Monty Johnstone

Member of the Communist Party’s
theory and ideology committee

Marxism After Marx
Critical Condition

(March 1990)

Source: Marxism Today, March 1990
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2009). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

In his leader, Marx After Marxism (MT February), Gareth Stedman Jones argues that the repressive regimes we have seen in Eastern Europe reflect badly on Marx.

He accepts, of course, that ‘Marx was no more responsible for the gulag than Nietzsche was for Auschwitz’. However, he insists, ‘the legitimacy claimed by Lenin and Stalin was that bequeathed by Marx’ and ‘the one social and political alternative to capitalism constructed on the basis of Marx’s ideas’ was authoritarian, inefficient and undesirable.

Gareth’s inference is neither fair nor logical. How can Marx be held responsible for claims to his legitimacy made long after his death and for their own reasons by Stalin or anyone else? And were such monstrous societies as those of Stalin, Pol Pot and Ceausescu really ‘constructed on the basis of Marx’s ideas’?

Right from his first articles denouncing censorship as a ‘law of suspicion against freedom’, Marx’s outlook was profoundly democratic. Throughout his life he argued for popular self-government, unbridled by bureaucratic secrecy, paternalism and privilege. He highlighted this as the most important characteristic of the Paris Commune of 1871, representing a foretaste of the freer socialist society for which he worked.

Marxism Today has for decades carried articles (including some by myself) pointing out the contrast between the repressive character of East European regimes and Marx’s objective of making the state ‘completely subordinate to society’. So I can see no reason why we should view the further exposure and overthrow of such systems through popular revolts as a reason for abandoning marxism.

Gareth’s criticisms of marxism predate recent events in Eastern Europe by many years. He only accepts as much of Marx as has ‘long ago been absorbed into the mainstream of social-democratic and liberal thought’. He rejects the rest as ‘articles of faith’ – a ‘creed’ based on ‘a set of unsubstantiated claims’.

These objections are far from new, and marxists have time and again explained why they find them misconceived and unconvincing. This is obviously no reason for rejecting them out of hand. They represent a serious point of view, the pros and cons of which need to be argued in the columns of Marxism Today, which should certainly be open to critics like Gareth.

I do, however, find it inappropriate that his repudiation of marxism should appear as an MT leader – reinforced by a cover attacking Marx with tomatoes! – which might well be taken (wrongly) to represent the view of the magazine’s editorial board and of the Communist Party.

Engels wrote: ‘Marx’s whole outlook is not a doctrine but a method. It provides no readymade dogmas, but reference points for further investigation and the method for this investigation.’ MT has long seen marxism in such terms, rather than as quasi-religious ‘articles of faith’. What justification could there be for changing that view now?

Marxism has to build on and critically develop the seminal ideas of Marx and Engels in today’s world. Its claim to be scientific requires it constantly to evolve, to reappraise earlier conclusions and to enrich itself by analysing new experience and by discriminatingly absorbing ideas from other sources (feminism, greenery, etc.).

Such an approach is particularly needed in evaluating events in Eastern Europe, which have moved more rapidly and taken more complex forms than any of us expected. I hope that MT will contribute to this process as a marxist theoretical and discussion journal. Its job is not to follow the fashionable trend of killing-off marxism (Marx After Marxism) without seriously examining its ability to help us understand and influence the dramatic times in which we live.

Last updated on 27 July 2010