What can Marxism offer us today?


With the economy in shamble and social unrest growing violently across the world. Communism, socialism, Marxism and left wing theories are coming back from the cold as a solution to the worlds problems. But how can Marxism with its historical heritage from the USSR, Cuba, Laos and others totalitarian left wing social experiment can become an option? Matthew Johnson’s book, The Legacy of Marxism Contemporary Challenges, Conflicts, and Developments, believes that yes it can. Interview with the editor.


Baron : What can Marxism do for us today on global economy, ecology & social and political problems?

Matthew Johnson : I think that the questions, which explore the relevance of Marxism, are those which motivated the authors to contribute to the edited collection which you are subjecting to review. Interestingly, answers to the question, ‘what can Marxism offer us today?’, differ markedly from person to person. Frankly, the horrific examples of 20th century ‘Real Existing Socialism’ and of various ‘Marxist’ inspired militant groups, demonstrate the dangers of singular, totalising claims to ownership of Marxism. It is clear that the contributors to the book, while remaining broadly sympathetic to elements of Marxism, are likely to disagree, in some cases fundamentally, on what is valuable and promising about Marxism as well as on responses to real social, political and economic issues. Indeed, Norman Geras, in the opening chapter, highlights the genuine diversity of thought that can be encompassed within Marxism. I think that the biggest pleasure I derived from editing the collection was from accommodating such diversity within an overarching attempt to revisit and reconsider Marxism/s and its/their various trajectories. While I think that Marxism has much to offer the world, I do not regret the loss of Marxist-inspired regimes which sought to monopolise, dogmatically, interpretation and application of Marxism. I have yet to meet a dogmatic Marxist in whom I would be happy to invest political, cultural or economic sovereignty. This comes from having being raised in an extremely dogmatic socialist family and from the experience of having once been an extremely dogmatic Marxist.

B. : Marxism theory is looked as an has been theory and not workable for today's global reality. What can Marxist theorist, philosopher and scholar need to do, to brink back Marxism without the link to Stalin and Mao?

M. J. : Personally, I think that there are several useful contributions. While remembering that much evil has been done by movements committed to realising an ideal human condition, I think that it is important to retain belief in the distinction between the empirical and essential or potential self, in which the empirical product of a particular environment can be contrasted with the potential self which can emerge under conducive conditions. It is necessary to emphasise the importance of materials to human development since, as Lawrence Wilde demonstrates in his chapter, political liberalism, and a failure adequately to account for material inequality, may provide different forms of obstacles to the realisation of human flourishing. Various incarnations of Marxism have sought effectively to highlight the pernicious pursuit of particular interests by specific individuals and groups. If understood in its Enlightenment context, rather than as a rejection of liberalism, Marxism can serve to make sense of, and improve, liberalism and modernity. While I sympathise with those who object to the fundamental deficits of liberalism and, especially, neoliberal global economic systems, I do not believe that the answer is to retreat into parochialism and authoritarianism.

B. : Can Marxism become a choice for nations wanting a new political and social refresh?

M. J. : In a sense, it is this retreat which has done so much to harm Marxism in the eyes of the general public. It is a tragedy that movements inspired by a theory so committed to raising the material standards of living among human beings have served, often, to reduce opportunities for human flourishing. Even given unfavourable international conditions, such as those faced by Cuba with regard to the embargo, Marxist societies have performed poorly. A key reason for this is the opportunities for kleptocracy, nepotism and inefficiency that autocratic regimes offer. This is a good reason to reject, ultimately, the legacies of Stalin, Lenin and Mao, et al. I think it unfortunate, therefore, that Marxists with authoritarian tendencies, such as Slavoj Žižek, should receive such favourable responses from elements within the left. While those elements may be drawn, often for emotive reasons, to his work, Alan Johnson and Paul Bowman do much to highlight the tragic pitfalls of endorsing Žižek in the book.

Dealing with the legacies of Marxism implies that we should revisit and re-examine core historical figures and trends. Although much can be gained, intellectually, by exegetical engagement with classical Marxism and the work of Marx, I think we should avoid attempts to rehabilitate historical Marxists and Marxisms. Various attempts, for example, have been made to rehabilitate Marx from claims of racism on account of his historical use of language which, today, is considered racist. I think that this is a largely pointless exercise and concerned, sometimes, with creating idealised a historical visions of historically constituted individuals. The fact is that some ideas retain some worth, while others clearly do not.

Stuart Sim, in the final chapter of the collection, examines the contribution of post-Marxism to leftist tradition. For Sim, there lies the opportunity for radical democratic movements which reject both neo-liberal economic models and authoritarian politics. His discussion of the development of post-Marxism highlights the ways in which ideological shifts often coincide with identitarian shifts. I think that elements of the left have sometimes allowed their ideology to be defined by an identity of opposition to capitalism which is, actually, more dogmatic than that found in Marx – who was, of course, a bourgeois with liberal tendencies and sympathies. An identity of opposition has led, I feel, to politics of reaction and association with groups and movements which are anything but progressive. In this respect, I highlight, in my chapter, issues with the Socialist Workers Party’s sympathies for insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq. I fear, sometimes, that elements of the left have lost the progressive identity that would permit more rounded, progressive contributions to debates on public policy. This is, I believe, one reason for the apparent paucity of real-world contributions to issues of global significance, to which you refer in asking for examples of Marxist theory employed today, and for the predominance of Marxist theory over Marxist praxis.

B. : Can you give us examples of Marxism theory used everyday, besides Cuba, in the world where results are palpable?

M. J. : With regard to genuine Marxist contributions to such issues, I believe that Lawrence Wilde is correct to suggest that Marxists need, wholeheartedly, to engage in the global justice debate which has, thus far, been dominated by liberals such as Martha Nussbaum and Thomas Pogge. Ronaldo Munck, in his chapter on development, makes a similar point with regard to oppositional politics, arguing that Marxism needs to engage more fully with postcolonial approaches if it is to be of relevance as an emancipatory theory and movement. As such, I think that, if Marxism is to contribute to real world debates and developments, it must be open to ideological and identitarian shifts, while retaining core concern for tenets such as the influence of the natural and social environment over human development and the importance of human flourishing as a political end.

B. : To further our interested on Marxism, besides your book, can yo give us some books + people + sites to check out?

M. J. : In terms of further reading, marxists.org offers the most comprehensive open access collection of Marxist writings, ranging from the works of Marx and Engels to contemporary Marxists, such as Norman Geras and Lawrence Wilde. Stuart Sim has recently published a book entitled Addicted to Profit: Reclaiming Our Lives from the Free-Market, which offers an intriguing examination of the experience of capital and the ways in which we, as human beings, can seek emancipation through radical cultural change. Global Discourse, the journal of which I am the Editor, published two issues examining the contemporary relevance of Marxism last year. The issues are available here