On the 170th anniversary of Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto – can Marx be re-interpreted as a critic of late modernity? (Part Two)
By Mark Wegierski
Given the apparent irrelevance of "classical Marxism" by the 1960s -- especially in regard to such areas as its underdeveloped theories of psychology, art, religion, and literature, and its thin materialism -- there arose varieties of "neo-Marxism." The presence of "neo-Marxism" allowed for the countering of the more common criticisms of earlier Marxist thought, which were now simply categorized as describing a "vulgar Marxism" that the new Marxist theorists did not themselves hold. In the attempt to "rescue" a more subtle Marx, great attention was paid to Marx's Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 – which were fully published in English only in 1959.
There were also, among the leading innovations of neo-Marxism -- especially as seen in the thought of Frantz Fanon – the embrace of social outcasts, racial and sexual minorities, and the Third World, in the face of what were characterized as the "embourgeoified" white working classes. What classical Marxism had disparagingly termed "the lumpenproletariat" now became to a large extent the focus of revolutionary energies for the neo-Marxist theorists.
Also important for neo-Marxism was Antonio Gramsci, whose claim to fame was the idea -- in contrast to classical Marxism -- that the "ideological superstructure" would actually bring into being the social and economic facts of "the base" -- hence the need for "an intellectual war of position" and "the march through the institutions" in order "to capture the culture." The existence of, and need to engage in, “cultural warfare” -- can be seen as an idea with great cachet in virtually every part of today's political spectrum.
While remaining within the broad confines of Marxist class categories, it is possible to argue that what was actually happening in the 1960s revolutions in America was the creation by the now-deracinated haute-bourgeoisie of new ideological structures that would allow it to re-establish its dominance over the working majority. The triumph of the working majority in America -- when a factory-worker was able, by his own labor, to earn enough to support his wife and family -- was to be short-lived. These new ideologies combined counter-cultural lifestyles, mass media saturation, juridical and administrative social engineering, consumerism, and corporate capitalism, which led to ensuring again the dominance of a narrow ruling group. Policies such as mass, dissimilar immigration and (what is now called) outsourcing were driven by the impulse to strengthen the consumerist-capitalist system -- a system which was, of course, much different from nineteenth-century bourgeois capitalism.
Paul Edward Gottfried, a leading American paleoconservative theorist, has argued that the Communists in the Soviet Union and East-Central Europe, as well as Communist party members in Western Europe, were, to a large extent, socially-conservative. Indeed, the Polish United Workers' Party (PZPR) (as the Communist party was formally called in Poland) after 1956 had certain nationalist elements. It may be remembered that the quasi-"Trotskyite" opposition to the PZPR in the 1960s, characterized the PZPR as "too nationalist", "too traditionalist" and "too conservative" -- in fact, they openly called it "fascist." Indeed, it could be argued that the main thrust of the Mensheviks, Trotsky and his disciples, and such figures as Rosa Luxembourg has been to be more consistently anti-nationalist, anti-traditionalist, and anti-conservative than "mainline" Communism.
Gottfried's central argument is that, as the Communist and former Communist Parties in Western and East-Central Europe mostly embraced capitalism, consumerism, multiculturalism, and anti-national high immigration policies, they objectively became less, not more "conservative". The East-Central European Communist Parties' embrace of capitalism also appears to have been characterized by the phenomenon of what is called “the empropertyment of the former nomenklatura” (in Polish: uwlaszczenie nomenklatury) – which was mainly achieved through the sell-out of state industries to former Communist party insiders and foreign companies at ridiculously low prices. So the former Communist party insiders have in many cases become fabulously wealthy, capitalist bosses.
It had also been argued in the 1970s and 1980s that the Soviet and Eastern European Communist regimes -- with their "ruling Party caste" (nomenklatura) were ripe for a "true Communist revolution." Indeed, in many Western countries -- though probably to a lesser extent in Poland -- much of the rhetorical appeal of the Solidarity independent trade-union movement (which was said to be truly representing the Polish working class) was based on echoes of Marxist thought.
However, what can be said of the situation today, when the economic "shock-therapy" which supposedly represents capitalism, has bitten hard, especially in Poland? The contrasts of wealth and poverty in Poland have arguably increased beyond anything seen during the People’s Republic of Poland (PRL). It could be rhetorically asked, is now actually the time for a "true Communist revolution" in Poland?
One of the most interesting interpreters of Marxism of Polish background -- who moved intellectually through various Marxist phases, but embraced elements of moderate conservatism towards the end of his life -- was Leszek Kolakowski.
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.