fundamental problems are still unsolved, e.g. housing.  Capitalism takes its toll on the human psyche as is apparent with social problems such as drug addiction and mental distress.  The fundamental, underlying dynamic of capitalism has not altered since it was analysed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels a century and a half ago.  It remorselessly reproduces extreme inequalities of wealth and poverty and all the accompanying social ills.

Can Capitalism Go Green? 

Now there is an even bigger problem: global warming and environmental degradation.  In the last few years even the heads of imperialist governments such as George Bush and Tony Blair have come to recognize that there are growing environmental problems which present a major threat to human life on Earth. So can capitalism go green, can the capitalist system both spontaneously and through interstate action deal with these daunting problems?  It would be dogmatic to definitively state that it is impossible for capitalism to rise to the challenge.  But even if it does manage to curtail planetary warming and resource depletion it would be likely to do so in ways to the benefit of a privileged few and the disadvantage of the great majority of humankind. From its beginnings several hundred years ago, modern capitalism has contained an inbuilt dynamic of aggressive expansion.  As Marx and Engels pointed out, it knows no Chinese walls and remorselessly consumes vast amounts of natural resources in its endless quest for new sources of profitability.   It is unlikely that capitalism will be able to deal with the environmental problems in ways that benefit humanity as a whole.  Unless decisively challenged it will persist and devastate the human species and our natural environment.  The complete extermination of the human species is unlikely but it is quite possible that those surviving would do so in reversions to earlier types of society, e.g. feudalism.  As Marx said, “It will be socialism or barbarism.”  Thus it is more than ever necessary to struggle for the overthrow of capitalism and the construction of a worldwide society where the relationship between the human species and its habitat ceases to be primarily antagonistic; a communist society

Alternatives to Socialism?

During the last thirty years, especially in the advanced capitalist countries, the Green Movement has arisen and it has been very successful in placing environmental issues on the public agenda.  Many, perhaps most, people in the world now have an awareness of these issues.  Bourgeois politicians have had to respond and increasingly are anxious to present themselves as “environmentally friendly”.  Witness the adoption of a green tree as its logo by the British Tory Party!   However the politics of the Green Movement – a loose linkage of many different groups – are quite inadequate to deal with their concerns.  Either their politics are liberal and consist of attempts to peacefully pressurize governments and international bodies such as the United Nations to adopt green policies or they are downright reactionary, calling for a reversion by the world population to some sort of primitive, agriculturalist existence.

Considerably overlapping with the Green Movement is contemporary anarchism.  Given the well-known deficiencies of anarchist political theory, on past historical experience anarchism not likely to prevail against capitalism. Contemporary anarchism is what the American anarchist Murray Bucktin has called ‘life-style anarchism’. While its adherents are genuinely disaffected with life under capitalism their political activities are no serious threat to the system.  In reality they constitute more of an attempt to withdraw from life in capitalist society, to create an alternative milieu within it without actually destroying it.

The Renewal of Socialism? 

So what else is there?   The historical fact of the matter is that the only political movement that has ever had any serious success against capitalism is Marxist socialism, especially in Russia and China. That these societies and others have reverted to capitalism is not surprising.  In Europe in its early days capitalism had many setbacks, e.g. the overthrow of bourgeois city states in Northern Italy and the collapse of the Commonwealth regime in Britain.  The socialist transition to communism is likely to be as erratic and messy as was the triumph of capitalism over feudalism, a process still underway in the world today.

Historically it was the Bolsheviks in Russia and the communist parties in the Third, Communist International flowing from the October Revolution of 1917 and then Maoism that have made great revolutionary breakthroughs.  Other oppositional variants of Marxism, particularly Trotskyism and revisionism (e.g. Eurocommunism), practice social democratic politics and have been complete failures.  They are historical dead ends.  These oppositional “Marxists” never tire of denouncing the “crimes” of Stalin and Mao and in so doing help to discredit socialism.  Well, the truth of the matter is that some terrible things happened in the Soviet Union and People’s China but it is also true, as already pointed out, that some very wonderful advances were achieved by the working people in these societies.  The point is, which is more important?  The successes of socialist construction or the failures?  If  we consider that the balance sheet is negative then we might as well consign Marxism to the dustbin of history.  After all, the Russian and Chinese revolutions were large- scale attempts at social transformation involving hundreds of millions of people.  We cannot wipe the slate clean and start again.  Serious revolutionaries must build on what has been achieved so far, by further developing the positive aspects of the revolutionary experience and discarding the negative aspects.  The vitality of the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist revolutionary tradition is demonstrated in Nepal and India today where mass revolutionary movements are making serious challenges to reactionary regimes.

Following the success of the October Revolution in Russia the centre of revolutionary struggle shifted to the less developed, imperialistically dominated countries where revolutionary theory and practice did develop, especially in China.  In the advanced, capitalist imperialist countries, such as Britain, Marxism has not developed.  In Britain the Marxist movement always was weak with strong reformist tendencies and has become even more so.  In the last twenty years we have seen the break-up of the Communist Party of Great Britain and the disappearance of most of the Trotskyite organizations which emerged in the sixties and seventies.  Marxism of any sort in Britain is heading towards extinction.

So, as Comrade Lenin would have said, what is to be done?  We need to urgently develop Marxist revolutionary theory and practice because both have not developed in response to contemporary material conditions.  Many of the ideas and actions of existing “Marxist” organizations in the Western imperialist countries are outdated and reactionary.  Even most of those who stand in the revolutionary tradition stemming from the Third International have only reiterated the political positions of half a century ago.  There are a number of key issues to be addressed by communists if the revolutionary movement is to be renewed and go forward.

Key Issues for Marxists 

The nature of socialism and communism  There have been two major attempts at socialist transformation, i.e. Russia and China.  We need to sum up the positive and negative aspects of these experiences in order to develop a more detailed and attractive picture of a future, alternative society.  There is more than enough information available to carry out this task and it should be carried out with expedition.  It will not do to say, as in the early days after the October Revolution, that we “can’t draw up blueprints for utopia”.  On the basis of these large-scale attempts at socialist transformation it should be possible to develop a much more concrete and detailed picture of a future society.  This is necessary in order to convince people that socialist transformation is possible and to inspire them to struggle for revolutionary change.

Analyse the impact of new forces of production  Marxists claim that it is these that are the main factors that bring about changes in human societies.  The principal new ones are quantum physics, information technology and molecular biology.  Very often leftists only see the threatening, negative side of these sciences and technologies e.g irrational fears about genetically modified crops and nanotechnology.  They are usually viewed only as new tools for capitalist oppression and exploitation.  This is most undialectical and we should explore the positive, potentially liberating aspects of the new productive forces.  After all, Marxist theory claims that it is within capitalist society itself that productive forces develop which bring about its demise.  Quantum physics is being applied to finding new sources of energy as in the case of nuclear fusion. The new information technology could be the means for facilitating efficient central economic planning and real, mass democracy in a socialist society.  Also IT may be a force of production that capitalism is unable to contain and which will undermine it, e.g. erosion of intellectual property rights. The advent of genetic engineering means that the end of the human species is in view but what we will become is an issue to be resolved by political means.  Marx said that the advent of communism will be the end of human prehistory and the beginning of real human history.  This could be so in a much more profound sense than he realized as we transform ourselves into a new specie or species.  We need to understand both how we can take advantage of new productive forces to undermine capitalism and to construct socialism.

The starting point in renewing the socialist project is a critical assessment of the Marxist revolutionary movement up to now and the further development of its revolutionary theory and practice.

Changes in class structure  The proportion of the population in the advanced capitalist countries who are industrial proletarians has greatly diminished in last fifty years.  Most leftists try to dogmatically ignore this change by redefining middle strata groups as working class e.g. teachers.  The fact of the matter is that there has been a great increase in the size of middle strata groups – managers, administrators, professionals, technicians, etc. –  and their objective class position is qualitatively different from that of the classical proletariat.  This has significant consequences for revolutionary strategy and tactics.  In any conceivable revolutionary situation large sections of the middle strata would have to be won over to the revolutionary cause for victory to be achieved.  Also with an increasingly globalised economy we need to look at class structure on an international scale instead of on a narrow national basis. In the world as a whole the industrial proletariat are a growing proportion of the population while the peasantry are a diminishing proportion.  Mass migration on an unprecedented scale means that the proletariat is in reality becoming an international class in its composition.  While the various bourgeoisies still tend to have definite national bases they are also increasing becoming internationalized in the scope of their operations and social composition.  Class polarization as predicted by Marx may well be happening at an international rather than national level. This aspect of globalization is one factor creating the material basis permitting revolutionary developments on a transnational scale instead of them being confined within particular territorial states.  We need a global class analysis.

Political and ideological control  The character of capitalist states has changed a great deal in recent decades. There has been the decline of the ‘public sector’ with increasing ‘privatisation’. Many leftists see this as a retreat from socialism but it is nothing of the kind.  It is simply another way of maintaining the position and power of the bourgeoisie.  Another development is growing surveillance by the state through the use of IT, identity cards, etc..  Also there are the emergence of continental superstates such as the European Union.  Yet most leftists in Britain have a “Little Englander” mentality and tend to oppose the EU on chauvinist grounds. The emerging new, European state is firmly established and just like the bourgeoisie revolutionaries need to properly organize on an international scale rather than a narrow national one. We should be striving to create a Communist Party of Europe.  Culture industries (media & leisure) are now an important part of capitalism both for profits and social control.  Yet, together with education, they have made people better informed and more questioning about the societies and world in which we live.  There are contradictory forces at work here both upholding and undermining bourgeois hegemony and we should analyse them and take advantage of these developments to help generate revolutionary consciousness.  We need to develop a thorough, revolutionary critique of education demanding not more of the same, as do most leftists, but something qualitatively different.  It order to destroy capitalism it is its state apparatus that has to be overthrown and this necessitates a thorough understanding of it.

The quality of life  In the world today there are vast numbers of absolutely poor people who lack the basic material means of living healthy lives.  In some countries, e.g. Nepal and India, the impoverished masses are rising in revolutionary revolt under communist leadership.  In the developed capitalist countries this sort of absolute material deprivation no longer exists although there are vast inequalities of income and wealth and these have been widening in countries such as America and Britain.  It is the quality of material life, rather than its quantity, which is a growing problem.  In recent decades working hours have tended to increase and the number of hours of paid work per household have greatly increased with most of its members, young and old, engaged in paid labour.  Upon closer inspection the resultant nominal rise in living standards is of questionable value in actually enhancing people’s sense of wellbeing.  A great deal of income is consumed in enabling most members of a household to engage in paid work, e.g. cars to get to workplaces, buying pre-prepared food and eating out, paying other people to carry out domestic tasks.  Also we are encouraged by capitalist enterprises to believe that we can gain happiness by ever greater consumption of commodities that are not able to bring this about.  This leads to growing indebtedness which both demoralizes people while at the same time locking them more tightly into the system.  There is growing evidence that work under contemporary capitalism generates high levels of occupational stress.  It is not just the economic aspects of life under capitalism that are generating distress and discontent. The breakdown of personal relationships and widespread crime are part of a wider malaise.  Some of the early Marxists such as William Morris were very much concerned with these matters but the Marxist critique of capitalism has become largely economist.  These are matters that concern people and Marxists should develop analyses of them.  We need to explain that socialism is not just about having more but about creating something different, an all round better way of life.

Globalisation  Capitalism, as pointed out by Marx and Engels, has had a tendency to spread throughout the world from its beginnings at the end of the Middle Ages.  There is nothing new about globalization.  By economically linking up people throughout world – the process of socialization of the means of production – it lays down an important material basis for a world, communist society.  Instead of the world consisting of separate societies only loosely linked together, the whole of humanity is being drawn into one economic and social nexus.  It is pointless to be against it as is the so-called “anti-capitalist movement”.  The inexorable, underlying logic of capitalism determines that globalization will continue.  In fact, trying to reverse globalization leads to narrow nationalism, to finding some virtue in capitalist national states.  Imperialism is part of this process and we need to deepen our analysis of its contemporary manifestations.  One important question is to what extent, if at all, do people in imperialist countries live at the expense of those in dominated countries?  Marxists need to identify the aspects of globalization that are positive from the point of view of oppressed people and not just focus on its negative aspects.

The environment   The contradiction between human societies and our natural environment is becoming anatagonistic.  If present ecological trends continue then the action of human beings on the planet is likely to bring about the extinction of a great part of humankind. This would constitute the most profound type of alienation.  As already mentioned, environmental devastation is brought about by the dynamics of the capitalist economy which needs to continually expand and in doing so exhausts natural resources and degrades the environment in general.  Trying to pressurise capitalist states to make changes in their policies and individuals to change their behaviour, as do the Green Movement, is not likely to work sufficiently. What we need is an economic system aimed not at maximizing profits but at meeting real human needs, the most central of which is a non-antagonistic relationship with the natural environment, with our inorganic body, as Marx called it.  Karl Marx himself was concerned about the environmental degradation brought about by capitalism and for some other early Marxists such as William Morris it was a major concern.  After the Russian Revolution this concern dropped out of the picture as it became urgently necessary to embark on a crash industrialization programme in the Soviet Union.   The renewal of the Marxist analysis of the environment, which already has begun, is in urgent need of development.  Unless we develop a distinct perspective on this critical issue we will not succeed in engaging with the great mass of progressively-minded people in the imperialist countries

Revolutionary organization and practice  At present in Britain and other imperialist countries Marxist political activities largely consist of ineffective, dead rituals.  For example, selling papers no one wants to read, holding public meetings which the public decline to attend, holding national demonstrations in London that have no national impact, etc..  The effective function of a lot of these activities is not to actually affect and politically mobilize masses of people but to make those carrying them out believe that they are doing something politically effective.  What is more, many of these activities are  centred on the middle strata (e.g. solidarity campaigns with struggles in distant places) rather than mainly focused on the working class in one’s own society.    In so far as leftist organizations pay any attention to the working class it is economic struggle in workplaces which claims their attention.  They fall into the error of what Lenin called “economism” i.e. seeing trade unions as potentially revolutionary organizations and the main instrument of revolution as being a general strike.  Over a century ago Lenin pointed out the fallacy of confusing trade union consciousness with revolutionary class consciousness.  Yet organizations such as the Socialist Party call for the formation of “a workers’ party based on the trade unions” oblivious of the fact that this is precisely what the Labour Party was.

The struggle against capitalism needs to be directed against all aspects of capitalist society and in particular the capitalist state.  The main target to be undermined and destroyed is the capitalist state in its various aspects.  Sooner or later, this would mean confronting the police and armed forces but most leftists in Britain delude themselves that this can be avoided.  Any revolutionary organization worthy of the name would from its inception begin to make preparations for such a revolutionary situation.  In general we need to develop new methods of political work making full use of new technologies.  We need to actively combat the power of the mass media by using technical and other means to subvert it.  Contemporary capitalism is highly dependent on information technology and this makes it highly vulnerable to disruption of such systems.  In the early twenty-first century we are still using the methods of political work developed by Marxists in the early twentieth century.  This must change.

Towards a Renewal of Revolutionary Theory and Practice

Marxist theory and practice can be renewed and developed as has been happening in Nepal under the leadership of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist).  If fifteen years ago anyone had predicted that now the most advanced revolutionary struggle in the world would be in Nepal he would have been dismissed as a fantasist. Yet this has been brought about by the conscious action of Nepalese communists. If it can be done there then it can be done in the imperialist countries.  It is true that the objective material conditions are very different in countries such as Britain compared with less developed, imperialistically dominated countries.  Even so we should not forget that before 1917 Marxists thought that revolutionary breakthroughs would come first in the developed capitalist countries.  In fact it was in some of the least economically developed regions of the world where great upheavals occurred but this was only possible because of the development of Marxist theory and practice by the communist parties led by Lenin and Mao.  In favourable conditions there could be revolutionary upsurges in countries such as Britain but this would only happen if revolutionaries have consciously and qualitatively transformed our theory and practice.  It’s up to us.

 Workers and oppressed people of all countries, unite! 

 You have nothing to lose except your illusions. 

 You have a world to save.