‘‘Socialism or Barbarism’’

Was Marx Wrong?

Subhendu Sarkar

At a time when there is a widespread euphoria centering the run-up to the formation of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led central government in India and a subsequent distrust in the leftist political parties is it not irrelevant to talk about Marxism? In fact, since the dissolution of the erstwhile USSR (not to mention its aggression during the Stalinist regime) in 1991 and the changes in the Chinese economic policies many pundits and the popular media across the continents had constantly been highlighting the inadequacy of socialism in fulfilling the expectations of the people. Besides, many gruesome acts have come to be known which cost millions of lives. In sharp contrast, democratic (which are often anti-Communist) countries have succeeded, to a large extent, in promoting the well-being of humanity. Communist leaders all over the world have been proved as perpetrators of crime and Marx (and Engels) the root of evil. It appears that Indians have realized the fact much later. It is better late than never.

But to the utter disgust of the advocates of liberalism there still exist some who refuse to accept that Marx was wrong. On the contrary, they feel that Marx was, in fact, right in many aspects. Terry Eagleton is certainly one of those indefatigable thinkers who, in an age when it is no longer fashionable to be a Marxist, continues to uphold Marxism as a solution to many problems that stare in the face of the globalized world. In fact, in his latest book—Why Marx Was Right [Seagull Books : Calcutta, 2012, pages xiii+258, Rs 495] he is equally, if not more, undaunted in his long-standing effort to prove that Marxism is as relevant as ever. Following a well thought-out structure, Eagleton cites and refutes ten most common objections (mentioned one by one as the headpiece of every chapter) that people raise against Marxism. It, at the same time, proves to be indispensable for those Marxists who sometimes feel exasperated in addressing questions due to a lack of comprehensive theoretical understanding.

The book opens with answering why Marxism is still not finished in an increasingly classless post-industrial world where workers have become socially mobile. Marxists would have been more than happy, Eagleton says, if Marxism had lost relevance. They would have been "free to bow out, burn their Guevara posters, take up that long-neglected cello again and talk about something more intriguing than the Asiatic mode of production." But they, it seems, are not so fortunate. In spite of the shift from the mid-1970s onwards from traditional industrial manufacture to an economy that thrives on consumerism, communications, information technology and service industry the world has become no better place. In fact, the working class has actually increased in size and is now scattered all over the world (concentrated particularly in the underdeveloped countries) as the predatory globalized capital has found cheap means to earn more profit. Capitalism has no doubt created prosperity unknown in history but the cost has been enormous. The World Bank states that 2.74 billion people in 2001 lived on less than two dollars a day. Moreover, there is a constant danger of nuclear warfare as the nuclear-armed states are warring over a scarcity of resources—a consequence of capitalism itself. If glaring inequalities of wealth and power, imperial warfare, intensified exploitation and an increasingly repressive state characterise today's world then the traditional leftist slogan "Socialism or Barbarism" is all the more pertinent.

Eagleton is no less convincing in the chapters Two and Eight where he responds to the objection that Marxism is very well in theory but fails invariably when put into practice as it unleashes a reign of terror ridden with poverty and economic slump. Marx was of the idea that socialism would not be achieved in a single country and it would follow only when capitalism had made considerable progress. But when the Bolshevik revolution did occur in 1917 Russia was an impoverished country. Therefore, the then USSR had to start building up an economy from very levels fighting enemies both in and out. The necessity to bring about economic growth (as would have happened under capitalism) meant a strong centralized bureaucratic state which forced people to undergo a life of hardship. Moreover, surviving amidst capitalist nations under a constant threat of impending invasion necessitated strengthening the Defence sector. In fact, the tragedy of the twentieth century is that socialism was achieved where it was least possible while it proved impossible where the conditions were most favourable (in Germany). Marx had always celebrated democracy in which political representatives should be accountable to their electors. He insisted on free speech and civil liberties and criticised coercive state policies of Germany and England during his time. Socialism is all about shortening of work time, not engaging workers to toil for long. It is not surprising, therefore, that experiments made in the then USSR would fail. China too would not gain an exemplary status. But achievements of these nations made in various fields, under tremendous constraints, are still worthy of wonder.

As regards violence, Eagleton states that not all social reforms in history have been peaceful, moderate and gradual. The American Revolution, the French Revolution and the liberation movement in the so-called Third World countries have come about amidst violence and bloodshed. Besides, no one has reservations about the use of violence during the slave uprisings from Spartacus to the southern states of America. Eagleton asks: "would it not be more honest to come clean and confess that it is socialist revolution one objects to, not revolution itself?" Violence does not always have a negative ring about it. Of course, mass killings can never be justified this way. Many Marxists too are ready to condemn these horrific crimes. But how many anti-Marxists, on the other hand, would speak against the violence involved in the two World Wars?

Chapters Three, Four and Nine offer a better understanding of concepts like 'determinism' and 'utopia'. Marx, like many thinkers before him, had found economic conflicts prevalent in society and envisaged a better future for mankind. He believed that the productive forces have a tendency to develop (though they can also lapse into long periods of stagnation, as it happened in India] as history unfolds. But it does not necessarily mean that there would always be a corresponding change of social relations. Many other criteria (for example, the presence of a revolutionary agent) need to be fulfilled before a successful revolution can come about. If socialism, according to Marx, would inevitably follow capitalism what was the need for political struggle? If that was the case "one might think that we need do no more than wait for it to arrive, perhaps ordering curries or collecting tattoos in the meanwhile." This explains why Germany could fend off political insurrection by introducing social democracy even though the conditions were ripe for socialist revolution. There are other possible hindrances (which Marx never anticipated] like nuclear holocaust and ecological catastrophe than can make the inevitability theory redundant. History, as Engels thought, moves often in leaps and bounds and in a zigzag line. Communism is only one of the many futures implicit in the present.

Another common complaint about Marxism is that it takes an idealized view of human nature disregarding innate qualities like envy, inequality and aggression. What is often forgotten is that many such vices are socially-conditioned. Socialism, by structuring social institutions in a specific manner, can control such tendencies to take the forms they assume under capitalism. As Eagleton says, "Shakespeare's villains had to find outlets for their wickedness other than firing missiles at Palestinian refugees."

About the idea of Communist state (what is 'utopia' for anti-Marxists) Eagleton is equally perceptive. There is no question of dispensing with police, law courts, prisons or even paramilitary squads as these would be necessary to curb and control anti-people tendencies. Marx was aware of both the class-specific and neutral functions of the state. By "withering away of state" he must have meant making it a powerful source for good by stripping off its coercive aspect. Socialism aims for the completion of popular democracy ["dictatorship of the proletariat"] which liberal democracy cannot offer. Today people are "abstractly equal as citizens within the state, but dramatically unequal in everyday social existence." There is no reason to suppose that the communist society will be bereft of all problems and contradictions; there will still be, as Eagleton assumes, "child murders, road accidents, wretchedly bad novels, lethal jealousies, overweening ambitions, tasteless trousers and inconsolable grief."

In chapters Five and Six Eagleton sheds light on the complex relationship between economic base and superstructure. It is a two-way relationship, at times dialectical- one trying to influence another. Otherwise, how could Tom Paine write Rights of Man in a repressive police state like the eighteenth-century England? Of course, the dominant ideas in every age are those of the ruling class but the superstructure also reflects the class struggle that seethes within the society. Therefore, the claim that Marxism sees everything as reflections of economy does not hold true. In fact, Marx wanted a society where the economic no longer monopolised so much of time and energy and where human beings were free to pursue self-fulfilling activities ranging from "wrangling over Plato" to "organising a birthday party for one's children."

Chapter Seven elucidates the concept of class. With the advent of the service and communications industry the traditional idea of working class may have changed but that does not imply that there has been a shift in capitalist property relations. It is also well to remember that the idea of proletariat for Marx was not simply confined to the productive industrial workers. A white-collar employee, just like a chauffeur or a barmaid, has no autonomy and power over his or her conditions of labour. Today there is an attempt to obscure the line between working class and middle class as capitalism has won over a large section of the sophisticated and skilled middle-class workforce that refuses to associate itself with the 'degraded' traditional working class.

The concluding chapter deals with recent concerns about gender, environment, ethnicity, postcolonialism, animal rights and the like. Though Marx did not delve deep into these issues (some of which surfaced much later) the question of colonialism, women and nature did appear in both Marx and Engels's writings. Marx was always in favour of diversity, envisaging a society where people (that would also include those asserting their sexual orientation and ethnic identity) would find fulfilment of their selves. So there is no reason to believe that Marxists have nothing to do with these phenomena. In fact, in the early twentieth century, the communist movement was the only place where the issues of gender, colonialism and nationalism were seriously contemplated. Marxism is an international movement involving mass political action against capitalism and its many manifestations. But surprisingly the activists fighting for these rights, in many cases, fail to see the economic aspect associated with their cause. Some are even satisfied to remain confined within the limits of academia speaking a language that is "sometimes as unintelligible... as Swahili."

However great, Marx was, in the final analysis, a human being living and working at a particular time in history. He could not cover every topic (including those that were yet to appear) under the sun. He chose to look into the principal driving force of history and suggest a guideline to work for a better future. It is for others to study and control newer problems that might come up in the way of realising his vision. For he was, in many ways, more correct than others.

Vol. 46, No. 50, Jun 22 - 28, 2014