The Left

Socialism in an Age of Waiting – Part One

This is the first part of a post which attempts to answer Norm’s poser of how the goals and aspirations that went under the name of socialism can be applied today. The second – less autobiographical and more political – part will follow when I get more time to post in the next couple of days

I’ll begin at the beginning this evening though.

If I’m honest it was the changing the world bit that attracted me to Socialism when I first stumbled across the writings of Karl Marx. Who could have looked up from the red and white pamphlets and turn an adolescent eye to the state of the world in the early Eighties and say “Well, everything seems to be in order here – let’s just leave things as they are” ? Not me.

The second Cold War was at its height, nuclear annihilation was being discussed as if it might actually happen, mass unemployment was stalking the land. Even the music was getting worse. Elvis Costello and the Buzzcocks were being supplanted by fops in tea towels on Top of the Pops. To cap it all we were the lucky ones. Most of the world’s human beings didn’t even have access to clean water and a regular source of food. They were dying for want of the very basics. What a mess.

I’ll admit that a certain immature need to be seen to be rebellious – not completely unknown in teenagers – played its part in my decision to throw a copy of the Communist Manifesto in my schoolbag, but maybe not that much. The world was heading towards hell in a handcart and I was as disturbed as anyone else.

I digested the the Communist Manifesto and concluded that I was “against the bourgeois order“. It wasn’t a difficult decision – they’d obviously made a real mess of the world I was only just old enough to start exploring. It didn’t seem right that the guilty class were left in charge a minute longer.

I memorised the contents of the Novosti Publishers translation and became very familiar with its contents. I got to know it so intimately in English that when a friend brought back a deluxe hardback edition from East Germany I decided I could probably learn the rudiments of German by skimming through it.

“Proletarier aller Lander, vereinigt euch !” I’d spit out theatrically walking the floor of the small flat I shared with him and thanking my Scottish accent for the head-start it gave me on the correct pronunciation.

What was it that I liked about the book ? There was a dynamism about it. An impatience with things as they were that I could identify with. In 1848 – when the Manifesto was written – the Europe we live in today was just being born. In Marx’s homeland a patchwork of stupid and pointless Princedoms inherited from the Feudal era covered what is now Germany, stifling social progress and preventing economies of scale from kicking in. Most of the continent was economically backward and politically repressive. Ripe for overthrow.

Other countries in Europe though were steaming ahead. Britain was industrialising at great speed. Unimaginable wealth was being created in the factories that were spreading themselves over the fields and meadows. The working class got to see very little of it at this stage but they did benefit to some extent from one of the least obviously repressive political systems in the world. They used this freedom to set in motion the world’s first mass working class culture – newspapers, political clubs, friendly societies, all became widespread phenomena in Britain in the mid Nineteenth Century. They were followed a short time later by the development of mass sports, building societies, ramblers associations and co-operative societies. A new type of human being was rising up from its subaltern feudal origins and making its demands known. The forward march of Labour had begun.

Marx wanted for Germany what Britain had – but he also wanted more. In the organised working class he saw the germ of a future social order which retained the massive economic and political gains capitalism had made compared to the stagnant feudalism it had replaced, but without the need for the capitalist class who appeared to do little but exploit the workers.

Maybe Marx is still right. Maybe Capitalism will be replaced by Socialism. Anyone with a skeletal knowledge of world history would be unwise to bet enthusiastically on capitalism being the highest stage of human achievement, whatever Francis Fukuyama might seems to imply.

But there’s a problem for those who want to replace capitalism with something else. Everything that loudly trumpeted itself as being the death knell of capitalism has turned out to be worse than what it seeks to replace. Fascism, Soviet Socialism, Third World Nationalism – all the utopias have had very serious and sometimes fatal flaws. Part of the problem, I think, is that Capitalism is a mature system. It’s been through the teething troubles and the terrible twos. It isn’t a gawky teenager anymore, it’s a full grown adult with a huge headstart over every other potential system of organising society because of that fact. Guile and cunning beat youth and a bad haircut.

Everyone recognises that fact. But its not enough merely to recognise it. Anyone who wants to be taken seriously as a prophet of alternative ways of doing things has got to be able to tell us how their Utopia would work in practice – at least in outline. I don’t think its enough anymore to say “these things will sort themselves out”. The working class won’t buy something it can’t see. And there’s another reason people don’t want to upset the apple cart. It’s still delivering the apples.

Also, the world as it is now is too different to the one Marx shook his quill at to make the transmission of much of his ideas intellectually or practically feasible. Those who attempt to do so without updating them are destined to endlessly repeat the past rather than playing a part in shaping the future.

Marx knew nothing of the struts and supports of what some philosophers have optimistically called late capitalism. He couldn’t help but be ignorant of intercontinental exchange on the scale we practice it today, the development of computing or any of the literally hundreds of thousands other changes since his day which allow billions of us to exist where previously only millions could. And that’s the problem. Trying to understand, let alone change, the world by studying the writings of people who died in earlier historical epochs is a fruitless task.

In a nutshell – Marx is completely out of date. How out of date ? For a rough idea try to imagine attempting to explain the ideals of the American Revolution to a European peasant farmer of the 1620’s whose idea of the world extended little beyond his immediate surroundings. That’s the sort of time difference we’re talking about. The conceptual one is even greater.

But still, but still…. There’s something about the cut of Marx’s jib that I’ve always admired. And it’s not just me, judging by the sales of his books and the interest in his ideas which seems to dip and soar depending on the prevailing climate but never really goes away. That popularity seems to me to stem from something fundamental or essential in Marx that transcends the out of date nature of many of his conclusions. And that essential and undying spirit is what I want to explore in my next post.

Until then , remember – Ein Gespenst geht um in Europe – das Gespenst des Marx.