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.