This Marxist isn’t laughing

I won’t be joining the ‘bloody pinko liberals’ to drool over the demise of capitalism.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Earlier this month, at a debate on political satire organised by The Economist, Krishnan Guru-Murthy – one of the Jon Snow clones created at ITN HQ to front Channel 4 News – took to the stage. He was chairing the proceedings, but he ‘almost didn’t make it’, he told us: ‘I thought I would have to read tonight’s news, because they’ve sent Jon to America to laugh at the collapse of capitalism.’ How the audience chortled. The grey-suited, tie-askew readers of and writers for The Economist chuckled at the thought of Snow – a self-described ‘bloody pinko liberal’ and the favourite newsreader of the bike-riding classes – sniggering at the sweating bankers on Wall Street (1).

It was a striking snapshot of what has passed for ‘political debate’ in the past month. In place of any serious clash of visions, we’ve had government officials patching up the banking system on one side, and members of the middle-class commentariat giggling at capitalism’s misfortunes on the other. Well, this Marxist isn’t laughing. The rise of what Simon Jenkins describes as a ‘drooling over the collapse of the free market model’ only highlights the absence of an alternative to capitalism, so that decadent snickering can fill the gap left by the withering of political debate. This Droolism is based on a ‘Marxism’ vulgarised beyond recognition, a moralistic critique of excess and greed in capitalist society, and a callous disregard for the living standards of the masses.

One reason why sections of the cultural elite (Jenkins labels them ‘Guardian writers and Labour politicians’) can take pleasure in the credit crunch is because this is a ‘safe’ capitalist crisis: there’s no organised or revolutionary working class seeking to overthrow the capitalist system and replace it with something else, only the disorientation of the capitalist elite itself. You can bet a banker’s bonus that these observers would not be chortling into their cappuccinos if there were a serious challenge to capitalism. Indeed, the ‘Marxism’ that some of these bloody pinko liberals have embraced in response to the credit crunch is one entirely denuded of its subjective, ideas-based, history-making element, and transformed instead into a deterministic creed in which things inevitably collapse as the besuited, benighted opinion-forming classes look on and laugh.

Throughout the twentieth century, one of the most common – and most misplaced – critiques of Marx’s work centred on the idea that he believed the collapse of capitalism and the victory of communism to be ‘inevitable’. In his introduction to the 1967 edition of The Communist Manifesto, the British historian AJP Taylor said Marx was a ‘prophet’ more than a ‘philosopher’, who was ‘convinced that events moved always towards the victory of the Higher’: ‘This faith in the inevitable outcome made him a great religious teacher.’ (2) Both right-wing thinkers and po-mo academics continually criticised Marx’s so-called ‘teleological’ approach to History, Progress and Communism, as if his works were the political equivalent of intelligent design theory (3).

Yet today, in our more fatalistic times, when there is widespread disenchantment with change and with human subjectivity itself, some mainstream thinkers are embracing what they vulgarly describe as Marx’s theory of ‘inevitable collapse’, as a way of explaining (and celebrating) the current crisis. The National Post in Canada says the credit crunch has given rise to ‘Karl Marx’s comeback’ because now it seems that the decline of capitalism, or at least of banking, might be ‘inevitable’ after all (4). One newspaper columnist wonders if Marx is ‘laughing in his grave right now’; where he ‘was thrown into the dustbin of history in the 1990s primarily because he was cast as a false prophet’, today his ‘predicted collapse of the capitalist system’ seems quite accurate (5). Even a leading member of the Adam Smith Institute has wondered out loud if the credit crunch is ‘the inevitable collapse’ predicted by Marx (6).

Here, Marxism really is turned into a religion, one which delivers divine retribution against greedy and reckless bankers. It is striking indeed that where twentieth-century bourgeois thinkers attacked Marx’s ‘inevitability’ in an attempt to prove that he was wrong and therefore that capitalism was right (after all, capitalism did not collapse and communism did not emerge victorious), some of today’s bourgeois opinion-formers are tantalised by Marx’s ‘inevitability’, drawn towards its comforting certainty, its fatalism, its potential to punish out-of-control elements in the banking system. Mainstream thinkers once zoomed in on Marx’s alleged claims of ‘inevitable collapse’ in order to bury him; today some are digging up his corpse, attaching to it their own vulgar interpretations, and sending a zombie – Marxenstein – to pronounce the inevitable demise of capitalist society. It reveals a great deal about today’s top-down disillusionment with the political and economic system, and about cultural attitudes towards change and human authorship of history, when Marx’s once-mocked ‘inevitability’ can be openly discussed even by followers of Adam Smith and in newspapers owned by the imprisoned capitalist Lord Conrad Black.

Of course, like those, from FA Hayek to Allan Bloom, who once railed against Marx’s alleged theory of inevitable collapse, today’s flirters with the theory have committed an act of historical GBH against Marx and his writings. It is a fallacy that Marx believed the usurping of Capitalism by Progress to be ‘inevitable’, a scientifically determined destiny that could be plotted on a graph or in a pie chart. This misreading of Marx comes almost entirely from the end of Section 1 of The Communist Manifesto, where Marx and Engels suggest that the demise of the bourgeoisie and the victory of the proletariat are ‘equally inevitable’ (7). Yet that was a flourish of rhetoric in a pamphlet intended as a propagandistic intervention in the tumultuous debates of revolutionary Europe, 1848. Throughout his more profound works, Marx never talked about the inevitable collapse of capitalism. Consider The German Ideology, written five years before the Manifesto, or read chapter 32 of Capital (do you think the bloody pinko liberals ever got that far?). Marx rejected pseudo-religious predictions about the onward march of human progress: ‘In spite of the pretensions of “Progress”, continual retrogressions and circular movements occur.’ The category of ‘Progress’, he said, was ‘completely empty and abstract’ (8).

No system simply collapses. Marxism was never a prophecy of collapse, but an attempt to understand events in their specific historic and social contexts, and to evaluate the role of human agency in directing and transforming events. As the twentieth-century Marxist Henryk Grossman argued, meaningful change requires the ‘slow maturation [of both] subjective and objective factors’; Marxism, in other words, combines both ‘evolutionary and revolutionary elements in an original manner to form a meaningful unit’ (9). In the inevitablist, properly religious ‘Marxism’ that has made a bit of a comeback on the back of the credit crunch, the evolutionary is elevated over everything – over any idea of the ‘subjective factor’ and certainly any notion of ‘the revolutionary’ – so that the demise of capitalism seems predetermined, prophesised, probably deserved, and quite funny.

The Droolism over the much exaggerated death of capitalism shows what the alleged ‘comeback of Marxism’ (even the Archbishop of Canterbury is citing him) really means. The ‘comeback’ is predicated on the vacation of the political arena by the working classes, and by properly radical thinkers, so that ‘Marxism’ can be rehabilitated by some mainstream thinkers as a kind of dusty, set-in-stone, expert document pronouncing the end of the world. Marx is being resuscitated by the self-loathing of the elite. Where in the past many thinkers attacked Marx’s ‘inevitability’ in order to defend capitalist society, today some turn his ‘inevitability’ into a personal slogan in order to express their disgust with capitalist society. In their hands, Marxism is akin to the science of global warming: a measurable end-of-the-worldism. They’re not really bringing back Marxism, of course, but rather the caricatured, religious-tinted, fatalistic reading of Marxism that was invented and then ceremoniously denounced by historians in the twentieth century, but which now fits well in a time when human-made change is off the agenda and politics is driven by scientific expertise.

The elite laughing at the ‘collapse of capitalism’ shows how shallow and moralistic is the contemporary critique of capitalist society. Its main focus is not the workings of capitalism, or the deeper economic problems underlying the credit crunch, but rather the skewed values of greedy bankers and the rest of us: greedy consumers. One group of left-wingers has set up a Facebook group titled ‘Society for the Appreciation of Pictures of Stockbrokers In Visible Pain’. Others are hoping that the crisis will not only wipe the smirk of bankers’ faces (which has long been the profound aim of Marxism, of course), but also teach the rest of us to live more austere lives. A left-leaning think tank says people will have to ‘accept that they will earn less and consume less’ (10). A Nobel Prize-winning scientist says: ‘It’s a cruel thing to say… but if we are looking at a slowdown in the economy, there will be less fossil fuels burning, so for the climate it could be an advantage.’ (11)

Using Marx as a Nostradamus-style predictor of man’s deserved decline; staring at photos of distressed stockbrokers; relishing the lowering of people’s living standards and their horizons… there is nothing remotely radical in the current drooling over capitalism’s woes. It is based not on a desire to replace capitalism with something better, but on a belief that people should go meekly into a brave new world of Capitalism Redux. No thanks. Instead, let us have a bit more leadership at the top of society, in order to stabilise economic conditions and offset any harsh impacts on people’s lives, and a widespread, wide-ranging debate about where to take society next.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton in October. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Africa made me a ‘bloody pinko liberal’, London Evening Standard, 29 June 2005

(2) The Communist Manifesto, Marx, Engels, with an introduction by AJP Taylor, Penguin 1968

(3) See, for example, The Communist Manifesto: New Interpretations, edited by Mark Cowling, New York University Press, 1998

(4) Bailout marks Karl Marx’s comeback, National Post, 29 September 2008

(5) Is Marx laughing in his grave right now?, Daily Star, 29 September 2008

(6) The market vs Marx, Socialist Worker, 14 October 2008

(7) The Communist Manifesto, Marx, Engels, with an introduction by AJP Taylor, Penguin 1968

(8) The Holy Family or Critique of Critical Criticism, Marx and Engels, 1844

(9) ‘The evolutionist revolt against classic economics’, Henryk Grossman, The Journal of Political Economy, No.6, 1943

(10) When old dogmas die, there is room for all kinds of radical new thinking, Jonathan Freedland, Guardian, 15 October 2008

(11) Could the economy’s pain be the environment’s gain?, Business Spectator, 9 October 2008

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Topics Politics


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