The Left

The Spectre Haunting the European Left

Karl Marx, the inventor of what he liked to call Scientific Socialism, is one of the most influential thinkers of the last couple of hundred years. He left a huge body of work which covered the fields, inter alia, of philosophy, economics and politics. Supported financially by his Manchester factory-owning friend Friedrich Engels he was able to devote his time to coming up with theories and predictions about world affairs which took his interest. He lived in a dynamic and fast-changing era and his works reflect that change.

“All that is solid melts into air”

he observed in the Communist Manifesto. How true. It should also be remembered that Marx provided us with a reminder of this himself – his own ideas were revised as the world changed. The “young” Marx is a very different man, philosophically speaking, from the “older” Marx.

Some of his “work-product” is still worth reading today while other examples of his thought-process can be viewed with the benefit of hindsight as just plain wrong. In the former category I’d place his tool for analysing the past, historical materialism – though with significant caveats which I won’t go into here; in the latter his predictions about how a post-capitalist society might develop.

Until the early 1990’s his works which were published by UK publishers Penguin sported, I think, a mid-blue spine. They were part of the Contemporary Thought list which was differentiated from other lists by spine colour. No doubt someone will correct me if my memory is faulty about the exact colour (my excuse for a hazy memory is that I bought the cheaper Novosti or Chinese editions). At some point post-1989 I can’t identify with absolute accuracy the spines on Marx’s works turned black. From that point on he joined Cicero, Plato and Herodotus. He had finally become a classic.

Penguin had realised something much of the British left have yet to take on board – that the “answers” to the problems of capitalism Marx’s works supplied us with were way out of date, and furthermore only kept on a ventilator by the fact that geopolitically important countries claimed his ideas as a starting point for the way their societies were structured. Maybe it was when the Soviet Union finally collapsed that Marx’s books donned black. If so it would be fitting.

So what ? Who still agrees uncritically with what Marx said in 1848 ? There are examples of Trotskyist and Maoist groups which treat Marx’s works with religious veneration but they have little influence and even that small influence is declining quickly. These groups claim to have historical inevitability on their side but I wouldn’t bet on them being the wave of the future.

A much more important group to consider, in numbers at least, is “the Left”. That huge, amorphous blob of humanity which is difficult to identify with much accuracy today but which is, nonetheless, the unconscious inheritor of much second-hand Marxist theory.

In one of his many well-observed insights Marx pointed out that superstructural ideas often have a tendency to lag behind developments in the economic base of any society under examination. He might also have observed that ideas have a tendency to lag behind objective developments.

It isn’t difficult to observe the ghost of once-powerful ideas flitting through contemporary political practice. I will give just one example I have come across, feel free to come up with your own.

There are no shortage of British writers and commentators who argue that the recent reforms of the Iraqi economy are fundamentally wrong. Wrong because state-owned industry or commercial enterprises are intrinsically more advanced than privately-owned ones. That nominally collectively-owned property is somehow superior to nominally privately-owned property. (I say nominally in both cases because through the shareholding system much privately-owned industry is in fact owned by collectives eg Trades Union pension funds – and often, especially in the case of Iraq, collectively-owned industry is run as a private fiefdom of a small clique of people).

It can only be a distorted ideological echo of Marx that leads people to conclude that state-owned enterprises are better than privately owned ones in terms of utilising either capital or labour efficiently, especially in Iraq’s case where the state-owned industries have historically been extremely inefficient and undynamic. It is no surprise that unemployment with all it’s consequent ills was endemic in Iraq.

Why do the left argue that the Iraqi economy should be kept insulated from the rest of the world ? Why is outside capital investment to be considered a bad thing ? Those who argue that the ownership status quo should remain call themselves “progressive” but the price of their argument winning would be backwardness and inefficiency for Iraq. There’s a contradiction.

Capitalism is still a dynamic force capable of producing great wealth. No other economic system comes close to its ability to raise standards of living across all social classes. Marx knew that in 1848 which is why he viewed with (qualified) approval its spread across the globe.

Those who argue that capitalism is a spent-force need to go back to their battered copies of the Communist Manifesto and seperate Marx’s correct observations – eg the revolutionary ability of capitalism to produce great wealth – from the ones that, filtered through time and practice, proved less correct – eg that state-ownership is neccessarily and in all circumstances an advance on private ownership.

The argument that I have advanced here, that free-market capitalism represents a major advance for the Iraqi workers will not find favour with many of those who call themselves left-wing but that does not prevent it being true.

Those who really care about Iraq should ask themselves one question. What is more important – the development of Iraq and the lifting out of poverty of millions of workers or coming up with the “right” thing to say at dinner partes ?