The need to talk about Marxism

Posted on May 21, 2018


The month of May has, for more than a century, been the workers’ month, starting with May Day. And this May is particularly significant from the viewpoint of trade unions and the broad socialist movement: it is Marx month, the bicentenary of the birth of the man whose writings, in one way or other, have had the greatest influence on the labour movement internationally.

South Africa is a notable case being the only country in the professedly capitalist world where an unreconstructed communist party has grown in numbers and is part of a governing alliance. Such parties were and are direct responses to the ideas espoused by Karl Marx and his collaborator, Friedrich Engels, combined with interpretations by the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin about how they should be implemented.

At the same time, what is still probably the largest trade union federation in the country, Cosatu, acknowledges a “Marxist” orientation and supports the SA Communist Party (SACP) as THE workers’ party. Prominent Cosatu leaders were and are senior members of this party.

Then we have one of the traditionally most militant of local unions, the metalworkers, also claiming to be “Marxist-Leninist”. Having been expelled from Cosatu and at loggerheads with the SACP, this implies that the National Union of Metalworkers lays claim to being the authentic standard bearer of “Marxism”.

The same claims are made by the various fragments of the splintered Left. Given this background, I thought we might have seen some major celebrations locally; certainly widespread debates with those continuing to proclaim the death of Marxism. But there was barely a whisper.

However, in Europe, especially in Germany and England, there are ongoing, if at times bewildering, events that got fully underway on May 5, the bicentenary of the birth of Karl Marx. In Marx’s birthplace of Trier in Germany, for example, a series of celebratory exhibitions was opened by the decidedly un-Marxist president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker.

And a major feature of the Trier events was the unveiling of a massive, 2.3-ton bronze statue of Marx, a gift from China by sculptor Wu Weishan. Tourists are also able to buy a range of Marx memorabilia, including a replica Euro note (value: zero) bearing the face of the man.

It all seems to add up to a remark Marx once made about a group of professed Marxists in France: “All I know is that I am no Marxist.” For, as the radical British academic Terry Eagleton has noted, the ideas of Marx have been more distorted, lied about and caricatured than those of any other writer.

The distortions continue, often encouraged by the expressed views of proclaimed Marxists who support the concept of an all powerful “workers’ state”. Marx might have found this concept abhorrent since he and Engels saw themselves as extreme democrats who felt it possible and desirable to achieve “the withering away of the state”.

In Eagleton’s view, “Marxism is about leisure, not labour.” He points out that, even before the advent of computers and artificial intelligence, Marx foresaw that the technological potential existed to liberate humanity from drudgery. Instead, such resources are managed in such a way as to ensure that “the great majority [have] to work as hard as our Neolithic ancestors did”.

It is therefore impossible to dismiss Marx as a great social analyst. But it should be essential to debate what “Marxism” is or should be. With the number of proclaimed Marxists, a legion of detractors, and the prospect of a new “workers’ party” being formed, South Africa needs this discussion. And not just in May.