Once again on Marxism


By Boris Kagarlitsky

MOSCOW — The rumour that Marxism is dead is highly exaggerated. Interest in Marxism, in fact, is getting keener all the time, as a succession of recent international conferences and seminars has shown. In September 1994 left theoreticians and political activists gathered in Budapest; in May a seminar entitled "Marxism and the New World Order" was held in Stockholm; and in October an international symposium devoted to Marxism will be held at the University of Paris.

The Stockholm seminar was organised by the Centre for Marxist Social Studies, which is politically close to the Left Party of Sweden. This latter formation was known earlier as the Left Party-Communists, but it changed its name during the years of Soviet perestroika. Today the Left Party of Sweden, together with the Socialist People's Party of Denmark, the Socialist Left Party of Norway and the Left Alliance in Finland, makes up part of an international Scandinavian left-socialist current.

At the time when participants in the seminar were gathering in Stockholm, public opinion surveys were showing that the Left Party of Sweden, which in the previous elections had attracted 6.2% of the votes and had 22 deputies in the parliament (its best result since the 1940s), had dramatically strengthened its position. If the elections had been this spring, the Left Party would have received 15% of the votes.

Mid-term voter surveys, of course, have to be interpreted with great caution. But the facts are there: the electors who voted to return the Social Democrats to power in order to put a stop to neo-liberal reforms are now disillusioned with the weakness of the government, which is steadily surrendering its positions to the right.

This is a picture familiar to citizens of many countries, but the Swedish experience shows that disillusionment with social democrats need not always benefit right-wingers. Where a serious left alternative to the social democrats exists, it will draw the sympathies of a significant sector of the population.

For the first time in decades in Sweden a mass radicalisation is under way, and is seeing real shifts in the relationship of political forces. Encountering an unforeseen growth in its popularity, the Left Party is faced with the need to seriously think through the prospects for the socialist project in the contemporary world. This is why a seminar involving Marxist theoreticians from numerous countries was extremely timely.

Defining problems

According to the organisers, the general aim of the seminar was "to define the problems facing the left in the present-day world and the world of tomorrow". With an unusual degree of humour, the organisers suggested the following as themes for discussion: "(1) Future's past: What is past of the left, and what should be learned from it? What is left for the future of the past of the left? (2) Global capitalism: Features, tendencies. Any contradictions in sight? Is life after capitalism still something one might believe in? (3) Global culture(s): Enrichment, uniformation? (4) Left-wing theory and left-wing movements: Any signs of vitality? Any chance of a new romance between the two? Will Marxism have a meaning in the 21st century? What about the class struggle? How should the relations between left-wing movements, women's movements and ecological movements be understood? Are human rights sufficient for left-wing ethics?"

Various currents within the Marxist movement were represented. Gathered in one room were Samir Amin, Stanley Aronowitz, Robin Blackburn, Frigga Haug, Wolfgang Fritz Haug, Frederic Jameson, Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, Milos Nikolic, Goran Therborn, the author of these lines and many other people. In geographical terms the gathering was impressive as well: people were present from the US, Britain, Cuba, Argentina, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Russia, Germany, Egypt and Yugoslavia.

It is highly significant that instead of masochistic discussions on the topic of "What went wrong?" or "What is left?", most of the debate this time centred on the questions of "What should we do?" and "How can we move ahead?"

'Third Left'

The discussions were relatively informal, and often quite sharp. At the centre of attention was the thesis of the Finnish economist Jan Otto Andersson on the "Third Left". This concept was proposed by him during debate on the program of the Finnish Left Union.

According to Andersson, the "first left" was the bourgeois republican movement, and the "second left", working-class socialism. The "third left", in Andersson's view, now has to combine the values of radical democracy, human rights and socialism. "The Third Left builds on the traditions of the First and Second Lefts, at the same time as it transcends them. It has its origins in the New Left of the 1960s, and in the new environmental and feminist movements, but it will become a coherent political force only when it has grasped the full implications of the dramatic transformations of the last two decades: the shaking of the advanced industrial societies, the hollowing out of the national welfare states, and the collapse of Soviet communism."

Left forces throughout the world are indeed moving into a new stage. Therefore, the term "third left" was regarded very favourably by most of the participants. But what is the term's real political content?

If the historical project of bourgeois-democratic radicalism was on the whole realised successfully, at least in Western Europe, working-class socialism has met with failure. This has been true not only of Soviet communism, but also of the social democratic vision of the welfare state. It is impossible to imagine a strategic perspective for leftists simply as a mechanistic combining of the values of radical democracy with socialist principles, especially since such a combination has already been typical of the socialist movement for many years.

Samir Amin spoke of a "third socialism" arising as a reply by workers to the processes of economic globalisation and to the technological shifts of recent years. The "first socialism", according to Amin, arose in the era of steam power and the railways, and the "second socialism" in the epoch of conveyor-belt production, of the spread of the automobile and of the Cold War. The "third socialism" was said to be arising in the time of computers and of the unified global capitalist economy.

Amin met with criticism from the Swedish sociologist Anders Stephanson, who argued that theoreticians had seriously exaggerated the scale of globalisation. Despite real changes in the world, substantial possibilities remained for serious changes at the national and regional levels. In this sense, the thesis of "globalisation" could have a demoralising effect, or could even be used as justification for opportunism and inertia.


Developing an analogous thesis, I called for caution in the use of phrases such as "new times" and "new technologies". The appearance of new factors of historical development is a perfectly real phenomenon, but it has not yet banished traditional relationships and contradictions. Despite technological modernisation, traditional industry and the traditional working class will continue to exist for a long time to come, not only in the countries of the second and third worlds, but also in the West.

In exactly the same way, the role of the traditional national state remains very important, and as a result there is an ideological space for traditional socialism and objective possibilities for nationalisation and state regulation. Although the structures and relationships of the industrial era are often compared to dinosaurs, people forget that many creatures have survived virtually unchanged from the time of the dinosaurs to our own day. Crocodiles, whether we like them or not, are not on the point of dying out.

We are compelled to conclude that a certain traditionalism is not without benefits for the left. In any case, traditionalism does not exclude renewal. Many renovating movements in history have begun as traditionalist ones. Martin Luther did not call for renovating Christianity, but for a return to its roots, although the result of his traditionalist propagandising was a radical renewal of the church.

In the same sense, there is no need to make the exclusive thrust of our work today dreaming up new formulae and making excuses for an alien past. Socialist traditionalism, allowing us to maintain our principles and go on the ideological offensive, is also indispensable, especially since neo-liberalism is in obvious crisis.

Robin Blackburn spoke of the changes occurring in the British Labour Party, noting that despite the removal of the old formulation in Clause Four of the party statutes, which spoke of social ownership, the demand for the nationalisation of certain sections of the economy is now felt more keenly than ever. In this sense, the question of the future program of the Labour Party remains open.

Although the prospects for many left parties now seem considerably brighter than a few years back, it is impossible to ignore some disturbing symptoms.


Herman Schmid, one of the leaders of the Left Party of Sweden, spoke of the dangers posed by the professionalisation of socialist politics. These dangers were said to include the tendency for left parties to be transformed from mass movements of workers into specialised parliamentary-propagandist structures aimed at winning the broad support of public opinion, often at the price of ceasing to represent the interests of their own social base.

In such cases leftists fall victim to their own electoral and media success, and are in danger of repeating what happened to the social democrats. Schmid warned that such tendencies are already clearly evident in the Left Party of Sweden and in the Socialist People's Party of Denmark.

Stanley Aronowitz also stressed that an orientation toward success in elections has been an important reason for the failures of US leftists. But other participants, while not denying that serious dangers were associated with the electoral orientation and with professionalisation, spoke of the need to use parliamentary work to secure the results of work in the extra-parliamentary sphere. Elections, they maintained, should not be the sole or principal concern of left parties, and electoral strategies had to be subordinated to general orientations.

The argument was also addressed that leftists are increasingly becoming hostages of the ideology of "civil society", at the same time as the institutions of civil society are in crisis or even, as Michael Hardt asserted, are dying out. To the surprise of many people present, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe spoke in the same vein.

The latter took issue with the feminist theoretician Frigga Haug, arguing that "real feminism" had become transformed into a means of ghettoising the women's movement and of containing its anti-systemic potential. During the discussion Mouffe, Laclau, Per Manson and I agreed that quotas, affirmative action and other achievements of the radical democracy of the 1970s could become tools for restructuring the existing system of hegemony, rather than for overcoming it.

The participants in the seminar were far from reaching general agreement among themselves, but the discussion was nevertheless a fascinating joint labour that allowed the possibility of finding common answers. It culminated with the singing of the "Internationale", in five languages at once.