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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Reflections on Marxism, totalitarianism, education, Left history and more







 


Above:  What follows is some personal commentary provoked by a post at the Herald-Sun from Andrew Bolt - effectively arguing there is no place for Marxism in academia and education more generally...  From that exchange there also emerged arguments about social democracy and the Great War, the fall of Communism and more...

 
Tristan Ewins

 
Setting the score straight on Marxist history….

 

For Andrew: You're entitled to your opinion as a Conservative to oppose Marxism, or Leftism in general - but get your facts straight. In the 19th Century Social Democratic - that is Marxist - parties were at the very forefront of the struggle for free, universal and equal suffrage in Europe. What is more, when the Marxist Left split during the 1914-1919 period Social Democratic Marxists opposed the Great War bloodbath; but also opposed the new 'Communism' as espoused by the Bolsheviks in Russia. Specifically, they resolutely opposed over-centralisation, one party dictatorship, militarisation of labour, the suppression of civil liberties, and the dissolution of the Russian constituent assembly. That said, the Bolsheviks do deserve recognition that they governed under extreme circumstances of war, social break-down and starvation. But the Marxist Social Democrats understood the damage that would be done to the Social Democratic cause by desperate and authoritarian strategies that broke the traditional nexus between socialism, democracy and freedom. For the sake of truth we need to recognise that things are not so 'black and white' as Andrew Bolt would have us believe.

 

AND IN RESPONSE to criticisms from right-wingers at the Herald-Sun website: Make sure you know what you're talking about when you equate Marxism with 'totalitarianism' or argue that 'socialism has been tried and it failed'. Look at Marxists such as Julius Martov and Karl Kautsky, and further to the Left consider the position of Rosa Luxemburg.  Look to the Austro-Marxists and their fight for democracy both before and after WWI. Do your research and see how these Marxists responded to Bolshevism - and later on Stalinism. You can't claim any authority unless you do your research and know about the specific circumstances I'm talking about.

Why Marxism is still worth teaching…

 

Marxism is still worth teaching for a number reasons. Firstly there is the historical relevance - including the role of Leninist parties, and the possibility that social and economic breakdown could see a return of Leninist organisation and ideology. But there is also the importance of observing the truth about the plurality of Marxist tendencies and movements - many of which were (and in some cases still are) deeply democratic. Crucially, though, there are Marxist insights that remain pertinent. Insights into alienation and the division of labour; insights into the nature of exploitation and the tendency in capitalism towards monopoly; and consequently the importance of movements for economic democracy, full personal development and cultural participation; and movements for negotiated mutual disarmament and peace. There are still many reasons to teach Marxism today; though in the context of a pluralist curriculum which pays equal attention to liberalism and other critical traditions.

 

In response to a fellow Leftist:  Was Social Democracy completely and thoroughly compromised by the First World War?

 

 …You're right that to begin with most of the Social Democratic parties did not stand up against the war; For some it was originally a matter of ignorance - ignorance of the sources of the war, and a willingness to fight a 'defensive' conflict.... But when the Social Democrats attempted to vote for resolutions supporting only a defensive war - and with no annexations or reparations etc - in Germany at least the Imperial State came down on them like a ton of bricks.   Notably some such as Kautsky were also probably afraid of the Party disintegrating - and early on weren't willing to risk this in order to offer token resistance... (though later on KK came out for peace at Zimmerwald..... He was expelled form the SPD -with others)

 

By 1915 there was a movement comprised of Social Democrats and others - including Lenin - who were fighting to end the war... The Centrists for a separate peace with no annexations etc - and Lenin - to turn the Great War into a Europe-wide revolutionary civil war... Ultimately, when the Social Democratic Marxist 'Centrists' came out openly against the war in Germany they were expelled both from the parliamentary party - and from the broader SPD (Social Democrats - and now under a hard right-wing leadership) That's how the USPD (Independent Social Democratic Party) came about.....

 

So again pls note that the movement against the war in 1915 was small - but relatively broad based if that makes sense....

 

Also in the Australian instance - yes the ALP backed the war from the outset; But there was a redeeming aspect at least - The anti-conscription struggle which saw the ALP split and cast Billy Hughes out of the Party. (hence the origins of the Nationalist - and later 'United Australia Party') Also interestingly - later on NSW Labor Premier Jack Lang in NSW was to try and suspend the repayment of war loans to Britain... (one reason for the destruction of his government)

 

Anyway - my point is that during the war there was a Marxist social democratic left opposition to the war, as well as a Marxist social democratic Centre that came out against the war... But the Social Democratic Right (Ebert, Nokse, Scheidemann) who backed the war to the hilt and had the support of the German state - were dominant precisely because of that....

 

It's also crucial to note that the Marxist critique of purely trade union consciousness 'hit home'.... The German trade unions had been co-opted by German Imperialism - partly because of nationalism - and also because of the promise of 'legitimacy' and support for welfare and industrial reform.... Precisely because of this the cause was hopeless in 1914 no matter what....

 

Pro-war hysteria was also notably strong in France - where Jean Jaures was assassinated for opposing the war.... Jaures was on the relative 'right' in the sense of supporting broad coalitions, participation in unity governments etc... But he paid with his life for the sake of peace.... Again: the trade unions didn't back peace in France either.... And without trade union support there COULD BE NO "GENERAL STRIKE'.... The only resistance possible for most of the war was token resistance... Only later on - with social, military and economic disintegration - did revolution become a real prospect....

 
Point of all this being it wasn't only Lenin who fought to stop the Imperialist blood-bath.... There's a very interesting history for anyone willing to do a bit of research....


I also wrote this – in response to triumphalist claims about the fall of Communism in 1989-1991 – And what might have been a better chain of events

Importantly, Perestroika and Glasnost under Gorbachev held the prospect of 'reforming Communism' - with a larger role for markets, civil liberties, pluralism, détente and ultimately disarmament and peace... AFTER the collapse of Gorbachev's efforts things arguably got WORSE - not better... A handful of 'Oligarchs' took over the economy - the means of production which had been built up by Russian and other workers over a period of over 70 years.... Dissidents are still mysteriously murdered; others are jailed or driven into exile; the destruction of socialist ideology in Russia has seen return of Chauvinism and reactionary politics... The world would have been much better off with a 'gradual interpenetration' of East and West (ending with an extended European Union merging with the Eastern and Southern areas of the USSR - with Glasnost and Perestroika ensuring peace and liberty - but also equality.... Look to the war in Syria - with the West backing extreme Islamic militias - and Russia supporting the authoritarian and repressive Syrian Govt - and hence also Iran... A return to old style 'Great Power Politics' - 'The Global Chessboard' - God only knows where THAT will end...

 

And finally a response to a post at the Herald-Sun site that suggested democracy is a ‘corrupting influence’ (my words) because of ‘special interests’…

 
 What alternative is there to democracy? What alternative to people being free to make their own mistakes - and hence learn from them?

 The point is also that in a real democracy the people never 'cede power to government'. A robust democracy involves a strong and participatory public sphere; a mobilised civil society. Everything from political parties and trade unions to social movements. And yet the Herald-Sun regularly editorialises in favour of a 'heavy hand' against social movements. A nation which cannot tolerate at least low intensity civil disobedience is on the way to forsaking liberal democracy.

 
You can also look at 'special interests' in different ways. People readily dismiss unions as 'special interests'. But look to the double standard where industrial liberties are ceded - but 'freedom' is reduced to 'free markets'... (what can be more fundamental than the right not to work if that is what one chooses ?)

 

 Liberal rights are critical... I support Andrew Bolt's liberal rights funnily enough. But those liberal rights are hollowed out when in practice they come to apply overwhelmingly to the rights of 'the establishment.' And where educators who want to impart a critical disposition above all - are portrayed as 'trouble-makers' - or dismissed as Marxists. And because of pre-existing prejudices the voices of the establishment feel they don't have to include those voices except at the outer periphery.

 

 Marxist perspectives should be included in civil society and in curricula - alongside liberal, conservative and Green perspectives. Even fascism should be wrestled with - if for no other reason that people understand what it is and how it came about in the past. Pluralism is the creed of any healthy democracy. Teaching people not only to understand their interests - but to wrestle with their beliefs and values - is also necessary for a healthy democracy. But it is this - the potentially empowering consequences of such a policy - that the big 'C' Conservatives and authoritarian Right fear.....

 

 nb: they also resent the ABC - because even the accommodation of moderate left perspectives potentially leads to a greater plurality of competing viewpoints - which is something the authoritarian Right fears....

 

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