[Alan's opening sentence should make it clear enough that I post his statement though having my differences with it. - NG.]
I have been prompted by Norm's posts which set out why he is still a Marxist [follow the links given here] to write down why I have not been for a while. The points that follow are hardly original, and I make no effort here to anticipate objections to them. So, here we go.
1. I no longer think that the bad bits in human beings can be swished away by replacing scarcity with 'abundance'. I think they are pretty much here to stay. And I think the bad bits amount to enough of the whole, enough of the time, to undermine the idea of a 'leap to the kingdom of freedom'. We are never going to reach a time when we each turn into a Goethe or a Beethoven, as Trotsky thought. I think we are 'ill-constituted beings' as Primo Levi put it, and as such we are never going to 'cleanse the world of all evil' as Trotsky hoped. We are not wholly bad by any means, but ill-constituted for sure, so pretty poor material for Marx's secularized version of the end-time. If we are lucky, and vigilant, we can create decent social democracies, maybe, but that's it.
2. (Actually, I don't believe one should even try to replace scarcity with abundance in Marx's sense. The planet would not cope.)
3. I no longer want to get rid of markets as to do so would produce economic stagnation and political tyranny. I want to regulate, humanize, counter-balance and embed markets, and keep them out of some tracts of human endeavour. I think Dan Bell was right to worry about the 'cultural contradictions of capitalism'. I want a social market. But as for 'a society beyond markets' or 'a socialized economy', no thanks.
4. I don't even want the good life that Marxists seem to seek. When I read analytical Marxist Andrew Levine writing that under socialism we will each 'act in harmony with other free beings... integral components of an harmonious, internally coordinated association of rational beings', I find I have written a protest in the margin of his book - 'urgh! count me out!' I really like the diversity, celerity, unpredictability and innovation of the society I live in. I think the way it combines all that with welfare and sociality is by any measure a bloody good achievement. We can reform it all to improve it all, yes, but I'm not about to exchange it wholesale to become an 'integral component of an harmonious, internally coordinated association of rational beings'.
5. I no longer believe the proletariat is a revolutionary force. Far from having 'nothing to lose but its chains', the working class has enjoyed an unprecedented, world-historic rise in its living standards and life-expectancy under capitalism. Yes, the more workers are organized in unions the more they benefit from the dynamism of capitalism. Yes, Labour parties matter also. But the dynamism of capitalism has pulled the rug from under the feet of revolutionary Marxism. Hence the search for substitutes - Lenin's 'vanguard', Mao's peasants, Guevara's guerrilla foci, Marcuse's students, through to the contemporary alliance between Marxists and radical Islamists (note how the substitutes have become progressively more preposterous). The common man and woman remain the bedrock of progressive social change – but there is not going to be a 'proletarian revolution'.
6. I think the general theory of Marxism - historical materialism - is the crown jewels. But insofar as the theory of history shapes the theory of socialism it is plain wrong. Socialism does not inevitably follow capitalism (bureaucratic collectivism, an historical regression, can replace capitalism - indeed it's the only thing that has so far, with tens of millions of victims). Moreover (and despite the writings of Marxists who seek articles of conciliation with liberalism), the Marxist theory of history marginalizes both ethical deliberation about norms and political deliberation about forms, and those two lacunae fatally disable Marxism as a theory for democrats.
7. I think the special theory of Marxism - the theory of the capitalist mode of production - was wrong from the start, and is now, 150 years on, definitively falsified. So there is no objective basis for the proletarian revolution. Between the writing of the Communist Manifesto and the founding of the Socialist International, real per capita income in the major European countries nearly doubled. The middle class will not disappear, and capitalism will not 'collapse under the weight of its contradictions'. And has any theory been more spectacularly falsified, so quickly, yet with so little an impact on its adherents, than Trotsky's theory of the 'death agony of capitalism'?
8. Marxism opens the door to totalitarianism. That is not to say 'Marx was a totalitarian' or 'Marxists are totalitarians'. But whatever the subjective intentions and desires, in the theory the door-opening is going on. Here are the doors left open or at least unlocked:
a. First, the sunlit philosophical anthropology. That causes us to drop our guard and it encourages and licenses the attempt to make a leap to a perfect world, a heaven on earth, 'the kingdom of freedom'.
b. Second, the organicism. Marx thought there was once a unity of civil and political society, and he desired to get that unity back - after our long travail through the forms of class society – in the form of communism. I think Leszek Kolakowski shows that that desire is the source of a 'continuity (though not identity)' between Marxism and totalitarianism.
c. Third, the theory of the proletarian revolution. Marx thinks that 'It is not a matter of what this or that proletarian or even the proletariat as a whole pictures at present as its goal. It is a matter of what the proletariat... will historically be compelled to do'. The problem with that kind of formulation is that those proletarians who fail to understood what they are, in their being, are likely to be viewed as, 'at present', benighted (i.e., suffering from false consciousness). The door is opened to 'this or that proletarian' being treated rather badly, and with a reasonably clear conscience.
d. Fourth, the lack of interest in discussion of the how of politics, and not just the who of politics (i.e., the refusal to treat politics in its own terms, even to see that it has its own terms). Marx offers brief scattered remarks on complex political questions while liberalism and conservatism offer shelves of books. The Marxists then dismissed those shelves of books as mere 'ideology' - and felt licensed to do so by Marx's own scorn for 'ideological nonsense about right and other trash so common among the democrats and French Socialists' and his contempt for 'modern mythology with its goddesses of Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity'. When the concept of 'the dictatorship of the proletariat' came into contact with the world it was turned into a theory of minority dictatorship by Lenin and Trotsky to catastrophic effect. And that theory was then absorbed by the Marxists. Listen to Perry Anderson, long-time editor of New Left Review, a man of the New Left, and an 'anti-Stalinist': 'The iron dictatorship exercised by the Stalinist police administrative apparatus over the Soviet proletariat was not incompatible with the preservation of the proletarian nature of the state itself - any more than... the fascist dictatorships exercised over the bourgeois class were with the preservation of the nature of the capitalist state.' That's the sound of a man rushing through an open door to apologize for a totalitarianism. He is following in the footsteps of his hero, Isaac Deutscher, a Marxist who defended Stalinist repression of East German workers on the grounds that the tanks had - although killing people and defending the grip of a police state – prevented the greater evil: the return of 'bourgeois' society.
e. Fifth, the extraordinary romantic hostility to 'bourgeois' society that Marxism projects. Hatred of 'bourgeois' rights, 'bourgeois' democracy, 'bourgeois' morality, 'bourgeois' art, the 'bourgeois' family (and on and on), has fuelled hatred toward decent if prosaic societies and institutions and indulgence or worse toward appalling societies and institutions. And all in the name and the spirit of being 'anti-capitalist' or 'anti-bourgeois'. Take a romantic like Michael Lowy, an outstanding anti-Stalinist theoretician, author of a book extolling the self-emancipatory socialism of the young Marx. When he looked at the 'proletarian socialist revolutions' of Tito, Mao and Ho, he saw, fantastically, parties which 'acted as "representatives" of the proletariat', nothing less than 'the political and programmatic expression of the proletariat by virtue of their adherence to the historical interests of the working class (abolition of capitalism etc.)', and, therefore, whose 'ideologies were proletarian'. The Trotskyist Ernest Mandel, who for twenty years defined Mao's totalitarian China as a 'workers' state' with no qualifications, argued that, "the Chinese Communist Party... was striving to destroy capitalism and therefore represented a fundamentally proletarian social force'. Please read both quotes again, noting Lowy's 'by virtue of' and Mandel's 'therefore' as markers of a door held wide open to totalitarianism.
This animus against things 'bourgeois' I have come to despise. It is reckless about the defence of democratic society, insensible to how truly miserable the actually existing alternatives to 'bourgeois' society have been, and quick to morph into support for any thug who happens to be shooting at anything identified as 'bourgeois'. This animus is the common sense of much of the intellectual class in the West where it is called 'critical theory'. Inchoate negativism toward anything 'bourgeois' has morphed into support for anything that is 'transgressive'. We are all Hezbollah now.
9. I used to think Marx's thought had been distorted not disproved. But I have come to find compelling Irving Kristol's argument - any theory that can't stand being placed in the real world without turning into its opposite must be judged by that fact.
A theory is a system of concepts. Either the system of concepts persuades and guides one's thinking and activity, or it does not. And it does not. I am no longer persuaded by the philosophical anthropology, the absence of a sense of 'limits' (implicit in the concept of 'abundance'), the economic model of socialism, the vision of the good life, the theory of the proletariat, the theory of the proletarian revolution, the general theory of history, or the special theory of capitalism.
10. I now think a modest, chastened progressive politics can draw most from the social-democratic idea (a broad river into which flow many tributaries). True, as Leszek Kolakowski put it, the social-democratic idea 'does not stock or sell any of the exciting ideological commodities which totalitarian movements - communist, fascist or leftist – offer dream hungry youth' and is 'plagued with ambiguities'. But these are precisely its strengths. As Kolakowski wrote in 1982:
[The social-democratic idea] requires the commitment to a number of basic values - freedom, equal opportunities, a human-oriented and publicly supervised economy - and it demands hard knowledge and rational calculation, as we need to be aware of, and to investigate as deeply as possible, the historical and economic conditions in which these values are to be implemented. It has an obstinate will to erode by inches the conditions which produce avoidable suffering, oppression, hunger, wars, racial and national hatred, insatiable greed and vindictive envy. Yet it is aware of the narrow limits within which this struggle is being waged, limits imposed by the natural framework of human existence, by innumerable historical accidents, and by various forces that have shaped for centuries today's social institutions.(Alan Johnson)