Skip to Content

Cooking the Books 1: Oliver in Blunderland

In a recent speech Tory MP and would-be intellectual Oliver Letwin his last brilliant idea was the poll tax ventured to discuss Marx and Marxism. After mocking Gordon Brown for mouthing sounds such as post neo-classical endogamous growth theory he himself offered an alternative set of sounds in shift the locus of debate from an economo-centric paradigm to a socio-centric paradigm, and continued:

It all goes back to Marx. Before Marx, politics was multi-dimensional constitutional, social, environmental as well as economic. But Marx changed all that. The real triumph of Marxism consisted in the way that it defined the preoccupations not only of its supporters but also of its opponents. After Marx, socialists defended socialism and free marketeers defended capitalism. For both sides, the centrepiece of the debate was the system of economic management (Daily Telegraph, 10 May).

Marx did argue that the key issue in politics ought to be the ownership and control of the means of wealth-production, but unfortunately the actual debate in the 20th century was not between socialism (common ownership) and capitalism (sectional ownership). It was merely over the best way to manage capitalism: through state ownership and control or by leaving things to the free play of competing, profit-seeking private enterprises.

This debate, says Letwin, is now over:

Since Thatcher, and despite recent recurrences of something like full-blooded socialism in some parts of Latin America, the capitalist/socialist debate has in general ceased to dominate modern politics. >From Beijing to Brussels, the free market has won the battle of economic ideas.

In other words, except for Chavez were all pro-capitalists now. We have, claims Letwin, entered a post-Marxist era.

He is assuming that socialism and government ownership are the same thing and that Marx favoured government ownership, and concluded that anyone favouring government ownership was a Marxist. Both premises and the conclusion are wrong.

That government ownership is socialism is a popular misconception and, to be honest, is how the word socialism has come to be used. But it has never been accepted by Marxian socialists, who have always drawn a distinction between state capitalism (nationalisation by a capitalist government) and socialism.

Nationalisation has been carried out by all sorts of governments, both in Britain and in other countries. The Post Office became a government monopoly in Britain in 1680. A Tory government nationalised the telegraph system while successive Liberal and Tory government nationalised the telephone network. An Act of 1844, piloted through by Gladstone, provided for the nationalisation of the railways if need be. In France cigarette production was a government monopoly and in Prussia the railways were government-owned. So, on Letwins logic, Napoleon, Gladstone and Bismarck must have been Marxists.

Marx was always clear that socialism as such had nothing to do with government ownership of capitalist industry. It was a new social system where the means of production would belong to the whole community not the state, which as an instrument of minority class rule, would disappear and where there would be production to satisfy peoples needs not for sale and profit, and so where thered be no money, no banks, nor working for wages.

Socialism in this sense or capitalism should have been the burning issue of the 20th century but, as stated, unfortunately it wasnt. Far from entering "a post-Marxist era we are still in a pre-Marxist era where politics has yet to be what Marx wanted: a political struggle by the class of wage and salary workers to win control of political power with a view to establishing the common ownership of the means of production by the whole people.