1990s >> 1994 >> no-1075-march-1994

The Death of Marxism?

Has the funeral of Marxism taken place? Is there nothing left but to remainder the once-popular volumes of Marxology and totter off to the wine bar for a spot of “deconstruction” the latest buzz-word in the Halls of Pseudo-Academe? Steve Coleman investigates

If you are a journalist, a politician, a publisher or an academic onlooker you will be well aware that “Marxism is Dead”. The funeral has taken place and there is nothing left but to remainder the once once-popular volumes of Marxology and totter off to the wine bar for a spot of “deconstruction” (the latest buzz-word in the Halls of Pseudo-Academe).

Now, death is a pretty permanent condition. With the exception of Biblical conjurers, the dead do not rise again. So, if Marxism is dead we must assume that it has disappeared forever. Which is all rather odd. Because this article is not being written by a ghost (ghost-written) and socialists, though described by Marx himself as “spectres” haunting Europe, are not dressed in white sheets and have no plans to depart this world. The rumours of our death have been exaggerated.

Actually, there is something rather fascistic about trying to kill off a body of ideas. For that is what they seek to do when they assert repeatedly that “Marxism is Dead”. It is as if they have opted intellectually for the Final Solution; after decades of distorting Marxist ideas or banning them or ignoring them or deriding them, now they want to bury them. Death is forever. And relevant ideas will not go away for ever even if you kill every person who holds them. For the ideas are bigger than the minds in which they are at home, and the material conditions which have made these ideas meaningful and urgent to us today will soon enough occur to others who come along later.

The revolutionary ideas which have come to be called Marxism existed in people’s minds before Marx came on to the scene. Marx did not invent the capitalist system. It was the system which created the material soil in which revolutionary ideas would grow. Before Marx there were workers who opposed production for profit and wage labour – there were thinkers who explained history in terms of material conditions rather than ideals – there were elementary recognitions of the fact that labour is the basis of value. Marx did not give birth to revolutionary thought, but added to it.

Who ‘killed’ Marx?

So why the claim that “Marxism is Dead”? After all, if Marx was right in explaining that labour is the source of value and the unpaid labour of the wealth producers is the source of profit; if he was right in claiming that material conditions determine ideas, and that economic forces are the principal determinants of historical change; if he was right to point to the conflict of classes throughout all property societies; if Marx’s theories were “alive” ten or twenty years ago, why possibly could they be “dead” now? A correct analysis is valid until it is disproved. Who has repudiated and thereby “killed” Marx’s correct analysis?

The twisters who are so enthusiastic to report Marxism’s death will say that the refutation is quite obvious. Look at what has happened in Russia. We are looking. It was the Marxist materialist conception of history which enabled socialists to identify the Russian Revolution as a transition to capitalism within months of it happening. It was Marx’s definition of capitalism as a system based upon wage labour and capital, which were characteristics of Russian state capitalism, which enabled us to avoid the error, so easily accepted by our modern “intellectuals”, that Russia was a non-capitalist society. Indeed, it was because we have used Marxist analysis as our method that socialists have been able to predict that Russia and its fellow state-capitalist countries would soon enough have to allow for the mobility of capital by integrating into the global capitalist economy without pretensions to ideological distinction. This has happened. We have been proved right. That is hardly a reason for being classified as dead.

The Leninist Left, forced by their ideological defence of state capitalism to twist Marx to fit in with Stalin, Mao and a host of other wretched dictators, are discredited by the fall of their tyrannous paradises. But that is the death of Leninism, a funeral at which no socialists will be found mourning.

Leninists were not alone in believing the lies and distortions of Stalin and Co, for they were in the company of the ideologists of the Right who were quite content to accept that somehow state-run capitalism was something to do with Marxism. Even though Marx himself advocated a society in which the state, as the coercive force on behalf of a ruling class, will not exist. To blame Marx for the failure of statism is as fair as cursing the Methodists because you have a hangover.

Complacent and foolish

The “Marxism is Dead” brigade, often to be found consorting with the “End of History” boys, are complacent and foolish. They have failed to understand that as long as the capitalist system exists, with its inherent contradictions between profit accumulation and the satisfaction of needs, there will be a persistent need to explain why capitalism is like it is and how it can be replaced by a new historical order: one based upon production for use. Marx, together with the other great thinkers in the revolutionary tradition, supplied this explanation. It will not go away and die just because defenders of capitalism want it to.

Of course, what has often been referred to as “Marxism” has frequently been dogmatic and mechanistic in its over-simplified approach to analysis. Socialists have no interest in defending dogmatism. The function of Marx’s analysis is to be used as a critical tool for clear analysis of real, material social affairs with a view to changing them. The object of Marxism is to change the society which it is explaining. That is why it has always been so feared by those whom change threatens.

The dancers on the grave at Highgate Cemetery have little to celebrate. After all, their capitalist system is faced by a mass of insoluble problems as ever, and right now there is a global economic crisis which these pro-capitalist triumphalists are wholly impotent to end. We might suggest that their tedious sloganeering about the “Death of Marxism” is a pathetic case of whistling in the dark.

Marx Lives!

Like Karl Marx, socialists want a revolution in which The Wages System will be abolished forever. That will spell The Death of Capitalism. There will be no problem when this happens about identifying the corpse – we will be able to smell its stench from afar. While we wait, we challenge all and any of these anti-Marxist mourners to have the courage of their convictions and climb on to the platform of democratic debate. Are our ideas dead? We’ll leave them in no doubt.

Steve Coleman

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