Indulge me if you will in a little reminiscence...
In 1980 I became an armchair Marxist. Armchair because I never marched in the street but I did propound the arguments of Marxism to anyone who would listen. Mostly this happened by shouting at the TV News or at friends in pubs.
As a student, I took a course in Marxism run by a lecturer at Warwick University called Pete Binns, then a notable policy-maker in the Socialist Workers Party. I experienced a little frisson of excitement when I heard a rumour that just by enrolling on this course, your name would go down on some sinister Government blacklist. To a student in the early days of Margaret "there is no such thing as society" Thatcher I have to tell you this seemed entirely possible.
Actually reading Marx, Engels, Lenin and the boys on subjects like "owning the means of production" was quite dreary and complex. But at least there were texts to read -- for where were the tomes on the glories of Capitalism? But the reason I liked Marxism was because I felt it was essentially optimistic.
For here was a ideology that wanted to incorporate the needs of everyone in society. It suggested that the entrenched unfairness and disparities of world we inhabit need not be simply accepted. It also dared to suggest that Capitalism was not necessarily the ultimate destination of mankind's evolution.
Particularly appealing to me was Karl Marx's idea of Dialectical Materialism, which suggested that history proceeds in a kind of zigzag. Take Capitalism. Inevitably (a word much beloved by Marxists) Capitalism would give rise to its opposite: Communism. The clash of these two ideologies would produce a third idea which we'll call Woofism. Inevitably Woofism would give rise to its opposite Miaowism.
Inevitably Woofism and Miaowism would clash -- and a new ideology would be formed, and so on in a zigzag for the rest of time or until we arrived at the perfect system. In this way humanity as a whole would evolve towards a fair system.
Of course the realities of the Soviet bloc were far from this. But the original idea was that Marxism was simply a stepping stone to something better.
Fast forward to 2003.... And the cusp of an unnecessary war against Iraq. And I would contend this has a great deal to do with the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, because the United States lost a major strut of its own identity: it lost its opposite.
Until then, the USA was able to state that it was completely different to the "Evil Empire" of Reagan's rhetoric. Because the USA stands for freedom of speech, democracy and all the virtues you can think of.
But just by being there, the Soviet Bloc actually helped the US (and to a much lesser extent the rest of the west) define itself -- because it had adopted an entirely different system.
Its collapse created a vacuum which, as Marx would have predicted, had to be filled.
And now the "Evil Empire" has been replaced by the "Axis of Evil". (Note how the word Axis is used here. It implies a moral equivalence with the Axis powers of WW2 Nazi Germany and its allies.)
Now as the US bestrides the globe as the last remaining superpower it appears to me that it is looking for another opposite. Edward Said's influential book Orientalism (published 1978) pointed out that the west has long looked at Islam as being its "other" a kind of psychological dark underbelly onto which we in the West have, since the crusades, mapped on our fears, sexual fantasies, repressions and so on.
The attack on the twin towers was a despicable act of barbarism. But no-one on the planet could fail to notice the outburst of national pride and the major affirmation of identity that then occurred. Because here was a new evil. And in opposition to this America could define itself.
As an armchair Marxist I left university and decided I would reject bourgeois occupations. So I took a job in a warehouse with the proletariat. I was disappointed to find that the people I worked with weren't aspiring Marxists at all. One or two flirted with Fascism and Racism in a half-hearted way. One of these took me to a National Front pub which was full of old sour looking men drinking beer and discussing football. Not a threat there then.
For I found the great enemy of the English working class people I worked with -- and to a certain extent sprang from -- certainly wasn't global capitalism. If anything it was apathy and boredom. My already lukewarm revolutionary fervour cooled as the weeks stretched into months of stacking boxes on pallets, and watching the forklift truck driver, often off his head on LSD, zoom across the warehouse to load the waiting trucks.
Somewhere in all this dreary apathy I lost interest in Marxism. The disgust I felt at going to a Marxist conference based in London certainly helped. Here I met one actual worker -- a long distance lorry driver -- and 2,000 middle-class students swigging Chardonnay and braying about liberating the proletariat. But I wasn't the only one who had lost interest. I heard from a friend that the firebrand lecturer who had inspired me, was now working as a teacher of business studies.
My contribution to the downfall of the Evil Empire was this: a disengagement in active politics. Although I accepted that the Soviet Bloc was rotten and corrupt -- that is not the same as accepting the supremacy of capitalism.
What I do argue for now is this. The idea that -- somewhere out there -- exists an alternative way of living that does not engineer wars and an endless cycle of retaliation and bitterness.
Human ingenuity must one day be able to forge a system where we do not need to create enemies to be able to make sense of ourselves. Where we do not need to find a suspicious country and bomb its civilians and miserable conscripts into oblivion because we ourselves have no direction, and no self-definition.
The way Marxism was applied was a failure which is why the US and the West have prevailed. But let's not treat the idea of looking for an alternative as a joke, or something no longer worth bothering with.
(c) Peter Kenny 2003