On your Marx, get set, go

MARXISMS IN THE 21ST CENTURY: CRISIS, CRITIQUES AND STRUGGLES (Democratic Marxism series) edited by Michelle Williams and Vishwas Satgar (Wits University Press)

The launch of Marxisms in the 21st Century at the University of the Witwatersrand was a joyful occasion – literally so, prefaced as it was by a large contingent of workers and students in red T-shirts singing the joyfully defiant struggle song I Am a Communist.

Nice to hear that again, in a period when it sometimes seems the label here has been appropriated by praise singers for a capitalist government, or wannabe opportunists seeking to feast from the same trough.

The singers were members of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), the union that has led calls for a rejection of current ruling-party hegemony. In that context, the book reflects an interesting genesis and is likely to play an important role.

In 2010, 18 Numsa members enrolled at Wits for a certificate in social theory and research programme, one outcome of a Numsa conference decision to open higher learning to workers. The course continues; this year, 20 graduates received their certificates in April. The book’s editors credit course participants over the years with providing an important forum in which its component ideas and arguments could be explored.

But the relationship goes further, because the book itself (and the planned series) in this context will be more than scholarly volumes for libraries. Their arguments will contribute to a longer-term, broader, progressive labour movement process, the Movement for Socialism, that is exploring the construction of a new working-class party.

‘Organisational weapon’
Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim announced at the end of the union’s central executive committee meeting on May 14 that the launch of a precursor structure – “an organisational weapon against neoliberal policies” provisionally titled the United Front – will take place on June 26 in Kliptown. The appearance of Marxisms … at this point is another signal of broken patience with the government’s lip service to leftism.

The aim of this collection is not to define Marxism but, as its title declares, to explore the variety of positions, analyses and debates that have emerged under the banner. That provides a refreshing diversity. All the same, some readers – especially if their only previous encounters with the term are through media calumnies – might hanker after one essay drawing together the unifying threads.

Instead, the book’s 300 pages are divided into three sections. The first explores the place of these Marxisms in debates about democracy and current analyses of globalised economic and power systems. The book’s central section looks at how the Marxisms have shaped and contributed to various progressive debates around feminism and the environment. Finally the book moves from global and issue-based engagements to an exploration of Marxism and socialism on the African continent and in South Africa.

The book opens with a framing essay from editor Michelle Williams, which is burdened by something bogging down some other chapters as well: the need to review a mass of existing literature. Inevitably, doing this with care and responsibility (as Williams does) overshadows the discussion of new things.

At times, it also creates an almost apologetic tone, as Williams answers the critiques not only of Marxist scholars, but also of Western academics who were the paid propagandists of the Cold War. Following this, Michael Burawoy and co-editor Vishwas Satgar discuss the relevance of Karl Polanyi and Antonio Gramsci respectively.

Sharply relevant
The second section includes one of the book’s most engaging chapters. Devan Pillay’s essay on Marx and the Eco-logic of Fossil Capitalism is honest, accessible and sharply relevant. Pillay unpicks the reflexive identification often made between Marxism and the environmentally destructive practices of certain states. He demonstrates that environmental concerns were present in historical Marxism from its earliest years. They rarely took centre stage, and in the 20th century were increasingly sidelined by anthropocentric and statist drives for expansion.

Pillay demonstrates the necessity of a “red-brown-green alliance” in ending the capitalist policy of growth at all costs; mining historical Marxism, contemporary Marxist and environmental scholarship, and popular movements for his evidence. It’s an exhilarating ride.

Just as the now undeniable impact of climate change makes it urgent to restore the Marxist environmental vision, so current gender concerns demand something that builds on but transcends the predominantly women- and work-oriented Marxist-feminist debates of the 1980s. Disappointingly, in the same section Jacklyn Cock and Meg Luxton’s survey of Marxism and Feminism: Unhappy Marriage or Creative Partnership? rests on an extended literature review, drawing very heavily on material published before 1990.

Where some feminists might have hoped for a return to the nuanced consideration of gender found in the writings of Alexandra Kollontai, she gets short shrift here. Discussion of gender rather than “women” is scanty, and there is little consideration of the contemporary ideological forms that the individualisation and commodification of gender roles have taken and how current schools of Marxist thought deal with these.

Intersectionality, for example, is dismissed with “very few studies actually succeed in dealing adequately with all three [issues of gender, race and class]”, and a blithe concluding assertion (barely argued in the chapter) that “accusations of a white feminist epistemological imperialism are no longer apt”.

The final part of the book has the most to offer readers seeking debate on South Africa’s decline from counterhegemonic liberation vision to crude, self-enriching, elite empiricism. John Saul’s magisterial survey of Southern African states points out parallels between South Africa’s trajectory and those of some of its neighbours, and the way those neighbours’ failures were not analysed for lessons by the ANC, but rather used to justify South Africa’s choices. Saul unpicks the grip of global market thinking and the role of corruption in the continental “victory for elite-assisted recolonisation”.

Patrick Bond, Ashwin Desai and Trevor Ngwane, in the jaw-breakingly titled Uneven and Combined Marxism within South Africa’s Urban Social Movements, build on the impact this market thinking and the inequality it reinforces has on, for example, the mechanisms for participation created by South Africa’s new democracy.

Finally, Mazibuko Jara illuminates how the ANC has consistently used left and Marxist rhetoric to justify and mask neoliberal policies.

In a clear sign that critiques of capitalism are fashionable again, the international media are currently obsessed with Thomas Piketty’s Capitalism in the 21st Century. That book’s main thread – that “capital … accumulates faster than growth” so that, under capitalism, inequality inevitably worsens – is not as novel as nonMarxist journalists seem to believe.

Piketty’s is an explicitly anti-Marxist theory; for him, global redistributive taxation in a still capitalist world offers a way out. That, together with his data-based approach, probably explains his appeal for those reluctant to abandon mainstream economic paradigms entirely. International reviewers and commentators, however, might learn more from paying attention to books such as Marxisms … that discuss genuine alternatives being crafted in those parts of the globe where the majority of its people live.

It’s a pity some – though not all – contributors could not have written or been edited more accessibly, to make reading and debate outside the academy easier. There is

no innate merit in writing one 68-word sentence rather than two or three with a lower individual word count, even before that behemoth sentence is loaded with 27 polysyllabic jargon terms. If the intention of the book is to open up democratic debate about Marxism, then how words are crafted is a political act too. There is an unquestioning acceptance by all the authors of the paradigms of conservative academic writing: that the voice of the writer is impersonal, and that the voices of subjects – people in struggle – are rarely heard unmediated.

And a larger question kept nagging, although it may be one that a subsequent volume will tackle. Numsa News, heralding the launch of the social theory and research programme back in 2010, quotes one course participant as hankering for more links between course content and the concrete problems of the shopfloor. Parts of the book left me with a similar feeling. It contains a fair amount of breast-beating about Marxism’s past sins, but offers rather less consideration of the circumstances in which these were ­committed.

Various initially or nominally Marxist regimes and movements faced very real, unrelenting physical (and not simply ideological or economic) attacks. It was easy and often convincing, in the short term, to find justification for a retreat to dogmatic, repressive vanguardism in these circumstances. How can you achieve fast, effective, but still democratic decision-making when they’re shooting at you? That’s the sharp end of this particular debate, but only Patrick Bond’s afterword to his co-authored article even begins to approach it. As the mineworker families of Marikana know only too well, it remains a relevant question.

Any book that makes you want to extend those kinds of debates is welcome. Marxisms … merits a place, not merely on your bookshelf but –open – on your table, where you can read and talk about it.The appearance of the book is another signal of broken patience with the government’s lip-service to leftism.

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Gwen Ansell
Gwen Ansell is a freelance writer, writing teacher, media consultant and creative industries researcher. She is the author of various books, including the cultural history ‘Soweto Blues: Jazz, Politics and Popular Music in South Africa’ and the writers’ guide, ‘Introduction to Journalism’.

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