Marx’s legacy and the left….
On March 14th 1883, Karl Marx passed away and the world lost a hugely influential thinker. 128 years later there doesn’t seem like a better day to open a debate on what the true legacy of Marx and his works is – of course, this is a subject that I can’t even pretend to do able to do justice in the space of a blog post. So, rather than attempt to provide some definitive answers I would like to sketch out some thoughts and hopefully seek to open a debate
It seems to me that Marx’s works live on mainly as a critique of capitalism and as a tool that is used to examine the social system under which we still toil relentlessly despite the efforts of the left. While still having a widely accepted relevance in this context, it is my contention that, largely due to the failure of Bolshevism, Marx is widely discredited when it comes to outlining what should follow capitalism. This is a shame but not unsurprising given how events unfolded in the Soviet Union.
It also illustrates a central problem that confronts us when discussing the legacy of Marx – the influence of those who followed him and the fact that even in the case of Friedrich Engles they grafted much of what was truly their own thinking onto a body of thought that remained conspicuously but conveniently for those that followed incomplete at the time of Marx’s demise.
Many accepted canons of Bolshevik wisdom I find highly problematic but the core problem it has caused within Marxist discourse is the fossilisation of Marx and his works into a twisted kind of religious creed. Lenin can’t really escape responsibility for this either because his polemical style and the ever-present assertion that his words were last word in Marxist truth (even if he in fact said something completely different a week ago) laid the foundations of this decay long before Stalin could even conceive of using it to solidify his bureaucratic tyranny.
Sadly this poison seeps into the wider left. Look at the response to the Libyan crisis. It doesn’t matter that Lenin’s assessment of the ‘final imperialist stage of capitalism’, which as I remember it was even at the time far inferior to Bukharin’s work on the same subject, has been shattered into a thousand pieces by history because it still underpins left-wing attitudes too and understanding of ‘imperialism’ and ‘intervention’ and ‘self-determination’. If it wasn’t that brilliant at time I honestly don’t know why comrades expect it too have vastly improved with age. Most of the left does its thinking in a very tiny box indeed – one that, whether they know it or not, was built over 100 hundred years ago by Lenin and the Bolsheviks.
The social democratic descendants of Marx haven’t fared much better than those inspired by the Bolsheviks. All the gains they initially showered us with, such as a welfare state and National Health Service, are currently in the process of being eaten whole by a capitalism that is fed-up of sustaining them and now feels no need too. Social Democratic parties are dominated by groups that accept capitalism and its continued existence as being a given and their dominion is ineffectively challenged by a weak and vapid left.
Stalinism and Social Democracy have declined in a parallel fashion which served as a rather good example of the validity of Marx’s dialectical methods. Marx’s dialectics being superior to Lenin’s by virtue of the fact that the latter employed his most keenly in the service of his immediate political ends – successfully in his time but not in a way that can be said to truly have stood the test of time. Part of Lenin’s success in his own time frame was also his astounding audacity in presenting his rapidly changing views as an unbroken thread – and the more obviously contradictory his views were, the more profoundly Marxist they were, at least according to Lenin. This is not to say that Marx was above that kind of thing but just that he did it less than Lenin and when he did it he didn’t make the mistake of elevating a polemical technique to the last word in received political wisdom.
No doubt this won’t go down well with the left because any attempts at even raising the problems Bolshevism caused Marxism is treated as an act of high treason. Nonetheless, it should not be this way. If we are serious about creating a new society then I am genuinely curious as to how comrades expect this to magically spring forth from one of the many confessional sects that populate the left. If that’s an image the future we have in store for the world then I think I will pass thanks and so will the vast majority of the wider world. We have to ask ourselves a frank question and that is why when given the choice would most people prefer capitalism?
I suspect some comrades would steal the ‘false consciousness’ concept to answer this – however, this often seems to me like an overly complicated way to exclude an argument from being debated by a priori deeming it ‘false’ and therefore invalid. This is another addition to Marxism, this time from that scamp Engles, that is frankly, less than helpful when it comes to understanding well anything. On the left we have got to stop blaming the wider world for our inability to change it and start looking a lot closer to home. This may sound like alot of hard work but going back to square one seems like the only option to me and when we get there we will have to break out that box because if we don’t we will never change ourselves let alone the wider world.