The Left

Socialism in an Age of Waiting Part Two

This is the continuation of my earlier posting here. I should warn potential readers that it’s quite a long post.

What was it I found in the Communist Manifesto that rang a bell ? What was contained in that four section distillation of what later came to be called Marxism that made sense and – in the context of Norm’s question about what is worth preserving from the golden age of Socialism – immutable ?

Certainly not Marx’s bizarre ideas about the family

On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? he asks:

On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form, this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among proletarians, and in public prostitution.

The Industrial Revolution was initially very hard on many working class families. 16 hour shifts, non existent job security, and the exploitation of child labour were hardly conducive to family life. But I think Marx got it wrong about the family “withering away”. It’s possible to argue in fact that the family is one of the few human institutions which has survived the various arrangements of human society “above” the family. Antiquity, Feudalism, Capitalism, Actually Existing Socialism – each had different attitudes to the family but in each social system the family managed to survive. Sometimes it prospered, sometimes it seemed to be unravelling but it never actually got replaced by anything that socialised the next generation in quite such an efficient way.

Equally confused, I think, were Marx’s thoughts on marriage:

Bourgeois marriage is, in reality, a system of wives in common and thus, at the most, what the Communists might possibly be reproached with is that they desire to introduce, in substitution for a hypocritically concealed, an openly legalized system of free love. For the rest, it is self-evident that the abolition of the present system of production must bring with it the abolition of free love springing from that system, i.e., of prostitution both public and private.

No doubt Marx could point out dozens of examples of sexual hypocrisy in the contemporary bourgeois marriage but I wonder if the following passage owes more to experience than to sober sociological analysis:

Our bourgeois, not content with having wives and daughters of their proletarians at their disposal, not to speak of common prostitutes, take the greatest pleasure in seducing each other’s wives. (Ah, those were the days!)

The twin institutions of family and marriage – while not a happy experience for everyone and not without their own structural problems – have survived far better than the youthful Marx might have imagined. Calls for their destruction are heard pretty infrequently these days. The family is periodically “attacked” or “assisted” (depending on your worldview) by institutions of the State, but both made it into the Twenty First Century looking less moth eaten than this section of the Communist Manifesto. I expect both will also outlive the next stage of human development, whatever form it takes.

Much of the rest of the Communist Manifesto is taken up with attacks on Marx’s rivals and a discussion of political tactics which are – to a large extent – of historical interest only.

So what’s left in it that’s worth something today ? In my opinion the most useful of the ideas in the Communist Manifesto is the materialist conception of history. An explanation of how Historical Materialism – as it became known – works conceptually occupies approximately only a quarter of the Manifesto but having to share space with some of the first printed examples of inter-Left sectarianism and dodgy sociological predictions makes it shine like a jewel in the sand. In any event this lack of detail isn’t fatal – historical materialism is expounded at greater length in various of the other pamphlets and books Engels dipped into his pockets to publish. In my opinion historical materialism is the leitmotiv that runs through those aspects of Marxism which still have intellectual purchase today.

Here’s how the materialist concept of history is introduced and how the first words of the Manifesto were written:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.
Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.

As soon as I read that paragraph I recognised that it was true. After twenty-odd years of life experience I haven’t changed my mind about its veracity. It would take an extraordinarily blinkered person, I think, to argue that class contradictions didn’t exist in “hitherto existing society” or that they don’t continue to exist today whatever form they take.

More importantly than their existence, it’s apparant that class contradictions have driven the development of human society. Sometimes the synthesis of class struggle tipped humanity in a progressive direction – as with the replacement of Feudalism with Capitalism – sometimes most definitely not. The triumph of (and subsequent cult of) the mounted armed warrior as it took the reigns of state from the disintegrating and corrupted inheritors of Roman republicanism was certainly no advance on Antiquity in any way other than chronologically. We are entitled to view that unlamented system’s dynastic wars and structural inability to allow human progress as a lumpen throwback to political barbarism. With clouds of smoke from a swinging ball of incense.
it blighted European development for pretty much a thousand years and obscured the common political, artistic, and social ideas of Greece (via Rome) which is our heritage.

Marx seems to agree. Here he is describing, what must have seemed to a Mid-Nineteenth Century German writer, the still warm corpse of Feudalism. He also drafts a character sketch of the figure standing over its corpse, dripping knife in its clenched fist.

The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part. The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left no other nexus between people than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned out the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade.

All true, if exaggerated for effect. But Marx puts the cart in front of the horse when he uses the past tense. There are still large areas of the world in which “motley Feudal ties” hold the development of humanity back despite progress made elsewhere. For a ludicrously high proportion of the female children born onto this planet, the lack of social opportunities open to them means they may as well have been born in the Seventh century as the Twenty First. Even the men who guard their socially and religiously sanctioned relative privilege over women are subject to the same outbreaks of hunger and violence which punctuate the backbreaking manual work and low levels of literacy which still blight millions of lives.

The point I’m trying to make – and here I’m going to switch into the official language of the Marxist – is this: Despite bringing its own contradictions Capitalism represents a massive advance on what Marx called in the Manifesto “hitherto existing society“.

Marx believed that the working class would inherit the social, economic and political gains of the bourgeois revolution and improve on them – extend democracy, reorganise production so that it was human centred rather than profit driven, and do away with the shocking and brutal contradictions of capitalist society, the results of which Engels described in The Condition of the Working Class in England.

The Twentieth Century would have been a massive blow to Marx’s belief in his ability to predict the future. Capitalism survived, mutated and continued its hegemony but in a manner which granted the Western European working Class a seat at high table. The threat of revolution and the weight of democracy forced capitalism to cede ground politically, economically and socially to representatives of the majority class. “Capitalism” today is only distantly related to its Victorian Great Grandfather which had rather stricter ideoloogical views on how society should be ordered.

In Russia Actually Existing Socialism brought a certain level of industrialisation and modernity to the Soviet Union and its allies in “the Socialist Camp”. However, that experiment all came to an end 15 years ago when the nuts and bolts of the socialist economy were found to have rusted up decades ago and – even had someone been found who would admit it was his job to scrape off the copper coloured flakes – the invention and creative application of the microchip in the West condemned his labours to pointlessness. That fact, rather than the sustained abuses of democratic norms by those who controlled the Soviet state proved to be the undoing of Actually Existing Socialism, as becomes clear when Soviet political decisions made in the decade which led to its collapse are compared with those taken in the 1980’s by its old rival for the mantle of true communism – the People’s Republic of China.

So where does that leave Marx’s project ? All over the place, I think. Small groups of socialists keep the faith, either in relatively unchanged form or with accretions from the Twentieth Century added on. Marxism-Leninism, Maoism, Trotskyism – all seemed important in their day, all now surviving mainly in the groves of academe.

The European working class has shown in countless elections the fact that it prefers that smooth blend of economic dynamism – which capitalism does so much better than any other economic system – and Twentieth Century social reforms which blunt that turbo-charged wealth creation system but also brought to an end the obligation of orphans to crawl up chimneys to earn a living. All of the mass parties of the working class in Europe – whether they call themselves Socialist, Social Democrat or Communist are now reformist parties. Marxist revolution is not on the agenda.

But how does this ramble over the territory of Classical Marxism help answer the question that Norm posed ? What, if anything, is worth hauling from the ideological wreckage of Socialism ? I’m conscious that I haven’t answered that question yet but promise to do so in Socialism in an Age of Waiting Part Three.