The economic crash in 2008 brought Marxism back into the public consciousness. People started to discuss cycles of boom and bust and the media reported increases in sales of Das Capital. Since the crash people have started to see this period as some form of revival of Marxism but when you look into activity on the left and the current buoyancy in socialism you see something else going on.
Marxism and indeed socialism generally took an almighty kicking in the 1980s with the rise of neoliberalism and globalisation. Thatcher and Reagan sorted the USSR out while traditional social democratic parties like Labour in the UK were smashed at the ballot box. With Tony Blair still fresh in the memories it’s perhaps difficult to recall that in 1992 following yet another general election defeat people on the left in Britain wondered if Labour would ever gain power again. Of course they did but only by abandoning the old ways.
The protests against globalisation in the ’90s were organised around a common theme but attracted people from a wide section of the left. Traditional Labour types mixed with environmentalists, animal rights activists, anarchists, feminists, and anti-war campaigners to oppose the economic liberalisation of the global economy.
Several high-profile demonstrations took place at the various G20 meetings forcing these to be organised in heavily protected areas making the political and economic rulers look ever further disconnected to politics and economics at street level. The talk in the mid to late ’90s was of this movement banding together and becoming the new left. The Marxist ‘business model’ is based around getting as many people as possible into ‘the’ party. Unfortunately there’s quite a few parties and they can’t agree which one is the best. So Marxism ticked over but the parties got less relevant and failed to make in-roads.
Meanwhile the protests continued. In more recent times the anti-capitalist movement has morphed into such groupings as Occupy and the UnCuts. The interesting thing I find in the present and the period since the fall of socialism is the activity of anarchists. From the early days of anti-capitalism and anti-globalisation through to the Occupy movement we have seen an increase in anarchist activity. Even those involved not openly calling themselves anarchists would have to admit that their activity has been in tune with and often run along anarchist lines and principles.
The Occupy movement was planned and enacted by anarchists. I was at St Paul’s Cathedral when Occupy the London Stock Exchange started and it was noticeable how much planning had gone into making it run to direct democratic principles. Calls from the assembly for violence were rejected (leaving those anarchists prone to smashing things highly frustrated), meanwhile a small collection of Socialist Workers Party placards were leant against the statue of Queen Victoria shunned and with nobody to hold them. Parties were not going to infiltrate either – this was about building a community based on mutual aid and not about getting more papers sold. It was also not about leaders who could too easily be shot down by the media and established politicians. I only went for a look but quickly found myself kettled by the police and on a committee deciding how major decisions would be taken by the group.
With anti-capitalist protests all over the world, revolutions and riots it’s easy to see why some would argue that Marxism has had a revival and to some extent it has. Marxism provides a compelling critique of the status quo and one which appears increasingly relevant. But we must be cautious in declaring a revival of Marxism when the only people declaring it are the Marxists themselves. What we’ve seen in socialism over the last two decades or so is an ideology learning to cope with major setback / defeat. Where Marxists still have trouble, is in the supposed inevitability of the revolution. It clearly isn’t inevitable and to make it happen they will need to convince people that it is desirable.
Instead of getting people to sign up to a particular party the anarchists have been busy showing people how to change society, why that is needed and what it would look like. I’m not going to go into the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ – don’t get me started, except to say it is the fundamental flaw in what Marxists seem to want.
Meanwhile anarchism and anarchists of various types have kept socialism going. The revival of socialism is what should concern us and it’s a revival that values liberty and freedom above party dogma. We shouldn’t confuse a revival amongst the Marxists, for a revival in Marxism itself.
- Book Review: Revitalizing Marxist Theory for Today’s Capitalism (blogs.lse.ac.uk)
- Marxism and Anarchism (practicaltheorist.wordpress.com)