To what extent are Marx’s ideas still relevant for today’s political theory and praxis?
This paper will argue that Marx’s ideas are, in fact, still relevant today; however, not in the sense that there is place for an actual application of communism but rather that Marx’s propositions about justice and equality should find application in improving the existing society. To determine the value of Marxism as a political theory political science in the twenty first century one needs firstly to establish what Marxism really consists of and then ask further why it apparently has failed. This paper will attempt to tie specific modern applications in the sense of Marxism to a general theoretical framework in which the relevance of Marx’s ideas shall be explained. Furthermore, this paper will argue that the Marxian social theory constitutes an important factor in resolving today’s problems; although some aspects appear to be outdated. Finally, this paper will conclude that although Communism has failed in real life application it still provides important principles and thoughts vital for every political and social system.
Marxism is commonly understood as an economic and social system based upon the theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. It serves as a critique of the development of capitalism and could be summed up as a theory that analyses the effect of capitalism on labour by introducing a fair distribution of factors for production and proposing class struggle as a central element in the analysis of social change in Western societies (AllAboutPhilosophy 2010, p. 1). The actual application of Marxism did not last for long in world history and it is claimed by many that with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the era of Marxism ended and the theory is now obsolete (Kellner 1995, p. 13). Of course, with Cuba, North Korea and to some extent also China, there still exist examples of communist nations. However, it seems questionable whether Marx would actually consider these communist states, because they are either not really communistic, as for example China, or they lack basic human rights. To acknowledge now that Marxism is dead, appears, however, somewhat premature and seems to neglect the potential power and significance of the theories and ideas brought forward by Marxism, which have, after all, shaped 20th century world history significantly. The generation affected by this era is still alive today and especially those who have suffered or benefited have most likely strong opinions on this subject that seem unlikely to have vanished with the collapse of the USSR. Therefore there seems to be reason to believe that Marxism as a social, political and economic theory can have a future although communism itself has only a past.
The end of Marxism?
The collapse of the USSR in 1990 meant for the first time that communism was an issue that does not need to be discussed further, since it had obviously failed. However, one might question whether it is possible that such a theory that impacted history for quite some time just disappears without lasting memories. The fact that the era of communism came to an end in Eastern Europe was not much of a surprise, since the system was oppressive, inefficient and essentially totalitarian (Marga, 1995). These obvious flaws in the system were not necessarily due to Marx’s or later Stalin’s theories. This is not only true, because Marx remained often very general in his explanations and projections, but the fall of the USSR showed also that the practical possibilities of Marx’s thought were not at all fully exhausted and that there is still a possibility for a humanitarian socialistic system. It can be argued that, although capitalism has proven to be the dominant system over the last 30 years, it has in no way resolved but rather displaced the fundamental problems and tensions of our society. In some respect capitalism has succeeded in producing and distributing ever greater amounts of wealth to a considerably large percentage of the people followed by an incredible technological development. However, the vast majority of people, especially those who live outside the industrial zones, are worse off than at the rise of capitalism. The best example for this is the level of unemployment. Full employment was one of the declared goals of communism and although there have always been some discrepancies, the level of employment was much higher than it is today. Without wanting to defend the regime of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), it is obvious that the differences between the very rich and the very poor have increased over time and are certainly far more excessive than this had be the case under a communistic regime. It seems doubtful that today’s levels of inequality can be justified. Capitalism, as we know it today, appears to require an alternative theory. In Alex Callinicos words, one needs to ask: “Is that really the best that humankind can do?” (Callinicos, 1991).
The ideas expressed by Marx might offer one alternative that is indeed more considerate to human rights. Levin introduces four categories where Marxism can contribute to a maybe fairer and more just society:
1.) Marx’s theory on different classes within the society can provide valuable suggestions on how these classes can interrelate to form a whole and therefore demonstrate society’s functionality as one single unit.
2.) The theory can help us consider the present in a long term perspective through Marx’s historical sense, as well as understand the inherent dynamic of a society as a whole and not only their functionality as separate units.
3.) Marxism can provide a theory of a society in accordance with the highest human ideals to a very high extent.
4.) Marxism can serve as a mode of analysis examining the relationship between ownership, power and social change and thus illuminate a wider variety of social transformation than whatever is currently dominant (Levin, 2000).
Levin points to some important concepts, such as the idea of society as a functioning body of several separate units. He argues that Marxism helps to understand the dynamic of a society in its entity; this means with all its different classes and members, because Marx looks at the development from an historical perspective and can therefore identify the movements and preferences of that society. Furthermore he points out in his fourth argument that Marxism helps us examine different relationships in society from different perspectives without being restrained by current points of view. Considering these ideas it needs to be mentioned that Marx and Engels as the founder of Marxism were aware that socialism is not something that can be introduced easily, but rather class struggle and revolutions formed a vital part of their theory.
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