This post will be somewhat disjointed. This is partly because I am not well at the moment. It’s also partly because I didn’t start on it early enough and never quite worked out what I wanted it to be. To be honest, I forgot the anniversary. I am notorious for my bad memory and often forget dates. It’s only Twitter – with its automatic mechanisms for pricking the unpaid contributor to fill it with content, even to the point of scavenging almanacs – which has made me as date-conscious as I am now.
Marx liked his drunken London pub crawls. Think of this as a semi-lucid crawl around the inns (and outs) of my brain on 5th May 2018.
Today is Marx’s 200th birthday. A piece of information to which many would respond “So what?” And I’m actually sympathetic to this view.
Someone recently asked me when I was going to go and see the Marx exhibition currently at the British Library. They just assumed I would go. But I’m interested in Marx for the ideas.
It’s not that his life is of no interest. Nor is it that you can divide his ideas and work from his life. This is barely true of any thinker, but is perhaps especially untrue of revolutionary thinkers. One of the myths about Marx is that he spent all his time hunched over books, disdaining the fray, withdrawn into a world of ideas. Marx was an activist all his life, passionately involved in almost all the great liberatory struggles of his time – from Chartism to the fight against slavery - even when his personal circumstances, or a downturn in the pace of events, forced him to be involved from afar.
No, I’m just not remotely interested in going to gaze at samples of his handwriting. To the extent that the exhibition would relate facts, they’ll probably be facts I already know (not to sound immodest but Marx is one of a very few things I know quite a lot about) or don’t care about. I’m certainly not interested in hearing the kinds of interpretations of Marx - his ideas or his life – that the British Library is likely to offer. I remember being surprised by the surprise some people showed at the gloss on events offered by the Royal Academy at their exhibition of Russian Revolutionary art last year. Really, what do people expect?
Anniversaries and commemorations tend to be odd affairs, especially when they involve the commemoration of revolutionaries by the mainstream. There’s a rash of this all over the media right now, for obvious reasons. Most of it utter drivel... though it does have certain side benefits, such as annoying certain people (see the image above).
In 1991 the great Marxist journalist Paul Foot wrote about “the old English disease” of “revolutionary necrophilia – the love and worship of revolutionaries long after they are safely dead”. It often involves cringeworthy misunderstanding and/or misappropriation of those revolutionaries. The example we are perhaps most familiar with nowadays is Martin Luther King. Some might object to the characterization of King as a revolutionary, but I’d broadly defend it. And we all (I hope) know how grotesquely King is misrepresented by neoliberal culture as it appropriates and sentimentalizes him. The example Foot gave in ’91 was of the Observer commemorating the 200th anniversary of the publication of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man by asking Princess Anne to deliver a children’s lecture about it. Paine, as I’m sure my readers will know, was one of the most incendiary republicans in history, and the anti-monarchy sentiments in Rights of Man helped ignite the American revolutionary war.
While there is, as Foot pointed out, something bizarre about this sort of thing, it is also understandable when looked at from a certain point of view. After all, contrary to some still widely-held and widely-promoted ideas, ‘communist’ regimes are not uniquely guilty of having been born in violent revolution. The capitalist world is the product of a series of revolutions which shook the world every bit as much as, say, October 1917. Indeed, modern Russia is a capitalist country, which means we should include October 1917 in our list of revolutions which gave rise to the capitalist world. However this happened, and whatever the intentions of the people who made it, in retrospect we probably have to see the Bolshevik revolution as a bourgeois revolution, at least in its long term effect. In my opinion, October 1917 was a great act of collective democracy which gave birth to a rudimentary workers’ state. But, after a relatively brief period of genuine socialist potential, a combination of factors led to the ultimate form of the Soviet Union as a form of state capitalism. After the fall of communism, all free-market capitalism had to do was step in and take over a system basically already ready for it. It had to expropriate loads of state property - and did, in a feeding frenzy that sent poverty skyrocketing. But the basic framework - industrial production, wage labour, an exploited working class and an exploiting ruling class - was already there.
The point is that, if you want to blame Marx for the Soviet Union, you have to therefore admit that he’s one of those revolutionaries who helped make the world we currently live in, much like Paine and Jefferson and Robespierre. Even if you attribute some of the guilt of 20th century ‘communism’ to him, you still - if you’re honest - have to see him in a pantheon of Early Modern and Enlightenment thinkers who helped give birth to the modern world via much suffering. (As it happens, I agree with the superb Marx scholar August Nimtz, who evaluates Marx and Engels as among the most important democratic influences of their age.)
Thing is, the bourgeois thoughtworld is very comfortable forgetting or moralising about horrors which helped bring it into existence. Or disavowing them. The French Revolution is a key event in the fall of the feudal world and the rise of the capitalist world. And yet so many of today’s reactionaries like to talk about it as if it is some alien event which actually inaugurated the anti-capitalist, anti-liberty tradition of totalitarian leftism. (This is the tack taken in a hilarious right-wing Christian propaganda film written by Steve Bannon and presented by the Duck Dynasty guy, and it is by no means an ‘out of leftfield’ idea - it is practically made for Jordan Peterson.) The truth is that you wouldn’t have the modern Western world without the Terror (and you always have to remember Twain’s words about the other Terror, the previous Terror, the forgotten one that lasted for thousands of years). Nor would you have it without the English Revolution or the American Revolution. The capitalist world was born in bloody revolution, in suffering and horror, just as much as the ‘communist’ world was. That’s history. So far, anyway. Marxism is - as Terry Eagleton has eloquently observed, drawing on Walter Benjamin - the only philosophy which faces head-on the Tragic fact that, because human history has up until now been the history of class society, progress and horror are not unfortunate bedmates but as inextricable a dyad as Jekyll and Hyde after the potion takes hold. The capitalist world reigns, and so forgets or normalises or redefines its own bloody origins into nullity while loudly moralising about the horror it thinks it can get away with disavowing. This isn’t just how it treats history. It is ongoing policy (c.f. Syria and Saudi Arabia).
The point I wanted to make, before moving on, is that Marx is approached - at least in the less avowedly partisan sectors of the bourgeois ‘means of mental production’ - with, at best, the same ambivalence that bourgeois thought always shows when talking about the great revolutionaries. They will ignore who they can ignore because their stories belong to the obscured unhistory of the unpeople (Toussaint L’Ouverture for instance), recuperate who they can spin, and ideologically manage those who cannot be ignored but also cannot be endorsed.
Hence this periodic thing you get in the media about ‘the return of Marx’.
In 1998, when I’d been studying Marx and Marxism for a couple of years, I started reading International Socialism, the scholarly journal of the UK Socialist Workers Party. (As I always take pains to point out when this issue comes up, while I share a great deal of theoretical agreement with the ideology of the International Socialist tendency – or the ISO as the US branch is known – I’m proud to say I was never a member of the British SWP.) The very first issue I received and read - #79, Summer 1998… which is coming up to twenty years ago! – had the rhetorical question ‘The Return of Marx?’ on the cover, announcing an editorial by John Rees, in which he examined what the back cover called “the revival of interest in Marx among media pundits and academics”. Rees devotes most of his editorial to an ostensible revival of interest in Marx among left-leaning intellectuals as the overpowering hegemony of ‘postmodernism’ begins to wane in the academy. But he also recounts some mainstream media thinkpieces, such as an Independent on Sunday Review Section article, a piece about Marx in the Financial Times, and a Guardian feature about the Communist Manifesto.
The 150th anniversary of the publication of the Manifesto was the main cause of all this broadsheet Marx talk. But there was another context. The previous year had seen the so-called Asian Financial Crisis, a – to quote the Wikipedia article – “period of financial crisis that gripped much of East Asia beginning in July 1997 and raised fears of a worldwide economic meltdown due to financial contagion”. In the following chain reaction “most of Southeast Asia and Japan saw slumping currencies, devalued stock markets and other asset prices, and a precipitous rise in private debt.”
Today it’s a different anniversary, and the after effects of a different and big crisis, longer ago from our standpoint.
Michael Roberts, the Marxist economist who blogs here, has written about the capitalist world’s failure to properly recover in its customary way from the crash of 07-08 in his excellent book The Long Depression. (This, for my money, takes its place alongside Andrew Kliman’s The Failure of Capitalist Production and Paul Mattick Jnr.’s Business as Usual as one of the best Marxist books about the crash and its aftermath - they don’t agree on every point, but only a fool would expect them to, or object that they don’t.) Roberts has also just published an excellent little book called Marx 200, which I fervently recommend to everyone.
Roberts has an amusing section later in the book in which, in line with our theme here, he goes through some recent debate about Marx in the mainstream. The level of ignorance about Marx’s actual ideas among the economists and thinkers charged with debating him for public edification veers from the infuriating to the hilarious.
Far from being yet another useless fluff piece, Roberts’ book is Marx commemorated in a useful way. It is just about the best short and clear introduction to Marx’s economic thought that I know of (Roberts only brings in the wider aspects of Marx’s worldview where necessary to show how ‘joined-up’ Marx’s thinking was). It is also a forthright and uncompromising defence of Marx as an empirically-confirmed economic realist, and of his economic analysis as scientific (in the broad sense). Unlike so many Marxists today, Roberts unapologetically defends Marx’s original ideas as still valid and as powerful lenses through which to understand the current state of capitalism. Most especially, Roberts champions - rightly, in my view - Marx’s analysis of capitalist crisis as being primarily caused by what Marx called ‘the law of the tendential fall in the rate of profit’ (LTFRP).
I won’t go into it here but it is essentially a claim that capital’s own inescapable drive to pursue profit tends, paradoxically, to push overall profit rates down. As weird as this sounds, I assure you it makes sense. Having said that, it’s a much-disavowed idea, even among so-called Marxists. Roberts makes a clear, simple, powerful, empirical case for its continued relevance. This is a very worthwhile thing to be doing now, I think, because the most influential voices within Marxism - David Harvey, for instance - do not give the LTFRP the primacy it deserves. Too often even those who advocate Marx advocate a diluted version in which - whether they mean to imply this or not - his critique of capital seems to centre on its tendency to result in inequality, and/or things like the credit system.
Just recently I listened to Richard D. Wolff chatting with Michael Brooks on the Majority Report (sorry but I can’t find the link!), and after Brooks asked him why Marx’s ideas show that capitalism needs to be replaced owing to its inherent flaws, Wolf proceeded to talk about inequality and the credit system! Now these are undoubtedly huge problems, and Marx hated capital’s production of artificial social inequality. But issues like inequality and a rampaging credit system are, in principle, addressable and reformable. In principle you could heavily regulate the financial sector, and get the state to redistribute wealth a bit - and problem solved without having to get rid of capitalism! And this is what most supposedly Marxist commentary these days seems - knowingly or otherwise - to imply.
Marx’s criticism of inequality is one of those things the dictatorship of the commentariat feels relatively safe talking about, even if they then fly off on irrelevant digressions about how workers are affluent now - as if that disproves Marx. (As it happens, Marx knew full well that workers might get wealthier in relative terms.)
But Marx demonstrated, most especially in his theory of crisis, that capitalism is inherently morbid and self-destructive. He once wrote “the real barrier of capitalist production is capital itself”. It needs to be replaced, and that is a revolutionary imperative not a reformist one. It can't be cured, or even efficiently regulated - not for long. Left to continue, it will continue generating waste and misery.
At a time when the stakes have never been higher, and when Marx is genuinely back on the agenda of many people in a way he hasn’t been for ages (fatuous thinkpieces to one side), we need to be clear about these things - if only to mark out lucidly the difference between an authentic, revolutionary Marxian critique of capitalism and some species of more-or-less Marx-flavoured left-reformism. Most left economics is dominated by Keynes anyway, which makes it barely even reformist. Marx is a much needed alternative. (He also has the added advantage of having been right on every major point.) But there’s no point turning to him if we’re not clear that he thought capitalism needed to be done away with. This clarity is worth fighting for.
Let’s assume, as my dear friend El did, that we are fucked. That’s a fair assessment, as things stand. But reality, as dialectical materialism teaches us, does not exist in snapshots. Things change. But only if we change them.
There is still, as unlikely as it seems, a world to win.
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