Socialist festival shows Marx still draws a crowd
Twenty years since end of the Cold War, most people think of communism as a dying creed. Yet this weekend, modern revolutionaries converged on London for the Marxism 2012 lecture series. Why?
For five days, radicals from across Britain have been gathering in Central London. Seasoned campaigners delivered fiery calls for struggle and resistance. Scruffy academics earnestly explained that capitalism is trapped in an irreversible decline. Leaflets and placards littered the streets, calling on passers-by to help ‘smash the state’.
Was this Britain’s version of the Arab Spring? No – just Marxism 2012, an annual festival dedicated to the ideas of 19th Century philosopher Karl Marx – the figurehead of international communism.
To many, events like this seem like an anachronistic relic from the Cold War era, when huge swathes of the world’s population lived under communism. Today only pockets remain; and even the few countries that supposedly remain communist (such as China) are increasingly embracing the free market. On a global scale, Marxism lies in ruins.
Yet the success of Marxism 2012 shows that the ideology has not gone away. Is communism making a comeback?
As a political system, probably not. The revolutionary Socialist Workers’ Party, which organised Marxism 2012, polled less than 0.1 percent of the vote at the UK’s last general election.
But interest in Marx’s ideas may be on the rise. In 2005 Radio 4 listeners voted Marx the greatest philosopher ever. And since 2008, sales of his books have rocketed. Communist Russia may be dead; but the Communist Manifesto is alive and well.
Why could this be? For one thing, Marx is losing his association with repressive totalitarian states like the USSR. But perhaps the most important reason for Marx’s resurgence is that he offers an alternative explanation for the financial crisis.
Marx believed that since capitalism creates a divide between rich and poor, it is inherently unstable. The ruling classes rely on the exploitation of workers; but unless the working class is kept weak, it will rise up and take control.
Hence capitalism must lurch from crisis to crisis, until the working class realises its power and resists. Then, inevitably, socialist revolution will triumph. Capitalism, as Marx famously said, ‘carries within it the seeds of its own destruction’.
On your Marx
Many think of Marxism as the most catastrophic experiment in history. Wherever Marxists have come to power, they say, the dream of socialist utopia quickly degenerated into evil dictatorships responsible for millions of deaths. Have these people learned nothing?
But most Marxists deny that their ideology is responsible for the atrocities of dictators like Stalin and Mao. Nobody would be more shocked by the worst abuses of communism than Marx himself, they say. Judge his ideas on their own merits – not by the way that others have used them.
- Do you find the idea of total equality appealing?
- Does it make sense to use the ideas of a 19th Century thinker to explain things happening in the world today?
- Write a description of your perfect society. Would anybody be in charge? How would you share out wealth and possessions? What would people do with their days?
- Research Marx’s conception of history through class struggle. Draw a diagram to show how he thought humans would progress through different economic systems.
Some People Say...
“Communism is no less evil than fascism.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- So if the USSR wasn’t what Marx was after, then whatdid he want?
- While Marx’s analysis of capitalism was very detailed, he was always very hazy on the details of what would replace it. First, a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ (that is, the working classes) would redistribute wealth. But once all were equal that would be replaced by ‘full communism.’
- And what would that look like?
- A perfect society in which everyone was free to do whatever work they pleased, as long as they shared the results out equally. ‘Man could hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon... without ever becoming a hunter or a fisherman.’
- Hunting and fishing? What world was he living in?
- He probably wasn’t being entirely literal. But perhaps it’s a little unrealistic even so.
- International communism
- One of Marx’s key beliefs was that nations were basically artificial. The division that really mattered, he thought, was class: a factory worker in Vienna shared more in common with a factory worker in Glasgow than he or she did with the Austrian factory owner. Hence the famous Marxist rallying cry: ‘workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!’
- Embracing the free market
- In the 1980s, Chinese ruler Deng Xiaoping introduced wide-ranging reforms that introduced market forces into the Chinese economy. Deng called this ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics,’ though it is often called ‘state capitalism’ in the West. Similar reforms occurred at around the same time in Vietnam.
- Sales of his books
- You still won’t see Marx on bestseller lists. But his longest and most famous work, Das Kapital (or Capital: a Critique of Political Economy), now sells several thousand copies annually, up from roughly 1,000. A shorter statement of Marx’s beliefs, entitled The Communist Manifesto, is one of the best selling books of all time.
- The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was a political confederation dominated by Russia but including countries like Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus and many more.
- Marx believed that all political systems before socialism were based on the exploitation of one class by another. First, tyrants exploited the labour of slaves. Later, landowners exploited the labour of peasants. Then, in capitalism, rich industrialists and bankers exploited the labour of urban workers.