Marxism retains validity

The Argument

its obituary is premature

The calamities of communism and the failure of socialist politics in the U.S. do not refute Marx's principles.

July 23, 2000|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,Special to the Sun

Reports of the demise of the Left are premature. Even as many wait for the prosperity bubble to burst, the boom inaugurating the new century has salted the fortunes of a relative few. The need for a socialist alternative to the existing form of capitalist politics remains as urgent as ever.

In the face of today's prosperity and progress, no rational person can deny that the United States is poisoned by unfairness and inequities -- by exploitation and neglect of tens of millions of its citizens.

As George Packer notes in his excellent new generational memoir, "Blood of the Liberals" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 405 pages, $26), at century's end wealth and power have "become more and more unequal," while the two political parties left standing are "uninspired, intellectually dead, legally corrupt." One cannot help but wonder, then, whether the socialist ideal, seemingly dead and buried, as Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks proclaim in their dry historical survey, "It Didn't Happen Here" (W. W. Norton & Company, 376 pages, $26.95), might not be due for a revival.

Several recent books accept the premise that, despite the economic well-being of some, even many, America continues to perpetuate a permanent underclass. Francis Wheen's new biography of Karl Marx, "Karl Marx: A Life" (W.W. Norton and Co., 431 pages, $27.95), has the courage to suggest that Marx, and the socialism he espoused, remain relevant.

Wheen, with spirit, notices that the criminalities of the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, et al., cannot be laid at the door of his subject. Shuddering at the parties proliferating in his name in France, Marx said: "I, at least, am not a Marxist." Wheen acknowledges that Marx has been "so calamitously misinterpreted as to thrust the discussion back to a clean slate."

Marx, he insists, "would have been appalled by the crimes committed in his name." Wheen discovers in Marx's teachings views that are salutary for today. He correctly attributes to Marx the perception "that human beings cannot be isolated or abstracted from their social and economic circumstances."

At once, he renders Benjamin R. Barber's pale collection, "A Passion For Democracy" (Princeton University Press, 293 pages, $16.95), both too abstract and divorced from the heart of America's deep-seated inequalities. Marx was impatient with the liberalism of his day, as George Packer is by his; well should he be!

Barber celebrates American "individualism," even as he reveals himself quickly "impatient with those who distrust government," no marginalization for him. He finds in our society today no insurmountable obstacle to "participatory citizenship." Communism failed, Barber contends, not because it is not valid, but as a result of its "unachievable principles."

Compelled to admit that considerable inequity persists, liberals like Barber resort to pragmatism. "Radical communist idealism of the kind represented by Marx," Barber writes, "is dangerous because it calls us to a standard of liberty -- one rooted in perfect equality -- that we cannot meet." He proposes a lowering of sights. Honesty forces him to admit, however, that "those with nothing to lose ... may be understandably impatient with such a strategy." Politics first, then economics, he decrees. The realities of class and power elude him.

Barber's reasoning falters at other moments. He suggests that the American political assassinations of the 1960s were carried out with such efficiency, and selectivity, as to "support the terrible suspicion that a larger public, against its better instincts, in some way wished these deaths." Liberalism succumbs to paranoia -- the idea that a nameless, faceless population willed the deaths of a generation of leaders. Anything is better than agreeing with the majority of Americans -- and the House Select Committee of the Seventies -- that conspiracies were responsible.

Lipset and Marks proffer a plethora of explanations for why socialism did not take root in America. Their book never addresses what was lost, whether the defeat of socialism was a good or a bad thing. They describe the bad choices of socialists, who were unable to forge lasting connections with the labor unions; they minimize the corporate use of the state and the courts to abort that unification. The role of the FBI in condoning mob control of industrial unions is not mentioned. They see as part of the American tradition a preference for individualistic anarchy over "state control," as if the Soviet Union were their model for socialism.

They do examine how the American Communist Party discredited the socialist ideal. With its Moscow orientation and subordination of the needs of American workers to Stalin's policy that his state alone prosper, the Communist Party ensured its own demise. Yet they fail to test the lasting consequence of one of the Communist Party's worst errors. The Party urged that the CIO and other unions find common cause within the Democratic Party, a self-defeating stance.

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