Communism makes a comeback

Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin adorn a wall in the Museum of Socialist Art in Sofia, Bulgaria. (Reuters)

Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin adorn a wall in the Museum of Socialist Art in Sofia, Bulgaria. (Reuters)

Class conflict once seemed so straightforward. Marx and Engels wrote in the second-bestselling book of all time, The Communist Manifesto: “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own gravediggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.”

(The bestselling book of all time, incidentally, is the Bible – it only feels like it is Fifty Shades of Grey.) Today, 164 years after Marx and Engels wrote about gravediggers, the truth is almost the exact opposite.
The proletariat, far from burying capitalism, is keeping it on life support. Overworked, underpaid workers ostensibly liberated by the largest socialist revolution in history (China’s) are driven to the brink of suicide to keep those in the West playing with their iPads. Chinese money bankrolls an otherwise bankrupt United States.

The irony is scarcely wasted on leading Marxist thinkers. “The domination of capitalism globally depends today on the existence of a Chinese Communist Party that gives delocalised capitalist enterprises cheap labour to lower prices and deprive workers of the rights of self-organisation,” said Jacques Ranciere, the French Marxist thinker and professor of philosophy at the University of Paris VIII. “Happily, it is possible to hope for a world less absurd and more just than today’s.”

That hope, perhaps, explains another improbable truth of our economically catastrophic times the revival of interest in Karl Marx and Marxist thought.

Sales of Das Kapital, Marx’s masterpiece of political economy, have soared ever since 2008, as have those of The Communist Manifesto and the Grundrisse (Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy). Their sales rose as British workers bailed out the banks to keep the degraded system going and the snouts of the rich firmly in their troughs while the rest of us struggle in debt, job insecurity or worse.

Five-day festival
And in perhaps the most lovely reversal of the luxuriantly bearded revolutionary theorist’s fortunes, Marx was recently chosen from a list of 10 contenders to appear on a new issue of MasterCard by customers of German bank Sparkasse in Chemnitz. In communist East Germany from 1953 to 1990, Chemnitz was known as Karl Marx Stadt. Clearly, more than two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the former East Germany has not airbrushed its Marxist past.

Would Marx have appreciated the irony of his image being deployed on a card to get Germans deeper in debt? You would think.

This month in London, several thousand people will attend Marxism 2012, a five-day festival organised by the Socialist Workers’ Party. It is an annual event, but what strikes organiser Joseph Choonara is how, in recent years, many more of its attendees are young.

“The revival of interest in Marxism, especially for young people, comes because it provides tools for analysing capitalism and especially capitalist crises such as the one we’re in now,” Choonara said.

There has been a glut of books trumpeting Marxism’s relevance. English literature professor Terry Eagleton last year published a book called Why Marx Was Right. French Maoist philosopher Alain Badiou published a little red book called The Communist Hypothesis with a red star on the cover (very Mao, very now) in which he rallied the faithful to usher in the third era of the communist idea (the previous two having gone from the establishment of the French Republic in 1792 to the massacre of the Paris communards in 1871, and from 1917 to the collapse of Mao’s Cultural Revolution in 1976).

Innovation
Is this not all a delusion? Are Marx’s venerable ideas not as useful to us as the hand loom would be to shore up Apple’s reputation for innovation?

Is the dream of socialist revolution and communist society not an irrelevance in 2012? After all, the bourgeoisie has failed to produce its own gravediggers.

Ranciere refused to be downbeat: “The bourgeoisie has learned to make the exploited pay for its crisis and to use them to disarm its adversaries. But we must not reverse the idea of historical necessity and conclude that the current situation is eternal. The gravediggers are still here in the form of workers in precarious conditions like the over-exploited workers of factories in the Far East. And today’s popular movements – Greece or elsewhere – also indicate that there’s a new will not to let our governments and our bankers inflict their crisis on the people.”

That, at least, is the perspective of a seventysomething Marxist professor.

What about younger people of a Marxist temper? I asked Jaswinder Blackwell-Pal, a 22-year-old English and drama student at Goldsmiths College, London, who has just finished her BA course in English and drama, why she considered Marxist thought still relevant.

Inspiring
“The point is that younger people [in the UK today] weren’t around when Thatcher was in power or when Marxism was associated with the Soviet Union,” she says. “We tend to see it more as a way of understanding what we’re going through now. Think of what’s happening in Egypt. When Mubarak fell it was so inspiring.”

This, surely, is the key to understanding Marxism’s renaissance in the West: for younger people, it is untainted by the association with Stalinist gulags.

For younger people too, Francis Fukuyama’s triumphalism in his 1992 book, The End of History, in which capitalism seemed incontrovertible, its overthrow impossible to imagine, exercises less of a choke-hold on their imaginations than it does on those of their elders.

After last year’s riots, and with most of Britain alienated from the rich men in its government’s Cabinet, only a fool would rule it out.

Ranciere argues that “one thing about Marxist thought that remains solid is class struggle. The disappearance of our factories, that’s to say de-industrialisation of our countries and the outsourcing of industrial work to the countries where labour is less expensive and more docile, what else is this other than an act in the class struggle by the ruling bourgeoisie?”

Analysis of class struggle There is another reason why Marxism has something to teach us as we struggle through economic depression, other than its analysis of class struggle. It is in its analysis of economic crisis. In his formidable new tome, Less than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, Slavoj Zizek tries to apply Marxist thought on economic crises to what we are enduring right now. Zizek considers the fundamental class antagonism to be between “use value” and “exchange value”.

What is the difference between the two? Each commodity has a use value, he explained, measured by its usefulness in satisfying needs and wants. The exchange value of a commodity, by contrast, is traditionally measured by the amount of labour that goes into making it. Under capitalism, Zizek argued, exchange value becomes autonomous.

“It is transformed into a spectre of self-propelling capital, which uses the productive capacities and needs of actual people only as its temporary disposable embodiment. Marx derived his notion of economic ­crisis from this very gap: a crisis occurs when reality catches up with the illusory self-generating mirage of money begetting more money – this speculative madness cannot go on indefinitely; it has to explode in even more serious crises. The ultimate root of the crisis for Marx is the gap between use and exchange value: the logic of exchange value follows its own path, its own mad dance, irrespective of the real needs of real people.”

In such uneasy times, who better to read than the greatest catastrophist theoriser of human history, Karl Marx? And yet the renaissance of interest in Marxism has been pigeonholed as an apologia for Stalinist totalitarianism.

In a recent blog on “the new communism” for the journal World Affairs, Alan Johnson, professor of democratic theory and practice at Edge Hill University in Lancashire, wrote: “A worldview [that was] the source of immense suffering and misery and responsible for more deaths than fascism and Nazism is mounting a comeback; a new form of left-wing totalitarianism that enjoys intellectual celebrity but aspires to political power. The New Communism matters not because of its intellectual merits, but because it may yet influence ­layers of young Europeans in the context of an exhausted social democracy, austerity and a self-loathing intellectual culture,” wrote Johnson. “Tempting as it is, we can’t afford to just shake our heads and pass on by.”

Lefty farts
That is the fear: that these nasty old lefty farts such as Zizek, Badiou, Ranciere and Eagleton will corrupt the minds of innocent youth. But does reading Marx and Engels’s critique of capitalism mean that you thereby take on a worldview responsible for more deaths than the Nazis? Surely there is no straight line from The Communist Manifesto to the gulags and no reason why young lefties need uncritically to adopt Badiou at his most chilling?

In his introduction to a new edition of The Communist Manifesto, Professor Eric Hobsbawm suggests that Marx was right to argue that the “contradictions of a market system based on no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’, a system of exploitation and of ‘endless accumulation’ can never be overcome: that at some point in a series of transformations and restructurings the development of this essentially destabilising system will lead to a state of affairs that can no longer be described as capitalism”.

That is post-capitalist society as dreamed of by Marxists. But what would it be like? “It is extremely unlikely that such a ‘post-capitalist society’ would respond to the traditional models of socialism and still less to the ‘really existing’ socialisms of the Soviet era,” said Hobsbawm, adding that it would, however, necessarily involve a shift from private appropriation to social management on a global scale. “What forms it might take and how far it would embody the humanist values of Marx’s and Engels’s communism would depend on the political action through which this change came about.”

This is surely Marxism at its most liberating, suggesting that our futures depend on us and our readiness for struggle. Or as Marx and Engels put it at the end of The Communist Manifesto: “Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.” – © Guardian News & Media 2012

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