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The Dustbin of History: Marxism

The Dustbin of History: Marxism

According to Darwinism, species that adapt to their environment thrive; those that fail to evolve face extinction. The same is true for ideas. Marxism evolved from the primordial swamp of the Industrial Revolution but lies gasping for relevance after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Asian values — fashionable when South Korea and Thailand were economic success stories and the West was mired in recession — lost their luster following the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Mutual assured destruction kept the two Cold War superpowers in check but offers little assurance to nations threatened by suicide terrorists. The Club of Rome’s doomsday prophecies of global starvation are now starved for credibility. The threat of the military-industrial complex is taken seriously only in Hollywood films and on conspiracy newsgroups. Dependency theory thrived amidst a backlash against economic imperialism yet withered in a globalized era of free trade and foreign investment.

Are these ideas really doomed to oblivion? Or, for all their flaws, do they still have some relevance? Can they make a comeback? FOREIGN POLICY has invited six notable minds to sort through the dustbin of history and share what they found.


No other idea so enchanted the 20th century as Marxism. To this day, one often comes across assertions that Marxism retains value as an "analytic tool" — the use of which does not necessarily make one a Marxist. The first person to make this distinction was, of course, Karl Marx himself, who famously forswore "Marxism," an appellation coined by his detractors. Marx’s collaborator, Friedrich Engels, however, embraced the term, building a powerful cult around it, in which he was the high priest and Marx the oracle.

The first of the many ironies surrounding this cult was its claim to being scientific. In Manchester, where he was sent by his father to be isolated from radical influences, the young Engels searched out the followers of Welsh industrialist and social reformer Robert Owen. The Owenites had hit upon the idea of "socialism," a term they coined, and set out to demonstrate its efficacy by means of experimental communities. Scores of such experiments yielded uniform results: the settlements collapsed, usually within the span of two years. Engels was well aware of this record but brushed it aside. He and Marx, a pair of 20-something children of privilege, believed they had discovered a pattern to history that would produce socialism regardless of human will or ingenuity. ("It is not a matter of what this or that proletarian or even the proletariat as a whole pictures at present as its goal," wrote Marx in their first collaborative work, The Holy Family. "It is a matter of what the proletariat… will historically be compelled to do.") In short, they substituted prophecy for experimentation and thereby claimed to have elevated socialism from the plane of utopia to that of science.

If Marx and Engels turned the idea of science on its head, the bold breadth of their prophecy (or theory, if you wish) was still dazzling. "The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles," they said. They claimed that the immutable workings of "capitalism" (a term largely, if not wholly, of their invention) would lead to the reduction of society to two classes, an ever growing and increasingly impoverished proletariat and an ever shrinking and increasingly wealthy bourgeoisie. This dynamic would make revolution morally necessary and politically possible. It would also assure that the socialist revolution would be the final revolution. Previous triumphant classes had themselves become the new exploiters, but since the proletariat would consist of almost everybody, whom could it exploit? Ergo, its rule would inaugurate the golden era of classlessness.

From the moment Marx and Engels penned this theory, it proved false on every front. Over the course of the second half of the 19th century, the standard of living of workers in Europe, far from falling, roughly doubled — a trend that continued apace until the outbreak of World War I. Concomitantly, the middle classes did not disappear but grew many times larger, and the wealth of the capitalists, although it certainly multiplied, became more dispersed, not more concentrated.

A still more deadly blow struck the doctrine in 1914, as the outbreak of war put to test Marx and Engels’ claim that "the working men have no country." At once, working men displayed their patriotism on all sides. Moreover, most of the socialist leaders, either as a result of similar stirrings within their own breasts or in response to the mood of their constituents, also rallied to their respective fatherlands. Georgy Valentinovich Plekhanov, the dean of Russian Marxism, captured the spirit of the moment: "If I were not old and sick I would join the army. To bayonet [the] German comrades would give me great pleasure." This efflorescence of nationalist feeling made nonsense of the postulate that class is the decisive historical variable.

Yet just at the moment that the theory had thus been rendered nugatory, it gained a cachet far beyond any it had previously enjoyed. The Bolshevik seizure of power rescued Marxism from the wreckage of its economic and social predictions by seeming to validate its most seductive claim — namely, that history had a foreseeable end. However far trends and events had strayed from the forecasts, this much was certain: socialism of some kind had risen in Europe’s largest country. The Russian Revolution seemed a powerful vindication of the prophecy that humankind was striding from the capitalist past to the socialist future. Even such profound anti-Marxists as Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter and U.S. journalist Whittaker Chambers conceded this directionality, much to their despair.

Communism’s rise endowed Marxism with a brilliant new allure, even while it demolished anything that remained of Marxism’s theoretical structure. The industrial proletariat assuredly had not brought socialism to Russia. The country was still mostly agricultural. The Bolshevik militia that seized power consisted of disaffected soldiers, Lettish peasants yearning for national independence, student revolutionaries, and no doubt some workers, but it had no distinct proletarian coloration. Nor were the men guiding it workers (certainly not Lenin, who had a title of nobility that he was not ashamed to invoke when it served his purpose).

In addition, socialism was supposed to come to the most advanced capitalist countries, whereas Russia was among the most backward. Adding insult to injury, the most advanced capitalism was to be found in the United States, the country that more than any other proved stubbornly resistant to socialism and that responded to the Bolshevik triumph with a wave of anti-Red hysteria.

However, there were always some Marxists who denied that Russia was truly socialist. For them, none of these aspects of the Bolshevik experience weighed against the validity of the theory. But this defense raised new problems. If the Soviet state was not socialist, then it assuredly was not accounted for by Marxist theory and could not be explained by it. And if the struggle between communism and the West (and for a time, the triangular struggle with fascism, a phenomenon that Marxism could do even less to explain) was not a class struggle, as the Kremlin claimed, then what remained of the Marxian approach to history? The crowning irony is that a movement proclaiming that material motives determined human behavior gave rise to an era in which ideology dominated world politics as never before.

What, then, is left of this once mighty theory? It remains the official orthodoxy of a few minor police states and nominally even of China. But the adoption of President Jiang Zemin’s "three represents" (making the party the official representative of all "productive classes," including entrepreneurs) aligns theory as well as practice in antithesis to Marxian precepts. And social democratic parties have one after another renounced both Marxism and socialism, although a few retain the word "socialist" in their names.

Moreover, despite dubbing themselves the new vanguard of the proletariat, the anti-globalization protesters have twisted the doctrine beyond recognition. Their complaint about capitalism is the opposite of the Marxist critique, which held that capitalism must develop to its utmost degree in order to complete its historic mission of becoming the chrysalis from which a new society could emerge. Those who would stand in the way of this evolution, though they might espouse socialism, are, in the words of Marx and Engels, "both reactionary and utopian." 

Finally, what of those who forswear the doctrine but claim to employ Marxism as an analytic tool? Many of those who make this claim write with Hegelian obscurity. Perhaps the analytic tool is the "dialectic," the Marxian claim to a distinctive form of reasoning more penetrating than conventional logic, and a term one still sees bandied about. Engels gave this idea its fullest explication (in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific), pointing out that by conventional logic "a thing either exists or does not exist; a thing cannot at the same time be itself and something else." As an example, he cited the conventional view that a creature is either alive or dead. This premise is wrong, he said, because the precise moment of death is hard to determine. Dialectic allows us to see that a thing can simultaneously exist and not exist, be both dead and alive, he explained. But does the difficulty of determining a precise moment of death really imply that at some point a creature is both dead and alive? What could that possibly mean? This entire rhetorical sand castle was demolished in a single sentence by philosopher Sydney Hook: "State a proposition that would be false according to conventional logic, but true according to dialectic."

Others who invoke this analytic tool seek to convey sympathy for the poor, but Marxism adds nothing on this score to what is found in the Torah or the Sermon on the Mount. For others, it means a materialistic interpretation of human motives, but the history of Marxism itself refutes this claim. For still others, it signifies a fascination with revolution. But after a century of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, surely we have learned that far from constituting a leap "from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom," as Marx put it, revolution has more often been a leap into a bottomless abyss of human suffering.