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.


Galeandra said...

Thanks for a refreshing and motivating piece. To steal another's trope, the past is another country but its geography embeds the paths we walk. Kia kaha.

Anonymous said...

One of the best things I have read for a long time. It is good to know I'm not the only one who thinks the way I do!

davidly said...

It'd be interesting to get your take — as it relates to struggling to make a Marxism better — on Gladio and how to deal with it, or not.

Giovanni Tiso said...

The history of the radical left is also the history of its means of repression, and Gladio's is by no means the least interesting one. I don't know that it really illuminates how we could improve Marxism though. I also believe it's more of concern for historians than for militants or activists at this point.

Tom Beethoven said...

A beautifully written piece - from the heart as well as the mind. I have never read a better rationale for social democracy. It is so sad that a country like NZ, that once lead the world in women's and worker's rights, is slipping straight into the pocket of capitalism.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"You can't self-identify as a Marxist reject Marxist theory & not bother to join a party because all you really want is reforms."

Sorry, comrade, but you don't get to decide what Marxism means to me. As an ideology, it informs both my political outlook and my political activity. If that's not good enough for you, feel free not to include me in your group.

Giovanni Tiso said...

(Incidentally, I'm pretty sure I saw the banners of the International Socialists, as well as comrades from other groups, at our recent rally for inclusive education, at the rallies for the Living Wage campaign and whenever the broader left has marched during my time in New Zealand for a cause worthy of their support. I'll inform them on your behalf that they must renounce their defeatist reformist ways as well.)

(Or maybe I won't.)

Marx Not Mao said...

Interesting post, perhaps if a nice number of commentators reveal their socialist underpinnings we may be able to get around to talking about what that means - but I suppose after a long period of keeping quiet it's enough to see people claim the term for themselves.

Combat Liberalism's comment is a bizarre one, and one really has to wonder these days if the eponymous article by Mao Tse Tung is even read by people who seem to think "Combat Liberalism" is just a fun meme to shout. The piece itself is actually pretty bizarre and contains a lot of the tedious 'truism as profundity' which Mao and Maoism employs for its sloganeering. Pray tell, what party shall Giovani join? Are there ample Marxist parties in New Zealand to join? There are a few decent Internationalist Communist groups, but they aren't the kind to be into mass recruiting in a period of class peace/working class defeat like this - so comrade Tiso would have to choose to adopt a very specific and committed amount of theoretical discipline to want to join such groups... quite simple, that is not for everyone.

For myself, Marxism contains a method of understanding the world and an economic understanding which elucidates the centrality of the international working class as a class capable of emancipating itself and, in tandem, all of humanity by seizing control of the means of production and distribution and running them to produce according to human needs. Really, when people say "what does it mean to be a Marxist today" the answer should in fact mean "quite similar to what it meant to be a communist in the historical workers movement". A commitment to the necessity of socialism, and that this socialism is the historic task of the international working class - and will make the moon landing look like a cake walk in terms of human achievement... potentially billions mobilising in solidarity to transform the conditions of their lives. That's what Marx and others predicted, emphasised, and have shown to be necessary for the liberation of humanity from all oppression. But being a Marxist today also means knowing we aren't on the cusp of winning, the working class has been losing - terribly - for decades. Capitalism sputters along, with profitability falling alarmingly and yet it continues. Our answer can not be a rabid fanaticism shouting slogans of past movements like a kind of historical re-enactment society. We know that when the working class stirs, they can move mountains, and it will stir one day.. whether or not Giovani Tiso the individual, or myself, or comrade "Combat Liberalism" joins "a party" today or not.

Tiger Mountain said...

well written piece Giovanni, as a fellow non aligned Marxist-was a party member for 25 years-I can relate to many of your points, always easier to take criticism of my lifelong political philosophy from someone more than "half informed" as the recent blogger that need not be named admitted to being

NZ is in some ways the least likely candidate for a fundamental change of class power; land of the SME, be your own boss, reactionary rural conservatives and a thousand lawn mowing rounds, yet if Maori and the modern working class, migrants and other oppressed ever achieve some unity in action on a consistent basis there will be fresh hope

Anonymous said...

Bravo; grazie!

Ben Wilson said...

I have never called myself a Marxist, although Marx is an important influence on my thinking. So it's beyond strange to find myself the chairman of a newly forming worker's association. I won't call it a union, because that suggests employee status, something that Uber drivers here don't officially have, and many would not want.

Working with the umbrella group First Union, I asked the more experienced heads if I could please meet with some people who had gone through what I am going through right now, forming an association like this. The sad answer was "No". There are so few newly forming associations that there is literally no one else who has the experience of actually doing it themselves to talk to in this sector. I'll have to look further afield.

So I can't claim a deep link to a historical tradition on a clear mission. We're literally making it up as we go. I only responded to a clarion call for social justice directly made to me in person by a large group of exploited workers (and my own feelings of exploitation as one of them).

I complained to a fellow stats student the other day that I didn't really have any kind of guide as to what our revolution looks like. He responded by pointing at me and saying "This is what it looks like". I found that a frightening thought, and yet it had a strong ring of truth - no one else is even trying for these guys.

And yet, I'm constantly reminded that the gig economy is trying to impose conditions that actually go back so far that the struggles of the a time before strong trade unionism even existed might be the place to look for inspiration.

But the world is so different now to how it was then that it's very hard to compare. Certainly many of the industrial actions that were possible then don't work well for a business model that is via an app and servers located offshore. On the flipside, workers also have distributed communication and organization mechanisms too - it was never so easy to get myself heard. Even 10 years ago it wasn't this easy.

And we do have stronger labour laws to fall back on, courtesy of the struggles of forefathers. It's just a matter of how to draw the bow so that those laws apply. And a multinational that uses boilerplate contracts around the world has a unique vulnerability to the kind of ruling that came out of the UK last week - literally every part of that ruling applies here - the underlying contract is identical in almost all parts. Globalizing industry could be met by globalizing law.

Work in progress. If you buy that Marxism is one of these, and probably always will be, then I can't see any problem in calling yourself a Marxist. Nor, for that matter, in not calling yourself one, even if the shoe actually fits.

Tiger Mountain said...

@Ben Wilson
Years ago one of the founding unions of the National Distribution Union which became FIRST; The Northern Drivers Union, (Secretary a well known Marxist-Bill Andersen) did attempt to organise owner drivers in the oil and courier industries, some taxi drivers and taxi office workers were Union members too in the old National Award days pre 1991

the courier drivers did quite well for a while in securing rates and reasonable contracts across Auckland but it was a challenge to counter the "be your own boss" ideology and get enough drivers acting collectively on a consistent basis, someone always ended up undercutting or drivers were denied work by the lead companies and lost their vehicles in some cases

that history should not deter you though Ben, these are different times and communication is indeed easier, with a campaign that includes seeking customer support, building solidarity among operators and pressing for legal safeguards like UNITE did with zero hours, a breakthrough might be achieved

Ben Wilson said...

Tiger, the way I saw it was this: Even if it's a hiding to nowhere, at least I tried. There was only one alternative suggested, for us to build our own Uber. I didn't see that as viable. If an alternative comes along that is less exploitative, fine. But I see it as our job to make sure that aspect of it is covered, not just building a whole new Uber and essentially being the last line in Animal Farm.

But ironically, I feel like we've achieved a great deal in a short time. Uber is so ridiculously exploitative, so cheeky to such an extreme degree, that it is simply demanded by not just the drivers, but everyone around them, even their competitors. I've had sympathy from every level of government except the actual top, from the whole taxi industry who are trying to help us.

So maybe we're entering a renaissance of organized labour, driven by the new form of exploitation that Uber invented.

Our biggest problem is staff churn. It's hard to organize labour that is so cleverly exploited that by the time they realize it, they also realize they don't want the job any more and just quit. Which means it's a movement driven by the people who care less about the money, ironically. The part timers like me who have other income. People who just hate being exploited. The most exploited ones, the very bottom of the pool, are so tight with money they can't even afford to be part of a membership of a professional association, even as cheaply as we've priced it ($5/month for associate membership).

ignotum said...

People have heard of Elsie Locke, right?
Right! She and Jack were our neighbours in the Avon Loop. Special kiwis