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Socialism, Marx and the Collapse of the Berlin Wall

Standing at the End of History

To some political commentators, the fall of the Berlin Wall by thousands of East Germans on 7th November 1989 is considered one of the most important events of the 20th century. Two questions immediately present themselves; Why and for whom? If the two questions are applied to the working class and working class interests the answer is not the one to be found in the history books written by the winners of the Cold War.

Workers have long stopped dancing on the streets of Leipzig chanting out “we are the people”. The workers who escaped the East German totalitarian state and its Stasi secret police did not escape from capitalism. The working class remained a working class with all the attendant social problems of living within the exploitive wages system no matter on what side of the wall they happened to live. Millions of workers in Eastern Europe took the promises of a bright new dawn at face value, only to face unemployment, economic hardship, and social turmoil.

In fact, even some Capitalist politicians, like Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister and Francois Mitterrand, the French President, wanted the Berlin Wall to stay up fearing a powerful political and economic unified Germany. The winners was the capitalist class in West Germany with access to a pool of cheap labour and a potentially more powerful and effective German capitalism by increasing its influence in the European Union and by having a greater competitive edge on the world capitalist market. In a recent book, GERMAN EUROPE, the sociologist, Ulrick Bech, commented on Germany’s growing economic and political power in the EU and how it differs from the 20th century: “Germany has no need to invade, and yet it is ubiquitous”. The nationalist response in Europe to German power is rapid and unpleasant.

Socialists have been told by intellectuals like Francis Fukuyama that the collapse of “Communism” signified the “end of history”. But where would we locate the “end of history”? One place to start would be where Marx’s political ideas are reputed to be buried; under the rubble of the Berlin Wall itself. Although most of the wall dividing East and West Berlin has long been swept away to be replaced in many places by smart and expensive commercial developments and luxury flats, its memory still carries powerful political myths and illusions.

What has changed?

For some political commentators the breaching of the Berlin Wall, at which 136 people trying to escape had lost their lives, represents a defining historical moment when a political and economic system disappeared for good. The fragmented wall represents a “tomb stone” for the political project begun by Marx and Engels with the publication in 1848 of the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO. The economist, Stephanie Flanders, for example, in her recent programme on Marx, tried unsuccessfully to visually link Marx’s critique of political economy outlined in his three volumes; CAPITAL with the former East German regime. Ms Flanders was shown ominously walking around the bleak and forbidding rooms of the former Stasi headquarters (now a museum), located in the Lichtenberg locality of East Berlin, where political prisoners were routinely beaten, tortured and killed as through Marx’s writings were instrumental to what happened there (MASTERS OF MONEY, BBC2 October 2012.

And for many others opponents, of what they erroneously understand to be Socialism/Communism, the fall of the Berlin Wall represents a freedom where millions can now enjoy the consumer utopia of Western capitalism with its “free markets” and shopping malls. Capitalism; the instant gratification society with its illusionary but childish advertising mantra of “I, I, I, “me, me, me” and “I want, I want, I want”. A social system whose only core aspirational value is “to have and to consume” rather than “to be and to become”; a society which celebrates money breeding more money as if by magic and where the role models are the rich and privileged minority whose empty and worthless life-styles fleetingly pass across the pages of the Sunday newspaper supplements.

Walking along the Berlin Wall heritage trail with its graffiti-sprayed fragments of concrete and twisted reinforcement bars as well as the obligatory commemorative museums and art installations are we really tracing out a temporal contour leading to “the end of history”? The reality of Berlin gives an altogether different answer to the image of Berlin presented by the German State who hosts “The fall of Communism” jamboree with other European leaders every ten years or so.

The City of Berlin is itself bankrupt mirroring the bankruptcy of economic liberalism which had sketched out a capitalist utopia of aspirational smiling and happy consumers living out fantasy lives offered to them by the advertising industry, that is, before the economic crisis of 2008 with its subsequent trade depression and austerity programmes of pay cuts, unemployment and deep reduction in living standards. If Berlin’s yearly interest payable on its 68 billion Euro debts is represented by individual 100 Euro notes it would be 97 times higher than the Brandenburg Gate. There are few smiles and whoops of joy from the German capitalist class, who has to pay out of their profits the interest of this debt.

As for the working class what freedom do they currently enjoy? There is the constant attack on their wages and working conditions, the problem of unemployment, the intense competition for jobs, the constant exploitation of labour-power within the productive process with the generation of what Marx called “surplus value” and the daily struggle to make ends meet; a working class forced to carve out an existence in between pockets of unimaginable wealth and privilege – a Berlin which is now “a global magnet for the fashionable and rich” (BBC NEWS 27th March 2013).

Correspondingly, 32 percent of former East Berliners now want to return to the days of East Germany; a case of going from the frying pan into the fire and back again. In the bleak housing estates which scar the Eastern sector of the City, an ugly and growing nationalism is rife. One of the fastest growing political groups is the neo-Nazis like the 6,000 member National Democratic Party (NPD) who march through East German towns feeding off social alienation, anti-Semitism, fear of immigrants, no jobs and no future. At the end of 2012, a report found that as many as 16 per cent of former East Germans holds a “Fixed extreme right-wing worldview” (THE INDEPENDENT 30th March 2013). A capitalist utopia of glass and steel shopping malls is no good to someone who is unemployed or living on the minimum wage.

The political project begun by Marx is by all accounts alive and well and for a very good reason. Marx’s politics of liberation for the working class has no connection, contra Ms Flanders and the BBC, with the totalitarian politics of the East German ruling class and its secret Police. The establishment of Socialism has as its subject the working class not political leaders. Freedom for the working class is not freedom to shop but freedom from capital and the wages system.

Is Marx’s Ideas Buried under the Berlin Wall?

Marx did not write for governments, apparatchiks, self-serving politicians and intellectuals. Marx wrote instead for the working class, men and women forced to sell their ability to work for a wage or salary, and in doing so he laid down two important political principles: “the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself” and “the proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority” (COMMUNIST MANIFESTO).

The working class still have to act as a “Class for itself” (HOLY FAMILY, Marx). The demonstrable failure of capitalism to meet the needs of all society presses home the necessity for the conscious and political struggle by the world’s working class for a Socialist alternative. We are not “living in the best of all possible worlds”; we have not come to the “End of history”.

Of course, when the Berlin wall did come down, politicians, academics and the media lost no time to launch themselves into a sustained propaganda campaign based around the slogan "communism is dead" erroneously concluding that Marx, the "prophet" of communism, had been finally discredited. The German State even retains one larger-than-life bronze statue of Marx and Engels, originally erected by the East German authorities in Scholossplatz in what was East Berlin, as “a warning from history” for those daring to believe there is an alternative to the profit system.

But Marx does give a warning from history; capitalism can never be made to work in the interests of the working class; capitalism has conflict and contradictions it cannot resolve. The capitalist utopia offered by economic liberalism to the world in 1989 was an illusion masking uncomfortable truths about markets. To borrow a phrase from Rudyard Kipling -Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew – (Rudyard Kipling, THE GODS OF THE COPY BOOK HEADINGS).

As a result of the world economic depression and its impact on German capitalism, publishers and bookshops in Germany have all reported a surge in sales of Marx’s works. Most popular is the first volume of his major work, DAS KAPITAL, read because the promise made by capitalism’s politicians to the workers in East Germany of the freedom to shop is as intellectually empty and socially alienating an experience as it is for workers in West Berlin; a bound and closed world of commodities and commodity fetishism.

That Marx’s books are being read again reminds us that this was not always the case. On 10th May 1933, THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO and DAS KAPITAL were being unceremoniously burnt. A few miles away from the Berlin Wall, Marx’s works were taken out of libraries and thrown onto a large bonfire by university students and members of Hitler Youth. Other works included the poetry and plays of his friend Heinrich Heine who had written prophetically in his 1820-1821 play ALMANSTOR the remark – now engraved on a plaque inset in Bebelplatz: Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen" (Where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people). An enclosed library with no entrance door and empty shelves has been sunk into the middle of Bebelplatz with a glass plate set into the cobbles to mark the place where Marx’s books (along with those of others) were burnt.

Has History Ended?

There is some irony in using Berlin to question “the end of history”. The National Socialists (sic) thought that they too were standing at the “end of history” and about to establish a 1000 year Reich on the rubble of the Weimer Republic. Hitler’s racial State lasted for a mere 12 years; the Bolsheviks totalitarian regime lasted just 74 years. Capitalism, too, is bounded by time; with an origin and termination in class struggle.

However, as propaganda “The Collapse of Communism” has had a detrimental, albeit, temporary effect on spreading Socialist ideas. Few at the moment want to be associated with what they perceive to be a failed political theory even though in reality the case for Socialism has not failed at all. And joining organised political parties has also declined with anarchism and pressure groups a more popular vehicle for political dissent. The direct action associated with the Libertarian Socialists, Left Communists, Council Communists and Situationists dominate the thinking of university intellectuals who dismiss out of hand the revolutionary use by the working class of the vote and Parliament. And any form of planning of production and distribution has been temporarily tarnished by the demonstrable failure of USSR five year plans, nationalisation and centralization where even production of nails and shoes required bureaucratic approval from the Soviet planners at Gosplan.

We are not living at the end of history but instead passing through a moribund and corrosive political conservatism such that has not been experienced since the end of the Napoleonic War. In 1814 a victorious aristocratic ruling class imposed on Europe the Treaty of Vienna confident they had seen off the political ideas associated with the American and French revolutions.

Similarly, today we are passing through a claustrophobic political atmosphere; a stifling conservative reaction throughout Europe reflected in the growth of nationalism, racism and xenophobia on the one hand and an almost unquestioned acceptance of market fundamentalism on the other. However if there is warning from the past to those who believe history has ended and it is this; 37 years after the Treaty of Vienna, the conservatism in Europe ended with the Revolutions of 1848; Revolutions which bought into the world THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, a revolutionary political programme and capitalism’s gravediggers; the revolutionary working class.

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