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Andrew Bolt simply does not understand Marxism

By Tristan Ewins - posted Monday, 24 February 2014

Last week Herald-Sun columnist Andrew Bolt made a written assault against the reservation of any place for the teaching of Marxism in our universities: blaming Marxism for millions of deaths. He described it as a "totalitarian ideology".

In response to Andrew: You're entitled to your opinion as a conservative to oppose Marxism, or leftism in general. But get your facts straight.

In the 19th Century Social Democratic - that is Marxist - parties were at the very forefront of the struggle for free, universal and equal suffrage in Europe. What is more, when the Marxist Left split during the 1914-1919 period Social Democratic Marxists opposed the Great War bloodbath; but also opposed the new 'Communism' as espoused by the Bolsheviks in Russia. Specifically, they resolutely opposed over-centralisation, one party dictatorship, militarisation of labour, the suppression of civil liberties, and the dissolution of the Russian constituent assembly. That's right: Marxists were amongst the most steadfast defenders of democracy.


The Marxist Social Democrats understood the damage that would be done to the Social Democratic cause by desperate and authoritarian strategies that broke the traditional nexus between socialism, democracy and freedom.

Yet for Bolt Marxism is equated with 'totalitarianism' ; and there are arguments that 'socialism has been tried and it failed'.

Yes, Marxists tend to believe in 'totality' in the sense that the 'movement of economy and society as a whole' is held to be graspable at its core largely as a process of class struggle (for example, the liberal capitalists struggle against the old monarchist Absolutism; and the working class's struggle against exploitation by capitalists). But 'totality' is not the same as 'totalitarianism' – interpreted as overwhelming repression. Although some interpretations of Marxism insist on 'closure' in the sense that they believe the trajectory of society's development to be 'inevitable' (yet here also there were dissidents; eg: Eduard Bernstein; and also today's 'Post-Marxists').

Also, those who condemn Marxism rarely concede the atrocities committed for the sake of capitalism, and to smash the Left. Half a million murdered in Indonesia in 1965-66; 300,000 slain in Guatemala in the 1980s; the bloody coup against the democratically elected socialist Allende government in Chile 1973; and the Western role in bombing Cambodia – which precipitated the Khmer Rouge's seizure of power.

And today consider the oppression in Bahrain where the Shia ethnic majority is repressed, and in response to protests dissidents have been killed and jailed; and civil liberties are regularly violated. But Bahrain hosts a US Naval Base just as Syria hosts a Russian Naval Base.

Yes, it must be recognized that self-proclaimed 'Marxist' movements have at times degenerated into Stalinist oppression, terror and mass murder. The Khmer Rouge comes to mind; as does today's North Korean regime. But these have little in common with the democratic Marxists who early on perceived the danger posed by authoritarian and terroristic strategies, as well as the danger posed by 'cults of personality'.


For examples of democratic Marxists: look to Julius Martov, Karl Kautsky, Max Adler and Otto Bauer. Further to the Left consider the position of Rosa Luxemburg. To summarize: all of these figures are notable for their opposition to war, and their criticisms of Bolshevist strategy and tactics. All these Marxists respected human freedom, and the need for participatory democracy as the embodiment of this freedom; but also because self-correction in democracies can best be promoted through the observance of those principles.

For another inspirational example of democratic Marxism in practice, look to the "Austro-Marxists" (members of the Austrian Social-Democratic Workers' Party - including Adler, Bauer and others) and their fight for democracy both before and after WWI.

The Austro-Marxist strategy included the development of social and cultural societies, associations and institutions. These included extensive public housing projects: "64,000 apartments constructed between 1923 and 1933", housing "one seventh of Vienna's population" at "5 per cent of a workers' wages". Also provided for were education services, child-care, libraries, health care, playgrounds, gymnasia, swimming and wading pools, meeting halls, youth facilities, carpentry shops, post-offices, cafes, lectures, music programs, symphony orchestras, choral societies and more. Furthermore, this 'institutional' strategy facilitated "an atmosphere of co-operation and solidarity" amongst the Viennese working class.

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For further information see:

Gruber, Helmut, 'Red Vienna – Experiment in Working Class Culture 1919-1934', Oxford University Press, New York, 1991
Rabinbach, Anson, "The Crisis of Austrian Socialism – From Red Vienna to Civil War – 1927-1934", The University of Chicago Press, London, 1983

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About the Author

Tristan Ewins has a PhD and is a freelance writer, qualified teacher and social commentator based in Melbourne, Australia. He is also a long-time member of the Socialist Left of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). He blogs at Left Focus, ALP Socialist Left Forum and the Movement for a Democratic Mixed Economy.

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