Thirty-five years ago many people in the United States and Europe were willing to give Marxism a hearing. Just a decade later nearly everyone agreed it had been discredited. Why this sudden change? Had some new discovery disproved Marxist theory? Were people no longer interested in the problems Marxism addressed? Or had the problems themselves disappeared?
Something had indeed happened in the period in question. From the mid-1970s onwards, the Western system underwent some vital changes. There was a shift from traditional industrial manufacture to a “postindustrial” culture of consumerism, communications, information technology, and the service industry. Small-scale, decentralized, versatile, nonhierarchical enterprises were the order of the day. Markets were deregulated, and the working-class movement was subjected to savage legal and political assault. Traditional class allegiances were weakened, while local, gender, and ethnic identities grew more insistent.
The new information technologies played a key role in the increasing globalization of the system, as a handful of transnational corporations distributed production and investment across the planet in pursuit of the readiest profits. A good deal of manufacturing was outsourced to cheap-wage locations in the “underdeveloped” world, leading some parochially minded Westerners to conclude that heavy industry had disappeared from the planet altogether. Massive international migrations of labor followed in the wake of this global mobility, and with them a resurgence of racism and fascism as impoverished immigrants poured into the more advanced economies. While “peripheral” countries were subject to sweated labor, privatized facilities, slashed welfare, and surreally inequitable terms of trade, the bestubbled executives of the metropolitan nations tore off their ties, threw open their shirt necks, and fretted about their employees’ spiritual well-being.
None of this happened because the capitalist system was in a blithe, buoyant mood. On the contrary, its newly pugnacious posture, like most forms of aggression, sprang from deep anxiety. If the system became manic, it was because it was latently depressed. What drove this reorganization above all was the sudden fade-out of the postwar boom. Intensified international competition was forcing down rates of profits, drying up sources of investment, and slowing the rate of growth. Even social democracy was now too radical and expensive a political option. The stage was thus set for Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who would help dismantle traditional manufacturing, shackle the labor movement, let the market rip, strengthen the repressive arm of the state, and champion a new social philosophy known as barefaced greed. The displacement of investment from manufacturing to the service, financial, and communications industries was a reaction to a protracted economic crisis, not a leap out of a bad old world into a brave new one.
Even so, it is doubtful that most of the radicals who changed their minds about the system between the ’70s and ’80s did so simply because there were fewer cotton mills around. It was not this that led them to ditch Marxism along with their sideburns and headbands, but the growing conviction that the regime they confronted was simply too hard to crack. It was not illusions about the new capitalism, but disillusion about the possibility of changing it, which proved decisive. There were, to be sure, plenty of former socialists who rationalized their gloom by claiming that if the system could not be changed, neither did it need to be. But it was lack of faith in an alternative that proved conclusive. Because the working-class movement had been so battered and bloodied, and the political Left so robustly rolled back, the future seemed to have vanished without trace. For some on the left, the fall of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s served to deepen the disenchantment. It did not help that the most successful radical current of the modern age—revolutionary nationalism—was by this time pretty well exhausted. What bred the culture of postmodernism, with its dismissal of so-called grand narratives and triumphal announcement of the End of History, was above all the conviction that the future would now be simply more of the present.
What helped discredit Marxism above all, then, was a creeping sense of political impotence. It is hard to sustain your faith in change when change seems off the agenda, even if that is when you need to sustain it most of all. After all, if you do not resist the apparently inevitable, you will never know how inevitable the inevitable was. If the fainthearted had managed to cling to their former views for another two decades, they would have witnessed a capitalism so exultant and impregnable that in 2008 it only just managed to keep the cash machines open. They would also have seen a whole continent south of the Panama Canal shift decisively to the political left. The End of History was now at an end. In any case, Marxists ought to be well accustomed to defeat. They had known greater catastrophes than this. The political odds will always be on the system in power, if only because it has more tanks than you do. But the heady visions and effervescent hopes of the late 1960s made this downturn an especially bitter pill for the survivors of that era to swallow.
What made Marxism seem implausible, then, was not that capitalism had changed its spots. The case was exactly the opposite. It was the fact that as far as the system went, it was business as usual but even more so. Ironically, then, what helped beat back Marxism also lent a kind of credence to its claims. It was thrust to the margins because the social order it confronted, far from growing more moderate and benign, waxed more ruthless and extreme than it had been before. And this made the Marxist critique of it all the more pertinent. On a global scale, capital was more concentrated and predatory than ever, and the working class had actually increased in size. It was becoming possible to imagine a future in which the megarich took shelter in their armed and gated communities, while a billion or so slum dwellers were encircled in their fetid hovels by watchtowers and barbed wire.
In our own time, as Marx predicted, inequalities of wealth have dramatically deepened. The income of a single Mexican billionaire today is equivalent to the earnings of the poorest 17 million of his compatriots. Capitalism has created more prosperity than history has ever witnessed, but the cost—not least in the near destitution of billions—has been astronomical. According to the World Bank, 2.74 billion people in 2001 lived on less than two dollars a day. We face a probable future of nuclear-armed states warring over a scarcity of resources; and that scarcity is largely the consequence of capitalism itself. Capitalism will behave antisocially if it is profitable for it to do so, and that can now mean human devastation on an unimaginable scale. What used to be apocalyptic fantasy is today no more than sober realism. The traditional leftist slogan ‘‘Socialism or barbarism’’ was never more grimly apposite, never less of a mere rhetorical flourish.
Apart from the apparent triumph of capitalism, though, hasn’t Marxism been discredited from within? How could Marxists ever live down the history of Communist totalitarianism, which has been pitting self-described Marxists against one another ever since the Russian Revolution? Surely anyone who calls himself a Marxist today must answer for Stalin’s show trials and Mao’s labor camps, as well as the brutal crackdowns in Prague and Tiananmen Square.