In Defence of Marxism…and Marxists

Dear blog-reader,


Thank you for reading my blog and sorry I’ve not produced anything so far this year. It’s been a transitional period with my family and I relocating back to Oxford from Singapore. It’s cold and gloomy, but, nonetheless, it’s good to be back!

The best news is that I found out that I won a one-year award from the Independent Social Research Foundation to kickstart an exciting project. I’ll be based at Warwick University’s Dept of Politics and International Studies. I need to keep the project a bit quiet for now, but I’ll definitely tell you all about it later on this year.

Anyway, this post is a bit of a long one, but it recounts a funny old story. The story starts in Singapore where, in December, I recorded the interview below with blogger and activist Roy Ngerng. Roy is an excellent blogger, shining a piercing light on the murky world of the activities of the Singaporean ruling party, the People’s Action Party. A minor indiscretion on his part gave the Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, the opportunity to crush this small thorn in his side. PM Lee sued Roy for defamation and is pushing for big damages. You can learn much more about Roy’s story in the video here.

The interview has been viewed over 40,000 times on Facebook and Youtube. It also provoked some social media responses. Roy pointed my attention to one particular response at thesingaporebeacon.com entitled ‘Is Roy Ngerng a Radical Leftist? His interview with Joel Lazarus’. In this piece, the writer, a certain ‘B Goode’ (bravery in anonymity there!) performed an incredible feat of detective work by deducing from the open fact that I use the bearded one’s own quotations and theoretical insights to claim that my political perspective ‘smelt heavily of Marxism’! Genius! S/he suggested that Roy was possibly an agent of an ‘international radical leftist group out to undermine the economic and political system of Singapore’. Less genius!

My response was to post a comment below this article, openly confirming that my political perspective was strongly informed by Marxist thought; arguing that our current dominant theories, policies, and leaders are clearly failing; and recommending to her/his readers to ‘go beyond the instinctive fear of the unknown that has been inculcated within you and to read up on alternative theories and proposals for organizing society’.

Back came B Goode with a follow-up piece with the fantastic title: ‘Joel Lazarus Admits That He Is A Marxist and Roy Ngerng Is Aware Of It’! The beginning of the article reads like the decrying of a witch!1 Indeed, substituting the word ‘Marxist’ for ‘witch’ here brought a wry smile to my lips. B Goode then goes on to challenge Marxism with the ultimate goal of emphasising not its theoretical failings, but the inherent violence that must unavoidably emerge when Marxists seek to bring about the revolution they desire. Though far from a weighty challenge, I feel obliged to reply.

Marxism’s inherent violence?

First, how accurate is B Goode’s definition of Marxism? S/he defines Marxism as a theory positing capitalism as class-based ‘systemic subjugation’, and her/his understanding of this subjugation and, by extension, Marxism’s theoretical framework and contributions, is appropriately broad: ‘everything that governs the society; religion, education, polity, economy, law et cetera are crafted to such an extent as to perpetuate this subjugation.’ Consequently, the only path to liberation must be through systemic transformation, i.e. revolution not reform. I see this as a fair, albeit simplistic, definition.

Amazingly, though s/he refutes this theory, B Goode does not offer a single argument to challenge it. Not a word. Instead, her/his only bone to pick seems to be with ‘the interpretation on how Marxism should be implemented’. Here, B Goode sees the inevitable threat of violence:

‘For every Marxist political party and society that calls for a peaceful revolution, you’d have Lenin, Stalin, Mao Tze Dong, Kim Il Sung, Ho Chin Ming, Pol Pot and the like who believed in the violent overthrow of the existing social order, and the cleansing of the society. Sort of like wiping the slate clean. And so you have things like the cultural revolution, the killing fields, the gulags and other atrocities committed in the name of revolution.’

B Goode compares Marxism with Islam – ‘nothing wrong with [it] per se‘, but just perverted and made dangerous by violent, fanatical groups.

Let us leave Goode’s historical inaccuracies aside and just produce a response focused on her/his own central critique. Let us assume Marxism’s theoretical accuracy. Let us assume that capitalism is a system based on structural exploitation. Let us assume that we need revolution not reform. Is Marxism’s problem one of unavoidably violent interpretation and implementation?

Thinking dialectically

The first thing we need to do before we answer this is to start to think in Marxist ways, i.e. we need to start to think dialectically. By this, I mean that we need here to start to recognise the interrelation, the interconnection between things – between systems, between social forces, between ideas – and that history is driven by the dynamic nature of these dialectical relations. This means that we cannot isolate one system, one social group, one ideology and try to establish a straight causal relationship, e.g. we cannot say that Marxism causes violence. Instead, we have to understand that Marxism is in a dialectical relation with capitalist ideology, and that this ideological dialectic is itself in a dialectical relationship with the underlying dialectical material social relations between the social classes. In short, reality is dialectical; it is complex, dynamic, and everything – social relations, ideology, institutions, technology – is simultaneously shaping and being shaped by everything else. That said, a Marxist perspective sees history shaped primarily by material relations, i.e. the political-economic relations between social groups.

So, what does this mean for our argument? First, we need to make visible Marxism’s necessary dialectical partner here, namely capitalism. If Marxism is a revolutionary theory or ideology, if a Marxist is a revolutionary subject, it must have an object, i.e. it must be in a social relation with this object. The object here is capitalism – as system, as ideology.

Capitalism and violence

This leads us to look at capitalism and question what B Goode fails entirely to question: the relationship between violence and capitalism itself. What we are usually confronted with are depictions of reality in which capitalist social relations are normalised, indeed naturalised. In reality, it took an incredible amount of violence to institutionalise capitalism, first in Europe, and then globally.

First, in order to become a proletariat, working class, you need to find yourself in a position in which the only thing you have to sustain yourself, to sell, is your own labour-power. If you have land, you can subsist without the market. Hence, we experience, for example, the ‘Enclosures’ and the ‘Clearances’; huge forceful dispossessions that took place over many centuries in the UK, concentrated land in the hands of the aristocratic and emerging capitalist elites and led to death, deprivation, hunger, and exile. These events were pivotal to the creation of the urban industrial proletariat needed to drive capitalist industrialisation.

Second, the worker him/herself had to be forged. The process of turning a human being naturally disposed to undertake back-breaking and monotonous work only to the extent necessary to feed oneself and one’s family into a worker desperate to work whatever hours s/he could get required serious and sustained punishment. What was required here was that such natural dispositions be made incompatible with dignified life. Throughout the 19th Century, mechanisation helped bosses discipline the workforce through unemployment and poverty-rate wages. For its part, the state generally served to produce the pliant and desperate workforce that capitalist industrialisation required. If the working conditions didn’t kill you, destitution would. The only thing worse than being exploited was not being exploited! Things only improved for two reasons: first, the very social conditions that brought workers together facilitated their collective political organisation. Trade unions emerged and fought for better pay and conditions. Second, when workers’ conditions became so dire, the capitalists themselves realised that they were killing the geese that laid their golden eggs and certain factions within them pushed for reforms. Nonetheless, the role of violence in the industrial revolution was central.

Capital’s systemic need for ever-increasing returns pushed its violence worldwide – the slave trade, imperialism, and colonialism. Can we possibly hope to calculate the number of millions murdered, tortured, enslaved, imprisoned, humiliated by this system? Marx himself puts it thus: ‘In actual history, it is a notorious fact that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, in short, force, play the greatest part.’

And what of today? The violence clearly continues. The forced land expropriations continue, now primarily beyond Europe, in Africa. Imperialist wars continue. A million dead in Iraq. Read the Shock Doctrine: the rise of disaster capitalism by Naomi Klein if you don’t think that’s about creating opportunities for private profiteering.

Could we even imagine the commodities we enjoy – our mobile phone, our tablets – without violence in their production? Take global telecoms. We see a supply chain that runs from child slave labour in mineral extraction in the DRC on to suicidal assembly line workers at Foxconn in China up to the call centres, those modern-day ‘Satanic mills’, that serve us from India, the US, and the UK.

There’s more. In a time of crisis, a time in which the gap between the reality portrayed to us on our TVs and classrooms and the reality we actually experience grows to a problematic size, do we not see a return to more direct and constant violence? Repressive legislation in the name of ‘security’; the ‘militarisation’ of police forces; peaceful protests smashed by riot police, we see them all.

Furthermore, as inequality grows, the haves need ever more to protect themselves and their property. Hence, the explosion of private security in recent years. So many ordinary poor people today are employed basically in protecting the expanding assets of the rich who live in increasing fear of the supposedly predatory or vengeful poor.

Then there’s the violence that this system does to our environment. This needs little further comment. Suffice to say that we’ve lost half our wildlife in the past 40 years!

Finally, there’s the violence produced by capitalist crisis. People expropriated from houses and made homeless; businesses destroyed; children and the elderly going cold and hungry; individuals taking their own lives in desperation.

So, that’s a whole lot of violence. No wonder that our societies are marred by violence: in towns and cities each weekend; within communities; within the household. I haven’t even mentioned the indirect, non-physical ‘symbolic violence’ committed verbally each day against oppressed social groups.

In short, capitalism, indeed any social order based on structural injustice and exploitation, is and must be brought in and sustained by violence. This is true of every single social order in human history since civilisations first emerged.

Marxism and violence?

When we recognise the incredible savagery of capitalism, B Goode’s challenge takes on quite a different light. If we recognise structural oppression, be that based on class, gender, race, whatever, we are recognising a social group as victims of brutal, institutionalised violence. Their desire for justice is its just. And, yes, if the system itself is structurally unjust then such groups, and those who stand with them, will push for revolution. There have been countless examples of social movements using non-violent means to pursue their goals. They have invariably been met by state violence. This means that when we consider the relationship between oppressed and oppressor, it is the oppressor who determines the level and nature of violence. The oppressor has the dominant military or repressive power. If the world was truly one just consisting of ideas then we might imagine that the ruling class could be convinced of the injustice and inhumanity of their system and that a socialist revolution could be brought about without a drop of blood being shed. This clearly will not happen. As we have seen in the previous century, when threatened, the ruling class is quite willing to support and elevate fascists into state power in order to liquidate the social forces that threaten the system. Before the recent Syriza victory, we had seen this happening again more recently in Greece.

The place of violence in political struggle

In short, in the dialectical relationship between capital and labour, the nature and degree of violence is primarily and overwhelmingly determined by the dominant party. Invariably, revolutionaries have resorted to violence as a final resort. What do you do if you are being kicked off your land? What can you do? Petition local or national state authorities who have sanctioned the expropriations? Sometimes you have to stand, unite, and fight!

That said, revolutionaries still have to consider the appropriate role of violence, and I would always advocate peaceful means and violence only as a very last, self-defensive resort. It is hard to give birth to a peaceful social system through violence.

Violent implementation

What of B Goode’s examples: Lenin, Mao, Ho, Kim, Pol Pot. Again, thinking dialectically here helps. In the cases of Lenin, Ho, Kim, and Pol Pot, these leaders’ countries had experienced huge violence at the hands of the capitalist powers either prior to or in the early years of their rule. In the case of Cambodia, for example, the Cambodian peasantry was subjected to one of the most prolonged and intense bombing campaigns in human history by the US. This psychological destabilisation created the conditions for a barbaric genocide. We see similar situations in the Middle East today where the deaths of millions from the imperialist US-led occupations has created conditions in which violence has become an everyday reality. The normalisation of violence seems to be the precondition necessary for the advent of murderous, fascistic regimes to emerge – regimes, by the way, whose roots can be traced back to US funding, training, and arms.

Of course, I am sicked by the horrific mass violence perpetrated by Stalin and Mao. However, I would argue that any democratic potential in these revolutions was thwarted by external international conditions that made it impossible for socialism to flourish in any one country. Not only were these countries forged in the violence of prolonged civil war, these international conditions made it necessary for their ruling parties to compete internationally and essentially act as a dirigiste capitalist class.

Finally, as for B Goode’s point about Marxist revolution being about wiping the slate clean, this is not adherent to Marx’s own position. For me, Marxism is really about recognising the incredible dynamic power of capital in organising human society into hugely powerful and efficient complex organisations. We don’t need to throw out the baby with the bathwater. We just need to wrest ownership and control away from the ruling class into the hands of all in order that our efforts no longer generate profit for them, but provide prosperity for us all.

Conclusion

Marx really said very little about what form post-capitalist society should take, refusing to provide a blueprint, I guess preferring human beings themselves to collectively work it out for themselves. What was clear was that his vision was for a society in which every individual was free to fulfill their personal potential, liberated from enforced labour, be it capitalist or totalitarian communist.

I believe that we’re reaching the end game for capitalism. We are witnessing capitalism’s slow death. A wounded beast is at its most dangerous, and those in power still have a huge capacity for inflicting violence upon us in all its forms. Nonetheless, as Syriza’s victory shows, we can achieve much through organisation and by spreading a message of hope, offering people a real alternative and inviting them to shape, to be that alternative. If we want to end violence, we should want to end capitalism. A peaceful social order can only be a just social order. We should seek to establish this just society through peaceful means.

Wishing everyone a peaceful revolutionary 2015!

Joel

1This, of course, is no exaggeration. Recall the McCarthyist witch-hunts against anyone with remotest socialist sympathies in the ‘Second Red Scare’ era of the 1950s. Arthur Miller satirises this period in his play The Crucible about the Salem Witch-hunts of the late 17th Century.

  2 comments for “In Defence of Marxism…and Marxists

  1. Ephraim
    March 8, 2015 at 11:24 pm

    Precise, perspicacious rebuttal. Love it. You are Singapore’s loss.

  2. March 9, 2015 at 8:49 am

    Thanks for your kind words, Ephraim. Joel

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