1960s >> 1967 >> no-757-september-1967

Marxism today

On an occasion such as the centenary of the publication of Volume I of Marx’s Capital it is appropriate to consider whether Marxism is more widely accepted today than it was fifty or a hundred years ago, but no simple answer can be given to that question.
Some parts of Marxist theory seem to have lost ground while others have gained; but to a large extent both developments have to be weighed against the extent to which acceptance has been based on less than full understanding.
In the most shallow aspect, the use of Marx as a name to inspire political movements, a notable change has taken place. At one time there were social democratic parties in European and other countries which described themselves as Marxist and do so no longer. But it is a change of little real significance. Nominal acceptance of Marxism by the leaders meant little to the majority of members. It did not determine their principles and policy, as was to be proved by their attitude to capitalist wars and, when they became governments by their disregard of Socialism and absorption in the sterile task of trying to administer capitalism. How little Marxism meant to these parties can be shown by comparing them with the British Labour Party. While they professed to be Marxist the British Party made no such claim: as a former secretary put it, the British party owed more to Methodism than to Marx. Yet as political parties and as governments their behaviour was identical.
While the social democratic parties have dropped their lip service to Marx this role has been taken by the communist parties but with just as little justification.
Certainly one aspect of Marxism, the Materialist Conception of History has made a large and increasing impact though many of those who have been influenced do not regard themselves as Marxists and some may indeed even be unaware of the source of the influence. Sir Isaiah Berlin, eminent Oxford Professor of Political and Social Theory and by no means an uncritical admirer of Marx acknowledged the debt in an interview published in the Observer (6.11.66).

. . . there are certain originally resisted truths which Marxism put on the map. For example, the notion that . . . classes exist and class consciousness exists and has a decisive effect on men — that, although violently exaggerated, is now something no rational man denies. The notion of reification, to use a technical term —the idea that human beings tend to regard institutions which they themselves have in the past created as something objective and inexorable, the product of objective laws, like the phenomenon of gravitation — whereas they can in fact be altered by sufficient concentration and direction of human will-power and energy, if necessary by revolution — is again something which is by now accepted by quite a large number of sane thinkers.

A non Marxist historian, the late Professor Hearnshaw claimed for Marx that he “created the beginnings of scientific outlook in social studies” and that “the aspirations towards human equality, perhaps the most significant feature of the modern mind, draws its chief nourishment from him”.
When we turn to Marx’s writings on economics it is a different story. The attitude of the popular TV and newspaper commentator, Bernard Levin, is typical of most of the Press and of the academic world. He wrote:

Das Kapital is after all, a vast book of no more relevance to conditions in Britain today . . . than the controversial philosophy of Haeckel or Henri Bergson. All Marx’s major prophecies have been conclusively proved wrong by events, and much of his theory has been entirely exploded for half a century, indeed, the central economic doctrine—his labour theory was shown to be based on a misconception almost in his own lifetime. (Daily Mail, 13.9.65).

Regrettably, as so often happens with Marx-critics, Levin did not explain why he holds the labour-theory to be erroneous, or what are the major prophecies disproved by events. (Could he perhaps be induced to use our columns to tell us more?) There is however, a sufficient, if not exactly good, reason why Marx’s writings appear to the popular commentators, the economists and politicians to be irrelevant. Marx scientifically analysed the way in which capitalism works according to its own economic laws and he put the capitalist system in perspective in the evolution of society. He saw the future of mankind in the replacement of capitalism by Socialism. He did not and could not work within the false assumption that capitalism is eternal and that we must therefore seek daily expedients to lessen the chaos and correct the contradictions inherent in the capitalist order. It was therefore only to be expected that the economists and politicians in today’s world should decide that Marx has nothing to offer of use to them.
Confident in their baseless belief that it only needed expertise and goodwill to get rid of all the “bad” features of capitalism they did not want to read Marx and learn there that they were wasting their efforts. But how does this prove Marx to be irrelevant or show his prophecies to be wrong?
Marx showed how capitalism functions through expansions and contractions of the market and production and why it needs unemployment They ridiculed the idea as old fashioned, and did they not have Keynes to show them how to achieve full employment? But just as the Labour Government in 1929-31 planned to reduce unemployment and ended with achieving a record level, so in 1967 after nearly three years in office, the Wilson government in July scored the highest summer unemployment (nearly 500,000) for any year since the war.
Marx showed too (the misconceived labour-theory, according to Levin) that the money commodity, gold, has value like any other commodities, and that an over-issue of inconvertible paper money will push up prices. This, too, they scoffed at, but events have proved Marx right.
Also on the Labour government’s prize exhibit, the incomes policy, Marx had something to say a hundred years ago. In the early days the Labour Party had the simple belief that the cure for an oncoming crisis is to push up wages. Marx was familiar with this argument and pointed out that if it were true crises would never happen because as a fact, in a period of boom, wages invariably rise and rise faster than the increase in production of consumer goods. Standing their former belief on its head the Labour government now seeks to prevent crises by preventing wages from rising: if they had read Marx’s analysis of the situation they would have known that this was equally pointless except from the standpoint of protecting profits.
So who has been proved wrong, Marx or his detractors?
In another field Marxism was under fire from two opposite quarters—from those who said Marx did not know about the growth of monopoly and from those who said that his observations on the trend towards concentration of industry and wealth were mistaken.
Both were wrong. Marx fully understood the anxiety of capitalists to protect themselves if they could, against competition by forming monopolies and it ill becomes Labour Party critics to venture into this because, in their lack of any comprehensive economic understanding, they started as a party committed to the doctrine of keeping capitalist units small and competitive, only to come now to an officially backed policy of encouraging mergers so that British capital can stand up to the big battalions in capitalism abroad.
Before leaving Marx and his prophecies perhaps Mr. Levin, particularly in the light of current developments in Russia would like to show that Marx was wrong in prophesying that it was impossible for that country, or any other, to leap into Socialism without going through the normal phases of capitalism
Edgar Hardcastle

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