Saturday, June 10, 2006

That good ol’ 19th century mindset

If you are anything like me you will have giggled hysterically while reading The Communist Manifesto. Marx was the ultimate ‘class based warrior’ and was a reflection of his times. As A.J.P. Taylor (1967, Penguin Books) writes:
His theory was also implicitly a judgement in psychology. It assumed that men would behave as the social forces determined they should. The rich and powerful would always behave like the rich and powerful; the poor would always behave like the poor; ultimately the inhabitants of Utopia would always behave in a Utopian way. There was something odd in this when one reflects that Marx, the radical, came from a settled, respectable family and ought, by his own rule, to have been a conservative. This oddity was almost universal among later Marxists, most of whom, while preaching socialism, belonged to the class which socialism would destroy. It seems that the rules which philosophers lay down do not apply to philosophers themselves.
Taylor goes on to point out that ‘[Marx] also thought that he and Engels were living in an age of fully-developed capitalism, when in fact capitalism had hardly started.’ He makes a scathing critique in his introduction to Marx and Engels’ work:
…Marx, prompted by Engels, equated the workers in the cotton mills with the proletariat. This was a false equation. The proletariat, if the phrase meant anything, were at the very bottom of the social ladder and possessed literally nothing. They were driven to revolt by their increasing misery. The industrial workers had a higher standard of life than most members of the lower classes even in 1844, when Engels studied them, and their standard of life moved steadily upwards. Even in Marx’s time, they had a form of property in the cooperative stores, and soon they acquired their own houses.
So the workers that Marx was agitating for weren’t the real poor. Similarly the illusory ‘poor’ politicians in developed nations fight for today is basically an endearing term for the middle-class – or worse, the highly organised and generally well-off members of unions. And while the federal Labor Party remains stuck in this 19th century mindset (‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles’) their state counterparts have finally learnt to adapt, and are busy fighting for the poor the liberal way.


At June 11, 2006 7:56 pm, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

In 1991 - some 14 and a half years ago - I studied a politics subject at university. It was called Modern Political Ideologies. I have no idea whether it still exists. I was in my second year. I never studied another one, on the grounds that too many of my lecturers were Marxist sympathizers.

Part of the assessment involved reading various political 'classics' - everything from Mill's On Liberty to Huntington's Conservatism as an Ideology - and writing brief reviews. It sounds like you're having to do something similar right now, Sukrit. Here's my 14 and half year old effort on The Communist Manifesto:

'Marx's Manifesto revolves around a few basic principles, the central one being that all human history is not characterised by the conflict of religions, nationalities or monarchs, but by class conflict, frequently of a violent and internecene nature. This conflict, Marx argues, cuts across political boundaries and national loyalities.

The internationalism of class conflict is almost as important to Marxism as class-conflict itself: the 'poletariat' in this schema has the capacity to unify on an international level and overthrow the system of states, the political structures that the state system engenders, and most importantly, the economic system characteristic of the nation-state.

Marx sees the manifestation of the modern nation-state as the work of the bourgeoisie (notably not the aristocracy or monarchy - the Manifesto betrays quite a bit of nostalgic hankering after the Middle Ages), and so it is the bourgeoisie that must be destroyed.

The power of the bourgeoisie, for Marx, rests in property and ownership of the means of production, as well as the capacity to determine divisions of labour along class lines. For Marx, the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few at the expense of the many can only be ended by violent overthrow of that power; its replacement must be a workers' government.

Although Marx wanted at bottom to end the misery and hardship suffered by the poor, his ideology is suffused with a conscious wallowing in violence and bloodshed. The basic problems and contradictions of Marxism stem from this aggression.

First, Marx abjures the 'parliamentary road' to socialism, claiming that liberal democracy and capitalism are too morally bankrupt to change. He does not believe that the 'workers' can ever gain political power, and its concomitant, fair treatment, in a capitalist parliamentary democracy.

However, in those western liberal democracies that Marx so despised, that is precisely what has happened. Workers not only gained parliamentary power, but were then able to bias conditions in their favour. In doing this, they gained property, blurring the distinction between bourgeoisie and proletariat.

Second, Marx seiously underestimated the capacity of nationalism to cut across class-lines; workers have not only used nationalistic disputes as a vehicle for wars of aggression, but also as a vehicle for liberation - as recent events in Eastern Europe exemplify.

Third, Marx's understanding of women's oppression was particularly shallow. In grounding his concept of the division of labour on class, he failed to realise that the first division of labour was in all probability based on gender'.

Needless to say this assessment resulted in an extremely lively class discussion (I finished up having to read it out, it was so non-standard). I can't remember the immediate outcome, only that the international socialists and their ilk - they used to hang around the Student Union complex - steered well clear of me from then on.

At June 14, 2006 5:30 am, Anonymous Sarah circles August the 1st ;) said...

I'm no expert on communism but from the sketchy idea i have of it it seems very naive to me. Ppl naturally form them selves into hierarchies. There will always be ppl who want to seize power and ppl who are willing to let them or are unable to stop them. There will never be equality because it goes against all our most intrinsic instincts. New types of 'class' will always emerge, the haves and have-nots.
I think Communism can work on a very small scale where ppl have volunteered to be part of a community but never on a large scale. Every time i read about societies where communism has been forced on ppl i invariably read about massive human rights abuses at the same time. Interesting subject tho.

At June 20, 2006 12:48 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Skepticlawyer - thanks heaps! Your essay goes very well with Rafe's postings on myths of trade unions and 19th century labour conditions at Catallaxy, and has helped clarify a few things in my mind.


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