Guest Column: Gavin Evans As the world lurches into an economic and social crisis that threatens the political stability of the the current global order, I can’t help thinking how I might have relished this moment in my misguided youth, when I imagined that capitalism, with its inherent injustices, was riddled with structural contradictions that would cause its collapse in the face of the triumphant march of the organized working class, the midwife of a new world order of rationality, equality and human progress and dignity. Like most of my peers, I outgrew the Marxist shibboleths of my youth in the last few years of my activist career in South Africa — the end of apartheid, which allowed for a revolutionary remaking of South African society, coincided with the end of the Cold War and the triumph of capitalist globalization. It would have taken epic leaps of fanatical faith to imagine that a centrally-planned command economy represented a viable alternative model; its failures were palpable and inescapable. So many of us quietly (sometimes noisily) renounced the illusions of our youth, embracing the sort of reformist social democratic outlook we had once despised with post-adolescent venom.
Still, even then, I never doubted for a moment that while we had been wrong about socialism, we had not been entirely wrong about capitalism: it could raise many people out of poverty and develop spectacular productive capacity where none had existed before, its creativity and ability to innovate were breathtaking, and, of course, it was the only game in town. And yet it also reinforced and deepened social inequality, and its free market was never going to take care of the basic needs of majority in society. The market was not going to feed and house the poor or provide the education and health systems that made for a stable society. Unregulated, capitalism was also prone to lurch from boom to bust, not least because of its fundamental inequalities. Capitalism was, to borrow from Churchill, the worst form of economic system except for all the others that had been tried.
With capitalism having once again revealed its flaws in the spectacular global financial meltdown of the past six months, and the Depression into which it appears to have plunged, I asked my good friend Gavin Evans, who recently lost his own web site to a technological glitch, to reflect on his own political and intellectual journey through Marxism, in light of the, uh, current crisis. (I haven’t used that phrase in about two decades…)
Confessions of a Teenage Marxist
By Gavin Evans
I was away on South African ‘struggle’ business when I heard Hungary had opened its doors to Austria – the first metaphorical crack in the Berlin Wall in 1989. In fact, I was a guest in the Lusaka home of a bigwig in the South African Communist Party, an organisation that for all its virtues had earned the epithet ‘slavish’ when it came to relations with countries in the Soviet orbit. My first reaction that morning in the Zambian capital, was a silent ‘oh well’. By then, I was beyond caring, which was awkward because I was a Party member with all sorts of jobs in its underground structures. My solution was to approach Party secretary general Joe Slovo (who’d recently returned from a visit to the GDR, where he was given a lovely bottle of something delicious by Erich Honecker) to request a demotion. Joe said no and I could have just walked, but instead wriggled and squirmed until a year later, when the Party was unbanned, I was permitted to withdraw, allowing a 12-year relation with the left to fizzle out.
This relationship had started in 1978 when as a fired-up teenage idealist, I was invited to an anti-apartheid protest at the University of Texas in Austin. I stayed with a flame-bearded, MG-driving Marxist lecturer called Dr Ed Steinhart, who cheerfully instructed me in the ‘science’ of historical materialism, comparing Marx’s revelations to Newton’s – objective, certain, provable. (Years later, it dawned on me that not only did Marxism lack any resemblance to science, but neither did economics, or psychology, or any of the social ‘sciences’ but I digress…) Anyway, at the time I lapped up the certainty and universality of the Marxism he was evangelizing, using it to fill the void left by my abandonment of evangelical Christianity less than a year earlier. I devoured A Communist Manifesto, and strenuously worked my way through Volume 1 of Capital, returning to Cape Town a fervent convert.
At the time, Western Marxism was undergoing its own existential crisis as working class people on both sides of the Atlantic voted, repeatedly, for the supply-side conservatism of Thatcher and Reagan. Its academic discourse was also in trouble — although the volume of Marxian babble we ploughed through at college might have suggested otherwise — its essential problem being the, uh, contradiction between the real world and its theoretical depiction. Marxist ‘class analysis’ seemed peculiarly ill-equipped to understand and predict the behaviour of nation states, governments and political parties and ideologies, just as Marxist labour theory of value offered no clues about the motions of economies. Some theorists buried their heads deep in the catechisms of “the classics”, while others made futile attempts to tie Marxist theory, with its inherent economic determinism, to what we might have called “bourgeois political science” across the yawning chasm of reality in which class struggles were clearly not shaping politics and society.
All this ought to have been cause for concern for an 80s leftie: not only did Marxism have nothing of interest to say about the world we were operating within, but its innate determinism was an obstacle to a politically useful understanding of the reality we were trying to transform. But I had no more than the occasional intellectual wobble on this score, because by then a higher calling had arrived: the ANC, the underground, the Revolution. The theoreticism of Althusser and Poulantzas and their African disciples, along with those we called the ‘library lefties’, lost its attraction, and the process of thinking for myself was also shelved.
In its place came VI Lenin – convenient, because, looking back, Lenin was not really a Marxist at all (the same could be said of Stalin, Trotsky, Mau, Rosa Luxembourg and the rest). Marxist theory was supposed to be all about objectivity and science – history being driven inexorably forward by its inbuilt dialectic until, under capitalism, the contradiction between the forces and relations of production produced a new synthesis, leading to communism. Capitalism held within it the means of its own inevitable destruction. Lenin, on the other hand, was the ultimate voluntarist – advocating an un-elected, centralised party seizing state power on behalf of the working class as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Hurry history along, in other words. The Communists were the vanguard of the ANC, its most disciplined, dedicated and far-sighted element, and so I shelved my previous objections to Soviet policy in Poland and Afghanistan, joined the Party and got the lump in the throat when singing the Internationale. Behind the scenes, I would quietly acknowledge that Soviet socialism was hardly ideal, but, dammit!, they defeated Hitler, funded and armed the ANC, and held America in check – and look at Cuba: now that’s what it’s all about!
This defence of the indefensible was made easier when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985. We were all immensely relieved by his reforms and grasped onto his every word (there was even a fan base for his wife, Raisa, at least among a certain kind of leftish woman -the kind just dying to dress up to the nines). Gorbachev’s Perestroika was required reading in leftist circles, but when I finally got around to it I was in for a shock. The main thing I absorbed was his remark that socialism lacked the thing that gave capitalism its extraordinary creative power: the market. The implications of that verse, when it gelled with emerging dilemmas at a personal level, allowed the doubts to flood in. So by the time of the fall of the Wall, it had dawned on me that this market had broken the back of its putative protagonist: the other side had won, and that was that. Time to move on.
I should mention that for a while I’d had niggling suspicions that socialism was not exactly on the agenda for a liberated South Africa, but in 1989, when those cracks in the Wall first appeared, it became glaringly obvious that capitalism was the only game in town – in South Africa and beyond. It took the unbanning of the ANC before this dawned on the ANC at large, after which long-suppressed personal ambition was unshackled, and what followed was a feeding frenzy of acquisition. Overnight, one-time dedicated revolutionaries who had been prepared to endure torture and risk their lives for the greater good, were transformed into dedicated capitalists or worse – chasing after the shiny things denied to them for so long.
Twenty years on, we live in a world so different that the short historical spell of Soviet socialism (1917 – 1991) seems like brief diversion of no great importance. All the ideas tied up with its existence, including Marxism and socialism more generally, have just faded away because it turned out that even the anti-Soviet socialists (from Trots to social democrats) were more dependent on the Wall than they realised. Soviet socialism had been such a terrible failure – and, in the end, the reason it imploded related to that lack of anything to replace the market mechanism – anything other than a command-based structure incompatible with democracy. Once it fell, the left lost its compass and suffered from a crisis of confidence at the intellectual level, watching from the sidelines as ‘actually existing socialism’ was replaced by a rapacious, robber baron form of capitalism – in many cases accompanied by political dictatorship rather than democracy.
Capitalism was striding ahead, its waters flooding the old eastern bloc, at the same time that the system was undergoing one of its periodic technological revolutions, changing form in all sorts of ways and creating new markets within the existing capitalist world and beyond. It seemed so confident, so immutable, that many of the thinkers of the Left gave up trying to visualize an alternative. The world seemed so chaotically immune to their analysis that Leftists retreated to the navel-gazing post-modern universes of signs and symbols. The global constructs were left to thinkers of the right – like Francis Fukuyama, who declared that the highest stage had already arrived. Human society, he wrote, in language remarkably resonant of Marx and Engels, was free from fundamental internal contradictions and, eventually, all societies would move in this direction because the “logic of modern natural science” would prompt “a universal evolution in the direction of capitalism”.
In the early 1990s, a doctoral thesis returned me to the business of theorising. By now, Marx’s flaws were obvious. Hegel’s quaint notion that the collision of two forces produces a new synthesis was silly enough when applied to ideas, but when applied by Marx to history, with an in-built hierarchy topped by the sphere of production, it became absurd. Historical change was the product of vast range of forces, with the pressures and counter-pressures coming from all angles, with no in-built hierarchy of causation. Marx (like that modern Hegelian, Fukuyama), shared an inherent faith in modernization and linear progress towards social perfection with 300 years of European thought before him (from Hobbes, via Adam Smith to Hegel). Marx’s premise that progress was driven by the resolution of contradictions within each mode of production (workers vs. capitalists under capitalism), ultimately leading to a world free from contradiction. That had clearly looked daft well before the fall of the Wall, and having been released from Marxism’s spell it bemused me that I had ever believed this nonsense. The evidence against it was overwhelming: the working class was declining in relative size and strength; capital was no longer bringing workers together in larger numbers; class, however defined, was no longer the key point of division.
Curiously enough, though, post-Cold War capitalism seemed to be doing pretty much what Marx and Engels predicted. They were way off the mark about the underlying reasons for capitalism’s need for perpetual growth, but were more perceptive when it came to the scale this compulsion. “All fixed, fast frozen relations… are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify,” they wrote. “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.” Marx wrote beautifully on capitalism (particularly in Capital), describing its power in a way that it hard to match, and some of this seemed prescient in the 1990s as capital spread its wings with the arrival of the information age. The “network society” was, as the Spanish urban theorist Manuel Castells wrote, able to “link up or de-link the entire realm of human activity”, switching territories on and off, bypassing government control and individualising workers. Governments of the former left (Britain, Europe, Brazil, South Africa) felt powerless to intervene, instead joining in as cheer-leaders.
For close on two decades, this evolving form of globalised capitalism was the only game in town. But then, wouldn’t you know, it turned out there was indeed a paradox ingrained within it. I’m not talking simply about the fissure exposed by the current economic crisis, nor about the contradictions that Marx had obsessed about, but rather, something far more fundamental: the very thing that made capitalism so strong and vibrant – its immense capacity for innovation, expansion and growth – turned out to be the source of its most profound challenge. The reason for this is that the more we produce, the more the earth protests, which in turn could destroy the capacity for production and for life.
When I began writing about climate change, I clung to the hope that if we only geared the world to war footing, we had a shot at keeping global warming within 2-degree C of pre-industrial levels. I read the Stern Report and the IPCC report and watched Al Gore’s movie and came away with a sense of urgency. Well, perhaps I have since been reading too much James Lovelock, or too much George Monbiot, but I am now less hopeful. Monbiot cites figures showing we’ll need to cut carbon emissions by over 87 percent per person within the next 40 years to have even a 50-50 chance of avoiding the tipping point, after which climate change becomes self-sustaining and irreversible. Lovelock suggests the tipping point has already been reached and that we may exceed 6 degrees C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century – and that 90 percent of humanity will be wiped out. Our main task, he says, is to adapt to these changes. To take an Old Testament analogy, Monbiot is like the prophets warning the chosen that unless they turn from their wicked ways, plagues and pestilence will descend. Lovelock is like Abraham telling Lot that, sorry mate, destruction is certain, so get the hell out, chop-chop. But when it comes to climate change, the differences are less profound, because even if Monbiot is right, there’s not much hope of us turning from our wicked ways – or not far enough, quickly enough. An example: China is building 544 new coal-fired power stations (old-style, dirty coal) and 80 percent of its power comes from coal. Another example: the world’s population will grow from 6.7 billion to nine billion over the next 30 years. More people means more carbon emissions (just by breathing, let alone whatever else they do), as well as more over-crowding, less food, less water and more population relocation, but no government other than one-child-per-couple-or-else China, has a serious population reduction strategy.The word ‘impossible’ seems apposite.
We are currently enduring a global recession caused not just by the greed of bankers, but by a systemic failure that has exposed the limitations of markets and the importance of state intervention. It has shaken the confidence of monetarists and of supply side economics more generally, and has presented a fundamental challenge to the underlying philosophy of the libertarian right. I have to admit to a touch of schadenfreude in all this, but, beyond that, there are positive elements to this crisis. The reason I say this is because the coming years climate change will produce political and economic spinoffs far more profoundly challenging than the credit ‘crunch’. These challenges will either be met by massive state intervention – more big brother, more United Nations, more European Union – or they will overwhelm us. We’ve already seen the consequences of the politics of water shortages in Dafur and the West Bank, and its very early days yet. Add in massive food shortages, large parts of the world that become uninhabitable, rising sea levels, floods, droughts, and all the political problems that come with these inevitabilities (mass migration from south to north, more conflicts and wars that take on religious or national or racial hues, and the continued rise of competing forms of religious fundamentalism as people search for answer to the destruction of their ways of life), and you can see why strong, bossy states will be necessary.
But whatever happens, the notion of progress that has dominated political philosophy for so long will be challenged. In contrast to the hope of moving forward to a new world, free of fundamental contradictions, there is strong chance of moving backward as large parts of the world did after the decline of the Roman Empire, so that we end up with depopulated planet, with pockets of technological progress, surrounded by oceans and deserts where people either cannot survive or are forced to return to pre-industrial modes of existence – the kind of world hinted at by the Zachry section of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, for example.
That’s for the future. Right now, the state of the planet is more chaotic and dangerous than it was prior to 1989. For a while it appeared that the bi-polar world of the Cold War had been replaced the uni-polar New World Order, but that proved to be a temporary chimera. The United States remains the world’s largest economic and military power, but its reach has declined relative to that of China, India and oil-rich, autocratic Russia – with none of these countries sharing America’s foreign policy interests. And while I’d agree with Fukuyama that Islamism does not represent a fundamental threat to liberal, capitalist democracy, its spread (along with other forms of highly politicised religious fundamentalism – evangelical Christian, Zionist-Jewish and Hindu) presents a long-term danger for peace, stability and prosperity in large chunks of the world, not least the Middle East. Throw into this mix the world’s declining oil reserves, and the potential for catastrophe seems far from remote.
So, to return to the start: does anything of use remain of the pre-1989 world of socialist ideas? Put differently, aside from the faint afterglow of warm feelings from the past, and a touch of delight at the fate of the bankers and US Republicans, a surge of anger about the Israelis, and a reflex urge to fill the green bin, does it mean anything today to say you’re of the Left? Well, yes. For me, what remains is this: a preference for solutions to societal problems favouring the collective over the individual. For a long time this was an unfashionable view and I would get funny looks when dropping into conversations that I quite liked the nanny state, and was far from ‘intensely relaxed’ about the super rich, or when I ranted on about the silliness of the brand of liberalism that opposes identity cards or CCTV or speed cameras. But that’s all changing – in the short term through the impact of the recession, but in the longer term through the devastating impact of the climate change. The collective is back in vogue.
One last question: for people like me who were so intensely involved in trying to change the world prior to the fall of the Wall, is there anything left of that energy? I can only answer that at a personal level. The issue that still gets me excited is the debate on the cusp between biology and the humanities around human nature – in particular, the backlash against feminism from the misogynistic snake oil salesmen who call themselves ‘evolutionary psychologists’. This stuff gets me angry and exercised. But for the rest, well, the fact that I have not lived in South Africa for 16 years (and that in that time have managed to attend a grand total of two political meetings – leaving both early- and one march against the Iraq war), obviously points to an absence of activist impulse. I remain excited about Barack Obama, but for the most part I just watch with interest and sometimes write about it, but it doesn’t make me want to raise my fist, or get me churned up inside – and that applies as much to, say, Jacob Zuma, Robert Mugabe or Benyamin Nethenayu, as to climate change. These are just issues of fascination, along with many others, like religion and linguistics and anthropology. It is not cynicism – just a kind of detachment. I guess that’s quite a damning self-indictment.