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An Uniformed Dismissal of Marx

Socialism has not failed, it has never been tried – this is a standard response to anyone who claims that socialism might be a nice idea but has not worked in practice. Recently, however, George Monbiot, in his The Age of Consent (Harper Perennial 2004), has argued that this reply is not valid, on the grounds that the Communist Manifesto “contains, in theoretical form, all the oppressions which were later visited on the people of communist nations”. The politics of Mao and Stalin were, he continues, rigid applications of Karl Marx’s own prescriptions in the Manifesto. Marxism, therefore, has indeed been tried, and has been a disaster for those forced to experience it.
The case for Socialism does not depend on every dot and comma of what Marx wrote, but, especially since Monbiot is a writer who enjoys some reputation as a ‘radical’, we feel we should respond to his reasons for dismissing socialist ideas. His discussion in fact contains more mistakes than pages. He refers to dialectical materialism, a phrase never used by Marx, and he wrongly believes that the proletariat consists of just industrial labourers. He thinks Marx was wrong to argue that peasants, shopkeepers, etc. would disappear under capitalism, but surely developments since the Manifesto was written have shown that these social groups do indeed dwindle and individuals in them become wage-workers. According to Monbiot, Marx appointed people like himself to look after workers’ interests, but what he actually wrote was that “in the movement of the present, they [Communists] also represent and take care of the future of that movement”, which is not very clear but certainly cannot bear the interpretation he places on it. He also overlooks another statement in the Manifesto: “The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority.” The dictatorship of the proletariat (an expression not found in the Manifesto or in any of Marx’s works written for publication) would become the dictatorship of a bureaucracy, he claims. Centralising the means of production in the hands of the state would give the new government unprecedented powers – but these centralising proposals were out of date in Marx’s lifetime and are not advocated by socialists now. With the triumph of the proletariat, supposedly, Marx unrealistically envisaged all conflict coming to an end, but in fact this is in no way implied by the description of “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”.
And here is Monbiot’s conclusion:

“his [Marx’s] political programme, as formulated in the Manifesto, was a dead end. It stands at odds with everything we in the global justice movement claim to value: human freedom, accountability, diversity.”

Besides misinterpreting what the Manifesto says, he ignores the fact that it was written in 1848, before Marx and Engels had been able to learn from the political experiences of the working-class movement. Engels’s preface to the 1888 edition of the Manifesto noted that its principles were still applicable even if some of the points made were outdated. Monbiot’s denunciation of Marx is of a piece with the milk-and-water nature of the proposals in his book (democratising the UN, enforcing ‘fair trade’ and so on). He does get one thing right, though:

“The world possesses sufficient resources, if carefully managed and properly distributed, to meet the needs of all its people, possibly for as long as the species persists.”