The Relevance of Marxism
On the 150th Anniversary of The Communist Manifesto


Julius Jacobson

[from New Politics, vol. 6, no. 4 (new series), whole no. 24, Winter 1998]

Julius Jacobson is co-editor of New Politics.

FOR ALL THIS CENTURY AND EARLIER, even before Karl Marx was laid to rest 115 years ago in London's Highgate Cemetery, Marxism (or what is purported to be Marxism) has been given the last rites - over and over again. How dead can Marxism be if there is this profound need to repeatedly disinter the corpse for autopsy after which it is again entombed until its next exhumation?

This has not only been a European phenomenon. Marx-bashing has a long tradition here as well. By mid-century a leading American sociologist was widely acclaimed for convincingly burying American Marxism and skillfully chiseling on its tombstone his prognosis that Marxian socialism here succumbed to inherent and incurable afflictions known as "millinarianism," "chiliasm," and most disastrously, an extreme "eschatological" disorder. An even more malign view of Marxism during those Cold War years was popularized by a new and largely conservative school of Sovietology - itself a product of the Cold War - which not merely tarred but defiled and mutilated Marxism with the poisoned-tip bristles of Stalinism.

Paradoxically, the end of the Cold War did not diminish the assault on Marxism as one might have expected. On the contrary, the implosion of the Communist system inspired a flood of books which sought to use the exposed failures and crimes of Stalinism as proof positive of the bankruptcy of Marxism. And not only of Marxism but of socialism more broadly defined. More than that, the Enlightenment itself was condemned as pernicious and, together with Marxism, held culpable as the ideological parents of Communist totalitarianism.

The political fallout from the disintegration of the Communist Empire is such that even liberals obviously ill-equipped to pass judgment on Marxism feel free to do it violence. Take, as one example, the musings of The New Yorker's Hendrick Hertzberg who shares with his readers his discovery of an "eerie similarity between Marxism and Tofflerism" and with the same sense of wonderment passes on the news that "the tone of what can fairly be called Tofflerism-Gingrichism is uncannily like that of Marxism-Leninism." These atrocious amalgams are followed by the now common canard that "Marxism produced Soviet totalitarianism." (Hendricks does not believe that Marxism is all bad since it "also produced solid, sensible European social democracy." This is truly a vilification of Marx and Marxism, and can only come as a shock to the leaderships of allegedly social democratic parties which long ago repudiated Marxism - and indeed socialism - in theory and practice.)

More disheartening is the number of academic leftists who also find, in the words of one authoritative figure, that "the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern European Communism" was a major factor leading to the "death rattle" of Marxism, which is now deprived of any rightful claim to be "a master discourse of emancipation." How could the collapse of the Soviet Union mark the "death rattle" of Marxism or its loss of status as a "master discourse of emancipation" when the very existence and viability of the Communist system depended on its ability to exterminate within its borders (and sometimes beyond them), all the institutions, parties, personnel, ideology, traditions and memory of Marxism? And since anti-Marxism and anti-Emancipation was always "the master discourse" of Stalinism, how could the collapse of the Communist world deprive Marxism of its rightful claim to be a master discourse of emancipation? Here, note should be made of the even more disquieting element of neo-Stalinism that has penetrated the school of academic post-Marxists who fault Marxism for its "essentialism" and "meganarratives" including its universal democratic values. Thus a number of prominent post-Marxists find democracy an ambiguous and subjective concept, as if democracy were a matter of taste. With democracy dismissed as central to the Marxist project, the Soviet Union even during the time of terror is perceived as a form of socialism.

...THESE NECESSARILY SYNOPTIC COMMENTS are not intended to suggest that there is no crisis in Marxism, that its problems lie only in the way it has been misinterpreted and distorted. There are, indeed, real problems and there is a crisis.

Marx foresaw the victory of the proletarian revolution in the more advanced countries Europe during his lifetime. That never happened. Not until a generation after his death, and unpredictably in a relatively backward nation, the Russian proletariat victoriously stormed the heavens, but for only a brief historic moment. What lessons are to be drawn from the failure of the proletariat in the advanced capitalist nations of Europe to follow suit, to rise to the historic occasion that would not only have spared Europe the horror of fascism, nazism and a cataclysmic Second World War, but would have guaranteed the success of the Soviet Revolution and saved the Russian people from the Stalinist nightmare?

The troublesome truth for Marxists is that 150 years after The Communist Manifesto there is not a single socialist country in the world; there is not even a single mass revolutionary socialist movement in any corner of the globe. That is symptomatic of the crisis in Marxism.

It is not only this failure of the working class to act as the agency for social transformation but the changing nature of the working class itself which is a legitimate area of concern and debate. And one cannot lightly dismiss the arguments of social movement theorists who fault Marxism for its failure to fully appreciate the unique problems related to ecology, race and gender. There are also areas of Marxian economics and philosophy which remain open to debate. What better time to review the crisis of Marxism than the 150th Anniversary of The Communist Manifesto?

In the symposium that follows there are diverse, even conflicting views. That is as planned. Our objective was not to present merely the opinions shared by most members of our editorial board (though not all of us are of a single mind on all relevant problems) but rather to have a discussion and exchange of opinions within the left. We hope that this is the beginning of an ongoing discussion in our pages.

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Contents of No. 24

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