The return of Marx (& Spencer)
The editor would like to reassure his readers that this is not an article about the continued relevance of The Communist Manifesto on the 150th anniversary of its publication. Thank you. Now read on.
While playing the Victorian parlour game, 'Confessions', with his daughters, Karl Marx was asked what was his favourite motto. He replied 'De omnibus dubitandum' - question everything.
If his spectre was haunting Europe today, the first question it would want to ask is surely this; why, exactly 150 years after The Communist Manifesto that he wrote was first published, are respectable commentators in the USA and Europe now resurrecting Marx as an important critic of capitalism?
Marx may be coming back into fashion in influential circles, yet the fact is that what he wrote is in many ways less pertinent now than at any time in the past century and a half. In its origins Marxism is, after all, a theory of proletarian revolution; and of what relevance is that, in a modern world where the working class movement has been consigned to the heritage museums and the only people likely to be storming palaces are tour parties of sad little pilgrims worshipping the ground that Princess Diana walked on?
But perhaps that is the point for the newly converted admirers of Marx. Since his name no longer frightens the chattering classes, they can afford to patronise him and pick out those of his words that can be spun to suit their purposes today. So it is that Marx has been resurrected, not as a revolutionary with a vision of a better world, but as a conservative moaner complaining about the one we live in now.
The role that Marx has been allotted is to lend historical and philosophical authority to one of the most powerful - and most dangerous - notions of the late twentieth century: the idea that society must restrain itself for safety's sake, that humanity must be held back or risk disaster. Marx's critique of the destructive tendencies within capitalism is now being wheeled out to back up the influential argument against 'too much' economic growth, 'too much' progress. A man whose life's work was dedicated to breaking the chains that held back the human potential has been dressed up to look like a locksmith instead.
Marx's criticism in the Communist Manifesto of the destructive side of unfettered capitalist expansion certainly resonates with the gloomy and breast-beating mood of the late 1990s. The irony is, however, that when the 29-year old Marx wrote the Manifesto in the late 1840s (with the assistance of the 27-year old Frederick Engels), he was also keen to acknowledge the achievements of capitalism, the universalising aspect of the market's growth, the way in which it broke down many of the old barriers to human advancement.
Yet the productive, expansionist aspects of capitalism, which in the past Marx himself was prepared to celebrate, are now pointed to from all sides as a problem, even a threat, facing humanity and 'the planet'. There could be no surer sign that we are living in a different world than Marx, one where none of the old assumptions holds good, where we cannot even take it for granted that increasing the wealth and liberty of humanity will be accepted as a worthwhile goal. Even yesterday's far-sighted champion of emancipation can find himself forcibly recruited into today's army of doom-mongers, tolling the bell for human progress.
In these vastly changed circumstances, those of us who begin from the same starting point as Marx did in his day - wanting to realise the human potential - can find little direct guidance from him about how to reach our goal. Instead we have to negotiate our own way across the new map of politics.
Every important issue is now shaped by society's failure of nerve, its loss of faith in itself. Tackling this sentiment is as important now as, say, puncturing capitalist triumphalism was in the past.
For example, discussions of the world economy today are often dominated by dire warnings of potential disasters. Each new event tends to be interpreted in the worst possible light. As Phil Mullan examines elsewhere in this issue of LM, whether the threat that the experts are worrying too much about is inflation, deflation or disinflation, the underlying danger they identify always seems to be too much growth. This is a breathtaking turnaround in economic thinking. In the past, those who saw over-production as a source of capitalist instability would argue for consumers to be given more money to soak up the surplus goods. Now they argue instead for a cutback in production itself, as if in absolute terms there really were too many goods in the world.
As Mullan points out, the depressed state of economic thinking bears little relation to anything that is happening in the engine room of the real economy. Instead there is a predisposition to spot problems before they even exist, and to urge caution just in case the worst comes to pass. This is a reflection, not of economic developments, but of the wider mood in society outside the economists' study doors.
Risk avoidance, the precautionary principle, safety-first, remember the Titanic - these are the watchwords of our anxious age. In every field from genetic engineering to road building, the loss of nerve leads to a demand for more regulation and less risk-taking. It is not just bureaucratic old fogeys who want to put the brakes on, either. Inasmuch as there are any radical causes around these days, they all seem to be about restraining human passions, whether for fast cars or easy cash.
There appears to be a grim determination to level everything down in society today, to put us all on a nice safe plateau of mediocrity. Those who ask for higher wages and better living standards are told they should be ashamed of themselves when there are hungry and homeless people out there. Centres of excellence like the Oxbridge universities are told that they must give up their privileges and live like the former polytechnics.
These mind-numbing attempts at levelling down, painting the world monotone grey, are usually justified in the language of phoney egalitarianism. But does anybody seriously believe that, if the middle classes have their child benefit cut or Oxbridge loses its subsidies, then the government will give the money to the less well-off? It is simply an exercise in sharing out the misery, using moral blackmail to make us accept that less is somehow better for us all.
Taken together, current trends are helping to lower humanity's horizons, strengthening a climate in which we come to expect less of each other and of ourselves. At the level of human relations, the end result can be seen in the teachings of the new religion that Brendan O'Neill describes emerging around the late Diana; the worship of victimhood, the celebration of frailty, the belief that we are all 'damaged goods' in need of some kind of therapy, the wallowing in self-pity and alienation.
And while the recently-deceased princess lives on as an icon for our insecure times, a long-dead philosopher is also being resurrected in order to reinforce the message of low expectations and restraint. Diana and Karl, Marx and Spencer; 'bizarre' does not begin to describe it.
So what is to be done about it? LM magazine exists as a focus for those who want to start challenging the contemporary climate of low expectations, on any and every front. Our magazine has evolved along with the changing times over the past decade, developing from the review of the (now wound-up) Revolutionary Communist Party into a publication which seeks to promote an agenda very different to that of the old left: an agenda based on a firm belief in the much-maligned human and individual potential.
The fight for free speech, which we have made much of at LM, is an issue that sums up the kind of message that needs to be broadcast today. It says that people should not be treated, or see themselves, as victims in need of protection from 'offensive' words and images. It says that we neither want nor need the authorities interfering in what we can say, write, listen to, read or watch. It says that what we do need is the freedom and the confidence to think and decide for ourselves, and the willingness to settle issues in open debate. Popularising that kind of attitude can go a long way towards challenging the stifling climate of the times.
The front page of this issue of LM - 'Ban nothing, Question everything' serves as a kind of shorthand mission statement of what the magazine is all about. Half of it, you might notice, has been lifted from Marx's motto, so the old boy does still have his uses. And, in these mistrustful people-hating days, when the spectre haunting society seems to be 'stranger danger', another of Marx's answers to his daughters' game of 'Consequences' comes to mind. Asked for his favourite maxim, he replied 'nihil humani a me alienum puto' - nothing that is human is alien to me.
What would have been alien to him, however, was any nonsense about reincarnating the dead.
Reproduced from LM issue 108, March 1998