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May 28, 1998

Socialism might be better off without Marx,' says history professor

The end of ideology

by Sylvain Comeau

Neil Cameron sounded the death-knell for socialist ideology at a speech he gave recently at Lonergan College -- but he would like to see it continue to "keep us honest."

"Socialism in this century has had it," said the John Abbott College history professor and one-time Equality MNA. "I'm not talking just about the fall of the Soviet Union, or about the changes in China. What has happened at the end of this century is that all systematic political thought has run into a brick wall."

Experiments with socialism in capitalist countries put another nail in the coffin of many intellectuals' favourite ideology, he added.

"Socialism has had it because it was a catastrophe, even in countries like Sweden, which found itself sinking like a stone because of its fanatical efforts to avoid the horrors of massive unemployment. They got bogged down in elaborate social programs and protected union jobs."

Capitalism's crushing victory means that scholars on the left have to downplay their political leanings in order to be taken seriously. But while Cameron is glad to see socialist rhetoric fade, he admits that something was lost when the debate between the two camps became a monologue.

"Maybe without a constant critique from the left, we will end up getting from capitalism a real-life version of one of those dystopian movies, like Bladerunner, endless bad taste, a video-game culture, unlivable cities."

Paradoxically, Cameron believes that the demise of socialism as an ideology may actually kickstart socialism as a political force.

"Socialism itself is not dead," he said. "It might actually be stronger now that it's not held down by the weight of Marxist ideology. You don't need ideology to conduct a battle between those who have and those who don't. The have-nots will always find a person from the propertied classes who will promise to transfer wealth to them if they are elected."

In an interview following his lecture, Cameron speculated that socialism in the future will not bother with windy ideology, and move to the bottom line.

"It will be a simple battle of interests, not of ideology," he said. "It will be a struggle for power and wealth. I hope that in the liberal democracies in the world, the rule-of-law states, like England, the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, this [battle] won't be too severe. What these countries have in common is that most people know that the free market is the goose that laid the golden egg. And they don't want to strangle it."

Third World countries and emerging economies, according to Cameron, "won't necessarily be politically explosive. If people never had a chance at anything, they're not necessarily revolutionary. The people who are politically explosive are those who have had a sweet ride, and see it suddenly come to a halt.

"We might get a big shock as to what kinds of societies are vulnerable to political upheaval. The haves versus have-nots argument does go on irrespective of what kind of political philosophy is dominant in the universities or in the press, because it's based on the way people see inequality."

No matter how well capitalism works, "here and elsewhere, there will always be people who are not on the gravy train, and they won't be happy about it. And I think this is where the great political problems of our time will arise."

Cameron is a former professor of history at Concordia's Liberal Arts College, where he spoke on April 2.

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