Sunday, December 2, 2012

965. Waning Relevance of Marxism

Saral Sarkar

By Saral Sakar, November 5, 2012

Sandip Bandyopadhyay's article "Interest in Marxism Waning?" (Frontier, Autumn Number, 2012) attracted my attention, because I am one of those whose interest in Marxism has waned. It has been waning since the mid 1970s, i.e. since before the CPI(M) started its second and long innings in power in West Bengal and long before socialism was wound up – first in China and then in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. It has therefore nothing to do with the betrayal of Marxism or socialism by the CPI(M) or the CPSU(B) or the CPC, nor has it much to do with the cruelties of the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union or of the CPI(M) cadre in West Bengal. Marxism, the ism, is not the same as the policies and praxis of the above mentioned parties in the countries where they ruled, just as socialism is not the same as the policies of the Socialist Party of France or that of Spain.

In fact, in the second half of the 1960s, Marxism experienced a rejuvenation in Western Europe. The student movements there were largely inspired by Marxism. Young people, particularly students, again became interested in studying Marxist literature, although they were very well informed about and, therefore, very critical of the Soviet model of socialism and the Soviet understanding of Marxism. In Italy and France, where, in those days, big and strong communist parties existed and hence Marxist literature used to be sold and probably also read, young people's interest in Marxism bypassed the established interpretations of Marxism and took the form of an effort to understand the world of their days. It was a different world, very different from the world in which the classics of Marxism were written. This world, they realized, could not be understood or explained adequately by faithfully applying the teachings of Marx and Engels, which originated a century earlier in very different contexts. What actually mattered was to see whether the Marxist tools of analysis were useful for the purpose, and many found them useful.

Bandyopadhyay writes: "There are valid reasons for questioning the relevance of Marxism in the present-day world." He does not state these reasons. What are they?

    For about 25 years after the end of the Second World War – from about 1950 to 1974 – Western industrialised countries experienced what has been called an "economic miracle". It was a long period of boom, of rapid economic growth and, along with it, rapid growth in prosperity. Also the working class rapidly prospered. Skilled workers, roughly speaking, rose to the middle class level. Revisionism had already gained the upper hand over revolutionary Marxism and lasted till the end of the 1940s. But until then, the organized working class and their parties, the Social Democratic and communist parties, kept up their critique of capitalism and regarded socialism as their long-term goal. But in the 1950s and thereafter, for all practical purposes, they (except the communist parties) openly accepted capitalism as the best or the most efficient economic system. From then on, the only thing the organised working class struggled for was to get a higher share of the cake. In this situation, the vast majority of this class refused to play the role of the grave-diggers of capitalism. Workers of the highly industrialised countries had no good reason any more to fight against the system, to kill the goose that was laying the golden eggs. "Pauperization" of the working class proved to be a myth. The assertion of Marx and Engels that "The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains" did not make any sense anymore. Their call to the proletarians "Working men of all countries, unite" fell on deaf ears. The proletarians of the Western industrialised countries had well-paid jobs and some prosperity to lose. And they profited from the colonial exploitation of the working men of the poor countries of the world. No wonder, interest in Marxism waned. Radical leftists understood the new situation, namely that the working class was no longer the agent of revolution. Some of them thought that perhaps the sub-proletariat, the fringe groups, could be the new agents of revolution.

In India today, as far as I can perceive from this distance (I live in Germany), the material living conditions of workers, particularly of those in the organised sectors of the economy, have improved very much. In the wake of India's integration in the world economy, and against the background of high GDP growth rates, the mood has changed. Not many people are nowadays willing to fight for a great cause or ideal. Instead, there is a rush for making money, making career, and consuming the luxuries offered by the world market. Members of the established communist parties are no exceptions. The only people in India who are today struggling against exploitation, oppression, and injustice are the Adivasi forest dwellers. And their leaders and cadre don't call themselves Marxists.

In this situation, can Marxism again have a relevance for the struggle for a better world? In order to be able to answer this question, we must first be clear about what a better world should mean today.

Two Aspects of a Better World
The book "Limits to Growth" (Meadows et al.) was published in 1972. Ever since, the intensifying global ecological crisis, the dangers arising from global warming, declining biodiversity, exhaustion of all kinds of resources, and continually rising world population are matters of great concern for all those who, for whatever reason, are willing to look beyond their own and their nation's particular interests. One can say, imitating Marx: Capitalists, socialists and communists have till now changed the world in various ways; the point today, however, is to save it. I contend that the work of saving the world from the above mentioned crises and dangers and creating a better world has two aspects. Firstly, the economies of the world must be transformed into ecologically sustainable ones, and they must be based mainly on renewable resources, which we should expend at a rate no higher than the rate at which they are or can be replenished. Secondly, the societies must be transformed into egalitarian ones. Egalitarian societies are not only desirable in themselves. They are also necessary for ensuring peace within a society and peace between different societies. A society having these two qualities can be called an eco-socialist society.*

It has become clear that there is an ineluctable contradiction between ecology and industrial economy we know for the last two hundred years. Marx and Engels were very much aware of the ecological degradations caused by the industrial economies of their days. Marx wrote:

"In modern agriculture, as in the urban industries, the increased productiveness and quantity of the labour set in motion are bought at the cost of laying waste and consuming by disease labour-power itself. Moreover, all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; … . The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry, … the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production … develops technology and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the labourer" (Marx 1954: 506-507).

Here Marx is speaking of "soil". In place of "soil", we nowadays should read resources and the environment. And Engels, using the negative environmental effects of deforestation as an example, wrote: "… nature takes its revenge on us"(Marx and Engels 1976, Vol.3: 74-5).

But this awareness did not influence the theory of Marx and Engels. The ecological degradations they described were merely presented as an extra point of criticism against capitalism. They remained growth optimists. So they also saw a way out, a way of avoiding nature's revenge. Engels wrote:

"… all our mastery of [nature] consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.
     … with every day that passes we are acquiring a better understanding of these laws and getting to perceive both the more immediate and the more remote consequences of our interference with the traditional course of nature. In particular, after the mighty advances made by the natural sciences in the present century, we are more than ever in a position to realise and hence to control even the more remote natural consequences of at least our day-to-day production activities." (ibid).

In principle, this optimism cannot be flawed, except that Engels forgot to say, firstly, that there are also limits to the possibility of this control – limits that are also inherent in the laws of nature – and, secondly, that this control involves costs and that such costs might be too high for a society to pay. We also know today that some of the negative ecological consequences of our production activities may also become irreversible.

Despite his very fundamental critique of capitalism –  namely, capitalism "saps the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the labourer" – Marx assigned this system a world-historic role in preparing the conditions for future human emancipation: "The development of the productive forces of social labour is capital's historic mission and justification. For that very reason, it unwittingly creates the material conditions for a higher form of production." (Marx 1981: 368). That means, Marx considered modern industrial production to be a precondition for the future communist society. In the quote further above, however, we see that Marx criticized not only capitalism, i.e. the relations of production capitalism, but also the forces of production, i.e. "modern agriculture", "urban industries" and "modern industry".

Such contradictory positions in Marx's writings allow some Marxologists, such as John Bellamy Foster, to take pains to prove that it is "possible to interpret Marx in a different way, one that conceived ecology as central to his thinking, …" (Foster 2000: vi, emphasis added). After painstaking study, Foster even "came to the conclusion that Marx's world-view was deeply, and indeed systematically, ecological (in all positive senses in which that term is used today), … " (ibid: viii). This is nothing but an effort to defend Marx in an age in which many of his basic positions have become indefensible. But it is not the duty of socialists to defend Marx. It is their duty to strive to create a socialist society, with or without Marx.

Most Marxists, communists, and socialists have failed to take cognizance of the fact that in the years since 1972 a great paradigm shift has taken place in the areas of economic, political, and social thinking. It is a shift from the then prevailing growth paradigm to what I call the limits-to-growth paradigm. One may also call the latter the ecological paradigm. Those who have carried out this paradigm shift in their thinking now see the necessity of a gradual and orderly, in fact planned, retreat from the growth madness of the economies of the world. The socialist societies of the future will either be built in the framework of a hugely contracted world economy, or they will not be built at all. Obviously, that will be a newly conceived socialism, much different from what has been conceived by the great leaders – Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao up to Castro and Che.

One Marxist, Michael Löwy (2003), who belongs to the Trotskyite stream of Marxism, appears to have partially carried out the paradigm shift mentioned above. He sees the necessity of a convergence of socialism and ecology. He writes: "This convergence is only possible under the condition that Marxists critically analyze their traditional conception of 'productive forces' and ecologists break with their illusion of a true market economy." Löwy wants to "free Marxism from its productivistic slag". But he too wants to save (the rest of) Marxism, i.e. he wants to integrate the rest into his brand of eco-socialism.

Another aspect of the present-day world situation that reduces the relevance of Marxism for a socialist society of the future is the fact that the world, especially the less developed countries, are overpopulated and that the populations of such countries are still growing. Another great flaw in the thoughts of Marx, Engels, Lenin and their followers has been that they totally rejected the views of Malthus. Today, when the absolute availability of important resources in the world is dwindling fast, population growth results first in falling per capita resource availability, and then in conflicts, including war-like conflicts, over resources. No amount of technological development, which itself depends on availability of abundant and cheap resources, will be able to overcome this problem.

Some other aspects of Marxism are however still relevant and will, I think, remain relevant and important: historical materialism, dialectical thinking, stress on class analysis, and thinking in terms of base and superstructure. But the vision of socialism/communism that shines through the works of Marx and Engels and has often been elaborated by their followers is no longer convincing. If they were alive today, Marx and Engels would surely revise their vision and become eco-socialists. And they would not think that the working class would be the main agent of transformation of capitalist society into an eco-socialist one. Marx himself once said: "All I know is that I am not a Marxist" And that was, according to Bettelheim, "no mere witticism" (Bettelheim 1978: 503).
    The question as to which kind of people would then lead the transformation must remain undiscussed in this short article.


* For my detailed argumentation, see: (1) Saral Sarkar (1999 & 2000) and (2) Saral Sarkar and Bruno Kern (2004/2008)


Bettelheim, Charles (1978) Class Struggles in the USSR – Second Period,     1923–1930. England: Hassocks.
Foster, John Bellamy (2000) Marx's Ecology –Materialism and Nature. New York: Monthly
    Review Press.
Löwy, Michael (2003) "Überleben statt Profit", in SoZ, January 2003.
Marx, Karl (1954) Capital, Vol. I. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.
Marx, Karl (1981) Capital, Vol.3 (Translation by David Fernbach). Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels (1976) Selected Works (in 3 Volumes), Vol. 3. Moscow:
    Progress Publishers. 
Saral Sarkar (1999 & 2000) Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism? – A Critical Analysis of
    Humanity's Fundamental Choices. London: Zed Books & New Delhi: Orient Longman.
Saral Sarkar and Bruno Kern (2004/2008) Eco-Socialism or Barbarism – An Up-to-date
    Critique of Capitalism. Mainz: Initiative Ökosozialismus & Hyderabad: Chelimi
    Foundation. (

Köln, November 5, 2012.

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