Socialism not the answer

Published: Sunday | June 7, 2009

Ian Boyne

"This should be the left's big chance in Europe. Capitalism is in crisis. Growth is collapsing. Unemployment is rising and the state is back in business".

Newsweek, June 8, 2009.

The Marxist Daniel Rubin has just put out his new book Can Capitalism Last? A Marxist Update, cashing in on the latest crisis in capitalism. You would have thought that Marxian socialism has been so thoroughly and irreparably discredited that all communists would shamefully have to bear the adjective 'former', but no, there are still some of those around and they still believe - believe it or not - that Marxism is the answer to the world's crisis.

Newsweek this week has a cover story, 'Crisis on the left', with its inside story titled, 'How the left can rise again'. The left's crisis, like the Chinese characters, spell danger, but also opportunity. The Marxist websites, magazines and journals are brimming with the gloomy statistics about the global crisis in capitalism, but as Newsweek notes, the left is "long on critiques, short on solutions". Precisely the point I have been making for the last couple of weeks.

In this they are following in the honoured tradition their Jewish prophet, Karl Marx, who was brilliant in his analysis of capitalism, sociology and history in particular. But from early in his prescriptions were seen as coming up short. That is why Lenin had to update him in a number of areas, primarily in terms of strategy. Lenin understood, for example, that Marx's chosen class, the working class that would "abolish history" and usher in the utopia, would never on its own move beyond what Lenin called "trade union consciousness".

vanguard of the proletariat

Lenin developed the concept of the vanguard of the proletariat, recognising that Marx was incredibly naive to believe that the workers would, on their own, develop socialist consciousness and through their exploitation and oppression overthrow the ruling class. Lenin saw that a vanguard party of more advanced workers and members of the nationalist bourgeoisie had to guide the working class to their own liberation.

Today, some Marxists naively believe that the crisis in global capitalism is leading irrevocably toward the liberation of the masses who will rise up against the "blood-sucking capitalists". Marxists are people of strong faith, just like their religious fundamentalist counterparts.

Many Marxists, certainly those in the Caribbean whom I have read and interacted with, appear oblivious to how the working class itself has been transformed as a result of developments in capitalism and the emergence of modern globalisation. I was surprised when over lunch a few years ago some Caribbean Marxists, who shall remain nameless, said they were not aware of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's path-breaking tome Empire. This work by these two Marxists had been widely discussed in the scholarly press and hailed as one of the most original scholarly works of the past few decades in terms of Marxian studies on class and capitalism.

The book demonstrates how globalisation and Empire have transformed state and class relations and have whittled down the revolutionary power of the working class - as traditionally conceived. These Caribbean Marxists were not even aware of these eminent gentlemen's work, safe in the cocoon of their traditional, vulgar Marxism.

clueless Marxist

Say the scholars in their 2000 work: "As the world market today is realised ever more completely, it tends to deconstruct the boundaries of the nation-state. In a previous period, nation-states were the primary actors in the modern imperialist organisation of global production and exchange, but to the world market they appear increasingly as mere obstacles." Lenin had spoken of imperialism being "the highest stage of capitalism", but modern globalisation is an even more distinct and peculiar phase of capitalism. This phase makes it that much more difficult to build a Marxian society.

Many of our Marxists have not a clue about how "liberation of the masses" has been made that much more problematic because of what professors Edgar Grande and Louis Pauly call "complex sovereignty". In their edited 2005 work, Complex Sovereignty: Reconstituting Political Authority in the Twenty-First Century," they demonstrate the power of transnational and supranational institutions. Stunningly, Mark Thompson in a reply to my piece on the Caribbean Dialogues forum last week writes: "What should be done? Further economic and technological development; increase the integration of Jamaica into the world economy; attract foreign direct investment; support free-trade agreements and the development of mega-corporations. That is the programme, Mr Boyne."

Are you really serious, Mark? Do you really believe that this will "increase the antagonisms in the global economic and social structures while building an international political organisation"?

It is this kind of naivety which characterises much of leftist thinking in the Caribbean and elsewhere. Globalisation and 21st century capitalism - even with the crisis - is not loosening, but strengthening the power of the international capitalists to maintain their hegemony over the working class. The developing world is even more subservient to international capital as a result of the global financial crisis, not less so.

The tentacles are even stronger. And the working class is not about to revolt, but merely to try to eke out something from the crumbs of the capitalists' table. Marxists grossly underestimate what even their prophet called "the embourgeouisment of the masses" - that is, the ability of the ruling class to pass off its ideas as common sense, natural and ordained. Marx was absolutely right, "the ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas".

Marx said that the ability of the ruling class to reproduce "false consciousness" gave capitalists a tremendous hold over the masses.

But he had the faith in his "science" that the antagonisms and class struggles would be so intense that the masses would eventually realise their true interests and overthrow bourgeois rule, establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat. That promised Day of Salvation has not yet come. Mark Thompson himself acknowledges in his reply to me last week that "there is no inevitability to the process. The technologies that hold potential to further progressive interests could equally be used for incumbent interests based on the balance of class forces".

'magical realism'

But why does he continue to have faith in the eventual victory of the workers? It is sheer faith, idealism-fantasy. It is like the religious fundamentalist fantasy. Mark has reached beyond the empirical and has reached for what some scholars call "magical realism".

A lot of the prescriptions of the Marxists are unworkable and, indeed, laughable. In the manifesto of the International Marxist Tendency we read: "We demand the end to privatisation and the abandonment of market economics ... For the rationalisation for privatised companies without compensation." Without compensation? Can you imagine any government in Jamaica trying that and lasting? When the international capitalists and their puppet institutions lock out Jamaica or any other country from the credit markets; when foreign investors flee Jamaica; when we can't pay for our imports, what will happen? The socialisation of production, the goal of Marxian socialism, is a recipe for disaster.

The International Marxist Tendency calls for "the reintroduction of the state monopoly of foreign trade". It is this kind of impracticable, fantasy-driven proposals which Marxists make. Even if they were laudable, just and reasonable, they have no chance of working because of how integrated the global economy is and the very little policy space which any national economy has.

In another era, some of these things could possibly work - especially if you had a communist superpower like the Soviet Union to bank-roll such experiments. Cuba could never have consolidated its revolution without that $1 million a day subsidy from the Soviet Union during the heyday of Soviet communism. There is no such Big Brother today. WAKE UP

Guys on Caribbean Dialogues, wake up from the Californian summer and smell the coffee! What drives Marxists is not their so-called science, but their faith. And that is why it is important to discuss philosophy and postmodernism, though I am not a postmodernist. But postmodernism would help the dreamland Marxists to "arise from their dogmatic slumbers", to quote Kant.

The sharpest, most intellectually gifted thinker on the left who contributes to Caribbean Dialogues is Kamau Chionesu. His reply to me last week was an intellectual delight. Eschewing scurrilous personal attacks, he went to the heart of my arguments, agreeing on many points, to the chagrin of the utopians, while elaborating on some points.

You are right, Kamau: It was an egregious error on my part to have let in that phrase about Marxism having a "pre-modern" epistemology. Indeed, as I pointed out, its heritage is the Enlightenment and so it has a very modernist epistemology - hence my accusation of scientism. You were right to be baffled by my mis-statement.

Science VS teleology

There were some choice gems from Chionesu's exceedingly fertile mind: "To cite laws governing social evolution in the Marxian sense then is to point to the inevitability or historic necessity of socialism/communism ... As such, it is a kind of teleological reasoning, but science has a deep problem with teleology. Darwin's system is non-teleological; there is no predestination in natural evolution. With communism we come, it is said, to the end of history and mankind flourishes. Why the cycle should not repeat itself at a higher level is beyond me." Brilliant analysis!

But Trevor Campbell has no patience for such nuances and deep philosophical thinking, for it interferes with "historical necessity", his faith in the "End of history". Like Lenin, in 'What is to be Done?' he wants a utilitarian programme. To hell with philosophy! The social classes don't need philosophy; they need praxis, urges Campbell - as though the millions whose blood cry out from the slaughter house of communist history is not enough to caution us against unreflective action.

Capitalism is in crisis, yes. But the fantasies (and faith) of the communists represent no alternative.

Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist who may be reached at or