Seven Marx Out of Ten: Cherry-Picking From The Left’s Favourite Thinker (Modern Socialism #3)

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One of the main reasons this blog, this series of posts, and the thing we’re for the minute calling Modern Socialism all exist is because we think the Left needs to abandon its obsessive fixation with Marx. Rather than trying to desperately crowbar Marxism into contemporary relevance, we need to cherry-pick its best insights and work them into a new, accessible, modern manifestation of radical socialism. And then, with all that’s worth preserving safely extracted from the stifling dogma, we need to leave the old symbols and the old jargon and the old near-theological splits and squabbles behind.

That’s what this post is going to have a go at. Separating the delicious, nutritious, mind-expanding socialist wheat from the variously discredited, irrelevant and just-wrong-in-the-first-place dogmatic chaff. Examining Marx. Then providing a sound barrier-breakingly fast (and necessarily selective) whistle-stop tour of Marxism after Marx. For socialism, for equality, and for great justice.

Karl Marx was a very clever man, and having spent considerable time studying history, politics, and economics, he decided he’d figured out a grand theory of everything. He called it dialectical materialism.

He got the dialectical bit from a German philosopher called Hegel. Hegel thought that humans came up with and improved on ideas in a very specific way – that he called the dialectic. One day, someone has an idea – a thesis. Then somebody else comes along with an idea that challenges and contradicts that original proposition – an antithesis. Then a third clever clogs has a think and manages to come up with a way of combining the best bits of both ideas – resulting in a synthesis.

But nothing’s perfect – and before long that ingenious synthesis will become just another idea, that someone will challenge, and that then someone else will seek to combine with conflicting approaches to make something new and better out of the best of both, beginning the cycle all over again. And that, in Hegel’s eyes, was how human thought advanced.

But Marx decided that wasn’t just how ideas developed, but how society, economics and history itself worked, too. He thought history worked in stages, with one stage inevitably giving way to another, becoming more economically efficient all the time. But this wasn’t a process that just happened of its own accord. For Marx, what motored it was class struggle – the seemingly endless conflict between different classes in society, principally the haves and the have-nots. The have-nots did the work, tilled the land, created the wealth. And the haves creamed off the spoils.

This wasn’t a something that would go on forever, though. It had an end point. Marx thought capitalism was the second-to-last stage in the evolution of human society. He thought that capitalism would be overthrown, with the capitalist-era manifestation of the have-nots, the industrial working class (or proletariat) rising up to depose the capitalist-era manifestation of the haves, the property-owning elites who dominated the economy (the bourgeoisie).

Marx didn’t think this could happen, that it might happen, or even that it was very likely to happen. He thought that it was inevitable. Two unstoppable historical trends were bound to bring it about. In industrialised countries across the Western world, the organised working class would grow and grow until it was powerful enough to simply abolish the system that exploited it and take over. And advances in technology would result in an overwhelming material abundance – and the ability to easily provide everyone alive with everything they’d ever need.

The result would be a world of perfect equality, in which all property was owned collectively, everyone contributed to society by doing what they were good at, and everyone received support from society according to their need – communism.

It was a lovely idea. Unfortunately, like most attempts to neatly systematise messy, contingent, bafflingly complex reality, it was utterly wrong about almost everything. History isn’t a straight line pointing towards ever greater economic efficiency. Things don’t inevitably get better and better over time. The universe just isn’t unfailingly ‘dialectical’. ‘Class struggle’ isn’t the sole driving force of history.

Society is the result of billions of organisms making trillions of unpredictable decisions. It doesn’t run according to any consistent, discernible logic, it doesn’t have timeless, universal rules – no matter how many books you read, or how hard you try, you can’t ever hope to cook up a workable theory of everything.

What’s more, the industrial working class didn’t expand into the unstoppable force Marx thought it would. It grew for a bit, then, in Western countries, dwindled to almost nothing. And with society as-is already pushing our ecosystem to the brink of collapse, Marx’s vision of material abundance looks laughably far-fetched. Star Trek-style post-scarcity society is very unlikely to ever arrive.

So what did Marx actually get right? That capitalism is an anarchic, dysfunctional, crisis-prone economic system that’s fuelled by exploitation – impelling people to sell their ability to work to profit-seeking capitalists in exchange for the basic things they need to live. That wealth is created collectively, and that the rich simply leech profit out of the labour of the vast majority. That being so exploited not only physically but psychologically damages workers – forcing them into deadening, meaningless jobs, where they have no control over why or how they work (Marx called it alienation). And that the vast majority are duped into seeing the world in a way that favours the interests of the ruling elite and the maintenance of the status quo (Marx called it ideology).

But to our mind at least, Marxism only really gets interesting after Marx. Which is what, having come to a convenient place to stop for now, we’ll be looking at in part two.