In defense of Marxism

Marx's ideas are back--and beginning to be attacked in the mainstream media

LAST FALL, when the depth of the economic crisis in the U.S. and around the world started to become abundantly clear, articles began to appear in mainstream media sources around the world talking about the return of Karl Marx. Time magazine even put the author of Das Kapital on the cover of its European (though notably not its U.S.) edition in February, with the headline “What would Marx think?” While rejecting what it called “the prophetic, prescriptive parts of Marx’s writings,” the inside article drew attention to Marx’s “trenchant diagnosis of the underlying problems of a market economy that is surprisingly relevant even today,” and which “is almost uncannily prescient about globalization’s costs and benefits.”

It was to be expected, however, that Marx would not continue to get the kid glove treatment forever. In May, the Financial Times published a lengthy review of three books—about, respectively, the history of self-identified communist regimes, Marx’s comrade and collaborator Frederick Engels, and Marx himself—by its Brussels bureau chief, Tony Barber, which takes a much more dismissive attitude to Marx’s ideas. If there are arguments against Marxism that deserve to be taken seriously, then one might expect to find them in such a prestigious publication. But in the end, Barber’s case is not very impressive.

Barber acknowledges early on that “[c]apitalism is in its worst shape since the Great Depression of the 1930s” and concedes that “some of the criticisms that Marx and Engels leveled at mid-19th century capitalist economic systems do not appear out of place 150 years later.” But he also argues that it would be rash to conclude that “Marx and Engels [are] about to be proved right after all.”

Barber’s argument against Marxism echoes two lines of criticism that he notes were used during the Cold War to “hit back at the Marxist foe.” The first response was that “Whatever the theory, the practice stank. The second riposte was to point out that the theory stank too. As a prophecy of mankind’s future, supposedly based on scientifically discovered laws of historical development, Marxism-Leninism was pure twaddle.”

In fact this way of articulating the argument already makes clear its one central assumption. “Marxism-Leninism” was the name given to the distortion of Marxist theory used by Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union from the late 1920s and by other regimes that followed the Stalinist model after the Second World War, in an effort to legitimize their own rule. Similarly, the practice against which Marx’s ideas was and is being judged is the practice of these regimes, which I agree certainly did stink. But if the assumption that Stalinism had anything to do with the actual ideas of Marx and Engels is false, then this argument against those ideas loses all its bite.

On the face of it, it is rather difficult to square the practice of Stalinism, which created police states and rule by self-perpetuating bureaucracies, with anything that exists in the writing of Marx and Engels. From their earliest involvement in politics, Marx and Engels were radical democrats who wanted to dramatically expand democratic control of society and to create conditions that would permit human freedom to flourish. They were led to communism when they concluded that private control of society’s forces of production was antithetical to both of these goals. In the Communist Manifesto, they envisage the working class winning state power and transforming society in such a way that “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

Although the working class was a small minority of the Russian population, it was able to successfully lead a popular revolution in October 1917, which placed power in the hands of democratically elected workers’ and soldiers’ councils, or soviets, across the country. Stalin’s rise to power in the 1920s represented not a continuation of that process, but its defeat as a result of economic backwardness, isolation, invasion, and civil war. The soviets were left as empty shells, and power was usurped by a new bureaucratic ruling class that used brutal methods to industrialize the country in an effort to catch up with its economic and military competitors in the West. Later communist regimes had even less to do with workers’ revolution and economic democracy. They stank not because they were attempting to put into practice Marx’s ideas, but because they had rejected them.

Barber offers a reply of sorts to this defense of Marxism. He “wonders what Marx and Engels would have made of the murderous Stalin, the megalomaniac Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania, the paranoid Enver Hoxha of Albania and other blood-stained despots who claimed” to be following their ideas, and admits that “one cannot blame the appalling Soviet and Chinese utopian experiments on two German-born intellectuals writing 50 to 100 years earlier.” But then he adds that, despite this, “Marx’s vision of a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ that would usher in communism was wide open to abuse by fanatics such as Vladimir Lenin, Stalin and Mao.”

I will have to leave it for another occasion to defend Lenin from being lumped together with Stalin, and Mao. The argument now is not that Stalin, Mao, and others were doing what Marx intended, but that Marx somehow opened the door for them to do what he did not intend. But how exactly is he supposed to have done this? By being careless in his choice of words? By advocating a way of organizing society that would inevitably fail, giving rise to its opposite? Neither charge has much merit.

If workers were able to carry out a successful revolution, Marx believed that they would need to use state power to prevent the old ruling class from staging a counterrevolution. At the same time, however, society would become much more democratic, because workers and their allies would make up the vast majority of the population. This is what Marx meant by the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Marx and Engels viewed the short-lived Paris Commune of 1871, in which workers ran the city for almost two months, as an example of the dictatorship of the proletariat in practice. Crucially, the Commune instituted a variety of political mechanisms to make the state more democratic, including abolishing the standing army in favor of local workers’ militias, making all government positions electable and recallable, and paying elected officials no more than the average worker. As Engels noted, “In this way an effective barrier to place-hunting and careerism was set up, even apart from the binding mandates to delegates to representative bodies which were also added in profusion.”

It is hard to confuse the Paris Commune—which was defeated by external force, not as a result of any inherent contradiction in the effort to establish workers’ power—with the dictatorships over the proletariat set up by Stalin, Mao, and all too many others. Marx and Engels were utterly clear that they were advocating a more democratic form of government, and there is not the slightest reason to think that the attempt to establish a workers’ state must be somehow doomed to failure from the start. Marx did not unwittingly lay the groundwork for dictatorship by a minority by advocating an impossible goal.

There is one other criticism of Marx that Barber raises, this time of a more theoretical nature. Noting that Marx “revised and reshaped his ideas throughout his lifetime,” he points out that in 1877, Marx “wrote that Russia had a chance to bypass the capitalist stage of development and move straight to socialism.” But this suggestion, argues Barber, if “taken at face value, completely blew apart his previous theories of economically determined historical progress.”

Did Marx hold theories of economically determined historical progress? Marx certainly held that economic and material factors shape the rest of society, but Marx was no crude economic determinist, and he did not believe that historical progress was in any way inevitable. Indeed, Marx and Engels note at the start of the Communist Manifesto that class struggle—which they did think was inevitable—might end “either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large,” (a historically progressive outcome) “or in the common ruin of the contending classes” (a regressive one).

In fact, in the letter of 1877 that Barber is referring to (and which it is possible he did not actually read), Marx responds to a critic who sounds a lot like Tony Barber. Marx writes that this critic

feels himself obliged to metamorphose my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into an historico-philosophic theory of the marche generale [general path] imposed by fate upon every people, whatever the historic circumstances in which it finds itself, in order that it may ultimately arrive at the form of economy which will ensure, together with the greatest expansion of the productive powers of social labor, the most complete development of man. But I beg his pardon. (He is both honoring and shaming me too much.) Let us take an example.

In several parts of Capital I allude to the fate which overtook the plebeians of ancient Rome. They were originally free peasants, each cultivating his own piece of land on his own account. In the course of Roman history they were expropriated. The same movement which divorced them from their means of production and subsistence involved the formation not only of big landed property but also of big money capital. And so one fine morning there were to be found on the one hand free men, stripped of everything except their labor power, and on the other, in order to exploit this labor, those who held all the acquired wealth in possession. What happened? The Roman proletarians became, not wage laborers but a mob of do-nothings more abject than the former “poor whites” in the southern country of the United States, and alongside of them there developed a mode of production which was not capitalist but dependent upon slavery. Thus events strikingly analogous but taking place in different historic surroundings led to totally different results. By studying each of these forms of evolution separately and then comparing them one can easily find the clue to this phenomenon, but one will never arrive there by the universal passport of a general historico-philosophical theory, the supreme virtue of which consists in being super-historical.

Marx returned to the question of possible developments in Russia in other late writings. In a preface to a Russian translation of the Communist Manifesto published in 1882, Marx and Engels directly address the question of whether peasant communes in Russia could become the basis for a communist society, without Russia having to pass through a phase of capitalist development. They respond as follows: “If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of the land may serve as the starting point for a communist development.”

The bottom line is that in his various remarks on Russia in the last years of his life, Marx did not abandon or contradict the materialist framework that he and Engels first developed in the 1840s. What he did show, however, was that this framework is far more subtle and sophisticated than his latter-day critics seem able to grasp.


Issue #76

March 2011

Revolt in the Middle East: Another world is possible

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