Value of Knowledge Reference
Marxism is the movement founded by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels which fights for the self-emancipation of the working class, subjecting all forms of domination by the bourgeoisie, its institutions and its ideology, to theoretical and practical critique.
Standing for the destruction of the capitalist state by the organised working class, Marxism is opposes all forms of reformism and “gradualism” or “evolutionary socialism”; Marxism is Revolutionary.
Marxism shares with other progressive social movements an uncompromising hostility to all forms of domination — sexism, racism, and so on, but what marks Marxism out from other progressive movements is that Marxists struggle always to overcome the manifold forms of domination and exploitation in and through the self-emancipation of the working class. Thus Marxism is Revolutionary Socialism.
While Marxism stands for the destruction of the capitalist state, and has as its aim the withering away of the state and all forms of institutionalised violence, Marxists not only support the right of the working class to exercise a domination over the bourgeoisie, they actively fight for that, since the dictatorship of the proletariat is the possible way to destroy bourgeois rule and open the way to the disappearance of all classes, including the class of wage-slaves. Marxism has its origins in the struggle for this perspective, in opposition to anarchism which seeks to undermine all forms of authority and seeks destruction of the capitalist state without promoting and preparing the working class for the seizure and holding of public political power.
Social power and relations of domination are transmitted in many different forms, aside from the state, nevertheless “concentrated force is required to overthrow concentrated force”, so Marxists always struggle to develop the organised strength of the workers movement. Freedom is always limited by the opportunities that the community provides for the development of a personality. Freedom is not enhanced simply by the removal of limitations on the autonomy of individuals. Marxists aim to enhance the freedom of working class people chiefly by expanding the scope of collective action and the possibilities for individual growth and creativity within that.
Marxism is a tendency within the workers movement and it is concerned with both theoretical and practical critique. By “practical critique” is meant political action which undermines and “exposes” the object and mobilises opposition to it. In the history of the movement, these two sides — the theoretical and the practical — have from time to time become separated from one another; one the one side “academic Marxism” working on theoretical questions in relative isolation from the workers’ movement, on the other genuine communists doing battle for the working class, but isolated from the creative development of revolutionary Marxist ideas.
Furthermore, although Marxism is a movement rather than simply a tendency, within the workers movement, and a movement which at certain point in its history has been organised in a single world-wide organisation (The First [Working Men’s] International in 1864, the Second [Socialist] International in 1889 and the Third [Communist] International in 1919), this is not the case today; Marxism is a movement which is fragmented into many parts and tendencies, none of which completely embody the history and achievements of the Marxist movement, but all of which in one way or another are connected in the 150-year history of the movement since it was founded in 1848 with the publication of the Communist Manifesto.
There is no set of principles and beliefs which can be set out once and for all and stamped with the name of “Marxism”. Marxism is a movement, and as such can only be understood through a critical examination of its history. While this movement bears the name of its founder, Karl Marx, Marxism is not a movement of followers, but it is nevertheless a movement which is integrally concerned with an interconnected body of theoretical and political writing which traces its origins back to Marx.
In terms of practical political struggle, Marxism arose in the mid-nineteenth century in opposition to three main opposing tendencies in the workers’ movement: Anarchism, Utopian or Doctrinaire socialism, and overtly bourgeois tendencies (see Communist Manifesto, Chapter 4). In terms of its theoretical roots, to use Lenin’s famous words, the three sources of Marxism are: British political economy, French Socialism and German idealist philosophy.
At that time, the advocates of socialism were relatively charismatic individuals who promoted some particular vision of a future society and an associated body of doctrine, who each collected a following around them. These groups shared a more or less common vision of a socialist future and participated in the struggles of the day, but the movement lacked any scientific basis in existing conditions and furthermore, offered to teach the workers about socialism, but had no conception of socialism as the self-emancipation of the working class.
Frustrated with this lack of theoretical seriousness, Marx and Engels made a decisive turn towards critique of the existing ideology in order to be able to found a revolutionary working class movement upon a sound basis.
The very way in which Marx approached the critical assimilation and transcendence of philosophy, socialism and political economy was itself gained from these same intellectual sources in bourgeois society.
The pre-eminent philosopher of Marx’s youth was G W F Hegel. However, ten years after Hegel’s death, i.e., in 1841, Hegel was unceremoniously dumped by the Prussian ruling class and came under attack from all sides. After 1841, Hegel was decidedly unfashionable.
Hegel’s great achievement was to have shown how the forms by which human beings grasp reality are themselves historical products. In other words, the history of philosophy contained within it an on-going critique of all the cultural and ideological forms that have succeeded one another through human history, a practical critique which was the work, not just of professional philosophers, but engaged by all aspects of the life of society.
For Hegel however, this history was the work not of living human beings, but rather of a Spirit which acted “behind the backs” of the actors in history, unbeknown to them. In this sense, Marx said that Hegel took “the standpoint of political economy”. That is, that Hegel, just like Adam Smith, saw people as slaves of an “invisible hand”, of laws which governed the outcome of social action independently of the intention of individuals, and what is more, that the fundamental relations of person to person by means of which this spirit acted in history, was the property relation.
The first positive insight into the fallacy of this view was provided by Ludwig Feuerbach, who showed that Hegel had created a kind of theology, and that far from people being governed by either God or Hegel’s Absolute Spirit, these concepts were created by people as reflections of the way they lived; for Feuerbach, the truth of religion and philosophy lay in anthropology and physiology.
Meanwhile, the French socialists had already taken this a step further by showing that science and religion not only had their origins in human history, but were themselves weapons and instruments of social struggle. Consequently, people should not be seen simply as creatures of the social system of which they were a part (the standpoint of anthropology) nor as simply products of Nature, but rather that people were both products and creators of the world they lived in, and the struggle over ideas was an integral part of the political and social struggle.
It should be noted at this point that Marx did not claim, and nor do Marxists today claim, to be the originator of some brand new kind of knowledge. Marx’s own claim to original ideas was extremely modest. We stand on the shoulders of the achievements of those who have gone before; but we subject the theories and ideas active in society to critique. That is to say, we understand ideas as products and a part of social relations, which function in one way or another to sustain the social relations that they reflect. In particular, attention is directed to the social relations by means of which people produce and reproduce their livelihood and the labour activity itself through which people live, This is after the foundation upon which the basis for the entire superstructure of society is erected, and which underlies all forms of thought and culture. By critique is meant the disclosure of this ideological kernel, the social interest which is expressed in and sustained by this or that form of thought, which actually connects it to the real, material life of people.
What then was Marx’s attitude to philosophy, political economy and socialism?
According to Marx, a philosopher is an “alienated human being”, a kind of theologian, who is dealing with ideal entities as if they had some existence separate from the material life of human beings. Philosophy had been developed to such a high degree in Germany precisely because Germany was a social and political backwater in Europe; while Revolution was being made in France and the English making an Industrial Revolution — and lots of money! — Germany remained fragmented and unable to break the hold of the nobility; so the great social transformations taking place in France and England were reflected in Germany in art, science and philosophy.
By subjecting these generalisations and theories to specialised study, the study of philosophy gives us a deeper window into the nature of the social reality from which theoretical ideas have been abstracted. Philosophy does not talk about social reality, rather, it is the purified voice of reality. Marx’s concern was not to do more philosophy, but rather, by critique of the philosophy of his day, to expose the ideological content of the day-to-day ideas through which class rule is maintained.
What is the day-to-day reality of bourgeois society?: buying and selling. That is, Marx found in the theories of the political economists a distilled essence of the ideology and ethics which actually govern the way people live under capitalism, which make market relations appear natural, and allow people to actively give their consent to their own exploitation, entering into relations of exchange of commodities as if this was a non-political value-free activity.
From the very beginning of his study, Marx almost single-mindedly pursued his critique of political economy; his first work Comments on James Mill was written in 1844, while Volume III of Capital was published after his death, in 1894.
In his critique of political economy, Marx brought out the internal contradictions within the political economists’ notion of value and showed how this contradiction had its roots in the nature of commodity production itself, and in turn demonstrated that the commodity relation — working in order to earn a living and buying in order to make a profit — lay the very germ of bourgeois society and the accumulation of capital. And further, in the “naturalisation” of the commodity relation, the conception of material objects having social powers — the “fetishism of commodities”, lay the essential foundation of bourgeois ideology.
Marx did not confine himself to literary work, but was an active participant and leader in the struggles of the working-class of his day. His efforts saw him deported and/or jailed on a number of occasions and he had to settle in London to avoid continued persecution. The construction of the First and Second Internationals were concrete leaps forward in the self-organisation of the working class, uniting workers in many countries in a single organisation.
Marxism aims not to teach the working class, but to understand and give voice to the strivings of its most advanced sections and generalise that striving both theoretically and practically.
The first major working class political struggle of Marx and Engels’ lifetime were the out-break in 1848, right across Europe, of independent movements of the working class, pressing their own demands within the upheavals which saw the downfall of the old order in Europe. Marx and Engels published a daily newspaper, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung throughout this period, agitating, advocating and organising for the workers’ movement.
The second major working class struggle of their time was the Paris Commune — the first time in history when the working class seized state power. From a critical examination of the Commune, Marxism develops its ideas about democracy, the state and revolution. Even the Communist Manifesto of 1848 was amended to include the gains of the Commune, principally that the working class could not simply take over the state machine, but had to utterly smash it and build its own organs of class rule, based on proletarian democracy.
During the latter part of their lives, the works of Marx and Engels were translated into many languages, and through the work of the Second International, Marxism became known and understood in all corners of the world and deeply entered the heart of the organised working class, now united across the world in a single organisation.
During its first decades, Marxism was a few individuals intervening in the workers’ movement, promoting the revolutionary perspective and criticising the programs and ideology of other currents. By the end of the nineteenth century, Marxism had become a vast party with a mass working class membership and in the case of Germany for example, members of Parliament.
In order to meet the needs of a mass movement of this kind, Marxism had to develop a rounded out alternative view of the world in such a way as to arm millions of workers with the means to challenge the bourgeoisie at every point.
The Marxist movement of this time included a number of great figures, led chiefly by Engels, who lived until 1895, 12 years after Marx’s death, and included such figures as Georgi Plekhanov, the founder of Russian Marxism, Franz Mehring, Karl Kautsky, who had learnt his Marxism as Marx’s secretary and literary executor, August Bebel, Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg, and many others.
These figures produced a kind of “orthodoxy”, which is best summed up in Plekhanov’s Materialist Conception of History (1897) and in Lenin’s “Three Component Parts” of Marxism: Dialectical Materialism, Historical Materialism and Marxist Political Economy (or the “Labour Theory of Value” — for Ernest Mandel, for example, Marx was himself an economist and it was the duty of Marxists to defend the labour theory of value against bourgeois attacks!).
It was in the traditions of the Second International of Kautsky, Plekhanov & Co., using these conceptions, that Lenin and Trotsky, and the generation that made the Russian Revolution and built the Communist International were educated in Marxism. Consequently, this understanding of Marxism is part and parcel of what Marxism is.
In the exposition of dialectical materialism, the Marxists summed up the achievements of German idealist philosophy from Kant, and especially Hegel, and the critique Marx had made of this philosophy, drawing on the work of philosophical materialism, particularly in France.
It is certainly a weakness of Marx’s literary legacy that although he is the originator of these ideas, there is very little in his works which simply and straight-forwardly explains them. It was left to Engels, mainly, to elaborate, explain and summarise Marx’s method of work. His two works Socialism: Utopian and Scientific and Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, give the best possible short summary of dialectical materialism.
Briefly, by dialectics is meant the criticism of theory by means of the exposure of internally contradictory propositions within it, and by materialism is meant that this work of criticism is not a “logical” or “literary” exercise, but rather seeks the bring out the contradictions within a concept by identifying the actual, material contradictions at work in society, which are contained implicitly within an idea.
Historical Materialism is the whole body of historical research which Marx and other Marxists have carried out, studying the development of forms of social organisation and consciousness, how they have succeeded one another in history and their interconnection with the development of the forces of production mobilised by social formations at each stage in the unfolding of history.
In order to understand bourgeois society and its way of thinking, Marx and Engels had to critically assimilate the whole body of historical knowledge of their time and this interest and close study of history is an integral and necessary part of Marxism. Along with others of his time, such as Adam Smith and Henry Morgan, Marx discerned from the historical record important stages of development running right throughout human history and these stages of development of politics and culture corresponded to broad stages in the development of the relations of production. Marx’s famous 1859 Preface to a Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy, sum up this idea.
While the further progress of historical research continuously sheds new light on the nature of past epochs — the work of non-Marxists just as much as that of Marxists — the Marxist study of history, i.e., Historical Materialism, constitutes a continuing current within the study of history. What characterises this current is, on the one hand, an understanding that “one must eat before one can engage in politics and culture”, that how people produce and reproduce life is the single most important fact about any given society, from which other aspects of society, its “superstructure”, have to ultimately be explained, and on the other, simply that it is human beings that make history, and not the other way around. Putting this another way: while philosophical materialism has shown that changed people are the product of changed social conditions, it is first of all only people who change conditions. Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach sum up these conceptions very succinctly.
Marx had set out to make a thoroughgoing critique of bourgeois society by showing how the fundamental values and production relations which underlie all social life are founded on a chimera of equality and freedom of choice. The centre-piece of this critique was his critique of Adam Smith’s Labour Theory of Value. But this was not just a piece of cultural exposť. It allowed Marx to prove to workers that there was no inherent obstacle to continuous improvements in workers’ living standards by means of collective struggle — something denied by all brands of bourgeois economic theory; it gave confidence to the workers that capitalism was not the only alternative and that their interests were not subordinate to those of their employers, but on the contrary diametrically opposed. It also showed how day-to-day life as a wage-slave fostered a certain kind of bourgeois ideology in the workers’ movement itself.
By the time of the publication of Capital in 1867, bourgeois economic science itself had abandoned the great tradition of classical political economy, in favour of more pragmatic, technical approaches to management of the economy and getting rich (See the Theory of Marginal Utility).
Consequently, it came about that the very theory that Marx had set out to critique, i.e., political economy and its labour theory of value, became associated with his name. Indeed, the classical tradition had been more interested in understanding the origins of wealth, rather than providing an “apologetic” rationalisation of capitalist exploitation and technique of accumulating money, and which conceived of value as inherent in the process of production, rather than subjectively, “in the eyes of the beholder”. Thus, Capital became, for the Marxists of the Second International, a work of political economy, and was seen as a work which explained how capitalism came about and offered an approach to predicting the course of its development and arming revolutionaries with a better understanding of the phenomena of the economy.
By the time of the First World War (1914-18) however, this kind of Marxism had become entirely respectable and orthodox, combining “Sunday afternoon speechifying” with the kind of parliamentary activity we now are all familiar with in the Labour and Democratic parties of the imperialist countries. The onset of the war created a crisis: the leaders of social democracy (as Marxists called themselves at that time) were simply unprepared to rally the working class against the war.
Lenin (and also Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht and others) were clear that, faced with the slaughter of imperialist war, the only policy for the revolutionary workers movement was revolutionary defeatism: “The real enemy is at home!”. A conference of social democrats opposed to the war at Zimmerwald in September 1915 finally brought about a break. After this, Lenin began to elaborate a critique of the politics and theory of the Second International. In State and Revolution he showed how the Second International had buried the Marxist analysis of the state, particularly the lessons of the Paris Commune, in order to justify their own comfortable participation in bourgeois society. In 1916, he wrote Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, in which he demonstrated that capitalism had entered a new stage of its development at the beginning of the 20th century and shed light on how imperialism had corrupted the workers’ movement in their own countries by diverting to “their own working class”, a share of the proceeds of super-exploitation of the colonies, and how the nature of this epoch would lead to inter-imperialist wars and workers’ revolutions.
The immense suffering and destruction of the war were the setting in which Lenin and the Bolshevik Party (the Russian section of the Second International, built in conditions of extreme repression and combined and uneven development in Tsarist Russia) were able to lead the successful Russian Revolution and defeat the efforts of 14 invading imperialist armies to restore capitalism. On the basis of this successful workers’ revolution, a new International, the Third or Communist International, was established.
The Third International included both new parties formed from supporters of the Russian Revolution and some cases whole parties of the former Second International. Reflecting the spirit of its times, this Marxism sharply rejected the reformism and class compromise which had overtaken the Second International and at its core was not some vague vision of a social society some time in the indefinite future, but rather immediate extension of the already victorious revolution in Russia; the more so because Russia was a socially backward country, barely one generation out of feudalism, with a tough but small industrial working class. Marxists still saw the advanced and organised battalions of the working class in France and Germany as the standard-bearers of socialist revolution.
The Russian Revolution unleashed hitherto unseen resources. Millions were won to Marxism in the wake of the Revolution, among them both masses of workers and artists, scientists and other intellectuals, and this unleashed a flood of creative Marxist scholarship, continuing Lenin’s critique of the Marxism of the Second International. The Marxism of these days was, to use Lukacs’ word, “Messianic”; that is, it anticipated not a long historic struggle, but the immediate conquest of socialism.
The other important Marxist among the leaders of the Russian Revolution was Leon Trotsky. Trotsky had not definitively sided with Lenin in his dispute with the Menshevik wing of the Russian party and only joined the Bolshevik Party on his return to Russia in April 1917. Trotsky brought to Marxism a number of insights, broad experience and leadership comparable only with Lenin.
Worthy of special mention here are a number of European Marxists and the Hungarian Marxist Georgi Lukacs in particular. Lukacs subject the orthodox Marxism of the Second International to a much more elaborate critique and restored the “Hegelian” aspect of Marx’s original insights, something which Lenin had only glimpsed in this own study of Marx and Hegel in his Conspectus of Hegel’s Logic written while in exile in 1913-4.
The Russian Revolution was subject to terrible devastation at the hands of imperialist armies, and isolated, and the rising tide of revolution in Europe and across the world was stemmed. Lenin died in 1922, Stalin assumed absolute power in a Soviet State already tired of revolution and gripped by bureaucratism. Trotsky was exiled and isolated from the revolutionary workers’ movement by witch-hunting and ultimately assassinated in 1941. Lukacs, like many others, compromised, rather than suffer assassination or isolation. This historic disaster which beset the revolutionary workers’ movement was equally a disaster for its revolutionary leadership, the Marxist movement.
The “official” standard bearers of Marxism, the leaders of the USSR, were now promoting “Dialectical and Historical Materialism” (the title of one of Stalin’s most famous works) in such a way that it became synonymous with political reaction, social conservatism and conformism, chauvinism and bigotry, lying and bullying, even torture and murder, and above all repression and betrayal of the organised workers movement. Under Stalinism, all the weaknesses of the Marxism of the Second International were extended into the cruellest parodies.
Apart from its Stalinist perversion, Marxism hereafter developed along three more or less mutually isolated lines:
Between Trotsky’s exile in 1929 and the repression of the Left Opposition within the Soviet Union, and Trotsky’s assassination in 1941, Trotsky built an organisation known as the Fourth International, which sought to continue the development of Marxist theory and practice in opposition to the now thoroughly counter-revolutionary Third International, led by Stalin. Trotsky and the Fourth International, which continued after his death, developed Marxist critique of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution. Trotsky’s Marxism contributed entirely new insights made possible by the actual experience of the working class taking and holding power. Trotsky emphasised the importance of Permanent Revolution, revolution which “grows over” from the completion of national democratic tasks in one country to the overthrow of capitalism on a world scale. As leader of the Red Army and an official in Soviet government for a number of years, Trotsky also brought to Marxism an important understanding of the problems of democracy, economic management, uneven development, united front tactics and whole range of issues which the Marx and the Marxists of the Second International had never had occasion to engage.
The weakness of Trotskyist Marxism however arose immediately out of its embattled and isolated position. The Trotskyists always sought to develop Marxist theory in the practice of workers’ struggle, but the domination of the revolutionary workers’ movement by Stalinism meant that the Trotskyists almost invariably operated from a position of opposition, and their Marxism developed a polemical character in which Socialism took on the character of the “road not followed”. The burden of defending Marxist orthodoxy against Stalinist distortion and lies, hampered the effort of making practical and theoretical critique of the development of capitalism and the broader workers’ movement.
While Lukacs remained a revolutionary throughout his life, and compromised with Stalinism only in order to be able to continue to participate in the revolutionary workers’ movement, in the context of the defeats inflicted on the workers movement in the mid-1920s, the rise of Fascism and the continued domination of the revolutionary workers movement by Stalinist reaction, a current of Marxism grew up known as “Western Marxism” which largely took Lukacs’ work as its point of departure.
Initially, the “Frankfurt School” had aimed to set up a kind of “marxist university” in Germany to conduct social research in support of the revolutionary workers movement. It was this group for example that invented the use of the questionnaire as instrument of social research. However, particularly after the triumph of Hitler, they were scattered across the world, and there developed a current of Marxist thinking which was entirely divorced from practical struggle in the workers’ movement.
Marxism is inherently both practical and theoretical critique. Division of labour between theory and practice is inimical to Marxism. However, it is an historical fact that such a split took place. While it is not the business of Marxism to erect new theories in opposition to those of the bourgeoisie, critique necessarily involves study and familiarity with theory and is useless unless it constantly addresses itself to the latest products of bourgeois ideology. While there have always been those in the Trotskyist movement who did this kind of theoretical work and made important contributions, the job of defence of Marxist orthodoxy in the workers’ movement restricted the development of Marxist theoretical critique outside of the work of these “academic Marxists”.
Under the rule of Stalinism in the Soviet Union, political opposition was met with a bullet in the back of the head, and even genuine scientific work became extremely difficult as all fields of life became “politicised” and subject to totalitarian bureaucratic rule. Nevertheless, despite this, outside of the illegal work of oppositionists, which were utterly extinguished by the 1950s, some development of Marxism did take place within the Stalinised Soviet Union. This was the work of Lev Vygotsky’s school of constructivist psychology (Vygotsky died of tuberculosis in 1934), and later, building on this work, the school of Evald Ilyenkov, who committed suicide in 1979. This Marxism bears the stamp of the conditions under which it developed, being almost completely “non-political”, but despite this, keeping alive and actually developing very important insights about the nature of human thought and activity. This current only became known outside of the USSR in the 1980s and now has its proponents across the world, but it still carries with it the kind of “non-political” character which was imposed as a matter of necessity when it survived under Stalinism in the USSR.
In the wake of the Second World War, capitalism faced enormous crisis. With the Red Army in occupation of half of Europe, the national liberation movement spreading like a world-fire across the colonies and workers in even the victorious countries of western Europe in revolutionary upsurge. At the same time, those Marxists which had remained in political activity during the war had been almost exterminated by the combined forces of Stalinism, Fascism and Allied occupation. Stalinism, on the other hand had emerged in total control of the revolutionary workers movement and in the leadership of the national liberation movement. Under these conditions, Stalinism exerted a considerable influence over “academic Marxism”, not to mention the national liberation movements.
Capitalism had to stage a strategic retreat, instituting Keynesian economic measures, a welfare state, and building national utilities and infrastructure through public enterprise. Capitalism managed to restabilise itself, but in the process, this “academic Marxism” became more or less inextricably interwoven with the development of progressive bourgeois social theory and influenced by Stalinism.
It is impossible to describe the development of bourgeois ideology after world war two without including Marxism as a component part, as its influence is everywhere. None of today’s philosophers of “post-modernism”, “post-structuralism”, “post-colonialism” and so on can be understood without the component of Marxism within their thinking, however hostile they may be to communism and however remote from the workers movement.
From the mid-1950s, not only did Stalinism begin to lose its hold on the revolutionary workers’ movement, but more significantly a gap opened up between the radical intelligentsia and the workers’ movement. The Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising began an exodus of intellectuals from the Stalinist communist parties and after the Prague Spring and the other events of 1968 the Communist Parties began to lose their grip on the workers' movement too.
At the same time, the Trotskyist movement grew rapidly from the influx of young people radicalised by the break up of the Bretton Woods Arrangements and the burgeoning national liberation movements. But while the Trotskyists swelled in numbers, they became increasingly subject to fragmentation, splits and sectarianism. Stalinism was not immune from this process of fragmentation, and beginning with the Sino-Soviet split in 1960, Stalinism began to fragment.
Particularly from the mid-1960s, with the development of Euro-communism, a new influx of Stalinists turned to the re-examination of their own legacy and consequently new strands of Marxist thinking arose, both arising out of Stalinism and critical of Stalinism.
The Women’s Liberation Movement conducted its critique both of existing patriarchal society and the legacy of orthodox Marxism, and a number of significant leaders in the women's movement either abandoned Marxism or introduced into Marxism the concepts of women's liberation.
These factors combined to give rise to currents of thinking which took Marxist ideas not only away from the struggles of the working class, but actually opposed to it, even denying the very existence of the working class and denouncing the very idea of socialism. What this meant for the development of Marxism was that to develop further, even survive as a movement, it was not enough to rely on the outmoded “tool box” of the orthodox Marxism inherited from Lenin and Trotksy, — Marxism had to subject its own theory and practice to critique.
It is easy to imagine how those Stalinists who had “kept the faith” only by means of deluding themselves about a workers Utopia existing behind the “Iron Curtain” would be traumatised by the collapse of the Soviet Union and thoroughgoing exposure of the backwardness of Soviet society under Stalin. What may have been more surprising, however, was the extent of the crisis that the collapse of Stalinism brought about among Marxists who had never shared this illusion. The ubiquitous myth of the “collapse of Marxism” combined with the unrestrained development of bourgeois relations in the absence of the counterweight posed by the Soviet Union — the lasting, if obscene monument to the Russian Revolution, caused a healthy re-evaluation even among many of those who had always been anti-Stalinists.
The job of defending orthodox Marxism against Stalinist distortion was now redundant; what was posed was the task of catching up on the now mile-wide gap between “academic Marxism” and the revolutionary workers movement, extricating what is progressive and revolutionary in the interpenetration of academic Marxism and the globalised capitalism, and continuing the active and creative critique of bourgeois ideology and organisation in and though the organisation of the working class.
The Marxism of the current period is therefore marked by extreme diversity with hardly two people describing themselves as Marxists able to find agreement on what that means! This is not something to be bemoaned or denounced. This history is the history of the workers’ movement itself, and Marxism never set out to build a movement of followers all adhering to a self-closed ideology.
Some would have it that there is some golden thread running through the history of the Marxist movement, a “correct line” discernible somewhere in the twists and turns of the past, but this is fantasy.
Marxism remains a movement rather than just a tendency however. For even though the Marxist movement has fragmented, it remains oriented to the struggle for socialism in and through the organised working class, and it is the struggles of the working class, united in its material existence as a social class, which constitute the life-blood and essential thread of the Marxist movement.