Marxism is history. Markets are essential. But capitalism needed and needs ideas from the left
As the Chinese Communist Party celebrates its 100th anniversary, its record is mixed, across economic, political and social specters it is a good time to ask – how do we assess communism? In 1989, when the Soviet Union cracked, China had already reset its Marxism, Francis Fukuyama predicted the death of communism as a living ideology. But he remains dead, undead and alive at the same time.
Articulated at the end of the 19th century, classical Marxist doctrine never really materialized. Even in the Soviet Union and China, the idea took shape in their own way. Today, communism in one form or another still lives in Vietnam, Laos and Cuba. It remains robust in parts of Latin America. It still generates violent struggles all over the world. And its intellectual influence remains powerful in the social sciences.
It is a leftist policy, a set of ideas inspired but very, very distinct from classical communism, which endures, not as a struggle but as a compromise. As a social democracy, it has tempered capitalist excesses in nations around the world, through cycles of power. In India, Kerala saw the world’s first elected Communist government in the 1950s. Congress also borrowed many ideas from the left, especially in the 1970s. And the right-wing BJP sensed the power of left-wing social policy in a poor and unequal country.
Just as classical communists misinterpreted it, so too have classical liberals. Global capitalism not only went through crises, it also needed government help to avoid collapses. Moreover, it has left too many people insecure, without state support, and shaken by social churn. At macro levels globally, responses include a rise in right-wing populism, as well as socialism, defined differently in different contexts, gaining respectability.
And just as many so-called right-wing parties are now sticking to some of the basic ideas of left-wing social policies, the left has moved on as well. Most of today’s leftist platforms do not seek to nationalize industries or replace markets with central planning. But they emphasize ideas and policies that they believe will produce less inequitable results and emphasize public oversight of essential services. The Covid experience also revealed the downsides of relying primarily on privatized healthcare. It has also, once again, shown how crucial it is for governments to be able to provide both emergency social support and a plan for emergency responses like mass immunization. Whatever shape the near future takes, the left is likely to hold its own – and that’s good.
This article was published as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.
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