by Zoltan Zigedy
Twenty years ago Marxism was in retreat. Actually, it had been in retreat much earlier than the fall of the Soviet Union and Eastern European socialism a decade before the end of the twentieth century. But certainly the dissolution of the USSR marked a dramatic and, for many, a surprising finale.
Communism, the revolutionary expression of Marxism, was the official ideology of states that contained roughly 40% of the world’s population as late as the nineteen eighties. At the same time, in many other countries, Communists were formidable political forces possibly in reach of political power or, at the very least, wielding enormous influence. To any objective observer, including fearful elites in the capitalist world, the future looked to belong to Communism.
Yet matters changed very quickly — so quickly, in fact, that commentators in the West could gleefully celebrate the “end of history”. In his 1992 book, Francis Fukuyama became the celebrated, best selling chronicler of a new post-Communist era of capitalist bliss and classic liberal parliamentary democracy. The End of History and the Last Man (Free Press, 1992) counted as an unintended parody of the Marxist method by creating a bourgeois historical unfolding with capitalism as its final, inevitable stage. As celebratory dancers at the “grave” of Communism, Fukuyama and many others were perhaps premature in their smug conclusions, but they certainly captured the dominant tenor of the time.
The seeds of the decline of twentieth-century Communism were planted well before 1991. While in the aftermath of World War II Communists enjoyed a near universal respect for their role as anti-fascist fighters and national liberation leaders, the anti-Communist Cold War began in earnest with an intensity belied by its innocuous name. In fact, it was a ruthless struggle of one social system against another, leaving little room for any middle ground.
For the capitalist West, it was a time of relentless aggression hidden behind blatant hypocrisy. Going to great lengths to put forward a face of democracy and tolerance, the US and its allies employed covert and indirect pressures to subvert any popular Communist initiatives and to undermine stability or progress in the socialist countries. From disruptive CIA covert action against French dock workers, the co-option of journalists in the incipient Cold War and the organization of coups in Iran, Indonesia, and Guatemala, through funding surrogate armies in the former Portuguese colonies and in Nicaragua in its last stages, the deep pockets and long arm of the US and its subordinate anti-Communist coalition retarded and often setback the Communist movement.
In this regard, it was not simply an open competition of the merits of two vastly different social systems, but a sub rosa struggle without rules of fair play and with capitalism (especially the US, physically untouched by the World War) enjoying a large resource advantage.
On the level of image, the capitalist countries benefited from a long history of the persuasive sciences—marketing, advertising, product development, etc. And with the advent of new technologies like television and a massive, privately-owned, ardently anti-Communist media and entertainment machine, the overlords of the capitalist countries were more than able to hold their own.
At its core, the Western capitalist message was individualism and consumerism. Long the philosophical pillar of the Western enlightenment, the cult of the individual as the center of the universe reached full maturity in the era of the Cold War, celebrating the personal and all of its adornments. It is only a small step from this cult of the individual to the orgy of consumerism—directing all material wealth around personal aggrandizement. Individual consumption became the central tenet of post-war capitalism, driven by the long expansion of the capitalist economy.
The socialist message was far harder to convey. It had to counterpose social development, collective actions and rewards, selflessness, sacrifice, and idealism against the capitalist promise of the immediacy of consumption and individual reward. The first generation of revolutionary Marxists in the early years of the Soviet Union met this challenge with a single-minded determination to build an alternative society, mobilizing millions of workers and peasants who were little more than slaves and cannon fodder in Czarist Russia. Great campaigns were launched, some at regrettable human costs, others with unprecedented human advancement. The sheer audacity of the social project knew no counterpart in human history. Despite the mistakes and setbacks of the first thirty-five years of socialist construction, Communism proved an attraction to those whose lot was to work in the fields and factories, those who struggled under colonial domination, and those stigmatized by racial and ethnic differences. With the Great Depression, the merits of a planned economy and public ownership appealed to the many suffering from the anarchism of capitalism. And Communist leadership and sacrifice in the struggle against European fascism and Japanese imperialism strengthened that appeal.
With the rise of Khrushchev, a second generation of Soviet leadership shifted the socialist project, accepting the Western challenge of consumerism as the measure of systemic success. The notion of shaping the grand “new man and woman”, immune to selfish motives, self-regard, and personal indulgence, was exchanged for the race to provide more consumer goods and individual satisfactions. Jeans and appliances replaced sacrifice and construction.
Understandably after the devastation of the Second World War, the Soviet people needed a respite from sacrifices and deprivations, but not by simply replacing the goals of socialism with Western consumerism.
In the economy, the new Soviet leadership sought to incorporate material incentives in place of the moral incentives of the past — an element that mimicked the values of the West. Socialist planning introduced new concepts of “competition” and “profit”, offered as the road to achieving capitalist “efficiency”. Each step of the new pragmatic socialism marked a step away from the socialist vision. Each step opened the door to capitalist inroads. The process proved to be a slippery slope that introduced ‘market forces’ and privilege, culminating in the radical overhaul of Soviet society by the third generation of Soviet leaders in the Gorbachev era. The modest tunics so common with the first generation of Soviet leaders were replaced with business suits and brief cases.
Internationally, after the War, the prestige of Communism sparked the rise of nationalist, national liberation, and anti-colonial movements throughout the so-called Third World. Beginning with the Chinese revolution, culminating in the creation of the People’s Republic of China, through the Cuban revolution and Vietnamese liberation, to the successful defeat of Portuguese colonialism and the coups in Ethiopia and Afghanistan, militant Communists achieved state power and proclaimed a socialist orientation. Even tiny Grenada in the Caribbean adopted Marxism as its official ideology.
But the leaders of these movements were largely nationalists first and Communists second. This proved a weakness in the absence of a developed working class and its attendant socialist consciousness. Certainly Communism was the most militant expression of national aspirations and independence from imperialism. However, these countries lacked a level of development necessary for pressing forward the socialist program without international help, principally from the sympathetic Soviet Union. All, except perhaps the PRC (China), lacked the resources to develop a sufficient independent industrial base. Moreover, their historically undeveloped economies were linked profoundly to international capitalism as a source of cheap raw materials – a neo-colonial relationship extremely difficult to abruptly break. Consequently, their socialist development was both fragile and tenuous and susceptible to imperialist coercion. In the end, Soviet and Eastern European assistance though generous, was stretched globally. With the Gorbachev “pragmatists”, aid began to shrink. And with the demise of the Soviet Union, most of these socialist-oriented countries were forced to surrender to the global market and into the arms of capitalism. The PRC, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam remain nominally committed to the socialist path, leaving only Cuba and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea substantially dissociated from capitalist markets.
In Western Europe, Communism reached its zenith after the War with the Communist role in the resistance bringing tens of thousands of new members and sympathizers. Western European Communist Parties – especially in France, Italy and Greece – were arguably in reach of state power, but thwarted by the restraint of leaders and sister Parties (primarily, the Soviet Party) that still saw the mistaken possibility of maintaining the World War II anti-fascist Grand Alliance. At the same time, Western covert operators were working feverishly to undermine Communist influence through union sabotage (primarily in France) and the Catholic Church (primarily in Italy).
The Marshall Plan, covert co-option and subversion, and massive anti-Communist media campaigns further weighed on Communist political progress. Nonetheless, Communist Parties were enormously powerful political forces into the nineteen seventies.
But two factors diluted the ideological strength of these Parties: first, the long post-war capitalist expansion contradicted the leaders’ orthodox view – shaped by the experience of The Great Depression and a mechanical reading of Marx – which ordained that capitalism would succumb to deeper and deeper crises. Instead, the capitalist economy, fueled by military Keynesianism and a welfare state designed to offer a “kinder, gentler” capitalism in the competition with Communism, expanded smartly for over twenty years with only minor speed bumps. Even when signs of weakness emerged, these signs suggested nothing like the profound downturn expected. Western European Communist Parties adjusted by offering a reformist political package to compete with the other political forces in the electoral arena. That is, they retreated from a revolutionary program to a reformist program with expanded social benefits, trade union gains, and liberal social justice at its core – all good, but all reformist.
Second, the long period of growth and social stability encouraged the still strong Parties to focus their tactics on parliamentarianism. Their ability to express their strength in the electoral arena shaped their political approach by subjecting all tactics to the electoral filter. Nothing would be done to harm election prospects; everything would be done to expand the Parties electoral appeal.
This dissolving of revolutionary militancy, dissolved by the expediency of electoral maneuvers, resulted in many Parties constructing programs emphasizing their unique “peaceful” roads to socialism, programs built solely on parliamentary majorities and the attendant political compromises. It was not that electoral work is incompatible with Marxism, but that it should not preclude other forms of struggle. More and more these forms were obstructed by the exigencies of election campaigns.
For Communist Parties in France, Italy, Spain and others, this ideological retreat led inexorably to “Euro-Communism”—a variant linked more closely to Left Social Democracy than to Communism. The pressures of electoral success invariably repositioned these Parties to take stances slightly to the left of their bourgeois parliamentary competitors.
Interestingly, the European Communist Parties that suffered under post-war government repression – the Greek and Portuguese Parties – clung to the ideological core of Marxism and suffered no illusions about bourgeois parliamentarianism.
But for the Euro-Communist Parties, the ideological slippage led to marginalization (France) or dissolution (Italy). In 1976, the Italian Communist Party received nearly 35% of the vote; fifteen years later it was gone from the political arena. The French Party garnered over 21% of the legislative vote in 1973, but a mere 4.29% in 2007. Both Parties gambled Marxism for electoral opportunism; both Parties lost.
Of course the post-Soviet period proved even more daunting for the politics of Marxism. The shattered Soviet Union and the Eastern European states were quickly, with the help of Western carrots and sticks and a swarm of well-funded NGOs, shepherded into the capitalist camp. Millions of workers were dumped into the global labor market with little or no experience or protection from ‘market discipline’. In the case of a recalcitrant socialist state like Yugoslavia, NATO demonstrated the lengths that the capitalist powers would go to ensure that they, too, would be absorbed by the global market.
The political fate of Marxism, rocked by the self-destruction of the epic twentieth century project initiated by the Bolsheviks, scattered opportunists in every direction like rats from a burning fire. Most quickly found shelter through suppliance, serving as the basis for a new ownership or management class in the former socialist countries. In the West, former Communists fit in comfortably, politically and socially, with only a modest mea culpa. For Marxism, this self-inflicted purge was painful, but purifying, opening the way for a future Marxist resurgence.
Nonetheless, the post-Soviet period was a painful process. Socialist Cuba retrenched, imposing drastic austerity upon its citizens with the loss of the internationalist benefice of the Soviet Union. The PRC and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam further embedded their economies in the global market, choosing a risky courtship with capitalism on their road to socialism.
The trade-off of ideology for electoral pandering took an even greater toll on large Communist Parties seeking parliamentary influence. European Parties proved singularly unsuccessful in forging electoral alliances that, in fact, further eroded their identity. As Europe moved towards a two-party or two-bloc parliamentary system mirroring the US model, Communists found little space for their message.
Theoretically, the frustration and disillusionment spawned by capitalist triumphalism generated flirtations with market socialism and idealistic notions of radical democracy. The anti-monopoly front strategy, as a stage leading to socialism, waned, to be replaced by a tepid, defensive anti- right strategy thought to ward off the most reactionary elements of bourgeois politics. Socialism slipped off the agenda.
In truth, the post-Soviet period was not only a nadir for Marxist socialism in its Leninist incarnation, but also for most oppositional forces generally associated with the left. Social democracy, which drew its influence from its anti-Communist respectability, no longer played any useful role after the Cold War. Its strength and vitality lay solely in giving capitalism a worker-friendly face, a socially progressive image, in the global competition with Communism. But post-Soviet capitalism dropped its façade along with any opportunistic need to accept a social safety net or appeasement with labor. Thus, the unholy, unspoken contract with social democracy was decisively broken.
Political liberalism fared equally poorly, with activists’ attention directed to a flurry of worthy, but disconnected issues touching only the margins of the newly emancipated, ruthless global capitalism. Human rights questions – so central to the liberal collaboration with capitalism in the Cold War—proved irrelevant to the onslaught of the transnational corporations against the global masses. Instead, it served as the ideological cover for Western intervention in the affairs of various “outlaws” to imperial submission, under the guise of contrived “color” revolutions. Western funded NGOs descended like locusts on these dissidents to the imperial game plan.
Without the restrain of Soviet power, capitalism worked feverishly to exploit newly “emancipated” labor and drive down living standards in nearly every country. For the decades after the Soviet demise, the labor movement fought a losing battle against a shift of production to low wage areas, outsourcing, intensified exploitation, restructuring of work, and draconian work place discipline. Moreover, political liberalism – and social democracy – had long embraced the sovereignty and rationality of the capitalist market, leaving them no answer to the relentless advances of global capitalism.
At the end of the twentieth century, some elements of light began to appear in this dismal, dark picture. Resistance to global, unfettered capitalism aroused far from the most advanced capitalist countries as a struggle against Western imperialism and, in some cases, a movement for a re-fashioned socialism.
Using the tragic events of September 11, 2001 as an opportunity, the US government embarked on a naked aggression against the peoples of Central Asia and the Middle East. US imperialism seized this opportunity and exploited world sentiment to establish military bases throughout these regions and shape economic relations for the benefit of Western imperialism. To their surprise, they were met by fierce resistance that rocked the plans of the New (post-Soviet) World Order. The resistance, lead by Islamists and charged by Islamic ideology, derailed the plans and efforts of the US’s (and their junior partner, Israel’s) politico-military elites. With the secular left in disarray, it should surprise no one that the cause of the people was taken up by other social forms, in this case religion. The fact that many of these movements were lead by illiberal, often fundamentalist, religious movements clouded far too many from seeing these struggles as essentially anti-imperialist. Instead, international solidarity and support fell far short of what it should have been. The lessons of more than a hundred years of anti-colonial struggles dating back to Marx’s time and led by indigenous peoples were lost on our latter day “anti-imperialists”. Nonetheless this marked and persists as a heroic bulwark against imperial designs.
Developments in South and Central America also presented a powerful challenge to the “triumphant” capitalist order. Fundamentally, the twenty-first century movements in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, as well as Brazil, Argentina, Nicaragua and Honduras were expressions of independence from the dominant North American power, the US.
These movements have yet to firmly and decisively wrest state power from their national oligarchies. Nor have they yet foiled all the attempts to bring their countries back into the arms of imperialism. But they have consolidated their electoral successes and continue to defy their powerful neighbor from the North. Some of these movements openly advocate a “twenty-first century socialism”, others a nationalistic social-democracy. But while their various roads are as yet only partially charted, they represent a break from the New World Order dominant at the end of the twentieth century.
But perhaps the greatest challenge to that triumphant order came with the global capitalist crisis reaching maturity in the new century.
As with the crisis in Marxism, the causes of the crisis of the world capitalist system extend well beyond its full expression in 2008. Like a volcanic eruption, the dramatic global economic downturn was preceded by lesser eruptions (for example, 2001) that foretold the events to come. But like a volcanic eruption, the ultimate forces determining the catastrophe lie much earlier and far deeper.
It is the merit of the Marxian critique that it understands social structures and processes – and of course, economic structures and processes— as inherently unstable and changing. This is in stark contrast to bourgeois social scientists – especially economists—who assume, methodologically, that stability and equilibrium are the norm. Thus, Marxists view capitalism and its attendant social and economic relations as bound to encounter crisis—it is simply a matter of how and when.
So where academic and professional economists were at a lost to anticipate or explain the near economic collapse of 2008-2009, Marxists were neither surprised nor without understanding.
The key to unlocking the mystery of the global crisis and understanding its portent lies in a historical review of capitalism’s trajectory since the Second World War. While this is a complex matter and one open to contention, only such a study will move our grasp of today’s events beyond the static “economic laws” embodied in conventional economics textbooks.
After the Second World War, capitalism was energized by the extraordinary economic demand spurred by rebuilding from the war’s massive destruction and, further, by the enormous military buildup associated with the Cold War. Many Marxists, expecting a return to the instability brought on by the Great Depression, underestimated these factors, especially the continuation of the war economy in another guise. The rapid and fear-driven obsolescence of military hardware (and the expenses of covert and overt intervention) served to drive production in a planned fashion that shielded more and more of the capitalist economy from the ruthless anarchy of the competitive market and its drive for profit. In short, it was a kind of military-industrial “socialism” based on state orders and state funding.
At the same time, the demands of Cold War competition for “hearts and minds” generated an unspoken, informal contract between capital and labor (in the Western core) that saw a steady, welcome increase in living standards; wages and benefits generally grew proportionate to increasing productivity; and the middle strata and service sector grew accordingly.
In the US, the most outrageous racial barriers that blemished the country’s international reputation were struck down. And a modest safety net for the most disadvantaged was constructed.
Similarly in Europe, on the front lines of the East-West competition, living standards grew and a more generous safety net was implemented in the all important public relations battle.
This “golden age” of capitalism – so disarming to Marxists in Western Europe—began to crumble in the early 1970’s. In the first place, competition between the US and emerging economic powers like Germany (the FRG) and Japan intensified, with a negative impact upon the global rate of profit.
Secondly, the costs of the US imperialist war on Vietnam expanded enormously, creating powerful inflationary pressure in America. As a result, assets lost relative value, especially financial assets which were playing an increasingly important role in the US economy. This, too, had a negative effect upon the rate of profit.
The 1973 oil embargo by OPEC further fueled higher prices and added to the costs of capitalist production with an inevitable negative impact upon profitability. A creeping, deepening crisis of inflation and stagnation ensued.
By the late 1970’s a new model emerged to challenge the informal post-war social contract. Though identified with Reagan in the US and Thatcher in the UK, the model rapidly spread deeply and widely in the capitalist world, capturing policy makers and politicians of every stripe outside of the anti-capitalist left. Even before the Reagan administration in the US, elements of the new program were adopted during the Carter Presidency. In its essence the program was a return to the economic philosophy of Adam Smith and the social philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, a renewal of the capitalist catechism. The main tenet of the new model was minimal state intervention, including dismantling social welfare programs, public ownership, regulation, and taxation. Further, the state would actively promote a shift away from any existing state intervention while promoting the maximum exercise of the market mechanism in every aspect of life: economic, political, social, and cultural.
The wide acceptance of the new model – often called “neo-liberalism”– generated shrinkage of social welfare programs, wholesale privatization of government activities and assets, de-regulation, regressive taxation, and the elevation of profitability as the absolute measure of efficiency and viability.
In the political realm, the new model lead to the further commodification of political decision making: dollars replaced the sovereignty of the voter and profitability or cost containment reigned as the decisive factor in legislation.
Social life was reduced to individual costs and benefit calculation and culture was vulgarized by the dominance of mega-entertainment corporations and new technologies of self-indulgence, a development that proved to be most effective in manipulating the political arena.
Fully intended consequences of this socio-economic turn were the stagnation or decline in the living standards of the vast majority of wage and salary workers. Unions proved unable to adjust to the unilateral severance of the post-war social pact. Moreover, both the government and corporations did all they could to diminish unions’ former strength.
It was this turn – this ideological step backwards in time — that began to restore profitability and the health of capitalism. Worldwide, most people and their institutions were caught in the deadly vise of not recognizing an alternative to capitalism while capitalism unleashed a vicious offensive against them.
With the disappearance of the Soviet and Eastern European socialist states after 1991, the restructuring of capitalism took on a new dimension. Literally millions of people were tossed into the global labor market as a result. This glut of low-cost labor joined the huge Asian labor force in the “liberalized” China and Vietnam. Both developments were seized by Western policy makers who sought to eliminate any barriers to the movement of commodities or capital. The numerous “free-trade” agreements were hailed by defenders as ensuring fairness and criticized by others as destructive of national enterprises. They were neither; rather, the agreements were simply measures to globalize the labor market and apply further pressure upon workers in higher-wage areas. In short, they served as a tool in raising both the rate of exploitation and the rate of profit.
In the US, the laboratory of the neo-liberal experiment, living standards eroded, manufacturing shifted or threatened to shift overseas, services off-shored, while productivity accelerated under the pressure of cheaper available or competitive labor. At the same time, US consumption growth – a driver of the global economy — was threatened by falling incomes and the shrinking wealth of the majority.
Two countervailing developments propped consumption: Spouses and other household members joined the work force in order to bolster household income (the participation rate of women in the workforce went up more than 17% between 1980 and 2000). And household debt expanded vastly (total household liabilities doubled between 1990 and 2000; home mortgages more than doubled). Between 1995 and 1998 alone median household debt went up nearly 42% in the US.
While profits told one story — capitalism was again healthy and growing — the impoverishment of workers and other employees told a different one. Income and wealth inequality reached levels in the advanced capitalist countries unseen since before the Great Depression. Enormous amounts of capital accumulated in the hands of a few people and institutions. Since it is inherent in a capitalist world for accumulated capital to not sit idle but to seek a return, this enormous surplus generated a great demand for investment avenues, far exceeding existing productive opportunities. Near the end of the twentieth century, much of this vast ocean of wealth found its way into speculation, principally financial speculation.
A great bout of speculation – betting on a future return – spawned the Dot-com recession of 2001. Investors poured billions into virtual enterprises that promised virtual returns. High tech enterprises with a handful of employees were the ready recipients of billions of investment dollars and a soaring market value that just as quickly evaporated. The destruction of trillions of dollars of invested assets pushed the US economy into recession and slowed global growth while destroying jobs.
The capitalist recovery from this event was borne on the backs of working people who suffered through a host of enterprise restructurings that eliminated benefits, reduced compensation dramatically, and forestalled hiring. As a result, the rate of exploitation rose again and the accumulation of wealth in a few hands continued unabated.
Given that the US — and the UK — had embraced a division of international labor that exchanged financial activity for industrial production (nearly 40% of US corporate profits were generated by the financial sector in the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century), the task of finding a profitable home for this ever growing surplus fell to the banks and financial services. They readily accepted this challenge by creating new, complex and exotic financial instruments to absorb the enormous and growing surplus held by wealthy investors. Derivatives, hyper-fast trades, private, unregulated, and opaque “insurance” against risk, and bundled debt all promised to offer new avenues for profit based upon an arrogant, unwarranted belief in the future health of the capitalist system. Tens of billions poured into these financial concoctions which were based on a wildly optimistic confidence in debt repayment and continued capitalist expansion. They were, in essence, bets on the future, a future of even more expected accumulation of profits.
But reality interrupted this fantasy. In 2006, profit margins of the largest non-financial US corporations began to fall and debt—principally mortgage debt—began to default. As a result, the financial sector in the US imploded both from the weight of insufficient reserves to cover losses in the home-lending sector and the leveraging that fueled the financial expansion.
And, as they say, the rest is history, a now familiar story. The collapse of the US financial sector swept through the global economy leaving in its wake stagnant or declining economic growth, high unemployment, shrunken wealth, and human devastation.
Today, talk of recovery is not only premature, but unjustified. Capitalism has entered a new stage that signals the bankruptcy of the policies and ideology of the last thirty years. The remedies embedded in the neo-liberal philosophy have led to a profound crisis unsolvable to the benefit of humanity while remaining within that framework. That is not to say that capitalism is doomed any time soon; no serious Marxist would make that claim. Capitalism is a resilient system that will only leave the historic stage when people decide to replace it. But it does mean that recovery for the system will exact a horrendous human toll.
Profit is the motor of the system’s mechanism. It will be possible to restore profitability going forward only by extracting even more from the source of wealth: the world’s work force. The draconian austerity measures sweeping Europe today are only a foretaste of this process. By the logic of capitalism, the “costs” of labor are the final arbiter of generating additional profits.
The history of capitalism since the last world war demonstrates the centrality of Marx’s famous law of the tendency of rate of profit to fall. That history is an account of the measures taken by monopoly capitalism to retard that tendency and improve profitability. They have succeeded in the past at an enormous human cost. Will they succeed again?
The Way Forward?
On one level, Karl Marx and his analyses have had their revenge. Pronounced dead after the fall of Soviet and Eastern European socialism, Marxism is the only comprehensive theory that fully predicts and explains the current drama befalling the global capitalist economy with its attendant social and political crises. There is a satisfying, but incomplete victory in this turn of events.
For sure, liberal and conservative social theorists have sought to save their world view by posing this great calamity as an aberration to be remedied by staying the course, by better managing the dark forces unleashed over the last five years. Unfortunately, the remedy comes at a great human cost as witnessed by the rapidly declining living standards in the US and Europe. It is not that sacrifice and suffering is an unintended consequence of the crisis, but that they are viewed by policy makers as the solution to the crisis, as the Greek people are learning from their leaders and their EU partners. Surely it is a corrupt, cruel, and bankrupt ideology that embraces this solution.
Cynically, the apologists for the neo-liberal dogma blame the mortgage holders in the US, regulators, ill-advised politicians, central bankers, financial predators, etc. for the crisis, but they fail to acknowledge how the very logic of capitalism shaped these actions. They fail to concede that the forces that place profit above all else invariably lead to such crises.
Social Democracy, with a distant, compromised relationship to Marxism, is of little relevance today. Since the Bolshevik revolution, it has been tolerated or even embraced by capitalism only insofar as it has distanced itself from Communism. Social Democracy owes its political legitimacy to its reformist posture within the safe haven of capitalism. Its adherents cling to the ancient notion that the state is a neutral arbiter of class interests, a notion that surely has been swept away by the near total dominance of the state by monopoly capital. Again, Karl Marx was right.
But on another level, the theoretical victory of Marxism is less satisfying. While most of us have never known a moment where Marxism was more relevant to the problems facing the world, the influence of Marxism on the world is at an extremely low ebb. It is an unpleasant fact, but nonetheless a stark fact.
There are, however, loci of revolutionary Marxist activity securely implanted throughout the world. One finds it in Greece, for example, a focal point of scavenger capitalism in Europe. The Greek Communist Party, a mass party, embodies the spirit of revolutionary Marxism while carrying on a determined struggle for socialism in the midst of the wholesale destruction of Greek life. Moreover, the Greek Communists, along with the significant Portuguese Communist Party, are fighting a determined battle to organize and unite other Communists in Europe.
One finds it also in South and Central America where Communists are giving critical and important support to progressive, anti-imperialist governments. While they do not lead these movements, they bring a wealth of understanding that dissolves and dispels the illusions of accommodation and romantic utopianism while sustaining a clear, comprehensive vision of socialism. In other countries south of the US border, Communist Parties are reconstituting and/or contributing to mass struggles, as in the student movement in Chile.
Revolutionary Marxism exerts influence in the Asian subcontinent and in South Africa where the legacy of anti-colonial liberation spawned a tradition of advocacy of Marxian socialism.
Fertile ground exists in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe where opinion polls show a mass nostalgia for the lost world of socialism. With two stolen elections (1996 and 2011), the Communist Party of the Russian Federation stands as the leading oppositional force to the ruling party in Russia.
It would be misleading to paint these developments as alone adequate to rekindle the global support and impact of revolutionary Marxism or as constituting a sustainable rebirth of Marxism. But they are a healthy start.
Essential for the further advancement is a firm grasp of the concept of class by the global masses. Understanding class relations in capitalist society is the first step beyond accepting the permanence or inevitability of capitalism. Denied by capitalist apologists and discounted by too many on the left, the existence of a sharp social division in all capitalist societies is the foundation of any effective anti-capitalist movement. It is the prism of class that brings those who own and rule into sharp focus. It is the prism of class that reveals the profoundly deep divide between those who rule and own versus everyone else.
Class awareness stands behind the electrifying and popular slogan adopted by the “Occupy” movements in the US and other countries: “We are the 99 Per Cent!” When the movement began in New York and spread throughout the US, it welcomed every kind of issue, every slogan, every social justice claim. Spontaneously, the expression of a class divide, the expression of “us against them”, unified and energized the movement and took pride of place as the symbol of the movement.
Whether or not the movement prevails against repressive measures and its own weaknesses, it has made a lasting impact upon how many people in the US think. Indeed, recent opinion polls show nearly half of the youth in the US favorably disposed towards socialism. It is an understanding of class that opens the door to considering an alternative to capitalism. And the “Occupy” movement has kicked that door open.
Similarly, world-wide oppositional movements of the unemployed, the underemployed, the impoverished, and the victims of austerity measures are moving inexorably towards a recognition and deeper understanding of class relations. This deeper understanding is embedded in Marxism; it is only Marxism that has established class as the foundation of social and political analysis; it is only Marxism that has demonstrated the links between class and the features and course of society.
Undoubtedly, these emerging movements will sense the need of political structures that will reflect this understanding, political institutions that will organize and fight for class-based interests beyond those embraced and allowed by their class antagonists.
But class-based movements alone are not enough without organizational forms that can successfully bridge understanding and action. History is replete with the drama of spontaneous responses to social injustices and inequalities that are noble, but ultimately suppressed or co-opted. And today’s foe – the capitalist class — enjoys the most sophisticated instruments of suppression and co-option.
The lessons of the twentieth century show the value of a Leninist approach to organization. The Leninist form – most often realized as a Communist or Workers’ Party – offers both the discipline and flexibility to combat an adversary that dominates the political, economic, and social orders of society. Central to the Leninist approach is a collective, comprehensive program that binds the organization to a unified path forward. Unlike, the spontaneity of anarchism, a Leninist movement clings to a deliberate and disciplined march towards established goals. Unlike the parliamentary parties that come to life only in the two, four, or six year election cycles, Leninist organizations engage in every possible form of struggle and at every moment is dictated by the balance of class forces.
Of course the best organizational forms are only as good as they are executed. And Leninist forms and standards have been executed poorly at different times in the last century, as anti-Communists are only too quick to point out. Nonetheless, Leninism is an important, essential element in constructing a class-based answer to the challenges of resisting the onslaught of twenty-first century capitalism. A disciplined Marxist-Leninist organization changes the political equation.
Whether a world-wide rebirth of revolutionary Marxism will answer the call is, of course, yet to be seen. But for many of us, there is no other course that promises to end the enormous human toll exacted by a predatory economic system and its violent imperial adventures. Moreover, there is no other course that offers a rational alternative —socialism — to capitalism’s bleak future.
[Thank you indeed ZZ for this timely contribution]
Zoltan Zigedy is the nom de plume of a US based activist in the Communist movement who left the academic world many years ago with an uncompleted PhD thesis in Philosophy. He writes regularly at ZZ’s blog, and on Marxist-Leninism Today. His writings have been published in Cuba, Greece, Italy, Canada, UK, Argentina, and Ukraine. His website is http://zzs-blg.blogspot.com
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