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Marxism and the Crisis of Western Capitalism

posted 13 Feb 2013, 15:13 by Admin uk   [ updated 13 Feb 2013, 15:25 ]

by Heiko Khoo    

One of the greatest puzzles in the deep and ongoing crisis of world capitalism is the weak influence of Marxist ideas and of leftwing and revolutionary political movements in Europe and America. Surely the prophetic wisdom of the Marxist critique of capitalism should give rise to a widespread intellectual acceptance of the validity of Marx's theories, and to an increasingly powerful challenge to the existing socio-economic system?    

True, Greece is one notable exception; there, Syriza, a coalition of Maoists, Euro-Communists, Trotskyists and other leftwing groups, founded in 2004, won 27 percent of the vote in the 2012 parliamentary elections, coming second. It is well placed to win a future election, if the present right wing government collapses. But in the battle for the streets, protest by the working class has declined, and the ominous rise of a violent fascist party, called Grey Dawn, is a worrying sign.

In France there are also grounds for optimism. During the 2012 presidential election, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the presidential candidate of the Left-Front coalition, which includes the French Communist Party, managed to tap into a deep vein of revolutionary anger at mass rallies all over the country. The French street revealed its willingness to listen to revolutionary rhetoric, and huge crowds supported Mélenchon's call for a "citizens' revolution." But overall, the electoral influence of the radical left has remained weak throughout the crisis.

Reformist parties in the West subordinate their morality and deeds to the interests of their ruling class. For example, French Socialist Party presidential candidate, Francois Hollande, won the election, partly due to his left wing language -- but he has been unwilling to live up to it when faced with resistance from conservative forces. Here are two small but significant examples: The famous actor Gérard Depardieu fled the "regime," adopting Russian citizenship to escape French taxes; and France's constitutional court banned a 75 percent tax on the rich, revealing that protection of the wealth and power of the elite remains the highest constitutional good!

Indeed, to display his loyalty to the traditions of old France, President Hollande dispatched the military to conquer the deserts of Mali, a former colony of France. Absurdly, this was presented in the British media as protecting the ancient documents of Timbuktu and saving the people from Islamic tyranny! Cheering crowds were seen on television welcoming their imperial "saviors."

The Occupy movement swept across the Western world for a few months in 2011. It seized urban squares, questioned the way capitalism works, and created "liberated space" where dialogue, discussion and a sense of community flourished. These citadels of dissent provided an outlet to challenge the old ways of thinking. However, they also imposed bizarre consensus based decision-making rituals, which, by their nature, simultaneously undermined the clash of ideas required to give rise to transformative action. The Occupy movement acted rather as a generic call to question and take future action.

There are numerous small organizations in the West which seek to become the embryo of future revolutionary parties. Most claim some affinity to the organizational theories of the Russian revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin, who famously developed the organizational method of intense ideological debate and unified action, commonly called "Democratic Centralism". The Russian Bolsheviks (meaning "majority") developed as a faction of the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. The Bolsheviks sought to protect revolutionary ideas against external and internal pressures; be flexible enough to incorporate a vibrant clash of opinions, and be capable of adjusting their theory and practice in the light of experience.

Lenin based his model of democratic centralism on the German Social Democratic Party. He adapted it to suit Russian conditions and maintain ideological clarity in the face of repression by the Tsarist secret police. It trained revolutionary forces – in legal and illegal conditions – for the inevitable revolutionary awakening of the masses.

When Lenin's Bolsheviks came to power, public debate and discussion in the party and society flourished. This continued after the ban on opposition parties in 1918, and the ban on party factions in 1921. This atmosphere of tolerance influenced new Communist parties around the world. Mao Zedong described debates in the early Communist Party of China, under the leadership of Chen Duxiu, as "rather lively" and free of dogmatism.

The Stalinist falsification of Leninism prohibited ideological disagreement and eliminated opposition. This generated the ossified party structure that ruled over the USSR and Eastern Europe. The USSR, on the surface, appeared to be vast, all powerful and united, but rapidly cracked and collapsed, due to its internal contradictions; the inability to develop the economy; and its inflexible bureaucratic response to the open debate and dialogue that burst forth after Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985.

After this collapse, there was a crisis in every Western Marxist group. Some had hoped that a political revolution in the former Stalinist states would give rise to a new and higher form of society based on mass democratic control over the state and economy, modeled on the early dreams of workers' councils in the USSR, or on the "armed people" of the Paris Commune of 1871. But, although these ideas found some advocates within the Communist parties, they were rapidly sidelined, as the drive towards capitalism unleashed powerful counter-revolutionary forces, which used democracy to privatize public property.

The most comprehensive exposition of the failings of the Soviet system of bureaucratic planning and administration was written by János Kornai. His magnum opus, The Socialist System: The Political Economy of Communism (1992), deeply influenced Chinese economists like Wu Jinglian. It is based on the theory that a democratic centralist system cannot cope with the complexity of information of a sophisticated economy and society. It argues that patronizing and paternalistic bureaucratic power inevitably evokes a response that cannot be contained, after which a systemic transformation becomes unavoidable.

Today, China is the most information-rich country ever to be ruled by a Communist Party. So, according to Kornai's theory, an information-based crisis is inevitable. Instruments of communication today are qualitatively different to the crude means available in 1989 in Eastern Europe or the USSR. The Internet is a terrain of struggle more diverse than the physical terrain in which the Chinese revolutionary war was fought.

Everyone who wants can find ways to communicate their ideas. The core problem is to have sufficient vision to open up pathways of democratic participation and control that will often stem from outside existing structures, and will be uncomfortable or challenging to many in positions of authority and power. The rising objective strength of the working class must manifest itself in increasing control by the working class, both as producers and consumers, and as "masters of the state."

In 1842, Frederich Engels studied the working class in Manchester and wrote a book called The Condition of the Working Class in England. Nowadays, a universal survey of the condition of the working class in China is needed, and it should be produced by the workers themselves. When the workers see Marxist theory as their own, see Communists as their allies, learn how to stamp out corruption and graft, and see trade unions as their weapons of defense, these struggles within the system will advance workers' democratic participation and control, which can increase the total efficiency and unity of the national economy.

Marxists in the capitalist world have to work out how to overcome their isolation from the masses and simultaneously develop a sophisticated and critically-minded revolutionary force capable of providing guidance and leadership in the complex tactical and strategic struggles for economic and political power. This is complicated by the huge sway that reformist political parties still have over the outlook of the mass of working people. Revolutionaries have to find their way to raise the horizons of the masses and transform the struggles to reform society into a movement for fundamental change. The Marxist objective to overthrow capitalism and lay the foundations of communism requires long term strategic thinking about the nature of the system we live under; unity of the workers' movement worldwide; and a critical assessment and evaluation of the experiences of the 130 years of the Communist movement since the death of Karl Marx.