Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Work of Karl Marx and the Challenges of the 21st Century By Ricardo Alarcón

The Work of Karl Marx and the Challenges of the 21st Century By Ricardo Alarcón

Editor's Note: This speech was delivered by Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada on May 3, 2006. It was translated by Joe Bryak and Walter Lippmann of Cuba News. We invite the comment of our readers (

Let us remember that he said that it was not enough that the idea clamored to be made reality, but that it was also necessary that reality shout out to be made into idea. – Franz Mehring

I will not attempt to delineate here the ample and rich intellectual production of Karl Marx, his deep analysis of capitalism or the principal events of his era, nor will I touch upon his exemplary life as a social fighter and revolutionary leader. I know that these themes are familiar to you all.

I propose, if you allow me, to separate Marx from Marxism. With that I allude to the necessity of thinking of Marx as Marx, rather than from any of the versions of Marxism, to imagine him declaring the challenges of the 21st century, separating what is essential of his work from what others made of his work. Instead of embarking on the endless succession of reviews of his thinking that goes along with those who have claimed him as their own, as well as with those who have tried unsuccessfully to bury him, it is necessary to rescue his fundamental legacy, that which makes him transcend his era to be with us here and now in the struggle for human emancipation.

I take as a starting point the warning, not always heeded, of Rosa Luxemburg:

The work Capital of Marx, like all his ideology, is not gospel in which we are given revealed truth, set in stone and eternal, but an endless flow of suggestions to keep working on with intelligence, in order to continue researching and struggling for truth.

To take his work, on top of any other consideration, as a source of inspiration and guide for those who, like he, want not only to explain the world but, more than anything, transform it, fighting until achieving socialism.

Our obligation is to arm ourselves with all of his ideology and from that build a theory and practice that corresponds with that reality and helps to transform it.

There is probably no higher nor more urgent priority for socialists than this: to define a strategic conception and precisely delineate the tactics and methods of struggle adequate for confronting the capitalism that exists now. The theoretical tools at our disposal need to be sharpened for their efficient employment in this era that presents new challenges for the revolutionary movement.

These notes do not have any other aim than contributing to the discussion of that crucial theme and obviously lack any pretension of exhausting it. They have been edited having in mind that which from the great unfinished text declared Rosa Luxemburg:

Incomplete as they are, these two volumes enclose values infinitely more precious than any definitive and perfect truth, the spur for the labor of thought and that critical analysis and judgment of ideas, which is what is most genuine in the theory that Karl Marx has left to us.

Another indispensable observation: The necessity of elaborating a revolutionary theory that brings victory confronted with what has been called neoliberal globalization has absolutely nothing to do with a supposed liquidation of Marxism and much less with the imaginary disappearance of class struggle, which some intended to convert into immovable dogmas in rushed texts that inundated the planet at the beginnings of the last decade of the twentieth century.

The collapse of the USSR and the bankruptcy of the so-called "real socialism" gave way for a triumphalist operation skillfully launched by the main centers of imperialism which, nevertheless, could hardly hide their essentially defensive character with its apparently total and definitive victory, capitalism, in reality, entered a new phase that could be terminal, in which its contradictions and limitations are manifested with a frank crudeness and in which arise new, unsuspected possibilities for revolutionary action.

That paradox perhaps may explain the short duration of that triumphalism in the academic level. Few today repeat that nonsense about the "end of history." Not even Fukuyama does it, more busy these days in criticizing the failure of the policies of Bush which are, nevertheless, much due to his own laborious and wordy work. The present crisis within the US neoconservative movement suggests that not a few question now if they were the true winners of the cold war. Self-critical reflection is called for on our side as well.

We should admit our own errors, especially those that served as fertile ground for the bourgeois manipulation of the destruction of the Soviet model. This is not the time for profound analysis of the failure of an experience that now belongs to historians. But it is inevitable that we underline here something that led to the defeat and to its advantageous use by the enemy.

That project – independently of Lenin and of the creative spirit that animated the first years of the Bolshevik revolution – reduced Marxism to a determinist and mechanist school of thought, transformed research into dogma, thought into propaganda, until the point of confining it to a condition of terminal hardening of the arteries. It constructed a simplified "science" that thought it had demonstrated that socialism would inevitably come about, by itself, as an unavoidable consequence of a predetermined history and that that socialism would continue its march, also uncontestable, according to laws and rules codified in a strange ritual. Socialism, therefore, was inevitable and invincible; with it one would truly arrive to the end of history. Not any socialism, but that one in particular, that which, with admirable struggle, Lenin and the Bolsheviks tried to achieve, whose enormous meaning no one will be able to tear out of the memory of the proletariat but which was a specific project – that is to say, a human work, with virtues and defects, glories and shadows, a result of immense sacrifice of a concrete people in circumstances and conditions likewise concrete – and not the outcome of a predestined and universal idea.

The conversion of the Soviet experience into a paradigm for those who in other places fought their own anti-capitalist battles, and the imperative obligation of defending it from its inflamed and powerful enemies, led to the subordination of a great part of the revolutionary movement to the policies and interests of the USSR, which did not always correspond to those of other peoples. The cold war and the division of the world into two blocks of antagonistic states that threatened each other with mutual nuclear annihilation, reduced to a minimum the capacity of critical thought and reinforced dogmatism. In honor of the truth one must render homage to the numberless men and women who sacrificed their lives, the greater part in total anonymity, and died heroically in any corner of the planet defending the land of the Soviets, its policies and its application in its own native soil, as wrong as it may have been in more than a few cases. For them, respect and admiration. But what is being considered now is recognizing the very harmful consequences of that tendency.

The tendency to blindly "tail" thoroughly penetrated many organizations and individuals, and they couldn't react rationally when the system that supported their faith collapsed. They had lived convinced that they were part of an unbeatable force, owners and administrators of truths scientifically demonstrated, and they marched in an enthusiastic procession in which, curiously, the founder did not march, having declared, with all naturalness, "I am not a Marxist."

The myth destroyed, old dogmatists were incapable of appreciating the new possibilities in the revolutionary movement, the spaces heretofore nonexistent that were necessary to explore with audacity and creativity. There were those who, in unsurpassed acrobatics, joined the "conquerors," converting treason into their new religion.
The third world penetrates the first. The latter needs the former and at the same time rejects it. In Europe and North America appears an undesirable protagonist, a mute guest that demands its rights. While here we carry out this important collective reflection animated by the example of a truly creative and humanist thinker and try to find the paths toward a better world, the US Congress continues discussing what to do with those who number at least 11 million people – that is, the Cuban population – the so-called undocumented, searching for formulas that allow them to continue to be exploited while access to that society is closed.

But there is a growing number of those who do not conform, are unsatisfied and rebel. All the rhetoric about US hegemony falls to pieces with its bogging down in Iraq, the undeniable contradictions and limitations of its economy, the awakening of masses that were supposed to be asleep there, and the corruption and moral fissure that undermine its political system.

Their associates in Europe are in the same boat. Accustomed as well to the "bloc" discipline and "tailism," they don't arrive at the knowledge of the depth of the insurmountable crisis of that which it was, but no longer is, omnipotent boss.

In Latin America and in other parts of the third world, meanwhile, radical processes are affirmed and plans are put forth that seek to eliminate, or at least reduce, imperialist domination.

For the first time, anti-capitalist malaise is manifested, simultaneously and everywhere, in advanced countries and in those left behind and is not limited to the proletariat and other exploited sectors. This is not only expressed today in the struggles that we could call "classics" – between classes and nations that are exploited and exploiters – but in those that are added, at times with more vigor, those that demand the preservation of the environment, or work for the rights of women and discriminated people and those excluded because of gender, ethnicity or religion.

A diverse group, multicolor, in which there is no shortage of contradictions and paradoxes grows in front of the dominant system. It is not yet the rainbow that announces the end of the storm.

Spontaneity characterizes it; it needs articulation and coherence that need to be stimulated without sectarianism, without being carried away with wildness. The great challenge of revolutionaries, of communists, is to define our part, the place that we should occupy in this battle. For that we need a theory.

In that sense one must return to the well known but forgotten definition of Lenin: "A correct revolutionary theory is only formed in a definitive manner in close connection with practical experience in a movement that is truly mass and truly revolutionary."

That theory, on a world scale, does not exist in fact, to serve as a guide in the struggle to substitute the present order and transform it in the direction toward socialism. That theory has to be formed and its definitive formation has to take place in constant interrelation with practice, in a process in which both form an inseparable whole. But we are not speaking of just any practice but that of a movement that is both "truly mass and truly revolutionary."

When can a movement be defined as truly a mass movement and when does it acquire the quality of being truly revolutionary? The answers will not be found in a research laboratory, nor will they erupt from academic debate. Revolutionaries themselves will have to create them, men and women of flesh and blood, acting from the masses, building their movement and trying to make it ever more revolutionary. The entire life of the genial Bolshevik leader can be described in that commitment. A persistent legend attributes to the author of Capital the saying "Man [sic] thinks as he lives," which more than a few militants still repeat, without warning of the mistake nor of its paralyzing effects. The relation between man and his surroundings is of decisive importance for ethics and politics and in order to understand the Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach. To transform the world the key is in the Third Thesis. Let's remember the statements of Marx:

The materialist theory that men are product of circumstances and of education, and that, therefore, changed men are a product of different circumstances and of a modified education, forgets that it is men, precisely, who make circumstances change and that even the educator needs to be educated. This leads, then, inevitably, to the division of society in two parts, one of which is on top of society (this, for example, in Robert Owen).

The coincidence of the modification of circumstances and of human activity can only be conceived and understood rationally as revolutionary practice.

In the Second Declaration of Havana, Cubans proclaimed that "the duty of every revolutionary is to make revolution." To make it means to create a new world in spite of the obstacles and limitations that circumstances impose, in a ceaseless battle in which both man and reality will go on transforming each other reciprocally.

A certain form of socialism will emerge inevitably from the also inevitable decay of capitalism. – Joseph A. Schumpeter

The prediction that I just cited has been the object of implacable denunciation on the part of bourgeois thinkers. In 1942 it was difficult to see the fall of capitalism as something inevitable. Its author, nevertheless, did not cease believing in it until the end. Eight years afterward, just before dying, he said: "Marx was wrong in his diagnosis of how capitalist society would fall; but he was not wrong in the prediction that finally it would fall."

In 1950 US capitalism reached the zenith of its hegemony. It was the only nuclear power, it hadn't suffered the devastation that the world war had wreaked on the other developed countries, it dominated Western Europe and Latin America economically and politically, it possessed a superiority in science and technology.

At the middle of the last century the world was quite different from what it is today. By a route that they probably did not foresee we are now nearer the fulfillment of the prophecy in which, paradoxically, both the author of Capital and his tenacious Austro-North American critic coincided.

The protagonist has changed, the subject of history, humanity. The world population has grown in an exponential manner since the days of the publication of the Communist Manifesto and it continues doing so. Humanity traveled through tens of thousands of years to arrive at the first billion. It took a century to triple the double of that figure.

Every 25 years is added to that figure a quantity similar to that which represented the whole planet when Karl Marx was born. At a similar rhythm the natural resources of the earth are exhausted and animal and vegetable species are annihilated forever. Humanity is the only life form that has dedicated itself with so much fury and efficiency to destroy life.

Irreversible climactic changes, forests transformed into deserts, poisoned waters, unbreathable air, irremediably degraded soils, astounding conglomerations of human beings in uninhabitable and always growing urban clogs are distressing worries that compose a reality not known before.

Beyond ideologies the people continue discovering that which is obvious. In 1992, at the Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro, governments and civil society put ourselves in agreement that in order to save the earth it was necessary "to change the patterns of production and of consumption," words subscribed to by many, including Bush senior. They were words, certainly. But they imply explicit recognition although in the text of a document, of the necessity of the radical transformation of the relations between men and between them and nature.

The subject, besides, inevitably moves. Population grows exponentially but it doesn't do so equally in all parts of the world.

In the so-called developed countries it is frozen and even tends to shrink. In the rest, in that part of the world that was baptized as the third, they are more, ever many more – in spite of early death, misery, hunger – and also those who in an unstoppable spiral, are displaced toward the enclaves of opulence.

The third world penetrates the first. The latter needs the former and at the same time rejects it. In Europe and North America appears an undesirable protagonist, a mute guest that demands its rights. While here we carry out this important collective reflection animated by the example of a truly creative and humanist thinker and try to find the paths toward a better world, the US Congress continues discussing what to do with those who number at least 11 million people – that is, the Cuban population – the so-called undocumented, searching for formulas that allow them to continue to be exploited while access to that society is closed.

The migratory phenomenon will be maintained and will gain in size along with capitalism, with its present characteristics, as it is expanded through the whole world. Capitalism cannot stop it, just as it is neither capable of abandoning those characteristics and much less transform itself into another thing.

The Central Intelligence Agency of the United States has prognosticated that, as a consequence of that phenomenon, very soon deep changes will have been produced in the cultures of several European countries. The struggle for the rights of immigrants and against discrimination expressed in public demonstrations that mobilized millions of people and in the historic May Day protest – a date that never before had been expressed in this way in the United States – brings to the forefront a political force that now cannot be easily ignored.

The presence of millions of people discriminated against and lacking civil and political rights raises an essential question that goes to the very roots of the political system that the West has attempted to set as an obligatory model for all. There is an increasingly growing number of those who work hard there, pay their taxes, die in their wars, but cannot vote nor be elected. In today's Rome the participation of the citizens is reduced while the mass of those excluded is constantly growing, the modern "barbarians." In this very building, recently, Professor Robert Dahl – prominent apologist for the archetypical capitalist – recognized in such marginalization the principal lack of contemporary liberal democracy.

The end of that exclusion, the struggle for democracy, specifically including the democratization of Western societies, should be a priority for those who wish to transform the world. This is yet more urgent if we perceive the other face of the migratory phenomenon together with it grows, in parallel, racial hatred, xenophobia, which feeds fascist tendencies today present in an obvious manner in those societies.

The migratory problem reflects, thus, an aspect of capitalism today that it is also worthwhile reflecting on. While the emigrants are humiliated and superexploited in the countries where they end up, there they are used also as instruments for the oppression of the local workers. Being used as the international reserve army, stripped of rights, and until now not organized, they serve to lower wages, are forced to accept conditions that, as Bush the lesser likes to say, US workers do not accept.

To free the immigrants from their exploitation becomes, therefore, essential for the emancipation of the workers in the developed countries. To forge a union between both exploited sectors, in an area that has had advances that are still insufficient but whose importance cannot be underestimated, is today a task that cannot be postponed. To rescue the role of the labor union, true bulwark of civil society and to guarantee the rights of all workers, without exceptions, to organize oneself is an indispensable response to a capitalism that ever more openly casts off its "liberal" mask and demonstrates the perverse face of tyranny.

Fascism must be stopped. It is necessary to prevent it from being able to gather its own victims into a senseless opposition. Never again should a Nixon be able to mobilize construction workers against the youth who, in the 1970's, rebelled against the war in Vietnam. It is possible to unite them. We saw them united, in Seattle, both opposing neoliberal globalization.

One must help them to converge, and it is possible to propose this to them, and it is a crucial aspect of the world today and in the struggle to change it.

The poor try to emigrate to the rich world to escape poverty. The rich, meanwhile, try to place their capital in the poor countries in order to increase their profits with the misery of others and inevitably worsen the conditions of work and of life for workers in the developed countries. Few in the United States and Europe would identify themselves as members of a worker aristocracy, beneficiary of the dropping of crumbs coming from the colonies. Today they are seen as those defeated by a system that, among other things, depends ever more on "outsourcing" and the maquila and that imposes everywhere the dogma of the omnipotent market and "free trade."

To forge convergence, to later on reach unity between the exploited people of the first and third world, is now not only possible but necessary. But it is not enough to work for unity between all the proletariat of the world, of the first and third world, of the South and of the North. Antifascist unity is essential for democracy, peace and life. To fight to create new models, to forge alliances where possible or meanwhile promote points or moments of coincidence between the diverse forces that today, for the most varied motives, are out of step with the world as it is, should constitute the principal guide for revolutionaries.

To struggle so that the anti-war and anti-globalization movements flow into the same great stream and that all those discriminated against, all the marginalized be included is the main duty of revolutionaries today. It is the way to create a better world. It is the road to take in advancing toward socialism. To achieve socialism in this century there must be "heroic creation," a creation that is authentic, independent, and therefore diverse and unique.