Marxism’s Modern Revival

In contrast to the global rise of populism that headlines the news each day, a more nuanced upsurge in exhibitions of communism has risen: Finland is experimenting with universal basic income. The United States, a pluralist and painstakingly capitalist country, saw a self-proclaimed socialist candidate climb surprisingly far in recent presidential elections. China’s Communist People’s Party is attaining more power and popular support than ever, untouched by its market economy, while Spain’s anti-inequality Podemos Party’s membership has grown exponentially since its establishment in 2014. In July of 2017, thousands will gather in central London for the annual Marxism Festival. Waves of far-left thought have washed over the globe before, normally following a crisis that exposes the shortcomings of capitalist markets. Financial calamities like the European debt crisis and the widening income gap between the rich and poor across the world may have sparked a new propensity for the safety net of redistribution; however, the implications of Marxist-imbued agendas among many youth populations, coinciding with far-right leaders being elected to some of the world’s most powerful countries, could have dramatic and polarizing consequences.

As with most of the cases of global surges of leftist and socialist thought, parties arise when an economic or social crisis shows the flaws in the unchecked capitalism that became the dominant and unquestioned global ideology in the era of Reagan and Thatcher. In Spain, the Podemos Party arose after Spain’s economic crisis beginning in 2008, as debt calamities continue to this day. When the party was at its height in 2015, one-third of the Spanish workforce was either jobless or earned less than the minimum annual salary of €9,080. The self-declared democratic socialist party began to garner a surprising amount of national support in a country that had long been governed by two, dominant parties. Only a year after their formation, Podemos held 22% of the Spanish vote, surging ahead of the conservative Partido Popular, and its leftist opposition, el Partido Socialista Obrero Español. Even with a socialist party already having a dominant position on the Spanish ticket, Podemos veered further left, advocating a sort of new Marxism focused less on class struggle and more on unifying marginalized groups like feminists, environmentalists, minorities, the unemployed, and the LGBTQ community, attempting to make them and their ideals the new norm of mainstream Spanish politics. Podemos’ leadership and party doctrines are still modeled after the book “Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics”, a 1985 Post-Marxist work on the role of hegemony and political class identity in modern politics. Podemos represents a socialism redefined for the 21st century, still disparate enough from the era of 5-year plans and gulags to avoid a communist scare, yet retaining its clearly Marxist characteristic of uniting against the establishment and distributing wealth among all.

The concept of universal basic income aligns well with the Marxist concepts of state distribution of resources, and by extension, eliminating class boundaries defined by wealth. In January of 2017, Finland launched a two-year experiment with this concept. Scrapping all other social benefits of this traditionally high-welfare state, the government will now give all unemployed citizens roughly $580 USD each month to spend freely. Many criticize the concept of a universal basic income of eliminating the incentive of the unemployed to find a job, as most plans reduce the amount of money recipients see as soon as they find a job and start working. However, Finland hopes to avoid this paradox that befell Marxism by not reducing the federal monthly income if the person does find work; therefore, working in addition to the federal income would only mean more money in the bank for the recipient. Finnish economists hope that the constant and assured income will not only provide a more stable economic base for citizens in an increasingly volatile macroeconomic world, but will also allow people more freedom to pursue education, volunteer work, and leisure activities.

The Chinese Communist Party may be the most apparent and largest example of a surviving, thoroughly-communist identity. After opening to a relatively free economic market, China’s Communist Party (CCP) is seeing some of its strongest approval ratings ever. In China, the Communist party is not riding on the backs of a small group of radical leftist youth as it is in most nations; it is the strongest, and only, governing party of a massive nation. Roughly 1 in every 16 people living in China is admitted into the CCP through a grueling examination and background check process, with 87.7 million members in total. These citizens hold every top position in the government, military, state-owned enterprises, and banking, and without membership, economic and even social upward mobility may be severely limited. Part of the entrance process is the party test – a two-hour examination on Marxism, Mao Zedong, and ideologies of other communist and socialist leaders that the nation’s elite still regard as fundamental. While the government has allowed the economic sector to open to global markets to enhance growth, international competitiveness, and domestic approval ratings, they retain many Marxist tenants, most noticeably, centralized state control. Almost every Chinese bank is state-owned, allowing loans to be distributed favoring party members. The new media landscape has eroded the Party’s traditionally watertight control of information, yet a significant amount of party media control remains in place. Tightly controlled Communist Party media outlets such as the People’s Daily coexist with more privatized newspapers, although even these are subject to the Party Propaganda Department’s censorship.  Propaganda reminiscent of the Maoist era is becoming more and more ubiquitous, with billboards commanding the people to “Sing Praises for the Party” hanging throughout the cities. In a totally free society, this would appear absurd and totalitarian, but among a populace imbued with Marxism, the absolute adoration of a single party is taught from a young age, coming about entirely naturally when Chinese citizens begin to have a real effect on national politics.

While far-left thought will hopefully never return to the days of five year plans ending in famines, a new type of communism, remodeled for the 21st century, may latch on to mainstream politics once again. In the face of global economic crises, increasing income disparities, and constant images of people living in destitute conditions and war zones, the richest 1% holding as much wealth as the rest of the world combined seems more and more unnatural. Because of this, Marxism may be reemerging as a means of grappling with an increasingly unequal world. Even moving beyond the usual metrics of inequality between the rich and poor within countries, inequality is also increasing between countries. Most Americans who are considered “poor” by US government standards would be placed in a middle income globally. As long as a few rich countries have the power to set the global rules for trade agreements, structural adjustment, and debt systems within international monetary institutions, inequality will perpetuate. The same is true on the national levels, where income inequality is approaching levels like those of Marx’s century. In no way is a working-class revolution or state ownership the answer, but a surge in Marxist thought in modern politics with leftist parties gaining surprising power merits consideration by right and left leadership as to where to fit these new agendas in modern politics. In places like America and Spain, countries where two parties have dominated for most of their modern political history, both conservative populism and leftist Marxism are arising in response to uniquely global issues, such as refugee flows and international trade agreements. With increasingly radical political options available, a radical change in the political system may come about too. In an increasingly unequal world, third parties or multiparty systems that give voice to moderation may be the only hope for fighting dramatic polarization to either extreme. Demand for parties other than the dominant two need to be given the legitimate political space to voice their concerns within mainstream politics, lest they take more extreme measures to create this space themselves.


Rachael Hughen

Author: Rachael Hughen

Rachael is a sophomore in the Elliott School studying International Affairs with a concentration in Conflict Resolution and a minor in Geology. She is also a member of the Varsity Cross Country and Track teams at GW. Rachael has a special interest in the region of Southeast Asia and hopes to work in the field of conflict resolution in this region after college. She is currently working for a human rights NGO in DC and has studied abroad in Finland. Other interests include running, hang gliding, and painting.