Marxism's Obit Is Premature

By Fox, Robin | The Nation, May 14, 1990 | Go to article overview

Marxism's Obit Is Premature


Fox, Robin, The Nation


Has history ended? Is communism dead and democracy triumphant? Is the future one of endless minor readjustments of an essentially capitalist economy and liberal democratic polity? Is Marxism discredited? We have been hearing variations on these themes ever since the Poles started knocking over the dominoes in Eastern Europe and Gorbachev started on the road to perestroika and glasnost in the Soviet Union.

But perhaps we should pause to ask just what has ended, what is dead, what is discredited? Glee may be premature; what is happening may be the reverse of what is celebrated so cheerfully. What is happening may well be to the discredit of certain totalitarian regimes, but does the fall of Ceausescu mean the demise of Marxism as a theory of social change? Does the introduction of free-market elements into socialist economies mean the inevitable triumph of capitalism? Let us be cautious.

On the theoretical front, what is in disrepute is a theory often loosely labeled "Marxism" by careless commentators but always carefully noted as Marxism-Leninism" by the pedants. And to the strict adherent to the works of Marx it is the "Leninism" that is operative. Marx certainly called for a "revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat" to insure that the forces of capitalist reaction would not overturn the fragile revolution. But it was to be strictly a transitional stage on the way to true communism, not a permanent institutionalization of state power. Marx hated the state - any version-as vehemently as the most dedicated laissez-faire capitalist. "Freedom consists in transforming the state from an organ dominating society into one completely subordinate to it,' he wrote in 1875 in his "Critique of the Gotha Program." This statement could have been proudly displayed on the banners in Poland and Romania.

Lenin began the process of totalitarian statism that ended in Stalin and his immediate successors. The true meaning of Marxism was distorted as surely as the Christian Church has distorted the teachings of Christ. (Perhaps we should really call Christianity Christism-Paulism," to push the analogy. Thus what is happening now could even be seen as a kind of Reformation; but read on.) The total domination by a state apparatus was anathema to Marx, and he would have rejoiced along with the rest of us to see it fall. That it was a socialist" and not a "capitalist" state makes no difference. Marx held no particular brief for the notion of a socialist state; that was Lenin's contribution.

What Marx did not foresee was that the overthrow of the capitalist state would be neither immediate nor irreversible; it might have its ups and downs, its progressions and regressions. Many commentators have pointed out that one of the difficulties with his theory is that the revolution was not predicted for Russia or for Eastern Europe, and certainly not for China; all of these were notably undeveloped capitalist societies. And we must remember that the fiercest internal struggle in Russia was not between proletarians and capitalists at all but between the Stalinist state and the recalcitrant peasantry, from 1929 to 1933. It can be (and has been) plausibly argued that what took place in Russia and China was not a genuine proletarian revolution against capitalism at all, and that what followed was certainly not a genuine dictatorship of the proletariat but the establishment of yet another Oriental despotism. Milovan Djilas, in The New Class, gives one version of this criticism from within the Marxist tradition.

After World War II this form of statism was forced onto the incipiently industrial-capitalist Eastern European countries (with the connivance of the capitalist states). In addition, nailing Marxism-Leninism' to their mastheads, various Third World "revolutionaries" proceeded to establish totalitarian states in tribal and peasant societies, which had in most cases not even reached the first stage of capitalism. …

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