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The benefits of Marxism

Karl Marx

A little more Marxism . . .

One of the comments left on the online version of my response to Mr Stewart’s extraordinary attack on May Day and Marx responded to my side comment that I think “our unions could benefit from a little Marxism”.

The comment asked me to expand on this — a thoroughly reasonable request, and having made the statement I should be able to defend it. I’ll do my best, within the limits of space here, to do just that.

There are many possible contributions from Marxist thought. However, it seems to me that there are perhaps three main ways where a little Marxism could be of use to the organised labour movement, be it here in Bermuda or in general.

Ruthless Criticism

The first is, to quote Marx, a commitment to a “ruthless criticism of all that exists”.

This means exactly what it says on the tin — subject everything (including Marxism) to ruthless critical thought. Everything. The very bases of our society, its economy, its racial dynamics, its history, its “everyday life”, political and labour organisation. Everything. A complete rejection of dogma of any kind and unquestioning acceptance of all that is.

The status quo must be challenged and the irrational, the dogmatic and the exploitative rejected.

This is perhaps the greatest defence against the authoritarian corruptions of 20th century socialism, as well as ensuring the labour movement remains vigorous and active.

The full quote of Marx, which comes from his 1844 letter to Arnold Ruge, is worth quoting here:

“I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.”

Challenging Capitalism

The second contribution that a little Marxism could offer unions is the explicit recognition that capitalism must be challenged as a holistic system. Capitalism with a human face is an oxymoron; capitalism is inherently exploitative and parasitical, both in terms of its relation to humans/society and towards the natural world it depends upon.

While reforms within capitalism and the labour relationship can, and should be, fought for and defended, any illusion that capitalism can be made non-exploitative and non-parasitical must be constantly challenged.

The struggle for a better world cannot limit itself to reforms within capitalism, but must dedicate itself to the wholesale replacement of capitalism with an alternative socio-economic system (socialism and, ultimately, communism — but not 20th century socialism/communism).

Agents of Change

The third contribution of a little Marxism for unions is the recognition that the working class — and organised labour as their vanguard — is the agent of change in realising this better world. To adopt another quote, this time from Rosa Luxembourg:

“Bourgeois [capitalist] society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.” (From her 1916 “Junius pamphlet”.)

In the midst of increasingly authoritarian uses of technology and media, the increasing militarisation of police forces, continuing imperialist wars and their inevitable consequences (such as Libya, Ukraine, Syria and Iraq), not to mention the looming catastrophe of anthropogenic climate change, and new forms of labour exploitation and precariousness, it’s perhaps hard not to conclude that we truly are faced with such a crossroads today.

I should note here that I don’t mean the term “vanguard” in what might be considered the classic Leninist sense, of a sort of advanced conspiratorial corps or socialist elite to lead a revolution, like the Bolsheviks or guerrillas of 20th Century socialism. As the failures of the 20th century show, this lends itself to party dictatorship, not democratic socialism — rather than the ends justifying the means, the means determined the ends.

What I mean here is that as the most organised and conscious representations of the working class in our society organised labour has a special role to play in advancing class consciousness and the vision of a better world. Not to lead in the traditional “leaders and followers” sense, but in the sense of being the first line of defence against exploitation; the pioneers in articulating the voice of the people; providing a space within their organisations for critical thought (that “ruthless criticism of everything”); and initiating the dialogue, with and among the people, that is critical for both recognising capitalism as THE problem and for advancing the strategies and tactics for its overthrow.

In this they play the role of advancing, through dialogue, class consciousness and the development of the working class as the protagonists of “revolution”, of replacing the inhumanity of capitalism with the humanity of socialism.

And I must stress their role is not to dictate, but to facilitate dialogue.

To dictate is to carry out the revolution FOR the people, on their behalf. This lends itself to the corruptive influence of power, of paternalistic rule. Dialogue instead allows for the development of that consciousness that allows the revolution to be OF the people; in this the unions role is to participate WITH the people in realising a better world.

The Richness of Marxism

There is a richness to Marxism, far beyond the stale and dogmatic version it is commonly conceived of, a legacy of authoritarian corruptions and Cold War propaganda.

It is impossible to truly address all the ways unions could benefit from a little Marxism in the size limitations available here.

What I have attempted is to merely outline three crucial contributions of a little Marxism.

As a necessary qualifier, I am no way asserting our unions are Marxist, not by far. Only that these are some ways that I feel a little Marxism might benefit them.

The same reader also asked who the benefactors of a little Marxism for unions would be:

“The members, the leaders or Bermuda as a whole?”

The answer is simple. Yes. And beyond.