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Marx After Communism By: Economist.com
Economist.com | Thursday, December 26, 2002


WHEN Soviet communism fell apart towards the end of the 20th century, nobody could say that it had failed on a technicality. A more comprehensive or ignominious collapse—moral, material and intellectual—would be difficult to imagine. Communism had tyrannised and impoverished its subjects, and slaughtered them in the tens of millions. For decades past, in the Soviet Union and its satellite countries, any allusion to the avowed aims of communist doctrine—equality, freedom from exploitation, true justice—had provoked only bitter laughter. Finally, when the monuments were torn down, statues of Karl Marx were defaced as contemptuously as those of Lenin and Stalin. Communism was repudiated as theory and as practice; its champions were cast aside, intellectual founders and sociopathic rulers alike.

People in the West, their judgment not impaired by having lived in the system Marx inspired, mostly came to a more dispassionate view. Marx had been misunderstood, they tended to feel. The communism of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was a perversion of his thought. What happened in those benighted lands would have appalled Marx as much as it appals us. It has no bearing on the validity of his ideas.

Indeed, it is suggested, Marx was right about a good many things—about a lot of what is wrong with capitalism, for instance, about globalisation and international markets, about the business cycle, about the way economics shapes ideas. Marx was prescient; that word keeps coming up. By all means discard communism as practised in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe (and China, North Korea, Cuba and in fact wherever it has been practised). But please don't discard Marx.

There seems little risk of it. In 1999 the BBC conducted a series of polls, asking people to name the greatest men and women of the millennium. In October of that year, within a few weeks of the tenth anniversary of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, the BBC declared the people's choice for “greatest thinker”. It was Karl Marx. Einstein was runner-up, Newton and Darwin third and fourth, respectively. “Although dictatorships throughout the 20th century have distorted [Marx's] original ideas,” the state-financed broadcaster noted, “his work as a philosopher, social scientist, historian and a revolutionary is respected by academics today.” Concerning the second point, at least, the BBC was correct: Marx is still accorded respect.

As a field of scholarship in its own right, admittedly, Marxist political and economic theory is past its peak. By now, presumably, most of the things that Marx meant, or really meant, or probably meant, or might conceivably have meant, have been posited and adequately (though far from conclusively) debated. But a slackening of activity amid the staggeringly voluminous primary sources is not the best measure of Marx's enduring intellectual influence.

Books on Marx aimed at undergraduates and non-specialists continue to sell steadily in Western Europe and the United States. And new ones keep coming. For instance, Verso has just published, to warm reviews, “Marx's Revenge” by Meghnad Desai, a professor of economics at the London School of Economics. Mr Desai argues that Marx was misunderstood and that the great man was right about far more than he is given credit for. In August, Oxford University Press published “Why Read Marx Today?” by Jonathan Wolff. It too is an engaging read. The author, a professor at University College London, is a particularly skilful elucidator of political philosophy. In his book, he argues that Marx was misunderstood and that the great man was right about far more than he is given credit for.

The newly released memoirs of Eric Hobsbawm, the celebrated historian, lifelong Marxist and unrepentant member of the Communist Party for as long as it survived, also deserve mention. The reviews were mixed, in fact, but rarely less than respectful, finding much to admire in the author's unwavering intellectual commitment. Mr Hobsbawm argues...well, he argues that Marx was misunderstood and that the great man was right about far more than he is given credit for.

Adam Smith, one might say, stands in relation to liberal capitalism, a comparatively successful economic order, roughly where Marx stands in relation to socialism. Searches on Amazon.com and other booksellers indicate that titles in print about Marx outnumber books about Adam Smith by a factor of between five and ten. A hard day's browsing of undergraduate reading-lists suggests that, in economics faculties, Smith is way out in front—interesting, given that Marx saw himself as an economist first and foremost. Elsewhere in the social sciences and humanities, the reverse is true. Smith is rarely seen, as you might expect, though in fact there is far more in Smith than just economics; whereas from Marx and his expositors and disciples it seems there is no escape. It is the breadth of Marx's continuing influence, especially as contrasted with his strange irrelevance to modern economics, that is so arresting.

How is one to explain this? What, if anything, remains valuable in Marx's writings? This is not a straightforward question, given that he evidently had such difficulty making himself understood.

When he wanted to be, Marx was a compelling writer, punching out first-rate epigrams at a reckless pace. The closing sentences of “The Communist Manifesto” (1848) are rightly celebrated: “The workers have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to gain. Workers of the world, unite.” He also had an enviable flair for hysterical invective. At one point in “Capital” (1867-94), he famously defines the subject of his enquiry as “dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.” That is not only unforgettable but actually very apt, if you believe Marx's theory of value. He could express himself brilliantly when he chose to.

Yet he was also capable of stupefying dullness and impenetrable complexity. Try the opening pages of “Capital” (it picks up later). In his scientific work, as he called it, he minted jargon at a befuddling rate, underlining terms to emphasise their opacity, then changing their meaning at will. Adding to the fog, what Marx believed in 1844 was probably not what he believed in 1874: the only constant was his conviction that what he said at any time was both the absolute truth and fully consistent with what he had said before. And most of the published Marx, including the “Manifesto” and volumes two and three of “Capital”, was edited, co-written or ghost written by Friedrich Engels. For many years, therefore, separating Marx from Engels in what the world understands as “Marx” was an academic industry in itself.

Still, four things seem crucial, and most of the rest follows from these. First, Marx believed that societies follow laws of motion simple and all-encompassing enough to make long-range prediction fruitful. Second, he believed that these laws are exclusively economic in character: what shapes society, the only thing that shapes society, is the “material forces of production”. Third, he believed that these laws must invariably express themselves, until the end of history, as a bitter struggle of class against class. Fourth, he believed that at the end of history, classes and the state (whose sole purpose is to represent the interests of the ruling class) must dissolve to yield a heaven on earth.

In what ways, then, was Soviet-style communism a deviation from these beliefs, as modern western commentators like to argue? Chiefly, it is said that Russia jumped the gun (forgive the expression). According to Marx's laws of motion, society is supposed to progress from feudalism to capitalism at just that point when feudalism fetters the forces of production, rather than serving them, as it has up to that moment. Later, capitalism gives way in turn to socialism, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and in much the same way—once its productive potential has been fully achieved, so that henceforth its continued existence is an obstacle to material sufficiency rather than a means to it. But Russia went straight from feudalism to socialism. This was too quick. Marx could have told Lenin that it would never work.

Is this really what he would have said? There is no doubt that Lenin saw himself as a true follower of Marx—and he had every reason to. By the end of the 19th century, socialist thought was dividing. Marx's laws of motion were failing. Capitalism still flourished: no sign of the falling rate of profit that would signal its end. The working class was getting the vote. The welfare state was taking shape. Factory conditions were improving and wages were rising well above the floor of subsistence. All this was contrary to Marx's laws.

In response, the left was splitting. On one side were reformers and social democrats who saw that capitalism could be given a human face. On the other were those who believed that Marx's system could be developed and restated, always true to its underlying logic—and, crucially, with its revolutionary as opposed to evolutionary character brought to the fore.

Whose side in this would Marx have been on? Revolution or reform? Would he have continued to insist that the vampire be destroyed? Or would he have turned reformer, asking it nicely to suck a bit less blood? The latter seems unlikely. Marx was a scholar, but he was also a fanatic and a revolutionary. His incapacity for compromise (with comrades, let alone opponents) was pathological. And in the preface to the 1882 Russian edition of the “Manifesto”, his last published writing, Marx hoped that a revolution in Russia might become “the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other”; if so, Russia, despite its pre-capitalist characteristics, “may serve as the starting-point for a communist development.” Lenin was surely right to believe that he, not those soft-headed bourgeois accommodationists, was true to the master's thought.

Apart from the gulag

Even if Soviet communism was true to Marx's ideas, or tried to be, that would not condemn all of Marx's thinking. He might still have been right about some things, possibly even the main things.

Aspects of his thought do impress. However, his assorted sayings about the reach of the global market—a favourite proof that “Marx was prescient”—are not in fact the best examples. The 19th century was an era of globalisation, and Marx was only one of very many who noticed. The accelerating global integration of the past 30 years merely resumes a trend that was vigorously in place during Marx's lifetime, and which was subsequently interrupted in 1914.

Marx was much more original in envisaging the awesome productive power of capitalism. He saw that capitalism would spur innovation to a hitherto-unimagined degree. He was right that giant corporations would come to dominate the world's industries (though not quite in the way he meant). He rightly underlined the importance of economic cycles (though his accounts of their causes and consequences were wrong).

The central paradox that Marx emphasised—namely, that its own colossal productivity would bring capitalism to its knees, by making socialism followed by communism both materially possible and logically necessary—turned out to be false. Still, Marx could fairly lay claim to having sensed more clearly than others how far capitalism would change the material conditions of the world. And this in turn reflects something else that demands at least a grudging respect: the amazing reach and ambition of his thinking.

But the fact remains that on everything that mattered most to Marx himself, he was wrong. The real power he claimed for his system was predictive, and his main predictions are hopeless failures. Concerning the outlook for capitalism, one can always argue that he was wrong only in his timing: in the end, when capitalism has run its course, he will be proved right. Put in such a form, this argument, like many other apologies for Marx, has the advantage of being impossible to falsify. But that does not make it plausible. The trouble is, it leaves out class. This is a wise omission, because class is an idea which has become blurred to the point of meaninglessness. Class antagonism, though, is indispensable to the Marxist world-view. Without it, even if capitalism succumbs to stagnation or decline, the mechanism for its overthrow is missing.

Class war is the sine qua non of Marx. But the class war, if it ever existed, is over. In western democracies today, who chooses who rules, and for how long? Who tells governments how companies will be regulated? Who in the end owns the companies? Workers for hire—the proletariat. And this is because of, not despite, the things Marx most deplored: private property, liberal political rights and the market. Where it mattered most, Marx could not have been more wrong.

Right in principle

Yet Marxist thinking retains great influence far beyond the dwindling number who proclaim themselves to be Marxists. The labour theory of value and the rest of Marx's economic apparatus may be so much intellectual scrap, but many of his assumptions, analytical traits and habits of thought are widespread in western academia and beyond.

The core idea that economic structure determines everything has been especially pernicious. According to this view, the right to private property, for instance, exists only because it serves bourgeois relations of production. The same can be said for every other right or civil liberty one finds in society. The idea that such rights have a deeper moral underpinning is an illusion. Morality itself is an illusion, just another weapon of the ruling class. (As Gyorgy Lukacs put it, “Communist ethics makes it the highest duty to act wickedly...This is the greatest sacrifice revolution asks from us.”) Human agency is null: we are mere dupes of “the system”, until we repudiate it outright.

What goes for ethics also goes for history, literature, the rest of the humanities and the social sciences. The “late Marxist” sees them all, as traditionally understood, not as subjects for disinterested intellectual inquiry but as forms of social control. Never ask what a painter, playwright, architect or philosopher thought he was doing. You know before you even glance at his work what he was really doing: shoring up the ruling class. This mindset has made deep inroads—most notoriously in literary studies, but not just there—in university departments and on campuses across Western Europe and especially in the United States. The result is a withering away not of the state but of opportunities for intelligent conversation and of confidence that young people might receive a decent liberal education.

Marxist thinking is also deeply Utopian—another influential trait. The “Communist Manifesto”, despite the title, was not a programme for government: it was a programme for gaining power, or rather for watching knowledgeably as power fell into one's hands. That is, it was a commentary on the defects and dynamics of capitalism. Nowhere in the “Manifesto”, or anywhere else in his writings, did Marx take the trouble to describe how the communism he predicted and advocated would actually work.

Marx's theory of cattle

He did once say this much: “In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity...society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have in mind, without ever becoming hunter, herdsman or critic.” Whether cattle would be content to be reared only in the evening, or just as people had in mind, is one of many questions one would wish to see treated at greater length. But this cartoon is almost all Marx ever said about communism in practice. The rest has to be deduced, as an absence of things he deplored about capitalism: inequality, exploitation, alienation, private property and so forth.

It is striking that today's militant critics of globalisation, whether declared Marxists or otherwise, proceed in much the same way. They present no worked-out alternative to the present economic order. Instead, they invoke a Utopia free of environmental stress, social injustice and branded sportswear, harking back to a pre-industrial golden age that did not actually exist. Never is this alternative future given clear shape or offered up for examination.

And anti-globalists have inherited more from Marx besides this. Note the self-righteous anger, the violent rhetoric, the willing resort to actual violence (in response to the “violence” of the other side), the demonisation of big business, the division of the world into exploiters and victims, the contempt for piecemeal reform, the zeal for activism, the impatience with democracy, the disdain for liberal “rights” and “freedoms”, the suspicion of compromise, the presumption of hypocrisy (or childish naivety) in arguments that defend the market order.

Anti-globalism has been aptly described as a secular religion. So is Marxism: a creed complete with prophet, sacred texts and the promise of a heaven shrouded in mystery. Marx was not a scientist, as he claimed. He founded a faith. The economic and political systems he inspired are dead or dying. But his religion is a broad church, and lives on.




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