Karl Marx and Marxism
Length: 1770 words (5.1 double-spaced pages)
In East Marx is no longer reffered to as he is held responsible for the totalitarian catastrophe. In West he is still disputed but, almost always, his views are no longer connected to all that they have determined. Some read Marx particularly for the â€œevilâ€? he is assumed with, for the horrors of communism. Others, read him just for political reasons. I read Marx so as to be completely able to demonstrate that Marxism may still represent an adequate way of dealing with some of todayâ€™s â€œsocial superstructuresâ€?, as Marx himself named them: literature, religion, law etc. That Marxism as an intellectual perspective may still provide a wholesome counterbalance to our propensity too see ourselves and the writers that we read as completely divorced from socio-economic circumstances. That Marxism may also counterbalance the related tendency to read the books and poems we read as originating in an autonomous mental realm, as the free products of free and independent mindsâ€¦
In order to achieve such a goal, one must get to the essence of things and imperiously provide the adverse standpoints on the matter. Therefore, both eulogy and detraction of Marxism will be reffered to in the following lines.
Marxism is first of all a complex political doctrine, also dealing with economy, philosophy or even religious issues. Based upon the writtings of the German born sociologist Karl Marx (1818-1883) and, to a smaller extent, of his companion Friederich Engels (1820-1895), this set of revolutionary â€œthesesâ€? had â€“ surprisingly perhaps for many contemporaries â€“ an unprecedented impact upon the thinking of the age.
Thus, as far as the political aspect is concerned, Marx and Engels are falsely considered the founders of socialism and all its variants. However, what today is called socialism was developed during the previous century by the French ideologists Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier and their folowers. It is true though that socialism, non-political in both Saint-Simonâ€™s and Fourierâ€™s visions, was decissively influenced by the reformist dimenssion Karl Marx provided it with, reffering to his forerunners as â€œutopic socialistsâ€?. (Florence Braunstein & Jean-Francois Pepin, Les Grandes doctrines, 1995:71) In short, the aim of Marxism is to bring about a classless society, based on the common ownership of the means of production, distribuÂ¬tion, and exahange. Marxism is a materialist philosophy: that is, it tries to explain things without assuming thc existence of a world or of forces beyond the natural world around us, and the society we live in.
It looks for concrcte, scientific, logical explaÂ¬nations of the world of observable fact. (Its opposite is idealist phiÂ¬losophy, which does believe in the existence of a spiritual `world elsewhere' and would offer, for instance, religious explanations of life and conduct). But whereas other philosophies merely seek to understand the world, Marxism (as Marx famously said) seeks to change it. Marxism sees progress as coming about through the struggle for power between different social classes. This view of history as class struggle (rather than as, for instance, a succession of dynasties, or as a gradual progress towards the attainment of national identity and sovereignty) regards it as motored by the competition for economic, social, and political advantage. The exploitation of one social class by another is seen, especially in modern industrial capitalism, particularly in its unrestricted nincÂ¬teenth-century form. The result of this exploitation is alienation, which is the state which comes about when the worker is `deskilled' and made to perform fragmented, repetitive tasks in a sequence of whose nature and purpose he or she has no overall grasp. By contrast, in the older `pre-industrial' or `cottage indusÂ¬try' system of manufacture, home and workplace were one, the worker completed the whole production process in all its variety, and was in direct contact with those who might buy the product. These alienated workers have undergone thc process of reification, which is a term used in Marx's major work, Das Kapital, but not developed there. It concerns the way, when capitalist goals and questions of profit and loss are paramount, workers arc bereft of their full humanity and are thought of as `bands' or `the labour force', so that, for instance, thc cffects of industrial closures are calculated in purely economic terms. People, in a word, become things. (Peter Barry, Beginning Theory. An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory, 1995:156-157)
Class struggle is thus present in Marxist theories about economy â€“ the Marxist economy â€“ which, above all, represent a fierce critique of the bourgeois capitalism, doomed to dissapear for it stands for manâ€™s exploiting man and thus for social inequality. But also for that, according to Marxists, everything in society, as in nature, is in motion and in continous evolution. Here is what Marxist so proudly called â€œdialectical materialismâ€? in order to philosophically emphasize that everything is what it is and what it is becoming. Compared with Hegelian idealism, Marxist materialism is trend which underlines the material world (the world outside of consciousness) as the foundation and determinant of thinking, especially in relation to the question of the origin of knowledge. For materialism, thoughts are â€œreflectionsâ€? of matter, outside of Mind, which existed before and independently of thought. According the Marx:
â€œThe chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism - that of Feuerbach included - is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively.â€? (Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, Selected Works. Volume One, 1969:13)
Out of these leading Marxist assumptions there emerged other theoretical approaches to various fields of society, of culture, such as laws, religion, literature etc. They all have been and will always be subject of exaggerate praise on one hand, or of groundless critique on the other.
French philosopher, educator, journalist, and author, one of France's most prominent political thinkers, Raymond Aron built his entire reputation upon criticising what he thought of as â€œthe opium of the intellectualsâ€? â€“ the evil of Marxism. Aron held anti-communist views at a time when most French intellectuals leaned toward the Left. He was inspired by the crucial 1978 French parliamentary elections to write a series of articles condemning the increasingly powerful Socialist-Communist alliance. Fearful that a victory by these forces would lead to the creation of a major new power bloc within the Western world, Aron, among other noted French commentators, set out to examine the appeal of Marxism and to demonstrate that the system of European liberalism was far superior in every respect to the Marxist alternative.
However, as Vladimir Tismaneanu had remarked in his foreword to one of the few Aronâ€™s works translated into Romanian, â€œthe French thinker was probably one of the most subtle exegete of the original Marxism, in which he saw both the signs of despotic temptations, and the premises of a rational sociology.â€? (Raymond Aron, Marxisme imaginare. De la o SfÃ¢ntÄƒ Familie la alta, 2002:9)
Contemporary analysts reckon that Marxism has been a major political and cultural force for a hundred years. A large part of the world is still notionally governed according to Marxist priciples. Yet the people of those countries show little sign of believing in Marxism, in the way that some Western intellectuals do. Globally, Marxism has run out of steam, persisting merely as sentiment and tradition. â€œAfter a century of immensely influential life, Marxism is becoming a dying culture, to adapt the phrase of an earlier Marxist thinker, Cristopher Caudwell. Things looked different about a generation ago, when the New Left was still new, and the texts of the young Marx were in fashion. Then Marxism did seem to represent a serious and dynamic challenge to liberal assumptions. That has now disappeared and Marxist are subject to a disabling isolation, despite their energetic activity in the realm of literary theory.â€? (Bernard Bergonzi, Exploding English. Criticism, Theory, Culture, 1990:117)
The demise of the "dynamic challenge to liberal assumptions" â€“ as Bergonzi called Marxism, followed by the swift and relentless globalization of capitalism have compelled Marxist scholars and activists to re-examine the relevance of Marx's work and of the Marxist tradition. Is Marxism obsolete? Is it unthinkable to conceive of alternatives to capitalism? What will be the fate of the Marxist tradition? Is the "free market" the only workable foundation for democracy? Are class divisions ineradicable? Could Marxism survive, as an intellectual tradition and as the basis for progressive politics, if socialism is viewed as an undesirable alternative? Analysts today are trying to offer some answers to those and many other questions while exploring the weaknesses and strengths of the Marxist tradition, its response to the challenges of contemporary society, its scientific claims, and its usefulness to analyze substantive issues such as, for example, globalization, ecology, class, the state, culture, and many more.
â€œOnly the most ideological enemy of Marxism, or uninformed pseudointellectual, could seriously maintain that Marxist theory is obsoleteâ€? â€“ here are professor Douglas Kellnerâ€™s words against those who foretoken the death of Marxâ€™s â€œrevolutionaryâ€? postulates. (Steven Best & Douglas Kellner, Postmodern Theory. Critical Interrogations, 1991:203) The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Empire have led many to proclaim the end of â€˜communismâ€™ as an alternative to the market system. Neoliberal authorities, postmodernist theorists, and even the popular press heralded this collapse tout court, taking swift advantage of a fresh opportunity to discredit the ideas of Karl Marx. But â€œto equate true Marxism - his 150-year old critiques of capitalism - with the bureaucratic collectivism of the Soviet Union â€“ Stalinism - is intellectually dishonest and historically false. Despite the collapse and continued failings of Stalinist regimes around the world, the writings of Marx and his contemporaries have never been more valid.â€? (Steven Best & Douglas Kellner, 1991:261)
In conclusion, is Marxism obsolete? The views on this delicate issue are contradictory. I will confine myself to mentioning the communist Leon Trotskyâ€™s words â€“ which I find extremely objective and modern: â€œThe criterion for replying to that question (is Marxism obsolete? n.n.) is simple: if the theory correctly estimates the course of development and foresees the future better than other theories, it remains the most advanced theory of our time, be it even scores of years old.â€? (Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, vol.III, 1961:317)
Beyond its inherent political, economical or philosophical flows, Marxism was able, even if less systematic than other theories, to fill an empty space in the scenery of approaching literature. Though not a literary theory itself, Marxism literary criticism was, is and will be an original and intellectually respectable alternative. The alternative of looking beyond the literary work and disclosing the â€œrealâ€? meanings it hides.