Volume 6, No. 2, February 2024
Editor: Rashed Rahman
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern European socialism in the last decade of the 20th century, it became fashionable among bourgeois intellectuals to declare that Marxism was ‘passe’, if not ‘dead’. Underpinning this argument was not only the collapse of the above regimes, but also the opening up to capitalism for survival or rapid economic progress of the remaining socialist regimes (e.g. China, Vietnam, even partly Cuba). What this assertion about the ‘death’ of Marxism lacks is a concrete historical analysis of how all these socialist regimes evolved under particular conditions, internal and external, which reflected the extant and continuing economic and military weight of private and corporate capital on a global scale. The ‘restored’ (or adopted) capitalist structures and relations of production ironically confront us with conditions similar to those that provoked anti-capitalist movements in the first place. But there are also several differences from the pre-1917 situation, making the future overthrow of capitalism globally more difficult but also more urgent.
The urgency is dictated amongst other factors (e.g. inequality, exploitation, absence of social justice) by the environmental crisis brought about by the unfettered extraction of natural resources by a capitalism inherently defined by expansion and accumulation, whose infinite growth appetite has now collided with the absolute limits of a finite planet. The rule of capital therefore must be overthrown on a global scale if the world is to continue to be livable.
Marx, in his analysis of capitalist agriculture, emphasised the contradictions between the capitalist priorities of profit maximisation above all else and long term sustainability resting on soil conservation and waste disposal. Today, capitalism’s assumptions (vested interest) regarding what is desirable (e.g. universal ownership of cars) need combatting and replacement by socially evolved plans to satisfy legitimate needs without depleting the natural resource base. This requires a return to Marx’s conceptualisation of the alternative to capitalism as consisting in a ‘society of associated producers’.
Marx and Engels’ major contribution in the pantheon of thought is to define the history of all hitherto existing societies as the history of class struggle. They argued that humankind’s future could only be improved if the domination of one class (or classes) over another (or others) was ended. The development of capitalism brought forth these ideas in conflict with pre-existing bourgeois and utopian socialist philosophies. In earlier forms of class society, the relations of dominance were visible, transparent and triumphantly declared. What was new under capitalism was class domination, in particular the exploitation of labour, hidden in ‘contractual’ and market relations, supported and justified by the new science of political economy that emerged alongside capitalism (Adam Smith, et al: the permanent and desirable triumph of the invisible hand of the market). Bringing the hidden structure and process of the exploitation of labour required the complex, in-depth critique in Marx’s Capital. Marx viewed capitalist relations as historically evolved, setting in motion definite global trends, and at the same time creating the conditions for these relations’ ultimate breakdown. The revolutionary upsurges of the 19th (e.g. 1848, 1871) and 20th (e.g. 1917, 1945-1975) centuries convinced the bourgeoisie that to prevent revolutions in the heart of developed capitalism, concessions were necessary to defuse revolutionary sentiments and divert the working class movements into social democratic reformism. Now if those socialist regimes that survived the collapse of 1989-91 accept capitalism to a greater or lesser degree along with its relentless drive for infinite expansion, objectively they act in conformity with capitalism’s dynamic.
Apart from the ecological/environmental crisis, the second major difference today from the situation pre-1917 is the experience of 20th century socialist revolutions. Two comments are appropriate.
Unrelenting plunder of the earth’s natural resources is the standard capitalist practice. So also is its political aim of distorting, suppressing and destroying any manifestation of opposition to capitalist rule, whether a nascent revolutionary movement or established socialist regime.
The third major development of the 20th century is the extraordinary technological transformations. Some have been beneficial (e.g. health), some clearly harmful (e.g. weapons of mass destruction), some may have provided the illusion of benefit while being harmful in the long run (e.g. private automobiles).
Marx was acutely aware that science and technology are not neutral. The choice of solutions to practical problems is socially determined. Much of the technology developed under capitalism was devised for purposes such as maximising capitalist control over the work-process (e.g. assembly line production) and over nature (e.g. genetic engineering). Its basic thrust was maximising the volume of commodities that can be sold. Seemingly benign inventions (e.g. communications) may have unforeseen negative health effects, disruptive impacts on human interaction, and consume inordinate amounts of energy and time. Technology therefore presents itself as a double-edged weapon. Marx recognized this and alerted us to ways in which society could collectively decide which technologies can be used to advantage, or developed further, and which should be rejected.
Now let us turn briefly to the two greatest socialist revolutions of the 20th century: the Russian and the Chinese.
Regardless of its detractors then or now, the contribution of the Soviet Union to human development included great material and cultural advancement within a relatively short period. The Soviet government provided a protective shield and material assistance to peoples all over the world seeking liberation from imperialism. During WWII, it bore the decisive military burden at enormous cost and with precious little help from its western ‘allies’ in defeating and eventually crushing the Nazi regime.
On the other hand, the revolutionary leadership of 1917 was overwhelmed by the enormity of its tasks in the absence of the anticipated revolutions in Germany and other European countries, being forced by the circumstances to attempt to build ‘Socialism in One Country’. Combatting external and internal foes, the Soviet regime was unable to mobilise adequate active/creative popular participation in the enormous task of building socialism in an incipiently industrialised country with enormous feudal hangovers. The pressures of retaining power, industrialising rapidly and building the military capacity to repulse the anticipated foreign invasion as a follow up to the failed external intervention by 22 countries to throttle the young revolutionary regime in collaboration with pro-Tsarist forces, produced in these difficult circumstances highly repressive measures, particularly after Lenin’s premature death in 1924 and Stalin’s incrementally unchallengeable hold on power thereafter. The Soviet regime can also be indicted for exercising too much power over Communist parties all over the world, with generally adverse, sometimes disastrous results. Only Communist parties that chalked out their own path, sometimes implicitly against the Comintern’s advice, succeeded in their revolutionary aims (e.g. China). Marxism in the Soviet regime at home was applied in rigid, formulaic ways, degenerating into a virtual catechism. Lenin’s tradition of open and fearless debate amongst the leadership was incrementally replaced by dogmatism and a climate of fear. It is said that revolutions eventually devour their own children. Certainly there is weight in this observation if the examples of the French, Russian and Chinese revolutions are taken into account.
In China, Mao built on Marxism, Deng repudiated it. Deng’s approach could so quickly gain hegemony in 1978, a mere two years after Mao’s death, because Deng could play on the reaction to the ultra-left excesses of the Cultural Revolution and the incomplete transformation under Mao, whose abiding legacy remains his reliance on the revolutionary potential of the peasantry in a Third World country.
After Mao’s passing in 1976, the targets of the Cultural Revolution, the ‘capitalist roaders’ amongst the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership, were rapidly rehabilitated, leaving no obstacle to the embrace of capitalism as the leading force of the economy, thereby giving birth to and consolidation of a bourgeois class of immense wealth. These developments were summed up in two Deng aphorisms: “It does not matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice”, and “To get rich is glorious”. This embrace of capitalism by a pre-capitalist society raised 700 million people out of poverty, but created not only a new class of extremely wealthy bourgeois property owners, it also firmly triggered enormous inequality. The Chinese economy was integrated into global markets, foreign corporations invested heavily in the country, and an all too familiar consumer culture was born.
The imperialist west may have harboured notions at the outset of this process that China would thereby be transformed into a capitalist society and an ally of theirs. However, ironically, the very success of China in this endeavour, and its growing economic and military strength have triggered a Thucydidean effect of China now being castigated as a rival, if not enemy, of the US-led west and its global hegemony.
After this brief (and admittedly totally inadequate) survey, let us turn to the question of how the socialist revolution is to be pursued today. Marx was firmly of the view that the revolution of the working class must be achieved by the workers themselves. We can broaden this wisdom by adding, in the context of the Third World, that the peasantry’s organisation and mobilisation remains a strategic task. Whether, and to what extent this popular mobilisation is possible will be for all of us to determine collectively.
Originally, the strength of the working class under capitalism rested on its concentration in factory production (and its attendant poor living conditions in slums). When imperialist power was at its peak, this strength was offset by using the profits accruing to imperialist centres from the colonies and semi-colonies to allow material concessions to the working class. Some sections of the workers thereby became receptive to chauvinism, identifying with their ‘nation’ rather than their class. Since the 1980s, manufacturing has majorly moved to the Third World to take advantage of lower wages and less strict labour rights and environmental regulations.
Overthrowing capitalism today more than ever is an international project. Movements in particular countries may not survive without internationalist solidarity. The basis for this solidarity today is the inability of the capitalist order to keep ‘its’ working class (and even middle class) quiescent and ‘obedient’ because of the global difficulties the system has run into.
The need of the hour is a vanguard force organically grounded in the masses and embracing all oppressed classes, nationalities, women, students, youth, religious minorities, etc, i.e. a liberation coalition of all the oppressed.