Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Why I call myself a Marxist

This time last year a magazine editor asked me if I would write a piece on the alarming topic of why I call myself a Marxist. I said no because I didn’t have time to do it (which is true), but also because I feared that it would be too self-indulgent. However, I’m going to take a crack at it this week, and for two reasons. Firstly, because no topic is too self-indulgent for a blog; secondly, so I don’t feel compelled to respond to an unremittingly asinine anti-Marxist polemic that is doing the rounds on the New Zealand blogosphere.

At first blush, the answer is quite simple: I call myself a Marxist because I am a strong believer in self-description. If I happen to be speaking to a journalist, I enjoy the contortions it causes, but that is merely an added bonus. Apparently printing that someone is a Marxist isn’t enough without the addition of a sinister qualifier. My favourite so far is ‘avowed Marxist’. In another piece I was described as someone who ‘supported a Communist Party in his native Italy’. That would be in fact the Italian Communist Party, which I voted for in 1989 for the first time along with nearly 10 million other dangerous radicals. And I do get that in New Zealand the movements that trace their roots to Marxism are significantly more marginal than they are in my native country, but not to the point of downright exoticism. People have heard of Elsie Locke, right? Plus, the constitution of one of the nation’s two main parties includes a pledge to uphold the principles of democratic socialism, and I think we all know where those come from.

But I am not a New Zealander. I grew up in a country where Marxism in various forms was part of the mainstream and had very specific historical roots. The Italian Republic was forged in the aftermath of the second world war and explicitly counted anti-fascism as one of its founding principles. Fascism in turn was above all an anti-socialist movement, and owed to this single objective the support of industrialists, bankers and the royal family, without which it would never have seized power.

I call myself a Marxist because of my grandmother, the daughter of a farm labourer whose house had been a refuge for local folks trying to escape a fascist beating. At the age of 16 she married a young man from a family of tailors who went on to become a fascist himself. She kept quiet about her beliefs for twenty years, and maybe twenty or forty more after that. But I remember the look of disbelieving joy on her face when they elected Sandro Pertini, a former partisan and socialist, as our seventh President.

I don’t even know if my grandmother knew who Karl Marx was, mind. She had very little education and the only two non-romance books I remember in her house were Jack London’s The Iron Heel and Pertini’s autobiography. For her the word socialism, as it did for so many people of her generation and her parents’, represented above all a concrete horizon of possibility. In a rural economy which was still largely feudal, people of her class were being told for the first time that they could be freed from abject poverty and the servitude which had marked their families for centuries. It was like being told that the natural world could be made to operate by new laws, and in some ways Nonna struggled to reconcile those ideas with the Christian teachings to which she was no less devout.

I call myself a Marxist because of Antonio Gramsci.

I call myself a Marxist because of this picture of workers leaving the Pirelli factory in Via Ponte Seveso, Milan, in 1905.

I was born next to another historic Milanese factory where they made Alfa Romeo cars, although it closed when I was very little. For some years in the 1970s my mother taught adults – mostly factory workers – who had never completed their intermediate school diploma. The classes were in the evening so I often tagged along. I got to know some of the students quite well.

I never knew those Pirelli workers but I recognise that look. It says this is our work. This is our factory.

The true sense of the working class as an agent of its own history, which is one of the key lessons of Marxism, was felt so strongly in Italy partly because no serious attempt could be made to claim that our liberal democracy was the best, most reliable source of improved working and living conditions for ordinary people, as it had segued directly into Fascism. Not for us the sanitised version of what we might call ‘trickle down history’, so popular in the anglosphere, whereby social progress is dispensed by benevolent elites at historically opportune times. It is the fear of insurrection that builds schools and hospitals, that redistributes land, that shortens the working week. It is the exercise of that power.

Western deindustrialisation doesn’t mean that factory jobs have disappeared, either. They have just been relocated to other countries, where it is possible to set conditions and wages that first-world workers successfully rebelled against many decades ago. It’s one of the geniuses of capital, to have achieved the internationalism that socialists rightly regarded as a necessary condition to their eventual success.

Conversely, I call myself a Marxist in spite of this picture.

The crushing of the Hungarian uprising of 1956 is just one in the long list of crimes of Soviet imperialism. However, its effect on the international political network to which the Italian Communist Party belonged at the time was one that had not been felt before. Many renounced their Party membership in those years, while the Party began a far too laborious process of distancing itself from the line dictated by Moscow – a process that wasn’t yet complete by the time I was born, in 1971. Budapest, Prague and everything that came before and after, all of this history belongs to anyone who claims words such as Marxist or socialist for themselves, just as American and British liberalism must reckon with genocide, slavery and imperialism. Historical crimes, or ongoing ones for that matter, cannot be liquidated as aberrations or deviations, which is why I cannot abide the revisionist programmes of many a Marxist reading group (‘Week one: Why the Soviet Union wasn’t socialist.’ ‘Week two: Why Cuba isn’t socialist.’ You get the idea.) Don’t tell me why an implementation of the programme wasn’t ‘correct’. But feel free to tell me what went wrong, and why we should still care about what you, Marx or anybody else has to say.

And so, too, I must account – firstly to myself – for why I think Marxism is still worth the time or the bother. And I reason that communism is an old idea, older than Marx and Engels, and that just as the failure of Athenian democracy didn’t consign that particular idea to the dustbin of history, neither should the failure of 20th Century revolutions invalidate all future revolutions, or stop us from believing that another world is possible (nor absolve us from the responsibility of building it). As Primo Levi once wrote, in one sense, and one sense only, crimes such as the Stalinist Purges can be said to be aberrations: for the ideology that produced them wasn’t predicated on totalitarianism and the elimination of difference, like fascism, but on equality and emancipation. It is easy to imagine socialism without the Purges, wrote Levi, and to that project we must always return.

Some say the ultimate failure of communism and socialism is encoded in human nature. I don’t have to look outside my family to call bullshit on this one. My grandmother was also taught that the atavistic, feudal order in which she was born was natural, yet despite being barely literate she learned that it couldn’t possibly be true.

I don’t call myself a Marxist because materialism provides a revolutionary key to tracing and understanding human history, any more than I call myself a Newtonist because I accept that the Principia Mathematica have broad application. Marx’s aspiration was not just to interpret the world, but to change it. And it should be ours, too. Maybe you think you have time to wait for history to trickle down. Maybe you’re well off enough that you don’t need to care. I’m happy for you. But there are people for whom not struggling is not a viable choice, and in time your children might well be among them.

I call myself a Marxist not because of my parents, who weren’t, but because of most of their friends, who were. Theirs was the Communist Party as a ‘country apart’ described by Pier Paolo Pasolini (‘a clean country in a dirty country, a honest country in a dishonest country, an intelligent country in a foolish country, an educated country in an ignorant country, a humanistic country in a consumerist country’). They lived their values in everything they did, including the time we spent together. They agitated, they debated, they took part in myriad struggles (including the struggle to make Marxism better), with a clarity and integrity that awes me still. At the end of it all they didn’t feel, I think, betrayed or defeated. Could they have done it without the ‘horizon’ of socialism? Perhaps. But I doubt it. Even old sceptical me is not naïve enough to think that faith doesn’t come into it, insinuating itself within the folds of a philosophical tradition that supposedly hails from the high-water mark of scientific positivist thinking.

But the lesson I learned from my parents’ friends is also practical: what Marxism furnishes to working people and the dispossessed are vital forms of organization and the consciousness of being historical actors. It is the lifeblood, among others, of the union movement, of which Marxism is one of the necessary souls. And if anyone ever tries to sell you a Left without unions, well, you know what to say to them, don’t you?

I call myself a Marxist because of my children. This ought to be the easiest one to understand. Louis Blanc’s old phrase, ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their need’, takes on extra meaning when you deal with disability or chronic illness. My partner and I don’t want our children to grow up to be tolerated or cared for; we want them to be included, valued and allowed to flourish. This is what emancipation actually means. And it’s easy for us to see that our family’s struggle resembles many others. It is the common experience of all the people – and there are very many kinds – who are not deemed fit to belong to our society as equals, because their needs aren’t compatible with the needs of capital. The shared understanding that the justice we aspire to cannot come from this economic system in turn forms the basis of solidarity.

I call myself a Marxist because I am more of a Marxist than anything else.

Finally, I call myself a Marxist so that you know who I am and what my whakapapa is. I am not going to try to convert you. I don’t currently belong to any socialist organisations, not because I don’t think they have value, or because what little political energy I have must be spent elsewhere, but rather because I’ve always been more of a sausage sizzle Marxist than a leader of people, and these groups are so small that it’s hard to sit at the back of the room. But I also think that I would struggle to ‘sell’ Marxism at my age, and to the people of this country. My greatest wish for these ideas at this point in history is that they be available to people, alongside others. They are very old ideas, after all, but then the roots of Indigenous politics in Aotearoa are very deep. My hope is for a synthesis that might offer a way forward.

In the meantime, there is no shortage of political jobs around us, much work we can do – as progressives, malcontents or whatever we want to call ourselves.

If you survived that, and are willing to take further punishment, my essay for the current print edition of Overland on who owns the internet is now available online.