The Workers Party presents a discussion series: What is Marxism?

Talk #1: Presentation slides available here

“What is Marxism” discussion
On July 24th the Workers Party held the first of a series of monthly discussions at 19 Tory St, starting with the topic “What is Marxism?” This aimed to open up questions of whether ongoing social movements should use and engage with Marxist methods.

Ian Anderson of the Workers Party opened with a talk on the problems we face, and the use of historical materialism in addressing them. These problems include a capitalist system, which has produced an 83% rise in productivity and 25% decline in real wages over the last 25 years in NZ; and an ideological impasse where many are afraid to name the problem.

Ian went into the philosophical basis of Marxism, an approach which is both dialectical (seeing contradiction, change, how “everything flows and nothing stays”) and materialist (soberly assessing material conditions.) From there the talk outlined developments in Marxism over the 20th Century, including theories of imperialism, the gendered division of labour, and the party. The talk highlighted internal struggles within Marxism, particularly over the difficult task of establishing a new society without a new bureaucracy seizing power. It was underlined that capitalism took centuries to establish, and establishing socialism would be a long-term process not an event.

Finally, the talk concluded that we need to be willing to name and understand a problem (capitalism) in order to address it, and to struggle over concrete questions.

From there, chair Kassie Hartendorp opened the floor. Discussion covered questions of vanguard parties, class identification, and the need for radicals to present a “vision.”

Vanguard organisations
Some participants disagreed with the idea of vanguard organisations, which was briefly touched on in the talk. In particular, the legacy of undemocratic “Communist Parties” weighs like a nightmare on the minds of living social movements. Some participants also brought up anarchist critiques of the “red bureaucracy.”

Those who support the idea of vanguards responded in a number of ways. The necessity of internal democracy in revolutionary movements was strongly affirmed, with “democratic centralism” contrasted with “bureaucratic centralism.” It was also noted that vanguards of various kinds exist whether we want them to or not; the important thing is making that explicit, conscious and accountable. This was compared with leadership; leaders often emerge organically, but without structures to hold them accountable this can result in a “tyranny of structurelessness.” The need for revolutionaries to act as a memory of the class, to internalise lessons of previous struggles, was argued.

One participant also questioned whether democracy or majority rule was appropriate, stating a preference for consensus-based decision making. The speaker responded that both approaches had their merits and neither should be fetishized. However, it was noted that for mass organisations, majority rule is generally more appropriate; for example many Occupy movements have shifted to 90% majority, and the anarchist revolution in Spain used majority voting.

Class identification
Discussion also covered the question of class identification. It was noted that many in the room could be described as “middle class” and educated. Further, that Western Marxism is historically campus-based, in contrast to much of the Third World where Marxism has wider support.

Some noted the distinction between different definitions of class. Marxists define class by relation to production, while it is often defined by cultural tastes and consumption habits. “Middle class” does not have a clear meaning in Marxism, where class is more defined by ownership of the means of production; the majority of people in capitalist societies do not own the means of production. It was suggested that most people in the meeting could be described as “déclassé” or transitive, such as students.

Further, it was noted that the most organised and conscious sections of workers build broad links of solidarity. For example, the Maritime Union had organised many commemorations of International Women’s Day despite working in male-dominated workplaces, and supported student struggles for a Universal Allowance. In fact, organisation of workplaces is necessary for more workers to be able to participate in political activity.

Some noted that while the initial talk identified the problem, there needed to be more articulation of concrete solutions and a vision for the future.

Many wonder what socialism will look like. Marxism does offer an outline, of democratic social ownership over the means of production. One speaker argued that many details would be filled out through democratic struggle, and that small socialist groups can’t lay out a detailed accurate blueprint of a future socialist system. However, it was agreed that a vision of alternative solutions is necessary – for example investing the 80% rise in productivity over the last 25 years into improving living standards. More articulation of what is meant by “socialism” was seen as an important priority.


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