Remaking American Marxism

By Marable, Manning | Monthly Review, January 1991 | Go to article overview

Remaking American Marxism

Marable, Manning, Monthly Review

Manning Marable is currently a Professor of Political Science, History, and Sociology, and affiliated with the Center for Studies of Ethnicity He has just completed a political biography of Malcolm X, to be published and Race in America, at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado in 1991, and is the author of African and Caribbean Politics (London: Verso, 1987) and W.E.B. Du Bois (Boston: Twayne, 1986).

A new political orthodoxy now unites American liberals and conservatives alike: the Cold War is over, the century-long conflict between capitalism and socialism has finally ended, with capitalism triumphant. The death of both Marxism specifically and socialism in general are now widely taken for granted. The proof of this, one African socialist theorist recently observed, is the example of the Berlin Wall. "The fact that pieces of the wall were sold rather than distributed freely," Wamba-dia-Wamba observed, "underlines the reality that capitalism has won."

The apologists for capitalism now argue that the collapse of the Soviet socialist model was inevitable on economic, political, and even moral grounds. They argue that freedom in the political sphere, the unfettered competition between parties in an electoral system governed by laws, is directly dependent on a market-driven economic system, or free enterprise. Such views are now advocated by many of the new political forces in Eastern Europe and the USSR. Earlier this year, an economist elected to the Leningrad city council declared that his country must move quickly "from MarxismLeninism, through socialism, to Reaganism."

These recent political upheavals have provoked sharp debate throughout the international left. The current debate over perestroika which appears to be developing within the Communist Party U.S.A. has erupted with much greater intensity in other left parties. The majority of the largest bloc within the British Communist Party has effectively disintegrated. Other parties have questioned their political ideology and in some instances have moved to rename themselves, identifying with the concept "democratic socialism."

Within the United States, the collapse of the Soviet socialist model in Eastern Europe, combined with the unexpected defeat of the Sandinistas in the 1990 election in Nicaragua, has created an unmistakable climate of self-doubt, disillusionment, and even defection from the left. A small number of former leftists are saying that capitalism has been proven correct by historical events, that socialism was an illusion or a fraud. But the vast majority of these leftists have not capitulated to Milton Friedman and Ronald Reagan. Instead, some are taking refuge in what can be described as pre-Marxian forms of socialism. They say that classical Marxian theories, the labor theory of value and dialectical materialism, are no longer valid. In a manner reminiscent of the Frankfurt School Marxists of the 1930s, those theorists whose search for a humanistic socialism in the face of Stalinism led backward to Hegel and Kant, or to the writings of the young Marx, they are resuscitating versions of utopian Marxism as "post-Marxism" or "post-modern socialism. "

Others have moved away from identification with the very concept of socialism. Some argue that this is a tactical necessity, particularly within the United States, which has a political culture which is profoundly individualistic, entrepreneurial, and influenced by anti-socialist discourse. Because of McCarthyism and anti-Sovietism, the argument goes, we need to advocate socialist objectives without actually calling ourselves who we really are.

A more sophisticated version of this position is what might be termed "radical democratic" theory, best represented by the work of theorists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis. They argue that Marxism neglects many non-class forms of oppression, that "socialism" as a political term does not embrace the complexity of the goals they project for democratic change, and that liberal capitalism can be gradually transformed into a version of economic democracy, or a "post-liberal society. …

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