Come Back Karl

Bernard Porter · Marx Was Right

Amid all this celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall twenty years ago, I’m left wondering whether I was the only one to have jumped the other way at the time. It turned me into a Marxist. All my adult life before then I had thought that Marx had been wrong, for example in predicting that capitalism would need to get redder in tooth and claw before it was undermined by its internal contradictions. The Russian Revolution however had not occurred in the most advanced capitalist country, which is why, by my way of thinking, it could only be kept alive by tyranny – a premature baby in an incubator was the metaphor I liked to use. In the West it had been shown that enlightened capitalist societies could smooth away their own roughest edges, by taking on board social democracy, the welfare state, decolonisation and the like. All this seemed to put the kibosh on the old man’s gloomy prognostication of capitalism’s needing to get worse before it exploded, releasing us into a brave new socialist world that not even Marx could describe in detail (consistently with his belief that it was the material base that determined intellectual superstructures), and that I, for one, was not at all confident that I would come to like. Happy days.

Then came Thatcher, Reagan and 1989; smashing the incubator that was the only thing keeping the Communist weakling alive, and reversing the social democratic ‘advances’, as we had seen them, of fifty years. All this really did seem to be driven by underlying economic imperatives. (Thatcher and Reagan were only riding them.) Since then events have followed Marx’s closer predictions almost uncannily: globalisation, privatisation, deregulation, the undermining of democracy, the triumph of a capitalist discourse (railway ‘customers’ rather than ‘passengers’), the decline of socialist ideology, and a succession of capitalist crises, each worse than the last – but none of them as yet showing any sign of being the last. Come back Karl; all is forgiven. You were right. (Up to ‘the revolution’, that is.)

I imagine that others must have had thoughts such as these, but I’ve not seen much sign of them in the triumphalism that has greeted the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall.


  • 20 November 2009 at 5:27pm
    Phil Edwards says:
    My recollection of 1989 was that it felt as if everything was still to play for, Civic Forums and all - it was the end of Communism in Europe, but it didn't feel like the end of Communism, let alone socialism. That came a couple of years later - the flare-out of the Yanayev coup was exhilarating, but what followed after made me feel that one too many brick had been knocked out. In something I wrote at the time - now lost on the far side of the Typewriter Event Horizon - I said that the collapse of the State Committee of the State of Emergency seemed to have retroactively discredited all the other Committees before it, right back to 1793, and made a whole way of thinking about politics unavailable to us.

    It was a very disorientating period for the Left - surprisingly so, for those of us who'd never called ourselves Leninists - and one in which the Right (under any definition) made quick and massive gains. So I agree with you about the relationship between the end of the Communist bloc and the revival of capitalism red in tooth and claw - thus making Marx more relevant than ever. But I think the end of the USSR needs to be seen as a defeat for the Left - and not only the relatively insignificant parts of the Left which actually supported it. Dialectical innit.

  • 21 November 2009 at 7:34pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Karl often gets blamed for Lenin and Stalin - as if he ought to have foreseen where the Russian revolution in 1917 would lead to. It's worth remembering that he hoped that the working class in Germany would be the first ones to throw off the yoke and put his theories into practice. We haven't got to the point where the stresses of the current crisis begin to stretch the resources of the state, but we must be pretty close.

  • 22 November 2009 at 9:23pm
    Jacob Richter says:
    For revolutionaries and other activists of Lenin's time, the Marx that was important was not Marx the "crisis economist," or Marx the philosopher, or Marx the historian, but rather Marx the political activist.

    "Come back Karl; all is forgiven. You were right. (Up to ‘the revolution’, that is.)" is woefully ignorant of Marx's very active role in the history of worker movements and of revolution as an economic and also political process.

    "The Russian Revolution however had not occurred in the most advanced capitalist country" is the typical remark that is ignorant of key works by Marx from the 1870s to his death. It is also ignorant of Marxist developments of those remarks in connection with inter-imperialist rivalry.

  • 22 November 2009 at 9:25pm
    Jacob Richter says:
    I forgot to mention Marx the labour economist (much more accurate in describing the exploitation of labour and too hyped as a "crisis economist") and the concepts of class-struggle-as-political-struggle, classes-in-themselves, and classes-for-themselves.