The Continuing Relevance of Marx
20 May 2009
Red is the universal symbol of socialism, communism, and Marxism, but it could just as well be green, for collectivist sentiments will always remain evergreen; they represent a perennial form of thought that will always find expression in every age. While the particular form that collectivist thought takes in a given era is specific to that era, it is a perennial tendency of thought and will in every era exhibit perennial properties. Since Marxism is a particular form of a perennial feature of thought, it can be expected to be historically viable. (There is a general principle implicit in this general claim, but I will leave this for another time.)
Since the nineteenth century, Marx has been the primary source of collectivist thought, and Marx will continue to be the primary representative for collectivist thought probably for some centuries to come. Not until another thinker of comparative stature emerges in the coming centuries to re-formulate a powerful collectivist vision on a level with that articulated by Marx will Marx himself be superseded.
The continuing relevance of Marx is attested to in last Saturday’s Financial Times, in which a review by Tony Barber of three books (The Rise and Fall of Communism by Archie Brown, The Frock-Coated Communist by Tristram Hunt, and Marx by Vincent Barnett) was titled Red Alert: Communism has long been discredited — but is there still mileage in the theories of Marx and Engels?
While with the end of the Cold War it became fashionable to speak of Marx being discredited or “proved wrong,” just as today, in the wake of the present financial crisis, it has become fashionable to dust off the tomes of Marx and seek their renewed relevance to the world situation, these twin events — the end of the Cold War and the present financial crisis — ought to have no special claim on our theoretical understanding other than the fact that they are important events that happened to have occurred during our life time. Other events will certainly occur in the future that will make Marxism seem more or less relevant, just as events have occurred in the past that made Marxism seem more or less relevant. The personal perspective on history is a kind of distortion, and one must work against being too much swayed by the events of one’s own time.
In my Globalization and Marxism I argued that Marxism has still not received its experimentum crusis, and may in fact never be subject to a crucial experiment that could decisively and definitively determine the truth value of Marxism’s most fundamental propositions.
A couple of days ago in Marcuse on the Post-WWII settlement I mentioned Marcuse’s post-World War Two reflections on Marxism and the probability (or lack thereof) of proletarian revolution and what Marcuse called “orthodox Marxism” (of which he apparently considered himself a representative).
The “33 Theses” referenced in the above-mentioned post makes for fascinating reading, and I hope to return to this work by Marcuse in future posts. Marcuse takes the post-World War Two condition of Europe as his starting point, and at that point it is apparent that he already at that time considers orthodox Marxism to be defeated (or, at least, not a force to be reckoned with at that time in history). The Soviet Union at that time, even for orthodox Marxists, did not seem to present any hope for leading the vanguard of worldwide proletarian revolution.
Several of the pieces in Marcuse’s Technology, War and Fascism, Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse, Volume One, are similarly prescient; his orthodox Marxism has not impaired the rigor and objectivity of his scholarship. There is much to be learned here, still today, as there was much that could have been learned from it in Marcuse’s time that would have made the “Red Scare” that much less scary. But this is a large topic that cannot be adequately treated with an extemporaneous remark like that.
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