There has been something of a revival of Marxist thought in recent times. No doubt this is partly symptomatic of the disillusionment produced by the economic crisis. The promises of neo-liberalism have proven chimerical for much of the world. Present economic turmoil seems to have confirmed Marx’s thesis that the structural logic of the capitalist mode of production is immanently contradictory, and people are once again beginning to know it. If radical change still seems only a distant possibility, a gradual transformation of popular consciousness is undeniably taking place.
Phil Collins’ short film ‘Marxism Today’ forms part of this resurgence. The film, first shown at the 6th Berlin Biennale, comprises a series of interviews held with three women who taught Marxism-Leninism in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The interviews are candid and personal. Interspersed with archival footage, the film offers different and at times poignant perspectives on life before and after the collapse of the German Democratic Republic.
The Western world heralded the fall of the Berlin Wall as the end of Marxism and ‘the end of history,’ to borrow the American philosopher Francis Fukuyama’s now famous expression. Western liberal democracy was understood to be the final form of human government. For this reason 1989 marked not only the triumph of capitalism but also the endpoint of sociocultural evolution, and with it the end of ideology.
The implication here is that we now exist in the best of all possible worlds, a world in which any improvement would be of degree, not of kind. On this basis it might be said, to borrow Alain Badiou’s formulation, that late capitalism’s imperative is to ‘Live without an idea!’ In other words, to satisfy immediate desires through excessive material consumption and to abolish the thought of something other than the present form of society.
So it is not fortuitous that the various viewpoints expressed in Collins’ film all share a discreet nostalgia. Not nostalgia for the GDR itself, although this sentiment, also known as ‘ostalgie’ (Ost means East in German), sometimes forms part of it, but a nostalgia of ideation. One of the women interviewed, for instance, who had completed a PhD on neoliberal theories of unemployment shortly before 1989, complains that the post-Berlin Wall alternative to Marxism-Leninism was simply to consume and ‘see how to get rich.’ Indeed, what seems most amiss in the lives of the interviewees is the idea of a communal identity, the idea of communal emancipation, and the idea of communal empowerment. If some will disagree as to the nature of these concepts few will deny that self-realization through mass-consumption is a deplorable alternative. That people define themselves in relation to objects has always been the case. But consumer ‘choice’ is highly constructed, which may explain why one woman refuses to drink Coca-Cola. Our needs are forcibly integrated within the system of production rather than vice versa. And choice as conformity is no choice at all. The effect of the commodity is calculated in advance, as is our desire for it, leading to no more than a kind of pseudo-individualism that liquidates what is left of the individual. As another woman points out, the economy ought to ‘serve the people;’ today we have become its servile functionaries. Freedom is obsolete because it is uneconomic.
‘Marxism Today’ is accompanied by unnamed footage of a class held recently at a German university. The professor takes her students through the basic tenets of Marxist economic theory: the relationship between the concepts of surplus value and surplus labour; labour-time and labour power; surplus labour and necessary labour; and the difference between a product and a commodity. The film offers a sound summary of the first volume of Marx’s Das Kapital and provides a valuable theoretical counter-weight to the more subjective ‘Marxism Today.’
And it should be mentioned that there are moments when Phil Collins’ film veers towards idealism, particularly in its presentation of the GDR which is in some ways reminiscent of Wolfgang Becker’s Goodbye Lenin! One might also criticise the fact that no questions are raised as to why a socialist society was not able to gain an enduring consensus. But, as its title suggests, the film is not about the past but about the present and, implicitly, about the future.
These days it is not always possible to imagine an alternative to the status quo; that is, a society in which the economy - a product of human activity, does not assert itself over the heads of individual human beings. This, in spite of the ethical, social and ecological imperatives for doing so. Phil Collins’ ‘Marxism Today’ hints at an alternative. Whether or not one subscribes to the view implicit in the film is less important than the possibility of something different. As Theodor W. Adorno once wrote: ‘the horror is that for the first time we live in a world in which we can no longer imagine a better one.’ Today this may, perhaps, no longer be the case.