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Book Review, History, International

“Misunderstanding Marxism”

Arguments such as, “the working class failed to rise-up in Europe after the Russian Revolution, therefore Marx was wrong” are often erroneously made.  In the latest issue of Socialism Today (September 2015), Peter Taaffe challenges this misunderstanding of Marxism with a pertinent and uncompromising critique of Paul Mason’s new book PostCapitalism, which is worth sharing.  Specifically, Taaffe is scathing of Mason’s ‘Misunderstanding [of] Marxism’ – something which can be common among celebrity writers on the left (like Russell Brand).  Taaffe quotes Mason as saying:

‘”It becomes necessary to say something that many on the left will find painful: Marxism got it wrong about the working class. The proletariat was the closest thing to an enlightened, collective historical subject that human society has ever produced. But 200 years of experience show it was preoccupied with ‘living despite capitalism’ not overthrowing it… The literature of the left is littered with excuses for this 200-year story of defeat: the state was too strong, the leadership too weak, the labour aristocracy too influential… Far from being the unconscious bearers of socialism, the working class were conscious about what they wanted, and expressed it through their actions. They wanted a more survivable form of capitalism… This was not the product of mental backwardness. It was an overt strategy based on something the Marxist tradition never gets it head around: the persistence of skill, autonomy and status in working-class life”‘.

Taaffe then repudiates this by writing:

‘So the 20th century, which was punctuated by wars, economic and social catastrophes, revolutions and uprisings, was not a mighty effort to establish a new socialist world but just an attempt by the proletariat to establish a ‘survivable capitalism’. Mason manages to conjure away the Russian revolution, the German revolution from 1918-23, the sit-down strikes and revolutionary potential in Italy in 1920 and in the USA in the 1930s, and the Spanish revolution of 1931-37 when the immortal Spanish working class could have made ten revolutions.

That is not to mention the greatest general strike in history and mass occupation of the factories in France in 1968, as well as revolutionary upheavals in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, etc, in the 1970s. Let us recall that the Times newspaper declared in 1975, after the defeat of the attempted coup of Spinola, that “capitalism in Portugal is dead” as the banks were nationalised and 70% of industry was taken over due to the pressure of an insurgent working class. This, it seems, was all due to a misunderstanding! Rather than revolution, the perspective of a new society, the masses spilled their blood, made huge sacrifices, colossal exertions of energy just to establish a different form of capitalism.

The same is true about Mason’s assertion that what we now face is “not just the working class in a different guise; it is networked humanity”. There you have it: at one stroke the working class is dissolved. There is nothing new in these arguments. He merely regurgitates the ideas of those in the past…’

The full article can be read here.

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