In this article I do not wish to examine the differing Marxisms of the academy. Nor do I wish to examine the more activists movements such as Trotskyism, Situationism et al. What I will attempt to do is to show the necessity of drawing up a balance-sheet of historical communism; that is, Marxism as embodied in the mass communist movement.
Such an exercise is a politics of “dirty hands” with a vengeance. As a corrective to such a balance sheet, the fruits of capitalism in this century should be borne in mind: the horrors of “imperialism, two world wars and the more quotidian miseries it continues to visit upon us.
There is a received view that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the other states of the eastern bloc, Marxism died. On this reading, Marxism is seen as, at best, a nineteenth-century Utopian creed that was inevitably travestied by the realpolitik of the “Evil Empire”. Like all received views this is no innocent reflection of “the facts”: however, with China covering its shift to capitalism with the thinnest veneer of Marxist-Leninist terminology, and with Cuba a seeming stubborn anachronism, it would appear that free market liberalism has carried the day…and the epoch.
In short, it would seem that movements predicated on moving beyond capitalism have had any prospect for radical change foreclosed; socialists and communists of all stripes are condemned by capitalism triumphant. Is this the case? Certainly it would be too simplistic to see such a view as merely the reflect of free-market triumphalism. As ever, an historical perspective will help in assessing the state of Marxism now.
1917. It seemed as if Marx’s revolutionary script was proceeding as planned; after invasion and civil war the Bolsheviks appeared to be building a new civilisation in the land of feudal tzarism. Potentially, revolutionary upheavals in Europe up to 1923 gave hope of a true internationalisation of the Communist movement; as it was the failure of these uprising led to a period of consolidation of the mass communist parties. It is easy to forget that, even under the de facto control of the increasingly Stalinised Soviet Union the Communist movement still looked to many as the wave of the future. The great Crash and Depression led even conservative commentators to believe that capitalism was moribund; all that was needed was the final revolutionary push to send capitalism crashing.
Furthermore, the prestige that the Soviet Union and the Communist led Resistance movements gained in the defeat of Fascism, capital’s most virulent form, seemed set to give the European Communist parties a place in government. It was with the U.S. backed expulsion of the C.P.s from the French and Italian governments at the commencement of the Cold War that the familiar inter-superpower struggle commenced…to end with the fall of the Wall.
Only 1968 saw a brief revival of genuinely revolutionary hopes. The Paris student uprising led to a national general strike, the Czechoslovakian events led to a hope for reform of “barracks socialism”: world-wide contestation seems the order of the day.
In the West hopes were dashed by the resilience of capitalism, while in the East it was tanks that curtailed the brief efflorescence of hope. Only the Tet Offensive in ’68 succeeded, serving notice on the overt military imperialism of the United States in Vietnam.
The gains of anti-colonial struggles, which freed a third of the world, from foreign powers gave way to the more insidious forms of economic imperialism. Explicitly Marxist regimes were overthrown by destabilisation and “counter-insurgency” measures, or became embroiled in struggles with other putatively Marxist regimes as Vietnam did with China.
To be sure the early seventies saw a combative working class in the West (demonised in this country as the “Winter of Discontent”), but with the Reagan and Thatcher led assault of the New Right, the parties and unions that had contested the deprivations of the free-market suffered defeat after defeat.
All this returns us to our original question; has Marxism died? Some initial comments need to be made. It ill serves a putative science of society, which hopes not only to analyse but also to overthrow capitalism to balk at the real outcome of history. Unlike Christianity, for example, it cannot take an idealist position and contrast a “spirit” of its belies with the actually existing forms that doctrine has taken. The fact is that the only mass movement that looked able to effect any change was a Communist movement that, while operating on the name of Marxism, had largely failed to realise the emancipatory aims of Marx’s work. Even the Trotskyite movement, which has a long record of not only opposing Stalinism but also trying to understand it, has run aground on the reefs of history; it has failed to become a world-historical force.
All this may seem pretty damning, but it seems to me that the only way of comprehending this history is in terms of a minimally Marxist position; that is, a commitment to an historical and materialist rationality. The past, with all that has been done in Marxism’s name must be something which Marxists now take responsibility for, defending the memory of those that struggled in good faith, analysing the error (and terrors) of that heritage with a view to rebuilding an emancipatory movement. To that extent Marxism is utopian again; providing a critique of capitalism and all its works. For having dwelt on the closure of one phase of struggle it is well to remember the misery, deaths and environmental ravages that capitalism daily visits on the inhabitants of the planet. If Fukayama is right and free market liberalism is the terminus of history we are doomed to an eternal capitalist present, like Dante’s damned to the circles of hell. But, of course, change is our condition. The revolution must be reinvented.
Such a task will not be easy. It has no guarantee of success. It will not be the product of a purely academic reconstruction: it will have to be nourished in the concrete struggles of those who fight for freedom. What is plain is that there is no lack of grounds for struggle and that such situations continue today.
I was speaking recently to a woman from Mexico who was engaged in the battle of the workers and peasants against the misery and exploitation of their daily lives. She had worked with the Zapatistas and other groups and the language they speak is the language of Marxism. The concrete analysis of a concrete situation in terms of class and class struggle is essential to the achievement of their aims. It is not an “orthodox” Marxism, but drew on the many strands of the Marxist tradition, and beyond it. Here, as elsewhere, Marxism is still part of a living history.
A Marxism made open, flexible and innovative?
Fail again, fail better?