What should we think about the legacy of Karl Marx? Clearly, he was an important and influential thinker. Many of the rights and benefits we enjoy today (including labour rights and worker protection) were won by people inspired by his philosophy. Nevertheless, millions of people were murdered in his name over the course of the 20th Century by despotic regimes and terrorist groups. Was he, in any way, responsible for these deaths? Or should we separate his original ideas from what came after?
After the fall of the Soviet Union, it seemed like Marx had been proved definitively wrong. However, since the 2008 financial crisis some commentators have been arguing that capitalism is in “crisis” and Marxism is “on the rise” once more. They don’t always use the banner of “Communism” or “Marxism”, but their radical counter-capitalist ideas are gaining political credence (particularly in Europe). We think this trend deserves further discussion and debate.
May 2018 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx, and February 2018 was the 170th anniversary of the publication of the Communist Manifesto. To mark these dates, Debating Europe is launching a series of online discussions dedicated to examining the impact and legacy of Marx and his writings.
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Ruth, who wonders what “Marxism” actually means, and whether the ideologies that came after Marx – Maoism, Stalinism, and Leninism – can still be accurately described as “Marxist”?
To get a response, we spoke to Luigi Marco Bassani, Professor of the History of Political Theory at the University of Milan, Italy. What would he say?
That was a big question in the 1970s, and even the ’80s. What is the orthodoxy of Marxism? I think that orthodox Marxism was pretty much gone by 1899, after the revisions of Marxism proposed by Eduard Bernstein and the first disciples of Karl Marx and Engels and so on. So, that was the end. There was no more revolutionary programme, it was just to use the state to improve the condition of the working class. That was Marxism at the beginning of the century.
Then the Bolsheviks came, and Lenin, and that changed everything. Lenin had success. You know how many Bolsheviks there were in August 1917, right before the revolution? There were no more than 70’000 in all the Russian Empire. So, they proved extremely effective as a revolutionary Communist party that can change history. So, at that point, clearly Marxism became Leninsm, which is something really different from what Karl Marx thought…
For another perspective, we put the same question to Simon Tormey, Professor of Political Theory at the University of Sydney. How would he respond?
That’s a great question from Ruth, and very difficult to answer. Go back to basics; Marx wrote fifty volumes of writings, and whilst there is a remarkable consistency in those writings, it’s nevertheless true that we’re looking at an enormous body of work written from basically the 1840s up to the 1880s, with an evolution in his method, evolution in the topics he was covering, and also the way he wanted to cover them. So, there isn’t one Marx or one ‘Marxism’…
So, this leads you to the second part of the question: What about Trostkyism, Maoism, Stalinism, and so on? These are all readings of Marx, in the same way we have Presbyterians, Protestants, Catholics, and so on. Where you’ve got texts, and interpretations of texts, you then have different schools of thought and different modes of practice. And none of those are right or wrong – Catholics can’t say they have a better interpretation of the Bible than Protestants – but they’re all legitimate. Some of them, of course, are able to base their arguments and ideas on very clear doctrinal views that Marx held over a long time, and others take maybe idiosyncratic passages and inflate them into something that really didn’t have the same importance attached to them by Marx. But that’s the we’ve got a lot of different “isms” under the bracket of Marxism. Lots and lots of texts, lots of interpretation of texts, and of course 150 years worth of people trying to make sense of it and putting their own spin on things.
We also had a comment from Bernd, who wondered how we should feel about the legacy of Karl Marx. Is it possible to separate Karl Marx and his writings from the history of violence and mass murder perpetrated in his name?
That’s a big question, and it’s a very important one. In my opinion, the history of Marxism is like a butchery, and all sorts of things happened: class struggle, Stalinism, forty-million deaths. A lot of people clearly died in the name of the ‘new society’ advocated by Karl Marx.
However, the thing is that if you take a very strict Marxist analysis, then Marx and Engels would be held responsible only for the death of people during the revolution. So, the Long March of Mao, the October Revolution, and so on. They just thought there would be a revolutionary moment, and then a little bit of dictatorship of the proletariat, but that would resolve itself with almost no violence at all. In the third book of Das Kapital, Karl Marx proposes that capitalism will eventually just dissolve, without violence.
Clearly, what actually happened was very different… But if you study the history of a guy like Pol Pot, who clearly ran one of the most murderous regimes in the history of Socialism, you cannot forget that the guy studied in Paris in the 1950s, when all these Marxist ideologies were going around, and he was trying to take the ideology of Karl Marx to the extremes. If you read Das Kapital, there is no place for violence. If you read what came after and are inspired by the Marxist Utopia, and want to remake the whole world, then it’s like the French Revolution and Robespierre. You use a small group of people and cleanse the whole world… So, it’s ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. There’s no clear-cut answer.
Finally, what would Professor Simon Tormey say?
I’m very sympathetic to Bernd’s approach. What I tend to do is to separate Marx’s theoretical contribution from, if you like, ‘political Marxism’. I think Marx’s theoretical contribution is astonishing, prescient, far-sighted, incredibly valuable for understanding how our societies work and what the kind of basic components of a social theory and a philosophy and a political practice might look like. And I think we can use that, and enjoy that, and really learn from that quite separate from attaching the label ‘Marxist’ to ourselves.
Really, Marx wasn’t very keen on followers. He always admonished those followers who implied he had all the answers. He was very against that, and was very anti-Utopian and anti-orthodoxy. I think we should really take him at his word, and really use his theoretical legacy very careful. But we do need to think about political practice in the round; I don’t think there’s an appetite for creating a kind of monolithic Communist party, or a very vertical entity with very clear set of elites who understand or comprehend Marxism. But I think he gives us access to hope as well, because he says capitalism is a human invention, it’s a creation of ourselves, and just as we create capitalism, so we can create other kinds of society, and we can also celebrate those kind of societies which are resisting capitalism. So, there’s a lot of interest in indigenous social movements, or co-production, or other kinds of initiatives, and we can really build from and learn from those other kinds of practices to be thinking about a kind of radical politics which is non-dogmatic, not doctrinaire, and which is not creating a new caste of elites…
Was Karl Marx right about the evils of capitalism? What should we think about his legacy? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!