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Issue 44, September 1999

top     Marxism at the Millennium

SEATTLE PROVIDES A symbolic ending to the 20th century and to the close of the second millennium (of the Christian-Western calendar). One of the most prosperous cities of the world's richest and most powerful state was shaken by mass protests against the world-wide effects of capitalist globalisation. Demonstrators against the World Trade Organisation, both from within the US and from abroad, were clubbed and gassed by US imperialism's domestic robo-cops. Reflecting the sharpening social conflicts of the 1990s, the Battle of Seattle prefigures the elemental struggles which will unfold in the first decade of the 21st century.

Bourgeois commentators have been forced to recognise that the protests were not merely against the WTO but against the international capitalist system. Similarly, when the Carnival Against Capitalism in London's financial centre last June led to street fighting after demonstrators were attacked by the police, the Financial Times (20 June) carried the front-page headline: 'Anti-capitalists lay siege to the City of London'.

This emerging anti-capitalist consciousness is at an early, unformed stage of development. Nevertheless, a new generation of activists are beginning to move beyond single-issue campaigns and are more and more linking problems of poverty and inequality, devastation of the environment, inter-state conflict and civil wars, and many other problems, to a single cause - the economic exploitation and political oppression on which the capitalist system rests.


Consciousness at the moment, it is true, is predominantly anti-the system, anti-the effects of capitalism, without the reinforcement of an alternative. Yet there are important signs of a revival of interest in the life and works of Karl Marx, who over 150 years ago provided an economic and philosophical critique of capitalism and the theoretical basis for the overthrow of the system and its replacement by a worldwide socialist society. An early sign of this was a special issue of the New Yorker magazine in October 1997, which featured Marx as 'the next big thinker' (which we commented on in Socialism Today No.26, March 1998). The writer, a wealthy investment banker wrote: 'The longer I spend on Wall Street, the more convinced I am that Marx was right... Marx's approach is the best way to look at capitalism'.

This year, a poll conducted by BBC News Online placed Marx as the 'thinker of the millennium', with Einstein as runner-up. At the same time, a new biography of Marx by the Guardian journalist, Francis Wheen, was published in London (see page 12). The most significant thing about this book, which contains nothing very new but adopts a generally sympathetic approach towards its subject, is the very fact that it has been published at this time - and has received a very favourable reception from journalists, intellectuals and the reading public. It is a fresh approach to the life, political struggles and ideas of Marx for the post-1989 world, when the incubus of the grotesque Stalinist states no longer weighs like a demon on the mind of the present generation.


The triumphalism of the bourgeoisie which soared after the fall of the Berlin Wall has been deeply eroded by the world-wide problems and conflicts which have developed, even before the US and Europe have entered an economic downturn. The working out of the contradictions within capitalism is spurring the development of an anti-capitalist consciousness and the revival of interest in socialism as an alternative to capitalism. This is an answer to those 'post-modern Socialists' who only recently claimed that, because of the 'collapse of Communism' (in reality, Stalinism), and the 'triumph of Western capitalism', 'the Marxist project for revolution launched by the Communist Manifesto is dead'. (Burbach, Nunez and Kagarlitsky, Globalisation and its Discontents: the Rise of Post-Modern Socialisms, 1997). Remarkably, these neo-reformists appear to have more confidence in capitalism than many serious bourgeois commentators, while authors such as the Wall Street financier referred to above and Francis Wheen are emphasising that Marx's analysis of globalisation in the Manifesto is even more relevant today than it was when it was written in 1848.

Just as today Marx's diagnosis of capitalist globalisation is finding wider acceptance, tomorrow there will be growing support for Marx's call, first clearly expressed in the Manifesto, for an international struggle against the global domination of capital.

The most politically conscious of those fighting against capitalist domination will recognise the validity of Marx's alternative, already outlined in the Manifesto: 'The first step in the revolution by the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, which is the struggle of democracy...


'The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the state, ie of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible'. The Manifesto calls for the nationalisation of banking and finance and of communications and transport, together with the extension of nationalisation to factories and the development of agriculture according to a common plan.

The revolution in Russia degenerated because, through isolation in a single, economically backward country, the role of the proletariat as a new ruling class was usurped under Stalin by a privileged caste of bureaucrats who ruled through totalitarian methods. Despite bureaucratic distortions, the nationalised, planned economy provided a glimpse, as through a distorting lens, of what could be achieved through genuine democratic planning. Dominated by a bureaucracy mainly concerned to defend its national interests, the Soviet Union became an obstacle to international social transformation. The grotesque caricature which existed in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, China and elsewhere served to discredit the genuine Marxist conception of a socialist society. Ultimately, bureaucratic mismanagement brought about the decay and collapse of the Stalinist states. The 'socialism in one country' espoused by Stalin, never envisaged by Lenin and implacably opposed by Trotsky, proved a tragic detour.


The demise of the Stalinist states, however, has cleared the ground for the genuine ideas of Marxism. The fundamental aim of the Manifesto, to replace, 'the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms', with 'an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all', will be back on the agenda for the 21st century.

The recent demonstrations in London, Cologne, Seattle, Bangalore and elsewhere reflect the stirrings of a powerful internationalist consciousness, which is a reaction to the global domination and exploitation of capitalism. Among the students and young workers there is enormous sympathy with the poor and oppressed of the underdeveloped countries, with the millions who have been forced to flee from armed conflict and environmental devastation, as well as with the unemployed (especially in Europe) and the low-paid (especially in the US) workers of the advanced capitalist countries. This will crystallise in the next period into a recognition that it is the working class and rural labourers, the contemporary proletariat who are, in reality, the decisive social force capable of overthrowing capitalism and introducing a socialist society. Internationally, in the opening years of the 21st century the working class - now far, far stronger than when Marx was writing - will begin to feel its real strength and to consciously fight for a fundamental change in society.

In reaction to the socially destructive effects of globalisation, some of those campaigning against the role of the WTO and the giant corporations are calling for a reinforcement of the power of the national state. In this phase of capitalism, however, nation states are torn by the contradiction between the rival national interests of the capitalists and the inexorable demands of the world market, dominated by US imperialism, the European powers, and Japanese capitalism. There will be a growing recognition that the socialist alternative to capitalism has to be international, a higher form of society based on the democratic, world-wide planning of productive forces and natural resources.


In their joint work, The German Ideology, written just before the Manifesto, Marx and Friedrich Engels emphasised that the socialist revolution must be an international process, through which 'everyone will be freed from... particular local and national limitations, brought into a practical relationship with the products (including intellectual products) of the whole world, and enabled to gain the capacity to delight in all the fruits of world-wide human creativity'.

The Communist Manifesto concludes with Marx's best-known and most revolutionary slogan: 'Workers of all countries, unite!' In the 21st century, this slogan will find its true expression.

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