A vision of poetry in motion

April 17, 1998

In the sesquicentennial of The Communist Manifesto, I have a confession to make: I regularly try to disabuse myself of thinking like a Marxist, identifying with the labour movement, and believing in the promise of socialist democracy.

I continually force myself to confront the horrors of history, in particular, those of the 20th century, among them the nightmares of the now collapsed Soviet regime. I do not fail to appreciate capitalism's productive wonders and consumer spectacles, and to cherish our liberal-democratic freedoms. Moreover, I immerse myself in the arguments of contemporary conservatives. I imagine what a pleasure it would be to accept the world as it is, to believe that the way things are is the way they ought to be - or, at least, that they are the only way they can be. I even day-dream about the commissions to be garnered if I disavowed the left.

Tragedy haunts the historical record, while irony mocks humanity's best efforts. Capitalism affords tremendous powers and pleasures; liberal democracy definitely is the finest form of political development (thus far). And conservatives not only write smartly, they also score good points - such as a greater public voice and bank account.

Nevertheless, however much I acknowledge these truths, I am unable to rid myself of Marxian thoughts, labourist commitments, and socialist hopes.

Some have argued that I suffer some intellectual malady. Perhaps nostalgia, a longing to recapture the past, a supposed time of confident socialist politics and labourist solidarities. Perhaps alienation, a desire to reorder society such that intellectuals not only study things, but also rule them. Or maybe utopianism, a yearning to create a society of complete freedom, absolute equality and total democracy. But they are wrong.

I do long for a more confident socialist politics and stronger solidarities among workers and intellectuals - but not simply for those of the past, marked in the former case by racial and gender hierarchies and in the latter by an acritical populism or more dangerous elitism. I do desire a reordering of society - but not to empower some refurbished ruling class. And I certainly do aspire to a freer, more equal and democratic future - though not to some unattainable or dangerous fantasy.

I readily admit to romanticism, radicalism, and optimism; but I do not think I suffer - at least not severely - from nostalgia, alienation, or utopianism.

Overlooking pure stubbornness and/or stupidity, you might wonder, how can one continue to think like a Marxist, remain committed to working-class struggles, and still hold on to socialist visions?

In the light of history, and in the Talmudic fashion of my Jewish forebears, I reply: how can one not continue to ask Marxian questions? How can one not continue to side with labour? How can one not reaffirm socialist hopes and aspirations? Indeed, contrary to the respective philosophers of the end-of-history and posthistoire, has there been any time more in need and inviting of such questions, engagements and visions?

Why ask Marxian questions? Ellen Meiksins Wood contends: "For the first time, capitalism has become a truly universal systemI So Marx is more relevant than ever, because he, more effectively than any other then or now, devoted his life to explaining the systemic logic of capitalism."

And, as she notes, in the Manifesto we find a most prophetic narrative of capitalist triumphalism: "The bourgeoisie has played a most revolutionary role in history... The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhereI In a word, it creates a world after its own image." Has there ever been an economist more prescient or more poetic?

Prescience and poetry aside, I think the continuing power of Marxian thought, with all its faults and neglects (of nationalism, race and gender), lies in the political-economic and moral questions it poses. Where better to start an exploration of history than with the way in which people organise themselves to provide for their material and cultural needs and development? Specifically, where better to start than with a social order's relations of exploitation and oppression and the struggles engendered by them?

Of course, we need far more than Marx. But without Marxian questions how can we make critical sense of history, no less, the past quarter century: Thatcherism and Reaganism; popular revolution in the Soviet world; corporate globalisation; Asian economic crises and unrestI Why support workers' struggles and the labour movement? Because, if we want to create freer, more equal and democratic societies, then, for a start, we need to do so democratically. And history attests to working-people's commitments and accomplishments.

Now, after 25 years of class war from above, fragmentation and decomposition, the working-classes are not simply more diverse, they are also recomposing themselves and reconstituting their social movements. In Workers in a Lean World, Kim Moody writes: "Like Mark Twain's proverbial death notice, the diagnosis (of labour's death) proved premature. By the mid-1990s the streets of continental Europe, Latin America, and parts of Asia were filled with hundreds of thousands of angry working peopleI" And, once again, their campaigns are reinvigorating democratic politics as intellectuals realign themselves with reinvigorating labour movements. The struggle to extend and enrich democracy continues - globalisation has merely raised the stakes.

And while democratic life remains constrained and tested, who does not publicly revere democracy, or at least defer to it as an ideal? Though inequalities persist and grow, who publicly recites the classical conservative defences of inequality? Though capital and the market prevail, who actually trusts corporate power?

Whatever the politics of the likes of "new Labour", we should not fail to comprehend what recent left political victories mean. Against all the best efforts to convince them otherwise, working people and the middle-classes refuse to abandon the hope that societies of greater freedom, equality and democracy might yet be made.

Conservatives are not oblivious. In the wake of electoral defeats, new rightists convened an International Conservative Convention, co-hosted by Margaret Thatcher and William F. Buckley, to consider what the neoconservative Weekly Standard called the "Worldwide Conservative Crack-Up".

We should be so lucky. Still, I cannot help thinking they, too, have read their Marx.

Harvey J. Kaye is professor of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

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