February 03, 2010

De te fabula narratur!

by Burc Kostem

“We have combined, by a freely adopted decision, for the purpose of fighting the enemy, and not of retreating into the neighbouring marsh, the inhabitants of which, from the very outset, have reproached us with having separated ourselves into an exclusive group and with having chosen the path of struggle instead of the path of conciliation…Oh, yes, gentlemen! You are free not only to invite us, but to go yourselves wherever you will, even into the marsh. In fact, we think that the marsh is your proper place, and we are prepared to render you every assistance to get there. Only let go of our hands, don’t clutch at us and don’t besmirch the grand word freedom, for we too are “free” to go where we please, free to fight not only against the marsh, but also against those who are turning towards the marsh!”1

This excerpt from Lenin’s “What is to be done?” is an excellent summary of the democratic centralism that dominated the early years of the revolution in Russia. Our current predicament is interestingly relevant to Lenin’s description: with the absence of a strong left, many parties have called for a “unity among the left” around the world. Indeed as Lenin has described, social democrats not only have “socialist ministers charm the whole bourgeois world by orations on class collaboration” but they also admit that their main aim is merely reform. The Left, especially in the developed world, not only supports the current political system but sees it vital for its existence. Again as Lenin expected most of these parties now are merely advocates of introducing a strand of bourgeois opportunism into the socialist movement. The best example in England has been New Labour, although most people would not even call them Social Democrats anymore. Be it in France where the moderate socialists are retreating to the leadership of the centre right party, UMP, or in Italy, where the centre-left Democratic Party, has dropped down by 6 points in the European elections, the political left in Europe and other parts of the developed world have spectacularly failed to gain support amidst one of the biggest economic crisis of capitalism.2

Going hand in hand with this political movement has also been the academic rejection of Marx’s theory of historical materialism. Revisionists from Bernstien to Hobsbawm have come to reject Marxist conceptions of class struggle and revolution (and sometimes with very convincing reasons too). Most academics and revolutionaries in Turkey have dismantled altogether after the 90’s. Those who were not assassinated, or are not in jail, have changed direction completely and are bosses in big corporations. The story is not that different in other parts of the world. Even the most popular scholars such as Chomsky have described Lenin as “the worst thing that has ever happened to socialism”3. Marxism is almost always seen as a premature or idealistic conception of the world while Leninism is a “no-no” everywhere. Many people around the world, feel that the emphasis on Marxism and the working class is much too narrow and therefore feel more sympathetic towards other strands of radical thought.

This shift has not been motivated by the complete collapse of Marxist analysis. For example Callinicos argues that “socialist revolution is an imperative in a world where 30 million rot on Western dole queues and 800 million people go hungry in the Third World.”4 Neither has wage-labour perished or class-war ended. Rather people have come to accept the well popularized view that capitalism somehow “works” while the failure of Soviet Russia has been largely promoted as the failure of Marxism altogether.

Is Marx, then, still relevant to our modern lives? Is there anything that can be preserved in Marxism and if so, how can we do this without falling in to dogmatism? To the likes of Tony Blair who have simply dismissed Marxism because it is somehow written too long ago, Mark Steel, a British comedian, asks this question: “Does Tony Blair then, after having eaten his dinner say: ‘No, no! Just throw the plates up in the air, why are you talking about Newton and gravity? That was ages ago. The plates won’t fly, they won’t fall, they’ll find a third way in to the washing machine.’?”

Although it is not a good argument to dismiss a political system simply because of its age, whether its analysis is futile or not remains another question. Yet to make sense of the answer, one first has to make sense of the question. Maybe as Zizek described in his speech at Marxism 2009 asking the question “So what is really still relevant in Marx?” assumes the position of a historical judge who can by himself determine what is new and what is old. Maybe this reduces the theory in to an abstract system of logic with a life of its own, completely isolated from the social reality that surrounds it so that we can compare this abstract theory with the reality of our world to determine what is relevant or not. Maybe as Zizek describes what is really universal and still relevant in Marxism, is the concrete way in which it recreates itself through its analysis of the real world at each historical moment. Therefore we must, to understand what is new in Marxism, ask the opposite question. We must recreate Marxism, look at the world through the eyes of Marxism and then ask, “So what is new with the world today from the lenses of Marx?” If we accept that ideologies are not abstract, isolated ideas, then this analysis is inevitable.

This goes hand in hand with Althusser’s analysis of Marx in his essay Marxism and Humanism. If Marxism is an ideology that can recreate itself in each historical moment, then it can’t, as its starting point accept an idealised universal “essence of man”. Neither can it, as most sciences do today, completely ignore all political influences and claim to practice an empiricism of man. (Indeed Althusser argues that empiricism of man and the idealism of the essence of mankind are practically the same. One curious example here, can be continuous empirical researches in biology, to somehow justify capitalism in an idealist way, saying it is a part of human nature.) Instead Marx based his theory on “the given historical period” and “the different levels of human practice articulated by these periods”. Because of this, historical and ideological movements are not separated from material ones in Marxism but they are seen as a result of each other.

As Marx himself puts it “The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism of the weapon, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses. Theory is capable of gripping the masses as soon as it demonstrates ad hominem, and it demonstrates ad hominem as soon as it becomes radical. To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter. But, for man, the root is man himself”. By holding this position Marx changes the way in which theory and practice relate to each other. For Marx the way in which we interpret history creates the potential to change it. Then to understand Marxism today, we must not look for its secret essence. Neither must we play at empiricism comparing the GDP figures of Soviet Russia with those of the United States, claiming this to be the ultimate failure of Marxism. We must instead understand the social and economic relations of our historical period, through a Marxist outlook.

A good demonstration of the application of such a theory is Marx’s view of equality. It appears to be one of the prejudices of liberal thought, that Marx assumes everyone is equal. This would lead to the idealism of an essence of mankind, which would completely go against the theory was just described. On the contrary Marx’s view is very different. In his “Critique of the Gotha Programme” Marx says that workers are born in to different material conditions and come from different backgrounds. Therefore the bourgeois equality given to them, which holds them to the single same identity merely as workers and nothing else, can only be an inequality. In a Hegelian way a pure conception of equality understood in this abstract bourgeois way leads only to its opposite: an unequal standard to which workers living in different conditions are held to. Instead Marx’s conception of equality is dedicated to the material conditions and political tendencies that create the current, so called, equality and how these can be employed to increase equality.

Therefore if there is anything to preserve in Marxism it is the legacy of dialectical materialism. It is not enough to focus on humanitarian issues and ignore the historical and ideological landscape that surrounds them. As a Turk, for example, it is not enough to appreciate the re-emergence of radical Islam, without understanding the systematic decline of the Turkish left. These two are impotent and blind without each other. When asked which deviation from Marx was better, to the left, or to the right Stalin answered: both are worse. On this rare example, I can agree with him. The curse of revisionism has once again shown its head, as there is a mood of despair for the left in Europe. In such moments of despair, revisionist movements have almost always lost sight of this core aspect of Marxism.5 Now as history repeats itself as a farce one can only look at how relevant Lenin’s answer remains and tell these people what Marx told the German workers who would dismiss the condition of the English working class as not being relevant: De te fabula narratur! (Of you the tale is told.)

1 http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/index.htm
2 http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/aug/17/left-politics-capitalism-recession
3 http://flag.blackened.net/revolt/rbr/noamrbr2.html
4 The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx – Alex Callinicos
5 Eric Hobsbawm’s most recent article in the Guardian is an interesting example of this:http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/apr/10/financial-crisis-capitalism-socialism-alternatives

All other quotes are taken from www.marxists.org

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