‘The only constant is change’ wrote Karl Marx during the turmoil of the massive economic, social and political changes brought into being by the industrial revolution.
How right he was. Old empires collapsed all around him, new nations were born every couple of years and exploitative modes of ruling over the people which had lain undisturbed for millenia were in flux.
The leading socialist thinker of his time couldn’t help but cheer on this creative destruction. It brought about, after all, opportunities for the entry onto the stage of history a new social force which had little interest in preserving the untramelled power of kings, the unquestioned authority of bishops or the maintenance of a system which kept the majority class in economic, social and political chains.
It was a powerful ideology and it is easy to see why socialism grew so quickly in the 19th Century and dominated the 20th. Those who had until then been consigned to a walk on part in the dynastic, economic and religious struggles which constituted ‘history’ until the modern era were now occuping the political centre stage.
All well and good but Marx refused to map out in any detail his preferred path towards the goal of the classless society he predicted. the proletariat would bring about in its political wake. The bearded Rhineland philosopher famously refused to write the cookbooks of the future.
Fair enough, but isn’t it nice to have a bit of certainty sometimes? Socialist intellectuals following Marx certainly thought so and a huge industry in trying to work out what exactly he meant developed after he died. There was a lot of disagreement of course: accusations of revisionism were hurled, new developments in practice and procedure were taken up or denounced depending on taste – but through the whole turbulent process certain fundamental ideas remained part of the socialist canon – internationalism, civil rights, separation of church and state and a commitment to equality however imperfectly defined.
Until our own 21st Century that is. Things have changed in the last few years. A lot. As a guide to the new terrain of socialist thought and practice I’ve taken the liberty of asking a young activist in the Respect Party how he thinks those who call themselves socialists view the intellectual inheritance of previous centuries – step forward 20 year old David Sparte-Smythe, rising star of the future currently studying at Scumbag College, Deptford:
Harry’s Place: It’s said that Marx’s philosophical outlook was based around a view of history that described a process in which more advanced economic, political and social formations overtook earlier models which had proved themselves not up to the new modes of production. Is that still a valid way of looking at the world?
Sparte-Smythe: Good question. I think its still valid of course otherwise I wouldn’t be able to call myself a Marxist which is very important to my self-identity, but nowadays it’s possible to imagine more creative alternative futures, what with the exciting new social forces on the world stage.
Harry’s Place: perhaps you could tell us what do you mean by that?
Sparte-Smythe: Well, for a start capitalism is in crisis everywhere – I don’t know anyone at the Polytechnic who has any faith in it from the lecturers down, really. It’s completely outlived its usefulness according to every single Socialist Worker I’ve read, which is quite a lot. And its not just in the imperialist countries either, look at the middle east – it’s quite clear to all the academics I’ve spoken to that everyone there wants to leapfrog that particular stage of human development with all its contradictions and inequalities…
Harry’s Place: Towards socialism?
Sparte-Smythe: Um, in a sense yes, but it probably won’t be a Eurocentric model of socialism.
Harry’s Place: What do you think it will it be like?
Sparte-Smythe: Er, different. Actually I haven’t got to that module yet, that’s next term. Let’s just say there will be continuity with certain socialist ideas.
Harry’s Place: Which ones?
Sparte-Smythe: Um, beards for a start. And there’ll be a lot of popular gatherings in the streets, obviously. Er, and maybe a lot of pictures of leaders on hoardings. Probably with beards….
Harry’s Place: I see. What about the rights of nations to self determination – Lenin wrote a pamphlet in favour of that particular principle didn’t he?
Sparte-Smythe: Yes, he did actually. We’re very much in favour of defending the sovereignity of states, that’s why we were against the war that toppled the Taleban and Baathist Iraq and why we’re marching against the same thing happening to Iran.
Harry’s Place: How does Israel fit into this principle? It’s recently been attacked militarily, hasn’t it?
Sparte-Smythe: Ah, well, that’s completely different, obviously
Harry’s Place: How so?
Sparte-Smythe: Well it’s not really a proper state is it, more of a Zionist Entity according to modern socialist theory.
Harry’s Place: So you marched to denounce military attacks on the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan but wouldn’t do the same when democratic Israel…I mean the Zionist Entity is subject to the same?
Sparte-Smythe: Good heaven’s no. It’s a completely different situation. You are behind in your theoretical work aren’t you?
Harry’s Place: But didn’t you feel a little hypocritical marching to uphold a social order that forbade the education of women and murdered homosexuals as a matter of course? Isn’t the equality of the sexes and protection of sexual minorities something socialists made a great deal of in the past?
Sparte-Smythe: You’re very Eurocentric in your assumptions. A lot of women don’t actually want to be forced into exploitative mini-skirts and forced to guzzle alco-pops like they are every night in the decaying imperialist countries.
Harry’s Place: Shouldn’t they be allowed the choice?
Sparte-Smythe: Listen, my sister went to Kabul on her gap year before going up to Oxford – she said homemaking is held in very high regard in traditional cultures. Much more so than here. She’s got an amazing collection of Afghan rugs sewn by the sisters there – really intricate needlework and amazing colours – it must have taken them absolutely years to produce. She got them for an absolute song aswell. Anyway, who are we to tell them how to run their lives?
Harry’s Place: What about the right to education for the 50% of the population who happen to be born female?
Sparte-Smythe: If you’re going to get all judgemental about other cultures I can’t see the point of going any further with this interview – you actually sound like a reactionary old Tory.
Harry’s Place: Okay, okay. Let’s talk about internationalism instead…
Sparte-Smythe: Good idea, I’m very interested in world events – I got 62% in my modular essay on ‘War Crimes of the Bush/Blair Imperialist Nexus – my lecturer told me I was nearly good enough to become a teaching assistant if I could just improve my spelling and grammar…
Harry’s Place: What does it mean to you ?
Sparte-Smythe: Well I would get to read the New Left Review all day and actually get paid for repeating it in front of a seminar room full of freshers. Fantastic.
Harry’s Place: No, I mean internationalism…
Sparte-Smythe: Oh, I see. Er, it means always supporting one’s overseas comrades who are struggling for the interests of the people.
Harry’s Place: Like the Iraqi Communist Party? They’re your comrades aren’t they?
Sparte-Smythe: I think you’ll find these people are Quislings and Uncle Toms, actually. I mean they took part in the US imposed elections.
Harry’s Place: But aren’t socialists historically in favour of the widest possible extension of democracy so they can represent the interests of their constituancy more effectively?
Sparte-Smythe: Well, I’ve read all the Socialist workers since 1977 and I haven’t come across that particular idea before.
Harry’s Place: I see. What about organised religion. Wasn’t Marx an implaccable foe of that sort of thing?
Sparte-Smythe: I’m not sure I understand what you’re getting at.
Harry’s Place: You’re in formal alliance with the largest Islamist group in the country. Their preferred form of society is a fused church and state with women’s testimony worth half that of a man’s. What do you think Marx would have made of that er, development in um, Socialist theory?
Sparte-Smythe: He would have understood it perfectly well and would have applauded it actually, I think you’ll find.
Harry’s Place: Really?
Sparte-Smythe: There are lots of examples from history of socialists and religious people co-operating on a common goal.
Harry’s Place: Like the Tudeh Party and the Mullahs in Iran?
Sparte-Smythe: Exactly. Um, well maybe not precisely like that.
Harry’s Place: You know what happened to them don’t you?
Sparte-Smythe: It won’t be like that for us.
Harry’s Place: How do you know?
Sparte-Smythe: Can’t you see we’re using their justified fervour for the greater good of humanity? When they’ve served their purpose and brought people like me to power on a wave of radical anti-imperialism there’ll be plenty of time to talk about women’s rights and that sort of thing.
Harry’s Place: Yes, I see. Jettisoning shiboleths in the short term I think one of your leading comrades called it.
Sparte-Smythe: Whatever. Anyway, I’m late for a meeting to stitch katyushas and AK-47’s onto Hezbollah banners for the next peace demonstration, I can’t hang around talking to people like you all day.
Harry’s Place: One last question…
Harry’s Place: Old-fashioned socialists used to believe that the seeds of a future society were sown in the struggles of the present. If you consider the civil rights won over the last hundred and fifty years mere shiboleths worth sacrificing for a tactical alliance with homophobes, anti-semites and theocrats how do you think that will affect the future direction of your version of socialism?
Sparte-Smythe: Zionist! Imperialist apologist! Enemy of the ummah, er people…
Harry’s Place: Thank you Mr Sparte-Smythe.