Death of Marxism paradox – part 1

Marx Engels monument in Berlin

Death of Marxism paradox – part 1

There is an intense debate on Marxism in the academia, on the validity of Marx’ theories, on the new Left and their use of Marxism, on how much Marx there is left in neo-Marxism, and so on. This debate, it seems, is primarily in the academia – one does not find much Marxism in politics, or public debates, or even worker unions.

Is it valid, then, to say that Marxism is dead? And not only did it die, but it died silently, without much resistance? The paradox here is not that simple to discern. Naively, we assume the death of something once we stop hearing about it – but Marxism, unlike Marx, cannot be dead as long as there is capitalism. So for today’s paradox, let us look at the reason why Marx is dead, and why Marxism cannot die under global capitalism.

What do we mean when we say Marxism cannot die?

There is a good reason to assume that, when we speak of politics and political issues, as long as something is not present in speech, then it has no relevance for us any longer. In this sense, Marxism that does not enter public debates, or organizes unions, has no value for any side.

Nevertheless, despite this validity, capitalism has a way of revitalizing Marxism (or rather socialism) the moment something goes awry with capitalism. There is something inherently contradictory in capitalist systems, and it is this inherent contradiction that Marxism keeps unraveling in times of crises. The contradiction, very briefly, is between the social characteristics of production and private property. In simple contemporary terms: between production by majority, and profit by minority. While most of the times this contradiction does not pose any problems, in times of crises (as recently with bankruptcies of banks) it becomes apparent. In this sense, Marxism cannot die as this contradiction is inherent to capitalism.

On the other hand, Marx is dead – and should stay dead. In fact, he wanted to be dead. What does this mean?

Certainly he is dead physically. But he is also dead in the sense that his views were not meant to be permanent. To treat Marx (as some academics do) as a holy grail, a text one should remain true to, seeking correct interpretations and staying true to them – these were never Marx’ intentions. His analyses were meant to be contemporary (though many are still applicable). He did not intend to be viewed in a dogmatic way. In fact, as Engels notes:

“Our theory is not a dogma, but a guide to action”. Repeating these words, Lenin rightly points out that if we are to accept Marxism, we have first to accept the death of Marx. Marx’ theories “are capable only of marking out general tasks, which are necessarily modifiable by the concrete economic and political conditions of each particular period of the historical process” (V.I. Lenin, Letters on Tactics, First Letter Assessment of the Present Situation).

(sidenote – Interestingly enough, there are similar statements by Stalin and by Mao; in fact they are almost identical: “We should regard it not as a dogma, but as a guide to action. Studying it is not merely a matter of learning terms and phrases but of learning Marxism-Leninism as the science of revolution. It is not just a matter of understanding the general laws derived by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin from their extensive study of real life and revolutionary experience, but of studying their standpoint and method in examining and solving problems” (The Role of the Chinese Communist Party in the National War).)

What we have to understand in this paradox is of course the political gains from declaration of death of Marxism. On the one hand, death of Marxism declares the ‘end of history’, the final stage that Fukuyama declared in early 90’s (paradoxically, Marx also declared the end of history, though in a different sense). Interestingly enough, though Fukuyama retracted his views, as Zizek rightly observes in The Fragile Absolute, we still accept his view – we still see all alternatives as something of the past. More importantly, the death of Marxism also declares the death of politics as a frontier between uncompromising points of view. It is a façade for the liberal agenda to declare the death of the political as a decision between friend and enemy.


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