To what extent is Marxism still relevant today
"In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity...society regulates production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic." (Marx/Engels - The German Ideology)
I love talking and thinking about politics and to imagine a better society, where I can reflect on what to write in my essays, but the quality of these activities would change very much, if one was not forced to do it, to pass exams, to get a degree, and eventually to find a job to survive in the capitalist society. Everyone knows the difference between self-fulfilling activity and the obligation of wage labour, what we normally call work.
When we are looking at the quotation above, we see that Marxism is rather a social utopia than a political program. The utopia of a society without exploitation of people by people, a society where concurrence is abolished and the voluntary cooperation of men and women is the motor of production.
The precondition for this view is the idea, that the individual is a social being and for that reason must be analysed in its social and historical context and that is continually in development.
The fundamental difference in the history of political thought between the "left wing" and the "right wing" is based on the view of the human being. Hobbes for example describes the condition of archaic societies as a "bellum omnium contra omnes"2, that is why the main fear of men comes from its similars so to protect people from people, there is the need of a strong state and law and order. You ca not change mankind, there is no development...
There were always these two views of humans that built the basics of ideologies and it seems to be more a matter of belief than a fact that you can prove.
In the last decades we experienced a dominance of what I call "new liberal" thinking, conservative think tanks began to describe human behaviour with the rules of the "neo classical" school of economics, that sees the person as a advantage maximising individual, all aspects of life are tried to explain as economic behaviour.
In 1989 the concurrent system to capitalism lost its last battle of the cold war; the right celebrated the victory of capitalism and liberal democracy and the left was paralysed. The well-known Francis Fukuyama described the "End of history" as "the end point of mankind′s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy." (National Interest, 1989, 16) In the same article Fukuyama says that it will be a sad time, because there is not going to be any ideological struggle any more, "idealism would be replaced by economic calculations, the endless solving of technical problems environmental concerns and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer needs."
The right wing´s argument against Marxism today is the breakdown of communism and the dark sides of the soviet system, although we know from an Marxist point of view, that the system in Russia had not anything to do with the ideal and the utopia of Marxism. It was state capitalism without any form of democracy that failed because of social movements in Eastern Europe, for example Solidarinosc in Poland.
The problem is that left wing intellectuals fell into agony after 1989 because they shared the feeling that capitalism had won and the world is bad, many of them stopped to think about alternatives and lost their utopia, went fishing, or some orthodox ones lost their belief and became "new liberals", others searched for "third ways".
The dominance of new liberalism also colonised the social democracy, for example the words of the social democratic Austrian chancellor, who said in the eighties, that somebody who has visions needs a doctor.
The theory of the third way left the road of Marxism as a result of 1989 and is defined by Anthony Giddens as a way between old social democracy and new liberalism. The question is: is the third way a road that leads to nowhere? It is very likely so because there is no final perspective. I would explain it rather as a parking lot of conservative and liberal political ideas, than as a way.
Ten years after the transition in the east we are facing a growing social movement with a big scepticism about the economic globalisation, more and more people experience the negative effects of capitalism and more and more people are claiming for alternatives.
Social utopias are still relevant because naturally an other system comes to your mind, when you are not satisfied, even if they are only wishes sort of dreams, the next step is the thinking process to realise your dreams. You cannot kill utopias. Marxism is still relevant as an utopia to reach a society of free and equal.
The function of ideologies is to conquer the minds, because the actions of people are led from their view of the world and their wishes. Ideology only has an influence on a personality if there is a belief in it. The task of the academic left (if there is still one) today is to win back the hegemony at the battlefield of ideas.
2. Marxism as an instrument of critique
I think it is incontestable that Marxism is still relevant as a critique of capitalism the state and liberal democracy. Marxism is a child of the Industrial Revolution and was born as a reaction to the bad effects of proletarianisation, dependency on wage labour, the new mode of production, which caused hunger and oppression.
The theory that the development of the capitalist system, with a growing number of wage labourers leads more or less automatically to a revolution forgot, that capitalism was able to react to social and economic changes very fast. So the ruling class understood how to bring more and more wage employees on their side (ex. white collar employees).
Nevertheless a big majority in Europe has to live with their income through wage labour, and when we look to a world perspective, we find a massive proletarianisation in the world. (compare Callinocos, 1992, p. 113), In a world perspective we also see growing differences between the south and the north, which makes Marx′s theory in a global perspective very plausible.
Globalised capitalism with its "new liberal" face, hasn′t found an answer to the exploitation of nature and the growing social inequalities. The waste of resources and the economic crisis can′t be abolished through capitalism. The principle of profit is the principle of exploitation.
The regular breakdowns of the stock markets with their destructive effects on states, is a good example.
Marx knew that the state couldn′t be neutral, because the state represents the interests of the ruling classes and the owners of the resources, that′s why liberal democracy could not be a real democracy, it leads to
"a passive citizenery - in the 1988 presidential elections in the US, upper-income electors were twice as likely to vote as lower income electors: the displacement of parliamentary institutions by unelected centres of power - [....]; structural constraints on the piecemeal transformation of capitalism - it was above all the massive flight of capital from France which forced the Mitterand administration to abandon the program of reforms on which it was elected in 1981." (Callinicos, 1992, p. 109)
Variables like class, gender and income are very important for a sociological description of the society, the marxist point of view, played always an important role for class analyses and the question, who has the power in a society, who owns the production means and so on.
3. Marxism as an alternative
First we have to define our aims even if they are utopian, first we have to know what we want, then we can search for ways to reach our aims. We will see that there are many ways that lead in the same direction, so the main difference between Marxists, are the means they are using.
Marx "conceived the post capitalist future as an association of all workers, an association in which freedom and equality were combined through (1) the democratic regulation of society; (2) the end of politics; (3) the planned use of resources; (4) efficient production; and (5) greater leisure." (Held, 1999, p. 147)
These are the aims shared by all Marxists to overcome capitalism, to abolish the state and the power and to introduce democratic self-government. What they all have in common is the utopia.
The differences between them are the way to come closer to these aims.
Libertarian Marxists reject all forms of compromises with organisations of the capitalist society, authoritarian leadership, division of labour. They refuse party organisation. They believe that progress can only be made with democratically organised mass movements.
Pluralists are using the institutional framework of the liberal democracy to win control of the state for restructuring it. They believe in the necessity of party organisation, using power to abolish it and extension of participation. Many social democratic parties, some communist parties come from this tradition, green movements can be subsumed under this category too.
The orthodox Marxist branch belief in a strong party organisation with professional leadership and cadre discipline, but rejects compromises with the capitalist democracy, which only represents the interests of the capital. (compare Held, 1999, p. 148 - 150)
So Marxists are fighting in many places, in parliaments (pluralists), in basic movements (libertarians), in hidden places (planning the revolution), but they all meet on big demonstrations against globalisation. They don′t like each other, but every branch plays its role.
The orthodox Marxists lost influence, but the forces of the traditional democratic left in the parliaments could come closer to libertarians, because of the growing movement against new liberalism. In the so-called "civil society" we will find libertarian Marxists.
The main difference between these two factions is the question of reform or revolution. Pluralists wanted to get control of the state to transform capitalism, but they became part of the state and of the capitalist system, many lost their ideologies (Third Way), but there are still some left in the institutions. They won´t bring innovation, what they could remobilize is a strong democratic, anti capitalist basic movement, that is inspired by libertarian Marxist ideas.
If this movement is strong enough, it could be the beginning of a new age of a sustainable transformation of capitalism to something different, what seems not realistic at the moment, but who knows.
In any case the libertarian branch with its allies in the civil society could wake up the old pluralists in the parliaments and party machines to start a new offensive against new liberalism, to improve democracy, to concentrate on redistribution and to get back or defend important public resources and so on.
My theory is, that social movements are a motor of reform, even if they don`t manage to bring revolutionary changes. Marxism always was a threat for the capitalism, that forced capitalism to adapt, but not the theory brought a welfare state or socialist elements to capitalist states, it were always the social movements in connection with the utopia that brought the change.
I believe that Marxism is an alternative, because of the weak sides of capitalism and liberal democracy, the exploitation of humans and the nature, the waste of resources and the social inequality, but as long as we don`t have Marxism as an practical alternative, it has three functions:
As an utopia it shows us an aim a direction, as an analysing method helps it to show us the contradictions of capitalism and it is a threat for the free market system and liberal democracy, that could lead to an permanent reform of the system. Perhaps we need no revolution. Perhaps capitalism will reform as long as it turns into a communist society, and if not, the revolution will come, Marx said.
Callinicos, A: The Revenge of History: Marxism and the East European Revolutions (Polity Press, Cambridge, 1992).
Duncan, G.: Democratic theory and practice (University Press, Cambridge, 1983)
Held, D.: Models of Democracy (Blackwell, Cambridge, 1999) chapter 4.
Levin, M: Marxism and Democratic theory in Duncan, g. 1983.
Booth, W.J.: Making Sense of Marx concept of Communism (1989, Political Theory, 17/2).
Fukujama, F.: The End of History? (1989, National Interest, 16)
Halliday, F.: An Encounter with Francis Fukuyama (1992, New Left Review No. 193).
Milibald, R.: Fukuyama and the socialist Alternative (1992, New Left Review No. 193)
Milibald, R.: The Plausability of Socialism (1994, New Left Review No. 206).
Pierson, C.: Democracy, Markets and Capital: Are there Necessary Economic Limits to Democracy? (1992, Political Studies, Special Issue).
Rustin, M.: No Exit from Capitalism? (1992, New Left Review No. 193).
1 Utopos means nowhere, a place that doesn′t exist; an utopia is the birth of a wish.
2 War between all
If you are the original writer of this essay and no longer wish to have the essay published on the UK Essays website then please click on the link below to request removal: