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Karl Marx has been called 'a thinker for the 21st century.' (The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press)
Karl Marx has been called 'a thinker for the 21st century.' (The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press)

With financial meltdowns and labour protests, is it the springtime for Marx? Add to ...

Cafeteria Marxists

You'd have to hunt pretty far to find true believers who still buy the whole package: a revolution of the working classes against their capitalist oppressors, leading to the abolition of private property and a classless society. But, much in the manner of cafeteria Catholics, who choose to follow the bits of dogma they find palatable, there's a sense that, strained and filtered, there's still much that's useful in Marxist thought.

"Marxism should never have been an ideology, in the sense of a set of articles of faith you hold regardless of the evidence," says Grant Amyot, a political-studies professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont. "But as a way of analyzing the inequalities and injustices of modern societies, and identifying who can act to change it, it's probably more relevant than it has been since the 1920s."

It's not just the concepts but the language of Marx that have seeped into the groundwater: "This is class war that's being levelled against the working people of this country," filmmaker Michael Moore said after addressing a pro-union rally in Wisconsin this month. At a similar protest, a young farmer named Tony Schultz made an impassioned speech denouncing state legislation that severely restricted the collective-bargaining rights of public-sector unions: Ordinary Americans shared a similar desire, he said: "To be empowered by your work, and not alienated by it."

Marxist language is alive even in the American heartland, although the word itself is still a general-purpose insult. Talking about protests by U.S. Uncut, a group that wants to reverse cuts to public services, Fox News's Andrew Napolitano said, "These people do hate capitalism. It's a form of socialism or even Marxism."

Fox commentators may be alarmed by the nascent activism of U.S. Uncut and the thousands of demonstrators who have taken to the streets to protest against anti-labour bills in several U.S. states, but for those on the left, it's too early to be shouting from the ramparts.

"I'm optimistic about the explosion that's happened in Wisconsin," says Leo Panitch, a political-studies professor at York University in Toronto. "For the first time in a long time, the Canadian left is looking south, rather than the other way."

But he's loath to make too many claims for a new dawn rising: "The craziness and mindlessness of so much of what is going on in the American right may - and I'm very cautious about this - it may lead to the same kind of sensibilities that produced a radical new left in the sixties."

Unrest isn't confined to the United States, where an estimated 100,000 protesters gathered on March 12 in Madison, along with thousands more in states such as Ohio, Indiana and Iowa. In Egypt, a general strike that began on Feb. 9 is thought to have hastened the fall of Hosni Mubarak. Last summer, a wave of strikes spread through Chinese factories, rattling the government. The largest union in Britain, the Trades Union Congress, is organizing a "March for the Alternative" in London on Saturday, which it hopes will unite union members, professionals and students in a large-scale protest against the austerity cuts imposed by Britain's coalition government.

But union membership in the West is at historically low levels, and one of Marx's central concepts for the enlightenment of workers - the development of class consciousness - is difficult to achieve if class is not measured by your relationship to the means of production, but by how much free-range chicken you eat.

A new breed of wage slave

"It's not as if everybody in the developed world has become middle-class," Prof. Amyot says. "It's just that the form of exploitation has changed. We're not sitting behind steam-powered looms any more, we're sitting behind computers, but the vast number of people are still working for a wage or salary.''

Says Prof. Panitch, "It's much more complicated now. It's not easy to organize these days when you don't have masses of workers brought together in a big factory and they aren't living in the same part of the city. A lot of people now who are exploited and poorly paid are working in funky areas like producing software or advertising."

Two years ago, he wrote a piece for Foreign Policy magazine titled Thorougly Modern Marx about how the post-crash world might possibly (though by no means inevitably) see a rebirth in radical thinking. That, of course, has not happened - in fact, the political left has suffered setbacks and since 2008, centre-right parties have gained power in Europe. Former British Labour cabinet minister David Miliband - son of the Marxist historian Ralph - recently gave a lecture at the London School of Economics titled, Why Is the European Left Losing Elections?

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