Karl’s not dead, he’s just gone to bed.


That the revolution Marx predicted in The Communist Manifesto has thus far failed to materialise has been cause for many contemporary thinkers to dismiss his ideas wholesale. Add to that the devastating human toll from the bastardised versions of communism installed by Stalin and Mao, and it is easy to see why contemporary progressives might see fit to consign Marx to the dustbin of history. As Michel Foucault contended unambiguously in his 1966 book, The Order of Things: ‘Marxism exists in nineteenth-century thought like a fish in water: that is, it is unable to breathe anywhere else.’[1]

With a new ‘Left’ now fuelled less by Marxian materialism than it is by liberal notions of individual freedoms and rights, Marx’s role in contemporary social organisation looks to be in doubt. ‘Does’, as Anthony Giddens asks in The Third Way, ‘being on the left retain any meaning now that communism has foundered completely in the West, and socialism more generally has been dissolved?’[2] Possibly not, but for the purposes if this post the reader should take ‘left wing’ and ‘Left’ to be interchangeable with ‘cultural left’, or, ‘progressive’—as per their colloquial contemporary usage, rather than any prescriptive linguistic purism—unless explicitly stated otherwise. It may be useful to think of the Left–Right distinction in terms of poles on an equality–inequality spectrum, as proposed by Norberto Bobbio in 1996’s Left and Right: The significance of a political distinction, in which the Left are pro- and the Right are anti-equality.[3]

Staunch anti-Marxist Ludwig von Mises once described socialism as ‘the most powerful reform movement that history has ever known, the first ideological trend not limited to a section of mankind but supported by people of all races, nations, religions and civilisations.’[4] Despite this, it appears that the sort of liberalism championed by Mises and his Austrian School disciples has all but won the battle for the minds, if not necessarily the hearts, of the modern Left. As Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek observes, ‘We all silently accept global capitalism is here to stay.’[5] This is to say, the political imagination can no longer accommodate Marxism or any view that challenges the natural primacy of global capitalism: political history has come to its natural free-market conclusion.

Francis Fukuyama claimed in The End of History and the Last Man that the collapse of the Soviet Union proved that liberal democracy had no serious ideological competitor. It was, as he had it, ‘the endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution’ and the ‘final form of human government’.[6] Fukuyama’s a posteriori account, that socialism is valueless as a political proposition because it has appeared to fail and be naturally vanquished by capitalism in most cases, is common. Similarly, Giddens tells us: ‘No one has any alternatives to capitalism, the arguments that remain concern how far, and in what ways, capitalism should be governed and regulated.’[7] According to Fukuyama, the end of the Cold War represented the triumph of the ‘ideal state’ and a particular form of political economy, ‘liberal capitalism’, that he claimed could not be improved upon.[8] Fukuyama has since distanced himself from this absolutist position in the wake of post-2001 Middle East conflicts, but the same cannot be said for a large proportion of the Left. Indeed, as Žižek notes, it is ‘much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.’[9]*

Having effectively conceded the fight on basic economics in favour of liberal capitalism, much of the Left now looks to achieve social goals not through comprehensive economic reform to restore the sort of communitarian government control lost during the 1980s, but through changing the ‘choice architecture’ people face in their consumption decisions via price signals, regulation and ‘nudge’ policies, intended to amplify the impact of social norms on people.[10]

The Western Leftist shift from a materialist and social view to one preoccupied with culture and the individual has been comprehensive. As Georgetown University’s Michael Kazin puts it:

… organized labor—another (at least former) pillar of left-wing politics—seems trapped in a downward spiral. Private-sector labor unions are struggling to survive, and organized public workers have become the villains of choice for numerous governors and state legislators. Understanding why the fates of these two great movements have diverged so dramatically reveals a great deal about the real influence of the left […] and the limits of that influence, as well.’[11]

The Left has found its new heart at a radical centre from which the more equal organisation of labour, trade and capital is seen as the by-product and not the foundation of social change.

Globalisation is now regularly cited as a reason to promote measures to reduce workers’ rights and lessen other constraints on business.[12] Whereas once workers would look to their union to protect them from such infringements, the ‘casualisation’ of the workforce has meant that many more—chiefly low-paid, unskilled—people must simply accept any conditions their employer decides upon or else lose their job to somebody who will. Globalisation has given employers free rein to engage in union-busting activity on a massive scale, while shunting the blame onto the competitive nature of the international marketplace. That the market is amoral, and anything done in pursuit of an advantage in the marketplace therefore justified, now goes virtually unquestioned.

Traditional Leftists argue that progressive approaches to tackling inequality on a global scale have, at best, been ineffective, and at worst, exacerbated the problem. Dependency theorists working in the Marxist tradition point to globalisation and the exploitation by richer countries of poorer ones as the primary cause of inequality between countries. As Andre Gunder Frank, one of the fathers of dependency theory, observed:

… the expansion of the capitalist system over the past centuries effectively and entirely penetrated even the apparently most isolated sectors of the underdeveloped world. Therefore the economic, political, social and cultural institutions and relations we now observe there are the products of the historical development of the capitalist system no less than are the seemingly more modern or capitalist features of the national metropoles of these underdeveloped countries.[13]

Economic policies adopted by supposedly progressive institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have imposed ‘conditionalities’ on borrower countries, often with little regard for individual countries’ circumstances, in turn affecting their ability to govern their own economies. [14] In effect, the poorer countries become the proletariat whose commodities are exploited by the bourgeoisie; that is, the richest countries.

As a response to criticisms that an increasing number of people were living in poverty—despite the United Nations consistently meeting their Millennium Development Goals—the World Bank, rather than revisiting the Washington Consensus policies responsible, simply switched their data collection method; first from GDP to GNP[15], then to 850 qualitative household surveys, assessing people’s perceptions of their own relative wealth.[16] Such switches, from hard data on material wealth to what are essentially ‘happiness quotients’, shift the responsibility of the results from the prevailing economic conditions in a given society to the individual’s attitude. All of which is to say: provided enough of the people surveyed from poor countries think they are doing better than their neighbour, the World Bank and IMF need not change anything. In addition to this, many of the real material gains that were made by the Millennium Development Goals were negated by the Global Financial Crisis of 2007–2009.[17]

A 2004 survey of 123,668 people by Alesina, Di Tella and McCulloch found that the poor in Europe were far more concerned about inequality than those in the US, despite generally having a higher standard of living. This, say the researchers, is due to the Americans’ perception that they live in a mobile society.[18] Perhaps it is the foundational belief in natural law as written into their country’s Constitution, the countless Hollywood films about down-on-their-luck types who ‘make it’ against all odds, Oprah and her ‘law of attraction’-espousing guests, or perhaps it is simply that conservatives have been much more successful in framing the economic debate. American people, as George Lakoff tells us, regardless of their current situation or political persuasion, almost invariably believe that they are going to be rich one day; such has been the success of the Right in selling their message to the public.[19]

Perhaps most of all, progressives need to stop allowing themselves to be blindsided by conservative policy, given that it is dictated by ideology that has not altered in any meaningful way since the Enlightenment.

‘What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.’[20] Here, Marx figures the proletariat that never quite matched his expectations for revolt as those who would set to rest the social body of the ruling classes. Granted, this burial never took place. However, while Marx may have been wrong about the funereal future of class warfare, he may have been correct about the slow death of capitalism itself.

Capitalism is failing and the ruling class, while not so much dead, is endangered to a radical degree; their graves dug not by a proletariat or any other group surplus to the needs of capitalism, but by the mechanism of capitalism itself. [21]

Marx failed to offer a blueprint for revolution, but he may be said to have offered a reliable guide to the effects of late capitalism whose demise is in evidence. Marx failed to offer an account that located power in a structure that was more complex and diffuse than class struggle, but he may be said—for all the mistakes he made about revolutionary subjectivity—to identify the death of the bourgeoisie. As the barbaric remnants of the nation-state wither on the modern vine of capitalism, Marx may still seem prescient in the garden of ideas.

A return to his works and to those rich interpretations that followed may prove more useful to scholars and activists than we have supposed in some time. In the preface to Why Marx Was Right, Terry Eagleton tells us, ‘You can tell that the capitalist system is in trouble when people start talking about capitalism.’[22] Similarly, it may well be a testament to Marx’s continuing relevance that people still feel the need to question his continuing relevance with such frequency.

* It has been brought to my attention that Slavoj may have altered his view somewhat, in the light of recent popular interest in the work of Piketty, Stiglitz, et al. on inequality: ‘The western left has come full circle: after abandoning the so-called “class struggle essentialism” for the plurality of anti-racist, feminist, and other struggles, capitalism is now clearly re-emerging as the name of the problem’ (Žižek 2011).


[1] M Foucault, The Order of Things: An archaeology of the human sciences, Taylor & Francis Ltd., UK, 2001, p. 285.

[2] A Giddens, The Third Way: The renewal of social democracy, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1998, p. 24.

[3] N Bobbio, Left and Right: The significance of a political distinction, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1996.

[4] Quoted by Robin Blackburn, ‘Fin de Siècle: Socialism after the crash’, New Left Review, no. 185, 1991, p.7.

[5] S Žižek, Žižek!, documentary, directed by A Taylor, Hidden Driver Productions; The Documentary Campaign, USA; Canada, 2005.

[6] F Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, Penguin, London, 1992, pp. xi–xii.

[7] Giddens, pp. 43–44.

[8] Fukuyama, pp. xi–xii.

[9] Žižek, Žižek!

[10] R H Thaler, Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2008, p. 34.

[11] M Kazin, ‘Halfway There: Why the Left wins on culture and loses on economics’, Foreign Affairs, vol. 93, no. 5, 2014, p. 47.

[12] S Hobden & R W Jones, ‘Marxist theories of international relations’ in J Baylis, S Smith & P Owens (eds), The Globalization of World Politics: An introduction to international relations, 5th Edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2011, p. 145.

[13] A G Frank, Latin America: Underdevelopment or revolution, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1969, p. 5.

[14] Robbins, R H, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, 5th edition, Prentice Hall, New Jersey, 2011, pp. 170–175.

[15] World Bank, World Development Report 2000–2001: Attacking poverty, Oxford University Press, 2001.

[16] S Chen & M Ravallion, ‘More relatively-poor people in a less absolutely-poor world’, policy research working paper 6114, The World Bank Development Research Group, July 2012.

[17] Robbins, p. 172.

[18] A Alesina, R Di Tella & R MacCulloch, ‘Inequality and happiness: are Europeans and Americans different?’, Journal of Public Economics, vol. 88, no. 9–10, 2004, pp. 2009–2042.

[19] G Lakoff, Moral Politics: How liberals and conservatives think, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2002, p. 94.

[20] K Marx, The Communist Manifesto, New American Library, New York, 1998, p. 80.

[21] J Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality: How today’s divided society endangers our future, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 2013.

[22] T Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2011, p. xi.


About samquigley

I'm Sam Quigley.
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