The Standard has one of those ‘Maybe Marx was right‘ posts you see a lot on the left nowadays, linking to a column in the Guardian suggesting the same thing. Reading the Trotsky biography I’ve mentioned on here before has lead me to a lot of secondary reading about Marx and Marxism, and my half-informed take is that Marx was right about some things but very wrong about other, very major things, and his total wrongness on those major things hasn’t yet sunk in for the radical left, which is a source of a lot of their failure and irrelevance. I want to talk about one of the wrong things. And no, it’s not the Labour Theory of Value, but rather one of the more philosophical tenets of Marxism that still has a lot of currency today.
One of Marx’s big ideas was that history operates according to scientific laws. This was a much more sophisticated way to think about history than people back then were used to. A lot of intellectuals thought that history was shaped by a ‘world spirit’, viz Hegel. Most normal people – In Europe, at least – thought the Judeo-Christian God made everything happen. Most historians thought that ‘great men’ shaped history. The idea that technological and economic change and other materialist factors drove history was, well, revolutionary.
Marx and Engels were very impressed by 19th Century physical sciences, especially chemistry. So rational! History, they decided, worked the same way as a chemical reaction. If you heated water it turned into steam, directed by immutable physical laws. They decided that if you overthrew the capitalist system and changed the relationship of workers to the means of production then history itself would follow its own scientific laws and transform society into a communist utopia. Human behaviour – which they thought was completely malleable: ‘a product of history, not nature’, as Gramsci put it – would transform. Later on Communism became synonymous with planning, but Marx felt you didn’t have to plan. Why would you? Change society and the laws of history would sort everything out, and humanity itself would change, just as water phase-changed when heated. Get rid of capitalism and everything else will follow.
After the Russian Revolution the Bolsheviks were very disappointed to learn that (a) history and (b) humans didn’t work like this at all. Firstly their revolution happened in an underdeveloped, mostly agrarian economy, not an advanced economy like Marx predicted. Second, the revolution failed to spread so they were stuck with ‘Communism in one country’. Thirdly, it turns out that if you have a capitalist economy – even a very basic one like Tsarist Russia – and you take away the market and put the workers in charge of the means of production (and execute anyone trading on the black market) then instead of transforming itself into a utopia because of the scientific laws of history and the malleability of human nature, the entire economy collapses, and people in cities end up eating their own children to stay alive, and everyone who can still walk rises up and joins the capitalist counter-revolutionaries trying to overthrow you.
The revolution endured, through a combination of extreme ruthlessness, dumb luck and the ineptitude of their enemies and also, humiliatingly, by bringing back an attenuated form of capitalism. It took them a long time to work out an alternative economic system that didn’t involve either capitalism or keeping the population in a state of abject terror by just randomly murdering people or imprisoning and enslaving them for life, en-masse. They got there though, by the 1950s. And the form of communism they wound up with was very materialistic: very consumerist, focused on high economic growth at the cost of extraordinary environmental destruction. Actual communism was all the things the left dislikes about late capitalism, in other words, except it didn’t work as well as capitalism.
Marxist intellectuals in the west didn’t put that much effort into trying to figure out how to make Communism work. For most the assumption was that it did work, because science, and that reports of famine in the Ukraine were obviously western propaganda. So they carried on critiquing capitalism, applying a Marxist analysis to whatever was intellectually fashionable in the west. When psychoanalysis was in vogue, the theory was capitalism caused alienation and schizophrenia: the traditional family became the agent through which capitalist production repressed the revolutionary desires of the child. When people became interested in colonialism, then Marxists decided that colonialism was caused by capitalism. Now racism, patriarchy and climate change are caused by capitalism. (It’s an endlessly repeated trope on the left that capitalism, with its assumption of infinite growth is the driver of climate change, without discussing why non capitalist economies won’t also seek growth and drive it with greenhouse gas pollution. And why won’t the powerful head of the People’s Coal Miners Union have all the climate change scientists imprisoned or executed as traitors?). Whatever people are upset about is caused by capitalism, and the solution to all our problems is to get rid of capitalism.
When the failure of actual Communism became horribly apparent Marxist intellectuals comforted themselves that the revolution wasn’t supposed to happen in places like Russia and China. It was supposed to happen in developed capitalist economies, like their own, so they went on critiquing capitalism. There have been recent socialist revolutions in proper capitalist countries like Venezuela. That would have been a good time for Marxist theorists to go prove their theories correct. Did Venezuelans become less racist? Did patriarchy disappear? Did Venezuela’s policy of paying for their socialist state by selling lakes of oil to capitalist countries address the issue of climate change? But with the exception of hand-waving about droughts and capitalist sabotage, there is near total silence on the left about Venezuela. We don’t talk about Venezuela.
So there’s no reason to assume that history works the way Marx and his intellectual heirs think it does. Although it was supposed to be scientific, it doesn’t work like a successful scientific theory in the sense that it makes falsifiable predictions which are proved correct. As a response to this failure, a lot of intellectuals in the Marxist tradition assert that the scientific method and reason itself are capitalist plots. The Frankfurt School used to say that their theories would be ‘proved correct on the day they came true’. Which they have yet to do: Marxist theorists aren’t very good at predicting historical outcomes. There are no Marxist stock-market tycoons using the insights of dialectical materialism to finance the revolution by gaming the markets. And as capitalism becomes more developed, the people living in capitalist countries become less and less interested in alternatives to capitalism. As the system becomes more complex and more entrenched, the more catastrophic the prospect of its removal and the more bizarre and nihilistic the radical left, with its endless demands to ‘smash capitalism’ sounds to the rest of us.
Instead of envisioning capitalism as a totalising system responsible for everything that annoys you, the removal of which will instantly solve all our problems, I think it’s more useful to see it as a series of kludges that allow complex, high population technological nation-states to function and interact with each other. A kludge is a term-of-art in engineering, especially software engineering: it describes an improvised, inelegant and inefficient solution to a problem. Over time, complex engineered systems tend to accumulate kludges, all creating unforeseen consequences that then proliferate more kludges, which all become interdependent on each other. They create lots of problems, but if you get rid of them then the entire system collapses – just like capitalist countries do when you get rid of capitalism.
Fixing kludges can be really hard. You need to have a deep understanding of the system you’re working with, and come up with realistic improvements, and make them work, and then move on to the next one. That’s hard in the political context, because a lot of the flaws in contemporary capitalism are now baked in, because they privilege the powerful, who will fight very very hard to stop anyone from fixing them. But social democrats have succeeded in the past, and they’ll succeed again. Not all problems have easy solutions. My favourite quote about politics is this, from Max Weber: ‘Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards.’
That kind of incremental improvement isn’t as much fun as running around blaming capitalism for everything and demanding it be smashed, but it can lead to tangible gains: improving the lives of actual people. Maybe, over time it will lead to the gradual erosion of capitalism, replacing it with something better. Maybe automation will take us to a point where the only viable option is for everyone to own the means of production and share in the proceeds! And maybe it won’t.
I recently read a book about the history of cancer. For much of the 20th century, the most brilliant physicians and doctors in the world struggled to find cures for cancer. They didn’t really understand what was causing the disease – they thought it radiated out from the centre of the body in a spiral pattern – but they knew that sometimes surgery cured tumours, and sometimes chemotherapy cured tumours, or at least caused them to remiss. The culture of the profession drove them towards more and more radical solutions. Radical surgery, radical chemotherapy. They stopped paying attention to statisticians and molecular biologists, who were telling them that they’re weren’t actually curing anyone, and that cancer didn’t function the way they thought it did. Weren’t they the most brilliant physicians in the world? How could they all be wrong?
But they were. The big lesson there is that a large groups of brilliant people all trying to do the right thing can all be completely wrong, for many decades, and cause incredible suffering and harm, while basically wasting their lives. It seems to me that something similar has happened to left-wing intellectual theory, especially the radical left. That it’s taken a very wrong turn somewhere, and a lot of very brilliant people have been studying, teaching and writing nonsense, for a long time now and that they’re in a deep state of epistemic closure about this, because no one likes to think they’ve been wrong about almost everything. Especially people who fetishise intelligence, like surgeons, or left-wing intellectuals.
It is very meaningful, I think, that Piketty’s critique of capitalism didn’t come from the radical Marxist tradition. He’s read Marx but he trained as an economist and describes himself as a ‘believer in capitalism, private property and the market’ and he discovered a deep and powerful truth about capitalism that none of the tens of thousands of Marxists and Critical Theorists ever uncovered over the last hundred years. There’s still a lot of serious work to be done critiquing capitalism and solving its problems, but right now the radical left aren’t doing any of it. At best they’re wasting their time, running around telling everyone ‘The problem is capitalism, sheeple!’, at worst they’re trying to impose their nonsense on mainstream left-wing politics and preventing actual progressive change.
Of course, it’s not only the radical left who want to burn it all down: Trump’s campaign manager is a guy called Steve Bannon who describes himself as a Leninist who wants to destroy society and rebuild from the ashes. There’s also a growing ‘neoreactionary’ movement advocating the abandonment of both capitalism and democracy, and a return to the ‘western tradition’ of monarchical feudalism and ‘traditional gender roles’. Smash modernity, and it’ll all come out in the wash. It worries me that there’s so much of this about.