In the past years, a new trend of Marxism has emerged under the name of Post-Marxism. The problem with this is that it largely throws out the basic principles, and instead focuses on cultural theory within the current world. It’s a line of thought that accepts that socialism is dead, yet is not ready to give a funeral. It wants to hold on to some aspects while saying the system is dead. For the overall program, it, as an ideology, doesn’t trust the left in power because it could lead to totalitarianism. Further, it accepts market capitalism as a system that will produce more abundance and a better quality of life than a planned economy. (A Marxist critique of post-Marxists. 1997.) Now, this is a defeatist ideology, if there has been one. One text that falls under this category is Jean Baudrillard’s The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, and it’s a text I rather enjoy. Baudrillard’s assessment is that the Gulf War, in the way that it played out on American television, never took place. The true conflict was much more savage, led by a bombing campaign that devastated the Iraqi population. Infrastructure was specifically targeted, cutting off supplies of clean water, hitting sewage lines, and bombing hospitals. All of this was going on, and yet what was being shown on CNN was US troops helping children, liberating Kuwait, and engaged in traditional combat against Iraqi forces. Thus Baudrillard contends that the Gulf War, as it happened and as it was portrayed, are actually two different events. The Gulf War, as it was shown on television, never happened. (The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. 1995.)
While this piece is very good, what it lacks is what Post-Marxism lacks in general, the understanding of class conflict and exploitation. Without this understanding, it cannot bring into focus what the reasons were behind the conflict and its portrayal. But what is the current influence of Marxism on the current world? If Post-Marxism is the only reminisce of the ideology that had such an effect on the 20th century, it is surely on its way out. Thankfully, that’s exactly the case, but Marxism is in an identity crisis. The experience of the 20th century has left many Marxists afraid of their own shadow, meaning the fear of being in power is greater than the fear of being out of power. On this same track, a conscious disconnection with the past has taken place in an attempt to reinvent itself. But what it has tried to reinvent itself as is, from an economic standpoint at least, much closer to Keynesianism than any Marxist program. State intervention to fuel development and induce a rise in aggregate demand will increase social equality, but this is not Marxism.
As an ideology, it must confront the mistakes of the past, otherwise, it is bound to repeat them in the future. The massive destruction of human life that was caused by Mao and Stalin need to be looked at from both an ideological and statistical standpoint to understand the motive and what was the desired effect. To look at Stalin, briefly, and his policy referred to as the five year plan, which caused the most deaths that occurred during his reign, we see bad economic planning on a massive scale. But beyond that, there is also a neglect for the welfare of those trying to reach the desired amount of production. Human beings are treated simply as resources to complete a job rather than as the Communards struggling to bring the USSR to modern production levels. Stalin’s goal was modernization, going from a mainly agriculture based economy to an industrialized economy by whatever means necessary. Millions of people died, but ultimately, his task was achieved. Was it all worth it? The answer is simply no. Even worse, he was judging the nation’s development in along the development of capitalist lines, and this is thinking that needs to be broken away from.
During the 1930s and 1940s, millions of socialists and communists around the world learned of the Stalinist atrocities, and yet still decided to stay on board with the project, as a whole. Why is this? Because the era they were living in was filled with death and destruction, repression and obstruction. It was simply the times in Europe. As the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who was a young Jew in the German communist party living in Berlin when Hitler came to power, has said, the Stalin atrocities wouldn’t have dissuaded him from being part of the movement, because the goal was creating the ‘glorious tomorrow’. I think that this is really inspirational and proves that there is so much more to socialism than the USSR and Stalinism, there is the possibility of full on human liberation. It is not right to give up on the ultimate goal because a few maniacs used this as scripture to legalize the killing of millions. They were only misguided revisionists.
The ideology of Marxism-Leninism, which later branched off into the personal variants known as Stalinism and Maoism, which was what became the ideal method of rule by ‘communist’ states of the 20th century, has been discredited and should be left to the ashbin of history. This system, with its top down style of ruling, may have claimed to represent the people, but in practice became a method of repressing the people. Instead of a dictatorship of the proletariat, it became simply a dictatorship throughout the whole of Soviet history. The history of the USSR leaves no legacy for socialists to be proud of today. It not only failed to bring about the equal society Marx had written so much about, but it also failed in producing a system that succeeded in providing basic needs and freedoms to its citizens. This system, and all of its client states, should be left to a book entitled ‘how to fail at socialism 101’ because never was this a movement that represented the people, but just those in power. An elite class was replaced by party members who received the same types of privileges. This was not a progressive movement but simply posed as one to excuse its dictatorships and cult of personality.
Beyond the social failures of the communist nations, the ecological catastrophe that is becoming such a phenomena in the public mind, was greatly contributed to by these countries. The goal of the communist bloc was to catch up to the production levels of the capitalist nations, as fast as possible. They didn’t bother with such limitations as environmental protections, and the results were catastrophic. As reported in the CATO journal, an institution fundamentally attached to the ideas of radically free market capitalism, undoubtedly used to discredit the socialist ideology, “It is evident that the ecological disasters of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe are mind-boggling. Philip P. Micklin, a geography professor at Western Michigan University and a leading authority on the Aral Sea said, “I doubt if there has ever been an environmental problem of this magnitude” (Environmental Problems Under Socialism. 1992.) Further, this crisis was seen as a growing public health crisis even in the era of the Soviet Republics, as stated in a 1987 New York Times article, “The developing environmental crisis is causing governments all over Eastern Europe for the first time to consider scaling back local industries, like steel and chemicals, in certain areas in light of their damaging environmental effects and poor economic prospects.” (Industrialized Eastern Bloc Faces Pollution Crisis. 1987.) Such disasters were perpetrated by trying to compete with the capitalist nations, thus using their methods of development that is in complete contrast to co-existing with the natural state. It was humans versus ecology, rather than humans playing a role in the ecosystem as a whole.
The Brazilian scholar Michael Löwy is an individual who understands the need for a radical rethinking of the relationship between Marxism and the natural environment of the planet. Currently, it is capitalist forces that are doing the most destruction to the planet, and if Marxists really want to offer a radical alternative, then ecology and environmentalism need to be paramount to the movement. As Löwy explains in his book Ecosocialism, “It is true that during the first years after the October Revolution an ecological current was able to develop, and the Soviet authorities took certain limited environmental protection measures. But with the process of Stalinist bureaucratization, productivist methods both in industry and agriculture were imposed by totalitarian means while ecologists were marginalized or eliminated. The catastrophe of Chernobyl was the ultimate example of the disastrous consequences of this imitation of Western productive technologies.” (Ecosocialism: A Radical Alternative to Capitalist Catastrophe. 2015.) the traditional capitalist means of production that were adopted by the USSR need to be transcended. Löwy, and his work, must be acknowledged as a cornerstone in these new lines of thought because not only does it give a philosophical link between the writings of Marx and ecology, but it also lays out solutions on how to achieve these ends. In opposition to the traditional top down communist state rule where the economy is centrally planned by the national government, this work advocates for a democratically planned economy where people would decide the economic decisions. Lowy doesn’t leave us with a vague, broadly described idea of a society. This work contains a living, breathing, 4-dimensional society, “Socialist planning must be grounded on a democratic and pluralist debate at all the levels where decisions are to be made.” (Ecosocialism: A Radical Alternative to Capitalist Catastrophe. 2015.) Löwy’s insight cannot be overstated, especially because of how in depth his thinking is on the way the society would be organize and run. “ representative democracy must be completed, and corrected, by direct democracy, where people directly choose—at the local, national, and later global level—between major options. Should public transportation be free? Should the owners of private cars pay special taxes to subsidize public transportation? Should solar energy be subsidized, in order to compete with fossil energy? Should the work week be reduced to thirty or twenty hours, or fewer, even if this means reducing production? The democratic nature of planning is not incompatible with the existence of experts: their role is not to decide but to present their views—often different, if not opposite—to the democratic process of decision making.” (Ecosocialism: A Radical Alternative to Capitalist Catastrophe. 2015.)
What are we then to make of the populist left in Europe? It is a mixed bag, and must be looked at on a case to case basis. The major problem they present is the populist nature, they are subject to the whims of popular opinion and looking only to the short term future. Our thinking must be long term for permanent solutions, and that is why such movements should be supported, but with reasonable skepticism. Syriza, Podemos, the Anti-Capitalistas in France, and the Anti-Austerity Alliance in Ireland all have the possibility of becoming revolutionary but are currently too influenced by popular opinion. Instead of being populist, now is the time for idealism. The party must act as a vanguard, and lead the people by showing an idealistic leadership. Populism can often lead to opportunism that manipulate the direction of the movement. A prime example of this could be the German Socialist workers party when Adolf Hitler became the leader. Under this maneuverable ideology of populism, the party was taken to simply represent the fascist views of its leader. It was directed by a single individual while everyone else simply fell in line. If we look at the Five Star Movement in Italy, we see a similar party of an individual where everyone else is lining up behind the leader. This is not to say, by any means, that Beppe Grillo, the five star movement’s leader, is a Hitler-esque figure. He’s not. Only that the party is simply the party of Grillo. Similar to the Republican Party’s top members in the United States, such as Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, shifting the Trump agenda on many issues. Populism develops into the party of the individual, and movements have to be based on the people as a whole, where one individual isn’t special but one part of the larger movement.
How does socialism find its place in the current system, and germinate? This is one of the toughest questions we face in this era. The Brazilian Roberto Mangabeira Unger addresses this in his work The Left Alternative. He addresses this phenomenon that center-left has become occupied by elitist billionaires, and has alienated the working class base. Individuals such as George Soros have continuously preached this idea of globalization as kinder capitalism that produces more rights and more luxury consumption. But this system has done immense damage to the security and stability of working people in the first world. Unger talks about the need to reestablish the connection between the political left and the working class base, and bringing their interests together. While it is clear that Unger’s conclusion is wrong, he proposes to return to the system of social democracy and trying to make markets serve the people, what Unger does is address a fundamental flaw of the current mainstream left, a missing alternative. The center-left offers a version of what is offered by the right, but slightly toned down. Creating a new left means that we must be clearly driven and offer a radical alternative with specific ideas.
The time for armed revolutionary struggle has passed, such tactics can only work to discredit a movement. The level of inter connectivity in the world today means that the types of revolutions that have taken place in the past could have negative effects all over the world. The socialist revolution in the 21st century will be brought about through democratic means. These revolutionary gains won’t be made overnight, it is not that the communist party will win somewhere and lead a great transformation from the top. The change will have to be led from the bottom up, only through grassroots organization power forcing democratic leadership to listen to them. The idea of the glorious tomorrow that was so popular in the first half of the 20th century, where power was turned over to the communist party and utopia would follow needs to be dismissed. If there is such a thing a glorious tomorrow, it will not be won by putting all power into the hands of one leader. It will only be possible through mobilization of the people on a massive scale and democratic struggle. If we call it the glorious tomorrow, it is not something that we can all sit back and wait to come about through electing a single leader. It will be a harsh that must be struggled for on every level of national election processes.
Gains through democratic means are the way that the revolution will play out, and supporters will be gained when life is improved. This is how the people will be mobilized, when they see the quality of life of everyone rising and they see everyone being able to obtain a basic income that covers their needs. Such gains will show the people they are needed in politics to reap the rewards.
Philosophically, what should lend guidance to the movement on top of Marx and Engels, the radical democratic anarchists must be studied. Peter Kropotkin, Murray Bookchin, and works that came out of Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War are the most important documents that champion this bottom up democracy. Another figure who has often been recklessly overlooked, even in communist and socialist circle, is Gracchus Babeuf. A figure from the French Revolution, after Robespierre but before Napoleon, he organized what was called the Conspiracy of Equals. The manifesto for this group was penned by Babeuf and advocates for radical equality and the collectivization of all private property. His contribution is immense when we understand that he was writing in 1796, Karl Marx wasn’t born until 1818. (Manifesto of the Equals. 1796.) Babeuf and his conspiracy was discovered shortly before his plans were set to go into action. He was sent to his death for trying to overthrow the government. Another event that should be examined is the Paris Commune of 1871. This is another example of a citizen self-managed society where the commons as a whole owned the means of production. It took the national army to destroy the commune, but from March to May 1971, it was completely worker operated. (A Short History of the Paris Commune. 1907.) What these three events all have in common, The Catalonian democracy, the Conspiracy of Equals, and the Paris Commune, they were all born out of unrest and conflict on a national scale. The people involved did not wait for the state to come and offer solutions, they organized themselves in a fully democratic fashion. Instead of looking to political figures on the national platform to make change, let us look at ourselves as political individuals who are essential to making real change.
This passivity is a plague that has been present through all democracies. Leaving the politics to the politicians, and seeing the only duty of a citizen as going to the polls to vote. In a way, this is another expression of the Stalinist idea where a people empower a leader to guide them into the ‘glorious tomorrow’. If we look at the case of Syriza and Greece, we see that victory celebrations were being held before they had even done anything. Then everyone was upset that they made a deal with the EU. The lesson from this experience is that just a leader isn’t enough to evoke real change. When the leader changes, but not the system, we see a symmetry through most policy. The most famous example of this is the experience in the United States between the Presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Real change doesn’t come from a leader at the top, it comes at the local level from individuals organizing democratic institutions. Ignore the top and organize the locals! That is where revolution begins!