May 2018 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx. Not so many years ago, just about the only mention you’d find of the man was in Marxism Today edited for decades by Martin Jacques. Nowadays of course Marx has a serious revival, nay, a positive vogue. Lefties from John McDonnell, Paul Mason, Little Owen Jones, all the way to Brian Leiter and Chris Dillow – are pleased to associate themselves to a greater or lesser extent with the bearded one.
So – given C@W’s declared interest in Kapital, what do we think? Marx 1.01 starts nicely with his opening paean to capitalism. “What did the capitalists ever do for us?” He had a fulsome answer for that and credited capitalism with relieving the western world from the horrors of the peasant way of life. Plus a whole lot more achievements and public goods besides – science, technology, enlightenment, the lot.
From this perceptive and auspicious start, he headed off in two directions: some absolute dead-ends, and some useful insights. It’s not hard to be dismissive of several of his most famous themes: the ‘labour theory of value’; his historical determinism and belief in ‘dialectical materialism’ as a science (taken from Hegel, always a risky move); and of course his view on the timing of the Revolution - like early Christians and the Second Coming, he saw it as being pretty imminent. (This latter error indicates in turn that he was not at all capable of good judgement regarding the implications and outworkings of his own theories: he should have recognised that the pre-conditions he laid down were nowhere near being met in C19th.)
For all his overblown theorizing and system-building, there is no merit in throwing the insights out with the turgid bathwater. I would highlight two, before getting back to the good old Revolution again.
The first is a matter of social psychology. Marx identified the phenomenon whereby capitalism’s wage-slaves fundamentally fail to recognize what’s really going on as regards both their own exploitation and their best interests. There could be a lot of factors at work here but the main interest for Marx is how the ruling class reinforces its own interests by instituting a popular culture to mislead the workers systematically, and neutralize discontent. “Religion is the opiate of the people” is perhaps the simplest way of summarizing a diagnosis that extends more broadly than religion, of course. Another important coinage is “false consciousness” which bears reading up on, and to which we will return. And, bridging the first and second insights, he also describes the “alienation” of the worker from his true humanity and potential.
The second interesting strand of observation, then, is a view on how capitalism evolves in terms of a cluster of market dynamics. Capitalism tends to foster monopolies and concentrations of ownership. At the same time, it leads to ever greater technological advances, not least in the means of production and, importantly, automation; so that it is capable of generating the most extraordinary surpluses of goods with an ever smaller workforce. But the flipside of this impressive coin is that the 99% become ever more alienated, immiserated and – perhaps most problematically for the 1% - impoverished, so that ultimately there is no-one left to sell all that superabundant stuff to. Capitalism sows the seeds of its own downfall.
So where does Marx think this all ends – and how? Well, Revolution of course: but the precise answer is quite important. Recall that, thanks to religion, false consciousness etc, the workers don’t actually have a good grasp of what’s really going on. Nevertheless, driven by their increasing misery, they eventually intuit - I think we are invited to see this in a Darwinian kind of way as a broadly unconscious evolutionary process - that (i) the 1%-99% split of ownership is so extreme, and (ii) the surplus of productive capacity and stuff is so great, that (iii) any change whatsoever in the socio-political set-up must leave them better off than they are at that point in time. With the added rider that Marx anticipated this would happen globally all at the same time, this folks is the Revolution.
The final Marxist kicker is that all this is absolutely inevitable under his supposed ‘science’ of the direction of human history.
It’s not difficult to see how attractive this is to a certain kind of Murdoch-despising malcontent, and how easily it translates into an ideology for a bitter, revanchist political programme.
Tomorrow, assuming the Revolution isn't set for the Bank Holiday, I’ll come back with some thoughts towards putting all this heady stuff into context, and offer my own humble evaluation. In the meantime, with the caveat that Blogger has changed some of its functions post GDPR - Comments is open …