Monday , June 24 2019

Marxism for Tories

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Summary:
The Tories have discovered a new boo-word. In the last few days, Iain Duncan Smith, Esther McVey and Suella Braverman have all used “Marxism” to mean a self-evidently Bad Thing. From one perspective, this is odd because in fact Tories should find some aspects of Marxism quite sympathetic. Not least of these is an admiration for capitalism’s dynamism. Marx wrote that capitalism “has given an immense development to commerce…has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals…draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation…[and has] rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.” We don’t deny that capitalism has been a progressive force. We just wonder at what price this has been achieved, and

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The Tories have discovered a new boo-word. In the last few days, Iain Duncan Smith, Esther McVey and Suella Braverman have all used “Marxism” to mean a self-evidently Bad Thing. From one perspective, this is odd because in fact Tories should find some aspects of Marxism quite sympathetic.

Not least of these is an admiration for capitalism’s dynamism. Marx wrote that capitalism “has given an immense development to commerce…has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals…draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation…[and has] rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.” We don’t deny that capitalism has been a progressive force. We just wonder at what price this has been achieved, and whether the progress can continue. Marx-engels-2_art_full

And let’s get one obvious thing clear. Just as Conservatives no longer believe in locking up homosexuals or hounding them to death, so Marxist don’t want to send their opponents to gulags. Quite the opposite. There has always been a big libertarian strand within Marxist thought. Marx thought that the ideal society was one in which "the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all" and looked forward to the abolition of the state. The nanny state of which libertarians like Christopher Snowdon complain is emphatically not a Marxian notion.

In fact, Marxists share with Tories a scepticism about what state intervention can achieve. Whereas social democrats think that the right macroeconomic and redistribution policies can alleviate the worst features of capitalism, Marxists are not so sure. One reason why we want to supersede capitalism is precisely that we share with Tories doubts about the efficacy of piecemeal reform.

I’ve used that word “supersede” advisedly. Most Marxists no longer believe in violent revolution, or even revolution at all. If you want to find ideologues who’ll wreck the economy by imposing a  utopian fantasy upon it, you should look at Brexiteers rather than Marxists. Instead, we favour accelerationism or interstitial transformation (pdf) – finding non-capitalist forms of organization such as coops or community self-help groups (what Burke called “little platoons”) and encouraging their development.

In this sense, Marxism is empirical and anti-ideological. One reason for this is that we have no dog in lots of conventional political fights. For example: would a much higher minimum wage destroy lots of jobs? If no, then fine; we have a way of helping the low-paid. If yes, then it just shows that capitalism is incompatible with decent living standards for all. Or: can some monetary and fiscal policies prevent recessions and promote longer-term growth? If yes, we’ve got something useful. If no, then we’ve evidence that capitalism is destined for crisis and stagnation. Because we’ve no preconceived ideological answers to such questions, we can let ourselves be guided by the evidence.

What’s more, Marxists are not moralists. We don’t think social ills are the result of bad people doing bad things. They are instead, systemic problems which emerge independently of the intentions of individuals. As Marx said, “external coercive laws [have] power over every individual capitalist.” Marx, like Adam Smith, was an early theorist of emergence.

Some Tories might also be surprised that some apparently Marxian positions are not uniquely Marxist. The labour theory of value and tendency for the rate of profit to fall were both Marx’s elaborations of the ideas of Smith and Ricardo: when Paul Samuelson called Marx a minor post-Ricardian he was saying that there’s less originality in Marx than you might think. And if you’re looking for a belief in the sort of historical determinism attacked by Popper, you should look not to Marxists but to Blair: as Will Bott has shown, his talk of globalization as an “unstoppable force” is more crudely deterministic than most of us Marxists would accept.

It should be clear from this that Duncan Smith is wrong to say Corbyn is a Marxist: that pays him too great a compliment. Labour’s 2017 manifesto was mostly mainstream European-style social democracy.

All this, though, leaves me ambivalent. On the one hand, I think the Tories are right to be scared of Marxism: it poses an intellectually coherent challenge to their class privilege in a way that centrism and much of social democracy does not. On the other hand, though, using Marxism as a merely derogatory term is to misrepresent the history of thought. It is crude philistinism. But then, perhaps that is all the Tories have nowadays.

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