It is about now that some have decided to observe the 200th birthday of Karl Marx. Lauded as a messiah, by some, a misunderstood visionary by others. It will be an occasion for articles repeating the well-worn cliché that even though Marx’s predictions ultimately did not materialise, his analysis of capitalism was nonetheless spot on, and remains hugely relevant today. Since the turn of the millennium a raft of books have appeared, from scholarly works to popular biographies, broadly endorsing Marx’s take on capitalism and how its enduring relevance needs to be revisited.
There will be awkward attempts to squeeze contemporary developments into a Marxist framework, in order to make the case that the great man saw it all coming. Paul Mason, the Guardian journalist (read activist) and vocal advocate of International Socialism, wrote on this in the New Statesman here . Don’t forget, this is the man who at Glastonbury last year insisted Labour change their anthem from the Red Flag to The Internationalle.
The Marx quotes on display, like Nostradamus quotes, will lend themselves to projection. Ending with phrases like “Marx still has a lot to teach us”, or “you cannot understand modern capitalism without understanding Marx”.
So with the 200th advent of Marx upon us, it may be worth looking at how this argument is put together.
The common thread, apart from the overt praise of Marxism, is that the outcomes of real-world socialist attempts must never, ever, be held against Marx’s ideas. (Remember Venezuela and the Soviet Union were not really Marxist!)
The underlying assumption is that a sophisticated person is able to grasp the difference between a theory and its distorted application, while conflating the two is simplistic.
But that is somewhat disingenuous. We would not do this with any other political or economic theory. The thing about political and economic theories is that they are never implemented in pure form.
All real-world applications of political and economic ideas are, to some extent, distortions. While some governments just seem to make up their policies as they go along (Theresa May, anyone?), others have a recognisable common thread, shaped by a specific set of ideas.
New Labour was influenced by Anthony Giddens’ concept of the ‘Third Way’, a form of social democracy that makes its peace with the market economy.
Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies were influenced by free-market thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek.
West Germany’s first post-war government was influenced by ‘ordoliberalism’, an economic school of thought which tried to combine free-market economics with an active competition policy.
Yet in each of these cases, if we look at what the original thinkers said, and then compare that to what the politicians influenced by them actually did, we will always find a massive gap between the two.
Of course there is, there are always (intentional of otherwise) misunderstandings of a theory; there is always a risk of governments running out of steam or losing interest;
It is therefore unsurprising that if the original thinkers live to see some of their ideas being adopted, they are rarely happy with it.
Giddens was not particularly happy with the New Labour interpretation of his ideas. Margaret Thatcher’s government didn’t follow Hayek literally, but the spirit of his ideas was followed. When West German ordoliberals give an account of Konrad Adenauer’s government, they tend to talk about the early days with some enthusiasm, not so much later on.
We judge those ideas, at least partly, by the successes and failures of the society or culture they inspire.
It is not, and must not be, a free licence. If your idea require unworkable standards in implementation (in order to work), then maybe your idea are not as good as you think it is.
A good idea will still work out OK even in a changed version, as long as the spirit of the idea is adhered to. That is a big part of what makes a good idea good. It survives the test the real world puts it under.
Marxists, however, are pretty much the only thinkers who accept no responsibility whatsoever for real-world failures of their ideas.
Third-Way advocates have despaired over Blair, Hayekians can – and do – rant all day about Thatcher’s shortcomings, and ordoliberals have written scathing condemnations of Konrad Adenauer.
But ask them whether they think those respective governments did more good than harm on balance; ask them whether they think those governments were preferable to the next likely alternatives – and you will get a definite and possibly assertive “Yes!” as an answer.
In contrast, hardly any contemporary Marxist would accept that whatever ‘real’ socialism is – surely, East Germany was at least closer to it than West Germany, North Korea is at least closer to it than South Korea, Venezuela is at least closer to it than Peru, Maoist China was at least closer to it than Taiwan, etc.
It’s almost as if once the Marxist model fails, and there are many to choose from, they want to distance themselves from it. Lest the ideology be judged wanting and gets dismissed as an unworkable utopia.
Every other idea is judged by its necessarily crude, incomplete and imperfect real-world approximations, warts and all.
Only Marxism has the luxury of being judged purely as a set of ideas, which something as workaday as a real-world experience must never tarnish.