The End of State-Socialism and The Future of Marxism
By Dr. Nasir Khan
The New World Order
The rapid course of events that had started unfolding in the second half of 1989 in Eastern Europe eventually culminated in the disintegration of the Soviet Union by the end of 1991. These colossal changes in the former Eastern bloc countries undoubtedly constitute one of the major turning points in the history of the twentieth century. In view of the epochal changes that had taken place, political observers asked questions, such as: What will be the final outcome of these developments? What sort of new global order will emerge to replace the former balance of power between the East and the West? How is the United States as the sole superpower going to behave in relation to those countries that choose to follow their independent socio-economic developments, stand for their national interests or refuse to bow to the U.S. domination and pressure? As it turned out, no one had to wait long for the answers. The events during the last fourteen years are before us. They have revealed clearly the shape of international developments.
Let us take a quick glance at some of the events. We have seen how during the course of the last sixteen years the U.S. has virtually monopolized the United Nations and started to use it to dictate its decrees in the international organization. In the first place, this ploy succeeds because it gives the appearance of legalistic formality to the American conduct before the silent majority in the international community who in any case has little or no effective influence on the major decisions, which are taken in the Security Council. Secondly, this practice has been closely associated with…asserting the full weight of the U.S., the only superpower in the international arena. The foundation of this role is to protect and increase the sphere of the U.S. interests. These, in any case, are not confined to any fixed area or location; they extend to the whole world in general, and in particular, the oil-rich countries of the Middles East. At the same time, only the U.S. can define and proclaim its national interests in any manner it chooses to do so. This assertion of supra-national interests is backed by the most destructive military arsenal and prowess in the human history as well as by using the policy of terror and intimidation against those countries that dare to defy the United States diktat. The continuing economic and political strangulation of Cuba; economic sanctions, political and military pressure against Libya until its recent change of course; the support of dictators and oligarchs in the Third World countries; the unleashing of the war against Iraq in 1991 when Iraq had clearly agreed to withdraw from Kuwait; the misuse of the United Nations for the U.S. geopolitical designs world-over; opposing the lifting of the UN economic sanctions (read U.S.-dictated sanctions) against Iraq since 1991 and thus holding a nation of twenty-two million people practically as the hostages of the United States; the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and installing a puppet regime; the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, are a few instances of the present political realities. The American realpolitik, also called the New World Order, was now a retooling of the old strategic designs of global hegemony and the imposition of superpower diktat in a changed international situation consequent upon the break-up of the Soviet Union. The vast vacuum created by the disappearance of Soviet power which often had operated to counter-balance the U.S. power-politics in international arena, left the field open for the United States. For the U.S. rulers the situation provided a green light for accelerating their strategic designs of global hegemony.
The break-up of the Soviet Union
In our view, these present-day developments are closely related to the political conditions arising from the collapse of the Soviet Union. The end of the Soviet Union had great impact internationally. Apart from the consequences of these epochal changes in the international system of relations and the emergence of the United States as the unbridled hegemonic superpower, we are also face to face with the issues that are related to the collapse of the ‘real existing socialism’ in the former Eastern bloc, where the bureaucratic and monolithic system of nomenclature had stifled the living essence of Marxism. The fall of the system of nomenclature has also been interpreted as ‘the death of Marxism’ as if bureaucratic state-socialism and Marxism were one and the same thing. What is often ignored or is given little attention in this interpretation is to fall in a category mistake and I emphasize that distinction between these two should be clearly borne in mind. It will help us to analyze the problematic in a scientific manner and save us from following blindly the stereotypes of confused and confusing viewpoints that are rampant at present.
In this article we shall deal with two related questions. The first one is: how far can Marxism as a philosophical system in general be held responsible for the shortcomings of the collapsed regimes? And secondly, where does Marxism stand in a wider philosophical and political perspective in the future developments?
Any attempt directed to give an adequate answer to each of these questions will require a lot of factors and causes for analysis and evaluation as well as a general purview of growing number of views and opinions, both at serious academic and popular journalistic level. A comprehensive and detailed discussion of disparate aspects of the questions before us will not be attempted here. I intend to present only a limited number of views, leaving aside some important details and perspectives as advanced by a number of writers. The first part of the article is meant to highlight the representative response to these developments both of the academic Left and Right and the salient features of the collapsed regimes. This will be followed by the discussion whether the end of state-socialism means the end of socialism or the ‘death of Marxism’ as it is popularly called in the bourgeois press. In the final part, I will mention the role and relevance of socialist values and the place of Marxism in the social sciences.
The ideological basis of these regimes has been interpreted and classified in a number of different ways depending on the ideological outlook of the onlookers. The so-called ‘really existing socialism’ has been an extraordinarily complicated and controversial subject. We can see that within the worldwide communist movement represented by political parties, Leftist groups or in many cases individual writers the views on the issue have been varied. They interpret and classify these regimes differently. Generally speaking, the epithets like socialists, communists, totalitarian, authoritarian, Marxists, Marxist-Leninists and Stalinists are commonly used. We could also add designations of state-capitalism, state-socialism and bureaucratic-socialism. While referring to other writers I shall use the terms as they use it. However, the meanings they attach to these terms are obvious enough. Having said that, we should not forget that theories, doctrines and viewpoints do not explain themselves. They are interpreted and given meanings and content by the people. It also means that two different persons well acquainted in the same theory can have different and perhaps conflicting notions of the same theory with regard to its form and content. A wide-ranging philosophical outlook and political practice, which has come to be associated with Marxism, cannot be an exception to this general rule.
The breakdown of the system
Seemingly, there was very little to point to the imminent collapse of East European regimes that started in 1989. Western specialists on the Soviet and Eastern Europe were caught by a surprisingly rapid course of events. The general mood in the West was profoundly conservative. The decade had been marked by a general trend of economic recovery after a protracted period of economic chaos, inflation and suppression of the power of the trade union movement in Britain and the U.S.A. The United States had not undertaken any major military or political adventures except for supporting the military dictators, dynastic oligarchs and anti-revolutionary forces in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The advanced capitalist countries represented that portion of the globe from which the idea of revolution had long since become an academic question. The economic and social stagnation of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was indicative that there was no longer any danger of the spread of revolutionary socialism from these countries. In fact, there was very little interest in the Soviet hierarchy to provide any tangible support to the revolutionary causes in places where people were struggling against the legacy of colonialism, neo-colonialism, racism, Zionism and the apartheid system. It is true the ruling oligarchies and dictatorial regimes in the Third World closely dependent on U.S. imperialism and western powers did raise the bogey of the Soviet hand in all forms of struggle for national liberation and democracy. In the last decade of the crumbling Soviet system, the Soviet rulers had no interest either to support the cause of socialism or the national liberation movements in Third World countries. The reactionary forces used anti-Communist rhetoric to bolster their power during the Cold War period. In the international arena, economic and military pendulum had decisively swung to the side of the United States and the West whereas the Soviet system had started to show its unwieldy cracks. The stagnant bureaucratic state system was no longer able to cope with the growing economic and social problems.
How western capitalism viewed the situation was ably put forward by the American philosopher Francis Fukuyama. He was the deputy director of the U.S. State Department’s Planning Staff. In 1989, he wrote in the summer issue of the right-wing journal The National Interest his instantly famous article “The End of History?” By all accounts this is an important article, not because of the accuracy of Fukuyama’s theoretical presuppositions or philosophical representations, which are lacking in depth and are also full of historical inaccuracies, but because it provided a clear perspective and a guide to the world outlook of the U.S. Administration.
Fukuyama argues that liberalism, by which he means liberal capitalism, namely a combination of free market and political democracy has finally triumphed. The major challenges to liberalism, according to him, were fascism and communism. Fascism “…saw the political weakness, materialism, anomie, and lack of community of the West as fundamental contradictions in liberal societies that could only be resolved by a strong state that forged a new ‘people’ on the basis of national exclusiveness. Fascism was destroyed as a living ideology by World War Two” (Fukuyama, September 1989). And that ideological challenge mounted by communism, its most serious adversary, is now also seen to have failed. As far as America was concerned, the Marxian vision of a classless society was being realized. Fukuyama suggests: “But surely, the class issue has actually been resolved in the West. As Kojève (among others) noted, the egalitarianism of modern America represents the essential achievement of the classless society envisioned by Marx. This is not to say that there are not rich people and poor people in the United States, or that the gap between them has not grown in recent years.”(ibid., 9).
With the death of fascism and communism as political systems, Fukuyama sees no fundamental ideological competitors left for liberal capitalism. He dismisses the claims of nationalism and religion to be any formidable forces to challenge liberalism.
Alexandre Kojève bases the theoretical framework of his article on the influential interpretation of Hegel’s philosophy of history. Kojève was a serious Marxist scholar who had a big influence on the French thinkers as diverse as Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Bataille and Lacan on the Left and Raymond Aron on the Right. His lectures in the 1930s on Hegel’s “Phenomenology of Spirit” are a monument to his clear grasp of Hegel. For Kojève, the central moment in Hegel’s thought is the dialectic between the master and slave as expounded in the “Phenomenology of Spirit.” In my view, Hegel’s explication of dialectics, which pushes the course of history forward through the inter-action of master and slave, is the achievement of an inimitable genius. Those who are not quite familiar with this part of Hegel’s thought will find the master and slave dialectic stimulating to read. In brief, this shows that after his victory in the life-and-death confrontation in which one person emerges as the master by reason of risking his life in the struggle for reciprocal recognition and the other party as the slave, the master becomes a pure consumer and a dependent living on what the slave provides. Even though the slave had not risked his life to establish his humanity as the master did, the development and history come to be embodied in the slave. For, in his fear and subjection, the slave is forced to work, and through his labor, a practical activity, he develops skill, memory and the power of thought. He becomes the mover of history.
It is interesting to see how Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel, which is generally regarded as radical and proto-Marxian, is used by Fukuyama to uphold the cause of American liberalism. For Kojève’s Left-wing disciples, Hegel’s quasi-history of master and slave dialectic was an augury of class struggle between bourgeois and proletarian. History had not reached its end because the requisite recognition had not been achieved. But the goal of history had been stated and in this sense Marx was no more than a specification of Hegel’s project. For Fukuyama, on the other hand, the goal of history established by this dialectic was not communism but liberal democracy and consumer-capitalism. The defeat of fascism and the crumbling of communism in the 20th century finally brought about the end of the major challenges to liberalism.
On the basis of this analysis, Fukuyama concludes that history is over. The forthright victory of economic and political liberalism brings mankind’s ideological evolution in the shape of the ideals of the French Revolution to fruition. In the last paragraph, however, he sees the restart of history at some time in the distant future as possible. He writes: “The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the world-wide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands… Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.” (Fukuyama 1989, 18). This was a fantastic view of the life, after the final triumph of capitalism and liberal democracy on the Western model. Thus a world of Lotos-Eaters (it refers to a poem by the English poet Alfred Tennyson, depicting the leisurely life of the mariners in an imaginary island after their ship had sunk) was likely to shake off the drowsiness and stupor caused by consumer-capitalism. The wheels of history might start rolling again. Perhaps this consolation will be highly cherished by the coming generations who will see those happy days.
The hierarchical system
A lot of literature has arisen about the collapse of the “really existing socialism” in the former Eastern bloc. Within the Left, as mentioned before, there have been various and at times differing views on the question of socialism in the former Eastern bloc as well as on the status and place of Marxism. In this context, the Right has upheld its theoretical and political views rather consistently by projecting and portraying what socialism is or could possibly be in the worst possible colors. The enemies of socialism and almost all the bourgeois Establishment view the collapse of the Eastern bloc as being tantamount to the death of Marxism.
But what was the essential character of the socialist regimes? The two dominant characteristics of these regimes were an absolute monopoly of power enjoyed by a single party and an economy under state-ownership and control. First, political power monopolized in the single-party virtually meant power concentrated in the hands of party officials. The society was organized hierarchically. The hallmark of this was the system of nomenclature, which prescribed the position, obligations and privileges of each official engaged in decision-making. The higher echelons in this system guaranteed securities and privileges to the lower ones in exchange for absolute loyalty and obedience. There was little room for political dissent that could challenge the system. Various types of repressive measures were taken to deal with any real or perceived threat to the single-party rule. The Marxist concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat under socialism, which was to replace the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie under capitalism, somehow turned out to be, in reality, the dictatorship of the party over the proletariat. The state assumed all power and had nearly total control over the entire public life, culture and economy.
Secondly, the state became the owner of all public property and all means of production. Goods and services, shops, places of work and residence, factories and farms, machines and tools came under state ownership. The network of welfare system regarding the matters such as health, education and housing was able to meet the immediate needs of the people. Through a policy of full employment and state subsidies basic prices of food, energy, house-rents were low and within the reach of the common people. These were certainly important and positive contributions. We are aware of the fact that the achievements of the socialist regimes in these spheres are being totally ignored by the Western media now.
The general pattern
An important question is why these regimes followed this pattern. It is a historical fact that great revolutionary changes did take place, changes that deeply affected the political, economic, social and cultural life in these countries. The revolutions in the twentieth century in Russia, China, North Korea, Yugoslavia, Cuba and Afghanistan were a result of the internal conditions of the countries. After the great successes of the Soviet Union against the Nazi aggression in the Second World War, the Soviets were able to impose the new system on the former Axis satellites like Rumania, Bulgaria and Hungary as well as the Baltic states. Ralph Miliband, a firm critic of Stalinism, points to the profound changes wrought by the new regimes thus: “But whether internally generated or externally imposed, they were revolutions, of a very thorough kind, with fundamental changes in property relations, the elimination of traditional ruling classes, the access to power of previously excluded, marginalized and persecuted people, the complete transformation of state structures, massive changes in the occupational structure, and vast changes (or attempted changes) in the whole national culture.” (Miliband 1989, 28-29.)
But these regimes failed to develop or evolve any democratic institutions that could meet the aspirations of the people and the needs of the times. Very often behind the empty rhetoric of revolutionary struggle and the actions of the regimes, lay the dead weight of a rigid bureaucracy, which survived because it had imposed ossified conservatism on society. However, an analysis of the failure of regimes should take into account various causes, internal and external, and the results of their interaction on political developments. There were many factors, which contributed to the worsening of the socio-political situation. In this regard, first of all, we can point out, the internal economic and political level of development in these countries and, secondly, the conditions of civil wars and their impact on society as well as imperialist intervention, aggression, sabotage and destabilization.
Generally, the economic level of development in most of the former Eastern bloc countries where the revolutions took place had been very low. The only exceptions here were Czechoslovakia and East Germany. This means the revolutions did not take place with a good economic base. After the devastations of the Second World War, and the start of the Cold War the task of economic development was undertaken under extremely hostile circumstances and conditions. In each of these countries, after having overcome the opposition of the parties centered in the peasant parties and the Churches, the new regimes started collectivizing farms and nationalizing industries. Unlike the Russian example of rapid collectivization of agricultural land under Stalin and the liquidation of the kulaks, farming in East Europe was collectivized at a slower pace.
The many wars of aggression undertaken by the United States during the “Cold War,” in countries such as Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia and its various interventions in Afghanistan in the 1980s, apart from the savage destruction of human life and property and the basic infra-structure of these countries, also had a debilitating effect on the war-torn economy of the Soviet Union and other Eastern bloc countries because they gave military and economic aid to fight the imperialist aggression. Even after the demise of the Eastern bloc, the United States continues its economic blockade and political strangulation of Cuba. Cuba has been subject to all types of overt and covert attacks, provocations and misleading propaganda by the United States.
Politically, the Eastern bloc countries, with the exception of Czechoslovakia, had no experience in democratic rule. As Miliband observes: “The European states which became Communist regimes had all previously had strong near-authoritarian or actually authoritarian regimes, with very weak civil societies, in which the state, allied to semi-feudal ruling classes, had enjoyed great power and used it to exploit and oppress largely peasant populations. As for Communist regimes in Asia, and the revolutionary regime in Cuba, they had all previously been either colonial, or semi-colonial, or dependent countries, subject to oppressive external or indigenous rule, or both.” (Miliband 1989, 29.)
These conditions in no way were conducive to the functioning of a socialist democracy. Neither was there any genuine effort on the part of the new regimes to break the authoritarian mould, which they had inherited. With the partial exception of Yugoslavia under Tito after 1948, the Stalinist legacy weighed heavily in these countries. The new thinking and relaxation introduced by Gorbachev proved to be the turning point in the fate of the authoritarian system throughout the Eastern bloc. By popular will and people’s resistance, the coercive ruling cliques were swept away. The dissolution of the Soviet Union came to be the culminating point of this revolutionary and epochal change.
The repercussions of these upheavals have changed the map of international relations and of the balance of forces in the world politics. The socialist movement has suffered heavily. Over three decades ago the Italian Marxist Lucio Magri had advocated a radical break with the Eastern bloc countries because these, in his view, could not be reformed due to their social and political degeneration. He was expelled from the CPI. He wrote just after the unsuccessful abortive coup in the Soviet Union in 1991: “A historical experience now is ending in painful defeat-an experience which, both materially and in terms of ideas, served sometimes as a model and in any case as a reference point for broad movements of liberation. It is now fashionable in the West, even on the Left, to treat that connection as thoroughly harmful product of manipulation or folly-that is, to consider the October Revolution and its sequel not as a process which degenerated in stages but as a regression aborigine, or as a pile of rubble. But the historical reality is rather different. First Stalinism, then the authoritarian power of a bureaucratic, imperial cast, were one side of that historical process, and we were wrong not to have seen its effects in time and denounced it in its roots. But for decades another side has also continued to operate: the side of national independence; the spread of literacy, modernization and social protection across whole countries; the resistance to fascism as a general tendency of capitalism and victory over it; support for and actual involvement in the liberation of three-quarters of humanity from colonialism; containment of the power of the mightiest imperial state. First the involution and then the collapse of all that has direct and weighty consequences for the Left throughout the world. For the oppressed, it means the passing away not so much of a model -mistakenly held and now generally discarded-as of an ally and support.” (Magri 1991, 7.)
The collapse of the Soviet system and its impact at the international level has meant the disappearance of the previous equilibrium in international systems of alliances. The United States and its allies have emerged as the supreme masters in the post-Soviet world to create a “new world order.” It can be clearly seen in the case of Iraq. The United States and its allies unleashed the Gulf War in 1991 to destroy Iraq to further their geostrategic goals and economic interests. In 2003 the United States and Britain started a war of aggression on false pretexts and have occupied Iraq and taken possession of its oil resources. There was no power left to resist American global hegemony and its barbarous wars.
The death of socialism?
The effects of the fall of the Eastern bloc have been equated with the death of Marxism. It is quite true that within the directly affected countries, the image of Marxism in the eyes of the majority is negative. In the West, the academic Left has also been deeply skeptical of Marxism as an alternative to capitalism. Professor Fred Halliday views the end of the Cold War thus: “It means nothing less than the defeat of the communist project as it has been known in the twentieth century and the triumph of the capitalist…. The failure of the communist model to constitute a viable, internationally distinct bloc, and the historical reversal of the process that began in 1917, do not appear to be in doubt. The cold war, in its broader historic sense, is continuing, but with the collapse of one of the two protagonists. In this sense, the apparent generosity of Western claims that the antagonism between the two is over conceals a triumphant undertow. To speak in the language of “old thinking,” what we are now witnessing is class struggle on an international scale, as the superior strength of Western capitalism forces open the societies partially closed to it for four or more decades.” (Halliday 1990, 12, 13.)
There has been a growing agreement between Left and Right that the demise of the Eastern bloc has virtually sealed the fate of Marxism as an alternative to capitalism. It is instructive to see what Ernesto Laclau, director of theoretical studies at Essex University, said in an interview in 1991. One needs a rather lengthy quotation to describe his point of view:
“For me Marxism is just one moment in the radical tradition of the West. A moment which is definitely over if we look at the central theses of Marxism, there is, firstly, the assertion of an increasing homogenization of the social structure under capitalism, tending towards a rapid proletarianization which would lead to a final showdown between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. That image of the historical process is, obviously, wrong. Secondly, Marxism was a theory based, precisely for those reasons, on the centrality of the working class as a historical actor. Again, this centrality is disappearing, everywhere. I think, Marxism has to be considered as just one moment in a wider process, which is the democratic revolution, in the sense that it tried to expand towards the economic sphere the notions of equality that liberalism only recognized in the public sphere of citizenship. But Marxism is just one limited episode in this process. With the proliferation of new historical actors, new social movements in the world today, we find that the democratic revolution has a much wider base. We also have to remember that the fact that Marxism was an extremely complex and diverse phenomenon.”
Laclau contends that very little can be maintained from the theoretical apparatus of Marxism. He adds: “I think Marxism is important now from the point of view of the history of political ideas. The fact remains, however, that some important tools for political analysis have emerged within the field of Marxism, for instance, the category of hegemony, formulated by Gramsci.” (Laclau 1991, 16.)
Laclau has rightly pointed to the complex and diverse phenomenon of Marxism. But the reduction of Marxism to a few ready-made formulas is quite off the mark. This formulation, in my view, oversimplifies what is basically complex and broad, extending beyond political and economic theories. It has been fashionable in bourgeois propaganda to play down the role and place of the working class and working-class movements. To maintain as Laclau does that the centrality of the working class is disappearing is to ignore the historic developments throughout the world. In the affluent countries the class differences in the present times have accentuated. In most of the Third World countries the problem of unemployment and poverty has reached unmanageable proportions by all accounts. There is no doubt that modern technology has added new factors in the process of production. In certain areas effective use of machines has reduced the need of many workers and operators. But again this reveals the ever-evolving relationship of man and machine under the developments in natural science. In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx had emphasized this relationship in these words:
“But natural science has invaded and transformed human life all the more practically through the medium of industry; and has prepared human emancipation, although its immediate effect had to be the furthering of the dehumanization of man. Industry is the actual, historical relationship of nature, and therefore of natural science, to man.” (Marx 1974, 97.)
In fact the major shifts of rural population to the cities and industrial areas in search of jobs in the Asian, African and Latin American countries show the enormous growth of the working classes and their pivotal role in the historical transformations taking place. The potential of the working masses is increasing and not decreasing. In the industrialized Western countries there is substantial percentage of working-class people unemployed and reduced to the dole-queues or pushed to the care of welfare agencies.
Conservative writers and ideologists offer a simple explanation regarding the economic and political stagnation that took place under state-socialism, i.e., that the Marxist ideology per se was the root-cause of this. But this perspective has some major shortcomings. It virtually erases any distinction between the variant of socialism that I have called state-socialism, and Marxism. If the aim is to gain any vantage point in the propaganda war against Marxist ideology then apparently it is motivated by particular considerations and expediency. This in itself is arguing on false premises; therefore it is intellectually untenable and unfair. Miliband rejects the view that Marxism is responsible for the authoritarian mould in the former Eastern bloc. Writing in 1989 just before the big turmoil in the Eastern bloc, he commented:
“In fact, Marxism has nothing to do with it. At the very core of Marx’s thought, there is the insistence that socialism, not to speak of communism, entails the subordination of the state to society; and even the dictatorship of the proletariat, in Marx’s perspective, must be taken to mean all but unmediated popular rule. In the unlikely event of their wishing to find external ideological inspiration for their form of rule, Communist leaders would have sought in vain in the many volumes of Marx’s and Engels’s Collected Works for such inspiration. Least of all would they have found any notion of single-party monopolistic rule? … The real architect of the model of the rule which came to prevail in all Communist regimes was in fact Stalin, who first established it in the Soviet Union, and then had it copied by other Communist leaders nurtured in his school, or imposed it on the countries which came under his control after World War Two.” (Miliband 1989, 30.)
Of course, it is essential to draw a demarcation line between Marxism and a Stalinist model of socialism. The Stalinist model refers to the whole system of socio-political power, which took definite shape in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and was later extended to Eastern Europe in the second-half of the 1940s. By the end of the 1980s it started to collapse. This system, as mentioned before, was characterized by the hierarchically organized system of nomenclature. The claim that this system was equal to the realization of the Marxian project of a Communist society is to negate the very essence of Marxism, which stands for human realization and emancipation. Alex Callinicos criticizes those who equate these two. He writes:
“This equation tends to imply another, namely: Marxism=Leninism=Stalinism. The apostolic (or diabolic) succession thus established involves tracing a direct line of political continuity between Marx’s own theoretical and strategic conceptions, the Bolshevik political project which triumphed in 1917, and the final shape assumed by the post revolutionary regime in the 1930s…. A qualitative break separates Stalinism from Marx and Lenin. A profound discontinuity can be traced in the historical record, in the process which transformed the Bolshevik Party, even in the 1920s still what Moshe Levin calls an ‘alliance of factions’ rather than the monolith of liberal and Stalinist myth, into the apparatus of the power, terrorized and terrorizing, that it became by the end of 1930s.” (Callinicos 1991, 15, 16.)
The views advanced by both Callinicos and Miliband call into question the whole approach towards the end of authoritarian regimes, which we see in the capitalist and reactionary press. The end of the Eastern bloc has been equated with the death of Marxism. It is true that the image of the Marxism in the former state-socialist countries has been negative, and it is understandable in view of the oppressive monolithic system, which prevailed there. Being victims of state-propaganda of the authoritarian regimes, many people seemed to have genuinely believed that the system under which they lived was Marxism in practice. What else was it, if it was not socialism? This was the sort of question very many did not ask.
In the Western liberal democracies, especially in the United States, the “death of Marxism” campaign reigns supreme. American academic Victor Wallis comments in this regard:
“The ideological counterpart to capitalism’s military-economic arsenal is its control over the mass media: a control which largely delimits the vocabulary of the Left’s political outreach. Phrases like ‘the collapse of Communism,’ ‘the death of Marxism,’ and ‘the failure of socialism,’ taken as being interchangeable, are repeated so often and so automatically that they attain the status of axioms. Any suggestion that their message might be misleading requires the kind of lengthy explanation, which threatens to turn people off. The cycle is then complete: capital proclaims Marxism’s death; ordinary people take it for granted; Left activists are loath to challenge them; Marxism atrophies among the activists; and finally, Marxism is dead.” (Wallis 1991, 7.)
However, the electoral successes of the former communist parties in some of the former socialist countries have alarmed the West. It must be a surprise to many Western pundits that many people are turning back to the communists in their struggle for their socio-economic welfare and political order and stability. In Russian presidential elections in June 1996, the communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov scored about one-third of the votes as compared to the rest of the candidates. Despite all the heavy odds under a dictatorial president who had the state-machinery to help his re-election as well as the full backing and patronage of the West, the popularity of the Communist party and its candidate still reveals hopes and aspirations of the people that still have to do with the communist project replacing the capitalist system.
Basic values of the socialist tradition
How far can the authoritarian system be said be the continuation of the classical Marxist tradition? An answer to this question has to be sought not in the current jargons of mass media but in the concrete analysis of the course of events. Our analytical tools for this purpose are found to be in Marxist historical method. In this matter, the Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukacs’s classical formulation of “What is Marxism?” in 1919 needs to be repeated. He writes:
“But among intellectuals it has become fashionable to greet any profession of faith in Marxism with ironical disdain. Great disunity has prevailed even in the “socialist” camp as to what constitutes the essence of Marxism, and which theses it is permissible to criticize and even reject without forfeiting the right to the title of ‘Marxist’…. Let us assume for the sake of argument that recent research has disproved once and for all every one of Marx’s individual theses. Even if this were to be proved, every serious ‘orthodox’ Marxist would still be able to accept all such modern findings without reservation and hence dismiss all of Marx’s theses in toto-without having to renounce his orthodoxy for a single moment. Orthodox Marxism, therefore, does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx’s investigations. It is not the ‘belief’ in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a ‘sacred’ book. On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method.” (Lukacs 1971, 1.)
When we undertake an analysis of the collapse of state-socialism, the relevance of Marxism in clarifying the issues becomes evident. Marx’s theory of social transformations, historical materialism, explains how different socio-economic organizations of production which have characterized human history arise or fall as they enable or impede the expansion of society’s production. The growth of productive forces thus explains the general course of human history. Marx had concentrated on the analysis of one socio-economic formation, the capitalist mode of production. Over the last three decades a lot of work on the conceptual refinement of historical materialism has been accomplished in the West. Historical materialism is seen now as a general theory of the development and transformation of all societies, pre-capitalist as well as capitalist. Seen in this light, we find not the demise of Marxism but rather its increased relevance in understanding the general pattern of development and the underlying currents and causes of it. The end of the system of nomenclature cannot be equated with the end of Marxism. There is little justification for it.
The mode of production and antiquated relations of production in the Eastern bloc countries had reached the point where they were no longer able to solve the immense socio-economic problems with an archaic system of material production and distribution. The consciousness to overthrow these conditions was embedded in the material conditions. But the nomenclature was incapable of seeing the writing on the wall. The big changes that occurred during and after 1989 confirm Marx’s classic formulation on the start of social revolutions. He wrote in 1859:
“At a certain stage in their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or-what is but a legal expression for the same thing-with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic-in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.” (Marx and Engels 1977, 181-182.)
Even the anti-Marxist scholars have come to acknowledge the relevance of historical materialism offering explanation to historical change. Callinicos observes in this respect:
“Indeed, one of the principal trends in English-speaking social theory during the 1980s was precisely such an implicit tribute, namely the formulation of various ambitious ‘historical sociologies,’ which sought to offer, like Marxism, a general account of historical change, but which tended to give ideological movements and political and military conflicts the same explanatory importance as contradictions between the forces and relations of production. Historical materialism has thus demonstrated intellectual vitality, its capacity to set a historical agenda. A theory distinguished precisely by its focus on epochal transformations should be well equipped to interpret the progressive collapse of the Stalinist regimes.” (Callinicos 1991, 17.)
Callinicos like some other Trotskyist intellectuals is right to uphold the relevance of historical materialism. His views also exonerate Trotsky who had exposed the degeneration of the Soviet system under the Stalinist bureaucracy and also had warned of the coming dangers to the workers’ state. The prophet whose forecasts often proved wrong was not a false prophet after all. The degeneration and the collapse of bureaucratic-socialism proved him finally right.
But it is important to remember that Marxism cannot be reduced to a historically oriented social theory either. The Marxist political project fundamentally is one of human emancipation and free development of individuals as the precondition of the evolution of Communist societies. Here Marx’s concept of the free development of every single individual and the realization of human potentialities complements his idea that individuals can find the means of their development only in the community. His conception of Communism in this respect is the political scheme for the full realization of man as total man (see Khan 1995, 244-56.)
Marx has a particular conception of communism, which sees the self-emancipation of the working class achieved not by any other group or force but by the working class itself. Thus the working class in its historical role by its self-emancipation also emancipates the whole of society from alienation and social oppression. It is not socialism from above, but socialism from below which results from the activity of the masses themselves. If we compare Marx’s ideas on socialism with those of the nomenclature, we find that they have very little in common. In fact, the socialism under state bureaucracy of the Eastern bloc was more like what Marx in his early writings had characterized and castigated as “crude and thoughtless” form of communism. I think it is necessary to explain this difference as a matter of theoretical accuracy and historical truth if the onslaught of the Right is to be combated and its false premises and imputations refuted.
Let me repeat the words of Marx who expounds his concept of communism in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 in these words:
“Communism is the positive mode as the negation of the negation, and is hence the actual phase necessary for the next stage of the historical development in the process of human emancipation and rehabilitation. Communism is the necessary form and the dynamic principle of the immediate future, but communism as such is not the goal of human development, the form of human society.” (Marx 1974, 100-101.)
According to Marx, and it is worth remembering, the revolutionary processes of history which will emancipate human beings from the shackles of private property under capitalism and put an end to human alienation and degradation will not be an easy task. Marx says further in the same work:
“It takes actual communist action to abolish actual private property. History will lead to it; and this movement, which in theory we already know to be self-transcending movement, will constitute in actual fact a very rough and protracted process.” (ibid. 108-109.)
The loud clamors of the triumph of market economy and new liberalism in the West and the death of Marxism have been on the high agenda of the reactionary forces throughout the world. But as I have pointed out these assertions do not stand the test of empirical scrutiny. The collapse of the one-party dictatorships does not mean that the Marxist project of a new society is over. The socialist values like the idea of social equality, solidarity, self-development and self-realization, acceptance of humanism and atheism in place of religious illusions, the idea of participatory democracy and self-government in their historical developmental phases are and will continue to be of concern to human society now and in the future. The Yugoslav writer Markovic commented in 1991 in an article written just before the disintegration of the Soviet Union:
“Values characteristic of socialist tradition are deeply rooted in humanist philosophy and emancipatory movements in history. After the great catastrophic depression of the late twenties and the thirties Western society survived and stabilized, implementing some of those ideas. Socialism is, therefore, not a utopian vision but part of the reality of the most developed contemporary societies . . .. All . . . socialist values cannot go down the drain because of the failure of ‘real socialism’ which, in the first place, did not even try to implement them. There are good reasons to believe that just now after the fall of bureaucratic form of socialism that ground has been cleared for the emergence of democratic, humanist socialism in the East. This is an optimal historical possibility but it is far from clear that it will be realized in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.” (Markovic 1990-1991, 215.)
The importance and relevance of Marxism in the social sciences is well known to all those who are familiar with modern sociology, economics and philosophy. It has also been argued that academic objectivity was not among Marx’s priorities and that he brought the extraneous values into what ought to have been his strictly factual process of inquiry. It is certainly true that Marx developed his scholarly work from the standpoint of his political commitment. Of course, he also had the possibility of defending the capitalist system, the oppressive rulers, the propertied classes, and thus ignore the downtrodden and oppressed as many had done before and after him. He could also have paid lip service to the cause of the working masses while upholding the interests of the bourgeoisie, who, in any case, are always good paymasters to their intellectual spokesmen. But the fact is that he made a choice. He took the side of the wretched of the earth, the oppressed, and particularly the industrial working-class people. He never tried to be value-free, detached or neutral in his work and studies. For example, early in his encounter with the political economy, private property and capitalism in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Marx began his analysis with an account of the poverty caused by private property rather than with the wealth created by commodity production that had been the starting point of the political economists.
The vocabulary used in history, historiography, economics and philosophy has been enriched with new concepts and dimension in Marx. The general categories, which have become words of everyday use in the present century in social and political thought, owe much to Marx. Here we can mention the proletariat including the dictatorship of the proletariat, class including the class struggle, class warfare, class consciousness, alienation including the fetishism of commodities, and ideology including inverse consciousness, etc. I would like to finish this article with an excellent summing up by Professor Paul Thomas of the University of California:
“It is no doubt easier to imagine a world without Marx than a world without revolution, capitalism, socialism and communism. But in the world we actually inhabit, those facts of life have still to be seen through Marx. He may not have coined any of those terms, but he set his seal decisively on all of them, so much so that it remains impossible to discuss them without bringing him in. Marx was not alone having advocated revolution or in having believed in the need for drastic changes in order to attain human autonomy, as the nearest glance at the wonderland of nineteenth-century revolutionism will reveal. But his sense of the tension between the depravity and the promise of capitalism was unique.” (Thomas 1991, 24.)
In my mind there is no doubt that as long as capitalism as a system of particular socio-economic relations exists, Marxism as a critique of it, both at theoretical and practical levels, will continue to be a powerful force in the service of mankind.
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Nasir Khan, Dr Philos, is a historian and a peace activist. He is the author of, “Development of the Concept and Theory of Alienation in Marx’s Writings,” (1995) and, “Perceptions of Islam in the Christendoms: A Historical Survey,” (2006). He has written numerous articles on international affairs and the issues of human rights.
He has his own blog at http://nasir-khan.blogspot.com through which he can be contacted.