Wednesday, January 03, 2007


Late last year whilst participating for fun in the blogwars I had the great fortune to spar in a debate re. the legacy of General Auguste Pinochet. This issue prompted three posts from the blogger and pages of cyberpaper crammed to the brim with insulting tête-à-têtes between left and right-wing readers.

Although the blogger (crafty devil) did not actually come out and say anything himself re. Pinochet, he quoted long stretches of other writers’ work which implied that Pinochet wasn’t such a bad guy. The rationale for this argument was two pronged: first Pinochet wasn’t so bad because his predecessor Salvador Allende was much worse and second: Chilé was an economic shambles before the General put things right.

The blogger never went so far as to endorse any redemption of Pinochet but simply stated that he may deserve less condemnation than previously thought. This was a red flag to drooling leftists who howled for blood and walked right into a trap designed to make them look like doctrine driven robotic idiots.

Mission accomplished.

The blogger had a field week with the issue and his supporters had great fun putting the boot in. The final post on the subject challenged the left to make a counter-argument without “vilifying, making wild accusations, misrepresenting or lying?” (A good one coming from him.) He largely tagged many of the critical posts with ‘fail’. Rightly so. He didn’t however bother to acknowledge the many posts that actually managed to rise to his challenge. Nor did he correct his supporters when they were guilty of vilification, misrepresentation or just plain stupidity.

What became apparent during the debate was the way in which the term “Marxist” is being transformed into something bearing similar connotative qualities to ‘Nazi.’ For example consider this quote from the Michael Radu piece cited in the Pinochet blog:

"But while leftists choose to remember Allende as a beneficent democrat, history provides little support for this view. ... On the contrary, Allende’s regime was so radically Marxist that its most “moderate” element was the Communist Party."

The inference here is that Marxism is inherently anti-democratic, always and without exception.

This had been a notable thread in the blog running back a few months. The same week as the first Pinochet post there was another in which journalists from The Age were implicitly vilified as “Marx-quoters” as if to cite the man was an indication of criminal tendency.

This opposition to Marx, not just philosophically but morally is curious. To listen to some, reading Marx is akin to viewing child pornography: an inherently immoral act, something intrinsically tainting. I am reminded of an ultra-conservative and sartorially-challenged National Party Club President in my student days proudly declaring that he’d managed to avoid Marx in the five years it took him to complete his Bachelor’s degree in Asian politics. I thought he’d managed to stunt his own education: how much can you know about Chinese politics if you avoid Marx and Marx-related topics? He believed he’d come through Satan’s lair and emerged pure.

This kind of group think, dangerous in itself, bears exacerbating resemblance to the bleating of people today who call themselves Marxists and try to prove it by spending week-ends at dreary lectures on various topics relating to Left-wing history as distorted by the senior members of their Romantic Revolutionary Social Clubs. You can always see this kind of thing plastered over spare urban spaces in the form of photocopied simulacra of constructivist styles. One recent example being the hysterically inane: How Marx Became a Marxist.

This is of course why the word Marxist has become so useless. Most ‘Marxists’ have never read a word. They’ve been to a talk in which some dumbed down version of a pamphlet bearing slogans quoted from a stupid book of dogmatic verse has been badly delivered and, having run out of haircuts with which to annoy their parents, they become ‘Marxists’. Marxism here is part religion part sub-cultural fad. The Goth look for geeks.

But these are irrellevant here. Here we're discussing Marx's use intellectually and pedagocially.

The argument against Marx will be based on one thing: the anti-democratic nature and economic failure of Marx-inspired states. That Marx himself is not responsible for this and likely would have disapproved of them is one of those historical complexities that simple minds are determined to ignore. The argument for Marx will always be met by emotive anecdotes from the Soviet Union. Funnily enough China, which boasts a market economy and a totalitarian state, will probably be overstepped.

The reason Marx is ultimately demonized is that despite him being often wrong he’s often right. A quick scan of various Marx quotes will demonstrate this:

"The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force."

This is something that Rupert Murdoch (once a self-professed Marxist) would rather not make it into the daily papers. One day he’ll buy Fairfax out and make it so. The reason he’d rather we didn’t read it is because it’s true. The reason that he stands a fair shot of eradicating Marx from all but the most obscure cultural corridors is the same.

Then there’s my favourite:

"that peculiar disease, a disease that, since 1848, has raged over the whole continent, "Parliamentary Idiocy,"--that fetters those whom it infects to an imaginary world, and robs them of all sense, all remembrance, all understanding of the rude outside world."

Parliamentary Idiocy. I don’t care who you vote for, you just gotta love that phrase. And it’s perfectly true. Anyone who’s disappeared up the fundament of intense political activity, emerged to tell the tale and is honest with themselves will admit the truth of it. Regardless the author, this concept most definitely should be taught in schools: part of the strengthening of democracy via the cultivation of a healthily skeptical citizenry.

The facts of capitalism are built into the system. You don’t need Marx to breed discontent with the system just a long stretch of unemployment. What Marx adds is analysis. Consider:

"The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all nations into civilization."

Is this not a description of globalization? I’m amused by the ‘anti-globalization movement’, particularly the ‘Marxist’ elements. If they’d actually read him they’d understand that this globalization phenomena is part of the capitalist process: that the global bourgeoisie will give rise to the global proletariat. That is to a world of working people who, unfettered by cultural divisions associated with 'nation' etc, will come to understand themselves primarily as a class with common interests.

I can’t say for certain that this will happen but if I was a Marxist I wouldn’t be wasting my time protesting globalization. I’d be fostering international links within the Labour movement.

I’m not a Marxist. I’m loathe to put myself in any category that follows a name with the letters i..s..t. To treat any individual as the oracle of everything is stupid and lazy. I don’t mean this to describe all work inspired by Marx or others. Eric Hobsbawn is an historian whose method and subject matter are ‘Marxist’. His work is excellent. But one of the reasons for this excellence is that he does not lose sight of his obligations as an historian whilst deploying Marx’s principles in writing it. He does not fail to see the history for the theory.

The fact is like it or not Karl Marx is part of the intellectual history of the world. And like it or not he made contributions. The irony that his ideas would fuel the Soviet nightmare (one of history’s most oppressive states) is one example of the ironies that history is stuffed to the brim with. Marx’s most unfortunate phrase: the dictatorship of the proletariat was a romantic slogan chasing an ideal in which the lower classes would prevail. The Soviet Union might have declared itself to be the dictatorship of the proletariat but only became the dictatorship of a proletarian namely one Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili better known as Joseph Stalin.

To blame the iniquities of Marxist states entirely on Stalin would be a bit much. Stalin after all opposed the Communist revolution in China led by Mao Zedong who would transform into quite a killer himself. Stalin can’t be blamed for Chinese massacres, the ideology must itself be held accountable. It is accountable because it was a political philosophy that justified the concentration of absolute power in the hands of the few or the one. Any ideology that does so will bear the same results. But Marx himself is not accountable for twentieth century totalitarianism. He wasn’t there. There is a distinction to be made between his writings, the intellectual quasi-faiths that these inspired and the nasty business ensuing.

Marxism as it developed during the twentieth century bears a tenuous relationship to what Marx wrote. Nietzsche by comparison was much lauded by Nazis and other psychopaths for his ideas about the superman, master vs. slave cultures etc. That Nietzsche himself would’ve been appalled by the Nazis is evident to anyone who’s read him with any understanding. His discourse on the master and slave mentalities in The Genealogy of Morals is a direct contradiction of the master race perversion that Nazi intellectuals eventually made of it. This is now understood. Marx however is still demonized.

The reasons for this I suspect is that Marx is still relevant despite declarations to the contrary. After all he was the first to crystallize a theory of history based on class struggle. With this, as with other things, I believe he was over-simplistic. But he did outline the view that human society had developed along certain lines underpinned by an economic mode, that the social structure enabled by that economy was based on a class hierarchy which afforded a leisurely life to the ruling class and that significant (fundamental) change in the political structure of society was only possible after the economic mode had first advanced.

Marx was a fundamental materialist in this respect. He believed that ideas, culture, art and all the rest were a product of the economic structure. Ideas don’t change things, economics and class struggle do. There is argument to support this view. After all serious notions of a society founded on equality have existed at least since fourteenth century France but the political shift from a society ruled by an hereditary class (feudalism) to modern democracy was underwritten by the organic development of the capitalist system. Only after the merchant class had made itself the engine of society could it then demand political power.

An overly simplistic view, but the simplicity of his views does not discredit them. It is part of their value. Stripping phenomena down to bare essentials is very useful particularly if you are casting something in a new light. The error occurs when you rigidly adhere to the simplicity and then try to apply reality to it and not the reverse.

Marx’s materialism has been challenged notably by Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism. Marx’s ideas have themselves precipitated change in the development of Marxist states, another delicious irony. The Marxist states arose from backward and feudal societies thus contradicting Marx’s proposed itinerary of societal development: slave, feudal, capitalist, socialist, communist. Most of the Marxist states paid lip service to his theory whilst leap-frogging one or two stages of his theoretical development or at least attempting to.

Again I’m not a Marxist. I don’t endorse Marx’s claims to social prophecy. However I do believe that human society, in a shaky two-steps-forward, one-step-back, fall-down-drunk and stagger-up-again kind of a way, does get better. I believe we can and will do better than we are now. This will not happen by applying the implied theories of one man to everything from factory organization to skateboarding but it will likewise not occur if we censor ideas either.

Thus my argument is more akin to Voltaire than Marxist I am for the free exchange of ideas. For that to occur an idea cannot be censured simply because it’s by such-and-such. It must be considered on merit according to facts and relevance regardless the name on the title page. Much of what Marx had to say about capitalism and class society is as true today as it was when he wrote it. A lot of it is wrong. In that respect he’s just like myriad other thinkers throughout the ages. This is not an excuse to demonize him or exclude him from his rightful place in canon of thought.

1 comment:

Lotta said...

People should read this.