Is Marxism Relevant Today?

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Marx is definitely dead for humankind."

Quotations like this come up all the time when questions of radical political and social change are discussed. They can be found in the corporate media, especially the blowhard punditocracy. They can be found in textbooks and academic journals. And they can be found--actually, more often and with greater acrimony--in discussions on the left, among people who agree on many points. A variety of arguments are put forward as evidence--that Karl Marx and Frederick Engels predicted that capitalism would collapse, and it hasn't; that the fall of the Berlin Wall exposed the failure of Marxism; that class struggle can't survive in a world of cable television, the Internet and SUVs. What connects them is the desire to bury Marx and Marxism--historically interesting, maybe, but an irrelevancy in the modern world.

But there is one point worth making about the specific quotation cited above. It wasn't written in the last year or the last decade. It's nearly a century old--the words of Italian intellectual Benedetto Croce from an article in 1907. Croce was declaring that Marx and Marxism were irrelevant in the new century--the 20th century, that is. As Daniel Singer, the socialist journalist and writer who sadly died a year and a half ago, put it (citing Croce's words during a 1997 talk that was reprinted in Monthly Review): "I have quoted it to remind you that gravediggers of Marx--the new philosophers, the Fukuyamas--have plenty of ancestors and will have plenty of successors, and it's not worthwhile spending much time refuting their paid or unpaid funeral orations."

Croce had the misfortune of passing judgement on Marxism a decade before the Russian Revolution of 1917--the great revolt against one of the world's cruelest dictators, the Tsar; the most thorough expansion of democracy and freedom known to the world to that point; and the first glimpses of what a society run by the majority of people might look like. The fact that this first experiment in socialism survived for only a brief few years before the bureaucratic counterrevolution of Stalinism doesn't change the fact that Marx and Marxism were very relevant indeed--viewed as a guide and a framework by masses of people who hoped to make a new society, with themselves as the collective masters.

Likewise, during the upheavals across the world following the First World War--from the revolution in Germany that toppled the Kaiser, to the short-lived establishment of workers' governments in Bavaria and Hungry, to even the U.S. and its "Great Red Year" of 1919, when one in five workers were on strike--many of those who could justly be called the most active in the struggle looked to Marxism as the best explanation of what they were fighting against and fighting for.

Though the years after the First World War marked the highest point of the influence of Marxism--or at least the genuine Marxist tradition, before the distortions caused by its association with Stalinism, in both Russia and other countries--its impression can be seen to some extent in all the great struggles since. Even, for example, the 1980-81 Solidarnosc revolt in Poland, which pitted the 10 million-strong Solidarity union against a dictatorial regime that ruled in the name of Marxism. Nevertheless, leading figures in the uprising and veterans of past struggles in Poland, such as Jacek Kuron and Karol Modzelewski, looked to an anti-Stalinist version of Marxism, with democracy and workers' self-activity at its core.

Every time Marxism is buried, it seems to rise from the dead, whether a decade or a few years or even a few months later--to become recognized, by supporters and opponents alike, as an important influence on a new generation concerned with the issues of justice, equality and resistance. If this is the case, then there must be something about Marxism that draws people to reexamine it time and again. If so, then the version of Marxism put forward by its...
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