Marxism 2010: fixing a broken system

In the wake of the financial crisis Marxist thought is thriving, and in London leading names are discussing turning ideas into action

Slavoj Žižek
Slavoj Žižek: one of the speakers at the Marxism 2010 festival. Photograph: Graeme Robertson

The death of Ken Coates last weekend silenced yet another strong and distinguished voice on the radical left. The past year or so has taken from us some of the most outstanding Marxist intellectuals of the 1968 generation – Giovanni Arrighi, Jerry Cohen, Peter Gowan, and, particularly painful for me, Chris Harman and Daniel Bensaïd. In the supposedly ideology-free world of the Con-Lib coalition, it would be tempting to conclude that these individual disappearances are representative of a much broader decline of Marxism as an intellectual and political tradition.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Even the constitutionally myopic financial markets are beginning to wake up to the fact that capitalism is very badly broken. The Keynesian economist Paul Krugman wrote a few days ago: "We are now, I fear, in the early stages of a third depression," following those of the late 19th century and of the 1930s. Marx described his own intellectual project as the critique of political economy: Marxism therefore lives or dies by its ability to make sense of the dynamics of capitalism and to offer a way out of it.

And Marxist political economists have indeed been, in the forefront, analysing the causes and tracing the trajectory of the global crisis. Just over the past year Chris Harman's Zombie Capitalism, David Harvey's The Enigma of Capital, and my own Bonfire of Illusions have presented overviews. Costas Lapavitsas and the Research on Money and Finance group of young scholars based at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London have led the way in explaining the eurozone crisis and offering radical alternative policies for countries such as Greece.

This research activity has been accompanied by a renewal of interest in Marxism among the young that is now very visible in the English-speaking academy. When David Harvey visited London in April to launch his new book, he spoke to half a dozen meetings packed with audiences in their hundreds. One of them was at my own university, King's College London, hardly a traditional centre of revolution. The meeting was co-sponsored by the thriving King's group reading Marx's Capital, which also helped to organise last November a debate on the future of capitalism between Martin Wolf of the Financial Times and myself.

The journal Historical Materialism, set up by a group of young scholars in the mid-1990s, has been one of the main drivers of the academic revival of Marxism. Its annual conference in London every November now attracts more than 500 participants and has spun off North American counterparts in Toronto and New York.

But Marxism has, of course, always been about the effort not simply to develop better theories but to relate them to emancipatory political practice, as the lives of engaged intellectuals such as Coates, Harman, and Bensaïd bear witness. London, as it happens, provides an important venue for this effort. The five-day Marxism 2010 festival takes place in central London, starting today.

Organised by the Socialist Workers party, this forum for socialist ideas has been held every year since 1977 and expects to have more than 4,000 participants this year. There should be plenty of intellectual fireworks – Tariq Ali on Islamophobia, Slavoj Žižek, John Holloway and me on the idea of communism, Hester Eisenstein, Judith Orr, and Nina Power on the new sexism, along with a gallery of leftwing talent – Tony Benn, Eamonn McCann, Gareth Peirce, Steven Rose, Michael Rosen, Sheila Rowbotham, and the Guardian's Gary Younge.

But running through the sessions will be a more practical intent as well. As austerity sweeps through Europe, the Con-Lib coalition now seems intent on reinventing the sado-monetarism of the 1980s on a scale undreamt of even by Margaret Thatcher. The Marxist left is thriving intellectually. The real test it faces is political: can it help to develop effective resistance to the coalition's plans to devastate the public sector and the poor? Events in Greece show how neoliberal shock therapy can provoke social rebellion. The real future of Marxism depends on the scale on which these revolts develop and on the political direction they take.


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  • Bangorstu Bangorstu

    1 Jul 2010, 2:41PM

    Capitalism, for all its faults, seems to be associated with democracy and rising standards ofliving.

    Marxism is associated with stagnation and labour camps.

    Grow up.

  • grorniad grorniad

    1 Jul 2010, 2:43PM

    The Marxist left is thriving intellectually. The real test it faces is political: can it help to develop effective resistance to the coalition's plans to devastate the public sector and the poor?

    No.

  • Frabjous Frabjous

    1 Jul 2010, 2:43PM

    This comment has been removed by a moderator. Replies may also be deleted.
  • Questorade Questorade

    1 Jul 2010, 2:45PM

    This comment has been removed by a moderator. Replies may also be deleted.
  • bailliegillies bailliegillies

    1 Jul 2010, 2:46PM

    I like the idea of socialism but I find one major problem with it. If it was introduced into Britain or the US it would be run by the very same people who gave us modern "free market" capitalism and as the Soviet Union showed would be run for and on behalf of the chosen elite. The people would not benefit from it as it would in effect turn into another corrupted form of "capitalism".

  • Dague Dague

    1 Jul 2010, 2:46PM

    But Marxism has, of course, always been about the effort not simply to develop better theories but to relate them to emancipatory political practice...

    zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

  • rd232 rd232

    1 Jul 2010, 2:46PM

    @Bangorstu

    Capitalism ıs associated with democracy? What about China? What about the many times the US intervened to support dictatorship and remove elected democrats? Dont be so simplistic.

  • KettsOak KettsOak

    1 Jul 2010, 2:50PM

    This really does sound like a largely academic affair led by the SWP. In a country of 63+ million people the chances of it having any kind of impact are probably close to 0%.

    I can understand studying Marx from a economic perspective (Marxian I believe the phrase is), certainly surplus value theory etc. are interesting and some of the social values he supported and shared with others aren't bad either.

    But "Marxisim" as a political movement seems to be dead bar a few left wingers, academics and fringe groups like the SWP. Too much baggage, too many unelectable hypocritical folks and too many unworkable ideas I'm afraid.

  • TheShermanator TheShermanator

    1 Jul 2010, 2:51PM

    The past year or so has taken from us some of the most outstanding Marxist intellectuals of the 1968 generation – Giovanni Arrighi, Jerry Cohen, Peter Gowan, and, particularly painful for me, Chris Harman and Daniel Bensaïd.

    When I eyeballed the obituaries for these "Marxist intellectuals" it appears that all of them were "philosophers," "scholars," "intellectuals," "organizers" etc....

    None of them appeared to have had any experience in the labor world that they claimed to know so much about. In fact, none of them appeared to have had any real jobs - except for some stints in academia.

    Perhaps if some of them had gotten their hands dirty performing real work they would not have been such fervent Marxists.

  • kizbot kizbot

    1 Jul 2010, 2:52PM

    When David Harvey visited London in April to launch his new book, he spoke to half a dozen meetings packed with audiences in their hundreds

    Gosh! That many...!

    Events in Greece show how neoliberal shock therapy can provoke social rebellion.

    I wish that were actually true but it isn't... Yes, there have been some episodes in the centre of Athens and there are regular strikes but, tbh, the media has made it appear like some mass uprising... and it isn't.. A few outbreaks of violence (mostly from the same few groups of people) isn't much of a social rebellion, really...

  • chuggerdave chuggerdave

    1 Jul 2010, 2:54PM

    @bangorstu

    Capitalism, for all its faults, seems to be associated with democracy and rising standards ofliving.

    Marxism is associated with stagnation and labour camps

    Evidently you are in the habit of puzzling out the problems of modern society on the basis of associations. You would benefit greatly by reading Marx on this matter!

  • zounds zounds

    1 Jul 2010, 2:54PM

    Contributor Contributor

    All well and good, Alex, and I appreciate the new radical shoots thriving amongst the young. But radical politics is about radical action, not academia.

    It seems to me that we, as leftists, can only start to make a positive impact on the social organisation of labour in our society if we think radically in terms of tactics.

    My experience of leftist campaigns, especially amongst young people, is that radical thought and action in Britain, for the last 20 years, been strangled and made stagnant by the vice-like ideological and organisational grip of the supremely hierarchical dogmatism and power-relations of the SWP. The yearly "Marxism" conference is about the only worthwhile thing that comes out of theSWP these days, and only then because it manages to attract bright young speakers like Nina Power, who, I imagine, wouldn't be seen dead actually taking part in the morbid and frankly embarrassing political actions lead by your party.

    Leftism and Marxism can only thrive in this country once the SWP, and it's tentacles of indoctrination in our educational institutions, dies. Or is killed.

  • spanows spanows

    1 Jul 2010, 2:56PM

    The real test it faces is political: can it help to develop effective resistance to the coalition's plans to devastate the public sector and the poor?

    These plans, did you dream them? ...invent them?

    The real future of Marxism depends on the scale on which these revolts develop and on the political direction they take.

    There are few commentators on here that have spouting their "opinion" that this will lead to riots and civil unrest (of course their aim is to provoke and abet such actions).

  • Zarahustra Zarahustra

    1 Jul 2010, 2:57PM

    Capitalism does not work because of the degree of Socialism inherent within it. Too much State intervention, regulations and Central Banks (cartels) and fiat currency leads to crisis.

  • Retundario Retundario

    1 Jul 2010, 2:58PM

    Political systems based on Marxist thought have normally resulted in mass murder - of all ideologies, or religions, it is arguably the bloodiest ever invented.

    Not surprising as it thinks it can just bypass and suppress the most elementary aspects of human nature.

    You might as well be an advocate of Hitlerism.

    But overgrown student types still think Marxism is an ideology indicative of higher moral functioning and self-awareness.

    Strange

  • bailliegillies bailliegillies

    1 Jul 2010, 2:59PM

    @undersinged

    Not much chance of that. Marxism is broken beyond repair.

    And capitalism is in it's last death throes, as very soon it will have little to offer. The reason why capitalism won of the Soviet Union, which was far from being Marxist, let alone socialist was because it was better positioned to bribe people with abundant cheap goods and service, which the Sovciet Union could never do. Yet Socialism exists and works quite well in Scandinavia and has don for a very long time.

    Oh you know that Mrs Thatcher was the ultimate Marxists? She believed in: To each according to their greed

  • BigNowitzki BigNowitzki

    1 Jul 2010, 3:00PM

    rd232
    1 Jul 2010, 2:46PM

    Capitalism is associated with democracy? What about China?

    China still is a Communist country politically, although it has advanced since it introduced capitalism to its economy.

    The lack of democracy is down to its communist structure.

  • spanows spanows

    1 Jul 2010, 3:01PM

    @chuggerdave

    Evidently you are in the habit of puzzling out the problems of modern society on the basis of associations. You would benefit greatly by reading Marx on this matter!

    The problem is, as I suspect you know, that the words and the reading isn't the problem; it's the translating into actions and reality where the problems occur.

  • Fortress Fortress

    1 Jul 2010, 3:02PM

    zounds

    My experience of leftist campaigns, especially amongst young people, is that radical thought and action in Britain, for the last 20 years, been strangled and made stagnant by the vice-like ideological and organisational grip of the supremely hierarchical dogmatism and power-relations of the SWP.

    That's a polite way of putting it. I could suggest other words for them, but the comment would be removed.

  • zendancer zendancer

    1 Jul 2010, 3:02PM

    Ah, Marxism !.The ultimate solution to politics ,direct control from the centre supported by Secret Police,Gulags,censorship,dictators,politburo, etc. and worst of all the failure to persuade the majority that Marxism is the right path.

    Funny, that reminds me of the old graffiti ."and the meek (Marxists) will inherit the World ,if that is alright with the rest of you (but, we marxists will use force to make you see it our way, by Revolution)".

    We need Marxism , as a political force to make us realise that we have choices and freedom.We will not give them up to usurpers, who only want power for themselves and no matter how often they fail /get rejected, will always be working against the rest of us.

    The Levellers live on but,there cause was lost a long time ago.Capitalism is not the best system but,it is better than anything else we have come up with ( just look how China has turned to it -the politburo turning into a Civil Service directed by the Billionaires of the economy).

  • namordnik namordnik

    1 Jul 2010, 3:03PM

    Marxism should really be viewed as a logical continuation of the original Jesus Christ's appeal to all humans to develop and live in God's Kingdom on Earth :)

    As a theory Marxism lacks clear description of the final goal for humankind though - communism. And it is also mistakenly classifying humans into proletarians and capitalists when in reality there are real humans, parasites and the rest.

  • BigNowitzki BigNowitzki

    1 Jul 2010, 3:03PM

    bailliegillies
    1 Jul 2010, 2:59PM

    And capitalism is in it's last death throes

    Something we've heard from deluded Trots and Marxists for over 100 years. They were wrong in the past, and they are wrong now. Capitalism always recovers.

  • skinhead69 skinhead69

    1 Jul 2010, 3:04PM

    Leftism and Marxism can only thrive in this country once the SWP, and it's tentacles of indoctrination in our educational institutions, dies. Or is killed.

    Good call!

  • Frabjous Frabjous

    1 Jul 2010, 3:04PM

    This comment has been removed by a moderator. Replies may also be deleted.
  • ManchePaul ManchePaul

    1 Jul 2010, 3:06PM

    Hundred years too late, old chap. Your fox has long been shot by increased wealth all round.

    I suggest you stop obsessing about the your religion's desire to bring everyone down to a third world level, and try to find a new way to create sustainable and shareable growth.

  • sillylittleman sillylittleman

    1 Jul 2010, 3:06PM

    "Why is a member of the fringe Socialist Workers Party posting here?"

    Same thing as you are, expressing his opinions. I notice people like you have no problem with crypto-fascists who advocate deporting asylum-seekers to be tortured, and many other inhuman obscenities, expressing their views here. If you don't like it, tough! Have a good cry!

    "This is a party which unashamedly is working for the overthrow of liberal parliamentary democracy, and its replacement with a form of dictatorship."

    It is simply a lie to that Callincos' party supports 'dictatorship' in the sense of undemocratic, one-man or one-party rule. Actually, socialism is about demanding that the economy itself is subject to democratic control by those who create all the value in it: the working class.

    Those who have a vested interest in autocratic control of the economy scream bloody murder at the very idea of this.

  • Hotiron Hotiron

    1 Jul 2010, 3:06PM

    The real test it faces is political: can it help to develop effective resistance to the coalition's plans to devastate the public sector and the poor?

    Well since there will be no devastation of the public sector and the poor, Marxist thoughts will face no real test. There is no doubts there will be cuts, but you are living in a fantasy world if you think we will be going back to the conditions of the 19th/early 20th century which allow Marxism to gain any attention.

    But frankly, we saw what your lot did when they had power last century. We are in no rush to let you repeat it again.

  • kizbot kizbot

    1 Jul 2010, 3:07PM

    Something we've heard from deluded Trots and Marxists for over 100 years. They were wrong in the past, and they are wrong now. Capitalism always recovers.

    Do you think that because this may have been true in the past it must always be true in the future? Do you think that capitalism is sustainable in its present form...? How long can it continue? Do you believe indefinitely?

  • zounds zounds

    1 Jul 2010, 3:07PM

    Contributor Contributor

    BigNowitzki

    The lack of democracy is down to its communist structure.

    And what about Italy, which systematically jailed or exiled its radical democratic left through the 1970's and 80's, whilst the Christian Democrats climbed into bed with the Stalinist Communist Party in order to prevent radical social change?

    Capitalism enjoy a form of liberal democracy whilst it can afford it. As soon as economic crisis hits it's quite willing to shut down that democratic structure in oder to protect its economic super-structure- not least when those radicals are fighting for far more democratic control of the social and economic order.

    It's really not as simple as capitalism being synonymous with democracy- nor "communism" with dictatorship. For a start, the terms "democracy", "capitalism" and "communism" are broad terms which cover massively varied political systems. When you say "capitalism", do you mean Swedish Capitalism? Singaporean? American? Chinese?

  • Fortress Fortress

    1 Jul 2010, 3:07PM

    70 years ago George Orwell wrote this:

    Capitalism is disappearing, but Socialism is not replacing it. What is
    now arising is a new kind of planned, centralised society which will be
    neither capitalist nor, in any accepted sense of the word, democratic.
    The rulers of this new society will be the people who effectively control
    the means of production: that is, business executives, technicians,
    bureaucrats and soldiers, lumped together by Burnham, under the name of
    "managers". These people will eliminate the old capitalist class, crush
    the working class, and so organise society that all power and economic
    privilege remain in their own hands. Private property rights will be
    abolished, but common ownership will not be established. The new
    "managerial" societies will not consist of a patchwork of small,
    independent states, but of great super-states grouped round the main
    industrial centres in Europe, Asia, and America. These super-states will
    fight among themselves for possession of the remaining uncaptured
    portions of the earth, but will probably be unable to conquer one another
    completely. Internally, each society will be hierarchical, with an
    aristocracy of talent at the top and a mass of semi-slaves at the bottom.

    He was summarising a book written by someone who'd been a leading Trotskyite until breaking with Leon a few years earlier.

    Just mentioning. It's as relevant as anything else in this thread, including the ABL article.

  • CaptCrash CaptCrash

    1 Jul 2010, 3:08PM

    Any economic or political theory does not work in isolation of the rest of reality.

    Capitalism (for example) has been working in isolation of the physical limits of the planet, and with an economic theory which concentrates every more wealth towards a selective few, whilst leaving the remainder indebted, whilst perceivably (but not necessarily in a relative sense) improving living conditions.

    Marxism suggests that in order to improve living conditions not in a perceptual sense, but indeed a relative one, that resources and ownership of production ought to be equally shared amongst workers... those that actually do the work. But this is in isolation of the very greed which drives personal acquisition, and assumes that people are alturistic.

    Now some of the more successful companies already do this, (John Lewis springs to mind as relatively alturistic), and some do this on a very limited scale (shares in the company for senior directors of let's say ... banks.. not very alturistic).

    Sure there needs to be a revival of left wing thinking, but it must not be completely at odds with capitalism or even green thinking.

    Because both philosophies are about improving lives, whether at a personal (capitalist) level or a family or societal (socialist) level. But both have to be in the context of a planet with physical constraints, and for 6 billion people all wanting personal improvements in life, I suspect that some form of left wing thinking has to come to the fore.

    This is precisely why the Green Party currently looks more left wing than almost any socialist of communist party. Not because there is a left or right wing in the Greens per se, but a recognition of physical constraints to the current materials and capitalsit systems.

  • Thissoundslikespin Thissoundslikespin

    1 Jul 2010, 3:11PM

    There should be plenty of intellectual fireworks – Tariq Ali on Islamophobia, Slavoj Žižek, John Holloway and me on the idea of communism, Hester Eisenstein, Judith Orr, and Nina Power on the new sexism, along with a gallery of leftwing talent – Tony Benn, Eamonn McCann, Gareth Peirce, Steven Rose, Michael Rosen, Sheila Rowbotham, and the Guardian's Gary Younge

    Sounds as much fun as letting fireworks off indoors. Seriously you only had to read Cath Elliot's recent 'why I use middle-class as an insult' article, which leaned on Marxism to give it an intellectual, philosophical undertone to basically druge up atavistic spite, resentment and bile toward middle-earners.

    That is Marxism. Every middle-class person has robbed a working class person of an opportunity. Being working class is so much more than accumulated wealth- it is about the values and solidarity in being from the working class-we hate the middle class but just want everything they have too because thats not bad we have discovered.

    We have moved on from Marxism. The only people left hanging onto it have refused to join the rest of us in 2010, with their morbid chip and their shoulder.
    How to satisfy a Marxist? I would honestly reply, knock them on the head with a frying pan. They have never- nor will ever be content.

  • angelinterceptor angelinterceptor

    1 Jul 2010, 3:11PM

    namordnik said

    Marxism should really be viewed as a logical continuation of the original Jesus Christ's appeal to all humans to develop and live in God's Kingdom on Earth :)

    That'll go down well in the souk, medina and casbah.

  • MrJoe MrJoe

    1 Jul 2010, 3:11PM

    It is simply a lie to that Callincos' party supports 'dictatorship' in the sense of undemocratic, one-man or one-party rule. Actually, socialism is about demanding that the economy itself is subject to democratic control by those who create all the value in it: the working class.

    In the real world, it has always, always, always led to mass starvation, slavery, extreme authoritarianism, harsh living conditions and eventual economic collapse.

  • KettsOak KettsOak

    1 Jul 2010, 3:12PM

    And capitalism is in it's last death throes, as very soon it will have little to offer.

    I was about to cite Norway as an example that invalidates your point here, then I saw...

    Yet Socialism exists and works quite well in Scandinavia and has don for a very long time.

    Norway has Capitalist system (bar a few key industries). It's a Mixed Market system, it is however not a Socialist system, anymore then it is a Laissez-faire system.

    What the Norwegian economy does is, tax private corporations and individuals high and re-distribute the tax earnings into the welfare system. This is not the same as a pure Socialist system where the mean of production are owned by the state/workers.
    It is true that certain key industries are owned by the state e.g. Oil though and it's profits invested back into the nation.

    What Norway demonstrates is that a Mixed-Market system can work very very well. it can combat inequality and extend life expectancy whilst lowering crime rates.

  • gwillikers gwillikers

    1 Jul 2010, 3:13PM

    Capitalism -- Some people's lives suck. Marxism - Most people's lives suck. Choice is clear to me. By the way how can anyone support a poltical philosophy regarding work and one's contribution to society when it is expounded mainly by people who do neither?

  • Hotiron Hotiron

    1 Jul 2010, 3:13PM

    @bailliegillies

    Yet Socialism exists and works quite well in Scandinavia and has don for a very long time.

    This is complete ignorance. Scandinavia is not socialist. They are capitalist countries with highly redistributive tax policies. Entirely different things. It would be completely impossible for private companies like Nokia to exist within a socialist framework.

  • bailliegillies bailliegillies

    1 Jul 2010, 3:15PM

    @BigNowitzki

    Something we've heard from deluded Trots and Marxists for over 100 years. They were wrong in the past, and they are wrong now. Capitalism always recovers.

    Certainly they were wrong in the past because communism helped keep capitalism alive but it cannot continue to exist in a world which it has destroyed for it's own short term profit.

    Back at the beginning of the industrial revolution when capitalism began it had a valid raison d'etre to raise standards of living, improve living conditions and environment and create a better society. Now it exist just to make money and not only does nothing to improve lives, the environment it has destroyed but cannot do anything except destroy lives and the environment. So capitalism is in it's death throes, it's just that most people prefer not to see that it is not sustainable for much longer.

  • NickDas NickDas

    1 Jul 2010, 3:19PM

    Staff Staff

    Depending on how you define these things, capitalism could be said to date back as far as the middle ages.

    I'm interested in how long those who say "There Is No Alternative" think capitalism as currently understood will last? As long as humanity? Do you think it will change at all, or will Buck Rogers and his 25th century friends look back at our economic system and say "wow, nothing's changed!".

    How about liberal democracy? Is that also something that took millennia to discover then (with the odd hiccup) becomes the immutable natural state?

    I don't personally have the sense that capitalism is going to be supplanted any time soon, but history does seem to suggest that these things don't last forever, and that we often can't see what's just around the corner.

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