Communism is dead, Long live Marxism!

March 27, 2007

The post Second World War era has been marked by the division of the world into two blocs on the basis of their respective ideology. International relations were marked by economic and military confrontation and mistrust. Today only a handful of countries remain nominally communist states, and their policies are far from the Marxist or Leninist gospel.

But Marxism is alive and kicking!

Don’t you think that…
… China is the new manufacturing centre of the World?
… Third World countries are exploited by richer countries?
… Multinational corporations are increasingly powerful players, which are ever more escaping and challenging the power of the state?

If you think that you are not Marxist but have answered yes to the above questions then the Diagnosis is clear;

You are a ‘closet Marxist’.

Yet, don’t you also think that…
… people’s life under communism was miserable?
… communist states were riddle by corruption and/or cronyism?
… communist states were only successful in fostering bureaucracy?

So how is it that a political project that has so spectacularly failed is still very much part of our framework of reference? Don’t you agree that Marxism is an utterly bad manual guide on how to manage your state but a very accurate analysis of the power relations that are structuring the global world?

Guillaume Daniel and Raymond Szeto


15 Responses to “Communism is dead, Long live Marxism!”

  1. Adam Blinick Says:

    Very interesting, thought-provoking blog, though I think I have to respectfully disagree with your initial argument. To the first point, I’d say China’s emergence as a powerful economy has occurred BECAUSE it has started to abandon much of its Marxist ways. To the second, indeed, the world is full of haves and have-nots, where the powerful developed countries undoubtedly have the upperhand when creating organizations with developing countries, and organizations like the WTO and World Bank seem at times to be set up to benefit the rich, not help the poor. Still, can we not say that those economies that have emerged since the 1970s–like Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Chile–to paths of internal liberalization, where failed economic states have been plagued by abominable, corrupt leadership (sometimes in the name of communism). As such, is Marxism, or a Marxist view, a panacea to fixing the current disequilibrium?

    Also, could one not argue that in those countries that have adopted liberal market capitalism, the quality of life for ALL of its citizens has improved, and not just the rich? This bring me to my final point: I’ve always found that when talking about Marxism, there is one issue that needs clarifying–what is of importance to you and your society: equality or liberty (i.e. freedom of opportunity). The two, in my opinion, are not compatible, and trying to strive for utter equality will inevitably lead to the establishment a more totalitarian state which can enforce it. Marxism clearly priviliges the former, and that is why it is flawed not merely in theory, but in practice.

    I guess you can probably tell I am no closet Marxist. I have seen nowhere where Marxism works, nowhere where it doesn’t make its people worse off, nowhere where it makes the world a better place.

  2. Philip Poon Says:

    To build on Adam’s argument, I would say that Marxism may perhaps afford a good and accurate analysis of power and class struggle in the society, that economic exploits happens everyday and everywhere, that class conflicts exists in almost every society, yet it fails to afford a good solution to the problem. The diagnosois is perhaps right but the prescription is wrong. Thus we see the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reform of China started by Deng after the death of Mao.
    I would agree that Marxist theory should be employed to analyse international issues but even so, I would raise doubt to their prediction of the eventual collapse of capitalism and a revolutionary crisis to bring about eventual “full communism”.

  3. G. Daniel Says:

    Following the above very nice comments I would like to expand a bit our ideas.

    Philip rightfully points to the ambiguity of Marxism, ‘The diagnosis is perhaps right but the prescription is wrong’. Marx was advocating for a better world but Lenin formula to achieve it turns to a nightmare.

    Adam’s comment goes to the heart of the matter. Equality = Marxism, Liberty = Liberalism but both ideas have their source in the Enlightenment and are focusing on a sense of justice. The problem with the Enlightenment is that they were not very critical of their own ideas and they tended to ignore how their own historical context could influence their philosophy and world vision.

    I would argue that the notion of dignity is more relevant to the reality of everyone daily lives. Indeed dignity is included in both notions of equality and liberty but it goes further. Dignity puts back people at the center of the debate while refocusing on practical and relative benchmarks to assess a situation.

    This brings us back to the initial question. What in the Marxist analysis can be used practically to understand International Relations and inform decision makers course of action?

    For example, it could be argue that the communist experience was very educative regarding the capacity of large bureaucracy to survive and create self-serving dynamics and mission. This should inform decision makers when dealing with other states or International Institutions. Marxism and dependency theory also points to the power position of international actors, especially states and MNCs, and offers a framework of analysis of their power relations.

  4. Adam Blinick Says:

    I absolutely love the phrase about Marxism being good at diagnosing the global problems, but not good at offering a prescription. Also, I wholly agree with Daniel’s point regarding the importance of individual dignity in this discussion of different political systems. In fact, I believe that contrary to the rhetoric of Communist, and even Socialist, thought, these systems deny its members dignity. Dignity comes from having a sense of importance and value–of giving to society. While Marxism in theory preaches using everyone’s value appropriately, the evidence suggests that the more Marxist the state is, the more its citizens feel entitled, not obliged, i.e. the more they focus on taking, not giving. My guess would be that if one looks at the poor person working versus the poor person on welfare, while both potentially have a similar net capital, the worker will have more dignity.

    Just a hunch.

  5. Philip Poon Says:

    Though I’m not that familiar with Marxist theory, on further thought, I do have problem with the belief of “historical materialism”. I just can’t see how this would work without regard to people’s senses, thinkings, feelings and emotions.
    As to Daniel’s suggestion that “communist experience was very educative regarding the capacity of large bureaucracy to survive and create self-serving dynamics and mission”, I guess it only works when there’s a powerful and charismatic leader.

  6. Carole Chen Says:

    To follow Adam’s comments on equality. I don’t think there is ‘absolute equality’ at all on the aspect of property-ownership. The demand of this kind of equality in the society will only lead to general poverty.

    As Deng Xiaoping said,’let part of the people become rich first’. This part of people will be the stimulus for the whole society to pursue property. In this circumstance, the gap between the rich and the poor is still there and even widened, but generally, the poor are living a better live than before, which will never be achieved when pursuing ‘absolut equality’.

    “I have seen nowhere where Marxism works, nowhere where it doesn’t make its people worse off, nowhere where it makes the world a better place.”
    Is there any evidence? I don’t see Marxism as bad as you do.

  7. Adam Blinick Says:

    Carole, I greatly appreciate your points. The only thing I would say–and I am no China expert–is that Deng Xiaoping was implementing reform that moved China away from Communism, and toward a more free market economy. And so in that respect, that component of his policy had little to do with Marxism, per se.

    As for my assertion about Marxist states, for the sake of brevity, I’ll list just a few examples of where Marxist thought, or some form of it, took root, none of which I would consider to be great successes while under this ideology: China, Vietnam, North Korea, Cambodia, Laso, Cuba, and the Soviet Union. If someone could correct me, or post a counter example, I would be happy to reconsider my statement.

  8. G. Daniel Says:

    Adam I would just like to point the following:

    Some will argue that the reasons of the failure of the communist experience in the above example is that they never actually practiced communism but rather state capitalism. I personally view the failure of the communist system on the political level. The system was too centralised to keep an adequate level of economic dynamism. If this is so then we should not throw away everything of the communist experience.

    For one thing Education level and gender equality were well ahead in Eastern Europe compared to the “West”.

    As I mentioned before a large chunk of Europe is influenced by socialist ideas and have policies in line with those ideas. They are not all bad in humanist terms but as well on economic terms. Europe is not the most dynamic economy of the world but it is still doing well and the social net is still good.

  9. meryamd Says:

    in response to daniel and raymond’s questions in the post, i am apparently a closet marxist!

    regarding the comments on equality and liberty, i would just like to add that while achieving equality for all is not compatible with liberty, the starting point should be that everyone has equal opportunities to basic things such as education and health services. towards this end, perhaps today’s social democrats are the way to go, as daniel mentions..

    this brings us to whether a dynamic economy is what you want, or a good ‘social net’. of course the two are not mutually exclusive, but a country’s domestic policies will be reflective of what is more important.

  10. Carole Chen Says:

    In respond to Adam’s comment. I am not asserting Communism is a success and I am actually wondering whether communism can do good to the country as it states.

    Another thinking is that why people have to categorize themselve into communist or capitalist or what ever. Since the policy can benefit the citizens, it doesn’t matter whose theory you are using, as Deng Xiaoping said ‘no matter white cat or black cat, since it can catch mouse, it is a good cat’.(I am not using the theory of communism here but quoting)

  11. Carole Chen Says:

    There is a passage I found quite related to the topic:

    Doesn’t the Soviet Union show that socialism doesn’t work?
    The lesson that is generally drawn from the experience of places like the Soviet Union is that socialism inevitably becomes an economically inefficient police state and the old capitalist ruling elite is simply replaced by a ‘socialist’ one.

    There are three points I want to make in response. I’ll go through them briefly and then discuss them in more detail.

    Firstly, I think it would be more accurate to describe it as a defeat rather than a failure. Socialism was defeated by the extremely unfavorable social and economic conditions in the countries involved. Or to put it another way, the socialism that was defeated was not very developed. In fact what was defeated was scarcely socialism at all but something far more embryonic. The conditions were so unfavorable that virtually none of the changes I have referred in my discussion of ownership were achieved. What was achieved can at best be described as prerequisites for socialism or a few steps in the general direction. These measures included expropriating the old capitalists, the collectivisation of agriculture and a degree of unified control of the economy. None of the individual changes in the position of the individual worker were achieved. And the reason for this is that they can only be achieved on the basis of fully developed capitalism and not on the basis of the backward, feudal conditions that prevailed in those countries.

    The second point to make is that the defeat of socialism happened well before 1989. The regimes that collapsed around that time had long ceased to be socialist in any sense and would be better described as state capitalist. So the failure of these regimes was not the failure of socialism.

    The third point is that change is often a long and tortuous process and the transition to socialism is no exception. Although, hopefully this transition won’t be as protracted and painful as the one from feudalism to capitalism. In Europe that transition took about 500 years and today is making hard work of it in the Third World.

    Now returning to the first point. The social and economic backwardness of places like the Soviet Union and China meant that it was impossible to do without an elite stratum or to move beyond the old division of labor. This was due to the fact that most people were peasants or ex peasants with no education or knowledge of anything much beyond village life and therefore weren’t equipped to take on the tasks of management or other more cerebral forms of mental labor. So these tasks were performed by a minority of managers, engineers and officials.

    Also the elite had a lot to lose from any move towards socialist transformation. Because of the economic backwardness there was a large difference in the position of a member of the elite and an average worker – in terms of status, income and freedom from manual labor. So they had an interest in protecting and preferably extending their privileged position.

    This not only placed an obstacle in the way of workers gradually improving their individual ownership position as their education and abilities improved but also undermined the collective side of ownership. This was due to the fact that productive assets were converted into quasi private property from which both legal and illegal profits were extracted and also to the perverse effects of careerism which can divert people from working for the common good. These effects include such things as patronage, deception, secretiveness and backstabbing. Furthermore, the lack of democratic culture and the working class’s demoralisation and total exclusion from decision-making, made rank and file supervision impossible.

    For workers the benefits of this embryonic socialism were fairly limited – their living standards were low and work was manual toil. Those with special abilities or talents would be more interested in joining the ranks of the privileged than working to extend the horizons of the rank and file. Besides, the undemocratic conditions made resistance difficult.

    Returning to the second point, not only were the achievements of socialism limited, but at a certain stage the little that was achieved was completely wound back. This was the case even though those in charge still claimed to be socialist, and often still believed themselves to be so. Beyond this stage, it is not a question of the failure of socialism but rather the defeat of socialism and then the subsequent failure of the system that replaced it. In the case of Post-Mao China, the reversal was obvious. His successors repudiated all his policies. The communes were scrapped, one person management and the profit motives was reintroduced into the factories and foreign capitalists were invited in. In Russia, the reversal took a less obvious form. It involved a refusal to advance beyond the minimal transformation achieved in the Stalin period (including clearing away the various obstacles he had placed in the way of further progress) and to leave unchecked an already existing tendency for state ownership to become a system of state capitalist exploitation and semi-feudal patronage.

    The regimes that resulted from these reversals should be described as state capitalist tinged with feudalism rather than as a form of socialism, even a deformed version. By considering them a kind of socialism we would be implying that something that is obviously inferior to western capitalism is still socialist. We would be suggesting that there is or was something worth defending and that the demise of these regimes is regrettable.

    And in fact this is a position that the fake left has taken. They make much of the fact that the demise of these regimes is in many cases associated with a continuing economic collapse, increased income inequality and the disappearance of the old welfare system. However, economic conditions will be better served by the establishment of normal bourgeois property law and markets relations rather than a return to the old system of semi-feudal patronage and kleptocracy.

    Also the new political freedoms are extremely important. They are important in their own right and also because they provide room for a genuine socialist movement to re-emerge one day in these countries. Furthermore, a genuine socialism can only benefit from the demise of a regime that discredited the word and also from giving western capitalism a chance to show its limitations.

    The demise of these regimes is also of benefit to socialists internationally. These regimes were an acute embarrassment. They palpably defined what socialism was regardless of protestations to the contrary. And it was so easy be labelled the agent of an unsavoury foreign police state.

    As to our third point, change is always long and tortuous. In the case of the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Europe, we are looking at a process that took about 500 years. At the moment Third World countries are still having a lot of trouble crawling out of the Middle Ages and embracing modern capitalist society. So it is a bit much for supporters of capitalism to carry on about the failure of socialism in the Third World when these countries have a lot of trouble carrying out the far simpler transition to capitalism.

    Also an interesting parallel can be drawn between the demise of the state capitalist regimes and the demise of Napoleon in 1815. Just as we are now told that communism is dead, people were told then that democracy was dead. According to the reactionaries of the time, the experience of the Terror and Bonapartism showed that the democratic aspirations of the French Revolution were futile, that overthrowing legitimate authority simply meant replacing it with illegitimate and even more tyrannical upstarts. In the same way we are now told that socialism will simply replace capitalists with a new lot of exploiters.

    While backwardness made socialism virtually impossible in countries like Russia and China, economic and social development makes it possible in the advanced capitalist countries of North America, Western Europe, East Asia and Australasia. (This is explained in Prospects for Socialism)

  12. Thank you Carole! I’ve just checked the site and found that it would be interesting to read the first chapter of the book called “Bright Future: Abundance and Progress in the 21st Century” by the same author of this passage, David McMullen.

    The link is

    McMullen tries to project a bright future of our world from a Marxist point of view. He explains in what ways “collective ownership” can help solve enviromental problems.

    By the way, from the above passage, I wonder if McMullen actually argues that socialism should come after capitalism. This is probably not unfamiliar to Marxist theorists. To pick on it, what are the “favorable social and economic conditions” for socialism? Failure of a system can always be explained away by similar vague phrases.

    But… I am a “closet Marxist” to be sure. [Frankie]

  13. G. Daniel Says:

    To answer Frankie’s question on communism following capitalism. Marx states that communism is the next stage of evolution after capitalism. At the centre of his idea there is two concepts, historical materialism and dialectic. The ‘engine of history’ is the economy, because people have to feed themselves before doing anything else. Therefore the way they feed themselves determine the economic structure and affect all social interaction. This is historical materialism in a nutshell.
    Dialectic is the fact that society is always a class struggle and that out of the struggle emerged a new social form.
    Together theses concepts explain why the class struggle is economic in nature. Since the problems of capitalism all came from the exploitation of the workers by the ‘bourgeoisie’ the only solution is a fair sharing of the economic production, communism. Since communism will (magically) removes the causes of the class struggle this will be the ‘end of history’ as their will be no more reason for struggle and historical evolution. Well, this is a summary of the classical theory and some will try forever to demonstrate that it is a workable model that just need a bit of adjustment.

  14. ralphchow Says:

    In the last century when Karl Marx and Frederick Engels witnessed how the capitalists ruthlessly exploited the working groups, it was understandable why they had advocated the proletarians to launch class struggle against the bourgeois. However, there are obviously inherent factors within the communist rules which have led many countries to failure when implementing the ideology. To name a few, the lack of check and balance due to the centralisation of power usually result in authoritative rule; too much internal conflict arising from class struggles; lack of incentives to work by the people etc.

    After so many decades of trial and error, countries generally tend to make modifications out from socialism and capitalism to suit their own national interests; very few would still adhere to the extremes of these ideologies. Consequently, we see communist countries like China and Vietnam moving more towards market economy, while plenty of the Scandinavian countries have become more socialistic in nature. The doctrine of Deng Xiao Ping in choosing the cat which works regardless whether it’s black or white seems to reflect concisely the pragmatic tendency of many countries nowadays.

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