I’m still reading about Russia; I’ve started Isaac Deustcher’s biography of Trotsky, which I’ve been meaning to read for years. And what’s struck me is something I thought about a bit when I was reading Figes’ book: the power of Marxist thought to convert and radicalise huge numbers of people in the late 19th, early 20th century. People read books by Marx or Engels, or pamphlets by Lenin or heard speeches by Trotsky or other thinkers in the Marxist tradition and their lives were transformed. Which demonstrably isn’t something that happens when any contemporary left-wing thinker or politician makes their case today. True, circumstances were a lot worse back then. It was easier to make a case for change. But again, left-wing politicians aren’t asking people to rise up against the Kaiser or the Tsar, and risk torture and death. They’re simply asking for their votes, and mostly not getting them.
I think that’s because the Marxist ideology seemed so comprehensive. It was grounded in economic theory, and philosophy and history. It seemed to explain the world at a very deep level, and why it was broken and how to fix it. And we know that the solutions went catastrophically wrong, and much of the economic theory is outdated and demonstrably false. So the ideology is widely discredited.
But, yet, post-industrial capitalism obviously ‘doesn’t work’, in many vital ways, and left-wing politicians and intellectuals spend a LOT of time pointing out these failures but it all seems so piecemeal. There’s no comprehensive, unifying body of thought beneath it all. At least, none I can see. Yes, it’s terrible that – for example – rest-home workers get paid so poorly even though many agree that their work is of great social value, and that so many in the finance industry are paid so well even though they appear to create little value, in economic terms, and actually, if anything, they routinely destroy it in other sections of the economy. But what are the deep structural causes of the systems inability to value work in ways that most of us feel are moral? What are we going to do to fix it, instead of just mitigate it?
There are various critiques of contemporary capitalism out there. There’s the Spirit Level argument, which has made inequality a live political issue. There’s Piketty with his demonstration of the long term consequences of capitalism. The environmental movement. Feminism and racial justice. In academic terms there’s critical theory, which claims an intellectual lineage from Marx and also claims to be such a radical indictment of capitalism it can only be communicated in dense, incomprehensible academic jargon but which, now that the sun is going down on it, looks more and more like a cross between a hoax and a cult. But there’s no modern central unifying theory or writer or thinker or even group of thinkers or philosophy (that I can think of) that really articulates what the left is trying to do, and why. Alternatively:
- There is and I’m oblivious to it
- The failure of Marxism demonstrates the danger of totalising systems, so such a unifying theory would be undesirable.
- There is no workable alternative to capitalism and all the left can do is try and mitigate its flaws through the political process according to our values (This is probably closest to my current viewpoint)
- To paraphrase Keynes, the failures of capitalism are not moral (or philosophical) but rather a series of separate technical challenges to be solved