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Frederick Engels and Karl Marx, authors of the Communist Manifesto
Frederick Engels and Karl Marx, authors of the Communist Manifesto

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When I announce that I am a socialist, I guess it is no surprise because we are all socialists now. We just bought General Motors … The fact is that we now have Marxism realized. We own the means of production and we did not have to fire a single shot. It is really quite phenomenal what went on today.

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- Pat Martin, NDP MP for Winnipeg Centre, in the House of Commons, Monday, June 1, 2009

Leo Panitch knew that Marxism was back, brothers, when he was asked by AM640 ("Home of the Leafs"), a sports-mad radio station in Toronto, to talk about the GM deal. The Canadian people suddenly own a few levers of the means of production, and some of the comrades wanted to know what they'd gotten themselves into.

The financial collapse has been manna for Marxists. Most Canadians don't realize York University's Professor Panitch is one of the world's most prominent Marxist thinkers, a contender for the mantle of E..P. Thompson, the founder of the British New Left and, like Mr. Thompson before him, editor of the Socialist Register. This is a huge deal among Marxists, who wear their sense of history the way the rest of us wear underpants.

But the money meltdown has pushed Prof. Panitch to centre stage. Last month at Ryerson University, he delivered the Phyllis Clarke memorial lecture, in which he explained why Marxism is more relevant today than ever. A version of the speech is the cover story of the latest edition of Foreign Policy magazine, the bible of the Washington political establishment.

In Germany (where they're thinking of nationalizing banks), sales of Das Kapital, Karl Marx's masterwork, increased tenfold last year. (To over 1,000!) More copies of Prof. Panitch's Renewing Socialism have sold in the last four months than in the previous seven years. The London School of Economics - the once-leftist school where the professor did his doctorate, although he complains it now offers nary a course on Marx - has invited him back to a conference. Title? "Revisiting Marxism."

FROM BERLIN WALL TO WALL STREET

To top all that, last week Prof. Panitch lit out for Moscow to take part in Russia's version of the Davos forum on global economics. He was invited by none other than Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's President, to discuss whether the financial crisis could reinvigorate socialism as much as the fall of the Berlin Wall collapsed it. "Political systems with state capitalist elements seem to have advantages over countries with a pure liberal model," the conference's literature points out, before concluding that "liberal capitalism … obviously heads towards its historical end."

"They're flying me business class at a cost of $4,000 because I have a PhD defence Monday morning in Toronto," Prof. Panitch says. "It's ridiculous. Marxism seems to be the flavour of the month."

CEOs aren't abandoning their bonuses for worker committees and the power of the people. But Prof. Panitch and others point out that Marx predicted this collapse - right down to credit default swaps and other kinky tricks of finance. Marxism, they say, is a powerful tool with which to understand the mess we're in - so powerful it will make us question the system that produced the crisis in the first place. Prof. Panitch has zero patience for the leftish wimpdom of the New Democrats or of Bob Rae, whom Prof. Panitch refers to as a "moral dwarf."

He saves his deepest scorn for Stephen Harper. The spectacle of the Prime Minister, a free-market economist once bankrolled by the insurance industry, admitting that governments had no choice but to take over the North American car industry was rare redemption for a Marxist.

"What does that say? What it indicates is that these huge corporations, while they may be legally private, are incapable of operating as private institutions. And if they can't function without being public, then the state has to maintain order."

Canadian taxpayers and the Canadian Auto Workers now own more than $10-billion worth of GM stock. But neither the union nor taxpayers have a real voice on the board, and GM executives in Detroit are still pretending they own the joint, refusing to disclose financial details and vowing to close 2,500 dealerships, regardless of whether they're profitable.

"That shows you how bizarre it is," Prof. Panitch says, "that we call ourselves a democracy, but we have all these 'private' corporations that control our lives. Who owns them? The shareholders? Who are the shareholders in this case? Who owns GM? What's being taken over by whom? And the fact that that question hasn't been asked is frightening. Really, it has nothing to do with being a socialist. It has to do with being a democrat."

Like Marx, the radical left insists capitalism brought these problems on itself. The tumultuous late 1970s - the last time organized labour had any power, when politicians still bragged about "mixed economies" - were followed in short order by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who managed to kidnap the affections of working people. Free trade, globalization, the near-death of trade unions, slashed social spending and the erosion of the economic power of the middle class ensued.

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