Before the Russian revolution it was quite possible for someone to be recognised as a sincere left winger without them being a Marxist. There were many varieties of thinkers with a social conscience including anarchists, trade unionists, libertarians and ethical socialists. After the establishment of the Communist International by the Russian government everyone was suddenly told that they either had to toe the party line or they were somehow ill disciplined splitters. If you didn't agree with the interpretation of the truth provided from the centre you were told that there was a weakness in your consciousness and you must suffer from some form of error in your class background.
The fear of being seen as a petty bourgeois element and the wish to believe that somewhere on the planet people really were sincerely working to build a good communist society led to some very impressive people turning a blind eye to some terrible crimes. Sincere longstanding communists who had worked closely with Lenin such as Bukharin were sent off to be murdered by the state with honest left wingers in the UK muttering that there must have been some truth in the allegations against them and we shouldn't weaken the cause by asking too many awkward questions of Uncle Joe. Meanwhile that nice Mr. Stalin created a famine in the Ukraine that killed at least 10 million and shipped off countless millions of ordinary people to die in the labour camps.
Since then many small Marxist groups have tried to convince us that the problem lies not with Marxism but with the fact that we have been following the wrong version of it. Every one of those groups that I have ever come across shared one weakness. They each believed that their leaders had uncovered a correct understanding of the truth and anyone who disagreed with the party line suffered from false consciousness. Put simply they tried to intellectually bully their followers into staying in line by convincing them that independent thinking was a dangerous disease.
Ironically nothing could be further from the scientific method. The way to try and understand any problem is to look at the evidence, try to formulate a theory that best explains it and then be happy to dump that theory the second the evidence ceases to do so adequately. This means there is a lot to be gained by reading and enjoying the writings of lots of different thinkers including Marx but nothing at all to be gained from assuming that he is more likely to be right than anyone else. Politics isn't a football game with sides. It is, or should be, a genuine attempt to come up with the best solutions to problems faced by humanity.
There is just as much, if not more to learn from a whole series of socialists who were written off by the Marxists as idealists than from their insistence that there is an objective economic truth that only the most conscious of party leaders understand. Believing in an ideal is not somehow inferior to following any other ideology just because it has been declared to be the scientific truth.
As early as 1800 Robert Owen was proving he could run practical businesses really efficiently whilst treating people well and building a model society. He also came up with serious proposals about how to regulate and manage an economy by increasing state spending during a downturn that George Osborne would do well to try and understand. A man who actually implemented practical working solutions to problems in education, housing, health and humanity and ran a successful business was written off by the Marxists as an idealist from whom nothing could be learned.
William Morris is equally inspiring. The concept that it is as important to make sure work is creative, our lives are fully of beauty and practicality and the individuals should seek to express themselves seems to me to be every bit as important as Morris' belief that wealth and income needed to be distributed a lot more equally for that to be achieved in any meaningful way. Both Morris and Owen also fully understand that an entire system change was needed to achieve their aims.
There's also a lot to learn from the astonishingly clear thinking of George Orwell. He got written off as a lightweight who wasn't seriously committed to the cause despite putting his life on the line in the Spanish Civil War. He then proceeded to give us some of the best criticisms of authoritarian societies ever written and to leave us with a legacy of fierce criticism of societies managed by propaganda on behalf of an elite. As Big Brother gets better and better at manipulating us that looks like an increasingly valuable intellectual legacy. I don't know about you but I got a lot more out of reading Orwell's searingly brilliant analysis of the manipulation of the public than I ever learned from a badly out of date clumsy economic work called Das Kapital? I also got a better understanding of economics from reading Keynes than Marx.
Most of all I think we can all learn a lot from the French revolution. Three things are important if you are trying to build a better society. Liberty, equality and fraternity. If you interpret the last of these as meaning that communities matter and we need to treat all the species on this planet and the planet itself with respect, then I think this just about captures the essence of what I believe. I also think it does so in the right order.
Liberty comes first. If you don't have that then you can't build any of the other things. As Stalin proved to us so effectively.