1980s >> 1989 >> no-1018-june-1989

Book Review: ‘Farewell To Marx’

No Marx

‘Farewell To Marx: an outline and appraisal of His Theories’, by David Conway (Penguin)

In the continuing flood of literature about Marx and Marxism, whether hostile from the defenders of Market Society—be they Fabians or Fascists, Conservatives or Communists—or friendly from would-be critics of contemporary society, the lack of intellectual discipline is depressing and confusing. It is doubly depressing and no less confusing coming from a Ph.D teaching philosophy.

Elementary text books of logic teach us that terms employed must, to avoid confusion, be univocal and not equivocal. They must also be mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive of the subject under consideration, but:

    “It is Marxists who have been responsible for establishing socialism in those countries which are socialist. And it is Marxists within the non-communist countries who are the most vocal opponents of capitalism and the most vocal supporters of socialism.”

And

    “the USSR, if arguably not socialist, is certainly not capitalist.”

Then

    “in communism individuals become entitled to means of subsistence on the basis of their need for them. No one is forced to engage in productive activity in order to procure the remuneration necessary for the purchase of his or her means of subsistence. Productive activity is, thus, undertaken purely for its own sake. It is therefore freely chosen.”

Also

    “the means of subsistence are distributed to individuals on the basis of their need or want for them.”

Is Russia really like this? Has Western propaganda deceived us to this extent? There are pages of this sort of rubbish. And other sorts.

Conway quotes Engels’ oration at Marx’s funeral that the forms of government, the legal conceptions, the art and even the religious ideas of the people must be explained in the light of the degree of economic development attained during a given epoch. Conway argues that human beings cannot engage in politics and cultural pursuits without eating and sleeping but it does not follow that eating and sleeping explain the form politics and intellectual activity. Of course Marx never argued that it did. He argued that the relations men entered into in their economic life determined their politics and intellectual activity. We would say today that the relations are a better starting point from which to explain and predict their politics than other starting points. Conway pleads:

    “Given that there is so little to be said for historical materialism, what is it that accounts for its appeal?”

What indeed? Could it be that those concerned to explain the past and predict the future find the material basis of life a more fruitful starting point? Conway rabbits on tediously about the “justice” of exploitation, yet admits that Marx expressly and repeatedly rejects any talk of injustice as “obsolete verbal rubbish”. He quotes Allen Buchanan to the effect that Marx thought capitalism unjust but did not want to emphasise its injustice. But if we are to speculate upon what Marx thought as opposed to what he said, here we are where are we!

He says that primitive accumulation of capital was achieved by the first capitalists showing abstinence and drivels on about “sums scraped together” and “pared family budgets” and holds up Richard Arkwright as a model. Shome mishtake here, as Private Eye would say. Does he really mean Carlyle’s “Historical phenomenon, that bag-cheeked, pot bellied, much enduring, much inventing barber” who was exposed in 1785 when the courts cancelled “his” patent rights and exposed him as a thief and a fraud, as Ann Beedell has written.

This nonsense about abstinence is only a smokescreen however, and Conway finally comes out with what is really on his mind: the Enclosures, the deserted villages, the war waged by the flag-waving oligarchy on the yeomen of England and the free peasantry everywhere, driving them off the land and into destitution.

    “Although the less affluent cottagers and squatters may have lost, as a result of the enclosure movement, use-rights in common land previously enjoyed, they were compensated by more work and greater regularity of employment after enclosure.”

The Nazis found similar justification, with enabling legislation, for their dispossession of the Jews. “Arbeit Macht Frei!” Doctor Conway appears to be endorsing the acquisition of property by force, an extraordinary view in one charged with the moral and ethical formation of the young!

We must add to Doctor Conway’s difficulties with logic a strong urge to contradict himself. On page 50 he writes “It is the simple fact that acquisitiveness and selfishness antedated capitalism by thousands of years  . . . If one accepts that people are on the whole are self-seeking . . .” But on page 133: “People are not in general as envious as Marx seems to be supposing them to be.”

He is right, however, in seeing scarcity as the cause of unsocial behaviour:

    “Scarcity continues amid affluence. There is no reason to suppose that this will not continue for the indefinite future . . . Scarcity together with limited sympathy necessitates the institution of private property as a means for avoiding interpersonal conflict.”

So there we are. Time has stopped and to make sure it stops we must organise scarcity by paying people not to produce where the collapse of the Market has failed to discourage them.

The loonies have taken over the madhouse!

Ken Smith

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