Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The breakdown of Marxism

I made a fairly comprehensive study of Marxism for many years and there is much that I appreciated and took from that study. In fact, it seems to me that there is an important degree to which we are all Marxists in important ways. Certain aspects of Marx’s thought have crept into our basic background beliefs about individuals and society. The idea that people are, in essential ways, products of socio-economic conditions is an idea that doesn’t seem radical to us today but is, in large part, a result of Marx’s philosophical endeavours. Marx’s ideas of history also have been very influential and even a thinker like Francis Fukuyama, a professed non-Marxist, could not have written his book on the end of history if not for Marx. In the 90s Jacques Derrida, one the most interesting and important philosophers of the 20th century, and by no means a Marxist in any traditional sense, wrote The Spectre of Marx, which was a panegyric to the importance of Marx in his own thought and in philosophy in general.

In Search for a Method, Jean-Paul Sartre argued that there exists, in society at large, only one living philosophy at any given time, and he further contends that Marxism is that living philosophy. But Search for a Method was written a long time ago now and even if Sartre’s claim about one living philosophy is true, it would be difficult to contend today that that living philosophy is Marxism. Certain fatal blows were rendered against Marxism in the past generation, not the least of which were Farwell to the Working-class by Andre Gorz, The Mirror of Production by Baudrillard, and The Accursed Share by Georges Bataille. The attack on Marxism, in the final analysis, came from many directions and many of the critiques were analytically devastating for a philosophy that seemed to pride itself on its analytic power. Bataille and Baudrillard, for example, both made remarkable demonstrations of the problems with making production the primary defining element of human endeavour. While their arguments are far too complex to review here, whether you agree or disagree with what they said, their work had a shattering impact on traditional Marxist notions. However, in the end, it was not any one particular critique of Marxism that undermined its status; rather it was a fundamental change in our ideas toward traditional rational critique in general that changed how we look this important philosophy. With the influence of Continental philosophy, many thinkers have abandoned any idea of meta-theories that explain the world with huge overarching ideas that attempt to impose an order on the world and its history. It was as a theory of history that Marx had originally gained a great deal of its power and it is precisely as a theory of history that more and more people abandoned Marx’s work. This failure was, I believe, already showing its first signs back in the twenties, and Gramsci’s work on Capitalist Hegemony is a noble attempt to shore up the cracks that were beginning to show. In the final analysis, the idea that history is driven by a continual conflict between classes whose ideology is formed by their place in a system of production was simply not believable to most people. But more than this, most philosophers in general have abandoned the idea that history has any demonstrable order or that our ideological beliefs have any primary source, least of all the system of economic production.

The biggest problem with the breakdown of Marxism is that we now live in a vacuum in which there is no clear way forward for radicals. Unfortunately, the forces of capitalism have taken the breakdown of Marxism as an opportunity to discredit practical goals of socialism which have often been, but are not necessarily, connected to Marxism as a philosophy. The real challenge now becomes finding a way out of the Capitalist trap which will eventually turn the earth and the human soul into wastelands of lifeless solitude. Marxism has now formed part of the background of general ideas, but we need certain fundamental ideas that can live in the foreground and that are more than the pure relativism that forms the backbone of so much of what passes for ‘post-modernism.’

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