What is the Real Marxist Tradition? was initially written in 1983, for a specific occasion – the 100th aniversary of Marx’s death – and with a specic purpose: to disentangle what I believe to be genuine Marxism from the numerous regimes and parties round the world which laid claim to the name and ideology of Marxism while totally distorting and/or it’s content.
It’s central argument was that the fundamental distinguishing characteristic or authentic Marxism was no faithful adherance to Marx’s texts as a whole, nor to particular selected doctrines but it’s role as the theoretical articulation of the interests, struggle and liberation of a particular class, the modern proletariat or working class.
Similarly the common characteristic of the various “false” or pseudo-marxisms discussed was their abandonment of the project of working class self-emancipation and their transformation of Marxist doctrine into an ideology of another social force or class.
22 years later two obvious questions arise. First, to what extent have the ideas presented here stood the test of events? Second, to what extent do they remain relevant and useful to today’s socialists and revolutionaries in the very different world situation we now confront? A full answer to these questions is beyond the scope of a short preface but the immidiately striking fact is that the historically most important perversion of Marxism, namely, Stalinism, has all but departed the scene. A few Stalinist regimes remain, notably that in North Korea, but the ability of Stalinism to act as a pole of attraction and misleadership to millions of workers, socialists and would-be revolutionaries worldwide, has gone.
Indeed the whole process of the so-called “collapse of Communism” was a substantial confirmation of one of the key theoretical premises of this book, namely that the “Communist” regimes were neither socialist nor worker’s states, but State Capitalist (a premise taken from what I believe to be the most important Marxist theoretical text of the whole Cold War period, Tony Cliff’s State Capitalism in Russia.) Had Russia or Poland or Rumania been worker’s states of some kind the working class of these countries would have defended them in some way. Just the opposite was the case. Had they been socialist in any sense their relatively smooth adoption of “western” capitalism, with the bulk of the ruling apparatus and the industrial management simply stepping sideways, would have been impossible.
Most spectacular of all, of course, is the almost seamless transformation of China, without even formal “political revolution” or regime change from apparent Maoist communist fervour into the massive engine of capitalist growth that it has become in the last two decades. Again only the theory of state capitalism provides a basis for the theoretical understanding and analysis of the Chinese phenomenon.
Social Democracy, Stalinism’s predecessor in the anti-revolutionary transformation of Marxism and it’s principal rival for the political allegiance of the international working class (especially in the industrialised west) is still with us, of course. Nevertheless it too has changed dramatically. In this process my country or rather Tony Blair and the British Labour Party – New Labour – as he aptly calls it has led the way. Assuming leadership of the Labour Party after it’s fourth successive electoral defeat in 1992, Blair set about it’s wholesale “modernisation” i.e. transformation in a neo-liberal direction. In this he was remarkably successful at least at the upper echelons, while the rank and file have been silenced and marginalized. The result has been a Labour government since 1997 purged of every vestige of socialist principle of conscience which has turned Britian into George Bush’s most unquestioning ally, helped initiate three major imperialist wars, attacked civil liberties across the board, persued privatisation relentlessly including in health care and education, turned it’s back on the trade unions (except for taking their money) and, like neo-liberal giverbnments everywhere, presised over a huge grown in social inequality.
And where Blair has led others, from Schroeder in Germany to Lula in Brazil have been keep to follow. The social democracy not just of Bernstein and Kautsky, with it’s explicit Marxist roots, but also of Harold Wilson and Willy Brandt has become a thing of the past. This does not mean that reformism in general is dead. Reformism has deep roots in the structure of capitalist society and the consciousness of the working class – like the hydra of greek myth, cut off one of it’s heads and another will grow. So long as the majority of workers lack the confidence to take power into their own hands, they will look for reformist solutions to their problems. However it does mean that internationally the social democratic parties have seriously declined as a force that can command the loyalty of working people and that a political space has opened up to their left.
Third world nationalism, the third tendency discussed in this book, is also still around and will remain so until imperialism is defeated. But it too has changed. Precisely because of the demise of Stalinism and the failure of Communism/State Capitalism as a model of economic development, third world nationalism today is far less likely to don Marxist clothes. Even Hugo Chavez of Venesuala, the current principal third worldist hero, speaks only of a “Bolivarian”, not a Marxist revolution.
Not surprisingly our rulers and their ideologists have greeted these developments triumphantly, claiming they represent the death of Socialism. In their euphoria and arrogance some of these bourgois ideologues anticipated a new world order free of serious conflict ot challenge. They seem to believe that every act of resistance in the world stemmed ultimately from Moscow and that without Moscow resistance would disappear. And, it has to be said, that some on the left, particularly those with faith or illusions in one or another varient of Stalinism, at least partially accepted these arguments and either changed sides or slumped into depression.
Clearly if this inperpretation has proved correct, the perspective of What is the Real Marxist Tradition? would now be irrlevant. But equally clearly, this interpretation has proved false. On the contrary the last decade has seen resistance spring up and grow on a truly worldwide basis, because, of course, resistance is not rooted in any ideology, “evil” or otherwise, “Communist” or “Islamic”, but stems from the real experience of exploitation, oppression and injustice.
The global situation today contrasts not only with the expectation of the Pentagon intellectuals but also with the conditions when What is the Real Marxist Tradition? first appeared. Broadly speaking the 1980s, the Regan-Thatcher years, were a period of defeat for the working class and isolation for revolutionary socialists in which the emphasis has to be put on the small scale defence and propagation of our ideas. The 1990s were years of partial recovery. But the new century has seen a widespread radicalisation and resurgence of resistance.
This resistance has taken many forms: The international anticapitalist movement with it’s great demonstrations and conferences – Seattle, Geonoa, Porto Allegre, Florence, Mumbai etc; the international antiwar movement, with it’s extraordinary global demonstration against the Iraq war on February 15th 2003; the French worker’s strikes of 1995 and the “No” vote to the European Union’s neo-liberal constitution in 2005; the mass struggles of the Latin American working class, peaking in near-revolutions in Argentina and Bolivia; the emergence of new electoral challenges to the left of social democracy in Europe (RESPECT in Britain, the Portugese Left Block, Die Wahl in Germany etc).
This wave of struggles has drawn a whole new generation into the movement and it is to be hopped that this book can play a small part in helping to attract the most serious among them to the authentic Marxism of working class and human liberation.
Two further points need to be made. The proponants of globalisation see it as an all-conquering force but, as Marx explained long ago, Capitalism creates it’s own gravedigger, and the latest phase of capitalist development is no exception. It has brought into being, on a hitherto unprecidented scale, a new international working class with immese potential power, concentrated above all in the great cities of what used to be called the third world: Sao Paulo, Cairo, Shanghai and, of course, Seoul.
Finally, the socialist transformation of society by the working class has never been so urgent. In the Communist Manifesto Marx wrote that the class struggle could result “either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” For Marx this was a brilliant theoretical speculation; he could not then have forseen the concrete forms of this “common ruin”. The 20th century showed us one possible form, nuclear war; The 21st century shows us another in the shape of climate change and global warming. In 1983 this was a faint blip on the horizon. Today it is a pressing reality and it threatens humanity as a whole but especially the world’s poor with almost unimaginable catastrophe. The solutions to global warming are both known and practical – the replacement of fossil fuels with sources of renewable energy such as wind, solar and tidal power and the use of planned public transport to end dependancy on the private car – but the world’s rulers, it’s giant corporations and imperialist governments, driven by vested interest and the logic of capitalist competition, refuse to implement them. In this end I suspect that it will fall to the international working class on whom, as this book shows, Marx based his entire philosophy on politics to save humanity from disaster by taking power into it’s own hands. Our struggle is to make sure this happens in time.
This was written in July 2005 for the Koran translation of the long article "What is the Real Marxist Tradition".