From One Wall to Another: Marx’s Spectre Looms Large

First a look at some headlines past few days:

Twenty million jobs will disappear by the end of next year as a result of the impact of the financial crisis on the global economy, a United Nations agency said on Monday. (source)

With capitalism in crisis, Karl Marx has become fashionable again in the West. Das Kapital, his seminal work, is set to become a best-seller in Europe.

An even more curious bit of evidence: a recent poll of East Germans by a major magazine found that 52 percent had lost all confidence in the free market economy while 43 percent would support a return to a socialist economy. (source)

Capitalism as we used to know it is on its deathbed. And those who predicted that the old brand, the unfettered, American-promoted system, was a danger to the world, are being vindicated.They include Karl Marx, whose thinking on banks seems oddly contemporary these days. (source)


It was in the aftermath of the fall of ‘existing socialism’ symbolized by the fall of the Berlin wall, that the French philosopher Derrida wrote his book Specters of Marx. This was his manner of acknowledging the great power of the German who was written off as his statues and pictures were dismantled all over Eastern Europe and former Soviet Union.

Such positions were rare, however, and there has been a great diminishing of those who have continued to acknowledge the influence of Karl Marx and his theories. One of the early forebodings was the dramatic lack of interest in the thoughts of Marx and in Left politics in general among students. In some countries like China and India, a new generation that had witnessed only the fall of socialism and were enamored of the immense possibilities that a new wave of capitalism had opened up for them, swerved to the right. Those left out of the limited progress turned towards identity politics, which, carried to its logical extreme, is self- defeating.

This looks to change now, as a reversal of historical proportions sets in. After a long, bitter wait, Marxists have been vindicated in their critique of the capitalism system. In Japan, there has been a dramatic interest in The Cannery Boat  written by a left- wing novelist Kobayashi Takiji in the shadow of the Great Depression in the 1930s, there are reports of increased sales of Marx’s magnum opus, Das Capital in Germany. Even France right- wing President Sarkozy has been reported to have been ‘flipping through’ the tome.

I think it portents a revival of interest in Marxism and its critique of capitalism because now we have a generation growing up that has not seen the fall of the Berlin wall, but that of the Wall Street. As the impact of this tectonic movement cascades into  an inevitable wider societal crisis, people are going to look for answers to this catastrophic failure. The investment banks that picked up the brightest students and professionals to keep them growing at a fantastic rate have collapsed within days and not even the artificial respiration provided by governments that have been lecturing the world the benefits of a free- market, have been able to revive them. They have little to offer by way of explanations, so in-the-face- is this collapse. Proponents of identity based projects too have little, or no, ideological backbone to fall upon. Those that think that some kind of state- regulated (or ‘main street’) capitalism is the panacea will find it difficult to explain why countries like Britain, and even the US, moved away from regulated capitalism to a practically unregulated capitalism. As I have pointed out in earlier posts, the main street leads to the wall street, it is in the nature of capital to accumulate and it seeks different mechanisms in order to do so- it lurches from the crisis of state regulated or state capitalism towards ‘free- market’ capitalism and vice versa. India, for example, turned not from ‘socialism’ towards capitalism, but from one form of state- controlled capitalism to a ‘reformed, liberalized’ state in 1991.

To reiterate this is, however, not the purpose of this post. It lies not even in exploring the alternatives between the two. It is, instead, in pointing to the limits of Marxism (and ‘Leninism’) and to the possibilities of the emergence of alternatives. There cannot be a U-turn back to ‘Marxism- Leninism’ because both Marxism, and particularly what went by the name of the ‘science of Leninism’ are severely at a loss to suggest alternatives, except in generic terms.

While there has been a clear vindication of Marx’s insights into the workings and instability of capitalism, he has not been vindicated in one major area, which is his expectation that the working class, especially in the advanced countries will lead the movement towards socialism. When this did not happen, Lenin sought to highlight the need for the intelligentsia leading the revolutionary upsurge- leading Antonio Gramsci to state that the Great October revolution was a revolution against Das Capitalism! Other Leninist notions too no longer suffice. In historical terms, to look for Leninist praxis as a solution to the continuing crisis within the Left is like hoping the Austro- Hungarian or the Czarist Empire to re- establish themselves.

Post- 1917, the socialist revolution in China in 1949, replaced the industrial working class with the peasantry while the leadership remained with the middle- class intelligentsia. The rupture with the initial revolutionary impetus can be partially attributed to the leadership vested within this sub- stratum (besides the fallacy of building socialism in one country.)

Discouraged by the lack of any upsurge from the working class, movements in the 1960s glorified the peasantry and some even prophesied that the students are the only true revolutionary class because they are outside the web of social relations and hence outside any class collaboration. In the past two decades or so, there has even been an increase in the ‘professionalization’ of activists as ‘non- governmental organizations’ have proliferated. In what direction the social base for alternatives to capitalism will emerge is the big gap that leftists of the 21st century need to fill in. In that they will continue to ‘go back to Marx’ to help them understand the world and its dynamics.

They are unlikely to find ready- made solution in his voluminous tomes. Indeed, Marx famously wrote very little on socialism as such (it is mentioned to some extent only in his thinnest of the thin works- The Critique of the Gotha Programme.) During the last three decades, many have leaned back on The Communist Manifesto for his observations about the global nature of capitalism. In the times of social crisis, some have turned to his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Buonaparte, and in an economic crisis, many are turning to Das Capital.

It is, however, in his interview with the American journalist, John Swinton that most will have to find the inspiration to carry on. I borrow the following words from Francis Wheen’s biography of Marx published in 2001, perhaps the first one to be published after the fall of the Berlin Wall:

‘While holidaying in Ramsgate in the summer of 1880 Marx had met the American journalist John Swinton who was writing a series on ‘travels in France and England’ for the New York Sun. Swinton watched the old patriarch playing on the beach with his grand- children and then at dusk was granted an interview. He reported:

‘The talk was of the world, and of man, and of time, and of ideas as our glasses tinkled over the sea. The railway train waits for no man, and night is at hand. Over the thought of the babblement and the scenes of the evening, arose in my mind one question touching upon the final law of being, for which I would seek answer from this sage. Going down to the depths of language and rising to the height of emphasis, during an intersperse of silence, I interrupted the revolutionist and philosopher in these fateful words:

What is?’

‘And it seemed as though his mind was inverted for a moment while he looked upon the roaring sea in front and the restless multitude upon the beach. ‘What is?’ I had inquired, to which in deep and solemn tone, he replied: ‘Struggle!’

At first it seemed as though I had heard the echo of despair, but peradventure it was the law of life.’


Author: bhupinder singh

an occasional blogger

7 thoughts on “From One Wall to Another: Marx’s Spectre Looms Large”

  1. the big question is whether centralised state systems are sustainable. thus there is a need to go back to the basic postulates of anarchism also to find a solution to the problems being faced today. in his final years marx engaged in a very interesting intellectual exchange with the russian anarchists – the narodniki. in the course of the debate marx acknowleges that it is possible for an anarchist revolution to take place in russia. however as with socialism so with anarchism marx did not think things out in detail.

  2. thanks for a nice post. Struggle is. But at the moment, most necessary form of struggle is perhaps reading and searching for the answers… for a socialist alternative. It cannot be achieved without reviving the culture of quest, intense reading, open discussion and shared reading and study circles… A culture which had been the essential part of Marxist movements, but had lost in the process of formalisation and bureaucratisation of parties and trade unions.

  3. rahul: I do hope that marxists recognize the links between Marx and others of 19th century and anarchism. There are differences, of course (IMHO, the anarchists are a bit too, well, a bit too anarchist :-), but also a unity that died down after 1917.
    It is important for the Left to not fall back upon statism and centralization that the Soviet Union bequeathed as a kind of ironic legacy.
    ishwar: I agree. Only then will we see a revival of the left, and not just the specters of Marx. Frankly, I am very optimistic for the future.

  4. If you’re interested in Marxist responses to your correct noting of the limits of classical Marxism see Adorno, Marcuse, Debord, Jameson, Badiou, Zizek, Laclau, and others. The tradition is astoundingly capacious….

  5. Thanks for the references, I am familiar with some of the names. There is no dearth of theory as far as what is called “western” marxism is concerned. It is the action, or lack thereof, that is questionable. The late EP Thomson had commented, in context of Western Marxism, that while “it has produced mountains of theory, it is yet to produce a political mouse”. Unfortunately, this observation still holds true.

  6. Hello!
    Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
    PS: Sorry for my bad english, I’v just started to learn this language 😉
    See you!
    Your, Raiul Baztepo

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